May 2007

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins, [1944] 1947. ISBN 0-06-065294-2.
This short book (or long essay—the main text is but 83 pages) is subtitled “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools” but, in fact, is much more: one of the pithiest and most eloquent defences of traditional values I recall having read. Writing in the final years of World War II, when moral relativism was just beginning to infiltrate the secondary school curriculum, he uses as the point of departure an English textbook he refers to as “The Green Book” (actually The Control of Language: A critical approach to reading and writing, by Alex King and Martin Ketley), which he dissects as attempting to “debunk” the development of a visceral sense of right and wrong in students in the guise of avoiding emotionalism and sentimentality.

From his description of “The Green Book”, it seems pretty mild compared to the postmodern, multicultural, and politically correct propaganda aimed at present-day students, but then perhaps it takes an observer with the acuity of a C. S. Lewis to detect the poison in such a dilute form. He also identifies the associated perversion of language which accompanies the subversion of values. On p. 28 is this brilliant observation, which I only began to notice myself more than sixty years after Lewis identified it. “To abstain from calling it good and to use, instead, such predicates as ‘necessary”, ‘progressive’, or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’, ‘progressing toward what?’, ‘effecting what?’; in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs was in their opinion good for its own sake.” But of course the “progressives” and champions of “efficiency” don't want you to spend too much time thinking about the end point of where they want to take you.

Although Lewis's Christianity informs much of his work, religion plays little part in this argument. He uses the Chinese word Tao () or “The Way” to describe what he believes are a set of values shared, to some extent, by all successful civilisations, which must be transmitted to each successive generation if civilisation is to be preserved. To illustrate the universality of these principles, he includes a 19 page appendix listing the pillars of Natural Law, with illustrations taken from texts and verbal traditions of the Ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Old Norse, Babylonian, Hindu, Confucian, Greek, Roman, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, American Indian, and Australian Aborigine cultures. It seems like those bent on jettisoning these shared values are often motivated by disdain for the frequently-claimed divine origin of such codes of values. But their very universality suggests that, regardless of what myths cultures invent to package them, they represent an encoding of how human beings work and the distillation of millennia of often tragic trial-and-error experimentation in search of rules which allow members of our fractious species to live together and accomplish shared goals.

An on-line edition is available, although I doubt it is authorised, as the copyright for this work was last renewed in 1974.

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Haisch, Bernard. The God Theory. San Francisco: Weiser, 2006. ISBN 1-57863-374-5.
This is one curious book. Based on acquaintance with the author and knowledge of his work, including the landmark paper “Inertia as a zero-point-field Lorentz force” (B. Haisch, A. Rueda & H.E. Puthoff, Physical Review A, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 678–694 [1994]), I expected this to be a book about the zero-point field and its potential to provide a limitless source of energy and Doc Smith style inertialess propulsion. The title seemed odd, but there's plenty of evidence that when it comes to popular physics books, “God sells”.

But in this case the title could not be more accurate—this book really is a God Theory—that our universe was created, in the sense of its laws of physics being defined and instantiated, then allowed to run their course, by a being with infinite potential who did so in order to experience, in the sum of the consciousness of its inhabitants, the consequences of the creation. (Defining the laws isn't the same as experiencing their playing out, just as writing down the rules of chess isn't equivalent to playing all possible games.) The reason the constants of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the existence of consciousness is that there's no point in creating a universe in which there will be no observers through which to experience it, and the reason the universe is comprehensible to us is that our consciousness is, in part, one with the being who defined them. While any suggestion of this kind is enough to get what Haisch calls adherents of “fundamentalist scientism” sputtering if not foaming at the mouth, he quite reasonably observes that these self-same dogmatic reductionists seem perfectly willing to admit an infinite number of forever unobservable parallel universes created purely at random, and to inhabit a universe which splits into undetectable multiple histories with every quantum event, rather than contemplate that the universe might have a purpose or that consciousness may play a rôle in physical phenomena.

The argument presented here is reminiscent in content, albeit entirely different in style, to that of Scott Adams's God's Debris (February 2002), a book which is often taken insufficiently seriously because its author is the creator of Dilbert. Of course, there is another possibility about which I have written again, again, again, and again, which is that our universe was not created ex nihilo by an omnipotent being outside of space and time, but is rather a simulation created by somebody with a computer whose power we can already envision, run not to experience the reality within, but just to see what happens. Or, in other words, “it isn't a universe, it's a science fair project!” In The God Theory, your consciousness is immortal because at death your experience rejoins the One which created you. In the simulation view, you live on forever on a backup tape. What's the difference?

Seriously, this is a challenging and thought-provoking argument by a distinguished scientist who has thought deeply on these matters and is willing to take the professional risk of talking about them to the general public. There is much to think about here, and integrating it with other outlooks on these deep questions will take far more time than it takes to read this book.

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[Audiobook] Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Abridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1776, 1781] 1998. ISBN 9-62634-071-1.
This is the first audiobook to appear in this list, for the excellent reason that it's the first one to which I've ever listened. I've been planning to “get around” to reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall for about twenty-five years, and finally concluded that the likelihood I was going to dive into that million-word-plus opus any time soon was negligible, so why not raise the intellectual content of my regular walks around the village with one of the masterpieces of English prose instead of ratty old podcasts?

The “Volume 1” in the title of this work refers to the two volumes of this audio edition, which is an abridgement of the first three volumes of Gibbon's history, covering the reign of Augustus through the accession of the first barbarian king, Odoacer. Volume 2 abridges the latter three volumes, primarily covering the eastern empire from the time of Justinian through the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Both audio programs are almost eight hours in length, and magnificently read by Philip Madoc, whose voice is strongly reminiscent of Richard Burton's. The abridgements are handled well, with a second narrator, Neville Jason, summarising the material which is being skipped over. Brief orchestral music passages separate major divisions in the text. The whole work is artfully done and a joy to listen to, worthy of the majesty of Gibbon's prose, which is everything I've always heard it to be, from solemn praise for courage and wisdom, thundering condemnation of treason and tyranny, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny descriptions of foibles and folly.

I don't usually read abridged texts—I figure that if the author thought it was worth writing, it's worth my time to read. But given the length of this work (and the fact that most print editions are abridged), it's understandable that the publisher opted for an abridged edition; after all, sixteen hours is a substantial investment of listening time. An Audio CD edition is available. And yes, I'm currently listening to Volume 2.

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Scott, William B., Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes. Space Wars. New York: Forge, 2007. ISBN 0-765-31379-0.
I believe it was Jerry Pournelle who observed that a Special Forces operative in Afghanistan on horseback is, with his GPS target designator and satellite communications link to an F-16 above, the closest thing in our plane of existence to an angel of death. But, take away the space assets, and he's just a guy on a horse.

The increasing dependence of the U.S. military on space-based reconnaissance, signal intelligence, navigation and precision guidance, missile warning, and communications platforms has caused concern among strategic thinkers about the risk of an “asymmetrical attack” against them by an adversary. The technology needed to disable them is far less sophisticated and easier to acquire than the space assets, and the impact of their loss will disproportionately impact the U.S., which has fully integrated them into its operations. This novel, by a former chief wargamer of the U.S. Space Command (Coumatos), the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week and Space Technology (Scott), and co-author Birnes, uses a near-term fictional scenario set in 2010 to explore the vulnerabilities of military space and make the case for both active defence of these platforms and the ability to hold at risk the space-based assets of adversaries even if doing so gets the airheads all atwitter about “weapons in space” (as if a GPS constellation which lets you drop a bomb down somebody's chimney isn't a weapon). The idea, then, was to wrap the cautionary tale and policy advocacy in a Tom Clancy-style thriller which would reach a wider audience than a dull Pentagon briefing presentation.

The reality, however, as embodied in the present book, is simply a mess. I can't help but notice that the publisher, Forge, is an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, best known for their Tor science fiction books. As I have observed earlier in comments about the recent novels by Orson Scott Card and Heinlein and Robinson, Doherty doesn't seem to pay much attention to copy editing and fact checking, and this book illustrates the problem is not just confined to the Tor brand. In fact, after this slapdash effort, I'm coming to look at Doherty as something like Que computer books in the 1980s—the name on the spine is enough to persuade me to leave it on the shelf.

Some of the following might be considered very mild spoilers, but I'm not going to put them in a spoiler warning since they don't really give away major plot elements or the ending, such as it is. The real spoiler is knowing how sloppy the whole thing is, and once you appreciate that, you won't want to waste your time on it anyway. First of all, the novel is explicitly set in the month of April 2010, and yet the “feel” and the technological details are much further out. Basically, the technologies in place three years from now are the same we have today, especially for military technologies which have long procurement times and glacial Pentagon deployment schedules. Yet we're supposed to believe than in less than thirty-six months from today, the Air Force will be operating a two-storey, 75,000 square foot floor space computer containing “an array of deeply stacked parallel nanoprocessing circuits”, with spoken natural language programming and query capability (pp. 80–81). On pp. 212–220 we're told of a super weapon inspired by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which, having started its development as a jammer for police radar, is able to seize control of enemy unmanned aerial vehicles. And so protean is this weapon, its very name changes at random from SPECTRE to SCEPTRE from paragraph to paragraph.

The mythical Blackstar spaceplane figures in the story, described as incoherently as in co-author Scott's original cover story in Aviation Week. On p. 226 we're told the orbiter burns “boron-based gel fuel and atmospheric oxygen”, then on the very next page we hear of the “aerospike rocket engines”. Well, where do we start? A rocket does not burn atmospheric oxygen, but carries its own oxidiser. An aerospike is a kind of rocket engine nozzle, entirely different from the supersonic combustion ramjet one would expect on an spaceplane which used atmospheric oxygen. Further, the advantage of an aerospike is that it is efficient both at low and high altitudes, but there's no reason to use one on an orbiter which is launched at high altitude from a mother ship. And then on p. 334, the “aerospike” restarts in orbit, which you'll probably agree is pretty difficult to do when you're burning “atmospheric oxygen”, which is famously scarce at orbital altitudes.

Techno-gibberish is everywhere, reminiscent in verisimilitude to the dialogue in the television torture fantasy “24”. For example, “Yo' Jaba! Got a match on our parallel port. I am waaay cool!” (p. 247). On p. 174 a Rooskie no-goodnik finds orbital elements for U.S. satellites from “the American ‘space catalog’ she had hacked into through a Texas university's server”. Why not just go to CelesTrak, where this information has been available worldwide since 1985? The laws of orbital mechanics here differ from those of Newton; on p. 381, a satellite in a circular orbit “14,674 miles above sea level” is said to be orbiting at “17,500 MPH”. In fact, at this altitude orbital velocity is 4.35 km/sec or 9730 statute miles per hour. And astronauts in low earth orbit who lose their electrical power quickly freeze solid, “victims of space's hostile, unforgiving cold”. Actually, in intense sunlight for half of every orbit and with the warm Earth filling half the sky, getting rid of heat is the problem in low orbit. On pp. 285–290, an air-launched cruise missile is used to launch a blimp. Why not just let it go and let the helium do the job all by itself? On the political front, we're supposed to think that a spittle-flecked mullah raving that he was the incarnation of the Twelfth Imam, in the presence of the Supreme Leader and President of Iran, would not only escape being thrown in the dungeon, but walk out of the meeting with a go-ahead to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at a target in Europe. And there is much, much more like this.

I suppose it should have been a tip-off that the foreword was written by George Noory, who hosts the Coast to Coast AM radio program originally founded by Art Bell. Co-author Birnes was also co-author of the hilariously preposterous The Day After Roswell, which claims that key technologies in the second half of the twentieth century, including stealth aircraft and integrated circuits, were based on reverse-engineered alien technologies from a flying saucer which crashed in New Mexico in 1947. As stories go, Roswell, Texas seems more plausible, and a lot more fun, than this book.

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Hicks, Stephen R. C. Explaining Postmodernism. Phoenix: Scholargy, 2004. ISBN 1-59247-642-2.
Starting more than ten years ago, with the mass pile-on to the Internet and the advent of sites with open content and comment posting, I have been puzzled by the extent of the anger, hatred, and nihilism which is regularly vented in such fora. Of all the people of my generation with whom I have associated over the decades (excepting, of course, a few genuine nut cases), I barely recall anybody who seemed to express such an intensively negative outlook on life and the world, or who were so instantly ready to impute “evil” (a word used incessantly for the slightest difference of opinion) to those with opposing views, or to inject ad hominem arguments or obscenity into discussions of fact and opinion. Further, this was not at all confined to traditionally polarising topics; in fact, having paid little attention to most of the hot-button issues in the 1990s, I first noticed it in nerdy discussions of topics such as the merits of different microprocessors, operating systems, and programming languages—matters which would seem unlikely, and in my experience had only rarely in the past, inspired partisans on various sides to such passion and vituperation. After a while, I began to notice one fairly consistent pattern: the most inflamed in these discussions, those whose venting seemed entirely disproportionate to the stakes in the argument, were almost entirely those who came of age in the mid-1970s or later; before the year 2000 I had begun to call them “hate kiddies”, but I still didn't understand why they were that way. One can speak of “the passion of youth”, of course, which is a real phenomenon, but this seemed something entirely different and off the scale of what I recall my contemporaries expressing in similar debates when we were of comparable age.

This has been one of those mysteries that's puzzled me for some years, as the phenomenon itself seemed to be getting worse, not better, and with little evidence that age and experience causes the original hate kiddies to grow out of their youthful excess. Then along comes this book which, if it doesn't completely explain it, at least seems to point toward one of the proximate causes: the indoctrination in cultural relativist and “postmodern” ideology which began during the formative years of the hate kiddies and has now almost entirely pervaded academia apart from the physical sciences and engineering (particularly in the United States, whence most of the hate kiddies hail). In just two hundred pages of main text, the author traces the origins and development of what is now called postmodernism to the “counter-enlightenment” launched by Rousseau and Kant, developed by the German philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, then transplanted to the U.S. in the 20th. But the philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism, which are essentially an extreme relativism which goes as far as denying the existence of objective truth or the meaning of texts, doesn't explain the near monolithic adherence of its champions to the extreme collectivist political Left. You'd expect that philosophical relativism would lead its believers to conclude that all political tendencies were equally right or wrong, and that the correct political policy was as impossible to determine as ultimate scientific truth.

Looking at the philosophy espoused by postmodernists alongside the the policy views they advocate and teach their students leads to the following contradictions which are summarised on p. 184:

  • On the one hand, all truth is relative; on the other hand, postmodernism tells it like it really is.
  • On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad.
  • Values are subjective—but sexism and racism are really evil. (There's that word!—JW)
  • Technology is bad and destructive—and it is unfair that some people have more technology than others.
  • Tolerance is good and dominance is bad—but when postmodernists come to power, political correctness follows.

The author concludes that it is impossible to explain these and other apparent paradoxes and the uniformly Left politics of postmodernists without understanding the history and the failures of collectivist political movements dating from Rousseau's time. On p. 173 is an absolutely wonderful chart which traces the mutation and consistent failure of socialism in its various guises from Marx to the present. With each failure, the response has been not to question the premises of collectivism itself, but rather to redefine its justification, means, and end. As failure has followed failure, postmodernism represents an abject retreat from reason and objectivity itself, either using the philosophy in a Machiavellian way to promote collectivist ideology, or to urge acceptance of the contradictions themselves in the hope of creating what Nietzsche called ressentiment, which leads directly to the “everybody is evil”, “nothing works”, and “truth is unknowable” irrationalism and nihilism which renders those who believe it pliable in the hands of agenda-driven manipulators.

Based on the some of the source citations and the fact that this work was supported in part by The Objectivist Center, the author appears to be a disciple of Ayn Rand, which is confirmed by his Web site. Although the author's commitment to rationalism and individualism, and disdain for their adversaries, permeates the argument, the more peculiar and eccentric aspects of the Objectivist creed are absent. For its size, insight, and crystal clear reasoning and exposition, I know of no better introduction to how postmodernism came to be, and how it is being used to advance a collectivist ideology which has been thoroughly discredited by sordid experience. And I think I'm beginning to comprehend how the hate kiddies got that way.

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Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity. London: Vintage Books, 2006. ISBN 0-09-945898-5.
In May 1791, Maximilien Robespierre, not long before an obscure provincial lawyer from Arras in northern France, elected to the Estates General convened by Louis XVI in 1789, spoke before what had by then reconstituted itself as the National Assembly, engaged in debating the penal code for the new Constitution of France. Before the Assembly were a number of proposals by a certain Dr. Guillotin, among which the second was, “In all cases of capital punishment (whatever the crime), it shall be of the same kind—i.e. beheading—and it shall be executed by means of a machine.” Robespierre argued passionately against all forms of capital punishment: “A conqueror that butchers his captives is called barbaric. Someone who butchers a perverse child that he could disarm and punish seems monstrous.” (pp. 133–136)

Just two years later, Robespierre had become synonymous not only with the French Revolution but with the Terror it had spawned. Either at his direction, with his sanction, or under the summary arrest and execution without trial or appeal which he advocated, the guillotine claimed more than 2200 lives in Paris alone, 1376 between June 10th and July 27th of 1793, when Robespierre's power abruptly ended, along with the Terror, with his own date with the guillotine.

How did a mild-mannered provincial lawyer who defended the indigent and disadvantaged, amused himself by writing poetry, studied philosophy, and was universally deemed, even by his sworn enemies, to merit his sobriquet, “The Incorruptible”, become an archetypal monster of the modern age, a symbol of the darkness beneath the Enlightenment?

This lucidly written, well-argued, and meticulously documented book traces Robespierre's life from birth through downfall and execution at just age 36, and places his life in the context of the upheavals which shook France and to which, in his last few years, he contributed mightily. The author shows the direct link between Rousseau's philosophy, Robespierre's inflexible, whatever-the-cost commitment to implementing it, and its horrific consequences for France. Too many people forget that it was Rousseau who wrote in The Social Contract, “Now, as citizen, no man is judge any longer of the danger to which the law requires him to expose himself, and when the prince says to him: ‘It is expedient for the state that you should die’, then he should die…”. Seen in this light, the madness of Robespierre's reign is not the work of a madman, but of a rigorously rational application of a profoundly anti-human system of beliefs which some people persist in taking seriously even today.

A U.S. edition is available.

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Buckley, Christopher. Boomsday. New York: Twelve, 2007. ISBN 0-446-57981-5.
Cassandra Devine is twenty-nine, an Army veteran who served in Bosnia, a PR genius specialising in damage control for corporate malefactors, a high-profile blogger in her spare time, and hopping mad. What's got her Irish up (and she's Irish on both sides of the family) is the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation—boomsday—when seventy-seven million members of the most self-indulgent and -absorbed generation in history will depart the labour pool and begin to laze away their remaining decades in their gated, golf-course retirement communities, sending the extravagant bills to their children and grandchildren, each two of whom can expect to support one retired boomer, adding up to an increase in total taxes on the young between 30% and 50%.

One night, while furiously blogging, it came to her. A modest proposal which would, at once, render Social Security and Medicare solvent without any tax increases, provide free medical care and prescription drugs to the retired, permit the elderly to pass on their estates to their heirs tax-free, and reduce the burden of care for the elderly on the economy. There is a catch, of course, but the scheme polls like pure electoral gold among the 18–30 “whatever generation”.

Before long, Cassandra finds herself in the middle of a presidential campaign where the incumbent's slogan is “He's doing his best. Really.” and the challenger's is “No Worse Than The Others”, with her ruthless entrepreneur father, a Vatican diplomat, a southern media preacher, Russian hookers, a nursing home serial killer, the North Koreans, and what's left of the legacy media sucked into the vortex. Buckley is a master of the modern political farce, and this is a thoroughly delightful read which makes you wonder just how the under-thirties will react when the bills run up by the boomers start to come due.

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