November 2007

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Anchor Books, [1997] 1999. ISBN 0-385-49478-5.
It's amazing how much pain and suffering some people will endure in order to have a perfectly awful time. In 1996, the author joined a guided expedition to climb Mount Everest, on assignment by Outside magazine to report on the growing commercialisation of Everest, with guides taking numerous people, many inexperienced in alpinism, up the mountain every season. On May 10th, 1996, he reached the summit where, exhausted and debilitated by hypoxia and other effects of extreme altitude (although using supplementary oxygen), he found “I just couldn't summon the energy to care” (p. 7). This feeling of “whatever” while standing on the roof of the world was, nonetheless, the high point of the experience which quickly turned into a tragic disaster. While the climbers were descending from the summit to their highest camp, a storm, not particularly violent by Everest standards, reduced visibility to near zero and delayed progress until many climbers had exhausted their supplies of bottled oxygen. Of the six members of the expedition Krakauer joined who reached the summit, four died on the mountain, including the experienced leader of the team. In all, eight people died as a result of that storm, including the leader of another expedition which reached the summit that day.

Before joining the Everest expedition, the author had had extensive technical climbing experience but had never climbed as high as the Base Camp on Mount Everest: 17,600 feet. Most of the clients of his and other expeditions had far less mountaineering experience than the author. The wisdom of encouraging people with limited qualifications but large bank balances to undertake a potentially deadly adventure underlies much of the narrative: we encounter a New York socialite having a Sherpa haul a satellite telephone up the mountain to stay in touch from the highest camp. The supposed bond between climbers jointly confronting the hazards of a mountain at high altitude is called into question on several occasions: a Japanese expedition ascending from the Tibetan side via the Northeast Ridge passed three disabled climbers from an Indian expedition and continued on to the summit without offering to share food, oxygen, or water, nor to attempt a rescue: all of the Indians died on the mountain.

This is a disturbing account of adventure at the very edge of personal endurance, and the difficult life-and-death choices people make under such circumstances. A 1999 postscript in this paperback edition is a rebuttal to the alternative presentation of events in The Climb, which I have not read.


Siegel, Jerry and John Forte. Tales of the Bizarro World. New York: DC Comics, [1961, 1962] 2000. ISBN 1-56389-624-9.
In 1961, the almost Euclidean logic of the Superman comics went around a weird bend in reality, foretelling other events to transpire in that decade. Superman fans found their familar axioms of super powers and kryptonite dissolving into pulsating phosphorescent Jello on the Bizarro World, populated by imperfect and uniformly stupid replicas of Superman, Lois Lane, and other denizens of Metropolis created by a defective duplicator ray. Everything is backwards, or upside-down, or inside-out on the Bizarro World, which itself is cubical, not spherical.

These stories ran in Adventure Comics in 1961 and 1962 and then disappeared into legend, remaining out of print for more than 35 years until this compilation was published. Not only are all of the Bizarro stories here, there are profiles of the people who created Bizarro, and even an interview with Bizarro himself.

I fondly remember the Bizarro stories from the odd comic books I came across in my youth, and looked forward to revisiting them, but I have to say that what seemed exquisitely clever in small doses to a twelve year old may seem a bit strained and tedious in a 190 page collection read by somebody, er…a tad more mature. Still, ya gotta chuckle at Bizarro starting a campfire (p. 170) by rubbing two boy scouts together—imagine the innuendos which would be read into that today!


Albrecht, Katherine and Liz McIntyre. Spychips. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2005. ISBN 0-452-28766-9.
Imagine a world in which every manufactured object, and even living creatures such as pets, livestock, and eventually people, had an embedded tag with a unique 96-bit code which uniquely identified it among all macroscopic objects on the planet and beyond. Further, imagine that these tiny, unobtrusive and non-invasive tags could be interrogated remotely, at a distance of up to several metres, by safe radio frequency queries which would provide power for them to transmit their identity. What could you do with this? Well, a heck of a lot. Imagine, for example, a refrigerator which sensed its entire contents, and was able to automatically place an order on the Internet for home delivery of whatever was running short, or warned you that the item you'd just picked up had passed its expiration date. Or think about breezing past the checkout counter at the Mall-Mart with a cart full of stuff without even slowing down—all of the goods would be identified by the portal at the door, and the total charged to the account designated by the tag in your customer fidelity card. When you're shopping, you could be automatically warned when you pick up a product which contains an ingredient to which you or a member of your family is allergic. And if a product is recalled, you'll be able to instantly determine whether you have one of the affected items, if your refrigerator or smart medicine cabinet hasn't already done so. The benefits just go on and on…imagine.

This is the vision of an “Internet of Things”, in which all tangible objects are, in a real sense, on-line in real-time, with their position and status updated by ubiquitous and networked sensors. This is not a utopian vision. In 1994 I sketched Unicard, a unified personal identity document, and explored its consequences; people laughed: “never happen”. But just five years later, the Auto-ID Labs were formed at MIT, dedicated to developing a far more ubiquitous identification technology. With the support of major companies such as Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, Wal-Mart, Gillette, and IBM, and endorsement by organs of the United States government, technology has been developed and commercialised to implement tagging everything and tracking its every movement.

As I alluded to obliquely in Unicard, this has its downsides. In particular, the utter and irrevocable loss of all forms of privacy and anonymity. From the moment you enter a store, or your workplace, or any public space, you are tracked. When you pick up a product, the amount of time you look at it before placing it in your shopping cart or returning it to the shelf is recorded (and don't even think about leaving the store without paying for it and having it logged to your purchases!). Did you pick the bargain product? Well, you'll soon be getting junk mail and electronic coupons on your mobile phone promoting the premium alternative with a higher profit margin to the retailer. Walk down the street, and any miscreant with a portable tag reader can “frisk” you without your knowledge, determining the contents of your wallet, purse, and shopping bag, and whether you're wearing a watch worth snatching. And even when you discard a product, that's a public event: garbage voyeurs can drive down the street and correlate what you throw out by the tags of items in your trash and the tags on the trashbags they're in.

“But we don't intend to do any of that”, the proponents of radio frequency identification (RFID) protest. And perhaps they don't, but if it is possible and the data are collected, who knows what will be done with it in the future, particularly by governments already installing surveillance cameras everywhere. If they don't have the data, they can't abuse them; if they do, they may; who do you trust with a complete record of everywhere you go, and everything you buy, sell, own, wear, carry, and discard?

This book presents, in a form that non-specialists can understand, the RFID-enabled future which manufacturers, retailers, marketers, academics, and government are co-operating to foist upon their consumers, clients, marks, coerced patrons, and subjects respectively. It is not a pretty picture. Regrettably, this book could be much better than it is. It's written in a kind of breathy muckraking rant style, with numerous paragraphs like (p. 105):

Yes, you read that right, they plan to sell data on our trash. Of course. We should have known that BellSouth was just another megacorporation waiting in the wings to swoop down on the data revealed once its fellow corporate cronies spychip the world.
I mean, I agree entirely with the message of this book, having warned of modest steps in that direction eleven years before its publication, but prose like this makes me feel like I'm driving down the road in a 1964 Vance Packard getting all righteously indignant about things we'd be better advised to coldly and deliberately draw our plans against. This shouldn't be so difficult, in principle: polls show that once people grasp the potential invasion of privacy possible with RFID, between 2/3 and 3/4 oppose it. The problem is that it's being deployed via stealth, starting with bulk pallets in the supply chain and, once proven there, migrated down to the individual product level.

Visibility is a precious thing, and one of the most insidious properties of RFID tags is their very invisibility. Is there a remotely-powered transponder sandwiched into the sole of your shoe, linked to the credit card number and identity you used to buy it, which “phones home” every time you walk near a sensor which activates it? Who knows? See how the paranoia sets in? But it isn't paranoia if they're really out to get you. And they are—for our own good, naturally, and for the children, as always.

In the absence of a policy fix for this (and the extreme unlikelihood of any such being adopted given the natural alliance of business and the state in tracking every move of their customers/subjects), one extremely handy technical fix would be a broadband, perhaps software radio, which listened on the frequency bands used by RFID tag readers and snooped on the transmissions of tags back to them. Passing the data stream to a package like RFDUMP would allow decoding the visible information in the RFID tags which were detected. First of all, this would allow people to know if they were carrying RFID tagged products unbeknownst to them. Second, a portable sniffer connected to a PDA would identify tagged products in stores, which clients could take to customer service desks and ask to be returned to the shelves because they were unacceptable for privacy reasons. After this happens several tens of thousands of times, it may have an impact, given the razor-thin margins in retailing. Finally, there are “active measures”. These RFID tags have large antennas which are connected to a super-cheap and hence fragile chip. Once we know the frequency it's talking on, why we could…. But you can work out the rest, and since these are all unlicensed radio bands, there may be nothing wrong with striking an electromagnetic blow for privacy.

Don't you put,
your tag on me!


[Audiobook] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything (Audiobook, Unabridged). Westminster, MD: Books on Tape, 2003. ISBN 0-7366-9320-3.
What an astonishing achievement! Toward the end of the 1990s, Bill Bryson, a successful humorist and travel writer, found himself on a flight across the Pacific and, looking down on the ocean, suddenly realised that he didn't know how it came to be, how it affected the clouds above it, what lived in its depths, or hardly anything else about the world and universe he inhabited, despite having lived in an epoch in which science made unprecedented progress in understanding these and many other things. Shortly thereafter, he embarked upon a three year quest of reading popular science books and histories of science, meeting with their authors and with scientists in numerous fields all around the globe, and trying to sort it all out into a coherent whole.

The result is this stunning book, which neatly packages the essentials of human knowledge about the workings of the universe, along with how we came to know all of these things and the stories of the often fascinating characters who figured it all out, into one lucid, engaging, and frequently funny package. Unlike many popular works, Bryson takes pains to identify what we don't know, of which there is a great deal, not just in glamourous fields like particle physics but in stuffy endeavours such as plant taxonomy. People who find themselves in Bryson's position at the outset—entirely ignorant of science—can, by reading this single work, end up knowing more about more things than even most working scientists who specialise in one narrow field. The scope is encyclopedic: from quantum mechanics and particles to galaxies and cosmology, with chemistry, the origin of life, molecular biology, evolution, genetics, cell biology, paleontology and paleoanthropology, geology, meteorology, and much, much more, all delightfully told, with only rare errors, and with each put into historical context. I like to think of myself as reasonably well informed about science, but as I listened to this audiobook over a period of several weeks on my daily walks, I found that every day, in the 45 to 60 minutes I listened, there was at least one and often several fascinating things of which I was completely unaware.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 17 hours and 48 minutes. The book is read by British narrator Richard Matthews, who imparts an animated and light tone appropriate to the text. He does, however mispronounce the names of several scientists, for example physicists Robert Dicke (whose last name he pronounces “Dick”, as opposed to the correct “Dickey”) and Richard Feynman (“Fane-man” instead of “Fine-man”), and when he attempts to pronounce French names or phrases, his accent is fully as affreux as my own, but these are minor quibbles which hardly detract from an overall magnificent job. If you'd prefer to read the book, it's available in paperback now, and there's an illustrated edition, which I haven't seen. I would probably never have considered this book, figuring I already knew it all, had I not read Hugh Hewitt's encomium to it and excerpts therefrom he included (parts 1, 2, 3).


Walton, Jo. Farthing. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-7653-5280-X.
This is an English country house murder mystery in the classic mould, but set in an alternative history timeline in which the European war of 1939 ended in the “Peace with Honour”, when Britain responded to Rudolf Hess's flight to Scotland in May 1941 with a diplomatic mission which ended the war, with Hitler ceding the French colonies in Africa to Britain in return for a free hand to turn east and attack the Soviet Union. In 1949, when the story takes place, the Reich and the Soviets are still at war, in a seemingly endless and bloody stalemate. The United States, never drawn into the war, remains at peace, adopting an isolationist stance under President Charles Lindbergh; continental Europe has been consolidated into the Greater Reich.

When the architect of the peace between Britain and the Reich is found murdered with a yellow star of David fixed to his chest with a dagger, deep currents: political, family, financial, racial, and sexual, converge to muddle the situation which a stolid although atypical Scotland Yard inspector must sort through under political pressure and a looming deadline.

The story is told in alternating chapters, the odd numbered being the first-person narrative of one of the people in the house at the time of the murder and the even numbered in the voice of an omniscient narrator following the inspector. We can place the story precisely in (alternative) time: on p. 185 the year is given as 1949, and on p. 182 we receive information which places the murder as on the night of 7–8 May of that year. I'm always impressed when an author makes the effort to get the days of the week right in an historical novel, and that's the case here. There is, however, a little bit of bad astronomy. On p. 160, as the inspector is calling it a day, we read, “It was dusk; the sky was purple and the air was cool. … Venus was just visible in the east.” Now, I'm impressed, because at dusk on that day Venus was visible near the horizon—that is admirable atmosphere and attention to detail! But Venus can never be visible in the East at dusk: it's an inner planet and never gets further than 48° from the Sun, so in the evening sky it's always in the West; on that night, near Winchester England, it would be near the west-northwest horizon, with Mercury higher in the sky.

The dénouement is surprising and chilling at the same time. The story illustrates how making peace with tyranny can lead to successive, seemingly well-justified, compromises which can inoculate the totalitarian contagion within even the freest and and most civil of societies.


Sinclair, Upton. Dragon's Teeth. Vol. 1. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, [1942] 2001. ISBN 1-931313-03-2.
Between 1940 and 1953, Upton Sinclair published a massive narrative of current events, spanning eleven lengthy novels, in which real-world events between 1913 and 1949 were seen through the eyes of Lanny Budd, scion of a U.S. munitions manufacturer family become art dealer and playboy husband of an heiress whose fortune dwarfs his own. His extended family and contacts in the art and business worlds provide a window into the disasters and convulsive changes which beset Europe and America in two world wars and the period between them and afterward.

These books were huge bestsellers in their time, and this one won the Pulitzer Prize, but today they are largely forgotten. Simon Publications have made them available in facsimile reprint editions, with each original novel published in two volumes of approximately 300 pages each. This is the third novel in the saga, covering the years 1929–1934; this volume, comprising the first three books of the novel, begins shortly after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and ends with the Nazi consolidation of power in Germany after the Reichstag fire in 1933.

It's easy to understand both why these books were such a popular and critical success at the time and why they have since been largely forgotten. In each book, we see events of a few years before the publication date from the perspective of socialites and people in a position of power (in this book Lanny Budd meets “Adi” Hitler and gets to see both his attraction and irrationality first-hand), but necessarily the story is written without the perspective of knowing how it's going to come out, which makes it “current events fiction”, not historical fiction in the usual sense. Necessarily, that means it's going to be dated not long after the books scroll off the bestseller list. Also, the viewpoint characters are mostly rather dissipated and shallow idlers, wealthy dabblers in “pink” or “red” politics, who, with hindsight, seem not so dissimilar to the feckless politicians in France and Britain who did nothing as Europe drifted toward another sanguinary catastrophe.

Still, I enjoyed this book. You get the sense that this is how the epoch felt to the upper-class people who lived through it, and it was written so shortly after the events it chronicles that it avoids the simplifications that retrospection engenders. I will certainly read the second half of this reprint, which currently sits on my bookshelf, but I doubt if I'll read any of the others in the epic.


Bernstein, Jeremy. Plutonium. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. ISBN 0-309-10296-0.
When the Manhattan Project undertook to produce a nuclear bomb using plutonium-239, the world's inventory of the isotope was on the order of a microgram, all produced by bombarding uranium with neutrons produced in cyclotrons. It wasn't until August of 1943 that enough had been produced to be visible under a microscope. When, in that month, the go-ahead was given to build the massive production reactors and separation plants at the Hanford site on the Columbia River, virtually nothing was known of the physical properties, chemistry, and metallurgy of the substance they were undertaking to produce. In fact, it was only in 1944 that it was realised that the elements starting with thorium formed a second group of “rare earth” elements: the periodic table before World War II had uranium in the column below tungsten and predicted that the chemistry of element 94 would resemble that of osmium. When the large-scale industrial production of plutonium was undertaken, neither the difficulty of separating the element from the natural uranium matrix in which it was produced nor the contamination with Pu-240 which would necessitate an implosion design for the plutonium bomb were known. Notwithstanding, by the end of 1947 a total of 500 kilograms of the stuff had been produced, and today there are almost 2000 metric tons of it, counting both military inventories and that produced in civil power reactors, which crank out about 70 more metric tons a year.

These are among the fascinating details gleaned and presented in this history and portrait of the most notorious of artificial elements by physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein. He avoids getting embroiled in the building of the bomb, which has been well-told by others, and concentrates on how scientists around the world stumbled onto nuclear fission and transuranic elements, puzzled out what they were seeing, and figured out the bizarre properties of what they had made. Bizarre is not too strong a word for the chemistry and metallurgy of plutonium, which remains an active area of research today with much still unknown. When you get that far down on the periodic table, both quantum mechanics and special relativity get into the act (as they start to do even with gold), and you end up with six allotropic phases of the metal (in two of which volume decreases with increasing temperature), a melting point of just 640° C and an anomalous atomic radius which indicates its 5f electrons are neither localised nor itinerant, but somewhere in between.

As the story unfolds, we meet some fascinating characters, including Fritz Houtermans, whose biography is such that, as the author notes (p. 86), “if one put it in a novel, no one would find it plausible.” We also meet stalwarts of the elite 26-member UPPU Club: wartime workers at Los Alamos whose exposure to plutonium was sufficient that it continues to be detectable in their urine. (An epidemiological study of these people which continues to this day has found no elevated rates of mortality, which is not to say that plutonium is not a hideously hazardous substance.)

The text is thoroughly documented in the end notes, and there is an excellent index; the entire book is just 194 pages. I have two quibbles. On p. 110, the author states of the Little Boy gun-assembly uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, “This is the only weapon of this design that was ever detonated.” Well, I suppose you could argue that it was the only such weapon of that precise design detonated, but the implication is that it was the first and last gun-type bomb to be detonated, and this is not the case. The U.S. W9 and W33 weapons, among others, were gun-assembly uranium bombs, which between them were tested three times at the Nevada Test Site. The price for plutonium-239 quoted on p. 155, US$5.24 per milligram, seems to imply that the plutonium for a critical mass of about 6 kg costs about 31 million dollars. But this is because the price quoted is for 99–99.99% isotopically pure Pu-239, which has been electromagnetically separated from the isotopic mix you get from the production reactor. Weapons-grade plutonium can have up to 7% Pu-240 contamination, which doesn't require the fantastically expensive isotope separation phase, just chemical extraction of plutonium from reactor fuel. In fact, you can build a bomb from so-called “reactor-grade” plutonium—the U.S. tested one in 1962.