May 2012

Gergel, Max G. Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide? Rockford, IL: Pierce Chemical Company, 1979. OCLC 4703212.
Throughout Max Gergel's long career he has been an unforgettable character for all who encountered him in the many rôles he has played: student, bench chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur, supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging from exotic halocarbons to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry. With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring, willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory tried to persuade him to make pentaborane).

The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He jumps from family to friends to finances to business to professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical syntheses he did in his company's rough and ready facilities. Many of Columbia's contracts involved production of moderate quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of substances previously made only in test tube batches. This “medium scale chemistry”—situated between the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making tank car loads of the stuff—involves as much art (or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does science and engineering, and this leads to many of the adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example, an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you're making a few grams of something—the liberated heat is simply conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well, and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when DuPont placed an order for allene in gallon quantities, this posed a problem which Max resolved as follows.

When one treats 1,2,3-Trichloropropane with alkali and a little water the reaction is violent; there is a tendency to deposit the reaction product, the raw materials and the apparatus on the ceiling and the attending chemist. I solved this by setting up duplicate 12 liter flasks, each equipped with double reflux condensers and surrounding each with half a dozen large tubs. In practice, when the reaction “took off” I would flee through the door or window and battle the eruption with water from a garden hose. The contents flying from the flasks were deflected by the ceiling and collected under water in the tubs. I used towels to wring out the contents which separated, shipping the lower level to DuPont. They complained of solids suspended in the liquid, but accepted the product and ordered more. I increased the number of flasks to four, doubled the number of wash tubs and completed the new order.

They ordered a 55 gallon drum. … (p. 127)

All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and '50s, when Gergel was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and small business. The flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the other hand, Max's experience with methyl iodide illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed:

There is no description adequate for the revulsion I felt over handling this musky smelling, high density, deadly liquid. As residue of the toxicity I had chronic insomnia for years, and stayed quite slim. The government had me questioned by Dr. Rotariu of Loyola University for there had been a number of cases of methyl bromide poisoning and the victims were either too befuddled or too dead to be questioned. He asked me why I had not committed suicide which had been the final solution for some of the afflicted and I had to thank again the patience and wisdom of Dr. Screiber. It is to be noted that another factor was our lack of a replacement worker. (p. 130)

Whatever it takes.

This book was published by Pierce Chemical Company and was never, as best I can determine, assigned either an ISBN or Library of Congress catalogue number. I cite it above by its OCLC Control Number. The book is hopelessly out of print, and used copies, when available, sell for forbidding prices. Your only alternative to lay hands on a print copy is an inter-library loan, for which the OCLC number is a useful reference. (I hear members of the write-off generation asking, “What is this ‘library’ of which you speak?”) I found a scanned PDF edition in the library section of the Web site; the scanned pages are sometimes a little gnarly around the bottom, but readable. You will also find the second volume of Gergel's memoirs, The Ageless Gergel, among the works in this collection.


Levin, Mark R. Ameritopia. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7324-4.
Mark Levin seems to have a particularly virtuous kind of multiple personality disorder. Anybody who has listened to his radio program will know him as a combative “no prisoners” advocate for the causes of individual liberty and civil society. In print, however, he comes across as a scholar, deeply versed in the texts he is discussing, who builds his case as the lawyer he is, layer by layer, into a persuasive argument which is difficult to refute except by recourse to denial and emotion, which are the ultimate refuge of the slavers.

In this book, Levin examines the utopian temptation, exploring four utopian visions: Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto in detail, with lengthy quotations from the original texts. He then turns to the philosophical foundations of the American republic, exploring the work of Locke, Montesquieu, and the observations of Tocqueville on the reality of democracy in America.

Levin argues that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of utopian visions, and explicitly rejected them in favour of a system, based upon the wisdom of Locke and Montesquieu, which was deliberately designed to operate in spite of the weaknesses of the fallible humans which would serve as its magistrates. As Freeman Dyson observed, “The American Constitution is designed to be operated by crooks, just as the British constitution is designed to be operated by gentlemen.” Engineers who value inherent robustness in systems will immediately grasp the wisdom of this: gentlemen are scarce and vulnerable to corruption, while crooks are an inexhaustible resource.

For some crazy reason, most societies choose lawyers as legislators and executives. I think they would be much better advised to opt for folks who have designed, implemented, and debugged two or more operating systems in their careers. A political system is, after all, just an operating system that sorts out the rights and responsibilities of a multitude of independent agents, all acting in their own self interest, and equipped with the capacity to game the system and exploit any opportunity for their own ends. Looking at the classic utopias, what strikes this operating system designer is how sadly static they all are—they assume that, uniquely after billions of years of evolution and thousands of generations of humans, history has come to an end and that a wise person can now figure out how all people in an indefinite future should live their lives, necessarily forgoing improvement through disruptive technologies or ideas, as that would break the perfect system.

The American founding was the antithesis of utopia: it was a minimal operating system which was intended to provide the rule of law which enabled civil society to explore the frontiers of not just a continent but the human potential. Unlike the grand design of utopian systems, the U.S. Constitution was a lean operating system which devolved almost all initiative to “apps” created by the citizens living under it.

In the 20th century, as the U.S. consolidated itself as a continental power, emerged as a world class industrial force, and built a two ocean navy, the utopian temptation rose among the political class, who saw in the U.S. not just the sum of the individual creativity and enterprise of its citizens but the potential to build heaven on Earth if only those pesky constitutional constraints could be shed. Levin cites Wilson and FDR as exemplars of this temptation, but for most of the last century both main political parties more or less bought into transforming America into Ameritopia.

In the epilogue, Levin asks whether it is possible to reverse the trend and roll back Ameritopia into a society which values the individual above the collective and restores the essential liberty of the citizen from the intrusive state. He cites hopeful indications, such as the rise of the “Tea Party” movement, but ultimately I find these unpersuasive. Collectivism always collapses, but usually from its own internal contradictions; the way to bet in the long term is on individual liberty and free enterprise, but I expect it will take a painful and protracted economic and societal collapse to flense the burden of bad ideas which afflict us today.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, but the note citations in the main text are so tiny (at least when read with the Kindle application on the iPad) that it is almost impossible to tap upon them.


Hunter, Stephen. Soft Target. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-3870-0.
This has to be among the worst nightmares of those few functionaries tasked with the “anti-terrorist” mission in the West who are not complacent seat-warmers counting the days until their retirement or figuring out how to advance their careers or gain additional power over the citizens whose taxes fund their generous salaries and benefits. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a group of Somali militants infiltrate and stage a hostage-taking raid on “America, the Mall” in a suburb of Minneapolis (having nothing to do, of course, with another mega-mall in the vicinity). Implausibly, given the apparent provenance of the perpetrators, they manage to penetrate the mall's SCADA system and impose a full lock-down, preventing escape and diverting surveillance cameras for their own use.

This happens on the watch of Douglas Obobo, commandant of the Minnesota State Police, the son of a Kenyan graduate student and a U.S. anthropologist who, after graduating from Harvard Law School, had artfully played the affirmative action card and traded upon his glibness to hop from job to job, rising in the hierarchy without ever actually accomplishing anything. Obobo views this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate how his brand of conciliation and leading from behind can defuse a high-profile confrontation, and thwarts efforts of those under his command to even prepare backup plans should negotiations with the hostage takers fail.

Meanwhile, the FBI tries to glean evidence of how the mall's security systems were bypassed and how the attackers were armed and infiltrated, and comes across clues which suggest a very different spin on the motivation of the attack—one which senior law enforcement personnel may have to seek the assistance of their grandchildren to explain. Marine veteran Ray Cruz finds himself the man on the inside, Die Hard style, and must rely upon his own resources to take down the perpetrator of the atrocities.

I have a few quibbles. These are minor, and constitute only marginal spoilers, but I'll put them behind the curtain to avoid peeving the easily irritated.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 97, FBI sniper Dave McElroy fires at Ray Cruz, who he takes to be one of the terrorists. Firing down from the roof into the mall, he fails to correct for the angle of the shot (which requires one to hold low compared to a horizontal shot, since the distance over which the acceleration of gravity acts is reduced as the cosine of the angle of the shot). I find it very difficult to believe that a trained FBI sniper would make such an error, even under the pressure of combat. Hunters in mountain country routinely make this correction.
  • On p. 116 the garbage bag containing Reed Hobart's head is said to weigh four pounds. The mass of an average adult human head is around 5 kg, or around 11 pounds. Since Hobart has been described as a well-fed person with a “big head” (p. 112), he is unlikely to be a four pound pinhead. I'd put this down to the ever-green problem of converting between republican and imperial units.
  • Nikki Swagger's television call sign switches back and forth between WUFF and WUSS throughout the book. I really like the idea of a WUSS-TV, especially in Minneapolis.
  • On p. 251, as the lawyers are handing out business cards to escapees from the mall, the telephone area code on the cards is 309, which is in Illinois. Although I grant that it's more likely such bipedal intestinal parasites would inhabit that state than nice Minnesota, is it plausible they could have gotten to the scene in time?
Spoilers end here.  

Had, say, 200 of the 1000 patrons of the mall taken hostage availed themselves of Minnesota's concealed carry law, and had the mall not abridged citizens' God-given right to self-defence, the 16 terrorists would have been taken down in the first 90 seconds after their initial assault. Further, had the would-be terrorists known that one in five of their intended victims were packing, do you think they would have tried it? Just sayin'.

This is an excellent thriller, which puts into stark contrast just how vulnerable disarmed populations are in the places they gather in everyday life, and how absurd the humiliating security theatre is at barn doors where the horses have fled more than a decade ago. It is in many ways deeply cynical, but that cynicism is well-justified by the reality of the society in which the story is set.

A podcast interview with the author is available.


Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 1. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2005. ISBN 978-1-4700-1463-6 NASA SP-2005-4110.
This is the first book of the author's monumental four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo (April 2008), the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.

Chertok saw it all, from the earliest Soviet experiments with rocketry in the 1930s, uncovering the secrets of the German V-2 amid the rubble of postwar Germany (he was the director of the Institute RABE, where German and Soviet specialists worked side by side laying the foundations of postwar Soviet rocketry), the glory days of Sputnik and Gagarin, the anguish of losing the Moon race, and the emergence of Soviet preeminence in long-duration space station operations.

The first volume covers Chertok's career up to the conclusion of his work in Germany in 1947. Unlike Challenge to Apollo, which is a scholarly institutional and technical history (and consequently rather dry reading), Chertok gives you a visceral sense of what it was like to be there: sometimes chilling, as in his descriptions of the 1930s where he matter-of-factly describes his supervisors and colleagues as having been shot or sent to Siberia just as an employee in the West would speak of somebody being transferred to another office, and occasionally funny, as when he recounts the story of the imperious Valentin Glushko showing up at his door in a car belching copious smoke. It turns out that Glushko had driven all the way with the handbrake on, and his subordinate hadn't dared mention it because Glushko didn't like to be distracted when at the wheel.

When the Soviets began to roll out their space spectaculars in the late 1950s and early '60s, some in the West attributed their success to the Soviets having gotten the “good German” rocket scientists while the West ended up with the second team. Chertok's memoir puts an end to such speculation. By the time the Americans and British vacated the V-2 production areas, they had packed up and shipped out hundreds of rail cars of V-2 missiles and components and captured von Braun and all of his senior staff, who delivered extensive technical documentation as part of their surrender. This left the Soviets with pretty slim pickings, and Chertok and his staff struggled to find components, documents, and specialists left behind. This put them at a substantial disadvantage compared to the U.S., but forced them to reverse-engineer German technology and train their own people in the disciplines of guided missilery rather than rely upon a German rocket team.

History owes a great debt to Boris Chertok not only for the achievements in his six decade career (for which he was awarded Hero of Socialist Labour, the Lenin Prize, the Order of Lenin [twice], and the USSR State Prize), but for living so long and undertaking to document the momentous events he experienced at the first epoch at which such a candid account was possible. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union could the events chronicled here be freely discussed, and the merits and shortcomings of the Soviet system in accomplishing large technological projects be weighed.

As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and an online PDF edition is available.

A Kindle edition is available which is perfectly readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply appear in the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small red type. Words are occasionally run together and capitalisation is missing on some proper nouns. The index references page numbers from the print edition which are not included in the Kindle version, and hence are completely useless. If you have a workable PDF application on your reading device, I'd go with the NASA PDF, which is not only better formatted but free.

The original Russian edition is available online.