May 2015

Thor, Brad. Act of War. New York: Pocket Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-1713-5.
This is the fourteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel the author returns to the techno-thriller genre and places his characters, this time backed by a newly-elected U.S. president who is actually interested in defending the country, in the position of figuring out a complicated yet potentially devastating attack mounted by a nation state adversary following the doctrine of unrestricted warfare, and covering its actions by operating through non-state parties apparently unrelated to the aggressor.

The trail goes through Pakistan, North Korea, and Nashville, Tennessee, with multiple parties trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle while the clock is ticking. Intelligence missions are launched into North Korea and the Arab Emirates to try to figure out what is going on. Finally, as the nature of the plot becomes clear, Nicholas (the Troll) brings the tools of Big Data to bear on the mystery to avert disaster.

This is a workmanlike thriller and a fine “airplane book”. There is less shoot-em-up action than in other novels in the series, and a part of the suspense is supposed to be the reader's trying to figure out, along with the characters, the nature of the impending attack. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was obvious well before the half way point in the story the answer to the puzzle, and knowing this was a substantial spoiler for the rest of the book. I've thought and written quite a bit about this scenario, so I may have been more attuned to the clues than the average reader.

The author invokes the tired canard about NASA's priorities having been redirected toward reinforcing Muslim self-esteem. This is irritating (because it's false), but plays no major part in the story. Still, it's a good read, and I'll be looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Ford, Kenneth W. Building the H Bomb. Singapore: World Scientific, 2015. ISBN 978-981-461-879-3.
In the fall of 1948, the author entered the graduate program in physics at Princeton University, hoping to obtain a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academia. In his first year, he took a course in classical mechanics taught by John Archibald Wheeler and realised that, despite the dry material of the course, he was in the presence of an extraordinary teacher and thinker, and decided he wanted Wheeler as his thesis advisor. In April of 1950, after Wheeler returned from an extended visit to Europe, the author approached him to become his advisor, not knowing in which direction his research would proceed. Wheeler immediately accepted him as a student, and then said that he (Wheeler) would be absent for a year or more at Los Alamos to work on the hydrogen bomb, and that he'd be pleased if Ford could join him on the project. Ford accepted, in large part because he believed that working on such a challenge would be “fun”, and that it would provide a chance for daily interaction with Wheeler and other senior physicists which would not exist in a regular Ph.D. program.

Well before the Manhattan project built the first fission weapon, there had been interest in fusion as an alternative source of nuclear energy. While fission releases energy by splitting heavy atoms such as uranium and plutonium into lighter atoms, fusion merges lighter atoms such as hydrogen and its isotopes deuterium and tritium into heavier nuclei like helium. While nuclear fusion can be accomplished in a desktop apparatus, doing so requires vastly more energy input than is released, making it impractical as an energy source or weapon. Still, compared to enriched uranium or plutonium, the fuel for a fusion weapon is abundant and inexpensive and, unlike a fission weapon whose yield is limited by the critical mass beyond which it would predetonate, in principle a fusion weapon could have an unlimited yield: the more fuel, the bigger the bang.

Once the Manhattan Project weaponeers became confident they could build a fission weapon, physicists, most prominent among them Edward Teller, realised that the extreme temperatures created by a nuclear detonation could be sufficient to ignite a fusion reaction in light nuclei like deuterium and that reaction, once started, might propagate by its own energy release just like the chemical fire in a burning log. It seemed plausible—the temperature of an exploding fission bomb exceeded that of the centre of the Sun, where nuclear fusion was known to occur. The big question was whether the fusion burn, once started, would continue until most of the fuel was consumed or fizzle out as its energy was radiated outward and the fuel dispersed by the explosion.

Answering this question required detailed computations of a rapidly evolving system in three dimensions with a time slice measured in nanoseconds. During the Manhattan Project, a “computer” was a woman operating a mechanical calculator, and even with large rooms filled with hundreds of “computers” the problem was intractably difficult. Unable to directly model the system, physicists resorted to analytical models which produced ambiguous results. Edward Teller remained optimistic that the design, which came to be called the “Classical Super”, would work, but many others, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Stanislaw Ulam, based upon the calculations that could be done at the time, concluded it would probably fail. Oppenheimer's opposition to the Super or hydrogen bomb project has been presented as a moral opposition to development of such a weapon, but the author's contemporary recollection is that it was based upon Oppenheimer's belief that the classical super was unlikely to work, and that effort devoted to it would be at the expense of improved fission weapons which could be deployed in the near term.

All of this changed on March 9th, 1951. Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam published a report which presented a new approach to a fusion bomb. Unlike the classical super, which required the fusion fuel to burn on its own after being ignited, the new design, now called the Teller-Ulam design, compressed a capsule of fusion fuel by the radiation pressure of a fission detonation (usually, we don't think of radiation as having pressure, but in the extreme conditions of a nuclear explosion it far exceeds pressures we encounter with matter), and then ignited it with a “spark plug” of fission fuel at the centre of the capsule. Unlike the classical super, the fusion fuel would burn at thermodynamic equilibrium and, in doing so, liberate abundant neutrons with such a high energy they would induce fission in Uranium-238 (which cannot be fissioned by the less energetic neutrons of a fission explosion), further increasing the yield.

Oppenheimer, who had been opposed to work upon fusion, pronounced the Teller-Ulam design “technically sweet” and immediately endorsed its development. The author's interpretation is that once a design was in hand which appeared likely to work, there was no reason to believe that the Soviets who had, by that time, exploded their own fission bomb, would not also discover it and proceed to develop such a weapon, and hence it was important that the U.S. give priority to the fusion bomb to get there first. (Unlike the Soviet fission bomb, which was a copy of the U.S. implosion design based upon material obtained by espionage, there is no evidence the Soviet fusion bomb, first tested in 1955, was based upon espionage, but rather was an independent invention of the radiation implosion concept by Andrei Sakharov and Yakov Zel'dovich.)

With the Teller-Ulam design in hand, the author, working with Wheeler's group, first in Los Alamos and later at Princeton, was charged with working out the details: how precisely would the material in the bomb behave, nanosecond by nanosecond. By this time, calculations could be done by early computing machinery: first the IBM Card-Programmed Calculator and later the SEAC, which was, at the time, one of the most advanced electronic computers in the world. As with computer nerds until the present day, the author spent many nights babysitting the machine as it crunched the numbers.

On November 1st, 1952, the Ivy Mike device was detonated in the Pacific, with a yield of 10.4 megatons of TNT. John Wheeler witnessed the test from a ship at a safe distance from the island which was obliterated by the explosion. The test completely confirmed the author's computations of the behaviour of the thermonuclear burn and paved the way for deliverable thermonuclear weapons. (Ivy Mike was a physics experiment, not a weapon, but once it was known the principle was sound, it was basically a matter of engineering to design bombs which could be air-dropped.) With the success, the author concluded his work on the weapons project and returned to his dissertation, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953.

This is about half a personal memoir and half a description of the physics of thermonuclear weapons and the process by which the first weapon was designed. The technical sections are entirely accessible to readers with only a basic knowledge of physics (I was about to say “high school physics”, but I don't know how much physics, if any, contemporary high school graduates know.) There is no secret information disclosed here. All of the technical information is available in much greater detail from sources (which the author cites) such as Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapon Archive, which is derived entirely from unclassified sources. Curiously, the U.S. Department of Energy (which has, since its inception, produced not a single erg of energy) demanded that the author heavily redact material in the manuscript, all derived from unclassified sources and dating from work done more than half a century ago. The only reason I can imagine for this is that a weapon scientist who was there, by citing information which has been in the public domain for two decades, implicitly confirms that it's correct. But it's not like the Soviets/Russians, British, French, Chinese, Israelis, and Indians haven't figured it out by themselves or that others suitably motivated can't. The author told them to stuff it, and here we have his unexpurgated memoir of the origin of the weapon which shaped the history of the world in which we live.

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Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. A Short History of Man. Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61016-591-4.
The author is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers and eloquent contemporary expositors of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and Austrian economics. Educated in Germany, Hoppe came to the United States to study with Murray Rothbard and in 1986 joined Rothbard on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught until his retirement in 2008. Hoppe's 2001 book, Democracy: The God That Failed (June 2002), made the argument that democratic election of temporary politicians in the modern all-encompassing state will inevitably result in profligate spending and runaway debt because elected politicians have every incentive to buy votes and no stake in the long-term solvency and prosperity of the society. Whatever the drawbacks (and historical examples of how things can go wrong), a hereditary monarch has no need to buy votes and every incentive not to pass on a bankrupt state to his descendants.

This short book (144 pages) collects three essays previously published elsewhere which, taken together, present a comprehensive picture of human development from the emergence of modern humans in Africa to the present day. Subtitled “Progress and Decline”, the story is of long periods of stasis, two enormous breakthroughs, with, in parallel, the folly of ever-growing domination of society by a coercive state which, in its modern incarnation, risks halting or reversing the gains of the modern era.

Members of the collectivist and politically-correct mainstream in the fields of economics, anthropology, and sociology who can abide Prof. Hoppe's adamantine libertarianism will probably have their skulls explode when they encounter his overview of human economic and social progress, which is based upon genetic selection for increased intelligence and low time preference among populations forced to migrate due to population pressure from the tropics where the human species originated into more demanding climates north and south of the Equator, and onward toward the poles. In the tropics, every day is about the same as the next; seasons don't differ much from one another; and the variation in the length of the day is not great. In the temperate zone and beyond, hunter-gatherers must cope with plant life which varies along with the seasons, prey animals that migrate, hot summers and cold winters, with the latter requiring the knowledge and foresight of how to make provisions for the lean season. Predicting the changes in seasons becomes important, and in this may have been the genesis of astronomy.

A hunter-gatherer society is essentially parasitic upon the natural environment—it consumes the plant and animal bounty of nature but does nothing to replenish it. This means that for a given territory there is a maximum number (varying due to details of terrain, climate, etc.) of humans it can support before an increase in population leads to a decline in the per-capita standard of living of its inhabitants. This is what the author calls the “Malthusian trap”. Looked at from the other end, a human population which is growing as human populations tend to do, will inevitably reach the carrying capacity of the area in which it lives. When this happens, there are only three options: artificially limit the growth in population to the land's carrying capacity, split off one or more groups which migrate to new territory not yet occupied by humans, or conquer new land from adjacent groups, either killing them off or driving them to migrate. This was the human condition for more than a hundred millennia, and it is this population pressure, the author contends, which drove human migration from tropical Africa into almost every niche on the globe in which humans could survive, even some of the most marginal.

While the life of a hunter-gatherer band in the tropics is relatively easy (or so say those who have studied the few remaining populations who live that way today), the further from the equator the more intelligence, knowledge, and the ability to transmit it from generation to generation is required to survive. This creates a selection pressure for intelligence: individual members of a band of hunter-gatherers who are better at hunting and gathering will have more offspring which survive to maturity and bands with greater intelligence produced in this manner will grow faster and by migration and conquest displace those less endowed. This phenomenon would cause one to expect that (discounting the effects of large-scale migrations) the mean intelligence of human populations would be the lowest near the equator and increase with latitude (north or south). This, in general terms, and excluding marginal environments, is precisely what is observed, even today.

After hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers parasitic upon nature, sometime around 11,000 years ago, probably first in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, what is now called the Neolithic Revolution occurred. Humans ceased to wander in search of plants and game, and settled down into fixed communities which supported themselves by cultivating plants and raising animals they had domesticated. Both the plants and animals underwent selection by humans who bred those most adapted to their purposes. Agriculture was born. Humans who adopted the new means of production were no longer parasitic upon nature: they produced their sustenance by their own labour, improving upon that supplied by nature through their own actions. In order to do this, they had to invent a series of new technologies (for example, milling grain and fencing pastures) which did not exist in nature. Agriculture was far more efficient than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in that a given amount of land (if suitable for known crops) could support a much larger human population.

While agriculture allowed a large increase in the human population, it did not escape the Malthusian trap: it simply increased the population density at which the carrying capacity of the land would be reached. Technological innovations such as irrigation and crop rotation could further increase the capacity of the land, but population increase would eventually surpass the new limit. As a result of this, from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1800, income per capita (largely measured in terms of food) barely varied: the benefit of each innovation was quickly negated by population increase. To be sure, in all of this epoch there were a few wealthy people, but the overwhelming majority of the population lived near the subsistence level.

But once again, slowly but surely, a selection pressure was being applied upon humans who adopted the agricultural lifestyle. It is cognitively more difficult to be a farmer or rancher than to be a member of a hunter-gatherer band, and success depends strongly upon having a low time preference—to be willing to forgo immediate consumption for a greater return in the future. (For example, a farmer who does not reserve and protect seeds for the next season will fail. Selective breeding of plants and animals to improve their characteristics takes years to produce results.) This creates an evolutionary pressure in favour of further increases in intelligence and, to the extent that such might be genetic rather than due to culture, for low time preference. Once the family emerged as the principal unit of society rather than the hunter-gatherer band, selection pressure was amplified since those with the selected-for characteristics would produce more offspring and the phenomenon of free riding which exists in communal bands is less likely to occur.

Around the year 1800, initially in Europe and later elsewhere, a startling change occurred: the Industrial Revolution. In societies which adopted the emerging industrial means of production, per capita income, which had been stagnant for almost two millennia, took off like a skyrocket, while at the same time population began to grow exponentially, rising from around 900 million in 1800 to 7 billion today. The Malthusian trap had been escaped; it appeared for the first time that an increase in population, far from consuming the benefits of innovation, actually contributed to and accelerated it.

There are some deep mysteries here. Why did it take so long for humans to invent agriculture? Why, after the invention of agriculture, did it take so long to invent industrial production? After all, the natural resources extant at the start of both of these revolutions were present in all of the preceding period, and there were people with the leisure to think and invent at all times in history. The author argues that what differed was the people. Prior to the advent of agriculture, people were simply not sufficiently intelligent to invent it (or, to be more precise, since intelligence follows something close to a normal distribution, there was an insufficient fraction of the population with the requisite intelligence to discover and implement the idea of agriculture). Similarly, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the intelligence of the general population was insufficient for it to occur. Throughout the long fallow periods, however, natural selection was breeding smarter humans and, eventually, in some place and time, a sufficient fraction of smart people, the required natural resources, and a society sufficiently open to permit innovation and moving beyond tradition would spark the fire. As the author notes, it's much easier to copy a good idea once you've seen it working than to come up with it in the first place and get it to work the first time.

Some will argue that Hoppe's hypothesis that human intelligence has been increasing over time is falsified by the fact that societies much closer in time to the dawn of agriculture produced works of art, literature, science, architecture, and engineering which are comparable to those of modern times. But those works were produced not by the average person but rather outliers which exist in all times and places (although in smaller numbers when mean intelligence is lower). For a general phase transition in society, it is a necessary condition that the bulk of the population involved have intelligence adequate to work in the new way.

After investigating human progress on the grand scale over long periods of time, the author turns to the phenomenon which may cause this progress to cease and turn into decline: the growth of the coercive state. Hunter-gatherers had little need for anything which today would be called governments. With bands on the order of 100 people sharing resources in common, many sources of dispute would not occur and those which did could be resolved by trusted elders or, failing that, combat. When humans adopted agriculture and began to live in settled communities, and families owned and exchanged property with one another, a whole new source of problems appeared. Who has the right to use this land? Who stole my prize animal? How are the proceeds of a joint effort to be distributed among the participants? As communities grew and trade among them flourished, complexity increased apace. Hoppe traces how the resolution of these conflicts has evolved over time. First, the parties to the dispute would turn to a member of an aristocracy, a member of the community respected because of their intelligence, wisdom, courage, or reputation for fairness, to settle the matter. (We often think of an aristocracy as hereditary but, although many aristocracies evolved into systems of hereditary nobility, the word originally meant “rule by the best”, and that is how the institution began.)

With growing complexity, aristocrats (or nobles) needed a way to resolve disputes among themselves, and this led to the emergence of kings. But like the nobles, the king was seen to apply a law which was part of nature (or, in the English common law tradition, discovered through the experience of precedents). It was with the emergence of absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and finally democracy that things began to go seriously awry. In time, law became seen not as something which those given authority apply, but rather something those in power create. We have largely forgotten that legislation is not law, and that rights are not granted to us by those in power, but inhere in us and are taken away and/or constrained by those willing to initiate force against others to work their will upon them.

The modern welfare state risks undoing a thousand centuries of human progress by removing the selection pressure for intelligence and low time preference. Indeed, the welfare state punishes (taxes) the productive, who tend to have these characteristics, and subsidises those who do not, increasing their fraction within the population. Evolution works slowly, but inexorably. But the effects of shifting incentives can manifest themselves long before biology has its way. When a population is told “You've made enough”, “You didn't build that”, or sees working harder to earn more as simply a way to spend more of their lives supporting those who don't (along with those who have gamed the system to extract resources confiscated by the state), that glorious exponential curve which took off in 1800 may begin to bend down toward the horizontal and perhaps eventually turn downward.

I don't usually include lengthy quotes, but the following passage from the third essay, “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy”, is so brilliant and illustrative of what you'll find herein I can't resist.

Assume now a group of people aware of the reality of interpersonal conflicts and in search of a way out of this predicament. And assume that I then propose the following as a solution: In every case of conflict, including conflicts in which I myself am involved, I will have the last and final word. I will be the ultimate judge as to who owns what and when and who is accordingly right or wrong in any dispute regarding scarce resources. This way, all conflicts can be avoided or smoothly resolved.

What would be my chances of finding your or anyone else's agreement to this proposal?

My guess is that my chances would be virtually zero, nil. In fact, you and most people will think of this proposal as ridiculous and likely consider me crazy, a case for psychiatric treatment. For you will immediately realize that under this proposal you must literally fear for your life and property. Because this solution would allow me to cause or provoke a conflict with you and then decide this conflict in my own favor. Indeed, under this proposal you would essentially give up your right to life and property or even any pretense to such a right. You have a right to life and property only insofar as I grant you such a right, i.e., as long as I decide to let you live and keep whatever you consider yours. Ultimately, only I have a right to life and I am the owner of all goods.

And yet—and here is the puzzle—this obviously crazy solution is the reality. Wherever you look, it has been put into effect in the form of the institution of a State. The State is the ultimate judge in every case of conflict. There is no appeal beyond its verdicts. If you get into conflicts with the State, with its agents, it is the State and its agents who decide who is right and who is wrong. The State has the right to tax you. Thereby, it is the State that makes the decision how much of your property you are allowed to keep—that is, your property is only “fiat” property. And the State can make laws, legislate—that is, your entire life is at the mercy of the State. It can even order that you be killed—not in defense of your own life and property but in the defense of the State or whatever the State considers “defense” of its “state-property.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License and may be redistributed pursuant to the terms of that license. In addition to the paperback and Kindle editions available from Amazon The book may be downloaded for free from the Library of the Mises Institute in PDF or EPUB formats, or read on-line in an HTML edition.

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Scalzi, John. Redshirts. New York: Tor, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7653-3479-4.
Ensign Andrew Dahl thought himself extremely fortunate when, just out of the Academy, he was assigned to Universal Union flagship Intrepid in the xenobiology lab. Intrepid has a reputation for undertaking the most demanding missions of exploration, diplomacy, and, when necessary, enforcement of order among the multitude of planets in the Union, and it was the ideal place for an ambitious junior officer to begin his career.

But almost immediately after reporting aboard, Dahl began to discover there was something distinctly off about life aboard the ship. Whenever one of the senior officers walked through the corridors, crewmembers would part ahead of them, disappearing into side passages or through hatches. When the science officer visited a lab, experienced crew would vanish before he appeared and return only after he departed. Crew would invent clever stratagems to avoid being assigned to a post on the bridge or to an away mission.

Seemingly, every away mission would result in the death of a crew member, often in gruesome circumstances involving Longranian ice sharks, Borgovian land worms, the Merovian plague, or other horrors. But senior crew: the captain, science officer, doctor, and chief engineer were never killed, although astrogator Lieutenant Kerensky, a member of the bridge crew and regular on away parties, is frequently grievously injured but invariably makes a near-miraculous and complete recovery.

Dahl sees all of this for himself when he barely escapes with his life from a rescue mission to a space station afflicted with killer robots. Four junior crew die and Kerensky is injured once again. Upon returning to the ship, Dahl and his colleagues vow to get to the bottom of what is going on. They've heard the legends of, and one may have even spotted, Jenkins, who disappeared into the bowels of the ship after his wife, a fellow crew member, died meaninglessly by a stray shot of an assassin trying to kill a Union ambassador on an away mission.

Dahl undertakes to track down Jenkins, who is rumoured to have a theory which explains everything that is happening. The theory turns out to be as bizarre or more so than life on the Intrepid, but Dahl and his fellow ensigns concede that it does explain what they're experiencing and that applying it allows them to make sense of events which are otherwise incomprehensible (I love “the Box”).

But a theory, however explanatory, does not address the immediate problem: how to avoid being devoured by Pornathic crabs or the Great Badger of Tau Ceti on their next away mission. Dahl and his fellow junior crew must figure out how to turn the nonsensical reality they inhabit toward their own survival and do so without overtly engaging in, you know, mutiny, which could, like death, be career limiting. The story becomes so meta it will make you question the metaness of meta itself.

This is a pure romp, often laugh-out-loud funny, having a delightful time immersing itself in the lives of characters in one of our most beloved and enduring science fiction universes. We all know the bridge crew and department heads, but what's it really like below decks, and how does it feel to experience that sinking feeling when the first officer points to you and says “You're with me!” when forming an away team?

The novel has three codas written, respectively, in the first, second, and third person. The last, even in this very funny book, will moisten your eyes. Redshirts won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013.

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