Allin, Michael. Zarafa. New York: Walker and Company, 1998. ISBN 0-3853-3411-7.

March 2003 Permalink

Allitt, Patrick. I'm the Teacher, You're the Student. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8122-1887-6.
This delightfully written and enlightening book provides a look inside a present-day university classroom. The author, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, presents a diary of a one semester course in U.S. history from 1877 to the present. Descriptions of summer programs at Oxford and experiences as a student of Spanish in Salamanca Spain (the description of the difficulty of learning a foreign language as an adult [pp. 65–69] is as good as any I've read) provide additional insight into the life of a professor. I wish I'd had a teacher explain the craft of expository writing as elegantly as Allitt in his “standard speech” (p. 82). The sorry state of undergraduate prose is sketched in stark detail, with amusing howlers like, “Many did not survive the harsh journey west, but still they trekked on.” Although an introductory class, students were a mix of all four undergraduate years; one doesn't get a sense the graduating seniors thought or wrote any more clearly than the freshmen. Along the way, Allitt provides a refresher course in the historical period covered by the class. You might enjoy answering the factual questions from the final examination on pp. 215–218 before and after reading the book and comparing your scores (answers are on p. 237—respect the honour code and don't peek!). The darker side of the educational scene is discussed candidly: plagiarism in the age of the Internet; clueless, lazy, and deceitful students; and the endless spiral of grade inflation. What grade would you give to students who, after a semester in an introductory undergraduate course, “have no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, [who] don't want to do the necessary hard work, … skimp on the reading, and can't write to save their lives” (p. 219)—certainly an F? Well, actually, no: “Most of them will get B− and a few really hard cases will come in with Cs”. And, refuting the notion that high mean grade point averages at elite schools simply reflect the quality of the student body and their work, about a quarter of Allitt's class are these intellectual bottom feeders he so vividly evokes.

January 2005 Permalink

Amundsen, Roald. The South Pole. New York: Cooper Square Press, [1913] 2001. ISBN 978-0-8154-1127-7.
In modern warfare, it has been observed that “generals win battles, but logisticians win wars.” So it is with planning an exploration mission to a remote destination where no human has ever set foot, and the truths are as valid for polar exploration in the early 20th century as they will be for missions to Mars in the 21st. On December 14th, 1911, Roald Amundsen and his five-man southern party reached the South Pole after a trek from the camp on the Ross Ice Shelf where they had passed the previous southern winter, preparing for an assault on the pole as early as the weather would permit. By over-wintering, they would be able to depart southward well before a ship would be able to land an expedition, since a ship would have to wait until the sea ice dispersed sufficiently to make a landing.

Amundsen's plan was built around what space mission architects call “in-situ resource utilisation” and “depots”, as well as “propulsion staging”. This allowed for a very lightweight push to the pole, both in terms of the amount of supplies which had to be landed by their ship, the Fram, and in the size of the polar party and the loading of their sledges. Upon arriving in Antarctica, Amundsen's party immediately began to hunt the abundant seals near the coast. More than two hundred seals were killed, processed, and stored for later use. (Since the temperature on the Ross Ice Shelf and the Antarctic interior never rises above freezing, the seal meat would keep indefinitely.) Then parties were sent out in the months remaining before the arrival of winter in 1911 to establish depots at every degree of latitude between the base camp and 82° south. These depots contained caches of seal meat for the men and dogs and kerosene for melting snow for water and cooking food. The depot-laying journeys familiarised the explorers with driving teams of dogs and operating in the Antarctic environment.

Amundsen had chosen dogs to pull his sledges. While his rival to be first at the pole, Robert Falcon Scott, experimented with pulling sledges by ponies, motorised sledges, and man-hauling, Amundsen relied upon the experience of indigenous people in Arctic environments that dogs were the best solution. Dogs reproduced and matured sufficiently quickly that attrition could be made up by puppies born during the expedition, they could be fed on seal meat, which could be obtained locally, and if a dog team were to fall into a crevasse (as was inevitable when crossing uncharted terrain), the dogs could be hauled out, no worse for wear, by the drivers of other sledges. For ponies and motorised sledges, this was not the case.

Further, Amundsen adopted a strategy which can best be described as “dog eat dog”. On the journey to the pole, he started with 52 dogs. Seven of these had died from exhaustion or other causes before the ascent to the polar plateau. (Dogs who died were butchered and fed to the other dogs. Greenland sled dogs, being only slightly removed from wolves, had no hesitation in devouring their erstwhile comrades.) Once reaching the plateau, 27 dogs were slaughtered, their meat divided between the surviving dogs and the five men. Only 18 dogs would proceed to the pole. Dog carcasses were cached for use on the return journey.

Beyond the depots, the polar party had to carry everything required for the trip. but knowing the depots would be available for the return allowed them to travel lightly. After reaching the pole, they remained for three days to verify their position, send out parties to ensure they had encircled the pole's position, and built a cairn to commemorate their achievement. Amundsen left a letter which he requested Captain Scott deliver to King Haakon VII of Norway should Amundsen's party be lost on its return to base. (Sadly, that was the fate which awaited Scott, who arrived at the pole on January 17th, 1912, only to find the Amundsen expedition's cairn there.)

This book is Roald Amundsen's contemporary memoir of the expedition. Originally published in two volumes, the present work includes both. Appendices describe the ship, the Fram, and scientific investigations in meteorology, geology, astronomy, and oceanography conducted during the expedition. Amundsen's account is as matter-of-fact as the memoirs of some astronauts, but a wry humour comes through when discussing dealing with sled dogs who have will of their own and also the foibles of humans cooped up in a small cabin in an alien environment during a night which lasts for months. He evinces great respect for his colleagues and competitors in polar exploration, particularly Scott and Shackleton, and worries whether his own approach to reaching the pole would be proved superior to theirs. At the time the book was published, the tragic fate of Scott's expedition was not known.

Today, we might not think of polar exploration as science, but a century ago it was as central to the scientific endeavour as robotic exploration of Mars is today. Here was an entire continent, known only in sketchy detail around its coast, with only a few expeditions into the interior. When Amundsen's party set out on their march to the pole, they had no idea whether they would encounter mountain ranges along the way and, if so, whether they could find a way over or around them. They took careful geographic and meteorological observations along their trek (as well as oceanographical measurements on the trip to Antarctica and back), and these provided some of the first data points toward understanding weather in the southern hemisphere.

In Norway, Amundsen was hailed as a hero. But it is clear from this narrative he never considered himself such. He wrote:

I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

This work is in the public domain, and there are numerous editions of it available, in print and in electronic form, many from independent publishers. The independent publishers, for the most part, did not distinguish themselves in their respect for this work. Many of their editions were produced by running an optical character recognition program over a print copy of the book, then putting it together with minimal copy-editing. Some (including the one I was foolish enough to buy) elide all of the diagrams, maps, and charts from the original book, which renders parts of the text incomprehensible. The paperback edition cited above, while expensive, is a facsimile edition of the original 1913 two volume English translation of Amundsen's original work, including all of the illustrations. I know of no presently-available electronic edition which has comparable quality and includes all of the material in the original book. Be careful—if you follow the link to the paperback edition, you'll see a Kindle edition listed, but this is from a different publisher and is rife with errors and includes none of the illustrations. I made the mistake of buying it, assuming it was the same as the highly-praised paperback. It isn't; don't be fooled.

September 2014 Permalink

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. New York: Penguin, [2004] 2005. ISBN 978-0-14-303649-4.
In the year 1800, the practice of medicine had changed little from that in antiquity. The rapid progress in other sciences in the 18th century had had little impact on medicine, which one historian called “the withered arm of science”. This began to change as the 19th century progressed. Researchers, mostly in Europe and especially in Germany, began to lay the foundations for a scientific approach to medicine and public health, understanding the causes of disease and searching for means of prevention and cure. The invention of new instruments for medical examination, anesthesia, and antiseptic procedures began to transform the practice of medicine and surgery.

All of these advances were slow to arrive in the United States. As late as 1900 only one medical school in the U.S. required applicants to have a college degree, and only 20% of schools required a high school diploma. More than a hundred U.S. medical schools accepted any applicant who could pay, and many graduated doctors who had never seen a patient or done any laboratory work in science. In the 1870s, only 10% of the professors at Harvard's medical school had a Ph.D.

In 1873, Johns Hopkins died, leaving his estate of US$ 3.5 million to found a university and hospital. The trustees embarked on an ambitious plan to build a medical school to be the peer of those in Germany, and began to aggressively recruit European professors and Americans who had studied in Europe to build a world class institution. By the outbreak of World War I in Europe, American medical research and education, still concentrated in just a few centres of excellence, had reached the standard set by Germany. It was about to face its greatest challenge.

With the entry of the United States into World War I in April of 1917, millions of young men conscripted for service were packed into overcrowded camps for training and preparation for transport to Europe. These camps, thrown together on short notice, often had only rudimentary sanitation and shelter, with many troops living in tent cities. Large number of doctors and especially nurses were recruited into the Army, and by the start of 1918 many were already serving in France. Doctors remaining in private practice in the U.S. were often older men, trained before the revolution in medical education and ignorant of modern knowledge of diseases and the means of treating them.

In all American wars before World War I, more men died from disease than combat. In the Civil War, two men died from disease for every death on the battlefield. Army Surgeon General William Gorgas vowed that this would not be the case in the current conflict. He was acutely aware that the overcrowded camps, frequent transfers of soldiers among far-flung bases, crowded and unsanitary troop transport ships, and unspeakable conditions in the trenches were a tinderbox just waiting for the spark of an infectious disease to ignite it. But the demand for new troops for the front in France caused his cautions to be overruled, and still more men were packed into the camps.

Early in 1918, a doctor in rural Haskell County, Kansas began to treat patients with a disease he diagnosed as influenza. But this was nothing like the seasonal influenza with which he was familiar. In typical outbreaks of influenza, the people at greatest risk are the very young (whose immune systems have not been previously exposed to the virus) and the very old, who lack the physical resilience to withstand the assault by the disease. Most deaths are among these groups, leading to a “bathtub curve” of mortality. This outbreak was different: the young and elderly were largely spared, while those in the prime of life were struck down, with many dying quickly of symptoms which resembled pneumonia. Slowly the outbreak receded, and by mid-March things were returning to normal. (The location and mechanism where the disease originated remain controversial to this day and we may never know for sure. After weighing competing theories, the author believes the Kansas origin most likely, but other origins have their proponents.)

That would have been the end of it, had not soldiers from Camp Funston, the second largest Army camp in the U.S., with 56,000 troops, visited their families in Haskell County while on leave. They returned to camp carrying the disease. The spark had landed in the tinderbox. The disease spread outward as troop trains travelled between camps. Often a train would leave carrying healthy troops (infected but not yet symptomatic) and arrive with up to half the company sick and highly infectious to those at the destination. Before long the disease arrived via troop ships at camps and at the front in France.

This was just the first wave. The spring influenza was unusual in the age group it hit most severely, but was not particularly more deadly than typical annual outbreaks. Then in the fall a new form of the disease returned in a much more virulent form. It is theorised that under the chaotic conditions of wartime a mutant form of the virus had emerged and rapidly spread among the troops and then passed into the civilian population. The outbreak rapidly spread around the globe, and few regions escaped. It was particularly devastating to aboriginal populations in remote regions like the Arctic and Pacific islands who had not developed any immunity to influenza.

The pathogen in the second wave could kill directly within a day by destroying the lining of the lung and effectively suffocating the patient. The disease was so virulent and aggressive that some medical researchers doubted it was influenza at all and suspected some new kind of plague. Even those who recovered from the disease had much of their immunity and defences against respiratory infection so impaired that some people who felt well enough to return to work would quickly come down with a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia which could kill them.

All of the resources of the new scientific medicine were thrown into the battle with the disease, with little or no impact upon its progression. The cause of influenza was not known at the time: some thought it was a bacterial disease while others suspected a virus. Further adding to the confusion is that influenza patients often had a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia, and the organism which causes that disease was mis-identified as the pathogen responsible for influenza. Heroic efforts were made, but the state of medical science in 1918 was simply not up to the challenge posed by influenza.

A century later, influenza continues to defeat every attempt to prevent or cure it, and another global pandemic remains a distinct possibility. Supportive treatment in the developed world and the availability of antibiotics to prevent secondary infection by pneumonia will reduce the death toll, but a mass outbreak of the virus on the scale of 1918 would quickly swamp all available medical facilities and bring society to the brink as it did then. Even regular influenza kills between a quarter and a half million people a year. The emergence of a killer strain like that of 1918 could increase this number by a factor of ten or twenty.

Influenza is such a formidable opponent due to its structure. It is an RNA virus which, unusually for a virus, has not a single strand of genetic material but seven or eight separate strands of RNA. Some researchers argue that in an organism infected with two or more variants of the virus these strands can mix to form new mutants, allowing the virus to mutate much faster than other viruses with a single strand of genetic material (this is controversial). The virus particle is surrounded by proteins called hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). HA allows the virus to break into a target cell, while NA allows viruses replicated within the cell to escape to infect others.

What makes creating a vaccine for influenza so difficult is that these HA and NA proteins are what the body's immune system uses to identify the virus as an invader and kill it. But HA and NA come in a number of variants, and a specific strain of influenza may contain one from column H and one from column N, creating a large number of possibilities. For example, H1N2 is endemic in birds, pigs, and humans. H5N1 caused the bird flu outbreak in 2004, and H1N1 was responsible for the 1918 pandemic. It gets worse. As a child, when you are first exposed to influenza, your immune system will produce antibodies which identify and target the variant to which you were first exposed. If you were infected with and recovered from, say, H3N2, you'll be pretty well protected against it. But if, subsequently, you encounter H1N1, your immune system will recognise it sufficiently to crank out antibodies, but they will be coded to attack H3N2, not the H1N1 you're battling, against which they're useless. Influenza is thus a chameleon, constantly changing its colours to hide from the immune system.

Strains of influenza tend to come in waves, with one HxNy variant dominating for some number of years, then shifting to another. Developers of vaccines must play a guessing game about which you're likely to encounter in a given year. This explains why the 1918 pandemic particularly hit healthy adults. Over the decades preceding the 1918 outbreak, the primary variant had shifted from H1N1, then decades of another variant, and then after 1900 H1N1 came back to the fore. Consequently, when the deadly strain of H1N1 appeared in the fall of 1918, the immune systems of both young and elderly people were ready for it and protected them, but those in between had immune systems which, when confronted with H1N1, produced antibodies for the other variant, leaving them vulnerable.

With no medical defence against or cure for influenza even today, the only effective response in the case of an outbreak of a killer strain is public health measures such as isolation and quarantine. Influenza is airborne and highly infectious: the gauze face masks you see in pictures from 1918 were almost completely ineffective. The government response to the outbreak in 1918 could hardly have been worse. After creating military camps which were nothing less than a culture medium containing those in the most vulnerable age range packed in close proximity, once the disease broke out and reports began to arrive that this was something new and extremely lethal, the troop trains and ships continued to run due to orders from the top that more and more men had to be fed into the meat grinder that was the Western Front. This inoculated camp after camp. Then, when the disease jumped into the civilian population and began to devastate cities adjacent to military facilities such as Boston and Philadelphia, the press censors of Wilson's proto-fascist war machine decided that honest reporting of the extent and severity of the disease or measures aimed at slowing its spread would impact “morale” and war production, so newspapers were ordered to either ignore it or print useless happy talk which only accelerated the epidemic. The result was that in the hardest-hit cities, residents confronted with the reality before their eyes giving to lie to the propaganda they were hearing from authorities retreated into fear and withdrawal, allowing neighbours to starve rather than risk infection by bringing them food.

As was known in antiquity, the only defence against an infectious disease with no known medical intervention is quarantine. In Western Samoa, the disease arrived in September 1918 on a German steamer. By the time the disease ran its course, 22% of the population of the islands was dead. Just a few kilometres across the ocean in American Samoa, authorities imposed a rigid quarantine and not a single person died of influenza.

We will never know the worldwide extent of the 1918 pandemic. Many of the hardest-hit areas, such as China and India, did not have the infrastructure to collect epidemiological data and what they had collapsed under the impact of the crisis. Estimates are that on the order of 500 million people worldwide were infected and that between 50 and 100 million died: three to five percent of the world's population.

Researchers do not know why the 1918 second wave pathogen was so lethal. The genome has been sequenced and nothing jumps out from it as an obvious cause. Understanding its virulence may require recreating the monster and experimenting with it in animal models. Obviously, this is not something which should be undertaken without serious deliberation beforehand and extreme precautions, but it may be the only way to gain the knowledge needed to treat those infected should a similar wild strain emerge in the future. (It is possible this work may have been done but not published because it could provide a roadmap for malefactors bent on creating a synthetic plague. If this be the case, we'll probably never know about it.)

Although medicine has made enormous strides in the last century, influenza, which defeated the world's best minds in 1918, remains a risk, and in a world with global air travel moving millions between dense population centres, an outbreak today would be even harder to contain. Let us hope that in that dire circumstance authorities will have the wisdom and courage to take the kind of dramatic action which can make the difference between a regional tragedy and a global cataclysm.

October 2014 Permalink

Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Henry Holt, [1996] 1998. ISBN 0-8050-5668-8.

December 2003 Permalink

Berlinski, Claire. Menace in Europe. New York: Crown Forum, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-9768-1.
This is a scary book. The author, who writes with a broad and deep comprehension of European history and its cultural roots, and a vocabulary which reminds one of William F. Buckley, argues that the deep divide which has emerged between the United States and Europe since the end of the cold war, and particularly in the last few years, is not a matter of misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity on the part of the U.S., or the personnel, policies, and style of the Bush administration, but deeply rooted in structural problems in Europe which are getting worse, not better. (That's not to say that there aren't dire problems in the U.S. as well, but that isn't the topic here.)

Surveying the contemporary scene in the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and tracing the roots of nationalism, peasant revolts (of which “anti-globalisation” is the current manifestation), and anti-Semitism back through the centuries, she shows that what is happening in Europe today is simply Europe—the continent of too many kings and too many wars—being Europe, adapted to present-day circumstances. The impression you're left with is that Europe isn't just the “sick man of the world”, but rather a continent afflicted with half a dozen or more separate diseases, all terminal: a large, un-assimilated immigrant population concentrated in ghettos; an unsustainable welfare state; a sclerotic economy weighed down by social charges, high taxes, and ubiquitous and counterproductive regulation; a collapsing birth rate and aging population; a “culture crash” (my term), where the religions and ideologies which have structured the lives of Europeans for millennia have evaporated, leaving nothing in their place; a near-total disconnect between elites and the general population on the disastrous project of European integration, most recently manifested in the controversy over the so-called European constitution; and signs that the rabid nationalism which plunged Europe into two disastrous wars in the last century and dozens, if not hundreds of wars in the centuries before, is seeping back up through the cracks in the foundation of the dystopian, ill-conceived European Union.

In some regards, the author does seem to overstate the case, or generalise from evidence so narrow it lacks persuasiveness. The most egregious example is chapter 8, which infers an emerging nihilist neo-Nazi nationalism in Germany almost entirely based on the popularity of the band Rammstein. Well, yes, but whatever the lyrics, the message of the music, and the subliminal message of the music videos, there is a lot more going on in Germany, a nation of more than 80 million people, than the antics of a single heavy metal band, however atavistic.

U.S. readers inclined to gloat over the woes of the old continent should keep in mind the author's observation, a conclusion I had come to long before I ever opened this book, that the U.S. is heading directly for the same confluence of catastrophes as Europe, and, absent a fundamental change of course, will simply arrive at the scene of the accident somewhat later; and that's only taking into account the problems they have in common; the European economy, unlike the American, is able to function without borrowing on the order of two billion dollars a day from China and Japan.

If you live in Europe, as I have for the last fifteen years (thankfully outside, although now encircled by, the would-be empire that sprouted from Brussels), you'll probably find little here that's new, but you may get a better sense of how the problems interact with one another to make a real crisis somewhere in the future a genuine possibility. The target audience in the U.S., which is so often lectured by their elite that Europe is so much more sophisticated, nuanced, socially and environmentally aware, and rational, may find this book an eye opener; 344,955 American soldiers perished in European wars in the last century, and while it may be satisfying to say, “To Hell with Europe!”, the lesson of history is that saying so is most unwise.

An Instapundit podcast interview with the author is freely available on-line.

July 2006 Permalink

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.

November 2007 Permalink

Biggs, Barton. Wealth, War, and Wisdom. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. ISBN 978-0-470-22307-9.
Many people, myself included, who have followed financial markets for an extended period of time, have come to believe what may seem, to those who have not, a very curious and even mystical thing: that markets, aggregating the individual knowledge and expectations of their multitude of participants, have an uncanny way of “knowing” what the future holds. In retrospect, one can often look at a chart of broad market indices and see that the market “called” grand turning points by putting in a long-term bottom or top, even when those turning points were perceived by few if any people at the time. One of the noisiest buzzwords of the “Web 2.0” hype machine is “crowdsourcing”, yet financial markets have been doing precisely that for centuries, and in an environment in which the individual participants are not just contributing to some ratty, ephemeral Web site, but rather putting their own net worth on the line.

In this book the author, who has spent his long career as a securities analyst and hedge fund manager, and was a pioneer of investing in emerging global markets, looks at the greatest global cataclysm of the twentieth century—World War II—and explores how well financial markets in the countries involved identified the key trends and turning points in the conflict. The results persuasively support the “wisdom of the market” viewpoint and are a convincing argument that “the market knows”, even when its individual participants, media and opinion leaders, and politicians do not. Consider: the British stock market put in an all-time historic bottom in June 1940, just as Hitler toured occupied Paris and, in retrospect, Nazi expansionism in the West reached its peak. Many Britons expected a German invasion in the near future, and the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were still in the future, and yet the market rallied throughout these dark days. Somehow the market seems to have known that with the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkerque and the fall of France, the situation, however dire, was as bad as it was going to get.

In the United States, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined throughout 1941 as war clouds darkened, fell further after Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines, but put in an all-time bottom in 1942 coincident with the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway which, in retrospect, but not at the time, were seen as the key inflection point of the Pacific war. Note that at this time the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy but had not engaged either in a land battle, and yet somehow the market “knew” that, whatever the sacrifices to come, the darkest days were behind.

The wisdom of the markets was also apparent in the ultimate losers of the conflict, although government price-fixing and disruption of markets as things got worse obscured the message. The German CDAX index peaked precisely when the Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union was turned back within sight of the spires of the Kremlin. At this point the German army was intact, the Soviet breadbasket was occupied, and the Red Army was in disarray, yet somehow the market knew that this was the high point. The great defeat at Stalingrad and the roll-back of the Nazi invaders were all in the future, but despite propaganda, censorship of letters from soldiers at the front, and all the control of information a totalitarian society can employ, once again the market called the turning point. In Italy, where rampant inflation obscured nominal price indices, the inflation-adjusted BCI index put in its high at precisely the moment Mussolini made his alliance with Hitler, and it was all downhill from there, both for Italy and its stock market, despite rampant euphoria at the time. In Japan, the market was heavily manipulated by the Ministry of Finance and tight control of war news denied investors information to independently assess the war situation, but by 1943 the market had peaked in real terms and declined into a collapse thereafter.

In occupied countries, where markets were allowed to function, they provided insight into the sympathies of their participants. The French market is particularly enlightening. Clearly, the investor class was completely on-board with the German occupation and Vichy. In real terms, the market soared after the capitulation of France and peaked with the defeat at Stalingrad, then declined consistently thereafter, with only a little blip with the liberation of Paris. But then the French stock market wouldn't be French if it weren't perverse, would it?

Throughout, the author discusses how individuals living in both the winners and losers of the war could have best preserved their wealth and selves, and this is instructive for folks interested in saving their asses and assets the next time the Four Horsemen sortie from Hell's own stable. Interestingly, according to Biggs's analysis, so-called “defensive” investments such as government and top-rated corporate bonds and short-term government paper (“Treasury Bills”) performed poorly as stores of wealth in the victor countries and disastrously in the vanquished. In those societies where equity markets survived the war (obviously, this excludes those countries in Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union), stocks were the best financial instrument in preserving value, although in many cases they did decline precipitously over the period of the war. How do you ride out a cataclysm like World War II? There are three key ways: diversification, diversification, and diversification. You need to diversify across financial and real assets, including (diversified) portfolios of stocks, bonds, and bills, as well as real assets such as farmland, real estate, and hard assets (gold, jewelry, etc.) for really hard times. You further need to diversify internationally: not just in the assets you own, but where you keep them. Exchange controls can come into existence with the stroke of a pen, and that offshore bank account you keep “just in case” may be all you have if the worst comes to pass. Thinking about it in that way, do you have enough there? Finally, you need to diversify your own options in the world and think about what you'd do if things really start to go South, and you need to think about it now, not then. As the author notes in the penultimate paragraph:

…the rich are almost always too complacent, because they cherish the illusion that when things start to go bad, they will have time to extricate themselves and their wealth. It never works that way. Events move much faster than anyone expects, and the barbarians are on top of you before you can escape. … It is expensive to move early, but it is far better to be early than to be late.
This is a quirky book, and not free of flaws. Biggs is a connoisseur of amusing historical anecdotes and sprinkles them throughout the text. I found them a welcome leavening of a narrative filled with human tragedy, folly, and destruction of wealth, but some may consider them a distraction and out of place. There are far more copy-editing errors in this book (including dismayingly many difficulties with the humble apostrophe) than I would expect in a Wiley main catalogue title. But that said, if you haven't discovered the wisdom of the markets for yourself, and are worried about riding out the uncertainties of what appears to be a bumpy patch ahead, this is an excellent place to start.

June 2008 Permalink

Bolton, Andrew. Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. London: V&A Publications, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-6558-5.

January 2004 Permalink

Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English. London: Sceptre, 2003. ISBN 0-340-82993-1.
How did a language spoken by 150,000 or so Germanic warriors who invaded the British Isles in the fifth century A.D. become the closest thing so far to a global language, dominating the worlds of science and commerce which so define the modern age? Melvyn Bragg, who earlier produced a television series (which I haven't seen) with the same name for the British ITV network follows the same outline in this history of English. The tremendous contingency in the evolution of a language is much to be seen here: had Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, or William Tyndale (who first translated the Bible into English and paid with his life for having done so) died in infancy, how would we speak today, and in what culture would we live? The assembly of the enormous vocabulary of English by devouring words from dozens of other languages is well documented, as well as the differentiation of British English into distinct American, Caribbean, Australian, South African, Indian, and other variants which enrich the mother tongue with both vocabulary and grammar. Fair dinkum, innit man?

As English has grown by accretion, it has also cast out a multitude of words into the “Obs.” bin of the OED, many in the “Inkhorn Controversy” in the 16th century. What a loss! The more words, the richer the language, and I hereby urge we reinstate “abstergify”, last cited in the OED in 1612, defined as the verb “To cleanse”. I propose this word to mean “to clean up, æsthetically, without any change in function”. For example, “I spent all day abstergifying the configuration files for the Web server”.

The mystery of why such an ill-structured language with an almost anti-phonetic spelling should have become so widespread is discussed here only on the margin, often in apologetic terms invoking the guilt of slavery and colonialism. (But speakers of other languages pioneered these institutions, so why didn't they triumph?) Bragg suggests, almost in passing, what I think is very significant. The very irregularity of English permits it to assimilate the vocabulary of every language it encounters. In Greek, Latin, Spanish, or French, there are rules about the form of verbs and the endings of nouns and agreement of adjectives which cannot accommodate words from fundamentally different languages. But in English, there are no rules whatsoever—bring your own vocabulary—there's room for everybody and every word. Come on in, it's great—the more the better!

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

February 2005 Permalink

Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father. New York: Free Press, 1996. ISBN 0-684-83142-2.
This thin (less than 200 pages of main text) volume is an enlightening biography of George Washington. It is very much a moral biography in the tradition of Plutarch's Lives; the focus is on Washington's life in the public arena and the events in his life which formed his extraordinary character. Reading Washington's prose, one might assume that he, like many other framers of the U.S. Constitution, had an extensive education in the classics, but in fact his formal education ended at age 15, when he became an apprentice surveyor—among U.S. presidents, only Andrew Johnson had less formal schooling. Washington's intelligence and voracious reading—his library numbered more than 900 books at his death—made him the intellectual peer of his just sprouting Ivy League contemporaries. One historical footnote I'd never before encountered is the tremendous luck the young U.S. republic had in escaping the risk of dynasty—among the first five U.S. presidents, only John Adams had a son who survived to adulthood (and his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president).

May 2005 Permalink

[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).

November 2007 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. The Relic Master. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 978-1-5011-2575-1.
The year is 1517. The Holy Roman Empire sprawls across central Europe, from the Mediterranean in the south to the North Sea and Baltic in the north, from the Kingdom of France in the west to the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary in the east. In reality the structure of the empire is so loose and complicated it defies easy description: independent kings, nobility, and prelates all have their domains of authority, and occasionally go to war against one another. Although the Reformation is about to burst upon the scene, the Roman Catholic Church is supreme, and religion is big business. In particular, the business of relics and indulgences.

Commit a particularly heinous sin? If you're sufficiently well-heeled, you can obtain an indulgence through prayer, good works, or making a pilgrimage to a holy site. Over time, “good works” increasingly meant, for the prosperous, making a contribution to the treasury of the local prince or prelate, a percentage of which was kicked up to higher-ranking clergy, all the way to Rome. Or, an enterprising noble or churchman could collect relics such as the toe bone of a saint, a splinter from the True Cross, or a lock of hair from one of the camels the Magi rode to Bethlehem. Pilgrims would pay a fee to see, touch, have their sins erased, and be healed by these holy trophies. In short, the indulgence and relic business was selling “get out of purgatory for a price”. The very best businesses are those in which the product is delivered only after death—you have no problems with dissatisfied customers.

To flourish in this trade, you'll need a collection of relics, all traceable to trustworthy sources. Relics were in great demand, and demand summons supply into being. All the relics of the True Cross, taken together, would have required the wood from a medium-sized forest, and even the most sacred and unique of relics, the burial shroud of Christ, was on display in several different locations. It's the “trustworthy” part that's difficult, and that's where Dismas comes in. A former Swiss mercenary, his resourcefulness in obtaining relics had led to his appointment as Relic Master to His Grace Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz, and also to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. These two customers were rivals in the relic business, allowing Dismas to play one against the other to his advantage. After visiting the Basel Relic Fair and obtaining some choice merchandise, he visits his patrons to exchange them for gold. While visiting Frederick, he hears that a monk has nailed ninety-five denunciations of the Church, including the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church. This is interesting, but potentially bad for business.

Dismas meets his friend, Albrecht Dürer, who he calls “Nars” due to Dürer's narcissism: among other things including his own visage in most of his paintings. After months in the south hunting relics, he returns to visit Dürer and learns that the Swiss banker with whom he's deposited his fortune has been found to be a 16th century Bernie Madoff and that he has only the money on his person.

Destitute, Dismas and Dürer devise a scheme to get back into the game. This launches them into a romp across central Europe visiting the castles, cities, taverns, dark forbidding forests, dungeons, and courts of nobility. We encounter historical figures including Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus), who lends his scientific insight to the effort. All of this is recounted with the mix of wry and broad humour which Christopher Buckley uses so effectively in all of his novels. There is a tableau of the Last Supper, identity theft, and bombs. An appendix gives background on the historical figures who appear in the novel.

This is a pure delight and illustrates how versatile is the talent of the author. Prepare yourself for a treat; this novel delivers. Here is an interview with the author.

May 2016 Permalink

Byers, Bruce K. Destination Moon. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977. NASA TM X-3487.
In the mid 1960s, the U.S. Apollo lunar landing program was at the peak of its budget commitment and technical development. The mission mode had already been chosen and development of the flight hardware was well underway, along with the ground infrastructure required to test and launch it and the global network required to track missions in flight. One nettlesome problem remained. The design of the lunar module made assumptions about the properties of the lunar surface upon which it would alight. If the landing zone had boulders which were too large, craters sufficiently deep and common that the landing legs could not avoid, or slopes too steep to avoid an upset on landing or tipping over afterward, lunar landing missions would all be aborted by the crew when they reached decision height, judging there was no place they could set down safely. Even if all the crews returned safely without having landed, this would be an ignominious end to the ambitions of Project Apollo.

What was needed in order to identify safe landing zones was high-resolution imagery of the Moon. The most capable Earth-based telescopes, operating through Earth's turbulent and often murky atmosphere, produced images which resolved objects at best a hundred times larger that those which could upset a lunar landing mission. What was required was a large area, high resolution mapping of the Moon and survey of potential landing zones, which could only be done, given the technology of the 1960s, by going there, taking pictures, and returning them to Earth. So was born the Lunar Orbiter program, which in 1966 and 1967 sent lightweight photographic reconnaissance satellites into lunar orbit, providing both the close-up imagery needed to select landing sites for the Apollo missions, but also mapping imagery which covered 99% of the near side of the Moon and 85% of the far side, In fact, Lunar Orbiter provided global imagery of the Moon far more complete than that which would be available for the Earth many years thereafter.

Accomplishing this goal with the technology of the 1960s was no small feat. Electronic imaging amounted to analogue television, which, at the altitude of a lunar orbit, wouldn't produce images any better than telescopes on Earth. The first spy satellites were struggling to return film from Earth orbit, and returning film from the Moon was completely impossible given the mass budget of the launchers available. After a fierce competition, NASA contracted with Boeing to build the Lunar Orbiter, designed to fit on NASA's workhorse Atlas-Agena launcher, which seriously constrained its mass. Boeing subcontracted with Kodak to build the imaging system and RCA for the communications hardware which would relay the images back to Earth and allow the spacecraft to be controlled from the ground.

The images were acquired by a process which may seem absurd to those accustomed to present-day digital technologies but which seemed miraculous in its day. In lunar orbit, the spacecraft would aim its cameras (it had two: a mapping camera which produced overlapping wide-angle views and a high-resolution camera that photographed clips of each frame with a resolution of about one metre) at the Moon and take a series of photos. Because the film used had a very low light sensitivity (ASA [now ISO] 1.6), on low-altitude imaging passes the film would have to be moved to compensate for the motion of the spacecraft to avoid blurring. (The low light sensitivity of the film was due to its very high spatial resolution, but also reduced its likelihood of being fogged by exposure to cosmic rays or energetic particles from solar flares.)

After being exposed, the film would subsequently be processed on-board by putting it in contact with a band containing developer and fixer, and then the resulting negative would be read back for transmission to Earth by scanning it with a moving point of light, measuring the transmission through the negative, and sending the measured intensity back as an analogue signal. At the receiving station, that signal would be used to modulate the intensity of a spot of light scanned across film which, when developed and assembled into images from strips, revealed the details of the Moon. The incoming analogue signal was recorded on tape to provide a backup for the film recording process, but nothing was done with the tapes at the time. More about this later….

Five Lunar Orbiter missions were launched, and although some experienced problems, all achieved their primary mission objectives. The first three missions provided all of the data required by Apollo, so the final two could be dedicated to mapping the Moon from near-polar orbits. After the completion of their primary imaging missions, Lunar Orbiters continued to measure the radiation and micrometeoroid environment near the Moon, and contributed to understanding the Moon's gravitational field, which would be important in planning later Apollo missions that would fly in very low orbits around the Moon. On August 23rd, 1966, the first Lunar Orbiter took one of the most iconic pictures of the 20th century: Earthrise from the Moon. The problems experienced by Lunar Orbiter missions and the improvisation by ground controllers to work around them set the pattern for subsequent NASA robotic missions, with their versatile, reconfigurable flight hardware and fine-grained control from the ground.

You might think the story of Lunar Orbiter a footnote to space exploration history which has scrolled off the screen with subsequent Apollo lunar landings and high-resolution lunar mapping by missions such as Clementine and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, but that fails to take into account the exploits of 21st century space data archaeologists. Recall that I said that all of the image data from Lunar Orbiter missions was recorded on analogue tapes. These tapes contained about 10 bits of dynamic range, as opposed to the 8 bits which were preserved by the optical recording process used in receiving the images during the missions. This, combined with contemporary image processing techniques, makes for breathtaking images recorded almost half a century ago, but never seen before. Here are a document and video which record the exploits of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP). Please visit the LOIRP Web site for more restored images and details of the process of restoration.

September 2014 Permalink

Byrd, Richard E. Alone. Washington: Island Press [1938, 1966] 2003. ISBN 978-1-55963-463-2.
To generations of Americans, Richard Byrd was the quintessential explorer of unknown terrain. First to fly over the North Pole (although this feat has been disputed from shortly after he claimed it to the present day), recipient of the Medal of Honor for this claimed exploit, pioneer in trans-Atlantic flight (although beaten by Lindbergh after a crash on a practice takeoff, he successfully flew from New York to France in June 1927), Antarctic explorer and first to fly over the South Pole, and leader of four more expeditions to the Antarctic, including commanding the operation which established the permanent base at the South Pole which remains there to this day.

In 1934, on his second Antarctic expedition, Byrd set up and manned a meteorological station on the Ross Ice Shelf south of 80°, in which he would pass the Antarctic winter—alone. He originally intended the station to be emplaced much further south and manned by three people (he goes into extensive detail why “cabin fever” makes a two man crew a prescription for disaster), and then, almost on a lark it seems from the narrative, decides, when forced by constraints of weather and delivery of supplies for the winter, to go it alone. In anticipation, he welcomes the isolation from distractions of daily events, the ability to catch up reading, thinking, and listening to music.

His hut was well designed and buried in the ice to render it immune from the high winds and drifting snow of the Antarctic winter. It was well provisioned to survive the winter: food and fuel tunnels cached abundant supplies. Less thought out was the stove and its ventilation. As winter set in, Byrd succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, made more severe by fumes from the gasoline generator he used to power the radio set which was his only link to those wintering at the Little America base on the coast.

Byrd comes across in this narrative as an extraordinarily complex character. One moment, he's describing how his lamp failed when, at −52° C, its kerosene froze, next he's recounting how easily the smallest mistake: loss of sight of the flags leading back to shelter or a jammed hatch back into the hut can condemn one to despair and death by creeping cold, and then he goes all philosophical:

The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had not believed possible. It would be tedious to discuss them. Misery, after all, is the tritest of emotions.

Here we have a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Medal of Honor winner, as gonzo journalist in the Antarctic winter—extraordinary. Have any other great explorers written so directly from the deepest recesses of their souls?

Byrd's complexity deepens further as he confesses to fabricating reports of his well-being in radio reports to Little America, intended, he says, to prevent them from launching a rescue mission which he feared would end in failure and the deaths of those who undertook it. And yet Byrd's increasingly bizarre communications eventually caused such a mission to be launched, and once it was, his diary pinned his entire hope upon its success.

If you've ever imagined yourself first somewhere, totally alone and living off the supplies you've brought with you: in orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, or beyond, here is a narrative of what it's really like to do that, told with brutal honesty by somebody who did. Admiral Byrd's recounting of his experience is humbling to any who aspire to the noble cause of exploration.

January 2013 Permalink

Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. ISBN 0-00-720994-0.
This is an utterly compelling history of the early years of the space race, told largely through the parallel lives of mirror-image principals Sergei Korolev (anonymous Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and beforehand slave labourer in Stalin's Gulag) and Wernher von Braun, celebrity driving force behind the U.S. push into space, previously a Nazi party member, SS officer, and user of slave labour to construct his A-4/V-2 weapons. Drawing upon material not declassified by the United States until the 1980s and revealed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the early years of these prime movers of space exploration are illuminated, along with how they were both exploited by and deftly manipulated their respective governments. I have never seen the story of the end-game between the British, Americans, and Soviets to spirit the V-2 hardware, technology, and team from Germany in the immediate post-surrender chaos told so well in a popular book. The extraordinary difficulties of trying to get things done in the Soviet command economy are also described superbly, and underline how inspired and indefatigable Korolev must have been to accomplish what he did.

Although the book covers the 1930s through the 1969 Moon landing, the main focus is on the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s. Out of 345 pages of main text, the first 254 are devoted to the period ending with the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard in 1961. But then, that makes sense, given what we now know about the space race (and you'll know, if you don't already, after reading this book). Although nobody in the West knew at the time, the space race was really over when the U.S. made the massive financial commitment to Project Apollo and the Soviets failed to match it. Not only was Korolev compelled to work within budgets cut to half or less of his estimated requirements, the modest Soviet spending on space was divided among competing design bureaux whose chief designers engaged in divisive and counterproductive feuds. Korolev's N-1 Moon rocket used 30 first stage engines designed by a jet engine designer with modest experience with rockets because Korolev and supreme Soviet propulsion designer Valentin Glushko were not on speaking terms, and he was forced to test the whole grotesque lash-up for the first time in flight, as there wasn't the money for a ground test stand for the complete first stage. Unlike the “all-up” testing of the Apollo-Saturn program, where each individual component was exhaustively ground tested in isolation before being committed to flight, it didn't work. It wasn't just the Soviets who took risks in those wild and wooly days, however. When an apparent fuel leak threatened to delay the launch of Explorer-I, the U.S. reply to Sputnik, brass in the bunker asked for a volunteer “without any dependants” to go out and scope out the situation beneath the fully-fuelled rocket, possibly leaking toxic hydrazine (p. 175).

There are a number of factual goofs. I'm not sure the author fully understands orbital mechanics which is, granted, a pretty geeky topic, but one which matters when you're writing about space exploration. She writes that the Jupiter C re-entry experiment reached a velocity (p. 154) of 1600 mph (actually 16,000 mph), that Yuri Gararin's Vostok capsule orbited (p. 242) at 28,000 mph (actually 28,000 km/h), and that if Apollo 8's service module engine had failed to fire after arriving at the Moon (p. 325), the astronauts “would sail on forever, lost in space” (actually, they were on a “free return” trajectory, which would have taken them back to Earth even if the engine failed—the critical moment was actually when they fired the same engine to leave lunar orbit on Christmas Day 1968, which success caused James Lovell to radio after emerging from behind the Moon after the critical burn, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus”). Orbital attitude (the orientation of the craft) is confused with altitude (p. 267), and retro-rockets are described as “breaking rockets” (p. 183)—let's hope not! While these and other quibbles will irk space buffs, they shouldn't deter you from enjoying this excellent narrative.

A U.S. edition is now available. The author earlier worked on the production of a BBC docu-drama also titled Space Race, which is now available on DVD. Note, however, that this is a PAL DVD with a region code of 2, and will not play unless you have a compatible DVD player and television; I have not seen this programme.

October 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Caesar, Gaius Julius and Aulus Hirtius. The Commentaries. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [ca. 52–51 B.C., ca. 45 B.C.] 2004. ISBN 1-929718-44-6.
This audiobook is an unabridged reading of English translations of Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) and Civil (Commentarii de Bello Civili) wars between 58 and 48 B.C. (The eighth book of the Gallic wars commentary, covering the minor campaigns of 51 B.C., was written by his friend Aulus Hirtius after Caesar's assassination.) The recording is based upon the rather eccentric Rex Warner translation, which is now out of print. In the original Latin text, Caesar always referred to himself in the third person, as “Caesar”. Warner rephrased the text (with the exception of the book written by Hirtius) as a first person narrative. For example, the first sentence of paragraph I.25 of The Gallic Wars:
Caesar primum suo, deinde omnium ex conspectu remotis equis, ut aequato omnium periculo spem fugae tolleret, cohortatus suos proelium commisit.
in Latin, is conventionally translated into English as something like this (from the rather stilted 1869 translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn):
Caesar, having removed out of sight first his own horse, then those of all, that he might make the danger of all equal, and do away with the hope of flight, after encouraging his men, joined battle.
but the Warner translation used here renders this as:
I first of all had my own horse taken out of the way and then the horses of other officers. I wanted the danger to be the same for everyone, and for no one to have any hope of escape by flight. Then I spoke a few words of encouragement to the men before joining battle.   [1:24:17–30]
Now, whatever violence this colloquial translation does to the authenticity of Caesar's spare and eloquent Latin, from a dramatic standpoint it works wonderfully with the animated reading of award-winning narrator Charlton Griffin; the listener has the sense of being across the table in a tavern from GJC as he regales all present with his exploits.

This is “just the facts” war reporting. Caesar viewed this work not as history, but rather the raw material for historians in the future. There is little discussion of grand strategy nor, even in the commentaries on the civil war, the political conflict which provoked the military confrontation between Caesar and Pompey. While these despatches doubtless served as propaganda on Caesar's part, he writes candidly of his own errors and the cost of the defeats they occasioned. (Of course, since these are the only extant accounts of most of these events, there's no way to be sure there isn't some Caesarian spin in his presentation, but since these commentaries were published in Rome, which received independent reports from officers and literate legionaries in Caesar's armies, it's unlikely he would have risked embellishing too much.)

Two passages of unknown length in the final book of the Civil war commentaries have been lost—these are handled by the reader stopping in mid-sentence, with another narrator explaining the gap and the historical consensus of the events in the lost text.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 16 hours and 40 minutes. That's a big investment of time in the details of battles which took place more than two thousand years ago, but I'll confess I found it fascinating, especially since some of the events described took place within sight of where I take the walks on which I listened to this recording over several weeks. An Audio CD edition is available.

August 2007 Permalink

Cahill, Thomas. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-49553-6.

November 2003 Permalink

Carlson, W. Bernard. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-691-16561-5.
Nicola Tesla was born in 1858 in a village in what is now Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father and grandfather were both priests in the Orthodox church. The family was of Serbian descent, but had lived in Croatia since the 1690s among a community of other Serbs. His parents wanted him to enter the priesthood and enrolled him in school to that end. He excelled in mathematics and, building on a boyhood fascination with machines and tinkering, wanted to pursue a career in engineering. After completing high school, Tesla returned to his village where he contracted cholera and was near death. His father promised him that if he survived, he would “go to the best technical institution in the world.” After nine months of illness, Tesla recovered and, in 1875 entered the Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria.

Tesla's university career started out brilliantly, but he came into conflict with one of his physics professors over the feasibility of designing a motor which would operate without the troublesome and unreliable commutator and brushes of existing motors. He became addicted to gambling, lost his scholarship, and dropped out in his third year. He worked as a draftsman, taught in his old high school, and eventually ended up in Prague, intending to continue his study of engineering at the Karl-Ferdinand University. He took a variety of courses, but eventually his uncles withdrew their financial support.

Tesla then moved to Budapest, where he found employment as chief electrician at the Budapest Telephone Exchange. He quickly distinguished himself as a problem solver and innovator and, before long, came to the attention of the Continental Edison Company of France, which had designed the equipment used in Budapest. He was offered and accepted a job at their headquarters in Ivry, France. Most of Edison's employees had practical, hands-on experience with electrical equipment, but lacked Tesla's formal education in mathematics and physics. Before long, Tesla was designing dynamos for lighting plants and earning a handsome salary. With his language skills (by that time, Tesla was fluent in Serbian, German, and French, and was improving his English), the Edison company sent him into the field as a trouble-shooter. This further increased his reputation and, in 1884 he was offered a job at Edison headquarters in New York. He arrived and, years later, described the formalities of entering the U.S. as an immigrant: a clerk saying “Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!”.

Tesla had never abandoned the idea of a brushless motor. Almost all electric lighting systems in the 1880s used direct current (DC): electrons flowed in only one direction through the distribution wires. This is the kind of current produced by batteries, and the first electrical generators (dynamos) produced direct current by means of a device called a commutator. As the generator is turned by its power source (for example, a steam engine or water wheel), power is extracted from the rotating commutator by fixed brushes which press against it. The contacts on the commutator are wired to the coils in the generator in such a way that a constant direct current is maintained. When direct current is used to drive a motor, the motor must also contain a commutator which converts the direct current into a reversing flow to maintain the motor in rotary motion.

Commutators, with brushes rubbing against them, are inefficient and unreliable. Brushes wear and must eventually be replaced, and as the commutator rotates and the brushes make and break contact, sparks may be produced which waste energy and degrade the contacts. Further, direct current has a major disadvantage for long-distance power transmission. There was, at the time, no way to efficiently change the voltage of direct current. This meant that the circuit from the generator to the user of the power had to run at the same voltage the user received, say 120 volts. But at such a voltage, resistance losses in copper wires are such that over long runs most of the energy would be lost in the wires, not delivered to customers. You can increase the size of the distribution wires to reduce losses, but before long this becomes impractical due to the cost of copper it would require. As a consequence, Edison electric lighting systems installed in the 19th century had many small powerhouses, each supplying a local set of customers.

Alternating current (AC) solves the problem of power distribution. In 1881 the electrical transformer had been invented, and by 1884 high-efficiency transformers were being manufactured in Europe. Powered by alternating current (they don't work with DC), a transformer efficiently converts current from one voltage and current to another. For example, power might be transmitted from the generating station to the customer at 12000 volts and 1 ampere, then stepped down to 120 volts and 100 amperes by a transformer at the customer location. Losses in a wire are purely a function of current, not voltage, so for a given level of transmission loss, the cables to distribute power at 12000 volts will cost a hundredth as much as if 120 volts were used. For electric lighting, alternating current works just as well as direct current (as long as the frequency of the alternating current is sufficiently high that lamps do not flicker). But electricity was increasingly used to power motors, replacing steam power in factories. All existing practical motors ran on DC, so this was seen as an advantage to Edison's system.

Tesla worked only six months for Edison. After developing an arc lighting system only to have Edison put it on the shelf after acquiring the rights to a system developed by another company, he quit in disgust. He then continued to work on an arc light system in New Jersey, but the company to which he had licensed his patents failed, leaving him only with a worthless stock certificate. To support himself, Tesla worked repairing electrical equipment and even digging ditches, where one of his foremen introduced him to Alfred S. Brown, who had made his career in telegraphy. Tesla showed Brown one of his patents, for a “thermomagnetic motor”, and Brown contacted Charles F. Peck, a lawyer who had made his fortune in telegraphy. Together, Peck and Brown saw the potential for the motor and other Tesla inventions and in April 1887 founded the Tesla Electric Company, with its laboratory in Manhattan's financial district.

Tesla immediately set to make his dream of a brushless AC motor a practical reality and, by using multiple AC currents, out of phase with one another (the polyphase system), he was able to create a magnetic field which itself rotated. The rotating magnetic field induced a current in the rotating part of the motor, which would start and turn without any need for a commutator or brushes. Tesla had invented what we now call the induction motor. He began to file patent applications for the motor and the polyphase AC transmission system in the fall of 1887, and by May of the following year had been granted a total of seven patents on various aspects of the motor and polyphase current.

One disadvantage of the polyphase system and motor was that it required multiple pairs of wires to transmit power from the generator to the motor, which increased cost and complexity. Also, existing AC lighting systems, which were beginning to come into use, primarily in Europe, used a single phase and two wires. Tesla invented the split-phase motor, which would run on a two wire, single phase circuit, and this was quickly patented.

Unlike Edison, who had built an industrial empire based upon his inventions, Tesla, Peck, and Brown had no interest in founding a company to manufacture Tesla's motors. Instead, they intended to shop around and license the patents to an existing enterprise with the resources required to exploit them. George Westinghouse had developed his inventions of air brakes and signalling systems for railways into a successful and growing company, and was beginning to compete with Edison in the electric light industry, installing AC systems. Westinghouse was a prime prospect to license the patents, and in July 1888 a deal was concluded for cash, notes, and a royalty for each horsepower of motors sold. Tesla moved to Pittsburgh, where he spent a year working in the Westinghouse research lab improving the motor designs. While there, he filed an additional fifteen patent applications.

After leaving Westinghouse, Tesla took a trip to Europe where he became fascinated with Heinrich Hertz's discovery of electromagnetic waves. Produced by alternating current at frequencies much higher than those used in electrical power systems (Hertz used a spark gap to produce them), here was a demonstration of transmission of electricity through thin air—with no wires at all. This idea was to inspire much of Tesla's work for the rest of his life. By 1891, he had invented a resonant high frequency transformer which we now call a Tesla coil, and before long was performing spectacular demonstrations of artificial lightning, illuminating lamps at a distance without wires, and demonstrating new kinds of electric lights far more efficient than Edison's incandescent bulbs. Tesla's reputation as an inventor was equalled by his talent as a showman in presentations before scientific societies and the public in both the U.S. and Europe.

Oddly, for someone with Tesla's academic and practical background, there is no evidence that he mastered Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism. He believed that the phenomena he observed with the Tesla coil and other apparatus were not due to the Hertzian waves predicted by Maxwell's equations, but rather something he called “electrostatic thrusts”. He was later to build a great edifice of mistaken theory on this crackpot idea.

By 1892, plans were progressing to harness the hydroelectric power of Niagara Falls. Transmission of this power to customers was central to the project: around one fifth of the American population lived within 400 miles of the falls. Westinghouse bid Tesla's polyphase system and with Tesla's help in persuading the committee charged with evaluating proposals, was awarded the contract in 1893. By November of 1896, power from Niagara reached Buffalo, twenty miles away, and over the next decade extended throughout New York. The success of the project made polyphase power transmission the technology of choice for most electrical distribution systems, and it remains so to this day. In 1895, the New York Times wrote:

Even now, the world is more apt to think of him as a producer of weird experimental effects than as a practical and useful inventor. Not so the scientific public or the business men. By the latter classes Tesla is properly appreciated, honored, perhaps even envied. For he has given to the world a complete solution of the problem which has taxed the brains and occupied the time of the greatest electro-scientists for the last two decades—namely, the successful adaptation of electrical power transmitted over long distances.

After the Niagara project, Tesla continued to invent, demonstrate his work, and obtain patents. With the support of patrons such as John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan he pursued his work on wireless transmission of power at laboratories in Colorado Springs and Wardenclyffe on Long Island. He continued to be featured in the popular press, amplifying his public image as an eccentric genius and mad scientist. Tesla lived until 1943, dying at the age of 86 of a heart attack. Over his life, he obtained around 300 patents for devices as varied as a new form of turbine, a radio controlled boat, and a vertical takeoff and landing airplane. He speculated about wireless worldwide distribution of news to personal mobile devices and directed energy weapons to defeat the threat of bombers. While in Colorado, he believed he had detected signals from extraterrestrial beings. In his experiments with high voltage, he accidently detected X-rays before Röntgen announced their discovery, but he didn't understand what he had observed.

None of these inventions had any practical consequences. The centrepiece of Tesla's post-Niagara work, the wireless transmission of power, was based upon a flawed theory of how electricity interacts with the Earth. Tesla believed that the Earth was filled with electricity and that if he pumped electricity into it at one point, a resonant receiver anywhere else on the Earth could extract it, just as if you pump air into a soccer ball, it can be drained out by a tap elsewhere on the ball. This is, of course, complete nonsense, as his contemporaries working in the field knew, and said, at the time. While Tesla continued to garner popular press coverage for his increasingly bizarre theories, he was ignored by those who understood they could never work. Undeterred, Tesla proceeded to build an enormous prototype of his transmitter at Wardenclyffe, intended to span the Atlantic, without ever, for example, constructing a smaller-scale facility to verify his theories over a distance of, say, ten miles.

Tesla's invention of polyphase current distribution and the induction motor were central to the electrification of nations and continue to be used today. His subsequent work was increasingly unmoored from the growing theoretical understanding of electromagnetism and many of his ideas could not have worked. The turbine worked, but was uncompetitive with the fabrication and materials of the time. The radio controlled boat was clever, but was far from the magic bullet to defeat the threat of the battleship he claimed it to be. The particle beam weapon (death ray) was a fantasy.

In recent decades, Tesla has become a magnet for Internet-connected crackpots, who have woven elaborate fantasies around his work. Finally, in this book, written by a historian of engineering and based upon original sources, we have an authoritative and unbiased look at Tesla's life, his inventions, and their impact upon society. You will understand not only what Tesla invented, but why, and how the inventions worked. The flaky aspects of his life are here as well, but never mocked; inventors have to think ahead of accepted knowledge, and sometimes they will inevitably get things wrong.

February 2016 Permalink

Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Washington: Regnery Publishing, [1952] 2002. ISBN 0-89526-789-6.

September 2003 Permalink

Chancellor, Henry. Colditz. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-001252-8.

March 2003 Permalink

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.

May 2012 Permalink

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 2. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2006. ISBN 978-1-4700-1508-4 NASA SP-2006-4110.
This is the second book of the author's four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, 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.

Volume 2 of Chertok's chronicle begins with his return from Germany to the Soviet Union, where he discovers, to his dismay, that day-to-day life in the victorious workers' state is much harder than in the land of the defeated fascist enemy. He becomes part of the project, mandated by Stalin, to first launch captured German V-2 missiles and then produce an exact Soviet copy, designated the R-1. Chertok and his colleagues discover that making a copy of foreign technology may be more difficult than developing it from scratch—the V-2 used a multitude of steel and non-ferrous metal alloys, as well as numerous non-metallic components (seals, gaskets, insulation, etc.) which were not produced by Soviet industry. But without the experience of the German rocket team (which, by this time, was in the United States), there was no way to know whether the choice of a particular material was because its properties were essential to its function or simply because it was readily available in Germany. Thus, making an “exact copy” involved numerous difficult judgement calls where the designers had to weigh the risk of deviation from the German design against the cost of standing up a Soviet manufacturing capacity which might prove unnecessary.

After the difficult start which is the rule for missile projects, the Soviets managed to turn the R-1 into a reliable missile and, through patience and painstaking analysis of telemetry, solved a mystery which had baffled the Germans: why between 10% and 20% of V-2 warheads had detonated in a useless airburst high above the intended target. Chertok's instrumentation proved that the cause was aerodynamic heating during re-entry which caused the high explosive warhead to outgas, deform, and trigger the detonator.

As the Soviet missile program progresses, Chertok is a key player, participating in the follow-on R-2 project (essentially a Soviet Redstone—a V-2 derivative, but entirely of domestic design), the R-5 (an intermediate range ballistic missile eventually armed with nuclear warheads), and the R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, which launched Sputnik, Gagarin, and whose derivatives remain in service today, providing the only crewed access to the International Space Station as of this writing.

Not only did the Soviet engineers have to build ever larger and more complicated hardware, they essentially had to invent the discipline of systems engineering all by themselves. While even in aviation it is often possible to test components in isolation and then integrate them into a vehicle, working out interface problems as they manifest themselves, in rocketry everything interacts, and when something goes wrong, you have only the telemetry and wreckage upon which to base your diagnosis. Consider: a rocket ascending may have natural frequencies in its tankage structure excited by vibration due to combustion instabilities in the engine. This can, in turn, cause propellant delivery to the engine to oscillate, which will cause pulses in thrust, which can cause further structural stress. These excursions may cause control actuators to be over-stressed and possibly fail. When all you have to go on is a ragged cloud in the sky, bits of metal raining down on the launch site, and some telemetry squiggles for a second or two before everything went pear shaped, it can be extraordinarily difficult to figure out what went wrong. And none of this can be tested on the ground. Only a complete systems approach can begin to cope with problems like this, and building that kind of organisation required a profound change in Soviet institutions, which had previously been built around imperial chief designers with highly specialised missions. When everything interacts, you need a different structure, and it was part of the genius of Sergei Korolev to create it. (Korolev, who was the author's boss for most of the years described here, is rightly celebrated as a great engineer and champion of missile and space projects, but in Chertok's view at least equally important was his talent in quickly evaluating the potential of individuals and filling jobs with the people [often improbable candidates] best able to do them.)

In this book we see the transformation of the Soviet missile program from slavishly copying German technology to world-class innovation, producing, in short order, the first ICBM, earth satellite, lunar impact, images of the lunar far side, and interplanetary probes. The missile men found themselves vaulted from an obscure adjunct of Red Army artillery to the vanguard of Soviet prestige in the world, with the Soviet leadership urging them on to ever greater exploits.

There is a tremendous amount of detail here—so much that some readers have deemed it tedious: I found it enlightening. The author dissects the Nedelin disaster in forensic detail, as well as the much less known 1980 catastrophe at Plesetsk where 48 died because a component of the rocket used the wrong kind of solder. Rocketry is an exacting business, and it is a gift to generations about to embark upon it to imbibe the wisdom of one who was present at its creation and learned, by decades of experience, just how careful one must be to succeed at it. I could go on regaling you with anecdotes from this book but, hey, if you've made it this far, you're probably going to read it yourself, so what's the point? (But if you do, I'd suggest you read Volume 1 [May 2012] first.)

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. 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.

August 2012 Permalink

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 3. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2009. ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2009-4110.
This is the third book of the author's four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, 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.

Volume 2 of this memoir chronicled the achievements which thrust the Soviet Union's missile and space program into the consciousness of people world-wide and sparked the space race with the United States: the development of the R-7 ICBM, Sputnik and its successors, and the first flights which photographed the far side of the Moon and impacted on its surface. In this volume, the author describes the projects and accomplishments which built upon this base and persuaded many observers of the supremacy of Soviet space technology. Since the author's speciality was control systems and radio technology, he had an almost unique perspective upon these events: unlike other designers who focussed upon one or a few projects, he was involved in almost all of the principal efforts, from intermediate range, intercontinental, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles; air and anti-missile defence; piloted spaceflight; reconnaissance, weather, and navigation satellites; communication satellites; deep space missions and the ground support for them; soft landing on the Moon; and automatic rendezvous and docking. He was present when it looked like the rudimentary R-7 ICBM might be launched in anger during the Cuban missile crisis, at the table as chief designers battled over whether combat missiles should use cryogenic or storable liquid propellants or solid fuel, and sat on endless boards of inquiry after mission failures—the first eleven attempts to soft-land on the Moon failed, and Chertok was there for each launch, subsequent tracking, and sorting through what went wrong.

This was a time of triumph for the Soviet space program: the first manned flight, endurance record after endurance record, dual flights, the first woman in space, the first flight with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk. But from Chertok's perspective inside the programs, and the freedom he had to write candidly in the 1990s about his experiences, it is clear that the seeds of tragedy were being sown. With the quest for one spectacular after another, each surpassing the last, the Soviets became inoculated with what NASA came to call “go fever”—a willingness to brush anomalies under the rug and normalise the abnormal because you'd gotten away with it before.

One of the most stunning examples of this is Gagarin's flight. The Vostok spacecraft consisted of a spherical descent module (basically a cannonball covered with ablative thermal protection material) and an instrument compartment containing the retro-rocket, attitude control system, and antennas. After firing the retro-rocket, the instrument compartment was supposed to separate, allowing the descent module's heat shield to protect it through atmospheric re-entry. (The Vostok performed a purely ballistic re-entry, and had no attitude control thrusters in the descent module; stability was maintained exclusively by an offset centre of gravity.) In the two unmanned test flights which preceded Garagin's mission, the instrument module had failed to cleanly separate from the descent module, but the connection burned through during re-entry and the descent module survived. Gagarin was launched in a spacecraft with the same design, and the same thing happened: there were wild oscillations, but after the link burned through his spacecraft stabilised. Astonishingly, Vostok 2 was launched with Gherman Titov on board with precisely the same flaw, and suffered the same failure during re-entry. Once again, the cosmonaut won this orbital game of Russian roulette. One wonders what lessons were learned from this. In this narrative, Chertok is simply aghast at the decision making here, but one gets the sense that you had to be there, then, to appreciate what was going through people's heads.

The author was extensively involved in the development of the first Soviet communications satellite, Molniya, and provides extensive insights into its design, testing, and early operations. It is often said that the Molniya orbit was chosen because it made the satellite visible from the Soviet far North where geostationary satellites would be too close to the horizon for reliable communication. It is certainly true that today this orbit continues to be used for communications with Russian arctic territories, but its adoption for the first Soviet communications satellite had an entirely different motivation. Due to the high latitude of the Soviet launch site in Kazakhstan, Korolev's R-7 derived booster could place only about 100 kilograms into a geostationary orbit, which was far too little for a communication satellite with the technology of the time, but it could loft 1,600 kilograms into a high-inclination Molniya orbit. The only alternative would have been for Korolev to have approached Chelomey to launch a geostationary satellite on his UR-500 (Proton) booster, which was unthinkable because at the time the two were bitter rivals. So much for the frictionless efficiency of central planning!

In engineering, one learns that every corner cut will eventually come back to cut you. Korolev died at just the time he was most needed by the Soviet space program due to a botched operation for a routine condition performed by a surgeon who had spent most of his time as a Minister of the Soviet Union and not in the operating room. Gagarin died in a jet fighter training accident which has been the subject of such an extensive and multi-layered cover-up and spin that the author simply cites various accounts and leaves it to the reader to judge. Komarov died in Soyuz 1 due to a parachute problem which would have been discovered had an unmanned flight preceded his. He was a victim of “go fever”.

There is so much insight and wisdom here I cannot possibly summarise it all; you'll have to read this book to fully appreciate it, ideally after having first read Volume 1 (May 2012) and Volume 2 (August 2012). Apart from the unique insider's perspective on the Soviet missile and space program, as a person elected a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1968 and a full member (academician) of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2000, he provides a candid view of the politics of selection of members of the Academy and how they influence policy and projects at the national level. Chertok believes that, even as one who survived Stalin's purges, there were merits to the Soviet system which have been lost in the “new Russia”. His observations are worth pondering by those who instinctively believe the market will always converge upon the optimal solution.

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

A commercial 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. 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 suitable application on your reading device for one of the electronic book formats provided by NASA, I'd opt for it. They are not only better formatted but free.

The original Russian edition is available online.

December 2012 Permalink

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 4. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2011. ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2011-4110.
This is the fourth and final book of the author's autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, 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. As he says in this volume, “I was born in the Russian Empire, grew up in Soviet Russia, achieved a great deal in the Soviet Union, and continue to work in Russia.” 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.

This work covers the Soviet manned lunar program and the development of long-duration space stations and orbital rendezvous, docking, and assembly. As always, Chertok was there, and participated in design and testing, was present for launches and in the control centre during flights, and all too often participated in accident investigations.

In retrospect, the Soviet manned lunar program seems almost bizarre. It did not begin in earnest until two years after NASA's Apollo program was underway, and while the Gemini and Apollo programs were a step-by-step process of developing and proving the technologies and operational experience for lunar missions, the Soviet program was a chaotic bag of elements seemingly driven more by the rivalries of the various chief designers than a coherent plan for getting to the Moon. First of all, there were two manned lunar programs, each using entirely different hardware and mission profiles. The Zond program used a modified Soyuz spacecraft launched on a Proton booster, intended to send two cosmonauts on a circumlunar mission. They would simply loop around the Moon and return to Earth without going into orbit. A total of eight of these missions were launched unmanned, and only one completed a flight which would have been safe for cosmonauts on board. After Apollo 8 accomplished a much more ambitious lunar orbital mission in December 1968, a Zond flight would simply demonstrate how far behind the Soviets were, and the program was cancelled in 1970.

The N1-L3 manned lunar landing program was even more curious. In the Apollo program, the choice of mission mode and determination of mass required for the lunar craft came first, and the specifications of the booster rocket followed from that. Work on Korolev's N1 heavy lifter did not get underway until 1965—four years after the Saturn V, and it was envisioned as a general purpose booster for a variety of military and civil space missions. Korolev wanted to use very high thrust kerosene engines on the first stage and hydrogen engines on the upper stages as did the Saturn V, but he was involved in a feud with Valentin Glushko, who championed the use of hypergolic, high boiling point, toxic propellants and refused to work on the engines Korolev requested. Hydrogen propellant technology in the Soviet Union was in its infancy at the time, and Korolev realised that waiting for it to mature would add years to the schedule.

In need of engines, Korolev approached Nikolai Kuznetsov, a celebrated designer of jet turbine engines, but who had no previous experience at all with rocket engines. Kuznetsov's engines were much smaller than Korolev desired, and to obtain the required thrust, required thirty engines on the first stage alone, each with its own turbomachinery and plumbing. Instead of gimballing the engines to change the thrust vector, pairs of engines on opposite sides of the stage were throttled up and down. The gargantuan scale of the lower stages of the N-1 meant they were too large to transport on the Soviet rail network, so fabrication of the rocket was done in a huge assembly hall adjacent to the launch site. A small city had to be built to accommodate the work force.

All Soviet rockets since the R-2 in 1949 had used “integral tanks”: the walls of the propellant tanks were load-bearing and formed the skin of the rocket. The scale of the N1 was such that load-bearing tanks would have required a wall thickness which exceeded the capability of Soviet welding technology at the time, forcing a design with an external load-bearing shell and separate propellant tanks within it. This increased the complexity of the rocket and added dead weight to the design. (NASA's contractors had great difficulty welding the integral tanks of the Saturn V, but NASA simply kept throwing money at the problem until they figured out how to do it.)

The result was a rocket which was simultaneously huge, crude, and bewilderingly complicated. There was neither money in the budget nor time in the schedule to build a test stand to permit ground firings of the first stage. The first time those thirty engines fired up would be on the launch pad. Further, Kuznetsov's engines were not reusable. After every firing, they had to be torn down and overhauled, and hence were essentially a new and untested engine every time they fired. The Saturn V engines, by contrast, while expended in each flight, could be and were individually test fired, then ground tested together installed on the flight stage before being stacked into a launch vehicle.

The weight and less efficient fuel of the N-1 made its performance anæmic. While it had almost 50% more thrust at liftoff than the Saturn V, its payload to low Earth orbit was 25% less. This meant that performing a manned lunar landing mission in a single launch was just barely possible. The architecture would have launched two cosmonauts in a lunar orbital ship. After entering orbit around the Moon, one would spacewalk to the separate lunar landing craft (an internal docking tunnel as used in Apollo would have been too heavy) and descend to the Moon. Fuel constraints meant the cosmonaut only had ten to fifteen seconds to choose a landing spot. After the footprints, flag, and grabbing a few rocks, it was back to the lander to take off to rejoin the orbiter. Then it took another spacewalk to get back inside. Everybody involved at the time was acutely aware how marginal and risky this was, but given that the N-1 design was already frozen and changing it or re-architecting the mission to two or three launches would push out the landing date four or five years, it was the only option that would not forfeit the Moon race to the Americans.

They didn't even get close. In each of its test flights, the N-1 did not even get to the point of second stage ignition (although in its last flight it got within seven seconds of that milestone). On the second test flight the engines cut off shortly after liftoff and the vehicle fell back onto the launch pad, completely obliterating it in the largest artificial non-nuclear explosion known to this date: the equivalent of 7 kilotons of TNT. After four consecutive launch failures, having lost the Moon race, with no other mission requiring its capabilities, and the military opposing an expensive program for which they had no use, work on the N-1 was suspended in 1974 and the program officially cancelled in 1976.

When I read Challenge to Apollo, what struck me was the irony that the Apollo program was the very model of a centrally-planned state-directed effort along Soviet lines, while the Soviet Moon program was full of the kind of squabbling, turf wars, and duplicative competitive efforts which Marxists decry as flaws of the free market. What astounded me in reading this book is that the Soviets were acutely aware of this in 1968. In chapter 9, Chertok recounts a Central Committee meeting in which Minister of Defence Dmitriy Ustinov remarked:

…the Americans have borrowed our basic method of operation—plan-based management and networked schedules. They have passed us in management and planning methods—they announce a launch preparation schedule in advance and strictly adhere to it. In essence, they have put into effect the principle of democratic centralism—free discussion followed by the strictest discipline during implementation.

In addition to the Moon program, there is extensive coverage of the development of automated rendezvous and docking and the long duration orbital station programs (Almaz, Salyut, and Mir). There is also an enlightening discussion, building on Chertok's career focus on control systems, of the challenges in integrating humans and automated systems into the decision loop and coping with off-nominal situations in real time.

I could go on and on, but there is so much to learn from this narrative, I'll just urge you to read it. Even if you are not particularly interested in space, there is much experience and wisdom to be gained from it which are applicable to all kinds of large complex systems, as well as insight into how things were done in the Soviet Union. It's best to read Volume 1 (May 2012), Volume 2 (August 2012), and Volume 3 (December 2012) first, as they will introduce you to the cast of characters and the events which set the stage for those chronicled here.

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

A commercial Kindle edition is available which is much better produced than the Kindle editions of the first three volumes. If you have a suitable application on your reading device for one of the electronic book formats provided by NASA, I'd opt for it. They're free.

The original Russian edition is available online.

March 2013 Permalink

Chivers, C. J. The Gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7432-7173-8.
Ever since the introduction of firearms into infantry combat, technology and military doctrine have co-evolved to optimise the effectiveness of the weapons carried by the individual soldier. This process requires choosing a compromise among a long list of desiderata including accuracy, range, rate of fire, stopping power, size, weight (of both the weapon and its ammunition, which determines how many rounds an infantryman can carry), reliability, and the degree of training required to operate the weapon in both normal and abnormal circumstances. The “sweet spot” depends upon the technology available at the time (for example, smokeless powder allowed replacing heavy, low muzzle velocity, large calibre rounds with lighter supersonic ammunition), and the environment in which the weapon will be used (long range and high accuracy over great distances are largely wasted in jungle and urban combat, where most engagements are close-up and personal).

Still, ever since the advent of infantry firearms, the rate of fire an individual soldier can sustain has been considered a key force multiplier. All things being equal, a solider who can fire sixteen rounds per minute can do the work of four soldiers equipped with muzzle loading arms which can fire only four rounds a minute. As infantry arms progressed from muzzle loaders to breech loaders to magazine fed lever and bolt actions, the sustained rate of fire steadily increased. The logical endpoint of this evolution was a fully automatic infantry weapon: a rifle which, as long as the trigger was held down and ammunition remained, would continue to send rounds downrange at a high cyclic rate. Such a rifle could also be fired in semiautomatic mode, firing one round every time the trigger was pulled without any other intervention by the rifleman other than to change magazines as they were emptied.

This book traces the history of automatic weapons from primitive volley guns; through the Gatling gun, the first successful high rate of fire weapon (although with the size and weight of a field artillery piece and requiring a crew to hand crank it and feed ammunition, it was hardly an infantry weapon); the Maxim gun, the first true machine gun which was responsible for much of the carnage in World War I; to the Thompson submachine gun, which could be carried and fired by a single person but, using pistol ammunition, lacked the range and stopping power of an infantry rifle. At the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers carried bolt action or semiautomatic weapons: fully automatic fire was restricted to crew served support weapons operated by specially trained gunners.

As military analysts reviewed combat as it happened on the ground in the battles of World War II, they discovered that long range aimed fire played only a small part in infantry actions. Instead, infantry weapons had been used mostly at relatively short ranges to lay down suppressive fire. In this application, rate of fire and the amount of ammunition a soldier can carry into combat come to the top of the priority list. Based upon this analysis, even before the end of the war Soviet armourers launched a design competition for a next generation rifle which would put automatic fire into the hands of the ordinary infantryman. After grueling tests under all kinds of extreme conditions such a weapon might encounter in the field, the AK-47, initially designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a sergeant tank commander injured in battle, was selected. In 1956 the AK-47 became the standard issue rifle of the Soviet Army, and it and its subsequent variants, the AKM (an improved design which was also lighter and less expensive to manufacture—most of the weapons one sees today which are called “AK-47s” are actually based on the AKM design), and the smaller calibre AK-74. These weapons and the multitude of clones and variants produced around the world have become the archetypal small arms of the latter half of the twentieth century and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future in the twenty-first. Nobody knows how many were produced but almost certainly the number exceeds 100 million, and given the ruggedness and reliability of the design, most remain operational today.

This weapon, designed to outfit forces charged with maintaining order in the Soviet Empire and expanding it to new territories, quickly slipped the leash and began to circulate among insurgent forces around the globe—initially infiltrated by Soviet and Eastern bloc countries to equip communist revolutionaries, an “after-market” quickly developed which allowed almost any force wishing to challenge an established power to obtain a weapon and ammunition which made its irregular fighters the peer of professional troops. The worldwide dissemination of AK weapons and their availability at low cost has been a powerful force destabilising regimes which before could keep their people down with a relatively small professional army. The author recounts the legacy of the AK in incidents over the decades and around the world, and the tragic consequences for those who have found themselves on the wrong end of this formidable weapon.

United States forces first encountered the AK first hand in Vietnam, and quickly realised that their M14 rifles, an attempt to field a full automatic infantry weapon which used the cartridge of a main battle rifle, was too large, heavy, and limiting in the amount of ammunition a soldier could carry to stand up to the AK. The M14's only advantages: long range and accuracy, were irrelevant in the Vietnam jungle. While the Soviet procurement and development of the AK-47 was deliberate and protracted, Pentagon whiz kids in the U.S. rushed the radically new M16 into production and the hands of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The new rifle, inadequately tested in the field conditions it would encounter, and deployed with ammunition different from that used in the test phase, failed frequently and disastrously in the hands of combat troops with results which were often tragic. What was supposed to be the most advanced infantry weapon on the planet often ended up being used as bayonet mount or club by troops in their last moments of life. The Pentagon responded to this disaster in the making by covering up the entire matter and destroying the careers of those who attempted to speak out. Eventually reports from soldiers in the field made their way to newspapers and congressmen and the truth began to come out. It took years for the problems of the M16 to be resolved, and to this day the M16 is considered less reliable (although more accurate) than the AK. As an example, compare what it takes to field strip an M16 compared to an AK-47. The entire ugly saga of the M16 is documented in detail here.

This is a fascinating account of the origins, history, and impact of the small arms which dominate the world today. The author does an excellent job of sorting through the many legends (especially from the Soviet era) surrounding these weapons, and sketching the singular individuals behind their creation.

In the Kindle edition, the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly linked to the text. All of the photographic illustrations are collected at the very end, after the index.

December 2011 Permalink

[Audiobook] Churchill, Winston S. The Birth of Britain. (Audiobook, Unabridged). London: BBC Audiobooks, [1956] 2006. ISBN 978-0-304-36389-6.
This is the first book in Churchill's sprawling four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill began work on the history in the 1930s, and by the time he set it aside to go to the Admiralty in 1939, about half a million words had been delivered to his publisher. His wartime service as Prime Minister, postwar writing of the six-volume history The Second World War, and second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955 caused the project to be postponed repeatedly, and it wasn't until 1956–1958, when Churchill was in his 80s, that the work was published. Even sections which existed as print proofs from the 1930s were substantially revised based upon scholarship in the intervening years.

The Birth of Britain covers the period from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. through Richard III's defeat and death at the hands of Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. This is very much history in the “kings, battles, and dates” mould; there is little about cultural, intellectual, and technological matters—the influence of the monastic movement, the establishment and growth of universities, and the emergence of guilds barely figure at all in the narrative. But what a grand narrative it is, the work of one of the greatest masters of the language spoken by those whose history he chronicles. In accounts of early periods where original sources are scanty and it isn't necessarily easy to distinguish historical accounts from epics and legends, Churchill takes pains to note this and distinguish his own conclusions from alternative interpretations.

This audiobook is distributed in seven parts, totalling 17 hours. A print edition is available in the UK.

January 2008 Permalink

Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis. London: Penguin, [1923–1931, 2005] 2007. ISBN 978-0-141-44205-1.
Churchill's history of the Great War (what we now call World War I) was published in five volumes between 1923 and 1931. The present volume is an abridgement of the first four volumes, which appeared simultaneously with the fifth volume of the complete work. This abridged edition was prepared by Churchill himself; it is not a cut and paste job by an editor. Volume Four and this abridgement end with the collapse of Germany and the armistice—the aftermath of the war and the peace negotiations covered in Volume Five of the full history are not included here.

When this work began to appear in 1923, the smart set in London quipped, “Winston's written a book about himself and called it The World Crisis”. There's a lot of truth in that: this is something somewhere between a history and memoir of a politician in wartime. Description of the disastrous attempts to break the stalemate of trench warfare in 1915 barely occupies a chapter, while the Dardanelles Campaign, of which Churchill was seen as the most vehement advocate, and for which he was blamed after its tragic failure, makes up almost a quarter of the 850 page book.

If you're looking for a dispassionate history of World War I, this is not the book to read: it was written too close to the events of the war, before the dire consequences of the peace came to pass, and by a figure motivated as much to defend his own actions as to provide a historical narrative. That said, it does provide an insight into how Churchill's experiences in the war forged the character which would cause Britain to turn to him when war came again. It also goes a long way to explaining precisely why Churchill's warnings were ignored in the 1930s. This book is, in large part, a recital of disaster after disaster in which Churchill played a part, coupled with an explanation of why, in each successive case, it wasn't his fault. Whether or not you accept his excuses and justifications for his actions, it's pretty easy to understand how politicians and the public in the interwar period could look upon Churchill as somebody who, when given authority, produced calamity. It was not just that others were blind to the threat, but rather than Churchill's record made him a seriously flawed messenger on an occasion where his message was absolutely correct.

At this epoch, Churchill was already an excellent writer and delivers some soaring prose on occasions, but he has not yet become the past master of the English language on display in The Second World War (which won the Nobel Prize for Literature when it really meant something). There are numerous tables, charts, and maps which illustrate the circumstances of the war.

Americans who hold to the common view that “The Yanks came to France and won the war for the Allies” may be offended by Churchill's speaking of them only in passing. He considers their effect on the actual campaigns of 1918 as mostly psychological: reinforcing French and British morale and confronting Germany with an adversary with unlimited resources.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be drawn from this work is that of the initial part, which covers the darkening situation between 1911 and the outbreak of war in 1914. What is stunning, as sketched by a person involved in the events of that period, is just how trivial the proximate causes of the war were compared to the apocalyptic bloodbath which ensued. It is as if the crowned heads, diplomats, and politicians had no idea of the stakes involved, and indeed they did not—all expected the war to be short and decisive, none anticipating the consequences of the superiority conferred on the defence by the machine gun, entrenchments, and barbed wire. After the outbreak of war and its freezing into a trench war stalemate in the winter of 1914, for three years the Allies believed their “offensives”, which squandered millions of lives for transitory and insignificant gains of territory, were conducting a war of attrition against Germany. In fact, due to the supremacy of the defender, Allied losses always exceeded those of the Germans, often by a factor of two to one (and even more for officers). Further, German losses were never greater than the number of new conscripts in each year of the war up to 1918, so in fact this “war of attrition” weakened the Allies every year it continued. You'd expect intelligence services to figure out such a fundamental point, but it appears the “by the book” military mentality dismissed such evidence and continued to hurl a generation of their countrymen into the storm of steel.

This is a period piece: read it not as a history of the war but rather to experience the events of the time as Churchill saw them, and to appreciate how they made him the wartime leader he was to be when, once again, the lights went out all over Europe.

A U.S. edition is available.

February 2010 Permalink

Churchill, Winston S. and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Churchill-Eisenhower Correspondence, 1953–1955. Edited by Peter G. Boyle. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8078-4951-0.

October 2001 Permalink

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-19-507132-8.

January 2002 Permalink

Copeland, B. Jack, ed. Colossus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-953680-1.
During World War II the British codebreakers at Bletchley Park provided intelligence to senior political officials and military commanders which was vital in winning the Battle of the Atlantic and discerning German strategic intentions in the build-up to the invasion of France and the subsequent campaign in Europe. Breaking the German codes was just barely on the edge of possibility with the technology of the time, and required recruiting a cadre of exceptionally talented and often highly eccentric individuals and creating tools which laid the foundations for modern computer technology.

At the end of the war, all of the work of the codebreakers remained under the seal of secrecy: in Winston Churchill's history of the war it was never mentioned. Part of this was due to the inertia of the state to relinquish its control over information, but also because the Soviets, emerging as the new adversary, might adopt some of the same cryptographic techniques used by the Germans and concealing that they had been compromised might yield valuable information from intercepts of Soviet communications.

As early as the 1960s, publications in the United States began to describe the exploits of the codebreakers, and gave the mistaken impression that U.S. codebreakers were in the vanguard simply because they were the only ones allowed to talk about their wartime work. The heavy hand of the Official Secrets Act suppressed free discussion of the work at Bletchley Park until June 2000, when the key report, written in 1945, was allowed to be published.

Now it can be told. Fortunately, many of the participants in the work at Bletchley were young and still around when finally permitted to discuss their exploits. This volume is largely a collection of their recollections, many in great technical detail. You will finally understand precisely which vulnerabilities of the German cryptosystems permitted them to be broken (as is often the case, it was all-too-clever innovations by the designers intended to make the encryption “unbreakable” which provided the door into it for the codebreakers) and how sloppy key discipline among users facilitated decryption. For example, it was common to discover two or more messages encrypted with the same key. Since encryption was done by a binary exclusive or (XOR) of the bits of the Baudot teleprinter code, with that of the key (generated mechanically from a specified starting position of the code machine's wheels), if you have two messages encrypted with the same key, you can XOR them together, taking out the key and leaving you with the XOR of the plaintext of the two messages. This, of course, will be gibberish, but you can then take common words and phrases which occur in messages and “slide” them along the text, XORing as you go, to see if the result makes sense. If it does, you've recovered part of the other message, and by XORing with either message, that part of the key. This is something one could do in microseconds today with the simplest of computer programs, but in the day was done in kiloseconds by clerks looking up the XOR of Baudot codes in tables one by one (at least until they memorised them, which the better ones did).

The chapters are written by people with expertise in the topic discussed, many of whom were there. The people at Bletchley had to make up the terminology for the unprecedented things they were doing as they did it. Due to the veil of secrecy dropped over their work, many of their terms were orphaned. What we call “bits” they called “pulses”, “binary addition” XOR, and ones and zeroes of binary notation crosses and dots. It is all very quaint and delightful, and used in most of these documents.

After reading this book you will understand precisely how the German codes were broken, what Colossus did, how it was built and what challenges were overcome in constructing it, and how it was integrated into a system incorporating large numbers of intuitive humans able to deliver near-real-time intelligence to decision makers. The level of detail may be intimidating to some, but for the first time it's all there. I have never before read any description of the key flaw in the Lorenz cipher which Colossus exploited and how it processed messages punched on loops of paper tape to break into them and recover the key.

The aftermath of Bletchley was interesting. All of the participants were sworn to secrecy and all of their publications kept under high security. But the know-how they had developed in electronic computation was their own, and many of them went to Manchester to develop the pioneering digital computers developed there. The developers of much of this technology could not speak of whence it came, and until recent years the history of computing has been disconnected from its roots.

As a collection of essays, this book is uneven and occasionally repetitive. But it is authentic, and an essential document for anybody interested in how codebreaking was done in World War II and how electronic computation came to be.

March 2013 Permalink

Courland, Robert. Concrete Planet. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-61614-481-4.
Visitors to Rome are often stunned when they see the Pantheon and learn it was built almost 19 centuries ago, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. From the front, the building has a classical style echoed in neo-classical government buildings around the world, but as visitors walk inside, it is the amazing dome which causes them to gasp. At 43.3 metres in diameter, it was the largest dome ever built in its time, and no larger dome has, in all the centuries since, ever been built in the same way. The dome of the Pantheon is a monolithic structure of concrete, whose beauty and antiquity attests to the versatility and durability of this building material which has become a ubiquitous part of the modern world.

To the ancients, who built from mud, stone, and later brick, it must have seemed like a miracle to discover a material which, mixed with water, could be moulded into any form and would harden into stone. Nobody knows how or where it was discovered that by heating natural limestone to a high temperature it could be transformed into quicklime (calcium oxide), a corrosive substance which reacts exothermically with water, solidifying into a hard substance. The author speculates that the transformation of limestone into quicklime due to lightning strikes may have been discovered in Turkey and applied to production of quicklime by a kilning process, but the evidence for this is sketchy. But from the neolithic period, humans discovered how to make floors from quicklime and a binder, and this technology remained in use until the 19th century.

All of these early lime-based mortars could not set underwater and were vulnerable to attack by caustic chemicals. It was the Romans who discovered that by mixing volcanic ash (pozzolan), which was available to them in abundance from the vicinity of Mt. Vesuvius, it was possible to create a “hydraulic cement” which could set underwater and was resistant to attack from the elements. In addition to structures like the Pantheon, the Colosseum, roads, and viaducts, Roman concrete was used to build the artificial harbour at Caesarea in Judea, the largest application of hydraulic concrete before the 20th century.

Jane Jacobs has written that the central aspect of a dark age is not that specific things have been forgotten, but that a society has forgotten what it has forgotten. It is indicative of the dark age which followed the fall of the Roman empire that even with the works of the Roman engineers remaining for all to see, the technology of Roman concrete used to build them, hardly a secret, was largely forgotten until the 18th century, when a few buildings were constructed from similar formulations.

It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that the precursors of modern cement and concrete construction emerged. The adoption of this technology might have been much more straightforward had it not been the case that a central player in it was William Aspdin, a world-class scoundrel whose own crookedness repeatedly torpedoed ventures in which he was involved which, had he simply been honest and straightforward in his dealings, would have made him a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice.

Even with the rediscovery of waterproof concrete, its adoption was slow in the 19th century. The building of the Thames Tunnel by the great engineers Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a milestone in the use of concrete, albeit one achieved only after a long series of setbacks and mishaps over a period of 18 years.

Ever since antiquity, and despite numerous formulations, concrete had one common structural property: it was very strong in compression (it resisted forces which tried to crush it), but had relatively little tensile strength (if you tried to pull it apart, it would easily fracture). This meant that concrete structures had to be carefully designed so that the concrete was always kept in compression, which made it difficult to build cantilevered structures or others requiring tensile strength, such as many bridge designs employing iron or steel. In the latter half of the 19th century, a number of engineers and builders around the world realised that by embedding iron or steel reinforcement within concrete, its tensile strength could be greatly increased. The advent of reinforced concrete allowed structures impossible to build with pure concrete. In 1903, the 16-story Ingalls Building in Cincinnati became the first reinforced concrete skyscraper, and the tallest building today, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is built from reinforced concrete.

The ability to create structures with the solidity of stone, the strength of steel, in almost any shape a designer can imagine, and at low cost inspired many in the 20th century and beyond, with varying degrees of success. Thomas Edison saw in concrete a way to provide affordable houses to the masses, complete with concrete furniture. It was one of his less successful ventures. Frank Lloyd Wright quickly grasped the potential of reinforced concrete, and used it in many of his iconic buildings. The Panama Canal made extensive use of reinforced concrete, and the Hoover Dam demonstrated that there was essentially no limit to the size of a structure which could be built of it (the concrete of the dam is still curing to this day). The Sydney Opera House illustrated (albeit after large schedule slips, cost overruns, and acrimony between the architect and customer) that just about anything an architect can imagine could be built of reinforced concrete.

To see the Pantheon or Colosseum is to think “concrete is eternal” (although the Colosseum is not in its original condition, this is mostly due to its having been mined for building materials over the centuries). But those structures were built with unreinforced Roman concrete. Just how long can we expect our current structures, built from a different kind of concrete and steel reinforcing bars to last? Well, that's…interesting. Steel is mostly composed of iron, and iron is highly reactive in the presence of water and oxygen: it rusts. You'll observe that water and oxygen are abundant on Earth, so unprotected steel can be expected to eventually crumble into rust, losing its structural strength. This is why steel bridges, for example, must be regularly stripped and repainted to provide a barrier which protects the steel against the elements. In reinforced concrete, it is the concrete itself which protects the steel reinforcement, initially by providing an alkali environment which inhibits rust and then, after the concrete cures, by physically excluding water and the atmosphere from the reinforcement. But, as builders say, “If it ain't cracked, it ain't concrete.” Inevitably, cracks will allow air and water to reach the reinforcement, which will begin to rust. As it rusts, it loses its structural strength and, in addition, expands, which further cracks the concrete and allows more air and moisture to enter. Eventually you'll see the kind of crumbling used to illustrate deteriorating bridges and other infrastructure.

How long will reinforced concrete last? That depends upon the details. Port and harbour facilities in contact with salt water have failed in less than fifty years. Structures in less hostile environments are estimated to have a life of between 100 and 200 years. Now, this may seem like a long time compared to the budget cycle of the construction industry, but eternity it ain't, and when you consider the cost of demolition and replacement of structures such as dams and skyscrapers, it's something to think about. But obviously, if the Romans could build concrete structures which have lasted millennia, so can we. The author discusses alternative formulations of concrete and different kinds of reinforcing which may dramatically increase the life of reinforced concrete construction.

This is an interesting and informative book, but I found the author's style a bit off-putting. In the absence of fact, which is usually the case when discussing antiquity, the author simply speculates. Speculation is always clearly identified, but rather than telling a story about a shaman discovering where lightning struck limestone and spinning it unto a legend about the discovery of manufacture of quicklime, it might be better to say, “nobody really knows how it happened”. Eleven pages are spent discussing the thoroughly discredited theory that the Egyptian pyramids were made of concrete, coming to the conclusion that the theory is bogus. So why mention it? There are a number of typographical errors and a few factual errors (no, the Mesoamericans did not build pyramids “a few of which would equal those in Egypt”).

Still, if you're interested in the origin of the material which surrounds us in the modern world, how it was developed by the ancients, largely forgotten, and then recently rediscovered and used to revolutionise construction, this is a worthwhile read.

October 2015 Permalink

Crocker, George N. Roosevelt's Road To Russia. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, [1959] 2010. ISBN 978-1-163824-08-5.
Before Barack Obama, there was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unless you lived through the era, imbibed its history from parents or grandparents, or have read dissenting works which have survived rounds of deaccessions by libraries, it is hard to grasp just how visceral the animus was against Roosevelt by traditional, constitutional, and free-market conservatives. Roosevelt seized control of the economy, extended the tentacles of the state into all kinds of relations between individuals, subdued the judiciary and bent it to his will, manipulated a largely supine media which, with a few exceptions, became his cheering section, and created programs which made large sectors of the population directly dependent upon the federal government and thus a reliable constituency for expanding its power. He had the audacity to stand for re-election an unprecedented three times, and each time the American people gave him the nod.

But, as many old-timers, even those who were opponents of Roosevelt at the time and appalled by what the centralised super-state he set into motion has become, grudgingly say, “He won the war.” Well, yes, by the time he died in office on April 12, 1945, Germany was close to defeat; Japan was encircled, cut off from the resources needed to continue the war, and being devastated by attacks from the air; the war was sure to be won by the Allies. But how did the U.S. find itself in the war in the first place, how did Roosevelt's policies during the war affect its conduct, and what consequences did they have for the post-war world?

These are the questions explored in this book, which I suppose contemporary readers would term a “paleoconservative” revisionist account of the epoch, published just 14 years after the end of the war. The work is mainly an account of Roosevelt's personal diplomacy during meetings with Churchill or in the Big Three conferences with Churchill and Stalin. The picture of Roosevelt which emerges is remarkably consistent with what Churchill expressed in deepest confidence to those closest to him which I summarised in my review of The Last Lion, Vol. 3 (January 2013) as “a lightweight, ill-informed and not particularly engaged in military affairs and blind to the geopolitical consequences of the Red Army's occupying eastern and central Europe at war's end.” The events chronicled here and Roosevelt's part in them is also very much the same as described in Freedom Betrayed (June 2012), which former president Herbert Hoover worked on from shortly after Pearl Harbor until his death in 1964, but which was not published until 2011.

While Churchill was constrained in what he could say by the necessity of maintaining Britain's alliance with the U.S., and Hoover adopts a more scholarly tone, the present volume voices the outrage over Roosevelt's strutting on the international stage, thinking “personal diplomacy” could “bring around ‘Uncle Joe’ ”, condemning huge numbers of military personnel and civilians on both the Allied and Axis sides to death by blurting out “unconditional surrender” without any consultation with his staff or Allies, approving the genocidal Morgenthau Plan to de-industrialise defeated Germany, and, discarding the high principles of his own Atlantic Charter, delivering millions of Europeans into communist tyranny and condoning one of the largest episodes of ethnic cleansing in human history.

What is remarkable is how difficult it is to come across an account of this period which evokes the author's passion, shared with many of his time, of how the bumblings of a naïve, incompetent, and narcissistic chief executive had led directly to so much avoidable tragedy on a global scale. Apart from Hoover's book, finally published more than half a century after this account, there are few works accessible to the general reader which present the view that the tragic outcome of World War II was in large part preventable, and that Roosevelt and his advisers were responsible, in large part, for what happened.

Perhaps there are parallels in this account of wickedness triumphing through cluelessness for our present era.

This edition is a facsimile reprint of the original edition published by Henry Regnery Company in 1959.

January 2014 Permalink

Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast. New York: Signet, [1840, 1869] 2000. ISBN 0-451-52759-3.

March 2001 Permalink

De-la-Noy, Michael. Scott of the Antarctic. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1512-9.

December 2001 Permalink

Deary, Terry. The Cut-Throat Celts. London: Hippo, 1997. ISBN 0-590-13972-X.

July 2002 Permalink

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy. New York: Spiegel & Grau, [2009] 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52391-2.
The last decade or so I lived in California, I spent a good deal of my time being angry—so much so that I didn't really perceive the extent that anger had become part of who I was and how I lived my life. It was only after I'd gotten out of California and the U.S. in 1991 and lived a couple of years in Switzerland that I discovered that the absence of driving on crumbling roads overcrowded with aggressive and incompetent drivers, a government bent on destroying productive enterprise, and a culture collapsing into vulgarity and decadence had changed who I was: in short, only after leaving Marin County California, had I become that thing which its denizens delude themselves into believing they are—mellow.

What, you might be asking yourself, does this have to do with a book about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea? Well, after a couple of decades in Switzerland, it takes quite a bit of provocation to bring back the old hair-on-fire white flash, like passing through a U.S. airport or…reading this book. I do not mean that this book angered me; it is a superb work of reportage on a society so hermetically closed that obtaining even the slightest details on what is really going on there is near-impossible, as tourists and journalists are rarely permitted to travel outside North Korea's capital of Pyongyang, a Stalinist Potemkin village built to deceive them as to the situation in other cities and the countryside. What angered me is the horrible, pointless, and needless waste of the lives of tens of millions of people, generation after generation, at the hands of a tyranny so abject it seems to have read Orwell's 1984 not as a dystopian warning, but an instruction manual. The victims of this tragedy are not just the millions who have died in the famines, ended their lives in the sprawling complex of prisons and forced labour camps, or were executed for “crimes” such as trying to communicate with relatives outside the country; but the tens of millions forced to live in a society which seems to have been engineered to extinguish every single pleasure which makes human life worth living. Stunted due to lack of food, indoctrinated with the fantasy that the horror which is their lives is the best for which they can hope, and deprived of any contact with the human intellectual heritage which does not serve the interests of their rulers, they live in an environment which a medieval serf would view as a huge step down from their lot in life, all while the rulers at the top of the pyramid live in grand style and are treated as legitimate actors on the international stage by diplomatic crapweasels from countries that should be shamed by their behaviour.

In this book the author tackles the formidable task of penetrating the barrier of secrecy and lies which hides the reality of life in North Korea from the rest of the world by recounting the lives of six defectors all of whom originated in Chongjin, the third largest city in North Korea, off limits to almost all foreign visitors. The names of the witnesses to this horror have been changed to protect relatives still within the slave state, but their testimony is quoted at length and provides a chilling view of what faces the 24 million who have so far been unable to escape. Now, clearly, if you're relying exclusively on the testimony of those who have managed to escape an oppressive regime, you're going to get a different picture than if you'd interviewed those who remain—just as you'd get a different view of California and the U.S. from somebody who got out of there twenty years ago compared to a current resident—but the author takes pains to corroborate the accounts of defectors against one another and the sparse information available from international aid workers who have been infrequently allowed to visit Chongjin. The accounts of the culture shock escapees from North Korea experience not just in 21st century South Korea but even in rural China are heartrending: Kim Ji-eun, a medical doctor who escaped to China after seeing the children in her care succumb to starvation without anything she could do, describes her first memory of China as discovering a dog's bowl filled with white rice and bits of meat and realising that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

As Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Taking on board the information in this narrative may cause you to question many of what appear to be sound approaches to bringing an end to this horror. For, according to the accounts of the defectors, tyranny of the North Korean style actually works quite well: escapees are minuscule compared to the population which remains behind, many of whom actually appear to believe the lies of the regime that they are a superior race and have it better than the balance of humanity, even as they see members of their family starve to death or disappear into the gulag. For some years I have been thinking about “freedom flights”. This is where a bunch of liberty-loving philanthropists hire a fleet of cargo aircraft to scatter several million single-shot pistols, each with its own individual parachute and accompanied by a translation of Major von Dach's book, across the territory of tyrannical Hell-holes and “let the people rule”. After reading this book, I'm not sure that would suffice. So effectively has the population been brainwashed that it seems a substantial fraction believe the lies of the regime and accept their sorry lot as the normal state of human existence. Perhaps we'll also need to drop solar-powered or hand-cranked satellite radio receivers to provide a window into the outside world—along with the guns, of course, to take care of snitches who try to turn in those who choose to widen their perspective and the minions of the state who come to arrest them.

By almost any measure, North Korea is an extreme outlier. By comparison, Iran is almost a paradise. Even Zimbabwe, while Hell on earth for those unfortunate enough to live there, is relatively transparent to outsiders who document what is going on and much easier to escape. But studying the end point of trends which seem to be relatively benign when they get going can be enlightening, and this book provides a chilling view of what awaits at the final off-ramp of the road to serfdom.

September 2011 Permalink

DiLorenzo, Thomas J. The Real Lincoln. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-7615-3641-8.

August 2002 Permalink

Drury, Bob and Tom Clavin. Halsey's Typhoon. New York: Grove Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8021-4337-2.
As Douglas MacArthur's forces struggled to expand the beachhead of their landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro on December 15, 1944, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey's Third Fleet was charged with providing round the clock air cover over Japanese airfields throughout the Philippines, both to protect against strikes being launched against MacArthur's troops and kamikaze attacks on his own fleet, which had been so devastating in the battle for Leyte Gulf three weeks earlier. After supporting the initial landings and providing cover thereafter, Halsey's fleet, especially the destroyers, were low on fuel, and the admiral requested and received permission to withdraw for a rendezvous with an oiler task group to refuel.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the chain of command, this decision set the Third Fleet on a direct intercept course with the most violent part of an emerging Pacific (not so much, in this case) typhoon which was appropriately named, in retrospect, Typhoon Cobra. Typhoons in the Pacific are as violent as Atlantic hurricanes, but due to the circumstances of the ocean and atmosphere where they form and grow, are much more compact, which means that in an age prior to weather satellites, there was little warning of the onset of a storm before one found oneself overrun by it.

Halsey's orders sent the Third Fleet directly into the bull's eye of the disaster: one ship measured sustained winds of 124 knots (143 miles per hour) and seas in excess of 90 feet. Some ships' logs recorded the barometric pressure as “U”—the barometer had gone off-scale low and the needle was above the “U” in “U. S. Navy”.

There are some conditions at sea which ships simply cannot withstand. This was especially the case for Farragut class destroyers, which had been retrofitted with radar and communication antennæ on their masts and a panoply of antisubmarine and gun directing equipment on deck, all of which made them top-heavy, vulnerable to heeling in high winds, and prone to capsize.

As the typhoon overtook the fleet, even the “heavies” approached their limits of endurance. On the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, Lt. (j.g.) Jerry Ford was saved from being washed off the deck to a certain death only by luck and his athletic ability. He survived, later to become President of the United States. On the destroyers, the situation was indescribably more dire. The watch on the bridge saw the inclinometer veer back and forth on each roll between 60 and 70 degrees, knowing that a roll beyond 71° might not be recoverable. They surfed up the giant waves and plunged down, with screws turning in mid-air as they crested the giant combers. Shipping water, many lost electrical power due to shorted-out panels, and most lost their radar and communications antennæ, rendering them deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the fleet and vulnerable to collisions.

The sea took its toll: in all, three destroyers were sunk, a dozen other ships were hors de combat pending repairs, and 146 aircraft were destroyed, all due to weather and sea conditions. A total of 793 U.S. sailors lost their lives, more than twice those killed in the Battle of Midway.

This book tells, based largely upon interviews with people who were there, the story of what happens when an invincible fleet encounters impossible seas. There are tales of heroism every few pages, which are especially poignant since so many of the heroes had not yet celebrated their twentieth birthdays, hailed from landlocked states, and had first seen the ocean only months before at the start of this, their first sea duty. After the disaster, the heroism continued, as the crew of the destroyer escort Tabberer, under its reservist commander Henry L. Plage, who disregarded his orders and, after his ship was dismasted and severely damaged, persisted in the search and rescue of survivors from the foundered ships, eventually saving 55 from the ocean. Plage expected to face a court martial, but instead was awarded the Legion of Merit by Halsey, whose orders he ignored.

This is an epic story of seamanship, heroism, endurance, and the nigh impossible decisions commanders in wartime have to make based upon the incomplete information they have at the time. You gain an appreciation for how the master of a ship has to balance doing things by the book and improvising in exigent circumstances. One finding of the Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the disaster was that the commanders of the destroyers which were lost may have given too much priority to following pre-existing orders to hold their stations as opposed to the overriding imperative to save the ship. Given how little experience these officers had at sea, this is not surprising. CEOs should always keep in mind this utmost priority: save the ship.

Here we have a thoroughly documented historical narrative which is every bit as much a page-turner as the the latest ginned-up thriller. As it happens, one of my high school teachers was a survivor of this storm (on one of the ships which did not go down), and I remember to this day how harrowing it was when he spoke of destroyers “turning turtle”. If accounts like this make you lose sleep, this is not the book for you, but if you want to experience how ordinary people did extraordinary things in impossible circumstances, it's an inspiring narrative.

August 2009 Permalink

Edmonds, David and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein's Poker. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. ISBN 0-571-20909-2.
A U.S. edition of this book, ISBN 0-060936-64-9, was published in September 2002.

December 2002 Permalink

Einstein, Albert, Hanock Gutfreund, and Jürgen Renn. The Road to Relativity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-691-16253-9.
One hundred years ago, in 1915, Albert Einstein published the final version of his general theory of relativity, which extended his 1905 special theory to encompass accelerated motion and gravitation. It replaced the Newtonian concept of a “gravitational force” acting instantaneously at a distance through an unspecified mechanism with the most elegant of concepts: particles not under the influence of an external force move along spacetime geodesics, the generalisation of straight lines, but the presence of mass-energy curves spacetime, which causes those geodesics to depart from straight lines when observed at a large scale.

For example, in Newton's conception of gravity, the Earth orbits the Sun because the Sun exerts a gravitational force upon the Earth which pulls it inward and causes its motion to depart from a straight line. (The Earth also exerts a gravitational force upon the Sun, but because the Sun is so much more massive, this can be neglected to a first approximation.) In general relativity there is no gravitational force. The Earth is moving in a straight line in spacetime, but because the Sun curves spacetime in its vicinity this geodesic traces out a helix in spacetime which we perceive as the Earth's orbit.

Now, if this were a purely qualitative description, one could dismiss it as philosophical babble, but Einstein's theory provided a precise description of the gravitational field and the motion of objects within it and, when the field strength is strong or objects are moving very rapidly, makes different predictions than Newton's theory. In particular, Einstein's theory predicted that the perihelion of the orbit of Mercury would rotate around the Sun more rapidly than Newton's theory could account for, that light propagating near the limb of the Sun or other massive bodies would be bent through twice the angle Newton's theory predicted, and that light from the Sun or other massive stars would be red-shifted when observed from a distance. In due course all of these tests have been found to agree with the predictions of general relativity. The theory has since been put to many more precise tests and no discrepancy with experiment has been found. For a theory which is, once you get past the cumbersome mathematical notation in which it is expressed, simple and elegant, its implications are profound and still being explored a century later. Black holes, gravitational lensing, cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe, gravitomagnetism, and gravitational radiation are all implicit in Einstein's equations, and exploring them are among the frontiers of science a century hence.

Unlike Einstein's original 1905 paper on special relativity, the 1915 paper, titled “Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie” (“The Foundation of General Relativity”) is famously difficult to comprehend and baffled many contemporary physicists when it was published. Almost half is a tutorial for physicists in Riemann's generalised multidimensional geometry and the tensor language in which it is expressed. The balance of the paper is written in this notation, which can be forbidding until one becomes comfortable with it.

That said, general relativity can be understood intuitively the same way Einstein began to think about it: through thought experiments. First, imagine a person in a stationary elevator in the Earth's gravitational field. If the elevator cable were cut, while the elevator was in free fall (and before the sudden stop), no experiment done within the elevator could distinguish between the state of free fall within Earth's gravity and being in deep space free of gravitational fields. (Conversely, no experiment done in a sufficiently small closed laboratory can distinguish it being in Earth's gravitational field from being in deep space accelerating under the influence of a rocket with the same acceleration as Earth's gravity.) (The “sufficiently small” qualifier is to eliminate the effects of tides, which we can neglect at this level.)

The second thought experiment is a bit more subtle. Imagine an observer at the centre of a stationary circular disc. If the observer uses rigid rods to measure the radius and circumference of the disc, he will find the circumference divided by the radius to be 2π, as expected from the Euclidean geometry of a plane. Now set the disc rotating and repeat the experiment. When the observer measures the radius, it will be as before, but at the circumference the measuring rod will be contracted due to its motion according to special relativity, and the circumference, measured by the rigid rod, will be seen to be larger. Now, when the circumference is divided by the radius, a ratio greater than 2π will be found, indicating that the space being measured is no longer Euclidean: it is curved. But the only difference between a stationary disc and one which is rotating is that the latter is in acceleration, and from the reasoning of the first thought experiment there is no difference between acceleration and gravity. Hence, gravity must bend spacetime and affect the paths of objects (geodesics) within it.

Now, it's one thing to have these kinds of insights, and quite another to puzzle out the details and make all of the mathematics work, and this process occupied Einstein for the decade between 1905 and 1915, with many blind alleys. He eventually came to understand that it was necessary to entirely discard the notion of any fixed space and time, and express the equations of physics in a way which was completely independent of any co-ordinate system. Only this permitted the metric structure of spacetime to be completely determined by the mass and energy within it.

This book contains a facsimile reproduction of Einstein's original manuscript, now in the collection of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The manuscript is in Einstein's handwriting which, if you read German, you'll have no difficulty reading. Einstein made many edits to the manuscript before submitting it for publication, and you can see them all here. Some of the hand-drawn figures in the manuscript have been cut out by the publisher to be sent to an illustrator for preparation of figures for the journal publication. Parallel to the manuscript, the editors describe the content and the historical evolution of the concepts discussed therein. There is a 36 page introduction which describes the background of the theory and Einstein's quest to discover it and the history of the manuscript. An afterword provides an overview of general relativity after Einstein and brief biographies of principal figures involved in the development and elaboration of the theory. The book concludes with a complete English translation of Einstein's two papers given in the manuscript.

This is not the book to read if you're interested in learning general relativity; over the last century there have been great advances in mathematical notation and pedagogy, and a modern text is the best resource. But, in this centennial year, this book allows you to go back to the source and understand the theory as Einstein presented it, after struggling for so many years to comprehend it. The supplemental material explains the structure of the paper, the essentials of the theory, and how Einstein came to develop it.

October 2015 Permalink

Emison, John Avery. Lincoln über Alles. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-1-58980-692-4.
Recent books, such as Liberal Fascism (January 2008), have explored the roots and deep interconnections between the Progressive movement in the United States and the philosophy and policies of its leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and collectivist movements in twentieth century Europe, including Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and Nazism in Germany. The resurgence of collectivism in the United States, often now once again calling itself “progressive”, has made this examination not just a historical footnote but rather an important clue in understanding the intellectual foundations of the current governing philosophy in Washington.

A candid look at progressivism and its consequences for liberty and prosperity has led, among those willing to set aside accounts of history written by collectivists, whether they style themselves progressives or “liberals”, and look instead at contemporary sources and analyses by genuine classical liberals, to a dramatic reassessment of the place in history of Wilson and the two Roosevelts. While, in an academy and educational establishment still overwhelmingly dominated by collectivists, this is still a minority view, at least serious research into this dissenting view of history is available to anybody interested in searching it out.

Far more difficult to find is a critical examination of the U.S. president who was, according to this account, the first and most consequential of all American progressives, Abraham Lincoln. Some years ago, L. Neil Smith, in his essay “The American Lenin”, said that if you wanted to distinguish a libertarian from a conservative, just ask them about Abraham Lincoln. This observation has been amply demonstrated by the recent critics of progressivism, almost all conservatives of one stripe or another, who have either remained silent on the topic of Lincoln or jumped on the bandwagon and praised him.

This book is a frontal assault on the hagiography of Sainted Abe. Present day accounts of Lincoln's career and the Civil War contain so many omissions and gross misrepresentations of what actually happened that it takes a book of 300 pages like this one, based in large part on contemporary sources, to provide the context for a contrary argument. Topics many readers well-versed in the conventional wisdom view of American history may encounter for the first time here include:

  • No constitutional provision prohibited states from seceding, and the common law doctrine prohibiting legislative entrenchment (one legislature binding the freedom of a successor to act) granted sovereignty conventions the same authority to secede as to join the union in the first place.
  • None of the five living former presidents at the time Lincoln took office (only one a Southerner) supported military action against the South.
  • Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves in states of the Confederacy; slaves in slave states which did not secede, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained in bondage. In fact, in 1861, Lincoln had written to the governors of all the states urging them to ratify the Corwin Amendment, already passed by the House and Senate, which would have written protection for slavery and indentured servitude into the Constitution. Further, Lincoln supported the secession of West Virginia from Virgina, and its admittance to the Union as a slave state. Slavery was not abolished throughout the United States until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, after Lincoln's death.
  • Despite subsequent arguments that secession was illegal, Lincoln mounted no legal challenge to the declarations of secession prior to calling for troops and initiating hostilities. Congress voted no declaration of war authorising Lincoln to employ federal troops.
  • The prosecution of total war against noncombatants in the South by Sherman and others, with the approval of Grant and Lincoln, not only constituted war crimes by modern standards, but were prohibited by the Lieber Code governing the conduct of the Union armies, signed by President Lincoln in April 1863.
  • Like the progressives of the early 20th century who looked to Bismarck's Germany as the model, and present-day U.S. progressives who want to remodel their country along the lines of the European social democracies, the philosophical underpinnings of Lincoln's Republicans and a number of its political and military figures as well as the voters who put it over the top in the states of the “old northwest” were Made in Germany. The “Forty-Eighters”, supporters of the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, emigrated in subsequent years to the U.S. and, members of the European élite, established themselves as leaders in their new communities. They were supporters of a strong national government, progressive income taxation, direct election of Senators, nationalisation of railroads and other national infrastructure, an imperialistic foreign policy, and secularisation of the society—all part of the subsequent progressive agenda, and all achieved or almost so today. An estimation of the impact of Forty-Eighters on the 1860 election (at the time, in many states immigrants who were not yet citizens could vote if they simply declared their intention to become naturalised) shows that they provided Lincoln's margin of victory in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin (although some of these were close and may have gone the other way.)

Many of these points will be fiercely disputed by Lincoln scholars and defenders; see the arguments here, follow up their source citations, and make up your own mind. What is not in dispute is that the Civil War and the policies advocated by Lincoln and implemented in his administration and its Republican successors, fundamentally changed the relationship between the Federal government and the states. While before the Federal government was the creation of the states, to which they voluntarily delegated limited and enumerated powers, which they retained the right to reclaim by leaving the union, afterward Washington became not a federal government but a national government in the 19th century European sense, with the states increasingly becoming administrative districts charged with carrying out its policies and with no recourse when their original sovereignty was violated. A “national greatness” policy was aggressively pursued by the central government, including subsidies and land grants for building infrastructure, expansion into the Western territories (with repeatedly broken treaties and genocidal wars against their native populations), and high tariffs to protect industrial supporters in the North. It was Lincoln who first brought European-style governance to America, and in so doing became the first progressive president.

Now, anybody who says anything against Lincoln will immediately be accused of being a racist who wishes to perpetuate slavery. Chapter 2, a full 40 pages of this book, is devoted to race in America, before, during, and after the Civil War. Once again, you will learn that the situation is far more complicated than you believed it to be. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides; after reviewing the four page list of Jim Crow laws passed by Northern states between 1777 and 1868, it is hard to regard them as champions of racial tolerance on a crusade to liberate blacks in the South.

The greatest issue regarding the Civil War, discussed only rarely now, is why it happened at all. If the war was about slavery (as most people believe today), then why, among all the many countries and colonies around the world which abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, was it only in the United States that abolition required a war? If, however, the war is regarded not as a civil war (which it wasn't, since the southern states did not wish to conquer Washington and impose their will upon the union), nor as a “war between the states” (because it wasn't the states of the North fighting against the states of the South, but rather the federal government seeking to impose its will upon states which no longer wished to belong to the union), but rather an imperial conquest waged as a war of annihilation if necessary, by a central government over a recalcitrant territory which refused to cede its sovereignty, then the war makes perfect sense, and is entirely consistent with the subsequent wars waged by Republican administrations to assert sovereignty over Indian nations.

Powerful central government, elimination of state and limitation of individual autonomy, imposition of uniform policies at a national level, endowing the state with a monopoly on the use of force and the tools to impose its will, grandiose public works projects funded by taxation of the productive sector, and sanguinary conflicts embarked upon in the interest of moralistic purity or national glory: these are all hallmarks of progressives, and this book makes a persuasive case that Lincoln was the first of their kind to gain power in the United States. Should liberty blossom again there, and the consequences of progressivism be candidly reassessed, there will be two faces to come down from Mount Rushmore, not just one.

March 2010 Permalink

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated by Florence Wischnewetzky; edited with a foreword by Victor Kiernan. London: Penguin Books, [1845, 1886, 1892] 1987. ISBN 0-14-044486-6.
A Web edition of this title is available online.

January 2003 Permalink

Evans, M. Stanton. Blacklisted by History. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4000-8106-6.
In this book, the author, one of the lions of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, undertakes one of the most daunting tasks a historian can attempt: a dispassionate re-examination of one of the most reviled figures in modern American history, Senator Joseph McCarthy. So universal is the disdain for McCarthy by figures across the political spectrum, and so uniform is his presentation as an ogre in historical accounts, the media, and popular culture, that he has grown into a kind of legend used to scare people and intimidate those who shudder at being accused of “McCarthyism”. If you ask people about McCarthy, you'll often hear that he used the House Un-American Activities Committee to conduct witch hunts, smearing the reputations of innocent people with accusations of communism, that he destroyed the careers of people in Hollywood and caused the notorious blacklist of screen writers, and so on. None of this is so: McCarthy was in the Senate, and hence had nothing to do with activities of the House committee, which was entirely responsible for the investigation of Hollywood, in which McCarthy played no part whatsoever. The focus of his committee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee of the U.S. Senate was on security policy and enforcement within first the State Department and later, the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. McCarthy's hearings were not focussed on smoking out covert communists in the government, but rather investigating why communists and other security risks who had already been identified by investigations by the FBI and their employers' own internal security apparatus remained on the payroll, in sensitive policy-making positions, for years after evidence of their dubious connections and activities were brought to the attention of their employers and in direct contravention of the published security policies of both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Any book about McCarthy published in the present environment must first start out by cutting through a great deal of misinformation and propaganda which is just simply false on the face of it, but which is accepted as conventional wisdom by a great many people. The author starts by telling the actual story of McCarthy, which is little known and pretty interesting. McCarthy was born on a Wisconsin farm in 1908 and dropped out of junior high school at the age of 14 to help his parents with the farm. At age 20, he entered a high school and managed to complete the full four year curriculum in nine months, earning his diploma. Between 1930 and 1935 he worked his way through college and law school, receiving his law degree and being admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1935. In 1939 he ran for an elective post of circuit judge and defeated a well-known incumbent, becoming, at age 30, the youngest judge in the state of Wisconsin. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II following Pearl Harbor, McCarthy, although exempt from the draft due to his position as a sitting judge, resigned from the bench and enlisted in the Marine Corps, being commissioned as a second lieutenant (based upon his education) upon completion of boot camp. He served in the South Pacific as an intelligence officer with a dive bomber squadron, and flew a dozen missions as a tailgunner/photographer, earning the sobriquet “Tail-Gunner Joe”.

While still in the Marine Corps, McCarthy sought the Wisconsin Republican Senate nomination in 1944 and lost, but then in 1946 mounted a primary challenge to three-term incumbent senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., scion of Winconsin's first family of Republican politics, narrowly defeating him in the primary, and then won the general election in a landslide, with more than 61% of the vote. Arriving in Washington, McCarthy was perceived to be a rather undistinguished moderate Republican back-bencher, and garnered little attention by the press.

All of this changed on February 9th, 1950, when he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virgina in which he accused the State Department of being infested with communists, and claimed to have a list in his hand of known communists who continued to work at State after their identities had been made known to the Secretary of State. Just what McCarthy actually said in Wheeling remains a matter of controversy to this day, and is covered in gruelling detail in this book. This speech, and encore performances a few days later in Salt Lake City and Reno catapulted McCarthy onto the public stage, with intense scrutiny in the press and an uproar in Congress, leading to duelling committee investigations: those exploring the charges he made, and those looking into McCarthy himself, precisely what he said where and when, and how he obtained his information on security risks within the government. Oddly, from the outset, the focus within the Senate and executive branch seemed to be more on the latter than the former, with one inquiry digging into McCarthy's checkbook and his income tax returns and those of members of his family dating back to 1935—more than a decade before he was elected to the Senate.

The content of the hearings chaired by McCarthy are also often misreported and misunderstood. McCarthy was not primarily interested in uncovering Reds and their sympathisers within the government: that had already been done by investigations by the FBI and agency security organisations and duly reported to the executive departments involved. The focus of McCarthy's investigation was why, once these risks were identified, often with extensive documentation covering a period of many years, nothing was done, with those identified as security risks remaining on the job or, in some cases, allowed to resign without any note in their employment file, often to immediately find another post in a different government agency or one of the international institutions which were burgeoning in the postwar years. Such an inquiry was a fundamental exercise of the power of congressional oversight over executive branch agencies, but McCarthy (and other committees looking into such matters) ran into an impenetrable stonewall of assertions of executive privilege by both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1954, the Washington Post editorialised, “The President's authority under the Constitution to withhold from Congress confidences, presidential information, the disclosure of which would be incompatible with the public interest, is altogether beyond question”. The situational ethics of the legacy press is well illustrated by comparing this Post editorial to those two decades later when Nixon asserted the same privilege against a congressional investigation.

Indeed, the entire McCarthy episode reveals how well established, already at the mid-century point, the ruling class government/media/academia axis was. Faced with an assault largely directed at “their kind” (East Coast, Ivy League, old money, creatures of the capital) by an uncouth self-made upstart from the windswept plains, they closed ranks, launched serial investigations and media campaigns, covered up, destroyed evidence, stonewalled, and otherwise aimed to obstruct and finally destroy McCarthy. This came to fruition when McCarthy was condemned by a Senate resolution on December 2nd, 1954. (Oddly, the usual word “censure” was not used in the resolution.) Although McCarthy remained in the Senate until his death at age 48 in 1957, he was shunned in the Senate and largely ignored by the press.

The perspective of half a century later allows a retrospective on the rise and fall of McCarthy which wasn't possible in earlier accounts. Many documents relevant to McCarthy's charges, including the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cable traffic, FBI security files, and agency loyalty board investigations have been declassified in recent years (albeit, in some cases, with lengthy “redactions”—blacked out passages), and the author makes extensive use of these primary sources in the present work. In essence, what they demonstrate is that McCarthy was right: that the documents he sought in vain, blocked by claims of executive privilege, gag orders, cover-ups, and destruction of evidence were, in fact, persuasive evidence that the individuals he identified were genuine security risks who, under existing policy, should not have been employed in the sensitive positions they held. Because the entire “McCarthy era”, from his initial speech to condemnation and downfall, was less than five years in length, and involved numerous investigations, counter-investigations, and re-investigations of many of the same individuals, regarding which abundant source documents have become available, the detailed accounts in this massive book (672 pages in the trade paperback edition) can become tedious on occasion. Still, if you want to understand what really happened at this crucial episode of the early Cold War, and the background behind the defining moment of the era: the conquest of China by Mao's communists, this is an essential source.

In the Kindle edition, the footnotes, which appear at the bottom of the page in the print edition, are linked to reference numbers in the text with a numbering scheme distinct from that used for source references. Each note contains a link to return to the text at the location of the note. Source citations appear at the end of the book and are not linked in the main text. The Kindle edition includes no index.

November 2010 Permalink

Faverjon, Philippe. Les mensonges de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paris: Perrin, 2004. ISBN 2-262-01949-5.
“In wartime,” said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” This book examines lies, big and small, variously motivated, made by the principal combatants in World War II, from the fabricated attack on a German radio station used as a pretext to launch the invasion of Poland which ignited the conflict, to conspiracy theories about the Yalta conference which sketched the map of postwar Europe as the war drew to a close. The nature of the lies discussed in the various chapters differs greatly—some are propaganda addressed to other countries, others intended to deceive domestic populations; some are strategic disinformation, while still others are delusions readily accepted by audiences who preferred them to the facts. Although most chapters end with a paragraph which sets the stage for the next, each is essentially a stand-alone essay which can be read on its own, and the book can be browsed in any order. The author is either (take your pick) scrupulous in his attention to historical accuracy or, (if you prefer) almost entirely in agreement with my own viewpoint on these matters. There is no “big message”, philosophical or otherwise, here, nor any partisan agenda—this is simply a catalogue of deception in wartime based on well-documented historical examples which, translated into the context of current events, can aid in critical analysis of conventional wisdom and mass stampede media coverage of present-day conflicts.

July 2005 Permalink

Fergusson, Adam. When Money Dies. New York: PublicAffairs, [1975] 2010. ISBN 978-1-58648-994-6.

This classic work, originally published in 1975, is the definitive history of the great inflation in Weimar Germany, culminating in the archetypal paroxysm of hyperinflation in the Fall of 1923, when Reichsbank printing presses were cranking out 100 trillion (1012) mark banknotes as fast as paper could be fed to them, and government expenditures were 6 quintillion (1018) marks while, in perhaps the greatest achievement in deficit spending of all time, revenues in all forms accounted for only 6 quadrillion (1015) marks. The book has long been out of print and much in demand by students of monetary madness, driving the price of used copies into the hundreds of dollars (although, to date, not trillions and quadrillions—patience). Fortunately for readers interested in the content and not collectibility, the book has been re-issued in a new paperback and electronic edition, just as inflation has come back onto the radar in the over-leveraged economies of the developed world. The main text is unchanged, and continues to use mid-1970s British nomenclature for large numbers (“millard” for 109, “billion” for 1012 and so on) and pre-decimalisation pounds, shillings, and pence for Sterling values. A new note to this edition explains how to convert the 1975 values used in the text to their approximate present-day equivalents.

The Weimar hyperinflation is an oft-cited turning point in twentieth century, but like many events of that century, much of the popular perception and portrayal of it in the legacy media is incorrect. This work is an in-depth antidote to such nonsense, concentrating almost entirely upon the inflation itself, and discussing other historical events and personalities only when relevant to the main topic. To the extent people are aware of the German hyperinflation at all, they'll usually describe it as a deliberate and cynical ploy by the Weimar Republic to escape the reparations for World War I exacted under the Treaty of Versailles by inflating away the debt owed to the Allies by debasing the German mark. This led to a cataclysmic episode of hyperinflation where people had to take a wheelbarrow of banknotes to the bakery to buy a loaf of bread and burning money would heat a house better than the firewood or coal it would buy. The great inflation and the social disruption it engendered led directly to the rise of Hitler.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, just about everything…. Inflation of the German mark actually began with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when the German Imperial government, expecting a short war, decided to finance the war effort by deficit spending and printing money rather than raising taxes. As the war dragged on, this policy continued and was reinforced, since it was decided that adding heavy taxes on top of the horrific human cost and economic privations of the war would be disastrous to morale. As a result, over the war years of 1914–1918 the value of the mark against other currencies fell by a factor of two and was halved again in the first year of peace, 1919. While Germany was committed to making heavy reparation payments, these payments were denominated in gold, not marks, so inflating the mark did nothing to reduce the reparation obligations to the Allies, and thus provided no means of escaping them. What inflation and the resulting cheap mark did, however, was to make German exports cheap on the world market. Since export earnings were the only way Germany could fund reparations, promoting exports through inflation was both a way to accomplish this and to promote social peace through full employment, which was in fact achieved through most of the early period of inflation. By early 1920 (well before the hyperinflationary phase is considered to have kicked in), the mark had fallen to one fortieth of its prewar value against the British pound and U.S. dollar, but the cost of living in Germany had risen only by a factor of nine. This meant that German industrialists and their workers were receiving a flood of marks for the products they exported which could be spent advantageously on the domestic market. Since most of Germany's exports at the time relied little on imported raw materials and products, this put Germany at a substantial advantage in the world market, which was much remarked upon by British and French industrialists at the time, who were prone to ask, “Who won the war, anyway?”.

While initially beneficial to large industry and its organised labour force which was in a position to negotiate wages that kept up with the cost of living, and a boon to those with mortgaged property, who saw their principal and payments shrink in real terms as the currency in which they were denominated declined in value, the inflation was disastrous to pensioners and others on fixed incomes denominated in marks, as their standard of living inexorably eroded.

The response of the nominally independent Reichsbank under its President since 1908, Dr. Rudolf Havenstein, and the German government to these events was almost surreally clueless. As the originally mild inflation accelerated into dire inflation and then headed vertically on the exponential curve into hyperinflation they universally diagnosed the problem as “depreciation of the mark on the foreign exchange market” occurring for some inexplicable reason, which resulted in a “shortage of currency in the domestic market”, which could only be ameliorated by the central bank's revving up its printing presses to an ever-faster pace and issuing notes of larger and larger denomination. The concept that this tsunami of paper money might be the cause of the “depreciation of the mark” both at home and abroad, never seemed to enter the minds of the masters of the printing presses.

It's not like this hadn't happened before. All of the sequelæ of monetary inflation have been well documented over forty centuries of human history, from coin clipping and debasement in antiquity through the demise of every single unbacked paper currency ever created. Lord D'Abernon, the British ambassador in Berlin and British consular staff in cities across Germany precisely diagnosed the cause of the inflation and reported upon it in detail in their dispatches to the Foreign Office, but their attempts to explain these fundamentals to German officials were in vain. The Germans did not even need to look back in history at episodes such as the assignat hyperinflation in revolutionary France: just across the border in Austria, a near-identical hyperinflation had erupted just a few years earlier, and had eventually been stabilised in a manner similar to that eventually employed in Germany.

The final stages of inflation induce a state resembling delirium, where people seek to exchange paper money for anything at all which might keep its value even momentarily, farmers with abundant harvests withhold them from the market rather than exchange them for worthless paper, foreigners bearing sound currency descend upon the country and buy up everything for sale at absurdly low prices, employers and towns, unable to obtain currency to pay their workers, print their own scrip, further accelerating the inflation, and the professional and middle classes are reduced to penury or liquidated entirely, while the wealthy, industrialists, and unionised workers do reasonably well by comparison.

One of the principal problems in coping with inflation, whether as a policy maker or a citizen or business owner attempting to survive it, is inherent in its exponential growth. At any moment along the path, the situation is perceived as a “crisis” and the current circumstances “unsustainable”. But an exponential curve is self-similar: when you're living through one, however absurd the present situation may appear to be based on recent experience, it can continue to get exponentially more bizarre in the future by the inexorable continuation of the dynamic driving the curve. Since human beings have evolved to cope with mostly linear processes, we are ill-adapted to deal with exponential growth in anything. For example, we run out of adjectives: after you've used up “crisis”, “disaster”, “calamity”, “catastrophe”, “collapse”, “crash”, “debacle”, “ruin”, “cataclysm”, “fiasco”, and a few more, what do you call it the next time they tack on three more digits to all the money?

This very phenomenon makes it difficult to bring inflation to an end before it completely undoes the social fabric. The longer inflation persists, the more painful wringing it out of an economy will be, and consequently the greater the temptation to simply continue to endure the ruinous exponential. Throughout the period of hyperinflation in Germany, the fragile government was painfully aware that any attempt to stabilise the currency would result in severe unemployment, which radical parties of both the Left and Right were poised to exploit. In fact, the hyperinflation was ended only by the elected government essentially ceding its powers to an authoritarian dictatorship empowered to put down social unrest as the costs of its policies were felt. At the time the stabilisation policies were put into effect in November 1923, the mark was quoted at six trillion to the British pound, and the paper marks printed and awaiting distribution to banks filled 300 ten-ton railway boxcars.

What lessons does this remote historical episode have for us today? A great many, it seems to me. First and foremost, when you hear pundits holding forth about the Weimar inflation, it's valuable to know that much of what they're talking about is folklore and conventional wisdom which has little to do with events as they actually happened. Second, this chronicle serves to remind the reader of the one simple fact about inflation that politicians, bankers, collectivist media, organised labour, and rent-seeking crony capitalists deploy an entire demagogic vocabulary to conceal: that inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply, not by “greed”, “shortages”, “speculation”, or any of the other scapegoats trotted out to divert attention from where blame really lies: governments and their subservient central banks printing money (or, in current euphemism, “quantitative easing”) to stealthily default upon their obligations to creditors. Third, wherever and whenever inflation occurs, its ultimate effect is the destruction of the middle class, which has neither the political power of organised labour nor the connections and financial resources of the wealthy. Since liberal democracy is, in essence, rule by the middle class, its destruction is the precursor to establishment of authoritarian rule, which will be welcomed after the once-prosperous and self-reliant bourgeoisie has been expropriated by inflation and reduced to dependence upon the state.

The Weimar inflation did not bring Hitler to power—for one thing the dates just don't work. The inflation came to an end in 1923, the year Hitler's beer hall putsch in Munich failed ignominiously and resulted in his imprisonment. The stabilisation of the economy in the following years was widely considered the death knell for radical parties on both the Left and Right, including Hitler's. It was not until the onset of the Great Depression following the 1929 crash that rising unemployment, falling wages, and a collapsing industrial economy as world trade contracted provided an opening for Hitler, and he did not become chancellor until 1933, almost a decade after the inflation ended. And yet, while there was no direct causal connection between the inflation and Hitler's coming to power, the erosion of civil society and the rule of law, the destruction of the middle class, and the lingering effects of the blame for these events being placed on “speculators” all set the stage for the eventual Nazi takeover.

The technology and complexity of financial markets have come a long way from “Railway Rudy” Havenstein and his 300 boxcars of banknotes to “Helicopter BenBernanke. While it used to take years of incompetence and mismanagement, leveling of vast forests, and acres of steam powered printing presses to destroy an industrial and commercial republic and impoverish those who sustain its polity, today a mere fat-finger on a keyboard will suffice. And yet the dynamic of inflation, once unleashed, proceeds on its own timetable, often taking longer than expected to corrode the institutions of an economy, and with ups and downs which tempt investors back into the market right before the next sickening slide. The endpoint is always the same: destruction of the middle class and pensioners who have provided for themselves and the creation of a dependent class of serfs at the mercy of an authoritarian regime. In past inflations, including the one documented in this book, this was an unintended consequence of ill-advised monetary policy. I suspect the crowd presently running things views this as a feature, not a bug.

A Kindle edition is available, in which the table of contents and notes are properly linked to the text, but the index is simply a list of terms, not linked to their occurrences in the text.

May 2011 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Suez — 1956. Bruxelles: Éditions Complexe, 1982. ISBN 2-87027-101-8.

October 2001 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Les tabous de l'histoire. Paris: NiL, 2002. ISBN 2-84111-147-4.

April 2003 Permalink

Fleming, Thomas. The New Dealers' War. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-02464-5.

September 2003 Permalink

Florence, Ronald. The Perfect Machine. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. ISBN 978-0-06-092670-0.
George Ellery Hale was the son of a wealthy architect and engineer who made his fortune installing passenger elevators in the skyscrapers which began to define the skyline of Chicago as it rebuilt from the great fire of 1871. From early in his life, the young Hale was fascinated by astronomy, building his own telescope at age 14. Later he would study astronomy at MIT, the Harvard College Observatory, and in Berlin. Solar astronomy was his first interest, and he invented new instruments for observing the Sun and discovered the magnetic fields associated with sunspots.

His work led him into an academic career, culminating in his appointment as a full professor at the University of Chicago in 1897. He was co-founder and first editor of the Astrophysical Journal, published continuously since 1895. Hale's greatest goal was to move astronomy from its largely dry concentration on cataloguing stars and measuring planetary positions into the new science of astrophysics: using observational techniques such as spectroscopy to study the composition of stars and nebulæ and, by comparing them, begin to deduce their origin, evolution, and the mechanisms that made them shine. His own work on solar astronomy pointed the way to this, but the Sun was just one star. Imagine how much more could be learned when the Sun was compared in detail to the myriad stars visible through a telescope.

But observing the spectra of stars was a light-hungry process, especially with the insensitive photographic material available around the turn of the 20th century. Obtaining the spectrum of all but a few of the brightest stars would require exposure times so long they would exceed the endurance of observers to operate the small telescopes which then predominated, over multiple nights. Thus, Hale became interested in larger telescopes, and the quest for ever more light from the distant universe would occupy him for the rest of his life.

First, he promoted the construction of a 40 inch (102 cm) refractor telescope, accessible from Chicago at a dark sky site in Wisconsin. At the epoch, universities, government, and private foundations did not fund such instruments. Hale persuaded Chicago streetcar baron Charles T. Yerkes to pick up the tab, and Yerkes Observatory was born. Its 40 inch refractor remains the largest telescope of that kind used for astronomy to this day.

There are two principal types of astronomical telescopes. A refracting telescope has a convex lens at one end of a tube, which focuses incoming light to an eyepiece or photographic plate at the other end. A reflecting telescope has a concave mirror at the bottom of the tube, the top end of which is open. Light enters the tube and falls upon the mirror, which reflects and focuses it upward, where it can be picked off by another mirror, directly focused on a sensor, or bounced back down through a hole in the main mirror. There are a multitude of variations in the design of both types of telescopes, but the fundamental principles of refraction and reflection remain the same.

Refractors have the advantages of simplicity, a sealed tube assembly which keeps out dust and moisture and excludes air currents which might distort the image but, because light passes through the lens, must use clear glass free of bubbles, strain lines, or other irregularities that might interfere with forming a perfect focus. Further, refractors tend to focus different colours of light at different distances. This makes them less suitable for use in spectroscopy. Colour performance can be improved by making lenses of two or more different kinds of glass (an achromatic or apochromatic design), but this further increases the complexity, difficulty, and cost of manufacturing the lens. At the time of the construction of the Yerkes refractor, it was believed the limit had been reached for the refractor design and, indeed, no larger astronomical refractor has been built since.

In a reflector, the mirror (usually made of glass or some glass-like substance) serves only to support an extremely thin (on the order of a thousand atoms) layer of reflective material (originally silver, but now usually aluminium). The light never passes through the glass at all, so as long as it is sufficiently uniform to take on and hold the desired shape, and free of imperfections (such as cracks or bubbles) that would make the reflecting surface rough, the optical qualities of the glass don't matter at all. Best of all, a mirror reflects all colours of light in precisely the same way, so it is ideal for spectrometry (and, later, colour photography).

With the Yerkes refractor in operation, it was natural that Hale would turn to a reflector in his quest for ever more light. He persuaded his father to put up the money to order a 60 inch (1.5 metre) glass disc from France, and, when it arrived months later, set one of his co-workers at Yerkes, George W. Ritchey, to begin grinding the disc into a mirror. All of this was on speculation: there were no funds to build a telescope, an observatory to house it, nor to acquire a site for the observatory. The persistent and persuasive Hale approached the recently-founded Carnegie Institution, and eventually secured grants to build the telescope and observatory on Mount Wilson in California, along with an optical laboratory in nearby Pasadena. Components for the telescope had to be carried up the crude trail to the top of the mountain on the backs of mules, donkeys, or men until a new road allowing the use of tractors was built. In 1908 the sixty inch telescope began operation, and its optics and mechanics performed superbly. Astronomers could see much deeper into the heavens. But still, Hale was not satisfied.

Even before the sixty inch entered service, he approached John D. Hooker, a Los Angeles hardware merchant, for seed money to fund the casting of a mirror blank for an 84 inch telescope, requesting US$ 25,000 (around US$ 600,000 today). Discussing the project, Hooker and Hale agreed not to settle for 84, but rather to go for 100 inches (2.5 metres). Hooker pledged US$ 45,000 to the project, with Hale promising the telescope would be the largest in the world and bear Hooker's name. Once again, an order for the disc was placed with the Saint-Gobain glassworks in France, the only one with experience in such large glass castings. Problems began almost immediately. Saint-Gobain did not have the capacity to melt the quantity of glass required (four and a half tons) all at once: they would have to fill the mould in three successive pours. A massive piece of cast glass (101 inches in diameter and 13 inches thick) cannot simply be allowed to cool naturally after being poured. If that were to occur, shrinkage of the outer parts of the disc as it cooled while the inside still remained hot would almost certainly cause the disc to fracture and, even if it didn't, would create strains within the disc that would render it incapable of holding the precise figure (curvature) required by the mirror. Instead, the disc must be placed in an annealing oven, where the temperature is reduced slowly over a period of time, allowing the internal stresses to be released. So massive was the 100 inch disc that it took a full year to anneal.

When the disc finally arrived in Pasadena, Hale and Ritchey were dismayed by what they saw, There were sheets of bubbles between the three layers of poured glass, indicating they had not fused. There was evidence the process of annealing had caused the internal structure of the glass to begin to break down. It seemed unlikely a suitable mirror could be made from the disc. After extended negotiations, Saint-Gobain decided to try again, casting a replacement disc at no additional cost. Months later, they reported the second disc had broken during annealing, and it was likely no better disc could be produced. Hale decided to proceed with the original disc. Patiently, he made the case to the Carnegie Institution to fund the telescope and observatory on Mount Wilson. It would not be until November 1917, eleven years after the order was placed for the first disc, that the mirror was completed, installed in the massive new telescope, and ready for astronomers to gaze through the eyepiece for the first time. The telescope was aimed at brilliant Jupiter.

Observers were horrified. Rather than a sharp image, Jupiter was smeared out over multiple overlapping images, as if multiple mirrors had been poorly aimed into the eyepiece. Although the mirror had tested to specification in the optical shop, when placed in the telescope and aimed at the sky, it appeared to be useless for astronomical work. Recalling that the temperature had fallen rapidly from day to night, the observers adjourned until three in the morning in the hope that as the mirror continued to cool down to the nighttime temperature, it would perform better. Indeed, in the early morning hours, the images were superb. The mirror, made of ordinary plate glass, was subject to thermal expansion as its temperature changed. It was later determined that the massive disc took twenty-four hours to cool ten degrees Celsius. Rapid changes in temperature on the mountain could cause the mirror to misbehave until its temperature stabilised. Observers would have to cope with its temperamental nature throughout the decades it served astronomical research.

As the 1920s progressed, driven in large part by work done on the 100 inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson, astronomical research became increasingly focused on the “nebulæ”, many of which the great telescope had revealed were “island universes”, equal in size to our own Milky Way and immensely distant. Many were so far away and faint that they appeared as only the barest smudges of light even in long exposures through the 100 inch. Clearly, a larger telescope was in order. As always, Hale was interested in the challenge. As early as 1921, he had requested a preliminary design for a three hundred inch (7.6 metre) instrument. Even based on early sketches, it was clear the magnitude of the project would surpass any scientific instrument previously contemplated: estimates came to around US$ 12 million (US$ 165 million today). This was before the era of “big science”. In the mid 1920s, when Hale produced this estimate, one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, had an annual research budget of less than £ 1000 (around US$ 66,500 today). Sums in the millions and academic science simply didn't fit into the same mind, unless it happened to be that of George Ellery Hale. Using his connections, he approached people involved with foundations endowed by the Rockefeller fortune. Rockefeller and Carnegie were competitors in philanthropy: perhaps a Rockefeller institution might be interested in outdoing the renown Carnegie had obtained by funding the largest telescope in the world. Slowly, and with an informality which seems unimaginable today, Hale negotiated with the Rockefeller foundation, with the brash new university in Pasadena which now called itself Caltech, and with a prickly Carnegie foundation who saw the new telescope as trying to poach its painfully-assembled technical and scientific staff on Mount Wilson. By mid-1928 a deal was in hand: a Rockefeller grant for US$ 6 million (US$ 85 million today) to design and build a 200 inch (5 metre) telescope. Caltech was to raise the funds for an endowment to maintain and operate the instrument once it was completed. Big science had arrived.

In discussions with the Rockefeller foundation, Hale had agreed on a 200 inch aperture, deciding the leap to an instrument three times the size of the largest existing telescope and the budget that would require was too great. Even so, there were tremendous technical challenges to be overcome. The 100 inch demonstrated that plate glass had reached or exceeded its limits. The problems of distortion due to temperature changes only increase with the size of a mirror, and while the 100 inch was difficult to cope with, a 200 inch would be unusable, even if it could be somehow cast and annealed (with the latter process probably taking several years). Two promising alternatives were fused quartz and Pyrex borosilicate glass. Fused quartz has hardly any thermal expansion at all. Pyrex has about three times greater expansion than quartz, but still far less than plate glass.

Hale contracted with General Electric Company to produce a series of mirror blanks from fused quartz. GE's legendary inventor Elihu Thomson, second only in reputation to Thomas Edison, agreed to undertake the project. Troubles began almost immediately. Every attempt to get rid of bubbles in quartz, which was still very viscous even at extreme temperatures, failed. A new process, which involved spraying the surface of cast discs with silica passed through an oxy-hydrogen torch was developed. It required machinery which, in operation, seemed to surpass visions of hellfire. To build up the coating on a 200 inch disc would require enough hydrogen to fill two Graf Zeppelins. And still, not a single suitable smaller disc had been produced from fused quartz.

In October 1929, just a year after the public announcement of the 200 inch telescope project, the U.S. stock market crashed and the economy began to slow into the great depression. Fortunately, the Rockefeller foundation invested very conservatively, and lost little in the market chaos, so the grant for the telescope project remained secure. The deepening depression and the accompanying deflation was a benefit to the effort because raw material and manufactured goods prices fell in terms of the grant's dollars, and industrial companies which might not have been interested in a one-off job like the telescope were hungry for any work that would help them meet their payroll and keep their workforce employed.

In 1931, after three years of failures, expenditures billed at manufacturing cost by GE which had consumed more than one tenth the entire budget of the project, and estimates far beyond that for the final mirror, Hale and the project directors decided to pull the plug on GE and fused quartz. Turning to the alternative of Pyrex, Corning glassworks bid between US$ 150,000 and 300,000 for the main disc and five smaller auxiliary discs. Pyrex was already in production at industrial scale and used to make household goods and laboratory glassware in the millions, so Corning foresaw few problems casting the telescope discs. Scaling things up is never a simple process, however, and Corning encountered problems with failures in the moulds, glass contamination, and even a flood during the annealing process before the big disc was ready for delivery.

Getting it from the factory in New York to the optical shop in California was an epic event and media circus. Schools let out so students could go down to the railroad tracks and watch the “giant eye” on its special train make its way across the country. On April 10, 1936, the disc arrived at the optical shop and work began to turn it into a mirror.

With the disc in hand, work on the telescope structure and observatory could begin in earnest. After an extended period of investigation, Palomar Mountain had been selected as the site for the great telescope. A rustic construction camp was built to begin preliminary work. Meanwhile, Westinghouse began to fabricate components of the telescope mounting, which would include the largest bearing ever manufactured.

But everything depended on the mirror. Without it, there would be no telescope, and things were not going well in the optical shop. As the disc was ground flat preliminary to being shaped into the mirror profile, flaws continued to appear on its surface. None of the earlier smaller discs had contained such defects. Could it be possible that, eight years into the project, the disc would be found defective and everything would have to start over? The analysis concluded that the glass had become contaminated as it was poured, and that the deeper the mirror was ground down the fewer flaws would be discovered. There was nothing to do but hope for the best and begin.

Few jobs demand the patience of the optical craftsman. The great disc was not ready for its first optical test until September 1938. Then began a process of polishing and figuring, with weekly tests of the mirror. In August 1941, the mirror was judged to have the proper focal length and spherical profile. But the mirror needed to be a parabola, not a sphere, so this was just the start of an even more exacting process of deepening the curve. In January 1942, the mirror reached the desired parabola to within one wavelength of light. But it needed to be much better than that. The U.S. was now at war. The uncompleted mirror was packed away “for the duration”. The optical shop turned to war work.

In December 1945, work resumed on the mirror. In October 1947, it was pronounced finished and ready to install in the telescope. Eleven and a half years had elapsed since the grinding machine started to work on the disc. Shipping the mirror from Pasadena to the mountain was another epic journey, this time by highway. Finally, all the pieces were in place. Now the hard part began.

The glass disc was the correct shape, but it wouldn't be a mirror until coated with a thin layer of aluminium. This was a process which had been done many times before with smaller mirrors, but as always size matters, and a host of problems had to be solved before a suitable coating was obtained. Now the mirror could be installed in the telescope and tested further. Problem after problem with the mounting system, suspension, and telescope drive had to be found and fixed. Testing a mirror in its telescope against a star is much more demanding than any optical shop test, and from the start of 1949, an iterative process of testing, tweaking, and re-testing began. A problem with astigmatism in the mirror was fixed by attaching four fisherman's scales from a hardware store to its back (they are still there). In October 1949, the telescope was declared finished and ready for use by astronomers. Twenty-one years had elapsed since the project began. George Ellery Hale died in 1938, less than ten years into the great work. But it was recognised as his monument, and at its dedication was named the “Hale Telescope.”

The inauguration of the Hale Telescope marked the end of the rapid increase in the aperture of observatory telescopes which had characterised the first half of the twentieth century, largely through the efforts of Hale. It would remain the largest telescope in operation until 1975, when the Soviet six metre BTA-6 went into operation. That instrument, however, was essentially an exercise in Cold War one-upmanship, and never achieved its scientific objectives. The Hale would not truly be surpassed before the ten metre Keck I telescope began observations in 1993, 44 years after the Hale. The Hale Telescope remains in active use today, performing observations impossible when it was inaugurated thanks to electronics undreamt of in 1949.

This is an epic recounting of a grand project, the dawn of “big science”, and the construction of instruments which revolutionised how we see our place in the cosmos. There is far more detail than I have recounted even in this long essay, and much insight into how a large, complicated project, undertaken with little grasp of the technical challenges to be overcome, can be achieved through patient toil sustained by belief in the objective.

A PBS documentary, The Journey to Palomar, is based upon this book. It is available on DVD or a variety of streaming services.

In the Kindle edition, footnotes which appear in the text are just asterisks, which are almost impossible to select on touch screen devices without missing and accidentally turning the page. In addition, the index is just a useless list of terms and page numbers which have nothing to do with the Kindle document, which lacks real page numbers. Disastrously, the illustrations which appear in the print edition are omitted: for a project which was extensively documented in photographs, drawings, and motion pictures, this is inexcusable.

October 2016 Permalink

Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. London: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0-141-00984-5.
Only a perfect idiot would undertake to transport two forty foot mahogany motorboats from London to Cape Town and then onward to Lake Tanganyika by ship, rail, steam tractor, and teams of oxen, there to challenge German dominance of the lake during World War I by attempting to sink a ship three times the length and seven times the displacement of the fragile craft. Fortunately, the Admiralty found just the man in Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson, in 1915 the oldest Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, his ascent through the ranks having been retarded due to his proclivity for sinking British ships. Spicer-Simpson was an inveterate raconteur of tall tales and insufferable know-it-all (on the ship bound for South Africa he was heard lecturing the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town on the southern constellations), and was eccentric in about as many ways as can be packed into a single human frame. Still, he and his motley team, despite innumerable misadventures (many self-inflicted), got the job done, sinking the ship they were sent to and capturing another German vessel, the first German warship ever captured by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Spicer-Simpson rather blotted his copybook by declining to engage first a German fort and then a warship both later found to have been “armed” only with wooden dummy guns. His exploits caused him to be worshipped as a god by the Holo-holo tribe, who fashioned clay effigies of him, but rather less impressed the Admiralty who, despite awarding him the DSO, re-assigned him upon his return to the routine desk job he had before the adventure. HMS Mimi and Toutou were the boats under Spicer-Simpson's command, soon joined by the captured German ship which was rechristened HMS Fifi. The events described herein (very loosely) inspired C.S.Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen and the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn film.

A U.S. edition is now available, titled Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure, but at present only in hardcover. A U.S. paperback is scheduled for March, 2006.

October 2005 Permalink

Fort, Adrian. Prof: The Life of Frederick Lindemann. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003. ISBN 0-224-06317-0.
Frederick Lindemann is best known as Winston Churchill's scientific advisor in the years prior to and during World War II. He was the central figure in what Churchill called the “Wizard War”, including the development and deployment of radar, antisubmarine warfare technologies, the proximity fuze, area bombing techniques, and nuclear weapons research (which was well underway in Britain before the Manhattan Project began in the U.S.). Lindemann's talents were so great and his range of interests so broad that if he had settled into the cloistered life of an Oxford don after his appointment as Professor of Experimental Philosophy and chief of the Clarendon Laboratory in 1919, he would still be remembered for his scientific work in quantum mechanics, X-ray spectra, cryogenics, photoelectric photometry in astronomy, and isotope separation, as well as for restoring Oxford's reputation in the natural sciences, which over the previous half century “had sunk almost to zero” in Lindemann's words.

Educated in Germany, he spoke German and French like a native. He helped organise the first historic Solvay Conference in 1911, which brought together the pioneers of the relativity and quantum revolutions in physics. There he met Einstein, beginning a life-long friendship. Lindemann was a world class tennis champion and expert golfer and squash player, as well as a virtuoso on the piano. Although a lifetime bachelor, he was known as a ladies' man and never lacked female companionship.

In World War I Lindemann tackled the problem of spin recovery in aircraft, then thought to be impossible (this in an era when pilots were not issued parachutes!). To collect data and test his theories, he learned to fly and deliberately induced spins in some of the most notoriously dangerous aircraft types and confirmed his recovery procedure by putting his own life on the line. The procedure he developed is still taught to pilots today.

With his close contacts in Germany, Lindemann was instrumental in arranging and funding the emigration of Jewish and other endangered scientists after Hitler took power in 1933. The scientists he enabled to escape not only helped bring Oxford into the first rank of research universities, many ended up contributing to the British and U.S. atomic projects and other war research. About the only thing he ever failed at was his run for Parliament in 1937, yet his influence as confidant and advisor to Churchill vastly exceeded that of a Tory back bencher. With the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined Churchill at the Admiralty, where he organised and ran the Statistical Branch, which applied what is now called Operations Research to the conduct of the war, which rôle he expanded as chief of “S Department” after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. Many of the wartime “minutes” quoted in Churchill's The Second World War were drafted by Lindemann and sent out verbatim over Churchill's signature, sometimes with the addition “Action this day”. Lindemann finally sat in Parliament, in the House of Lords, after being made Lord Cherwell in 1941, and joined the Cabinet in 1942 and became a Privy Counsellor in 1943.

After the war, Lindemann returned to Oxford, continuing to champion scientific research, taking leave to serve in Churchill's cabinet from 1951–1953, where he almost single-handedly and successfully fought floating of the pound and advocated the establishment of an Atomic Energy Authority, on which he served for the rest of his life.

There's an atavistic tendency when writing history to focus exclusively on the person at the top, as if we still lived in the age of warrior kings, neglecting those who obtain and filter the information and develop the policies upon which the exalted leader must ultimately decide. (This is as common, or more so, in the business press where the cult of the CEO is well entrenched.) This biography, of somebody many people have never heard of, shows that the one essential skill a leader must have is choosing the right people to listen to and paying attention to what they say.

A paperback edition is now available.

March 2005 Permalink

Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. ISBN 1-57392-247-1.

July 2002 Permalink

[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.

May 2007 Permalink

[Audiobook] Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Abridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1788, 1789] 1998. ISBN 9-62634-122-X.
The “Volume 2” in the title of this work refers to the two volumes of this audiobook edition. This is an abridgement of the final three volumes of Gibbon's history, primarily devoted the eastern empire from the time of Justinian through the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, although the fractious kingdoms of the west, the Crusades, the conquests of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and the origins of the great schism between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches all figure in this history. I understand why many people read only the first three volumes of Gibbon's masterpiece—the doings of the Byzantine court are, well, byzantine, and the steady litany of centuries of backstabbing, betrayal, intrigue, sedition, self-indulgence, and dissipation can become both tedious and depressing. Although there are are some sharply-worded passages which may have raised eyebrows in the eighteenth century, I did not find Gibbon anywhere near as negative on the influence of Christianity on the Roman Empire as I expected from descriptions of his work by others. The facile claim that “Gibbon blamed the fall of Rome on the Christians” is simply not borne out by his own words.

Please see my comments on Volume 1 for details of the (superb) production values of this seven hour recording. An Audio CD edition is available.

June 2007 Permalink

Gingerich, Owen. The Book Nobody Read. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN 0-14-303476-6.
There is something about astronomy which seems to invite obsession. Otherwise, why would intelligent and seemingly rational people expend vast amounts of time and effort to compile catalogues of hundreds of thousands of stars, precisely measure the positions of planets over periods of decades, travel to the ends of the Earth to observe solar eclipses, get up before the crack of noon to see a rare transit of Mercury or Venus, or burn up months of computer time finding every planetary transit in a quarter million year interval around the present? Obsession it may be, but it's also fascinating and fun, and astronomy has profited enormously from the labours of those so obsessed, whether on a mountain top in the dead of winter, or carrying out lengthy calculations when tables of logarithms were the only computational tool available.

This book chronicles one man's magnificent thirty-year obsession. Spurred by Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, which portrayed Copernicus as a villain and his magnum opus De revolutionibus “the book that nobody read”—“an all time worst seller”, followed by the discovery of an obviously carefully read and heavily annotated first edition in the library of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author, an astrophysicist and Harvard professor of the history of science, found himself inexorably drawn into a quest to track down and examine every extant copy of the first (Nuremberg, 1543) and second (Basel, 1566) editions of De revolutionibus to see whether and where readers had annotated them and so determine how widely the book, of which about a thousand copies were printed in these editions—typical for scientific works at the time—was read. Unlike today, when we've been educated that writing in a book is desecration, readers in the 16th and 17th centuries often made extensive annotations to their books, even assigning students and apprentices the task of copying annotations by other learned readers into their copies.

Along the way Gingerich found himself driving down an abandoned autobahn in the no man's land between East and West Germany, testifying in the criminal trial of a book rustler, discovering the theft of copies which librarians were unaware were missing, tracking down the provenance of pages in “sophisticated” (in the original sense of the word) copies assembled from two or more incomplete originals, attending the auction at Sotheby's of a first edition with a dubious last leaf which sold for US$750,000 (the author, no impecunious naïf in the rare book game, owns two copies of the second edition himself), and discovering the fate of many less celebrated books from that era (toilet paper). De revolutionibus has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries quite well—out of about 1000 original copies of the first and second editions, approximately six hundred exemplars remain.

Aside from the adventures of the Great Copernicus Chase, there is a great deal of information about Copernicus and the revolution he discovered and sparked which dispels many widely-believed bogus notions such as:

  • Copernicus was a hero of secular science against religious fundamentalism. Wrong!   Copernicus was a deeply religious doctor of church law, canon of the Roman Catholic Varmian Cathedral in Poland. He dedicated the book to Pope Paul III.
  • Prior to Copernicus, astronomers relying on Ptolemy's geocentric system kept adding epicycles on epicycles to try to approximate the orbits of the planets. Wrong!   This makes for a great story, but there is no evidence whatsoever for “epicycles on epicycles”. The authoritative planetary ephemerides in use in the age of Copernicus were calculated using the original Ptolemaic system without additional refinements, and there are no known examples of systems with additional epicycles.
  • Copernicus banished epicycles from astronomy. Wrong!   The Copernican system, in fact, included thirty-four epicycles! Because Copernicus believed that all planetary motion was based on circles, just like Ptolemy he required epicycles to approximate motion which wasn't known to be actually elliptical prior to Kepler. In fact, the Copernican system was no more accurate in predicting planetary positions than that of Ptolemy, and ephemerides computed from it were no better.
  • The Roman Catholic Church was appalled by Copernicus's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the cosmos and immediately banned his book. Wrong!   The first edition of De revolutionibus was published in 1543. It wasn't until 1616, more than seventy years later, that the book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and in 1620 it was permitted as long as ten specific modifications were made. Outside Italy, few copies even in Catholic countries were censored according to these instructions. In Spain, usually thought of as a hotbed of the Inquisition, the book was never placed on the Index at all. Galileo's personal copy has the forbidden passages marked in boxes and lined through, permitting the original text to be read. There is no evidence of any copy having been destroyed on the orders of the Church, and the Vatican library has three copies of both the first and second editions.

Obviously, if you're as interested as I in eccentric topics like positional astronomy, rare books, the evolution of modern science, and the surprisingly rapid and efficient diffusion of knowledge more than five centuries before the Internet, this is a book you're probably going to read if you haven't already. The only flaw is that the colour plates (at least in the UK paperback edition I read) are terribly reproduced—they all look like nobody bothered to focus the copy camera when the separations were made; plates 4b, 6, and 7a through 7f, which show annotations in various copies, are completely useless because they're so fuzzy the annotations can barely be read, if at all.

November 2005 Permalink

Guedj, Denis. Le mètre du monde. Paris: Seuil, 2000. ISBN 2-02-049989-4.
When thinking about management lessons one can learn from the French Revolution, I sometimes wonder if Louis XVI, sometime in the interval between when the Revolution lost its mind and he lost his head, ever thought, “Memo to file: when running a country seething with discontent, it's a really poor idea to invite people to compile lists of things they detest about the current regime.” Yet, that's exactly what he did in 1788, soliciting cahiers de doléances (literally, “notebooks of complaints”) to be presented to the Estates-General when it met in May of 1789. There were many, many things about which to complain in the latter years of the Ancien Régime, but one which appeared on almost every one of the lists was the lack of uniformity in weights and measures. Not only was there a bewildering multitude of different measures in use (around 2000 in France alone), but the value of measures with the same name differed from one region to another, a legacy of feudal days when one of the rights of the lord was to define the weights and measures in his fiefdom. How far is “three leagues down the road?” Well, that depends on what you mean by “league”, which was almost 40% longer in Provence than in Paris. The most common unit of weight, the “livre”, had more than two hundred different definitions across the country. And if that weren't bad enough, unscrupulous merchants and tax collectors would exploit the differences and lack of standards to cheat those bewildered by the complexity.

Revolutions, and the French Revolution in particular, have a way of going far beyond the intentions of those who launch them. The multitudes who pleaded for uniformity in weights and measures almost unanimously intended, and would have been entirely satisfied with, a standardisation of the values of the commonly used measures of length, weight, volume, and area. But perpetuating these relics of tyranny was an affront to the revolutionary spirit of remaking the world, and faced with a series of successive decisions, the revolutionary assembly chose the most ambitious and least grounded in the past on each occasion: to entirely replace all measures in use with entirely new ones, to use identical measures for every purpose (traditional measures used different units depending upon what was being measured), to abandon historical subdivisions of units in favour of a purely decimal system, and to ground all of the units in quantities based in nature and capable of being determined by anybody at any time, given only the definition.

Thus was the metric system born, and seldom have so many eminent figures been involved in what many might consider an arcane sideshow to revolution: Concordet, Coulomb, Lavoisier, Laplace, Talleyrand, Bailly, Delambre, Cassini, Legendre, Lagrange, and more. The fundamental unit, the metre, was defined in terms of the Earth's meridian, and since earlier measures failed to meet the standard of revolutionary perfection, a project was launched to measure the meridian through the Paris Observatory from Dunkirk to Barcelona. Imagine trying to make a precision measurement over such a distance as revolution, terror, hyper-inflation, counter-revolution, and war between France and Spain raged all around the savants and their surveying instruments. So long and fraught with misadventures was the process of creating the metric system that while the original decree ordering its development was signed by Louis XVI, it was officially adopted only a few months before Napoleon took power in 1799. Yet despite all of these difficulties and misadventures, the final measure of the meridian accepted in 1799 differed from the best modern measurements by only about ten metres over a baseline of more than 1000 kilometres.

This book tells the story of the metric system and the measurement of the meridian upon which it was based, against the background of revolutionary France. The author pulls no punches in discussing technical detail—again and again, just when you expect he's going to gloss over something, you turn the page or read a footnote and there it is. Writing for a largely French audience, the author may assume the reader better acquainted with the chronology, people, and events of the Revolution than readers hailing from other lands are likely to be; the chronology at the end of the book is an excellent resource when you forget what happened when. There is no index. This seems to be one of those odd cultural things; I've found French books whose counterparts published in English would almost certainly be indexed to frequently lack this valuable attribute—I have no idea why this is the case.

One of the many fascinating factoids I gleaned from this book is that the country with the longest continuous use of the metric system is not France! Napoleon replaced the metric system with the mesures usuelles in 1812, redefining the traditional measures in terms of metric base units. The metric system was not reestablished in France until 1840, by which time Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg had already adopted it.

April 2007 Permalink

Haffner, Sebastian [Raimund Pretzel]. Defying Hitler. New York: Picador, [2000] 2003. ISBN 978-0-312-42113-7.
In 1933, the author was pursuing his ambition to follow his father into a career in the Prussian civil service. While completing his law degree, he had obtained a post as a Referendar, the lowest rank in the civil service, performing what amounted to paralegal work for higher ranking clerks and judges. He enjoyed the work, especially doing research in the law library and drafting opinions, and was proud to be a part of the Prussian tradition of an independent judiciary. He had no strong political views nor much interest in politics. But, as he says, “I have a fairly well developed figurative sense of smell, or to put it differently, a sense of the worth (or worthlessness!) of human, moral, political views and attitudes. Most Germans unfortunately lack this sense almost completely.”

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, “As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. … How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset. What was not at all clear to me was what terrible enemies they would turn out to be.” Initially, little changed: it was a “matter for the press”. The new chancellor might rant to enthralled masses about the Jews, but in the court where Haffner clerked, a Jewish judge continued to sit on the bench and work continued as before. He hoped that the political storm on the surface would leave the depths of the civil service unperturbed. This was not to be the case.

Haffner was a boy during the First World War, and, like many of his schoolmates, saw the war as a great adventure which unified the country. Coming of age in the Weimar Republic, he experienced the great inflation of 1921–1924 as up-ending the society: “Amid all the misery, despair, and poverty there was an air of light-headed youthfulness, licentiousness, and carnival. Now, for once, the young had money and the old did not. Its value lasted only a few hours. It was spent as never before or since; and not on the things old people spend their money on.” A whole generation whose ancestors had grown up in a highly structured society where most decisions were made for them now were faced with the freedom to make whatever they wished of their private lives. But they had never learned to cope with such freedom.

After the Reichstag fire and the Nazi-organised boycott of Jewish businesses (enforced by SA street brawlers standing in doors and intimidating anybody who tried to enter), the fundamental transformation of the society accelerated. Working in the library at the court building, Haffner is shocked to see this sanctum of jurisprudence defiled by the SA, who had come to eject all Jews from the building. A Jewish colleague is expelled from university, fired from the civil service, and opts to emigrate.

The chaos of the early days of the Nazi ascendency gives way to Gleichschaltung, the systematic takeover of all institutions by placing Nazis in key decision-making positions within them. Haffner sees the Prussian courts, which famously stood up to Frederick the Great a century and a half before, meekly toe the line.

Haffner begins to consider emigrating from Germany, but his father urges him to complete his law degree before leaving. His close friends among the Referendars run the gamut from Communist sympathisers to ardent Nazis. As he is preparing for the Assessor examination (the next rank in the civil service, and the final step for a law student), he is called up for mandatory political and military indoctrination now required for the rank. The barrier between the personal, professional, and political had completely fallen. “Four weeks later I was wearing jackboots and a uniform with a swastika armband, and spent many hours each day marching in a column in the vicinity of Jüterbog.”

He discovers that, despite his viewing the Nazis as essentially absurd, there is something about order, regimentation, discipline, and forced camaraderie that resonates in his German soul.

Finally, there was a typically German aspiration that began to influence us strongly, although we hardly noticed it. This was the idolization of proficiency for its own sake, the desire to do whatever you are assigned to do as well as it can possibly be done. However senseless, meaningless, or downright humiliating it may be, it should be done as efficiently, thoroughly, and faultlessly as could be imagined. So we should clean lockers, sing, and march? Well, we would clean them better than any professional cleaner, we would march like campaign veterans, and we would sing so ruggedly that the trees bent over. This idolization of proficiency for its own sake is a German vice; the Germans think it is a German virtue.

That was our weakest point—whether we were Nazis or not. That was the point they attacked with remarkable psychological and strategic insight.

And here the memoir comes to an end; the author put it aside. He moved to Paris, but failed to become established there and returned to Berlin in 1934. He wrote apolitical articles for art magazines, but as the circle began to close around him and his new Jewish wife, in 1938 he obtained a visa for the U.K. and left Germany. He began a writing career, using the nom de plume Sebastian Haffner instead of his real name, Raimund Pretzel, to reduce the risk of reprisals against his family in Germany. With the outbreak of war, he was deemed an enemy alien and interned on the Isle of Man. His first book written since emigration, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, was a success in Britain and questions were raised in Parliament why the author of such an anti-Nazi work was interned: he was released in August, 1940, and went on to a distinguished career in journalism in the U.K. He never prepared the manuscript of this work for publication—he may have been embarrassed at the youthful naïveté in evidence throughout. After his death in 1999, his son, Oliver Pretzel (who had taken the original family name), prepared the manuscript for publication. It went straight to the top of the German bestseller list, where it remained for forty-two weeks. Why? Oliver Pretzel says, “Now I think it was because the book offers direct answers to two questions that Germans of my generation had been asking their parents since the war: ‘How were the Nazis possible?’ and ‘Why didn't you stop them?’ ”.

This is a period piece, not a work of history. Set aside by the author in 1939, it provides a look through the eyes of a young man who sees his country becoming something which repels him and the madness that ensues when the collective is exalted above the individual. The title is somewhat odd—there is precious little defying of Hitler here—the ultimate defiance is simply making the decision to emigrate rather than give tacit support to the madness by remaining. I can appreciate that.

This edition was translated from the original German and annotated by the author's son, Oliver Pretzel, who wrote the introduction and afterword which place the work in the context of the author's career and describe why it was never published in his lifetime. A Kindle edition is available.

Thanks to Glenn Beck for recommending this book.

June 2017 Permalink

Hall, R. Cargill. Lunar Impact. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977. ISBN 978-0-486-47757-2. NASA SP-4210.
One of the wonderful things about the emergence of electronic books is that long out-of-print works from publishers' back-lists are becoming available once again since the cost of keeping them in print, after the initial conversion to an electronic format, is essentially zero. The U.S. civilian space agency NASA is to be commended for their efforts to make publications in their NASA history series available electronically at a bargain price. Many of these documents, chronicling the early days of space exploration from a perspective only a few years after the events, have been out of print for decades and some command forbidding prices on used book markets. Those interested in reading them, as opposed to collectors, now have an option as inexpensive as it is convenient to put these works in their hands.

The present volume, originally published in 1977, chronicles Project Ranger, NASA's first attempt to obtain “ground truth” about the surface of the Moon by sending probes to crash on its surface, radioing back high-resolution pictures, measuring its composition, and hard-landing scientific instruments on the surface to study the Moon's geology. When the project was begun in 1959, it was breathtakingly ambitious—so much so that one gets the sense those who set its goals did not fully appreciate the difficulty of accomplishing them. Ranger was to be not just a purpose-built lunar probe, but rather a general-purpose “bus” for lunar and planetary missions which could be equipped with different scientific instruments depending upon the destination and goals of the flight. It would incorporate, for the first time in a deep space mission, three-axis stabilisation, a steerable high-gain antenna, midcourse and terminal trajectory correction, an onboard (albeit extremely primitive) computer, real-time transmission of television imagery, support by a global Deep Space Network of tracking stations which did not exist before Ranger, sterilisation of the spacecraft to protect against contamination of celestial bodies by terrestrial organisms, and a retro-rocket and landing capsule which would allow rudimentary scientific instruments to survive thumping down on the Moon and transmit their results back to Earth.

This was a great deal to bite off, and as those charged with delivering upon these lofty goals discovered, extremely difficult to chew, especially in a period where NASA was still in the process of organising itself and lines of authority among NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (charged with developing the spacecraft and conducting the missions) and the Air Force (which provided the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle that propelled Ranger to the Moon) were ill-defined and shifting frequently. This, along with the inherent difficulty of what was being attempted, contributed to results which can scarcely be imagined in an era of super-conservative mission design: six consecutive failures between 1961 and 1964, with a wide variety of causes. Even in the early days of spaceflight, this was enough to get the attention of the press, politicians, and public, and it was highly probable that had Ranger 7 also failed, it would be the end of the program. But it didn't—de-scoped to just a camera platform, it performed flawlessly and provided the first close-up glimpse of the Moon's surface. Rangers 8 and 9 followed, both complete successes, with the latter relaying pictures “live from the Moon” to televisions of viewers around the world. To this day I recall seeing them and experiencing a sense of wonder which is difficult to appreciate in our jaded age.

Project Ranger provided both the technology and experience base used in the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury. While the scientific results of Ranger were soon eclipsed by those of the Surveyor soft landers, it is unlikely that program would have succeeded without learning the painful lessons from Ranger.

The electronic edition of this book appears to have been created by scanning a print copy and running it through an optical character recognition program, then performing a spelling check and fixing errors it noted. However, no close proofreading appears to have been done, so that scanning errors which resulted in words in the spelling dictionary were not corrected. This results in a number of goofs in the text, some of which are humorous. My favourite is the phrase “midcourse correction bum [burn]” which occurs on several occasions. I imagine a dissipated wino with his trembling finger quivering above a big red “FIRE” button at a console at JPL. British readers may…no, I'm not going there. Illustrations from the original book are scanned and included as tiny thumbnails which cannot be enlarged. This is adequate for head shots of people, but for diagrams, charts, and photographs of hardware and the lunar surface, next to useless. References to endnotes in the text look like links but (at least reading the Kindle edition on an iPad) do nothing. These minor flaws do not seriously detract from the glimpse this work provides of unmanned planetary exploration at its moment of creation or the joy that this account is once again readily available.

Unlike many of the NASA history series, a paperback reprint edition is available, published by Dover. It is, however, much more expensive than the electronic edition.

Update: Reader J. Peterson writes that a free on-line edition of this book is available on NASA's Web site, in which the illustrations may be clicked to view full-resolution images.

February 2012 Permalink

Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds. London: Faber and Faber, 2010. ISBN 978-0-571-24795-0.
At the end of World War II, Great Britain seemed poised to dominate or at the least be a major player in postwar aviation. The aviation industries of Germany, France, and, to a large extent, the Soviet Union lay in ruins, and while the industrial might of the United States greatly out-produced Britain in aircraft in the latter years of the war, America's P-51 Mustang was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine built under license in the U.S., and the first U.S. turbojet and turboshaft engines were based on British designs. When the war ended, Britain not only had a robust aircraft industry, composed of numerous fiercely independent and innovative companies, it had in hand projects for game-changing military aircraft and a plan, drawn up while the war still raged, to seize dominance of civil aviation from American manufacturers with a series of airliners which would redefine air travel.

In the first decade after the war, Britons, especially aviation-mad “plane-spotters” like the author, found it easy to believe this bright future beckoned to them. They thronged to airshows where innovative designs performed manoeuvres thought impossible only a few years before, and they saw Britain launch the first pure-jet, and the first medium- and long-range turboprop airliners into commercial service. This was a very different Britain than that of today. Only a few years removed from the war, even postwar austerity seemed a relief from the privations of wartime, and many people vividly recalled losing those close to them in combat or to bombing attacks by the enemy. They were a hard people, and not inclined to discouragement even by tragedy. In 1952, at an airshow at Farnborough, an aircraft disintegrated in flight and fell into the crowd, killing 31 people and injuring more than 60 others. While ambulances were still carrying away the dead and injured, the show went on, and the next day Winston Churchill sent the pilot who went up after the disaster his congratulations for carrying on. While losses to aircraft and aircrew in the postwar era were small compared combat in the war, they were still horrific by present day standards.

A quick glance at the rest of this particular AIB [Accidents Investigation Branch] file reveals many similar casualties. It deals with accidents that took place between 3 May 1956 and 3 January 1957. In those mere eight months there was a total of thirty-four accidents in which forty-two aircrew were killed (roughly one fatality every six days). Pilot error and mechanical failure shared approximately equal billing in the official list of causes. The aircraft types included ten de Havilland Venoms, six de Havilland Vampires, six Hawker Hunters, four English Electric Canberras, two Gloster Meteors, and one each of the following: Gloster Javelin, Folland Gnat, Avro Vulcan, Avro Shackleton, Short Seamew and Westland Whirlwind helicopter. (pp. 128–129)

There is much to admire in the spirit of mourn the dead, fix the problem, and get on with the job, but that stoic approach, essential in wartime, can blind one to asking, “Are these losses acceptable? Do they indicate we're doing something wrong? Do we need to revisit our design assumptions, practises, and procedures?” These are the questions which came into the mind of legendary test pilot Bill Waterton, whose career is the basso continuo of this narrative. First as an RAF officer, then as a company test pilot, and finally as aviation correspondent for the Daily Express, he perceived and documented how Britain's aviation industry was, due to its fragmentation into tradition-bound companies, incessant changes of priorities by government, and failure to adapt to the aggressive product development schedules of the Americans and even the French, still rebuilding from wartime ruins, doomed to bring inferior products to the market too late to win foreign sales, which were essential for the viability of an industry with a home market as small as Britain's to maintain world-class leadership.

Although the structural problems within the industry had long been apparent to observers such as Waterton, any hope of British leadership was extinguished by the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper which, while calling for long-overdue consolidation of the fragmented U.K. aircraft industry, concluded that most military missions in the future could be accomplished more effectively and less expensively by unmanned missiles. With a few exceptions, it cancelled all British military aviation development projects, condemning Britain, once the fallacy in the “missiles only” approach became apparent, to junior partner status in international projects or outright purchases of aircraft from suppliers overseas. On the commercial aviation side, only the Vickers Viscount was a success: the fatigue-induced crashes of the de Havilland Comet and the protracted development process of the Bristol Britannia caused their entry into service to be so late as to face direct competition from the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which were superior aircraft in every regard.

This book recounts a curious epoch in the history of British aviation. To observers outside the industry, including the hundreds of thousands who flocked to airshows, it seemed like a golden age, with one Made in Britain innovation following another in rapid succession. But in fact, it was the last burst of energy as the capital of a mismanaged and misdirected industry was squandered at the direction of fickle politicians whose priorities were elsewhere, leading to a sorry list of cancelled projects, prototypes which never flew, and aircraft which never met their specifications or were rushed into service before they were ready. In 1945, Britain was positioned to be a world leader in aviation and proceeded, over the next two decades, to blow it, not due to lack of talent, infrastructure, or financial resources, but entirely through mismanagement, shortsightedness, and disastrous public policy. The following long quote from the concluding chapter expresses this powerfully.

One way of viewing the period might be as a grand swansong or coda to the process we Britons had ourselves started with the Industrial Revolution. The long, frequently brilliant chapter of mechanical inventiveness and manufacture that began with steam finally ran out of steam. This was not through any waning of either ingenuity or enthusiasm on the part of individuals, or even of the nation's aviation industry as a whole. It happened because, however unconsciously and blunderingly it was done, it became the policy of successive British governments to eradicate that industry as though it were an unruly wasps' nest by employing the slow cyanide of contradictory policies, the withholding of support and funds, and the progressive poisoning of morale. In fact, although not even the politicians themselves quite realised it – and certainly not at the time of the upbeat Festival of Britain in 1951 – this turned out to be merely part of a historic policy change to do away with all Britain's capacity as a serious industrial nation, abolishing not just a century of making its own cars but a thousand years of building its own ships. I suspect this policy was more unconscious than deliberately willed, and it is one whose consequences for the nation are still not fully apparent. It sounds improbable; yet there is surely no other interpretation to be made of the steady, decades-long demolition of the country's manufacturing capacity – including its most charismatic industry – other that at some level it was absolutely intentional, no matter what lengths politicians went to in order to conceal this fact from both the electorate and themselves. (p. 329)

Not only is this book rich in aviation anecdotes of the period, it has many lessons for those living in countries which have come to believe they can prosper by de-industrialising, sending all of their manufacturing offshore, importing their science and engineering talent from other nations, and concentrating on selling “financial services” to one another. Good luck with that.

May 2011 Permalink

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture. New York: Doubleday, 2001. ISBN 0-385-50052-1.

February 2002 Permalink

Harris, Robert. Imperium. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-6603-X.
Marcus Tullius Tiro was a household slave who served as the personal secretary to the Roman orator, lawyer, and politician Cicero. Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand, and is responsible for the extensive verbatim records of Cicero's court appearances and political speeches. He was freed by Cicero in 53 B.C. and later purchased a farm where he lived to around the age of 100 years. According to contemporary accounts, Tiro published a biography of Cicero of at least four volumes; this work has been lost.

In this case, history's loss is a novelist's opportunity, which alternative-history wizard Robert Harris (Fatherland [June 2002], Archangel [February 2003], Enigma, Pompeii) seizes, bringing the history of Cicero's rise from ambitious lawyer to Consul of Rome to life, while remaining true to the documented events of Cicero's career. The narrator is Tiro, who discovers both the often-sordid details of how the Roman republic actually functioned and the complexity of Cicero's character as the story progresses.

The sense one gets of Rome is perhaps a little too modern, and terminology creeps in from time to time (for example, “electoral college” [p. 91]) which seems out of place. On pp. 226–227 there is an extended passage which made me fear we were about to veer off into commentary on current events:

‘I do not believe we should negotiate with such people, as it will only encourage them in their criminal acts.’ … Where would be struck next? What Rome was facing was a threat very different from that posed by a conventional enemy. These pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with no government to represent them and no treaties to bind them. Their bases were not confined to a single state. They had no unified system of command. They were a worldwide pestilence, a parasite which needed to be stamped out, otherwise Rome—despite her overwhelming military superiority—would never again know security or peace. … Any ruler who refuses to cooperate will be regarded as Rome's enemy. Those who are not with us are against us.
Harris resists the temptation of turning Rome into a soapbox for present-day political advocacy on any side, and quickly gets back to the political intrigue in the capital. (Not that the latter days of the Roman republic are devoid of relevance to the present situation; study of them may provide more insight into the news than all the pundits and political blogs on the Web. But the parallels are not exact, and the circumstances are different in many fundamental ways. Harris wisely sticks to the story and leaves the reader to discern the historical lessons.)

The novel comes to a rather abrupt close with Cicero's election to the consulate in 63 B.C. I suspect that what we have here is the first volume of a trilogy. If that be the case, I look forward to future installments.

April 2007 Permalink

Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08462-5.
Messages encrypted with a one-time pad are absolutely secure unless the adversary obtains a copy of the pad or discovers some non-randomness in the means used to prepare it. Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic used one-time pads extensively, avoiding the vulnerabilities of machine ciphers which permitted World War II codebreakers to read German and Japanese traffic. The disadvantage of one-time pads is key distribution: since every message consumes as many groups from the one-time pad as its own length and pads are never reused (hence the name), embassies and agents in the field require a steady supply of new one-time pads, which can be a logistical nightmare in wartime and risk to covert operations. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 caused Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic to explode in volume, surpassing the ability of Soviet cryptographers to produce and distribute new one-time pads. Apparently believing the risk to be minimal, they reacted by re-using one-time pad pages, shuffling them into a different order and sending them to other posts around the world. Bad idea! In fact, reusing one-time pad pages opened up a crack in security sufficiently wide to permit U.S. cryptanalysts, working from 1943 through 1980, to decode more than five thousand pages (some only partially) of Soviet cables from the wartime era. The existence of this effort, later codenamed Project VENONA, and all the decoded material remained secret until 1995 when it was declassified. The most-requested VENONA decrypts may be viewed on-line at the NSA Web site. (A few months ago, there was a great deal of additional historical information on VENONA at the NSA site, but at this writing the links appear to be broken.) This book has relatively little to say about the cryptanalysis of the VENONA traffic. It is essentially a history of Soviet espionage in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s as documented by the VENONA decrypts. Some readers may be surprised at how little new information is presented here. In essence, VENONA messages completely confirmed what Whittaker Chambers (Witness, September 2003) and Elizabeth Bentley testified to in the late 1940s, and FBI counter-intelligence uncovered. The apparent mystery of why so many who spied for the Soviets escaped prosecution and/or conviction is now explained by the unwillingness of the U.S. government to disclose the existence of VENONA by using material from it in espionage cases. The decades long controversy over the guilt of the Rosenbergs (The Rosenberg File, August 2002) has been definitively resolved by disclosure of VENONA—incontrovertible evidence of their guilt remained secret, out of reach to historians, for fifty years after their crimes. This is a meticulously-documented work of scholarly history, not a page-turning espionage thriller; it is probably best absorbed in small doses rather than one cover to cover gulp.

February 2004 Permalink

Hendrickx, Bart and Bert Vis. Energiya-Buran. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2007. ISBN 978-0-387-69848-9.
This authoritative history chronicles one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War. When the U.S. Space Shuttle program was launched in 1972, the Soviets, unlike the majority of journalists and space advocates in the West who were bamboozled by NASA's propaganda, couldn't make any sense of the economic justification for the program. They worked the numbers, and they just didn't work—the flight rates, cost per mission, and most of the other numbers were obviously not achievable. So, did the Soviets chuckle at this latest folly of the capitalist, imperialist aggressors and continue on their own time-proven path of mass-produced low-technology expendable boosters? Well, of course not! They figured that even if their wisest double-domed analysts were unable to discern the justification for the massive expenditures NASA had budgeted for the Shuttle, there must be some covert military reason for its existence to which they hadn't yet twigged, and hence they couldn't tolerate a shuttle gap and consequently had to build their own, however pointless it looked on the surface.

And that's precisely what they did, as this book so thoroughly documents, with a detailed history, hundreds of pictures, and technical information which has only recently become available. Reasonable people can argue about the extent to which the Soviet shuttle was a copy of the American (and since the U.S. program started years before and placed much of its design data into the public domain, any wise designer would be foolish not to profit by using it), but what is not disputed is that (unlike the U.S. Shuttle) Energiya was a general purpose heavy-lift launcher which had the orbiter Buran as only one of its possible payloads and was one of the most magnificent engineering projects of the space programs of any nation, involving massive research and development, manufacturing, testing, integrated mission simulation, crew training, and flight testing programs.

Indeed, Energiya-Buran was in many ways a better-conceived program for space access than the U.S. Shuttle program: it integrated a heavy payload cargo launcher with the shuttle program, never envisioned replacing less costly expendable boosters with the shuttle, and forecast a development program which would encompass full reusability of boosters and core stages and both unmanned cargo and manned crew changeout missions to Soviet space stations.

The program came to a simultaneously triumphant and tragic end: the Energiya booster and the Energiya-Buran shuttle system performed flawless missions (the first Energiya launch failed to put its payload into orbit, but this was due to a software error in the payload: the launcher performed nominally from ignition through payload separation).

In the one and only flight of Buran (launch and landing video, other launch views) the orbiter was placed into its intended orbit and landed on the cosmodrome runway at precisely the expected time.

And then, in the best tradition not only of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union but of the British Labour Party of the 1970s, this singular success was rewarded by cancellation of the entire program. As an engineer, I have almost unlimited admiration for my ex-Soviet and Russian colleagues who did such masterful work and who will doubtless advance technology in the future to the benefit of us all. We should celebrate the achievement of those who created this magnificent space transportation system, while encouraging those inspired by it to open the high frontier to all of those who exulted in its success.

January 2009 Permalink

Herken. Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-6589-X.
What more's to be said about the tangled threads of science, politics, ego, power, and history that bound together the lives of Ernest O. Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller from the origin of the Manhattan Project through the postwar controversies over nuclear policy and the development of thermonuclear weapons? In fact, a great deal, as declassification of FBI files, including wiretap transcripts, release of decrypted Venona intercepts of Soviet espionage cable traffic, and documents from Moscow archives opened to researchers since the collapse of the Soviet Union have provide a wealth of original source material illuminating previously dark corners of the epoch.

Gregg Herken, a senior historian and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, draws upon these resources to explore the accomplishments, conflicts, and controversies surrounding Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and Teller, and the cold war era they played such a large part in defining. The focus is almost entirely on the period in which the three were active in weapons development and policy—there is little discussion of their prior scientific work, nor of Teller's subsequent decades on the public stage. This is a serious academic history, with almost 100 pages of source citations and bibliography, but the story is presented in an engaging manner which leaves the reader with a sense of the personalities involved, not just their views and actions. The author writes with no discernible ideological bias, and I noted only one insignificant technical goof.

May 2005 Permalink

Hodges, Michael. AK47: The Story of the People's Gun. London: Sceptre, 2007. ISBN 978-0-340-92106-7.
The AK-47 (the author uses “AK47” in this book, except for a few places in the last chapter; I will use the more common hyphenated designation here) has become an iconic symbol of rebellion in the six decades since Mikhail Kalashnikov designed this simple (just 8 moving parts), rugged, inexpensive to manufacture, and reliable assault rifle. Iconic? Yes, indeed—for example the flag and coat of arms of Mozambique feature this weapon which played such a large and tragic rôle in its recent history. Wherever violence erupts around the world, you'll probably see young men brandishing AK-47s or one of its derivatives. The AK-47 has become a global brand as powerful as Coca-Cola, but symbolising insurgency and rebellion, and this book is an attempt to recount how that came to be.

Toward that end it is a total, abject, and utter failure. In a total of 225 pages, only about 35 are devoted to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the history of the weapon he invented, its subsequent diffusion and manufacture around the world, and its derivatives. Instead, what we have is a collection of war stories from Vietnam, Palestine, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and New Orleans (!), all told from a relentlessly left-wing, anti-American, and anti-Israel perspective, in which the AK-47 figures only peripherally. The author, as a hard leftist, believes, inter alia, in the bizarre notion that an inanimate object made of metal and wood can compel human beings to behave in irrational and ultimately self-destructive ways. You think I exaggerate? Well, here's an extended quote from p. 131.

The AK47 moved from being a tool of the conflict to the cause of the conflict, and by the mid-1990s it had become the progenitor of indiscriminate terror across huge swaths of the continent. How could it be otherwise? AKs were everywhere, and their ubiquity made stability a rare commodity as even the smallest groups could bring to bear a military pressure out of proportion to their actual size.
That's right—the existence of weapons compels human beings, who would presumably otherwise live together in harmony, to murder one another and rend their societies into chaotic, blood-soaked Hell-holes. Yup, and why do the birds always nest in the white areas? The concept that one should look at the absence of civil society as the progenitor of violence never enters the picture here. It is the evil weapon which is at fault, not the failed doctrines to which the author clings, which have wrought such suffering across the globe. Homo sapiens is a violent species, and our history has been one of constant battles. Notwithstanding the horrific bloodletting of the twentieth century, on a per-capita basis, death from violent conflict has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era, notwithstanding the advent of of weapons such as General Kalashnikov's. When bad ideas turn murderous, machetes will do.

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

August 2008 Permalink

Hofschröer, Peter. Wellington's Smallest Victory. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. ISBN 0-571-21768-0.
Wellington's victory over Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815 not only inspired Beethoven's worst musical composition, but a veritable industry of histories, exhibitions, and re-enactments in Britain. The most spectacular of these was the model of the battlefield which William Siborne, career officer and author of two books on military surveying, was commissioned to build in 1830. Siborne was an assiduous researcher; after surveying the battlefield in person, he wrote to most of the surviving officers in the battle: British, Prussian, and French, to determine the precise position of their troops at the “crisis of the battle” he had chosen to depict: 19:00 on June 18th, 1815. The responses he received indicated that Wellington's Waterloo Despatch, the after-action report penned the day after the battle was, shall we say, at substantial variance with the facts, particularly as regards the extent to which Prussian troops contributed to the victory and the time at which Wellington was notified of Napoléon's attack. Siborne stuck with the facts, and his model, first exhibited in London in 1838, showed the Prussian troops fully engaged with the French at the moment the tide of battle turned. Wellington was not amused and, being not only a national hero but former Prime Minister, was a poor choice as enemy. For the rest of Siborne's life, Wellington waged a war of attrition against Siborne's (accurate) version of the events at Waterloo, with such success that most contemporary histories take Wellington's side, even if it requires believing in spyglasses capable of seeing on the other side of hills. But truth will out. Siborne's companion History of the Waterloo Campaign remains in print 150 years after its publication, and his model of the battlefield (albeit with 40,000 figures of Prussian soldiers removed) may be seen at the National Army Museum in London.

June 2004 Permalink

Holland, Tom. Rubicon. London: Abacus, 2003. ISBN 0-349-11563-X.
Such is historical focus on the final years of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Empire that it's easy to forget that the Republic survived for more than four and a half centuries prior to the chaotic events beginning with Caesar's crossing the Rubicon which precipitated its transformation into a despotism, preserving the form but not the substance of the republican institutions. When pondering analogies between Rome and present-day events, it's worth keeping in mind that representative self-government in Rome endured about twice as long as the history of the United States to date. This superb history recounts the story of the end of the Republic, placing the events in historical context and, to an extent I have never encountered in any other work, allowing the reader to perceive the personalities involved and their actions through the eyes and cultural assumptions of contemporary Romans, which were often very different from those of people today.

The author demonstrates how far-flung territorial conquests and the obligations they imposed, along with the corrupting influence of looted wealth flowing into the capital, undermined the institutions of the Republic which had, after all, evolved to govern just a city-state and limited surrounding territory. Whether a republican form of government could work on a large scale was a central concern of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and this narrative graphically illustrates why their worries were well-justified and raises the question of whether a modern-day superpower can resist the same drift toward authoritarian centralism which doomed consensual government in Rome.

The author leaves such inference and speculation to the reader. Apart from a few comments in the preface, he simply recounts the story of Rome as it happened and doesn't draw lessons from it for the present. And the story he tells is gripping; it may be difficult to imagine, but this work of popular history reads like a thriller (I mean that entirely as a compliment—historical integrity is never sacrificed in the interest of storytelling), and he makes the complex and often contradictory characters of figures such as Sulla, Cato, Cicero, Mark Antony, Pompey, and Marcus Brutus come alive and the shifting alliances among them comprehensible. Source citations are almost entirely to classical sources although, as the author observes, ancient sources, though often referred to as primary, are not necessarily so: for example, Plutarch was born 90 years after the assassination of Caesar. A detailed timeline lists events from the foundation of Rome in 753 B.C. through the death of Augustus in A.D. 14.

A U.S. edition is now available.

October 2007 Permalink

Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, [1979] 1998. ISBN 1-55750-324-9.
This is the story of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the Pacific theatre during World War II, told by somebody who was there—Holmes served in the inner sanctum of Naval Intelligence at Pearl Harbor from before the Japanese attack in 1941 through the end of the war in 1945. Most accounts of naval intelligence in the war with Japan focus on cryptanalysis and use of the “Ultra” information it yielded from Japanese radio intercepts. Holmes regularly worked with this material, and with the dedicated and sometimes eccentric individuals who produced it, but his focus is broader—on intelligence as a whole, of which cryptanalysis was only a part. The “product” delivered by his shop to warfighters in the fleet was painstakingly gleaned not only from communications intercepts, but also traffic analysis, direction finding, interpretation of aerial and submarine reconnaissance photos, interrogation of prisoners, translations of captured documents, and a multitude of other sources. In preparing for the invasion of Okinawa, naval intelligence tracked down an eighty-year-old seashell expert who provided information on landing beaches from his pre-war collecting expedition there. The total material delivered by intelligence for the Okinawa operation amounted to 127 tons of paper. This book provides an excellent feel for the fog of war, and how difficult it is to discern enemy intentions from the limited and conflicting information at hand. In addition, the difficult judgement calls which must be made between the risk of disclosing sources of information versus getting useful information into the hands of combat forces on a timely basis is a theme throughout the narrative. If you're looking for more of a focus on cryptanalysis and a discussion of the little-known British contribution to codebreaking in the Pacific war, see Michael Smith's The Emperor's Codes (August 2001).

December 2004 Permalink

Hoover, Herbert. Freedom Betrayed. Edited by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8179-1234-5.
This book, begun in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, became the primary occupation of former U.S. president Herbert Hoover until his death in 1964. He originally referred to it as the “War Book” and titled subsequent draft manuscripts Lost Statesmanship, The Ordeal of the American People, and Freedom Betrayed, which was adopted for this edition. Over the two decades Hoover worked on the book, he and his staff came to refer to it as the “Magnum Opus”, and it is magnum indeed—more than 950 pages in this massive brick of a hardcover edition.

The work began as an attempt to document how, in Hoover's view, a series of diplomatic and strategic blunders committed during the Franklin Roosevelt administration had needlessly prompted Hitler's attack upon the Western democracies, forged a disastrous alliance with Stalin, and deliberately provoked Japan into attacking the U.S. and Britain in the Pacific. This was summarised by Hoover as “12 theses” in a 1946 memorandum to his research assistant (p. 830):

  1. War between Russia and Germany was inevitable.
  2. Hitler's attack on Western Democracies was only to brush them out of his way.
  3. There would have been no involvement of Western Democracies had they not gotten in his (Hitler's) way by guaranteeing Poland (March, 1939).
  4. Without prior agreement with Stalin this constituted the greatest blunder of British diplomatic history.
  5. There was no sincerity on either side of the Stalin-Hitler alliance of August, 1939.
  6. The United States or the Western Hemisphere were never in danger by Hitler.
  7. [This entry is missing in Hoover's typescript—ed.]
  8. This was even less so when Hitler determined to attack Stalin.
  9. Roosevelt, knowing this about November, 1940, had no remote warranty for putting the United States in war to “save Britain” and/or saving the United States from invasion.
  10. The use of the Navy for undeclared war on Germany was unconstitutional.
  11. There were secret military agreements with Britain probably as early of January, 1940.
  12. The Japanese war was deliberately provoked. …

…all right—eleven theses. As the years passed, Hoover expanded the scope of the project to include what he saw as the cynical selling-out of hundreds of millions of people in nations liberated from Axis occupation into Communist slavery, making a mockery of the principles espoused in the Atlantic Charter and reaffirmed on numerous occasions and endorsed by other members of the Allies, including the Soviet Union. Hoover puts the blame for this betrayal squarely at the feet of Roosevelt and Churchill, and documents how Soviet penetration of the senior levels of the Roosevelt administration promoted Stalin's agenda and led directly to the loss of China to Mao's forces and the Korean War.

As such, this is a massive work of historical revisionism which flies in the face of the mainstream narrative of the origins of World War II and the postwar period. But, far from the rantings of a crank, this is the work of a former President of the United States, who, in his career as an engineer and humanitarian work after World War I lived in or travelled extensively through all of the countries involved in the subsequent conflict and had high-level meetings with their governments. (Hoover was the only U.S. president to meet with Hitler; the contemporary notes from his 1938 meeting appear here starting on p. 837.) Further, it is a scholarly examination of the period, with extensive citations and excerpts of original sources. Hoover's work in food relief in the aftermath of World War II provided additional entrée to governments in that period and an on-the-ground view of the situation as communism tightened its grip on Eastern Europe and sought to expand into Asia.

The amount of folly chronicled here is astonishing, and the extent of the human suffering it engendered is difficult to comprehend. Indeed, Hoover's “just the facts” academic style may leave you wishing he expressed more visceral anger at all the horrible things that happened which did not have to. But then Hoover was an engineer, and we engineers don't do visceral all that well. Now, Hoover was far from immune from blunders: his predecessor in the Oval Office called him “wonder boy” for his enthusiasm for grand progressive schemes, and Hoover's mis-handling of the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash turned what might have been a short and deep recession into the First Great Depression and set the stage for the New Deal. Yet here, I think Hoover the historian pretty much gets it right, and when reading these words, last revised in 1963, one gets the sense that the verdict of history has reinforced the evidence Hoover presents here, even though his view remains anathema in an academy almost entirely in the thrall of slavers.

In the last months of his life, Hoover worked furiously to ready the manuscript for publication; he viewed it as a large part of his life's work and his final contribution to the history of the epoch. After his death, the Hoover Foundation did not proceed to publish the document for reasons which are now impossible to determine, since none of the people involved are now alive. One can speculate that they did not wish to embroil the just-deceased founder of their institution in what was sure to be a firestorm of controversy as he contradicted the smug consensus view of progressive historians of the time, but nobody really knows (and the editor, recruited by the successor of that foundation to prepare the work for publication, either did not have access to that aspect of the story or opted not to pursue it). In any case, the editor's work was massive: sorting through thousands of documents and dozens of drafts of the work, trying to discern the author's intent from pencilled-in marginal notes, tracking down citations and verifying quoted material, and writing an introduction of more than a hundred pages explaining the origins of the work, its historical context, and the methodology used to prepare this edition; the editing is a serious work of scholarship in its own right.

If you're acquainted with the period, you're unlikely to learn any new facts here, although Hoover's first-hand impressions of countries and leaders are often insightful. In the decades after Hoover's death, many documents which were under seal of official secrecy have become available, and very few of them contradict the picture presented here. (As a former president with many military and diplomatic contacts, Hoover doubtless had access to some of this material on a private basis, but he never violated these confidences in this work.) What you will learn from reading this book is that a set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way, and that if one looks at the events from 1932 through 1962 through the eyes of an observer who was, like Hoover, fundamentally a pacifist, humanitarian, and champion of liberty, you may end up with a very different impression than that in the mainstream history books. What the conventional wisdom deems a noble battle against evil can, from a different perspective, be seen as a preventable tragedy which not only consigned entire nations to slavery for decades, but sowed the seeds of tyranny in the U.S. as the welfare/warfare state consolidated itself upon the ashes of limited government and individual liberty.

June 2012 Permalink

Hoover, Herbert. The Crusade Years. Edited by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8179-1674-9.
In the modern era, most former U.S. presidents have largely retired from the public arena, lending their names to charitable endeavours and acting as elder statesmen rather than active partisans. One striking counter-example to this rule was Herbert Hoover who, from the time of his defeat by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election until shortly before his death in 1964, remained in the arena, giving hundreds of speeches, many broadcast nationwide on radio, writing multiple volumes of memoirs and analyses of policy, collecting and archiving a multitude of documents regarding World War I and its aftermath which became the core of what is now the Hoover Institution collection at Stanford University, working in famine relief during and after World War II, and raising funds and promoting benevolent organisations such as the Boys' Clubs. His strenuous work to keep the U.S. out of World War II is chronicled in his “magnum opus”, Freedom Betrayed (June 2012), which presents his revisionist view of U.S. entry into and conduct of the war, and the tragedy which ensued after victory had been won. Freedom Betrayed was largely completed at the time of Hoover's death, but for reasons difficult to determine at this remove, was not published until 2011.

The present volume was intended by Hoover to be a companion to Freedom Betrayed, focussing on domestic policy in his post-presidential career. Over the years, he envisioned publishing the work in various forms, but by the early 1950s he had given the book its present title and accumulated 564 pages of typeset page proofs. Due to other duties, and Hoover's decision to concentrate his efforts on Freedom Betrayed, little was done on the manuscript after he set it aside in 1955. It is only through the scholarship of the editor, drawing upon Hoover's draft, but also documents from the Hoover Institution and the Hoover Presidential Library, that this work has been assembled in its present form. The editor has also collected a variety of relevant documents, some of which Hoover cited or incorporated in earlier versions of the work, into a comprehensive appendix. There are extensive source citations and notes about discrepancies between Hoover's quotation of documents and speeches and other published versions of them.

Of all the crusades chronicled here, the bulk of the work is devoted to “The Crusade Against Collectivism in American Life”, and Hoover's words on the topic are so pithy and relevant to the present state of affairs in the United States that one suspects that a brave, ambitious, but less than original politician who simply cut and pasted Hoover's words into his own speeches would rapidly become the darling of liberty-minded members of the Republican party. I cannot think of any present-day Republican, even darlings of the Tea Party, who draws the contrast between the American tradition of individual liberty and enterprise and the grey uniformity of collectivism as Hoover does here. And Hoover does it with a firm intellectual grounding in the history of America and the world, personal knowledge from having lived and worked in countries around the world, and an engineer's pragmatism about doing what works, not what sounds good in a speech or makes people feel good about themselves.

This is somewhat of a surprise. Hoover was, in many ways, a progressive—Calvin Coolidge called him “wonder boy”. He was an enthusiastic believer in trust-busting and regulation as a counterpoise to concentration of economic power. He was a protectionist who supported the tariff to protect farmers and industry from foreign competition. He supported income and inheritance taxes “to regulate over-accumulations of wealth.” He was no libertarian, nor even a “light hand on the tiller” executive like Coolidge.

And yet he totally grasped the threat to liberty which the intrusive regulatory and administrative state represented. It's difficult to start quoting Hoover without retyping the entire book, as there is line after line, paragraph after paragraph, and page after page which are not only completely applicable to the current predicament of the U.S., but guaranteed applause lines were they uttered before a crowd of freedom loving citizens of that country. Please indulge me in a few (comments in italics are my own).

(On his electoral defeat)   Democracy is not a polite employer.

We cannot extend the mastery of government over the daily life of a people without somewhere making it master of people's souls and thoughts.

(On JournoList, vintage 1934)   I soon learned that the reviewers of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Saturday Review and of other journals of review in New York kept in touch to determine in what manner they should destroy books which were not to their liking.

Who then pays? It is the same economic middle class and the poor. That would still be true if the rich were taxed to the whole amount of their fortunes….

Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt….

Regulation should be by specific law, that all who run may read.

It would be far better that the party go down to defeat with the banner of principle flying than to win by pussyfooting.

The seizure by the government of the communications of persons not charged with wrong-doing justifies the immoral conduct of every snooper.

I could quote dozens more. Should Hoover re-appear and give a composite of what he writes here as a keynote speech at the 2016 Republican convention, and if it hasn't been packed with establishment cronies, I expect he would be interrupted every few lines with chants of “Hoo-ver, Hoo-ver” and nominated by acclamation.

It is sad that in the U.S. in the age of Obama there is no statesman with the stature, knowledge, and eloquence of Hoover who is making the case for liberty and warning of the inevitable tyranny which awaits at the end of the road to serfdom. There are voices articulating the message which Hoover expresses so pellucidly here, but in today's media environment they don't have access to the kind of platform Hoover did when his post-presidential policy speeches were routinely broadcast nationwide. After his being reviled ever since his presidency, not just by Democrats but by many in his own party, it's odd to feel nostalgia for Hoover, but Obama will do that to you.

In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the hardcover edition which, since the Kindle edition does not include real page numbers, are completely useless.

April 2014 Permalink

Houston, Keith. Shady Characters. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. ISBN 978-0-393-06442-1.
The earliest written languages seem mostly to have been mnemonic tools for recording and reciting spoken text. As such, they had little need for punctuation and many managed to get along withoutevenspacesbetweenwords. If you read it out loud, it's pretty easy to sound out (although words written without spaces can be used to create deliciously ambiguous text). As the written language evolved to encompass scholarly and sacred texts, commentaries upon other texts, fiction, drama, and law, the structural complexity of the text grew apace, and it became increasingly difficult to express this in words alone. Punctuation was born.

In the third century B.C. Aristophanes of Byzantium (not to be confused with the other fellow), librarian at Alexandria, invented a system of dots to denote logical breaks in Greek texts of classical rhetoric, which were placed after units called the komma, kolon, and periodos. In a different graphical form, they are with us still.

Until the introduction of movable type printing in Europe in the 15th century, books were hand-copied by scribes, each of whom was free, within the constraints of their institutions, to innovate in the presentation of the texts they copied. In the interest of conserving rare and expensive writing materials such as papyrus and parchment, abbreviations came into common use. The humble ampersand (the derivation of whose English name is delightfully presented here) dates to the shorthand invented by Cicero's personal secretary/slave Tiro, who invented a mark to quickly write “et” as his master spoke.

Other punctuation marks co-evolved with textual criticism: quotation marks allowed writers to distinguish text from other sources included within their works, and asterisks, daggers, and other symbols were introduced to denote commentary upon text. Once bound books (codices) printed with wide margins became common, readers would annotate them as they read, often pointing out key passages. Even a symbol as with-it as the now-ubiquitous “@” (which I recall around 1997 being called “the Internet logo”) is documented as having been used in 1536 as an abbreviation for amphorae of wine. And the ever-more-trending symbol prefixing #hashtags? Isaac Newton used it in the 17th century, and the story of how it came to be called an “octothorpe” is worthy of modern myth.

This is much more than a history of obscure punctuation. It traces how we communicate in writing over the millennia, and how technologies such as movable type printing, mechanical type composition, typewriting, phototypesetting, and computer text composition have both enriched and impoverished our written language. Impoverished? Indeed—I compose this on a computer able to display in excess of 64,000 characters from the written languages used by most people since the dawn of civilisation. And yet, thanks to the poisonous legacy of the typewriter, only a few people seem to be aware of the distinction, known to everybody setting type in the 19th century, among the em-dash—used to set off a phrase; the en-dash, denoting “to” in constructions like “1914–1918”; the hyphen, separating compound words such as “anarcho-libertarian” or words split at the end of a line; the minus sign, as in −4.221; and the figure dash, with the same width as numbers in a font where all numbers have the same width, which permits setting tables of numbers separated by dashes in even columns. People who appreciate typography and use TeX are acutely aware of this and grind their teeth when reading documents produced by demotic software tools such as Microsoft Word or reading postings on the Web which, although they could be so much better, would have made Mencken storm the Linotype floor of the Sunpapers had any of his writing been so poorly set.

Pilcrows, octothorpes, interrobangs, manicules, and the centuries-long quest for a typographical mark for irony (Like, we really need that¡)—this is a pure typographical delight: enjoy!

In the Kindle edition end of chapter notes are bidirectionally linked (albeit with inconsistent and duplicate reference marks), but end notes are not linked to their references in the text—you must manually flip to the notes and find the number. The end notes contain many references to Web URLs, but these are not active links, just text: to follow them you must copy and paste them into a browser address bar. The index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text. There is no way to distinguish examples of typographic symbols which are set in red type from chapter note reference links set in an identical red font.

October 2013 Permalink

Jacobsen, Annie. Phenomena. New York: Little, Brown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-316-34936-9.
At the end of World War II, it was clear that science and technology would be central to competition among nations in the postwar era. The development of nuclear weapons, German deployment of the first operational ballistic missile, and the introduction of jet propelled aircraft pointed the way to a technology-driven arms race, and both the U.S. and the Soviet Union scrambled to lay hands on the secret super-weapon programs of the defeated Nazi regime. On the U.S. side, the Alsos Mission not only sought information on German nuclear and missile programs, but also came across even more bizarre projects, such as those undertaken by Berlin's Ahnenerbe Institute, founded in 1935 by SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Investigating the institute's headquarters in a Berlin suburb, Samuel Goudsmit, chief scientist of Alsos, found what he described as “Remnants of weird Teutonic symbols and rites … a corner with a pit of ashes in which I found the skull of an infant.” What was going on? Had the Nazis attempted to weaponise black magic? And, to the ever-practical military mind, did it work?

In the years after the war, the intelligence community and military services in both the U.S. and Soviet Union would become involved in the realm of the paranormal, funding research and operational programs based upon purported psychic powers for which mainstream science had no explanation. Both superpowers were not only seeking super powers for their spies and soldiers, but also looking over their shoulders afraid the other would steal a jump on them in exploiting these supposed powers of mind. “We can't risk a ‘woo-woo gap’ with the adversary!”

Set aside for a moment (as did most of the agencies funding this research) the question of just how these mental powers were supposed to work. If they did, in fact, exist and if they could be harnessed and reliably employed, they would confer a tremendous strategic advantage on their possessor. Consider: psychic spies could project their consciousness out of body and penetrate the most secure military installations; telepaths could read the minds of diplomats during negotiations or perhaps even plant thoughts and influence their judgement; telekinesis might be able to disrupt the guidance systems of intercontinental missiles or space launchers; and psychic assassins could undetectably kill by stopping the hearts of their victims remotely by projecting malign mental energy in their direction.

All of this may seem absurd on its face, but work on all of these phenomena and more was funded, between 1952 and 1995, by agencies of the U.S. government including the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, the CIA, NSA, DIA, and ARPA/DARPA, expending tens of millions of dollars. Between 1978 and 1995 the Defense Department maintained an operational psychic espionage program under various names, using “remote viewing” to provide information on intelligence targets for clients including the Secret Service, Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Coast Guard.

What is remote viewing? Experiments in parapsychology laboratories usually employ a protocol called “outbounder-beacon”, where a researcher travels to a location selected randomly from a set of targets and observes the locale while a subject in the laboratory, usually isolated from sensory input which might provide clues, attempts to describe, either in words or by a drawing, what the outbounder is observing. At the conclusion of the experiment, the subject's description is compared with pictures of the targets by an independent judge (unaware of which was the outbounder's destination), who selects the one which is the closest match to the subject's description. If each experiment picked the outbounder's destination from a set of five targets, you'd expect from chance alone that in an ensemble of experiments the remote viewer's perception would match the actual target around 20% of the time. Experiments conducted in the 1970s at the Stanford Research Institute (and subsequently the target of intense criticism by skeptics) claimed in excess of 65% accuracy by talented remote viewers.

While outbounder-beacon experiments were used to train and test candidate remote viewers, operational military remote viewing as conducted by the Stargate Project (and under assorted other code names over the years), was quite different. Usually the procedure involved “coordinate remote viewing”. The viewer would simply be handed a slip of paper containing the latitude and longitude of the target and then, relaxing and clearing his or her mind, would attempt to describe what was there. In other sessions, the viewer might be handed a sealed envelope containing a satellite reconnaissance photograph. The results were sometimes stunning. In 1979, a KH-9 spy satellite photographed a huge building which had been constructed at Severodvinsk Naval Base in the Soviet arctic. Analysts thought the Soviets might be building their first aircraft carrier inside the secret facility. Joe McMoneagle, an Army warrant office and Vietnam veteran who was assigned to the Stargate Project as its first remote viewer, was given the target in the form of an envelope with the satellite photo sealed inside. Concentrating on the target, he noted “There's some kind of a ship. Some kind of a vessel. I'm getting a very, very strong impression of props [propellers]”. Then, “I'm seeing fins…. They look like shark fins.” He continued, “I'm seeing what looks like part of a submarine in this building.” The entire transcript was forty-seven pages long.

McMoneagle's report was passed on to the National Security Council, which dismissed it because it didn't make any sense for the Soviets to build a huge submarine in a building located one hundred metres from the water. McMoneagle had described a canal between the building and the shore, but the satellite imagery showed no such structure. Then, four months later, in January 1980, another KH-9 pass showed a large submarine at a dock at Severodvinsk, along with a canal between the mystery building and the sea, which had been constructed in the interim. This was the prototype of the new Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine, which was a complete surprise to Western analysts, but not Joe McMoneagle. This is what was referred to as an “eight martini result”. When McMoneagle retired in 1984, he was awarded the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service in the field of human intelligence.

A decade later the U.S. Customs Service approached the remote viewing unit for assistance in tracking down a rogue agent accused of taking bribes from cocaine smugglers in Florida. He had been on the run for two years, and appeared on the FBI's Most Wanted List. He was believed to be in Florida or somewhere in the Caribbean. Self-taught remote viewer Angela Dellafiora concentrated on the case and immediately said, “He's in Lowell, Wyoming.” Wyoming? There was no reason for him to be in such a place. Further, there was no town named Lowell in the state. Agents looked through an atlas and found there was, however, a Lovell, Wyoming. Dellafiora said, “Well, that's probably it.” Several weeks later, she was asked to work the case again. Her notes include, “If you don't get him now you'll lose him. He's moving from Lowell.” She added that he was “at or near a campground that had a large boulder at its entrance”, and that she “sensed an old Indian burial ground is located nearby.”. After being spotted by a park ranger, the fugitive was apprehended at a campground next to an Indian burial ground, about fifty miles from Lovell, Wyoming, where he had been a few weeks before. Martinis all around.

A total of 417 operational sessions were run in 1989 and 1990 for the counter-narcotics mission; 52% were judged as producing results of intelligence value while 47% were of no value. Still, what was produced was considered of sufficient value that the customers kept coming back.

Most of this work and its products were classified, in part to protect the program from ridicule by journalists and politicians. Those running the projects were afraid of being accused of dabbling in the occult, so they endorsed an Army doctrine that remote viewing, like any other military occupational specialty, was a normal human facility which could be taught to anybody with a suitable training process, and a curriculum was developed to introduce new people to the program. This was despite abundant evidence that the ability to remote view, if it exists at all, is a rare trait some people acquire at birth, and cannot be taught to randomly selected individuals any more than they can be trained to become musical composers or chess grand masters.

Under a similar shroud of secrecy, paranormal research for military applications appears to have been pursued in the Soviet Union and China. From time to time information would leak out into the open literature, such as the Soviet experiments with Ninel Kulagina. In China, H. S. Tsien (Qian Xuesen), a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States who, after being stripped of his security clearance and moving to mainland China in 1955, led the Chinese nuclear weapons and missile programs, became a vocal and powerful advocate of research into the paranormal which, in accordance with Chinese Communist doctrine, was called “Extraordinary Human Body Functioning” (EHBF), and linked to the concept of qi, an energy field which is one of the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. It is likely this work continues today in China.

The U.S. remote viewing program came to an end in June 1995, when the CIA ordered the Defense Intelligence Agency to shut down the Stargate project. Many documents relating to the project have since been declassified but, oddly for a program which many claimed produced no useful results, others remain secret to this day. The paranormal continues to appeal to some in the military. In 2014, the Office of Naval Research launched a four year project funded with US$ 3.85 million to investigate premonitions, intuition, and hunches—what the press release called “Spidey sense”. In the 1950s, during a conversation between physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychiatrist Carl Jung about psychic phenomena, Jung remarked, “As is only to be expected, every conceivable kind of attempt has been made to explain away these results, which seem to border on the miraculous and frankly impossible. But all such attempts come to grief on the facts, and the facts refuse so far to be argued out of existence.” A quarter century later in 1975, a CIA report concluded “A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon.”

To those who have had psychic experiences, there is no doubt of the reality of the phenomena. But research into them or, even more shockingly, attempts to apply them to practical ends, runs squarely into a paradigm of modern science which puts theory ahead of observation and experiment. A 1986 report by the U.S. Army said that its research had “succeeded in documenting general anomalies worthy of scientific interest,“ but that “in the absence of a confirmed paranormal theory…paranormality could be rejected a priori.” When the remote viewing program was cancelled in 1995, a review of its work stated that “a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory…[but] the laboratory studies do not provide evidence regarding the sources or origins of the phenomenon.” In other words, experimental results can be discarded if there isn't a theory upon which to hang them, and there is no general theory of paranormal phenomena. Heck, they could have asked me.

One wonders where many currently mature fields of science would be today had this standard been applied during their formative phases: rejecting experimental results due to lack of a theory to explain them. High-temperature superconductivity was discovered in 1986 and won the Nobel Prize in 1987, and still today there is no theory that explains how it works. Perhaps it is only because it is so easily demonstrated with a desktop experiment that it, too, has not been relegated to the realm of “fringe science”.

This book provides a comprehensive history of the postwar involvement of the military and intelligence communities with the paranormal, focusing on the United States. The author takes a neutral stance: both believers and skeptics are given their say. One notes a consistent tension between scientists who reject the phenomena because “it can't possibly work” and intelligence officers who couldn't care less about how it works as long as it is providing them useful results.

The author has conducted interviews with many of the principals still alive, and documented the programs with original sources, many obtained by her under the Freedom of Information Act. Extensive end notes and source citations are included. I wish I could be more confident in the accuracy of the text, however. Chapter 7 relates astronaut Edgar Mitchell's Apollo 14 mission to the Moon, during which he conducted, on his own initiative, some unauthorised ESP experiments. But most of the chapter is about the mission itself, and it is riddled with errors, all of which could be corrected with no more research than consulting Wikipedia pages about the mission and the Apollo program. When you read something you know about and discover much of it is wrong, you have to guard against what Michael Crichton called the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: turning the page and assuming what you read there, about which you have no personal knowledge, is to be trusted. When dealing with spooky topics and programs conducted in secret, one should be doubly cautious. The copy editing is only of fair quality, and the Kindle edition has no index (the print edition does have an index).

Napoléon Bonaparte said, “There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind.” The decades of secret paranormal research were an attempt to apply this statement literally, and provide a fascinating look inside a secret world where nothing was dismissed as absurd if it might provide an edge over the adversary. Almost nobody knew about this work at the time. One wonders what is going on today.

May 2017 Permalink

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59448-925-4.
From the dawn of human civilisation until sometime in the nineteenth century, cities were net population sinks—the increased mortality from infectious diseases, compounded by the unsanitary conditions, impure water, and food transported from the hinterland and stored without refrigeration so shortened the lives of city-dwellers (except for the ruling class and the wealthy, a small fraction of the population) that a city's population was maintained only by a constant net migration to it from the countryside. In densely-packed cities, not only does an infected individual come into contact with many more potential victims than in a rural environment, highly virulent strains of infectious agents which would “burn out” due to rapidly killing their hosts in farm country or a small village can prosper in a city, since each infected host still has the opportunity to infect many others before succumbing. Cities can be thought of as Petri dishes for evolving killer microbes.

No civic culture medium was as hospitable to pathogens as London in the middle of the 19th century. Its population, 2.4 million in 1851, had exploded from just one million at the start of the century, and all of these people had been accommodated in a sprawling metropolis almost devoid of what we would consider a public health infrastructure. Sewers, where they existed, were often open and simply dumped into the Thames, whence other Londoners drew their drinking water, downstream. Other residences dumped human waste in cesspools, emptied occasionally (or maybe not) by “night-soil men”. Imperial London was a smelly, and a deadly place. Observing it first-hand is what motivated Friedrich Engels to document and deplore The Condition of the Working Class in England (January 2003).

Among the diseases which cut down inhabitants of cities, one of the most feared was cholera. In 1849, an outbreak killed 14,137 in London, and nobody knew when or where it might strike next. The prevailing theory of disease at this epoch was that infection was caused by and spread through “miasma”: contaminated air. Given how London stank and how deadly it was to its inhabitants, this would have seemed perfectly plausible to people living before the germ theory of disease was propounded. Edwin Chadwick, head of the General Board of Health in London at the epoch, went so far as to assert (p. 114) “all smell is disease”. Chadwick was, in many ways, one of the first advocates and implementers of what we have come to call “big government”—that the state should take an active role in addressing social problems and providing infrastructure for public health. Relying upon the accepted “miasma” theory and empowered by an act of Parliament, he spent the 1840s trying to eliminate the stink of the cesspools by connecting them to sewers which drained their offal into the Thames. Chadwick was, by doing so, to provide one of the first demonstrations of that universal concomitant of big government, unintended consequences: “The first defining act of a modern, centralized public-health authority was to poison an entire urban population.” (p. 120).

When, in 1854, a singularly virulent outbreak of cholera struck the Soho district of London, physician and pioneer in anæsthesia John Snow found himself at the fulcrum of a revolution in science and public health toward which he had been working for years. Based upon his studies of the 1849 cholera outbreak, Snow had become convinced that the pathogen spread through contamination of water supplies by the excrement of infected individuals. He had published a monograph laying out this theory in 1849, but it swayed few readers from the prevailing miasma theory. He was continuing to document the case when cholera exploded in his own neighbourhood. Snow's mind was not only prepared to consider a waterborne infection vector, he was also one of the pioneers of the emerging science of epidemiology: he was a founding member of the London Epidemiological Society in 1850. Snow's real-time analysis of the epidemic caused him to believe that the vector of infection was contaminated water from the Broad Street pump, and his persuasive presentation of the evidence to the Board of Governors of St. James Parish caused them to remove the handle from that pump, after which the contagion abated. (As the author explains, the outbreak was already declining at the time, and in all probability the water from the Broad Street pump was no longer contaminated then. However, due to subsequent events and discoveries made later, had the handle not been removed there would have likely been a second wave of the epidemic, with casualties comparable to the first.)

Afterward, Snow, with the assistance of initially-sceptical clergyman Henry Whitehead, whose intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood and its residents allowed compiling the data which not only confirmed Snow's hypothesis but identified what modern epidemiologists would call the “index case” and “vector of contagion”, revised his monograph to cover the 1854 outbreak, illustrated by a map which illustrated its casualties that has become a classic of on-the-ground epidemiology and the graphical presentation of data. Most brilliant was Snow's use (and apparent independent invention) of a Voronoi diagram to show the boundary, by streets, of the distance, not in Euclidean space, but by walking time, of the area closer to the Broad Street pump than to others in the neighbourhood. (Oddly, the complete map with this crucial detail does not appear in the book: only a blow-up of the central section without the boundary. The full map is here; depending on your browser, you may have to click on the map image to display it at full resolution. The dotted and dashed line is the Voronoi cell enclosing the Broad Street pump.)

In the following years, London embarked upon a massive program to build underground sewers to transport the waste of its millions of residents downstream to the tidal zone of the Thames and later, directly to the sea. There would be one more cholera outbreak in London in 1866—in an area not yet connected to the new sewers and water treatment systems. Afterward, there has not been a single epidemic of cholera in London. Other cities in the developed world learned this lesson and built the infrastructure to provide their residents clean water. In the developing world, cholera continues to take its toll: in the 1990s an outbreak in South America infected more than a million people and killed almost 10,000. Fortunately, administration of rehydration therapy (with electrolytes) has drastically reduced the likelihood of death from a cholera infection. Still, you have to wonder why, in a world where billions of people lack access to clean water and third world mega-cities are drawing millions to live in conditions not unlike London in the 1850s, that some believe that laptop computers are the top priority for children growing up there.

A paperback edition is now available.

December 2007 Permalink

Jones, Peter. The 1848 Revolutions. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 1991. ISBN 0-582-06106-7.

January 2002 Permalink

Judd, Denis. Someone Has Blundered. London: Phoenix, [1973] 2007. ISBN 0-7538-2181-8.
One of the most amazing things about the British Empire was not how much of the world it ruled, but how small was the army which maintained dominion over so large a portion of the globe. While the Royal Navy enjoyed unchallenged supremacy on the high seas in the 19th century, it was of little use in keeping order in the colonies, and the ground forces available were, not just by modern standards, but by those of contemporary European powers, meagre. In the 1830s, the British regular army numbered only about 100,000, and rose to just 200,000 by the end of the century. When the Indian Mutiny (or “Sepoy Rebellion”) erupted in 1857, there were just 45,522 European troops in the entire subcontinent.

Perhaps the stolid British at home were confident that the military valour and discipline of their meagre legions would prevail, or that superior technology would carry the day:

Whatever happens,
we have got,
the Maxim gun,
and they have not.
            — Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, “The Modern Traveller”, 1898
but when it came to a fight, as happened surprisingly often in what one thinks of as the Pax Britannica era (the Appendix [pp. 174–176] lists 72 conflicts and military expeditions in the Victorian era), a small, tradition-bound force, accustomed to peace and the parade ground, too often fell victim to (p. xix) “a devil's brew of incompetence, unpreparedness, mistaken and inappropriate tactics, a reckless underestimating of the enemy, a brash overconfidence, a personal or psychological collapse, a difficult terrain, useless maps, raw and panicky recruits, skilful or treacherous opponents, diplomatic hindrance, and bone-headed leadership.”

All of these are much in evidence in the campaigns recounted here: the 1838–1842 invasion of Afghanistan, the 1854–1856 Crimean War, the 1857–1859 Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War of 1879, and the first (1880–1881) and second (1899–1902) Boer Wars. Although this book was originally published more than thirty years ago and its subtitle, “Calamities of the British Army in the Victorian Age”, suggests it is a chronicle of a quaint and long-departed age, there is much to learn in these accounts of how highly-mobile, superbly trained, excellently equipped, and technologically superior military forces were humiliated and sometimes annihilated by indigenous armies with the power of numbers, knowledge of the terrain, and the motivation to defend their own land.

April 2007 Permalink

Kaiser, David. How the Hippies Saved Physics. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-07636-3.
From its origin in the early years of the twentieth century until the outbreak of World War II, quantum theory inspired deeply philosophical reflection as to its meaning and implications for concepts rarely pondered before in physics, such as the meaning of “measurement”, the rôle of the “observer”, the existence of an objective reality apart from the result of a measurement, and whether the randomness of quantum measurements was fundamental or due to our lack of knowledge of an underlying stratum of reality. Quantum theory seemed to imply that the universe could not be neatly reduced to isolated particles which interacted only locally, but admitted “entanglement” among separated particles which seemed to verge upon mystic conceptions of “all is one”. These weighty issues occupied the correspondence and conference debates of the pioneers of quantum theory including Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Pauli, Dirac, Born, and others.

And then the war came, and then the war came to an end, and with it ended the inquiry into the philosophical foundations of quantum theory. During the conflict, physicists on all sides were central to war efforts including nuclear weapons, guided missiles, radar, and operations research, and after the war they were perceived by governments as a strategic resource—subsidised in their education and research and provided with lavish facilities in return for having them on tap when their intellectual capacities were needed. In this environment, the education and culture of physics underwent a fundamental change. Suddenly the field was much larger than before, filled with those interested more in their own careers than probing the bottom of deep questions, and oriented toward, in Richard Feynman's words, “getting the answer out”. Instead of debating what their equations said about the nature of reality, the motto of the age became “shut up and calculate”, and physicists who didn't found their career prospects severely constrained.

Such was the situation from the end of World War II through the 1960s, when the defence (and later space program) funding gravy train came to an end due to crowding out of R&D budgets by the Vietnam War and the growing financial crisis due to debasement of the dollar. Suddenly, an entire cohort of Ph.D. physicists who, a few years before could expect to choose among a variety of tenure-track positions in academia or posts in government or industry research laboratories, found themselves superbly qualified to do work which nobody seemed willing to pay them to do. Well, whatever you say about physicists, they're nothing if they aren't creative, so a small group of out of the box thinkers in the San Francisco Bay area self-organised into the Fundamental Fysiks Group and began to re-open the deep puzzles in quantum mechanics which had laid fallow since the 1930s. This group, founded by Elizabeth Rauscher and George Weissmann, whose members came to include Henry Stapp, Philippe Eberhard, Nick Herbert, Jack Sarfatti, Saul-Paul Sirag, Fred Alan Wolf, John Clauser, and Fritjof Capra, came to focus on Bell's theorem and its implications for quantum entanglement, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, and the potential for instantaneous communications not limited by the speed of light.

The author argues that the group's work, communicated through samizdat circulation of manuscripts, the occasional publication in mainstream journals, and contact with established researchers open to considering foundational questions, provided the impetus for today's vibrant theoretical and experimental investigation of quantum information theory, computing, and encryption. There is no doubt whatsoever from the trail of citations that Nick Herbert's attempts to create a faster-than-light signalling device led directly to the quantum no-cloning theorem.

Not only did the group reestablish the prewar style of doing physics, more philosophical than computational, they also rediscovered the way science had been funded from the Medicis until the advent of Big Science. While some group members held conventional posts, others were supported by wealthy patrons interested in their work purely from its intellectual value. We encounter a variety of characters who probably couldn't have existed in any decade other than the 1970s including Werner Erhard, Michael Murphy, Ira Einhorn, and Uri Geller.

The group's activities ranged far beyond the classrooms and laboratories into which postwar physics had been confined, to the thermal baths at Esalen and outreach to the public through books which became worldwide bestsellers and remain in print to this day. Their curiosity also wandered well beyond the conventional bounds of physics, encompassing ESP (and speculating as to how quantum processes might explain it). This caused many mainstream physicists to keep members at arm's length, even as their insights on quantum processes were infiltrating the journals.

Many of us who lived through (I prefer the term “endured”) the 1970s remember them as a dull brown interlude of broken dreams, ugly cars, funny money, and malaise. But, among a small community of thinkers orphaned from the career treadmill of mainstream physics, it was a renaissance of investigation of the most profound questions in physics, and the spark which lit today's research into quantum information processing.

The Kindle edition has the table of contents, and notes properly linked, but the index is just a useless list of terms. An interview of the author, Jack Sarfatti, and Fred Alan Wolf by George Knapp on “Coast to Coast AM” is available.

November 2011 Permalink

Karsh, Efraim. Islamic Imperialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-10603-3.
A great deal of conflict and tragedy might have been avoided in recent years had only this 2006 book been published a few years earlier and read by those contemplating ambitious adventures to remake the political landscape of the Near East and Central Asia. The author, a professor of history at King's College, University of London, traces the repeated attempts, beginning with Muhammad and his immediate successors, to establish a unified civilisation under the principles of Islam, in which the Koranic proscription of conflict among Muslims would guarantee permanent peace.

In the century following the Prophet's death in the year 632, Arab armies exploded out of the birthplace of Islam and conquered a vast territory from present-day Iran to Spain, including the entire north African coast. This was the first of a succession of great Islamic empires, which would last until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. But, as this book thoroughly documents, over this entire period, the emphasis was on the word “empire” and not “Islamic”. While the leaders identified themselves as Muslims and exhorted their armies to holy war, the actual empires were very much motivated by a quest for temporal wealth and power, and behaved much as the previous despotisms they supplanted. Since the Arabs had no experience in administering an empire nor a cadre of people trained in those arts, they ended up assimilating the bureaucratic structure and personnel of the Persian empire after conquering it, and much the same happened in the West after the fall of the Byzantine empire.

While soldiers might have seen themselves as spreading the word of Islam by the sword, in fact the conquests were mostly about the traditional rationale for empire: booty and tribute. (The Prophet's injunction against raiding other Muslims does appear to have been one motivation for outward-directed conquest, especially in the early years.) Not only was there relatively little aggressive proselytising of Islam, on a number of occasions conversion to Islam by members of dhimmi populations was discouraged or prohibited outright because the imperial treasury depended heavily on the special taxes non-Muslims were required to pay. Nor did these empires resemble the tranquil Dar al-Islam envisaged by the Prophet—in fact, only 24 years would elapse after his death before the Caliph Uthman was assassinated by his rivals, and that would be first of many murders, revolutions, plots, and conflicts between Muslim factions within the empires to come.

Nor were the Crusades, seen through contemporary eyes, the cataclysmic clash of civilisations they are frequently described as today. The kingdoms established by the crusaders rapidly became seen as regional powers like any other, and often found themselves in alliance with Muslims against Muslims. Pan-Arabists in modern times who identify their movement with opposition to the hated crusader often fail to note that there was never any unified Arab campaign against the crusaders; when they were finally ejected, it was by the Turks, and their great hero Saladin was, himself, a Kurd.

The latter half of the book recounts the modern history of the Near East, from Churchill's invention of Iraq, through Nasser, Khomeini, and the emergence of Islamism and terror networks directed against Israel and the West. What is simultaneously striking and depressing about this long and detailed history of strife, subversion, oppression, and conflict is that you can open it up to almost any page and apart from a few details, it sounds like present-day news reports from the region. Thirteen centuries of history with little or no evidence for indigenous development of individual liberty, self-rule, the rule of law, and religious tolerance does not bode well for idealistic neo-Jacobin schemes to “implant democracy” at the point of a bayonet. (Modern Turkey can be seen as a counter-example, but it is worth observing that Mustafa Kemal explicitly equated modernisation with the importation and adoption of Western values, and simultaneously renounced imperial ambitions. In this, he was alone in the region.)

Perhaps the lesson one should draw from this long and tragic narrative is that this unfortunate region of the world, which was a fiercely-contested arena of human conflict thousands of years before Muhammad, has resisted every attempt by every actor, the Prophet included, to pacify it over those long millennia. Rather than commit lives and fortune to yet another foredoomed attempt to “fix the problem”, one might more wisely and modestly seek ways to keep it contained and not aggravate the situation.

October 2006 Permalink

Kauffman, Bill. Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-933859-73-6.
It is a cliché to observe that history is written by the victors, but rarely is it as evident as in the case of the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution, where the proponents of a strong national government, some of whom, including Alexander Hamilton, wished to “annihilate the State distinctions and State operations” (p. 30), not only conducted the proceedings in secret, carefully managed the flow of information to the public, and concealed their nationalist, nay imperial, ambitions from the state conventions which were to vote on ratification. Indeed, just like modern-day collectivists in the U.S. who have purloined the word “liberal”, which used to mean a champion of individual freedom, the covert centralisers at the Constitutional Convention styled themselves “Federalists”, while promoting a supreme government which was anything but federal in nature. The genuine champions of a federal structure allowed themselves to be dubbed “Anti-Federalists” and, as always, were slandered as opposing “progress” (but toward what?). The Anti-Federalists counted among their ranks men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Samuel Chase, and Elbridge Gerry: these were not reactionary bumpkins but heroes, patriots, and intellectuals the equal of any of their opponents. And then there was Luther Martin, fervent Anti-Federalist and perhaps the least celebrated of the Founding Fathers.

Martin's long life was a study in contradictions. He was considered one of the most brilliant trial lawyers of his time, and yet his courtroom demeanour was universally described as long-winded, rambling, uncouth, and ungrammatical. He often appeared in court obviously inebriated, was slovenly in appearance and dress, when excited would flick spittle from his mouth, and let's not get into his table manners. At the Consitutional Convention he was a fierce opponent of the Virginia Plan which became the basis of the Constitution and, with Samuel Adams and Mason, urged the adoption of a Bill of Rights. He argued vehemently for the inclusion of an immediate ban on the importation of slaves and a plan to phase out slavery while, as of 1790, owning six slaves himself yet serving as Honorary-Counselor to a Maryland abolitionist society.

After the Constitution was adopted by the convention (Martin had walked out by the time and did not sign the document), he led the fight against its ratification by Maryland. Maryland ratified the Constitution over his opposition, but he did manage to make the ratification conditional upon the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

Martin was a man with larger than life passions. Although philosophically close to Thomas Jefferson in his view of government, he detested the man because he believed Jefferson had slandered one of his wife's ancestors as a murderer of Indians. When Jefferson became President, Martin the Anti-Federalist became Martin the ardent Federalist, bent on causing Jefferson as much anguish as possible. When a law student studying with him eloped with and married his daughter, Martin turned incandescent, wrote, and self-published a 163 page full-tilt tirade against the bounder titled Modern Gratitude.

Lest Martin come across as a kind of buffoon, bear in mind that after his singular performance at the Constitutional Convention, he went on to serve as Attorney General of the State of Maryland for thirty years (a tenure never equalled in all the years which followed), argued forty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and appeared for the defence in two of the epochal trials of early U.S. jurisprudence: the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase before the U.S. Senate, and the treason trial of Aaron Burr—and won acquittals on both occasions.

The author is an unabashed libertarian, and considers Martin's diagnosis of how the Constitution would inevitably lead to the concentration of power in a Federal City (which his fellow Anti-Federalist George Clinton foresaw, “would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious, and ambitious” [p. xiii]) to the detriment of individual liberty as prescient. One wishes that Martin had been listened to, while sympathising with those who actually had to endure his speeches.

The author writes with an exuberantly vast vocabulary which probably would have sent the late William F. Buckley to the dictionary on several occasions: every few pages you come across a word like “roorback”, “eftsoons”, “sennight”, or “fleer”. For a complete list of those which stumped me, open the vault of the spoilers.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Here are the delightfully obscure words used in this book. To avoid typographic fussiness, I have not quoted them. Each is linked to its definition. Vocabulary ho!

malison, exordium, eristic, roorback, tertium quid, bibulosity, eftsoons, vendue, froward, pococurante, disprized, toper, cerecloth, sennight, valetudinarian, variorum, concinnity, plashing, ultimo, fleer, recusants, scrim, flagitious, indurated, truckling, linguacious, caducity, prepotency, natheless, dissentient, placemen, lenity, burke, plangency, roundelay, hymeneally, mesalliance, divagation, parti pris, anent, comminatory, descry, minatory
Spoilers end here.  

This is a wonderful little book which, if your view of the U.S. Constitution has been solely based on the propaganda of those who promulgated it, is an excellent and enjoyable antidote.

November 2008 Permalink

Keegan. John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-00-4897-1.
As the author, a distinguished military historian, observes in the extended introduction, the topic of much of military history is battles, but only rarely do historians delve into the experience of battle itself—instead they treat the chaotic and sanguinary events on the battlefield as a kind of choreography or chess game, with commanders moving pieces on a board. But what do those pieces, living human beings in the killing zone, actually endure in battle? What motivates them to advance in the face of the enemy or, on the other hand, turn and run away? What do they see and hear? What wounds do they suffer, and what are their most common cause, and how are the wounded treated during and after the battle? How do the various military specialities: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armour, combat one another, and how can they be used together to achieve victory?

To answer these questions, the author examines three epic battles of their respective ages: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme Offensive. Each battle is described in painstaking detail, not from that of the commanders, but the combatants on the field. Modern analysis of the weapons employed and the injuries they inflict is used to reconstruct the casualties suffered and their consequences for the victims. Although spanning almost five centuries, all of these battles took place in northwest Europe between European armies, and allow holding cultural influences constant (although, of course, evolving over time) as expansion of state authority and technology increased the size and lethality of the battlefield by orders of magnitude. (Henry's entire army at Agincourt numbered less than 6,000 and suffered 112 deaths during the battle, while on the first day of the Somme, British forces alone lost 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.)

The experiences of some combatants in these set piece battles are so alien to normal human life that it is difficult to imagine how they were endured. Consider the Inniskilling Regiment, which arrived at Waterloo after the battle was already underway. Ordered by Wellington to occupy a position in the line, they stood there in static formation for four hours, while receiving cannon fire from French artillery several hundred yards away. During those hours, 450 of the regiment's 750 officers and men were killed and wounded, including 17 of the 18 officers. The same regiment, a century later, suffered devastating losses in a futile assault on the first day of the Somme.

Battles are decided when the intolerable becomes truly unendurable, and armies dissolve into the crowds from which they were formed. The author examines this threshold in various circumstances, and what happens when it is crossed and cohesion is lost. In a concluding chapter he explores how modern mechanised warfare (recall that when this book was published the threat of a Soviet thrust into Western Europe with tanks and tactical nuclear weapons was taken with deadly seriousness by NATO strategists) may have so isolated the combatants from one another and subjected them to such a level of lethality that armies might disintegrate within days of the outbreak of hostilities. Fortunately, we never got to see whether this was correct, and hopefully we never will.

I read the Kindle edition using the iPhone Kindle application. It appears to have been created by OCR scanning a printed copy of the book and passing it through a spelling checker, but with no further editing. Unsurprisingly, the errors one is accustomed to in scanned documents abound. The word “modern”, for example, appears more than dozen times as “modem”. Now I suppose cybercommand does engage in “modem warfare”, but this is not what the author means to say. The Kindle edition costs only a dollar less than the paperback print edition, and such slapdash production values are unworthy of a publisher with the reputation of Penguin.

July 2009 Permalink

Kennedy, Gregory P. The Rockets and Missiles of White Sands Proving Ground, 1945–1958. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7643-3251-7.
Southern New Mexico has been a centre of American rocketry from its origin to the present day. After being chased out of Massachusetts due to his inventions' proclivity for making ear-shattering detonations and starting fires, Robert Goddard moved his liquid fuel rocket research to a site near Roswell, New Mexico in 1930 and continued to launch increasingly advanced rockets from that site until 1943, when he left to do war work for the Navy. Faced with the need for a range to test the missiles developed during World War II, in February 1945 the U.S. Army acquired a site stretching 100 miles north from the Texas-New Mexico border near El Paso and 41 miles east-west at the widest point, designated the “White Sands Proving Ground”: taking its name from the gypsum sands found in the region, also home to the White Sands National Monument.

Although established before the end of the war to test U.S. missiles, the first large rockets launched at the site were captured German V-2s (December 2002), with the first launched (unsuccessfully) in April 1946. Over the next six years, around seventy V-2s lifted off from White Sands, using the V-2's massive (for the time) one ton payload capacity to carry a wide variety of scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere and the edge of space. In the Bumper project, the V-2 was used as the booster for the world's first two stage liquid rocket, with its WAC Corporal second stage attaining an altitude of 248 miles: higher than some satellites orbit today (it did not, of course, attain anything near orbital velocity, and quickly fell back to Earth).

Simultaneously with launches of the V-2, U.S. rocketeers arrived at White Sands to test their designs—almost every U.S. missile of the 1940s and 1950s made its first flight there. These included research rockets such as Viking and Aerobee (first launched in 1948, it remained in service until 1985 with a total of 1037 launched); the Corporal, Sergeant, and Redstone ballistic missiles; Loki, Nike, Hawk anti-aircraft missiles; and a variety of tactical missiles including the unguided (!) nuclear-tipped Honest John.

White Sands in the forties and fifties was truly the Wild West of rocketry. Even by the standards of fighter aircraft development in the epoch, this was by guess and by gosh engineering in its purest incarnation. Consider Viking 8, which broke loose from the launch pad during a static test when hold-down fittings failed, and was allowed to fly to 20,000 feet to see what would happen (p. 97). Or Viking 10, whose engine exploded on the launch pad and then threatened a massive explosion because leaking fuel was causing the tankage to crumple as it left a vacuum. An intrepid rocketeer was sent out of the blockhouse with a carbine to shoot a hole in the top of the fuel tank and allow air to enter (p. 100)—problem solved! (The rocket was rebuilt and later flew successfully.) Then there was the time they ran out of 90% hydrogen peroxide and were told the first Viking launch would have to be delayed for two weeks until a new shipment could arrive by rail. Can't have that! So two engineers drove a drum of the highly volatile and corrosive substance in the back of a station wagon from Buffalo, New York to White Sands to meet the launch deadline (p. 79). In the Nike program, people worried about whether its aniline fuel would be sufficiently available under tactical conditions, so they tried using gasoline as fuel instead—BOOM! Nope, guess not (p. 132). With all this “innovation” going on, they needed a suitable place from which to observe it, so the pyramid-shaped blockhouse had reinforced concrete walls ten feet thick with a roof 27 feet thick at the peak. This was designed to withstand a direct impact from a V-2 falling from an altitude of 100 miles. “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?”

And the pace of rockets going up was absolutely frenetic, almost inconceivable by the standards of today's hangar queens and launch pad prima donnas (some years ago, a booster which sat on the pad for more than a year was nicknamed the “civil servant”: it won't work and you can't fire it). By contrast, a single development program, the Loki anti-aircraft missile, conducted a total of 2282 launches at White Sands in 1953 and 1954 (p. 115)—that's an average of more than three a day, counting weekends and holidays!

The book concludes in 1958 when White Sands Proving Ground became White Sands Missile Range (scary pop-up at this link), which remains a centre of rocket development and testing to this day. With the advent of NASA and massively funded, long-term military procurement programs, much of the cut, try, and run like Hell days of rocketry came to a close; this book covers that period which, if not a golden age, was a heck of a lot of fun for engineers who enjoy making loud noises and punching holes in the sky.

The book is gorgeous, printed on glossy paper, with hundreds of illustrations. I noted no typographical or factual errors. A complete list of all U.S. V-2, WAC Corporal, and Viking launches is given in appendices at the end.

May 2010 Permalink

Kershaw, Ian. The End. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59420-314-5.
Ian Kershaw is the author of the definitive two-volume biography of Hitler: Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis (both of which I read before I began keeping this list). In the present volume he tackles one of the greatest puzzles of World War II: why did Germany continue fighting to the bitter end, when the Red Army was only blocks from Hitler's bunker, and long after it was apparent to those in the Nazi hierarchy, senior military commanders, industrialists, and the general populace that the war was lost and continuing the conflict would only prolong the suffering, inflict further casualties, and further devastate the infrastructure upon which survival in a postwar world would depend? It is, as the author notes, quite rare in the history of human conflict that the battle has to be taken all the way to the leader of an opponent in his capital city: Mussolini was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism and the king of Italy, and Japan surrendered before a single Allied soldier set foot upon the Home Islands (albeit after the imposition of a total blockade, the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, and the destruction of two cities by atomic bombs).

In addressing this question, the author recounts the last year of the war in great detail, starting with the Stauffenberg plot, which attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944. In the aftermath of this plot, a ruthless purge of those considered unreliable in the military and party ensued (in the Wehrmacht alone, around 700 officers were arrested and 110 executed), those who survived were forced to swear personal allegiance to Hitler, and additional informants and internal repression were unleashed to identify and mete out summary punishment for any perceived disloyalty or defeatist sentiment. This, in effect, aligned those who might have opposed Hitler with his own personal destiny and made any overt expression of dissent from his will to hold out to the end tantamount to suicide.

But the story does not end there. Letters from soldiers at the front, meticulously catalogued by the censors of the SD and summarised in reports to Goebbels's propaganda ministry, indicate that while morale deteriorated in the last year of the war, fear of the consequences of a defeat, particularly at the hands of the Red Army, motivated many to keep on fighting. Propaganda highlighted the atrocities committed by the “Asian Bolshevik hordes” but, if exaggerated, was grounded in fact, as the Red Army was largely given a free hand if not encouraged to exact revenge for German war crimes on Soviet territory.

As the dénouement approached, those in Hitler's inner circle, who might have otherwise moved against him under other circumstances, were paralysed by the knowledge that their own authority flowed entirely from him, and that any hint of disloyalty would cause them to be dismissed or worse (as had already happened to several). With the Party and its informants and enforcers having thoroughly infiltrated the military and civilian population, there was simply no chance for an opposition movement to establish itself. Certainly there were those, particularly on the Western front, who did as little as possible and waited for the British and Americans to arrive (the French—not so much: reprisals under the zones they occupied had already inspired fear among those in their path). But finally, as long as Hitler was determined to resist to the very last and willing to accept the total destruction of the German people who he deemed to have “failed him”, there was simply no counterpoise which could oppose him and put an end to the conflict. Tellingly, only a week after Hitler's death, his successor, Karl Dönitz, ordered the surrender of Germany.

This is a superb, thoughtful, and thoroughly documented (indeed, almost 40% of the book is source citations and notes) account of the final days of the Third Reich and an enlightening and persuasive argument as to why things ended as they did.

As with all insightful works of history, the reader may be prompted to see parallels in other epochs and current events. Personally, I gained a great deal of insight into the ongoing financial crisis and the increasingly futile efforts of those who brought it about to (as the tired phrase, endlessly repeated) “kick the can down the road” rather than make the structural changes which might address the actual causes of the problem. Now, I'm not calling the central bankers, politicians, or multinational bank syndicates Nazis—I'm simply observing that as the financial apocalypse approaches they're behaving in much the same way as the Hitler regime did in its own final days: trying increasingly desperate measures to buy first months, then weeks, then days, and ultimately hours before “The End”. Much as was the case with Hitler's inner circle, those calling the shots in the international financial system simply cannot imagine a world in which it no longer exists, or their place in such a world, so they continue to buy time, whatever the cost or how small the interval, to preserve the reference frame in which they exist. The shudder of artillery can already be felt in the bunker.

February 2012 Permalink

King, David. The Commissar Vanishes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. ISBN 0-8050-5295-X.

June 2003 Permalink

Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, [1933–1941, 1995] 1998. ISBN 978-0-375-75378-7.
This book is simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes. His family and acquaintances dwindle as, one after another, they opt for emigration, leaving only the author and his wife still in Germany (due to lack of opportunities, but also to an inertia and sense of fatalism evident in the narrative). Slowly the author's sense of Germanness dissipates as he comes to believe that what is happening in Germany is not an aberration but somehow deeply rooted in the German character, and that Hitler embodies beliefs widespread among the population which were previously invisible before becoming so starkly manifest. Klemperer is imprisoned for eight days in 1941 for a blackout violation for which a non-Jew would have received a warning or a small fine, and his prison journal, written a few days after his release, is a matter of fact portrayal of how an encounter with the all-powerful and arbitrary state reduces the individual to a mental servitude more pernicious than physical incarceration.

I have never read any book which provides such a visceral sense of what it is like to live in a totalitarian society and how quickly all notions of justice, rights, and human dignity can evaporate when a charismatic leader is empowered by a mob in thrall to his rhetoric. Apart from the description of the persecution the author's family and acquaintances suffered themselves, he turns a keen philologist's eye on the language of the Third Reich, and observes how the corruption of the regime is reflected in the corruption of the words which make up its propaganda. Ayn Rand's fictional (although to some extent autobiographical) We the Living provides a similar sense of life under tyranny, but this is the real thing, written as events happened, with no knowledge of how it was all going to come out, and is, as a consequence, uniquely compelling. Klemperer wrote these diaries with no intention of their being published: they were, at most, the raw material for an autobiography he hoped eventually to write, so when you read these words you're perceiving how a Jew in Nazi Germany perceived life day to day, and how what historians consider epochal events in retrospect are quite naturally interpreted by those hearing of them for the first time in the light of “What does this mean for me?”

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

I will certainly read Volume 2, which covers the years 1942–1945, but probably not right away—after this powerful narrative, I'm inclined toward lighter works for a while.

February 2009 Permalink

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-4000-3280-6.
This book uses the true-crime narrative of a brutal 1984 double murder committed by two Mormon fundamentalist brothers as the point of departure to explore the origin and sometimes violent early history of the Mormon faith, the evolution of Mormonism into a major mainstream religion, and the culture of present-day fundamentalist schismatic sects which continue to practice polygamy within a strictly hierarchical male-dominated society, and believe in personal revelation from God. (It should be noted that these sects, although referring to themselves as Mormon, have nothing whatsoever to do with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates leaders of such sects and their followers, and has officially renounced the practice of polygamy since the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890. The “Mormon fundamentalist” sects believe themselves to be the true exemplars of the religion founded by Joseph Smith and reject the legitimacy of the mainstream church.)

Mormonism is almost unique among present-day large (more than 11 million members, about half in the United States) religions in having been established recently (1830) in a modern, broadly literate society, so its history is, for better or for worse, among the best historically documented of all religions. This can, of course, pose problems to any religion which claims absolute truth for its revealed messages, as the history of factionalism and schisms in Mormonism vividly demonstrates. The historical parallels between Islam and Mormonism are discussed briefly, and are well worth pondering: both were founded by new revelations building upon the Bible, both incorporated male domination and plural marriage at the outset, both were persecuted by the existing political and religious establishment, fled to a new haven in the desert, and developed in an environment of existential threats and violent responses. One shouldn't get carried away with such analogies—in particular Mormons never indulged in territorial conquest nor conversion at swordpoint. Further, the Mormon doctrine of continued revelation allows the religion to adapt as society evolves: discarding polygamy and, more recently, admitting black men to the priesthood (which, in the Mormon church, is comprised of virtually all adult male members).

Obviously, intertwining the story of the premeditated murder of a young mother and her infant committed by people who believed they were carrying out a divine revelation, with the history of a religion whose present-day believers often perceive themselves as moral exemplars in a decadent secular society is bound to be incendiary, and the reaction of the official Mormon church to the publication of the book was predictably negative. This paperback edition includes an appendix which reprints a review of a pre-publication draft of the original hardcover edition by senior church official Richard E. Turley, Jr., along with the author's response which acknowledges some factual errors noted by Turley (and corrected in this edition) while disputing his claim that the book “presents a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history” (p. 346). While the book is enlightening on each of the topics it treats, it does seem to me that it may try to do too much in too few pages. The history of the Mormon church, exploration of the present-day fundamentalist polygamous colonies in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and the story of how the Lafferty brothers went from zealotry to murder and their apprehension and trials are all topics deserving of book-length treatment; combining them in a single volume invites claims that the violent acts of a few aberrant (and arguably insane) individuals are being used to slander a church of which they were not even members at the time of their crime.

All of the Mormon scriptures cited in the book are available on-line. Thanks to the reader who recommended this book; I'd never have otherwise discovered it.

December 2005 Permalink

Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50588-4.
For decades I've been interested in and worried about how well-intentioned “modernisations” might interrupt the chain of transmission of information and experience between generations and damage, potentially mortally, the very institutions modernisers were attempting to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps my concern with this somewhat gloomy topic stems from having endured both “new math” in high school and “new chemistry” in college, in both cases having to later re-learn the subject matter in the traditional way which enables one to, you know, actually solve problems.

Now that the radicals left over from the boomer generation are teachers and professors, we're into the second or third generation of a feedback cycle in which students either never learn the history of their own cultures or are taught contempt and hatred for it. The dearth of young people in the United States and U.K. who know how to think and have the factual framework from which to reason (or are aware what they don't know and how to find it out) is such that I worry about a runaway collapse of Western civilisation there. The very fact that it's impolitic to even raise such an issue in most of academia today only highlights how dire the situation is. (In continental Europe the cultural and educational situation is nowhere near as bad, but given that the population is aging and dying out it hardly matters. I read a prediction a couple of weeks ago that, absent immigration or change in fertility, the population of Switzerland, now more than seven million, could fall to about one million before the end of this century, and much the same situation obtains elsewhere in Europe. There is no precedent in human history for this kind of population collapse unprovoked by disaster, disease, or war.)

When pondering “macro, macro” issues like this, it's often useful to identify a micro-model to serve as a canary in the mineshaft for large-scale problems ahead. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a top to bottom modernisation of the Roman Catholic Church. In that same year, there were around 180,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S.—an all time historical high—whose lifestyle, strongly steeped in tradition, began to immediately change in many ways far beyond the clothes they wore. Increasingly, orders opted for increasing invisibility—blending into the secular community. The result: an almost immediate collapse in their numbers, which has continued to the present day (graph). Today, there are only about 70,000 left, and with a mean age of 69, their numbers are sure to erode further in the future. Now, it's impossible to separate the consequences of modernisation of tradition from those of social changes in society at large, but it gives one pause to see an institution which, as this book vividly describes, has tenaciously survived two millennia of rising and falling empires, war, plague, persecution, inquisition, famine, migration, reformation and counter-reformation, disappearing like a puff of smoke within the space of one human lifetime. It makes you wonder about how resilient other, far more recent, components of our culture may be in the face of changes which discard the experience and wisdom of the past.

A paperback edition is scheduled for publication in April 2005.

February 2005 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-14-200161-9.
You may think this a dry topic, but the history of salt is a microcosm of the history of human civilisation. Carnivorous animals and human tribes of hunters get all the salt they need from the meat they eat. But as soon as humans adopted a sedentary agricultural lifestyle and domesticated animals, they and their livestock had an urgent need for salt—a cow requires ten times as much salt as a human. The collection and production of salt was a prerequisite for human settlements and, as an essential commodity required by every individual, the first to be taxed and regulated by that chronic affliction of civilisation, government. Salt taxes supported the Chinese empire for almost two millennia, the Viennese and Genoan trading empires and the Hanseatic League, precipitated the French Revolution and India's struggle for independence from the British empire. Salt was a strategic commodity in the Roman Empire: most Roman cities were built near saltworks, and the words “salary” and “soldier” are both derived from the Latin word for salt. This and much more is covered in this fascinating look at human civilisation through the crystals of a tasty and essential inorganic compound composed of two poisonous elements. Recipes for salty specialities of cultures around the world and across the centuries are included, along with recommendations for surviving that “surprisingly pleasant” Swedish speciality surströmming (p. 139): “The only remaining problem is how to get the smell out of the house…”.

February 2005 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968 : The Year That Rocked the World. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-345-45582-7.
In the hands of an author who can make an entire book about Salt (February 2005) fascinating, the epochal year of 1968 abounds with people, events, and cultural phenomena which make for a compelling narrative. Many watershed events in history: war, inventions, plague, geographical discoveries, natural disasters, economic booms and busts, etc. have causes which are reasonably easy to determine. But 1968, like the wave of revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 (January 2002), seems to have been driven by a zeitgeist—a spirit in the air which independently inspired people to act in a common way.

The nearly simultaneous “youthquake” which shook societies as widespread and diverse as France, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the United States, and manifested itself in radical social movements: antiwar, feminism, black power, anti-authoritarianism, psychedelic instant enlightenment, revolutionary and subversive music, and the emergence of “the whole world is watching” wired planetary culture of live satellite television, all of which continue to reverberate today, seemed so co-ordinated that politicians from Charles de Gaulle, Mexican el presidente Díaz Ordaz, and Leonid Brezhnev were convinced it must be the result of deliberate subversion by their enemies, and were motivated to repressive actions which, in the short term, only fed the fire. In fact, most of the leaders of the various youth movements (to the extent they can be called “leaders”—in those individualistic and anarchistic days, most disdained the title) had never met, and knew about the actions of one another only from what they saw on television. Radicals in the U.S. were largely unaware of the student movement in Mexico before it exploded into televised violence in October.

However the leaders of 1968 may have viewed themselves, in retrospect they were for the most part fascinating, intelligent, well-educated, motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, and optimistic that they could—nothing like the dour, hateful, contemptuous, intolerant, and historically and culturally ignorant people one so often finds today in collectivist movements which believe themselves descended from those of 1968. Consider Mark Rudd's famous letter to Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia University, which ended with the memorable sentence, “I'll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I'm sure you don't like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, mother****er, this is a stick-up.’” (p. 197), which shocked his contemporaries with the (quoted) profanity, but strikes readers today mostly for the grammatically correct use of “whom”. Who among present-day radicals has the eloquence of Mario Savio's “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop” (p. 92), yet had the politeness to remove his shoes to avoid damaging the paint before jumping on a police car to address a crowd. In the days of the Free Speech Movement, who would have imagined some of those student radicals, tenured professors four decades later, enacting campus speech codes and enforcing an intellectual monoculture on their own students?

It is remarkable to read on p. 149 how the French soixante-huitards were “dazzled” by their German contemporaries: “We went there and they had their banners and signs and their security forces and everything with militaristic tactics. It was new to me and the other French.” One suspects they weren't paying attention when their parents spoke of the spring of 1940! Some things haven't changed: when New Left leaders from ten countries finally had the opportunity to meet one another at a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics and the BBC (p. 353), the Americans dismissed the Europeans as all talk and no action, while the Europeans mocked the U.S. radicals' propensity for charging into battle without thinking through why, what the goal was supposed to be, or how it was to be achieved.

In the introduction, the author declares his sympathy for the radical movements of 1968 and says “fairness is possible but true objectivity is not”. And, indeed, the book is written from the phrasebook of the leftist legacy media: good guys are “progressives” and “activists”, while bad guys are “right wingers”, “bigots”, or “reactionaries”. (What's “progressive” ought to depend on your idea of progress. Was SNCC's expulsion of all its white members [p. 96] on racial grounds progress?) I do not recall a single observation which would be considered outside the box on the editorial page of the New York Times. While the book provides a thorough recounting of the events and acquaintance with the principal personalities involved, for me it failed to evoke the “anything goes”, “everything is possible” spirit of those days—maybe you just had to have been there. The summation is useful for correcting false memories of 1968, which ended with both Dubček and de Gaulle still in power; the only major world leader defeated in 1968 was Lyndon Johnson, and he was succeeded by Nixon. A “whatever became of” or “where are they now” section would be a useful addition; such information, when it's given, is scattered all over the text.

One wonders whether, in our increasingly interconnected world, something like 1968 could happen again. Certainly, that's the dream of greying radicals nostalgic for their days of glory and young firebrands regretful for having been born too late. Perhaps better channels of communication and the collapse of monolithic political structures have resulted in change becoming an incremental process which adapts to the evolving public consensus before a mass movement has time to develop. It could simply be that the major battles of “liberation” have all been won, and the next major conflict will be incited by those who wish to rein them in. Or maybe it's just that we're still trying to digest the consequences of 1968 and far from ready for another round.

April 2006 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Cod. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-14-027501-8.
There is nothing particularly glamourous about a codfish. It swims near the bottom of the ocean in cold continental shelf waters with its mouth open, swallowing whatever comes along, including smaller cod. While its white flesh is prized, the cod provides little sport for the angler: once hooked, it simply goes limp and must be hauled from the bottom to the boat. And its rather odd profusion of fins and blotchy colour lacks the elegance of marlin or swordfish or the menace of a shark. But the cod has, since the middle ages, played a part not only in the human diet but also in human history, being linked to the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic, the Basque nautical tradition, long-distance voyages in the age of exploration, commercial transatlantic commerce, the Caribbean slave trade, the U.S. war of independence, the expansion of territorial waters from three to twelve and now 200 miles, conservation and the emerging international governance of the law of the sea, and more.

This delightful piece of reportage brings all of this together, from the biology and ecology of the cod, to the history of its exploitation by fishermen over the centuries, the commerce in cod and the conflicts it engendered, the cultural significance of cod in various societies and the myriad ways they have found to use it, and the shameful overfishing which has depleted what was once thought to be an inexhaustible resource (and should give pause to any environmentalist who believes government regulation is the answer to stewardship). But cod wouldn't have made so much history if people didn't eat them, and the narrative is accompanied by dozens of recipes from around the world and across the centuries (one dates from 1393), including many for parts of the fish other than its esteemed white flesh. Our ancestors could afford to let nothing go to waste, and their cleverness in turning what many today would consider offal into delicacies still cherished by various cultures is admirable. Since codfish has traditionally been sold salted and dried (in which form it keeps almost indefinitely, even in tropical climates, if kept dry, and is almost 80% protein by weight—a key enabler of long ocean voyages before the advent of refrigeration), you'll also want to read the author's work on Salt (February 2005).

September 2008 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Paper. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN 978-0-393-23961-4.
One of the things that makes us human is our use of extrasomatic memory: we invent ways to store and retrieve things outside our own brains. It's as if when the evolutionary drive which caused the brains of our ancestors to grow over time reached its limit, due to the physical constraints of the birth canal, we applied the cleverness of our bulging brains to figure out not only how to record things for ourselves, but to pass them on to other individuals and transmit them through time to our successors.

This urge to leave a mark on our surroundings is deeply-seated and as old as our species. Paintings at the El Castillo site in Spain have been dated to at least 40,800 years before the present. Complex paintings of animals and humans in the Lascaux Caves in France, dated around 17,300 years ago, seem strikingly modern to observers today. As anybody who has observed young children knows, humans do not need to be taught to draw: the challenge is teaching them to draw only where appropriate.

Nobody knows for sure when humans began to speak, but evidence suggests that verbal communication is at least as old and possibly appeared well before the first evidence of drawing. Once speech appeared, it was not only possible to transmit information from one human to another directly but, by memorising stories, poetry, and songs, to create an oral tradition passed on from one generation to the next. No longer what one individual learned in their life need die with them.

Given the human compulsion to communicate, and how long we've been doing it by speaking, drawing, singing, and sculpting, it's curious we only seem to have invented written language around 5000 years ago. (But recall that the archaeological record is incomplete and consists only of objects which survived through the ages. Evidence of early writing is from peoples who wrote on durable material such as stone or clay tablets, or lived in dry climates such as that of Egypt where more fragile media such as papyrus or parchment would be preserved. It is entirely possible writing was invented much earlier by any number of societies who wrote on more perishable surfaces and lived in climates where they would not endure.)

Once writing appeared, it remained the province of a small class of scribes and clerics who would read texts to the common people. Mass literacy did not appear for millennia, and would require a better medium for the written word and a less time-consuming and costly way to reproduce it. It was in China that the solutions to both of these problems would originate.

Legends date Chinese writing from much earlier, but the oldest known writing in China is dated around 3300 years ago, and was inscribed on bones and turtle shells. Already, the Chinese language used six hundred characters, and this number would only increase over time, with a phonetic alphabet never being adopted. The Chinese may not have invented bureaucracy, but as an ancient and largely stable society they became very skilled at it, and consequently produced ever more written records. These writings employed a variety of materials: stone, bamboo, and wood tablets; bronze vessels; and silk. All of these were difficult to produce, expensive, and many required special skills on the part of scribes.

Cellulose is a main component of the cell wall of plants, and forms the structure of many of the more complex members of the plant kingdom. It forms linear polymers which produce strong fibres. The cellulose content of plants varies widely: cotton is 90% cellulose, while wood is around half cellulose, depending on the species of tree. Sometime around A.D. 100, somebody in China (according to legend, a courtier named Cai Lun) discovered that through a process of cooking, hammering, and chopping, the cellulose fibres in material such as discarded cloth, hemp, and tree bark could be made to separate into a thin slurry of fibres suspended in water. If a frame containing a fine screen were dipped into a vat of this material, rocked back and forth in just the right way, then removed, a fine layer of fibres with random orientation would remain on the screen after the water drained away. This sheet could then be removed, pressed, and dried, yielding a strong, flat material composed of intertwined cellulose fibres. Paper had been invented.

Paper was found to be ideal for writing the Chinese language, which was, and is today, usually written with a brush. Since paper could be made from raw materials previously considered waste (rags, old ropes and fishing nets, rice and bamboo straw), water, and a vat and frame which were easily constructed, it was inexpensive and could be produced in quantity. Further, the papermaker could vary the thickness of the paper by adding more or less pulp to the vat, by the technique in dipping the frame, and produce paper with different surface properties by adding “sizing” material such as starch to the mix. In addition to sating the appetite of the imperial administration, paper was adopted as the medium of choice for artists, calligraphers, and makers of fans, lanterns, kites, and other objects.

Many technologies were invented independently by different societies around the world. Paper, however, appears to have been discovered only once in the eastern hemisphere, in China, and then diffused westward along the Silk Road. The civilisations of Mesoamerica such as the Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs, extensively used, prior to the Spanish conquest, what was described as paper, but it is not clear whether this was true paper or a material made from reeds and bark. So thoroughly did the conquistadors obliterate the indigenous civilisations, burning thousands of books, that only three Mayan books and fifteen Aztec documents are known to have survived, and none of these are written on true paper.

Paper arrived in the Near East just as the Islamic civilisation was consolidating after its first wave of conquests. Now faced with administering an empire, the caliphs discovered, like the Chinese before them, that many documents were required and the new innovative writing material met the need. Paper making requires a source of cellulose-rich material and abundant water, neither of which are found in the Arabian peninsula, so the first great Islamic paper mill was founded in Baghdad in A.D. 794, originally employing workers from China. It was the first water-powered paper mill, a design which would dominate paper making until the age of steam. The demand for paper continued to grow, and paper mills were established in Damascus and Cairo, each known for the particular style of paper they produced.

It was the Muslim invaders of Spain who brought paper to Europe, and paper produced by mills they established in the land they named al-Andalus found markets in the territories we now call Italy and France. Many Muslim scholars of the era occupied themselves producing editions of the works of Greek and Roman antiquity, and wrote them on paper. After the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, papermaking spread to Italy, arriving in time for the awakening of intellectual life which would be called the Renaissance and produce large quantities of books, sheet music, maps, and art: most of it on paper. Demand outstripped supply, and paper mills sprung up wherever a source of fibre and running water was available.

Paper provided an inexpensive, durable, and portable means of storing, transmitting, and distributing information of all kinds, but was limited in its audience as long as each copy had to be laboriously made by a scribe or artist (often introducing errors in the process). Once again, it was the Chinese who invented the solution. Motivated by the Buddhist religion, which values making copies of sacred texts, in the 8th century A.D. the first documents were printed in China and Japan. The first items to be printed were single pages, carved into a single wood block for the whole page, then printed onto paper in enormous quantities: tens of thousands in some cases. In the year 868, the first known dated book was printed, a volume of Buddhist prayers called the Diamond Sutra. Published on paper in the form of a scroll five metres long, each illustrated page was printed from a wood block carved with its entire contents. Such a “block book” could be produced in quantity (limited only by wear on the wood block), but the process of carving the wood was laborious, especially since text and images had to be carved as a mirror image of the printed page.

The next breakthrough also originated in China, but had limited impact there due to the nature of the written language. By carving or casting an individual block for each character, it was possible to set any text from a collection of characters, print documents, then reuse the same characters for the next job. Unfortunately, by the time the Chinese began to experiment with printing from movable type in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it took 60,000 different characters to print the everyday language and more than 200,000 for literary works. This made the initial investment in a set of type forbidding. The Koreans began to use movable type cast from metal in the fifteenth century and were so impressed with its flexibility and efficiency that in 1444 a royal decree abolished the use of Chinese characters in favour of a phonetic alphabet called Hangul which is still used today.

It was in Europe that movable type found a burgeoning intellectual climate ripe for its adoption, and whence it came to change the world. Johannes Gutenberg was a goldsmith, originally working with his brother Friele in Mainz, Germany. Fleeing political unrest, the brothers moved to Strasbourg, where around 1440 Johannes began experimenting with movable type for printing. His background as a goldsmith equipped him with the required skills of carving, stamping, and casting metal; indeed, many of the pioneers of movable type in Europe began their careers as goldsmiths. Gutenberg carved letters into hard metal, forming what he called a punch. The punch was used to strike a copper plate, forming an impression called the matrix. Molten lead was then poured into the matrix, producing individual characters of type. Casting letters in a matrix allowed producing as many of each letter as needed to set pages of type, and for replacement of worn type as required. The roman alphabet was ideal for movable type: while the Chinese language required 60,000 or more characters, a complete set of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and punctuation for German came to only around 100 pieces of type. Accounting for duplicates of commonly used letters, Gutenberg's first book, the famous Gutenberg Bible, used a total of 290 pieces of type. Gutenberg also developed a special ink suited for printing with metal type, and adapted a press he acquired from a paper mill to print pages.

Gutenberg was secretive about his processes, likely aware he had competition, which he did. Movable type was one of those inventions which was “in the air”—had Gutenberg not invented and publicised it, his contemporaries working in Haarlem, Bruges, Avignon, and Feltre, all reputed by people of those cities to have gotten there first, doubtless would have. But it was the impact of Gutenberg's Bible, which demonstrated that movable type could produce book-length works of quality comparable to those written by the best scribes, which established the invention in the minds of the public and inspired others to adopt the new technology.

Its adoption was, by the standards of the time, swift. An estimated eight million books were printed and sold in Europe in the second half of the fifteenth century—more books than Europe had produced in all of history before that time. Itinerant artisans would take their type punches from city to city, earning money by setting up locals in the printing business, then moving on.

In early sixteenth century Germany, the printing revolution sparked a Reformation. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, completed his German translation of the Bible in 1534 (he had earlier published a translation of the New Testament in 1522). This was the first widely-available translation of the Bible into a spoken language, and reinforced the Reformation idea that the Bible was directly accessible to all, without need for interpretation by clergy. Beginning with his original Ninety-five Theses, Luther authored thirty publications, which it is estimated sold 300,000 copies (in a territory of around 14 million German speakers). Around a third of all publications in Germany in the era were related to the Reformation.

This was a new media revolution. While the incumbent Church reacted at the speed of sermons read occasionally to congregations, the Reformation produced a flood of tracts, posters, books, and pamphlets written in vernacular German and aimed directly at an increasingly literate population. Luther's pamphlets became known as Flugschriften: “quick writing”. One such document, written in 1520, sold 4000 copies in three weeks and 50,000 in two years. Whatever the merits of the contending doctrines, the Reformation had fully embraced and employed the new communication technology to speak directly to the people. In modern terms, you might say the Reformation was the “killer app” for movable type printing.

Paper and printing with movable type were the communication and information storage technologies the Renaissance needed to express and distribute the work of thinkers and writers across a continent, who were now able to read and comment on each other's work and contribute to a culture that knew no borders. Interestingly, the technology of paper making was essentially unchanged from that of China a millennium and a half earlier, and printing with movable type hardly different from that invented by Gutenberg. Both would remain largely the same until the industrial revolution. What changed was an explosion in the volume of printed material and, with increasing literacy among the general public, the audience and market for it. In the eighteenth century a new innovation, the daily newspaper, appeared. Between 1712 and 1757, the circulation of newspapers in Britain grew eightfold. By 1760, newspaper circulation in Britain was 9 million, and would increase to 24 million by 1811.

All of this printing required ever increasing quantities of paper, and most paper in the West was produced from rags. Although the population was growing, their thirst for printed material expanded much quicker, and people, however fastidious, produce only so many rags. Paper shortages became so acute that newspapers limited their size based on the availability and cost of paper. There were even cases of scavengers taking clothes from the dead on battlefields to sell to paper mills making newsprint used to report the conflict. Paper mills resorted to doggerel to exhort the public to save rags:

The scraps, which you reject, unfit
To clothe the tenant of a hovel,
May shine in sentiment and wit,
And help make a charming novel…

René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, a French polymath who published in numerous fields of science, observed in 1719 that wasps made their nests from what amounted to paper they produced directly from wood. If humans could replicate this vespidian technology, the forests of Europe and North America could provide an essentially unlimited and renewable source of raw material for paper. This idea was to lie fallow for more than a century. Some experimenters produced small amounts of paper from wood through various processes, but it was not until 1850 that paper was manufactured from wood in commercial quantities in Germany, and 1863 that the first wood-based paper mill began operations in America.

Wood is about half cellulose, while the fibres in rags run up to 90% cellulose. The other major component of wood is lignin, a cross-linked polymer which gives it its strength and is useless for paper making. In the 1860s a process was invented where wood, first mechanically cut into small chips, was chemically treated to break down the fibrous structure in a device called a “digester”. This produced a pulp suitable for paper making, and allowed a dramatic expansion in the volume of paper produced. But the original wood-based paper still contained lignin, which turns brown over time. While this was acceptable for newspapers, it was undesirable for books and archival documents, for which rag paper remained preferred. In 1879, a German chemist invented a process to separate lignin from cellulose in wood pulp, which allowed producing paper that did not brown with age.

The processes used to make paper from wood involved soaking the wood pulp in acid to break down the fibres. Some of this acid remained in the paper, and many books printed on such paper between 1840 and 1970 are now in the process of slowly disintegrating as the acid eats away at the paper. Only around 1970 was it found that an alkali solution works just as well when processing the pulp, and since then acid-free paper has become the norm for book publishing.

Most paper is produced from wood today, and on an enormous, industrial scale. A single paper mill in China, not the largest, produces 600,000 tonnes of paper per year. And yet, for all of the mechanisation, that paper is made by the same process as the first sheet of paper produced in China: by reducing material to cellulose fibres, mixing them with water, extracting a sheet (now a continuous roll) with a screen, then pressing and drying it to produce the final product.

Paper and printing is one of those technologies which is so simple, based upon readily-available materials, and potentially revolutionary that it inspires “what if” speculation. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans each had everything they needed—raw materials, skills, and a suitable written language—so that a Connecticut Yankee-like time traveller could have explained to artisans already working with wood and metal how to make paper, cast movable type, and set up a printing press in a matter of days. How would history have differed had one of those societies unleashed the power of the printed word?

December 2016 Permalink

Lamont, Peter. The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. ISBN 1-56025-661-3.
Charmed by a mysterious swami, the end of a rope rises up of its own accord high into the air. A small boy climbs the rope and, upon reaching the top, vanishes. The Indian rope trick: ancient enigma of the subcontinent or 1890 invention by a Chicago newspaper embroiled in a circulation war? Peter Lamont, magician and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, traces the origin and growth of this pervasive legend. Along the way we encounter a cast of characters including Marco Polo; a Chief of the U.S. Secret Service; Madame Blavatsky; Charles Dickens; Colonel Stodare, an Englishman who impersonated a Frenchman performing Indian magic; William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State; Professor Belzibub; General Earl Haig and his aptly named aide-de-camp, Sergeant Secrett; John Nevil Maskelyne, conjurer, debunker of spiritualism, and inventor of the pay toilet; and a host of others. The author's style is occasionally too clever for its own good, but this is a popular book about the Indian rope trick, not a quantum field theory text after all, so what the heck. I read the U.K. edition.

January 2005 Permalink

Lansing, Alfred. Endurance. New York: Carroll & Graf [1959, 1986] 1999. ISBN 978-0-7867-0621-1.
Novels and dramatisations of interplanetary missions, whether (reasonably) scrupulously realistic, highly speculative, or utterly absurd, often focus on the privation of their hardy crews and the psychological and interpersonal stresses they must endure when venturing so distant from the embrace of the planetary nanny state.

Balderdash! Unless a century of socialism succeeds in infantilising its subjects into pathetic, dependent, perpetual adolescents (see the last item cited above as an example), such voyages of discovery will be crewed by explorers, that pinnacle of the human species who volunteers to pay any price, bear any burden, and accept any risk to be among the first to see what's over the horizon.

This chronicle of Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition will acquaint you with real explorers, and leave you in awe of what those outliers on the bell curve of our species can and will endure in circumstances which almost defy description on the printed page.

At the very outbreak of World War I, Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, named after the motto of his family, Fortitudine vincimus: “By endurance we conquer”, sailed for Antarctica. The mission was breathtaking in its ambition: to land a party in Vahsel Bay area of the Weddell Sea, which would cross the entire continent of Antarctica, proceeding to the South Pole with the resources landed from their ship, and then crossing to the Ross Sea with the aid of caches of supplies emplaced by a second party landing at McMurdo Sound. So difficult was the goal that Shackleton's expedition was attempting to accomplish that it was not achieved until 1957–1958, when the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition made the crossing with the aid of motorised vehicles and aerial reconnaissance.

Shackleton's expedition didn't even manage to land on the Antarctic shore; the Endurance was trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915, and the crew were forced to endure the Antarctic winter on the ship, frozen in place. Throughout the long polar night, conditions were tolerable and morale was high, but much worse was to come. As the southern summer approached, the pack ice began to melt, break up, and grind floe against floe, and on 27th October 1915, pressure of the ice against the ship became unsustainable and Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and establish a camp on the ice floe, floating on the Weddell Sea. The original plan was to use the sled dogs and the men to drag supplies and the ship's three lifeboats across the ice toward a cache of supplies known to have been left at Paulet Island by an earlier expedition, but pressure ridges in the sea ice soon made it evident that such an ambitious traverse would be impossible, and the crew resigned themselves to camping on the ice pack, whose drift was taking them north, until its breakup would allow them to use the boats to make for the nearest land. And so they waited, until April 8th, 1916, when the floe on which they were camped began to break up and they were forced into the three lifeboats to head for Elephant Island, a forbidding and uninhabited speck of land in the Southern Ocean. After a harrowing six day voyage, the three lifeboats arrived at the island, and for the first time in 497 days the crew of the Endurance were able to sleep on terra firma.

Nobody, even sealers and whalers operating of Antarctica, ever visited Elephant Island: Shackleton's crew were the first to land there. So the only hope of rescue was for a party to set out from there to the nearest reachable inhabited location, South Georgia Island, 1,300 kilometres across the Drake Passage, the stormiest and most treacherous sea on Earth. (There were closer destinations, but due to the winds and currents of the Southern Ocean, none of them were achievable in a vessel with the limited capabilities of their lifeboat.) Well, it had to be done, and so they did it. In one of the most remarkable achievements of seamanship of all time, Frank Worsley sailed his small open boat through these forbidding seas, surviving hurricane-force winds, rogue waves, and unimaginable conditions at the helm, arriving at almost a pinpoint landing on a tiny island in a vast sea with only his sextant and a pocket chronometer, the last remaining of the 24 the Endurance carried when it sailed from the Thames, worn around his neck to keep it from freezing.

But even then it wasn't over. Shackleton's small party had landed on the other side of South Georgia Island from the whaling station, and the state of their boat and prevailing currents and winds made it impossible to sail around the coast to there. So, there was no alternative but to go cross-country, across terrain completely uncharted (all maps showed only the coast, as nobody had ventured inland). And, with no other option, they did it. Since Shackleton's party, there has been only one crossing of South Georgia Island, done in 1955 by a party of expert climbers with modern equipment and a complete aerial survey of their route. They found it difficult to imagine how Shackleton's party, in their condition and with their resources, managed to make the crossing, but of course it was because they had to.

Then it was a matter of rescuing the party left at the original landing site on South Georgia, and then mounting an expedition to relieve those waiting at Elephant Island. The latter was difficult and frustrating—it was not until 30th August 1916 that Shackleton was able to take those he left on Elephant Island back to civilisation. And every single person who departed from South Georgia on the Endurance survived the expedition and returned to civilisation. All suffered from the voyage, but only stowaway Perce Blackboro lost a foot to frostbite; all the rest returned without consequences from their ordeal.

Bottom line—there were men on this expedition, and if similarly demanding expeditions in the future are crewed by men and women equal to their mettle, they will come through just fine without any of the problems the touchy-feely inkblot drones worry about. People with the “born as victim” self-image instilled by the nanny state are unlikely to qualify for such a mission, and should the all-smothering state manage to reduce its subjects to such larvæ, it is unlikely in the extreme that it would mount such a mission, choosing instead to huddle in its green enclaves powered by sewage and the unpredictable winds until the giant rock from the sky calls down the curtain on their fruitless existence.

I read the Kindle edition; unless you're concerned with mass and volume taking this book on a long trip (for which it couldn't be more appropriate!), I'd recommend the print edition, which is not only less expensive (neglecting shipping charges), but also reproduces with much higher quality the many photographs taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley and preserved through the entire ordeal.

August 2010 Permalink

Large, Christine. Hijacking Enigma. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-470-86346-3.
The author, Director of the Bletchley Park Trust, recounts the story of the April 2000 theft and eventual recovery of Bletchley's rare Abwehr Engima cipher machine, interleaved with a history of Bletchley's World War II exploits in solving the Engima and its significance in the war. If the latter is your primary interest, you'll probably prefer Michael Smith's Station X (July 2001), which provides much more technical and historical detail. Readers who didn't follow the Enigma theft as it played out and aren't familiar with the names of prominent British news media figures may feel a bit at sea in places. A Web site devoted to the book is now available, and a U.S. edition is scheduled for publication later in 2003.

September 2003 Permalink

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-72560-1.
It's conventional wisdom in the publishing business that you never want a book to “fall into the crack” between two categories: booksellers won't know where to shelve it, promotional campaigns have to convey a complicated mixed message, and you run the risk of irritating readers who bought it solely for one of the two topics. Here we have a book which evokes the best and the worst of the Gilded Age of the 1890s in Chicago by interleaving the contemporary stories of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the depraved series of murders committed just a few miles from the fairgrounds by the archetypal American psychopathic serial killer, the chillingly diabolical Dr. H. H. Holmes (the principal alias among many used by a man whose given name was Herman Webster Mudgett; his doctorate was a legitimate medical degree from the University of Michigan). Architectural and industrial history and true crime are two genres you might think wouldn't mix, but in the hands of the author they result in a compelling narrative which I found as difficult to put down as any book I have read in the last several years. For once, this is not just my eccentric opinion; at this writing the book has been on The New York Times Best-Seller list for more than two consecutive years and won the Edgar award for best fact crime in 2004. As I rarely frequent best-seller lists, it went right under my radar. Special thanks to the visitor to this page who recommended I read it!

Boosters saw the Columbian Exposition not so much as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World but as a brash announcement of the arrival of the United States on the world stage as a major industrial, commercial, financial, and military power. They viewed the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (for which the Eiffel Tower was built) as a throwing down of the gauntlet by the Old World, and vowed to assert the preeminence of the New by topping the French and “out-Eiffeling Eiffel”. Once decided on by Congress, the site of the exposition became a bitterly contested struggle between partisans of New York, Washington, and Chicago, with the latter seeing its victory as marking its own arrival as a peer of the Eastern cities who looked with disdain at what Chicagoans considered the most dynamic city in the nation.

Charged with building the Exposition, a city in itself, from scratch on barren, wind-swept, marshy land was architect Daniel H. Burnham, he who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” He made no little plans. The exposition was to have more than 200 buildings in a consistent neo-classical style, all in white, including the largest enclosed space ever constructed. While the electric light was still a novelty, the fair was to be illuminated by the the first large-scale application of alternating current. Edison's kinetoscope amazed visitors with moving pictures, and a theatre presented live music played by an orchestra in New York and sent over telephone wires to Chicago. Nikola Tesla amazed fairgoers with huge bolts of electrical fire, and a giant wheel built by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris lifted more than two thousand people at once into the sky to look down upon the fair like gods. One of the army of workers who built the fair was a carpenter named Elias Disney, who later regaled his sons Roy and Walt with tales of the magic city; they must have listened attentively.

The construction of the fair in such a short time seemed miraculous to onlookers (and even more so to those accustomed to how long it takes to get anything built a century later), but the list of disasters, obstacles, obstructions, and outright sabotage which Burnham and his team had to overcome was so monumental you'd have almost thought I was involved in the project! (Although if you've ever set up a trade show booth in Chicago, you've probably gotten a taste of it.) A total of 27.5 million people visited the fair between May and October of 1893, and this in a country whose total population (1890 census) was just 62.6 million. Perhaps even more astonishing to those acquainted with comparable present-day undertakings, the exposition was profitable and retired all of its bank debt.

While the enchanted fair was rising on the shore of Lake Michigan and enthralling visitors from around the world, in a gloomy city block size building not far away, Dr. H. H. Holmes was using his almost preternatural powers to charm the young, attractive, and unattached women who flocked to Chicago from the countryside in search of careers and excitement. He offered them the former in various capacities in the businesses, some legitimate and other bogus, in his “castle”, and the latter in his own person, until he killed them, disposed of their bodies, and in some cases sold their skeletons to medical schools. Were the entire macabre history of Holmes not thoroughly documented in court proceedings, investigators' reports, and reputable contemporary news items, he might seem to be a character from an over-the-top Gothic novel, like Jack the Ripper. But wait—Jack the Ripper was real too. However, Jack the Ripper is only believed to have killed five women; Holmes is known for certain to have killed nine men, women, and children. He confessed to killing 27 in all, but this was the third of three mutually inconsistent confessions all at variance with documented facts (some of those he named in the third confession turned up alive). Estimates ran as high as two hundred, but that seems implausible. In any case, he was a monster the likes of which no American imagined inhabited their cities until his crimes were uncovered. Remarkably, and of interest to libertarians who advocate the replacement of state power by insurance-like private mechanisms, Holmes never even came under suspicion by any government law enforcement agency during the entire time he committed his murder spree, nor did any of his other scams (running out on debts, forging promissory notes, selling bogus remedies) attract the attention of the law. His undoing was when he attempted insurance fraud (one of his favourite activities) and ended up with Nemesis-like private detective Frank Geyer on his trail. Geyer, through tireless tracking and the expenditure of large quantities of shoe leather, got the goods on Holmes, who met his end on the gallows in May of 1896. His jailers considered him charming.

I picked this book up expecting an historical recounting of a rather distant and obscure era. Was I ever wrong—I finished the whole thing in two and half days; the story is that fascinating and the writing that good. More than 25 pages of source citations and bibliography are included, but this is not a dry work of history; it reads like a novel. In places, the author has invented descriptions of events for which no eyewitness account exists; he says that in doing this, his goal is to create a plausible narrative as a prosecutor does at a trial. Most such passages are identified in the end notes and justifications given for the inferences made therein. The descriptions of the Exposition cry out for many more illustrations than are included: there isn't even a picture of the Ferris wheel! If you read this book, you'll probably want to order the Dover Photographic Record of the Fair—I did.

March 2006 Permalink

Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-40884-6.
Ambassadors to high-profile postings are usually chosen from political patrons and contributors to the president who appoints them, depending upon career Foreign Service officers to provide the in-country expertise needed to carry out their mandate. Newly-elected Franklin Roosevelt intended to follow this tradition in choosing his ambassador to Germany, where Hitler had just taken power, but discovered that none of the candidates he approached were interested in being sent to represent the U.S. in Nazi Germany. William E. Dodd, a professor of history and chairman of the department of history at the University of Chicago, growing increasingly frustrated with his administrative duties preventing him from completing his life's work: a comprehensive history of the ante-bellum American South, mentioned to a friend in Roosevelt's inner circle that he'd be interested in an appointment as ambassador to a country like Belgium or the Netherlands, where he thought his ceremonial obligations would be sufficiently undemanding that he could concentrate on his scholarly work.

Dodd was astonished when Roosevelt contacted him directly and offered him the ambassadorship to Germany. Roosevelt appealed to Dodd's fervent New Deal sympathies, and argued that in such a position he could be an exemplar of American liberal values in a regime hostile to them. Dodd realised from the outset that a mission to Berlin would doom his history project, but accepted because he agreed with Roosevelt's goal and also because FDR was a very persuasive person. His nomination was sent to the Senate and confirmed the very same day.

Dodd brought his whole family along on the adventure: wife Mattie and adult son and daughter Bill and Martha. Dodd arrived in Berlin with an open mind toward the recently-installed Nazi regime. He was inclined to dismiss the dark view of the career embassy staff and instead adopt what might be called today “smart diplomacy”, deceiving himself into believing that by setting an example and scolding the Nazi slavers he could shame them into civilised behaviour. He immediately found himself at odds not only with the Nazis but also his own embassy staff: he railed against the excesses of diplomatic expense, personally edited the verbose dispatches composed by his staff to save telegraph charges, and drove his own aged Chevrolet, shipped from the U.S., to diplomatic functions where all of the other ambassadors arrived in stately black limousines.

Meanwhile, daughter Martha embarked upon her own version of Girl Gone Wild—Third Reich Edition. Initially exhilarated by the New Germany and swept into its social whirl, before long she was carrying on simultaneous affairs with the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet NKVD agent operating under diplomatic cover in Berlin, among others. Those others included Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who tried to set her up with Hitler (nothing came of it; they met at lunch and that was it). Martha's trajectory through life was extraordinary. After affairs with the head of the Gestapo and one of Hitler's inner circle, she was recruited by the NKVD and spied on behalf of the Soviet Union in Berlin and after her return to the U.S. It is not clear that she provided anything of value to the Soviets, as she had no access to state secrets during this period. With investigations of her Soviet affiliations intensifying in the early 1950s, in 1956 she fled with her American husband and son to Prague, Czechoslovakia where they lived until her death in 1990 (they may have spent some time in Cuba, and apparently applied for Soviet citizenship and were denied it).

Dodd père was much quicker to figure out the true nature of the Nazi regime. Following Roosevelt's charge to represent American values, he spoke out against the ever-increasing Nazi domination of every aspect of German society, and found himself at odds with the patrician “Pretty Good Club” at the State Department who wished to avoid making waves, regardless of how malevolent and brutal the adversary might be. Today, we'd call them the “reset button crowd”. Even Dodd found the daily influence of immersion in gleichschaltung difficult to resist. On several occasions he complained of the influence of Jewish members of his staff and the difficulties they posed in dealing with the Nazi regime.

This book focuses upon the first two years of Dodd's tenure as ambassador in Berlin, as that was the time in which the true nature of the regime became apparent to him and he decided upon his policy of distancing himself from it: for example, refusing to attend any Nazi party-related events such as the Nuremberg rallies. It provides an insightful view of how seductive a totalitarian regime can be to outsiders who see only its bright-eyed marching supporters, while ignoring the violence which sustains it, and how utterly futile “constructive engagement” is with barbarians that share no common values with civilisation.

Thanks to James Lileks for suggesting this book.

December 2011 Permalink

Lawrie, Alan. Sacramento's Moon Rockets. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4671-3389-0.
In 1849 gold was discovered in California, setting off a gold rush which would bring a wave of prospectors and fortune seekers into one of the greatest booms in American history. By the early 20th century, the grizzled prospector panning for gold had given way to industrial extraction of the metal. In an age before anybody had heard the word “environmentalism”, this was accomplished in the most direct way possible: man made lakes were created on gold-bearing land, then a barge would dredge up the bottom and mix it with mercury, which would form an amalgam with the gold. The gold could later be separated, purified, and sold.

The process effectively destroyed the land on which it was used. The topsoil was ripped out, vegetation killed, and the jumbled remains after extraction dumped in barren hills of tailings. Half a century later, the mined-out land was considered unusable for either agriculture or residential construction. Some described it as a “moonscape”.

It was perhaps appropriate that, in the 1960s, this stark terrain became home to the test stands on which the upper stage of NASA's Saturn rockets were developed and tested before flight. Every Saturn upper stage, including those which launched Apollo flights to the Moon, underwent a full-duration flight qualification firing there before being shipped to Florida for launch.

When the Saturn project was approved, Douglas Aircraft Company won the contract to develop the upper stage, which would be powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX) and have the ability to restart in space, allowing the Apollo spacecraft to leave Earth orbit on a trajectory bound for the Moon. The initial upper stage was called the S-IV, and was used as the second stage of the Saturn I launcher flown between 1961 and 1965 to demonstrate heavy lift booster operations and do development work related to the Apollo project. The S-IV used a cluster of six RL10 engines, at the time the largest operational LH2/LOX engine. The Saturn I had eight engines on its first stage and six engines on the S-IV. Given the reliability of rocket engines at the time, many engineers were dubious of getting fourteen engines to work on every launch (although the Saturn I did have a limited engine out capability). Skeptics called it “Cluster's last stand.”

The S-IV stages were manufactured at the Douglas plant in Huntington Beach, California, but there was no suitable location near the plant where they could be tested. The abandoned mining land near Sacramento had been acquired by Aerojet for rocket testing, and Douglas purchased a portion for its own use. The outsized S-IV stage was very difficult to transport by road, so the ability to ship it by water from southern California to the test site via San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River was a major advantage of the location.

The operational launchers for Apollo missions would be the Saturn IB and Saturn V, with the Saturn IB used for Earth orbital missions and the Saturn V for Moon flights and launching space stations. An upgraded upper stage, the S-IVB, would be used by these launchers, as the second stage of the Saturn IB and the third stage of the Saturn V. (S-IVBs for the two launchers differed in details, but the basic configuration was the same.) The six RL-10 engines of the S-IV were replaced by a single much more powerful J-2 engine which had, by that time, become available.

The Sacramento test facility was modified to do development and preflight testing of the S-IVB, and proceeded to test every flight stage. No rocket firing is ever routine, and in 1965 and 1967 explosions destroyed an S-IV test article and a flight S-IVB stage which was scheduled to be used in Apollo 8. Fortunately, there were no casualties from these spectacular accidents, and they provided the first data on the effects of large scale LH2/LOX explosions which proved to be far more benign than had been feared. It had been predicted that a LH2/LOX explosion would produce a blast equal to 65% of the propellant mass of TNT when, in fact, the measured blast was just 5% TNT equivalent mass. It's nice to know, but an expensive way to learn.

This book is not a detailed history of the Sacramento test facility but rather a photo gallery showing the construction of the site; transportation of stages by sea, road, and later by the amazing Super Guppy airplane; testing of S-IV and S-IVB stages; explosions and their aftermath; and a visit to the site fifty years later. The photos have well-researched and informative captions.

When you think of the Apollo program, the Cape, Houston, Huntsville, and maybe Slidell come to mind, but rarely Sacramento. And yet every Apollo mission relied upon a rocket stage tested at the Rancho Cordova site near that city. Here is a part of the grandiose effort to go to the Moon you probably haven't seen before. The book is just 96 pages and expensive (a small print run and colour on almost every page will do that), but there are many pictures collected here I've seen nowhere else.

September 2015 Permalink

LeBlanc, Steven A. with Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. ISBN 0-312-31090-0.
Steven LeBlanc is the Director of Collections at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. When he began his fieldwork career in the early 1970s, he shared the opinion of most of the archaeologists and anthropologists of his generation and present-day laymen that most traditional societies in the hunter-gatherer and tribal farming eras were mostly peaceful and lived in balance with their environments. It was, according to this view, only with the emergence of large chiefdoms and state-level societies that environmental degradation began to appear and mass conflict emerge, culminating in the industrialised slaughter of the 20th century.

But, to the author, as a dispassionate scientist, looking at the evidence on the ground or dug up from beneath it in expeditions in the American Southwest, Turkey, and Peru, and in the published literature, there were many discrepancies from this consensus narrative. In particular, why would “peaceful” farming people build hilltop walled citadels far from their fields and sources of water if not for defensibility? And why would hard-working farmers obsess upon defence were there not an active threat from their neighbours?

Further investigations argue convincingly that the human experience, inherited directly from our simian ancestors, has been one of relentless population growth beyond the carrying capacity of our local environment, degradation of the ecosystem, and the inevitable conflict with neighbouring bands over scarce resources. Ironically, many of the reports of early ethnographers which appeared to confirm perennially-wrong philosopher Rousseau's vision of the “noble savage” were based upon observations of traditional societies which had recently been impacted by contact with European civilisation: population collapse due to exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, and increases in carrying capacity of the land thanks to introduction of European technologies such as horses, steel tools, and domestic animals, which had temporarily eased the Malthusian pressure upon these populations and suspended resource wars. But the archaeological evidence is that such wars are the norm, not an aberration.

In fact, notwithstanding the horrific death toll of twentieth century warfare, the rate of violent death among the human population has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era. Hunter-gatherer (or, as the authors prefer to call them, “forager”) and tribal farming societies typically lose about 25% of their male population and 5% of the females to warfare with neighbouring bands. Even the worst violence of the nation-state era, averaged over a generation, has a death toll only one eighth this level.

Are present-day humans (or, more specifically, industrialised Western humans) unprecedented despoilers of our environment and aggressors against inherently peaceful native people? Nonsense argues this extensively documented book. Unsustainable population growth, resource exhaustion, environmental degradation, and lethal conflict with neighbours are as human as bipedalism and speech. Conflict is not inevitable, and civilisation, sustainable environmental policy, and yield-improving and resource-conserving technology are the best course to reducing the causes of conflict. Dreaming of a nonexistent past of peaceful people living in harmony with their environment isn't.

You can read any number of books about military history, from antiquity to the present, without ever encountering a discussion of “Why we fight”—that's the subtitle of this book, and I've never encountered a better source to begin to understand the answer to this question than you'll find here.

August 2007 Permalink

Lehto, Steve. Chrysler's Turbine Car. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-56976-549-4.
There were few things so emblematic of the early 1960s as the jet airliner. Indeed, the period was often referred to contemporarily as the “jet age”, and products from breakfast cereal to floor wax were positioned as modern wonders of that age. Anybody who had experienced travel in a piston powered airliner and then took their first flight in a jet felt that they had stepped into the future: gone was the noise, rattling, and shaking from the cantankerous and unreliable engines that would knock the fillings loose in your teeth, replaced by a smooth whoosh which (although, in the early jets, deafening to onlookers outside), allowed carrying on a normal conversation inside the cabin. Further, notwithstanding some tragic accidents in the early days as pilots became accustomed to the characteristics of the new engines and airframes, it soon became apparent that these new airliners were a great deal safer and more reliable than their predecessors: they crashed a lot less frequently, and flights delayed and cancelled due to mechanical problems became the rare exception rather than something air travellers put up with only because the alternative was so much worse.

So, if the jet age had arrived, and jet power had proven itself to be so superior to the venerable and hideously overcomplicated piston engine, where were the jet cars? This book tells the long and tangled story of just how close we came to having turbine powered automobiles in the 1960s, how a small group of engineers plugging away at problem after problem over twenty years managed to produce an automotive powerplant so clearly superior to contemporary piston engines that almost everybody who drove a vehicle powered by it immediately fell in love and wished they could have one of their own, and ultimately how financial problems and ill-considered government meddling destroyed the opportunity to replace automotive powerplants dependent upon petroleum-based fuels (which, at the time, contained tetraethyl lead) with one which would run on any combustible liquid, emit far less pollution from the tailpipe, run for hundreds of thousands of miles without an oil change or need for a tune-up, start instantly and reliably regardless of the ambient temperature, and run so smoothly and quietly that for the first time passengers were aware of the noise of the tires rolling over the road.

In 1945, George Huebner, who had worked on turboprop aircraft for Chrysler during World War II, returned to the civilian automotive side of the company as war work wound down. A brilliant engineer as well as a natural-born promoter of all things he believed in, himself most definitely included, by 1946 he was named Chrysler's chief engineer and used his position to champion turbine propulsion, which he had already seen was the future in aviation, for automotive applications. The challenges were daunting: turboshaft engines (turbines which delivered power by turning a shaft coupled to the turbine rotor, as used in turboprop airplanes and helicopters) gulped fuel at a prodigious rate, including when at “idle”, took a long time to “spool up” to maximum power, required expensive exotic materials in the high-temperature section of the engine, and had tight tolerances which required parts to be made by costly and low production rate investment casting, which could not produce parts in the quantity, nor at a cost acceptable for a mass market automotive powerplant.

Like all of the great engineers, Huebner was simultaneously stubborn and optimistic: stubborn in his belief that a technology so much simpler and inherently more thermodynamically efficient must eventually prevail, and optimistic that with patient engineering, tackling one problem after another and pursuing multiple solutions in parallel, any challenge could be overcome. By 1963, coming up on the twentieth year of the effort, progress had been made on all fronts to the extent that Huebner persuaded Chrysler management that the time had come to find out whether the driving public was ready to embrace the jet age in their daily driving. In one of the greatest public relations stunts of all time, Chrysler ordered 55 radically styled (for the epoch) bodies from the Ghia shop in Italy, and mated them with turbine drivetrains and chassis in a Michigan factory previously used to assemble taxicabs. Fifty of these cars (the other five being retained for testing and promotional purposes) were loaned, at no charge, for periods of three months each, to a total of 203 drivers and their families. Delivery of one of these loaners became a media event, and the lucky families instant celebrities in their communities: a brief trip to the grocery store would turn into several hours fielding questions about the car and offering rides around the block to gearheads who pleaded for them.

The turbine engines, as turbine engines are wont to, once the bugs have been wrung out, performed superbly. Drivers of the loaner cars put more than a million miles on them with only minor mechanical problems. One car was rear-ended at a stop light, but you can't blame the engine for that. (Well, perhaps the guilty party was transfixed by the striking design of the rear of the car!) Drivers did notice slower acceleration from a stop due to “turbine lag”—the need for the turbine to spool up in RPM from idle, and poorer fuel economy in city driving. Fuel economy on the highway was comparable to contemporary piston engine cars. What few drivers noticed in the era of four gallons a buck gasoline, was that the turbine could run on just about any fuel you can imagine: unleaded gasoline, kerosene, heating oil, ethanol, methanol, aviation jet fuel, diesel, or any mix thereof. As a stunt, while visiting a peanut festival in Georgia, a Chrysler Turbine filled up with peanut oil, with tequila during a tour through Mexico, and with perfume at a French auto show; in each case the engine ran perfectly on the eccentric fuel (albeit with a distinctive aroma imparted to the exhaust).

So, here we are all these many years later in the twenty-first century. Where are our jet cars? That's an interesting story which illustrates the unintended consequences of well-intended public policy. Just as the turbine engine was being refined and perfected as an automotive power plant, the U.S. government started to obsess about air quality, and decided, in the spirit of the times, to impose detailed mandates upon manufacturers which constrained the design of their products. (As opposed, say, to imposing an excise tax upon vehicles based upon their total emissions and allowing manufacturers to weigh the trade-offs across their entire product line, or leaving it to states and municipalities most affected by pollution to enforce their own standards on vehicles licensed in their jurisdiction.) Since almost every vehicle on the road was piston engine powered, it was inevitable that regulators would draft their standards around the characteristics of that powerplant. In doing so, they neglected to note that the turbine engine already met all of the most stringent emissions standards they then envisioned for piston engines (and in addition, ran on unleaded fuels, completely eliminating the most hazardous emission of piston engines) with a single exception: oxides of nitrogen (NOx). The latter was a challenge for turbine engineers, because the continuous combustion in a turbine provides a longer time for nitrogen to react with oxygen. Engineers were sure they'd be able to find a way to work around this single remaining challenge, having already solved all of the emission problems the piston engine still had to overcome.

But they never got the chance. The government regulations were imposed with such short times for compliance that automakers were compelled to divert all of their research, development, and engineering resources to modifying their existing engines to meet the new standards, which proved to be ever-escalating: once a standard was met, it was made more stringent with another near-future deadline. At Chrysler, the smallest of the Big Three, this hit particularly hard, and the turbine project found its budget and engineering staff cannibalised to work on making ancient engines run rougher, burn more fuel, perform more anæmicly, and increase their cost and frequency of maintenance to satisfy a tailpipe emission standard written into law by commissars in Washington who probably took the streetcar to work. Then the second part of the double whammy hit: the oil embargo and the OPEC cartel hike in the price of oil, which led to federal fuel economy standards, which pulled in the opposite direction from the emissions standards and consumed all resources which might have been devoted to breakthroughs in automotive propulsion which would have transcended the increasingly baroque tweaks to the piston engine. A different time had arrived, and increasingly people who once eagerly awaited the unveiling of the new models from Detroit each fall began to listen to their neighbours who'd bought one of those oddly-named Japanese models and said, “Well, it's tiny and it looks odd, but it costs a whole lot less, goes almost forever on a gallon of gas, and it never, ever breaks”. From the standpoint of the mid-1970s, this began to sound pretty good to a lot of folks, and Detroit, the city and the industry which built it, began its descent from apogee to the ruin it is today.

If we could go back and change a few things in history, would we all be driving turbine cars today? I'm not so sure. At the point the turbine was undone by ill-advised public policy, one enormous engineering hurdle remained, and in retrospect it isn't clear that it could have been overcome. All turbine engines, to the present day, require materials and manufacturing processes which have never been scaled up to the volumes of passenger car manufacturing. The pioneers of the automotive turbine were confident that could be done, but they conceded that it would require at least the investment of building an entire auto plant from scratch, and that is something that Chrysler could not remotely fund at the time. It's much like building a new semiconductor fabrication facility with a new scaling factor, but without the confidence that if it succeeds a market will be there for its products. At the time the Chrysler Turbine cars were tested, Huebner estimated their cost of manufacturing at around US$50,000: roughly half of that the custom-crafted body and the rest the powertrain—the turbine engines were essentially hand-built. Such has been the depreciation of the U.S. dollar that this is equivalent to about a third of a million present-day greenbacks. Then or now, getting this cost down to something the average car buyer could afford was a formidable challenge, and it isn't obvious that the problem could have been solved, even without the resources needed to do so having been expended to comply with emissions and fuel economy diktats.

Further, turbine engines become less efficient as you scale them down—in the turbine world, the bigger the better, and they work best when run at a constant load over a long period of time. Consequently, turbine power would seem optimal for long-haul trucks, which require more power than a passenger car, run at near-constant speed over highways for hours on end, and already run on the diesel fuel which is ideal for turbines. And yet, despite research and test turbine vehicles having been built by manufacturers in the U.S., Britain, and Sweden, the diesel powerplant remains supreme. Truckers and trucking companies understand long-term investment and return, and yet the apparent advantages of the turbine haven't allowed it to gain a foothold in that market. Perhaps the turbine passenger car was one of those great ideas for which, in the final analysis, the numbers just didn't work.

I actually saw one of these cars on the road in 1964, doubtlessly driven by one the lucky drivers chosen to test it. There was something sweet about seeing the Jet Car of the Future waiting to enter a congested tunnel while we blew past it in our family Rambler station wagon, but that's just cruel. In the final chapter, we get to vicariously accompany the author on a drive in the Chrysler Turbine owned by Jay Leno, who contributes the foreword to this book.

Mark Olson's turbinecar.com has a wealth of information, photographs, and original documents relating to the Chrysler Turbine Car. The History Channel's documentary, The Chrysler Turbine, is available on DVD.

January 2011 Permalink

Lelièvre, Domnique. L'Empire américain en échec sous l'éclairage de la Chine impériale. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2004. ISBN 2-84855-097-X.
This is a very odd book. About one third of the text is a fairly conventional indictment of the emerging U.S. “virtuous empire” along the lines of America the Virtuous (earlier this month), along with the evils of globalisation, laissez-faire capitalism, cultural imperialism, and the usual scélérats du jour. But the author, who has published three earlier books of Chinese history, anchors his analysis of current events in parallels between the present day United States and the early Ming dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Zhu Di (朱棣), the Emperor Yongle (永樂), A.D. 1403-1424. (Windows users: if you didn't see the Chinese characters in the last sentence and wish to, you'll need to install Chinese language support using the Control Panel / Regional Options / Language Settings item, enabling “Simplified Chinese”. This may require you to load the original Windows install CD, reboot your machine after the installation is complete, and doubtless will differ in detail from one version of Windows to another. It may be a global village, but it can sure take a lot of work to get from one hut to the next.) Similarities certainly exist, some of them striking: both nations had overwhelming naval superiority and command of the seas, believed themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, sought large-scale hegemony (from the west coast of Africa to east Asia in the case of China, global for the U.S.), preferred docile vassal states to allies, were willing to intervene militarily to preserve order and their own self-interests, but for the most part renounced colonisation, annexation, territorial expansion, and religious proselytising. Both were tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial societies which believed their values universal and applicable to all humanity. Both suffered attacks from Islamic raiders, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur) and his successors in the case of Ming China. And both even fought unsuccessful wars in what is now Vietnam which ended in ignominious withdrawals. All of this is interesting, but how useful it is in pondering the contemporary situation is problematic, for along with the parallels, there are striking differences in addition to the six centuries of separation in time and all that implies for cultural and technological development including communications, weapons, and forms of government. Ming dynasty China was the archetypal oriental despotism, where the emperor's word was law, and the administrative and military bureaucracy was in the hands of eunuchs. The U.S., on the other hand, seems split right about down the middle regarding its imperial destiny, and many observers of U.S. foreign and military policy believe it suffers a surfeit of balls, not their absence. Fifteenth century China was self-sufficient in everything except horses, and its trade with vassal states consisted of symbolic potlatch-type tribute payments in luxury goods. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's largest debtor nation, whose economy is dependent not only on an assured supply of imported petroleum, but also a wide variety of manufactured goods, access to cheap offshore labour, and the capital flows which permit financing its chronic trade deficits. I could go on listing fundamental differences which make any argument by analogy between these two nations highly suspect, but I'll close by noting that China's entire career as would-be hegemon began with Yongle and barely outlasted his reign—six of the seven expeditions of the great Ming fleet occurred during his years on the throne. Afterward China turned inward and largely ignored the rest of the world until the Europeans came knocking in the 19th century. Is it likely the U.S. drift toward empire which occupied most of the last century will end so suddenly and permanently? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn't bet on it.

August 2004 Permalink

Levinson, Marc. The Box. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [2006] 2008. ISBN 978-0-691-13640-0.
When we think of developments in science and technology which reshape the world economy, we often concentrate upon those which build on fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the world we live in, or technologies which employ them to do things never imagined. Examples of these are electricity and magnetism, which gave us the telegraph, electric power, the telephone, and wireless communication. Semiconductor technology, the foundation of the computer and Internet revolutions, is grounded in quantum mechanics, elaborated only in the early 20th century. The global positioning satellites which you use to get directions when you're driving or walking wouldn't work if they did not compensate for the effects of special and general relativity upon the rate at which clocks tick in moving objects and those in gravitational fields.

But sometimes a revolutionary technology doesn't require a scientific breakthrough, nor a complicated manufacturing process to build, but just the realisation that people have been looking at a problem all wrong, or have been earnestly toiling away trying to solve some problem other than the one which people are ready to pay vast sums of money to have solved, once the solution is placed on the market.

The cargo shipping container may be, physically, the one of the least impressive technological achievements of the 20th century, right up there with the inanimate carbon rod, as it required no special materials, fabrication technologies, or design tools which did not exist a century before, and yet its widespread adoption in the latter half of the 20th century was fundamental to the restructuring of the global economy which we now call “globalisation”, and changed assumptions about the relationship between capital, natural resources, labour, and markets which had existed since the start of the industrial revolution.

Ever since the start of ocean commerce, ships handled cargo in much the same way. The cargo was brought to the dock (often after waiting for an extended period in a dockside warehouse for the ship to arrive), then stevedores (or longshoremen, or dockers) would load the cargo into nets, or onto pallets hoisted by nets into the hold of the ship, where other stevedores would unload it and stow the individual items, which might consist of items as varied as bags of coffee beans, boxes containing manufactured goods, barrels of wine or oil, and preserved food items such as salted fish or meat. These individual items were stored based upon the expertise of the gangs working the ship to make the most of the irregular space of the ship's cargo hold, and if the ship was to call upon multiple ports, in an order so cargo could be unloaded with minimal shifting of that bound for subsequent destinations on the voyage. Upon arrival at a port, this process was reversed to offload cargo bound there, and then the loading began again. It was not unusual for a cargo ship to spend 6 days or more in each port, unloading and loading, before the next leg on its voyage.

Shipping is both capital- and labour-intensive. The ship has to be financed and incurs largely fixed maintenance costs, and the crew must be paid regardless of whether they're at sea or waiting in port for cargo to be unloaded and loaded. This means that what engineers call the “duty cycle” of the ship is critical to its cost of operation and, consequently, what the shipowner must charge shippers to make a profit. A ship operating coastal routes in the U.S., say between New York and a port in the Gulf, could easily spend half its time in ports, running up costs but generating no revenue. This model of ocean transport, called break bulk cargo, prevailed from the age of sail until the 1970s.

Under the break bulk model, ocean transport was very expensive. Further, with cargos sitting in warehouses waiting for ships to arrive on erratic schedules, delivery times were not just long but also unpredictable. Goods shipped from a factory in the U.S. midwest to a destination in Europe would routinely take three months to arrive end to end, with an uncertainty measured in weeks, accounting for trucking, railroads, and ocean shipping involved in getting them to their destination. This meant that any importation of time-sensitive goods required keeping a large local inventory to compensate for unpredictable delivery times, and paying the substantial shipping cost included in their price. Economists, going back to Ricardo, often modelled shipping as free, but it was nothing of the kind, and was often the dominant factor in the location and structure of firms.

When shipping is expensive, firms have an advantage in being located in proximity to both their raw materials (or component suppliers) and customers. Detroit became the Motor City in large part because its bulk inputs: iron ore and coal, could be transported at low cost from mines to factories by ships plying the Great Lakes. Industries dependent on imports and exports would tend to cluster around major ports, since otherwise the cost of transporting their inputs and outputs overland from the nearest port would be prohibitive. And many companies simply concentrated on their local market, where transportation costs were not a major consideration in their cost structure. In 1964, when break bulk shipping was the norm, 40% of exports from Britain originated within 25 miles of their port of export, and two thirds of all imports were delivered to destinations a similar distance from their port of arrival.

But all of this was based upon the cost structure of break bulk ocean cargo shipping, and a similarly archaic way of handling rail and truck cargo. A manufacturing plant in Iowa might pack its goods destined for a customer in Belgium into boxes which were loaded onto a truck, driven to a terminal in Chicago where they were unloaded and reloaded into a boxcar, then sent by train to New Jersey, where they were unloaded and put onto a small ship to take them to the port of New York, where after sitting in a warehouse they'd be put onto a ship bound for a port in Germany. After arrival, they'd be transported by train, then trucked to the destination. Three months or so later, plus or minus a few, the cargo would arrive—at least that which wasn't stolen en route.

These long delays, and the uncertainty in delivery times, required those engaging in international commerce to maintain large inventories, which further increased the cost of doing business overseas. Many firms opted for vertical integration in their own local region.

Malcom McLean started his trucking company in 1934 with one truck and one driver, himself. What he lacked in capital (he often struggled to pay bridge tolls when delivering to New York), he made up in ambition, and by 1945, his company operated 162 trucks. He was a relentless cost-cutter, and from his own experience waiting for hours on New York docks for his cargo to be unloaded onto ships, in 1953 asked why shippers couldn't simply put the entire truck trailer on a ship rather than unload its cargo into the ship's hold, then unload it piece by piece at the destination harbour and load it back onto another truck. War surplus Liberty ships were available for almost nothing, and they could carry cargo between the U.S. northeast and south at a fraction of the cost of trucks, especially in the era before expressways.

McLean immediately found himself in a tangled web of regulatory and union constraints. Shipping, trucking, and railroads were all considered completely different businesses, each of which had accreted its own, often bizarre, government regulation and union work rules. The rate a carrier could charge for hauling a ton of cargo from point A to point B depended not upon its mass or volume, but what it was, with radically different rates for say, coal as opposed to manufactured goods. McLean's genius was in seeing past all of this obstructionist clutter and realising that what the customer—the shipper—wanted was not to purchase trucking, railroad, and shipping services, but rather delivery of the shipment, however accomplished, at a specified time and cost.

The regulatory mess made it almost impossible for a trucking company to own ships, so McLean created a legal structure which would allow his company to acquire a shipping line which had fallen on hard times. He then proceeded to convert a ship to carry containers, which would not be opened from the time they were loaded on trucks at the shipper's location until they arrived at the destination, and could be transferred between trucks and ships rapidly. Working out the details of the construction of the containers, setting their size, and shepherding all of this through a regulatory gauntlet which had never heard of such concepts was daunting, but the potential payoff was enormous. Loading break bulk cargo onto a ship the size of McLean's first container vessel cost US$ 5.83 per ton. Loading freight in containers cost US$ 0.16 per ton. This reduction in cost, passed on to the shipper, made containerised freight compelling, and sparked a transformation in the global economy.

Consider Barbie. Her body is manufactured in China, using machines from Japan and Europe and moulds designed in the U.S. Her hair comes from Japan, the plastic for her body from Taiwan, dyed with U.S. pigments, and her clothes are produced in other factories in China. The final product is shipped worldwide. There are no large inventories anywhere in the supply chain: every step depends upon reliable delivery of containers of intermediate products. Managers setting up such a supply chain no longer care whether the products are transported by truck, rail, or sea, and since transportation costs for containers are so small compared to the value of their contents (and trade barriers such as customs duties have fallen), the location of suppliers and factories is based almost entirely upon cost, with proximity to resources and customers almost irrelevant. We think of the Internet as having abolished distance, but the humble ocean cargo container has done so for things as much as the Internet has for data.

This is a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at how the seemingly most humble technological innovation can have enormous consequences, and also how the greatest barriers to restructuring economies may be sclerotic government and government-enabled (union) structures which preserve obsolete models long after they have become destructive of prosperity. It also demonstrates how those who try to freeze innovation into a model fixed in the past will be bypassed by those willing to embrace a more efficient way of doing business. The container ports which handle most of the world's cargo are, for the most part, not the largest ports of the break bulk era. They are those which, unencumbered by history, were able to build the infrastructure required to shift containers at a rapid rate.

The Kindle edition has some flaws. In numerous places, spaces appear within words which don't belong there (perhaps words hyphenated across lines in the print edition and not re-joined?) and the index is just a list of searchable terms, not linked to references in the text.

October 2014 Permalink

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? New York: Perennial, 2002. ISBN 0-06-051605-4.
Bernard Lewis is the preeminent Western historian of Islam and the Middle East. In his long career, he has written more than twenty volumes (the list includes those currently in print) on the subject. In this book he discusses the causes of the centuries-long decline of Islamic civilisation from a once preeminent empire and culture to the present day. The hardcover edition was in press when the September 2001 terrorist attacks took place. So thoroughly does Lewis cover the subject matter that a three page Afterword added in October 2002 suffices to discuss their causes and consequences. This is an excellent place for anybody interested in the “clash of civilisations” to discover the historical context of Islam's confrontation with modernity. Lewis writes with a wit which is so dry you can easily miss it if you aren't looking. For example, “Even when the Ottoman Turks were advancing into southeastern Europe, they were always able to buy much needed equipment for their fleets and armies from Christian European suppliers, to recruit European experts, and even to obtain financial cover from Christian European banks. What is nowadays known as ‘constructive engagement’ has a long history.” (p. 13).

April 2005 Permalink

Lewis, Michael. The Big Short. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-07223-5.
After concluding his brief career on Wall Street in the 1980s, the author wrote Liar's Poker, a memoir of a period of financial euphoria and insanity which he assumed would come crashing down shortly after his timely escape. Who could have imagined that the game would keep on going for two decades more, in the process raising the stakes from mere billions to trillions of dollars, extending its tendrils into financial institutions around the globe, and fuelling real estate and consumption bubbles in which individuals were motivated to lie to obtain money they couldn't pay back to lenders who were defrauded as to the risk they were taking?

Most descriptions of the financial crisis which erupted in 2007 and continues to play out at this writing gloss over the details, referring to “arcanely complex transactions that nobody could understand” or some such. But, in the hands of a master explainer like the author, what happened isn't at all difficult to comprehend. Irresponsible lenders (in some cases motivated by government policy) made mortgage loans to individuals which they could not afford, with an initial “teaser” rate of interest. The only way the borrower could avoid default when the interest rate “reset” to market rates was to refinance the property, paying off the original loan. But since housing prices were rising rapidly, and everybody knew that real estate prices never fall, by that time the house would have appreciated in value, giving the “homeowner” equity in the house which would justify a higher grade mortgage the borrower could afford to pay. Naturally, this flood of money into the housing market accelerated the bubble in housing prices, and encouraged lenders to create ever more innovative loans in the interest of “affordable housing for all”, including interest-only loans, those with variable payments where the borrower could actually increase the principal amount by underpaying, no-money-down loans, and “liar loans” which simply accepted the borrower's claims of income and net worth without verification.

But what financial institution would be crazy enough to undertake the risk of carrying these junk loans on its books? Well, that's where the genius of Wall Street comes in. The originators of these loans, immediately after collecting the loan fee, bundled them up into “mortgage-backed securities” and sold them to other investors. The idea was that by aggregating a large number of loans into a pool, the risk of default, estimated from historical rates of foreclosure, would be spread just as insurance spreads the risk of fire and other damages. Further, the mortgage-backed securities were divided into “tranches”: slices which bore the risk of default in serial order. If you assumed, say, a 5% rate of default on the loans making up the security, the top-level tranche would have little or no risk of default, and the rating agencies concurred, giving it the same AAA rating as U.S. Treasury Bonds. Buyers of the lower-rated tranches, all the way down to the lowest investment grade of BBB, were compensated for the risk they were assuming by higher interest rates on the bonds. In a typical deal, if 15% of the mortgages defaulted, the BBB tranche would be completely wiped out.

Now, you may ask, who would be crazy enough to buy the BBB bottom-tier tranches? This indeed posed a problem to Wall Street bond salesmen (who are universally regarded as the sharpest-toothed sharks in the tank). So, they had the back-office “quants” invent a new kind of financial derivative, the “collateralised debt obligation” (CDO), which bundled up a whole bunch of these BBB tranche bonds into a pool, divided it into tranches, et voilà, the rating agencies would rate the lowest risk tranches of the pool of junk as triple A. How to get rid of the riskiest tranches of the CDO? Lather; rinse; repeat.

Investors worried about the risk of default in these securities could insure against them by purchasing a “credit default swap”, which is simply an insurance contract which pays off if the bond it insures is not repaid in full at maturity. Insurance giant AIG sold tens of billions of these swaps, with premiums ranging from a fraction of a percent on the AAA tranches to on the order of two percent on BBB tranches. As long as the bonds did not default, these premiums were a pure revenue stream for AIG, which went right to the bottom line.

As long as the housing bubble continued to inflate, this created an unlimited supply of AAA rated securities, rated as essentially without risk (historical rates of default on AAA bonds are about one in 100,000), ginned up on Wall Street from the flakiest and shakiest of mortgages. Naturally, this caused a huge flow of funds into the housing market, which kept the bubble expanding ever faster.

Until it popped.

Testifying before a hearing by the U.S. House of Representatives on October 22nd, 2008, Deven Sharma, president of Standard & Poor's, said, “Virtually no one—be they homeowners, financial institutions, rating agencies, regulators, or investors—anticipated what is occurring.” Notwithstanding the claim of culpable clueless clown Sharma, there were a small cadre of insightful investors who saw it all coming, had the audacity to take a position against the consensus of the entire financial establishment—in truth a bet against the Western world's financial system, and the courage to hang in there, against gnawing self-doubt (“Can I really be right and everybody else wrong?”) and skittish investors, to finally cash out on the trade of the century. This book is their story. Now, lots of people knew well in advance that the derivatives-fuelled housing bubble was not going to end well: I have been making jokes about “highly-leveraged financial derivatives” since at least 1996. But it's one thing to see an inevitable train wreck coming and entirely another to figure out approximately when it's going to happen, discover (or invent) the financial instruments with which to speculate upon it, put your own capital and reputation on the line making the bet, persist in the face of an overwhelming consensus that you're not only wrong but crazy, and finally cash out in a chaotic environment where there's a risk your bets won't be paid off due to bankruptcy on the other side (counterparty risk) or government intervention.

As the insightful investors profiled here dug into the details of the fairy castle of mortgage-backed securities, they discovered that it wouldn't even take a decline in housing prices to cause defaults sufficient to wipe out the AAA rated derivatives: a mere stagnation in real estate prices would suffice to render them worthless. And yet even after prices in the markets most affected by the bubble had already levelled off, the rating agencies continued to deem the securities based on their mortgages riskless, and insurance against their default could be bought at nominal cost. And those who bought it made vast fortunes as every other market around the world plummeted.

People who make bets like that tend to be way out on the tail of the human bell curve, and their stories, recounted here, are correspondingly fascinating. This book reads like one of Paul Erdman's financial thrillers, with the difference that the events described are simultaneously much less probable and absolutely factual. If this were a novel and not reportage, I doubt many readers would find the characters plausible.

There are many lessons to be learnt here. The first is that the human animal, and therefore the financial markets in which they interact, frequently mis-estimates and incorrectly prices the risk of outcomes with low probability: Black Swan (January 2009) events, and that investors who foresee them and can structure highly leveraged, long-term bets on them can do very well indeed. Second, Wall Street is just as predatory and ruthless as you've heard it to be: Goldman Sachs was simultaneously peddling mortgage-backed securities to its customers while its own proprietary traders were betting on them becoming worthless, and this is just one of a multitude of examples. Third, never assume that “experts”, however intelligent, highly credentialed, or richly compensated, actually have any idea what they're doing: the rating agencies grading these swampgas securities AAA had never even looked at the bonds from which they were composed, no less estimated the probability that an entire collection of mortgages made at the same time, to borrowers in similar circumstances, in the same bubble markets might all default at the same time.

We're still in the early phases of the Great Deleveraging, in which towers of debt which cannot possibly be repaid are liquidated through default, restructuring, and/or inflation of the currencies in which they are denominated. This book is a masterful and exquisitely entertaining exposition of the first chapter of this drama, and reading it is an excellent preparation for those wishing to ride out, and perhaps even profit from the ongoing tragedy. I have just two words to say to you: sovereign debt.

July 2010 Permalink

Lewis, Michael. Flash Boys. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-393-24466-3.
Back in the bad old days before regulation of financial markets, one of the most common scams perpetrated by stockbrokers against their customers was “front running”. When a customer placed an order to buy a large block of stock, which order would be sufficient to move the market price of the stock higher, the broker would first place a smaller order to buy the same stock for its own account which would be filled without moving the market very much. Then the customer order would be placed, resulting in the market moving higher. The broker would then immediately sell the stock it had bought at the higher market price and pocket the difference. The profit on each individual transaction would be small, but if you add this up over all the volume of a broker's trades it is substantial. (For a sell order, the broker simply inverts the sense of the transactions.) Front running amounts to picking the customer's pocket to line that of the broker: if the customer's order were placed directly, it would execute at a better price had it not been front run. Consequently, front running has long been illegal and market regulators look closely at transaction histories to detect evidence of such criminality.

In the first decade of the 21st century, traders in the U.S. stock market discovered the market was behaving in a distinctly odd fashion. They had been used to seeing the bids (offers to buy) and asks (offers to sell) on their terminals and were accustomed to placing an order and seeing it hit by the offers in the market. But now, when they placed an order, the offers on the other side of the trade would instantly evaporate, only to come back at a price adverse to them. Many people running hundreds of billions of dollars in hedge, mutual, and pension funds had no idea what was going on, but they were certain the markets were rigged against them. Brad Katsuyama, working at the Royal Bank of Canada's Wall Street office, decided to get to the bottom of the mystery, and eventually discovered the financial equivalent of what you see when you lift up a sheet of wet cardboard in your yard. Due to regulations intended to make financial markets more efficient and fair, the monolithic stock exchanges in the U.S. had fractured into dozens of computer-mediated exchanges which traded the same securities. A broker seeking to buy stock on behalf of a customer could route the order to any of these exchanges based upon its own proprietary algorithm, or might match the order with that of another customer within its own “dark pool”, whence the transaction was completely opaque to the outside market.

But there were other players involved. Often co-located in or near the buildings housing the exchanges (most of which are in New Jersey, which has such a sterling reputation for probity) were the servers of “high frequency traders” (HFTs), who placed and cancelled orders in times measured in microseconds. What the HFTs were doing was, in a nutshell, front running. Here's how it works: the HFT places orders of a minimum size (typically 100 shares) for a large number of frequently traded stocks on numerous exchanges. When one of these orders is hit, the HFT immediately blasts in orders to other exchanges, which have not yet reacted to the buy order, and acquires sufficient shares to fill the original order before the price moves higher. This will, in turn, move the market higher and once it does, the original buy order is filled at the higher price. The HFT pockets the difference. A millisecond in advance can, and does, turn into billions of dollars of profit looted from investors. And all of this is not only completely legal, many of the exchanges bend over backward to attract and support HFTs in return for the fees they pay, creating bizarre kinds of orders whose only purpose for existing is to facilitate HFT strategies.

As Brad investigated the secretive world of HFTs, he discovered the curious subculture of Russian programmers who, having spent part of their lives learning how to game the Soviet system, took naturally to discovering how to game the much more lucrative world of Wall Street. Finally, he decides there is a business opportunity in creating an exchange which distinguishes itself from the others by not being crooked. This exchange, IEX, (it was originally to be called “Investors Exchange”, but the founders realised that the obvious Internet domain name, investorsexchange.com, could be infelicitously parsed into three words as well as two), would include technological constraints (including 38 miles of fibre optic cable in a box to create latency between the point of presence where traders could attach and the servers which matched bids and asks) which rendered the strategies of the HFTs impotent and obsolete.

Was it conceivable one could be successful on Wall Street by being honest? Perhaps one had to be a Canadian to entertain such a notion, but in the event, it was. But it wasn't easy. IEX rapidly discovered that Wall Street firms, given orders by customers to be executed on IEX, sent them elsewhere to venues more profitable to the broker. Confidentiality rules prohibited IEX from identifying the miscreants, but nothing prevented them, with the brokers' permission, from identifying those who weren't crooked. This worked quite well.

I'm usually pretty difficult to shock when it comes to the underside of the financial system. For decades, my working assumption is that anything, until proven otherwise, is a scam aimed at picking the pockets of customers, and sadly I have found this presumption correct in a large majority of cases. Still, this book was startling. It's amazing the creepy crawlers you see when you lift up that piece of cardboard, and to anybody with an engineering background the rickety structure and fantastic instability of what are supposed to be the capital markets of the world's leading economy is nothing less than shocking. It is no wonder such a system is prone to “flash crashes” and other excursions. An operating system designer who built such a system would be considered guilty of malfeasance (unless, I suppose, he worked for Microsoft, in which case he'd be a candidate for employee of the year), and yet it is tolerated at the heart of a financial system which, if it collapses, can bring down the world's economy.

Now, one can argue that it isn't such a big thing if somebody shaves a penny or two off the price of a stock you buy or sell. If you're a medium- or long-term investor, that'll make little difference in the results. But what will make your blood boil is that the stock broker with whom you're doing business may be complicit in this, and pocketing part of the take. Many people in the real world look at Wall Street and conclude “The markets are rigged; the banks and brokers are crooked; and the system is stacked against the investor.” As this book demonstrates, they are, for the most part, absolutely right.

May 2014 Permalink

Lowe, Keith. Savage Continent. New York: Picador, [2012] 2013. ISBN 978-1-250-03356-7.
On May 8th, 1945, World War II in Europe formally ended when the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany. In popular myth, especially among those too young to have lived through the war and its aftermath, the defeat of Italy and Germany ushered in, at least in Western Europe not occupied by Soviet troops, a period of rebuilding and rapid economic growth, spurred by the Marshall Plan. The French refer to the three decades from 1945 to 1975 as Les Trente Glorieuses. But that isn't what actually happened, as this book documents in detail. Few books cover the immediate aftermath of the war, or concentrate exclusively upon that chaotic period. The author has gone to great lengths to explore little-known conflicts and sort out conflicting accounts of what happened still disputed today by descendants of those involved.

The devastation wreaked upon cities where the conflict raged was extreme. In Germany, Berlin, Hanover, Duisburg, Dortmund, and Cologne lost more than half their habitable buildings, with the figure rising to 70% in the latter city. From Stalingrad to Warsaw to Caen in France, destruction was general with survivors living in the rubble. The transportation infrastructure was almost completely obliterated, along with services such as water, gas, electricity, and sanitation. The industrial plant was wiped out, and along with it the hope of employment. This was the state of affairs in May 1945, and the Marshall Plan did not begin to deliver assistance to Western Europe until three years later, in April 1948. Those three years were grim, and compounded by score-settling, revenge, political instability, and multitudes of displaced people returning to areas with no infrastructure to support them.

And this was in Western Europe. As is the case with just about everything regarding World War II in Europe, the further east you go, the worse things get. In the Soviet Union, 70,000 villages were destroyed, along with 32,000 factories. The redrawing of borders, particularly those of Poland and Germany, set the stage for a paroxysm of ethnic cleansing and mass migration as Poles were expelled from territory now incorporated into the Soviet Union and Germans from the western part of Poland. Reprisals against those accused of collaboration with the enemy were widespread, with murder not uncommon. Thirst for revenge extended to the innocent, including children fathered by soldiers of occupying armies.

The end of the War did not mean an end to the wars. As the author writes, “The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.” Defeat of Germany did nothing to bring these other conflicts to an end. Guerrilla wars continued in the Baltic states annexed by the Soviet Union as partisans resisted the invader. An all-out civil war between communists and anti-communists erupted in Greece and was ended only through British and American aid to the anti-communists. Communist agitation escalated to violence in Italy and France. And country after country in Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination as puppet regimes were installed through coups, subversion, or rigged elections.

When reading a detailed history of a period most historians ignore, one finds oneself exclaiming over and over, “I didn't know that!”, and that is certainly the case here. This was a dark period, and no group seemed immune from regrettable acts, including Jews liberated from Nazi death camps and slave labourers freed as the Allies advanced: both sometimes took their revenge upon German civilians. As the author demonstrates, the aftermath of this period still simmers beneath the surface among the people involved—it has become part of the identity of ethnic groups which will outlive any person who actually remembers the events of the immediate postwar period.

In addition to providing an enlightening look at this neglected period, the events in the years following 1945 have much to teach us about those playing out today around the globe. We are seeing long-simmering ethnic and religious strife boil into open conflict as soon as the system is perturbed enough to knock the lid off the kettle. Borders drawn by politicians mean little when people's identity is defined by ancestry or faith, and memories are very long, measured sometimes in centuries. Even after a cataclysmic conflict which levels cities and reduces populations to near-medieval levels of subsistence, many people do not long for peace but instead seek revenge. Economic growth and prosperity can, indeed, change the attitude of societies and allow for alliances among former enemies (imagine how odd the phrase “Paris-Berlin axis”, heard today in discussions of the European Union, would have sounded in 1946), but the results of a protracted conflict can prevent the emergence of the very prosperity which might allow consigning it to the past.

August 2014 Permalink

Lukacs, John. Five Days in London. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08466-8.
Winston Churchill titled the fourth volume of his memoirs of The Second World War, describing the events of 1942, The Hinge of Fate. Certainly, in the military sense, it was in that year that the tide turned in favour of the allies—the entry of the United States into the war and the Japanese defeat in the Battle of Midway, Germany's failure at Stalingrad and the beginning of the disastrous consequences for the German army, and British defeat of Rommel's army at El Alamein together marked what Churchill described as, “…not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end, but, it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

But in this book, distinguished historian John Lukacs argues that the true “hinge of fate” not only of World War II, but for Western civilisation against Nazi tyranny, occurred in the five days of 24–28 May of 1940, not on the battlefields in France, but in London, around conference tables, in lunch and dinner meetings, and walks in the garden. This was a period of unmitigated, accelerating disaster for the French army and the British Expeditionary Force in France: the channel ports of Boulogne and Calais fell to the Germans, the King of Belgium capitulated to the Nazis, and more than three hundred thousand British and French troops were surrounded at Dunkirk, the last channel port still in Allied hands. Despite plans for an evacuation, as late as May 28, Churchill estimated that at most about 50,000 could be evacuated, with all the rest taken prisoner and all the military equipment lost. In his statement in the House of Commons that day, he said, “Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings.” It was only in the subsequent days that the near-miraculous evacuation was accomplished, with a total of 338,226 soldiers rescued by June 3rd.

And yet it was in these darkest of days that Churchill vowed that Britain would fight on, alone if necessary (which seemed increasingly probable), to the very end, whatever the cost or consequences. On May 31st, he told French premier Paul Reynaud, “It would be better far that the civilisation of Western Europe with all of its achievements should come to a tragic but splendid end than that the two great democracies should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living.” (p. 217).

From Churchill's memoirs and those of other senior British officials, contemporary newspapers, and most historical accounts of the period, one gains the impression of a Britain unified in grim resolve behind Churchill to fight on until ultimate victory or annihilation. But what actually happened in those crucial War Cabinet meetings as the disaster in France was unfolding? Oddly, the memoirs and collected papers of the participants are nearly silent on the period, with the author describing the latter as having been “weeded” after the fact. It was not until the minutes of the crucial cabinet meetings were declassified in 1970 (thanks to a decision by the British government to reduce the “closed period” of such records from fifty to thirty years), that it became possible to reconstruct what transpired there. This book recounts a dramatic and fateful struggle of which the public and earlier historians of the period were completely unaware—a moment when Hitler may have come closer to winning the war than at any other.

The War Cabinet was, in fact, deeply divided. Churchill, who had only been Prime Minister for two weeks, was in a precarious position, with his predecessor Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who King George VI had preferred to Churchill for Prime Minister as members, along with Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. Halifax did not believe that Britain could resist alone, and that fighting on would surely result in the loss of the Empire and perhaps independence and liberty in Britain as well. He argued vehemently for an approach, either by Britain and France together or Britain alone, to Mussolini, with the goal of keeping Italy out of the war and making some kind of deal with Hitler which would preserve independence and the Empire, and he met on several occasions with the Italian ambassador in London to explore such possibilities.

Churchill opposed any effort to seek mediation, either by Mussolini or Roosevelt, both because he thought the chances of obtaining acceptable terms from Hitler were “a thousand to one against” (May 28, p. 183) and because any approach would put Britain on a “slippery slope” (Churchill's words in the same meeting) from which it would be impossible to restore the resolution to fight rather than make catastrophic concessions. But this was a pragmatic decision, not a Churchillian declaration of “never, never, never, never”. In the May 26 War Cabinet meeting (p. 113), Churchill made the rather astonishing statement that he “would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territory”. One can understand why the personal papers of the principals were so carefully weeded.

Speaking of another conflict where the destiny of Europe hung in the balance, the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. This account makes it clear that this moment in history was much the same. It is, of course, impossible to forecast what the consequences would have been had Halifax prevailed and Britain approached Mussolini to broker a deal with Hitler. The author argues forcefully that nothing less than the fate of Western civilisation was at stake. With so many “what ifs”, one can never know. (For example, it appears that Mussolini had already decided by this date to enter the war and he might have simply rejected a British approach.) But in any case this fascinating, thoroughly documented, and lucidly written account of a little-known but crucial moment in history makes for compelling reading.

February 2007 Permalink

Macdonald, Lyn. 1915: The Death of Innocence. London: Penguin Books, [1993] 1997. ISBN 0-14-025900-7.
I'm increasingly coming to believe that World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century: not only a cataclysm which destroyed the confident assumptions of the past, but which set history inexorably on a path which would lead to even greater tragedies and horrors as that century ran its course. This book provides an excellent snapshot of what the British people, both at the front and back home, were thinking during the first full year of the war, as casualties mounted and hope faded for the quick victory almost all expected at the outset.

The book does not purport to be a comprehensive history of the war, nor even of the single year it chronicles. It covers only the British Army: the Royal Navy is mentioned only in conjunction with troop transport and landings, and the Royal Flying Corps scarcely at all. The forces of other countries, allied or enemy, are mentioned only in conjunction with their interaction with the British, and no attempt is made to describe the war from their perspective. Finally, the focus is almost entirely on the men in the trenches and their commanders in the field: there is little focus on the doings of politicians and the top military brass, nor on grand strategy, although there was little of that in evidence in the events of 1915 in any case.

Within its limited scope, however, the book succeeds superbly. About a third of the text is extended quotations from people who fought at the front, many from contemporary letters home. Not only do you get an excellent insight into how horrific conditions were in the field, but also how stoically those men accepted them, hardly ever questioning the rationale for the war or the judgement of those who commanded them. And this in the face of a human cost which is nearly impossible to grasp by the standards of present-day warfare. Between the western front and the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, the British suffered more than half a million casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) (p. 597). In “quiet periods” when neither side was mounting attacks, simply manning their own trenches, British casualties averaged five thousand a week (p. 579), mostly from shelling and sniper fire.

And all of the British troops who endured these appalling conditions were volunteers—conscription did not begin in Britain until 1916. With the Regular Army having been largely wiped out in the battles of 1914, the trenches were increasingly filled with Territorial troops who volunteered for service in France, units from around the Empire: India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and as the year progressed, Kitchener's “New Army” of volunteer recruits rushed through training and thrown headlong into the killing machine. The mindset that motivated these volunteers and the conclusions drawn from their sacrifice set the stage for the even greater subsequent horrors of the twentieth century.

Why? Because they accepted as given that their lives were, in essence, the property of the state which governed the territory in which they happened to live, and that the rulers of that state, solely on the authority of having been elected by a small majority of the voters in an era when suffrage was far from universal, had every right to order them to kill or be killed by subjects of other states with which they had no personal quarrel. (The latter point was starkly illustrated when, at Christmas 1914, British and German troops declared an impromptu cease-fire, fraternised, and played football matches in no man's land before, the holiday behind them, returning to the trenches to resume killing one another for King and Kaiser.) This was a widely shared notion, but the first year of the Great War demonstrated that the populations of the countries on both sides really believed it, and would charge to almost certain death even after being told by Lord Kitchener himself on the parade ground, “that our attack was in the nature of a sacrifice to help the main offensive which was to be launched ‘elsewhere’” (p. 493). That individuals would accept their rôle as property of the state was a lesson which the all-encompassing states of the twentieth century, both tyrannical and more or less democratic, would take to heart, and would manifest itself not only in conscription and total war, but also in expropriation, confiscatory taxation, and arbitrary regulation of every aspect of subjects' lives. Once you accept that the state is within its rights to order you to charge massed machine guns with a rifle and bayonet, you're unlikely to quibble over lesser matters.

Further, the mobilisation of the economy under government direction for total war was taken as evidence that central planning of an industrial economy was not only feasible but more efficient than the market. Unfortunately, few observed that there is a big difference between consuming capital to build the means of destruction over a limited period of time and creating new wealth and products in a productive economy. And finally, governments learnt that control of mass media could mould the beliefs of their subjects as the rulers wished: the comical Fritz with which British troops fraternised at Christmas 1914 had become the detested Boche whose trenches they shelled continuously on Christmas Day a year later (p. 588).

It is these disastrous “lessons” drawn from the tragedy of World War I which, I suspect, charted the tragic course of the balance of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. Even a year before the outbreak of World War I, almost nobody imagined such a thing was possible, or that it would have the consequences it did. One wonders what will be the equivalent defining event of the twenty-first century, when it will happen, and in what direction it will set the course of history?

A U.S. edition is also available.

November 2006 Permalink

Macintyre, Ben. Agent Zigzag. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-35341-2.
I'm not sure I'd agree with the cover blurb by the Boston Globe reviewer who deemed this “The best book ever written”, but it's a heck of a great read and will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Imagine the best wartime espionage novel you've ever read, stir in exploits from a criminal caper yarn, leaven with an assortment of delightfully eccentric characters, and then make the whole thing totally factual, exhaustively documented from archives declassified decades later by MI5, and you have this compelling story.

The protagonist, Eddie Chapman was, over his long and convoluted career, a British soldier; deserter; safecracker; elite criminal; prisoner of His Majesty, the government of the Isle of Jersey, and the Nazi occupation in Paris; volunteer spy and saboteur for the German Abwehr; parachute spy in Britain; double agent for MI5; instructor at a school for German spies in Norway; spy once again in Britain, deceiving the Germans about V-1 impact locations; participant in fixed dog track races; serial womaniser married to the same woman for fifty years; and for a while an “honorary crime correspondent” to the Sunday Telegraph. That's a lot to fit into even a life as long as Chapman's, and a decade after his death, those who remember him still aren't sure where his ultimate allegiance lay or even if the concept applied to him. If you simply look at him as an utterly amoral person who managed to always come up standing, even after intensive interrogations by MI5, the Abwehr, Gestapo, and SS, you miss his engaging charm, whether genuine or feigned, which engendered deeply-felt and long-lasting affection among his associates, both British and Nazi, criminal and police, all of whom describe him as a unique character.

Information on Chapman's exploits has been leaking out ever since he started publishing autobiographical information in 1953. Dodging the Official Secrets Act, in 1966 he published a more detailed account of his adventures, which was made into a very bad movie starring Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman. Since much of this information came from Chapman, it's not surprising that a substantial part of it was bogus. It is only with the release of the MI5 records, and through interviews with surviving participants in Chapman's exploits that the author was able to piece together an account which, while leaving many questions of motivation uncertain, at least pins down the facts and chronology.

This is a thoroughly delightful story of a totally ambiguous character: awarded the Iron Cross for his services to the Nazi Reich, having mistresses simultaneously supported in Britain and Norway by MI5 and the Abwehr, covertly pardoned for his high-profile criminal record for his service to the Crown, and unreconstructed rogue in his long life after the war. If published as spy fiction, this would be considered implausible in the extreme; the fact that it really happened makes this one of the most remarkable wartime stories I've read and an encounter with a character few novelists could invent.

November 2008 Permalink

Mallan, Lloyd. Russia and the Big Red Lie. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1959. LCCN 59004006.
It is difficult for those who did not live through the era to appreciate the extent to which Sputnik shook the self-confidence of the West and defenders of the open society and free markets around the world. If the West's social and economic systems were genuinely superior to totalitarian rule and central planning, then how had the latter, starting from a base only a half century before where illiterate peasants were bound to the land as serfs, and in little more than a decade after their country was devastated in World War II, managed to pull off a technological achievement which had so far eluded the West and was evidence of a mastery of rocketry which could put the United States heartland at risk? Suddenly the fellow travellers and useful idiots in the West were energised: “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational socialist economy!”

The author, a prolific writer on aerospace and technology, was as impressed as anybody else by the stunning Soviet accomplishment, and undertook the daunting task of arranging a visit to the Soviet Union to see for himself the prowess of Soviet science and technology. After a halting start, he secured a visa and introductions from prominent U.S. scientists to their Soviet counterparts, and journeyed to the Soviet Union in April of 1958, travelled extensively in the country, visiting, among other destinations, Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Yalta, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Yerevan, Kharkov, and Alma-Ata, leaving Soviet soil in June 1958. He had extensive, on the record, meetings with a long list of eminent Soviet scientists and engineers, many members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And he came back with a conclusion utterly opposed to that of the consensus in the West: Soviet technological prowess was about 1% military-style brute force and 99% bluff and hoax.

As one intimately acquainted with Western technology, what he saw in the Soviet Union was mostly comparable to the state of the art in the West a decade earlier, and in many cases obviously copied from Western equipment. The scientists he interviewed, who had been quoted in the Soviet press as forecasting stunning achievements in the near future, often, when interviewed in person, said “that's all just theory—nobody is actually working on that”. The much-vaunted Soviet jet and turboprop airliners he'd heard of were nowhere in evidence anywhere he travelled, and evidence suggested that Soviet commercial aviation lacked navigation and instrument landing systems which were commonplace in the West.

Faced with evidence that Soviet technological accomplishments were simply another front in a propaganda offensive aimed at persuading the world of the superiority of communism, the author dug deeper into the specifics of Soviet claims, and here (from the perspective of half a century on) he got some things right and goofed on others. He goes to great length to argue that the Luna 1 Moon probe was a total hoax, based both on Soviet technological capability and the evidence of repeated failure by Western listening posts to detect its radio signals. Current thinking is that Luna 1 was a genuine mission intended to impact on the Moon, but the Soviet claim it was deliberately launched into solar orbit as an “artificial planet” propaganda aimed at covering up its missing the Moon due to a guidance failure. (This became obvious to all when the near-identical Luna 2 impacted the moon eight months later.) The fact that the Soviets possessed the technology to conduct lunar missions was demonstrated when Luna 3 flew around the Moon in October 1959 and returned the first crude images of its far side (other Luna 3 images). Although Mallan later claimed these images were faked and contained brush strokes, we now know they were genuine, since they are strikingly similar to subsequent imagery, including the albedo map from the Clementine lunar orbiter. “Vas you dere, Ivan?” Well, actually, yes. Luna 3 was the “boomerang” mission around the Moon which Mallan had heard of before visiting the Soviet Union but was told was just a theory when he was there. And yet, had the Soviets had the ability to communicate with Luna 1 at the distance of the Moon, there would have been no reason to make Luna 3 loop around the Moon in order to transmit its pictures from closer to the Earth—enigmas, enigmas, enigmas.

In other matters, the author is dead on, where distinguished Western “experts” and “analysts” were completely taken in by the propaganda. He correctly identifies the Soviet “ICBM” from the 1957 Red Square parade as an intermediate range missile closer to the German V-2 than an intercontinental weapon. (The Soviet ICBM, the R-7, was indeed tested in 1957, but it was an entirely different design and could never have been paraded on a mobile launcher; it did not enter operational service until 1959.) He is also almost precisely on the money when he estimates the Soviet “ICBM arsenal” as on the order of half a dozen missiles, while the CIA was talking about hundreds of Soviet missiles aimed at the West and demagogues were ratcheting up rhetoric about a “missile gap”.

You don't read this for factual revelations: everything discussed here is now known much better, and there are many conclusions drawn in this text from murky contemporary evidence which have proven incorrect. But if you wish to immerse yourself in the Cold War and imagine yourself trying to figure it all out from the sketchy and distorted information coming from the adversary, it is very enlightening. One wishes more people had listened to Mallan—how much folly we might have avoided.

There is also wisdom in what he got wrong. Space spectaculars can be accomplished in a military manner by expending vast resources coercively taken from the productive sector on centrally-planned projects with narrow goals. Consequently, it isn't surprising a command economy such as that of the Soviet Union managed to achieve milestones in space (while failing to deliver adequate supplies of soap and toilet paper to workers toiling in their “paradise”). Indeed, in many ways, the U.S. Apollo program was even more centrally planned than its Soviet counterpart, and the pernicious example it set has damaged efforts to sustainably develop and exploit space ever since.

This “Fawcett Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated containing a single long article. It even includes the usual delightful advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine. Is this work in the public domain and hence eligible to be posted on the Web? I don't know. It may well be: it was published before 1978, and unless its copyright was renewed in 1987 when its original 28 year term expired, it is public domain. Otherwise, as a publication by a “corporate author”, it will remain in copyright until 2079, which makes a mockery of the “limited Times to Authors” provision of the U.S. Constitution. If somebody can confirm this work is in the public domain, I'll scan it and make it available on the Web.

March 2012 Permalink

Mayer, Milton. They Thought They Were Free. 2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1955] 1966. ISBN 0-226-51192-8.
The author, a journalist descended from German Jewish immigrants to the United States, first visited Nazi Germany in 1935, spending a month in Berlin attempting to obtain, unsuccessfully, an interview with Hitler, notwithstanding the assistance of his friend, the U.S. ambassador, then travelled through the country reporting for a U.S. magazine. It was then that he first discovered, meeting with ordinary Germans, that Nazism was not, as many perceived it then and now, “the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions” (p. xviii), but rather a mass movement grounded in the “little people” with a broad base of non-fanatic supporters.

Ten years after the end of the war, Mayer arranged a one year appointment as a visiting professor at the University of Frankfurt and moved, with his family, to a nearby town of about 20,000 he calls “Kronenberg”. There, he spent much of his time cultivating the friendship of ten men he calls “my ten Nazi friends”, all of whom joined the party for various reasons ranging from ideology, assistance in finding or keeping employment, to admiration of what they saw as Hitler's success (before the war) in restoring the German economy and position in the world. A large part of the book is reconstructed conversations with these people, exploring the motivations of those who supported Hitler (many of whom continued, a decade after Germany's disastrous defeat in the war he started, to believe the years of his rule prior to the war were Germany's golden age). Together they provide a compelling picture of life in a totalitarian society as perceived by people who liked it.

This is simultaneously a profoundly enlightening and disturbing book. The author's Nazi friends come across as almost completely unexceptional, and one comes to understand how the choices they made, rooted in the situation they found themselves, made perfect sense to them. And then, one cannot help but ask, “What would I have done in the same circumstances?” Mayer has no truck with what has come to be called multiculturalism—he is a firm believer in national character (although, of course, only on the average, with large individual variation), and he explains how history, over almost two millennia, has forged the German character and why it is unlikely to be changed by military defeat and a few years of occupation.

Apart from the historical insights, this book is highly topical when a global superpower is occupying a very different country, with a tradition and history far more remote from its own than was Germany's, and trying to instill institutions with no historical roots there. People forget, but ten years after the end of World War II many, Mayer included, considered the occupation of Germany to have been a failure. He writes (p. 303):

The failure of the Occupation could not, perhaps, have been averted in the very nature of the case. But it might have been mitigated. Its mitigation would have required the conquerors to do something they had never had to do in their history. They would have had to stop doing what they were doing and ask themselves some questions, hard questions, like, What is the German character? How did it get that way? What is wrong with its being that way? What way would be better, and what, if anything, could anybody do about it?
Wise questions, indeed, for any conqueror of any country.

The writing is so superb that you may find yourself re-reading paragraphs just to savour how they're constructed. It is also thought-provoking to ponder how many things, from the perspective of half a century later, the author got wrong. In his view the occupation of West Germany would fail to permanently implant democracy, that German re-militarisation and eventual aggression was almost certain unless blocked by force, and that the project of European unification was a pipe dream of idealists and doomed to failure. And yet, today, things seem to have turned out pretty well for Germany, the Germans, and their neighbours. The lesson of this may be that national character can be changed, but changing it is the work of generations, not a few years of military occupation. That is also something modern-day conquerors, especially Western societies with a short attention span, might want to bear in mind.

September 2006 Permalink

Mazur, Joseph. Enlightening Symbols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-691-15463-3.
Sometimes an invention is so profound and significant yet apparently obvious in retrospect that it is difficult to imagine how people around the world struggled over millennia to discover it, and how slowly it was to diffuse from its points of origin into general use. Such is the case for our modern decimal system of positional notation for numbers and the notation for algebra and other fields of mathematics which permits rapid calculation and transformation of expressions. This book, written with the extensive source citations of a scholarly work yet accessible to any reader familiar with arithmetic and basic algebra, traces the often murky origins of this essential part of our intellectual heritage.

From prehistoric times humans have had the need to count things, for example, the number of sheep in a field. This could be done by establishing a one-to-one correspondence between the sheep and something else more portable such as one's fingers (for a small flock), or pebbles kept in a sack. To determine whether a sheep was missing, just remove a pebble for each sheep and if any remained in the sack, that indicates how many are absent. At a slightly more abstract level, one could make tally marks on a piece of bark or clay tablet, one for each sheep. But all of this does not imply number as an abstraction independent of individual items of some kind or another. Ancestral humans don't seem to have required more than the simplest notion of numbers: until the middle of the 20th century several tribes of Australian aborigines had no words for numbers in their languages at all, but counted things by making marks in the sand. Anthropologists discovered tribes in remote areas of the Americas, Pacific Islands, and Australia whose languages had no words for numbers greater than four.

With the emergence of settled human populations and the increasingly complex interactions of trade between villages and eventually cities, a more sophisticated notion of numbers was required. A merchant might need to compute how many kinds of one good to exchange for another and to keep records of his inventory of various items. The earliest known written records of numerical writing are Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets dating from around 3400 B.C. These tablets show number symbols formed from two distinct kinds of marks pressed into wet clay with a stylus. While the smaller numbers seem clearly evolved from tally marks, larger numbers are formed by complicated combinations of the two symbols representing numbers from 1 to 59. Larger numbers were written as groups of powers of 60 separated by spaces. This was the first known instance of a positional number system, but there is no evidence it was used for complicated calculations—just as a means of recording quantities.

Ancient civilisations: Egypt, Hebrew, Greece, China, Rome, and the Aztecs and Mayas in the Western Hemisphere all invented ways of writing numbers, some sophisticated and capable of representing large quantities. Many of these systems were additive: they used symbols, sometimes derived from letters in their alphabets, and composed numbers by writing symbols which summed to the total. To write the number 563, a Greek would write “φξγ”, where φ=500, ξ=60, and γ=3. By convention, numbers were written with letters in descending order of the value they represented, but the system was not positional. This made the system clumsy for representing large numbers, reusing letters with accent marks to represent thousands and an entirely different convention for ten thousands.

How did such advanced civilisations get along using number systems in which it is almost impossible to compute? Just imagine a Roman faced with multiplying MDXLIX by XLVII (1549 × 47)—where do you start? You don't: all of these civilisations used some form of mechanical computational aid: an abacus, counting rods, stones in grooves, and so on to actually manipulate numbers. The Sun Zi Suan Jing, dating from fifth century China, provides instructions (algorithms) for multiplication, division, and square and cube root extraction using bamboo counting sticks (or written symbols representing them). The result of the computation was then written using the numerals of the language. The written language was thus a way to represent numbers, but not compute with them.

Many of the various forms of numbers and especially computational tools such as the abacus came ever-so-close to stumbling on the place value system, but it was in India, probably before the third century B.C. that a positional decimal number system including zero as a place holder, with digit forms recognisably ancestral to those we use today emerged. This was a breakthrough in two regards. Now, by memorising tables of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division and simple algorithms once learned by schoolchildren before calculators supplanted that part of their brains, it was possible to directly compute from written numbers. (Despite this, the abacus remained in common use.) But, more profoundly, this was a universal representation of whole numbers. Earlier number systems (with the possible exception of that invented by Archimedes in The Sand Reckoner [but never used practically]) either had a limit on the largest number they could represent or required cumbersome and/or lengthy conventions for large numbers. The Indian number system needed only ten symbols to represent any non-negative number, and only the single convention that each digit in a number represented how many of that power of ten depending on its position.

Knowledge diffused slowly in antiquity, and despite India being on active trade routes, it was not until the 13th century A.D. that Fibonacci introduced the new number system, which had been transmitted via Islamic scholars writing in Arabic, to Europe in his Liber Abaci. This book not only introduced the new number system, it provided instructions for a variety of practical computations and applications to higher mathematics. As revolutionary as this book was, in an era of hand-copied manuscripts, its influence spread very slowly, and it was not until the 16th century that the new numbers became almost universally used. The author describes this protracted process, about which a great deal of controversy remains to the present day.

Just as the decimal positional number system was becoming established in Europe, another revolution in notation began which would transform mathematics, how it was done, and our understanding of the meaning of numbers. Algebra, as we now understand it, was known in antiquity, but it was expressed in a rhetorical way—in words. For example, proposition 7 of book 2 of Euclid's Elements states:

If a straight line be cut at random, the square of the whole is equal to the squares on the segments and twice the rectangle contained by the segments.

Now, given such a problem, Euclid or any of those following in his tradition would draw a diagram and proceed to prove from the axioms of plane geometry the correctness of the statement. But it isn't obvious how to apply this identity to other problems, or how it illustrates the behaviour of general numbers. Today, we'd express the problem and proceed as follows:

    (a+b)^2 & = & (a+b)(a+b) \\
    & = & a(a+b)+b(a+b) \\
    & = & aa+ab+ba+bb \\
    & = & a^2+2ab+b^2 \\
    & = & a^2+b^2+2ab

Once again, faced with the word problem, it's difficult to know where to begin, but once expressed in symbolic form, it can be solved by applying rules of algebra which many master before reaching high school. Indeed, the process of simplifying such an equation is so mechanical that computer tools are readily available to do so.

Or consider the following brain-twister posed in the 7th century A.D. about the Greek mathematician and father of algebra Diophantus: how many years did he live?

“Here lies Diophantus,” the wonder behold.
Through art algebraic, the stone tells how old;
“God gave him his boyhood one-sixth of his life,
One twelfth more as youth while whiskers grew rife;
And then one-seventh ere marriage begun;
In five years there came a bounding new son.
Alas, the dear child of master and sage
After attaining half the measure of his father's life chill fate took him.
After consoling his fate by the science of numbers for four years, he ended his life.”

Oh, go ahead, give it a try before reading on!

Today, we'd read through the problem and write a system of two simultaneous equations, where x is the age of Diophantus at his death and y the number of years his son lived. Then:

    x & = & (\frac{1}{6}+\frac{1}{12}+\frac{1}{7})x+5+y+4 \\
    y & = & \frac{x}{2}

Plug the second equation into the first, do a little algebraic symbol twiddling, and the answer, 84, pops right out. Note that not only are the rules for solving this equation the same as for any other, with a little practice it is easy to read the word problem and write down the equations ready to solve. Go back and re-read the original problem and the equations and you'll see how straightforwardly they follow.

Once you have transformed a mass of words into symbols, they invite you to discover new ways in which they apply. What is the solution of the equation x+4=0? In antiquity many would have said the equation is meaningless: there is no number you can add to four to get zero. But that's because their conception of number was too limited: negative numbers such as −4 are completely valid and obey all the laws of algebra. By admitting them, we discovered we'd overlooked half of the real numbers. What about the solution to the equation x² + 4 = 0? This was again considered ill-formed, or imaginary, since the square of any real number, positive or negative, is positive. Another leap of imagination, admitting the square root of minus one to the family of numbers, expanded the number line into the complex plane, yielding the answer 2i as we'd now express it, and extending our concept of number into one which is now fundamental not only in abstract mathematics but also science and engineering. And in recognising negative and complex numbers, we'd come closer to unifying algebra and geometry by bringing rotation into the family of numbers.

This book explores the groping over centuries toward a symbolic representation of mathematics which hid the specifics while revealing the commonality underlying them. As one who learned mathematics during the height of the “new math” craze, I can't recall a time when I didn't think of mathematics as a game of symbolic transformation of expressions which may or may not have any connection with the real world. But what one discovers in reading this book is that while this is a concept very easy to brainwash into a 7th grader, it was extraordinarily difficult for even some of the most brilliant humans ever to have lived to grasp in the first place. When Newton invented calculus, for example, he always expressed his “fluxions” as derivatives of time, and did not write of the general derivative of a function of arbitrary variables.

Also, notation is important. Writing something in a more expressive and easily manipulated way can reveal new insights about it. We benefit not just from the discoveries of those in the past, but from those who created the symbolic language in which we now express them.

This book is a treasure chest of information about how the language of science came to be. We encounter a host of characters along the way, not just great mathematicians and scientists, but scoundrels, master forgers, chauvinists, those who preserved precious manuscripts and those who burned them, all leading to the symbolic language in which we so effortlessly write and do mathematics today.

January 2015 Permalink

McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-2874-2.
On December 8th, 1903, all was in readiness. The aircraft was perched on its launching catapult, the brave airman at the controls. The powerful internal combustion engine roared to life. At 16:45 the catapult hurled the craft into the air. It rose straight up, flipped, and with its wings coming apart, plunged into the Potomac river just 20 feet from the launching point. The pilot was initially trapped beneath the wreckage but managed to free himself and swim to the surface. After being rescued from the river, he emitted what one witness described as “the most voluble series of blasphemies” he had ever heard.

So ended the last flight of Samuel Langley's “Aerodrome”. Langley was a distinguished scientist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Funded by the U.S. Army and the Smithsonian for a total of US$ 70,000 (equivalent to around 1.7 million present-day dollars), the Aerodrome crashed immediately on both of its test flights, and was the subject of much mockery in the press.

Just nine days later, on December 17th, two brothers, sons of a churchman, with no education beyond high school, and proprietors of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, readied their own machine for flight near Kitty Hawk, on the windswept sandy hills of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Their craft, called just the Flyer, took to the air with Orville Wright at the controls. With the 12 horsepower engine driving the twin propellers and brother Wilbur running alongside to stabilise the machine as it moved down the launching rail into the wind, Orville lifted the machine into the air and achieved the first manned heavier-than-air powered flight, demonstrating the Flyer was controllable in all three axes. The flight lasted just 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet.

After the first flight, the brothers took turns flying the machine three more times on the 17th. On the final flight Wilbur flew a distance of 852 feet in a flight of 59 seconds (a strong headwind was blowing, and this flight was over half a mile through the air). After completion of the fourth flight, while being prepared to fly again, a gust of wind caught the machine and dragged it, along with assistant John T. Daniels, down the beach toward the ocean. Daniels escaped, but the Flyer was damaged beyond repair and never flew again. (The Flyer which can seen in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum today has been extensively restored.)

Orville sent a telegram to his father in Dayton announcing the success, and the brothers packed up the remains of the aircraft to be shipped back to their shop. The 1903 season was at an end. The entire budget for the project between 1900 through the successful first flights was less than US$ 1000 (24,000 dollars today), and was funded entirely by profits from the brothers' bicycle business.

How did two brothers with no formal education in aerodynamics or engineering succeed on a shoestring budget while Langley, with public funds at his disposal and the resources of a major scientific institution fail so embarrassingly? Ultimately it was because the Wright brothers identified the key problem of flight and patiently worked on solving it through a series of experiments. Perhaps it was because they were in the bicycle business. (Although they are often identified as proprietors of a “bicycle shop”, they also manufactured their own bicycles and had acquired the machine tools, skills, and co-workers for the business, later applied to building the flying machine.)

The Wrights believed the essential problem of heavier than air flight was control. The details of how a bicycle is built don't matter much: you still have to learn to ride it. And the problem of control in free flight is much more difficult than riding a bicycle, where the only controls are the handlebars and, to a lesser extent, shifting the rider's weight. In flight, an airplane must be controlled in three axes: pitch (up and down), yaw (left and right), and roll (wings' angle to the horizon). The means for control in each of these axes must be provided, and what's more, just as for a child learning to ride a bike, the would-be aeronaut must master the skill of using these controls to maintain his balance in the air.

Through a patient program of subscale experimentation, first with kites controlled by from the ground by lines manipulated by the operators, then gliders flown by a pilot on board, the Wrights developed their system of pitch control by a front-mounted elevator, yaw by a rudder at the rear, and roll by warping the wings of the craft. Further, they needed to learn how to fly using these controls and verify that the resulting plane would be stable enough that a person could master the skill of flying it. With powerless kites and gliders, this required a strong, consistent wind. After inquiries to the U.S. Weather Bureau, the brothers selected the Kitty Hawk site on the North Carolina coast. Just getting there was an adventure, but the wind was as promised and the sand and lack of large vegetation was ideal for their gliding experiments. They were definitely “roughing it” at this remote site, and at times were afflicted by clouds of mosquitos of Biblical plague proportions, but starting in 1900 they tested a series of successively larger gliders and by 1902 had a design which provided three axis control, stability, and the controls for a pilot on board. In the 1902 season they made more than 700 flights and were satisfied the control problem had been mastered.

Now all that remained was to add an engine and propellers to the successful glider design, again scaling it up to accommodate the added weight. In 1903, you couldn't just go down to the hardware store and buy an engine, and automobile engines were much too heavy, so the Wrights' resourceful mechanic, Charlie Taylor, designed and built the four cylinder motor from scratch, using the new-fangled material aluminium for the engine block. The finished engine weighed just 152 pounds and produced 12 horsepower. The brothers could find no references for the design of air propellers and argued intensely over the topic, but eventually concluded they'd just have to make a best guess and test it on the real machine.

The Flyer worked the on the second attempt (an earlier try on December 14th ended in a minor crash when Wilbur over-controlled at the moment of take-off). But this stunning success was the product of years of incremental refinement of the design, practical testing, and mastery of airmanship through experience.

Those four flights in December of 1903 are now considered one of the epochal events of the twentieth century, but at the time they received little notice. Only a few accounts of the flights appeared in the press, and some of them were garbled and/or sensationalised. The Wrights knew that the Flyer (whose wreckage was now in storage crates at Dayton), while a successful proof of concept and the basis for a patent filing, was not a practical flying machine. It could only take off into the strong wind at Kitty Hawk and had not yet demonstrated long-term controlled flight including aerial maneuvers such as turns or flying around a closed course. It was just too difficult travelling to Kitty Hawk, and the facilities of their camp there didn't permit rapid modification of the machines based upon experimentation.

They arranged to use an 84 acre cow pasture called Huffman Prairie located eight miles from Dayton along an interurban trolley line which made it easy to reach. The field's owner let them use it without charge as long as they didn't disturb the livestock. The Wrights devised a catapult to launch their planes, powered by a heavy falling weight, which would allow them to take off in still air. It was here, in 1904, that they refined the design into a practical flying machine and fully mastered the art of flying it over the course of about fifty test flights. Still, there was little note of their work in the press, and the first detailed account was published in the January 1905 edition of Gleanings in Bee Culture. Amos Root, the author of the article and publisher of the magazine, sent a copy to Scientific American, saying they could republish it without fee. The editors declined, and a year later mocked the achievements of the Wright brothers.

For those accustomed to the pace of technological development more than a century later, the leisurely pace of progress in aviation and lack of public interest in the achievement of what had been a dream of humanity since antiquity seems odd. Indeed, the Wrights, who had continued to refine their designs, would not become celebrities nor would their achievements be widely acknowledged until a series of demonstrations Wilbur would perform at Le Mans in France in the summer of 1908. Le Figaro wrote, “It was not merely a success, but a triumph…a decisive victory for aviation, the news of which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world.” And it did: stories of Wilbur's exploits were picked up by the press on the Continent, in Britain, and, belatedly, by papers in the U.S. Huge crowds came out to see the flights, and the intrepid American aviator's name was on every tongue.

Meanwhile, Orville was preparing for a series of demonstration flights for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. The army had agreed to buy a machine if it passed a series of tests. Orville's flights also began to draw large crowds from nearby Washington and extensive press coverage. All doubts about what the Wrights had wrought were now gone. During a demonstration flight on September 17, 1908, a propeller broke in flight. Orville tried to recover, but the machine plunged to the ground from an altitude of 75 feet, severely injuring him and killing his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who became the first person to die in an airplane crash. Orville's recuperation would be long and difficult, aided by his sister, Katharine.

In early 1909, Orville and Katharine would join Wilbur in France, where he was to do even more spectacular demonstrations in the south of the country, training pilots for the airplanes he was selling to the French. Upon their return to the U.S., the Wrights were awarded medals by President Taft at the White House. They were feted as returning heroes in a two day celebration in Dayton. The diligent Wrights continued their work in the shop between events.

The brothers would return to Fort Myer, the scene of the crash, and complete their demonstrations for the army, securing the contract for the sale of an airplane for US$ 30,000. The Wrights would continue to develop their company, defend their growing portfolio of patents against competitors, and innovate. Wilbur was to die of typhoid fever in 1912, aged only 45 years. Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company in 1915 and, in his retirement, served for 28 years on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor of NASA. He died in 1948. Neither brother ever married.

This book is a superb evocation of the life and times of the Wrights and their part in creating, developing, promoting, and commercialising one of the key technologies of the modern world.

February 2016 Permalink

McDonald, Allan J. and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-Rings. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8130-3326-6.
More than two decades have elapsed since Space Shuttle Challenger met its tragic end on that cold Florida morning in January 1986, and a shelf-full of books have been written about the accident and its aftermath, ranging from the five volume official report of the Presidential commission convened to investigate the disaster to conspiracy theories and accounts of religious experiences. Is it possible, at this remove, to say anything new about Challenger? The answer is unequivocally yes, as this book conclusively demonstrates.

The night before Challenger was launched on its last mission, Allan McDonald attended the final day before launch flight readiness review at the Kennedy Space Center, representing Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the solid rocket motors, where he was Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project. McDonald initially presented Thiokol's judgement that the launch should be postponed because the temperatures forecast for launch day were far below the experience base of the shuttle program and an earlier flight at the lowest temperature to date had shown evidence of blow-by the O-ring seals in the solid rocket field joints. Thiokol engineers were concerned that low temperatures would reduce the resiliency of the elastomeric rings, causing them to fail to seal during the critical ignition transient. McDonald was astonished when NASA personnel, in a reversal of their usual rôle of challenging contractors to prove why their hardware was safe to fly, demanded that Thiokol prove the solid motor was unsafe in order to scrub the launch. Thiokol management requested a five minute offline caucus back at the plant in Utah (in which McDonald did not participate) which stretched to thirty minutes and ended up with a recommendation to launch. NASA took the unprecedented step of requiring a written approval to launch from Thiokol, which McDonald refused to provide, but which was supplied by his boss in Utah.

After the loss of the shuttle and its crew, and the discovery shortly thereafter that the proximate cause was almost certainly a leak in the aft field joint of the right solid rocket booster, NASA and Thiokol appeared to circle the wagons, trying to deflect responsibility from themselves and obscure the information available to decision makers in a position to stop the launch. It was not until McDonald's testimony to the Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers that the truth began to come out. This thrust McDonald, up to then an obscure engineering manager, into the media spotlight and the political arena, which he quickly discovered was not at all about his priorities as an engineer: finding out what went wrong and fixing it so it could never happen again.

This memoir, composed by McDonald from contemporary notes and documents with the aid of space historian James R. Hansen (author of the bestselling authorised biography of Neil Armstrong) takes the reader through the catastrophe and its aftermath, as seen by an insider who was there at the decision to launch, on a console in the firing room when disaster struck, before the closed and public sessions of the Presidential commission, pursued by sensation-hungry media, testifying before congressional committees, and consumed by the redesign and certification effort and the push to return the shuttle to flight. It is a personal story, but told in terms, as engineers are wont to do, based in the facts of the hardware, the experimental evidence, and the recollection of meetings which made the key decisions before and after the tragedy.

Anybody whose career may eventually land them, intentionally or not (the latter almost always the case), in the public arena can profit from reading this book. Even if you know nothing about and have no interest in solid rocket motors, O-rings, space exploration, or NASA, the dynamics of a sincere, dedicated engineer who was bent on doing the right thing encountering the ravenous media and preening politicians is a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves in a similar position. I wish I'd had the opportunity to read this book before my own Dark Night of the Soul encounter with a reporter from the legacy media. I do not mean to equate my own mild experience with the Hell that McDonald experienced—just to say that his narrative would have been a bracing preparation for what was to come.

The chapters on the Rogers Commission investigation provided, for me, a perspective I'd not previously encountered. Many people think of William P. Rogers primarily as Nixon's first Secretary of State who was upstaged and eventually replaced by Henry Kissinger. But before that Rogers was a federal prosecutor going after organised crime in New York City and then was Attorney General in the Eisenhower administration from 1957 to 1961. Rogers may have aged, but his skills as an interrogator and cross-examiner never weakened. In the sworn testimony quoted here, NASA managers, who come across like the kids who were the smartest in their high school class and then find themselves on the left side of the bell curve when they show up as freshmen at MIT, are pinned like specimen bugs to their own viewgraphs when they try to spin Rogers and his tag team of technical takedown artists including Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, and Sally Ride.

One thing which is never discussed here, but should be, is just how totally insane it is to use large solid rockets, in any form, in a human spaceflight program. Understand: solid rockets are best thought of as “directed bombs”, but if detonated at an inopportune time, or when not in launch configuration, can cause catastrophe. A simple spark of static electricity can suffice to ignite the propellant in a solid rocket, and once ignited there is no way to extinguish it until it is entirely consumed. Consider: in the Shuttle era, there are usually one or more Shuttle stacks in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and if NASA's Constellation Program continues, this building will continue to stack solid rocket motors in decades to come. Sooner or later, the inevitable is going to happen: a static spark, a crane dropping a segment, or an interference fit of two segments sending a hot fragment into the propellant below. The consequence: destruction of the VAB, all hardware inside, and the death of all people working therein. The expected stand-down of the U.S. human spaceflight program after such an event is on the order of a decade. Am I exaggerating the risks here? Well, maybe; you decide. But within two years, three separate disasters struck the production of large solid motors in 1985–1986. I shall predict: if NASA continue to use large solid motors in their human spaceflight program, there will be a decade-long gap in U.S. human spaceflight sometime in the next twenty years.

If you're sufficiently interested in these arcane matters to have read this far, you should read this book. Based upon notes, it's a bit repetitive, as many of the same matters were discussed in the various venues in which McDonald testified. But if you want to read a single book to prepare you for being unexpectedly thrust into the maw of ravenous media and politicians, I know of none better.

September 2009 Permalink

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-520-25379-7.
While a variety of animals are attracted to and consume the alcohol in naturally fermented fruit, only humans have figured out how to promote the process, producing wine from fruit and beer from cereal crops. And they've been doing it since at least the Neolithic period: the author discovered convincing evidence of a fermented beverage in residues on pottery found at the Jiahu site in China, inhabited between 7000 and 5800 B.C.

Indeed, almost every human culture which had access to fruits or grains which could be turned into an alcoholic beverage did so, and made the production and consumption of spirits an important part of their economic and spiritual life. (One puzzle is why the North American Indians, who lived among an abundance of fermentable crops never did—there are theories that tobacco and hallucinogenic mushrooms supplanted alcohol for shamanistic purposes, but basically nobody really knows.)

The author is a pioneer in the field of biomolecular archæology and head of the eponymous laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archæology and Anthropology; in this book takes us on a tour around the world and across the centuries exploring, largely through his own research and that of associates, the history of fermented beverages in a variety of cultures and what we can learn from this evidence about how they lived, were organised, and interacted with other societies. Only in recent decades has biochemical and genetic analysis progressed to the point that it is possible not only to determine from some gunk found at the bottom of an ancient pot not only that it was some kind of beer or wine, but from what species of fruit and grain it was produced, how it was prepared and fermented, and what additives it may have contained and whence they originated. Calling on experts in related disciplines such as palynology (the study of pollen and spores, not of the Alaskan politician), the author is able to reconstruct the economics of the bustling wine trade across the Mediterranean (already inferred from shipwrecks carrying large numbers of casks of wine) and the diffusion of the ancestral cultivated grape around the world, displacing indigenous grapes which were less productive for winemaking.

While the classical period around the Mediterranean is pretty much soaked in wine, and it'd be difficult to imagine the Vikings and other North Europeans without their beer and grogs, much less was known about alcoholic beverages in China, South America, and Africa. Once again, the author is on their trail, and not only reports upon his original research, but also attempts, in conjunction with micro-brewers and winemakers, to reconstruct the ancestral beverages of yore.

The biochemical anthropology of booze is not exactly a crowded field, and in this account written by one of its leaders, you get the sense of having met just about all of the people pursuing it. A great deal remains to be learnt—parts of the book read almost like a list of potential Ph.D. projects for those wishing to follow in the author's footsteps. But that's the charm of opening a new window into the past: just as DNA and other biochemical analyses revolutionised the understanding of human remains in archæology, the arsenal of modern analytical tools allows reconstructing humanity's almost universal companion through the ages, fermented beverages, and through them, uncork the way in which those cultures developed and interacted.

A paperback edition will be published in December 2010.

October 2010 Permalink

Miller, John J. and Mark Molesky. Our Oldest Enemy. New York: Doubleday, 2004. ISBN 0-385-51219-8.
In this history of relations between the America and France over three centuries—starting in 1704, well before the U.S. existed, the authors argue that the common perception of sympathy and shared interest between the “two great republics” from Lafayette to “Lafayette, we are here” and beyond is not borne out by the facts, that the recent tension between the U.S. and France over Iraq is consistent with centuries of French scheming in quest of its own, now forfeit, status as a great power. Starting with French-incited and led Indian raids on British settlements in the 18th century, through the undeclared naval war of 1798–1800, Napoleon's plans to invade New Orleans, Napoleon III's adventures in Mexico, Clemenceau's subverting Wilson's peace plans after being rescued by U.S. troops in World War I, Eisenhower's having to fight his way through Vichy French troops in North Africa in order to get to the Germans, Stalinst intellectuals in the Cold War, Suez, de Gaulle's pulling out of NATO, Chirac's long-term relationship with his “personal friend” Saddam Hussein, through recent perfidy at the U.N., the case is made that, with rare exceptions, France has been the most consistent opponent of the U.S. over all of their shared history. The authors don't hold France and the French in very high esteem, and there are numerous zingers and turns of phrase such as “Time and again in the last two centuries, France has refused to come to grips with its diminished status as a country whose greatest general was a foreigner, whose greatest warrior was a teenage girl, and whose last great military victory came on the plains of Wagram in 1809” (p. 10). The account of Vichy in chapter 9 is rather sketchy and one-dimensional; readers interested in that particular shameful chapter in French history will find more details in Robert Paxton's Vichy France and Marc Ferro's biography, Pétain or the eponymous movie made from it.

November 2004 Permalink

Miller, Richard L. Under The Cloud. The Woodlands, TX: Two Sixty Press, [1986] 1991. ISBN 978-1-881-043-05-8.
Folks born after the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, and acquainted with it only through accounts written decades later, are prone to react with bafflement—“What were they thinking?” This comprehensive, meticulously researched, and thoroughly documented account of the epoch not only describes what happened and what the consequences were for those in the path of fallout, but also places events in the social, political, military, and even popular culture context of that very different age. A common perception about the period is “nobody really understood the risks”. Well, it's quite a bit more complicated than that, as you'll understand after reading this exposition. As early as 1953, when ranchers near Cedar City, Utah lost more than 4000 sheep and lambs after they grazed on grass contaminated by fallout, investigators discovered the consequences of ingestion of Iodine-131, which is concentrated by the body in the thyroid gland, where it can not only lead to thyroid cancer but faster-developing metabolic diseases. The AEC reacted immediately to this discovery. Commissioner Eugene Zuckert observed that “In the present frame of mind of the public, it would only take a single illogical and unforeseeable incident to preclude holding any future tests in the United States”, and hence the author of the report on the incident was ordered to revise the document, “eliminating any reference to radiation damage or effects”. In a subsequent meetings with the farmers, the AEC denied any connection between fallout and the death of the sheep and denied compensation, claiming that the sheep, including grotesquely malformed lambs born to irradiated ewes, had died of “malnutrition”.

It was obvious to others that something serious was happening. Shortly after bomb tests began in Nevada, the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York which manufactured X-ray film discovered that when a fallout cloud was passing overhead their film batches would be ruined by pinhole fogging due to fallout radiation, and that they could not even package the film in cardboard supplied by a mill whose air and water supplies were contaminated by fallout. Since it was already known that radiologists with occupational exposure to X-rays had mean lifespans several years shorter than the general public, it was pretty obvious that exposing much of the population of a continent (and to a lesser extent the entire world) to a radiation dose which could ruin X-ray film had to be problematic at best and recklessly negligent at worst. And yet the tests continued, both in Nevada and the Pacific, until the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the U.S., USSR, and Great Britain was adopted in 1963. France and China, not signatories to the treaty, continued atmospheric tests until 1971 and 1980 respectively.

What were they thinking? Well, this was a world in which the memory of a cataclysmic war which had killed tens of millions of people was fresh, which appeared to be on the brink of an even more catastrophic conflict, which might be triggered if the adversary developed a weapon believed to permit a decisive preemptive attack or victory through intimidation. In such an environment where everything might be lost through weakness and dilatory progress in weapons research, the prospect of an elevated rate of disease among the general population was weighed against the possibility of tens of millions of deaths in a general conflict and the decision was made to pursue the testing. This may very well have been the correct decision—since you can't test a counterfactual, we'll never know—but there wasn't a general war between the East and West, and to this date no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945. But what is shocking and reprehensible is that the élites who made this difficult judgement call did not have the courage to share the facts with the constituents and taxpayers who paid their salaries and bought the bombs that irradiated their children's thyroids with Iodine-131 and bones with Strontium-90. (I'm a boomer. If you want to know just how many big boom clouds a boomer lived through as a kid, hold a sensitive radiation meter up to one of the long bones of the leg; you'll see the elevated beta radiation from the Strontium-90 ingested in milk and immured in the bones [Strontium is a chemical analogue of Calcium].) Instead, they denied the obvious effects, suppressed research which showed the potential risks, intimidated investigators exploring the effects of low level radiation, and covered up assessments of fallout intensity and effects upon those exposed. Thank goodness such travesties of science and public policy could not happen in our enlightened age! An excellent example of mid-fifties AEC propaganda is the Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region pamphlet, available on this site: “Your best action is not to be worried about fall-out. … We can expect many reports that ‘Geiger counters were going crazy here today.’ Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don't let them bother you.”

This book describes U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada in detail, even giving the precise path the fallout cloud from most detonations took over the country. Pacific detonations are covered in less detail, concentrating on major events and fallout disasters such as Castle Bravo. Soviet tests and the Chelyabinsk-40 disaster are covered more sketchily (fair enough—most details remained secret when the book was written), and British, French, and Chinese atmospheric tests are mentioned only in passing.

The paperback edition of this book has the hefty cover price of US$39.95, which is ta lot for a book of 548 pages with just a few black and white illustrations. I read the Kindle edition, which is priced at US$11.99 at this writing, which is, on its merits, even more overpriced. It is a sad, sorry, and shoddy piece of work, which appears to be the result of scanning a printed edition of the book with an optical character recognition program and transferring it to Kindle format without any proofreading whatsoever. Numbers and punctuation are uniformly garbled, words are mis-recognised, random words are jammed into the text as huge raster images, page numbers and chapter headings are interleaved into the text, and hyphenated words are not joined while pairs of unrelated words are run together. The abundant end note citations are randomly garbled and not linked to the notes at the end of the book. The index is just a scan of that in the printed book, garbled, unlinked to the text, and utterly useless. Most public domain Kindle books sold for a dollar have much better production values than this full price edition. It is a shame that such an excellent work on which the author invested such a great amount of work doing the research and telling the story has been betrayed by this slapdash Kindle edition which will leave unwary purchasers feeling their pockets have been picked. I applaud Amazon's providing a way for niche publishers and independent authors to bring their works to market on the Kindle, but I wonder if their lack of quality control on the works published (especially at what passes for full price on the Kindle) might, in the end, injure the reputation of Kindle books among the customer base. After this experience, I know for sure that I will never again purchase a Kindle book from a minor publisher before checking the comments to see if the transfer merits the asking price. Amazon might also consider providing a feedback mechanism for Kindle purchasers to rate the quality of the transfer to the Kindle, which would appear along with the content-based rating of the work.

September 2010 Permalink

Miller, Roland. Abandoned in Place. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8263-5625-3.
Between 1945 and 1970 humanity expanded from the surface of Earth into the surrounding void, culminating in 1969 with the first landing on the Moon. Centuries from now, when humans and their descendents populate the solar system and exploit resources dwarfing those of the thin skin and atmosphere of the home planet, these first steps may be remembered as the most significant event of our age, with all of the trivialities that occupy our quotidian attention forgotten. Not only were great achievements made, but grand structures built on Earth to support them; these may be looked upon in the future as we regard the pyramids or the great cathedrals.

Or maybe not. The launch pads, gantry towers, assembly buildings, test facilities, blockhouses, bunkers, and control centres were not built as monuments for the ages, but rather to accomplish time-sensitive goals under tight budgets, by the lowest bidder, and at the behest of a government famous for neglecting infrastructure. Once the job was done, the mission accomplished, the program concluded; the facilities that supported it were simply left at the mercy of the elements which, in locations like coastal Florida, immediately began to reclaim them. Indeed, half of the facilities pictured here no longer exist.

For more than two decades, author and photographer Roland Miller has been documenting this heritage before it succumbs to rust, crumbling concrete, and invasive vegetation. With unparalleled access to the sites, he has assembled this gallery of these artefacts of a great age of exploration. In a few decades, this may be all we'll have to remember them. Although there is rudimentary background information from a variety of authors, this is a book of photography, not a history of the facilities. In some cases, unless you know from other sources what you're looking at, you might interpret some of the images as abstract.

The hardcover edition is a “coffee table book”: large format and beautifully printed, with a corresponding price. The Kindle edition is, well, a Kindle book, and grossly overpriced for 193 pages with screen-resolution images and a useless index consisting solely of search terms.

A selection of images from the book may be viewed on the Abandoned in Place Web site.

May 2016 Permalink

Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage, [1951, 1953, 1981] 1990. ISBN 0-679-72856-2.
This book is an illuminating exploration of life in a totalitarian society, written by a poet and acute observer of humanity who lived under two of the tyrannies of the twentieth century and briefly served one of them. The author was born in Lithuania in 1911 and studied at the university in Vilnius, a city he describes (p. 135) as “ruled in turn by the Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, again the Lithuanians, again the Germans, and again the Russians”—and now again the Lithuanians. An ethnic Pole, he settled in Warsaw after graduation, and witnessed the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II, conquest and occupation by Germany, “liberation” by the Red Army, and the imposition of Stalinist rule under the tutelage of Moscow. After working with the underground press during the war, the author initially supported the “people's government”, even serving as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassies in Washington and Paris. As Stalinist terror descended upon Poland and the rigid dialectical “Method” was imposed upon intellectual life, he saw tyranny ascendant once again and chose exile in the West, initially in Paris and finally the U.S., where he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961—imagine, an anti-communist at Berkeley!

In this book, he explores the various ways in which the human soul comes to terms with a regime which denies its very existence. Four long chapters explore the careers of four Polish writers he denotes as “Alpha” through “Delta” and the choices they made when faced with a system which offered them substantial material rewards in return for conformity with a rigid system which put them at the service of the State, working toward ends prescribed by the “Center” (Moscow). He likens acceptance of this bargain to swallowing a mythical happiness pill, which, by eliminating the irritations of creativity, scepticism, and morality, guarantees those who take it a tranquil place in a well-ordered society. In a powerful chapter titled “Ketman”—a Persian word denoting fervent protestations of faith by nonbelievers, not only in the interest of self-preservation, but of feeling superior to those they so easily deceive—Milosz describes how an entire population can become actors who feign belief in an ideology and pretend to believe the earnest affirmations of orthodoxy on the part of others while sharing scorn for the few true believers.

The author received the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.

December 2006 Permalink

Ministry of Information. What Britain Has Done. London: Atlantic Books, [1945] 2007. ISBN 978-1-84354-680-1.
Here is government propaganda produced by the organisation upon which George Orwell (who worked there in World War II) based the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This slim volume (126 pages in this edition) was originally published in May of 1945, after the surrender of Germany, but with the war against Japan still underway. (Although there are references to Germany's capitulation, some chapters appear to have been written before the end of the war in Europe.)

The book is addressed to residents of the United Kingdom, and seeks to show how important their contributions were to the overall war effort, seemingly to dispel the notion that the U.S. and Soviet Union bore the brunt of the effort. To that end, it is as craftily constructed a piece of propaganda as you're likely to encounter. While subtitled “1939–1945: A Selection of Outstanding Facts and Figures”, it might equally as well be described as “Total War: Artfully Chosen Factoids”. Here is an extract from pp. 34–35 to give you a flavour.

Between September 1939 and February 1943, HM Destroyer Forester steamed 200,000 miles, a distance equal to nine times round the world.

In a single year the corvette Jonquil steamed a distance equivalent to more than three times round the world.

In one year and four months HM Destroyer Wolfhound steamed over 50,000 miles and convoyed 3,000 ships.

The message of British triumphalism is conveyed in part by omission: you will find only the barest hints in this narrative of the disasters of Britain's early efforts in the war, the cataclysmic conflict on the Eastern front, or the Pacific war waged by the United States against Japan. (On the other hand, the title is “What Britain Has Done”, so one might argue that tasks which Britain either didn't do or failed to accomplish do not belong here.) But this is not history, but propaganda, and as the latter it is a masterpiece. (Churchill's history, The Second World War, although placing Britain at the centre of the story, treats all of these topics candidly, except those relating to matters still secret, such as the breaking of German codes during the war.)

This reprint edition includes a new introduction which puts the document into historical perspective and seven maps which illustrate operations in various theatres of the war.

April 2008 Permalink

Muravchik, Joshua. Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-45-7.

November 2002 Permalink

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7432-7702-0.
The ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” marked the transition of the U.S. Federal government into a nanny state, which occupied itself with the individual behaviour of its citizens. Now, certainly, attempts to legislate morality and regulate individual behaviour were commonplace in North America long before the United States came into being, but these were enacted at the state, county, or municipality level. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it exclusively constrained the actions of government, not of individual citizens, and with the sole exception of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abridged the “freedom” to hold people in slavery and involuntary servitude, this remained the case into the twentieth century. While bans on liquor were adopted in various jurisdictions as early as 1840, it simply never occurred to many champions of prohibition that a nationwide ban, written into the federal constitution, was either appropriate or feasible, especially since taxes on alcoholic beverages accounted for as much as forty percent of federal tax revenue in the years prior to the introduction of the income tax, and imposition of total prohibition would zero out the second largest source of federal income after the tariff.

As the Progressive movement gained power, with its ambitions of continental scale government and imposition of uniform standards by a strong, centralised regime, it found itself allied with an improbable coalition including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches; advocates of women's suffrage; the Anti-Saloon League; Henry Ford; and the Ku Klux Klan. Encouraged by the apparent success of “war socialism” during World War I and empowered by enactment of the Income Tax via the Sixteenth Amendment, providing another source of revenue to replace that of excise taxes on liquor, these players were motivated in the latter years of the 1910s to impose their agenda upon the entire country in as permanent a way as possible: by a constitutional amendment. Although the supermajorities required were daunting (two thirds in the House and Senate to submit, three quarters of state legislatures to ratify), if a prohibition amendment could be pushed over the bar (if you'll excuse the term), opponents would face what was considered an insuperable task to reverse it, as it would only take 13 dry states to block repeal.

Further motivating the push not just for a constitutional amendment, but enacting one as soon as possible, were the rapid demographic changes underway in the U.S. Support for prohibition was primarily rural, in southern and central states, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. During the 1910s, population was shifting from farms to urban areas, from the midland toward the coasts, and the immigrant population of Germans, Italians, and Irish who were famously fond of drink was burgeoning. This meant that the electoral landscape following reapportionment after the 1920 census would be far less receptive to the foes of Demon Rum.

One must never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come, regardless of how stupid and counterproductive it might be. And so it came to pass that the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by the 36th state: Utah, appropriately, on January 16th, 1919, with nationwide Prohibition to come into effect a year hence. From the outset, it was pretty obvious to many astute observers what was about happen. An Army artillery captain serving in France wrote to his fiancée in Missouri, “It looks to me like the moonshine business is going to be pretty good in the land of the Liberty Loans and Green Trading Stamps, and some of us want to get in on the ground floor. At least we want to get there in time to lay in a supply for future consumption.” Captain Harry S. Truman ended up pursuing a different (and probably less lucrative career), but was certainly prescient about the growth industry of the coming decade.

From the very start, Prohibition was a theatre of the absurd. Since it was enforced by a federal statute, the Volstead Act, enforcement, especially in states which did not have their own state Prohibition laws, was the responsibility of federal agents within the Treasury Department, whose head, Andrew Mellon, was a staunch opponent of Prohibition. Enforcement was always absurdly underfunded compared to the magnitude of the bootlegging industry and their customers (the word “scofflaw” entered the English language to describe them). Federal Prohibition officers were paid little, but were nonetheless highly prized patronage jobs, as their holders could often pocket ten times their salary in bribes to look the other way.

Prohibition unleashed the American talent for ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and the do-it-yourself spirit. While it was illegal to manufacture liquor for sale or to sell it, possession and consumption were perfectly legal, and families were allowed to make up to 200 gallons (which should suffice even for the larger, more thirsty households of the epoch) for their own use. This led to a thriving industry in California shipping grapes eastward for householders to mash into “grape juice” for their own use, being careful, of course, not to allow it to ferment or to sell some of their 200 gallon allowance to the neighbours. Later on, the “Vino Sano Grape Brick” was marketed nationally. Containing dried crushed grapes, complete with the natural yeast on the skins, you just added water, waited a while, and hoisted a glass to American innovation. Brewers, not to be outdone, introduced “malt syrup”, which with the addition of yeast and water, turned into beer in the home brewer's basement. Grocers stocked everything the thirsty householder needed to brew up case after case of Old Frothingslosh, and brewers remarked upon how profitable it was to outsource fermentation and bottling to the customers.

For those more talented in manipulating the law than fermenting fluids, there were a number of opportunities as well. Sacramental wine was exempted from Prohibition, and wineries which catered to Catholic and Jewish congregations distributing such wines prospered. Indeed, Prohibition enforcers noted they'd never seen so many rabbis before, including some named Patrick Houlihan and James Maguire. Physicians and dentists were entitled to prescribe liquor for medicinal purposes, and the lucrative fees for writing such prescriptions and for pharmacists to fill them rapidly caused hard liquor to enter the materia medica for numerous maladies, far beyond the traditional prescription as snakebite medicine. While many pre-Prohibition bars re-opened as speakeasies, others prospered by replacing “Bar” with ”Drug Store” and filling medicinal whiskey prescriptions for the same clientele.

Apart from these dodges, the vast majority of Americans slaked their thirst with bootleg booze, either domestic (and sometimes lethal), or smuggled from Canada or across the ocean. The obscure island of St. Pierre, a French possession off the coast of Canada, became a prosperous entrepôt for reshipment of Canadian liquor legally exported to “France”, then re-embarked on ships headed for “Rum Row”, just outside the territorial limit of the U.S. East Coast. Rail traffic into Windsor, Ontario, just across the Detroit River from the eponymous city, exploded, as boxcar after boxcar unloaded cases of clinking glass bottles onto boats bound for…well, who knows? Naturally, with billions and billions of dollars of tax-free income to be had, it didn't take long for criminals to stake their claims to it. What was different, and deeply appalling to the moralistic champions of Prohibition, is that a substantial portion of the population who opposed Prohibition did not despise them, but rather respected them as making their “money by supplying a public demand”, in the words of one Alphonse Capone, whose public relations machine kept him in the public eye.

As the absurdity of the almost universal scorn and disobedience of Prohibition grew (at least among the urban chattering classes, which increasingly dominated journalism and politics at the time), opinion turned toward ways to undo its increasingly evident pernicious consequences. Many focussed upon amending the Volstead Act to exempt beer and light wines from the definition of “intoxicating liquors”—this would open a safety valve, and at least allow recovery of the devastated legal winemaking and brewing industries. The difficulty of actually repealing the Eighteenth Amendment deterred many of the most ardent supporters of that goal. As late as September 1930, Senator Morris Sheppard, who drafted the Eighteenth Amendment, said “There is a much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

But when people have had enough (I mean, of intrusive government, not illicit elixir), it's amazing what they can motivate a hummingbird to do! Less than two years later, the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was passed by the Congress, and on December 5th, 1933, it was ratified by the 36th state (appropriately, but astonishingly, Utah), thus putting an end to what had not only become generally seen as a farce, but also a direct cause of sanguinary lawlessness and scorn for the rule of law. The cause of repeal was greatly aided not only by the thirst of the populace, but also by the thirst of their government for revenue, which had collapsed due to plunging income tax receipts as the Great Depression deepened, along with falling tariff income as international trade contracted. Reinstating liquor excise taxes and collecting corporate income tax from brewers, winemakers, and distillers could help ameliorate the deficits from New Deal spending programs.

In many ways, the adoption and repeal of Prohibition represented a phase transition in the relationship between the federal government and its citizens. In its adoption, they voted, by the most difficult of constitutional standards, to enable direct enforcement of individual behaviour by the national government, complete with its own police force independent of state and local control. But at least they acknowledged that this breathtaking change could only be accomplished by a direct revision of the fundamental law of the republic, and that reversing it would require the same—a constitutional amendment, duly proposed and ratified. In the years that followed, the federal government used its power to tax (many partisans of Repeal expected the Sixteenth Amendment to also be repealed but, alas, this was not to be) to promote and deter all kinds of behaviour through tax incentives and charges, and before long the federal government was simply enacting legislation which directly criminalised individual behaviour without a moment's thought about its constitutionality, and those who challenged it were soon considered nutcases.

As the United States increasingly comes to resemble a continental scale theatre of the absurd, there may be a lesson to be learnt from the final days of Prohibition. When something is unsustainable, it won't be sustained. It's almost impossible to predict when the breaking point will come—recall the hummingbird with the Washington Monument in tow—but when things snap, it doesn't take long for the unimaginable new to supplant the supposedly secure status quo. Think about this when you contemplate issues such as immigration, the Euro, welfare state spending, bailouts of failed financial institutions and governments, and the multitude of big and little prohibitions and intrusions into personal liberty of the pervasive nanny state—and root for the hummingbird.

In the Kindle edition, all of the photographic illustrations are collected at the very end of the book, after the index—don't overlook them.

June 2010 Permalink

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, [1938, 1952] 1987. ISBN 0-15-642117-8.
The orwell.ru site makes available electronic editions of this work in both English and Русский which you can read online or download to read at your leisure. All of Orwell's works are in the public domain under Russia's 50 year copyright law.

January 2003 Permalink

Outzen, James D., ed. The Dorian Files Revealed. Chantilly, VA: Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, 2015. ISBN 978-1-937219-18-5.
We often think of the 1960s as a “can do” time, when technological progress, societal self-confidence, and burgeoning economic growth allowed attempting and achieving great things: from landing on the Moon, global communications by satellite, and mass continental and intercontinental transportation by air. But the 1960s were also a time, not just of conflict and the dissolution of the postwar consensus, but also of some grand-scale technological boondoggles and disasters. There was the XB-70 bomber and its companion F-108 fighter plane, the Boeing 2707 supersonic passenger airplane, the NERVA nuclear rocket, the TFX/F-111 swing-wing hangar queen aircraft, and plans for military manned space programs. Each consumed billions of taxpayer dollars with little or nothing to show for the expenditure of money and effort lavished upon them. The present volume, consisting of previously secret information declassified in July 2015, chronicles the history of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force's second attempt to launch its own astronauts into space to do military tasks there.

The creation of NASA in 1958 took the wind out of the sails of the U.S. military services, who had assumed it would be they who would lead on the road into space and in exploiting space-based assets in the interest of national security. The designation of NASA as a civilian aerospace agency did not preclude military efforts in space, and the Air Force continued with its X-20 Dyna-Soar, a spaceplane intended to be launched on a Titan rocket which would return to Earth and land on a conventional runway. Simultaneous with the cancellation of Dyna-Soar in December 1963, a new military space program, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was announced.

MOL would use a modified version of NASA's Gemini spacecraft to carry two military astronauts into orbit atop a laboratory facility which they could occupy for up to 60 days before returning to Earth in the Gemini capsule. The Gemini and laboratory would be launched by a Titan III booster, requiring only a single launch and no orbital rendezvous or docking to accomplish the mission. The purpose of the program was stated as to “evaluate the utility of manned space flight for military purposes”. This was a cover story or, if you like, a bald-faced lie.

In fact, MOL was a manned spy satellite, intended to produce reconnaissance imagery of targets in the Soviet Union, China, and the communist bloc in the visual, infrared, and radar bands, plus electronic information in much higher resolution than contemporary unmanned spy satellites. Spy satellites operating in the visual spectrum lost on the order of half their images to cloud cover. With a man on board, exposures would be taken only when skies were clear, and images could be compensated for motion of the spacecraft, largely eliminating motion blur. Further, the pilots could scan for “interesting” targets and photograph them as they appeared, and conduct wide-area ocean surveillance.

None of the contemporary drawings showed the internal structure of the MOL, and most people assumed it was a large pressurised structure for various experiments. In fact, most of it was an enormous telescope aimed at the ground, with a 72 inch (1.83 metre) mirror and secondary optics capable of very high resolution photography of targets on the ground. When this document was declassified in 2015, all references to its resolution capability were replaced with statements such as {better than 1 foot}. It is, in fact, a simple geometrical optics calculation to determine that the diffraction-limited resolution of a 1.83 metre mirror in the visual band is around 0.066 arc seconds. In a low orbit suited to imaging in detail, this would yield a resolution of around 4 cm (1.6 inches) as a theoretical maximum. Taking optical imperfections, atmospheric seeing, film resolution, and imperfect motion compensation into account, the actual delivered resolution would be about half this (8 cm, 3.2 inches). Once they state the aperture of the primary mirror, this is easy to work out, so they wasted a lot of black redaction ink in this document. And then, on page 102, they note (not redacted), “During times of crisis the MOL could be transferred from its nominal 80-mile orbit to one of approximately 200–300 miles. In this higher orbit the system would have access to all targets in the Soviet Bloc approximately once every three days and be able to take photographs at resolutions of about one foot.” All right, if they have one foot (12 inch) resolution at 200 miles, then they have 4.8 inch (12 cm) resolution at 80 miles (or, if we take 250 miles altitude, 3.8 inches [9.7 cm]), entirely consistent with my calculation from mirror aperture.

This document is a management, financial, and political history of the MOL program, with relatively little engineering detail. Many of the technological developments of the optical system were later used in unmanned reconnaissance satellite programs and remain secret. What comes across in the sorry history of this program, which, between December 1963 and its cancellation in June of 1969 burned through billions of taxpayer dollars, is that the budgeting, project management, and definition and pursuit of well-defined project goals was just as incompetent as the redaction of technical details discussed in the previous paragraph. There are almost Marx brothers episodes where Florida politicians attempted to keep jobs in their constituencies by blocking launches into polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base while the Air Force could not disclose that polar orbits were essential to overflying targets in the Soviet Union because the reconnaissance mission of MOL was a black program.

Along with this history, a large collection of documents and pictures, all previously secret (and many soporifically boring) has been released. As a publication of the U.S. government, this work is in the public domain.

November 2015 Permalink

Pellegrino, Charles. Ghosts of the Titanic. New York: Avon, 2000. ISBN 0-380-72472-3.

August 2001 Permalink

Phares, Walid. Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, [2005] 2006. ISBN 1-4039-7511-6.
It seems to me that at the root of the divisive and rancorous dispute over the war on terrorism (or whatever you choose to call it), is an individual's belief in one of the following two mutually exclusive propositions.

  1. There is a broad-based, highly aggressive, well-funded, and effective jihadist movement which poses a dire threat not just to secular and pluralist societies in the Muslim world, but to civil societies in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
  2. There isn't.

In this book, Walid Phares makes the case for the first of these two statements. Born in Lebanon, after immigrating to the United States in 1990, he taught Middle East studies at several universities, and is currently a professor at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books on Middle East history, and appears as a commentator on media outlets ranging from Fox News to Al Jazeera.

Ever since the early 1990s, the author has been warning of what he argued was a constantly growing jihadist threat, which was being overlooked and minimised by the academic experts to whom policy makers turn for advice, largely due to Saudi-funded and -indoctrinated Middle East Studies programmes at major universities. Meanwhile, Saudi funding also financed the radicalisation of Muslim communities around the world, particularly the large immigrant populations in many Western European countries. In parallel to this top-down approach by the Wahabi Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, including Hamas and the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria, pursued a bottom-up strategy of radicalising the population and building a political movement seeking to take power and impose an Islamic state. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, a third stream of jihadism has arisen, principally within Shiite communities, promoted and funded by Iran, including groups such as Hezbollah.

The present-day situation is placed in historical content dating back to the original conquests of Mohammed and the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula across three continents, and subsequent disasters at the hands of the Mongols and Crusaders, the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, and the ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate following World War I. This allows the reader to grasp the world-view of the modern jihadist which, while seemingly bizarre from a Western standpoint, is entirely self-consistent from the premises whence the believers proceed.

Phares stresses that modern jihadism (which he dates from the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, an event which permitted free-lance, non-state actors to launch jihad unconstrained by the central authority of a caliph), is a political ideology with imperial ambitions: the establishment of a new caliphate and its expansion around the globe. He argues that this is only incidentally a religious conflict: although the jihadists are Islamic, their goals and methods are much the same as believers in atheistic ideologies such as communism. And just as one could be an ardent Marxist without supporting Soviet imperialism, one can be a devout Muslim and oppose the jihadists and intolerant fundamentalists. Conversely, this may explain the curious convergence of the extreme collectivist left and puritanical jihadists: red diaper baby and notorious terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” now styles himself an Islamic revolutionary, and the corpulent caudillo of Caracas has been buddying up with the squinty dwarf of Tehran.

The author believes that since the terrorist strikes against the United States in September 2001, the West has begun to wake up to the threat and begin to act against it, but that far more, both in realising the scope of the problem and acting to avert it, remains to be done. He argues, and documents from post-2001 events, that the perpetrators of future jihadist strikes against the West are likely to be home-grown second generation jihadists radicalised and recruited among Muslim communities within their own countries, aided by Saudi financed networks. He worries that the emergence of a nuclear armed jihadist state (most likely due to an Islamist takeover of Pakistan or Iran developing its own bomb) would create a base of operations for jihad against the West which could deter reprisal against it.

Chapter thirteen presents a chilling scenario of what might have happened had the West not had the wake-up call of the 2001 attacks and begun to mobilise against the threat. The scary thing is that events could still go this way should the threat be real and the West, through fatigue, ignorance, or fear, cease to counter it. While defensive measures at home and direct action against terrorist groups are required, the author believes that only the promotion of democratic and pluralistic civil societies in the Muslim world can ultimately put an end to the jihadist threat. Toward this end, a good first step would be, he argues, for the societies at risk to recognise that they are not at war with “terrorism” or with Islam, but rather with an expansionist ideology with a political agenda which attacks targets of opportunity and adapts quickly to countermeasures.

In all, I found the arguments somewhat over the top, but then, unlike the author, I haven't spent most of my career studying the jihadists, nor read their publications and Web sites in the original Arabic as he has. His warnings of cultural penetration of the West, misdirection by artful propaganda, and infiltration of policy making, security, and military institutions by jihadist covert agents read something like J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit, but then history, in particular the Venona decrypts, has borne out many of Hoover's claims which were scoffed at when the book was published in 1958. But still, one wonders how a “movement” composed of disparate threads many of whom hate one another (for example, while the Saudis fund propaganda promoting the jihadists, most of the latter seek to eventually depose the Saudi royal family and replace it with a Taliban-like regime; Sunni and Shiite extremists view each other as heretics) can effectively co-ordinate complex operations against their enemies.

A thirty page afterword in this paperback edition provides updates on events through mid-2006. There are some curious things: while transliteration of Arabic and Farsi into English involves a degree of discretion, the author seems very fond of the letter “u”. He writes the name of the leader of the Iranian revolution as “Khumeini”, for example, which I've never seen elsewhere. The book is not well-edited: occasionally he used “Khomeini”, spells Sayid Qutb's last name as “Kutb” on p. 64, and on p. 287 refers to “Hezbollah” and “Hizbollah” in the same sentence.

The author maintains a Web site devoted to the book, as well as a personal Web site which links to all of his work.

September 2007 Permalink

Pipes. Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Doubleday, [2001] 2003. ISBN 978-0-8129-6864-4.
This slim volume (just 175 pages) provides, for its size, the best portrait I have encountered of the origins of communist theory, the history of how various societies attempted to implement it in the twentieth century, and the tragic consequences of those grand scale social experiments and their aftermath. The author, a retired professor of history at Harvard University, is one of the most eminent Western scholars of Russian and Soviet history. The book examines communism as an ideal, a program, and its embodiment in political regimes in various countries. Based on the ideals of human equality and subordination of the individual to the collective which date at least back to Plato, communism, first set out as a program of action by Marx and Engels, proved itself almost infinitely malleable in the hands of subsequent theorists and political leaders, rebounding from each self-evident failure (any one of which should, in a rational world, have sufficed to falsify a theory which proclaims itself “scientific”), morphing into yet another infallible and inevitable theory of history. In the words of the immortal Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!”

Regardless of the nature of the society in which the communist program is undertaken and the particular variant of the theory adopted, the consequences have proved remarkably consistent: emergence of an elite which rules through violence, repression, and fear; famine and economic stagnation; and collapse of the individual enterprise and innovation which are the ultimate engine of progress of all kinds. No better example of this is the comparison of North and South Korea on p. 152. Here are two countries which started out identically devastated by Japanese occupation in World War II and then by the Korean War, with identical ethnic makeup, which diverged in the subsequent decades to such an extent that famine killed around two million people in North Korea in the 1990s, at which time the GDP per capita in the North was around US$900 versus US$13,700 in the South. Male life expectancy at birth in the North was 48.9 years compared to 70.4 years in the South, with an infant mortality rate in the North more than ten times that of the South. This appalling human toll was modest compared to the famines and purges of the Soviet Union and Communist China, or the apocalyptic fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot. The Black Book of Communism puts the total death toll due to communism in the twentieth century as between 85 and 100 million, which is half again greater than that of both world wars combined. To those who say “One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”, the author answers, “Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter.” (p. 158)

So effective were communist states in their “big lie” propaganda, and so receptive were many Western intellectuals to its idealistic message, that many in the West were unaware of this human tragedy as it unfolded over the better part of a century. This book provides an excellent starting point for those unaware of the reality experienced by those living in the lands of communism and those for whom that epoch is distant, forgotten history, but who remain, like every generation, susceptible to idealistic messages and unaware of the suffering of those who attempted to put them into practice in the past.

Communism proved so compelling to intellectuals (and, repackaged, remains so) because it promised hope for a new way of living together and change to a rational world where the best and the brightest—intellectuals and experts—would build a better society, shorn of all the conflict and messiness which individual liberty unavoidably entails. The author describes this book as “an introduction to Communism and, at the same time, its obituary.” Maybe—let's hope so. But this book can serve an even more important purpose: as a cautionary tale of how the best of intentions can lead directly to the worst of outcomes. When, for example, one observes in the present-day politics of the United States the creation, deliberate exacerbation, and exploitation of crises to implement a political agenda; use of engineered financial collapse to advance political control over the economy and pauperise and render dependent upon the state classes of people who would otherwise oppose it; the creation, personalisation, and demonisation of enemies replacing substantive debate over policy; indoctrination of youth in collectivist dogma; and a number of other strategies right out of Lenin's playbook, one wonders if the influence of that evil mummy has truly been eradicated, and wishes that the message in this book were more widely known there and around the world.

March 2009 Permalink

Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.

July 2008 Permalink

Ponting, Clive. Gunpowder. London: Pimlico, 2005. ISBN 1-8441-3543-8.
When I was a kid, we learnt in history class that gunpowder had been discovered in the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, who is considered one of the founders of Western science. The Chinese were also said to have known of gunpowder, but used it only for fireworks, as opposed to the applications in the fields of murder and mayhem the more clever Europeans quickly devised. In The Happy Turning (July 2003), H. G. Wells remarked that “truth has a way of heaving up through the cracks of history”, and so it has been with the origin of gunpowder, as recounted here.

It is one of those splendid ironies that gunpowder, which, along with its more recent successors, has contributed to the slaughter of more human beings than any other invention with the exception of government, was discovered in the 9th century A.D. by Taoist alchemists in China who were searching for an elixir of immortality (and, in fact, gunpowder continued to be used as a medicine in China for centuries thereafter). But almost as soon as the explosive potential of gunpowder was discovered, the Chinese began to apply it to weapons and, over the next couple of centuries had invented essentially every kind of firearm and explosive weapon which exists today.

Gunpowder is not a high explosive; it does not detonate in a supersonic shock wave as do substances such as nitroglycerine and TNT, but rather deflagrates, or burns rapidly, as the heat of combustion causes the release of the oxygen in the nitrate compound in the mix. If confined, of course, the rapid release of gases and heat can cause a container to explode, but the rapid combustion of gunpowder also makes it suitable as a propellant in guns and rockets. The early Chinese formulations used a relatively small amount of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and were used in incendiary weapons such as fire arrows, fire lances (a kind of flamethrower), and incendiary bombs launched by catapults and trebuchets. Eventually the Chinese developed high-nitrate mixes which could be used in explosive bombs, rockets, guns, and cannon (which were perfected in China long before the West, where the technology of casting iron did not appear until two thousand years after it was known in China).

From China, gunpowder technology spread to the Islamic world, where bombardment by a giant cannon contributed to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Knowledge of gunpowder almost certainly reached Europe via contact with the Islamic invaders of Spain. The first known European document giving its formula, whose disarmingly candid Latin title Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes translates to “Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies”, dates from about 1300 and contains a number of untranslated Arabic words.

Gunpowder weapons soon became a fixture of European warfare, but crude gun fabrication and weak powder formulations initially limited their use mostly to huge siege cannons which launched large stone projectiles against fortifications at low velocity. But as weapon designs and the strength of powder improved, the balance in siege warfare shifted from the defender to the attacker, and the consolidation of power in Europe began to accelerate.

The author argues persuasively that gunpowder played an essential part in the emergence of the modern European state, because the infrastructure needed to produce saltpetre, manufacture gunpowder weapons in quantity, equip, train, and pay ever-larger standing armies required a centralised administration with intrusive taxation and regulation which did not exist before. Once these institutions were in place, they conferred such a strategic advantage that the ruler was able to consolidate and expand the area of control at the expense of previously autonomous regions, until coming up against another such “gunpowder state”.

Certainly it was gunpowder weapons which enabled Europeans to conquer colonies around the globe and eventually impose their will on China, where centuries of political stability had caused weapons technology to stagnate by comparison with that of conflict-ridden Europe.

It was not until the nineteenth century that other explosives and propellants discovered by European chemists brought the millennium-long era of gunpowder a close. Gunpowder shaped human history as have few other inventions. This excellent book recounts that story from gunpowder's accidental invention as an elixir to its replacement by even more destructive substances, and provides a perspective on a thousand years of world history in terms of the weapons with which so much of it was created.

January 2007 Permalink

Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called “Petroleum Scorched Earth” (“Petro SE”) which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient—the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible—if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult—refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), “dirty bombs” composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) “could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years”. What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, “Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat”, estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back—enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine—it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things—they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.

July 2005 Permalink

Post, David G. In Search of Jefferson's Moose. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-534289-5.
In 1787, while serving as Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson took time out from his diplomatic duties to arrange to have shipped from New Hampshire across the Atlantic Ocean the complete skeleton, skin, and antlers of a bull moose, which was displayed in his residence in Paris. Jefferson was involved in a dispute with the Comte de Buffon, who argued that the fauna of the New World were degenerate compared to those of Europe and Asia. Jefferson concluded that no verbal argument or scientific evidence would be as convincing of the “structure and majesty of American quadrupeds” as seeing a moose in the flesh (or at least the bone), so he ordered one up for display.

Jefferson was a passionate believer in the exceptionality of the New World and the prospects for building a self-governing republic in its expansive territory. If it took hauling a moose all the way to Paris to convince Europeans disdainful of the promise of his nascent nation, then so be it—bring on the moose! Among Jefferson's voluminous writings, perhaps none expressed these beliefs as strongly as his magisterial Notes on the State of Virginia. The present book, subtitled “Notes on the State of Cyberspace” takes Jefferson's work as a model and explores this new virtual place which has been built based upon a technology which simply sends packets of data from place to place around the world. The parallels between the largely unexplored North American continent of Jefferson's time and today's Internet are strong and striking, as the author illustrates with extensive quotations from Jefferson interleaved in the text (set in italics to distinguish them from the author's own words) which are as applicable to the Internet today as the land west of the Alleghenies in the late 18th century.

Jefferson believed in building systems which could scale to arbitrary size without either losing their essential nature or becoming vulnerable to centralisation and the attendant loss of liberty and autonomy. And he believed that free individuals, living within such a system and with access to as much information as possible and the freedom to communicate without restrictions would self-organise to perpetuate, defend, and extend such a polity. While Europeans, notably Montesquieu, believed that self-governance was impossible in a society any larger than a city-state, and organised their national and imperial governments accordingly, Jefferson's 1784 plan for the government of new Western territory set forth an explicitly power law fractal architecture which, he believed, could scale arbitrarily large without depriving citizens of local control of matters which directly concerned them. This architecture is stunningly similar to that of the global Internet, and the bottom-up governance of the Internet to date (which Post explores in some detail) is about as Jeffersonian as one can imagine.

As the Internet has become a central part of global commerce and the flow of information in all forms, the eternal conflict between the decentralisers and champions of individual liberty (with confidence that free people will sort things out for themselves)—the Jeffersonians—and those who believe that only strong central authority and the vigorous enforcement of rules can prevent chaos—Hamiltonians—has emerged once again in the contemporary debate about “Internet governance”.

This is a work of analysis, not advocacy. The author, a law professor and regular contributor to The Volokh Conspiracy Web log, observes that, despite being initially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the development of the Internet to date has been one of the most Jeffersonian processes in history, and has scaled from a handful of computers in 1969 to a global network with billions of users and a multitude of applications never imagined by its creators, and all through consensual decision making and contractual governance with nary a sovereign gun-wielder in sight. So perhaps before we look to “fix” the unquestioned problems and challenges of the Internet by turning the Hamiltonians loose upon it, we should listen well to the wisdom of Jefferson, who has much to say which is directly applicable to exploring, settling, and governing this new territory which technology has opened up. This book is a superb way to imbibe the wisdom of Jefferson, while learning the basics of the Internet architecture and how it, in many ways, parallels that of aspects of Jefferson's time. Jefferson even spoke to intellectual property issues which read like today's news, railing against a “rascal” using an abusive patent of a long-existing device to extort money from mill owners (p. 197), and creating and distributing “freeware” including a design for a uniquely efficient plough blade based upon Newton's Principia which he placed in the public domain, having “never thought of monopolizing by patent any useful idea which happened to offer itself to me” (p. 196).

So astonishing was Jefferson's intellect that as you read this book you'll discover that he has a great deal to say about this new frontier we're opening up today. Good grief—did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary even credits Jefferson with being the first person to use the words “authentication” and “indecipherable” (p. 124)? The author's lucid explanations, deft turns of phrase, and agile leaps between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries are worthy of the forbidding standard set by the man so extensively quoted here. Law professors do love their footnotes, and this is almost two books in one: the focused main text and the more rambling but fascinating footnotes, some of which span several pages. There is also an extensive list of references and sources for all of the Jefferson quotations in the end notes.

March 2009 Permalink

Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly. New York: Crown Forum, 2003. ISBN 0-7615-0165-7.

May 2004 Permalink

Pyle, Ernie. Brave Men. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, [1944] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-8768-2.
Ernie Pyle is perhaps the most celebrated war correspondent of all time, and this volume amply illustrates why. A collection of his columns for the Scripps-Howard newspapers edited into book form, it covers World War II from the invasion of Sicily in 1943 through the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris in 1944. This is the first volume of three collections of his wartime reportage: the second and third, Here is Your War and Ernie Pyle in England, are out of print, but used copies are readily available at a reasonable price.

While most readers today know Pyle only from his battle dispatches, he was, in fact, a renowned columnist even before the United States entered the war—in the 1930s he roamed the nation, filing columns about Americana and Americans which became as beloved as the very similar television reportage decades later by Charles Kuralt who, in fact, won an Ernie Pyle Award for his reporting.

Pyle's first love and enduring sympathy was with the infantry, and few writers have expressed so eloquently the experience of being “in the line” beyond what most would consider the human limits of exhaustion, exertion, and fear. But in this book he also shows the breadth of the Allied effort, profiling Navy troop transport and landing craft, field hospitals, engineering troops, air corps dive and light bombers, artillery, ordnance depots, quartermaster corps, and anti-aircraft guns (describing the “scientific magic” of radar guidance without disclosing how it worked).

Apart from the prose, which is simultaneously unaffected and elegant, the thing that strikes a reader today is that in this entire book, written by a superstar columnist for the mainstream media of his day, there is not a single suggestion that the war effort, whatever the horrible costs he so candidly documents, is misguided, or that there is any alternative or plausible outcome other than victory. How much things have changed…. If you're looking for this kind of with the troops on the ground reporting today, you won't find it in the legacy dead tree or narrowband one-to-many media, but rather in reader-supported front-line journalists such as Michael Yon—if you like what he's writing, hit the tip jar and keep him at the front; think of it like buying the paper with Ernie Pyle's column.

Above, I've linked to a contemporary reprint edition of this work. Actually, I read a hardbound sixth printing of the 1944 first edition which I found in a used bookstore in Marquette, Michigan (USA) for less than half the price of the paperback reprint; visit your local bookshop—there are wonderful things there to be discovered.

July 2007 Permalink

Radosh, Ronald. Commies. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001. ISBN 1-893554-05-8.

July 2001 Permalink

Radosh, Ronald and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File. 2nd. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-07205-8.

August 2002 Permalink

Radosh, Ronald and Allis Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-893554-96-1.
The Hollywood blacklist has become one of the most mythic elements of the mid-20th century Red scare. Like most myths, especially those involving tinseltown, it has been re-scripted into a struggle of good (falsely-accused artists defending free speech) versus evil (paranoid witch hunters bent on censorship) at the expense of a large part of the detail and complexity of the actual events. In this book, drawing upon contemporary sources, recently released documents from the FBI and House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and interviews with surviving participants in the events, the authors patiently assemble the story of what really happened, which is substantially different than the stories retailed by partisans of the respective sides. The evolution of those who joined the Communist Party out of idealism, were repelled by its totalitarian attempts to control their creative work and/or the cynicism of its support for the 1939–1941 Nazi/Soviet pact, yet who risked their careers to save those of others by refusing to name other Party members, is evocatively sketched, along with the agenda of HUAC, which FBI documents now reveal actually had lists of party members before the hearings began, and were thus grandstanding to gain publicity and intimidate the studios into firing those who would not deny Communist affiliations. History isn't as tidy as myth: the accusers were perfectly correct in claiming that a substantial number of prominent Hollywood figures were members of the Communist Party, and the accused were perfectly correct in their claim that apart from a few egregious exceptions, Soviet and pro-communist propaganda was not inserted into Hollywood films. A mystery about one of those exceptions, the 1943 Warner Brothers film Mission to Moscow, which defended the Moscow show trials, is cleared up here. I've always wondered why, since many of the Red-baiting films of the 1950s are cult classics, this exemplar of the ideological inverse (released, after all, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies in World War II) has never made it to video. Well, apparently those who currently own the rights are sufficiently embarrassed by it that apart from one of the rare prints being run on television, the only place you can see it is at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in the archive of the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Radosh is author of Commies (July 2001) and co-author of The Rosenberg File (August 2002).

October 2005 Permalink

Rahe, Paul A. The Spartan Regime. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-300-21901-2.
This thin volume (just 232 pages in the hardcover edition, only around 125 of which are the main text and appendices—the rest being extensive source citations, notes, and indices of subjects and people and place names) is intended as the introduction to an envisioned three volume work on Sparta covering its history from the archaic period through the second battle of Mantinea in 362 b.c. where defeat of a Sparta-led alliance at the hands of the Thebans paved the way for the Macedonian conquest of Sparta.

In this work, the author adopts the approach to political science used in antiquity by writers such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle: that the principal factor in determining the character of a political community is its constitution, or form of government, the rules which define membership in the community and which its members were expected to obey, their character being largely determined by the system of education and moral formation which shape the citizens of the community.

Discerning these characteristics in any ancient society is difficult, but especially so in the case of Sparta, which was a society of warriors, not philosophers and historians. Almost all of the contemporary information we have about Sparta comes from outsiders who either visited the city at various times in its history or based their work upon the accounts of others who had. Further, the Spartans were famously secretive about the details of their society, so when ancient accounts differ, it is difficult to determine which, if any, is correct. One gets the sense that all of the direct documentary information we have about Sparta would fit on one floppy disc: everything else is interpretations based upon that meagre foundation. In recent centuries, scholars studying Sparta have seen it as everything from the prototype of constitutional liberty to a precursor of modern day militaristic totalitarianism.

Another challenge facing the modern reader and, one suspects, many ancients, in understanding Sparta was how profoundly weird it was. On several occasions whilst reading the book, I was struck that rarely in science fiction does one encounter a description of a society so thoroughly alien to those with which we are accustomed from our own experience or a study of history. First of all, Sparta was tiny: there were never as many as ten thousand full-fledged citizens. These citizens were descended from Dorians who had invaded the Peloponnese in the archaic period and subjugated the original inhabitants, who became helots: essentially serfs who worked the estates of the Spartan aristocracy in return for half of the crops they produced (about the same fraction of the fruit of their labour the helots of our modern enlightened self-governing societies are allowed to retain for their own use). Every full citizen, or Spartiate, was a warrior, trained from boyhood to that end. Spartiates not only did not engage in trade or work as craftsmen: they were forbidden to do so—such work was performed by non-citizens. With the helots outnumbering Spartiates by a factor of from four to seven (and even more as the Spartan population shrunk toward the end), the fear of an uprising was ever-present, and required maintenance of martial prowess among the Spartiates and subjugation of the helots.

How were these warriors formed? Boys were taken from their families at the age of seven and placed in a barracks with others of their age. Henceforth, they would return to their families only as visitors. They were subjected to a regime of physical and mental training, including exercise, weapons training, athletics, mock warfare, plus music and dancing. They learned the poetry, legends, and history of the city. All learned to read and write. After intense scrutiny and regular tests, the young man would face a rite of passage, krupteίa, in which, for a full year, armed only with a dagger, he had to survive on his own in the wild, stealing what he needed, and instilling fear among the helots, who he was authorised to kill if found in violation of curfew. Only after surviving this ordeal would the young Spartan be admitted as a member of a sussιtίon, a combination of a men's club, a military mess, and the basic unit in the Spartan army. A Spartan would remain a member of this same group all his life and, even after marriage and fatherhood, would live and dine with them every day until the age of forty-five.

From the age of twelve, boys in training would usually have a patron, or surrogate father, who was expected to initiate him into the world of the warrior and instruct him in the duties of citizenship. It was expected that there would be a homosexual relationship between the two, and that this would further cement the bond of loyalty to his brothers in arms. Upon becoming a full citizen and warrior, the young man was expected to take on a boy and continue the tradition. As to many modern utopian social engineers, the family was seen as an obstacle to the citizen's identification with the community (or, in modern terminology, the state), and the entire process of raising citizens seems to have been designed to transfer this inherent biological solidarity with kin to peers in the army and the community as a whole.

The political structure which sustained and, in turn, was sustained by these cultural institutions was similarly alien and intricate—so much so that I found myself wishing that Professor Rahe had included a diagram to help readers understand all of the moving parts and how they interacted. After finishing the book, I found this one on Wikipedia.

Structure of Government in Sparta
Image by Wikipedia user Putinovac licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The actual relationships are even more complicated and subtle than expressed in this diagram, and given the extent to which scholars dispute the details of the Spartan political institutions (which occupy many pages in the end notes), it is likely the author may find fault with some aspects of this illustration. I present it purely because it provides a glimpse of the complexity and helped me organise my thoughts about the description in the text.

Start with the kings. That's right, “kings”—there were two of them—both traditionally descended from Hercules, but through different lineages. The kings shared power and acted as a check on each other. They were commanders of the army in time of war, and high priests in peace. The kingship was hereditary and for life.

Five overseers, or ephors were elected annually by the citizens as a whole. Scholars dispute whether ephors could serve more than one term, but the author notes that no ephor is known to have done so, and it is thus likely they were term limited to a single year. During their year in office, the board of five ephors (one from each of the villages of Sparta) exercised almost unlimited power in both domestic and foreign affairs. Even the kings were not immune to their power: the ephors could arrest a king and bring him to trial on a capital charge just like any other citizen, and this happened. On the other hand, at the end of their one year term, ephors were subject to a judicial examination of their acts in office and liable for misconduct. (Wouldn't be great if present-day “public servants” received the same kind of scrutiny at the end of their terms in office? It would be interesting to see what a prosecutor could discover about how so many of these solons manage to amass great personal fortunes incommensurate with their salaries.) And then there was the “fickle meteor of doom” rule.

Every ninth year, the five [ephors] chose a clear and moonless night and remained awake to watch the sky. If they saw a shooting star, they judged that one or both kings had acted against the law and suspended the man or men from office. Only the intervention of Delphi or Olympia could effect a restoration.

I can imagine the kings hoping they didn't pick a night in mid-August for their vigil!

The ephors could also summon council of elders, or gerousίa, into session. This body was made up of thirty men: the two kings, plus twenty-eight others, all sixty years or older, who were elected for life by the citizens. They tended to be wealthy aristocrats from the oldest families, and were seen as protectors of the stability of the city from the passions of youth and the ambition of kings. They proposed legislation to the general assembly of all citizens, and could veto its actions. They also acted as a supreme court in capital cases. The general assembly of all citizens, which could also be summoned by the ephors, was restricted to an up or down vote on legislation proposed by the elders, and, perhaps, on sentences of death passed by the ephors and elders.

All of this may seem confusing, if not downright baroque, especially for a community which, in the modern world, would be considered a medium-sized town. Once again, it's something which, if you encountered it in a science fiction novel, you might expect the result of a Golden Age author, paid by the word, making ends meet by inventing fairy castles of politics. But this is how Sparta seems to have worked (again, within the limits of that single floppy disc we have to work with, and with almost every detail a matter of dispute among those who have spent their careers studying Sparta over the millennia). Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which was the product of a group of people toiling over a hot summer in Philadelphia, the Spartan constitution, like that of Britain, evolved organically over centuries, incorporating tradition, the consequences of events, experience, and cultural evolution. And, like the British constitution, it was unwritten. But it incorporated, among all its complexity and ambiguity, something very important, which can be seen as a milestone in humankind's millennia-long struggle against arbitrary authority and quest for individual liberty: the separation of powers. Unlike almost all other political systems in antiquity and all too many today, there was no pyramid with a king, priest, dictator, judge, or even popular assembly at the top. Instead, there was a complicated network of responsibility, in which any individual player or institution could be called to account by others. The regimentation, destruction of the family, obligatory homosexuality, indoctrination of the youth into identification with the collective, foundation of the society's economics on serfdom, suppression of individual initiative and innovation were, indeed, almost a model for the most dystopian of modern tyrannies, yet darned if they didn't get the separation of powers right! We owe much of what remains of our liberties to that heritage.

Although this is a short book and this is a lengthy review, there is much more here to merit your attention and consideration. It's a chore getting through the end notes, as much of them are source citations in the dense jargon of classical scholars, but embedded therein are interesting discussions and asides which expand upon the text.

In the Kindle edition, all of the citations and index references are properly linked to the text. Some Greek letters with double diacritical marks are rendered as images and look odd embedded in text; I don't know if they appear correctly in print editions.

August 2017 Permalink

Reagan, Ronald. The Reagan Diaries. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-155833-7.
What's it actually like to be the president of the United States? There is very little first-person testimony on this topic: among American presidents, only Washington, John Quincy Adams, Polk, and Hayes kept comprehensive diaries prior to the twentieth century, and the present work, an abridged edition of the voluminous diaries of Ronald Reagan, was believed, at the time of its publication, to be the only personal, complete, and contemporaneous account of a presidency in the twentieth century. Since its publication, a book purporting to be the White House diaries of Jimmy Carter has been published, but even if you believe the content, who cares about the account of the presidency of a feckless crapweasel whose damage to the republic redounds unto the present day?

Back in the epoch, the media (a couple of decades later to become the legacy media), portrayed Reagan as a genial dunce, bumbling through his presidency at the direction of his ideological aides. That illusion is dispelled in the first ten pages of these contemporaneous diary entries. In these pages, rife with misspellings (he jokes to himself that he always spells the Libyan dictator's name the last way he saw it spelt in the newspaper, and probably ended up with at least a dozen different spellings) and apostrophe abuse, you experience Reagan not writing for historians but rather memos to file about the decisions he was making from day to day.

As somebody who was unfortunate enough to spend a brief part of his life as CEO of an S&P 500 company in the Reagan years, the ability of Reagan, almost forty years my senior, to keep dozens of balls in the air, multitask among grave matters of national security and routine paperwork, meetings with heads of states of inconsequential countries, criminal investigations of his subordinates, and schmooze with politicians staunchly opposed to his legislative agenda to win the votes needed to enact the parts he deemed most important is simply breathtaking. Here we see a chief executive, honed by eight years as governor of California, at the top of his game, deftly out-maneuvering his opponents in Congress not, as the media would have you believe, by his skills in communicating directly to the people (although that played a part), but mostly by plain old politics: faking to the left and then scoring the point from the right. Reading these abridged but otherwise unedited diary entries gives lie to any claim that Reagan was in any way intellectually impaired or unengaged at any point of his presidency. This is a master politician getting done what he can in the prevailing political landscape and committing both his victories and teeth-gritting compromises to paper the very day they occurred.

One of the most stunning realisations I took away from this book is that when Reagan came to office, he looked upon his opposition in the Congress and the executive bureaucracy as people who shared his love of the country and hope for its future, but who simply disagreed as to the best course to achieve their shared goals. You can see it slowly dawning upon Reagan, as year followed year, that although there were committed New Dealers and Cold War Democrats among his opposition, there was a growing movement, both within the bureaucracy and among elected officials, who actually wanted to bring America down—if not to actually capitulate to Soviet hegemony, at least to take it down from superpower status to a peer of others in the “international community”. Could Reagan have imagined that the day would come when a president who bought into this agenda might actually sit in the Oval Office? Of course: Reagan was well-acquainted with worst case scenarios.

The Kindle edition is generally well-produced, but in lieu of a proper index substitutes a lengthy and entirely useless list of “searchable terms” which are not linked in any way to their appearances in the text.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan.

February 2011 Permalink

Reasoner, James. Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West. New York: Berkley, 2003. ISBN 0-425-19193-1.
The author is best known as a novelist, author of a bookshelf full of yarns, mostly set in the Wild West, but also of the War Between the States and World War II. In this, his first work of nonfiction after twenty-five years as a writer, he sketches in 31 short chapters (of less than ten pages average length, with a number including pictures) the careers and climactic (and often career-ending) conflicts of the best known gunslingers of the Old West, as well as many lesser-known figures, some of which were just as deadly and, in their own time, notorious. Here are tales of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Dalton Gang, Bat Masterson, Bill Doolin, Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok; but also Jim Levy, the Jewish immigrant from Ireland who was considered by both Earp and Masterson to be one of the deadliest gunfighters in the West; Henry Starr, who robbed banks from the 1890s until his death in a shoot-out in 1921, pausing in mid-career to write, direct, and star in a silent movie about his exploits, A Debtor to the Law; and Ben Thompson, who Bat Masterson judged to be the fastest gun in the West, who was, at various times, an Indian fighter, Confederate cavalryman, mercenary for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, gambler, gunfighter,…and chief of police of Austin, Texas. Many of the characters who figure here worked both sides of the law, in some cases concurrently.

The author does not succumb to the temptation to glamorise these mostly despicable figures, nor the tawdry circumstances in which so many met their ends. (Many, but not all: Bat Masterson survived a career as deputy sheriff in Dodge City, sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, Marshal of Trinidad, Colorado, and as itinerant gambler in the wildest towns of the West, to live the last twenty years of his life in New York City, working as sports editor and columnist for a Manhattan newspaper.) Reasoner does, however, attempt to spice up the narrative with frontier lingo (whether genuine or bogus, I know not): lawmen and “owlhoots” (outlaws) are forever slappin' leather, loosing or dodging hails of lead, getting thrown in the hoosegow, or seeking the comfort of the soiled doves who plied their trade above the saloons. This can become tedious if you read the book straight through; it's better enjoyed a chapter at a time spread out over an extended period. The chapters are completely independent of one other (although there are a few cross-references), and may be read in any order. In fact, they read like a collection of magazine columns, but there is no indication in the book they were ever previously published. There is a ten page bibliography citing sources for each chapter but no index—this is a substantial shortcoming since many of the chapter titles do not name the principals in the events they describe, and since the paths of the most famous gunfighters crossed frequently, their stories are spread over a number of chapters.

July 2006 Permalink

Regis, Ed. Monsters. New York: Basic Books, 2015. ISBN 978-0-465-06594-3.
In 1863, as the American Civil War raged, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, an ambitious young cavalry officer from the German kingdom of Württemberg arrived in America to observe the conflict and learn its lessons for modern warfare. He arranged an audience with President Lincoln, who authorised him to travel among the Union armies. Zeppelin spent a month with General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac. Accustomed to German military organisation, he was unimpressed with what he saw and left to see the sights of the new continent. While visiting Minnesota, he ascended in a tethered balloon and saw the landscape laid out below him like a military topographical map. He immediately grasped the advantage of such an eye in the sky for military purposes. He was impressed.

Upon his return to Germany, Zeppelin pursued a military career, distinguishing himself in the 1870 war with France, although being considered “a hothead”. It was this characteristic which brought his military career to an abrupt end in 1890. Chafing under what he perceived as stifling leadership by the Prussian officer corps, he wrote directly to the Kaiser to complain. This was a bad career move; the Kaiser “promoted” him into retirement. Adrift, looking for a new career, Zeppelin seized upon controlled aerial flight, particularly for its military applications. And he thought big.

By 1890, France was at the forefront of aviation. By 1885 the first dirigible, La France, had demonstrated aerial navigation over complex closed courses and carried passengers. Built for the French army, it was just a technology demonstrator, but to Zeppelin it demonstrated a capability with such potential that Germany must not be left behind. He threw his energy into the effort, formed a company, raised the money, and embarked upon the construction of Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ 1).

Count Zeppelin was not a man to make small plans. Eschewing sub-scale demonstrators or technology-proving prototypes, he went directly to a full scale airship intended to be militarily useful. It was fully 128 metres long, almost two and a half times the size of La France, longer than a football field. Its rigid aluminium frame contained 17 gas bags filled with hydrogen, and it was powered by two gasoline engines. LZ 1 flew just three times. An observer from the German War Ministry reported it to be “suitable for neither military nor for non-military purposes.” Zeppelin's company closed its doors and the airship was sold for scrap.

By 1905, Zeppelin was ready to try again. On its first flight, the LZ 2 lost power and control and had to make a forced landing. Tethered to the ground at the landing site, it was caught by the wind and destroyed. It was sold for scrap. Later the LZ 3 flew successfully, and Zeppelin embarked upon construction of the LZ 4, which would be larger still. While attempting a twenty-four hour endurance flight, it suffered motor failure, landed, and while tied down was caught by wind. Its gas bags rubbed against one another and static electricity ignited the hydrogen, which reduced the airship to smoking wreckage.

Many people would have given up at this point, but not the redoubtable Count. The LZ 5, delivered to the military, was lost when carried away by the wind after an emergency landing and dashed against a hill. LZ 6 burned in its hangar after an engine caught fire. LZ 7, the first civilian passenger airship, crashed into a forest on its first flight and was damaged beyond repair. LZ 8, its replacement, was destroyed by a gust of wind while being walked out of its hangar.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the airship went to war. Germany operated 117 airships, using them for reconnaissance and even bombing targets in England. Of the 117, fully 81 were destroyed, about half due to enemy action and half by the woes which had wrecked so many airships prior to the conflict.

Based upon this stunning record of success, after the end of the Great War, Britain decided to embark in earnest on its own airship program, building even larger airships than Germany. Results were no better, culminating in the R100 and R101, built to provide air and cargo service on routes throughout the Empire. On its maiden flight to India in 1930, R101 crashed and burned in a storm while crossing France, killing 48 of the 54 on board. After the catastrophe, the R100 was retired and sold for scrap.

This did not deter the Americans, who, in addition to their technical prowess and “can do” spirit, had access to helium, produced as a by-product of their natural gas fields. Unlike hydrogen, helium is nonflammable, so the risk of fire, which had destroyed so many airships using hydrogen, was entirely eliminated. Helium does not provide as much lift as hydrogen, but this can be compensated for by increasing the size of the ship. Helium is also around fifty times more expensive than hydrogen, which makes managing an airship in flight more difficult. While the commander of a hydrogen airship can freely “valve” gas to reduce lift when required, doing this in a helium ship is forbiddingly expensive and restricted only to the most dire of emergencies.

The U.S. Navy believed the airship to be an ideal platform for long-range reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols, and other missions where its endurance, speed, and the ability to operate far offshore provided advantages over ships and heavier than air craft. Between 1921 and 1935 the Navy operated five rigid airships, three built domestically and two abroad. Four of the five crashed in storms or due to structural failure, killing dozens of crew.

This sorry chronicle leads up to a detailed recounting of the history of the Hindenburg. Originally designed to use helium, it was redesigned for hydrogen after it became clear the U.S., which had forbidden export of helium in 1927, would not grant a waiver, especially to a Germany by then under Nazi rule. The Hindenburg was enormous: at 245 metres in length, it was longer than the U.S. Capitol building and more than three times the length of a Boeing 747. It carried between 50 and 72 passengers who were served by a crew of 40 to 61, with accommodations (apart from the spartan sleeping quarters) comparable to first class on ocean liners. In 1936, the great ship made 17 transatlantic crossings without incident. On its first flight to the U.S. in 1937, it was destroyed by fire while approaching the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The disaster and its aftermath are described in detail. Remarkably, given the iconic images of the flaming airship falling to the ground and the structure glowing from the intense heat of combustion, of the 97 passengers and crew on board, 62 survived the disaster. (One of the members of the ground crew also died.)

Prior to the destruction of the Hindenburg, a total of twenty-six hydrogen filled airships had been destroyed by fire, excluding those shot down in wartime, with a total of 250 people killed. The vast majority of all rigid airships built ended in disaster—if not due to fire then structural failure, weather, or pilot error. Why did people continue to pursue this technology in the face of abundant evidence that it was fundamentally flawed?

The author argues that rigid airships are an example of a “pathological technology”, which he characterises as:

  1. Embracing something huge, either in size or effects.
  2. Inducing a state bordering on enthralment among its proponents…
  3. …who underplay its downsides, risks, unintended consequences, and obvious dangers.
  4. Having costs out of proportion to the benefits it is alleged to provide.

Few people would argue that the pursuit of large airships for more than three decades in the face of repeated disasters was a pathological technology under these criteria. Even setting aside the risks from using hydrogen as a lifting gas (which I believe the author over-emphasises: prior to the Hindenburg accident nobody had ever been injured on a commercial passenger flight of a hydrogen airship, and nobody gives a second thought today about boarding an airplane with 140 tonnes of flammable jet fuel in the tanks and flying across the Pacific with only two engines). Seemingly hazardous technologies can be rendered safe with sufficient experience and precautions. Large lighter than air ships were, however, inherently unsafe because they were large and lighter than air: nothing could be done about that. They were are the mercy of the weather, and if they were designed to be strong enough to withstand whatever weather conditions they might encounter, they would have been too heavy to fly. As the experience of the U.S. Navy with helium airships demonstrated, it didn't matter if you were immune to the risks of hydrogen; the ship would eventually be destroyed in a storm.

The author then moves on from airships to discuss other technologies he deems pathological, and here, in my opinion, goes off the rails. The first of these technologies is Project Plowshare, a U.S. program to explore the use of nuclear explosions for civil engineering projects such as excavation, digging of canals, creating harbours, and fracturing rock to stimulate oil and gas production. With his characteristic snark, Regis mocks the very idea of Plowshare, and yet examination of the history of the program belies this ridicule. For the suggested applications, nuclear explosions were far more economical than chemical detonations and conventional earthmoving equipment. One principal goal of Plowshare was to determine the efficacy of such explosions and whether they would pose risks (for example, release of radiation) which were unacceptable. Over 11 years 26 nuclear tests were conducted under the program, most at the Nevada Test Site, and after a review of the results it was concluded the radiation risk was unacceptable and the results unpromising. Project Plowshare was shut down in 1977. I don't see what's remotely pathological about this. You have an idea for a new technology; you explore it in theory; conduct experiments; then decide it's not worth pursuing. Now maybe if you're Ed Regis, you may have been able to determine at the outset, without any of the experimental results, that the whole thing was absurd, but a great many people with in-depth knowledge of the issues involved preferred to run the experiments, take the data, and decide based upon the results. That, to me, seems the antithesis of pathological.

The next example of a pathological technology is the Superconducting Super Collider, a planned particle accelerator to be built in Texas which would have an accelerator ring 87.1 km in circumference and collide protons at a centre of mass energy of 40 TeV. The project was approved and construction begun in the 1980s. In 1993, Congress voted to cancel the project and work underway was abandoned. Here, the fit with “pathological technology” is even worse. Sure, the project was large, but it was mostly underground: hardly something to “enthral” anybody except physics nerds. There were no risks at all, apart from those in any civil engineering project of comparable scale. The project was cancelled because it overran its budget estimates but, even if completed, would probably have cost less than a tenth the expenditures to date on the International Space Station, which has produced little or nothing of scientific value. How is it pathological when a project, undertaken for well-defined goals, is cancelled when those funding it, seeing its schedule slip and budget balloon beyond that projected, pull the plug on it? Isn't that how things are supposed to work? Who were the seers who forecast all of this at the project's inception?

The final example of so-called pathological technology is pure spite. Ed Regis has a fine time ridiculing participants in the first 100 Year Starship symposium, a gathering to explore how and why humans might be able, within a century, to launch missions (robotic or crewed) to other star systems. This is not a technology at all, but rather an exploration of what future technologies might be able to do, and the limits imposed by the known laws of physics upon potential technologies. This is precisely the kind of “exploratory engineering” that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky engaged in when he worked out the fundamentals of space flight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He didn't know the details of how it would be done, but he was able to calculate, from first principles, the limits of what could be done, and to demonstrate that the laws of physics and properties of materials permitted the missions he envisioned. His work was largely ignored, which I suppose may be better than being mocked, as here.

You want a pathological technology? How about replacing reliable base load energy sources with inefficient sources at the whim of clouds and wind? Banning washing machines and dishwashers that work in favour of ones that don't? Replacing toilets with ones that take two flushes in order to “save water”? And all of this in order to “save the planet” from the consequences predicted by a theoretical model which has failed to predict measured results since its inception, through policies which impoverish developing countries and, even if you accept the discredited models, will have negligible results on the global climate. On this scandal of our age, the author is silent. He concludes:

Still, for all of their considerable faults and stupidities—their huge costs, terrible risks, unintended negative consequences, and in some cases injuries and deaths—pathological technologies possess one crucial saving grace: they can be stopped.

Or better yet, never begun.

Except, it seems, you can only recognise them in retrospect.

January 2016 Permalink

Reich, Eugenie Samuel. Plastic Fantastic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-230-62384-2.
Boosters of Big Science, and the politicians who rely upon its pronouncements to justify their policy prescriptions often cite the self-correcting nature of the scientific process: peer review subjects the work of researchers to independent and dispassionate scrutiny before results are published, and should an incorrect result make it into print, the failure of independent researchers to replicate it will inevitably call it into question and eventually cause it to be refuted.

Well, that's how it works in theory. Theory is very big in contemporary Big Science. This book is about how things work in fact, in the real world, and it's quite a bit different. At the turn of the century, there was no hotter property in condensed matter physics than Hendrik Schön, a junior researcher at Bell Labs who, in rapid succession reported breakthroughs in electronic devices fabricated from organic molecules including:

  • Organic field effect transistors
  • Field-induced superconductivity in organic crystals
  • Fractional quantum Hall effect in organic materials
  • Organic crystal laser
  • Light emitting organic transistor
  • Organic Josephson junction
  • High temperature superconductivity in C60
  • Single electron organic transistors

In the year 2001, Schön published a paper in a peer reviewed journal at a rate of one every eight days, with many reaching the empyrean heights of Nature, Science, and Physical Review. Other labs were in awe of his results, and puzzled because every attempt they made to replicate his experiments failed, often in ways which seemed to indicate the descriptions of experiments he published were insufficient for others to replicate them. Theorists also raised their eyebrows at Schön's results, because he claimed breakdown properties of sputtered aluminium oxide insulating layers far beyond measured experimental results, and behaviour of charge transport in his organic substrates which didn't make any sense according to the known properties of such materials.

The experimenters were in a tizzy, trying to figure out why they couldn't replicate Schön's results, while the theorists were filling blackboards trying to understand how his incongruous results could possibly make sense. His superiors were basking in the reflected glory of his ascendence into the élite of experimental physicists and the reflection of his glory upon their laboratory.

In April 2002, while waiting in the patent attorney's office at Bell Labs, researchers Julia Hsu and Lynn Loo were thumbing through copies of Schön's papers they'd printed out as background documentation for the patent application they were preparing, when Loo noticed that two graphs of inverter outputs, one in a Nature paper describing a device made of a layer of thousands of organic molecules, and another in a Science paper describing an inverter made of just one or two active molecules were identical, right down to the instrumental noise. When this was brought to the attention of Schön's manager and word of possible irregularities in Schön's publications began to make its way through the condensed matter physics grapevine, his work was subjected to intense scrutiny both within Bell Labs and by outside researchers, and additional instances of identical graphs re-labelled for entirely different experiments came to hand. Bell Labs launched a formal investigation in May 2002, which concluded, in a report issued the following September, that Schön had committed at least 16 instances of scientific misconduct, fabricating the experimental data he reported from mathematical functions, with no evidence whatsoever that he had ever built the devices he claimed to have, or performed the experiments described in his papers. A total of twenty-one papers authored by Schön in Science, Nature, and Physical Review were withdrawn, as well as a number in less prestigious venues.

What is fascinating in this saga of flat-out fraud and ultimate exposure and disgrace is how completely the much-vaunted system of checks and balances of industrial scale Big Science and peer review in the most prestigious journals completely fell on its face at the hands of a fraudster in a junior position with little or no scientific track record who was willing to make up data to confirm the published expectations of the theorists, and figured out how to game the peer review system, using criticisms of his papers as a guide to make up additional data to satisfy the objections of the referees. As a former manager of a group of ambitious and rambunctious technologists, what strikes me is how utterly Schön's colleagues and managers at Bell Labs failed in overseeing his work and vetting his results. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and Schön was making and publishing extraordinary claims at the rate of almost one a week in 2001, and yet not once did anybody at Bell Labs insist on observing him perform one of the experiments he claimed to be performing, even after other meticulous experimenters in laboratories around the world reported that they were unable to replicate his results. Think about it—if a junior software developer in your company claimed to have developed a miraculous application, wouldn't you want to see a demo before issuing a press release about it and filing a patent application? And yet nobody at Bell Labs thought to do so with Schön's work.

The lessons from this episode are profound, and I see little evidence that they have been internalised by the science establishment. A great deal of experimental science is now guided by the expectations of theorists; it is difficult to obtain funding for an experimental program which looks for effects not anticipated by theory. In such an environment, an unscrupulous scientist willing to make up data that conforms to the prejudices of the theorists may be able to publish in prestigious journals and be considered a rising star of science based on an entirely fraudulent corpus of work. Because scientists, especially in the Anglo-Saxon culture, are loath to make accusations of fraud (as the author notes, in the golden age of British science such an allegation might well result in a duel being fought), failure to replicate experimental results is often assumed to be a failure by the replicator to precisely reproduce the circumstances of the original investigator, not to call into question the veracity of the reported work. Schön's work consisted of desktop experiments involving straightforward measurements of electrical properties of materials, which were about as simple as anything in contemporary science to evaluate and independently replicate. Now think of how vulnerable research on far less clear cut topics such as global climate, effects of diet on public health, and other topics would be to fraudulent, agenda-driven “research”. Also, Schön got caught only because he became sloppy in his frenzy of publication, duplicating graphs and data sets from one paper to another. How long could a more careful charlatan get away with it?

Quite aside from the fascinating story and its implications for the integrity of the contemporary scientific enterprise, this is a superbly written narrative which reads more like a thriller than an account of a regrettable episode in science. But it is entirely factual, and documented with extensive end notes citing original sources.

August 2010 Permalink

Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb. New York: W. W. Norton, [2006] 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-32982-7.
I had some trepidation about picking up this book. Having read the author's The Wizards of Langley (May 2002), expecting an account of “Q Branch” spy gizmology and encountering instead a tedious (albeit well-written and thorough) bureaucratic history of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, I was afraid this volume might also reduce one of the most critical missions of U.S. intelligence in the post World War II era to another account of interagency squabbling and budget battles. Not to worry—although such matters are discussed where appropriate (especially when they led to intelligence failures), the book not only does not disappoint, it goes well beyond the mission of its subtitle, “American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea” in delivering not just an account of intelligence activity but also a comprehensive history of the nuclear programs of each of the countries upon which the U.S. has focused its intelligence efforts: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

The reader gets an excellent sense of just how difficult it is, even in an age of high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery, communications intelligence, surveillance of commercial and financial transactions, and active efforts to recruit human intelligence sources, to determine the intentions of states intent (or maybe not) on developing nuclear weapons. The ease with which rogue regimes seem to be able to evade IAEA safeguards and inspectors, and manipulate diplomats loath to provoke a confrontation, is illustrated on numerous occasions. An entire chapter is devoted to the enigmatic double flash incident of September 22nd, 1979 whose interpretation remains in dispute today. This 2007 paperback edition includes a new epilogue with information on the October 2006 North Korean “fissile or fizzle” nuclear test, and recent twists and turns in the feckless international effort to restrain Iran's nuclear program.

May 2008 Permalink

Rickards, James. Currency Wars. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2011. ISBN 978-1-591-84449-5.
Debasement of currency dates from antiquity (and doubtless from prehistory—if your daughter's dowry was one cow and three goats, do you think you'd choose them from the best in your herd?), but currency war in the modern sense first emerged in the 20th century in the aftermath of World War I. When global commerce—the first era of globalisation—became established in the 19th century, most of the trading partners were either on the gold standard or settled their accounts in a currency freely convertible to gold, with the British pound dominating as the unit of account in international trade. A letter of credit financing a shipload of goods exported from Argentina to Italy could be written by a bank in London and traded by an investor in New York without any currency risk during the voyage because all parties denominated the transaction in pounds sterling, which the Bank of England would exchange for gold on demand. This system of global money was not designed by “experts” nor managed by “maestros”—it evolved organically and adapted itself to the needs of its users in the marketplace.

All of this was destroyed by World War I. As described here, and in more detail in Lords of Finance (August 2011), in the aftermath of the war all of the European powers on both sides had expended their gold and foreign exchange reserves in the war effort, and the United States had amassed a large fraction of all of the gold in the world in its vaults and was creditor in chief to the allies to whom, in turn, Germany owed enormous reparation payments for generations to come. This set the stage for what the author calls Currency War I, from 1921 through 1936, in which central bankers attempted to sort out the consequences of the war, often making disastrous though well-intentioned decisions which, arguably, contributed to a decade of pre-depression malaise in Britain, the U.S. stock market bubble and 1929 crash, the Weimar Germany hyperinflation, and its aftermath which contributed to the rise of Hitler.

At the end of World War II, the United States was in an even more commanding position than at the conclusion of the first war. With Europe devastated, it sat on an even more imposing hoard of gold, and when it convened the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, with the war still underway, despite the conference's list of attendees hailing from 44 allied nations, it was clear that the Golden Rule applied: he who has the gold makes the rules. Well, the U.S. had the gold, and the system adopted at the conference made the U.S. dollar central to the postwar monetary system. The dollar was fixed to gold at the rate of US$35/troy ounce, with the U.S. Treasury committed to exchanging dollars for gold at that rate in unlimited quantities. All other currencies were fixed to the dollar, and hence indirectly to gold, so that except in the extraordinary circumstance of a revaluation against the dollar, exchange rate risk would not exist. While the Bretton Woods system was more complex than the pre-World War I gold standard (in particular, it allowed central banks to hold reserves in other paper currencies in addition to gold), it tried to achieve the same stability in exchange rates as the pure gold standard.

Amazingly, this system, the brainchild of Soviet agent Harry Dexter White and economic charlatan John Maynard Keynes, worked surprisingly well until the late 1960s, when profligate deficit spending by the U.S. government began to cause foreign holders of an ever-increasing pile of dollars to trade them in for the yellow metal. This was the opening shot in what the author deems Currency War II, which ran from 1967 through 1987, ending in the adoption of the present system of floating exchange rates among currencies backed by nothing whatsoever.

The author believes we are now in the initial phase of Currency War III, in which a perfect storm of unsustainable sovereign debt, economic contraction, demographic pressure on social insurance schemes, and trade imbalances creates the preconditions for the kind of “beggar thy neighbour” competitive devaluations which characterised Currency War I. This is, in effect, a race to the bottom with each unanchored paper currency trying to become cheaper against the others to achieve a transitory export advantage. But, of course, as a moment's reflection will make evident, with currencies decoupled from any tangible asset, the only limit in a race to the bottom is zero, and in a world where trillions of monetary units can be created by the click of a mouse without even the need to crank up the printing press, this funny money is, in the words of Gerald Celente, “not worth the paper it isn't printed on”.

In financial crises, there is a progression from:

  1. Currency war
  2. Trade war
  3. Shooting war

Currency War I led to all three phases. Currency War II was arrested at the “trade war” step, although had the Carter administration and Paul Volcker not administered the bitter medicine to the U.S. economy to extirpate inflation, it's entirely possible a resource war to seize oil fields might have ensued. Now we're in Currency War III (this is the author's view, with which I agree): where will it go from here? Well, nobody knows, and the author is the first to acknowledge that the best a forecaster can do is to sketch a number of plausible scenarios which might play out depending upon precipitating events and the actions of decision makers in time of crisis. Chapter 11 (how appropriate!) describes the four scenarios Rickards sees as probable outcomes and what they would mean for investors and companies engaged in international trade. Some of these may be breathtaking, if not heart-stopping, but as the author points out, all of them are grounded in precedents which have already occurred in the last century.

The book begins with a chilling wargame in which the author participated. Strategic planners often remain stuck counting ships, troops, and tanks, and forget that all of these military assets are worthless without the funds to keep them operating, and that these assets are increasingly integrated into a world financial system whose complexity (and hence systemic risk, either to an accidental excursion or a deliberate disruption) is greater than ever before. Analyses of the stability of global finance often assume players are rational and therefore would not act in a way which was ultimately damaging to their own self interest. This is ominously reminiscent of those who, as late as the spring of 1914, forecast that a general conflict in Europe was unthinkable because it would be the ruin of all of the combatants. Indeed, it was, and yet still it happened.

The Kindle edition has the table of contents and notes properly linked, but the index is just a list of unlinked terms.

November 2011 Permalink

Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Ronald Reagan: An American Hero. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001. ISBN 0-7894-7992-3.
This is basically a coffee-table book. There are a multitude of pictures, many you're unlikely to have seen before, but the text is sparse and lightweight. If you're looking for a narrative, try Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King (March 2002).

July 2004 Permalink

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, [1899] 2004. ISBN 1-4145-0492-6.
This is probably, by present-day standards, the most politically incorrect book ever written by a United States President. The fact that it was published and became a best-seller before his election as Vice President in 1900 and President in 1904 indicates how different the world was in the age in which Theodore Roosevelt lived and helped define. T.R. was no chicken-hawk. After advocating war with Spain as assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, as war approached, he left his desk job in Washington to raise a volunteer regiment from the rough and ready horse- and riflemen of his beloved Wild West, along with number of his fellow Ivy Leaguers hungry for a piece of the action. This book chronicles his adventures in raising, equipping, and training the regiment, and its combat exploits in Cuba in 1898. The prose is pure T.R. passionate purple; it was rumoured that when the book was originally typeset the publisher had to send out for more copies of the upper-case letter “I”. Almost every page contains some remark or other which would end the career of what passes for politicians in today's pale, emasculated world. What an age. What a man! The bloodthirsty warrior who wrote this book would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering an end to the war between Russia and Japan.

This paperback edition from Pavilion Press is a sorry thing physically. The text reads like something that's been OCR scanned and never spelling checked or proofread—on p. 171, for example, “antagonists” is printed as “antagon1sts”, and this is one of many such errors. There's no excuse for this at all, since there's an electronic text edition of The Rough Riders freely available from Project Gutenberg which is free of these errors, and an on-line edition which lacks these flaws. The cover photo of T.R. on his horse is a blow-up of a low-resolution JPEG image with obvious pixels and compression artefacts.

Roosevelt's report to his commanding general (pp. 163–170) detailing the logistical and administrative screwups in the campaign is an excellent illustration of the maxim that the one area in which government far surpasses the capabilities of free enterprise is in the making of messes.

February 2005 Permalink

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-19-502990-1.
This book was recommended to me by Prof. Paul Rahe after I had commented during a discussion on Ricochet about drug (and other forms of) prohibition, using the commonplace libertarian argument that regardless of what one believes about the principle of self-ownership and the dangers to society if its members ingest certain substances, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, the evidence is that prohibition of anything simply makes the problem worse—in many cases not only increasing profits to traffickers in the banned substance, spawning crime among those who contend to provide it to those who seek it in the absence of an open market, promoting contempt for the law (the president of the United States, as of this writing, admitted in his autobiography to have used a substance whose possession, had he been apprehended, was a felony), and most of all that post-prohibition, use of the forbidden substance increases, and hence however satisfying prohibition may be to those who support, enact, and enforce it, it is ultimately counterproductive, as it increases the number of people who taste the forbidden fruit.

I read every book my readers recommend, albeit not immediately, and so I put this book on my queue, and have now digested it. This is a fascinating view of a very different America: a newly independent nation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, still mostly a coastal nation with a vast wilderness to the West, but beginning to expand over the mountains into the fertile land beyond. The one thing all European visitors to America remarked upon was that people in this brave new republic, from strait-laced New Englanders, to Virginia patricians, to plantation barons of the South, to buckskin pioneers and homesteaders across the Appalachians, drank a lot, reaching a peak around 1830 of five gallons (19 litres) of hard spirits (in excess of 45% alcohol) per capita per annum—and that “per capita” includes children and babies in a rapidly growing population, so the adults, and particularly the men, disproportionately contributed to this aggregate.

As the author teases out of the sketchy data of the period, there were a number of social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Prior to the revolution, America was a rum drinking nation, but after the break with Britain whiskey made from maize (corn, in the American vernacular) became the beverage of choice. As Americans migrated and settled the West, maize was their crop of choice, but before the era of canals and railroads, shipping their crop to the markets of the East cost more than its value. Distilling into a much-sought beverage, however, made the arduous trek to market profitable, and justified the round trip. In the rugged western frontier, drinking water was not to be trusted, and a sip of contaminated water could condemn one to a debilitating and possibly fatal bout of dysentery or cholera. None of these bugs could survive in whiskey, and hence it was seen as the healthy beverage. Finally, whiskey provides 83 calories per fluid ounce, and is thus a compact way to store and transmit food value without need for refrigeration.

Some things never change. European visitors to America remarked upon the phenomenon of “rapid eating” or, as we now call it, “fast food”. With the fare at most taverns outside the cities limited to fried corn cakes, salt pork, and whiskey, there was precious little need to linger over one's meal, and hence it was in-and-out, centuries before the burger. But then, things change. Starting around 1830, alcohol consumption in the United States began to plummet, and temperance societies began to spring up across the land. From a peak of about 5 gallons per capita, distilled spirits consumption fell to between 1 and 2 gallons and has remained more or less constant ever since.

But what is interesting is that the widespread turn away from hard liquor was not in any way produced by top-down or coercive prohibition. Instead, it was a bottom-up social movement largely coupled with the second great awakening. While this movement certainly did result in some forms of restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol, much more effective were its opprobrium against public drunkenness and those who enabled it.

This book is based on a Ph.D. thesis, and in places shows it. There is a painful attempt, based on laughably incomplete data, to quantify alcohol consumption during the early 19th century. This, I assume, is because at the epoch “social scientists” repeated the mantra “numbers are good”. This is all nonsense; ignore it. Far more credible are the reports of contemporary observers quoted in the text.

As to Prof. Rahe's assertion that prohibition reduces the consumption of a substance, I don't think this book advances that case. The collapse in the consumption of strong drink in the 1830s was a societal and moral revolution, and any restrictions on the availability of alcohol were the result of that change, not its cause. That said, I do not dispute that prohibition did reduce the reported level of alcohol consumption, but at the cost of horrific criminality and disdain for the rule of law and, after repeal, a return to the status quo ante.

If you're interested in prohibition in all of its manifestations, I recommend this book, even though it has little to do with prohibition. It is an object lesson in how a free society self-corrects from excess and re-orients itself toward behaviour which benefits its citizens.

November 2012 Permalink

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. New York: Vintage, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-7949-7.
Pulitzer Prize-winning mainstream novelist Philip Roth turns to alternative history in this novel, which also falls into the genre Rudy Rucker pioneered and named “transreal”—autobiographical fiction, in which the author (or a character clearly based upon him) plays a major part in the story. Here, the story is told in the first person by the author, as a reminiscence of his boyhood in the early 1940s in Newark, New Jersey. In this timeline, however, after a deadlocked convention, the Republican party chooses Charles Lindbergh as its 1940 presidential candidate who, running on an isolationist platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war”, defeats FDR's bid for a third term in a landslide.

After taking office, Lindbergh's tilt toward the Axis becomes increasingly evident. He appoints the virulently anti-Semitic Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior, flies to Iceland to sign a pact with Hitler, and a concludes a treaty with Japan which accepts all its Asian conquests so far. Further, he cuts off all assistance to Britain and the USSR. On the domestic front, his Office of American Absorption begins encouraging “urban” children (almost all of whom happen to be Jewish) to spend their summers on farms in the “heartland” imbibing “American values”, and later escalates to “encouraging” the migration of entire families (who happen to be Jewish) to rural areas.

All of this, and its many consequences, ranging from trivial to tragic, are seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth, perceived as a young boy would who was living through all of this and trying to make sense of it. A number of anecdotes have nothing to do with the alternative history story line and may be purely autobiographical. This is a “mood novel” and not remotely a thriller; the pace of the story-telling is languid, evoking the time sense and feeling of living in the present of a young boy. As alternative history, I found a number of aspects implausible and unpersuasive. Most exemplars of the genre choose one specific event at which the story departs from recorded history, then spin out the ramifications of that event as the story develops. For example, in 1945 by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany does not declare war on the United States, which only goes to war against Japan. In Roth's book, the point of divergence is simply the nomination of Lindbergh for president. Now, in the real election of 1940, FDR defeated Wendell Willkie by 449 electoral votes to 82, with the Republican carrying only 10 of the 48 states. But here, with Lindbergh as the nominee, we're supposed to believe that FDR would lose in forty-six states, carrying only his home state of New York and squeaking to a narrow win in Maryland. This seems highly implausible to me—Lindbergh's agitation on behalf of America First made him a highly polarising figure, and his apparent sympathy for Nazi Germany (in 1938 he accepted a gold medal decorated with four swastikas from Hermann Göring in Berlin) made him anathema in much of the media. All of these negatives would have been pounded home by the Democrats, who had firm control of the House and Senate as well as the White House, and all the advantages of incumbency. Turning a 38 state landslide into a 46 state wipeout simply by changing the Republican nominee stretches suspension of disbelief to the limit, at least for this reader, especially as Americans are historically disinclined to elect “outsiders” to the presidency.

If you accept this premise, then most of what follows is reasonably plausible and the descent of the country into a folksy all-American kind of fascism is artfully told. But then something very odd happens. As events are unfolding at their rather leisurely pace, on page 317 it's like the author realised he was about to run out of typewriter ribbon or something, and the whole thing gets wrapped up in ten pages, most of which is an unconfirmed account by one of the characters of behind-the-scenes events which may or may not explain everything, and then there's a final chapter to sort out the personal details. This left me feeling like Charlie Brown when Lucy snatches away the football; either the novel should be longer, or else the pace of the whole thing should be faster rather than this whiplash-inducing discontinuity right before the end—but who am I to give advice to somebody with a Pulitzer?

A postscript provides real-world biographies of the many historical figures who appear in the novel, and the complete text of Lindbergh's September 1941 Des Moines speech to the America First Committee which documents his contemporary sentiments for readers who are unaware of this unsavoury part of his career.

November 2006 Permalink

Rowsome, Frank, Jr. The Verse by the Side of the Road. New York: Plume, [1965] 1979. ISBN 0-452-26762-5.
In the years before the Interstate Highway System, long trips on the mostly two-lane roads in the United States could bore the kids in the back seat near unto death, and drive their parents to the brink of homicide by the incessant drone of “Are we there yet?” which began less than half an hour out of the driveway. A blessed respite from counting cows, license plate poker, and counting down the dwindling number of bottles of beer on the wall would be the appearance on the horizon of a series of six red and white signs, which all those in the car would strain their eyes to be the first to read.







In the fall of 1925, the owners of the virtually unknown Burma-Vita company of Minneapolis came up with a new idea to promote the brushless shaving cream they had invented. Since the product would have particular appeal to travellers who didn't want to pack a wet and messy shaving brush and mug in their valise, what better way to pitch it than with signs along the highways frequented by those potential customers? Thus was born, at first only on a few highways in Minnesota, what was to become an American institution for decades and a fondly remembered piece of Americana, the Burma-Shave signs. As the signs proliferated across the landscape, so did sales; so rapid was the growth of the company in the 1930s that a director of sales said (p. 38), “We never knew that there was a depression.” At the peak the company had more than six million regular customers, who were regularly reminded to purchase the product by almost 7000 sets of signs—around 40,000 individual signs, all across the country.

While the first signs were straightforward selling copy, Burma-Shave signs quickly evolved into the characteristic jingles, usually rhyming and full of corny humour and outrageous puns. Rather than hiring an advertising agency, the company ran national contests which paid $100 for the best jingle and regularly received more than 50,000 entries from amateur versifiers.

Almost from the start, the company devoted a substantial number of the messages to highway safety; this was not the result of outside pressure from anti-billboard forces as I remember hearing in the 1950s, but based on a belief that it was the right thing to do—and besides, the sixth sign always mentioned the product! The set of signs above is the jingle that most sticks in my memory: it was a favourite of the Burma-Shave founders as well, having been re-run several times since its first appearance in 1933 and chosen by them to be immortalised in the Smithsonian Institution. Another that comes immediately to my mind is the following, from 1960, on the highway safety theme:







Times change, and with the advent of roaring four-lane freeways, billboard bans or set-back requirements which made sequences of signs unaffordable, the increasing urbanisation of American society, and of course the dominance of television over all other advertising media, by the early 1960s it was clear to the management of Burma-Vita that the road sign campaign was no longer effective. They had already decided to phase it out before they sold the company to Philip Morris in 1963, after which the signs were quickly taken down, depriving the two-lane rural byways of America of some uniquely American wit and wisdom, but who ever drove them any more, since the Interstate went through?

The first half of this delightful book tells the story of the origin, heyday, and demise of the Burma-Shave signs, and the balance lists all of the six hundred jingles preserved in the records of the Burma-Vita Company, by year of introduction. This isn't something you'll probably want to read straight through, but it's great to pick up from time to time when you want a chuckle.

And then the last sign had been read: all the family exclaimed in unison, “Burma-Shave!”. It had been maybe sixty miles since the last set of signs, and so they'd recall that one and remember other great jingles from earlier trips. Then things would quiet down for a while. “Are we there yet?”

October 2006 Permalink

Royce, Kenneth W. Hologram of Liberty. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, 1997. ISBN 1-888766-03-4.
The author, who also uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, provides a survey of the tawdry machinations which accompanied the drafting and adoption of the United States Constitution, making the case that the document was deliberately designed to permit arbitrary expansion of federal power, with cosmetic limitations of power to persuade the states to ratify it. It is striking the extent to which not just vocal anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, but also Thomas Jefferson, anticipated precisely how the federal government would slip its bonds—through judiciary power and the creation of debt, both of which were promptly put into effect by John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. Writing on this topic seems to have, as an occupational hazard, a tendency to rant. While Royce never ascends to the coruscating rhetoric of Lysander Spooner's No Treason, there is a great deal of bold type here, as well as some rather curious conspiracy theories (which are, in all fairness, presented for the reader's consideration, not endorsed by the author). Oddly, although chapter 11 discusses the 27th amendment (Congressional Pay Limitation)—proposed in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights, but not ratified until 1992—it is missing from the text of the Constitution in appendix C.

July 2004 Permalink

Rutler, George William. Coincidentally. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8245-2440-1.
This curious little book is a collection of the author's essays on historical coincidences originally published in Crisis Magazine. Each explores coincidences around a general theme. “Coincidence” is defined rather loosely and generously. Consider (p. 160), “Two years later in Missouri, the St. Louis Municipal Bridge was dedicated concurrently with the appointment of England's poet laureate, Robert Bridges. The numerical sum of the year of his birth, 1844, multiplied by 10, is identical to the length in feet of the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware River.”

Here is paragraph from p. 138 which illustrates what's in store for you in these essays.

Odd and tragic coincidences in maritime history render a little more plausible the breathless meters of James Elroy Flecker (1884–1915): “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea.” That sea haunts me too, especially with the realization that Flecker died in the year of the loss of 1,154 lives on the Lusitania. More odd than tragic is this: the United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (in H. L. Mencken's estimation “The National Tear-Duct”) officially protested the ship's sinking on May 13, 1915 which was the 400th anniversary, to the day, of the marriage of the Duke of Suffolk to Mary, the widow of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, after she had spurned the hand of the Archduke Charles. There is something ominous even in the name of the great hydrologist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set the standards for water purification: Thomas Drown (1842–1904). Swinburne capitalized on the pathos: “… the place of the slaying of Itylus / The feast of Daulis, the Thracian sea.” And a singularly melancholy fact about the sea is that Swinburne did not end up in it.
I noted several factual errors. For example, on p. 169, Chuck Yeager is said to have flown a “B-51 Mustang” in World War II (the correct designation is P-51). Such lapses make you wonder about the reliability of other details, which are far more arcane and difficult to verify.

The author is opinionated and not at all hesitant to share his acerbic perspective: on p. 94 he calls Richard Wagner a “master of Nazi elevator music”. The vocabulary will send almost all readers other than William F. Buckley (who contributed a cover blurb to the book) to the dictionary from time to time. This is not a book you'll want to read straight through—your head will end up spinning with all the details and everything will dissolve into a blur. I found a chapter or two a day about right. I'd sum it up with Abraham Lincoln's observation “Well, for those who like that sort of thing, I should think it is just about the sort of thing they would like.”

February 2008 Permalink

Ryan, Craig. Magnificent Failure. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58834-141-9.
In his 1995 book, The Pre-Astronauts (which I read before I began keeping this list), the author masterfully explores the pioneering U.S. balloon flights into the upper atmosphere between the end of World War II and the first manned space flights, which brought both Air Force and Navy manned balloon programs to an abrupt halt. These flights are little remembered today (except for folks lucky enough to have an attic [or DVD] full of National Geographics from the epoch, which covered them in detail). Still less known is the story recounted here: one man's quest, fuelled only by ambition, determination, willingness to do whatever it took, persuasiveness, and sheer guts, to fly higher and free-fall farther than any man had ever done before. Without the backing of any military service, government agency, wealthy patron, or corporate sponsor, he achieved his first goal, setting an altitude record for lighter than air flight which remains unbroken more than four decades later, and tragically died from injuries sustained in his attempt to accomplish the second, after an in-flight accident which remains enigmatic and controversial to this day.

The term “American original” is over-used in describing exceptional characters that nation has produced, but if anybody deserves that designation, Nick Piantanida does. The son of immigrant parents from the Adriatic island of Korčula (now part of Croatia), Nick was born in 1932 and grew up on the gritty Depression-era streets of Union City, New Jersey in the very cauldron of the American melting pot, amid communities of Germans, Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Syrians, and Greeks. Although universally acknowledged to be extremely bright, his interests in school were mostly brawling and basketball. He excelled in the latter, sharing the 1953 YMCA All-America honours with some guy named Wilt Chamberlain. After belatedly finishing high school (bored, he had dropped out to start a scrap iron business, but was persuaded to return by his parents), he joined the Army where he was All-Army in basketball for both years of his hitch and undefeated as a heavyweight boxer. After mustering out, he received a full basketball scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University, then abruptly quit a few months into his freshman year, finding the regimentation of college life as distasteful as that of the Army.

In search of fame, fortune, and adventure, Nick next set his sights on Venezuela, where he vowed to be the first to climb Devil's Mountain, from which Angel Falls plummets 807 metres. Penniless, he recruited one of his Army buddies as a climbing partner and lined up sponsors to fund the expedition. At the outset, he knew nothing about mountaineering, so he taught himself on the Hudson River Palisades with the aid of books from the library. Upon arrival in Venezuela, the climbers learnt to their dismay that another expedition had just completed the first ascent of the mountain, so Nick vowed to make the first ascent of the north face, just beside the falls, which was thought unclimbable. After an arduous trip through the jungle, during which their guide quit and left the climbers alone, Nick and his partner made the ascent by themselves and returned to the acclaim of all. Such was the determination of this man.

Nick was always looking for adventure, celebrity, and the big score. He worked for a while as a steelworker on the high iron of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but most often supported himself and, after his marriage, his growing family, by contract truck driving and, occasionally, unemployment checks. Still, he never ceased to look for ways, always unconventional, to make his fortune, nor failed to recruit associates and find funding for his schemes. Many of his acquaintances use the word “hustler” to describe him in those days, and one doubts that Nick would be offended by the honorific. He opened an exotic animal import business, and ordered cobras, mongooses, goanna lizards, and other critters mail-order from around the world for resale to wealthy clients. When buyers failed to materialise, he staged gladiatorial contests of both animal versus animal and animal versus himself. Eventually he imported a Bengal tiger cub which he kept in his apartment until it had grown so large it could put its paws on his shoulders, whence he traded the tiger for a decrepit airplane (he had earned a pilot's license while still in his teens). Offered a spot on the New York Knicks professional basketball team, he turned it down because he thought he could make more money barnstorming in his airplane.

Nick finally found his life's vocation when, on a lark, he made a parachute jump. Soon, he had progressed from static line beginner jumps to free fall and increasingly advanced skydiving, making as many jumps as he could afford and find the time for. And then he had the Big Idea. In 1960, Joseph Kittinger had ridden a helium balloon to an altitude of 31,333 metres and bailed out, using a small drogue parachute to stabilise his fall until he opened his main parachute at an altitude of 5,330 metres. Although this was, at the time (and remains to this day) the highest altitude parachute jump ever made, skydiving purists do not consider it a true free fall jump due to the use of the stabilising chute. In 1962, Eugene Andreev jumped from a Soviet balloon at an altitude of 25,460 metres and did a pure free fall descent, stabilising himself purely by skydiving techniques, setting an official free-fall altitude record which also remains unbroken. Nick vowed to claim both the record for highest altitude ascent and longest free-fall jump for himself, and set about it with his usual energy and single-minded determination.

Piantanida faced a daunting set of challenges in achieving his goal: at the outset he had neither balloon, gondola, spacesuit, life support system, suitable parachute, nor any knowledge of or experience with the multitude of specialities whose mastery is required to survive in the stratosphere, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. Kittinger and Andreev were supported by all the resources, knowledge, and funding of their respective superpowers' military establishments, while Nick had—well…Nick. But he was not to be deterred, and immediately set out educating himself and lining up people, sponsors, and gear necessary for the attempt.

The story of what became known as Project Strato-Jump reads like an early Heinlein novel, with an indomitable spirit pursuing a goal other, more “reasonable”, people considered absurd or futile. By will, guile, charm, pull, intimidation, or simply wearing down adversaries until they gave in just to make him go away, he managed to line up everything he needed, including having the company which supplied NASA with its Project Gemini spacesuits custom tailor one (Nick was built like an NBA star, not an astronaut) and loan it to him for the project.

Finally, on October 22, 1965, all was ready, and Nick took to the sky above Minnesota, bound for the edge of space. But just a few minutes after launch, at just 7,000 metres, the balloon burst, probably due to a faulty seam in the polyethylene envelope, triggered by a wind shear at that altitude. Nick rode down in the gondola under its recovery parachute, then bailed out at 3200 metres, unglamorously landing in the Pig's Eye Dump in St. Paul.

Undeterred by the failure, Nick recruited a new balloon manufacturer and raised money for a second attempt, setting off again for the stratosphere a second time on February 2, 1966. This time the ascent went flawlessly, and the balloon rose to an all-time record altitude of 37,643 metres. But as Nick proceeded through the pre-jump checklist, when he attempted to disconnect the oxygen hose that fed his suit from the gondola's supply and switch over to the “bail out bottle” from which he would breathe during the descent, the disconnect fitting jammed, and he was unable to dislodge it. He was, in effect, tethered to the gondola by his oxygen line and had no option but to descend with it. Ground control cut the gondola's parachute from the balloon, and after a harrowing descent Nick and gondola landed in a farm field with only minor injuries. The jump had failed, but Nick had flown higher than any manned balloon ever had. But since the attempt was not registered as an official altitude attempt, although the altitude attained is undisputed, the record remains unofficial.

After the second failure, Nick's confidence appeared visibly shaken. Having all that expense, work, and risk undertaken come to nought due to a small detail with which nobody had been concerned prior to the flight underlined just how small the margin for error was in the extreme environment at the edge of space and, by implication, how the smallest error or oversight could lead to disaster. Still, he was bent on trying yet again, and on May 1, 1966 (since he was trying to break a Soviet record, he thought this date particularly appropriate), launched for the third time. Everything went normally as the balloon approached 17,375 metres, whereupon the ground crew monitoring the air to ground voice link heard what was described as a “whoosh” or hiss, followed by a call of “Emergen” from Nick, followed by silence. The ground crew immediately sent a radio command to cut the balloon loose, and the gondola, with Nick inside, began to descend under its cargo parachute.

Rescue crews arrived just moments after the gondola touched down and found it undamaged, but Nick was unconscious and unresponsive. He was rushed to the local hospital, treated without avail, and then transferred to a hospital in Minneapolis where he was placed in a hyperbaric chamber where treatment for decompression sickness was administered, without improvement. On June 18th, he was transferred to the National Institute of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was examined and treated by experts in decompression disease and hypoxia, but never regained consciousness. He died on August 25, 1966, with an autopsy finding the cause of death hypoxia and ruptures of the tissue in the brain due to decompression.

What happened to Nick up there in the sky? Within hours after the accident, rumours started to circulate that he was the victim of equipment failure: that his faceplate had blown out or that the pressure suit had failed in some other manner, leading to an explosive decompression. This story has been repeated so often it has become almost canon—consider this article from Wired from July 2002. Indeed, when rescuers arrived on the scene, Nick's “faceplate” was damaged, but this was just the sun visor which can be pivoted down to cover the pressure-retaining faceplate, which was intact and, in a subsequent test of the helmet, found to seal perfectly. Rescuers assumed the sun visor was damaged by impact with part of the gondola during the landing and, in any case, would not have caused a decompression however damaged.

Because the pressure suit had been cut off in the emergency room, it wasn't possible to perform a full pressure test, but meticulous inspection of the suit by the manufacturer discovered no flaws which could explain an explosive decompression. The oxygen supply system in the gondola was found to be functioning normally, with all pressure vessels and regulators operating within specifications.

So, what happened? We will never know for sure. Unlike a NASA mission, there was no telemetry, nor even a sequence camera recording what was happening in the gondola. And yet, within minutes after the accident occurred, many members of the ground crew came to a conclusion as to the probable cause, which those still alive today have seen no need to revisit. Such was their certainty that reporter Robert Vaughan gave it as the cause in the story he filed with Life magazine, which he was dismayed to see replaced with an ambiguous passage by the editors, because his explanation did not fit with the narrative chosen for the story. (The legacy media acted like the legacy media even when they were the only media and not yet legacy!)

Astonishingly, all the evidence (which, admittedly, isn't very much) seems to indicate that Nick opened his helmet visor at that extreme altitude, which allowed the air in suit to rush out (causing the “whoosh”), forcing the air from his lungs (cutting off the call of “Emergency!”), and rapidly incapacitating him. The extended hypoxia and exposure to low pressure as the gondola descended under the cargo parachute caused irreversible brain damage well before the gondola landed. But why would Nick do such a crazy thing as open his helmet visor when in the physiological equivalent of space? Again, we can never know, but what is known is that he'd done it before, at lower altitudes, to the dismay of his crew, who warned him of the potentially dire consequences. There is abundant evidence that Piantanida violated the oxygen prebreathing protocol before high altitude exposure not only on this flight, but on a regular basis. He reported symptoms completely consistent with decompression sickness (the onset of “the bends”), and is quoted as saying that he could relieve the symptoms by deflating and reinflating his suit. Finally, about as close to a smoking gun as we're likely to find, the rescue crew found Nick's pressure visor unlatched and rotated away from the seal position. Since Nick would have been in a coma well before he entered breathable atmosphere, it isn't possible he could have done this before landing, and there is no way an impact upon landing could have performed the precise sequence of operations required to depressurise the suit and open the visor.

It is impossible put oneself inside the mind of such an outlier in the human population as Nick, no less imagine what he was thinking and feeling when rising into the darkness above the dawn on the third attempt at achieving his dream. He was almost certainly suffering from symptoms of decompression sickness due to inadequate oxygen prebreathing, afflicted by chronic sleep deprivation in the rush to get the flight off, and under intense stress to complete the mission before his backers grew discouraged and the money ran out. All of these factors can cloud the judgement of even the most disciplined and best trained person, and, it must be said, Nick was neither. Perhaps the larger puzzle is why members of his crew who did understand these things, did not speak up, pull the plug, or walk off the project when they saw what was happening. But then a personality like Nick can sweep people along through its own primal power, for better or for worse; in this case, to tragedy.

Was Nick a hero? Decide for yourself—my opinion is no. In pursuing his own ego-driven ambition, he ended up leaving his wife a widow and his three daughters without a father they remember, with only a meagre life insurance policy to support them. The project was basically a stunt, mounted with the goal of turning its success into money by sales of story, film, and celebrity appearances. Even had the jump succeeded, it would have yielded no useful aeromedical research data applicable to subsequent work apart from the fact that it was possible. (In Nick's defence on this account, he approached the Air Force and NASA, inviting them to supply instrumentation and experiments for the jump, and was rebuffed.)

This book is an exhaustively researched (involving many interviews with surviving participants in the events) and artfully written account of this strange episode which was, at the same time, the last chapter of the exploration of the black beyond by intrepid men in their floating machines and a kind of false dawn precursor of the private exploration of space which is coming to the fore almost half a century after Nick Piantanida set out to pursue his black sky dream. The only embarrassing aspect to this superb book is that on occasion the author equates state-sponsored projects with competence, responsibility, and merit. Well, let's see…. In a rough calculation, using 2007 constant dollars, NASA has spent northward of half a trillion dollars, killing a total of 17 astronauts (plus other employees in industrial accidents on the ground), with all of the astronaut deaths due to foreseeable risks which management failed to identify or mitigate in time.

Project Strato-Jump, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, without resort to the state's monopoly on the use of force, set an altitude record for lighter than air flight within the atmosphere which has stood from 1966 to this writing, and accomplished it in three missions with a total budget of less than (2007 constant) US$400,000, with the loss of a single life due to pilot error. Yes, NASA has achieved much, much more. But a million times more?

This is a very long review, so if you've made it to this point and found it tedious, please accept my excuses. Nick Piantanida has haunted me for decades. I followed his exploits as they happened, and were reported on the CBS Evening News in the 1960s. I felt the frustration of the second flight (with that achingly so far and yet so near view of the Earth from altitude, when he couldn't jump), and then the dismay at the calamity on the third, then the long vigil ending with his sad demise. Astronauts were, well, astronauts, but Nick was one of us. If a truck driver from New Jersey could, by main force, travel to the black of space, then why couldn't any of us? That was the real dream of the Space Age: Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Well, Nick managed to lay his hands on a space suit and travel he did!

Anybody who swallowed the bogus mainstream media narrative of Nick's “suit failure” had to watch the subsequent Gemini and Apollo EVA missions with a special sense of apprehension. A pressure suit is one of the few things in the NASA space program which has no backup: if the pressure garment fails catastrophically, you're dead before you can do anything about it. (A slow leak isn't a problem, since there's an oxygen purge system which can maintain pressure until you can get inside, but a major seam failure, or having a visor blow out or glove pop off is endsville.) Knowing that those fellows cavorting on the Moon were wearing pretty much the same suit as Nick caused those who believed the propaganda version of his death to needlessly catch their breath every time one of them stumbled and left a sitzmark or faceplant in the eternal lunar regolith.

November 2010 Permalink

Sacks, David. Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7679-1172-5.
Whaddya gonna do? The hardcover is out of print and the paperback isn't scheduled for publication until August 2004. The U.K. hardback edition, simply titled The Alphabet, is currently available.

March 2004 Permalink

Salisbury, Harrison E. The 900 Days. New York: Da Capo Press, [1969, 1985] 2003. ISBN 978-0-306-81298-9.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany, without provocation or warning, violated its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded from the west. The German invasion force was divided into three army groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, was charged with advancing through and securing the Baltic states, then proceeding to take or destroy the city of Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to invade Byelorussia and take Smolensk, then advance to Moscow. After Army Group North had reduced Leningrad, it was to detach much of its force for the battle for Moscow. Army Group South's objective was to conquer the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then seize the oil fields of the Caucasus.

The invasion took the Soviet government and military completely by surprise, despite abundant warnings from foreign governments of German troops massing along its western border and reports from Soviet spies indicating an invasion was imminent. A German invasion did not figure in Stalin's world view and, in the age of the Great Terror, nobody had the standing or courage to challenge Stalin. Indeed, Stalin rejected proposals to strengthen defenses on the western frontiers for fear of provoking the Germans. The Soviet military was in near-complete disarray. The purges which began in the 1930s had wiped out not only most of the senior commanders, but the officer corps as a whole. By 1941, only 7 percent of Red Army officers had any higher military education and just 37% had any military instruction at all, even at a high school level.

Thus, it wasn't a surprise that the initial German offensive was even more successful than optimistic German estimates. Many Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and German air strikes deep into Soviet territory disrupted communications in the battle area and with senior commanders in Moscow. Stalin appeared to be paralysed by the shock; he did not address the Soviet people until the 3rd of July, a week and a half after the invasion, by which time large areas of Soviet territory had already been lost.

Army Group North's advance toward Leningrad was so rapid that the Soviets could hardly set up new defensive lines before they were overrun by German forces. The administration in Leningrad mobilised a million civilians (out of an initial population of around three million) to build fortifications around the city and on the approaches to it. By August, German forces were within artillery range of the city and shells began to fall throughout Leningrad. On August 21st, Hitler issued a directive giving priority to the encirclement of Leningrad and linking up with the advancing Finnish army over the capture of Moscow, so Army Group North would receive what it needed for the task. When the Germans captured the town of Mga on August 30, the last rail link between Leningrad and the rest of Russia was severed. Henceforth, the only way in or out of Leningrad was across Lake Lagoda, running the gauntlet of German ships and mines, or by air. The siege of Leningrad had begun. The battle for the city was now in the hands of the Germans' most potent allies: Generals Hunger, Cold, and Terror.

The civil authorities were as ill-prepared for what was to come as the military commanders had been to halt the German advance before it invested the city. The dire situation was compounded when, on September 8th, a German air raid burned to the ground the city's principal food warehouses, built of wood and packed next to one another, destroying all the reserves stored there. An inventory taken after the raid revealed that, at normal rates of consumption, only between two and three weeks' supply of food remained for the population. Rationing had already been imposed, and rations were immediately cut to 500 grams of bread per day for workers and 300 grams for office employees and children. This was to be just the start. The total population of encircled Leningrad, civilian and military, totalled around 3.4 million.

While military events and the actions of the city government are described, most of the book recounts the stories of people who lived through the siege. The accounts are horrific, with the previous unimaginable becoming the quotidian experience of residents of the city. The frozen bodies of victims of starvation were often stacked like cordwood outside apartment buildings or hauled on children's sleds to common graves. Very quickly, Leningrad became exclusively a city of humans: dogs, cats, and pigeons quickly disappeared, eaten as food supplies dwindled. Even rats vanished. While some were doubtless eaten, most seemed to have deserted the starving metropolis for the front, where food was more abundant. Cannibalism was not just rumoured, but documented, and parents were careful not to let children out of their sight.

Even as privation reached extreme levels (at one point, the daily bread ration for workers fell to 300 grams and for children and dependents 125 grams—and that is when bread was available at all), Stalin's secret police remained up and running, and people were arrested in the middle of the night for suspicion of espionage, contacts with foreigners, shirking work, or for no reason at all. The citizenry observed that the NKVD seemed suspiciously well-fed throughout the famine, and they wielded the power of life and death when denial of a ration card was a sentence of death as certain as a bullet in the back of the head.

In the brutal first winter of 1941–1942, Leningrad was sustained largely by truck traffic over the “Road of Life”, constructed over the ice of frozen Lake Lagoda. Operating from November through April, and subject to attack by German artillery and aircraft, thousands of tons of supplies, civilian and military, were brought into the city and the wounded and noncombatants evacuated over the road. The road was rebuilt during the following winter and continued to be the city's lifeline.

The siege of Leningrad was unparalleled in the history of urban sieges. Counting from the fall of Mga on September 8, 1941 until the lifting of the siege on January 27, 1944, the siege had lasted 872 days. By comparison, the siege of Paris in 1870–1871 lasted just 121 days. The siege of Vicksburg in the American war of secession lasted 47 days and involved only 4000 civilians. Total civilian casualties during the siege of Paris were less than those in Leningrad every two or three winter days. Estimates of total deaths in Leningrad due to starvation, disease, and enemy action vary widely. Official Soviet sources tried to minimise the toll to avoid recriminations among Leningraders who felt they had been abandoned to their fate. The author concludes that starvation deaths in Leningrad and the surrounding areas were on the order of one million, with a total of all deaths, civilian and military, between 1.3 and 1.5 million.

The author, then a foreign correspondent for United Press, was one of the first reporters to visit Leningrad after the lifting of the siege. The people he met then and their accounts of life during the siege were unfiltered by the edifice of Soviet propaganda later erected over life in besieged Leningrad. On this and subsequent visits, he was able to reconstruct the narrative, both at the level of policy and strategy and of individual human stories, which makes up this book. After its initial publication in 1969, the book was fiercely attacked in the Soviet press, with Pravda publishing a full page denunciation. Salisbury's meticulously documented account of the lack of preparedness, military blunders largely due to Stalin's destruction of the officer corps in his purges, and bungling by the Communist Party administration of the city did not fit with the story of heroic Leningrad standing against the Nazi onslaught in the official Soviet narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and copies brought by tourists seized by customs. The author, who had been Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1949 through 1954, was for years denied a visa to visit the Soviet Union. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the work became generally available in Russia.

I read the Kindle edition, which is a shameful and dismaying travesty of this classic and important work. It's not a cheap knock-off: the electronic edition is issued by the publisher at a price (at this writing) of US$ 13, only a few dollars less than the paperback edition. It appears to have been created by optical character recognition of a print edition without the most rudimentary copy editing of the result of the scan. Hundreds of words which were hyphenated at the ends of lines in the print edition occur here with embedded hyphens. The numbers ‘0’ and ‘1’ are confused with the letters ‘o’ and ‘i’ in numerous places. Somebody appears to have accidentally done a global replace of the letters “charge” with “chargé”, both in stand-alone words and within longer words. Embarrassingly, for a book with “900” in its title, the number often appears in the text as “poo”. Poetry is typeset with one character per line. I found more than four hundred mark-ups in the text, which even a cursory examination by a copy editor would have revealed. The index is just a list of searchable items, not linked to their references in the text. I have compiled a list of my mark-ups to this text, which I make available to readers and the publisher, should the latter wish to redeem this electronic edition by correcting them. I applaud publishers who make valuable books from their back-lists available in electronic form. But respect your customers! When you charge us almost as much as the paperback and deliver a slapdash product which clearly hasn't been read by anybody on your staff before it reached my eyes, I'm going to savage it. Consider it savaged. Should the publisher supplant this regrettable edition with one worthy of its content, I will remove this notice.

October 2016 Permalink

Satter, David. Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1996] 2001. ISBN 0-300-08705-5.

May 2002 Permalink

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.
The French Revolution is so universally used as a metaphor in social and political writing that it's refreshing to come across a straight narrative history of what actually happened. The French Revolution is a huge, sprawling story, and this is a big, heavy book about it—more than nine hundred pages, with an enormous cast of characters—in large part because each successive set of new bosses cut off the heads of their predecessors. Schama stresses the continuity of many of the aspects of the Revolution with changes already underway in the latter decades of the ancien régime—Louis XVI comes across as kind of Enlightenment Gorbachev—attempting to reform a bankrupt system from the top and setting in motion forces which couldn't be controlled. Also striking is how many of the most extreme revolutionaries were well-off before the Revolution and, in particular, the large number of lawyers in their ranks. Far from viewing the Terror as an aberration, Schama argues that from the very start, the summer of 1789, “violence was the motor of the Revolution”. With the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, you almost want to reach back across the years, shake these guys by the shoulders, and say “Can't you see where you're going with this?” But then you realise: this was all happening for the very first time—they had no idea of the inevitable outcome of their idealism! In a mere four years, they invented the entire malevolent machinery of the modern, murderous, totalitarian nation-state, and all with the best intentions, informed by the persuasively posed yet relentlessly wrong reasoning of Rousseau. Those who have since repeated the experiment, with the example of the French Revolution before them as a warning, have no such excuse.

October 2004 Permalink

Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control. New York: Penguin, 2013. ISBN 978-0-14-312578-5.
On the evening of September 18th, 1980 two U.S. Air Force airmen, members of a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) team, entered a Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas to perform a routine maintenance procedure. Earlier in the day they had been called to the site because a warning signal had indicated that pressure in the missile's second stage oxidiser tank was low. This was not unusual, especially for a missile which had recently been refuelled, as this one had, and the procedure of adding nitrogen gas to the tank to bring the pressure up to specification was considered straightforward. That is, if you consider any work involving a Titan II “routine” or “straightforward”. The missile, in an underground silo, protected by a door weighing more than 65 tonnes and able to withstand the 300 psi overpressure of a nearby nuclear detonation, stood more than 31 metres high and contained 143 tonnes of highly toxic fuel and oxidiser which, in addition to being poisonous to humans in small concentrations, were hypergolic: they burst into flames upon contact with one another, with no need of a source of ignition. Sitting atop this volatile fuel was a W-53 nuclear warhead with a yield of 9 megatons and high explosives in the fission primary which were not, as more modern nuclear weapons, insensitive to shock and fire. While it was unlikely in the extreme that detonation of these explosives due to an accident would result in a nuclear explosion, they could disperse the radioactive material in the bomb over the local area, requiring a massive clean-up effort.

The PTS team worked on the missile wearing what amounted to space suits with their own bottled air supply. One member was an experienced technician while the other was a 19-year old rookie receiving on the job training. Early in the procedure, the team was to remove the pressure cap from the side of the missile. While the lead technician was turning the cap with a socket wrench, the socket fell off the wrench and down the silo alongside the missile. The socket struck the thrust mount supporting the missile, bounced back upward, and struck the side of the missile's first stage fuel tank. Fuel began to spout outward as if from a garden hose. The trainee remarked, “This is not good.”

Back in the control centre, separated from the silo by massive blast doors, the two man launch team who had been following the servicing operation, saw their status panels light up like a Christmas tree decorated by somebody inordinately fond of the colour red. The warnings were contradictory and clearly not all correct. Had there indeed been both fuel and oxidiser leaks, as indicated, there would already have been an earth-shattering kaboom from the silo, and yet that had not happened. The technicians knew they had to evacuate the silo as soon as possible, but their evacuation route was blocked by dense fuel vapour.

The Air Force handles everything related to missiles by the book, but the book was silent about procedures for a situation like this, with massive quantities of toxic fuel pouring into the silo. Further, communication between the technicians and the control centre were poor, so it wasn't clear at first just what had happened. Before long, the commander of the missile wing, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha, and the missile's manufacturer, Martin Marietta, were in conference trying to decide how to proceed. The greatest risks were an electrical spark or other source of ignition setting the fuel on fire or, even greater, of the missile collapsing in the silo. With tonnes of fuel pouring from the fuel tank and no vent at its top, pressure in the tank would continue to fall. Eventually, it would be below atmospheric pressure, and would be crushed, likely leading the missile to crumple under the weight of the intact and fully loaded first stage oxidiser and second stage tanks. These tanks would then likely be breached, leading to an explosion. No Titan II had ever exploded in a closed silo, so there was no experience as to what the consequences of this might be.

As the night proceeded, all of the Carter era military malaise became evident. The Air Force lied to local law enforcement and media about what was happening, couldn't communicate with first responders, failed to send an evacuation helicopter for a gravely injured person because an irrelevant piece of equipment wasn't available, and could not come to a decision about how to respond as the situation deteriorated. Also on display was the heroism of individuals, in the Air Force and outside, who took matters into their own hands on the spot, rescued people, monitored the situation, evacuated nearby farms in the path of toxic clouds, and improvised as events required.

Among all of this, nothing whatsoever had been done about the situation of the missile. Events inevitably took their course. In the early morning hours of September 19th, the missile collapsed, releasing all of its propellants, which exploded. The 65 tonne silo door was thrown 200 metres, shearing trees in its path. The nuclear warhead was thrown two hundred metres in another direction, coming to rest in a ditch. Its explosives did not detonate, and no radiation was released.

While there were plenty of reasons to worry about nuclear weapons during the Cold War, most people's concerns were about a conflict escalating to the deliberate use of nuclear weapons or the possibility of an accidental war. Among the general public there was little concern about the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in depots, aboard aircraft, atop missiles, or on board submarines—certainly every precaution had been taken by the brilliant people at the weapons labs to make them safe and reliable, right?

Well, that was often the view among “defence intellectuals” until they were briefed in on the highly secret details of weapons design and the command and control procedures in place to govern their use in wartime. As documented in this book, which uses the Damascus accident as a backdrop (a ballistic missile explodes in rural Arkansas, sending its warhead through the air, because somebody dropped a socket wrench), the reality was far from reassuring, and it took decades, often against obstructionism and foot-dragging from the Pentagon, to remedy serious risks in the nuclear stockpile.

In the early days of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, it was assumed that nuclear weapons were the last resort in a wartime situation. Nuclear weapons were kept under the civilian custodianship of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and would only be released to the military services by a direct order from the President of the United States. Further, the nuclear cores (“pits”) of weapons were stored separately from the rest of the weapon assembly, and would only be inserted in the weapon, in the case of bombers, in the air, after the order to deliver the weapon was received. (This procedure had been used even for the two bombs dropped on Japan.) These safeguards meant that the probability of an accidental nuclear explosion was essentially nil in peacetime, although the risk did exist of radioactive contamination if a pit were dispersed due to fire or explosion.

As the 1950s progressed, and fears of a Soviet sneak attack grew, pressure grew to shift the custodianship of nuclear weapons to the military. The development of nuclear tactical and air defence weapons, some of which were to be forward deployed outside the United States, added weight to this argument. If radar detected a wave of Soviet bombers heading for the United States, how practical would it be to contact the President, get him to sign off on transferring the anti-aircraft warheads to the Army and Air Force, have the AEC deliver them to the military bases, install them on the missiles, and prepare the missiles for launch? The missile age only compounded this situation. Now the risk existed for a “decapitation” attack which could take out the senior political and military leadership, leaving nobody with the authority to retaliate.

The result of all this was a gradual devolution of control over nuclear weapons from civilian to military commands, with fully-assembled nuclear weapons loaded on aircraft, sitting at the ends of runways in the United States and Europe, ready to take off on a few minutes' notice. As tensions continued to increase, B-52s, armed with hydrogen bombs, were on continuous “airborne alert”, ready at any time to head toward their targets.

The weapons carried by these aircraft, however, had not been designed for missions like this. They used high explosives which could be detonated by heat or shock, often contained few interlocks to prevent a stray electrical signal from triggering a detonation, were not “one point safe” (guaranteed that detonation of one segment of the high explosives could not cause a nuclear yield), and did not contain locks (“permissive action links”) to prevent unauthorised use of a weapon. Through much of the height of the Cold War, it was possible for a rogue B-52 or tactical fighter/bomber crew to drop a weapon which might start World War III; the only protection against this was rigid psychological screening and the enemy's air defence systems.

The resistance to introducing such safety measures stemmed from budget and schedule pressures, but also from what was called the “always/never” conflict. A nuclear weapon should always detonate when sent on a wartime mission. But it should never detonate under any other circumstances, including an airplane crash, technical malfunction, maintenance error, or through the deliberate acts of an insane or disloyal individual or group. These imperatives inevitably conflict with one another. The more safeguards you design into a weapon to avoid an unauthorised detonation, the greater the probability one of them may fail, rendering the weapon inert. SAC commanders and air crews were not enthusiastic about the prospect of risking their lives running the gauntlet of enemy air defences only to arrive over their target and drop a dud.

As documented here, it was only after the end of Cold War, as nuclear weapon stockpiles were drawn down, that the more dangerous weapons were retired and command and control procedures put into place which seem (to the extent outsiders can assess such highly classified matters) to provide a reasonable balance between protection against a catastrophic accident or unauthorised launch and a reliable deterrent.

Nuclear command and control extends far beyond the design of weapons. The author also discusses in detail the development of war plans, how civilian and military authorities interact in implementing them, how emergency war orders are delivered, authenticated, and executed, and how this entire system must be designed not only to be robust against errors when intact and operating as intended, but in the aftermath of an attack.

This is a serious scholarly work and, at 632 pages, a long one. There are 94 pages of end notes, many of which expand substantially upon items in the main text. A Kindle edition is available.

November 2014 Permalink

Scott, Robert Falcon. Journals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1913, 1914, 1923, 1927] 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-953680-1.
Robert Falcon Scott, leading a party of five men hauling their supplies on sledges across the ice cap, reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912. When he arrived, he discovered a cairn built by Roald Amundsen's party, which had reached the Pole on December 14th, 1911 using sledges pulled by dogs. After this crushing disappointment, Scott's polar party turned back toward their base on the coast. After crossing the high portion of the ice pack (which Scott refers to as “the summit”) without severe difficulties, they encountered unexpected, unprecedented, and, based upon subsequent meteorological records, extremely low temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf (the “Barrier” in Scott's nomenclature). Immobilised by a blizzard, and without food or sufficient fuel to melt ice for water, Scott's party succumbed, with Scott's last journal entry, dated March 29th, 1912.

I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
R. Scott.

For God's sake look after our people.

A search party found the bodies of Scott and the other two members of the expedition who died with him in the tent (the other two had died earlier on the return journey; their remains were never found). His journals were found with him, and when returned to Britain were prepared for publication, and proved a sensation. Amundsen's priority was almost forgotten in the English speaking world, alongside Scott's first-hand account of audacious daring, meticulous planning, heroic exertion, and dignity in the face of death.

A bewildering variety of Scott's journals were published over the years. They are described in detail and their differences curated in this Oxford World's Classics edition. In particular, Scott's original journals contained very candid and often acerbic observations about members of his expedition and other explorers, particularly Shackleton. These were elided or toned down in the published copies of the journals. In this edition, the published text is used, but the original manuscript text appears in an appendix.

Scott was originally considered a hero, then was subjected to a revisionist view that deemed him ill-prepared for the expedition and distracted by peripheral matters such as a study of the embryonic development of emperor penguins as opposed to Amundsen's single-minded focus on a dash to the Pole. The pendulum has now swung back somewhat, and a careful reading of Scott's own journals seems, at least to this reader, to support this more balanced view. Yes, in some ways Scott's expedition seems amazingly amateurish (I mean, if you were planning to ski across the ice cap, wouldn't you learn to ski before you arrived in Antarctica, rather than bring along a Norwegian to teach you after you arrived?), but ultimately Scott's polar party died due to a combination of horrific weather (present-day estimates are that only one year in sixteen has temperatures as low as those Scott experienced on the Ross Ice Shelf) and an equipment failure: leather washers on cans of fuel failed in the extreme temperatures, which caused loss of fuel Scott needed to melt ice to sustain the party on its return. And yet the same failure had been observed during Scott's 1901–1904 expedition, and nothing had been done to remedy it. The record remains ambiguous and probably always will.

The writing, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was done, makes you shiver. At the Pole:

The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.

… Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.

and from his “Message to the Public” written shortly before his death:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

Now that's an explorer.

February 2013 Permalink

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.

May 2007 Permalink

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Touchstone Books, [1959, 1960] 1990. ISBN 978-0-671-72868-7.
According to an apocryphal story, a struggling author asks his agent why his books aren't selling better, despite getting good reviews. The agent replies, “Look, the only books guaranteed to sell well are books about golf, books about cats, and books about Nazis.” Some authors have taken this too much to heart. When this massive cinder block of a book (1250 pages in the trade paperback edition) was published in 1960, its publisher did not believe a book about Nazis (or at least such a long one) would find a wide audience, and ordered an initial print run of just 12,500 copies. Well, it immediately went on to sell more than a million copies in hardback, and then another million in paperback (it was, at the time, the thickest paperback ever published). It has remained in print continuously for more than half a century, has been translated into a number of languages, and at this writing is in the top ten thousand books by sales rank on Amazon.com.

The author did not just do extensive research on Nazi Germany, he lived there from 1934 through 1940, working as a foreign correspondent based in Berlin and Vienna. He interviewed many of the principals of the Nazi regime and attended Nazi rallies and Hitler's Reichstag speeches. He was the only non-Nazi reporter present at the signing of the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940, and broke the news on CBS radio six hours before it was announced in Germany. Living in Germany, he was able to observe the relationship between ordinary Germans and the regime, but with access to news from the outside which was denied to the general populace by the rigid Nazi control of information. He left Germany in December 1940 when increasingly rigid censorship made it almost impossible to get accurate reporting out of Germany, and he feared the Gestapo were preparing an espionage case against him.

Shirer remarks in the foreword to the book that never before, and possibly never again, will historians have access to the kind of detailed information on the day-to-day decision making and intrigues of a totalitarian state that we have for Nazi Germany. Germans are, of course, famously meticulous record-keepers, and the rapid collapse and complete capitulation of the regime meant that those voluminous archives fell into the hands of the Allies almost intact. That, and the survival of diaries by a number of key figures in the senior leadership of Germany and Italy, provides a window into what those regimes were thinking as they drew plans which would lead to calamity for Europe and their ultimate downfall. The book is extensively footnoted with citations of primary sources, and footnotes expand upon items in the main text.

This book is precisely what its subtitle, “A History of Nazi Germany”, identifies it to be. It is not, and does not purport to be, an analysis of the philosophical origins of Nazism, investigation of Hitler's personality, or a history of Germany's participation in World War II. The war years occupy about half of the book, but the focus is not on the actual conduct of the war but rather the decisions which ultimately determined its outcome, and the way (often bizarre) those decisions were made. I first read this book in 1970. Rereading it four decades later, I got a great deal more out of it than I did the first time, largely because in the intervening years I'd read many other books about the period which cover aspects of the period which Shirer's pure Germany-focused reportage does not explore in detail.

The book has stood up well to the passage of time. The only striking lacuna is that when the book was written the fact that Britain had broken the German naval Enigma cryptosystem, and was thus able to read traffic between the German admiralty and the U-boats, had not yet been declassified by the British. Shirer's coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic (which is cursory), thus attributes the success in countering the U-boat threat to radar, antisubmarine air patrols, and convoys, which were certainly important, but far from the whole story.

Shirer is clearly a man of the Left (he manages to work in a snarky comment about the Coolidge administration in a book about Nazi Germany), although no fan of Stalin, who he rightly identifies as a monster. But I find that the author tangles himself up intellectually in trying to identify Hitler and Mussolini as “right wing”. Again and again he describes the leftist intellectual and political background of key figures in the Nazi and Fascist movements, and then tries to persuade us they somehow became “right wing” because they changed the colour of their shirts, even though the official platform and policies of the Nazi and Fascist regimes differed only in the details from those of Stalin, and even Stalin believed, by his own testimony, that he could work with Nazi Germany to the mutual benefit of both countries. It's worth revisiting Liberal Fascism (January 2008) for a deeper look at how collectivism, whatever the colour of the shirts or the emblem on the flags, stems from the same intellectual roots and proceeds to the same disastrous end point.

But these are quibbles about a monument of twentieth century reportage which has the authenticity of having been written by an eyewitness to many of the events described therein, the scholarship of extensive citations and quotations of original sources, and accessibility to the general reader. It is a classic which has withstood the test of time, and if I'm still around forty years hence, I'm sure I'll enjoy reading it a third time.

October 2010 Permalink

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man. New York: Harper Perennial, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-093642-6.
The conventional narrative of the Great Depression and New Deal is well-defined, and generations have been taught the story of how financial hysteria and lack of regulation led to the stock market crash of October 1929, which tipped the world economy into depression. The do-nothing policies of Herbert Hoover and his Republican majority in Congress allowed the situation to deteriorate until thousands of banks had failed, unemployment rose to around a quarter of the work force, collapsing commodity prices bankrupted millions of farmers, and world trade and credit markets froze, exporting the Depression from the U.S. to developed countries around the world. Upon taking office in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt embarked on an aggressive program of government intervention in the economy, going off the gold standard, devaluing the dollar, increasing government spending and tax rates on corporations and the wealthy by breathtaking amounts, imposing comprehensive regulation on every aspect of the economy, promoting trade unions, and launching public works and job creation programs on a massive scale. Although neither financial markets nor unemployment recovered to pre-crash levels, and full recovery did not occur until war production created demand for all industry could produce, at least FDR's New Deal kept things from getting much worse, kept millions from privation and starvation, and just possibly, by interfering with the free market in ways never before imagined in America, preserved it, and democracy, from the kind of revolutionary upheaval seen in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Germany. The New Deal pitted plutocrats, big business, and Wall Street speculators against the “forgotten man”—the people who farmed their land, toiled in the factories, and strove to pay their bills and support their families and, for once, allied with the Federal Government, the little guys won.

This is a story of which almost any student having completed an introductory course in American history can recount the key points. It is a tidy story, an inspiring one, and both a justification for an activist government and demonstration that such intervention can work, even in the most dire of economic situations. But is it accurate? In this masterful book, based largely on primary and often contemporary sources, the author makes a forceful argument that is is not—she does not dispute the historical events, most of which did indeed occur as described above, but rather the causal narrative which has been erected, largely after the fact, to explain them. Looking at what actually happened and when, the tidily wrapped up package begins to unravel and discordant pieces fall out.

For example, consider the crash of 1929. Prior to the crash, unemployment was around three percent (the Federal Government did not compile unemployment figures at the time, and available sources differ in methodology and hence in the precise figures). Following the crash, unemployment began to rise steeply and had reached around 9% by the end of 1929. But then the economy began to recover and unemployment fell. President Hoover was anything but passive: the Great Engineer launched a flurry of initiatives, almost all disastrously misguided. He signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (over the objection of an open letter signed by 1,028 economists and published in the New York Times). He raised taxes and, diagnosing the ills of the economy as due to inflation, encouraged the Federal Reserve to contract the money supply. To counter falling wages, he jawboned industry leaders to maintain wage levels which predictably resulted in layoffs instead of reduced wages. It was only after these measures took hold that the economy, which before seemed to be headed into a 1921-like recession, nosed over and began to collapse toward the depths of the Depression.

There was a great deal of continuity between the Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations. Roosevelt did not rescind Hoover's disastrous policies, but rather piled on intrusive regulation of agriculture and industry, vastly increased Federal spending (he almost doubled the Federal budget in his first term), increased taxes to levels before unimaginable in peacetime, and directly attacked private enterprise in sectors such as electrical power generation and distribution, which he felt should be government enterprises. Investment, the author contends, is the engine of economic recovery, and Roosevelt's policies resulted in a “capital strike” (a phrase used at the time), as investors weighed their options and decided to sit on their money. Look at this way: suppose you're a plutocrat and have millions at your disposal. You can invest them in a business, knowing that if the business fails you're out your investment, but that if it generates a profit the government will tax away more than 75% of your gains. Or, you can put your money in risk- and tax-free government bonds and be guaranteed a return. Which would you choose?

The story of the Great Depression is told largely by following a group of individuals through the era. Many of the bizarre aspects of the time appear here: Father Divine; businesses and towns printing their own scrip currency; the Schechter Brothers kosher poultry butchers taking on FDR's NRA and utterly defeating it in the Supreme Court; the prosecution of Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary to three Presidents, for availing himself of tax deductions the government admitted were legal; and utopian “planned communities” such as Casa Grande in Arizona, where displaced farmers found themselves little more than tenants in a government operation resembling Stalin's collective farms.

From the tone of some of the reaction to the original publication of this book, you might think it a hard-line polemic longing to return to the golden days of the Coolidge administration. It is nothing of the sort. This is a fact-based re-examination of the Great Depression and the New Deal which, better than any other book I've read, re-creates the sense of those living through it, when nobody really understood what was happening and people acting with the best of intentions (and the author imputes nothing else to either Hoover or Roosevelt) could not see what the consequences of their actions would be. In fact, Roosevelt changed course so many times that it is difficult to discern a unifying philosophy from his actions—sadly, this very pragmatism created an uncertainty in the economy which quite likely lengthened and deepened the Depression. This paperback edition contains an afterword in which the author responds to the principal criticisms of the original work.

It is hard to imagine a more timely book. Since this book was published, the U.S. have experienced a debt crisis, real estate bubble collapse, sharp stock market correction, rapidly rising unemployment and economic contraction, with an activist Republican administration taking all kinds of unprecedented actions to try to avert calamity. A Democratic administration, radiating confidence in itself and the power of government to make things better, is poised to take office, having promised programs in its electoral campaign which are in many ways reminiscent of those enacted in FDR's “hundred days”. Apart from the relevance of the story to contemporary events, this book is a pure delight to read.

December 2008 Permalink

Siddiqi, Asif A. Challenge to Apollo. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000. NASA SP-2000-4408.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, accounts of the Soviet space program were a mix of legend, propaganda, speculations by Western analysts, all based upon a scanty collection of documented facts. The 1990s saw a wealth of previously secret information come to light (although many primary sources remain unavailable), making it possible for the first time to write an authoritative scholarly history of Soviet space exploration from the end of World War II through the mid-1970s; this book, published by the NASA History Division in 2000, is that history.

Whew! Many readers are likely to find that reading this massive (1011 7×14 cm pages, 1.9 kg) book cover to cover tells them far, far more about the Soviet space effort than they ever wanted to know. I bought the book from the U.S. Government Printing Office when it was published in 2000 and have been using it as a reference since then, but decided finally, as the bloggers say, to “read the whole thing”. It was a chore (it took me almost three weeks to chew through it), but ultimately rewarding and enlightening.

Back in the 1960s, when observers in the West pointed out the failure of the communist system to feed its own people or provide them with the most basic necessities, apologists would point to the successes of the Soviet space program as evidence that central planning and national mobilisation in a military-like fashion could accomplish great tasks more efficiently than the chaotic, consumer-driven market economies of the West. Indeed, with the first satellite, the first man in space, long duration piloted flights, two simultaneous piloted missions, the first spacecraft with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk, the Soviets racked up an impressive list of firsts. The achievements were real, but based upon what we now know from documents released in the post-Soviet era which form the foundation of this history, the interpretation of these events in the West was a stunning propaganda success by the Soviet Union backed by remarkably little substance.

Indeed, in the 1945–1974 time period covered here, one might almost say that the Soviet Union never actually had a space program at all, in the sense one uses those words to describe the contemporary activities of NASA. The early Soviet space achievements were all spin-offs of ballistic missile technology driven by Army artillery officers become rocket men. Space projects, and especially piloted flight, interested the military very little, and the space spectaculars were sold to senior political figures for their propaganda value, especially after the unanticipated impact of Sputnik on world opinion. But there was never a roadmap for the progressive development of space capability, such as NASA had for projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Instead, in most cases, it was only after a public success that designers and politicians would begin to think of what they could do next to top that.

Not only did this supposedly centrally planned economy not have a plan, the execution of its space projects was anything but centralised. Throughout the 1960s, there were constant battles among independent design bureaux run by autocratic chief designers, each angling for political support and funding at the expense of the others. The absurdity of this is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that on November 17th, 1967, six days after the first flight of NASA's Saturn V, the Central Committee issued a decree giving the go-ahead to the Chelomey design bureau to develop the UR-700 booster and LK-700 lunar spacecraft to land two cosmonauts on the Moon, notwithstanding having already spent millions of rubles on Korolev's already-underway N1-L3 project, which had not yet performed its first test flight. Thus, while NASA was checking off items in its Apollo schedule, developed years before, the Soviet Union, spending less than half of NASA's budget, found itself committed to two completely independent and incompatible lunar landing programs, with a piloted circumlunar project based on still different hardware simultaneously under development (p. 645).

The catastrophes which ensued from this chaotic situation are well documented, as well as how effective the Soviets were in concealing all of this from analysts in the West. Numerous “out there” proposed projects are described, including Chelomey's monster UR-700M booster (45 million pounds of liftoff thrust, compared to 7.5 million for the Saturn V), which would send a crew of two cosmonauts on a two-year flyby of Mars in an MK-700 spacecraft with a single launch. The little-known Soviet spaceplane projects are documented in detail.

This book is written in the same style as NASA's own institutional histories, which is to say that much of it is heroically boring and dry as the lunar regolith. Unless you're really into reorganisations, priority shifts, power grabs, and other manifestations of gigantic bureaucracies doing what they do best, you may find this tedious. This is not the fault of the author, but of the material he so assiduously presents. Regrettably, the text is set in a light sans-serif font in which (at least to my eyes) the letter “l” and the digit “1” are indistinguishable, and differ from the letter “I” in a detail I can spot only with a magnifier. This, in a book bristling with near-meaningless Soviet institutional names such as the Ministry of General Machine Building and impenetrable acronyms such as NII-1, TsKBEM (not to be confused with TsKBM) and 11F615, only compounds the reader's confusion. There are a few typographical errors, but none are serious.

This NASA publication was never assigned an ISBN, so looking it up on online booksellers will generally only find used copies. You can order new copies from the NASA Information Center at US$79 each. As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and a scanned online edition (PDF) is available. This is a 64 megabyte download, so unless you have a fast Internet connection, you'll need to be patient. Be sure to download it to a local file as opposed to viewing it in your browser, because otherwise you'll have to download the whole thing each time you open the document.

April 2008 Permalink

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.

November 2007 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. Dragon's Teeth. Vol. 2. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, [1942] 2001. ISBN 978-1-931313-15-5.
This is the second half of the third volume in Upton Sinclair's grand-scale historical novel covering the years from 1913 through 1949. Please see my notes on the first half for details on the series and this novel. The second half, comprising books four through six of the original novel (this is a print on demand facsimile edition, in which each of the original novels is split into two parts due to constraints of the publisher), covers the years 1933 and 1934, as Hitler tightens his grip on Germany and persecution of the Jews begins in earnest.

The playboy hero Lanny Budd finds himself in Germany trying to arrange the escape of Jewish relatives from the grasp of the Nazi tyranny, meets Goebbels, Göring, and eventually Hitler, and discovers the depth of the corruption and depravity of the Nazi regime, and then comes to experience it directly when he becomes caught up in the Night of the Long Knives.

This book was published in January 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor. It is remarkable to read a book written in a time when the U.S. and Nazi Germany were at peace and the swastika flag flew from the German embassy in Washington which got the essence of the Nazis so absolutely correct (especially the corruption of the regime, which was overlooked by so many until Albert Speer's books decades later). This is very much a period piece, and enjoyable in giving a sense of how people saw the events of the 1930s not long after they happened. I'm not, however, inclined to slog on through the other novels in the saga—one suffices for me.

January 2009 Permalink

Sloane, Eric. Diary of an Early American Boy. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1962] 2004. ISBN 0-486-43666-7.
In 1805, fifteen year old Noah Blake kept a diary of his life on a farm in New England. More than a century and a half later, artist, author, and collector of early American tools Eric Sloane discovered the diary and used it as the point of departure for this look at frontier life when the frontier was still in Connecticut. Young Noah was clearly maturing into a fine specimen of the taciturn Yankee farmer—much of the diary reads like:
21: A sour, foggy Sunday.
22: Heavy downpour, but good for the crops.
23: Second day of rain. Father went to work under cover at the mill.
24: Clear day. Worked in the fields. Some of the corn has washed away.
The laconic diary entries are spun into a fictionalised but plausible story of farm life focusing on the self-reliant lifestyle and the tools and techniques upon which it was founded. Noah Blake was atypical in being an only child at a time when large families were the norm; Sloane takes advantage of this in showing Noah learning all aspects of farm life directly from his father. The numerous detailed illustrations provide a delightful glimpse into the world of two centuries ago and an appreciation for the hard work and multitude of skills it took to make a living from the land in those days.

July 2005 Permalink

Sloane, Eric. The Cracker Barrel. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1967] 2005. ISBN 0-486-44101-6.
In the 1960s, artist and antiquarian Eric Sloane wrote a syndicated column of which many of the best are collected in this volume. This is an excellent book for browsing in random order in the odd moment, but like the contents of the eponymous barrel, it's hard to stop after just one, so you may devour the whole thing at one sitting. Hey, at least it isn't fattening!

The column format allowed Sloane to address a variety of topics which didn't permit book-length treatment. There are gems here about word origins, what was good and not so good about “the good old days”, tools and techniques (the “variable wrench” is pure genius), art and the business of being an artist, and much more. Each column is illustrated with one of Sloane's marvelous line drawings. Praise be to Dover for putting this classic back into print where it belongs.

October 2005 Permalink

Smith, Lee. The Strong Horse. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-51611-2.
After the attacks upon the U.S. in September 2001, the author, who had been working as an editor in New York City, decided to find out for himself what in the Arab world could provoke such indiscriminate atrocities. Rather than turn to the works of establishment Middle East hands or radical apologists for Islamist terror, he pulled up stakes and moved to Cairo and later Beirut, spending years there living in the community, meeting people from all walks of life from doormen, cab drivers, students, intellectuals, clerics, politicians, artists, celebrities, and more. This book presents his conclusions in a somewhat unusual form: it is hard to categorise—it's part travelogue; collection of interviews; survey of history, exploration of Arab culture, art, and literature; and geopolitical analysis. What is clear is that this book is a direct assault upon the consensus view of the Middle East among Western policymakers which, if correct (and the author is very persuasive indeed) condemns many of the projects of “democratisation”, “peace processes”, and integration of the nations of the region into a globalised economy to failure; it calls for an entirely different approach to the Arab world, one from which many Western feel-good diplomats and politically correct politicians will wilt in horror.

In short, Smith concludes that the fundamental assumption of the program whose roots can be traced from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush—that all people, and Arabs in particular, strive for individual liberty, self-determination, and a civil society with democratically elected leaders—is simply false: those are conditions which have been purchased by Western societies over centuries at the cost of great bloodshed and suffering by the actions of heroes. This experience has never occurred in the Arab world, and consequently its culture is entirely different. One can attempt to graft the trappings of Western institutions onto an Arab state, but without a fundamental change in the culture, the graft will not take and before long things will be just as before.

Let me make clear a point the author stresses. There is not the slightest intimation in this book that there is some kind of racial or genetic difference (which are the same thing) between Arabs and Westerners. Indeed, such a claim can be immediately falsified by the large community of Arabs who have settled in the West, assimilated themselves to Western culture, and become successful in all fields of endeavour. But those are Arabs, often educated in the West, who have rejected the culture in which they were born, choosing consciously to migrate to a very different culture they find more congenial to the way they choose to live their lives. What about those who stay (whether by preference, or due to lack of opportunity to emigrate)?

No, Arabs are not genetically different in behaviour, but culture is just as heritable as any physical trait, and it is here the author says we must look to understand the region. The essential dynamic of Arab political culture and history, as described by the 14th century Islamic polymath Ibn Khaldun, is that of a strong leader establishing a dynasty or power structure to which subjects submit, but which becomes effete and feckless over time, only to eventually be overthrown violently by a stronger force (often issuing from desert nomads in the Arab experience), which begins the cycle again. The author (paraphrasing Osama bin Laden) calls this the “strong horse” theory: Arab populations express allegiance to the strongest perceived power, and expect changes in governance to come through violent displacement of a weaker existing order.

When you look at things this way, many puzzles regarding the Middle East begin to make more sense. First of all, the great success which imperial powers over the millennia, including the Persian, Ottoman, French, and British empires, have had in subduing and ruling Arabs without substantial internal resistance is explained: the empire was seen as the strong horse and Arab groups accepted subordination to it. Similarly, the ability of sectarian minorities to rule on a long-term basis in modern states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq is explained, as is the great stability of authoritarian regimes in the region—they usually fall only when deposed by an external force or by a military coup, not due to popular uprisings.

Rather than presenting a lengthy recapitulation of the arguments in the book filtered through my own comprehension and prejudices, this time I invite you to read a comprehensive exposition of the author's arguments in his own words, in a transcript of a three hour interview by Hugh Hewitt. If you're interested in the topics raised so far, please read the interview and return here for some closing comments.

Is the author's analysis correct? I don't know—certainly it is at variance with that of a mass of heavy-hitting intellectuals who have studied the region for their entire careers and, if correct, means that much of Western policy toward the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been at best ill-informed and at worst tragically destructive. All of the debate about Islam, fundamentalist Islam, militant Islam, Islamism, Islamofascism, etc., in Smith's view, misses the entire point. He contends that Islam has nothing, or next to nothing, to do with the present conflict. Islam, born in the Arabian desert, simply canonised, with a few minor changes, a political and social regime already extant in Arabia for millennia before the Prophet, based squarely on rule by the strong horse. Islam, then, is not the source of Arab culture, but a consequence of it, and its global significance is as a vector which inoculates Arab governance by the strong horse into other cultures where Islam takes root. The extent to which the Arab culture is adopted depends upon the strength and nature of the preexisting local culture into which Islam is introduced: certainly the culture and politics of Islamic Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are something very different from that of Arab nations, and from each other.

The author describes democracy as “a flower, not a root”. An external strong horse can displace an Arab autocracy and impose elections, a legislature, and other trappings of democracy, but without the foundations of the doctrine of natural rights, the rule of law, civil society, free speech and the tolerance of dissent, freedom of conscience, and the separation of the domain of the state from the life of the individual, the result is likely to be “one person, one vote, one time” and a return to strong horse government as has been seen so many times in the post-colonial era. Democracy in the West was the flowering of institutions and traditions a thousand years in the making, none of which have ever existed in the Arab world. Those who expect democracy to create those institutions, the author would argue, suffer from an acute case of inverting causes and effects.

It's tempting to dismiss Arab culture as described here as “dysfunctional”, but (if the analysis be correct), I don't think that's a fair characterisation. Arab governance looks dysfunctional through the eyes of Westerners who judge it based on the values their own cultures cherish, but then turnabout's fair play, and Arabs have many criticisms of the West which are equally well founded based upon their own values. I'm not going all multicultural here—there's no question that by almost any objective measure such as per capita income; industrial and agricultural output; literacy and education; treatment of women and minorities; public health and welfare; achievements in science, technology, and the arts; that the West has drastically outperformed Arab nations, which would be entirely insignificant in the world economy absent their geological good fortune to be sitting on top of an ocean of petroleum. But again, that's applying Western metrics to Arab societies. When Nasser seized power in Egypt, he burned with a desire to do the will of the Egyptian people. And like so many people over the millennia who tried to get something done in Egypt, he quickly discovered that the will of the people was to be left alone, and the will of the bureaucracy was to go on shuffling paper as before, counting down to their retirement as they'd done for centuries. In other words, by their lights, the system was working and they valued stability over the risks of change. There is also what might be described as a cultural natural selection effect in action here. In a largely static authoritarian society, the ambitious, the risk-takers, and the innovators are disproportionately prone to emigrate to places which value those attributes, namely the West. This deprives those who remain of the élite which might improve the general welfare, resulting in a population even more content with the status quo.

The deeply pessimistic message of this book is that neither wishful thinking, soaring rhetoric, global connectivity, precision guided munitions, nor armies of occupation can do very much to change a culture whose general way of doing things hasn't changed fundamentally in more than two millennia. While change may be possible, it certainly isn't going to happen on anything less than the scale of several generations, and then only if the cultural transmission belt from generation to generation can be interrupted. Is this depressing? Absolutely, but if this is the case, better to come to terms with it and act accordingly than live in a fantasy world where one's actions may lead to catastrophe for both the West and the Arab world.

March 2010 Permalink

Smith, Michael. Station X. New York: TV Books, 1999. ISBN 1-57500-094-6.

July 2001 Permalink

Smith, Michael. The Emperor's Codes. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-55970-568-X.

August 2001 Permalink

Solé, Robert. Le grand voyage de l'obélisque. Paris: Seuil, 2004. ISBN 2-02-039279-8.
No, this is not an Astérix book—it's “obélisque”, not “Obélix”! This is the story of how an obelisk of Ramses II happened to end up in the middle of la Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moving a 22 metre, 220 metric ton chunk of granite from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Seine in the 1830s was not a simple task—it involved a purpose-built ship, an expedition of more than two and a half years with a crew of 121, twelve of whom died in Egypt from cholera and dysentery, and the combined muscle power of 350 artillerymen in Paris to erect the obelisk where it stands today. One has to be impressed with the ancient Egyptians, who managed much the same more than thirty centuries earlier. The book includes a complete transcription and translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions—Ramses II must have set the all-time record for effort expended in publishing banal text.

May 2004 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

July 2005 Permalink

Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-013-1.
This book has the worthy goal of providing a brief, accessible antidote to the airbrushed version of Islam dispensed by its apologists and echoed by the mass media, and the relentlessly anti-Western account of the Crusades indoctrinated in the history curricula of government schools. Regrettably, the attempt falls short of the mark. The tone throughout is polemical—you don't feel like you're reading about history, religion, and culture so much as that the author is trying to persuade you to adopt his negative view of Islam, with historical facts and citations from original sources trotted out as debating points. This runs the risk of the reader suspecting the author of having cherry-picked source material, omitting that which argues the other way. I didn't find the author guilty of this, but the result is that this book is only likely to persuade those who already agree with its thesis before picking it up, which makes one wonder what's the point.

Spencer writes from an overtly Christian perspective, with parallel “Muhammad vs. Jesus” quotes in each chapter, and statements like, “If Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionhearted, and countless others hadn't risked their lives to uphold the honor of Christ and His Church thousands of miles from home, the jihadists would almost certainly have swept across Europe much sooner” (p. 160). Now, there's nothing wrong with comparing aspects of Islam to other religions to counter “moral equivalence” arguments which claim that every religion is equally guilty of intolerance, oppression, and incitement to violence, but the near-exclusive focus on Christianity is likely to be off-putting to secular readers and adherents of other religions who are just as threatened by militant, expansionist Islamic fundamentalism as Christians.

The text is poorly proofread; in several block quotations, words are run together without spaces, three times in as many lines on page 110. In the quote from John Wesley on p. 188, the whole meaning is lost when the phrase “cities razed from the foundation” is written with “raised” instead of “razed”.

The author's earlier Islam Unveiled (February 2003) is similarly flawed in tone and perspective. Had I noticed that this book was by the same author, I wouldn't have read it. It's more to read, but the combination of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002) and Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West (July 2002) will leave you with a much better understanding of the issues than this disappointing effort.

November 2005 Permalink

Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist? Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. ISBN 978-161017-061-1.
In 1851, Ernest Renan wrote that Islam “was born in the full light of history…”. But is this the case? What do we actually know of the origins of Islam, the life of its prophet, and the provenance of its holy book? In this thoroughly researched and documented investigation the author argues that the answer to these questions is very little indeed, and that contemporary evidence for the existence of a prophet in Arabia who proclaimed a scripture, led the believers into battle and prevailed, unifying the peninsula, and lived the life documented in the Muslim tradition is entirely nonexistent during the time of Muhammad's supposed life, and did not emerge until decades, and in many cases, more than a century later. Further, the historical record shows clear signs, acknowledged by contemporary historians, of having been fabricated by rival factions contending for power in the emerging Arab empire.

What is beyond dispute is that in the century and a quarter between A.D. 622 and 750, Arab armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and conquered an empire spanning three continents, propagating a change in culture, governance, and religion which remains in effect in much of that region today. The conventional story is that these warriors were the armies of Islam, following their prophet's command to spread the word of their God and bearing his holy writ, the Qur'an, before them as they imposed it upon those they subdued by the sword. But what is the evidence for this?

When you look for it, it's remarkably scanty. As the peoples conquered by the Arab armies were, in many cases, literate, they have left records of their defeat. And in every case, they speak of the invaders as “Hagarians”, “Ishmaelites”, “Muhajirun”, or “Saracens”, and in none of these records is there a mention of an Arab prophet, much less one named “Muhammad”, or of “Islam”, or of a holy book called the “Qur'an”.

Now, for those who study the historical foundations of Christianity or Judaism, these results will be familiar—when you trace the origins of a great religious tradition back to its roots, you often discover that they disappear into a fog of legend which believers must ultimately accept on faith since historical confirmation, at this remove, is impossible. This has been the implicit assumption of those exploring the historical foundations of the Bible for at least two centuries, but it is considered extremely “edgy” to pose these questions about Islam, even today. This is because when you do, the believers are prone to use edgy weapons to cut your head off. Jews and Christians have gotten beyond this, and just shake their heads and chuckle. So some say it takes courage to raise these questions about Islam. I'd say “some” are the kind of cowards who opposed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, freeing it from the priesthood and placing it in the hands of anybody who could read. And if any throat-slitter should be irritated by these remarks and be inclined to act upon them, be advised that I not only shoot back but, circumstances depending, first.

I find the author's conclusion very plausible. After the Arab conquest, its inheritors found themselves in command of a multicontinental empire encompassing a large number of subject peoples and a multitude of cultures and religious traditions. If you were the ruler of such a newly-cobbled-together empire, wouldn't you be motivated, based upon the experience of those you have subdued, to promulgate a state religion, proclaimed in the language of the conquerer, which demanded submission? Would you not base that religion upon the revelation of a prophet, speaking to the conquerers in their own language, which came directly from God?

It is often observed that Islam, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, is uniquely both a religious and political system, leading inevitably to theocracy (which I've always believed misnamed—I'd have no problem with theocracy: rule by God; it's rule by people claiming to act in His name that always seems to end badly). But what if Islam is so intensely political precisely because it was invented to support a political agenda—that of the Arabic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate? It's not that Islam is political because its doctrine encompasses politics as well as religion; it's that's it's political because it was designed that way by the political rulers who directed the compilation of its sacred books, its traditions, and spread it by the sword to further their imperial ambitions.

July 2012 Permalink

Spira, S. F., Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr., and Jonathan B. Spira. The History of Photography As Seen Through the Spira Collection. Danville, NJ: Aperture, 2001. ISBN 978-0-89381-953-8.
If you perused the back pages of photographic magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, you'll almost certainly recall the pages of advertising from Spiratone, which offered a panoply of accessories and gadgets, many tremendously clever and useful, and some distinctly eccentric and bizarre, for popular cameras of the epoch. The creation of Fred Spira, a refugee from Nazi anschluss Austria who arrived in New York almost penniless, his ingenuity, work ethic, and sense for the needs of the burgeoning market of amateur photographers built what started as a one-man shop into a flourishing enterprise, creating standards such as the “T mount” lenses which persist to the present day. His company was a pioneer in importing high quality photographic gear from Japan and instrumental in changing the reputation of Japan from a purveyor of junk to a top end manufacturer.

Like so many businessmen who succeed to such an extent they redefine the industries in which they participate, Spira was passionate about the endeavour pursued by his customers: in his case photography. As his fortune grew, he began to amass a collection of memorabilia from the early days of photography, and this Spira Collection finally grew to more than 20,000 items, covering the entire history of photography from its precursors to the present day.

This magnificent coffee table book draws upon items from the Spira collection to trace the history of photography from the camera obscura in the 16th century to the dawn of digital photography in the 21st. While the pictures of items from the collection dominate the pages, there is abundant well-researched text sketching the development of photography, including the many blind alleys along the way to a consensus of how images should be made. You can see the fascinating process by which a design, which initially varies all over the map as individual inventors try different approaches, converges upon a standard based on customer consensus and market forces. There is probably a lesson for biological evolution somewhere in this. With inventions which appear, in retrospect, as simple as photography, it's intriguing to wonder how much earlier they might have been discovered: could a Greek artificer have stumbled on the trick and left us, in some undiscovered cache, an image of Pericles making the declamation recorded by Thucydides? Well, probably not—the simplest photographic process, the daguerreotype, requires a plate of copper, silver, and mercury sensitised with iodine. While the metals were all known in antiquity (along with glass production sufficient to make a crude lens or, failing that, a pinhole), elemental iodine was not isolated until 1811, just 28 years before Daguerre applied it to photography. But still, you never know….

This book is out of print, but used copies are generally available for less than the cover price at its publication in 2001.

June 2010 Permalink

Spotts, Frederic. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58567-345-5.
A paperback edition is scheduled to be published in February 2004.

October 2003 Permalink

Spotts, Frederic. The Shameful Peace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-300-13290-8.
Paris between the World Wars was an international capital of the arts such as the world had never seen. Artists from around the globe flocked to this cosmopolitan environment which was organised more around artistic movements than nationalities. Artists drawn to this cultural magnet included the Americans Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, e.e. cummings, Virgil Thomson, and John Dos Passos; Belgians René Magritte and Georges Simenon; the Irish James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; Russians Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Vladimir Nabokov, and Marc Chagall; and Spaniards Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dali, only to mention some of the nationalities and luminaries.

The collapse of the French army and British Expeditionary Force following the German invasion in the spring of 1940, leading to the armistice between Germany and France on June 22nd, turned this world upside down. Paris found itself inside the Occupied Zone, administered directly by the Germans. Artists in the “Zone libre” found themselves subject to the Vichy government's cultural decrees, intended to purge the “decadence” of the interwar years.

The defeat and occupation changed the circumstances of Paris as an artistic capital overnight. Most of the foreign expatriates left (but not all: Picasso, among others, opted to stay), so the scene became much more exclusively French. But remarkably, or maybe not, within a month of the armistice, the cultural scene was back up and running pretty much as before. The theatres, cinemas, concert and music halls were open, the usual hostesses continued their regular soirées with the customary attendees, and the cafés continued to be filled with artists debating the same esoterica. There were changes, to be sure: the performing arts played to audiences with a large fraction of Wehrmacht officers, known Jews were excluded everywhere, and anti-German works were withdrawn by publishers and self-censored thereafter by both authors and publishers in the interest of getting their other work into print.

The artistic milieu, which had been overwhelmingly disdainful of the Third Republic, transferred their scorn to Vichy, but for the most part got along surprisingly well with the occupier. Many attended glittering affairs at the German Institute and Embassy, and fell right in with the plans of Nazi ambassador Otto Abetz to co-opt the cultural élite and render them, if not pro-German, at least neutral to the prospects of France being integrated into a unified Nazi Europe.

The writer and journalist Alfred Fabre-Luce was not alone in waxing with optimism over the promise of the new era, “This will not sanctify our defeat, but on the contrary overcome it. Rivalries between countries, that were such a feature of nineteenth-century Europe, have become passé. The future Europe will be a great economic zone where people, weary of incessant quarrels, will live in security”. Drop the “National” and keep the “Socialist”, and that's pretty much the same sentiment you hear today from similarly-placed intellectuals about the odious, anti-democratic European Union.

The reaction of intellectuals to the occupation varied from enthusiastic collaboration to apathetic self-censorship and an apolitical stance, but rarely did it cross the line into active resistance. There were some underground cultural publications, and some well-known figures did contribute to them (anonymously or under a pseudonym, bien sûr), but for the most part artists of all kinds got along, and adjusted their work to the changed circumstances so that they could continue to be published, shown, or performed. A number of prominent figures emigrated, mostly to the United States, and formed an expatriate French avant garde colony which would play a major part in the shift of the centre of the arts world toward New York after the war, but they were largely politically disengaged while the war was underway.

After the Liberation, the purge (épuration) of collaborators in the arts was haphazard and inconsistent. Artists found themselves defending their work and actions during the occupation before tribunals presided over by judges who had, after the armistice, sworn allegiance to Pétain. Some writers received heavy sentences, up to and including death, while their publishers, who had voluntarily drawn up lists of books to be banned, confiscated, and destroyed got off scot-free and kept right on running. A few years later, as the Trente Glorieuses began to pick up steam, most of those who had not been executed found their sentences commuted and went back to work, although the most egregious collaborators saw their reputations sullied for the rest of their lives. What could not be restored was the position of Paris as the world's artistic capital: the spotlight had moved on to the New World, and New York in particular.

This excellent book stirs much deeper thoughts than just those of how a number of artists came to terms with the occupation of their country. It raises fundamental questions as to how creative people behave, and should behave, when the institutions of the society in which they live are grossly at odds with the beliefs that inform their work. It's easy to say that one should rebel, resist, and throw one's body onto the gears to bring the evil machine to a halt, but it's entirely another thing to act in such a manner when you're living in a city where the Gestapo is monitoring every action of prominent people and you never know who may be an informer. Lovers of individual liberty who live in the ever-expanding welfare/warfare/nanny states which rule most “developed” countries today will find much to ponder in observing the actions of those in this narrative, and may think twice the next time they're advised to “be reasonable; go along: it can't get that bad”.

September 2009 Permalink

Spufford, Francis. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. ISBN 0-571-21496-7.
It is rare to encounter a book about technology and technologists which even attempts to delve into the messy real-world arena where science, engineering, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, and government policy intersect, yet it is there, not solely in the technological domain, that the roots of both great successes and calamitous failures lie. Backroom Boys does just this and pulls it off splendidly, covering projects as disparate as the Black Arrow rocket, Concorde, mid 1980s computer games, mobile telephony, and sequencing the human genome. The discussion on pages 99 and 100 of the dynamics of new product development in the software business is as clear and concise a statement I've seen of the philosophy that's guided my own activities for the past 25 years. While celebrating the technological renaissance of post-industrial Britain, the author retains the characteristic British intellectual's disdain for private enterprise and economic liberty. In chapter 4, he describes Vodaphone's development of the mobile phone market: “It produced a blind, unplanned, self-interested search strategy, capitalism's classic method for exploring a new space in the market where profit may be found.” Well…yes…indeed, but that isn't just “capitalism's” classic method, but the very one employed with great success by life on Earth lo these four and a half billion years (see The Genius Within, April 2003). The wheels fall off in chapter 5. Whatever your position may have been in the battle between Celera and the public Human Genome Project, Spufford's collectivist bias and ignorance of economics (simply correcting the noncontroversial errors in basic economics in this chapter would require more pages than it fills) gets in the way of telling the story of how the human genome came to be sequenced five years before the original estimated date. A truly repugnant passage on page 173 describes “how science should be done”. Taxpayer-funded researchers, a fine summer evening, “floated back downstream carousing, with stubs of candle stuck to the prows, … and the voices calling to and fro across the water as the punts drifted home under the overhanging trees in the green, green, night.“ Back to the taxpayer-funded lab early next morning, to be sure, collecting their taxpayer-funded salaries doing the work they love to advance their careers. Nary a word here of the cab drivers, sales clerks, construction workers and, yes, managers of biotech start-ups, all taxed to fund this scientific utopia, who lack the money and free time to pass their own summer evenings so sublimely. And on the previous page, the number of cells in the adult body of C. elegans is twice given as 550. Gimme a break—everybody knows there are 959 somatic cells in the adult hermaphrodite, 1031 in the male; he's confusing adults with 558-cell newly-hatched L1 larvæ.

May 2004 Permalink

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet. New York: Berkley, 1998. ISBN 0-425-17169-8.

September 2003 Permalink

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-691-14909-7.
As the Allies advanced toward victory against the Axis powers on all fronts in 1944, in Allied capitals thoughts increasingly turned to the postwar world and the institutions which would define it. Plans were already underway to expand the “United Nations” (at the time used as a synonym for the Allied powers) into a postwar collective security organisation which would culminate in the April 1945 conference to draft the charter of that regrettable institution. Equally clamant was the need to define monetary mechanisms which would facilitate free trade.

The classical gold standard, which was not designed but evolved organically in the 19th century as international trade burgeoned, had been destroyed by World War I. Attempts by some countries to reestablish the gold standard after the end of the war led to economic dislocation (particularly in Great Britain), currency wars (competitive devaluations in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage in international trade), and trade wars (erecting tariff or other barriers to trade to protect domestic or imperial markets against foreign competition).

World War II left all of the major industrial nations with the sole exception of the United States devastated and effectively bankrupt. Despite there being respected and influential advocates for re-establishing the classical gold standard (in which national currencies were defined as a quantity of gold, with central banks issuing them willing to buy gold with their currency or exchange their currency for gold at the pegged rate), this was widely believed impossible. Although the gold standard had worked well when in effect prior to World War I, and provided negative feedback which tended to bring the balance of payments among trading partners back into equilibrium and provided a mechanism for countries in economic hard times to face reality and recover by devaluing their currencies against gold, there was one overwhelming practical difficulty in re-instituting the gold standard: the United States had almost all of the gold. In fact, by 1944 it was estimated that the U.S. Treasury held around 78% of all of the world's central bank reserve gold. It is essentially impossible to operate under a gold standard when a single creditor nation, especially one with its industry and agriculture untouched by the war and consequently sure to be the predominant exporter in the years after it ended, has almost all of the world's gold in its vaults already. Proposals to somehow reset the system by having the U.S. transfer its gold to other nations in exchange for their currencies was a non-starter in Washington, especially since many of those nations already owed large dollar-denominated debts to the U.S.

The hybrid gold-exchange standard put into place after World War I had largely collapsed by 1934, with Britain forced off the standard by 1931, followed quickly by 25 other nations. The 1930s were a period of economic depression, collapsing international trade, competitive currency devaluations, and protectionism, hardly a model for a postwar monetary system.

Also in contention as the war drew to its close was the location of the world's financial centre and which currency would dominate international trade. Before World War I, the vast majority of trade cleared through London and was denominated in sterling. In the interwar period, London and New York vied for preeminence, but while Wall Street prospered financing the booming domestic market in the 1920s, London remained dominant for trade between other nations and maintained a monopoly within the British Empire. Within the U.S., while all factions within the financial community wished for the U.S. to displace Britain as the world's financial hub, many New Dealers in Roosevelt's administration were deeply sceptical of Wall Street and “New York bankers” and wished to move decision making to Washington and keep it firmly under government control.

While ambitious plans were being drafted for a global monetary system, in reality there were effectively only two nations at the negotiating table when it came time to create one: Britain and the U.S. John Maynard Keynes, leader of the British delegation, referred to U.S. plans for a broad-based international conference on postwar monetary policy as “a major monkey-house”, with non-Anglo-Saxon delegations as the monkeys. On the U.S. side, there was a three way power struggle among the Treasury Department, the State Department, and the nominally independent Federal Reserve to take the lead in international currency policy.

All of this came to a head when delegates from 44 countries arrived at a New Hampshire resort hotel in July 1944 for the Bretton Woods Conference. The run-up to the conference had seen intensive back-and-forth negotiation between the U.S. and British delegations, both of whom arrived with their own plans, each drafted to give their side the maximum advantage.

For the U.S., Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was the nominal head of the delegation, but having no head for nor interest in details, deferred almost entirely to his energetic and outspoken subordinate Harry Dexter White. The conference became a battle of wits between Keynes and White. While White was dwarfed by Keynes's intellect and reputation (even those who disagreed with his unorthodox economic theories were impressed with his wizardry in financing the British war efforts in both world wars), it was White who held all the good cards. Not only did the U.S. have most of the gold, Britain was entirely dependent upon Lend-Lease aid from the U.S., which might come to an abrupt end when the war was won, and owed huge debts which it could never repay without some concessions from the U.S. or further loans on attractive terms.

Morgenthau and White, with Roosevelt's enthusiastic backing, pressed their case relentlessly. Not only did Roosevelt concur that the world's financial centre should be Washington, he saw an opportunity to break the British Empire, which he detested. Roosevelt remarked to Morgenthau after a briefing, “I had no idea that England was broke. I will go over there and make a couple of talks and take over the British Empire.”

Keynes described an early U.S. negotiating position as a desire by the U.S. to make Britain “lose face altogether and appear to capitulate completely to dollar diplomacy.” And in the end, this is essentially what happened. Morgenthau remarked, “Now the advantage is ours here, and I personally think we should take it,” then later expanded, “If the advantage was theirs, they would take it.”

The system crafted at the conference was formidably complex: only a few delegates completely understood it, and, foreshadowing present-day politics in the U.S., most of the delegations which signed it at the conclusion of the conference had not read the final draft which was thrown together at the last minute. The Bretton Woods system which emerged prescribed fixed exchange rates, not against gold, but rather the U.S. dollar, which was, in turn, fixed to gold. Central banks would hold their reserves primarily in dollars, and could exchange excess dollars for gold upon demand. A new International Monetary Fund (IMF) would provide short-term financing to countries with trade imbalances to allow them to maintain their currency's exchange rate against the dollar, and a World Bank was created to provide loans to support reconstruction after the war and development in poor countries. Finally a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was adopted to reduce trade barriers and promote free trade.

The Bretton Woods system was adopted at a time when the reputation of experts and technocrats was near its peak. Keynes believed that central banking should “be regarded as a kind of beneficent technique of scientific control such as electricity and other branches of science are.” Decades of experience with the ever more centralised and intrusive administrative state has given people today a more realistic view of the capabilities of experts and intellectuals of all kinds. Thus it should be no surprise that the Bretton Woods system began to fall apart almost as soon as it was put in place. The IMF began operations in 1947, and within months a crisis broke out in the peg of sterling to the dollar. In 1949, Britain was forced to devalue the pound 30% against the dollar, and in short order thirty other countries also devalued. The Economist observed:

Not many people in this country believe the Communist thesis that it is the deliberate and conscious aim of American policy to ruin Britain and everything Britain stands for in the world. But the evidence can certainly be read that way. And if every time aid is extended, conditions are attached which make it impossible for Britain to ever escape the necessity of going back for still more aid, to be obtained with still more self-abasement and on still more crippling terms, then the result will certainly be what the Communists predict.

Dollar diplomacy had triumphed completely.

The Bretton Woods system lurched from crisis to crisis and began to unravel in the 1960s when the U.S., exploiting its position of issuing the world's reserve currency, began to flood the world with dollars to fund its budget and trade deficits. Central banks, increasingly nervous about their large dollar positions, began to exchange their dollars for gold, causing large gold outflows from the U.S. Treasury which were clearly unsustainable. In 1971, Nixon “closed the gold window”. Dollars could no longer be redeemed in gold, and the central underpinning of Bretton Woods was swept away. The U.S. dollar was soon devalued against gold (although it hardly mattered, since it was no longer convertible), and before long all of the major currencies were floating against one another, introducing uncertainty in trade and spawning the enormous global casino which is the foreign exchange markets.

A bizarre back-story to the creation of the postwar monetary system is that its principal architect, Harry Dexter White, was, during the entire period of its construction, a Soviet agent working undercover in his U.S. government positions, placing and promoting other agents in positions of influence, and providing a steady stream of confidential government documents to Soviet spies who forwarded them to Moscow. This was suspected since the 1930s, and White was identified by Communist Party USA defectors Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley as a spy and agent of influence. While White was defended by the usual apologists, and many historical accounts try to blur the issue, mentions of White in the now-declassified Venona decrypts prove the issue beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it must be said that White was a fierce and effective advocate at Bretton Woods for the U.S. position as articulated by Morgenthau and Roosevelt. Whatever other damage his espionage may have done, his pro-Soviet sympathies did not detract from his forcefulness in advancing the U.S. cause.

This book provides an in-depth view of the protracted negotiations between Britain and the U.S., Lend-Lease and other war financing, and the competing visions for the postwar world which were decided at Bretton Woods. There is a tremendous amount of detail, and while some readers may find it difficult to assimilate, the economic concepts which underlie them are explained clearly and are accessible to the non-specialist. The demise of the Bretton Woods system is described, and a brief sketch of monetary history after its ultimate collapse is given.

Whenever a currency crisis erupts into the news, you can count on one or more pundits or politicians to proclaim that what we need is a “new Bretton Woods”. Before prescribing that medicine, they would be well advised to learn just how the original Bretton Woods came to be, and how the seeds of its collapse were built in from the start. U.S. advocates of such an approach might ponder the parallels between the U.S. debt situation today and Britain's in 1944 and consider that should a new conference be held, they may find themselves sitting the seats occupied by the British the last time around, with the Chinese across the table.

In the Kindle edition the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly cross-linked to the text.

October 2013 Permalink

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. New York: Perennial, 1999. ISBN 0-380-78862-4.
I've found that I rarely enjoy, and consequently am disinclined to pick up, these huge, fat, square works of fiction cranked out by contemporary super scribblers such as Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling. In each case, the author started out and made their name crafting intricately constructed, tightly plotted page-turners, but later on succumbed to a kind of mid-career spread which yields flabby doorstop novels that give you hand cramps if you read them in bed and contain more filler than thriller. My hypothesis is that when a talented author is getting started, their initial books receive the close attention of a professional editor and benefit from the discipline imposed by an individual whose job is to flense the flab from a manuscript. But when an author becomes highly successful—a “property” who can be relied upon to crank out best-seller after best-seller, it becomes harder for an editor to restrain an author's proclivity to bloat and bloviation. (This is not to say that all authors are so prone, but some certainly are.) I mean, how would you feel giving Tom Clancy advice on the art of crafting thrillers, even though Executive Orders could easily have been cut by a third and would probably have been a better novel at half the size.

This is why, despite my having tremendously enjoyed his earlier Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon sat on my shelf for almost four years before I decided to take it with me on a trip and give it a try. Hey, even later Tom Clancy can be enjoyed as “airplane” books as long as they fit in your carry-on bag! While ageing on the shelf, this book was one of the most frequently recommended by visitors to this page, and friends to whom I mentioned my hesitation to dive into the book unanimously said, “You really ought to read it.” Well, I've finished it, so now I'm in a position to tell you, “You really ought to read it.” This is simply one of the best modern novels I have read in years.

The book is thick, but that's because the story is deep and sprawling and requires a large canvas. Stretching over six decades and three generations, and melding genera as disparate as military history, cryptography, mathematics and computing, business and economics, international finance, privacy and individualism versus the snooper state and intrusive taxation, personal eccentricity and humour, telecommunications policy and technology, civil and military engineering, computers and programming, the hacker and cypherpunk culture, and personal empowerment as a way of avoiding repetition of the tragedies of the twentieth century, the story defies classification into any neat category. It is not science fiction, because all of the technologies exist (or plausibly could have existed—well, maybe not the Galvanick Lucipher [p. 234; all page citations are to the trade paperback edition linked above. I'd usually cite by chapter, but they aren't numbered and there is no table of contents]—in the epoch in which they appear). Some call it a “techno thriller”, but it isn't really a compelling page-turner in that sense; this is a book you want to savour over a period of time, watching the story lines evolve and weave together over the decades, and thinking about the ideas which underlie the plot line.

The breadth of the topics which figure in this story requires encyclopedic knowledge. which the author demonstrates while making it look effortless, never like he's showing off. Stephenson writes with the kind of universal expertise for which Isaac Asimov was famed, but he's a better writer than the Good Doctor, and that's saying something. Every few pages you come across a gem such as the following (p. 207), which is the funniest paragraph I've read in many a year.

He was born Graf Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Otto Friedrich von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, but changed his name to Nigel St. John Gloamthorpby, a.k.a. Lord Woadmire, in 1914. In his photograph, he looks every inch a von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, and he is free of the cranial geometry problem so evident in the older portraits. Lord Woadmire is not related to the original ducal line of Qwghlm, the Moore family (Anglicized from the Qwghlmian clan name Mnyhrrgh) which had been terminated in 1888 by a spectacularly improbable combination of schistosomiasis, suicide, long-festering Crimean war wounds, ball lightning, flawed cannon, falls from horses, improperly canned oysters, and rogue waves.
On p. 352 we find one of the most lucid and concise explanations I've ever read of why it far more difficult to escape the grasp of now-obsolete technologies than most technologists may wish.
(This is simply because the old technology is universally understood by those who need to understand it, and it works well, and all kinds of electronic and software technology has been built and tested to work within that framework, and why mess with success, especially when your profit margins are so small that they can only be detected by using techniques from quantum mechanics, and any glitches vis-à-vis compatibility with old stuff will send your company straight into the toilet.)
In two sentences on p. 564, he lays out the essentials of the original concept for Autodesk, which I failed to convey (providentially, in retrospect) to almost every venture capitalist in Silicon Valley in thousands more words and endless, tedious meetings.
“ … But whenever a business plan first makes contact with the actual market—the real world—suddenly all kinds of stuff becomes clear. You may have envisioned half a dozen potential markets for your product, but as soon as you open your doors, one just explodes from the pack and becomes so instantly important that good business sense dictates that you abandon the others and concentrate all your efforts.”
And how many New York Times Best-Sellers contain working source code (p, 480) for a Perl program?

A 1168 page mass market paperback edition is now available, but given the unwieldiness of such an edition, how much you're likely to thumb through it to refresh your memory on little details as you read it, the likelihood you'll end up reading it more than once, and the relatively small difference in price, the trade paperback cited at the top may be the better buy. Readers interested in the cryptographic technology and culture which figure in the book will find additional information in the author's Cryptonomicon cypher-FAQ.

May 2006 Permalink

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

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

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

September 2005 Permalink

[Audiobook] Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Cæsars. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004. ISBN 978-1-929718-39-9.
Anybody who thinks the classics are dull, or that the cult of celebrity is a recent innovation, evidently must never have encountered this book. Suetonius was a member of the Roman equestrian order who became director of the Imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then personal secretary to his successor, Hadrian. He took advantage of his access to the palace archives and other records to recount the history of Julius Cæsar and the 11 emperors who succeeded him, through Domitian, who was assassinated in A.D. 96, by which time Suetonius was an adult.

Not far into this book, I exclaimed to myself, “Good grief—this is like People magazine!” A bit further on, it became apparent that this Roman bureaucrat had penned an account of his employer's predecessors which was way too racy even for that down-market venue. Suetonius was a prolific writer (most of his work has not survived), and his style and target audience may be inferred from the titles of some of his other books: Lives of Famous Whores, Greek Terms of Abuse, and Physical Defects of Mankind.

Each of the twelve Cæsars is sketched in a quintessentially Roman systematic fashion: according to a template as consistent as a PowerPoint presentation (abbreviated for those whose reigns were short and inconsequential). Unlike his friend and fellow historian of the epoch Tacitus, whose style is, well, taciturn, Suetonius dives right into the juicy gossip and describes it in the most explicit and sensational language imaginable. If you thought the portrayal of Julius and Augustus Cæsar in the television series “Rome” was over the top, if Suetonius is to be believed, it was, if anything, airbrushed.

Whether Suetonius can be believed is a matter of some dispute. From his choice of topics and style, he clearly savoured scandal and intrigue, and may have embroidered upon the historical record in the interest of titillation. He certainly took omens, portents, prophecies, and dreams as seriously as battles and relates them, even those as dubious as marble statues speaking, as if they were documented historical events. (Well, maybe they were—perhaps back then the people running the simulation we're living in intervened more often, before they became bored and left it to run unattended. But I'm not going there, at least here and now….) Since this is the only extant complete history of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, the books of Tacitus covering that period having been lost, some historians have argued that the picture of the decadence of those emperors may have been exaggerated due to Suetonius's proclivity for purple prose.

This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 13 hours and 16 minutes. The 1957 Robert Graves translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin, whose narration of Julius Cæsar's Commentaries (August 2007) I so enjoyed. The Graves translation gives dates in B.C. and A.D. along with the dates by consulships used in the original Latin text. Audio CD and print editions of the same translation are available. The Latin text and a public domain English translation dating from 1913–1914 are available online.

February 2008 Permalink

Sullivan, Robert. Rats. New York: Bloomsbury, [2004] 2005. ISBN 1-58234-477-9.
Here we have one of the rarest phenomena in publishing: a thoroughly delightful best-seller about a totally disgusting topic: rats. (Before legions of rat fanciers write to berate me for bad-mouthing their pets, let me state at the outset that this book is about wild rats, not pet and laboratory rats which have been bred for docility for a century and a half. The new afterword to this paperback edition relates the story of a Brooklyn couple who caught a juvenile Bedford-Stuyvesant street rat to fill the empty cage of their recently deceased pet and, as it it matured, came to regard it with such fear that they were afraid even to release it in a park lest it turn and attack them when the cage was opened—the author suggested they might consider the strategy of “open the cage and run like hell” [p. 225–226]. One of the pioneers in the use of rats in medical research in the early years of the 20th century tried to use wild rats and concluded “they proved too savage to maintain in the laboratory” [p. 231].)

In these pages are more than enough gritty rat facts to get yourself ejected from any polite company should you introduce them into a conversation. Many misconceptions about rats are debunked, including the oft-cited estimate that the rat and human population is about the same, which would lead to an estimate of about eight million rats in New York City—in fact, the most authoritative estimate (p. 20) puts the number at about 250,000 which is still a lot of rats, especially once you begin to appreciate what a single rat can do. (But rat exaggeration gets folks' attention: here is a politician claiming there are fifty-six million rats in New York!) “Rat stories are war stories” (p. 34), and this book teems with them, including The Rat that Came Up the Toilet, which is not an urban legend but a well-documented urban nightmare. (I'd be willing to bet that the incidence of people keeping the toilet lid closed with a brick on the top is significantly greater among readers of this book.)

It's common for naturalists who study an animal to develop sympathy for it and defend it against popular aversion: snakes and spiders, for example, have many apologists. But not rats: the author sums up by stating that he finds them “disgusting”, and he isn't alone. The great naturalist and wildlife artist John James Audubon, one of the rare painters ever to depict rats, amused himself during the last years of his life in New York City by prowling the waterfront hunting rats, having received permission from the mayor “to shoot Rats in the Battery” (p. 4).

If you want to really get to know an animal species, you have to immerse yourself in its natural habitat, and for the Brooklyn-based author, this involved no more than a subway ride to Edens Alley in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed during the year he spent observing rats there. Along with rat stories and observations, he sketches the history of New York City from a ratty perspective, with tales of the arrival of the brown rat (possibly on ships carrying Hessian mercenaries to fight for the British during the War of American Independence), the rise and fall of rat fighting as popular entertainment in the city, the great garbage strike of 1968 which transformed the city into something close to heaven if you happened to be a rat, and the 1964 Harlem rent strike in which rats were presented to politicians by the strikers to acquaint them with the living conditions in their tenements.

People involved with rats tend to be outliers on the scale of human oddness, and the reader meets a variety of memorable characters, present-day and historical: rat fight impresarios, celebrity exterminators, Queen Victoria's rat-catcher, and many more. Among numerous fascinating items in this rat fact packed narrative is just how recent the arrival of the mis-named brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, is. (The species was named in England in 1769, having been believed to have stowed away on ships carrying lumber from Norway. In fact, it appears to have arrived in Britain before it reached Norway.) There were no brown rats in Europe at all until the 18th century (the rats which caused the Black Death were Rattus rattus, the black rat, which followed Crusaders returning from the Holy Land). First arriving in America around the time of the Revolution, the brown rat took until 1926 to spread to every state in the United States, displacing the black rat except for some remaining in the South and West. The Canadian province of Alberta remains essentially rat-free to this day, thanks to a vigorous and vigilant rat control programme.

The number of rats in an area depends almost entirely upon the food supply available to them. A single breeding pair of rats, with an unlimited food supply and no predation or other causes of mortality, can produce on the order of fifteen thousand descendants in a single year. That makes it pretty clear that a rat population will grow until all available food is being consumed by rats (and that natural selection will favour the most aggressive individuals in a food-constrained environment). Poison or trapping can knock down the rat population in the case of a severe infestation, but without limiting the availability of food, will produce only a temporary reduction in their numbers (while driving evolution to select for rats which are immune to the poison and/or more wary of the bait stations and traps).

Given this fact, which is completely noncontroversial among pest control professionals, it is startling that in New York City, which frets over and regulates public health threats like second-hand tobacco smoke while its denizens suffer more than 150 rat bites a year, many to children, smoke-free restaurants dump their offal into rat-infested alleys in thin plastic garbage bags, which are instantly penetrated by rats. How much could it cost to mandate, or even provide, rat-proof steel containers for organic waste, compared to the budget for rodent control and the damages and health hazards of a large rat population? Rats will always be around—in 1936, the president of the professional society for exterminators persuaded the organisation to change the name of the occupation from “exterminator” to “pest control operator”, not because the word “exterminator” was distasteful, but because he felt it over-promised what could actually be achieved for the client (p. 98). But why not take some simple, obvious steps to constrain the rat population?

The book contains more than twenty pages of notes in narrative form, which contain a great deal of additional information you don't want to miss, including the origin of giant inflatable rats for labour rallies, and even a poem by exterminator guru Bobby Corrigan. There is no index.

August 2006 Permalink

Taheri, Amir. The Persian Night. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59403-240-0.
With Iran continuing its march toward nuclear weapons and long range missiles unimpeded by an increasingly feckless West, while simultaneously domestic discontent over the tyranny of the mullahs, economic stagnation, and stolen elections are erupting into bloody violence on the streets of major cities, this book provides a timely look at the history, institutions, personalities, and strategy of what the author dubs the “triple oxymoron”: the Islamic Republic of Iran which, he argues, espouses a bizarre flavour of Islam which is not only a heretical anathema to the Sunni majority, but also at variance with the mainstream Shiite beliefs which predominated in Iran prior to Khomeini's takeover; anything but a republic in any usual sense of the word; and motivated by a global messianic vision decoupled from the traditional interests of Iran as a nation state.

Khomeini's success in wresting control away from the ailing Shah without a protracted revolutionary struggle was made possible by support from “useful idiots” mostly on the political left, who saw Khomeini's appeal to the rural population as essential to gaining power and planned to shove him aside afterward. Khomeini, however, once in power, proved far more ruthless than his coalition partners, summarily putting to death all who opposed him, including many mullahs who dissented from his eccentric version of Islam.

Iran is often described as a theocracy, but apart from the fact that the all-powerful Supreme Guide is nominally a religious figure, the organisation of the government and distribution of power are very much along the lines of a fascist state. In fact, there is almost a perfect parallel between the institutions of Nazi Germany and those of Iran. In Germany, Hitler created duplicate party and state centres of power throughout the government and economy and arranged them in such a way as to ensure that decisions could not be made without his personal adjudication of turf battles between the two. In Iran, there are the revolutionary institutions and those of the state, operating side by side, often with conflicting agendas, with only the Supreme Guide empowered to resolve disputes. Just as Hitler set up the SS as an armed counterpoise to the Wehrmacht, Khomeini created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the revolution's independent armed branch to parallel the state's armed forces.

Thus, the author stresses, in dealing with Iran, it is essential to be sure whether you're engaging the revolution or the nation state: over the history of the Islamic Republic, power has shifted back and forth between the two sets of institutions, and with it Iran's interaction with other players on the world stage. Iran as a nation state generally strives to become a regional superpower: in effect, re-establishing the Persian Empire from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea through vassal regimes. To that end it seeks weapons, allies, and economic influence in a fairly conventional manner. Iran the Islamic revolutionary movement, on the other hand, works to establish global Islamic rule and the return of the Twelfth Imam: an Islamic Second Coming which Khomeini's acolytes fervently believe is imminent. Because they brook no deviation from their creed, they consider Sunni Moslems, even the strict Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia, as enemies which must be compelled to submit to Khomeini's brand of Islam.

Iran's troubled relationship with the United States cannot be understood without grasping the distinction between state and revolution. To the revolution, the U.S. is the Great Satan spewing foul corruption around the world, which good Muslims should curse, chanting “death to America” before every sura of the Koran. Iran the nation state, on the other hand, only wants Washington to stay out of its way as it becomes a regional power which, after all, was pretty much the state of affairs under the Shah, with the U.S. his predominant arms supplier. But the U.S. could never adopt such a strategy as long as the revolution has a hand in policy, nor will Iran's neighbours, terrified of its regional ambitions, encourage the U.S. to keep their hands off.

There is a great deal of conventional wisdom about Iran which is dead wrong, and this book dispels much of it. The supposed “CIA coup” against Mosaddegh in 1953, for which two U.S. presidents have since apologised, proves to have been nothing of the sort (although the CIA did, on occasion, claim credit for it as an example of a rare success amidst decades of blundering), with the U.S. largely supporting the nationalisation of the Iranian oil fields against fierce opposition from Britain. But cluelessness about Iran has never been in short supply among U.S. politicians. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Bill Clinton said:

Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas I subscribe to are defended by a majority.

Lest this be deemed a slip of the tongue due to intoxication by the heady Alpine air of Davos, a few days later on U.S. television he doubled down with:

[Iran is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections…. In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.

I suppose if the U.S. had such an overwhelming “progressive” majority, it too would adopt “liberal” policies such as hanging homosexuals from cranes until they suffocate and stoning rape victims to death. But perhaps Clinton was thinking of Iran's customs of polygamy and “temporary marriage”.

Iran is a great nation which has been a major force on the world stage since antiquity, with a deep cultural heritage and vigorous population who, in exile from poor governance in the homeland, have risen to the top of demanding professions all around the world. Today (as well as much of the last century) Iran is saddled with a regime which squanders its patrimony on a messianic dream which runs the very real risk of igniting a catastrophic conflict in the Middle East. The author argues that the only viable option is regime change, and that all actions taken by other powers should have this as the ultimate goal. Does that mean going to war with Iran? Of course not—the very fact that the people of Iran are already pushing back against the mullahs is evidence they perceive how illegitimate and destructive the present regime is. It may even make sense to engage with institutions of the Iranian state, which will be the enduring foundation of the nation after the mullahs are sent packing, but it it essential that the Iranian people be sent the message that the forces of civilisation are on their side against those who oppress them, and to use the communication tools of this new century (Which country has the most bloggers? The U.S. Number two? Iran.) to bypass the repressive regime and directly address the people who are its victims.

Hey, I spent two weeks in Iran a decade ago and didn't pick up more than a tiny fraction of the insight available here. Events in Iran are soon to become a focus of world attention to an extent they haven't been for the last three decades. Read this book to understand how Iran figures in the contemporary Great Game, and how revolutionary change may soon confront the Islamic Republic.

January 2010 Permalink

Tarnoff, Ben. Moneymakers. New York: Penguin, 2011. ISBN 978-1-101-46732-9.
Many people think of early America as a time of virtuous people, hard work, and sound money, all of which have been debased in our decadent age. Well, there may have been plenty of the first two, but the fact is that from the colonial era through the War of Secession, the American economy was built upon a foundation of dodgy paper money issued by a bewildering variety of institutions. There were advocates of hard money during the epoch, but their voices went largely unheeded because there simply wasn't enough precious metal on the continent to coin or back currency in the quantity required by the burgeoning economy. Not until the discovery of gold in California and silver in Nevada and other western states in the middle of the 19th century did a metal-backed monetary system become feasible in America.

Now, whenever authorities, be they colonies, banks, states, or federal institutions, undertake the economic transubstantiation of paper into gold by printing something on it, there will always be enterprising individuals motivated to get into the business for themselves. This book tells the story of three of these “moneymakers” (as counterfeiters were called in early America).

Owen Sullivan was an Irish immigrant who, in the 1740s and '50s set up shop in a well-appointed cave on the border between New York and Connecticut and orchestrated a network of printers, distributors, and passers of bogus notes of the surrounding colonies. Sullivan was the quintessential golden-tongued confidence man, talking himself out of jam after jam, and even persuading his captors, when he was caught and sentenced to be branded with an “R” for “Rogue” to brand him above the hairline where he could comb over the mark of shame.

So painful had the colonial experience with paper money been that the U.S. Constitution forbade states to “emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”. But as the long and sordid history of “limited government” demonstrates, wherever there is a constitutional constraint, there is always a clever way for politicians to evade it, and nothing in the Constitution prevented states from chartering banks which would then proceed to print their own paper money. When the charter of Alexander Hamilton's First Bank of the United States was allowed to expire, that's exactly what the states proceeded to do. In Pennsylvania alone, in the single year of 1814, the state legislature chartered forty-one new banks in addition to the six already existing. With each of these banks entitled to print its own paper money (backed, in theory, by gold and silver coin in their vaults, with the emphasis on in theory), and each of these notes having its own unique design, this created a veritable paradise for counterfeiters, and into this paradise stepped counterfeiting entrepreneur David Lewis and master engraver Philander Noble, who set up a distributed and decentralised gang to pass their wares which could only be brought to justice by the kind of patient, bottom-up detective work which was rare in an age where law enforcement was largely the work of amateurs.

Samuel Upham, a successful Philadelphia shopkeeper in the 1860s, saw counterfeiting as a new product line for his shop, along with stationery and Upham's Hair Dye. When the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a replica of the Confederate five dollar note, the edition was much in demand at Upham's shop, and he immediately got in touch with the newspaper and arranged to purchase the printing plate for the crude replica of the note and printed three thousand copies with a strip at the bottom identifying them as replicas with the name and address of his store. At a penny a piece they sold briskly, and Upham decided to upgrade and expand his product line. Before long he offered Confederate currency “curios” in all denominations, printed from high quality plates on banknote paper, advertised widely as available in retail and wholesale quantities for those seeking a souvenir of the war (or several thousand of them, if you like). These “facsimiles” were indistinguishable from the real thing to anybody but an expert, and Union troops heading South and merchants trading across the border found Upham's counterfeits easy to pass. Allegations were made that the Union encouraged, aided, and abetted Upham's business in the interest of economic warfare against the South, but no evidence of this was ever produced. Nonetheless, Upham and his inevitable competitors were allowed to operate with impunity, and the flood of bogus money they sent to the South certainly made a major contribution to the rampant inflation experienced in the South and made it more difficult for the Confederacy to finance its war effort.

This is an illuminating and entertaining exploration of banking, finance, and monetary history in what may seem a simpler age but was, in its own way, breathtakingly complicated—at the peak there were more than ten thousand different kinds of paper money circulating in North America. Readers with a sense of justice may find themselves wondering why small-scale operators such as Sullivan and Lewis were tracked down so assiduously and punished so harshly while contemporary manufacturers of funny money on the terabuck scale such as Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and Mario Draghi are treated with respect and deference instead of being dispatched to the pillory and branding iron they so richly deserve for plundering the savings and future of those from whom their salaries are extorted under threat of force. To whom I say, just wait….

A Kindle edition is available, in which the table of contents is linked to the text, but the index is simply a list of terms, not linked to their occurrences in the text. The extensive end notes are keyed to page numbers in the print edition, which are preserved in the Kindle edition, making navigation possible, albeit clumsy.

December 2011 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

May 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
This is the second volume of the audiobook edition of Thucydides's epic history of what was, for Hellenic civilisation, a generation-long world war, describing which the author essentially invented historical narrative as it has been understood ever since. For general comments about the work, see my notes for Volume I.

Although a work of history (albeit with the invented speeches Thucydides acknowledges as a narrative device), this is as much a Greek tragedy as any of the Athenian plays. The war, which began, like so many, over a peripheral conflict between two regional hegemonies, transformed both Athens and Sparta into “warfare states”, where every summer was occupied in military campaigns, and every winter in planning for the next season's conflict. The Melian dialogue, which appears in Book V of the history, is one of the most chilling exemplars of raw power politics ever expressed—even more than two millennia later, it makes the soul shiver and, considering its consequences, makes one sympathetic to those, then and now, who decry the excesses of direct democracy.

Perhaps the massacre of the Melians offended the gods (although Thucydides would never suggest divine influence in the affairs of men), or maybe it was just a symptom of imperial overreach heading directly for the abyss, but not long afterward Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately resulted in a defeat which, on the scale of classical conflict, was on the order of Stalingrad and resulted in the end of democracy in Athens and its ultimate subjugation by Sparta.

Weapons, technologies, and political institutions change, but the humans who invent them are invariant under time translation. There is wisdom in this narrative of a war fought so very long ago which contemporary decision makers on the global stage ignore only at the peril of the lives and fortune entrusted to them by their constituents. If I could put up a shill at the “town hall” meetings of aspiring politicians, I'd like to ask them “Have you read Thucydides?”, and when they predictably said they had, then “Do you approve of the Athenian democracy's judgement as regards the citizens of Melos?”

This recording includes the second four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided. The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 11 hours and 29 minutes with an epilogue describing the events which occurred after the extant text of Thucydides ends in mid-paragraph whilst describing events of 410 B.C., six years before the end of the war. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

August 2008 Permalink

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Hitler's War Directives. Edinburgh: Birlinn, [1964] 2004. ISBN 978-1-84341-014-10.
This book, originally published in 1964, contains all of Adolf Hitler's official decrees on the prosecution of the European war, from preparations for the invasion of Poland in 1939 to his final exhortation to troops on the Eastern Front of 15th April 1945 to stand in place or die. The author introduces each of the translated orders with an explanation of the situation at the time, and describes subsequent events. A fifteen page introduction explains the context of these documents and the structure of the organisations to which they were directed.

For those familiar with the history of the period, there are few revelations to be gained from these documents. It is interesting to observe the extent to which Hitler was concerned with creating and substantiating the pretexts for his aggression in both the East and West, and also how when the tide turned and the Wehrmacht was rolled back from Stalingrad to Berlin, he focused purely upon tactical details, never seeming to appreciate (at least in these orders to the military, state, and party) the inexorable disaster consuming them all.

As these are decrees at the highest level, they are largely composed of administrative matters and only occasionally discuss operational items; as such one's eyes may glaze over reading too much in one sitting. The bizarre parallel structure of state and party created by Hitler is evident in a series of decrees issued during the defensive phase of the war in which essentially the same orders were independently issued to state and party leaders, subordinating each to military commanders in battle areas. As the Third Reich approached collapse, the formal numbering of orders was abandoned, and senior military commanders issued orders in Hitler's name. These are included here using a system of numbering devised by the author. Appendices include lists of code names for operations, abbreviations, and people whose names appear in the orders.

If you aren't well-acquainted with the history of World War II in Europe, you'll take away little from this work. While the author sketches the history of each order, you really need to know the big picture to understand the situation the Germans faced and what they knew at the time to comprehend the extent to which Hitler's orders evidenced cunning or denial. Still, one rarely gets the opportunity to read the actual operational orders issued during a major conflict which ended in annihilation for the person giving them and the nation which followed him, and this book provides a way to understand how ambition, delusion, and blind obedience can lead to tragic catastrophe.

January 2009 Permalink

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of the Prussian General Staff and architect of modern German military strategy, wrote “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”, an observation which is often paraphrased as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. This is doubtless the case, but as this classic history of the diplomatic run-up to World War I and the initial hostilities from the outbreak of the war through the First Battle of the Marne demonstrates, plans, treaties, and military and political structures put into place long before open conflict erupts can tie the hands of decision makers long after events have proven them obsolete.

I first read this book in the 1980s, and I found upon rereading it now with the benefit of having since read a number of other accounts of the period, both contemporary and historical, that I'd missed or failed to fully appreciate some important points on the first traverse.

The first is how crunchy and rigid the system of alliances among the Great Powers was in the years before the War, and also the plans of mobilisation of the land powers: France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Viewed from a prewar perspective many thought these arrangements were guarantors of security: creating a balance of power in which the ultimate harm to any aggressor was easily calculated to be far greater than any potential gain, especially as their economies became increasingly interlinked and dependent upon international trade. For economic reasons alone, any war was expected to be short—no power was believed to have the resources to sustain a protracted conflict once its trade was disrupted by war. And yet this system, while metastable near the local minimum it occupied since the 1890s, proved highly unstable to perturbations which dislodged it from that perch. The mobilisation plans of the land powers (Britain, characteristically, had no such plan and expected to muddle through based upon events, but as the preeminent sea power with global obligations it was, in a sense, perpetually mobilised for naval conflicts) were carefully choreographed at the level of detail of railroad schedules. Once the “execute” button was pushed, events would begin to occur on a nationwide scale: call-ups of troops, distribution of supplies from armories, movement of men and munitions to assembly points, rationing of key supplies, etc. Once one nation had begun to mobilise, its potential opponents ran an enormous risk if they did not also mobilise—every day they delayed was a day the enemy, once assembled in battle order, could attack them before their own preparations were complete.

This interlocking set of alliances and scripted mobilisation plans finally proved lethal in 1914. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and began mobilisation. Russia, as an ally of Serbia and seeing its position in the Balkans threatened, declared a partial mobilisation on July 29. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary and threatened by the Russian mobilisation, decreed its own mobilisation on July 30. France, allied with Russia and threatened by Germany, began mobilisation on August 1st. Finally, Britain, allied with France and Russia, declared war on Germany on August 4th. Europe, at peace the morning of Tuesday, July 28th, was, by the evening of Tuesday, August 4th, at war with itself, almost entirely due to treaties and mobilisation plans concluded in peacetime with the best of intentions, and not overt hostilities between any of the main powers involved.

It is a commonplace that World War I surpassed all historical experience and expectations at its outbreak for the scale of destruction and the brutality of the conflict (a few prescient observers who had studied the second American war of secession and developments in weaponry since then were not surprised, but they were in the minority), but this is often thought to have emerged in the period of static trench warfare which predominated from 1915 until the very end of the war. But this account makes clear that even the initial “war of maneuver” in August and September 1914 was characterised by the same callous squandering of life by commanders who adhered to their pre-war plans despite overwhelming evidence from the field that the assumptions upon which they were based were completely invalid. Both French and German commanders sent wave after wave of troops armed only with bolt-action rifles and bayonets against fortified positions with artillery and machine guns, suffering tens of thousands of casualties (some units were almost completely wiped out) with no effect whatsoever. Many accounts of World War I portray the mindless brutality of the conflict as a product of the trenches, but it was there from the very start, inherent in the prevailing view that the citizen was the property of the state to expend as it wished at the will of the ruling class (with the exception of the British, all armies in the conflict were composed largely of conscripts).

Although originally published almost half a century ago, this book remains one of the definitive accounts of the origins of World War I and the first month of the conflict, and one of outstanding literary merit (it is a Pulitzer prize winner). John F. Kennedy read the book shortly after its publication, and it is said to have made such an impression upon him that it influenced his strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, seeking to avoid actions which could trigger the kind of reciprocal automatic responses which occurred in the summer of 1914. Those who bewail the soggy international institutions and arrangements of the present day, where nothing is precisely as it seems and every commitment is balanced with a dozen ways to wiggle out of it, may find this book a cautionary tale of the alternative, and how a crunchy system of alliances may be far more dangerous. While reading the narrative, however, I found myself thinking not so much about diplomacy and military matters but rather how much today's globalised economic and financial system resembles the structure of the European great powers in 1914. Once again we hear that conflict is impossible because the damage to both parties would be unacceptable; that the system can be stabilised by “interventions” crafted by wise “experts”; that entities which are “too big to fail”, simply by being so designated, will not; and that the system is ultimately stable against an unanticipated perturbation which brings down one part of the vast interlocking structure. These beliefs seem to me, like those of the political class in 1914, to be based upon hope rather than evidence, and anybody interested in protecting their assets should think at some length about the consequences should one or more of them prove wrong.

October 2011 Permalink

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988, 1994] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
One hundred years ago the world was on the brink of a cataclysmic confrontation which would cause casualties numbered in the tens of millions, destroy the pre-existing international order, depose royalty and dissolve empires, and plant the seeds for tyrannical regimes and future conflicts with an even more horrific toll in human suffering. It is not exaggeration to speak of World War I as the pivotal event of the 20th century, since so much that followed can be viewed as sequelæ which can be traced di