2011  

January 2011

Grisham, John. The Confession. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52804-7.
Just days before the scheduled execution of Donté Drumm, a black former high school football star who confessed (during a highly dubious and protracted interrogation) to the murder of white cheerleader Nicole Yarber, a serial sex offender named Travis Boyette, recently released to a nearby halfway house, shows up in the office of Lutheran pastor Keith Schroeder and, claiming to be dying of an inoperable brain tumour, confesses to the murder and volunteers to go to Texas to take responsibility for the crime, reveal where he buried the victim's body (which was never found), and avert the execution of Donté. Schroeder is placed in a near-impossible dilemma: he has little trust in the word of Boyette, whose erratic behaviour is evident from the outset, and even less desire to commit a crime assisting Boyette in violating his parole by leaving the state to travel to Texas, but he knows that if what Boyette says is true and he fails to act, an innocent man is certain to be killed by the state.

Schroeder decides to do what he can to bring Boyette's confession to the attention of the authorities in Texas, and comes into direct contact with the ruthless efficiency of the Texas killing machine. This is a story with many twists, turns, surprises, and revelations, and there's little I can say about it without spoiling the plot, so I'll leave it at that. Grisham is clearly a passionate opponent of the death penalty, and this is as much an advocacy document as a thriller. The victim's family is portrayed in an almost cartoon-like fashion, exploiting an all-too-willing media with tears and anguish on demand, and the police, prosecutors, court system, and politicians as uniformly venal villains, while those on the other side are flawed, but on the side of right. Now, certainly, there are without doubt people just as bad and as good on the sides of the issue where Grisham places them, but I suspect that most people in those positions in the real world are conflicted and trying to do their best to obtain justice for all concerned.

Taken purely as a thriller, this novel works, but in my opinion it doesn't come up to the standard set by Grisham's early work. The arcana of the law and the legal system, which Grisham excels in working into his plots, barely figure here, with racial tensions, a media circus, and a Texas town divided into two camps taking centre stage.

A mass market paperback edition will be released in July, 2011. A Kindle edition is available, and substantially less expensive than the hardcover.

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Aldrin, Buzz. Magnificent Desolation. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4088-0416-2.
What do you do with the rest of your life when you were one of the first two humans to land on the Moon before you celebrated your fortieth birthday? This relentlessly candid autobiography answers that question for Buzz Aldrin (please don't write to chastise me for misstating his name: while born as Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., he legally changed his name to Buzz Aldrin in 1979). Life after the Moon was not easy for Aldrin. While NASA trained their astronauts for every imaginable in-flight contingency, they prepared them in no way for their celebrity after the mission was accomplished, and detail-oriented engineers were suddenly thrust into the public sphere, sent as goodwill ambassadors around the world with little or no concern for the effects upon their careers or family lives.

All of this was not easy for Aldrin, and in this book he chronicles his marriages (3), divorces (2), battles against depression and alcoholism, search for a post-Apollo career, which included commanding the U.S. Air Force test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, writing novels, serving as a corporate board member, and selling Cadillacs. In the latter part of the book he describes his recent efforts to promote space tourism, develop affordable private sector access to space, and design an architecture which will permit exploration and exploitation of the resources of the Moon, Mars and beyond with budgets well below those of the Apollo era.

This book did not work for me. Buzz Aldrin has lived an extraordinary life: he developed the techniques for orbital rendezvous used to this day in space missions, pioneered underwater neutral buoyancy training for spacewalks then performed the first completely successful extra-vehicular activity on Gemini 12, demonstrating that astronauts can do useful work in the void, and was the second man to set foot on the Moon. But all of this is completely covered in the first three chapters, and then we have 19 more chapters describing his life after the Moon. While I'm sure it's fascinating if you've lived though it yourself, it isn't necessarily all that interesting to other people. Aldrin comes across as, and admits to being, self-centred, and this is much in evidence here. His adventures, ups, downs, triumphs, and disappointments in the post-Apollo era are those that many experience in their own lives, and I don't find them compelling to read just because the author landed on the Moon forty years ago.

Buzz Aldrin is not just an American hero, but a hero of the human species: he was there when the first naked apes reached out and set foot upon another celestial body (hear what he heard in his headphones during the landing). His life after that epochal event has been a life well-lived, and his efforts to open the high frontier to ordinary citizens are to be commended. This book is his recapitulation of his life so far, but I must confess I found the post-Apollo narrative tedious. But then, they wouldn't call him Buzz if there wasn't a buzz there! Buzz is 80 years old and envisions living another 20 or so. Works for me: I'm around 60, so that gives me 40 or so to work with. Given any remotely sane space policy, Buzz could be the first man to set foot on Mars in the next 15 years, and Lois could be the first woman. Maybe I and the love of my life will be among the crew to deliver them their supplies and the essential weasels for their planetary colonisation project.

A U.S. edition is available.

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Suarez, Daniel. Freedom™. New York: Signet, 2010. ISBN 978-0-451-23189-5.
You'll see this book described as the sequel to the author's breakthrough first novel Daemon (August 2010), but in fact this is the second half of a long novel which happened to be published in two volumes. As such, if you pick up this book without having read Daemon, you will have absolutely no idea what is going on, who the characters are, and why they are motivated to do the things they do. There is little or no effort to fill in the back story or bring the reader up to speed. So read Daemon first, then this book, ideally not too long afterward so the story will remain fresh in your mind. Since that's the way the author treats these two books, I'm going to take the same liberty and assume you've read my review of Daemon to establish the context for these remarks.

The last two decades have demonstrated, again and again, just how disruptive ubiquitous computing and broadband data networks can be to long-established and deeply entrenched industries such as book publishing and distribution, music recording and retailing, newspapers, legacy broadcast media, domestic customer service call centres, travel agencies, and a host of other businesses which have seen their traditional business models supplanted by something faster, more efficient, and with global reach. In this book the author explores the question of whether the fundamental governance and economic system of the last century may be next domino to fall, rendered impotent and obsolete and swept away by a fundamentally new way of doing things, impossible to imagine in the pre-wired world, based on the principles used in massively multiplayer online game engines and social networks.

Of course, governments and multinational corporations are not going to go gently into the night, and the Daemon (a distributed mesh networked game engine connected to the real world) and its minions on the “darknet” demonstrate the ruthlessness of a machine intelligence when threatened, which results in any number of scenes just begging to be brought to the big screen. In essence, the Daemon is creating a new operating system for humans, allowing them to interact in ways less rigid, more decentralised and resilient, and less hierarchical than the institutions they inherited from an era when goods and information travelled no faster than a horse.

In my estimation, this is a masterwork: the first compelling utopian/dystopian (depending on how you look at it, which is part of its genius) novel of the Internet era. It is as good, in its own way, as Looking Backward, Brave New World, or 1984, and it is a much more thrilling read than any of them. Like those classics, Suarez gets enough of the details right that you find yourself beginning to think that things might actually turn out something like this, and what kind of a world it would be to live in were that to happen.

Ray Kurzweil argues that The Singularity Is Near. In this novel, the author gets the reader to wonder whether it might not be a lot closer than Kurzweil envisions, and not require the kind of exponential increase in computing power he assumes to be the prerequisite. Might the singularity—a phase transition in the organisation of human society as profound as the discovery of agriculture—actually be about to happen in the next few years, not brought about by superhuman artificial intelligence but rather the synthesis of and interconnection of billions of human intelligences connected by a “social network” encompassing all of society? (And if you think sudden transitions like that can't happen, just ask anybody who used to own a record store or the boss of a major newspaper.) Would this be a utopian solution to a system increasingly perceived as unsustainable and inexorably crushing individuality and creativity, or would it be a descent into a potentially irreversible dark age in which humans would end up as peripherals in a vast computing grid using them to accomplish its own incomprehensible agenda? You'll probably close this book undecided on that question, and spend a good deal of time afterward pondering it. That is what makes this novel so great.

If the author can continue to rise to this standard in subsequent novels, we have a new grandmaster on the scene.

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Taylor, Travis S. and Les Johnson. Back to the Moon. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3405-4.
Don't you just hate it when you endure the protracted birthing process of a novel set in the near future and then, with the stroke of a politician's pen, the entire premise of the story goes ker-plonk into the dustbin of history? Think about the nuclear terror novel set in the second Carter administration, or all of the Cold War thrillers in the publishing pipeline that collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Well, that's more or less what we have here. This novel is set in, shall we say, the 2020s in a parallel universe where NASA's Constellation program (now cancelled in our own timeline) remained on track and is ready to launch its first mission to return humans to the Moon. Once again, there is a Moon race underway: this time a private company, Space Excursions, hopes to be the first enterprise to send paying passengers on a free return loop around the Moon, while the Chinese space agency hopes to beat NASA to the Moon with their own landing mission.

Space Excursions is ready to win the race with their (technologically much less demanding) mission then discovers, to the horror of their passengers and the world, that a secret Chinese landing mission has crashed near the lunar limb, and the Chinese government has covered up the disaster and left their taikonauts to die unmourned to avoid their space program's losing face. Bill Stetson (try to top that for a Texas astronaut name!), commander of the soon-to-launch NASA landing mission, realises that his flight can be re-purposed into a rescue of the stranded Chinese, and the NASA back-room experts, with the clock ticking on the consumables remaining in the Chinese lander, devise a desperate but plausible plan to save them.

Thus, the first U.S. lunar mission since Apollo 17 launches with an entirely different flight plan than that envisioned and for which the crew trained. Faced with a crisis, the sclerotic NASA bureaucracy is jolted back into the “make it so” mindset they exemplified in returning the crew of Apollo 13 safely to the Earth. In the end, it takes co-operation between NASA, the Chinese space agency, and Space Excursions, along with intrepid exploits by spacemen and -women of all of those contenders in Moon Race II to pull off the rescue, leading one to wonder “why can't we all get along?”

Do not confuse this novel with the laughably inept book with the same title by Homer Hickam (April 2010). This isn't remotely as bad, but then it isn't all that good either. I don't fault it for describing a NASA program which was cancelled while the novel was in press—author Taylor vents his frustration over that in an afterword included here. What irritates me is how many essential details the authors got wrong in telling the story. They utterly mis-describe the configuration of the Constellation lunar spacecraft, completely forgetting the service module of the Orion spacecraft, which contains the engine used to leave lunar orbit and to which the solar arrays are attached. They assume the ascent stage of the Altair lunar lander remains attached to the Orion during the return from the Moon, which is insane from a mass management standpoint. Their use of terminology is just sloppy, confusing orbital and escape velocity, trans-lunar injection with lunar orbit insertion maneuvers, and a number of other teeth-grinding goofs. The orbital mechanics are a thing of fantasy: spacecraft perform plane change maneuvers which no chemical rocket could possibly execute, and the Dreamscape lunar flyby tourist vehicle is said to brake with rockets into Earth orbit before descending for a landing which is energetically and mass budget wise crazy as opposed to a direct aerobraking entry.

What is odd is that author Taylor has a doctorate in science and engineering and has worked on NASA and DOD programs for two decades, and author Johnson works for NASA. NASA is rife with science fiction fans—SF is the “literature of recruitment” for NASA. Without a doubt, hundreds of NASA people intimately acquainted with the details of the Constellation Program would have been thrilled at the chance to review and fact-check this manuscript (especially because it portrays their work in an adulatory light), and almost none of the revisions required to get it right would have had any significant impact upon the story. (The heat shield repair is an exception, but I could scribble a more thrilling chapter about doing that after jettisoning the service module with the Earth looming nearer and nearer than the one in this novel.)

This is a well-crafted thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny if you really understand orbital mechanics or the physical constraints in going to the Moon. What is regrettable is that all of the goofs could have been remedied without compromising the story in any way.

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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.

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Bethell, Tom. Questioning Einstein. Pueblo West, CO: Vales Lake Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-971-48459-7.
Call it my guilty little secret. Every now and then, I enjoy nothing more than picking up a work of crackpot science, reading it with the irony lobe engaged, and figuring out precisely where the author went off the rails and trying to imagine how one might explain to them the blunders which led to the poppycock they expended so much effort getting into print. In the field of physics, for some reason Einstein's theory of special relativity attracts a disproportionate number of such authors, all bent on showing that Einstein was wrong or, in the case of the present work's subtitle, asking “Is Relativity Necessary?”. With a little reflexion, this shouldn't be a surprise: alone among major theories of twentieth century physics, special relativity is mathematically accessible to anybody acquainted with high school algebra, and yet makes predictions for the behaviour of objects at high velocity which are so counterintuitive to the expectations based upon our own personal experience with velocities much smaller than that they appear, at first glance, to be paradoxes. Theories more dubious and less supported by experiment may be shielded from crackpots simply by the forbidding mathematics one must master in order to understand and talk about them persuasively.

This is an atypical exemplar of the genre. While most attacks on special relativity are written by delusional mad scientists, the author of the present work, Tom Bethell, is a respected journalist whose work has been praised by, among others, Tom Wolfe and George Gilder. The theory presented here is not his own, but one developed by Petr Beckmann, whose life's work, particularly in advocating civil nuclear power, won him the respect of Edward Teller (who did not, however, endorse his alternative to relativity). As works of crackpot science go, this is one of the best I've read. It is well written, almost free of typographical and factual errors, clearly presents its arguments in terms a layman can grasp, almost entirely avoids mathematical equations, and is thoroughly documented with citations of original sources, many of which those who have learnt special relativity from modern textbooks may not be aware. Its arguments against special relativity are up to date, tackling objections including the Global Positioning System, the Brillet-Hall experiment, and the Hafele-Keating “travelling clock” experiments as well as the classic tests. And the author eschews the ad hominem attacks on Einstein which are so common in the literature of opponents to relativity.

Beckmann's theory posits that the luminiferous æther (the medium in which light waves propagate), which was deemed “superfluous” in Einstein's 1905 paper, in fact exists, and is simply the locally dominant gravitational field. In other words, the medium in which light waves wave is the gravity which makes things which aren't light heavy. Got it? Light waves in any experiment performed on the Earth or in its vicinity will propagate in the æther of its gravitational field (with only minor contributions from those of other bodies such as the Moon and Sun), and hence attempts to detect the “æther drift” due to the Earth's orbital motion around the Sun such as the Michelson-Morley experiment will yield a null result, since the æther is effectively “dragged” or “entrained” along with the Earth. But since the gravitational field is generated by the Earth's mass, and hence doesn't rotate with it (Huh—what about the Lense-Thirring effect, which is never mentioned here?), it should be possible to detect the much smaller æther drift effect as the measurement apparatus rotates around the Earth, and it is claimed that several experiments have made such a detection.

It's traditional that popular works on special relativity couch their examples in terms of observers on trains, so let me say that it's here that we feel the sickening non-inertial-frame lurch as the train departs the track and enters a new inertial frame headed for the bottom of the canyon. Immediately, we're launched into a discussion of the Sagnac effect and its various manifestations ranging from the original experiment to practical applications in laser ring gyroscopes, to round-the-world measurements bouncing signals off multiple satellites. For some reason the Sagnac effect seems to be a powerful attractor into which special relativity crackpottery is sucked. Why it is so difficult to comprehend, even by otherwise intelligent people, entirely escapes me. May I explain it to you? This would be easier with a diagram, but just to show off and emphasise how simple it is, I'll do it with words. Imagine you have a turntable, on which are mounted four mirrors which reflect light around the turntable in a square: the light just goes around and around. If the turntable is stationary and you send a pulse of light in one direction around the loop and then send another in the opposite direction, it will take precisely the same amount of time for them to complete one circuit of the mirrors. (In practice, one uses continuous beams of monochromatic light and combines them in an interferometer, but the effect is the same as measuring the propagation time—it's just easier to do it that way.) Now, let's assume you start the turntable rotating clockwise. Once again you send pulses of light around the loop in both directions; this time we'll call the one which goes in the same direction as the turntable's rotation the clockwise pulse and the other the counterclockwise pulse. Now when we measure how long it took for the clockwise pulse to make it one time around the loop we find that it took longer than for the counterclockwise pulse. OMG!!! Have we disproved Einstein's postulate of the constancy of the speed of light (as is argued in this book at interminable length)? Well, of course not, as a moment's reflexion will reveal. The clockwise pulse took longer to make it around the loop because it had farther to travel to arrive there: as it was bouncing from each mirror to the next, the rotation of the turntable was moving the next mirror further away, and so each leg it had to travel was longer. Conversely, as the counterclockwise pulse was in flight, its next mirror was approaching it, and hence by the time it made it around the loop it had travelled less far, and consequently arrived sooner. That's all there is to it, and precision measurements of the Sagnac effect confirm that this analysis is completely consistent with special relativity. The only possible source of confusion is if you make the self-evident blunder of analysing the system in the rotating reference frame of the turntable. Such a reference frame is trivially non-inertial, so special relativity does not apply. You can determine this simply by tossing a ball from one side of the turntable to another, with no need for all the fancy mirrors, light pulses, or the rest.

Other claims of Beckmann's theory are explored, all either dubious or trivially falsified. Bethell says there is no evidence for the length contraction predicted by special relativity. In fact, analysis of heavy ion collisions confirm that each nucleus approaching the scene of the accident “sees” the other as a “pancake” due to relativistic length contraction. It is claimed that while physical processes on a particle moving rapidly through a gravitational field slow down, that an observer co-moving with that particle would not see a comparable slow-down of clocks at rest with respect to that gravitational field. But the corrections applied to the atomic clocks in GPS satellites incorporate this effect, and would produce incorrect results if it did not occur.

I could go on and on. I'm sure there is a simple example from gravitational lensing or propagation of electromagnetic radiation from gamma ray bursts which would falsify the supposed classical explanation for the gravitational deflection of light due to a refractive effect based upon strength of the gravitational field, but why bother when so many things much easier to dispose of are hanging lower on the tree. Should you buy this book? No, unless, like me, you enjoy a rare example of crackpot science which is well done. This is one of those, and if you're well acquainted with special relativity (if not, take a trip on our C-ship!) you may find it entertaining finding the flaws in and identifying experiments which falsify the arguments here.

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February 2011

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.

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Thor, Brad. State of the Union. New York: Pocket Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7434-3678-6.
This is the third in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). How refreshing to read a post-Cold War thriller in which the Russkies are threatening nuclear terror to reassert a strategy of global hegemony which only went underground with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Whatever happened, anyway, to all of those suitcase nukes which multiple sources said went missing when the Soviet Union dissolved, and which some Soviet defectors claimed had been smuggled into caches in the U.S and Europe to be used as a last-ditch deterrent should war be imminent? Suppose a hard core of ex-Soviet military officers, with the implicit approval of the Russian government, were to attempt a “Hail Mary” pass to win the Cold War in one masterstroke?

I have nattered in reviews of previous novels in this series about Thor's gradually mastering the genre of the thriller. No more—with this one he's entirely up to speed, and it just gets better from here on. Not only are we treated to a Cold War scenario, the novel is written in the style of a period espionage novel in which nothing may be what it appears, and the reader, along with the principal characters, is entirely in the fog as to what is actually going on for the first quarter of the book.

Quibbles? Yes, I have a few. In his quest for authenticity, the author often pens prose which comes across like Hollywood product placement:

… The team was outfitted in black, fire-retardant Nomex fatigues, HellStorm tactical assault gloves, and First Choice body armor. Included with the cache laid out by the armorer, were several newly arrived futuristic .40-caliber Beretta CX4 Storm carbines, as well as Model 96 Beretta Vertex pistols, also in .40 caliber. There was something about being able to interchange their magazines that Harvath found very comforting.

A Picatinny rail system allowed him to outfit the CX4 Storm with an under-mounted laser sight and an above-mounted Leupold scope. …

Ka ching! Ka ching! Ka ching!

I have no idea if the author or publisher were paid for mentioning this most excellent gear for breaking things and killing bad guys, but that's how it reads.

But, hey, what's not to like about a novel which includes action scenes on a Russian nuclear powered icebreaker in the Arctic? Been there—done that!

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Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness. 2nd. ed. New York: Random House, [2004] 2005. ISBN 978-0-8129-7521-5.
This book, which preceded the author's bestselling The Black Swan (January 2009), explores a more general topic: randomness and, in particular, how humans perceive and often misperceive its influence in their lives. As with all of Taleb's work, it is simultaneously quirky, immensely entertaining, and so rich in wisdom and insights that you can't possible absorb them all in a single reading.

The author's central thesis, illustrated from real-world examples, tests you perform on yourself, and scholarship in fields ranging from philosophy to neurobiology, is that the human brain evolved in an environment in which assessment of probabilities (and especially conditional probabilities) and nonlinear outcomes was unimportant to reproductive success, and consequently our brains adapted to make decisions according to a set of modular rules called “heuristics”, which researchers have begun to tease out by experimentation. While our brains are capable of abstract thinking and, with the investment of time required to master it, mathematical reasoning about probabilities, the parts of the brain we use to make many of the important decisions in our lives are the much older and more instinctual parts from which our emotions spring. This means that otherwise apparently rational people may do things which, if looked at dispassionately, appear completely insane and against their rational self-interest. This is particularly apparent in the world of finance, in which the author has spent much of his career, and which offers abundant examples of individual and collective delusional behaviour both before and after the publication of this work.

But let's step back from the arcane world of financial derivatives and consider a much simpler and easier to comprehend investment proposition: Russian roulette. A diabolical billionaire makes the following proposition: play a round of Russian roulette (put one cartridge in a six shot revolver, spin the cylinder to randomise its position, put the gun to your temple and pull the trigger). If the gun goes off, you don't receive any payoff and besides, you're dead. If there's just the click of the hammer falling on an empty chamber, you receive one million dollars. Further, as a winner, you're invited to play again on the same date next year, when the payout if you win will be increased by 25%, and so on in subsequent years as long as you wish to keep on playing. You can quit at any time and keep your winnings.

Now suppose a hundred people sign up for this proposition, begin to play the game year after year, and none chooses to take their winnings and walk away from the table. (For connoisseurs of Russian roulette, this is the variety of the game in which the cylinder is spun before each shot, not where the live round continues to advance each time the hammer drops on an empty chamber: in that case there would be no survivors beyond the sixth round.) For each round, on average, 1/6 of the players are killed and out of the game, reducing the number who play next year. Out of the original 100 players in the first round, one would expect, on average, around 83 survivors to participate in the second round, where the payoff will be 1.25 million.

What do we have, then, after ten years of this game? Again, on average, we expect around 16 survivors, each of whom will be paid more than seven million dollars for the tenth round alone, and who will have collected a total of more than 33 million dollars over the ten year period. If the game were to go on for twenty years, we would expect around 3 survivors from the original hundred, each of whom would have “earned” more than a third of a billion dollars each.

Would you expect these people to be regular guests on cable business channels, sought out by reporters from financial publications for their “hot hand insights on Russian roulette”, or lionised for their consistent and rapidly rising financial results? No—they would be immediately recognised as precisely what they were: lucky (and consequently very wealthy) fools who, each year they continue to play the game, run the same 1 in 6 risk of blowing their brains out.

Keep this Russian roulette analogy in mind the next time you see an interview with the “sizzling hot” hedge fund manager who has managed to obtain 25% annual return for his investors over the last five years, or when your broker pitches a mutual fund with a “great track record”, or you read the biography of a businessman or investor who always seems to have made the “right call” at the right time. All of these are circumstances in which randomness, and hence luck, plays an important part. Just as with Russian roulette, there will inevitably be big winners with a great “track record”, and they're the only ones you'll see because the losers have dropped out of the game (and even if they haven't yet they aren't newsworthy). So the question you have to ask yourself is not how great the track record of a given individual is, but rather the size of the original cohort from which the individual was selected at the start of the period of the track record. The rate hedge fund managers “blow up” and lose all of their investors' money in one disastrous market excursion is less than that of the players blown away in Russian roulette, but not all that much. There are a lot of trading strategies which will yield high and consistent returns until they don't, at which time they suffer sudden and disastrous losses which are always reported as “unexpected”. Unexpected by the geniuses who devised the strategy, the fools who put up the money to back it, and the clueless journalists who report the debacle, but entirely predictable to anybody who modelled the risks being run in the light of actual behaviour of markets, not some egghead's ideas of how they “should” behave.

Shall we try another? You go to your doctor for a routine physical, and as part of the laboratory work on your blood, she orders a screening test for a rare but serious disease which afflicts only one person in a thousand but which can be treated if detected early. The screening test has a 5% false positive rate (in 5% of the people tested who do not actually have the disease, it erroneously says that they do) and a 0% false negative rate (if you have the disease, the test will always report that you do). You return to the doctor's office for the follow-up visit and she tells you that you tested positive for the disease. What is the probability you actually have it?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Did you answer 95%? If you did, you're among the large majority of people, not just among the general population but also practising clinicians, who come to the same conclusion. And you'd be just as wrong as them. In fact, the odds you have the disease are a little less than 2%. Here's how it works. Let's assume an ensemble of 10,000 randomly selected people are tested. On average, ten of these people will have the disease, and all of them will test positive for it (no false negatives). But among that population, 500 people who do not have the disease will also test positive due to the 5% false positive rate of the test. That means that, on average (it gets tedious repeating this, but the natterers will be all over me if I don't do so in every instance), there will be, of 10,000 people tested, a total of 510 positive results, of which 10 actually have the disease. Hence, if you're the recipient of a positive test result, the probability you have the disease is 10/510, or a tad less than 2%. So, before embarking upon a demanding and potentially dangerous treatment regime, you're well advised to get some other independent tests to confirm that you are actually afflicted.
Spoilers end here.  
In making important decisions in life, we often rely upon information from past performance and reputation without taking into account how much those results may be affected by randomness, luck, and the “survivor effect” (the Russian roulette players who brag of their success in the game are necessarily those who aren't yet dead). When choosing a dentist, you can be pretty sure that a practitioner who is recommended by a variety of his patients whom you respect will do an excellent job drilling your teeth. But this is not the case when choosing an oncologist, since all of the people who give him glowing endorsements are necessarily those who did not die under his care, even if their survival is due to spontaneous remission instead of the treatment they received. In such a situation, you need to, as it were, interview the dead alongside the survivors, or, that being difficult, compare the actual rate of survival among comparable patients with the same condition.

Even when we make decisions with our higher cognitive facilities rather than animal instincts, it's still easy to get it wrong. While the mathematics of probability and statistics have been put into a completely rigorous form, there are assumptions in how they are applied to real world situations which can lead to the kinds of calamities one reads about regularly in the financial press. One of the reasons physical scientists transmogrify so easily into Wall Street “quants” is that they are trained and entirely comfortable with statistical tools and probabilistic analysis. The reason they so frequently run off the cliff, taking their clients' fortunes in the trailer behind them, is that nature doesn't change the rules, nor does she cheat. Most physical processes will exhibit well behaved Gaussian or Poisson distributions, with outliers making a vanishingly small contribution to mean and median values. In financial markets and other human systems none of these conditions obtain: the rules change all the time, and often change profoundly before more than a few participants even perceive they have; any action in the market will provoke a reaction by other actors, often nonlinear and with unpredictable delays; and in human systems the Pareto and other wildly non-Gaussian power law distributions are often the norm.

We live in a world in which randomness reigns in many domains, and where we are bombarded with “news and information” which is probably in excess of 99% noise to 1% signal, with no obvious way to extract the signal except with the benefit of hindsight, which doesn't help in making decisions on what to do today. This book will dramatically deepen your appreciation of this dilemma in our everyday lives, and provide a philosophical foundation for accepting the rôle randomness and luck plays in the world, and how, looked at with the right kind of eyes (and investment strategy) randomness can be your friend.

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Stross, Charles. Singularity Sky. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01179-7.
Writing science fiction about a society undergoing a technological singularity or about humans living in a post-singularity society is a daunting task. By its very definition, a singularity is an event beyond which it is impossible to extrapolate, yet extrapolation is the very essence of science fiction. Straightforward (some would say naïve) projection of present-day technological trends suggests that some time around the middle of this century it will be possible, for a cost around US$1000, to buy a computer with power equal to that of all human brains now living on Earth, and that in that single year alone more new information will be created than by all of human civilisation up to that time. And that's just the start. With intelligent machines designing their successors, the slow random walk search of Darwinian evolution will be replaced by directed Lamarckian teleological development, with a generation time which may be measured in nanoseconds. The result will be an exponential blow-off in intelligence which will almost instantaneously dwarf that of humans by a factor at least equal to that between humans and insects. The machine intelligences will rapidly converge upon the fundamental limits of computation and cognition imposed by the laws of physics, which are so far beyond anything in the human experience we simply lack the hardware and software to comprehend what their capabilities might be and what they will be motivated to do with them. Trying to “put yourself into the head” of one of these ultimate intellects, which some people believe may emerge within the lifetimes of people alive today, is as impossible as asking C. elegans to comprehend quantum field theory.

In this novel the author sets out to both describe the lives of humans, augmented humans, and post-humans centuries after a mid-21st century singularity on Earth, and also show what happens to a society which has deliberately relinquished technologies it deems “dangerous” to the established order (other than those, of course, which the ruling class find useful in keeping the serfs in their place) when the singularity comes knocking at the door.

When the singularity occurred on Earth, the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth's population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government, the only vestige of which was the United Nations, which had been taken over by the IETF and was essentially a standards body. A century later, after humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth's population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.

I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

Or else” ranged from slamming relativistic impactors into misbehaving planets to detonating artificial supernovæ to sterilise an entire interstellar neighbourhood whose inhabitants were up to some mischief which risked spreading. While the “Big E” usually remained off stage, meddling in technologies which might threaten its own existence (for example, time travel to back before its emergence on Earth to prevent the singularity) brought a swift and ruthless response with no more remorse than humans feel over massacring Saccharomyces cerevisiae in the trillions to bake their daily bread.

On Rochard's World, an outpost of the New Republic, everything was very much settled into a comfortable (for the ruling class) stasis, with technology for the masses arrested at something approximating the Victorian era, and the advanced stuff (interstellar travel, superluminal communication) imported from Earth and restricted to managing the modest empire to which they belong and suppressing any uprising. Then the Festival arrived. As with most things post-singularity, the Festival is difficult to describe—imagine how incomprehensible it must appear to a society whose development has been wilfully arrested at the railroad era. Wafted from star to star in starwisp probes, upon arrival its nanotechnological payload unpacks itself, disassembles bodies in the outer reaches of its destination star system, and instantiates the information it carries into the hardware and beings to carry out its mission.

On a planet with sentient life, things immediately begin to become extremely weird. Mobile telephones rain from the sky which offer those who pick them up anything they ask for in return for a story or bit of information which is novel to the Festival. Within a day or so, the entire social and economic structure is upended as cornucopia machines, talking bunnies, farms that float in the air, mountains of gold and diamonds, houses that walk around on chicken legs, and things which words fail to describe become commonplace in a landscape that changes from moment to moment. The Festival, much like a eucaryotic organism which has accreted a collection of retroviruses in its genome over time, is host to a multitude of hangers-on which range from the absurd to the menacing: pie-throwing zombies, giant sentient naked mole rats, and “headlaunchers” which infect humans, devour their bodies, and propel their brains into space to be uploaded into the Festival.

Needless to say, what ensues is somewhat chaotic. Meanwhile, news of these events has arrived at the home world of the New Republic, and a risky mission is mounted, skating on the very edge of the Eschaton's prohibition on causality violation, to put an end to the Festival's incursion and restore order on Rochard's World. Two envoys from Earth, technician Martin Springfield and U.N. arms inspector Rachel Mansour, accompany the expedition, the first to install and maintain the special technology the Republic has purchased from the Earth and the second, empowered by the terms under which Earth technology has been acquired, to verify that it is not used in a manner which might bring the New Republic or Earth into the sights of the Big E.

This is a well-crafted tale which leaves the reader with an impression of just how disruptive a technological singularity will be and, especially, how fast everything happens once the exponential take-off point is reached. The shifts in viewpoint are sometimes uneven—focusing on one subplot for an extended period and then abruptly jumping to another where things have radically changed in the interim, but that may be deliberate in an effort to convey how fluid the situation is in such circumstances. Stross also makes excellent use of understated humour throughout: Burya Rubenstein, the anarcho-Leninist revolutionary who sees his entire socio-economic utopia come and go within a couple of days, much faster than his newly-installed party-line propaganda brain implants can adapt, is one of many delightful characters you'll encounter along the way.

There is a sequel, which I look forward to reading.

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March 2011

Shostak, Seth. Confessions of an Alien Hunter. Washington: National Geographic, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4262-0392-3.
This book was published in 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), launched by Cocconi and Morrison's Nature paper which demonstrated that a narrowband microwave beacon transmitted by intelligent extraterrestrials would be detectable by existing and anticipated radio telescopes on Earth. In recent years, the SETI Institute has been a leader in the search for alien signals and the author, as Senior Astronomer at the Institute, a key figure in its ongoing research.

On the night of June 24th, 1997 the author, along with other researchers, were entranced by the display on their computer monitors of a signal relayed from a radio telescope in West Virginia aimed at an obscure dwarf star named YZ Ceti 12 light years from the Sun. As a faint star prone to flares, it seemed an improbable place to find an alien civilisation, but was being monitored as part of a survey of all stars within 15 light years of the Sun, regardless of type. “Candidate signals” are common in SETI: most are due to terrestrial interference, transmissions from satellites or passing aircraft, or transient problems with the instrumentation processing the signal. These can usually be quickly excluded by simple tests such as aiming the antenna away from the source, testing whether the source is moving with respect to the Earth at a rate different than that of the distant stars, or discovering that a second radio telescope in a different location is unable to confirm the signal. Due to a mechanical failure at the backup telescope, the latter test was not immediately available, but all of the other tests seemed to indicate that this was the real deal, and those observing the signal had to make the difficult decision whether to ask other observatories to suspend their regular research and independently observe the source, and/or how to announce the potential discovery to the world. All of these difficult questions were resolved when it was discovered that a small displacement of the antenna from the source, which should have caused a Gaussian fall-off in intensity, in fact changed the signal amplitude not at all. Whatever the source may have been, it could not be originating at YZ Ceti. Shortly thereafter, the signal was identified as a “side lobe” reception of the SOHO spacecraft at the Sun-Earth L1 point. Around this time, the author got a call from a reporter from the New York Times who had already heard rumours of the detection and was trawling for a scoop. So much for secrecy and rumours of cover-ups in the world of SETI! By the evidence, SETI leaks like a sieve.

This book provides an insider's view of the small but fascinating world of SETI: a collective effort which has produced nothing but negative results over half a century, yet holds the potential, with the detection of a single confirmed alien transmission, of upending our species' view of its place in the cosmos and providing hope for the long-term survival of intelligent civilisations in the universe. There is relatively little discussion of the history of SETI, which makes sense since the ongoing enterprise directly benefits from the exponential growth in the capabilities of electronics and computation, and consequentially the breadth and sensitivity of results in the last few years will continue to dwarf those of all earlier searches. Present-day searches, both in the microwave spectrum and looking for ultra-short optical pulses, are described in detail, along with the prospects for the near future, in which the Allen Telescope Array will vastly expand the capability of SETI.

The author discusses the puzzles posed by the expectation that (unless we're missing something fundamental), the window between a technological civilisation's developing the capability to perform SETI research as we presently do it and undergoing a technological singularity which will increase its intelligence and capabilities to levels humans cannot hope to comprehend may be on the order of one to two centuries. If this is the case, any extraterrestrials we contact are almost certain to be these transcendent machine intelligences, whose motivations in trying to contact beings in an ephemeral biological phase such as our own are difficult to imagine. But if such beings are common, shouldn't their cosmological masterworks be writ for all to see in the sky? Well, maybe they are! Vive l'art cosmologique!

What would be the impact of a confirmed detection of an alien transmission? The author suggests, and I tend to concur, probably a lot less than breathless authors of fiction might expect. After all, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Percival Lowell's case for an intelligent canal-building civilisation on Mars was widely accepted, and it did not cause any huge disruption to human self-perception. When I was in high school, many astronomy texts said it was likely Mars was home to lichen-like organisms which accounted for the seasonal changes observed on the planet. And as late as the landing of Viking I on Mars, which this scrivener observed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory auditorium on July 20th, 1976, the President of the United States asked from the White House whether the lander's camera would be able to photograph any Martian animals rambling around the landscape. (Yes, it would. No, it didn't—although the results of the microbial life detection experiments are still disputed.)

This book, a view from inside the contemporary SETI enterprise, is an excellent retrospective on modern SETI and look at its future prospects at the half century mark. It is an excellent complement to Paul Davies's The Eerie Silence (December 2010), which takes a broader approach to the topic, looking more deeply into the history of the field and exploring how, from the present perspective, the definition of alien intelligence and the ways in which we might detect it should be rethought based on what we've learnt in the last five decades. If I had to read only one book on the topic, I would choose the Davies book, but I don't regret reading them both.

The Kindle edition is reasonably well produced, although there are some formatting oddities, and for some reason the capital “I”s in chapter titles have dots above them. There is a completely useless “index” in which items are not linked to their references in the text.

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Ellis, Warren, Chris Weston, Laura Martin, and Michael Heisler. Ministry of Space. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2004. ISBN 978-1-58240-423-3.
This comic book—errm—graphic novel—immerses the reader in an alternative history where British forces captured the German rocket team in the closing days of World War II and saw to it that the technology they developed would not fall either American or Soviet hands. Air Commodore John Dashwood, a figure with ambitions and plans which put him in the league with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, persuades Churchill to embark on an ambitious development program to extend the dominion of the British Empire outward into space.

In this timeline, all of the key “firsts” in space are British achievements, and Britain in the 1950s is not the austere and dingy grey of shrinking empire but rather where Wernher von Braun's roadmap for expansion of the human presence into space is being methodically implemented, with the economic benefits flowing into British coffers. By the start of the 21st century, Britain is the master of space, but the uppity Americans are threatening to mount a challenge to British hegemony by revealing dark secrets about the origin of the Ministry of Space unless Britain allows their “Apollo” program to go ahead.

This story works beautifully in the graphic format, and the artwork and colouring are simply luscious. If you don't stop and linger over the detail in the illustrations you'll miss a lot of the experience. The only factual error I noted is that in the scene at Peenemunde an American GI says the V-2's range was only 60 miles while, in fact, it was 200 miles. (But then, this may be deliberate, intended to show how ignorant the Americans were of the technology.) The reader experiences a possible reality not only for Britain, but for the human species had the development of space been a genuine priority like the assertion of sea power in the 19th century instead of an arena for political posturing and pork barrel spending. Exploring this history, you'll encounter a variety of jarring images and concepts which will make you think how small changes in history can have great consequences downstream.

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Cashill, Jack. Deconstructing Obama. New York: Threshold Editions, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-1111-3.
Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father (henceforth Dreams), proved instrumental in his rise from an obscure Chicago lawyer and activist to the national stage and eventually the presidency. Almost universally praised for its literary merit, it establishes Obama's “unique personal narrative” which is a key component of his attraction to his many supporters. Amidst the buzz of the 2008 presidential campaign, the author decided to buy a copy of Dreams as an “airplane book”, and during the flight and in the days that followed, was astonished by what he was reading. The book was not just good, it was absolutely superb—the kind of work editors dream of having land on their desk. In fact, it was so good that Cashill, a veteran author and editor who has reviewed the portfolios of hundreds of aspiring writers, found it hard to believe that a first time writer, however smart, could produce such a work on his own. In the writing craft, it is well known that almost all authors should plan to throw away their first million words or equivalently invest on the order of 10,000 hours mastering their craft before producing a publishable book-length work, no less a bestselling masterpiece like Dreams. There was no evidence for such an investment or of natural talent in any of Obama's earlier (and meagre) publications: they are filled with clichés, clumsy in phrasing, and rife with grammatical problems such as agreement of subject and verb.

Further, it was well documented that Obama had defaulted upon his first advance for the book, changed the topic, and then secured a second advance from a different publisher, then finally, after complaining of suffering from writer's block, delivering a manuscript in late 1994. At the time he was said to be writing Dreams, he had a full time job at a Chicago law firm, was teaching classes at the University of Chicago, and had an active social life. All of this caused Cashill to suspect Obama had help with the book. Now, it's by no means uncommon for books by politicians to be largely or entirely the work of ghostwriters, who may work entirely behind the scenes, leaving the attribution of authorship entirely to their employers. But when Dreams was written, Obama was not a politician, but rather a lawyer and law school instructor still burdened by student loans. It is unlikely he could have summoned the financial resources nor had the reputation to engage a ghostwriter sufficiently talented to produce Dreams. Further, if the work is not Obama's, then he is a liar, for, speaking to a group of teachers in June 2008, he said, “I've written two books. I actually wrote them myself.”

These observations set the author, who has previously undertaken literary and intellectual detective work, on the trail of the origin of Dreams. He discovers that, just at the time the miraculous manuscript appeared, Obama had begun to work with unrepentant Weather Underground domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, who had reinvented himself as an “education reformer” in Chicago. At the time, Obama's ambition was to become mayor of Chicago, an office which would allow him to steer city funds into the coffers of Ayers's organisations in repayment of his contribution to Obama's political ascendancy (not to mention the potential blackmail threat an unacknowledged ghostwriter has over a principal who claims sole authorship). In any case, Dreams not only matches contemporary works by Ayers on many metrics used to test authorship, it is rich in nautical metaphors, many expressed in the same words as in Ayers's own work. Ayers once worked as a merchant seaman; Obama's only experience at sea was bodysurfing in Hawaii.

Cashill examines Dreams in fine-grained detail, both bolstering the argument that Ayers was the principal wordsmith behind the text, and also documenting how the narrative in the book is at variance with the few well-documented facts we have about Obama's life and career. He then proceeds to speculate upon Obama's parentage, love life before he met Michelle, and other aspects of the canonical Obama story. As regards Ayers as the author of Dreams, I consider the case as not proved beyond a reasonable doubt (that would require one of the principals in the matter speaking out and producing believable documentation), but to me the case here meets the standard of preponderance of evidence. The more speculative claims are intriguing but, in my opinion, do not rise to that level.

What is beyond dispute is just how little is known about the current occupant of the Oval Office, how slim the paper trail is of his origin and career, and how little interest the legacy media have expressed in investigating these details. There are obvious and thoroughly documented discrepancies between what is known for sure about Obama and the accounts in his two memoirs, and the difference in literary style between the two is, in itself, cause to call their authorship into question. When the facts about Obama begin to come out—and they will, the only question is when—if only a fraction of what is alleged in this well-researched and -argued book is true, it will be the final undoing of any credibility still retained by the legacy media.

The Kindle edition is superbly produced, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

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Royce, Kenneth W. Môlon Labé. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, [1997] 2004. ISBN 978-1-888766-07-3.
Legend has it that when, in 480 B.C. at Thermopylae, Emperor Xerxes I of Persia made an offer to the hopelessly outnumbered Greek defenders that they would be allowed to leave unharmed if they surrendered their weapons, King Leonidas I of Sparta responded “μολὼν λαβέ” (molōn labe!)—“Come and take them!” Ever since, this laconic phrase has been a classic (as well as classical) expression of defiance, even in the face of overwhelming enemy superiority. It took almost twenty-five centuries until an American general uttered an even more succinct reply to a demand for capitulation.

In this novel, the author, who uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, sketches a scenario as to how an island of liberty might be established within a United States which is spiraling into collectivism; authoritarian rule over a docile, disarmed, and indoctrinated population; and economic collapse. The premise is essentially that of the Free State Project, before they beclowned themselves by choosing New Hampshire as their target state. Here, Wyoming is the destination of choice, and the author documents how it meets all criteria for an electoral coup d'état by a relatively small group of dedicated “relocators” and how the established population is likely to be receptive to individual liberty oriented policies once it's demonstrated that a state can actually implement them.

Libertarians are big thinkers, but when it comes to actually doing something which requires tedious and patient toil, not so much. They love to concentrate on grand scenarios of taking over the federal government of the United States and reversing a century of usurpation of liberty, but when it comes to organising at the county level, electing school boards, sheriffs, and justices of the peace, and then working up to state legislature members, they quickly get bored and retreat into ethereal arguments about this or that theoretical detail, or dreaming about how some bolt from the blue might bring them to power nationwide. Just as Stalin rescoped the Communist project from global revolution to “socialism in one country”, this book narrows the libertarian agenda to “liberty in one state”, with the hope that its success will be the spark which causes like-minded people in adjacent states to learn from the example and adopt similar policies themselves.

This is an optimistic view of a future which plausibly could happen. Regular readers of this chronicle know that my own estimation of the prospects for the United States on its present course is bleak—that's why I left in 1991 and have not returned except for family emergencies since then. I have taken to using the oracular phrase “Think Pinochet, not Reagan” when describing the prospects for the U.S. Let me now explain what I mean by that. Many conservatives assume that the economic circumstances in the U.S. are so self-evidently dire that all that is needed is a new “great communicator” like Ronald Reagan to explain them to the electorate in plain language to begin to turn the situation around. But they forget that Reagan, notwithstanding his world-historic achievements, only slowed the growth of the federal beast on his watch and, in fact, presided over the greatest peacetime expansion of the national debt in history (although, by present-day standards, the numbers look like pocket change). Further, Reagan did nothing to arrest the “long march through the institutions” which has now resulted in near-total collectivist/statist hegemony in the legacy media, academia from kindergarten to graduate and professional education, government bureaucracies at all levels, and even management of large corporations who are dependent upon government for their prosperity.

In an environment where the tax eaters will soon, if they don't already, outnumber and outvote the taxpayers, the tipping point has arrived, and the way to bet is on a sudden and complete economic collapse due to a “debt spiral”, possibly accompanied by hyperinflation as the Federal Reserve becomes the only buyer of U.S. Treasury debt left in the market.

When the reality of twenty dollar a gallon gasoline (rising a dollar a day as the hyperinflation exponential starts to kick in, then tens, hundreds, etc.) hits home; when three and four hour waits to fill up the tank become the norm after “temporary and emergency” price controls are imposed, and those who have provided for their own retirement see the fruits of their lifetime of labour and saving wiped out in a matter of weeks by runaway inflation, people will be looking for a way out. That's when the Man on the White Horse will appear.

I do not know who he will be—in all likelihood it's somebody entirely beneath the radar at the moment. “When it's steam engine time, it steam engines.” When it's Pinochet time, it Pinochets.

I do not know how this authoritarian ruler will come to power. Given the traditions of the United States, I doubt it will be by a military coup, but rather the election of a charismatic figure as President, along with a compliant legislature willing to rubber-stamp his agenda and enact whatever “enabling acts” he requests. Think something like Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (December 2008). But afterward the agenda will be clear: “clean out” the media, educators, judiciary, and bureaucrats who are disloyal. Defund the culturally destructive apparatus of the state. Sunset all of the programs which turn self-reliant citizens into wards of the state. Adjust the institutions of democracy to weight political influence according to contribution to the commonwealth. And then, one hopes (although that's not the way to bet), retire and turn the whole mess over to a new bunch of politicians who will proceed to foul things up again, but probably sufficiently slowly there will be fifty years or so of prosperity before the need to do it all over again.

When I talk about an “American Pinochet” I'm not implying that such an outcome would involve “disappeared people” or other sequelæ of authoritarian tyranny. But it would involve, at the bare minimum, revocation of tenure at all state-supported educational institutions, review of educators, media figures, judges, and government personnel by loyalty boards empowered to fire them and force them to seek employment in the productive sector of the economy, and a comprehensive review of the actions of all government agents who may have violated the natural rights of citizens.

I do not want this to happen! For my friends in the United States who have not heeded my advice over the last 15 years to get out while they can, I can say only that this is the best case scenario I can envision given the present circumstances. You don't want to know about my darker views of the future there—really, you don't.

This novel points to a better way—an alternative which, although improbable is not impossible, in which a small cadre of lovers of liberty might create a haven which attracts like-minded people, compounding the effect and mounting a challenge to the illegitimate national government. Along with the price of admission, you'll get tutorials in the essentials of individual liberty such as main battle rifles, jury nullification, hard money, strong encryption, and the balancing act between liberty and life-affirming morality.

What more can I say? Read this book.

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April 2011

Rumsfeld, Donald. Known and Unknown. New York: Sentinel, 2011. ISBN 978-1-595-23067-6.
In his career in public life and the private sector, spanning more than half a century, the author was:

  • A Naval aviator, reaching the rank of Captain.
  • A Republican member of the House of Representatives from Illinois spanning the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.
  • Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Stabilization Program in the Nixon administration, both agencies he voted against creating while in Congress.
  • Ambassador to NATO in Brussels.
  • White House Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford.
  • Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration, the youngest person to have ever held that office.
  • CEO of G. D. Searle, a multinational pharmaceutical company, which he arranged to be sold to Monsanto.
  • Special Envoy to the Middle East during the Reagan administration.
  • National chairman of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
  • Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, the oldest person to have ever held that office.

This is an extraordinary trajectory through life, and Rumsfeld's memoir is correspondingly massive: 832 pages in the hardcover edition. The parts which will be most extensively dissected and discussed are those dealing with his second stint at DOD, and the contentious issues regarding the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, treatment of detainees, interrogation methods, and other issues which made him a lightning rod during the administration of Bush fils. While it was interesting to see his recollection of how these consequential decisions were made, documented by extensive citations of contemporary records, I found the overall perspective of how decision-making was done over his career most enlightening. Nixon, Ford, and Bush all had very different ways of operating their administrations, all of which were very unlike those of an organisation such as NATO or a private company, and Rumsfeld, who experienced all of them in a senior management capacity, has much wisdom to share about what works and what doesn't, and how one must adapt management style and the flow of information to the circumstances which obtain in each structure.

Many supportive outside observers of the G. W. Bush presidency were dismayed at how little effort was made by the administration to explain its goals, strategy, and actions to the public. Certainly, the fact that it was confronted with a hostile legacy media which often seemed to cross the line from being antiwar to rooting for the other side didn't help, but Rumsfeld, the consummate insider, felt that the administration forfeited opportunity after opportunity to present its own case, even by releasing source documents which would in no way compromise national security but show the basis upon which decisions were made in the face of the kind of ambiguous and incomplete information which confronts executives in all circumstances.

The author's Web site provides a massive archive of source documents cited in the book, along with a copy of the book's end notes which links to them. Authors, this is how it's done! A transcript of an extended interview with the author is available; it was hearing this interview which persuaded me to buy the book. Having read it, I recommend it to anybody who wishes to comprehend how difficult it is to be in a position where one must make decisions in a fog of uncertainty, knowing the responsibility for them will rest solely with the decider, and that not to decide is a decision in itself which may have even more dire consequences. As much as Bush's national security team was reviled at the time, one had the sense that adults were in charge.

A well-produced Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, footnotes, and source citations all properly linked to the text. One curiosity in the Kindle edition is that in the last 40% of the book the word “after” is capitalised everywhere it appears, even in the middle of a sentence. It seems that somebody in the production process accidentally hit “global replace” when attempting to fix a single instance. While such fat-finger errors happen all the time whilst editing documents, it's odd that a prestigious publisher (Sentinel is a member of the Penguin Group) would not catch such a blunder in a high profile book which went on to top the New York Times best seller list.

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Drezner, Daniel W. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-691-14783-3.
“A specter is haunting world politics….” (p. 109) Contemporary international politics and institutions are based upon the centuries-old system of sovereign nation-states, each acting in its own self interest in a largely anarchic environment. This system has seen divine right monarchies supplanted by various forms of consensual government, dictatorships, theocracies, and other forms of governance, and has survived industrial and technological revolutions, cataclysmic wars, and reorganisation of economic systems and world trade largely intact. But how will this system come to terms with a new force on the world stage: one which transcends national borders, acts upon its own priorities regardless of the impact upon nation-states, inexorably recruits adherents wherever its presence becomes established, admits of no defections from its ranks, is immune to rational arguments, presents an asymmetrical threat against which conventional military force is largely ineffective and tempts free societies to sacrifice liberty in the interest of security, and is bent on supplanting the nation-state system with a worldwide regime free of the internal conflicts which seem endemic in the present international system?

I am speaking, of course, about the Zombie Menace. The present book is a much-expanded version of the author's frequently-cited article on his Web log at Foreign Policy magazine. In it, he explores how an outbreak of flesh-eating ghouls would be responded to based on the policy prescriptions of a variety of theories of international relations, including structural realism, liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism, and postmodern social constructivism. In addition, he describes how the zombie threat would affect domestic politics in Western liberal democracies, and how bureaucratic institutions, domestic and international, would react to the emerging crisis (bottom line: turf battles).

The author makes no claim to survey the policy prescriptions of all theories: “To be blunt, this project is explicitly prohuman, whereas Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p. 17, footnote) The social implications of a burgeoning zombie population are also probed, including the inevitable emergence of zombie rights groups and non-governmental organisations on the international stage. How long can it be until zombie suffrage marchers take (or shuffle) to the streets, waving banners proclaiming “Zombies are (or at least were) people too!”?

This is a delightful and thoughtful exploration of a hypothetical situation in international politics which, if looked at with the right kind of (ideally, non-decaying) eyes, has a great deal to say about events in the present-day world. There are extensive source citations, both to academic international relations and zombie literature, and you're certain to come away with a list of films you'll want to see. Anne Karetnikov's illustrations are wonderful.

The author is professor of international politics at Tufts University and a member of the Zombie Research Society. I must say I'm dismayed that Princeton University Press condones the use of the pejorative and hurtful term “zombie”. How hard would it be to employ the non-judgemental “person of reanimation” instead?

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Whittington, Mark R. Children of Apollo. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2002. ISBN 978-1-4010-4592-0.
This is a brilliant concept and well-executed (albeit with some irritating flaws I will discuss below). This novel is within the genre of “alternative history” and, conforming to the rules, takes a single counterfactual event as the point of departure for a recounting of the 1970s as I, and I suspect many others, expected that decade to play out at its dawn. It is a celebration of what might have been, and what we have lost compared to the future we chose not to pursue.

In the novel's timeline, an obscure CIA analyst writes a memo about the impact Soviet efforts to beat the U.S. to the Moon are having upon the Soviet military budget and economy, and this memo makes it to the desk of President Nixon shortly after the landing of Apollo 11. Nixon is persuaded by his senior advisors that continuing and expanding the Apollo and follow-on programs (whose funding had been in decline since 1966) would be a relatively inexpensive way to, at the least, divert funds which would otherwise go to Soviet military and troublemaking around the world and, at the best, bankrupt their economy because an ideology which proclaimed itself the “wave of the future” could not acquiesce to living under a “capitalist Moon”.

Nixon and his staff craft a plan thoroughly worthy of the “Tricky Dick” moniker he so detested, and launch a program largely modelled upon the 1969 Space Task Group report, with the addition of transitioning the space shuttle recommended in the report to competitive procurement of transportation services from the private sector. This sets off the kind of steady, yet sustainable, expansion of the human presence into space that von Braun always envisioned. At the same time, it forces the Soviets, the Luddite caucus in Congress, and the burgeoning environmental movement into a corner, and they're motivated to desperate measures to bring an end to what some view as destiny but they see as disaster.

For those interested in space who lived through the 1970s and saw dream after dream dashed, downscoped, or deferred, this is a delightful and well-crafted exploration of how it could have been. Readers too young to remember the 1970s may miss a number of the oblique references to personalities and events of that regrettable decade.

The Kindle edition is perfectly readable, reasonably inexpensive, but sloppily produced. A number of words are run together and hyphenated words in the print edition not joined. Something funny appears to have happened in translating passages in italics into the electronic edition—I can't quite figure out what, but I'm sure the author didn't intend parts of words to be set in italics. In addition there are a number of errors in both the print and Kindle editions which would have been caught by a sharp-eyed copy editor. I understand that this is a self-published work, but there are many space buffs (including this one) who would have been happy to review the manuscript and check it for both typographical and factual errors.

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Raimondo, Justin. An Enemy of the State. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000. ISBN 978-1-57392-809-0.
Had Murray Rothbard been a man of the Left, he would probably be revered today as one of the towering intellects of the twentieth century. Certainly, there was every reason from his origin and education to have expected him to settle on the Left: the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, he grew up in a Jewish community in New York City where, as he later described it, the only question was whether one would join the Communist Party or settle for being a fellow traveller. He later remarked that, “I had two sets of Communist Party uncles and aunts, on both sides of my family.” While studying for his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in the 1940s and '50s, he was immersed in a political spectrum which ranged from “Social Democrats on the ‘right’ to Stalinists on the left”.

Yet despite the political and intellectual milieu surrounding him, Rothbard followed his own compass, perhaps inherited in part from his fiercely independent father. From an early age, he came to believe individual liberty was foremost among values, and that based upon that single desideratum one could deduce an entire system of morality, economics, natural law, and governance which optimised the individual's ability to decide his or her own destiny. In the context of the times, he found himself aligned with the Old Right: the isolationist, small government, and hard money faction of the Republican Party which was, in the Eisenhower years, approaching extinction as “conservatives” acquiesced to the leviathan “welfare-warfare state” as necessary to combat the Soviet menace. Just as Rothbard began to put the foundations of the Old Right on a firm intellectual basis, the New Right of William F. Buckley and his “coven of ex-Communists” at National Review drove the stake through that tradition, one of the first among many they would excommunicate from the conservative cause as they defined it.

Rothbard was a disciple of Ludwig von Mises, and applied his ideas and those of other members of the Austrian school of economics to all aspects of economics, politics, and culture. His work, both scholarly and popular, is largely responsible for the influence of Austrian economics today. (Here is a complete bibliography of Rothbard's publications.)

Rothbard's own beliefs scarcely varied over his life, and yet as the years passed and the political tectonic plates shifted, he found himself aligned with the Old Right, the Ayn Rand circle (from which he quickly extricated himself after diagnosing the totalitarian tendencies of Rand and the cult-like nature of her followers), the nascent New Left (before it was taken over by communists), the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute, and finally back to the New Old Right, with several other zigs and zags along the way. In each case, Rothbard embraced his new allies and threw himself into the cause, only to discover that they were more interested in factionalism, accommodation with corrupt power structures, or personal ambition than the principles which motivated him.

While Rothbard's scholarly publications alone dwarf those of many in the field, he was anything but an ivory tower academic. He revelled in the political fray, participating in campaigns, writing speeches and position papers, formulating strategy, writing polemics aimed at the general populace, and was present at the creation of several of the key institutions of the contemporary libertarian movement. Fully engaged in the culture, he wrote book and movie reviews, satire, and commentary on current events. Never discouraged by the many setbacks he experienced, he was always a “happy warrior”, looking at the follies of the society around him with amusement and commenting wittily about them in his writings. While eschewing grand systems and theories of history in favour of an entirely praxeology-based view of the social sciences (among which he counted economics, rejecting entirely the mathematically-intense work of pseudoscientists who believed one could ignore human action when analysing the aggregate behaviour of human actors), he remained ever optimistic that liberty would triumph in the end simply because it works better, and will inevitably supplant authoritarian schemes which constrain the human potential.

This is a well-crafted overview of Rothbard's life, work, and legacy by an author who knew and worked with Rothbard in the last two decades of his career. Other than a coruscating animus toward Buckley and his minions, it provides a generally even-handed treatment of the many allies and adversaries (often the same individuals at different times) with which Rothbard interacted over his career. Chapter 7 provides an overview and reading guide to Rothbard's magisterial History of Economic Thought, which is so much more—essentially a general theory of the social sciences—that you'll probably be persuaded to add it to your reading list.

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May 2011

Clawson, Calvin C. Mathematical Mysteries. New York: Perseus Books, 1996. ISBN 978-0-7382-0259-4.
This book might be more accurately titled “Wonders of Number Theory”, but doubtless the publisher feared that would scare away the few remaining customers who weren't intimidated by the many equations in the text. Within that limited scope, and for readers familiar with high school algebra (elementary calculus makes a couple of appearances, but you'll miss little or nothing if you aren't acquainted with it), this is an introduction to the beauty of mathematics, its amazing and unexpected interconnectedness, and the profound intellectual challenge of problems, some posed in ancient Greece, which can easily be explained to a child, yet which remain unsolved after millennia of effort by the most intelligent exemplars of our species.

The hesitant reader is eased into the topic through a variety of easily-comprehended and yet startling results, expanding the concept of number from the natural numbers to the real number line (like calculus, complex numbers only poke their nose under the tent in a few circumstances where they absolutely can't be avoided), and then the author provides a survey of the most profound and intractable puzzles of number theory including the Goldbach conjecture and Riemann hypothesis, concluding with a sketch of Gödel's incompleteness theorems and what it all means.

Two chapters are devoted to the life and work of Ramanujan, using his notebooks to illustrate the beauty of an equation expressing a deep truth and the interconnections in mathematics this singular genius perceived, such as:

\prod_{i}^{\infty} \left(1+\frac{1}{{p_i}^4}\right) = \frac{105}{\pi^4}

which relates the sequence of prime numbers (pi is the ith prime number) to the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Who could have imagined they had anything to do with one another? And how did 105 get into it?

This book is a pure joy, and a excellent introduction for those who “don't get it” of how mathematics can become a consuming passion for those who do. The only low spot in the book is chapter 9, which discusses the application of large prime numbers to cryptography. While this was much in the news during the crypto wars when the book was published in the mid-1990s, some of the information in this chapter is factually incorrect and misleading, and the attempt at a popular description of the RSA algorithm will probably leave many who actually understand its details scratching their heads. So skip this chapter.

I bought this book shortly after it was published, and it sat on my shelf for a decade and a half until I picked it up and started reading it. I finished it in three days, enjoying it immensely, and I was already familiar with most of the material covered here. For those who are encountering it for the first time, this may be a door into a palace of intellectual pleasures they previously thought to be forbidding, dry, and inaccessible to them.

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Gabb, Sean. The Churchill Memorandum. Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4467-2257-2.
This thriller is set in Britain in the year 1959 in an alternative history where World War II never happened: Hitler died in a traffic accident while celebrating his conquest of Prague, and Göring and the rest of his clique, opting to continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation rather than risk it all on war, came to an accommodation with Britain and France where Germany would not interfere with their empires in return for Germany's being given a free hand in Eastern Europe up to the Soviet border. With British prosperity growing and dominance of the seas unchallenged, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, Britain was able to arrange a negotiated settlement under which the Royal Navy would guarantee freedom of the seas, Hawaii, and the west coast of the U.S.

The U.S., after a series of domestic economic and political calamities, has become an authoritarian, puritanical dictatorship under Harry Anslinger and his minions, and expatriates from his tyranny enrich the intellectual and economic life of Europe.

By 1959, the world situation has evolved into a more or less stable balance of powers much like Europe in the late 19th century, with Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan all engaged in conflicts around the margin, but in an equilibrium where any one becoming too strong will bring forth an alliance among the others to restore the balance. Britain and Germany have developed fission bombs, but other than a single underground test each, have never used them and rely upon them for deterrence against each other and the massive armies of the Soviets. The U.S. is the breadbasket and natural resource supplier of the world, but otherwise turned inward and absent from the international stage.

In this climate, Britain is experiencing an age of prosperity unprecedented in its history. Magnetically levitated trains criss-cross the island, airships provide travel in style around the globe, and a return to the gold standard has rung in sound money not only at home but abroad. Britain and Germany have recently concluded a treaty to jointly open the space frontier.

Historian Anthony Markham, author of a recently published biography of Churchill, is not only the most prominent Churchill scholar but just about the only one—who would want to spend their career studying a marginal figure whose war-mongering, had it come to fruition, would have devastated Britain and the Continent, killed millions, destroyed the Empire, and impoverished people around the world? While researching his second volume on Churchill, he encounters a document in Churchill's handwriting which, if revealed, threatens to destabilise the fragile balance of power and return the world to the dark days of the 1930s, putting at risk all the progress made since then. Markham finds himself in the middle of a bewilderingly complicated tapestry of plots and players, including German spies, factions in the Tory party, expatriate Ayn Rand supporters, the British Communist party, Scotland Yard, the Indian independence movement, and more, where nothing is as it appears on the surface. Many British historical figures appear here, with those responsible for the decline of Britain in our universe skewered (or worse) from a libertarian perspective. Chapter 31 is a delightful tour d'horizon of the pernicious ideas which reduced Britain from global hegemon to its sorry state today.

I found that this book works both as a thriller and dark commentary of how bad ideas can do more damage to a society and nation than any weapon or external enemy, cleverly told from the perspective of a world where they didn't prevail. Readers unfamiliar with British political figures and their disastrous policies in the postwar era may need to brush up a bit to get the most out of this novel. The Abolition of Britain (November 2005) is an excellent place to start.

As alternative history, I found this less satisfying. Most works in the genre adhere to the rule that one changes a single historical event and then traces how the consequences of that change propagate and cascade through time. Had the only change been Hitler's dying in a car crash, this novel would conform to the rule, but that isn't what we have here. Although some subsequent events are consequences of Hitler's death, a number of other changes to history which (at least to this reader) don't follow in any way from it make major contributions to the plot. Now, a novelist is perfectly free to choose any premises he wishes—there are no black helicopters filled with agents of Anslinger's Bureau of Genre Enforcement poised to raid those who depart from the convention—but as a reader I found that having so many counterfactual antecedents made for an alternative world which was somewhat confusing until one eventually encountered the explanation for the discordant changes.

A well-produced Kindle edition is available.

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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.

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Thor, Brad. Blowback. New York: Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4516-0828-1.
This is the fourth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, Harvath is involved in a botched takedown attempt against an al-Qaeda operative which, repeated endlessly on cable news channels, brings him and his superiors into the crosshairs of ambitious former first lady and carpetbagging Senator Helen Remington Carmichael, who views exposing Harvath and those who ordered the operation as her ticket to second place on the next Democratic presidential ticket.

As wise people do when faced with the flounderings of a wounded yet still dangerous superpower, Harvath gets out of Dodge and soon finds himself on the trail of a plot, grounded in the arcane science of paleopathology and dating from Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, which threatens a genocide of non-believers in the Dar al-Harb and unification of the Ummah under a new caliphate. Scientists have been disappearing, and as Harvath follows the trail of the assassin, he discovers the sinister thread that ties their work, performed in isolation, together into a diabolical scheme.

Harvath teams up with a plucky lady paleopathologist (Harvath's female companions seem to adapt to commando missions as readily as Doctor Who's to multiverse displacement) and together they begin to follow the threads which lead to an horrific plot based on a weapon of mass destruction conceived in antiquity which has slumbered for millennia in an ice cavern.

What more could you ask for? Politics, diseases in antiquity, ice mummies, evil geniuses in Swiss mountain redoubts (heh!), glider assaults, mass murder with the chosen protected by mass marketing, and a helicopter assault on a terrorist icon in a Muslim country—works for me!

This is a thriller, and it delivers the thrills in abundance. But this is Fourmilab, and you expect the quibbles, don't you? So here we go, and without spoilers! The Super Vivat motor-gliders used to assault the mountaintop are said in chapter 72 to be capable of retracting the propeller into the nose of the fuselage and retracting and extending their landing gear. Neither is correct—the propeller can be feathered but not retracted, and the landing gear is fixed.

This is a page-turner, and it succeeds at its mission and will send you off to read the next in the series. The solution to the chaos in the Islamic world advanced here by the bad guys is, in fact, one I've been thinking about as less worse than most of the alternatives for more than decade. Could the “Arab Spring” give way to an “Ottoman Fall”? Let's talk Turkey.

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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.

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June 2011

Churchill, Winston S. Thoughts and Adventures. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, [1932] 2009. ISBN 978-1-935191-46-9.
Among the many accomplishments of Churchill's long and eventful life, it is easy to forget that in the years between the wars he made his living primarily as a writer, with a prolific output of books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. It was in this period of his life that he achieved the singular mastery of the English language which would serve him and Britain so well during World War II and which would be recognised by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

This collection of Churchill's short nonfiction was originally published in 1932 and is now available in a new edition, edited and with extensive annotations by James W. Muller. Muller provides abundant footnotes describing people, events, and locations which would have been familiar to Churchill's contemporary audience but which readers today might find obscure. Extensive end notes detail the publication history of each of the essays collected here, and document textual differences among the editions. Did you know that one of Churchill's principal markets across the Atlantic in the 1920s was Cosmopolitan?

This is simply a delicious collection of writing. Here we have Churchill recounting his adventures and misadventures in the air, a gun battle with anarchists on the streets of London, life in the trenches after he left the government and served on the front in World War I, his view of the partition of Ireland, and much more. Some of the essays are light, such as his take on political cartoons or his discovery of painting as a passion and pastime, but even these contain beautiful prose and profound insights. Then there is Churchill the prophet of human conflict to come. In “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”, he writes (p. 264):

Then there are Explosives. Have we reached the end? Has Science turned its last page on them? May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives of even the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?

Bear in mind that this was published in 1924. In 1931, looking “Fifty Years Hence”, he envisions (p. 290):

Wireless telephones and television, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their owner to connect up with any room similarly installed, and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head through the window. The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous. It would rarely be necessary to call in person on any but the most intimate friends, but if so, excessively rapid means of communication would be at hand. There would be no more object in living in the same city with one's neighbour than there is to-day in living with him in the same house. The cities and the countryside would become indistinguishable. Every home would have its garden and its glade.

It's best while enjoying this magnificent collection not to dwell on whether there is a single living politician of comparable stature who thinks so profoundly on so broad a spectrum of topics, or who can expound upon them to a popular audience in such pellucid prose.

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De Vany, Arthur. The New Evolution Diet. New York: Rodale Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60529-183-3.
The author is an economist best known for his research into the economics of Hollywood films, and his demonstration that the Pareto distribution applies to the profitability of Hollywood productions, empirically falsifying many entertainment business nostrums about a correlation between production cost and “star power” of the cast and actual performance at the box office. When his son, and later his wife, developed diabetes and the medical consensus treatment seemed to send both into a downward spiral, his economist's sense for the behaviour of complex nonlinear systems with feedback and delays caused him to suspect that the regimen prescribed for diabetics was based on a simplistic view of the system aimed at treating the symptoms rather than the cause. This led him to an in depth investigation of human metabolism and nutrition, grounded in the evolutionary heritage of our species (this is fully documented here—indeed, almost half of the book is end notes and source references, which should not be neglected: there is much of interest there).

His conclusion was that our genes, which have scarcely changed in the last 40,000 years, were adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that our hominid ancestors lived for millions of years before the advent of agriculture. Our present day diet and way of life could not be more at variance with our genetic programming, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we see a variety of syndromes, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and late-onset diseases such as many forms of cancer which are extremely rare among populations whose diet and lifestyle remain closer to those of ancestral humans. Strong evidence for this hypothesis comes from nomadic aboriginal populations which, settled into villages and transitioned to the agricultural diet, promptly manifested diseases, categorised as “metabolic syndrome”, which were previously unknown among them.

This is very much the same conclusion as that of The Paleo Diet (December 2010), and I recommend you read both of these books as they complement one another. The present volume goes deeper into the biochemistry underlying its dietary recommendations, and explores what the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has to say about the exercise to which we are adapted. Our ancestors' lives were highly chaotic: they ate when they made a kill or found food to gather and fasted until the next bounty. They engaged in intense physical exertion during a hunt or battle, and then passively rested until the next time. Modern times have made us slaves to the clock: we do the same things at the same times on a regular schedule. Even those who incorporate strenuous exercise into their routine tend to do the same things at the same time on the same days. The author argues that this is not remotely what our heritage has evolved us for.

Once Pareto gets into your head, it's hard to get him out. Most approaches to diet, nutrition, and exercise (including my own) view the human body as a system near equilibrium. The author argues that one shouldn't look at the mean but rather the kurtosis of the distribution, as it's the extremes that matter—don't tediously “do cardio” like all of the treadmill trudgers at the gym, but rather push your car up a hill every now and then, or randomly raise your heart rate into the red zone.

This all makes perfect sense to me. I happened to finish this book almost precisely six months after adopting my own version of the paleo diet, not from a desire to lose weight (I'm entirely happy with my weight, which hasn't varied much in the last twenty years, thanks to the feedback mechanism of The Hacker's Diet) but due to the argument that it averts late-onset diseases and extends healthy lifespan. Well, it's too early to form any conclusions on either of these, and in any case you can draw any curve you like through a sample size of one, but after half a year on paleo I can report that my weight is stable, my blood pressure is right in the middle of the green zone (as opposed to low-yellow before), I have more energy, sleep better, and have seen essentially all of the aches and pains and other symptoms of low-level inflammation disappear. Will you have cravings for things you've forgone when you transition to paleo? Absolutely—in my experience it takes about three months for them to go away. When I stopped salting my food, everything tasted like reprocessed blaah for the first couple of weeks, but now I appreciate the flavours below the salt.

For the time being, I'm going to continue this paleo thing, not primarily due to the biochemical and epidemiological arguments here, but because I've been doing it for six months and I feel better than I have for years. I am a creature of habit, and I find it very difficult to introduce kurtosis into my lifestyle: when exogenous events do so, I deem it an “entropic storm”. When it's 15:00, I go for my one hour walk. When it's 18:00, I eat, etc. Maybe I should find some way to introduce randomness into my life….

An excellent Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

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Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador, [1997] 1998. ISBN 978-0-312-20407-5.
There are many things to mock in the writings of “postmodern”, “deconstructionist”, and “critical” intellectuals, but one of the most entertaining for readers with a basic knowledge of science and mathematics is the propensity of many of these “scholars” to sprinkle their texts with words and concepts from mathematics and the physical sciences, all used entirely out of context and in total ignorance of their precise technical definitions, and without the slightest persuasive argument that there is any connection, even at a metaphorical level, between the mis-quoted science and the topic being discussed. This book, written by two physicists, collects some of the most egregious examples of such obscurantist writing by authors (all French—who would have guessed?) considered eminent in their fields. From Jacques Lacan's hilariously muddled attempts to apply topology and mathematical logic to psychoanalysis to Luce Irigaray's invoking fluid mechanics to argue that science is a male social construct, the passages quoted here at length are a laugh riot for those willing to momentarily put aside the consequences of their being taken seriously by many in the squishier parts of academia. Let me quote just one to give you a flavour—this passage is by Paul Virilio:

When depth of time replaces depths of sensible space; when the commutation of interface supplants the delimitation of surfaces; when transparence re-establishes appearances; then we begin to wonder whether that which we insist on calling space isn't actually light, a subliminary, para-optical light of which sunlight is only one phase or reflection. This light occurs in a duration measured in instantaneous time exposure rather than the historical and chronological passage of time. The time of this instant without duration is “exposure time”, be it over- or underexposure. Its photographic and cinematographic technologies already predicted the existence and the time of a continuum stripped of all physical dimensions, in which the quantum of energetic action and the punctum of cinematic observation have suddenly become the last vestiges of a vanished morphological reality. Transferred into the eternal present of a relativity whose topological and teleological thickness and depth belong to this final measuring instrument, this speed of light possesses one direction, which is both its size and dimension and which propagates itself at the same speed in all radial directions that measure the universe. (pp. 174–175)

This paragraph, which recalls those bright college days punctuated by deferred exhalations accompanied by “Great weed, man!”, was a single 193 word sentence in the original French; the authors deem it “the most perfect example of diarrhea of the pen that we have ever encountered.”

The authors survey several topics in science and mathematics which are particularly attractive to these cargo cult confidence men and women, and, dare I say, deconstruct their babblings. In all, I found the authors' treatment of the postmodernists remarkably gentle. While they do not hesitate to ridicule their gross errors and misappropriation of scientific concepts, they carefully avoid drawing the (obvious) conclusion that such ignorant nonsense invalidates the entire arguments being made. I suspect this is due to the authors, both of whom identify themselves as men of the Left, being sympathetic to the conclusions of those they mock. They're kind of stuck, forced to identify and scorn the irrational misuse of concepts from the hard sciences, while declining to examine the absurdity of the rest of the argument, which the chart from Explaining Postmodernism (May 2007) so brilliantly explains.

Alan Sokal is the perpetrator of the famous hoax which took in the editors of Social Text with his paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which appears in full here, along with comments on construction of the parody and remarks on the motivation behind it.

This book was originally published in French under the title Impostures intellectuelles. This English edition contains some material added to address critical comments on the French edition, and includes the original French language text of passages whose translation might be challenged as unfaithful to whatever the heck the original was trying to say.

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Hamilton, Steve. Misery Bay. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-312-38043-4.
I haven't been reading many mysteries recently, but when I happened to listen to a podcast interview with the author of this book set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, less than twelve hours before departing on a trip to precisely that destination, I could only conclude that the Cosmic Coincidence Control Centre was telling me to read this book, so I promptly downloaded the Kindle edition and read it after arrival. I'm glad I did.

This is the eighth novel in the author's Alex McKnight series, but it is perfectly accessible to readers (like myself) who start here. The story is recounted in the first person by McKnight, a former Detroit cop who escaped the cruel streets of that failed metropolis after a tragic episode, relocating to the town of Paradise in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where he intends to make a living renting cabins, but finds himself reluctantly involved as a private investigator in crimes which cross his path.

In the present book, McKnight agrees to look into the circumstances of the apparent suicide of the son of a friend and former colleague of McKnight's nemesis, police chief Roy Maven. This errand, undertaken on behalf of a distraught father who cannot imagine any motive for his son's taking his life, spirals into what appears to be a baffling cluster of suicides and murders involving current and former police officers and their children. McKnight seeks to find the thread which might tie these seemingly unrelated events together, along with a pair of FBI agents who, being feds, seem more concerned with protecting their turf than catching crooks.

Along with many twists and turns as the story develops and gripping action scenes, Hamilton does a superb job evoking the feel of the Upper Peninsula, where the long distances, sparse population, and extreme winters provide a background more like Montana than something you'd expect east of the Mississippi. In the end, the enigma is satisfyingly resolved and McKnight, somewhat the worse for wear, is motivated to turn the next corner in his life where, to be sure, other mysteries await.

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Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-14-028202-3.
Ray Kurzweil is one of the most vocal advocates of the view that the exponential growth in computing power (and allied technologies such as storage capacity and communication bandwidth) at constant cost which we have experienced for the last half century, notwithstanding a multitude of well-grounded arguments that fundamental physical limits on the underlying substrates will bring it to an end (all of which have proven to be wrong), will continue for the foreseeable future: in all likelihood for the entire twenty-first century. Continued exponential growth in a technology for so long a period is unprecedented in the human experience, and the consequences as the exponential begins to truly “kick in” (although an exponential curve is self-similar, its consequences as perceived by observers whose own criteria for evaluation are more or less constant will be seen to reach a “knee” after which they essentially go vertical and defy prediction). In The Singularity Is Near (October 2005), Kurzweil argues that once the point is reached where computers exceed the capability of the human brain and begin to design their own successors, an almost instantaneous (in terms of human perception) blow-off will occur, with computers rapidly converging on the ultimate physical limits on computation, with capabilities so far beyond those of humans (or even human society as a whole) that attempting to envision their capabilities or intentions is as hopeless as a microorganism's trying to master quantum field theory. You might want to review my notes on 2005's The Singularity Is Near before reading the balance of these comments: they provide context as to the extreme events Kurzweil envisions as occurring in the coming decades, and there are no “spoilers” for the present book.

When assessing the reliability of predictions, it can be enlightening to examine earlier forecasts from the same source, especially if they cover a period of time which has come and gone in the interim. This book, published in 1999 near the very peak of the dot-com bubble provides such an opportunity, and it provides a useful calibration for the plausibility of Kurzweil's more recent speculations on the future of computing and humanity. The author's view of the likely course of the 21st century evolved substantially between this book and Singularity—in particular this book envisions no singularity beyond which the course of events becomes incomprehensible to present-day human intellects. In the present volume, which employs the curious literary device of “trans-temporal chat” between the author, a MOSH (Mostly Original Substrate Human), and a reader, Molly, who reports from various points in the century her personal experiences living through it, we encounter a future which, however foreign, can at least be understood in terms of our own experience.

This view of the human prospect is very odd indeed, and to this reader more disturbing (verging on creepy) than the approach of a technological singularity. What we encounter here are beings, whether augmented humans or software intelligences with no human ancestry whatsoever, that despite having at hand, by the end of the century, mental capacity per individual on the order of 1024 times that of the human brain (and maybe hundreds of orders of magnitude more if quantum computing pans out), still have identities, motivations, and goals which remain comprehensible to humans today. This seems dubious in the extreme to me, and my impression from Singularity is that the author has rethought this as well.

Starting from the publication date of 1999, the book serves up surveys of the scene in that year, 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099. The chapter describing the state of computing in 2009 makes many specific predictions. The following are those which the author lists in the “Time Line” on pp. 277–278. Many of the predictions in the main text seem to me to be more ambitious than these, but I shall go with those the author chose as most important for the summary. I have reformatted these as a numbered list to make them easier to cite.

  1. A $1,000 personal computer can perform about a trillion calculations per second.
  2. Personal computers with high-resolution visual displays come in a range of sizes, from those small enough to be embedded in clothing and jewelry up to the size of a thin book.
  3. Cables are disappearing. Communication between components uses short-distance wireless technology. High-speed wireless communication provides access to the Web.
  4. The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition. Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces (LUIs).
  5. Most routine business transactions (purchases, travel, reservations) take place between a human and a virtual personality. Often, the virtual personality includes an animated visual presence that looks like a human face.
  6. Although traditional classroom organization is still common, intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning.
  7. Pocket-sized reading machines for the blind and visually impaired, “listening machines” (speech-to-text conversion) for the deaf, and computer-controlled orthotic devices for paraplegic individuals result in a growing perception that primary disabilities do not necessarily impart handicaps.
  8. Translating telephones (speech-to-speech language translation) are commonly used for many language pairs.
  9. Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which has been a reality in the computer field during the twentieth century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvements in the price performance of computing.
  10. Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians.
  11. Bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease have greatly reduced the mortality from these diseases.
  12. The neo-Luddite movement is growing.

I'm not going to score these in detail, as that would be both tedious and an invitation to endless quibbling over particulars, but I think most readers will agree that this picture of computing in 2009 substantially overestimates the actual state of affairs in the decade since 1999. Only item (3) seems to me to be arguably on the way to achievement, and yet I do not have a single wireless peripheral connected to any of my computers and Wi-Fi coverage remains spotty even in 2011. Things get substantially more weird the further out you go, and of course any shortfall in exponential growth lowers the baseline for further extrapolation, shifting subsequent milestones further out.

I find the author's accepting continued exponential growth as dogma rather off-putting. Granted, few people expected the trend we've lived through to continue for so long, but eventually you begin to run into physical constraints which seem to have little wiggle room for cleverness: the finite size of atoms, the electron's charge, and the speed of light. There's nothing wrong with taking unbounded exponential growth as a premise and then exploring what its implications would be, but it seems to me any forecast which is presented as a plausible future needs to spend more time describing how we'll actually get there: arm waving about three-dimensional circuitry, carbon nanotubes, and quantum computing doesn't close the sale for me. The author entirely lost me with note 3 to chapter 12 (p. 342), which concludes:

If engineering at the nanometer scale (nanotechnology) is practical in the year 2032, then engineering at the picometer scale should be practical in about forty years later (because 5.64 = approximately 1,000), or in the year 2072. Engineering at the femtometer (one thousandth of a trillionth of a meter, also referred to as a quadrillionth of a meter) scale should be feasible, therefore, by around the year 2112. Thus I am being a bit conservative to say that femtoengineering is controversial in 2099.

Nanoengineering involves manipulating individual atoms. Picoengineering will involve engineering at the level of subatomic particles (e.g., electrons). Femtoengineering will involve engineering inside a quark. This should not seem particularly startling, as contemporary theories already postulate intricate mechanisms within quarks.

This is just so breathtakingly wrong I am at a loss for where to begin, and it was just as completely wrong when the book was published two decades ago as it is today; nothing relevant to these statements has changed. My guess is that Kurzweil was thinking of “intricate mechanisms” within hadrons and mesons, particles made up of quarks and gluons, and not within quarks themselves, which then and now are believed to be point particles with no internal structure whatsoever and are, in any case, impossible to isolate from the particles they compose. When Richard Feynman envisioned molecular nanotechnology in 1959, he based his argument on the well-understood behaviour of atoms known from chemistry and physics, not a leap of faith based on drawing a straight line on a sheet of semi-log graph paper. I doubt one could find a single current practitioner of subatomic physics equally versed in the subject as was Feynman in atomic physics who would argue that engineering at the level of subatomic particles would be remotely feasible. (For atoms, biology provides an existence proof that complex self-replicating systems of atoms are possible. Despite the multitude of environments in the universe since the big bang, there is precisely zero evidence subatomic particles have ever formed structures more complicated than those we observe today.)

I will not further belabour the arguments in this vintage book. It is an entertaining read and will certainly expand your horizons as to what is possible and introduce you to visions of the future you almost certainly have never contemplated. But for a view of the future which is simultaneously more ambitious and plausible, I recommend The Singularity Is Near.

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July 2011

Coulter, Ann. Demonic. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1.
The author has a well-deserved reputation as thriving on controversy and not hesitating to incite her intellectual adversaries to paroxysms of spittle-spewing rage by patiently demonstrating their hypocrisy and irrationality. In the present volume, we have something substantially different from Coulter's earlier work. Drawing upon Gustave Le Bon's 1895 classic The Crowd, Coulter traces the behaviour of mobs and their influence upon societies and history from classical times to the present day.

The leaders of the American revolution and founders of the American republic were steeped in the history of mob behaviour in ancient Greece and Rome, and how it ultimately led to the downfall of consensual self-government in both of these polities. They were acutely aware that many of their contemporaries, in particular Montesquieu, argued that self-governance was not possible on a scale larger than that of a city-state. The structure devised for the new republic in North America was deliberately crafted to channel the enthusiasms of the citizenry into considered actions by a distributed set of institutions which set ambition against ambition in the interest of stability, protection of individual liberty, and defence of civil society against the will of a moment's majority.

By contrast to the American Secession from the British Empire (I deem it a secession since the main issue at dispute was the sovereignty of the King and Parliament over the colonies—after the conclusion of the conflict, the newly-independent colonies continued to govern themselves much as before, under the tradition of English common law), the French Revolution a few years later was a mob unleashed against the institutions of a society. In two well crafted chapters Coulter sketches the tragic and tawdry history of that episode which is often known to people today only from romantic accounts which elide the absurdity, collective insanity, and rivers of blood occasioned by the actual events. (For more details, see Citizens [October 2004], which is cited here as a source.)

The French Revolution was the prototype of all the mob revolutions which followed. Whether they called themselves Bolsheviks, Nazis, Maoists, or Khmer Rouge, their goal was to create heaven on Earth and if the flawed humans they hoped to forge into their bright shining utopia were unworthy, well then certainly killing off enough of those recalcitrant dissenters would do the trick.

Bringing this home to America, Coulter argues that although mob politics is hardly new to America, for the first time it is approaching a tipping point in having a near majority which pays no Federal income tax and whose net income consists of transfer payments from others. Further, the mob is embodied in an institution, the Democratic party, which, with its enablers in the legacy media, academia, labour unions, ethnic grievance groups, and other constituencies, is not only able to turn out the vote but also to bring mobs into the street whenever it doesn't get its way through the institutions of self-governance. As the (bare) majority of productive citizens attempt to stem the slide into the abyss, they will be pitted against the mob, aroused by the Democrat political apparatus, supported by the legacy media (which covers up their offences, while accusing orderly citizens defending their rights of imagined crimes), and left undefended by “law enforcement”, which has been captured by “public employee unions” which are an integral part of the mob.

Coulter focuses primarily on the U.S., but the phenomenon she describes is global in scope: one need only see the news from Athens, London, Madrid, Paris, or any number of less visible venues to see the savage beast of the mob baring its teeth against the cowering guardians of civilisation. Until decent, productive people who, just two generations ago, had the self-confidence not only to assume the progress to which they were the heirs would continue into the indefinite future but, just for a lark, go and visit the Moon, see the mob for what it is, the enemy, and deal with it appropriately, the entire heritage of civilisation will remain in peril.

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Shute, Nevil [Nevil Shute Norway]. Slide Rule. Kelly Bray, UK: House of Stratus, [1954] 2000. ISBN 978-1-84232-291-8.
The author is best known for his novels, several of which were made into Hollywood movies, including No Highway and On the Beach. In this book, he chronicles his “day job” as an aeronautical engineer and aviation entrepreneur in what he describes as the golden age of aviation: an epoch where a small team of people could design and manufacture innovative aircraft without the huge budgets, enormous bureaucratic organisations, or intrusive regulation which overcame the spirit of individual invention and enterprise as aviation matured. (The author, fearing that being known as a fictioneer might make him seem disreputable as an engineer, published his books under the name “Nevil Shute”, while using his full name, “Nevil Shute Norway” in his technical and business career. He explains that decision in this book, published after he had become a full-time writer.)

This is a slim volume, but there is as much wisdom here as in a dozen ordinary books this size, and the writing is simultaneously straightforward and breathtakingly beautiful. A substantial part of the book recounts the history of the U.K. airship project, which pitted a private industry team in which Shute played a major rôle building the R.100 in competition with a government-designed and -built ship, the R.101, designed to the same specifications. Seldom in the modern history of technology has there been such a clear-cut illustration of the difference between private enterprise designing toward a specification under a deadline and fixed budget and a government project with unlimited funds, no oversight, and with specifications and schedules at the whim of politicians with no technical knowledge whatsoever. The messy triumph of the R.100 and the tragedy of the R.101, recounted here by an insider, explains the entire sordid history of NASA, the Concorde, and innumerable other politically-driven technological boondoggles.

Had Shute brought the book to a close at the end of the airship saga, it would be regarded as a masterpiece of reportage of a now-forgotten episode in aviation history. But then he goes on to describe his experience in founding, funding, and operating a start-up aircraft manufacturer, Airspeed Ltd., in the middle of the Great Depression. This is simply the best first-person account of entrepreneurship and the difficult decisions one must make in bringing a business into being and keeping it going “whatever it takes”, and of the true motivation of the entrepreneur (hint: money is way down the list) that I have ever read, and I speak as somebody who has written one of my own. Then, if that weren't enough, Shute sprinkles the narrative with gems of insight aspiring writers may struggle years trying to painfully figure out on their own, which are handed to those seeking to master the craft almost in passing.

I could quote dozens of lengthy passages from this book which almost made me shiver when I read them from the sheer life-tested insight distilled into so few words. But I'm not going to, because what you need to do is go and get this book, right now (see below for an electronic edition), and drop whatever you're doing and read it cover to cover. I have had several wise people counsel me to do the same over the years and, for whatever reason, never seemed to find the time. How I wish I had read this book before I embarked upon my career in business, and how much comfort and confidence it would have given me upon reaching the difficult point where a business has outgrown the capabilities and interests of its founders.

An excellent Kindle edition is available.

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Preston, Richard. Panic in Level 4. New York: Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8129-7560-4.
The New Yorker is one of the few remaining markets for long-form reportage of specialised topics directed at an intelligent general audience, and Richard Preston is one of the preeminent practitioners of that craft working today. This book collects six essays originally published in that magazine along with a new introduction as long as some of the chapters which describes the title incident in which the author found himself standing space-suit to protein coat of a potentially unknown hæmorrhagic fever virus in a U.S. Army hot lab. He also provides tips on his style of in-depth, close and personal journalism (which he likens to “climb[ing] into the soup”), which aspiring writers may find enlightening.

In subsequent chapters we encounter the Chudnovsky brothers, émigré number theorists from the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), who built a supercomputer in their New York apartment from mail-order components to search for structure in the digits of π, and later used their mathematical prowess and computing resources to digitally “stitch” together and thereby make a backup copy of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries; the mercurial Craig Venter in the midst of the genome war in the 1990s; arborists and entomologists tracing the destruction of the great hemlock forests of the eastern U.S. by invasive parasites; and heroic medical personnel treating the victims of an Ebola outbreak in unspeakable conditions in Africa.

The last, and most disturbing chapter (don't read it if you're planning to go to sleep soon or, for that matter, sleep well anytime in the next few days) describes Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disease caused by a single nucleotide mutation in the HPRT1 gene located on the X chromosome. Those affected (almost all males, since females have two X chromosomes and will exhibit symptoms only if both contain the mutation) exhibit behaviour which, phenomenologically, can be equally well described by possession by a demon which compels them at random times to self-destructive behaviour as by biochemistry and brain function. Sufferers chew their lips and tongues, often destroying them entirely, and find their hands seemingly acting with a will of their own to attack their faces, either with fingers or any tool at hand. They often bite off flesh from their hands or entire fingers, sometimes seemingly in an attempt to stop them from inflicting further damage. Patients with the syndrome can appear normal, fully engaged with the world and other individuals, and intelligent, and yet when “possessed”, capable of callous cruelty, both physical and emotional, toward those close to them.

When you get beyond the symptoms and the tragic yet engaging stories of those afflicted with the disease with whom the author became friends, there is much to ponder in what all of this means for free will and human identity. We are talking about what amounts to a single typo in a genetic blueprint of three billion letters which causes the most profound consequences imaginable for the individual who carries it and perceives it as an evil demon living within their mind. How many other aspects of what we think of as our identity, whether for good or ill, are actually expressions of our genetic programming? To what extent is this true of our species as a whole? What will we make of ourselves once we have the ability to manipulate our genome at will? Sweet dreams….

Apart from the two chapters on the Chudnovskys, which have some cross references, you can read the chapters in any order.

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Rawles, James Wesley. How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. New York: Plume, 2009. ISBN 978-0-452-29583-4.
As I write these comments in July of 2011, the legacy media and much of the “new” media are focussed on the sovereign debt crises in Europe and the United States, with partisans on every side of the issue and both sides of the Atlantic predicting apocalyptic consequences if their policy prescriptions are not promptly enacted. While much of the rhetoric is overblown and many of the “deadlines” artificial constructs created for political purposes, the situation cannot help but remind one of just how vulnerable the infrastructure of civilisation in developed nations has become to disruptions which, even a few decades ago, would have been something a resilient populace could ride out (consider civilian populations during World War II as an example).

Today, however, delivery of food, clean water, energy, life-sustaining pharmaceuticals, and a multitude of other necessities of life to populations increasingly concentrated in cities and suburbs is a “just in time” process, optimised to reduce inventory all along the chain from primary producer to consumer and itself dependent upon the infrastructure for its own operation. For example, a failure of the electrical power grid in a region not only affects home and business use of electricity, but will quickly take down delivery of fresh water; removal and processing of sewage; heating for buildings which rely on electrically powered air or water circulation systems and furnace burners; and telephone, Internet, radio, and television communication once the emergency generators which back up these facilities exhaust their fuel supplies (usually in a matter of days). Further, with communications down, inventory control systems all along the food supply chain will be inoperable, and individuals in the region will be unable to either pay with credit or debit cards or obtain cash from automatic teller machines. This only scratches the surface of the consequences of a “grid down” scenario, and it takes but a little reflection to imagine how a failure in any one part of the infrastructure can bring the rest down.

One needn't envision a continental- or global-scale financial collapse to imagine how you might find yourself on your own for a period of days to weeks: simply review the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornado swarms, and large-scale flooding in recent years to appreciate how events which, while inevitable in the long term but unanticipated until too short a time before they happened to effectively prepare for, can strike. The great advantage of preparing for the apocalypse is that when something on a smaller scale happens, you can ride it out and help your neighbours get through the difficult times without being a burden on stretched-thin emergency services trying to cope with the needs of those with less foresight.

This book, whose author is the founder of the essential SurvivalBlog site, is a gentle introduction to (quoting the subtitle) “tactics, techniques, and technologies for uncertain times”. By “gentle”, I mean that there is little or no strident doom-saying here; instead, the reader is encouraged to ask, “What if?”, then “What then?”, and so on until an appreciation of what it really means when the power is off, the furnace is dead, the tap is dry, the toilet doesn't flush, the refrigerator and freezer are coming to room temperature, and you don't have any food in the pantry.

The bulk of the book describes steps you can take, regardless of how modest your financial means, free time, and physical capacity, to prepare for such exigencies. In many cases, the cost of such common-sense preparations is negative: if you buy storable food in bulk and rotate your storage by regularly eating what you've stored, you'll save money when buying through quantity discounts (and/or buying when prices are low or there's a special deal at the store), and in an inflationary era, by buying before prices rise. The same applies to fuel, ammunition, low-tech workshop and gardening tools, and many other necessities when civilisation goes south for a while. Those seeking to expand their preparations beyond the basics will find a wealth of references here, and will find a vast trove of information on the author's SurvivalBlog.

The author repeatedly emphasises that the most important survival equipment is stored between your ears, and readers are directed to sources of information and training in a variety of fields. The long chapter on medical and dental care in exigent circumstances is alone almost worth the price of the book. For a fictional treatment of survival in an extreme grid-down societal collapse, see the author's novel Patriots (December 2008).

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Stross, Charles. Accelerando. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01415-6.
Some people complain that few contemporary science fiction authors work on the grand scale of the masters of yore. Nobody can say that about Charles Stross, who in this novel tells the story of the human species' transcendence as it passes through a technological singularity caused by the continued exponential growth of computational power to the point where a substantial fraction of the mass of the solar system is transformed from “dumb matter” into computronium, engineered through molecular nanotechnology to perform the maximum amount of computation given its mass and the free energy of its environment. The scenario which plays out in the 21st century envisioned here is essentially that of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines (June 2011) with additions by the author to make things more interesting.

The story is told as the chronicle of the (very) extended family of Manfred Macx, who starts as a “venture altruist” in the early years of the century, as the rising curve of computation begins to supplant economics (the study of the use of scarce resources) with “agalmics”: the allocation of abundant resources. As the century progresses, things get sufficiently weird that even massively augmented human intelligences can perceive them only dimly from a distance, and the human, transhuman, posthuman, emulated, resurrected, and multithreaded members of the Macx family provide our viewpoint on what's happening, as they try to figure it all out for themselves. And then there's the family cat….

Forecasts of future technologies often overlook consequences which seem obvious in retrospect. For example, many people predicted electronic mail, but how many envisioned spam? Stross goes to some lengths here to imagine the unintended consequences of a technological singularity. You think giant corporations and financial derivatives are bad? Wait until they become sentient, with superhuman intelligence and the ability to reproduce!

The novel was assembled from nine short stories, and in some cases this is apparent, but it didn't detract from this reader's enjoyment. For readers “briefed in” on the whole singularity/nanotechnology/extropian/posthuman meme bundle, this work is a pure delight—there's something for everybody, even a dine-in-saur! If you're one of those folks who haven't yet acquired a taste for treats which “taste like (mambo) chicken”, plan to read this book with a search box open and look up the multitude of terms which are dropped without any explanation and which will send you off into the depths of the weird as you research them. An excellent Kindle edition is available which makes this easy.

Reading “big idea” science fiction may cause you to have big ideas of your own—that's why we read it, right? Anyway, this isn't in the book, so I don't consider talking about it a spoiler, but what occurred to me whilst reading the novel is that transcendence of naturally-evolved (or were they…?) species into engineered computational substrates might explain some of the puzzles of cosmology with which we're presently confronted. Suppose transcendent super-intelligences which evolved earlier in the universe have already ported themselves from crude molecular structures to the underlying structure of the quantum vacuum. The by-product of their computation might be the dark energy which has so recently (in terms of the history of the universe) caused the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The “coincidence problem” is why we, as unprivileged observers in the universe, should be living so close to the moment at which the acceleration began. Well, if it's caused by other beings who happened to evolve to their moment of transcendence a few billion years before us, it makes perfect sense, and we'll get into the act ourselves before too long. Accelerando!

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August 2011

Galt, John [pseud.]. The Day the Dollar Died. Florida: Self-published, 2011.
I have often remarked in this venue how fragile the infrastructure of the developed world is, and how what might seem to be a small disruption could cascade into a black swan event which could potentially result in the end of the world as we know it. It is not only physical events such as EMP attacks, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, or natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes which can set off the downspiral, but also loss of confidence in the financial system in which all of the myriad transactions which make up the global division of labour on which our contemporary society depends. In a fiat money system, where currency has no intrinsic value and is accepted only on the confidence that it will be subsequently redeemable for other goods without massive depreciation, loss of that confidence can bring the system down almost overnight, and this has happened again and again in the sorry millennia-long history of paper money. As economist Herbert Stein observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. But, when pondering the many “unsustainable” trends we see all around us today, it's important to bear in mind that they can often go on for much longer, diverging more into the world of weird than you ever imagined before stopping, and that when they finally do stop the débâcle can be more sudden and breathtaking in its consequences than even excitable forecasters conceived.

In this gripping thriller, the author envisions the sudden loss in confidence of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar and the ability of the U.S. government to make good on its obligations catalysing a meltdown of the international financial system and triggering dire consequences within the United States as an administration which believes “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” exploits the calamity to begin “fundamentally transforming the United States of America”. The story is told in a curious way: by one first-person narrator and from the viewpoint of other people around the country recounted in third-person omniscient style. This is unusual, but I didn't find it jarring, and the story works.

The recounting of the aftermath of sudden economic collapse is compelling, and will probably make you rethink your own preparations for such a dire (yet, I believe, increasingly probable) event. The whole post-collapse scenario is a little too black helicopter for my taste: we're asked to simultaneously believe that a government which has bungled its way into an apocalyptic collapse of the international economic system (entirely plausible in my view) will be ruthlessly efficient in imposing its new order (nonsense—it will be as mindlessly incompetent as in everything else it attempts). But the picture painted of how citizens can be intimidated or co-opted into becoming collaborators rings true, and will give you pause as you think about your friends and neighbours as potential snitches working for the Man. I found it particularly delightful that the author envisions a concept similar to my 1994 dystopian piece, Unicard, as playing a part in the story.

At present, this book is available only in PDF format. I read it with Stanza on my iPad, which provides a reading experience equivalent to the Kindle and iBooks applications. The author says other electronic editions of this book will be forthcoming in the near future; when they're released they should be linked to the page cited above. The PDF edition is perfectly readable, however, so if this book interests you, there's no reason to wait. And, hey, it's free! As a self-published work, it's not surprising there are a number of typographical errors, although very few factual errors I noticed. That said, I've read novels published by major houses with substantially more copy editing goofs, and the errors here never confuse the reader nor get in the way of the narrative. For the author's other writings and audio podcasts, visit his Web site.

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Steyn, Mark. After America. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98100-3.
If John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed (October 2009) wasn't gloomy enough for you, this book will have you laughing all way from the event horizon to the central singularity toward which what remains of Western civilisation is free falling. In the author's view, the West now faces a perfect storm of demographic collapse (discussed in detail in his earlier America Alone [November 2006]); financial cataclysm due to unsustainable debt and “entitlement” commitments made by the welfare state; a culture crash after two generations have been indoctrinated in dependency, multiculturalism, and not just ignorance but a counterfactual fantasy view of history; and a political and cultural élite which has become so distinct and disconnected from the shrinking productive classes it almost seems to be evolving into a separate species.

Steyn uses H. G. Wells's The Time Machine as his guide to the future, arguing that Wells got the details right but that bifurcation of mankind into the effete Eloi and the productive but menacing Morlocks is not in the remote future, but has already happened in Western society in every sense but the biological, and even that is effectively the case as the two castes increasingly rarely come into contact with one another, no less interbreed. The Eloi, what Angelo Codevilla called The Ruling Class (October 2010), are the product of top-ranked universities and law schools and dominate government, academia, and the media. Many of them have been supported by taxpayers their entire lives and have never actually done anything productive in their careers. The Obama administration, which is almost devoid of individuals with any private sector experience at the cabinet level, might be deemed the first all-Eloi government in the U.S. As Wells's Time Traveller discovered, the whole Eloi/Morlock thing ended badly, and that's what Steyn envisions happening in the West, not in the distant future or even by mid-century, but within this decade, absent radical and painful course changes which are difficult to imagine being implemented by the feckless political classes of Europe, the U.S., and Japan.

In a chilling chapter, Steyn invokes the time machine once again to deliver a letter from the middle of our century to a reader in the America of 1950. In a way the world he describes would be as alien to its Truman administration reader as any dystopian vision of Wells, Orwell, or Huxley, and it is particularly disturbing to note that most of the changes he forecasts have already taken place or their precipitating events already underway in trends which are either impossible or extremely difficult to reverse. A final chapter, which I'll bet was added at the insistence of the publisher, provides a list of things which might be done to rescue the West from its imminent demise. They all make perfect sense, are easily understood, and would doubtless improve the situation even if inadequate to entirely avoid the coming calamity. And there is precisely zero chance of any of them being implemented in a country where 52.9% of the population voted for Barack Obama in 2008, at the tipping point where a majority dependent on the state and state employees who tend to them outvote a minority of productive taxpayers.

Regular readers of Steyn's columns will find much of this material familiar—I suspect there was more than a little cut and paste in assembling this manuscript. The tone of the argument is more the full-tilt irony, mockery, and word play one expects in a column than the more laid back voice customary in a book. You might want to read a chapter every few days rather than ploughing right through to the end to avoid getting numbed. But then the writing is so good it's difficult to put down.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

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Ahamed, Liaquat. Lords of Finance. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-14-311680-6.
I have become increasingly persuaded that World War I was the singular event of the twentieth century in that it was not only an unprecedented human tragedy in its own right (and utterly unnecessary), it set in motion the forces which would bring about the calamities which would dominate the balance of the century and which still cast dark shadows on our world as it approaches one century after that fateful August. When the time comes to write the epitaph of the entire project of the Enlightenment (assuming its successor culture permits it to even be remembered, which is not the way to bet), I believe World War I will be seen as the moment when it all began to go wrong.

This is my own view, not the author's thesis in this book, but it is a conclusion I believe is strongly reinforced by the events chronicled here. The present volume is a history of central banking in Europe and the U.S. from the years prior to World War I through the institution of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates based on U.S. dollar reserves backed by gold. The story is told through the careers of the four central bankers who dominated the era: Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Émile Moreau of la Banque de France, Hjalmar Schact of the German Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Prior to World War I, central banking, to the extent it existed at all in anything like the modern sense, was a relatively dull field of endeavour performed by correspondingly dull people, most aristocrats or scions of wealthy families who lacked the entrepreneurial bent to try things more risky and interesting. Apart from keeping the system from seizing up in the occasional financial panic (which was done pretty much according to the playbook prescribed in Walter Bagehot's Lombard Street, published in 1873), there really wasn't a lot to do. All of the major trading nations were on a hard gold standard, where their paper currency was exchangeable on demand for gold coin or bullion at a fixed rate. This imposed rigid discipline upon national governments and their treasuries, since any attempt to inflate the money supply ran the risk of inciting a run on their gold reserves. Trade imbalances would cause a transfer of gold which would force partners to adjust their interest rates, automatically cooling off overheated economies and boosting those suffering slowdowns.

World War I changed everything. After the guns fell silent and the exhausted nations on both sides signed the peace treaties, the financial landscape of the world was altered beyond recognition. Germany was obliged to pay reparations amounting to a substantial fraction of its GDP for generations into the future, while both Britain and France had run up debts with the United States which essentially cleaned out their treasuries. The U.S. had amassed a hoard of most of the gold in the world, and was the only country still fully on the gold standard. As a result of the contortions done by all combatants to fund their war efforts, central banks, which had been more or less independent before the war, became increasingly politicised and the instruments of government policy.

The people running these institutions, however, were the same as before: essentially amateurs without any theoretical foundation for the policies this unprecedented situation forced them to formulate. Germany veered off into hyperinflation, Britain rejoined the gold standard at the prewar peg of the pound, resulting in disastrous deflation and unemployment, while France revalued the franc against gold at a rate which caused the French economy to boom and gold to start flowing into its coffers. Predictably, this led to crisis after crisis in the 1920s, to which the central bankers tried to respond with Band-Aid after Band-Aid without any attempt to fix the structural problems in the system they had cobbled together. As just one example, an elaborate scheme was crafted where the U.S. would loan money to Germany which was used to make reparation payments to Britain and France, who then used the proceeds to repay their war debts to the U.S. Got it? (It was much like the “petrodollar recycling” of the 1970s where the West went into debt to purchase oil from OPEC producers, who would invest the money back in the banks and treasury securities of the consumer countries.) Of course, the problem with such schemes is there's always that mountain of debt piling up somewhere, in this case in Germany, which can't be repaid unless the economy that's straining under it remains prosperous. But until the day arrives when the credit card is maxed out and the bill comes due, things are glorious. After that, not so much—not just bad, but Hitler bad.

This is a fascinating exploration of a little-known epoch in monetary history, and will give you a different view of the causes of the U.S. stock market bubble of the 1920s, the crash of 1929, and the onset of the First Great Depression. I found the coverage of the period a bit uneven: the author skips over much of the financial machinations of World War I and almost all of World War II, concentrating on events of the 1920s which are now all but forgotten (not that there isn't a great deal we can learn from them). The author writes from a completely conventional wisdom Keynesian perspective—indeed Keynes is a hero of the story, offstage for most of it, arguing that flawed monetary policy was setting the stage for disaster. The cause of the monetary disruptions in the 1920s and the Depression is attributed to the gold standard, and yet even the most cursory examination of the facts, as documented in the book itself, gives lie to this. After World War I, there was a gold standard in name only, as currencies were manipulated at the behest of politicians for their own ends without the discipline of the prewar gold standard. Further, if the gold standard caused the Depression, why didn't the Depression end when all of the major economies were forced off the gold standard by 1933? With these caveats, there is a great deal to be learned from this recounting of the era of the first modern experiment in political control of money. We are still enduring its consequences. One fears the “maestros” trying to sort out the current mess have no more clue what they're doing than the protagonists in this account.

In the Kindle edition the table of contents and end notes are properly linked to the text, but source citations, which are by page number in the print edition, are not linked. However, locations in the book are given both by print page number and Kindle “location”, so you can follow them, albeit a bit tediously, if you wish to. The index is just a list of terms without links to their appearances in the text.

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September 2011

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity. New York: Viking, 2011. ISBN 978-0-670-02275-5.
Were it possible to communicate with the shades of departed geniuses, I suspect Richard Feynman would be dismayed at the prospect of a distinguished theoretical physicist committing phil-oss-o-phy in public, while Karl Popper would be pumping his fist in exultation and shouting “Yes!”. This is a challenging book and, at almost 500 pages in the print edition, a rather long one, but it is a masterpiece well worthy of the investment in reading it, and then, after an interval to let its implications sink in, reading it again because there is so much here that you're unlikely to appreciate it all in a single reading.

The author attempts nothing less ambitious than a general theory of the creation of knowledge and its implications for the future of the universe. (In what follows, I shall take a different approach than the author in explaining the argument, but I think we arrive at the same place.) In all human endeavours: science, art, morals, politics and governance, technology, economics, etc., what we ultimately seek are good explanations—models which allow us to explain a complex objective reality and make predictions about its behaviour. The author rejects the arguments of the relativists and social constructionists that no such objective reality exists, as well as those of empiricists and advocates of inductive reasoning that our models come purely from observation of events. Instead, he contends that explanations come from conjectures which originate in the human mind (often sparked by experience), which are then tested against objective reality and alternative conjectures, in a process which (in the absence of constraints which obstruct the process, such as reliance on received wisdom instead of free inquiry) inevitably converges upon explanations which are minimal and robust in the sense that almost any small change destroys their predictive power.

For example, if I were so inclined, I could invent a myth involving gods and goddesses and their conflicting wills and goals which would exactly replicate the results of Newton's laws of mechanics. But this would be a bad explanation because the next person could come up with their own myth involving an entirely different pantheon which produced the same results. All of the excess baggage contributes nothing to the explanation, while there's no way you can simplify “F=ma” without breaking the entire structure.

And yet all of our explanations, however elegant and well-tested, are simply the best explanations we've found so far, and likely to be incomplete when we try to apply them to circumstances outside the experiences which motivated us to develop them. Newton's laws fail to describe the motion of objects at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, and it's evident from fundamental conflicts in their theoretical structure that our present theories of the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (general relativity) are inadequate to describe circumstances which obtained in the early universe and in gravitational collapse of massive objects.

What is going on here, contends Deutsch, is nothing other than evolution, with the creation of conjectures within the human mind serving as variation and criticism of them based on confrontation with reality performing selection. Just as biological evolution managed over four billion years or so to transform the ancestral cell into human brains capable of comprehending structures from subatomic particles to cosmology, the spark which was ignited in the brains of our ancestors is able, in principle, to explain everything, either by persistence in the process of conjecture and criticism (variation and selection), or by building the tools (scientific instruments, computers, and eventually perhaps our own intellectually transcendent descendents) necessary to do so. The emergence of the human brain was a phase transition in the history of the Earth and, perhaps, the universe. Humans are universal explainers.

Let's consider the concept of universality. While precisely defined in computing, it occurs in many guises. For example, a phonetic alphabet (as opposed to a pictographic writing system) is capable of encoding all possible words made up of the repertoire of sounds it expresses, including those uninvented and never yet spoken. A positional number system can encode all possible numbers without the need to introduce new symbols for numbers larger or smaller than those encountered so far. The genetic code, discovered as best we can determine through a process of chemical evolution on the early Earth, is universal: the same code, with a different string of nucleotides, can encode both brewer's yeast and Beethoven. Less than five million years ago the human lineage diverged from the common ancestor of present-day humans and chimpanzees, and between that time and today the human mind made the “leap to universality”, with the capacity to generate explanations, test them against reality, transmit them to other humans as memes, and store them extrasomatically as oral legends and, eventually, written records.

Universality changes all the rules and potential outcomes. It is a singularity in the mathematical sense that one cannot predict the future subsequent to its emergence from events preceding it. For example, an extraterrestrial chemist monitoring Earth prior to the emergence of the first replicator could have made excellent predictions about the chemical composition of the oceans and its interaction with the energy and material flows in the environment, but at the moment that first replicating cell appeared, the potential for things the meticulous chemist wouldn't remotely imagine came into existence: stromatolites, an oxygen-rich atmosphere, metazoans, flowers, beetles, dinosaurs, boot prints on the Moon, and the designated hitter rule. So it is with the phase transition to universality of the human mind. It is now impossible to predict based on any model not taking that singularity into account the fate of the Earth, the Sun, the solar system, or the galaxy. Barring societal collapse, it appears probable that within this century individual wealthy humans (and a few years thereafter, everybody) will have the ability to launch self-replicating von Neumann probes into the galaxy with the potential of remaking it in their own image in an eyeblink compared to the age of the universe (unless they encounter probes launched by another planet full of ambitious universal explainers, which makes for another whole set of plot lines).

But universality and evolutionary epistemology have implications much closer to home and the present. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western culture has developed and refined the scientific method, the best embodiment of the paradigm of conjecture and criticism in the human experience. And yet, at the same time, the institutions of governance of our societies have been largely variations on the theme of “who shall rule?”, and the moral underpinnings of our societies have either been based upon received wisdom from sacred texts, tradition, or the abdication of judgement inherent in multicultural relativism. The author argues that in all of these “non-scientific” domains objective truth exists just as it does in mechanics and chemistry, and that we can discover it and ever improve our explanations of it by precisely the same process we use in science: conjecture and criticism. Perversely, many of the institutions we've created impede this process. Consider how various political systems value compromise. But if there is a right answer and a wrong answer, you don't get a better explanation by splitting the difference. It's as if, faced with a controversy between geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system, you came up with a “compromise” that embodied the “best of both”. In fact, Tycho did precisely that, and it worked even worse than the alternatives. The value of democracy is not that it generates good policies—manifestly it doesn't—but rather that it provides the mechanism for getting rid of bad policies and those who advocate them and eventually selecting the least bad policies based upon present knowledge, always subject to revision based on what we'll discover tomorrow.

The Enlightenment may also be thought of as a singularity. While there have been brief episodes in human history where our powers as universal explainers have been unleashed (Athens and Florence come to mind, although there have doubtless been a multitude of others throughout history which have left us no record—it is tragic to think of how many Galileos were born and died in static tribal societies), our post-Enlightenment world is the only instance which has lasted for centuries and encompassed a large part of the globe. The normal state of human civilisation seems to be a static or closed society dominated by tradition and taboos which extinguish the inborn spark of universal explanation which triggers the runaway exponential growth of knowledge and power. The dynamic (or open) society (1, 2) is a precious thing which has brought unprecedented prosperity to the globe and stands on the threshold of remaking the universe as we wish it to be.

If this spark be not snuffed by ignorance, nihilism, adherence to tradition and authority, and longing for the closure of some final utopia, however confining, but instead lights the way to a boundless frontier of uncertainty and new problems to comprehend and solve, then David Deutsch will be celebrated as one of the visionaries who pointed the way to this optimistic destiny of our species and its inheritors.

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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.

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October 2011

Worden, Al with Francis French. Falling to Earth. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-58834-309-3.
Al Worden (his given name is Alfred, but he has gone by “Al” his whole life) was chosen as a NASA astronaut in April 1966, served as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 12 mission, the second Moon landing, and then flew to the Moon as command module pilot of Apollo 15, the first serious geological exploration mission. As command module pilot, Worden did not land on the Moon but, while tending the ship in orbit awaiting the return of his crewmates, operated a series of scientific experiments, some derived from spy satellite technology, which provided detailed maps of the Moon and a survey of its composition. To retrieve the film from the mapping cameras in the service module, Worden performed the first deep-space EVA during the return to Earth.

Growing up on a farm in rural Michigan during the first great depression and the second World War, Worden found his inclination toward being a loner reinforced by the self-reliance his circumstances forced upon him. He remarks on several occasions how he found satisfaction in working by himself and what he achieved on his own and while not disliking the company of others, found no need to validate himself through their opinions of him. This inner-directed drive led him to West Point, which he viewed as the only way to escape from a career on the farm given his family's financial circumstances, an Air Force commission, and graduation from the Empire Test Pilots' School in Farnborough, England under a US/UK exchange program.

For one inclined to be a loner, it would be difficult to imagine a more ideal mission than Worden's on Apollo 15. Orbiting the Moon in the command module Endeavour for almost three days by himself he was, at maximum distance on the far side of the Moon, more isolated from his two crewmates on the surface than any human has been from any other humans before or since (subsequent Apollo missions placed the command module in a lower lunar orbit, reducing this distance slightly). He candidly admits how much he enjoyed being on his own in the capacious command module, half the time entirely his own man while out of radio contact behind the Moon, and how his joy at the successful return of his comrades from the surface was tempered by how crowded and messy the command module was with them, the Moon rocks they collected, and all the grubby Moon dust clinging to their spacesuits on board.

Some Apollo astronauts found it difficult to adapt to life on Earth after their missions. Travelling to the Moon before you turn forty is a particularly extreme case of “peaking early”, and the question of “What next?” can be formidable, especially when the entire enterprise of lunar exploration was being dismantled at its moment of triumph. Still, one should not overstate this point: of the twenty-four astronauts who flew to the Moon, most went on to subsequent careers you'd expect for the kind of overachievers who become astronauts in the first place—in space exploration, the military, business, politics, education, and even fine arts. Few, however, fell to Earth so hard as the crew of Apollo 15. The collapse of one of their three landing parachutes before splashdown due to the canopy's being eroded due to a dump of reaction control propellant might have been seen as a premonition of this, but after the triumphal conclusion of a perfect mission, a White House reception, an address to a joint session of Congress, and adulatory celebrations on a round-the-world tour, it all came undone in an ugly scandal involving, of all things, postage stamps.

The Apollo 15 crew, like those of earlier NASA missions, had carried on board as part of their “personal preference kits” postage stamp covers commemorating the flight. According to Worden's account in this book, the Apollo 15 covers were arranged by mission commander Dave Scott, and agreed to by Worden and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin on Scott's assurance that this was a routine matter which would not affect their careers and that any sales of the covers would occur only after their retirement from NASA and the Air Force (in which all three were officers). When, after the flight, the covers began to come onto the market, an ugly scandal erupted, leading to the Apollo 15 crew being removed from flight status, and Worden and Irwin being fired from NASA with reprimands placed in their Air Force records which would block further promotion. Worden found himself divorced (before the Moon mission), out of a job at NASA, and with no future in the Air Force.

Reading this book, you get the impression that this was something like the end of Worden's life. And yet it wasn't—he went on to complete his career in the flight division at NASA's Ames Research Center and retire with the rank and pension of a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He then served in various capacities in private sector aerospace ventures and as chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Honestly, reading this book, you get the sense that everybody has forgotten the stupid postage stamps except the author. If there is some kind of redemption to be had by recounting the episode here (indeed, “Redemption” is the title of chapter 13 of this work), then fine, but whilst reading this account, I found myself inclined to shout, “Dude—you flew to the Moon! Yes, you messed up and got fired—who hasn't? But you landed on your feet and have had a wonderful life since, including thirty years of marriage. Get over the shaggy brown ugliness of the 1970s and enjoy the present and all the years to come!”

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Penrose, Roger. Cycles of Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-26590-6.
One of the greatest and least appreciated mysteries of contemporary cosmology is the extraordinarily special state of the universe immediately after the big bang. While at first glance an extremely hot and dense mass of elementary particles and radiation near thermal equilibrium might seem to have near-maximum entropy, when gravitation is taken into account, its homogeneity (the absence of all but the most tiny fluctuations in density) actually caused it to have a very small entropy. Only a universe which began in such a state could have a well-defined arrow of time which permits entropy to steadily increase over billions of years as dark matter and gas clump together, stars and galaxies form, and black holes appear and swallow up matter and radiation. If the process of the big bang had excited gravitational degrees of freedom, the overwhelmingly most probable outcome would be a mess of black holes with a broad spectrum of masses, which would evolve into a universe which looks nothing like the one we inhabit. As the author has indefatigably pointed out for many years, for some reason the big bang produced a universe in what appears to be an extremely improbable state. Why is this? (The preceding sketch may be a bit telegraphic because I discussed these issues at much greater length in my review of Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here [February 2010] and didn't want to repeat it all here. So, if you aren't sure what I just said, you may wish to read that review before going further.)

In this book, Penrose proposes “conformal cyclic cosmology” as the solution to this enigma. Let's pick this apart, word by word. A conformal transformation is a mathematical mapping which preserves angles in infinitesimal figures. It is possible to define a conformal transformation (for example, the hyperbolic transformation illustrated by M. C. Escher's Circle Limit III) which maps an infinite space onto a finite one. The author's own Penrose diagrams map all of (dimension reduced) space-time onto a finite plot via a conformal transformation. Penrose proposes a conformal transformation which maps the distant future of a dead universe undergoing runaway expansion to infinity with the big bang of a successor universe, resulting in a cyclic history consisting of an infinite number of “æons”, each beginning with its own big bang and ending in expansion to infinity. The resulting cosmology is that of a single universe evolving from cycle to cycle, with the end of each cycle producing the seemingly improbable conditions required at the start of the next. There is no need for an inflationary epoch after the big bang, a multitude of unobservable universes in a “multiverse”, or invoking the anthropic principle to explain the apparent fine-tuning of the big bang—in Penrose's cosmology, the physics makes those conditions inevitable.

Now, the conformal rescaling Penrose invokes only works if the universe contains no massive particles, as only massless particles which always travel at the speed of light are invariant under the conformal transformation. Hence for the scheme to work, there must be only massless particles in the universe at the end of the previous æon and immediately after the big bang—the moment dubbed the “crossover”. Penrose argues that at the enormous energies immediately after the big bang, all particles were effectively massless anyway, with mass emerging only through symmetry breaking as the universe expanded and cooled. On the other side of the crossover, he contends that in the distant future of the previous æon almost all mass will have been accreted by black holes which then will evaporate through the Hawking process into particles which will annihilate, yielding a universe containing only massless photons and gravitons. He does acknowledge that some matter may escape the black holes, but then proposes (rather dubiously in my opinion) that all stable massive particles are ultimately unstable on this vast time scale (a hundred orders of magnitude longer than the time since the big bang), or that mass may just “fade away” as the universe ages: kind of like the Higgs particle getting tired (but then most of the mass of stable hadrons doesn't come from the Higgs process, but rather the internal motion of their component quarks and gluons).

Further, Penrose believes that information is lost when it falls to the singularity within a black hole, and is not preserved in some correlation at the event horizon or in the particles emitted as the black hole evaporates. (In this view he is now in a distinct minority of theoretical physicists.) This makes black holes into entropy destroying machines. They devour all of the degrees of freedom of the particles that fall into them and then, when they evaporate with a “pop”, it's all lost and gone away. This allows Penrose to avoid what would otherwise be a gross violation of the second law of thermodynamics. In his scheme the big bang has very low entropy because all of the entropy created in the prior æon has been destroyed by falling into black holes which subsequently evaporate.

All of this is very original, clever, and the mathematics is quite beautiful, but it's nothing more than philosophical speculation unless it makes predictions which can be tested by observation or experiment. Penrose believes that gravitational radiation emitted from the violent merger of galactic-mass black holes in the previous æon may come through the crossover and imprint itself as concentric circles of low temperature variation in the cosmic background radiation we observe today. Further, with a colleague, he argues that precisely such structures have been observed in two separate surveys of the background radiation. Other researchers dispute this claim, and the debate continues.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out to which audience this book is addressed. It starts out discussing the second law of thermodynamics and entropy in language you'd expect in a popularisation aimed at the general public, but before long we're into territory like:

We now ask for the analogues of F and J in the case of the gravitational field, as described by Einstein's general theory of relativity. In this theory there is a curvature to space-time (which can be calculated once knows how the metric g varies throughout the space-time), described by a [ 04]-tensor R, called the Riemann(-Christoffel) tensor, with somewhat complicated symmetries resulting in R having 20 independent components per point. These components can be separated into two parts, constituting a [ 04]-tensor C, with 10 independent components, called the Weyl conformal tensor, and a symmetric [ 02]-tensor E, also with 10 independent components, called the Einstein tensor (this being equivalent to a slightly different [ 02]-tensor referred to as the Ricci tensor[2.57]). According to Einstein's field equations, it is E that provides the source to the gravitational field. (p. 129)

Ahhhh…now I understand! Seriously, much of this book is tough going, as technical in some sections as scholarly publications in the field of general relativity, and readers expecting a popular account of Penrose's proposal may not make it to the payoff at the end. For those who thirst for even more rigour there are two breathtakingly forbidding appendices.

The Kindle edition is excellent, with the table of contents, notes, cross-references, and index linked just as they should be.

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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.

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Markopolos, Harry. No One Would Listen. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. ISBN 978-0-470-91900-2.
Bernard L. “Bernie” Madoff was a co-founder of NASDAQ, founder and CEO of a Wall Street firm which became one of the top market makers, and operator of a discretionary money management operation which dwarfed hedge funds and provided its investors a reliable return in markets up and down which no other investment vehicle could approach. Madoff was an elder statesman of Wall Street, respected not only for his success in business but also for philanthropic activities.

On December 10th, 2008, Madoff confessed to his two sons that his entire money management operation had been, since inception, a Ponzi scheme, and the next day he was arrested by the FBI for securities fraud. After having pleaded guilty to 11 federal felony charges, he was sentenced to 150 years in federal incarceration, which sentence he will be serving for the foreseeable future. The total amount of money under management in Madoff's bogus investment scheme is estimated as US$65 billion, although estimates of actual losses to investors are all over the map due to Madoff's keeping transactions off the books and offshore investors' disinclination to make claims for funds invested with Madoff which they failed to disclose to their domicile tax authorities.

While this story broke like a bombshell on Wall Street, it was anything but a surprise to the author who had figured out back in the year 2000, “in less than five minutes”, that Madoff was a fraud. The author is a “quant”—a finance nerd who lives and breathes numbers, and when tasked by his employer to analyse Madoff, a competitor for their investors' funds, and devise a financial product which could compete with Madoff's offering, he almost immediately realised that Madoff's results were too good to be true. First of all, Madoff claimed to be using a strategy of buying stocks with a “collar” of call and put options, with stocks picked from the S&P 100 stock index. Yet it was easy to demonstrate, based upon historical data from the period of Madoff's reported results, that any such strategy could not possibly avoid down periods much more serious than Madoff reported. Further, such a strategy, given the amount of money Madoff had under management, would have required him to have placed put and call option hedges on the underlying stocks which greatly exceeded the total open interest in such options. Finally, Madoff's whole operation made no sense from the standpoint of a legitimate investment business: he was effectively paying 16% for capital in order to realise a 1% return on transaction fees while he could, by operating the same strategy as a hedge fund, pocket a 4% management fee and a 20% participation in the profits.

Having figured this out, the author assumed that simply submitting the facts in the case to the regulator in charge, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), would quickly bring the matter to justice. Well, not exactly. He made his first submission to the SEC in May of 2000, and the long saga of regulatory incompetence began. A year later, articles profiling Madoff and skating near the edge of accusing him of fraud were published in a hedge fund trade magazine and Barron's, read by everybody in the financial community, and still nothing happened. Off-the-record conversations with major players on Wall Street indicated that many of them had concluded that Madoff was a fraud, and indeed none of the large firms placed money with him, but ratting him out to The Man was considered infra dig. And so the sheep were sheared to the tune of sixty-five billion dollars, with many investors who had entrusted their entire fortune to Madoff or placed it with “feeder funds”, unaware that they were simply funnelling money to Madoff and skimming a “management and performance fee” off the top without doing any due diligence whatsoever, losing everything.

When grand scale financial cataclysms like this erupt, the inevitable call is for “more regulation”, as if “regulation” ever makes anything more regular. This example gives the lie to this perennial nostrum—all of the operations of Madoff, since the inception of his Ponzi scheme 1992 until its undoing in 2008, were subject to regulation by the SEC, and the author argues persuasively that a snap audit at any time during this period, led by a competent fraud investigator who demanded trade confirmation tickets and compared them with exchange transaction records would have uncovered the fraud in less than an hour. And yet this never happened, demonstrating that the SEC is toothless, clueless, and a poster child for regulatory capture, where a regulator becomes a client of the industry it is charged to regulate and spends its time harassing small operators on the margin while turning a blind eye to gross violations of politically connected players.

An archive of original source documents is available on the book's Web site.

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November 2011

Thor, Brad. Takedown. New York: Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4516-3615-4.
This is the fifth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this episode, Harvath, an agent for a covert branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, completes a snatch and exfiltration of a terrorist bombmaker granted political asylum in Canada, delivers him into custody in Manhattan, and plans to spend a lazy fourth of July holiday in the Big Apple with one of his closest friends, a Delta Force operative recently retired after a combat injury. Their bar-hopping agenda is rudely interrupted by an escalating series of terrorist attacks which culminate in bridge and tunnel bombings which, along with sniper and rocket-propelled grenade attacks on boat and air traffic, isolate Manhattan from the mainland and inflict massive civilian casualties.

As Harvath establishes contact with his superiors, he discovers he is the only operative in the city and, worse, that a sequence of inexplicable and extremely violent attacks on targets irrelevant to any known terrorist objective seems to indicate the attacks so far, however horrific, may be just a diversion and/or intended to facilitate a further agenda. Without support or hope of reinforcement from his own agency, he recruits a pick-up team of former special operators recovering from the physical and psychological consequences of combat injuries he met at the Veterans Affairs hospital New York as the attacks unfolded and starts to follow the trail of the terrorists loose in Manhattan. As the story develops, layer after layer of deception is revealed, not only on the part of the terrorists and the shadowy figures behind them and pulling their strings, but also within the U.S. government, reaching all the way to the White House. And if you thought you'd heard the last of the dinky infovore Troll and his giant Ovcharkas, he's back!

This is a well-crafted thriller and will keep you turning the pages. That said, I found it somewhat odd that a person with such a sense of honour and loyalty to his friends and brothers in arms as Harvath would so readily tolerate deception among his superiors which led directly to their deaths, regardless of the purported “national security” priorities. It is indicative of how rapidly the American Empire is sliding into the abyss that outrageous violations of human rights, the rule of law, and due process which occur in this story to give it that frisson of edginess that Thor seeks in his novels now seem tame compared to remote-controlled murder by missile of American citizens in nations with which the U.S. is not at war ordered by a secret committee on the sole authority of the president. Perhaps as the series progresses, we'll encounter triple zero agents—murder by mouse click.

As usual, I have a few quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • The president's press secretary does not write his speeches. This is the job of speechwriters, one or more of whom usually accompanies the president even on holiday. (Chapter 18)
  • The Surgeon General is not the president's personal physician. (Chapter 42)
  • If I were rappelling through a manhole several stories into the bowels of Manhattan, I think I'd use a high tensile strength tripod rather than the “high tinsel” tripod used in chapter 59. Now if the bad guy was way up in a Christmas tree….
  • In chapter 100, the Troll attaches a “lightweight silencer” to his custom-built rifle firing the .338 Lapua sniper round. Even if you managed to fit a suppressor to a rifle firing this round and it effectively muffled the sound of the muzzle blast (highly dubious), there would be no point in doing so because the bullet remains supersonic more than a kilometre from the muzzle (depending on altitude and temperature), and the shock wave from the bullet would easily be audible anywhere in Gibraltar. Living across the road from a rifle range, I'm acutely aware of the sound of supersonic bullets coming more or less in my direction, and these are just 5.56 and 7.62 NATO, not Lapua “reach out and whack someone” ammo.
Spoilers end here.  

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Breitbart, Andrew. Righteous Indignation. New York: Grand Central, 2011. ISBN 978-0-446-57282-8.
Andrew Breitbart has quickly established himself as the quintessential happy warrior in the struggle for individual liberty. His breitbart.com and breitbart.tv sites have become “go to” resources for news and video content, and his ever-expanding constellation of “Big” sites (Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, etc.) have set the standard for group blogs which break news rather than just link to or comment upon content filtered through the legacy media.

In this book, he describes his personal journey from growing up in “the belly of the beast”—the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, his party days at college, and rocky start in the real world, then discovering while watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings on television, that much of the conventional “wisdom” he had uncritically imbibed from the milieu in which he grew up, his education, and the media just didn't make any sense or fit with his innate conception of right and wrong. This caused him to embark upon an intellectual journey which is described here, and a new career in the centre of the New Media cyclone, helping to create the Huffington Post, editing the Drudge Report, and then founding his own media empire and breaking stories which would never have seen the light of day in the age of the legacy media monopoly, including the sting which brought down ACORN.

Although he often comes across as grumpy and somewhat hyper in media appearances, I believe Breitbart well deserves the title “happy warrior” because he clearly loves every moment of what he's doing—striding into the lion's den, exploding the lies and hypocrisy of his opponents with their own words and incontrovertible audio and video evidence, and prosecuting the culture war, however daunting the odds, with the ferocity of Churchill's Britain in 1940. He seems to relish being a lightning rod—on his Twitter feed, he “re-tweets” all of the hate messages he receives.

This book is substantially more thoughtful than I expected; I went in thinking I'd be reading the adventures of a gadfly-provocateur, and while there's certainly some of that, there is genuine depth here which may be enlightening to many readers. While I can't assume agreement with someone whom I've never met, I came away thinking that Breitbart's view of his opponents is similar to the one I have arrived at independently, as described in Enemies. Breitbart describes a “complex” consisting of the legacy media, the Democrat party, labour unions (particularly those of public employees), academia and the education establishment, and organs of the regulatory state which reinforce one another, ruthlessly suppress opposition, and advance an agenda which is inimical to liberty and the rule of law. I highly recommend this book; it far exceeded my expectations and caused me to think more deeply about several things which were previously ill-formed in my mind. I'll discuss them below, but note that these are my own thoughts and should not be attributed to this book.

While reading Breitbart's book, I became aware that the seemingly eternal conflict in human societies is between slavers: people who see others as a collective to be used to “greater ends” (which are usually startlingly congruent with the slavers' own self-interest), and individuals who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their lives, keep the fruits of their labour, not suffer from aggression, and be free to pursue their lives as they wish as long as they do not aggress against others. I've re-purposed Larry Niven's term “slavers” from the known space universe to encompass all of the movements over the tawdry millennia of human history and pre-history which have seen people as the means to an end instead of sovereign beings, whether they called themselves dictators, emperors, kings, Jacobins, socialists, progressives, communists, fascists, Nazis, “liberals”, Islamists, or whatever deceptive term they invent tomorrow after the most recent one has been discredited by its predictably sorry results. Looking at all of these manifestations of the enemy as slavers solves a number of puzzles which might otherwise seem contradictory. For example, why did the American left so seamlessly shift its allegiance from communist dictators to Islamist theocrats who, looked at dispassionately, agree on almost nothing? Because they do agree on one key point: they are slavers, and that resonates with wannabe slavers in a society living the twilight of liberty.

Breitbart discusses the asymmetry of the tactics of the slavers and partisans of individual liberty at some length. He argues that the slavers consistently use the amoral Alinsky playbook while their opponents restrict themselves to a more constrained set of tactics grounded in their own morality. In chapter 7, he presents his own “Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Revolutionaries” which attempts to navigate this difficult strait. My own view, expressed more crudely, is that “If you're in a fair fight, your tactics suck”.

One of the key tactics of the slavers is deploying the mob into the streets. As documented by Ann Coulter in Demonic, the mob has been an integral part of the slaver arsenal since antiquity, and since the French revolution its use has been consistent by the opponents of liberty. In the United States and, to a lesser extent, in other countries, we are presently seeing the emergence of the “Occupy” movement, which is an archetypal mob composed of mostly clueless cannon fodder manipulated by slavers to their own ends. Many dismiss this latest manifestation of the mob based upon the self-evident vapidity of its members; I believe this to be a mistake. Most mobs in history were populated by people much the same—what you need to look at is the élite vanguard who is directing them and the greater agenda they are advancing. I look at the present manifestation of the mob in the U.S. like the release of a software product. The present “Occupy” protests are the “alpha test”: verifying the concept, communication channels, messaging in the legacy media, and transmission of the agenda from those at the top to the foot soldiers. The “beta test” phase will be August 2012 at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. There we shall see a mob raised nationwide and transported into that community to disrupt the nomination process (although, if it goes the way I envision infra, this may be attenuated and be smaller and more spontaneous). The “production release” will be in the two weeks running up the general election on November 6th, 2012—that is when the mob will be unleashed nationwide to intimidate voters, attack campaign headquarters, deface advertising messages, and try to tilt the results. Mob actions will not be reported in the legacy media, which will be concentrating on other things.

One key take-away from this book for me is just how predictable the actions of the Left are—they are a large coalition of groups of people most of whom (at the bottom) are ill-informed and incapable of critical thinking, and so it takes a while to devise, distribute, and deploy the kinds of simple-minded slogans they're inclined to chant. This, Breitbart argues, makes them vulnerable to agile opponents able to act within their OODA loop, exploiting quick reaction time against a larger but more lethargic opponent.

The next U.S. presidential election is scheduled for November 6th, 2012, a little less than one spin around the Sun from today. Let me go out on a limb and predict precisely what the legacy media will be talking about as the final days before the election click off. The Republican contender for the presidency will be Mitt Romney, who will have received, in the entire nomination process, a free pass from legacy media precisely as McCain did in 2008, while taking down each “non-Romney” in turn on whatever vulnerability they can find or, failing that, invent. People seem to be increasingly resigned to the inevitability of Romney as the nominee, and on the Intrade prediction market as I write this, the probability of his nomination is trading at 67.1% with Perry in second place at 8.8%.

Within a week of Romney's nomination, the legacy media will, in unison as if led by an invisible hand, pivot to the whole “Mormon thing”, and between August and November 2012, the electorate will be educated through every medium and incessantly until, to those vulnerable to such saturation and without other sources of information, issues such as structural unemployment, confiscatory taxation, runaway regulation, unsustainable debt service and entitlement obligations, monetary collapse, and external threats will be entirely displaced by discussions of golden plates, seer stones, temple garments, the Book of Abraham, Kolob, human exaltation, the plurality of gods, and other aspects of Romney's religion of record, which will be presented so as to cause him to be perceived as a member of a cult far outside the mainstream and unacceptable to the Christian majority of the nation and particularly the evangelical component of the Republican base (who will never vote for Obama, but might be encouraged to stay home rather than vote for Romney).

In writing this, I do not intend in any way to impugn Romney's credentials as a candidate and prospective president (he would certainly be a tremendous improvement over the present occupant of that office, and were I a member of the U.S. electorate, I'd be happy affixing a “Romney: He'll Do” bumper sticker to my Bradley Fighting Vehicle), nor do I wish to offend any of my LDS friends. It's just that if, as appears likely at the moment, Romney becomes the Republican nominee, I believe we're in for one of the ugliest religious character assassination campaigns ever seen in the history of the Republic. Unlike the 1960 campaign (which I am old enough to recall), where the anti-Catholic animus against Kennedy was mostly beneath the surface and confined to the fringes, this time I expect the anti-Mormon slander to be everywhere in the legacy media, couched, of course, as “dispassionate historical reporting”.

This will, of course, be shameful, but the slavers are shameless. Should Romney be the nominee, I'm simply saying that those who see him as the best alternative to avert the cataclysm of a second Obama term be fully prepared for what is coming in the general election campaign.

Should these ugly predictions play out as I envision, those who cherish freedom should be thankful Andrew Breitbart is on our side.

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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.

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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.

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December 2011

Boykin, William G. and Tom Morrisey. Kiloton Threat. Nashville: B&H Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8054-4954-9.
William G. Boykin retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 with the rank of Lieutenant General, having been a founding member of Delta Force and served with that special operations unit from 1978 through 1993, then as Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command. He also served as Deputy Director of Special Activities in the CIA and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. When it comes to special operations, this is somebody who knows what he's talking about.

Something distinctly odd is going on in Iran—their nuclear weapons-related and missile development sites seem be blowing up on a regular basis for no apparent reason, and there are suspicions that shadowy forces may be in play to try to block Iran's becoming a nuclear armed power with the ability to deliver weapons with ballistic missiles. Had the U.S. decided to pursue such a campaign during the Bush administration, General Boykin would have been one of the people around the table planning the operations, so in this tale of operations in an Iran at the nuclear threshold he brings an encyclopedic knowledge not just of the special operations community but of the contending powers in Iran and the military capability at their disposal. The result is a thriller which may not have the kind of rock-em sock-em action of a Vince Flynn or Brad Thor novel, but exudes an authenticity comparable to a police procedural written by a thirty year veteran of the force.

In this novel, Iran has completed its long-sought goal to acquire nuclear weapons and intelligence indicates its intention to launch a preemptive strike against Israel, with the potential to provoke a regional if not global nuclear conflict. A senior figure in Iran's nuclear program has communicated his intent to defect and deliver the details necessary to avert the attack before it is launched, and CIA agent Blake Kershaw is paired with an Iranian émigré who can guide him through the country and provide access to the community in which the official resides. The mission goes horribly wrong (something with which author Boykin has direct personal experience, having been operations officer for the botched Iranian hostage rescue operation in 1980), and while Kershaw manages to get the defector out of the country, he leaves behind a person he solemnly promised to get out and is forced, from a sense of honour, to return to an Iran buzzing like a beehive whacked with a baseball bat, without official sanction, to rescue that person, then act independently to put an end to the threat.

There are a few copy editing goofs, but nothing that detracts from the story. The only factual errors I noted were the assertion that Ahmadinejad used the Quds Force “in much the same way as Hitler used the Waffen-SS” (the Waffen-SS was a multinational military force; the Allgemeine SS is the closest parallel to the Quds Force) and that a Cessna Caravan's “turboprop spun up to starting speed and caught with a ragged roar” (like all turboprops, there's only a smooth rising whine as the engine spools up; I've flown on these planes, and there's no “ragged roar”). Boykin and co-author Morrisey are committed Christians and express their faith on several occasions in the novel; radical secularists may find this irritating, but I didn't find it intrusive.

I have no idea whether the recent apparent kinetic energy transients at strategic sites in Iran are the work of special operators infiltrated into that country and, if so, who they're working for. But if they are, this book by the fellow all of the U.S. Army black ops people reported to just a few years ago provides excellent insights on how it might be done.

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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.

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Cawdron, Peter. Anomaly. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4657-7394-4.
One otherwise perfectly normal day, a sphere of space 130 metres in diameter outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York including a slab of pavement and a corner of the General Assembly building becomes detached from Earth's local reference frame and begins to rotate, maintaining a fixed orientation with respect to the distant stars, returning to its original orientation once per sidereal day. Observers watch in awe as the massive slab of pavement, severed corner of the U.N. building, and even flagpoles and flags which happened to fall within the sphere defy gravity and common sense, turning on end, passing overhead, and then coming back to their original orientation every day.

Through a strange set of coincidences, schoolteacher David Teller, who first realised and blurted out on live television that the anomaly wasn't moving as it appeared to Earth dwellers, but rather was stationary with respect to the stars, and third-string TV news reporter Cathy Jones find themselves the public face of the scientific investigation of the anomaly, conducted by NASA under the direction of the imposing James Mason, “Director of National Security”. An off-the-cuff experiment shows that the anomaly has its own local gravitational field pointing in the original direction, down toward the slab, and that no barrier separates the inside and outside of the anomaly. Teller does the acrobatics to climb onto the slab, using a helium balloon to detect the up direction as he enters into the anomaly, and observers outside see him standing, perfectly at ease, at a crazy angle to their own sense of vertical. Sparked by a sudden brainstorm, Teller does a simple experiment to test whether the anomaly might be an alien probe attempting to make contact, and the results set off a sequence of events which, although implausible at times, never cease to be entertaining and raise the question of whether if we encountered technologies millions or billions of years more advanced than our own, we would even distinguish them from natural phenomena (and, conversely, whether some of the conundrums scientists puzzle over today might be evidence of such technologies—“dark energy”, anyone?).

The prospect of first contact sets off a firestorm: bureaucratic turf battles, media struggling for access, religious leaders trying to put their own spin on what it means, nations seeking to avoid being cut out of a potential bounty of knowledge from contact by the U.S., upon whose territory the anomaly happened to appear. These forces converge toward a conclusion which will have you saying every few pages, “I didn't see that coming”, and one of the most unlikely military confrontations in all of the literature of science fiction and thrillers. As explained in the after-word, the author is trying to do something special in this story, which I shall not reveal here to avoid spoiling your figuring it out for yourself and making your own decision as to how well he succeeded.

At just 50,000 words, this is a short novel, but it tells its story well. At this writing, the Kindle edition sells for just US$0.99 (no print edition is available), so it's a bargain notwithstanding its brevity.

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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.

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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.

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