2013  

January 2013

Carroll, Sean. The Particle at the End of the Universe. New York: Dutton, 2012. ISBN 978-0-525-95359-3.
I believe human civilisation is presently in a little-perceived race between sinking into an entropic collapse, extinguishing liberty and individual initiative, and a technological singularity which will simply transcend all of the problems we presently find so daunting and intractable. If things end badly, our descendants may look upon our age as one of extravagance, where vast resources were expended in a quest for pure knowledge without any likelihood of practical applications.

Thus, the last decade has seen the construction of what is arguably the largest and most complicated machine ever built by our species, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), to search for and determine the properties of elementary particles: the most fundamental constituents of the universe we inhabit. This book, accessible to the intelligent layman, recounts the history of the quest for the components from which everything in the universe is made, the ever more complex and expensive machines we've constructed to explore them, and the intricate interplay between theory and experiment which this enterprise has entailed.

At centre stage in this narrative is the Higgs particle, first proposed in 1964 as accounting for the broken symmetry in the electroweak sector (as we'd now say), which gives mass to the W and Z bosons, accounting for the short range of the weak interaction and the mass of the electron. (It is often sloppily said that the Higgs mechanism explains the origin of mass. In fact, as Frank Wilczek explains in The Lightness of Being [March 2009], around 95% of all hadronic mass in the universe is pure E=mc² wiggling of quarks and gluons within particles in the nucleus.) Still, the Higgs is important—if it didn't exist the particles we're made of would all be massless, travel at the speed of light, and never aggregate into stars, planets, physicists, or most importantly, computer programmers. On the other hand, there wouldn't be any politicians.

The LHC accelerates protons (the nuclei of hydrogen, which delightfully come from a little cylinder of hydrogen gas shown on p. 310, which contains enough to supply the LHC with protons for about a billion years) to energies so great that these particles, when they collide, have about the same energy as a flying mosquito. You might wonder why the LHC collides protons with protons rather than with antiprotons as the Tevatron did. While colliding protons with antiprotons allows more of the collision energy to go into creating new particles, the LHC's strategy of very high luminosity (rate of collisions) would require creation of far more antiprotons than its support facilities could produce, hence the choice of proton-proton collisions. While the energy of individual particles accelerated by the LHC is modest from our macroscopic perspective, the total energy of the beam circulating around the accelerator is intimidating: a full beam dump would suffice to melt a ton of copper. Be sure to step aside should this happen.

Has the LHC found the Higgs? Probably—the announcement on July 4th, 2012 by the two detector teams reported evidence for a particle with properties just as expected for the Higgs, so if it turned out to be something else, it would be a big surprise (but then Nature never signed a contract with scientists not to perplex them with misdirection). Unlike many popular accounts, this book looks beneath the hood and explores just how difficult it is to tease evidence for a new particle from the vast spray of debris that issues from particle collisions. It isn't like a little ball with an “h” pops out and goes “bing” in the detector: in fact, a newly produced Higgs particle decays in about 10−22 seconds, even faster than assets entrusted to the management of Goldman Sachs. The debris which emerges from the demise of a Higgs particle isn't all that different from that produced by many other standard model events, so the evidence for the Higgs is essentially a “bump” in the rate of production of certain decay signatures over that expected from the standard model background (sources expected to occur in the absence of the Higgs). These, in turn, require a tremendous amount of theoretical and experimental input, as well as massive computer calculations to evaluate; once you begin to understand this, you'll appreciate that the distinction between theory and experiment in particle physics is more fluid than you might have imagined.

This book is a superb example of popular science writing, and its author has distinguished himself as a master of the genre. He doesn't pull any punches: after reading this book you'll understand, at least at a conceptual level, broken symmetries, scalar fields, particles as excitations of fields, and the essence of quantum mechanics (as given by Aatish Bhatia on Twitter), “Don't look: waves. Look: particles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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White, James. All Judgment Fled. New York: Ballantine, 1969. ISBN 978-0-345-02016-1. LCCN 70086388.
James White was a science fiction author, fan, and fanzine editor in Northern Ireland. Although he published 19 novels and numerous short stories, he never quit his day job to become a professional writer: apart from a few superstar authors, science fiction just didn't pay that much in the 1950s and '60s. White was originally attracted to science fiction by the work of “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein, and his fiction continues very much in the Golden Age tradition of hard science fiction they helped establish.

In the 1960s, one of the criticisms of science fiction by “new wave” authors was that it had become too obsessed with hardware and conflict, and did not explore the psyche of its characters or the cultures they inhabited. In this book, the author tells a story in the mainstream of the hard science fiction genre, but puts the psychology of the characters on centre stage. Starting with a little smudge of light on an astronomer's time exposure, follow-up observations determine the object was maneuvering and hence could not be an asteroid. It settles into an orbit 12 million miles outside that of Mars. Spectral analysis reveals it to be highly reflective, probably metal. A Jupiter probe is diverted to fly by the object, and returns grainy images of a torpedo-shaped structure about half a mile in length. Around the world, it is immediately dubbed the Ship.

After entering solar orbit, the Ship does nothing: it neither maneuvers nor emits signals detectable by sensors of any kind. It remains a complete enigma, but one of epochal importance to a humanity just taking its first steps into its own solar system: a civilisation capable of interstellar travel was obviously so far beyond the technological capability of mankind that contact with it could change everything in human history, and were that contact to end badly, ring down the curtain on its existence.

Two ships, built to establish a base and observatory on the Martian moon Deimos, are re-purposed to examine the Ship at close range and, should the opportunity present itself, make contact with its inhabitants. The crew of six, divided between the two ships, are a mix of square-jawed military astronaut types and woolier scientists, including a lone psychologist who finds himself having to master the complexity of dynamics among the crew, their relations with distant Prometheus Control on Earth which seems increasingly disconnected in its estimation of the situation they are experiencing first hand and delusional in their orders for dealing with it, and the ultimate challenge of comprehending the psychology of spacefaring extraterrestrials in order to communicate with them.

Upon arrival at the Ship, the mystery only deepens. Not only is there no reaction to their close range approach to the Ship, when an exploration party boards it, they find technology which looks comparable to that of humans, no evidence of an intelligent life form directing the ship, but multitudes of aliens as seemingly mindless as sharks bent on killing them. Puzzling out this enigma requires the crew to explore the Ship, deal with Prometheus Control as an adversary, manage the public relations impact of their actions on a global audience on Earth who are watching their every move, and deal with the hazards of a totally alien technology.

This is a throughly satisfying story of first contact (although as the pages count down toward the end, you'll find yourself wondering if, and when, that will actually happen). It is not great science fiction up to the standard of Doc Smith or Heinlein, but it is very good. The “Personnel Launcher” is one of the more remarkable concepts of transferring crew between ships en-route I've encountered. Readers at this remove may find the author's taking psychology and psychotherapy so seriously rather quaint. But recall that through much of the 1960s, even the theories of the charlatan Freud were widely accepted by people who should have known better, and the racket of psychoanalysis was prospering. Today we'd just give 'em a pill. Are we wiser, or were they?

This work is out of print, but used copies are generally available. The book was reprinted in 1979 by Del Rey and again in 1996 by Old Earth Books. If you're looking for a copy to read (as opposed to a collectible), it's best to search by author and title and choose the best deal based on price and condition. The novel was originally serialised in If Magazine in 1967.

Update: New reprint copies of the original UK hardcover edition remain available directly from Old Earth Books. (2013-01-25 20:16 UTC)

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Manchester, William and Paul Reid. The Last Lion. Vol. 3. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. ISBN 978-0-316-54770-3.
William Manchester's monumental three volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, began with the 1984 publication of the first volume, Visions of Glory, 1874–1932 and continued with second in 1989, Alone, 1932–1940. I devoured these books when they came out, and eagerly awaited the concluding volume which would cover Churchill's World War II years and subsequent career and life. This was to be a wait of more than two decades. By 1988, William Manchester had concluded his research for the present volume, subtitled Defender of the Realm, 1940–1965 and began to write a draft of the work. Failing health caused him to set the project aside after about a hundred pages covering events up to the start of the Battle of Britain. In 2003, Manchester, no longer able to write, invited Paul Reid to audition to complete the work by writing a chapter on the London Blitz. The result being satisfactory to Manchester, his agent, and the publisher, Reid began work in earnest on the final volume, with the intent that Manchester would edit the manuscript as it was produced. Alas, Manchester died in 2004, and Reid was forced to interpret Manchester's research notes, intended for his own use and not to guide another author, without the assistance of the person who compiled them. This required much additional research and collecting original source documents which Manchester had examined. The result of this is that this book took almost another decade of work by Reid before its publication. It has been a protracted wait, especially for those who admired the first two volumes, but ultimately worth it. This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to what will likely remain the definitive biography of Churchill for the foreseeable future.

When Winston Churchill became prime minister in the dark days of May 1940, he was already sixty-five years old: retirement age for most of his generation, and faced a Nazi Germany which was consolidating its hold on Western Europe with only Britain to oppose its hegemony. Had Churchill retired from public life in 1940, he would still be remembered as one of the most consequential British public figures of the twentieth century; what he did in the years to come elevated him to the stature of one of the preeminent statesmen of modern times. These events are chronicled in this book, dominated by World War II, which occupies three quarters of the text. In fact, although the focus is on Churchill, the book serves also as a reasonably comprehensive history of the war in the theatres in which British forces were engaged, and of the complex relations among the Allies.

It is often forgotten at this remove that at the time Churchill came to power he was viewed by many, including those of his own party and military commanders, as a dangerous and erratic figure given to enthusiasm for harebrained schemes and with a propensity for disaster (for example, his resignation in disgrace after the Gallipoli catastrophe in World War I). Although admired for his steadfastness and ability to rally the nation to the daunting tasks before it, Churchill's erratic nature continued to exasperate his subordinates, as is extensively documented here from their own contemporary diaries.

Churchill's complex relationships with the other leaders of the Grand Alliance: Roosevelt and Stalin, are explored in depth. Although Churchill had great admiration for Roosevelt and desperately needed the assistance the U.S. could provide to prosecute the war, Roosevelt comes across as a lightweight, ill-informed and not particularly engaged in military affairs and blind to the geopolitical consequences of the Red Army's occupying eastern and central Europe at war's end. (This was not just Churchill's view, but widely shared among senior British political and military circles.) While despising Bolshevism, Churchill developed a grudging respect for Stalin, considering his grasp of strategy to be excellent and, while infuriating to deal with, reliable in keeping his commitments to the other allies.

As the war drew to a close, Churchill was one of the first to warn of the great tragedy about to befall those countries behind what he dubbed the “iron curtain” and the peril Soviet power posed to the West. By July 1950, the Soviets fielded 175 divisions, of which 25 were armoured, against a Western force of 12 divisions (2 armoured). Given the correlation of forces, only Soviet postwar exhaustion and unwillingness to roll the dice given the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation kept the Red Army from marching west to the Atlantic.

After the war, in opposition once again as the disastrous Attlee Labour government set Britain on an irreversible trajectory of decline, he thundered against the dying of the light and retreat from Empire not, as in the 1930s, a back-bencher, but rather leader of the opposition. In 1951 he led the Tories to victory and became prime minister once again, for the first time with the mandate of winning a general election as party leader. He remained prime minister until 1955 when he resigned in favour of Anthony Eden. His second tenure as P.M. was frustrating, with little he could to do to reverse Britain's economic decline and shrinkage on the world stage. In 1953 he suffered a serious stroke, which was covered up from all but his inner circle. While he largely recovered, approaching his eightieth birthday, he acknowledged the inevitable and gave up the leadership and prime minister positions.

Churchill remained a member of Parliament for Woodford until 1964. In January 1965 he suffered another severe stroke and died at age 90 on the 24th of that month.

It's been a long time coming, but this book is a grand conclusion of the work Manchester envisioned. It is a sprawling account of a great sprawling life engaged with great historical events over most of a century: from the last cavalry charge of the British Army to the hydrogen bomb. Churchill was an extraordinarily complicated and in many ways conflicted person, and this grand canvas provides the scope to explore his character and its origins in depth. Manchester and Reid have created a masterpiece. It is daunting to contemplate a three volume work totalling three thousand pages, but if you are interested in the subject, it is a uniquely rewarding read.

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February 2013

Spinrad, Norman. Bug Jack Barron. Golden, CO: ReAnimus Press, [1969] 2011. ISBN 978-1-585675-85-2.
In his Berkeley Baby Bolshevik days Jack Barron dreamt of power—power to change the world. Years later, he has power, but of a very different kind. As host of the weekly television show “Bug Jack Barron”, he sits in the catbird seat, taking carefully screened calls from those abused by impersonal organisations and putting those in charge in the hot seat, live via vidphone, with no tape delay. One hundred million people tune in to the show, so whatever bugs the caller, bugs Jack Barron, and immediately bugs America.

Jack's Berkeley crowd, veterans of the civil rights battles, mostly consider him a sell-out, although they have sold out in their own ways to the realities of power and politics. But when Jack crosses swords with Benedict Howards, he is faced with an adversary of an entirely different order of magnitude than any he has previously encountered. Howards is president of the Foundation for Human Immortality, which operates centres which freeze the bodies of departed clients and funds research into the technologies which will allow them to be revived and achieve immortality. Only the well-heeled need apply: a freezer contract requires one to deposit US$500,000 (this is in 1969 gold dollars; in 2012 ObamaBucks, the equivalent is in excess of three million). With around a million people already frozen, Howards sits on half a trillion dollars (three trillion today), and although this money is nominally held in trust to be refunded to the frozen after their revival, Howards is in fact free to use the proceeds of investing it as he wishes. You can buy almost anything with that kind of money, politicians most definitely included.

Howards is pushing to have his foundation declared a regulated monopoly, forcing competitors out of the market and placing its governance under a committee appointed by the president of the United States. Barron takes on Howards with a call from a person claiming he was denied a freezer contract due to his race, and sets up a confrontation with Howards in which Barron has to decide whether his own integrity has a price and, if so, what it is. As he digs into Howards' foundation, he stumbles upon details which hint of secrets so shocking they might overturn the political landscape in the U.S. But that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

This is one of the iconic novels of “new wave” science fiction from the late 1960s. It is written in what was then called an “experimental”, stream of consciousness style, with paragraphs like:

The undulating blue-green light writhing behind her like a forest of tentacles the roar of the surf like the sigh of some great beached and expiring sea animal, seemed to press her against the glass reality-interface like a bubble being forced up by decay-gas pressure from the depths of an oily green swamp pool. She felt the weight, the pressure of the whole room pushing behind her as if the blind green monsters that lurked in the most unknowable pits in the ass-end of her mind were bubbling up from the depths and elbowing her consciousness out of her own skull.

Back in the day, we'd read something like this and say, “Oh, wow”. Today, many readers may deem such prose stylings as quaint as those who say “Oh, wow”.

This novel is a period piece. Reading it puts you back into the mindset of the late 1960s, when few imagined that technologies already in nascent form would destroy the power of one-to-many media oligopolies, and it was wrong in almost all of its extrapolation of the future. If you read it then (as I did) and thought it was a masterpiece (as I did), it may be worth a second glance to see how far we've come.

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Wright, Lawrence. Going Clear. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-307-70066-7.
In 2007 the author won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, an exploration of the origins, structure, and activities of Al-Qaeda. In the present book, he dares to take on a really dangerous organisation: the Church of Scientology. Wright delves into the tangled history of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the origins of the church, which, despite having occurred within the lifetimes of many readers of the book, seem cloaked in as much fog, misdirection, and conflicting claims as those of religions millennia older. One thing which is beyond dispute to anybody willing to examine the objective record is that Hubbard was a masterful confidence man—perhaps approaching the magnitude of those who founded other religions. This was apparent well before he invented Dianetics and Scientology: he moved into Jack Parsons' house in Pasadena, California, and before long took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his savings with a scheme to buy yachts in Florida and sell them in California. Hubbard's military career in World War II is also murky in the extreme: military records document that he was never in combat, but he spun a legend about chasing Japanese submarines off the coast of Oregon, being injured, and healing himself through mental powers.

One thing which nobody disputes is that Hubbard was a tremendously talented and productive writer of science fiction. He was a friend of Robert A. Heinlein and a regular correspondent with John W. Campbell. You get the sense in this book that Hubbard didn't really draw a hard and fast line between the fanciful stories he wrote for a living and the actual life he lived—his own biography and persona seem to have been as much a fabrication as the tales he sold to the pulp magazines.

On several occasions Hubbard remarked that the way to make a big pile of money was to start a religion. (It is often said that he made a bar bet with Heinlein that he could start a religion, but the author's research concludes this story is apocryphal. However, Wright identifies nine witnesses who report hearing Hubbard making such a remark in 1948 or 1949.) After his best-selling book Dianetics landed him in trouble with the scientific and mental health establishment, he decided to take his own advice and re-instantiate it as a religion. In 1954, Scientology was born.

Almost immediately, events took a turn into high weirdness. While the new religion attracted adherents, especially among wealthy celebrities in Hollywood, it also was the object of ridicule and what Scientologists viewed as persecution. Hubbard and his entourage took to the sea in a fleet of ships, attended by a “clergy” called Sea Org, who signed billion year contracts of allegiance to Scientology and were paid monastic subsistence salaries and cut off from contact with the world outside Scientology. Hubbard continued to produce higher and higher levels of revelation for his followers, into which they could be initiated for a formidable fee.

Some of this material was sufficiently bizarre (for example, the Xenu [or Xemu] story, revealed in 1967) that adherents to Scientology walked away, feeling that their religion had become bad space opera. That was the first reaction of Paul Haggis, whose 34 years in Scientology are the foundation of this narrative. And yet Haggis did not leave Scientology after his encounter with Xenu: he eventually left the church in 2009 after it endorsed a California initiative prohibiting same-sex marriage.

There is so much of the bizarre in this narrative that you might be inclined to dismiss it as tabloid journalism, had not the author provided a wealth of source citations, many drawn from sworn testimony in court and evidence in legal proceedings. In the Kindle edition, these links are live and can be clicked to view the source documents.

From children locked in chain lockers on board ship; to adults placed in detention in “the hole”; to special minders assigned to fulfill every whim of celebrity congregants such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise; to blackmail, lawfare, surveillance, and harassment of dissidents and apostates; to going head-to-head with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and winning a tax exemption from them in 1993, this narrative reads like a hybrid of the science fiction and thriller genres, and yet it is all thoroughly documented. In end-note after end-note, the author observes that the church denies what is asserted, then provides multiple source citations to the contrary.

This is a remarkably even-handed treatment of a religion that many deem worthy only of ridicule. Yes, Scientologists believe some pretty weird things, but then so do adherents of “mainstream” religions. Scientology's sacred texts seem a lot like science fiction, but so do those of the Mormons, a new religion born in America a century earlier, subjected to the same ridicule and persecution the Scientologists complain of, and now sufficiently mainstream that a member could run for president of the U.S. without his religion being an issue in the campaign. And while Scientology seems like a mix of science fiction and pseudo-science, some very successful people have found it an anchor for their lives and attribute part of their achievement to it. The abuses documented here are horrific, and the apparent callousness with which money is extracted from believers to line the pockets of those at the top is stunning, but then one can say as much of a number of religions considered thoroughly respectable by many people.

I'm a great believer in the market. If Scientology didn't provide something of value to those who believe in it, they wouldn't have filled its coffers with more than a billion dollars (actually, nobody knows the numbers: Scientology's finances are as obscure as its doctrines). I'll bet the people running it will push the off-putting weird stuff into the past, shed the abusive parts, and morph into a religion people perceive as no more weird than the Mormons. Just as being a pillar of the LDS church provides a leg up in some communities in the Western U.S., Scientology will provide an entrée into the world of Hollywood and media. And maybe in 2112 a Scientologist will run for president of the Reunited States and nobody will make an issue of it.

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Flynn, Vince. The Last Man. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4165-9521-2.
This is the thirteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the two previous installments, American Assassin (December 2010) and Kill Shot (April 2012), this book is set in the present, as the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from the quagmire of Afghanistan and pay off locals to try to leave something in place after U.S. forces walk away from the debacle. Joe Rickman is the CIA's point man in Jalalabad, cutting deals with shady figures and running black operations. Without warning, the CIA safe house from which he operates is attacked, leaving its four guards dead. Rickman, the man who knows enough secrets from his long CIA career to endanger hundreds of agents and assets and roll up CIA networks and operations in dozens of countries, has vanished.

Mitch Rapp arrives on the scene to try to puzzle out what happened and locate Rickman before his abductors break him and he begins to spill the secrets. Rapp has little to go on, and encounters nothing but obstruction from the local police and staffers at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, all of whom Rapp treats with his accustomed tact:

“You're a bully and a piece of shit and you're the kind of guy who I actually enjoy killing. Normally, I don't put a lot of thought into the people I shoot, but you fall into a special category. I figure I'd be doing the human race a favor by ending your worthless life. Add to that the fact that I'm in a really bad mood. In fact I'm in such a shitty mood that putting a bullet in your head might be the only thing that could make me feel better.”

… “In the interest of fairness, though, I suppose I should give you a chance to convince me otherwise.” (p. 17)

Following a slim lead on Rickman, Rapp finds himself walking into a simultaneous ambush by both an adversary from his past and crooked Kabul cops. Rapp ends up injured and on the sidelines. Meanwhile, another CIA man in Afghanistan vanishes, and an ambitious FBI deputy director arrives on the scene with evidence of massive corruption in the CIA clandestine service. CIA director Irene Kennedy begins to believe that a coordinated operation must be trying to destroy her spook shop, one of such complexity that it is far beyond the capabilities of the Taliban, and turns her eyes toward “ally” Pakistan.

A shocking video is posted on jihadist Web site which makes getting to the bottom of the enigma an existential priority for the CIA. Rapp needs to get back into the game and start following the few leads that exist.

This is a well-crafted thriller that will keep you turning the pages. It is somewhat lighter on the action (although there is plenty) and leans more toward the genre of espionage fiction; I think Flynn has been evolving in that direction in the last several books. There are some delightful characters, good and evil. Although she only appears in a few chapters, you will remember four foot eleven inch Air Force Command Master Sergeant Shiela Sanchez long after you put down the novel.

There is a fundamental challenge in writing a novel about a CIA agent set in contemporary Afghanistan which the author struggles with here and never fully overcomes. The problem is that the CIA, following orders from its political bosses, is doing things that don't make any sense in places where the U.S. doesn't have any vital interests or reason to be present. Flynn has created a workable thriller around these constraints, but to this reader it just can't be as compelling as saving the country from the villains and threats portrayed in the earlier Mitch Rapp novels. Here, Rapp is doing his usual exploits, but in service of a mission which is pointless at best and in all likelihood counterproductive.

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Scott, Robert Falcon. Journals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1913, 1914, 1923, 1927] 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-953680-1.
Robert Falcon Scott, leading a party of five men hauling their supplies on sledges across the ice cap, reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912. When he arrived, he discovered a cairn built by Roald Amundsen's party, which had reached the Pole on December 14th, 1911 using sledges pulled by dogs. After this crushing disappointment, Scott's polar party turned back toward their base on the coast. After crossing the high portion of the ice pack (which Scott refers to as “the summit”) without severe difficulties, they encountered unexpected, unprecedented, and, based upon subsequent meteorological records, extremely low temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf (the “Barrier” in Scott's nomenclature). Immobilised by a blizzard, and without food or sufficient fuel to melt ice for water, Scott's party succumbed, with Scott's last journal entry, dated March 29th, 1912.

I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
R. Scott.

For God's sake look after our people.

A search party found the bodies of Scott and the other two members of the expedition who died with him in the tent (the other two had died earlier on the return journey; their remains were never found). His journals were found with him, and when returned to Britain were prepared for publication, and proved a sensation. Amundsen's priority was almost forgotten in the English speaking world, alongside Scott's first-hand account of audacious daring, meticulous planning, heroic exertion, and dignity in the face of death.

A bewildering variety of Scott's journals were published over the years. They are described in detail and their differences curated in this Oxford World's Classics edition. In particular, Scott's original journals contained very candid and often acerbic observations about members of his expedition and other explorers, particularly Shackleton. These were elided or toned down in the published copies of the journals. In this edition, the published text is used, but the original manuscript text appears in an appendix.

Scott was originally considered a hero, then was subjected to a revisionist view that deemed him ill-prepared for the expedition and distracted by peripheral matters such as a study of the embryonic development of emperor penguins as opposed to Amundsen's single-minded focus on a dash to the Pole. The pendulum has now swung back somewhat, and a careful reading of Scott's own journals seems, at least to this reader, to support this more balanced view. Yes, in some ways Scott's expedition seems amazingly amateurish (I mean, if you were planning to ski across the ice cap, wouldn't you learn to ski before you arrived in Antarctica, rather than bring along a Norwegian to teach you after you arrived?), but ultimately Scott's polar party died due to a combination of horrific weather (present-day estimates are that only one year in sixteen has temperatures as low as those Scott experienced on the Ross Ice Shelf) and an equipment failure: leather washers on cans of fuel failed in the extreme temperatures, which caused loss of fuel Scott needed to melt ice to sustain the party on its return. And yet the same failure had been observed during Scott's 1901–1904 expedition, and nothing had been done to remedy it. The record remains ambiguous and probably always will.

The writing, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was done, makes you shiver. At the Pole:

The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.

… Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.

and from his “Message to the Public” written shortly before his death:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

Now that's an explorer.

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March 2013

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 4. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2011. ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2011-4110.
This is the fourth and final book of the author's autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. As he says in this volume, “I was born in the Russian Empire, grew up in Soviet Russia, achieved a great deal in the Soviet Union, and continue to work in Russia.” After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo (April 2008), the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original Russian edition is available online.

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Thavis, John. The Vatican Diaries. New York: Viking, 2013. ISBN 978-0-670-02671-5.
Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that:

…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Imagine a bureaucracy in which the Iron Law has been working inexorably since the Roman Empire.

The author has covered the Vatican for the Catholic News Service for the last thirty years. He has travelled with popes and other Vatican officials to more than sixty countries and, developing his own sources within a Vatican which is simultaneously opaque to an almost medieval level in its public face, yet leaks like a sieve as factions try to enlist journalists in advancing their agendas. In this book he uses his access to provide a candid look inside the Vatican, at a time when the church is in transition and crisis.

He begins with a peek inside the mechanics of the conclave which chose Pope Benedict XVI: from how the black or white smoke is made to how the message indicating the selection of a new pontiff is communicated (or not) to the person responsible for ringing the bell to announce the event to the crowds thronging St Peter's Square.

There is a great deal of description, bordering on gonzo, of the reality of covering papal visits to various countries: in summary, much of what you read from reporters accredited to the Vatican comes from their watching events on television, just as you can do yourself.

The author does not shy from controversy. He digs deeply into the sexual abuse scandals and cover-up which rocked the church, the revelations about the founder of the Legion of Christ, the struggle between then traditionalists of the Society of St Pius X and supporters of the Vatican II reforms in Rome, and the battle over the beatification of Pope Pius XII. On the lighter side, we encounter the custodians of Latin, including the Vatican Bank ATM which displays its instructions in Latin: “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundum cognoscas rationem”.

This is an enlightening look inside one of the most influential, yet least understood, institutions in what remains of Western civilisation. On the event of the announcement of the selection of Pope Francis, James Lileks wrote:

…if you'd turned the sound down on the set and shown the picture to Julius Cæsar, he would have smiled broadly. For the wrong reasons, of course—his order did not survive in its specific shape, but in another sense it did. The architecture, the crowds, the unveiling would have been unmistakable to someone from Cæsar's time. They would have known exactly what was going on.

Indeed—the Vatican gets ceremony. What is clear from this book is that it doesn't get public relations in an age where the dissemination of information cannot be controlled, and that words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, even if a “revised and updated” transcript of them is issued subsequently by the bureaucracy.

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

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Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner]. A Time for War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-312-65162-6.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books under his own name, is best known for his political works, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list including one which reached the top of that list. This is his second foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting a style reminiscent of Rudy Rucker's transrealism, in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her, is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth and getting it to the public by whatever means available, immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and banned in Britain for daring to transgress the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?

After saving his beloved San Francisco from an existential threat in the first novel, Abuse of Power (June 2012), Hatfield's profile on the national stage has become higher than ever, but that hasn't helped him get back into the media game, where his propensity for telling the truth without regard to political correctness or offending the perennially thin-skinned makes him radioactive to mainstream outlets. He manages to support himself as a free-lance investigative reporter, working from his boat in a Sausalito marina, producing and selling stories to venues willing to run them. When a Chinook helicopter goes down in a remote valley in Afghanistan killing all 39 on board and investigators attribute the crash to total failure of all electronics on board with no evidence of enemy action, Jack's ears perk up. When he later learns of an FBI vehicle performing a routine tail of a car from the Chinese consulate being disabled by “total electronic failure” he begins to get really interested. Then strange things begin to happen in Chinatown, prompting Jack to start looking for a China connection between these incidents.

Meanwhile, Dover Griffith, a junior analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence, is making other connections. She recalled that a proposed wireless Internet broadband system developed by billionaire industrialist Richard Hawke's company had to be abandoned when it was discovered its signal could induce catastrophic electrical failure in aircraft electronics. (Clearly Savage is well-acquainted with the sorry history of LightSquared and GPS interference!) When she begins to follow the trail, she is hauled into her boss's office and informed she is being placed on “open-ended unpaid furlough”: civil service speak for being fired. Clearly Hawke has plenty of pull in high places and probably something to hide. Since Hatfield had been all over the story of interference caused by the broadband system and the political battle over whether to deploy it, she decides to fly to California and join forces with Hatfield to discover what is really going on. As they, along with Jack's associates, begin to peel away layer after layer of the enigma, they begin to suspect that something even more sinister may be underway.

This is a thoroughly satisfying thriller. There is a great deal of technical detail, all meticulously researched. There are a few dubious aspects of some of the gadgets, but that's pretty much a given in the thriller genre. What distinguishes these novels from other high-profile thrillers is that Jack Hatfield isn't a superhero in the sense of Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp or Brad Thor's Scot Harvath: he is a largely washed-up journalist, divorced, living on a boat with a toy poodle, hanging out with a bunch of eccentric characters at an Italian restaurant in North Beach, who far from gunplay and derring-do, repairs watches for relaxation. This makes for a different kind of thriller, but one which is no less satisfying. I'm sure Jack Hatfield will be back, and I'm looking forward to the next outing.

You can read this novel as a stand-alone thriller without having first read Abuse of Power, but be warned that it contains major plot spoilers for the first novel; to fully enjoy them both, it's best to start there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 2013

Bussjaeger, Carl. Bargaining Position. Lyndeborough, NH: http://www.bussjaeger.us/, [2010] 2011.
In Net Assets (October 2002) the author chronicled the breakout of lovers of liberty from the Earth's gravity well by a variety of individual initiatives and their defeat of the forces of coercive government which wished to keep them in chains. In this sequel, set in the mid-21st century, the expansion into the solar system is entirely an economy of consensual actors, some ethical and some rogue, but all having escaped the shackles of the state, left to stew in its own stagnating juices on Earth.

The Hunters are an amorous couple who have spent the last decade on their prospecting ship, Improbable, staking claims in the asteroid belt and either working them or selling the larger ones to production companies. After a successful strike, they decide to take a working vacation exploring Jupiter's leading Trojan position. At this Lagrangian point the equilibrium between the gravity of Jupiter and the Sun creates a family of stable orbits around that point. The Trojan position can be thought of as an attractor toward which objects in similar orbits will approach and remain.

The Hunters figure that region, little-explored, might collect all kinds of interesting and potentially lucrative objects, and finance their expedition with a contract to produce a documentary about their voyage of exploration. What they discover exceeds anything they imagined to find: what appears to be an alien interstellar probe, disabled by an impact after arrival in the solar system, but with most of its systems and advanced technology intact.

This being not only an epochal discovery in human history, but valuable beyond the dreams of avarice, the Hunters set out to monetise the discovery, protect it against claim jumpers, and discover as much as they can to increase the value of what they've found to potential purchasers. What they discover makes the bargaining process even more complicated and with much higher stakes.

This is a tremendous story, and I can't go any further describing it without venturing into spoiler territory, which would desecrate this delightful novel. The book is available from the author's Web site as a free PDF download; use your favourite PDF reader application on your computer or mobile device to read it. As in common in self-published works, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 25 and I was reading for enjoyment, not doing a close-proof. None of them detract in any way from the story.

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White, Andrew Dickson. Fiat Money Inflation in France. Bayonne, NJ: Blackbird Books, [1876, 1896, 1912, 1914] 2011. ISBN 978-1-61053-004-0.
One of the most sure ways to destroy the economy, wealth, and morals of a society is monetary inflation: an inexorable and accelerating increase in the supply of money, which inevitably (if not always immediately) leads to ever-rising prices, collapse in saving and productive investment, and pauperisation of the working classes in favour of speculators and those with connections to the regime issuing the money.

In ancient times, debasement of the currency was accomplished by clipping coins or reducing their content of precious metal. Ever since Marco Polo returned from China with news of the tremendous innovation of paper money, unbacked paper currency (or fiat money) has been the vehicle of choice for states to loot their productive and thrifty citizens.

Between 1789 and 1796, a period encompassing the French Revolution, the French National Assembly issued assignats, paper putatively backed by the value of public lands seized from the Roman Catholic Church in the revolution. Assignats could theoretically be used to purchase these lands, and initially paid interest—they were thus a hybrid between a currency and a bond. The initial issue revived the French economy and rescued the state from bankruptcy but, as always happens, was followed by a second, third, and then a multitude of subsequent issues totally decoupled from the value of the land which was supposed to back them. This sparked an inflationary and eventually hyperinflationary spiral with savers wiped out, manufacturing and commerce grinding to a halt (due to uncertainty, inability to invest, and supply shortages) which caused wages to stagnate even as prices were running away to the upside, an enormous transfer of wealth from the general citizenry to speculators and well-connected bankers, and rampant corruption within the political class. The sequelæ of monetary debasement all played out as they always have and always will: wage and price controls, shortages, rationing, a rush to convert paper money into tangible assets as quickly as possible, capital and foreign exchange controls, prohibition on the ownership of precious metals and their confiscation, and a one-off “wealth tax” until the second, and the third, and so on. Then there was the inevitable replacement of the discredited assignats with a new paper currency, the mandats, which rapidly blew up. Then came Napoleon, who restored precious metal currency; hyperinflation so often ends up with a dictator in power.

What is remarkable about this episode is that it happened in a country which had experienced the disastrous John Law paper money bubble in 1716–1718, within the living memory of some in the assignat era and certainly in the minds of the geniuses who decided to try paper money again because “this time is different”. When it comes to paper money, this time is never different.

This short book (or long pamphlet—the 1896 edition is just 92 pages) was originally written in 1876 by the author, a president of Cornell University, as a cautionary tale against advocates of paper money and free silver in the United States. It was subsequently revised and republished on each occasion the U.S. veered further toward unbacked or “elastic” paper money. It remains one of the most straightforward accounts of a hyperinflationary episode ever written, with extensive citations of original sources. For a more detailed account of the Weimar Republic inflation in 1920s Germany, see When Money Dies (May 2011); although the circumstances were very different, the similarities will be apparent, confirming that the laws of economics manifest here are natural laws just as much as gravitation and electromagnetism, and ignoring them never ends well.

If you are looking for a Kindle edition of this book, be sure to download a free sample of the book before purchasing. As the original editions of this work are in the public domain, anybody is free to produce an electronic edition, and there are some hideous ones available; look before you buy.

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Krauss, Lawrence. Quantum Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-34065-5.
A great deal has been written about the life, career, and antics of Richard Feynman, but until the present book there was not a proper scientific biography of his work in physics and its significance in the field and consequences for subsequent research. Lawrence Krauss has masterfully remedied this lacuna with this work, which provides, at a level comprehensible to the intelligent layman, both a survey of Feynman's work, both successful and not, and also a sense of how Feynman achieved what he did and what ultimately motivated him in his often lonely quest to understand.

One often-neglected contributor to Feynman's success is discussed at length: his extraordinary skill in mathematical computation, intuitive sense of the best way to proceed toward a solution (he would often skip several intermediate steps and only fill them in when preparing work for publication), and tireless perseverance in performing daunting calculations which occupied page after page of forbidding equations. This talent was quickly recognised by those with whom he worked, and as one of the most junior physicists on the project, he was placed in charge of all computation at Los Alamos during the final phases of the Manhattan Project. Eugene Wigner said of Feynman, “He's another Dirac. Only this time human.”

Feynman's intuition and computational prowess was best demonstrated by his work on quantum electrodynamics, for which he shared a Nobel prize in 1965. (Initially Feynman didn't think too much of this work—he considered it mathematical mumbo-jumbo which swept the infinities which had plagued earlier attempts at a relativistic quantum theory of light and matter under the carpet. Only later did it become apparent that Feynman's work had laid the foundation upon which a comprehensive quantum field theory of the strong and electroweak interactions could be built.) His invention of Feynman diagrams defined the language now universally used by particle physicists to describe events in which particles interact.

Feynman was driven to understand things, and to him understanding meant being able to derive a phenomenon from first principles. Often he ignored the work of others and proceeded on his own, reinventing as he went. In numerous cases, he created new techniques and provided alternative ways of looking at a problem which provided a deeper insight into its fundamentals. A monumental illustration of Feynman's ability to do this is The Feynman Lectures on Physics, based on an undergraduate course in physics Feynman taught at Caltech in 1961–1964. Few physicists would have had the audacity to reformulate all of basic physics, from vectors and statics to quantum mechanics from scratch, and probably only Feynman could have pulled it off, which he did magnificently. As undergraduate pedagogy, the course was less than successful, but the transcribed lectures have remained in print ever since, and working physicists (and even humble engineers like me) are astounded at the insights to be had in reading and re-reading Feynman's work.

Even when Feynman failed, he failed gloriously and left behind work that continues to inspire. His unsuccessful attempt to find a quantum theory of gravitation showed that Einstein's geometric theory was completely equivalent to a field theory developed from first principles and knowledge of the properties of gravity. Feynman's foray into computation produced the Feynman Lectures On Computation, one of the first comprehensive expositions of the theory of quantum computation.

A chapter is devoted to the predictions of Feynman's 1959 lecture, “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, which is rightly viewed as the founding document of molecular nanotechnology, but, as Krauss describes, also contained the seeds of genomic biotechnology, ultra-dense data storage, and quantum material engineering. Work resulting in more than fifteen subsequent Nobel prizes is suggested in this blueprint for research. Although Feynman would go on to win his own Nobel for other work, one gets the sense he couldn't care less that others pursued the lines of investigation he sketched and were rewarded for doing so. Feynman was in the game to understand, and often didn't seem to care whether what he was pursuing was of great importance or mundane, or whether the problem he was working on from his own unique point of departure had already been solved by others long before.

Feynman was such a curious character that his larger than life personality often obscures his greatness as a scientist. This book does an excellent job of restoring that balance and showing how much his work contributed to the edifice of science in the 20th century and beyond.

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Zubrin, Robert Merchants of Despair. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-594-03476-3.
This is one of the most important paradigm-changing books since Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (January 2008). Zubrin seeks the common thread which unites radical environmentalism, eugenics, population control, and opposition to readily available means of controlling diseases due to hysteria engendered by overwrought prose in books written by people with no knowledge of the relevant science.

Zubrin identifies the central thread of all of these malign belief systems: anti-humanism. In 1974, the Club of Rome, in Mankind at the Turning Point, wrote, “The world has cancer and the cancer is man.” A foul synthesis of the ignorant speculations of Malthus and a misinterpretation of the work of Darwin led to a pernicious doctrine which asserted that an increasing human population would deplete a fixed pool of resources, leading to conflict and selection among a burgeoning population for those most able to secure the resources they needed to survive.

But human history since the dawn of civilisation belies this. In fact, per capita income has grown as population has increased, demonstrating that the static model is bogus. Those who want to constrain the human potential are motivated by a quest for power, not a desire to seek the best outcome for the most people. The human condition has improved over time, and at an accelerating pace since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, because of human action: the creativity of humans in devising solutions to problems and ways to meet needs often unperceived before the inventions which soon became seen as essentials were made. Further, the effects of human invention in the modern age are cumulative: any at point in history humans have access to all the discoveries of the past and, once they build upon them to create a worthwhile innovation, it is rapidly diffused around the world—in our days at close to the speed of light. The result of this is that in advanced technological societies the poor, measured by income compared to the societal mean, would have been considered wealthy not just by the standards of the pre-industrial age, but compared to those same societies in the memory of people now alive. The truly poor in today's world are those whose societies, for various reasons, are not connected to the engine of technological progress and the social restructuring it inevitably engenders.

And yet the anti-humanists have consistently argued for limiting the rate of growth of population and in many cases actually reducing the total population, applying a “precautionary principle” to investigation of new technologies and their deployment, and relinquishment of technologies deemed to be “unsustainable”. In short, what they advocate is reversing the progress since the year 1800 (and in many ways, since the Enlightenment), and returning to an imagined bucolic existence (except for, one suspects, the masters in their gated communities, attended to by the serfs as in times of old).

What Malthus and all of his followers to the present day missed is that the human population is not at all like the population of bacteria in a Petri dish or rabbits in the wild. Uniquely, humans invent things which improve their condition, create new resources by finding uses for natural materials previously regarded as “dirt”, and by doing so allow a larger population to enjoy a standard of living much better than that of previous generations. Put aside the fanatics who wish to reduce the human population by 80% or 90% (they exist, they are frighteningly influential in policy-making circles, and they are called out by name here). Suppose, for a moment, the author asks, societies in the 19th century had listened to Malthus and limited the human population to half of the historical value. Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur did work which contributed to the well-being of their contemporaries around the globe and continue to benefit us today. In a world with half as many people, perhaps only one would have ever lived. Which would you choose?

But the influence of the anti-humans did not stop at theory. The book chronicles the sorry, often deceitful, and tragic consequences when their policies were put into action by coercive governments. The destruction wrought by “population control” measures approached, in some cases, the level of genocide. By 1975, almost one third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been sterilised by programs funded by the U.S. federal government, and a similar program on Indian reservations sterilised one quarter of Native American women of childbearing age, often without consent. Every purebred woman of the Kaw tribe of Oklahoma was sterilised in the 1970s: if that isn't genocide, what is?

If you look beneath the hood of radical environmentalism, you'll find anti-humanism driving much of the agenda. The introduction of DDT in the 1940s immediately began to put an end to the age-old scourge of malaria. Prior to World War II, between one and six million cases of malaria were reported in the U.S. every year. By 1952, application of DDT to the interior walls of houses (as well as other uses of the insecticide) had reduced the total number of confirmed cases of malaria that year to two. By the early 1960s, use of DDT had cut malaria rates in Asia and Latin America by 99%. By 1958, Malthusian anti-humanist Aldous Huxley decried this, arguing that “Quick death by malaria has been abolished; but life made miserable by undernourishment and over-crowding is now the rule, and slow death by outright starvation threatens ever greater numbers.”

Huxley did not have long to wait to see his desires fulfilled. After the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, a masterpiece of pseudoscientific deception and fraud, politicians around the world moved swiftly to ban DDT. In Sri Lanka, where malaria cases had been cut from a million or more per year to 17 in 1963, DDT was banned in 1964, and by 1969 malaria cases had increased to half a million a year. Today, DDT is banned or effectively banned in most countries, and the toll of unnecessary death due to malaria in Africa alone since the DDT ban is estimated as in excess of 100 million. Arguably, Rachel Carson and her followers are the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century. There is no credible scientific evidence whatsoever that DDT is harmful to humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, or oceanic species. To the anti-humanists, the carnage wrought by the banning of this substance is a feature, not a bug.

If you thought Agenda 21 (November 2012) was over the top, this volume will acquaint you with the real-world evil wrought by anti-humanists, and their very real agenda to exterminate a large fraction of the human population and reduce the rest (except for themselves, of course, they believe) to pre-industrial serfdom. As the author concludes:

If the idea is accepted that the world's resources are fixed with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race of nation. The ultimate outcome of such a worldview can only be enforced stagnation, tyranny, war, and genocide.

This is a book which should have an impact, for the better, as great as Silent Spring had for the worse. But so deep is the infiltration of the anti-human ideologues into the cultural institutions that you'll probably never hear it mentioned except here and in similar venues which cherish individual liberty and prosperity.

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May 2013

O'Neill, Gerard K. The High Frontier. Mojave, CA: Space Studies Institute, [1976, 1977, 1982, 1989] 2013. ISBN 978-0-688-03133-6.
In the tumultuous year of 1969, Prof. Gerard K. O'Neill of Princeton University was tapped to teach the large freshman physics course at that institution. To motivate talented students who might find the pace of the course tedious, he organised an informal seminar which would explore challenging topics to which the basic physics taught in the main course could be applied. For the first topic of the seminar he posed the question, “Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilisation?”. So fascinating were the results of investigating this question that the seminar never made it to the next topic, and working out its ramifications would occupy the rest of O'Neill's life.

By 1974, O'Neill and his growing group of informal collaborators had come to believe not only that the answer to that 1969 question was a definitive “no”, but that a large-scale expansion of the human presence into space, using the abundant energy and material resources available outside the Earth's gravity well was not a goal for the distant future but rather something which could be accomplished using only technologies already proved or expected in the next few years (such as the NASA's space shuttle, then under development). Further, the budget to bootstrap the settlement of space until the point at which the space settlements were self-sustaining and able to expand without further support was on the order of magnitude of the Apollo project and, unlike Apollo, would have an economic pay-off which would grow exponentially as space settlements proliferated.

As O'Neill wrote, the world economy had just been hit by the first of what would be a series of “oil shocks”, which would lead to a massive transfer of wealth from productive, developed economies to desert despotisms whose significance to the world economy and geopolitics would be precisely zero did they not happen to sit atop a pool of fuel (which they lacked the ability to discover and produce). He soon realised that the key to economic feasibility of space settlements was using them to construct solar power satellites to beam energy back to Earth.

Solar power satellites are just barely economically viable if the material from which they are made must be launched from the Earth, and many design concepts assume a dramatic reduction in launch costs and super-lightweight structure and high efficiency solar cells for the satellites, which adds to their capital cost. O'Neill realised that the materials which make up around 99% of the mass of a solar power satellite are available on the Moon, and a space settlement, with access to lunar material at a small fraction of the cost of launching from Earth and the ability to fabricate the very large power satellite structures in weightlessness would reduce the cost of space solar power to well below electricity prices of the mid-1970s (which were much lower than those of today).

In this book, a complete architecture is laid out, starting with initial settlements of “only” 10,000 people in a sphere about half a kilometre in diameter, rotating to provide Earth-normal gravity at the equator. This would be nothing like what one thinks of as a “space station”: people would live in apartments at a density comparable to small towns on Earth, surrounded by vegetation and with a stream running around the equator of the sphere. Lunar material would provide radiation shielding and mirrors would provide sunlight and a normal cycle of day and night.

This would be just a first step, with subsequent settlements much larger and with amenities equal to or exceeding those of Earth. Once access to the resources of asteroids (initially those in near-Earth or Earth-crossing orbits, and eventually the main belt) was opened, the space economy's reliance on the Earth would be only for settlers and lightweight, labour-intensive goods which made more sense to import. (For example, it might be some time before a space settlement built its own semiconductor fabrication facility rather than importing chips from those on Earth.)

This is the future we could be living in today, but turned our backs upon. Having read this book shortly after it first came out, it is difficult to describe just how bracing this optimistic, expansive view of the future was in the 1970s, when everything was brown and the human prospect suddenly seemed constrained by limited resources, faltering prosperity, and shrinking personal liberty. The curious thing about re-reading it today is that almost nothing has changed. Forty years later, O'Neill's roadmap for the future is just as viable an option for a visionary society as it was when initially proposed, and technological progress and understanding of the space environment has only improved its plausibility. The International Space Station, although a multi-decade detour from true space settlements, provides a testbed where technologies for those settlements can be explored (for example, solar powered closed-cycle Brayton engines as an alternative to photovoltaics for power generation, and high-yield agricultural techniques in a closed-loop ecosystem).

The re-appearance of this book in an electronic edition is timely, as O'Neill's ideas and the optimism for a better future they inspired seem almost forgotten today. Many people assume there was some technological flaw in his argument or that an economic show-stopper was discovered, yet none was. It was more like the reaction O'Neill encountered when he first tried to get his ideas into print in 1972. One reviewer, recommending against publication, wrote, “No one else is thinking in these terms, therefore the ideas must be wrong.” Today, even space “visionaries” imagine establishing human settlements on the Moon, Mars, and among the asteroids, with space travel seen as a way to get to these destinations and sustain pioneer communities there. This is a vision akin to long sea voyages to settle distant lands. O'Neill's High Frontier is something very different and epochal: the expansion of a species which evolved on the surface of a planet into the space around it and eventually throughout the solar system, using the abundant solar energy and material resources available there. This is like life expanding from the sea where it originated onto the land. It is the next step in the human adventure, and it can begin, just as it could have in 1976, within a decade of a developed society committing to make it so.

For some reason the Kindle edition, at least when viewed with the iPad Kindle application, displays with tiny type. I found I had to increase the font size by four steps to render it easily readable. Since font size is a global setting, that means than if you view another book, it shows up with giant letters like a first grade reader. The illustrations are dark and difficult to interpret in the Kindle edition—I do not recall whether this was also the case in the paperback edition I read many years ago.

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Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. ISBN 978-0-14-312291-3.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp. The doctrine of that collectivist Hell-state, as enunciated by tyrant Kim Il Sung, is that “[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” Shin (I refer to him by his family name, as he prefers) committed no crime, but was born into slavery in a labour camp because his parents had been condemned to servitude there due to supposed offences. Shin grew up in an environment so anti-human it would send shivers of envy down the spines of Western environmentalists. In school, he saw a teacher beat a six-year-old classmate to death with a blackboard pointer because she had stolen and hidden five kernels of maize. He witnessed the hanging of his mother and the execution by firing squad of his brother because they were caught contemplating escape from the camp, and he felt only detestation of them because their actions would harm him.

Shin was imprisoned and tortured due to association with his mother and brother, and assigned to work details where accidents which killed workers were routine. Shin accepted this as simply the way life was—he knew nothing of life outside the camp or in the world beyond his slave state. This changed when he made the acquaintance of Park Yong Chul, sent to the camp for some reason after a career which had allowed him to travel abroad and meet senior people in the North Korean ruling class. While working together in the camp's garment factory, Park introduced Shin to a wider world and set him to thinking about escaping the camp. The fact that Shin, who had been recruited to observe Park and inform upon any disloyalty he observed, instead began to conspire with him to escape the camp was the signal act of defiance against tyranny which changed Shin's life.

Shin pulled off a harrowing escape from the camp which left him severely injured, lived by his wits crossing the barren countryside of North Korea, and made it across the border to China, where he worked as a menial farm hand and yet lived in luxury unheard of in North Korea. Raised in the camp, his expectations for human behaviour had nothing to do with the reality outside. As the author observes, “Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for grilled meat.”

Freedom, beyond grilled meat, was something Shin found difficult to cope with. After making his way to South Korea (where the state has programs to integrate North Korean escapees into the society) and then the United States (where, as the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape, he was a celebrity among groups advocating for human rights in North Korea). But growing up in an intensely anti-human environment, cut off from all information about the outside world, makes it difficult to cope with normal human interactions and the flood of information those born into liberty consider normal.

Much as with Nothing to Envy (September 2011), this book made my blood boil. It is not just the injustice visited upon Shin and all the prisoners of the regime who did not manage to escape, but those in our own societies who would condemn us to comparable servitude in the interest of a “higher good” as they define it.

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Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8.
This thriller is a perfect companion to Robert Zubrin's nonfiction Merchants of Despair (April 2013). Both are deeply steeped in the culture of Malthusian anti-humanism and the radical prescriptions of those who consider our species a cancer on the planet. In this novel, art historian and expert in symbology Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital bed with no memory of events since walking across the Harvard campus. He is startled to learn he is in Florence, Italy with a grazing gunshot wound to the scalp, and the target of a murderous pursuer whose motives are a mystery to him.

Langdon and the doctor who first treated him and then rescued him from a subsequent attack begin to dig into the mystery. Langdon, recovering from retrograde amnesia, finds reality mixing with visions reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, whose imagery and symbols come to dominate their quest to figure out what is going on. Meanwhile, a shadowy international security group which was working with a renowned genetic engineer begins to suspect that they may have become involved in a plot with potentially catastrophic consequences. As the mysteries are investigated, the threads interweave into a complex skein, hidden motives are revealed, and loyalties shift.

There were several times whilst reading this novel that I expected I'd be dismissing it here as having an “idiot plot”—that the whole narrative didn't make any sense except as a vehicle to introduce the scenery and action (as is the case in far too many action movies). But the author is far too clever for that (which is why his books have become such a sensation). Every time you're sure something is nonsense, there's another twist of the plot which explains it. At the end, I had only one serious quibble with the entire plot. Discussing this is a hideous spoiler for the entire novel, so I'm going to take it behind the curtain. Please don't read this unless you've already read the novel or are certain you don't intend to.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The vector virus created by Zobrist, as described on p. 438, causes a randomly selected one third of the human population to become sterile. But how can a virus act randomly? If the virus is inserted into the human germ-line, it will be faithfully copied into all offspring with the precision of human DNA replication, so variation in the viral genome, once incorporated into the germ-line, is not possible. The only other way the virus could affect only a third of the population is that there is some other genetic property which enables the virus to render the organism carrying it sterile. But if that is the case, and the genetic property be heritable, only those who lacked the variation(s) which allowed the virus to sterilise them would reproduce, and in a couple of generations the virus, while still incorporated in the human genome, would have no effect on the rate of growth of the human population: “life finds a way”.

Further, let's assume the virus could, somehow, randomly sterilise a third of the human population, that natural selection could not render it ineffective, and science found no way to reverse it or was restrained from pursuing a remedy by policy makers. Well, then, you'd have a world in which some fraction of couples could have children and the balance could not. (The distribution depends upon whether the virus affects the fertility of males, females, or both.) Society adapts to such circumstances. Would not the fertile majority increase their fertility to meet market demand for adoption by infertile couples?

Spoilers end here.  

This is a fine thriller, meticulously researched, which will send you off to look up the many works of art and architectural wonders which appear in it, and may plant an itch to visit Florence and Venice. I'm sure it will make an excellent movie, as is sure to happen after the success of cinematic adaptations of the author's previous Robert Langdon novels.

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Aldrin, Buzz with Leonard David. Mission to Mars. Washington, National Geographic Society, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4262-1017-4.
As 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 1988) notes, while Neil Armstrong may have been the first human to step onto the Moon, he was the first alien from another world to board a spacecraft bound for Earth (but how can he be sure?). After those epochal days in July of 1969, Aldrin, more than any other person who went to the Moon, has worked energetically to promote space exploration and settlement, developing innovative mission architectures to expand the human presence into the solar system. This work continues his intellectual contributions to human space flight which began with helping to develop the techniques of orbital rendezvous still employed today and pioneering neutral-buoyancy training for extra-vehicular activity, which enabled him to perform the first completely successful demonstration of work in orbit on Gemini XII.

In this book Aldrin presents his “Unified Space Vision” for the next steps beyond the home planet. He notes that what we know about the Moon today is very different from the little we mostly guessed when he set foot upon that world. Today it appears that the lunar polar regions may have abundant resources of water which provide not only a source of oxygen for lunar settlers, but electrolysed by abundant solar power, a source of rocket fuel for operations beyond the Earth. Other lunar resources may allow the fabrication of solar panels from in situ materials, reducing the mass which must be launched from the Earth. Aldrin “cyclers” will permit transfers between the Earth and Moon and the Earth and Mars with little expenditure of propellant.

Aldrin argues that space, from low Earth orbit to the vicinity of the Moon, be opened up to explorers, settlers, and entrepreneurs from all countries, private and governmental, to discover what works and what doesn't, and which activities make economic sense. To go beyond, however, he argues that the U.S. should take the lead, establishing a “United Strategic Space Enterprise” with the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2035. He writes, “around 2020, every selected astronaut should consign to living out his or her life on the surface of Mars.”

And there's where it all falls apart for me. It seems to me the key question that is neither asked nor answered when discussing the establishment of a human settlement on Mars can be expressed in one word: “why?” Yes, I believe that long-term survival of humans and their descendants depends upon not keeping everything in one planetary basket, and I think there is tremendously interesting science to be done on Mars, which may inform us about the origin of life and its dissemination among celestial bodies, the cycle of climate on planets and the influence of the Sun, and many other fascinating subjects. It makes sense to have a number of permanent bases on Mars to study these things, just as the U.S. and other countries have maintained permanent bases in Antarctica for more than fifty years. But I no longer believe that the expansion of the human presence in the solar system is best accomplished by painfully clawing our way out of one deep gravity well only to make a long voyage and then make an extremely perilous descent into another one (the Martian atmosphere is thick enough you have to worry about entry heating, but not thick enough to help in braking to landing speed). Once you're on Mars, you only have solar power half the time, just as on Earth, and you have an atmosphere which is useless to breathe.

Even though few people take it seriously any more, Gerard K. O'Neill's vision of space settlements in The High Frontier (May 2013) makes far more sense to me. Despite Aldrin's enthusiasm for private space ventures, it seems to me that his vision for the exploration and settlement of Mars will be, for at least the first decades, the kind of elitist venture performed by civil servants that the Apollo Moon landings were. In this book he envisions no economic activity on Mars which would justify the cost of supporting an expanding human presence there. Now, wealthy societies may well fund a few bases, just as they do in the Antarctic, but that will never reach what O'Neill calls the point of “ignition”—where the settlement pays for itself and can fund its own expansion by generating economic value sufficient to import its needs and additional settlers. O'Neill works out in great detail how space settlements in cislunar space can do this, and I believe his economic case, first made in the 1970s, has not only never been refuted but is even more persuasive today.

Few people have thought as long and hard about what it takes to make our species a spacefaring civilisation as Buzz Aldrin, nor worked so assiduously over decades to achieve that goal. This is a concise summation of his view for where we should go from here. I disagree with much of his strategy, but hey, when it comes to extraterrestrial bodies, he's been there and I haven't. This is a slim book (just 272 pages in the hardback edition), and the last 20% is a time line of U.S. space policies by presidential administrations, including lengthy abstracts of speeches, quoted from space.com.

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Stiennon, Patrick J. G., David M. Hoerr, and Doug Birkholz. The Rocket Company. Reston VA, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, [2005] 2013. ISBN 978-1-56347-696-9.
This is a very curious book. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics isn't known as a publisher of fiction, and yet here we have, well, not exactly a novel, but something between an insider account of a disruptive technological start-up company along the lines of The Soul of A New Machine and a business school case study of a company which doesn't exist, at least not yet.

John Forsyth, having made a fortune in the computer software industry, decided to invest in what he believed was the next big thing—drastically reducing the cost of access to space and thereby opening a new frontier not just to coercive governments and wealthy tourists but to pioneers willing to bet their future on expanding the human presence beyond the planet. After dropping a tidy sum in a space start-up in the 1990s, he took a step back and looked at what it would take to build a space access business which would have a real probability of being profitable on a time scale acceptable to investors with the resources it would take to fund it.

Having studied a variety of “new space” companies which focussed on providing launch services in competition with incumbent suppliers, he concluded that in the near term reducing the cost of access to orbit would only result in shrinking overall revenue, as demand for launch services was unlikely to expand much even with a substantial reduction in launch cost. But, as he observed, while in the early days of the airline industry most airlines were unprofitable, surviving on government subsidies, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing did quite well. So, he decided his new venture would be a vendor of spacecraft hardware, leaving operations and sales of launch services to his customers. It's ugly, but it gets you there.

In optimising an aerospace system, you can trade off one property against another. Most present-day launch systems are optimised to provide maximum lift weight to orbit and use expensive lightweight construction and complex, high-performance engines to achieve that goal. Forsyth opted to focus on reusability and launch rate, even at the cost of payload. He also knew that his budget would not permit the development of exotic technologies, so he chose a two stage to orbit design which would use conventional construction techniques and variants of engines with decades of service history.

He also decided that the launcher would be manned. Given the weight of including crew accommodations, an escape system, and life support equipment this might seem an odd decision, but Forsyth envisioned a substantial portion of his initial market to be countries or other groups who wanted the prestige of having their own manned space program and, further, if there was going to be a pilot on board, he or she could handle payload deployment and other tasks which would otherwise require costly and heavy robotics. (I cannot, for the life of me, figure out the rationale for having a pilot in the first stage. Sure, the added weight doesn't hit the payload to orbit as much as in the second stage, but given the very simple trajectory of the first stage the pilot is little more than a passenger.)

The book chronicles the venture from concept, through business plan, wooing of investors, building the engineering team, making difficult design trade-offs, and pitching the new vehicle to potential customers, carefully avoiding the problem of expectations outpacing reality which had been so often the case with earlier commercial space ventures. The text bristles with cost figures and engineering specifications, the latter all in quaint U.S. units including slugs per square foot (ewww…). Chapter 6 includes a deliciously cynical view of systems engineering as performed in legacy aerospace contractors.

I noted several factual and a number of copy-editing errors, but none which call into question the feasibility of the design. The technologies required to make this work are, for the most part, already in existence and demonstrated in other applications, but whether it would be possible to integrate them into a new vehicle with the schedule and budget envisioned here is unclear. I do not understand at all what happens after the orbital stage lands under its parawing. Both the propellant tanks and interstage compartment are “balloon tanks”, stabilised by pressure. This is fine for flight to orbit, orbital operations (where there is no stress on the interstage when it is depressurised for payload deployment), or re-entry, but after the stage lands horizontally how does the pilot exit through the crew hatch without the interstage losing pressure and crumpling on the runway? Some of the plans for lunar and planetary applications in the final few chapters seem wooly to me, but then I haven't seriously thought about what you might do with a reusable launcher with a payload capacity of 2250 kg that can fly once a day.

The illustrations by Doug Birkholz are superb, reminiscent of those by Russell W. Porter in Amateur Telescope Making. Author Stiennon received U.S. patent 5,568,901 in 1996 for a launch system as described in this book.

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June 2013

Baxter, Stephen. Moonseed. New York: Harper Voyager, 1998. ISBN 978-0-06-105903-2.
Stephen Baxter is one of the preeminent current practitioners of “hard” science fiction—trying to tell a tale of wonder while getting the details right, or at least plausible. In this novel, a complacent Earth plodding along and seeing its great era of space exploration recede into the past is stunned when, without any warning, Venus explodes, showering the Earth with radiation which seems indicative of processes at grand unification and/or superstring energies. “Venus ponchos” become not just a fashion accessory but a necessity for survival, and Venus shelters an essential addition to basements worldwide.

NASA geologist Henry Meacher, his lunar landing probe having been cancelled due to budget instability, finds himself in Edinburgh, Scotland, part of a project to analyse a sample of what may be lunar bedrock collected from the last Apollo lunar landing mission decades before. To his horror, he discovers that what happened to Venus may have been catalysed by something in the Moon rock, and that it has escaped and begun to propagate in the ancient volcanic vents around Edinburgh. Realising that this is a potential end-of-the-world scenario, he tries to awaken the world to the risk, working through his ex-wife, a NASA astronaut, and argues the answer to the mystery must be sought where it originated, on the Moon.

This is grand scale science fiction—although the main narrative spans only a few years, its consequences stretch decades thereafter and perhaps to eternity. There are layers and layers of deep mystery, and ambiguities which may never be resolved. There are some goofs and quibbles big enough to run a dinosaur-killer impactor through (I'm talking about “harenodynamics”: you'll know what I mean when you get there, but there are others), but still the story works, and I was always eager to pick it back up and find out what happens next. This is the final volume in Baxter's NASA trilogy. I found the first two novels, Voyage and Titan (December 2012), better overall, but if you enjoyed them, you'll almost certainly like this book.

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Neven, Thomas E. Sir, The Private Don't Know! Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00D5EO5EU.
The author, a self-described “[l]onghaired surfer dude” from Florida, wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life after graduating from high school, but he was certain he didn't want to go directly to college—he didn't have the money for it and had no idea what he might study. He had thought about a military career, but was unimpressed when a Coast Guard recruiter never got back to him. He arrived at the Army recruiter's office only to find the recruiter a no-show. While standing outside the Army recruiter's office, he was approached by a Marine recruiter, whose own office was next door. He was receptive to the highly polished pitch and signed enlistment papers on March 10, 1975.

This was just about the lowest ebb in 20th century U.S. military history. On that very day, North Vietnam launched the offensive which would, two months later, result in the fall of Saigon and the humiliating images of the U.S. embassy being evacuated by helicopter. Opposition to the war had had reduced public support for the military to all-time lows, and the image of veterans as drug-addicted, violence-prone sociopaths was increasingly reinforced by the media. In this environment, military recruiters found it increasingly difficult to meet their quotas (which failure could torpedo their careers), and were motivated and sometimes encouraged to bend the rules. Physical fitness, intelligence, and even criminal records were often ignored or covered up in order to make quota. This meant that the recruits arriving for basic training, even for a supposedly elite force as the Marines, included misfits, some of whom were “dumb as a bag of hammers”.

Turning this flawed raw material into Marines had become a matter of tearing down the recruits' individuality and personality to ground level and the rebuilding it into a Marine. When the author arrived at Parris Island a month after graduating from high school, he found himself fed into the maw of this tree chipper of the soul. Within minutes he, and his fellow recruits, all shared the thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”, as the mental and physical stress mounted higher and higher. “The DIs [drill instructors] were gods; they had absolute power and were capricious and cruel in exercising it.” It was only in retrospect that the author appreciated that this was not just hazing or sadism (although there were plenty of those), but a deliberate part of the process to condition the recruits to instantly obey any order without questioning it and submit entirely to authority.

This is a highly personal account of one individual's experience in Marine basic training. The author served seven years in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of staff sergeant. He then went on to college and graduate school, and later was associate editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, the professional journal of the Corps.

The author was one of the last Marines to graduate from the “old basic training”. Shortly thereafter, a series of scandals involving mistreatment of recruits at the hands of drill instructors brought public and Congressional scrutiny of Marine practices, and there was increasing criticism among the Marine hierarchy that “Parris Island was graduating recruits, not Marines.” A great overhaul of training was begun toward the end of the 1970s and has continued to the present day, swinging back and forth between leniency and rigour. Marine basic has never been easy, but today there is less overt humiliation and make-work and more instruction and testing of actual war-fighting skills. An epilogue (curiously set in a monospace typewriter font) describes the evolution of basic training in the years after the author's own graduation from Parris Island. For a broader-based perspective on Marine basic training, see Thomas Ricks's Making the Corps (February 2002).

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

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Cody, Beth. Looking Backward: 2162–2012. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4681-7895-1.
Julian West was a professor of history at Fielding College, a midwestern U.S. liberal arts institution, where he shared the assumptions of his peers: big government was good; individual initiative was suspect; and the collective outweighed the individual. At the inauguration of a time capsule on the campus, he found himself immured within it and, after inhaling a concoction consigned to the future by the chemistry department, wakes up 150 years later, when the capsule is opened, to discover himself in a very different world.

The United States, which was the foundation of his reference frame, have collapsed due to unsustainable debt and entitlement commitments. North America has fragmented into a variety of territories, including the Free States of America, which include the present-day states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. The rest of the former U.S. has separated into autonomous jurisdictions with very different approaches to governance. The Republic of Texas has become entirely Texan, while New Hampshire has chosen to go it alone, in keeping with their porky-spine tradition. A rump USA, composed of failed states, continues to pursue the policies which caused the collapse of their railroad-era, continental-scale empire.

West returns to life in the Free States, which have become a classical libertarian republic as imagined by Rothbard. The federal government is supported only by voluntary contributions, and state and local governments are constrained by the will of their constituents. West, disoriented by all of this, is taken under the wing of David Seeton, a history professor at Fielding in the 22nd century, who welcomes West into his home and serves a guide to the new world in which West finds himself.

West and Seeton explore this world, so strange to West, and it slowly dawns on West (amidst flashbacks to his past life), that this might really be a better way of organising society. There is a great amount of preaching and didactic conversation here; while it's instructive if you're really interested in how a libertarian society might work, many may find it tedious.

Finally, West, who was never really sure his experience of the future mightn't have been a dream, has a dream experience which forces him to confront the conflict of his past and future.

This is a book I found both tiresome and enlightening. I would highly recommend it to anybody who has contemplated a libertarian society but dismissed it as “That couldn't ever work”. The author is clear that no solution is perfect, and that any society will reflect the flaws of the imperfect humans who compose it. The libertarian society is presented as the “least bad discovered so far”, with the expectation that free people will eventually discover even better ways to organise themselves. Reading this book is much like slogging through Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010)—it takes some effort, but it's worth doing so. It is obviously derivative of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward which presented a socialist utopia, but I'd rather live in Cody's future than Bellamy's.

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Smolin, Lee. Time Reborn. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013. ISBN 978-0-547-51172-6.
Early in his career, the author received some unorthodox career advice from Richard Feynman. Feynman noted that in physics, as in all sciences, there were a large number of things that most professional scientists believed which nobody had been able to prove or demonstrate experimentally. Feynman's insight was that, when considering one of these problems as an area to investigate, there were two ways to approach it. The first was to try to do what everybody had failed previously to accomplish. This, he said, was extremely difficult and unlikely to succeed, since it assumes you're either smarter than everybody who has tried before or have some unique insight which eluded them. The other path is to assume that the failure of numerous brilliant people might indicate that what they were trying to demonstrate was, in fact, wrong, and that it might be wiser for the ambitious scientist to search for evidence to the contrary.

Based upon the author's previous work and publications, I picked up this book expecting a discussion of the problem of time in quantum gravity. What I found was something breathtakingly more ambitious. In essence, the author argues that when it comes to cosmology: the physics of the universe as a whole, physicists have been doing it wrong for centuries, and that what he calls the “Newtonian paradigm” must be replaced with one in which time is fundamental in order to stop speaking nonsense.

The equations of general relativity, especially when formulated in attempts to create a quantum theory of gravitation, seem to suggest that our perception of time is an illusion: we live in a timeless block universe, in which our consciousness can be thought of as a cursor moving through a fixed, deterministic spacetime. In general relativity, the rate of perceived flow of time depends upon one's state of motion and the amount of mass-energy in the vicinity of the observer, so it makes no sense to talk about any kind of global time co-ordinate. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, assumes there is a global clock, external to the system and unaffected by it, which governs the evolution of the wave function. These views are completely incompatible—hence the problem of time in quantum gravity.

But the author argues that “timelessness” has its roots much deeper in the history and intellectual structure of physics. When one uses Newtonian mechanics to write down a differential equation which describes the path of a ball thrown upward, one is reducing a process which would otherwise require enumerating a list of positions and times to a timeless relationship which is valid over the entire trajectory. Time appears in the equation simply as a label which causes it to emit the position at that moment. The equation of motion, and, more importantly, the laws of motion which allow us to write it down for this particular case, are entirely timeless: they affect the object but are not affected by it, and they appear to be specified outside the system.

This, when you dare to step back and think about it, is distinctly odd. Where did these laws come from? Well, in Newton's day and in much of the history of science since, most scientists would say they were prescribed by a benevolent Creator. (My own view that they were put into the simulation by the 13 year old superkid who created it in order to win the Science Fair with the most interesting result, generating the maximum complexity, is isomorphic to this explanation.) Now, when you're analysing a system “in a box”, it makes perfect sense to assume the laws originate from outside and are fixed; after all, we can compare experiments run in different boxes and convince ourselves that the same laws obtain regardless of symmetries such as translation, orientation, or boost. But note that once we try to generalise this to the entire universe, as we must in cosmology, we run into a philosophical speed bump of singularity scale. Now we cannot escape the question of where the laws came from. If they're from inside the universe, then there must have been some dynamical process which created them. If they're outside the universe, they must have had to be imposed by some process which is external to the universe, which makes no sense if you define the universe as all there is.

Smolin suggests that laws exist within our universe, and that they evolve in an absolute time, which is primordial. There is no unmoved mover: the evolution of the universe (and the possibility that universes give birth to other universes) drives the evolution of the laws of physics. Perhaps the probabilistic results we observe in quantum mechanical processes are not built-in ahead of time and prescribed by timeless laws outside the universe, but rather a random choice from the results of previous similar measurements. This “principle of precedence”, which is remarkably similar to that of English common law, perfectly reproduces the results of most tests of quantum mechanics, but may be testable by precision experiments where circumstances never before created in the universe are measured, for example in quantum computing. (I am certain Prof. Smolin would advocate for my being beheaded were I to point out the similarity of this hypothesis with Rupert Sheldrake's concept of morphic resonance; some years ago I suggested to Dr Sheldrake a protein crystallisation experiment on the International Space Station to test this theory; it is real science, but to this date nobody has done it. Few wish to risk their careers testing what “everybody knows”.)

This is one those books you'll need to think about after you've read it, then after some time, re-read to get the most out of it. A collection of online appendices expand upon topics discussed in the book. An hour-long video discussion of the ideas in the book by the author and the intellectual path which led him to them is available.

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July 2013

Wolfe, Steven. The Obligation. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-3010-5798-6.
This is a wickedly clever book. A young congressional staffer spots a plaque on the wall of his boss, a rotund 15-term California Democrat, which reads, “The colonization of space will be the fulfillment of humankind's Obligation to the Earth.” Intrigued, he mentions the plaque to the congressman, and after a series of conversations, finds himself sent on a quest to meet archetypes of what the congressman refers to as the six Endowments of humanity—capacities present only in our own species which set us apart from all of those from whom we evolved, and equip us for a destiny which is our ultimate purpose: the Wanderer, Settler, Inventor, Builder, Visionary, and Protector. These Endowments have evolved, driven by the Evolutionary Impulse, toward the achievement, by humans and their eventual descendents, of three Obligations, which will require further evolution into a seventh Endowment.

The staffer tries to reconcile his discovery of the human destiny beyond the planet with his romance with a goo-goo eco-chick who advocates cancelling the space program to first solve our problems on the Earth. As he becomes progressively enlightened, he, and then she realise that there is no conflict between these goals, and that planetary stewardship and serving as the means for Gaia “going to seed” and propagating the life it has birthed outward into the cosmos are a unified part of the Obligation.

When I describe this book as “wickedly clever”, what I mean is that it creates a mythology for space migration which co-opts and subsumes that of its most vehement opponents: the anti-human Merchants of Despair (April 2013). It recasts humanity, not as a “cancer on the planet”, but rather the means by which Gaia can do what every life form must: reproduce. Indeed, Robert Zubrin, author of the aforementioned book, along with a number of other people I respect, have contributed effusive blurbs on the book's Web site. It provides a framework for presenting humanity's ultimate destiny and the purpose of life to those who have never thought of those in terms similar to those I expressed in my Epilogue to Rudy Rucker's The Hacker and the Ants. (Warning—there are spoilers for the novel in my Epilogue.)

In the acknowledgements, the author thanks several people for help in editing the manuscript. Given the state of what was published, one can only imagine what these stalwarts started with. The text is riddled with copy-editing errors: I noted 61, and I was just reading for enjoyment, not doing a close proof. In chapter 6, visiting Evan Phillips, the Builder, the protagonist witnesses a static test of an Aerojet LR-87 engine, which is said to have a “white hot exhaust” and is described as “off the shelf hardware”. But the LR-87, which powered Titan missiles and launchers, has used hypergolic fuels ever since the Titan II replaced the Titan I in the early 1960s. These storable fuels burn with a clear flame. Re-engineering an LR-87 to burn LOX and RP-1 would be a major engineering project, hardly off the shelf. Further, during the test, the engine is throttled to various thrust levels, but the LR-87 was a fixed thrust engine; no model incorporated throttling. In chapter 9, after visiting a Kitt Peak telescope earlier in the night, in the predawn hours, he steps out under the sky and sees a “nearly full Moon … dimming the blazing star fields I saw at Kitt Peak”. But a full Moon always rises at sunset (think about the geometry), so if the Moon were near full, it would have been up when he visited the telescope. There are other factual goofs, but I will not belabour them, as that isn't what this book is about. It is a rationale for space settlement which, if the reader can set aside the clumsy editing, may be seductively persuasive even to those inclined to oppose it.

Update: The copy-editing errors mentioned above have been corrected in a new edition now posted. If you previously purchased and downloaded the Kindle edition, log in to your Amazon account, go to “Manage Your Kindle / Manage Your Devices” and turn on Automatic Book Update. The next time you synchronise your reading device, the updated edition will be downloaded. (2013-08-03 13:28 UTC)

Only the Kindle edition is available from Amazon, but a wide variety of other electronic formats, including HTML, PDF, EPUB, and plain text are available from Smashwords.

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Cashill, Jack and James Sanders. First Strike. Nashville: WND Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7852-6354-8.
On July 17, 1996, just 12 minutes after takeoff, TWA Flight 800 from New York to Paris exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 passengers and crew on board were killed. The disaster occurred on a summer evening in perfect weather, and was witnessed by hundreds of people from land, sea, and air—the FBI interviewed more than seven hundred eyewitnesses in the aftermath of the crash.

There was something “off” about the accident investigation from the very start. Many witnesses, including some highly credible people with military and/or aviation backgrounds, reported seeing a streak of light flying up and reaching the airliner, followed by a bright flash like that produced by a high-velocity explosive. Only later did a fireball from burning fuel appear and begin to fall to the ocean. In total disregard of the stautory requirements for an air accident investigation, which designate the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as the lead agency, the FBI was given prime responsibility and excluded NTSB personnel from interviews with eyewitnesses, restricted access to interview transcripts and physical evidence, and denied NTSB laboratories the opportunity to test debris recovered from the crash field.

NTSB investigations involve “partners”: representatives from the airline, aircraft manufacturer, the pilots' and aerospace workers' unions, and others. These individuals observed and remarked pointedly upon how different this investigation was from the others in which they had participated. Further, and more disturbingly, some saw what appeared to be FBI tampering with the evidence, falsifying records such as the location at which debris had been recovered, altering flight recorder data, and making key evidence as varied as the scavenge pump which was proposed as the ignition source for the fuel tank explosion advanced as the cause of the crash, seats in the area contaminated with a residue some thought indicative of missile propellant or a warhead explosion, and dozens of eyewitness sketches disappear.

Captain Terrell Stacey was the TWA representive in the investigation. He was in charge of all 747 pilot operations for the airline and had flown the Flight 800 aircraft into New York the night before its final flight. After observing these irregularities in the investigation, he got in touch with author Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, and arranged for Sanders to obtain samples of the residue on the seats for laboratory testing. The tests found an elemental composition consistent with missile propellant or explosive, which was reported on the front page of a Southern California newspaper on March 10th, 1997. The result: the FBI seized Sanders's phone records, tracked down Stacey, and arrested and perp-walked Sanders and his wife (a TWA trainer and former flight attendant). They were hauled into court and convicted of a federal charge intended to prosecute souvenir hunters disturbing crash sites. The government denied Sanders was a journalist (despite his work having been published in mainstream venues for years) and disallowed a First Amendment defence.

This is just a small part of what stinks to high heaven about this investigation. So shoddy was control of the chain of custody of the evidence and so blatant the disregard of testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses, that alternative theories of the crash have flourished since shortly after the event until the present day. It is difficult to imagine what might have been the motives behind a cover-up of a missile attack against a U.S. airliner, but as the author notes, only a few months remained before the 1996 U.S. presidential election, in which Clinton was running on a platform of peace and prosperity. A major terrorist attack might subvert this narrative, so perhaps the well-documented high-level meetings which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the crash might have decided to direct a finding of a mechanical failure of a kind which had occurred only once before in the eighty-year history of aviation, with that incident being sometimes attributed to terrorism. What might have been seen as a wild conspiracy theory in the 1990s seems substantially more plausible in light of the Benghazi attack in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and its treatment by the supine legacy media.

A Kindle edition is available. If you are interested in this independent investigation of Flight 800, be sure to see the documentary Silenced which was produced by the authors and includes interviews with many of the key eyewitnesses and original documents and data. Finally, if this was just an extremely rare mechanical malfunction, why do so many of the documents from the investigation remain classified and inaccessible to Freedom of Information Act requests seventeen years thereafter?

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Walsh, Michael. Shock Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7860-2412-4.
This is the third novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent (September 2010), I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did eventually read the sequel, Early Warning (January 2012), which I enjoyed very much, and concluded that the author was well on the path to being a grandmaster of the techno-thriller genre.

Then we have this book, the conclusion to the Devlin trilogy. Here the author decides to “go large” and widen the arena from regional terrorist strikes to a global apocalyptic clash of civilisations end-times scenario. The result is an utter flop. First of all, this novel shouldn't be read by anybody who hasn't read the previous two books—you won't have the slightest idea who the characters are, the backstory which has brought them to their present points, or what motivates them to behave as they do. Or maybe I can simplify the last sentence to say “This novel shouldn't be read by anybody”—it's that bad.

There is little more I can say which would not be spoilers for either this book or the series, so let us draw the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The key thing about a techno-thriller is that the technology should be plausible and that it should be thrilling. This novel fails by both criteria. The key conceit, that a laser operated by a co-opted employee of CERN on the Côte d'Azur could project lifelike holographic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Prophet Mohammed by bouncing them off the lunar ranging retroreflectors placed on the lunar surface is laugh-out-loud absurd. A moment's calculation of the energy required to return a visible signal to the Earth will result in howls of laughter, and that's before you consider that holograms don't work anything like the author presumes they do.

Our high-end NSA and special forces heroes communicate using a “double Playfair cipher”. This is a digraph substitution cipher which can be broken in milliseconds by modern computers.

Danny brings the MH-6H Little Bird “just a few feet off the high desert floor”, whereupon Devlin “rappelled down, hit the ground, and started running” if it were just a few feet, why didn't he just step off the chopper, or why didn't Danny land it?

Spoilers end here.  

I could go on and on, but I won't because I didn't care enough about this story to critique it in detail. There is a constant vertigo as the story line cuts back and forth among characters we've met in the first two novels, many of who play only peripheral roles in this story. There is an entire subplot about a manipulative contender for the U.S. presidency which fades out and goes nowhere. This is a techno-thriller in which the tech is absurd and the plot induces chuckles rather than thrills.

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Goldman, David P. How Civilizations Die. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98273-4.
I am writing this review in the final days of July 2013. A century ago, in 1913, there was a broad consensus as to how the 20th century would play out, at least in Europe. A balance of power had been established among the great powers, locked into alliances and linked with trade relationships which made it seem to most observers that large-scale conflict was so contrary to the self-interest of nations that it was unthinkable. And yet, within a year, the irrevocable first steps toward what would be the most sanguinary conflict in human history so far would be underway, a global conflict which would result in more than 37 million casualties, with 16 million dead. The remainder of the 20th century was nothing like the conventional wisdom of 1913, with an even more costly global war to come, the great powers of 1913 reduced to second rank, and a bipolar world emerging stabilised only by the mutual threat of annihilation by weapons which could destroy entire cities within a half hour of being launched.

What if our expectations for the 21st century are just as wrong as those of confident observers in 1913?

The author writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. It is commonplace to say “demographics is destiny”, yet Goldman is one a very few observers who really takes this to heart and projects the consequences of demographic trends which are visible to everybody but rarely projected to their logical conclusions. Those conclusions portend a very different 21st century than most anticipate. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and increasingly, the so-called developing world are dying: they have fertility rates not just below replacement (around 2.1 children per woman), but in many cases deep into “demographic death spiral” territory from which no recovery is possible. At present fertility rates, by 2100 the population of Japan will have fallen by 55%, Russia 53%, Germany 46%, and Italy 39%. For a social welfare state, whose financial viability presumes a large population of young workers who will pay for the pensions and medical care of a smaller cohort of retirees, these numbers are simply catastrophic. The inverted age pyramid places an impossible tax burden upon workers, which further compounds the demographic collapse since they cannot afford to raise families large enough to arrest it.

Some in the Islamic world have noted this trend and interpreted it as meaning ultimate triumph for the ummah. To this, Goldman replies, “not so fast”—the book is subtitled “And Why Islam is Dying Too”. In fact, the Islamic world is in the process of undergoing a demographic transition as great as that of the Western nations, but on a time scale so short as to be unprecedented in human history. And while Western countries will face imposing problems coping with their aging populations, at least they have sufficient wealth to make addressing the problem, however painful, possible. Islamic countries without oil (which is where the overwhelming majority of Muslims live) have no such financial or human resources. Egypt, for example, imports about half its food calories and has a functional illiteracy rate of around 40%. These countries not only lack a social safety net, they cannot afford to feed their current population, not to mention a growing fraction of retirees.

When societies are humiliated (as Islam has been in its confrontation with modernity), they not only lose faith in the future, but lose their faith, as has happened in post-Christian Europe, and then they cease to have children. Further, as the author observes, while in traditional society children were an asset who would care for their parents in old age, “In the modern welfare state, child rearing is an act of altruism.” (p. 194) This altruism becomes increasingly difficult to justify when, increasingly, children are viewed as the property of the state, to be indoctrinated, medicated, and used to its ends and, should the parents object, abducted by an organ of the state. Why bother? Fewer and fewer couples of childbearing age make that choice. Nothing about this is new: Athens, Sparta, and Rome all experienced the same collapse in fertility when they ceased to believe in their future—and each one eventually fell.

This makes for an extraordinarily dangerous situation. The history of warfare shows that in many conflicts the majority of casualties on the losing side occur after it was clear to those in political and military leadership that defeat was inevitable. As trends forecaster Gerald Celente says, “When people have nothing to lose, they lose it.” Societies which become aware of their own impending demographic extinction or shrinking position on the geopolitical stage will be tempted to go for the main prize before they scroll off the screen. This means that calculations based upon rational self-interest may not predict the behaviour of dying countries, any more than all of the arguments in 1913 about a European war being irrational kept one from erupting a year later.

There is much, much more in this book, with some of which I agree and some of which I find dubious, but it is all worthy of your consideration. The author sees the United States and Israel as exceptional states, as both have largely kept their faith and maintained a sustainable birthrate to carry them into the future. He ultimately agrees with me (p. 264) that “It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel of their citizens.”

The twenty-first century may be nothing like what the conventional wisdom crowd assume. Here is a provocative alternative view which will get you thinking about how different things may be, as trends already in progress, difficult or impossible to reverse, continue in the coming years.

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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August 2013

Cawdron, Peter. Xenophobia. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4905-6823-2.
This is the author's second novel of humanity's first contact with an alien species, but it is not a sequel to his earlier Anomaly (December 2011); the story is completely unrelated, and the nature of the aliens and the way in which the story plays out could not be more different, not only from the earlier novel, but from the vast majority of first contact fiction. To borrow terminology from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, most tales of first contact are “the happening world”, cutting back and forth between national capitals, military headquarters, scientific institutions, and so on, while this story is all about “tracking with closeups”. Far from the seats of power, most of the story takes place in civil-war-torn Malawi. It works superbly.

Elizabeth Bower is a British doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières at a hospital in a rural part of the country. Without warning, a U.S. military contingent, operating under the U.N. flag, arrives with orders to evacuate all personnel. Bower refuses to abandon those in her care, and persuades a detachment of Army Rangers to accompany her and the patients to a Red Cross station in Kasungu. During the journey, Bower and the Rangers learn that Western forces are being evacuated world-wide following the announcement that an alien spacecraft is bound for Earth, and military assets are being regrouped in their home countries to defend them.

Bower and the Rangers then undertake the overland trek to the capital of Lilongwe, where they hope to catch an evacuation flight for U.S. Marines still in the city. During the journey, things get seriously weird: the alien mothership, as large as a small country, is seen passing overhead; a multitude of probes rain down and land all around, seemingly on most of the globe; and giant jellyfish-like “floaters” enter the atmosphere and begin to cruise with unfathomable objectives.

Upon arrival at the capital, their problems are not with aliens but with two-legged Terries—rebel forces. They are ambushed, captured, and delivered into the hands of a delusional, megalomaniacal, and sadistic “commander”. Bower and a Ranger who styles himself as “Elvis” are forced into an impossible situation in which their only hope is to make common cause with an alien.

This is a tautly plotted story in which the characters are genuinely fleshed-out and engaging. It does a superb job of sketching the mystery of a first contact situation: where humans and aliens lack the means to communicate all but the most basic concepts and have every reason to distrust each other's motives. As is the case with many independently-published novels, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 26. There also some factual goofs: the Moon's gravity is about 1/6 of that of the Earth, not 1/3; the verbal description of the computation of the Fibonacci sequence is incorrect; the chemical formula for water is given incorrectly; and Lagrange points are described as gravitational hilltops, while the dynamics are better described by thinking of them as valleys. None of these detracts in any way from enjoying the story.

In the latter part of the book, the scale expands at a vertiginous pace from a close-up personal story to sense of wonder on the interstellar scale. There is a scene, reminiscent of one of the most harrowing episodes in the Heinlein juveniles, which I still find chilling when I recall it today (you'll know which one I'm speaking of when you get there), in which the human future is weighed in the balance.

This is a thoroughly satisfying novel which looks at first contact in an entirely different way than any other treatment I've encountered. It will also introduce you to a new meaning of the “tree of life”.

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Fraser, George MacDonald. Quartered Safe Out Here. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, [1992, 2001] 2007. ISBN 978-1-60239-190-1.
George MacDonald Fraser is best known as the author of the Flashman historical novels set in the 19th century. This autobiographical account of his service in the British Army in Burma during World War II is fictionalised only in that he has changed the names of those who served with him, tried to reconstruct dialogue from memory, and reconstructed events as best he can from the snapshots the mind retains from the chaos of combat and the boredom of army life between contact with the enemy.

Fraser, though born to Scottish parents, grew up in Carlisle, England, in the region of Cumbria. When he enlisted in the army, it was in the Border Regiment, composed almost entirely of Cumbrian troops. As the author notes, “…Cumbrians of old lived by raid, cattle theft, extortion, and murder; in war they were England's vanguard, and in peace her most unruly and bloody nuisance. They hadn't changed much in four centuries, either…”. Cumbrians of the epoch retained their traditional dialect, which may seem nearly incomprehensible to those accustomed to BBC English:

No offence, lad, but ye doan't 'alf ga broon. Admit it, noo. Put a dhoti on ye, an' ye could get a job dishin 'oot egg banjoes at Wazir Ali's. Any roads, w'at Ah'm sayin' is that if ye desert oot 'ere — Ah mean, in India, ye'd 'ev to be dooally to booger off in Boorma — the ridcaps is bound to cotch thee, an' court-martial gi'es thee the choice o' five years in Teimulghari or Paint Joongle, or coomin' oop t'road to get tha bollicks shot off. It's a moog's game. (p. 71)

A great deal of the text is dialogue in dialect, and if you find that difficult to get through, it may be rough going. I usually dislike reading dialect, but agree with the author that if it had been rendered into standard English the whole flavour of his experience would have been lost. Soldiers swear, and among Cumbrians profanity is as much a part of speech as nouns and verbs; if this offends you, this is not your book.

This is one of the most remarkable accounts of infantry combat I have ever read. Fraser was a grunt—he never rose above the rank of lance corporal during the events chronicled in the book and usually was busted back to private before long. The campaign in Burma was largely ignored by the press while it was underway and forgotten thereafter, but for those involved it was warfare at the most visceral level: combat harking back to the colonial era, fought by riflemen without armour or air support. Kipling of the 1890s would have understood precisely what was going on. On the ground, Fraser and his section had little idea of the larger picture or where their campaign fit into the overall war effort. All they knew is that they were charged with chasing the Japanese out of Burma and that “Jap” might be “half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stake, but he was in no mood to surrender.” (p. 191)

This was a time where the most ordinary men from Britain and the Empire fought to defend what they confidently believed was the pinnacle of civilisation from the forces of barbarism and darkness. While constantly griping about everything, as soldiers are wont to do, when the time came they shouldered their packs, double-checked their rifles, and went out to do the job. From time to time the author reflects on how far Britain, and the rest of the West, has fallen, “One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargon-mumbling ‘counsellors’, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing.” (p. 89)

Perhaps it helps that the author is a master of the historical novel: this account does a superb job of relating events as they happened and were perceived at the time without relying on hindsight to establish a narrative. While he doesn't abjure the occasional reflexion from decades later or reference to regimental history documents, for most of the account you are there—hot, wet, filthy, constantly assailed by insects, and never knowing whether that little sound you heard was just a rustle in the jungle or a Japanese patrol ready to attack with the savagery which comes when an army knows its cause is lost, evacuation is impossible, and surrender is unthinkable.

But this is not all boredom and grim combat. The account of the air drop of supplies starting on p. 96 is one of the funniest passages I've ever read in a war memoir. Cumbrians will be Cumbrians!

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Jurich, E. J. Vacuum Tube Amplifier Basics. 2nd. ed. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00C0BMTGU.
If you can get past the sloppy copy-editing and production values, this book is a useful introduction for those interested in designing and building their own vacuum tube audio equipment. Millennials and others who have only ever listened to compressed audio will wonder why anybody would want to use such an antiquated technology, but those of us who appreciate it have a simple answer: it sounds better. The reason for this is simple once you poke through the mysticism surrounding the topic. It is in the nature of audio that peaks in the signal are much higher than the mean value. Solid-state amplifiers tend to be linear up until some signal level, but then “clip”—truncating the signal into a square top, introducing odd harmonics which the human ear finds distasteful. Tube amplifiers, on the other hand, tend to round off transients which exceed their capacity, introducing mostly second harmonic distortion which the ear and brain deem “mellow”.

Do you actually believe that?”, the silicon purity police shriek. Well, as a matter of fact, I do, and I currently use a 40 watt per channel tube amplifier I built from a kit more than a decade ago. It's a classic ultra-linear design using EL34 output tubes, and it sounds much better than the 200 watt per channel solid-state amplifier it replaced (after the silicon went up in smoke).

This book will introduce you to vacuum tube circuitry, and those accustomed to solid-state designs may be amazed at how few components are needed to get the job done. Since every component in the signal path has the potential to degrade its fidelity, the simplicity of vacuum tube designs is one of the advantages that recommend them. A variety of worked-out vacuum tube designs are presented, either to be built by the hobbyist or as starting points for original designs, and detailed specifications are presented for tubes widely used in audio gear.

The production quality is what we've sadly come to expect for inexpensive Kindle-only books. I noted more than 40 typographical errors (many involving the humble apostrophe), and in the tube data at the end, information which was clearly intended to be set in columns is just run together.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

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Clarey, Aaron. Enjoy the Decline. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4802-8476-0.
Many readers may find this book deeply cynical, disturbing, and immoral. I found it cynical, disturbing, and immoral, but also important, especially for younger people who wish to make the most of their lives and find themselves in a United States in an epoch in which it is, with the consent of the majority, descending into a grey collectivist tyranny and surveillance state, where productive and creative people are seen as subjects to be exploited to benefit an ever-growing dependent class which supports the state which supports them.

I left the United States in 1991 and have only returned since for brief visits with family or to attend professional conferences. Since 2001, as the totalitarian vibe there has grown rapidly, I try to make these visits as infrequent as possible, my last being in 2011. Since the 1990s, I have been urging productive people in the U.S. to consider emigrating but, with only a couple of exceptions, nobody has taken this advice. I've always considered this somewhat odd, since most people in the U.S. are descended from those who left their countries of birth and came there to escape tyranny and seek opportunity. But most people in the U.S. seem to recoil from the idea of leaving, even as their own government becomes more repressive and exploits them to a greater extent than the regimes their ancestors fled.

This book is addressed to productive people (primarily young ones with few existing responsibilities) who have decided to remain in the United States. (Chapter 10 discusses emigration, and while it is a useful introduction to the topic, I'd suggest those pondering that option read Time to Emigrate? [January 2007], even though it is addressed to people in the United Kingdom.) The central message is that with the re-election of Obama in 2012, the U.S. electorate have explicitly endorsed a path which will lead to economic and geopolitical decline and ever-increasing exploitation of a shrinking productive class in favour of a growing dependent population. How is a productive person, what the author calls a “Real American”, to respond to this? One could dedicate oneself to struggling to reverse the trend through political activism, or grimly struggle to make the best of the situation while working hard even as more of the fruits of one's labour are confiscated. Alternatively, one can seek to “enjoy the decline”: face the reality that once a democratic society reaches the tipping point where more than half of the electorate receives more in government transfer payments than they pay in taxes it's game over and a new set of incentives have been put in place which those wishing to make the most of their lives must face forthrightly unless they wish to live in a delusional state.

In essence, the author argues, the definition of the “good life” is fundamentally transformed once a society begins the slide into collectivist tyranny. It is a fool's errand to seek to get an advanced education when that only burdens one with debt which will take most of a lifetime to repay and make capital formation in the most productive working years impossible. Home ownership, once the goal of young people and families, and their main financial asset, only indentures you to a state which can raise property taxes at any time and confiscate your property if you cannot pay. Marriage and children must be weighed, particularly by men, against the potential downside in case things don't work out, which is why, increasingly, men are going on strike. Scrimping and saving to contribute to a retirement plan is only piling up assets a cash-strapped government may seize when it can't pay its bills, as has already happened in Argentina and other countries.

What matters? Friends, family (if you can get along with them), having a good time, making the most of the years when you can hike, climb mountains, ride motorcycles way too fast, hunt, fish, read books that interest you, and share all of this and more with a compatible companion. And you're doing this while your contemporaries are putting in 60 hour weeks, seeing half or more of their income confiscated, and hoping to do these things at some distant time in the future, assuming their pensions don't default and their retirement funds aren't stolen or inflated away.

There are a number of things here which people may find off-putting, if not shocking. In chapter 7, the author discusses the “ ‘Smith and Wesson’ Retirement Plan”—not making any provision for retirement, living it up while you can, and putting a bullet in your head when you begin to fail. I suspect this sounds like a lot better idea when you're young (the author was 38 years old at the publication date of this book) than when you're getting closer to the checkered flag. In chapter 8, introduced by a quote from Ayn Rand, he discusses the strategy of minimising one's income and thereby qualifying for as many government assistance programs as possible. Hey, if the people have legitimately voted for them, why not be a beneficiary instead of the sucker who pays for them?

Whatever you think of the advice in this book (which comes across as sincere, not satirical), the thing to keep in mind is that it is an accurate description of the incentives which now exist in the U.S. While it's unlikely that many productive people will read this book and dial their ambitions back into slacker territory or become overt parasites, what's important is the decisions made on the margin by those unsure how to proceed in their lives. As the U.S. becomes poorer, weaker, and less free, perhaps the winners, at least on a relative basis, will be those who do not rage against the dying of the light or struggle to exist as they are progressively enslaved, but rather people who opt out to the extent possible and react rationally to the incentives as they exist. I would (and have) emigrated, but if that's not possible or thinkable, this book may provide a guide to making the best of a tragic situation.

The book contains numerous citations of resources on the Web, each of which is linked in the text: in the Kindle edition, clicking the link takes you to the cited Web page.

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Drexler, K. Eric. Radical Abundance. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61039-113-9.
Nanotechnology burst into public awareness with the publication of the author's Engines of Creation in 1986. (The author coined the word “nanotechnology” to denote engineering at the atomic scale, fabricating structures with the atomic precision of molecules. A 1974 Japanese paper had used the term “nano-technology”, but with an entirely different meaning.) Before long, the popular media were full of speculation about nanobots in the bloodstream, self-replicating assemblers terraforming planets or mining the asteroids, and a world economy transformed into one in which scarcity, in the sense we know it today, would be transcended. Those inclined to darker speculation warned of “grey goo”—runaway self-replicators which could devour the biosphere in 24 hours, or nanoengineered super weapons.

Those steeped in conventional wisdom scoffed at these “futuristic” notions, likening them to earlier predictions of nuclear power “too cheap to meter” or space colonies, but detractors found it difficult to refute Drexler's arguments that the systems he proposed violated no law of physics and that the chemistry of such structures was well-understood and predicted that, if we figured out how to construct them, they would work. Drexler's argument was reinforced when, in 1992, he published Nanosystems, a detailed technical examination of molecular engineering based upon his MIT Ph.D. dissertation.

As the 1990s progressed, there was an increasing consensus that if nanosystems existed, we would be able to fabricate nanosystems that worked as Drexler envisions, but the path from our present-day crude fabrication technologies to atomic precision on the macroscopic scale was unclear. On the other hand, there were a number of potential pathways which might get there, increasing the probability that one or more might work. The situation is not unlike that in the early days of integrated circuits. It was clear from the laws of physics that were it possible to fabricate a billion transistors on a chip they would work, but it was equally clear that a series of increasingly difficult and expensive to surmount hurdles would have to be cleared in order to fabricate such a structure. Its feasibility then became a question of whether engineers were clever enough to solve all the problems along the way and if the market for each generation of increasingly complex chips would be large enough to fund the development of the next.

A number of groups around the world, both academic and commercial, began to pursue potential paths toward nanotechnology, laying the foundation for the next step beyond conventional macromolecular chemical synthesis. It seemed like the major impediment to a rapid take-off of nanotechnology akin to that experienced in the semiconductor field was a lack of funding. But, as Eric Drexler remarked to me in a conversation in the 1990s, most of the foundation of nanotechnology was chemistry and “You can buy a lot of chemistry for a billion dollars.”

That billion dollars appeared to be at hand in 2000, when the U.S. created a billion dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NNI quickly published an implementation plan which clearly stated that “the essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create large structures with fundamentally new molecular organization”. And then it all went south. As is almost inevitable with government-funded science and technology programs, the usual grantmasters waddled up to the trough, stuck their snouts into the new flow of funds, and diverted it toward their research interests which have nothing to do with the mission statement of the NNI. They even managed to redefine “nanotechnology” for their own purposes to exclude the construction of objects with atomic precision. This is not to say that some of the research NNI funds isn't worthwhile, but it's not nanotechnology in the original sense of the word, and doesn't advance toward the goal of molecular manufacturing. (We often hear about government-funded research and development “picking winners and losers”. In fact, such programs pick only losers, since the winners will already have been funded by the productive sector of the economy based upon their potential return.)

In this book Drexler attempts a fundamental reset of the vision he initially presented in Engines of Creation. He concedes the word “nanotechnology” to the hogs at the federal trough and uses “atomically precise manufacturing” (APM) to denote a fabrication technology which, starting from simple molecular feedstocks, can make anything by fabricating and assembling parts in a hierarchical fashion. Just as books, music, and movies have become data files which can be transferred around the globe in seconds, copied at no cost, and accessed by a generic portable device, physical objects will be encoded as fabrication instructions which a generic factory can create as required, constrained only that the size of the factory be large enough to assemble the final product. But the same garage-sized factory can crank out automobiles, motorboats, small aircraft, bicycles, computers, furniture, and anything on that scale or smaller just as your laser printer can print any document whatsoever as long as you have a page description of it.

Further, many of these objects can be manufactured using almost exclusively the most abundant elements on Earth, reducing cost and eliminating resource constraints. And atomic precision means that there will be no waste products from the manufacturing process—all intermediate products not present in the final product will be turned back into feedstock. Ponder, for a few moments, the consequences of this for the global economy.

In chapter 5 the author introduces a heuristic for visualising the nanoscale. Imagine the world scaled up in size by a factor of ten million, and time slowed down by the same factor. This scaling preserves properties such as velocity, force, and mass, and allows visualising nanoscale machines as the same size and operating speed as those with which we are familiar. At this scale a single transistor on a contemporary microchip would be about as big as an iPad and the entire chip the size of Belgium. Using this viewpoint, the author acquaints the reader with the realities of the nanoscale and demonstrates that analogues of macroscopic machines, when we figure out how to fabricate them, will work and, because they will operate ten million times faster, will be able to process macroscopic quantities of material on a practical time scale.

But can we build them? Here, Drexler introduces the concept of “exploratory engineering”: using the known laws of physics and conservative principles of engineering to explore what is possible. Essentially, there is a landscape of feasibility. One portion is what we have already accomplished, another which is ruled out by the laws of physics. The rest is that which we could accomplish if we could figure out how and could afford it. This is a huge domain—given unlimited funds and a few decades to work on the problem, there is little doubt one could build a particle accelerator which circled the Earth's equator. Drexler cites the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky as a masterpiece of exploratory engineering highly relevant to atomically precise manufacturing. By 1903, working alone, he had demonstrated the feasibility of achieving Earth orbit by means of a multistage rocket burning liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Now, Tsiolkovsky had no idea how to build the necessary engines, fuel tanks, guidance systems, launch facilities, etc., but from basic principles he was able to show that no physical law ruled out their construction and that known materials would suffice for them to work. We are in much the same position with APM today.

The tone of this book is rather curious. Perhaps having been burned by his earlier work being sensationalised, the author is reserved to such an extent that on p. 275 he includes a two pargraph aside urging readers to “curb their enthusiasm”, and much of the text, while discussing what may be the most significant development in human history since the invention of agriculture, often reads like a white paper from the Brookings Institution with half a dozen authors: “Profound changes in national interests will call for a ground-up review of grand strategy. Means and ends, risks and opportunities, the future self-perceived interests of today's strategic competitors—none of these can be taken for granted.” (p. 269)

I am also dismayed to see that Drexler appears to have bought in to the whole anthropogenic global warming scam and repeatedly genuflects to the whole “carbon is bad” nonsense. The acknowledgements include a former advisor to the anti-human World Wide Fund for Nature.

Despite quibbles, if you've been thinking “Hey, it's the 21st century, where's my nanotechnology?”, this is the book to read. It chronicles steady progress on the foundations of APM and multiple paths through which the intermediate steps toward achieving it may be achieved. It is enlightening and encouraging. Just don't get enthusiastic.

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Levin, Mark R. The Liberty Amendments. New York: Threshold Editions, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-0627-0.
To many observers including this one, the United States appear to be in a death spiral, guided by an entrenched ruling class toward a future where the only question is whether a financial collapse will pauperise the citizenry before or after they are delivered into tyranny. Almost all of the usual remedies seem to have been exhausted. Both of the major political parties are firmly in the control of the ruling class who defend the status quo, and these parties so control access to the ballot, media, and campaign funding that any attempt to mount a third party challenge appears futile. Indeed, the last time a candidate from a new party won the presidency was in 1860, and that was because the Whig party was in rapid decline and the Democrat vote was split two ways.

In this book Levin argues that the time is past when a solution could be sought in electing the right people to offices in Washington and hoping they would appoint judges and executive department heads who would respect the constitution. The ruling class, which now almost completely controls the parties, has the tools to block any effective challenge from outside their ranks, and even on the rare occasion an outsider is elected, the entrenched administrative state and judiciary will continue to defy the constitution, legislating from within the executive and judicial branches. What does a written constitution mean when five lawyers, appointed for life, can decide what it means, with their decision not subject to appeal by any other branch of government?

If a solution cannot be found by electing better people to offices in Washington then, as Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Levin argues that the framers of the constitution (in particular George Mason) anticipated precisely the present situation and, in the final days of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, added text to Article Five providing that the constitution can be amended when:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments,…

Of the 27 amendments adopted so far, all have been proposed by Congress—the state convention mechanism has never been used (although in some cases Congress proposed an amendment to preempt a convention when one appeared likely). As Levin observes, the state convention process completely bypasses Washington: a convention is called by the legislatures of two thirds of the states, and amendments it proposes are adopted if ratified by three quarters of the states. Congress, the president, and the federal judiciary are completely out of the loop.

Levin proposes 11 amendments, all of which he argues are consistent with the views of the framers of the constitution and, in some cases, restore constitutional provisions which have been bypassed by clever judges, legislators, and bureaucrats. The amendments include term limits for all federal offices (including the Supreme Court); repeal of the direct election of senators and a return to their being chosen by state legislatures; super-majority overrides of Supreme Court decisions, congressional legislation, and executive branch regulations; restrictions on the taxing and spending powers (including requiring a balanced budget); reining in expansive interpretation of the commerce clause; requiring compensation for takings of private property; provisions to guard against voter fraud; and making it easier for the states to amend the constitution.

In evaluating Levin's plan, the following questions arise:

  1. Is amending the constitution by the state convention route politically achievable?
  2. Will the proposed amendments re-balance the federal system sufficiently to solve (or at least make it possible to begin to solve) its current problems?
  3. Are there problems requiring constitutional change not addressed by the proposed amendments?
  4. Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its constraints with impunity) as it has done with the existing constitution?

I will address each of these questions below. Some these matters will take us pretty deep into the weeds, and you may not completely understand the discussion without having read the book (which, of course, I heartily recommend you do).

Is amending the constitution by the state convention route politically achievable?

Today, the answer to this is no. Calling a convention to propose amendments requires requests by two thirds of state legislatures, or at least 34. Let us assume none of the 17 Democrat-controlled legislatures would vote to call a convention. That leaves 27 Republican-controlled legislatures, 5 split (one house Republican, one Democrat), and quirky Nebraska, whose legislature is officially non-partisan. Even if all of these voted for the convention, you're still one state short. But it's unlikely any of the 5 split houses would vote for a convention, and even in the 27 Republican-controlled legislatures there will be a substantial number of legislators sufficiently wedded to the establishment or fearful of loss of federal funds propping up their state's budget that they'd vote against the convention.

The author forthrightly acknowledges this, and states clearly that this is a long-term process which may take decades to accomplish. In fact, since three quarters of the states must vote to ratify amendments adopted by a convention, it wouldn't make sense to call one until there was some confidence 38 or more states would vote to adopt them. In today's environment, obtaining that kind of super-majority seems entirely out of reach.

But circumstances can change. Any attempt to re-balance the constitutional system to address the current dysfunction is racing against financial collapse at the state and federal level and societal collapse due to loss of legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its subjects, a decreasing minority of whom believe it has the “consent of the governed”. As states go bankrupt, pension obligations are defaulted upon, essential services are curtailed, and attempts to extract ever more from productive citizens through taxes, fees, regulations, depreciation of the currency, and eventually confiscation of retirement savings, the electorate in “blue” states may shift toward a re-balancing of a clearly dysfunctional and failing system.

Perhaps the question to ask is not whether this approach is feasible at present or may be at some point in the future, but rather whether any alternative plan has any hope of working.

Will the proposed amendments re-balance the federal system sufficiently to solve (or at least make it possible to begin to solve) its current problems?

It seems to me that a constitution with these amendments adopted will be far superior in terms of balance than the constitution in effect today. I say “in effect” because the constitution as intended by the framers has been so distorted and in some cases ignored that the text has little to do with how the federal government actually operates. These amendments are intended in large part to restore the original intent of the framers.

As an engineer, I am very much aware of the need for stable systems to incorporate negative feedback: when things veer off course, there needs to be a restoring force exerted in the opposite direction to steer back to the desired bearing. Many of these amendments create negative feedback mechanisms to correct excesses the framers did not anticipate. The congressional and state overrides of Supreme Court decisions and regulations provide a check on the making of law by judges and bureaucrats which were never anticipated in the original constitution. The spending and taxing amendments constrain profligate spending, runaway growth of debt, and an ever-growing tax burden on the productive sector.

I have a number of quibbles with the details and drafting of these amendments. I'm not much worried about these matters, since I'm sure that before they are presented to the states in final form for ratification they will be scrutinised in detail by eminent constitutional law scholars parsing every word for how it might be (mis)interpreted by mischievous judges. Still, here's what I noted in reading the amendments.

Some of the amendments write into the constitution matters which were left to statute in the original document. The spending amendment fixes the start of the fiscal year and cites the “Nation's gross domestic product” (defined how?). The amendments to limit the bureaucracy, protect private property, and grant the states the authority to check Congress all cite specific numbers denominated in dollars. How is a dollar to be defined in decades and centuries to come? Any specification of a specific dollar amount in the constitution is prone to becoming as quaint and irrelevant as the twenty dollars clause of the seventh amendment. The amendment to limit the bureaucracy gives constitutional status to the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, which are defined nowhere else in the document.

In the amendment to grant the states the authority to check Congress there is a drafting error. In section 4, the cross-reference (do we really want to introduce brackets into the text of the constitution?) cites “An Amendment Establishing How the States May Amend the Constitution”, while “An Amendment to Limit the Federal Bureaucracy” is clearly intended. That amendment writes the two party system into the constitution by citing a “Majority Leader” and “Minority Leader”. Yes, that's how it works now, but is it wise to freeze this political structure (which I suspect would have appalled Washington) into the fundamental document of the republic?

Are there problems requiring constitutional change not addressed by the proposed amendments?

The economic amendments fail to address the question of sound money. Ever since the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the dollar (which, as noted above, is cited in several of the proposed amendments) has lost more than 95% of its purchasing power according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator. Inflation is the most insidious tax of all, as it penalises savers to benefit borrowers, encourages short-term planning and speculation, and allows the federal government to write down its borrowings by depreciating the monetary unit in which they are to be repaid. Further, inflation runs the risk of the U.S. dollar being displaced as the world reserve currency (which is already happening, in slow motion so far, as bilateral agreements between trading partners to use their own currencies and bypass the dollar are negotiated). A government which can print money at will can evade the taxing constraints of the proposed amendment by inflating its currency and funding its expenditures with continually depreciating dollars. This is the route most countries have taken as bankruptcy approaches.

Leaving this question unaddressed opens a dangerous loophole by which the federal government can escape taxing and spending constraints by running the printing press (as it is already doing at this writing). I don't know what the best solution would be (well, actually, I do, but they'd call me a nut if I proposed it), so let me suggest an amendment banning all legal tender laws and allowing parties to settle contracts in any unit of account they wish: dollars, euros, gold, copper, baseball cards, or goats.

I fear that the taxing amendment may be a Trojan horse with as much potential for mischief as the original commerce clause. It leaves the entire incomprehensible and deeply corrupt Internal Revenue Code in place, imposing only a limit on the amount extracted from each taxpayer and eliminating the estate tax. This means that Congress remains free to use the tax code to arbitrarily coerce or penalise behaviour as it has done ever since the passage of the sixteenth amendment. While the total take from each taxpayer is capped, the legislature is free to favour one group against another, subsidise activities by tax exemption or discourage them by penalties (think the Obamacare mandate jujitsu of the Roberts opinion), and penalise investment through punitive taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains. A prohibition of a VAT or national sales tax is written into the constitution, thus requiring another amendment to replace the income tax (repealing the sixteenth amendment) with a consumption-based tax. If you're going to keep the income tax, I'm all for banning a VAT on top of it, but given how destructive and costly the income tax as presently constituted is to prosperity, I'd say if you're going to the trouble of calling a convention and amending the constitution, drive a stake through it and replace it with a consumption tax which wouldn't require any individual to file any forms ever. Write the maximum tax rate into the amendment, thus requiring another amendment to change it. In note 55 to chapter 5 the author states, “I do not object to ‘the Fair Tax,’ which functions as a national sales tax and eliminates all forms of revenue-based taxation, should it be a preferred amendment by delegates to a state convention.” Since eliminating the income tax removes a key mechanism by which the central government can coerce the individual citizen, I would urge it as a positive recommendation to such a convention.

Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its constraints with impunity) as it has done with the existing constitution?

This is an issue which preoccupied delegates to the constitutional convention, federalists and anti-federalists alike, in the debate over ratification of the constitution, and delegates to the ratification conventions in the states. It should equally concern us now in regard to these amendments. After all, only 14 years after the ratification of the constitution the judicial branch made a power grab in Marbury v. Madison and got away with it, establishing a precedent for judicial review which has been the foundation for troublemaking to this day. In the New Deal, the previously innocuous commerce clause was twisted to allow the federal government to regulate a farmer's growing wheat for consumption on his own farm.

A key question is the extent to which the feedback mechanisms created by these amendments will deter the kind of Houdini-like escapes from the original constitution which have brought the U.S. to its present parlous state. To my mind, they will improve things: certainly if the Supreme Court or a regulatory agency knows its decisions can be overruled, they will be deterred from overreaching even if the overrule is rarely used. Knowing how things went wrong with the original constitution will provide guidance in the course corrections to come. One advantage of an amendment convention called by the states is that the debate will be open, on the record, and ideally streamed to anybody interested in it. Being a bottom-up process, the delegates will have been selected by state legislatures close to their constituents, and their deliberations will be closely followed and commented upon by academics and legal professionals steeped in constitutional and common law, acutely aware of how clever politicians are in evading constitutional constraints.

Conclusion

Can the U.S. be saved? I have no idea. But this is the first plan I have encountered which seems to present a plausible path to restoring its original concept of a constitutional republic. It is a long shot; it will certainly take a great deal of effort from the bottom-up and many years to achieve; the U.S. may very well collapse before it can be implemented; but can you think of any other approach? People in the U.S. and those concerned with the consequences of its collapse will find a blueprint here, grounded in history and thoroughly documented, for an alternative path which just might work.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, and references to Web documents in the notes are linked directly to the on-line documents.

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September 2013

Cawdron, Peter. Little Green Men. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-3017-6672-7.
The author is rapidly emerging as the contemporary grandmaster of the first contact novel. Unlike his earlier Anomaly (December 2011) and Xenophobia (August 2013), this novel is set not in near-future Earth but rather three centuries from now, when an exploration team has landed on a cryogenic planet 23 light years from the solar system in search of volatiles to refuel their ship in orbit. Science officer Michaels believes he's discovered the first instance of extraterrestrial life, after centuries of searching hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets in vain. While extremophile microbes are a humble form of life, discovering that life originated independently on another world would forever change humanity's view of its place in the universe.

Michaels and his assistant collect a sample to analyse back at the ship and are returning to their scout craft when, without warning, they are attacked, with the assistant gravely wounded. The apparent attackers are just fast-moving shadows, scattering when Michaels lights a flare. Upon getting back to the ship with the assistant barely clinging to life, Michaels has a disturbing conversation with the ship's doctor which causes him to suspect that there have been other mysterious incidents.

Another scouting party reports discovering a derelict freighter which appears nowhere in the registry of ships lost in the region, and when exploring it, are confronted with hostile opposition in about the least probable form you might imagine finding on a planet at 88° K. I suppose it isn't a spoiler if I refer you to the title of the book.

The crew are forced to confront what is simultaneously a dire threat to their lives, a profound scientific discovery, and a deep mystery which just doesn't make any sense. First contact just wasn't supposed to be anything like this, and it's up to Michaels and the crew to save their skins and figure out what is going on. The answer will amaze you.

The author dedicates this book as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and this is a story worthy of the master. In the acknowledgements, he cites Michael Crichton among those who have influenced his work. As with Crichton's novels, this is a story where the screenplay just writes itself. This would make a superb movie and, given the claustrophobic settings and small cast of characters, wouldn't require a huge budget to make.

This book is presently available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above.

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Mamet, David. The Secret Knowledge. New York: Sentinel, 2011. ISBN 978-1-595-23097-3.
From time to time I am asked to recommend a book for those who, immersed in the consensus culture and mass media, have imbibed the collectivist nostrums of those around them without thinking about them very much, have, confronted with personal experiences of the consequences of these policies, begun to doubt their wisdom. I have usually recommended the classics: Bastiat, Hayek, and Rothbard, but these works can be challenging to those marinated in the statist paradigm and unfamiliar with history before the age of the omnipresent state. Further, these works, while they speak to eternal truths, do not address the “wedge issues” of modern discourse, which are championed by soi-disant “progressives” and “liberals”, distancing themselves from “traditional values”.

Well, now I have just the book to recommend. This book will not persuade committed ideologues of the left, who will not be satisfied until all individualism has been hammered into a uniform terrain of equality on the North Korean model (see Agenda 21 [November 2012]), but rather the much larger portion of the population who vote for the enemies of prosperity and freedom because they've been indoctrinated in government schools and infiltrated higher education, then fed propaganda by occupied legacy media. In Western societies which are on the razor edge between liberty and enslavement, shifting just 10% of the unengaged electorate who vote unknowingly for serfdom can tip the balance toward an entirely different future.

It is difficult to imagine an author better qualified to write such a work. David Mamet was born into the Jewish intellectual community in Chicago and educated in a progressive school and college. Embarking upon a career in literature, theatre, and film, he won a Pulitzer prize, two Tony nominations, and two Oscar nominations. He has written and directed numerous films, and written screenplays for others. For most of his life he was immersed in the liberal consensus of the intellectual/media milieu he inhabited and no more aware of it than a fish is of water. Then, after reaching the big six-zero milestone in his life, he increasingly became aware that all of the things that he and his colleagues accepted at face value without critical evaluation just didn't make any sense. As one with the rare talent of seeing things as they are, unfiltered by an inherited ideology, he wrote a 2008 essay titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’ ”, of which this book is a much extended elaboration. (Read the comments on this article to see just how “liberal” those with whom he has come to dissent actually are.)

Mamet surveys culture, economics, and politics with a wide-angle perspective, taking a ruthlessly empirical approach born of his life experience. To those who came early to these views, there's a temptation to say, “Well, finally you've got it”, but at the same time Mamet's enlightenment provides hope that confrontation with reality may awake others swimming in the collectivist consensus to the common sense and heritage of humankind so readily accessible by reading a book like this.

In the Kindle edition the end-notes are properly bi-directionally linked to the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms, without links to references in the text.

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Thor, Brad. The Apostle. New York: Pocket Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-8658-6.
This is the eighth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel covert operative Harvath has retired from government service and is enjoying an extended vacation in the Maine woods when he is summoned for an urgent meeting with recently-elected president Robert Alden. Alden informs Harvath that Julia Gallo, the daughter of fund-raiser and media baron Stephanie Gallo, to whom Alden owes a great deal of his recent electoral triumph, has been taken hostage in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have confirmed the hostage-taking and offered to exchange the younger Gallo for an al-Qaeda operative held in an Afghan prison. The Afghan government views putting this malefactor on trial as key to its legitimacy and will not countenance giving him up. Alden asks Harvath to go to Afghanistan, spring the terrorist from prison, and make the exchange, all beneath the radar to avoid damaging Alden's posture of being “tough on terror”. Harvath wonders why Alden is willing to undertake such risk for one hostage while so many others have fallen unremarked in Afghanistan, but accepts the mission.

Meanwhile, a junior Secret Service agent on the president's protection detail overhears a conversation between Stephanie Gallo and the president which indicates her power over him may be based in a dark secret which, if exposed, might end his presidency.

Most of the story is set in Afghanistan and the author has drawn upon his sources to craft a believable picture of that chaotic place. Perhaps acknowledging the shrinking presence of the U.S. on the world stage in the epoch in which the book was written, when Harvath calls in the cavalry, it might not be who you expect. The intrigue in Washington plays out in parallel.

This is a satisfying thriller which, unlike some of the earlier books in the series, works perfectly well if it's the first one you read. If you start here you'll miss details such as how Harvath met his girlfriend or came by his dog, but that's about it, and they play no part in the plot. There is the usual name-dropping of tactical gear which I used to find annoying but have now come to find somewhat charming and fun to look up whilst reading the novel.

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Wade, T. I. America One. Fuquay-Varina, NC: Triple T Productions, 2012. ASIN B00AOF238I.
If you can get over the anger and resentment over having your pocket picked of US$3.97 (Amazon price at this writing) for a laughably bad book (easily one of the worst I've read since I started this list in 2001, and perhaps the worst: only The New Paradigm [December 2005] comes close), scorn for reviewers at Amazon who collectively awarded it four stars in sixty reviews, and approach it obliquely with the right sense of ironic detachment, like enjoying a disaster movie, knowing it's only fiction, this may be one of the funniest science fiction novels of recent years, but bear in mind it's funny because you're laughing at the author.

The first warning of what is to come is the prefatory “Note from the Author” (emphasis in the original).

The author is not an expert in the field of space travel. The author is only a storyteller.

Even though hundreds of hours of Internet research were done to write this story, many might find the scientific description of space travel lacking, or simply not 100 percent accurate. The fuels, gases, metals, and the results of using these components are as accurate as the author could describe them.

Should the reader, at this point, be insufficiently forewarned as to what is coming, the author next includes the following acknowledgement:

The Author would like to gratefully thank Alexander Wade (13), his son, for his many hours of research into nuclear reactors, space flight and astro-engineering to make this story as close to reality as possible for you the reader.

which also provides a foretaste of the screwball and inconsistent use of capitalisation “you the reader” are about to encounter.

It is tempting here to make a cheap crack about the novel's demonstrating a 13 year old's grasp of science, technology, economics, business, political and military institutions, and human behaviour, but this would be to defame the many 13 year olds I've encountered through E-mail exchanges resulting from material posted at Fourmilab which demonstrate a far deeper comprehension of such matters than one finds here.

The book is so laughably bad I'm able to explain just how bad without including a single plot spoiler. Helping in this is the fact that to the extent that the book has a plot at all, it is so completely absurd that to anybody with a basic grasp of reality it spoils itself simply by unfolding. Would-be thrillers which leave you gasping for air as you laugh out loud are inherently difficult to spoil. The text is marred by the dozens of copy-editing errors one is accustomed to in self-published works, but more in 99 cent specials than books at this price point. Editing appears to have amounted to running a spelling checker over the text, leaving malapropisms and misused homonyms undetected; some of these can be amusing, such as the “iron drive motors” fueled by xenon gas. Without giving away significant plot details, I'll simply list things the author asks the reader to believe which are, shall we say, rather at variance with the world we inhabit. Keep in mind that this story is set in the very near future and includes thinly disguised characters based upon players in the contemporary commercial space market.

  • Our intrepid entrepreneur, shortly after receiving his Ph.D., moves his company and its 100 employees to Silicon Valley, where Forbes projects it will “double its workforce every month for the foreseeable future.” Well, Silicon Valley is known for exponential growth, but let's work this out. What's the “foreseeable future” to Forbes? Twelve months? Then, starting at 100 and doubling monthly, there would be 204,800 employees at the Silicon Valley campus. Twenty-four months? Then you'd have more than 838 million employees, more than two and a half times the population of the United States. This would doubtless be a great boon to the fast food joints on El Camino, but I'm not sure where you'd put all those people.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is not used to search for asteroids. Such searches are performed with wide-field, Earth-based telescopes as used by the various Spaceguard projects. Provisional names for newly-discovered asteroids are in a form different than that used by the author, and the year in the name is inconsistent with the chronology of the novel.
  • Observations of the asteroid are said to have been made through “the most powerful telescope possible”, which revealed fine surface detail. Well, I don't know about the most powerful telescope possible, but the most powerful telescopes in existence are not remotely capable of resolving such an object at the distance cited as more than a dot of light. And all of those telescopes have objective mirrors, not lenses.
  • If one were to hitch a ride on a bomber, one would not “sit on top of tons of bombs”. Bombers do not carry bombs inside the crew compartment, but in an unpressurised bomb bay, where hitching a ride would be suicidal.
  • Plutonium-238 (used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators) is not “reactor-grade” since it would be useless in a fission reactor. And nobody calls generators which use it “reactors”, nor are they “car-sized”.
  • “EMPs, powerful Electric Magnetic Pulses” are not “produced by sun flares in deep space”. Electromagnetic pulses are most commonly produced by nuclear weapon detonations interacting with the Earth's atmosphere. And “sun flares in deep space” just doesn't make any sense at all: solar flares occur, as you might guess, on the Sun.
  • Now we come to the first instance of the humble element hydrogen being used as a kind of talisman which makes all things possible. We're told that the space station hull will be shielded by pouring liquid hydrogen into a honeycomb carbon structure which will then be sealed at the factory on Earth. Now what do you think will happen once that structure is sealed with liquid hydrogen inside? Right in one—bang! Without cryogenic cooling, liquid hydrogen, regardless of pressure, will flash to gas at any temperature above its critical point of 33° K, blowing the laminated panel apart. In any case, a thin shield composed of carbon and hydrogen would be as effective against heavy primary cosmic rays as a paper bag.
  • Next come the “electromagnets” made from a “powerful rare-earth magnetic material called neodymium”. Neodymium is used to make permanent magnets, not electromagnets. Here is the first instance of the author's not comprehending the difference between magnetism and gravitation: the magnets will create “a small gravity field that is about fifteen to twenty percent of what we are used to on earth”. As will become clear later, he's not talking about using magnetic boots, but rather creating artificial gravity, which is utter nonsense.
  • The liquid argon thermal insulation is ridiculous. It would blow apart the panels just like liquid hydrogen, and in any case, while gaseous argon has low thermal conductivity, in liquid form convection would render it useless as an insulator. Further, the author believes in the naïve concept of the “temperature of space”. A vacuum has no ability to transport heat, so the temperature of a body in space is determined by the balance between the heat absorbed from the Sun and other bodies and generated internally versus heat radiated away into space.
  • Space station panels are said to “receive a covering of a silver silicon-plastic-like photovoltaic nanofilm paint an inch thick for solar-energy absorption.” Here it appears the author, who has no concept of how photovoltaic panels work, is trying to dazzle the reader with a sufficient number of buzzwords to dull critical thought. Photovoltaic cells should absorb as much sunlight as possible in a thin layer. A material which required a layer “an inch thick” would not only be wasteful of weight, but so inefficient as to be laughable. Solar cells must have an anode and cathode to extract the electricity, and cannot be applied as “paint”.
  • A Cessna 172 does not have a “joystick”, but rather a control wheel, and no airplane uses its “rudder pedals to bank left or right”. Rudder pedals are used to yaw the aircraft, not control bank angle.
  • How probable is it that Maggie's private pilot flight instructor would happen to be son of a retired three-term U.S. senator?
  • The shuttle craft has three forms of propulsion: hybrid rocket motors for initial acceleration, “hydrogen thrusters” (again, with the hydrogen—more to come) to get into orbit and maneuver, and ion drive motors using xenon gas for propulsion in space. Now, as becomes clear from numerous references in the novel, the author is not talking about rocket motors burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, but rather has gotten the curious (and clueless) idea that somehow hydrogen, by itself, can provide high performance propulsion. Sure, you can use hydrogen as the working fluid in a nuclear thermal rocket, but that's not what we're talking about here. Further, xenon thrusters produce such low thrust that they would be utterly incapable of performing the exploits they are claimed to do here.
  • The author says “her wings expand like one of the old X-51s”. I presume he means the X-15 (whose wings did not “expand”), not the X-51 Waverider, which is not old and has only vestigial wings.
  • No aircraft has an aileron on its tail; it's called a “rudder”.
  • Why would Maggie need to buy a car to get from California to the Air Force Academy in Colorado? Couldn't she take the bus or a plane? Are cadets even allowed to have personal cars?
  • Maggie is said to have been trained by the Air Force initially to “fly an old C-47”. These aircraft were retired from Air Force service long before she began her career.
  • It's the United States Marine Corps, not “Corp”. This isn't a typo, as it appears on multiple occasions.
  • There is no “European Space system”. It's the European Space Agency.
  • There is no reason at all to expect to find radium on an asteroid. With its longest-lived isotope having a half-life of 1601 years, all radium found in nature is the product of decay of other elements, and will never be found in more than trace quantities.
  • The author uses “control dash” for spacecraft control panels and “windshield” for the windows in deep space vehicles. His spacecraft are not, as best I can determine, equipped with running boards or rumble seats.
  • Solar arrays on space stations become “solar dragon-fly antennas” in the author's nomenclature.
  • We're told that the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (which the author variously calls a “nuclear battery” and “nuclear reactor”) containing one pound of plutonium-238 will be adequate to power a derelict Russian space station with multiple modules like Mir. Let's see, shall we? The Mir core module solar arrays initially produced 9 kW of electricity. Generation capacity was added as additional arrays were launched on subsequent modules, but offset by degradation of older arrays. But clearly 9 kW was required to operate the base station. The thermal power output of a pound of plutonium-238 is around 250 watts, but conversion of this heat to electricity has never exceeded an efficiency of 7% in any generator. Assuming this optimistic figure, the generator would produce 17.5 watts of electricity, substantially less than the 9000 watts required.
  • A “small set of hydrogen batteries” power the shuttle prior to launch. Not fuel cells, as no mention of liquid oxygen is made. Just magical hydrogen again. Is there anything it can't do?
  • Oh, and now there appears to be a “rear liquid nitrogen thruster” on the shuttle. How does that work—spewing liquid nitrogen out through a nozzle? You'd do better with Diet Coke and Mentos. If you're counting, we're now up to four separate propulsion systems on the shuttle, each with its own unique propellant.
  • Don't want to be too ambitious, at least at the outset. “There will be eReaders all over the ship with every bit of practical knowledge about agricultural [sic], human, and animals ever known; they will also be loaded with star charts, planetary systems and every asteroid and planet's history and whereabouts within our solar system. I don't believe we will leave our own system on our first journey.…”. But what the heck, we may decide to take a jaunt over to Alpha Centauri just for fun—after all, we have hydrogen thrusters!
  • I don't believe even fighter jocks would consider it appropriate to refer to two Air Force flight officers as “girl pilots”, as the author does.
  • How to accomplish the orbital two-step key to the mission without being detected? No problem: they have a “Cloaking Device” which hides the ship from radar “[m]uch like a black hole”. It's probably magnetic, with hydrogen. Not mentioned is the detail that space, from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit, is under constant optical surveillance which the cloaking device would not impede, and could easily detect and track an object the size of the shuttle.
  • Both the Russian space station and the International Space Station are said to be in equatorial orbits. In fact, Mir was and the ISS is in an orbit with 51.6° inclination.
  • The author does not appear to have the vaguest idea how orbital mechanics works. In fact, from what he has written, I can't figure out how he thinks it might work. Cartoon physics has its own zany kind of consistency, but this makes Road Runner cartoons look like JPL mission planning. My favourite among a long list of howlers is when they decide to raise the orbit of the Russian space station from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit. Set aside the enormous delta-v this would require and the utter inadequacy of the shuttle's propulsion system (oh, wait, I forgot about the hydrogen thrusters!), let's consider the maneuver. After docking with the space station, the shuttle burns the hydrogens to “increase her orbital speed by approximately 500 miles an hour”. Then, an orbit later, the shuttle points its nose “outward into space by three degrees” and the same burn is made. This is said to increase speed from 11,000 miles an hour (far below orbital velocity) to 14,000 miles an hour (still below orbital velocity). Two more inane burns allow, at their completion, the station to “climb away from earth on an ever-widening orbit of 900 miles per day”. Got that? No additional burns; no additional delta-v, and the station continues to spiral outward from the Earth to ever increasing orbital altitude. There is much, much more, all as idiotic, but I won't belabour the point further.
  • The coordinates of the asteroid are said to be fed to the team every twelve hours by an insider. In fact, orbital elements for asteroids are available to the general public and can be used to calculate the position of asteroids for years into the future.
  • The C-5 Galaxy transport plane is said to be a Boeing product; it was in fact built by Lockheed.
  • The tankers which refuel the C-5 are said to be in one place a KC-125 and later in the same sentence a KC-25. Neither plane exists. Clearly KC-135 was intended.
  • There is no reason to go through the rigmarole of using the C-5 to transport the secret cargo. There are commercial freighter jets which could carry a cargo of that size without the need for in-flight refueling.
  • The concept of dumping nuclear waste into the Sun further reveals utter ignorance of orbital mechanics. It seems the author believes (or would like the reader to believe) that once you're “in space”, all you have to do is “unload the stuff in the direction of the sun” and if falls straight in and goes poof. In fact, it is very difficult to impact the Sun, since you have to cancel the entire orbital velocity of the Earth, which is around 100,000 kilometres per hour, or about three times the delta-v needed to reach low Earth orbit.
  • Weightlessness is equally described as a quasi-magical state like being “in space”. When preparing to burn the shuttle's engines for an orbital adjustment, the pilot tells the crew “You will not feel the burn since we are now weightless.”
  • Always have a backup plan! “Our last resort is that we could go to Mars and begin mining there in 2016.” Never mind that we don't have any vehicle suitable for atmospheric entry and landing, nor a way to get back from the surface. But we have hydrogen thrusters!
  • When the xenon thrusters are activated, it is said “they continuously propelled the craft forward, its acceleration always increasing.” So, the author does not understand the difference between velocity and acceleration. What's a derivative among rubes?
  • Just when you thought things couldn't get more absurd, we arrive at the one by three mile asteroid only to discover that it has a gravitational field 70% as strong as the Earth's. Now, with any material known to science, the gravitational field of such a small body should be negligible. How can this possibly be the case? Magnetism, of course.
  • Those with the most cursory acquaintance with the U.S. government may be surprised to learn that mission of the National Security Agency (NSA) is not limited to cryptography and signals intelligence but to “always be sure that there are no hidden agendas in large projects”, or that the Federal Reserve is charged with detecting those “bringing illegal contraband into the country”, or that to inspect any facility on “U.S. occupied land” a congressman doesn't “need a search warrant. Members of Congress never do…”.

If this weren't enough, at the very end the author springs a cliffhanger which puts everything achieved in the entire novel in doubt. If you loved this novel, you'll be delighted to know that there are three sequels already available. I shall certainly not be reading them.

Something like this actually could have worked if the author had cast it as a neo-golden-age story of space travel in which an intrepid band set out for space defying the powers that be and conventional wisdom along the lines of John Varley's Red Thunder (July 2012). But by pretentiously trying to cast it as a realistic techno-thriller, the result is risible. Readers are willing to indulge thriller-writers the occasional implausible gadget to advance the plot, but when you have a howler which violates laws of physics known since Newton and taught in high school every few pages, the result is not thrilling but just silly. It's as if a writer published a western in which revolvers held 600 shots, fired with range of 5 km and 1 cm accuracy, and everybody rode horses which could gallop at 250 km/hour for 12 hours straight (but, you see, they're getting special hydrogen hay!).

Why spend so much time dissecting a book like this? Because it's fun, and it's the only way to derive enjoyment from such a waste of time and money. If you're wondering why the U.S. space program is in such a parlous state, it may be enlightening to read the four- and five-star reviews of this book on Amazon, bearing in mind that these people vote.

This book is presently available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above.

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October 2013

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-691-14909-7.
As the Allies advanced toward victory against the Axis powers on all fronts in 1944, in Allied capitals thoughts increasingly turned to the postwar world and the institutions which would define it. Plans were already underway to expand the “United Nations” (at the time used as a synonym for the Allied powers) into a postwar collective security organisation which would culminate in the April 1945 conference to draft the charter of that regrettable institution. Equally clamant was the need to define monetary mechanisms which would facilitate free trade.

The classical gold standard, which was not designed but evolved organically in the 19th century as international trade burgeoned, had been destroyed by World War I. Attempts by some countries to reestablish the gold standard after the end of the war led to economic dislocation (particularly in Great Britain), currency wars (competitive devaluations in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage in international trade), and trade wars (erecting tariff or other barriers to trade to protect domestic or imperial markets against foreign competition).

World War II left all of the major industrial nations with the sole exception of the United States devastated and effectively bankrupt. Despite there being respected and influential advocates for re-establishing the classical gold standard (in which national currencies were defined as a quantity of gold, with central banks issuing them willing to buy gold with their currency or exchange their currency for gold at the pegged rate), this was widely believed impossible. Although the gold standard had worked well when in effect prior to World War I, and provided negative feedback which tended to bring the balance of payments among trading partners back into equilibrium and provided a mechanism for countries in economic hard times to face reality and recover by devaluing their currencies against gold, there was one overwhelming practical difficulty in re-instituting the gold standard: the United States had almost all of the gold. In fact, by 1944 it was estimated that the U.S. Treasury held around 78% of all of the world's central bank reserve gold. It is essentially impossible to operate under a gold standard when a single creditor nation, especially one with its industry and agriculture untouched by the war and consequently sure to be the predominant exporter in the years after it ended, has almost all of the world's gold in its vaults already. Proposals to somehow reset the system by having the U.S. transfer its gold to other nations in exchange for their currencies was a non-starter in Washington, especially since many of those nations already owed large dollar-denominated debts to the U.S.

The hybrid gold-exchange standard put into place after World War I had largely collapsed by 1934, with Britain forced off the standard by 1931, followed quickly by 25 other nations. The 1930s were a period of economic depression, collapsing international trade, competitive currency devaluations, and protectionism, hardly a model for a postwar monetary system.

Also in contention as the war drew to its close was the location of the world's financial centre and which currency would dominate international trade. Before World War I, the vast majority of trade cleared through London and was denominated in sterling. In the interwar period, London and New York vied for preeminence, but while Wall Street prospered financing the booming domestic market in the 1920s, London remained dominant for trade between other nations and maintained a monopoly within the British Empire. Within the U.S., while all factions within the financial community wished for the U.S. to displace Britain as the world's financial hub, many New Dealers in Roosevelt's administration were deeply sceptical of Wall Street and “New York bankers” and wished to move decision making to Washington and keep it firmly under government control.

While ambitious plans were being drafted for a global monetary system, in reality there were effectively only two nations at the negotiating table when it came time to create one: Britain and the U.S. John Maynard Keynes, leader of the British delegation, referred to U.S. plans for a broad-based international conference on postwar monetary policy as “a major monkey-house”, with non-Anglo-Saxon delegations as the monkeys. On the U.S. side, there was a three way power struggle among the Treasury Department, the State Department, and the nominally independent Federal Reserve to take the lead in international currency policy.

All of this came to a head when delegates from 44 countries arrived at a New Hampshire resort hotel in July 1944 for the Bretton Woods Conference. The run-up to the conference had seen intensive back-and-forth negotiation between the U.S. and British delegations, both of whom arrived with their own plans, each drafted to give their side the maximum advantage.

For the U.S., Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was the nominal head of the delegation, but having no head for nor interest in details, deferred almost entirely to his energetic and outspoken subordinate Harry Dexter White. The conference became a battle of wits between Keynes and White. While White was dwarfed by Keynes's intellect and reputation (even those who disagreed with his unorthodox economic theories were impressed with his wizardry in financing the British war efforts in both world wars), it was White who held all the good cards. Not only did the U.S. have most of the gold, Britain was entirely dependent upon Lend-Lease aid from the U.S., which might come to an abrupt end when the war was won, and owed huge debts which it could never repay without some concessions from the U.S. or further loans on attractive terms.

Morgenthau and White, with Roosevelt's enthusiastic backing, pressed their case relentlessly. Not only did Roosevelt concur that the world's financial centre should be Washington, he saw an opportunity to break the British Empire, which he detested. Roosevelt remarked to Morgenthau after a briefing, “I had no idea that England was broke. I will go over there and make a couple of talks and take over the British Empire.”

Keynes described an early U.S. negotiating position as a desire by the U.S. to make Britain “lose face altogether and appear to capitulate completely to dollar diplomacy.” And in the end, this is essentially what happened. Morgenthau remarked, “Now the advantage is ours here, and I personally think we should take it,” then later expanded, “If the advantage was theirs, they would take it.”

The system crafted at the conference was formidably complex: only a few delegates completely understood it, and, foreshadowing present-day politics in the U.S., most of the delegations which signed it at the conclusion of the conference had not read the final draft which was thrown together at the last minute. The Bretton Woods system which emerged prescribed fixed exchange rates, not against gold, but rather the U.S. dollar, which was, in turn, fixed to gold. Central banks would hold their reserves primarily in dollars, and could exchange excess dollars for gold upon demand. A new International Monetary Fund (IMF) would provide short-term financing to countries with trade imbalances to allow them to maintain their currency's exchange rate against the dollar, and a World Bank was created to provide loans to support reconstruction after the war and development in poor countries. Finally a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was adopted to reduce trade barriers and promote free trade.

The Bretton Woods system was adopted at a time when the reputation of experts and technocrats was near its peak. Keynes believed that central banking should “be regarded as a kind of beneficent technique of scientific control such as electricity and other branches of science are.” Decades of experience with the ever more centralised and intrusive administrative state has given people today a more realistic view of the capabilities of experts and intellectuals of all kinds. Thus it should be no surprise that the Bretton Woods system began to fall apart almost as soon as it was put in place. The IMF began operations in 1947, and within months a crisis broke out in the peg of sterling to the dollar. In 1949, Britain was forced to devalue the pound 30% against the dollar, and in short order thirty other countries also devalued. The Economist observed:

Not many people in this country believe the Communist thesis that it is the deliberate and conscious aim of American policy to ruin Britain and everything Britain stands for in the world. But the evidence can certainly be read that way. And if every time aid is extended, conditions are attached which make it impossible for Britain to ever escape the necessity of going back for still more aid, to be obtained with still more self-abasement and on still more crippling terms, then the result will certainly be what the Communists predict.

Dollar diplomacy had triumphed completely.

The Bretton Woods system lurched from crisis to crisis and began to unravel in the 1960s when the U.S., exploiting its position of issuing the world's reserve currency, began to flood the world with dollars to fund its budget and trade deficits. Central banks, increasingly nervous about their large dollar positions, began to exchange their dollars for gold, causing large gold outflows from the U.S. Treasury which were clearly unsustainable. In 1971, Nixon “closed the gold window”. Dollars could no longer be redeemed in gold, and the central underpinning of Bretton Woods was swept away. The U.S. dollar was soon devalued against gold (although it hardly mattered, since it was no longer convertible), and before long all of the major currencies were floating against one another, introducing uncertainty in trade and spawning the enormous global casino which is the foreign exchange markets.

A bizarre back-story to the creation of the postwar monetary system is that its principal architect, Harry Dexter White, was, during the entire period of its construction, a Soviet agent working undercover in his U.S. government positions, placing and promoting other agents in positions of influence, and providing a steady stream of confidential government documents to Soviet spies who forwarded them to Moscow. This was suspected since the 1930s, and White was identified by Communist Party USA defectors Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley as a spy and agent of influence. While White was defended by the usual apologists, and many historical accounts try to blur the issue, mentions of White in the now-declassified Venona decrypts prove the issue beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it must be said that White was a fierce and effective advocate at Bretton Woods for the U.S. position as articulated by Morgenthau and Roosevelt. Whatever other damage his espionage may have done, his pro-Soviet sympathies did not detract from his forcefulness in advancing the U.S. cause.

This book provides an in-depth view of the protracted negotiations between Britain and the U.S., Lend-Lease and other war financing, and the competing visions for the postwar world which were decided at Bretton Woods. There is a tremendous amount of detail, and while some readers may find it difficult to assimilate, the economic concepts which underlie them are explained clearly and are accessible to the non-specialist. The demise of the Bretton Woods system is described, and a brief sketch of monetary history after its ultimate collapse is given.

Whenever a currency crisis erupts into the news, you can count on one or more pundits or politicians to proclaim that what we need is a “new Bretton Woods”. Before prescribing that medicine, they would be well advised to learn just how the original Bretton Woods came to be, and how the seeds of its collapse were built in from the start. U.S. advocates of such an approach might ponder the parallels between the U.S. debt situation today and Britain's in 1944 and consider that should a new conference be held, they may find themselves sitting the seats occupied by the British the last time around, with the Chinese across the table.

In the Kindle edition the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly cross-linked to the text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Niven, Larry and Matthew Joseph Harrington. The Goliath Stone. New York: Tor Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-765-33323-0.
This novel is a tremendous hoot which the authors undoubtedly had great fun writing and readers who know what's going on may thoroughly enjoy while others who don't get it may be disappointed. This story, which spans a period from 5 billion years before the present to A.D. 2052 chronicles the expansion of sentient life beyond the Earth and humankind's first encounter with nonhuman beings. Dr. Toby Glyer, pioneer in nanotechnology, arranges with a commercial space launch company to send a technologically opaque payload into space. After launch, it devours the orbital stage which launched it and disappears. Twenty-five years later, a near-Earth asteroid is detected as manoeuvring itself onto what may be a collision course with Earth, and fears spread of Glyer's asteroid retrieval mission, believed to involve nanotechnology, having gone horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, distinctly odd things are happening on Earth: the birth rate is falling dramatically, violent crime is way down while suicides have increased, terrorism seems to have come to an end, and test scores are rising everywhere. Athletes are shattering long-established records with wild abandon, and a disproportionate number of them appear to be American Indians. Glyer and space launch entrepreneur May Wyndham sense that eccentric polymath William Connors, who they last knew as a near-invalid a quarter century earlier, may be behind all of this, and soon find themselves inside Connors' secretive lair.

This is an homage to golden age science fiction where an eccentric and prickly genius decides to remake the world and undertakes to do so without asking permission from anybody. The story bristles with dozens if not hundreds of references to science fiction and fandom, many of which I'm sure I missed. For example, “CNN cut to a feed with Dr. Wade Curtis, self-exiled to Perth when he'd exceeded the federal age limit on health care.” Gentle readers, start your search engines!

If you're looking for “hard” science fiction like Niven's “Known Space”, this is not your book. For a romp through the near future which recalls the Skylark novels of “Doc” Smith, with lots of fannish goodies and humourous repartee among the characters, it's a treat.

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Rawles, James Wesley. Expatriates. New York: Dutton, 2013. ISBN 978-0-525-95390-6.
This novel is the fourth in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008), then continued with Survivors (January 2012) and Founders (October 2012). These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. While the first three books in the series are best read in order, as there is substantial overlap in characters and events, this book, while describing contemporary events, works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller and does not contain substantial spoilers for the first three novels.

The earlier books in the series were thrillers with a heavy dose of survival tutorial, including extended litanies of gear. The present volume leans more toward the thriller genre and is, consequently, more of a page-turner.

Peter and Rihannon Jeffords are Christian missionaries helping to run an orphanage in the Philippine Islands wishing nothing more than to get on with their lives and work when the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the Pacific due the economic collapse of the U.S. opens the way for a newly-installed jihadi government in Indonesia to start flexing its imperialist ambitions, looking enviously at Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and ultimately the resource-rich and lightly populated “Top End” of Australia as their manifest destiny.

Meanwhile, Chuck Nolan, a Texan petroleum geologist specialising in explosive seismic exploration, working in the Northern Territory of Australia, is adjusting, along with native Australians, to the consequences of the Crunch. While not directly affected by the U.S. economic collapse, Australia's highly export-driven economy has been severely damaged by the contraction in world trade, and being dependent upon imported food and pharmaceuticals, hardships are everywhere and tragedies commonplace.

Back in the United States, Rihannon Jeffords' family, the Altmillers, are trying to carry on their independent hardware store business in Florida, coping with the collapse of the currency; the emergence of a barter economy and use of pre-1965 silver coins as a medium of exchange; the need for extraordinary security precautions at work and at home as the rule of law and civil society erode; and escalating worries about feral mobs of looters raiding ever wider from the chaos which was Orlando.

As the story develops, we exerience a harrowing sea voyage through hostile waters, asymmetrical warfare against a first world regional power, irregular resistance against an invader, and local communities self-organising defence against an urban “golden horde” ravaging the countryside. You will learn a great deal about partisan resistance strategies, decapitation of opposition forces, and why it is most unwise for effete urban populations to disarm those uncouth and disdained denizens of the boonies who, when an invader threatens, are both the first and ultimate lines of defence.

This book is meticulously researched with a wealth of local and technical details and only a few goofs and copy-editing errors. Like the earlier novels, the author dispels, often with spare prose or oblique references, the romantic notion that some “preppers” seem to have that the collapse of civilisation will be something like a camping trip they'll enjoy because they're “ready”. These happy would-be campers overlook the great die-off, the consequences of masses of people suddenly withdrawing from mood-altering drugs, roving bands of looters, the emergence of war-lords, and all of the other manifestations of the normal state of humanity over millennia which are suppressed only by our ever-so-fragile just in time technological society.

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Weil, Elizabeth. They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus. New York: Bantam Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-553-38236-5.
For technologists and entrepreneurs, the latter half of the 1990s was a magical time. The explosive growth in computing power available to individuals, the global interconnectivity afforded by the Internet, and the emergence of broadband service with the potential to make the marginal cost of entry as a radio or video broadcaster next to zero created a vista of boundless technological optimism. Companies with market valuations in the billions sprang up like mushrooms despite having never turned a profit (and in some cases, before delivering a product), and stock-option paper millionaires were everywhere, some sporting job titles which didn't exist three years before.

In this atmosphere enthusiasms of all kinds were difficult to restrain, even those more venerable than Internet start-ups, and among people who had previously been frustrated upon multiple occasions. So it was that as the end of the decade approached, Gary Hudson, veteran of three earlier unsuccessful commercial space projects, founded Rotary Rocket, Inc. with the goal of building a reusable single-stage-to-orbit manned spacecraft which would reduce the cost of launching payloads into low Earth orbit by a factor of ten compared to contemporary expendable rockets (which, in turn, were less expensive than NASA's Space Shuttle). Such a dramatic cost reduction was expected to immediately generate substantial business from customers such as Teledesic, which originally planned to launch 840 satellites to provide global broadband Internet service. Further, at one tenth the launch cost, space applications which were not economically feasible before would become so, expanding the space market just as the comparable collapse in the price of computing and communications had done in their sectors.

Hudson assembled a team, a mix of veterans of his earlier ventures, space enthusiasts hoping to make their dreams a reality at last, hard-nosed engineers, and seasoned test pilots hoping to go to space, and set to work. His vision became known as Roton, and evolved to be an all-composite structure including tanks for the liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, and a unique rotary engine at the base of the conical structure which would spin to create the pressure to inject propellants into 96 combustors arrayed around the periphery, eliminating the need for heavy, complicated, and prone-to-disintegrate turbopumps. The crew of two would fly the Roton to orbit and release the payload into space, then make a de-orbit burn. During re-entry, a water-cooled heat shield on the base of the cone would protect the structure from heating, and when atmospheric density was sufficient, helicopter-like rotor blades would deploy from the top of the cone. These blades would be spun up by autorotation and then, shortly before touchdown, tip jets powered by hydrogen peroxide would fire to allow a controlled powered approach and precision landing. After a mission, one need only load the next payload, refill the propellant tanks, and brief the crew for the next flight. It was estimated one flight per day was achievable with a total ground staff of fewer than twenty people.

This would have been revolutionary, and there were many, some with forbidding credentials and practical experience, who argued that it couldn't possibly work, and certainly not on Hudson's schedule and budget of US$ 150 million (which is closer to the sum NASA or one of its contractors would require to study such a concept, not to actually build and fly it). There were many things to worry about. Nothing like the rotary engine had ever been built, and its fluid mechanical and thermal complexities were largely unknown. The heat shield was entirely novel, and there was no experience as to how it would perform in a real world environment in which pores and channels might clog. Just getting to orbit in a single stage vehicle powered by LOX and kerosene was considered impossible by many, requiring a structure which was 95% propellant at launch. Even with composite construction, nobody had achieved anything close to this mass fraction in a flight vehicle.

Gary Hudson is not just a great visionary; he is nothing if not persuasive. For example, here is a promotional video from 1998. He was able, over the history of the project, to raise a total of US$ 30 million for the project from private investors (disclosure: myself included), and built an initial atmospheric test vehicle intended to validate the helicopter landing system. In 1999, this vehicle made three successful test flights, including a hop up and down and a flight down the runway.

By this point in 1999, the technology bubble was nearing the bursting point and perspicacious investors were already backing away from risky ventures. When it became clear there was no prospect to raise sufficient funds to continue, even toward the next milestone, Hudson had no option but to lay off staff and eventually entirely shutter the company, selling off its remaining assets (but the Roton ATV can be seen on display at the Mojave Spaceport).

There are any number of “business books” written about successful ventures, often ghostwritten for founders to show how they had a unique vision and marched from success to success to achieve their dream. (These so irritated me that I strove, in my own business book, to demonstrate from contemporary documents, the extent to which those in a technological start-up grope in the dark with insufficient information and little idea of where it's going.) Much rarer are accounts of big dreams which evoked indefatigable efforts from talented people and, despite all, ended badly. This book is a superb exemplar of that rare genre. There are a few errors of fact, and from time to time the author's description of herself among the strange world of the rocket nerds is a bit precious, but you get an excellent sense of what it was like to dream big, how a visionary can inspire people to accomplish extraordinary things, and how an entrepreneur must not only have a sound technical foundation, a vision of the future, but also have kissed the Barnum stone to get the job done.

Oddly, the book contains no photographs of this unique and stunning vehicle or the people who built it.

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Mencken, H. L. The Vintage Mencken. New York: Vintage, [1955] 1990. ISBN 978-0-679-72895-5.
Perhaps only once in a generation is born a person with the gift of seeing things precisely as they are, without any prejudice or filter of ideology, doctrine, or preconceived notions, who also has the talent to rise to a position from which this “fair witness” viewpoint can be effectively communicated to a wide audience. In this category, one thinks immediately of George Orwell and, more recently and not yet as celebrated as he deserves to be, Karl Hess, but without doubt one of the greatest exemplars of these observers of their world to have lived in the 20th century was H[enry] L[ouis] Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore” and one of the greatest libertarian, sceptic, and satirical writers of his time, as well as a scholar of the English language as used in the United States.

This book, originally published during Mencken's life (although he lived until 1956, he ceased writing after suffering a stroke in 1948 which, despite his recovering substantially, left him unable to compose text), collects his work, mostly drawn from essays and newspaper columns across his writing career. We get reminiscences of the Baltimore of his youth, reportage of the convention that nominated Franklin Roosevelt, a celebration of Grover Cleveland, an obituary of Coolidge, a taking down of Lincoln the dictator, a report from the Progressive convention which nominated Henry Wallace for president in 1948, and his final column defending those who defied a segregation law to stage an interracial tennis tournament in Baltimore in 1948.

Many of the articles are abridged, perhaps in the interest of eliding contemporary references which modern readers may find obscure. This collection provides an excellent taste of Mencken across his career and will probably leave you hungry for more. Fortunately, most of his œuvre remains in print. In the contemporary media cornucopia and endless blogosphere we have, every day, many times the number of words available to read as Mencken wrote in his career. But who is the heir to Mencken in seeing the folly behind the noise of ephemeral headlines and stands the test of time when read almost a century later?

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November 2013

Zabel, Bryce. Surrounded by Enemies. Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-62652-431-6.
What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas? That is the point of departure for this gripping alternative history novel by reporter, author, and screenwriter Bryce Zabel. Spared an assassin's bullet by a heroic Secret Service agent, a shaken Kennedy returns to Washington and convenes a small group of his most trusted inner circle led by his brother Robert, the attorney general, to investigate who might have launched such an attack and what steps could be taken both to prevent a second attempt and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Surveying the landscape, they conclude it might be easier to make a list of powerful forces who might not wish to kill the president. Kennedy's actions in office had given actors ranging from Cuba, anti-Castro groups in the U.S., the Mafia, FBI, CIA, senior military commanders, the Secret Service, Texas oil interests, and even Vice President Johnson potential motivations to launch or condone an attack. At the same time, while pursuing their own quiet inquiry, they must try to avert a Congressional investigation which might turn into a partisan circus, diverting attention from their strategy for Kennedy's 1964 re-election campaign.

But in the snake pit which is Washington, there is more than one way to assassinate a man, and Kennedy's almost grotesque womanising and drug use (both he and his wife were regular patients of Max Jacobson, “Dr. Feelgood”, whose “tissue regenerator” injections were laced with amphetamines) provided the ammunition his enemies needed to try to bring him down by assassinating his character in the court of public opinion.

A shadowy figure begins passing FBI files to two reporters of Top Story, a recently-launched news magazine struggling in the shadow of Time and Newsweek. After investigating the allegations and obtaining independent corroboration for some of them, Top Story runs a cover story on “The Secret Life of the President”, creating a firestorm of scrutiny of the president's private life by media who never before considered such matters worthy of investigation or reporting.

The political implications quickly assume the dimensions of a constitutional crisis, where the parties involved are forced to weigh appropriate sanctions for a president whose behaviour may have put the national security at risk versus taking actions which may give those who plotted to kill the president what they tried to achieve in Dallas with a bullet.

The plot deftly weaves historical events from the epoch with twists and turns which all follow logically from the point of departure, and the result is a very different history of the 1960s and 1970s which, to this reader who lived through those decades, seems entirely plausible. The author, who identifies himself in the introduction as “a lifelong Democrat”, brings no perceptible ideological or political agenda to the story—the characters are as complicated as the real people were, and behave in ways which are believable given the changed circumstances.

The story is told in a clever way: as a special issue of Top Story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination attempt. Written in weekly news magazine style, this allows it to cite memoirs, recollections by those involved in years after the events described, and documents which became available much later. There are a few goofs regarding historical events in the sixties which shouldn't have been affected by the alternative timeline, but readers who notice them can just chuckle and get on with the story. The book is almost entirely free of copy-editing errors.

This is a superb exemplar of alternative history, and Harry Turtledove, the cosmic grand master of the genre, contributes a foreword to the novel.

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Kaufman, Marc. First Contact. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-0901-4.
How many fields of science can you think of which study something for which there is no generally accepted experimental evidence whatsoever? Such areas of inquiry certainly exist: string theory and quantum gravity come immediately to mind, but those are research programs motivated by self-evident shortcomings in the theoretical foundations of physics which become apparent when our current understanding is extrapolated to very high energies. Astrobiology, the study of life in the cosmos, has, to date, only one exemplar to investigate: life on Earth. For despite the enormous diversity of terrestrial life, it shares a common genetic code and molecular machinery, and appears to be descended from a common ancestral organism.

And yet in the last few decades astrobiology has been a field which, although having not so far unambiguously identified extraterrestrial life, has learned a great deal about life on Earth, the nature of life, possible paths for the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere, and the habitats in the universe where life might be found. This book, by a veteran Washington Post science reporter, visits the astrobiologists in their native habitats, ranging from deep mines in South Africa, where organisms separated from the surface biosphere for millions of years have been identified, Antarctica; whose ice hosts microbes the likes of which might flourish on the icy bodies of the outer solar system; to planet hunters patiently observing stars from the ground and space to discover worlds orbiting distant stars.

It is amazing how much we have learned in such a short time. When I was a kid, many imagined that Venus's clouds shrouded a world of steamy jungles, and that Mars had plants which changed colour with the seasons. No planet of another star had been detected, and respectable astronomers argued that the solar system might have been formed by a freak close approach between two stars and that planets might be extremely rare. The genetic code of life had not been decoded, and an entire domain of Earthly life, bearing important clues for life's origin, was unknown and unsuspected. This book describes the discoveries which have filled in the blanks over the last few decades, painting a picture of a galaxy in which planets abound, many in the “habitable zone” of their stars. Life on Earth has been found to have colonised habitats previously considered as inhospitable to life as other worlds: absence of oxygen, no sunlight, temperatures near freezing or above the boiling point of water, extreme acidity or alkalinity: life finds a way.

We may have already discovered extraterrestrial life. The author meets the thoroughly respectable scientists who operated the life detection experiments of the Viking Mars landers in the 1970s, sought microfossils of organisms in a meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica, and searched for evidence of life in carbonaceous meteorites. Each believes the results of their work is evidence of life beyond Earth, but the standard of evidence required for such an extraordinary claim has not been met in the opinion of most investigators.

While most astrobiologists seek evidence of simple life forms (which exclusively inhabited Earth for most of its history), the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) jumps to the other end of evolution and seeks interstellar communications from other technological civilisations. While initial searches were extremely limited in the assumptions about signals they might detect, progress in computing has drastically increased the scope of these investigations. In addition, other channels of communication, such as very short optical pulses, are now being explored. While no signals have been detected in 50 years of off and on searching, only a minuscule fraction of the search space has been explored, and it may be that in retrospect we'll realise that we've had evidence of interstellar signals in our databases for years in the form of transient pulses not recognised because we were looking for narrowband continuous beacons.

Discovery of life beyond the Earth, whether humble microbes on other bodies of the solar system or an extraterrestrial civilisation millions of years older than our own spamming the galaxy with its ETwitter feed, would arguably be the most significant discovery in the history of science. If we have only one example of life in the universe, its origin may have been a forbiddingly improbable fluke which happened only once in our galaxy or in the entire universe. But if there are two independent examples of the origin of life (note that if we find life on Mars, it is crucial to determine whether it shares a common origin with terrestrial life: since meteors exchange material between the planets, it's possible Earth life originated on Mars or vice versa), then there is every reason to believe life is as common in the cosmos as we are now finding planets to be. Perhaps in the next few decades we will discover the universe to be filled with wondrous creatures awaiting our discovery. Or maybe not—we may be alone in the universe, in which case it is our destiny to bring it to life.

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Simmons, Dan. Flashback. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. ISBN 978-0-316-00697-2.
In the fourth decade of the 21st century, all of the dire consequences predicted when the U.S. veered onto a “progressive” path in 2008 have come to pass. Exponentially growing entitlement spending and debt, a depreciating currency being steadily displaced as the world's reserve currency, and an increasingly hollowed-out military unable to shoulder the burdens it had previously assumed in maintaining world stability all came to a head on The Day It All Hit The Fan. What is left of the United States (the Republic of Texas has opted to go it alone, while the southwest has become Nuevo Mexico, seeking to expand its territory in the ongoing reconquista) has become a run-down, has-been nation. China, joined at the hip to the U.S. economy and financial system, collapsed along with the U.S., and its territory and resources are being fought over by superpowers Japan and India, with U.S. mercenaries employed by both sides. Japan, holder of a large portion of the debt on which the U.S. defaulted, has effectively foreclosed, sending in Japanese “Advisors” who, from fortified Green Zone compounds, are the ultimate authority in their regions.

Islamic powers, with nothing to fear from a neutered U.S., make good on their vow to wipe Israel off the map, and the New Global Caliphate is mobilising Islamic immigrant communities around the world to advance its goal of global conquest. With the present so grim, millions in the U.S. have become users of the drug “flashback”, which allows those who take it to relive earlier, happier times in their lives. While not physically addictive, the contrast between the happy experiences “under the flash” and the squalid present causes many to spend whatever money they can put their hands on to escape to the past.

Nick Bottom was a Denver police department detective in charge of the investigation of the murder of the son of the Japanese Advisor in charge of the region. The victim was working on a documentary on the impact of flashback on U.S. society when, at a wrap party for the film, he and his girlfriend were killed in what amounted to a locked room mystery. Nick found lead after lead evaporating in the mysterious doings of the Japanese, and while involved in the investigation, his wife was killed in a horrific automobile accident. This tipped him over the edge, and he turned to flashback to re-live his life with her, eventually costing him his job.

Five years later, out of the blue, the Japanese Advisor summons him and offers to employ him to re-open the investigation of his son's death. Since Nick interviewed all of the persons of interest in the investigation, only he has the ability to relive those interrogations under the flash, and thus is in a unique position to discover something he missed while distracted with the case load of a busy homicide cop.

This is a gritty gumshoe procedural set in an all-too-plausible future. (OK, the flashback drug may seem to be a reach, but researchers are already talking about memory editing drugs, so who knows?) Nick discovers that all of the mysteries that haunt him may be related in some way, and has to venture into dangerous corners of this new world to follow threads which might make sense of all the puzzles.

This is one of those novels where, as the pages dwindle, you wonder how the author is going to pull everything together and begin to fear you may be headed for a cliffhanger setting the stage for a sequel. But in the last few chapters all is revealed and resolved, concluding a thoroughly satisfying yarn. If you'd like to see how noir mystery, science fiction, and a dystopian future can be blended into a page-turner, here's how it's done.

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Benford, James and Gregory Benford, eds. Starship Century. Reno, NV: Lucky Bat Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-939051-29-5.
“Is this the century when we begin to build starships?” So begins the book, produced in conjunction with the Starship Century Symposium held in May of 2013 at the University of California San Diego. Now, in a sense, we built and launched starships in the last century. Indeed, at this writing, eight objects launched from Earth are on interstellar trajectories. These are the two Pioneer spacecraft, the two Voyagers, the New Horizons Pluto flyby spacecraft, and its inert upper stage and two spin-down masses. But these objects are not aimed at any particular stars; they're simply flying outward from the solar system following whatever trajectory they were on when they completed their missions, and even if they were aimed at the nearest stars, it would take them tens of thousands of years to get there, by which time their radioactive power sources would be long exhausted and they would be inert space junk.

As long as they are built and launched by beings like humans (all bets are off should we pass the baton to immortal machines), starships or interstellar probes will probably need to complete their mission within the time scale of a human lifetime to be interesting. One can imagine multi-generation colony ships (and they are discussed here), but such ships are unlikely to be launched without confidence the destination is habitable, which can only be obtained by direct investigation by robotic probes launched previously. The closest star is around 4.3 light years from Earth. This is a daunting distance. To cross it in a human-scale time (say, within the career of a research scientist), you'd need to accelerate your probe to something on the order of 1/10 the speed of light. At this speed, each kilogram of the probe would have a kinetic energy of around 100 kilotons of TNT. A colony ship with a dry mass of 1,000 tonnes would, travelling at a tenth of the speed of light, have kinetic energy which, at a cost of USD 0.10 per kilowatt-hour, would be worth USD 12.5 trillion, which is impressive even by U.S. budget deficit standards. But you can't transmit energy to a spacecraft with 100% efficiency (the power cord is a killer!), and so the cost of a realistic mission might be ten times this.

Is it then, silly, to talk about starships? Well, not so fast. Ever since the Enlightenment, the GDP per capita has been rising rapidly. When I was a kid, millionaires were exotic creatures, while today people who bought houses in coastal California in the 1970s are all millionaires. Now it's billionaires who are the movers and shakers, and some of them are using their wealth to try to reduce the cost of access to space. (Yes, currency depreciation has accounted for a substantial part of the millionaire to billionaire transition, but the scope of what one can accomplish with a billion dollar grubstake today is still much greater than with a million dollars fifty years ago.) If this growth continues, might it not be possible that before this century is out there will be trillionaires who, perhaps in a consortium, have the ambition to expand the human presence to other stars?

This book collects contributions from those who have thought in great detail about the challenges of travel to the stars, both in nuts and bolts hardware and economic calculations and in science fictional explorations of what it will mean for the individuals involved and the societies which attempt that giant leap. There are any number of “Aha!” moments here. Freeman Dyson points out that the void between the stars is not as empty as many imagine it to be, but filled with Oort cloud objects which may extend so far as to overlap the clouds of neighbouring stars. Dyson imagines engineered organisms which could render these bodies habitable to (perhaps engineered) humans, which would expand toward the stars much like the Polynesians in the Pacific: from island to island, with a population which would dwarf both in numbers and productivity that of the inner system rock where they originated.

We will not go to the stars with rockets like we use today. The most rudimentary working of the numbers shows how absurd that would be. And yet nuclear thermal rockets, a technology developed and tested in the 1960s and 1970s, are more than adequate to develop a solar system wide economy which could support interstellar missions. Many different approaches to building starships are explored here: some defy the constraints of the rocket equation by keeping the power source in the solar system, as in “sailships” driven by laser or microwave radiation. A chapter explores “exotic propulsion”, beyond our present understanding of physics, which might change the game. (And before you dismiss such speculations, recall that according to the consensus model of cosmology, around 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” whose nature is entirely unknown. Might it be possible that a vacuum propeller could be discovered which works against these pervasive media just as a submarine's propeller acts upon the ocean?)

Leavening the technical articles are science fiction stories exploring the transition from a planetary species to the stars. Science fiction provides the dreams which are then turned into equations and eventually hardware, and it has a place at this table. Indeed, many of the scientists who spoke at the conference and authored chapters in this book also write science fiction. We are far from being able to build starships or even interstellar probes but, being human, we're always looking beyond the horizon and not just imagining what's there but figuring out how we'll go and see it for ourselves. To date, humans haven't even learned how to live in space: our space stations are about camping in space, with extensive support from the Earth. We have no idea what it takes to create a self-sustaining closed ecosystem (consider that around 90% of the cells in your body are not human but rather symbiotic microbes: wouldn't you just hate it to be half way to Alpha Centauri and discover you'd left some single-celled critter behind?). If somebody waved a magic wand and handed us a propulsion module that could take us to the nearest stars within a human lifetime, there are many things we'd still need to know in order to expect to survive the journey and establish ourselves when we arrived. And, humans being humans, we'd go anyway, regardless. Gotta love this species!

This is an excellent survey of current thinking about interstellar missions. If you're interested in this subject, be sure to view the complete video archive of the conference, which includes some presentations which do not figure in this volume, including the magnificent galaxy garden.

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Grisham, John. The Racketeer. New York: Doubleday, 2012. ISBN 978-0-345-53057-8.
Malcolm Bannister was living the life of a retail lawyer in a Virginia town, doing real estate transactions, wills, and the other routine work which occupies a three partner firm, paying the bills but never striking it rich. A law school classmate contacts him and lets him know there's a potentially large commission available for negotiating the purchase of a hunting lodge in rural Virginia for an anonymous client. Bannister doesn't like the smell of the transaction, especially after a number of odd twists and turns during the negotiation, but bills must be paid, and this fee will go a long way toward that goal. Without any warning, during a civic function, costumed goons arrest him and perp-walk him before previously-arranged state media. He, based upon his holding funds in escrow for a real estate transaction, is accused of “money laundering” and indicted as part of a RICO prosecution of a Washington influence peddler. Railroaded through the “justice system” by an ambitious federal prosecutor and sentenced by a vindictive judge, he finds himself imprisoned for ten years at a “Club Fed” facility along with other nonviolent “criminals”.

Five years into his sentence, he has become the librarian and “jailhouse lawyer” of the prison, filing motions on behalf of his fellow inmates and, on occasion, seeing injustices in their convictions reversed. He has lost everything else: his wife has divorced him and remarried, and his law licence has been revoked; he has little hope of resuming his career after release.

A jailhouse lawyer hears many things from his “clients”: some boastful, others bogus, but some revealing secrets which those holding them think might help to get them out. When a federal judge is murdered, Bannister knows, from his contacts in prison, precisely who committed the crime and leverages his position to obtain his own release, disappearance into witness protection, and immunity from prosecution for earlier acts. The FBI, under pressure to solve the case and with no other leads, is persuaded by what Bannister has to offer and takes him up on the deal.

A jailhouse lawyer, wrongly convicted on a bogus charge by a despotic regime has a great deal of time to ponder how he has been wronged, identify those responsible, and slowly and surely draw his plans against them.

This is one of the best revenge novels I've read, and it's particularly appropriate since it takes down the tyrannical regime which incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any serious country and shows how a clever individual can always outwit the bumbling collectivist leviathan as long as he refuses to engage it on level terrain but always exploits agility against the saurian brain reaction time of the state.

The only goof I noticed is that on a flight from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, passengers are required to go through passport control. As this is a domestic flight from a U.S. territory to the U.S. mainland, no passport check should be required (although in the age of Heimatsicherheitsdienst, one never knows).

I wouldn't call this a libertarian novel, as the author accepts the coercive structure of the state as a given, but it's a delightful tale of somebody who has been wronged by that foul criminal enterprise obtaining pay-back by wit and guile.

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December 2013

Orlov, Dmitry. The Five Stages of Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2013. ISBN 978-0-86571-736-7.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In his 2008 book Reinventing Collapse (April 2009) he described the Soviet collapse and assessed the probability of a collapse of the United States, concluding such a collapse was inevitable.

In the present book, he steps back from the specifics of the collapse of overextended superpowers to examine the process of collapse as it has played out in a multitude of human societies since the beginning of civilisation. The author argues that collapse occurs in five stages, with each stage creating the preconditions for the next.

  1. Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.
  2. Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.
  3. Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.
  4. Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.
  5. Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources, The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I can die tomorrow.”

Orlov argues that our current globalised society is the product of innovations at variance with ancestral human society which are not sustainable: in particular the exponentially growing consumption of a finite source of energy from fossil fuels and an economy based upon exponentially growing levels of debt: government, corporate, and individual. Exponential growth with finite resources cannot go on forever, and what cannot go on forever is certain to eventually end. He argues that we are already seeing the first symptoms of the end of the order which began with the industrial revolution.

While each stage of collapse sows the seeds of the next, the progression is not inevitable. In post-Soviet Russia, for example, the collapse progressed into stage 3 (political collapse), but was then arrested by the re-assertion of government authority. While the Putin regime may have many bad aspects, it may produce better outcomes for the Russian people than progression into a stage 4 or 5 collapse.

In each stage of collapse, there are societies and cultures which are resilient against the collapse around them and ride it out. In some cases, it's because they have survived many collapses before and have evolved not to buy into the fragile institutions which are tumbling down and in others it's older human forms of organisation re-asserting themselves as newfangled innovations founder. The author cites these collapse survivors:

  1. Financial collapse: Iceland
  2. Commercial collapse: The Russian Mafia
  3. Political collapse: The Pashtun
  4. Social collapse: The Roma
  5. Cultural collapse: The Ik

This is a simultaneously enlightening and infuriating book. While the author has deep insights into how fragile our societies are and how older forms of society emerge after they collapse, I think he may make the error of assuming that we are living at the end of history and that regression to the mean is the only possible outcome. People at every stage of the development of society which brought us to the present point doubtless argued the same. “When we've cut down all the forests for firewood, what shall we do?” they said, before the discovery of coal. “When the coal seams are mined out, what will happen?” they said, before petroleum was discovered to be a resource, not a nuisance seeping from the ground. I agree with Orlov that our civilisation has been founded on abundant cheap energy and resources, but there are several orders of magnitude more energy and resources available for our taking in the solar system, and we already have the technology, if not the imagination and will, to employ them to enrich all of the people of Earth and beyond.

If collapse be our destiny, I believe our epitaph will read “Lack of imagination and courage”. Sadly, this may be the way to bet. Had we not turned inward in the 1970s and squandered our wealth on a futile military competition and petroleum, Earth would now be receiving most of its energy from solar power satellites and futurists would be projecting the date at which the population off-planet exceeded the mudboots deep down in the gravity well. Collapse is an option—let's hope we do not choose it.

Here is a talk by the author, as rambling as this book, about the issues discussed therein.

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Thor, Brad. The Athena Project. New York: Pocket Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-9297-9.
This is the tenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel Harvath has only a walk-on rôle, while centre stage is occupied by the all-woman Athena Team of special operators we first encountered in the previous novel in the series, Foreign Influence (July 2010). These women, recruited from top competitors in extreme sports, are not only formidable at shooting, fighting, parachuting, underwater operations, and the rest of the panoply of skills of their male counterparts, they are able to blend in more easily in many contexts than their burly, buzz-cut colleagues and, when necessary, use their feminine wiles to disarm (sometimes literally) the adversary.

Deployed on a mission to seize and exfiltrate an arms merchant involved in a terrorist attack on U.S. civilians in Europe, the team ends up in a James Bond style shoot-out and chase through the canals of Venice. Meanwhile, grisly evidence in the Paraguayan jungle indicates that persons unknown may have come into possession of a Nazi wonder weapon from the last days of World War II and are bent on using it with potentially disastrous consequences.

The Athena Team must insinuate themselves into an underground redoubt in Eastern Europe, discover its mysteries, and figure out the connections to the actors plotting mass destruction, then neutralise them.

I've enjoyed all the Brad Thor novels I've read so far, but this one, in my opinion, doesn't measure up to the standard of those earlier in the series. First of all, the fundamental premise of the super-weapon at the centre of the plot is physically absurd, and all the arm-waving in the world can't make it plausible. Also, as Larry Niven observed, any society which develops such a technology will quickly self-destruct (which doesn't mean it's impossible, but may explain why we do not observe intelligent aliens in the universe). I found the banter among the team members and with their male colleagues contrived and tedious: I don't think such consummate professionals would behave in such a manner, especially while on the clock. Attention to detail on the little things is excellent, although that Air Force base in the Florida panhandle is “Eglin”, not “Elgin” (p. 202).

This is a well-crafted thriller and enjoyable “airplane book”. Once you get past the implausibility of the super-weapon (as many readers who have only heard of such concepts in the popular press will), the story moves right along. It's substantially harder to tell a story involving a team of four equals (albeit with different talents) than one with a central character such as Scot Harvath, and I don't think the author completely pulls it off: the women are not sufficiently distinguished from one another and tend to blend together as team members rather than be identified with their individual characteristics.

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Heinlein, Robert A. Podkayne of Mars. New York: Ace, [1963] 2010. ISBN 978-0-441-01834-5.
This novel had an interesting genesis. Robert Heinlein, who always considered writing a business—he had things to say, but it had to pay—paid attention when his editor at Scribner's pointed out to him that his work was selling well in the young male demographic and observed that if he could write for girls as well he could double the size of his market. Heinlein took this as both a challenge and opportunity, and created the character of “Puddin'” (Maureen), who appeared in three short stories in the magazine Calling All Girls, the most memorable of which is “Cliff and the Calories”.

Heinlein was so fond of Puddin' that he later decided to move her to Mars, change her name to Podkayne, after an ancient Martian saint, and launch her into interplanetary intrigue along with her insufferable and cataclysmically clever younger brother, Clark. This novel was written just as the original romantic conception of the solar system was confronted with the depressing reality from the first interplanetary probes. Mars was not the home of ancients, but an arid desert with a thin atmosphere where, at best, microbes might survive. Venus was not a swampy jungle world but a hellish furnace hot enough to melt lead. But when Heinlein was writing this book, we could still dream.

Podkayne was the prototype of the strong female characters which would populate Heinlein's subsequent work. She aspired to captain an exploration starship, and wasn't averse to using her emerging feminine wiles to achieving her goals. When, after a mix-up in Mars family planning grounded her parents, depriving her and deplorable brother Clark of the opportunity to take the triplanetary grand tour, her Uncle Tom, a Mars revolutionary, arranges to take them on a trip to Earth via Venus on the luxury liner Tricorn. On board and at Venus, Podkayne discovers the clash of cultures as planetary civilisations have begun to diverge, and the conflict between those who celebrate their uniqueness formed from their environments and those who would coerce them into uniformity.

When brother Clark vanishes, Podkayne discovers that Uncle Tom's trip is not a tourist jaunt but rather a high stakes mission, and that the independence of Mars may depend upon the her resourcefulness and that of her detestable brother.

There are two endings to this novel. Readers detested the original and, under protest, Heinlein wrote an alternative which appears in this edition. This is often classified as a Heinlein juvenile because the protagonist is a young adult, but Heinlein did not consider it among his juvenile works.

Is there anybody who does not admire Poddy and simultaneously detest and respect Clark? This is a great story, which may have made young women of my generation aspire to fly in space. Many did.

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Barrat, James. Our Final Invention. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-312-62237-4.
As a member of that crusty generation who began programming mainframe computers with punch cards in the 1960s, the phrase “artificial intelligence” evokes an almost visceral response of scepticism. Since its origin in the 1950s, the field has been a hotbed of wildly over-optimistic enthusiasts, predictions of breakthroughs which never happened, and some outright confidence men preying on investors and institutions making research grants. John McCarthy, who organised the first international conference on artificial intelligence (a term he coined), predicted at the time that computers would achieve human-level general intelligence within six months of concerted research toward that goal. In 1970 Marvin Minsky said “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.” And these were serious scientists and pioneers of the field; the charlatans and hucksters were even more absurd in their predictions.

And yet, and yet…. The exponential growth in computing power available at constant cost has allowed us to “brute force” numerous problems once considered within the domain of artificial intelligence. Optical character recognition (machine reading), language translation, voice recognition, natural language query, facial recognition, chess playing at the grandmaster level, and self-driving automobiles were all once thought to be things a computer could never do unless it vaulted to the level of human intelligence, yet now most have become commonplace or are on the way to becoming so. Might we, in the foreseeable future, be able to brute force human-level general intelligence?

Let's step back and define some terms. “Artificial General Intelligence” (AGI) means a machine with intelligence comparable to that of a human across all of the domains of human intelligence (and not limited, say, to playing chess or driving a vehicle), with self-awareness and the ability to learn from mistakes and improve its performance. It need not be embodied in a robot form (although some argue it would have to be to achieve human-level performance), but could certainly pass the Turing test: a human communicating with it over whatever channels of communication are available (in the original formulation of the test, a text-only teleprinter) would not be able to determine whether he or she were communicating with a machine or another human. “Artificial Super Intelligence” (ASI) denotes a machine whose intelligence exceeds that of the most intelligent human. Since a self-aware intelligent machine will be able to modify its own programming, with immediate effect, as opposed to biological organisms which must rely upon the achingly slow mechanism of evolution, an AGI might evolve into an ASI in an eyeblink: arriving at intelligence a million times or more greater than that of any human, a process which I. J. Good called an “intelligence explosion”.

What will it be like when, for the first time in the history of our species, we share the planet with an intelligence greater than our own? History is less than encouraging. All members of genus Homo which were less intelligent than modern humans (inferring from cranial capacity and artifacts, although one can argue about Neanderthals) are extinct. Will that be the fate of our species once we create a super intelligence? This book presents the case that not only will the construction of an ASI be the final invention we need to make, since it will be able to anticipate anything we might invent long before we can ourselves, but also our final invention because we won't be around to make any more.

What will be the motivations of a machine a million times more intelligent than a human? Could humans understand such motivations any more than brewer's yeast could understand ours? As Eliezer Yudkowsky observed, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” Indeed, when humans plan to construct a building, do they take into account the wishes of bacteria in soil upon which the structure will be built? The gap between humans and ASI will be as great. The consequences of creating ASI may extend far beyond the Earth. A super intelligence may decide to propagate itself throughout the galaxy and even beyond: with immortality and the ability to create perfect copies of itself, even travelling at a fraction of the speed of light it could spread itself into all viable habitats in the galaxy in a few hundreds of millions of years—a small fraction of the billions of years life has existed on Earth. Perhaps ASI probes from other extinct biological civilisations foolish enough to build them are already headed our way.

People are presently working toward achieving AGI. Some are in the academic and commercial spheres, with their work reasonably transparent and reported in public venues. Others are “stealth companies” or divisions within companies (does anybody doubt that Google's achieving an AGI level of understanding of the information it Hoovers up from the Web wouldn't be a overwhelming competitive advantage?). Still others are funded by government agencies or operate within the black world: certainly players such as NSA dream of being able to understand all of the information they intercept and cross-correlate it. There is a powerful “first mover” advantage in developing AGI and ASI. The first who obtains it will be able to exploit its capability against those who haven't yet achieved it. Consequently, notwithstanding the worries about loss of control of the technology, players will be motivated to support its development for fear their adversaries might get there first.

This is a well-researched and extensively documented examination of the state of artificial intelligence and assessment of its risks. There are extensive end notes including references to documents on the Web which, in the Kindle edition, are linked directly to their sources. In the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of “searchable terms”, not linked to references in the text. There are a few goofs, as you might expect for a documentary film maker writing about technology (“Newton's second law of thermodynamics”), but nothing which invalidates the argument made herein.

I find myself oddly ambivalent about the whole thing. When I hear “artificial intelligence” what flashes through my mind remains that dielectric material I step in when I'm insufficiently vigilant crossing pastures in Switzerland. Yet with the pure increase in computing power, many things previously considered AI have been achieved, so it's not implausible that, should this exponential increase continue, human-level machine intelligence will be achieved either through massive computing power applied to cognitive algorithms or direct emulation of the structure of the human brain. If and when that happens, it is difficult to see why an “intelligence explosion” will not occur. And once that happens, humans will be faced with an intelligence that dwarfs that of their entire species; which will have already penetrated every last corner of its infrastructure; read every word available online written by every human; and which will deal with its human interlocutors after gaming trillions of scenarios on cloud computing resources it has co-opted.

And still we advance the cause of artificial intelligence every day. Sleep well.

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Beck, Glenn with Jack Henderson. The Eye of Moloch. New York: Threshold Editions, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-3584-3.
I have a terrible record of reading a book, saying I don't intend to read the inevitable sequel, and then once again, finding my bandaged finger wabbling back to the Fire. This novel is a sequel to The Overton Window (June 2010) which I found to be a respectable but less than gripping thriller with an unsatisfying conclusion. The present volume continues the story, but still leaves much up in the air at its end. As a sequel to The Overton Window, it assumes the reader has previously read that book; little or no effort is made to bring readers who start here up to speed, and they will find themselves without any idea who the principal characters are, the circumstances they find themselves in, and why they are acting as they do.

The grand plot to use public relations to manipulate the U.S. population into welcoming the imposition of tyranny by a small group of insiders is proceeding. Noah Gardner, son of one of the key players in the conspiracy and former worker in its inner circle, has switched sides and now supports the small band called Founders' Keepers, which, led by Molly Ross, strives to bring the message of the country's founding principles to the citizens before the situation reaches the state of outright revolt. But the regime views any form of dissent as a threat, and has escalated the conflict into overt violence, deploying private contractors, high-tech weapons, and intrusive and ubiquitous surveillance, so well proven in overseas wars, against its domestic opponents.

As the U.S. crumbles, fringe groups of all kinds begin to organise and pursue their own agendas. The conspirators play them against one another, seeking to let them do the dirty work, while creating an environment of fear of “domestic terrorists” which will make the general population welcome the further erosion of liberty. With the news media completely aligned with the regime and the Internet beginning to succumb to filtering and censorship, there seems little hope of getting the truth out to the people.

Molly Ross seizes upon a bold stroke which will expose the extent to which the central planners intend to deliver Americans into serfdom. Certainly if Americans were aware of how their every act was monitored, correlated, and used to control them, they would rise up. But this requires a complicated plan which puts the resources of her small group and courageous allies on the line.

Like its predecessor, this book, taken as a pure thriller, doesn't come up to the standard set by the masters of the genre. There are many characters with complex back-stories and interactions, and at times it's difficult to remember who's who and what side they're currently on. The one thing which is very effective is that throughout the novel we encounter references to weapons, surveillance technologies, domestic government programs which trample upon the rights of citizens, media bias and overt propaganda, and other horrors which sketch how liberty is shrinking in the face of a centralised, coercive, and lawless state. Then in the afterword, most of these programs are documented as already existing in the U.S., complete with citations to source documents on the Web. But then one wonders: in 2013 the U.S. National Security Agency has been revealed as spying on U.S. citizens in ways just as extreme as the surveillance Molly hoped to expose here, and only a small percentage of the population seems to care.

Perhaps what works best is that the novel evokes a society near that tipping point where, in the words of Claire Wolfe, “It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” We have many novels and manifestos of political turnaround before liberty is totally lost, and huge stacks of post-apocalyptic fiction set after the evil and corrupt system has collapsed under its own weight, but this is one of the few novels you'll read set in that difficult in-between time. The thing about a tipping point is that individuals, small groups, and ideas can have a disproportionate influence on outcomes, whereas near equilibrium the system is difficult to perturb. This book invites the reader to ask, in a situation as described, which side they would choose, and what would they do, and risk, for what they believe.

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