Monday, August 12, 2019

Reading List: True Believer

Carr, Jack. True Believer. New York: Atria Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5011-8084-2.
Jack Carr, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, burst into the world of thriller authors with 2018's stunning success, The Terminal List (September 2018). In it, he introduced James Reece, a SEAL whose team was destroyed by a conspiracy reaching into the highest levels of the U.S. government and, afflicted with a brain tumour by a drug tested on him and his team without their knowledge or consent, which he expected to kill him, set out for revenge upon those responsible. As that novel concluded, Reece, a hunted man, took to the sea in a sailboat, fully expecting to die before he reached whatever destination he might choose.

This sequel begins right where the last book ended. James Reece is aboard the forty-eight foot sailboat Bitter Harvest braving the rough November seas of the North Atlantic and musing that as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy he knew very little about sailing a boat in the open ocean. With supplies adequate to go almost anywhere he desires, and not necessarily expecting to live until his next landfall anyway, he decides on an ambitious voyage to see an old friend far from the reach of the U.S. government.

While Reece is at sea, a series of brazen and bloody terrorist attacks in Europe against civilian and military targets send analysts on both sides of the Atlantic digging through their resources to find common threads which might point back to whoever is responsible, as their populace becomes increasingly afraid of congregating in public.

Reece eventually arrives at a hunting concession in Mozambique, in southeast Africa, and signs on as an apprentice professional hunter, helping out in tracking and chasing off poachers who plague the land during the off-season. This suits him just fine: he's about as far off the grid as one can get in this over-connected world, among escapees from Rhodesia who understand what it's like to lose their country, surrounded by magnificent scenery and wildlife, and actively engaged in putting his skills to work defending them from human predators. He concludes he could get used to this life, for however long as he has to live.

This idyll comes to an end when he is tracked down by another former SEAL, now in the employ of the CIA, who tells Reece that a man he trained in Iraq is suspected of being involved in the terrorist attacks and that if Reece will join in an effort to track him down and get him to flip on his terrorist masters, the charges pending against Reece will be dropped and he can stop running and forever looking over his shoulder. After what the U.S. government has done to him, his SEAL team, and his family, Reece's inclination is to tell them to pound sand. Then, as always, the eagle flashes its talons and Reece is told that if he fails to co-operate the Imperium will go after all of those who helped him avenge the wrongs it inflicted upon him and escape its grasp. With that bit of Soviet-style recruiting out of the way, Reece is off to a CIA black site in the REDACTED region of REDACTED to train with REDACTED for his upcoming mission. (In this book, like the last, passages which are said to have been required to have been struck during review of the manuscript by the Department of Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review are blacked out in the text. This imparted a kind of frisson and authenticity the first time out, but now it's getting somewhat tedious—just change the details, Jack, and get on with it!)

As Reece prepares for his mission, events lead him to believe he is not just confronting an external terrorist threat but, once again, forces within the U.S. government willing to kill indiscriminately to get their way. Finally, the time comes to approach his former trainee and get to the bottom of what is going on. From this point on, the story is what you'd expect of a thriller, with tradecraft, intrigue, betrayal, and discovery of a dire threat with extreme measures taken under an imminent deadline to avoid catastrophe.

The pacing of the story is…odd. The entire first third of the book is largely occupied by Reece sailing his boat and working at the game reserve. Now, single-handedly sailing a sailboat almost halfway around the globe is challenging and an adventure, to be sure, and a look inside the world of an African hunting reserve is intriguing, but these are not what thriller readers pay for, nor do they particularly develop the character of James Reece, employ his unique skills, or reveal things about him we don't already know. We're half way through the book before Reece achieves his first goal of making contact with his former trainee, and it's only there that the real mission gets underway. And as the story ends, although a number of villains have been dispatched in satisfying ways, two of those involved in the terrorist plot (but not its masterminds) remain at large, for Reece to hunt down, presumably in the next book, in a year or so. Why not finish it here, then do something completely different next time?

I hope international agents don't take their tax advice from this novel. The CIA agent who “recruits” Reece tells him “It's a contracted position. You won't pay taxes on most of it as long as you're working overseas.” Wrong! U.S. citizens (which Reece, more fool him, remains) owe U.S. taxes on all of their worldwide income, regardless of the source. There is an exclusion for salary income from employment overseas, but this would not apply for payments by the CIA to an independent contractor. Later in the book, Reece receives a large cash award from a foreign government for dispatching a terrorist, which he donates to support the family of a comrade killed in the operation. He would owe around 50% of the award as federal and California state income taxes (since his last U.S. domicile was the once-golden state) off the top, and unless he was extraordinarily careful (which there is no evidence he was), he'd get whacked again with gift tax as punishment for his charity. Watch out, Reece, if you think having the FBI, CIA, and Naval Criminal Investigative Service on your tail is bad, be glad you haven't yet crossed the IRS or the California Franchise Tax Board!

The Kindle edition does not have the attention to detail you'd expect from a Big Five New York publisher (Simon and Schuster) in a Kindle book selling for US$13. In five places in the text, HTML character entity codes like “&8201;” (the code for the thin space used between adjacent single and double quote marks) appear in the text. What this says to me is that nobody at this professional publishing house did a page-by-page proof of the Kindle edition before putting it on sale. I don't know of a single independently-published science fiction author selling works for a fraction of this price who would fail to do this.

This is a perfectly competent thriller, but to this reader it does not come up to the high standard set by the debut novel. You should not read this book without reading The Terminal List first; if you don't, you'll miss most of the story of what made James Reece who he is here.

Posted at 21:45 Permalink

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Reading List: Coolidge

Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper Perennial, [2013] 2014. ISBN 978-0-06-196759-7.
John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His family were among the branch of the Coolidge clan who stayed in Vermont while others left its steep, rocky, and often bleak land for opportunity in the Wild West of Ohio and beyond when the Erie canal opened up these new territories to settlement. His father and namesake made his living by cutting wood, tapping trees for sugar, and small-scale farming on his modest plot of land. He diversified his income by operating a general store in town and selling insurance. There was a long tradition of public service in the family. Young Coolidge's great-grandfather was an officer in the American Revolution and his grandfather was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. His father was justice of the peace and tax collector in Plymouth Notch, and would later serve in the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate.

Although many in the cities would consider their rural life far from the nearest railroad terminal hard-scrabble, the family was sufficiently prosperous to pay for young Calvin (the name he went by from boyhood) to attend private schools, boarding with families in the towns where they were located and infrequently returning home. He followed a general college preparatory curriculum and, after failing the entrance examination the first time, was admitted on his second attempt to Amherst College as a freshman in 1891. A loner, and already with a reputation for being taciturn, he joined none of the fraternities to which his classmates belonged, nor did he participate in the athletics which were a part of college life. He quickly perceived that Amherst had a class system, where the scions of old money families from Boston who had supported the college were elevated above nobodies from the boonies like himself. He concentrated on his studies, mastering Greek and Latin, and immersing himself in the works of the great orators of those cultures.

As his college years passed, Coolidge became increasingly interested in politics, joined the college Republican Club, and worked on the 1892 re-election campaign of Benjamin Harrison, whose Democrat opponent, Grover Cleveland, was seeking to regain the presidency he had lost to Harrison in 1888. Writing to his father after Harrison's defeat, his analysis was that “the reason seems to be in the never satisfied mind of the American and in the ever desire to shift in hope of something better and in the vague idea of the working and farming classes that somebody is getting all the money while they get all the work.”

His confidence growing, Coolidge began to participate in formal debates, finally, in his senior year, joined a fraternity, and ran for and won the honour of being an orator at his class's graduation. He worked hard on the speech, which was a great success, keeping his audience engaged and frequently laughing at his wit. While still quiet in one-on-one settings, he enjoyed public speaking and connecting with an audience.

After graduation, Coolidge decided to pursue a career in the law and considered attending law school at Harvard or Columbia University, but decided he could not afford the tuition, as he was still being supported by his father and had no prospects for earning sufficient money while studying the law. In that era, most states did not require a law school education; an aspiring lawyer could, instead, become an apprentice at an established law firm and study on his own, a practice called reading the law. Coolidge became an apprentice at a firm in Northampton, Massachusetts run by two Amherst graduates and, after two years, in 1897, passed the Massachusetts bar examination and was admitted to the bar. In 1898, he set out on his own and opened a small law office in Northampton; he had embarked on the career of a country lawyer.

While developing his law practice, Coolidge followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and entered public life as a Republican, winning election to the Northampton City Council in 1898. In the following years, he held the offices of City Solicitor and county clerk of courts. In 1903 he married Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton. The next year, running for the local school board, he suffered the only defeat of his political career, in part because his opponents pointed out he had no children in the schools. Coolidge said, “Might give me time.” (The Coolidges went on to have two sons, John, born in 1906, and Calvin Jr., in 1908.)

In 1906, Coolidge sought statewide office for the first time, running for the Massachusetts House of Representatives and narrowly defeating the Democrat incumbent. He was re-elected the following year, but declined to run for a third term, returning to Northampton where he ran for mayor, won, and served two one year terms. In 1912 he ran for the State Senate seat of the retiring Republican incumbent and won. In the presidential election of that year, when the Republican party split between the traditional wing favouring William Howard Taft and progressives backing Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, although identified as a progressive, having supported women's suffrage and the direct election of federal senators, among other causes, stayed with the Taft Republicans and won re-election. Coolidge sought a third term in 1914 and won, being named President of the State Senate with substantial influence on legislation in the body.

In 1915, Coolidge moved further up the ladder by running for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, balancing the Republican ticket led by a gubernatorial candidate from the east of the state with his own base of support in the rural west. In Massachusetts, the Lieutenant Governor does not preside over the State Senate, but rather fulfils an administrative role, chairing executive committees. Coolidge presided over the finance committee, which provided him experience in managing a budget and dealing with competing demands from departments that was to prove useful later in his career. After being re-elected to the office in 1915 and 1916 (statewide offices in Massachusetts at the time had a term of only one year), with the governor announcing his retirement, Coolidge was unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor and narrowly defeated the Democrat in the 1918 election.

Coolidge took office at a time of great unrest between industry and labour. Prices in 1918 had doubled from their 1913 level; nothing of the kind had happened since the paper money inflation during the Civil War and its aftermath. Nobody seemed to know why: it was usually attributed to the war, but nobody understood the cause and effect. There doesn't seem to have been a single mainstream voice who observed that the rapid rise in prices (which was really a depreciation of the dollar) began precisely at the moment the Creature from Jekyll Island was unleashed upon the U.S. economy and banking system. What was obvious, however, was that in most cases industrial wages had not kept pace with the rise in the cost of living, and that large companies which had raised their prices had not correspondingly increased what they paid their workers. This gave a powerful boost to the growing union movement. In early 1919 an ugly general strike in Seattle idled workers across the city, and the United Mine Workers threatened a nationwide coal strike for November 1919, just as the maximum demand for coal in winter would arrive. In Boston, police officers voted to unionise and affiliate with the American Federation of Labor, ignoring an order from the Police Commissioner forbidding officers to join a union. On September 9th, a majority of policemen defied the order and walked off the job.

Those who question the need for a police presence on the street in big cities should consider the Boston police strike as a cautionary tale, at least as things were in the city of Boston in the year 1919. As the Sun went down, the city erupted in chaos, mayhem, looting, and violence. A streetcar conductor was shot for no apparent reason. There were reports of rapes, murders, and serious injuries. The next day, more than a thousand residents applied for gun permits. Downtown stores were boarding up their display windows and hiring private security forces. Telephone operators and employees at the electric power plant threatened to walk out in sympathy with the police. From Montana, where he was campaigning in favour of ratification of the League of Nations treaty, President Woodrow Wilson issued a mealy-mouthed statement saying, “There is no use in talking about political democracy unless you have also industrial democracy”.

Governor Coolidge acted swiftly and decisively. He called up the Guard and deployed them throughout the city, fired all of the striking policemen, and issued a statement saying “The action of the police in leaving their posts of duty is not a strike. It is a desertion. … There is nothing to arbitrate, nothing to compromise. In my personal opinion there are no conditions under which the men can return to the force.” He directed the police commissioner to hire a new force to replace the fired men. He publicly rebuked American Federation of Labor chief Samuel Gompers in a telegram released to the press which concluded, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

When the dust settled, the union was broken, peace was restored to the streets of Boston, and Coolidge had emerged onto the national stage as a decisive leader and champion of what he called the “reign of law.” Later in 1919, he was re-elected governor with seven times the margin of his first election. He began to be spoken of as a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920.

Coolidge was nominated at the 1920 Republican convention, but never came in above sixth in the balloting, in the middle of the pack of regional and favourite son candidates. On the tenth ballot, Warren G. Harding of Ohio was chosen, and party bosses announced their choice for Vice President, a senator from Wisconsin. But when time came for delegates to vote, a Coolidge wave among rank and file tired of the bosses ordering them around gave him the nod. Coolidge did not attend the convention in Chicago; he got the news of his nomination by telephone. After he hung up, Grace asked him what it was all about. He said, “Nominated for vice president.” She responded, “You don't mean it.” “Indeed I do”, he answered. “You are not going to accept it, are you?” “I suppose I shall have to.”

Harding ran on a platform of “normalcy” after the turbulence of the war and Wilson's helter-skelter progressive agenda. He expressed his philosophy in a speech several months earlier,

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by military autocracy, because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life's acquirements.

The election was a blow-out. Harding and Coolidge won the largest electoral college majority (404 to 127) since James Monroe's unopposed re-election in 1820, and more than 60% of the popular vote. Harding carried every state except for the Old South, and was the first Republican to win Tennessee since Reconstruction. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House, for a majority of 303 to 131, and 10 seats in the Senate, with 59 to 37. Whatever Harding's priorities, he was likely to be able to enact them.

The top priority in Harding's quest for normalcy was federal finances. The Wilson administration and the Great War had expanded the federal government into terra incognita. Between 1789 and 1913, when Wilson took office, the U.S. had accumulated a total of US$2.9 billion in public debt. When Harding was inaugurated in 1921, the debt stood at US$24 billion, more than a factor of eight greater. In 1913, total federal spending was US$715 million; by 1920 it had ballooned to US$6358 million, almost nine times more. The top marginal income tax rate, 7% before the war, was 70% when Harding took the oath of office, and the cost of living had approximately doubled since 1913, which shouldn't have been a surprise (although it was largely unappreciated at the time), because a complaisant Federal Reserve had doubled the money supply from US$22.09 billion in 1913 to US$48.73 billion in 1920.

At the time, federal spending worked much as it had in the early days of the Republic: individual agencies presented their spending requests to Congress, where they battled against other demands on the federal purse, with congressional advocates of particular agencies doing deals to get what they wanted. There was no overall budget process worthy of the name (or as existed in private companies a fraction the size of the federal government), and the President, as chief executive, could only sign or veto individual spending bills, not an overall budget for the government. Harding had campaigned on introducing a formal budget process and made this his top priority after taking office. He called an extraordinary session of Congress and, making the most of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, enacted a bill which created a Budget Bureau in the executive branch, empowered the president to approve a comprehensive budget for all federal expenditures, and even allowed the president to reduce agency spending of already appropriated funds. The budget would be a central focus for the next eight years.

Harding also undertook to dispose of surplus federal assets accumulated during the war, including naval petroleum reserves. This, combined with Harding's penchant for cronyism, led to a number of scandals which tainted the reputation of his administration. On August 2nd, 1923, while on a speaking tour of the country promoting U.S. membership in the World Court, he suffered a heart attack and died in San Francisco. Coolidge, who was visiting his family in Vermont, where there was no telephone service at night, was awakened to learn that he had succeeded to the presidency. He took the oath of office by kerosene light in his parents' living room, administered by his father, a Vermont notary public. As he left Vermont for Washington, he said, “I believe I can swing it.”

As Coolidge was in complete agreement with Harding's policies, if not his style and choice of associates, he interpreted “normalcy” as continuing on the course set by his predecessor. He retained Harding's entire cabinet (although he had his doubts about some of its more dodgy members), and began to work closely with his budget director, Herbert Lord, meeting with him weekly before the full cabinet meeting. Their goal was to continue to cut federal spending, generate surpluses to pay down the public debt, and eventually cut taxes to boost the economy and leave more money in the pockets of those who earned it. He had a powerful ally in these goals in Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon, who went further and advocated his theory of “scientific taxation”. He argued that the existing high tax rates not only hampered economic growth but actually reduced the amount of revenue collected by the government. Just as a railroad's profits would suffer from a drop in traffic if it set its freight rates too high, a high tax rate would deter individuals and companies from making more taxable income. What was crucial was the “top marginal tax rate”: the tax paid on the next additional dollar earned. With the tax rate on high earners at the postwar level of 70%, individuals got to keep only thirty cents of each additional dollar they earned; many would not bother putting in the effort.

Half a century later, Mellon would have been called a “supply sider”, and his ideas were just as valid as when they were applied in the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Coolidge wasn't sure he agreed with all of Mellon's theory, but he was 100% in favour of cutting the budget, paying down the debt, and reducing the tax burden on individuals and business, so he was willing to give it a try. It worked. The last budget submitted by the Coolidge administration (fiscal year 1929) was 3.127 billion, less than half of fiscal year 1920's expenditures. The public debt had been paid down from US$24 billion go US$17.6 billion, and the top marginal tax rate had been more than halved from 70% to 31%.

Achieving these goals required constant vigilance and an unceasing struggle with the congress, where politicians of both parties regarded any budget surplus or increase in revenue generated by lower tax rates and a booming economy as an invitation to spend, spend, spend. The Army and Navy argued for major expenditures to defend the nation from the emerging threat posed by aviation. Coolidge's head of defense aviation observed that the Great Lakes had been undefended for a century, yet Canada had not so far invaded and occupied the Midwest and that, “to create a defense system based upon a hypothetical attack from Canada, Mexico, or another of our near neighbors would be wholly unreasonable.” When devastating floods struck the states along the Mississippi, Coolidge was steadfast in insisting that relief and recovery were the responsibility of the states. The New York Times approved, “Fortunately, there are still some things that can be done without the wisdom of Congress and the all-fathering Federal Government.”

When Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, Republicans were unsure whether he would run in 1924, or would obtain the nomination if he sought it. By the time of the convention in June of that year, Coolidge's popularity was such that he was nominated on the first ballot. The 1924 election was another blow-out, with Coolidge winning 35 states and 54% of the popular vote. His Democrat opponent, John W. Davis, carried just the 12 states of the “solid South” and won 28.8% of the popular vote, the lowest popular vote percentage of any Democrat candidate to this day. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, who had challenged Coolidge for the Republican nomination and lost, ran as a Progressive, advocating higher taxes on the wealthy and nationalisation of the railroads, and won 16.6% of the popular vote and carried the state of Wisconsin and its 13 electoral votes.

Tragedy struck the Coolidge family in the White House in 1924 when his second son, Calvin Jr., developed a blister while playing tennis on the White House courts. The blister became infected with Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium which is readily treated today with penicillin and other antibiotics, but in 1924 had no treatment other than hoping the patient's immune system would throw off the infection. The infection spread to the blood and sixteen year old Calvin Jr. died on July 7th, 1924. The president was devastated by the loss of his son and never forgave himself for bringing his son to Washington where the injury occurred.

In his second term, Coolidge continued the policies of his first, opposing government spending programs, paying down the debt through budget surpluses, and cutting taxes. When the mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa, presented the president with two lion cubs, he named them “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau” before donating them to the National Zoo. In 1927, on vacation in South Dakota, the president issued a characteristically brief statement, “I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty eight.” Washington pundits spilled barrels of ink parsing Coolidge's twelve words, but they meant exactly what they said: he had had enough of Washington and the endless struggle against big spenders in Congress, and (although re-election was considered almost certain given his landslide the last time, popularity, and booming economy) considered ten years in office (which would have been longer than any previous president) too long for any individual to serve. Also, he was becoming increasingly concerned about speculation in the stock market, which had more than doubled during his administration and would continue to climb in its remaining months. He was opposed to government intervention in the markets and, in an era before the Securities and Exchange Commission, had few tools with which to do so. Edmund Starling, his Secret Service bodyguard and frequent companion on walks, said, “He saw economic disaster ahead”, and as the 1928 election approached and it appeared that Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover would be the Republican nominee, Coolidge said, “Well, they're going to elect that superman Hoover, and he's going to have some trouble. He's going to have to spend money. But he won't spend enough. Then the Democrats will come in and they'll spend money like water. But they don't know anything about money.” Coolidge may have spoken few words, but when he did he was worth listening to.

Indeed, Hoover was elected in 1928 in another Republican landslide (40 to 8 states, 444 to 87 electoral votes, and 58.2% of the popular vote), and things played out exactly as Coolidge had foreseen. The 1929 crash triggered a series of moves by Hoover which undid most of the patient economies of Harding and Coolidge, and by the time Hoover was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, he had added 33% to the national debt and raised the top marginal personal income tax rate to 63% and corporate taxes by 15%. Coolidge, in retirement, said little about Hoover's policies and did his duty to the party, campaigning for him in the foredoomed re-election campaign in 1932. After the election, he remarked to an editor of the New York Evening Mail, “I have been out of touch so long with political activities I feel that I no longer fit in with these times.” On January 5, 1933, Coolidge, while shaving, suffered a sudden heart attack and was found dead in his dressing room by his wife Grace.

Calvin Coolidge was arguably the last U.S. president to act in office as envisioned by the Constitution. He advanced no ambitious legislative agenda, leaving lawmaking to Congress. He saw his job as similar to an executive in a business, seeking economies and efficiency, eliminating waste and duplication, and restraining the ambition of subordinates who sought to broaden the mission of their departments beyond what had been authorised by Congress and the Constitution. He set difficult but limited goals for his administration and achieved them all, and he was popular while in office and respected after leaving it. But how quickly it was all undone is a lesson in how fickle the electorate can be, and how tempting ill-conceived ideas are in a time of economic crisis.

This is a superb history of Coolidge and his time, full of lessons for our age which has veered so far from the constitutional framework he so respected.

Posted at 13:30 Permalink

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Reading List: Skin in the Game

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game. New York: Random House, 2018. ISBN 978-0-425-28462-9.
This book is volume four in the author's Incerto series, following Fooled by Randomness (February 2011), The Black Swan (January 2009), and Antifragile (April 2018). In it, he continues to explore the topics of uncertainty, risk, decision making under such circumstances, and how both individuals and societies winnow out what works from what doesn't in order to choose wisely among the myriad alternatives available.

The title, “Skin in the Game”, is an aphorism which refers to an individual's sharing the risks and rewards of an undertaking in which they are involved. This is often applied to business and finance, but it is, as the author demonstrates, a very general and powerful concept. An airline pilot has skin in the game along with the passengers. If the plane crashes and kills everybody on board, the pilot will die along with them. This insures that the pilot shares the passengers' desire for a safe, uneventful trip and inspires confidence among them. A government “expert” putting together a “food pyramid” to be vigorously promoted among the citizenry and enforced upon captive populations such as school children or members of the armed forces, has no skin in the game. If his or her recommendations create an epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, that probably won't happen until after the “expert” has retired and, in any case, civil servants are not fired or demoted based upon the consequences of their recommendations.

Ancestral human society was all about skin in the game. In a small band of hunter/gatherers, everybody can see and is aware of the actions of everybody else. Slackers who do not contribute to the food supply are likely to be cut loose to fend for themselves. When the hunt fails, nobody eats until the next kill. If a conflict develops with a neighbouring band, those who decide to fight instead of running away or surrendering are in the front line of the battle and will be the first to suffer in case of defeat.

Nowadays we are far more “advanced”. As the author notes, “Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.” As populations have exploded, layers and layers of complexity have been erected, removing authority ever farther from those under its power. We have built mechanisms which have immunised a ruling class of decision makers from the consequences of their decisions: they have little or no skin in the game.

Less than a third of all Roman emperors died in their beds. Even though they were at the pinnacle of the largest and most complicated empire in the West, they regularly paid the ultimate price for their errors either in battle or through palace intrigue by those dissatisfied with their performance. Today the geniuses responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, which destroyed the savings of hundreds of millions of innocent people and picked the pockets of blameless taxpayers to bail out the institutions they wrecked, not only suffered no punishment of any kind, but in many cases walked away with large bonuses or golden parachute payments and today are listened to when they pontificate on the current scene, rather than being laughed at or scorned as they would be in a rational world. We have developed institutions which shift the consequences of bad decisions from those who make them to others, breaking the vital feedback loop by which we converge upon solutions which, if not perfect, at least work well enough to get the job done without the repeated catastrophes that result from ivory tower theories being implemented on a grand scale in the real world.

Learning and Evolution

Being creatures who have evolved large brains, we're inclined to think that learning is something that individuals do, by observing the world, drawing inferences, testing hypotheses, and taking on knowledge accumulated by others. But the overwhelming majority of creatures who have ever lived, and of those alive today, do not have large brains—indeed, many do not have brains at all. How have they learned to survive and proliferate, filling every niche on the planet where environmental conditions are compatible with biochemistry based upon carbon atoms and water? How have they, over the billions of years since life arose on Earth, inexorably increased in complexity, most recently producing a species with a big brain able to ponder such questions?

The answer is massive parallelism, exhaustive search, selection for survivors, and skin in the game, or, putting it all together, evolution. Every living creature has skin in the ultimate game of whether it will produce offspring that inherit its characteristics. Every individual is different, and the process of reproduction introduces small variations in progeny. Change the environment, and the characteristics of those best adapted to reproduce in it will shift and, eventually, the population will consist of organisms adapted to the new circumstances. The critical thing to note is that while each organism has skin in the game, many may, and indeed must, lose the game and die before reproducing. The individual organism does not learn, but the species does and, stepping back another level, the ecosystem as a whole learns and adapts as species appear, compete, die out, or succeed and proliferate. This simple process has produced all of the complexity we observe in the natural world, and it works because every organism and species has skin in the game: its adaptation to its environment has immediate consequences for its survival.

None of this is controversial or new. What the author has done in this book is to apply this evolutionary epistemology to domains far beyond its origins in biology—in fact, to almost everything in the human experience—and demonstrate that both success and wisdom are generated when this process is allowed to work, but failure and folly result when it is thwarted by institutions which take the skin out of the game.

How does this apply in present-day human society? Consider one small example of a free market in action. The restaurant business is notoriously risky. Restaurants come and go all the time, and most innovations in the business fall flat on their face and quickly disappear. And yet most cities have, at any given time, a broad selection of restaurants with a wide variety of menus, price points, ambiance, and service to appeal to almost any taste. Each restaurant has skin in the game: those which do not attract sufficient customers (or, having once been successful, fail to adapt when customers' tastes change) go out of business and are replaced by new entrants. And yet for all the churning and risk to individual restaurants, the restaurant “ecosystem” is remarkably stable, providing customers options closely aligned with their current desires.

To a certain kind of “expert” endowed with a big brain (often crammed into a pointy head), found in abundance around élite universities and government agencies, all of this seems messy, chaotic, and (the horror!) inefficient. Consider the money lost when a restaurant fails, the cooks and waiters who lose their jobs, having to find a new restaurant to employ them, the vacant building earning nothing for its owner until a new tenant is found—certainly there must be a better way. Why, suppose instead we design a standardised set of restaurants based upon a careful study of public preferences, then roll out this highly-optimised solution to the problem. They might be called “public feeding centres”. And they would work about as well as the name implies.

Survival and Extinction

Evolution ultimately works through extinction. Individuals who are poorly adapted to their environment (or, in a free market, companies which poorly serve their customers) fail to reproduce (or, in the case of a company, survive and expand). This leaves a population better adapted to its environment. When the environment changes, or a new innovation appears (for example, electricity in an age dominated by steam power), a new sorting out occurs which may see the disappearance of long-established companies that failed to adapt to the new circumstances. It is a tautology that the current population consists entirely of survivors, but there is a deep truth within this observation which is at the heart of evolution. As long as there is a direct link between performance in the real world and survival—skin in the game—evolution will work to continually optimise and refine the population as circumstances change.

This evolutionary process works just as powerfully in the realm of ideas as in biology and commerce. Ideas have consequences, and for the process of selection to function, those consequences, good or ill, must be borne by those who promulgate the idea. Consider inventions: an inventor who creates something genuinely useful and brings it to market (recognising that there are many possible missteps and opportunities for bad luck or timing to disrupt this process) may reap great rewards which, in turn, will fund elaboration of the original invention and development of related innovations. The new invention may displace existing technologies and cause them, and those who produce them, to become obsolete and disappear (or be relegated to a minor position in the market). Both the winner and loser in this process have skin in the game, and the outcome of the game is decided by the evaluation of the customers expressed in the most tangible way possible: what they choose to buy.

Now consider an academic theorist who comes up with some intellectual “innovation” such as “Modern Monetary Theory” (which basically says that a government can print as much paper money as it wishes to pay for what it wants without collecting taxes or issuing debt as long as full employment has not been achieved). The theory and the reputation of those who advocate it are evaluated by their peers: other academics and theorists employed by institutions such as national treasuries and central banks. Such a theory is not launched into a market to fend for itself among competing theories: it is “sold” to those in positions of authority and imposed from the top down upon an economy, regardless of the opinions of those participating in it. Now, suppose the brilliant new idea is implemented and results in, say, total collapse of the economy and civil society? What price do those who promulgated the theory and implemented it pay? Little or nothing, compared to the misery of those who lost their savings, jobs, houses, and assets in the calamity. Many of the academics will have tenure and suffer no consequences whatsoever: they will refine the theory, or else publish erudite analyses of how the implementation was flawed and argue that the theory “has never been tried”. Some senior officials may be replaced, but will doubtless land on their feet and continue to pull down large salaries as lobbyists, consultants, or pundits. The bureaucrats who patiently implemented the disastrous policies are civil servants: their jobs and pensions are as eternal as anything in this mortal sphere. And, before long, another bright, new idea will bubble forth from the groves of academe.

(If you think this hypothetical example is unrealistic, see the career of one Robert Rubin. “Bob”, during his association with Citigroup between 1999 and 2009, received total compensation of US$126 million for his “services” as a director, advisor, and temporary chairman of the bank, during which time he advocated the policies which eventually brought it to the brink of collapse in 2008 and vigorously fought attempts to regulate the financial derivatives which eventually triggered the global catastrophe. During his tenure at Citigroup, shareholders of its stock lost 70% of their investment, and eventually the bank was bailed out by the federal government using money taken by coercive taxation from cab drivers and hairdressers who had no culpability in creating the problems. Rubin walked away with his “winnings” and paid no price, financial, civil, or criminal, for his actions. He is one of the many poster boys and girls for the “no skin in the game club”. And lest you think that, chastened, the academics and pointy-heads in government would regain their grounding in reality, I have just one phrase for you, “trillion dollar coin”, which “Nobel Prize” winner Paul Krugman declared to be “the most important fiscal policy debate of our lifetimes”.)

Intellectual Yet Idiot

A cornerstone of civilised society, dating from at least the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 B.C.), is that those who create risks must bear those risks: an architect whose building collapses and kills its owner is put to death. This is the fundamental feedback loop which enables learning. When it is broken, when those who create risks (academics, government policy makers, managers of large corporations, etc.) are able to transfer those risks to others (taxpayers, those subject to laws and regulations, customers, or the public at large), the system does not learn; evolution breaks down; and folly runs rampant. This phenomenon is manifested most obviously in the modern proliferation of the affliction the author calls the “intellectual yet idiot” (IYI). These are people who are evaluated by their peers (other IYIs), not tested against the real world. They are the equivalent of a list of movies chosen based upon the opinions of high-falutin' snobbish critics as opposed to box office receipts. They strive for the approval of others like themselves and, inevitably, spiral into ever more abstract theories disconnected from ground truth, ascending ever higher into the sky.

Many IYIs achieve distinction in one narrow field and then assume that qualifies them to pronounce authoritatively on any topic whatsoever. As was said by biographer Roy Harrod of John Maynard Keynes,

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.

Still other IYIs have no authentic credentials whatsoever, but derive their purported authority from the approbation of other IYIs in completely bogus fields such as gender and ethnic studies, critical anything studies, and nutrition science. As the author notes, riding some of his favourite hobby horses,

Typically, the IYI get first-order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects, making him totally incompetent in complex domains.

The IYI has been wrong, historically, about Stalinism, Maoism, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low-carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, trans-fats, Freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup), Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, marathon running, selfish genes, election-forecasting models, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup), and p values. But he is still convinced his current position is right.

Doubtless, IYIs have always been with us (at least since societies developed to such a degree that they could afford some fraction of the population who devoted themselves entirely to words and ideas)—Nietzsche called them “Bildungsphilisters”—but since the middle of the twentieth century they have been proliferating like pond scum, and now hold much of the high ground in universities, the media, think tanks, and senior positions in the administrative state. They believe their models (almost always linear and first-order) accurately describe the behaviour of complex dynamic systems, and that they can “nudge” the less-intellectually-exalted and credentialed masses into virtuous behaviour, as defined by them. When the masses dare to push back, having a limited tolerance for fatuous nonsense, or being scolded by those who have been consistently wrong about, well, everything, and dare vote for candidates and causes which make sense to them and seem better-aligned with the reality they see on the ground, they are accused of—gasp—populism, and must be guided in the proper direction by their betters, their uncouth speech silenced in favour of the cultured “consensus” of the few.

One of the reasons we seem to have many more IYIs around than we used to, and that they have more influence over our lives is related to scaling. As the author notes, “it is easier to macrobull***t than microbull***t”. A grand theory which purports to explain the behaviour of billions of people in a global economy over a period of decades is impossible to test or verify analytically or by simulation. An equally silly theory that describes things within people's direct experience is likely to be immediately rejected out of hand as the absurdity it is. This is one reason decentralisation works so well: when you push decision making down as close as possible to individuals, their common sense asserts itself and immunises them from the blandishments of IYIs.

The Lindy Effect

How can you sift the good and the enduring from the mass of ephemeral fads and bad ideas that swirl around us every day? The Lindy effect is a powerful tool. Lindy's delicatessen in New York City was a favoured hangout for actors who observed that the amount of time a show had been running on Broadway was the best predictor of how long it would continue to run. A show that has run for three months will probably last for at least three months more. A show that has made it to the one year mark probably has another year or more to go. In other words, the best test for whether something will stand the test of time is whether it has already withstood the test of time. This may, at first, seem counterintuitive: a sixty year old person has a shorter expected lifespan remaining than a twenty year old. The Lindy effect applies only to nonperishable things such as “ideas, books, technologies, procedures, institutions, and political systems”.

Thus, a book which has been in print continuously for a hundred years is likely to be in print a hundred years from now, while this season's hot best-seller may be forgotten a few years hence. The latest political or economic theory filling up pages in the academic journals and coming onto the radar of the IYIs in the think tanks, media punditry, and (shudder) government agencies, is likely to be forgotten and/or discredited in a few years while those with a pedigree of centuries or millennia continue to work for those more interested in results than trendiness.

Religion is Lindy. If you disregard all of the spiritual components to religion, long-established religions are powerful mechanisms to transmit accumulated wisdom, gained through trial-and-error experimentation and experience over many generations, in a ready-to-use package for people today. One disregards or scorns this distilled experience at one's own great risk. Conversely, one should be as sceptical about “innovation” in ancient religious traditions and brand-new religions as one is of shiny new ideas in any other field.

(A few more technical notes…. As I keep saying, “Once Pareto gets into your head, you'll never get him out.” It's no surprise to find that the Lindy effect is deeply related to the power-law distribution of many things in human experience. It's simply another way to say that the lifetime of nonperishable goods is distributed according to a power law just like incomes, sales of books, music, and movie tickets, use of health care services, and commission of crimes. Further, the Lindy effect is similar to J. Richard Gott's Copernican statement of the Doomsday argument, with the difference that Gott provides lower and upper bounds on survival time for a given confidence level predicted solely from a random observation that something has existed for a known time.)

Uncertainty, Risk, and Decision Making

All of these observations inform dealing with risk and making decisions based upon uncertain information. The key insight is that in order to succeed, you must first survive. This may seem so obvious as to not be worth stating, but many investors, including those responsible for blow-ups which make the headlines and take many others down with them, forget this simple maxim. It is deceptively easy to craft an investment strategy which will yield modest, reliable returns year in and year out—until it doesn't. Such strategies tend to be vulnerable to “tail risks”, in which an infrequently-occurring event (such as 2008) can bring down the whole house of cards and wipe out the investor and the fund. Once you're wiped out, you're out of the game: you're like the loser in a Russian roulette tournament who, after the gun goes off, has no further worries about the probability of that event. Once you accept that you will never have complete information about a situation, you can begin to build a strategy which will prevent your blowing up under any set of circumstances, and may even be able to profit from volatility. This is discussed in more detail in the author's earlier Antifragile.

The Silver Rule

People and institutions who have skin in the game are likely to act according to the Silver Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” This rule, combined with putting the skin of those “defence intellectuals” sitting in air-conditioned offices into the games they launch in far-off lands around the world, would do much to save the lives and suffering of the young men and women they send to do their bidding.

Posted at 21:14 Permalink

Monday, July 29, 2019

New: Units Calculator

Units Calculator is a Web interface to the GNU Units utility which allows conversion among thousands of physical units, constants, and currencies. Units Calculator may be used to perform complex scientific and engineering calculations involving physical units and guards against common errors due to dimensional incompatibility. Units Calculator is 100% compatible with GNU Units, but as a Web application can be used from any platform with a Web browser. Currency exchange rates and precious metal prices are updated daily. See the Introduction for a tutorial, or proceed directly to the Expert page, which contains a click-to-copy table of common units.

Units Calculator can be used as a simple units conversion tool, but is much more powerful than that. Suppose you wish to calculate the power emitted as gravitational radiation as the Earth orbits the Sun. This is given by the following equation, where G is the Newtonian gravitational constant, c is the speed of light, R is the radius of the orbit (which we'll assume here to be circular), and m₁ and m₂ are the masses of the two bodies. (You don't often see an equation in physics with an exponent greater than three, but this one has two fives and a four, and that's the fifth power of the speed of light in the denominator!)

{\frac{dE}{dt}}= - {{32 G^4}\over{5c^5R^5}} (m_1 m_2)^2(m_1+m_2)

Since Units Calculator already “knows” all of the quantities which figure in this equation, we can immediately calculate as follows.

Convert ((32 G^4)/(5 c^5 astronomicalunit^5)) ((sunmass earthmass)^2) (sunmass + earthmass)
To watt
((32 G^4)/(5 c^5 astronomicalunit^5)) ((sunmass earthmass)^2) (sunmass + earthmass) = 196.27068 watt

So, around 200 watts!

Units Calculator supports, as of this writing, 3460 linear units, 109 nonlinear units, and 109 prefixes, plus 171 currencies and 3 precious metal (gold, silver, and platinum) prices. See the Unit Definition database (taken directly from the GNU Units utility) for a complete list.

Posted at 13:50 Permalink

Monday, July 22, 2019

Reading List: Island of Clouds

Brennan, Gerald. Island of Clouds. Chicago: Tortoise Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9860922-9-9.
This is the third book, and the first full-length novel, in the author's “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase (October 2016), asks what might have happened had Apollo 13's service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The present book describes a manned Venus fly-by mission performed in 1972 using modified Apollo hardware launched by a single Saturn V.

“But, wait…”, you exclaim, ”that's crazy!” Why would you put a crew of three at risk for a mission lasting a full year for just a few minutes of close-range fly-by of a planet whose surface is completely obscured by thick clouds? Far from Earth, any failure of their life support systems, spacecraft systems, a medical emergency, or any number of other mishaps could kill them; they'd be racking up a radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar particle emissions every day in the mission; and the inexorable laws of orbital mechanics would provide them no option to come home early if something went wrong.

Well, crazy it may have been, but in the mid-1960s, precisely such a mission was the subject of serious study by NASA and its contractors as a part of the Apollo Applications Program planned to follow the Apollo lunar landings. Here is a detailed study of a manned Venus flyby [PDF] by NASA contractor Bellcomm, Inc. from February 1967. In addition to observing Venus during the brief fly-by, the astronauts would deploy multiple robotic probes which would explore the atmosphere and surface of Venus and relay their findings either via the manned spacecraft or directly to Earth.

It was still crazy. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a Saturn V, Apollo spacecraft, and all the modifications and new development to support such a long-term mission, and at no risk to humans, an armada of robotic probes could have been launched on smaller, far less expensive rockets such as Delta, Atlas, and Titan, which would have returned all of the science proposed for the manned fly-by and more. But in the mid-sixties, with NASA's budget reaching 4% of all federal spending, a level by that metric eight times higher than in recent years, NASA was “feeling its oats” and planning as if the good times were just going to roll on forever.

In this novel, they did. After his re-election in 1968, where Richard Nixon and George Wallace split the opposition vote, and the triumphant Moon landing by Ed White and Buzz Aldrin, President Johnson opts to keep the momentum of Apollo going and uses his legendary skills in getting what he wants from Congress to secure the funds for a Venus fly-by in 1972. Deke Slayton chooses his best friend, just back from the Moon, Alan Shepard, to command the mission, with the second man on the Moon Buzz Aldrin and astronaut-medical doctor Joe Kerwin filling out the crew. Aldrin is sorely disappointed at not being given command, but accepts the assignment for the adventure and opportunity to get back into the game after the post flight let-down of returning from the Moon to a desk job.

The mission in the novel is largely based upon the NASA plans from the 1960s with a few modifications to simplify the story (for example, the plan to re-fit the empty third stage of the Saturn V booster as living quarters for the journey, as was also considered in planning for Skylab, is replaced here by a newly-developed habitation module launched by the Saturn V in place of the lunar module). There are lots of other little departures from the timeline in our reality, many just to remind the reader that this is a parallel universe.

After the mission gets underway, a number of challenges confront the crew: the mission hardware, space environment, one other, and the folks back on Earth. The growing communication delay as the distance increases from Earth poses difficulties no manned spaceflight crew have had to deal with before. And then, one of those things that can happen in space (and could have occurred on any of the Apollo lunar missions) happens, and the crew is confronted by existential problems on multiple fronts, must make difficult and unpleasant decisions, and draw on their own resources and ingenuity and courage to survive.

This is a completely plausible story which, had a few things gone the other way, could have happened in the 1970s. The story is narrated by Buzz Aldrin, which kind of lets you know at least he got back from the mission. The characters are believable, consistent with what we know of their counterparts in our reality, and behave as you'd expect from such consummate professionals under stress. I have to say, however, as somebody who has occasionally committed science fiction, that I would be uncomfortable writing a story in which characters based upon and bearing the names of those of people in the real world, two of whom are alive at this writing, have their characters and personal lives bared to the extent they are in this fiction. In the first book in the series, Zero Phase, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, whose fictional incarnation narrates the story, read and endorsed the manuscript before publication. I was hoping to find a similar note in this novel, but it wasn't there. These are public figures, and there's nothing unethical or improper about having figures based upon them in an alternative history narrative behaving as the author wishes, and the story works very well. I'm just saying I wouldn't have done it that way without clearing it with the individuals involved.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 22:07 Permalink

Friday, July 19, 2019

Reading List: What Has Government Done to Our Money?

Rothbard, Murray. What Has Government Done to Our Money? Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, [1963, 1985, 1990, 2010] 2015. ISBN 978-1-61016-645-4.
This slim book (just 119 pages of main text in this edition) was originally published in 1963 when the almighty gold-backed United States dollar was beginning to crack up under the pressure of relentless deficit spending and money printing by the Federal Reserve. Two years later, as the crumbling of the edifice accelerated, amidst a miasma of bafflegab about fantasies such as a “silver shortage” by Keynesian economists and other charlatans, the Coinage Act of 1965 would eliminate sliver from most U.S. coins, replacing them with counterfeit slugs craftily designed to fool vending machines into accepting them. (The little-used half dollar had its silver content reduced from 90% to 40%, and would be silverless after 1970.) In 1968, the U.S. Treasury would default upon its obligation to redeem paper silver certificates in silver coin or bullion, breaking the link between the U.S. currency and precious metal entirely.

All of this was precisely foreseen in this clear-as-light exposition of monetary theory and forty centuries of government folly by libertarian thinker and Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard. He explains the origin of money as societies progress from barter to indirect exchange, why most (but not all) cultures have settled on precious metals such as gold and silver as a medium of intermediate exchange (they do not deteriorate over time, can be subdivided into arbitrarily small units, and are relatively easy to check for authenticity). He then describes the sorry progression by which those in authority seize control over this free money and use it to fleece their subjects. First, they establish a monopoly over the ability to coin money, banning private mints and the use of any money other than their own coins (usually adorned with a graven image of some tyrant or another). They give this coin and its subdivisions a name, such as “dollar”, “franc”, “mark” or some such, which is originally defined as a unit of mass of some precious metal (for example, the U.S. dollar, prior to its debasement, was defined as 23.2 grains [1.5033 grams, or about 1/20 troy ounce] of pure gold). (Rothbard, as an economist rather than a physicist, and one working in English customary units, confuses mass with weight throughout the book. They aren't the same thing, and the quantity of gold in a coin doesn't vary depending on whether you weigh it at the North Pole or the summit of Chimborazo.)

Next, the rulers separate the concept of the unit of money from the mass of precious metal which it originally defined. A key tool in this are legal tender laws which require all debts to be settled in the state-defined monetary unit. This opens the door to debasement of the currency: replacing coins bearing the same unit of money with replacements containing less precious metal. In ancient Rome, the denarius originally contained around 4.5 grams of pure silver. By the third century A.D., its silver content had been reduced to about 2%, and was intrinsically almost worthless. Of course, people aren't stupid, and when the new debased coins show up, they will save the old, more valuable ones, and spend the new phoney money. This phenomenon is called “Gresham's law”, by which bad money chases out good. But this is entirely the result of a coercive government requiring its subjects to honour a monetary unit which it has arbitrarily reduced in intrinsic value.

This racket has been going on since antiquity, but as the centuries have passed, it has become ever more sophisticated and effective. Rothbard explains the origin of paper money, first as what were essentially warehouse receipts for real money (precious metal coins or bullion stored by its issuer and payable on demand), then increasingly abstract assets “backed” by only a fraction of the total value in circulation, and finally, with the advent of central banking, a fiction totally under the control of those who print the paper and their political masters. The whole grand racket of fractional reserve banking and the government inflationary engine it enables is explained in detail.

In the 1985 expanded edition, Rothbard adds a final twenty page chapter chronicling “The Monetary Breakdown of the West”, a tragedy in nine acts beginning with the classical gold standard of 1815–1914 and ending with the total severing of world currencies from any anchor to gold in March, 1973, ushering in the monetary chaos of endlessly fluctuating exchange rates, predatory currency manipulation, and a towering (and tottering) pyramid of completely unproductive financial speculation. He then explores the monetary utopia envisioned by the economic slavers: a world paper currency managed by a World Central Bank. There would no longer be any constraint upon the ability of those in power to pick the pockets of their subjects by depreciating the unit of account of the only financial assets they were permitted to own. Of course, this would lead to a slow-motion catastrophe, destroying enterprise, innovation, and investment, pauperising the population, and leading inevitably to civil unrest and demagogic political movements. Rothbard saw all of this coming, and those of us who understood his message knew exactly what was going to happen when they rolled out the Euro and a European Central Bank in 1991, which is just a regional version of the same Big Con.

This book remains, if I dare say, the gold standard when it comes to a short, lucid, and timeless explanation of monetary theory, history, the folly of governments, and its sad consequences. Is there any hope of restoring sanity in this age of universal funny money? Perhaps—the same technology which permits the establishment of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin radically reduces the transaction costs of using any number of competing currencies in a free market. While Gresham's Law holds that in a coercive un-free market bad money will drive out good, in a totally free market, where participants are able to use any store of value, unit of account, and medium of exchange they wish (free of government coercion through legal tender laws or taxation of currency exchanges), the best money will drive out its inferior competitors, and the quality of a given money will be evaluated based upon the transparency of its issuer and its performance for those who use it.

This book may be purchased from Amazon in either a print or Kindle edition, and is also available for free from the publisher, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in HTML, PDF, and EPUB formats or as an audio book. The PDF edition is available in the English, Spanish, Danish, and Hungarian languages. The book is published under the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 and may be redistributed pursuant to the terms of that license.

Posted at 22:44 Permalink

Monday, July 15, 2019

Reading List: The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. New York: Mariner Books, [1962] 2011. ISBN 978-0-547-57248-2.
The year is 1962. Following the victory of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, North America is divided into spheres of influence by the victors, with the west coast Pacific States of America controlled by Japan, the territory east of the Mississippi split north and south between what is still called the United States of America and the South, where slavery has been re-instituted, both puppet states of Germany. In between are the Rocky Mountain states, a buffer zone between the Japanese and German sectors with somewhat more freedom from domination by them.

The point of departure where this alternative history diverges from our timeline is in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt is assassinated in Miami, Florida. (In our history, Roosevelt was uninjured in an assassination attempt in Miami in 1933 that killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.) Roosevelt's vice president, John Nance Garner, succeeds to the presidency and is re-elected in 1936. In 1940, the Republican party retakes the White House, with John W. Bricker elected president. Garner and Bricker pursue a policy of strict neutrality and isolation, which allows Germany, Japan, and Italy to divide up the most of the world and coerce other nations into becoming satellites or client states. Then, Japan and Germany mount simultaneous invasions of the east and west coasts of the U.S., resulting in a surrender in 1947 and the present division of the continent.

By 1962, the victors are secure in their domination of the territories they have subdued. Germany has raced ahead economically and in technology, draining the Mediterranean to create new farmland, landing on the Moon and Mars, and establishing high-speed suborbital rocket transportation service throughout their far-flung territories. There is no serious resistance to the occupation in the former United States: its residents seem to be more or less resigned to second-class status under their German or Japanese overlords.

In the Pacific States the Japanese occupiers have settled in to a comfortable superiority over the vanquished, and many have become collectors of artefacts of the vanished authentic America. Robert Childan runs a shop in San Francisco catering to this clientèle, and is contacted by an official of the Japanese Trade Mission, seeking a gift to impress a visiting Swedish industrialist. This leads into a maze of complexity and nothing being as it seems as only Philip K. Dick (PKD) can craft. Is the Swede really a Swede or a German, and is he a Nazi agent or something else? Who is the mysterious Japanese visitor he has come to San Francisco to meet? Is Childan a supplier of rare artefacts or a swindler exploiting gullible Japanese rubes with fakes?

Many characters in the book are reading a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, banned in areas under German occupation but available in the Pacific States and other territories, which is an alternative history tale written by an elusive author named Hawthorne Abendsen, about a world in which the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in World War II and ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Abendsen is said to have retreated to a survivalist compound called the High Castle in the Rocky Mountain states. Characters we meet become obsessed with tracking down and meeting Abendsen. Who are they, and what are their motives? Keep reminding yourself, this is a PKD novel! We're already dealing with a fictional mysterious author of an alternative history of World War II within an alternative history novel of World War II by an author who is himself a grand illusionist.

It seems like everybody in the Pacific States, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, is obsessed with the I Ching. They are constantly consulting “the oracle” and basing their decisions upon it. Not just the westerners but even the Japanese are a little embarrassed by this, as the latter are aware that is it an invention of the Chinese, who they view as inferior, yet they rely upon it none the less. Again, the PKD shimmering reality distortion field comes into play as the author says that he consulted the I Ching to make decisions while plotting the novel, as does Hawthorne Abendsen in writing the novel within the novel.

This is quintessential PKD: the story is not so much about what happens (indeed, there is little resolution of any of the obvious conflicts in the circumstances of the plot) but rather instilling in the reader a sense that nothing is what it appears to be and, at the meta (or meta meta) level, that our history and destiny are ruled as much by chance (exemplified here by the I Ching) as by our intentions, will, and actions. At the end of the story, little or nothing has been resolved, and we are left only with questions and uncertainty. (PKD said that he intended a sequel, but despite efforts in that direction, never completed one.)

I understand that some kind of television adaptation loosely based upon the novel has been produced by one of those streaming services which are only available to people who live in continental-scale, railroad-era, legacy empires. I have not seen it, and have no interest in doing so. PKD is notoriously difficult to adapt to visual media, and today's Hollywood is, shall we say, not strong on nuance and ambiguity, which is what his fiction is all about.

Nuance and ambiguity…. Here's the funny thing. When I finished this novel, I was unimpressed and disappointed. I expected it to be great: I have enjoyed the fiction of PKD since I started to read his stories in the 1960s, and this novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, then the highest honour in science fiction. But the story struck me as only an exploration of a tiny corner of this rich alternative history. Little of what happens affects events in the large and, if it did, only long after the story ends. It was only while writing this that I appreciated that this may have been precisely what PKD was trying to achieve: that this is all about the contingency of history—that random chance matters much more than what we, or “great figures” do, and that the best we can hope for is to try to do what we believe is right when presented with the circumstances and events that confront us as we live our lives. I have no idea if you'll like this. I thought I would, and then I didn't, and now I, in retrospect, I do. Welcome to the fiction of Philip K. Dick.

Posted at 12:16 Permalink

Friday, July 12, 2019

Reading List: Backlash

Thor, Brad. Backlash. New York: Atria Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-9821-0403-0.
This is the nineteenth novel in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). This is a very different kind of story from the last several Harvath outings, which involved high-stakes international brinkmanship, uncertain loyalties, and threats of mass terror attacks. This time it's up close and personal. Harvath, paying what may be his last visit to Reed Carlton, his dying ex-CIA mentor and employer, is the object of a violent kidnapping attack which kills those to whom he is closest and spirits him off, drugged and severely beaten, to Russia, where he is to be subjected to the hospitality of the rulers whose nemesis he has been for many years (and books) until he spills the deepest secrets of the U.S. intelligence community.

After being spirited out of the U.S., the Russian cargo plane transporting him to the rendition resort where he is to be “de-briefed” crashes, leaving him…somewhere. About all he knows is that it's cold, that nobody knows where he is or that he is alive, and that he has no way to contact anybody, anywhere who might help.

This is a spare, stark tale of survival. Starting only with what he can salvage from the wreck of the plane and the bodies of its crew (some of whom he had to assist in becoming casualties), he must overcome the elements, predators (quadripedal and bipedal), terrain, and uncertainty about his whereabouts and the knowledge and intentions of his adversaries, to survive and escape.

Based upon what has been done to him, it is also a tale of revenge. To Harvath, revenge was not a low state: it was a necessity,

In his world, you didn't let wrongs go unanswered—not wrongs like this, and especially when you had the ability to do something. Vengeance was a necessary function of a civilized world, particularly at its margins, in its most remote and wild regions. Evildoers, unwilling to submit to the rule of law, needed to lie awake in their beds at night worried about when justice would eventually come for them. If laws and standards were not worth enforcing, then they certainly couldn't be worth following.

Harvath forms tenuous alliances with those he encounters, and then must confront an all-out assault by élite mercenaries who, apparently unsatisfied with the fear induced by fanatic Russian operatives, model themselves on the Nazi SS.

Then, after survival, it's time for revenge. Harvath has done his biochemistry homework and learned well the off-label applications of suxamethonium chloride. Sux to be you, Boris.

This is a tightly-crafted thriller which is, in my opinion, one of best of Brad Thor's novels. There is no political message or agenda nor any of the Washington intrigue which has occupied recent books. Here it is a pure struggle between a resourceful individual, on his own against amoral forces of pure evil, in an environment as deadly as his human adversaries.

Posted at 11:21 Permalink

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Reading List: Schild's Ladder

Egan, Greg. Schild's Ladder. New York: Night Shade Books, [2002, 2004, 2013] 2015. ISBN 978-1-59780-544-5.
Greg Egan is one of the most eminent contemporary authors in the genre of “hard” science fiction. By “hard”, one means not that it is necessarily difficult to read, but that the author has taken care to either follow the laws of known science or, if the story involves alternative laws (for example, a faster than light drive, anti-gravity, or time travel) to define those laws and then remain completely consistent with them. This needn't involve tedious lectures—masters of science fiction, like Greg Egan, “show, don't tell”—but the reader should be able to figure out the rules and the characters be constrained by them as the story unfolds. Egan is also a skilled practitioner of “world building” which takes hard science fiction to the next level by constructing entire worlds or universes in which an alternative set of conditions are worked out in a logical and consistent way.

Whenever a new large particle collider is proposed, fear-mongers prattle on about the risk of its unleashing some new physical phenomenon which might destroy the Earth or, for those who think big, the universe by, for example, causing it to collapse into a black hole or causing the quantum vacuum to tunnel to a lower energy state where the laws of physics are incompatible with the existence of condensed matter and life. This is, of course, completely absurd. We have observed cosmic rays, for example the Oh-My-God particle detected by an instrument in Utah in 1991, with energies more than twenty million times greater than those produced by the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator in existence today. These natural cosmic rays strike the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and everything else in the universe all the time and have been doing so for billions of years and, if you look around, you'll see that the universe is still here. If a high energy particle was going to destroy it, it would have been gone long ago.

No, if somebody's going to destroy the universe, I'd worry about some quiet lab in the physics building where somebody is exploring very low temperatures, trying to beat the record which stands at, depending upon how you define it, between 0.006 degrees Kelvin (for a large block of metal) and 100 picokelvin (for nuclear spins). These temperatures, and the physical conditions they may create, are deeply unnatural and, unless there are similar laboratories and apparatus created by alien scientists on other worlds, colder than have ever existed anywhere in our universe ever since the Big Bang.

The cosmic microwave background radiation pervades the universe, and has an energy at the present epoch which corresponds to a temperature of about 2.73 degrees Kelvin. Every natural object in the universe is bathed in this radiation so, even in the absence of other energy sources such as starlight, anything colder than that will heated by the background radiation until it reaches that temperature and comes into equilibrium. (There are a few natural processes in the universe which can temporarily create lower temperatures, but nothing below 1° K has ever been observed.) The temperature of the universe has been falling ever since the Big Bang, so no lower temperature has ever existed in the past. The only way to create a lower temperature is to expend energy in what amounts to a super-refrigerator that heats up something else in return for artificially cooling its contents. In doing so, it creates a region like none other in the known natural universe.

Whenever you explore some physical circumstance which is completely new, you never know what you're going to find, and researchers have been surprised many times in the past. Prior to 1911, nobody imagined that it was possible for an electrical current to flow with no resistance at all, and yet in early experiments with liquid helium, the phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered. In 1937, it was discovered that liquid helium could flow with zero viscosity: superfluidity. What might be discovered at temperatures a tiny fraction of those where these phenomena became manifest? Answering that question is why researchers strive to approach ever closer to the (unattainable) absolute zero. Might one of those phenomena destroy the universe? Could be: you'll never know until you try.

This is the premise of this book, which is hard science fiction but also difficult. For twenty thousand years the field of fundamental physics has found nothing new beyond the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity called “Sarumpaet's rules” or Quantum Graph Theory (QGT). The theory explained the fabric of space and time and all of the particles and forces within it as coarse-grained manifestations of transformations of a graph at the Planck scale. Researchers at Mimosa Station, 370 light years from Earth, have built an experimental apparatus, the Quietener, to explore conditions which have never existed before in the universe and test Sarumpaet's Rules at the limits. Perhaps the currently-observed laws of physics were simply a random choice made by the universe an unimaginably short time after the Big Bang and frozen into place by decoherence due to interactions with the environment, analogous to the quantum Zeno effect. The Quietener attempts to null out every possible external influence, even gravitational waves by carefully positioned local cancelling sources, in the hope of reproducing the conditions in which the early universe made its random choice and to create, for a fleeting instant, just trillionths of a second, a region of space with entirely different laws of physics. Sarumpaet's Rules guaranteed that this so-called novo-vacuum would quickly collapse, as it would have a higher energy and decay into the vacuum we inhabit.

Oops.

Six hundred and five years after the unfortunate event at Mimosa, the Mimosa novo-vacuum, not just stable but expanding at half the speed of light, has swallowed more than two thousand inhabited star systems, and is inexorably expanding through the galaxy, transforming everything in its path to—nobody knows. The boundary emits only an unstructured “borderlight” which provides no clue as to what lies within. Because the interstellar society has long ago developed the ability to create backups of individuals, run them as computer emulations, transmit them at light speed from star to star, and re-instantiate them in new bodies for fuddy-duddies demanding corporeal existence, loss of life has been minimal, but one understands how an inexorably growing sphere devouring everything in its path might be disturbing. The Rindler is a research ship racing just ahead of the advancing novo-vacuum front, providing close-up access to it for investigators trying to figure out what it conceals.

Humans (who, with their divergently-evolved descendants, biological and digitally emulated, are the only intelligent species discovered so far in the galaxy) have divided, as they remain wont to do, into two factions: Preservationists, who view the novo-vacuum as an existential threat to the universe and seek ways to stop its expansion and, ideally, recover the space it has occupied; and Yielders, who believe the novo-vacuum to be a phenomenon so unique and potentially important that destroying it before understanding its nature and what is on the other side of the horizon would be unthinkable. Also, being (post-)human, the factions are willing to resort to violence to have their way.

This leads to an adventure spanning time and space, and eventually a mission into a region where the universe is making it up as it goes along. This is one of the most breathtakingly ambitious attempts at world (indeed, universe) building ever attempted in science fiction. But for this reader, it didn't work. First of all, when all of the principal characters have backups stored in safe locations and can reset, like a character in a video game with an infinite number of lives cheat, whenever anything bad happens, it's difficult to create dramatic tension. Humans have transcended biological substrates, yet those still choosing them remain fascinated with curious things about bumping their adaptive uglies. When we finally go and explore the unknown, it's mediated through several levels of sensors, translation, interpretation, and abstraction, so what is described comes across as something like a hundred pages of the acid trip scene at the end of 2001.

In the distance, glistening partitions, reminiscent of the algal membranes that formed the cages in some aquatic zoos, swayed back and forth gently, as if in time to mysterious currents. Behind each barrier the sea changed color abruptly, the green giving way to other bright hues, like a fastidiously segregated display of bioluminescent plankton.

Oh, wow.

And then, it stops. I don't mean ends, as that would imply that everything that's been thrown up in the air is somehow resolved. There is an attempt to close the circle with the start of the story, but a whole universe of questions are left unanswered. The human perspective is inadequate to describe a place where Planck length objects interact in Planck time intervals and the laws of physics are made up on the fly. Ultimately, the story failed for me since it never engaged me with the characters—I didn't care what happened to them. I'm a fan of hard science fiction, but this was just too adamantine to be interesting.

The title, Schild's Ladder, is taken from a method in differential geometry which is used to approximate the parallel transport of a vector along a curve.

Posted at 13:54 Permalink

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Reading List Management Software Updated

The Fourmilab reading list document tree is generated automatically from source documents kept as flat text files in a format similar to that of a Movable Type blog export file. These files are read by a Perl program called rlmake.pl which generates HTML files for the Web tree and compiles the various indices through which the list may be accessed (most recent, by year, month, topic, author, and title). The reading list management software is available for downloading and may be used in any manner you wish, but is utterly unsupported—you're entirely on your own. The Perl code will probably run with no problems on any system with a recent version of Perl (no external modules are required), but you will have to customise it to adapt to the document structure of your Web site and include your own personal data.

I have just posted an updated version of this software which adds two minor navigation features. When a reading list grows to substantial size (my list, begun in January 2001, now numbers 1173 books), scrolling through the lengthy author (975 authors) and title indices to find what you're looking for can be tedious. The update adds a JavaScript-implemented “hot key” navigation feature when displaying these indices. Simply move the mouse to the index window (it's in the side bar for authors and the main browser window for titles), click if necessary to set focus, and then type the first letter of the author or title you seek. The list will be scrolled so that entries which begin with that letter appear at the top of the window. You can then scroll down through the entries that start with the letter you typed. This probably won't work on a touch-screen mobile device unless you can figure out how to display the on-screen keyboard.

I've also cleaned up the Perl program a bit, but it's still plenty ugly.

Posted at 12:36 Permalink