Sunday, December 2, 2018

Reading List: Apollo 8

Kluger, Jeffrey. Apollo 8. New York: Picador, 2017. ISBN 978-1-250-18251-7.
As the tumultuous year 1968 drew to a close, NASA faced a serious problem with the Apollo project. The Apollo missions had been carefully planned to test the Saturn V booster rocket and spacecraft (Command/Service Module [CSM] and Lunar Module [LM]) in a series of increasingly ambitious missions, first in low Earth orbit (where an immediate return to Earth was possible in case of problems), then in an elliptical Earth orbit which would exercise the on-board guidance and navigation systems, followed by lunar orbit, and finally proceeding to the first manned lunar landing. The Saturn V had been tested in two unmanned “A” missions: Apollo 4 in November 1967 and Apollo 6 in April 1968. Apollo 5 was a “B” mission, launched on a smaller Saturn 1B booster in January 1968, to test an unmanned early model of the Lunar Module in low Earth orbit, primarily to verify the operation of its engines and separation of the descent and ascent stages. Apollo 7, launched in October 1968 on a Saturn 1B, was the first manned flight of the Command and Service modules and tested them in low Earth orbit for almost 11 days in a “C” mission.

Apollo 8 was planned to be the “D” mission, in which the Saturn V, in its first manned flight, would launch the Command/Service and Lunar modules into low Earth orbit, where the crew, commanded by Gemini veteran James McDivitt, would simulate the maneuvers of a lunar landing mission closer to home. McDivitt's crew was trained and ready to go in December 1968. Unfortunately, the lunar module wasn't. The lunar module scheduled for Apollo 8, LM-3, had been delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in June of 1968, but was, to put things mildly, a mess. Testing at the Cape discovered more than a hundred serious defects, and by August it was clear that there was no way LM-3 would be ready for a flight in 1968. In fact, it would probably slip to February or March 1969. This, in turn, would push the planned “E” mission, for which the crew of commander Frank Borman, command module pilot James Lovell, and lunar module pilot William Anders were training, aimed at testing the Command/Service and Lunar modules in an elliptical Earth orbit venturing as far as 7400 km from the planet and originally planned for March 1969, three months later, to June, delaying all subsequent planned missions and placing the goal of landing before the end of 1969 at risk.

But NASA were not just racing the clock—they were also racing the Soviet Union. Unlike Apollo, the Soviet space program was highly secretive and NASA had to go on whatever scraps of information they could glean from Soviet publications, the intelligence community, and independent tracking of Soviet launches and spacecraft in flight. There were, in fact, two Soviet manned lunar programmes running in parallel. The first, internally called the Soyuz 7K-L1 but dubbed “Zond” for public consumption, used a modified version of the Soyuz spacecraft launched on a Proton booster and was intended to carry two cosmonauts on a fly-by mission around the Moon. The craft would fly out to the Moon, use its gravity to swing around the far side, and return to Earth. The Zond lacked the propulsion capability to enter lunar orbit. Still, success would allow the Soviets to claim the milestone of first manned mission to the Moon. In September 1968 Zond 5 successfully followed this mission profile and safely returned a crew cabin containing tortoises, mealworms, flies, and plants to Earth after their loop around the Moon. A U.S. Navy destroyer observed recovery of the re-entry capsule in the Indian Ocean. Clearly, this was preparation for a manned mission which might occur on any lunar launch window.

(The Soviet manned lunar landing project was actually far behind Apollo, and would not launch its N1 booster on that first, disastrous, test flight until February 1969. But NASA did not know this in 1968.) Every slip in the Apollo program increased the probability of its being scooped so close to the finish line by a successful Zond flyby mission.

These were the circumstances in August 1968 when what amounted to a cabal of senior NASA managers including George Low, Chris Kraft, Bob Gilruth, and later joined by Wernher von Braun and chief astronaut Deke Slayton, began working on an alternative. They plotted in secret, beneath the radar and unbeknownst to NASA administrator Jim Webb and his deputy for manned space flight, George Mueller, who were both out of the country, attending an international conference in Vienna. What they were proposing was breathtaking in its ambition and risk. They envisioned taking Frank Borman's crew, originally scheduled for Apollo 9, and putting them into an accelerated training program to launch on the Saturn V and Apollo spacecraft currently scheduled for Apollo 8. They would launch without a Lunar Module, and hence be unable to land on the Moon or test that spacecraft. The original idea was to perform a Zond-like flyby, but this was quickly revised to include going into orbit around the Moon, just as a landing mission would do. This would allow retiring the risk of many aspects of the full landing mission much earlier in the program than originally scheduled, and would also allow collection of precision data on the lunar gravitational field and high resolution photography of candidate landing sites to aid in planning subsequent missions. The lunar orbital mission would accomplish all the goals of the originally planned “E” mission and more, allowing that mission to be cancelled and therefore not requiring an additional booster and spacecraft.

But could it be done? There were a multitude of requirements, all daunting. Borman's crew, training toward a launch in early 1969 on an Earth orbit mission, would have to complete training for the first lunar mission in just sixteen weeks. The Saturn V booster, which suffered multiple near-catastrophic engine failures in its second flight on Apollo 6, would have to be cleared for its first manned flight. Software for the on-board guidance computer and for Mission Control would have to be written, tested, debugged, and certified for a lunar mission many months earlier than previously scheduled. A flight plan for the lunar orbital mission would have to be written from scratch and then tested and trained in simulations with Mission Control and the astronauts in the loop. The decision to fly Borman's crew instead of McDivitt's was to avoid wasting the extensive training the latter crew had undergone in LM systems and operations by assigning them to a mission without an LM. McDivitt concurred with this choice: while it might be nice to be among the first humans to see the far side of the Moon with his own eyes, for a test pilot the highest responsibility and honour is to command the first flight of a new vehicle (the LM), and he would rather skip the Moon mission and fly later than lose that opportunity. If the plan were approved, Apollo 8 would become the lunar orbit mission and the Earth orbit test of the LM would be re-designated Apollo 9 and fly whenever the LM was ready.

While a successful lunar orbital mission on Apollo 8 would demonstrate many aspects of a full lunar landing mission, it would also involve formidable risks. The Saturn V, making only its third flight, was coming off a very bad outing in Apollo 6 whose failures might have injured the crew, damaged the spacecraft hardware, and precluded a successful mission to the Moon. While fixes for each of these problems had been implemented, they had never been tested in flight, and there was always the possibility of new problems not previously seen.

The Apollo Command and Service modules, which would take them to the Moon, had not yet flown a manned mission and would not until Apollo 7, scheduled for October 1968. Even if Apollo 7 were a complete success (which was considered a prerequisite for proceeding), Apollo 8 would be only the second manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft, and the crew would have to rely upon the functioning of its power generation, propulsion, and life support systems for a mission lasting six days. Unlike an Earth orbit mission, if something goes wrong en route to or returning from the Moon, you can't just come home immediately. The Service Propulsion System on the Service Module would have to work perfectly when leaving lunar orbit or the crew would be marooned forever or crash on the Moon. It would only have been tested previously in one manned mission and there was no backup (although the single engine did incorporate substantial redundancy in its design).

The spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control system and its Apollo Guidance Computer hardware and software, upon which the crew would have to rely to navigate to and from the Moon, including the critical engine burns to enter and leave lunar orbit while behind the Moon and out of touch with Mission Control, had never been tested beyond Earth orbit.

The mission would go to the Moon without a Lunar Module. If a problem developed en route to the Moon which disabled the Service Module (as would happen to Apollo 13 in April 1970), there would be no LM to serve as a lifeboat and the crew would be doomed.

When the high-ranking conspirators presented their audacious plan to their bosses, the reaction was immediate. Manned spaceflight chief Mueller immediately said, “Can't do that! That's craziness!” His boss, administrator James Webb, said “You try to change the entire direction of the program while I'm out of the country?” Mutiny is a strong word, but this seemed to verge upon it. Still, Webb and Mueller agreed to meet with the lunar cabal in Houston on August 22. After a contentious meeting, Webb agreed to proceed with the plan and to present it to President Johnson, who was almost certain to approve it, having great confidence in Webb's management of NASA. The mission was on.

It was only then that Borman and his crewmembers Lovell and Anders learned of their reassignment. While Anders was disappointed at the prospect of being the Lunar Module Pilot on a mission with no Lunar Module, the prospect of being on the first flight to the Moon and entrusted with observation and photography of lunar landing sites more than made up for it. They plunged into an accelerated training program to get ready for the mission.

NASA approached the mission with its usual “can-do” approach and public confidence, but everybody involved was acutely aware of the risks that were being taken. Susan Borman, Frank's wife, privately asked Chris Kraft, director of Flight Operations and part of the group who advocated sending Apollo 8 to the Moon, with a reputation as a plain-talking straight shooter, “I really want to know what you think their chances are of coming home.” Kraft responded, “You really mean that, don't you?” “Yes,” she replied, “and you know I do.” Kraft answered, “Okay. How's fifty-fifty?” Those within the circle, including the crew, knew what they were biting off.

The launch was scheduled for December 21, 1968. Everybody would be working through Christmas, including the twelve ships and thousands of sailors in the recovery fleet, but lunar launch windows are set by the constraints of celestial mechanics, not human holidays. In November, the Soviets had flown Zond 6, and it had demonstrated the “double dip” re-entry trajectory required for human lunar missions. There were two system failures which killed the animal test subjects on board, but these were covered up and the mission heralded as a great success. From what NASA knew, it was entirely possible the next launch would be with cosmonauts bound for the Moon.

Space launches were exceptional public events in the 1960s, and the first flight of men to the Moon, just about a hundred years after Jules Verne envisioned three men setting out for the Moon from central Florida in a “cylindro-conical projectile” in De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon), similarly engaging the world, the launch of Apollo 8 attracted around a quarter of a million people to watch the spectacle in person and hundreds of millions watching on television both in North America and around the globe, thanks to the newfangled technology of communication satellites. Let's tune in to CBS television and relive this singular event with Walter Cronkite.

CBS coverage of the Apollo 8 launch

Now we step inside Mission Control and listen in on the Flight Director's audio loop during the launch, illustrated with imagery and simulations.

The Saturn V performed almost flawlessly. During the second stage burn mild pogo oscillations began but, rather than progressing to the point where they almost tore the rocket apart as had happened on the previous Saturn V launch, von Braun's team's fixes kicked in and seconds later Borman reported, “Pogo's damping out.” A few minutes later Apollo 8 was in Earth orbit.

Jim Lovell had sixteen days of spaceflight experience across two Gemini missions, one of them Gemini 7 where he endured almost two weeks in orbit with Frank Borman. Bill Anders was a rookie, on his first space flight. Now weightless, all three were experiencing a spacecraft nothing like the cramped Mercury and Gemini capsules which you put on as much as boarded. The Apollo command module had an interior volume of six cubic metres (218 cubic feet, in the quaint way NASA reckons things) which may not seem like much for a crew of three, but in weightlessness, with every bit of space accessible and usable, felt quite roomy. There were five real windows, not the tiny portholes of Gemini, and plenty of space to move from one to another.

With all this roominess and mobility came potential hazards, some verging on slapstick, but, in space, serious nonetheless. NASA safety personnel had required the astronauts to wear life vests over their space suits during the launch just in case the Saturn V malfunctioned and they ended up in the ocean. While moving around the cabin to get to the navigation station after reaching orbit, Lovell, who like the others hadn't yet removed his life vest, snagged its activation tab on a strut within the cabin and it instantly inflated. Lovell looked ridiculous and the situation comical, but it was no laughing matter. The life vests were inflated with carbon dioxide which, if released in the cabin, would pollute their breathing air and removal would use up part of a CO₂ scrubber cartridge, of which they had a limited supply on board. Lovell finally figured out what to do. After being helped out of the vest, he took it down to the urine dump station in the lower equipment bay and vented it into a reservoir which could be dumped out into space. One problem solved, but in space you never know what the next surprise might be.

The astronauts wouldn't have much time to admire the Earth through those big windows. Over Australia, just short of three hours after launch, they would re-light the engine on the third stage of the Saturn V for the “trans-lunar injection” (TLI) burn of 318 seconds, which would accelerate the spacecraft to just slightly less than escape velocity, raising its apogee so it would be captured by the Moon's gravity. After housekeeping (presumably including the rest of the crew taking off those pesky life jackets, since there weren't any wet oceans where they were going) and reconfiguring the spacecraft and its computer for the maneuver, they got the call from Houston, “You are go for TLI.” They were bound for the Moon.

The third stage, which had failed to re-light on its last outing, worked as advertised this time, with a flawless burn. Its job was done; from here on the astronauts and spacecraft were on their own. The booster had placed them on a free-return trajectory. If they did nothing (apart from minor “trajectory correction maneuvers” easily accomplished by the spacecraft's thrusters) they would fly out to the Moon, swing around its far side, and use its gravity to slingshot back to the Earth (as Lovell would do two years later when he commanded Apollo 13, although there the crew had to use the engine of the LM to get back onto a free-return trajectory after the accident).

Apollo 8 rapidly climbed out of the Earth's gravity well, trading speed for altitude, and before long the astronauts beheld a spectacle no human eyes had glimpsed before: an entire hemisphere of Earth at once, floating in the inky black void. On board, there were other concerns: Frank Borman was puking his guts out and having difficulties with the other end of the tubing as well. Borman had logged more than six thousand flight hours in his career as a fighter and test pilot, most of it in high-performance jet aircraft, and fourteen days in space on Gemini 7 without any motion sickness. Many people feel queasy when they experience weightlessness the first time, but this was something entirely different and new in the American space program. And it was very worrisome. The astronauts discussed the problem on private tapes they could downlink to Mission Control without broadcasting to the public, and when NASA got around to playing the tapes, the chief flight surgeon, Dr. Charles Berry, became alarmed.

As he saw it, there were three possibilities: motion sickness, a virus of some kind, or radiation sickness. On its way to the Moon, Apollo 8 passed directly through the Van Allen radiation belts, spending two hours in this high radiation environment, the first humans to do so. The total radiation dose was estimated as roughly the same as one would receive from a chest X-ray, but the composition of the radiation was different and the exposure was over an extended time, so nobody could be sure it was safe. The fact that Lovell and Anders had experienced no symptoms argued against the radiation explanation. Berry concluded that a virus was the most probable cause and, based upon the mission rules said, “I'm recommending that we consider canceling the mission.” The risk of proceeding with the commander unable to keep food down and possibly carrying a virus which the other astronauts might contract was too great in his opinion. This recommendation was passed up to the crew. Borman, usually calm and collected even by astronaut standards, exclaimed, “What? That is pure, unadulterated horseshit.” The mission would proceed, and within a day his stomach had settled.

This was the first case of space adaptation syndrome to afflict an American astronaut. (Apparently some Soviet cosmonauts had been affected, but this was covered up to preserve their image as invincible exemplars of the New Soviet Man.) It is now known to affect around a third of people experiencing weightlessness in environments large enough to move around, and spontaneously clears up in two to four (miserable) days.

The two most dramatic and critical events in Apollo 8's voyage would occur on the far side of the Moon, with 3500 km of rock between the spacecraft and the Earth totally cutting off all communications. The crew would be on their own, aided by the computer and guidance system and calculations performed on the Earth and sent up before passing behind the Moon. The first would be lunar orbit insertion (LOI), scheduled for 69 hours and 8 minutes after launch. The big Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine (it was so big—twice as large as required for Apollo missions as flown—because it was designed to be able to launch the entire Apollo spacecraft from the Moon if a “direct ascent” mission mode had been selected) would burn for exactly four minutes and seven seconds to bend the spacecraft's trajectory around the Moon into a closed orbit around that world.

If the SPS failed to fire for the LOI burn, it would be a huge disappointment but survivable. Apollo 8 would simply continue on its free-return trajectory, swing around the Moon, and fall back to Earth where it would perform a normal re-entry and splashdown. But if the engine fired and cut off too soon, the spacecraft would be placed into an orbit which would not return them to Earth, marooning the crew in space to die when their supplies ran out. If it burned just a little too long, the spacecraft's trajectory would intersect the surface of the Moon—lithobraking is no way to land on the Moon.

When the SPS engine shut down precisely on time and the computer confirmed the velocity change of the burn and orbital parameters, the three astronauts were elated, but they were the only people in the solar system aware of the success. Apollo 8 was still behind the Moon, cut off from communications. The first clue Mission Control would have of the success or failure of the burn would be when Apollo 8's telemetry signal was reacquired as it swung around the limb of the Moon. If too early, it meant the burn had failed and the spacecraft was coming back to Earth; that moment passed with no signal. Now tension mounted as the clock ticked off the seconds to the time expected for a successful burn. If that time came and went with no word from Apollo 8, it would be a really bad day. Just on time, the telemetry signal locked up and Jim Lovell reported, “Go ahead, Houston, this is Apollo 8. Burn complete. Our orbit 160.9 by 60.5.” (Lovell was using NASA's preferred measure of nautical miles; in proper units it was 311 by 112 km. The orbit would subsequently be circularised by another SPS burn to 112.7 by 114.7 km.) The Mission Control room erupted into an un-NASA-like pandemonium of cheering.

Apollo 8 would orbit the Moon ten times, spending twenty hours in a retrograde orbit with an inclination of 12 degrees to the lunar equator, which would allow it to perform high-resolution photography of candidate sites for early landing missions under lighting conditions similar to those expected at the time of landing. In addition, precision tracking of the spacecraft's trajectory in lunar orbit would allow mapping of the Moon's gravitational field, including the “mascons” which perturb the orbits of objects in low lunar orbits and would be important for longer duration Apollo orbital missions in the future.

During the mission, the crew were treated to amazing sights and, in particular, the dramatic difference between the near side, with its many flat “seas”, and the rugged highlands of the far side. Coming around the Moon they saw the spectacle of earthrise for the first time and, hastily grabbing a magazine of colour film and setting aside the planned photography schedule, Bill Anders snapped the photo of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon which became one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century. Here is a reconstruction of the moment that photo was taken.

On the ninth and next-to-last orbit, the crew conducted a second television transmission which was broadcast worldwide. It was Christmas Eve on much of the Earth, and, coming at the end of the chaotic, turbulent, and often tragic year of 1968, it was a magical event, remembered fondly by almost everybody who witnessed it and felt pride for what the human species had just accomplished.

You have probably heard this broadcast from the Moon, often with the audio overlaid on imagery of the Moon from later missions, with much higher resolution than was actually seen in that broadcast. Here, in three parts, is what people, including this scrivener, actually saw on their televisions that enchanted night. The famous reading from Genesis is in the third part. This description is eerily similar to that in Jules Verne's 1870 Autour de la lune.

After the end of the broadcast, it was time to prepare for the next and absolutely crucial maneuver, also performed on the far side of the Moon: trans-Earth injection, or TEI. This would boost the spacecraft out of lunar orbit and send it back on a trajectory to Earth. This time the SPS engine had to work, and perfectly. If it failed to fire, the crew would be trapped in orbit around the Moon with no hope of rescue. If it cut off too soon or burned too long, or the spacecraft was pointed in the wrong direction when it fired, Apollo 8 would miss the Earth and orbit forever far from its home planet or come in too steep and burn up when it hit the atmosphere. Once again the tension rose to a high pitch in Mission Control as the clock counted down to the two fateful times: this time they'd hear from the spacecraft earlier if it was on its way home and later or not at all if things had gone tragically awry. Exactly when expected, the telemetry screens came to life and a second later Jim Lovell called, “Houston, Apollo 8. Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”

Now it was just a matter of falling the 375,000 kilometres from the Moon, hitting the precise re-entry corridor in the Earth's atmosphere, executing the intricate “double dip” re-entry trajectory, and splashing down near the aircraft carrier which would retrieve the Command Module and crew. Earlier unmanned tests gave confidence it would all work, but this was the first time men would be trying it.

There was some unexpected and embarrassing excitement on the way home. Mission Control had called up a new set of co-ordinates for the “barbecue roll” which the spacecraft executed to even out temperature. Lovell was asked to enter “verb 3723, noun 501” into the computer. But, weary and short on sleep, he fat-fingered the commands and entered “verb 37, noun 01”. This told the computer the spacecraft was back on the launch pad, pointing straight up, and it immediately slewed to what it thought was that orientation. Lovell quickly figured out what he'd done, “It was my goof”, but by this time he'd “lost the platform”: the stable reference the guidance system used to determine in which direction the spacecraft was pointing in space. He had to perform a manual alignment, taking sightings on a number of stars, to recover the correct orientation of the stable platform. This was completely unplanned but, as it happens, in doing so Lovell acquired experience that would prove valuable when he had to perform the same operation in much more dire circumstances on Apollo 13 after an explosion disabled the computer and guidance system in the Command Module. Here is the author of the book, Jeffrey Kluger, discussing Jim Lovell's goof.

The re-entry went completely as planned, flown entirely under computer control, with the spacecraft splashing into the Pacific Ocean just 6 km from the aircraft carrier Yorktown. But because the splashdown occurred before dawn, it was decided to wait until the sky brightened to recover the crew and spacecraft. Forty-three minutes after splashdown, divers from the Yorktown arrived at the scene, and forty-five minutes after that the crew was back on the ship. Apollo 8 was over, a total success. This milestone in the space race had been won definitively by the U.S., and shortly thereafter the Soviets abandoned their Zond circumlunar project, judging it an anticlimax and admission of defeat to fly by the Moon after the Americans had already successfully orbited it.

This is the official NASA contemporary documentary about Apollo 8.

Here is an evening with the Apollo 8 astronauts recorded at the National Air and Space Museum on 2008-11-13 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the flight.

This is a reunion of the Apollo 8 astronauts on 2009-04-23.

As of this writing, all of the crew of Apollo 8 are alive, and, in a business where divorce was common, remain married to the women they wed as young military officers.

Posted at 15:28 Permalink

Monday, November 12, 2018

Reading List: People's Republic

Schlichter, Kurt. People's Republic. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5390-1895-7.
As the third decade of the twenty-first century progressed, the Cold Civil War which had been escalating in the United States since before the turn of the century turned hot when a Democrat administration decided to impose their full agenda—gun confiscation, amnesty for all illegal aliens, restrictions on fossil fuels—all at once by executive order. The heartland defied the power grab and militias of the left and right began to clash openly. Although the senior officer corps were largely converged to the leftist agenda, the military rank and file which hailed largely from the heartland defied them, and could not be trusted to act against their fellow citizens. Much the same was the case with police in the big cities: they began to ignore the orders of their political bosses and migrate to jobs in more congenial jurisdictions.

With a low-level shooting war breaking out, the opposing sides decided that the only way to avert general conflict was, if not the “amicable divorce” advocated by Jesse Kelly, then a more bitter and contentious end to a union which was not working. The Treaty of Saint Louis split the country in two, with the east and west coasts and upper midwest calling itself the “People's Republic of North America” (PRNA) and the remaining territory (including portions of some states like Washington, Oregon, and Indiana with a strong regional divide) continuing to call itself the United States, but with some changes: the capital was now Dallas, and the constitution had been amended to require any person not resident on its territory at the time of the Split (including children born thereafter) who wished full citizenship and voting rights to serve two years in the military with no “alternative service” for the privileged or connected.

The PRNA quickly implemented the complete progressive agenda wherever its rainbow flag (frequently revised as different victim groups clawed their way to the top of the grievance pyramid) flew. As police forces collapsed with good cops quitting and moving out, they were replaced by a national police force initially called the “People's Internal Security Squads” (later the “People's Security Force” when the acronym for the original name was deemed infelicitous), staffed with thugs and diversity hires attracted by the shakedown potential of carrying weapons among a disarmed population.

Life in the PRNA was pretty good for the coastal élites in their walled communities, but as with collectivism whenever and wherever it is tried, for most of the population life was a grey existence of collapsing services, food shortages, ration cards, abuse by the powerful, and constant fear of being denounced for violating the latest intellectual fad or using an incorrect pronoun. And, inevitably, it wasn't long before the PRNA slammed the door shut to keep the remaining competent people from fleeing to where they were free to use their skills and keep what they'd earned. Mexico built a “big, beautiful wall” to keep hordes of PRNA subjects from fleeing to freedom and opportunity south of the border.

Several years after the Split, Kelly Turnbull, retired military and veteran of the border conflicts around the Split paid the upkeep of his 500 acre non-working ranch by spiriting people out of the PRNA to liberty in the middle of the continent. After completing a harrowing mission which almost ended in disaster, he is approached by a wealthy and politically-connected Dallas businessman who offers him enough money to retire if he'll rescue his daughter who, indoctrinated by the leftist infestation still remaining at the university in Austin, defected to the PRNA and is being used in propaganda campaigns there at the behest of the regional boss of the secret police. In addition, a spymaster tasks him with bringing out evidence which will allow rolling up the PRNAs informer and spy networks. Against his self-preservation instinct which counsels laying low until the dust settles from the last mission, he opts for the money and prospect of early retirement and undertakes the mission.

As Turnbull covertly enters the People's Republic, makes his way to Los Angeles, and seeks his target, there is a superbly-sketched view of an America in which the progressive agenda has come to fruition, and one which people there may well be living at the end of the next two Democrat-dominated administrations. It is often funny, as the author skewers the hypocrisy of the slavers mouthing platitudes they don't believe for a femtosecond. (If you think it improper to make fun of human misery, recall the mordant humour in the Soviet Union as workers mocked the reality of the “workers' paradise”.) There's plenty of tension and action, and sometimes following Turnbull on his mission seems like looking over the shoulder of a first-person-shooter. He's big on countdowns and tends to view “blues” obstructing him as NPCs to be dealt with quickly and permanently: “I don't much like blues. You kill them or they kill you.”

This is a satisfying thriller which is probably a more realistic view of the situation in a former United States than an amicable divorce with both sides going their separate ways. The blue model is doomed to collapse, as it already has begun to in the big cites and states where it is in power, and with that inevitable collapse will come chaos and desperation which spreads beyond its borders. With Democrat politicians such as Occasional-Cortex who, a few years ago, hid behind such soothing labels as “liberal” or “progressive” now openly calling themselves “democratic socialists”, this is not just a page-turning adventure but a cautionary tale of the future should they win (or steal) power.

A prequel, Indian Country, which chronicles insurgency on the border immediately after the Split as guerrilla bands of the sane rise to resist the slavers, is now available.

Posted at 23:54 Permalink

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Reading List: Blue Collar Space

Shoemaker, Martin L. Blue Collar Space. Seattle: CreateSpace [Old Town Press], 2018. ISBN 978-1-7170-5188-2.
This book is a collection of short stories, set in three different locales. The first part, “Old Town Tales”, are set on the Moon and revolve around yarns told at the best bar on Luna. The second part, “The Planet Next Door”, are stories set on Mars, while the third, “The Pournelle Settlements”, take place in mining settlements in the Jupiter system.

Most of the stories take place in established settlements; they are not tales of square-jawed pioneers opening up the frontier, but rather ordinary people doing the work that needs to be done in environments alien to humanity's home. On the Moon, we go on a mission with a rescue worker responding to a crash; hear a sanitation (“Eco Services”) technician regale a rookie with the story of “The Night We Flushed the Old Town”; accompany a father and daughter on a work day Outside that turns into a crisis; learn why breathing vacuum may not be the only thing that can go wrong on the Moon; and see how even for those in the most mundane of jobs, on the Moon wonders may await just over the nearby horizon.

At Mars, the greatest problem facing an ambitious international crewed landing mission may be…ambition, a doctor on a Mars-bound mission must deal with the technophobe boss's son while keeping him alive, and a schoolteacher taking her Mars survival class on a field trip finds that doing things by the book may pay off in discovering something which isn't in the book.

The Jupiter system is home to the Pournelle Settlements, a loosely affiliated group of settlers, many of whom came to escape the “government squeeze” and “corporate squeeze” that held the Inner System in their grip. And like the Wild West, it can be a bit wild. When sabotage disables the refinery that processes ore for the Settlements, its new boss must find a way to use the unique properties of the environment to keep his people fed and avoid the most hostile of takeovers. Where there are vast distances, long travel times, and cargoes with great value, there will be pirates, and the long journey from Jupiter to the Inner System is no exception. An investigator seeking evidence in a murder case must learn the ways of the Trust Economy in the Settlements and follow the trail far into the void.

These stories bring back the spirit of science fiction magazine stories in the decades before the dawn of the Big Government space age when we just assumed that before long space would be filled with people like ourselves living their lives and pursuing their careers where freedom was just a few steps away from any settlement and individual merit was rewarded. They are an excellent example of “hard” science fiction, not in being difficult but that the author makes a serious effort to get the facts right and make the plots plausible. (I am, however, dubious that the trick used in “Unrefined” would work.) All of the stories stand by themselves and can be read in any order. This is another example of how independent authors and publishing are making this a new golden age of science fiction.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 22:34 Permalink

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Reading List: The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside

Mahon, Basil. The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-63388-331-4.
At age eleven, in 1861, young Oliver Heaviside's family, supported by his father's irregular income as an engraver of woodblock illustrations for publications (an art beginning to be threatened by the advent of photography) and a day school for girls operated by his mother in the family's house, received a small legacy which allowed them to move to a better part of London and enroll Oliver in the prestigious Camden House School, where he ranked among the top of his class, taking thirteen subjects including Latin, English, mathematics, French, physics, and chemistry. His independent nature and iconoclastic views had already begun to manifest themselves: despite being an excellent student he dismissed the teaching of Euclid's geometry in mathematics and English rules of grammar as worthless. He believed that both mathematics and language were best learned, as he wrote decades later, “observationally, descriptively, and experimentally.” These principles would guide his career throughout his life.

At age fifteen he took the College of Perceptors examination, the equivalent of today's A Levels. He was the youngest of the 538 candidates to take the examination and scored fifth overall and first in the natural sciences. This would easily have qualified him for admission to university, but family finances ruled that out. He decided to study on his own at home for two years and then seek a job, perhaps in the burgeoning telegraph industry. He would receive no further formal education after the age of fifteen.

His mother's elder sister had married Charles Wheatstone, a successful and wealthy scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur whose inventions include the concertina, the stereoscope, and the Playfair encryption cipher, and who made major contributions to the development of telegraphy. Wheatstone took an interest in his bright nephew, and guided his self-studies after leaving school, encouraging him to master the Morse code and the German and Danish languages. Oliver's favourite destination was the library, which he later described as “a journey into strange lands to go a book-tasting”. He read the original works of Newton, Laplace, and other “stupendous names” and discovered that with sufficient diligence he could figure them out on his own.

At age eighteen, he took a job as an assistant to his older brother Arthur, well-established as a telegraph engineer in Newcastle. Shortly thereafter, probably on the recommendation of Wheatstone, he was hired by the just-formed Danish-Norwegian-English Telegraph Company as a telegraph operator at a salary of £150 per year (around £12000 in today's money). The company was about to inaugurate a cable under the North Sea between England and Denmark, and Oliver set off to Jutland to take up his new post. Long distance telegraphy via undersea cables was the technological frontier at the time—the first successful transatlantic cable had only gone into service two years earlier, and connecting the continents into a world-wide web of rapid information transfer was the booming high-technology industry of the age. While the job of telegraph operator might seem a routine clerical task, the élite who operated the undersea cables worked in an environment akin to an electrical research laboratory, trying to wring the best performance (words per minute) from the finicky and unreliable technology.

Heaviside prospered in the new job, and after a merger was promoted to chief operator at a salary of £175 per year and transferred back to England, at Newcastle. At the time, undersea cables were unreliable. It was not uncommon for the signal on a cable to fade and then die completely, most often due to a short circuit caused by failure of the gutta-percha insulation between the copper conductor and the iron sheath surrounding it. When a cable failed, there was no alternative but to send out a ship which would find the cable with a grappling hook, haul it up to the surface, cut it, and test whether the short was to the east or west of the ship's position (the cable would work in the good direction but fail in that containing the short. Then the cable would be re-spliced, dropped back to the bottom, and the ship would set off in the direction of the short to repeat the exercise over and over until, by a process similar to binary search, the location of the fault was narrowed down and that section of the cable replaced. This was time consuming and potentially hazardous given the North Sea's propensity for storms, and while the cable remained out of service it made no money for the telegraph company.

Heaviside, who continued his self-study and frequented the library when not at work, realised that knowing the resistance and length of the functioning cable, which could be easily measured, it would be possible to estimate the location of the short simply by measuring the resistance of the cable from each end after the short appeared. He was able to cancel out the resistance of the fault, creating a quadratic equation which could be solved for its location. The first time he applied this technique his bosses were sceptical, but when the ship was sent out to the location he predicted, 114 miles from the English coast, they quickly found the short circuit.

At the time, most workers in electricity had little use for mathematics: their trade journal, The Electrician (which would later publish much of Heaviside's work) wrote in 1861, “In electricity there is seldom any need of mathematical or other abstractions; and although the use of formulæ may in some instances be a convenience, they may for all practical purpose be dispensed with.” Heaviside demurred: while sharing disdain for abstraction for its own sake, he valued mathematics as a powerful tool to understand the behaviour of electricity and attack problems of great practical importance, such as the ability to send multiple messages at once on the same telegraphic line and increase the transmission speed on long undersea cable links (while a skilled telegraph operator could send traffic at thirty words per minute on intercity land lines, the transatlantic cable could run no faster than eight words per minute). He plunged into calculus and differential equations, adding them to his intellectual armamentarium.

He began his own investigations and experiments and began to publish his results, first in English Mechanic, and then, in 1873, the prestigious Philosophical Magazine, where his work drew the attention of two of the most eminent workers in electricity: William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell would go on to cite Heaviside's paper on the Wheatstone Bridge in the second edition of his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, the foundation of the classical theory of electromagnetism, considered by many the greatest work of science since Newton's Principia, and still in print today. Heady stuff, indeed, for a twenty-two year old telegraph operator who had never set foot inside an institution of higher education.

Heaviside regarded Maxwell's Treatise as the path to understanding the mysteries of electricity he encountered in his practical work and vowed to master it. It would take him nine years and change his life. He would become one of the first and foremost of the “Maxwellians”, a small group including Heaviside, George FitzGerald, Heinrich Hertz, and Oliver Lodge, who fully grasped Maxwell's abstract and highly mathematical theory (which, like many subsequent milestones in theoretical physics, predicted the results of experiments without providing a mechanism to explain them, such as earlier concepts like an “electric fluid” or William Thomson's intricate mechanical models of the “luminiferous ether”) and built upon its foundations to discover and explain phenomena unknown to Maxwell (who would die in 1879 at the age of just 48).

While pursuing his theoretical explorations and publishing papers, Heaviside tackled some of the main practical problems in telegraphy. Foremost among these was “duplex telegraphy”: sending messages in each direction simultaneously on a single telegraph wire. He invented a new technique and was even able to send two messages at the same time in both directions as fast as the operators could send them. This had the potential to boost the revenue from a single installed line by a factor of four. Oliver published his invention, and in doing so made an enemy of William Preece, a senior engineer at the Post Office telegraph department, who had invented and previously published his own duplex system (which would not work), that was not acknowledged in Heaviside's paper. This would start a feud between Heaviside and Preece which would last the rest of their lives and, on several occasions, thwart Heaviside's ambition to have his work accepted by mainstream researchers. When he applied to join the Society of Telegraph Engineers, he was rejected on the grounds that membership was not open to “clerks”. He saw the hand of Preece and his cronies at the Post Office behind this and eventually turned to William Thomson to back his membership, which was finally granted.

By 1874, telegraphy had become a big business and the work was increasingly routine. In 1870, the Post Office had taken over all domestic telegraph service in Britain and, as government is wont to do, largely stifled innovation and experimentation. Even at privately-owned international carriers like Oliver's employer, operators were no longer concerned with the technical aspects of the work but rather tending automated sending and receiving equipment. There was little interest in the kind of work Oliver wanted to do: exploring the new horizons opened up by Maxwell's work. He decided it was time to move on. So, he quit his job, moved back in with his parents in London, and opted for a life as an independent, unaffiliated researcher, supporting himself purely by payments for his publications.

With the duplex problem solved, the largest problem that remained for telegraphy was the slow transmission speed on long lines, especially submarine cables. The advent of the telephone in the 1870s would increase the need to address this problem. While telegraphic transmission on a long line slowed down the speed at which a message could be sent, with the telephone voice became increasingly distorted the longer the line, to the point where, after around 100 miles, it was incomprehensible. Until this was understood and a solution found, telephone service would be restricted to local areas.

Many of the early workers in electricity thought of it as something like a fluid, where current flowed through a wire like water through a pipe. This approximation is more or less correct when current flow is constant, as in a direct current generator powering electric lights, but when current is varying a much more complex set of phenomena become manifest which require Maxwell's theory to fully describe. Pioneers of telegraphy thought of their wires as sending direct current which was simply switched off and on by the sender's key, but of course the transmission as a whole was a varying current, jumping back and forth between zero and full current at each make or break of the key contacts. When these transitions are modelled in Maxwell's theory, one finds that, depending upon the physical properties of the transmission line (its resistance, inductance, capacitance, and leakage between the conductors) different frequencies propagate along the line at different speeds. The sharp on/off transitions in telegraphy can be thought of, by Fourier transform, as the sum of a wide band of frequencies, with the result that, when each propagates at a different speed, a short, sharp pulse sent by the key will, at the other end of the long line, be “smeared out” into an extended bump with a slow rise to a peak and then decay back to zero. Above a certain speed, adjacent dots and dashes will run into one another and the message will be undecipherable at the receiving end. This is why operators on the transatlantic cables had to send at the painfully slow speed of eight words per minute.

In telephony, it's much worse because human speech is composed of a broad band of frequencies, and the frequencies involved (typically up to around 3400 cycles per second) are much higher than the off/on speeds in telegraphy. The smearing out or dispersion as frequencies are transmitted at different speeds results in distortion which renders the voice signal incomprehensible beyond a certain distance.

In the mid-1850s, during development of the first transatlantic cable, William Thomson had developed a theory called the “KR law” which predicted the transmission speed along a cable based upon its resistance and capacitance. Thomson was aware that other effects existed, but without Maxwell's theory (which would not be published in its final form until 1873), he lacked the mathematical tools to analyse them. The KR theory, which produced results that predicted the behaviour of the transatlantic cable reasonably well, held out little hope for improvement: decreasing the resistance and capacitance of the cable would dramatically increase its cost per unit length.

Heaviside undertook to analyse what is now called the transmission line problem using the full Maxwell theory and, in 1878, published the general theory of propagation of alternating current through transmission lines, what are now called the telegrapher's equations. Because he took resistance, capacitance, inductance, and leakage all into account and thus modelled both the electric and magnetic field created around the wire by the changing current, he showed that by balancing these four properties it was possible to design a transmission line which would transmit all frequencies at the same speed. In other words, this balanced transmission line would behave for alternating current (including the range of frequencies in a voice signal) just like a simple wire did for direct current: the signal would be attenuated (reduced in amplitude) with distance but not distorted.

In an 1887 paper, he further showed that existing telegraph and telephone lines could be made nearly distortionless by adding loading coils to increase the inductance at points along the line (as long as the distance between adjacent coils is small compared to the wavelength of the highest frequency carried by the line). This got him into another battle with William Preece, whose incorrect theory attributed distortion to inductance and advocated minimising self-inductance in long lines. Preece moved to block publication of Heaviside's work, with the result that the paper on distortionless telephony, published in The Electrician, was largely ignored. It was not until 1897 that AT&T in the United States commissioned a study of Heaviside's work, leading to patents eventually worth millions. The credit, and financial reward, went to Professor Michael Pupin of Columbia University, who became another of Heaviside's life-long enemies.

You might wonder why what seems such a simple result (which can be written in modern notation as the equation L/R = C/G) which had such immediate technological utlilty eluded so many people for so long (recall that the problem with slow transmission on the transatlantic cable had been observed since the 1850s). The reason is the complexity of Maxwell's theory and the formidably difficult notation in which it was expressed. Oliver Heaviside spent nine years fully internalising the theory and its implications, and he was one of only a handful of people who had done so and, perhaps, the only one grounded in practical applications such as telegraphy and telephony. Concurrent with his work on transmission line theory, he invented the mathematical field of vector calculus and, in 1884, reformulated Maxwell's original theory which, written in modern notation less cumbersome than that employed by Maxwell, looks like:

Maxwell's equations: original form

into the four famous vector equations we today think of as Maxwell's.

Maxwell's equations: original form

These are not only simpler, condensing twenty equations to just four, but provide (once you learn the notation and meanings of the variables) an intuitive sense for what is going on. This made, for the first time, Maxwell's theory accessible to working physicists and engineers interested in getting the answer out rather than spending years studying an arcane theory. (Vector calculus was independently invented at the same time by the American J. Willard Gibbs. Heaviside and Gibbs both acknowledged the work of the other and there was no priority dispute. The notation we use today is that of Gibbs, but the mathematical content of the two formulations is essentially identical.)

And, during the same decade of the 1880s, Heaviside invented the operational calculus, a method of calculation which reduces the solution of complicated problems involving differential equations to simple algebra. Heaviside was able to solve so many problems which others couldn't because he was using powerful computational tools they had not yet adopted. The situation was similar to that of Isaac Newton who was effortlessly solving problems such as the brachistochrone using the calculus he'd invented while his contemporaries struggled with more cumbersome methods. Some of the things Heaviside did in the operational calculus, such as cancel derivative signs in equations and take the square root of a derivative sign made rigorous mathematicians shudder but, hey, it worked and that was good enough for Heaviside and the many engineers and applied mathematicians who adopted his methods. (In the 1920s, pure mathematicians used the theory of Laplace transforms to reformulate the operational calculus in a rigorous manner, but this was decades after Heaviside's work and long after engineers were routinely using it in their calculations.)

Heaviside's intuitive grasp of electromagnetism and powerful computational techniques placed him in the forefront of exploration of the field. He calculated the electric field of a moving charged particle and found it contracted in the direction of motion, foreshadowing the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction which would figure in Einstein's special relativity. In 1889 he computed the force on a point charge moving in an electromagnetic field, which is now called the Lorentz force after Hendrik Lorentz who independently discovered it six years later. He predicted that a charge moving faster than the speed of light in a medium (for example, glass or water) would emit a shock wave of electromagnetic radiation; in 1934 Pavel Cherenkov experimentally discovered the phenomenon, now called Cherenkov radiation, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1958. In 1902, Heaviside applied his theory of transmission lines to the Earth as a whole and explained the propagation of radio waves over intercontinental distances as due to a transmission line formed by conductive seawater and a hypothetical conductive layer in the upper atmosphere dubbed the Heaviside layer. In 1924 Edward V. Appleton confirmed the existence of such a layer, the ionosphere, and won the Nobel prize in 1947 for the discovery.

Oliver Heaviside never won a Nobel Price, although he was nominated for the physics prize in 1912. He shouldn't have felt too bad, though, as other nominees passed over for the prize that year included Hendrik Lorentz, Ernst Mach, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein. (The winner that year was Gustaf Dalén, “for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys”—oh well.) He did receive Britain's highest recognition for scientific achievement, being named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891. In 1921 he was the first recipient of the Faraday Medal from the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Having never held a job between 1874 and his death in 1925, Heaviside lived on his irregular income from writing, the generosity of his family, and, from 1896 onward a pension of £120 per year (less than his starting salary as a telegraph operator in 1868) from the Royal Society. He was a proud man and refused several other offers of money which he perceived as charity. He turned down an offer of compensation for his invention of loading coils from AT&T when they refused to acknowledge his sole responsibility for the invention. He never married, and in his elder years became somewhat of a recluse and, although he welcomed visits from other scientists, hardly ever left his home in Torquay in Devon.

His impact on the physics of electromagnetism and the craft of electrical engineering can be seen in the list of terms he coined which are in everyday use: “admittance”, “conductance”, “electret”, “impedance”, “inductance”, “permeability”, “permittance”, “reluctance”, and “susceptance”. His work has never been out of print, and sparkles with his intuition, mathematical prowess, and wicked wit directed at those he considered pompous or lost in needless abstraction and rigor. He never sought the limelight and among those upon whose work much of our present-day technology is founded, he is among the least known. But as long as electronic technology persists, it is a monument to the life and work of Oliver Heaviside.

Posted at 23:21 Permalink

Friday, November 2, 2018

ISBNiser 1.5 Update Released

I have just posted version 1.5 of ISBNiser, a utility for validating ISBN publication numbers in the ISBN-13 and ISBN-10 formats, converting between the formats, and generating Amazon associate links to purchase items with credit to a specified account.

Version 1.5 includes a feature added to support the new ISBNquest Web application. A new −d option selects “database” format output in which the result for every ISBN on the command line is a single-line comma-separated value record containing fields as follows. Fields which may contain non-alphanumeric characters are always enclosed in double quotes.

  1. Status: numeric status
    • 200   Normal, ISBN-13 and ISBN-10 returned
    • 201   Normal, ISBN-13 returned, 979- unmappable to ISBN-10
    • 300   Invalid registration group, unhyphenated ISBN-13 and ISBN-10 returned
    • 301   Invalid registration group, unhyphenated 979- ISBN-13 returned
    • 401   Incorrect length (not 10 or 13 characters)
    • 402   Illegal character
    • 403   “X” as other than last character of ISBN-10
    • 404   Checksum incorrect
    • 405   ISBN-13 prefix is not Bookland (978 or 979)
  2. ISBN-13, no delimiters
  3. ISBN-13, with delimiters (quoted)
  4. ISBN-10, no delimiters (“Unmappable” if 979- prefix)
  5. ISBN-10, with delimiters (“Unmappable” if 979- prefix) (quoted)
  6. Registration group name (quoted)
  7. Amazon associates URL (quoted)
  8. ISBN Registration group database date (quoted)

The ISBN Registration group range database was updated to the 2018-10-30 release by the International ISBN Agency, and contains revisions to the ISBN range tables for the French Language (978-2), Iran (978-622), Benin (978-99919), and Mongolia (978-99978) agencies.

An error in the handling of the −a command line option has been corrected.

The development log (log.txt) is now included in the distribution archive.

Posted at 13:51 Permalink

Thursday, November 1, 2018

New: ISBNquest

If you work with books, you'll frequently need to deal with International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs), those 13 digit (or 10 character for older publications) codes which uniquely identify the precise edition of a work. (For example, a hardcover, paperback, and each electronic format of the same book will have its own ISBN.) ISBNs are central to the publishing industry and booksellers, both on-line and brick and mortar.

As I read and review lots of books, I find myself frequently dealing with ISBNs, needing to interconvert the 13 and 10 digit forms, correct punctuation of the parts of ISBNs (some publishers are sloppy about this, while others have completely abandoned punctuation of ISBNs on the copyright page of their books), look up information about the work on Amazon.com, and compose a link so readers can buy the book with credit to Fourmilab's Amazon Associates account.

In 2008, I wrote a command-line utility in Perl, ISBNiser, which automates some of these tasks and, over the years, I have extended it, adding features such as automatic punctuation of ISBNs based upon the official ISBN Range database. Still, many people aren't comfortable with downloading, installing, and running a Perl program from the command line, so I thought I'd make its facilities available in a Web page accessible from any browser and add capabilities a Web-based application enable.

The result is ISBNquest, which provides the following utilities for ISBNs.

  • Validate ISBNs for correct format and checksum.
  • Interconvert ISBN-13 and ISBN-10 formats (except for rare ISBN-13s which have no ISBN-10 equivalent).
  • Insert punctuation between the components of an ISBN.
  • Show an analysis of the ISBN component fields, including the name of the Registration Group.
  • Generate a bar code for an ISBN.
  • Retrieve information on the publication from Amazon.com (where available) and show information such as title, author, publisher, publication date, page count, language, binding, cover image, and a link to credit purchases of the book to a user's Amazon Associates account.

To use ISBNquest simply enter the ISBN (both 13 and 10 character forms are accepted, with or without delimiters between the parts) and press “Query”. Optional specifications allow you to specify the delimiter used between parts of the ISBN, credit purchases through the link it generates to an Amazon Associates account, and direct the link to any of the Amazon national Web sites.

ISBNquest home page
Direct link to ISBNquest query

Posted at 16:26 Permalink

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Reading List: The Brave and the Bold

Schantz, Hans G. The Brave and the Bold. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7287-2274-0.
This the third novel in the author's Hidden Truth series. In the first book (December 2017) we met high schoolers and best friends Pete Burdell and Amit Patel who found, in dusty library books, knowledge apparently discovered by the pioneers of classical electromagnetism (many of whom died young), but which does not figure in modern works, even purported republications of the original sources they had consulted. In the second, A Rambling Wreck (May 2018), Pete and Amit, now freshmen at Georgia Tech, delve deeper into the suppressed mysteries of electromagnetism and the secrets of the shadowy group Amit dubbed the Electromagnetic Villains International League (EVIL), while simultaneously infiltrating and disrupting forces trying to implant the social justice agenda in one of the last bastions of rationality in academia.

The present volume begins in the summer after the pair's freshman year. Both Pete and Amit are planning, along different paths, to infiltrate back-to-back meetings of the Civic Circle's Social Justice Leadership Forum on Jekyll Island, Georgia (the scene of notable conspiratorial skullduggery in the early 20th century) and the G-8 summit of world leaders on nearby Sea Island. Master of Game Amit has maneuvered himself into an internship with the Civic Circle and an invitation to the Forum as a promising candidate for the cause. Pete wasn't so fortunate (or persuasive), and used family connections to land a job with a company contracted to install computer infrastructure for the Civic Circle conference. The latest apparent “social justice” goal was to involve the developed world in a costly and useless war in Iraq, and Pete and Amit hoped to do what they could to derail those plans while collecting information on the plotters from inside.

Working in a loose and uneasy alliance with others they've encountered in the earlier books, they uncover information which suggests a bold strike at the very heart of the conspiracy might be possible, and they set their plans in motion. They learn that the Civic Circle is even more ancient, pervasive in its malign influence, and formidable than they had imagined.

This is one of the most intricately crafted conspiracy tales I've read since the Illuminatus! trilogy, yet entirely grounded in real events or plausible ones in its story line, as opposed to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's zany tale. The alternative universe in which it is set is artfully grounded in our own, and readers will delight in how events they recall and those with which they may not be familiar are woven into the story. There is delightful skewering of the social justice agenda and those who espouse its absurd but destructive nostrums. The forbidden science aspect of the story is advanced as well, imaginatively stirring the de Broglie-Bohm “pilot wave” interpretation of quantum mechanics and the history of FM broadcasting into the mix.

The story builds to a conclusion which is both shocking and satisfying and confronts the pair with an even greater challenge for their next adventure. This book continues the Hidden Truth saga in the best tradition of Golden Age science fiction and, like the work of the grandmasters of yore, both entertains and leaves the reader eager to find out what happens next. You should read the books in order; if you jump in the middle, you'll miss a great deal of back story and character development essential to enjoying the adventure.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 15:43 Permalink

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Reading List: Savrola

Churchill, Winston S. Savrola. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1898, 1900] 2018. ISBN 978-1-7271-2358-6.
In 1897, the young (23 year old) Winston Churchill, on an ocean voyage from Britain to India to rejoin the army in the Malakand campaign of 1897, turned his pen to fiction and began this, his first and only novel. He set the work aside to write The Story of the Malakand Field Force, an account of the fighting and his first published work of non-fiction, then returned to the novel, completing it in 1898. It was serialised in Macmillan's Magazine in that year. (Churchill's working title, Affairs of State, was changed by the magazine's editors to Savrola, the name of a major character in the story.) The novel was subsequently published as book under that title in 1900.

The story takes place in the fictional Mediterranean country of Laurania, where five years before the events chronicled here, a destructive civil war had ended with General Antonio Molara taking power as President and ruling as a dictator with the support of the military forces he commanded in the war. Prior to the conflict, Laurania had a long history as a self-governing republic, and unrest was growing as more and more of the population demanded a return to parliamentary rule. Molara announced that elections would be held for a restored parliament under the original constitution.

Then, on the day the writ ordering the election was to be issued, it was revealed that the names of more than half of the citizens on the electoral rolls had been struck by Molara's order. A crowd gathered in the public square, on hearing this news, became an agitated mob and threatened to storm the President's carriage. The officer commanding the garrison commanded his troops to fire on the crowd.

All was now over. The spirit of the mob was broken and the wide expanse of Constitution Square was soon nearly empty. Forty bodies and some expended cartridges lay on the ground. Both had played their part in the history of human development and passed out of the considerations of living men. Nevertheless, the soldiers picked up the empty cases, and presently some police came with carts and took the other things away, and all was quiet again in Laurania.

The massacre, as it was called even by the popular newspaper The Diurnal Gusher which nominally supported the Government, not to mention the opposition press, only compounded the troubles Molara saw in every direction he looked. While the countryside was with him, sentiment in the capital was strongly with the pro-democracy opposition. Among the army, only the élite Republican Guard could be counted on as reliably loyal, and their numbers were small. A diplomatic crisis was brewing with the British over Laurania's colony in Africa which might require sending the Fleet, also loyal, away to defend it. A rebel force, camped right across the border, threatens invasion at any sign of Molara's grip on the nation weakening. And then there is Savrola.

Savrola (we never learn his first name), is the young (32 years), charismatic, intellectual, and persuasive voice of the opposition. While never stepping across the line sufficiently to justify retaliation, he manages to keep the motley groups of anti-Government forces in a loose coalition and is a constant thorn in the side of the authorities. He was not immune from introspection.

Was it worth it? The struggle, the labour, the constant rush of affairs, the sacrifice of so many things that make life easy, or pleasant—for what? A people's good! That, he could not disguise from himself, was rather the direction than the cause of his efforts. Ambition was the motive force, and he was powerless to resist it.

This is a character one imagines the young Churchill having little difficulty writing. With the seemingly incorruptible Savrola gaining influence and almost certain to obtain a political platform in the coming elections, Molara's secretary, the amoral but effective Miguel, suggests a stratagem: introduce Savrola to the President's stunningly beautiful wife Lucile and use the relationship to compromise him.

“You are a scoundrel—an infernal scoundrel” said the President quietly.

Miguel smiled, as one who receives a compliment. “The matter,” he said, “is too serious for the ordinary rules of decency and honour. Special cases demand special remedies.”

The President wants to hear no more of the matter, but does not forbid Miguel from proceeding. An introduction is arranged, and Lucile rapidly moves from fascination with Savrola to infatuation. Then events rapidly spin out of anybody's control. The rebel forces cross the border; Molara's army is proved unreliable and disloyal; the Fleet, en route to defend the colony, is absent; Savrola raises a popular rebellion in the capital; and open fighting erupts.

This is a story of intrigue, adventure, and conflict in the “Ruritanian” genre popularised by the 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. Churchill, building on his experience of war reportage, excels in and was praised for the realism of the battle scenes. The depiction of politicians, functionaries, and soldiers seems to veer back and forth between cynicism and admiration for their efforts in trying to make the best of a bad situation. The characters are cardboard figures and the love interest is clumsily described.

Still, this is an entertaining read and provides a window on how the young Churchill viewed the antics of colourful foreigners and their unstable countries, even if Laurania seems to have a strong veneer of Victorian Britain about it. The ultimate message is that history is often driven not by the plans of leaders, whether corrupt or noble, but by events over which they have little control. Churchill never again attempted a novel and thought little of this effort. In his 1930 autobiography covering the years 1874 through 1902 he writes of Savrola, “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.” But then, Churchill was not always right—don't let his advice deter you; I enjoyed it.

This work is available for free as a Project Gutenberg electronic book in a variety of formats. There are a number of print and Kindle editions of this public domain text; I have cited the least expensive print edition available at the time I wrote this review. I read this Kindle edition, which has a few typographical errors due to having been prepared by optical character recognition (for example, “stem” where “stern” was intended), but is otherwise fine.

One factlet I learned while researching this review is that “Winston S. Churchill” is actually a nom de plume. Churchill's full name is Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, and he signed his early writings as “Winston Churchill”. Then, he discovered there was a well-known American novelist with the same name. The British Churchill wrote to the American Churchill and suggested using the name “Winston Spencer Churchill” (no hyphen) to distinguish his work. The American agreed, noting that he would also be willing to use a middle name, except that he didn't have one. The British Churchill's publishers abbreviated his name to “Winston S. Churchill”, which he continued to use for the rest of his writing career.

Posted at 20:10 Permalink

Monday, October 22, 2018

ISBNiser 1.4 Update Released

I have just posted version 1.4 of ISBNiser, a utility for validating ISBN publication numbers in the ISBN-13 and ISBN-10 formats, converting between the formats, and generating Amazon associate links to purchase items with credit to a specified account.

In version 1.3, the ability to automatically parse ISBNs and insert delimiters among the elements (unique country code [ISBN-13 only], registration group, registrant, publication, and checksum) was added. This allows you, given an ISBN with no delimiters, for example “9781481487658”, to obtain an ISBN-13 or ISBN-10 with proper delimiters with:

$ isbniser 9781481487658
ISBN-13: 978-1-4814-8765-8  9781481487658   ISBN-10: 1481487655  1-4814-8765-5
The rules for parsing ISBNs are beyond baroque. The international bureaucrats who created the scheme first defined a series of “registration groups”, which identify the ISBN by language, (for example 0 and 1 for English and 3 for German), countries (7 for China, 987 for Argentina), regions (982 for South Pacific, 976 for the Caribbean Community), former countries (5 for the Soviet Union, 80 for Czechoslovakia), parts of countries (962 for Hong Kong), non-countries (9950 for Palestine), and un-countries (92 for International NGO Publishers and EU Organizations). Within each registration group, it's up to those administering it to decide how the registrant (publisher) and publication fields are parsed from the balance of the ISBN. The checksum is always the final character, but is computed by entirely different algorithms for ISBN-10 and ISBN-13.

There is no way to cleanly parse the contents of an ISBN with a simple algorithm. Had programmers designed ISBNs, there would be a simple, uniform, left-to-right way to determine field sizes, but what the bureaucrats have left us with is a mess which requires a table exhaustively enumerating each case for every separate registration group, which you have to search to parse the fields of the ISBN.

ISBNiser 1.3 used an algorithm based on JavaScript code employed by the U.S. Library of Congress ISBN Converter to parse and hyphenate ISBNs. Unfortunately, while perhaps “good enough for government work”, that code only handles a small fraction of the universe of ISBNs. For example, try feeding it ISBN 978-952-7303-00-9 for an English language book published in Finland and watch what happens.

ISBNiser 1.4 replaces this algorithm with a comprehensive search of the official ISBN Range database, downloaded in XML format from the Web site of the International ISBN Agency. It should be able to parse any ISBN issued by an organisation assigned a registration group by that agency. A simple process using tools included in the distribution archive allows updating the program from new versions of the range database.

Operation of ISBNiser is unchanged; the only difference is that it will now be able to hyphenate many more ISBNs than before. If you specify the “−g” option, the name of the registration group will be displayed. The “−u” option output now includes the publication date of the ISBN range database included in the program.

Installation of ISBNiser is as before. On any system with a base installation of Perl (no optional modules are required), simply place the executable Perl program anywhere on your path. If you wish to rebuild the ISBN Range database from a new release of the XML file from the International ISBN Agency, you will need to have the Perl module XML::Parser installed to run the auxiliary program that creates the database for ISBNiser.

Unrelated to the ISBN parsing changes, an error in checksum computation which could cause incorrect ISBN-13s to be generated from a supplied ISBN-10 has been corrected.

Posted at 14:06 Permalink

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Reading List: Red War

Mills, Kyle. Red War. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5011-9059-9.
This is the fourth novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. On the cover, Vince Flynn still gets top billing (he is now the “brand”, not the author), but Kyle Mills demonstrates here that he's a worthy successor who is taking Rapp and the series in new directions.

In the previous novel, Enemy of the State (June 2018), Rapp went totally off the radar, resigning from the CIA, recruiting a band of blackguards, many former adversaries, to mount an operation aimed at a nominal U.S. ally. This time, the circumstances are very different. Rapp is back at the CIA, working with his original team headed by Scott Coleman, who has now more or less recovered from the severe injuries he sustained in the earlier novel Order to Kill (December 2017), with Claudia Gould, now sharing a house with Rapp, running logistics for their missions.

Vladimir Krupin, President/autocrat of Russia, is ailing. Having climbed to the top of the pyramid in that deeply corrupt country, he now fears his body is failing him, with bouts of incapacitating headaches, blurred vision, and disorientation coming more and more frequently. He and his physician have carefully kept the condition secret, as any hint of weakness at the top would likely invite one or more of his rivals to make a move to unseat him. Worse, under the screwed-down lid of the Russian pressure cooker, popular dissatisfaction with the dismal economy, lack of freedom, and dearth of opportunity is growing, with popular demonstrations reaching Red Square.

The CIA knows nothing of Krupin's illness, but has been observing what seems to be increasingly erratic behaviour. In the past, Krupin has been ambitious and willing to commit outrages, but has always drawn his plans carefully and acted deliberately, but now he seemed to be doing things almost at random, sometimes against his own interests. Russian hackers launch an attack that takes down a large part of the power grid in Costa Rica. A Russian strike team launches an assault on Krupin's retired assassin and Rapp's former nemesis and recent ally, Grisha Azarov. Military maneuvers in the Ukraine seem to foreshadow open confrontation should that country move toward NATO membership.

Krupin, well aware of the fate of dictators who lose their grip on power, and knowing that nothing rallies support behind a leader like a bold move on the international stage, devises a grand plan to re-assert Russian greatness, right a wrong inflicted by the West, and drive a stake into the heart of NATO. Rapp and Azarov, continuing their uneasy alliance, driven by entirely different motives, undertake a desperate mission in the very belly of the bear to avert what could all too easily end in World War III.

There are a number of goofs, which I can't discuss without risk of spoilers, so I'll take them behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The copy editing is not up to the standard you'd expect in a bestseller published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster. On three occasions, “Balkan” appears where “Baltic” is intended. This can be pretty puzzling the first time you encounter it. Afterward, it's good for a chuckle.

In chapter 39, one of Rapp's allies tries to establish a connection on a land-line “telephone that looked like it had been around since the 1950s” and then, just a few paragraphs later, we read “There was a USB port hidden in the simple electronics…”. Huh? I've seen (and used) a lot of 1950s telephones, but danged if I can remember one with a USB port (which wasn't introduced until 1996).

Later in the same chapter Rapp is riding a horse, “working only with a map and compass, necessary because of the Russians' ability to zero in on electronic signals.” This betrays a misunderstanding of how GPS works which, while common, is jarring in a techno-thriller that tries to get things right. A GPS receiver is totally passive: it receives signals from the navigation satellites but transmits nothing and cannot be detected by electronic surveillance equipment. There is no reason Rapp could not have used GPS or GLONASS satellites to navigate.

In chapter 49, Rapp fires two rounds into a door locking keypad and “was rewarded with a cascade of sparks…”. Oh, please—even in Russia, security keypads are not wired up to high voltage lines that would emit showers of sparks. This is a movie cliché which doesn't belong in a novel striving for realism.

Spoilers end here.  
This is a well-crafted thriller which broadens the scope of the Rapp saga into Tom Clancy territory. Things happen, which will leave the world in a different place after they occur. It blends Rapp and Azarov's barely restrained loose cannon operations with high-level diplomacy and intrigue, plus an interesting strategic approach to pledges of defence which the will and resources of those who made them may not be equal to the challenge when the balloon goes up and the tanks start to roll. And Grisha Azarov's devotion to his girlfriend is truly visceral.

Posted at 20:51 Permalink