Thursday, October 3, 2019

Reading List: Lethal Agent

Mills, Kyle. Lethal Agent. New York: Atria Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5011-9062-9.
This is the fifth 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).

In the third Mitch Rapp novel by Kyle Mills, Enemy of the State (June 2018), Rapp decapitated the leadership of ISIS by detonating a grenade in a cave where they were meeting and barely escaped with his life when the cavern collapsed. As the story concluded, it was unknown whether the leader of ISIS, Mullah Sayid Halabi, was killed in the cave-in. Months later, evidence surfaces that Halabi survived, and may be operating in chaotic, war-torn Yemen. Rapp tracks him to a cave in the Yemeni desert but finds only medical equipment apparently used to treat his injuries: Halabi has escaped again.

A Doctors Without Borders team treating victims of a frighteningly contagious and virulent respiratory disease which has broken out in a remote village in Yemen is attacked and its high-profile microbiologist is kidnapped, perhaps by Halabi's people to work on bioweapons. Meanwhile, by what amounts to pure luck, a shipment of cocaine from Mexico is intercepted and found to contain, disguised among the packets of the drug, a brick of weaponised anthrax, leading authorities to suspect the nightmare scenario in which one or more Mexican drug cartels are cooperating with Islamic radicals to smuggle terrorists and weapons across the porous southern border of the U.S.

In Washington, a presidential election is approaching, and President Alexander, who will be leaving after two terms, seems likely to be replaced by the other party's leading contender, the ruthless and amoral Senator Christine Barnett, who is a sworn enemy of CIA director Irene Kennedy and operative Mitch Rapp, and, if elected, is likely to, at best, tie them up in endless congressional hearings and, at worst, see them both behind bars. Barnett places zero priority on national security or the safety of the population, and is willing to risk either to obtain political advantage.

Halabi's plans become evident when a slickly-produced video appears on the Internet, featuring a very much alive Halabi saying, “Now I have your biological weapons experts. Now I have the power to use your weapons against you.” The only way to track down Halabi, who has relocated to parts unknown, is by infiltrating the Mexican cartel behind the intercepted shipment. Rapp devises a plan to persuade the cartel boss he has gone rogue and is willing to sign on as an enforcer. Having no experience operating in Mexico or more than a few words of Spanish, and forced to operate completely on his own, he must somehow convince the cartel to let him inside its inner circle and then find the connection to Halabi and thwart his plans, which Rapp and others suspect may be far more sinister than sprinkling some anthrax around. (You don't need an expert microbiologist to weaponise anthrax, after all.)

This thriller brings back the old, rough-edged, and unrelenting Mitch Rapp of some of Vince Flynn's early novels. And this is a Rapp who has seen enough of the Washington swamp and the creatures who inhabit it to have outgrown any remaining dewy-eyed patriotism. In chapter 22, he says,

But what I do know is that the U.S. isn't ready. If Halabi's figured out a way to hit us with something big—something biological—what's our reaction going to be? The politicians will run for the hills and point fingers at each other. And the American people…. They faint if someone uses insensitive language in their presence and half of them couldn't run up a set of stairs if you put a gun to their head. What'll happen if the real s*** hits the fan? What are they going to do if they're faced with something that can't be fixed by a Facebook petition?

So Rapp is as ruthless with his superiors as with the enemy, and obtains the free hand he needs to get the job done. Eventually Rapp and his team identify what is a potentially catastrophic threat and must swing into action, despite the political and diplomatic repercussions, to avert disaster. And then it is time to settle some scores.

Kyle Mills has delivered another thriller which is both in the tradition of Mitch Rapp and also further develops his increasingly complex character in new ways.

Posted at 16:01 Permalink

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Reading List: The Boys' Book of Model Railroading

Yates, Raymond F. The Boys' Book of Model Railroading. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. ISBN 978-1-127-46606-1.
In the years before World War II, Lionel was the leader in the U.S. in manufacturing of model railroad equipment, specialising in “tinplate” models which were often unrealistic in scale, painted in garish colours, and appealing to young children and the mothers who bought them as gifts. During the war, the company turned to production of items for the U.S. Navy. After the war, the company returned to the model railroad market, remaking their product line with more realistic models. This coincided with the arrival of the baby boom generation, which, as the boys grew up, had an unlimited appetite for ever more complicated and realistic model railroads, which Lionel was eager to meet with simple, rugged, and affordable gear which set the standard for model railroading for a generation.

This book, published in 1951, just as Lionel was reaching the peak of its success, was written by Raymond F. Yates, author of earlier classics such as A Boy and a Battery and A Boy and a Motor, which were perennially wait-listed at the public library when I was a kid during the 1950s. The book starts with the basics of electricity, then moves on to a totally Lionel-based view of the model railroading hobby. There are numerous do-it-yourself projects, ranging from building simple scenery to complex remote-controlled projects with both mechanical and electrical actuation. There is even a section on replacing the unsightly centre third rail of Lionel O-gauge track with a subtle third rail located to the side of the track which the author notes “should be undertaken only if you are prepared to do a lot of work and if you know how to use a soldering iron.” Imagine what this requires for transmitting current across switches and crossovers! Although I read this book, back in the day, I'm glad I never went that deeply down the rabbit hole.

I learned a few things here I never stumbled across while running my Lionel oval layout during the Eisenhower administration or in engineering school many years later. For example: why did Lionel opt for AC power and a three rail system rather than the obvious approach of DC motors and two rails, which makes it easier, for example, to reverse trains and looks more like the real thing? The answer is that a three rail system with AC power is symmetrical, and allows all kinds of complicated geometries in layouts without worrying about cross-polarity connections on junctions. AC power allows using inexpensive transformers to run the layout from mains power without rectifiers which, in the 1950s, would have meant messy and inefficient selenium stacks prone to blowing up into toxic garlic-smelling fumes if mistreated. But many of the Lionel remote control gizmos, such as the knuckle couplers, switches, semaphore signals, and that eternal favourite, the giraffe car, used solenoids as actuators. How could that work with AC power? Well, think about it—if you have a soft iron plunger within the coil, but not at its centre, when current is applied to the coil, the induced magnetic field will pull it into the centre of the coil. This force is independent of the direction of the current. So an alternating current will create a varying magnetic field which, averaged over the mechanical inertia of the plunger, will still pull it in as long as the solenoid is energised. In practice, running a solenoid on AC may result in a hum, buzz, or chatter, which can be avoided by including a shading coil, in which an induced current creates a magnetic field 90° out of phase to the alternating current in the main coil and smooths the magnetic field actuating the plunger. I never knew that; did you?

This is a book for boys. There is only a hint of the fanaticism to which the hobby of model railroading can be taken. We catch a whiff of it in the chapter about running the railroad on a published schedule, with telegraph connections between dispatchers and clocks modified to keep “scale time”. All in all, it was great fun then, and great fun to recall now. To see how far off the deep end O-gauge model railroading has gone since 1951, check out the Lionel Trains 2019 Catalogue.

This book is out of print, but used copies are readily available at a reasonable price.

Posted at 23:33 Permalink

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jean-Daniel Nicoud visits Fourmilab

Jean-Daniel Nicoud On September 22nd, 2019, Prof. Jean-Daniel Nicoud, founder of the Laboratoire de Micro-Informatique (LAMI) at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, visited Fourmilab. LAMI pioneered the optical computer mouse, the Smaky computer, and the Kephera robot, all of which were commercialised by spin-off companies, including Logitech.

In the mid-1990s, I supported a project at LAMI/EPFL to explore possible technological means of aiding in the removal of anti-personnel land mines which are the legacy of conflicts around the globe. The project sponsored two conferences, in Lausanne, Switzerland and Zagreb, Croatia, which were among the first to bring together operators working in de-mining in the field, technologists with promising approaches to improving the efficiency of such work, and NGOs looking to spend their money more effectively in achieving the ultimate goal of eliminating this legacy of war. LAMI developed a lightweight robot, PEMEX, which served as a testbed for sensor and actuator technology.

Since his retirement from EPFL in 2000, Prof. Nicoud has continued to pioneer cutting-edge technology through his company, DIDEL. There you will find what you need to build and fly ultralight aircraft (did I say “ultralight”?—we're talking less than ten grams!), program Arduinos, and explore the frontiers of the Maker culture on the threshold of the Roaring Twenties.

We had a great visit, and only spent a little time talking about the old days of building circuits from SSI TTL and 8 bit microprocessors, but mostly about what we, and our successors, will accomplish in the coming decade and afterward with the “extravagant computing” resources at their disposal.

These are the good old days.

Posted at 00:22 Permalink

Monday, September 23, 2019

Reading List: Permanent Record

Snowden, Edward. Permanent Record. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-250-23723-1.
The revolution in communication and computing technologies which has continually accelerated since the introduction of integrated circuits in the 1960s and has since given rise to the Internet, ubiquitous mobile telephony, vast data centres with formidable processing and storage capacity, and technologies such as natural language text processing, voice recognition, and image analysis, has created the potential, for the first time in human history, of mass surveillance to a degree unimagined even in dystopian fiction such as George Orwell's 1984 or attempted by the secret police of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or North Korea. But, residents of enlightened developed countries such as the United States thought, they were protected, by legal safeguards such as the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, from having their government deploy such forbidding tools against its own citizens. Certainly, there was awareness, from disclosures such as those in James Bamford's 1982 book The Puzzle Palace, that agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) were employing advanced and highly secret technologies to spy upon foreign governments and their agents who might attempt to harm the United States and its citizens, but their activities were circumscribed by a legal framework which strictly limited the scope of their domestic activities.

Well, that's what most people believed until the courageous acts by Edward Snowden, a senior technical contractor working for the NSA, revealed, in 2013, multiple programs of indiscriminate mass surveillance directed against, well, everybody in the world, U.S. citizens most definitely included. The NSA had developed and deployed a large array of hardware and software tools whose mission was essentially to capture all the communications and personal data of everybody in the world, scan it for items of interest, and store it forever where it could be accessed in future investigations. Data were collected through a multitude of means: monitoring traffic across the Internet, collecting mobile phone call and location data (estimated at five billion records per day in 2013), spidering data from Web sites, breaking vulnerable encryption technologies, working with “corporate partners” to snoop data passing through their facilities, and fusing this vast and varied data with query tools such as XKEYSCORE, which might be thought of as a Google search engine built by people who from the outset proclaimed, “Heck yes, we're evil!”

How did Edward Snowden, over his career a contractor employee for companies including BAE Systems, Dell Computer, and Booz Allen Hamilton, and a government employee of the CIA, obtain access to such carefully guarded secrets? What motivated him to disclose this information to the media? How did he spirit the information out of the famously security-obsessed NSA and get it into the hands of the media? And what were the consequences of his actions? All of these questions are answered in this beautifully written, relentlessly candid, passionately argued, and technologically insightful book by the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for revealing the malignant ambition of the government of the United States and its accomplices in the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) to implement and deploy a global panopticon which would shrink the scope of privacy of individuals to essentially zero—in the words of an NSA PowerPoint (of course) presentation from 2011, “Sniff It All, Know It All, Collect It All, Process It All, Exploit It All, Partner It All”. They didn't mention “Store It All Forever”, but with the construction of the US$1.5 billion Utah Data Center which consumes 65 megawatts of electricity, it's pretty clear that's what they're doing.

Edward Snowden was born in 1983 and grew up along with the personal computer revolution. His first contact with computers was when his father brought home a Commodore 64, on which father and son would play many games. Later, just seven years old, his father introduced him to programming on a computer at the Coast Guard base where he worked, and, a few years later, when the family had moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC after his father had been transferred to Coast Guard Headquarters, the family got a Compaq 486 PC clone which opened the world of programming and exploration of online groups and the nascent World Wide Web via the narrow pipe of a dial-up connection to America Online. In those golden days of the 1990s, the Internet was mostly created by individuals for individuals, and you could have any identity, or as many identities as you wished, inventing and discarding them as you explored the world and yourself. This was ideal for a youth who wasn't interested in sports and tended to be reserved in the presence of others. He explored the many corners of the Internet and, like so many with the talent for understanding complex systems, learned to deduce the rules governing systems and explore ways of using them to his own ends. Bob Bickford defines a hacker as “Any person who derives joy from discovering ways to circumvent limitations.” Hacking is not criminal, and it has nothing to do with computers. As his life progressed, Snowden would learn how to hack school, the job market, and eventually the oppressive surveillance state.

By September 2001, Snowden was working for an independent Web site developer operating out of her house on the grounds of Fort Meade, Maryland, the home of the NSA (for whom, coincidentally, his mother worked in a support capacity). After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he decided, in his family's long tradition of service to their country (his grandfather is a Rear Admiral in the Coast Guard, and ancestors fought in the Revolution, Civil War, and both world wars), that his talents would be better put to use in the intelligence community. His lack of a four year college degree would usually be a bar to such employment, but the terrorist attacks changed all the rules, and military veterans were being given a fast track into such jobs, so, after exploring his options, Snowden enlisted in the Army, under a special program called 18 X-Ray, which would send qualifying recruits directly into Special Forces training after completing their basic training.

His military career was to prove short. During a training exercise, he took a fall in the forest which fractured the tibia bone in both legs and was advised he would never be able to qualify for Special Forces. Given the option of serving out his time in a desk job or taking immediate “administrative separation” (in which he would waive the government's liability for the injury), he opted for the latter. Finally, after a circuitous process, he was hired by a government contractor and received the exclusive Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance which qualified him to work at the CIA.

A few words are in order about contractors at government agencies. In some media accounts of the Snowden disclosures, he has been dismissed as “just a contractor”, but in the present-day U.S. government where nothing is as it seems and much of everything is a scam, in fact many of the people working in the most sensitive capacities in the intelligence community are contractors supplied by the big “beltway bandit” firms which have sprung up like mushrooms around the federal swamp. You see, agencies operate under strict limits on the number of pure government (civil service) employees they can hire and, of course, government employment is almost always forever. But, if they pay a contractor to supply a body to do precisely the same job, on site, they can pay the contractor from operating funds and bypass the entire civil service mechanism and limits and, further, they're free to cut jobs any time they wish and to get rid of people and request a replacement from the contractor without going through the arduous process of laying off or firing a “govvy”. In all of Snowden's jobs, the blue badged civil servants worked alongside the green badge contractors without distinction in job function. Contractors would rarely ever visit the premises of their nominal “employers” except for formalities of hiring and employee benefits. One of Snowden's co-workers said “contracting was the third biggest scam in Washington after the income tax and Congress.”

His work at the CIA was in system administration, and he rapidly learned that regardless of classification levels, compartmentalisation, and need to know, the person in a modern organisation who knows everything, or at least has the ability to find out if interested, is the system administrator. In order to keep a system running, ensure the integrity of the data stored on it, restore backups when hardware, software, or user errors cause things to be lost, and the myriad other tasks that comprise the work of a “sysadmin”, you have to have privileges to access pretty much everything in the system. You might not be able to see things on other systems, but the ones under your control are an open book. The only safeguard employers have over rogue administrators is monitoring of their actions, and this is often laughably poor, especially as bosses often lack the computer savvy of the administrators who work for them.

After nine months on the job, an opening came up for a CIA civil servant job in overseas technical support. Attracted to travel and exotic postings abroad, Snowden turned in his green badge for a blue one and after a training program, was sent to exotic…Geneva as computer security technician, under diplomatic cover. As placid as it may seem, Geneva was on the cutting edge of CIA spying technology, with the United Nations, numerous international agencies, and private banks all prime targets for snooping.

Two years later Snowden was a contractor once again, this time with Dell Computer, who placed him with the NSA, first in Japan, then back in Maryland, and eventually in Hawaii as lead technologist of the Office of Information Sharing, where he developed a system called “Heartbeat” which allowed all of NSA's sites around the world to share their local information with others. It can be thought of as an automated blog aggregator for Top Secret information. This provided him personal access to just about everything the NSA was up to, world-wide. And he found what he read profoundly disturbing and dismaying.

Once he became aware of the scope of mass surveillance, he transferred to another job in Hawaii which would allow him to personally verify its power by gaining access to XKEYSCORE. His worst fears were confirmed, and he began to patiently, with great caution, and using all of his insider's knowledge, prepare to bring the archives he had spirited out from the Heartbeat system to the attention of the public via respected media who would understand the need to redact any material which might, for example, put agents in the field at risk. He discusses why, based upon his personal experience and that of others, he decided the whistleblower approach within the chain of command was not feasible: the unconstitutional surveillance he had discovered had been approved at the highest levels of government—there was nobody who could stop it who had not already approved it.

The narrative then follows preparing for departure, securing the data for travel, taking a leave of absence from work, travelling to Hong Kong, and arranging to meet the journalists he had chosen for the disclosure. There is a good deal of useful tradecraft information in this narrative for anybody with secrets to guard. Then, after the stories began to break in June, 2013, the tale of his harrowing escape from the long reach of Uncle Sam is recounted. Popular media accounts of Snowden “defecting to Russia” are untrue. He had planned to seek asylum in Ecuador, and had obtained a laissez-passer from the Ecuadoran consul and arranged to travel to Quito from Hong Kong via Moscow, Havana, and Caracas, as that was the only routing which did not pass through U.S. airspace or involve stops in countries with extradition treaties with the U.S. Upon arrival in Moscow, he discovered that his U.S. passport had been revoked while en route from Hong Kong, and without a valid passport he could neither board an onward flight nor leave the airport. He ended up trapped in the Moscow airport for forty days while twenty-seven countries folded to U.S. pressure and denied him political asylum. After spending so long in the airport he even became tired of eating at the Burger King there, on August 1st, 2013 Russia granted him temporary asylum. At this writing, he is still in Moscow, having been joined in 2017 by Lindsay Mills, the love of his life he left behind in Hawaii in 2013, and who is now his wife.

This is very much a personal narrative, and you will get an excellent sense for who Edward Snowden is and why he chose to do what he did. The first thing that struck me is that he really knows his stuff. Some of the press coverage presented him as a kind of low-level contractor systems nerd, but he was principal architect of EPICSHELTER, NSA's worldwide backup and archiving system, and sole developer of the Heartbeat aggregation system for reports from sites around the globe. At the time he left to make his disclosures, his salary was US$120,000 per year, hardly the pay of a humble programmer. His descriptions of technologies and systems in the book are comprehensive and flawless. He comes across as motivated entirely by outrage at the NSA's flouting of the constitutional protections supposed to be afforded U.S. citizens and its abuses in implementing mass surveillance, sanctioned at the highest levels of government across two administrations from different political parties. He did not seek money for his disclosures, and did not offer them to foreign governments. He took care to erase all media containing the documents he removed from the NSA before embarking on his trip from Hong Kong, and when approached upon landing in Moscow by agents from the Russian FSB (intelligence service) with what was obviously a recruitment pitch, he immediately cut it off, saying,

Listen, I understand who you are, and what this is. Please let me be clear that I have no intention to cooperate with you. I'm not going to cooperate with any intelligence service. I mean no disrespect, but this isn't going to be that kind of meeting. If you want to search my bag, it's right here. But I promise you, there's nothing in it that can help you.

And that was that.

Edward Snowden could have kept quiet, done his job, collected his handsome salary, continued to live in a Hawaiian paradise, and share his life with Lindsay, but he threw it all away on a matter of principle and duty to his fellow citizens and the Constitution he had sworn to defend when taking the oath upon joining the Army and the CIA. On the basis of the law, he is doubtless guilty of the three federal crimes with which he has been charged, sufficient to lock him up for as many as thirty years should the U.S. lay its hands on him. But he believes he did the correct thing in an attempt to right wrongs which were intolerable. I agree, and can only admire his courage. If anybody is deserving of a Presidential pardon, it is Edward Snowden.

There is relatively little discussion here of the actual content of the documents which were disclosed and the surveillance programs they revealed. For full details, visit the Snowden Surveillance Archive, which has copies of all of the documents which have been disclosed by the media to date. U.S. government employees and contractors should read the warning on the site before viewing this material.

Posted at 23:14 Permalink

Monday, September 16, 2019

Reading List: Public Loneliness

Brennan, Gerald. Public Loneliness. Chicago: Tortoise Books, [2014] 2017. ISBN 978-0-9986325-1-3.
This is the second book 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 third, Island of Clouds (July 2019), tells the story of a Venus fly-by mission using Apollo-derived hardware in 1972.

The present short book (120 pages in paperback edition) is the tale of a Soviet circumlunar mission piloted by Yuri Gagarin in October 1967, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and the tenth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. As with all of the Altered Space stories, this could have happened: in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had two manned lunar programmes, each using entirely different hardware. The lunar landing project was based on the N1 rocket, a modified Soyuz spacecraft called the 7K-LOK, and the LK one-man lunar lander. The Zond project aimed at a manned lunar fly-by mission (the spacecraft would loop around the Moon and return to Earth on a “free return trajectory” without entering lunar orbit). Zond missions would launch on the Proton booster with a crew of one or two cosmonauts flying around the Moon in a spacecraft designated Soyuz 7K-L1, which was stripped down by removal of the orbital module (forcing the crew to endure the entire trip in the cramped launch/descent module) and equipped for the lunar mission by the addition of a high gain antenna, navigation system, and a heat shield capable of handling the velocity of entry from a lunar mission.

In our timeline, the Zond programme was plagued by problems. The first four unmanned lunar mission attempts, launched between April and November 1967, all failed due to problems with the Proton booster. Zond 4, in March of 1968, flew out to a lunar distance, but was deliberately launched 180° away from the Moon (perhaps to avoid the complexity of lunar gravity). It returned to Earth, but off-course, and was blown up by its self-destruct mechanism to avoid it falling into the hands of another country. Two more Zond launches in April and July 1968 failed from booster problems, with the second killing three people when its upper stage exploded on the launch pad. In September 1968 Zond 5 became the first spacecraft to circle the Moon and return to Earth, carrying a “crew” of two tortoises, fruit fly eggs, and plant seeds. The planned “double dip” re-entry failed, and the spacecraft made a ballistic re-entry with deceleration which might have killed a human cosmonaut, but didn't seem to faze the tortoises. Zond 6 performed a second circumlunar mission in November 1968, again with tortoises and other biological specimens. During the return to Earth, the capsule depressurised, killing all of the living occupants. After a successful re-entry, the parachute failed and the capsule crashed to Earth. This was followed by three more launch failures and then, finally, in August 1969, a completely successful unmanned flight which was the first in which a crew, if onboard, would have survived. By this time, of course, the U.S. had not only orbited the Moon (a much more ambitious mission than Zond's fly-by), but landed on the surface, so even a successful Zond mission would have been an embarrassing afterthought. After one more unmanned test in October 1970, the Zond programme was cancelled.

In this story, the Zond project encounters fewer troubles and with the anniversary of the October revolution approaching in 1967, the go-ahead was given for a piloted flight around the Moon. Yuri Gagarin, who had been deeply unhappy at being removed from flight status and paraded around the world as a cultural ambassador, used his celebrity status to be assigned to the lunar mission which, given weight constraints and the cramped Soyuz cabin, was to be flown by a single cosmonaut.

The tale is narrated by Gagarin himself. The spacecraft is highly automated, so there isn't much for him to do other than take pictures of the Earth and Moon, and so he has plenty of time to reflect upon his career and the experience of being transformed overnight from an unknown 27 year old fighter pilot into a global celebrity and icon of Soviet technological prowess. He seems to have a mild case of impostor syndrome, being acutely aware that he was entirely a passive passenger on his Vostok 1 flight, never once touching the controls, and that the credit he received for the accomplishment belonged to the engineers and technicians who built and operated the craft, who continued to work in obscurity. There are extensive flashbacks to the flight, his experiences afterward, and the frustration at seeing his flying career come to an end.

But this is Soviet hardware, and not long into the flight problems occur which pose increasing risks to the demanding mission profile. Although the planned trajectory will sling the spacecraft around the Moon and back to Earth, several small trajectory correction maneuvers will be required to hit the narrow re-entry corridor in the Earth's atmosphere: too steep and the capsule will burn up, too shallow and it will skip off the atmosphere into a high elliptical orbit in which the cosmonaut's life support consumables may run out before it returns to Earth.

The compounding problems put these course corrections at risk, and mission control decides not to announce the flight to the public while it is in progress. As the book concludes, Gagarin does not know his ultimate fate, and neither does the reader.

This is a moving story, well told, and flawless in its description of the spacecraft and Zond mission plan. One odd stylistic choice is that in Gagarin's narration, he speaks of the names of spacecraft as their English translation of the Russian names: “East” instead of “Vostok”, “Union” as opposed to “Soyuz”, etc. This might seem confusing, but think about it: that's how a Russian would have heard those words, so it's correct to translate them into English along with his other thoughts. There is a zinger on the last page that speaks to the nature of the Soviet propaganda machine—I'll not spoil it for you.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 22:41 Permalink

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Gnome-o-gram: “Take my money. Please—I'll pay you!”

Here’s just about the craziest financial chart I’ve seen in some time.

Total negative debt in the world: Deutsche Bank

Courtesy of Deutsche Bank, via CNBC, this is a plot of the total face value of government bonds (not, as the chart is mis-labeled, all debt) which now trade at negative yields. In other words, if you buy the bond today at its market price, hold it to maturity, and add all of the interest it will pay from now until it matures, you’ll end up with less than the price you paid for the bond. And this is in “nominal currency”, not accounting for any depreciation in the purchasing power of the money you get back (due to inflation) compared to what you paid for the bond.

Fixed-income investing (bonds, time deposits, etc.) used to be easy to understand and, let’s face it, boring. It’s supposed to be boring: “gentlemen prefer bonds” because assuming the issuer doesn’t go bust and default on the debt (which can’t happen with bonds issued by a government that can print its own money—the money you get back may be worth less or worthless, but you’ll get it back for sure), you’ll earn the steady rate of income quoted for the bond when you bought it all the way until maturity, when you get your money back. As interest rates go up and down, the market value of the bond will fluctuate, but that doesn’t matter if you hold it until maturity, when it pays off at face value.

Usually, the longer the term of the bond, the higher the rate of interest you’ll earn, since investors demand a greater yield in return for tying up their money for a longer period of time. This isn’t always the case: in fact, we’re presently in a period of an inverted yield curve, which I discussed here in an earlier gnome-o-gram.

But what could possess investors to bet on a sure loser: an investment which is guaranteed to pay back less money than was paid for it? And this isn’t just some rubes who fell for a fast-talking salesman: there are fifteen trillion US dollars worth of these bonds in the portfolios of institutions (banks, pension funds, insurance companies, corporate treasuries, government agencies) worldwide.

The reason is basically fear (and, in the case of some institutions, mandates that they hold some fraction of their assets in government securities). With yields on even substantially risky bonds in the cellar, at least you don’t run any risk with the government bond and you only lose a little money. (For some reason, the alternative of simply ordering up a pallet of high-denomination bills from the central bank and putting them in the vault doesn’t seem to occur to these people, or is considered beneath their dignity.) And with equity markets looking over-extended and volatile, that option is increasingly unattractive.

It isn’t just government bonds, either. Here’s a chart by Bianco Research, published by Market Watch, showing negative yielding corporate bonds in the hands of investors exploding from zero to US$ 1.2 trillion in the first eight months of this year.

Negative yield corporate bonds: Market Watch

When a recession occurs, the principal tool in the hands of a central bank to promote recovery is lowering interest rates. But conventional wisdom among analysts used to be that when rates were already close to zero, there “weren’t any arrows left in the quiver” because “rates can’t go negative”. Well, it appears they can, because they have.

Now, I guess the question is how far into negative territory they can go. If a recession sets in over the next year, I suppose we’ll see.

Other gnome-o-grams

Posted at 14:07 Permalink

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Reading List: Civil War Two

Chittum, Thomas. Civil War Two. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [1993, 1996] 2018. ASIN B07FCWD7C4.
This book was originally published in 1993 with a revised edition in 1996. This Kindle edition, released in 2018, and available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers, appears to be identical to the last print edition, although the number of typographical, punctuation, grammatical, and formatting errors (I counted 78 in 176 pages of text, and I wasn't reading with a particularly critical eye) makes me wonder if the Kindle edition was made by optical character recognition of a print copy and never properly copy edited before publication. The errors are so frequent and egregious that readers will get the impression that the publisher couldn't be bothered to read over the text before it reached their eyes.

Sometimes, a book with mediocre production values can be rescued by its content, but that is not the case here. The author, who served two tours as a rifleman with the U.S. Army in Vietnam (1965 and 1966), then fought with the Rhodesian Territorials in the early 1970s and the Croatian Army in 1991–1992, argues that the U.S. has been transformed from a largely homogeneous republic in which minorities and newcomers were encouraged and provided a path to assimilate, and is now a multi-ethnic empire in which each group (principally, whites and those who, like most East Asians, have assimilated to the present majority's culture; blacks; and Hispanics) sees itself engaged in a zero-sum contest against the others for power and the wealth of the empire.

So far, this is a relatively common and non-controversial observation, at least among those on the dissident right who have been observing the deliberate fracturing of the society into rival interest groups along ethnic lines by cynical politicians aiming to assemble a “coalition of the aggrieved” into a majority. But from this starting point the author goes on to forecast increasingly violent riots along ethnic lines, initially in the large cities and then, as people flee areas in which they are an ethnic minority and flock together with others of their tribe, at borders between the emerging territories.

He then sees a progression toward large-scale conventional warfare proceeding in four steps: an initial Foundational Phase where the present Cold Civil War heats up as street gangs align on ethnic lines, new irregular forces spring up to defend against the others, and the police either divide among the factions or align themselves with that dominant in their territory. Next, in a protracted Terrorist Phase, the rival forces will increasingly attack one another and carry out strikes against the forces of the empire who try to suppress them. This will lead to increasing flight and concentration of each group in a territory where it is the majority, and then demands for more autonomy for that territory. He estimates (writing in the first half of the 1990s) that this was the present phase and could be expected to last for another five to twenty-five years (which would put its conclusion no later than 2020).

The Terrorist Phase will then give way to Guerilla Warfare, with street gangs and militia groups evolving into full-time paramilitary forces like the Viet Cong and Irish Republican Army. The empire will respond with an internal security force similar to that of the Soviet Union, and, as chaos escalates, most remaining civil liberties will be suspended “for the duration of the emergency”. He forecasts this phase as lasting between ten and twenty years. Finally, the situation will progress to All-Out, Continuous Warfare, where groups will unite and align along ethnic lines, bringing into play heavy weapons (artillery, rocket powered grenades, armour, etc.) seized from military depots or provided by military personnel defecting to the factional forces. The economy will collapse, and insurgent forces will fund their operations by running the black market that replaces it. For this phase, think the ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

When the dust settles, possibly involving the intervention of United Nations or other “peacekeeping” troops, the result will be a partition of the United States into three ethnically-defined nations. The upper U.S., from coast to coast, will have a larger white (plus East Asian, and other assimilated groups) majority than today. The Old South extending through east Texas will be a black majority nation, and the Southwest, from central Texas through coastal California north of the San Francisco area will be a Hispanic majority nation, possibly affiliated or united with Mexico. The borders will be sharp, defended, and prone to occasional violence.

My problem with this is that it's…ridiculous. Just because a country has rival ethnic groups doesn't mean you'll end up with pitched warfare and partition. Yes, that's what happened in ex-Yugoslavia, but that was a case where centuries-long ethnic tensions and hatred upon which the lid had been screwed down for fifty years by an authoritarian communist regime were released into the open when it collapsed. Countries including Canada, Ireland/Northern Ireland, and Belgium have long-standing ethnic disputes, tension, and occasional violence, and yet they have not progressed to tanks in the street and artillery duels across defended frontiers.

The divide in the U.S. does not seem to be so much across ethnic lines as between a coastal and urban élite and a heartland productive population which has been looted at the expense of the ruling class. The ethnic groups, to the extent they have been organised as factions with a grievance agenda, seem mostly interested in vying for which can extract the most funds from the shrinking productive population for the benefit of their members. This divide, often called “blue/red” or “globalist/nationalist” goes right down the middle of a number of highly controversial and divisive issues such as immigration, abortion, firearms rights, equality before the law vs. affirmative action, free trade vs. economic nationalism, individual enterprise vs. socialism and redistribution, and many others. (The polarisation can be seen clearly by observing that if you know on which side an individual comes down on one of these issues, you can predict, with a high probability, their view on all the others.)

To my mind, a much more realistic (not to mention far better written) scenario for the U.S. coming apart at the seams is Kurt Schlichter's People's Republic (November 2018) which, although fiction, seems an entirely plausible extrapolation of present trends and the aftermath of two incompatible worldviews going their separate ways.

Posted at 12:05 Permalink

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Reading List: War Is a Racket

Butler, Smedley D. War Is a Racket. San Diego, CA: Dauphin Publications, [1935] 2018. ISBN 978-1-939438-58-4.
Smedley Butler knew a thing or two about war. In 1898, a little over a month before his seventeenth birthday, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, which directly commissioned him a second lieutenant. After completing training, he was sent to Cuba, arriving shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War. Upon returning home, he was promoted to first lieutenant and sent to the Philippines as part of the American garrison. There, he led Marines in combat against Filipino rebels. In 1900 he was deployed to China during the Boxer Rebellion and was wounded in the Gaselee Expedition, being promoted to captain for his bravery.

He then served in the “Banana Wars” in Central America and the Caribbean. In 1914, during a conflict in Mexico, he carried out an undercover mission in support of a planned U.S. intervention. For his command in the battle of Veracruz, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Next, he was sent to Haiti, where he commanded Marines and Navy troops in an attack on Fort Rivière in November 1915. For this action, he won a second Medal of Honor. To this day, he is only one of nineteen people to have twice won the Medal of Honor.

In World War I he did not receive a combat command, but for his work in commanding the debarkation camp in France for American troops, he was awarded both the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals. Returning to the U.S. after the armistice, he became commanding general of the Marine training base at Quantico, Virginia. Between 1927 and 1929 he commanded the Marine Expeditionary Force in China, and returning to Quantico in 1929, he was promoted to Major General, then the highest rank available in the Marine Corps (which was subordinate to the Navy), becoming the youngest person in the Corps to attain that rank. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1931.

In this slim pamphlet (just 21 pages in the Kindle edition I read), Butler demolishes the argument that the U.S. military actions in which he took part in his 33 years as a Marine had anything whatsoever to do with the defence of the United States. Instead, he saw lives and fortune squandered on foreign adventures largely in the interest of U.S. business interests, with those funding and supplying the military banking large profits from the operation. With the introduction of conscription in World War I, the cynical exploitation of young men reached a zenith with draftees paid US$30 a month, with half taken out to support dependants, and another bite for mandatory insurance, leaving less than US$9 per month for putting their lives on the line. And then, in a final insult, there was powerful coercion to “invest” this paltry sum in “Liberty Bonds” which, after the war, were repaid well below the price of purchase and/or in dollars which had lost half their purchasing power.

Want to put an end to endless, futile, and tragic wars? Forget disarmament conferences and idealistic initiatives, Butler says,

The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nations [sic] manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation—it must conscript capital and industry. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted—to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

Let the workers in these plants get the same wages—all the workers, all presidents, all directors, all managers, all bankers—yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders—everyone in the nation be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!

Let all these kings and tycoons and masters of business and all those workers in industry and all our senators and governors and majors [I think “mayors” was intended —JW] pay half their monthly $30 wage to their families and pay war risk insurance and buy Liberty Bonds.

Why shouldn't they?

Butler goes on to recommend that any declaration of war require approval by a national plebiscite in which voting would be restricted to those subject to conscription in a military conflict. (Writing in 1935, he never foresaw that young men and women would be sent into combat without so much as a declaration of war being voted by Congress.) Further, he would restrict all use of military force to genuine defence of the nation, in particular, limiting the Navy to operating no more than 200 miles (320 km) from the coastline.

This is an impassioned plea against the folly of foreign wars by a man whose career was as a warrior. One can argue that there is a legitimate interest in, say assuring freedom of navigation in international waters, but looking back on the results of U.S. foreign wars in the 21st century, it is difficult to argue they can be justified any more than the “Banana Wars” Butler fought in his time.

Posted at 22:03 Permalink

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Reading List: The Creature from Jekyll Island

Griffin, G. Edward. The Creature from Jekyll Island. Westlake Village, CA: American Media, [1994, 1995, 1998, 2002] 2010. ISBN 978-0-912986-45-6.
Almost every time I review a book about or discuss the U.S. Federal Reserve System in a conversation or Internet post, somebody recommends this book. I'd never gotten around to reading it until recently, when a couple more mentions of it pushed me over the edge. And what an edge that turned out to be. I cannot recommend this book to anybody; there are far more coherent, focussed, and persuasive analyses of the Federal Reserve in print, for example Ron Paul's excellent book End the Fed (October 2009). The present book goes well beyond a discussion of the Federal Reserve and rambles over millennia of history in a chaotic manner prone to induce temporal vertigo in the reader, discussing the history of money, banking, political manipulation of currency, inflation, fractional reserve banking, fiat money, central banking, cartels, war profiteering, bailouts, monetary panics and bailouts, nonperforming loans to “developing” nations, the Rothschilds and Rockefellers, booms and busts, and more.

The author is inordinately fond of conspiracy theories. As we pursue our random walk through history and around the world, we encounter:

  • The sinking of the Lusitania
  • The assassination of Abraham Lincoln
  • The Order of the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Masons, and the Ku Klux Klan
  • The Bavarian Illuminati
  • Russian Navy intervention in the American Civil War
  • Cecil Rhodes and the Round Table Groups
  • The Council on Foreign Relations
  • The Fabian Society
  • The assassination of John F. Kennedy
  • Theodore Roosevelt's “Bull Moose” run for the U.S. presidency in 1912
  • The Report from Iron Mountain
  • The attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson in 1835
  • The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia

I've jumped around in history to give a sense of the chaotic, achronological narrative here. “What does this have to do with the Federal Reserve?”, you might ask. Well, not very much, except as part of a worldview in which almost everything is explained by the machinations of bankers assisted by the crooked politicians they manipulate.

Now, I agree with the author, on those occasions he actually gets around to discussing the Federal Reserve, that it was fraudulently sold to Congress and the U.S. population and has acted, from the very start, as a self-serving cartel of big New York banks enriching themselves at the expense of anybody who holds assets denominated in the paper currency they have been inflating away ever since 1913. But you don't need to invoke conspiracies stretching across the centuries and around the globe to explain this. The Federal Reserve is (despite how it was deceptively structured and promoted) a central bank, just like the Bank of England and the central banks of other European countries upon which it was modelled, and creating funny money out of thin air and looting the population by the hidden tax of inflation is what central banks do, always have done, and always will, as long as they are permitted to exist. Twice in the history of the U.S. prior to the establishment of the Federal Reserve, central banks were created, the first in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton, and the second in 1816. Each time, after the abuses of such an institution became apparent, the bank was abolished, the first in 1811, and the second in 1836. Perhaps, after the inevitable crack-up which always results from towering debt and depreciating funny money, the Federal Reserve will follow the first two central banks into oblivion, but so deeply is it embedded in the status quo it is difficult to see how that might happen today.

In addition to the rambling narrative, the production values of the book are shoddy. For a book which has gone through five editions and 33 printings, nobody appears to have spent the time giving the text even the most cursory of proofreading. Without examining it with the critical eye I apply when proofing my own work or that of others, I noted 137 errors of spelling, punctuation, and formatting in the text. Paragraph breaks are inserted seemingly at random, right in the middle of sentences, and other words are run together. Words which are misspelled include “from”, “great”, “fourth”, and “is”. This is not a freebie or dollar special, but a paperback which sells for US$20 at Amazon, or US$18 for the Kindle edition. And as I always note, if the author and publisher cannot be bothered to get simple things like these correct, how likely is it that facts and arguments in the text can be trusted?

Don't waste your money or your time. Ron Paul's End the Fed is much better, only a third the length, and concentrates on the subject without all of the whack-a-doodle digressions. For a broader perspective on the history of money, banking, and political manipulation of currency, see Murray Rothbard's classic What Has Government Done to Our Money? (July 2019).

Posted at 15:21 Permalink

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