Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Analytical Engine: 2017 Edition Released

In 1997, I posted The Analytical Engine, a Web resource devoted to Charles Babbage's 19th century invention of a mechanical computing device which embodied all of the essentials of present-day computers. Although the Analytical Engine was never built, it is a key foundation of the intellectual heritage of computing.

The Web tree included on-line editions of original documents about the Engine, including Babbage's description from his 1864 autobiography, and the 1842 “Sketch of the Analytical Engine” by L. F. Menabrea, translated and extensively annotated by Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, in which the first computer programs appeared.

Accompanying the documents was an emulator for The Analytical Engine. Implemented in the Java language, it allowed users to run programs on a simulated machine with the properties Babbage envisioned (to the extent they can be determined from the extant documents, which are occasionally contradictory and ambiguous) and get a feel both for its capabilities and limitations (you will quickly, for example, begin to appreciate why index registers and/or indirect addressing and subroutine calls were such important innovations in the early years of electronic computers). Analytical Engine programs could be run either from a command-line emulator or within Web pages as Java applets.

Unfortunately, the bright promise of Java in the 1990s has, at least as a means of adding interactivity to the Web, turned into a disappointment as dismal as a styrofoam cup of cold week-old coffee. A litany of security problems, incompatibilities among implementations of the language, and bloat in the language and its libraries turned the promise of “write once, run anywhere” into a reality of “write once, fix it forever, and struggle to keep it running”. With Release 52 of Firefox in March 2017, support for Java applets has been entirely removed, and Oracle, who inherited Java when they acquired Sun Microsystems, has announced that their Java applet plugin for all browsers will be discontinued. While the command-line Analytical Engine emulator continues to work, the demise of Java applets has made running the emulator within a browser, as most users preferred, no longer possible.

Fortunately, it is now possible to implement an interactive Web resource such as The Analytical Engine Emulator without plugins, using only (more or less) standardised technologies such as HTML5 and JavaScript (which, notwithstanding the name, has nothing whatsoever to do with Java). The 2017 edition of The Analytical Engine updates all of the documents to contemporary Web standards and provides a new JavaScript-based Web Emulator which is upward compatible with the original Java implementation and includes some new capabilities, including estimating the time programs would have taken to run on the mechanical Engine. A variety of new sample programs which can be run on the Web Emulator are available, including computation of the Fibonacci sequence, Newton's method, plotting the limaçon curve, numerical integration for naval gunnery, and estimating π with the Monte Carlo method.

You can write your own programs for the Analytical Engine, either stand-alone or using the mathematical function library. If you create any interesting programs or additions to the library, please contribute them for inclusion in this Web resource.

The best place to begin your exploration of The Analytical Engine at Fourmilab is the Introduction and Table of Contents.

Posted at 15:30 Permalink

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Reading List: What Next

Hannan, Daniel. What Next. London: Head of Zeus, 2016. ISBN 978-1-78669-193-4.
On June 23rd, 2016, the people of the United Kingdom, against the advice of most politicians, big business, organised labour, corporate media, academia, and their self-styled “betters”, narrowly voted to re-assert their sovereignty and reclaim the independence of their proud nation, slowly being dissolved in an “ever closer union” with the anti-democratic, protectionist, corrupt, bankrupt, and increasingly authoritarian European Union (EU). The day of the referendum, bookmakers gave odds which implied less than a 20% chance of a Leave vote, and yet the morning after the common sense and perception of right and wrong of the British people, which had caused them to prevail in the face of wars, economic and social crises, and a changing international environment re-asserted itself, and caused them to say, “No more, thank you. We prefer our thousand year tradition of self-rule to being dictated to by unelected foreign oligarchic technocrats.”

The author, Conservative Member of the European Parliament for South East England since 1999, has been one of the most vociferous and eloquent partisans of Britain's reclaiming its independence and campaigners for a Leave vote in the referendum; the vote was a personal triumph for him. In the introduction, he writes, “After forty-three years, we have pushed the door ajar. A rectangle of light dazzles us and, as our eyes adjust, we see a summer meadow. Swallows swoop against the blue sky. We hear the gurgling of a little brook. Now to stride into the sunlight.” What next, indeed?

Before presenting his vision of an independent, prosperous, and more free Britain, he recounts Britain's history in the European Union, the sordid state of the institutions of that would-be socialist superstate, and the details of the Leave campaign, including a candid and sometimes acerbic view not just of his opponents but also nominal allies. Hannan argues that Leave ultimately won because those advocating it were able to present a positive future for an independent Britain. He says that every time the Leave message veered toward negatives of the existing relationship with the EU, in particular immigration, polling in favour of Leave declined, and when the positive benefits of independence—for example free trade with Commonwealth nations and the rest of the world, local control of Britain's fisheries and agriculture, living under laws made in Britain by a parliament elected by the British people—Leave's polling improved. Fundamentally, you can only get so far asking people to vote against something, especially when the establishment is marching in lockstep to create fear of the unknown among the electorate. Presenting a positive vision was, Hannan believes, essential to prevailing.

Central to understanding a post-EU Britain is the distinction between a free-trade area and a customs union. The EU has done its best to confuse people about this issue, presenting its single market as a kind of free trade utopia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A free trade area is just what the name implies: a group of states which have eliminated tariffs and other barriers such as quotas, and allow goods and services to cross borders unimpeded. A customs union such as the EU establishes standards for goods sold within its internal market which, through regulation, members are required to enforce (hence, the absurdity of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels telling the French how to make cheese). Further, while goods conforming to the regulations can be sold within the union, there are major trade barriers with parties outside, often imposed to protect industries with political pull inside the union. For example, wine produced in California or Chile is subject to a 32% tariff imposed by the EU to protect its own winemakers. British apparel manufacturers cannot import textiles from India, a country with long historical and close commercial ties, without paying EU tariffs intended to protect uncompetitive manufacturers on the Continent. Pointy-headed and economically ignorant “green” policies compound the problem: a medium-sized company in the EU pays 20% more for energy than a competitor in China and twice as much as one in the United States. In international trade disputes, Britain in the EU is represented by one twenty-eighth of a European Commissioner, while an independent Britain will have its own seat, like New Zealand, Switzerland, and the US.

Hannan believes that after leaving the EU, the UK should join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and demonstrates how ETFA states such as Norway and Switzerland are more prosperous than EU members and have better trade with countries outside it. (He argues against joining the European Economic Area [EEA], from which Switzerland has wisely opted out. The EEA provides too much leverage to the Brussels imperium to meddle in the policies of member states.) More important for Britain's future than its relationship to the EU is its ability, once outside, to conclude bilateral trade agreements with important trading partners such as the US (even, perhaps, joining NAFTA), Anglosphere countries such as Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, and India, China, Russia, Brazil and other nations: all of which it cannot do while a member of the EU.

What of Britain's domestic policy? Free of diktats from Brussels, it will be whatever Britons wish, expressed through their representatives at Westminster. Hannan quotes the psychologist Kurt Lewin, who in the 1940s described change as a three stage process. First, old assumptions about the way things are and the way they have to be become “unfrozen”. This ushers in a period of rapid transformation, where institutions become fluid and can adapt to changed circumstances and perceptions. Then the new situation congeals into a status quo which endures until the next moment of unfreezing. For four decades, Britain has been frozen into an inertia where parliamentarians and governments respond to popular demands all too often by saying, “We'd like to do that, but the EU doesn't permit it.” Leaving the EU will remove this comfortable excuse, and possibly catalyse a great unfreezing of Britain's institutions. Where will this ultimately go? Wherever the people wish it to. Hannan has some suggestions for potential happy outcomes in this bright new day.

Britain has devolved substantial governance to Scotland, and yet Scottish MPs still vote in Westminster for policies which affect England but to which their constituents are not subject. Perhaps federalisation might progress to the point where the House of Commons becomes the English Parliament, with either a reformed House of Lords or a new body empowered to vote only on matters affecting the entire Union such as national defence and foreign policy. Free of the EU, the UK can adopt competitive corporate taxation and governance policies, and attract companies from around the world to build not just headquarters but also research and development and manufacturing facilities. The national VAT could be abolished entirely and replaced with a local sales tax, paid at point of retail, set by counties or metropolitan areas in competition with one another (current payments to these authorities by the Treasury are almost exactly equal to revenue from the VAT); with competition, authorities will be forced to economise lest their residents vote with their feet. With their own source of revenue, decision making for a host of policies, from housing to welfare, could be pushed down from Whitehall to City Hall. Immigration can be re-focused upon the need of the country for skills and labour, not thrown open to anybody who arrives.

The British vote for independence has been decried by the elitists, oligarchs, and would-be commissars as a “populist revolt”. (Do you think those words too strong? Did you know that all of those EU politicians and bureaucrats are exempt from taxation in their own countries, and pay a flat tax of around 21%, far less than the despised citizens they rule?) What is happening, first in Britain, and before long elsewhere as the corrupt foundations of the EU crumble, is that the working classes are standing up to the smirking classes and saying, “Enough.” Britain's success, which (unless the people are betrayed and their wishes subverted) is assured, since freedom and democracy always work better than slavery and bureaucratic dictatorship, will serve to demonstrate to citizens of other railroad-era continental-scale empires that smaller, agile, responsive, and free governance is essential for success in the information age.

Posted at 23:57 Permalink

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Reading List: The Singularity

Awret, Uziel, ed. The Singularity. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2016. ISBN 978-1-845409-07-4.
For more than half a century, the prospect of a technological singularity has been part of the intellectual landscape of those envisioning the future. In 1965, in a paper titled “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine” statistician I. J. Good wrote,

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all of the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion”, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

(The idea of a runaway increase in intelligence had been discussed earlier, notably by Robert A. Heinlein in a 1952 essay titled “Where To?”) Discussion of an intelligence explosion and/or technological singularity was largely confined to science fiction and the more speculatively inclined among those trying to foresee the future, largely because the prerequisite—building machines which were more intelligent than humans—seemed such a distant prospect, especially as the initially optimistic claims of workers in the field of artificial intelligence gave way to disappointment.

Over all those decades, however, the exponential growth in computing power available at constant cost continued. The funny thing about continued exponential growth is that it doesn't matter what fixed level you're aiming for: the exponential will eventually exceed it, and probably a lot sooner than most people expect. By the 1990s, it was clear just how far the growth in computing power and storage had come, and that there were no technological barriers on the horizon likely to impede continued growth for decades to come. People started to draw straight lines on semi-log paper and discovered that, depending upon how you evaluate the computing capacity of the human brain (a complicated and controversial question), the computing power of a machine with a cost comparable to a present-day personal computer would cross the human brain threshold sometime in the twenty-first century. There seemed to be a limited number of alternative outcomes.

  1. Progress in computing comes to a halt before reaching parity with human brain power, due to technological limits, economics (inability to afford the new technologies required, or lack of applications to fund the intermediate steps), or intervention by authority (for example, regulation motivated by a desire to avoid the risks and displacement due to super-human intelligence).
  2. Computing continues to advance, but we find that the human brain is either far more complicated than we believed it to be, or that something is going on in there which cannot be modelled or simulated by a deterministic computational process. The goal of human-level artificial intelligence recedes into the distant future.
  3. Blooie! Human level machine intelligence is achieved, successive generations of machine intelligences run away to approach the physical limits of computation, and before long machine intelligence exceeds that of humans to the degree humans surpass the intelligence of mice (or maybe insects).

Now, the thing about this is that many people will dismiss such speculation as science fiction having nothing to do with the “real world” they inhabit. But there's no more conservative form of forecasting than observing a trend which has been in existence for a long time (in the case of growth in computing power, more than a century, spanning multiple generations of very different hardware and technologies), and continuing to extrapolate it into the future and then ask, “What happens then?” When you go through this exercise and an answer pops out which seems to indicate that within the lives of many people now living, an event completely unprecedented in the history of our species—the emergence of an intelligence which far surpasses that of humans—might happen, the prospects and consequences bear some serious consideration.

The present book, based upon two special issues of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, attempts to examine the probability, nature, and consequences of a singularity from a variety of intellectual disciplines and viewpoints. The volume begins with an essay by philosopher David Chalmers originally published in 2010: “The Singularity: a Philosophical Analysis”, which attempts to trace various paths to a singularity and evaluate their probability. Chalmers does not attempt to estimate the time at which a singularity may occur—he argues that if it happens any time within the next few centuries, it will be an epochal event in human history which is worth thinking about today. Chalmers contends that the argument for artificial intelligence (AI) is robust because there appear to be multiple paths by which we could get there, and hence AI does not depend upon a fragile chain of technological assumptions which might break at any point in the future. We could, for example, continue to increase the performance and storage capacity of our computers, to such an extent that the “deep learning” techniques already used in computing applications, combined with access to a vast amount of digital data on the Internet, may cross the line of human intelligence. Or, we may continue our progress in reverse-engineering the microstructure of the human brain and apply our ever-growing computing power to emulating it at a low level (this scenario is discussed in detail in Robin Hanson's The Age of Em [September 2016]). Or, since human intelligence was produced by the process of evolution, we might set our supercomputers to simulate evolution itself (which we're already doing to some extent with genetic algorithms) in order to evolve super-human artificial intelligence (not only would computer-simulated evolution run much faster than biological evolution, it would not be random, but rather directed toward desired results, much like selective breeding of plants or livestock).

Regardless of the path or paths taken, the outcomes will be one of the three discussed above: either a singularity or no singularity. Assume, arguendo, that the singularity occurs, whether before 2050 as some optimists project or many decades later. What will it be like? Will it be good or bad? Chalmers writes,

I take it for granted that there are potential good and bad aspects to an intelligence explosion. For example, ending disease and poverty would be good. Destroying all sentient life would be bad. The subjugation of humans by machines would be at least subjectively bad.

…well, at least in the eyes of the humans. If there is a singularity in our future, how might we act to maximise the good consequences and avoid the bad outcomes? Can we design our intellectual successors (and bear in mind that we will design only the first generation: each subsequent generation will be designed by the machines which preceded it) to share human values and morality? Can we ensure they are “friendly” to humans and not malevolent (or, perhaps, indifferent, just as humans do not take into account the consequences for ant colonies and bacteria living in the soil upon which buildings are constructed?) And just what are “human values and morality” and “friendly behaviour” anyway, given that we have been slaughtering one another for millennia in disputes over such issues? Can we impose safeguards to prevent the artificial intelligence from “escaping” into the world? What is the likelihood we could prevent such a super-being from persuading us to let it loose, given that it thinks thousands or millions of times faster than we, has access to all of human written knowledge, and the ability to model and simulate the effects of its arguments? Is turning off an AI murder, or terminating the simulation of an AI society genocide? Is it moral to confine an AI to what amounts to a sensory deprivation chamber, or in what amounts to solitary confinement, or to deceive it about the nature of the world outside its computing environment?

What will become of humans in a post-singularity world? Given that our species is the only survivor of genus Homo, history is not encouraging, and the gap between human intelligence and that of post-singularity AIs is likely to be orders of magnitude greater than that between modern humans and the great apes. Will these super-intelligent AIs have consciousness and self-awareness, or will they be philosophical zombies: able to mimic the behaviour of a conscious being but devoid of any internal sentience? What does that even mean, and how can you be sure other humans you encounter aren't zombies? Are you really all that sure about yourself? Are the qualia of machines not constrained?

Perhaps the human destiny is to merge with our mind children, either by enhancing human cognition, senses, and memory through implants in our brain, or by uploading our biological brains into a different computing substrate entirely, whether by emulation at a low level (for example, simulating neuron by neuron at the level of synapses and neurotransmitters), or at a higher, functional level based upon an understanding of the operation of the brain gleaned by analysis by AIs. If you upload your brain into a computer, is the upload conscious? Is it you? Consider the following thought experiment: replace each biological neuron of your brain, one by one, with a machine replacement which interacts with its neighbours precisely as the original meat neuron did. Do you cease to be you when one neuron is replaced? When a hundred are replaced? A billion? Half of your brain? The whole thing? Does your consciousness slowly fade into zombie existence as the biological fraction of your brain declines toward zero? If so, what is magic about biology, anyway? Isn't arguing that there's something about the biological substrate which uniquely endows it with consciousness as improbable as the discredited theory of vitalism, which contended that living things had properties which could not be explained by physics and chemistry?

Now let's consider another kind of uploading. Instead of incremental replacement of the brain, suppose an anæsthetised human's brain is destructively scanned, perhaps by molecular-scale robots, and its structure transferred to a computer, which will then emulate it precisely as the incrementally replaced brain in the previous example. When the process is done, the original brain is a puddle of goo and the human is dead, but the computer emulation now has all of the memories, life experience, and ability to interact as its progenitor. But is it the same person? Did the consciousness and perception of identity somehow transfer from the brain to the computer? Or will the computer emulation mourn its now departed biological precursor, as it contemplates its own immortality? What if the scanning process isn't destructive? When it's done, BioDave wakes up and makes the acquaintance of DigiDave, who shares his entire life up to the point of uploading. Certainly the two must be considered distinct individuals, as are identical twins whose histories diverged in the womb, right? Does DigiDave have rights in the property of BioDave? “Dave's not here”? Wait—we're both here! Now what?

Or, what about somebody today who, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life opts to have their brain cryonically preserved moments after clinical death is pronounced. After the singularity, the decedent's brain is scanned (in this case it's irrelevant whether or not the scan is destructive), and uploaded to a computer, which starts to run an emulation of it. Will the person's identity and consciousness be preserved, or will it be a new person with the same memories and life experiences? Will it matter?

Deep questions, these. The book presents Chalmers' paper as a “target essay”, and then invites contributors in twenty-six chapters to discuss the issues raised. A concluding essay by Chalmers replies to the essays and defends his arguments against objections to them by their authors. The essays, and their authors, are all over the map. One author strikes this reader as a confidence man and another a crackpot—and these are two of the more interesting contributions to the volume. Nine chapters are by academic philosophers, and are mostly what you might expect: word games masquerading as profound thought, with an admixture of ad hominem argument, including one chapter which descends into Freudian pseudo-scientific analysis of Chalmers' motives and says that he “never leaps to conclusions; he oozes to conclusions”.

Perhaps these are questions philosophers are ill-suited to ponder. Unlike questions of the nature of knowledge, how to live a good life, the origins of morality, and all of the other diffuse gruel about which philosophers have been arguing since societies became sufficiently wealthy to indulge in them, without any notable resolution in more than two millennia, the issues posed by a singularity have answers. Either the singularity will occur or it won't. If it does, it will either result in the extinction of the human species (or its reduction to irrelevance), or it won't. AIs, if and when they come into existence, will either be conscious, self-aware, and endowed with free will, or they won't. They will either share the values and morality of their progenitors or they won't. It will either be possible for humans to upload their brains to a digital substrate, or it won't. These uploads will either be conscious, or they'll be zombies. If they're conscious, they'll either continue the identity and life experience of the pre-upload humans, or they won't. These are objective questions which can be settled by experiment. You get the sense that philosophers dislike experiments—they're a risk to job security disputing questions their ancestors have been puzzling over at least since Athens.

Some authors dispute the probability of a singularity and argue that the complexity of the human brain has been vastly underestimated. Others contend there is a distinction between computational power and the ability to design, and consequently exponential growth in computing may not produce the ability to design super-intelligence. Still another chapter dismisses the evolutionary argument through evidence that the scope and time scale of terrestrial evolution is computationally intractable into the distant future even if computing power continues to grow at the rate of the last century. There is even a case made that the feasibility of a singularity makes the probability that we're living, not in a top-level physical universe, but in a simulation run by post-singularity super-intelligences, overwhelming, and that they may be motivated to turn off our simulation before we reach our own singularity, which may threaten them.

This is all very much a mixed bag. There are a multitude of Big Questions, but very few Big Answers among the 438 pages of philosopher word salad. I find my reaction similar to that of David Hume, who wrote in 1748:

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning containing quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I don't burn books (it's некультурный and expensive when you read them on an iPad), but you'll probably learn as much pondering the questions posed here on your own and in discussions with friends as from the scholarly contributions in these essays. The copy editing is mediocre, with some eminent authors stumbling over the humble apostrophe. The Kindle edition cites cross-references by page number, which are useless since the electronic edition does not include page numbers. There is no index.

Posted at 01:22 Permalink

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hope: A prophetic novel of an outsider president and the deep state

Zelman, Aaron and L. Neil Smith. Hope. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, [2001] 2008. ISBN 978-1-60450-293-0.
I post reviews of every book I read here, but this post is about a novel I read fifteen years ago, Hope, by Aaron Zelman and L. Neil Smith, which, although I considered it a thriller bordering on fantasy when I read it in 2002, I now consider prophetic and highly relevant to events now playing out in the United States.

Alexander Hope, a wealthy businessman with no political experience, motivated by what he perceives as the inexorable decline of the U.S. into a land where individual liberty and initiative are smothered by an inexorably growing state, manages, defying all of the pundits and politicians, through a series of highly improbable events, to end up elected president of the U.S., riding a popular wave of enthusiasm he generates in large rallies where he tells crowds things they've never heard before from the lips of politicians of the Locust and Quisling branches of the unified party of the ruling class, or from their mellifluous mouthpieces in the mainstream media. Crowds find themselves saying, “Wait—that makes sense!”, and the day after the election finds America with a president unlike any in its history.

Hope arrives in Washington with no political allies: members of both purported parties see him as an interloper and potential destroyer of their comfortable and lucrative racket. The minions of the bureaucracy and the “Beltway bandits” who feed at the federal trough are in a state of abject panic: here is a president who understands that about 95% of what they're being paid for is not among the enumerated powers of the federal government. Never before has there been such a threat to the welfare/warfare/surveillance/nanny/spy empire, and this “deep state” reacts and begins to draw its plans against this elected interloper.

President Hope owes nothing to anybody except the voters who elected him. He has no constituency in Congress, and is unbeholden to lobbyists and donors. The legacy media, joined at the hip to the slavers, is unanimously aligned against him and his agenda. Hope has no alternative but to push government by Executive Order to the limit, finding that his predecessors have created ample precedents he can now exploit to dismantle or at least obstruct the administrative state. He continues, as he did in the campaign, to go over the heads of the media and communicate directly to the electorate, unfiltered. This is a dangerous course, and before long the deep state begins to respond with acts, both overt and covert, to deal with the imminent threat.

Does any of this sound familiar? As I noted, when I read this I thought it fantasy; now it seems like we're living it. If you like political thrillers, you may enjoy what has now become almost a guide to current events. I shall certainly be re-reading it in the months to come.

Posted at 01:52 Permalink

Monday, February 20, 2017

Transit of Venus: 2004 Updated

The Web pages for the 2004 Transit of Venus have been updated to HTML5 with improved typography, embedded animations, and stale external links fixed. All pages and CSS style sheets have been validated for correctness.

Posted at 23:31 Permalink

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Les Quatre Saisons Updated

I have just posted an updated version of Les Quatre Saisons, a one-year time lapse video of construction in a field adjacent to Fourmilab in 2005–2006. The new version includes embedded video using the HTML5 video facility. This provides higher resolution than the embedded YouTube video used previously. Some broken links to the tools used to produce the movie have been fixed.

The YouTube version of the video and links for users who wish to download the movie in a variety of formats continue to be available.

Posted at 15:22 Permalink

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pitch Drop

Pitch Drop describes the longest continuously-running scientific experiment, which demonstrates how even the most viscous fluids will eventually flow as the liquids they are. Do it yourself instructions are included for the very patient.

Posted at 00:38 Permalink

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reading List: Pale Blue

Jenne, Mike. Pale Blue. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-084-0.
This is the final novel in the trilogy which began with Blue Gemini (April 2016) and continued in Blue Darker than Black (August 2016). After the harrowing rescue mission which concluded the second book, Drew Carson and Scott Ourecky, astronauts of the U.S. Air Force's covert Blue Gemini project, a manned satellite interceptor based upon NASA's Project Gemini spacecraft, hope for a long stand-down before what is slated to be the final mission in the project, whose future is uncertain due to funding issues, inter-service rivalry, the damage to its Pacific island launch site due to a recent tropical storm, and the upcoming 1972 presidential election.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, progress continues on the Krepost project: a manned space station equipped for surveillance and armed with a nuclear warhead which can be de-orbited and dropped on any target along the station's ground track. General Rustam Abdirov, a survivor of the Nedelin disaster in 1960, is pushing the project to completion through his deputy, Gregor Yohzin, and believes it may hold the key to breaking what Abdirov sees as the stalemate of the Cold War. Yohzin is increasingly worried about Abdirov's stability and the risks posed by the project, and has been covertly passing information to U.S. intelligence.

As information from Yohzin's espionage reaches Blue Gemini headquarters, Carson and Ourecky are summoned back and plans drawn up to intercept the orbital station before a crew can be launched to it, after which destroying it would not only be hazardous, but could provoke a superpower confrontation. On the Soviet side, nothing is proceeding as planned, and the interception mission must twist and turn based upon limited and shifting information.

About half way through the book, and after some big surprises, the Krepost crisis is resolved. The reader might be inclined, then, to wonder “what next?” What follows is a war story, set in the final days of the Vietnam conflict, and for quite a while it seems incongruous and unrelated to all that has gone before. I have remarked in reviews of the earlier books of the trilogy that the author is keeping a large number of characters and sub-plots in the air, and wondered whether and how he was going to bring it all together. Well, in the last five chapters he does it, magnificently, and ties everything up with a bow on the top, ending what has been a rewarding thriller in a moving, human conclusion.

There are a few goofs. Launch windows to inclined Earth orbits occur every day; in case of a launch delay, there is no need for a long wait before the next launch attempt (chapter 4). Attempting to solve a difficult problem, “the variables refused to remain constant”—that's why they're called variables (chapter 10)! Beaujolais is red, not white, wine (chapter 16). A character claims to have seen a hundred stars in the Pleiades from space with the unaided eye. This is impossible: while the cluster contains around 1000 stars, only 14 are bright enough to be seen with the best human vision under the darkest skies. Observing from space is slightly better than from the Earth's surface, but in this case the observer would have been looking through a spacecraft window, which would attenuate light more than the Earth's atmosphere (chapter 25). MIT's Draper Laboratory did not design the Gemini on-board computer; it was developed by the IBM Federal Systems Division (chapter 26).

The trilogy is a big, sprawling techno-thriller with interesting and complicated characters and includes space flight, derring do in remote and dangerous places, military and political intrigue in both the U.S. and Soviet Union, espionage, and a look at how the stresses of military life and participation in black programs make the lives of those involved in them difficult. Although the space program which is the centrepiece of the story is fictional, the attention to detail is exacting: had it existed, this is probably how it would have been done. I have one big quibble with a central part of the premise, which I will discuss behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The rationale for the Blue Gemini program which caused it to be funded is largely as a defence against a feared Soviet “orbital bombardment system”: one or more satellites which, placed in orbits which regularly overfly the U.S. and allies, could be commanded to deorbit and deliver nuclear warheads to any location below. It is the development of such a weapon, its deployment, and a mission to respond to the threat which form the core of the plot of this novel.

But an orbital bombardment system isn't a very useful weapon, and doesn't make much sense, especially in the context of the late 1960s to early '70s in which this story is set. The Krepost of the novel was armed with a single high-yield weapon, and operated in a low Earth orbit at an inclination of 51°. The weapon was equipped with only a retrorocket and heat shield, and would have little cross-range (ability to hit targets lateral to its orbital path). This would mean that in order to hit a specific target, the orbital station would have to wait up to a day for the Earth to rotate so the target was aligned with the station's orbital plane. And this would allow bombardment of only a single target with one warhead. Keeping the station ready for use would require a constant series of crew ferry and freighter launches, all to maintain just one bomb on alert. By comparison, by 1972, the Soviet Union had on the order of a thousand warheads mounted on ICBMs, which required no space launch logistics to maintain, and could reach targets anywhere within half an hour of the launch order being given. Finally, a space station in low Earth orbit is pretty much a sitting duck for countermeasures. It is easy to track from the ground, and has limited maneuvering capability. Even guns in space do not much mitigate the threat from a variety of anti-satellite weapons, including Blue Gemini.

While the drawbacks of orbital deployment of nuclear weapons caused the U.S. and Soviet Union to eschew them in favour of more economical and secure platforms such as silo-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines, their appearance here does not make this “what if?” thriller any less effective or thrilling. This was the peak of the Cold War, and both adversaries explored many ideas which, in retrospect, appear to have made little sense. A hypothetical Soviet nuclear-armed orbital battle station is no less crazy than Project Pluto in the U.S.

Spoilers end here.  
This trilogy is one long story which spans three books. The second and third novels begin with brief summaries of prior events, but these are intended mostly for readers who have forgotten where the previous volume left off. If you don't read the three books in order, you'll miss a great deal of the character and plot development which makes the entire story so rewarding. More than 1600 pages may seem a large investment in a fictional account of a Cold War space program that never happened, but the technical authenticity; realistic portrayal of military aerospace projects and the interaction of pilots, managers, engineers, and politicians; and complicated and memorable characters made it more than worthwhile to this reader.

Posted at 00:03 Permalink

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours: Web Edition Updated

The Web edition of Jules Verne's 1873 novel Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours was originally posted at Fourmilab in December of 1996. An updated version, with improved typography and confirming to the XHTML 1.0 and CSS 3 standards, has just been posted. All illustrations have been remade from the original scans into greyscale PNG images, adjusted for contrast. All documents have been checked with the W3C Validator.

Posted at 15:01 Permalink

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

De la Terre à la Lune: Web Edition Updated

In April 1996 I posted a French language, completely illustrated edition of Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune. This 1865 novel, about a voyage to the Moon conducted by a group of members of a gun club by means of 900 foot cannon, was one of the first works of science fiction in the modern sense. I have just posted an updated edition, using modern Web standards (XHTML 1.0 Strict and CSS 3), with improved typography and formatting. All of the text and illustrations are unchanged. All documents and style sheets have been validated for standards compliance by the W3C Validator.

Posted at 20:52 Permalink