Sunday, December 8, 2019

Reading List: The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics

Anonymous Conservative [Michael Trust]. The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics. Macclenny, FL: Federalist Publications, [2012, 2014] 2017. ISBN 978-0-9829479-3-7.
One of the puzzles noted by observers of the contemporary political and cultural scene is the division of the population into two factions, (called in the sloppy terminology of the United States) “liberal” and “conservative”, and that if you pick a member from either faction by observing his or her position on one of the divisive issues of the time, you can, with a high probability of accuracy, predict their preferences on all of a long list of other issues which do not, on the face of it, seem to have very much to do with one another. For example, here is a list of present-day hot-button issues, presented in no particular order.

  1. Health care, socialised medicine
  2. Climate change, renewable energy
  3. School choice
  4. Gun control
  5. Higher education subsidies, debt relief
  6. Free speech (hate speech laws, Internet censorship)
  7. Deficit spending, debt, and entitlement reform
  8. Immigration
  9. Tax policy, redistribution
  10. Abortion
  11. Foreign interventions, military spending

What a motley collection of topics! About the only thing they have in common is that the omnipresent administrative super-state has become involved in them in one way or another, and therefore partisans of policies affecting them view it important to influence the state's action in their regard. And yet, pick any one, tell me what policies you favour, and I'll bet I can guess at where you come down on at least eight of the other ten. What's going on?

Might there be some deeper, common thread or cause which explains this otherwise curious clustering of opinions? Maybe there's something rooted in biology, possibly even heritable, which predisposes people to choose the same option on disparate questions? Let's take a brief excursion into ecological modelling and see if there's something of interest there.

As with all modelling, we start with a simplified, almost cartoon abstraction of the gnarly complexity of the real world. Consider a closed territory (say, an island) with abundant edible vegetation and no animals. Now introduce a species, such as rabbits, which can eat the vegetation and turn it into more rabbits. We start with a small number, P, of rabbits. Now, once they get busy with bunny business, the population will expand at a rate r which is essentially constant over a large population. If r is larger than 1 (which for rabbits it will be, with litter sizes between 4 and 10 depending on the breed, and gestation time around a month) the population will increase. Since the rate of increase is constant and the total increase is proportional to the size of the existing population, this growth will be exponential. Ask any Australian.

Now, what will eventually happen? Will the island disappear under a towering pile of rabbits inexorably climbing to the top of the atmosphere? No—eventually the number of rabbits will increase to the point where they are eating all the vegetation the territory can produce. This number, K, is called the “carrying capacity” of the environment, and it is an absolute number for a given species and environment. This can be expressed as a differential equation called the Verhulst model, as follows:

\frac{dP}{dt} & = & rP(1-\frac{P}{K})

It's a maxim among popular science writers that every equation you include cuts your readership by a factor of two, so among the hardy half who remain, let's see how this works. It's really very simple (and indeed, far simpler than actual population dynamics in a real environment). The left side, “dP/dt” simply means “the rate of growth of the population P with respect to time, t”. On the right hand side, “rP” accounts for the increase (or decrease, if r is less than 0) in population, proportional to the current population. The population is limited by the carrying capacity of the habitat, K, which is modelled by the factor “(1 − P/K)”. Now think about how this works: when the population is very small, P/K will be close to zero and, subtracted from one, will yield a number very close to one. This, then, multiplied by the increase due to rP will have little effect and the growth will be largely unconstrained. As the population P grows and begins to approach K, however, P/K will approach unity and the factor will fall to zero, meaning that growth has completely stopped due to the population reaching the carrying capacity of the environment—it simply doesn't produce enough vegetation to feed any more rabbits. If the rabbit population overshoots, this factor will go negative and there will be a die-off which eventually brings the population P below the carrying capacity K. (Sorry if this seems tedious; one of the great things about learning even a very little about differential equations is that all of this is apparent at a glance from the equation once you get over the speed bump of understanding the notation and algebra involved.)

This is grossly over-simplified. In fact, real populations are prone to oscillations and even chaotic dynamics, but we don't need to get into any of that for what follows, so I won't.

Let's complicate things in our bunny paradise by introducing a population of wolves. The wolves can't eat the vegetation, since their digestive systems cannot extract nutrients from it, so their only source of food is the rabbits. Each wolf eats many rabbits every year, so a large rabbit population is required to support a modest number of wolves. Now if we go back and look at the equation for wolves, K represents the number of wolves the rabbit population can sustain, in the steady state, where the number of rabbits eaten by the wolves just balances the rabbits' rate of reproduction. This will often result in a rabbit population smaller than the carrying capacity of the environment, since their population is now constrained by wolf predation and not K.

What happens as this (oversimplified) system cranks away, generation after generation, and Darwinian evolution kicks in? Evolution consists of two processes: variation, which is largely random, and selection, which is sensitively dependent upon the environment. The rabbits are unconstrained by K, the carrying capacity of their environment. If their numbers increase beyond a population P substantially smaller than K, the wolves will simply eat more of them and bring the population back down. The rabbit population, then, is not at all constrained by K, but rather by r: the rate at which they can produce new offspring. Population biologists call this an r-selected species: evolution will select for individuals who produce the largest number of progeny in the shortest time, and hence for a life cycle which minimises parental investment in offspring and against mating strategies, such as lifetime pair bonding, which would limit their numbers. Rabbits which produce fewer offspring will lose a larger fraction of them to predation (which affects all rabbits, essentially at random), and the genes which they carry will be selected out of the population. An r-selected population, sometimes referred to as r-strategists, will tend to be small, with short gestation time, high fertility (offspring per litter), rapid maturation to the point where offspring can reproduce, and broad distribution of offspring within the environment.

Wolves operate under an entirely different set of constraints. Their entire food supply is the rabbits, and since it takes a lot of rabbits to keep a wolf going, there will be fewer wolves than rabbits. What this means, going back to the Verhulst equation, is that the 1 − P/K factor will largely determine their population: the carrying capacity K of the environment supports a much smaller population of wolves than their food source, rabbits, and if their rate of population growth r were to increase, it would simply mean that more wolves would starve due to insufficient prey. This results in an entirely different set of selection criteria driving their evolution: the wolves are said to be K-selected or K-strategists. A successful wolf (defined by evolution theory as more likely to pass its genes on to successive generations) is not one which can produce more offspring (who would merely starve by hitting the K limit before reproducing), but rather highly optimised predators, able to efficiently exploit the limited supply of rabbits, and to pass their genes on to a small number of offspring, produced infrequently, which require substantial investment by their parents to train them to hunt and, in many cases, acquire social skills to act as part of a group that hunts together. These K-selected species tend to be larger, live longer, have fewer offspring, and have parents who spend much more effort raising them and training them to be successful predators, either individually or as part of a pack.

K or r, r or K: once you've seen it, you can't look away.”

Just as our island of bunnies and wolves was over-simplified, the dichotomy of r- and K-selection is rarely precisely observed in nature (although rabbits and wolves are pretty close to the extremes, which it why I chose them). Many species fall somewhere in the middle and, more importantly, are able to shift their strategy on the fly, much faster than evolution by natural selection, based upon the availability of resources. These r/K shape-shifters react to their environment. When resources are abundant, they adopt an r-strategy, but as their numbers approach the carrying capacity of their environment, shift to life cycles you'd expect from K-selection.

What about humans? At a first glance, humans would seem to be a quintessentially K-selected species. We are large, have long lifespans (about twice as long as we “should” based upon the number of heartbeats per lifetime of other mammals), usually only produce one child (and occasionally two) per gestation, with around a one year turn-around between children, and massive investment by parents in raising infants to the point of minimal autonomy and many additional years before they become fully functional adults. Humans are “knowledge workers”, and whether they are hunter-gatherers, farmers, or denizens of cubicles at The Company, live largely by their wits, which are a combination of the innate capability of their hypertrophied brains and what they've learned in their long apprenticeship through childhood. Humans are not just predators on what they eat, but also on one another. They fight, and they fight in bands, which means that they either develop the social skills to defend themselves and meet their needs by raiding other, less competent groups, or get selected out in the fullness of evolutionary time.

But humans are also highly adaptable. Since modern humans appeared some time between fifty and two hundred thousand years ago they have survived, prospered, proliferated, and spread into almost every habitable region of the Earth. They have been hunter-gatherers, farmers, warriors, city-builders, conquerors, explorers, colonisers, traders, inventors, industrialists, financiers, managers, and, in the Final Days of their species, WordPress site administrators.

In many species, the selection of a predominantly r or K strategy is a mix of genetics and switches that get set based upon experience in the environment. It is reasonable to expect that humans, with their large brains and ability to override inherited instinct, would be especially sensitive to signals directing them to one or the other strategy.

Now, finally, we get back to politics. This was a post about politics. I hope you've been thinking about it as we spent time in the island of bunnies and wolves, the cruel realities of natural selection, and the arcana of differential equations.

What does r-selection produce in a human population? Well, it might, say, be averse to competition and all means of selection by measures of performance. It would favour the production of large numbers of offspring at an early age, by early onset of mating, promiscuity, and the raising of children by single mothers with minimal investment by them and little or none by the fathers (leaving the raising of children to the State). It would welcome other r-selected people into the community, and hence favour immigration from heavily r populations. It would oppose any kind of selection based upon performance, whether by intelligence tests, academic records, physical fitness, or job performance. It would strive to create the ideal r environment of unlimited resources, where all were provided all their basic needs without having to do anything but consume. It would oppose and be repelled by the K component of the population, seeking to marginalise it as toxic, privileged, or exploiters of the real people. It might even welcome conflict with K warriors of adversaries to reduce their numbers in otherwise pointless foreign adventures.

And K-troop? Once a society in which they initially predominated creates sufficient wealth to support a burgeoning r population, they will find themselves outnumbered and outvoted, especially once the r wave removes the firebreaks put in place when K was king to guard against majoritarian rule by an urban underclass. The K population will continue to do what they do best: preserving the institutions and infrastructure which sustain life, defending the society in the military, building and running businesses, creating the basic science and technologies to cope with emerging problems and expand the human potential, and governing an increasingly complex society made up, with every generation, of a population, and voters, who are fundamentally unlike them.

Note that the r/K model completely explains the “crunchy to soggy” evolution of societies which has been remarked upon since antiquity. Human societies always start out, as our genetic heritage predisposes us to, K-selected. We work to better our condition and turn our large brains to problem-solving and, before long, the privation our ancestors endured turns into a pretty good life and then, eventually, abundance. But abundance is what selects for the r strategy. Those who would not have reproduced, or have as many children in the K days of yore, now have babies-a-poppin' as in the introduction to Idiocracy, and before long, not waiting for genetics to do its inexorable work, but purely by a shift in incentives, the rs outvote the Ks and the Ks begin to count the days until their society runs out of the wealth which can be plundered from them.

But recall that equation. In our simple bunnies and wolves model, the resources of the island were static. Nothing the wolves could do would increase K and permit a larger rabbit and wolf population. This isn't the case for humans. K humans dramatically increase the carrying capacity of their environment by inventing new technologies such as agriculture, selective breeding of plants and animals, discovering and exploiting new energy sources such as firewood, coal, and petroleum, and exploring and settling new territories and environments which may require their discoveries to render habitable. The rs don't do these things. And as the rs predominate and take control, this momentum stalls and begins to recede. Then the hard times ensue. As Heinlein said many years ago, “This is known as bad luck.”

And then the Gods of the Copybook Headings will, with terror and slaughter return. And K-selection will, with them, again assert itself.

Is this a complete model, a Rosetta stone for human behaviour? I think not: there are a number of things it doesn't explain, and the shifts in behaviour based upon incentives are much too fast to account for by genetics. Still, when you look at those eleven issues I listed so many words ago through the r/K perspective, you can almost immediately see how each strategy maps onto one side or the other of each one, and they are consistent with the policy preferences of “liberals” and “conservatives”. There is also some rather fuzzy evidence for genetic differences (in particular the DRD4-7R allele of the dopamine receptor and size of the right brain amygdala) which appear to correlate with ideology.

Still, if you're on one side of the ideological divide and confronted with somebody on the other and try to argue from facts and logical inference, you may end up throwing up your hands (if not your breakfast) and saying, “They just don't get it!” Perhaps they don't. Perhaps they can't. Perhaps there's a difference between you and them as great as that between rabbits and wolves, which can't be worked out by predator and prey sitting down and voting on what to have for dinner. This may not be a hopeful view of the political prospect in the near future, but hope is not a strategy and to survive and prosper requires accepting reality as it is and acting accordingly.

Posted at 13:02 Permalink

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Reading List: I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 2

Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 2. New York: Modern Library, [1942–1945, 1995, 1999] 2001. ISBN 978-0-375-75697-9.
This is the second volume in Victor Klemperer's diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Volume 1 (February 2009) covers the years from 1933 through 1941, in which the Nazis seized and consolidated their power, began to increasingly persecute the Jewish population, and rearm in preparation for their military conquests which began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

I described that book as “simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening”. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes.

As 1942 begins, it is apparent to many in German, even Jews deprived of the “privilege” of reading newspapers and listening to the radio, not to mention foreign broadcasts, that the momentum of German conquest in the East had stalled and that the Soviet winter counterattack had begun to push the ill-equipped and -supplied German troops back from the lines they held in the fall of 1941. This was reported with euphemisms such as “shortening our line”, but it was obvious to everybody that the Soviets, not long ago reported breathlessly as “annihilated”, were nothing of the sort and that the Nazi hope of a quick victory in the East, like the fall of France in 1940, was not in the cards.

In Dresden, where Klemperer and his wife Eva remained after being forced out of their house (to which, in formalism-obsessed Germany, he retained title and responsibility for maintenance), Jews were subjected to a never-ending ratchet of abuse, oppression, and terror. Klemperer was forced to wear the yellow star (concealing it meant immediate arrest and likely “deportation” to the concentration camps in the East) and was randomly abused by strangers on the street (but would get smiles and quiet words of support from others), with each event shaking or bolstering his confidence in those who, before Hitler, he considered his “fellow Germans”.

He is prohibited from riding the tram, and must walk long distances, avoiding crowded streets where the risk of abuse from passers-by was greater. Another blow falls when Jews are forbidden to use the public library. With his typewriter seized long ago, he can only pursue his profession with pen, ink, and whatever books he can exchange with other Jews, including those left behind by those “deported”. As ban follows ban, even the simplest things such as getting shoes repaired, obtaining coal to heat the house, doing laundry, and securing food to eat become major challenges. Jews are subject to random “house searches” by the Gestapo, in which the discovery of something like his diaries might mean immediate arrest—he arranges to store the work with an “Aryan” friend of Eva, who deposits pages as they are completed. The house searches in many cases amount to pure shakedowns, where rationed and difficult-to-obtain goods such as butter, sugar, coffee, and tobacco, even if purchased with the proper coupons, are simply stolen by the Gestapo goons.

By this time every Jew knows individuals and families who have been “deported”, and the threat of joining them is ever present. Nobody seems to know precisely what is going on in those camps in the East (whose names are known: Auschwitz, Dachau, Theresienstadt, etc.) but what is obvious is that nobody sent there has ever been seen again. Sometimes relatives receive a letter saying the deportee died of disease in the camp, which seemed plausible, while others get notices their loved one was “killed while trying to escape”, which was beyond belief in the case of elderly prisoners who had difficulty walking. In any case, being “sent East” was considered equivalent to a death sentence which, for most, it was. As a war veteran and married to an “Aryan”, Klemperer was more protected than most Jews in Germany, but there was always the risk that the slightest infraction might condemn him to the camps. He knew many others who had been deported shortly after the death of their Aryan wives.

As the war in the East grinds on, it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is losing. The back-and-forth campaign in North Africa was first to show cracks in the Nazi aura of invincibility, but after the disaster at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–1943, it is obvious the situation is dire. Goebbels proclaims “total war”, and all Germans begin to feel the privation brought on by the war. The topic on everybody's lips in whispered, covert conversations is “How long can it go on?” With each reverse there are hopes that perhaps a military coup will depose the Nazis and seek peace with the Allies.

For Klemperer, such grand matters of state and history are of relatively little concern. Much more urgent are obtaining the necessities of life which, as the economy deteriorates and oppression of the Jews increases, often amount to coal to stay warm and potatoes to eat, hauled long distances by manual labour. Klemperer, like all able-bodied Jews (the definition of which is flexible: he suffers from heart disease and often has difficulty walking long distances or climbing stairs, and has vision problems as well) is assigned “war work”, which in his case amounts to menial labour tending machines producing stationery and envelopes in a paper factory. Indeed, what appear in retrospect as the pivotal moments of the war in Europe: the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, Axis defeat and evacuation of North Africa, the fall of Mussolini and Italy's leaving the Axis, the Allied D-day landings in Normandy, the assassination plot against Hitler, and more almost seem to occur off-stage here, with news filtering in bit by bit after the fact and individuals trying to piece it together and make sense of it all.

One event which is not off stage is the bombing of Dresden between February 13 and 15, 1945. The Klemperers were living at the time in the Jews' house they shared with several other families, which was located some distance from the city centre. There was massive damage in the area, but it was outside the firestorm which consumed the main targets. Victor and Eva became separated in the chaos, but were reunited near the end of the attack. Given the devastation and collapse of infrastructure, Klemperer decided to bet his life on the hope that the attack would have at least temporarily put the Gestapo out of commission and removed the yellow star, discarded all identity documents marking him as a Jew, and joined the mass of refugees, many also without papers, fleeing the ruins of Dresden. He and Eva made their way on what remained of the transportation system toward Bavaria and eastern Germany, where they had friends who might accommodate them, at least temporarily. Despite some close calls, the ruse worked, and they survived the end of the war, fall of the Nazi regime, and arrival of United States occupation troops.

After a period in which he discovered that the American occupiers, while meaning well, were completely overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of the populace amid the ruins, the Klemperers decided to make it on their own back to Dresden, which was in the Soviet zone of occupation, where they hoped their house still stood and would be restored to them as their property. The book concludes with a description of this journey across ruined Germany and final arrival at the house they occupied before the Nazis came to power.

After the war, Victor Klemperer was appointed a professor at the University of Leipzig and resumed his academic career. As political life resumed in what was then the Soviet sector and later East Germany, he joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which is usually translated to English as the East German Communist Party and was under the thumb of Moscow. Subsequently, he became a cultural ambassador of sorts for East Germany. He seems to have been a loyal communist, although in his later diaries he expressed frustration at the impotence of the “parliament” in which he was a delegate for eight years. Not to be unkind to somebody who survived as much oppression and adversity as he did, but he didn't seem to have much of a problem with a totalitarian, one party, militaristic, intrusive surveillance, police state as long as it wasn't directly persecuting him.

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

Posted at 22:44 Permalink

Friday, November 29, 2019

Reading List: Atomic Energy for Military Purposes

Smyth, Henry D. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, [1945] 1990. ISBN 978-0-8047-1722-9.
This document was released to the general public by the United States War Department on August 12th, 1945, just days after nuclear weapons had been dropped on Japan (Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th). The author, Prof. Henry D. Smyth of Princeton University, had worked on the Manhattan Project since early 1941, was involved in a variety of theoretical and practical aspects of the effort, and possessed security clearances which gave him access to all of the laboratories and production facilities involved in the project. In May, 1944, Smyth, who had suggested such a publication, was given the go ahead by the Manhattan Project's Military Policy Committee to prepare an unclassified summary of the bomb project. This would have a dual purpose: to disclose to citizens and taxpayers what had been done on their behalf, and to provide scientists and engineers involved in the project a guide to what they could discuss openly in the postwar period: if it was in the “Smyth Report” (as it came to be called), it was public information, otherwise mum's the word.

The report is a both an introduction to the physics underlying nuclear fission and its use in both steady-state reactors and explosives, production of fissile material (both separation of reactive Uranium-235 from the much more abundant Uranium-238 and production of Plutonium-239 in nuclear reactors), and the administrative history and structure of the project. Viewed as a historical document, the report is as interesting in what it left out as what was disclosed. Essentially none of the key details discovered and developed by the Manhattan Project which might be of use to aspiring bomb makers appear here. The key pieces of information which were not known to interested physicists in 1940 before the curtain of secrecy descended upon anything related to nuclear fission were inherently disclosed by the very fact that a fission bomb had been built, detonated, and produced a very large explosive yield.

  • It was possible to achieve a fast fission reaction with substantial explosive yield.
  • It was possible to prepare a sufficient quantity of fissile material (uranium or plutonium) to build a bomb.
  • The critical mass required by a bomb was within the range which could be produced by a country with the industrial resources of the United States and small enough that it could be delivered by an aircraft.

None of these were known at the outset of the Manhattan Project (which is why it was such a gamble to undertake it), but after the first bombs were used, they were apparent to anybody who was interested, most definitely including the Soviet Union (who, unbeknownst to Smyth and the political and military leaders of the Manhattan Project, already had the blueprints for the Trinity bomb and extensive information on all aspects of the project from their spies.)

Things never disclosed in the Smyth Report include the critical masses of uranium and plutonium, the problem of contamination of reactor-produced plutonium with the Plutonium-240 isotope and the consequent impossibility of using a gun-type design with plutonium, the technique of implosion and the technologies required to achieve it such as explosive lenses and pulsed power detonators (indeed, the word “implosion” appears nowhere in the document), and the chemical processes used to separate plutonium from uranium and fission products irradiated in a production reactor. In many places, it is explicitly said that military security prevents discussion of aspects of the project, but in others nasty surprises which tremendously complicated the effort are simply not mentioned—left for others wishing to follow in its path to discover for themselves.

Reading the first part of the report, you get the sense that it had not yet been decided whether to disclose the existence or scale of the Los Alamos operation. Only toward the end of the work is Los Alamos named and the facilities and tasks undertaken there described. The bulk of the report was clearly written before the Trinity test of the plutonium bomb on July 16, 1945. It is described in an appendix which reproduces verbatim the War Department press release describing the test, which was only issued after the bombs were used on Japan.

This document is of historical interest only. If you're interested in the history of the Manhattan Project and the design of the first fission bombs, more recent works such as Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb are much better sources. For those aware of the scope and details of the wartime bomb project, the Smyth report is an interesting look at what those responsible for it felt comfortable disclosing and what they wished to continue to keep secret. The forward by General Leslie R. Groves reminds readers that “Persons disclosing or securing additional information by any means whatsoever without authorization are subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act.”

I read a Kindle edition from another publisher which is much less expensive than the Stanford paperback but contains a substantial number of typographical errors probably introduced by scanning a paper source document with inadequate subsequent copy editing.

Posted at 23:45 Permalink

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Reading List: Wrench and Claw

Howe, Steven D. Wrench and Claw. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2011. ASIN B005JPZ74A.
In the conclusion of the author's Honor Bound Honor Born (May 2014), an explorer on the Moon discovers something that just shouldn't be there, which calls into question the history of the Earth and Moon and humanity's place in it. This short novel (or novella—it's 81 pages in a print edition) explores how that anomaly came to be and presents a brilliantly sketched alternative history which reminds the reader just how little we really know about the vast expanses of time which preceded our own species' appearance on the cosmic stage.

Vesquith is an Army lieutenant assigned to a base on the Moon. The base is devoted to research, exploration, and development of lunar resources to expand the presence on the Moon, but more recently has become a key asset in Earth's defence, as its Lunar Observation Post (LOP) allows monitoring the inner solar system. This has become crucial since the Martian colony, founded with high hopes, has come under the domination of self-proclaimed “King” Rornak, whose religious fanatics infiltrated the settlement and now threaten the Earth with an arsenal of nuclear weapons they have somehow obtained and are using to divert asteroids to exploit their resources for the development of Mars.

Independently, Bob, a field paleontologist whose expedition is running short of funds, is enduring a fundraising lecture at a Denver museum by a Dr Dietlief, a crowd-pleasing science populariser who regales his audiences with illustrations of how little we really know about the Earth's past, stretching for vast expanses of time compared to that since the emergence of modern humans, and wild speculations about what might have come and gone during those aeons, including the rise and fall of advanced technological civilisations whose works may have disappeared without a trace in a million years or so after their demise due to corrosion, erosion, and the incessant shifting of the continents and recycling of the Earth's surface. How do we know that, somewhere beneath our feet, yet to be discovered by paleontologists who probably wouldn't understand what they'd found, lies “something like a crescent wrench clutched in a claw?” Dietlief suggests that even if paleontologists came across what remained of such evidence after dozens of millions of years they'd probably not recognise it because they weren't looking for such a thing and didn't have the specialised equipment needed to detect it.

On the Moon, Vesquith and his crew return to base to find it has been attacked, presumably by an advance party from Mars, wiping out a detachment of Amphibious Marines sent to guard the LOP and disabling it, rendering Earth blind to attack from Mars. The survivors must improvise with the few resources remaining from the attack to meet their needs, try to restore communications with Earth to warn of a possible attack and request a rescue mission, and defend against possible additional assaults on their base. This is put to the test when another contingent of invaders arrives to put the base permanently out of commission and open the way for a general attack on Earth.

Bob, meanwhile, thanks to funds raised by Dr Dietlief's lecture, has been able to extend his fieldwork, add some assistants, and equip his on-site lab with some new analytic equipment….

This is a brilliant story which rewrites the history of the Earth and sets the stage for the second volume in the Earth Rise series, Honor Bound Honor Born. There is so much going on and so many surprises that I can't really say much more without venturing into spoiler territory, so I won't. The only shortcoming is that, like many self-published works, it stumbles over the humble apostrophe, and particularly its shock troops, the “its/it's” brigade.

During the author's twenty year career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, he worked on a variety of technologies including nuclear propulsion and applications of nuclear power to space exploration and development. Since the 1980s he has been an advocate of a “power rich” approach to space missions, in particular lunar and Mars bases. The lunar base described in the story implements this strategy, but it's not central to the story and doesn't intrude upon the adventure.

This book is presently available only in a Kindle edition, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 20:29 Permalink

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Reading List: Sunburst and Luminary

Eyles, Don. Sunburst and Luminary. Boston: Fort Point Press, 2018. ISBN 978-0-9863859-3-3.
In 1966, the author graduated from Boston University with a bachelor's degree in mathematics. He had no immediate job prospects or career plans. He thought he might be interested in computer programming due to a love of solving puzzles, but he had never programmed a computer. When asked, in one of numerous job interviews, how he would go about writing a program to alphabetise a list of names, he admitted he had no idea. One day, walking home from yet another interview, he passed an unimpressive brick building with a sign identifying it as the “MIT Instrumentation Laboratory”. He'd heard a little about the place and, on a lark, walked in and asked if they were hiring. The receptionist handed him a long application form, which he filled out, and was then immediately sent to interview with a personnel officer. Eyles was amazed when the personnel man seemed bent on persuading him to come to work at the Lab. After reference checking, he was offered a choice of two jobs: one in the “analysis group” (whatever that was), and another on the team developing computer software for landing the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) on the Moon. That sounded interesting, and the job had another benefit attractive to a 21 year old just graduating from university: it came with deferment from the military draft, which was going into high gear as U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened.

Near the start of the Apollo project, MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory, led by the legendary “Doc” Charles Stark Draper, won a sole source contract to design and program the guidance system for the Apollo spacecraft, which came to be known as the “Apollo Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control System” (PGNCS, pronounced “pings”). Draper and his laboratory had pioneered inertial guidance systems for aircraft, guided missiles, and submarines, and had in-depth expertise in all aspects of the challenging problem of enabling the Apollo spacecraft to navigate from the Earth to the Moon, land on the Moon, and return to the Earth without any assistance from ground-based assets. In a normal mission, it was expected that ground-based tracking and computers would assist those on board the spacecraft, but in the interest of reliability and redundancy it was required that completely autonomous navigation would permit accomplishing the mission.

The Instrumentation Laboratory developed an integrated system composed of an inertial measurement unit consisting of gyroscopes and accelerometers that provided a stable reference from which the spacecraft's orientation and velocity could be determined, an optical telescope which allowed aligning the inertial platform by taking sightings on fixed stars, and an Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), a general purpose digital computer which interfaced to the guidance system, thrusters and engines on the spacecraft, the astronauts' flight controls, and mission control, and was able to perform the complex calculations for en route maneuvers and the unforgiving lunar landing process in real time.

Every Apollo lunar landing mission carried two AGCs: one in the Command Module and another in the Lunar Module. The computer hardware, basic operating system, and navigation support software were identical, but the mission software was customised due to the different hardware and flight profiles of the Command and Lunar Modules. (The commonality of the two computers proved essential in getting the crew of Apollo 13 safely back to Earth after an explosion in the Service Module cut power to the Command Module and disabled its computer. The Lunar Module's AGC was able to perform the critical navigation and guidance operations to put the spacecraft back on course for an Earth landing.)

By the time Don Eyles was hired in 1966, the hardware design of the AGC was largely complete (although a revision, called Block II, was underway which would increase memory capacity and add some instructions which had been found desirable during the initial software development process), the low-level operating system and support libraries (implementing such functionality as fixed point arithmetic, vector, and matrix computations), and a substantial part of the software for the Command Module had been written. But the software for actually landing on the Moon, which would run in the Lunar Module's AGC, was largely just a concept in the minds of its designers. Turning this into hard code would be the job of Don Eyles, who had never written a line of code in his life, and his colleagues. They seemed undaunted by the challenge: after all, nobody knew how to land on the Moon, so whoever attempted the task would have to make it up as they went along, and they had access, in the Instrumentation Laboratory, to the world's most experienced team in the area of inertial guidance.

Today's programmers may be amazed it was possible to get anything at all done on a machine with the capabilities of the Apollo Guidance Computer, no less fly to the Moon and land there. The AGC had a total of 36,864 15-bit words of read-only core rope memory, in which every bit was hand-woven to the specifications of the programmers. As read-only memory, the contents were completely fixed: if a change was required, the memory module in question (which was “potted” in a plastic compound) had to be discarded and a new one woven from scratch. There was no way to make “software patches”. Read-write storage was limited to 2048 15-bit words of magnetic core memory. The read-write memory was non-volatile: its contents were preserved across power loss and restoration. (Each memory word was actually 16 bits in length, but one bit was used for parity checking to detect errors and not accessible to the programmer.) Memory cycle time was 11.72 microseconds. There was no external bulk storage of any kind (disc, tape, etc.): everything had to be done with the read-only and read-write memory built into the computer.

The AGC software was an example of “real-time programming”, a discipline with which few contemporary programmers are acquainted. As opposed to an “app” which interacts with a user and whose only constraint on how long it takes to respond to requests is the user's patience, a real-time program has to meet inflexible constraints in the real world set by the laws of physics, with failure often resulting in disaster just as surely as hardware malfunctions. For example, when the Lunar Module is descending toward the lunar surface, burning its descent engine to brake toward a smooth touchdown, the LM is perched atop the thrust vector of the engine just like a pencil balanced on the tip of your finger: it is inherently unstable, and only constant corrections will keep it from tumbling over and crashing into the surface, which would be bad. To prevent this, the Lunar Module's AGC runs a piece of software called the digital autopilot (DAP) which, every tenth of a second, issues commands to steer the descent engine's nozzle to keep the Lunar Module pointed flamy side down and adjusts the thrust to maintain the desired descent velocity (the thrust must be constantly adjusted because as propellant is burned, the mass of the LM decreases, and less thrust is needed to maintain the same rate of descent). The AGC/DAP absolutely must compute these steering and throttle commands and send them to the engine every tenth of a second. If it doesn't, the Lunar Module will crash. That's what real-time computing is all about: the computer has to deliver those results in real time, as the clock ticks, and if it doesn't (for example, it decides to give up and flash a Blue Screen of Death instead), then the consequences are not an irritated or enraged user, but actual death in the real world. Similarly, every two seconds the computer must read the spacecraft's position from the inertial measurement unit. If it fails to do so, it will hopelessly lose track of which way it's pointed and how fast it is going. Real-time programmers live under these demanding constraints and, especially given the limitations of a computer such as the AGC, must deploy all of their cleverness to meet them without fail, whatever happens, including transient power failures, flaky readings from instruments, user errors, and completely unanticipated “unknown unknowns”.

The software which ran in the Lunar Module AGCs for Apollo lunar landing missions was called LUMINARY, and in its final form (version 210) used on Apollo 15, 16, and 17, consisted of around 36,000 lines of code (a mix of assembly language and interpretive code which implemented high-level operations), of which Don Eyles wrote in excess of 2,200 lines, responsible for the lunar landing from the start of braking from lunar orbit through touchdown on the Moon. This was by far the most dynamic phase of an Apollo mission, and the most demanding on the limited resources of the AGC, which was pushed to around 90% of its capacity during the final landing phase where the astronauts were selecting the landing spot and guiding the Lunar Module toward a touchdown. The margin was razor-thin, and that's assuming everything went as planned. But this was not always the case.

It was when the unexpected happened that the genius of the AGC software and its ability to make the most of the severely limited resources at its disposal became apparent. As Apollo 11 approached the lunar surface, a series of five program alarms: codes 1201 and 1202, interrupted the display of altitude and vertical velocity being monitored by Buzz Aldrin and read off to guide Neil Armstrong in flying to the landing spot. These codes both indicated out-of-memory conditions in the AGC's scarce read-write memory. The 1201 alarm was issued when all five of the 44-word vector accumulator (VAC) areas were in use when another program requested to use one, and 1202 signalled exhaustion of the eight 12-word core sets required by each running job. The computer had a single processor and could execute only one task at a time, but its operating system allowed lower priority tasks to be interrupted in order to service higher priority ones, such as the time-critical autopilot function and reading the inertial platform every two seconds. Each suspended lower-priority job used up a core set and, if it employed the interpretive mathematics library, a VAC, so exhaustion of these resources usually meant the computer was trying to do too many things at once. Task priorities were assigned so the most critical functions would be completed on time, but computer overload signalled something seriously wrong—a condition in which it was impossible to guarantee all essential work was getting done.

In this case, the computer would throw up its hands, issue a program alarm, and restart. But this couldn't be a lengthy reboot like customers of personal computers with millions of times the AGC's capacity tolerate half a century later. The critical tasks in the AGC's software incorporated restart protection, in which they would frequently checkpoint their current state, permitting them to resume almost instantaneously after a restart. Programmers estimated around 4% of the AGC's program memory was devoted to restart protection, and some questioned its worth. On Apollo 11, it would save the landing mission.

Shortly after the Lunar Module's landing radar locked onto the lunar surface, Aldrin keyed in the code to monitor its readings and immediately received a 1202 alarm: no core sets to run a task; the AGC restarted. On the communications link Armstrong called out “It's a 1202.” and Aldrin confirmed “1202.”. This was followed by fifteen seconds of silence on the “air to ground” loop, after which Armstrong broke in with “Give us a reading on the 1202 Program alarm.” At this point, neither the astronauts nor the support team in Houston had any idea what a 1202 alarm was or what it might mean for the mission. But the nefarious simulation supervisors had cranked in such “impossible” alarms in earlier training sessions, and controllers had developed a rule that if an alarm was infrequent and the Lunar Module appeared to be flying normally, it was not a reason to abort the descent.

At the Instrumentation Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Don Eyles and his colleagues knew precisely what a 1202 was and found it was deeply disturbing. The AGC software had been carefully designed to maintain a 10% safety margin under the worst case conditions of a lunar landing, and 1202 alarms had never occurred in any of their thousands of simulator runs using the same AGC hardware, software, and sensors as Apollo 11's Lunar Module. Don Eyles' analysis, in real time, just after a second 1202 alarm occurred thirty seconds later, was:

Again our computations have been flushed and the LM is still flying. In Cambridge someone says, “Something is stealing time.” … Some dreadful thing is active in our computer and we do not know what it is or what it will do next. Unlike Garman [AGC support engineer for Mission Control] in Houston I know too much. If it were in my hands, I would call an abort.

As the Lunar Module passed 3000 feet, another alarm, this time a 1201—VAC areas exhausted—flashed. This is another indication of overload, but of a different kind. Mission control immediately calls up “We're go. Same type. We're go.” Well, it wasn't the same type, but they decided to press on. Descending through 2000 feet, the DSKY (computer display and keyboard) goes blank and stays blank for ten agonising seconds. Seventeen seconds later another 1202 alarm, and a blank display for two seconds—Armstrong's heart rate reaches 150. A total of five program alarms and resets had occurred in the final minutes of landing. But why? And could the computer be trusted to fly the return from the Moon's surface to rendezvous with the Command Module?

While the Lunar Module was still on the lunar surface Instrumentation Laboratory engineer George Silver figured out what happened. During the landing, the Lunar Module's rendezvous radar (used only during return to the Command Module) was powered on and set to a position where its reference timing signal came from an internal clock rather than the AGC's master timing reference. If these clocks were in a worst case out of phase condition, the rendezvous radar would flood the AGC with what we used to call “nonsense interrupts” back in the day, at a rate of 800 per second, each consuming one 11.72 microsecond memory cycle. This imposed an additional load of more than 13% on the AGC, which pushed it over the edge and caused tasks deemed non-critical (such as updating the DSKY) not to be completed on time, resulting in the program alarms and restarts. The fix was simple: don't enable the rendezvous radar until you need it, and when you do, put the switch in the position that synchronises it with the AGC's clock. But the AGC had proved its excellence as a real-time system: in the face of unexpected and unknown external perturbations it had completed the mission flawlessly, while alerting its developers to a problem which required their attention.

The creativity of the AGC software developers and the merit of computer systems sufficiently simple that the small number of people who designed them completely understood every aspect of their operation was demonstrated on Apollo 14. As the Lunar Module was checked out prior to the landing, the astronauts in the spacecraft and Mission Control saw the abort signal come on, which was supposed to indicate the big Abort button on the control panel had been pushed. This button, if pressed during descent to the lunar surface, immediately aborted the landing attempt and initiated a return to lunar orbit. This was a “one and done” operation: no Microsoft-style “Do you really mean it?” tea ceremony before ending the mission. Tapping the switch made the signal come and go, and it was concluded the most likely cause was a piece of metal contamination floating around inside the switch and occasionally shorting the contacts. The abort signal caused no problems during lunar orbit, but if it should happen during descent, perhaps jostled by vibration from the descent engine, it would be disastrous: wrecking a mission costing hundreds of millions of dollars and, coming on the heels of Apollo 13's mission failure and narrow escape from disaster, possibly bring an end to the Apollo lunar landing programme.

The Lunar Module AGC team, with Don Eyles as the lead, was faced with an immediate challenge: was there a way to patch the software to ignore the abort switch, protecting the landing, while still allowing an abort to be commanded, if necessary, from the computer keyboard (DSKY)? The answer to this was obvious and immediately apparent: no. The landing software, like all AGC programs, ran from read-only rope memory which had been woven on the ground months before the mission and could not be changed in flight. But perhaps there was another way. Eyles and his colleagues dug into the program listing, traced the path through the logic, and cobbled together a procedure, then tested it in the simulator at the Instrumentation Laboratory. While the AGC's programming was fixed, the AGC operating system provided low-level commands which allowed the crew to examine and change bits in locations in the read-write memory. Eyles discovered that by setting the bit which indicated that an abort was already in progress, the abort switch would be ignored at the critical moments during the descent. As with all software hacks, this had other consequences requiring their own work-arounds, but by the time Apollo 14's Lunar Module emerged from behind the Moon on course for its landing, a complete procedure had been developed which was radioed up from Houston and worked perfectly, resulting in a flawless landing.

These and many other stories of the development and flight experience of the AGC lunar landing software are related here by the person who wrote most of it and supported every lunar landing mission as it happened. Where technical detail is required to understand what is happening, no punches are pulled, even to the level of bit-twiddling and hideously clever programming tricks such as using an overflow condition to skip over an EXTEND instruction, converting the following instruction from double precision to single precision, all in order to save around forty words of precious non-bank-switched memory. In addition, this is a personal story, set in the context of the turbulent 1960s and early ’70s, of the author and other young people accomplishing things no humans had ever before attempted.

It was a time when everybody was making it up as they went along, learning from experience, and improvising on the fly; a time when a person who had never written a line of computer code would write, as his first program, the code that would land men on the Moon, and when the creativity and hard work of individuals made all the difference. Already, by the end of the Apollo project, the curtain was ringing down on this era. Even though a number of improvements had been developed for the LM AGC software which improved precision landing capability, reduced the workload on the astronauts, and increased robustness, none of these were incorporated in the software for the final three Apollo missions, LUMINARY 210, which was deemed “good enough” and the benefit of the changes not worth the risk and effort to test and incorporate them. Programmers seeking this kind of adventure today will not find it at NASA or its contractors, but instead in the innovative “New Space” and smallsat industries.

Posted at 13:32 Permalink

Friday, November 1, 2019

Reading List: Always Another Dawn

Crossfield, Albert Scott and Clay Blair. Always Another Dawn. Seattle, CreateSpace, [1960] 2018. ISBN 978-1-7219-0050-3.
The author was born in 1921 and grew up in Southern California. He was obsessed with aviation from an early age, wangling a ride in a plane piloted by a friend of his father (an open cockpit biplane) at age six. He built and flew many model airplanes and helped build the first gasoline-powered model plane in Southern California, with a home-built engine. The enterprising lad's paper route included a local grass field airport, and he persuaded the owner to trade him a free daily newspaper (delivery boys always received a few extra) for informal flying lessons. By the time he turned thirteen, young Scott (he never went by his first name, “Albert”) had accumulated several hours of flying time.

In the midst of the Great Depression, his father's milk processing business failed, and he decided to sell out everything in California, buy a 120 acre run-down dairy farm in rural Washington state, and start over. Patiently, taking an engineer's approach to the operation: recording everything, controlling costs, optimising operations, and with the entire family pitching in on the unceasing chores, the ramshackle property was built into a going concern and then a showplace.

Crossfield never abandoned his interest in aviation, and soon began to spend some of his scarce free time at the local airport, another grass field operation, where he continued to take flight lessons from anybody who would give them for the meagre pocket change he could spare. Finally, with a total of seven or eight hours dual control time, one of the pilots invited him to “take her up and try a spin.” This was highly irregular and, in fact, illegal: he had no student pilot certificate, but things were a lot more informal in those days, so off he went. Taking the challenge at its words, he proceeded to perform three spins and spin recoveries during his maiden solo flight.

In 1940, at age eighteen, Scott left the farm. His interest in aviation had never flagged, and he was certain he didn't want to be a farmer. His initial goal was to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Washington and then seek employment in the aviation industry, perhaps as an engineering test pilot. But the world was entering a chaotic phase, and this chaos perturbed his well-drawn plans. “[B]y the time I was twenty I had entered the University, graduated from a civilian aviation school, officially soloed, and obtained my private pilot's license, withdrawn from the University, worked for Boeing Aircraft Company, quit to join the Air Force briefly, worked for Boeing again, and quit again to join the Navy.” After the U.S. entered World War II, the Navy was desperate for pilots and offered immediate entry to flight training to those with the kind of experience Crossfield had accumulated.

Despite having three hundred flight hours in his logbook, Crossfield, like many military aviators, had to re-learn flying the Navy way. He credits it for making him a “professional, disciplined aviator.” Like most cadets, he had hoped for assignment to the fleet as a fighter pilot, but upon completing training he was immediately designated an instructor and spent the balance of the war teaching basic and advanced flying, gunnery, and bombing to hundreds of student aviators. Toward the end of the war, he finally received his long-awaited orders for fighter duty, but while in training the war ended without his ever seeing combat.

Disappointed, he returned to his original career plan and spent the next four years at the University of Washington, obtaining Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Aeronautical Engineering. Maintaining his commission in the Naval Reserve, he organised a naval stunt flying team and used it to hone his precision formation flying skills. As a graduate student, he supported himself as chief operator of the university's wind tunnel, then one of the most advanced in the country, and his work brought him into frequent contact with engineers from aircraft companies who contracted time on the tunnel for tests on their designs.

Surveying his prospects in 1950, Crossfield decided he didn't want to become a professor, which would be the likely outcome if he continued his education toward a Ph.D. The aviation industry was still in the postwar lull, but everything changed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Suddenly, demand for the next generation of military aircraft, which had been seen as years in the future, became immediate, and the need for engineers to design and test them was apparent. Crossfield decided the most promising opportunity for someone with his engineering background and flight experience was as an “aeronautical research pilot” with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a U.S. government civilian agency founded in 1915 and chartered with performing pure and applied research in aviation, which was placed in the public domain and made available to all U.S. aircraft manufacturers. Unlike returning to the military, where his flight assignments would be at the whim of the service, at NACA he would be assured of working on the cutting edge of aviation technology.

Through a series of personal contacts, he eventually managed to arrange an interview with the little-known NACA High Speed Flight Test Station at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California. Crossfield found himself at the very Mecca of high speed flight, where Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier in October 1947 and a series of “X-planes” were expanding the limits of flight in all directions.

Responsibility for flying the experimental research aircraft at Edwards was divided three ways. When a new plane was delivered, its first flights would usually be conducted by company test pilots from its manufacturer. These pilots would have been involved in the design process and worked closely with the engineers responsible for the plane. During this phase, the stability, maneuverability, and behaviour of the plane in various flight regimes would be tested, and all of its component systems would be checked out. This would lead to “acceptance” by the Air Force, at which point its test pilots would acquaint themselves with the new plane and then conduct flights aimed at expanding its “envelope”: pushing parameters such as speed and altitude to those which the experimental plane had been designed to explore. It was during this phase that records would be set, often trumpeted by the Air Force. Finally, NACA pilots would follow up, exploring the fine details of the performance of the plane in the new flight regimes it opened up. Often the plane would be instrumented with sensors to collect data as NACA pilots patiently explored its flight envelope. NACA's operation at Edwards was small, and it played second fiddle to the Air Force (and Navy, who also tested some of its research planes there). The requirements for the planes were developed by the military, who selected the manufacturer, approved the design, and paid for its construction. NACA took advantage of whatever was developed, when the military made it available to them.

However complicated the structure of operations was at Edwards, Crossfield arrived squarely in the middle of the heroic age of supersonic flight, as chronicled (perhaps a bit too exuberantly) by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. The hangars were full of machines resembling those on the covers of the pulp science fiction magazines of Crossfield's youth, and before them were a series of challenges seemingly without end: Mach 2, 3, and beyond, and flight to the threshold of space.

It was a heroic time, and a dangerous business. Writing in 1960, Crossfield notes, “Death is the handmaiden of the pilot. Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God. … Twelve out of the sixteen members of my original class at Seattle were eventually killed in airplanes. … Indeed, come to think of it, three-quarters of all the pilots I ever knew are dead.” As an engineer, he has no illusions or superstitions about the risks he is undertaking: sometimes the machine breaks and there's nothing that can be done about it. But he distinguishes being startled with experiencing fear: “I have been startled in an airplane many times. This, I may say, is almost routine for the experimental test pilot. But I can honestly say I have never experienced real fear in the air. The reason is that I have never run out of things to do.”

Crossfield proceeded to fly almost all of the cutting-edge aircraft at Edwards, including the rocket powered X-1 and the Navy's D-558-2 Skyrocket. By 1955, he had performed 99 flights under rocket power, becoming the most experienced rocket pilot in the world (there is no evidence the Soviet Union had any comparable rocket powered research aircraft). Most of Crossfield's flights were of the patient, data-taking kind in which the NACA specialised, albeit with occasional drama when these finicky, on-the-edge machines malfunctioned. But sometimes, even at staid NACA, the blood would be up, and in 1953, NACA approved taking the D-558-2 to Mach 2, setting a new world speed record. This was more than 25% faster than the plane had been designed to fly, and all the stops were pulled out for the attempt. The run was planned for a cold day, when the speed of sound would be lower at the planned altitude and cold-soaking the airframe would allow loading slightly more fuel and oxidiser. The wings and fuselage were waxed and polished to a high sheen to reduce air friction. Every crack was covered by masking tape. The stainless steel tubes used to jettison propellant in an emergency before drop from the carrier aircraft were replaced by aluminium which would burn away instants after the rocket engine was fired, saving a little bit of weight. With all of these tweaks, on November 20, 1953, at an altitude of 72,000 feet (22 km), the Skyrocket punched through Mach 2, reaching a speed of Mach 2.005. Crossfield was the Fastest Man on Earth.

By 1955, Crossfield concluded that the original glory days of Edwards were coming to an end. The original rocket planes had reached the limits of their performance, and the next generation of research aircraft, the X-15, would be a project on an entirely different scale, involving years of development before it was ready for its first flight. Staying at NACA would, in all likelihood, mean a lengthy period of routine work, with nothing as challenging as his last five years pushing the frontiers of flight. He concluded that the right place for an engineering test pilot, one with such extensive experience in rocket flight, was on the engineering team developing the next generation rocket plane, not sitting around at Edwards waiting to see what they came up with. He resigned from NACA and took a job as chief engineering test pilot at North American Aviation, developer of the X-15. He would provide a pilot's perspective throughout the protracted gestation of the plane, including cockpit layout, control systems, life support and pressure suit design, simulator development, and riding herd on the problem-plagued engine.

Ever wonder why the space suits used in the X-15 and by the Project Mercury astronauts were silver coloured? They said it was something about thermal management, but in fact when Crossfield was visiting the manufacturer he saw a sample of aluminised fabric and persuaded them the replace the original khaki coverall outer layer with it because it “looked like a real space suit.” And they did.

When the X-15 finally made its first flight in 1959, Crossfield was at the controls. He would go on to make 14 X-15 flights before turning the ship over to Air Force and NASA (the successor agency to the NACA) pilots. This book, originally published in 1960, concludes before the record-breaking period of the X-15, conducted after Crossfield's involvement with it came to an end.

This is a personal account of a period in the history of aviation in which records fell almost as fast as they were set and rocket pilots went right to the edge and beyond, feeling out the treacherous boundaries of the frontier.

A Kindle edition is available, at this writing, for just US$0.99. The Kindle edition appears to have been prepared by optical character recognition with only a rudimentary and slapdash job of copy editing. There are numerous errors including many involving the humble apostrophe. But, hey, it's only a buck.

Posted at 01:08 Permalink

Monday, October 28, 2019

Reading List: The Tower of the Bear

Wood, Fenton. The Tower of the Bear. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2019. ASIN B07XB8XWNF.
This is the third short novel/novella (145 pages) in the author's Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves (May 2019), as “utterly charming”, and the second, Five Million Watts (June 2019), “enchanting”. In this volume, the protagonist, Philo Hergenschmidt, embarks upon a hero's journey to locate a treasure dating from the origin of the Earth which may be the salvation of radio station 2XG and the key to accomplishing the unrealised dream of the wizard who built it, Zaros the Electromage.

Philo's adventures take him into the frozen Arctic where he meets another Old One, to the depths of the Arctic Ocean in the fabulous submarine of the eccentric Captain Kolodziej, into the lair of a Really Old One where he almost seizes the prize he seeks, and then on an epic road trip. After the Partition of North America, the West, beyond the Mississippi, was ceded by the Republic to the various aboriginal tribes who lived there, and no Yankee dare enter this forbidden territory except to cross it on the Tyrant's Road, which remained Yankee territory with travellers given free passage by the tribes—in theory. In fact, no white man was known to have ventured West on the Road in a century.

Philo has come to believe that the “slow iron” he seeks may be found in the fabled City of the Future, said to be near the Pacific coast at the end of the Tyrant's Road. The only way to get there is to cross the continent, and the only practical means, there being no gas stations or convenience stores along the way, is by bicycle. Viridios helps Philo obtain a superb bicycle and trailer, and equip himself with supplies for the voyage. Taking leave of Viridios at the Mississippi and setting out alone, he soon discovers everything is not what it was said to be, and that the West is even more mysterious, dangerous, and yet enchanted than the stories he's heard since boyhood.

It is, if nothing else, diverse. In its vast emptiness there are nomadic bands pursuing the vast herds of bison on horseback with bows and arrows, sedentary tribes who prefer to ride the range in Japanese mini-pickup trucks, a Universal Library which is an extreme outlier even among the exotic literature of universal libraries, a hidden community that makes Galt's Gulch look like a cosmopolitan crossroads, and a strange people who not only time forgot, but who seem to have forgotten time. Philo's native mechanical and electrical knack gets him out of squeezes and allows him to trade know-how for information and assistance with those he encounters.

Finally, near the shore of the ocean, he comes to a great Tree, beyond imagining in its breadth and height. What is there to be learned here, and what challenges will he face as he continues his quest?

This is a magnificent continuation of one of the best young adult alternative history tales I've encountered in many years. Don't be put off by the “young adult” label—while you can hand this book to any youngster from age nine on up and be assured they'll be enthralled by the adventure and not distracted by the superfluous grunge some authors feel necessary to include when trying to appeal to a “mature” audience, the author never talks down to the reader, and even engineers and radio amateurs well versed in electronics will learn arcana such as the generation and propagation of extremely low frequency radio waves. This is a story which genuinely works for all ages.

This book is currently available only in a Kindle edition. Note that you don't need a physical electronic book reader, tablet, or mobile phone to read Kindle books. Free Kindle applications are available which let you read on Macintosh and Windows machines, and a Kindle Cloud Reader allows reading Kindle books on any machine with a modern Web browser, including all Linux platforms. The fourth volume, The City of Illusions, is scheduled to be published in December, 2019.

Posted at 22:36 Permalink

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