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Friday, July 28, 2017

Reading List: Blade of p'Na

Smith, L. Neil. Blade of p'Na. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2017. ISBN 978-1-61242-218-3.
This novel is set in the “Elders” universe, originally introduced in the 1990 novels Contact and Commune and Converse and Conflict, and now collected in an omnibus edition with additional material, Forge of the Elders. Around four hundred million years ago the Elders, giant mollusc-like aquatic creatures with shells the size of automobiles, conquered aging, and since then none has died except due to accident or violence. And precious few have succumbed to those causes: accident because the big squid are famously risk averse, and violence because, after a societal adolescence in which they tried and rejected many political and economic bad ideas, they settled on p'Na as the central doctrine of their civilisation: the principle that nobody has the right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason—much like the Principle of Non-Aggression, don't you know.

On those rare occasions order is disturbed, the services of a p'Nan “debt assessor” are required. Trained in the philosophy of p'Na, martial arts, psychology, and burnished through a long apprenticeship, assessors are called in either after an event in which force has been initiated or by those contemplating a course which might step over the line. The assessor has sole discretion in determining culpability, the form and magnitude of restitution due, and when no other restitution is possible, enforcing the ultimate penalty on the guilty. The assessor's sword, the Blade of p'Na, is not just a badge of office but the means of restitution in such cases.

The Elders live on one of a multitude, possibly infinite, parallel Earths in a multiverse where each planet's history has diverged due to contingent events in its past. Some millennia after adopting p'Na, they discovered the means of observing, then moving among these different universes and their variant Earths. Some millennia after achieving biological immortality and peace through p'Na, their curiosity and desire for novelty prompted them to begin collecting beings from across the multiverse. Some were rescues of endangered species, while others would be more accurately described as abductions. They referred to this with the euphemism of “appropriation”, as if that made any difference. The new arrivals: insectoid, aquatic, reptilian, mammalian, avian, and even sentient plants, mostly seemed happy in their new world, where the Elders managed to create the most diverse and peaceful society known in the universe.

This went on for a million years or so until, just like the revulsion against slavery in the 19th century in our timeline, somesquid happened to notice that the practice violated the fundamental principle of their society. Appropriations immediately ceased, debt assessors were called in, and before long all of the Elders implicated in appropriation committed suicide (some with a little help). But that left the question of restitution to the appropriated. Dumping them back into their original universes, often war-torn, barbarous, primitive, or with hostile and unstable environments after up to a million years of peace and prosperity on the Elders' planet didn't make the ethical cut. They settled on granting full citizenship to all the appropriated, providing them the gift of biological immortality, cortical implants to upgrade the less sentient to full intelligence, and one more thing…. The Elders had developed an unusual property: the tips of their tentacles could be detached and sent on errands on behalf of their parent bodies. While not fully sentient, the tentacles could, by communicating via cortical implants, do all kinds of useful work and allow the Elders to be in multiple places at once (recall that the Elders, like terrestrial squid, have ten tentacles—if they had twelve, they'd call them twelvicles, wouldn't they?). So for each of the appropriated species, the Elders chose an appropriate symbiote who, upgraded in intelligence and self-awareness and coupled to the host by their own implant, provided a similar benefit to them. For humanoids, it was dogs, or their species' canids.

(You might think that all of this constitutes spoilers, but it's just the background for the Elders' universe which is laid out in the first few chapters for the benefit of readers who haven't read the earlier books in the series.)

Hundreds of millions of years after the Great Restitution Eichra Oren (those of his humanoid species always use both names) is a p'Na debt assessor. His symbiote, Oasam Otusam, a super-intelligent, indiscriminately libidinous, and wisecracking dog, prefers to go by “Sam”. So peaceful is the planet of the Elders that most of the cases Eichra Oren is called upon to resolve are routine and mundane, such as the current client, an arachnid about the size of a dinner table, seeking help in tracking down her fiancé, who has vanished three days before the wedding. This raises some ethical issues because, among their kind, traditionally “Saying ‘I do’ is the same as saying ‘bon appétit’ ”. Many, among sapient spiders, have abandoned the Old Ways, but some haven't. After discussion, in which Sam says, “You realize that in the end, she's going to eat him”, they decide, nonetheless, to take the case.

The caseload quickly grows as the assessor is retained by investors in a project led by an Elder named Misterthoggosh, whose fortune comes from importing reality TV from other universes (there is no multiverse copyright convention—the p'Na is cool with cultural appropriation) and distributing it to the multitude of species on the Elders' world. He (little is known of the Elders' biology…some say the females are non-sentient and vestigial) is now embarking on a new project, and the backers want a determination by an assessor that it will not violate p'Na, for which they would be jointly and separately responsible. The lead investor is a star-nosed mole obsessed by golf.

Things become even more complicated after a mysterious attack which appears to have been perpetrated by the “greys”, creatures who inhabit the mythology and nightmares of a million sapient species, and the suspicion and fear that somewhere else in the multiverse, another species has developed the technology of opening gates between universes, something so far achieved only by the now-benign Elders, with wicked intent by the newcomers.

What follows is a romp filled with interesting questions. Should you order the vegan plate in a restaurant run by intelligent plants? What are the ethical responsibilities of a cyber-assassin who is conscious yet incapable of refusing orders to kill? What is a giant squid's idea of a pleasure yacht? If two young spiders are amorously attracted, it only pupæ love? The climax forces the characters to confront the question of the extent to which beings which are part of a hive mind are responsible for the actions of the collective.

L. Neil Smith's books have sometimes been criticised for being preachy libertarian tracts with a garnish of science fiction. I've never found them to be such, but you certainly can't accuse this one of that. It's set in a world governed for æons by the principle of non-aggression, but that foundation of civil society works so well that it takes an invasion from another universe to create the conflict which is central to the plot. Readers are treated to the rich and sometime zany imagination of a world inhabited by almost all imaginable species where the only tensions among them are due to atavistic instincts such as those of dogs toward tall plants, combined with the humour, ranging from broad to wry, of our canine narrator, Sam.

Posted at 12:23 Permalink

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading List: HTML5 Canvas

Fulton, Steve and Jeff Fulton. HTML5 Canvas. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2013. ISBN 978-1-449-33498-7.
I only review computer books if I've read them in their entirety, as opposed to using them as references while working on projects. For much of 2017 I've been living with this book open, referring to it as I performed a comprehensive overhaul of my Fourmilab site, and I just realised that by now I have actually read every page, albeit not in linear order, so a review is in order; here goes.

The original implementation of World Wide Web supported only text and, shortly thereafter, embedded images in documents. If you wanted to do something as simple as embed an audio or video clip, you were on your own, wading into a morass of browser- and platform-specific details, plug-ins the user may have to install and then forever keep up to date, and security holes due to all of this non-standard and often dodgy code. Implementing interactive content on the Web, for example scientific simulations for education, required using an embedded language such as Java, whose initial bright promise of “Write once, run anywhere” quickly added the rejoinder “—yeah, right” as bloat in the language, incessant security problems, cross-platform incompatibilities, the need for the user to forever keep external plug-ins updated lest existing pages cease working, caused Java to be regarded as a joke—a cruel joke upon those who developed Web applications based upon it. By the latter half of the 2010s, the major browsers had either discontinued support for Java or announced its removal in future releases.

Fortunately, in 2014 the HTML5 standard was released. For the first time, native, standardised support was added to the Web's fundamental document format to support embedded audio, video, and interactive content, along with Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in the JavaScript language, interacting with the document via the Document Object Model (DOM), which has now been incorporated into the HTML5 standard. For the first time it became possible, using only standards officially adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium, to create interactive Web pages incorporating multimedia content. The existence of this standard provides a strong incentive for browser vendors to fully implement and support it, and increases the confidence of Web developers that pages they create which are standards-compliant will work on the multitude of browsers, operating systems, and hardware platforms which exist today.

(That encomium apart, I find much to dislike about HTML5. In my opinion its sloppy syntax [not requiring quotes on tag attributes nor the closing of many tags] is a great step backward from XHTML 1.0, which strictly conforms to XML syntax and can be parsed by a simple and generic XML parser, without the Babel-sized tower of kludges and special cases which are required to accommodate the syntactic mumbling of HTML5. A machine-readable language should be easy to read and parse by a machine, especially in an age where only a small minority of Web content creators actually write HTML themselves, as opposed to using a content management system of some kind. Personally, I continue to use XHTML 1.0 for all content on my Web site which does not require the new features in HTML5, and I observe that the home page of the World Wide Web Consortium is, itself, in XHTML 1.0 Strict. And there's no language version number in the header of an HTML5 document. Really—what's up with that? But HTML5 is the standard we've got, so it's the standard we have to use in order to benefit from the capabilities it provides: onward.)

One of the most significant new features in HTML5 is its support for the Canvas element. A canvas is a rectangular area within a page which is treated as an RGBA bitmap (the “A” denotes “alpha”, which implements transparency for overlapping objects). A canvas is just what its name implies: a blank area on which you can draw. The drawing is done in JavaScript code via the Canvas API, which is documented in this book, along with tutorials and abundant examples which can be downloaded from the publisher's Web site. The API provides the usual functions of a two-dimensional drawing model, including lines, arcs, paths, filled objects, transformation matrices, clipping, and colours, including gradients. A text API allows drawing text on the canvas, using a subset of CSS properties to define fonts and their display attributes.

Bitmap images may be painted on the canvas, scaled and rotated, if you wish, using the transformation matrix. It is also possible to retrieve the pixel data from a canvas or portion of it, manipulate it at low-level, and copy it back to that or another canvas using JavaScript typed arrays. This allows implementation of arbitrary image processing. You might think that pixel-level image manipulation in JavaScript would be intolerably slow, but with modern implementations of JavaScript in current browsers, it often runs within a factor of two of the speed of optimised C code and, unlike the C code, works on any platform from within a Web page which requires no twiddling by the user to build and install on their computer.

The canvas API allows capturing mouse and keyboard events, permitting user interaction. Animation is implemented using JavaScript's standard setTimeout method. Unlike some other graphics packages, the canvas API does not maintain a display list or refresh buffer. It is the responsibility of your code to repaint the image on the canvas from scratch whenever it changes. Contemporary browsers buffer the image under construction to prevent this process from being seen by the user.

HTML5 audio and video are not strictly part of the canvas facility (although you can display a video on a canvas), but they are discussed in depth here, each in its own chapter. Although the means for embedding this content into Web pages are now standardised, the file formats for audio and video are, more than a quarter century after the creation of the Web, “still evolving”. There is sage advice for developers about how to maximise portability of pages across browsers and platforms.

Two chapters, 150 pages of this 750 page book (don't be intimidated by its length—a substantial fraction is code listings you don't need to read unless you're interested in the details), are devoted to game development using the HTML5 canvas and multimedia APIs. A substantial part of this covers topics such as collision detection, game physics, smooth motion, and detecting mouse hits in objects, which are generic subjects in computer graphics and not specific to its HTML5 implementation. Reading them, however, may give you some tips useful in non-game applications.

Projects at Fourmilab which now use HTML5 canvas are:

Numerous other documents on the site have been updated to HTML5, using the audio and video embedding capabilities described in the book.

All of the information on the APIs described in the book is available on the Web for free. But you won't know what to look for unless you've read an explanation of how they work and looked at sample code which uses them. This book provides that information, and is useful as a desktop reference while you're writing code.

A Kindle edition is available, which you can rent for a limited period of time if you only need to refer to it for a particular project.

Posted at 13:30 Permalink

Monday, July 24, 2017

Reading List: Wool

Howey, Hugh. Wool. New York: Simon & Schuster, [2011] 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-3395-1.
Wool was originally self-published as a stand-alone novella. The series grew into a total of six novellas, collected into three books. This “Omnibus Edition” contains all three books, now designated “Volume 1 of the Silo Trilogy”. Two additional volumes in the series: Shift and Dust are respectively a prequel and sequel to the present work.

The Silo is the universe to its inhabitants. It consists of a cylinder whose top is level with the surrounding terrain and extends downward into the Earth for 144 levels, with a central spiral staircase connecting them. Transport among the levels is purely by foot traffic on the staircase, and most news and personal messages are carried by porters who constantly ascend and descend the stairs. Electronic messages can be sent, but are costly and rarely used. Levels are divided by functionality, and those who live in them essentially compose castes defined by occupation. Population is strictly controlled and static. Administration is at the top (as is usually the case), while the bottom levels are dedicated to the machines which produce power, circulate and purify the air, pump out ground water which would otherwise flood the structure, and drill for energy and mine resources required to sustain the community. Intermediate levels contain farms, hospitals and nurseries, schools, and the mysterious and secretive IT (never defined, but one assumes “Information Technology”, which many suspect is the real power behind the scenes [isn't it always?]). There is some mobility among levels and occupations, but many people live most of their lives within a few levels of where they were born, taking occasional rare (and exhausting) trips to the top levels for special occasions.

The most special of occasions is a “cleaning”. From time to time, some resident of the silo demands to leave or, more often, is deemed a threat to the community due to challenging the social order, delving too deeply into its origins, or expressing curiosity about what exists outside, and is condemned to leave the silo wearing a protective suit against the forbiddingly hostile environment outside, to clean the sensors which provide denizens their only view of the surroundings: a barren landscape with a ruined city in the distance. The suit invariably fails, and the cleaner's body joins those of others scattered along the landscape. Why do those condemned always clean? They always have, and it's expected they always will.

The silo's chief is the mayor, and order is enforced by the sheriff, to whom deputies in offices at levels throughout the silo report. The current sheriff's own wife was sent to cleaning just three years earlier, after becoming obsessed with what she believed to be a grand deception by IT and eventually breaking down in public. Sheriff Holston's own obsession grows until he confronts the same fate.

This is a claustrophobic, dystopian novel in which the reader begins as mystified with what is going on and why as are the residents of the silo, at least those who dare to be curious. As the story progresses, much of which follows the career of a new sheriff appointed from the depths of the silo, we piece together, along with the characters, what is happening and how it came to be and, with them, glimpse a larger world and its disturbing history. The writing is superb and evocative of the curious world in which the characters find themselves.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
There are numerous mysteries in this story, many of which are explained as the narrative progresses, but there's one central enigma which is never addressed. I haven't read the prequel nor the sequel, and perhaps they deal with it, but this book was written first as a stand-alone, and read as one, it leaves this reader puzzled.

The silo has abundant energy produced from oil wells drilled from the lower levels, sufficient to provide artificial lighting throughout including enough to grow crops on the farm levels. There is heavy machinery: pumps, generators, air circulation and purification systems, advanced computer technology in IT, and the infrastructure to maintain all of this along with a logistics, maintenance, and spares operation to keep it all running. And, despite all of this, there's no elevator! The only way to move people and goods among the levels is to manually carry them up and down the circular staircase. Now, I can understand how important this is to the plot of the novel, but it would really help if the reader were given a clue why this is and how it came to be. My guess is that it was part of the design of the society: to impose a stratification and reinforce its structure like the rule of a monastic community (indeed, we later discover the silo is regulated according to a book of Order). I get it—if there's an elevator, much of the plot goes away, but it would be nice to have a clue why there isn't one, when it would be the first thing anybody with the technology to build something like the silo would design into what amounts to a 144 storey building.

Spoilers end here.  

The Kindle edition is presented in a very unusual format. It is illustrated with drawings, some of which are animated—not full motion, but perspectives change, foregrounds and backgrounds shift, and light sources move around. The drawings do not always correspond to descriptions in the text. The illustrations appear to have been adapted from a graphic novel based upon the book. The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 13:46 Permalink

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Reading List: Out of the Blue

Cowie, Ian, Dim Jones, and Chris Long, eds. Out of the Blue. Farnborough, UK, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9570928-0-8.
Flying an aircraft has long been described by those who do it for a living as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. The ratio of terror to boredom depends upon the equipment and mission the pilot is flying, and tends to be much higher as these approach the ragged edge, as is the case for military aviation in high-performance aircraft. This book collects ninety anecdotes from pilots in the Royal Air Force, most dating from the Cold War era, illustrating that you never know for sure what is going to happen when you strap into an airplane and take to the skies, and that any lapse in attention to detail, situational awareness, or resistance to showing off may be swiftly rewarded not only with stark terror but costly, unpleasant, and career-limiting consequences. All of the stories are true (or at least those relating them say they are—with pilots you never know for sure), and most are just a few pages. You can pick the book up at any point; except for a few two-parters, the chapters are unrelated to one another. This is thus an ideal “bathroom book”, or way to fill a few minutes' downtime in a high distraction environment.

Because most of the flying takes place in Britain and in NATO deployments in Germany and other countries in northern Europe, foul weather plays a part in many of these adventures. Those who fly in places like Spain and California seldom find themselves watching the fuel gauge count down toward zero while divert field after divert field goes RED weather just as they arrive and begin their approach—that happens all the time in the RAF.

Other excitement comes from momentary lapses of judgment or excessive enthusiasm, such as finding yourself at 70,000 feet over Germany in a Lightning whose two engines have flamed out after passing the plane's service ceiling of 54,000 feet. While in this case the intrepid aeronaut got away without a scratch (writing up the altimeter as reading much too high), other incidents ended up in ejecting from aircraft soon to litter the countryside with flaming debris. Then there's ejecting from a perfectly good Hunter after a spurious fire warning light and the Flight Commander wingman ordering an ejection after observing “lots of smoke” which turned out, after the fact, to be just hydraulic fluid automatically dumped after a precautionary engine shutdown.

Sometimes you didn't do anything wrong and still end up in a spot of bother. There's the crew of a Victor which, shortly after departing RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands had a hydraulic system failure. No big thing—the Victor has two completely independent hydraulic systems, so there wasn't any great worry as the plane turned around to return to Gan. But when the second hydraulic system then proceeded to fail, there was worry aplenty, because that meant there was no nose-wheel steering and a total of eight applications of the brakes before residual pressure in the system was exhausted. Then came the call from Gan: a series of squalls were crossing the atoll, with crosswinds approaching the Victor's limit and heavy rain on the runway. On landing, a gust of wind caught the drag parachute and sent the bomber veering off the edge of the runway, and without nose-wheel steering, nothing could be done to counteract it. The Victor ended up ploughing a furrow in the base's just-refurbished golf course before coming to a stop. Any landing you walk away from…. The two hydraulic systems were determined to have failed from completely independent and unrelated causes, something that “just can't happen”—until it happens to you.

Then there's RAF pilot Alan Pollock, who, upset at the RAF's opting in 1968 not to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its founding, decided to mount his own celebration of the milestone. He flew his Hunter at high subsonic speed and low altitude down the Thames, twisting and turning with the river, and circling the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben struck noon. He then proceeded up the Thames and, approaching Tower Bridge, became the first and so far only pilot to fly between the two spans of the London landmark. This concluded his RAF career: he was given a medical discharge, which avoided a court martial that would have likely have sparked public support for his unauthorised aerial tattoo. His first-hand recollection of the exploit appears here.

Other stories recount how a tiny blob of grease where it didn't belong turned a Hunter into rubble in Cornwall, the strange tale of the world's only turbine powered biplane, the British pub on the Italian base at Decimomannu, Sardinia: “The Pig and Tapeworm”, and working as an engineer on the Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft: “Along the way, you will gain the satisfaction of ensuring the continued airworthiness of a bona fide museum piece, so old that the pointed bit is at the back, and so slow that birds collide with the trailing edge of the wing.” There's nothing profound here, but it's a lot of fun.

The paperback is currently out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable cost. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 22:27 Permalink

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading List: Hitler in Hell

van Creveld, Martin. Hitler in Hell. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2017. ASIN B0738YPW2M.
Martin van Creveld is an Israeli military theorist and historian, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of seventeen books of military history and strategy, including The Transformation of War, which has been hailed as one of the most significant recent works on strategy. In this volume he turns to fiction, penning the memoirs of the late, unlamented Adolf Hitler from his current domicile in Hell, “the place to which the victors assign their dead opponents.” In the interest of concision, in the following discussion I will use “Hitler” to mean the fictional Hitler in this work.

Hitler finds Hell more boring than hellish—“in some ways it reminds me of Landsberg Prison”. There is no torture or torment, just a never-changing artificial light and routine in which nothing ever happens. A great disappointment is that neither Eva Braun nor Blondi is there to accompany him. As to the latter, apparently all dogs go to heaven. Rudolf Hess is there, however, and with that 1941 contretemps over the flight to Scotland put behind them, has resumed helping Hitler with his research and writing as he did during the former's 1924 imprisonment. Hell has broadband!—Hitler is even able to access the “Black Internetz” and read, listen to, and watch everything up to the present day. (That sounds pretty good—my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.)

Hitler tells the story of his life: from childhood, his days as a struggling artist in Vienna and Munich, the experience of the Great War, his political awakening in the postwar years, rise to power, implementation of his domestic and foreign policies, and the war and final collapse of Nazi Germany. These events, and the people involved in them, are often described from the viewpoint of the present day, with parallels drawn to more recent history and figures.

What makes this book work so well is that van Creveld's Hitler makes plausible arguments supporting decisions which many historians argue were irrational or destructive: going to war over Poland, allowing the British evacuation from Dunkirk, attacking the Soviet Union while Britain remained undefeated in the West, declaring war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, forbidding an orderly retreat from Stalingrad, failing to commit armour to counter the Normandy landings, and fighting to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences to Germany and the German people. Each decision is justified with arguments which are plausible when viewed from what is known of Hitler's world view, the information available to him at the time, and the constraints under which he was operating.

Much is made of those constraints. Although embracing totalitarianism (“My only regret is that, not having enough time, we did not make it more totalitarian still”), he sees himself surrounded by timid and tradition-bound military commanders and largely corrupt and self-serving senior political officials, yet compelled to try to act through them, as even a dictator can only dictate, then hope others implement his wishes. “Since then, I have often wondered whether, far from being too ruthless, I had been too soft and easygoing.” Many apparent blunders are attributed to lack of contemporary information, sometimes due to poor intelligence, but often simply by not having the historians' advantage of omniscient hindsight.

This could have been a parody, but in the hands of a distinguished historian like the author, who has been thinking about Hitler for many years (he wrote his 1971 Ph.D. thesis on Hitler's Balkan strategy in World War II), it provides a serious look at how Hitler's policies and actions, far from being irrational or a madman's delusions, may make perfect sense when one starts from the witches' brew of bad ideas and ignorance which the real Hitler's actual written and spoken words abundantly demonstrate. The fictional Hitler illustrates this in many passages, including this particularly chilling one where, after dismissing those who claim he was unaware of the extermination camps, says “I particularly needed to prevent the resurgence of Jewry by exterminating every last Jewish man, woman, and child I could. Do you say they were innocent? Bedbugs are innocent! They do what nature has destined them to, no more, no less. But is that any reason to spare them?” Looking backward, he observes that notwithstanding the utter defeat of the Third Reich, the liberal democracies that vanquished it have implemented many of his policies in the areas of government supervision of the economy, consumer protection, public health (including anti-smoking policies), environmentalism, shaping the public discourse (then, propaganda, now political correctness), and implementing a ubiquitous surveillance state of which the Gestapo never dreamed.

In an afterword, van Creveld explains that, after on several occasions having started to write a biography of Hitler and then set the project aside, concluding he had nothing to add to existing works, in 2015 it occurred to him that the one perspective which did not exist was Hitler's own, and that the fictional device of a memoir from Hell, drawing parallels between historical and contemporary events, would provide a vehicle to explore the reasoning which led to the decisions Hitler made. The author concludes, “…my goal was not to set forth my own ideas. Instead, I tried to understand Hitler's actions, views, and thoughts as I think he, observing the past and the present from Hell, would have explained them. So let the reader judge how whether I have succeeded in this objective.” In the opinion of this reader, he has succeeded, and brilliantly.

This book is presently available only in a Kindle edition; it is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 20:49 Permalink

Little Wars by H. G. Wells

In 1913, H. G. Wells essentially single-handedly invented the modern pastime of miniature wargaming, providing a (tin soldier) battle-tested set of rules which makes for exciting, well-balanced, and unpredictable games that can be played by two or more people in an afternoon and part of an evening. Interestingly, he avoids much of the baggage that burdens contemporary games such as icosahedral dice and indirect fire calculations, and strictly minimises the rôle of chance, using nothing fancier than a coin toss, and that only in rare circumstances.

This new public domain Web edition of Little Wars includes all of the photographs and marginal drawings from the 1913 first edition of the book. Some readers may find the marginal illustrations, which are mostly purely decorative, distracting, while others consider them charming. There's a check box at the top of the document that lets you hide them if you wish. Radical feminists of the dour and scornful persuasion should be sure to take their medication before reading the subtitle or the sixth paragraph of chapter II.

The book is published using XHTML 1.0 Strict with CSS3 and Unicode typography.

Posted at 12:25 Permalink

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reading List: The Survivor

Mills, Kyle. The Survivor. New York: Pocket Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-8346-8.
Over the last fifteen years, CIA counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) has survived myriad adventures and attempts to take him out by terrorists, hostile governments, subversive forces within his own agency, and ambitious and unscrupulous Washington politicians looking to nail his scalp to their luxuriously appointed office walls, chronicled in the thirteen thrillers by his creator, Vince Flynn. Now, Rapp must confront one of the most formidable challenges any fictional character can face—outliving the author who invented him. With the death of Vince Flynn in 2013 from cancer, the future of the Mitch Rapp series was uncertain. Subsequently, Flynn's publisher announced that veteran thriller writer Kyle Mills, with fourteen novels already published, would be continuing the Mitch Rapp franchise. This is the first novel in the series by Mills. Although the cover has Flynn's name in much larger type than Mills', the latter is the sole author.

In this installment of the Rapp saga, Mills opted to dive right in just days after the events in the conclusion of the previous novel, The Last Man (February 2013). The CIA is still reeling from its genius black operations mastermind, Joseph Rickman, having gone rogue, faked his own kidnapping, and threatened to reveal decades of the CIA's secrets, including deep cover agents in place around the world and operations in progress, potentially crippling the CIA and opening up enough cans of worms to sustain the congressional committee surrender-poultry for a decade. With the immediate Rickman problem dealt with in the previous novel, the CIA is dismayed to learn that the ever-clever Rickman is himself a survivor, and continues to wreak his havoc on the agency from beyond the grave, using an almost impenetrable maze of digital and human cut-outs devised by his wily mind.

Not only is the CIA at risk of embarrassment and exposure of its most valuable covert assets, an ambitious spymaster in Pakistan sees the Rickman intelligence trove as not only a way to destroy the CIA's influence in his country and around the world, but the means to co-opt its network for his own ends, providing his path to slither to the top of the seething snake-mountain which is Pakistani politics, and, with control over his country's nuclear arsenal and the CIA's covert resources, become a player on the regional, if not world scale.

Following Rickman's twisty cyber trail as additional disclosure bombshells drop on the CIA, Rapp and his ailing but still prickly mentor Stan Hurley must make an uneasy but unavoidable alliance with Louis Gould, the murderer of Rapp's wife and unborn child, who almost killed him in the previous novel, in order to penetrate the armed Swiss compound (which has me green with envy and scribbling notes) of Leo Obrecht, rogue private banker implicated in the Rickman operation and its Pakistani connections.

The action takes Rapp and his team to a remote location in Russia, and finally to a diplomatic banquet in Islamabad where Rapp reminds an American politician which fork to use, and how.

Mitch Rapp has survived. I haven't read any of Kyle Mills' other work, so I don't know whether it's a matter of his already aligning with Vince Flynn's style or, as a professional author, adopting it along with Flynn's worldview, but had I not known this was the work of a different author, I'd never have guessed. I enjoyed this story and look forward to further Mitch Rapp adventures by Kyle Mills.

Posted at 22:09 Permalink

Thursday, July 6, 2017

New: Decide Utility

New at Fourmilab, Decide is a Unix utility, written in Perl, which helps you make decisions with the aid of (pseudo)random numbers from HotBits, the system's /dev/urandom generator, or, if none of the previous two are available, Perl's built-in rand() function.

Based upon the name by which it is invoked and/or options on the command line, Decide can respond with a “Yes” or “No” answer, a binary 1 or 0, one of the twenty responses of the Magic 8-Ball, or with the result of a dice roll specified in the dice notation used by role-playing and war games, including algebraic expressions involving multiple dice throws and constants.

By default, data from the HotBits pseudorandom generator are used, but if you obtain a HotBits API Key, you can base your decisions on radioactively-generated true random numbers.

Decide is intended to run on Unix-like systems. Whether it works on other systems which provide an implementation of Perl depends how faithfully the system implements the LWP::Simple Web access module and the /dev/urandom pseudorandom generator.

Complete documentation and a link to download the utility are available on the Decide home page.

Posted at 20:16 Permalink

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading List: The Robert Heinlein Interview

Schulman, J. Neil. The Robert Heinlein Interview. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1990, 1996, 1999] 2017. ISBN 978-1-58445-015-3.
Today, J. Neil Schulman is an accomplished novelist, filmmaker, screenwriter, actor, journalist, and publisher: winner of the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction. In the summer of 1973, he was none of those things: just an avid twenty year old science fiction fan who credited the works of Robert A. Heinlein for saving his life—replacing his teenage depression with visions of a future worth living for and characters worthy of emulation who built that world. As Schulman describes it, Heinlein was already in his head, and he wanted nothing more in his ambition to follow in the steps of Heinlein than to get into the head of the master storyteller. He managed to parlay a book review into a commission to interview Heinlein for the New York Sunday News. Heinlein consented to a telephone interview, and on June 30, 1973, Schulman and Heinlein spoke for three and a half hours, pausing only for hourly changes of cassettes.

The agenda for the interview had been laid out in three pages of questions Schulman had mailed Heinlein a few days before, but the letter had only arrived shortly before the call and Heinlein hadn't yet read the questions, so he read them as they spoke. After the interview, Schulman prepared a transcript, which was edited by Robert Heinlein and Virginia, his wife. The interview was published by the newspaper in a much abridged and edited form, and did not see print in its entirety until 1990, two years after Heinlein's death. On the occasion of its publication, Virginia Heinlein said “To my knowledge, this is the longest interview Robert ever gave. Here is a book that should be on the shelves of everyone interested in science fiction. Libertarians will be using it as a source for years to come.”

Here you encounter the authentic Heinlein, consistent with the description from many who knew him over his long career: simultaneously practical, visionary, contrary, ingenious, inner-directed, confident, and able to observe the world and humanity without the filter of preconceived notions. Above all, he was a master storyteller who never ceased to be amazed people would pay him to spin yarns. As Schulman describes it, “Talking with Robert Heinlein is talking with the Platonic archetype of all his best characters.”

If you have any interest in Heinlein or the craft of science fiction, this should be on your reading list. I will simply quote a few morsels chosen from the wealth of insights and wisdom in these pages.

On aliens and first contact:
The universe might turn out to be a hell of a sight nastier and tougher place than we have any reason to guess at this point. That first contact just might wipe out the human race, because we would encounter somebody who was meaner and tougher, and not at all inclined to be bothered by genocide. Be no more bothered by genocide than I am when I put out ant poison in the kitchen when the ants start swarming in.
On the search for deep messages in his work:
[Quoting Schulman's question] “Isn't ‘Coventry’ still an attempt by the state (albeit a relatively benign one) to interfere with the natural market processes and not let the victim have his restitution?” Well, “Coventry” was an attempt on the part of a writer to make a few hundred dollars to pay off a mortgage.
On fans who complain his new work isn't consistent with his earlier writing:
Over the course of some thirty-four years of writing, every now and then I receive things from people condemning me for not having written a story just like my last one. I never pay attention to this, Neil, because it has been my intention—my purpose—to make every story I've written—never to write a story just like my last one…I'm going to write what it suits me to write and if I write another story that's just like any other story I've ever written, I'll be slipping. … I'm trying to write to please not even as few as forty thousand people in the hardcover, but a million and up in the softcover. If an author let these self-appointed mentors decide for him what he's going to write and how he's going to write it, he'd never get anywhere….
On his writing and editing habits:
I've never written more than about three months of the year the whole time I've been writing. Part of that is because I never rewrite. I cut, but I don't rewrite.
On the impact of technologies:
When I see how far machine computation has gone since that time [the 1930s], I find it the most impressive development—more impressive than the atom bomb, more impressive than space travel—in its final consequences.
On retirement:
Well, Tony Boucher pointed that out to me years ago. He said that there are retired everything else—retired schoolteachers, retired firemen, retired bankers—but there are no retired writers. There are simply writers who are no longer selling. [Heinlein's last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was published in 1987, the year before his death at age 80. —JW]
On the conflict between high technology and personal liberty:
The question of how many mega-men [millions of population] it takes to maintain a high-technology society and how many mega-men it takes to produce oppressions simply through the complexity of the society is a matter I have never satisfactorily solved in my own mind. But I am quite sure that one works against the other, that it takes a large-ish population for a high technology, but if you get large populations human liberties are automatically restricted even if you don't have legislation about it. In fact, the legislation in many cases is intended to—and sometimes does—lubricate the frictions that take place between people simply because they're too close together.
On seeking solutions to problems:
I got over looking for final solutions a good, long time ago because once you get this point shored up, something breaks out somewhere else. The human race gets along by the skin of its teeth, and it's been doing so for some hundreds of thousands or millions of years. … It is the common human condition all through history that every time you solve a problem you discover that you've created a new problem.

I did not cherry pick these: they are but a few of a multitude from the vast cherry tree which is this interview. Enjoy! Also included in the book are other Heinlein-related material by Schulman: book reviews, letters, and speeches.

I must caution prospective readers that the copy-editing of this book is embarrassingly bad. I simply do not understand how a professional author—one who owns his own publishing house—can bring a book to market which clearly nobody has ever read with a critical eye, even at a cursory level. There are dozens of howlers here: not subtle things, but words run together, sentences which don't begin with a capital letter, spaces in the middle of hyphenated words, commas where periods were intended, and apostrophes transformed into back-tick characters surrounded by spaces. And this is not a bargain-bin special—the paperback has a list price of US$19.95 and is listed at this writing at US$18.05 at Amazon. The Heinlein interview was sufficiently enlightening I was willing to put up with the production values, which made something which ought to be a triumph look just shabby and sad, but then I obtained the Kindle edition for free (see below). If I'd paid full freight for the paperback, I'm not sure even my usually mellow disposition would have remained unperturbed by the desecration of the words of an author I cherish and the feeling my pocket had been picked.

The Kindle edition is available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 23:37 Permalink