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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books of the Year: 2017

Here are my picks for the best books of 2017, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read in the last twelvemonth. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author's surname. Each title is linked to my review of the book.


Winner: Runners up:


Winner: Runners up:
I should note that due to demands on my time from other clamant priorities, I have accumulated a number of books which are candidates for this list which I haven't yet had time to review. The rules for Books of the Year are that the book must both be read and reviewed to be listed, but here are books worthy of your attention which would have made this list had I time to write the reviews they deserve. I had to work in great haste, with frequent interruptions by a variety of other tasks. You may see these books in next year's Books of the Year: so sue me. Since I haven't published reviews of these books, I'll link directly to Amazon should you wish to purchase them.

Posted at 13:14 Permalink

Reading List: The Hidden Truth

Schantz, Hans G. The Hidden Truth. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5327-1293-7.
This is a masterpiece of alternative history techno-thriller science fiction. It is rich in detail, full of interesting characters who interact and develop as the story unfolds, sound in the technical details which intersect with our world, insightful about science, technology, economics, government and the agenda of the “progressive” movement, and plausible in its presentation of the vast, ruthless, and shadowy conspiracy which lies under the surface of its world. And, above all, it is charming—these are characters you'd like to meet, even some of the villains because you want understand what motivates them.

The protagonist and narrator is a high school junior (senior later in the tale), son of an electrical engineer who owns his own electrical contracting business, married to a chemist, daughter of one of the most wealthy and influential families in their region of Tennessee, against the wishes of her parents. (We never learn the narrator's name until the last page of the novel, so I suppose it would be a spoiler if I mentioned it here, so I won't, even if it makes this review somewhat awkward.) Our young narrator wants to become a scientist, and his father not only encourages him in his pursuit, but guides him toward learning on his own by reading the original works of great scientists who actually made fundamental discoveries rather than “suffering through the cleaned-up and dumbed-down version you get from your teachers and textbooks.” His world is not ours: Al Gore, who won the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was killed in the 2001-09-11 attacks on the White House and Capitol, and President Lieberman pushed through the “Preserving our Planet's Future Act”, popularly known as the “Gore Tax”, in his memory, and its tax on carbon emissions is predictably shackling the economy.

Pursuing his study of electromagnetism from original sources, he picks up a copy at the local library of a book published in 1909. The library was originally the collection of a respected institute of technology until destroyed by innovative educationalists and their pointy-headed progressive ideas. But the books remained, and in one of them, he reads an enigmatic passage about Oliver Heaviside having developed a theory of electromagnetic waves bouncing off one another in free space, which was to be published in a forthcoming book. This didn't make any sense: electromagnetic waves add linearly, and while they can be reflected and refracted by various media, in free space they superpose without interaction. He asks his father about the puzzling passage, and they look up the scanned text on-line and find the passage he read missing. Was his memory playing tricks?

So, back to the library where, indeed, the version of the book there contains the mention of bouncing waves. And yet the publication date and edition number of the print and on-line books were identical. As Isaac Asimov observed, many great discoveries aren't heralded by an exclamation of “Eureka!” but rather “That's odd.” This was odd….

Soon, other discrepancies appear, and along with his best friend and computer and Internet wizard Amit Patel, he embarks on a project to scan original print editions of foundational works on electromagnetism from the library and compare them with on-line versions of these public domain works. There appears to be a pattern: mentions of Heaviside's bouncing waves appear to have been scrubbed out of the readily-available editions of these books (print and on-line), and remain only in dusty volumes in forgotten provincial libraries.

As their investigations continue, it's increasingly clear they have swatted a hornets' nest. Fake feds start to follow their trail, with bogus stories of “cyber-terrorism”. And tragically, they learn that those who dig too deeply into these curiosities have a way of meeting tragic ends. Indeed, many of the early researchers into electromagnetism died young: Maxwell at age 48, Hertz at 36, FitzGerald at 39. Was there a vast conspiracy suppressing some knowledge about electromagnetism? And if so, what was the hidden truth, and why was it so important to them they were willing to kill to keep it hidden? It sure looked like it, and Amit started calling them “EVIL”: the Electromagnetic Villains International League.

The game gets deadly, and deadly serious. The narrator and Amit find some powerful and some ambiguous allies, learn about how to deal with the cops and other authority figures, and imbibe a great deal of wisdom about individuality, initiative, and liberty. There's even an attempt to recruit our hero to the dark side of collectivism where its ultimate anti-human agenda is laid bare. Throughout there are delightful tips of the hat to libertarian ideas, thinkers, and authors, including some as obscure as a reference to the Books on Benefit bookshop in Providence, Rhode Island.

The author is an inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist. He writes, “I appreciate fiction that shows how ordinary people with extraordinary courage and determination can accomplish remarkable achievements.” Mission accomplished. As the book ends, the central mystery remains unresolved. The narrator vows to get to the bottom of it and avenge those destroyed by the keepers of the secret. In a remarkable afterword and about the author section, there is a wonderful reading list for those interested in the technical topics discussed in the book and fiction with similarly intriguing and inspiring themes. When it comes to the technical content of the book, the author knows of what he writes: he has literally written the book on the design of ultrawideband antennas and is co-inventor of Near Field Electromagnetic Ranging (NFER), which you can think of as “indoor GPS”.

For a self-published work, there are only a few copy editing errors (“discrete” where “discreet” was intended, and “Capital” for “Capitol”). The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. A sequel is now available: A Rambling Wreck which takes our hero and the story to—where else?—Georgia Tech. I shall certainly read that book. Meanwhile, go read the present volume; if your tastes are anything like mine, you're going to love it.

Posted at 01:59 Permalink

Friday, December 29, 2017

Reading List: Order to Kill

Mills, Kyle. Order to Kill. New York: Pocket Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8349-9.
This is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. In the first novel by Mills, The Survivor (July 2017), he picked up the story of the last Vince Flynn installment, The Last Man (February 2013), right where it left off and seemed to effortlessly assume the voice of Vince Flynn and his sense for the character of Mitch Rapp. This was a most promising beginning, which augured well for further Mitch Rapp adventures.

In this, the fifteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp series (Flynn's first novel, Term Limits [November 2009], is set in the same world and shares characters with the Mitch Rapp series, but Rapp does not appear in it, so it isn't considered a Rapp novel), Mills steps out of the shadow of Vince Flynn's legacy and takes Rapp and the story line into new territory. The result is…mixed.

In keeping with current events and the adversary du jour, the troublemakers this time are the Russkies, with President Maxim Vladimirovich Krupin at the top of the tottering pyramid. And tottering it is, as the fall in oil prices has undermined Russia's resource-based economy and destabilised the enterprises run by the oligarchs who keep him in power. He may be on top, but he is as much a tool of those in the shadows as master of his nation.

But perhaps there is a grand coup, or one might even say in the new, nominally pious Russia, a Hail Mary pass, which might simultaneously rescue the Russian economy and restore Russia to its rightful place on the world stage.

The problem is those pesky Saudis. Sitting atop a large fraction of the Earth's oil, they can turn the valve on and off and set the price per barrel wherever they wish and, recently, have chosen to push the price down to simultaneously appease their customers in Europe and Asia, but also to drive the competition from hydraulic fracturing (which has a higher cost of production than simply pumping oil out from beneath the desert) out of the market. Suppose the Saudis could be taken out? But Russia could never do it directly. There would need to be a cut-out, and perfect deniability.

Well, the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever they're calling this week in the Court Language of the Legacy Empire) is sworn to extend its Caliphate to the holiest places of Islam and depose the illegitimate usurpers who rule them, so what better puppet to take down the Saudi petro-hegemony? Mitch Rapp finds himself in the middle of this conspiracy, opting to endure grave physical injury to insinuate himself into its midst.

But it's the nature of the plot where everything falls apart, in one of those details which Vince Flynn and his brain trust would never have flubbed. This isn't a quibble, but a torpedo below the water line. We must, perforce, step behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
You clicked the Spoiler link, right? Now I'm going to spoil the whole thing so if you clicked it by accident, please close this box and imagine you never saw what follows.

The central plot of this novel is obtaining plutonium from Pakistani nuclear weapons and delivering it to ISIS, not to build a fission weapon but rather a “dirty bomb” which uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material to contaminate an area and deny it to the enemy.

But a terrorist who had done no more research than reading Wikipedia would know that plutonium is utterly useless as a radiological contaminant for a dirty bomb. The isotope of plutonium used in nuclear weapons has a half-life of around 24,000 years, and hence has such a low level of radioactivity that dispersing the amount used in the pits of several bombs would only marginally increase the background radiation in the oil fields. In other words, it would have no effect whatsoever.

If you want to make a dirty bomb, the easiest way is to use spent fuel rods from civil nuclear power stations. These are far easier to obtain (although difficult to handle safely), and rich in highly-radioactive nuclides which can effectively contaminate an area into which they are dispersed. But this blows away the entire plot and most of the novel.

Vince Flynn would never, and never did, make such a blunder. I urge Kyle Mills to reconnect with Mr Flynn's brain trust and run his plots past them, or develop an equivalent deep well of expertise to make sure things fundamentally make sense.

Spoilers end here.  

All right, we're back from the spoilers. Whether you've read them or not, this is a well-crafted thriller which works as such as long as you don't trip over the central absurdity in the plot. Rapp not only suffers grievous injury, but encounters an adversary who is not only his equal but better. He confronts his age, and its limitations. It happens to us all.

The gaping plot hole could have been easily fixed—not in the final manuscript but in the outline. Let's hope that future Mitch Rapp adventures will be subjected to the editorial scrutiny which makes them not just page-turners but ones where, as you're turning the pages, you don't laugh out loud at easily-avoided blunders.

Posted at 14:23 Permalink

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Reading List: The Electra Story

Serling, Robert J. The Electra Story. New York: Bantam Books, [1963] 1991. ISBN 978-0-553-28845-2.
As the jet age dawned for commercial air transport, the major U.S. aircraft manufacturers found themselves playing catch-up to the British, who had put the first pure jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, into service in 1952, followed shortly thereafter by the turboprop Vickers Viscount in 1953. The Comet's reputation was seriously damaged by a series of crashes caused by metal fatigue provoked by its pressurisation system, and while this was remedied in subsequent models, the opportunity to scoop the Americans and set the standard for passenger jet transportation was lost. The Viscount was very successful with a total of 445 built. In fact, demand so surpassed its manufacturer's production rate that delivery time stretched out, causing airlines to seek alternatives.

All of this created a golden opportunity for the U.S. airframers. Boeing and Douglas opted for four engine turbojet designs, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which were superficially similar, entering service in 1958 and 1959 respectively. Lockheed opted for a different approach. Based upon its earlier experience designing the C-130 Hercules military transport for the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed decided to build a turboprop airliner instead of a pure jet design like the 707 or DC-8. There were a number of reasons motivating this choice. First of all, Lockheed could use essentially the same engines in the airliner as in the C-130, eliminating the risks of mating a new engine to a new airframe which have caused major troubles throughout the history of aviation. Second, a turboprop, although not as fast as a pure jet, is still much faster than a piston engined plane and able to fly above most of the weather. Turboprops are far more fuel efficient than the turbojet engines used by Boeing and Douglas, and can operate from short runways and under high altitude and hot weather conditions which ground the pure jets. All of these properties made a turboprop airliner ideal for short- and medium-range operations where speed en route was less important than the ability to operate from smaller airports. (Indeed, more than half a century later, turboprops account for a substantial portion of the regional air transport market for precisely these reasons.)

The result was the Lockheed L-188 Electra, a four engine airliner powered by Allison 501-D13 turboprop engines, able to carry 98 passengers a range of 3450 to 4455 km (depending on payload mass) at a cruise speed of 600 km/h. (By comparison, the Boeing 707 carried 174 passengers in a single class configuration a range of 6700 km at a cruise speed of 977 km/h.)

A number of U.S. airlines saw the Electra as an attractive addition to their fleet, with major orders from American Airlines, Eastern Air Lines, Braniff Airways, National Airlines, and Pacific Southwest Airlines. A number of overseas airlines placed orders for the plane. The entry into service went smoothly, and both crews and passengers were satisfied with the high speed, quiet, low-vibration, and reliable operation of the turboprop airliner.

Everything changed on the night of September 29th, 1959. Braniff Airways flight 542, an Electra bound for Dallas and then on to Washington, D.C. and New York, disintegrated in the skies above Buffalo, Texas. There were no survivors. The accident investigation quickly determined that the left wing of the airplane had separated near the wing root. But how, why? The Electra had been subjected to one of the most rigorous flight test and certification regimes of its era, and no problems had been discovered. The flight was through clear skies with no violent weather. Clearly, something terrible went wrong, but there was little evidence to suggest a probable cause. One always suspects a bomb (although less in those days before millions of medieval savages were admitted to civilised countries as “refugees”), but that was quickly ruled out due to the absence of explosive residues on the wreckage.

This was before the era of flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders, so all the investigators had to go on was the wreckage, and intense scrutiny of it failed to yield an obvious clue. Often in engineering, there are mysteries which simply require more data, and meanwhile the Electras continued to fly. Most people deemed it “just one of those things”—airliner crashes were not infrequent in the era.

Then, on March 17th, 1960, in clear skies above Tell City, Indiana, Northwest Airlines flight 710 fell out of the sky, making a crater in a soybean field in which almost nothing was recognisable. Investigators quickly determined that the right wing had separated in flight, dooming the aircraft.

Wings are not supposed to fall off of airliners. Once is chance, but twice is indicative of a serious design or operational problem. This set into motion one of the first large-scale investigations of aircraft accidents in the modern era. Not only did federal investigators and research laboratories and Lockheed invest massive resources, even competitors Boeing and Douglas contributed expertise and diagnostic hardware because they realised that the public perception of the safety of passenger jet aviation was at stake.

After an extensive and protracted investigation, it was concluded that the Electra was vulnerable to a “whirl mode” failure, where oscillations due to a weakness in the mounting of the outboard engines could resonate with a mode of the wing and lead to failure of its attachment point to the fuselage. This conclusion was highly controversial: Lockheed pointed out that no such problem had been experienced in the C-130, while Allison, the engine manufacturer, cited the same experience to argue that Lockheed's wing design was deficient. Lawsuits and counter-suits erupted, amid an avalanche of lawsuits against Lockheed, Allison, and the airlines by families of those killed in the accidents.

The engine mountings and wings were strengthened, and the modified aircraft were put through a grueling series of tests intended to induce the whirl mode failures. They passed without incident, and the Electra was returned to service without any placard limitations on speed. No further incidents occurred, although a number of Electras were lost in accidents which had nothing to do with the design, but causes all too common in commercial aviation at the time.

Even before the Tell City crash, Lockheed had decided to close down the Electra production line. Passenger and airline preference had gone in favour of pure jet airliners (in an age of cheap oil, the substantial fuel economy of turboprops counted less than the speed of pure jets and how cool it was to fly without propellers). A total of 170 Electras were sold. Remarkably, almost a dozen remain in service today, mostly as firefighting water bombers. A derivative, the P-3 Orion marine patrol aircraft, remains in service today with a total of 757 produced.

This is an excellent contemporary view of the history of a controversial airliner and of one of the first in-depth investigations of accidents under ambiguous circumstances and intense media and political pressure. The author, an aviation journalist, is the brother of Rod Serling.

The paperback is currently out of print but used copies are available, albeit expensive. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The Kindle edition was obviously scanned from a print edition, and exhibits the errors you expect in scanned text not sufficiently scrutinised by a copy editor, for example “modem” where “modern” appeared in the print edition.

Posted at 03:09 Permalink

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Reading List: The City on the Heights

Cox, Joseph. The City on the Heights. Modiin, Israel: Big Picture Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9764659-6-6.
For more than two millennia the near east (which is sloppily called the “middle east” by ignorant pundits who can't distinguish north Africa from southwest Asia) has exported far more trouble than it has imported from elsewhere. You need only consult the chronicles of the Greeks, the Roman Empire, the histories of conflicts among them and the Persians, the expansion of Islam into the region, internecine conflicts among Islamic sects, the Crusades, Israeli-Arab wars, all the way to recent follies of “nation building” to appreciate that this is a perennial trouble spot.

People, and peoples hate one another there. It seems like whenever you juxtapose two religions (even sects of one), ethnicities, or self-identifications in the region, before long sanguinary conflict erupts, with each incident only triggering even greater reprisals and escalation. In the words of Lenin, What is to be done?

Now, my inclination would be simply to erect a strong perimeter around the region, let anybody who wished enter, but nobody leave without extreme scrutiny to ensure they were not a risk and follow-up as long as they remained as guests in the civilised regions of the world. This is how living organisms deal with threats to their metabolism: encyst upon it!

In this novel, the author explores another, more hopeful and optimistic, yet perhaps less realistic alternative. When your computer ends up in a hopeless dead-end of resource exhaustion, flailing software, and errors in implementation, you reboot it, or turn it off and on again. This clears out the cobwebs and provides a fresh start. It's difficult to do this in a human community, especially one where grievances are remembered not just over generations but millennia.

Here, archetypal NGO do-gooder Steven Gold has another idea. In the midst of the European religious wars, Amsterdam grew and prospered by being a place that people of any faith could come together and do business. Notwithstanding having a nominal established religion, people of all confessions were welcome as long as they participated in the peaceful commerce and exchange which made the city prosper.

Could this work in the near east? Steven Gold thought it was worth a try, and worth betting his career upon. But where should such a model city be founded? The region was a nightmarish ever-shifting fractal landscape of warring communities with a sole exception: the state of Israel. Why on Earth would Israel consider ceding some of its territory (albeit mostly outside its security perimeter) for such an idealistic project which might prove to be a dagger aimed at its own heart? Well, Steven Gold is very persuasive, and talented at recruiting allies able to pitch the project in terms those needed to support it understand.

And so, a sanctuary city on the Israel-Syria border is born. It is anything but a refugee camp. Residents are expected to become productive members of a multicultural, multi-ethnic community which will prosper along the lines of renaissance Amsterdam or, more recently, Hong Kong and Singapore. Those who wish to move to the City are carefully vetted, but they include a wide variety of people including a former commander of the Islamic State, a self-trained engineer and problem solver who is an escapee from a forced marriage, religious leaders from a variety of faiths, and supporters including a billionaire who made her fortune in Internet payment systems.

And then, since it's the near east, it all blows up. First there are assassinations, then bombings, then a sorting out into ethnic and sectarian districts within the city, and then reprisals. It almost seems like an evil genius is manipulating the communities who came there to live in peace and prosper into conflict among one another. That this might be possible never enters the mind of Steven Gold, who probably still believes in the United Nations and votes for Democrats, notwithstanding their resolute opposition to the only consensual democracy in the region.

Can an act of terrorism redeem a community? Miryam thinks so, and acts accordingly. As the consequences play out, and the money supporting the city begins to run out, a hierarchical system of courts which mix up the various contending groups is established, and an economic system based upon electronic payments which provides a seamless transition between subsidies for the poor (but always based upon earned income: never a pure dole) and taxation for the more prosperous.

A retrospective provides a look at how it all might work. I remain dubious at the prospect. There are many existing communities in the near east which are largely homogeneous in terms of religion and ethnicity (as seen by outsiders) which might be prosperous if they didn't occupy themselves with bombing and killing one another by any means available, and yet the latter is what they choose to do. Might it be possible, by establishing sanctuaries, to select for those willing to set ancient enmities aside? Perhaps, but in this novel, grounded in reality, that didn't happen.

The economic system is intriguing but, to me, ultimately unpersuasive. I understand how the income subsidy encourages low-income earners to stay within the reported income economy, but the moment you cross the tax threshold, you have a powerful incentive to take things off the books and, absent some terribly coercive top-down means to force all transactions through the electronic currency system, free (non-taxed) exchange will find a way.

These quibbles aside, this is a refreshing and hopeful look at an alternative to eternal conflict. In the near east, “the facts on the ground” are everything and the author, who lives just 128 km from the centre of civil war in Syria is far more acquainted with the reality than somebody reading his book far away. I hope his vision is viable. I hope somebody tries it. I hope it works.

Posted at 03:49 Permalink

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Reading List: The Berlin Project

Benford, Gregory. The Berlin Project. New York: Saga Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4814-8765-8.
In September 1938, Karl Cohen returned from a postdoctoral position in France to the chemistry department at Columbia University in New York, where he had obtained his Ph.D. two years earlier. Accompanying him was his new wife, Marthe, daughter of a senior officer in the French army. Cohen went to work for Harold Urey, professor of chemistry at Columbia and winner of the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of deuterium. At the start of 1939, the fields of chemistry and nuclear physics were stunned by the discovery of nuclear fission: researchers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin had discovered that the nucleus of Uranium-235 could be split into two lighter nuclei when it absorbed a neutron, releasing a large amount of energy and additional neutrons which might be able to fission other uranium nuclei, creating a “chain reaction” which might permitting tapping the enormous binding energy of the nucleus to produce abundant power—or a bomb.

The discovery seemed to open a path to nuclear power, but it was clear from the outset that the practical challenges were going to be daunting. Natural uranium is composed of two principal isotopes, U-238 and U-235. The heavier U-238 isotope makes up 99.27% of natural uranium, while U-235 accounts for only 0.72%. Only U-235 can readily be fissioned, so in order to build a bomb, it would be necessary to separate the two isotopes and isolate near-pure U-235. Isotopes differ only in the number of neutrons in their nuclei, but have the same number of protons and electrons. Since chemistry is exclusively determined by the electron structure of an atom, no chemical process can separate two isotopes: it must be done physically, based upon their mass difference. And since U-235 and U-238 differ in mass only by around 1.25%, any process, however clever, would necessarily be inefficient and expensive. It was clear that nuclear energy or weapons would require an industrial-scale effort, not something which could be done in a university laboratory.

Several candidate processes were suggested: electromagnetic separation, thermal or gaseous diffusion, and centrifuges. Harold Urey believed a cascade of high-speed centrifuges, fed with uranium hexafluoride gas, was the best approach, and he was the world's foremost expert on gas centrifuges. The nascent uranium project, eventually to become the Manhattan Project, was inclined toward the electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion processes, since they were believed to be well-understood and only required a vast scaling up as opposed to demonstration of a novel and untested technology.

Up to this point, everything in this alternative history novel is completely factual, and all of the characters existed in the real world (Karl Cohen is the author's father in-law). Historically, Urey was unable to raise the funds to demonstrate the centrifuge technology, and the Manhattan project proceeded with the electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion routes to separate U-235 while, in parallel, pursuing plutonium production from natural uranium in graphite-moderated reactors. Benford adheres strictly to the rules of the alternative history game in that only one thing is changed, and everything else follows as consequences of that change.

Here, Karl Cohen contacts a prominent Manhattan rabbi known to his mother who, seeing a way to combine protecting Jews in Europe from Hitler, advancing the Zionist cause, and making money from patents on a strategic technology, assembles a syndicate of wealthy and like-minded investors, raising a total of a hundred thousand dollars (US$ 1.8 million in today's funny money) to fund Urey's prototype centrifuge project in return for rights to patents on the technology. Urey succeeds, and by mid-1941 the centrifuge has been demonstrated and contacts made with Union Carbide to mass-produce and operate a centrifuge separation plant. Then, in early December of that year, everything changed, and by early 1942 the Manhattan Project had bought out the investors at a handsome profit and put the centrifuge separation project in high gear. As Urey's lead on the centrifuge project, Karl Cohen finds himself in the midst of the rapidly-developing bomb project, meeting and working with all of the principals.

Thus begins the story of a very different Manhattan Project and World War II. With the centrifuge project starting in earnest shortly after Pearl Harbor, by June 6th, 1944 the first uranium bomb is ready, and the Allies decide to use it on Berlin as a decapitation strike simultaneous with the D-Day landings in Normandy. The war takes a very different course, both in Europe and the Pacific, and a new Nazi terror weapon, first hinted at in a science fiction story, complicates the conflict. A different world is the outcome, seen from a retrospective at the end.

Karl Cohen's central position in the Manhattan Project introduces us to a panoply of key players including Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Freeman Dyson, John W. Campbell, Jr., and Samuel Goudsmit. He participates in a secret mission to Switzerland to assess German progress toward a bomb in the company of professional baseball catcher become spy Moe Berg, who is charged with assassinating Heisenberg if Cohen judges he knows too much.

This is a masterpiece of alternative history, based firmly in fact, and entirely plausible. The description of the postwar consequences is of a world in which I would prefer to have been born. I won't discuss the details to avoid spoiling your discovery of how they all work out in the hands of a master storyteller who really knows his stuff (Gregory Benford is a Professor Emeritus of physics at the University of California, Irvine).

Posted at 00:31 Permalink

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Marinchip Systems: Three New Documents

I have just added three new documents to the Marinchip Systems: Documents and Images collection.

M9900 CPU Assembly Instructions
PDF scan of the assembly instructions provided with the M9900 CPU kit. While production values were modest and there were no illustrations, I tried to be thorough and even occasionally humorous.
M9900 CPU: New Product Announcement
Concurrent with running our first advertisement, this new product press release was sent to all the personal computer and electronics magazines.
M9900 CPU Brochure (March 1978)
When we introduced the M9900 CPU at the West Coast Computer Faire, we weren't yet ready to take and ship orders. This is the brochure we gave away to visitors of our booth.

Posted at 21:52 Permalink

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Univac Document Archive: 1107 FORTRAN Programmer's Guide Added

I have added the following document to the Univac 1107 section of the Univac Document Archive. This is a PDF of a scanned paper document in my collection. This document is more than fifty years old (published in 1966) and may appear wonky to contemporary eyes: text is sometimes misaligned on the page and multiple fonts are intermixed like a ransom note. These are not artefacts of scanning—it's how the document actually appears. Recall that only around 38 Univac 1107s were sold, so documents describing it were produced in small numbers and didn't, in the eyes of Univac, merit the expense of the high production values of contemporary IBM manuals.

Univac 1107 FORTRAN was developed by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and then maintained and extended by Univac programmers. It is based upon the dialect of Fortran which IBM originally released in 1965 under the name FORTRAN IV. This dialect, with a few minor changes, was standardised in 1966 as X3.9-1966 FORTRAN 66 by the American Standards Association (now ANSI), but many people continued to refer to it as FORTRAN IV. The CSC/Univac implementation is essentially compatible with FORTRAN 66 and IBM FORTRAN IV. Many Univac customers referred to the compiler as FORTRAN IV, although Univac never called it that.

This is the manual from which, along with Daniel McCracken's A Guide to Fortran IV Programming, I learned Fortran programming fifty years ago. The manual was intended as an introduction to the Fortran language and informal reference. It is a companion to U-3569, Univac 1107 FORTRAN Programmer's Reference Manual, of which I do not have a copy (and can't recall having ever seen).

The manual contains two sample programs: a simple iterative approximation program and a sort subroutine. Of course I had to type them in and see if they'd work more than half a century later. They both did, although the sort subroutine required a few minor syntactic tweaks. You can download an archive containing source code for these programs. See the README file in the archive for details.

When the Univac 1108 was released, the Fortran compiler was modified to exploit the 1108's new instructions, in particular native hardware support for 72-bit double precision floating point arithmetic (the 1107 compiler supported double precision with a different format implemented in software). The language was extended to include some additional features such as the PARAMETER declaration. Univac called this compiler FORTRAN V, and it remained the standard FORTRAN for the 1100 series until the introduction of ASCII Fortran, which was compatible with the FORTRAN 77 standard and used the ASCII character set.

Posted at 16:26 Permalink