Book Review: What Has Government Done to Our Money?

“What Has Government Done to Our Money” by Murray N. RothbardThis slim book (just 119 pages of main text in this edition) was originally published in 1963 when the almighty gold-backed United States dollar was beginning to crack up under the pressure of relentless deficit spending and money printing by the Federal Reserve. Two years later, as the crumbling of the edifice accelerated, amidst a miasma of bafflegab about fantasies such as a “silver shortage” by Keynesian economists and other charlatans, the Coinage Act of 1965 would eliminate sliver from most U.S. coins, replacing them with counterfeit slugs craftily designed to fool vending machines into accepting them. (The little-used half dollar had its silver content reduced from 90% to 40%, and would be silverless after 1970.) In 1968, the U.S. Treasury would default upon its obligation to redeem paper silver certificates in silver coin or bullion, breaking the link between the U.S. currency and precious metal entirely.

All of this was precisely foreseen in this clear-as-light exposition of monetary theory and forty centuries of government folly by libertarian thinker and Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard. He explains the origin of money as societies progress from barter to indirect exchange, why most (but not all) cultures have settled on precious metals such as gold and silver as a medium of intermediate exchange (they do not deteriorate over time, can be subdivided into arbitrarily small units, and are relatively easy to check for authenticity). He then describes the sorry progression by which those in authority seize control over this free money and use it to fleece their subjects. First, they establish a monopoly over the ability to coin money, banning private mints and the use of any money other than their own coins (usually adorned with a graven image of some tyrant or another). They give this coin and its subdivisions a name, such as “dollar”, “franc”, “mark” or some such, which is originally defined as a unit of mass of some precious metal (for example, the U.S. dollar, prior to its debasement, was defined as 23.2 grains [1.5033 grams, or about 1/20 troy ounce] of pure gold). (Rothbard, as an economist rather than a physicist, and one working in English customary units, confuses mass with weight throughout the book. They aren’t the same thing, and the quantity of gold in a coin doesn’t vary depending on whether you weigh it at the North Pole or the summit of Chimborazo.)

Next, the rulers separate the concept of the unit of money from the mass of precious metal which it originally defined. A key tool in this are legal tender laws which require all debts to be settled in the state-defined monetary unit. This opens the door to debasement of the currency: replacing coins bearing the same unit of money with replacements containing less precious metal. In ancient Rome, the denarius originally contained around 4.5 grams of pure silver. By the third century A.D., its silver content had been reduced to about 2%, and was intrinsically almost worthless. Of course, people aren’t stupid, and when the new debased coins show up, they will save the old, more valuable ones, and spend the new phoney money. This phenomenon is called “Gresham’s law”, by which bad money chases out good. But this is entirely the result of a coercive government requiring its subjects to honour a monetary unit which it has arbitrarily reduced in intrinsic value.

This racket has been going on since antiquity, but as the centuries have passed, it has become ever more sophisticated and effective. Rothbard explains the origin of paper money, first as what were essentially warehouse receipts for real money (precious metal coins or bullion stored by its issuer and payable on demand), then increasingly abstract assets “backed” by only a fraction of the total value in circulation, and finally, with the advent of central banking, a fiction totally under the control of those who print the paper and their political masters. The whole grand racket of fractional reserve banking and the government inflationary engine it enables is explained in detail.

In the 1985 expanded edition, Rothbard adds a final twenty page chapter chronicling “The Monetary Breakdown of the West”, a tragedy in nine acts beginning with the classical gold standard of 1815–1914 and ending with the total severing of world currencies from any anchor to gold in March, 1973, ushering in the monetary chaos of endlessly fluctuating exchange rates, predatory currency manipulation, and a towering (and tottering) pyramid of completely unproductive financial speculation. He then explores the monetary utopia envisioned by the economic slavers: a world paper currency managed by a World Central Bank. There would no longer be any constraint upon the ability of those in power to pick the pockets of their subjects by depreciating the unit of account of the only financial assets they were permitted to own. Of course, this would lead to a slow-motion catastrophe, destroying enterprise, innovation, and investment, pauperising the population, and leading inevitably to civil unrest and demagogic political movements. Rothbard saw all of this coming, and those of us who understood his message knew exactly what was going to happen when they rolled out the Euro and a European Central Bank in 1991, which is just a regional version of the same Big Con.

This book remains, if I dare say, the gold standard when it comes to a short, lucid, and timeless explanation of monetary theory, history, the folly of governments, and its sad consequences. Is there any hope of restoring sanity in this age of universal funny money? Perhaps—the same technology which permits the establishment of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin radically reduces the transaction costs of using any number of competing currencies in a free market. While Gresham’s Law holds that in a coercive un-free market bad money will drive out good, in a totally free market, where participants are able to use any store of value, unit of account, and medium of exchange they wish (free of government coercion through legal tender laws or taxation of currency exchanges), the best money will drive out its inferior competitors, and the quality of a given money will be evaluated based upon the transparency of its issuer and its performance for those who use it.

This book may be purchased from Amazon in either a print or Kindle edition, and is also available for free from the publisher, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in HTML, PDF, and EPUB formats or as an audio book. The PDF edition is available in the English, Spanish, Danish, and Hungarian languages. The book is published under the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 and may be redistributed pursuant to the terms of that license.

Rothbard, Murray. What Has Government Done to Our Money? Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, [1963, 1985, 1990, 2010] 2015. ISBN 978-1-61016-645-4.

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Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

“The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. DickThe year is 1962. Following the victory of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, North America is divided into spheres of influence by the victors, with the west coast Pacific States of America controlled by Japan, the territory east of the Mississippi split north and south between what is still called the United States of America and the South, where slavery has been re-instituted, both puppet states of Germany. In between are the Rocky Mountain states, a buffer zone between the Japanese and German sectors with somewhat more freedom from domination by them.

The point of departure where this alternative history diverges from our timeline is in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt is assassinated in Miami, Florida. (In our history, Roosevelt was uninjured in an assassination attempt in Miami in 1933 that killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.) Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, succeeds to the presidency and is re-elected in 1936. In 1940, the Republican party retakes the White House, with John W. Bricker elected president. Garner and Bricker pursue a policy of strict neutrality and isolation, which allows Germany, Japan, and Italy to divide up the most of the world and coerce other nations into becoming satellites or client states. Then, Japan and Germany mount simultaneous invasions of the east and west coasts of the U.S., resulting in a surrender in 1947 and the present division of the continent.

By 1962, the victors are secure in their domination of the territories they have subdued. Germany has raced ahead economically and in technology, draining the Mediterranean to create new farmland, landing on the Moon and Mars, and establishing high-speed suborbital rocket transportation service throughout their far-flung territories. There is no serious resistance to the occupation in the former United States: its residents seem to be more or less resigned to second-class status under their German or Japanese overlords.

In the Pacific States the Japanese occupiers have settled in to a comfortable superiority over the vanquished, and many have become collectors of artefacts of the vanished authentic America. Robert Childan runs a shop in San Francisco catering to this clientèle, and is contacted by an official of the Japanese Trade Mission, seeking a gift to impress a visiting Swedish industrialist. This leads into a maze of complexity and nothing being as it seems as only Philip K. Dick (PKD) can craft. Is the Swede really a Swede or a German, and is he a Nazi agent or something else? Who is the mysterious Japanese visitor he has come to San Francisco to meet? Is Childan a supplier of rare artefacts or a swindler exploiting gullible Japanese rubes with fakes?

Many characters in the book are reading a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, banned in areas under German occupation but available in the Pacific States and other territories, which is an alternative history tale written by an elusive author named Hawthorne Abendsen, about a world in which the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in World War II and ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Abendsen is said to have retreated to a survivalist compound called the High Castle in the Rocky Mountain states. Characters we meet become obsessed with tracking down and meeting Abendsen. Who are they, and what are their motives? Keep reminding yourself, this is a PKD novel! We’re already dealing with a fictional mysterious author of an alternative history of World War II within an alternative history novel of World War II by an author who is himself a grand illusionist.

It seems like everybody in the Pacific States, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, is obsessed with the I Ching. They are constantly consulting “the oracle” and basing their decisions upon it. Not just the westerners but even the Japanese are a little embarrassed by this, as the latter are aware that is it an invention of the Chinese, who they view as inferior, yet they rely upon it none the less. Again, the PKD shimmering reality distortion field comes into play as the author says that he consulted the I Ching to make decisions while plotting the novel, as does Hawthorne Abendsen in writing the novel within the novel.

This is quintessential PKD: the story is not so much about what happens (indeed, there is little resolution of any of the obvious conflicts in the circumstances of the plot) but rather instilling in the reader a sense that nothing is what it appears to be and, at the meta (or meta meta) level, that our history and destiny are ruled as much by chance (exemplified here by the I Ching) as by our intentions, will, and actions. At the end of the story, little or nothing has been resolved, and we are left only with questions and uncertainty. (PKD said that he intended a sequel, but despite efforts in that direction, never completed one.)

I understand that some kind of television adaptation loosely based upon the novel has been produced by one of those streaming services which are only available to people who live in continental-scale, railroad-era, legacy empires. I have not seen it, and have no interest in doing so. PKD is notoriously difficult to adapt to visual media, and today’s Hollywood is, shall we say, not strong on nuance and ambiguity, which is what his fiction is all about.

Nuance and ambiguity…. Here’s the funny thing. When I finished this novel, I was unimpressed and disappointed. I expected it to be great: I have enjoyed the fiction of PKD since I started to read his stories in the 1960s, and this novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, then the highest honour in science fiction. But the story struck me as only an exploration of a tiny corner of this rich alternative history. Little of what happens affects events in the large and, if it did, only long after the story ends. It was only while writing this that I appreciated that this may have been precisely what PKD was trying to achieve: that this is all about the contingency of history—that random chance matters much more than what we, or “great figures” do, and that the best we can hope for is to try to do what we believe is right when presented with the circumstances and events that confront us as we live our lives. I have no idea if you’ll like this. I thought I would, and then I didn’t, and now I, in retrospect, I do. Welcome to the fiction of Philip K. Dick.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. New York: Mariner Books, [1962] 2011. ISBN 978-0-547-57248-2.

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Book Review: Backlash

“Backlash” by Brad ThorThis is the nineteenth novel in the author’s Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne. This is a very different kind of story from the last several Harvath outings, which involved high-stakes international brinkmanship, uncertain loyalties, and threats of mass terror attacks. This time it’s up close and personal. Harvath, paying what may be his last visit to Reed Carlton, his dying ex-CIA mentor and employer, is the object of a violent kidnapping attack which kills those to whom he is closest and spirits him off, drugged and severely beaten, to Russia, where he is to be subjected to the hospitality of the rulers whose nemesis he has been for many years (and books) until he spills the deepest secrets of the U.S. intelligence community.  After being spirited out of the U.S., the Russian cargo plane transporting him to the rendition resort where he is to be “de-briefed” crashes, leaving him…somewhere. About all he knows is that it’s cold, that nobody knows where he is or that he is alive, and that he has no way to contact anybody, anywhere who might help.

This is a spare, stark tale of survival. Starting only with what he can salvage from the wreck of the plane and the bodies of its crew (some of whom he had to assist in becoming casualties), he must overcome the elements, predators (quadripedal and bipedal), terrain, and uncertainty about his whereabouts and the knowledge and intentions of his adversaries, to survive and escape.

Based upon what has been done to him, it is also a tale of revenge. To Harvath, revenge was not a low state: it was a necessity,

In his world, you didn’t let wrongs go unanswered—not wrongs like this, and especially when you had the ability to do something. Vengeance was a necessary function of a civilized world, particularly at its margins, in its most remote and wild regions. Evildoers, unwilling to submit to the rule of law, needed to lie awake in their beds at night worried about when justice would eventually come for them. If laws and standards were not worth enforcing, then they certainly couldn’t be worth following.

Harvath forms tenuous alliances with those he encounters, and then must confront an all-out assault by élite mercenaries who, apparently unsatisfied with the fear induced by fanatic Russian operatives, model themselves on the Nazi SS.

Then, after survival, it’s time for revenge. Harvath has done his biochemistry homework and learned well the off-label applications of suxamethonium chloride. Sux to be you, Boris.

This is a tightly-crafted thriller which is, in my opinion, one of best of Brad Thor’s novels. There is no political message or agenda nor any of the Washington intrigue which has occupied recent books. Here it is a pure struggle between a resourceful individual, on his own against amoral forces of pure evil, in an environment as deadly as his human adversaries.

Thor, Brad. Backlash. New York: Atria Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-9821-0403-0.

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Vega Launch Failure, Not-So-Great Moments in Launch Commentary

Vega / Falcon Eye 1 liftoff, 2019-07-11At 01:53 UTC today (2019-07-11) a European Space Agency (ESA) Vega rocket was launched from Arainespace’s site at Kourou, French Guiana, on the east coast of South America.  Its payload was the Falcon Eye 1 reconnaissance satellite built by Airbus Defense and Space for the United Arab Emirates.  The Italian-built Vega is the smallest launcher operated by ESA, and was to place Falcon Eye 1, with a mass of 1197 kg, in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 611 km.

The Vega is a four stage rocket, with the first three stages solid fuelled and the fourth stage using a hypergolic liquid fuelled engine manufactured in the Ukraine.  This was the fifteenth flight of Vega since its introduction in 2012; all of the first fourteen flights were successful.  Here’s what happened this time.

At around two minutes after launch, the first stage shut down and separated from the second stage, which was supposed to immediately start burning.  From the image, there is no obvious evidence that the second stage actually lit.  I think what you’re seeing is just the normal tail-off as a solid rocket motor burns out.

Shortly thereafter you hear call-outs from the flight controllers about things being off-nominal, the trajectory being depressed, etc., and the trajectory plot board, which should show the altitude continuing to rise, instead shows the parabolic arc you’d expect for an inert object initial rising under its momentum and then falling back to Earth.

Vega launch failure: trajectory plot

The public affairs announcer, however, continued to read from the script for a normal launch, and animations showed the second and third stages performing as they were supposed to.  They even cut to show a video about the satellite and its mission.  Then, there’s an announcement that telemetry has been lost and then, finally, at the nine minute mark, a statement reporting failure of the mission due to a “major anomaly”.

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Book Review: Schild’s Ladder

“Schild's Ladder” by Greg EganGreg Egan is one of the most eminent contemporary authors in the genre of “hard” science fiction. By “hard”, one means not that it is necessarily difficult to read, but that the author has taken care to either follow the laws of known science or, if the story involves alternative laws (for example, a faster than light drive, anti-gravity, or time travel) to define those laws and then remain completely consistent with them. This needn’t involve tedious lectures—masters of science fiction, like Greg Egan, “show, don’t tell”—but the reader should be able to figure out the rules and the characters be constrained by them as the story unfolds. Egan is also a skilled practitioner of “world building” which takes hard science fiction to the next level by constructing entire worlds or universes in which an alternative set of conditions are worked out in a logical and consistent way.

Whenever a new large particle collider is proposed, fear-mongers prattle on about the risk of its unleashing some new physical phenomenon which might destroy the Earth or, for those who think big, the universe by, for example, causing it to collapse into a black hole or causing the quantum vacuum to tunnel to a lower energy state where the laws of physics are incompatible with the existence of condensed matter and life. This is, of course, completely absurd. We have observed cosmic rays, for example the Oh-My-God particle detected by an instrument in Utah in 1991, with energies more than twenty million times greater than those produced by the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator in existence today. These natural cosmic rays strike the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and everything else in the universe all the time and have been doing so for billions of years and, if you look around, you’ll see that the universe is still here. If a high energy particle was going to destroy it, it would have been gone long ago.

No, if somebody’s going to destroy the universe, I’d worry about some quiet lab in the physics building where somebody is exploring very low temperatures, trying to beat the record which stands at, depending upon how you define it, between 0.006 degrees Kelvin (for a large block of metal) and 100 picokelvin (for nuclear spins). These temperatures, and the physical conditions they may create, are deeply unnatural and, unless there are similar laboratories and apparatus created by alien scientists on other worlds, colder than have ever existed anywhere in our universe ever since the Big Bang.

The cosmic microwave background radiation pervades the universe, and has an energy at the present epoch which corresponds to a temperature of about 2.73 degrees Kelvin. Every natural object in the universe is bathed in this radiation so, even in the absence of other energy sources such as starlight, anything colder than that will heated by the background radiation until it reaches that temperature and comes into equilibrium. (There are a few natural processes in the universe which can temporarily create lower temperatures, but nothing below 1° K has ever been observed.) The temperature of the universe has been falling ever since the Big Bang, so no lower temperature has ever existed in the past. The only way to create a lower temperature is to expend energy in what amounts to a super-refrigerator that heats up something else in return for artificially cooling its contents. In doing so, it creates a region like none other in the known natural universe.

Whenever you explore some physical circumstance which is completely new, you never know what you’re going to find, and researchers have been surprised many times in the past. Prior to 1911, nobody imagined that it was possible for an electrical current to flow with no resistance at all, and yet in early experiments with liquid helium, the phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered. In 1937, it was discovered that liquid helium could flow with zero viscosity: superfluidity. What might be discovered at temperatures a tiny fraction of those where these phenomena became manifest? Answering that question is why researchers strive to approach ever closer to the (unattainable) absolute zero. Might one of those phenomena destroy the universe? Could be: you’ll never know until you try.

This is the premise of this book, which is hard science fiction but also difficult. For twenty thousand years the field of fundamental physics has found nothing new beyond the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity called “Sarumpaet’s rules” or Quantum Graph Theory (QGT). The theory explained the fabric of space and time and all of the particles and forces within it as coarse-grained manifestations of transformations of a graph at the Planck scale. Researchers at Mimosa Station, 370 light years from Earth, have built an experimental apparatus, the Quietener, to explore conditions which have never existed before in the universe and test Sarumpaet’s Rules at the limits. Perhaps the currently-observed laws of physics were simply a random choice made by the universe an unimaginably short time after the Big Bang and frozen into place by decoherence due to interactions with the environment, analogous to the quantum Zeno effect. The Quietener attempts to null out every possible external influence, even gravitational waves by carefully positioned local cancelling sources, in the hope of reproducing the conditions in which the early universe made its random choice and to create, for a fleeting instant, just trillionths of a second, a region of space with entirely different laws of physics. Sarumpaet’s Rules guaranteed that this so-called novo-vacuum would quickly collapse, as it would have a higher energy and decay into the vacuum we inhabit.

Oops.

Six hundred and five years after the unfortunate event at Mimosa, the Mimosa novo-vacuum, not just stable but expanding at half the speed of light, has swallowed more than two thousand inhabited star systems, and is inexorably expanding through the galaxy, transforming everything in its path to—nobody knows. The boundary emits only an unstructured “borderlight” which provides no clue as to what lies within. Because the interstellar society has long ago developed the ability to create backups of individuals, run them as computer emulations, transmit them at light speed from star to star, and re-instantiate them in new bodies for fuddy-duddies demanding corporeal existence, loss of life has been minimal, but one understands how an inexorably growing sphere devouring everything in its path might be disturbing. The Rindler is a research ship racing just ahead of the advancing novo-vacuum front, providing close-up access to it for investigators trying to figure out what it conceals.

Humans (who, with their divergently-evolved descendants, biological and digitally emulated, are the only intelligent species discovered so far in the galaxy) have divided, as they remain wont to do, into two factions: Preservationists, who view the novo-vacuum as an existential threat to the universe and seek ways to stop its expansion and, ideally, recover the space it has occupied; and Yielders, who believe the novo-vacuum to be a phenomenon so unique and potentially important that destroying it before understanding its nature and what is on the other side of the horizon would be unthinkable. Also, being (post-)human, the factions are willing to resort to violence to have their way.

This leads to an adventure spanning time and space, and eventually a mission into a region where the universe is making it up as it goes along. This is one of the most breathtakingly ambitious attempts at world (indeed, universe) building ever attempted in science fiction. But for this reader, it didn’t work. First of all, when all of the principal characters have backups stored in safe locations and can reset, like a character in a video game with an infinite number of lives cheat, whenever anything bad happens, it’s difficult to create dramatic tension. Humans have transcended biological substrates, yet those still choosing them remain fascinated with curious things about bumping their adaptive uglies. When we finally go and explore the unknown, it’s mediated through several levels of sensors, translation, interpretation, and abstraction, so what is described comes across as something like a hundred pages of the acid trip scene at the end of 2001.

In the distance, glistening partitions, reminiscent of the algal membranes that formed the cages in some aquatic zoos, swayed back and forth gently, as if in time to mysterious currents. Behind each barrier the sea changed color abruptly, the green giving way to other bright hues, like a fastidiously segregated display of bioluminescent plankton.

Oh, wow.

And then, it stops. I don’t mean ends, as that would imply that everything that’s been thrown up in the air is somehow resolved. There is an attempt to close the circle with the start of the story, but a whole universe of questions are left unanswered. The human perspective is inadequate to describe a place where Planck length objects interact in Planck time intervals and the laws of physics are made up on the fly. Ultimately, the story failed for me since it never engaged me with the characters—I didn’t care what happened to them. I’m a fan of hard science fiction, but this was just too adamantine to be interesting.

The title, Schild’s Ladder, is taken from a method in differential geometry which is used to approximate the parallel transport of a vector along a curve.

Egan, Greg. Schild’s Ladder. New York: Night Shade Books, [2002, 2004, 2013] 2015. ISBN 978-1-59780-544-5.

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Saturday Night Science: Apollo 11 at 50 I: Apollo

Apollo 11 “everyone elsie” by Michael Collins, 1969-07-21, AS11-44-6643.On November 5, 1958, NASA, only four months old at the time, created the Space Task Group (STG) to manage its manned spaceflight programs. Although there had been earlier military studies of manned space concepts and many saw eventual manned orbital flights growing out of the rocket plane projects conducted by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the U.S. Air Force, at the time of the STG’s formation the U.S. had no formal manned space program. The initial group numbered 45 in all, including eight secretaries and “computers”—operators of electromechanical desk calculators, staffed largely with people from the NACA’s Langley Research Center and initially headquartered there. There were no firm plans for manned spaceflight, no budget approved to pay for it, no spacecraft, no boosters, no launch facilities, no mission control centre, no astronauts, no plans to select and train them, and no experience either with human flight above the Earth’s atmosphere or with more than a few seconds of weightlessness. And yet this team, the core of an effort which would grow to include around 400,000 people at NASA and its 20,000 industry and academic contractors, would, just ten years and nine months later, on July 20th, 1969, land two people on the surface of the Moon and then return them safely to the Earth.

Ten years is not a long time when it comes to accomplishing a complicated technological project. Development of the Boeing 787, a mid-sized commercial airliner which flew no further, faster, or higher than its predecessors, and was designed and built using computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies, took eight years from project launch to entry into service, and the F-35 fighter plane only entered service and then only in small numbers of one model a full twenty-three years after the start of its development.

In November, 1958, nobody in the Space Task Group was thinking about landing on the Moon. Certainly, trips to the Moon had been discussed in fables from antiquity to Jules Verne’s classic De la terre à la lune of 1865, and in 1938 members of the British Interplanetary Society published a (totally impractical) design for a Moon rocket powered by more than two thousand solid rocket motors bundled together, which would be discarded once burned out, but only a year since the launch of the first Earth satellite and when nothing had been successfully returned from Earth orbit to the Earth, talk of manned Moon ships sounded like—lunacy.

The small band of stalwarts at the STG undertook the already daunting challenge of manned space flight with an incremental program they called Project Mercury, whose goal was to launch a single man into Earth orbit in a capsule (unable to change its orbit once released from the booster rocket, it barely deserved the term “spacecraft”) atop a converted Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. In essence, the idea was to remove the warhead, replace it with a tiny cone-shaped can with a man in it, and shoot him into orbit. At the time the project began, the reliability of the Atlas rocket was around 75%, so NASA could expect around one in four launches to fail, with the Atlas known for spectacular explosions on the ground or on the way to space. When, in early 1960, the newly-chosen Mercury astronauts watched a test launch of the rocket they were to ride, it exploded less than a minute after launch. This was the fifth consecutive failure of an Atlas booster (although not all were so spectacular).

Doing things which were inherently risky on tight schedules with a shoestring budget (compared to military projects) and achieving an acceptable degree of safety by fanatic attention to detail and mountains of paperwork (NASA engineers quipped that no spacecraft could fly until the mass of paper documenting its construction and test equalled that of the flight hardware) became an integral part of the NASA culture. NASA was proceeding on its deliberate, step-by-step development of Project Mercury, and in 1961 was preparing for the first space flight by a U.S. astronaut, not into orbit on an Atlas, just a 15 minute suborbital hop on a version of the reliable Redstone rocket that launched the first U.S. satellite in 1958 when, on April 12, 1961, they were to be sorely disappointed when the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit on Vostok 1. Not only was the first man in space a Soviet, they had accomplished an orbital mission, which NASA hadn’t planned to attempt until at least the following year.

On May 5, 1961, NASA got back into the game, or at least the minor league, when Alan Shepard was launched on Mercury-Redstone 3. Sure, it was just a 15 minute up and down, but at least an American had been in space, if only briefly, and it was enough to persuade a recently-elected, young U.S. president smarting from being scooped by the Soviets to “take longer strides”. On May 25, less than three weeks after Shepard’s flight, before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Kennedy had asked his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, what goal the U.S. could realistically hope to achieve before the Soviets, and after consulting with the NASA administrator, James Webb, a Texas oil man and lawyer, and no other NASA technical people other than Wernher von Braun, he reported that a manned Moon landing was the only milestone the Soviets, with their heavy boosters and lead in manned space flight, were unlikely to do first. So, to the Moon it was.

The Space Task Group people who were, ultimately going to be charged with accomplishing this goal and had no advance warning until they heard Kennedy’s speech or got urgent telephone calls from colleagues who had also heard the broadcast were, in the words of their leader, Robert Gilruth, who had no more warning than his staff, “aghast”. He and his team had, like von Braun in the 1950s, envisioned a deliberate, step-by-step development of space flight capability: manned orbital flight, then a more capable spacecraft with a larger crew able to maneuver in space, a space station to explore the biomedical issues of long-term space flight and serve as a base to assemble craft bound farther into space, perhaps a reusable shuttle craft to ferry crew and cargo to space without (wastefully and at great cost) throwing away rockets designed as long-range military artillery on every mission,followed by careful reconnaissance of the Moon by both unmanned and manned craft to map its surface, find safe landing zones, and then demonstrate the technologies that would be required to get people there and back safely.

All that was now clearly out the window. If Congress came through with the massive funds it would require, going to the Moon would be a crash project like the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in World War II, or the massive industrial mobilisation to build Liberty Ships or the B-17 and B-29 bombers. The clock was ticking: when Kennedy spoke, there were just 3142 days until December 31, 1969 (yes, I know the decade actually ends at the end of 1970, since there was no year 0 in the Gregorian calendar, but explaining this to clueless Americans is a lost cause), around eight years and seven months. What needed to be done? Everything. How much time was there to do it? Not remotely enough. Well, at least the economy was booming, politicians seemed willing to pay the huge bills for what needed to be done, and there were plenty of twenty-something newly-minted engineering graduates ready and willing to work around the clock without a break to make real what they’d dreamed of since reading science fiction in their youth.

The Apollo Project was simultaneously one of the most epochal and inspiring accomplishments of the human species, far more likely to be remembered a thousand years hence than anything else that happened in the twentieth century, and at the same time a politically-motivated blunder which retarded human expansion into the space frontier. Kennedy’s speech was at the end of May 1961. Perhaps because the Space Task Group was so small, it and NASA were able to react with a speed which is stunning to those accustomed to twenty year development projects for hardware far less complicated than Apollo.

In June and July [1961], detailed specifications for the spacecraft hardware were completed. By the end of July, the Requests for Proposals were on the street.

In August, the first hardware contract was awarded to M.I.T.’s Instrumentation Laboratory for the Apollo guidance system. NASA selected Merritt Island, Florida, as the site for a new spaceport and acquired 125 square miles of land.

In September, NASA selected Michoud, Louisiana, as the production facility for the Saturn rockets, acquired a site for the Manned Spacecraft Center—the Space Task Group grown up—south of Houston, and awarded the contract for the second stage of the Saturn [V] to North American Aviation.

In October, NASA acquired 34 square miles for a Saturn test facility in Mississippi.

In November, the Saturn C-1 was successfully launched with a cluster of eight engines, developing 1.3 million pounds of thrust. The contract for the command and service module was awarded to North American Aviation.

In December, the contract for the first stage of the Saturn [V] was awarded to Boeing and the contract for the third stage was awarded to Douglas Aircraft.

By January of 1962, construction had begun at all of the acquired sites and development was under way at all of the contractors.

Such was the urgency with which NASA was responding to Kennedy’s challenge and deadline that all of these decisions and work were done before deciding on how to get to the Moon—the so-called “mission mode”. There were three candidates: direct-ascent, Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR), and lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR). Direct ascent was the simplest, and much like idea of a Moon ship in golden age science fiction. One launch from Earth would send a ship to the Moon which would land there, then take off and return directly to Earth. There would be no need for rendezvous and docking in space (which had never been attempted, and nobody was sure was even possible), and no need for multiple launches per mission, which was seen as an advantage at a time when rockets were only marginally reliable and notorious for long delays from their scheduled launch time. The downside of direct-ascent was that it would require an enormous rocket: planners envisioned a monster called Nova which would have dwarfed the Saturn V eventually used for Apollo and required new manufacturing, test, and launch facilities to accommodate its size. Also, it is impossible to design a ship which is optimised both for landing under rocket power on the Moon and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. Still, direct-ascent seemed to involve the least number of technological unknowns. Ever wonder why the Apollo service module had that enormous Service Propulsion System engine? When it was specified, the mission mode had not been chosen, and it was made powerful enough to lift the entire command and service module off the lunar surface and return them to the Earth after a landing in direct-ascent mode.

Earth orbit rendezvous was similar to what Wernher von Braun envisioned in his 1950s popular writings about the conquest of space. Multiple launches would be used to assemble a Moon ship in low Earth orbit, and then, when it was complete, it would fly to the Moon, land, and then return to Earth. Such a plan would not necessarily even require a booster as large as the Saturn V. One might, for example, launch the lunar landing and return vehicle on one Saturn I, the stage which would propel it to the Moon on a second, and finally the crew on a third, who would board the ship only after it was assembled and ready to go. This was attractive in not requiring the development of a giant rocket, but required on-time launches of multiple rockets in quick succession, orbital rendezvous and docking (and in some schemes, refuelling), and still had the problem of designing a craft suitable both for landing on the Moon and returning to Earth.

Lunar orbit rendezvous was originally considered a distant third in the running. A single large rocket (but smaller than Nova) would launch two craft toward the Moon. One ship would be optimised for flight through the Earth’s atmosphere and return to Earth, while the other would be designed solely for landing on the Moon. The Moon lander, operating only in vacuum and the Moon’s weak gravity, need not be streamlined or structurally strong, and could be potentially much lighter than a ship able to both land on the Moon and return to Earth. Finally, once its mission was complete and the landing crew safely back in the Earth return ship, it could be discarded, meaning that all of the hardware needed solely for landing on the Moon need not be taken back to the Earth. This option was attractive, requiring only a single launch and no gargantuan rocket, and allowed optimising the lander for its mission (for example, providing better visibility to its pilots of the landing site), but it not only required rendezvous and docking, but doing it in lunar orbit which, if they failed, would strand the lander crew in orbit around the Moon with no hope of rescue.

After a high-stakes technical struggle, in the latter part of 1962, NASA selected lunar orbit rendezvous as the mission mode, with each landing mission to be launched on a single Saturn V booster, making the decision final with the selection of Grumman as contractor for the Lunar Module in November of that year. Had another mission mode been chosen, it is improbable in the extreme that the landing would have been accomplished in the 1960s.

The Apollo architecture was now in place. All that remained was building machines which had never been imagined before, learning to do things (on-time launches, rendezvous and docking in space, leaving spacecraft and working in the vacuum, precise navigation over distances no human had ever travelled before, and assessing all of the “unknown unknowns” [radiation risks, effects of long-term weightlessness, properties of the lunar surface, ability to land on lunar terrain, possible chemical or biological threats on the Moon, etc.]) and developing plans to cope with them.

This masterful book is the story of how what is possibly the largest collection of geeks and nerds ever assembled and directed at a single goal, funded with the abundant revenue from an economic boom, spurred by a geopolitical competition against the sworn enemy of liberty, took on these daunting challenges and, one by one, overcame them, found a way around, or simply accepted the risk because it was worth it. They learned how to tame giant rocket engines that randomly blew up by setting off bombs inside them. They abandoned the careful step-by-step development of complex rockets in favour of “all-up testing” (stack all of the untested pieces the first time, push the button, and see what happens) because “there wasn’t enough time to do it any other way”. People were working 16–18–20 hours a day, seven days a week. Flight surgeons in Mission Control handed out “go and whoa pills”—amphetamines and barbiturates—to keep the kids on the console awake at work and asleep those few hours they were at home—hey, it was the Sixties!

This is not a tale of heroic astronauts and their exploits. The astronauts, as they have been the first to say, were literally at the “tip of the spear” and would not have been able to complete their missions without the work of almost half a million uncelebrated people who made them possible, not to mention the hundred million or so U.S. taxpayers who footed the bill.

This was not a straight march to victory. Three astronauts died in a launch pad fire the investigation of which revealed shockingly slapdash quality control in the assembly of their spacecraft and NASA’s ignoring the lethal risk of fire in a pure oxygen atmosphere at sea level pressure. The second flight of the Saturn V was a near calamity due to multiple problems, some entirely avoidable (and yet the decision was made to man the next flight of the booster and send the crew to the Moon). Neil Armstrong narrowly escaped death in May 1968 when the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle he was flying ran out of fuel and crashed. And the division of responsibility between the crew in the spacecraft and mission controllers on the ground had to be worked out before it would be tested in flight where getting things right could mean the difference between life and death.

What can we learn from Apollo, fifty years on? Other than standing in awe at what was accomplished given the technology and state of the art of the time, and on a breathtakingly short schedule, little or nothing that is relevant to the development of space in the present and future. Apollo was the product of a set of circumstances which happened to come together at one point in history and are unlikely to ever recur. Although some of those who worked on making it a reality were dreamers and visionaries who saw it as the first step into expanding the human presence beyond the home planet, to those who voted to pay the forbidding bills (at its peak, NASA’s budget, mostly devoted to Apollo, was more than 4% of all Federal spending; in recent years, it has settled at around one half of one percent: a national commitment to space eight times smaller as a fraction of total spending) Apollo was seen as a key battle in the Cold War. Allowing the Soviet Union to continue to achieve milestones in space while the U.S. played catch-up or forfeited the game would reinforce the Soviet message to the developing world that their economic and political system was the wave of the future, leaving decadent capitalism in the dust.

A young, ambitious, forward-looking president, smarting from being scooped once again by Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight and the humiliation of the débâcle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, seized on a bold stroke that would show the world the superiority of the U.S. by deploying its economic, industrial, and research resources toward a highly visible goal. And, after being assassinated two and a half years later, his successor, a space enthusiast who had directed a substantial part of NASA’s spending to his home state and those of his political allies, presented the program as the legacy of the martyred president and vigorously defended it against those who tried to kill it or reduce its priority. The U.S. was in an economic boom which would last through most of the Apollo program until after the first Moon landing, and was the world’s unchallenged economic powerhouse. And finally, the federal budget had not yet been devoured by uncontrollable “entitlement” spending and national debt was modest and manageable: if the national will was there, Apollo was affordable.

This confluence of circumstances was unique to its time and has not been repeated in the half century thereafter, nor is it likely to recur in the foreseeable future. Space enthusiasts who look at Apollo and what it accomplished in such a short time often err in assuming a similar program: government funded, on a massive scale with lavish budgets, focussed on a single goal, and based on special-purpose disposable hardware suited only for its specific mission, is the only way to open the space frontier. They are not only wrong in this assumption, but they are dreaming if they think there is the public support and political will to do anything like Apollo today. In fact, Apollo was not even particularly popular in the 1960s: only at one point in 1965 did public support for funding of human trips to the Moon poll higher than 50% and only around the time of the Apollo 11 landing did 50% of the U.S. population believe Apollo was worth what was being spent on it.

In fact, despite being motivated as a demonstration of the superiority of free people and free markets, Project Apollo was a quintessentially socialist space program. It was funded by money extracted by taxation, its priorities set by politicians, and its operations centrally planned and managed in a top-down fashion of which the Soviet functionaries at Gosplan could only dream. Its goals were set by politics, not economic benefits, science, or building a valuable infrastructure. This was not lost on the Soviets. Here is Soviet Minister of Defence Dmitriy Ustinov speaking at a Central Committee meeting in 1968, quoted by Boris Chertok in volume 4 of Rockets and People.

…the Americans have borrowed our basic method of operation—plan-based management and networked schedules. They have passed us in management and planning methods—they announce a launch preparation schedule in advance and strictly adhere to it. In essence, they have put into effect the principle of democratic centralism—free discussion followed by the strictest discipline during implementation.

This kind of socialist operation works fine in a wartime crash program driven by time pressure, where unlimited funds and manpower are available, and where there is plenty of capital which can be consumed or borrowed to pay for it. But it does not create sustainable enterprises. Once the goal is achieved, the war won (or lost), or it runs out of other people’s money to spend, the whole thing grinds to a halt or stumbles along, continuing to consume resources while accomplishing little. This was the predictable trajectory of Apollo.

Apollo was one of the noblest achievements of the human species and we should celebrate it as a milestone in the human adventure, but trying to repeat it is pure poison to the human destiny in the solar system and beyond.

This book is a superb recounting of the Apollo experience, told mostly about the largely unknown people who confronted the daunting technical problems and, one by one, found solutions which, if not perfect, were good enough to land on the Moon in 1969. Later chapters describe key missions, again concentrating on the problem solving which went on behind the scenes to achieve their goals or, in the case of Apollo 13, get home alive. Looking back on something that happened fifty years ago, especially if you were born afterward, it may be difficult to appreciate just how daunting the idea of flying to the Moon was in May 1961. This book is the story of the people who faced that challenge, pulled it off, and are largely forgotten today.

Both the 1989 first edition and 2004 paperback revised edition are out of print and available only at absurd collectors’ prices. The Kindle edition, which is based upon the 2004 edition with small revisions to adapt to digital reader devices is available at a reasonable price, as is an unabridged audio book, which is a reading of the 2004 edition. You’d think there would have been a paperback reprint of this valuable book in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 (and the thirtieth anniversary of its original publication), but there wasn’t.

Project Apollo is such a huge, sprawling subject that no book can possibly cover every aspect of it. For those who wish to delve deeper, here is a reading list of excellent sources. I have read all of these books and recommend every one. For those I have reviewed, I link to my review; for others, I link to a source where you can obtain the book.

If you wish to commemorate the landing of Apollo 11 in a moving ceremony with friends, consider hosting an Evoloterra celebration.

Murray, Charles and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo. Burkittsville, MD: South Mountain Books, [1989, 2004] 2010. ISBN 978-0-9760008-0-8.

Here is the Apollo 11 walk on the Moon, restored, as you may never have seen it before.  A funny sequence, which I remember from when I heard it as it happened, occurs at 20:34 into the video.

Next we have a discussion for a presentation made in 1989 by those involved in planning the Apollo missions.

Part 3 of this panel does not seem to be available.  Here is part 4.

Another panel discussion of 1989 involved people from Mission Control discussing how the Apollo missions were flown.

Here is an extraordinarily candid interview with famously private Neil Armstrong about his career and the unique circumstances which made Apollo possible.  The interview was recorded in 2011, a year before Armstrong’s death.

This is a one hour interview with Buzz Aldrin recorded at the Science Museum in London three years ago.

Here is a one hour conversation with Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins recorded in April 2019 at the National Press Club.  The interviewer, former CBS News reader Marvin Kalb, is stunningly ignorant, talking repeatedly about the “dark side of the Moon” and believing that the International Space Station is a “Russian space station” where U.S. astronauts “only visit”.

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Saturday Night Science: Apollo 11 at 50 II: Moon Landing from the Moon

One of the most fundamental deductions Albert Einstein made from the finite speed of light in his theory of special relativity is the relativity of simultaneity—because light takes a finite time to traverse a distance in space, it is not possible to define simultaneity with respect to a universal clock shared by all observers. In fact, purely due to their locations in space, two observers may disagree about the order in which two spatially separated events occurred. It is only because the speed of light is so great compared to distances we are familiar with in everyday life that this effect seems unfamiliar to us. Note that the relativity of simultaneity can be purely due to the finite speed of light; while it is usually discussed in conjunction with special relativity and moving observers, it can be observed in situations where none of the other relativistic effects are present. The following animation demonstrates the effect.

Relativity of Simultaneity

(The animation is a rather large file and may take a while to download; please be patient if it doesn’t start immediately.) In this model we will consider what three widely separated observers (represented by the yellow, blue, and grey spheres), none moving with respect to one another, observe when two lights, one red and the other green, illuminate at equal distances on either side of the yellow observer. When the lights come on, wavefronts of green and red light begin to spread out spherically from them at the speed of light. (Of course, the wavefronts appear as circles in this two-dimensional projection. Note also that we are observing this event from a large distance, equidistant from the red and green lights.)

At the moment the lights illuminate and the wavefront begins to propagate outward from each, we start a “progress meter” for each observer, with a time indicator bearing the observer’s colour code showing local elapsed time. When the wavefront from the red light reaches an observer, we begin to plot a red line above the time line to indicate that the observer now sees the red light, and when the wavefront from the green light arrives, a green line begins to be drawn for the observer. The animation repeats continuously and pauses at the start and end.

When the animation reaches the end of a cycle, compare the progress meters for the three observers. Solely due to their respective distances from the red and green lights, each sees the lights come on in a different order: the yellow observer sees both illuminate simultaneously; the blue observer sees the red light first, while the grey observer sees the green light first. The lesson of the finite speed of light and special relativity is that not only isn’t there a universal time valid everywhere, observers cannot even agree on the order in which they observe events to occur when the distances between them are significant compared to the speed of light.

Technical note: Some physicists prefer to reserve the term “relativity of simultaneity” for cases where observers are in motion relative to one another and the effects of special relativity obtain. In a case like the example above, where all the observers and sources are at rest with respect to one another, it is possible, using Einstein’s definition of simultaneity, for spatially separated observers to synchronise their clocks and define simultaneity in terms of the spacetime interval between events. When observers are in relative motion, however, it is impossible, even in principle, to synchronise their clocks, so no definition of simultaneity is possible. But to me, the phrase “relativity of simultaneity” means precisely what it says, notwithstanding relativistic effects or their absence. In this case, three observers of the same two events see three different orders in which they appeared to occur from their particular vantage points; hence their perception of simultaneity is relative even though it is entirely due to light travel time instead of motion.

“The Eagle has landed”

You’re probably familiar with the following audio clip of the touchdown of Apollo 11 on the Moon. This is from the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) feed provided to news media covering the landing and broadcast worldwide in real time over television and radio. The feed included occasional commentary by the PAO, but during the landing only the “air to ground” (so-called, despite the conspicuous absence of air in the vicinity of the Moon) downlink and CAPCOM (the astronaut in mission control designated to speak to the crew, Charles Duke in this instance) are heard.

Buzz Aldrin does most of the talking in this sequence. As lunar module pilot, his responsibility was to provide Neil Armstrong, who was flying the spacecraft and looking out the window searching for a landing site, with a running commentary of instrument readings and status indications, which was also transmitted over the air to ground link to mission control. Armstrong does not key his microphone until he makes the post-landing transmission, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” (Actually, if you listen very carefully, you can hear Armstrong confirm “Out of detent” after Aldrin calls “ACA out of detent” immediately after engine stop; his voice was picked up by Aldrin’s microphone.) An annotated transcript of this sequence appears from vehicle elapsed time 102:45:40 through 102:46:06 in the indispensable Apollo Lunar Surface Journal edited by Eric M. Jones.

“Houston, uhhh…”

Every time I’ve listened to this sequence, I’ve been a bit puzzled why Armstrong paused so long between “Houston” and the rest of the “Tranquility Base…” transmission. He was certainly excited at the time: telemetry records his heart rate at touchdown at 150 beats per minute, and most people (although perhaps not steely-nerved engineering test pilots) tend to speak rapidly in such circumstances.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me to ask what Neil Armstrong heard through his headphones immediately after landing on the Moon. This isn’t what listeners on Earth heard, due to relativity of simultaneity. At the time of the Moon landing (which I take as 20:17:43 UTC on 20th July 1969, Julian Day 2440423.34564, for the purposes of this document) the Moon was 385693 km from the Earth, which distance light took about 1.2865 seconds to traverse. Consequently, when you listen to the Earth-based recordings of the Apollo communications, you’re hearing the CAPCOM in Houston as soon as he speaks, but transmissions from the Moon more than 1¼ seconds after they were spoken.

Microphone on the Moon

Digital audio editing tools make it easy (although still a bit tedious) to transform a recording of transmissions from widely separated sources into how they would be received at any given location. In particular, by extracting transmissions from the LM from those originating in mission control onto separate tracks with the Audacity audio editor, I was then able to time-shift transmissions originating from the Earth by the light delay of 1.2865 seconds to reproduce what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong heard through their headphones in the cabin of the Eagle lunar module on the surface in Mare Tranquillitatis. During the landing phase, an on-board tape recorder in the lunar module captured the voices of Armstrong and Aldrin even when they were not transmitting on the air to ground link. From this noisy source, I have restored the few remarks by Armstrong which were only heard within the cabin. This is, then, the lunar touchdown as heard by the astronauts who performed it.

Now it’s obvious what happened to Armstrong’s post-landing transmission! Right before he began the call, Duke’s message, sent a second and a quarter earlier, arrived at the Moon. While, from an earthly perspective, this was spoken well before Armstrong said “Houston”, on the Moon this message “stepped on” the start of Armstrong’s transmission (especially considering human reaction time), and caused him to pause before continuing with his message. Note also that on the Earth-based recording, Duke’s response occurs almost immediately after the end of Armstrong’s transmission, but on the Moon, the astronauts had to wait for the pokey photons to make it from the home planet to their high gain antenna on its distant satellite.

Apollo 11 Moon Landing: You are there

I have taken the liberty of preparing an audio track of the entire terminal descent and landing of the lunar module Eagle on the Moon as heard by the astronauts on board.

In this stereo presentation, Aldrin’s transmissions appear in the centre, with Armstrong’s remarks captured only on the onboard recorder in the left channel and CAPCOM Charles Duke’s transmissions in the right channel. Consider, as you listen to this audio, that apart from other folks who clicked on this link before you, only Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and this humble scrivener have ever listened to this event from the lunar surface’s unique perspective in spacetime. The transcript for this sequence occurs between vehicle elapsed time 102:42:25 and 102:47:15 in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.

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Total Solar Eclipse: 2019-07-02

Total solar eclipseA total solar eclipse will take place today, 2019-07-02.  Totality will be visible only in the southern hemisphere, on a path seemingly crafted to avoid land as much as possible.  Totality will touch down in the southwest Pacific Ocean, pass over Pitcairn Island, then finally touch land, crossing Chile and Argentina.  Totality will begin at 18:03 UTC and end at 20:42 UTC.

The Exploratorium is planning a live Webcast of the eclipse from Chile, originating from the Cerro Tololo Observatory, which totality happens to cross.  The Webcast will last for one hour, beginning at 20:00 UTC.  Occurring in early July, near the time of Earth’s aphelion, with the Moon around two days from perigee, this will be a fairly long eclipse, with four minutes and 32.8 seconds of totality at maximum eclipse in the mid-Pacific.

Here is a live player which should show the Exploratorium’s coverage of the eclipse. If this doesn’t work for you, try going directly to the live Webcast page.

In addition to the coverage, which will probably involve chatty narration and cutting back and forth, there is an uncommented live telescope view from Chile. That broadcast will start at 19:23 UTC. This is a live player for the telescope feed.

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Book Review: Delta-v

“Delta-V” by Daniel SuarezJames Tighe is an extreme cave diver, pushing the limits of human endurance and his equipment to go deeper, farther, and into unexplored regions of underwater caves around the world. While exploring the depths of a cavern in China, an earthquake triggers disastrous rockfalls in the cave, killing several members of his expedition. Tighe narrowly escapes with his life, leading the survivors to safety, and the video he recorded with his helmet camera has made him an instant celebrity. He is surprised and puzzled when invited by billionaire and serial entrepreneur Nathan Joyce to a party on Joyce’s private island in the Caribbean. Joyce meets privately with Tighe and explains that his theory of economics predicts a catastrophic collapse of the global debt bubble in the near future, with the potential to destroy modern civilisation.

Joyce believes that the only way to avert this calamity is to jump start the human expansion into the solar system, thus creating an economic expansion into a much larger sphere of activity than one planet and allowing humans to “grow out” of the crushing debt their profligate governments have run up. In particular, he believes that asteroid mining is the key to opening the space frontier, as it will provide a source of raw materials which do not have to be lifted at prohibitive cost out of Earth’s deep gravity well. Joyce intends to use part of his fortune to bootstrap such a venture, and invites Tighe to join a training program to select a team of individuals ready to face the challenges of long-term industrial operations in deep space.

Tighe is puzzled, “Why me?” Joyce explains that much more important than a background in aerospace or mining is the ability to make the right decisions under great pressure and uncertainty. Tighe’s leadership in rescuing his dive companions demonstrated that ability and qualified him to try out for Joyce’s team.

By the year 2033, the NewSpace companies founded in the early years of the 21st century have matured and, although taking different approaches, have come to dominate the market for space operations, mostly involving constellations of Earth satellites. The so-called “NewSpace Titans” (names have been changed, but you’ll recognise them from their styles) have made their billions developing this industry, and some have expressed interest in asteroid mining, but mostly via robotic spacecraft and on a long-term time scale. Nathan Joyce wants to join their ranks and advance the schedule by sending humans to do the job. Besides, he argues, if the human destiny is to expand into space, why not get on with it, deploying their versatility and ability to improvise on this difficult challenge?

The whole thing sounds rather dodgy to Tighe, but cave diving does not pay well, and the signing bonus and promised progress payments if he meets various milestones in the training programme sound very attractive, so he signs on the dotted line. Further off-putting were a draconian non-disclosure agreement and an “Indemnity for Accidental Death and Dismemberment” which was sprung on candidates only after arriving at the remote island training facility. There were surveillance cameras and microphones everywhere, and Tighe and others speculated they may be part of an elaborate reality TV show staged by Joyce, not a genuine space project.

The other candidates were from all kinds of backgrounds: ex-military, former astronauts, BASE jumpers, mountaineers, scientists, and engineers. There were almost all on the older side for adventurers: mid-thirties to mid-forties—something about cosmic rays. And most of them had the hallmarks of DRD4-7R adventurers.

As the programme gets underway, the candidates discover it resembles Special Forces training more than astronaut candidate instruction, with a series of rigorous tests evaluating personal courage, endurance, psychological stability, problem-solving skills, tolerance for stress, and the ability to form and work as a team. Predictably, their numbers are winnowed as they approach the milestone where a few will be selected for orbital training and qualification for the deep space mission.

Tighe and the others discover that their employer is anything but straightforward, and they begin to twig to the fact that the kind of people who actually open the road to human settlement of the solar system may resemble the ruthless railroad barons of the 19th century more than the starry-eyed dreamers of science fiction. These revelations continue as the story unfolds.

After gut-wrenching twists and turns, Tighe finds himself part of a crew selected to fly to and refine resources from a near-Earth asteroid first reconnoitered by the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission in the 2010s. Risks are everywhere, and not just in space: corporate maneuvering back on Earth can kill the crew just as surely as radiation, vacuum, explosions, and collisions in space. Their only hope may be a desperate option recalling one of the greatest feats of seamanship in Earth’s history.

This is a gripping yarn in which the author confronts his characters with one seemingly insurmountable obstacle and disheartening setback after another, then describes how these carefully selected and honed survivors deal with it. There are no magical technologies: all of the technical foundations exist today, at least at the scale of laboratory demonstrations, and could plausibly be scaled up to those in the story by the mid-2030s. The intricate plot is a salutary reminder that deception, greed, dodgy finances, corporate hijinks, bureaucracy, and destructively hypertrophied egos do not stop at the Kármán line. The conclusion is hopeful and a testament to the place for humans in the development of space.

A question and answer document about the details underlying the story is available on the author’s Web site.

Suarez, Daniel. Delta-v. New York: Dutton, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5247-4241-6.

Here is a one hour interview with the author by Leo Laporte of Triangulation on This Week in Tech.

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Now, that’s Funny

The Kepler spacecraft was launched into heliocentric orbit in 2009.  Its primary mission was to stare at a small area of the sky and monitor around 150,000 stars in its field of view (around twice the size of the bowl of the Big Dipper), watching for the subtle dimming of stars when planets orbiting them passed in front of their parent stars (a transit).  Before its retirement in October, 2018, it had discovered 2,662 exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun).  It also saw some other, very curious things.

You may have heard about Tabby’s Star (KIC 8462852), a main sequence star which exhibits irregular deep dimmings which have, so far defied all attempts to explain them.

Kepler’s primary mission came to an end in 2012 when failure of on-board reaction wheels made it impossible to aim the telescope at its target in the sky.  In 2014 an extended mission called K2 was begun, which used a clever method of using solar radiation pressure to orient the spacecraft, and this mission continued until its maneuvering fuel was exhausted, forcing its retirement.

The extended mission allowed observing other regions of the sky, and detected numerous additional exoplanets.  It also saw some distinctly odd things.

On 2019-06-28, a preprint of a paper, “The Random Transiter – EPIC 249706694/HD 139139” was posted to the arXiv.org server.  It discusses a star with the nomenclature in the title, which was observed over a period of 87 days during the Kepler extended mission.

Here is the light curve of the star over the period of observation, normalised to take out effects such as star spots and artefacts of data reduction.  The mean flux from the star is 1.0, and the red line indicates the calculated noise floor: anything below it meets the criterion used in observations of other stars to indicate a planetary transit candidate.

Light curve of EPIC 249706694 / HD 139139

What you expect for a star with one or more transiting planets is a series of dips as the planets pass in front of the star, occurring at regular intervals, since there are few phenomena in nature as regular as the orbits of planets.  But this light curve is crazy.  All of the standard tools used to detect periodicities in data sets find none.  In fact, the authors note, “their arrival times could just as well have been produced by a random number generator”.  And yet, with two exceptions, the dips are of comparable magnitude (200±80 parts per million in flux) and around the same shape, consistent with a transit of an opaque object.

Complicating the analysis is that the primary star, which is much like the Sun, has another star very close to it in the sky, which contributes to the same pixel in the sensor.  It is not known whether the two stars are gravitationally bound into a double system or are a chance alignment and there is no way to know from the Kepler data whether the bright star or the dimmer nearby star is responsible for the dips.  It may be possible to determine this from follow-up ground-based observations, but that question is not presently resolved.

In section 6 of the paper, the authors consider nine possible explanations for the observed random dips in flux.  They essentially exclude all of the suggested instrumental and astrophysical causes except for hypothetical short-lived star spots which have never been observed in any of the hundreds of thousands of other stars studied by astronomers.

Almost every time we’ve looked at nature in a a new way: a different scale of spatial or temporal resolution, a new frequency band, or a broader scope of sampling, we’ve found things that “just don’t make any sense”.   Isaac Asimov said,

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”.

This is funny.

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Book Review: Diabolical

Milo Yiannopoulos has a well-deserved and hard-earned reputation as a controversialist, inciter of outrage, and offender of all the right people. His acid wit and mockery of those amply deserving it causes some to dismiss what he says when he’s deadly serious about something, as he is in this impassioned book about the deep corruption in the Roman Catholic church and its seeming abandonment of its historic mission as a bastion of the Christian values which made the West the West. It is an earnest plea for a new religious revival, from the bottom up, to rid the Church of its ageing, social justice indoctrinated hierarchy which, if not entirely homosexual, has tolerated widespread infiltration of the priesthood by sexually active homosexual men who have indulged their attraction to underage (but almost always post-pubescent) boys, and has been complicit in covering up these scandals and allowing egregious offenders to escape discipline and continue their predatory behaviour for many years.

Ever since emerging as a public figure, Yiannopoulos has had a target on his back. A young, handsome (he may prefer “fabulous”), literate, well-spoken, quick-witted, funny, flaming homosexual, Roman Catholic, libertarian-conservative, pro-Brexit, pro-Trump, prolific author and speaker who can fill auditoriums on college campuses and simultaneously entertain and educate his audiences, willing to debate the most vociferous of opponents, and who has the slaver Left’s number and is aware of their vulnerability just at what they imagined was the moment of triumph, is the stuff of nightmares to those who count on ignorant legions of dim followers capable of little more than chanting rhyming slogans and littering. He had to be silenced, and to a large extent, he has been. But, like the Terminator, he’s back, and he’s aiming higher: for the Vatican.

It was a remarkable judo throw the slavers and their media accomplices on the left and “respectable right” used to rid themselves of this turbulent pest. The virtuosos of victimology managed to use the author’s having been a victim of clerical sexual abuse, and spoken candidly about it, to effectively de-platform, de-monetise, disemploy, and silence him in the public sphere by proclaiming him a defender of pædophilia (which has nothing to do with the phenomenon he was discussing and of which he was a victim: homosexual exploitation of post-pubescent boys).

The author devotes a chapter to his personal experience and how it paralleled that of others. At the same time, he draws a distinction between what happened to him and the rampant homosexuality in some seminaries and serial abuse by prelates in positions of authority and its being condoned and covered up by the hierarchy. He traces the blame all the way to the current Pope, whose collectivist and social justice credentials were apparent to everybody before his selection. Regrettably, he concludes, Catholics must simply wait for the Pope to die or retire, while laying the ground for a revival and restoration of the faith which will drive the choice of his successor.

Other chapters discuss the corrosive influence of so-called “feminism” on the Church and how it has corrupted what was once a manly warrior creed that rolled back the scourge of Islam when it threatened civilisation in Europe and is needed now more than ever after politicians seemingly bent on societal suicide have opened the gates to the invaders; how utterly useless and clueless the legacy media are in covering anything relating to religion (a New York Times reporter asked First Things editor Fr Richard John Neuhaus what he made of the fact that the newly elected pope was “also” going to be named the bishop of Rome); and how the rejection and collapse of Christianity as a pillar of the West risks its replacement with race as the central identity of the culture.

The final chapter quotes Chesterton (from Heretics, 1905),

Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

Much more is at stake than one sect (albeit the largest) of Christianity. The infiltration, subversion, and overt attacks on the Roman Catholic church are an assault upon an institution which has been central to Western civilisation for two millennia. If it falls, and it is falling, in large part due to self-inflicted wounds, the forces of darkness will be coming for the smaller targets next. Whatever your religion, or whether you have one or not, collapse of one of the three pillars of our cultural identity is something to worry about and work to prevent. In the author’s words, “What few on the political Right have grasped is that the most important component in this trifecta isn’t capitalism, or even democracy, but Christianity.” With all three under assault from all sides, this book makes an eloquent argument to secular free marketeers and champions of consensual government not to ignore the cultural substrate which allowed both to emerge and flourish.

Yiannopoulos, Milo. Diabolical. New York: Bombardier Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-64293-163-1.

Here is a one hour interview with the author by Michael Voris of Church Militant.

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Raspberry Pi 4 Now Available

Raspberry Pi 4A little bit of the Roaring Twenties has just fallen into 2019.  Raspberry Pi 4 has just been announced and is now shipping.  As soon as the distribution pipeline is filled, you’ll be able to buy one (or fifty, or ten thousand) from your favourite distributor.  This is the fourth generation of Raspberry Pi since the introduction of the series in 2012.

Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer, around the size of a credit card, based upon the ARM family of low-power microprocessors.  Unlike the Arduino family of microcontrollers, which are primarily used as embedded processors and programmed on other platforms, the Raspberry Pi is a general-purpose computing platform which, with an attached keyboard, mouse, monitor(s), and network connection, can be used to develop software using the tools with which programmers are familiar on desktop platforms, usually based upon the Linux operating system, for which a Raspberry Pi distribution called Raspbian is the most popular.

Raspberry Pi 4 was expected to be introduced in the middle of 2020, but according to the developers that was based upon a schedule assuming four revisions of the silicon would be required to get the bugs out and meet specifications but, in fact, the second revision (BCM2711B0) worked perfectly, and with the board design completed and tested, there was no reason not to ship it now.

The specifications of this new model place it firmly in the desktop class.

  • 64-bit ARM Cortex-A72 1.5GHz quad-core CPU
  • 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB of LPDDR4 SDRAM
  • Full-throughput Gigabit Ethernet
  • Dual-band 802.11ac WiFi networking
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports
  • Dual monitor support, at resolutions up to 4K
  • VideoCore VI graphics, supporting OpenGL ES 3.x
  • 4Kp60 hardware decode of HEVC video input

Like previous Raspberry Pi models, it is powered by a an external power cube, in this case any USB-C power supply able to source 3 amperes at 5 volts.  There is no need for a fan.  A new case is available which accommodates the changes to connector configuration, but existing Raspberry Pi 3 cases can be adapted with a little hacksaw work.  The general purpose digital I/O  interfaces which allow connecting external devices and using the board as an embedded controller are compatible with Raspberry Pi 3.

For the first time, Raspberry Pi is available in three memory capacity models.  The base 1 Gb option (the same as Pi 3) sells for the traditional price of US$ 35.  The 2 Gb model is US$ 45, and the 4 Gb US$ 55.

Bundled software remains the same as for Pi 3, including a full copy of Wolfram Research’s Mathematica.  The current version of the software includes version 10.2 of Mathematica, but Wolfram Research have announced this will be updated to the newly released version 12.  A number of people, including me, have bought a Raspberry Pi simply to get an inexpensive copy of Mathematica.

Here is the official announcement and product details from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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Book Review: The Voyage of the Iron Dragon

“The Voyage of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThis is the third and final volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon and continued in The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. When reading a series of books I’ve discovered, I usually space them out to enjoy them over time, but the second book of this trilogy left its characters in such a dire pickle I just couldn’t wait to see how the author managed to wrap up the story in just one more book and dove right in to the concluding volume. It is a satisfying end to the saga, albeit in some places seeming rushed compared to the more deliberate development of the story and characters in the first two books.

First of all, this note. Despite being published in three books, this is one huge, sprawling story which stretches over more than a thousand pages, decades of time, and locations as far-flung as Constantinople, Iceland, the Caribbean, and North America, and in addition to their cultures, we have human spacefarers from the future, Vikings, and an alien race called the Cho-ta’an bent on exterminating humans from the galaxy. You should read the three books in order: Dream, Dawn, and Voyage. If you start in the middle, despite the second and third volumes’ having a brief summary of the story so far, you’ll be completely lost as to who the characters are, what they’re trying to do, and how they ended up pursuing the desperate and seemingly impossible task in which they are engaged (building an Earth-orbital manned spacecraft in the middle ages while leaving no historical traces of their activity which later generations of humans might find). “Read the whole thing,” in order. It’s worth it.

With the devastating events which concluded the second volume, the spacemen are faced with an even more daunting challenge than that in which they were previously engaged, and with far less confidence of success in their mission of saving humanity in its war for survival against the Cho-ta’an more than 1500 years in their future. As this book begins, more than two decades have passed since the spacemen crashed on Earth. They have patiently been building up the infrastructure required to build their rocket, establishing mining, logging, materials processing, and manufacturing at a far-flung series of camps all linked together by Viking-built and -crewed oceangoing ships. Just as important as tools and materials is human capital: the spacemen have had to set up an ongoing programme to recruit, educate, and train the scientists, engineers, technicians, drafters, managers, and tradespeople of all kinds needed for a 20th century aerospace project, all in a time when only a tiny fraction of the population is literate, and they have reluctantly made peace with the Viking way of “recruiting” the people they need.

The difficulty of all of this is compounded by the need to operate in absolute secrecy. Experience has taught the spacemen that, having inadvertently travelled into Earth’s past, history cannot be changed. Consequently, nothing they do can interfere in any way with the course of recorded human history because that would conflict with what actually happened and would therefore be doomed to failure. And in addition, some Cho-ta’an who landed on Earth may still be alive and bent on stopping their project. While they must work technological miracles to have a slim chance of saving humanity, the Cho-ta’an need only thwart them in any one of a multitude of ways to win. Their only hope is to disappear.

The story is one of dogged persistence, ingenuity in the face of formidable obstacles everywhere; dealing with adversaries as varied as Viking chieftains, the Vatican, Cho-ta’an aliens, and native American tribes; epic battles; disheartening setbacks; and inspiring triumphs. It is a heroic story on a grand scale, worthy of inclusion among the great epics of science fiction’s earlier golden ages.

When it comes to twentieth century rocket engineering, there are a number of goofs and misconceptions in the story, almost all of which could have been remedied without any impact on the plot. Although they aren’t precisely plot spoilers, I’ll take them behind the curtain for space-nerd readers who wish to spot them for themselves without foreknowledge.

Despite the minor quibbles in the spoiler section (which do not detract in any way from enjoyment of the tale), this is a rollicking good adventure and satisfying conclusion to the Iron Dragon saga. It seemed to me that the last part of the story was somewhat rushed and could have easily occupied another full book, but the author promised us a trilogy and that’s what he delivered, so fair enough. In terms of accomplishing the mission upon which the spacemen and their allies had laboured for half a century, essentially all of the action occurs in the last quarter of this final volume, starting in chapter 44. As usual nothing comes easy, and the project must face a harrowing challenge which might undo everything at the last moment, then confront the cold equations of orbital mechanics. The conclusion is surprising and, while definitively ending this tale, leaves the door open to further adventures set in this universe.

This series has been a pure delight from start to finish. It wasn’t obvious to this reader at the outset that it would be possible to pull time travel, Vikings, and spaceships together into a story that worked, but the author has managed to do so, while maintaining historical authenticity about a neglected period in European history. It is particularly difficult to craft a time travel yarn in which it is impossible for the characters to change the recorded history of our world, but this is another challenge the author rises to and almost makes it look easy. Independent science fiction is where readers will find the heroes, interesting ideas, and adventure which brought them to science fiction in the first place, and Robert Kroese is establishing himself as a prolific grandmaster of this exciting new golden age.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Kroese, Robert. The Voyage of the Iron Dragon. Grand Rapids MI: St. Culain Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-7982-3431-0.

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Inverted Yield Curve

U.S. Treasury Bond, 1977, US$ 1 millionThis is a fairly geeky financial technical analysis post.  I usually post such material as Gnome-o-Grams on my own Web log, but as an experiment, I’m posting this one here to see if there’s any interest among the membership or wish to see further posts of this kind.  If you’d like to see more like this here, please indicate by liking this post or commenting, including topics you’d like to see discussed (after reviewing those already published, linked above).  As always when anything discussing finance or investing, I don’t make recommendations; you’re entirely responsible for your own decisions and would be crazy to interpret anything I say as a a course of action you should pursue without coming to your own independent decision.

The yield curve is a measure of the sentiment of investors, particularly conservative investors who own fixed-income securities (bonds and equivalents).  (Much of the financial press covers the equity [stock] markets and neglects the bond markets, but the bond markets dwarf the stock market in valuation.  Bonds aren’t [usually] exciting [and when they are things are generally unpleasant], so they don’t get much attention, but if you’re interested in the flow of funds [and you should be], that’s where you ought to be looking.)  The yield curve simply plots, for equivalent fixed-income (debt) securities (bonds), the relationship between the yield of the security and the time to its maturity (when the investor gets his or her money back).  For example, consider the most widely traded securities in the world: U.S. Treasury debt.  These instruments have various names: Treasury Bills, Treasury Notes, and Treasury Bonds, depending upon their time to maturity, but they all are obligations of the U.S. Treasury and bear the full faith and credit of the United States.  They are considered as close to risk-free as any paper investment in the world.

In normal financial circumstances, which is almost all the time, the longer the time to maturity of the investment, the greater the yield.  For example, in May 2018, a 90 day U.S. Treasury Bill yielded around 1.6% interest (per annum, as will be  all figures quoted).  If you were willing to lock in your money for a year, you’d get about 2.25%.  Go out five years in a Treasury Note and that would go up to around 2.8%, and with a ten year commitment you’d get 3%.  Longer terms would get higher yields, but it’s asymptotic—at thirty years in a Treasury Bond you’d only get 3.2%.

Although nothing in investing can be considered normal since 2008, and yield curves in the era of sound money and before artificial repression of interest rates were more linear, the slope of this curve is representative of normal conditions.  An investor who locks up their money for a longer term at a fixed rate of return is assuming the risk that they may be repaid in inflated money worth less than that they used to purchase the bond, or that they may forgo more attractive investment opportunities during the time their money is locked up in the bond.  (You can always sell a bond before its maturity, but if interest rates have risen since the time you bought it, you’ll take a loss compared to what you paid as the purchaser will discount the price so the bond yields a market rate of return.)  Therefore, they usually demand a “risk premium” in the form of a higher interest rate on the investment to compensate for these risks.  There is always some rate at which investors judge worth tying up their money for a longer time.  The greater the perception of risk, the steeper the yield curve.  Thus, the yield curve is a sensitive indicator of investors’ perception of risks in the future.

Now let’s look at the yield curve, as measured by the spread (difference in yield) between the 10 year U.S. Treasury note and 90 day U.S. Treasury bills, plotted between 1982 and the present, courtesy of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis FRED database.

FRED: Yield curve, 1982 to present

Note how the yield curve, measured by just these two points on the maturity of a single debt security, has varied over the years.  At highs, it approaches 4%, while at lows—now that’s interesting—it goes negative.  What could that signify?

Well, at the simplest level, it means that investors are willing to accept a lower yield for locking their money up for ten years than simply parking it with the Treasury for 90 days.  Are they crazy?  What are they thinking?

This phenomenon, when the yield curve goes negative, is called an inverted yield curve.  There are a number of possible explanations for it, but most of them do not bode well for the economy in the near future.  If an investor anticipates an economic slowdown, that slowdown is likely to reduce the demand for capital and will be reflected in lower interest rates.  Buying a longer-term bond allows “locking in” today’s higher interest rate for the full time until the bond matures, regardless of where interest rates go during that period.  If the investor stayed in short-term instruments, they would be rolled over periodically during that time and, if interest rates had fallen, would be renewed at lower yield, resulting in less income compared to the long-term bond.  This preference causes investors to bid up the price of longer bonds compared to those with shorter terms, resulting in an inversion of the yield curve.  In addition, investors anticipating the sharp drop in equity (stock) markets which often accompanies an economic downturn, may prefer to park their money in a risk-free bond which will provide a guaranteed stable return throughout the anticipated time of turbulence.  Thus the yield curve reflects investor sentiment: when it is steeply positive (long rates well above short rates), investors are generally optimistic about the future and demand compensation in the form of higher interest rates for locking their money up and forgoing other opportunities.  When they’re less sanguine about what’s coming, the prospect of not only a guaranteed rate of return on their money but also return of 100% of their money when the bond matures sounds like a pretty good deal compared to the alternatives (such as buying into a historically overpriced stock market late in an economic expansion cycle) and they’re willing to accept a lower rate of interest to secure that return.  (If you think this paragraph was tangled, check out the work of academic economists on the expectations hypothesis, which says more or less the same thing in intimidating mathematics.  There are a number of competing theories to explain the yield curve, and, as usual, economists differ on which best explains the phenomenon.)

Whatever the motivations of investors which result in the rare occurrence of an inverted yield curve, that circumstance has been a reliable indicator of bad times just around the corner.  Since 1970, shortly after the dawn of the era of pure paper money and the inflation and exchange rate instability it engendered, there have been eight periods where the yield curve went inverted based upon the monthly rates of 90 day and 10 year U.S. Treasury debt.  Seven of these eight periods of yield curve inversion have been followed by economic recessions as declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).  The time between the onset of the yield curve inversion and the start of the recession has varied between 6 and 17 months, but a recession has always ensued.  (Recessions are marked by the grey bars in the yield curve chart above.)  Further, there has not been a single recession during that almost half century which was not preceded by an inversion of the yield curve.

“But, you said, ‘Seven out of eight times.’  What about the eighth?”

That’s where it gets interesting, and newsworthy.  After ten years in positive territory, the yield curve went negative in May, 2019 and has remained negative since then.  If a recession does not follow this signal, it will be the first time it has failed to forecast a recession since 1970.  An inversion of the yield curve does not forecast the date of onset of the recession or its severity, but history advises that if you’re willing to bet a recession (with all of its sequelæ for the stock market, unemployment, budget deficits, and politics) will not start within 18 months or so after the inversion of the yield curve you must really believe that “this time is different”.  That, of course, is what all of the sell-side analysts are telling you, but listen to them at your own risk.

My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that there may be some financial turbulence ahead, including a media-hyped (but long-overdue) recession in the run-up to the 2018 elections in the U.S.  This will, of course, be presented as evidence of the “failure of capitalism” and reason for the electorate to vote for whatever slaver nostrums are on the menu in that contest.  There are other indications, still ambivalent, of a gathering storm: gold has just in the last week blown through its five year resistance level at US$1350/troy ounce and raced to more than US$1400, and Bitcoin has exploded to around US$11000/BTC.  These are, no doubt, driven in part by fears of the war the Deep State is trying to gin up between the U.S. and Iran in order to take down Trump, but they may also limn the first signs of the inevitable consequences of the market’s realisation that there is no consensus in Washington to do anything about the runaway deficits, debt, and inevitable insolvency of the U.S. government and the reserve currency it prints.

What is clear is that inversion of the yield curve is one of the most reliable indicators over the last fifty years that a period of “business as usual” is coming to an end.  The indicator has now given its signal.  It is prudent to consider the consequences and ponder how prepared you are for what may come next.

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Book Review: Billion Dollar Whale

“Billion Dollar Whale” by Tom Wright and Bradley HopeLow Taek Jho, who westernised his name to “Jho Low”, which I will use henceforth, was the son of a wealthy family in Penang, Malaysia. The family’s fortune had been founded by Low’s grandfather who had immigrated to the then British colony of Malaya from China and founded a garment manufacturing company which Low’s father had continued to build and recently sold for a sum of around US$ 15 million. The Low family were among the wealthiest in Malaysia and wanted the best for their son. For the last two years of his high school education, Jho was sent to the Harrow School, a prestigious private British boarding school whose alumni include seven British Prime Ministers including Winston Churchill and Robert Peel, and “foreign students” including Jawaharlal Nehru and King Hussein of Jordan. At Harrow, he would meet classmates whose families’ wealth was in the billions, and his ambition to join their ranks was fired.

After graduating from Harrow, Low decided the career he wished to pursue would be better served by a U.S. business education than the traditional Cambridge or Oxford path chosen by many Harrovians and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School undergraduate program. Previous Wharton graduates include Warren Buffett, Walter Annenberg, Elon Musk, and Donald Trump. Low majored in finance, but mostly saw Wharton as a way to make connections. Wharton was a school of choice for the sons of Gulf princes and billionaires, and Low leveraged his connections, while still an undergraduate, into meetings in the Gulf with figures such as Yousef Al Otaiba, foreign policy adviser to the sheikhs running the United Arab Emirates. Otaiba, in turn, introduced him to Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, who ran a fund called Mubadala Development, which was on the cutting edge of the sovereign wealth fund business.

Since the 1950s resource-rich countries, in particular the petro-states of the Gulf, had set up sovereign wealth funds to invest the surplus earnings from sales of their oil. The idea was to replace the natural wealth which was being extracted and sold with financial assets that would generate income, appreciate over time, and serve as the basis of their economies when the oil finally ran out. By the early 2000s, the total funds under management by sovereign wealth funds were US$3.5 trillion, comparable to the annual gross domestic product of Germany. Sovereign wealth funds were originally run in a very conservative manner, taking few risks—“gentlemen prefer bonds”—but since the inflation and currency crises of the 1970s had turned to more aggressive strategies to protect their assets from the ravages of Western money printing and financial shenanigans.

While some sovereign wealth funds, for example Norway’s (with around US$1 trillion in assets the largest in the world) are models of transparency and prudent (albeit often politically correct) investing, others, including some in the Gulf states, are accountable only to autocratic ruler(s) and have been suspected as acting as personal slush funds. On the other hand, managers of Gulf funds must be aware that bad investment decisions may not only cost them their jobs but their heads.

Mubadala was a new kind of sovereign wealth fund. Rather than a conservative steward of assets for future generations, it was run more like a leveraged Wall Street hedge fund: borrowing on global markets, investing in complex transactions, and aiming to develop the industries which would sustain the local economy when the oil inevitably ran out. Jho Low saw Al Mubarak, not yet thirty years old, making billion dollar deals on almost his sole discretion, playing a role on the global stage, driving the development of Abu Dhabi’s economy, and being handsomely compensated for his efforts. That’s the game Low wanted to be in, and he started working toward it.

Before graduating from Wharton, he set up a British Virgin Islands company he named the “Wynton Group”, which stood for his goal to “win tons” of money. After graduation in 2005 he began to pitch the contacts he’d made through students at Harrow and Wharton on deals he’d identified in Malaysia, acting as an independent development agency. He put together a series of real estate deals, bringing money from his Gulf contacts and persuading other investors that large sovereign funds were on-board by making token investments from offshore companies he’d created whose names mimicked those of well-known funds. This is a trick he would continue to use in the years to come.

Still, he kept his eye on the goal: a sovereign wealth fund, based in Malaysia, that he could use for his own ends. In April 2009 Najib Razak became Malaysia’s prime minister. Low had been cultivating a relationship with Najib since he met him through his stepson years before in London. Now it was time to cash in. Najib needed money to shore up his fragile political position and Low was ready to pitch him how to get it.

Shortly after taking office, Najib announced the formation of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund aimed at promoting foreign direct investment in projects to develop the economy of Malaysia and benefit all of its ethnic communities: those of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ancestry (hence “1Malaysia”). Although Jho Low had no official position with the fund, he was the one who promoted it, sold Najib on it, and took the lead in raising its capital, both from his contacts in the Gulf and, leveraging that money, in the international debt markets with the assistance of the flexible ethics and unquenchable greed of Goldman Sachs and its ambitious go-getters in Asia.

Low’s pitch to the prime minister, either explicit or nod-nod, wink-wink, went well beyond high-minded goals such as developing the economy, bringing all ethnic groups together, and creating opportunity. In short, what “corporate social responsibility” really meant was using the fund as Najib’s personal piggy bank, funded by naïve foreign investors, to reward his political allies and buy votes, shutting out the opposition. Low told Najib that at the price of aligning his policies with those of his benefactors in the Gulf, he could keep the gravy train running and ensure his tenure in office for the foreseeable future.

But what was in it for Low, apart from commissions, finder’s fees, and the satisfaction of benefitting his native land? Well, rather more, actually. No sooner did the money hit the accounts of 1MDB than Low set up a series of sham transactions with deceptively-named companies to spirit the money out of the fund and put it into his own pockets. And now it gets a little bit weird for this scribbler. At the centre of all of this skulduggery was a private Swiss bank named BSI. This was my bank. I mean, I didn’t own the bank (thank Bob!), but I’d been doing business there (or with its predecessors, before various mergers and acquisitions) since before Jho Low was born. In my dealings with them there were the soul of probity and beyond reproach, but you never know what’s going on in the other side of the office, or especially in its branch office in the Wild East of Singapore. Part of the continuo to this financial farce is the battles between BSI’s compliance people who kept saying, “Wait, this doesn’t make any sense.” and the transaction side people looking at the commissions to be earned for moving the money from who-knows-where to who-knows-whom. But, back to the main story.

Ultimately, Low’s looting pipeline worked, and he spirited away most of the proceeds of the initial funding of 1MDB into his own accounts or those he controlled. There is a powerful lesson here, as applicable to security of computer systems or access to physical infrastructure as financial assets. Try to chisel a few pennies from your credit card company and you’ll be nailed. Fudge a little on your tax return, and it’s hard time, serf. But when you play at the billion dollar level, the system was almost completely undefended against an amoral grifter who was bent not on a subtle and creative form of looting in the Bernie Madoff or Enron mold, but simply brazenly picking the pockets of a massive fund through childishly obvious means such as deceptively named offshore shell corporations, shuffling money among accounts in a modern-day version of check kiting, and appealing to banks’ hunger for transaction fees over their ethical obligations to their owners and other customers.

Nobody knows how much Jho Low looted from 1MBD in this and subsequent transactions. Estimates of the total money spirited out of 1MDB range as high as US$4.5 billion, and Low’s profligate spending alone as he was riding high may account for a substantial fraction of that.

Much of the book is an account of Low’s lifestyle when he was riding high. He was not only utterly amoral when it came to bilking investors, leaving the poor of Malaysia on the hook, but seemingly incapable of looking beyond the next party, gambling spree, or debt repayment. It’s like he always thought there’d be a greater fool to fleece, and that there was no degree of wretched excess in his spending which would invite the question “How did he earn this money?” I’m not going to dwell upon this. It’s boring. Stylish criminals whose lifestyles are as suave as their crimes are elegant. Grifters who blow money on down-market parties with gutter rappers and supermarket tabloid celebrities aren’t. In a marvelous example of meta-irony, Low funded a Hollywood movie production company which made the film The Wolf of Wall Street, about a cynical grifter like Low himself.

And now comes the part where I tell you how it all came undone, everybody got their just deserts, and the egregious perpetrators are languishing behind bars. Sorry, not this time, or at least not yet.

Jho Low escaped pursuit on his luxury super-yacht and now is reputed to be living in China, travelling freely and living off his ill-gotten gains. The “People’s Republic” seems quite hospitable to those who loot the people of its neighbours (assuming they adequately grease the palms of its rulers).

Goldman Sachs suffered no sanctions as a result of its complicity in the 1MDB funding and the appropriation of funds.

BSI lost its Swiss banking licence, but was acquired by another bank and most of its employees, except for a few involved in dealing with Low, kept their jobs. (My account was transferred to the successor bank with no problems. They never disclosed the reason for the acquisition.)

This book, by the two Wall Street Journal reporters who untangled what may be the largest one-man financial heist in human history, provides a look inside the deeply corrupt world of paper money finance at its highest levels, and is an illustration of the extent to which people are disinclined to ask obvious questions like “Where is the money coming from?” while the good times are rolling. What is striking is how banal the whole affair is. Jho Low’s talents would have made him a great success in legitimate development finance, but instead he managed to steal billions, ultimately from mostly poor people in his native land, and blow the money on wild parties, shallow celebrities, ostentatious real estate, cars, and yachts, and binges of high-stakes gambling in skeevy casinos. The collapse of the whole tawdry business reflects poorly on institutions like multinational investment banks, large accounting and auditing firms, financial regulators, Swiss banks, and the whole “sustainable development” racket in the third world. Jho Low, a crook through and through, looked at these supposedly august institutions and recognised them as kindred spirits and then figured out transparently simple ways to use them to steal billions. He got away with it, and they are still telling governments, corporations, and investors how to manage their affairs and, inexplicably, being taken seriously and handsomely compensated for their “expertise”.

Wright, Tom and Bradley Hope. Billion Dollar Whale. New York: Hachette Books, 2018. ISBN 978-0-316-43650-2.

Here is a talk by author Bradley Hope about the Jho Low affair. The recording is audio only and the quality is less than ideal.

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