Book Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves

“Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves” by Fenton WoodThis is an utterly charming short novel (or novella: it is just 123 pages) which, on the surface, reads like a young adult adventure from the golden age, along the lines of the original Tom Swift or Hardy Boys series. But as you get deeper into the story, you discover clues there is much more going on than you first suspected, and that this may be the beginning of a wonderful exploration of an alternative reality which is a delight to visit and you may wish were your home.

Philo Hergenschmidt, Randall Quinn, and their young friends live in Porterville, deep in the mountain country of the Yankee Republic. The mountains that surround it stopped the glaciers when they came down from the North a hundred thousand years ago, and provided a refuge for the peace-loving, self-sufficient, resourceful, and ornery people who fled the wars. Many years later, they retain those properties, and most young people are members of the Survival Scouts, whose eight hundred page Handbook contains every thing a mountain man needs to know to survive and prosper under any circumstances.

Porterville is just five hundred miles from the capital of Iburakon, but might as well be on a different planet. Although the Yankee Republic’s technology is in many ways comparable to our own, the mountains shield Porterville from television and FM radio broadcasts and, although many families own cars with radios installed by default, the only thing they can pick up is a few scratchy AM stations from far away when the skywave opens up at night. Every summer, Randall spends two weeks with his grandparents in Iburakon and comes back with tales of wonders which enthrall his friends like an explorer of yore returned from Shangri-La. (Randall is celebrated as a raconteur—and some of his tales may be true.) This year he told of the marvel of television and a science fiction series called Xenotopia, and for weeks the boys re-enacted battles from his descriptions. Broadcasting: that got Philo thinking….

One day Philo calls up Randall and asks him to dig out an old radio he recalled him having and tune it to the usually dead FM band. Randall does, and is astonished to hear Philo broadcasting on “Station X” with amusing patter. It turns out he found a book in the attic, 101 Radio Projects for Boys, written by a creative and somewhat subversive author, and following the directions, put together a half watt FM transmitter from scrounged spare parts. Philo briefs Randall on pirate radio stations: although the penalties for operating without a license appear severe, in fact, unless you willingly interfere with a licensed broadcaster, you just get a warning the first time and a wrist-slap ticket thereafter unless you persist too long.

This gets them both thinking…. With the help of adults willing to encourage youth in their (undisclosed) projects, or just to look the other way (the kids of Porterville live free-range lives, as I did in my childhood, as their elders have not seen fit to import the vibrant diversity into their community which causes present-day youth to live under security lock-down), and a series of adventures, radio station 9X9 goes on the air, announced with great fanfare in handbills posted around the town. Suddenly, there is something to listen to, and people start tuning in. Local talent tries their hands at being a DJ, and favourites emerge. Merchants start to sign up for advertisements. Church services are broadcast for shut-ins. Even though no telephone line runs anywhere near the remote and secret studio, ingenuity and some nineteenth-century technology allow them to stage a hit call-in show. And before long, live talent gets into the act. A big baseball game provides both a huge opportunity and a seemingly insurmountable challenge until the boys invent an art which, in our universe, was once masterfully performed by a young Ronald Reagan.

Along the way, we learn of the Yankee Republic in brief, sometimes jarring, strokes of the pen, as the author masterfully follows the science fiction principle of “show, don’t tell”.

Just imagine if William the Bastard had succeeded in conquering England. We’d probably be speaking some unholy crossbreed of French and English….

The Republic is the only country in the world that recognizes allodial title,….

When Congress declares war, they have to elect one of their own to be a sacrificial victim,….

“There was a man from the state capitol who wanted to give us government funding to build what he called a ‘proper’ school, but he was run out of town, the poor dear.”

Pirates, of course, must always keenly scan the horizon for those who might want to put an end to the fun. And so it is for buccaneers sailing the Hertzian waves. You’ll enjoy every minute getting to the point where you find out how it ends. And then, when you think it’s all over, another door opens into a wider, and weirder, world in which we may expect further adventures. The second volume in the series, Five Million Watts, was published in April, 2019.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is very inexpensive.
Wood, Fenton. Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2018. ASIN B07H2RJK8J.
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Book Review: Stalin, Vol. 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941

“Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941” by Stephen KotkinThis is the second volume in the author’s monumental projected three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. The first volume, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 covers the period from Stalin’s birth through the consolidation of his sole power atop the Soviet state after the death of Lenin. The third volume, which will cover the period from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 through the death of Stalin in 1953 has yet to be published.

As this volume begins in 1928, Stalin is securely in the supreme position of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and having over the years staffed the senior ranks of the party and the Soviet state (which the party operated like the puppet it was) with loyalists who owed their positions to him, had no serious rivals who might challenge him. (It is often claimed that Stalin was paranoid and feared a coup, but would a despot fearing for his position regularly take summer holidays, months in length, in Sochi, far from the capital?)

By 1928, the Soviet Union had largely recovered from the damage inflicted by the Great War, Bolshevik revolution, and subsequent civil war. Industrial and agricultural production were back to around their 1914 levels, and most measures of well-being had similarly recovered. To be sure, compared to the developed industrial economies of countries such as Germany, France, or Britain, Russia remained a backward economy largely based upon primitive agriculture, but at least it had undone the damage inflicted by years of turbulence and conflict.

But in the eyes of Stalin and his close associates, who were ardent Marxists, there was a dangerous and potentially deadly internal contradiction in the Soviet system as it then stood. In 1921, in response to the chaos and famine following the 1917 revolution and years-long civil war, Lenin had proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which tempered the pure collectivism of original Bolshevik doctrine by introducing a mixed economy, where large enterprises would continue to be owned and managed by the state, but small-scale businesses could be privately owned and run for profit. More importantly, agriculture, which had previously been managed under a top-down system of coercive requisitioning of grain and other products by the state, was replaced by a market system where farmers could sell their products freely, subject to a tax, payable in product, proportional to their production (and thus creating an incentive to increase production).

The NEP was a great success, and shortages of agricultural products were largely eliminated. There was grousing about the growing prosperity of the so-called NEPmen, but the results of freeing the economy from the shackles of state control were evident to all. But according to Marxist doctrine, it was a dagger pointed at the heart of the socialist state.

By 1928, the Soviet economy could be described, in Marxist terms, as socialism in the industrial cities and capitalism in the agrarian countryside. But, according to Marx, the form of politics was determined by the organisation of the means of production—paraphrasing Brietbart, politics is downstream of economics. This meant that preserving capitalism in a large sector of the country, one employing a large majority of its population and necessary to feed the cities, was an existential risk. In such a situation it would only be normal for the capitalist peasants to eventually prevail over the less numerous urbanised workers and destroy socialism.

Stalin was a Marxist. He was not an opportunist who used Marxism-Leninism to further his own ambitions. He really believed this stuff. And so, in 1928, he proclaimed an end to the NEP and began the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture. Private ownership of land would be abolished, and the 120 million peasants essentially enslaved as “workers” on collective or state farms, with planting, quotas to be delivered, and management essentially controlled by the party. After an initial lucky year, the inevitable catastrophe ensued. Between 1931 and 1933 famine and epidemics resulting from it killed between five and seven million people. The country lost around half of its cattle and two thirds of its sheep. In 1929, the average family in Kazakhstan owned 22.6 cattle; in 1933 3.7. This was a calamity on the same order as the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, and just as man-made: during this period there was a global glut of food, but Stalin refused to admit the magnitude of the disaster for fear of inciting enemies to attack and because doing so would concede the failure of his collectivisation project. In addition to the famine, the process of collectivisation resulted in between four and five million people being arrested, executed, deported to other regions, or jailed.

Many in the starving countryside said, “If only Stalin knew, he would do something.” But the evidence is overwhelming: Stalin knew, and did nothing. Marxist theory said that agriculture must be collectivised, and by pure force of will he pushed through the project, whatever the cost. Many in the senior Soviet leadership questioned this single-minded pursuit of a theoretical goal at horrendous human cost, but they did not act to stop it. But Stalin remembered their opposition and would settle scores with them later.

By 1936, it appeared that the worst of the period of collectivisation was over. The peasants, preferring to live in slavery than starve to death, had acquiesced to their fate and resumed production, and the weather co-operated in producing good harvests. And then, in 1937, a new horror was unleashed upon the Soviet people, also completely man-made and driven by the will of Stalin, the Great Terror. Starting slowly in the aftermath of the assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934, by 1937 the absurd devouring of those most loyal to the Soviet regime, all over Stalin’s signature, reached a crescendo. In 1937 and 1938 1,557,259 people would be arrested and 681,692 executed, the overwhelming majority for political offences, this in a country with a working-age population of 100 million. Counting deaths from other causes as a result of the secret police, the overall death toll was probably around 830,000. This was so bizarre, and so unprecedented in human history, it is difficult to find any comparable situation, even in Nazi Germany. As the author remarks,

To be sure, the greater number of victims were ordinary Soviet people, but what regime liquidates colossal numbers of loyal officials? Could Hitler—had he been so inclined—have compelled the imprisonment or execution of huge swaths of Nazi factory and farm bosses, as well as almost all of the Nazi provincial Gauleiters and their staffs, several times over? Could he have executed the personnel of the Nazi central ministries, thousands of his Wehrmacht officers—including almost his entire high command—as well as the Reich’s diplomatic corps and its espionage agents, its celebrated cultural figures, and the leadership of Nazi parties throughout the world (had such parties existed)? Could Hitler also have decimated the Gestapo even while it was carrying out a mass bloodletting? And could the German people have been told, and would the German people have found plausible, that almost everyone who had come to power with the Nazi revolution turned out to be a foreign agent and saboteur?

Stalin did all of these things. The damage inflicted upon the Soviet military, at a time of growing threats, was horrendous. The terror executed or imprisoned three of the five marshals of the Soviet Union, 13 of 15 full generals, 8 of the 9 admirals of the Navy, and 154 of 186 division commanders. Senior managers, diplomats, spies, and party and government officials were wiped out in comparable numbers in the all-consuming cataclysm. At the very moment the Soviet state was facing threats from Nazi Germany in the west and Imperial Japan in the east, it destroyed those most qualified to defend it in a paroxysm of paranoia and purification from phantasmic enemies.

And then, it all stopped, or largely tapered off. This did nothing for those who had been executed, or who were still confined in the camps spread all over the vast country, but at least there was a respite from the knocks in the middle of the night and the cascading denunciations for fantastically absurd imagined “crimes”. (In June 1937, eight high-ranking Red Army officers, including Marshal Tukachevsky, were denounced as “Gestapo agents”. Three of those accused were Jews.)

But now the international situation took priority over domestic “enemies”. The Bolsheviks, and Stalin in particular, had always viewed the Soviet Union as surrounded by enemies. As the vanguard of the proletarian revolution, by definition those states on its borders must be reactionary capitalist-imperialist or fascist regimes hostile to or actively bent upon the destruction of the peoples’ state.

With Hitler on the march in Europe and Japan expanding its puppet state in China, potentially hostile powers were advancing toward Soviet borders from two directions. Worse, there was a loose alliance between Germany and Japan, raising the possibility of a two-front war which would engage Soviet forces in conflicts on both ends of its territory. What Stalin feared most, however, was an alliance of the capitalist states (in which he included Germany, despite its claim to be “National Socialist”) against the Soviet Union. In particular, he dreaded some kind of arrangement between Britain and Germany which might give Britain supremacy on the seas and its far-flung colonies, while acknowledging German domination of continental Europe and a free hand to expand toward the East at the expense of the Soviet Union.

Stalin was faced with an extraordinarily difficult choice: make some kind of deal with Britain (and possibly France) in the hope of deterring a German attack upon the Soviet Union, or cut a deal with Germany, linking the German and Soviet economies in a trade arrangement which the Germans would be loath to destroy by aggression, lest they lose access to the raw materials which the Soviet Union could supply to their war machine. Stalin’s ultimate calculation, again grounded in Marxist theory, was that the imperialist powers were fated to eventually fall upon one another in a destructive war for domination, and that by standing aloof, the Soviet Union stood to gain by encouraging socialist revolutions in what remained of them after that war had run its course.

Stalin evaluated his options and made his choice. On August 27, 1939, a “non-aggression treaty” was signed in Moscow between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But the treaty went far beyond what was made public. Secret protocols defined “spheres of influence”, including how Poland would be divided among the two parties in the case of war. Stalin viewed this treaty as a triumph: yes, doctrinaire communists (including many in the West) would be aghast at a deal with fascist Germany, but at a blow, Stalin had eliminated the threat of an anti-Soviet alliance between Germany and Britain, linked Germany and the Soviet Union in a trade arrangement whose benefits to Germany would deter aggression and, in the case of war between Germany and Britain and France (for which he hoped), might provide an opportunity to recover territory once in the czar’s empire which had been lost after the 1917 revolution.

Initially, this strategy appeared to be working swimmingly. The Soviets were shipping raw materials they had in abundance to Germany and receiving high-technology industrial equipment and weapons which they could immediately put to work and/or reverse-engineer to make domestically. In some cases, they even received blueprints or complete factories for making strategic products. As the German economy became increasingly dependent upon Soviet shipments, Stalin perceived this as leverage over the actions of Germany, and responded to delays in delivery of weapons by slowing down shipments of raw materials essential to German war production.

On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, just a week after the signing of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. On September 3rd, France and Britain declared war on Germany. Here was the “war among the imperialists” of which Stalin had dreamed. The Soviet Union could stand aside, continue to trade with Nazi Germany, while the combatants bled each other white, and then, in the aftermath, support socialist revolutions in their countries. On September 17th the Soviet Union, pursuant to the secret protocol, invaded Poland from the east and joined the Nazi forces in eradicating that nation. Ominously, greater Germany and the Soviet Union now shared a border.

After the start of hostilities, a state of “phoney war” existed until Germany struck against Denmark, Norway, and France in April and May 1940. At first, this appeared precisely what Stalin had hoped for: a general conflict among the “imperialist powers” with the Soviet Union not only uninvolved, but having reclaimed territory in Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia which had once belonged to the Tsars. Now there was every reason to expect a long war of attrition in which the Nazis and their opponents would grind each other down, as in the previous world war, paving the road for socialist revolutions everywhere.

But then, disaster ensued. In less than six weeks, France collapsed and Britain evacuated its expeditionary force from the Continent. Now, it appeared, Germany reigned supreme, and might turn its now largely idle army toward conquest in the East. After consolidating the position in the west and indefinitely deferring an invasion of Britain due to inability to obtain air and sea superiority in the English Channel, Hitler began to concentrate his forces on the eastern frontier. Disinformation, spread where Soviet spy networks would pick it up and deliver it to Stalin, whose prejudices it confirmed, said that the troop concentrations were in preparation for an assault on British positions in the Near East or to blackmail the Soviet Union to obtain, for example, a long term lease on its breadbasket, the Ukraine.

Hitler, acutely aware that it was a two-front war which spelled disaster to Germany in the last war, rationalised his attack on the Soviet Union as follows. Yes, Britain had not been defeated, but their only hope was an eventual alliance with the Soviet Union, opening a second front against Germany. Knocking out the Soviet Union (which should be no more difficult than the victory over France, which took just six weeks), would preclude this possibility and force Britain to come to terms. Meanwhile, Germany would have secured access to raw materials in Soviet territory for which it was previously paying market prices, but were now available for the cost of extraction and shipping.

The volume concludes on June 21st, 1941, the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. There could not have been more signs that this was coming: Soviet spies around the world sent evidence, and Britain even shared (without identifying the source) decrypted German messages about troop dispositions and war plans. But none of this disabused Stalin of his idée fixe: Germany would not attack because Soviet exports were so important. Indeed, in 1940, 40 percent of nickel, 55 percent of manganese, 65 percent of chromium, 67% of asbestos, 34% of petroleum, and a million tonnes of grain and timber which supported the Nazi war machine were delivered by the Soviet Union. Hours before the Nazi onslaught began, well after the order for it was given, a Soviet train delivering grain, manganese, and oil crossed the border between Soviet-occupied and German-occupied Poland, bound for Germany. Stalin’s delusion persisted until reality intruded with dawn.

This is a magisterial work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled. There is abundant rich detail on every page. Want to know what the telephone number for the Latvian consulate in Leningrad was in 1934? It’s right here on page 206 (5-50-63). Too often, discussions of Stalin assume he was a kind of murderous madman. This book is a salutary antidote. Everything Stalin did made perfect sense when viewed in the context of the beliefs which Stalin held, shared by his Bolshevik contemporaries and those he promoted to the inner circle. Yes, they seem crazy, and they were, but no less crazy than politicians in the United States advocating the abolition of air travel and the extermination of cows in order to save a planet which has managed just fine for billions of years without the intervention of bug-eyed, arm-waving ignoramuses.

Reading this book is a major investment of time. It is 1154 pages, with 910 pages of main text and illustrations, and will noticeably bend spacetime in its vicinity. But there is so much wisdom, backed with detail, that you will savour every page and, when you reach the end, crave the publication of the next volume. If you want to understand totalitarian dictatorship, you have to ultimately understand Stalin, who succeeded at it for more than thirty years until ultimately felled by illness, not conquest or coup, and who built the primitive agrarian nation he took over into a superpower. Some of us thought that the death of Stalin and, decades later, the demise of the Soviet Union, brought an end to all that. And yet, today, in the West, we have politicians advocating central planning, collectivisation, and limitations on free speech which are entirely consistent with the policies of Uncle Joe. After reading this book and thinking about it for a while, I have become convinced that Stalin was a patriot who believed that what he was doing was in the best interest of the Soviet people. He was sure the (laughably absurd) theories he believed and applied were the best way to build the future. And he was willing to force them into being whatever the cost may be. So it is today, and let us hope those made aware of the costs documented in this history will be immunised against the siren song of collectivist utopia.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-59420-380-0.

Author Stephen Kotkin did a two-part Uncommon Knowledge interview about the book in 2018. In the first part he discusses collectivisation and the terror.

In the second, he discusses Stalin and Hitler, and the events leading up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

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Kolyma—Birthplace of our Fear

This is a stunning full-length documentary (two hours and seventeen minutes) about the Soviet prison camps (Gulag) of the Stalin era.  The filmmakers follow the road through Siberia built by slave labour and visit the sites of camps, many abandoned, which produced much of the gold which funded Lend-Lease purchases of weapons in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany (this is the claim in the film; I have not independently verified it).

The video is in Russian, with English sub-titles.  Depending on how you view it, it you may have to twiddle with settings to display the sub-titles and make them legible.  Click the “CC” and “Gear” buttons and fiddle around until you have something satisfactory.

It’s probably best to view this directly on YouTube via the link earlier in this sentence.  That will give you a larger, resizeable window with more options than the player embedded in this post.

Around 18,000,000 people passed through the camps of the Soviet Gulag, and around 1,600,000 died there.  Only a fraction of Russian youth are aware of this.

This is the ultimate result of the policies being advocated by the “progressives” ascendant in the Democrat party in the U.S.

Never forget.

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Jeff Bezos Gets It

Space colony: O'Neill CylinderEver since I read Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier (link is to my review when I re-read the book in 2013) in the 1970s, it has been obvious to me that the medium-term human destiny is to expand from using resources on the surface of Earth to exploit the abundant resources of the solar system, where more than 99% of the matter and energy are available for the taking and the constraints of a closed ecosystem do not exist.  There were technological barriers to overcome in order to get from here to there, but none of them required technologies we didn’t already understand or investments greater than were regularly squandered on futile wars or counterproductive social programmes.

I thought, “All it would take is a wealthy individual who gets it and is willing to stake their personal fortune on a human destiny which is optimistic and open-ended, as opposed to the claustrophobic vision of the slavers who see future generations confined on one planet, increasingly under the control of masters who worship at the altar of ‘sustainability’ ”.  The amount of money required to bootstrap this future would be in the round-off of the government budget of a medium-sized industrialised country, but you don’t get vision from coercive government—just control and keeping everybody in their place.

What if I told you that the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, completely gets it, and is devoting a substantial amount of his fortune to taking the incremental steps toward a future in which a trillion humans (and probably post-humans, but he hasn’t gone there yet—patience) inhabit the solar system and laugh at things like the “age of limits”, “sustainability”, “green new deals”, and landscapes covered by unsightly bird shredders.  Further, his projects, years in the making, are meeting their goals and progressing toward the next ones.

This would be pretty big news, right?  I mean, we’re talking about what is potentially the greatest change in the way humans live and the aspiration of our species since the invention of agriculture.  But you won’t find it making the headlines it merits, except here.

Here the presentation by Jeff Bezos on 2019-05-09, laying out his vision for the human expansion beyond Earth and how work underway at his company, Blue Origin, is patiently building the infrastructure for the next few steps toward this vision.

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Administration: WordPress Updated to Version 5.2

At 14:13 UTC on 2019-05-09 the version of WordPress upon which the Ratburger.org site runs was updated to the newly released version 5.2.  Before installing the update on the production site, I performed a series of tests running the new version on the raw.ratburger.org test site, which I brought up with a mirror of the running configuration on the production site with the version 5.2 update kit including all of our local modifications applied.  Details of this testing process was posted on the 2019-05-08 entry in the Updates group.  (Access to the raw.ratburger.org test site is restricted to my IP address range and the site is only up when required for testing major updates such as this; it is not intended for user access.)

WordPress: Worthless, and also free

This WordPress update consisted almost entirely of administrative features intended to improve the fault tolerance of the famously fragile WordPress software stack.  It has gimmicks which are supposed to keep errors in plug-ins from bringing down an entire site; given the quality of code we’ve come to expect from the WordPress developers, it’s anybody’s guess whether this will make things better or worse.

There should be no user-visible changes resulting from the installation of this update; there were massive changes in the so-called “Block Editor” (Gutenberg), but not being complete idiots, we don’t use that malformed excrescence.  (The Classic Editor plug-in, whose sole purpose is to disable the Block Editor and hide it from users of a site, is now the sixth most-popular WordPress plug-in, with more than four million active installations.)

This update, although massive (536 files modified, 34 new files added), should be completely transparent to users of this site.  If you see something that doesn’t look right, please note it in the comments on this post or in a post to the Bug Reports group.

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Saturday Night Science: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution

“Einstein's Unfinished Revolution” by Lee SmolinIn the closing years of the nineteenth century, one of those nagging little discrepancies vexing physicists was the behaviour of the photoelectric effect. Originally discovered in 1887, the phenomenon causes certain metals, when illuminated by light, to absorb the light and emit electrons. The perplexing point was that there was a minimum wavelength (colour of light) necessary for electron emission, and for longer wavelengths, no electrons would be emitted at all, regardless of the intensity of the beam of light. For example, a certain metal might emit electrons when illuminated by green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet light, with the intensity of electron emission proportional to the light intensity, but red or yellow light, regardless of how intense, would not result in a single electron being emitted.

This didn’t make any sense. According to Maxwell’s wave theory of light, which was almost universally accepted and had passed stringent experimental tests, the energy of light depended upon the amplitude of the wave (its intensity), not the wavelength (or, reciprocally, its frequency). And yet the photoelectric effect didn’t behave that way—it appeared that whatever was causing the electrons to be emitted depended on the wavelength of the light, and what’s more, there was a sharp cut-off below which no electrons would be emitted at all.

In 1905, in one of his “miracle year” papers, “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”, Albert Einstein suggested a solution to the puzzle. He argued that light did not propagate as a wave at all, but rather in discrete particles, or “quanta”, later named “photons”, whose energy was proportional to the wavelength of the light. This neatly explained the behaviour of the photoelectric effect. Light with a wavelength longer than the cut-off point was transmitted by photons whose energy was too low to knock electrons out of metal they illuminated, while those above the threshold could liberate electrons. The intensity of the light was a measure of the number of photons in the beam, unrelated to the energy of the individual photons.

This paper became one of the cornerstones of the revolutionary theory of quantum mechanics, the complete working out of which occupied much of the twentieth century. Quantum mechanics underlies the standard model of particle physics, which is arguably the most thoroughly tested theory in the history of physics, with no experiment showing results which contradict its predictions since it was formulated in the 1970s. Quantum mechanics is necessary to explain the operation of the electronic and optoelectronic devices upon which our modern computing and communication infrastructure is built, and describes every aspect of physical chemistry.

But quantum mechanics is weird. Consider: if light consists of little particles, like bullets, then why when you shine a beam of light on a barrier with two slits do you get an interference pattern with bright and dark bands precisely as you get with, say, water waves? And if you send a single photon at a time and try to measure which slit it went through, you find it always went through one or the other, but then the interference pattern goes away. It seems like whether the photon behaves as a wave or a particle depends upon how you look at it. If you have an hour, here is grand master explainer Richard Feynman (who won his own Nobel Prize in 1965 for reconciling the quantum mechanical theory of light and the electron with Einstein’s special relativity) exploring how profoundly weird the double slit experiment is.

Fundamentally, quantum mechanics seems to violate the principle of realism, which the author defines as follows.

The belief that there is an objective physical world whose properties are independent of what human beings know or which experiments we choose to do. Realists also believe that there is no obstacle in principle to our obtaining complete knowledge of this world.

This has been part of the scientific worldview since antiquity and yet quantum mechanics, confirmed by innumerable experiments, appears to indicate we must abandon it. Quantum mechanics says that what you observe depends on what you choose to measure; that there is an absolute limit upon the precision with which you can measure pairs of properties (for example position and momentum) set by the uncertainty principle; that it isn’t possible to predict the outcome of experiments but only the probability among a variety of outcomes; and that particles which are widely separated in space and time but which have interacted in the past are entangled and display correlations which no classical mechanistic theory can explain—Einstein called the latter “spooky action at a distance”. Once again, all of these effects have been confirmed by precision experiments and are not fairy castles erected by theorists.

From the formulation of the modern quantum theory in the 1920s, often called the Copenhagen interpretation after the location of the institute where one of its architects, Neils Bohr, worked, a number of eminent physicists including Einstein and Louis de Broglie were deeply disturbed by its apparent jettisoning of the principle of realism in favour of what they considered a quasi-mystical view in which the act of “measurement” (whatever that means) caused a physical change (wave function collapse) in the state of a system. This seemed to imply that the photon, or electron, or anything else, did not have a physical position until it interacted with something else: until then it was just an immaterial wave function which filled all of space and (when squared) gave the probability of finding it at that location.

In 1927, de Broglie proposed a pilot wave theory as a realist alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation. In the pilot wave theory there is a real particle, which has a definite position and momentum at all times. It is guided in its motion by a pilot wave which fills all of space and is defined by the medium through which it propagates. We cannot predict the exact outcome of measuring the particle because we cannot have infinitely precise knowledge of its initial position and momentum, but in principle these quantities exist and are real. There is no “measurement problem” because we always detect the particle, not the pilot wave which guides it. In its original formulation, the pilot wave theory exactly reproduced the predictions of the Copenhagen formulation, and hence was not a competing theory but rather an alternative interpretation of the equations of quantum mechanics. Many physicists who preferred to “shut up and calculate” considered interpretations a pointless exercise in phil-oss-o-phy, but de Broglie and Einstein placed great value on retaining the principle of realism as a cornerstone of theoretical physics. Lee Smolin sketches an alternative reality in which “all the bright, ambitious students flocked to Paris in the 1930s to follow de Broglie, and wrote textbooks on pilot wave theory, while Bohr became a footnote, disparaged for the obscurity of his unnecessary philosophy”. But that wasn’t what happened: among those few physicists who pondered what the equations meant about how the world really works, the Copenhagen view remained dominant.

In the 1950s, independently, David Bohm invented a pilot wave theory which he developed into a complete theory of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics. To this day, a small community of “Bohmians” continue to explore the implications of his theory, working on extending it to be compatible with special relativity. From a philosophical standpoint the de Broglie-Bohm theory is unsatisfying in that it involves a pilot wave which guides a particle, but upon which the particle does not act. This is an “unmoved mover”, which all of our experience of physics argues does not exist. For example, Newton’s third law of motion holds that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and in Einstein’s general relativity, spacetime tells mass-energy how to move while mass-energy tells spacetime how to curve. It seems odd that the pilot wave could be immune from influence of the particle it guides. A few physicists, such as Jack Sarfatti, have proposed “post-quantum” extensions to Bohm’s theory in which there is back-reaction from the particle on the pilot wave, and argue that this phenomenon might be accessible to experimental tests which would distinguish post-quantum phenomena from the predictions of orthodox quantum mechanics. A few non-physicist crackpots have suggested these phenomena might even explain flying saucers.

Moving on from pilot wave theory, the author explores other attempts to create a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics: objective collapse of the wave function, as in the Penrose interpretation; the many worlds interpretation (which Smolin calls “magical realism”); and decoherence of the wavefunction due to interaction with the environment. He rejects all of them as unsatisfying, because they fail to address glaring lacunæ in quantum theory which are apparent from its very equations.

The twentieth century gave us two pillars of theoretical physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity—Einstein’s geometric theory of gravitation. Both have been tested to great precision, but they are fundamentally incompatible with one another. Quantum mechanics describes the very small: elementary particles, atoms, and molecules. General relativity describes the very large: stars, planets, galaxies, black holes, and the universe as a whole. In the middle, where we live our lives, neither much affects the things we observe, which is why their predictions seem counter-intuitive to us. But when you try to put the two theories together, to create a theory of quantum gravity, the pieces don’t fit. Quantum mechanics assumes there is a universal clock which ticks at the same rate everywhere in the universe. But general relativity tells us this isn’t so: a simple experiment shows that a clock runs slower when it’s in a gravitational field. Quantum mechanics says that it isn’t possible to determine the position of a particle without its interacting with another particle, but general relativity requires the knowledge of precise positions of particles to determine how spacetime curves and governs the trajectories of other particles. There are a multitude of more gnarly and technical problems in what Stephen Hawking called “consummating the fiery marriage between quantum mechanics and general relativity”. In particular, the equations of quantum mechanics are linear, which means you can add together two valid solutions and get another valid solution, while general relativity is nonlinear, where trying to disentangle the relationships of parts of the systems quickly goes pear-shaped and many of the mathematical tools physicists use to understand systems (in particular, perturbation theory) blow up in their faces.

Ultimately, Smolin argues, giving up realism means abandoning what science is all about: figuring out what is really going on. The incompatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity provides clues that there may be a deeper theory to which both are approximations that work in certain domains (just as Newtonian mechanics is an approximation of special relativity which works when velocities are much less than the speed of light). Many people have tried and failed to “quantise general relativity”. Smolin suggests the problem is that quantum theory itself is incomplete: there is a deeper theory, a realistic one, to which our existing theory is only an approximation which works in the present universe where spacetime is nearly flat. He suggests that candidate theories must contain a number of fundamental principles. They must be background independent, like general relativity, and discard such concepts as fixed space and a universal clock, making both dynamic and defined based upon the components of a system. Everything must be relational: there is no absolute space or time; everything is defined in relation to something else. Everything must have a cause, and there must be a chain of causation for every event which traces back to its causes; these causes flow only in one direction. There is reciprocity: any object which acts upon another object is acted upon by that object. Finally, there is the “identity of indescernibles”: two objects which have exactly the same properties are the same object (this is a little tricky, but the idea is that if you cannot in some way distinguish two objects [for example, by their having different causes in their history], then they are the same object).

This argues that what we perceive, at the human scale and even in our particle physics experiments, as space and time are actually emergent properties of something deeper which was manifest in the early universe and in extreme conditions such as gravitational collapse to black holes, but hidden in the bland conditions which permit us to exist. Further, what we believe to be “laws” and “constants” may simply be precedents established by the universe as it tries to figure out how to handle novel circumstances. Just as complex systems like markets and evolution in ecosystems have rules that change based upon events within them, maybe the universe is “making it up as it goes along”, and in the early universe, far from today’s near-equilibrium, wild and crazy things happened which may explain some of the puzzling properties of the universe we observe today.

This needn’t forever remain in the realm of speculation. It is easy, for example, to synthesise a protein which has never existed before in the universe (it’s an example of a combinatorial explosion). You might try, for example, to crystallise this novel protein and see how difficult it is, then try again later and see if the universe has learned how to do it. To be extra careful, do it first on the International Space Station and then in a lab on the Earth. I suggested this almost twenty years ago as a test of Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, but (although doubtless Smolin would shun me for associating his theory with that one), it might produce interesting results.

The book concludes with a very personal look at the challenges facing a working scientist who has concluded the paradigm accepted by the overwhelming majority of his or her peers is incomplete and cannot be remedied by incremental changes based upon the existing foundation. He notes:

There is no more reasonable bet than that our current knowledge is incomplete. In every era of the past our knowledge was incomplete; why should our period be any different? Certainly the puzzles we face are at least as formidable as any in the past. But almost nobody bets this way. This puzzles me.

Well, it doesn’t puzzle me. Ever since I learned classical economics, I’ve always learned to look at the incentives in a system. When you regard academia today, there is huge risk and little reward to get out a new notebook, look at the first blank page, and strike out in an entirely new direction. Maybe if you were a twenty-something patent examiner in a small city in Switzerland in 1905 with no academic career or reputation at risk you might go back to first principles and overturn space, time, and the wave theory of light all in one year, but today’s institutional structure makes it almost impossible for a young researcher (and revolutionary ideas usually come from the young) to strike out in a new direction. It is a blessing that we have deep thinkers such as Lee Smolin setting aside the easy path to retirement to ask these deep questions today.

Smolin, Lee. Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. New York: Penguin Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-59420-619-1.

Here is a lecture by the author at the Perimeter Institute about the topics discussed in the book. He concentrates mostly on the problems with quantum theory and not the speculative solutions discussed in the latter part of the book.

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Book Review: The Code Hunters

“The Code Hunters” by Jackson CoppleyA team of expert cavers exploring a challenging cave in New Mexico in search of a possible connection to Carlsbad Caverns tumble into a chamber deep underground containing something which just shouldn’t be there: a huge slab of metal, like titanium, twenty-four feet square and eight inches thick, set into the rock of the cave, bearing markings which resemble the pits and lands on an optical storage disc. No evidence for human presence in the cave prior to the discoverers is found, and dating confirms that the slab is at least ten thousand years old. There is no way an object that large could be brought through the cramped and twisting passages of the cave to the chamber where it was found.

Wealthy adventurer Nicholas Foxe, with degrees in archaeology and cryptography, gets wind of the discovery and pulls strings to get access to the cave, putting together a research program to try to understand the origin of the slab and decode its enigmatic inscription. But as news of the discovery reaches others, they begin to pursue their own priorities. A New Mexico senator sends his on-the-make assistant to find out what is going on and see how it might be exploited to his advantage. An ex-Army special forces operator makes stealthy plans. An MIT string theorist with a wide range of interests begins exploring unorthodox ideas about how the inscriptions might be encoded. A televangelist facing hard times sees the Tablet as the way back to the top of the heap. A wealthy Texan sees the potential in the slab for wealth beyond his abundant dreams of avarice. As the adventure unfolds, we encounter a panoply of fascinating characters: a World Health Organization scientist, an Italian violin maker with an eccentric theory of language and his autistic daughter, and a “just the facts” police inspector. As clues are teased from the enigma, we visit exotic locations and experience harrowing adventure, finally grasping the significance of a discovery that bears on the very origin of modern humans.

About now, you might be thinking “This sounds like a Dan Brown novel”, and in a sense you’d be right. But this is the kind of story Dan Brown would craft if he were a lot better author than he is: whereas Dan Brown books have become stereotypes of cardboard characters and fill-in-the-blanks plots with pseudo-scientific bafflegab stirred into the mix (see my review of Origin), this is a gripping tale filled with complex, quirky characters, unexpected plot twists, beautifully sketched locales, and a growing sense of wonder as the significance of the discovery is grasped. If anybody in Hollywood had any sense (yes, I know…) they would make this into a movie instead of doing another tedious Dan Brown sequel. This is subtitled “A Nicholas Foxe Adventure”: I sincerely hope there will be more to come.

The author kindly let me read a pre-publication manuscript of this novel. The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Coppley, Jackson. The Code Hunters. Chevy Chase, MD: Contour Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-09-107011-0.

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An Elegant Toaster

When I was a kid, we had a Sunbeam Radiant Control toaster.  Everybody did.  It was elegant—its advertising tag line was “Automatic Beyond Belief”.  There were no controls: you simply dropped the bread in the slot(s), and it glided magically into the toaster.  When it was perfectly toasted, it came back up, ready to eat.  There was no knob to adjust the time or temperature: it monitored the heat radiated from the surface of the bread, which is proportional to its colour, so each slice was perfectly toasted every time.  Here is a video dissection of this remarkable appliance.

These toasters were manufactured from 1949 through 1997 when they were displaced by cheap imported “burn-o-matic” models with a lever and open-loop toasting control.  If somebody built something like this today, it would probably contain a microcontroller, servomotors, limit switches, and sensors to do the job.  The Radiant Control had none of these: in a masterful example of engineering elegance, the heating element itself, which had to be present to accomplish the primary mission, was made to do the job automatically.  How did they do it?  Watch the video or, if you want more details, see U.S. patents 2,667,828 (1948) and 2,459,170 (1942).

There is a Web site devoted to the Sunbeam Radiant Control toaster.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon Destroyed in “Anomaly”

Ahhh…, those anomalies—those pesky anomalies.  The worst kind of anomaly is when your spacecraft, in the process of being qualified for human spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS), goes kaboom on the ground while preparing for a static firing of its launch escape system rocket motors.  You know, kaboom, like this (sorry for the poor quality video—it’s all that’s presently available; there are some nasty words on the audio track.)

This happened yesterday, 2019-04-20, during preparation for a static firing (with the capsule strapped down to the ground) of the SuperDraco engines which provide the launch escape system of the Crew Dragon capsule, designed to transport crew to and from the ISS.  Eight SuperDraco engines are mounted on the Crew Dragon, in pairs, and are used only in the event of a failure which requires rapid separation of the capsule from a failing booster.  The launch escape system is intended to provide survivable abort from launcher failure anywhere from the launch pad to orbital insertion.  In a normal mission, the SuperDraco engines are not used, and may be re-flown on subsequent flights with minimal inspection and refurbishment.

The SuperDraco engines are made largely through additive manufacturing (“3D printing”), and have been subjected to an intensive test programme.  Here is a pad abort test from 2015, where the SuperDraco engines flew the profile of an abort from the launch pad (in this case, from a concrete pad instead of atop a booster).  (This is one of the most Kerbal space flight tests I’ve ever seen.)

The last milestone which SpaceX was expected to have to demonstrate before launching the first crew was an in-flight abort test, where a Crew Dragon capsule would separate from its Falcon 9 launcher near the point of maximum dynamic pressure (max q), showing its ability to get the crew off a failing booster under worst-case conditions and return them safely to the sea offshore the launch site.  The plan was to fly this mission in the next few months, re-using the Crew Dragon capsule successfully flown to and returned from the ISS on the Demo-1 mission in March, 2019.

It was this capsule which was being prepared for a test of the SuperDraco engines when everything went all splodey.  The close-up video does not show the immediate consequences of the “anomaly”, but scuttlebutt says the capsule is “in pieces”.  Observers at some distance from the test site saw a large orange cloud rising, which is the usual signature of release and combustion of hypergolic propellants as used in the SuperDraco engines.

Now, engineering is an art we learn from failure, and the reason we test is to learn the things we didn’t anticipate.  That said, having the launch escape system, whose only reason for being included on the crew capsule is to save the astronauts’ lives in case something else fails, spontaneously blow the crew capsule (and crew, had any been on board) to smithereens, is about as bad as things can get.  Serious thinkers about space flight safety have been asking for years whether the risks of carrying a high-energy launch escape system aloft on every flight might not actually be greater than flying without one; this incident might, in a rational world, spark discussion of this question, but the way to bet is that it won’t.

Unless it can be quickly determined that the failure was due to immersion of the capsule in salt water after its recent flight or something unrelated to performance of a new capsule, it seems likely this will result in delays to the scheduled Crew Dragon missions pushing the first crewed flight into 2020.  NASA will probably have to buy additional Soyuz seats, as the Boeing crew capsule has also suffered delays due to problems in its launch escape system.

Here is Scott Manley’s quick take on the failure and potential consequences for SpaceX and commercial crew.

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Mush, Spot, Mush!

Just a team of ten robot dogs pulling a truck (in neutral) up a 1° slope.

Nothing to worry about here, citizen.  Skynet will protect you.

From the video caption:

It only takes 10 Spotpower (SP) to haul a truck across the Boston Dynamics parking lot (~1 degree uphill, truck in neutral). These Spot robots are coming off the production line now and will be available for a range of applications soon. For more information visit us at www.BostonDynamics.com/Spot.

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Knowledge Base: Including Images in Group Posts and Comments

The “Groups” facility in Ratburger.org is based upon the Group feature of BuddyPress, which is a plug-in (or more precisely, bolt-on) to WordPress which was intended to turn what was originally blogging software into a crude kind of social network, with emphasis on “crude”.  BuddyPress can best be thought of as a kludge hanging in a bag crookedly nailed to the side of the hack which is WordPress.  Much of the work expended in software development since the launch of Ratburger has been in fixing outright flaws and limitations of BuddyPress.  Raw BuddyPress is something to behold: group posts and comments, once posted, cannot be edited or deleted, except by an administrator, and there is near complete opacity about what is going on, with notifications completely haphazard.

The whole Groups facility is a hack.  The way a discussion group add-on to WordPress should work is self-evident to anybody who gives it a few minutes’ thought: each group should be its own little site, with its own posts and comments, but with notifications confined to members.  Posts could be promoted from groups to public pages by administrators.  All of the composition, editing, and administration functions should be identical for the main site and groups.

What we have, of course, is nothing like that.  Groups don’t work remotely like the main site, and users are constantly frustrated trying to do simple things in groups which are easy on the main site.

For example, consider including an image in your post or comment.  On the main site, you just use the “Add Media” button, upload the image, and shazam, there it is!  But in a group, you’ll look in vain for an Add Media button—groups were basically intended by the developers of BuddyPress as glorified text-only bulletin boards, and if you want to do something as 1995-era edgy as including an image in your post, you have to jump through hoops.  Here are the details of the hoops, in case you remain undeterred.

First, upload your image to the Media Library.  There’s no “Add Media” button, but you can open up another tab or window, go to the Dashboard (via the little thing that looks like a speedometer in the bar at the top left of the page), then select Media/Add New.  This will display the familiar “Upload New Media” page, where you can select an image on your local computer and upload it to Ratburger.  This does not include the image in your group post; it simply adds it to your Media Library.

Next, display the Media Library.  In the sidebar, click Media/Library and you’ll see all images you’ve uploaded, with the most recent one at top left.  Click it and you’ll see the image full sized.  Make a note (copy and paste to an external text file) the following information about the image:

  • Dimensions
  • URL
  • Alt Text

For example, for an image I uploaded some time ago, I’d note:

  • Dimensions: 640 by 425 pixels
  • URL: https://www.ratburger.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/S146.jpg
  • Alt Text: HDR image: total solar eclipse 2010-07-11

Now go to the group post where you wish to include the image.  Starting on a line by itself, include an HTML img tag for the image like the following:

<img src="https://www.ratburger.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/S146.jpg"
  width="640" height="425" class="aligncenter"
  alt="Alt Text: HDR image: total solar eclipse 2010-07-11" />

Replace the various fields with the information you’ve recorded for your image. The “aligncenter” specification will centre the image (what you usually want); you can also use “alignleft” or “alignright” if you know what you’re doing.

If your image is larger than will fit on the screen (for example, images from digital cameras), you’ll need to recalculate the width and height to rescale it to fit. You typically don’t want an image to be wider than 640 pixels, and 600 pixels is a good choice. Let’s assume you have a monster image which is 6016×4016 pixels (as produced by a Nikon D600 digital camera) and you wish it show it as 600 pixels wide. You’d specify width=“600” in the img tag, but then you need to calculate the height in order to preserve the shape (“aspect ratio”) of the image. To do this, multiply the original height by the new width divided by the original width, in this case:

4016 × (600 / 6016) ≈ 401

(round to the nearest integer), and then specify height=“401”.

When you publish your post or comment in the group, the image should now appear.

Why should something so conceptually simple as including an image in a discussion group require such contortions?  Welcome to “the software that runs one third of the Web” (which is what they say, without adding the concluding phrase, “into the ground”).  As I mock their download page:

WordPress: Worthless, and also free

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News You Can Use: What Happens When a 63 Amp, 36000 Volt Fuse Blows?

Last year, a solar power farm in the United Kingdom had a really bad day and blew one of the main fuses on its three-phase AC output feed.  (If you work it out, this phase had a maximum power of 2.25 megawatts.)  An engineer sent the blown fuse to Big Clive, who proceeds in the following video to find out what’s inside with the cheap-o X-ray device, how it works, and what the aftermath of  a blown fuse event looks like.  Cameo appearance by an ever-helpful cat.

The fuse is rated to break a short-circuit current of 40,000 amperes.  The 36 kV rating is between phases, with 20 kV above ground.

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