Book Review: Michoud Assembly Facility

“Michoud Assembly Facility” by Cindy Donze MantoIn March, 1763, King Louis XV of France made a land grant of 140 square kilometres to Gilbert Antoine St Maxent, the richest man in Louisiana Territory and commander of the militia. The grant required St Maxent to build a road across the swampy property, develop a plantation, and reserve all the trees in forested areas for the use of the French navy. When the Spanish took over the territory five years later, St Maxent changed his first names to “Gilberto Antonio” and retained title to the sprawling estate. In the decades that followed, the property changed hands and nations several times, eventually, now part of the United States, being purchased by another French immigrant, Antoine Michoud, who had left France after the fall of Napoleon, who his father had served as an official.

Michoud rapidly established himself as a prosperous businessman in bustling New Orleans, and after purchasing the large tract of land set about buying pieces which had been sold off by previous owners, re-assembling most of the original French land grant into one of the largest private land holdings in the United States. The property was mostly used as a sugar plantation, although territory and rights were ceded over the years for construction of a lighthouse, railroads, and telegraph and telephone lines. Much of the land remained undeveloped, and like other parts of southern Louisiana was a swamp or, as they now say, “wetlands”.

The land remained in the Michoud family until 1910, when it was sold in its entirety for US$410,000 in cash (around US$11 million today) to a developer who promptly defaulted, leading to another series of changes of ownership and dodgy plans for the land, which most people continued to refer to as the Michoud Tract. At the start of World War II, the U.S. government bought a large parcel, initially intended for construction of Liberty ships. Those plans quickly fell through, but eventually a huge plant was erected on the site which, starting in 1943, began to manufacture components for cargo aircraft, lifeboats, and components which were used in the Manhattan Project’s isotope separation plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

At the end of the war, the plant was declared surplus but, a few years later, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was re-purposed to manufacture engines for Army tanks. It continued in that role until 1954 when it was placed on standby and, in 1958, once again declared surplus. There things stood until mid-1961 when NASA, charged by the new Kennedy administration to “put a man on the Moon” was faced with the need to build rockets in sizes and quantities never before imagined, and to do so on a tight schedule, racing against the Soviet Union.

In June, 1961, Wernher von Braun, director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, responsible for designing and building those giant boosters, visited the then-idle Michoud Ordnance Plant and declared it ideal for NASA’s requirements. It had 43 acres (17 hectares) under one roof, the air conditioning required for precision work in the Louisiana climate, and was ready to occupy. Most critically, it was located adjacent to navigable waters which would allow the enormous rocket stages, far too big to be shipped by road, rail, or air, to be transported on barges to and from Huntsville for testing and Cape Canaveral in Florida to be launched.

In September 1961 NASA officially took over the facility, renaming it “Michoud Operations”, to be managed by NASA Marshall as the manufacturing site for the rockets they designed. Work quickly got underway to set up manufacturing of the first stage of the Saturn I and 1B rockets and prepare to build the much larger first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket. Before long, new buildings dedicated to assembly and test of the new rockets, occupied both by NASA and its contractors, began to spring up around the original plant. In 1965, the installation was renamed the Michoud Assembly Facility, which name it bears to this day.

With the end of the Apollo program, it looked like Michoud might once again be headed for white elephant status, but the design selected for the Space Shuttle included a very large External Tank comparable in size to the first stage of the Saturn V which would be discarded on every flight. Michoud’s fabrication and assembly facilities, and its access to shipping by barge were ideal for this component of the Shuttle, and a total of 135 tanks built at Michoud were launched on Shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle once again put the future of Michoud in doubt. It was originally tapped to build the core stage of the Constellation program’s Ares V booster, which was similar in size and construction to the Shuttle External Tank. The cancellation of Constellation in 2010 brought that to a halt, but then Congress and NASA rode to the rescue with the absurd-as-a-rocket but excellent-as-a-jobs-program Space Launch System (SLS), whose centre core stage also resembles the External Tank and Ares V. SLS first stage fabrication is presently underway at Michoud. Perhaps when the schedule-slipping, bugget-busting SLS is retired after a few flights (if, in fact, it ever flies at all), bringing to a close the era of giant taxpayer-funded throwaway rockets, the Michoud facility can be repurposed to more productive endeavours.

This book is largely a history of Michoud in photos and captions, with text introducing chapters on each phase of the facility’s history. All of the photos are in black and white, and are well-reproduced. In the Kindle edition many can be expanded to show more detail. There are a number of copy-editing and factual errors in the text and captions, but not too many to distract or mislead the reader. The unidentified “visitors” shown touring the Michoud facility in July 1967 (chapter 3, Kindle location 392) are actually the Apollo 7 crew, Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham, who would fly on a Michoud-built Saturn 1B in October 1968.

For a book of just 130 pages, most of which are black and white photographs, the hardcover is hideously expensive (US$29 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Manto, Cindy Donze. Michoud Assembly Facility. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-5316-6969-0.

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Book Review: The Case for Trump

“The case for Trump” by Victor Davis HansonThe election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016 was a singular event in the history of the country. Never before had anybody been elected to that office without any prior experience in either public office or the military. Trump, although running as a Republican, had no long-term affiliation with the party and had cultivated no support within its establishment, elected officials, or the traditional donors who support its candidates. He turned his back on the insider consultants and “experts” who had advised GOP candidate after candidate in their “defeat with dignity” at the hands of a ruthless Democrat party willing to burn any bridge to win. From well before he declared his candidacy he established a direct channel to a mass audience, bypassing media gatekeepers via Twitter and frequent appearances in all forms of media, who found him a reliable boost to their audience and clicks. He was willing to jettison the mumbling points of the cultured Beltway club and grab “third rail” issues of which they dared not speak such as mass immigration, predatory trade practices, futile foreign wars, and the exporting of jobs from the U.S. heartland to low-wage sweatshops overseas.

He entered a free-for-all primary campaign as one of seventeen major candidates, including present and former governors, senators, and other well-spoken and distinguished rivals and, one by one, knocked them out, despite resolute and sometimes dishonest bias by the media hosting debates, often through “verbal kill shots” which made his opponents the target of mockery and pinned sobriquets on them (“low energy Jeb”, “little Marco”, “lyin’ Ted”) they couldn’t shake. His campaign organisation, if one can dignify it with the term, was completely chaotic and his fund raising nothing like the finely-honed machines of establishment favourites like Jeb Bush, and yet his antics resulted in his getting billions of dollars worth of free media coverage even on outlets who detested and mocked him.

One by one, he picked off his primary opponents and handily won the Republican presidential nomination. This unleashed a phenomenon the likes of which had not been seen since the Goldwater insurgency of 1964, but far more virulent. Pillars of the Republican establishment and Conservatism, Inc. were on the verge of cardiac arrest, advancing fantasy scenarios to deny the nomination to its winner, publishing issues of their money-losing and subscription-shedding little magazines dedicated to opposing the choice of the party’s voters, and promoting insurgencies such as the candidacy of Egg McMuffin, whose bona fides as a man of the people were evidenced by his earlier stints with the CIA and Goldman Sachs.

Predictions that post-nomination, Trump would become “more presidential” were quickly falsified as the chaos compounded, the tweets came faster and funnier, and the mass rallies became ever more frequent and raucous. One thing that was obvious to anybody looking dispassionately at what was going on, without the boiling blood of hatred and disdain of the New York-Washington establishment, was that the candidate was having the time of his life and so were the people who attended the rallies. But still, all of the wise men of the coastal corridor knew what must happen. On the eve of the general election, polls put the probability of a Trump victory somewhere between 1 and 15 percent. The outlier was Nate Silver, who went out on a limb and went all the way up to 29% chance of Trump’s winning to the scorn of his fellow “progressives” and pollsters.

And yet, Trump won, and handily. Yes, he lost the popular vote, but that was simply due to the urban coastal vote for which he could not contend and wisely made no attempt to attract, knowing such an effort would be futile and a waste of his scarce resources (estimates are his campaign spent around half that of Clinton’s). This book by classicist, military historian, professor, and fifth-generation California farmer Victor Davis Hanson is an in-depth examination of, in the words of the defeated candidate, “what happened”. There is a great deal of wisdom here.

First of all, a warning to the prospective reader. If you read Dr Hanson’s columns regularly, you probably won’t find a lot here that’s new. This book is not one of those that’s obviously Frankenstitched together from previously published columns, but in assembling their content into chapters focussing on various themes, there’s been a lot of cut and paste, if not literally at the level of words, at least in terms of ideas. There is value in seeing it all presented in one package, but be prepared to say, from time to time, “Haven’t I’ve read this before?”

That caveat lector aside, this is a brilliant analysis of the Trump phenomenon. Hanson argues persuasively that it is very unlikely any of the other Republican contenders for the nomination could have won the general election. None of them were talking about the issues which resonated with the erstwhile “Reagan Democrat” voters who put Trump over the top in the so-called “blue wall” states, and it is doubtful any of them would have ignored their Beltway consultants and campaigned vigorously in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania which were key to Trump’s victory. Given that the Republican defeat which would likely have been the result of a Bush (again?), Rubio, or Cruz candidacy would have put the Clinton crime family back in power and likely tipped the Supreme Court toward the slaver agenda for a generation, that alone should give pause to “never Trump” Republicans.

How will it all end? Nobody knows, but Hanson provides a variety of perspectives drawn from everything from the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s battle against the deep state to the archetype of the rough-edged outsider brought in to do what the more civilised can’t or won’t—the tragic hero from Greek drama to Hollywood westerns. What is certain is that none of what Trump is attempting, whether it ends in success or failure, would be happening if any of his primary opponents or the Democrat in the general election had prevailed.

I believe that Victor Davis Hanson is one of those rare people who have what I call the “Orwell gift”. Like George Orwell, he has the ability to look at the facts, evaluate them, and draw conclusions without any preconceived notions or filtering through an ideology. What is certain is that with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 the U.S. dodged a bullet. Whether that election will be seen as a turning point which reversed the decades-long slide toward tyranny by the administrative state, destruction of the middle class, replacement of the electorate by imported voters dependent upon the state, erosion of political and economic sovereignty in favour of undemocratic global governance, and the eventual financial and moral bankruptcy which are the inevitable result of all of these, or just a pause before the deluge, is yet to be seen. Hanson’s book is an excellent, dispassionate, well-reasoned, and thoroughly documented view of where things stand today.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Case for Trump. New York: Basic Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5416-7354-0.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author discussing the book.

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Saturday Night Science: The Case for Space

“The Case for Space” by Robert ZubrinFifty years ago, with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, it appeared that the road to the expansion of human activity from its cradle on Earth into the immensely larger arena of the solar system was open. The infrastructure built for Project Apollo, including that in the original 1963 development plan for the Merritt Island area could support Saturn V launches every two weeks. Equipped with nuclear-powered upper stages (under active development by Project NERVA, and accommodated in plans for a Nuclear Assembly Building near the Vehicle Assembly Building), the launchers and support facilities were more than adequate to support construction of a large space station in Earth orbit, a permanently-occupied base on the Moon, exploration of near-Earth asteroids, and manned landings on Mars in the 1980s.

But this was not to be. Those envisioning this optimistic future fundamentally misunderstood the motivation for Project Apollo. It was not about, and never was about, opening the space frontier. Instead, it was a battle for prestige in the Cold War and, once won (indeed, well before the Moon landing), the budget necessary to support such an extravagant program (which threw away skyscraper-sized rockets with every launch), began to evaporate. NASA was ready to do the Buck Rogers stuff, but Washington wasn’t about to come up with the bucks to pay for it. In 1965 and 1966, the NASA budget peaked at over 4% of all federal government spending. By calendar year 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it had already fallen to 2.31% of the federal budget, and with relatively small year to year variations, has settled at around one half of one percent of the federal budget in recent years. Apart from a small band of space enthusiasts, there is no public clamour for increasing NASA’s budget (which is consistently over-estimated by the public as a much larger fraction of federal spending than it actually receives), and there is no prospect for a political consensus emerging to fund an increase.

Further, there is no evidence that dramatically increasing NASA’s budget would actually accomplish anything toward the goal of expanding the human presence in space. While NASA has accomplished great things in its robotic exploration of the solar system and building space-based astronomical observatories, its human space flight operations have been sclerotic, risk-averse, loath to embrace new technologies, and seemingly more oriented toward spending vast sums of money in the districts and states of powerful representatives and senators than actually flying missions.

Fortunately, NASA is no longer the only game in town (if it can even be considered to still be in the human spaceflight game, having been unable to launch its own astronauts into space without buying seats from Russia since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011). In 2009, the commission headed by Norman Augustine recommended cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program, which aimed at a crewed Moon landing in 2020, because they estimated that the heavy-lift booster it envisioned (although based largely on decades-old Space Shuttle technology) would take twelve years and US$36 billion to develop under NASA’s business-as-usual policies; Constellation was cancelled in 2010 (although its heavy-lift booster, renamed. de-scoped, re-scoped, schedule-slipped, and cost-overrun, stumbles along, zombie-like, in the guise of the Space Launch System [SLS] which has, to date, consumed around US$14 billion in development costs without producing a single flight-ready rocket, and will probably cost between one and two billion dollars for each flight, every year or two—this farce will probably continue as long as Richard Shelby, the Alabama Senator who seems to believe NASA stands for “North Alabama Spending Agency”, remains in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body).

In February 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy booster, which has a payload capacity to low Earth orbit comparable to the initial version of the SLS, and was developed with private funds in half the time at one thirtieth the cost (so far) of NASA’s Big Rocket to Nowhere. Further, unlike the SLS, which on each flight will consign Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Boosters (which were designed to be reusable and re-flown many times on the Space Shuttle) to a watery grave in the Atlantic, three of the four components of the Falcon Heavy (excluding only its upper stage, with a single engine) are reusable and can be re-flown as many as ten times. Falcon Heavy customers will pay around US$90 million for a launch on the reusable version of the rocket, less than a tenth of what NASA estimates for an SLS flight, even after writing off its enormous development costs.

On the heels of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn orbital launcher, which will have comparable payload capacity and a fully reusable first stage. With competition on the horizon, SpaceX is developing the Super Heavy/Starship completely-reusable launcher with a payload of around 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit: more than any past or present rocket. A fully-reusable launcher with this capacity would also be capable of delivering cargo or passengers between any two points on Earth in less than an hour at a price to passengers no more than a first class ticket on a present-day subsonic airliner. The emergence of such a market could increase the demand for rocket flights from its current hundred or so per year to hundreds or thousands a day, like airline operations, with consequent price reductions due to economies of scale and moving all components of the transportation system down the technological learning curve.

Competition-driven decreases in launch cost, compounded by partially- or fully-reusable launchers, is already dramatically decreasing the cost of getting to space. A common metric of launch cost is the price to launch one kilogram into low Earth orbit. This remained stubbornly close to US$10,000/kg from the 1960s until the entry of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 into the market in 2010. Purely by the more efficient design and operations of a profit-driven private firm as opposed to a cost-plus government contractor, the first version of the Falcon 9 cut launch costs to around US$6,000/kg. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 (which costs around three times as much as the expendable second stage), this was cut by another factor of two, to US$3,000/kg. The much larger fully reusable Super Heavy/Starship is projected to reduce launch cost (if its entire payload capacity can be used on every flight, which probably isn’t the way to bet) to the vicinity of US$250/kg, and if the craft can be flown frequently, say once a day, as somebody or other envisioned more than a quarter century ago, amortising fixed costs over a much larger number of launches could reduce cost per kilogram by another factor of ten, to something like US$25/kg.

Such cost reductions are an epochal change in the space business. Ever since the first Earth satellites, launch costs have dominated the industry and driven all other aspects of spacecraft design. If you’re paying US$10,000 per kilogram to put your satellite in orbit, it makes sense to spend large sums of money not only on reducing its mass, but also making it extremely reliable, since launching a replacement would be so hideously expensive (and with flight rates so low, could result in a delay of a year or more before a launch opportunity became available). But with a hundred-fold or more reduction in launch cost and flights to orbit operating weekly or daily, satellites need no longer be built like precision watches, but rather industrial gear like that installed in telecom facilities on the ground. The entire cost structure is slashed across the board, and space becomes an arena accessible for a wide variety of commercial and industrial activities where its unique characteristics, such as access to free, uninterrupted solar power, high vacuum, and weightlessness are an advantage.

But if humanity is truly to expand beyond the Earth, launching satellites that go around and around the Earth providing services to those on its surface is just the start. People must begin to homestead in space: first hundreds, then thousands, and eventually millions and more living, working, building, raising families, with no more connection to the Earth than immigrants to the New World in the 1800s had to the old country in Europe or Asia. Where will they be living, and what will they be doing?

In order to think about the human future in the solar system, the first thing you need to do is recalibrate how you think about the Earth and its neighbours orbiting the Sun. Many people think of space as something like Antarctica: barren, difficult and expensive to reach, unforgiving, and while useful for some forms of scientific research, no place you’d want to set up industry or build communities where humans would spend their entire lives. But space is nothing like that. Ninety-nine percent or more of the matter and energy resources of the solar system—the raw material for human prosperity—are found not on the Earth, but rather elsewhere in the solar system, and they are free for the taking by whoever gets there first and figures out how to exploit them. Energy costs are a major input to most economic activity on the Earth, and wars are regularly fought over access to scarce energy resources on the home planet. But in space, at the distance Earth orbits the Sun, 1.36 kilowatts of free solar power are available for every square metre of collector you set up. And, unlike on the Earth’s surface, that power is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and will continue to flow for billions of years into the future.

Settling space will require using the resources available in space, not just energy but material. Trying to make a space-based economy work by launching everything from Earth is futile and foredoomed. Regardless of how much you reduce launch costs (even with exotic technologies which may not even be possible given the properties of materials, such as space elevators or launch loops), the vast majority of the mass needed by a space-based civilisation will be dumb bulk materials, not high-tech products such as microchips. Water; hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel (which are easily made from water using electricity from solar power); aluminium, titanium, and steel for structural components; glass and silicon; rocks and minerals for agriculture and bulk mass for radiation shielding; these will account for the overwhelming majority of the mass of any settlement in space, whether in Earth orbit, on the Moon or Mars, asteroid mining camps, or habitats in orbit around the Sun. People and low-mass, high-value added material such as electronics, scientific instruments, and the like will launch from the Earth, but their destinations will be built in space from materials found there.

Why? As with most things in space, it comes down to delta-v (pronounced delta-vee), the change in velocity needed to get from one location to another. This, not distance, determines the cost of transportation in space. The Earth’s mass creates a deep gravity well which requires around 9.8 km/sec of delta-v to get from the surface to low Earth orbit. It is providing this boost which makes launching payloads from the Earth so expensive. If you want to get to geostationary Earth orbit, where most communication satellites operate, you need another 3.8 km/sec, for a total of 13.6 km/sec launching from the Earth. By comparison, delivering a payload from the surface of the Moon to geostationary Earth orbit requires only 4 km/sec, which can be provided by a simple single-stage rocket. Delivering material from lunar orbit (placed there, for example, by a solar powered electromagnetic mass driver on the lunar surface) to geostationary orbit needs just 2.4 km/sec. Given that just about all of the materials from which geostationary satellites are built are available on the Moon (if you exploit free solar power to extract and refine them), it’s clear a mature spacefaring economy will not be launching them from the Earth, and will create large numbers of jobs on the Moon, in lunar orbit, and in ferrying cargos among various destinations in Earth-Moon space.

The author surveys the resources available on the Moon, Mars, near-Earth and main belt asteroids, and, looking farther into the future, the outer solar system where, once humans have mastered controlled nuclear fusion, sufficient Helium-3 is available for the taking to power a solar system wide human civilisation of trillions of people for billions of years and, eventually, the interstellar ships they will use to expand out into the galaxy. Detailed plans are presented for near-term human missions to the Moon and Mars, both achievable within the decade of the 2020s, which will begin the process of surveying the resources available there and building the infrastructure for permanent settlement. These mission plans, unlike those of NASA, do not rely on paper rockets which have yet to fly, costly expendable boosters, or detours to “gateways” and other diversions which seem a prime example of (to paraphrase the author in chapter 14), “doing things in order to spend money as opposed to spending money in order to do things.”

This is an optimistic and hopeful view of the future, one in which the human adventure which began when our ancestors left Africa to explore and settle the far reaches of their home planet continues outward into its neighbourhood around the Sun and eventually to the stars. In contrast to the grim Malthusian vision of mountebanks selling nostrums like a “Green New Deal”, which would have humans huddled on an increasingly crowded planet, shivering in the cold and dark when the Sun and wind did not cooperate, docile and bowed to their enlightened betters who instruct them how to reduce their expectations and hopes for the future again and again as they wait for the asteroid impact to put an end to their misery, Zubrin sketches millions of diverse human (and eventually post-human, evolving in different directions) societies, exploring and filling niches on a grand scale that dwarfs that of the Earth, inventing, building, experimenting, stumbling, and then creating ever greater things just as humans have for millennia. This is a future not just worth dreaming of, but working to make a reality. We have the enormous privilege of living in the time when, with imagination, courage, the willingness to take risks and to discard the poisonous doctrines of those who preach “sustainability” but whose policies always end in resource wars and genocide, we can actually make it happen and see the first steps taken in our lifetimes.

Zubrin, Robert. The Case for Space. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-63388-534-9.

Here is an interview with the author about the topics discussed in the book.

This is a one hour and forty-two minute interview (audio only) from “The Space Show” which explores the book in detail.  The audio gets much better after the pre-recorded introduction.

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Book Review: The Dawn of the Iron Dragon

“The Dawn of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThis is the second volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon. At the end of the first book, the crew of the Andrea Luhman stranded on Earth in the middle ages faced a seemingly impossible challenge. They, and their Viking allies, could save humanity from extinction in a war in the distant future only by building a space program capable of launching a craft into Earth orbit starting with an infrastructure based upon wooden ships and edged weapons. Further, given what these accidental time travellers, the first in history, had learned about the nature of travel to the past in their adventures to date, all of this must be done in the deepest secrecy and without altering the history to be written in the future. Recorded history, they discovered, cannot be changed, and hence any attempt to do something which would leave evidence of a medieval space program or intervention of advanced technology in the affairs of the time, would be doomed to failure. These constraints placed almost impossible demands upon what was already a formidable challenge.

From their ship’s computer, the exiled spacemen had a close approximation to all of human knowledge, so they were rich in bits. But when it came to it: materials, infrastructure, tools, sources of energy and motive power, and everything else, they had almost nothing. Even the simplest rocket capable of achieving Earth orbit has tens to hundreds of thousands of parts, most requiring precision manufacture, stringent control of material quality, and rigorous testing. Consider a humble machine screw. In the 9th century A.D. there weren’t any hardware stores. If you needed a screw, or ten thousand of them, to hold your rocket components together, you needed first to locate and mine the iron ore, then smelt the iron from the ore, refine it with high temperature and forced air (both of which require their own technologies, including machine screws) to achieve the desired carbon content, adding alloying metals such as nickel, chromium, cobalt, tungsten, and manganese, all of which have to be mined and refined first. Then the steel must be formed into the desired shape (requiring additional technologies), heat-treated, and then finally the threads must be cut into the blank, requiring machine tools made to sufficient precision that the screws will be interchangeable, with something to power the tools (all of which, of course, contain screws). And that’s just a screw. Thinking about a turbopump, regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, hydraulically-actuated gimbal mechanism, gyroscopes and accelerometers, or any of the myriad other components of even the simplest launcher are apt to induce despair.

But the spacemen were survivors, and they knew that the entire future of the human species, driven in the future they had come from to near-extinction by the relentless Cho-ta’an, depended upon their getting off the Earth and delivering the planet-busting weapon which might turn the tide for their descendants centuries hence. While they needed just about everything, what they needed most was minds: human brainpower and the skills flowing from it to find and process the materials to build the machines to build the machines to build the machines which, after a decades-long process of recapitulating centuries of human technological progress, would enable them to accomplish their ambitious yet utterly essential mission.

People in the 9th century were just as intelligent as those today, but in most of the world literacy was rare and even more scarce was the acquired intellectual skill of thinking logically, breaking down a problem into its constituent parts, and the mental flexibility to learn and apply mind tools, such as algebra, trigonometry, calculus, Newton’s and Kepler’s laws, and a host of others which had yet to be discovered. These rare people were to be found in the emerging cities, where learning and the embryos of what would become the great universities of the later Middle Ages were developing. And so missions were dispatched to Constantinople, the greatest of these cities, and other centres of learning and innovation, to recruit not the famous figures recorded in history (whose disappearance into a secret project was inconsistent with that history, and hence impossible), but their promising young followers. These cities were cosmopolitan crossroads, dangerous but also sufficiently diverse that a Viking longboat showing up with people who barely spoke any known language would not attract undue attention. But the rulers of these cities appreciated the value of their learned people, and trying to attract them was perilous and could lead to hazards and misadventures.

On top of all of these challenges, a Cho-ta’an ship had followed the Andrea Luhman through the hyperspace gate and whatever had caused them to be thrown back in time, and a small contingent of the aliens had made it to Earth, bent on stopping the spacemen’s getting off the planet at any cost. The situation was highly asymmetrical: while the spacemen had to accomplish a near-impossible task, the Cho-ta’an need only prevent them by any means possible. And being Cho-ta’an, if those means included loosing a doomsday plague to depopulate Europe, well, so be it. And the presence of the Cho-ta’an, wherever they might be hiding, redoubled the need for secrecy in every aspect of the Iron Dragon project.

Another contingent of the recruiting project finds itself in the much smaller West Francia city of Paris, just as Viking forces are massing for what history would record as the Siege of Paris in A.D. 885–886. In this epic raid, a force of tens of thousands (today estimated around 20,000, around half that claimed in the account by the monk Abbo Cernuus, who has been called “in a class of his own as an exaggerator”) of Vikings in hundreds (300, probably, 700 according to Abbo) laid siege to a city defended by just two hundred Parisian men-at-arms. In this account, the spacemen, with foreknowledge of how it was going to come out, provide invaluable advice to Count Odo of Paris and Gozlin, the “fighting Bishop” of Paris, in defending their city as it was simultaneously ravaged by a plague (wonder where that came from?), and in persuading King Charles (“the Fat”) to come to the relief of the city. The epic battle for Paris, which ended not in triumph but rather a shameful deal, was a turning point in the history of France. The efforts of the spacemen, while critical and perhaps decisive, remained consistent with written history, at least that written by Abbo, who they encouraged in his proclivity for exaggeration.

Meanwhile, back at the secret base in Iceland, chosen to stay out of the tangles of European politics and out of the way of their nemesis Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, local rivalries intrude upon the desired isolation. It appears another, perhaps disastrous, siege may be in the offing, putting the entire project at risk. And with all of this, one of those knock-you-off-your-feet calamities the author is so fond of throwing at his characters befalls them, forcing yet another redefinition of their project and a breathtaking increase in its ambition and complexity, just as they have to contemplate making new and perilous alliances simply to survive.

The second volume of a trilogy is often the most challenging to write. In the first, everything is new, and the reader gets to meet the characters, the setting, and the challenges to be faced in the story. In the conclusion, everything is pulled together into a satisfying resolution. But in that one in the middle, it’s mostly developing characters, plots, introducing new (often subordinate) characters, and generally moving things along—one risks readers’ regarding it as “filler”. In this book, the author artfully avoids that risk by making a little-known but epic battle the centrepiece of the story, along with intrigue, a thorny ethical dilemma, and multiple plot threads playing out from Iceland to North Africa to the Dardanelles. You absolutely should read the first volume, The Dream of the Iron Dragon, before starting this one—although there is a one page summary of that book at the start, it isn’t remotely adequate to bring you up to speed and avoid your repeatedly exclaiming “Who?”, “What?”, and “How?” as you enjoy this story.

When you finish this volume, the biggest question in your mind will probably be “How in the world is he going to wrap all of this up in just one more book?” The only way to find out is to pick up The Voyage of the Iron Dragon, which I will be reviewing here in due course. This saga (what else can you call an epic with Vikings and spaceships?) will be ranked among the very best of alternative history science fiction, and continues to demonstrate why independent science fiction is creating a new Golden Age for readers and rendering the legacy publishers of tedious “diversity” propaganda impotent and obsolete.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Kroese, Robert. The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7220-2331-7.

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Book Review: Churchill: Walking with Destiny

“Churchill” by Andrew RobertsAt the point that Andrew Roberts sat down to write a new biography of Winston Churchill, there were a total of 1009 biographies of the man in print, examining every aspect of his life from a multitude of viewpoints. Works include the encyclopedic three-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid, and Roy Jenkins’ single-volume Churchill: A Biography, which concentrates on Churchill’s political career. Such books may seem to many readers to say just about everything about Churchill there is to be said from the abundant documentation available for his life. What could a new biography possibly add to the story?

As the author demonstrates in this magnificent and weighty book (1152 pages, 982 of main text), a great deal. Earlier Churchill biographers laboured under the constraint that many of Churchill’s papers from World War II and the postwar era remained under the seal of official secrecy. These included the extensive notes taken by King George VI during his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister during the war and recorded in his personal diary. The classified documents were made public only fifty years after the end of the war, and the King’s wartime diaries were made available to the author by special permission granted by the King’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The royal diaries are an invaluable source on Churchill’s candid thinking as the war progressed. As a firm believer in constitutional monarchy, Churchill withheld nothing in his discussions with the King. Even the deepest secrets, such as the breaking of the German codes, the information obtained from decrypted messages, and atomic secrets, which were shared with only a few of the most senior and trusted government officials, were discussed in detail with the King. Further, while Churchill was constantly on stage trying to hold the Grand Alliance together, encourage Britons to stay in the fight, and advance his geopolitical goals which were often at variance with even the Americans, with the King he was brutally honest about Britain’s situation and what he was trying to accomplish. Oddly, perhaps the best insight into Churchill’s mind as the war progressed comes not from his own six-volume history of the war, but rather the pen of the King, writing only to himself. In addition, sources such as verbatim notes of the war cabinet, diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. during the 1930s through the war, and other recently-disclosed sources resulted in, as the author describes it, there being something new on almost every page.

The biography is written in an entirely conventional manner: the author eschews fancy stylistic tricks in favour of an almost purely chronological recounting of Churchill’s life, flipping back and forth from personal life, British politics, the world stage and Churchill’s part in the events of both the Great War and World War II, and his career as an author and shaper of opinion.

Winston Churchill was an English aristocrat, but not a member of the nobility. A direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As only the first son inherits the title, although Randolph bore the honorific “Lord”, he was a commoner and his children, including first-born Winston, received no title. Lord Randolph was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, the year of Winston’s birth, and would serve until his death in 1895, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India. His death, aged just forty-five (rumoured at the time to be from syphilis, but now attributed to a brain tumour, as his other symptoms were inconsistent with syphilis), along with the premature deaths of three aunts and uncles at early ages, convinced the young Winston his own life might be short and that if he wanted to accomplish great things, he had no time to waste.

In terms of his subsequent career, his father’s early death might have been an unappreciated turning point in Winston Churchill’s life. Had his father retired from the House of Commons prior to his death, he would almost certainly have been granted a peerage in return for his long service. When he subsequently died, Winston, as eldest son, would have inherited the title and hence not been entitled to serve in the House of Commons. It is thus likely that had his father not died while still an MP, the son would never have had the political career he did nor have become prime minister in 1940.

Young, from a distinguished family, wealthy (by the standards of the average Briton, but not compared to the landed aristocracy or titans of industry and finance), ambitious, and seeking novelty and adventures to the point of recklessness, the young Churchill believed he was meant to accomplish great things in however many years Providence might grant him on Earth. In 1891, at the age of just 16, he confided to a friend,

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world, great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … This country will be subjected, somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.

He was, thus, from an early age, not one likely to be daunted by the challenges he assumed when, almost five decades later at an age (66) when many of his contemporaries retired, he faced a situation uncannily similar to that he imagined in boyhood.

Churchill’s formal education ended at age 20 with his graduation from the military academy at Sandhurst and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the cavalry. A voracious reader, he educated himself in history, science, politics, philosophy, literature, and the classics, while ever expanding his mastery of the English language, both written and spoken. Seeking action, and finding no war in which he could participate as a British officer, he managed to persuade a London newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent and set off to cover an insurrection in Cuba against its Spanish rulers. His dispatches were well received, earning five guineas per article, and he continued to file dispatches as a war correspondent even while on active duty with British forces. By 1901, he was the highest-paid war correspondent in the world, having earned the equivalent of £1 million today from his columns, books, and lectures.

He subsequently saw action in India and the Sudan, participating in the last great cavalry charge of the British army in the Battle of Omdurman, which he described along with the rest of the Mahdist War in his book, The River War. In October 1899, funded by the Morning Post, he set out for South Africa to cover the Second Boer War. Covering the conflict, he was taken prisoner and held in a camp until, in December 1899, he escaped and crossed 300 miles of enemy territory to reach Portugese East Africa. He later returned to South Africa as a cavalry lieutenant, participating in the Siege of Ladysmith and capture of Pretoria, continuing to file dispatches with the Morning Post which were later collected into a book.

Upon his return to Britain, Churchill found that his wartime exploits and writing had made him a celebrity. Eleven Conservative associations approached him to run for Parliament, and he chose to run in Oldham, narrowly winning. His victory was part of a massive landslide by the Unionist coalition, which won 402 seats versus 268 for the opposition. As the author notes,

Before the new MP had even taken his seat, he had fought in four wars, published five books,… written 215 newspaper and magazine articles, participated in the greatest cavalry charge in half a century and made a spectacular escape from prison.

This was not a man likely to disappear into the mass of back-benchers and not rock the boat.

Churchill’s views on specific issues over his long career defy those who seek to put him in one ideological box or another, either to cite him in favour of their views or vilify him as an enemy of all that is (now considered) right and proper. For example, Churchill was often denounced as a bloodthirsty warmonger, but in 1901, in just his second speech in the House of Commons, he rose to oppose a bill proposed by the Secretary of War, a member of his own party, which would have expanded the army by 50%. He argued,

A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community. … A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.

Bear in mind, this was a full thirteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, which many politicians and military men expected to be short, decisive, and affordable in blood and treasure.

Churchill, the resolute opponent of Bolshevism, who coined the term “Cold War”, was the same person who said, after Stalin’s annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939, “In essence, the Soviet’s Government’s latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler’s potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system than the German one.”

Churchill, the champion of free trade and free markets, was also the one who said, in March 1943,

You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave. … [Everyone must work] whether they come from the ancient aristocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler. … We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.

And yet, just two years later, contesting the first parliamentary elections after victory in Europe, he argued,

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

Among all of the apparent contradictions and twists and turns of policy and politics there were three great invariant principles guiding Churchill’s every action. He believed that the British Empire was the greatest force for civilisation, peace, and prosperity in the world. He opposed tyranny in all of its manifestations and believed it must not be allowed to consolidate its power. And he believed in the wisdom of the people expressed through the democratic institutions of parliamentary government within a constitutional monarchy, even when the people rejected him and the policies he advocated.

Today, there is an almost reflexive cringe among bien pensants at any intimation that colonialism might have been a good thing, both for the colonial power and its colonies. In a paragraph drafted with such dry irony it might go right past some readers, and reminiscent of the “What have the Romans done for us?” scene in Life of Brian, the author notes,

Today, of course, we know imperialism and colonialism to be evil and exploitative concepts, but Churchill’s first-hand experience of the British Raj did not strike him that way. He admired the way the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history, as well as railways, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, the possibilities for extensive international trade, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, an uncorrupt legal system, medical advances, anti-famine coordination, the English language as the first national lingua franca, telegraphic communication and military protection from the Russian, French, Afghan, Afridi and other outside threats, while also abolishing suttee (the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres), thugee (the ritualized murder of travellers) and other abuses. For Churchill this was not the sinister and paternalist oppression we now know it to have been.

This is a splendid in-depth treatment of the life, times, and contemporaries of Winston Churchill, drawing upon a multitude of sources, some never before available to any biographer. The author does not attempt to persuade you of any particular view of Churchill’s career. Here you see his many blunders (some tragic and costly) as well as the triumphs and prescient insights which made him a voice in the wilderness when so many others were stumbling blindly toward calamity. The very magnitude of Churchill’s work and accomplishments would intimidate many would-be biographers: as a writer and orator he published thirty-seven books totalling 6.1 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens put together) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1953, plus another five million words of public speeches. Even professional historians might balk at taking on a figure who, as a historian alone, had, at the time of his death, sold more history books than any historian who ever lived.

Andrew Roberts steps up to this challenge and delivers a work which makes a major contribution to understanding Churchill and will almost certainly become the starting point for those wishing to explore the life of this complicated figure whose life and works are deeply intertwined with the history of the twentieth century and whose legacy shaped the world in which we live today. This is far from a dry historical narrative: Churchill was a master of verbal repartee and story-telling, and there are a multitude of examples, many of which will have you laughing out loud at his wit and wisdom.

Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking, 2018. ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about Churchill and this biography.

This is a lecture by Andrew Roberts on “The Importance of Churchill for Today” at Hillsdale College in March, 2019.

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Kindle Deal: The Marcos Dynasty

The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos 

Like the typical American, I knew little of the ruling Filipino pair except some breathless news items years ago about Imelda’s scandalous shoe collection, and fragments about the couple’s downfall. When I saw this book for sale for less than two dollars, I wondered whether I wanted to take my historical knowledge in this direction. Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about the Philippines, carrying with me some childhood impressions of English-speaking Filipinos in Thailand and recent understanding that the Spanish had somehow been tied up with the country. But a sincere Amazon review said that the writer was very good, so I decided I could risk two dollars on this.

Sterling Seagrave is an outstanding story teller. However, be prepared, because he a curmudgeon extraordinaire. Reading his work is like sitting across the table from a wry, cynical man who nonetheless is intent on delivering his eloquent narrative. The story pours forth from him, and no player in it comes out looking good. Seagrave is brutal, not just on the Marcos couple, as the title suggests, but on the Americans, the workings of American and Filipino political systems, and on MacArthur. If Seagrave is right, MacArthur might just be the most avaricious, ambitious actor in the whole story.

I am not quite a third of the way through what turns out to be a thick volume, but I have already encountered a great deal of history that I never knew. I’m taking the author’s perspective with some skepticism–not only because he’s harsh toward Americans while fair-minded, even sympathetic, toward the Japanese–but also because he does not reject conspiratorial-flavored stories to explain events. Since he doesn’t provide documentation, I don’t know what his sources are. On the other hand, he is so fluent in layers of historical detail, and such an able communicator, that I gamely go with him in his exploration.

He is possibly too detailed in his approach to the era, so we take some historical side trips into events such as Japanese treasure-hoarding, another phenomenon that was new to me. However, I can’t say that any of this is dull. The side details are what I come for in these historical works–there are always startling bits of background information that recreate my understanding of history. This volume does not disappoint in that respect. I have to admit that before I read this, I had no idea that the US wrested the Philippines from Spain and then managed the islands in a manner not unlike a colonial possession.

If Seagrave is right, the US didn’t help much with the level of corruption from the ruling class–in fact, US political dealing complicated matters that were already negative. There was a landed, privileged class indirectly left over from Spanish rule (it’s complicated, and included Chinese clans) and underhanded ways of getting things done, with leading families who got by on their connections. There were also criminal bosses who liked to run affairs their way. After World War II, money and power continued to drive politics. War time plunder did nothing to help this dynamic, and individuals could win for themselves ridiculous accumulations of wealth. All along, according to Seagrave, the US pursued a dishonest and self-seeking political agenda. And far from the brave hero we learned about in our history books, Douglas MacArthur ambitiously sought wealth and position to the detriment of the country, while maintaining excellent PR staff.

It was from this milieu that Ferdinand and Imelda emerged. The author follows the couple as they were shaped by historical events, Ferdinand involving himself in a number of dubious endeavors in World War II that he later characterized as unlikely heroic feats. Already, only partway into the book, the identity of this couple and their trajectory of wealth accumulation, self-glorification, corruption, and ruin is becoming clear.

I recently talked to an acquaintance who settled here from the Philippines, thinking that her outlook would be along the lines of this book. Did our country take political advantage of hers? Was MacArthur a scoundrel? Was the Philippines best left independent after the Spanish? But no–she said that she had grown up with a positive view of the United States. MacArthur was a hero. The US was a place they could dream of moving to for a better life. Our country was a friend. Perhaps we are, in the long view. But when studied under a magnifying glass, history is always messier than what we first learned.

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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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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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The CLFA 2019 Book of the Year ballot is now open!

The Conservative Libertarian Fiction Alliance (CLFA) recently announced their finalists for the 2019 Book of the Year Award. To qualify for entry in the CLFA Book of the Year 2019 contest, books had to be over 50k words and first published in any form in 2018. With eleven candidates nominated by CLFA members, the public may help select the final winner by voting here before midnight on May 15th.

You may join the CLFA group on MeWe by request, if you already have a MeWe Profile.

You’ll find some of the best in contemporary fiction by checking out the finalists, below the break.

Continue reading “The CLFA 2019 Book of the Year ballot is now open!”

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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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Lies as Fuel for Slaughter; Truth as Wellspring of Courage

Yesterday, by chance, reading involved two things: a chapter of history and a short story.  Written by men living 2300 years apart, these describe the very same thing: the workings of the human heart, in particular at times of trial, and the results of those workings in terms of human suffering and survival. In the history, people lied to everyone about everything in an attempt to save their own skins, and failed, earning themselves sordid deaths.  In the story, a man is led by his absolute devotion to truth at least to die with integrity after having behaved well.

Thucydides claims to have based his history on near reports, and to have fleshed it out with his own considered reconstructions of the speeches made by the great men on all sides during the Peloponnesian War.  That’s fine; all well and good, but to read it is to scan multiple recursions of the same theme, here paraphrased:

The Plutonians sent forty ships to lay waste the lands of the Apricotians.  The Apricotians did not submit, so the Plutonians slaughtered them all, burned the city, raised a trophy, and sailed home.

Then the reader arrives at Chapter X, “The Corcyrean Revolution,”  to be startled awake on reading this:

The Corcyrean revolution began with the return of the prisoners taken in the sea-fights off Epidamnus . . . the accused, rendered desperate by law . . . banded together armed with daggers, and suddenly bursting into the senate killed Peithias and sixty others, senators and private persons . . . 

After a day’s interval hostilities recommenced, victory remaining with the commons, [over the oligarchs] who had the advantage in numbers and position, the women also valiantly assisting them, pelting with tiles from the houses, and supporting the mêlée with a fortitude beyond their sex. Towards dusk, the oligarchs in full rout, fearing that the victorious commons might assault and carry the arsenal and put them to the sword, fired the houses round the market -place and the lodging-houses . . . 

The Corcyreans, made aware of the approach of the Athenian fleet . . . slew such of their enemies as they laid hands on . . . Next they went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to take their trial, and condemned them all to death.  The mass of the suppliants who had refused to do so, on seeing what was taking place, slew each other there in the consecrated ground; while some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves as they were severally able. . .  the Corcyreans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of he monies owed to them.  Death thus raged in every shape; and as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the alter or slain upon it . . .

Now Thucydides moves from the particular to the general.

. . . struggles being everywhere made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. . .   The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same;

Too right, says the 20th-century reader, who now wonders if she is actually reading a news story:

. . . Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any.  Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense.  The advocate of extrme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.  To succeed in a plot was t0 have a shrewd head, to divine a plot still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. 

 

Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 short story The Blood of the Martyrs concerns an apolitical scientific researcher and professor, imprisoned in “the castle” by the soldiers of “The Dictator.” The Professor dispassionately assesses the near likelihood of his execution.  He does not betray his students, who apparently have been self-organizing into a force in opposition to The Dictator –  but he does not articulate to himself why he does not betray them despite beatings and condemnation to death.

Only at the very end, when The Dictator personally demands, in exchange for his life on terms, that he lie about science – do State Science, speak in scientific language in service to the State – does the Professor make his refusal.  He does not spell it out for himself in his mind; he simply recalls the faces of his students who came to him over the years for one thing: truth, and the pursuit of truth.

He paused again, seeing their faces before him. . . From all over the world they had come – they wore cheap overcoats, they were hungry for knowledge, they ate the bad, starchy food of the poor restaurants . . . a few were promising – all must be given the truth. It did not matter if they died, but they must be given the truth.  Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science. 

. . . not to tell lies to young men on one’s own subject. . . .They had given him their terrible confidence – not for love or kindness, but because they had found him honest.  It was too late to change.

The Professor will not lie for the State, even to save his life.  His death is sordid only externally; internally his integrity gives him calm. He dies thinking of the young men to whom he has not lied.

So, some will lie, and participate in lies, in an attempt to evade murder, or merely to advance themselves.  Other will refuse to lie, because to lie would be to commit painful betrayal to the highest value.  For Benét’s character, it is not a matter of anguished calculation or conjecture.  It just is so.  That is the source of his personal courage: faithfulness to what is so.

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I reverted a post to draft.

The post I reverted to draft was called “A Quick Note”. I didn’t think it was fair to have it up because the person who it was about cannot respond to it. It was a site administration post and written by me. The policy here has been to be transparent about the actions taken therefore this post.

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Book Review: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation

“The Powers of the Earth”, by Travis J. I. Corcoran(Note: This is novel is the first of an envisioned four volume series titled Aristillus. It and the second book, Causes of Separation, published in May, 2018, together tell a single story which reaches a decisive moment just as the first book ends. Unusually, this will be a review of both novels, taken as a whole. If you like this kind of story at all, there’s no way you’ll not immediately plunge into the second book after setting down the first.)

Around the year 2050, collectivists were firmly in power everywhere on Earth. Nations were subordinated to the United Nations, whose force of Peace Keepers (PKs) had absorbed all but elite special forces, and were known for being simultaneously brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (Due to the equality laws, military units had to contain a quota of “Alternatively Abled Soldiers” who other troops had to wheel into combat.) The United States still existed as a country, but after decades of rule by two factions of the Democrat party: Populist and Internationalist, was mired in stagnation, bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. President, Themba Johnson, a former talk show host who combined cluelessness, a volatile temper, and vulpine cunning when it came to manipulating public opinion, is confronted with all of these problems and looking for a masterstroke to get beyond the next election.

Around 2050, when the collectivists entered the inevitable end game their policies lead to everywhere they are tried, with the Bureau of Sustainable Research (BuSuR) suppressing new technologies in every field and the Construction Jobs Preservation Act and Bureau of Industrial Planning banning anything which might increase productivity, a final grasp to loot the remaining seed corn resulted in the CEO Trials aimed at the few remaining successful companies, with expropriation of their assets and imprisonment of their leaders. CEO Mike Martin manages to escape from prison and link up with renegade physicist Ponnala (“Ponzie”) Srinivas, inventor of an anti-gravity drive he doesn’t want the slavers to control. Mike buys a rustbucket oceangoing cargo ship, equips it with the drive, an airtight compartment and life support, and flees Earth with a cargo of tunnel boring machines and water to exile on the Moon, in the crater Aristillus in Mare Imbrium on the lunar near side where, fortuitously, the impact of a metal-rich asteroid millions of years ago enriched the sub-surface with metals rare in the Moon’s crust.

Let me say a few words about the anti-gravity drive, which is very unusual and original, and whose properties play a significant role in the story. The drive works by coupling to the gravitational field of a massive body and then pushing against it, expending energy as it rises and gains gravitational potential energy. Momentum is conserved, as an equal and opposite force is exerted on the massive body against which it is pushing. The force vector is always along the line connecting the centre of mass of the massive body and the drive unit, directed away from the centre of mass. The force is proportional to the strength of the gravitational field in which the drive is operating, and hence stronger when pushing against a body like Earth as opposed to a less massive one like the Moon. The drive’s force diminishes with distance from the massive body as its gravitational field falls off with the inverse square law, and hence the drive generates essentially no force when in empty space far from a gravitating body. When used to brake a descent toward a massive body, the drive converts gravitational potential energy into electricity like the regenerative braking system of an electric vehicle: energy which can be stored for use when later leaving the body.

“Causes of Separation” by Travis J. I. CorcoranBecause the drive can only push outward radially, when used to, say, launch from the Earth to the Moon, it is much like Jules Verne’s giant cannon—the launch must occur at the latitude and longitude on Earth where the Moon will be directly overhead at the time the ship arrives at the Moon. In practice, the converted ships also carried auxiliary chemical rockets and reaction control thrusters for trajectory corrections and precision maneuvering which could not be accomplished with the anti-gravity drive.

By 2064, the lunar settlement, called Aristillus by its inhabitants, was thriving, with more than a hundred thousand residents, and growing at almost twenty percent a year. (Well, nobody knew for sure, because from the start the outlook shared by the settlers was aligned with Mike Martin’s anarcho-capitalist worldview. There was no government, no taxes, no ID cards, no business licenses, no regulations, no zoning [except covenants imposed by property owners on those who sub-leased property from them], no central bank, no paper money [an entrepreneur had found a vein of gold left by the ancient impactor and gone into business providing hard currency], no elections, no politicians, no forms to fill out, no police, and no army.) Some of these “features” of life on grey, regimented Earth were provided by private firms, while many of the others were found to be unnecessary altogether.

The community prospered as it grew. Like many frontier settlements, labour was in chronic short supply, and even augmented by robot rovers and machines (free of the yoke of BuSuR), there was work for anybody who wanted it and job offers awaiting new arrivals. A fleet of privately operated ships maintained a clandestine trade with Earth, bringing goods which couldn’t yet be produced on the Moon, atmosphere, water from the oceans (in converted tanker ships), and new immigrants who had sold their Earthly goods and quit the slave planet. Waves of immigrants from blood-soaked Nigeria and chaotic China established their own communities and neighbourhoods in the ever-growing network of tunnels beneath Aristillus.

The Moon has not just become a refuge for humans. When BuSuR put its boot on the neck of technology, it ordered the shutdown of a project to genetically “uplift” dogs to human intelligence and beyond, creating “Dogs” (the capital letter denoting the uplift) and all existing Dogs to be euthanised. Many were, but John (we never learn his last name), a former U.S. Special Forces operator, manages to rescue a colony of Dogs from one of the labs before the killers arrive and escape with them to Aristillus, where they have set up the Den and engage in their own priorities, including role-playing games, software development, and trading on the betting markets. Also rescued by John was Gamma, the first Artificial General Intelligence to be created, whose intelligence is above the human level but not (yet, anyway) intelligence runaway singularity-level transcendent. Gamma has established itself in its own facility in Sinus Lunicus on the other side of Mare Imbrium, and has little contact with the human or Dog settlers.

Inevitably, liberty produces prosperity, and prosperity eventually causes slavers to regard the free with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against them.

This is the story of the first interplanetary conflict, and a rousing tale of liberty versus tyranny, frontier innovation against collectivised incompetence, and principles (there is even the intervention of a Vatican diplomat) confronting brutal expedience. There are delicious side-stories about the creation of fake news, scheming politicians, would-be politicians in a libertarian paradise, open source technology, treachery, redemption, and heroism. How do three distinct species: human, Dog, and AI work together without a top-down structure or subordinating one to another? Can the lunar colony protect itself without becoming what its settlers left Earth to escape?

Woven into the story is a look at how a libertarian society works (and sometimes doesn’t work) in practice. Aristillus is in no sense a utopia: it has plenty of rough edges and things to criticise. But people there are free, and they prefer it to the prison planet they escaped.

This is a wonderful, sprawling, action-packed story with interesting characters, complicated conflicts, and realistic treatment of what a small colony faces when confronted by a hostile planet of nine billion slaves. Think of this as Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress done better. There are generous tips of the hat to Heinlein and other science fiction in the book, but this is a very different story with an entirely different outcome, and truer to the principles of individualism and liberty. I devoured these books and give them my highest recommendation.  The Powers of the Earth won the 2018 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel.

Corcoran, Travis J. I. The Powers of the Earth. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-1-9733-1114-0.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Causes of Separation. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9804-3744-4.

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Saturday Night Science: Connected: The Emergence of Global Consciousness

“Connected: The Emergence of Global Consciousness”, by Roger D. NelsonIn the first half of the twentieth century Pierre Teilhard de Chardin developed the idea that the process of evolution which had produced complex life and eventually human intelligence on Earth was continuing and destined to eventually reach an Omega Point in which, just as individual neurons self-organise to produce the unified consciousness and intelligence of the human brain, eventually individual human minds would coalesce (he was thinking mostly of institutions and technology, not a mystical global mind) into what he called the noosphere—a sphere of unified thought surrounding the globe just like the atmosphere. Could this be possible? Might the Internet be the baby picture of the noosphere? And if a global mind was beginning to emerge, might we be able to detect it with the tools of science? That is the subject of this book about the Global Consciousness Project, which has now been operating for more than two decades, collecting an immense data set which has been, from inception, completely transparent and accessible to anyone inclined to analyse it in any way they can imagine. Written by the founder of the project and operator of the network over its entire history, the book presents the history, technical details, experimental design, formal results, exploratory investigations from the data set, and thoughts about what it all might mean.

Over millennia, many esoteric traditions have held that “all is one”—that all humans and, in some systems of belief, all living things or all of nature are connected in some way and can interact in ways other than physical (ultimately mediated by the electromagnetic force). A common aspect of these philosophies and religions is that individual consciousness is independent of the physical being and may in some way be part of a larger, shared consciousness which we may be able to access through techniques such as meditation and prayer. In this view, consciousness may be thought of as a kind of “field” with the brain acting as a receiver in the same sense that a radio is a receiver of structured information transmitted via the electromagnetic field. Belief in reincarnation, for example, is often based upon the view that death of the brain (the receiver) does not destroy the coherent information in the consciousness field which may later be instantiated in another living brain which may, under some circumstances, access memories and information from previous hosts.

Such beliefs have been common over much of human history and in a wide variety of very diverse cultures around the globe, but in recent centuries these beliefs have been displaced by the view of mechanistic, reductionist science, which argues that the brain is just a kind of (phenomenally complicated) biological computer and that consciousness can be thought of as an emergent phenomenon which arises when the brain computer’s software becomes sufficiently complex to be able to examine its own operation. From this perspective, consciousness is confined within the brain, cannot affect the outside world or the consciousness of others except by physical interactions initiated by motor neurons, and perceives the world only through sensory neurons. There is no “consciousness field”, and individual consciousness dies when the brain does.

But while this view is more in tune with the scientific outlook which spawned the technological revolution that has transformed the world and continues to accelerate, it has, so far, made essentially zero progress in understanding consciousness. Although we have built electronic computers which can perform mathematical calculations trillions of times faster than the human brain, and are on track to equal the storage capacity of that brain some time in the next decade or so, we still don’t have the slightest idea how to program a computer to be conscious: to be self-aware and act out of a sense of free will (if free will, however defined, actually exists). So, if we adopt a properly scientific and sceptical view, we must conclude that the jury is still out on the question of consciousness. If we don’t understand enough about it to program it into a computer, then we can’t be entirely confident that it is something we could program into a computer, or that it is just some kind of software running on our brain-computer.

It looks like humans are, dare I say, programmed to believe in consciousness as a force not confined to the brain. Many cultures have developed shamanism, religions, philosophies, and practices which presume the existence of the following kinds of what Dean Radin calls Real Magic, and which I quote from my review of his book with that title.

  • Force of will: mental influence on the physical world, traditionally associated with spell-casting and other forms of “mind over matter”.
  • Divination: perceiving objects or events distant in time and space, traditionally involving such practices as reading the Tarot or projecting consciousness to other places.
  • Theurgy: communicating with non-material consciousness: mediums channelling spirits or communicating with the dead, summoning demons.

Starting in the 19th century, a small number of scientists undertook to investigate whether these phenomena could possibly be real, whether they could be demonstrated under controlled conditions, and what mechanism might explain these kinds of links between consciousness and will and the physical world. In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded in London and continues to operate today, publishing three journals. Psychic research, now more commonly called parapsychology, continues to investigate the interaction of consciousness with the outside world through (unspecified) means other than the known senses, usually in laboratory settings where great care is taken to ensure no conventional transfer of information occurs and with elaborate safeguards against fraud, either by experimenters or test subjects. For a recent review of the state of parapsychology research, I recommend Dean Radin’s excellent 2006 book, Entangled Minds.

Parapsychologists such as Radin argue that while phenomena such as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis are very weak effects, elusive, and impossible to produce reliably on demand, the statistical evidence for their existence from large numbers of laboratory experiments is overwhelming, with a vanishingly small probability that the observed results are due to chance. Indeed, the measured confidence levels and effect sizes of some categories of parapsychological experiments exceed those of medical clinical trials such as those which resulted in the recommendation of routine aspirin administration to reduce the risk of heart disease in older males.

For more than a quarter of a century, an important centre of parapsychology research was the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory, established in 1979 by Princeton University’s Dean of Engineering, Robert G. Jahn. (The lab closed in 2007 with Prof. Jahn’s retirement, and has now been incorporated into the International Consciousness Research Laboratories, which is the publisher of the present book.) An important part of PEAR’s research was with electronic random event generators (REGs) connected to computers in experiments where a subject (or “operator”, in PEAR terminology) would try to influence the generator to produce an excess of one or zero bits.  In a large series of experiments [PDF] run over a period of twelve years with multiple operators, it was reported that an influence in the direction of the operator’s intention was seen with a highly significant probability of chance of one in a trillion. The effect size was minuscule, with around one bit in ten thousand flipping in the direction of the operator’s stated goal.

If one operator can produce a tiny effect on the random data, what if many people were acting together, not necessarily with active intention, but with their consciousnesses focused on a single thing, for example at a sporting event, musical concert, or religious ceremony? The miniaturisation of electronics and computers eventually made it possible to build a portable REG and computer which could be taken into the field. This led to the FieldREG experiments in which this portable unit was taken to a variety of places and events to monitor its behaviour. The results were suggestive of an effect, but the data set was far too small to be conclusive.

Mindsong Random Event GeneratorIn 1998, Roger D. Nelson, the author of this book, realised that the rapid development and worldwide deployment of the Internet made it possible to expand the FieldREG concept to a global scale. Random event generators based upon quantum effects (usually shot noise from tunnelling across a back-biased Zener diode or a resistor) had been scaled down to small, inexpensive devices which could be attached to personal computers via an RS-232 serial port. With more and more people gaining access to the Internet (originally mostly via dial-up to commercial Internet Service Providers, then increasingly via persistent broadband connections such as ADSL service over telephone wires or a cable television connection), it might be possible to deploy a network of random event generators at locations all around the world, each of which would constantly collect timestamped data which would be transmitted to a central server, collected there, and made available to researchers for analysis by whatever means they chose to apply.

As Roger Nelson discussed the project with his son Greg (who would go on to be the principal software developer for the project), Greg suggested that what was proposed was essentially an electroencephalogram (EEG) for the hypothetical emerging global mind, an “ElectroGaiaGram” or EGG. Thus was born the “EGG Project” or, as it is now formally called, the Global Consciousness Project. Just as the many probes of an EEG provide a (crude) view into the operation of a single brain, perhaps the wide-flung, always-on network of REGs would pick up evidence of coherence when a large number of the world’s minds were focused on a single event or idea. Once the EGG project was named, terminology followed naturally: the individual hosts running the random event generators would be “eggs” and the central data archiving server the “basket”.

In April 1998, Roger Nelson released the original proposal for the project and shortly thereafter Greg Nelson began development of the egg and basket software. I became involved in the project in mid-summer 1998 and contributed code to the egg and basket software, principally to allow it to be portable to other variants of Unix systems (it was originally developed on Linux) and machines with different byte order than the Intel processors on which it ran, and also to reduce the resource requirements on the egg host, making it easier to run on a non-dedicated machine. I also contributed programs for the basket server to assemble daily data summaries from the raw data collected by the basket and to produce a real-time network status report. Evolved versions of these programs remain in use today, more than two decades later. On August 2nd, 1998, I began to run the second egg in the network, originally on a Sun workstation running Solaris; this was the first non-Linux, non-Intel, big-endian egg host in the network. A few days later, I brought up the fourth egg, running on a Sun server in the Hall of the Servers one floor below the second egg; this used a different kind of REG, but was otherwise identical. Both of these eggs have been in continuous operation from 1998 to the present (albeit with brief outages due to power failures, machine crashes, and other assorted disasters over the years), and have migrated from machine to machine over time. The second egg is now connected to Raspberry Pi running Linux, while the fourth is now hosted on a Dell Intel-based server also running Linux, which was the first egg host to run on a 64-bit machine in native mode.

Here is precisely how the network measures deviation from the expectation for genuinely random data. The egg hosts all run a Network Time Protocol (NTP) client to provide accurate synchronisation with Internet time server hosts which are ultimately synchronised to atomic clocks or GPS. At the start of every second a total of 200 bits are read from the random event generator. Since all the existing generators provide eight bits of random data transmitted as bytes on a 9600 baud serial port, this involves waiting until the start of the second, reading 25 bytes from the serial port (first flushing any potentially buffered data), then breaking the eight bits out of each byte of data. A precision timing loop guarantees that the sampling starts at the beginning of the second-long interval to the accuracy of the computer’s clock.

This process produces 200 random bits. These bits, one or zero, are summed to produce a “sample” which counts the number of one bits for that second. This sample is stored in a buffer on the egg host, along with a timestamp (in Unix time() format), which indicates when it was taken.

Buffers of completed samples are archived in files on the egg host’s file system. Periodically, the basket host will contact the egg host over the Internet and request any samples collected after the last packet it received from the egg host. The egg will then transmit any newer buffers it has filled to the basket. All communications are performed over the stateless UDP Internet protocol, and the design of the basket request and egg reply protocol is robust against loss of packets or packets being received out of order.

(This data transfer protocol may seem odd, but recall that the network was designed more than twenty years ago when many people, especially those outside large universities and companies, had dial-up Internet access. The architecture would allow a dial-up egg to collect data continuously and then, when it happened to be connected to the Internet, respond to a poll from the basket and transmit its accumulated data during the time it was connected. It also makes the network immune to random outages in Internet connectivity. Over two decades of operation, we have had exactly zero problems with Internet outages causing loss of data.)

When a buffer from an egg host is received by the basket, it is stored in a database directory for that egg. The buffer contains a time stamp identifying the second at which each sample within it was collected. All times are stored in Universal Time (UTC), so no correction for time zones or summer and winter time is required.

This is the entire collection process of the network. The basket host, which was originally located at Princeton University and now is on a server at global-mind.org, only stores buffers in the database. Buffers, once stored, are never modified by any other program. Bad data, usually long strings of zeroes or ones produced when a hardware random event generator fails electrically, are identified by a “sanity check” program and then manually added to a “rotten egg” database which causes these sequences to be ignored by analysis programs. The random event generators are very simple and rarely fail, so this is a very unusual circumstance.

The raw database format is difficult for analysis programs to process, so every day an automated program (which I wrote) is run which reads the basket database, extracts every sample collected for the previous 24 hour period (or any desired 24 hour window in the history of the project), and creates a day summary file with a record for every second in the day with a column for the samples from each egg which reported that day. Missing data (eggs which did not report for that second) is indicated by a blank in that column. The data are encoded in CSV format which is easy to load into a spreadsheet or read with a program. Because some eggs may not report immediately due to Internet outages or other problems, the summary data report is re-generated two days later to capture late-arriving data. You can request custom data reports for your own analysis from the Custom Data Request page. If you are interested in doing your own exploratory analysis of the Global Consciousness Project data set, you may find my EGGSHELL C++ libraries useful.

The analysis performed by the Project proceeds from these summary files as follows.

First, we observe than each sample (xi) from egg i consists of 200 bits with an expected equal probability of being zero or one. Thus each sample has a mean expectation value (μ) of 100 and a standard deviation (σ) of 7.071 (which is just the square root of half the mean value in the case of events with probability 0.5).

Then, for each sample, we can compute its Stouffer Z-score as Zi = (xi −μ) / σ. From the Z-score, it is possible to directly compute the probability that the observed deviation from the expected mean value (μ) was due to chance.

It is now possible to compute a network-wide Z-score for all eggs reporting samples in that second using Stouffer’s formula:

Summing Stouffer Z-scores

over all k eggs reporting. From this, one can compute the probability that the result from all k eggs reporting in that second was due to chance.

Squaring this composite Z-score over all k eggs gives a chi-squared distributed value we shall call V, V = Z² which has one degree of freedom. These values may be summed, yielding a chi-squared distributed number with degrees of freedom equal to the number of values summed. From the chi-squared sum and number of degrees of freedom, the probability of the result over an entire period may be computed. This gives the probability that the deviation observed by all the eggs (the number of which may vary from second to second) over the selected window was due to chance. In most of the analyses of Global Consciousness Project data an analysis window of one second is used, which avoids the need for the chi-squared summing of Z-scores across multiple seconds.

The most common way to visualise these data is a “cumulative deviation plot” in which the squared Z-scores are summed to show the cumulative deviation from chance expectation over time. These plots are usually accompanied by a curve which shows the boundary for a chance probability of 0.05, or one in twenty, which is often used a criterion for significance. Here is such a plot for U.S. president Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, an event of ephemeral significance which few people anticipated and even fewer remember.

Cumulative deviation: State of the Union 2012

What we see here is precisely what you’d expect for purely random data without any divergence from random expectation. The cumulative deviation wanders around the expectation value of zero in a “random walk” without any obvious trend and never approaches the threshold of significance. So do all of our plots look like this (which is what you’d expect)?

Well, not exactly. Now let’s look at an event which was unexpected and garnered much more worldwide attention: the death of Muammar Gadaffi (or however you choose to spell it) on 2011-10-20.

Cumulative deviation: Gadaffi killed, 2011-10-20

Now we see the cumulative deviation taking off, blowing right through the criterion of significance, and ending twelve hours later with a Z-score of 2.38 and a probability of the result being due to chance of one in 111.

What’s going on here? How could an event which engages the minds of billions of slightly-evolved apes affect the output of random event generators driven by quantum processes believed to be inherently random? Hypotheses non fingo. All, right, I’ll fingo just a little bit, suggesting that my crackpot theory of paranormal phenomena might be in play here. But the real test is not in potentially cherry-picked events such as I’ve shown you here, but the accumulation of evidence over almost two decades. Each event has been the subject of a formal prediction, recorded in a Hypothesis Registry before the data were examined. (Some of these events were predicted well in advance [for example, New Year’s Day celebrations or solar eclipses], while others could be defined only after the fact, such as terrorist attacks or earthquakes).

The significance of the entire ensemble of tests can be computed from the network results from the 500 formal predictions in the Hypothesis Registry and the network results for the periods where a non-random effect was predicted. To compute this effect, we take the formal predictions and compute a cumulative Z-score across the events. Here’s what you get.

Cumulative deviation: GCP 1998 through 2015

Now this is…interesting. Here, summing over 500 formal predictions, we have a Z-score of 7.31, which implies that the results observed were due to chance with a probability of less than one in a trillion. This is far beyond the criterion usually considered for a discovery in physics. And yet, what we have here is a tiny effect. But could it be expected in truly random data? To check this, we compare the results from the network for the events in the Hypothesis Registry with 500 simulated runs using data from a pseudorandom normal distribution.

Cumulative deviation: GCP results versus pseudorandom simulations

Since the network has been up and running continually since 1998, it was in operation on September 11, 2001, when a mass casualty terrorist attack occurred in the United States. The formally recorded prediction for this event was an elevated network variance in the period starting 10 minutes before the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center and extending for over four hours afterward (from 08:35 through 12:45 Eastern Daylight Time). There were 37 eggs reporting that day (around half the size of the fully built-out network at its largest). Here is a chart of the cumulative deviation of chi-square for that period.

Cumulative deviation of chi-square: terrorist attacks 2001-09-11

The final probability was 0.028, which is equivalent to an odds ratio of 35 to one against chance. This is not a particularly significant result, but it met the pre-specified criterion of significance of probability less than 0.05. An alternative way of looking at the data is to plot the cumulative Z-score, which shows both the direction of the deviations from expectation for randomness as well as their magnitude, and can serve as a measure of correlation among the eggs (which should not exist in genuinely random data). This and subsequent analyses did not contribute to the formal database of results from which the overall significance figures were calculated, but are rather exploratory analyses at the data to see if other interesting patterns might be present.

Cumulative deviation of Z-score: terrorist attacks 2001-09-11

Had this form of analysis and time window been chosen a priori, it would have been calculated to have a chance probability of 0.000075, or less than one in ten thousand. Now let’s look at a week-long window of time between September 7 and 13. The time of the September 11 attacks is marked by the black box. We use the cumulative deviation of chi-square from the formal analysis and start the plot of the P=0.05 envelope at that time.

Cumulative deviation of chi-square: seven day window around 2001-09-11

Another analysis looks at a 20 hour period centred on the attacks and smooths the Z-scores by averaging them within a one hour sliding window, then squares the average and converts to odds against chance.

Odds: twenty hour window around 2001-09-11, one hour smoothing

Dean Radin performed an independent analysis of the day’s data binning Z-score data into five minute intervals over the period from September 6 to 13, then calculating the odds against the result being a random fluctuation. This is plotted on a logarithmic scale of odds against chance, with each 0 on the X axis denoting midnight of each day.

Binned odds: 2001-09-06 to 2001-09-13

The following is the result when the actual GCP data from September 2001 is replaced with pseudorandom data for the same period.

Binned odds: pseudorandom data 2001-09-06 to 2001-09-13

So, what are we to make of all this? That depends upon what you, and I, and everybody else make of this large body of publicly-available, transparently-collected data assembled over more than twenty years from dozens of independently-operated sites all over the world. I don’t know about you, but I find it darned intriguing. Having been involved in the project since its very early days and seen all of the software used in data collection and archiving with my own eyes, I have complete confidence in the integrity of the data and the people involved with the project. The individual random event generators pass exhaustive randomness tests. When control runs are made by substituting data for the periods predicted in the formal tests with data collected at other randomly selected intervals from the actual physical network, the observed deviations from randomness go away, and the same happens when network data are replaced by computer-generated pseudorandom data. The statistics used in the formal analysis are all simple matters you’ll learn in an introductory stat class and are explained in my “Introduction to Probability and Statistics”.

If you’re interested in exploring further, Roger Nelson’s book is an excellent introduction to the rationale and history of the project, how it works, and a look at the principal results and what they might mean. There is also non-formal exploration of other possible effects, such as attenuation by distance, day and night sleep cycles, and effect sizes for different categories of events. There’s also quite a bit of New Age stuff which makes my engineer’s eyes glaze over, but it doesn’t detract from the rigorous information elsewhere.

The ultimate resource is the Global Consciousness Project’s sprawling and detailed Web site. Although well-designed, the site can be somewhat intimidating due to its sheer size. You can find historical documents, complete access to the full database, analyses of events, and even the complete source code for the egg and basket programs.

A Kindle edition is available.

All graphs in this article are as posted on the Global Consciousness Project Web site.

Nelson, Roger D. Connected: The Emergence of Global Consciousness. Princeton: ICRL Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-936033-35-5.

Here is a one hour interview of author Roger D. Nelson by Jeffrey Mishlove.

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