'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the internet
All mimsy were the routers,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
(with apologies to Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky')
I am the designer and programmer of Federation 2, an economic themed multi-player game. Federation 2 is the longest continuously running multiplayer game on the internet. While no longer run as a commercial enterprise - text based games are no longer in vogue - the game fills a niche and maintains a large enough user base to be viable as a game. I still maintain and extend it in my copious (hah!) free time.
My web site contains pieces I've written, talks I've given, reviews of books I've read, and information about things I'm interested in. Like me, it's somewhat chaotic, but if you dig around a little you will, I hope, find some interesting material. Most of the stuff on the site is written for the non-specialist; if you find something that isn't very clear drop me a line and I'll try to clarify things. The address to write to is email@example.com and if you include the word 'fed2' in the subject line my spam filter will pass it by on the other side and not junk it!
I also produce a free weekly newsletter, called Winding Down, which features information, reviews, and analysis on computers, the Internet and society. It's available via an e-mail list, and you can get the subscription details here.
You can find more detailed information about me here.
Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. Published by Penguin Books
I think this book qualifies as the best thriller I have ever read - and it's all true!
The author takes the story of the 1980 accident in the Missile Launch Complex 374-7 in Arkansas. Around that story he weaves an enormous amount of information about the US Air Force Missile Command, its missiles and its command and control structures.
Launch Complex 374-7 was a Titan missile launch silo. The Titan was, by the time of the accident, the only liquid fuel rocket left on the inventory. The USAF leadership were reluctant to give them up, in spite of their known problems. Why? Because the Titans carried a nine megaton warhead - the heaviest the US possessed. It had a range of 6,000 miles.
On 18 September 1980 a technician, working partway up the rocket in its silo, dropped a wrench. The wrench bounced and hit the side of the rocket damaging the fuel tank and causing a leak. What happened as a result of that leak is the story that runs like a thread through the book.
But that story isn't the only thing in the book. At various points in the story, Eric Schlosser breaks off to write about the USAF Missile Command, its history and its structures. As the book proceeds it becomes clear that the accident wasn't a one off. Quite to the contrary, it fits seamlessly into a history of accidents and near disasters that bedevilled the USAF's nuclear armed forces.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1960s, like many other people I worried about the possibility of something accidentally triggering a nuclear war. When President Kennedy was shot I was at a boarding school in East Anglia, in the UK. All that night we could hear bombers from the nearby US air bases taking off, circling and landing. Reading this book makes me feel my fears were not overblown. Things were at least as bad as I feared, if not worse!
This book should be read not just by ordinary people, but by politicians and aspiring politicians. It's easy to brandish the war rhetoric when you don't know what's involved. Less so when you have some idea of the history of such things.
The book is over 600 pages long, and seems like a pretty comprehensive account of the problems with having nuclear weapons ready to go at a moment's notice. What it doesn't cover is accidents and near disasters that happened while manufacturing the things. Judging from the occasional stories I read in the press about the cleaning up of old nuclear weapons manufacturing sites, they don't seem to have been all that safe either. Perhaps there's material for another book there!
The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe. Published by The University of Chicago Press
The first thing to note about this book is that the title is somewhat misleading. It would be more accurate to call it a history of alchemy. I was nearly put off buying it because of its title, but in retrospect I'm glad I wasn't, because it's a very interesting book.
What the author sets out to do is to restore an understanding alchemy of within its historical and cultural framework. I think he succeeds in this aim. There is in Western society a tendency to think of alchemy as being something vaguely to do with magic - but nothing could be further from the truth. The work of most alchemists would be recognized today as experimentally rigorous, and based on the best theories of the nature of matter that existed at the time.
Take, for instance, the search for the legendary Philosopher's Stone, the secret of turning lead into gold. We know that's not possible to do chemically today. Why do we know that? Because we know that lead and gold are elements. The elements are defined by the number of protons in their nucleus. Chemical reactions only work on the electrons in atoms, and you can't change the make-up of an atomic nucleus by fiddling with its electrons.
But we didn't find this out until about a hundred years ago. In the golden age of alchemy, which roughly coincides with the Scientific Revolution (1500-1700), the belief was that matter was a compound, and the properties of any given piece of matter were determined by the proportions of more fundamental substances. Theoretically, if this were the case it should have been possible to change, for instance, lead into gold by altering those proportions in lead until they matched the proportions that defined gold. It was this theoretical view that drove the search for a substance that altered these proportions. (This is a simplified view; the book explains in much more detail.)
The book covers the history of alchemy from its beginnings in the third century AD through to its effective demise at the end of the 19th Century. Along the way it discusses many other aspects of alchemy, including its impact on early medicine, laboratory work, and chemistry. It also looks in more depth at some of the work of famous alchemists, including the attempts of the author to recreate their work in the lab - with interesting results.
Well worth a read if you have any interest in the history of science.