Rolf Nelson’s Back From the Dead – A Short SF Book Review

I just finished this first volume in a series named “The Stars Came Back” and I’m sure I’ll be reading the sequel when it appears.  The back cover says that the series “combines military science fiction with the classic space western” and I will agree.  The universe that this book inhabits has humans spread out on over a thousand planets.  These worlds were terraformed during an expansion era that ended with a supernova occurring nearby that disrupted faster than light (FTL) travel for an extended period of time and threw these new worlds on their own devices to survive (or perish).

The various inhabited planets we see or hear about contain bits and pieces of one or more Earth cultures.  One of the problems that seems to exist in most of the locales we see is a bureaucracy that preys on the citizens using stifling regulation to punish citizens monetarily and otherwise.  The tone of the book shows a preference for more personal freedom and less government interference.

The main characters become involved in a project to rehabilitate an unusual transport ship that brings together military and civilian personnel in an interesting cooperation that slowly unfolds some puzzling characteristics of this odd “Flying Dutchman.”  The cast is a mixture of men, women, a child and even an AI who runs the ship.  The military component of the story I found most engaging.  The interaction of the NCO with the recruits and his officers is familiar and adds the familial attachment and common cause aspects of the story that makes mil sf so enjoyable for many.  There are several battles both on planet and off that I thought were well done.  I found most of the characters engaging.  It will be interesting to see how the various interpersonal dynamics work themselves out over the course of the series.  And, of course, the secrets of the ship will be interlaced with them.

So, I’ll give an enthusiastic endorsement to “Back from the Dead” and recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic sf and especially mil sf.

The Pause before the Plunge

Since December 22nd I have been in a veritable cocoon of self-imposed isolation from the world.  I have left the grounds only three times and only once for more than an hour.  I have spent this time, for the most part, reveling in the blissful sloth of a long holiday vacation.  I have eaten delicious and unhealthy food until it is coming out of my ears.  I sat around and watched so many holiday and “classic” movies that I’m tempted to nominate Bing Crosby for sainthood.  And, of course I read so much political news that I feel sure that Trump will give me the nod for Veterans Administration head just on the merits.

But now it’s time to emerge from my cocoon.  Tomorrow (shudder!), I will make the commute back to the office and reconnect with the real world.  I’m not sure what to expect.  I know my desk will be covered with paperwork (actual and virtual) and it will be a week before I’m dug out.  In fact, the beginning of the year is a sprint of deliverables and meetings that will keep me hopping for weeks.  Good, the status quo is restored.

But it’s not.  The impending Trump presidency hangs over everyone like some alien spacecraft hovering over a large city in a sci fi thriller.  Either it’s going to be Independence Day and the hellfire is about to rain down or it’s Star Trek IV and we’re all gonna be bored by some sermon on saving the whales.  But either way it’s up there and until we know which it will be it’s hard to pretend that finishing that power point presentation on quarterly highlights is the most important thing in the world.

Of course, we have to wait another two and a half weeks until this Obama joker gets finished trashing the government and golfing on our nickel.  I doubt there’s a less welcome player on the world stage than BO.  Not even his own party can stand him.  But he’s determined to cause the maximum annoyance until they pull the curtain down on this clown.  Lord, give me patience.

But regardless if you’re Ann Coulter or Rosie O’Donnell there’s no denying that Donald Trump is the biggest story and none of us know for sure exactly what he’ll do.  Now, I’m firmly ensconced on the right periphery of the political spectrum.  I hope that Trump starts off his administration with a rapid reversal of all Obama’s executive orders and moves on to appointing Torquemada to the Supreme Court and Genghis Khan to the Justice Department.  Then they could take on a joint project of structuring a RICO prosecution that includes BLM and George Soros.  But only someone who has been asleep for the last thirty years can be unaware of how badly reality can deviate from even the most reasonable forecasts.

In early 1992 no one could have seen GHW Bush losing to Bill Clinton.  During the Gulf War his poll numbers were stratospheric.  Equally improbable was GW Bush’s failure to reckon with the American people’s dissatisfaction with his interminable wars in the Mid-East.  These were political blunders that led to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama respectively.  What they should teach us is that the president can’t have a tin political ear.  If you pull the levers of power and they cause pain to the people who vote, you’d better be able to convince them that it’s for something they want.  So, there’s the question, is Trump more like Reagan or more like a Bush.

I’m actually pretty certain that Donald Trump is closer to the former than the latter.  And that gives me hope.  I can see him striking deals with even some democrats that will satisfy voters and boost consumer confidence.  Of course, the flip-side of this would be, Trump moving so far to the left that he would be indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton.  This I find unlikely.  Based on the people he’s putting in place, I think he wants to make some big changes.  His picks for Education, Energy and the EPA are affronts to the liberals.  I can see how he intends to lighten the ship in those departments.  Also his pick for Defense is a signal that fun and games are over for the Army.

All in all, I find myself quite optimistic about 2017.  The best part of having a character like Donald Trump in the White House is that his famously thin skin should allow for some truly memorable Twitter rants against some of my least favorite people.  Can you imagine him disinviting the Kennedys and the Clintons from some state affair and broadcasting it on social media?  And my favorite Trump fantasy is the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Can you imagine the panic?  All those completely talentless television and radio personalities vying to remain on the only viable shows (Sesame Street and other kids shows) or trying to find spots at the already beleaguered operations of the other networks.  The beg-athons would have to become epic in scope and basically unending.  Probably for the right size donation you could have Ken Burns as your butler for a couple of years (and a tote bag).

Another way that Trump will probably excel past presidents is press conferences.  I’m trying to imagine how it won’t be entertaining and I just can’t.  I’m guessing that some of the reporters will challenge him from the start and I’m guessing he’ll ban them from the White House.  And if he doesn’t like the articles the White House beat reporters write I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts trolling the comments sections of the NYT and WP.  The best will be when he gives exclusive interviews to Ann Coulter and Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulis.  The rest of the media will rail against this favoritism and decry the softball questions (as if the Obama deference never happened).  It will be fantastic.

And finally, I look forward to the photo op where he sets the cornerstone for the wall.  That’s when I’ll know we’ve arrived.

How Does a Civilization Die? Part II: The Fall

How Does a Civilization Die? Part I: The Decline

So Part I of this essay shows you how a strong free people transitions into an empire. Its successes and growth eventually channel its development into a complex social construct that requires interdependence and eventually destroys freedom and individuality in exchange for collective security and stability. And with the loss of individuality and initiative there comes a certain passivity and fatalism.

By the 120 A.D. the Roman Empire was said to be at its height. Trajan was a warrior emperor. He conquered what is Romania and defeated the Parthians thereby adding Mesopotamia (Iraq) to the empire. He was enlightened in his choice of successor picking a wise ruler instead of just going with familial loyalty. As far as anyone could tell the empire would last forever and eventually encompass the entire world. But within sixty years the roman world would be plunged into internal and external conflict from which it would never wholly recover. Its vitality quickly diminished and its intellectual, cultural and economic levels would all retreat from the high points they had reached during the republican period.

Many historians attribute this ebb to a plague in the second century A.D. Others say that the various barbarian incursions were responsible. I think they are mistaking effects for the cause. The Germanic tribes and Huns were no more powerful or numerous than the Carthaginians or the Gauls of previous times. In fact under the circumstances of the republican times these same peoples would have been eventually absorbed along the frontier of roman territory and converted into subjects and eventually citizens.

And under normal circumstances, the roman army was still an effective fighting force (although much diminished from its earlier might). So how was it dismantled by illiterate barbarians and who didn’t have the where with all to coin their own money or make their own arms?

The short answer was that the roman people didn’t know what to do. Whether they were the slaves of roman land owners or germanic overlords they were still slaves. And slaves don’t drop their ploughshares and grab swords to fight off invaders. They keep ploughing and hand over the fruits of their labor to the landlord regardless of whether he’s named Romulus Augustus or Odoacer. And long before the end, the lack of martial spirit had become so typical that the roman army took to outsourcing their work to the very barbarian tribes that they were supposed to be defending against.

Now let’s look at the United States.

I can remember hearing that during World War I young American men were hoping that the U.S. would get involved so that they would have the chance to fight. My own grandfather who was under-aged enlisted under the pseudonym of Charlie Young in order not to miss out on the adventure. What about today. Now granted, after the 9-11 attacks thousands of patriotic young men enlisted and did their part proudly. But look at the Millennials. They’ve been brought up to equate assault with saying “mean things.” How does someone who thinks in terms of “micro-aggressions” handle the Hun at the door? He doesn’t.

Economically, the globalist corporations and the last few administrations have dismantled almost all the industries that formerly employed millions of middle class Americans and shipped them to China and Mexico. With the help of Obamacare and the tax code they are now finishing off the small and medium sized companies that are left. Pretty soon the only ones not on welfare will be government emploees.
Socially, the first and second amendments are under attack and eventually we won’t be allowed to say or think anything the government doesn’t like. And without guns we’ll never get to change that situation.

So yeah, that’s sort of where the Romans started on the downward road to medieval serfdom. I think realistically we still have a few more years to change course. But I think it’s hard to be optimistic.

As a sort of exhibit of what the situation looked like in the final days of the Roman Empire I think the following example is instructive.

About 450 A.D. Atilla the Hun, the Scourge of God was sacking and despoiling the cities of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. This almost exactly coincides with when historians mark the end of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Germanic kingdom of Italy.

Anyway, the Eastern Roman Emperor sent a delegation to Atilla’s camp to negotiate tribute to limit the Hunnish incursion. One of the delegates was a Greek named Priscus who wrote a history of his times that has survived. His description of this delegation includes his meeting with a renegade. This was an eastern roman citizen of greek descent who had been captured when the Huns sacked Viminacium (a city on the Danube). He adopted the Hun lifestyle. He was now a full member of Atilla’s court.

Priscus questions the renegade about his life. The renegade defends the Hunnish lifestyle and attacks the Roman institutions. He defends the life of a marauder describing how after battle the warriors can enjoy their spoils in leisure. Even balancing in the hardships and dangers of war the life was good. He compares this to how the Romans in time of war suffer from the poor quality of the army and generals and if their army is defeated the civilians have no arms of their own to defend themselves. In peace time they are burdened with crippling taxation and the laws and the courts are hopelessly rigged against the common man. It was not the life you would choose.

Priscus answers these charges by defending the fairness and well-meaning nature of the roman law and claims that the divisions of society are necessary for the efficient and proper function of life.

The renegade grants that in theory the roman world should be a good place but he concludes by saying that the rulers were corrupt and had ruined the roman world.

Looking at this window into the past it’s hard not to draw parallels to our own time. In theory all the things we do increase fairness and safety but in reality they damage the health of the nation. The government restricts freedom and amasses power into its own hands. The people become less able to improve their own lot and control their own destiny. They become more dependent on an all powerful state and less capable of acting independently in an emergency. Sound familiar?

So this is how a civilization dies. It regiments the populace into castes like insects in a hive and when a catastrophe disrupts the pattern of normal life the whole structure collapses like a deck of cards. The inhabitants lack the flexibility or will to adapt and save themselves and their world by changing.

How Does a Civilization Die? Part I: The Decline

Lately there has been a lot of talk about civilization and civilizations. You hear people talk about the “clash of civilizations” by which they are describing the tension between “The West” and Islam. And there’s a lot of talk. These are old concepts and they’ve been revived after the failure of “The End of History” which is to say after the 9-11 attacks.

And then there’s talk about the failure of western culture and the Fall of the West. Here the factors are the loss of cultural vitality and native population decrease and the dilution of identity through massive immigration. This is countered by the contention that the global culture is just replacing the outdated local identities. We’re all becoming citizens of the world. After all, we all (or most of us) have an I-phone and a gmail account. We can’t be that different.

So any way there’s a lot of talk.

I’ve been thinking lately about how a civilization dies. So when you do that you have to go back to the great-grand-daddy of all civilizational collapses. That’s right you guessed it.


At the outset let me paraphrase Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day and say, “Edward Gibbon ain’t got nothing on me.”

That’s the textbook case for all theories and phenomena. And in the example of Rome there are a number of analogies to the United States. And this is not surprising because the Founding Fathers used Rome as one of the sources for their state building project.

In Part I of this post I’ll describe the reason for the decline. In Part II I’ll discuss the results.

Both states depended on the citizen soldier to defend her in her earlier days from more powerful enemies. Both were recognized as exceptional nations that combined practical innovation and great energy. Both states began as highly religious people who honored the family as the basis of its legitimate power and where the pater familias ensured that traditions were maintained and discipline was real. Both states started as a nation of small farmers. Both states began with a conscious intent to eliminate hereditary monarchs.

This similarity extended beyond the conditions at their founding. The other striking similarity was their success at expanding and consolidating their states and incorporating new ideas and things into their lives. Also it would not be an exaggeration to say that they had an almost unshakable belief in their greater destiny.

So what brought down the Roman Republic? It appears that the very success they had in war and their emulation of their more cultured neighbors was the eventual cause of the destruction of the republic. The contact with the greek and near eastern communities led to the adoption of more luxurious standards of living and the breakdown of family authority. The copying of fashionable greek homosexual behavior threatened the continuity of family life and traditions. The changed role of women in society also helped to degrade traditional home life.

The continuous state of war in the later republic and the scope and distance of the wars fought eventually made it impossible for the citizen soldier to exist. A man couldn’t drop his plow, fight a battle and then go back to his fields. He had to be gone for at least several years at a time. This required the need for conscription for very long periods of service. Eventually this produced the professional army that owed its loyalty to the ones paying its salary. Eventually they became very like mercenaries who could deliver the empire to the highest bidder.

Also the wealth amassed by the conquest of the older eastern states made some of the generals wildly wealthy and they used this wealth to build enormous farming estates in Italy to the virtual exclusion of the former small farm owners. As an added problem the wholesale importation of conquered peoples as agricultural slaves further devalued the worth of the small farmer. As the power of the state and the bureaucracy grew the majority of the citizens resembled more and more the medieval serfs, attached to a landed aristocracy and dependent on agricultural labor to remain alive. So by the height of the Imperial Age you had the paradox of a Roman State that had used its highly professional army to conquer all the neighboring states and basically eliminate external threats. But by the same token the majority of the citizens were essentially slaves to a highly oppressive aristocracy. And because of the strength of the army there was no reasonable hope for a revolt.

Now let’s compare the United States.

The traditional lifestyle and roles of Americans have been in flux since around the turn of the Twentieth Century and these changes have been accelerating ever since.
Female Suffrage, sexual freedom and the independence of children from parental authority has reached the point where even traditional family groups live a confused and unsatisfactory existence. With the advent of the homosexual rights movement and its subsequent mainstreaming by the Supreme Court it is fair to say that traditional family life is now viewed as aberrant by the trendsetters of society. The ability of society to protect children is now to be questioned.

Since the end of the Vietnam War the army has become virtually a professional volunteer enterprise. Nothing short of a direct attack on the US homeland (the 9-11 attacks) has been able to galvanize anything like a desire for general mobilization. Moreover, a concerted effort is being made by large segments of the government to discourage the belief in the need for the Second Amendment.

The era of the family farm started to disappear with the increase in manufacturing jobs in the mid-1800s. But these factory jobs were able to sustain a high average income and spawned the middle class. However, since the end of the 1980s automation and globalization have lead to great dislocation of workers and disruption of almost every facet of American life. Family life especially has been negatively impacted. With the advent of wholesale immigration of skilled third world labor by globalist “American” corporations the problem has reached a critical stage. It is easy to see how eventually this will lead to the majority of Americans being reduced to poverty and virtual serfdom. And with the advent of advanced artificial intelligence it begins to look like a very powerful government could use a professional armed forces to suppress any revolt (especially if that population has already been disarmed).

In Part II we’ll discuss how the changes in the Roman state (and modern analogs) made it inevitable that eventually it would collapse.

How Does a Civilization Die? Part-II: The Fall

Sony Mirrorless: 5 Years In, A Retrospective Look

I thought it might be interesting to Sony Shooters to read about the perspective of someone who came to the brand from the Sony DSLR entrance. Prior to 2009 I was using Pentax DSLRs for my hobby photography. I had a few specialized lenses but other than a good macro lens and a decent mid-range zoom I hadn’t committed much in the way of funds to the system. In 2009 I purchased the Sony A-850. It was the budget full-frame 24 megapixel from Sony and it was a very interesting camera. 24 megapixels was the top of the line at the time for the whole industry and I liked the colors it produced. Mechanically, the shutter and mirror were quite noisy. The auto-focus wasn’t up to Canikon standards. The usable ISO range really didn’t extend beyond 400 unless you were willing to do a significant amount of post processing. But the fact that Sony had not one, but two full frame models available made all Sony users happy and excited about the future.

Then it happened! Sony pulled the rug out from under the users. They announced that there would be no more DSLRs. They introduced the DSLT (digital single lens translucent), basically a beam splitter was added to the light path and the optical viewfinder was replaced with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). In a roundabout way they had gone to the mirrorless side without admitting it. The uproar was long and heated. Many users decided to go to other manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Pentax, etc.), others stocked up on older Minolta and Sony DSLR models and hoped to wait out the changes. Some bought into the DSLT concept.

Personally I wasn’t sure what to do. I read about the ~½ stop light loss caused by the translucent mirror (beam splitter) and the possible image degradation that could entail and decided I didn’t want to go there. I looked at the full frame Canon and Nikon offerings available and felt that professional options were shockingly expensive ($5,000 – $7,000) while the semi-pro models were uninspiring. What was a hobbyist to do?

So I decided not to worry and instead enjoy my A-850 until I decided which way to go. But a funny thing happened. I was shooting some indoor occasion events for my family and was unhappy with the low light capability of the A-850. I wanted usable 3200 ISO. It wasn’t there. I rented the Nikon D3S and liked what it had. That camera produced usable 6,400 ISO. But it cost $5,000. At about this time Sony launched some true mirrorless cameras. These cameras were branded as the NEX series. They had a new mount (e-mount) that possessed a very short registration distance that would allow the NEX cameras to utilize lenses for almost any other lens mount by means of adapters. It also had a very small body size. I watched the several iterations of this camera line until I found one that caught my interest. This was the NEX 5N. It had an APSC-E sensor but it was claimed that it had usable 3200 ISO. So I bought it. Well, the ISO claims were exaggerated. I estimated that good noise performance didn’t extend above 800 ISO. On top of that the auto-focus was extremely unreliable. Using magnified view and manual focus it was possible to produce extreme sharpness but as is obvious to anyone trying to photograph moving objects or even people indoors it is impossible to get a static object as a target every (or even most of) the time. So this was a limited camera.

Fast forward to 2013. Sony introduced the A7 cameras. These were full frame mirrorless cameras. They were slightly larger than the NEX cameras (but still very small). Initially two models were introduced. A 24 mpx A7 and a 36mpx A7R (R = resolution). The cameras are very interesting. The sensors are excellent but the cameras have their quirks. Both cameras have mediocre auto-focus even though the A7 added on-sensor phase detect sensor pixels. Also the A7R suffers from a very powerful shutter mechanism that introduces vibration into a number of different shooting categories. These problems continued to irritate Sony users. Also the new full-frame mount had a very limited range of native full-frame e-mount lenses (designated FE by Sony).

In 2014 Sony launched the A7S. This was a full frame (like all the other A7 cameras) but it had a 12 mpx sensor that had ISO settings that went all the way up to 400,000! Also it was the first full frame camera to shoot 4K video (although requiring an external recorder to handle this high data storage rate setting). This camera was something of a sensation. It became the king of low light photography and video. Sony was onto something good here. The auto focus was still not great but it was improving slowly. In the case of the A7S the camera’s low light capability seemed to improve the ability of the AF to work in low light conditions.

In 2015 Sony started to roll out the Mark 2 versions of the A7, A7R and A7S. These cameras featured improvements over the original versions that showed that Sony was actually listening to complaints. The A7 II had much improved auto focus (still not great but almost good). The A7R II got rid of the crude shutter, added on-sensor phase detect auto focus and boosted the pixel count to 42 mpx. And all three cameras introduced 5 axis stabilization to the line. This was a very popular feature. And over the last year and a half, Sony (and Zeiss and several of the 3rd party lens manufacturers) have released a large number and a good range of focal length lense (many of them of a very high quality). This has been enthusiastically applauded by Sony’s customers. Finally, Sony has begun to refine auto focus to allow for motion tracking. Maybe it is starting to look like Sony might someday provide a truly capable sports camera. This better auto focus capability started out in the A6000 and A6300 crop frame (APSC-E) cameras but the phase detect on sensor auto focus is starting to approach DSLR phase detect capability. Finally! Admittedly, Canon and Nikon far exceed what Sony provides in this department. Some have speculated that Sony is holding off on releasing the true state of the art until they’re ready to unveil their A9 professional model. I hope that is true. Rumors say that may be in September at Photokina. Time will tell.

So let’s recap. Sony has been torturing their camera customers since abandoning the DSLR model in 2010. After many disappointments and false starts their A7 cameras have finally reached a point where professional photographers can use them for most (but not all) photographic styles. To me it seems that 2016/2017 should answer the question of whether Sony can solve the remaining short comings in the systems. My opinion of what those shortcomings are:
1) General auto focus capability.
2) Tracking auto focus.
3) Battery life.
4) Gear durability (for professional duty).
5) Support service for professional users.
If Sony handles just the first two items they will ensure that their market share will increase substantially. If they take care of all five Canikon will be in big trouble.