Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Oil on the Brain

Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Journey to Your Tank
© 2007 Lisa Magonelli
336 pages

Every moment, oil is surging up wells, being chemically sorted in vast refineries, sloshing its way across continents in pipelines, and being dispersed throughout the country in trucks to keep over three hundred million Americans mobile. The same  miracle is effected in other nations across the globe. In Petroleum on the Brain, Lisa Margonelli begins at her local gas station and backtracks the supply line – riding with truckers, touring refineries, standing in the pit of oil exchanges,  and filling her hands with ancient dirt that hasn’t seen sunlight in millions of years at the edge of a drilling operation.  Although beginning with the American market,  Margonelli’s travels take on a geopolitical message as she scrutinizes oil’s role in the destabilization of Africa and the middle east, and looks to the future in China.   Although slightly dated (researched and written  in 2004-2005),   the majority of the book’s information remains relevant, and  is delivered in humorous style.  Petroleum brims over with personality, as Margonelli connects with lives across the globe,  and demonstrates through her travels how our lives, too, are knit together with those whose livelihood

Although gas stations are where most consumers of  gasoline/petrol enter the market, and absorb the scorn of disgruntled drivers who see the price continuing to climb,  the seemingly ubiquitous c-stations are the low men on the supply line, in control of nothing and making only a marginal profit on their gasoline during the best days. As witnessed by Margonelli as she spies fleets of trucks from different companies pulling up to the same pipelines,   gasoline sold in the United States is fairly uniform. Some companies add a detergent, but pricing varies more depending on the location and the market than the product.  Given how much oil is being produced, refined, shipped, and sold every hour, the pace of activity becomes frenetic as Margonelli travels further up the supply line, encountering harried supply dispatchers and middlemen.  Although her book is about the oil industry, it's a personal encounter with time invested in relationships on Margonelli's part. For her, the gas station owner, the driver, the genius wildcatter in Texas -- they are men and women of passion and intelligence, whose story is bound up with their profession.

Its beginnings scratch idle curiosity as to how the petroleum industry works, but Margonelli spends more time researching, her text develops broader appeal, examining the role oil plays in U.S. foreign policy.  Here the book threatens to show its age: having virtually exhausted its home reservoirs of oil, she writes that the United States has to secure new supplies across the world, and to that end has been involved in a series of wars, directly or indirectly. A chapter on Iran sees her chat with both American sailors and Iranian oilmen regarding an incident during the Iraq-Iran war, in which half the Iranian navy was sunk by an American fleet despite the United States’ official non-combatant status.  Magonelli also visits petro-states in South America and Africa, where corruption is apparently immortal;  some of the tribal warfare in sub-Saharan Africa has its roots in villages receiving unequal shares of the loot when oil companies discovered their untapped potential.   Ultimately, Magonelli believes we must look beyond petroleum, to cleaner and less volatile energy sources. In her final chapter, the story moves to China, where a then-ascendant economy was not only gobbling up goal, but dumping money into clean energy programs in the hopes of expanding China’s consumer fleet while not further destroying what little clean air remains.

The oil market has continued to evolve in the ten years since this book was originally, first doubling the highest price marked in her original next and then falling beneath it. The United States has become again (however temporarily) a net oil exporter, thanks to technological advices that make extracting oil in harder to reach places easier.  Oil's votility underscores its continuing importance to the world economy and political dramas;  in the middle east, the swinish mob that is ISIS finances itself  partially through the oil market.  Given that oil won't be bowing out to competition anytime soon, learning its cost and vagaries is utterly helpful for citizens of any country, and Magonelli's account offers entertainment value to boot. 


Monday, November 23, 2015

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

Another week gone, another entry from the 2015 reading challenge: earlier I received "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" and couldn't help reading it waaaay too early. It didn't take long, being a fifty-page play that's essentially a retelling of "A Christmas Carol", with Marley pretending to be the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, and being redeemed himself when he tries to take Scrooge's place when Death appears and Marley believes his own toils with Scrooge have not yet borne fruit.  I didn't like it nearly as much as I thought I would, in part because it's so rushed. In Dickens' original, Marley claims that for many years he has tried to reach Scrooge, but here he dies, learns he's been a bad boy, and is immediately offered a chance out of foul punishment: he has to save Scrooge.  The play picks up right where A Christmas Carol starts. There's no seven years of anguish as Marley is tormented by the weight of his selfishness, just the faint realization that all of the scorn he heaps upon Scrooge applies to him as well.  There are nice moments, though: Marley pausing during a speech on Scoorge having forged his chains link by link, yard by yard in recognition that he is damning himself, and some dark comedy when Marley and his guardian angel/demon-thing congratulate one another on a superb Death costume, only  to realize that's actually DEATH approaching Scrooge.  That does take care of a work set during Christmas, though, so all that's left is A Classic Romance.  It doesn't seem hard, but I'm constantly distracted  by war and horses and -- I've just purchased a book on the electrical grid. I'm not making it easier on myself, am I?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Horse in the City

The Horse in the City
© 2007 Clay McShane, Joel A. Tarr
242 pages

To the American imagination, horses are the stuff of country dreams, of farms and cowboys. This is a recent conceit, however, as for most of American history humans have shared their cities with a sizable if silent population of beautiful creatures, serving as engines of transportation and industry. They lived in herds of thousands inside the city, housed in stables that covered entire city blocks -- to say nothing of their leavings, which covered the streets. They were not thought of as pets, but tools, machines which happened to breathe. Their strength was calculated, their life's worth counted to the penny, and when electricity arrived, off they trotted into history to be forgotten. The Horse in the City is, in a word, unique; a social and economic history of how horses helped shape the American urban landscape in an age of transformation.

On the backs of horses have been mounted both commerce and war, but The Horse in the City examines equine contributions to peaceable ends alone. Transportation predominates, with horses pulling the carts and wagons that were the lifeblood of commerce, being the very means of exchange. People, too, were transported by horses, but rarely as single riders:  horses tied up at the saloon may be a staple shot of westerns, but in the city most walked or traveled in carriages, either private or in 'omnibuses'.   Omnibuses were a primitive form of public transportation, generally transporting people (slowly) between the city to a fixed point beyond comfortable walking distance. They didn't exist as networks, though after trains arrived the lines took on some semblance of greater connectivity.    Most horses pulled two-wheeled carts, not wagons; they were cheaper and made deliveries easier.  Mixed in with the social history are chapters of more scholarly importance, addressing the growth of equine breeding in the United States, the dispersal of stables in select cities, the development of veterinary  medicine, and the agricultural impact of having to feed so many horses.  Horses were the backbone of the economy, supporting a variety of industries directly, and providing the means for all others to be transacted. Their presence prompted city streets to widen; their pounding hooves influenced which materials were used in paving. Horses were not displaced by the industrial revolution; they were part of it. The first rail lines in cities were used not by steam engines, but horsecars replacing the calamitously bumpy omnibuses.When machines became prevalent on the farm, horses did the pulling -- machines and horses together displaced human labor long before machines displaced horses.   Ultimately, electricity would out-do the complementary relationship between steam and horses, but the mark of horse hooves lives on

Some exceptional history texts can nearly take a reader back into time, and this is one; so thorough are the authors that the urban world which horses created comes alive. We are there, in streets covered in horseflesh -- horses plodding along with their wares, leaving fresh material for the manure industry in their wake, horses  sometimes collapsing in the street under the burden and promptly being carried off to rendering factories, there to continue being grist for the economic mill.  Endings were not always so grisly; horses were often retired to less strenuous occupations. (Their training stuck, however:  horses employed by fire brigades retained the habit of running to their old station at the sound of a firebell, long after leaving the service!)   The grim scenery is countered with more lighthearted imagery, like the joy of sleighing season in winter.    The Horse in the City is excellent  history, with social appeal but loaded with invaluable information to research students of the period, like charts on equine food consumption.


Friday, November 20, 2015


© 1979 Robert Warnick
200 pages

As much as I'd hoped to read Len Deighton's Blitzkrieg, it's weeks overdue at the library and I'm ready to close out the first stage of this WW2 reading set.  This volume of the Time-Life history of World War 2 focuses on an area familiar to virtually anyone with an interest in the war; the sudden German attack on Poland, the Allied declarations of war, a winter peace save on the Atlantic and in Soviet-attacked Finland, and an even more terrible assault in the spring that took down Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in a matter of weeks.  This being part of the time-life series, graphics are lavish;  there is a full-scale diagram of the Panzer Mk IV, Germany's workhorse, and bountiful photographs. Some are even colorized, and depict diverse scenes:  French soldiers playing poker in the Maginot line, Russian soldiers frozen to death in their Finnish foxholes, an English matron serving tea to arriving French solders rescued from Dunkirk and stealing a laugh with them in the midst of the death of all they held dear.  One of the photo essays covers Hitler's art programs, and would have made this volume quite popular in the schoolroom had anyone known it existed:  aside from a few pieces lionizing strong but docile farmers, most of the prints and sculptures are nudes, and not all of the heroic Greek variety.    Content-wise, this is certainly helpful;  the text plays second fiddle to the photographs, but there are a few surprises in here. The spring invasion should not have been as large a surprise as it was, given that German pilots had crashed-landed in Belgium with sensitive information. The allies disagreed over its validity, however, and mutual distrust between them would weaken Franco-Belgian defense.  I also wasn't aware that Stalin evicted Germans living in the Baltic states. There are connections to other books in the Time-Life series, like the chapter on the invasions of Finland and Norway. Blitzkrieg gives a better rendering of the British almost-invasion of Noway than Battles for Scandinavia, I think, dwelling more on the strategy.   Blitzkrieg is fine for an outline or survey of the war's early action, but is most attractive for its full-page photographs, quite large given the proportions of the book.

Having covered the Blitzkrieg, the Battle of Britain, and the war in the Atlantic, it's time to move on to 1941: bring on Barbarossa and bombers!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Convoy: The Greatest U-Boat Battle of the War
© 1976 Martin Middlebrook
384 pages

In his memoirs,  Winston Churchill admitted that nothing worried him quite so much as the U-boat menace. Britain could stand alone against a continental menace, but not without supplies from friends and her Empire abroad.  Submarine attacks on merchant shipping broke out almost as soon as war was declared, and reached their peak in 1943 as a massive wolf packs gathered and waited for convoys to appear   After an introduction which gives an intimate introduction to civilian sailors, Allied navy men, and German submariners,  Martin Middlebrook takes readers across the storm-tossed North Atlantic, following two convoys in a running battle with the greatest concentration of U-boats in the war. Dozens of merchant ships sank into the deep,  at little cost to the assailants, and Middlebrook uses the week-long drama as a case study to examine the U-boat threat and Allied responses to it. Though in part a military history, here civilian men and women are heroes as well,  fighting against their own fear and struggling together in the aftermath of attacks to survive.

 By 1943, U-boats were no longer patrolling vast areas of the ocean and pursuing alone any merchantman they came across.  They were strategic weapons, directed and controlled from Europe itself, and fed by intelligence reports that let them know when to expect victims and where.  In response to the Allied strategy of forming convoys -- scores of merchant ships flanked by a handful of escorts --   U-boats gathered en masse as well, forming picket lines where they expected a convoy to pass and then converging on it once contact had been made. As its name implies, Convoy is foremost a naval drama, but aviation is an indispensable aspect of the story.  Aircraft were the mortal enemies of submarines, providing effective screens around the coast and depth-charging vessels caught cruising on the surface.  Even B-17s could only range out so far, however, leaving an "air gap" over the mid-Atlantic,a large window of opportunity for U-boats to wreak havoc unmolested. It is in that window of space, the submarine hunting ground, that Convoy sets forth in.

For several days and nights, vast and lumbering ships carrying locomotives, invasion barges, cotton, wheat, and other sundry supplies to Britain lay at the mercy of dozens of U-boats, defended by a mere handful of escorts.   These escorts were not brand new destroyers run by top-rated seaman, either, but sometimes converted civilian ships equipped with depth charges, captained by retired gentlemen who in peacetime commanded only their personal yachts. One craft in the battle was so old that the English declined to borrow it through the Lend-Lease program! The middle section of Convoy follows the constant harrying of the fleet by a formidable gathering of U-boats, and is solid historical journalism; Middlebrook constructs the story based on numerous ships' logs and survivor accounts. The appeal is not strictly military, however; as so many of the players  are civilians in extraordinary circumstances. Logs from both Allied and German sources are used, and the details and photographs communicate the combatants'  commonality as well. Though divided by war, they are no less united in their human frailty, in their vulnerability on the open oceans and their isolation and loneliness from serving from months on end in ports and waters far from home. The book is most helpful to a student of the period, however, ending with an analysis of the battle. Despite the losses inflicted on the Allies, matters could have been worse;  while the U-boat formation was engaged in confronting these two convoys,  so thick was the Atlantic with traffic that other convoys were able to hustle through other now un-guarded sea lanes.  Within two months' time, various pieces of Allied anti-submarine warfare would click together; the air gap would be closed with longer-ranging aircraft, and the daunting strength of the U-boat fleet broken.   At the moment recorded here, however, and for the three years preceding it, their hands were at Britain's very throat, and Middlebrook delivers a sense of peril quite well.

The Foxes of the Desert

The Foxes of the Desert
© 1960 Paul Carell
370 pages

When Erwin Rommel was dispatched to Africa to rescue his nation's ailing ally against the small-but-feisty English Eighth Army, he earned the lasting respect and dread of those commanders tasked with defeating him.  The Desert Foxes delivers the story of the Second World War in Africa from the German perspective, with Rommel's Africa Korps as its stars. Like the English who humbled an Italian army tasked with rebuilding the Roman empire, Rommel would box out of his weight for  two years until he was finally cornered in Tunisia, but the months between victory and defeat created for 'the Fox' a lasting reputation; he is admired even today,  hailed for his chivalry and fighting spirit.  

Although the tanks of the Afrika Korps take center stage, Carell enjoys sharing the wartime version of human interest stories, and occasionally pauses from his storytelling -- which indeed it is, being no less fact-laden for its dramatization --  to deliver accounts of commandos or extraordinary aviation heroics.The action here is frantic, pitting hundreds of tanks against one another in single battles.  Momentum shifts from side to side, and several times both forces hang on the verge of utter defeat, both experiencing victory and desperation in their turn. Time is ultimately against Rommel, as British forces in the air choke him off from what few supplies drift his way, but  sheer audacity takes him  all the way to Egypt where at last he breaks on the battle-worn English defense.  The arrival of green American troops fresh off the boat allows for a few more brazen victories, but ultimately the two allied armies corner the Africa Korps in Tunisia, where -- denied the possibility of retreat by Hitler's declaration that they fight to the last bullet -- the remnant surrenders.  The fast pace and fascinating little stories (like that of a general, separated from his legs by an explosion, using his last moments of life to pen a page-and-a-half letter to his wife) make for engaging history, and Carell's German perspective adds additional interest. His book is not simply about the Germans; here, they are the protagonists,  fighting the good fight against the 'Tommies'. While upholding the Afrika Korps as admirable soldiers and men, Carells' opinion about Germany's political leadership is far less friendly. (The word used for Hitler is "maniac".)    How genuine that contempt is I am not sure, but the book stays well away from Europe and allows the reader to enjoy the narrative of strategy and combat removed from the horror of Nazi-controlled Europe.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

War, spam, and more war

Today I finished Spam Nation, a journalistic takedown of the spam industry which is centered in Russia. The book is a strange collection of memoir and journalism on criminal relationships so entangled that I felt like I was reading about the securities market. There's a fascinating chapter on who actually buys products that are advertised via spam (mostly medicine that's illegal in Europe or too expensive in the US) and how that market compares to legitimate ones, though most of the book is about two Russian  cybercriminals who dominate the arena, whose infighting over turf exposes their dirty laundry and allows the police and other interests to take them on.  It doesn't read as neatly as @ War, but it does shed light on a murky corner of the internet. Essentially, these men use viral programs to coopt other people's computers to send billions and billions of spam messages,  chiefly marketing black market drugs and porn but also launching  other revenue-boosters like scareware, programs that hijack a computer, announce computer infection and bid the victim to buy their security program to get rid of it. I've been on the receiving side of those when trying to fix relatives' computers: they are not fun at all.  (Some disable any executable, including viral protection.)   The book is interesting, though not entirely impressive;  surely these two don't account for all spam, given how much 'real' advertising is done by email these days.  The title is ambitious.

My library is currently packing up some nonfiction books to send to a newly-created rural sister library,  and a lot of books I've kinda-sorta wanted to read but haven't gotten around to because I figured they would be there when I wanted to are on the list.  Trying to read them before they disappear is why I picked up Miracle at Dunkirk a few weeks ago and got into this World War 2 reading kick.

Earlier in the week I read Operation Compass 1940, a short work (80~  pages) on the early war in northern Africa, in which Italian troops set on seizing Egypt were savaged by a far smaller British force on the counteroffensive. The work was strictly military history, with good maps but a fairly narrow scope, focusing just on this particular battle.  The Italian humiliation here seems have prompted the Germans to take Africa more seriously as a campaign ground, so I'm following it with The Desert Foxes by Paul Carell.  It's a strange work, very sentimental and war-smitten. I looked up the author to see if he'd written anything else, and it turns out he's an honest-to-God-Nazi.  Oops. I'm still trying to find out how bad an apple he was.

The World War 2 reading will continue for the time being, though I intend on mixing other subjects in.  For instance, I have an interlibrary loan book on order about a band of Irish immigrants who fought in the US-Mexican war...for Mexico!  Another book on the way involves....horses.  As far as the 2015 Reading Challenge goes, once I take down A Classic Romance, that will be it. I have the Christmas read already purchased, and it's a quickie. (Tease: it's about Jacob Marley.)  My book with antonyms was That Was Then, This is Now. If I didn't have a mound of books on the Great War, World War 2, and cities, plus four books in the mail, I might be tempted to re-read everything Hinton.  I still may.   My self-control regarding books is on the anemic side. I know the stories, I just want to encounter the writing again.

“Your mother is not crazy. Neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother. He is merely miscast in a play. He would have made the perfect knight in a different century, or a very good pagan prince in a time of heroes. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to do anything and finding nothing he wants to do."

(Rumble Fish, S.E. Hinton)