Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Cargo Ship Diaries

The Cargo Ship Diaries: 44 months, 37 countries, 0 flights 
© 2014 Niall Doherty
133 pages

A few years ago while looking for information on minimalism, I encountered the YouTube presence of one Niall Doherty, an Irishman traveling the world, living and working out of a backpack. Doherty left a comfortable but unfulfilling life in the nine-to-five world to live an adventure, instead. His throwing of himself into the world wasn't merely physical, as he also used new environments to experiment with his life, to impose new challenges on himself.  This is where I encountered him, as every week he seemed to be in a different place, invariably a cafe or club surrounded by laughing people (often women), and posing serious questions to the viewer, like "What would it take for you to change your most fundamental beliefs?"   As it turns out, he was in the middle of a purposeful quest: to travel the world without flying.   In The Cargo Ship Diaries, aboard a commercial freighter traveling from Yokohama to Peru, he shares both his experiences aboard the ship, and reminiscences on his Eurasian journey.  The book ends with his arrival in the Americas, though an epilogue shares diary entries about his time in South America, New Orleans, and later the return to Ireland.

Although his first book, Disrupting the Rabblement, captured his philosophy of life much better, some of it still comes through in this travel diary. As mentioned, it's a two-part book;  the framing narrative tells about life aboard the cargo ship, where for a month he explored, danced, wrote, and studied.   The 'writing' bit is this actual book, recounting his time in Eurasia. Landing in Amsterdam, he bused, biked, and ferried his way across the continent. He was not a 'tourist', and preferred to spend most of his time trying to interact with locals.  Much of that, he admits, was 'chasing tail'; in Amsterdam he challenged himself to flirt with 100 girls in a week, and the book is filled with one-night liaisons and brief relationships. Only when he found a friend to join him did he go on touristy adventures like visiting the Taj Mahal.  (His adventures tended to not be the usual kind: once, for instance, he climbed an abandoned skyscraper. Although reading about his sex life grew tiresome quickly,  I am always astonished at the amount of human goodwill global travelers run into. Doherty entered Iran despite being warned his bank cards wouldn't work, and found himself with the local equivalent of $10 to his name. Yet, through goodwill, local connections, and the internet, he was able to make his way through and out of the country, departing it with fond memories for the Iranian people -- who, he says, live double lives, defying the outside authoritarianism within the privacy of their homes.

Although I was sorely tempted to skim through the many dating episodes, I find Doherty's willingness to throw himself into the unknown admirable -- and of course, as someone who has read books on commercial shipping, this account of life aboard a cargo ship had a distinct attraction for me.

Doherty maintained a web presence throughout his travels, and produced a video about life aboard the ship below.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Miracle at Midway

Miracle at Midway
© 1983 Gordon Prange, Donald Goldstein and,Katherine Dillon,
512 pages

Miracle at Midway is a thorough history of the June 4-7 effort of the Japanese to simultaneously seize the most likely U.S. approaches to the Empire and lure the US Pacific Fleet into a general engagement wherein it might be destroyed in total. Though colossally outnumbered in ships, the US Navy and Army Air Forces on Midway island had a slight advantage in planes which was used to enormous effect; in this David and Goliath battle, the Japanese carriers were the object of a surgical strike, though one of dive-bombers instead of stones. While there was definitely an element of luck on the American side -- one Japanese carrier's planes were caught pants down, trying to refuel and re-arm -- Midway was a victory of intelligence and courage more than fate. Although suffering from a paucity of maps, the authors bring extensive analysis and heavy research into the Japanese side to the table as well. Midway is one of the more important battles of the second World War, at least for Americans: just six months after the humiliating surprise of Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet had utterly reversed its fortunes, destroying in a day the pride of the Japanese imperial fleet. Dai Nippon lost not only four carriers, but hundreds of planes and thousands of veteran men whose talents and experience could not be replaced. It's also an extraordinary moment in the history of naval warfare, the first battle in which the competing surface fleets never saw one another but through their air wings.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Retail Warfare

Recently I decided to drive to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a bite to eat. Tuscaloosa is famously the home of the University of Alabama, feared and resented throughout the United States for its football program (so I hear), but I was there for a little Greek food.  Lamb, specifically. In the deep south, there aren't many places that sell lamb, but Taziki's Mediterranean Cafe does.  While sitting at an intersection waiting to turn in, though, I happened to see...a jet fighter. And a tank! And a helicopter!

Turns out, near the University Mall (across the street from my destination) is a Veterans Memorial Park, with various pieces of military equipment from different services parked there, including a M60 tank, a Huey, a A-7 Corsair, a Willys jeep, and two pieces of artillery (one land-based, one naval).  I've never been near a tank, so despite a downpour, I happily jumped out of the car with umbrella in hand to go stand and stare at it. According to a plaque, a military hospital once stood on the site, presumably now covered by the mall's footprint.  I took some photos with my phone; click for larger versions.

Speed checked by radar....and strictly enforced

The M60.

UH-1 Iroquois, but his friends call him Huey.

A-7 Corsair, formerly of the US Navy but with a Marine's name on it.

A Willys Jeep in Air Force livery.  The downpour is slightly more obvious here.  Considering I was holding an umbrella with one hand, aiming and taking photos with a phone from another, and standing in a rainstorm with strong winds, these came out very well!

Friday, August 19, 2016


Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51
© 1998 Phil Patton
336 pages

"What would happen if the U.S. government opened its doors to us and let us see all that was going on? Depending on what is there, we'd either be vindicated or disappointed, but we would also rapidly lose interest. What would we focus our attentions on? Where would we go next?....the greatest thing about Area 51 is its mystery, otherwise nobody would care."

Dear readers, I have a confession. In middle school, I was way into alien conspiracy theories, specifically the Roswell Incident. I didn't believe anything had happened, but it was fun to pretend that it did. My bedroom walls were littered with three things: tiger photographs, glow-in-the-dark star stickers, and posters of green bobble-head aliens, sometimes dressed as hippies offering peace signs.   So, when I ran into Dreamland while looking for a similarly titled book on rural drug epidemics (Dreamland: the True Tale  of America's Opiate Epidemic), I had to try it out. Right?

It took me a few check-outs to actually read the book, because it's an odd kind of investigatory tourism that begins with the paranormal, shifts to completely sober and extensive discussion of military test aviation, and then swings back to more severe paranormal material towards the end. The author plays the part of reporter-tourist searching for the truth, presenting himself as neither credulous nor particularly skeptical. Like Herodotus, he simply reports what he is told, though there's an obvious personal interests in what 'Area 51' truly is.

Dreamland is not solely about 'the' Area 51, the conspiracy codename for Groom Lake, Nevada, where experimental jets are/were tested. 'Dreamland' as a place covers much of the southwest; it is not merely 'The Ranch' of Nevada, guarded by private paramilitary 'camo dudes', but the headspace world in which the subjects of this book live -- and while some of them believe devoutly in alien visitation and even in-progress takeover, others believe the alien talk is mere coverup for more ominous projects. One interviewee opined that the alien hype is being created by the military which will use a faux-alien invasion to effect a coup. The last quarter of the book is a bizarre mix of conspiracy theories, Christian and Islamic prophecies merging with alien obsession and political intrigue:  fear of a 'New World Order', so intense in Endtimes believers of the 1990s, is very strong here. My personal favorite, in part because it's the sort of thing I would do if I were in charge of a secret government project, is that Area 51 is cover, used to distract the public; the real base  is in Tonopah. (Of course, if I were in charge of the secret government project, I would put it underground and then stick a shopping complex on top of it.)

 Although the first and final fifths of Dreamland are very odd reading, fraught with true-believer syndrome ("Yes, the flying saucer we saw was a B2. But they're just  letting us see it so we won't freak out about the real flying saucers!"),  there's actually an enormous amount of information on military test aviation throughout the late 20th century, including on projects that were scrapped but which are now declassified.  Many of the aircraft mentioned bear little resemblance to conventional aircraft, at least to a public expecting to see something that looks like a commercial transport or fighters. The proposed A-12 Avenger is downright alien.   Dreamland features a chapter on the development of unmanned spy vehicles from spy planes like the U2, and speculates that soon these UAVs may be armed. (He was right: three years later after publication, a Predator drone blew up the outside  of a Taliban building, wrecking cars and sending the actual target running away instead of crossing the Styx.)

If you're interested in experimental aviation, this actually has a few chapters of interest. The actual subject of the book may distract from the fascinating bits inside, though, and considering the context of the source I'm not sure how seriously I'd take the information on CIA spy planes and the like.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943
© 1998 Anthony Beevor
494 pages

In June 1941, Hitler demonstrated the truism that evil will oft evil mar by launching an invasion of the Soviet Union. Though initiated later in the year than planned, the Wehrmacht's assault achieved rapid success, partially because Stalin believed Hitler's saber-rattling to be an attempt at intimidating him at the trade-table.  Even so, Russia's vastness and Hitler's competing commitment in Italy stalled the offensive, the initial momentum never to be regained. On the banks of the Volga, at the city of Stalingrad,  part of Hitler's army provided a foretaste of the German state as a whole: overextended, surrounded, starving, dying, and defeated.

Initially, Stalingrad was only notable to military strategists for two things: its position on the Volga river, and its armaments factories.Simply breaking Russian command of the river and destroying the factories would suffice for victory, leaving the ever-more accomplished panzers and men to take on the Soviet south, with its attractive oil fields.  As is well known, however, the Germans were unable to achieve the coup de grace before the Russian winter set in, and soon the final pockets of resistance in Stalingrad were proving ever more obdurant.  Their resistance provoked  stubborness in Hitler, now remote-managing the battle from Germany: the attempt to take Stalin's City was becoming increasingly more personal.

Unknown to the Germans, the Russian general Zhukov saw a greater strategic value in the city.  He urged Stalin to gamble: let him maintain only a paltry defense in the city, just barely enough to keep it from falling completely, while secretly building an offensive army. The gamble would be pursued, and play off wonderfully for the Soviets:  a year into the German stall, in November 1942, Soviet tanks  launched an all-quarters attack and completely encircled the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as well as Romanian and other Axis units which were in the city's environs at the time. The force was considerable, as Hitler's obsession with the city meant it was consuming far more men and material than it was worth to keep. Though a half-hearted attempt at outside rescue was made after the Soviets had already consolidated their positions, and although the Luftwaffe gamely attempted to keep the Sixth Army supplied through increasingly thick resistance, the men of the Sixth Army were virtually abandoned. In the bleak midwinter, they decayed while still living: picked off or driven mad by the stress of constant attack,  attempting to live on rations as small as 200 grams per day,  eaten alive by lice, constantly exposed to the brutal winter of the steppes, and utterly exposed to disease.  Not until February 1943 did the Soviets finally move in for the killing blow.

Stalingrad is a grim book, depicting as it does first the plight of civilians being tread underfoot by two armies of ideological orcs, then the extensive suffering of civilians and soldiers in Stalingrad during the wintry siege.  There are moments of odd gallows humor, like the instructions written to German soldiers returning home for leave.(They are urged, upon entering a building back home, to use the doorknob. Grenades are a last resort.)  Largely, this is a work of prolonged suffering, first merely through the Russian winter and then through a second winter of isolation and death.  As the last remnants of the the Sixth army were marched into captivity, a Russian soldier urged them to look at the ruins of the city behind them:  "This is what Berlin will be!", the Soviet cried.   Unfortunately, it would be so: Stalingrad and the Russian campaign helped begin the downfall of the Nazi regime, but would ultimately empower an ogre just as foul on the continent: Stalin.

While it doesn't cover the whole of the Russian campaign, Stalingrad is a visceral and deeply-researched history of the campaign for the city, and the siege which followed. The armies of both state reveal their wretchedness, chucking civilians out of their homes as winter set in, and shaking them down for supplies. There is nothing as beastly as man at war, but as Stalingrad demonstrates, man at war with the unction of the imperial state achieves superior horror.  Yet Volvograd -- thanks be that the city now bears a name worth uttering -- is a moment of triumph for the Russians worth noting. Once on the retreat and dependent on the Allies for war material, by 1943 they were producing enough tanks and planes to completely dominate the Wehrmacht and launch their own bid for command of Europe. That is quite the comeback.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Ordinary Spaceman

The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut
© 2015 Clayton Anderson
330 pages

Clay Anderson knew when he was nine years old that he wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.. He knew it when he witnessed the crew of Apollo 8 circling the Moon on Christmas Eve.  His passion for the black took him to NASA first as an intern, and then as employee, where he worked for well over a decade before the last of his fifteen applications to the astronaut program proper landed him a spot in the class of 1996.   The Ordinary Astronaut is a memoir of his years at NASA and in the shuttle program, one filled with interesting details but not much in the way of long-term perspective.

Ordinary Spaceman is primarily a work of human interest, since Anderson almost never refers to his scientific work, or comments on the space program as a whole.   Unlike Tom Jones' Sky Walking, which combined Jones' memoirs with a narrative history of NASA during the eighties and nineties to provide background information,  there's no broad review of the organization. We get instead workplace stories which happen to be set in space shuttles, the space station, and Russia's "Star City".  Since this is NASA the work stories can be extraordinary; for instance, early on he was asked by Rick Husband to be a family escort during Husband’s  mission aboard Columbia; ordinarily, this involves driving the family around during launches and landings, getting them punch, and offering reassuring answers to concerned questions.  If the name Husband rings a bell, it should – he commanded the Columbia when it broke apart in orbit, and Anderson became not just a valet, but the immediate focus of the family’s sorrow and despair, helping them to shoulder their emotional burden – a shared one, for he and Husband had trained together.  More cheerful is his account of the extensive time spent with Russian astronauts in Star City.  Anderson's class was required to have a rudimentary grasp on the Russian language, and part of his basic training took place in Russia where he learned their systems as well.   Still more fascinating is his recollection of time spent in NASA's underwater  habitat,  which offered its own difficulty and delight --  the photo of Anderson staring out into the water at a close-range school of fish makes obvious the utter joy it brought to him.

The Ordinary Spaceman is an odd book.  It lives up to its title in that  Anderson seems like a guy off the street, a Nebraska farmer in space. He didn't enter NASA as a hotshot pilot, but as a civilian intern. He met his wife in the cafeteria line and uses Wikipedia as his go-to reference. (The first time he did this, to supplement his memory while remniscing over Saturday morning cartoons, I thought it was funny. The next five times, when he was referring to actual NASA history, not so much.) It abounds in stories about the mundane details of working for NASA, the inns and outs, without drifting into complaining.   (I do mean ins and outs: he goes into great detail on how to use a space-toilet, records at length his body's reaction to returning to Earth by expelling fluid from every possible orifice, chronicles his attempt to self-administer an enema, and proudly counts himself as the only man to poop in four space vessels -- two shuttles, Soyuz, and the ISS.) Towards the end the organization gets odd, very back and forth, frequently chatty -- but ultimately, Anderson is a nice guy who sustains the reader's sympathy and affection.  His career in NASA, by his own account, was undermined by his own weaknesses,  like a short temper. But he's not proud of failing at times, and does his best to make amends. In that, he really is an ordinary guy, doing his best, and picking up the pieces when he goes  off the rails. The Ordinary Spaceman is more useful as an account of a man's living the dream at NASA than about NASA or shuttle spaceflight in general, but a boyhood fantasy turned reality certainly has its appeal.

Anderson's space selfie


  • Sky Walking, Tom Jones.  Not quite as fun, but more substantive  in regards to appreciating the history of the shuttle program and the creation of the ISS.
  • Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov and Dave Scott. Joint Apollo-Soyuz history of the space race, with a lot of content on the Russian space program and Star City. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Playing to the Edge

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror
© Michael Hayden 2016
464 pages

As someone who became a civil libertarian in response to the increasingly sweeping powers of the surveillance state during the Bush administration, I began reading this as a hostile audience, more or less. I was chiefly interested in the chapter on cybersecurity, although he says very little about it. The book is part memoir-biography, part defense of the privileged powers given to the United States' intelligence-security programs. While I am still not nor never will be comfortable with the amount of information being collected by these agencies, even if they are staffed by the heroic characters who populate this book under Hayden's pen, recent books on cyber war have made me realize that that agencies like these have actual national-security priorities, with a focus on malevolent organizations outside the U.S.

Hayden is very good at making the enormous amount of data-collecting sound completely mundane, even benign, and is very cagey with details when a plant is bombed or infrastructure sabotaged via computer viruses. Sometimes interesting and sometimes plodding are his comments on CIA-NSA organization, and the organization of the intelligence community (sixteen agencies, including the intelligence depts of other organizations). There's the usual attraction in a political memoir in that formidable media personalities are suddenly reduced to ordinary people: Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice becomes "Condie", the attorney general is "Al", Hayden himself is "Mikey"...it's a little touch of intimacy that a vast bureaucracy, far-removed from the concerns of the people as a whole, is usually without. All that said, I still like having Greewalds and Snowdens to keep the government on its toes.