Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Return of the TBR

Dear readers:

A couple of days ago I received a book in the mail and a little alarm bell went off in my head, the subconscious recognition that yep, I've not another stack of unread nonfiction books: at least twelve. I toyed with the idea of re-instituting the To-Be-Read Takedown Challenge , but realized this lot was mostly politics, philosophy, and history. Not especially varied, that, so I bought three tech books. Problem solved!   I'm definitely fixed for June: from the library, I have books on the Great War, volcanoes, earthquakes, and animals; and from my own stack, I've got cybersecurity, internet infrastructure, politics, political philosophy, science, and Asian history.

Below are ten items on the new TBR list, though the full number is more like fifteen.

To Be Read Takedown Challenge II: Bigger and Better! 

1. The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday. Yet another neo-Stoic offering, I believe, and a recent acquisition.
2. Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy, Shane Hamilton. Bought this in December, but my interest petered out when I realized it was more about politics and economics than driving.
3. 10% Human, Alanna Collen. Also starring on the science TBR list! Purchased in January. 
4. The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, Yural Levin. Purchased last June. 
5. The Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega Retailers, Stacey Mitchell. 
6. Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff, Matt Kibbe.  An intro to the non-aggression principle, I'm guessing.
7. Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World,  Richard Francis. Another feature from the science TBR. 
8. The Orthodox Church, Kalistos (Timothy) Ware. A history of the Eastern Orthodox. 
9. Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley
10. Cyberwar: The Next Threat to National Security, Richard Clarke

For the record: the last TBR ran from May 2nd, 2014, to December 26th, 2014.   I'll make better time this go-round, I'm sure.  



Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Memorial Day
© 2004 Vince Flynn
407 pages



"And if they manage to get this thing into Washington and end up killing the leaders of America, Great Britain, and Russia?"
Rapp shrugged. "At least there won't be any more ambivalence about the war on terror."


Suspicious activity from some shady financial institutions hints that something big is about to hit the United States, and an investigation -- followed by a black ops abduction job in Pakistan -- reveals the scheme. On Memorial Day, as the entire US government gathers with the leaders of Great Britain and Russia to christen a new World War 2 monument,  militant jihadists intend to set off nuclear explosions along the eastern seaboard, beginning with D.C.  Only Mitch Rapp, an assassin in the employ of the CIA, stands in their way.

Memorial Day is an early War on Terror action thriller that has little patience for those who view the Patriot Act as a threat to civil liberties, and features a main character who abducts jihadists not only from Pakistan, but from the Justice Department's own holding cells.  He has no compunction against shooting terrorists to coerce confessions from their brain-besplattered comrades, or slipping a man a drug to make him terrified, then repeatedly holding him underwater.   At least no one can say he murders in cold blood, because Rapp spends the entire book enraged. He's at war not only with every AK47-wielding beard in the middle east, but his own government, riven with softies. If he's not yelling or shooting at jihadists and politicians, he is on his way to do one of the two.

Memorial Day is an action movie in book form. The main character stands out because of his sheer bloodlust (he almost doesn't care if D.C. is turned into a radioactive crater, because it means the entire Arabian peninsula will be glass shortly thereafter), but no one else is worth paying attention to.  If a character emerges who is sympathetic, they are immediately killed off -- like the poor Mexican truck driver who was hired to haul a trailer into Atlanta,  never knowing that the mysterious trailer held an unstable radioactive core that was slowly poisoning him.  All he wanted to do was make it home in time for his son's baseball game. Why do you hate baseball, terrorists?  The villains are, as you might aspect from a book written so early after the 9/11 attacks, complete caricatures of the "They hate us for our freedoms" variety.   They're seriously in the United States because its teenage girls wandering about in malls in skimpy outfits are dragging the world into a cesspit of moral decadence.  Seems like fighting moral decadence in Riyadh would be easier on the gas. (The suggestion that the terrorists object to D.C.'s foreign policy is dismissed as blaming rape victims.)  

In terms of sheer action, Memorial Day works very well:  it opens with Chinooks deploying company of rangers in Pakistan, and later there's action on the high seas as various agencies try to intercept container ships, and towards the end we have car chases and even a boat chase.  Flynn reveals several interesting technical details, like D.C.'s plan for continuity of government in the event of an attack, and the existence of a large Soviet nuclear testing range in Kazakhstan, where duds are literally just abandoned in the desert for any lunatic with a deathwish to dig up.  (A New Jersey-sized field in Kazakhstan actually exists, but from what I've read, various international agencies  were secretly cleaning the site all throughout the 2000s,  with all detritus secured by 2012.)   While the villains are wholly uninteresting, Flynn does admit for a little blowback: one of the attackers was formerly used by the CIA to fight the Russians invading Afghanistan,  He also doesn't regard Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as reliable allies in the war of terror because the Saudis are in fact financing some of the extremist groups.

Memorial Day is a fun action thriller, though not a seriously interesting geopolitical one.

Related:
The Last Patriot, Brad Thor.  A blend of this and The Da Vinco Code. Very silly.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
© 2003 Stephen Kinzler
272 pages


On one  dismal  night in 1953,  a conspiracy destroyed both Iranian democracy and American honor.  At the dawn of the 1950s, Iran was struggling to free itself from British domination, a  precursor to the bloody colonial revolutions that would mark the mid-20th century.   Despite being a product of colonial rebellion itself, the United States would betray its own history and one of amiable relations with Iran to  assert itself on the world stage.  All the Shah's Men is an admirably executed mix of espionage, history, and politics,  brimming with passion.

Iran arrived at the 20th century in a sorry state;  ruled by monarchs who were either corrupt or incompetent, it fell under the influence of both Russia and Britain, whose great game of tug-of-war used Iran as the rope, plundering its resources. While Russia would collapse into civil war in 1917, Britain proved a far more formidable opponent, securing a long-term monopoly over the harvesting of Iranian oil and natural gas, and virtually taking over the country in the 1940s during World War 2.  For fifty years, Iran's mineral wealth was literally siphoned out and shipped away:   Iranians were denied the opportunity to learn and master the industry,  granted only menial labor and a token share of the profits.

The forced abdication of the shah in 1943 meant that the Iranian parliament and its democratic offices were free to grow in legitimacy and authority. Increasingly, the parties running for office called for an end to British imperialism in Iran, and one Mohammad Mossadegh was particularly famous for his attack on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  He called for better working conditions for laborers, the inclusion of Iranians in the engineering and administrative aspects of the oil business, and a more equitable division of profits between the British company and Iran.  Britain would have none of it.

Mossadegh achieved office several times championing the cause of an independent Iran as the Truman administration gave way to Eisenhower's.  The change of American leadership was important, for while the British government wanted to take action in Iran, it wanted American support, in part because of D.C's previous help in securing Iran against German interests.  Truman had no interest whatsoever in going to bat for British petroleum, but Eisenhower had witnessed the fall of China to Communism and the unraveling of Korea, and -- with help from Winston Churchill, no stranger to mideast debacles --  he was sweettalked into seeing red in Iran.   There would be no Persian Mao, not on Ike's watch.    While Britain considered and dismissed the idea of simply invading Iran, this was decided to be more trouble than it was worth. Far better to take the country from within, by using the lingering authority of the shah's successor-prince to dismiss Mossadegh, and back him with the Iranian and Allied militaries as need be.

Although the coup initially seemed to be failing disastrously -- arrests of conspirators were made, followed by the fleeing of the shah  to Iraq -- the American man on the ground was able to turn things around. Kermit Roosevelt was the son of Teddy Roosevelt,  one of the first American executives to dream of the United States having a 'place in the sun', stretching its wings across the globe.  Using the economic depression that followed Britain's economic war against Iran, Roosevelt  stirred up dissent and paid people to form an anti-Mossadegh mob that would march on the man's house.  He was arrested, his  government fell, the shah returned, and-- well, things just went downhill from there. Emboldened by outside support, the shah grew ever more tyrannical against his own people, until he was ousted by a religiously authoritative regime that was hostile to Mossadegh for its own reasons.

  
All the Shah's Men succeeds brilliantly in part because of the connections Kinzler draws to broader Iranian history. The Iranians had thrown off another resource monopoly sixty years before,  and in the process they established a constitutional government. While weak against the traditional authority of the shah, and his control of the military,  it steadily acquired its own moral authority -- increasingly seen as more legitimate than the shah, who was a creature of the outside world, forcing its designs on Iran, from control of Iranian resources to the forced adoption of Western suits and hats.   Mossadegh's championing of Iranian independence was not merely freedom from outside manipulation, but freedom from the unjust and arbitrary rule of the shah.  The coup didn't simply topple Mossadegh's government: it and Anglo-American support  of the shah thereafter sabotaged and reversed the trend toward Iranian self-government.

The coup not only derailed Iran' development as a democratic and humane society, but has caused no end of trouble for both Britain and the United States, mostly the Americans who did the dirty work.  When the shah was ousted in 1979 and sought refuge in the United States, Iranians who remembered 1953 thought they were about to re-witness history. Hadn't the shah fled  before, only to be returned under the aegis of the Americans?   Such was the spark of the hostage crisis, leading to decades of hostility and cold fury between the powers in which Iran and the west continue to wage war against one another's interests;  in Iran's case, this has taken the form of funding terrorist organizations.

All the Shah's Men is one of the more outstanding books I've ever read; though  principally about the conspiracy,  Kinzler does a terrific job in explaining the historical context.  But the book doesn't read like a lecture; at times it has the feel of investigative journalism or a spy thriller. Kinzler isn't just summarizing news articles, but relies on interviews with those who remember Mossadegh, for whom the man is a memory of a time when Iran's destiny seemed its own to make, when the law was being strengthened as a redoubt against arbitrary authority instead of being used to execute it.


Related:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Grid

The Grid
© 1995 Phillip Kerr
447 pages


Some modern architecture might make you want to kill yourself. Other modern architecture might try to kill you directly. The Yu Corporation's newest project in Los Angeles, derisively called "The Gridiron" by everyone except for its starchitect, is an example of the latter. The Grid is the pinnacle of not only the kind of architectural brilliance it takes to make viewers wish fervently for a good disaster to remove the eyesore, but of integrated computer technology. It is the world's first wholly "smart" building, in which every supporting system of the building -- even the physical structure of the building itself -- is controlled by a computer. It is a technocrat's greatest hope: people can't even use the elevators or enter doors without being authorized by the computer as having legitimate business within the building. And if they try to attend to their own 'personal' business -- using the restroom, for instance -- their leavings are automatically scrutinized, subjected to not only a drug test but health screenings. A system this complex is bound to go wrong, and it does: with less than a week to go before the grand opening, people start dying. At first it seems like a rash of bad accidents, but then the characters realize the building itself is trying to kill them -- but why? Did a deranged ex-employee sabotage its programming, or has it developed intelligence and decided to remove its internal carbon-unit infestation?

For someone accustomed to Kerr's historical mysteries set in Germany, this is startling different work. In terms of literary craftsmanship, Kerr has grown by leaps and bounds since penning this. Much of the dialogue is forced, like canned lines from a television show. The increasing tension itself carries the novel forward, as the true source behind the mysterious deaths is revealed. Of interest to modern readers is the technology, which -- astonishingly -- within our grasp if not already achieved today. No one can read this today without thinking of the rising "internet of things", although we have more to fear from outside sources hijacking those devices and using them against us than we have of our house trying to kill us. Readers from the 1990s may remember the Sandra Bullock movie, The Net: at times, the book has that feel, of the building being an entity that can do anything -- even interfacing with a police department's internal network and suspending two officers to keep them trapped in the building -- and the futurism has the occasional short-sighted pockmark, like the fact that people use film cameras despite living in a world of holograms. The increasingly frequent trips inside the 'building's brain grew tedious because of their weirdness, but on the whole I enjoyed this. It's not stellar, but still topical. Too bad Kerr has never tried to revisit techno-thrillers -- I'd like to see what a more experienced hand produces.

Related:
The Fear Index, Robert Harris

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Persians

The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran
© 2009 Homa Katouzian
452 pages




Come, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. It'll take a while, because there's been a lot of them.The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran is a sweeping  political history of Persia, and of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran. The author quotes a Persian proverb which asks -- six months from now, who alive? Who dead?  --  and argues that Persian history is established proof of the thin line between arbitrary authority and chaos. While technically  a survey, its density and focus on a list of rulers rather than the general trends within Persian history makes it a formidable challenge to the beginning student.

The Persians is largely modern, reaching the 20th century in less than two hundred pages.  What follows beforehand is essentially a long list of men killing men.  It’s nearly biblical – just replace “begat” with “who was killed by”, and you’ll get an idea. Oh, there’s some variety; sometimes the potentates settle for blinding one another instead of killing, which does get passé, and some Turkic and Mongolian fellows are offed, too.   Although Persia looms in the background of western history, invading Greece and lopping off Roman consuls’ heads, even marching on Jerusalem,   those episodes of strength seem to be the exception rather than the rule.   The tediously recorded butchery may actually be intentional, for the author’s main contention is that arbitrary tyrants have been the norm of Persian history, and that not until the 20th century has any work been put into creating a state beyond the will of one man, in forming a civil society that checks the ambitions of a solitary tyrant.


Even once the text moves to the 20th century and becomes more fulsomely detailed and varied, it’s still a little odd in what it dwells on. The author mentions, for instance ,that the 1953 coup has been studied in detail, and so...he bypasses it. If you didn't know that coup was executed by Britain and America to shore up their client-king’s absolute authority over the the Iranian people, too bad. If you're in the dark, you're staying there, because one minute Mossadegh is in power and the next he's in prison. Trends within Iran which bear significant fruit, like the  development of the Shiite clergy,  are barely present, or are  like the poetry buried under the mounds of executed kings.

That's not to say there isn't material of interest in here. I didn't realize that Alexander the Great is actually claimed by the Persians as one of their own, a half-Persian lord who appears in the Shahnameh, a massive work of legendary history.  The Great War and World War 2 take on a different light from Iranian eyes: because Britain and Russia spent the late 19th and early 20th century playing tug-of-war with an increasingly frayed Iran,  Iranians admired and sympathized with the Germans in both conflicts. The closer the author draws toward the present day, the more communicative he is about Iranian culture in general:  in the final hundred pages there is a good section on the evolving role of women in Iranian society, which -- while not as good during the Shah's forced modernization -- is not as bad as it was in the early 1980s.  

While there's no shortage of useful information to be mined here, beginners should probably look for something less mountainous and less dry.

Related:



8.4

8.4.
© 1995 Peter Hernon
393 pages


San Andreas? You want a real earthquake, son, you come to Tennessee.  In America's heartland lies a currently-quiescent fault, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. In the early 19th century a series of three massive earthquakes  rolled the Mississippi River region, the most powerful quakes recorded in American history.  In 8.4., it happens again.....but instead of scaring the coon-skin caps off of hunters and making the cows go crazy in the frontier, it devastates cities. It doesn't just give them a bad day, knocking the electricity offline and collapsing interstate bridges: it levels the area, with a preliminary death toll of over a hundred thousand.

The novel is a genuine science fiction tale, as most of the viewpoint characters are seismologists who are frantically trying to figure out what's happening; as they argue between themselves and attempt to convince the authorities that the worst is yet to come, the reader is treated to not only explanations of tectonic geology,  but graphics that give some idea of what is happening below -- illustrating the different kinds of faults, for instance.  Key to the drama is the fact that New Madrid activity doesn't consist of one big quake with minor aftershocks, but that its powerful tectonic activity erupts in clusters.   The characters spend most of the book in mortal danger: if they're not fleeing the consequences of the quakes, like floods in Kentucky after a dam collapses, or urban riots as people raid stores for supplies, they're actively courting it by  crossing rivers transacted by the faults, rappelling into open breaks in the Earth's surface, or probing deep into abandoned mines to collect data.    There's even a little outbreak of civil war at the end, when the President decides the best thing to do is stick an A-bomb in the Earth's innards and blow it up, and the Kentucky governor realizes the White House is out of its ever-lovin' mind.

8.4 leads with science, and follows with disaster-movie thrills. The endgame is bonkers, frankly, but maybe it's hard to sell 20th century readers on the idea that not everything can be solutioned or bombed away.

Related:
Supervolcano: Eruption, Harry Turtledove.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

In God's Path

In God's Path: the Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire
© 2015 Robert Hoyland
303 pages




A Roman author referred to the Roman and Persian empires as the two eyes of the world -- but they didn't see the Arabs coming. In the span of a hundred years, a people from the desert wastes between Egypt and Mesopotamia had traveled from Spain to the Indus, bringing together a diversity of nations under one banner and laying waste to empires. History texts usually present a map of expansion as the sudden creation and explosive growth of Islam, but Hoyland argues that's premature.  Instead, he examines the Arab conquests as...the Arab conquests, in which Islam is first the means of an alliance between Arab tribes that allows them to sack two ailing realms, and then is the means of forging their own empire that transcended tribal bounds.  Instead of merely attributing the Arab spring into empire as one motivated by religious zeal, Hoyland examines the Arabs as actors on the historic stage, and dwells on their political skill.

The result is a history that overturns elementary assumptions.  For instance, conquest and conversion were two completely different processes: even a province absolutely integral to the nascent Islamic civilization, Persia, was not majority-Muslim until the 14th century.  (Islamic provincial governors were by no means eager to force conversion:  non-Muslims were taxed by the government.) By preserving the structure of the societies they were conquering -- relying on Christian and Persian scribes, civil officers, etc to retain their roles --  and offering completely secular benefits for joining the Arabs on their globetrotting campaigns, what began as a local city-state quickened into a global phenomenon.  Eventually, the religion of the Arabs, who had become the ruling class, would become the religion of a multitude, evolving along the way. Towards the end Hoyland dips into religious history,  reflecting on how the century of war, mixed defeats and triumphs, and the assimilation of various cultures shaped it. For instance,  he views the bar against images as a way for the Arabs to distinguish themselves against the decadent empires they had supplanted, but especially against the Romans, whose Constantinople twice defeats sieges here.   While there were some brief spots in the strictly historical narrative that rivaled Numbers for being a list of names and places without story to them, Hoyland's insightful commentary more than makes for it, This is a history that illustrates not only the beginning of the Islamic world, but shows some of the shared machinery of empires in general. For a book on conquests, there's comparatively little about the actual execution of battles; for that, a source like Crawford's War of the Three Gods might prove a complement.



Related:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Science: the Index

This list includes most of the science books I've read since 2007, omitting  titles that received only scant mention.

Brane and Brane! What is Brane?!- Cosmology and Astrophysics*



The Milky Way: Local Astronomy



Space: the Final Frontier





Third Rock from the Sun: Geology and Planetary Science



Weather and Climate



Chemistry and Physics



Flora and Fauna




Evolution



Anthropology



Neurology and Psychology



History of Science





Thinking Scientifically




Misc








* I actually use this as a shelf label on Goodreads. I live in hope that anyone will recognize it. Ten years, no luck so far.



Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Planets

The Planets
© 2003 Dava Sobel
288 pages



Like Lives of the Planets, Sobel's The Planets is a flyby through the solar system. The inclusion of the Sun and Moon give this a classical feel, since those bodies were considered by the Greeks to be wanderers as well. This is most likely intentional, because Sobel steeps her descriptions of the planets' exploration in the language of mythology and poetry, sometimes to a distracting level. A discussion of Holst's suite, "The Planets", is also included; although Sobel mentions a growing fascination with the scientific understanding of the solar system, the music was mostly inspired by the planets' astrological import. Astrology also features heavily in one chapter, which will raise some hackles -- it did mine. Mythology and poetry can be used for literary effect, but astronomy fought too long and too hard to escape its mooney-eyed cousin to sudden be thrown back into relations again. For the lay person, there is actual content here, just not a great deal -- don't expect tables of comparative volume, or probe photographs. There's discussion of Venus's greenhouse effect, of course, and Mars' past life as a livable planet, and the curious relationship between Mercury's rotation and revolution. Some of the information is delivered in...well, let's say unconventional ways. In the chapter on Mars, for instance, the reader is given a lecture by a rock on its life history. This book is interesting if limited; for someone who has expressed mild curiosity about the lives of planets, sure -- give it go. There's lot of poetry and history to ease you into the waters before being surprised with ruminating on Jupiter's cloud activity. The seriously interested reader has probably encountered the majority of the usual information before, however, and considered its datedness would probably be better off elsewhere.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Deep: Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss

The Deep: the Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
253 pages
© 2007 Claire Nouvian


I've been enjoying a gallery book devoted to the extraordinary creatures of the deep sea these past two weeks.  Edited by Claire Nouvian, The Deep collects  some of the best photography produced by the study of the ocean floor in the last decade, along with pieces by marine biologists and geologists commenting on the submarine ecosystem.  The sheer abundance of life on the surface of the Earth boggles the mind, but more than 90% of the planet's estimated biomass is within the oceans.  The Deep is first and foremost a collection of photographs, presented in full-page or two-page spreads.  They are a marvel; while some creatures have vaguely familiar shapes, resembling weird fish or weird octupi, the majority are...sights into themselves.  Some are transparent, others string themselves with organic lights, putting bacteria to work.  They exist in a world without light. While some only live in the deep seasonally, ascending to warmer and brighter waters when there's more food for the taking, others never leave the seafloor. Some feast on the remains of the upper level of the ocean, like the vast carcasses of whales; others life off of chemicals seeping from the sea floor or being expelled.    New species are constantly being discovered here, and many do not even have names; they exist as images that astound the mind with their alienness.  What a treasure Earth is!


Off the Grid

Off the Grid:  Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America
© 2010 Nick Rosen
292 pages


When Nick Rosen put up a website to help his fellow Britons find resources and land reduce their carbon footprint by living off the grid, he was astonished at all of the interest his site received from the United States. He had more American readers than English readers, in fact,  and decided to investigate.  Off the Grid records his visits with various communities which operate outside the electrical grid. Although its subtitle refers to a coherent movement, there is nothing like that actually here. Rosen's account includes many people who simply happen  to be without power, like the homeless and the residents of a small Florida key ("No Name Key") who balked at the enormous cost of electrifying their island. Some of the persons included are positively dull, like the numerous wealthy types who maintained a 'vacation home' off the grid when they needed a retreat from their busy lives.  There are far more interesting characters present, though: an aging woman introduced as the founder of the 2nd Maine Militia, who has a working relationship with a local commune of anarchists,  and another woman who gave up PBS videography to teach SCUBA diving and drive trucks, instead.

 The majority of these interviews take place in the Southwest, where land is cheap and the population sparse. While some of the people included here are gridless because of poverty or remoteness, most have chosen it  while trying to find a more meaningful life. They want freedom from the constant distractions, simplifying their lives to the point of being free from utilities: they aim to put to rout all that was not life.  Another element present in these interviews is fear, of people withdrawing from a system that they view as either criminally exploitative or doomed to failure by its excesses. (While Rosen's grid-free interest mostly stems from environmentalism, he has a contempt for power monopolies that gives him plenty of common ground with this last category.)  Most of the people interviewed have a shade of...quirkiness to them, a possible consequence of living either in their heads or in echo chambers. Rosen brings to life quite a few tangential topics like microcurrencies, the pot economy, and the ins and outs of living in cars during these interviews.

Although I found several of the characters of interest, ultimately Off the Grid disappointed me. Far too many of the subjects just happen to be without power, rather than deliberately choosing to live 'outside the system'.   Those who remain don't share a worldview, and the groups that would (that anarchist cult, for instance, or the hippie commune) aren't explored in a great deal of detail.   Practically nothing is mentioned of how they're getting along, aside from the constant mention of solar panels and a one-paragraph visit to a composting toilet,  and Rosen is a grating narrator who makes fun of his subjects to the reader while he's talking with the people.  He does offer some thoughtful commentary though, especially in discussion with one man who lived by himself until he realized he had it wrong: it's not about self-sufficiency, it's about nurturing healthy and self-sufficient communities.   In connection with others, there is meaning --  off the grid or on.





Related:

  • Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey. Kind of like Walden, but in the Southwest. 
  • Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, Eric Bende. This is one I read a couple of years ago and should review, as it's the thoughtful work of a married couple who decided to live for a year with a Mennonite community to ponder the role of both technology and labor in their lives.
  • Folks, This Ain't Normal, Joel Salatin. Read three years ago, and is also about  humans, tech, and the right balance. I also need to re-read- and review this one.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

On the Grid

On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work
© 2010 Scott Huler
256 pages



If modern humans have retained a penchant for magical thinking, little wonder. Our homes accomplish marvels seemingly by the force of will. We want light, we flip a switch.   Thirsty? We turn a knob. Bored? Open a laptop, and hey presto – there’s the complete series of  Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation!  All of civilization is literally at our finger tips, but it’s not magic – it’s a mindboggling array of wires, pipes, routers, and other infrastructure,  put to work by a multitude of engineers.  On the Grid opens the door on the miracle that is the 20th century home. Through it, Huler follows pipes, wires, and garbage men to find out where they go, investigating the operations of water supply, sewage, road construction, traffic control, electricity, waste management, telecommunications, and – for good measure – bus stops and train stations.

The adventure is both social and technical; while  at the beginning he literally stalks a recycling truck and  pokes along in sewers, nearly being run over by a backhoe at one point,  most of his information is gleaned from guided tours by a variety of engineers. Getting inside a nuclear plant, let alone getting a handle on their operation, would be difficult without a guide! By and large the men consulted are enthusiastic about talking about their work, and as Huler learns the ins and outs of more systems, he begins to see commonalities.  Not only do some systems rely on the same infrastructure – power, cable, and telephone all being mounted on a shared utility pole – but the ‘hub and spokes’ model of distribution is commonplace.   This is a wonderfully varied book, in part because of Foley’s respectable ambition. His documentation, however, mixes  science, history, engineering, and a little politics.   He ends with a salute to all of the engineers whose constant vigilance and labor keep the wires buzzing, the pipes open, and the pavement smooth, and a warning to readers not to undervalue infrastructure when it comes to thinking about taxes and leadership.   If, like me, you have a fascinating for knowing how something as complex as a city – or even an ordinary house – operate from day to day, Huler’s sweep offers a beginning spot, and draws on numerous histories  that go into more detail.

Related:


* Included in Huler’s bibliography

Index

Friday, May 13, 2016

Iran and the United States

Iran and the United States: An Insider's View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace
© 2014 Seyed Hossein Mousavian
368 pages



The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have not been on speaking terms since the hostage crisis of 1979 - 1981,  in which students drunk on revolution seized the American embassy in Tehran and held scores of American workers captive for well over a year.  This was not a random outburst of anti-American violence, but a carefully planned demonstration designed to spurn the United States' foreign policy in Iran.  The revolution in which these students played their part  had before thrown a US-installed dictator out of power -- and they would not accept his return.  The old relationship having been rejected, neither American nor Iranian leaders have been able to establish a new one -- but, according to this briefing by Sayed Mousavian, it's not an impossible task.  Both sides have attempted to come to some level of rapprochement, but misunderstanding, inconsistency, and timing problems have destroyed every trial balloon.  Iran and the United States reviews the whole of Iranian-American foreign relations, identifies the issues which are most problematic, and finishes by proposing a path to concord.

Once upon a time, the United States government was not a world power, but an idealistic Republic that held to a path of nonintervention. The Persian people looked at America as the shining light of the west: unlike the British and Russian empires, the Americans had no desire to  manipulate or force their will on the middle east. Even when Iran attempted to stay out of the West's way, as it did by declaring itself neutral during the Great War, the imperials insisted on dragging Iran into it -- as they did when Britain and Russia used Iran to attack the Turks, turning Iran into a warzone and reducing many of its people to refugees or worse.  During the Second World War, Iran became even more important for the west as a route for supplies to the Soviets, and a source of oil to power the legions of airplanes, tanks, ships, and service vehicles that supported a global war.   WW2 cost the United States the last vestiges of its innocence: it landed troops in Iran and thereafter would take a very active interest in Iranian politics.  When the Iranians attempted to resume control over their oil from Britain in the early 1950s, Britain and the US worked together to throw out the Iranian government and replace it with one that would do their bidding.

That government, the Shah's, was the one the Iranian revolution so forcefully rejected -- and not merely because he was foreign-imposed and allowed imperial powers to harvest the majority of Iran's oil wealth, but because he used brutal methods like the secret police to support his reign.  After the revolution, an overtly Islamic  government was installed, and thereafter relations with the outside world went steadily downhill. The Islamic nature of the government was in part religious, and in part a defense of Iranian traditions which had been supplanted by western mores.  The nuclear program that Britain and the United States had once encouraged in Iran was now forbidden, in part because of Iranian's militant rebuke of the decades of coercion endured from Britain, Russia, and now the Americans.   The new government's hostility extended to Israel, as the creation of the west in response to its own tragedy.  Iran would support militias fighting against Israel in Syria and Lebanon, and thereby earn a reputation for itself as a sponsor of terrorism -- even though some of the attacks attributed to it were actually perpetrated by the same Saudi terrorists who would later attack the United States.  The Islamic Republic had been founded on rejection of foreign meddling, and would spend its first decade fighting for its very life against Saddam Hussein -- a man who opportunistically invaded Iran, aided and armed by the Americans.  Although Iran was able to take back land stolen by Hussein's army, when it began an offensive into Iran it was warned discretely that the west would never allow it to 'win' the war by sacking Hussein, and the west has continued low-level hostilities since: destroying an Iranian fleet during the Iraqi invasion, assassinating its nuclear engineers, and even inaugurating cyberwar to disable its reactors.  Little wonder Iran regards the west with deep suspicion.

  Previous attempts at restoring connections have been marred by the gap between American and Iranian culture:  when a hostile American media sneers at Iranian leadership,  this is perceived as being the opinion of the American president.  When Congress and the president take opposing stances on the subject of Iran, this is seen not as a quirk of the American political process, but deliberate misleading on the part of the president.  On the other side, Americans fail to understand how deep the scars of the early 20th century go:  the Islamic Republic's entire raison d'être is reaction against western humiliation. Iran would rather perish than cave to the threat of violence. If concordance with the Iranians is to be achieved, it must be by appealing to their interests. One especially potent source of collaboration is counter-terrorism.  While Americans might include Iranian leadership in the ranks of 'Islamic extremism',  Iran's status as the center of Shi'ia Islam makes it an target to Sunni groups like ISIS.  Iran's leaders have acute interest in developing their economy further,  the sort of interest that makes stabilizing parts of the middle east a potential shared goal as well.  Other past attempts at patching together a peace have been hindered by misalignment between the nations' respective leadership: when the Iranians feel chatty, the Americans are bellicose, and vice versa. The Bush-Ahmadinejad years were a perfect combination of idiot dancing, as both men sent messages indicating they wanted to talk, then referred to the other party as the Great Satan the next week.

This is a fascinating volume, in part because it's by an Iranian who, until his arrest for treason by Ahmadinejad, faithfully served the Iranian government as its ambassador to Germany and on the nuclear negotiation team. He is not hostile toward the United States, despairing of both governments' talking past one another, and is able to understand the American side of the story.  The combination of his amiability and his experience as a journalist (later editor for the Tehran Times)  results in a thorough but approachable history and analysis of Iranian-American relations.  There certainly seems to be reasons for hope,  though the ramifications of the nuclear deal arrived at with the Iranians just recently are has yet unclear. The White House is very proud of the deal ,but the White House is also very proud of the ACA website.  Hopefully what little progress made can be sustained through the next president, though this is stretching it given that a proven warmonger is most likely to win.   At any rate, for Americans and Europeans attempting to get a handle on Iran, this is a commendable beginning.  The fact that we continue to attempt to control mid-east politics when every previous attempt has backfired and created larger problems is awe-inspiring in its historic obliviousness.





American History: the Index


Across the Bering:  Native America



The Age of Discovery and Colonization



The American Revolution



Early American Republic




Sectional Division and Civil War




Reconstruction and the Gilded Age



Early Modern




American Zenith


          =============== Special Topics =============
Constitutional History


Ethnographies



Intellectual and Social Movements



Social History



Surveys





Wednesday, May 11, 2016

World War 2 Index

This index includes only books read during the tenure of the blog, omitting those consulted but not read completely, like Walter Boyne's Influence of Air Power Upon History,  as well those given only marginal comments, like Primo Levi's Surviving Auschwitz.  Because this index will help guide my future reading, I have included empty categories.



Past is Prologue:  Weimar, Depression Politics, and the Rise of Japan

Hitler's Autobahn: The Road to War

Axis-Soviet Expansion



War in Asia



Duel of the Devils: Hitler v Stalin



The African Front



War in the Pacific



Espionage and Resistance



The Holocaust

Allied-Soviet Offenses




Towards Victory

Combatant Memoirs



Special Interest - WW2 Tie

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

This week: science, the middle east, and a duel


Dear readers, I'm beginning to suspect books are a racket.  Today I began reading one and within fifty pages, I'd already written down four  more titles that I wanted to investigate.  No wonder people read fiction -- it's far less addictive.  Anyhoo, May is off to a promisingly interesting start, with more science and middle-eastern politics coming up.  Speaking of --



 A few weeks ago,  I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, and apparently didn't mention it.  It's a curious mixture of literary discussion and revolutionary memoir, as the author, Azar Nafisi, discusses great books of the western canon (and Lolita) with her classes in Iran as the country heaves with revolution.  Ms. Nafisi was a leftist revolutionary in her youth, at least during her time in America: imagine her surprise when she returned to Iran and got one, just not the one she expected. While opposition to the Shah's regime drew from both the secular-Marxist left and the reactionary-Islamic right, it was the latter which prevailed.  Feeling irrelevant by the new regime, and appalled by its puritanical culture,  Nafesi would seek sanctuary first in her classroom, and then in a private class taught from her home, teaching to a select group of girls.   Throughout their discussions they sought to apply the themes engaged by Nabokov,  James, Fitzgerald, and Austen: for instance, as Humbert from Lolita turns a young girl into an object of his own interests, to be molded by his own proclivities, so the government of Iran has turned them into objects to be molded by its desires.  While I haven't read most of the books discussed by Nafisi's class or her reading group,  I found it very interesting as a memoir of the revolution. I'm particularly interested in following up with The Republic of the Imagination,  as Nafisi -- having fled Iran  -- seeks her true city via the literary world, engaging with minds across the ages.

 I'll also be having a little fun with titles later. You may remember when I read Into Thin Air, followed shortly by Into Thick Air,  or my reading two books entitled Kobayashi Maru back to back.  Well,  another dueling duo arrived in the mail today, and the only thing preventing me from diving right in is...all the other books I'm intent on reading. We'll have to see what  I cram in where...


Sunday, May 8, 2016

The City: the Index




Citizen Politics



City as Community



Commerce



Development



Law Enforcement 




Social Problems



Transportation


Urban Economics:

  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs


Utilities



Waste Management




The City Historic

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Sphere

Sphere
© 1987 Michael Crichton
385 pages


 Norman Thomas is accustomed to government officials asking for his assistance to counsel survivors at plane crashes, but traveling fifteen hours into the middle of the Pacific is a first.   Upon arrival, John finds not an island with aircraft remains, but a small fleet of ships from the US Navy:  and the object of their concern isn’t a crashed vessel at all. It’s a sunken ship…a spaceship….that is three hundred years old.   So begins an eerie psychological thriller, as Thomas and a team chosen to make first contact with unknown life forms are taken by sub deep into the bottom of the ocean, into a lightless world of fear and wonder.

  Johnson came to the Navy’s attention when, during the Carter Administration, he submitted a report to a committee concerned with extraterrestrial life.  It wasn’t a subject he took seriously, but they offered him money for educated guesses, and with a house to pay for he was more than happy to make guesses.  Those guesses have become US policy, and the recommendations he made have become his own hand-picked team of zoologists and other professionals.   From the beginning Johnson and the other civilians suspect the Navy knows more than it is letting on,  but the surprises are only starting: when the craft is breached, it proves to be not of extraterrestrial origin, but is human-made, with English signage and stocked with Coca-Cola!   But the interior of the ship has still more surprises, alien and powerful, and after a hurricane scatters the surface fleet the explorers are left marooned thousands of few below. There, as strange happenings start to claim their lives, the slowly-dwindling survivors begin to question their own sanity.

Sphere  is a remarkably creepy book, a genuine thriller: from the beginning, its developments incite curiosity, and later dread.  How did a human spaceship, whose operating principles and material are far beyond the present’s abilities, come to be buried beneath centuries of coral and the oceans themselves? What was its mission,  what is the meaning of its baffling cargo (a mysterious black sphere), and…why do people keep dying?  Strange animals keep appearing around the underwater habitat,  including a giant squid that can heavily damage it;  the built environment around them keeps adding surprises,  things suddenly being there that weren’t before…and then there’s 'Jerry',  some strange entity attempting to communicate with the crew. “Jerry’s”  conversational skills have an uncanny aspect, familiar yet menacing.   Ultimately, even the psychologist-narrator seems on the verge of cracking up before an explosive conclusion.

 I’ve only read a few of Crichton’s works (Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Jurassic Park, Lost World), but this ranks near the top. It is a psychological thriller, not only because the characters seem to be collectively losing  their mind, but because Crichton’s author-lecture addresses perception, imagination, and reality.  The alien here is utterly alien; this isn’t a Star Trek humanoid with a bumpy nose, or even a SF monster that has a mouth, eyes, and the desire to eat what it sees.   The alien presence here is not comprehensible; the characters don’t even know if they’re seeing an actual sphere, or some part of a transdimensional object that merely looks like a sphere in our plane of existence.  Crichton’s writing may be plain, but what a scientifically-inspired imagination!