Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mind's Eye

© 2014 Douglas E Richards
362 pages

A man wakes in a dumpster, covered in blood. He has no idea who he is, but there are men trying to kill him.  This dumped stranger isn't completely defenseless, however. he wakes to find the killers' and everyone else's minds wide open to him.  He can read minds, and what's more, his brain has its own wireless connection, allowing him to dive into the internet and pull up any bit of information he needs, all without blinking.    The man soon discovers himself to be the victim of an arrogant bioengineer whose motives are utterly sinister, and the fantastic expansion of his mental abilities will be desperately needed as the man flees and fights mercenaries, false friends, and the US military.  At its best, The Mind's Eye offers a look at the fascinating possibilities and problems that widespread cranial implants could present humanity; at its worst,  the writing veers to the awkward, and the villains indulge in those "I'm about to kill you, so why don't I tell you my ultimate plan?" kinds of speeches.   (The uber-villian's ultimate motive is also wholly unbelievable -- the mad scientist/technocrat unmasks himself as a crusader for a completely unrelated cause, and there's been no hint, not even a shadow, of the other identity. )

The only reason I made it through this novel was the technical concept. I can only hope the characterization and dialogue improve in Richards' later novels..

Monday, May 29, 2017

La Regresa

Well, dear readers, I have returned from two twelve-hour days walking around St. Augustine, bracketed by two seven hour drives. I have stood in the waves and watched the sun set over the city,  climbed a lighthouse fourteen stories above it,  and descended into basements to learn the stories of conquerors and architects from days gone by.  More importantly, I've passed two very full days -- arriving as the sun was rising and leaving after nightfall -- strolling the streets of a city brimming over with life and architectural richness.  It was a fantastic weekend.   At the moment I'm still resting and curating my photos, but here's a couple of previews:

Castille de San Marcos. 

Twilight rays on the Basilica of St. Augustine

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Countdown to Zero Day

Countdown to Zero Day:  Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon
© 2014 Kim Zetter
448 pages

A couple of years ago I created a new label, 'digital world', in recognition of the fact that the Internet is no longer a discrete system (like a grid of water pipes). It has seeped into every aspect of our everyday lives, as basic as electricity. Through it, the entire developed world moves. War is no exception to this digital revolution, and the fun is just beginning. People may associate cyberwar with the theft of intelligence, or perhaps monkeying-around with the power grid, but the case of "Stuxnet" demonstrates how weaponized computer programs can cause physical destruction no less complete than a bomb. What's more, the specific vulnerability used to great effect here is virtually universal in the industrial world. Countdown to Zero Day is a forensic-political history of how the United States used a computer virus to effect the kind of destruction only imaginable before by an airstrike, and a warning to the entire online world that we are vulnerable.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, cyberwar appears to occupy a grey area between the two. The policy of the Bush administration, once it became obvious that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, was to squelch the threat through any means necessary. While there may have been many in DC who wanted to see another example of shock-n-awe, even Bush knew a third war in the same mideast minefield wasn't possible. Remote sabotage, however, offered an alternative to war or a nuclear Iran, and a program which started under Bush would bear full fruit during the Obama administration. What a small elite knew in DC as "Olympic Games", the world would later call "Stuxnet": a virus that began as a carefully targeted weapon and but which would later spread across Eurasia.

The author delivers the full story of Stuxnet in a back and forth narrative: the first track begins with the eruption of the virus, and the methodical picking-apart that Symantec, Kapersky, and other cybersecurity firms subjected the code to. Step by step, they attempted to figure out what the code was doing, how it got in, what mechanisms the code was using, and finally -- what was its intended target? This campaign of digital detection work wasn't the product of one cyber Sam Spade, but a collaborative effort between various businesses who shared their information and results. Eventually, over the course of two years, they realized that the initial program was highly target specific: it was aimed at two kinds of programmable logic controllers, or computers used in industrial work. The particular PLCs targeted were used in rotors that were specific to the kind of centrifuge that Iran used to enrich uranium.

The teams dissecting the Stuxnet code marveled several times at its structure, but marveled all the more when they figured out - -based on reports coming in from Iran -- how the program worked. Because the centrifuges' speed and weight necessitate careful handling -- slow acceleration and then slow deceleration, nothing too abrupt -- the program's main attack was to methodically stress the centrifuges by taking them up to speed, or down, in patterns resigned to slowly ruin the pieces. What's more, long before this act of digital undermining ever began, the program silently sat and waited, recording the normal activities: during the actual sabotage, the program fed recorded data to he plant's control room, meaning eventually the Iranians had to physically watch the motors to see what was happening. The program had a nucleus so deeply hidden that when the machine software was placed under repair by the Iranian engineers, the core program methodically re-wrote the new programming. It's as if an invasive bacteria promptly turned the body's immune system into its own means of reproduction.

The case of Stuxnet is important because PLCs are pervasive; they aren't just used in manufacturing, but are common wherever computer-controlled machinery is used. They're in hospitals, food production plants, powerstations, transit networks: there's no end to the mischief that could be managed by attacking them, and until recently very little done to protect the systems. Stuxnet was a wakeup call to many technical directors in the developed world, an alarm bell to their vulnerability. As the recent WannaCry attack which cripped hospitals in the UK demonstrates, however, we're not taking cybersecurity anywhere near enough seriously. (The WannaCry and Stuxnet attacks also demonstrate the volatility of cyberweapons: they don't go away. In both cases, code and tools designed by DC were trapped and corralled into use by other parties.) Throughout the world we rely on computers which haven't been protected for years, or we have foolishly ensnared vital public infrastructure like the power grid with the public internet. Stuxnet was only the beginning -- perhaps it may be like the Hiroshima-Nagasaki attacks, a singular event that frightens everyone into more caution. I doubt it, though.

@ war: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, Shane Harris
Glass Houses: Privacy, Secrecy, and Cyber Insecurity in a Transparent World,  Joel Brenner

Friday, May 26, 2017

Off to St. Augustine

Dear readers, you may remember a few months back I read a slew of books on colonial Florida's history. I did so with purpose, for I'd then scheduled a four-day trip down to the Florida coast, with the aims of spending two days in St. Augustine.   Wish me well, for I'm off to drive seven hours. I'll be driving almost as many miles as I did in New Mexico, but with six days compressed into two.  It's Memorial Day weekend, too, but if I can handle Albuquerque during the Balloon Fiesta, I can handle anything shy of Atlanta.   My rental this round is a luxurious-looking  Hyundai Veloster.  Yowza!

Until Tuesday!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ten potters, one brain of clay

If we are the books we read, then for the last ten years I have been growing and changing under a public eye. Nothing I've read has been hidden; most of it has been commented on, if ever so lightly.   Of course, magazines, blogs, and online lectures have played a considerable part in shaping my mind. As part of my 'anniversary celebration', I'd like to reflect on ten authors who have had a significant hand in shaping my worldview over the last ten years.

I should note, however, that a list like this is inherently misleading:  few of these authors were one-man armies. Indeed, most of them had an effect because their subtle influences mixed  and reacted with one another.

Carl Sagan

For most of my adolescence, I lived in constant fear of doomsday and the tortures of Hell. I grew up in a very passionate and opinionated branch of Pentecostalism, one that I could not connect to despite my best efforts, and  by the age of twenty I was utterly demoralized.  Years of frustration, terror, and exhaustion left me so calloused to the threat of Hell that I just couldn't care anymore. I decided that I was going to make the best of my life, however meager that might be.

Through a forum for ex-Pentecostals, I discovered reason to believe that the Pentecostals were not right about me, that I and the rest of humanity were not damned to a torture pit forever.  I flushed all they told me and began building a worldview from scratch,  igniting then the ravenous hunger for nonfiction that continues even today.  Carl Sagan  was one of the first voices I encountered, and what a gift he gave me. He restored my childhood awe of the Cosmos and helped give me a sense of optimism about the future of humanity.   For years thereafter, whenever reading about society made me depressed and anxious, I would return to science and be refreshed. More fundamentally, however, my extensive reading of science  in 2006-2007 (which was dead-even with history, if you can imagine that)  gave me a fundamentally scientific worldview, which shapes my reading of other disciplines. For instance, one of the reasons market economics caught my eye was  because the emergent order therein reminded me rather of biological evolution.

Henry David Thoreau

"I went into the woods to live deliberately"... that approach called to me in the spiritual vacuum following my abrupt departure from the Pentecostals.  I had around this time discovered the great Robert Ingersoll, and admired his commitment to taking nothing on authority.  It was an approach I adopted for myself, but it wasn't simply pragmatic: I needed to know, as a teenager becoming an adult,   that my values were mine, that they were real and not passively accepted. Already wary of consumerism out of fiscal self-defense, Thoreau first awoke in me an interest in simple living --  sow the seed of a deep conviction that flowered later on, namely that a thing can be morally wrong evil if the State has declared it legal -- and a thing can be right even if the State declares it illegal.

Although Thoreau's simple living had a quasi-mystical approach,  another author named Erich Fromm gave me another justification, couched in the language of psychology. What intrigued me about Fromm was his belief -- expounded in a book called To Have or to Be? --  that the modern world had erred in developing a possessive view of itself.  That is, we define ourselves by what we possess, instead of by our character.  I can still remember his example of person plucking a flower in an effort to capture, to posses the beauty -- an action which actually destroys the thing that is so desired.   Part of the reason I keep this example in mind is that I believe the ever-presence of cameras has this effect in terms of our experiences. So intent are we on capturing the moment -- taking photos to post to facebook -- that we take ourselves out of the moment and so, lose it.   This is something I have to remind myself of constantly, especially while on vacation.

Frances and Joseph Gies

Until I encountered the Gies, my perception of the Middle Ages was fairly typical: I regarded them as a dark period in European history between the high points of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, where learning and the arts existed in perennial stupor, where nothing happened but death and war and pushing around mud.   The Gies introduced me to another medieval world,  one in which the institutions that failed were struggling to reform themselves, or being replaced by new structures.   The Gies didn't merely give me a new appreciation for the Medieval period, however, they awoke me to a kind of...chronological snobbery. The view of the medieval epoch as a long period of civilizational death is self-serving flattery on the part of those who came later -- those who, in fact, were standing on the shoulders of the people they dismissed as ignoramuses.   Will Durant would reinforce my newfound appreciation for the medieval period, and Neil Postman would later make me aware that modern minds are just as pliable and superstitious as the "ancients":  we are 'enlightened' only to the extent that our institutions have been managing to acquire, save, and utilize more information.

James Howard Kunstler

My exposure to James Howard Kunstler begins with a lecture at the University of Montevallo, in which Kunstler connected  suburban sprawl, peak oil, and the financial crisis.  I subsequently read his book, The Geography of Nowhere, which allowed me to understand my own strong interest in historic cities and communities -- particularly the idea of 'place'.  I've since read much about urbanism and place, and through those studies (and others) became more locally-oriented. Additionally,  Kunstler's  doomsday lecture -- delivered at the height of the financial crisis in 2007 --  made me more aware of the need for resilience and preparedness.  By this I don't simply mean he enticed me to become a prepper;  he made me aware that systems can be inherently fragile.  In agribusiness, for instance,  monocultures increase fragility because one disease can have an outsized effect; in urban planning,  the concentration of zones into pods and traffic into collector roads increases fragility by narrowing network options.  I would see fragility at work in politics and economics, too, which is why I've moved away from top down, rational-plan oriented politics and more towards decentralization. Kunstler has thus had a long albeit sometimes indirect influence on my thinking.

In retrospect,  one of Kunstler's subtle effects was to undermine my easy belief in government intervention by demonstrating to me how DC's programs had helped destroy American cities.

Neil Postman

I discovered Postman entirely on accident, finding his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century while searching for a history of the enlightenment.   I found Postman an intriguing enough author that I went on to read his book about technology and society, which gave me eyes to see just as the internet was becoming less a distinct place to go, and more a component of everyday life.  Postman argued that technology is not value-neutral, that its uses carry conceptions about the world: our ability to do a thing leads us to believe doing is perfectly normal.  We never question whether so much of our attention should be focused on smartphones throughout the day,  that we should expect instant reply texts from people, that we should design babies to appeal to our own vanity.  More fundamentally, Postman argued that we have adopted the ethos of the machine -- Efficiency above all --  at the cost of humanity, quality, or other values.

Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death were the two books that most penetrated my thinking.

Marcus Aurelius

A sermon on humanist spirituality introduced me to the Stoics,  and Marcus Aurelius' writings proved a source of needed peace and sanctuary during a particularly unsettling year in college.  I cannot overrate Stoicism's influence on me. It made religion comprehensible for one thing:  my native religion consisted of living in terror of an invisible authority figure with many rules, some of which made sense and some of which didn't. (Why did he want us to scream at him?)    It was the Stoics who helped me understand the power of viewing the Cosmos  as a thing with a moral-rational order, and the serenity from attempting to live within that order.  Stoicism made Greek philosophy come alive, gave me a new appreciation for the idea of Virtue altogether, and would later on  contribute to my political  maturation.  (Specifically: once I started focusing only what I could control,  I started viewing as inappropriate  for other people to control what was beyond themselves, specifically other people and me.  Self government, to me, grew to mean something much deeper than casting a vote for one fraud over another every four years.  Self-government meant self-command.

Emilie Carles

Emilie Carles was a French peasant girl with a quick mind, whose intelligence was appreciated by local authorities and guided towards an education.  She became a teacher in her village, but her real education came from studying the changing world around her with a critical eye.  She was particularly molded by the Great War, through which she developed a deep disdain for government twinned with a love for humanity. For her...government, organized religion, and organized big business were foes of humanity,  joy, beauty, and innocence.  Her brothers and cousins were anarchists and libertarians, and as the sons of France continued being thrown into war or prison, she continued teaching her children to think for themselves and to refuse to allow the government to control their hearts and minds -- to divide them from their fellow men. (I was already cynical about the Great War,  and remain so.)

Carles is important because she opened the door for me to explore the Left. Before this I didn't have a political philosophy, as such, just the belief that we ought to help people who needed help, as well as a strong attachment to the Bill of Rights. I'd never seriously considered the ideas of socialism because of their  connection with mass murderers like Stalin and Mao, but Carles'  writings were more democratic and pacifistic. Yet Carles' door gave me a unique angle of approach: the more I explored the left from that direction, the less I favored state and central control; by the end of college I was thinking of myself as a left-libertarian, one who simultaneously distrusted big business and big government.  (I have a longer  essay called "Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism" that explains my shift from left-libertarianism to plain-ol-liberterianism in full, and includes comments on the role of Stoicism and Gandhi.)

Howard Zinn 

At one time I regarded Zinn so highly that when he died, I changed my forum avatar to his face for a year in memoriam. Now my image of him is more troubled, old affection mixing with new and contrary convictions.  Zinn's histories of the marginalized and powerless coming together in mobs and forcing the government to respond to their needs used to inspire me, but now I see that approach as problematic on several fronts --- first, the protesters  aren't so much actors as pleaders before the king, subjects, and two, they invariably campaign not for a cessation of coercion, but a redirection of it.  Still, I ever believe that people must be in control of their lives, and while my own thinking on the subject has more in common with  Jefferson than Marx these days, for a while what most appealed to me about the left was the idea of people obtaining the means to be economically independent.  The Epicureans taught, and I am still tempted to believe, that genuine liberty necessitates economic self-direction.  History indicates that total autarky is the path to poverty: just see any nation that has sealed itself off from trade.

Russ Roberts

Had I been born into money, no doubt I could have lived a happy existence doing nothing but going to university for my entire life, with the summers off for travel and museums.  I wasn't, though,  so my ravenous hunger for understanding has to be fed from other sources -- books and podcasts.  I found Russ Roberts while looking for podcasts from professionals (lawyers, economists, and doctors specifically)  because I wanted to glean some of their insight.   Roberts was, to my faint horror, a free market economist. Still, he had interesting conversations with people on the return of industry to America, and on how milk was distributed -- something of interest to me, someone who is prone to read books on the history of coal or cattle or housework.    I found Roberts astonishingly -- maddeningly -- pleasant.   He would interview people he disagreed with, and they'd have the most amicable of discussions, and he was so doggone nice I wanted to keep listening to him.  Later on I started reading his novels, which were political and economic policy arguments in story form. It was through Roberts that I developed a partial understanding of basic economics, as well as an appreciation for libertarian political philosophy.  Eventually I would connect the libertarian nonaggression principle to my own strong sympathy for Gandhi''s refusal of violence, and since then (2012/2013) I've been firmly settled as a libertarian.

Jane Jacobs

Reader, you will search in vain for a review of any Jane Jacobs books on my blog -- for despite the fact that she  is easily one of the top five influences on my thinking,  I've never been able to reduce my wonder at her books to a review.  When I began reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 2010, I could still describe myself as a social democrat on a good day, and a left-libertarian on a bad day. That is, I disliked both government and corporate power, but if I was feeling optimistic I could still support government ventures.    A third of the way into Death and Life,  my belief in government planning was over.  Granted, Jane didn't do this by herself:  I'd long been acquiring an appreciation for the complexity of systems and seemingly inevitable backfire from authors like Kuntsler and Michael Pollan, and  my increasing belief  in 'emergent order' -- was leading to an interest in how markets worked.  But Jane wasn't writing about free markets. She was writing about cities.  Specifically, she was an observer of humans living in cities, and she watched and contemplated the ways their use of the city changed its very nature, and how its physical form changed their use of the city.  I'll have to re-read the book (again) to give it a proper review, but her influence can be reduced to two points. First, she made me realize that planning people's lives without their  consent is immoral. Two,  her understanding of how cities really worked destroyed my resistance to understanding how free economies worked.

There are strong influences I did not mention here because I didn't read full books by them, only essays or speeches or something (Gandhi, Robert Ingersoll)  or because they're relatively recent and I don't know yet what their influence will be. If I do this again in five or ten years, I'm pretty sure Russell Kirk will hold a spot,  as he has been camping in my cranium since I read a few of his works in  2013.  

If you made it through to the end, congratulations and thank you.  As I have reflected on these authors and their influence on me the last few weeks, I've been amazed at the connections, the interplay, and I wonder how I would respond to them if I encountered their works again. A few of these definitely require re-reading, particularly Postman and Jacobs.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Dark Net

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
© 2015 Jamie Barlett
320 pages

In middle school, the Internet was a distinct place, a world apart from 'real life'.  Now it has grown so ubiquitous that it's as exciting as the paved street outside my house.  When I first heard of the dark net a few years ago, I caught a whiff of the old excitement - there are still places that haven't been bulldozed into boringness! While I had no interest in exploring the dark alleys of the internet, I took comfort in knowing they were there.  Jamie Barlett's  The Dark Net promises to reveal a little of what goes on in the digital shadows,  but its true real subject is the human condition, and how it is interacting with the possibilities that the internet and its shadows provide.  Barlett mixes criminal voyeurism and philosophical debate about the nature of freedom to great effect.

Barlett examines two different 'dark nets'; the first is the submerged internet, websites which are only accessible with certain programs and certain knowledge.  Virtually all of the websites we use on a daily basis exist both above the surface and a little below it; for instance,  banks  have ample public areas for potential customers to explore, but certain rooms, like our individual account pages, are slightly submerged and accessible only through our username and password. But there's a deeper level to the web,  websites that require specific browsers and knowledge of their URL to appear. (One address  Barlett finds here actually requires a series of cookies from other websites:  users must visit a set of websites in a particular order before being able to load the target successfully, otherwise, an attempt to load the address will produce a completely-different looking site.)  On these hidden pages -- accessibly only through secure browsers -- anything is for sale, from illicit drugs to lives, but there are also safe havens for whistle-blowers to upload documents to the media, or hide from opinion-policing.

Connected but not limited to this is the second 'dark' aspect that Barlett explores, the effect that the internet's anonymity and diverse opportunities have on the human psyche. Here he catalogs support groups for destructive behavior: websites promoting anorexia and suicide, for instance,  or which radicalize political opinions and produce bombers out of disaffected coeds.  The websites he explores here operate on the surface net -- places like 4chan and reddit -- but the behavior promoted reveals the darkness inside the human soul itself,  its capacity for brutality.  In one case, a woman who foolishly posts a photo of herself without clothing is identified by background information, and the 4chan residents promptly start sending the photos to everyone on the woman's facebook page to publicly humiliate her.

Despite this catalog of horrors, from child pornography to terrorist communities, The Dark Net  is not a polemic against the evils of new-fangled technology.  Early on, he writes about the enthusiasm early adopters had for the internet, the generation of 'cypherpunks'  who viewed the digital world as their long-waited escape from the medieval dreariness of nation-states and castles of control and surveillance. The internet was anonymity and freedom -- liberty.  Although the internet was normalized relatively quickly in the 1990s and early 2000s, saturating the geeks' playground with boring e-businesses and teenagers posting their journals online, technology did arrive to give the cyphers more of what they wanted: anonymous browsing via browsers like Tor, and secure modes of payment like Bitcoin.  Just as the lightless ocean depths create extraordinary creatures, so to have the pressures of illicit marketplaces created  new ways of communicating and doing business, creating payment structures that  allow some degree of trust but without legal exposure.  Just as PGP encryption for secure messages has filtered down into email clients like Thunderbird, so too  may multisignature escrow accounts for online payments one day appear above the surface for those who prefer not to use credit cards online for mundane security reasons.

The Dark Net is disturbing reading at times, particularly the chapter on child pornography.  There are lessons to be learned here, though, like the ways that highly specific interest groups amplify their members' devotion as they enter into an echo chamber where increasingly more strident views and increasingly more antagonistic behavior are viewed as perfectly acceptable. (Barlett believes, for instance, that child pornography grows off of increasingly compulsive consumption of ordinary pornography, as the user requires increasingly more provocative content to engender excitement.) The conclusion is worth reading in itself, as Barlett uses two people -- a technohumanist and an anarcho-primitivist -- to examine different views of freedom. Although both view the present state of things as unattractive for shared reasons, their solutions are utter opposites.  Ultimately, although there's much here to give one pause about human nature, I still find myself faintly relieved to know (as I did in reading A Renegade History of the United States) that rebellion lives.

The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, Nate Anderson
#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein. Book about how highly specific internet filters and communities lead to increased polarization and disaffection.
Spam Nation, Brian Krebs

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Visiting Harper Lee

On Saturday I visited the boyhood home of Hank Williams in Georgiana, and then decided -- since I was in the neighborhood -- to drive a bit further into the woods and go to Monroeville, the hometown of Harper Lee. Its former courthouse was used as the model for To Kill a Mockingbird's courthouse, and the building is now used as a museum.  The above photo depicts three Depression-era children reading To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Although I arrived in town long after the museum's scheduled closing at 1 PM, out of utter luck the museum was hosting a production of a Mockingbird stage play that night, and was subsequently open until ten.  The two classic cars to the right of the building are used in the play; a would-be lynch mob arrives in them.

The second floor houses the courthouse and rooms dedicated to Harper Lee and Truman Capote (both of whom grew up in Monroeville), while the first floor shows off general history, with a model lawyer's office circa 1930.

Best 100 Books I've Read in the Last Decade

Dear readers, today is a special today -- the tenth anniversary of my writing about books!  In the next few days I will have some reflective posts,  but today I'd just like to thank my regular readers for your digital company over the years -- and especially Cyberkitten, who has been coming by at least since 2008.

Five years ago, I celebrated my five-year blogging anniversary by posting a list of fifty of my favorite or most memorable books. It's  time for another round!   In chronological order, the fifty most memorable books read since 2012:

  1. Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam
  2. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, Jane Holtz Kay
  3. Lucifer's Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Fiction)
  4.  Blood, Iron, and Gold: How Railroads Transformed the World, Christian Wolmar
  5. Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich
  6. A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss
  7. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser
  8. Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
  9. Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, Jennifer Linn
  10. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenburg
  11. The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smarter, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen
  12. John Adams, David McCullough
  13. A Man on the Moon, Neil Chaiken
  14. No Logo: The Case Against the Brand Bullies, Naomi Klein
  15. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, Susan Strasser
  16. The Arthur Trilogy, Bernard Cornwell
  17. Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, Jeff Mapes
  18. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe
  19.  The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
  20. The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life, edited by Scott Savage
  21. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry 
  22. The Conservative Mind: From Burk to Eliot, Russell Kirk
  23. Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton
  24.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt
  25. small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered, EF Schumacher
  26. Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein 
  27.  Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front Porch Anarchists, Bill Kauffman
  28. Human Scale, Kirkpatrick Sale
  29. Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping,  Rose George.'
  30. Antifragile: How Some Things Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
  31. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre
  32. A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich
  33. The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy (Politics)
  34. The Iron Web, Larken Rose (Political Thriller)
  35. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery
  36. The Horse in the City,  Clay McShane and Joel Tarr
  37. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming, Mike Brown (Science)
  38. Picking Up:  On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, Robin Nagle
  39. Future Crimes:  Everything is Connected, Everyone is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It, Marc Goodman
  40. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein 
  41. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens 
  42. The Chosen, Chaim Potok 
  43. Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, Neil Thompson
  44. Sphere, Michael Crichton 
  45. All the Shah's Men,  Stephen Kinzer
  46. The Porch and the Cross, Kevin Vost
  47. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, Brad Birzer
  48. Musonius Rufus on How to Live, adapted Ben White. 
  49. The Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy
  50. Fear no Evil, Natan Sharansky

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Hank Williams

Hank Williams: The Biography
© 1994 Colin Escott
320 pages

"You don't have to call me Mister, mister --  the whole world calls me Hank."

Hank Williams is the legend of country music. I'd heard of him long before I ever heard him;  my father (who stopped listening to country in the 1970s) took me to visit his grave in Montgomery back in the early nineties, and Williams was a constant Presence in the music I grew up on,  haunting the singers of pieces like "Midnight in Montgomery" and "The Ride".      Hank Williams: The Biography renders a thorough and sober account of Williams' life,   one that appraises the man without romanticism.   It is exhaustively detailed, utilizing interviews with those who remember the "Lovesick Blues boy", and also features some commentary on Williams' musical craft.

Part of the legend of Hank Williams' life is that he died young and tragically -- alone, in the back of his car,  his heart destroyed by a mixture of alcohol and haphazardly-dosed medicine   Easily the most surprising aspect of The Biography is that Williams' chronic alcoholism was not the result of his fame and fortune, but something he fought with for most of his life.  From the time a thirteen year old Hank raided some loggers' booze hoard buried in the woods,  the young singer would have bouts with the bottle. He did not drink constantly, but  once he started on a bender he was hopeless for weeks. Time and again he submitted himself to sanatoriums,  especially when he needed to focus on his career, but every time he would stumble.  Although there was no shortage of excuses -- constant strife with his wives, the pressure of the road, the constant agony of spinal disease --    Williams' problems were only amplified by his success,  not created by them.

Williams was a genuine country boy, the son of poor strawberry farmers who lost everything they had in a fire,  a man whose first memories were of living in a boxcar. The Williams moved from place to place in search of a living:  after his father was stuck in a VA hospital, the family got by selling peanuts and taking in boarders.  That's where Williams got his start singing and selling , down in a little town called Georgiana.  Hank was a sickly boy, born with a spinal disease, and that diminished his ability to take part in the roughhousing and hard labor so common to southern men. He could sing, though, and after the family moved to Montgomery he began promoting school shows -- something that would grow into a career.  From schoolhouses to bars,  Williams became a local star who grew into a southern icon -- and after his death, a national figure.  His success was partially his own,  from his ability to turn his constant troubles, particularly with his wife,  into plaintive songs rendered in simple melody that resonated in the hearts of his country audiences.  Although Williams would mature as a writer in his brief window of fame,  his re-use of old melodies retained a sense of familarity.  He also owed success to his domineering mom, however, who opened her home to his band and who personally sold tickets at early concerts. (His wife Audrey, though she tried to use him for her own ill-conceived musical career, was also a forceful personality who replaced his mother as a manager of sorts after they moved from Montgomery to Shreveport.)  

Escott mentions that Williams came along at just the right time when radio was allowing hillbilly music to reach larger audiences, and become of interest to popular   musicians: indeed,  many of Williams' songs were performed by men on the national stage, like Tony Bennett.  Although Williams' financial success came from record sales -- concerts were hit and miss when he was on a bender -- he seemed to think of himself primarily as a songwriter, and was drafting lyrics even on the night his body surrendered to a bad mixture of painkillers and booze. Escott also notes coldly that Williams died at just the right time:  his back pains had only increased as time wore on,  as had the stress of performing on the road, and despite steady record sales his career seemed to be stalling and on the verge of sinking when he perished.  Instead of living to become a forgotten washout, a star that blazed briefly before being eclipsed,  Williams became a tragic figure.

As a history of Hank Williams, this appears to be the definitive work, and pads the detail with humor. (One favorite: Escott comments that if everyone who claims to have been in the car with Hank the night he penned "I Saw the Light" was, he would have needed a touring buss to accompany them. Escott also describes Audrey's show house as a tribute to what bad taste and good money can accomplish.  Another lady is described as being someone who, if she had been born a canary, would have still sung bass.)  

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, hat and outdoor
(Photo taken by me, Sept 2012. Downtown Montgomery.)

When the wind is right, you'll hear his song, smell whiskey in the air
Midnight in Montgomery,  Hank's always singin' there...

(Photo taken by me, May 2017. Georgiana.)

Funny story: The first time I listened to Hank Williams knowingly was after hearing my childhood preacher rail against country music for its sad songs and use of alcohol, using "There's a Tear in my Beer" as his example. Naturally I had to give it a listen,

Some songs:
"Lovesick Blues", the song that made his career.
"Lost Highway", my personal favorite

Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class,  Bill Malone

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Butterfly Spanish

My podcast time in recent weeks has been largely devoted to listening to lessons on YouTube;  I've been trying to restore my high school Spanish for several months now, using an app called DuoLingo on a daily basis and studying Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish as well as Spanish Made Simple.  One of my favorite Youtube channels for Spanish is hosted by a young woman named Ana. who is as personable as can be imagined.  She teaches Spanish like she's in high school, talking to her friends and goofing off along the way.

Another interesting channel, Bueno Estonces, uses music to teach. 

The publishers choose slower tempo songs that give viewers time to read the lyrics & translation posted on the screen, with grammar connections highlighted. 

El Narco

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency
© 2012 Ioan Grillo
336 pages

El Paso, Texas, can boast one of the lowest metropolitan crime rates in the United States. Immediately opposite it on the Rio Grande, however,  Ciudad Juarez, has until recently been regarded as North America's murder capital.  Juarenses are not exceptionally violent people. but their city is one of the battlegrounds in a decade-long melee for money.  El Narco, the product of a journalist who has reported on Mexico for years, covers the origins and growth of drug-trafficking  gangs in this country so far from God and so close to the United States.   Grillo's review of the guerra contra los drogas  reveals how far-reaching the cartel wars are, not only creating a horrific bodycount, but eroding the legitimacy of government and civil order, and creating subcultures obsessed with death.

In the beginning, Mexico's narcotics farmers were surprisingly like Appalachian hill people,   who found corn liquor a lot is easier to make money off of than corn. Like America's hill people, they were organized by familial clans and sometimes competed for territory.  Prohibition in both the United States and Mexico led, in due time, to organized groups superseding the clans in many respects, but not until the end of Mexico's one-party state did the cartels run wild.   From 1929 to 1994, the 'institutional revolutionary party' held complete command in Mexico, with control so complete  that Grillo maintains throughout the book that Mexican democracy only began in 1994.  When they finally ceded power, however, their systems for maintaining order -- corrupt as they were -- disappeared with them, and ever since Mexico's leaders have been trying to fill the vacuum.

I don't live anywhere near the US-Mexican border, but in an age of global news it's hard to miss occasional stories of massacres. The most bloody violence pools around the main routes northward, as Mexico's gangs are not only moving their own goods but transporting merchandise from South America.  Because the industry is so lucrative, it's highly attractive to men and women from economically depressed areas, despite the violence. Gangland allure works its usual magic,  as disadvantaged people are drawn to the spectre of wealth, influence, and the aura of being a tough guy.  That aura is aggrandized by the Mexican tradition of corridos,  ballads that tell stories and celebrate or mourn the lives of their subjects.   Cartel smugglers and gunmen have become the heroes of a growing  library of narcocorridos,  celebrated as poor men who have made it rich by defying the man.  Considering how much of Mexico's local and state governments in the contested areas are compromised by the cartels -- sometimes local police work directly for the gangs --  one wonders how much of the man there is to defy.   Certainly the federal government and army are doing their best, but the narcos are creating their own variants of Mexican culture: one  cartel seems to have its own cult,  and another psuedo-catholic cult is centered on the worship of a female Death Angel.  As the cartels branch out into other areas of crime, like extorting protection money and kidnapping for ransom, Grillo warns that what Mexico is facing is less than a prolonged spat of gang fighting, and more like a Syrianesque insurgency.

As Grillo documents, Mexico has tried valiantly to crush the narcos through sheer force,  targeting leaders and using the movement of money to trap them.  Grillo believes that prohibition ultimately creates the financial incentive fueling these gangs, but there's little grounds for hope that drug prohibition in the US will end anytime soon: while many states are giving up on marijuana, the present attorney general is an implacable supporter of the drug war police state.  And even if a miracle happened, how long would it take for Mexico to recover from this poison that has been seeping into its soil for twenty years?

Disturbing but gripping reading.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Adventure of English

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
© 2011 Melvyn Bragg
336 pages

In The Adventure of English, Melvin Bragg delivers a mythic history of the language that treats our lingua franca as a living personality -- battered and now triumphant.  Beginning with the arrival of the Angles and company in Britain and continuing well past Indian independence,  this 'adventure' is one of a peasant tongue turned phonic empire.

English's survival was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a damn close-run thing.   After establishing a home for themselves in Britain,  the English kingdoms were nearly extinguished by the Norse invasion centuries later. They were not so lucky in 1066, when England was invaded and taken by William and his Normans. Although the vast majority of English's 100 most common words are survivors from the old Ænglisc,  Bragg estimates that eighty-five percent of the old English vocabulary was lost in the Norman invasion, being supplanted by their version of French.  The  foisting of a French ruling class upon an Anglo-Saxon peasantry created classes of words;   French monopolized administration, religion, law, and so on,  leaving the rude basics of life like farming to the old tongue.   English survived, however,  and even captured the Normans:  their children picked up English from nurses and other servants. As  England and Normandy grew further apart amid politics and war,  and England and France became one another's favorite enemy,  English reemerged as the language of court and law.   It would struggle mightily to take over religion, aided chiefly by Henry VIII's libido,  and by the  late 16th century had started to become self-conscious, with an increasing number of people insisting that there was a Proper English, and you ain't speakin' it.   Then it took over the world.

The last half of this English history largely concerns itself with the diverse vocabularies developed by Anglophones as they spread across the globe via the English empire. In North America,  settlers happily acquired words from various Amerindian languages and other colonial powers.  In the Caribbean,   slaves from scattered African tribes used bits and pieces of English to create  pidgin tongues -- and in India,  English was used to establish a common language between lingual populations who found embracing a common enemy easier than embracing an intimate rival.   English's growth wasn't merely in geography and population, however; as the English became the predominant commercial and technical power of the world,  the language became important in its own right:  to learn it was to gain access to the reams of new knowledge being acquired in the heady days of the  scientific and industrial revolutions.

Bragg's colorful history of English brims over with memorable lines, like "Shakespeare threw words into bed together who had never before shared even a common acquaintance", and his regular anthropomorphizing the language -- treating it as a person, with desires and ambition --  may annoy historians and linguists alike. But for lay readers who have an interest in their mother tongue -- and wonder why, for instance, it has so many French words, and uses Latin for science, and  is brimming with a wondrous amount of spelling and pronunciation quirks --  The Adventure of English is one to set out on.

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, Bill Bryson

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Confront and Conceal

Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of Power
496 pages
© 2012 David E. Sanger

Barack Obama may have been the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in history to order lethal force used on a regular basis, but things could have been worse. Confront and Conceal attempts to make a case for an "Obama Doctrine", one which avoids epic disasters like the destruction of Iraq, but still asserts American influence via surgical operations and international organizations.  Sanger reviews the actions of the Obama White House regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, China and Iran, with a special section on drones and cyberwarfare. He relies on extensive interviews with administration officials, including then-secretary of State, Clinton, as well as State Department cables which were made available via Wikileaks.  He creates a picture of an Obama who -- though mocked for his weakness or aggression, depending on the mocker --  attempted a cautious but efficacious approach  to foreign policy.  Considering Sanger's access -- interviewing heap-big chiefs  as high as as the secretary of state- -   it is perhaps no surprise that the representation rendered here is admiring, on the whole.

Obama encountered no shortage of foreign policy crises during his first time. He began it faced with the deathly tar pit of Afghanistan,  further complicated by the amount of trouble-makers hiding in the western fringes of Pakistan.  Excising the United States from Afghanistan wasn't as simple a matter as cutting losses and leaving, for neither the DC nor Pakistan desired a power vacuum between Pakistan and Iran.  The Arab spring, which forced DC to choose between its interests and its proclaimed values, further muddied the waters. The cascade of populist revolts took everyone by surprise, including the President who was determined to restore the American reputation in the middle east.  To avoid messes like Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama  preferred to use a light footprint approach: if American interests were at risk, then action must be taken --but the action should be swift and precise, using new tools like drones and cyberwarfare.   Diplomacy was preferable to brute force, however: Obama was also a genuine internationalist, who preferred using global organizations to apply pressure to ne'er do wells like Qaddafi, and to effect change.  This was not always possible;  the Iranians didn't trust his intentions and regarded him as timid; the international community remains divided over Syria, with some supporting Assad and others supporting the rebels and ISIS.   Ditto for North Korea: as vexsome as they are to all of their neighbors, China included, they won't just go away. Leaving the north in the hands of the Kim family cult isn't an attractive option for China, but it's more attractive than millions of malnourished and uneducated refugees streaming into China.

Anyone who has followed my reading for any length of time may have picked up on the fact that I am not a fan of DC, in any administration.  I did have a grudging respect for much of  Obama's foreign policy, however,  at least until he began getting the country more entangled with Syria and resurrecting Cold War tensions.   That respect was validated here, as Obama seems to have approached DC's expanse of empire with the desire to do as little damage as possible. I don't know how strong willed and idealistic someone would have to be to sit in the One Chair of the west wing, surrounded by the whispering host of the DC establishment,  faced with a neverending series of crises and commitments, and say "To hell with you, I'm not playing this game", and start manipulating the Titanic of state  away from its inevitable course of empire.  Obama seems to have resisted it for several years: agreeing to escalate in Afghanistan, but only with a pre-determined date to cut losses and run;  continuing Bush's development of the Olympic Games project, which would give him  more options in Iran;  and using drones instead of conventional bombing and strike team, because those were the only options DC produced. (The targets were 'terrorists', of course.  DC wouldn't casually assassinate just any reichsfeinde. That would never happen, no sir.)

Cantankerous sarcasm aside,  Confront and Conceal was a varied and endlessly fascinating history given the range of topics and their (unfortunately) continued relevance.  The Kims are even more problematic now than they were;  Syria continues to exact a morbid fascination for the establishment, and China...well, it's still there. So too are the opportunities for mischief the digital world has opened, as this weekend's crippling wave of digital attacks (chiefly in Britain) have shown all too well.   I would take its general admiration for the establishment with no small level of salt, however.  Foreign-policy wise, I think it's especially helpful for the material on the US-Pakistan relationship.

Playing to the Edge, Michael Hayden. Another keyhole light inside  the establishment.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On the Shoulders of Hobbits

On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis
© 2012 Louis Markos
235 pages

Fairy tales don't teach children that dragons exist; they know dragons exist. Fairy tales teach children that dragons can be defeated.  GKC declared that, and Louis Markos would support it. Here he demonstrates that fairy tales have much to teach even adults. In On the Shoulders of Hobbits,  Markos uses the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings to guide readers through the Virtues -- four Classical, three Christian -- using the imagery of the Road (complete with obstacles and diversions) to guide the reader along.

 Given his ‘on the road’ subtitle, it’s only appropriate that Markos begins by examining both the Narnian books and LOTR in the light of characters making a hero’s journey, confronted with obstacles and monsters, and eventually fulfilling their destiny.    Some of these application of virtue will be obvious to any reader;   main characters from both series frequently demonstrate courage in the face of adversity, for instance.   Others are less expected, even by the author.  Markos  was raised in a tradition that barred alcohol and tobacco on the grounds of morality, and yet in the world of Tolkien he found characters gaily enjoying pipeweed and strong drink – from time to time.  Their temperance was the temperance of the ancients, the practice of the golden mean. That mean, or balance,  is a necessary component of the practice of the other virtues; for instance, courage is a balance between cowardice and recklessness. Without temperance, courage would not be itself.   The exercise of other virtues distinguishes Tolkien and Lewis’ heroes from their opponents:  for instance,  Faramir practices a prudence about the One Ring that his brother Boromir,  lacks -- though both are equally courageous.  A smaller ending section examines other common lessons the Lewis and Tolkien books teach; the consequences of making a deal with the Devil, for instance,  as illustrated by Narnian characters who view the White Witch as a useful ally, sometimes even as they admit she is tyrannical.  (As a real world example, Markos points to the West’s alliance with Joseph Stalin, whose penchant for mass murder was even more thoroughly exercised than Hitler’s.)

Although On the Shoulders of Hobbits makes for easy reading, it's not superficial. Markos has penned several works on classical education, C.S. Lewis, and philosophy, and here he exhibits a familiarity with the ethical writings of philosophers and popes alike.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
© 2017 Neil deGrasse Tyson
200 pages

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is exactly what it says on the tin, a brief cosmological primer that presents the basics of cosmology, explains the ways we are continuing to learn about the cosmos, and ends with a Saganesque hush meditating on what the cosmic perspective has to offer. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an active science popularizer, the creator and primary host for StarTalk Radio, which has grown beyond a podcast to become a video series and book – not to mention his day job as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

Astrophysics is a review of what is known about the big picture, and avoids string theory, m-theory, branes, and other things best considered by people not in a hurry. Tyson does include a section on dark matter and dark energy, however, since the math of our current model of universal expansion doesn’t make sense without including them . Tyson is quick to defend against the idea that ‘dark matter’ – accounting for the detected weight of matter which doesn’t seem to interact with anything – as a math cheat, since the weight of something is there…we just haven’t figured out what it is just yet. Along the way, Tyson also comments on topics like why the cosmos tends to produce spheres (planets, suns, clusters of galaxies…), the history of radio telescopes, and the supreme importance of the period table.

As someone whose most recent interaction with astrophysics has been The Big Bang Theory, since I haven't read anything in this area in four years, I found Tyson completely enjoyable.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Elephant and the Dragon

The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us
© 2007  Robyn Meredith
272 pages

For most of the 20th century, Europe and the United States enjoyed an outsided influence on global trade, in part because  large portions of the world had sealed themselves off, stewing in their own ideological juices and maintaining impoverished populations. As the 20th began to give way to the 21st, however,  the eastern world re-opened. The Elephant and the Dragon begins with a historical note explaining how China and India came to renew their participation in the global economy, then appraises the ways their surging involvement has altered that global system and themselves.  Written and published before the 'great recession' -- observing then things now taken for granted, like offshoring -- the book is presumably not quite as relevant as it was on its publication.  The fundamental transformations Meredith observes, however, are still in effect.

Why the 'elephant and the tiger', instead of 'the Asian tigers'?  Meredith views India's economy as pachydermesque in that while it was slow to get to its feet, slower still to get moving,  it will be all the more harder to stop as it picks up speed.  Its energy will come not from one point -- the Politburo -- but from billions of Indians, driving forward towards the future they want.   India's economic revival came seemingly as a last resort, when in 1992 its leadership recognized that the country was broke.  Although the liberalization that followed allowed India to use its existing resources (a strong number of English-speaking professionals) to better effect,  its lack of more material resources -- infrastructure like highways and modern airports -- prevented it from becoming an instant industrial power like China.   India liberalized at just the right time,  becoming an important part of the expanding information technology sector.  What began with the dot come surge  has continued to the point that India had become the western world's "back office". its workers supplying customer service ,tech support,  computer programming, and the like.  By now (2017), India's economy has grown being merely the support staff of the west, however.

China's own 'liberalization' -- economic, not political -- began in 1978 when Mao's successor realized the middle kingdom was falling far behind the west,  and needed to adopt some of its methods if only out of self defense. (Even during the Mao years, China had learned from Russia's mistakes and so avoided total public control of agriculture.)   Although the communist party's pivot towards capitalism meant ceding constant command of the economy, the Party maintains absolute political control and still 'guides' the economy by establishing long-term goals, like an expansion of the highway system.  Although westerners commonly regard China's trade advantage as being desperately cheap labor, in reality there are many places with cheaper labor.  China combines relatively cheap labor with industrial infrastructure and a government interested in stable growth.

The Elephant and the Dragon is largely oriented toward the world of business, using India and China to illustrate how crucial offshoring and vast supply chains have become to the global economy.  Goods are not simply made in a Chinese factory; they pass from city to city in varying stages of completeness, which is why online retailers can offer so much customization.  "Made in" labels have lost all real meaning, for a given good will have been produced from goods and materials from across Asia, with other components added in by the United States and Europe.  Is a car finished in the United States, but from parts produced in China and Mexico, truly 'made in America'?  

While there are more current books, for someone interested in the course of globalization -- particularly the intermingling of the Asia and western economies -- this is still a good start.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Spain in the Southwest

Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History
© 2013 John Kessell

In the early 1500s, the Spanish triumphed over the Aztecs and established a new Spain -- an empire forged out of the new world.  The equatorial tropics were only the beginning for Spain, however, as far above them loomed the entire continent of North America,  full of possibility.   The Spanish were lured north with simple and expressed motives: there was oro in them thar hills.  They were teased with stories of great cities to the north, rivaling even the splendor of now-perished Tenochtitlan. Their explorations would take them as deep into the interior as Kansas, and create a new province for colonial Spain: "New Mexico". The Spanish in the American Southwest is a history of the Spanish empire in the present-day states of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, one which aims to tell the story of cultures in collision -- or collusion, as the Spanish often relied on alliances with locals, using chronic warfare between populations to make friends.   The province of New Mexico was named such in the hopes that it would prove as abundantly wealthy as Mexico,  but easy loot wasn't to be found. Angry natives were, though, and in abundance -- constantly resisting the dons and once driving them out of the region entirely. Still, the 'new Mexico' would remain a Spanish possession, maintained at great expense for the benefit of seemingly no one but the Church, until Napoleon invaded Spain and provided the opportunity for the New World to declare independence from the old.

As this is billed as a narrative history, what are some of the interesting threads?  Accounts of exploration always have an aura of fascination about them, although the Spanish were more disappointed with the constant lack of golden cities than mesmerized by the landscape.  In this history we see the Spanish grow from explorers to conquerors, and then -- as the generations pass -- men who belong more to New Mexico than they do Spain. They struggle constantly with the neighbors, whose kin they have effectively enslaved and alienated from the local gods -- and later on, the Spanish have to double down on the unproductive province because of other European powers. France is especially aggressive in Louisiana and Texas, and the Anglo-Americans keep eying the west with a certain avaricious glint. The main reason Spain held on to the Southwest prior to strategy becoming a factor, however, was religion, as the religious orders (Jesuits and Franciscans) assured the Crown that they had baptized many souls, people who will be killed by their neighbors should Spain leave.  Speaking of the friars,  don't think of them as gentle souls living lives of poverty and service to their fellow man. The friars in the southwest were potentates, who relied on the forced labor of the locals and who threatened even the Spanish military and civil powers in terms of authority. One early friar -- addled by the desert sun and encouraged by his distance from Italy -- claimed to have the full authority of the Pope in the New World, and another effectively ousted the first governor of New Mexico proper when he (Peralta, the Santa Fe avenue's namesake) challenged the cleric's rule.

More will follow on the Southwest this year, including a travel account based on Coronado's first foray into the region, a history of the region between Mexican independence and the American invasion;  and a modern history of the state of New Mexico itself.

The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber
West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, Claudio Sant. Covers the Russo-Spanish contest in California
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Captain to Captain

Captain to Captain
© 2016 Greg Cox
368 pages

Captain Kirk is surprised to be hailed by the formidable former first officer of the Enterprise, a woman so accomplished she still retains the nickname "Number One", enroute to a little shore leave. Her stated goal is to visit the Enterprise, where she was once such a commanding presence that her voice is still the model for the shipboard computer's audio output.  Her unstated goal is to remove something from a secret vault on the ship that only the captain and his first officer -- and only the captains and first officers  before him -- know about. She has unfinished business with the device,  born of a tragedy incurred while she was a young lieutenant on the Enterprise, and before it's too late she wants to make whatever amends she can.

Captain to Captain is the first in a trilogy of books by different authors, celebrating Star Trek's fiftieth anniversary, and should entice Trekkies immediately with the promise of exploring the mysterious character of Number One.  Appearingly only in Trek's pilot episode, she played the logical and unemotional first officer, alongside a...well, not quite unemotional Mister Spock.  According to Gene Roddenberry, he was told by network officials that he must get rid of the woman and the alien, so he 'married the woman and kept the alien, not being able to do it the other way around'. Of course, the woman wasn't so hard to get rid of: Majel Roddenberry would return quickly as Nurse Chapel, the voice of the computer in every series but Enterprise,  and Lwaxana Troi. But that was later. Number One was the original.

We learn quickly that she is from a planet which is not Earth, and which has given her a name unpronounceable to most Federation Standard ears:  she simply uses the monicker "Una", a nickname from her Academy years, as her given name. Following her cat burglary aboard the Enterprise,  the book switches to her original mission, under Captain Robert April. Here she is cool and confident, but not impersonal; she has a strong attachment to several of her crewmembers, even indulging one in many jokes despite his being directly under her command.  Perhaps she embraced more reserve after the tragedy that befell her assignment, which started after the Enterprise discovered a formerly-visited planet had suddenly been invaded by a mysterious citadel of obvious alien origin, which was busy destroying rain-forests, enslaving the locals, and being very poor neighbors altogether. 

Captain to Captain begins as a mystery before quickly developing into an action novel, one which peaked a bit early (4/5ths in) and then threw in the Klingons to keep things exciting. I only bought it for Number One and Cox, and got my money's worth, but could see pursuing the rest of the trilogy later. The second book is by David Mack, for pete's sake.