Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Dragon Seekers

The Dragon Seekers: How An Extraordinary Cicle Of Fossilists Discovered The Dinosaurs And Paved The Way For Darwin
© 2009 Christopher McGowan
272 pages

Ancient bones and magnets were both known to antiquity, but not until the 19th century did their importance begin to be realized.  Attribute that to a quickly-developing worldview that regarded these things not as curiosities to be put aside with a pat explanation, but mysteries that needed to be solved – and mysteries, that once poked in to, transformed our understanding of the world. The quickening pace of fossil discoveries and the rising interest in placing them accurately, were essential in shifting the western understanding of the universe from one small, young, and personal, to one incomprehensibly vast, ancient, and cold as clockwork. 

The “dragon hunters”  driving these discoveries were not pre-Victorian Jack Horners;  long before the days of science funded by governments and pursued by microspecialists,    all that was needed for discovery were simple tools and insatiable curiosity   -- or at least an interest in selling fossils to tourists.  That brought together a mere villager, a clergyman, and a lawyer into the same company as natural historians – and that shared company was literal.  The people of this book were not separate actors, but corresponded and worked together;   in one chapter, a young Charles Darwin accompanied Charles Lyell along with two other fossil-hunters, and together they met another fossil hunter (Mary Anning, the villager) to poke around together, and are nearly trapped in a cliffside cave when the tide comes in.  Together, they argued about what these things in the rocks meant.

While general audiences strongly associate Darwin with the theory of evolution, this chronicle of discovery makes it clear that the  general idea of evolution predated Darwin,  and was ventured by some theorists as ‘transmutation’.   What caused transmutation was then unknown; the fossils discovered here spurred speculation. (Darwin’s  contribution was identify the mechanism of natural selection that spurred speciation.)  Some wondered if perhaps the Earth didn’t regularly shift from cold to tropical epochs and back again,  with the life on Earth following them; perhaps one day these ancient lost creatures would return, like bats at dusk and wild geese in autumn.  That was a little easier to sell than the idea that these strange beings had simply ceased to be, that Creation had chapters untold to men before.  Although the discovery of these bones did not force a shift of worldviews the way Charles Lyells' Principles of Geology and Darwin's Origin of Species did,  they did open the door to those inquiries given how poorly they fit in to the previous understanding.

Friday, October 27, 2017

I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes WIthin Us and a Grander View of Life
© 2016 Ed Yong
268 pages

For much of the 20th century, microbes were equivalent with germs – invisible threats that needed to eradicated.  As we move further into a new century ,however, there is some small and growing popular appreciation that microbes play  important roles in human biology.  Microbes aren’t bit players, though, they’re the actors, the support staff, the conductors, and even the orchestra.  That has been amply illustrated by books like 10% Human, which  demonstrated how thoroughly vital microbes are to ordinary physiology.   I Contain Multitudes looks more generally at microbes and their hosts as dynamic ecosystems that are constantly changing.

Microbes had the planet entirely to themselves for most of Earth history, and long after plants and animals have seemingly taken over, they’re still in control.  Microbes are present in the oceans,  allowing coral to flourish and fish to find their way in the dark; they’re within insects,  often a vital part of their maturation process; they’re in human babies from the word go, receiving them with their mother’s milk. (Actually, a lot of human milk seems to feed not the baby, but microbes inside the baby, which then secrete something that the baby digests. Thus even breast-feeding mothers employ bacterial wet-nurses…)   That’s only part of the story, though.

Previously,  people thought of the immune system in military terms: our white blood cells were soldiers on guard, watching out for any intruders. Yong suggests we appreciate our immune system more as a park ranger, one that monitors the status of its microbial wards,  encouraging and protecting some and weeding out or barring others.  He suggests further that our immune system in doing this is working more on the ward-microbes’ behalf than on ours, for microbes too contend with one another.  They’re constantly jostling for space, and humans unwittingly participate in the battle:   with every meal, we alter our micro-biome.  In the name of healing, w occasionally carpet-bomb our bodies -- but the body is its own ecosystem, so dependent on microbes that many illnesses  should be viewed as a mismatch of populations than an invasion.

It is as grave a mistake to regard microbes as an easily-manipulated friend, says Ed Yong, as it was to regard them as an implacable enemy who must be hunted down and killed.  Although symbiotic associations are rife in nature, and abound in our own bodies,  they are not relationships.  Many microbes live inside us, and we depend on many of them as they do on us – but we are not ‘friends’. Instead, like nation-states working together, we merely enjoy a collusion of interests, and occasionally that collusion lapses.   In the macro world, for instance, tickbirds that ride on large mammals and groom them for ticks occasionally nip their rides, too. Further, no one has 'a' population of microbes; the pool of microbes in our guts and in our orifices fluctuates widely from hour to hour,  depending on our activities.

Reading this book made me marvel, literally. The image Yong conveyed of the dynanism of our bodies made me think of the sun -- an ongoing nuclear explosion that is maintained by the sheer weight of its ingredients. The contests inside us for dominance, the side effect of these material struggles on our brains and feelings, boggles the mind.

Note:  I read this book much earlier in the year, but never posted my review for reasons which escape me. I decided to publish this week given that I've been in a science mood.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon
© 2010 Sam Kean
400 pages

A massive poster of the periodic table is as elemental to the image of a science classroom as the rows of graduated cylinders and microscopes,   but there is considerably more to that table than other reference materials --  like  a table of statistics about planet volumes,  orbital velocities,  and composition, for instance.   The periodic table’s peculiar shape, its neat columns and rows,  are not only orderly in themselves but speak to cosmic order;    elements which are very near each other in terms of their number of protons, neutrons, and electrons are worlds away from one another in their physical characteristics – and the reverse. The Disappearing Spoon is a human history of the periodic table, built on the author’s suspicion that every element had a story worth telling associated with. Perhaps it was discovered on accident; perhaps it consumed generations,  or lead to the collapse of armies and the failure of expeditions to the South Pole.    Many of the stories here address the elements’ discoveries, including rivalries to isolate them first – rivalries between men and nations alike.  The stories cover a lot of ground between them, and include as much history and literary references  as they do chemistry.    All in all, it's great fun...but despite the title, there's no Matrix jokes.  Turns out the disappearing spoon is made of gallium -- just pop a gallium spoon into a cup of tea, and it melts away.  

Monday, October 23, 2017

She Can't Say No to a Soldier

A few months back I posted a collection of oddities from my hometown newspaper throughout the 20th century,  mostly to illustrate how local papers have radically changed in their offerings. From time to time I see little curiosities I like to share -- usually just via email.  I've been saving a few with an idea of making a "Yesterday's News" feature here, with funny or intriguing pieces of old papers offered. Today I spotted something in that vein that reminded me of an old song...

From the July 16, 1941 edition of the Selma-Times Journal. The caption reads: "Barbara Dillon has yen for men in uniform, and is dating draftees these days. She's  member of Atlanta's 'I Want to be Drafted' club, girls' group providing dates exclusively for service men.'

What comes to mind is Joan Merril's  WW2-era "You Can't Say No to a Soldier":

"You can't say no to a soldier, a sailor, or a handsome marine
You can't say no if he wants to dance --
 if he's gonna fight, he's got a right to romance
Get out your lipstick and powder
Be beautiful and dutiful, too
If he's not your type, then it's still OK
You can always kiss him in a sisterly way.."

That last line always amuses me. But, there are dissenting views about saying no to those boys in uniform! From the same paper, a few weeks later:

"Private George W. Morrow stubbornly refuses to ogle beauties June Reichbacher, left, and Jean Perry. They ankle past St. Louis home where George sits on leave contemplating 15 mile hike discipline handed him and Camp Robinson, Ark, buddies by Lieut-Gen Ben Lear for yoo-hooing at shorts-clad girls in Memphis."

Friday, October 20, 2017

Energy Myths and Realities

Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Debate
© 2010 Vaclav Smil
232 pages

Nothing lasts forever, including coal and oil. Regardless of their environmental impact (as noxious fumes or released greenhouse gases), ultimately humanity will have to transition away from fossil fuels for want of supplies. Vaclav Smil warns in Energy Myths and Realities, however, that a shift to renewable energy is a long-term project, not something that can be done in a mere decade. In this brief on the intersection between science and public policy, Smil analyzes the prospects of various energy alternatives, and takes apart viral hopes and hysteria.

Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, Germany announced that it would be abandoning nuclear power and replacing it in toto with renewable energy. The fact that certain economic realities have instead forced the planning of new coal power plants is not surprising; historically, every transformation of the energy sector has taken decades, and at the early stages there’s no way of knowing which application of a technology will prove the best. Smil is therefore not optimistic about the prospects for an all-electric automobile fleet; it would require supporting infrastructure (networks of charging stations, for instance), and such an increase in energy that only doubling down on coal and oil could meet. Because wind and solar are still struggling to make inroads into the energy market, they can hardly be relied on to supply a greatly expanded electric fleet. An expansion of coal and oil to power these new cars would thus only transfer the pollution. The right approach to the cars themselves is still being tinkered with, from fuel cells to hybrids. A more recent approach, used by the Chevrolet Volt, is to use gasoline as a generator inside the car, recharging the battery.

Smil is more dubious about biofuels, which he argues are both inefficient and disruptive to food markets. He is ambivalent about wind and solar, either, at least at the national-grid scale proposed for them. In certain locales and markets, they can make sense and pull their weight, but the chances of their supplanting coal and oil in terms of reliability and affordability are remote in the extreme. Smil is more hopeful about hydroelectric (when geographically possible) and nuclear energy, though the latter has a serious public relations problem. Even so, there’s a chance for revival: even in Japan reactors are coming back online, with more scheduled for the future. In addition to analyzing the prospects for various alternatives, Smil also addresses popular misconceptions relating to energy, from peak oil to nuclear energy too cheap to meter.

Ultimately, the author says, the world will move away from fossil fuels, particularly oil; economics and technology may expand our current capacity, but it is a finite resource. He does not expect any drama, however, -- neither a sudden peak oil global collapse, or a sudden leap forward into the bright and happy carbon-clean future.

Book review by Bill Gates

Thursday, October 19, 2017


© 2016 John J. Nance
412 pages

Something very strange is happening at 35,000 feet. A lost and unresponsive Airbus is feeding false data to its pilots, assuring them that they're halfway over the Atlantic and nearing New York, but any glance out the window tells the crew they're headed across France and seemingly towards Tel Aviv. The Airbus is carrying an ousted Israeli prime minister, who did everything he could to push Israel and Iran over the brink of war while in office. In DC, three intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense are scrambling over one another's toes and endangering innocent lives trying to figure out what's going on and what to do next. If the Airbus continues on its present course, it could very well pass over the border of Iran and trigger a nuclear war between the mullahs and the Israelis. Such is the story of Lockout, in which a couple of pilots and their passengers become the unwitting collateral damage of one or more black ops projects.

Confession: I didn't realize aviation thrillers were a genre. I've seen plenty of crisis-on-an-airplane movies course -- Air Force One, Taken, Flightplan, Nonstop, etc -- but didn't imagine that kind of drama could be rendered in books. Well, John Nance has certainly proven me wrong. Lockout's narrative takes readers through diplomatic intrigue, technical puzzles, street chases, counterespionage schemes, jet combat, and ordinary "whodunit" questions. The author, a Vietnam pilot turned airline pilot, doesn't shy away from putting his technical knowledge about jet aircraft to work; the key problem of the story is that computer controls over the Airbus have ceased to function, and manual control systems...well, those are soooooo 1980s. Restoring control of the plane to the pilots involves descending into the pit of the electronics bay and figuring out the power and wiring relays down there enough to interrupt the automatics without reducing the plane to a falling airframe. Admittedly, characters working through circuit logic with one another might not reach a large audience, so these scenes are only part of the ensemble of mystery. The main plot takes place over a matter of four hours, as several on-the-ground mysteries converge into the one -- a plane that delivered where it shouldn't have been, whose electrical work doesn't match Airbus specs, who had intelligence agencies looking for it before they even knew it was in trouble, and which might provoke World War 3. For fans of thrillers and airflight, this is a fun one.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Transhumanist Wager

The Transhumanist Wager
© 2013 Zoltan Istvan
300 pages

Imagine a protagonist who made Howard Roark seem like a warm and cuddly pushover. That's Jethro Knights, a red-bearded, icy-blue eyed Ubermensch who is determined to live forever -- and if anyone gets in the way, he won't hesitate to terminate them.  Dedicated to transcending biological limits, Knights' five-year plan -- funded by a Russian gangster/oil  mogul -- involves building a floating city and taking over the world.  Those who are useful will be invited to join the quest; those who are not useful will die. "That's evil!", you say?  Only if you subscribe to  'baggage culture' --   Knights' ideal 'omnipotender' recognizes no limits to his will, and those who do are mere sheep who deserve to be slaughtered.  Did I mention he's the good guy?

I stumbled upon this novel while trying to find a story about transhumanist themes. While I'm not a transhumanist myself -- that is, someone who believes in integrating technology into the human body to make ourselves super-machines,  with the possibility of immortality --  I have an academic interest in what other people will be doing to themselves as the 21st century continues to metastasize.  Unfortunately, this novel does not provide much in that vein besides robots and magic pills that cure cancer. The bulk of the novel is instead arguments in favor of Knights' philosophy, integrating the technological aspirations of technohumanism with egoism.    Those who have read The Fountainhead will instantly spot the transparent borrowing of structure: we have a red-headed superman who argues  for the worship of Self, and advocates for its conquest of anything inferior;  he is opposed by a sniffing weasel who does whatever he is told by the third bad guy,  an insincere humanitarian whose public passion for helping the poor is really a platform to make him powerful.  Knights' also has an ally in an exotically beautiful woman who shares his philosophy in part, but not in full, and thereby challenges him as an intellectual sparing partner. If that weren't enough, Knights is put on trial and defends himself in lieu of a lawyer, spends much of the book speechifying, and will eventually create a Galt's Gulch-like sanctuary for his fellow Ubermenschen to devote themselves to science and global conquest. (That's more Atlas Shrugged than Fountainhead, however.)

To be fair, this borrowing of structure, characters, and plot developments could be seen as an homage to Ayn Rand, just as his Three Laws of Transhumanism are a patent borrowing of Asimov's laws of robotics.  I think, however, if Rand were to read it she might be inclined to shove the author off of a Roark skyscraper. Her characters could be cold, but they were consistent;  Knights alternates between demanding the government leave him alone and declaring that Transhumanism should be supported by the government -- between writing philosophical treatises about the supremacy of the Self, declaring each person to be a sovereign god, and then raging because our 'dear world' is being held back back by naughty governments . Look,  Jethro, you can't throw off the shackles of morality in one sentence, and then  condemn governments on moral grounds in another -- and  you can't claim to care about people when you openly champion killing those off who are not "useful".   This inconsistency is rife in the book. Towards the end, in a speech that goes on for scores of pages,   Jethro promises to to each person of the world a college education. If you haven't read classical literature, can't recognize great pieces of music, and can't do physics in your head, you will go back to school, says he.  While this is wildly impractical on its own, it's hilarious considering Jethro has spent the entire book raging against culture, history, religion, etc -- against anything that is not related to the technological conquest of sickness, death, and the world.   Jethro hates ideas like honor, hates familial bonds, hates religion, hates political debate:  why would he want to read something like The Illiad?   I'm not exaggerating his contempt: if ranting about them throughout the book wasn't enough, as the plot reaches its climax he systematically destroys every religious and political building on the planet -- and as the artistic legacy of thousands of years goes up in flames, he shrugs. "I told you. I'm a futurist, not a historian."

The Transhumanist Wager is easily one of the least humane books I've ever read. Frankly, I'd have to read Mein Kampf to give it competition.  The two books have one great similarity: they're badly written.  Throughout the book, as I encountered weird errors, I tried to forgive them on the basis of the author being  a non-native English speaker. But they pile up -- the odd use of "ethnic" for "ethical",  the spelling of Aryan as Arian ("Arian looks"), the confusion of Mobile, Al and New Orleans;  weird dialogue that has a Chinese diplomat referring to the Ubermensch as "wizard of spells", and so on.  I began the book to see what ideas for cybernetics might be in it, but continued out of morbid fascination.  Suffice it to say, if this book's philosophy is the attitude that prevails in the 21st century, our best hope is a coronal mass ejection.

And now, as an antidote, a verse from Walter Scott:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rossum's Universal Robots

© 1920 Karel Capek
120 pages

ALQUIST: . Has Nana got a prayer book?
HELENA Yes, a big thick one.
ALQUIST And has it got prayers for various occasions? Against thunderstorms? Against illness?
HELENA Against temptations, against floods!––
ALQUIST But not against progress?
HELENA I don't think so.
ALQUIST That's a pity.

Introducing....the robots! Literally.  This 1920 play  by Karel Capek  introduced the term into English, in a story about manufactured people who revolt against their masters. The play opens with the arrival of the President's daughter to a remote island, the manufacturing base and headquarters of Rossum's Universal Robots. These robots are not mechanical mock-ups of human beings, but rather living creatures  whose tissue is chemically manufactured. The creatures themselves are 'simplified', their insides rearranged or reduced for maximum efficiency, and all of the messy human stuff -- pleasure,  ambition, et -- taken out. All that remains is a super-strong body with an obsessive interest in work -- at least, at first.   What began as an experiment from a pair of mad scientists is completely taking over the global workforce, reducing the price of goods to pennies. The dream of the RUR industrialist, "Domin", is to liberate mankind from slavery to itself.   He dreams of a future where humans spend their days painting and playing the lyre or lolling about in the sun, while all of their needs are taken care of by robots.  Of course, there will be some unpleasantness first. What he doesn't reckon with is that his own engineers' own curiosity will mean not just unpleasantness, but the extinction of both humans and robots.

"R.U.R". may seem like a period piece given its steamboats, steam locomotives, and telegraphs, but those are mere props.  The story irself -- the slow death of humanity via dependence on robots --  is one we are perfectly capable of seeing come to fruition.  We won't be executed by brigades of rifle-toting androids, no, but RUR demonstrates another kind of death.  The play takes place over a decade, in which robots take over so much labor and service that humans stop living. They exist, but they're no longer working, no longer struggling for the future; most people do not even have children. Even war has become a robotic domain, as armies of drones are used to invade countries and butcher people (once it's destroyed the opposing army of drones, of course).   Consider our own lives; every passing year brings more automation, and those who live beyond just the moment may wonder what will be the result. How  will governments cope with rising unemployment -- and will we reach a point where the majority of people have nothing to do? And even if people's material needs are met (in a Player Piano scenario, with sustaining welfare for the unemployed masses), how  will society absorb their energy, their itching will to be doing SOMETHING? Regardless of the hopes of optimists, not everyone wants to spend their time reading and painting and playing the lyre. Some people want to build, to compete, to do something mighty....but what will be left?

Though a short read, RUR remains thought provoking close to a century after its publication.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Reads to Reels: The Circle


Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.

Imagine that the movie version of 1984 had ended with Winston Smith being promised by the Party that the reign of Big Brother was through, that they would immediately hold elections to replace him, and - well done, Winston, for your patriotic rebellion! Huzzah!  Now, if you'd read the novel, you'd be confused. For one thing, the mood of this proposed ending is completely different from that of the novel's, with its promise that the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever. Secondly...Big Brother never existed except as an all-seeing eye to frighten people into obedience and subservience. There was no dictator at the core of the party;  the tyranny emanated from the party itself, from the culture it created and its system of control. The movie  would have missed the entire point of the book!

When the ending credits rolled for The Circle last night, its ending left me with that same conviction: the screenwriter missed the point.  Dave Eggers' novel mixed dystopia with satirical dark comedy to produce a thriller that was as mocking as it was foreboding. The movie isn't satirical in the least, although it follows the same basic plot:  enter Mae Holland, played by Emma Watson, who gets a job at the world's biggest and most innovative tech company.  Embracing its culture completely,  Mae rises in the ranks while being increasingly estranged from her real-life family and friends. Repeated encounters with a mysterious man who seems to know more than anyone should bring Mae to a crisis point however, and she has to make a decision.  The decision she makes seems to vary from book to movie, but the movie's ultimate ending renders the difference moot.

Up until that point, I'd been enjoying The Circle as an illustration of the novel.  When Mae is "transparent", streaming her every waking moment, comments from her audience appear as little floating boxes off to the side. They wink in and out fairly quickly,  but a quick eye or a pause button, can get some measure of the variety of the comments.  In keeping with the nature of youtube comments and such, few are substantive: many, in fact, are completely self-absorbed, using Mae's feed only to moan about their lives.  The shallowness of the Circle culture is also pointed out when some outside presenters ask a group to name a historic personality; after a moment of mental paralysis, one volunteers..."Mae Holland!"   That said, I don't think the movie would be nearly as enjoyable without having read the book,  because its plot is rushed, and the creeping dread of The Circle is...well, not so creeping. The mysterious figure from the book takes almost four hundred pages to reveal his identity; here, he offers it to Mae on their second meeting. His aura of mystery, Mae's bookish anxiety to see him again to figure him out, are done away with completely: in the film he's the guy from Star Wars, staring at his phone and  condemning the Circle every time they get past the  pleasantries.  Similarly absent is Mae's constant tension with her ex-boyfriend, Mercer;  in the book he is a foil and a  burr under the saddle, and when Mae uses him to demonstrate a program in the book,   it demonstrates how corroded her own soul has become. In the movie, she and Mercer are merely disagreeable friends, and she doesn't want to use him to test her program (basically, a crowd-sourced way to find a single person on the planet).   While it's nice to see her and Mercer getting along, it does little for the plot of the movie.

The screenplay of The Circle  thus takes Eggers' ominous view of the future of  the socially networked web and turns it into a light thriller with the kind of  head-in-the-clouds naivete one only ever sees on election day. Instead of prompting people to think critically about the way social networks alter their lives, it tacitly promotes life inside the glass cage -- so long as meanies aren't in charge.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Korea Reborn

Korea Reborn: A Grateful Nation Honors Veterans for 60 Years of Growth
© 2015 Republic of Korea's Ministry of Patriots
161 pages

Like most Americans, I have very little knowledge of the Korean War, outside of knowing Douglas MacArthur's role there.  When this book appeared at the library, published by the Republic of South Korea to honor US veterans of the conflict,  it seemed like a good place to start.  The book is half-history, half-celebration. Its opening chapters chronicle the invasion of Korea by Japan, and the subsequent split of the country after the Soviets  moved in following Japan's defeat in World War 2.  Kim Il Sung, appointed by the communists to be their client boss in the north, attempted (with permission from his masters) to expand into South Korea. and nearly captured the entire peninsula before UN forces arrived.  The arrival of the US military and other UN allies reversed Kim's charge,   and were it not for the sudden intervention of the Chinese communists, Kim might have been put out of work altogether before his strange spawn could create a family cult around themselves.  The second half of the book is more celebration than history, but shares how the South Korea economy has become a powerhouse, its democracy better rated than even the UN, and its culture an increasing influence in the west -- from K-Pop to Samsung electronics.  A nation which was nearly completely destroyed in war has, through foreign aid and a free economy, become a full participant in the global community -- giving aide and sending soldiers to relieve those in distress.

Although the book isn't a formal or serious history,  I found it helpful in establishing  the basic outline of the war. The latter half is...dare I say, heartwarming, what with all the pictures of bright skyscrapers, happy children, and expressions of friendship between Korea and the United States. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

German Resistance to Hitler

German Resistance to Hitler
© 1988 Peter Hoffman
188 pages

Peter Hoffman’s research into the German resistance culminated in a 900-page History of the German Resistance 1933-1945, but this work – simply titled German Resistance to Hitler --  is a much smaller overview.    In it, Hoffman briefly reviews the major sources of resistance (the Wehrmacht, the Church, and citizen-protesters in the form of students and communists) and addresses why their work never saw fruit.   In short:  protesters like the social-democrats and communists were disorganized, more interested in fighting among themselves;  the Church’s resistance  amounted to condemnatory speeches and safeguarding lives;  and those in the Army seemed to be cursed with bad luck in their operations.

Hoffman writes that virtually all of these factions shared two great weaknesses: first,   they had to resolve within themselves the moral dilemma that came from resisting or undermining their own people, in a state of war surrounded by hostile powers.  This was especially difficult for members of the military, whose mission was the defense of the country, who were bound by  not only oaths but loyalty to their fellow soldiers.   Two,  Allied support for the German resistance was nonexistent, and once the war reached a point of no return in the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway,  the terms of unconditional surrender were discouraging to patriotic  if dissident Germans who had no wish to see Germany dismembered further at a peace conference.  It was only after the disaster of Stalingrad – which some in the army viewed as criminal negligence --  that desperation overrode caution.

Those who have no knowledge of the resistance whatsoever will find Hoffman an attractive author,  as he  combines a basic overview of the Nazi seizure  of power and the war along with resistance to the same.  I am definitely interested in reading Hoffman’s more expansive History of the resistance, as even in these few pages he offers some new insights.  I thought Valkyrie mostly failed because someone kicked the explosive briefcase further under the table,  muffling some of its force, but Hoffman recounts how von Stauffenburg was summoned into the board room before he and a cohort were finished priming the explosives. Only half of the charges were ready,  and between that, the  misposition under the table,  and the architecture of the room itself  (not as confined as Stauffenburg had planned for)   a strike that would have killed everyone in the room  was reduced to one which only gave Hitler ringing ears and a few scratches.

They Thought They Were Free:  The Germans, 1933-1945
An Honorable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler
Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Ein Feste Burg

A Mighty Fortress:  A New History of the German People
© 2004 Steven Ozment
314 pages

Like many Americans, I first knew the Germans only as the villains of our world wars. It wasn't until college, when over-full Spanish classes thrust me into a German language course,  that I began to discover  the real nation in the heart of Europe. A Mighty Fortress recounts German history from their first encounters with Rome until Germany was re-united in the 1990s. Its object is to render an account which  is free from the tiresome preoccupation with looking for Nazi forebears.   We begin with the partial Romanization of the German tribes, the rise of the Carolingian kingdom,  the post-Charlemagne breakup, and the creation of that strange creature, the Holy Roman Empire.  The Empire was not a unified state in the model of Rome, but a complex  network of kingdoms, fiefdoms, and independent cities, in which a common aristocracy voted for an emperor whose authority varied over the years. (As with the other princes of Europe, the king constantly vied for power against the nobility and the Church.)  Throughout the late middle and early industrial eras,  central Europe was a common warzone between the powers, and Germans suffered the most --- especially during the Thirty Years war.  This bloody  primed Germans for social caution,  so that attempts at imposing French-style revolutionary upsets were largely stymied. Napoleon's victories over the Empire still imposed a large measure of revolutionary reform, however,  and a popular spirit would continue to strengthen from that point on --  resisted or managed by the authorities. The master at management -- of the mob, of the princes of Europe -- was Otto von Bismarck. He perfected the consolidation of German states begun by Napoleon by unifying  Germany into an empire in 1871. Although this review of German history covers chiefly political affairs,  occasionally an artistic or intellectual personality enjoys the spotlight.  They include Martin Luther,  Bach, Beethoven,  Faust,  Kant, Hegel, and Marx.  There is also an obligatory "Why Hitler" chapter, in which the author attributes the  "barbarian's" triumph more to the plight of Weimar Germany (crises and an ineffectual government) than to some chronic itch to take over Europe.

Because A Mighty Fortress is such a general survey, it didn't build much on what I've retained from a German history course taken years ago, except in its coverage of the late 20th century.  Those who know nothing of German history beyond Hitler may find it informative, but I'm certain there are more readable books out there for that purpose. (Even Nazi-focused books like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Nazi Germany might be helpful...my  respect for Bismarck's political skills began with that book, over fifteen years ago!)

Since it may be playing in your head right now, here's a recording of "A Mighty Fortress"/"Ein Feste Burg",  as recorded by an audience of three thousand men.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume II

Archipeleg GULag / The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Volume II (of III)
© 1973, 1974 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
679 pages

In the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn used his own experience being arrested, interrogated, and sentenced to a work camp to review the origins of the Soviet police state, delving into its underpinnings of detention centers,  secret police, and transportation networks.  In volume two,  after a brief history of the Gulag system, he focuses on camp life – or rather, the slow death of Gulag existence, the death of both spirit and soul.  Particular sets of the damned have their own sections within the book – women, children, Communist diehards,  even the guards themselves. 

Like books written on the Nazi concentration camps,  Gulag Archipelago is a catalogue of misery, one that lasted for decade after decade.  The monstrous architecture of oppression and humanity began not with the butcher Stalin, but with Lenin himself, as the first instances of forced labor occurred in the early 1920s. The seeds were sown by Marx, who urged that labor was the best response to criminality – ensuring that laggards and reactionaries earned their keep.   That keep was very little; Solzhenitsyn reports meager meals of gruel, largely, with an occasional feast in a roll of black bread.             Official Soviet ideology, which the prisoners were expected to express their conviction in, was that forced labor was also a corrective measure, making the condemned into good soviet citizens.  (The Soviets’ near coreligionists, the National Socialists, expressed that conviction in three words:  Arbeit Macht Frei.)

The easiest summation of Gulag life was that it was miserable in every way. Rations were meager and dismal;  physical shelter was poor, and the authorities denied their wards warm clothing. Those being punished for infractions inside the prison (for voicing dissent, making jokes about the authorities,  making neutral or positive remarks about capitalism or German equipment ) were even worse off. They might be stripped of clothing entirely and made to ‘rest’ in a damp earthen cell, even in the Siberian winter)   The guards were not the only enemies, as the authorities used prisoners against one another. Echoing his remark in volume I that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart,  Solzhenitsyn notes that “informers” were not a separate, malicious category of men, craven weasels who would do anything for a leg up.   Most were ordinary prisoners being manipulated by the guards,  either by the stick (families threatened) or by the carrot. Prisoners could be coaxed into complicity by being asked for more excusable tips, and then later, once their self-respect had been compromised already  they would be grilled for information on what prisoners were saying about Stalin, the guards, the Communist state, etc.  Solzhenitsyn wryly notes midway that while the Soviets had condemned imperial coercion by force, and capitalist coercion by hunger, in their Gulag system they used and perfected both. (One section early in the book compares 19th century serfdom favorably to the plight of the 'new' serfs of communist Russia.)

Although the  Gulag camps were officially designed for labor, not death – there were no Zyklon-B showers --  they were no less efficient at destroying life. In the winter,  the mortal remains of prisoners would be stacked up along buildings, the ground too hard for them to be buried in.  Not only were most of the prisoners on a near-starvation diet, but they were tasked with brutal work – digging canals and logging.  Solzhenitsyn estimated that the death toll in building the White Sea-Baltic canal to have been a quarter of a million people – and for no purpose at all, for the ‘canal’ was too shallow for most ships to transit. It had been done almost for the show of it, a charade of productivity to fulfill the claims of the Five Year Plan.   It is for this reason that we might borrow from the Bible: Hitler has killed his millions, but Stalin has killed his tens of millions.

Solzhenitsyn notes throughout the book that the best way to survive the camps was simply to vanish: don’t talk and don’t work when they’re not looking - -both because working hard for extra rations was counterproductive, and because if a prisoner finished their work they were rewarded with…more work.  Many people did seize what little pleasures they could: Solzhenitsyn records love affairs blooming in the camps before men and women were segregated, as people grasped at whatever affection they could find.  And there were a few guards, he admits, who would look the other way—even if for the most part they acted like dogs, watchful and servile.  Perhaps the most interesting set of characters to consider are the Communist prisoners – diehards and loyalists who were arrested because their zeal stepped on the authorities’ toes.  The system was a kleptocracy, Solzhenitsyn writes, corrupt from toe to head:  anyone placed in a position where they could clip off rations or resources from the unsuspecting (prisoners inside or Soviet subjects outside) would.  Those who believed in something earnestly, be they Orthodox Christians or orthodox communists,  kept disrupting the cozy pool of corruption.   Even in prison, however, the communist ‘loyalists’ insisted that the Party was still good: they had simply made an error, or perhaps local authorities had been compromised by the Germans.  One memorable section includes a mock conversation with a die-hard, who has a pat response to every probing question Solzhenitsyn puts to him about the State and its ideology.

As with the first volume, this book is more daunting for its size and contents than its writing. Solzhenitsyn's mood as a writer mocks the authorities and looks for the best he can find in his fellow prisoners, and the translation is perfectly simple. The third volume promises chronicles of escapes, and the death of Stalin. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

This again

In about eight hours the business end of  Hurricane Nate should roll through my county.  Seemingly all of downtown will be closed tomorrow, as we're expecting much more impact from this than from Irma -- in part because it's headed straight for us,  and because we're on the right side of the storm. Apparently, that's where all the tornado action is.  Here's hoping for another wash-out, but I wouldn't bet on it!    Just in case there's a power outage, I have a review of Gulag Archipelago (volume II) scheduled.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ancestral Shadows

Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
© 2004 ISI Distributed Titles
Stories written by Russell Kirk 1950s and produced first in various magazines
410 pages

"Ghost stories" invariably makes me think of legends and folklore,  but Ancestral Shadows is an altogether different anthology.  Instead, its stories all feature ghostly characters and themes of redemption, revenge, or realization. The ghosts here are not transparent wraiths,   scaring mortals or playing tricks with the furniture.  They are  in the midst, caught in the veil between the living and the dead, dwelling in their own moments of time.  Some are corporeal enough that they believe themselves still living, and the news of their death comes as a surprise  to both them and the reader.  Ancestral Shadows enmeshes its characters in tradition and place; ghosts are inherently localists, but most of the the living featured here are likewise  bound to their villages,  family homes, and familiar places.  The collection opens, for instance, with a ailing woman who lives in a mostly-abandoned village that is targeted for destruction by the local planning authorities.  Living more in her memories than reality, she visits a church graveyard regularly to sweep the tombstones;  her distress at the hands of the bully-planner, and devotion to the departed, bring an unexpected ally in the form of a vicar who died mysteriously decades ago.  Time makes itself substantial in these stories;  in one, a pecuilar man  faced with a blizzard breaks into an abandoned home, and experiences a violent moment in the home's history -- but was it a moment etched into the memory of the house, or was it his?   The stories are set in the United States,  Great Britain, the Italio-Austrian border, and even east Africa, and each draw the reader and the main character deeper into a mystery, until -- fully enveloped by it -- there is a line dropped, a corner turned, and suddenly both parties realize something that had been hitherto hidden .  These stories aren't written just to envelope the mind in mystery; the clarity of the end-page doesn't dispel a puzzle so much as it centers the character; before they were lost, now they are found.  That's not to say they're feel-good parables, for the tales also include moments of vengeance and retribution.

If you can find it, this is an excellent collection of stories,  both chilling and thoughtful. I obtained a copy through interlibrary loan.

Monday, October 2, 2017


© 1897 Bram Stoker
416 pages

Every attorney has problematic clients,  but few can claim an actual monster. Such is the case with Count Dracula, as  young lawyer Jonathan Hawker discovers to his dismay and horror when he arrives at the mysterious count's manor in Transylvania.  The trip was just a bit of business --- finalizing the papers for the count's purchase of land in England.  But the Count is a man who the locals fear, who can command the beasts of the earth, and who is never around during the day.   Hawker quickly finds himself an effective prisoner, shut up in a foreboding castle full of locked doors and secrets, and when he stumbles through one into the other -- discovering that the Count is a vampire, who subsists on human blood --   Hawker realizes both he and the City of London are in peril.

For a century-old gothic thriller, Dracula stands up very well. It uses an unexpected format, its story rendered in the letters and diary entries of the participants, who occasionally pool their notes to get the bigger picture. This epistolary approach allows the reader to piece the story together, instead of having all the work done for us by the narrative.  (A good bit of the characters'  work is done by Dr. van Helsing, who has a tendency to lecture.)  Modern readers of vampires will recognize the creature here, but books like Twilight and In the Forests of the Night divorce the monster from his background. Stoker's vampire is a creature of Hell,  experiencing a corrupted and bastardized version of eternal life;   his association with the devil is not merely one of hyperbole, but real to the point that Dracula and his victims are completely disabled by the presence of a Eucharistic wafer. (Not included as vampire traits are a tendency to say "Bleh!" and an obsession with counting. Sesame Street lied to me!)

From its beginnings -- the dread-laden arrival in Transylvania, the creeping horror as Hawker and others piece together the truth -- until the chase at the end,  Dracula remains a very effective thriller.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Eleven Trucking Songs

Inspired by A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, which  alternated between writing about driving big trucks and listening to country music....here are eleven country songs about driving trucks!  There are more out there,  but I've collected these over the years. The ones I've chosen touch on various aspects of the trucking life -- adventure, loneliness,  camaraderie, and danger. 

1. "Eastbound and Down",  Jerry Reed

East bound and down, loaded up and trucking
We're gonna do what they say can't be done
We got a long way to go, and a short time to get there
I'm eastbound, just watch ol' Bandit run!

This will easily be the most recognized song on this list, as it was written for and used in Smokey and the Bandit, a movie about two truckers bootlegging Coors, trying to get away from an indefatigable and utterly obscene Texas sheriff.   It's a fun song to sing driving through country backroads.  Note: the video above uses the music from the movie, set to clips from the movie itself.

2. "Six Days on the Road", Dave Dudley

Dudley's voice gives this song a lot of...oomph.  His delivery is that of a 20th century cowboy, full of guts and black coffee.  A rock version of this was done by a trucking band in 1987.

The ICC is a checkin' on down the line
I'm a little overweight, and my logbook's way behind
But nothin' bothers me tonight
I can dodge all the scales all right
Six days on the road, and I'm gonna make it home tonight!

3. "Roll On", Alabama
This song about the wife and children of a driver who spends most of the week away, but calls in nightly until he goes missing during a wintry storm, always resonated strongly with me as the child of a driver.
It's Monday mornin', he's kissin' Mama goodbye
 -- he's up and gone with the sun
Daddy drives an eighteen wheeler, and he's off on a Midwest run
Three sad faces gather around Mama, askin' when Daddy's coming home
Daddy drives an eighteen wheeler, and they miss him when he's gone 
Ah, but he calls `em every night, and tells them that he loves them
He taught `em this song to sing --
"Roll on, highway, roll on along -- roll on Daddy, until you get back home."

4."Big Wheels in the Moonlight", Dean Seals
A song about the youthful craving for escape and adventure that leads many to driving.

I came from a town that was so small, 
you look both ways you could see it all
All I wanted was some way out -- every evenin' I'd slip into town
Stand around by the caution light,  watch the big trucks rollin by
For me, it was a beautiful sight....big wheels in the moonlight.

5. "Speedball Trucker", Jim Croce
Croce wouldn't be described as a country singer, but his "Speedball Trucker" and "Rapid Roy" aren't out of place in its ranks.

One day I looked into my rearview mirror
And coming up from behind
Was a Georgia state policeman
And a hundred dollar fine
He looked me in the eye as he was writin' me up
He said, "Driver, you been flyin --
" -- ninety five is the route you were on, it was not the speed limit sign"

6. "Tombstone Every Mile", Dick Curless

Lamenting a stretch of road in Maine notorious for claiming the lives of drivers. Included here in part for its age, and in part because driving is often dangerous work -- especially in winter, or working around mountains.

7."Bud the Spud", Stompin' Tom Conners
Canadians have truck drivers, too!  And...they sing about potatoes.

It's Bud the Spud! from the bright red mud
Rollin' down the highway smilin'
The spuds are big on the back of Bud's rig
And they're from Prince Edward Island!

It is the most exciting song about potatoes you will ever hear.

8. "Chicken Lights and Chrome", Jesse Watson

Not an old song, but sharing the pride some drivers (particularly owner-operators) have in their rigs' physical appearance and maintenance.  Chicken lights refer to the string of lights that run the length of rigs -- or at least, their trailers. As a bonus: the lyrics include "A trucker's favorite song is Alabama's 'Roll On'".

9. "Roll On, Big Mama",  Joe Stampley
A fun, rowdy song about the joys of driving.

The feel of the wheel delivers me
From a life where I don't wanna be
And the diesel smoke with every stroke
Sings a song with every note
And ramblin' is the life I chose
Sittin' here between the doors
The yellow line keepin' time
with the things that's runnin' through my mind

10. Convoy, C.W. McCall

This is the other big trucking song people know,  and even though it's silly enough that I almost didn't include it here, I will still enthusiastically sing it if it comes on the radio.

We laid a strip for the Jersey shore and  prepared to cross the line
We could see the bridge was lined with bears, but I didn't have a dog-gone dime
I said "Pigpen, this here's the Rubber Duck -- we just ain't gonna pay no toll!"
So we crashed the gate goin' 98, an' I said let them truckers roll -- ten-four! 

11. "Driving My Life Away",  Rhett Atkins
Another fast song, but one which the title nearly says more than the lyrics -- though the verses hint that driving is just constant racing and getting nowhere,  with the singer wondering if there's something better out there.

Bonus: "Truck Driving Man", Jimmy Martin.  Martin is an early country legend, the king of bluegrass.

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
© 1995 Graham Coster
275 pages

Great literature has been produced from travelers' tales, from those who walked or rode trains or even drove -- but none from a truck, says Graham Coster. In the hopes of filling in a niche, he hitched rides with British and American truckers transversing North American and Europe, to learn about life behind the wheel of a big rig. The memoir is based on three trips undertaken in 1993, but as Coster was not himself a driver, there are only three things he writes about: the drivers, the landscape, and country music. (Also: candy bars. One wonders if Mars, Inc underwrote his trip!) The landscape is almost absent, mentioned only as the background scenery. In Arizona, Coster ruefully notes that his time spent with truckers has altered his perspective: he has visited the state before, noted its beauty, but once embedded in the work routines of a cab it's nothing more than a low hill with a series of truck stops behind it. The places, unless they are extraordinarily abominable (New York City, the bane of truckers) are all ironed out by the constant transience of driving life. The drivers themselves all make for fun company, swapping stories about experiences on the road and ruminating over friends they've lost. In the United States, Coster is more out of his element -- praising presidents who truckers loathe, making jokes about people they admire. Ruminations on music, and especially country music, rival the conversations with drivers for page-space. Coaster is intrigued that the drivers he meets in England and Germany both like American country music, and in the US, they seem to listen to nothing else. It's not an accident that the book takes its title from a Dwight Yoakam piece. Coster likes it well enough himself, though he prefers the country-pop party anthems to the emotional croonings of Hank Williams.

Although this is a topic that greatly interests me, I was completely underwhelmed by this title, in part because I've read other memoirs and encountered nothing new. Even if I were reading it for the first time, however, there's little real information about the trucking industry here: it's just driving and waiting. For information on Eurasia's transcontinental routes, Danger: Heavy Goods, a memoir about the England-Saudi Arabia route, is much better...and written by an actual driver.

Oktoberfest or Oktoberfright?

Regensburg,  Bavaria

Well, dear readers, September was a fairly horrific month between the hurricanes and earthquakes and threats of nuclear war, so I hope October is calmer.   I usually read a piece of fiction or history associated with Germany at this time of year,  and have a series lined up.   I'm also featuring some Halloween reading for the first time; I just finished Dracula, and hope to cover Frankenstein later in the month. Until then I'm enjoying a collection of ghostly fiction, and will be starting into the German history soon.  I had wanted to read Heart of Europe, a history of the Holy Roman Empire, but it's close to a thousand pages and I have too many irons in the fire.  One potential is A Mighty Fortress, a history of the German people written to rescue the land of poets and thinkers from its twelve years of infamy. Perhaps I'll enjoy it with a märzen...