48 Following


High Polar Adventure and an Autopsy

Fatal North: Adventure and Survival Aboard USS Polaris, the First U S Expedition to the North Pole - Bruce Henderson

This wasn't what I expected at all, but ended up being a decent read nonetheless. It is packaged as an account of the failed 1871 U.S. Navy expedition to reach the North Pole- and it begins that way. The first 1/3 or so is dedicated to how the trip was conceived, sold to the Navy, funded, manned, and what preparations were made. Nobody had reached the North Pole yet (nor would anybody until 1909), and it was one of the few unclaimed obvious prizes to be won, in an era where only the very furthest reaches of the Earth remained to be mapped, conquered, and civilized. 


Charles F. Hall was Captain of the ship U.S.S. Polaris, and is the leader of the expedition. As one would expect, he is obsessive about reaching 90 degrees North; it is the culmination of an unlikely (for a kid from Brooklyn in the mid 1800's, with no maritime experience until well into his adult life) lifelong mania about it. Like Roald Amundsen would later do with the South Pole, Hall meticulously studied Eskimo survival skills, and liberally appropriated them, enhancing them only cautiously with modern technology when it seemed prudent to do so. There's quite a bit of detail about ways that Eskimo traditions are so perfectly evolved to suit their environment. 


The mid portion of the book details how all the careful preparations go to hell, when Hall's obsession clouds his judgment about how to handle his crew, and discipline brakes down to chaos. Carefully-rationed resources are plundered, distinctions of rank are ignored, etc... which is deadly dangerous in the unforgiving environment. So far, it is a cautionary tale about prizing personal relationships and political expediency over technical proficiency, in an environment which demands expertise from every team member. It is also a tragedy about the needless death-spiral of a poorly-constructed team which lacks discipline and leadership to overcome their internal personal difference.



The Captain dies under very mysterious circumstances. The ship is lost. Half the crew is set adrift on a mile-wide ice floe which drifts South for 5 months, until they are rescued by a whaling ship. Miraculously, none of this party dies, as the Eskimos among them are able to hunt seals to feed the group. The remainder of the party makes land and meets up with local Greenland Eskimos, who generously house and feed them over the winter, until they are rescued the following Spring.


The last third of the book details the official inquiry into how the whole thing fell apart. There is conflicting testimony, and the book suddenly becomes a possible-murder mystery. 


The last 20 pages details the 1968 Canadian expedition which discovers Capt Hall's burial site, digs up the body, and brings it to a medical examiner in Toronto, who solves the mystery of the good Captain's death. 


None of the cover blurbs really convey the whole murder mystery aspect of this book. I can't say I'm disappointed; overall it was very satisfying.

Short stories of the Wild West

The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales - Bret Harte

Meh. These are short stories from the 1840's to the 1860's, telling about colorful characters the author presumably met (or synthesized from people he met) while living in and around Sacramento at that time. It's like a more rustic version of "Little House on the Prairie" (more marital infidelity, venereal disease, illegitimate kids, etc) or a lamer version of the Hollywood Westerns of the 1940's, 50's and 60's (less gunfights, more legal disputes over water and land rights; no pony express, no stagecoaches or trains getting held up, lots of hard work in the mines and trying to make ranches profitable, etc.)


It's probably quite realistic. (What do I know?) I just wish it was a little more entertaining.



Side note: I always thought the big innovation that Mark Twain brought to literature was writing dialogue in a way that brings out the accents and vernacular of the speakers. Isn't that what made Tom Sawyer such a hit? That was published in the 1870's. These stories predate that... some by 30 years, and they're FULL of that kind of dialogue. I wonder why Harte never got any credit for that. 

A broader history than the title promises

Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York (Modern Jewish History) - Stephen Birmingham

This seems like a niche history about nine German-Jewish families (well 8 German Jewish families and 1 Germanic-Swiss Jewish family... the Guggenheims)  in New York City, from 1840 to 1930, but in the telling of it, the book delves into general history of America and Germany in that time period, exploring (because of the families' various businesses) the rise of the large railroad combines and the rise of "finance Capitalism" (i.e. capitalization of the country's industry through large Wall Street brokerage houses and consumer banks)


There is also an interesting exploration of Jewry in NYC going back to the period of Dutch rule in "New Amsterdam".  The Spanish Inquisition expelled Jews from Spain in 1492. Most of these were Sephardic, and found refuge in Brazil (a Portugese colony with liberal immigration policies towards anybody who looked like they would develop the land and firmly establish the Portugese claim on it.)  Portugal lost Brazil to Spain in 1668, under the terms of the Treaty of Libson.  With the Inquisition still in force, the Sephardic Jews were expelled, and most of them found refuge in New Amersterdam.


As a result, the face of the Jewish community in New York was decidedly Sephardic from the 1600's until the 1840's, when a revolution in Germany resulted in a mass influx of German immigrants to New York. Most of the Jews arriving in this wave were Ashkinazi, and they were not warmly welcomed by the Sephardics.


This is a large undercurrent narrative in the book, with Germans having to build parallel synogogues, Hebrew schools, etc, and the cultural characteristics of New York Jewry transforming from the Latin, more insular, Sephardic subculture into the decidedly more open (i.e. assimilationist)  Germanic, Yiddish-speaking, Ashkinazis. 


One thing this book is NOT, is a telling of the Jewish experience across the socioeconomic spectrum. The book is dedicated to nine of the wealthiest families in the City, whose names are tied up in the founding, running, and in some cases decline of some of the largest and most successful companies of the 1800's, including: Goldman and Sachs, the Guggenheims (whose metalworking and mining fortunes persist today in holdings of US Steel, Newmont Mining and Barrack Gold), Kuhn & Loeb, Solomon Brothers banking and brokerage, Harriman Brothers, Macy's department stores, and a railroad empire which has since been absorbed into Union Pacific.


In this sense, it is a specialty History with a narrow focus, but probably still broad appeal. Who doesn't love hearing about the dramas and infighting of the super-rich? Every chapter is like an episode of "Dynasty" or "Dallas." (Do those references date me? I don't know what the current-day equivalents are.)  Still, as noted above, the telling of it all covers a lot of general history which should be of interest to a wide audience.

An entirely adequate book which did not excite me.

The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy - Raj Patel

If you haven't heard it all before, I guess this is worthwhile. Basically the standard complaints about capitalism- which is failing in present day precisely because it is no longer free market capitalism, but rather an increasingly regulated (by international "managed trade" agreements like NAFTA and the now-defunct TTP) crony capitalism. Discussion about Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, the history of "commons" and the Enclosure Acts. The British East India Company. Negative and positive rights. Useful value of an object vs. Transactional value of an object. (i.e. water is useful and necessary for life but also extremely plentiful so has a high useful value and a low transactional value; gemstones are pretty and rich customers may pay top dollar for them, but don't fulfill any dire need so they have a low useful value but a high transactional value.)  The nature of corporations (i.e. as "legal fictions" endowed with rights akin to human beings, but immortal, unsleeping, and dedicated to a single purpose: acquisition of more.)


The title refers to corporate cost-avoidance strategies which allow companies to push unseen expenses on to third parties (usually the public), which reaping profits. An example would be taxpayer-funded subsidies for corn, which knocks $500,000/year off the cost of raising cattle to maturity, resulting in lower cost of beef, which allows McDonald's to get beef cheaper than they used to, while keeping the price of their sandwiches the same. End result: McDonald's realizes a large profit selling hamburgers to taxpayers who subsidized the end-product, but do not profit from the subsidy... in fact, they are effectively paying twice for each burger they buy.


If you've been interested in these things for more than 5 years, I doubt there is anything new in here to stimulate you. 

A well-told account of a little-known war, by Winston Churchill

The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan - Winston Churchill

My respect for Winston Churchill as a writer continues to grow. This is a well-told account of how British and Egyptian forces reconquered Sudan from a semi-theocratic (semi- because it was nominally Muslim, but an odd branch of it, and really more of a personality cult surrounding the leader) uprising calling itself the "Dervish Empire".


The Setup:  The book covers 1893-1899. Britain owns the Suez Canal, which it protects jealously as its main conduit to British India. Egypt supposedly exists as its own country, but is really part of the British "sphere of influence".  The Sudan is regarded as an undeveloped wasteland whose only value is the Nile River running through it. For decades, Sudan is neglected. Stretching back into history, and continuing until 1899, Arab slavers, mostly from present-day Yemen, have raided the area, selling captured Sudanese into slavery throughout the Arab world.


The Trigger: In the late 1880's, a Sudanese Muslim cleric becomes politically active, mainly as a result of his failure to advance in the clerical system, making a popular cause out of breaking away from British Egypt, which has offered no protection to locals from the aforementioned slave raids.


The Battlespace: Sudan is roughly 1200 x 1600 miles, yet >90% of the population lives within a few miles of the Nile River. Thus, the entire evolution of the war is a continuous push southward by British forces along the banks of the river.  Each battle progresses just a few miles down the river (south) from the last, climaxing with the fall of Karthoom, and concluding with "sweepup" operations south of there.


The seasonal quirks of the river completely define the course of the war. Typically the river level drops in winter, as the Kenyan mountains which feed into Lake Victoria freeze up. In the spring, meltwater from those peeks flow again, and the river floods. Low "tide" allows for passage across the river in areas, and prevents passage of all but the shallowest-draft boats, which must either wait for the river to rise again, or which can be deconstructed and portaged upstream to a point which is again deep enough to accommodate them. 


Technology: Three relatively new technologies played a large role in British success:


1) Gunboats

One would hardly expect gunboats to play a large role in the conquest of such an expansive territory which comprises mostly desert, but this is exactly the case. New heavy artillery gunboats were specifically designed with sufficiently shallow draft for use in the Nile. Perfecting field gun technology from the Crimean and American Civil Wars, the new boats can accurately lay down heavy artillery fire from over 1700 yards, devastating even the most fortified (by mud brick) Sudanese strongholds. The "Dervish" forces have absolutely nothing comparable to answer with. It is one of the decisive factors in British victory. Even in the middle of a desert, British force projection relies on its navy!


2) Railway

Churchill lovingly details the construction of a railway from Cairo, running the length of the river, providing a much-needed secure supply chain to the battlefront. It is a heavy investment which pays off handsomely, and the promise of use of the line for commerce, after the war, persuades the Egyptian government to contribute financing. It is on the occasion of the "River War" that the British army creates a Railway Battalion of specially-trained men who can keep the engines running, and make repairs to rail or engine, as needed, on the spot. A small, limited-capacity manufacturing shop in one of the rail cars, reducing dependence on distant factories for parts, etc. 


3) Telegraph

Construction of a telegraph parallel to the river, which keeps forces in touch with commanders back in Cairo, and more importantly: allows the frontlines to place orders in realtime for needed material, munitions, and men. (Even though the goods would still take weeks to arrive)


The Battle: It gets a little bit monotonous here, with troop movements here and there, etc. I found myself skimming through some parts.


The Resolution: Britain wins. The Nile between British Egypt and British Kenya is secure and cleared of radical anti-British forces. 


Outside forces: The Italian presence in Abysinnia is mentioned here, and plays a minor role in some early battles, where Italian troops are freed up to assist the British cause. 


The "Fashoda Incident" is mentioned, in which France advances an expedition to claim a portion of the Nile in Sudan. It is a purely cynical move to get negotiating power against Britain, as France would have no reasonable chance to actually defend their claim by force. The "incident' ends with a treaty protecting British sovereignty throughout the entire drainage area of the Nile, in exchange for giving France a free hand to develop colonies unmolested in Northern Africa.


Overall, this was a decent read. Monotonous in parts, but the best account I could find of this conflict.

Awards are bullshit

The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value - James F. English

That was pretty much my attitude going in, and the author seems to agree.


So far so good.


The book was an impulse purchase, which looked "interesting" because it promised to validate all my preconceptions. (I love when books do that.)


Sadly, the text is dry. Dry as a bone.... in a convection oven... in the Sahara Desert, so I stopped reading after 90 pages. 


I guess if I really want confirmation of my biases, it is best to have a meticulous, scientific-sounding, thorough, academic exploration of the subject, to give it weight.


But that's no fun. This isn't an important subject to me, so it isn't worth the effort. I would have been perfectly happy with a more animated and engaging, less academic screed taking down the Nobel Prizes, the Oscars, the Pulitzer, and about 100 other awards.


The many ways these prizes are disingenuous, inconsistent, subjective, and distorted by a host of corrupting influences are faithfully cataloged herein.


I hate giving low reviews to books I agree with, but there it is.


Secret handshakes, etc.

Occult Theocrasy: Vol. 1 - Edith Starr Miller

I'm not sure how best to characterize this. It's more elaborate and narrative than a catalog, but less detailed, unified, and coherent than you would expect from a history.


This is a reprint from a 1922 text documenting, supposedly, at least fifty secret societies throughout history and around the world. If there is a thesis or overaching theme here, it's that all of these societies are interrelated, have complicated intermixed histories and lineages, that they sometimes fight sometimes cooperate, and that they sometimes serve (wittingly or unwittingly) important political and social/religious functions which have largely gone undocumented in mainstream history. 


It starts way back with religious groups... the Vedic origins of Hinduism, the evolution of Brahminism and Jainism acting as a sort of a reforming counterforce/resistance offshoot (like Protestantism to Catholicism).  On to a whole bunch of mystic religions, cults, and deviant variations of better-known religions: Zoroastrism, Cabalistic Judeasm, weird sects of Islam (most famously the Assassins), Druidism, Gnosticism, and a bunch of Egyptian pseudo-religious underground secret societies- which seem to probably have begat Freemasonry. The common thread here is that these cults, etc were not well-received by the mainstream of society, so had to worship underground, establishing a lot of methods of secret communication, ways to identify each other in public, ways of compartmentalizing their organizations so the whole thing would not be compromised if one member went astray or if the group was infiltrated by a spy, etc...


Having established all these secret methods, there was a natural evolution for some of these to use their framework of secrecy to enrich the group or its members, or to achieve political ends. The Knights Templar evolved a sort of secret banking protocol which became useful for funding covert operations during the Crusades. The Knights of Malta too. They also seemed to operate a private spy organization (?) Freemasonic lodges have been hotbeds of subversive political activity in Spain, England, Scotland, and the USA. They may also have been a means of funding and otherwise supporting early figures in the Protestant Reformation. It's kind of surprising to me, but the book maintains there was a robust secular resistance to the power of the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, which was only able to evade discovery and destruction through the international web of Freemason lodges throughout Europe. (Freemasonry's cover story, and probably once legitimate function, was as a trade guild for builders and stone cutters... a growth industry in the 11th and 12th century when a surprising amount of European GDP went towards cathedral construction.)


The Illuminati have lately made a big splash in popular culture... the originals were in Bavaria, but were discovered and broken up. They resurfaced as the Jacobins (named for Knight Templar Jaques de Molay), whose role in the French Revolution is pretty well documented and accepted. Not only were the Jacobins a supply and information network for anti-monarchical French revolutionaries; they were also a financial network through which British money flowed from sources offical and unofficial, who felt a destabilized and war-torn France was in British best interests.


Later in the 19th century, Italian Freemasonic lodges seemed to play a large role in the political maneuvering leading up to Italian unification. There are a large number of political assassinations tied to Masonic groups. I was surprised to learn that the Mafia didn't (doesn't?) have a monopoly on hitmen in Italy.


It's interesting stuff, but impossible to verify. I have no idea how much of it is true, beyond the well-known mainstream religion stuff. Of course it is no secret that the Masons still exist, and we at least know of the existence of other secret societies, like the famous "Skull and Bones" club, whose exact purpose isn't clear, but which seems to involve installing its members as Presidents of the United States. 


Popular media loves to make fun of stuff like this; to laugh at it in smug self-assured tones, and to mock it as "crazy conspiracy stuff", but there's really no reason to think any of this is implausible. People act in their self interests, and clubs of all sorts thrive. If a person could get a business edge by joining a corny club with funny hats and secret handshakes, hey why not? If disenfranchised people in nations which deny them access to meaningful political participation can effect changes they want by joining a lodge with secret initiation rituals, why wouldn't they?  With money, politics, and secrecy in the mix, who can be surprised if some of these groups go off the rails into criminal activity, violence, and even revolution?


Could groups like this shape our world in ways we don't immediately appreciate, or which are kept secret from us?  Why the fuck not? You've heard of the Bilderberg Group, haven't you?


Biblical fan fiction

Barabbas - Alan Blair, Pär Lagerkvist

Short (150 pgs) story following the life of the criminal Barabbas pardoned by Pontius Pilate and the crowd in Jesus's stead, for about 30 years following the crucifixion. Non-canonical, obviously. I think the point is to be a springboard for discussion about the nature of being an adherent to an institutionalized faith vs. following a personal philosophy not sanctioned and validated by ritual and mass worship. 


I guess Dino de Laurentiis made this into a film in the late 50's/early 60's, which I can't even begin to imagine, as the only work of his I am familiar with is Barbarella, in which Jane Fonda is nearly pecked to death by parakeets. 


Japanese mystery novel from 1960

Inspector Imanishi Investigates - Seicho  Matsumoto

Personally, I don't think they gave enough information to solve this crime before the Inspector reveals his solution at the end. Then again, I don't read too many crime novels, and I pretty much never manage to solve them on my own, so "your milage may vary" as they say.


The fun/interesting thing about this book was little details unique to Japan, or Japan in 1960. In any American detective story, you can pretty much rely on observance of the 4th Amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizures)... detectives need a search warrant!  Not so much with Inspector Imanishi. On several occasions, he tricks landladies into letting him into a renter's apartment to look around... tricks a maid to letting him into a hotel room... etc. On one single page, he makes mention of getting a search warrant, but it's not clear what circumstances would require getting one. Certainly the requirements were looser in 1960 Japan than what we are used to.


Another very Japanese thing:  the Inspector pretends to be from an agency making arranged marriage recommendations to families, as a ruse to get information about one of his suspects.  He just shows up at the home of one of the suspect's employees, and says a family is considering making a marriage proposal of their daughter to his parents, but he just wants to discreetly find out whether the guy is a heavy drinker, whether he frequents bars X, Y, or Z, etc... and the employee is glad to tell him what she knows!  She likes her boss, and wants him to marry the best possible woman!


One other good one:  a fairly major plot point is that one person isn't who he seems to be, because he has created a completely new identity. How did he do it?  He knew of a town so completely destroyed in World War 2 bombing run that City Hall had no intact birth/death/real estate/census records.  After the war, when stuff was rebuilt, he showed up at City Hall and said "My house was burned up in the war, but my name is (whatever), and my birthday was (whatever), and if you're rebuilding the census records, you can put down that I've lived here since 1922, etc.."


It makes sense that after the war, destruction of records probably allowed a lot of document falsifications like this, for all sorts of reasons. It probably isn't even a spectacularly innovative plot device; readers in Japan 1960 were probably well-familiar with those sorts of bureaucratic snags in their own lives. 


The story itself is okay. 


Oh, one other thing, not unique to Japan, but to the late 50's/ early 60's: there is an eccentric artist character... kind of an Andy Warhol type, who thinks so far outside the box that he is able to shock and amaze audiences by playing traditional music on some newfangled instrument which generates sounds using electric components like transistors!  Good stuff. 

Good Introduction for the Curious

A History of India - Hermann Kulke, Dietmar Rothermund

We’re covering about 4000 years of history in 350 pages, so you know it will be very superficial and introductory. As it happens, that’s what I needed, because my knowledge of Indian history was pretty much zero.  The book is roughly divided into five Eras:  Prehistory, the Age of the Hindu Princes, the Age of the Mughal Rulers, the Age of British Rule, and the Postcolonial Era.


The biggest misconception I had about India was dispelled in the first 50 pages. For some reason, I thought India lie hidden and inaccessible behind the Himalaya Mountains, relatively unknown and isolated throughout ancient times. I knew that Alexander the Great’s armies briefly reached India, but I pictured it as an aberration, and thought maybe they reached some far-off hilltop, from which they might have gazed at India, without actually trespassing. 


Wherever that idea came from, it was absurd, and plainly wrong.  Going back thousands of years, Uzbeks, Kurds, Persians, and Afghans all frequently penetrated into India, both as traders, scholars, proselytizers, and military invaders.  The Romans traded frequently with Gujarati merchants on the Northwestern Indian shore- as attested by the discovery of tens of thousands of Roman Empire mint coins there, as well as 1st Century Roman writings which describe the “monsoon passage” across the Arabian Sea, and the spice traders of Gujarat waiting to trade on the other side.


Alexander did reach India, and his armies battled the Hindu princes and their fantastical (to Greek eyes) cavalries of war elephants on the flood plains between the Indus and Ganges rivers. Of interest: Alexander did well against the less-organized Hindu princes, and might have had a more lasting presence in India, but was forced to turn back to Greece by his armies, who began to suspect that his higher-than-expected casualties was a ploy to avoid paying them.   


The Era of the Hindu princes was a time of small agrarian (mostly rice-based, but some wheat-based in the North) city-states, and Hinduism was a disunified patchwork of different local beliefs.


Moving into the period of the European Middle Ages, India thrived. Mongol invaders and traveling Chinese scholars facilitated cultural exchange with the East, while Persian invasion brought Islam and the more elaborate system of bureaucratic rule from the West.  The Era of Mughal princes marks a period of consolidation, social polarization between converts to Islam and Hindus, attendant homogenization of Hindu beliefs, expansion of domestic trade, and divergent evolution of the “Dravidic” character of the South compared to the “Aryan” character of the North.  The South develops extensive trade with Indonesia and Indochina (particularly the Angkor Kingdom in present-day Cambodia). The North gravitates towards Afghan and Persian influences, particularly in the Kashmir and Punjab regions… which persist in modern day as hotspots of territorial and cultural conflict between (Muslim) Pakistan and (predominantly Hindu) India.


The chapters about British rule focus mainly on how England got its foothold into India through the British East India Company, which found favor among traders in Bengal and Orissa by introducing a much-needed stable and non-counterfeitable medium of trade: silver.  Using cheap labor paid in silver, the East India Company set up spinning factories to spin cotton (locally grown, and later imported from Egypt and the American South) and later (after the Industrial Revolution) to weave them into textiles. While local princes fought each other and diminished each other, East India Company made itself indispensable to the Bengali economy. As East India Company officials were taken into confidence of the local rulers, they began to assert British principles of jurisprudence into local laws, and established courts based on British law, and largely attended and run by the British. From there, British schools were established, and the East India Company began to exact payment from local leaders for the “services” it was providing.  


The history of the British in India seems to be a story of “mission creep”. Even the founders of the East India Company never envisioned it as a vehicle for conquest.  Yet… by the mid-1700’s, Bengali princes who opposed the British were easily removed, and more friendly puppets installed in their places. British “fees” became taxes, and payment to East India Company shareholders as well as to the Crown became institutionalized as tribute paid by a colony. Technological advances such as the railroads, telegraphs, better-developed port facilities, and electricity were all installed, wholly owned and maintained by the British. Eliminating the Dutch and Portuguese  presence in India, and setting up a controlled national government were easily achieved at this point. Offical rule by the British government, as opposed to the British East India Company, was formalized in the mid-1800's after a series of rebellions were put down, which strained the resources of the Company, and exposed the absurdity of a textile and spice trading company ruling a nation of (at the time) 200 million.  


As an aside, the municipal history of Calcutta is covered here, which is an unlikely story of a small rice-farming village which just happened to be situated in the right location to become a sprawling metropolis and the epicenter of British government on the subcontinent for 350 years. 


Gandhi and the separatist movement is covered, and the part I found most surprising it how long it dragged out. In some ways, the British seemed to know that they could never hold power over so many subjects, located at such a distance from England, without their consent. From the earliest days of the East India Company, the Company sought (by necessity) to rule with minimal application of force, and when such force was needed, it was subcontracted out to hired "muscle" -often from Punjab, whose geography on the frontier to the Persian Empire caused them to develop their martial practice to a much more sophisticated degree than many other regions.


Throughout the India and Britain were starting to negotiate separation as early as World War 1, but always with dallying and British excuses. (Personally, I think this is how the European Union plans to stave off the British “Brexit”.)  The modern era is better known to most of us, and the 1982 movie “Gandhi”, starring Ben Kingsley, complements this portion of the book well.


Overall this is a good introductory book which assumes very little foreknowledge of Indian history. My one complaint is that it lacks adequate maps to accompany the text, and the maps which are provided have such small text that they are practically unreadable. 

Bird Box - Josh Malerman

I was just trying something new here. Horror isn't really my genre, but a friend really liked this book so I gave it a try. I like aspects of it... the idea of never really being sure what the nature of the monster actually is. I can imagine that if Earth were invaded by aliens, or if monsters were created in some government experiment gone wrong, or if some portal opened up between Earth and (??somewhere??)... we wouldn't necessarily know the whole backstory of the threat, and how it came to be, and what might be done about it... before society completely collapsed, leaving the survivors scratching their heads wondering what the hell just happened.


The book captures the claustrophobic mood of people trapped together in close quarters very well. And there is a particular plot point I don't want to spoil, but I am reminded of Nightmare on Elm Street, where the victims can never let themselves fall asleep.  Also, something about this has a vibe of Day of the Triffids, but I can't quite put my finger on it.  

Ground Control to Major Tom...

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond - Gene Kranz

This is a wonderful book, in its way- and by that I mean that it can be a bit dry and technical in areas, but overall it gives you a good feel for the kind of work this author did, over the course of thirty years, for NASA.


Gene Kranz was a combat jet pilot in the Korean War, and then a test pilot for a defense contractor. Where do you go from there, if you're starting a family, and looking for somewhat safer work? ("There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots") The answer in 1959 was NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. It was the precursor group to NASA, formed in the Cold War American Sputnick-panic.


Kranz brought a lot of technical knowledge about flight to the job, and eventually became a flight director. You know how every NASA-themed movie has all those guys at Mission Control sitting at banks of monitors, talking into headphones to the astronauts? The guys who stand up and cheer when some perilous mission ends in success, against all the odds? Well that's what Gene Kranz did for thitry years.


But what do those guys actually DO, you might ask? (I did.)


They monitor a ton of real-time telemetry data, keeping tabs on every system needed for a successful space mission... fuel, battery power, vehicle position, velocity, altitude, life support systems, oxygen pressure, ship-board computer functions, radar, all the monitors for the scientific missions (e.g. the photographic mapping of the moon surface, the magnetic sensors, etc) Each system is constantly monitored, and if anything is abnormal, it needs to be addressed immediately. In the earliest days of the program, the Mercury missions, the astronaut didn't even steer the ship; it was done from Ground Control.


Turns out, there are a lot of things which can go wrong, and it takes a team of very clear-thinking subject matter experts (mostly engineers) to devise workable corrective measures, to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the missions.


In a way, this book reminds me of that great 1970's movie "The Conversation" with Gene Hackman. He plays a security expert hired to record conversations between two "targets". He wiretaps them, follows them around with high-power microphones, etc... It turns out the conversations they are having pertain to a murder they are planning. You never actually find out why they are plotting this murder, and you never even meet the guy they talk about killing. You never even really get much exposure to the conspirators. It's all told through the eyes of some guy who is way off on the periphery of the story, who by most accounts would just be some low-level functionary very incidental to the drama, and played by an extra in most accounts of the murder. But in "The Conversation" it is his story which is front-and-center. Same way with this book. Most re-telling of mankind's early days in space would most naturally be told in an astronaut-centric way.


Kranz directed the Mercury missions (named so because Mercury is the first planet), the Gemini missions (named after the zodiac twins because the Gemini capsule had a two-man crew), and finally the Apollo missions to the moon (not sure how they came up with the name for those ones). It is real-life drama, dealing with a lot of life-or-death decisions which the public never learned about at the time.


The other cool thing about the book is how it highlights the degree to which early NASA was infused with the sense that everything they did was about national security, and staking a claim for America in the next battlespace between superpower rivals: outer space. NASA was very cognizant of every milestone, and how they measured up to the Russians- who had a head start. Russians put the first man into space, and the first man in orbit. America finally overtook them with a Gemini mission which married up two orbiting space vehicles together. Russia at the time had never managed to get two vehicles closer than three miles apart.


The issue: computer power. Traveling 17,000 mph, computers monitoring a constant stream of telemetry data are needed to make minor corrections for both. In 1962, Soviet Russia didn't have the speed or processing power to deal with that amount of data in real-time. The US barely did either, but it's interesting that mundane solid state electronics like most Americans were enjoying with their transistor radios at the beach is what closed the gap, rather than fancy rocket propulsion systems or exotic fuel mixtures.


If you're interested in any of the technical stuff, you should enjoy the book. You might think putting the first man on the moon would be the high point of the book, but actually bringing the crew safely home during the problem-ridden Apollo 13 mission is.

Wait... what? Uh oh.

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

I read this when I was about 12 or 13, and now I'm re-reading it, for nostalgia, I guess, and because I was reminded of it a few weeks back, when I saw an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which kind of riffs on Flowers for Algernon.


But there's something weird going on here, because I don't remember it being as PG-13 or even R rated as it is. There's a whole mess of scenes in here involving sex (nothing too explicit, but still...), which is a problem, because I sent this book to my 13 year old nephew for Christmas, and now I'm beginning to re-think how appropriate that may have been. I guess I need to get ahold of my sister and tell her she might want to check it out first. 




Anyhow, if you haven't read it, I recommend this book. Superficially it's about a mildly mentally retarded man (is there a more PC way I'm supposed to say it? I feel like there is, but nothing comes to mind...)  who is the subject of an experimental treatment which gives him superhuman intelligence.


His expanded brain power is wonderful, exciting and illuminating, but also alienating... none of his old friends understand him any more. He suddenly sees that the authority figures he had placed so much trust in don't really have all the anwers, ect... exactly the sort of stuff you like to think about when you're 12 or 13 and starting to catch on to things.


Made my All-Time Top Five History Books list~ !

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty - James A. Robinson, Daron Acemoğlu

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I would place it in my all-time top five history books, along with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Will and Ariel Durant's Rousseau and Revolution, Carroll Quigley's Tragedy & Hope, and Norodom Sihanouk's My War with the CIA.

What it is, is a very simple thesis about what it is that nations require to materially prosper. I'm not sure why the title dwells on nations which fail, as the title could just as easily be "Why Nations Succeed." Simply stated, Robinson expounds that the winning formula for prosperity is merely this: (1) a government sufficiently powerful to enforce private contracts and adjudicate private disputes; (2) a process of political and economic decision making sufficiently inclusive that the productive class (as opposed to the ruling or landowning classes) believe it is in within their power (by means of some combination of hard work, ingenuity, and judicious investment) to improve their lives; (3) institutional respect for the ownership and accumulation of private property. In the terminology of the book, systems which fulfill the above criteria are called Inclusive, and those which do not are called Extractive. You may or may not agree, but the heart of the book isn't much more than this.

What is fantastic is how the authors view selected histories through the lens of this very basic premise. I still haven't bothered to learn the authors' backgrounds, but they are well versed in a wide range of interesting world history. It turns out that contrasting the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Sierra Leone supports the thesis perfectly. Likewise, contrasting a history of the Spanish colonies in South America with the British and French colonies in North America. The history of the Republic of South Africa (Extractive) and Botswana (Inclusive). India, North Korea vs. South Korea, etc... there are ample examples provided.

Are these examples cherry-picked? They may be, but I have not been able to come up with anything to refute the general principles. Delving beyond the simple demonstration of examples, the mid portion of the book examines situation which superficially appear to contradict the thesis, but then shows how in fact they support it. The rapid economic growth of the Soviet Union between 1926-1960, for example. The USSR stands firmly in the camp of Extractive systems, but enjoyed robust growth, and even some innovation (the Soviet space program and Sputnick, for example) during this time. It was a limited run, and an aberration, it turns out... driven by borrowed technologies (efficiencies) from external sources, cannibalization of wealth created from the preceding Extractive-but-slightly-less-Extractive-than-the-USSR political and economic institutions of the Czars, and limited growth which can sometimes be engineered by converting from one Extractive system (feudal agriculture) to another (Soviet collective farming) which enjoys slight benefits of efficiency-of-scale.

The same analysis is applied to the apparent belle epoque of Argentina from 1870-1910, when Argentine economic growth was the envy of the rest of the world, and the phrase "Rich as an Argentine" was used in American and British circles. The growth was self-limited, because it was mostly a reflection of the entrenched dominant landowning families developing previously-undeveloped land, not the sort of "creative destruction" one sees from true innovation and wealth creation in an evolving and progressing economy. This idea of creative destruction comes up again and again.

More relevant to modern day: the author argues convincingly that the impressive economic growth we now see in China is doomed to sputter out, if Chinese political and economic institutions remain Extractive.

The final third deals with case histories of those rare systems which have broken out of the Extractive natures and transcended to Inclusive: England's Glorious Revolution of 1688; the French Revolution (which led to a conversion of many other European systems from Extractive to Inclusive), and the slow evolution of the American (US) South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act.

It's a wonderful book, and I'm not doing it justice here, but please read it.

If you liked "Freakanomics", you'll prob like this

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

A very quick-reading exploration of the unexpected causes of socioeconomic success in America. The chapters break down into case studies- quirky but true observations, and plausible (but not rigorously proven) explanations.  Why do an abnormally large fraction of top professional hockey players have birthdays in January?  Why did an abnormally large fraction of Wall Street corporate acquisition lawyers in the 1960's come from Jewish immigrant families with parents or grandparents who worked in the garment industry? What common thread explains the exceptional career trajectories of Bill Joy (the computer wiz who wrote the Java programming language, and founded Sun Microsystems) and the Beatles?  (Hint: it isn't raw talent or luck)


If you like to think about stuff like this, this book will do for a light read. 


Minor complaints: Gladwell (the author) doesn't elaborate much on his methodology, or how he stumbled or otherwise arrived at some of his conclusions. He mentions how some topics came to interest him, but it all sounds like a string of impossible coincidences. There is a looseness here that makes the entire book sound less like a disciplined academic examination of a subject, and more like the off-the-wall random free-associations of a guy who is apparently very well-read and well-informed on a broad array of seemingly-unrelated subjects. 


Made my All-Time Top Ten list~!

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

I didn't think anybody could do historical fiction better than James Michener, but Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is just a little more complex, with characters a little more nuanced than any of the Michener I've read. Superficially, it flips back and forth between two stories:  Susan and Oliver Ward, who move out West to work in mining towns of Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and California- spanning the period 1870-1891; and their grandson Lyman Ward, a history professor researching their lives in 1970.  


Stegner riddles the narrative with all sorts of juxtapositions, counterpoints, and comparisons between the ages. The elder generation is young and energetic, bold and enthusiastic, diving into the Western territory to forge an extension of the American empire in the wilderness. It is the Wild West in some ways, but a more tempered, historic Wild West, where the daily grind is not gunfights and Indians, but more mundane, bureaucratic fights, like conflicting land claims, crooked lawyers who misfile paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management, and constant pressure to convince the far-off and unseen vested Eastern interests financing their new civilization that it will be profitable. 


I'm not an historian, but it all feels very realistic- maybe because it is less glamorous than the Hollywood Western. Every small victory is hard-fought. For every successful venture, there are multiple failures. Even a bountiful silver mine may not be profitable, depending on the cost of labor, or the transport of equipment into the undeveloped interior, or the vicissitudes of the commodity markets. Nobody gets scalped by Indians, or burned at the stake. Bandits never rob any stagecoaches. No fights break out over card games in a saloon, as a player piano hammers out some tune. Yet, everything about the story seems to attest that this is how the West was really won.  


Still more satisfying, the historical backdrop is populated by authentic characters. The Wards are adventurers, but also filled with longing for the more civilized world they left behind, and the people they had to leave there, to build this new life. Temptations, frustrations, frailties, uncertainty, fear of failure, actual failure and the imperative to move on from it... all the stuff missing from Frontierland at Disney World; these are the best parts.


Then there's Lyman Ward... professor emeritus. Much older in 1970 than the grandparents he's reaching back across ninety years to write about. He's living in the grand beautiful New West that Susan and Oliver held out as an ideal they would likely never see for themselves, but which they dreamed about hopefully for their progeny. But of course it isn't utopia; Professor Lyman is recently retired from U.C. Berkeley; the Vietnam War is going on, and the once-quiet semi-rural town he's moved out to is filled with free-loving, dope-smoking hippies... an unwashed generation that wants to shake the Establishment to its foundations and start again from zero; heirs to the best efforts of forty thousand Susan and Oliver Wards, but with no sense of history, and no appreciation for the sacrifices that built this "land of milk and honey" which they resent so deeply.  


As Susan and Oliver face bankruptcy and infant mortality, Lyman Ward conspires to resist the inevitability of his children committing him involuntarily to a retirement home. Before this happens, he is determined to discover the one glaring, unanswered question about his grandparents' lives: what caused them to abandon their property in the Idaho Territories?


It is truly one of the ten most satisfying books (fiction) I have ever read.