Here’s to every voice. Here’s to every step. We partnered with some incredible artists to create powerful poster designs for the Women’s March. To print your own, go to https://t.co/FByJjtGAPT. #walkwithjane #womenswave pic.twitter.com/zqVWA4MS9S
— Johnnie Walker (@JohnnieWalkerUS) January 17, 2019
Most likely she’s the future of the Democratic Party – and of the U.S. Why? She’s cute, vivacious, charming, different, outspoken, and has a plan to Make America Great Again. And she’s shrewd. She realized she could win by ringing doorbells in her district, where voter turnout was very low, and about 70% are non-white. There was zero motivation for residents to turn out for the tired, corrupt, old hack of a white man she ran against.
I’m afraid Alexandria is evil on a basic level. I know that sounds silly. How can that be true of a cute young girl who says she wants just sunshine and unicorns for everybody? It’s too bad the word “evil” has been so compromised, so discredited, by the people who use it all the time – bible-thumpers, hysterics, and religious fanatics. Evil shouldn’t be associated with horned demons and eternal perdition. It just means something destructive, or recklessly injurious.
The free market, individualism, personal liberty, personal responsibility, hard work, free speech – the values of western civilization – are being washed away, everywhere. But it’s hard to defend them, because the argument for them is intellectual, economic, and historical. While the mob, the capita censi, the “head count” as the Romans called them, is swayed by emotions. They feel, they don’t think. Arguments are limited to Twitter feeds. Or 30-second TV sound bites.
Nobody, except for a few libertarians and conservatives, are countering the ideas AOC represents. And they have a very limited audience. The spirit of the new century is overwhelming the values of the past.
When the economy collapses – likely in 2019 – everybody will blame capitalism, because Trump is somehow, incorrectly, associated with capitalism. The country – especially the young, the poor, and the non-white – will look to the government to do something. They see the government as a cornucopia, and socialism as a kind and gentle answer. Everyone will be able to drink lattes all day at Starbucks while they play with their iPhones.
Jamaican Jerk Boneless Game Hens with Rice
This week we bring the spicy heat of the Caribbean to this cold and dark northern hemisphere winter with this Fourmilab culinary creation: Jamaican jerk seasoned boneless Cornish game hens with jerk, lime, and coriander seasoned rice. This is a medium-hot recipe (I’ve had much hotter in Indian restaurants), but you can adjust the heat to your own compression ratio simply by adding more or less jerk seasoning to the rice (the seasoning of the meat doesn’t make much difference in the overall heat). I make this recipe using an Actifry, but if you don’t have one, I’ll provide instructions for cooking in a conventional oven.
At 02:26 UTC on 2019-01-03, the Chinese Chang’e 4 (嫦娥四号) soft lander and rover touched down in the Von Kármán crater on the far side of the Moon. This is the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon, which is never visible from the Earth. Here is a video including animation of the landing and actual images captured during the descent and of the surface after landing.
The lander carries a rover and a number of experiments. It was originally built as a back-up to the Chang’e 3 lander and rover which landed on the near side of the Moon on December 14th, 2013, becoming the first spacecraft to soft land on the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976.
The major challenge in exploring the far side of the Moon is communicating with Earth. You can’t transmit radio signals through the Moon, so the only way to provide a direct communications link is to place a relay satellite in a “halo orbit” around the Earth-Moon Lagrangian point 2 (L2). On 2018-05-20, the Queqiao (鹊桥) satellite was launched into such an orbit (the first such relay established at the Moon). It was only after this relay was checked out that Chang’e 4 was launched on 2018-12-07.
The landing site at 177.6° E, 45.5° S on the floor of Von Kármán crater, is a relatively flat and uncratered area, relatively easy to get into compared to the rugged highlands of much of the Moon’s far side. Here is a synthetic image of the landing site from Earth and Moon Viewer, seen from 500 km above the Moon, with an “x” indicating the reported touchdown point.
Here is an image of the Moon’s far side returned by the lander.
Colour in this image should be taken cum grano salis. The Moon is a pretty uniform dark grey colour, although the shade may appear different depending upon the Sun angle. This picture was taken right after landing, and the camera’s white balance may not have yet been calibrated.
In addition to cameras on the lander and rover (which has not yet been deployed), there are instruments to study the solar wind and its interaction with the lunar surface, the composition of the surface, and a ground penetrating radar to explore the sub-surface. The lander carries a sealed “biosphere” with seeds of potatoes, Arabidopsis, and silkworm eggs, with a camera to monitor growth. One hopes that the silkworm experiment will end better than the introduction of the gypsy moth into North America in 1868.
You may hear reports in the legacy media that Chang’e 4 landed “near the Moon’s south pole”—this is nonsense. Von Kármán crater is at latitude 45.5° S, half way between the equator and south pole; it is no closer to the lunar south pole than Portland, Oregon is to Earth’s north pole. The confusion is due to the landing site being within the South Pole-Aitken basin, an enormous (2500 km diameter) impact crater on the lunar far side. Because the basin is so huge, it extends from the south pole to half way to the equator.
Here are my picks for the best books of 2018, fiction and nonfiction. These aren’t the best books published this year, but rather the best I’ve read in the last twelve months. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author’s surname. Each title is linked to my review of the book.
- A Rambling Wreck and The Brave and the Bold by Hans G. Schantz
- Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark
What were your books of the year for 2018?
In January 2006 the New Horizons spacecraft was launched to explore Pluto and its moons and, if all went well, proceed onward to another object in the Kuiper Belt of the outer solar system, Pluto being one of the largest, closest, and best known members. New Horizons was the first spacecraft launched from Earth directly on a solar system escape (interstellar) trajectory (the Pioneer and Voyager probes had earlier escaped the solar system, but only with the help of gravity assists from Jupiter and Saturn). It was launched from Earth with such velocity (16.26 km/sec) that it passed the Moon’s orbit in just nine hours, a distance that took the Apollo missions three days to traverse.
In February 2007, New Horizons flew by Jupiter at a distance of 2.3 million km, using the planet’s gravity to increase its speed to 23 km/sec, thereby knocking three years off its transit time to Pluto. While passing through the Jupiter system, it used its instruments to photograph the planet and its moons. There were no further encounters with solar system objects until arrival at Pluto in 2015, and the spacecraft spent most of its time in hibernation, with most systems powered down to extend their lives, reduce staffing requirements for the support team on Earth, and free up the NASA Deep Space Network to support other missions.
As New Horizons approached Pluto, selection of possible targets for a post-Pluto extended mission became a priority. In orbital mechanics, what matters isn’t so much distance and speed but rather “delta-v”: the change in velocity needed to divert the trajectory of a spacecraft from where it is currently headed to where you want it to go. For chemical rockets, like the thrusters on New Horizons, this depends entirely on how much propellant is on board, and this resource would be scarce after expending what was required for the Pluto mission. New Horizons was launched with propellant to provide 290 metres/sec delta-v, but most of this would be used in course corrections en route to Pluto and maneuvers during the Pluto encounter (the scientific instruments are fixed to the spacecraft structure, which must be turned by firing the thrusters to aim them at their targets.) Starting in 2011, an observing campaign using large Earth-based telescopes began searching for objects in the Kuiper belt which might be suitable targets for New Horizons after Pluto. These objects are extraordinarily difficult to observe: they are more than four billion kilometres from Earth, small, and mostly very dark, and thus visible only with the largest telescopes with long exposure times under perfectly clear and dark skies. To make things worse, as it happens, during this time Pluto’s orbit took it past some of the densest star fields of the Milky Way, near the centre of the galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius, so the search was cluttered with myriad background stars. A total of 143 new Kuiper belt objects were discovered by this search, but none was reachable with the 33 kg of hydrazine monopropellant expected to remain after the Pluto encounter.
It was time to bring a bigger hammer to the job, and in June 2014, time on the Hubble Space Telescope was assigned to the search. By October of that year three potential targets, all too faint to spot with ground-based telescopes, had been identified and called, imaginatively, potential targets PT1, PT2, and PT3. The course change to get to PT1 would use only around 35% of New Horizons‘ remaining fuel, while the others were more difficult to reach (and thus less probable to result in a successful mission). PT1 was chosen, and subsequently re-named “2014 MU69”, along with its minor planet number of 486958. Subsequently, a “public outreach” effort by NASA chose the nickname “Ultima Thule”, which means a distant place beyond the known world. A recommendation for an official name will not be made until New Horizons reveals its properties.
The fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 was a tremendous success, fulfilling all of its scientific objectives, and in October 2015 New Horizons fired its thrusters for sixteen minutes to change its velocity by 10 metres per second (equivalent to accelerating your car to 22 miles per hour), setting it on course for Ultima Thule. Three subsequent burns would further refine the trajectory and adjust the circumstances of the fly-by. This was the first time in history that a spacecraft was targeted to explore an object which had not been discovered when launched from Earth. After transmitting all the data collected in the Pluto encounter to Earth, which took until October 2016, New Horizons went back into hibernation.
In June 2018, the spacecraft was awakened and in August 2018 it observed its target with its own instruments for the first time. Measurement of its position against the background star field allowed precise determination of the inbound trajectory, which was used in final course correction maneuvers. At the same time, the spacecraft joined Earth-based telescopes and the Hubble in a search for possible moons, rings, or dust around Ultima Thule which might damage the spacecraft on a close approach. Had such hazards been found, the fly-by would have been re-targeted to be at a safer distance, but none was found and the original plan for a fly-by at 3500 km was selected.
Although New Horizons is bearing down on its target at a velocity of 14.4 km/sec, it will remain just a faint dot until hours before closest approach at 05:33 UTC on New Year’s Day, January 1st, 2019. Other than its position, brightness, and colour (reddish), little or nothing is known about the properties of Ultima Thule. We don’t know its size, shape, composition, temperature, rate of rotation, albedo (reflectivity), whether it is one object or two or more in close orbit or in contact, or anything about its history. What is almost certain, however, is that it is nothing like anything in the solar system we’ve explored close-up so far.
Its orbit, unlike that of Pluto, is that of a conventional, well-behaved member of the Sun’s extended family. The orbit, which takes Ultima Thule around the Sun every 296 years, is almost perfectly circular (eccentricity 0.045) and close to the ecliptic (2.45°). (By contrast, Pluto’s orbit has an eccentricity of 0.25 and an inclination to the ecliptic of 17°.) This makes it probable that Ultima Thule has avoided the cosmic billiards game which has perturbed the orbits of so many distant objects in the solar system, making it a “cold classical Kuiper belt object” (the “cold” refers not to temperature but its analogue in dispersion of velocity). What this means is that it is highly probable that this body, unlike the planets and moons of the inner solar system, which have been extensively reprocessed from their original constituents, has been undisturbed since the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago and is a time capsule preserving the raw materials from which the inner planets were assembled.
In 2017, predictions of Ultima Thule’s orbit indicated that it would pass in front of, or occult, a distant star, with the shadow passing through southern Argentina. Since the distance to the object and its speed in orbit are known reasonably well, simply by measuring the duration of the star’s occultation, it is possible to compute the length of the chord of the object’s path in front of the star. Multiple observing stations and precise timings allow estimating an object’s size and shape. A network of twenty-four small telescopes was set up along the expected path (there is substantial uncertainty in the orbit, so not all were expected to see the occultation, but five succeeded in observing it). Combining their results yielded this estimation of Ultima Thule’s size and shape.
The best fit was to a close binary or “contact binary”: two lobes, probably originally separate objects, in contact with one another. What does it actually look like? We’ll have to wait and see. The occultation observations found no evidence for rings, moons, or a dust halo, increasing confidence in the planned close fly-by.
Another mystery which will have to await close-up observation is the absence of a pronounced light curve. An irregularly-shaped object like Ultima Thule would be expected to vary dramatically in brightness as it rotates, but extended observations by Hubble failed to find any variation at all. The best guess is that we’re observing it close to the pole of rotation, but again it’s anybody’s guess until we get there and take a look.
Are we there yet? No, but it won’t be long now. As I noted, the closest fly-by will be at 05:33 UTC on 2019-01-01. Most of the scientific data will be collected in the day before and after the moment of closest approach. Coverage of this event will not be like what you’ve become accustomed to from other space missions. New Horizons will be 6.6 billion kilometres from the Earth at the time of the fly-by, more than 43 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun. It takes light (and radio waves) six hours to travel that distance, so anything transmitted to Earth will take that long to arrive. Further, since the high-gain antenna used to send data back to Earth is fixed to the same spacecraft structure as the scientific instruments, while they are collecting data during the fly-by, the antenna won’t be pointed in the correct direction to send it back to the distant home planet.
After the scientific observations are complete, the antenna will be pointed at the Earth to send “quick look” data, spacecraft health information, and the first images. These are expected later on the first of January and over the next few days. To those accustomed to broadband Internet, these data arrive excruciatingly slowly.
Even with a 70 metre Deep Space Network antenna, the downlink rate is 501 bits per second. If you have a 50 megabit per second broadband Internet connection, this is one hundred thousand times slower: comparable to the dial-up computer terminal (300 bits per second) I used in 1968. It takes around an hour to return a single image, even in the compressed formats used for quick-look data. Downloading all of the science data collected during the fly-by will begin on the 9th of January, when New Horizons returns to spin-stabilised mode (which requires no maneuvering fuel) with its antenna pointed at Earth, and is expected to take twenty months. When the data download is complete, the spacecraft will be placed back into hibernation mode. If another Kuiper belt target is identified which can be reached with the remaining maneuvering fuel before its nuclear power source decays or its distance to Earth becomes too great to return fly-by data (expected in the 2030s), it may be re-targeted for another fly-by.
Coverage of the New Horizons fly-by of Ultima Thule will be broadcast on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (who built the spacecraft and manages the mission) YouTube channel. Here is a schedule of mission-related programming. This is the mission Web site, with links to resources for the spacecraft and its destination. This article by Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society gives more detail about the encounter, when data and images will be returned, and what we can expect to see when.
I will post news and data as they arrive in the comments to this post. If you wish to be notified when new comments are posted but don’t have a comment to add at the moment, simply post a comment consisting of the single word “follow” and you’ll receive notifications without your comment appearing.
Here is a Science Chat from September 2018 with New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern looking ahead to the encounter with Ultima Thule.
This is a panel discussion at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December 2017 describing the preparations for the encounter with Ultima Thule and what may be learned from the fly-by.
In Accelerando, a novel assembled from nine previously-published short stories, the author chronicles the arrival of a technological singularity on Earth: the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton which departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth’s population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government. After humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth’s population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.
- I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
- I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
- Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.
The wormholes used by the Eschaton to relocate Earth’s population in the great Diaspora, a technology which humans had yet to understand, not only permitted instantaneous travel across interstellar distances but also in time: the more distant the planet from Earth, the longer the settlers deposited there have had to develop their own cultures and civilisations before being contacted by faster than light ships. With cornucopia machines to meet their material needs and allow them to bootstrap their technology, those that descended into barbarism or incessant warfare did so mostly due to bad ideas rather than their environment.
Rachel Mansour, secret agent for the Earth-based United Nations, operating under the cover of an entertainment officer (or, if you like, cultural attaché), who we met in the previous novel in the series, Singularity Sky, and her companion Martin Springfield, who has a back-channel to the Eschaton, serve as arms control inspectors—their primary mission to insure that nothing anybody on Earth or the worlds who have purchased technology from Earth invites the wrath of the Eschaton—remember that “Or else.”
A terrible fate has befallen the planet Moscow, a diaspora “McWorld” accomplished in technological development and trade, when its star, a G-type main sequence star like the Sun, explodes in a blast releasing a hundredth the energy of a supernova, destroying all life on planet Moscow within an instant of the wavefront reaching it, and the entire planet within an hour.
The problem is, type G stars just don’t explode on their own. Somebody did this, quite likely using technologies which risk Big E’s “or else” on whoever was responsible (or it concluded was responsible). What’s more, Moscow maintained a slower-than-light deterrent fleet with relativistic planet-buster weapons to avenge any attack on their home planet. This fleet, essentially undetectable en route, has launched against New Dresden, a planet with which Moscow had a nonviolent trade dispute. The deterrent fleet can be recalled only by coded messages from two Moscow system ambassadors who survived the attack at their postings in other systems, but can also be sent an irrevocable coercion code, which cancels the recall and causes any further messages to be ignored, by three ambassadors. And somebody seems to be killing off the remaining Moscow ambassadors: if the number falls below two, the attack will arrive at New Dresden in thirty-five years and wipe out the planet and as many of its eight hundred million inhabitants as have not been evacuated.
Victoria Strowger, who detests her name and goes by “Wednesday”, has had an invisible friend since childhood, “Herman”, who speaks to her through her implants. As she’s grown up, she has come to understand that, in some way, Herman is connected to Big E and, in return for advice and assistance she values highly, occasionally asks her for favours. Wednesday and her family were evacuated from one of Moscow’s space stations just before the deadly wavefront from the exploded star arrived, with Wednesday running a harrowing last “errand” for Herman before leaving. Later, in her new home in an asteroid in the Septagon system, she becomes the target of an attack seemingly linked to that mystery mission, and escapes only to find her family wiped out by the attackers. With Herman’s help, she flees on an interstellar liner.
While Singularity Sky was a delightful romp describing a society which had deliberately relinquished technology in order to maintain a stratified class system with the subjugated masses frozen around the Victorian era, suddenly confronted with the merry pranksters of the Festival, who inject singularity-epoch technology into its stagnant culture, Iron Sunrise is a much more conventional mystery/adventure tale about gaining control of the ambassadorial keys, figuring out who are the good and bad guys, and trying to avert a delayed but inexorably approaching genocide.
This just didn’t work for me. I never got engaged in the story, didn’t find the characters particularly interesting, nor came across any interesting ways in which the singularity came into play (and this is supposed to be the author’s “Singularity Series”). There are some intriguing concepts, for example the “causal channel”, in which quantum-entangled particles permit instantaneous communication across spacelike separations as long as the previously-prepared entangled particles have first been delivered to the communicating parties by slower than light travel. This is used in the plot to break faster than light communication where it would be inconvenient for the story line (much as all those circumstances in Star Trek where the transporter doesn’t work for one reason or another when you’re tempted to say “Why don’t they just beam up?”). The apparent villains, the ReMastered, (think Space Nazis who believe in a Tipler-like cult of Omega Point out-Eschaton-ing the Eschaton, with icky brain-sucking technology) were just over the top.
- Accelerando and Singularity Sky were thought-provoking and great fun. This one doesn’t come up to that standard.
Stross, Charles. Iron Sunrise. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01296-1.
In the year 1972, there were more than 1900 domestic bombings in the United States. Think about that—that’s more than five bombings a day. In an era when the occasional terrorist act by a “lone wolf” nutcase gets round the clock coverage on cable news channels, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, most of these bombings and other mayhem, committed by “revolutionary” groups such as Weatherman, the Black Liberation Army, FALN, and The Family, often made only local newspapers on page B37, below the fold.
The civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam war had turned out large crowds and radicalised the campuses, but in the opinion of many activists, yielded few concrete results. Indeed, in the 1968 presidential election, pro-war Democrat Humphrey had been defeated by pro-war Republican Nixon, with anti-war Democrats McCarthy marginalised and Robert Kennedy assassinated.
In this bleak environment, a group of leaders of one of the most radical campus organisations, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), gathered in Chicago to draft what became a sixteen thousand word manifesto bristling with Marxist jargon that linked the student movement in the U.S. to Third World guerrilla insurgencies around the globe. They advocated a Che Guevara-like guerrilla movement in America led, naturally, by themselves. They named the manifesto after the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Other SDS members who thought the idea of armed rebellion in the U.S. absurd and insane quipped, “You don’t need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are.”
The Weatherman faction managed to blow up (figuratively) the SDS convention in June 1969, splitting the organisation but effectively taking control of it. They called a massive protest in Chicago for October. Dubbed the “National Action”, it would soon become known as the “Days of Rage”.
Almost immediately the Weatherman plans began to go awry. Their plans to rally the working class (who the Ivy League Weatherman élite mocked as “greasers”) got no traction, with some of their outrageous “actions” accomplishing little other than landing the perpetrators in the slammer. Come October, the Days of Rage ended up in farce. Thousands had been expected, ready to take the fight to the cops and “oppressors”, but come the day, no more than two hundred showed up, most SDS stalwarts who already knew one another. They charged the police and were quickly routed with six shot (none seriously), many beaten, and more than 120 arrested. Bail bonds alone added up to US$ 2.3 million. It was a humiliating defeat. The leadership decided it was time to change course.
So what did this intellectual vanguard of the masses decide to do? Well, obviously, destroy the SDS (their source of funding and pipeline of recruitment), go underground, and start blowing stuff up. This posed a problem, because these middle-class college kids had no idea where to obtain explosives (they didn’t know that at the time you could buy as much dynamite as you could afford over the counter in many rural areas with, at most, showing a driver’s license), what to do with it, and how to build an underground identity. This led to, not Keystone Kops, but Klueless Kriminal misadventures, culminating in March 1970 when they managed to blow up an entire New York townhouse where a bomb they were preparing to attack a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey detonated prematurely, leaving three of the Weather collective dead in the rubble. In the aftermath, many Weather hangers-on melted away.
This did not deter the hard core, who resolved to learn more about their craft. They issued a communiqué declaring their solidarity with the oppressed black masses (not one of whom, oppressed or otherwise, was a member of Weatherman), and vowed to attack symbols of “Amerikan injustice”. Privately, they decided to avoid killing people, confining their attacks to property. And one of their members hit the books to become a journeyman bombmaker.
The bungling Bolsheviks of Weatherman may have had Marxist theory down pat, but they were lacking in authenticity, and acutely aware of it. It was hard for those whose addresses before going underground were élite universities to present themselves as oppressed. The best they could do was to identify themselves with the cause of those they considered victims of “the system” but who, to date, seemed little inclined to do anything about it themselves. Those who cheered on Weatherman, then, considered it significant when, in the spring of 1971, a new group calling itself the “Black Liberation Army” (BLA) burst onto the scene with two assassination-style murders of New York City policemen on routine duty. Messages delivered after each attack to Harlem radio station WLIB claimed responsibility. One declared,
Every policeman, lackey or running dog of the ruling class must make his or her choice now. Either side with the people: poor and oppressed, or die for the oppressor. Trying to stop what is going down is like trying to stop history, for as long as there are those who will dare to live for freedom there are men and women who dare to unhorse the emperor.
All power to the people.
Politicians, press, and police weren’t sure what to make of this. The politicians, worried about the opinion of their black constituents, shied away from anything which sounded like accusing black militants of targeting police. The press, although they’d never write such a thing or speak it in polite company, didn’t think it plausible that street blacks could organise a sustained revolutionary campaign: certainly that required college-educated intellectuals. The police, while threatened by these random attacks, weren’t sure there was actually any organised group behind the BLA attacks: they were inclined to believe it was a matter of random cop killers attributing their attacks to the BLA after the fact. Further, the BLA had no visible spokesperson and issued no manifestos other than the brief statements after some attacks. This contributed to the mystery, which largely persists to this day because so many participants were killed and the survivors have never spoken out.
In fact, the BLA was almost entirely composed of former members of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers, which had collapsed in the split between factions following Huey Newton and those (including New York) loyal to Eldridge Cleaver, who had fled to exile in Algeria and advocated violent confrontation with the power structure in the U.S. The BLA would perpetrate more than seventy violent attacks between 1970 and 1976 and is said to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen police officers. In 1982, they hijacked a domestic airline flight and pocketed a ransom of US$ 1 million.
Weatherman (later renamed the “Weather Underground” because the original name was deemed sexist) and the BLA represented the two poles of the violent radicals: the first, intellectual, college-educated, and mostly white, concentrated mostly on symbolic bombings against property, usually with warnings in advance to avoid human casualties. As pressure from the FBI increased upon them, they became increasingly inactive; a member of the New York police squad assigned to them quipped, “Weatherman, Weatherman, what do you do? Blow up a toilet every year or two.” They managed the escape of Timothy Leary from a minimum-security prison in California. Leary basically just walked away, with a group of Weatherman members paid by Leary supporters picking him up and arranging for he and his wife Rosemary to obtain passports under assumed names and flee the U.S. for exile in Algeria with former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
The Black Liberation Army, being composed largely of ex-prisoners with records of violent crime, was not known for either the intelligence or impulse control of its members. On several occasions, what should have been merely tense encounters with the law turned into deadly firefights because a BLA militant opened fire for no apparent reason. Had they not been so deadly to those they attacked and innocent bystanders, the exploits of the BLA would have made a fine slapstick farce.
As the dour decade of the 1970s progressed, other violent underground groups would appear, tending to follow the model of either Weatherman or the BLA. One of the most visible, it not successful, was the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA), founded by escaped convict and grandiose self-styled revolutionary Daniel DeFreeze. Calling himself “General Field Marshal Cinque”, which he pronounced “sin-kay”, and ending his fevered communications with “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE”, this band of murderous bozos struck their first blow for black liberation by assassinating Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California school system for his “crimes against the people” of suggesting that police be called into deal with violence in the city’s schools and that identification cards be issued to students. Sought by the police for the murder, they struck again by kidnapping heiress, college student, and D-list celebrity Patty Hearst, whose abduction became front page news nationwide. If that wasn’t sufficiently bizarre, the abductee eventually issued a statement saying she had chosen to “stay and fight”, adopting the name “Tania”, after the nom de guerre of a Cuban revolutionary and companion of Che Guevara. She was later photographed by a surveillance camera carrying a rifle during a San Francisco bank robbery perpetrated by the SLA. Hearst then went underground and evaded capture until September 1975 after which, when being booked into jail, she gave her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla”. Hearst later claimed she had agreed to join the SLA and participate in its crimes only to protect her own life. She was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to 7 years. The sentence was later commuted to 22 months by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and she was released in 1979, and was the recipient of one of Bill Clinton’s last day in office pardons in January, 2001. Six members of the SLA, including DeFreeze, died in a house fire during a shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department in May, 1974.
Violence committed in the name of independence for Puerto Rico was nothing new. In 1950, two radicals tried to assassinate President Harry Truman, and in 1954, four revolutionaries shot up the U.S. House of Representatives from the visitors’ gallery, wounding five congressmen on the floor, none fatally. The Puerto Rican terrorists had the same problem as their Weatherman, BLA, or SLA bomber brethren: they lacked the support of the people. Most of the residents of Puerto Rico were perfectly happy being U.S. citizens, especially as this allowed them to migrate to the mainland to escape the endemic corruption and the poverty it engendered in the island. As the 1960s progressed, the Puerto Rico radicals increasingly identified with Castro’s Cuba (which supported them ideologically, if not financially), and promised to make a revolutionary Puerto Rico a beacon of prosperity and liberty like Cuba had become.
Starting in 1974, a new Puerto Rican terrorist group, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) launched a series of attacks in the U.S., most in the New York and Chicago areas. One bombing, that of the Fraunces Tavern in New York in January 1975, killed four people and injured more than fifty. Between 1974 and 1983, a total of more than 130 bomb attacks were attributed to the FALN, most against corporate targets. In 1975 alone, twenty-five bombs went off, around one every two weeks.
Other groups, such as the “New World Liberation Front” (NWLF) in northern California and “The Family” in the East continued the chaos. The NWLF, formed originally from remains of the SLA, detonated twice as many bombs as the Weather Underground. The Family carried out a series of robberies, including the deadly Brink’s holdup of October 1981, and jailbreaks of imprisoned radicals.
In the first half of the 1980s, the radical violence sputtered out. Most of the principals were in prison, dead, or living underground and keeping a low profile. A growing prosperity had replaced the malaise and stagflation of the 1970s and there were abundant jobs for those seeking them. The Vietnam War and draft were receding into history, leaving the campuses with little to protest, and the remaining radicals had mostly turned from violent confrontation to burrowing their way into the culture, media, administrative state, and academia as part of Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions”.
All of these groups were plagued with the “step two problem”. The agenda of Weatherman was essentially:
- Blow stuff up, kill cops, and rob banks.
- Proletarian revolution.
Other groups may have had different step threes: “Black liberation” for the BLA, “¡Puerto Rico libre!” for FALN, but none of them seemed to make much progress puzzling out step two. Deep thinker Bill Harris of the SLA’s best attempt was, when he advocated killing policemen at random, arguing that “If they killed enough, … the police would crack down on the oppressed minorities of the Bay Area, who would then rise up and begin the revolution.”—sure thing.
In sum, all of this violence and the suffering that resulted from it accomplished precisely none of the goals of those who perpetrated it (which is a good thing: they mostly advocated for one flavour or another of communist enslavement of the United States). All it managed to do is contribute the constriction of personal liberty in the name of “security”, with metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, X-ray machines, rent-a-cops, surveillance cameras, and the first round of airport security theatre springing up like mushrooms everywhere. The amount of societal disruption which can be caused by what amounted to around one hundred homicidal nutcases is something to behold. There were huge economic losses not just due to bombings, but by evacuations due to bomb threats, many doubtless perpetrated by copycats motivated by nothing more political than the desire for a day off from work. Violations of civil liberties by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies who carried out unauthorised wiretaps, burglaries, and other invasions of privacy and property rights not only discredited them, but resulted in many of the perpetrators of the mayhem walking away scot-free. Weatherman founders Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn would, in 1995, launch the political career of Barack Obama at a meeting in their home in Chicago, where Ayers is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ayres, who bombed the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972, remarked in the 1980s that he was “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”
This book is an excellent account of a largely-forgotten era in recent history. In a time when slaver radicals (a few of them the same people who set the bombs in their youth) declaim from the cultural heights of legacy media, academia, and their new strongholds in the technology firms which increasingly mediate our communications and access to information, advocate “active resistance”, “taking to the streets”, or “occupying” this or that, it’s a useful reminder of where such action leads, and that it’s wise to work out step two before embarking on step one.
Burrough, Bryan. Days of Rage. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-14-310797-2.
Carlos Marighella joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1934, abandoning his studies in civil engineering to become a full time agitator for communism. He was arrested for subversion in 1936 and, after release from prison the following year, went underground. He was recaptured in 1939 and imprisoned until 1945 as part of an amnesty of political prisoners. He successfully ran for the federal assembly in 1946 but was removed from office when the Communist party was again banned in 1948. Resuming his clandestine life, he served in several positions in the party leadership and in 1953–1954 visited China to study the Maoist theory of revolution. In 1964, after a military coup in Brazil, he was again arrested, being shot in the process. After being once again released from prison, he broke with the Communist Party and began to advocate armed revolution against the military regime, travelling to Cuba to participate in a conference of Latin American insurgent movements. In 1968, he formed his own group, the Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN) which, in September 1969, kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick, who was eventually released in exchange for fifteen political prisoners. In November 1969, Marighella was killed in a police ambush, prompted by a series of robberies and kidnappings by the ALN.
In June 1969, Marighella published this short book (or pamphlet: it is just 40 pages with plenty of white space at the ends of chapters) as a guide for revolutionaries attacking Brazil’s authoritarian regime in the big cities. There is little or no discussion of the reasons for the rebellion; the work is addressed to those already committed to the struggle who seek practical advice for wreaking mayhem in the streets. Marighella has entirely bought into the Mao/Guevara theory of revolution: that the ultimate struggle must take place in the countryside, with rural peasants rising en masse against the regime. The problem with this approach was that the peasants seemed to be more interested in eking out their subsistence from the land than taking up arms in support of ideas championed by a few intellectuals in the universities and big cities. So, Marighella’s guide is addressed to those in the cities with the goal of starting the armed struggle where there were people indoctrinated in the communist ideology on which it was based. This seems to suffer from the “step two problem”. In essence, his plan is:
- Blow stuff up, rob banks, and kill cops in the big cities.
- Communist revolution in the countryside.
The book is a manual of tactics: formation of independent cells operating on their own initiative and unable to compromise others if captured, researching terrain and targets and planning operations, mobility and hideouts, raising funds through bank robberies, obtaining weapons by raiding armouries and police stations, breaking out prisoners, kidnapping and exchange for money and prisoners, sabotaging government and industrial facilities, executing enemies and traitors, terrorist bombings, and conducting psychological warfare.
One problem with this strategy is that if you ignore the ideology which supposedly justifies and motivates this mayhem, it is essentially indistinguishable from the outside from the actions of non-politically-motivated outlaws. As the author notes,
The urban guerrilla is a man who fights the military dictatorship with arms, using unconventional methods. A political revolutionary, he is a fighter for his country’s liberation, a friend of the people and of freedom. The area in which the urban guerrilla acts is in the large Brazilian cities. There are also bandits, commonly known as outlaws, who work in the big cities. Many times assaults by outlaws are taken as actions by urban guerrillas.
The urban guerrilla, however, differs radically from the outlaw. The outlaw benefits personally from the actions, and attacks indiscriminately without distinguishing between the exploited and the exploiters, which is why there are so many ordinary men and women among his victims. The urban guerrilla follows a political goal and only attacks the government, the big capitalists, and the foreign imperialists, particularly North Americans.
These fine distinctions tend to be lost upon innocent victims, especially since the proceeds of the bank robberies of which the “urban guerrillas” are so fond are not used to aid the poor but rather to finance still more attacks by the ever-so-noble guerrillas pursuing their “political goal”.
This would likely have been an obscure and largely forgotten work of a little-known Brazilian renegade had it not been picked up, translated to English, and published in June and July 1970 by the Berkeley Tribe, a California underground newspaper. It became the terrorist bible of groups including Weatherman, the Black Liberation Army, and Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Irish Republican Army, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. These groups embarked on crime and terror campaigns right out of Marighella’s playbook with no more thought about step two. They are largely forgotten now because their futile acts had no permanent consequences and their existence was an embarrassment to the élites who largely share their pernicious ideology but have chosen to advance it through subversion, not insurrection.
Marighella, Carlos. Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Seattle: CreateSpace,  2018. ISBN 978-1-4664-0680-3.
Fancy a nice hot cup of tea, Mr Bond?
(One naughty word at the very end of the video.)
Here’s some cream and sugar and a nice metal spoon to stir it up.
If that isn’t hideously dangerous enough for you, this one is sold for heating a baby’s bathwater. “Unplug heater before inserting baby.”
From China to you via eBay.
Peter Cawdron has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. In a series of novels including Anomaly, Xenophobia, Little Green Men, Feedback, and My Sweet Satan, he has explored the first encounter of humans with extraterrestrial life in a variety of scenarios, all with twists and turns that make you question the definition of life and intelligence.
This novel is set on Mars, where a nominally international but strongly NASA-dominated station has been set up by the six-person crew first to land on the red planet. The crew of Shepard station, three married couples, bring a variety of talents to their multi-year mission of exploration: pilot, engineer, physician, and even botanist: Cory Anderson (the narrator) is responsible for the greenhouse which will feed the crew during their mission. They have a fully-fueled Mars Return Vehicle, based upon NASA’s Orion capsule, ready to go, and their ticket back to Earth, the Schiaparelli return stage, waiting in Mars orbit, but orbital mechanics dictates when they can return to Earth, based on the two-year cycle of Earth-Mars transfer opportunities. The crew is acutely aware that the future of Mars exploration rests on their shoulders: failure, whether a tragedy in which they were lost, or even cutting their mission short, might result in “losing Mars” in the same way humanity abandoned the Moon for fifty years after “flags and footprints” visits had accomplished their chest-beating goal.
The Shepard crew are confronted with a crisis not of their making when a Chinese mission, completely unrelated to theirs, attempting to do “Mars on a shoestring” by exploring its moon Phobos, faces disaster when a poorly-understood calamity kills two of its four crew and disables their spacecraft. The two surviving taikonauts show life signs on telemetry but have not communicated with their mission control and, with their ship disabled, are certain to die when their life support consumables are exhausted.
The crew, in consultation with NASA, conclude the only way to mount a rescue mission is for the pilot and Cory, the only crew member who can be spared, to launch in the return vehicle, rendezvous with the Schiaparelli, use it to match orbits with the Chinese ship, rescue the survivors, and then return to Earth with them. (The return vehicle is unable to land back on Mars, being unequipped for a descent and soft landing through its thin atmosphere.) This will leave the four remaining crew of the Shepard with no way home until NASA can send a rescue mission, which will take two years to arrive at Mars. However unappealing the prospect, they conclude that abandoning the Chinese crew to die when rescue was possible would be inhuman, and proceed with the plan.
It is only after arriving at Phobos, after the half-way point in the book, that things begin to get distinctly weird and we suddenly realise that Peter Cawdron is not writing a novelisation of a Kerbal Space Program rescue scenario but is rather up to his old tricks and there is much more going on here than you’ve imagined from the story so far.
Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he struck out 1,330 times. For me, this story is a swing and a miss. It takes a long, long time to get going, and we must wade through a great deal of social justice virtue signalling to get there. (Lesbians in space? Who could have imagined? Oh, right….) Once we get to the “good part”, the narrative is related in a fractured manner reminiscent of Vonnegut (I’m trying to avoid spoilers—you’ll know what I’m talking about if you make it that far). And the copy editing and fact checking…oh, dear.
There are no fewer than seven idiot “it’s/its” bungles, two on one page. A solar powered aircraft is said to have “turboprop engines”. Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission is said to have been launched on a “prototype Redstone rocket” (it wasn’t), which is described as an “intercontinental ballistic missile” (it was a short range missile with a maximum range of 323 km), which subjected the astronaut to “nine g’s [sic] launching” (it was actually 6.3 g), with reentry g loads “more than that of the gas giant Saturn” (which is correct, but local gravity on Saturn is just 1.065 g, as the planet is very large and less dense than water). Military officers who defy orders are tried by a court martial, not “court marshaled”. The Mercury-Atlas 3 launch failure which Shepard witnessed at the Cape did not “[end] up in a fireball a couple of hundred feet above the concrete”: in fact it was destroyed by ground command forty-three seconds after launch at an altitude of several kilometres due to a guidance system failure, and the launch escape system saved the spacecraft and would have allowed an astronaut, had one been on board, to land safely. It’s “bungee” cord, not “Bungie”. “Navy” is not an acronym, and hence is not written “NAVY”. The Juno orbiter at Jupiter does not “broadcast with the strength of a cell phone”; it has a 25 watt transmitter which is between twelve and twenty-five times more powerful than the maximum power of a mobile phone. He confuses “ecliptic” and “elliptical”, and states that the velocity of a spacecraft decreases as it approaches closer to a body in free fall (it increases). A spacecraft is said to be “accelerating at fifteen meters per second” which is a unit of velocity, not acceleration. A daughter may be the spitting image of her mother, but not “the splitting image”. Thousands of tiny wires do not “rap” around a plastic coated core, they “wrap”, unless they are special hip-hop wires which NASA has never approved for space flight. We do not live in a “barreled galaxy”, but rather a barred spiral galaxy.
Now, you may think I’m being harsh in pointing out these goofs which are not, after all, directly relevant to the plot of the novel. But errors of this kind, all of which could be avoided by research no more involved than looking things up in Wikipedia or consulting a guide to English usage, are indicative of a lack of attention to detail which, sadly, is also manifest in the main story line. To discuss these we must step behind the curtain.
It is implausible in the extreme that the Schiaparelli would have sufficient extra fuel to perform a plane change maneuver from its orbital inclination of nearly twenty degrees to the near-equatorial orbit of Phobos, then raise its orbit to rendezvous with the moon. The fuel on board the Schiaparelli would have been launched from Earth, and would be just sufficient to return to Earth without any costly maneuvers in Mars orbit. The cost of launching such a large additional amount of fuel, not to mention the larger tanks to hold it, would be prohibitive.
(We’re already in a spoiler block, but be warned that the following paragraph is a hideous spoiler of the entire plot.) Cory’s ethical dilemma, on which the story turns, is whether to reveal the existence of the advanced technology alien base on Phobos to a humanity which he believes unprepared for such power and likely to use it to destroy themselves. OK, fine, that’s his call (and that of Hedy, who also knows enough to give away the secret). But in the conclusion, we’re told that, fifty years after the rescue mission, there’s a thriving colony on Mars with eight thousand people in two subsurface towns, raising families. How probable is it, even if not a word was said about what happened on Phobos, that this thriving colony and the Earth-based space program which supported it would not, over half a century, send another exploration mission to Phobos, which is scientifically interesting in its own right? And given what Cory found there, any mission which investigated Phobos would have found what he did.
Finally, in the Afterword, the author defends his social justice narrative as follows.
At times, I’ve been criticized for “jumping on the [liberal] bandwagon” on topics like gay rights and Black Lives Matter across a number of books, but, honestly, it’s the 21st century—the cruelty that still dominates how we humans deal with each other is petty and myopic. Any contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species will expose not only a vast technological gulf, but a moral one as well.
Well, maybe, but isn’t it equally likely that when they arrive in their atomic space cars and imbibe what passes for culture and morality among the intellectual élite of the global Davos party and how obsessed these talking apes seem to be about who is canoodling whom with what, that after they stop laughing they may decide that we are made of atoms which they can use for something else.
Peter Cawdron’s earlier novels have provided many hours of thought-provoking entertainment, spinning out the possibilities of first contact. The present book…didn’t, although it was good for a few laughs. I’m not going to write off a promising author due to one strike-out. I hope his next outing resumes the home run streak.
A Kindle edition is available, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
Cawdron, Peter. Losing Mars. Brisbane, Australia: Independent, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7237-4729-8.
In a Levada Center poll in 2017, Russians who responded named Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history. Now, you can argue about the meaning of “outstanding”, but it’s pretty remarkable that citizens of a country whose chief of government (albeit several regimes ago) presided over an entirely avoidable famine which killed millions of citizens of his country, ordered purges which executed more than 700,000 people, including senior military leadership, leaving his nation unprepared for the German attack in 1941, which would, until the final victory, claim the lives of around 27 million Soviet citizens, military and civilian, would be considered an “outstanding person” as opposed to a super-villain.
The story of Stalin’s career is even less plausible, and should give pause to those who believe history can be predicted without the contingency of things that “just happen”. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (the author uses Roman alphabet transliterations of all individuals’ names in their native languages, which can occasionally be confusing when they later Russified their names) was born in 1878 in the town of Gori in the Caucasus. Gori, part of the territory of Georgia which had long been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, had been seized by Imperial Russia in a series of bloody conflicts ending in the 1860s with complete incorporation of the territory into the Czar’s empire. Ioseb, who was called by the Georgian dimunitive “Sosa” throughout his youth, was the third son born to his parents, but, as both of his older brothers had died not long after birth, was raised as an only child.
Sosa’s father, Besarion Jughashvili (often written in the Russian form, Vissarion) was a shoemaker with his own shop in Gori but, as time passed his business fell on hard times and he closed the shop and sought other work, ending his life as a vagrant. Sosa’s mother, Ketevan “Keke” Geladze, was ambitious and wanted the best for her son, and left her husband and took a variety of jobs to support the family. She arranged for eight year old Sosa to attend Russian language lessons given to the children of a priest in whose house she was boarding. Knowledge of Russian was the key to advancement in Czarist Georgia, and he had a head start when Keke arranged for him to be enrolled in the parish school’s preparatory and four year programs. He was the first member of either side of his family to attend school and he rose to the top of his class under the patronage of a family friend, “Uncle Yakov” Egnatashvili. After graduation, his options were limited. The Russian administration, wary of the emergence of a Georgian intellectual class that might champion independence, refused to establish a university in the Caucasus. Sosa’s best option was the highly selective Theological Seminary in Tiflis where he would prepare, in a six year course, for life as a parish priest or teacher in Georgia but, for those who graduated near the top, could lead to a scholarship at a university in another part of the empire.
He took the examinations and easily passed, gaining admission, petitioning and winning a partial scholarship that paid most of his fees. “Uncle Yakov” paid the rest, and he plunged into his studies. Georgia was in the midst of an intense campaign of Russification, and Sosa further perfected his skills in the Russian language. Although completely fluent in spoken and written Russian along with his native Georgian (the languages are completely unrelated, having no more in common than Finnish and Italian), he would speak Russian with a Georgian accent all his life and did not publish in the Russian language until he was twenty-nine years old.
Long a voracious reader, at the seminary Sosa joined a “forbidden literature” society which smuggled in and read works, not banned by the Russian authorities, but deemed unsuitable for priests in training. He read classics of Russian, French, English, and German literature and science, including Capital by Karl Marx. The latter would transform his view of the world and path in life. He made the acquaintance of a former seminarian and committed Marxist, Lado Ketskhoveli, who would guide his studies. In August 1898, he joined the newly formed “Third Group of Georgian Marxists”—many years later Stalin would date his “party card” to then.
Prior to 1905, imperial Russia was an absolute autocracy. The Czar ruled with no limitations on his power. What he decreed and ordered his functionaries to do was law. There was no parliament, political parties, elected officials of any kind, or permanent administrative state that did not serve at the pleasure of the monarch. Political activity and agitation were illegal, as were publishing and distributing any kind of political literature deemed to oppose imperial rule. As Sosa became increasingly radicalised, it was only a short step from devout seminarian to underground agitator. He began to neglect his studies, became increasingly disrespectful to authority figures, and, in April 1899, left the seminary before taking his final examinations.
Saddled with a large debt to the seminary for leaving without becoming a priest or teacher, he drifted into writing articles for small, underground publications associated with the Social Democrat movement, at the time the home of most Marxists. He took to public speaking and, while eschewing fancy flights of oratory, spoke directly to the meetings of workers he addressed in their own dialect and terms. Inevitably, he was arrested for “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority” in April 1902 and jailed. After fifteen months in prison at Batum, he was sentenced to three years of internal exile in Siberia. In January 1904 he escaped and made it back to Tiflis, in Georgia, where he resumed his underground career. By this time the Social Democratic movement had fractured into Lenin’s Bolshevik faction and the larger Menshevik group. Sosa, who during his imprisonment had adopted the revolutionary nickname “Koba”, after the hero in a Georgian novel of revenge, continued to write and speak and, in 1905, after the Czar was compelled to cede some of his power to a parliament, organised Battle Squads which stole printing equipment, attacked government forces, and raised money through protection rackets targeting businesses.
In 1905, Koba Jughashvili was elected one of three Bolshevik delegates from Georgia to attend the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Tampere, Finland, then part of the Russian empire. It was there he first met Lenin, who had been living in exile in Switzerland. Koba had read Lenin’s prolific writings and admired his leadership of the Bolshevik cause, but was unimpressed in this first in-person encounter. He vocally took issue with Lenin’s position that Bolsheviks should seek seats in the newly-formed State Duma (parliament). When Lenin backed down in the face of opposition, he said, “I expected to see the mountain eagle of our party, a great man, not only politically but physically, for I had formed for myself a picture of Lenin as a giant, as a stately representative figure of a man. What was my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”
Returning to Georgia, he resumed his career as an underground revolutionary including, famously, organising a robbery of the Russian State Bank in Tiflis in which three dozen people were killed and two dozen more injured, “expropriating” 250,000 rubles for the Bolshevik cause. Koba did not participate directly, but he was the mastermind of the heist. This and other banditry, criminal enterprises, and unauthorised publications resulted in multiple arrests, imprisonments, exiles to Siberia, escapes, re-captures, and life underground in the years that followed. In 1912, while living underground in Saint Petersburg after yet another escape, he was named the first editor of the Bolshevik party’s new daily newspaper, Pravda, although his name was kept secret. In 1913, with the encouragement of Lenin, he wrote an article titled “Marxism and the National Question” in which he addressed how a Bolshevik regime should approach the diverse ethnicities and national identities of the Russian Empire. As a Georgian Bolshevik, Jughashvili was seen as uniquely qualified and credible to address this thorny question. He published the article under the nom de plume “K. [for Koba] Stalin”, which literally translated, meant “Man of Steel” and paralleled Lenin’s pseudonym. He would use this name for the rest of his life, reverting to the Russified form of his given name, “Joseph” instead of the nickname Koba (by which his close associates would continue to address him informally). I shall, like the author, refer to him subsequently as “Stalin”.
When Russia entered the Great War in 1914, events were set into motion which would lead to the end of Czarist rule, but Stalin was on the sidelines: in exile in Siberia, where he spent much of his time fishing. In late 1916, as manpower shortages became acute, exiled Bolsheviks including Stalin received notices of conscription into the army, but when he appeared at the induction centre he was rejected due to a crippled left arm, the result of a childhood injury. It was only after the abdication of the Czar in the February Revolution of 1917 that he returned to Saint Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd, and resumed his work for the Bolshevik cause. In April 1917, in elections to the Bolshevik Central Committee, Stalin came in third after Lenin (who had returned from exile in Switzerland) and Zinoviev. Despite having been out of circulation for several years, Stalin’s reputation from his writings and editorship of Pravda, which he resumed, elevated him to among the top rank of the party.
As Kerensky’s Provisional Government attempted to consolidate its power and continue the costly and unpopular war, Stalin and Trotsky joined Lenin’s call for a Bolshevik coup to seize power, and Stalin was involved in all aspects of the eventual October Revolution, although often behind the scenes, while Lenin was the public face of the Bolshevik insurgency.
After seizing power, the Bolsheviks faced challenges from all directions. They had to disentangle Russia from the Great War without leaving the country open to attack and territorial conquest by Germany or Poland. Despite their ambitious name, they were a minority party and had to subdue domestic opposition. They took over a country which the debts incurred by the Czar to fund the war had effectively bankrupted. They had to exert their control over a sprawling, polyglot empire in which, outside of the big cities, their party had little or no presence. They needed to establish their authority over a military in which the officer corps largely regarded the Czar as their legitimate leader. They must restore agricultural production, severely disrupted by levies of manpower for the war, before famine brought instability and the risk of a counter-coup. And for facing these formidable problems, all at the same time, they were utterly unprepared.
The Bolsheviks were, to a man (and they were all men), professional revolutionaries. Their experience was in writing and publishing radical tracts and works of Marxist theory, agitating and organising workers in the cities, carrying out acts of terror against the regime, and funding their activities through banditry and other forms of criminality. There was not a military man, agricultural expert, banker, diplomat, logistician, transportation specialist, or administrator among them, and suddenly they needed all of these skills and more, plus the ability to recruit and staff an administration for a continent-wide empire. Further, although Lenin’s leadership was firmly established and undisputed, his subordinates were all highly ambitious men seeking to establish and increase their power in the chaotic and fluid situation.
It was in this environment that Stalin made his mark as the reliable “fixer”. Whether it was securing levies of grain from the provinces, putting down resistance from counter-revolutionary White forces, stamping out opposition from other parties, developing policies for dealing with the diverse nations incorporated into the Russian Empire (indeed, in a real sense, it was Stalin who invented the Soviet Union as a nominal federation of autonomous republics which, in fact, were subject to Party control from Moscow), or implementing Lenin’s orders, even when he disagreed with them, Stalin was on the job. Lenin recognised Stalin’s importance as his right hand man by creating the post of General Secretary of the party and appointing him to it.
This placed Stalin at the centre of the party apparatus. He controlled who was hired, fired, and promoted. He controlled access to Lenin (only Trotsky could see Lenin without going through Stalin). This was a finely-tuned machine which allowed Lenin to exercise absolute power through a party machine which Stalin had largely built and operated.
Then, in May of 1922, the unthinkable happened: Lenin was felled by a stroke which left him partially paralysed. He retreated to his dacha at Gorki to recuperate, and his communication with the other senior leadership was almost entirely through Stalin. There had been no thought of or plan for a succession after Lenin (he was only fifty-two at the time of his first stroke, although he had been unwell for much of the previous year). As Lenin’s health declined, ending in his death in January 1924, Stalin increasingly came to run the party and, through it, the government. He had appointed loyalists in key positions, who saw their own careers as linked to that of Stalin. By the end of 1924, Stalin began to move against the “Old Bolsheviks” who he saw as rivals and potential threats to his consolidation of power. When confronted with opposition, on three occasions he threatened to resign, each exercise in brinksmanship strengthening his grip on power, as the party feared the chaos that would ensue from a power struggle at the top. His status was reflected in 1925 when the city of Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad.
This ascent to supreme power was not universally applauded. Felix Dzierzynski (Polish born, he is often better known by the Russian spelling of his name, Dzerzhinsky) who, as the founder of the Soviet secret police (Cheka/GPU/OGPU) knew a few things about dictatorship, warned in 1926, the year of his death, that “If we do not find the correct line and pace of development our opposition will grow and the country will get its dictator, the grave digger of the revolution irrespective of the beautiful feathers on his costume.”
With or without feathers, the dictatorship was beginning to emerge. In 1926 Stalin published “On Questions of Leninism” in which he introduced the concept of “Socialism in One Country” which, presented as orthodox Leninist doctrine (which it wasn’t), argued that world revolution was unnecessary to establish communism in a single country. This set the stage for the collectivisation of agriculture and rapid industrialisation which was to come. In 1928, what was to be the prototype of the show trials of the 1930s opened in Moscow, the Shakhty trial, complete with accusations of industrial sabotage (“wrecking”), denunciations of class enemies, and Andrei Vyshinsky presiding as chief judge. Of the fifty-three engineers accused, five were executed and forty-four imprisoned. A country desperately short on the professionals its industry needed to develop had begin to devour them.
It is a mistake to regard Stalin purely as a dictator obsessed with accumulating and exercising power and destroying rivals, real or imagined. The one consistent theme throughout Stalin’s career was that he was a true believer. He was a devout believer in the Orthodox faith while at the seminary, and he seamlessly transferred his allegiance to Marxism once he had been introduced to its doctrines. He had mastered the difficult works of Marx and could cite them from memory (as he often did spontaneously to buttress his arguments in policy disputes), and went on to similarly internalise the work of Lenin. These principles guided his actions, and motivated him to apply them rigidly, whatever the cost may be.
Starting in 1921, Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy, which lightened state control over the economy and, in particular, introduced market reforms in the agricultural sector, resulting in a mixed economy in which socialism reigned in big city industries, but in the countryside the peasants operated under a kind of market economy. This policy had restored agricultural production to pre-revolutionary levels and largely ended food shortages in the cities and countryside. But to a doctrinaire Marxist, it seemed to risk destruction of the regime. Marx believed that the political system was determined by the means of production. Thus, accepting what was essentially a capitalist economy in the agricultural sector was to infect the socialist government with its worst enemy.
Once Stalin had completed his consolidation of power, he then proceeded as Marxist doctrine demanded: abolish the New Economic Policy and undertake the forced collectivisation of agriculture. This began in 1928.
And it is with this momentous decision that the present volume comes to an end. This massive work (976 pages in the print edition) is just the first in a planned three volume biography of Stalin. The second volume, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, was published in 2017 and the concluding volume is not yet completed.
Reading this book, and the entire series, is a major investment of time in a single historical figure. But, as the author observes, if you’re interested in the phenomenon of twentieth century totalitarian dictatorship, Stalin is the gold standard. He amassed more power, exercised by a single person with essentially no checks or limits, over more people and a larger portion of the Earth’s surface than any individual in human history. He ruled for almost thirty years, transformed the economy of his country, presided over deliberate famines, ruthless purges, and pervasive terror that killed tens of millions, led his country to victory at enormous cost in the largest land conflict in history and ended up exercising power over half of the European continent, and built a military which rivaled that of the West in a bipolar struggle for global hegemony.
It is impossible to relate the history of Stalin without describing the context in which it occurred, and this is as much a history of the final days of imperial Russia, the revolutions of 1917, and the establishment and consolidation of Soviet power as of Stalin himself. Indeed, in this first volume, there are lengthy parts of the narrative in which Stalin is largely offstage: in prison, internal exile, or occupied with matters peripheral to the main historical events. The level of detail is breathtaking: the Bolsheviks seem to have been as compulsive record-keepers as Germans are reputed to be, and not only are the votes of seemingly every committee meeting recorded, but who voted which way and why. There are more than two hundred pages of end notes, source citations, bibliography, and index.
If you are interested in Stalin, the Soviet Union, the phenomenon of Bolshevism, totalitarian dictatorship, or how destructive madness can grip a civilised society for decades, this is an essential work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled.
Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-14-312786-4.
Here is a two part Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about the book and Stalin’s rise to power.
In this week’s Classicist podcast from the Hoover Institution, Victor Davis Hanson discusses examples from history of leaders who made their nations/empires great again at a time when the general consensus was that they were in an irreversible decline.
The introduction is particularly provocative, discussing the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian.
In the early sixth century [a.d.], most people thought that Byzantium was doomed, just as the Western [Roman] Empire had fallen a century earlier because they were pressed on their eastern borders by the Sassenid Persian empire, the Goths had already overrun most of the West, the Vandals were in North Africa; there were riots, the so-called Nika riots, the first years of Justinian’s reign. The civil bureaucracy was completely out of control. He married a prostitute, Theodora, and he was the last emperor that spoke Latin—he didn’t even speak Greek very well, and yet the language of the Eastern Empire was Greek. And yet in the space of about thirty-eight years he re-established the Justinian Code as we know today, he codified all of Roman law of about a thousand years. He broke the back of the civil administrative deep state. He expanded the Eastern Empire’s borders, he destroyed the Vandal Empire and retook North Africa, retook Sicily, retook two thirds of Italy from the Goths, got inroads in Spain, codified all of the Aegean and what was Greece and the Balkans under Byzantine rule that would last probably for about five hundred years. And of course in Constantinople, he gave the Eastern Empire another thousand years, and he built Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in the world until the construction of the Vatican. … He was a big builder, like Augustus: the idea that you have to build majestic things so that you can inspire people, and he was very careful with his overseas military operations. He made sure that they were, if anything, understaffed, and enlisted local people so that even though the Empire was fighting all the time there were more contractors or sort of special forces type of engagements….
The Nika riots are particularly apposite. As Wikipedia writes, “Justinian’s habit of choosing efficient, but unpopular advisers nearly cost him his throne early in his reign. ”
The Daily Beast reports that, following a vote last November where a proposition was approved to spend a portion of a city hotel tax to support the arts, San Francisco’s eleven-member Board of Supervisors unanimously approved spending US$ 3 million to fund “cultural districts” including “Calle 24: Latino Cultural District” and the “LGBTQ Leather Cultural District in SOMA”. (I presume “SOMA” stands for “South of Market” and not the happy drug from Brave New World, but in San Francisco, who knows?)
Anyway, also approved was the “Compton’s Transgender Cultural District” in the Tenderloin neighbourhood, funded initially with US$ 215,000 from the city, according to Clair Farley, director of the San Francisco Office of Transgender Initiatives (I wonder what his/her/its/whatever’s salary is for that job?).
Jane Kim, who represents the Tenderloin on the Board of Supervisors and introduced the legislation to create the district, said,
We will have grants for small businesses and we need to be intentional to make the district an anti-displacement strategy.
Huh? What language is she(?) speaking? How do you “be intentional”, and how do you “make [a] district an anti-displacement strategy” (whatever that is)?
(Yes, the title of this post is a tip of the hat to this hilarious book.)
On the RAMU last night, I was amazed to discover that there are people who haven’t seen the 2006 movie Idiocracy. Here are the first couple of minutes which, in opinion, is the best part.
Two years before the movie was released, I published my own, much less funny, study, “Global IQ: 1950–2050”, which, based upon U.S. Census Bureau population forecasts for 185 countries around the globe and the IQ measurements and estimates from Lynn and Vanhanen’s IQ and the Wealth of Nations, estimated the mean global IQ at yearly intervals between 1950 and 2050. In short, in 1950 the world had a population of around 2.55 billion with a mean IQ of 91.64. By 2000, population had increased to 6.07 billion with a mean IQ of 89.20. By 2050, the forecast is 9.06 billion and an IQ of 86.32.
There is a great deal of uncertainty and possible quibbles with any analysis of this kind. I discuss many of these issues in the document, which provides links to primary data sources.
One thing to think about when contemplating this trend and the élites’ notion of “global governance” is that I can find no evidence for sustained consensual self-government in populations with mean IQ less than 90.