Lies as Fuel for Slaughter; Truth as Wellspring of Courage

Yesterday, by chance, reading involved two things: a chapter of history and a short story.  Written by men living 2300 years apart, these describe the very same thing: the workings of the human heart, in particular at times of trial, and the results of those workings in terms of human suffering and survival. In the history, people lied to everyone about everything in an attempt to save their own skins, and failed, earning themselves sordid deaths.  In the story, a man is led by his absolute devotion to truth at least to die with integrity after having behaved well.

Thucydides claims to have based his history on near reports, and to have fleshed it out with his own considered reconstructions of the speeches made by the great men on all sides during the Peloponnesian War.  That’s fine; all well and good, but to read it is to scan multiple recursions of the same theme, here paraphrased:

The Plutonians sent forty ships to lay waste the lands of the Apricotians.  The Apricotians did not submit, so the Plutonians slaughtered them all, burned the city, raised a trophy, and sailed home.

Then the reader arrives at Chapter X, “The Corcyrean Revolution,”  to be startled awake on reading this:

The Corcyrean revolution began with the return of the prisoners taken in the sea-fights off Epidamnus . . . the accused, rendered desperate by law . . . banded together armed with daggers, and suddenly bursting into the senate killed Peithias and sixty others, senators and private persons . . . 

After a day’s interval hostilities recommenced, victory remaining with the commons, [over the oligarchs] who had the advantage in numbers and position, the women also valiantly assisting them, pelting with tiles from the houses, and supporting the mêlée with a fortitude beyond their sex. Towards dusk, the oligarchs in full rout, fearing that the victorious commons might assault and carry the arsenal and put them to the sword, fired the houses round the market -place and the lodging-houses . . . 

The Corcyreans, made aware of the approach of the Athenian fleet . . . slew such of their enemies as they laid hands on . . . Next they went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to take their trial, and condemned them all to death.  The mass of the suppliants who had refused to do so, on seeing what was taking place, slew each other there in the consecrated ground; while some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves as they were severally able. . .  the Corcyreans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of he monies owed to them.  Death thus raged in every shape; and as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the alter or slain upon it . . .

Now Thucydides moves from the particular to the general.

. . . struggles being everywhere made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. . .   The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same;

Too right, says the 20th-century reader, who now wonders if she is actually reading a news story:

. . . Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any.  Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense.  The advocate of extrme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.  To succeed in a plot was t0 have a shrewd head, to divine a plot still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. 

 

Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 short story The Blood of the Martyrs concerns an apolitical scientific researcher and professor, imprisoned in “the castle” by the soldiers of “The Dictator.” The Professor dispassionately assesses the near likelihood of his execution.  He does not betray his students, who apparently have been self-organizing into a force in opposition to The Dictator –  but he does not articulate to himself why he does not betray them despite beatings and condemnation to death.

Only at the very end, when The Dictator personally demands, in exchange for his life on terms, that he lie about science – do State Science, speak in scientific language in service to the State – does the Professor make his refusal.  He does not spell it out for himself in his mind; he simply recalls the faces of his students who came to him over the years for one thing: truth, and the pursuit of truth.

He paused again, seeing their faces before him. . . From all over the world they had come – they wore cheap overcoats, they were hungry for knowledge, they ate the bad, starchy food of the poor restaurants . . . a few were promising – all must be given the truth. It did not matter if they died, but they must be given the truth.  Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science. 

. . . not to tell lies to young men on one’s own subject. . . .They had given him their terrible confidence – not for love or kindness, but because they had found him honest.  It was too late to change.

The Professor will not lie for the State, even to save his life.  His death is sordid only externally; internally his integrity gives him calm. He dies thinking of the young men to whom he has not lied.

So, some will lie, and participate in lies, in an attempt to evade murder, or merely to advance themselves.  Other will refuse to lie, because to lie would be to commit painful betrayal to the highest value.  For Benét’s character, it is not a matter of anguished calculation or conjecture.  It just is so.  That is the source of his personal courage: faithfulness to what is so.

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This Week’s Book Review – Code Name: Lise

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

“Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 9, 2019

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis, Gallery Books, 2019, 385 pages, $27

On July 16, 1940, Winston Churchill began an effort to “set Europe ablaze,” creating the Special Operations Executive to strike at Nazi Germany from within Occupied Europe — the nations conquered by Germany. One of the agents recruited to infiltrate into France was Odette Sampson, a married mother of three.

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis tells her story.

Sampson was born in France, but had moved to Britain between World War I and II after marrying an Englishman. She wanted to do her bit for Britain after France fell in June 1940, and offered her services. She thought she could be useful as a translator. Instead, as Loftis shows, the SOE saw her as a perfect agent to infiltrate into occupied France. They convinced her to do so, leaving her children with relatives in Britain.

Assigned to the SPINDLE network, she served in Southern France, then run by the German-friendly Vichy government. She was a courier, carrying messages, money, and munitions to other agents. Women could move more freely than men.

She proved competent, gaining the trust and admiration of the network’s leader, Peter Churchill. Danger brought the two together. Their relationship passed from admiration to love, although neither acted on their inclinations while active agents.

In turn, the SPINDLE network was being tracked by Hugo Bleicher, a sergeant in the Geheime Feldpolitzei. He proved outstanding at counterespionage, successfully turning one SPINDLE agent and rolling up the network. He captured Sampson and Churchill as they attempted to escape to Switzerland.

When captured, Sampson claimed she was married to Churchill and that he was related to the British Prime Minister. Both claims were false. The Germans believed it, and ultimately it kept the two from being executed due to their “hostage” value. They also were sheltered and fostered by Bleicher, an oddly humane counterspy.

Loftis follows the story from its origins through the end of the lives of the participants, well after the war’s end. “Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation

“The Powers of the Earth”, by Travis J. I. Corcoran(Note: This is novel is the first of an envisioned four volume series titled Aristillus. It and the second book, Causes of Separation, published in May, 2018, together tell a single story which reaches a decisive moment just as the first book ends. Unusually, this will be a review of both novels, taken as a whole. If you like this kind of story at all, there’s no way you’ll not immediately plunge into the second book after setting down the first.)

Around the year 2050, collectivists were firmly in power everywhere on Earth. Nations were subordinated to the United Nations, whose force of Peace Keepers (PKs) had absorbed all but elite special forces, and were known for being simultaneously brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (Due to the equality laws, military units had to contain a quota of “Alternatively Abled Soldiers” who other troops had to wheel into combat.) The United States still existed as a country, but after decades of rule by two factions of the Democrat party: Populist and Internationalist, was mired in stagnation, bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. President, Themba Johnson, a former talk show host who combined cluelessness, a volatile temper, and vulpine cunning when it came to manipulating public opinion, is confronted with all of these problems and looking for a masterstroke to get beyond the next election.

Around 2050, when the collectivists entered the inevitable end game their policies lead to everywhere they are tried, with the Bureau of Sustainable Research (BuSuR) suppressing new technologies in every field and the Construction Jobs Preservation Act and Bureau of Industrial Planning banning anything which might increase productivity, a final grasp to loot the remaining seed corn resulted in the CEO Trials aimed at the few remaining successful companies, with expropriation of their assets and imprisonment of their leaders. CEO Mike Martin manages to escape from prison and link up with renegade physicist Ponnala (“Ponzie”) Srinivas, inventor of an anti-gravity drive he doesn’t want the slavers to control. Mike buys a rustbucket oceangoing cargo ship, equips it with the drive, an airtight compartment and life support, and flees Earth with a cargo of tunnel boring machines and water to exile on the Moon, in the crater Aristillus in Mare Imbrium on the lunar near side where, fortuitously, the impact of a metal-rich asteroid millions of years ago enriched the sub-surface with metals rare in the Moon’s crust.

Let me say a few words about the anti-gravity drive, which is very unusual and original, and whose properties play a significant role in the story. The drive works by coupling to the gravitational field of a massive body and then pushing against it, expending energy as it rises and gains gravitational potential energy. Momentum is conserved, as an equal and opposite force is exerted on the massive body against which it is pushing. The force vector is always along the line connecting the centre of mass of the massive body and the drive unit, directed away from the centre of mass. The force is proportional to the strength of the gravitational field in which the drive is operating, and hence stronger when pushing against a body like Earth as opposed to a less massive one like the Moon. The drive’s force diminishes with distance from the massive body as its gravitational field falls off with the inverse square law, and hence the drive generates essentially no force when in empty space far from a gravitating body. When used to brake a descent toward a massive body, the drive converts gravitational potential energy into electricity like the regenerative braking system of an electric vehicle: energy which can be stored for use when later leaving the body.

“Causes of Separation” by Travis J. I. CorcoranBecause the drive can only push outward radially, when used to, say, launch from the Earth to the Moon, it is much like Jules Verne’s giant cannon—the launch must occur at the latitude and longitude on Earth where the Moon will be directly overhead at the time the ship arrives at the Moon. In practice, the converted ships also carried auxiliary chemical rockets and reaction control thrusters for trajectory corrections and precision maneuvering which could not be accomplished with the anti-gravity drive.

By 2064, the lunar settlement, called Aristillus by its inhabitants, was thriving, with more than a hundred thousand residents, and growing at almost twenty percent a year. (Well, nobody knew for sure, because from the start the outlook shared by the settlers was aligned with Mike Martin’s anarcho-capitalist worldview. There was no government, no taxes, no ID cards, no business licenses, no regulations, no zoning [except covenants imposed by property owners on those who sub-leased property from them], no central bank, no paper money [an entrepreneur had found a vein of gold left by the ancient impactor and gone into business providing hard currency], no elections, no politicians, no forms to fill out, no police, and no army.) Some of these “features” of life on grey, regimented Earth were provided by private firms, while many of the others were found to be unnecessary altogether.

The community prospered as it grew. Like many frontier settlements, labour was in chronic short supply, and even augmented by robot rovers and machines (free of the yoke of BuSuR), there was work for anybody who wanted it and job offers awaiting new arrivals. A fleet of privately operated ships maintained a clandestine trade with Earth, bringing goods which couldn’t yet be produced on the Moon, atmosphere, water from the oceans (in converted tanker ships), and new immigrants who had sold their Earthly goods and quit the slave planet. Waves of immigrants from blood-soaked Nigeria and chaotic China established their own communities and neighbourhoods in the ever-growing network of tunnels beneath Aristillus.

The Moon has not just become a refuge for humans. When BuSuR put its boot on the neck of technology, it ordered the shutdown of a project to genetically “uplift” dogs to human intelligence and beyond, creating “Dogs” (the capital letter denoting the uplift) and all existing Dogs to be euthanised. Many were, but John (we never learn his last name), a former U.S. Special Forces operator, manages to rescue a colony of Dogs from one of the labs before the killers arrive and escape with them to Aristillus, where they have set up the Den and engage in their own priorities, including role-playing games, software development, and trading on the betting markets. Also rescued by John was Gamma, the first Artificial General Intelligence to be created, whose intelligence is above the human level but not (yet, anyway) intelligence runaway singularity-level transcendent. Gamma has established itself in its own facility in Sinus Lunicus on the other side of Mare Imbrium, and has little contact with the human or Dog settlers.

Inevitably, liberty produces prosperity, and prosperity eventually causes slavers to regard the free with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against them.

This is the story of the first interplanetary conflict, and a rousing tale of liberty versus tyranny, frontier innovation against collectivised incompetence, and principles (there is even the intervention of a Vatican diplomat) confronting brutal expedience. There are delicious side-stories about the creation of fake news, scheming politicians, would-be politicians in a libertarian paradise, open source technology, treachery, redemption, and heroism. How do three distinct species: human, Dog, and AI work together without a top-down structure or subordinating one to another? Can the lunar colony protect itself without becoming what its settlers left Earth to escape?

Woven into the story is a look at how a libertarian society works (and sometimes doesn’t work) in practice. Aristillus is in no sense a utopia: it has plenty of rough edges and things to criticise. But people there are free, and they prefer it to the prison planet they escaped.

This is a wonderful, sprawling, action-packed story with interesting characters, complicated conflicts, and realistic treatment of what a small colony faces when confronted by a hostile planet of nine billion slaves. Think of this as Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress done better. There are generous tips of the hat to Heinlein and other science fiction in the book, but this is a very different story with an entirely different outcome, and truer to the principles of individualism and liberty. I devoured these books and give them my highest recommendation.  The Powers of the Earth won the 2018 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel.

Corcoran, Travis J. I. The Powers of the Earth. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-1-9733-1114-0.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Causes of Separation. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9804-3744-4.

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This Week’s Book Review – Houston: Space City, USA

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Houston: Space City’ combines history, science and culture

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 2, 2019

“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 224 pages, $37

Houston and America’s manned space program are inescapably intertwined. The Manned Spaceflight Center (today’s Johnson Space Center), which runs all of NASA manned missions, is in Houston. The first word broadcast by a human from another planet was “Houston.” The city gives major sports teams space-related names like Astros and Rockets.

“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, explores that connection in an extended photo-essay. It arrives just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Viator, a long-time Houston media figure, combines history, science and culture. He starts out by looking at the history of NASA in Houston, focusing on the Apollo 11 moon landing. He goes well beyond that, however. Subsequent sections look at the impact hosting the Johnson Space Center has had on the city of Houston and its environs.

His exploration of space’s impact on Houston isn’t limited to rocket-related activities. He explores the impact of space on Houston’s research communities — institutions of higher education, medical research, and the whole spectrum of science research. He also looks at the impact the Johnson Space Center has had on Houston’s art community and its culture. He shows how Houston has embraced the concept of being Space City into its music, its architecture, and its visual arts.

He underscores his thesis with an eye-popping array of photographs. Many are his own. Some, especially when historical images are needed, come from a variety of other sources including NASA, the Houston Public Library archives or other local photographers.

The book mixes wonder with whimsy. Photographs showing the latest-greatest space technology, prominent figures in space history, reverential monuments and buildings significant to Houston’s space history are placed in proximity to space-themed Lego constructions, larger-than-life space-suited manikins selling stuff, or humorous space-themed murals. Viator also makes use of every opportunity to photograph the moon in proximity to some Houston activity.

Viator wanted to recapture the wonder of the 1960s space program and the sheer amount of fun space has provided Houston and Houston residents over the last 50 years. “Houston: Space City, USA” succeeds admirably in achieving that goal.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Gray Day

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Gray Day’ details uncovering a cyber spy

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 25, 2019

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” by Eric O’Neill, Crown, 304 pages, 2019, $27

In 2000, FBI agent Eric O’Neill’s career was in eclipse. He had married a German foreign national. She was from the former East Germany and viewed as a potential security risk. Germany might have reunified and the Soviet Union gone, but Russia was still there. Because of that he got tapped for the biggest case of his career.

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” by Eric O’Neill recounts what happens next.

Robert Hanssen was selling secrets to Russia and earlier the Soviet Union. The FBI needed to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. They wanted him in prison. He had been betraying the United States for decades and his revelations had led to the execution of several spies working for the United States. He was going to retire in April 2001.

The FBI set a trap for Hanssen. They put him in charge of a new FBI cybersecurity group, offering Hanssen a new batch of secrets to sell. They wanted O’Neill to be his deputy, to spy on Hanssen. O’Neill agreed.

The book follows the effort to trap Hanssen, as seen through the eyes of O’Neill. Despite Hanssen’s new posting being an FBI deception, as O’Neill shows, it filled a desperate need. The FBI entered the 21st century with its computer technology mired in the early 1980s and organizational attitudes toward computers from the 1960s. Hanssen’s spying exploited that.

“Gray Day” (Hanssen’s code name in the investigation) shows O’Neill cope with the pressure of juggling an abusive boss (Hanssen), keeping up with his schoolwork (O’Neill was a law student) and keeping his marriage intact — while secretly investigating his boss.

The book reads like a John Le Carre spy novel, but the events happened. Some names are disguised. O’Neill walks readers through the methods the FBI used to weave a net around Hanssen, including success and failures. He also shows the personal cost to him. His marriage started unravelling due to the pressures of the investigation.

“Gray Day” is a book that keeps readers on the edge of their seat, and contains an important message about data security.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Today I am Carey

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Today I Am Carey’ rare thought-provoking novel

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 19, 2019

“Today I am Carey,” by Martin L. Shoemaker, Baen, 2019, 336 pages, $16

What defines life? What’s the difference between something truly alive and something which is a clever simulation of life?

“Today I am Carey,” is a science fiction novel by Martin L. Shoemaker. It examines those questions.

Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662, created by MCA laboratories, is a caretaker robot. Leased by the family of Mildred Owens, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, its job is to comfort Mildred, look after her, provide her with companionship, and help her with her needs. It has the capability to physically emulate different members of her family: her late husband Henry, her son Paul and his wife Susan, her granddaughter Anna, and the various human nurses who care for Mildred.

BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 has become self-aware, and has begun wondering what that means. It’s a sophisticated android with the latest neural networks and sensory feedback systems, and has developed consciousness.

Its developers realize something special has happened. The designer, Dr. Zinta Jansons begins exploring the implications, as the android continues caring for Mildred. When she finally dies, it has become part of the family. The Owens family purchases the android, purportedly to look after their daughter Millie, but in reality because they cannot part with it. The android is quickly named Carey, and ceases to emulate people.

The book follows Carey and the Owens family through the years in a series of short chapters, all presented through the point of view of Carey. Both family members and Carey mature. His primary charge becomes an adult, eventually with children of her own. Carey discovers he must redefine his existence and purpose over time. He experiments by taking a job. He travels and learns more about the world. Eventually, he discovers that being alive means making hard choices, including whether to live or die.

“Today I am Carey” is a rare novel. While entertaining, it goes beyond simple entertainment. Shoemaker examines the question of what it means to be alive. Despite being written about a robot, the book is about people and the meaning of individuality. Lyrically written using simple language, this story will leave readers pondering its implications.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Anger Management Wednesday: “The Devil and Daniel Webster”

Dollinks,

What I am supposed to be doing is packing and otherwise preparing for the Left Coast Sojourn. But this I have in mind is more interesting.  Hey, I checked the upcoming weather Utah and San Fran; I pulled out multiple clothing items and arranged them in various piles; I tried on bathing costumes in March in the Northern Hemisphere!  All those today!  So now I can do as I like for a while.

@Minus pecuniam nostram has of late stirred up conversations about personal “anger management.”  On the very same day of one of those, by chance, I read the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, The Devil and Daniel Webster.  I recommend this story as example and standard of human anger management, with cosmic consequences.  If it works for cosmic consequences, it can work for the more local and temporal, can it not?

Here is Daniel Webster, of New Hampshire:

And here is the man who painted that perfect portrait, Francis Alexander of Killingly, Connecticut:

Could either of these men beat the Devil in argument?  Could Daniel Webster beat a jury of historical psychopaths in argument in the Devil’s court?  Naturally they could.  Their stories and Benét’s story will make all matters clear.  Righteous passion has its place, and we are thankful beyond words for it when it fires up in the right people at the right time.  Self-control and judicious advocacy for the right have their place also.  Read for yourself and see if you are convinced.

 

Benét, The Devil and Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster  How goes the Union?

Francis Alexander

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This Week’s Book Review – The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The memoir of Jens Müller

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Great Escape’ is history’s most famous prison break

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 12, 2019

“The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The memoir of Jens Müller,” by Jens Müller, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 192 pages, $32.95

The Great Escape is probably history’s most famous jailbreak. In 1944, 76 men tunneled out of a German prisoner of war (POW) camp. The escape has been discussed in many books, starting with escape participant Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book “The Great Escape.” It was also the subject of a 1963 movie.

“The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The memoir of Jens Müller,” by Jens Müller, is a first-person account of the escape by one of three men who successfully reached Allied lines during the escape.

The book covers more than the escape. It’s Müller’s story of life as a POW, starting with the flight when he was shot down through his return to Great Britain. Müller was Norwegian, studying engineering in Switzerland when World War II started in 1939. After the 1940 German invasion of Norway, Müller left school to join the Norwegian forces in exile.

He became a Spitfire pilot serving in a Royal Air Force Norwegian squadron. After escaping, he served as a flight instructor in Canada. Following World War II, he became an airline pilot for Norway’s national airline.

His account is brief and straightforward, told in the words of a man who spoke plainly. He writes with a matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, even when describing startling events. He describes a three-day ordeal in a life-raft in taciturn words, and downplays his risks during the escape (50 of the 73 men recaptured were shot by the Gestapo, including almost all non-British escapees).

He wrote these memoirs in 1946 in Norwegian. It was published as Tre Kom Tilbake (Three Returned), but the book and Müller were largely forgotten over the next seven decades. This is the first English translation of the book. It includes a foreword by Müller’s son, and is annotated by editor Asgeir Ueland. The annotations provide information a modern reader might not know and information available today, which was unknown to Müller.

“The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III” offers a fascinating look at the 1940s, recapturing the feel of both the war and postwar era. A brief read; it is interesting.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Unnatural Texas’ is testimony to the law of unintended consequences

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 5, 2019

“Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma,” by Robert W. Doughtry and Matt Warnock Turner, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 272 pages, $32

Texas has many species not native to Texas. Some, like the longhorn, are a positive part of Texas’s heritage. Others? Maybe not so much.

“Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma,” by Robert W. Doughtry and Matt Warnock Turner, examine the impact of some of these less welcome imports.

The book looks at around a dozen widespread nuisance species in Texas. Examples include birds, aquatic plants, mammals, land based plants, and insects, all with negative impacts. Some may surprise you.

There’s a chapter on sparrows and starlings. Non-native birds, they were imported from England to eat urban insects and introduce animals mentioned in Shakespeare. Instead they went after farmers’ crops and are crowding out native species.

Water hyacinth and hydrilla take up another chapter. The authors examine their negative impact on southern waterways and the difficulties of eradicating them. Yet in Florida, water hyacinths provide food for endangered manatee, making eliminating them an issue.

There are separate chapters on Chinese Tallow and Tamarisk, two species introduced to improve the landscape, which ultimately had undesired impact. Chinese tallow are destroying Texas’s coastal prairie.

One chapter is devoted to feral cats, and a second to feral hogs. Each provides a menace to native species; cats in urban areas, hogs in the countryside and suburbs. Cats kill birds, while hogs will hunt people. Fire ants are the focus of another chapter.

The authors examine means of controlling invasive species. It’s tricky. Biological controls work best, but (as with carp to control water hyacinths) could themselves become invasive species.

“Unnatural Texas” is testimony to the law of unintended consequences. These nuisance species were introduced with the best of intentions. Sometimes, as with the concept of importing every species mentioned in Shakespeare to North America the intention was crackpot. The book closes by illustrating the conflicting nature imported species with the monk parakeet. Endangered in its native habitat, it adds color to Texas cities, while posing a nuisance by nesting in transmission towers.

“Unnatural Texas” provides food for thought on a complex topic. The authors show that frequently no simple answers exist for environmental problems.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Just Published: The Case for Trump by Victor Davis Hanson

“The case for Trump” by Victor Davis HansonVictor Davis Hanson’s The Case for Trump was published today.  The book is available in hardcover, Kindle, and audio book editions.  I suppose we can now expect Hanson, whose previous book was the masterful The Second World Wars, to be redesignated from “eminent classicist and military historian” to “alt-right nativist deplorable”.

The book’s dedication is “For the ‘Deplorables’ ”.  From the preface,

Predictably as president, Trump said and did things that were also long overdue in the twilight of the seventy-three-year-old post-war order.  Or as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger remarked in July 2018 of the fiery pot Trump had stirred overseas, “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretense.”

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This Week’s Book Review – Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Class Dismissed’ argues college isn’t the only answer

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 19, 2019

“Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer,” by Nick Adams, Post Hill Press, 2019, 192 pages, $25

Is a four-year college degree the minimum requirement for a successful life? It comes with a price tag in excess of $50,000.

“Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer,” by Nick Adams argues college may not be the best road to success. Instead, for many it may prove a four-year detour to a successful career.

Adams doesn’t argue college is never the answer. He argues it’s not the only answer. For many, skipping college and getting on with life may be a better solution. Sometimes going straight to a four-year college out of high school sets up someone for a lifetime of failure.

Adams opens the book explaining why he believes college is a poor choice for many, using his own life and the lives of his childhood friends as examples. He grew up in Australia, which is more status-conscious than the United States, and was from a station where a four-year degree is expected.

Adams has a four-year degree. He enjoyed college, but found it a four-year coast. College didn’t contribute to his becoming the youngest city councilman in Sydney, Australia. He was in college when elected. By contrasts, his childhood friend Alan bucked expectations and became a plumber instead of going to college. By the time Adams graduated Alan was running 10 plumbing trucks and earning over $100,000 annually.

Additionally, college today is extremely expensive. It shelters students from reality (for fear of “triggering” them). It is also increasingly about politically-correct indoctrination rather than education.

Adams argues more people could follow Alan’s path. He has a chapter listing extremely successful people who never attended or finished college. The list includes Paul Allen, James Cameron, Michael Dell, Ted Turner, and Anna Wintour.

He discusses paths to career success that avoid college. He devotes nearly half the book listing careers attainable though trade schools or community college certifications. Each entry outlines the career, the preparation, and salary expectations.

“Class Dismissed” is short; only 40,000 words. It provides a cogent argument, and offers solid advice. Anyone unsure whether college is for them should read it.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – All the Plagues of Hell

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘All the Plagues of Hell’ is filled with plot twists, confusion, romance and battles

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 19, 2019

“All the Plagues of Hell,” by Eric Flint and David Freer, Baen Books, 2018, 432 pages, $25

There are few better pure storytellers than Eric Flint and David Freer. Individually they’re entertaining. Together, the result is splendid.

“All the Plagues of Hell,” by Eric Flint and David Freer is the latest novel in the Heirs of Alexandria fantasy series. Set in the middle of the 15th century, it’s alternate history. In this world magic works.

This book centers on Count Kazimierz Mindaug, a long-standing series villain. A Lithuanian nobleman, he fled Lithuania after a failed attempt to kill its leader, Duke Jagiellon (possessed by the demon Chernobog). Mindaug took shelter in Hungary serving the evil King Emeric of Hungary and Countess Elizabeth Barthody. Both were killed earlier in the series. Mindaug escaped, but their destruction left Mindaug with no protector against Chernobog, vengefully pursuing Mindaug.

He flees west, to realms protected by the Knights of the Holy Trinity. They destroy evil magicians and demons. They are hunting Mindaug. Regardless, realms protected by the Knight are safer for Mindaug than other territory, because they keep Chernobog out.

Mindaug cannot use magic. That would draw both Chernobog and the Knights to him. He disguises himself as a book seller to allow him to bring his library and seeks a home in a less perilous climate. He chooses Italy because it’s outside the Holy Roman Empire of the Knights. Along the way he gains two servants (the first to ever serve him willingly) and settles in the Duchy of Milan.

Unknown to Mindaug, who only wants quiet, Milan is about to be attacked. Worse still, a noblewoman in Milan, attempting to gain power is unwittingly unleashing a disease demon, one which will release the plague on the world. The Knights attribute her magic to Mindaug. For once innocent, Mindaug is avoiding magic serving Milan’s Duke as an alchemist developing pyrotechnics.

The Knights are closing on Mindaug, seeking to kill him. Yet he may be the only person able to stop the plague.

“All the Plagues of Hell” is filled with plot twists, misunderstood motives leading to confusion, romance, and battle. Flint and Freer have produced another delightful book.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Lady Death’ the story of a successful sniper

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 12, 2019

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Greenhill Books, 2018, 272 pages, $32.95

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the Soviet Army’s most successful female sniper during World War II. A fourth-year history student when Hitler invaded Russia, she quit school to enlist as a sniper. In 1941 and 1942 she racked up 309 kills.

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, is an English translation of her memoirs. She died in 1974, leaving a manuscript copy of her memoirs, which remained unpublished until this century.

In it she recounts her life, with a primary emphasis on her wartime experiences. She shows how she became an expert marksman before the war, joining shooting teams at work and in school, becoming fascinated with both the machinery of the rifle and the art of shooting.

She put those skills to good use when Russia was invaded. Enlisting as a private, she served as a sniper in the 25th Rifle Division. She recounts her experiences during the summer of 1941 through the spring of 1942. She fought at the sieges of Odessa and Sevastopol, was wounded several times, promoted to lieutenant (and command of a sniper platoon), married a husband and saw him die in combat. These experiences are described in the chapters covering her combat career.

Wounded near the end of the latter siege, she was evacuated before Sevastopol fell. She had become famous, the subject of several published Soviet “histories” she states invented exploits for dramatic purposes.

Against her objections (she had a husband to avenge) she was sent to the United States on Stalin’s orders as a Soviet student representative to an international youth conference. There she met and was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is as fascinating an account as her combat recollections. The United States, Canada, and Britain were environments to which she had never been exposed.

Pavlichenko was an unapologetic communist, who grew up a privileged member of the nomenclature, the Soviet elite. This colors her history of events. She mentions Hitler invading Poland, but fails to mention the Soviets aided Hitler.

Regardless, “Lady Death,” is fascinating, and Pavlichenko’s beliefs don’t change her real accomplishments. This is a book worth reading.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Stanley Marcus

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Stanley Marcus’ highly entertaining and informative

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 5, 2019

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, State House Press, 2018, 280 pages,$19.95

Neiman Marcus is Texas’ signature department store. It was the first place where Texas and high fashion converged. It remained the Texas arbiter of fashion throughout the 20th century.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is a biography of the man who turned Neiman Marcus into the aristocrat of department stores.

Stanley Marcus did not found Neiman Marcus. His father and uncle did. They, along with Stanley’s aunt, made Neiman Marcus into Dallas’s leading store. Herbert Marcus’ salesmanship and insistence on customer satisfaction, Carrie Neiman’s (nee Marcus) fashion sense and Al Neiman’s shrewd management of expenses proved a perfect fit for a Dallas growing wealthy through then-new oil money. The new-money rich could go to Neiman Marcus, get dressed right without feeling condescended to.

Stanley Marcus became the prince inheriting this kingdom because he was Herbert’s oldest son (Al and Carrie had none). That was how family businesses ran back then. But, as in a fairy tale, he had a magic touch when it came to retailing luxury goods.

Alexander’s biography shows how Stanley Marcus transformed Neiman Marcus from Dallas’ leading department store to an American fashion icon. Alexander shows how in the 1930s Marcus managed to make Dallas a fashion center by a combination of fashion sense, marketing and exclusivity. Neiman Marcus was the first fashion store outside of New York City advertising nationally, creating a national identity.

The book is told from an insider’s perspective. Alexander became Neiman Marcus’ sales promotion director in 1970. He worked directly with Stanley Marcus for decades, becoming close friends with Marcus. Alexander’s accounts of the store’s fashion “fortnights” (two- and later three-week marketing extravaganzas focusing on fashions of a country) are often personal recollections. He recounts the successes, failures and challenges met. A similar approach frames his accounts of the company’s expansion to other cities.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince” is a book praising a respected friend who has passed. It’s also a highly entertaining and informative look at a great store and the man most responsible for its greatness.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Arkad’s World

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

“Arkad’s World” is like a curio museum

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 29, 2019

“Arkad’s World,” by James L. Cambias, Baen, 2019, 304 pages, $24

Arkad is the only human on the distant planet of Syavusa. In his mid-teens, he makes a rough existence on the streets of the town of Ayaviz.

This is “Arkad’s World,” a science fiction novel by James L. Cambias.

He has lived on the streets almost as long as he can remember; ever since his mother died when he was a child. His possessions comprise of a blanket he wears, a knife, a data unit retained from his youth, and whatever else he can carry. Then Arkad’s existence suddenly changes.

Three other humans arrive in Ayaviz. Arkad seeks them out. Maybe they will take him to other humans.

They seek Rosetta, a spaceship that left Earth just before the planet was conquered by the Elmisthorn. They’re now domesticating its remaining human inhabitants. Rosetta contains the cultural treasures of Earth, spirited away to preserve them.

Arkad had memories of Rosetta, from when he was a youth. He offers to guide the three humans there. His price is a ticket off Syavusa. The problems are that Rosetta is literally halfway around the world, and Arkad doesn’t remember exactly where it is. Or really even sort of where it is. He doesn’t tell the other humans that.

The four set out to find the spaceship. Their trip becomes an epic worthy of Marco Polo. Syavusa is an odd world, one that doesn’t fit the template of any other inhabited planet. It’s peopled by a weird assemblage of different sentient races. Moreover, those on the planet are the cranks and misfits of their own societies. The planet is like a curio museum.

It has no central government; only individual local societies. Some groups came fleeing the Elmisthorn. The trip is fraught with challenges and dangers. The three off-planet humans don’t know how the Elmithorn will react to the reappearance of Rosetta, which left Earth 50 years earlier, but they suspect it will be hostile.

“Arkad’s World” is a delightful story. It will remind readers of a mix of “Kim,” “Treasure Island,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” in a new and original setting.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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