Book Review: Michoud Assembly Facility

“Michoud Assembly Facility” by Cindy Donze MantoIn March, 1763, King Louis XV of France made a land grant of 140 square kilometres to Gilbert Antoine St Maxent, the richest man in Louisiana Territory and commander of the militia. The grant required St Maxent to build a road across the swampy property, develop a plantation, and reserve all the trees in forested areas for the use of the French navy. When the Spanish took over the territory five years later, St Maxent changed his first names to “Gilberto Antonio” and retained title to the sprawling estate. In the decades that followed, the property changed hands and nations several times, eventually, now part of the United States, being purchased by another French immigrant, Antoine Michoud, who had left France after the fall of Napoleon, who his father had served as an official.

Michoud rapidly established himself as a prosperous businessman in bustling New Orleans, and after purchasing the large tract of land set about buying pieces which had been sold off by previous owners, re-assembling most of the original French land grant into one of the largest private land holdings in the United States. The property was mostly used as a sugar plantation, although territory and rights were ceded over the years for construction of a lighthouse, railroads, and telegraph and telephone lines. Much of the land remained undeveloped, and like other parts of southern Louisiana was a swamp or, as they now say, “wetlands”.

The land remained in the Michoud family until 1910, when it was sold in its entirety for US$410,000 in cash (around US$11 million today) to a developer who promptly defaulted, leading to another series of changes of ownership and dodgy plans for the land, which most people continued to refer to as the Michoud Tract. At the start of World War II, the U.S. government bought a large parcel, initially intended for construction of Liberty ships. Those plans quickly fell through, but eventually a huge plant was erected on the site which, starting in 1943, began to manufacture components for cargo aircraft, lifeboats, and components which were used in the Manhattan Project’s isotope separation plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

At the end of the war, the plant was declared surplus but, a few years later, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was re-purposed to manufacture engines for Army tanks. It continued in that role until 1954 when it was placed on standby and, in 1958, once again declared surplus. There things stood until mid-1961 when NASA, charged by the new Kennedy administration to “put a man on the Moon” was faced with the need to build rockets in sizes and quantities never before imagined, and to do so on a tight schedule, racing against the Soviet Union.

In June, 1961, Wernher von Braun, director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, responsible for designing and building those giant boosters, visited the then-idle Michoud Ordnance Plant and declared it ideal for NASA’s requirements. It had 43 acres (17 hectares) under one roof, the air conditioning required for precision work in the Louisiana climate, and was ready to occupy. Most critically, it was located adjacent to navigable waters which would allow the enormous rocket stages, far too big to be shipped by road, rail, or air, to be transported on barges to and from Huntsville for testing and Cape Canaveral in Florida to be launched.

In September 1961 NASA officially took over the facility, renaming it “Michoud Operations”, to be managed by NASA Marshall as the manufacturing site for the rockets they designed. Work quickly got underway to set up manufacturing of the first stage of the Saturn I and 1B rockets and prepare to build the much larger first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket. Before long, new buildings dedicated to assembly and test of the new rockets, occupied both by NASA and its contractors, began to spring up around the original plant. In 1965, the installation was renamed the Michoud Assembly Facility, which name it bears to this day.

With the end of the Apollo program, it looked like Michoud might once again be headed for white elephant status, but the design selected for the Space Shuttle included a very large External Tank comparable in size to the first stage of the Saturn V which would be discarded on every flight. Michoud’s fabrication and assembly facilities, and its access to shipping by barge were ideal for this component of the Shuttle, and a total of 135 tanks built at Michoud were launched on Shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle once again put the future of Michoud in doubt. It was originally tapped to build the core stage of the Constellation program’s Ares V booster, which was similar in size and construction to the Shuttle External Tank. The cancellation of Constellation in 2010 brought that to a halt, but then Congress and NASA rode to the rescue with the absurd-as-a-rocket but excellent-as-a-jobs-program Space Launch System (SLS), whose centre core stage also resembles the External Tank and Ares V. SLS first stage fabrication is presently underway at Michoud. Perhaps when the schedule-slipping, bugget-busting SLS is retired after a few flights (if, in fact, it ever flies at all), bringing to a close the era of giant taxpayer-funded throwaway rockets, the Michoud facility can be repurposed to more productive endeavours.

This book is largely a history of Michoud in photos and captions, with text introducing chapters on each phase of the facility’s history. All of the photos are in black and white, and are well-reproduced. In the Kindle edition many can be expanded to show more detail. There are a number of copy-editing and factual errors in the text and captions, but not too many to distract or mislead the reader. The unidentified “visitors” shown touring the Michoud facility in July 1967 (chapter 3, Kindle location 392) are actually the Apollo 7 crew, Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham, who would fly on a Michoud-built Saturn 1B in October 1968.

For a book of just 130 pages, most of which are black and white photographs, the hardcover is hideously expensive (US$29 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Manto, Cindy Donze. Michoud Assembly Facility. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-5316-6969-0.

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This Week’s Book Review – An Anxious Peace

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.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘An Anxious Peace’ looks at the Cold War

By MARK LARDAS

June 8, 2019

“An Anxious Peace: A Cold War Memoir,” by Hans Mark, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 688 pages, $47

Hans Mark entered the United States as a refugee from Austria, immediately before the United States entered World War II. He went on to a career where he was a key player in technologies critical to the United States’ success during the rest of the century: atomic physics, aerospace engineering and space exploration.

In “An Anxious Peace: A Cold War Memoir,” by Hans Mark, he tells his story.

Mark’s family fled Austria after the German Anschluss. Mark’s father, a noted polymer chemist and professor, had been imprisoned by the Nazis, escaping with a former student’s assistance. The family spent time in Britain and Canada. In 1940, Mark’s family came to the United States after his father became a chemistry professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Hans grew up in New York attending Stuyvesant High School, a school focused on science and technology. Attending the University of California Berkeley, and MIT, he earned a Ph.D. in physics.

He spent his life showing his gratitude to the country that adopted him by protecting it from its enemies, especially the Soviet Union. Mark viewed communism as little different from the national socialism he had fled.

Mark’s next 50 years found him at the tip of the current hot technology battle of the Cold War. He designed helped nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. He led NASA-Ames Research Center, pioneering airborne astronomy, space exploration (including three Pioneer probes) and cutting-edge aeronautics. He served as an undersecretary and secretary of the Air Force, deputy administrator of NASA and chancellor of the University of Texas.

Along the way he influenced some of the technologies and tools critical to eventual U.S. victory in the Cold War: stealth technology, the B-1, orbital intelligence gathering, the space shuttle, the space station and parallel processing computers. He seemed to be at the right place at the right time.

The book is long, 650 7-by-10 inch pages. Yet it’s never dull. It’s a fascinating read, perhaps the most engaging memoir since “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.” Readers will be rewarded with an intimate yet comprehensive account of the Cold War.

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: Five Million Watts

“Five Million Watts” by Fenton WoodThis is the second short novel/novella (123 pages) in the author’s Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, as “utterly charming”, and this sequel turns it all the way up to “enchanting”. As with the first book, you’re reading along thinking this is a somewhat nerdy young adult story, then something happens or is mentioned in passing and suddenly, “Whoa—I didn’t see that coming!”, and you realise the Yankee Republic is a strange and enchanted place, and that, as in the work of Philip K. Dick, there is a lot more going on than you suspected, and much more to be discovered in future adventures.

This tale begins several years after the events of the first book. Philo Hergenschmidt (the only character from Pirates to appear here) has grown up, graduated from Virginia Tech, and after a series of jobs keeping antiquated equipment at rural radio stations on the air, arrives in the Republic’s storied metropolis of Iburakon to seek opportunity, adventure, and who knows what else. (If you’re curious where the name of the city came from, here’s a hint, but be aware it may be a minor spoiler.) Things get weird from the very start when he stops at an information kiosk and encounters a disembodied mechanical head who says it has a message for him. The message is just an address, and when he goes there he meets a very curious character who goes by a variety of names ranging from Viridios to Mr Green, surrounded by a collection of keyboard instruments including electronic synthesisers with strange designs.

Viridios suggests Philo aim for the very top and seek employment at legendary AM station 2XG, a broadcasting pioneer that went on the air in 1921, before broadcasting was regulated, and which in 1936 increased its power to five million watts. When other stations’ maximum power was restricted to 50,000 watts, 2XG was grandfathered and allowed to continue to operate at 100 times more, enough to cover the continent far beyond the borders of the Yankee Republic into the mysterious lands of the West.

Not only does 2XG broadcast with enormous power, it was also permitted to retain its original 15 kHz bandwidth, allowing high-fidelity broadcasting and even, since the 1950s, stereo (for compatible receivers). However, in order to retain its rights to the frequency and power, the station was required to stay on the air continuously, with any outage longer than 24 hours forfeiting its rights to hungry competitors.

The engineers who maintained this unique equipment were a breed apart, the pinnacle of broadcast engineering. Philo manages to secure a job as a junior technician, which means he’ll never get near the high power RF gear or antenna (all of which are one-off custom), but sets to work on routine maintenance of studio gear and patching up ancient tube gear when it breaks down. Meanwhile, he continues to visit Viridios and imbibe his tales of 2XG and the legendary Zaros the Electromage who designed its transmitter, the operation of which nobody completely understands today.

As he hears tales of the Old Religion, the gods of the spring and grain, and the time of the last ice age, Philo concludes Viridios is either the most magnificent liar he has ever encountered or—something else again.

Climate change is inexorably closing in on Iburakon. Each year is colder than the last, the growing season is shrinking, and it seems inevitable that before long the glaciers will resume their march from the north. Viridios is convinced that the only hope lies in music, performing a work rooted in that (very) Old Time Religion which caused a riot in its only public performance decades before, broadcast with the power of 2XG and performed with breakthrough electronic music instruments of his own devising.

Viridios is very odd, but also persuasive, and he has a history with 2XG. The concert is scheduled, and Philo sets to work restoring long-forgotten equipment from the station’s basement and building new instruments to Viridios’ specifications. It is a race against time, as the worst winter storm in memory threatens 2XG and forces Philo to confront one of his deepest fears.

Working on a project on the side, Philo discovers what may be the salvation of 2XG, but also as he looks deeper, possibly the door to a new universe. Once again, we have a satisfying, heroic, and imaginative story, suitable for readers of all ages, that leaves you hungry for more.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is inexpensive to buy. Those eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to visit the Yankee Republic will look forward to the publication of volume 3, The Tower of the Bear, in October, 2019.

Wood, Fenton. Five Million Watts. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2019. ASIN B07R6X973N.

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One of the Best Ways to Engage with Data

Pen(cil) and Paper.

I just finished “Smarter Faster Better” by Charles Duhigg and one of the points it made was people get into “Information Blindness”. They can’t see things because there is too much information. If one has too many choices one gives up and doesn’t make a choice. If that happens one needs to engage the data. Ask questions of it to get to the information one wants. It gave the example of choosing a wine. Red or white? What year? Cheap or expensive? Soon a long list can be manageable.

When it came to students, hand written notes were better than typed notes on a computer for better test results. Teachers at a low performing school were able to change the school by making cards for each student and seeing what the patterns were. They had the data on computers but they weren’t engaging it.

My opinion is paper and pen helps us because it is more like a picture. Our minds love pictures. And when we create pictures our minds connect with the information.

What has been your experience?

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Book Review: The Case for Trump

“The case for Trump” by Victor Davis HansonThe election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016 was a singular event in the history of the country. Never before had anybody been elected to that office without any prior experience in either public office or the military. Trump, although running as a Republican, had no long-term affiliation with the party and had cultivated no support within its establishment, elected officials, or the traditional donors who support its candidates. He turned his back on the insider consultants and “experts” who had advised GOP candidate after candidate in their “defeat with dignity” at the hands of a ruthless Democrat party willing to burn any bridge to win. From well before he declared his candidacy he established a direct channel to a mass audience, bypassing media gatekeepers via Twitter and frequent appearances in all forms of media, who found him a reliable boost to their audience and clicks. He was willing to jettison the mumbling points of the cultured Beltway club and grab “third rail” issues of which they dared not speak such as mass immigration, predatory trade practices, futile foreign wars, and the exporting of jobs from the U.S. heartland to low-wage sweatshops overseas.

He entered a free-for-all primary campaign as one of seventeen major candidates, including present and former governors, senators, and other well-spoken and distinguished rivals and, one by one, knocked them out, despite resolute and sometimes dishonest bias by the media hosting debates, often through “verbal kill shots” which made his opponents the target of mockery and pinned sobriquets on them (“low energy Jeb”, “little Marco”, “lyin’ Ted”) they couldn’t shake. His campaign organisation, if one can dignify it with the term, was completely chaotic and his fund raising nothing like the finely-honed machines of establishment favourites like Jeb Bush, and yet his antics resulted in his getting billions of dollars worth of free media coverage even on outlets who detested and mocked him.

One by one, he picked off his primary opponents and handily won the Republican presidential nomination. This unleashed a phenomenon the likes of which had not been seen since the Goldwater insurgency of 1964, but far more virulent. Pillars of the Republican establishment and Conservatism, Inc. were on the verge of cardiac arrest, advancing fantasy scenarios to deny the nomination to its winner, publishing issues of their money-losing and subscription-shedding little magazines dedicated to opposing the choice of the party’s voters, and promoting insurgencies such as the candidacy of Egg McMuffin, whose bona fides as a man of the people were evidenced by his earlier stints with the CIA and Goldman Sachs.

Predictions that post-nomination, Trump would become “more presidential” were quickly falsified as the chaos compounded, the tweets came faster and funnier, and the mass rallies became ever more frequent and raucous. One thing that was obvious to anybody looking dispassionately at what was going on, without the boiling blood of hatred and disdain of the New York-Washington establishment, was that the candidate was having the time of his life and so were the people who attended the rallies. But still, all of the wise men of the coastal corridor knew what must happen. On the eve of the general election, polls put the probability of a Trump victory somewhere between 1 and 15 percent. The outlier was Nate Silver, who went out on a limb and went all the way up to 29% chance of Trump’s winning to the scorn of his fellow “progressives” and pollsters.

And yet, Trump won, and handily. Yes, he lost the popular vote, but that was simply due to the urban coastal vote for which he could not contend and wisely made no attempt to attract, knowing such an effort would be futile and a waste of his scarce resources (estimates are his campaign spent around half that of Clinton’s). This book by classicist, military historian, professor, and fifth-generation California farmer Victor Davis Hanson is an in-depth examination of, in the words of the defeated candidate, “what happened”. There is a great deal of wisdom here.

First of all, a warning to the prospective reader. If you read Dr Hanson’s columns regularly, you probably won’t find a lot here that’s new. This book is not one of those that’s obviously Frankenstitched together from previously published columns, but in assembling their content into chapters focussing on various themes, there’s been a lot of cut and paste, if not literally at the level of words, at least in terms of ideas. There is value in seeing it all presented in one package, but be prepared to say, from time to time, “Haven’t I’ve read this before?”

That caveat lector aside, this is a brilliant analysis of the Trump phenomenon. Hanson argues persuasively that it is very unlikely any of the other Republican contenders for the nomination could have won the general election. None of them were talking about the issues which resonated with the erstwhile “Reagan Democrat” voters who put Trump over the top in the so-called “blue wall” states, and it is doubtful any of them would have ignored their Beltway consultants and campaigned vigorously in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania which were key to Trump’s victory. Given that the Republican defeat which would likely have been the result of a Bush (again?), Rubio, or Cruz candidacy would have put the Clinton crime family back in power and likely tipped the Supreme Court toward the slaver agenda for a generation, that alone should give pause to “never Trump” Republicans.

How will it all end? Nobody knows, but Hanson provides a variety of perspectives drawn from everything from the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s battle against the deep state to the archetype of the rough-edged outsider brought in to do what the more civilised can’t or won’t—the tragic hero from Greek drama to Hollywood westerns. What is certain is that none of what Trump is attempting, whether it ends in success or failure, would be happening if any of his primary opponents or the Democrat in the general election had prevailed.

I believe that Victor Davis Hanson is one of those rare people who have what I call the “Orwell gift”. Like George Orwell, he has the ability to look at the facts, evaluate them, and draw conclusions without any preconceived notions or filtering through an ideology. What is certain is that with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 the U.S. dodged a bullet. Whether that election will be seen as a turning point which reversed the decades-long slide toward tyranny by the administrative state, destruction of the middle class, replacement of the electorate by imported voters dependent upon the state, erosion of political and economic sovereignty in favour of undemocratic global governance, and the eventual financial and moral bankruptcy which are the inevitable result of all of these, or just a pause before the deluge, is yet to be seen. Hanson’s book is an excellent, dispassionate, well-reasoned, and thoroughly documented view of where things stand today.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Case for Trump. New York: Basic Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5416-7354-0.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author discussing the book.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Iron Orchard

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.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Iron Orchard’ accessible to new generation of readers

By MARK LARDAS

Jun 1,, 2019

“The Iron Orchard: A Novel,” by Tom Pendleton, Texas Christian University Press, 2019, 384 pages, $32.50

Jim McNeely is from the wrong side of the tracks. His father died when Jim was a child. Jim’s dark complexion leads classmates to nickname him a name matching that of Huck Finn’s raft companion.

“The Iron Orchard: A Novel,” by Tom Pendleton, follows Jim McNeely.

Jim is forced from his hometown after his high school graduation after daring to love a girl far above his status. The Depression is at its height. Possessing only his strength and native wit, Jim takes a job with Bison Oil, in barren Central Texas. The job is hard. Jim is a member of a drill crew. His team leader hates Jim, as does the gang’s top hand, a mountain of a man. The two are determined to drive Jim out of the company.

Jim has to succeed. Friends like Dent Paxton and Ort Cooley help Jim stick it out. Eventually, he becomes his gang’s top hand. A quick learner, he acquires skills to run a drilling outfit. He strikes out on his own, starting his own drilling company, becoming an independent wildcatter.

He acquires a wife, and a loyal team of employees. Through square dealing and hard work, he builds a reputation as a successful oilman, and achieves success undreamed of in youth. But his desire to succeed beyond his hometown’s imagining leads him on a pursuit of wealth causing him to betray his principles. Eventually, his empire collapses. Failure is followed by redemption, when Jim returns to his roots in drilling one final well.

“The Iron Orchard,” was originally published in 1966. “Tom Pendleton” is a pseudonym used by Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr., an oilman. Van Zandt wrote about what he knew. Over his career he was a roughneck, a Marine officer (in World War II), a lawyer, banker, and longtime employee of Gulf Oil Company. He wrote “The Iron Orchard” after retirement.

The 2019 republication of this minor classic coincides with the release of a movie version of the novel. Almost forgotten today, republication makes “The Iron Orchard” accessible to a new generation of readers. It is a timeless classic.

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: Planetary: Earth

“Planetary: Earth”, Dawn Witzke, ed.This is the fourth book in the publisher’s Planetary Anthology series. Each volume contain stories set on, or figuring in the plot, the named planet. Previous collections have featured Mercury, Venus, and Mars. This installment contains stories related in some way to Earth, although in several none of the action occurs on that planet.

Back the day (1930s through 1980s) monthly science fiction magazines were a major venue for the genre and the primary path for aspiring authors to break into print. Sold on newsstands for the price of a few comic books, they were the way generations of young readers (including this one) discovered the limitless universe of science fiction. A typical issue might contain five or six short stories, a longer piece (novella or novelette), and a multi-month serialisation of a novel, usually by an established author known to the readers. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune was serialised in two long runs in Analog in 1963 and 1965 before its hardcover publication in 1965. In addition, there were often book reviews, a column about science fact (Fantasy and Science Fiction published a monthly science column by Isaac Asimov which ran from 1958 until shortly before his death in 1992—a total of 399 in all), a lively letters to the editor section, and an editorial. All of the major science fiction monthlies welcomed unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors, and each issue was likely to contain one or two stories from the “slush pile” which the editor decided made the cut for the magazine. Most of the outstanding authors of the era broke into the field this way, and some editors such as John W. Campbell of Astounding (later Analog) invested much time and effort in mentoring promising talents and developing them into a reliable stable of writers to fill the pages of their magazines.

By the 1990s, monthly science fiction magazines were in decline, and the explosion of science fiction novel publication had reduced the market for short fiction. By the year 2000, only three remained in the U.S., and their circulations continued to erode. Various attempts to revive a medium for short fiction have been tried, including Web magazines. This collection is an example of another genre: the original anthology. While most anthologies published in book form in the heyday of the magazines had previously been published in the magazines (authors usually only sold the magazine “first North American serial rights” and retained the right to subsequently sell the story to the publisher of an anthology), original anthologies contain never-before-published stories, usually collected around a theme such as the planet Earth here.

I got this book (I say “got” as opposed to “bought” because the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and I “borrowed” it as one of the ten titles I can check out for reading at a given time) because it contained the short story, “The Hidden Conquest”, by Hans G. Schantz, author of the superb Hidden Truth series of novels (1, 2, 3) and Ratburger.org member, which was said to be a revealing prequel to the story in the books. It is, and it is excellent, although you probably won’t appreciate how much of a reveal it is unless you’ve read the books, especially 2018’s The Brave and the Bold.

The rest of the stories are…uneven: about what you’d expect from a science fiction magazine in the 1950s or ’60s. Some are gimmick stories, others are shoot-em-up action tales, while still others are just disappointing and probably should have remained in the slush pile or returned to their authors with a note attached to the rejection slip offering a few suggestions and encouragement to try again. Copy editing is sloppy, complete with a sprinkling of idiot “its/it’s” plus the obligatory “pulled hard on the reigns” “miniscule”, and take your “breathe” away.

But hey, if you got it from Kindle Unlimited, you can hardly say you didn’t get your money’s worth, and you’re perfectly free to borrow it, read the Hans Schantz story, and return it same day. I would not pay the US$4 to buy the Kindle edition outright, and fifteen bucks for a paperback is right out.

Witzke, Dawn, ed. Planetary: Earth. Narara, NSW, Australia: Superversive Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-925645-24-8.

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This Week’s Book Review – Painting War

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.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Painting War’ a fascinating, meticulously researched work

By MARK LARDAS

May 25, 2019

“Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II,” by Kathleen Broome Williams, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 312 pages, $29.95

George Plante was a commercial artist before World War II. From Scotland, he was in London illustrating advertisements when World War II started. He wanted to serve his country.

“Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II,” a biography by Kathleen Broome Williams, tells what happened next.

Plante discovers that the RAF, the Navy and even the Army were uninterested in him in the spring of 1940. A navy recruiter suggested Plante volunteer for service as a radio operator aboard merchant ships. Wartime requirement tripled the needed number of radio operators. Plante applied, went through training, and served from 1941 through 1943 as a radio operator in the North Atlantic.

It was the most dangerous period of the war to serve in the Merchant Marine. Plante’s ships, tankers, were twice torpedoed and sunk (the second sinking occurred while he was on leave awaiting the birth of a child). Plante spent his spare time between watches painting. His artwork came to the attention of the British Information Service. The BIS’s role was shaping American public opinion in Britain’s favor before American entry into World War II. The BIS wanted Plante’s artwork and Plante for propaganda purposes. The America-loving Plante made a great interview subject.

After Plante’s second tanker sank, Ian Fleming recruited Plante into the Political Warfare Executive. Plante finished the war in the Mediterranean illustrating propaganda leaflets and newsletters. The material was parachuted into the Balkans and Occupied Italy. Plante’s activities remained classified for years.

Once the war ended he returned to life as an adman, enjoying a successful career. He retired to the United States, settling in Hilton Head.

Kathleen Williams, a professional historian, was also Plante’s stepdaughter. She grew up entertained by her stepfather’s amusing stories of his wartime experiences, but in the universal manner of children, thought them just stories. After his death, realizing their significance, she set about writing a serious biography of his life. The result, “Painting War,” is both a fascinating and meticulously researched work. It also shows that sometimes the best history comes from the stories you grew up hearing.

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

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Saturday Night Science: The Case for Space

“The Case for Space” by Robert ZubrinFifty years ago, with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, it appeared that the road to the expansion of human activity from its cradle on Earth into the immensely larger arena of the solar system was open. The infrastructure built for Project Apollo, including that in the original 1963 development plan for the Merritt Island area could support Saturn V launches every two weeks. Equipped with nuclear-powered upper stages (under active development by Project NERVA, and accommodated in plans for a Nuclear Assembly Building near the Vehicle Assembly Building), the launchers and support facilities were more than adequate to support construction of a large space station in Earth orbit, a permanently-occupied base on the Moon, exploration of near-Earth asteroids, and manned landings on Mars in the 1980s.

But this was not to be. Those envisioning this optimistic future fundamentally misunderstood the motivation for Project Apollo. It was not about, and never was about, opening the space frontier. Instead, it was a battle for prestige in the Cold War and, once won (indeed, well before the Moon landing), the budget necessary to support such an extravagant program (which threw away skyscraper-sized rockets with every launch), began to evaporate. NASA was ready to do the Buck Rogers stuff, but Washington wasn’t about to come up with the bucks to pay for it. In 1965 and 1966, the NASA budget peaked at over 4% of all federal government spending. By calendar year 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it had already fallen to 2.31% of the federal budget, and with relatively small year to year variations, has settled at around one half of one percent of the federal budget in recent years. Apart from a small band of space enthusiasts, there is no public clamour for increasing NASA’s budget (which is consistently over-estimated by the public as a much larger fraction of federal spending than it actually receives), and there is no prospect for a political consensus emerging to fund an increase.

Further, there is no evidence that dramatically increasing NASA’s budget would actually accomplish anything toward the goal of expanding the human presence in space. While NASA has accomplished great things in its robotic exploration of the solar system and building space-based astronomical observatories, its human space flight operations have been sclerotic, risk-averse, loath to embrace new technologies, and seemingly more oriented toward spending vast sums of money in the districts and states of powerful representatives and senators than actually flying missions.

Fortunately, NASA is no longer the only game in town (if it can even be considered to still be in the human spaceflight game, having been unable to launch its own astronauts into space without buying seats from Russia since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011). In 2009, the commission headed by Norman Augustine recommended cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program, which aimed at a crewed Moon landing in 2020, because they estimated that the heavy-lift booster it envisioned (although based largely on decades-old Space Shuttle technology) would take twelve years and US$36 billion to develop under NASA’s business-as-usual policies; Constellation was cancelled in 2010 (although its heavy-lift booster, renamed. de-scoped, re-scoped, schedule-slipped, and cost-overrun, stumbles along, zombie-like, in the guise of the Space Launch System [SLS] which has, to date, consumed around US$14 billion in development costs without producing a single flight-ready rocket, and will probably cost between one and two billion dollars for each flight, every year or two—this farce will probably continue as long as Richard Shelby, the Alabama Senator who seems to believe NASA stands for “North Alabama Spending Agency”, remains in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body).

In February 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy booster, which has a payload capacity to low Earth orbit comparable to the initial version of the SLS, and was developed with private funds in half the time at one thirtieth the cost (so far) of NASA’s Big Rocket to Nowhere. Further, unlike the SLS, which on each flight will consign Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Boosters (which were designed to be reusable and re-flown many times on the Space Shuttle) to a watery grave in the Atlantic, three of the four components of the Falcon Heavy (excluding only its upper stage, with a single engine) are reusable and can be re-flown as many as ten times. Falcon Heavy customers will pay around US$90 million for a launch on the reusable version of the rocket, less than a tenth of what NASA estimates for an SLS flight, even after writing off its enormous development costs.

On the heels of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn orbital launcher, which will have comparable payload capacity and a fully reusable first stage. With competition on the horizon, SpaceX is developing the Super Heavy/Starship completely-reusable launcher with a payload of around 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit: more than any past or present rocket. A fully-reusable launcher with this capacity would also be capable of delivering cargo or passengers between any two points on Earth in less than an hour at a price to passengers no more than a first class ticket on a present-day subsonic airliner. The emergence of such a market could increase the demand for rocket flights from its current hundred or so per year to hundreds or thousands a day, like airline operations, with consequent price reductions due to economies of scale and moving all components of the transportation system down the technological learning curve.

Competition-driven decreases in launch cost, compounded by partially- or fully-reusable launchers, is already dramatically decreasing the cost of getting to space. A common metric of launch cost is the price to launch one kilogram into low Earth orbit. This remained stubbornly close to US$10,000/kg from the 1960s until the entry of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 into the market in 2010. Purely by the more efficient design and operations of a profit-driven private firm as opposed to a cost-plus government contractor, the first version of the Falcon 9 cut launch costs to around US$6,000/kg. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 (which costs around three times as much as the expendable second stage), this was cut by another factor of two, to US$3,000/kg. The much larger fully reusable Super Heavy/Starship is projected to reduce launch cost (if its entire payload capacity can be used on every flight, which probably isn’t the way to bet) to the vicinity of US$250/kg, and if the craft can be flown frequently, say once a day, as somebody or other envisioned more than a quarter century ago, amortising fixed costs over a much larger number of launches could reduce cost per kilogram by another factor of ten, to something like US$25/kg.

Such cost reductions are an epochal change in the space business. Ever since the first Earth satellites, launch costs have dominated the industry and driven all other aspects of spacecraft design. If you’re paying US$10,000 per kilogram to put your satellite in orbit, it makes sense to spend large sums of money not only on reducing its mass, but also making it extremely reliable, since launching a replacement would be so hideously expensive (and with flight rates so low, could result in a delay of a year or more before a launch opportunity became available). But with a hundred-fold or more reduction in launch cost and flights to orbit operating weekly or daily, satellites need no longer be built like precision watches, but rather industrial gear like that installed in telecom facilities on the ground. The entire cost structure is slashed across the board, and space becomes an arena accessible for a wide variety of commercial and industrial activities where its unique characteristics, such as access to free, uninterrupted solar power, high vacuum, and weightlessness are an advantage.

But if humanity is truly to expand beyond the Earth, launching satellites that go around and around the Earth providing services to those on its surface is just the start. People must begin to homestead in space: first hundreds, then thousands, and eventually millions and more living, working, building, raising families, with no more connection to the Earth than immigrants to the New World in the 1800s had to the old country in Europe or Asia. Where will they be living, and what will they be doing?

In order to think about the human future in the solar system, the first thing you need to do is recalibrate how you think about the Earth and its neighbours orbiting the Sun. Many people think of space as something like Antarctica: barren, difficult and expensive to reach, unforgiving, and while useful for some forms of scientific research, no place you’d want to set up industry or build communities where humans would spend their entire lives. But space is nothing like that. Ninety-nine percent or more of the matter and energy resources of the solar system—the raw material for human prosperity—are found not on the Earth, but rather elsewhere in the solar system, and they are free for the taking by whoever gets there first and figures out how to exploit them. Energy costs are a major input to most economic activity on the Earth, and wars are regularly fought over access to scarce energy resources on the home planet. But in space, at the distance Earth orbits the Sun, 1.36 kilowatts of free solar power are available for every square metre of collector you set up. And, unlike on the Earth’s surface, that power is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and will continue to flow for billions of years into the future.

Settling space will require using the resources available in space, not just energy but material. Trying to make a space-based economy work by launching everything from Earth is futile and foredoomed. Regardless of how much you reduce launch costs (even with exotic technologies which may not even be possible given the properties of materials, such as space elevators or launch loops), the vast majority of the mass needed by a space-based civilisation will be dumb bulk materials, not high-tech products such as microchips. Water; hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel (which are easily made from water using electricity from solar power); aluminium, titanium, and steel for structural components; glass and silicon; rocks and minerals for agriculture and bulk mass for radiation shielding; these will account for the overwhelming majority of the mass of any settlement in space, whether in Earth orbit, on the Moon or Mars, asteroid mining camps, or habitats in orbit around the Sun. People and low-mass, high-value added material such as electronics, scientific instruments, and the like will launch from the Earth, but their destinations will be built in space from materials found there.

Why? As with most things in space, it comes down to delta-v (pronounced delta-vee), the change in velocity needed to get from one location to another. This, not distance, determines the cost of transportation in space. The Earth’s mass creates a deep gravity well which requires around 9.8 km/sec of delta-v to get from the surface to low Earth orbit. It is providing this boost which makes launching payloads from the Earth so expensive. If you want to get to geostationary Earth orbit, where most communication satellites operate, you need another 3.8 km/sec, for a total of 13.6 km/sec launching from the Earth. By comparison, delivering a payload from the surface of the Moon to geostationary Earth orbit requires only 4 km/sec, which can be provided by a simple single-stage rocket. Delivering material from lunar orbit (placed there, for example, by a solar powered electromagnetic mass driver on the lunar surface) to geostationary orbit needs just 2.4 km/sec. Given that just about all of the materials from which geostationary satellites are built are available on the Moon (if you exploit free solar power to extract and refine them), it’s clear a mature spacefaring economy will not be launching them from the Earth, and will create large numbers of jobs on the Moon, in lunar orbit, and in ferrying cargos among various destinations in Earth-Moon space.

The author surveys the resources available on the Moon, Mars, near-Earth and main belt asteroids, and, looking farther into the future, the outer solar system where, once humans have mastered controlled nuclear fusion, sufficient Helium-3 is available for the taking to power a solar system wide human civilisation of trillions of people for billions of years and, eventually, the interstellar ships they will use to expand out into the galaxy. Detailed plans are presented for near-term human missions to the Moon and Mars, both achievable within the decade of the 2020s, which will begin the process of surveying the resources available there and building the infrastructure for permanent settlement. These mission plans, unlike those of NASA, do not rely on paper rockets which have yet to fly, costly expendable boosters, or detours to “gateways” and other diversions which seem a prime example of (to paraphrase the author in chapter 14), “doing things in order to spend money as opposed to spending money in order to do things.”

This is an optimistic and hopeful view of the future, one in which the human adventure which began when our ancestors left Africa to explore and settle the far reaches of their home planet continues outward into its neighbourhood around the Sun and eventually to the stars. In contrast to the grim Malthusian vision of mountebanks selling nostrums like a “Green New Deal”, which would have humans huddled on an increasingly crowded planet, shivering in the cold and dark when the Sun and wind did not cooperate, docile and bowed to their enlightened betters who instruct them how to reduce their expectations and hopes for the future again and again as they wait for the asteroid impact to put an end to their misery, Zubrin sketches millions of diverse human (and eventually post-human, evolving in different directions) societies, exploring and filling niches on a grand scale that dwarfs that of the Earth, inventing, building, experimenting, stumbling, and then creating ever greater things just as humans have for millennia. This is a future not just worth dreaming of, but working to make a reality. We have the enormous privilege of living in the time when, with imagination, courage, the willingness to take risks and to discard the poisonous doctrines of those who preach “sustainability” but whose policies always end in resource wars and genocide, we can actually make it happen and see the first steps taken in our lifetimes.

Zubrin, Robert. The Case for Space. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-63388-534-9.

Here is an interview with the author about the topics discussed in the book.

This is a one hour and forty-two minute interview (audio only) from “The Space Show” which explores the book in detail.  The audio gets much better after the pre-recorded introduction.

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Book Review: The Dawn of the Iron Dragon

“The Dawn of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThis is the second volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon. At the end of the first book, the crew of the Andrea Luhman stranded on Earth in the middle ages faced a seemingly impossible challenge. They, and their Viking allies, could save humanity from extinction in a war in the distant future only by building a space program capable of launching a craft into Earth orbit starting with an infrastructure based upon wooden ships and edged weapons. Further, given what these accidental time travellers, the first in history, had learned about the nature of travel to the past in their adventures to date, all of this must be done in the deepest secrecy and without altering the history to be written in the future. Recorded history, they discovered, cannot be changed, and hence any attempt to do something which would leave evidence of a medieval space program or intervention of advanced technology in the affairs of the time, would be doomed to failure. These constraints placed almost impossible demands upon what was already a formidable challenge.

From their ship’s computer, the exiled spacemen had a close approximation to all of human knowledge, so they were rich in bits. But when it came to it: materials, infrastructure, tools, sources of energy and motive power, and everything else, they had almost nothing. Even the simplest rocket capable of achieving Earth orbit has tens to hundreds of thousands of parts, most requiring precision manufacture, stringent control of material quality, and rigorous testing. Consider a humble machine screw. In the 9th century A.D. there weren’t any hardware stores. If you needed a screw, or ten thousand of them, to hold your rocket components together, you needed first to locate and mine the iron ore, then smelt the iron from the ore, refine it with high temperature and forced air (both of which require their own technologies, including machine screws) to achieve the desired carbon content, adding alloying metals such as nickel, chromium, cobalt, tungsten, and manganese, all of which have to be mined and refined first. Then the steel must be formed into the desired shape (requiring additional technologies), heat-treated, and then finally the threads must be cut into the blank, requiring machine tools made to sufficient precision that the screws will be interchangeable, with something to power the tools (all of which, of course, contain screws). And that’s just a screw. Thinking about a turbopump, regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, hydraulically-actuated gimbal mechanism, gyroscopes and accelerometers, or any of the myriad other components of even the simplest launcher are apt to induce despair.

But the spacemen were survivors, and they knew that the entire future of the human species, driven in the future they had come from to near-extinction by the relentless Cho-ta’an, depended upon their getting off the Earth and delivering the planet-busting weapon which might turn the tide for their descendants centuries hence. While they needed just about everything, what they needed most was minds: human brainpower and the skills flowing from it to find and process the materials to build the machines to build the machines to build the machines which, after a decades-long process of recapitulating centuries of human technological progress, would enable them to accomplish their ambitious yet utterly essential mission.

People in the 9th century were just as intelligent as those today, but in most of the world literacy was rare and even more scarce was the acquired intellectual skill of thinking logically, breaking down a problem into its constituent parts, and the mental flexibility to learn and apply mind tools, such as algebra, trigonometry, calculus, Newton’s and Kepler’s laws, and a host of others which had yet to be discovered. These rare people were to be found in the emerging cities, where learning and the embryos of what would become the great universities of the later Middle Ages were developing. And so missions were dispatched to Constantinople, the greatest of these cities, and other centres of learning and innovation, to recruit not the famous figures recorded in history (whose disappearance into a secret project was inconsistent with that history, and hence impossible), but their promising young followers. These cities were cosmopolitan crossroads, dangerous but also sufficiently diverse that a Viking longboat showing up with people who barely spoke any known language would not attract undue attention. But the rulers of these cities appreciated the value of their learned people, and trying to attract them was perilous and could lead to hazards and misadventures.

On top of all of these challenges, a Cho-ta’an ship had followed the Andrea Luhman through the hyperspace gate and whatever had caused them to be thrown back in time, and a small contingent of the aliens had made it to Earth, bent on stopping the spacemen’s getting off the planet at any cost. The situation was highly asymmetrical: while the spacemen had to accomplish a near-impossible task, the Cho-ta’an need only prevent them by any means possible. And being Cho-ta’an, if those means included loosing a doomsday plague to depopulate Europe, well, so be it. And the presence of the Cho-ta’an, wherever they might be hiding, redoubled the need for secrecy in every aspect of the Iron Dragon project.

Another contingent of the recruiting project finds itself in the much smaller West Francia city of Paris, just as Viking forces are massing for what history would record as the Siege of Paris in A.D. 885–886. In this epic raid, a force of tens of thousands (today estimated around 20,000, around half that claimed in the account by the monk Abbo Cernuus, who has been called “in a class of his own as an exaggerator”) of Vikings in hundreds (300, probably, 700 according to Abbo) laid siege to a city defended by just two hundred Parisian men-at-arms. In this account, the spacemen, with foreknowledge of how it was going to come out, provide invaluable advice to Count Odo of Paris and Gozlin, the “fighting Bishop” of Paris, in defending their city as it was simultaneously ravaged by a plague (wonder where that came from?), and in persuading King Charles (“the Fat”) to come to the relief of the city. The epic battle for Paris, which ended not in triumph but rather a shameful deal, was a turning point in the history of France. The efforts of the spacemen, while critical and perhaps decisive, remained consistent with written history, at least that written by Abbo, who they encouraged in his proclivity for exaggeration.

Meanwhile, back at the secret base in Iceland, chosen to stay out of the tangles of European politics and out of the way of their nemesis Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, local rivalries intrude upon the desired isolation. It appears another, perhaps disastrous, siege may be in the offing, putting the entire project at risk. And with all of this, one of those knock-you-off-your-feet calamities the author is so fond of throwing at his characters befalls them, forcing yet another redefinition of their project and a breathtaking increase in its ambition and complexity, just as they have to contemplate making new and perilous alliances simply to survive.

The second volume of a trilogy is often the most challenging to write. In the first, everything is new, and the reader gets to meet the characters, the setting, and the challenges to be faced in the story. In the conclusion, everything is pulled together into a satisfying resolution. But in that one in the middle, it’s mostly developing characters, plots, introducing new (often subordinate) characters, and generally moving things along—one risks readers’ regarding it as “filler”. In this book, the author artfully avoids that risk by making a little-known but epic battle the centrepiece of the story, along with intrigue, a thorny ethical dilemma, and multiple plot threads playing out from Iceland to North Africa to the Dardanelles. You absolutely should read the first volume, The Dream of the Iron Dragon, before starting this one—although there is a one page summary of that book at the start, it isn’t remotely adequate to bring you up to speed and avoid your repeatedly exclaiming “Who?”, “What?”, and “How?” as you enjoy this story.

When you finish this volume, the biggest question in your mind will probably be “How in the world is he going to wrap all of this up in just one more book?” The only way to find out is to pick up The Voyage of the Iron Dragon, which I will be reviewing here in due course. This saga (what else can you call an epic with Vikings and spaceships?) will be ranked among the very best of alternative history science fiction, and continues to demonstrate why independent science fiction is creating a new Golden Age for readers and rendering the legacy publishers of tedious “diversity” propaganda impotent and obsolete.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Kroese, Robert. The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7220-2331-7.

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This Week’s Book Review – Noir Fatale

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.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Noir Fatale’ a collection of short stories linked by the theme

By MARK LARDAS

May 18, 2019

“Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, Baen, 2019, $25

Cherchez la femme — look for the woman. The phrase defines one sub-genre of noir mystery fiction.

“Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, explore that sub-genre in science fiction and fantasy.

The book is an anthology, a collection of short stories linked by the theme. All are original, written for this collection. The authors are an all-star cast. Besides stories written by the two editors, Baen regulars David Weber, Griffin Barber, Sarah Hoyt, Mike Massa, and Robert Buettner contributed, as did Steve Diamond, Laurell Kaye Hamilton, Alistair Kimble, Patrick M. Tracy, Christopher L. Smith and Michael Ferguson. Hickley Correia, Larry Correia’s daughter kicks in a story too. Its quality testifies to heredity rather than nepotism justifying its inclusion. It’s a marvelous short piece set in Tokyo incorporating Japanese mythology.

Marvelous is a good word to describe all of the stories in the book. They’re split between science fiction and fantasy. Even within those categories the stories are diverse. There’s hard science fiction (in one story literally vacuum-hard), alternate history, and space opera. Fantasy includes urban fantasy, classic fantasy, and mixtures in between.

Weber’s story is set in his Honorverse, during the time of the People’s Republic of Haven. Larry Correia adds a story to his Hard Magic setting.

A broad range of story styles is presented, too. Some, such as Smith and Ferguson’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Kimble’s “A String of Pearls, and Hoyt’s “Honey Fall” are classic noir, whether set in the 1930s through 1950s or set in the far future. Others are like Barber’s “A Women in Red” and Tracy’s “Worth the Scars of Dying” are dark fantasy tales. World War II forms the setting for Massa’s “Three Kates” is equally dark.

Yet there are delightfully light tales in the mix as well. These include Hamilton’s urban fantasy “Sweet Seduction,” and Buettner’s “The Frost Queen” an unexpected love story.

“Noir Fatale” is a book that will charm both noir fans, and general science fiction and fantasy readers. Correia and Ezell have created a captivating mix of stories.

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: Churchill: Walking with Destiny

“Churchill” by Andrew RobertsAt the point that Andrew Roberts sat down to write a new biography of Winston Churchill, there were a total of 1009 biographies of the man in print, examining every aspect of his life from a multitude of viewpoints. Works include the encyclopedic three-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid, and Roy Jenkins’ single-volume Churchill: A Biography, which concentrates on Churchill’s political career. Such books may seem to many readers to say just about everything about Churchill there is to be said from the abundant documentation available for his life. What could a new biography possibly add to the story?

As the author demonstrates in this magnificent and weighty book (1152 pages, 982 of main text), a great deal. Earlier Churchill biographers laboured under the constraint that many of Churchill’s papers from World War II and the postwar era remained under the seal of official secrecy. These included the extensive notes taken by King George VI during his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister during the war and recorded in his personal diary. The classified documents were made public only fifty years after the end of the war, and the King’s wartime diaries were made available to the author by special permission granted by the King’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The royal diaries are an invaluable source on Churchill’s candid thinking as the war progressed. As a firm believer in constitutional monarchy, Churchill withheld nothing in his discussions with the King. Even the deepest secrets, such as the breaking of the German codes, the information obtained from decrypted messages, and atomic secrets, which were shared with only a few of the most senior and trusted government officials, were discussed in detail with the King. Further, while Churchill was constantly on stage trying to hold the Grand Alliance together, encourage Britons to stay in the fight, and advance his geopolitical goals which were often at variance with even the Americans, with the King he was brutally honest about Britain’s situation and what he was trying to accomplish. Oddly, perhaps the best insight into Churchill’s mind as the war progressed comes not from his own six-volume history of the war, but rather the pen of the King, writing only to himself. In addition, sources such as verbatim notes of the war cabinet, diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. during the 1930s through the war, and other recently-disclosed sources resulted in, as the author describes it, there being something new on almost every page.

The biography is written in an entirely conventional manner: the author eschews fancy stylistic tricks in favour of an almost purely chronological recounting of Churchill’s life, flipping back and forth from personal life, British politics, the world stage and Churchill’s part in the events of both the Great War and World War II, and his career as an author and shaper of opinion.

Winston Churchill was an English aristocrat, but not a member of the nobility. A direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As only the first son inherits the title, although Randolph bore the honorific “Lord”, he was a commoner and his children, including first-born Winston, received no title. Lord Randolph was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, the year of Winston’s birth, and would serve until his death in 1895, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India. His death, aged just forty-five (rumoured at the time to be from syphilis, but now attributed to a brain tumour, as his other symptoms were inconsistent with syphilis), along with the premature deaths of three aunts and uncles at early ages, convinced the young Winston his own life might be short and that if he wanted to accomplish great things, he had no time to waste.

In terms of his subsequent career, his father’s early death might have been an unappreciated turning point in Winston Churchill’s life. Had his father retired from the House of Commons prior to his death, he would almost certainly have been granted a peerage in return for his long service. When he subsequently died, Winston, as eldest son, would have inherited the title and hence not been entitled to serve in the House of Commons. It is thus likely that had his father not died while still an MP, the son would never have had the political career he did nor have become prime minister in 1940.

Young, from a distinguished family, wealthy (by the standards of the average Briton, but not compared to the landed aristocracy or titans of industry and finance), ambitious, and seeking novelty and adventures to the point of recklessness, the young Churchill believed he was meant to accomplish great things in however many years Providence might grant him on Earth. In 1891, at the age of just 16, he confided to a friend,

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world, great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … This country will be subjected, somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.

He was, thus, from an early age, not one likely to be daunted by the challenges he assumed when, almost five decades later at an age (66) when many of his contemporaries retired, he faced a situation uncannily similar to that he imagined in boyhood.

Churchill’s formal education ended at age 20 with his graduation from the military academy at Sandhurst and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the cavalry. A voracious reader, he educated himself in history, science, politics, philosophy, literature, and the classics, while ever expanding his mastery of the English language, both written and spoken. Seeking action, and finding no war in which he could participate as a British officer, he managed to persuade a London newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent and set off to cover an insurrection in Cuba against its Spanish rulers. His dispatches were well received, earning five guineas per article, and he continued to file dispatches as a war correspondent even while on active duty with British forces. By 1901, he was the highest-paid war correspondent in the world, having earned the equivalent of £1 million today from his columns, books, and lectures.

He subsequently saw action in India and the Sudan, participating in the last great cavalry charge of the British army in the Battle of Omdurman, which he described along with the rest of the Mahdist War in his book, The River War. In October 1899, funded by the Morning Post, he set out for South Africa to cover the Second Boer War. Covering the conflict, he was taken prisoner and held in a camp until, in December 1899, he escaped and crossed 300 miles of enemy territory to reach Portugese East Africa. He later returned to South Africa as a cavalry lieutenant, participating in the Siege of Ladysmith and capture of Pretoria, continuing to file dispatches with the Morning Post which were later collected into a book.

Upon his return to Britain, Churchill found that his wartime exploits and writing had made him a celebrity. Eleven Conservative associations approached him to run for Parliament, and he chose to run in Oldham, narrowly winning. His victory was part of a massive landslide by the Unionist coalition, which won 402 seats versus 268 for the opposition. As the author notes,

Before the new MP had even taken his seat, he had fought in four wars, published five books,… written 215 newspaper and magazine articles, participated in the greatest cavalry charge in half a century and made a spectacular escape from prison.

This was not a man likely to disappear into the mass of back-benchers and not rock the boat.

Churchill’s views on specific issues over his long career defy those who seek to put him in one ideological box or another, either to cite him in favour of their views or vilify him as an enemy of all that is (now considered) right and proper. For example, Churchill was often denounced as a bloodthirsty warmonger, but in 1901, in just his second speech in the House of Commons, he rose to oppose a bill proposed by the Secretary of War, a member of his own party, which would have expanded the army by 50%. He argued,

A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community. … A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.

Bear in mind, this was a full thirteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, which many politicians and military men expected to be short, decisive, and affordable in blood and treasure.

Churchill, the resolute opponent of Bolshevism, who coined the term “Cold War”, was the same person who said, after Stalin’s annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939, “In essence, the Soviet’s Government’s latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler’s potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system than the German one.”

Churchill, the champion of free trade and free markets, was also the one who said, in March 1943,

You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave. … [Everyone must work] whether they come from the ancient aristocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler. … We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.

And yet, just two years later, contesting the first parliamentary elections after victory in Europe, he argued,

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

Among all of the apparent contradictions and twists and turns of policy and politics there were three great invariant principles guiding Churchill’s every action. He believed that the British Empire was the greatest force for civilisation, peace, and prosperity in the world. He opposed tyranny in all of its manifestations and believed it must not be allowed to consolidate its power. And he believed in the wisdom of the people expressed through the democratic institutions of parliamentary government within a constitutional monarchy, even when the people rejected him and the policies he advocated.

Today, there is an almost reflexive cringe among bien pensants at any intimation that colonialism might have been a good thing, both for the colonial power and its colonies. In a paragraph drafted with such dry irony it might go right past some readers, and reminiscent of the “What have the Romans done for us?” scene in Life of Brian, the author notes,

Today, of course, we know imperialism and colonialism to be evil and exploitative concepts, but Churchill’s first-hand experience of the British Raj did not strike him that way. He admired the way the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history, as well as railways, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, the possibilities for extensive international trade, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, an uncorrupt legal system, medical advances, anti-famine coordination, the English language as the first national lingua franca, telegraphic communication and military protection from the Russian, French, Afghan, Afridi and other outside threats, while also abolishing suttee (the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres), thugee (the ritualized murder of travellers) and other abuses. For Churchill this was not the sinister and paternalist oppression we now know it to have been.

This is a splendid in-depth treatment of the life, times, and contemporaries of Winston Churchill, drawing upon a multitude of sources, some never before available to any biographer. The author does not attempt to persuade you of any particular view of Churchill’s career. Here you see his many blunders (some tragic and costly) as well as the triumphs and prescient insights which made him a voice in the wilderness when so many others were stumbling blindly toward calamity. The very magnitude of Churchill’s work and accomplishments would intimidate many would-be biographers: as a writer and orator he published thirty-seven books totalling 6.1 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens put together) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1953, plus another five million words of public speeches. Even professional historians might balk at taking on a figure who, as a historian alone, had, at the time of his death, sold more history books than any historian who ever lived.

Andrew Roberts steps up to this challenge and delivers a work which makes a major contribution to understanding Churchill and will almost certainly become the starting point for those wishing to explore the life of this complicated figure whose life and works are deeply intertwined with the history of the twentieth century and whose legacy shaped the world in which we live today. This is far from a dry historical narrative: Churchill was a master of verbal repartee and story-telling, and there are a multitude of examples, many of which will have you laughing out loud at his wit and wisdom.

Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking, 2018. ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about Churchill and this biography.

This is a lecture by Andrew Roberts on “The Importance of Churchill for Today” at Hillsdale College in March, 2019.

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Kindle Deal: The Marcos Dynasty

The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos 

Like the typical American, I knew little of the ruling Filipino pair except some breathless news items years ago about Imelda’s scandalous shoe collection, and fragments about the couple’s downfall. When I saw this book for sale for less than two dollars, I wondered whether I wanted to take my historical knowledge in this direction. Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about the Philippines, carrying with me some childhood impressions of English-speaking Filipinos in Thailand and recent understanding that the Spanish had somehow been tied up with the country. But a sincere Amazon review said that the writer was very good, so I decided I could risk two dollars on this.

Sterling Seagrave is an outstanding story teller. However, be prepared, because he a curmudgeon extraordinaire. Reading his work is like sitting across the table from a wry, cynical man who nonetheless is intent on delivering his eloquent narrative. The story pours forth from him, and no player in it comes out looking good. Seagrave is brutal, not just on the Marcos couple, as the title suggests, but on the Americans, the workings of American and Filipino political systems, and on MacArthur. If Seagrave is right, MacArthur might just be the most avaricious, ambitious actor in the whole story.

I am not quite a third of the way through what turns out to be a thick volume, but I have already encountered a great deal of history that I never knew. I’m taking the author’s perspective with some skepticism–not only because he’s harsh toward Americans while fair-minded, even sympathetic, toward the Japanese–but also because he does not reject conspiratorial-flavored stories to explain events. Since he doesn’t provide documentation, I don’t know what his sources are. On the other hand, he is so fluent in layers of historical detail, and such an able communicator, that I gamely go with him in his exploration.

He is possibly too detailed in his approach to the era, so we take some historical side trips into events such as Japanese treasure-hoarding, another phenomenon that was new to me. However, I can’t say that any of this is dull. The side details are what I come for in these historical works–there are always startling bits of background information that recreate my understanding of history. This volume does not disappoint in that respect. I have to admit that before I read this, I had no idea that the US wrested the Philippines from Spain and then managed the islands in a manner not unlike a colonial possession.

If Seagrave is right, the US didn’t help much with the level of corruption from the ruling class–in fact, US political dealing complicated matters that were already negative. There was a landed, privileged class indirectly left over from Spanish rule (it’s complicated, and included Chinese clans) and underhanded ways of getting things done, with leading families who got by on their connections. There were also criminal bosses who liked to run affairs their way. After World War II, money and power continued to drive politics. War time plunder did nothing to help this dynamic, and individuals could win for themselves ridiculous accumulations of wealth. All along, according to Seagrave, the US pursued a dishonest and self-seeking political agenda. And far from the brave hero we learned about in our history books, Douglas MacArthur ambitiously sought wealth and position to the detriment of the country, while maintaining excellent PR staff.

It was from this milieu that Ferdinand and Imelda emerged. The author follows the couple as they were shaped by historical events, Ferdinand involving himself in a number of dubious endeavors in World War II that he later characterized as unlikely heroic feats. Already, only partway into the book, the identity of this couple and their trajectory of wealth accumulation, self-glorification, corruption, and ruin is becoming clear.

I recently talked to an acquaintance who settled here from the Philippines, thinking that her outlook would be along the lines of this book. Did our country take political advantage of hers? Was MacArthur a scoundrel? Was the Philippines best left independent after the Spanish? But no–she said that she had grown up with a positive view of the United States. MacArthur was a hero. The US was a place they could dream of moving to for a better life. Our country was a friend. Perhaps we are, in the long view. But when studied under a magnifying glass, history is always messier than what we first learned.

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This Week’s Book Review – A Most Dangerous Innocence

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.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘A Most Dangerous Innocence’ a coming of age novel

By MARK LARDAS

May 12, 2019

“A Most Dangerous Innocence,” by Fiorella de Maria, Ignatius Press, 2019, 220 pages, $15.95

Judy Randall is the type of student to madden an educator. She’s smart (especially in mathematics) and creative. She’s also obsessive about her interests, uninterested in conforming, and determinedly goes her own way.

Judy is the central character of “A Most Dangerous Innocence,” by Fiorella de Maria. The novel is set in autumn 1939. Sixteen-year-old Judy is a student at Mulwith, an isolated Catholic girls’ boarding school on England’s Channel Coast.

World War II has begun. Judy wants to remain in London to help fight the Nazis. At 16, with her father’s permission, Judy could do war work. Her father wants Judy out of London where she will be safe. He’s sending her back to Mulwith to finish her education.

Judy’s opposition to the Nazi’s is steadfast, almost obsessive. Judy had a Jewish grandmother. While Judy is Catholic, by the Nazi racial laws, one Jewish grandparent makes you Jewish, regardless of religion. As Judy points out to her father, if she were in Germany or newly conquered Poland, Judy would have to wear a yellow Star of David.

Judy is considered a troublemaker at Mulwith, especially by the headmistress Miss Miller. Miller is as obsessive about conformity as Judy is about her own interests. Miller views Judy as disobedient and insolent. Miller is also anti-Semitic (she owns a copy of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) and opposed to war with Germany.

Judy’s semester begins badly. Miller privately directs Judy to lose the footrace in the school games. Judy ignores Miller, winning the race. Thereafter, Judy decides Miller is out to get her. Judy also decides Miller is a Nazi spy and begins seeking proof of her thesis. Thing begin going very wrong.

Judy allies among the staff include the Petersons, husband-and-wife instructors, and the new mathematic instructor Harry Forbes. Yet, they find sheltering Judy from her follies more and more difficult.

With “A Most Dangerous Innocence” de Maria has written a marvelous and absorbing coming of age novel. De Maria’s portrait of Judy, on the cusp of becoming an adult in a difficult time, is engaging.

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: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves

“Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves” by Fenton WoodThis is an utterly charming short novel (or novella: it is just 123 pages) which, on the surface, reads like a young adult adventure from the golden age, along the lines of the original Tom Swift or Hardy Boys series. But as you get deeper into the story, you discover clues there is much more going on than you first suspected, and that this may be the beginning of a wonderful exploration of an alternative reality which is a delight to visit and you may wish were your home.

Philo Hergenschmidt, Randall Quinn, and their young friends live in Porterville, deep in the mountain country of the Yankee Republic. The mountains that surround it stopped the glaciers when they came down from the North a hundred thousand years ago, and provided a refuge for the peace-loving, self-sufficient, resourceful, and ornery people who fled the wars. Many years later, they retain those properties, and most young people are members of the Survival Scouts, whose eight hundred page Handbook contains every thing a mountain man needs to know to survive and prosper under any circumstances.

Porterville is just five hundred miles from the capital of Iburakon, but might as well be on a different planet. Although the Yankee Republic’s technology is in many ways comparable to our own, the mountains shield Porterville from television and FM radio broadcasts and, although many families own cars with radios installed by default, the only thing they can pick up is a few scratchy AM stations from far away when the skywave opens up at night. Every summer, Randall spends two weeks with his grandparents in Iburakon and comes back with tales of wonders which enthrall his friends like an explorer of yore returned from Shangri-La. (Randall is celebrated as a raconteur—and some of his tales may be true.) This year he told of the marvel of television and a science fiction series called Xenotopia, and for weeks the boys re-enacted battles from his descriptions. Broadcasting: that got Philo thinking….

One day Philo calls up Randall and asks him to dig out an old radio he recalled him having and tune it to the usually dead FM band. Randall does, and is astonished to hear Philo broadcasting on “Station X” with amusing patter. It turns out he found a book in the attic, 101 Radio Projects for Boys, written by a creative and somewhat subversive author, and following the directions, put together a half watt FM transmitter from scrounged spare parts. Philo briefs Randall on pirate radio stations: although the penalties for operating without a license appear severe, in fact, unless you willingly interfere with a licensed broadcaster, you just get a warning the first time and a wrist-slap ticket thereafter unless you persist too long.

This gets them both thinking…. With the help of adults willing to encourage youth in their (undisclosed) projects, or just to look the other way (the kids of Porterville live free-range lives, as I did in my childhood, as their elders have not seen fit to import the vibrant diversity into their community which causes present-day youth to live under security lock-down), and a series of adventures, radio station 9X9 goes on the air, announced with great fanfare in handbills posted around the town. Suddenly, there is something to listen to, and people start tuning in. Local talent tries their hands at being a DJ, and favourites emerge. Merchants start to sign up for advertisements. Church services are broadcast for shut-ins. Even though no telephone line runs anywhere near the remote and secret studio, ingenuity and some nineteenth-century technology allow them to stage a hit call-in show. And before long, live talent gets into the act. A big baseball game provides both a huge opportunity and a seemingly insurmountable challenge until the boys invent an art which, in our universe, was once masterfully performed by a young Ronald Reagan.

Along the way, we learn of the Yankee Republic in brief, sometimes jarring, strokes of the pen, as the author masterfully follows the science fiction principle of “show, don’t tell”.

Just imagine if William the Bastard had succeeded in conquering England. We’d probably be speaking some unholy crossbreed of French and English….

The Republic is the only country in the world that recognizes allodial title,….

When Congress declares war, they have to elect one of their own to be a sacrificial victim,….

“There was a man from the state capitol who wanted to give us government funding to build what he called a ‘proper’ school, but he was run out of town, the poor dear.”

Pirates, of course, must always keenly scan the horizon for those who might want to put an end to the fun. And so it is for buccaneers sailing the Hertzian waves. You’ll enjoy every minute getting to the point where you find out how it ends. And then, when you think it’s all over, another door opens into a wider, and weirder, world in which we may expect further adventures. The second volume in the series, Five Million Watts, was published in April, 2019.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is very inexpensive.
Wood, Fenton. Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2018. ASIN B07H2RJK8J.
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