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 She died in 1974, leaving a manuscript copy of her memoirs, which remained unpublished until this century.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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Saturday Night Science: At Our Wits’ End

“At Our Wits' End” by Edward Dutton and Michael Woodley of MenieDuring the Great Depression, the Empire State Building was built, from the beginning of foundation excavation to official opening, in 410 days (less than 14 months). After the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, design and construction of its replacement, the new One World Trade Center was completed on November 3, 2014, 4801 days (160 months) later.

In the 1960s, from U.S. president Kennedy’s proposal of a manned lunar mission to the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, 2978 days (almost 100 months) elapsed. In January, 2004, U.S. president Bush announced the “Vision for Space Exploration”, aimed at a human return to the lunar surface by 2020. After a comical series of studies, revisions, cancellations, de-scopings, redesigns, schedule slips, and cost overruns, its successor now plans to launch a lunar flyby mission (not even a lunar orbit like Apollo 8) in June 2022, 224 months later. A lunar landing is planned for no sooner than 2028, almost 300 months after the “vision”, and almost nobody believes that date (the landing craft design has not yet begun, and there is no funding for it in the budget).

Wherever you look: junk science, universities corrupted with bogus “studies” departments, politicians peddling discredited nostrums a moment’s critical thinking reveals to be folly, an economy built upon an ever-increasing tower of debt that nobody really believes is ever going to be paid off, and the dearth of major, genuine innovations (as opposed to incremental refinement of existing technologies, as has driven the computing, communications, and information technology industries) in every field: science, technology, public policy, and the arts, it often seems like the world is getting dumber. What if it really is?

That is the thesis explored by this insightful book, which is packed with enough “hate facts” to detonate the head of any bien pensant academic or politician. I define a “hate fact” as something which is indisputably true, well-documented by evidence in the literature, which has not been contradicted, but the citation of which is considered “hateful” and can unleash outrage mobs upon anyone so foolish as to utter the fact in public and be a career-limiting move for those employed in Social Justice Warrior-converged organisations. (An example of a hate fact, unrelated to the topic of this book, is the FBI violent crime statistics broken down by the race of the criminal and victim. Nobody disputes the accuracy of this information or the methodology by which it is collected, but woe betide anyone so foolish as to cite the data or draw the obvious conclusions from it.)

In April 2004 I made my own foray into the question of declining intelligence in “Global IQ: 1950–2050” in which I combined estimates of the mean IQ of countries with census data and forecasts of population growth to estimate global mean IQ for a century starting at 1950. Assuming the mean IQ of countries remains constant (which is optimistic, since part of the population growth in high IQ countries with low fertility rates is due to migration from countries with lower IQ), I found that global mean IQ, which was 91.64 for a population of 2.55 billion in 1950, declined to 89.20 for the 6.07 billion alive in 2000, and was expected to fall to 86.32 for the 9.06 billion population forecast for 2050. This is mostly due to the explosive population growth forecast for Sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the populations with low IQ reside.

World population by continent: 1950–2100

This is a particularly dismaying prospect, because there is no evidence for sustained consensual self-government in nations with a mean IQ less than 90.

But while I was examining global trends assuming national IQ remains constant, in the present book the authors explore the provocative question of whether the population of today’s developed nations is becoming dumber due to the inexorable action of natural selection on whatever genes determine intelligence. The argument is relatively simple, but based upon a number of pillars, each of which is a “hate fact”, although non-controversial among those who study these matters in detail.

  1. There is a factor, “general intelligence” or g, which measures the ability to solve a wide variety of mental problems, and this factor, measured by IQ tests, is largely stable across an individual’s life.
  2. Intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is, like height, in part heritable. The heritability of IQ is estimated at around 80%, which means that 80% of children’s IQ can be estimated from that of their parents, and 20% is due to other factors.
  3. IQ correlates positively with factors contributing to success in society. The correlation with performance in education is 0.7, with highest educational level completed 0.5, and with salary 0.3.
  4. In Europe, between 1400 and around 1850, the wealthier half of the population had more children who survived to adulthood than the poorer half.
  5. Because IQ correlates with social success, that portion of the population which was more intelligent produced more offspring.
  6. Just as in selective breeding of animals by selecting those with a desired trait for mating, this resulted in a population whose average IQ increased (slowly) from generation to generation over this half-millennium.

The gradually rising IQ of the population resulted in a growing standard of living as knowledge and inventions accumulated due to the efforts of those with greater intelligence over time. In particular, even a relatively small increase in the mean IQ of a population makes an enormous difference in the tiny fraction of people with “genius level” IQ who are responsible for many of the significant breakthroughs in all forms of human intellectual endeavour. If we consider an IQ of 145 as genius level, in a population of a million with a mean IQ of 100, one in 741 people will have an IQ of 145 or above, so there will be around 1350 people with such an IQ. But if the population’s mean IQ is 95, just five points lower, only one in 2331 people will have a genius level IQ, and there will be just 429 potential geniuses in the population of a million. In a population of a million with a mean IQ of 90, there will be just 123 potential geniuses.

(Some technical details are in order. A high IQ [generally 125 or above] appears to be a necessary condition for genius-level achievement, but it is insufficient by itself. Those who produce feats of genius usually combine high intelligence with persistence, ambition, often a single-minded focus on a task, and usually require an environment which allows them to acquire the knowledge and intellectual tools required to apply their talent. But since a high IQ is a requirement, the mean IQ determines what fraction of the population are potential geniuses; other factors such as the society’s educational institutions, resources such as libraries, and wealth which allows some people to concentrate on intellectual endeavours instead of manual labour, contribute to how many actual works of genius will be produced. The mean IQ of most Western industrial nations is around 100, and the standard deviation of IQ is normalised to be 15. Using this information you can perform calculations such as those in the previous paragraph using Fourmilab’s z Score Calculator, as explained in my Introduction to Probability and Statistics.)

Of the pillars of the argument listed above, items 1 through 3 are noncontroversial except by those who deny the existence of general intelligence entirely or the ability of IQ tests to measure it. The authors present the large body of highly persuasive evidence in favour of those items in a form accessible to the non-specialist. If you reject that evidence, then you needn’t consider the rest of the argument.

Item 4, the assertion that wealthier families had more children survive to adulthood, is substantiated by a variety of research, much of it done in England, where recorded wills and church records of baptisms and deaths provide centuries of demographic data. One study, for example, examining wills filed between 1585 and 1638 in Suffolk and Essex found that the richer half of estates (determined by the bequests in the wills) had almost twice as many children named in wills compared to the poorer half. An investigation of records in Norfolk covering the years 1500 to 1630 found an average of four children for middle class families as opposed to two for the lower class. Another, covering Saxony in Germany between 1547 and 1671, found the middle class had an average of 3.4 children who survived to become married, while the working class had just 1.6. This differential fertility seems, in conjunction with item 5, the known correlation between intelligence and social success, to make plausible that a process of selection for intelligence was going on, and probably had been for centuries. (Records are sparse before the 17th century, so detailed research for that period is difficult.)

Another form of selection got underway as the middle ages gave way to the early modern period around the year 1500 in Europe. While in medieval times criminals were rarely executed due to opposition by the Church, by the early modern era almost all felonies received the death penalty. This had the effect of “culling the herd” of its most violent members who, being predominantly young, male, and of low intelligence, would often be removed from the breeding population before fathering any children. To the extent that the propensity to violent crime is heritable (which seems plausible, as almost all human characteristics are heritable to one degree or another), this would have “domesticated” the European human population and contributed to the well-documented dramatic drop in the murder rate in this period. It would have also selected out those of low intelligence, who are prone to violent crime. Further, in England, there was a provision called “Benefit of Clergy” where those who could demonstrate literacy could escape the hangman. This was another selection for intelligence.

If intelligence was gradually increasing in Europe from the middle ages through the time of the Industrial Revolution, can we find evidence of this in history? Obviously, we don’t have IQ tests from that period, but there are other suggestive indications. Intelligent people have lower time preference: they are willing to defer immediate gratification for a reward in the future. The rate of interest on borrowed money is a measure of a society’s overall time preference. Data covering the period from 1150 through 1950 found that interest rates had declined over the entire time, from over 10% in the year 1200 to around 5% in the 1800s. This is consistent with an increase in intelligence.

Literacy correlates with intelligence, and records from marriage registers and court documents show continually growing literacy from 1580 through 1920. In the latter part of this period, the introduction of government schools contributed to much of the increase, but in early years it may reflect growing intelligence.

A population with growing intelligence should produce more geniuses who make contributions which are recorded in history. In a 2005 study, American physicist Jonathan Huebner compiled a list of 8,583 significant events in the history of science and technology from the Stone Age through 2004. He found that, after adjusting for the total population of the time, the rate of innovation per capita had quadrupled between 1450 and 1870. Independently, Charles Murray’s 2003 book Human Accomplishment found that the rate of innovation and the appearance of the figures who created them increased from the Middle Ages through the 1870s.

The authors contend that a growing population with increasing mean intelligence eventually reached a critical mass which led to the industrial revolution, due to a sufficiently large number of genius intellects alive at the same time and an intelligent workforce who could perform the jobs needed to build and operate the new machines. This created unprecedented prosperity and dramatically increased the standard of living throughout the society.

And then an interesting thing happened. It’s called the “demographic transition”, and it’s been observed in country after country as it develops from a rural, agrarian economy to an urban, industrial society. Pre-industrial societies are characterised by a high birth rate, a high rate of infant and childhood mortality, and a stable or very slowly growing population. Families have many children in the hope of having a few survive to adulthood to care for them in old age and pass on their parents’ genes. It is in this phase that the intense selection pressure obtains: the better-off and presumably more intelligent parents will have more children survive to adulthood.

Once industrialisation begins, it is usually accompanied by public health measures, better sanitation, improved access to medical care, and the introduction of innovations such as vaccination, antiseptics, and surgery with anæsthesia. This results in a dramatic fall in the mortality rate for the young, larger families, and an immediate bulge in the population. As social welfare benefits are extended to reach the poor through benefits from employers, charity, or government services, this occurs more broadly across social classes, reducing the disparity in family sizes among the rich and poor.

Eventually, parents begin to see the advantage of smaller families now that they can be confident their offspring have a high probability of surviving to adulthood. This is particularly the case for the better-off, as they realise their progeny will gain an advantage by splitting their inheritance fewer ways and in receiving the better education a family can afford for fewer children. This results in a decline in the birth rate, which eventually reaches the replacement rate (or below), where it comes into line with the death rate.

But what does this do to the selection for intelligence from which humans have been benefitting for centuries? It ends it, and eventually puts it into reverse. In country after country, the better educated and well-off (both correlates of intelligence) have fewer children than the less intelligent. This is easy to understand: in the prime child-bearing years they tend to be occupied with their education and starting a career. They marry later, have children (if at all) at an older age, and due to the female biological clock, have fewer kids even if they desire more. They also use contraception to plan their families and tend to defer having children until the “right time”, which sometimes never comes.

Meanwhile, the less intelligent, who in the modern welfare state are often clients on the public dole, who have less impulse control, high time preference, and when they use contraception often do so improperly resulting in unplanned pregnancies, have more children. They start earlier, don’t bother with getting married (as the stigma of single motherhood has largely been eliminated), and rely upon the state to feed, house, educate, and eventually imprison their progeny. This sad reality was hilariously mocked in the introduction to the 2006 film Idiocracy.

While this makes for a funny movie, if the population is really getting dumber, it will have profound implications for the future. There will not just be a falling general level of intelligence but far fewer of the genius-level intellects who drive innovation in science, the arts, and the economy. Further, societies which reach the point where this decline sets in well before others that have industrialised more recently will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage across the board. (U.S. and Europe, I’m talking about China, Korea, and [to a lesser extent] Japan.)

If you’ve followed the intelligence issue, about now you probably have steam coming out your ears waiting to ask, “But what about the Flynn effect?” IQ tests are usually “normed” to preserve the same mean and standard deviation (100 and 15 in the U.S. and Britain) over the years. James Flynn discovered that, in fact, measured by standardised tests which were not re-normed, measured IQ had rapidly increased in the 20th century in many countries around the world. The increases were sometimes breathtaking: on the standardised Raven’s Progressive Matrices test (a nonverbal test considered to have little cultural bias), the scores of British schoolchildren increased by 14 IQ points—almost a full standard deviation—between 1942 and 2008. In the U.S., IQ scores seemed to be rising by around three points per decade, which would imply that people a hundred years ago were two standard deviations more stupid that those today, at the threshold of retardation. The slightest grasp of history (which, sadly many people today lack) will show how absurd such a supposition is.

What’s going on, then? The authors join James Flynn in concluding that what we’re seeing is an increase in the population’s proficiency in taking IQ tests, not an actual increase in general intelligence (g). Over time, children are exposed to more and more standardised tests and tasks which require the skills tested by IQ tests and, if practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes better, and with more exposure to media of all kinds, skills of memorisation, manipulation of symbols, and spatial perception will increase. These are correlates of g which IQ tests measure, but what we’re seeing may be specific skills which do not correlate with g itself. If this be the case, then eventually we should see the overall decline in general intelligence overtake the Flynn effect and result in a downturn in IQ scores. And this is precisely what appears to be happening.

Norway, Sweden, and Finland have almost universal male military service and give conscripts a standardised IQ test when they report for training. This provides a large database, starting in 1950, of men in these countries, updated yearly. What is seen is an increase in IQ as expected from the Flynn effect from the start of the records in 1950 through 1997, when the scores topped out and began to decline. In Norway, the decline since 1997 was 0.38 points per decade, while in Denmark it was 2.7 points per decade. Similar declines have been seen in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Australia. (Note that this decline may be due to causes other than decreasing intelligence of the original population. Immigration from lower-IQ countries will also contribute to decreases in the mean score of the cohorts tested. But the consequences for countries with falling IQ may be the same regardless of the cause.)

There are other correlates of general intelligence which have little of the cultural bias of which some accuse IQ tests. They are largely based upon the assumption that g is something akin to the CPU clock speed of a computer: the ability of the brain to perform basic tasks. These include simple reaction time (how quickly can you push a button, for example, when a light comes on), the ability to discriminate among similar colours, the use of uncommon words, and the ability to repeat a sequence of digits in reverse order. All of these measures (albeit often from very sparse data sets) are consistent with increasing general intelligence in Europe up to some time in the 19th century and a decline ever since.

If this is true, what does it mean for our civilisation? The authors contend that there is an inevitable cycle in the rise and fall of civilisations which has been seen many times in history. A society starts out with a low standard of living, high birth and death rates, and strong selection for intelligence. This increases the mean general intelligence of the population and, much faster, the fraction of genius level intellects. These contribute to a growth in the standard of living in the society, better conditions for the poor, and eventually a degree of prosperity which reduces the infant and childhood death rate. Eventually, the birth rate falls, starting with the more intelligent and better off portion of the population. The birth rate falls to or below replacement, with a higher fraction of births now from less intelligent parents. Mean IQ and the fraction of geniuses falls, the society falls into stagnation and decline, and usually ends up being conquered or supplanted by a younger civilisation still on the rising part of the intelligence curve. They argue that this pattern can be seen in the histories of Rome, Islamic civilisation, and classical China.

And for the West—are we doomed to idiocracy? Well, there may be some possible escapes or technological fixes. We may discover the collection of genes responsible for the hereditary transmission of intelligence and develop interventions to select for them in the population. (Think this crosses the “ick factor”? What parent would look askance at a pill which gave their child an IQ boost of 15 points? What government wouldn’t make these pills available to all their citizens purely on the basis of international competitiveness?) We may send some tiny fraction of our population to Mars, space habitats, or other challenging environments where they will be re-subjected to intense selection for intelligence and breed a successor society (doubtless very different from our own) which will start again at the beginning of the eternal cycle. We may have a religious revival (they happen when you least expect them), which puts an end to the cult of pessimism, decline, and death and restores belief in large families and, with it, the selection for intelligence. (Some may look at Joseph Smith as a prototype of this, but so far the impact of his religion has been on the margins outside areas where believers congregate.) Perhaps some of our increasingly sparse population of geniuses will figure out artificial general intelligence and our mind children will slip the surly bonds of biology and its tedious eternal return to stupidity. We might embrace the decline but vow to preserve everything we’ve learned as a bequest to our successors: stored in multiple locations in ways the next Enlightenment centuries hence can build upon, just as scholars in the Renaissance rediscovered the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Or, maybe we won’t. In which case, “Winter has come and it’s only going to get colder. Wrap up warm.”

Dutton, Edward and Michael A. Woodley of Menie. At Our Wits’ End. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2018. ISBN 978-1-84540-985-2.

Here is a James Delingpole interview of the authors and discussion of the book.

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“The Apple-Tree, the Singing, and the Gold”

In the Hippolytus of Euripides, matters proceed as the usual unstoppable train-wreck: swiftly at times and slowly at other times; hopeful for a few moments but dreadful mostly.  Goddess makes Queen fall in love with own stepson; Queen tries to shake it off, but fails; humans and deities all clamor about, baffling progress and escalating strife; Queen starts gearing up to do something not only stupid but also evil; Chorus gets a whiff of it and just wishes to get the heck out of there.

Here is Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Chorus as they fantasize escape destinations:  a cave, a cloud, the beach, a riverbank, and then hit on the ideal place: the Garden of the Hesperides, of course.

Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,
In the hill-tops where the Sun scarce hath trod;
Or a cloud make the home of mine abiding,
As a bird among the bird-droves of God!
Could I wing me to my rest amid the roar
Of the deep Adriatic on the shore,

Where the waters of Eridanus are clear,
And Phaëthon’s sad sisters by his grave
Weep into the river, and each tear
Gleams, a drop of amber, in the wave.

To the Strand of the Daughters of the Sunset,
The Apple-tree, the singing, and the gold;
Where the Mariner must stay him from his onset,
And the red wave is tranquil as of old;
Yea, beyond that Pillar of the End
That Atlas guarded, would I wend;
Where a voice of living waters never ceaseth
In God’s quiet garden by the sea,
And Earth, the ancient life-giver, increaseth
Joy among the meadows, like a tree.

(The Mariner must stay him from his onset because past Gibraltar is the Atlantic Ocean, where it is rare to sail and survive.)

Men dream of place of rest and escape from strife.  Sometimes they do so to survive, as for example a prisoner in a place of death, closing his eyes for an interior playing of some Beethoven or Brahms, of which he knows every note because he performed in the symphony orchestra before his arrest.

Sometimes they do so to keep up their own courage as they act as they can within the strife to fight the bad guys. Hippolytus came up in the course of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth trilogy of young-adult historical novels, of which I was reading the second while comfortably tucked into my electric lap robe the other day.  In The Silver Branch, Allectus has murdered Carausius, Emperor of Britain in the 290s, and usurped his throne.  Legionaries and former legionaries and their friends who disapprove of the murder form a covert network to smuggle men over to Gaul to join the ranks of Constantius there.  The leader of this network keeps an apple tree, the best little apple-tree in all Britain, in his closed courtyard, to remind him of the place, or the existence, of rest and peace.  He will not enjoy either until justice is reestablished, so he continues with his work.  He hides a couple of young soldiers in his attic and lends them his copy of Hippolytus to read, so that they can dream of the apple-tree, the singing, and the gold.

But then there are those who think of this place as an escape from responsibility.  Galsworthy, in The Apple Tree, conjured up a character who used an innocent young woman that way on a trip through the countryside.  The grander-scale utopians conceive an idea for public policy, call it good, urge everyone to support it, and care not how many bodies they have to trample in order to make their way toward it.  Every day these people are in the news.  The Garden has different guises: a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a World Without Countries, the Family of New York.  But I doubt that the people urging their countrymen to such places truly believe the places exist.  It is more likely that most of them see human problems and react in one, or both, of two ways. Either they figure out a con game by which to profit from the strife, or they just make noise about their Garden in order to avoid their responsibility actually to try to assist the people whom they see are having trouble.  That being the case, as I think it is, it is a grave error in public discourse to cede to them a single atom of benevolent intent.

Here is Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) – bless his heart.  If you decide you need to read one of the plays, go for one of his translations, I say.  He will give you beauty.

Here is Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) who as a child invalid found her Garden of the Hesperides in the history and literature of the Classical West and of England.  She found, and she made for us, beauty and joy and hope.

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This Week’s Book Review – Ganges

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

‘Ganges’ offers insight into the forces that shaped modern India

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 22, 2019

“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, Yale University Press, 2018, 464 pages, $30

The Ganges is one of the world’s great rivers, and India’s most sacred river.

“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, is a study of the river.

The book is part history, part meditation, and part religious study. Sen looks at the history of the Ganges River basin and explores the river’s impact on India’s culture. He examines how three of the world’s major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam — affected those living in the Ganges River basin, and were in turn affected by the Ganges.

The river emerges from the Himalayas gathering size and strength until it empties into a wide delta at the Bay of Bengal’s northern coast. The river is considered sacred; fed by other sacred rivers. Its waters are considered healing.

Ironically, despite today’s contamination, Sen reveals there may be rational basis for the belief. Trace chemicals from the river’s sources and a bacteria-eating virus inhabiting the river’s banks clean the water of harmful diseases — given enough time. Sailing-era British ships filled water casks from the Ganges because the water stayed drinkable longer.

Sen starts at the beginning and goes to the end. The book’s opening chapters start at the river’s sources and cover the ancient pre-history of the river. Subsequent chapters move downstream and later in history. The book concludes at the river’s mouth, during the opening years of the British Raj, ending in the late 19th century.

Sen reveals the central role the Ganges basin played in India’s history. Indian civilization grew among the fertile soils of Northern India’s plains through which the river and its tributaries flow. He catches the ebb and flow of the indigenous empires that grew there, and shows how they confronted outsiders.

Northern India was part of a greater Eurasian culture. It was located on caravan routes linking China with Europe. Trade always played an important part of life in the Ganges basin. Sen shows how this region confronted waves of would-be conquerors, from Alexandrian Greeks through sailing-era Europeans.

“Ganges” is a book which works on many levels, offering insight into the forces that shaped modern India.

 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 – The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails

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 Texas Calaboose’ a study of small lockups

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 15, 2019

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $35

“Locked up in the calaboose” sounds like a line from a cheesy Western. It was reality for thousands in 19th and 20th century Texas.

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore is the definitive study on Texas’ small lockups.

Moore defines a calaboose as a small jail, typically less than 300-square-feet, with one or two cells. They were intended to house lawbreakers for short stretches; overnight or until they could be transported to the county jail.

Most small Texas towns had one. Usually one of the first buildings constructed after a town incorporated, it was almost always the sturdiest. They were austere: bare walls, minimal amenities, no electricity and no heating or cooling system. A night in the calaboose didn’t coddle, nor was intended to.

They were also homespun, built by locals with materials at hand, and for a minimal cost. Wood, brick, stone, concrete or iron and steel were used depending on availability. Some were simple cages, open to the elements. No two were alike.

Moore became fascinated with small jails, viewing them as markers of Texas society. They were tenanted by the more eccentric members of small-town society. Occasionally, a famous name occupied a calaboose. Bonnie Parker spent a night in the Kemp lockup.

These small jails passed out of use starting in the 1950s. The automobile and better roads made it easier to take lawbreakers to the county jail, eliminating the need for local lockups. Yet because they were sturdy buildings, many survive today. Most are used for storage. Others have become museums. Some are neglected and will disappear. A few have (or had) more eccentric uses, such as a chicken coop and an upscale room for rent.

Moore’s book catalogs all surviving calabooses, small jails and cages in Texas. This includes details and descriptions of their construction: size, footprint, materials used, location, current owner and (when known) date built. He includes photos of every specimen; illustrating these building ran from basic concrete cubes to elaborate crenelated castles.

“The Texas Calaboose” captures Texas’ past in a new and entertaining way.

 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 – Thomas Cromwell

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

Thomas Cromwell, from commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 8, 2019

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 2018, 752 pages, $40

Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a biography of Cromwell who, when remembered is credited with the dissolution of church properties and, along with Thomas Cramner, as one of the twin pillars of Britain’s Protestant Reformation.

MacCulloch provides a fresh appraisal of Cromwell in this book, a man more nuanced than Sansom’s bully, and as significant as Oliver Cromwell. MacCulloch reveals Cromwell receives too much credit for monastic dissolution, and was more equivocal about introducing Protestantism than commonly believed.

McCulloch spends considerable time on Cromwell’s early life, before his meteoric rise in the 1530s from an obscure lawyer to Henry VIII’s chief minister. This is valuable because it puts Cromwell’s actions in context.

A yeoman’s son, Cromwell left to make his fortune on the continent, returning after several years in Italy. On the strength of his Italian connections, Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then Henry’s leading minister. Through sheer ability Cromwell rose to become Wolsey’s chief deputy, playing a leading role in dissolving dysfunctional monasteries (experience he used later for Henry). Wolsey was tolerant of religious dissent, including that of Cromwell who already favored evangelism (the precursor of Protestantism).

Cromwell attracted Henry’s attention and transferred to Henry’s service, when Cromwell could further his religious beliefs. He maintained Wolsey’s tradition of toleration, initially remaining cordial to Catholics and friend to Princess Mary.

Henry advanced Cromwell, but at the price of Cromwell serving Henry’s whims, eventually forcing Cromwell to adopt positions he disliked. Yet Cromwell was well rewarded — rising from a commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman in just six years.

His fall was even swifter. When he displeased Henry (chiefly over promoting Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves) Cromwell was attainted, convicted of treason, and executed within one year.

MacCulloch’s biography is long, but rewarding. He brings Cromwell to life, stripping away myth to reveal a great, but flawed man.

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

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Ex Libris: Comforts, Adventures, and Creatures

Could there be a better bookplate for January?

It has taken several months, but I’ve now checked most of the books around here for good bookplates.  This one takes the prize.

Fred and Emilie were “my kind of folk;” I want to be in that rocker by that fire, with them for company, whoever they are or were.  I like the brick apron in front of the fireplace, too; the small fire-place that surely is a Rumford that throws the heat out into the room; the massive chimney that stores the heat; the brass dogs and set of tools.

Who built the house?  Who picked out, dragged home, split, fit, and finished that log for the mantel? Just think: you could grab ahold of one of those home-fashioned corbels while leaning over to stir the fire and at the same time enjoy the classical-Roman look of that big finial, or cap, on the fire-box.  That finial looks slotted, as though designed to let more warmth into the room from the back of the fire-box.  Think that’s what it is?

And is that a globe on the mantel? It bears a design that might be North and South America.  It looks a bit smushy, though, up there in the shadows. Think that is an artifact of the woodcut technique?

The bookshelves sag to one side, and Fred and Em would certainly have more volumes spilling out all over, including lying horizontally on top of the others, not just to keep them off the floor but also to keep things organized by subject.  And they would want them handy to the fireplace and the rocker.  What are they reading tonight?

This 1904 true-life thriller has for complete title Pathfinders of the West,  Being the Thrilling Story of the Adventures of the Men Who Discovered the Great Northwest:   Radisson, La Vérendrye, Lewis and Clark.  So of course it starts off with the fur country:  trees, wolf-howls through crystal skies, sleds and sled dogs, and lots of snow and ice!  We need blankets for our rocking chairs.  You just sit right there, honey, I’ll throw on another log.

I don’t know who Roger Hirsch is or was, but I love him just the same.  Look at the bookplate he chose for his copy of the Modern Library’s Sixteen Famous British Plays!  I hope he read plays aloud at home, and with friends.

The spectacular hat of this dwarf I suspect has two horns, like a jester hat.  What think you? The book under his arm has those plates at the corners, bison leather or metal, and a cover that looks like deeply-embossed leather or maybe wood.  What is he reading?  Every thing about him is just as gnomish as it ought to be, with pebbles underfoot, mushrooms sprouting up, gnarled trees; patches on his clothes, – and reading glasses!?!

And then the frame has the most wonderful creatures all haloed about with vines!  Up top we have Chuck and Nancy, then a bear, a rooster, a reindeer or some such, a giraffe, some kind of bird (those who can see birds, please identify it,) a superlative ram, another bird (mayhap a heron?) a leaping rabbit, and a woodpecker.  Our cares amount to nothing when there are such books to be read and such friends to be met.

This is not a bookplate at all, but a painting by Heinrich Schlitt (fl. 1870s.)  It is Gnom mit Zeitung und Tabakspfeife (Gnome with Newspaper and Tobacco Pipe.)  The gnome is sitting under a mushroom and looking up at a jar, and in the jar is a frog.  What this means I leave for you to determine.  Stare into the lovely warming flames of the fire and figure it out.

Those blue flowers on the left we have around here; we call them Bluebells of Scotland.  If spring comes, they will start up again at the front of the house.

Christmas 1898 – Aunt Rimmie to Leon H. Teitenberg.  Why, thank you, Aunt Rimmie!  The Treasure of the Seas is the perfect gift for a lion-hearted lad in 1893.  Check the first part of the Table of Contents:

A Mast in Mid-ocean!  Buccaneers!  Spanish Galleon!  Leon, your friends will want to borrow this book.  You had better put a bookplate in it.  Oh, look, so he did:

Previous posts on bookplates are here and then again here.  Are there more favorite specimens out there in Ratburgia?

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This Week’s Book Review – A Star-Wheeled Sky

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

‘A Star-Wheeled Sky’ marvelous sci-fi entertainment

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 1, 2019

A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, Baen Books, 2018, 384 pages, $16

Second novels are frequently worse than the first. It happens so frequently that it’s called the second-novel curse. Brad R. Torgersen defies this curse.

“A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, a science fiction novel, the author’s second, offers a fresh take on interstellar conflict.

A millennium before this story takes place, humanity fled a war-ravaged Earth in slower-than-light colony ships. A few reached star systems connected by a faster-than-light transportation network, the Waywork. Node points, called Waypoints, offer instantaneous transportation to another star system in the network. The builders, the Waymakers, abandoned the network long before humans arrived. They remain unknown.

Since human arrival in the Waywork, starstates have emerged. Humanity has filled the once-empty planets. With no other way to grow, one starstate, Nautilian, has set out to conquer the Waywork. Nautilian is totalitarian on a scale that makes Stalin’s Russia seem amateuristic. Its policy if a conquered planet resists is to kill off the entire population and resettle it with inhabitants loyal to Nautilian.

Opposing them is the starstate Constellar. Constellar is an oligarchy, but it has a representative assembly and more freedoms than Nautilian. But, Constellar is slowly losing to Nautilian. Ultimate defeat seems inevitable.

Then a new factor enters the equation: a new waypoint suddenly appears near the boundary of Nautilian and Constellar space. It’s the first new Waypoint to appear, and whomever gets to the new system first can control the Waypoint and own the new system.

Both starstates hastily assemble fleets to explore the new Waypoint. Or rather, since this is a remote boundary for both starstates, they grab whatever they can in order to get their first. After both forces arrive, they discover the system contains a clement planet, one humans can live on without life-support systems. The Waywork has only seven clement planets. Additionally, the planet has a Waymaker artifact which is broadcasting.

Torgersen provides a fast-paced, exciting adventure, pitting two determined and capable opponents against each other. Controlling the system becomes critical, promising victory to anyone who unlocks the Waymakers’ secrets. “A Star-Wheeled Sky” is marvelous science fiction entertainment.

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

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Books of the Year: 2018

Gnome carrying pile of booksHere are my picks for the best books of 2018, fiction and nonfiction. These aren’t the best books published this year, but rather the best I’ve read in the last twelve months. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author’s surname. Each title is linked to my review of the book.

Fiction:

Winner:

Runners up:

Nonfiction:

Winner:

Runners up:

What were your books of the year for 2018?

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This Week’s Book Review – King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

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

Dive into the historical background of the legend of King Arthur

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 25, 2018

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham, Yale University Press, 2018, 392 pages $32.50

King Arthur is probably the world’s best-known fictional character. Writers from the 11th century’s Chrétien de Troyes to Bernard Cornwall in the 21st century have written stories about him. And the King Arthur’s legend keeps growing. A story this well-known must have a historical basis.

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham examines that issue. It’s a search for the source of the Arthur legend.

Arthur’s Britain, when and where a historical King Arthur could’ve existed, belonged to a chaotic and obscure corner of history. The Romans had retreated from Britannia. The island was being invaded by barbarians, and de-civilizing as it broke into a constellation of petty and competing kingdoms. Written accounts were spotty, and most history fell under oral tradition.

Higham sifts through all of this in a quest to track down the original sources creating the Arthur legend, including proposed foreign sources. Few verifiable records from the period exist indicating a historical basis for Arthur. Some researchers concluded the historical Arthur, if he did exist, came from outside Britain, with the story somehow transplanted into an obscure island in Europe’s northwest corner.

There are surprisingly many proposed “foreign” Arthurs. They include a Dalmatian centurion, Sarmatian horsemen, Georgian warriors, and stepp tribesmen. Others speculate Arthur was a Roman or Greek legend recast, Arthur as a British Hercules. Higham picks through all these theories, revealing few strengths and many weaknesses in these candidates.

Higham also examines the historical record of early dark ages France and Britain, seeking historic leaders who might have formed the basis of the Arthur myth. Higham believes clues to its origins lies in Historia Brittonum, a 9th century work, attributed to Nennius, a Welch monk.

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend” offers some surprising conclusions. Meticulously researched, Higham takes readers through every step of the journey he took to arrive at his conclusions. It is more a scholarly examination of Arthur’s legend than popular writing. Yet for those more interested in the Arthur myth and its origins than another retelling of the Arthur story, this book should not be missed.

 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: Iron Sunrise

“Iron Sunrise” by Charles StrossIn Accelerando, a novel assembled from nine previously-published short stories, the author chronicles the arrival of a technological singularity on Earth: the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton which departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth’s population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government. After humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth’s population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.

  1. I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
  2. I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
  3. Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

The wormholes used by the Eschaton to relocate Earth’s population in the great Diaspora, a technology which humans had yet to understand, not only permitted instantaneous travel across interstellar distances but also in time: the more distant the planet from Earth, the longer the settlers deposited there have had to develop their own cultures and civilisations before being contacted by faster than light ships. With cornucopia machines to meet their material needs and allow them to bootstrap their technology, those that descended into barbarism or incessant warfare did so mostly due to bad ideas rather than their environment.

Rachel Mansour, secret agent for the Earth-based United Nations, operating under the cover of an entertainment officer (or, if you like, cultural attaché), who we met in the previous novel in the series, Singularity Sky, and her companion Martin Springfield, who has a back-channel to the Eschaton, serve as arms control inspectors—their primary mission to insure that nothing anybody on Earth or the worlds who have purchased technology from Earth invites the wrath of the Eschaton—remember that “Or else.”

A terrible fate has befallen the planet Moscow, a diaspora “McWorld” accomplished in technological development and trade, when its star, a G-type main sequence star like the Sun, explodes in a blast releasing a hundredth the energy of a supernova, destroying all life on planet Moscow within an instant of the wavefront reaching it, and the entire planet within an hour.

The problem is, type G stars just don’t explode on their own. Somebody did this, quite likely using technologies which risk Big E’s “or else” on whoever was responsible (or it concluded was responsible). What’s more, Moscow maintained a slower-than-light deterrent fleet with relativistic planet-buster weapons to avenge any attack on their home planet. This fleet, essentially undetectable en route, has launched against New Dresden, a planet with which Moscow had a nonviolent trade dispute. The deterrent fleet can be recalled only by coded messages from two Moscow system ambassadors who survived the attack at their postings in other systems, but can also be sent an irrevocable coercion code, which cancels the recall and causes any further messages to be ignored, by three ambassadors. And somebody seems to be killing off the remaining Moscow ambassadors: if the number falls below two, the attack will arrive at New Dresden in thirty-five years and wipe out the planet and as many of its eight hundred million inhabitants as have not been evacuated.

Victoria Strowger, who detests her name and goes by “Wednesday”, has had an invisible friend since childhood, “Herman”, who speaks to her through her implants. As she’s grown up, she has come to understand that, in some way, Herman is connected to Big E and, in return for advice and assistance she values highly, occasionally asks her for favours. Wednesday and her family were evacuated from one of Moscow’s space stations just before the deadly wavefront from the exploded star arrived, with Wednesday running a harrowing last “errand” for Herman before leaving. Later, in her new home in an asteroid in the Septagon system, she becomes the target of an attack seemingly linked to that mystery mission, and escapes only to find her family wiped out by the attackers. With Herman’s help, she flees on an interstellar liner.

While Singularity Sky was a delightful romp describing a society which had deliberately relinquished technology in order to maintain a stratified class system with the subjugated masses frozen around the Victorian era, suddenly confronted with the merry pranksters of the Festival, who inject singularity-epoch technology into its stagnant culture, Iron Sunrise is a much more conventional mystery/adventure tale about gaining control of the ambassadorial keys, figuring out who are the good and bad guys, and trying to avert a delayed but inexorably approaching genocide.

This just didn’t work for me. I never got engaged in the story, didn’t find the characters particularly interesting, nor came across any interesting ways in which the singularity came into play (and this is supposed to be the author’s “Singularity Series”). There are some intriguing concepts, for example the “causal channel”, in which quantum-entangled particles permit instantaneous communication across spacelike separations as long as the previously-prepared entangled particles have first been delivered to the communicating parties by slower than light travel. This is used in the plot to break faster than light communication where it would be inconvenient for the story line (much as all those circumstances in Star Trek where the transporter doesn’t work for one reason or another when you’re tempted to say “Why don’t they just beam up?”). The apparent villains, the ReMastered, (think Space Nazis who believe in a Tipler-like cult of Omega Point out-Eschaton-ing the Eschaton, with icky brain-sucking technology) were just over the top.

Accelerando and Singularity Sky were thought-provoking and great fun. This one doesn’t come up to that standard.

Stross, Charles. Iron Sunrise. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01296-1.

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Book Review: Days of Rage

“Days of Rage” by Bryan BurroughIn the year 1972, there were more than 1900 domestic bombings in the United States. Think about that—that’s more than five bombings a day. In an era when the occasional terrorist act by a “lone wolf” nutcase gets round the clock coverage on cable news channels, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, most of these bombings and other mayhem, committed by “revolutionary” groups such as Weatherman, the Black Liberation Army, FALN, and The Family, often made only local newspapers on page B37, below the fold.

The civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam war had turned out large crowds and radicalised the campuses, but in the opinion of many activists, yielded few concrete results. Indeed, in the 1968 presidential election, pro-war Democrat Humphrey had been defeated by pro-war Republican Nixon, with anti-war Democrats McCarthy marginalised and Robert Kennedy assassinated.

In this bleak environment, a group of leaders of one of the most radical campus organisations, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), gathered in Chicago to draft what became a sixteen thousand word manifesto bristling with Marxist jargon that linked the student movement in the U.S. to Third World guerrilla insurgencies around the globe. They advocated a Che Guevara-like guerrilla movement in America led, naturally, by themselves. They named the manifesto after the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Other SDS members who thought the idea of armed rebellion in the U.S. absurd and insane quipped, “You don’t need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are.”

The Weatherman faction managed to blow up (figuratively) the SDS convention in June 1969, splitting the organisation but effectively taking control of it. They called a massive protest in Chicago for October. Dubbed the “National Action”, it would soon become known as the “Days of Rage”.

Almost immediately the Weatherman plans began to go awry. Their plans to rally the working class (who the Ivy League Weatherman élite mocked as “greasers”) got no traction, with some of their outrageous “actions” accomplishing little other than landing the perpetrators in the slammer. Come October, the Days of Rage ended up in farce. Thousands had been expected, ready to take the fight to the cops and “oppressors”, but come the day, no more than two hundred showed up, most SDS stalwarts who already knew one another. They charged the police and were quickly routed with six shot (none seriously), many beaten, and more than 120 arrested. Bail bonds alone added up to US$ 2.3 million. It was a humiliating defeat. The leadership decided it was time to change course.

So what did this intellectual vanguard of the masses decide to do? Well, obviously, destroy the SDS (their source of funding and pipeline of recruitment), go underground, and start blowing stuff up. This posed a problem, because these middle-class college kids had no idea where to obtain explosives (they didn’t know that at the time you could buy as much dynamite as you could afford over the counter in many rural areas with, at most, showing a driver’s license), what to do with it, and how to build an underground identity. This led to, not Keystone Kops, but Klueless Kriminal misadventures, culminating in March 1970 when they managed to blow up an entire New York townhouse where a bomb they were preparing to attack a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey detonated prematurely, leaving three of the Weather collective dead in the rubble. In the aftermath, many Weather hangers-on melted away.

This did not deter the hard core, who resolved to learn more about their craft. They issued a communiqué declaring their solidarity with the oppressed black masses (not one of whom, oppressed or otherwise, was a member of Weatherman), and vowed to attack symbols of “Amerikan injustice”. Privately, they decided to avoid killing people, confining their attacks to property. And one of their members hit the books to become a journeyman bombmaker.

The bungling Bolsheviks of Weatherman may have had Marxist theory down pat, but they were lacking in authenticity, and acutely aware of it. It was hard for those whose addresses before going underground were élite universities to present themselves as oppressed. The best they could do was to identify themselves with the cause of those they considered victims of “the system” but who, to date, seemed little inclined to do anything about it themselves. Those who cheered on Weatherman, then, considered it significant when, in the spring of 1971, a new group calling itself the “Black Liberation Army” (BLA) burst onto the scene with two assassination-style murders of New York City policemen on routine duty. Messages delivered after each attack to Harlem radio station WLIB claimed responsibility. One declared,

Every policeman, lackey or running dog of the ruling class must make his or her choice now. Either side with the people: poor and oppressed, or die for the oppressor. Trying to stop what is going down is like trying to stop history, for as long as there are those who will dare to live for freedom there are men and women who dare to unhorse the emperor.

All power to the people.

Politicians, press, and police weren’t sure what to make of this. The politicians, worried about the opinion of their black constituents, shied away from anything which sounded like accusing black militants of targeting police. The press, although they’d never write such a thing or speak it in polite company, didn’t think it plausible that street blacks could organise a sustained revolutionary campaign: certainly that required college-educated intellectuals. The police, while threatened by these random attacks, weren’t sure there was actually any organised group behind the BLA attacks: they were inclined to believe it was a matter of random cop killers attributing their attacks to the BLA after the fact. Further, the BLA had no visible spokesperson and issued no manifestos other than the brief statements after some attacks. This contributed to the mystery, which largely persists to this day because so many participants were killed and the survivors have never spoken out.

In fact, the BLA was almost entirely composed of former members of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers, which had collapsed in the split between factions following Huey Newton and those (including New York) loyal to Eldridge Cleaver, who had fled to exile in Algeria and advocated violent confrontation with the power structure in the U.S. The BLA would perpetrate more than seventy violent attacks between 1970 and 1976 and is said to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen police officers. In 1982, they hijacked a domestic airline flight and pocketed a ransom of US$ 1 million.

Weatherman (later renamed the “Weather Underground” because the original name was deemed sexist) and the BLA represented the two poles of the violent radicals: the first, intellectual, college-educated, and mostly white, concentrated mostly on symbolic bombings against property, usually with warnings in advance to avoid human casualties. As pressure from the FBI increased upon them, they became increasingly inactive; a member of the New York police squad assigned to them quipped, “Weatherman, Weatherman, what do you do? Blow up a toilet every year or two.” They managed the escape of Timothy Leary from a minimum-security prison in California. Leary basically just walked away, with a group of Weatherman members paid by Leary supporters picking him up and arranging for he and his wife Rosemary to obtain passports under assumed names and flee the U.S. for exile in Algeria with former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.

The Black Liberation Army, being composed largely of ex-prisoners with records of violent crime, was not known for either the intelligence or impulse control of its members. On several occasions, what should have been merely tense encounters with the law turned into deadly firefights because a BLA militant opened fire for no apparent reason. Had they not been so deadly to those they attacked and innocent bystanders, the exploits of the BLA would have made a fine slapstick farce.

As the dour decade of the 1970s progressed, other violent underground groups would appear, tending to follow the model of either Weatherman or the BLA. One of the most visible, it not successful, was the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA), founded by escaped convict and grandiose self-styled revolutionary Daniel DeFreeze. Calling himself “General Field Marshal Cinque”, which he pronounced “sin-kay”, and ending his fevered communications with “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE”, this band of murderous bozos struck their first blow for black liberation by assassinating Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California school system for his “crimes against the people” of suggesting that police be called into deal with violence in the city’s schools and that identification cards be issued to students. Sought by the police for the murder, they struck again by kidnapping heiress, college student, and D-list celebrity Patty Hearst, whose abduction became front page news nationwide. If that wasn’t sufficiently bizarre, the abductee eventually issued a statement saying she had chosen to “stay and fight”, adopting the name “Tania”, after the nom de guerre of a Cuban revolutionary and companion of Che Guevara. She was later photographed by a surveillance camera carrying a rifle during a San Francisco bank robbery perpetrated by the SLA. Hearst then went underground and evaded capture until September 1975 after which, when being booked into jail, she gave her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla”. Hearst later claimed she had agreed to join the SLA and participate in its crimes only to protect her own life. She was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to 7 years. The sentence was later commuted to 22 months by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and she was released in 1979, and was the recipient of one of Bill Clinton’s last day in office pardons in January, 2001. Six members of the SLA, including DeFreeze, died in a house fire during a shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department in May, 1974.

Violence committed in the name of independence for Puerto Rico was nothing new. In 1950, two radicals tried to assassinate President Harry Truman, and in 1954, four revolutionaries shot up the U.S. House of Representatives from the visitors’ gallery, wounding five congressmen on the floor, none fatally. The Puerto Rican terrorists had the same problem as their Weatherman, BLA, or SLA bomber brethren: they lacked the support of the people. Most of the residents of Puerto Rico were perfectly happy being U.S. citizens, especially as this allowed them to migrate to the mainland to escape the endemic corruption and the poverty it engendered in the island. As the 1960s progressed, the Puerto Rico radicals increasingly identified with Castro’s Cuba (which supported them ideologically, if not financially), and promised to make a revolutionary Puerto Rico a beacon of prosperity and liberty like Cuba had become.

Starting in 1974, a new Puerto Rican terrorist group, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) launched a series of attacks in the U.S., most in the New York and Chicago areas. One bombing, that of the Fraunces Tavern in New York in January 1975, killed four people and injured more than fifty. Between 1974 and 1983, a total of more than 130 bomb attacks were attributed to the FALN, most against corporate targets. In 1975 alone, twenty-five bombs went off, around one every two weeks.

Other groups, such as the “New World Liberation Front” (NWLF) in northern California and “The Family” in the East continued the chaos. The NWLF, formed originally from remains of the SLA, detonated twice as many bombs as the Weather Underground. The Family carried out a series of robberies, including the deadly Brink’s holdup of October 1981, and jailbreaks of imprisoned radicals.

In the first half of the 1980s, the radical violence sputtered out. Most of the principals were in prison, dead, or living underground and keeping a low profile. A growing prosperity had replaced the malaise and stagflation of the 1970s and there were abundant jobs for those seeking them. The Vietnam War and draft were receding into history, leaving the campuses with little to protest, and the remaining radicals had mostly turned from violent confrontation to burrowing their way into the culture, media, administrative state, and academia as part of Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions”.

All of these groups were plagued with the “step two problem”. The agenda of Weatherman was essentially:

  1. Blow stuff up, kill cops, and rob banks.
  2. ?
  3. Proletarian revolution.

Other groups may have had different step threes: “Black liberation” for the BLA, “¡Puerto Rico libre!” for FALN, but none of them seemed to make much progress puzzling out step two. Deep thinker Bill Harris of the SLA’s best attempt was, when he advocated killing policemen at random, arguing that “If they killed enough, … the police would crack down on the oppressed minorities of the Bay Area, who would then rise up and begin the revolution.”—sure thing.

In sum, all of this violence and the suffering that resulted from it accomplished precisely none of the goals of those who perpetrated it (which is a good thing: they mostly advocated for one flavour or another of communist enslavement of the United States). All it managed to do is contribute the constriction of personal liberty in the name of “security”, with metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, X-ray machines, rent-a-cops, surveillance cameras, and the first round of airport security theatre springing up like mushrooms everywhere. The amount of societal disruption which can be caused by what amounted to around one hundred homicidal nutcases is something to behold. There were huge economic losses not just due to bombings, but by evacuations due to bomb threats, many doubtless perpetrated by copycats motivated by nothing more political than the desire for a day off from work. Violations of civil liberties by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies who carried out unauthorised wiretaps, burglaries, and other invasions of privacy and property rights not only discredited them, but resulted in many of the perpetrators of the mayhem walking away scot-free. Weatherman founders Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn would, in 1995, launch the political career of Barack Obama at a meeting in their home in Chicago, where Ayers is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ayres, who bombed the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972, remarked in the 1980s that he was “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”

This book is an excellent account of a largely-forgotten era in recent history. In a time when slaver radicals (a few of them the same people who set the bombs in their youth) declaim from the cultural heights of legacy media, academia, and their new strongholds in the technology firms which increasingly mediate our communications and access to information, advocate “active resistance”, “taking to the streets”, or “occupying” this or that, it’s a useful reminder of where such action leads, and that it’s wise to work out step two before embarking on step one.

Burrough, Bryan. Days of Rage. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-14-310797-2.

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This Week’s Book Review – Silver State Dreadnought

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

‘Silver State’ looks at a forgotten veteran

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 19, 2018

“Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of the Battleship Nevada,” by Stephen M. Younger, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 320 pages, $54

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Only one of eight battleships in the harbor raised steam and got underway. It was the battleship Nevada, the oldest dreadnought present.

“Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of the Battleship Nevada,” by Stephen M. Younger tells the story of this ship.

The story Younger tells is remarkable. The Nevada served in two World Wars and the years between. It was continuously in commission from 1916 through 1945, except when undergoing refits, modernization, and repair. Sunk at Pearl Harbor, it was rebuilt and modernized. It provided gunnery support at the Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa invasions. Its career terminated dramatically, being expended at the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb test.

Younger adds much to this bare-bones recitation of the Nevada’s accomplishments. He carries readers through the ship’s history, from keel-laying to its ultimate sinking. He shows how the ship represented a new concept with U.S. battleships. It was the first to use “all or nothing” armor, with the central citadel containing the guns and engines heavily armored and the ends virtually unarmored. Younger also shows how Nevada’s first captain made the battleship the “cheer up!” ship, with an optimistic crew.

He follows the ship through World War I (where its deadliest enemy would prove influenza) and the interwar years, when it was extensively rebuilt. (Like the battleship Texas, Nevada was kept after its intended disposal date due to the 1922 Naval Limitations Treaty imposing a battleship building holiday.)

The high point of the book is Younger’s description of the Nevada’s sortie at Pearl Harbor. The ship steaming for the harbor’s exit attracted every Japanese aircraft of the last wave, damaging to where it had to be beached. Equally fascinating is the story of its repair. Younger describes how it was patched up, re-floated, and sent to the west coast, where it was almost completely rebuilt before it re-entered the war.

“Silver State Dreadnought” reminds readers of one of the forgotten veterans of World War II. Not as well-known as Texas or as well remembered as Arizona, Nevada’s story was equally compelling.

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

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