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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Review: Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky

Outstanding read. Patrick Blackett’s career is used as a metaphor for an examination of the role played by scientists in defeating the Nazis during WW II. Budiansky begins by discussing the profound effect WW I had on scientists, many of whom had served in the war and returned with deep-seated antipathy to war in general. Many turned to pacifism and Marxism as a perceived alternative, but the ill-considered racist actions of the Hitler regime against Jewish intellectuals and scientists, many of whom fled the country and were instrumental in the Allied war effort, coupled with Nazi militarism pushed them in the opposite direction.

Budiansky argues successfully that it wasn’t just new weapons and countermeasures developed by the scientists, it was also a new way of doing business for the military. They questioned the traditional ways of doing things in favor of a reliance on quantitative analysis. Focus on operational aspects often produced startling results. By looking at the statistical results of aircraft operations against U-boats depth settings were changed on depth charges and bombers were repainted white instead of black to make them less visible from the sea. These small changes resulted in the likelihood of air attack success from less than one percent to over ten percent.

In another very prosaic example, a scientist noted that long lines formed at the sinks after eating as soldiers washed their kits. Ana analysis showed it took much more time to wash the plates in the first sink than to rinse them in the second sink. Instead of having an equal number of sinks for both rinsing and washing, two thirds of the sinks were devoted to washing and that totally eliminated the lines.

Some of the conclusions reminded me of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds ( see my review at who postulated that the best decisions were made by groups made up of differing experiences and points of view, especially naysayers. I tried to utilize this concept as head of IT at the college. When we were doing strategic planning I always tried to include faculty from the anti-tech crowd and they often made very significant contributions that we, as IT types would never have thought of. Blackett insisted similarly in his operational activities, trying to include scientists who had no obvious experience in the area under discussion.

Mathematicians were obviously extremely important in dealing with ciphers, but their experience with probability was crucial to many important operational changes in the conduct of the war. But sailors had their own operational experience to share. Generally the word among convoy sailors was that if you were on a ship with a heavy cargo, like iron ore, you slept in your clothes on deck because, if torpedoed, it would sink like a stone. In a ship lightly cargoed, you slept in your clothes below decks, and slept lightly so you could rush on deck if hit. The only sailors getting a good night’s sleep unclothed were those in tankers. If they got torpedoed you went up in a flaming cloud so it didn't matter where you slept. Similarly, it was rapidly learned ships in convoy never stopped to retrieve survivors. Any ship that stopped became a perfect target for the U-boat and it was better not to lose another ship.

Sometimes the results of the analysis was not welcome. Blackett’s group discovered that only an estimated 400 Germans were being killed in bombing raids per month while 400 airmen were killed during the same period, hardly a fortuitous ratio. (After the war when more accurate data was available, it was learned the number of Germans killed was only about 200 per month.) They also discovered that production was more influenced by holidays rather than bombing. They recommended putting more resources into the naval battle and protecting ships that were in convoys delivering much needed goods and military supplies, i.e., the war against U-boats. That was not a message the RAF wanted to hear. They were basically told to back off and the RAF changed the justification for their bombing to the importance of “dehousing” the population. Note that the fire bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Pforzheim and Tokyo produced substantially different results. (

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich: The SS 'Butcher of Prague' by Callum MacDonald

Buried to the strains of Siegfried's Death March, more than a few people were quite relieved at the death of this hated man. Heydrich was a man feared by just about everyone, including his fellow Nazis. Much like J. Edgar Hoover, he was known to keep a dossier on everyone, and as head of SS intelligence and the secret police was well-placed to use it to his advantage. Killed by a couple of Czechs, the author documents the murder had less to do with British intelligence than Czech resistance and rooted in the political needs of the Czech president in exile.

Born into a family that suffered during the depression following World War I, Heydrich began his rise through the Navy where he excelled in languages and seemed to fit right in although he was bullied for his high voice and introverted ways. He was kicked out of the Navy thanks to an incident with a well-connected woman (he was a notorious womaniser), so he joined the ranks of Himmler's SicherheitsDienst (SD) the intelligence section of the SS. It was a perfect match and his rise was meteoric.

Heydrich had been sent to Prague to boost armaments production by the Czechs. The previous Reichs Protector, Neurath, was relieved of his duties in late 1941. Heydrich was assassinated barely 8 months later. The resistance had originally intended to use assault weapons, but they jammed so they threw a grenade which wounded Heydrich severely and he died of sepsis..

Considered exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, ambitious and totally amoral, Heydrich had achieved his rise to the top of the SS by mercilessly crushing his enemies and by creating the “Final Solution” for Hitler’s plan to destroy all Jews. By putting him in charge of Bohemia and Moravia the Czechs would soon learn what it meant to live under a master of suppression. Heydrich’s plan was to use the “carrot and stick” approach, increasing food supplies to reduce the power of the resistance on the one hand, and on the other dealing ruthlessly with any opposition.

Both sides, as is so common, were driven by political needs. Heydrich wanted to combat the rising power of Martin Bormann, and to do so he needed to successfully convert the Protectorate into an SS state thus accruing more power to the SS. Benes needed to prove that the Czech people opposed the Nazis, who, he suspected were still seen by many in Britain as a bulwark against Russian imperialism and power. That many ordinary people got caught in the political crossfire bothered few except perhaps the families of those killed.

Those on the ground in Czechoslovakia in the resistance, when they heard about the proposed assassination were horrified and argued with London that it would have disastrous consequences for the resistance and thousands of innocent people who would be swept up and killed as reprisal with little to show for it. Anton Heidrich (more irony), a high ranking resistance officer, sent a message to London requesting the operation be called off, although the message they received did include a note at the end saying if the assassination was deemed absolutely necessary to the national interest they were willing to make the sacrifice (other people’s lives are always easy to sacrifice.)

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Heydrich died following an almost bungled assassination. The reprisals that followed killed many innocent people. The book does a terrific job at portraying the multiple agendas of all those involved and the details of the assorted plots.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

I know this is dated, but...

In my assorted reading I run across all sorts of interesting stuff and this article was a response to a remark Scalia made during the Texas affirmative action case. The article itself is worth reading. My comments were made in response to someone critical of the author.

I'm not sure you read the article which had less to do with racism than was a stinging criticism of higher education's failure to teach. Paul Thomas was using the media criticism of Scalia's remarks to suggest that higher education is not addressing the needs of individual students.

A couple of quotes: "A significant number of students are admitted to colleges and universities for the benefit of the institution (full-pay students and athletes, as the most prominent examples). Often, these populations fall into the deficit category of “remedial,” or would be the exact type of student Scalia has now further marginalized with the damning blanket of racism." and "vulnerable populations of students admitted to colleges and universities (often black, brown, poor, and English language learners)—those who need higher education the most, in fact—are being neglected by the very institutions who admit them, often after actively recruiting them (again, the athletes)."

As the parent of six black children, I have learned the expectations of teachers are a real problem. Over and over I saw how my kids were assumed to be deficient even though they were often smarter than the rest of the class. As a society I fear we will never be race-blind so what we need to do is focus on strong educational support at the lower levels, especially high school and then let all students compete for college entrance, but colleges (especially the elite ones where students can educate themselves with little help from professors who most often delegate that teaching to grad students anyway

Affirmative action has outlived its usefulness and I fear liberals, in particular have been much too paternalistic toward the disadvantaged and make the *false* assumption that black students aren’t as smart as white ones and therefore should be admitted even though their qualifications (their words not mine) may not be as high. The whole qualifications/merit debate is silly anyway since universities have given preference to all sorts of groups from children of faculty to athletes to some with special abilities, many of whom would never meet the supposed minimum standards which usually just measure ability to take tests anyway. Not to mention than any black, Hispanic, woman student who is now on a major university campus is immediately labeled as an affirmative action admission even though he/she may be far better prepared than his/her white colleagues.

We also have to get beyond this idea that you have to go to Harvard or Yale to get a good education. I’m an Ivy League grad who has worked in community colleges and if you want superior teaching go to a community college. At elite four-year schools you get lots of bright kids who can basically teach themselves and are led by grad students who often have less preparation and graduate credits than are the minimums required to teach in community colleges. Universities have got to do a better job at teaching its students. That’s the point of the article I cited.

The News Media has Lost its Way

The news media has lost its way. The current paradigm is that reporters need to hold interviewees accountable for what they say, and that their job is to “push back” against what they perceive to be disingenuous statements. I think that’s wrong and counter-productive.

The role of the reporter is never to argue with the interviewee. To do so, especially with a personality like that of Trump, who is basically a child, devolves the interview into a power struggle that no one can win (except Trump in this case who thrives on the perception that he is attacking the press.)

This was particularly apparent in the debates when moderators were castigated for not arguing with the candidates about their statements. Those who did were celebrated as being “good” moderators. Aside from the fact they weren’t moderators at all, the debates often became mere pissing contests between the candidates and the panelists. Unfortunately, the competition among reporters has forced them to compete with others to stand out among the crowd and they seem to think only by creating a lot of noise can they do so.

Much better to ask the question and let the answer stand, however unsatisfactory. Let the audience decide and the reporters can write about the validity of the response later when they have had time to research and reflect on the proper response, collecting the facts. For example, ask Trump why he has not released his tax forms. He can answer, next question. To argue about whether he should or not reduces the amount of time available for other questions and places the reporter in the stance of adversary (a role for the editorial pages) rather than reporter. A press conference is not a debate nor power struggle. It should be a time for reporters to ask intelligent and probing questions and let their editors and readers decide the veracity of the answers.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Review: Quarry (aka The Broker) by Max Allan Collins

According to Max Allan Collins' afterward, This book was the first to be written of the Quarry series. It was re-released a few years later by his publisher with a different title: The Broker, a change he was unaware of, so when the opportunity to bring it out once again came around, he changed the title back to its original.

I like the Quarry series, but you can tell this was an early, unpolished work. Quarry's character is unsettled, and you get the feeling that Collins was struggling a little to make him into a bad guy with few redeeming traits. Collins admits he was "ripping off" Westlake's Parker, but in this book (not so much in the later Quarrys) the protagonist lacks Parker's sense of irony, as brutal as he may be.(See the author's correction below.)

Quarry is sent by the Broker to kill an apparently innocuous man in a small town along the Mississippi (patterned after Muscatine, Iowa but we don't get a good sense of place). He's also charged with taking out a man at the airport who is carrying a load of heroin. Quarry abhors having anything to do with drugs so he sets up the Broker who ordered the hit by hiding half of the load which he later uses to his advantage. When things start to go wrong, contrary to all good sense, he decides to find out who the original purchaser of the hit was.

It's a fun read, but not up to the level of the later books in the series. For a truly memorable "hitman" series read Lawrence Block's Keller books which set the standard.