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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith | LibraryThing

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith | LibraryThing:

It's perhaps ironic that, having read all of the Ripley novels years ago and loved them, that I would only now get around to reading (listening, actually) to Strangers on a Train. The basic plot must, by now, be well-known to just about everyone. For the three of you who don't know the story, two men meet while having drinks on a train and discuss their respective complaints about Bruno's father and Guy's ex-wife, both of whom are making their respective lives miserable.

Bruno, hatches a one-sided plan for each of them to commit the perfect murder by having each one take care of the other's problem. Guy, an up-and-coming architect with a new girl friend wants nothing to do with the crazy idea. Bruno assumes it's a deal and eliminates Miriam, Guy's ex. He then begins to hound Guy to fulfill the other side of the "bargain."

The suspense comes from watching the effect on Guy of Bruno's incessant badgering for him to complete his end of the "bargain."  As others have noted, this is not your standard mystery, but it's a marvelous "why done it," and examination of the human mind's capacity for guilt and evil.

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The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin | LibraryThing

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin | LibraryThing:

I enjoy books that capture the flavor of an era, and this book certainly does that. The blizzard of 1888, by all accounts, was the "perfect storm," a confluence of patterns that sent a wall of snow, wind, and cold (almost literally) sweeping across the Dakotas and Nebraska killing many people and children who had left for school with inadequate clothing because the weather had been unusually mild that morning. In one city the temperature dropped 50 degrees in a matter of hours. A tragic story unfolds as the author follows several families before, during, and after the event.

I am actually surprised that given the conditions, more people didn't die.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Murder Option

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Murder Option:

Three well-crafted novellas being sold as group.  Fast reading and perfect for a flight or waiting around. Each story revolves around someone who has decided h/er only solution to a problem is murder. Each has an interesting twist, although one had less to do with murder than accident, but murder was indeed on his mind.  I am not usually a fan of the short story. These are just the right length and the author has used that length well.

I'll buy the second volume.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Beyond Blame by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing

Beyond Blame by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing:

Unusual detective story in that the killer is known and the P.I. is hired to provide evidence he is sane. Marsh Tanner was first hired to find the killer of  Diane Usser, wife of a famed Berkeley law professor, by her parents.  Tanner reluctantly agrees to poke around.  He learns that Lawrence, Diane's husband, was famed for his brilliant use of the insanity defense to "get off" many supposedly psychotic killers.  

Diane had been stabbed to death.  She was naked and appeared to have been involved in some kind of tryst when she was killed.  Lawrence found her dying.  He was charged with her murder shortly after Tanner took the case, which seemed to be the end of it until Diane's mother shows up in his office.  She says they had received a phone call from someone claiming to know that Lawrence was indeed the killer, but he intended to use his brilliant legal skills and knowledge of the insanity defense to get himself off. She wants Tanner to find evidence that Lawrence is *not* mad so that he'll be convicted and executed. 

The more Tanner investigates the more peculiar he finds the case to be and when Usser insists he committed the crime and pleads guilty by reason of insanity, Tanner realizes he can't possibly have killed his wife even though he insists he had.  Usser has his own reasons and one is really cute.  "You accuse me of planning to manufacture the symptoms of mental illness, to prevail at my trial by feigning insanity.  Well, did you know that since 1898 the impersonation of mental illness by a prisoner awaiting trial has been known as the Ganser Syndrome? And that some psychiatrists consider such an impersonation in and of itself as a manifestation of psychosis?" *

Part of the appeal of Greenleaf, aside from the string resemblance to Ross MacDonald, is Tanner's sense of outrage and sixties quasi-radicalism.  In a discussion with Usser about the economic disparity of the justice system, Tanner replies he's not sure it matters anymore. "I guess because outrage at economic disparity implies that all problems admit to economic solutions.  We seem to be building a world where money is the measure of everything.  Everything has a price tag; everything is measured by its financial aspect.  I read the other day that a student decided not to go to medical school because it wouldn't be a good return on investment.  That seems a little off the track." 

I am reading all of Greenleaf's Tanner books.  They are excellent.

  • Ganser syndrome, a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by the individual mimicking behavior they think is typical of a psychosis.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

No Place to Die by James L. Thane | LibraryThing

No Place to Die by James L. Thane | LibraryThing:

As another reviewer mentioned, it's always with some trepidation that one purchases and starts reading a book written by a Goodreads friend.  There's always the worry it will turn out to be crap. Fortunately this is sooo not the case here.  I was hooked from the beginning and it's well-written. 

The story is told from the viewpoint of Carl McClain, a man wrongly convicted the murder of a prostitute seventeen years before, and  in the first person from the perspective of the detective, Sean,  assigned to work the case.  Carl has been released from prison and vowed to kill all those he holds responsible for his imprisonment. 

Carl's had several years of experience in homicide but his home-life is a wreck, his wife being in a vegetative state in a nursing home following a stroke after being broadsided by a DUI.  His mother-in-law, never happy her daughter had deigned to marry a cop, not to mention move away from Minnesota to Arizona, filed suit to void her living will and his health care power of attorney. She had requested no extension of care if in this state, so now he and the in-laws speak only through attorneys and the lawsuit to prevent pulling the feeding tube drags on. 

We also have third-person POVs from that of Beverly, an attorney, who was Carl's public defender during his trial.  Carl kills her husband and kidnaps her and imprisoning her in a  sound-proofed room in a remote house where he rapes and brutalizes her.    Beverly has her own method for dealing with Carl.  

Maggie, Sean's partner , is a stitch and I hope she gets developed more in future books in the series.  I've already pre-ordered the second in the series. 

It's a good police procedural and finally, someone has done acknowledgements properly (damn cat.)  My only, very minor, complaint was that Thane cleared up the problem with his wife much to neatly and conveniently. 

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships by Virginia Steele Wood | LibraryThing

Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships by Virginia Steele Wood | LibraryThing:

The author's name is not a pun.
The Live Oak, as distinguished from the oak trees most of us northerners recognize,  grows from Virginia too the Texas border and has a different leaf and because ts new leaves appear by pushing off the old ones, is known as a semi-evergreen. It's incredibly strong and large.  The branch span on an old tree can shad a half-an-acre. Green live ok weighs 75 pounds per cubic foot and "the weight of a single branch stretching a full 70 feet is calculated in tons."  This means the trunk must be incredibly strong and dense making the wood so hard as to be of little use for wood-workers.  

The live oak is tolerant of salt spray so it grows well along the ocean even growing in sand dunes. Decimated by construction of ships and coastal buildings, the tree is now celebrated by the Live Oak Society and in gardens and parks.  John Muir considered it "the most magnificent planted tree I have ever seen."  A picture of a mature specimen is below.  Believe it or not, there is a person in this picture to provide scale.  

A great deal of live oak, which by the early 19th century had developed a world-wide reputation for being the best wood for warships, its durability was estimated to be five times that of white oak, was needed to build a ship: 23,000 cubic feet, or 460 live oak trees, in the case of a frigate.  Europe had been denuded to build navies. It was a sellers' market and attempts to purchase large quantities of live oak for the Navy resulted in locals demanding exorbitant prices, "for patriotism is a plant which does not grow in this climate."  John Quincy Adams had the foresight to try and buy up live oak lands and to try to build a live oak plantation, if you will, under the aegis of a Florida judge who had written the first treatise on the growing and care of live oak. Unfortunately, Adams's efforts were for naught as they fell before the onslaught of Jacksonian politics.  

Ironically, after the need for any kind of wood for ship-building disappeared with the advent of steel ships, the navy had tons of live oak stored under water from before the Civil War.  It became so hard that it resisted efforts to work with it during the attempted restoration of the USS Constitution in the late twenties.  In 1945, two samples  ruined a power saw. 

Wood follows the work of a live oaker as they left New England and sailed south to the live oak forests where the hard work began. They first had to build base camps with their own housing, usually shelters strong enough to keep out the rain and heat. Oxen to haul the logs had to be transported along and often they were forced to put the animals in a kind of sling so they wouldn't fall and break their legs during rougher weather.  Live oak is heavier than water so it could not be floated downstream.  All of it had to be hauled, so the first task was to build roads to the suitable trees. Once the tree was felled, an arduous job, hewers would take over  and begin squaring off the tree and then according to plans, hew the appropriate knee or some other part of the prospective ship's frame. These were then hauled to the landing where they were inspected and marked and only then shipped back to the New England shipyard. 

Obviously, I could go on boring everyone but myself. Lots of excellent line illustrations and detailed notes and bibliography. Marvelous. 

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The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey by Richard Whittle | LibraryThing

The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey by Richard Whittle | LibraryThing:

Edit 12/17/13:  This article by Whittle is worth reading regarding the safety of the machine compared to standard helicopters.  One statistic he did not cite was a comparison of the number of flying hours between crashes.

The Holy Grail of aviation engineering has always been a device that carries a reasonable load, can take off vertically, and flies safely and fast.   The V-22 Osprey was supposed to fill those criteria.  That it has entered service with the Marines after a tortured and crashed-filled history is perhaps remarkable.  

The history of tilt-rotor and VTOL aircraft has been plagued by "dynamic instability."  That's the unfortunate tendency of propellers to become very unstable unless the structure to which they are attached is of a certain configuration. Any kind of tilting mechanism changes that configuration as the propeller nacelle moves through the arc. 

The tilt rotor resulted from a confluence of interests. The Marines needed a new vehicle to move troops around quickly, their vehicle of choice during WW II the amphibious landing craft having been made obsolete by the atomic bomb. Bell obviously wanted a new helicopter they could sell to the armed services.  So when Spivey, Bell's tilt rotor advocate came along, their needs suited perfectly.  The Marines existence was in jeopardy for a while, especially as Truman wanted to merge all the forces under one joint command.  The Marines being the smallest and the need for boarding from ship to ship having disappeared, they were terrified they were being superseded.  (Their lobbying effort was so powerful Truman was quoted as saying they had a propaganda machine as good as Stalin's.  It was so good he was forced to apologize for making the statement.) 

The catastrophe in the deserts of Iran in the failed attempt to rescue hostages,  brought home the frailty of helicopters and the need for an alternative, adding additional fuel for tilt-rotors.  (Note that if you have seen the promotional videos for the Osprey you can see how they cleverly suggest it would be immune to the sand problems.  The propellers they say are used to clear sand away from the front so visibility is not impaired.  I don’t know how much consideration they gave to the unit behind them. Personally, they seem awfully susceptible to the same kinds of issues.  See 1:54 of this video for example: That just can't be good for the machinery.)   

Ironically, it had been Iran, under the Shah, that had saved Bell Helicopters with huge contracts, so many that Bell at one time had 8,000 employees living in a town constructed for them by the Iranians.  That all came quickly to an end following the Shah's overthrow.  (For an excellent book of our the Shah came to power, I can recommend All the Shah's Men:  An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer.) 

I suppose if any one person can claim credit for bring the Osprey to fruition it has to be Secretary of the Navy John Lehman who saw the XV-15 at the Paris Air Show and was so taken with it (or perhaps the full court press of Bell Helicopters) that he ordered the Navy, which controls the Marines' budget, to release funds for its development and to squash development of the 130 a new   That coupled with Reagan's huge increases in defense spending made the program a virtual certainty. 

The political machinations and shenanigans to get the Osprey built, as described by Whittle, were a wonder. Cheney, who was then Secretary of Defense, (1989-1993, and yes, government does appear to be more than incestuous) wanted to kill the program.   Under orders to reduce the defense budget after the deficit busting years of the Reagan administration (George the First tried to hold the line on his “no new taxes” pledge), he and Congress played a back and forth game.  This was by no means a partisan battle, proponents coming from districts that stood to gain from jobs created by the program.  Cheney would order the Marine Corps not to support the program but they would enlist their Congressional allies to add items to the appropriations budgets insisting certain things be done.  Cheney would refuse to spend the money (to my knowledge I don’t know if this strategy has even been tested in the courts, i.e., can the executive just not spend money the legislature has appropriated?), so Congress would threaten to reduce the money appropriated to run Cheney’s office, etc.  Congress won.

Once they had politically maneuvered to get the contract, the real problems began. Bell’s wonderful little model was only proof of concept.  Now they had to build a machine to meet the military’s specs: carrying 24 fully loaded troops, partly stealthy, advanced avionics, fly at 30,000 feet,  *and* be able to fold the wings and be compact enough to fit on the elevator of a carrier.  Each of these items added weight which meant bigger engines and rotors which meant more weight, ad infinitum.  Not to mention they were building neither a rotor-wing nor a fixed-wing aircraft.  It was a bizarre mélange of both which might wind of having none of the best characteristics of each.

Boeing-Vertol’s and Bell’s partnership led to further problems as each company had developed very different philosophies and cultures which often clashed.  Boeing looked down on Bell as  being an itty-bitty helicopter manufacturer while Boeing was used to large processes, but they were pissed at losing the 360 contract.  Then again they were the only ones with experience with composites, an essential technology if they were to shed weight.  The details of this partnership are alone worth the price of the book.

The book takes us through 2009 but will need to be updated since the future of the thing remains unclear.  According to Wired Magazine's article, there have been three accidents involving Air Force V-22s costing four lives. You can watch hagiographic videos on YouTube put out by the Marines.  The question I would ask is whether the added speed of "airplane mode", about 316 mph is really needed when existing helicopters it's intended to replace like the Sea Stallion can make about 200 mph. The one advantage would be air refueling and being able to travel longer distances but the payload is much less than conventional aircraft and while in helicopter mode they suffer from the same disadvantages. The way it folds up for transport is really amazing and quite an engineering feat.   The V-22 is under consideration to replace the presidential helicopters.  If I were president, I don’t think I'd get on one. 

Maybe they should number their aircraft differently since the F-22 has a similar problematic accident record.  All the services tend to blame people, the pilots, commanders, etc. when the flaw may well be the aircraft itself. In the meantime soldiers die and we hemorrhage money. It's also really ugly.  Not to mention you'll also have a thorough understanding of Vortex Ring State.

Note that Bell is now offering the V-280, a third generation tilt-rotor. 

"An early version of the V-22, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like an airplane, crashed four times during testing between 1991 and 2000, killing 30 people. Since entering frontline service in 2009, three of the Air Force’s roughly 20 V-22s have been destroyed or badly damaged in accidents, at the cost of four lives. Likewise, in the last 10 years the Marines’ fleet of some 200 Ospreys has suffered around a dozen major accidents resulting in several destroyed aircraft and no fewer than three deaths." 

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Beast Was Out There: The 28th Infantry Black Lions and the Battle of Ong Thanh Vietnam, October 1967 (Cantigny Military History Series) by James E Shelton | LibraryThing

The Beast Was Out There: The 28th Infantry Black Lions and the Battle of Ong Thanh Vietnam, October 1967 (Cantigny Military History Series) by James E Shelton | LibraryThing:

"Traditional notions of what constituted success and failure in battle are not easily applied to the conflict in Vietnam, and the Battle of Ong Thanh is no exception—in this clash, as in so many others, the confused nature of the fighting is reflected in different judgments about its outcome. But where wire service accounts reported it as a victory, accounts by many veterans of the 2-28— including Shelton—count it as a tactical defeat."</i> 

Lt. Colonel Terry Allen, son of a very highly regarded ** WW II general, took on a large group of VC regulars.  The result was a devastating defeat.  Allen was killed in the battle.  Shelton was there as a major, the S3.  The 2-28, also known as the Black Lions, was badly mauled by a tenacious enemy in an unusual stand-and-fight battle which heretofore the VC had always avoided. 

Shelton sets the stage with a short account of the history of the Black Lions, part of the famed "Big Red One."  He also brings his personal experience to the story of events as he was assigned to the Black Lions under General Hays following the very successful leadership of General DePuy, fames for the "DePuy bunkers", enfiladed and covered foxholes that were impossible to attack without heavy losses.  

Shelton is candid throughout the book and some of the details are less than savory.  Food was always a problem, hot rations being flown in by helicopter, but usually getting thoroughly rained on before being eaten, and often the troops were utterly exhausted by the time night came, so food was just a quick can of fruit.  

Malarial pills were a requirement and hated.  They were huge.  The size of a penny in diameter and about 5 pennies thick they caused stomach cramps and intense diarrhea about three hours after taking them. Usually the attack was faster than it was possible to drop ones pants but since no one wore underwear they just waited until the next rain (six or seven times a day in the rainy season) to wash them out. No one ever made it to the latrine, such as it was, and just dropped and squatted in place. "On the plus side, the consequences of taking malaria pills helped to keep the officers in infantry battalions from being too officious.  There was something leveling about the process."  A two-holer was usually constructed in the middle of the camp, but no one liked to sit there, especially when enemy snipers could shoot a few rounds there . "I imagined a telegram to my wife: 'Dear Mrs. Shelton. The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your husband was killed in action while hiding behind the battalion two-holer.  He was last found cringing in a pile of shit donated by himself and his fellow soldiers.' " 

Shelton noted several things when he was assigned as S3 (Battalion Operations Officer) -- he succeeded Lt. Colonel Allen who was being promoted -- to the Black Lions.  The whole division had terrible radio discipline, most communications going in the clear, rationalizing that during combat it was less confusing than the multiple codes normally required.  There was also constant "ass-chewing" over the air and in person, to such an extant everyone expected it and enjoyed it. The question was whether it was taken seriously.  Air mobile insertion and extraction operations were incredibly complex and required an intricate ballet of cooperation between multiple units, helicopters and soldiers.  Finally, there was turnover.  Because of the military's policy of one-year rotations, often units had only FNGs (Fucking New Guys) to run the show. Few experienced soldiers were left to guide the FNGs and it would take awhile to learn how to stay alive. 

The Air Force guys all thought they were doing a great job but Shelton has nothing but contempt for their close air support which often fell on the troops rather than the designated target. "I never heard of one air strike that helped while we were on offensive operations.  When we were on the defensive and were in a static position, air strikes could be of great assistance. On the other hand, when we were moving, all air strikes did was slow us down and delay the action." (84) 

The operation that spelled disaster for the Black Lions did not get off to a great start.  Despite lots of planning and overflying of the LZ, once the first troops jumped off the Hueys to secure the landing zone, and after a thorough pounding with artillery bombs and napalm, only then did they realize the elephant grass was growing in a stream bed full of water and they landed in water up to the waste.  Fortunately, it was not a hot LZ.  Next they waded slowly to the perimeter into the jungle where huge clumps of dirt loaded with red ants fell on them. The shelling had lifted colonies of ants into the jungle canopy. Soon troops were stripping down and diving under the water to relieve themselves of the biting ant stings. Then Shelton happened to look up at a weaving branch only to be almost face-to-face with a bamboo viper, a nasty little bugger.  It had survived bombing and napalm. The purpose of the operation was to set up a base and lure surrounding VC to attack them, whereupon they would bring in more troops and they were confident of a positive outcome in a large head on battle.  That was not to be. 

Ignoring the warnings of Lt. Clark Welch (no relation) who's company had taken the brunt of the fighting the day before, Allen, seeking a fight, moved two companies out into the jungle.  Because the fighting was at such close quarters, artillery was of little use even though one soldier called it in on his head.  Artillery was also delayed because they had to wait for fighters to clear the area even though the airstrikes were off target and of little use. Pleas for fighters to clear the area in favor of the more precise artillery went unheeded even though one artillery captain, risking a court martial, fired 6,000 rounds in support of the troops, even though planes were flying through the area. 

The result was a massacre. Both companies were decimated. Most of the officers were killed and at one point a PFC was technically the battalion commander. Welch himself was hit five times. Interviews with the remaining participants were considered so damning they were classified for years but Shelton gained access to them and they provide a multi-faceted glimpse of the catastrophe. 

Shelton blames the failure on three elements:  1) Allen's failure to listen to Welch's concerns.  At that time Welch, ironically, had far more combat experience than any of the other commanders having come up through the ranks.  Shelton considers this an endemic problem of commanders who want to 2) the failure of the units to use "fire and maneuver" effectively.  Shelton points to training manuals and documents highlighting the importance of infantry to find the enemy and artillery and firepower to destroy him. I found this peculiar since the enemy in this case did not have the firepower but certainly used infantry far more effectively.; and 3) " the danger of overcontrol by superiors, which froze subordinates in action," although I'm not sure I got the same lesson from his account.  Certainly Allen was wedded to his radio (which also made him a target) and headquarters away from the field was constantly badgering for more information, the infamous SITREP.

This is a fascinating look at Vietnam operations from the viewpoint of a battalion S3, an unusual perspective. 
** General Allen was relieved of command by General Bradley for a variety of reasons, one being his cavalier attitude that Bradley said spilled over to his troops.  Ironically, Patton defended General Terry to Eisenhower for his tenaciousness and success in battle, but after the slapping incident, Patton lost a lot of his prestige and Allen was removed.  Whether this incident was in the back of the son's mind when he made the decision to attack will never be known.

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