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Friday, June 27, 2014

Loon by Jack Mclean

A disappointing purchase and way over-priced.

One of the really positive benefits of the self-publishing revolution has been the number of memoirs being published.  Obviously many not polished, but interesting and of considerable historical value.  Some are very good, indeed. Others less so.  This one  felt like a book one expects to have been self published; I looked, and was surprised to see the Random House imprint.Mclean, who was at Andover with George Bush, (of National Guard and cocaine fame,) struggled through Andover and when he wasn’t accepted by Harvard or Yale, or Stanford, was at a loss as to what to do. So he enlisted in the Marines.   He was born just a month before me, so the dates brought back many memories.  Getting out of Parris Island, he was sent to California for a few months to learn supply, much to his relief, but everyone in the Marines eventually wound up in Vietnam, and, sure enough, his orders for that quagmire came through.

Mclean was urged to write this memoir when his wife discovered the letters he had written home over the months he was in Vietnam. The very short section, barely a couple chapters, dealing with the horrific, if futile, experience on LZ Loon, was seemingly thrown in almost as an afterthought, rather than the highpoint (or low-) of his experience, his life even. Clearly the experience of writing for him personally must have been necessary and cathartic, I hope. 

There is a good story in here and perhaps with a good editor, it could have been teased out. Some chapters are very well written but often there was little transition to the next. The book as a whole lacked focus and at times wandered between being critical and stand-up-salute-your-flag bravado. Finding a theme was difficult.   There are many other Vietnam memoirs out there that I feel are much better.  And I got a little tired of hearing that Sid was dead six weeks, two days, several weeks, later. Once has devastating impact.  By the fourth time, it brought a yawn.

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Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Prague Fatale

It’s 1941 and Bernie is back in Berlin from his work with the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), the intelligence arm of the SS (the Kripo, Kriminalpolizei,  or German equivalent to CID, were under the SD.).  Having been exposed there the the truly awful ethnic cleansing and  retribution of the “special action” squads who were killing rather indiscriminately, he’s considering suicide. Always skeptical of Naziism, he’s dragged into an investigation of a railway worker who had been murdered and then left on the tracks  to be dismembered by a train.  It gets complicated when he saves a bar-girl from what he thinks is a rape, only to discover she’s linked to Czech terrorists being sought by the Gestapo.  There may be a connection as well to the man on the tracks.

But then things get worse when General Heydrich demands his presence in Prague to act as his quasi-bodyguard. (Reinhard Heydrich, also known as the “Butcher of Prague” was probably one of the least sympathetic characters to come out of Nazi Germany.) When one of Heydrich’s adjutants is murdered in a locked room, Bernie gets permission from Heydrich to be as impertinent as necessary in order to solve the crime. Here the writing sparkles with wit as Bernie gets to mouth off and intimidate all the SS generals. To complicate things even further, Bernie learns everyone except the adjutants and himself, has been invited to the Prague Castle because they are under suspicion as being a traitor running a radio link with the British.

I listened to this as an audiobook.  Very well read (except for some German mispronunciations -- I do wish they would get readers who are at least quasi-fluent in foreign language words that appear in the books they read ), but I found one peculiarity.  Throughout the book, which was not translated, but written in English, Hitler is referred to as “the Leader,” a literal translation of “Der Führer.”   I think we’ve all become so accustomed to the German title that using “leader” somehow grates.  Especially when other words, like Kripo, Kirche, Herr, Kommissar, Wehrmacht, and others are left in German.

Very entertaining. I’ve read many of the Bernie Gunther series and like them all, although the Berlin trilogy, the first three, a.k.a. Berlin Noir,  are perhaps the best of the bunch.  This is listed as #8.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

Thomas sets the stage by describing economic and social conditions. During these two centuries, massive poverty and appalling health were the norm. Most children died before age six and the average life-span was only twentyseven so health was a concern. Every religion uses miracles or magic — perhaps a redundancy — to help define its monopoly on the truth. By the time of the Reformation, even though the church did not, as an institution, claim the power to work miracles, it was saddled with a tradition of saints who could, and appeal to them to ward off ill-health was commonplace. St. Wilgerfort (St. Uncumber) " eliminate husbands of those discontented wives who chose to offer her a peck of oats." The mere representation of St. Christopher, " said to offer a day' preservation from illness or death to all those who looked upon it." Saints were, after all, specialists, rather than general practitioners.

The association of magical powers with church ritual was not ostentatiously promoted by medieval church leaders; in fact, it' often through their writings refuting such claims that we know about them. But the imputation of magical powers was a logical result of church actions. In their intense desire to convert the heathens, the church incorporated many pagan rituals into religious practice. Ancient worship of natural phenomena was modified: hence, New Year' Day became the Feast of Circumcision, the Yule log became part of Christmas tradition and May Day was turned into Saints' Days, for example.

Theologians made a distinction between religion and superstition, but superstition was loosely defined as any practice having magical qualities that were not already designated as religious ritual. The church had the power to define what constituted legitimate and what it denied became heretical. The Protestant Reformation had a significant effect on how the populace regarded miracles and magic. By elevating the individual' faith in God, and denigrating ritual, a new concept of religion was created. The ignorant peasant had had no need for knowledge of the Bible or scripture; the rituals and rites of the church had become the "" of the supernatural and evidence for his/her belief. " was a ritual set of living, not a set of dogmas." The Protestant theologian insisted on a more personal faith, so it became necessary to invent a theology that explained the threat of plague, natural disasters, and the fear of evil spirits. One could no longer call on the " solutions offered by the medieval church." The solution was predestination. Everything that happened was God's will. Evil became a test.

Thus every Christian had the consolation of knowing that life was not a series of random events; there was purpose in everything. This also required scapegoats. There had to be a reason for calamitous events, and the moral degradation of your neighbor must be the cause behind the lack of rain for the past several months. Or it' because of the Jews in town. Get rid of the neighbor and the Jews and all will be well. Or, the calamity could be seen as a test of one' own faith. Righteous personal behavior was out of fear that God would avenge wickedness. Many of Pat Robertson' homilies could have been written in the middle ages. A whole genre of diarist writing arose out of the need for Puritans to document the hand of Providence. His interference could be seen in happy coincidences, accidents to the wicked, and deliverance from personal illness.

These judgments could be used as political weapons also. One party issued a whole list of calamities on land and sea that must surely be a sign from God that the Royalists were evil and should be overthrown (shades of Robertson). Of course, Catholics blamed calamities on the Reformation. Handy. But is was ultimately " observer' point of view which determined whether, and by whom, an event was held as a judgment or deliverance. . . the belief in providence degenerated into a crude justification of any successful policy. . . . The doctrine of providences was a conscientious attempt to impose order on the apparent randomness of human fortunes by proving that, in the long run, virtue was rewarded and vice did not go unpunished."

The Reformation did not put an end to prophecy and the association of miracle working to religious supremacy. The period following Elizabeth and during the Civil War reflected growing unease with social inequities. Women, normally excluded from political debate and discussion, used prophecy and dream interpretation to express political dissatisfaction. A virtual army of pseudo-messiahs appeared, claiming all sorts of personal relationships with God. Mostly they were the targets of humor unless their messages conveyed secular political implications. Punishment for heresy (the last burning for heresy occurred in 1642) could be a useful tool to eliminate political opposition. Common prayer served as a useful mechanism to bring people together for the purpose of harnessing group perceptions and action against a common social ill or malady. It became an act of solidarity.

The danger for the ruling elite comes only if the belief is that God is on the opposition=s side and it foments radical social dynamism. Religious fervor could be tolerated only as long as the voice of the people could never be confused or associated with the voice of God. Today=s efforts by some on the Religious Right to confound religion with politics plays right into the hands of political leaders because then religion can be manipulated to political ends. That is what often happened in Europe.

The Anglican Church, by this time, was in a seemingly impregnable position. It was intricately entwined with the ruling political structure, it was a crime not to attend church, one was born into it and the church service itself helped to maintain the social divisions: the rich sat in front, poor in the rear and even the quality of communion wine varied according to social standing. In 1543, one parson even preached there were three heavens, one for each level of prosperity -- Jerry Falwell would have approved -- and the Church was immensely wealthy, actively participating in making political decisions. From the book: " difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effect they claimed to achieve than in their social position and in the authority on which their respective claims rested."

Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe by Michael Shermer

This is a joint review of this book and How We Believe

Shermer postulates that humans have evolved a belief module that helps us find patterns in what appears otherwise to be a meaningless universe. (Why we feel compelled to find meaning in everything continues to puzzle me.) Until about four hundred years ago, when the process of science gave us a method to determine the difference between patterns that are real and those that are mere illusion, the tautologies myth and religion, (a tautology) explained the relationship of man to the universe. Despite the rise of science, humans continue to hold all sorts of unsupportable beliefs: 90% believe in heaven, 72% believe in angels, 67% believe they have had a psychic experience (Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1996). Mostly we have adopted the fruits of science, i.e. technology, without teaching or employing the principles of scientific thinking.

The reason, Shermer suggests, lies in the evolution of the “ module.” Several million years of evolution were required to change the fist-sized brain of Australopithecines to the cantaloupe-sized brain of the Homo sapiens sapiens, and civilization as we understand it has been around for only about 13,000 years. Evolutionary psychologists believe the conditions of our existence shaped the brain. The brain is basically a collection of computational devices that evolved to “solve” problems regularly encountered by our huntergatherer ancestors.” Shermer argues that “belief” evolved to help interpret patterns. Recognition of patterns has survival value, e.g., being upwind of an animal means one is more likely to be discovered, etc. These are meaningful. Other patterns such as drawing images and magical thinking may reduce anxiety but are essentially meaningless or irrelevant from a survival standpoint. In short, we developed two kinds of thinking: type 1, believing a falsehood or rejecting the truth and type 2, not believing a falsehood and believing a truth.

Magical thinking evolved as a necessary corollary to causal thinking, a spandrel, if you will. (A spandrel is the space formed by the intersection of two arches — it looks to be structurally essential but are not) between seeking answers through magic, i.e., religion and other nonevidentiary- based beliefs and fact-based conclusions. That magical thinking and making mistakes in order to eventually correctly interpret patterns is undeniable. Shermer cites several examples of superstition and magical thinking among indigenous peoples to support his hypothesis. For example, among the Yanomamö peoples of South America superstitions and taboos related to the Jaguar even when incorrect serve a useful purpose because the jaguar is the only animal that hunts people, and the superstitions help to convey the power and danger of the animal that presents a very real danger.

Bronislaw Malinski, in his study of the Trobriand Islanders, found that rituals and superstitions increased as they ventured farther out to sea. He drew the conclusion that thinking derived from environmental conditions finds magic wherever the elements of chance and accident are present. “The emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. . . There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic.” During the Middle Ages, given the uncertainties and vagaries of daily life, and that almost 90% of the people were illiterate, superstition and belief in magic were ubiquitous. Plague was believed to be caused by a misalignment of the stars, and when a person died, all the water in the house was discarded lest the soul of the departed drown, etc. (For more see Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic "Only religion could rival astrology as an all-embracing explanation for the vicissitudes of life."

The rise of rationalism and science following the sixteenth century did much to replace superstitions as an explanation for the unknown or uncertain. The twentieth century is not immune to superstitious belief, and the more uncertain an activity, the more likely there are to be superstitions associated with it. Take baseball. Hitting a baseball is so difficult that even the best players fail to get a hit seven times out of 10 at bats so many hitters have harmless superstitions associated with their batting. Fielders, on the other hand, who succeed catching a fly ball almost nine times out of ten have few — until they come bat. In France there is a company that provides emergency guests for any dinner party of triskaidekaphobes who discover that they number thirteen at table. Bad things happen to good people, and good things often happen to bad people. Conspiracy theorists are simply trying to bring order to a complex world containing such dissonances. It's a way of bringing order to what appears random. Surely JFK could not have been killed by a lone gunman. It's impossible! (G. Gordon Liddy said that two elements were required for a conspiracy: competence, a rare commodity, and secrecy, a secret can be kept among two people only if two of them are dead.)

Almost any kind of bizarre unrelated event then becomes "evidence" for the conspiracy. Our belief modules in action. Shermer argues the best "regulator" of the Belief Module is science. It is the best method for determining the difference between falsehood and truth. "Does extract of seaweed really cure cancer? All the anecdotes in the world will not answer the question. You need 100 people, all properly diagnosed as having the same type of cancer. Then have 50 of them eat extract of seaweed and 50 take the placebo." If none of them knows what they are taking and none of the experimenters knows (double-blind) and the results show a statistically significant difference then you might have something.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of In Cold Type

Anyone who has  followed publishing and the current battles between publishers and retailers, first Borders and Barnes and Noble, and now Amazon, will realize there is a fundamental shift going on in the publishing world, each side claiming the high ground and righteousness in the unending quest for more profits.  If you dig a little deeper into the quagmire, the name Shatzkin will pop up. I’ve been following Mike Shatzkin’s blog for several years and it’s become obvious, as a consultant for the publishing industry, he looks at the world through their eyes. When a comment I made on the blog regarding changes I thought needed to be made in the publishing industry to maintain profitability, he simply dismissed most of it by saying I didn’t know what I was talking about and recommended this book, by his father, Leonard, who had worked in the industry for many years, and whom Mike had a tendency to quote perhaps a bit too often given the radical changes now occurring more than a decade after Leonard’s death.

“In Cold Type” is very good. Written for the layman as well as the industry --I’m a primarily a reader although as a librarian and micro-micro-micro publisher whose uncle was president of Silver Burdett, I have been fascinated by the economics of publishing all my life,-- it’s a wealth of contrarian information about the industry as it existed in 1982, just before the cataclysm began to occur.  Indeed, it comes with its own publisher’s disclaimer, not so unusual now, but then, before everyone became afraid to even remotely associate  himself with any kind of idea, rare, indeed.

First, my biases.  I’m a reader, and therefore have an interest in a vigorous and competitive market for books. I’m also not wedded to any particular format, being primarily interested in content. It’s what’s written that makes the book, not whether it’s used, hardcover, paperback, clay tablet, or ebook.  My preference currently is solidly in the ebook camp since I can carry around my whole library on any number of electronic devices. (Did I mention I love electronics, too?)  I think ebooks have many, many advantages for authors and their incomes.

So I remain astonished at the continued inefficiency of the publishing world and its resistance to change. The remainder system is stupid.  Even in 1982, Leonard saw that: “For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder-- a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim.  And it's truly insane.”  That particular inefficiency raises costs for everyone, but it has an even more insidious effect as it removes accountability from the buyer for trying to estimate how many copies of a title s/he might be able to sell.  If there is no penalty for over-ordering, what the heck, order tons.

Another of my biases is warehousing, particularly after the IRS decision that products warehoused would be taxed (the infamous Thor decision.)  That makes storing stuff expensive.  POD, i.e. printing on demand, and ebooks have the potential to eliminate warehousing;  IF, publishers move away from printed copies, or change to POD. Why not have a POD machine in the bookstore. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I saw one of these deliver a bound, trade paperback with color cover in just a few minutes.  Those machines are now going for less than $100,000 last time I looked.  The downside to that is the cost per book remains flat, whereas, for example, the last book we had printed in a 2,000 copy run (I did say micro-micro…) provided us with a declining cost per copy over 500 copies and would have been much less per copy for 10,000. One type-setting, etc. have been costed out, the printing is really cheap. That was 15 years ago.  Today, I wouldn’t bother.  I don’t want inventory so POD and ebook would be the way to go and the initial investment is much less, even after accounting for copy-editing and design.  That “should” permit higher royalties for the author.

Shatzkin’s first chapter is devoted to a review of problems in the industry in 1982: 1.)Remainders, which distort the market by providing for expensive distribution, a devaluation of the book when people wait for the price to drop soon after release, and competition from remainder stores that compete with full price independent bookstores; 2.) Books are too expensive, resulting from “antiquated book production methods and “poor distribution and poor production,” and he believes with more efficiency retail prices could be “half their present level.”  Consumers deal with this by waiting for the book in a cheaper edition or buying remainders.; 3.) Consumers leave stores disappointed, not finding what they went in to get, from the “skimpily stocked stores that make up the majority of retail shops.”  He cites surveys showing this number of disappointed people may be as high as thirty percent.  4.) Competition from chains.  In those days he cited B. Dalton and Walden, both of which are now gone. Publishers like chains because distribution is more efficient  and “dealing with the chains seems so much simpler and less expensive.”   5.)  General lack of profitability in book publishing, where most of the profits come from selling subsidiary rights providing a stronger push toward the “blockbuster.” 6.) Not being able to provide support for excellent writers, the horrifying example of Confederacy of Dunces being an example; 7.) The short life of the trade book caused, he says, by an inefficient distribution system that means “as many as 90 to 95 percent ...are stone cold by the end of their first year.”  Thirty percent of books are returned unsold and 25% never make it to bookstores, going directly from warehouse to remaindered.  (Another thirty percent go to libraries, a problem he worries about but I won’t deal with here except to say that a New Yorker article years ago reported that the trade book market would collapse without libraries.) 8.) How all these factors enter in to making lousy editorial decisions, “Tens of thousands of titles published into an unstructured distribution system, millions of unpredictable negotiations between sales reps and booksellers, the happenstance of a book getting into a particular store, together with unforeseeable outside influences—reviews, attention by celebrities, quirks of public taste—lead to results in which chance is the dominant factor.  The remaining chapters go into detail about each aspect of the industry and the problems he has identified.
Now what’s interesting is that the ebook revolution solves every one of those problems but one:  libraries.  Distribution is cheaper, no returns, online stores can stock literally everything, prices are less, and theoretically dealing with a store like Amazon solves their “simplicity” problem. The long tail and a book never going out of print means a book can technically sell forever removing  the incentive to seek the blockbuster and books need never go out-of-print. With ebooks one could literally publish just about everything (that’s what’s happening with the rise of digital self-oublishing.) One can only surmise how profitable and better the industry would be today had they fully embraced  the ebook revolution instead of fighting it.

There are some independent publishers opting out of the traditional morass so well described by Shatzkin. I know of one small publishing company devoted to high quality young adult and middle grade reader books,, run by the famous editor Stephen Roxburgh of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (he was Roald Dahl’s editor) and Cricket Books who is doing just that.  His new company is publishing in POD and ebook formats only.   That means he has difficulty in getting his books into bookstores, but they are widely available online.  Whether he’ll be successful or not remains to be seen.

Be forewarned.  My view of the industry is biased.  I’m a reader.  On the other hand the symbiosis between readers and authors is essential. The mediation of a publisher/’gatekeeper perhaps less so.  Leonard’s warnings might have helped stave off catastrophe for a while.  Whether they will be heard today with a vastly different environment remains to be seen. I hope so.

P.S.  I read this book on my Kindle. In one of life’s lovely ironies, the ebook comes with a big, gold QED Approved sticker promising the highest quality assurance. So not a few pages later I laughed when I saw the following: “...the methods of pofit [sic] and loss…”  On the other hand, the new technology such as Amazon’s Createspace and digital delivery would permit virtually instant revision, even so far as to make changes to the purchaser’s copy in his device.

A book well worth reading.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Keller's Adjustment by Lawrence Block

A long short story dealing with Keller’s reaction to the events of 9/11 and their impact on his life as a hitman.  For this particular job, he must drive across country and come up with an innovative way to take out his target who lives in a seemingly impregnable gated community. Along the way, we’re treated to Block’s ruminations on American culture and life.  Entertaining as always.

I like Block, but in his series, the backstory is often repeated a bit ad nauseum.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Man-Eaters of Eden: Life and Death in Kruger National Park

Fascinating book.

A very conservative estimate (1%)  places the number of Mozambican refugees eaten by lions at about 13,000.  Even if you half that number, the result is astonishing.  Refugees walk across the Kruger National Park from Mozambique in attempts to reach South Africa. A well kept secret is that in addition to the normal dangers of heat, thirst, and human predators, they are being preyed upon by lions, an inversion of the food chain.

Bits of bloody clothes found in the middle of nowhere. A lone suitcase, filled, abandoned in the bush. A single shoe. A full water bottle. Footprints that trekked on, then just ended. Everyone knew what was happening. Kruger was the one best way for poor Mozambicans to enter South Africa with its supply of jobs and relative safety. Kruger presented the longest South African border with Mozambique and the cover the Mozambicans needed to sneak in. Kruger also had more than two thousand lions, few with any reason to fear humans.  Of course, some see this as a natural form of border control.

The horrible economic and political situation in Mozambique turned the Kruger park into a veritable highway of refugees. (The park forms a boundary along almost the entire border.) It is estimated more than a million trekked across into South Africa seeking some semblance of order and relative peace. The risk posed by lions, crocodiles (they had to swim the Crocodile River) was an acceptable risk.  Many became a meal. A good sized lion can reach 550 lbs. and a length of ten feet. They are also social predators. A lion in front of you means probably two behind you.  (Never run. The accepted best practice is to stand stock still and not trigger any response from the lion(s).  You can’t outrun a lion.)

“The other moral is simply this: Eden kills. Kruger is not a zoo, deer park, or exhibit, however placid it may seem. It is nature, or close to nature, because in the state of nature, organisms kill. Put a warthog, a mere cat, and a lion together in a Disney cartoon and you have a great song and dance routine. Do it in Kruger, and you have a well-fed lion. Mammals, insects, reptiles, and raptors are killed and kill every day of the year at Kruger. Otherwise, Kruger would not be Kruger; it would not be wild and natural. All the creatures of Kruger seemed in their own way aware of these rules, save one: humans.”  Rangers are deadly serious about the dangers.  On one occasion the author got out of the car to “water a bush.” “[B]oth Steve and Neville post themselves on watch at opposite ends of the compass. They are looking earnestly for any dangers. Once we are outside the cars, we are exposed. There is no joking here, and my one attempt falls flat; they do not drop their eyes from surveillance, and they do not laugh or speak. They are deadly serious, and the dangers are real.”

The author uses these events and individual anecdotes to review the history of the park and the evolution in the way we think of animals and how they should be treated as part of the human eco-system.  One of the major problems now is that people raised on “Born Free” and the Disney version of lions, want to treat them as cuddly little playthings.  Even when lions wander through subdivisions, people want them left alone. The inevitable  tragedy will reverse this notion, which, in turn, will again raise calls for the extermination of the lions.

The tendency of a green-leaning public is to treat lions as friends and forget they are wild carnivores.  Of particular concern to Gerrie is the community of Marloth Park, the suburban like development just south of Kruger and home to Izinyoni Lodge. Some of the other residents, not Paddy Buckmaster, show a dangerous tendency to treat lions casually—as if they were squirrels or raccoons or finches at a bird feeder . His fear is that the Marloth residents are unintentionally creating a new breed of man-eating lions. The affluent white homeowners who cherish the lions in their backyards during the daytime are well meaning, and their dedication to nature seems sincere. . . .The greens, in short, often have as much poor information now about lions as the bubba-rancher set did a century ago. They are both wrong about lion behavior, at one-hundred-eighty-degree opposites of the political compass.”

Man-eating lions are nothing new. “ In Tanganyika, in the 1930s and 1940s, three generations of a lion pride hunted men, women, and children so systematically that they treated villages like pantries. When hungry, the pride would enter a village, select a hut, tear through the roof, and eat the inhabitants as casually as we might open and eat a tin of nuts. George Rushby, the famous white hunter who eventually killed most of the lions, found the animals to be in their prime, with luxuriant, silky coats. The lions had so “selected” humans as the preferred species that a lion would charge through a herd of cattle—and kill only the herdsman.”  “ “you are on a thin edge” when around lions. He repeats that phrase—thin edge—wherever he goes. Always, it must be kept in mind, he says, that the lion is two animals. Man is diurnal and sees the lion in its daytime passive mode. The night belongs to the lion, though, and there the lion is a fearsome predator. It is not evil. It is an opportunistic carnivore that walks the bush in highly organized hunting parties looking for protein. At night, it is a biological bot, a near-perfect killing machine. Quickly, if there is a new form of easy prey, it will learn to kill it.”

Close to being exterminated, it was ecotourism and the Kruger Park that saved them  They now thrive, but until political conditions are resolved people will continue to die

Another book worth reading is John Henry Patterson’s memoir, The Man-Eaters of  Tsavo.  Patterson was a renowned bridge builder who was hired to build a bridge across the Tsavo river.  His efforts were hindered as workers, imported from India as the Africans wouldn’t work for the British,  disappeared and the rest became terrified. Patterson finally had to hunt the two lions, nicknamed Ghost and Darkness.  It took him a year.  William Goldman wrote the screenplay for a movie about Patterson, Ghost and the Darkness.  It’s good.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane | LibraryThing

Excellent book.  I saw the movie years ago but frankly can’t remember it and the idea that Leonard DiCaprio could play a U.S. Marshal rather frightens me.

Two U.S. Marshals are sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at a remote asylum for the criminally insane. It appears to be the classic locked room mystery: a woman vanished from her room through locked windows and doors, passed guards, etc.  There’s also a storm coming, in more ways than one.

Teddy, the lead marshal, has a hidden agenda.   He asked for the case when he learned that the firebug who caused the death of his wife in a fire had been sent there.  He’s tormented by his dreams.   But then the staff and doctors start feeding him drugs, unbeknownst to him.  And Chuck, the second marshal disappears or is killed.  Is he living a nightmare?

The ending blew me away.  Just when I thought I had it all figured out, my view of reality was completely upended.  Total surprise.  I really should reread the book and see if I missed any hints.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

And in the Morning I'll be Gone by Adrian McKinty | LibraryThing

I wish this were not a trilogy.  This is the third (and presumably the last) of McKinty’s “Troubles” trilogy. Disgraced and thrown off the police force after having been reduced in rank after his dissing of the FBI in the second volume, Sean is sought out by Special Branch to help locate Dermot McCann, an old acquaintance and IRA terrorist, who had escaped from jail.  They fear he is about to embark on a new bombing campaign. They hope his knowledge of the area and McCann’s friends, not to mention that they know he’s a really good detective, will help them locate the terrorist.

To make things really interesting, McKinty adds a locked room mystery to the mix. Mary Fitzgerald’s daughter, Lizzie,  had died, ostensibly in a tragic accident as she was closing up her father’s bar. All the doors were locked and barred, there were bars on the windows, there was no attic, and no entrance through the basement.  Supposedly she was changing a light bulb by standing on the bar, slipped, fell, and broke her neck.  All the evidence points to an accident, but the part-time coroner insists her injuries were not consistent with a fall.

Mary Fitzgerald knows where McCann is and offers a trade:  Dermot’s location for Lizzie’s killer.  

The last chapter, really a form of epilogue is a bit strange. It foretells what McKinty knows will happen politically with a bit of puppet stringing thrown in for good measure.  <i> “I’ll tell you a little story. After victory in the Franco-Prussian war, an adjutant went to General Von Moltke and told him that his name would ring through the ages with the greatest generals in history, with Napoleon, with Caesar, with Alexander. But Moltke shook his head sadly and explained that he could never be considered a great general because he had ‘never conducted a retreat.’” “And that’s what you’ve been doing here, is it? Conducting a retreat?”</i>

Duffy is a great character, a Catholic in a Protestant institution, the RUC and we see what desperate straits Northern Ireland was in during the euphemistically named “Troubles.”  I hope McKinty brings him back.  In the meantime, I intend to read his other books.

Read the series in order.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Primal Fear: The book by William Diehl

Those of you who have seen the excellent movie made from this book will have a pretty good idea where it winds up.  I saw the movie long before getting the book, so the ending wasn’t a huge surprise, and I found the book to be quite interesting with intriguing characters:

-Vail, the successful lawyer dragged into a case he didn't want because the judge wants to hand him a sure loss as punishment for Vails successful suit against the city ;
- Mollie, the young psychologist who wanted to be a biologist until her brother returned from Vietnam slowly entering a state of catatonia;
-Rebecca, Stempler’s former teacher who taught in a one-room schoolhouse and saw him as one of her few success stories, the boy who didn’t go down in the hole;
-the brilliant prosecutor who didn’t want the case either but was dragged into it as her last case before she left the D.A.’s office;
-Goodman, the sensitive P.I. working on his law degree, a former boxer whose career disintegrated when he smashed his hand;
and Aaron Stempler, genius IQ who could read Latin and devoured every book he could get his hands on who is accused of the brutal murder of  Catholic Archbishop Rushmon who had befriended him.  The evidence against Aaron is overwhelming.  
-And then there’s Roy.

First rate legal novel.  The courtroom scenes are magnificent.

Review of Beardless Warriors by Richard Matheson

This book, follows a small platoon during two weeks in December, 1944, through the eyes of Ernest Hackermeyer, an 18-year-old replacement, just over the French border in Germany. “Hack” soon shows an aptitude, or at least a recklessness, with regard to fighting, and Cooley, the platoon sergeant, a much older man takes Hack under his wing, soon promoting him to assistant squad leader after the death of his other corporal. It’s not fun: cold, wet, moving back and forth, seeing little of the big picture, seemingly fighting for the same area over and over, having nothing to do but clean weapons.

"Wish I was a crab sometimes," he said. "Nice and warm down here. Lots of places for houses too." Finally he sighed. "Aw, you can't catch them," he said. He grimaced and drew in a quick breath. "Look like real crabs though," he said."

"What exciting comestible do you prepare, Hackermeyer?" "Huh?" "What's cooking?" "Pork and egg yolk." Guthrie blew out smoke. "Baby poo," he said. Hackermeyer didn't know what he meant until he opened the can.”

The intermittent shelling and its effect on the troops is vividly portrayed. 

"More shells exploded. Hackermeyer felt as if the deafening bursts would crush his skull in. Suddenly, he realized that the cotton had fallen from his right ear. He looked around for it, then gave up and jammed the end of a gloved finger into his ear instead. Overhead, the mortar shells screamed shrilly as they fluttered downward. Infrequently, one of them passed through the latticework of boughs and exploded on the ground. . . "Now he noticed the colorless slime that was dripping from the lacerated tree trunks. As if many men had blown their noses on them. Hackermeyer's gaze moved dumbly from tree to tree. He couldn't stop because he knew that he was looking at all that remained of Linstrom. His stomach started heaving as nausea bubbled in him. Abruptly he remembered what he'd said when Linstrom had asked how close the shells could come.”

Cooley, Hack’s sergeant, is much older -- and wiser -- than the recruits, fresh as replacements, and he has a son in Guadalcanal so he despairs every time another 18-year-old replacement joins the platoon. He sees Hack has a son-figure, but worries that Hack, after only a week at the front, has become manic for killing Germans. Hack, who had lost his father at a young age, wants nothing better than to please Cooley, a sees him as a father figure, but then when Cooley orders him to do something, takes it as a criticism and he despairs of being unable to please the sergeant.

"Nope." Cooley shook his head once more. "I'll tell you what you got to relate, and it ain't weapons to the ground. It's one guy to another guy. You got to teach a man what he can expect from his buddies in combat. If he knows that, it don't matter if the ground ain't worth anything or if his weapon don't even work. He'll still know what the score is." Cooley picked up his new hand. "How do you teach soldiers human nature? . . . He paused. "Look, Hack," he said. "I know I told you it's your job to kill Krauts. It is-and you're doing a hell of a job. But ... well, you got to watch out you don't get so-fired up about it you can't stop. It's a job, Hack, not a way of life, if you know what I mean." Cooley spat to one side. "Let's face it, son," he said. "When we kill, we ain't men, we're animals.”

Matheson, before he began writing science fiction, served as a replacement infantryman and fifteen years after the war wrote this to document his experiences. This was his first novel and some of the characters seem stereotypical, but they work as seen through the eyes of Hack. Cooley is perhaps a bit almost too good to be true, the omnipotent and omnipresent sergeant, but his character fits also. The true horror is that we older folks send off children to fight our battles. Probably one of the most authentic appearing books to come out of WW II. I Would rank it up with the [b:The Naked and the Dead|12467|The Naked and the Dead|Norman Mailer||2223651].

Sacred by Dennis Lehane

Angie and Patrick have more or less given up detective work after a shootout that left them physically and mentally scarred when they are kidnapped by Trevor Stone, an immensely wealthy man, dying of cancer, who wants them to find his daughter Desiree who has disappeared along with Patrick’s mentor, Jay Becker, another Boston detective.

As with most good stories, the ostensible is rarely part of the outcome.  This one truly has a plot built on shifting sands. Take nothing for granted.

I liked the sarcasm and occasional wit.  I’m always far more impressed with authors whose characters work out a solution that doesn’t involve knocking someone on the head.  Show me some intelligence and cleverness and I’ll be a fan. This third in the series has some typical over-the-top violence, but I liked the nifty cerebral elements, particularly the way they solved the dilemma in the end.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Slipping into Darkness by Peter Blauner

How do you find someone who’s not supposed to exist?  That’s the detective’s conundrum.

Francis X Loughlin is losing his sight. He's a cop, and because of the genetically acquired retinitis pigmentosa his future on the force looks bleak. He's always been a loner so this means ever increasing isolation.

Two decades before, Francis had been instrumental in the incarceration of Julian Vega for the murder of a woman. Julian has been released following years of legal appeals he orchestrated, and soon thereafter a similar murder is committed. Now, however, the police have access to DNA technology and some very strange links and relationships lead Loughlin to surmise that Julian may have been innocent.

Blauner does a nice job of balancing the assorted POVs. We see Julian struggling to overcome the hostility of just about everyone, each assuming he's guilty and got off on a "technicality." He's somewhat baffled by societal changes having been isolated for more than a decade. The family of the dead girl still feels they haven't received justice, and Francis battles his own feelings about the case as well as the political powers who have everything to gain by hiding what may be the truth. You feel for all of the characters.

Great title with multiple meanings.

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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch review of Bomber Command by Max Hastings

Whether the intense bombing of Germany was crucial in advancing the allied cause and preventing wholesale slaughter as in World War I remains a controversial topic, still unresolved. The fact remains that many hundreds of thousands of Germans were killed in firestorm raids, whose sole intent, admitted by the British, was to demoralize the enemy. But at what cost. The British lost more officers to aircraft casualties than they had in all of WW I and the pitiful survival rate of a bomber crew was matched only by German U-boat crews. Was this decisive? Or merely catastrophic as Sir Henry Tizard feared already in 1942.

As early as 1920 J.F.C. Fuller, who later became an opponent of using the bomber as a strategic weapon, foresaw "Fleets of aeroplanes will attack the enemy's great industrial and governing centres. All these attacks will be made against the civil population in order to compel it to accept the will of the attacker." Despite the intense debate before the war on the value of attacking enemy cities (and publicly there was a great fear of being attacked from the air given the casualty projections of bomber attacks on English cities) the English bomber command, even two years into the war, was unable to find German cities at night in 1941, let alone bomb them. All of their preparations had been based on totally unrealistic training and false assumptions on the value of self-defending bomber formations.

Prior to the start of the war, there was no understanding of how best to destroy structures using explosives. The high command had preferred using-ten 200 lb. bombs instead of one 2000 lb bomb because at least that way there was a slight chance of hitting the target. Despite their public positions, everyone knew that in reality, bombing was about destroying morale, not buildings.

Attacks on civilians had been verboten for fear of German reprisals. They were even afraid to bomb anything that could be construed as private property. So at the beginning of the war, attacks had been limited to naval targets, objectives they were ill-equipped for, especially since they were directed to fly above 10,000 feet in order to avoid was was ill-conceived to be the principle danger: flak. In reality, it was German fighters who caused substantial damage, but in typical higher rank myopia, the losses were blamed on crew who did not keep tight enough formation. This, in spite of not providing self-sealing fuel tanks (a bullet hit often turned leaking fuel into an inferno) and rear turrets that failed to traverse more than eighty degrees (for fear of shooting their own tails off. Flying above 10,000 feet made the grease in the turrets so cold, thee turrets often failed to rotate, anyway.

The only thing that saved Britain was probably that a decision had been made by the German High Command to invest in light bombers which could be used to support ground troops during the Blitzkrieg. They had more and better planes, but the British emphasized larger strategic bombers although planes like the Blenheim were incredible flying coffins, especially since all the resources had gone toward self-defended bombers rather than any money toward fighter escorts. The Blenheims were sent out in droves. They were shot down by the dozens, often none in a mission returned. The average lifespan of a crew was barely a couple of weeks.

Mistakes were common. One crew that flew through a severe magnetic storm discovered to its horror after their return that they had mistaken the Thames estuary for that of the Rhine and had bombed “with unusual precision, one their own airfields. They were only marginally consoled to learn they had caused little damage, command staff learning more about the failures of their stick of bombs.

Flying one of the early bombers was appallingly difficult. “The flew layered in silk, wool, and leather, yet still their sandwiches and coffee froze solid as they ate and drank, vital systems jammed, limbs seized, wings iced-up for lack of de-icing gear.” "Amidst the hustle of aircrew pulling on flying clothes and seizing maps and equipment, they drew flying rations of sandwiches and chocolate to be returned intact if the exercise was for any reason uncompleted." This is the kind of detail that really brings home what it was like. The idea the crews would have to return sandwiches taken on a mission is so ludicrous as to be beyond Catch-22.

All for little in the way of results and at terrible cost. Reports of results went beyond hyperbole. Air Command noted after a comparison between aircrew reports and photographic results later, that, “the operation does not confirm that as a general rule, the average crews of our heavy bombers can identify targets at night, even under the best conditions, nor does it prove that the average crew can bomb industrial targets at night.” Nevertheless, communiques, completely untruthful, were issued reporting glowing successes.

Some very poignant material in this book. Clearly, Hasting empathizes with the little guy, the ones doing all the fighting and dying. He quotes a letter in its entirety from John Bufton to his girlfriend talking about his fatalism, his inability to plan with the only focus being on keeping his machine running and trying to get enough sleep. He talks about what she should do if he is killed, knowing what the odds are, "go and have a perm...and carry on," and why they shouldn't get married. He died a month later.

Hastings concludes that German industry was astonishingly resilient (their production of tanks almost doubled between 1943 and 1944) but that it was the defeat of the Luftwaffe, especially after the introduction of the Mustang P-51 and the attacks on German oilfields that made a greater difference. Ultimately, it came very late in the war. “It is gratifying to airmen, but historically irrelevant, that they would have destroyed the German economy granted another few months of hostilities. Many of their greatest feats of precision bombing such as the sinking of the Tirpitz -- which would have been a vital strategic achievement in 1941, 1942, even 1943--had become no more than marvelous circus-tricks by the time they were achieved in 1944 and 1945. The pace of the war had overtaken them [on the ground.]”

Hastings added numerous charts and tables showing German war production compared to British throughout the war, as well as some excellent line drawings of the various aircraft involved. It’s an excellent book, filled with with pertinent anecdotes, that deserves to be widely read as a caveat against hubris and arrogance.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Checking sources

Couple of interesting pieces that demonstrate the importance of looking at original sources. I'm no fanboy of organic food so this article caught my attention:  It makes the point and cites a couple of studies that show that there is no evidence that organically grown food is better for you, tastes better, or is safer.  Now, if you look at the abstract of one of the studies cited by the author from the Annals of Internal Medicine (unfortunately most is behind a paywall) you'll note two sentences not emphasized by Pomeroy:

 "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."  Now avoidance of pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria some people might consider a good thing.  Be skeptical and double-check your sources.  (It's the librarian in me.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of When in Rome: A Journal of Life in the Vatican City

“Like most Catholics, I spent most of my life knowing practically nothing about the Vatican, despite twenty years writing, off and on, about religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.” When in Rome is Hutchinson's remedy to that deficiency, a delightful romp through the mores and politics of the Holy See.

It's ironic that being a Catholic you get to see a lot of beautiful naked women. "It's true. You may never have realized it before. I never could understand why thickheaded, drooling Protestants would accuse us of being prudes when they gave the world the Puritans and the Moral Majority and we gave the world Rodin's The Kiss.'The fact is that everywhere you go in the Vatican you find nudity. From the Sistine Chapel to the papal apartments are busty young women and tumescent young men in murals and paintings that would cause an immense ruckus if found on the walls of any university or public library.

Hutchinson set out to write a book about the Vatican that would answer the kinds of questions that tourists might ask, e.g. How much do cardinals make? or Where do prelates buy their clothes? He soon learned that the Vatican is still very tight lipped and secretive. In fact, they distrust book writers more than magazine journalists, because threatening to deny them future access can control those who write for periodicals. Book writers, on the other hand, often write only one. And "reporters are trained to expect politicians to lie to them, but even politicians will tell you something, if only so they don't look as though they are covering things up. But avoid expressing an opinion about any person, place, or thing, unless absolutely necessary to further one's own interests. This timidity breeds an atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia that outsiders find pathological but which curial insiders believe to be the noblest kind of discretion." This means a reluctance to respond concretely to questions leading to this type of fictitious response from a cardinal who has been asked if the sky is really blue. 'The issue is not perception as such, but whether the apparent blueness of the sky to some people, at certain times and under certain conditions, reflects what they are actually perceiving or merely what they appear to be perceiving. You can't, on this basis alone, simply make the bare assertion that the sky is blue. It's a very complex question, one on which many experts disagree." At this point, you begin to develop a throbbing headache at the base of the skull.

The Vatican State as we know it today is of very recent origin. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Papal States covered territory in Italy the size of Denmark. Rome and the Vatican were protected by foreign nations, notably France, until the Franco-Prussian War, when all the French troops were withdrawn from Italy and the Italian nationalists attacked and conquered Rome, in effect, imprisoning the pope in the Vatican. In 1929, Mussolini codified the uneasy truce, and Vatican City became recognized by international law. A second treaty was formalized only as late as 1985. Despite the pope's perpetual support for democratic nations, the church is a highly structured monarchy. The pope's the boss, no doubt about it. He answers to no one - at least no one who's willing to show him/herself politically. Still, every day at noon, a cannon is fired to celebrate the Italian victory over Rome and the pope.

Hutchinson's book is filled with delightful little pieces of information such as how the Swiss guard uniforms were designed, how many uniforms have to be tailored, the contents of the Vatican library, and most interestingly his tour through the secret archives that contain documents of extraordinary historical value. "The dominant trait [of the Curia and Vatican staff] is circumspection - the ability to documents of extraordinary historical value. "The Secret Archives is also responsible for the Vatican's overseas diplomatic missions as well as the staggering amount of material that is received directly from the 2,700 metropolitan sees, 212,000 individual parishes, heads of states, scientific organizations, non-Catholic religious bodies, cultural leaders, and so on. The sheer amount of paper that washes over the Vatican. . . boggles the mind."

The Vatican has been responsible for many scientific discoveries and we owe our calendar to Pope Gregory who- in order to correct errors of the Sosigenean calendar that was off by eleven minutes and fourteen seconds per year- simply declared in a 1582 Papal bull that the day after October 5 would officially become October 15 and that the year would now be 365.2422 days long, making the calendar off only 3.12 days every 400 years. Hence leap years. It was from the Meridian Room (more naked cherubs on the ceiling) atop the tall Tower of the Winds built by Gregory that the astronomical observations were made to provide the corrections.

The story of Queen Christina of Sweden, her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, is fascinating. Particularly as she scandalized Rome by her licentious behavior - she was a flagrant lesbian, and the story of how she came to be buried with the popes reveals a great deal about how attitudes have shifted in the past few centuries.

This is a delightful little volume that makes want to grab the next flight to Rome to indulge in the majesty and glory of living history.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Racing Through Paradise by William Buckley

Sea narratives have always bewitched me. William Buckley, despite his entirely fatuous and egregious non-partisan right-wing "little rich-boy" posturing, writes beautifully about his numerous excursions on yachts of various sizes and shapes to various destinations. Christopher, his son, inherited this fascination for the sea and wrote a charming and altogether fascinating chronicle of a trip on a tramp steamer ([book:Steaming to Bamboola - The World of a Tramp Freighter|516250].

 Buckley himself captivated me with his two earlier works ([book:Airborne  A Sentimental Journey|1977085] and [book:Atlantic High  A Celebration|129858]) In those two in particular he describes in illuminating detail the arcane mysteries of navigation and some of the innovative machines recently designed to take the drudgery out of the mundane yet exacting task of locating oneself in the middle of the ocean. His latest dithyramb,-- Buckley would be proud -- Racing Through Paradise is much less satisfying. He still glorifies in the new technology, this time the Charles Trimbles Navstar Global Positioning System. It is indubitably a marvel, but Buckley describes it almost apologetically, referring to those readers of his other books who were wont to leapfrog the more technical aspects. I found his technological explanations fascinating.

Buckley has an extraordinary talent for clarifying the obscure.
Racing Through Paradise recounts his rapid passage from Hawaii to New Guinea on the yacht Sealestial. Unfortunately for me, the book is less concerned with the passage than with providing WFB with a new opportunity to show the world that the Buckleys still know all the right people and can still use big words in anfractuous phrases. I got tired of reading phrases like "John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, a good friend of the ambassador's [Evan Galbraith, another of the passengers on the Sealestial:] and mine. . . ." Or, relating how Nancy Reagan had called her old friends the Buckleys to wangle an invitation to stay at their estate because surely she couldn't stay at a New York hotel during the hotel strike (perhaps she forgot to consult her astrologer.) Still the book can be a delight, as in passages such as the following describing the discovery of the Azores:

"The islands were discovered nobody exactly knows when (they first appeared, if somewhat astray, on Catalonian maps in the 1350s), [sic:] but the Portuguese got there some seventy years before Columbus discovered America, and get this: Do you know why we are missing the name of the captain who formally--i.e., in the name of the Portuguese king--claimed them in 1427? Because in 1836 George Sand, the French author (who was, of course, a she), [sic:] spilled ink over the one chart that bore the fellow's name (typical of she-authors who call themselves "George"), [sic:] forever obliterating, in those pre-Xerox days, the identity of that dauntless historic figure."

Parenthetically, the story of Buckley's garbage bags and the ensuing tussle in the newspapers of Saint John, New Brunswick, is priceless. (Chapter 3, "The Angel of Craig's Point.")

Monday, June 02, 2014

Slouching Towards Gomorrah by Robert H. Bork

I hate stars.  I gave this book three even though I disagree vehemently with Bork, but it's kind of fun.   His jeremiadSlouching Toward Gomorrah uses Gomorrah as a metaphor for the United States. The book reminds me of the cantankerous old relative at the dinner table who can’t stop talking about how terrible things are today. One can’t even find time to pass the peas. Bork’s thesis is simple: our culture is immoral, and it’s all the liberal’s fault.

Society’s degradation has been caused by radical egalitarianism, radical feminism, popular culture, the Su­preme Court, and rock n’ roll music (which he admits never having listened to). Portable radios share much blame for they permitted youth to listen to music without parental supervision. The Internet (which he admits to never having looked at) is a quagmire of dirty pictures, political correctness, and Afro centrists. He leaves virtually no one unscathed, attacking both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations that are living in a “leftist dream world,” and have become feminized.

Bork’s solution to this state of affairs is censorship, democratization of the Supreme Court, and religion - where this religion is to be found among today’s debased denominations her does not say

The problem with this book is that it’s all assault and no finesse. Never does he engage the reader in a discussion of both sides of an issue. He creates a straw man and then knocks it over. He falls into the trap he accuses liberals of falling into; “assaulting one’s opponents as not merely wrong but morally evil.” He confuses cause with symp­toms. Never does he reveal evidence as to how the Beatles cause immoral behavior. He states simply, “Rock and rap are utterly impoverished by comparison with swing or jazz or any pre-World War II music personally, I always thought swing was the epitome of decadence] impoverished emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually.”

Bork cannot resist name-calling. Liberals are fascist, totalitarian, and Nazi-like. Multiculturalism “is barbarism,” “feminist ideology is a fantasy of persecution.” He castigates those “cafeteria Catholics” who subscribe only to those elements of Catholicism with which they agree and then he proceeds to rebuke the Catholic Church’s call for a “just wage”, calling it “misunderstood economics.” Not an American institution escapes Bork’s wrath: the universities, colleges, government, the arts, the churches and the press have all been indoctrinated by liberals (that must be why we've elected so many Republicans in the last 25 years.)

For a self-defined conservative, Bork has some radical ideas. He would overturn the Constitution and Supreme Court decisions to be overridden by a majority vote of the Congress. He does not explain how, for example, if popular culture and society are so debased, a legislature elected by those debased people will fix Supreme Court decisions. It seems to me the whole purpose of the Supreme Court being immune to public pressure (as Franklin Roosevelt discovered to his dismay) is to provide a conservative brake on society, to constrain the short-lived stimulus of fleeting majorities. He is against an activist court. Not just liberal activism, but conservative as well, suggesting at one point that it all began with the conservative court that wrote into the constitution all sorts of free market principles that are not there. The liberals then just continued this process of activism but from a cultural perspective.

Bork is the perfect example of the circular nature of ideology, moving from far left to far right where they merge to become equally authoritarian. And what do you bet, he visited adult bookstores.

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Plus ca change...

Mark Gitenstein was Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Joseph Biden, during the Bork nomination hearings. Bork had been nominated to replace Justice Powell on the Supreme Court. Gitenstein has written an insiders account of the process in Matters of Principle.

The battle between Democrats and Republicans remains an ideological conflict. Both sides had very different judicial philosophies. Judge Bork argued for a very narrow interpretation of the Constitution; that rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution could not be protected by the federal government. His opponents argued that Bork ignored the ninth amendment that retained rights in the people even if they were not specifically spelled out and that the court had an obligation to protect those rights. (See The Tempting of America by Robert Bork  for a very concise explanation of Bork’s judicial philosophy). Thus, according to Bork, if the Constitution did not categorically state that you could educate your children, you could be denied the right to educate them at home or send them to private school; that because segregation or integration were not mentioned by the framers, segregation was a legitimate form of social structure for states to adopt; and because no generalized right to privacy was articulated, states could prohibit the sale of contraceptive devices or permit wholesale abortion if they desired.

This opposition to Griswold v. Connecticut is interesting because it reflected a complete about-face. In 1963, articulating his libertarian stance, Bork had argued that Griswold reflected a generalized right to privacy even though it was not specifically declared in the Constitution. By 1971 his position had completely reversed. This position switching was not unusual. After all Bork had begun as a Socialist and as a young man had even handed out Communist leaflets. This was an outgrowth of his poor background. After college, however, he decided the way to way was strictly through a free market approach and from there he adopted the libertarian stance, radically arguing against the civil rights movement and legislation as an infringement on a white man’s right to sit next to whom ever he wanted, a denial of his right of association. 

By 1971 he was unalterably opposed to one-man-one vote decisions and court decisions that struck down legislation forbidding the establishment of private schools. By 1937 he was describing himself as a “Burkean” and was irritating his friends on the right by suggesting that a balanced budget amendment was foolish and silly. He was particularly enrage by “intellectuals” (although a major reason for his escape from a Washington law firm to Yale University in the fifties was his desire for a more intellectually stimulating environment.) By Burkean he meant opposition to “broad sweeping abstract principles as a way of organizing society, because they tend to be highly coercive; respect for community, tradition, constitu­tional structure; a willingness to look at a law and ask ‘will it do more good than harm.”’ 

So Bork had made the journey from “Socialist to Communist to New Dealer, to free-market advocate, to libertarian, to strict constructionist, to statist, to Burkean.” His mentor Alexander Bickel (The Least Dangerous Branch is on my TBR list) who had also moved from liberalism to Burke counseled to always push himself and never to cower in public debate, nor fear unpopular positions. That was were he was at the time of the nomination hearings. He was also a prolific writer who enjoyed provoking, as most of the writings were originally speeches that were intended to provoke. Those provocations made it difficult for the White House which was trying to portray him as a moderate replacement for the middle-of-the-road Powell.

Bork’s nomination was a response to Reagan’s failure to achieve adoption of his social agenda. Patrick Bu­chanan, Reagan’s communications director had argued, “The appointment of two justices to the Supreme Court could do more to advance the social agenda — school prayer, anti-pornography, anti-busing, right-to-life and [ending] quotas in employment — than anything Congress can accomplish in twenty years.”
This use of the judiciary to achieve political ends was not new. Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt had personally orchestrated campaigns to change the philosophical nature of the court. The Senate has always considered it to be its prerogative to thwart such ventures.

In the end, Borks’s extremest positions on numerous issues, obvious from a trail of documents, made it impossible for the White House strategy to portray him as a moderate. They lost the support of the moderates and southern Democrats whose votes they needed for confirmation. Ironically, though, a major reason for Bork’s defeat was less his judicial philosophy than the failure of the Reagan administration to publicly support its nominee. Bork had pleaded with White House staff to have the president issue a speech on his behalf; but Reagan never left the sidelines.
Bork’s position - that no set of values was supreme (“there is no principled was to prefer any claimed human value to any other”) is a startling proposition coming from a self-proclaimed conservative and the author of Slouching  for Gomorrah for it means courts would be prohibited from enforcing the values they wanted adopted. This logically led him to the conclusion that courts can only enforce contracts, the Constitution being merely another contract that must be read literally. The judge must not choose between a competing set of values, but must return to the document for a literal reading much like a will.

Perhaps ironically, Thomas Grey of Stanford has pointed out in 1975 that “Bork’s views and those of New Deal liberal Hugo Black were similar in that ‘constitutional doctrines based on sources other than the explicit commands of the written constitution were illegitimate.’” Black has also used a Burkian approach to argue against the Supreme Court’s imposition of arbitrary values and creation of “right” that prevented New Deal legislation. This conservative Supreme Court argued that an employee had a “right to work” for as little per hour as he wanted. Bork has recently stated that the Supreme Court's activism began with this early twentieth century court; that it wrote all sorts of free market “nonsense” into the Constitution. So Bork has argued he was simply using the liberal’s criticisms of an earlier court when he decried the Warren court’s activism. That earlier court had also laid down much precedent for the development of privacy and individual rights, however; a trend that Black noted and Bork has perhaps ignored. In Pierce v Society of  Sisters (1925), a decision that Bork has called “intellectually empty,” the court struck down a law that would have prohibited home schooling

Bork contended the 9th amendment, often used to define rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, is essentially meaningless, yet therein lies the most important core of original intent of the Framers.