Paul’s Thing

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May 2016
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Thursday Bag o’ Cheap Knockoffs

knockoffs-17Some of my Hash House Harrier friends decry the rise of beer running clubs in cities across the USA, calling them cheap knockoffs of the hash and accusing them of stealing our brand. I usually write about hashing on my other blog, but I think this development is interesting enough to share here on Paul’s Thing.

Increasing numbers of hashers complain of being turned off by the excesses of American-style hashing … pub crawls with no running, too much emphasis on drinking, show-us-your-tits bullying, militaristic circles, nasty nicknames … and want to know where they can find a more traditional, friendly version of hashing. Starting a new hash from scratch, as I’ve done more than once, isn’t for everyone.

I suspect the organizers of beer running clubs know about the Hash House Harriers and are intentionally offering a milder alternative. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say … hook up with a beer running club and see if it’s more to your liking. It may be just what many are looking for. In fact, there’s a Monday evening running group in downtown Tucson. It’s not a beer running club, at least not specifically, but many participants enjoy a beer or two at a downtown pub after the run, and a large number of Tucson hashers turn out every week.

There’s nothing sacred about hashing. It’s supposed to be fun. When it quits being fun you don’t have to die holding the hill. Go find something else to do.

Scott, my friend and IP provider, is moving my stuff to a cloud-based server this weekend. I’ve been cautioned to not post anything Saturday or Sunday, so this’ll probably be the last post of the week. A wise blogger would back up his databases today, and that is what I’m going to do next.


Air-Minded: the First Precision Weapons

Most of us think of precision weapons as smart bombs and associate such weapons with military air forces, but they’re employed by navies and armies as well.

The accurate term is precision-guided munition. Definitions differ. Wikipedia says a PGM is a guided munition intended to precisely hit a specific target and to minimize collateral damage. The Department of Defense says it is a weapon that uses a seeker to detect electromagnetic energy reflected from a target or reference point and, through processing, provide guidance commands to a control system that guides the weapon to the target. The Federation of American Scientists says it is a weapon which can be aimed and directed against a single target, relying on external or internal guidance.

I think of a PGM as a weapon that steers to its target rather than following a ballistic path, so my definition includes the air-to-air missiles I carried on the F-15 Eagle. PGM guidance can be via radio command (like the drone on my Amazon wish list), built-in infrared or electro-optical steering (like Sidewinder or Stinger missiles), laser designation (as with most smart bombs), or internal or external radar (as with Sparrows, AMRAAMs, or Patriot missiles).

We have a couple of strange-looking WWII weapons on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum, where I’m a volunteer docent. They are among the first PGMs ever developed. One is a German radio-guided bomb; the other an experimental US Navy rocket-boosted radio-guided bomb.

Fritz-X German WW2 missile

Fritz X (photo: harrypope/Flickr)

The German FX1400 on display at PASM, more commonly known as the Fritz X, was a guided anti-ship glide bomb carried aloft by a Luftwaffe bomber, then steered to its target by radio commands. The Fritz X had flares in the tail to help the bombardier keep his eyes on it as it fell, and he could steer it in pitch and yaw (up, down, right, left). I don’t know if the bombardier controlled it with a little joystick, but I like to imagine he did. The Fritz X was dropped from a height of 13,000 to 18,000 feet, about 3 miles from its intended target.

The weapon was highly successful when first introduced; it scored a direct hit and sank the Italian battleship Roma in September 1943, after Italy negotiated an armistice with the Allies. That same month one scored a direct hit on the American light cruiser USS Savannah, putting it out of action for eight months. The Allies quickly learned how the Fritz X was guided and responded by jamming radio signals, thus reducing the weapon’s effectiveness.


LBD Gargoyle (photo: me)

The US Navy weapon on display at PASM is the LBD Gargoyle, a radio controlled anti-ship glide bomb similar to the Fritz X in concept, but with a rocket that accelerated it to 600 mph, making it extremely difficult for gunners on enemy ships to track and shoot. Some call it a missile, and that may be technically correct. The Gargoyle’s rocket fired upon release from the aircraft that carried it, but only for a short time: after that the Gargoyle glided to its target, steered by the bombardier in the mother ship via radio commands. As with the Fritz X, it had flares in the tail to help the bombardier keep it in sight. The Gargoyle was meant to be launched from a height of 15,000 feet, 5 to 7 miles from its target. The Navy continued test & development until 1947, then cancelled the project.

Germany, during WWII, was the first country to use PGMs in combat. In addition to the Fritz X, Hitler’s forces employed two other PGMs: a rocket-boosted radio-controlled bomb and a parasite aircraft combo consisting of a control ship mated to a remotely-piloted bomb.

Henschel Hs 293 A-1

Henschel Hs 293, Fritz X in background (photo: Steffen Kahl/Flickr)

The Henschel Hs 293 A-1 was a radio-controlled glide bomb, accelerated by a rocket motor after release. The Hs 293 predates the Fritz X, but originally wasn’t a PGM; rather, it was a stand-off weapon, meant to fly a certain distance after launch with the aid of an autopilot, thus keeping the bomber mothership out of harm’s way. Later on, it got a radio control system like the Fritz X, complete with burning flares in the tail so the bombardier could track it visually, which made it a PGM. It was first used in combat in August 1943, when one hit and sank the British sloop HMS Egret (a month before the Fritz X sank the Roma), and was used to sink or damage many other Allied ships between then and the end of the war.


Mistel composite weapon (photo: unknown)

The other German PGM was called the Mistel (Mistletoe), a composite aircraft composed of a parasite control fighter mated to a detachable remotely-piloted drone bomb with a shaped charge in its nose. The Germans began testing the Mistel in July 1943 and eventually produced 250 of them. German Mistel pilots claimed hits on several land and naval targets, but the Allies have always denied it did any significant damage.

Not counting the Gargoyle, which was experimental and never saw combat, the Americans deployed two PGMs during WWII. Both were glide bombs: one radio-controlled, the other radar-controlled.


AZON VB-1 (photo: USAF)

The AZON VB-1 was a radio controlled bomb, similar to the German’s Fritz X (including a burning flare in the tail), except that it could only be steered left and right, not up and down (AZON stands for “azimuth only”). This meant the bombardier had to get the ballistics right before release, but the limited steering meant he could correct its flight path to some extent. We began using it in 1944 against hard-to-hit bridge targets in Europe and Burma.

ASM-N-2 Bat

ASM-N-2 Bat (photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

America’s other WWII PGM was the ASM-N-2 Bat, a radar-guided glide bomb carried by heavy Navy bombers (like the Privateer in the photo above). This weapon entered development quite early in the war, and was originally meant to be guided optically with a television camera in the nose. At some point guidance was changed to radar. I wondered whether the mothership had to maintain a radar lock on the target to steer the Bat as it glided, but apparently the Bat’s radar was self-contained and autonomous, which made it a launch-and-leave weapon, quite advanced for WWII. The Bat was first tested in 1944. It was used in combat in the Pacific in mid-1945, where it was successfully employed against Japanese ships and railroad bridges. The Bat stayed in Navy service until 1953.

And then there was Japan.


MXY7 Ohka (photo: TZ Aviation)

Radio waves can be jammed. Radar can be spoofed. The Japanese went with an unjammable, unspoofable, and expendable control system for their WWII PGM, the MXY7 Ohka (Cherry Blossom), a rocket powered human-guided anti-shipping kamikaze attack plane with a 2,646 lb bomb in its nose. The Ohka was developed in 1944 and saw action during the last year of the war, 1945. It was carried aloft by a bomber, which would fly it to within 20 miles of its intended target and then launch it. The Ohka’s pilot could activate three rocket motors, either one after another or all at once, to accelerate to over 600 mph in a dive, making his kamikaze bomb, like the US Navy’s experimental Gargoyle, extremely hard to target and shoot down. Ohkas sank or damaged seven US warships, mostly during the Battle of Okinawa.

My purpose here was to talk about first-generation PGMs, not current precision weapons or PGMs under development. But I can’t end without at least linking to a Wikipedia entry on what’s coming next, namely, the smart bullet.

You know the old saying about the one-eyed man being king in the country of the blind? My wife worked for a local gun dealer for years and still does contract jobs for him. As soon as this technology penetrates the civilian market (or ideally a little before), I want in. Who wouldn’t want to be the man with smart bullets in the country of dumb bullets?


And Her Little Dog Too

HillaryWitch-365x450My Facebook and Twitter feeds are currently dominated by Bernie Sanders supporters, which would be fine except that over the past couple of months being pro-Sanders has morphed into hatred of Hillary Clinton. Yesterday two different friends linked to an anti-Clinton article ludicrously stating that her policies have harmed women, arguing that voters should therefore support Bernie (who, to my knowledge, has never done a single thing for women, unlike Hillary, who has fought for equal pay and an end to gender discrimination her entire political career). Today another friend posted a video accusing Hillary of freeing a child rapist and then laughing about it.

What’s next? Just ask Donald Trump, because my pro-Sanders friends might as well be taking their anti-Clinton marching orders directly from him. Their attacks on Clinton echo those coming from Fox News, the National Enquirer, the Drudge Report, and the RWNJ (right wing nut job) talk radio fever swamps: Trump’s go-to sources.

Of course one gets a very distorted picture of the campaign from social media (or mainstream media, for that matter). Clinton is still miles ahead of Sanders and barring miracles will be the Democratic nominee. Sanders is not, as his supporters keep insisting, the only candidate with a chance of defeating Trump; I suspect that if it came to it Trump would easily defeat Sanders, who hasn’t been seriously attacked from the right because the right is concentrating its attacks on Clinton. And why is the right concentrating on Clinton? Because she’s the serious threat, the candidate most likely to win.

The old attacks on Hillary … she’s a lesbian, she killed Vince Foster, she laughed about getting a child rapist off the hook … have all been debunked. The new round of attacks … she’s somehow responsible for the loss of American lives in Benghazi, she did something criminal with her email account … come from the same crowd who pushed the old attacks, and have been convincingly debunked as well.

In the past Hillary stood up to these attacks like the seasoned politician she is, but her attackers were all on the right, contemptible scumbags each and every one, easy to refute. Now she’s being subjected to the same attacks from the left, by people who should be her natural supporters and friends. How will this affect her, and how will it affect uncommitted voters’ opinions of her? I can’t help feeling it’s going to harm her chances. To what degree I can’t tell, but I worry about it.

Mainstream media reporters could help with factual reporting and fact-checking, but they aren’t. And they won’t. Breathlessly implying some great scandal is about to break or that the horserace is neck-and-neck gets viewers and readers. Viewers and readers get ratings. Ratings get advertising money.

It’s a trap. How do we escape? I don’t know.

Obama Black PresidentWhen I came upon the Hillary Clinton/Wicked Witch image I used at the top of this post, it reminded me of this actual photograph of a witch-like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer lecturing President Barack Obama on the tarmac of an airport in Phoenix, an iconic image indeed: “the finger point seen ’round the world.”

I hated Jan Brewer. Not just because she was Republican, but because she kept repeating lies about illegal immigrants beheading Arizonans on the border, even after her allegations were shown to be lies. Also because word on the street was she was a drunk. I hated her for trying to undermine the president, but I didn’t hate her for wagging a finger in his face … on the contrary, I’m glad I’m not a Turk or a Russian, that I live in a country where we can criticize our leaders.

This will not long remain the case if Trump manages to get himself elected.

Well, after all that I need some escapist reading. You probably do, too:


Is That a Teratoma in Your Pocket, or Are You Glad to See Me?

IMG_0565How do you like my new eyePhone? Grotesque, no? It makes me think of teratomas, those legendary tumor-like growths that contain hair, teeth, and bones (sometimes even eyes).

I don’t have a valid reason for showing you this photo other than to disturb your dreams. You can thank me later.

I write book reviews and post them to this blog, Daily Kos, and Goodreads. Because of this, publishers sometimes offer to send me pre-publication books in exchange for reviews.

I’m reading one such now, the Ada Palmer science fiction novel you see on the left sidebar. I’m a few chapters in and struggling with the author’s use of neutered and gendered pronouns. In Palmer’s future world the inhabitants use generic or neutral pronouns (them/their) to refer to one another in formal speech. They only use gendered pronouns (he/she) in informal speech, intimate settings, and their own inner thoughts … but sometimes not even then, and there are characters I still can’t identify as male or female. The concept rings false, and moreover is terribly confusing.

The narrator, Mycroft, is inconsistent in (to use Ada Palmer pronouns) their use of pronouns: sometimes referring to characters with neutered pronouns but in an aside identifying them as male or female, never identifying other characters’ genders at all, and at the end of one chapter actually using he/him for a person they then identify as female. Grrr.

I have a hard time believing we will ever be able to strip sex and gender away from the way we think of one another. When I see another person, the first thing that registers is that person’s gender. If I’m reading about someone, consciously or unconsciously the first thing I want to know is whether I’m reading about a man or a woman. Gendered pronouns are natural; neutered pronouns are artificial. Maybe I’ve become ossified in my thinking, but in all of human history have we ever used neutered pronouns to refer to one another? Have we ever been able to strip gender away from identity? Today, there’s a push to get away from gendered pronouns, but it’s not catching on, and we haven’t figured out a way to do it that’s grammatical (sorry, but “your child isn’t doing their homework” is never going to sound right, not matter how many style guides say it’s okay).

I have a motorcycle wheel chock, the kind you roll the front wheel into to hold the motorcycle upright. I use it when I trailer the Goldwing, but it has to be strapped down to keep it from sliding on the trailer floor. Yesterday I towed the trailer over to my friend Ed’s, where we drilled holes through the floor and installed a mounting clip to lock the chock in place. The clip is designed so that you can lock the chock to the trailer when you want to haul a motorcycle, then remove the chock when you want to use the trailer for something else. Here’s Ed checking our work:


Everyone is still talking about that stupid restroom law in North Carolina. I figure if a transgendered man is in the next stall I’d never know anyway. I assume it would be the same for women. Hmm … I wonder whether men and women use the same facilities in the future world I’m reading about now, the one I talked about earlier. Haven’t gotten far enough into the book to be able to answer that question.

What I hate in the here and now is when dads bring small boys into public restrooms. They stare and point and speak things that must not be spoken: Daddy, is that man going to make number two? If I walk into a public restroom and small boys are in there I walk right back out and go look for another place to pee. If I’m already at the urinal when they walk in, forget it, I’m done whether my bladder is still full or not.

As for sex, can you imagine a less sexy place for it than a public restroom? Like they say, these restroom laws aren’t really about restrooms.

I just remembered a story. My F-15 squadron in Alaska was housed on the second floor of a two-story building. Flying fighters was exclusively male in those days and we had just one restroom on our floor, a men’s room. The two women in our squadron, our admin specialist and our intel officer, went downstairs where there were two restrooms, one for men and one for women.

Once a year we invited our wives to the squadron for briefings, parachute harness and helmet fittings, taxi rides in the back of one of our two-seaters, and a party afterward. On that day we covered the sign on the men’s room door with one that said “women,” and the guys had to go downstairs. Except for a young lieutenant named John L_____, who had to take a dump and without thinking went into the upstairs restroom to do it. When he entered the restroom was empty, so he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But as he was doing the necessary in his stall someone entered the next stall, and when he glanced at the floor he saw high-heeled shoes. He pulled his feet up and sat still and quietly until she finished and left, then snuck out of the restroom himself.

No harm, no foul? It would have been, but he foolishly told his squadron mates about his close call. I can’t remember what his tactical call sign was before, but he was forever afterward known as Peeper.


Mother’s Day with Beignets

I’m having a beignet for breakfast. Well, a couple … they’re small. Our son was recently in New Orleans on business and picked up a box of beignet mix to give to Donna for Mother’s Day. I couldn’t tell you how they compare to the real thing, because these are the first ones I’ve ever had.

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That’s my mother on the left: Eileen, who died too young in 1977, but not before raising five children and brightening many lives. We all thought Charles, our father, would die of grief, and for a year he gave every indication of doing so. Then he met Lois, on the right, and after a short courtship they married. I never called Lois mom, because I’d been grown and gone since 1965, but my sisters and I think of her as our second mom anyway. She made my dad happy again, and nursed him through his final illness until he died in 2007. Lois lives today in the house Charles and Eileen bought in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, after retiring from the Air Force in 1971.

As I remind Donna every year, she’s not my mother, and Mother’s Day is a Hallmark holiday. I know exactly what Donna’s thinking: the hell you say.

She’s right. Donna’s not only the mother of our children, she’s as much a mother as a wife to me, and if I go before her I know she’ll care for me to the end, as Lois did for Charles. And this Hallmark holiday thing we all joke about? A base canard.

In 1905 a woman named Ann Jarvis began a campaign to establish a national holiday honoring mothers and motherhood. Congress rejected it in 1911, but by then many states had established Mother’s Day holidays, and in 1914 President Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday. The holiday quickly became commercialized, Hallmark Cards being one of the lead culprits, and by the early 1920s Ann Jarvis was leading another campaign, this time to boycott the commercialized version of Mother’s Day. This is just the American side of the story: different cultures and countries celebrate their own versions of Mother’s Day, and always have.

Then there’s this, which I saw on Twitter this morning:

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 8.37.47 AM

I’m torn. Donna and I have a lot of friends, single and married, who have chosen not to have children. Do they live rich and fulfilling lives? Yes, they do. Do they enrich our lives? Yes, they do. Do I treasure them any less than our friends who have children? No. And anyway, it’s nobody’s goddamn business what choices they make. Why, then, does this tweet evoke such a “go fuck yourself” reaction in me?

Father’s Day, now? A crock of shit all the way. Which doesn’t mean I don’t hope the kids will at least call.

Donna wants me to grill steaks. It being Mother’s Day I guess I’d better, so that’s tonight’s plan, along with Game of Thrones. I hope Cersei’s revenge on the Faith Militant and the High Sparrow is as bloody and tasty as a good steak.

I saw a tweet mentioning a final season of Wallander, due to start airing tonight on PBS, so I set the DVR to record it. I was a bit confused, but I think I’ve figured it out now. There were two Wallander series on TV, a Swedish one and a British one. The Swedish series ended with Kurt Wallander retiring after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, as in the final Henning Mankel novel, so that series is over. The series I’m starting to tape tonight must be the British one, then.

We’ve given up on Fortitude, an Amazon streaming series. We can’t figure out what the hell is going on. We’re about to give up on Twin Peaks, too. We never watched it back in the day, so it’s new to us, but it’s dated and campy … which makes me wonder how we’ll look on series like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Fargo, and Better Call Saul 20 or 30 years from now. I tried to watch Buffy the Vampire Killer, which my friends all love, but compared to Veronica Mars it doesn’t stand up. I’m spoiled.

What else is new? This morning I installed an iPhone holder on the new mountain bike. Rather than buy a wireless speedometer/odometer like the one on the bike that was stolen, I’m going to use a free iPhone app called MapMyRide. Sure, I could carry the phone in my pocket, but the few times I’ve done that I’ve either forgotten to turn the app on at the start of my ride, or to turn it off afterward … if the phone is on the handlebar and in my face I’m less likely to forget to start and stop it.

We were up to almost 100°F earlier this week, but it’s cooled down significantly. It’s in the high 60s at the moment, and I’m actually thinking about wearing a jacket when I go out on the motorcycle, which is my afternoon plan. Donna’s sewing, and I’m going to get out of her hair for a while.

Polly’s at Ace Hardware today, working her shift. On Wednesday she got a call from a former co-worker who had recommended her for a payroll job with a startup human resources company in Phoenix. This is different from the the job she interviewed for a couple of months ago, which was with a similar company and for a similar position (she was told she had that job but that it would not start until July; none of us, Polly included, is counting chickens on that one). Anyway, Polly went to Phoenix on Thursday and interviewed. She thinks it went great; we’re waiting to hear back. Meanwhile, there’s Ace. The friendly hardware place.

All right then. The open road beckons. Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers I know!


Paul’s Book Reviews

“There’s the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself.”
—Jonathan Franzen, Purity
Jonathan Franzen

People I follow on social media no longer like Jonathan Franzen. He must have said something to make them uncomfortable; I’ve seen fashionable opinion turn against other writers for similar reasons, Joyce Carol Oates for example. Sadly, along with their new-found distaste for Franzen the man, they now say he’s not a very good writer. I don’t know what he said to start all this, but I think he’s one of our very best contemporary novelists, and I love his work.

I rank Purity a half-notch below Freedom and The Corrections, both of which I raved about:

– From my review of Freedom:

The almost circular symmetry of the narrative structure, in turn, reminds me of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, another novel I loved. Freedom is a big novel (576 pages) about real people living in real times. You will be frustrated with them, sometimes to the point of trying to shout at them through paper and ink because you know they are really there, separated from you only by artificial barrier of the book in your hands, and they might just hear you if you shout loud enough. You will be, along with these strong and unforgettable characters, hopeful, heartbroken, joyful, loving, angry, despairing, depressed, shocked and rocked by the world’s corruption, delighted with its beauties, and finally hopeful again. I’ll stick my neck out and say you will be . . . as I was . . . not just lifted up but exalted at the novel’s ending. This is old school writing. War and Peace old school. This is our 21st century classic.

– From my review of The Corrections:

I was reminded of Phillip Henscher’s The Northern Clemency, a big novel about ordinary people living what from a distance might look like ordinary lives, but which, viewed from from a closer vantage point, become extraordinary … and extraordinarily fascinating. Franzen, like Henscher, narrates his stories in an old-fashioned omniscient voice, getting inside his characters’ heads to reveal their innermost thoughts, fears, and motivations. In the process he creates real people … people very much like you and me, people we recognize and care about. People real enough to make us squirm in embarrassment, real enough to make us cry.

In this novel, I was never quite in sync with Pip, or Purity, the title character. What the hell is wrong with her, I kept asking … why doesn’t she do this, why doesn’t she do that, damn it Pip get your act together … as you can see, once again shouting at characters through the barrier of paper and ink! Andreas was never a sympathetic character, so I was not surprised by my distaste for him (obviously the reaction Franzen hoped to create in readers); Tom and Leila were my friends in this novel and I constantly found myself wishing them well. Anabel … a perfect and believable devil.

And it’s a hell of a story, too, with side stories (the mishandling of nuclear weapons at a military depot, for one) I wish Franzen had fleshed out, more than enough to keep me turning pages.

My one irritation with Purity is Franzen’s use of a deus ex machina, and it’s a hell of a one, a thing that simply doesn’t happen in real life, at least real life as I have experienced it. I bought the idea of Andreas unearthing the goods on Tom, Anabel, and Pip, manipulating Pip to get at Tom. It wasn’t that far-fetched, at least in the context of this novel. No, what I didn’t buy was the hellaciously large inheritance. What is this, The Princess Diaries? I thought it a lazy trick, and I’m surprised Franzen employed it.

Overall, though, this was a four-star novel, only slightly less worthy than Franzen’s previous novels, and I quite enjoyed it. There’ll be no dissing of Jonathan Franzen in my house!
world treasury sfThe World Treasury of Science Fiction
David G Hartwell, editor

I’ve read hundreds of science fiction anthologies over the years. I never expect to read more than two or three memorable stories per collection; the rest are always second-rate filler. Not this time.

I picked this anthology up at a public library sale of discontinued books, which means it’s likely out of print, and that’s too bad. It’s a 1,000-plus page collection of short stories and novellas, featuring many of the great science fiction authors and several less familiar foreign writers: Kurt Vonnegut, John Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, J. G. Ballard, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Wolfe, John Updike, Stanislaw Lem, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frederick Pohl, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Antony Burgess, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. Every story is outstanding; there are no B-sides. The publisher must have paid a fortune in royalties.

I had read a few of the included stories and novellas when I was younger. I’m happy to say they stand the test of time and are still excellent. Many stories in this anthology were new to me; they too are brilliant. I was thrilled to find the collection included Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which I’ve been wanting to re-read for some time (it was even better than I remembered, by the way). And I must say this: damn, Theodore Sturgeon rocked!

I’m telling you, this is the best SF anthology I’ve come across. I just checked: it is, sadly, now out of print, but used and some new copies are available on Amazon. If you collect science fiction anthologies, you’ll want this one in your collection.
all that isAll That Is
James Salter

Previously I had read Salter’s The Hunters and Cassada, two early novels based on his experience as a USAF fighter pilot in Korea and Germany. Reading up on Salter’s writing career, I was saddened to learn he later described these novels as youthful and not overly worthy of attention. I thought both were excellent; easily the best military flying novels I’ve read.

All That Is was Salter’s last novel, and more reflective of his later work as a novelist. I am reminded of John Updike and John Cheever, also chroniclers of modern, white, middle-class, Eastern seaboard American males in the era between 1950 and 1980. Salter writes more sparingly than Updike or Cheever, and some compare him to Hemingway in this regard, though I do not see the similarity. Salter is able to communicate much with few words, but he does not make me think of Hemingway.

Philip Bowman, the novel’s main character, muddles through. He serves in the Navy in WWII, comes home, goes to Harvard, lands an editing job with a publishing house in New York City, marries, divorces, takes a lover, moves on to another lover, finally settles down with a third. He is happy, he is sad, he earns our sympathy and concern, he moves on as one must. He commits an uncharacteristic act of revenge on a lover who betrayed him, an act foreshadowed earlier in the novel (Salter is full of such tricks, and they are part of the delight of reading him). Philip is not given to self-knowledge or grand revelations; he never changes his lifestyle or tastes. His is a simple story, wonderfully told.

Salter adopts an omniscient narrative view, sometimes disconcertingly, as when he goes into the heads of characters interacting with Philip. Rather than showing us the other people in Philip’s life and work as Philip would see them, through a fog of assumptions, misunderstandings, and incomplete knowledge, Salter will suddenly focus on this or that supporting character and reveal to us all of his or her secret fears and motivations, things only an all-seeing god … or a novelist … would know. I found it rather jarring, but after the first few instances accepted it as a narrative technique; the novel is as much about Philip Bowman’s family, friends, enemies, and lovers as it is about Philip. Philip, of course, never shares in the secrets Salter reveals to the rest of us.

I mentioned Updike and Cheever and their white middle-class male characters, and I can’t resist also mentioning Don Draper of the TV series Mad Men, because Don Draper could have stepped out from the pages of either novelist, and very much resembles Philip Bowman. They are both men of a certain class, time, and place. Some reviewers have leveled a charge of sexism against James Salter and this novel, but to my mind that’s like accusing Mad Men of sexism. It’s what the show is about; it’s what the novel is about. Yes of course it’s sexist, and so?

I love Updike, Cheever, and Jonathan Franzen (haven’t yet offered him up as a point of comparison, so I may as check that off my list now). I love their mainstream American novels. Salter was their equal, a writer’s writer.
new moonNew Moon (Luna #1)
Ian McDonald

I loved McDonald’s The Dervish House and River of Gods. I didn’t get into Desolation Road and never finished it. I’d rate this one just a little below the first two, far above the last.

All four novels involve serious, detailed, visionary world-building. Honestly I don’t know now why Desolation Road didn’t grab me like the others. It’s still on my Kindle, and maybe I’ll give it another go. But on to New Moon.

The world McDonald builds here is an industrial moon, inhabited by a million or so strivers, a cutthroat society with few laws beyond a basic rule, which is that everything is a commodity which much be paid for: oxygen, water, food, protection from the fatal outside. Ayn Rand goes to the moon.

McDonald’s worlds are social, financial, cultural, and physical. You know he’s done a thorough job when you can imagine yourself living in one. I could see myself making it on his moon, right up until I began to slow down from age, at which point I’d be chucked out an airlock onto the surface, where I’d instantly die. His lunarians, a colorful lot, have built an almost feudal society, dominated by five families, or dragons, but the dragons are always feuding and catastrophe looms.

I don’t want to give anything away, but things do come to a head here, and it is an exciting and satisfying read. Still, there’s a rest of the story, which for now remains untold. I understand McDonald plans a second book in this series; when it comes out I’ll definitely read it.
hunter killersThe Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels, the Band of Maverick Aviators Who Flew the Most Dangerous Missions of the Vietnam War
Dan Hampton

I borrowed this book from a friend and read it over the course of a few weeks. I’m a volunteer docent at a large air museum, where I talk about fighters and other aircraft to visitors from around the world. I’m slowly building up my base of knowledge on WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, since those are the conflicts many of our museum aircraft flew in. Because of my interest in the Vietnam air war and the Wild Weasel mission in particular, I was eager to read Hampton’s book.

I learned a lot, particularly about the early days of the air war in Vietnam, where we were caught flat-footed by North Vietnam’s introduction of surface-to-air missiles, and the rapid catch-up response by the USAF and other services, leading to the development of hunter-killer teams and eventually to the Wild Weasel program. I always knew it was a dangerous mission; I now know it was far more dangerous than I had thought, with loss rates approaching 50% in the early years.

Dan Hampton is at his best when reconstructing individual SAM suppression flights into hostile territory. He brings life to the pilots and weapon systems operators who went looking for SA-2 sites in their F-100s, F-105s, and F-4s, and those parts of the book are exciting reads. Also interesting, and well told, are his explanations of the route packs, tanker tracks, airborne command & control assets and how they worked, and the integration of SAM suppression missions into the larger air war.

Large sections of the book, however, are given over to dry Wikipedia-style explanations of the Vietnam war itself, focusing on high-level political and military decision-making at home, and these parts of the book are slow going. I perked up when Hampton slammed Strategic Air Command leadership and planning while describing the stupidly-conducted Linebacker II B-52 attacks on Hanoi during the last weeks of the war, but otherwise a lot of the background information seemed not only unessential to the story Hampton was trying to tell, but had the effect of detracting from it.
saturn runSaturn Run
John Sandford, Ctein

A fair stab at mass-market science fiction by an author who normally writes mass-market thrillers (that would be John Sandford … I have no idea what this “Ctein” character contributed to the novel). Saturn Run was a good enough story to keep me turning pages, but I wouldn’t call it good science fiction: the characters are thin, the plot predictable from the beginning, the alien encounter as awe-inspiring as a trip to Ikea (which is pretty much what it amounts to) … the sense of mystery, wonder, and uncanny otherness I look for in first-encounter stories was entirely absent. Competent but not the kind of SF I care to read.


You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
trump reading
YCRT! News
In the last YCRT! I mentioned a Canadian comedian who is being investigated by a Quebec human rights commission over a joke. Well, get a load of this: a German comedian is being prosecuted for mocking Turkish President Erdogan. And no, not in Turkey, but in Germany. His prosecution was authorized by no less a figure than German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, a substitute teacher was terminated for uttering the word “vagina.”
Good news from Northville, Michigan, where parents had challenged the use of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye in a 12th grade AP English class. The school district, after review, is keeping the novel in the AP curriculum.
Contrast this with the actions of the school district in Henning, Minnesota, where after a single parental complaint about the graphic novel This One Summer, the book was summarily removed from the school library. The difference? The Michigan school district has a formal policy to follow when books and study materials are challenged. The Minnesota district doesn’t.
In Rainier, Oregon, copies of It’s Perfectly Normal, a children’s book being used in a 6th grade sex education class, were inadvertently left on a table in the school library where they were seen by 4th grade students. Parents are now challenging it and other books used in the sex ed curriculum.
From the excellent Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge blog, an essay on the first book to be banned in America, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, published in 1637.
The American Library Association has released its list of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2015. Topping the list is John Green’s young adult novel Looking for Alaska, frequently mentioned in previous YCRT! posts.
Looking for Alaska has lately been under siege in Marion County, Kentucky, where a parent described it as “filth” in a formal complaint, saying assigning it to high school students would encourage them “to experiment with pornography, sex, drugs, alcohol and profanity.” Local book banners didn’t just want Looking for Alaska removed from the high school curriculum and library, they wanted the 12th grade teacher who assigned it fired. After a contentious school board meeting, at which teachers, librarians, and outside anti-censorship groups testified in favor of the novel, the board elected to keep Looking for Alaska in the curriculum.
In honor of this small but important victory, I’ll conclude this YCRT! post with my previously-published review of Looking for Alaska, along with a recently-released video recorded by the author, John Green.
YCRT! Banned Book Review
Looking for Alaska
by John Green
From a previous YCRT! post:
“’How can I raise my child in a Christian home when he is required to read about this?’ That’s what a parent said about John Green’s young adult novel Looking for Alaska. The local paper described it as a book about ‘kids gone wild with porn, sex, drugs, alcohol, and death at a boarding school.’ Sadly, the school board took the book off the required reading list for AP English.”
Looking for Alaska is a coming-of-age story, one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. Published in 2005, it won multiple awards for fiction and youth fiction, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Printz Award. It’s on advanced placement English reading lists in high schools all over the country, and is exactly the kind of book intelligent teenagers want to read. Not only that, it’s the kind of book intelligent teenagers will recommend to their friends. It’s about them, after all. It captures perfectly the intensity of their inner lives, their allegiance to friends, their curiosity about the world, their first adventures into adult pleasures and vices … including, of course, sex.
The story is narrated by Miles, aka Pudge, a loner who transfers to a private Alabama boarding school. For the first time in his life he finds himself among like-minded kids, bonding with a small group of male and female students who share his love of reading and curiosity about life. He begins to share in their more adventuresome activities, including smoking, drinking, sneaking out at night, and pulling memorable pranks.
John Green gave Looking for Alaska an interesting structure. The climax of the book—the kids’ devastating introduction to the starkest adult experience of all, the death of a beloved friend—happens in the middle. Miles’ narrative, which reads like a diary, counts down to the climax with chapter titles like “One Hundred Days Before,” then climbs up from there with later chapters like “Fifty Days After.”
Looking for Alaska is beautifully written. Even as a 65-year-old reader I felt the tug of wonder and anticipation I once felt as a teenager—and I too fell in love with Alaska. That’s good writing.
So what’s the deal with parents wanting this book banned? Referring back to the newspaper article I linked to above, that particular school district notifies parents ahead of time what books students will read in advanced placement English classes. Books with mature themes are supposed to be asterisked so that parents can notify teachers if they want their children to read other books instead. In this case, Looking for Alaska was not asterisked, and parents did not know ahead of time their kids would be reading a book that mentions blow jobs.
Okay, I can see that. I read the book, and there is indeed a short passage about a blow job. If I had a 12- or 13-year-old, I’d probably squirm if I knew he or she was reading this book. Older kids, though, like the high school students in question? No problem, at least with me. There’s nothing erotic or pornographic about that brief passage, and oh by the way do you remember what your and your friends obsessed about back in high school? I’m willing to bet cigarettes, booze, and sex—especially sex—were as high on your list as they were on mine.
But it’s not just one school district, or one group of outraged parents. Looking for Alaska has been challenged again and again, all around the country, whether or not parents had the option to choose other books. Conservative book-banning sites like do their best to whip up religious groups and concerned parents, misleadingly conflating the mere mention of sex with pornography, then taking the lie one step further by claiming that pornography is being forced upon innocent 12-year-olds by subversive teachers.
I’m going to insert here part of another reader’s review of Looking for Alaska, a school librarian with direct experience of one of many attempts to ban the book.

The media specialist that I worked with purchased this book for the middle school library. The library lady (at-the-time) was fanning through the book, when the words “blow-job” jumped off the page and slapped her in the face! From there it just spiraled out-of-control and the book was scanned for every “f” word and sexual act that could be found. Needless to say a big book cleaning (banning) took place and a group of closed-minded people were able to remove 60 books from the library. All of these left the shelf without going through any proper consideration. I have the list of books. I’ve been reading them a few at a time. I’ve been slowly adding some of them back to the library, but this time they are flagged in the system. A permission slip with information about the book is printed out and signed before a student can check out any “objectionable” book. I have no respect for the media specialist, (he no longer works for the school … yippee). He never fought for any of the books but even more important, he had no idea what he was ordering. I would NOT put this book in the middle school, but it did not stop me from allowing my 13 year-old son to read this before me.

Here is John Green himself, discussing Looking for Alaska and some of the many attempts to ban it:


Road Trip Photoblog

Last Thursday Donna and I loaded the truck and trailer and drove to Las Vegas for a long weekend with the kids and grandkids. Polly didn’t come with us, so not all the kids (we did bring the doggies along, though).


Loaded up

In the truck, out of sight, are our first bicycles, the matching hybrids we started out with ten years ago, on their way to a new home with our son and daughter in law. The motorcycle? Well, duh … it was the weekend of the annual River Run in Laughlin, Nevada, and my son and I planned to participate. For me, it was mostly a motorcycling vacation; for Donna, a chance to see our family and do a little sewing with Beth.

The trip up was fantastic, an eight-hour drive through some of the prettiest parts of Arizona and southern Nevada. The new trailer was great, rock solid under tow, the anchor points and ramp a perfect match for the Goldwing. The dogs, as always, were excited to go, and once we got to the kids’ house they fit right in with their other family.


Doggie potty break in Wickenburg AZ



Dinner with Gregory, Quentin, and Beth

Gregory picked up his rental BMW Friday. We planned to ride to Laughlin Saturday, the last official day of the River Run, but it rained heavily until two in the afternoon, too late to ride down. We rode out to Blue Diamond and Red Rock late in the afternoon, and had to ride home in a heavy downpour as the last big thunderstorm cell passed over Las Vegas.


Gregory giving Quentin a ride on the BMW

Luckily, Gregory was able to extend the BMW rental through Sunday, which turned out to be a perfect day for our ride. We left Las Vegas early, stopped for breakfast at the little airport-slash-casino at Cal-Nev-Ari, then rode over the hill into Laughlin.


Admiring a Piper Tri-Pacer at Cal-Nev-Ari

Although River Run was officially over, there were still plenty of motorcyclists on the road and in town, even a few vendors still open for business. I looked at a leather vest, hoping to find a steal, but when I put my hand in the pocket there was a hole in it and it dawned on me for perhaps the millionth time you get what you pay for. Gregory bought a sleeveless biker shirt, the only one he could find that didn’t have a Harley on it. Oh, did I mention out of the hundreds of motorcycles we saw on the roads in and out of Laughlin, all but three were Harleys, and two of the three were our own rides?


Gregory with his swag in Laughlin NV

Here’s a short GoPro video of us leaving Laughlin:

5_1_16_4 (Converted)

We rode home via Searchlight, Nevada, then down the hill to Nipton, California. From Nipton we took I-15 back into Nevada and Las Vegas. A nice day’s ride.


Hotel Nipton



Nipton Trading Post

While we were riding Donna and Beth went out for manicures, then did some sewing together. Now Beth is talking about coming down to do a little more sewing with Donna, and our grandson Quentin is starting to plan his summer visit. We got to spend some time with our granddaughter Taylor, and even had a lovely dinner with her, which is rare since she works odd hours at a local gym. I wish Polly had been able to come with us. It would have been nice to have our entire family together again, at least for an updated photo. Well … maybe this summer.

Poor Schatzi got into her host dogs’ food the first night and ate so much she was bloated and listless the entire time we were in Las Vegas. She perked up when it was time to drive home, and now she’s fine. Next time we’ll make her wear a muzzle!


Schatzi suffering from gluttony

The drive home on Monday? Every bit as great as the drive up. Gregory helped me get the motorcycle on the trailer and we were on the road by eight. The doggies are veterans of the Tucson-Las Vegas run and sense when we’re getting near our favorite rest stops.


Donna, Gregory, Buc, and Piper

We’re home now and everything has been put away. Our dogs love to go on road trips, but they love being home again even more, and I guess we’re a lot like them. Donna’s gone to the commissary to stock up on food, Polly is working in the garden, and I’m about to wash the rain and road grime off the Goldwing.

If you want to see more photos and videos, visit my photostream on Flickr. p.s. I didn’t bring the big DSLR on this trip … all the photos were taken with my iPhone.