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Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

Mini-Gypsy Run the Next

ba-HOLLISTER_8_B_421942468I’m getting ready for another mini-gypsy run, a week-long ride through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and the fever is upon me. Even though I don’t leave until Wednesday the 17th, I got up early today to wash the motorcycle and paw through my collection of riding gear, picking out cold weather stuff. I found some things to bring for my son Gregory, who’s riding with me: an extra full-face helmet, a rain suit and booties, winter gloves. The forecast for Nevada and Utah, apart from the possibility of rain, is for warm weather, but once we get into southwestern Colorado we’ll need to layer up, at least during the morning hours.

So: Tucson to Vegas this coming Wednesday. An off day in Las Vegas Thursday; Greg and I’ll use the time to get ourselves and the bikes ready for the trip, which starts Friday. He’s renting a new BMW 6-cylinder touring bike. We’ll be evenly matched, with plenty of saddlebag storage between us.

The proximate problem is Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and the Utah border, part of which was washed out by last week’s heavy rains and is now closed. From just east of Las Vegas, traffic is being diverted over a massively out-of-the-way two-lane loop through eastern Nevada and part of western Utah before rejoining I-15 at Cedar City.


Considering the heavy long-distance truck traffic that normally clogs I-15, I can only imagine what a miserable detour this must be, never mind the extra hours it’ll take to negotiate it. They’re saying they’ll have one side of the freeway open for two-directional traffic by the time we leave Las Vegas next Friday morning. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but working on a backup plan just in case.

Once Greg and I leave Las Vegas Friday, our planned route takes us about 450 miles to Moab, Utah, where we’ll overnight before leaving Saturday for Ouray, Colorado, which is 150 to 200 miles from Moab depending on the route we take, all of which will be over narrow twisty mountain roads. A gentleman’s ride, with plenty of time to sightsee along the way.

If I-15 is still closed, we’ll ride down to Kingman, Arizona and take I-40 to Flagstaff and spend the night there instead, then ride through the Navaho Nation into southwestern Colorado on Saturday. If we have to go that way, it’ll be a short ride on day one but a fairly long ride on day two … nothing we can’t handle, but I hope we can go via Moab as we planned.

We’re spending what’s left of Saturday and all day Sunday with my friends Bruce and Tamara in Ouray. Greg and I plan a day ride Sunday to take in Telluride, Durango, and Silverton. Bruce has a local riding buddy who wants to go with us and show us the sights. Greg and I start home Monday, overnighting in Cedar City, Utah and getting back to Las Vegas on Tuesday. I’ll ride home to Tucson Wednesday or Thursday, depending on how sore my butt is.

Donna and her friend Dee head for Las Vegas next Wednesday as well. If we can get our stuff together and leave at the same time we’ll caravan north, me on the bike and them in the car. They leave Las Vegas Thursday morning for St. George, Utah, where they’ll spend the weekend at an American Sewing Guild retreat. I don’t think they’re going to wait in Las Vegas afterward for Greg and me to get home from Colorado; they’ll probably drive back to Tucson on Monday or Tuesday.

Our daughter Polly is coming to stay at the house and keep the pets company while we’re away. The pups will be devastated when they realize they’re not coming along, but we’re driving up again in November for Thanksgiving with the kids, and we’ll bring them then.



w1-s1-iraqwrap-a-20140625-870x579Over the span of my life, Islam has been a consistently destructive force. Sure, religious fanatics in other parts of the world have started wars, but for pure hate-driven evil nothing tops the Muslims. Islam turns much of its destructive force inward against fellow Muslims; still, it has plenty left over to direct against Israel, and with the 9/11 terror attacks in the USA and subsequent attacks in Spain and the UK, Islam declared war on the West as well.

The President spoke to the nation last night, outlining a strategy for dealing with the latest outbreak of Muslim fanaticism as embodied by the group called Islamic State. The speech was an obvious (and somewhat craven, it seemed to me) apology for earlier saying he didn’t have a strategy. But what he said last night was no more than a restatement of the strategy he’s had all along: we go after terrorist leaders and kill them, and that’s what we’re going to do to the leadership of Islamic State. There’s nothing new in Obama saying we won’t respect borders in this effort, witness us going into nominally-friendly Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. There’s nothing new in saying we’re going to employ drones and piloted aircraft to conduct surveillance and air strikes; it’s what Obama’s done all along.

One of the last things Obama wants is to go back into Iraq. Probably the very last thing he wants is to invade and occupy yet another Middle Eastern country, namely Syria. But here, I think, his strategy doesn’t match reality. Not going back into Iraq depends on Iraqis being willing to fight Islamic State inside their own country. Not sending ground forces into Syria in pursuit of Islamic State fighters depends on other Middle Eastern nations being willing to do so.

Do the Iraqis have the will to fight and defeat Islamic State? Are other Middle Eastern nations willing to go into Syria to root out Islamic State? The answer to both questions, as far as I can tell, is “Are you kidding?”

Obama wants to restrict our own military actions against Islamic State to air strikes. He says we’re not putting boots on the ground, but American airmen are flying combat and it’s inevitable some of them are going to have to eject over Iraq or Syria, the countries we’ll have to fly over in order to conduct air strikes against Islamic State. When that happens, our airmen will be captured and paraded before the media before being beheaded. How does Obama’s strategy address that?

Like many, I’m sick to death of Islamic fanaticism. I don’t see any viable resolution to the current unacceptable situation in Iraq and Syria. Talk of arming Syrian “moderates” is simply insane. We armed Osama bin Laden as part of our proxy war against the Soviet Union during the 1980s and 90s. We armed Saddam Hussein before that. We armed the Saudis, who, it is finally beginning to be revealed, were deeply involved in the 9/11 terror attacks on America. The “moderate” Syrian rebel groups we wanted to arm a year ago are the very rebels who sold kidnapped American journalist James Foley to Islamic State, which turned around and beheaded him. Working with Muslim moderates is bullshit. We’ve been bitten over and over again; when will we learn?

As for non-viable strategies, there are plenty of those, and plenty of politicians like John McCain who’d like nothing better than to go for broke … and break the world in the process.

We could, for example, invade Iraq all over again, along with Syria. Yeah. Does anyone think we have the national will to do something like that? Does anyone think such an invasion and occupation would require less than a decades-long commitment and a WWII level of mobilization, up to and including a military draft? Does anyone think neighboring states in the Middle East would remain stable in the face of a massive American incursion and permanent military presence? Does anyone think Iran or Russia will stand by and twiddle their thumbs while we march into Damascus?

I must admit, the thought of dropping neutron bombs on Iraq and Syria has occurred to me. Kill the people without destroying the infrastructure, wait for the radiation to die down, then move in and start pumping oil … that’s what neutron bombs are for, am I right?

But now that we’ve indulged our vengeful fantasies, we have to return to reality. What can we do about Islamic State? Obama’s strategy for dealing with terrorist groups has been effective. We haven’t had any repeats of 9/11; Al Qaeda has been emasculated. But is Islamic State just another terrorist group like Al Qaeda, or is it an actual state, like Iraq or Syria? Will the tactics that work against Al Qaeda work against Islamic State?

I wish I could tell President Obama what he should do. Maybe the time has come to form an alliance with the Iranians … but they’re Muslim fanatics too, and not to be trusted ever. How can you work with Islam, period? Damn it, I keep coming back to kill ‘em all.

Obama’s doing the right thing in exercising restraint, in refusing to be buffaloed into renewed combat in Iraq, or, god forbid, a new ground war in Syria. I’m glad he’s our President, and not some warmonger like John McCain. But Obama has to know he’s temporizing; he has to know he’ll be forced to do something stronger when Islamic State gets it murderous hands on American aircrews or some of our “non-combatant” advisors in Iraq.

I’m certain Obama and the military have thought this through and developed strategies to deal with a worsening situation; I’m equally certain he shouldn’t share these strategies beforehand with the American people, no matter how loudly craven politicians and the media howl, because if you reveal your strategy to us, you reveal it to the enemy as well. I think we’ll be there soon enough, and Obama knows this.

Did Obama really need to address the nation last night? If it weren’t the anniversary of 9/11, I’d say no. He has a strategy; he’s had one all along; he doesn’t need to apologize for a verbal gaffe. He’s done a good job of sticking to his strategy; he’s kept us out of the kind of stupid military disasters his predecessor specialized in getting us into. As for tipping his hand to the enemy, he didn’t give them any usable intel: he let them know we’re coming for them, not necessarily how or when, and that is all to the good.

It is, however, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Even if it weren’t for the recent beheadings of American journalists, even if it weren’t for the growing chorus of voices demanding action against Islamic State, Americans would still be thinking about Muslim terrorism, as we do every year at this time. Because of that, I believe it was necessary for President Obama to address the nation and reassure us he’s on the job.

This, then, is my 9/11 memorial post. Go git ‘em, Mr. President.


Monday Bag o’ Randomness

bag of randomFollowing on from Friday’s barbecue grill post: I went to Lowe’s to see if they had replacement side burner parts for my Weber gas grill, but really to look at that combo gas & charcoal grill I’d fallen in lust with. Would you be shocked to learn the combo grill is a flimsy piece of crap, made with third-rate components, something that will morph into a rusted-out piece of patio junk inside of two years? I was, but only briefly. What did I expect for $299?

You’re not going to get a good durable gas grill for much less than the cost of a new Weber Genesis, which is to say about $800, $900 with a side burner. Save for the side burner, we have a perfectly good one. I got on the phone with Weber and ordered a replacement side burner, so all is well. Or will be, as soon as it arrives and I bolt it on.

I’d rather save up for a new motorcycle, anyway. Not that there’s anything wrong with my current ride. Even though it’s a 2001 model, it runs like new and has only 85,000 miles on the clock, barely broken in by Goldwing standards. With new tires and brake pads, all fluids freshly changed, it’s ready for next week’s run to Colorado. I took it up the twisty road to the top of Mount Lemmon yesterday to finish scuffing in the new tires. Here we are, with the mountain village of Summerhaven in the background.

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Mt Lemmon selfie, 9/7/14

In two years or three, though, I’d like to buy a new ride, assuming Honda introduces a new Goldwing. They’re still making the same model I ride, albeit with slightly different trim. Goldwing riders were hoping for a new model in 2015, but alas it is not to be. Maybe 2016? Honda, if you’re listening, we want a six-speed gearbox and an electrically adjustable windscreen. Screw everything else, just give us those two things.

Thanks to Tropical Storm Nestor, moving up from Baja California and the Sea of Cortez, we have rain this morning. The water on some streets in Tucson is up to hood level, friends tell me, but not on the east side where we live. I shouldn’t speak too soon … although I made a quick bagel-replenishment run to Safeway earlier this morning I didn’t cross any of the washes that run through our neighborhood, and for all I know they’re flooded. Some subdivisions in this area are completely cut off from the rest of Tucson when the washes flood, but not ours.

The rain has let up momentarily, and the bird feeders outside my office window are mobbed again. During the rain, the birds hunker down in the branches of trees, the prime spots being branches just below higher branches. I tried to take a photo of a little goldfinch sheltering from the downpour, but she saw me raise the blinds and flew away in spite of the rain. I was able to get this photo a moment ago:

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Windowscape with birds & dog

You can see smaller birds, mostly lesser goldfinches but also a few house sparrows, on the cylindrical feeder to the left, and if you look at the full sized image on Flickr you can see larger birds inside the round feeder hanging from the tree. The dog, of course, is Schatzi, my desk companion, who came in all wet from a potty run during the height of the downpour and asked if she could dry off under the desk lamp. How could I refuse? If it’d been me, I’d have said fuck it and pissed on the floor. Schatzi is a good citizen.

C’mon, Nestor … we need more rain!

Update (bedtime, same day): My friends tell me it’s Tropical Storm Norbert, not Nestor. Sorry, Norbert!


Friday Bag o’ Whatever

whatever_tote_bagI don’t know how long outdoor grills are supposed to last, but we’ve retired one charcoal kettle grill and one gas grill since moving into this house in 1998, and are some years into our second set. The charcoal grill, a Weber, is holding up well, but the gas grill, also a Weber, is giving up the ghost: I went out yesterday morning to fry some bacon on the side burner only to find the burner control stuck in the off position, and no amount of jiggling will free it up.

I looked online for a replacement burner control but couldn’t find one, even at the Weber parts site. There’s a store in town that stocks parts for charcoal and gas grills and I’ll swing by later today.

We use the side burner for things like bacon and fish, mostly to keep from stinking up the house. Our first gas grill didn’t have a side burner; now we have one we can’t imagine being without it.

Donna knows how I think, and she’s justifiably worried I’m not going to be happy until I buy a new gas grill. Right she is to worry, because I’ve already picked one out. Ain’t she a beaut?


Propane and charcoal, side burner and smoker box. They stock ‘em at Lowe’s—if the parts store doesn’t have what I need, I’ll stop by to look at one of these.

If we wind up adopting a combo grill (doesn’t it look like it needs a forever home?), I’ll have to store the current charcoal and gas grills on the far side of the house along with the first gas grill, which we still have—we repaired it years ago and have been hanging onto it for our daughter. I also have my old Fortress of Smoke™, a Weber bullet smoker, and that would join the other retired units. Next time there’s a neighborhood garage sale, we can wheel all three units out to the driveway. Someone’ll take them off our hands, I’m certain.

It’s a quiet Friday for me. Donna’s at work, so I suppose I’d better come up with a dinner plan. Earlier this week we came up short at dinnertime: Donna thought I was cooking and I thought she was, so there was no plan. I popped two big potatoes in the oven, chopped up some scallions and fried a little bacon, and we had stuffed baked potatoes for dinner. They were actually pretty great. Note to self: always keep a couple of potatoes and some sour cream on hand.

Last night while we were watching TV, Donna and the two dogs on the couch, me next to them in my chair, a huge crack of lightning hit just out back. All four of us jerked upright, then looked at one another to make sure we were all okay. We are all one, aren’t we? I bet if the cat had been there with us she’d have done the same thing … well, maybe not the checking to see if everyone else was okay part.

Speaking of TV, Rachel Maddow was on a tear last night, describing former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s contemptible behavior in court. I swear, these Christian “family values” politicians are charlatans through and through … if they thought it’d save their skins they’d throw Jesus himself under the bus. Never trust anyone who claims to be morally superior to you.

Speaking of morally superior Christian family values: earlier this month the USAF discharged an airman who refused to say “so help me God” when he took the reenlistment oath. This is shocking to me, a real step backwards, totally unconstitutional, and I’m astounded the evangelical wing of US Air Force leadership thinks it can get away with shit like this.

“So help me God” was not part of the oath until 1960, when it was added by Congress. USAF regulations, from 1960 until some time last year, exempted non-believers or adherents of non-Christian religions from having to say or sign that part of the oath, but in 2013 the exemption mysteriously disappeared from the books, and now the USAF claims it is mandatory. I don’t see how this could possibly hold up in court, but challenging it is going to take some time and meanwhile non-believing service members are out of luck. What are they supposed to do, cross their fingers behind their backs when they take the oath? Bullshit.

Time to go shopping for grill parts, before this post goes completely off the rails. Have a great weekend, everyone!


Tuesday Bag o’ Clouds (Updated)

cloud bagI guess I’m going to have to learn about the cloud. I know, in general, about cloud computing, which is related to the cloud but not exactly the same thing. With cloud computing, instead of paying for and installing software on your own PC you can access similar software online, often for free, and prepare documents and spreadsheets in virtual space.

As for the cloud, up to now I’d thought of it as virtual storage space, presumably in an account with your name on it, retrievable only by you. When I first heard of the cloud, I thought it might be a dandy place to store backup files.

Caution prevailed, though. I bought my own software and installed it on my PC. I prepare documents on the PC and back them up to an external hard drive. I never took advantage of cloud computing, never tried to access the cloud. I’m a caveman, alright?

I’m starting to think my concept of the cloud is oversimplified and naive. In any case, I’m feeling the need to learn more. What’s prompting me is the recent leak of nude celebrity photos from private cloud accounts. Someone was able to hack into the iCloud accounts of Hollywood actresses and upload copies of intimate iPhone photos to websites like 4chan and Reddit. Surely you’ve heard about this; it’s pretty much taken over the internet.

I’m going to bet the actresses probably didn’t know copies of their iPhone photos are stored in iCloud accounts. I use an iMac, an iPad, and an iPhone. I know there’s something about the cloud in the setup menu of all three devices, but I didn’t look at it until today. It turns out I have a iCloud account. Apple created it for me the moment I bought my first Apple product and registered a user name and password. No doubt there’s something about it in all those terms of service contracts I agreed to without reading.

I looked at the iCloud menu on my iMac just now. These must be default settings, because I don’t remember ever using this menu before: my contacts, calendars, reminders, Safari bookmarks, keychain (whatever the hell that is), photos, documents & data, and a thing called “find my Mac” are stored in my iCloud account, presumably updated whenever I change anything. There are similar iCloud settings menus on my other Apple devices.

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I don’t know how to access the iCloud to see what’s actually there; I’m fairly certain a lot of my important stuff isn’t, and I’m glad I have everything backed up on that external hard drive. Without getting too nuts & boltsy, I’ve noticed that documents I prepare on Apple software just kind of appear when I go looking for them; they’re not in the traditional PC-style hard drive file folders I’m used to. Same thing with photos I’ve taken with the iPad and iPhone. These documents and photos, I believe, are the ones automatically backed up to the iCloud account.

When I use MS Office for Mac software, I save documents and spreadsheets I create the way I did in the MS-DOS days: to labeled file folders on the hard drive. Ditto photos I take with digital cameras and later copy to the iMac: in file folders labeled by year and date. I could be wrong, but I do not think these documents and photos are in the cloud.

Not that I have any intimate photos, but I do want to find out whether or not I’m right about what’s stored in the cloud and what isn’t. Now I just have to figure out how to access my own iCloud account. That’s what I’ll be doing, most likely for the rest of the day. Whee!

Update (30 minutes later): Well, that was surprisingly easy. I signed into my iCloud account using my Apple ID and password. My contacts and calendars are there, but no documents or data. Looking closer, I see that only documents I prepare with Apple’s Textedit program go into the cloud; the few times I’ve used Textedit I never saved anything with it. My MS Office for Windows documents are not in the cloud, as I suspected. Oddly, I couldn’t find any photos at all in my iCloud account, even though the setup menus on my iMac and iPhone say I’m sharing photos with the cloud. Which I guess is good, even though I don’t have any nude selfies (I accept your profuse thanks for that).

Update II (several hours later): Photos remain a mystery. When I call up my iCloud account there are no photos, not even a folder for them. I changed my iPhotos preferences to automatically upload to the iCloud account, but it ain’t happening. Here I am actively trying to upload personal photos to my iCloud account and I’m not getting anywhere. If it’s this hard to do (which seems very un-Apple-like), how did those actresses do it? If they had to negotiate all these wickets in order to do it, then it could hardly have been an accident their intimate photos were in the cloud. That’s how it looks to me at this point.

See, I was right when I said I’d be at this all day!


You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! Banned Book Links

YCRT! Censorship Links

YCRT! Banned Book Review

the sandman vol IThe Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Neil Gaiman (with Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Karen Berger)

My book club selected this under the graphic novel category. We’ll be discussing it during Banned Books Week in September. It’s not coincidental that our selection dovetails with the graphic novel theme of this year’s Banned Books Week.

I’m not anti-graphic novel (see my review of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home); I’m just not interested in fantasy, especially self-consciously dark fantasy. This collection of fantasy and horror conceits reminded me of the proto-Goth phase I went through as a teenager. The grotesque faces gracing every third or fourth page were almost identical to the grotesque faces I drew in my school notebooks when I should have been doing homework.

This collection hit me as much more of a comic book than a graphic novel. There are even a couple of dream characters wearing what look like skin-tight superhero outfits, posed in Spiderman-style crouches. It put me off. The Sandman is for kids, not grownups—such was my reaction, at any rate (call me a snob all you want, I can take it).

The Sandman is listed by the ALA as one of the top banned and challenged graphic novels. I’m interested in the reasons people try suppress books, and I read this graphic novel with an eye to that. The ALA says the most frequent complaints about The Sandman refer to anti-family themes and offensive language. Others complain that it’s unsuited for its intended age group.

Unsuited for its intended age group? The theme of dream and nightmare is a dark one, and the preponderance of illustrations are likewise dark (the printer probably goes through a year’s supply of black and purple ink with every issue). Since The Sandman presents itself as a comic book, and indeed was originally marketed as a series of individual comic books that were later assembled into this collection, its intended audience certainly included children, probably well down into the pre-teen years. But apart from outright children’s fare like Caspar the Friendly Ghost, aren’t most comic books dark these days? I suspect if kids find The Sandman too dark, they simply won’t read it.

Is it anti-family? It’s more that it’s not about family, and the only answer to that is “So?” Usually (in my experience), accusations of being anti-family are leveled at books that don’t feature happy, well adjusted Christian protagonists. That’s a definite strike against The Sandman, if that’s where you’re coming from.

Offensive language? Here I draw a blank. Although I admit to skimming some of the final pages, I don’t remember any such thing.

I saw two things that might energize bluenoses. One, a full-page drawing of a naked woman. She’s a junkie in the final stages of addiction, withered and skeletal, not erotic in any way. Two, a character who appears to be transexual (or at least a cross-dresser). These illustrations, I believe, are the peccant issues. Gay, lesbian, or transexual characters bring out the book-burners every time.

Apart from looking for reasons why people might want to suppress this book, I couldn’t whip up any enthusiasm for it. It’s just not my thing, so I can’t speak to its merits. Obviously, many adult readers love it. I personally think Neil Gaiman has been milking the same two or three fantasy themes for years now, but that’s just my opinion. YMMV, as they say.

- Paul Woodford


Paul’s Book Reviews

“And so it went, sand piling up to the heavens and homes sinking toward hell.” — Hugh Howey, Sand Omnibus

sandSand Omnibus
Hugh Howey

I looked at the different ways readers categorized this book, and one label I didn’t see was Young Adult. That surprises me. Sand has many of the elements of YA fiction: teenaged protagonists, coming-of-age subplots, dastardly villains, complicated family relationships with equal elements of hate and love, dawnings of physical desire, first encounters with betrayal and death, looming disaster staved off by the aforementioned teenagers, and a quest.

These elements, so characteristic of YA fiction, are the same elements that make Sand a rip-roarin’ story. Seriously, once started I could not put this book down. This story will make a hell of a movie, and I hope that happens some day.

I first encountered Hugh Howey through his massive Wool trilogy, originally a collection of shorter stories. I was enthralled with the underground-silo civilization he constructed out of thin air. Great characters, great action, great ideas, great story-telling all around.

Sand—like Wool a collection of shorter stories now assembled in what Howey calls an omnibus—is far shorter, but like Wool, it presents a future civilization that is complete and fully realized.

My only wish is that it were longer. I didn’t want it to end!

joan of arcJoan of Arc
Mark Twain

This novel is in the public domain and can be read free on line. Nevertheless I paid B&N $1.99 for a Nook copy that turned out to be full of optical character recognition scanning errors. If you want to read it yourself, I recommend you do a Google search and find a free copy. Don’t pay for a bunch of typos like I did. Now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, my review of a classic that somehow eluded me until now.

I finished Joan of Arc in a mixed state of amazement and confusion. Amazed that the actual person, Joan of Arc, did everything they say she did; confused by (and convinced of) Mark Twain’s love and admiration, his uncritical acceptance of her beliefs.

I always regarded Joan of Arc as semi-legendary. Not quite wholly fictional, like King Arthur; more like a Catholic saint (which she is, by the way), an actual historical figure who, over centuries, became larger than life through the accretion of unverifiable accounts of miracles.

But no. Joan not only existed, she was all the things legend says she was: the uneducated and illiterate peasant girl who, at the age of 17, led French armies against occupying British armies during the Hundred Years’ War, the victorious general who ran the British out of Orléans and Reims and was responsible for transforming Charles VII, the Dauphine, into the legitimately crowned King of France. The girl who, at the age of 19, was burned at the stake by a Burgundian French bishop allied with the British while Charles VII and the armies Joan had raised for him stood by and did nothing. Her life and accomplishments are documented fact.

They say that what one man can do, so can another. But has there ever, before or since, been another Joan of Arc? Can you name another instance where kings and generals turned over leadership and military strategy to an untrained teenager, let alone a woman? Joan’s historicity alone beggars the imagination. And yet! She existed! She came out of nowhere, convinced kings and generals to let her lead armies and plan military operations—and won!

I’m equally staggered Mark Twain wrote this book (and considered it his best work). Twain researched and wrote The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte (its full title) late in life, long after he had abandoned religion and become an atheist. Unaccountably, he picked as the subject of his research and devotion a superstitious peasant girl who believed in God, archangels, fairies, demons, and the Devil himself, a girl who spoke to saints and angels and maintained to the death that everything she did was at the personal direction of God Himself, a girl who lived in an era when everyone took as a given the day-to-day intervention of God and Satan in worldly affairs, a girl who was tried and burned as a witch.

None of this seems like anything the mature Twain would be interested in, but his love of Joan jumps out from every page. You can tell by the reading that Twain was genuinely moved by Joan and the story of her life and deeds. The only way I can interpret Twain’s embrace of Joan is to speculate that while he didn’t share her beliefs, and in fact rejected the existence of God and therefore everything that underpinned Joan’s life, he accepted that she herself did believe, acting sincerely in accordance with her beliefs in every aspect of her life—and that he admired her for precisely that.

Many say Joan of Arc is unlike the rest of Twain’s work, but I disagree. His dry cynicism, so familiar from his earlier journalistic writing, is on display when he relates the actions and motivations of the little men who cheered Joan on in victory and betrayed her in defeat. What makes Joan of Arc so different is Twain’s adoration of his subject, and large parts of the book are uncharacteristically hagiographic. Granted, Twain speaks through a narrator, the Sieur Louis de Conte, Joan’s childhood friend, later her secretary and scribe during the military campaigns, a man utterly devoted to Joan and quite in love with her. Really, though, it is Twain’s love of Joan that shows through on every page, and no one who reads the book will dispute that. In a way, this may be the most personal thing Twain ever wrote.

I finish this review as amazed and confused as when I started. The book is profoundly affecting. I’m an atheist like Twain; like Twain I’ve fallen in love with Saint Joan.

dear leaderDear Leader
Jang Jin-Sung

I’ve read several nonfiction books purporting to explain life inside North Korea, but only one other by an actual defector. That book was Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. It was the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, as told to American journalist Blaine Harden, who actually wrote the book. My review of Escape from Camp 14 included these comments:

“An interesting but curiously flat and skimpy retelling of a North Korean prison camp escapee’s story. Something is missing here—I expected a more dramatic, more compelling story. And this one is necessarily full of holes, because the escapee shares only the basic outline of his tale with the American journalist who tells it. He never really opens up, and my reaction is one of suspicion—not of the journalist, but of the escapee himself. He says any other prisoner would have done what he did, ratting out his mother and brother to prison guards and then watching their execution. He says he felt nothing, that he did what he was trained to do. And yet he knows what he did was shameful and wrong, because for months afterward he lied about it. We are told that no one—not one person, ever—has escaped from this particular prison camp. Yet members of his own imprisoned family almost casually, it seems, planned an escape, and his own escape and travel to China sounds suspiciously easy (he lingered in the village next to the camp for several days, and no one came looking for him? Give me a break). These parts of his story ring false.”

This defector’s tale is different. One, it was written by the defector, Jang Jin-Sung, himself. Two, the defector was an educated man, a party cadre, and a high-level member of North Korea’s leadership, one of the “admitted,” a man who had not only met the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, but who lived and worked under the Dear Leader’s personal protection as his poet laureate. In addition to his duties as state poet, he worked in the only North Korean party agency with access to information from the outside world. He was remarkably well-placed, a trusted inner-circle functionary, probably one of the most high-value defectors ever to escape the regime.

And three, there was nothing “suspiciously easy” about Jang Jin-Sung’s escape. I have always understood that North Korea has agents in the Chinese border region, placed there to capture escapees, and that China takes an active role in helping NK track them down. What I didn’t know was just how extensive the dragnet is: between NK and China, it is incredibly difficult for escapees to evade capture in the border regions and make it all the way to the South Korean embassy in Beijing (and even there, hundreds of miles from NK, many are captured and turned back over to NK agents)—yet thousands of incredibly brave and determined escapees have made their way to freedom.

Jang Jin-Sung almost didn’t. He escaped along with a friend, another member of the inner circle. As soon as they crossed over the frozen Tumen river into China, the North Korean government alerted Chinese authorities they were wanted for murder, and they had to evade an intense manhunt. They were able to get limited and begrudging help from a few ethnic Korean Chinese citizens, but generally faced nothing but distrust and threats to turn them in. Jang Jin-Sung’s friend was eventually cornered and jumped to his death off a cliff to avoid capture. Thirty-seven days after crossing into China Jang Jin-Sung finally was able to contact a South Korean journalist working in Beijing, a man who immediately realized the value of what Jang Jin-Sung knew and put him in touch with South Korean intelligence agents who were able to sneak him past Chinese guards into the embassy in Beijing.

The escape & evasion portion of the book is one cliff-hanger after another, guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Equally riveting is what Jang Jin-Sung reveals about the inner workings of NK’s leadership: how Kim Jong-Il, about to be supplanted as Kim Il-Sung’s dynastic successor by a half-brother, worked behind the scenes to elevate the party over the military, creating the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung while at the same time making the Great Leader a figurehead and himself, the Dear Leader, the actual ruler, pulling all the strands from the center of the web. He explains how Kim Jong-Il’s feckless mismanagement created the famine of the late 1990s; how NK’s apparently self-destructive strategies in dealing with the outside world and South Korea (asking for aid while at the same time provoking military confrontations with the South Korean Navy) were perceived by the leadership as the smart thing to do; how NK internal propaganda and almost all the articles about the outside world in the NK press are wholly written from scratch by anonymous men working for various NK propaganda agencies.

What drove this well-placed, comfortable member of the inner circle to defect? A vacation visit to his home town at the height of the famine, and the sudden realization that everything about North Korea was a lie. Or so he says. Yes, I don’t fully trust this defector either. I have to assume he whitewashes his own actions, both before and after his defection, and that we’re hearing only those parts of the story he wants us to hear. One detail that sticks with me: he had been living with his parents before his defection, and although he iterates several examples of NK’s official “guilt by association” policy, wherein entire families are arrested and sent to prison camps for crimes committed by a single family member, he never mentions the fate of his mother and father, never speculates about what may have happened to them after his escape.

The contrast between what this defector says about how the government of North Korea works and the speculations offered by outsiders in those other nonfiction books I mentioned at the beginning of this review is a stark one. Outsiders truly cannot understand how things really work in that benighted country. What this guy says rings true. Of course I don’t know whether or not it is true, but once he made it to Seoul he was debriefed for eight months, and North Korea has openly said he’s marked for assassination. Those are, to me, persuasive arguments in his favor.

If you’re the least bit interested in North Korea, this book needs to be on your reading list.

Edan Lepucki

A post-apocalyptic drama set on a small stage, California follows the survivalist existence of a young couple, Cal and Frida, who abandon the collapsed city of Los Angeles and move to the woods to eke out a life. As the novel progresses we learn details of the couple’s earlier life and their connections to a Weather Underground-like movement called The Group. The couple eventually leave their forest home and connect with a larger group of survivors in a fortified encampment where they encounter a figure from their shared past—and The Group.

Edan Lepucki gives us just enough information about the novel’s world for us to grasp the larger outlines: the economy has failed, along with it government, roads, schools, commerce, hospitals; the rich live in guarded, walled enclaves; those left outside the walls scrabble for shelter and food. Pirates roam the land.

The novel is tightly centered on Cal and Frida and doesn’t stray far from them; moreover. everything that happens to Cal and Frida occurs within a ten-mile radius of the shed in the forest where we first meet them. Though more limited in scale, California evokes Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Liebowitz and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam novels. It is more directly connected to such post-apocalyptic novels as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea.

What makes this novel hard to put down is a constant level of tension and threat. Something bad is always lurking nearby, whether it’s Mother Nature, marauding pirates, the strangely hostile fellow survivors in the encampment, or Micah, brother to Frida and former classmate of Cal, a shadowy figure with a violent past. Cal and Frida gradually piece things together from snippets of information they gather but do not necessarily share with one another; this adds to the tension.

My only quibble? Realism. I lived in California and at one time had a house in the woods in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The place is crawling with survivalists; I cannot imagine being able to isolate myself in the wilderness in any apocalyptic scenario—there’d inevitably be hundreds of other survivors trying to crash my party.

I thought California was a very good read. Maybe not deserving of the “Colbert Bump,” which really should have gone to Margaret Atwood (get on that, Stephen), but pretty darn good nonetheless.

into the stormInto the Storm (Destroyermen #1)
Taylor Anderson

Alternate world science fiction, and fairly decent. The novel begins on an old American “four-stacker” destroyer in the middle of a WWII naval battle somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. Attempting to run into a squall to escape pursuing Japanese warships, the crew of the USS Walker find themselves in a alternate world, one where evolution took a different turn. They escape almost certain death at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy only to find themselves facing the Grik.

Sure, it sounds silly, but this is well-written science fiction with fully developed, believable human characters, better than much of the alternate world SF I’ve read, and if I ever find myself short of something to read (an unlikely possibility, considering my current backlog), I’ll pick up the second novel in this series, just to catch up with the characters, find out how they’re doing, and see what happens next.

If I was a writer, I don’t know how I’d decide where to break between novels in a series. I wouldn’t want to leave readers in the lurch, but at the same time I’d want to implant a few threads suggesting where the next novel, and the one after that, might be going, enough to keep readers’ interests engaged so that they’d buy the rest of the series. I think Taylor Anderson ended this first of (three?) novels at just the right place, after a climactic first battle with the Grik. As I mentioned, I too want to find out what happens next—but if I never get around to reading the other novels in this series, I won’t feel let down. This one stood up on its own, a satisfying and fun read.

Ben Bova

I saw this Ben Bova novel at the library and picked it up on reflex, Bova being in my memory a decent science fiction writer. Transhuman turned out to be a great disappointment. Bova is endlessly repetitive, revisiting background and plot points again and again as if he doesn’t think the reader can be expected to remember from one page to the next that Luke doesn’t want his granddaughter to die from cancer or that the treatment he intends to give her inhibits cell growth. He plows these two particular plot points over so many times they almost turn to dust and blow away.

Bova has a thing about ethnicity and race. The coding is what you notice first: if Bova doesn’t describe a character’s race or ethnicity, he or she is white. Otherwise, he goes out of his way to identify blacks as black; Hispanics as Hispanics. If this served the story somehow, it might be valid, but at no point is a character’s race or ethnicity relevant to anything: why, for example, do we need to know that a blonde woman is of Italian heritage, or that the color of her hair a surprise to Luke? Why do we need to know that a nurse, a throwaway character whose entire contribution to the story is contained in one sentence, is black and overweight? Is Luke a bigot, or Ben Bova? At first I thought Bova was working under the theory that diversity sells, but in a later chapter he labels a woman’s genetic makeup the result of “generations of miscegenation,” and the stink of racism virtually wafts from the page.

Bova’s idea of creating a native American character is to give him a black ponytail and have him say he likes flatbread. Otherwise he’s indistinguishable from any other male character in the book. Female characters are likewise interchangeable, and in an epic bit of shallowness, every one of them wants to get in Luke’s pants.

This is poor, poor stuff. It’s not even science fiction, more of a medical/car chase mashup thriller, third-rate Michael Crichton. I can’t believe I read it all the way through, but maybe I just wanted to get it over with.


Friday Bag o’ Crashes

Russian-Dash-cams-22When they didn’t immediately locate the pilot of the Massachusetts Air Guard F-15 that crashed in West Virginia Wednesday morning, I figured he was dead. An eyewitness reported seeing a parachute, which led to hopes the pilot had ejected and survived, but since there’d been no radio contact with him I assumed he’d either been killed during the ejection or hadn’t ejected at all.

Eyewitness reports are often wrong, and this was no exception. About 30 hours after investigators arrived at the crash site they found the body. There had been no ejection.

I investigated an F-15 crash in Alaska in 1985. Talk about remote locations, we didn’t find the crash site for three days, and once initial responders helicoptered in, it took another half a day to locate the pilot’s body. He hadn’t tried to eject either. The pilot from this week’s accident graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1996, just a year before I retired, so I didn’t know him. Nevertheless he was a brother and I’m sorry he’s gone. I always wonder when fighter pilots ride it into the ground, as this one apparently did. Was he conscious? Did he think he could recover until it was too late to eject? The investigators will try to answer those questions, just as I tried to answer similar ones in accidents I investigated.

Going back to a civil aviation accident I wrote about in June, the Gulfstream executive jet that crashed on takeoff at Hanscomb Field near Boston, the NTSB is still investigating and trying to determine causes. Initially it looked as if the pilots had tried to take off with the gust lock engaged, a device that’s supposed to lock the aircraft’s ailerons, rudder, and elevators to prevent wind damage on the ground, but there were contrary indications. One, the cockpit gust lock control, a lever behind the throttles, was found in the unlocked position. Two, the gust lock is supposed to also restrict throttle movement so that you can’t advance them more than 6% above idle—had it been engaged, there’s no way the Gulfstream should have been able to accelerate to takeoff speed before running off the end of the runway and crashing into a ditch.

According to the linked article, the NTSB is still focused on the gust lock, and the makers of the Gulfstream have issued advisories to pilots and operators about the proper use of the gust lock and the importance of following pre-takeoff checklist procedures. As I speculated in June, there might be problems with the gust lock, and Gulfstream has apparently found a failure mode where the gust lock will still freeze the controls but allow full throttle movement. As for finding the gust lock control in the unlocked position, it’s quite possible the pilots moved the control lever when they realized they couldn’t rotate the nose at takeoff speed, but it was too late to salvage the situation. I’m keeping an eye out for the final report.

Moving on to auto racing, a subject I was recently counseled not to speculate about, I saw on ESPN this morning that NASCAR driver Tony Stewart will be racing again this weekend. He’s the driver who ran over and killed another driver at a sprint car event earlier this month. The investigation is ongoing, but as I expected there’s no indication Mr. Stewart will be found at fault. Money talks, and Stewart earns a lot of money for some very powerful men. Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect NASCAR hopes the investigation will be inconclusive and leave open the suspicion that Stewart intentionally hit the other driver. Why? Because it’ll draw fans to the track. Who knows, Stewart might do it again!

I know, I know, I’m a terrible person for taking such a dim view of people, but my god aren’t we a pack of jabbering monkeys? Have you ever watched Russian dash cam videos on YouTube? Talk about curling your lip at mankind, those videos’ll induce it. We’re lucky we’ve survived this long as a species. And if you were wondering what’s the justification for the inset graphic at the top of this post, now you know.

On that cheerful note, I wish you a happy Labor Day weekend. If you drive or fly (or sail, or take the train, or ride your bike), please be careful, because you’re my brothers and sisters too!