Category Archives: History

Russian Information Warfare by Bilyana Lilly

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As the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-general A.V. Kartopolov remarked on April 15, 2015, “if in the past war was 80 percent combat operations, and propaganda was 20 percent, then in wars today 90 percent of activities consist of information warfare.”

Russia’s information warfare is sustained and unceasing, and, therefore, so should be our defenses.

In George Orwell’s 1984 there are three super-states, Oceania (North and South America, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Eurasia (The Soviet Union and Europe), and Eastasia (China, Japan, Korea, northern India). While the boundaries of the superstates have not come to pass quite as Orwell imagined, one could easily see similarities in the power centers of 2021, with China atop Eastasia, Russia atop Eurasia (without Western Europe, of course, although that is becoming a bit squishy), and the USA atop Oceania. One of the elements of Orwell’s if-this-goes-on imagined dystopia was a state of perpetual war.

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Bilyana Lily – image from Warsaw Security Forum

There is plenty of incentive for those in charge of societies to sustain a war-based economy, whether or not actual wars are fought. War has always been pretty lucrative for some business interests, and offers cover for those in power to attack dissenters as unpatriotic. It has been the case for as long as there have been nations that countries will spy on and seek to manipulate other countries for their own benefit and/or protection. The tools for doing this are diverse, including spying, diplomacy, seeking to impact elections, and the more kinetic special ops, targeted assassinations, and actual tanks-and-planes attacks. But the range of available tools has grown considerably in the last generation. The means for gaining insight into,and of manipulating, the leaders and populations of other countries have become widely available. One result of this is the realization of one of Orwell’s dark visions, albeit in a different form. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has been engaged in a ceaseless war on other nations for a long time. This warfare does not always entail the use of heavy machinery. It was not tanks that impacted the 2016 presidential election in the USA. It was new, diabolical, and effective weapons of mass communication. The internet, with its social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and countless lesser applications, has made everyone accessible, and vulnerable.

Moscow’s attempts to sow popular distrust in governance would not stop after the elections, which are only one event, but would continue after the elections when Russia may attempt to exploit socially divisive themes that could increase suspicion in democratic institutions. And drive communities further apart.

Dr. Bilyana Lily has been looking at this for some time. Born in Bulgaria, she has seen Russian actions from a perspective shared by few general readers. She earned a Masters degree from Geneva Graduate School, in International Relations and Affairs, got another MA at Oxford University, specializing in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies, and her PhD from Pardee RAND Graduate School. She has worked at the Bulgarian mission to the United Nations, led DoD research efforts out of RAND, designing analytical tools to predict cyber incidents, and worked on RAND’s election cybersecurity project. Oh, yeah, and she’s a paramedic. Probably has an invisible plane tucked away somewhere, too.

She defines her terms. Just what is considered Information Warfare? How does it fit within Russia’s military planning program? What are each of the actions intended to accomplish? What are the tools the Russians use? Lily selected seven attacks that met her criteria. She limited her study to publicly available information. So, no state secrets are in any danger of being revealed here. She took out of play some attacks that any reasonable person would deem to be at least partly Russia-based, but which lacked publicly accessible confirmations. She looks at what prompts Russia to act and considers differences in how it goes about its operations.

Several chapters of the book are about process. Here is what I am doing. Here are the things I am looking at and the things I am ignoring. Part of this is to talk about a tool she has developed for presenting the gathered information in a graphical format. It could come in handy if you need to update your boss, who is averse to reading. I know, hard to imagine. It may be of considerable use to Intelligence Community (IC) workers, but really, for the rest of us, that element of the book is skippable. It makes for slow, tough reading.

Chapter 1, however, on how Russia sees the world, and thus justifies their actions, is fascinating. It explains a lot. Russian leaders tend to the paranoid and are blind to their own crimes, and the legitimate security concerns of other nations. They see, for example, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the Afghanistan invasion by NATO, the Iraq wars and the operations in Libya as all illegitimate US led attempts at regime change. But Libya was not US-led. If anything, the USA was dragged into that. Afghanistan was the result of 9/11. The first Gulf war came about after Iraq invaded its neighbors, and the West got involved in the former Yugoslavia to prevent Serbian genocide of its neighbors. I guess everything the West does is bad and everything Russia does is ok. They do feel outgunned by the West, though, so feel justified in utilizing asymmetric tactics against their perceived enemies.

Lily uses seven case studies of Russian info warfare. Therein lies the strength of this book. Bet you recognize in the actions taken against other nations many of the actions taken by Russia against the USA. And it will make you very suspicious about the behavior of many on the far right as to exactly what relationships they have with Putin’s Russia. Who is “Q” for example? Personally, I would bet that Q is either a Russian him or herself, was paid for by Russia, or at the bare minimum, was trained and/or advised by Russia. Moscow seeks to foment discord in states it wants to impact. This does not cease when agreements are arrived at over this or that. It does not cease when guns are put down in a conflict here or there. Warfare for Russia is a permanent state. They are always trying to pit group against group, whether in the USA, France, Germany, or any other nation which has interests that clash with Russia’s.

…this book analyzes under what conditions, in what contexts, and in what combinations with other nonmilitary and military measures Russia has employed certain types of cyber operations. In particular, this book explores what conditions have been associated with the employment of various types of Russian state-sponsored cyber operations against political IT infrastructure of NATO countries and invited members.

Lily arrives at some conclusions about what the parameters are that define what Russia will do, and how far it will go. For some countries, this and then that. For other countries, only this. And it looks at what Russia hopes to accomplish with various actions. In some cases, there is hardcore spying involved, assassinations, bombings, concerted attempts to disrupt electoral systems, for example. But in others, Russia acts merely to undermine people’s confidence in electoral systems, or the viability of target governments.

If we had paid more attention to Russian military doctrine, we could have been better prepared for what happened in 2016. [in Russia’s attack on the USA election] – from the JSOU presentation

Gripes – When I was in graduate school, a professor once said that the standard format for reports to be submitted, not only in his class, but in the jobs we were training for, was 1) Say what it is you are going to say 2) Say it, and then 3) Say what it is you have just said. Lily follows this formula not only for the overall book, but within each chapter. It makes life particularly easy for those looking to speed read their way through this, but for those of us who insist on reading every word, that element was a bit of a chore. It reads as a very academic paper. No problem for folks in the field, but off-putting to the more casual reader. While it is understandable that Lilly restricts her case studies to those with publicly provable Russian connections, I was yearning for her to go a bit beyond, and incorporate looks at instances in which it is plain what is going on, despite there not being public proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not gripes – Clearly explaining Russia’s motivation and world view. Read these case studies and you will recognize much that is going on all around us, get a sense of how Russia goes about manipulating populations. Breaking down the methods, aims, and impacts lets one talk about information warfare in specific, rather than general terms, and thereby consider actions that target individual elements for ways to defend.

It is often the case that analytical books that delve into political or social problems offer excellent insight, but fall short when it comes to offering real-world solutions. One can look at successes that targeted nations have had in beating back or preventing Russian Info attacks, and seek to apply those best practices across the board, for NATO nations in particular. Thankfully, some of Lilly’s advice seems doable.

She recommends that states should make public more of the information on cyber operations and actors directed against them, to help understand Russia’s playbook. There are benefits to be had beyond that as we saw recently, when President Biden publicly outed Russia’s plan to fake attacks on Russians and blame Ukraine, as a justification for their invasion. She also recommends transparency in political party funding sources. This really is a no-brainer, but the reality is that it is currently, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a non-starter federally in the USA where so many of those in charge of making the laws benefit directly from that very secrecy. She also recommends federal funding of cyber-awareness training for state and local campaigns. I can certainly see this meeting resistance from those legislators who might benefit from external interference in our elections. It might have a chance in individual states as a state program. There are more. It is a mixed bag, containing no silver bullet. The inherent conflicts of interest will keep the USA vulnerable. At this point we have to rely on the IC and the Department of Defense to fend off the gravest attacks. Clearly, relying on the moral concerns of companies like Facebook and Twitter (now owned by dodgy-human Elon Musk) is a sure cure for any feeling of security.

Lilly may not have all the solutions, but she has gone a very long way in identifying the problems, at least as far as Russia goes, pointing out what is likely, and under what circumstances, and letting us know where such attacks have failed and why. In the larger sense, she has made it very clear that Russian military policy contains a drive to ongoing information warfare. If you want to understand how Russia seeks to undermine Western democracies, see the techniques they use, and understand their fondness for using local allies, or puppets, Russian Information Warfare is a must read.

For Russia a particularly useful way to keep the West, or Russia’s enemies in general at bay, is to wage an information-based assault on them all, constantly. Why take casualties when you can achieve your objectives by conducting daily operations on the sly. Orwell would recognize the notion. For Russia, permanent War is Peace.

Information warfare is applied through strategic media messaging disseminated through all media channels that reach the population of the targeted country. The aggressive party uses information technologies to engage public institutions in the targeted country, such as mass media, religions institutions, NGOs, cultural institutions, and public movements receiving foreign financing. To further help the demoralization of the population and ensure chaos, the adversary targets the disillusioned population and infiltrates these groups with provocateurs. Disinformation, or deliberate falsification of events, can also be considered among the principal information warfare components.

Review posted – April 15, 2022

Publication date – September 15, 2022

I received an EPUB ARE of Russian Information Warfare from The U.S. Naval Institute in return for a fair review and agreeing not to give away any state secrets. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

An aside: I received a NetGalley EPUB ARE of this book in March, 2022. As noted above it is not due for publication until September, 2022. In the normal course of events, I would have waited to read and review it until much nearer the pub date. But given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed important to push this one to the head of the line. It may not yet be available for sale, but if you are interested, I suggest checking NetGalley for a possible early look.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Lilly’s FB and Twitter pages

From the U.S. Naval Institute:

Denounced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  Dr. Bilyana Lilly  managed projects on ransomware, cyber threat intelligence,  AI,  disinformation, and information warfare. She was a cyber expert for the RAND Corporation and has spoken at DefCon,  CyCon, the Executive Women’s Forum and the Warsaw Security Forum. Dr. Lilly is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed publications and has been cited in the Wall Street Journal,  Foreign Policy  and ZDNet.

Interview
—–The Office of Strategic Engagement – Think JSOU – Interview with Dr. Bilyana Lilly by Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Wander – this is really more of a staged Q/A to enable Lilly to talk about her material. It is very informative, but with a particularly stiff question-reading by Wander. – This is the only one you will need.

Item of Interest from the author
—–International Committee of the Red Cross – Intercross – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ABM TREATY: MISSILE DEFENSE AND THE U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONSHIP – 1:20:42 – Lilly is a panel member discussing James Cameron’s book The Double Game

Items of Interest
—–NY times – 3/4/2022 – I’ve Dealt With Foreign Cyberattacks. America Isn’t Ready for What’s Coming. By Glenn S. Gerstell
—–NY Times – 11/12/2018 – Operation InfeKtion – Russian disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye by Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook – a three-part video series
—–The Guardian – 3/5/20922 – Ukrainians around the world aren’t just protesting –we’re fighting an information war by Jane Lytvynenko
—–Lockheed Martin – Cyber Kill Chain
—–National Technical Reports Library – 2017 – Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Cyber Deterrence -you can download the report

Although progress is being made to reduce the pervasive cyber vulnerabilities of U.S. critical infrastructure, the unfortunate reality is that, for at least the next decade, the offensive cyber capabilities of our most capable adversaries are likely to far exceed the United States’ ability to defend key critical infrastructures. The U.S. military itself has a deep and extensive dependence on information technology as well, creating a massive attack surface.

…due to our extreme dependencies on vulnerable information systems, the United States today lives in a virtual “glass house.” Hardening and increasing the resilience of the most vital critical infrastructure systems – including electricity, water, and waste water – is urgently needed to bolster deterrence by denial and by cost imposition.

—–NY Times – 3/18/22 – Why You Haven’t Heard About the Secret Cyberwar in Ukraine by Thomas Rid
—–AP – April 2, 2022 – Ukraine says potent Russian hack against power grid thwarted by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – April 13, 2022 – U.S. and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble By Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong

During the Cold War, the U.S. government, and the C.I.A. specifically, helped found and fund independent media organizations with the mission to penetrate the Iron Curtain with fact-based news. With the invasion of Ukraine, the organizations are once again operating with a sense of urgency as they push to get accurate information inside an authoritarian state.

—–NY Times – April 15, 2022 – How Russia Media Uses Fox News to Make Its Case by Stuart A. Thompson
—–AP – April 28, 2022 – A chilling Russian cyber aim in Ukraine: Digital dossiers by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – May 6, 2022 – The War in Ukraine, as Seen on Russian TV by Stuart A. Thompson

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

The King’s Shadow by Edmund Richardson

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As he left Agra behind, Lewis had no way of knowing that he was walking into one of history’s most incredible stories. He would beg by the roadside and take tea with kings. He would travel with holy men and become the master of a hundred disguises. He would see things no westerner had ever seen before, and few have glimpsed since. And, little by little, he would transform himself from an ordinary soldier into one of the greatest archaeologists of the age. He would devote his life to a quest for Alexander the Great.

There’s an old Afghan proverb: ‘First comes one Englishman as a traveller; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.’ He did not know it yet, but Masson is the reason that proverb exists. He was the first Englishman.

You have probably never heard of Charles Masson. At the time of his creation in 1827, no one else had either. Nor had his creator. For six long years, Private James Lewis had endured soldiering in the military force of the East India Company (EIC) in sundry nations and city-states, in what is now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He had hoped for a life better than what was possible in a squalid London. Dire economic times had driven large numbers of people into bankruptcy and poverty. And if they were already poor, it drove them to desperation. The government’s response was to threaten to kill those protesting because of their inability to pay their debts. There had to be a better option somewhere, anywhere. But it had turned out not to be the better life that he had hoped for.

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Edmund Richardson– image from RNZ

Lewis suffered from the multiple curses of curiosity and intelligence. He had tired of the often corrupt, ignorant, mean-spirited officers and officials above him, and knew he would not be allowed to leave any time soon. When opportunity presented, Lewis and another disgruntled employee took off, went AWOL, strangers in a strange land. And in the sands of the Indian subcontinent, having fled across a vast no man’s land, feverish, desperate, and terrified of being apprehended by the EIC or its agents, Lewis happened across an American, Josiah Harlan, leading a small mercenary force in support of restoring the king of Afghanistan, and the adventure begins. Lewis vanished into the sands and Charles Masson was born into Lewis’s skin.

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Josiah Harlan, The Man Who Would be King – image from Wiki

A ripping yarn, The King’s Shadow (Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City in the UK) tells of the peregrinations and travails of Lewis/Masson from the time of his desertion in 1827 to his death in 1853. It will remind you of Rudyard Kipling tales, particularly The Man who Would Be King. The real life characters on whom that story is based appear in these pages.

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Dost Mohammad Khan. – considered a wise ruler by many, he was devilishly dishonest – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

It certainly sounds as if the world James Lewis thought he was leaving in London, a fetid swamp of human corruption, cruelty, and depravity, had followed him to the East. There is an impressive quantity of backstabbing going on. Richardson presents us with a sub-continental panorama of rogues. Con-men, narcissists, spies, the power-hungry, the deluded, the pompous, the vain, the ignorant, and the bigoted all set up tents here, and all tried to get the best of each other. There are political leaders who show us a bit of wisdom. More who know nothing of leadership except the perks. They all traipse across a land that Alexander the Great had travelled centuries before.

His quest would take him across snow-covered mountains, into hidden chambers filled with jewels, and to a lost city buried beneath the plains of Afghanistan. He would unearth priceless treasures and witness unspeakable atrocities. He would unravel a language which had been forgotten for over a thousand years. He would be blackmailed and hunted by the most powerful empire on earth. He would be imprisoned for treason and offered his own kingdom. He would change the world – and the world would destroy him.

The American mercenary with whom Lewis/Masson joined forces was a fanatic about Alexander, seeing himself as a modern day version. He taught Masson about his idol and in time Masson took the obsession on as his own, albeit without the desire for a throne that drove his American pal, reading up on histories of Alexander.

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Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, circa 1835 – the restored king of Afghanistan who served as a British puppet) – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

You will learn a bit about Alexander, of whom stories are still told. He may not seem so great once you learn of his atrocities. The British government and the East India company tried to keep up, demonstrating a capacity for grandiosity, cruelty and inhumanity, whilst also armed with alarming volumes of incompetence and unmerited venality

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Alexander Burnes – image from Wiki

In his travels, aka invasions, conquests, and or large-scale slaughter, Alexander established a pearl necklace of cities along his route. Some were grander than others. One, in Egypt, is still a thriving metropolis. Most vanished beneath the drifts of time, whether they had been cities, towns, villages, or mere outposts. But Charles Masson was convinced that one of Alexander’s cities could be found the general area in which he was living. The evidence on which he based this view was cultural, appearing in stories, legends, and local lore, but then more concrete evidence began to appear (coins) and appear, and appear.

Time and again, Masson is dragged away from his work, and time and again he finds his way back, his passion for unearthing the lost Alexandria becoming the driving force in his life. Surely, if his own survival were his highest priority, he would have sailed for home a long, long time before he finally did. His work was hugely successful, all the more remarkable because he was a rank amateur. Much of Lewis’s work, thousands of objects and drawings, is still on display at the British Museum. He was a gifted archaeologist, and made several world-class advances. These include discovering a long-lost Alexandrian city and using ancient coins he had discovered, that contained Greek on one side, and an unknown language on the other, to decipher that language. And significantly modify the historical view of Alexander’s era.

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Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

The King’s Shadow is an adventure-tale biography, which focuses on Masson’s life and experiences more than on Alexander. Sure, there is enough in the book to justify the UK title, but barely. There is a lot more in here about him trying to secure the connection between his head and his shoulders, threatened by a seemingly ceaseless flood of enemies. He is a remarkably interesting character, which is what holds our interest. He has dealings with a large cast of likewise remarkably interesting characters, all of which serves to keep us interested, while passing something along about what life in this part of the world was like in the early 19th century. (Remarkably like it is today in many respects)

There are few downsides here. One is that there is a sizeable cast, so it might be a bit tough keep track of who’s who. That said, I was reading an ARE, so there might be a roster offered in the final version. I keep lists of names when I read, so managed, but that it seemed needed should prepare you for that. Second was that there were times when events went from A to D without necessarily explaining the B and C parts. For example, there is an episode in which Masson is sent along with a subordinate of Dost Mohammad Khan’s, Haji Khan, to extract taxes from a recalcitrant community. But Haji has no intention of returning, yet somehow Masson is back in Kabul in the following chapter. Really, did he escape? Did he get permission to leave? How did the move from place A to place B take place? In another, a military attack fails, yet there is no mention of why the fleeing army was not pursued. Things like that.

There are multiple LOL moments to be enjoyed. Not saying that there is any chance of passing this off as a comedy book, but Richardson’s sense of humor is very much appreciated. You may or may not find the same things amusing. His descriptions are sometimes pure delight. An itinerant Christian preacher arrives at the palace of Dost Mohammad Khan, intent on converting him. The preacher had encountered serial misfortunes in his travels and had arrived in Kabul stark naked. Richardson refers to him at one point as “the well ventilated Mr Wolff.” He also describes Masson arriving late at night at the home of Rajit Singh, the local maharaja, only to find an American in attendance, singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Another tells of a message Masson left for future explorers at what was then an incredibly remote site. LOL time. As much as you will frown at the miseries depicted in these pages, you will smile, maybe even laugh, a fair number of times as well. I noted five LOLs in my notes. There are more than that.

Charles Masson, despite the lack of appreciation and recognition he received, made major contributions to our knowledge of the Alexandrian era. Edmund Richardson fills us in on those, while also offering a biography that reads like an Indiana Jones adventure. Richardson has a novelist’s talent for story-telling. His tale shows not only the power of singlemindedness and passion, but the dark side of far too many men, and some unfortunate forms of governance. It is both entertaining and richly informative. Bottom line is that The King’s Shadow darkens nothing while illuminating much. Jolly Good!

This is a story about following your dreams to the ends of the earth – and what happens when you get there.
Had he known what was coming, Lewis might have stayed in bed.

Review posted – April 8, 2022

Publication date – April 5, 2022

I received an ARE of The King’s Shadow from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review and a couple of those very special coins. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

From Hazlitt

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium addict. Several homicidal headmasters. A clutch of Spiritualists. A prophet who couldn’t get the end of the world right. And Alexander the Great. He’s currently Lecturer in Classics at Durham University. Cambridge University Press recently published his first book, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of the Ancient World.

The King’s Shadow is Richardson’s third book.

Interviews
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria with Violet Mueller – re prior book
Tttpodcast.com
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria – audio – 48:03
—–Listen Notes – Edmund Richardson, “Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City Beneath the Mountains” (Bloomsbury, 2021) – with David Chaffetz and Nicholas Gordon – audio – 36:14
—– Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City | JLF London 2021 – Edmund Richardson with Taran N. Khan – video – 45:32 – begin about 3:00
—–ABC – Deserter, archaeologist and spy – the extraordinary adventures of Charles Masson – audio – 55:28 – with Sarah Kanowski

Item of Interest from the author
—–A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Charles Masson
—–Encyclopedia Iranica – Charles Masson – a nice history of his life and accomplishments
—–Josiah Harlan
—–Alexander Burnes
—–Gutenberg – The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling – full text
—–Wiki on the story – The Man Who Would Be King

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Filed under Afghanistan, Archaeology, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, England, History, Reviews, World History

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

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Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden.

Milley summarized and scribbled. “Big Threat: domestic terrorism.”
Some were the new Brown Shirts, a U.S. version, Milley concluded, of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party that supported Hitler. It was a planned revolution. Steve Bannon’s vision coming to life. Bring it all down, blow it up, burn it, and emerge with power.

The title, Peril, is drawn from President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, in which he says “We have much to do in this winter of peril…” It is the epigraph for the book. Winter is not coming. It is bloody well here, and has been here a lot longer than most folks realize. Woodward and his much younger partner, Bob Costa, national political reporter for the Washington Post, look over some of what we have endured, consider the peril we face today, and give us plenty to think about concerning what lies ahead. Biden’s speech addresses not only the threat to our democracy, but the threat to our safety from COVID variants, the cry for racial justice, and the threat to our planet from global warming. This book focuses on the threat to American democracy.

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Bob Woodward and Robert Costa – image from CNN

It rolls along on two parallel tracks. One is Trump’s attempt to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. The other is Joe Biden’s determination to preserve the soul of our nation, focusing on his campaign, and the first few months of his administration. The chapters alternate, more or less between Trump and Biden.

“Was that from this book?” One peril to be faced in reading this book is that of fixing what one read, when, where, and by whom, given the firehose flood of books on the Trump era. I addressed that in my review of I Alone Can Fix It. If this is of interest you can click here for a look.

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Trump’s mob assaults the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – image from Business Insider

January 6, 2021 is a date which will live in infamy. That was the day on which American democracy was nearly bombed into surrender by a sneak attack on the citadel of our national values. That was the day on which a failed Trump-led coup could easily have made moot the election he had just lost, and rendered American elections, certainly presidential elections, meaningless. It was the coming out party for an American brand of fascism that has long been an undercurrent, and sometimes much more, in our political life as a nation, a dark but always-present element in our population that Trump had recruited and encouraged for years, even before he ran for office.

It is clear that, to the extent that we will ever know all the details of the coup plot, it is likely to come from the Congressional January 6 Committee’s final report, in combination with unredacted testimony given to that committee, testimony given at what we hope will be very public trials of those in charge of the effort, and intrepid reporters. The authors count among that final group. While offering far from a complete portrait of the plot, they have given us an insider’s look at what people in the administration and the government beyond that faced on 1/6 (which I personally think should be called Desecration Day.) And what they had to deal with in the months leading up to it.

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Milley speaking with Trump – image from DNYUZ

It was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley whose intercession with his Chinese counterpart talked the Chinese military down from a concern that Trump might launch an attack on China in order to remain in office, not once but twice. As the Chinese were again concerned what our imbalanced president might do after his coup attempt failed. There was also concern that Trump would attack Iran in an attempt to secure his own position. I doubt Israel would have appreciated the incomings such an action would have surely generated. He also floated the idea of evacuating troops from Afghanistan in January, 2021, with minimal planning. Thankfully he was dissuaded from that impulse as well.

Milley is the official most in the limelight here. He was appointed to that post by Donald Trump. In Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book I Alone Can Fix It, Milley told them of his concerns about the dangers of a right-wing coup. There is plenty more of that in this book as well. We hear a lot from Trump-whisperer Lindsey Graham about his conversations with Trump, who appears to have actually convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He is a fine representative of those who, while remaining loyal to Trump, try to counsel him to sane courses of action.

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Donald Trump pretends to check his watch as Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at the White – image and text from The Guardian

We get a look at the conversations among the cabinet level officials, unwilling to allow him to use the US military as his private army. We learn what analyses they shared about the dangers facing the nation, what agreements they came to among themselves, what steps they took, and what mistakes they made. We get a look at how these and other level-headed adults in the administration did whatever they could to keep Trump from causing irreparable harm to the nation with his impulsive-driven, self-serving, poorly-informed decision-making. Part of all this included making certain that proper chains of command would be followed should Trump decide to start a war as a Wag the Dog self-preservation move, or command the military to take actions that were illegal.

Days after the election, Trump fired Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, in large part for his public opposition to the use of the military to suppress BLM protests. It was certainly clear to those tracking Trump’s actions that Trump wanted the US military to be his personal security force, and Esper was an impediment. In fact, it was appropriate for the military to be brought to bear to battle an insurrection, and the delays in the military’s response can be traced to the Department of Defense, by then Esper-free, sitting on its hands for far too long.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper – fired after the election – image from Reuters via BBC

One item that becomes clear from the telling here is that Mike Pence did his best to find a way to Yes for Trump, but was unable. It is also clear that Trump pushed Pence a step too far when he issued a press release claiming that the Vice President agreed with Trump’s lie that the VP had the legal right to refuse to accept the electoral votes of any state. It was the only thing, apparently, in four years in office, that generated a spine in the relentlessly invertebrate Pence, driving him into bunker mode. It is unfortunate that Pence will likely be remembered more for this single act than for his years of pathetic subservience to and enabling of an American Mussolini. It is chilling to consider that had there been alternate slates of electors ready to bring to bear, Pence might have actually done the deed. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi called him repeatedly after the insurrection, wanting him to invoke the 25th amendment. He refused to take their calls, calling a quick halt to his vertebrate moment.

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Mike Pence flees the mob on 1/6 – image from The Guardian

The book will (it certainly should) make your blood boil. The Founders put together a guiding document and a set of rules that presumed they would be carried out by honorable officials. They did not count on the possibility of a sociopath being elected president. Someone with not only no respect, but outright contempt, for the rule of law. He really claimed, and maybe even believed in his diseased mind, like Louis XIV, who famously said “L’etat est moi,” that he, personally, was the state.

Bottom line is that when you see Woodward and Costa being interviewed about this book, or talking about the events they covered, their hair is on fire. They understand what it was that happened, namely that not only did the nation narrowly avoid a fascist coup that would have made the USA a dictatorship, but that the party of the guy who ordered it is all lined up and ready to goose-step their way to another try. We may have survived Trump’s 2021 coup attempt, but it is clear that he will try again, and there are far too many who are more than willing to go along, whether actively or passively.

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Trump with Steve Bannon – image from CNN

Now, as for the other part of this book. It should come as a salve for the angst generated by the reporting on Trump. They follow Biden’s decision to run, following the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” outrage, convinced that the very soul of the nation was imperiled, and that he could offer a way out of this very dark cloud, more so than other extant or potential candidates. We get to see a very human Biden, sincere, knowledgeable, willing to listen to well-informed and well-meant advice, willing to make needed adjustments, willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, and unwilling to be baited by Trumpian taunts and lies. We are let in to some of the family troubles the Bidens have endured, that they continue to endure. Biden is shown as the anti-Trump, an incredibly decent person, gifted at making personal contact with people, caring about people, remembering them, willing to spend unheard of amounts of time with people who could offer him nothing but their shared pain. It shows candidate Biden behaving in a presidential manner when the actual president would not. It is a warm portrait of a man the authors have certainly seen enough of to know. They also show him getting tough in legislative negotiations, and showing his exasperation when sanity, and decency, seem insufficient to accomplish a goal. The book continues into March 2021, so shows Biden as president as well as merely a candidate.

But, of course, being Washington reporters, they feel it necessary to take a swing or two. In one instance they report on Biden snapping at a reporter who was being particularly dickish as if there was something wrong with that. That Biden later apologized was the real fault here. The reporter merited being smacked down. Their portrayal was that this was a kind of gaffe. Take a moment to roll your eyes here. The Beltway media have particular story lines that they adhere to, regardless of the facts. Reporting Biden as particularly gaffe-ridden is among them. He is no more so than most other people. We all misstate things at times. But they seem eager, drooling even for a chance to catch another one and reinforce the image. Their treatment of Biden’s entirely appropriate reaction to a hostile reporter is of a cloth with that mindlessness.

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Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes a picture with the Downs family after campaigning in Rehoboth Beach. – image and text from the Cape Gazette

Gripes (in addition to the one above)
As happens far too often in books of this sort, namely political history books put together largely through personal interviews, the authors sometimes slip into stenography mode. They report, presumably straight-faced, about Senate Majority, now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trotting out his spin about tax cuts for the rich being “tax reform” and crediting Trump for an economy that had been humming along quite nicely when he took office. I call BS. They continue in this mode about McConnell working with cabinet members trying to push Trump to some semblance of normal. Take nothing McConnell reports himself saying at face value. Second-party confirmation is always needed there. Ditto for Lindsey Graham.

Former Republican and Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt issued a statement about Graham…saying that many people have tried to understand Graham over the years. He encouraged people not to look at it “through the prism of the manifest inconsistencies that exist between things he used to believe and what he’s doing now.”
Instead, Schmidt said, “The way to understand him is to look at what’s consistent. And essentially what he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers around a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump is the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.”
– from Salon article

Graham is quoted at length here, and it is all self-serving. Douse that with salt before consuming.

Gripes, notwithstanding, Peril is an important book, another in a large library of reporting on the workings of the Trump administration, and particularly at how close Trump’s attempted coup came to succeeding.

There are many lessons to be learned here. One is that the January 6th Committee should interview, whether via subpoena or not, all the players involved in orchestrating the insurrection, including Trump, and that they need to complete their report and make all necessary criminal referrals to the Department of Justice before Republicans have a chance to regain control of the House and shut them down. We learn that the norms and rules of American government are fatally flawed, allowing the dark-hearted to game the system for their political and personal advantage. We learn that even in dark times there are officials willing to put their careers, and even their lives on the line to stand up for the ideals and institutions, that Americans claim to admire and respect. We learn that there need to be fixes made to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make sure that each state’s electors truthfully represent the decision of the voters.

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Attorney John Eastman, left, speaks next to Rudy Giuliani at Donald Trump’s rally on 6 January – Image and text from Reuters, by way of The Guardian – photo by Jim, Bourg

The book’s epigraph cut short Biden’s inaugural statement. The full sentence reads We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Despite the subsequent COVID variants that have killed or damaged so many in our nation, and the world, a major relief bill made it through a very marginally Democratic Congress. Other measures are needed, but hope that more can be done remains alive, despite Joe Manchin. There are hopeful signs in many parts of the nation that democracy is on the rise.

But the forces of darkness are indeed on the march, with shameless efforts, far too often successful, to suppress the right to vote of people unlikely to vote Republican, and to seize partisan control of state vote-counting mechanisms to make sure that if that suppression is not enough there is a second way to cheat their way to victory. What we are looking at in America is the rise of a fascist party that wears the name-tag Republican. Do not be fooled. These are the same sorts of people the Allies fought in World War II. The same sorts of people who seized control of Turkey in 2016, and who have gained power in far too many nations. The same sorts of people who admire corrupt autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Woodward and Costa have offered us a look at how such people operate when they find themselves in a position of power. No law is too sacred. No act too extreme. Thankfully, they were not as organized as they needed to be on 1/6 to succeed in their goals and they do not yet have enough power to implement their dark desires. But have no doubt that should they achieve their electoral goals, fairly or not, they will usher in a new Dark Age in America.

We as a nation are in mortal danger. We need to continue reading, learning about what has happened, and what has been hidden, so that we can be better prepared for the challenges that await. Woodward and Costa’s book helps us see what has gone on, and helps us prepare, offering one Peril we should all welcome.

Five years ago, on March 31, 2016, when Trump was on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination, we worked together for the first time and interviewed Trump at his then unfinished Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
That day, we recognized he was an extraordinary political force, in many ways right out of the American playbook. An outsider. Anti-establishment. A businessman. A builder. Bombastic. Confident. A fast-talking scrapper.
But we also saw darkness. He could be petty. Cruel. Bored by American history and dismissive of governing traditions that had long guided elected leaders. Tantalized by the prospect of power. Eager to use fear to get his way.
“Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Trump told us.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”
Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?
Peril remains.

This review has been cross-posted, well, most of it, on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Woodward’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Links to the Robert Costa’s Instagram and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Washington Post – Transcript: “Peril” with Co-Authors Bob Woodward & Robert Costa by Karen Tumulty – transcript of a Washington Live interview
—–The Guardian – ‘American democracy will continue to be tested’: Peril author Robert Costa on Trump, the big lie and 2024 by David Smith
—–NPR – Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 election didn’t work. Next time it might by Terry Gross

My reviews of other books by Bob Woodward
—–2020 – Rage
—–2018 – Fear
—–2010 – Obamas’s Wars
—–2008 – The War Within

Some other related books to check out
—–I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker
—–Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump
—–Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine K. Albright
—–Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
—–Unbelievable by Katy Tur

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, True crime

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

book cover

Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

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Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

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7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

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Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

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Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

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Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB
—–The Guardian – How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall – an edited excerpt

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society
—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, World History

Fiddling While America Burns – I Alone Can Fix It – Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and closely studied many presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, said, “I have spent my entire career with presidents and there is nothing like this other than the 1850s, when events led inevitably to the Civil War.

Here’s the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II,” Milley told them. “Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”

I did not intend to write a full review for this one. It came out in July. I did not start reading it until August, and did not finish reading it until late September. That is what happens when I read a book on my phone, in addition to the two I am usually reading, one at my desk and the other at bedtime. But I was going to offer a few thoughts. Typed a line or two and then my fingers started pounding away at the keyboard pretty much all on their own. I astral projected myself to the kitchen to whip up a sandwich, make some tea and when I returned they were still banging away. I am sure there is a lesson in there about compulsion.

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Phil Rucker and Carole Leonnig – image from Porter Square Books

There have been, currently are, and no doubt will continue to be many books written about the Trump years. I Alone Can Fix It tracks the final year of Trump’s presidency, notes that he had faced no major problems until 2020, and then proved incapable of managing the ones that presented, seeking only his own aggrandizement, while clinging to power at all costs.

If you read books of this sort all the time, if you read The Washington Post, The New York Times, or other world newspapers, watch CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other at-least-somewhat-responsible news sources, much of what is in this book will not be all that surprising. In tracking Trump’s 2020+, I Alone Can Fix It offers inside looks at the actions and discussions, the conflicts and challenges inside the White House, almost day-by-day. Much that is detailed here has been reported before. And a lot of the new material has been outed in leaks to newspapers and TV political shows. Interviews with the authors chip away even more at the new-ness of the material, if you are coming to it any time after its initial week or two of release.

Trump’s rash and retaliatory dismissal of [Acting DNI Joseph] Maguire would compel retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to write: “As Americans, we should be frightened—deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security—then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.“

I am betting it is not news to you, for example, that when 1/6 was happening, Liz Cheney screamed at Trump toady Jim Jordan (who, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, had participated in a coverup of sexual abuse of wrestlers within the program) “Get away from me. You fucking did this.’” Or that Trump wanted to use the army to put down demonstrations in American cities. Or that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley was concerned that Trump wanted to use the American military to keep himself in office.

Carol Leonnig (National investigative reporter focused on the White House and government accountability) at the Washington Post and Phil Rucker (Washington Post White House Bureau Chief) are top tier political reporters. They sat with many of the principals in the administration, including Trump, and amassed a vast store of materials in pulling this tale together. It is a horror story. In doing so they have unearthed considerable detail that did not make it to the pages of daily reporting. It is a portrayal of Donald Trump as someone who is generally disinterested in the well-being of the nation, concerned only for himself, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one with eyes to see and an ability to reason.

I take issue with the clearly self-serving nature of some of the interviews. Spinners are gonna spin and twirling is the name of the game in Washington politics. Bill Barr, for example, attests to his devotion to the law. How Leonnig and Rucker allowed such tripe into the book is beyond me. This from a guy who routinely politicized the Department of Justice to subvert justice, seek punishment of Trump enemies (otherwise known as truth-tellers) and neglect to trouble those accused and even convicted of crimes. Puh-leez. He also pretends that he was practically dragged from retirement to serve as AG when, in fact he had actively campaigned for the job. Sure wish they would have called him out on that steaming pile of poo.

Esper, Milley, and Barr—were tracking intelligence and social media chatter for any signs of unrest on Election Day. They and their deputies at the Pentagon, Justice Department, and FBI were monitoring the possibility of protests breaking out among supporters on both sides. The trio also were on guard for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act in some way to quell protests or to perpetuate his power by somehow intervening in the election. This scenario weighed heavily on Esper and Milley because they controlled the military and had sworn an oath to the Constitution. Their duty was to protect a free and fair election and to prevent the military from being used for political purposes of any kind.

Plenty more seek to burnish their records (the phrase polishing turds pops readily to mind) for history, eager to remove the fecal stench of attachment to the most corrupt administration in American history. I could have done with a bit more of Leonnig and Rucker pointing out for readers where the spinning ends and the truth begins.

One of the heroes of this story is General Milley. Were his actions not confirmed by multiple other sources, one could be forgiven for suspecting that he was polishing his own…um…medals in reporting to Leonnig and Rucker his role in staving off Trump’s desire to use the military to suppress domestic dissent, and in working with other defense leaders, legislative leaders, and foreign military brass to help prevent what could easily have become a shooting war with China. But what he told them checks out. The man deserves even more medals, pre-shined.

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General Mark Milley – image from New York Magazine

One of the things that is most remarkable for its absence in this book is mention of Afghanistan. Really? That deal with the Taliban was not worth including? It makes sense, though. The MSM paid little attention to it when the deal was made, and largely ignored the fact that the actual Afghani government was not a party to the talks. They were more than happy, though, to jump on Biden’s back for implementing the shitty treaty by actually getting our troops out of an endless no-win war. Trump was rarely mentioned, and the awfulness of the deal, THAT TRUMP HAD NEGOTIATED, rarely merited serious coverage. Disappointing that Leonnig and Rucker seem to have skipped over this in their book. It was significant.

It is an avocational hazard for those who consume political news in mass quantities that when there are so many books out about aspects of the same thing, namely the Trump disaster, it can be difficult to impossible to keep track of where particular stories originated. Also, each of the Trump era books is heralded in the press in the weeks leading up to publication with the juiciest bits from the opus du jour. The cacophony of revelations can make it impossible to discern the altos from the tenors from the sopranos from the basses. It all becomes one large chorus. Did I read about that in this book or that one, or that other one? Maybe I heard a piece about it on CNN, or BBC, or MSNBC, or one of the traditional network news shows.

And no sooner does one finish one of these books that there are ten more peeping for attention like baby birds in a nest far outnumbering the worms their poor parents are able to scrounge. Thus, we get by with the news and political talk show interviews and daily early peeks at the books, hoping to be able to read at least enough of these things to get a clear picture.

Like AI learning systems, there is a constant feed of information. At some point (although hopefully one has already achieved such a state) one internalizes the incoming stream, somehow manages to sort and categorize it, finds some sort of understanding and can use the collective intelligence to face new questions, problems, and situations with an informed base of knowledge, and generate a wise, informed decision, or opinion. At the very least we should have a sense of where to look to check out the latest claims and revelations.

“A student of history, Milley saw Trump as the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He described to aides that he kept having this stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of twentieth-century fascism in Germany were replaying in twenty-first-century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric of election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.
“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

To that end, the Leonnig and Rucker book is a welcome addition to the ongoing info-flow. We live in dangerous times, and they offer some of the nitty gritty of how the sausage is made, how the perils are generated, and sometimes averted, who the players are and how they acted in moments of crisis.

In the long run it probably does not matter if you heard the relevant information in this book, in a Woodward book (I am currently reading Peril) or in one or more of the gazillion others that have emerged in the last few years. What matters is that we get the information, that it is brought to us by honest, intelligent, expert reporters and/or participants, and that it is presented in a readable, digestible form. Leonnig and Rucker are both Pulitzer winners. Keep your eyes out for any irregularities, of course, but these two are reliable, trustworthy sources. Add their work to your data feed and keep the info flowing. We need all the good intel we can get to counteract the 24/7/365 Republican lie machine and to face down the next coup attempt. Knowledge is power. Acquire it. Learn from it. Remember it. Use it.

Review posted – 12/3/2021

Publication date – 7/20/21

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Carol Leonnig’s WaPo profile and Twitter pages

Links to Phil Rucker’s Instagram, WaPo profile, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Face the Nation – “I Alone Can Fix It” authors say former president learned he was “untouchable” from first impeachment – video – 07:46
—–The Guardian – Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by David Smith
—–Commonwealth Club – Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker: Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Yamiche Alcindor – video – 57:01
—–NPR – Fresh Air – Investigation finds federal agencies dismissed threats ahead of the Jan. 6 attack – audio – 42:00 – by Terry Gross – more about Leonnig’s book Zero Fail but worth a listen

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol– By Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti
—–Washington Post – The Attack: Before, During and After – Reported by Devlin Barrett, Aaron C. Davis, Josh Dawsey, Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Paul Kane, Ashley Parker, Beth Reinhard, Philip Rucker and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. — Written by Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman — Visuals and design by Phoebe Connelly, Natalia Jiménez-Stuard, Tyler Remmel and Madison Walls

Items of Interest from the authors
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Non-fiction, Public Health, True crime

A Legend in His Own Time – Blood and Treasure by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

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Daniel Boone had always despised, and would for the rest of his life, his outsize reputation as an Indian fighter. He maintained that dealing with belligerent Native Americans, whether via combat or negotiation, was for the most part a matter of luck and instinct. His rescue by Simon Kenton was evidence of the former, his quick thinking on the Licking River, the latter. He was vastly more proud of his ability to endure the burdens of a huntsman’s life with a seemingly preternatural stoicism. Now, it was as if the patience he had honed over a lifetime of stalking game through the deep woods was in anticipation of this moment. He would need that gift in the coming months.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite possessions was a bona fide, official Davy Crockett coonskin cap. No actual raccoons suffered to create that bit of headgear. Disney had made several live-action films in the 1950s (TV mini-series’ really) celebrating Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett may have actually worn one that wild creatures suffered to provide. Daniel Boone preferred beaver hats. Although Crockett and Boone were born a half-century apart their deaths were separated by a mere sixteen years. But to young TV viewers in the 1950s the two seemed inseparable, played on the screen by the same actor, Fess Parker, wearing pretty much the same costumes, no doubt saving Disney some wardrobe expenses.

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Fess Parker – image from the California Wine Club

The memories I retain of the shows are much-faded, but I doubt much has been lost. Civilized American good guy frontiersmen (Crockett) or pioneer (Boone) doing battle with hostile indigenous residents, and battling corruption among his own people. Standard TV fodder of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the usual doses of humble wisdom, and little mention made of the genocide that was being foisted on sundry North American native peoples.

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Bob Drury – image from Macmillan

It was the chance to fill that cavernous memory hole with some actual information, on at least one of Fess Parker’s greatest roles, that drew me to Blood and Treasure. On finishing the book, it was possible to drop a coin into that chasm and hear it hit bottom, after a reasonable wait, much better than hearing nothing prior.

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Tom Clavin – image from The Southampton Press

There is history and there is Boone. It is the information on both that is of great value here. Those of my generation at least know the name Daniel Boone, even if our image of him may have been the product of Disneyfication. I expect there are many, born later, to whom the name Boone is likelier to summon images of a baseball figure, a town or city by that name, or a brand of sickly alcoholic beverage. He was a fascinating real-world character, whatever hat he chose to wear. The authors report in the C-Span interview that, unlike Parker’s cinema-friendly 6’5”, Daniel Boone was actually 5’7” or 5’8,” a typical height for a man of his times. He had several cousins, however who were over six feet and Boone was concerned that a raccoon skin cap would make him look even smaller. He favored a felt hunter’s hat that was made of beaver.

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A child’s “Davy Crockett” hat – image from the Smithsonian

The character himself is fascinating, presenting both as a man of his era, and a person with some 21st century sensibilities. Daniel Boone was born in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1734, the 6th of eleven children, to Quaker immigrants from England and Wales. The family ran afoul of local public opinion when one of their children married outside the religion, while visibly pregnant. When another, Boone’s brother, Israel, also married outside the faith, and dad stood by him, Pop was excommunicated. Daniel stayed away from the church after that. Three years later the family moved to North Carolina. While Boone carried a bible with him on his long hunts, considered himself a Christian and had all his children baptized, he was not exactly a bible thumper. He was open to other ways of viewing the world. This willingness to learn would serve him well. Boone was fascinated by and respectful of Indian ways as a kid. He spent considerable time with Native Americans, studying their culture, and learning their woodland hunting, tracking, and survival skills. He learned the birdsongs of local avian life, studied the use of plants for medicinal purposes, learned Indian crafts. He was a proficient enough hunter that by age twelve he was providing game meat for his family. His gift for frontier life was clear very early on. In a way he was a frontiersman savant, like those 7-year-olds who play Rachmaninoff as if it’s no big deal. By fifteen he was considered the finest hunter in the area.

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Daniel Boone by Alonzo Chappel – circa 1861 – From the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia

He had considerable respect for his wife, Rebecca, maintaining impressive wisdom about their relationship. After he had been away on a long hunt, for a year, for example, he returned home to be presented with a new daughter. He could count high enough to figure that the child was not his. Rebecca told him that she had thought he was dead (not an unlikely excuse at the time) and had fallen for someone who looked very much like Daniel, his younger brother. Daniel coped, noting with an impressive sense of humor that he had married a full-blooded woman, not a portrait of a saint, raised the girl as his own, and was grateful that Rebecca had at least kept it in the family.

He confronts many personal challenges over the years, losing several children (he and Rebecca had ten) to illness or Indian attacks. The book opens with the torture and murder of his teenage son, James. He is called on time and time again to work with militia or government military units. He served with the British in their conflict with their French rivals for North American influence. He was a part of many of the conflicts that took part in the western colonial lands in the late 18th century. I had not heard of any of these. Drury and Clavin point out their often very surprising significance.

Boone was not initially cast to star in this novel. Drury and Clavin, with more than a few history book pelts in their saddlebags, had written about the wars waged on the plains Indians, many of whom had been pushed west by the advancing white invaders, and wanted to trace that process back. The book covers, roughly, the period from the 1730s,when Boone was born, to 1799, when he moved his family west to Missouri. The book was supposed to be about how the Indians had been driven out of the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. In doing their research, however, Boone kept turning up, a Zelig-like character, involved in many of the seminal events of his time. Served with a British regiment? Check. Served with George Washington? Check. Developed the primary trail through the Cumberland Gap? You betcha. He even established a town that would be named after him, Boonesborough, and led the defense of a western fort, the loss of which might have changed the outcome of the American Revolution. The man really was a legend in his own time. A natural leader, he partook of many of the important battles that occurred between settlers, through their militias and their English backers, and both the native people they were attempting to displace and their French allies. He functioned as a diplomat as well, respected by many of the Indians and seen as a man of his word, not a common attribute at the time. And so he became the narrative thread that pulled together a large number of related, but disconnected parts.

The frontier in the 18th century was the Appalachian Mountains. The Wild, Wild West was the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The English had entered into treaties with Indian tribes that basically drew a line there. We will allow our colonists to advance only so far, and no farther. The colonists, however, were more than happy to roll their eyes, mutter a “whatever” or the 18th century equivalent, and continue pushing westward, making life difficult for just about everyone. I was reminded of contemporary settlers, eager to occupy land outside their legal realm. At least some of this westward movement was driven by land speculation, including by some founding father sorts. I know it is tough to believe that real-estate developers might be anything other than sober, law-abiding capitalists, but, like the poor, it appears that we will always have them with us.

Drury and Clavin offer a look at the diverse tribes that occupied the areas in conflict, showing differences among them. One particularly horrifying episode involved a group of Indians who had converted to the Moravian faith, a sect of Christianity. They were pacifists, took up no arms, but were slaughtered anyway by a group of American Rangers in what became known as the Moravian Massacre, a shameful episode, widely talked about at the time. We also see leaders of one tribe, in negotiations, willingly ceding land to their white counterparts, when they, in fact, had no hold over that land at all. I was reminded of the contemporary situation in Afghanistan, among other places, where tribal allegiances easily trump larger national demands. Many of the most effective, and memorable of Indian leaders are shown, impressive in their tactical leadership, creativity, and tenacity.

The American Revolution was more an eastern than western conflict, but there were times when battles on the western frontier might have determined a different outcome to the colonial attempt to separate from the motherland. These were mostly, no, they were entirely, news to me.

It is in learning about so many of these turning points that the value of the book is most manifest. If, like me, your knowledge of American history has been shaped primarily by what we learned in grade school, high school, and college, and absorbed from popular culture, you will get a very strong sense of just how much we do not know, and had never suspected. In a way, it was like opening up the back of a mechanical watch and seeing all the intricate gears at work, impacting each other to produce the simple result of indicating the time of day. Getting there is not so simple. Nor is truly appreciating how 21st century America came to be what it is today. This book offers an up-close look at some of those gears.

My reading experience of this book was wildly divergent. I found it to be a very difficult read for the first half, at least, dragging myself through anywhere from ten to thirty pages a day for what seemed forever. Even then, I recognized that there was a lot of valuable information to be absorbed, so stuck with it. It is true that there are a lot of characters passing through these pages, a bounty of place names, a plethora of battles, skirmishes, and conflicts that were significant and interesting. But it felt so overwhelming that the TMI sirens were blaring repeatedly.

But at a certain point, some of the characters, through repeated appearance, became recognizable. Oh, yeah, I remember him now. Wasn’t he the one who…? Yep, that’s the guy. At a certain point it was not a duty to return to the book, fulfilling a felt obligation, trying to learn something, but a joy. Quite a switch, I know. But as I read the latter half of the book, it became clear that this was not just a rich history book, but quite an amazing adventure story, a saga, filled with deeds heroic and dastardly. There are many compelling characters in these pages, and so many ripping yarns that reading this became like sailing through something by George R. R. Martin. Taking the analogy to the next step, I have zero doubt that, with the many compelling narratives at play in this book, it would make a fantastic GoT-level TV series. It certainly has the blood and gore to play at that level, the territorial rivalries, the vanity, backstabbing, the double-dealing, the battles, sieges, murders, tortures and war crimes, but also the underlying content to give it all a lot more heft. This is how nations are created. This is how they grow. These are the people who paid the price for that creation. These are the decisions that were made, the promises broken and kept, the lies told, the excuses offered. Sorry, no dragons, or other mythical beasts, but there is, at the core, a bona fide legend. (James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohican was inspired by Boone rescuing his kidnapped daughter, Jemima) Thankfully, it will require no blood for you to check this one out, and only a modest amount of treasure.

Like the Cherokee, the tribes north of the Ohio River strongly suspected that America’s War for Independence was being fought over Indian land despite high-minded slogans about taxation without representation. It was the Shawnee who recognized the earliest that this internecine conflict among the whites could only end badly for the tribe should the rapacious colonists prevail. Native American support of the Crown, in essence, was the lesser of two evils. It was not the British, after all, who had begun desecrating Kanta-ke with cabins and cornfields.

Review posted – May 21, 2021

Publication date – April 20, 2021

I received this book as an e-pub from St Martin’s Press via NetGalley in return for a fair review. No raccoons, beavers, or other wildlife were harmed providing headgear used during the writing of this review.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Drury’ personal site, and to Tom Clavin’s personal and FB pages

Items of Interest
—–C-Span – Interview with Drury and Clavin – video – 50:08 – This one is all you will need
—–Gulliver’s Travels – Boone’s favorite book
—–National Museum of American History – The saga of Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap
—–Wiki on the Moravian Massacre
—–Wiki for Last of the Mohican
—–Gutenberg – full text of Last of the Mohicans

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Reviews

Genius Makers by Cade Metz

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[In 2016] Ed Boyton, a Princeton University professor who specialized in nascent technologies for sending information between machines and the human brain…told [a] private audience that scientists were approaching the point where they could create a complete map of the brain and then simulate it with a machine. The question was whether the machine, in addition to acting like a human, would actually feel what it was like to be human. This, they said, was the same question explored in Westworld.

AI, Artificial Intelligence, is a source of active concern in our culture. Tales abound in film, television, and written fiction about the potential for machines to exceed human capacities for learning, and ultimately gain self-awareness, which will lead to them enslaving humanity, or worse. There are hopes for AI as well. Language recognition is one area where there has been growth. However much we may roll our eyes at Siri or Alexa’s inability to, first, hear, the words we say properly, then interpret them accurately, it is worth bearing in mind that Siri was released a scant ten years ago, in 2011, Alexa following in 2014. We may not be there yet, but self-driving vehicles are another AI product that will change our lives. It can be unclear where AI begins and the use of advanced algorithms end in the handling of our on-line searching, and in how those with the means use AI to market endless products to us.

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Cade Metz – image from Wired

So what is AI? Where did it come from? What stage of development is it currently at and where might it take us? Cade Metz, late of Wired Magazine and currently a tech reporter with the New York Times, was interested in tracking the history of AI. There are two sides to the story of any scientific advance, the human and the technological. No chicken and egg problem to be resolved here, the people came first. In telling the tales of those, Metz focuses on the brightest lights in the history of AI development, tracking their progress from the 1950s to the present, leading us through the steps, and some mis-steps, that have brought us to where we are today, from a seminal conference in the late 1950s to Frank Rosenblatt’s Perceptron in 1958, from the Boltzmann Machine to the development of the first neural network, SNARC, cadged together from remnant parts of old B-24s by Marvin Minsky, from the AI winter of governmental disinvestment that began in 1971 to its resumption in the 1980s, from training machines to beat the most skilled humans at chess, and then Go, to training them to recognize faces, from gestating in universities to being hooked up to steroidal sources of computing power at the world’s largest corporations, from early attempts to mimic the operations of the human brain to shifting to the more achievable task of pattern recognition, from ignoring social elements to beginning to see how bias can flow through people into technology, from shunning military uses to allowing, if not entirely embracing them.

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This is one of 40 artificial neurons used in Marvin Minsky’s SPARC machine – image from The Scientist

Metz certainly has had a ringside seat for this, drawing from hundreds of interviews he conducted with the players in his reportorial day jobs, eight years at Wired and another two at the NY Times. He conducted another hundred or so interviews just for the book.

Some personalities shine through. We meet Geoffrey Hinton in the prologue, as he auctions his services (and the services of his two assistants) off to the highest corporate bidder, the ultimate figure a bit startling. Hinton is the central figure in this AI history, a Zelig-like-character who seems to pop up every time there is an advance in the technology. He is an interesting, complicated fellow, not just a leader in his field, but a creator of it and a mentor to many of the brightest minds who followed. It must have helped his recruiting that he had an actual sense of humor. He faced more than his share of challenges, suffering a back condition that made it virtually impossible for him to sit. Makes those cross country and trans-oceanic trips by train and plane just a wee bit of a problem. He suffered in other ways as well, losing two wives to cancer, providing a vast incentive for him to look at AI and neural networking as tools to help develop early diagnostic measures for diverse medical maladies.

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Marvin Minsky in a lab at M.I.T. in 1968.Credit…M.I.T. – image and caption from NY Times

Where there are big ideas there are big egos, and sometimes an absence of decency. At a 1966 conference, when a researcher presented a report that did not sit well with Marvin Minsky, he interrupted the proceedings from the floor at considerable personal volume.

“How can an intelligent young man like you,” he asked, “waste your time with something like this?”

This was not out of character for the guy, who enjoyed provoking controversy, and, clearly, pissing people off. He single-handedly short-circuited a promising direction in AI research with his strident opposition.

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Skynet’s Employee of the month

One of the developmental areas on which Metz focuses is deep learning, namely, feeding vast amounts of data to neural networks that are programmed to analyze the incomings for commonalities, in order to then be able to recognize unfamiliar material. For instance, examine hundreds of thousands of images of ducks and the system is pretty likely to be able to recognize a duck when it sees one. Frankly, it does not seem all that deep, but it is broad. Feeding a neural net vast quantities of data in order to train it to recognize particular things is the basis for a lot of facial recognition software in use today. Of course, the data being fed into the system reflects the biases of those doing the feeding. Say, for instance, that you are looking to identify faces, and most of the images that have been fed in are of white people, particularly white men. In 2015, when Google’s foto recognition app misidentified a black person as a gorilla, Google’s response was not to re-work its system ASAP, but to remove the word “gorilla” from its AI system. So, GIGO rules, fed by low representation by women and non-white techies. Metz addresses the existence of such inherent bias in the field, flowing from tech people in the data they use to feed neural net learning, but it is not a major focus of the book. He addresses it more directly in interviews.

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Frank Rosenblatt and his Perceptron – image from Cornell University

On the other hand, by feeding systems vast amounts of information, it may be possible, for example, to recognize early indicators of public health or environmental problems that narrower examination of data would never unearth, and might even be able to give individuals a heads up that something might merit looking into.

He gives a lot of coverage to the bouncings back and forth of this, that, and the other head honcho researcher from institution to institution, looking at why such changes were made. A few of these are of interest, like why Hinton crossed the Atlantic to work, or why he moved from the states to Canada, and then stayed where he was based once he settled, regardless of employer. But a lot of the personnel movement was there to illustrate how strongly individual corporations were committed to AI development. This sometimes leads to odd, but revealing, images, like researchers having been recruited by a major company, and finding when they get there that the equipment they were expected to use was laughably inadequate to the project they were working on. When researchers realized that running neural networks would require vast numbers of Graphics Processing Units, GPUs (comparable to the Central Processing Units (CPUs) that are at the heart of every computer, but dedicated to a narrower range of activities) some companies dove right in while others balked. This is the trench warfare that I found most interesting, the specific command decisions that led to or impeded progress.

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Rehoboam – the quantum supercomputer at the core of WestWorld – Image from The Sun

There are a lot of names in The Genius Makers. I would imagine that Metz and his editors pared quite a few out, but it can still be a bit daunting at times, trying to figure out which ones merit retaining, unless you already know that there is a manageable number of these folks. It can slow down reading. It would have been useful for Dutton to have provided a graphic of some sort, a timeline indicating this idea began here, that idea began then, and so on. It is indeed possible that such a welcome add-on is present in the final hardcover book. I was working from an e-ARE. Sometimes the jargon was just a bit too much. Overall, the book is definitely accessible for the general, non-technical, reader, if you are willing to skip over a phrase and a name here and there, or enjoy, as I do, looking up EVERYTHING.

The stories Metz tells of these pioneers, and their struggles are worth the price of admission, but you will also learn a bit about artificial intelligence (whatever that is) and the academic and corporate environments in which AI existed in the past, and is pursued today. You will not get a quick insight into what AI really is or how it works, but you will learn how what we call AI today began and evolved, and get a taste of how neural networking consumes vast volumes of data in a quest to amass enough knowledge to make AI at least somewhat…um…knowledgeable. Intelligence is a whole other thing, one of the dreams that has eluded developers and concerned the public. It is one of the ways in which AI has always been bedeviled by the curse of unrealistic expectations.

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(left to right) Yann LeCun, Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio – Image from Eyerys

Metz is a veteran reporter, so knows how to tell stories. It shows in his glee at telling us about this or that event. He includes a touch of humor here and there, a lightly sprinkled spice. Nothing that will make you shoot your coffee out your nose, but enough to make you smile. Here is an example.

…a colleague introduced [Geoff Hinton] at an academic conference as someone who had failed at physics, dropped out of psychology, and then joined a field with no standards at all: artificial intelligence. It was a story Hinton enjoyed repeating, with a caveat. “I didn’t fail at physics and drop out of psychology,” he would say. “I failed at psychology and dropped out of physics—which is far more reputable.”

The Genius Makers is a very readable bit of science history, aimed at a broad public, not the techie crowd, who would surely be demanding a lot more detail in the theoretical and implementation ends of decision-making and the construction of hardware and software. It will give you a clue as to what is going on in the AI world, and maybe open your mind a bit to what possibilities and perils we can all look forward to.

There are many elements involved in AI. But the one (promoted by Elon Musk) we tend to be most concerned about is that it will develop, frighteningly portrayed in many sci-fi films and TV series, as a dark, all-powerful entity driven to subjugate weak humans. This is called AGI, for Artificial General Intelligence and is something that we do not know how to achieve. Bottom line for that is pass the popcorn and enjoy the show. Skynet may take over in one fictional future, but it ain’t gonna happen in our real one any time soon.

Review first posted – April 16, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – March 16, 2021
———-Trade Paperback – February 15, 2022

I received an e-book ARE from Dutton in return for…I’m gonna need a lot more data before I can answer that accurately.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Interview
—–C-Span2 – Genius Makers with Daniela Hernandez – video – 1:28:17 – this one is terrific

Other Reviews
—–Forbes – The Mavericks Who Brought AI to the World – Review of “Genius Makers” by Cade Metz by Calum Chace
—–Fair Observer – The Unbearable Shallowness of “Deep AI” By William Softky • Mar 31, 2021
—– Christian Science Monitor – Machines that learn: The origin story of artificial intelligence By Seth Stern

Items of Interest from the author
—–A list of Metz’s New York Times articles
—–A list of Metz’s Wired articles
—–excerpt
—–NY Times – Can Humans Be Replaced by Machines? by James Fallows

Items of Interest
—–Public Integrity – Are we ready for weapons to have a mind of their own? by Zachary Fryer-Biggs
—–Wiki on Geoffrey Hinton
—–Wiki for Demis Hassabis
—–Cornell Chronicle – Professor’s perceptron paved the way for AI – 60 years too soon by Melanie Lefkowitz
—–The Scientist – Machine, Learning, 1951 by Jef Akst

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Filed under AI, American history, Artificial Intelligence, business, computers, History, Non-fiction, programming

Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer

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…the question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river… More than 150 years later, despite all that biologists have learned about living things, they still cannot agree on the definition of life.

I have had the pleasure of driving up a mountain through mist and cloud, and of walking in London through pea soup fog. Where exactly did the clear air end and the more particulate air begin? It is not entirely…um…clear. Sure, there is a difference between standing, or driving in air that one cannot visually penetrate and looking through a wide outdoor expanse on a cloud-free, crystalline winter day. But it is not a barrier drawn with a straight edge. Thus it appears with the line between living and not-living. With the examples detailed in Life’s Edge, it is clearer than ever that there are more things under heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in our philosophies. There are those, certainly, who proclaim that this or that specific location is where the thing called life begins. Rules have been drawn up to plant markers, to draw lines. But like an outdoor crime-scene police-tape, the fog of what lies within and without wanders freely past those lines, with no regard for the designs or preferences of humans.

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Carl Zimmer – image from The Psychology Podcast

New York Times science columnist and multiple-award-winning science-writer Carl Zimmer’s fourteenth book takes readers on an exploration to that amorphous borderland between the living and the non-living. It is a journey that raises a lot more questions than it answers. Zimmer employs a tried and true approach, each chapter moving on to the next lab, the next researcher, the next wild bit of research, and filling in with nice chunks of science history, as he circles around the question.

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Alysson Muotri – image from The Stem Cell Podcast

Many of the things Zimmer reports on are fascinating. Some, however, will disturb your sleep. For an example of the latter, Alysson Muotri, at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, takes skin samples and reprograms them into neurons to study neurological diseases and possible treatments. They are grown into miniature organs called organoids, and are allowed to reproduce, up to a point. When he started growing these things, he assumed that they could never become conscious. “Now I’m not so sure, he confessed.” Zimmer tells, also, of a researcher, a very long time ago, who was notorious for experimenting on living animals.

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Cerebral organoid – image from European Research Council

Clearly a significant concern for our culture is where “life” begins, and further, where “human life” begins. It all comes down to definitions. Is Thomas Aquinas’s notion of the “ensoulment” of human embryos the same as defining when life becomes human life? There have been other notions employed in the history of Christianity. Zimmer looks at how legal definitions of life, for purposes including supporting abortion laws, and concerning a widening spectrum of medical and legal issues, fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny.

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”It’s Alive!” (or is it?) – from Frankenstein – image from Buzzfeed

The concern here is not just what is life, but how can we tell when something actually is alive? He looks at how humans perceive life and react to it. We have a sense of life being present or absent, an intuition that is not unique to our species. Ravens hold what can only be seen as funerals for dead flock members. Chimps engage in group laments for late members, as do many other creatures.

To be alive is to not be dead…Humanity did not come to this realization through logic and deduction. Our understanding of death is not like Darwin’s theory of evolution or Thompson’s discovery of the electron. It has its origins in ancient intuitions.

Zimmer looks at metabolic rate. In the 17th century, there was a widespread fear of being afflicted with a death-like state that might leave its victims without detectable breath or heartbeat, thus generating a rampant terror of being buried alive. This concern inspired a well-known short story.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Zimmer reports on a woman who was pronounced dead, twice. (third time’s the charm?) Where is the line between brain death and true, no backsies, total death? Can a person meet the criteria for brain death one day, and later not meet it?

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From The Night of the Living Dead – image from Wikipedia

But what constitutes life? How about adding some ingredients to agar, leaving it alone for a few hours and then finding a thriving slime mold, one with remarkable survival skills. What about spores, some of which can survive in space? Are spores alive? Or only potentially alive, or an ingredient in a recipe for making life?

Scientists have been arguing over whether viruses are alive for about a century, ever since the pathogens came to light. Writing last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, two microbiologists (Hugh Harris and Colin Hill) at University College Cork took stock of the debate. They could see no end to it. “The scientific community will never fully agree on the living nature of viruses,” they declared. – from Zimmer’s Secret Life piece in the NY Times

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“I vunder vut it vood be like to be really dead” – image from The Indy Channel

Whether you prefer your undead to be of the vampiric, zombie, or reanimated sort, or are more inclined to unicellular spore candidates, or maybe pre-conscious organoids, there are plenty of candidates for entities on the fringes of life.

In addition to providing readers with a better handle on the attempt to delineate the line between life and not-life, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and fun facts to be gleaned. We learn, for example, that Erwin Schrödinger was set up by the government at Trinity College. (But he may have simultaneously both been there and not, depending on whether any students saw him give a lecture.) We also learn that when Vitamin C was discovered, the discoverer wanted to name it “Godnose.” And how about meteorites as a possible source of Terran life? Or maybe they contributed one or more of the ingredients necessary for the recipe? I particularly enjoy when science writers imbue their work with a sense of humor. That is mostly lacking here, which is disappointing. But there is plenty of material to keep your brain cells flashing on and off.

Who decides on a definition of life? In an ideal world, science should lead on matters that are subject to physical investigation and repeatable experimentation. And yet…

It may be enough for you to align with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when it came time to issue a ruling pertaining to pornography, said that he knows it when he sees it. We as a species tend to think that we know life when we see it. But it would be a good thing to recognize that all extant definitions of life are squishy, relying on philosophy or religion for their support. So I would appreciate it if no one would use their definition to tell me or anyone who does not share their perspective what they can or cannot do. Because when it comes to folks twisting science to political ends, I know it when I see it.

Life’s Edge may not provide a definitive guide to the line between living and nonliving. Such a line does not really exist in biology. But it does point out where the arguments lie about where those lines might be drawn, or, at least, where they might be investigated. It raises the larger question, though, of whether that line can, at least from a scientific perspective, be drawn at all.

Life is what the scientific establishment (probably after some healthy disagreement) will accept as life.

Review first posted – March 19, 2021

Publication dates
———-March 9, 2021 – hardcover
———-March 8, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an e-book ARE if Life’s Edge from Dutton in exchange for an honest review, and some of those interesting things that have been growing, unasked, in my basement.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, PInterest, and Twitter pages

I heartily recommend you check out Siddhartha Mukherjee’s amazing NY Times review What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?

Items of Interest from the author
—–What is Life – audio – A series of live conversations between writer Carl Zimmer and eight leading thinkers on the question of what it means to be alive.
—–Slate – excerpt – What on Earth are These Things? – on organoids
—–NY Times – The Secret Life of a Coronavirus – is it alive?

Songs/Music
—–From Sondheim’s CompanyBeing Alive
—–Aerosmith – Livin’ On the Edge
—–Opening of Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive
—–Madonna – Borderline
—–GaGa – Edge of Glory
—–Shruti Haasan – Edge
—–Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Every Sperm is Sacred

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

book cover

”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller

Land by Simon Winchester

book cover

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. – from Chief Sealth’s letter to President Pierce on a treaty giving much of what is now Washington state over for white settlement

What are the three most important things in real estate? All together now, “Location, location, location.” Simon Winchester, in his usual way, has offered us a grand tour of land, and thus real estate on our planet. Note the subtitle, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World). This is not the broker’s walk-through in which the good elements are highlighted while the less appealing aspects are minimized or ignored. It may be that location is the most important property of land, but there are other features that are worth knowing too. Things like How much land is there? How do we know? How was it measured, by whom, and why? Is the amount of land fixed? Can it increase or decrease? Can land be made unusable? Where is everything? Who can make use of it? Is land inherently public, for (reasonable) use by all? Was it ever? How did it come to be private? How do different cultures think about land? Why is land divided up the way it is, into public and private, into parcels of particular size? Who gets to own land, and who is relegated to merely renting it? Winchester has answers.

Land is the defining characteristic of every nation. Our (the USA’s) national anthem, for example, goes “O’er the land of the free” not o’er the pond, lake, river or fjord of the free, (and no, Norway’s anthem makes no specific mention of fjords), not the sweet air of the free, not the great views of the free (although “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties” from our other national anthem, America the Beautiful, comes close), but the land. Check your nation of choice for common ground re this. (Click for a list of anthems) The word “land” figures prominently. Although I suggest you check out the Algerian lyrics. Dude, switch to decaf. The war is over.

Land is seminal in human culture as well as national history. For many of us in the West, our very origin story begins with a landlord-tenant dispute. “If we owned the garden instead of renting it, Adam, I could have eaten the goddam apple and it would have been nobody’s business but my own. And we wouldn’t have to put up with the creepy landlord spying on us all the time, or his freaky feathered bouncer. The guy should get a hobby, make some friends or something.”

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Simon Winchester at home in his study in the Berkshires – image from The Berkshire Eagle – Photo: Andrew Blechman

This is the eighth Winchester I have read, of his fifteen non-fiction books (so, plenty left to get to) and they have all been engaging, informative, and charming. He read Geology at Oxford, so, has a particular soft spot for explaining how physical things on our planet came to be where they are, how they changed over time, and why they exist in the forms they have taken on. You might be interested in the Atlantic Ocean, maybe the Pacific? Winchester has written a book on each. How about looking at the creation of the world’s first geological map, or maybe why Krakatoa blew its top. He is also interested in tracing back how we know what we know, (or, um, history) as a crucial element of understanding things as they are now, and how they came to be. The Perfectionists looks at how industrial standardization developed, and how machine tolerances improved to the point where they are beyond the control of flesh and blood humans. In The Professor and the Madman he looks at how the Oxford English Dictionary was made. The third element in Winchester’s trifecta of interest is people, often odd personalities who played pivotal roles in the development of technical and intellectual advances, thus expanding and deepening human understanding of the world.

I think what I’ve done is to get obscure figures from history and tell the stories like I’ve told you about Mister Penck and his maps, Mister Struve and his survey, Mister Radcliffe and his line, and turn them into what they truly are, which is heroic, forgotten figures from history….I just become fascinated by these characters. – from the Kinukinaya interview

There are plenty of interesting sorts in Land. Maybe none of the folks noted here are quite so interesting as the institutionalized murderer in The Professor and the Madman, but they are still a colorful crew, and it is clear Winchester had fun writing about them. They include Cornelius Lely, who built the 20-mile-long Barrier Dam in The Netherlands, which turned the Zuider Zee into vast tracts of arable land, Gina Rinehart, the world’s largest private landholder, not someone who has contributed nearly so much to the store of human knowledge as she has to conservative politicians, and Friedrich Wilhelm Georg von Struve, who spent forty years measuring a meridian for the tsar of Russia. There are many more, of both the benign and dark variety.

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. — Desmond Tutu

There are surprising connections made, such as the relationship between the invention of barbed wire and America’s appetite for beef. Or the link between the growth of commercial aviation and the development of World Aeronautical Charts, well maybe not so surprising, that. But that such things did not exist prior to people flying the friendly skies reminds us just how recent so much of the foundation of today’s world truly is. I suppose it also might not count as surprising, but John Maynard Keynes had an interesting solution to the problem of landed gentry, euthanasia.

Winchester details many of the outrages that have been inflicted, in the name of seizing land, on indigenous people across the planet, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA figuring large in these. But there are also plenty of other people who have been expelled from their homes, livelihoods, and history by the forces of greed across the planet. These include immigrants to the USA whose land was stolen while they were illegally incarcerated, and farmers who were dispossessed by land-owners seeking to maximize the profitability of their holdings, via the Enclosure and Clearance laws passed in England and Scotland. Then there are the perennial turf battles, like those in Ireland and the Middle East.

Gripes are, per usual with any Winchester book, minimal. He writes about the role, historical, current, and potential, that trusts have, had, and might have for the preservation of land from destructive exploitation. Yet, in doing so, there was no mention of The Nature Conservancy. Their motto could be (it isn’t) We save land the old-fashioned way. We buy it. It has over a million members (yes, I am) and has protected about 120 million acres of land. It definitely merited a shoutout here. Another part of the book tells of the annihilation of bison from the American west. The critters are referred to as multi-ton. Like the mythical eight hundred pound gorilla which grows only to about 400 pounds at most, bison max out at roughly 2,000 pounds, or a single ton, which still leaves them as the largest land mammal in North America.

Like any good geologist, or writer, Simon Winchester enjoys digging. And we are all the lucky recipients of the informational nuggets he unearths. He is a master story-teller, and if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself at a party with him, or find a chance to see him speak publicly, just pull up a seat and listen. You won’t be sorry.

So, I can tell from the looks on your faces that this one would be a perfect fit for you, particularly if you are planning to start a library soon. Do you think you’d like to make an offer on the book? There are other potential buyers stopping by this afternoon, and I would hate for you to miss out. It won’t stay on the shelves very long. Take my card and give me a ring when you make up your mind, ok. But I can assure you that, whether your preferences for land are LaLa, Never, Sugar, Holy, Promised, Wonder, Native, or Rover, when you check out Simon Winchester’s latest book, you will be a Land lover.

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

I could say that Winchester covered a lot of ground in this book, but really who would write such a thing? I suppose one might say that he planted a flag on his subject matter and claimed it for his own, and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell off his lawn. Not me. Nope. Nosiree.

Review first posted – February 5, 2021

Publication dates
———-January 19, 2021 – hardcover
———-January 18, 2022- trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A nice overview of Winchester’s professional life can be found here

Interviews
—–Kinokuniya USA – Interview with Simon Winchester on ‘Land’ – video – 30:03 – by Raphael – This is wonderful. The interview is a lot like SW’s books, one fascinating story follows another follows another.
—–RNZ – Simon Winchester: how land ownership shaped the modern world by Kim Hill – text extract plus audio interview – 48:24
—–The Book Club – Simon Winchester: Land – audio – 42:46

Songs/Music
—–Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land
—–The Lion King – This Land
—– LaLa Land – soundtrack

Reviews of other Simon Winchester books we have read:
—–2018 – The Perfectionists
—–2015 – Pacific
—–2010 – Atlantic
—–2008 – The Man Who Loved China
—–2005 – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
—–2001 – The Map That Changed the World
—–1998 – The Professor and the Madman

Items of Interest – by Winchester
—–From 2013 – Simon Winchester at TEDxEast re his book The Men Who United the States – There is an interesting morsel here about 11 minutes in on an important Jeffersonian decision having to do with land ownership
—–American Scholar – Experience Everything

Items of Interest
—– Citizen Simon: Author, journalist, OBE, sage of Sandisfield by Andrew D. Blechman – Posted on September 9, 2018
—–International Map of the World
—–The Nature Conservancy

An extra bit. I had intended to incorporate the following into the body of the review, but just felt off about that. Nevertheless I do hold with the notion expressed, so here it is, tucked away at the bottom:

I was taken with a particular instance of the horrors that accompanied land grabs in the expanding USA, as having resonance with today, with Donald Trump as the embodiment of that carnage. Whereas the racist yahoos of the 19th century westward expansion delighted in slaughtering bison from a moving train, in order to deny the native residents a living and to make it easier to clear them from desired land, so Trump has spent his time in the limelight, and in power, blasting away at the things that are central to our culture, to our values, so that he could deny us our cultural and legal core, as he seized all he could grab for himself and those like him.

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Filed under American history, England, History, Non-fiction, World History