Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The brief and dangerous life of a spy

I've never been a huge fan of James Bond movies or spy stories, but maybe I just haven't given them much of a chance. I remember seeing "For Your Eyes Only" with my cousin Corey at the old Crossroads Mall theaters (the one that was deep down in the basement) and loving it. In fact, I think we enjoyed it so much we went back and saw it again. And a year ago I read Operation Mincemeat about how the British fooled the Nazis about where the Allied invasion would be - a very interesting story that was heavy on covert operations. And I recently enjoyed Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth CenturyVladimir Vetrov was a brilliant and high-ranking intelligence officer (spy) working for the KGB's Directorate T which specialized in scientific and technological espionage. While posted in France he recruited others to betray their country, but when his own career stalled - due primarily to nepotism within the Soviet bureaucracy - he became disillusioned with his country's leadership and offered his services to the French. France didn't even have the structure or manpower to gather intelligence within the USSR, and what's more, Vetrov turned to the DST - the French equivalent of the American FBI - which was not even legally allowed to conduct foreign operations. Because of this, the transfer of KGB information from "Farewell" (Vetrov's code name) to his French "handlers" was carried out in the most unorthodox manner, ignoring all the normal rules of spy craft, and done right in the heart of Moscow. It resulted in a perfect operation that succeeded spectacularly - for a time - where more sophisticated ones would have immediately failed.

As far as the story goes, calling it "The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century" is probably a bit of marketing hyperbole, but there's plenty of evidence to support the assertion that Vetrov's actions contributed to the end of the Cold War. It certainly gave President Reagan and the United States the ideal information to undermine Soviet spying operations as well as targeted disruption of the Russian economy. The nearly 4,000 secret documents Vetrov shared detailed the extent of Soviet infiltration in numerous countries (naming 250 agents), as well as the huge amount of research and information technology it had stolen. It also plainly revealed that the Soviets had become woefully inadequate at developing their own technology. And it makes "Farewell" an interesting piece of the end of the Cold War.

Originally published in France, the translation to english is occasionally awkward and cumbersome. But while casual readers might find this a stumbling block, those interested in espionage and Cold War history will understand and appreciate the international air (and perspective) it gives the narrative. It's fairly long and especially detailed, and since parts of the story are still secret (although numerous interviews with family and others involved with the case have presented their sides of the story) there is a fair amount of speculation. In fact, it took me a while to get used to the way the story is told, with frequent statements such as "we aim to show..." or "we do not believe this version of events..." The authors also analyze Vetrov's actions from a psychological standpoint, with mostly convincing conclusions. I found it to be a very interesting insight into the inner workings of the USSR during those tense years of the early 1980s and the lives of its citizens. And I have to admit, the occasional spy story can be pretty interesting.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Amazing stories

When it comes to books about World War II, it seems like most stories are either "Untold" or "True." "Epic," "Heroic," "Extraordinary," and even "Most Incredible" are other adjectives that are tossed around frequently. It makes me wonder if it's the authors or their publishers who come up with these hyperbolic titles or if there's a rule somewhere that WWII books must contain one of those words in the title. Please know that I'm not disputing these descriptions... it's just one of those things I wonder about sometimes.

In December of 1944 the days of the Third Reich were numbered. That didn't mean Hitler and his Nazi thugs were ready to roll over, however. With the Allies making inroads in many parts of Europe, Hitler decided to throw all he had at them in one surprise thrust. The massive Ardennes offensive called on old men and young teenagers under the direction of some of Hitler's best generals to punch through the Allied lines in an effort to split their forces. And with embarrassing failures in Allied Intelligence it came pretty close to working.

The intelligence and reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division was vastly outnumbered but was told to hold their position "at all costs." Throughout the day of December 16th they killed hundreds of German soldiers, but when they finally ran out of ammunition 18 of their men were taken prisoners. They didn't know it but they had held off the infamous General Joachim Pieper's SS battle group long enough to halt the offensive and give the Allies time to regroup.

In The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon, Alex Kershaw tells the story of the men of the 99th from their boot camp training to the battlefield, from the time spent as POWs to their reunions with loved ones at home, and even to the belated recognition they received decades after the war. This is what I think of as narrative history - it's written with a novelistic flair and includes a lot of information largely peripheral to the story but which adds an element of interest as well as placing it into context. Hardcore history buffs take issue with this style and hunt for (and then itemize) the (usually small) factual errors, but it's what makes it readable for the rest of us (I actually listened to the audio book, which was read very well). And it helps to awaken a renewed sense of patriotism as we contemplate the kind of courage such men demonstrated for their country. I think we would do well not to forget it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Wild, Wild... um, East?

Some book reviews are simple to write as soon as I finish, but such has not been the case for The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America by Scott Weidensaul (which I received from Amazon Vine, and although I've posted my review over there I wasn't very happy with it). I certainly enjoyed the book, but summing it up hasn't been easy.

Mr. Weidensaul's thesis is that while we think of the American Frontier as being in the West, for a few hundred years it was in the East as the earliest European settlers stayed mostly along the coast and it wasn't until much later that they truly began to push across the whole continent. He also makes a point that atrocities were committed by both sides and his goal is not to vilify either group, but while he shares plenty of stories that illustrate that it's plain and clear which side got the raw end of the deal (those that survived the initial diseases that decimated the once-enormous Indian populations, that is). But he also shows that relations weren't always tense and confrontational, and more often than not the two got along rather well and both groups benefited to some degree. Following are some interesting things I learned:

  • War and Indians: I'd heard many times that Indian tribes were constantly at war with one another. Actually, calling it "war" overstates the level of conflict. In fact, it was more like tit-for-tat raids against "enemy" tribes. True, people were killed in these raids but it was nothing like the explosive and scorched-earth kind of wars that periodically devastated European populations. (Also, sexual crimes such as rape were incredibly rare among Indians - even against enemies - which is something to think about when compared to our own sex-obsessed society.)
  • Slavery and Indians: Usually in the above-mentioned raids against other tribes, Indians would take prisoners called slaves. Sometimes the slaves were tortured in ritualistic ways (sometimes to the death) but often they were subsequently adopted into Indian families as replacements for dead relatives (especially women and children). Many 'whites' became adopted Indians this way - and many chose to stay. But also, Indians were pressed into slavery in huge numbers long before the African slave trade developed.
  • Fire and Indians: We hold this romantic idea that the eastern lands were heavily-wooded with deep, dark, old-growth forests. Actually, Indians had been setting fire to the land for so long that most forests were actually quite open and treeless fields were common. One historian a hundred years ago called the Indian an "incendiary" for his use of fire to keep hunting grounds clear (not to mention the fact that fires killed a lot of pests like ticks).
  • Land and Indians: We hear of the Dutch "swindling" the Indians by purchasing Manhattan for beads. Actually, the Indians weren't so foolish but traded for items that had value to them (if you've ever tried to chop down a tree with a stone axe you'll understand the value of a steel one). And ideas on land "ownership" were vastly different between the two sides: whereas Europeans saw it as "buying" the land the Indians saw it more as a "lease" which would be paid yearly (hence the awful term "Indian giver" for someone who takes back ownership). And where Europeans saw Indians as nomadic because they moved around with the seasons, the Indians thought the Europeans were the nomads (after all, which group left their home and moved to a new land?).
  • Columbus and Indians: I think most people know that Columbus wasn’t really the first European explorer to set foot here. You might know the Vikings had made some failed attempts at creating settlements, but it turns out several groups (primarily Basque fishermen from the border area between France and Spain) had long been quietly trading with Indians. The first real settlements found Indians who already knew the Basque trading language and built ships of the same design. In fact, there is speculation (and even some suggestive evidence) that Indians actually travelled to Europe before European settlers came here, and it makes sense given the Atlantic currents.
  • Racism and Indians: We generally think of it as white settlers in conflict with red Indians. Actually, classifications based on race and color aren't even mentioned until the early 1700s and didn't become common until the end of that century. Religion was the dividing line among early colonists and tribal loyalties among the Indians - and quite a few Indians converted to Christianity.
But for me the most fascinating part of the book was the explanation of the current understanding of pre-Columbian America and the earlier interactions with European fishermen and traders. He explains possible routes and migrations of the earliest peoples to settle North America and what is known of their societies. Most of the book, however, deals more with the conflicts that arose between the Indians and Europeans, and to me it felt like the same basic story repeated over and over again (with a lot of interesting info). The brightest points were the more personal stories - especially those about 'whites' who were captured and adopted into Indian tribes. But Mr. Weidensaul has a very colorful and interesting way of writing, and it keeps the reader drawn into the story - and yes, he calls them "Indians" instead of the more politically-correct "Native Americans."

It's unfortunate that both groups couldn't have worked together in a better way, but it's an interesting part of American history that doesn't always get much attention.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"You is kind." But what about courageous?

I've always appreciated a story my dad once told us kids. He said when he and my mom got married (mid 60s) he invited an older black neighbor to the reception. He was just a nice guy who had always treated the neighborhood kids well, and since my dad liked him he sent him an invitation. The man showed up... with tears in his eyes! It was the first time anyone from the nearly all-white neighborhood had invited him to something like that, despite the fact that he had lived there for quite some time. It wasn't something my dad did with much thought; he just invited people he considered friends.

Last weekend Jamie picked up a movie called "The Help." I knew the book had been popular (something about a young woman coming home to Mississippi from college... ) but it didn't catch my interest. The title sounded odd - turning the verb "help" into a noun - but lots of authors try to be clever like that. Well, it turns out it's not that clever after all - "the help" is referring to "the household help," as in maids (although you wouldn't know that from the birds on the book cover). I didn't grow up with maids or servants, so the only "help" was my mom cleaning up after us kids (and we'd have never dared think of it that way). But anyway...

In the movie the young woman just home from college interviews "the help" - the black maids who work in the homes of the well-to-do white folks in the early 60s - about their lives and experiences. They not only clean and cook meals, they also raise the white children for mothers too busy with social calendars. They also face daily racism and prejudice and aren't even allowed to use the same toilets. They have few rights and can be fired for the smallest thing or nothing at all, thus cutting off the meager earnings their own family depends on. And it was a movie that made me feel very uncomfortable; seeing the way people treated those they considered their inferiors. It's not about the violence of racism, but rather the effect of casual racism.

And it made me glad I grew up in the time and place I did and for the way I was taught to respect others regardless of race. But it made me wonder, what if I had grown up in a time and place when racism was normal and accepted for white folks? How would I act and what choices would I make? After all, those people who neglected to invite my dad's neighbor weren't bad people - quite the opposite, in fact: some very good salt-of-the-earth people - but they were a product of their time and place. I just hope that if I'd been in such a time and place I'd have had the courage to look beyond race and skin color and be both kind and courageous... and I hope that I am always that way in the here and now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Inspirational quotes II

A few more good quotes:

"Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." – Henry Ford

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." – Mark Twain

"It is never too late to be what we might have been." – George Eliot

"Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night." – Edgar Allan Poe

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Inspirational quotes I

I saw these inspirational quotes on Yahoo a while ago:

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." – Thich Nhat Hanh

"Fall seven times, stand up eight." – Japanese proverb

"Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful." – Joshua J. Marine

"To love and win is the best thing. To love and lose, the next best." – William M. Thackeray

"This, too, shall pass." – Jewish proverb

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A dispute worth killing over

Back at the beginning of summer I recommended some good books for summer reading, but maybe now it's time for a book for those chilly evenings by the fire: AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol (and no, it's not about AC/DC the band).

Quite often companies develop technologies that do the same thing but use different formats. Recently we had something of a "standards" battle between Blu-Ray and HD DVD but when I was young it was BetaMAX vs. VHS. But who'd have thought that just over a hundred years ago it was AC vs. DC, alternating current vs. direct current electricity? Each side had its powerful backers. On the DC side was Thomas Edison, the world's greatest inventor, who was at his best when developing new products and was supported by a powerful marketing machine. On the AC side was George Westinghouse, another brilliant inventor who's mostly faded from history due to his unassuming personality and avoidance of the limelight. Nicolai Tesla (maker of the Tesla Coil for you fans of AC/DC and hard rock music) plays a minor part on the AC side, providing a "99% inspiration" counterpoint to Edison's "99% perspiration" ethic.

The "War of the Standards," as it came to be known, forms the core of this short history of electricity (even going back to Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite) and the dispute was very personal for these inventive giants, and the attacks and slander got as mean as a Republican primary election contest. Edison even supported an enterprising salesman named Harold Brown who conducted very UNscientific experiments to portray AC as inherently more dangerous. With Edison's tacit approval, he experimentally killed over a hundred stray dogs using electricity. Westinghouse and AC came out the winner but not before Brown and Edison helped develop a new system of capital punishment - the electric chair - that deliberately used the rival AC power (even electrocuting a circus elephant, which was recorded by another of Edison's inventions: the motion picture camera).

Both AC and DC have important roles in today's world, and as technology advances the balance will move back and forth. But this was a surprisingly interesting read on a topic I wouldn't have guessed had been so contentious. It's a bit short, perhaps, but often provides just the right amount of detail for readers who aren't intimately knowledgeable about electricity. I found the part about Brown's "experiments" disgusting and even disturbing, and I think many will agree, but it was an interesting part of the history of something we all take for granted.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

I Am... a little embarassed

You can't always trust bestsellers. Just because everyone else is reading them doesn't mean they're good. Take The Da Vinci Code for example: some of the poorest writing around, but strangers would see me reading it and feel compelled to stop and tell me it was their "favorite book EVER." I'd sometimes ask: Oh, do you read much? No, was the usual reply, but they LOVED it. And... I guess it was kind of exciting and the plot was sorta clever. Not good enough to read anything more by the author, though.  (I think it's what's called a 'plot-driven' story as opposed to 'character-driven.')

Occasionally I listen to audio books at work. I had one on my "library wish list" called I Am Number Four, and since it was available and not too long and seemed interesting and I recalled that the movie trailer looked kinda cool... I downloaded it. The plot certainly sounded good: "They caught Number One in Malaysia. Number Two in England. And Number Three in Kenya. They killed them all. I am Number Four. I am next." How could you help but be interested by that? Basically, the story is that 9 young refugees from the planet Lorien are hiding out on Earth from savage aliens who've already destroyed Lorien and are now hunting them down. They each have an adult protector who keeps them safe and will help them develop special powers when they get older, but they already have abilities that would make them superheroes compared to us. But mostly they keep a low profile and move around a lot to avoid the bad guys. Number 4, or Daniel Jones as he's known in the beginning until he changes his name to John Smith, is the main character in this book. When he finds out Number 3 has been killed (a burning circle appears on his ankle and leaves a scar as each one is killed - and because of a charm they can only be killed in order) he and his guardian Henri move from Florida to Paradise, Ohio. And it's in Ohio that John finally makes some friends.

It's kind of slow-moving while the story sets up but the plot is clever enough that it drew me in. Unfortunately, the writing isn't very good - and for a Young Adult book it's loaded with profanity. The writing gets worse as the story builds, and it finishes with a big cinematic flourish that got hard to follow. Throw in a sappy love story with a perfect girlfriend and I grew disappointed with it. And the audio book narrator was pretty bad - one voice sounded like Napoleon Dynamite and another like he was holding his nose. Still, it was a quick and mostly interesting story, even if I found myself rolling my eyes fairly often. But what about that author: Pittacus Lore? Obviously a pen name, so I looked him up. Hmmm, it's a couple of writers, one named James Frey. That name sounds familiar. Oh yeah, that's the stupid author of a memoir who caused a scandal because it turned out he made up a bunch of stuff to make himself sound interesting. (And yet, jerks like him are making lots of money, but I guess we can't expect someone who has no character to create characters with depth.)

At any rate it was mildly entertaining, but not something I'd want the kids to listen to because of all the profanity. Still not decided if I'll bother with the next book or not.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Several years ago I saw an interesting but depressing movie with Michael Douglas called "Falling Down." It starts off with Douglas sitting in Los Angeles freeway traffic, except the traffic isn't moving at all and there seems to be no reason. He gets so frustrated that he gets out and just walks away from his car. He tries to get change at a small market to make a phone call - he's late for his daughter's birthday party - but the owner says he has to buy something. Unfortunately, everything is more than a dollar and he gets angry and ends up smashing up a bunch of shelves. Then he's confronted by some gang members but he chases them off and things keep escalating. He thinks of himself as "standing up" for all the people who've been taken advantage of, and it's easy to relate to his frustrations. Unfortunately, he's actually gone crazy and the title "Falling Down" is a clever twist on his presumed "standing up" for himself.

Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America by Joseph A. McCartin tells a similarly tragic but real story of the August 1981 strike. The Air Traffic Controllers union, PATCO, called for the strike in response to poor treatment and broken promises from the FAA over decades. They had endured poor working conditions in an overburdened system with little response or respect from the government. But as government (public) employees they did not have collective bargaining rights (something the FAA frequently exploited) and had signed an oath not to strike. While they had engaged in "slow downs" causing worldwide delays and disruptions in air traffic, on August 3, 1981 they did the unthinkable and walked off the job.

Surprisingly, PATCO had supported Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. Reagan himself had been president of the Screen Actors Guild (a private union) and had overseen strikes, and in return for his promise to make amends the union took the unusual stance of supporting a Republican candidate. And while Reagan offered an unprecedented package of wage and benefits increases, it fell short of the overly optimistic demands of the union. It was a matter of principles that drove the overworked air traffic controllers to call an illegal strike, but it was also a matter of principles that drove Reagan's decision to fire those who didn't return to their jobs within 48 hours, and hire new controllers in spite of the enormous cost to the government. The controllers thought they couldn't lose when they stood up for themselves, but ended up out of work with no other market for their highly specialized skills.

Although I wasn't even in high school yet, I remember the extensive news coverage of the strike and hearing grownups talking about it. I am neither pro- nor anti-union, but I minored in economics in college and have taken a number of Labor Econ and Negotiation classes and find the subject interesting. While I generally feel that unions are often more detrimental to the economy than beneficial, one of my teachers once said that any company who had its employees unionize probably deserved it. In other words, if they'd treated their employees decently they wouldn't have to deal with a union. And Mr. McCartin does a very good job of showing the unfair conditions that led to unionization and its later militancy. You understand very well the principles the strikers felt they had to stand up for and why they were willing to put their jobs on the line. But at the same time he explains Reagan's generous offer and demonstrates why Reagan made it a matter of principle to dismiss them, even though it was a risky and expensive move.

But this is more than just the story of a strike that was broken in 1981 - it had profound implications for the labor movement and still reverberates today. I realize nothing could sound more boring than a history of the Air Traffic Controllers Strike, but Mr. McCartin brings it to life in a dramatic and personal way and mostly manages to keep it at arm’s-length instead of vilifying either side. While I can easily see this being assigned reading in Labor Economics classes, I think it has much wider appeal and will be enjoyed by lots of history buffs. (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's 2012

We had the Jorgenson's over for a New Year's Eve celebration.  As much as we all tried to convince the kids to celebrate 'New Year's in New York' (ie. celebrate the new year at 9 pm our time - which is midnight in NYC, of course) they insisted on ringing it in on local time.  So, after five hours of eating muchies and playing games (the most "fun" of which was trying the "Insanity Hot Sauce" Braiden bought in San Diego), they popped poppers in the living room and lit sparklers in the front yard.  The grownups were just happy to finally be able to go to sleep. 

And I just thought I'd share one of my new year's resolutions: to read from The Book of Mormon each day in addition to all the other reading I'll be doing this year. Following is an inspirational testimony by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland about it.

Happy New Year.