Monday, March 30, 2015

The First Condiment

Today, thousands of years of coveting, fighting over, hoarding, taxing and searching for salt appear picaresque and slightly foolish. The seventeenth-century British leaders who spoke with urgency about the dangerous national dependence on French sea salt seem somehow more comic than contemporary leaders concerned with a dependence on foreign oil… —Introduction, Salt: A World History

Go ahead. Sprinkle a little salt—the rock mineral we eatin your palm and reflect on its long history. Taste one of those tiny cubes, its flavor locked in our genes as desirable, immediately identifiable, unmistakable. Then throw a pinch over your shoulder, into the devil’s eyes.

Salt, according to author Mark Kurlansky, has been used as a monetary basis, provoked wars, consecrated crowned heads and marriage vows, cured corpses and cucumbers, spiced food from China to Tierra del Fuego, underscored entire industries, and provided the root word for such modern essentials as “salami”—and “salary.”

As he did in a previous work (Cod), with Salt: A World History, Kurlansky has focused on the far-reaching influence, current as well as historical, of a single commodity. Salt is the real “staff of life”; its presence in food transforms the rotting process to one of pickling or curing. Once the use of salt to preserve food was uncovered (and salt’s use in pickling predates the 4000-year Chinese history), the demand for it in ancient societies was guaranteed.

Kurlansky looks at historical uses of salt, beginning with the earliest references from China to pickling vegetables in brine, derived from brine wells. Wells that provided water steeped in sodium chloride (table salt) gave the most pleasing flavor to fish and vegetables like soybeans, although bitter-brine (containing potassium chloride) and other salty brines were also used. The common condiment that began as a fermented fish sauce gradually mutated (with the addition of soybeans as filler) to the fermented bean sauce we know today as soy sauce.
Modern-day garum

Romans also fermented fish in brine, creating garum*, a salty condiment that was dashed like catsup on nearly everything. Salt was so important to Roman society that “salt rights” (an early entitlement) were granted to appease the populace when other civil rights were revoked. Roman soldiers were issued a set amount of salt as part of their pay—the origin of the word “salary” and the phrase “worth his salt.”

Early Romans also discovered “royal purple” dye when they tried curing shellfish of the Murex and Pupurea families. These shellfish were eaten, much as we eat winkles today, after being steamed, but when a garum-maker tried to use them in the sauce, the shellfish exuded the reddish-purple dye. (As he did with Cod, Kuransky includes recipes both for dishes that use garum, and for making the purple dye.)

He looks at sea-salt concentration in Venice (where the immense salt-pans were referred to colloquially as “the Seven Seas”; the phrase “sailing the Seven Seas” originated in the tough task of navigating between the bars that enclosed these evaporation ponds), and France. Salt was not only used in pickling, but also in curing such diverse foods as herring, cod and cheese.

In a 1961 speech, Charles de Gaulle, explaining the ungovernable nature of the French nation, said, “Nobody can easily bring together a nation that has 265 kinds of cheese.”… It is the presence of salt throughout France, along with either cows, goats or sheep, that has made it the notoriously ungovernable land…

In fact, salt was also used as a social-order fixative. Medieval and Renaissance European kingdoms followed the practice of the nef, a large boat-shaped salt cellar that was both a symbol of the ship of state (and its health and preservation), and a practical dispenser for the valuable salt crystals it held. In addition to the “great salt,” lesser salt cellars would be placed on the table within reach of those deemed worthy. At any noble table, to be seated “below the salt” was to be accounted common, unworthy of access to this luxury seasoning.

In America, the newly-emerging United States faced a difficult issue with the British boycott in place between 1776 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The cod fisheries of the New World were an abundant source of fish that required salting, but Old World salt was in short supply due to the embargo. Saltworks in Cape Cod were bolstered by the invention of a sliding roof that extended the season for evaporating sea water by several months, but this still did not produce enough salt for the young nation’s needs. Brine springs used by the Indians were “discovered” by settlers moving west from the coast, and pressed into production by the revolutionary government. After the Treaty of Paris, salt production from these springs was taxed to fund the creation of the Erie Canal.

By the time of the U.S. Civil War, salt imports were still a major source of salt, but most of the imported salt went to the South, coming into the country through the port of New Orleans. One quarter of all English salt entering the U.S., 350 tons per day between 1857 and 1860, came into New Orleans, ballast for the cotton trade. At the outbreak of the war between the states, salt sold in New Orleans for fifty cents per 200 pounds; in 1862, six dollars for the same 200-pound sack was considered a bargain. By 1863, the price (in Savannah) was twenty-five dollars for the same sack of salt. Strategic-minded Northern generals targeted saltworks for destruction. Confederate troops, on the other hand, “when they took a saltworks celebrated having captured it and went into production.”

The McIlhenny fortune was founded in salt during this heady time. Brine wells on the family property in Louisiana sometimes yielded blocks (“logs”) of nearly-pure salt, and Edmund McIlhenny and Dudley Avery had patriotically sold their salt for scalper’s rates in Confederate money. After the defeat of the secessionists, the salt-farmers turned to other possibilities for their Louisiana plantations. It was McIlhenny who began to experiment with the Mexican red pepper, pickling it in the local brine to produce a red-pepper-and-salt sauce, perfect for Cajun and Creole recipes. His unique blend of fire and salt was awarded a patent. To this day, the distinctive Tabasco label bears the name “McIlhenny” and the marca registrada (®) that shows “tabasco” is a registered trademark.

Kurlansky also visits the cracking of sodium and chlorine from salt, the search for other salts and the uses for them, and the geological processes that produce immense beds of salt. By interleaving the historical with the current, the whimsical with the practical, and the bizarre with the interesting commonplace, he has created a perfectly delightful treatise on this ordinary, totally essential white crystal.

* If you want to try "garum", there is a near equivalent on US grocery-store shelves amongst the barbeque sauces: Try Me Tiger Sauce is a salty, brined-fish-based condiment with peppers and soy sauce—although with the inclusion of tamarind and molasses, as well as garlic, it may be closer to the original ketjap sauce than to Roman-era garum.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Glacial Peace in a Neutral Country

Switzerland was about as neutral in those days as had been Mongolia under Genghis Khan… They were so chillingly belligerent that even if they were destroyed in battle they had been known in the same moment to win a war. One afternoon in mid-Renaissance, a few hundred Swiss who were outnumbered fifteen to one elected not to run away but to wade across a river and break into the center of their opposition, where all of them died, but not before they had slaughtered three thousand of their French enemies. The French Army was so unnerved that it struck its tents and fled.  John McPhee, La Place de la Concorde Suisse

The Swiss are wont to say, John McPhee tells us in La Place de la Concorde Suisse, “Switzerland does not have an army. Switzerland is an army.”  

The country intermingles two cultures: the Suisse-romand are thoroughly French or Italian; while Suisse-allemand are German. Yet each partakes of the others to create that indefinable Swiss character. Perhaps, McPhee suggests, it is the defining background of each Swiss man’s life, the required military service.

The knife every soldier is issued today is jacketed with quilted gray aluminum, has one blade, a can opener, a bottle opener, a hole-punch, two screwdrivers and a corkscrew. On one side is a small red shield bearing a white cross… Officers included, everyone in the Swiss Army carries a Swiss Army knife.

Women may volunteer for the Swiss Army; if they do, they serve fifteen years doing “housewife work.” They drive trucks, for example, or operate radios. But men who refuse to serve (there are a small number each year) go to jail. Failure to be accepted into service is also considered shameful, and like serving time for conscientious objection, closes professional and financial doors to the disgraced party.

There is now a petition in circulation that calls for an initiative to abolish the army altogether. An initiative to abolish chocolate would stand an equal chance.

There are remarkably few graffiti in the country (although there is a famous one, Lord Byron’s name in his own hand, in a dungeon where he was prisoner), and electric sensors watch parking lots, urinals and hotel mattresses. The sensors signal availability, flush as needed, and turn out lights when you go to bed. “In Switzerland, everything works.”

In the Swiss Alps are countless airstrips, concealed hangers, mined bridges and clear-cut fields of fire. It is often the case, McPhee informs us, that the engineer who creates a strategic structure will then be given the task of planning its destruction. The Alps are not the barrier to invasion that they once were—the Swiss Army must supply the balance now, adapting to newer technologies.

But the Alps are still formidable, particularly when supplied, valley and town, canton and city, with the ready defense of the Swiss Army.

Crystallizing and recrystallizing, the ice among the peaks collects and compacts itself into the Grosser Aletsch-gletscher, the supreme glacier of Europe, with avenues of ice coming in from six or eight directions to conjoin in … Konkordiaplatz, La Place de la Concorde Suisse… This place that will never need defending represents what the Swiss defend.

This book assembles tiny elements, one by one, to create something as intricate and precise—and though it is over thirty years old, as timely—as a Swiss watch.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day-Sky Moon (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

One distressing truth in the life of an engineering student is that sooner or later, if the student has any imagination, he realizes that people will be counting on him to get the engineering right, every time. 

Otherwise, disaster! 

This is true for most hard sciences, of course. Wherever science touches people's lives directly, the practitioner must develop a diligent sense of duty to get the science correct. So the student acquires an obligation with the knowledge being learned.

Or sometimes, just has nightmares. That was me, in my sophomore year at college. I had changed engineering majors (from Physics—future job: nuclear engineerto Geology) without bringing down the level of stress. I had taken a hiatus, during which I had married, traveled to South Africa, and worked for DeBeers Diamond. And I had re-dedicated myself to my studies, working through the nightmares that still plagued me.

Then I signed up for a poetry class. Professor Hogan showed me that words had power to build with, no less than the engines I studied in other classes. Here was a relief valve for my troublesome imaginings! One of the pieces I wrote expressed that feeling, inspired by seeing a plumply gibbous moon in the sky as I walked away from a particularly difficult exam, one I knew I had aced.

I have since learned there is often a moon in the daytime sky, but we don't see it. We simply aren't looking up! 

Yesterday in the early-afternoon sky, I saw a sliver of moon in the branches of our oak, and knew what natural-world event I would write about for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

March 25, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include a juxtaposition between the ordinary and natural worlds. It can be civilization and nature; an edifice and a nest or cave; a human act and a natural occurrence; acculturation and adaptation. Compare or contrast as the prompt leads you to write.

The two verses in the flash below were first written in 1979, and published in the literary magazine of the Colorado School of Mines, High Grade

Day-Sky Moon

Sometimes it's hard being me. I wake from nightmares of making mistakes that doom thousands of lives, and remember that I have an exam today in the very subject I dreamed. 

Other days, everything falls into place. I can engineer anything, even words. Under a daytime moon, I assemble doggerel poetry to express it:
All my shirts got buttons,
All my toast got jam,
Woke no fears this morning 
Of being who I am.
Got things ticking smoothly,
Got things going right.
Got a moon in the morning sky
For a little extra light.

Sometimes it's easy being me.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

'Red Chief' Has Nothing on this Kid!

You know the genre: kid triumphs over seriously stupid criminals by using superior planning, plus all kinds of storage-cupboard, garage, and utility-room nasties. For those who think Home Alone was the first such story, I can highly recommend the short story "Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry.

The first time I watched Home Alone, I was aghast at the casual violence of the film. The poor saps who come under Macaulay Culkin's guns get burned and electrocuted, hit with bricks and hot irons and paint cans and tire-irons, shot with staples, tarred and feathered. You know, just good clean fun!

It was years later, when I sat down to watch all five movies in the series (our standard practice for the Christmas season), that the penny dropped. This is Red Chief, updated for the modern age!

So when I wound up watching a "family" movie, Baby's Day Out, I had a good referent for the action. Here again is a young child with decided opinions of how his life should go, walking all over the bad guys he encounters.

Wait—did I say walking? I meant crawling. Baby Bink is a silver-spoon toddler with a favorite book and a nanny (played by Cynthia Nixon) to read it to him every time he insists. (Don't miss the drawings behind the opening credits—they are the illustrations from his "boo-boo", Baby's Day Out, in order from the book. To say why they are important would be a spoiler, but having seen them once in order will help you enjoy the story.)

His mother (Lara Flynn Boyle) decides to hire the downtown photographers whose baby portraits of her friend's children have all been published in the paper. She doesn't realize that the real photographers and their equipment have been hijacked by three kidnappers, played with typical stupidity and lack of foresight by Joe Mantegna, Joe Pantoliano and Brian Haley.

It doesn't take long for Baby Bink to toddle away from the three bad men. Once through an open window, he climbs a fire-escape, crawls from one roof-top to another, and manages to get a lift with a package-deliveryman in the adjacent building. The kidnappers are just far enough behind to feel the brunt of it, starting with mastermind Eddie (Joe Mantagna) falling multiple stories into a dumpster.

They barely miss Baby crawling all over Chicago: into a department store, behind the bars of the gorilla cage at the zoo, through culvert pipes in the park, and up and down a building under construction. I may have begun watching it under protest, but about half-way through the movie, I realized I was really enjoying it.

If you liked any of the Home Alone movies, you'll really get a kick out of Baby's Day Out

Afterword: Actor/singer Eddie Bracken, who has a cameo as the Veteran 's Home resident Baby Bink comes to visit near the end of Baby's Day Out, also played toy-store owner E.F. Duncan in Home Alone 2

Bracken, who came from Broadway to film musicals in 1940, was renowned for playing portraying genial rubes in musical and non-musical roles. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for television, and one for radio.

To see Bracken at the height of his powers as an actor, check out The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

Plum Hilarious

No one will ever accuse Janet Evanovich of writing “for the ages.” 

Stephanie Plum, Evanovich's high-attitude New Jersey bond enforcement agent (bounty hunter), is a loose cannon primed to go off in the presence of a hot guy. Plum’s dysfunctional family, her up-and-down relationship with local cop Joe Morelli, and her long-standing feud with Joyce Barnhardt provide plenty of opportunity for hilarity, but little in the way of philosophic musing.

So how did I wind up connecting with this book, Seven Up? I blame my sister-in-law, who kept telling me I’d enjoy it. When she loaned me her copy, I thought, hey, it’s free—how can I go wrong?

Now I’m hooked. I haven’t had this much pure fun reading a book since I tucked into Dave Barry’s Big Trouble

Stephanie Plum may not have a cane toad, but she does have Bob, a hound of gargantuan... um, by-products, which Plum uses to advantage in her one-up sparring with Joyce. Bob fuels his efforts by eating anything that isn’t larger than his head. (Though Stephanie worries that one day Bob will figure out how to do that, and that will be the end of her sofa.)

In Seven Up, Plum’s main assignment is to bring in a seventy-year-old, nearly-blind miscreant who skipped his court date. Eddie DeChooch was smuggling a truckload of cigarettes to New York City when he was arrested as he “took a leak.” DeChooch is a wizard at evading Plum, even when she has the help of Lula, the giantess. Lula “used to be a ho,” but now works (when she pleases) as a bounty hunter. DeChooch also skips past the enigmatic (and thoroughly hot) Ranger, and even gives Joe Morelli the slip.

Plum’s problems are compounded by the disappearance of Dougie “The Dealer” Kruper and his pot roast, as she learns from Dougie’s friend Walter “MoonMan” Dunphy. “Mooner” is a riot all by himself, from the moment he appears in the story, dressed in silver spandex “super-hero” duds, crooning “Dude” to one and all. Then Plum gets pitched into a wedding-gown fitting and her upcoming nuptials are being choreographed by her Mom and Grandma before she and Joe are really sure they even want to live together.

Meanwhile, DeChooch is scooting around town in a white Cadillac that belongs to Mary Maggie the mud wrestler. Plum’s encounter with Mary Maggie at the sleazy bar where she performs is gooey good fun. Then there’s Bennie and Ziggy, two goons who keep breaking into Stephanie’s apartment, and Joe Morelli’s grandmother’s “evil eye,” and the crazy-eyed Sophia DeStefano, widow of the recently-deceased mobster Louis D. Oh, and Plum’s “perfectly married” sister, Valerie, who comes home to New Jersey and decides to become a lesbian.

There’s also a pig heart in a cooler.

It’s all fun. It reads fast. Only problem is, now I have to go get the previous six Stephanie Plum novels, and the next ever-so-many, and read them too. 

Either that, or join Plum Anonymous.

This review was first published in 2005, when Plum first got on my back. I recently acquired books 1-21 on Kindle, but decided to start by re-reading Seven Up, the one that started it all for me!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lovecraftian Visions of Life and Death

The power of the Cthulhu Mythos, written by H.P. Lovecraft with contributions from dozens of other authors, was supported by three over-arching concepts:  the existence of Elder Gods, cruel, unjust, and more powerful than the newer Christian deity; fictional grimoires like De Vermis Mysteriis and the Necronomicon; and helpless Cassandras, prey to visions of impending doom and prophecies of the approach of nightmares, which all around them ignore.

Revival is hardly the first book by Stephen King to reference the Lovecraftian grimoires. Salem's Lot also used De Vermis Mysteriis as a plot device. But Revival is the first King novel I've read that qualifies as an entry to the Mythos, because it includes all three of the Mythos requirements.

The novel begins with a literal fore-shadowing. The two main characters who will interact throughout the next half-century of the story, Methodist minister Charles Jacobs and Jamie Morton, meet when Jacobs' shadow falls across the young boy. King continues to telegraph action and future interaction as Jamie's life unfolds within that shadow. Even when we sense (or are told, straight-out) that terrible things are in store for the minister, Jamie and his family, and the world, we keep reading. Because Cassandra should not be believed, even when we sense she is telling a true future.

Jamie's visionsCassandra's visionsare joined by the visions of others who have come under Jacobs' shadow. The revival desired by this self-defrocked minister is obvious and understandable, given the tragedy in his life, but honi soit qui mal y pense. Even as fore-shadowings continue to pile up, amplifying into giant red warning signs, Jacobs ignores them because he wants so badly to believe that a happy ending is possible.

Jamie Morton seems to serve primarily as foil to Jacobs' arc toward destruction, and observer of all the lives caught up in Jacobs' quest to recreate the happiness he has lost. He is Cassandra, yes, but also Theseus following the clue into the labyrinth where the monster waits.

The revival Jacobs desires is doomed by the existence of Elder Gods and by his rejection of his former beliefs. He now believes only that the power to revive he has acquired comes from his research into secret sciences (informed by his reading of a newly-discovered copy of De Vermis Mysteriis)—but it actually comes from those Elder Gods. (This is also a common device in stories from the Cthulhu Mythos: the damned science and its student who enables the Elder Gods' return through his quest to learn that which Man Was Not Meant to Know!)

As Lovecraft warned us so long ago, there exists an evil from beyond the stars, and it "... is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die...".  You'll finish this novel, and tell yourself firmly: It's only fiction! It's only fiction. 

It is, and it belongs firmly on the shelf next to Lovecraft, Bloch, Long, Smith and Derleth.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pleading Insanity

I opened The Weeds of God by Robert W. Wood without a clue to what this book might be like. The insanely cryptic Online Review of Books quote on the back cover, Weeds of God is a razor slice across the eye and a refreshing drink of subconscious suds, didn’t help me much, either.

The story in Weeds, told in a series of vignettes, explores the dark mental corridors of the inmates of a mental asylum, and details the efforts of the psychotherapist who tries to illuminate them. In this asylum the staff, seen through Wood’s eyes, often appear demented, while the inmates sometimes seem completely rational.

As I often do to help make a buy decision with a physical book* from a new writer, I applied the Rule of 33. This novel is composed of a series of related, although free-standing, stories, and because each is as carefully crafted as the last, I was instantly captivated:
Four months ago, on Friday, Mr. Lessmore walked into the center of main street at 12:00 am. He was nude, and carried a grocery sack. He pulled six cantaloupes out of the sack, and arranged them in a large circle. He then proceeded to defecate in the middle of the circle of cantaloupes. After cleaning himself with a tie ripped from the neck of a bystander, he stood and said, “Well, that about does it.” —partway down page 33, The Weeds of God
We meet the receptionist who “has a battle going with a wad of chewing gum,” as the author enters for the first time this building where “no one looks particularly insane.” In short order we meet a number of characters, some in white coats and some “dressed in rainbows.” Some talk sense, some babble nonsense—and there is no correlation whatsoever between these characteristics and the sanity of the speaker.

Where the teller of this story cycle is in sympathy with the subject of a story, he reveals to us the kernel of mental balance within the insane behavior. When the actions of a character are contrary to his own values, he makes us see the insanity in them. And no one, however exalted, is held immune from the scalpel of his prose.
Dr. Contritus is thirty-five years old and dying. The world is full of sh*ts, and God has picked Dr. Contritus. God is very busy… Each night in my prayers I send unto God a listing of the sh*ts I feel should be harvested in the very near future… I always include my name at the top of the list of substitutes because I am trying to be fair. I always give a false social security number, however, because my kind of fair just extends so far.
The names Woods assigns to his characters are low puns embedded like chocolate chips in the sweet dough of his tales. Dr. Argetto and Nurse Blithups contend with Mr. Lemme and Mr. Facade, Mr. Culswamp will not be released as long as New York City pays $1000 a day, Dr. Lambast lobbies Congressman Bundnut for funds for the asylum. Mr. Thanaten attempts suicide. Dr. Phustus debates Dr. Commradius. The bust of Julius Caesar and the gerbil confer quietly in the corner.

In the end, the relationships Woods makes clearest are those between the psychotherapist and his own mind, his own heart, his own questions and insanities and dreams. His stories are engrossing and moving and enlightening in turns, close to poetry in the terse focus of their descriptive power.

And you never notice until you’ve finished the book how far along that dark corridor you’ve come.

* I wish Amazon would offer the Rule of 33 option with its Look Inside feature—although you can always return an eBook to Amazon right after downloading it, if it fails to pass the Rule of 33 test!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sweet YA Sci-Fi for An Adult Afternoon

Charles Sheffield is known for the depth and scope of science in his adult science fiction; as if he had added to Asimov's famous line, "To be good science fiction, it must first be good fiction," the reservation, "but it must also be good science." 

This charge Sheffield has met even in his fiction for the Tor Jupiter series, with four juvenile novels (Higher EducationThe Billion-Dollar BoyPutting Up RootsThe Cyborg from Earth) released between 1997 and 2003. 

All four books are enjoyable even for adults, but (and I have the word of two neighbor children here) they are great fun for teens as well. 

Higher Education was co-authored by Larry Niven. The story begins in the extremely poor schools of Earth's cities, in which the Rick Luban, like other students, is repeatedly given a pass for incredibly bad behavior, until suddenly, one day, he passes over an invisible line and is expelled. Now Rick faces either a grim life of useless poverty on Earth, or being drafted into a program designed to recruit asteroid miners. 

His choice to take training is his first step into space, and into adulthood. Along the way he and the reader learn some basic physics and astronomy in the easist way possible (as characters in the tale.) Rick's growth from a spotty obnoxious dork to the mature, poised hero is realistic and (even better for the juvenile reader), is obviously values-based. 

The Billion-Dollar Boy is, as many reviewers have pointed out, somewhat a space-fiction Captains Courageous. Shelby Cheever is the eponymous boy who decides that he can pout and tantrum his way to what he wants. In a move to get attention from the staff on his mother's space liner, Shelby lands himself in an outbound ore carrier, on his way to a ship-bound society where a man's name means less than his word (and where Shelby's word has no value). 

Once again, character growth proceeds along realistic lines: Shelby learns how to negotiate rather than lie, contribute instead of throwing tantrums, and appreciate the value of others' efforts in his behalf. 

Putting Up Roots is a 90-degree shift from the first two novels, in that its main character, Joshua Kerrigan, is a great kid, whom we can like from the start. Unfortunately, he's saddled with a mom who shifts him with her from pillar to post; and eventually she dumps him on a farming family that is already overburdened. 

Their response is to sign up Joshua, and their own autistic daughter Dawn, to be farmers on a colony planet. Once there, the young adults find little farming. The colony seems to be organized more to support prospecting, and the adults are ignoring obvious signs of an indigenous intelligent life form. The way in which Joshua supports Dawn as they both grow is well-written, and her autism is handled with a light touch. 

With its theme of finding freedom in a frontier society, and the way the youngsters have to face and overcome the moral failings of adults who are nominally charged with their care, this novel reminded me strongly of L. Neil Smith's Pallas

The Cyborg from Earth again starts with a fairly likable teen. Like billion-dollar boy Shelby Cheevers, Jefferson Kopal is heir to a fortune. In Jeff's case, though, a sinister uncle acquires the fortune. Despite nearly failing his exams, Jeff is still allowed the family-traditional stint in the Navy, but is assigned to duty as far away as possible, to the outer-system colonies. 

He coasts from near-disaster to near-failure, until finally he is taken as hostage by cyborgs. Jeff's growth comes as he realizes that someone called a "villain" may not be evil, but that he himself accommodates actual villainy by not doing his best. 

The story makes teen-accessible the moral of the adage, "All that is needed for evil to florish is that good men do nothing." 

None of the four are very long reads (only The Cyborg from Earth is more than 300 pages, and that just barely), but they are each enjoyable. As I read them, I was reminded that there really are no "bad kids", just kids who haven't had an opportunity to be good yet. That, and the science, is reason enough to read them again.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Saudi Terror Connection

Follow the money. It’s the watchword of anyone trying to unravel a complex system to track down those who work behind the scenes. Rachel Ehrenfeld had done such a good job of following the money behind Al-Qaeda, international terrorism and the Taliban that she was being sued by a Saudi king-pin whom she names in her book, Funding Evil, first published in 2003.

She wasn't being sued in the U.S. though. The Saudi banker she named engaged in “forum-shopping” for his libel lawsuit, entering it in British courts in spite of the fact that the book was published only in the U.S. Because Britain’s libel laws place the burden of proof on the defendant (in other words, one is guilty until proven innocent), libel suits are much easier to win in that country.

Despite this suit, Ehrenfeld revised and updated the book for its paperback release, including information from the 9/11 Commission Report and other data learned in the intervening years. The new edition included a foreword written by R. James Woolsey, the CIA Director from 1993-95.

The author was one of the first to identify the relationship between criminal narcotics trafficking and global terrorism, and coined the phrase “narco-terrorism.” She does not hesitate to point fingers wherever the money leads. Banks, brokers, politicos and profiteers all come under Ehrenfeld’s scrutiny, and the book specifies how each branch of the terrorist network is underwritten:
  • al-Qaeda (the “Islamist Plague”)
  • the Palestinians
  • Hizballah (the “Party of God”)
  • other narco-terrorists

Particularly chilling is the chapter on Hizballah (as Ehrenfeld spells Hezbollah throughout the book). The author identifies Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian connections of this Lebanon-based organization and traces its funding and recruitment efforts as far away as Paris.

In the spring of 2000, Iranian intelligence took steps to consolidate all Palestinian terrorist organizations into a single Secret Islamic Revolutionary Army, with Hezbollah’s expert operative Imad Mugniyah at the helm, to help Arafat plan his September attacks on Israel… In late July [2000], Iran arranged a meeting in Afghanistan between Osama bin Laden’s new “Lebanon team”… and a Palestinian delegation. As a result, al-Qaeda terrorists were sent to Lebanon for intensive training by Hezbollah in “the laying of ambushes, bomb construction and diffusing [sic] techniques, local booby-trapping techniques, and clandestine communications,” as well as in the forging of documents.

The money that funds terrorism continues to flow, despite years of effort to freeze assets. Ehrenfeld makes very clear her central argument; so long as we ignore the real people and organizations that command, fund, support and commit acts of terror, and instead concentrate our war against a nebulous “terrorism”, we cannot hope to succeed. Her book constitutes a well-researched enemies list for the prosecution of the war on terror.

Notes on 2011 Revised Edition, available on Kindle:

Although the list of organizations at the forefront of terror is always expanding and changing, money trails continue to lead to the same short list of sources.

Dr. Ehrenfeld succeeded in fighting off the Saudi lawsuit. She includes in this edition the description of how that success was achieved.

From the Amazon description:
Dr. Ehrenfeld's initiative and efforts led to the passage of New York' State's anti-libel tourism "Rachel's Law " and the SPEECH Act, signed into law in August 2010. These laws protect American writers and publishers in print and on the Internet from the enforcement of foreign libel judgements in the US.

In a rare event, the SPEECH act was passed unanimously by both houses of the U.S. Congress before being signed by President Obama on August 10, 2010.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spy vs. Spy in the Lead-up to 9/11

Review: The Bureau and the Mole by David Vise

For two decades, Robert Hansen was the picture of the “man in black” FBI agent: industrious, immersed in his family life, a member of the strict Catholic Opus Dei movement, openly scornful of fellow agents who drank or engaged in love affairs. He was, if somewhat self-righteous, apparently a good agent and an honest man. Yet all that time, Hansen was stealing thousands of top-secret documents and transferring them to the KGB.

David Vise’s book, The Bureau and the Mole, is a fascinating glimpse into the life of this double agent, and also the man who finally brought him down, FBI Director Louis Freeh. Coincidences between the lives of these two men abound; both were Catholic, and went to Mass each week in the same church. Their sons attended the same school.

But the differences between them are far more instructive. Freeh knew early in his life that he wanted a career in law enforcement. Hansen drifted; cursed with a critical, verbally-abusive father whose approval he craved, Hansen first studied to be a dentist to please him, even though he hated the prospect of practicing dentistry. Freeh truly wanted to be with his wife and children, to the extent that he nearly turned down the time-intensive position of FBI Director when President Clinton offered it. Hansen’s fidelity was superficialhe shared nude photographs of his wife with a friend, Jack Hoschauer, and arranged for Jack to watch him as he had sex with her. Hansen also had a protracted affair with a local stripper, to whom he gave a Mercedes and expensive jewelry, as well as cash.

And, of course, Hansen betrayed the Bureau and his country by selling secrets to the KGB. He was unique in the history of KGB operations with double agentsnot even his Russian handler, Victor Cherkashin, knew his identity. The KGB only had signals to let Hansen know when they would pay him; Hansen signaled them when he had information to pass to them.

One of the more interesting things is that Hansen does not seem to have been doing this primarily for money. His motivation, Vise shows, was hubris, the sense of being more subtle, cleverer than all the other agents. He seems to have wanted to be the dashing “secret agent” of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which was a favorite book. He openly admired “third man” Kim Philby, the British agent who defected to Russia after having betrayed that country by selling secrets.

Other agents and Bureau cases provide a rich background for the spy-versus-spy maneuvers of Hansen and Freeh. CIA agent Aldrich Ames was selling US secrets at the same time as Hansen; the FBI mounted a concerted effort to find Osama bin Laden, whom Louis Freeh considered the most dangerous terrorist at the turn of the century; the Olympic Park (Atlanta) and Murrah Building (Oklahoma City) bombings fit into the context of ATF actions at Ruby Ridge and the Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas.

Hansen was sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Among the items he had sold to the Soviets (which it was rumored had then been sold to bin Laden and al-Qaeda) was some sophisticated software used by the FBI to follow their Most Wanted criminals. If bin Laden had this software, he knew what US law enforcement knew (and what they didn’t) about al-Qaeda’s operation in the US.

In the end, Hansen’s unmasking and the extent of his betrayal would combine with many other factors to tarnish the FBI itself. As then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said,
No American has escaped injury from the espionage to which Robert Hansen pled guilty. But for the men and women of the FBI, the wound is deeper. Together, Americans have felt the shame caused by the betrayal of a countryman; the FBI has felt the pain inflicted by the betrayal of a brother.