Friday, September 01, 2017

Trigger warning: this is a blog. Blogs contain opinions!

Really, this is the trigger warning to end all trigger warnings! (And wouldn't that be a wonderful outcome?)

Ken Burns, who reinvented the documentary with his great Civil War series, has now turned his attention to the Vietnam War. (As Americans call it. The Vietnamese call it the American War.) Wars, of course, involve at least occasional violence, and most of them involve atrocities on one side or the other, or more likely both.

Television and online programming begins on September 17 and continues for the next nine Sundays. But I just got an email from New Hampshire Public Television informing me that for $10 or so I could actually attend a preview in a theater. Not only that, the email promised, but the screening would be accompanied with this bonus:

Screenings will include trained facilitators to ensure a safe, welcoming, and inclusive conversation.
Isn't that the height of 21st Century culture? The Good People have invented war with a safe space! 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Texas triumphs

What a great photo! I am generally skeptical of militarizing the police, but Houston yesterday showed us that SWAT teams have other uses than breaking down doors and deploying armored vehicles against civilians. Here Officer Daryl Hudeck rescues Connie Pham and her son from their flooded home. If the photo doesn't win the Pulitzer Prize, there is no justice!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A homicide detective in Hitler's Germany

I don't often buy hardcover novels, but I made an exception for the latest in the fabulous Bernie Gunther series, called Prussian Blue. (Like Lee Child, Philip Kerr favors obscure titles that I am apt to forget.) For one thing, it has caused book reviewers to hyperventilate, and for another it cost me only $14.16, or 17 cents more than the e-book. And, unlike the ebook, I can pass it on! For the ignorant (a group that included me until a couple weeks ago), Bernie is a wise-cracking, left-leaning detective in Berlin of the 1930s. Either trait could land him in a concentration camp, of course, and his dance on the precipice is part of the fun. Alas, time passes, and this particular story begins in France, in the 1950s, with the Nazi era handled in a lengthy flashback. Personally, I prefer to start and finish in the 1930s, when we don't know what will become of Bernie and Nazi Germany. So I suggest that strangers begin with the early thrillers that are bundled as Berlin Noir, three for the price of one. Blue skies! — Dan Ford

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Farewell the AK-47!

The Soviet Union mostly produced famine, purges, and rubbishy consumer products, but one of its products was arguably the best-ever assault rifle, the immortal AK-47. Though heavier than modern western weapons, it was cheap to manufacture and almost impervious to abuse, and it became the favorite of rebels around the world, from the Viet Cong to Osama bin Laden. (When I was in Vietnam in 1964, captured examples were known as the "Chicom carbine" and were a knock-off manufactured in China.) But in the Wall Street Journal, I read that the AK-47 is no longer manufactured in Russia, though the Kalashnikov Concern still manufactures rifles, and its most famous product is no doubt still being built somewhere in what we used to call the Third World.

Like most things in Putin's Russia, Kalashnikov is closely tied to the country's president-for-life. The company pretty much fell apart when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, and by 2014 was building weapons with a depleted workforce using outdated equipment under a leaking roof. Then some friends-of-Vlad put it back in business, making shotguns, biathlon rifles, and military weaponry. The last includes the AK-74M assault rifle (standard for the Russian army) and the AK-100 series of carbines sold abroad, variously chambered for 5.45 and 7.62 mm cartridges.

But if you want a genuine AK-47, you'll have to shop elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Who won that war, anyhow?

This is an advertisement for VietJet, a budget airline based in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City. Uncle Ho would be surprised by that, and likewise by the fact that the airline's founder, Nguyen Thi Phuong, has become Vietnam's first female billionaire. VietJet recently surpassed state-owned Vietnam Airlines in that most capitalistic of measures, stock market value.

When I flew into Saigon in May 1964, it was on a flight operated by Pan American Airlines, a company that no longer has any market value whatever. And my flights in and around the country were on Huey helicopters, a Fairchild C-123, and a single-engine De Havilland Otter. None of them had flight attendants like this!

Monday, May 15, 2017

What would a Greater America look like, anyhow?

In the fall of 1905, the editor of Outing magazine asked Ralph Paine to "get out among the real Americans" and report on the nation then bursting into life beyond the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The veteran war correspondent covered 15,000 miles on his quest, and over the course of a year sent twenty-three dispatches to the magazine. He wrote of homesteaders in sod huts, of men and women building towns and laying railroads across the empty prairie, of cowboys making their last roundup on the open range, of lumberjacks who scorned any tree less than six feet through, of the "health and pleasure resort" that was Los Angeles, and of alkali-coated prospectors in Death Valley. He rode trains and horses, a pilot schooner, a stage coach, and a desert jalopy, and he talked to everyone he met. Outing published Paine's dispatches in 1907 as The Greater America. 

Eastern readers were amazed. "To read the book is to get a new appreciation of the greatness of America, the greatness of her present and the possibilities of her future," wrote one reviewer. Another celebrated it as "a book to make a man hold his head high, to step high, to throw out his chest." That was important in 1907, in a country suddenly unsure of itself, with "muckrakers" chanting about the evils of capitalism as seen from New York and Washington.

When I married Ralph Paine's granddaughter — who was also the granddaughter of one of those Nevada gold miners! — I sat down to read his books in chronological order. The Greater Americawas by far my favorite. We tried to interest a publisher in bringing out a new version, but in those years the U.S. was great enough, thank you, just as it was. Today, however, seems a more propitious time. So here is the book again, in paperback and digital format — a bit shorter, with copious notes and some photos never published before. (Don't confuse it with facsimile copies of the 1907 book, put out by those who try to make a fast buck from the work of dead authors.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pyongyang street scene

Gotta admire that Dear Leader! He's out there every day, checking on the welfare of North Korea's people, most of whom for some reason are not as chubby as he is. Here he's checking the cracks in the pavement of the magnificent boulevard in this new block of empty storefronts and probably empty skyscrapers. Whatever caused the pavement to break up, it doesn't seem to have been the heavy commuter traffic. When I zero in on the photo, I can see exactly two people other than Dear Leader and his note-takers, and one of those (just over the shoulder of the note-taker on the left) may well be part of the entourage.