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fell apart when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, and by 2014 was building weapons with a depleted workforce using outdated equipment under a leaking roof.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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The very valuable Oxford comma

I have been a lifetime devotee of the "Oxford comma," which demands a comma before the conjunction in a series. Sadly, this valuable punctuation mark has largely disappeared from American usage, leaving readers regularly baffled as to what a sentence actually means. I notice it almost every day in the Wall Street Journal, which is otherwise nearly flawless in its use of the language.

Meanwhile, a Maine dairy company may have to spend $10 million because a comma might have been inserted in the following rule for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
If the final phrase means "packing for shipping OR distribution," then the truckers who delivered the products weren't eligible for overtime pay, because they didn't do any packing. This is what the Oakhurst lawyer meant to say. The truckers sued, saying that "packing for shipping" was a different concept than "distribution," so that distributors (the truckers) also qualified for overtime pay.

The appeals court agreed that the sentence was unclear, so decided in favor of the truckers.

Funnily enough, if the lawyer HAD inserted a comma, the truckers would have qualified for overtime pay without any argument. The solution here was to rewrite the sentence, which anyone would have done who regularly obeyed the Oxford comma. To exclude them, it should have said: "... marketing, storing, OR packing for shipping or distribution ..."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Two cheers for Middlebury College

The students at Middlebury, a pretty school in Vermont, disgraced themselves and their college the other day by running a speaker off the stage, then manhandling him and his faculty escort when they were escaping the campus. Unusually for an American educational institution today, the college president actually rebuked them -- one cheer for her! But what really redeems Middlebury in my eyes is the following statement, at first signed by 53 members of the faculty, though I believe the signatures now total more than eighty. Two cheers for the faculty!
On March 2, 2017, roughly 100 of our 2500 students prevented a controversial visiting speaker, Dr. Charles Murray, from communicating with his audience on the campus of Middlebury College.  Afterwards, a group of unidentified assailants mobbed the speaker, and one of our faculty members was seriously injured.  In view of these unacceptable acts, we have produced this document stating core principles that seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.
These principles are as follows:
Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.
Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.
The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.
Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.
Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.
A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.
No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.
No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.
The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices.
The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.
The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.
A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.
All our students possess the strength, in head and in heart, to consider and evaluate challenging opinions from every quarter.
We are steadfast in our purpose to provide all current and future students an education on this model, and we encourage our colleagues at colleges across the country to do the same.