Sunday, November 22, 2020

The sorrows of the Taylors, father and son

The saddest part of Japan's mad vendetta against Carlos Ghosn is that Michael and Peter Taylor, the two adventurers who spirited the former Renault-Nissan chairman out of his confinement in Tokyo, are now themselves behind bars. They're being held in a bleak county jail near Boston. The elder Mr Taylor was awakened one morning in May, went to the door in his underwear, and found himself confronted by a dozen armed federal agents. (He had a ticket for that day's flight to Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan. Too bad he didn't make it!) "I thought I was dreaming," he later said. "I thought I was in Baghdad."

Mr Taylor's confusion is understandable. The whole affair has a third-world quality. Shame on Japan for trying to hold Mr Ghosn in perpetual confinement, and shame on the United States for abetting Japan's pursuit of the men who snatched him from durance indefinite.

A fourth man, Mark Kelley, is still mired in Japan's byzantine criminal justice system. Tricked into returning to the country when Mr Ghosn was arrested two years ago, he's defending himself in a trial not expected to end until some time next year. This was the foreigners' reward for turning the near-bankrupt Nissan around and making it more successful than the French company that rescued it.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Pawn to Queen Four

The Queen's Gambit takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, and if Beth Harmon is to be the world champion of chess, she must beat the Russians at their own game. There's some Cold War menace in the background, and Netflix, like most of the entertainment industry, thinks the Soviet Union's only flaw was giving up too soon on Karl Marx. The Americans therefore are shown as crass and the Russians as big-hearted, and at the close Beth finds fulfillment in a Moscow park, playing chess with sweet old men with not a hint of sexism or xenophobia. 

The critics have gone gaga over Anya Taylor-Joy, who does indeed do a great job as a chess-obsessed and Librium- and booze-addicted girl and woman who wipes the floor with almost every man and boy she plays against. For me, though, the more amazing actor is Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a 9-year-old whose life is changed by a sad-faced janitor in the basement of her orphanage. With her terrifying calm, Ms Johnston is so good she's spooky. 

But she's replaced in episode 2 by Ms Taylor-Joy as a teenager adopted by a dysfunctional couple and placed in a standard-issue US high school. Again, chess saves Beth from the Heathers and football heroes who populate the place. Nothing can stop her now, save the occasional Russian! By episode 6, we're on to Paris, with Moscow not far behind. Altogether, and despite the occasional slowdown, this is the best piece of television I have ever seen. (And speaking of addictions, look more closely at the chessmen on that board!) Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Monday, September 14, 2020

The face of revolution


This is Maria Kolesnikova, one of the brave Belarusians protesting against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, who for nearly the whole time their country has been free of the Soviet Union has bribed and bullied and faked elections to maintain his grip on office. Russia helps him along, because the Russian-speaking Belarus is one of its few ex-dominions that are still willing to play along with Moscow. Unlike Ukraine and and rest of Eastern Europe, it still values its ties with its former masters.

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting commentary on Ms Kolesnikova, arguing that the issue in a good revolution is dignity. Lukashenko (and Putin and Xi and Maduro and and and ...) strips  people of their dignity, while Ms Kolesnikova embodies it. I like that notion. Recently she was kidnapped, driven to the Ukrainian border, and told to step across the line. Instead, she tore up her passport so the Ukrainians would refuse her entry. She jumped out of the kidnap vehicle's window and walked back to Belarusian territory with her head held high. This wouldn't have worked in the old Soviet Union, and it may not continue to work in Belarus, but she got away with it for now.

When I came back from Europe long ago, I rented a room in the South End of Boston for a dollar a night and set out to be a free-lance writer. Every afternoon I'd walk down to the Mom & Pop store at the corner and pay a dime for a bag of peanuts and a copy of the Monitor. (I also wrote for it from time to time.) I'd come back, sit on the stoop, eat the peanuts, and catch up on world news. It was my favorite newspaper then, but like so many newspapers it is no longer for sale every afternoon. But I recently subscribed to the online edition ($11 a month!). You can read three articles a month without subscribing, and the Covid 19 coverage is always free. I like the Monitor. Like Ms Lolesnikova, it has a different slant on things, and that's to be valued in this time when the American media seems to exist in an echo chamber.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

A Fourth of July cruise on the Saigon River


I'm reading a book about DARPA, the defense agency responsible for so many military (and ultimately civilian) innovations, including the internet that makes it possible for me to post these pages and you to read them. The book prompted me to suss out the remarkable little machine gun that I encountered on a Fourth of July cruise down the Saigon River in 1964. The holiday was organized by three US Navy officers who liked to get out and about, so they commandeered a Junk Fleet riverboat and who invited me to come along. Another straphanger also turned up, a US Army one-star general who was in-country to test out some innovative field rations and a light assault machine gun that I now realize was a Stoner 63. It didn't work awfully well -- it kept jamming, apparently because the cartridges were too dry -- but the Junk Fleet sailors loved it. Here the Trung Si (sergeant) fires the weapon from a kneeling position, though dang if I can see where his right leg has got to!

Eugene Stoner came up with the weapon after the ArmaLight company sold his AR-15 design to Colt's. The model 63 variant was chambered for the same 5.56 mm cartridge as the AR-15. It was manufactured by Cadillac Gage in Costa Mesa, California, from February 1963 to September 1964, to a total of 234 examples. DARPA bought 25 of that batch, with wooden stocks, and this may well have been one of them, though about 2,000 more Stoner 63s were manufactured in the next few years. I confess I don't remember whether the weapon we fired along the Saigon River had a wooden stock or a plastic one. The Marines were more interested than the Army, but in the end the Stoner 63 was deemed to be "unacceptable for service use."

For more, go to -- Dan Ford


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The quiet (so far) rebellion in Belarus


For all the damage that social media and cell-phone cameras have done to civil life, there's no doubt that they have empowered the people. Where once Lenin gave us a dictatorship over the proletariat, now the dictators have a harder time of it. Witness these brave paratroopers in Minsk, capital of Europe's longest-serving strongman-- 26 years and counting. Their sign (in Russian, which must put Vladimir Putin's teeth on edge) reads: "Airborne forces with the people!" Unlike Ukraine, which tossed out its own Kremlin toady in 2014, there's apparently little desire in Belarus to replace dependence on Moscow with fealty to the West. They just want to be rid of Alexander Lukashenko and his corrupt elections. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

A salute to Elon Musk

The greatest unmentioned fact about Saturday's docking of the Dragon Crew capsule with the International Space Station is that it was the work of an immigrant.

Elon Musk was born and reared in Pretoria, South Africa, but left at 17 to study at Queens University in Ontario, then at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1997 with a double degree -- BA in economics, BS in physics. He was then nearly 26, but he'd spent the extra time well, interning at Silicon Valley, starting and dropping a PhD program at Stanford, and setting  up his first company, which in 1999 was acquired by Compaq, giving Mr Musk a payout of $22 million. He used this money to start a new company that morphed into PayPal, from which he walked away with $165 million in 2002. That money went to establish SpaceX, which on Friday became the world's first privately owned company to launch astronauts into earth orbit.

And in his spare time, of course, Mr Musk upended the US and indeed the world's car industry with a little company called Tesla. According to Wikipedia, he was worth $36.5 billion in May, and I suspect it's a bit more today. But what Elon Musk has brought to America -- in pride, progress, and taxes paid -- is incalculable.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Grocery shopping in the time of the Wuhan Virus

Among the changes the pandemic has brought to our lives, the greatest for me is that I have become the family grocery shopper. I do it online, of course, and I try to grab the 7 a.m. slot at the nearest Walmart, a twelve-mile drive. I've become a huge fan of Mr Walton's store, and indeed it's rivaling Amazon in my affections. I drive up, park in a Reserved slot beneath an orange pavilion, pop the truck, and listen to music until Ms Walton appears with a cart and a blue box of groceries (and wine, as you can see). We greet one another through our masks and the Subaru's window glass; she checks my driver's license; she loads the trunk. Usually I am out of there in ten or twelve minutes.

 Here I am with yesterday's haul, arriving home at 7:45 a.m. I see a lot more cars on the road than I did a month ago, and a lot more customers in the Walmart parking lot. (Most of them, alas, not wearing masks. There is something about New Hampshire residence that makes people flout rules. Perhaps it's our license plates, which boast "Live Free Or Die" -- words, however, that were originally spoken in a somewhat different context.)