Sunday, October 17, 2021

Field Guide to Flying Death: With Gunships, Slower is Better


AC130 Gunship in the air and on the ground 

Air support for troops in the Vietnam War began with the latest and fastest jets of the 1960s. Whether they we land-based or carrier based, these jets could swoop in with bombs, missiles and guns. But then they were gone.  High performance jets can't hang around. And they are not made to go slow. 

F4 Phantoms would lower their landing gear on close-support missions to get their weapons on target.  

The first solution to the problem was to go retro:  The Douglas A4 Skyraider.

Developed during World War II, the Skyraider first flew in March 1945. The war ended before it could be deployed in significant numbers.  By 1967 the design was far out date in the jet world, but the A4 could fly for more than six hours with its basic fuel load. 

The single-engine propellor-driven aircraft carried four 20mm cannons with 200 rounds of ammo for each gun and could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs, rockets and any other ordnance that could be hung on its wide wings.  In a ground support role, the Skyraider could attack a target and wait in the area to see and respond to the enemy's next move.  

In the same way, the C130 Hercules can stay over the target area carrying tons of ammo for miniguns and cannons up to and including a 105mm howitzer.  The newest model reported in Task and Purpose now has a laser capable of disabling trucks.  

This four-engine tortoise in a world of supersonic hares can loiter of hours over a battle supporting the troops on the ground long after jets have sped away.  


Monday, October 11, 2021

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: The Book and the Musical


Two weeks ago I saw the musical "Fun Home" an adaptation of a memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel.  A week later, I started reading the graphic memoir which the musical is based on.  I finished it this morning.  

This sad, compelling story presents the pain and mystery of the suicide, or maybe not, of Bruce Allen Bechdel, Alison's father.  Bruce was gay. Alison finds out her father was gay only when she discovers she is a lesbian while at college.  Bruce's suicide or accidental death happens soon after Alison comes out to her family.  

Though presented in a musical and graphic format, the memoir is serious and deeply revealing.  I felt the love Alison had for her father, the tension between her parents, the confusion Alison felt throughout her childhood about herself and her family, and the isolation each member of the family lived in.  

In the graphic book, Alison uses maps to show the small area in which her father lived his life: a circle of a few miles covers his birth, life, work and death.  Alison notices on recordings of her father's voice she heard after his death that he had a local accent.  And yet, he aspired to the world: loving beautiful things and teaching great literature.  

Alison is 20 when her father dies.  She goes on to become as notably out as her father was closeted.  She created the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" which is where she introduced the Bechdel Test: a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

I have read many memoirs. They are among my most and least favorite books.  Truth, unvarnished truth, must be at the center of memoir, because we readers will sense when we are being served the public relations story rather than reality. This memoir is among my favorites. The struggle of Alison finding who she is had me from the first act and the first page.  

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Thinking and Feeling: The Inside, Outside Difference


The past and the future are infinite and meet at the moment we are thinking. 
Our thinking can reach into infinity.

A friend recently posted a question asking about the difference between thinking and feeling.  The French poet Paul Valery said:

"Sometimes I think and sometimes I am."
[Tantot je pense et tantot je suis]

When we think, we leave the world of feeling.  Valery says we leave the world altogether.  We engage in a dialogue within ourselves. In this inner conversation we examine an idea, weigh it, try to find its worth, but all of this is done within our minds.  

When external reality intrudes we stop thinking and return to living in the present, to sensing or feeling the world around us.  When we feel we take our world through our  five senses and act or react. We can take in that information and react immediately, or we can, as the expression goes, stop and think.  

Modern English usage hardly makes a difference between the words think and feel, but they are different to the point of being opposites in how they inhabit our lives.  

From the outside, the difference is just as big.  A person who is feeling, who is reacting to the world, will show that reaction.  We see a friend and smile: see an enemy and frown.  When we think, especially when we are deep in thought, we look like someone in a daze, or half awake.  We say a person is "lost in thought." The metaphor is right. The person lost in thought is not fully present in this world.  

When I think, I may sit and stare and not notice someone entering the room.  When I ride in traffic in Philadelphia, I am looking, listening in every way sensing my environment and reacting to multiple inputs every second.  

The graph above of thinking is especially evident in those who create. Whether art or science, thinking remains hidden within the thinker until the painting, or story, or building, or equation, or breakthrough formula expresses the thoughts hidden inside the mind.  

For more on thinking, The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt is fascinating.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Taliban are not Medieval


Chartres Cathedral

During the flurry of worry as we abandoned an ally to barbarism, many commentators and social media "experts" said the Taliban is Medieval.  

This is America and we are, as a country, as dumb as a sack of lug nuts when it comes to history, so I was not surprised to hear the Taliban to be labelled as Medieval, but they emphatically are not.  

As with every attempt to label eras of history, the period roughly between 1000 and 1500 could be called the Medieval period, though some put the start date almost at the end of the Roman Empire in 472.  Either way the term Medieval only applies to parts of Western Europe under the influence of the Catholic Church and of the Holy Roman Empire. 

In some ways, the Medieval period the zenith of culture in the west.  Chartres Cathedral was a work of centuries by people who had an eternal vision and expressed their beliefs in stone--most knowing they would never live to see the final result of their life's work.  

Chartres Cathedral inside and outside

The popular image of the Medieval Europe is dominated by The Plague, the corrupt Catholic Church, and the Inquisition, but this Monty Python view ignores the beginning of the modern university and the beginning of Romantic Love as equal to other loves. The Divine Comedy and the Arthurian Legends brought Romantic Love to the center of western culture. 

Dante's Divine Comedy, the entire universe, 
physical and spiritual, in 14,000 lines of poetry

Literature left the confines of the Latin language in the Three Crowns of Florence:  Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch.  They wrote in vernacular Italian. And the world followed their lead.

The Taliban are not Medieval. They are ignorant, despicable thugs who hate civilization, freedom, light and love.  The Medieval era brought beauty to the entire world. It celebrated knowledge and learning. Eventually the Renaissance and the Reformation sprung from its problems.  

The Taliban, like all fundamentalists, look backward and express their faith in death and demolition.  

There is nothing Medieval about the Taliban.  They are Westboro Baptist Church with guns. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Everybody Hates Jews

Honestly by Bari Weiss, a new podcast

 One of my favorite new podcasts is Honestly by Bari Weiss.  She was a columnist at the New York Times  until she resigned last year saying woke culture had taken over the Times and created a hostile work environment. She is a conservative, but against Trump populism.

She was Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven Jews were murdered by a gunman shouting that he wanted all Jews to die. 

On her podcast, she interviews guests covering a gamut of American culture and its dysfunction.  

Her second episode was interview with Mark Cuban on money and hard questions on the ill effects of billionaires on society.

In her most recent episode, Weiss interviewed Dr. Vinay Prasad about strategies to overcome vaccine hesitancy. She ended the interview by asking Prasad how he lives his life in and out of the hospital where he works in San Francisco.  Prasad said a vaccinated person wearing a mask outside is completely unnecessary, but he lives in a very blue city so he sometimes wears a mask outside just to be part of his community.

She interviewed Professor Peter Boghossian about why he left Portland State over an oppressive woke culture dominating the campus.

Lt. Gen. HR McMaster discussed his career and tenure in the Trump administration in an interview I found fascinating. 

She interviewed the head of Apple News in Hong Kong about the formerly independent city state falling under direct control of China.

And for something completely different, listen to the episode on America's Sex Recession.  

Weiss also has a substack. The latest article titled Everybody Hates Jews is brilliant in showing the danger of Jew hatred from the left and the right:  

In an era in which the past is mined by offense-archaeologists for the most minor of microaggressions, the very real macroaggressions taking place right now against Jews go ignored. Assaults on Hasidic Jews on the streets of Brooklyn, which have become a regular feature of life there, are overlooked or, sometimes, justified by the very activists who go to the mat over the “cultural appropriation” of a taco. It is why corporations issue passionate press releases and pledge tens of millions of dollars to other minorities when they are under siege, but almost never do the same for Jews. 

Here is the full article.

I listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Hunting Magic Eels and the Search for Spiritual Reality

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age
by Richard Beck

 In one of my book groups, the one where we read and discuss books of all kinds, we are in the midst of discussing:  Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck.  

This book reminds me why I love book discussions so much.  Each reader brings his or her own life to the book.  The discussion brings those perspectives together to clash or harmonize, reinforce or raze, and otherwise share the wonder each person brought to the book.  

The premise of the book is that the world has become disenchanted. The author tells how we became disenchanted, then tells how he, and we, could become re-enchanted. 

I liked the beginning of the book, particularly connecting our disenchantment with the reformation.  He makes a good case for the unintended consequences of blasting the foundations of Catholicism.  In Beck's analysis, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution are more layers of the disenchantment cake Luther and Calvin baked.  

For me, the Scientific Revolution and the wonder of the Enlightenment re-enchant the world of faux spirituality that grows in a world of religion plus ignorance, but I know that makes me very marginal among believers.  

I have a favorite author among those who explain relativity physics.  I wrote him 25 years ago to tell him I love his book.  In that book, Spacetime and Special Relativity, M. David Mermin writes a long aside explaining why fundamentalists are wrong.  I also told Mermin that I am a believer and found the fact that light was the speed limit of the universe made my faith more vivid.  He wrote back and told me he was working on a sequel that dropped the criticism of belief.  A few year later It's About Time was published with even better illustrations of the inextricable relations of space, time and special relativity.  

To return to Beck, after he makes the case for disenchantment, I found his case for re-enchantment difficult.  Not what he did, but the context in which he writes.  He teaches in Texas.  The book was written after 80% of Evangelicals and nearly as many conservative Catholics voted for a game show host who believes himself entitled to sex with anyone he wants and has no need of forgiveness.  And Beck returned to spiritual health in the company of charismatic believers.  They may, as Beck says, have a grip on the reality of the ministry of the Holy Spirit that other Churches lack, but the charismatic Churches are also the source and propagators of the horrendous prophecies declaring Trump a modern day Cyrus, chosen by God to rescue the Church, and after the 2020 election, charismatic groups more than any other promote the lie that Trump won the election and will be returned to office by God.  The false prophet of Revelation is clearly legion.

Can re-sacralizing spaces help re-enchant the world? It can't hurt.  But I wonder what would have helped the German Christians expelled from Churches in 1935 if they had one Jewish grandparent.  In this world, all spiritual practice exists in a political reality.  Among the first martyrs were those who refused to worship Caesar.  If a Church is enthusiastic about worship and also believes every lie from Trump's mouth (only worship does that) is it a Church.  Reading about the expulsion of the Jewish believers in Holy Week 1935, I wondered if that building and congregation was a Church the following week.  The definition of love that leads to that end is utterly Orwellian.

So here's my letter to Beck.  No answer so far:


I am reading your book Hunting Magic Eels at the prompting of a Orthodox Christian friend. We will be discussing it September 9 with a small group that formed beginning with ESL volunteers.  Our first book "Laurus" followed the (imagined) life of a Russian monk and Holy Fool in the 15th Century. We read that book in 2016.  The core of the group is parents with six kids.

That year, I felt increasing dread as the election approached.  I am half Jewish (my father) from a non-religious home.  I became a believer after being blinded by shrapnel in a missile explosion in 1973.  But the Church, the anti-intellectual American Church, has always been difficult for me. The next year, after Charlottesville, the Church became impossible for me.  I left and joined a synagogue.  If Nazis can march in America chanting "Jews will not replace us" and be "fine people" according to the President.   

As I read your book, I am pulled back to Holocaust narratives.  As you can imagine, I was drawn to the stories of Jewish converts expelled from German Churches in 1935. Most were dead by 1945.  There were 400 million people with the label Christian who lived between the Pyrenees and the Urals during the era of the Nazis.  Fewer than one in a thousand actively helped Jews.  

For me, a Christian who cheers Trump echoes Nuremberg.  I was in Europe last month for three weeks visiting death camps.  I have visited ten since 2017.  

If you will allow me the cliche, is re-enchantment of our lives and personal spaces just arranging deck chairs on the Titanic? 

I like your book but cannot shake the larger context of wondering what those German Jewish believers, some going back three generations, would say about re-enchanting their lives when their last days were in death camps.

If the coup had succeeded on January 6, or if the next attempt succeeds in 2024 we will be living in an authoritarian nation. And once tyranny begins, Jews are in trouble.


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

My Top 61 Books -- Giving me delight is all they have in common.


As a member of several book groups, I occasionally see a list of the top 10, 25, 50, 100 books of all time or some time or recent time.  On nearly every list are books I love and books I loathe. 

So I decided to make my own list. It was supposed to be a top 25, but it got longer.  I stopped at 61.  This list presumes no expertise other than that of an avid reader who found these books especially delightful and therefore memorable.  

What's Your list?

My Top 61 
1. Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 
2. Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro 
3. Master and Commander (21 novels), Patrick O’Brian 
4. Game of Thrones (5 novels), George RR Martin 
5. The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes), JRR Tolkien 
6. Prince, Machiavelli 
7. Divine Comedy, Dante 
8. Decameron, Boccaccio 
9. August 1914, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 
10. Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman 
11. Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy 
12. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy 
13. Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas 
14. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo 
15. Great Divorce, CS Lewis 
16. Till We Have Faces, CS Lewis 
17. Four Loves, CS Lewis 
18. Aeneid, Virgil 
19. Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt 
20. On Revolution, Hannah Arendt 
21. Human Condition, Hannah Arendt 
22. Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, Jonathan Rauch 
23. Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Than Nguyen 
24. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari 
25. Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond 
26. Winters Tale, Mark Helprin 
27. Paris in the Present Tense, Mark Helprin 
28. Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer 29.
These Truths, Jill Lepore 
30. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Timothy Snyder 
31. Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi 
32. Identity, Milan Kundera 
33. Genius of Judaism, Bernard Henri-Levy 
34. Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks 
35. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Arthur Miller Jr. 
36. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut 
37. Spacetime in Special Relativity, N. David Mermin 
38. Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville 
39. Stuff, Ivan Amato 
40. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 
41. Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy 
42. Time and the Art of Being, Robert Grudin 
43. Hamlet, William Shakespeare 
44. Richard III, William Shakespeare 
45. Laurus, Eugene Vodolazkin 
46. Six Days of War, Michael Oren 
47. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (4 novels) Douglas Adams 
48. Essays, George Orwell 
49. Animal Farm, George Orwell 
50. Iliad, Homer 
51. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman 
52. Free Will, Mark Balaguer 
53. Marlborough: His Life and Times, Winston Churchill 
54. Dune, Frank Herbert 
55. Noble Gases, Isaac Asimov 
56. Arthurian Romances, Chretien de Troyes 
57. Song of Roland 58. Intelligencer, Leslie Silbert 
59. Plot Against America, Philip Roth
60. Medea, Euripedes
61. Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius

Field Guide to Flying Death: With Gunships, Slower is Better

  AC130 Gunship in the air and on the ground  Air support for troops in the Vietnam War began with the latest and fastest jets of the 1960s....