Monthly Archives: July 2017

Book Review — Dunkirk

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Dunkirk by Lieutenant Colonel Ewan Butler and Major J. S. Bradford is the factual account of the events leading up to and the evacuation at Dunkirk. Both Butler and Bradford served in France as junior officers in 1939 and the first half of 1940 as part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.)

Ask an American when was Pearl Harbor bombed and most will probably get the answer wrong. The same goes for what years were America involved in Vietnam. People also see no irony in wishing others a “happy Memorial Day.” It seems reasonable that in the next ten years many will forget what year the 9/11 attacks happened. It is just not an American problem; it happens to all nations. With wars and peace and more wars, people tend to forget the details of war. The original title of this book was Keep the Memory Green. The authors wanted to keep alive the sacrifice and the events leading to Dunkirk.

Dunkirk is an odd event in history. It is remembered, even without the recent movie release, as the Miracle at Dunkirk. There is a mythology that surrounds the defeat of Western European armies and turns it into a victory. The authors mention this more than a few times. They include a quote by Churchill immediately after the evacuation of the 338,000 troops:

“We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

For the all the great logistical support this operation received, it must be remembered that just over two weeks later France surrendered and Britain was fighting outside of Europe. The British army would not return to France for four years.

Butler and Bradford also examine the roles and actions (real and perceived) of the three branches of the British military. The army took the brunt of the abuse from the Germans and it was quick to blame the air force for not doing enough. It was discouraging to know that the planes flying overhead were not your own, but the enemy’s planes. The Navy’s support was limited to the sea and support in what harbors it could reach. The army felt isolated. Belgium’s surrender left the British cornered between the sea and the Germans. Supplies were limited and support was failing. The feeling of isolation was a reality.

The British army’s experience in France is also covered from their arrival to the evacuation.  Comparisons of the British army in 1914 and 1939 are made.  In many aspects, the British were much more prepared in 1914.  Shortages abounded in almost every aspect of combat support from fully functional tanks to food and ammunition.  Lord Gort worked hard to gain the supplies needed and provided exceptional leadership to the B.E.F.

When evacuation was seen as the only option, it was hoped that 30 -40,000 might be rescued at Dunkirk.  The authors devote a chapter to homeland support of the war.  This is done with the story of Alfred Harris and his thirty-five-foot cabin cruiser the Berkshire Lass.  Harris’ savings and retirement were tied up in that boat.  He participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk even though neither he nor his boat had been outside the Thames Estuary.  There was no shortage of bravery from any of the armed services or those civilians participating in the evacuation.

The goal of the book as its original title points out is to keep the memory of Dunkirk alive.  That memory is the good and the bad.  A country unprepared for war must be ready to accept defeat.  Bravery alone will not win a war.  That being said, bravery did save the 338,000 troops.  It is these actions as well as the failures that must be remembered.

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Book Review — Never So Few: A Novel

Never So Few: A Novel by Tom T. Chamales is a World War II novel set in Burma. Chamales was a veteran of WWII and former member of the OSS and Merrill’s Raiders. Attached to OSS Detachment 101, he served in Burma training the Kachin Raiders and witnessed American soldiers being robbed and killed by Chinese Nationalist soldiers. Much of his experience has been fictionalized in this novel. Chamales is also the author of Go Naked in the World.

Many writers draw from their own experience and Chamales was no exception. His own experiences in Burma are used as the backdrop of the story. Although this is a war story much of the writing is devoted to the characters rather than actual combat. Working behind enemy lines the with foreign fighters takes a toll on those involved and gives the reader a view into the mind of a soldier.

There is also a division of the westerners and the locals. Some locals seem only too willing to serve under the OSS and Captain Con Reynolds. Others who have experienced war in cooperate but use their expertise to help the Reynolds and his men. Burma and other British colonies in the region were problematic to the allies.  Some in the region viewed the Japanese as liberators so the battle was more than against the Japanese it was  also a matter of keeping locals loyal to the British and the allies.

World War II is not a usual reading topic for me especially if it is fiction. This book seemed to be more about people than about fighting. That is something that runs through all great war stories The places and weapons change but people are the constant. The book reminded me of a World War II Apocalypse Now in that it centered on the eccentricities of those involved. Chamales deeply affected by his experiences as both his novels revolved around the war.

Reading Chamales’ biography it seems that he never recovered from the war. His short life after returning to the United States involved heavy drinking, violence, and an accidental death. Perhaps some of the most dramatic effects come from an author who writes his or her own experiences or demons. Much like Virginia Woolf used her battle with mental illness to describe shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, Chamale converts his experiences into fiction with an uncanny realism. Under the veneer of fiction lies realism. Very well done.

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Poetry Review — In a Language That You Know

In a Language That You Know by Len Verwey is a collection of experiences from South Africa. Verwey is a South African poet. He was born in Mozambique in 1973. His chapbook Otherwise Everything Goes On is included in the boxed set Seven New Generation African Poets, and his poems have been published in various journals including New Coin and New Contrast.

Verwey became an adult in an interesting place at an interesting time. His adopted country saw a lifting of Apartheid and the release from prison and election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s president. South Africa had a new flag and rejoined the world community. It was a place of dramatic change. In the world picture, South Africa had changed. In the village picture, much needed to be done.

The poems in the collection are narrative and reflect events in Verways life. He starts early (or even before his life) with in his life in Mozambique and tells of a simple life of fishing and one of poverty.  Young Verway does have great dreams as reflected in “El Bandito de los Nadas” where he is victorious in a most unlikely event.  There is also violence and the threat of violence in real life that is reflected in his writings. The longer narrative poem “An Unchained Dog for Each of You” tells of sadness, reality,  and growing up. “Sunnyside,” tells the story of a young couple in a segregated and dangerous suburb of Pretoria and the urge to move to someplace better and the urge just to stay. Not everyone wants to make the effort when they are used to what they have, however little that may be.

Verwey’s poetry is interesting in that it gives an African perspective from one of the few developed nations in Africa.  South Africa is the only African G20 nation. In some ways, it resembled the American south decades before.  Although African in fact, it has a message that can be felt or experienced in America.  A collection that shows commonality where we least expect it.

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Book Review — The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement

The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is a study of how big data is and can be used by law enforcement to encroach on what used to be privacy.  Ferguson is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law. Professor Ferguson teaches and writes in the area of criminal law, criminal procedure, and evidence.

American’s have always enjoyed privacy. Constitutional amendments like the Fourth and Fourteenth keep government intrusions at bay for most people. The internet and mobile communications have changed all of that. We gladly give personal information away to web sites. Sites like Facebook not only have your personal information but they know who your friends are, places you check into, who and what you like, where you live, and pictures you take. Other web sites collect information items you purchase and also looked for.  A Russian photographer has recently used a facial recognition application to find out information about strangers on the Metro. Simply taking a picture of a person on the Metro the photographer is able to identify that person through their social media accounts. Our private lives have become very public in the age of Big Data. Companies mine and buy this data for their own purposes. Say, for example, you owned a motorcycle shop and wanted more customers. You can pay a data collection company for personal information about everyone with a motorcycle license in your area. You would then have a contact list of potential customers.  Information is still power in today’s world.

There have been news stories of people posting pictures of themselves on social media sites with automatic weapons, drugs, or taking part in illegal activities. Police have used these postings to arrested people. Social media postings do not have an expectation of privacy; what you post is essentially public.  The Los Angeles Police Department, with outside help, tracks and records all crime and creates a database and an active map that predicts where and when crimes occur.  The idea is to police a predicted area before a crime happens — actual crime prevention.  NYC Police use cameras on the roads and sidewalk and can actively look for suspicious activity as well as possibly identify the criminal.  These systems don’t seem to infringe on people’s rights. One does not have an expectation of privacy when in a public place.

In Chicago, an algorithm is used to help predict those who might commit a crime or become a victim of a crime.  A list is made and police visit those people on the list and deliver a “we are watching you a message.”  What happens when the algorithm is wrong is another thing.  People without a criminal record or any other indicators might come up on the list because of a friend or relative who was killed.  It’s not a perfect system but Chicago police rate it well. 70% of those shot were on the list and well as 80% of those arrested in shootings.  Still, there seems to be no real infringement on individuals rights. Police use public data to predict crime and criminals

The problem comes in when the results of the Big Data seem to be the same as those in racial profiling.  The highest crime areas are usually in the inner city and areas where the minority population is high.  The Chicago list targets gang members 95% are African-American or Latino.  Can Big Data just be another means of racial profiling? Ferguson looks at racial bias in Big Data and researches whether the data is biased, the system is biased, or if the data is correct.  Ferguson also discusses the constitutionality of using Big Data as probable cause instead of “gut instinct.”

Where does law enforcement and Big Data limit themselves?  Imagine if your local police force bought personal data from Google or Facebook.  Private information becomes public information, becomes building blocks for private and government databases as Ferguson explains. A warrant is not needed for public information.  Police gather public information all the time.  License plate readers not only verify if the plates are good but also track and store all the locations where that plate has been seen.  The police could, in time, track your daily routine.  Upgrades to police body cams will have facial recognition software.  One may not be required to identify themselves, but facial recognition will allow the police to identify a person anyway.

Interestingly there is a push by law enforcement to use Big Data and other monitoring; however, requirements for police to wear and use body cameras meets resistance by police who do not want their every action recorded while on duty.  Similar algorithms used by police to monitor and predict crime could also be used to monitor police officers. Just like a small percentage of the population is responsible for the majority of the crime, a small percentage of police are responsible for the majority of the complaints.  Big Data could help identify bad cops.  

Presently, we willing give our data to Amazon, social media, mobile providers (location tracking, calls, and texts), and search engines.  Walmart collects 2.5 million gigabytes every hour from its customers enough to 50 million, four drawer filing cabinets with information every hour.  The government is also collecting data. Perhaps the most extensive is the Post Office’s Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program. It photographs every piece of mail.  Your name, address, and the sender is recorded on every piece of your mail. Big Data could also be used by the police and other community services by identifying runaways, homeless, Amber Alert victims, and Silver Alert victims. There is good that can come from Big Data if it is used correctly.  In the wrong hands, it could create tyranny. The Rise of Big Data Policing is a timely and possibly frightening book as what was formerly conspiracy theories become our daily reality.

 

Available October 3, 2017, from NYU Press

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Book Review — Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird

Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird by Robert Aitken is a series of Zen teachings told through forest animals. Aitken was a retired master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu in 1959 with his late wife Anne Hopkins Aitken. His introduction to Zen was as a prisoner in World War II. After the war, he obtained a B.A. in English Literature and an MA in Japanese from the University of Hawaii.

Zen is not an easy subject and especially not an easy one to pick up by reading a book. Aitken uses the raven as his central character. The reason for using the forest animals was done for a few reasons. The most important reason was to allow him to modify the koans to make them a little easier to understand. The character animals play their roles further helping the reader understand.  There are also brief explanations in the Notes at the end of the book.

The reader will follow the Raven from his search for meaning and through his teaching of the forest animals and interactions with others. Some of the meanings jump out the readers, some require more thought, others still left me wondering.  Aitken takes his life long study and makes it accessible to the curious.  His characters aid in the understanding and the language used is simple enough for most readers.  A well-done work that teaches and entertains.

 

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Book Review — No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st-Century Left

No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st-Century Left by John Medhurst is a detailed history of the Russian Revolution as a political event. Medhurst is a Trade Union Industrial Officer with a background in Civil Service and Public Sector policy issues. He was born in London and has a B.A in History & Politics from Queen Mary College, University of London. He has worked at all levels in the civil service including Job Centres, the HSE and Whitehall, in all of which he was an active trade unionist.

I have read quite a bit about the Russian Revolution since college and this book is different from most. First, it looks at the revolution as a political event. It concentrates on the political moves for power and the behind-the-scenes rather than the actual physical fighting.  The struggle between the Bolsheviks and the several other political parties (including the Mensheviks) are discussed in detail.  The revolution is shown not to be a glorious progression, but rather a series of errors, deceit, corruption, and bullying. Lenin planned the revolution but made no plans for the aftermath.

Secondly, and most importantly, it relates aspects of the Russian Revolution to other historical uprisings such as literacy programs in Latin America to educate the peasants. The American socialist movement is also covered as well the sedition act of 1918. European socialists were active but also very critical of what was happening in Russia. Liberation Theology,  The Zapatistas,  FSLN, FMLN, and the Arab Spring movement are also covered and tied into historical events in Russia.  Thatcher and the striking coal miners are also given a mention in a socialism versus capitalism in the West.

What this also shows is the corruption of Marxism under Lenin.  It was a slow, methodic move from a revolution of the peasants and workers, to Soviets (unions), to a dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally Lenin’s Dictatorship of the party.  Russia was far from a prime target for Marxism.  The vast majority of the population, over 90%, lived outside of the city.  Although Russia had a developing industrial infrastructure, the majority of the population were still in agriculture.   World War I accelerated Russia’s demise. Russia could not participate in the industrial driven warfare nor was it ready for the workers to rise up in revolt.  The revolt did happen, but it lacked direction.

Lenin was not the leader at the forefront.  He seemed to hide when the trouble arose and was more interested in consolidating his power than creating a workers’ paradise. Despite elections and their results, Lenin proclaimed his own General Will.  Trotsky gave the great speeches.  Stalin saw his opportunity to gain power.  The removal of the Czar was the beginning of Russia’s problems, not its solution.

No Less Than Mystic presents the complex process of revolution in Russia beginning 1905, through the civil war, and finally the rise of Stalin.  There was no one clear opposition movement as in the American Revolutionary War.  The system was broken and Czar Nicholas was making things worse.  There was no shortage of reasons to revolt but the desperate situation splintered opposition and Lenin managed to pick off the opposition through brute force or “legal” means.  The reader will discover how the promise of a new start evolved into a tyranny that came to represent the Evil Empire.

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Book Review — Whale Song

Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz is a short study of man’s coexistence Grebowicz is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Goucher College, USA. She is the author of The National Park to Come (2015), Why Internet Porn Matters (2013), and Beyond the Cyborg (2013, with Helen Merrick). Her areas of expertise are 20th and 21st Century Continental philosophy, critical animal studies, environmental philosophy, gender, and sexuality.

Bloomsbury Publishing takes makes an interesting choice for this edition. Rather than a marine biologist as the author they chose a philosopher. This presents a unique perspective on the subject. She starts with contemporary man’s awareness of sentient marines life. Any one old enough to remember the late 1960s and early 1970s remembers the “Save the Whales” campaign and The Song of the Humpback. The Song of the Humpback made it into mainstream culture and even primetime television. Suddenly, marine mammals and the oceans became popular. Jaques Cousteau had a television series exploring the oceans that ran for years.

Grebowicz takes a more modern look as well as the history of communicating with whales and dolphins. For a while, in the mid-1970s there was the talk that dolphins were as smart as humans. She also looks at Blackfish the story of the killer whale, who killed. Also discussed is a flash back to Carl Sagan and the gold plate on Voyager which included whale songs. The Voyager plate then takes the reader back to pop culture and Star Trek IV. The pop culture mentions are not important in themselves, but as a way of showing that the subject was on the minds of ordinary people.

Although communication takes up the lions share of the book, some information on whales in their environment is also given.  99% of earth’s biosphere is ocean and 80% of the earth’s biomass exists in the oceans. Most goods are transported by ship and the noise of the propellers has dramatically reduced the whales’ communication range. The Navy’s low-frequency communications equipment creates even larger problems.  In the past, man thought the oceans were too big to be destroyed or even damaged; We proved ourselves wrong.

Whale Song is an interesting and unique look at our oceans and its intelligent mammals.  Grebowicz combines the present and the recent past and examines man’s relationship with the ocean and, in particular, whales and dolphins.  A well-written book;  Informative and taken from an interesting perspective.

 

Available September 7, 2014

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