"The wandering bands of Sapiens storytellers were the most important and destructive force the animal kingdom ever produced."
This phrase appears early in book. It is another book about the rise of human kind on this Earth. It is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel and A Brief History of Everything.
I read it mostly for the early history: the invention of languages, stories, religions, gods and kings and such. In that respect it delivered.
One myth the book explodes is the idea of primitive cultures as being more in touch with and more cooperative with nature. It is not true. Every human group, everywhere, wasted no time in bending the environment to its one uses, and grabbing all the low hanging fruit as fast as they could, lest the other guy get it. Think the death of the North American mega fauna and the hands of the native populations.
It takes on what the author calls "romantic consumerism"… the general idea that you life is best served by jetting all over the world and getting exposed to as many cultures as possible. It also attacks cultural relativism for the evil that it is.
The author made an interesting observation about religions in general. They can be broken down into three gross categories: Many gods (polytheism); Two gods (dualism); And one god (monotheism).
Polytheism is marked by a laid back attitude. If you meet someone who believes in another god, no problem. You just add it to the list.
Dualism is marked by conflict: Creator versus destroyer; good versus evil; heaven versus hell.
Monotheism (i.e.: the big three) is awash in the blood of the non-believers.
Roman Catholicism is kind of an odd-man-out. They believe in one god with three faces (father son and holy ghost). They embrace dualism with God versus Satan. And they are also polytheistic in that they have hundreds of saints, and each saint has its followers. Practically speaking, "saint" is just another word for demigod.
The author uses the phrase "the exception that proves the rule" incorrectly and more than once. Truth be told, few people know how cliché is intended to work.
It has some interesting observations about money and credit. The author argues that the British obtained global imperialist domination over France because they paid their bills and were a good credit risk. Credit at the time was a new concept that the French failed to appreciate.
The last few chapters get into philosophy, happiness, and extrapolating the modern world out into the future, a most dangerous game.
An easy read, with the occasional bit of humor.
I finally got around to reading this book. It has been on my to-read list for quite some time. Part of the reason I put it off is that I felt I knew the science and the scientific philosophy fairly well (I did) but the book looks at many other aspects of the battle, including: religious perspectives, the media, politics, education and so on. The font is small, the leading tight, and the pages large, so this is a longer read than you might expect.
Part of the reason for its length is that major portions consist of chunks of pro-creationism texts, followed by contrary science positions. Ironically, one of the concerns about creationism is that it survives on the "balance" argument. That is, you are not "balanced" if you do not present "scientific creationism" along side the science of evolution with equal weight in the classroom or the media. And yet, this book goes to some lengths to show the other side. Of course, doing so is necessary in an analysis such as this. However, I often found myself reading something I thought was wrong, only to realize it was the opinion of a creationist, not the author, and is rebutted in the following section.
I read this book to hone my understanding of the arguments, especially the stupid arguments that one can expect from the "other side". I was especially interested in ID (Intelligent Design) arguments.
The last BC skeptic's meeting was a debate between a creationist (Richard Peachy, a part-time science teacher) and an actual science teacher (Scott Goodman). The actual science teacher won. However the audience was absolutely stacked and packed with religion believers hocking tapes, books, and such, about how the Earth is only 6,000 years old. They probably saw the argument in a different light. And they got to flog their propaganda. We were used.
The opening chapters of the book get into the basics of scientific philosophy and provide a primer on evolution. While not mentioned in the book, it is worth noting that the oft used tag line for evolution, "Survival of the Fittest", is a meaningless tautology. Add the word "offspring" and it works.
Consider these four terms and rank them in importance:
Facts, Laws, Theories, and Hypotheses.
In fact, this order is the usual one assigned by lay people, with Facts most important, and Hypotheses least important. Scientists rank them from most to least important like this:
Theories, Laws, Hypotheses and Facts.
The next chapter is a primer on the history of religion and religion's perspectives on evolution. There are actually quite a lot of them, running from "God did it all in a trice" to " The science is true (e.g .: the Earth is 4.5ish billion years old) but god is always invisibly tinkering and setting things in motion". There are at least a half dozen different flavors of creationism and religious evolutionism. Trying to address them all is a cosmic game of Whack-A-Mole. And like the mythical Hydra, if you kill a mole, two slightly different moles pop up in its place.
The US is unique in that it is one country with 50 different policies on science and evolution education. If you are educated in Kentucky, you might not get exposed to evolution at all until you reach college and decide to take an applicable course. And Kentucky is not unique. The BC skeptics once had an ex-cult-member and lawyer address the group. I chatted with him after the fact and was surprised to learn he heard of evolution for the very first time when he was 30!
Chapter five digs into the fight to eliminate evolutionary teaching from science classrooms. Unbelievably, this battle continues to this day.
The Scopes trial is well known from movies and plays. It was the trial of the century at the time. Scopes himself was actually a sacrificial volunteer, chosen because he had few ties to the community, and could thus bear excommunication from it. He was chosen by the ACLU to challenge anti-evolution laws. The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately reversed the Scopes conviction, which also killed the ACLU's attempts to kill the law (no conviction means no avenue to appeal). The Monkey Trial only made things worse. States doubled down on the issue. New and more subtle attacks on evolution were devised. The language was twisted too. Think about the phrase "scientific creationism", an oxymoron if ever there was one. It was followed by "Intelligent Design (ID)". Most of these approaches failed, so creationists fell back on "equal time". That is, teach creationism along side evolution as an alternative. That failed (it violates the Constitution) and so they fell back on warning labels in text books, wrongly claiming the evolution is only a "theory".
A word on a word: Theory. When Perry Mason has a theory, it means he thinks he might be able to convince a court that his view should prevail. Here, "theory" and "opinion/guess" mean the same thing. In science, a "theory" is a broad perspective that ties together many aspects of data, observation, branches of science, and, usually, mathematics. General Relativity, Newtonian Mechanics, and Evolution are such theories. And they are all true (with some caveats).
Intelligent Design (ID) is the best that creationists have to offer at the moment, and the book goes into detail on it over a few chapters. Intelligent Design, and its hand-maiden Irreducible Complexity, are subtle arguments. In Darwin's day, the argument was: What use is half an eye? Even Darwin knew the answer to that: Any eye is better than none at all. The common example today of ID is the flagellum. This is the twirly thing at that back of some bacteria, making them mobile. But clever scientists have though of step-wise ways of getting to that too.
Intelligent Design was tested in Kitzmiller versus Dover. Dover is a town in Pennsylvania. Dover lost and ID was deemed thinly veiled creationism. Creationism is still fighting and still losing.
When all else fails, creationists fall back on "balance", or "equal time". This is fine in a political argument, but it is the kiss if intellectual death in a scientific one. Scientists, and people in general, must be able to discard discredited ideas, or we will be debating them forever.
The book goes on with chapters on the legal, educational, public opinion, and scientific issues associated with creationism, using a collection of writings from various authors. They present creationist arguments followed by science's rebuttals.
This is a very detailed book. It focuses to a degree on education since the author is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. If you want to understand creationism issues, you should have this book in your library.
Most of the counter arguments to evolution come from the Discovery Institute. It claims that it is scientific in its criticisms, but they do no research, publish no papers, gather no evidence, and spend all their time trying to shoehorn biblical rubbish into the curriculum of US schools.
One last word about Creationism and the Law. Judges are not well equipped to make decisions on issues of science. A group of judges asked Robert Park, a well respected physicist, to tell them the difference between BS science (pseudoscience) and real science. I have just acquired a copy of his book on the subject: Voodoo Science. I shall comment on it soon. Mr. Park wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education (2002) that listed seven signs, or "tells", of bogus science and gave it to them. This list was used, and still is, as an aid judges.
I published a list of sixteen such warning signs in the BC Skeptics newsletter in 1989. My list has now worked its way into courseware curricula around the world. My list included all of those expressed in Mr. Parks list. NB: I am not suggesting he stole my list, only that I got there first by 13 years. More on "The List" to come. Regardless, I was chuffed to see that parts of "my list" have made it into US jurisprudence.
The final chapter deals with what people believe around the world. I am happy to report that Scandinavia (Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) are four of the top seven countries that believe in evolution. Canada was not surveyed. Turkey beat out the USA for dead last.
As I mentioned, this is a long a detailed read. Some of it is hard to read. I refer mostly to the cut-and-paste discussions from creationists. Their convoluted logic makes my brain hurt. It is also a must-have reference book if you want to take the subject seriously.
David Frum is a Canuck, and the son of Barbara Frum the well known journalist. He is also now a US citizen, a conservative, a one time Republican, and the author of Trumpocracy.
Trumpocracy was written in the first year of DJT's evil reign. This latest book was written over the intervening years. I read the first book because I wanted to read a conservative view point. Ditto this time around. Like all books about Trump, one is constantly reminded of his past sins… sins that tend to loose their identities in the avalanche of additional malfeasances.
"The rooster that took credit for the sunrise was outraged to be blamed for the sunset."
A nice pithy line.
Fun Fact: One of the Trump success factors that Frum points to is the Sinclair Broadcasting Company. It is Trump friendly and owns 40 percent of the US TV market. This where many Americans get their news.
They and the Trump acolytes praise the only president to never crack 50% approval in a reliable poll.
Frum was critical of the Mueller report which never lived up to expectations. They made five errors that assured failure. One: Mueller was only interested in prosecutable crimes. This meant no investigation of Trump possible debts to Russia. Two: He seemed to feel ignorance of the law was an excuse (this saved DJT Jr in the Trump Tower meeting). Three: He narrowed his investigation to the 2015/2016 election cycle. Four: He looked at people near Trump, but not Trump himself who refused to testify. And five: He refused to promote evidence that Trump could not be prosecuted for and therefore could not respond to (because he was the president). The upshot was we learned very little about Trump and his entanglements.
Frum spends some time discussing the Republicans tendency to cheat. Voter suppression, stack the courts, and gerrymandering being the primary means. The Republicans feel they are good and right, therefore whatever they do to maintain power is good and right too. Kavanaugh helped decide that the gerrymandering, an undemocratic and evil practice, was State business.
Frum discusses the "deep state". Like many things Trump, it is the opposite of what it should be. In the old days, the "deep state" were those with secret power who used clandestine ways of thwarting the government. Under Trump, it means the opposite: the legitimate use of power to thwart Trump.
As much as I hate to admit it, occasionally Trump is right. The only example I am aware of was the large numbers of asylum seekers at the US southern border. It is a fact that most of them were not legitimate asylum seekers under international law, and letting them onto US soil to apply for asylum would have many negative consequences.
Frum is basically upbeat. Trump must go, and the US must react to this near disaster. He offers the following solutions: Publish tax returns; Kill the filibuster; Make DC a state; Adopt a modern voting rights act; Deter gerrymandering; and Depoliticize the cops.
He argues that better immigration control can unite the nation. He also goes on to argue that the US must address climate change. His suggestions are worth reading, and are far more plausible than AOCs Green New Deal (AOC argues for more state ownership which puts the regulators and the regulated under the same roof). He also argues that China needs to be handled better. They have not been playing the game according to the rules.
Fun Fact: The Grand Old Party (GOP… Republicans) is younger that the Democratic Party.
In his final words, Frum argues that the GOP is so out of touch that it must reform or die. He makes no bones about Trump. He absolutely deserved impeachment. And he absolutely deserves to feel the full weight of the law when he leaves office.
America can come out of all this a better nation. The first step is to remove Trump from office.
Like most books of this type, this was a quick and easy read. It is insightful and hopeful at the same time as it is gloomy and reflective of the nation's exhaustion.
The errors referred to are design flaws in ourselves. I have always found this topic interesting. We think of ourselves as the peak of creation on Earth, but this is far from the truth when the details are examined. We are not the best at anything except thinking. All of our other traits speak more to a humanity being a jack of all trades, rather than being especially good at anything in particular.
Some of the issues discussed were familiar to me. The most common example of a design flaw is the human eye. It has two problems: myopia and wiring. Many of us are near sighted because our eyes are not the right shape. But more interesting is the wiring of the eye. We have our photo receptors at the back of the retina. In other words, the light we see must punch its way through a cell to get the receptors on the other side, a process that introduces distortions and dimming of the light. In addition, the wiring is also on the wrong (front) side, again blocking the light. All the wiring comes together at one place and then plunges through the retina to get to the optic nerve. This results in our famous blind spot. At some point in our history, nature flipped a coin on eye design when the design chosen did not matter. Then we evolved and discovered our mistake. Mollusk eyes do not have this flaw. Evolution can develop very complex structures. It is very good at that. But when it makes a mistake, it has no capacity to undo the error. Rather, it introduces workarounds or just tolerates the inconvenience, as long as it does not hamper reproduction.
Our hands and feet are full of useless bones that now just cause trouble. Our knees are very susceptible to injury, as any athlete who has blown his ACL will tell you. Our spine is designed for a creature with four walking legs. It started to change when we became knuckle walkers, but back aches are common, and for some, debilitating. The shape of our spine is a kludge stacked on two more kludges. Our air hole and our food hole are side by side, making choking to death possible. We breath in and out through the same hole. This is very inefficient in that stale and fresh air mix all the time. This is called tidal breathing. Think of breathing exclusively through a hose. If the hose is more than a few feet long, you will suffocate. Birds do not have this problem, which allows them to maintain a much faster metabolism. Beating wings is hard work that requires gobs of oxygen. Our brains and hearts are well protected, but one good punch to the throat and you will die. Our sinuses too have not caught up with upright walking. They now drain up, which causes blockages, running noses, and infections.
But my favorite example is the RLN (Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve). When we were fish, our hearts, lungs (gills) and brain were all up front in the head. The RLN, which now controls the voice box in us, had a short trip to make from the brain and it did so by running past the heart. As tetrapods evolved (we are all tetrapods), the heart and lungs moved away from the head and we developed necks. In humans, as in all tetrapods, the RLN branches off the vagus nerve, loops around the aorta, and goes back up to the voice box. This makes the nerve many times longer than it needs to be, and this is the kind of design flaw evolution cannot fix. Think about the sauropods… those giant long necked dinosaurs like Diplodocus. The RLN in them is on the order of 20 *meters* long… to cover a straight line distance of a foot!
Chapter two dives into our diets. Did you know a dog can live a long and healthy life eating rice and meat alone? They can because dogs manufacture the trace chemicals like vitamin C that they need to stay alive. But not us. A lot of our dietary foibles, like scurvy, are probably a result of growing up in a fruit rich environment. One day, the vitamin C gene broke, but since the environment already had a lot of vitamin C (e.g.: fruit), evolution failed to notice. We are also hard wired for a feast and famine lifestyle. Except we are now in a world of constant feast, which results in runaway obesity.
Chapter three discusses some of the fun that takes place at the genetic level. As most people know, sickle cell disease is a genetic adaptation to malaria. But when a person inherits two sickle cell genes, the result is not good.
One of the most interesting discussions was about how the immune system trains itself. In loose terms, long before you were recognizable as a human, the body set up a bunch of cells as a test bed, then breaks up various endogenous proteins and feeds them to those cells. If the cell reacts, it is killed. The upshot is all the remaining cells know how to get along with each other. Tuning of the immune system carries on for some time after birth. Allergies and auto-immune disorders are the result when this does not work. BTW: Do not buy "immune system boosters". Your immune system is in a state of balance. If you jack it up, you get sick; if you suppress it, you get sick. Peanut and related allergies are on the rise. The "hygiene hypothesis" suggests that this is the result of anti-bacterials and over protective parents. This seems likely to be true. So let your kids get dirty… it is good for them.
The next chapter focuses on reproduction. Why don't the fallopian tubes and the ovaries connect up directly? They should. It would avoid a lot of problems. Human child birth is extremely dangerous for both the mother and the child. Human babies are utterly helpless at birth. Our heads are enormous compared to the small hole we have to squeeze through to get born. These issues are unique to humans. A gnu calf pops out effortlessly for the mother, and is on the run within minutes. It may be that girls mature wore quickly than boys because there are many more things that can go wrong with their bodies. Nature responded by making women mature faster so they are more likely to pop out a puppy before dying.
Cancer is fascinating. If we live long enough, we will die of cancer. We think of the big C as death incarnate. But cancer is necessary for life. Cancer is runaway growth. Growth is what keeps us alive. As we age, our ability to control growth shrinks due to mutation and such, and we get cancer. Without mutation, life would not be possible. With mutation, life is a bitch.
The final chapters went off the rail for me and I only skimmed them. It discusses at length our cognitive errors, such as confirmation bias. I am already familiar with these "errors" and I largely skipped this chapter, and the next, which focuses on the large "why are we here" kind of issues.
This book has its moments, but I thought it strayed from its topic when it came to psychology. It is a good book to draw evolution examples from. In this case, the foot print of evolution is errors and compromises, not design. If all this sounds compelling to you, I recommend the book.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry; Neil deGrasse Tyson; 2017; W. W. Norton and Company; 208 pgs; index
This is a very quick read. Tyson is an decent writer with unbounded enthusiasm for his work. For me, this was mental chocolate: sweet, over quick and familiar. For most readers, however, I think a large percentage of this book will be new information… information that we all should have. It speaks to where we are in the grand scheme of things, but most importantly, it tells of just how grand the grand scheme is. And no, there is no schemer, only the laws of physics. In my life time, the amount we know about the universe has increased many fold. No other people in history have seen this happen. The trend will continue, but as time goes by, the revelations are bound to get smaller and less impressive. In other words, it is a great time to be curious.
The Philippines are a large group of islands in the Pacific. The western part of the island group is largely open to the ocean. It is easy to enter the inner seas from the west. The east is a different matter. Luzon to the north and Mindanao to the south are the largest islands in the group. Samar and Leyte, essentially one island, are to the south and east of Luzon and form the eastern shores of the Philippines along with Mindanao.
In late October, 1944, a major landing was underway at Leyte Gulf in anticipation of MacArthur's return and the liberation of the Philippines. Leyte Gulf was filled with helpless transports and an attack by the Japanese was expected.
There are three ways to get to Leyte gulf. From the west (the Japan side), one can go through the Philippines via the Sibuyan sea and exit on the east side of the Philippines through the San Bernardino Straights, which separates Luzon from Samar and Leyte, and then turn south towards Leyte gulf. Or one can approach from the south, taking the Surigao Straight north of Mindanao, which opens onto Leyte gulf. The only other approach is from the eastern Pacific, an area controlled by the US. This is the field of battle for the largest naval conflict in history.
Japan was going all-in. Either they beat the US back, or Japan's navel dominance in then Pacific would be over, and Japan's fate sealed. Prior battles, especially the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot", had all but wiped out Japans naval air power. They had carriers, but few planes and fewer crews to man them. However, they still had the world's two largest battleships ever: the Yamato and the Musashi.
The US was fighting far from home. They were stretched thin on ammo and fuel. But by all measures, they out gunned the Japanese.
This was a very complex battle that took place over a few days. I will give a 50,000 foot description.
The Japanese were in three groups (JN, JM, JS).
JN (for North) hung off the Philippines to the north and east. It was a carrier fleet, with almost no planes. It included the Zuikaku, the last Pearl Harbor flat top still afloat. It would not survive this battle. This fleet was assigned to throw itself at the northerly American ships as a feint to draw the Americans away from Leyte. They expected to get cut to pieces… and they were.
JM (for middle) went through the Sibuyan Sea and out the San Bernardino Straights. Its job, as was JS's, was to sink American ships and stop the invasion.
JS (for South) approached from the south through the narrow Surigao Straights.
The Americans were in three groups (AN, AM, AS).
AN was Bull Halsey's group. Their primary task was to guard the San Bernardino Straights. Halsey would split his force to create AM.
AM included a group returning from refits that were not completed. It steamed into the middle off Samar Island.
AS was to guard the Surigao Straights and the Leyte landing.
The Americans hit JN first by air in the middle of the Sibuyan Sea (the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea) , sinking the Musashi (the first Japanese battleship to be sunk my air power alone), and hurting the Japanese. The US over-estimated the damage done.
Then the Americans waited for the Japanese JS at the top of the Surigao Straights and beat them back decisively.
The Battle of Cape Engano (located off the north end of Luzon) followed with JM vs AM. It was a draw. And finally the Battle of Samar finished the encounter. This battle saw the introduction of the Kamikaze. The US took a lot of damage in this battle, mostly to escort carriers.
A lot of ink has been spilled on AN and Halsey. He did manage to finish off Japanese naval air power, but it was already all but dead. He spent most of his time steaming toward a fight rather than fighting. He left his post guarding the San Bernardino Straights to get JN. This left AM unable to handle JN when it slipped through the San Bernardino Straights un-noticed.
An equal amount of ink was spilled on why JM decided to bug out. The Battle of Samar was in Japan's favor. AM was on it knees, but they did not know that, nor did they know that JAs feint had actually worked. Poor communications. Had they continued to steam south to Leyte Gulf, they would have wreaked carnage. But instead they turn back through the San Bernardino Straights.
The Americans out gunned the Japanese and expected a win. Halsey almost reversed that. Poor intelligence on both sides led to poor decisions. Both sides also had command issues. There was no over all commander on either side. This led to poor coordination of attacks.
There was much carnage to follow before the war would end, but the Japanese would never again pose a serious navel threat (this does not count kamikazes).
The book is a fairly quick read. Lots of details on who did what, when, and why. It illustrates the old maxim that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. It certainly underscores the need for good communications. In 1944, most ships ran "silent" and only sent short transmitted radio messages in code. This lead to delays and errors.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin; Timothy Snyder; 2010; Basic Books; 408 pgs; index (poor), Bibliography
This book is a long read about a difficult subject - human suffering on an unprecedented scale.
The obvious first question is "What are the Bloodlands"? The Bloodlands refers to the dirt between Germany and Russia during the early 20th century. I say dirt rather than listing countries because borders change and definitions are loose. In today's terms it covers Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, the eastern two thirds of Poland, the western borders of Russia, and Ukraine. After the war ended, the iron curtain came down and the nature of the crimes committed in these areas were covered up. Only now that 75 years have passed has more information come available.
For example, the liberating western allies never once saw a death camp. They saw the ends of several labor camps, and grisly as those images were, they were but a shadow of the crimes committed in the Poland death camps (they were all in Poland which became a Soviet puppet state). Another example: the truth is finally out about death sites like Baba Yar and Katyn. Katyn was a Soviet slaughter of Polish officers which they tried to blame the Germans for.
"During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the Bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world."
Think about that statement.
We know Poland suffered greatly, due in part to being between a rock (Germany) and a hard place (the USSR), as did Belarus. It is worth noting that countries such as Canada (young, one border, surrounded by oceans) did not exist in Europe. Europe has regions that have certain ethnic characters, and the map of Europe has changed many times prior to the end of WWII. Poland, for example, had the largest number of Jews in Europe as well as large populations of Germans, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.
Chapter 1 deals with the Soviet famines. Starting in 1930, Stalin began "collectivizing" Ukraine farms. Kulaks (well off peasants) were killed. Farms became state property. And the state demanded ever increasing quotas of grain resulting in famine and starvation by the millions. The phrase "roving bands of cannibals" says much about the conditions. Stalin's wife committed suicide the day after the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. She was clearly making a point. Young communists were told starving people were the enemy who "risked their lives to spoil our optimism". 3.3 million dead in Ukraine.
Chapter 2 is "Class Terror", basically blaming other people for the USSR's failings. If it wasn't a satellite state ruining things, it was foreign powers. It deals with the internal and external politics of both Hitler and Stalin from 1933 to 1937.
National Terror, Chapter 3, deals with purges. Poland shares a long border with Ukraine. In the late 30s, the most persecuted group in Europe were not the Jews, but the Poles. The definition of an "enemy" was so broad in the USSR that it could apply to anyone (it included as crimes certain "forbidden thoughts and ideas", and trivia like owning a rosary). Stalin's Great Terror purged the upper ranks of his officers and again fell on the Kulaks. . Torture was common place and often public. A million were killed. Many blamed the Jews for this. Later, when Germany and the USSR split Poland, the terror started there too.
Chapter 4: The Molotov - Ribbentrop line partitioned Poland. Poland was a haven for Jews and had the largest concentration in Europe. Germany got about 2 million Polish Jews and immediately began planning how to get rid of them. In about a year or so, eliminating Jews from Europe would become Nazi policy. The big players: Hans Frank (governor of Poland, and Hitler's one-time lawyer) , Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich (perhaps the evilest man in modern history) and Adolph Eichmann. Heydrich created the first Einsatzgruppen (special killing squads). Between 1940 and 1941, the two conquerors killed 200,000 Poles and deported a million more to gulags or concentration camps.
Chapter 5 deals with economics. Germany has attacked the USSR. The Germans had a Hunger Plan… feed the soldiers, starve the locals. The Russian war did not go as Germany planned. The
Einsatzgruppen were released in earnest in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine (among others). Vast numbers of Soviet troops were captured and treated far worse than any other POWs in Europe. Only about 50% would survive. No names were taken, unusual even in those times.
"As many Soviet POWs died on a single given day in Autumn 1941 as did British and American POWS over the course of the entire second world war."
The invasion of the USSR was supposed to solve Germany's economic problems. The opposite happened.
The Final Solution (Chapter 6). Himmler get s control of the eastern conquered territories. By now Communists and Communism were viewed a Jewish plot, so killing Soviets and killing Jews were justified in the same breath. When food was short, the emphasis for the Germans was to kill Jews (useless eaters). When labor was short, the emphasis was to kill those unable to work, and deport those who could to now-depleted German factories. This had the odd result of making Germany the country with the largest percentage of Jews and Slavs in Europe (other than their home countries). Atrocities were everywhere. Baba Yar and Katyn are two examples.
Holocaust and Revenge: Belarus was ground zero for Germany vs. USSR. Moscow was never taken, but Minsk was burned to the ground. A fantasy that is promoted to this day is that the Russians suffered more than any other group in WWII. This is false. In terms of territory, Germany barely penetrated Russia. Not so for the states in between. Jews in Belarus feared Soviet pogroms, but feared the Germans more. Poles hated them both but could see the future: If they defeat the Germans, they get Russian rule. The devil you know…? Many fled Minsk to the forests where Jews and others carried out sabotage. The movie Defiance w/Daniel Craig captured the internal conflicts quite well . By war's end, half the population of Belarus was either dead or moved. No other country was treated worse.
The Death Factories: I wont go into a lot of detail here. From the killing squads, body burning, baby shooting, and gas vans to factories of death. This is the most grisly chapter in human history. Six death camps did the dirty work: Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Madjanek and Auschwitz. They were all in Poland, and the Western Allies never set foot in one. The horrible familiar images from the Nuremburg trials were all Americans visiting labor camps that had been recently abandoned.
Women, with more fatty tissue, burned better than men, and so workers would put them on the bottom of the pyres. Chew on that for a moment.
Resistance and Incineration recalls the closing days year of the war. The treatment of Poland and Warsaw are discussed at length. I have reviewed a book on this subject matter already.
Ethnic Cleansings: Although Poland "won" the war, it lost 47% of its territory and became a Soviet satellite state. As the war ended, Stalin went on another rampage. He wanted pure states with pure goals, which he would create come what may.
The closing chapters sum up the book.
I have read a lot about WWII. I am never surprised, but always shocked, when I read the details of human suffering at the hands of the Germans and the Soviets. One can get almost anyone to do unspeakable violence if they can be convinced that they are the victims. This is a long book, but I never got bored. It has helped put the eastern part of the war in better perspective.
Dyer is a Canadian war researcher who wrote this book in 1985. From what I can gather, it is well respected. This edition has been revised and updated.
The book tours war historically, examining its roots and its evolution over the millennia.
The opening comments discuss some of the big picture history. For example, major battles prior to the 20th century would generate casualty rates as high as 50-60%, with an average of 20. In modern battles, this figure rarely exceeds 1 percent. This was due largely to changes in technology (weapons got better). This in turn changed the nature of soldiers and their mission. In the old days, soldiers did not get combat fatigue (shell shock, or today: PTSD) because they would die before it ever happened. Today, all armies recognize that troops can only take so many combat days (in WWII, it was 240) before they fall apart.
Dyer has always impressed me especially with regard to basic training, which he discusses in a chapter called "Any one's Son Will Do". Get them when they are young. Break them down to the same level, making them all equals, and then build up a small group dynamic where each man relies on the others to help him stay alive. Drill Sergeants are masters of psychological manipulation, and they know it.
In his opening chapter, Dyer makes this startling revelation: In WWII in the ETO, only 15% of combat infantry riflemen ever fired their weapon in anger! Most soldiers would never have reveal such a fact, until they were told they were not at all alone. More than four fifths of combat soldiers got through the war with killing anyone, and without firing a shot! More research has backed this up. Gettysburg was a hugely costly battle for Americans because it was Americans on both sides. More than half of the recovered muskets from the battle were loaded with more than one round, and only 5% were ready to be fired when they were abandoned or dropped. Six thousand had as many as 10 rounds in the barrel. In other words, most of the fighters were spending their time reloading a loaded gun, and, one assumes, ducking. No one is suggesting these men were cowards. Many were simply principled and did not want to kill.
The upshot of this is startling: if you could get the malingerers to enter the fray, the other guys didn't stand a chance. Which they did. New training got the numbers up to 50% in Korea and 80% in Vietnam. The US had figured out how to get men to kill automatically. Dehumanizing the enemy was a big part of it.
War goes back a long way. Chimps war on each other and so do we. We did not invent war, we inherited it. Dyer examines hunter gatherer groups and their interaction; ritualized warfare in groups like New Guinea bushmen; and other evidence of our more primitive past. Some suggest that ritualized warfare is not the "real deal". It does generate casualties at a low rate, which meant that they could do it a lot, which in turn meant high casualty rates over time. Hobbs, Rousseau and Darwin are invoked and examined for their viewpoints.
The birth of war was driven by human life style choices. Hunting and gathering can keep you alive. So can farming. But a new type of living was now being made: pastoralism (i.e.: nomads). They lived by herding domesticated animals. Inevitably, these groups clashed. The nomads would win fights because they were mobile, which meant they could concentrate their forces when needed. To combat this, walls around towns were built. When horses were domesticated, things accelerated. It is worth noting that Egypt was largely spared from nomadic attacks by its geography.
The Sumerians hit upon the idea that religion could be a better way of settling disputes. It worked for a while. Priests liked it because it gave them power. But as we know, religion is not a cure for war, but more often an excuse or a direct cause.
Aside: Women were equal partners in life until civilization and agriculture came along, driving the need for a power structure which eschewed women because it could.
Sargon was the worlds first emperor over a militarized society (circa 2300 BC). Around then, there was a major technological innovation: the compound bow. The bow and arrow has killed more people than any other weapon, ever. Unlike the English longbow (yet to be invented), the composite bow was short, powerful and could be fired from horseback.
Other inventions over time include the chariot (fast, hit and run, archery platform); the pike and phalanx; war galleys; improved, harder metals; bigger horses; the saddle and stirrup (700 AD); gun powder (1300 AD); and organized armies (which gave the powers-that-be the willies).
Aside: Japan had a warrior based culture. When the musket was introduced, they were appalled. A samurai could be killed by a commoner! Unacceptable… so they just stopped making them. That obviously changed later in history.
Armies got bigger, the percentage of soldiers dying went up, battles were huge but infrequent; and the average citizen was left alone.
Armies had to be trained and fed. You could not just conscript someone and throw them into battle. Standing armies were a part of every major European power from 1700 on.
What happened next was the introduction over time of the concept of "total war".
New weapons were being developed at a quick pace. It was soon discovered that a few men behind cover with guns could stop a large number of advancing troops. Tactics changed. WWI introduced the concept of the continuous front. The tank was used for the first time. It gave professional soldiers the hope that it might end the wars of attrition. It did, but it caused the continuous front to become mobile. This and aircraft took a terrible toll on civilians. The tank eventually spawned "blitzkrieg", or mobile "lightning" war. The world wars were the first where civilian deaths outnumber the deaths of combatants.
The next chapter in the book documents the history of nukes. There have been a lot of ideas over the years on this subject, but the prevailing idea is that you only need enough to destroy the other guy. This was known as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). And so far, this math has kept the nuclear peace for 75 years. The advent of nukes gave rise to the phrase "conventional war".
The birth of the professional army came in 1803 Prussia with the creation of the Kriegsakademie. This approach of using well trained professional soldiers was soon adopted by others. One hundred Germans in WWII were a match for 125 British or 250 Russian troops. Why? Because they had 10x as many good generals who knew how to get the most from men and equipment. The old game is now protected turf and generals everywhere want to keep it that way (the start of the military-industrial complex?). Technology has changed the equation a great deal. One example: a Spitfire in WWII cost 5,000 pounds to make. The supersonic Tornado, its 3rd generation successor, cost 17 million, 172 times more after adjusting for inflation.
The last chapter speculates about the future of war:
Baboons are nasty creatures. The males are obsessed with status and fight all the time. But in one troop something unusual happened. The aggressive males all died off at once from eating infected meat. Overnight, the troop settled down to a much more egalitarian society. And it stayed that way even after the demographics of the tribe returned to normal! The ritualized war fare on New Guinea bushmen killed a large percentage of combatants, one at a time, year after year. The government stepped in and told them this had to stop. They all agreed enthusiastically and never looked back! It seems both were caught in a local stability point that they could not get out of without a nudge. Perhaps there is hope in both those stories.
While not as eye-opening a book as Guns Germs and Steal, this book is a must read for anyone who wishes to grapple with these thorny issues. War has been with us for all of our history. But perhaps we can first ritualize it, and then dump it as a bad idea. I doubt it. The New Guinea bushmen were offered an alternative to their wars… essentially third party arbitration. This is something the top dogs will never agree to.
One final tidbit: Have you ever wondered if you were safer as an officer in combat, or as a soldier? In WWII, the answer was "soldier". In Vietnam, it did not matter.
Dyer himself has served, so he has seen some of all this from the inside.
I recently read Prisoner's of Isolation which focused on solitary confinement in the Canadian penal system. Canada's practices were, as I described, barbaric. There is some light at the end of the tunnel for Canada.
This book is a much broader indictment of the US penal system, and specifically Attica. Canada was bad. The US was and is far, far worse.
Attica is a name familiar to anyone of my generation. I was a teen when it happened, and I must admit I did not pay much attention. Attica is a town and a prison in upstate New Your. On Sept 9, 1971, after months of simmering issues, the shit hit the fan. The prisoners took over, controlled the yard, and had many CO (correction officers) hostages. In the process, a CO was killed. After that, the cons took responsibility for the hostages and protected them. Rumors fostered by the state spread: castrations, torture, slit throats and such. The COs and the SPs (State Police) smelled blood. A few days later, the state (lead by the warden and the state head of corrections) let to dogs loose. What followed was chaos, torture and barbarity. Many cons and several hostage COs were killed, all by other COs. No attempts were made to match bullets to guns, guns to COs, or do any of that police professionalism stuff.
Bigotry was a major issue. Most of the prison population was non-white. Guard training was an issue: they had none. General cowboy attitudes, tough on crime types, and the general view that COs walked on water and cons were animals did the rest. These were jail towns and they hired any moron who could tote a gun from the local populace to do a "professional" job.
The top names in law were embroiled in a 40 year long cover up of crimes. The state was utterly heartless to everyone involved, including the families of injured or killed COs. The state refused to pay the salaries of the hostage COs because they were "off the clock". The state lost evidence, or denied it existed, or claimed privilege, or said it existed but it was unimportant throughout it all. The state even sent "support cheques" to widows, knowing that if they were cashed, they would, under NY state law, constitute an acceptance of compensation… i.e.: take this pittance which you desperately need, but if you do, you can never, ever sue. IOW: the state conned its own citizens.
You would think things would have gotten better, but not in the US of A. Some precedents were set, some rules changed, and some people made whole (ish). But mostly, the US doubled down, prison populations soared, , conditions got worse, for profit prisons made it worse still, and it is worse than ever now.
This is a long but gripping read. There are real heroes, real bad guys (most of whom died before the law could ever catch up to them), and lots of victims. The worst thing about it, though, is just how trivial it is for politicians to completely derail the justice system whenever they want and use it as a cudgel.
Universe From Nothing, A; Lawrence Krauss, Afterword by Richard Dawkins; 2012; Simon and Schuster; 191 pgs; index
I have known about this book for some time and finally got around to reading it.
Nothing is big topic. What is nothing? Just empty space? It still has time and volume, and the potential to have other stuff too, and the potential is something. Or: nothing is not nothing if it has the potential to be something.
One hundred years ago, the fastest form of commercial travel was the train and ship, and Einstein's special theory was still being debated . The General Theory of Relativity took longer to accept. One hundred years ago, we believed we lived in an island universe called The Milky Way. But now we know that the universe is far, far more vast. At this point, the author turns to Douglas Adams ("the universe is so big, you wouldn't believe it" etc).
To get a handle on the universe, we need to know how much stuff is in it. I.e.: what does it weigh?
Standard candles (Cepheid variable stars and Type 1A supernovae are the two biggies) have opened our eyes not just to the size of the universe, but its age and its destiny. The universe is expanding and will continue to do so forever. Here is an interesting idea: in 2 thousand billion years (2 trillion years), stars and galaxies will still exist. But future astronomers will literally have no way of knowing the deep history that gave rise to their universe. The rest of the universe would have disappeared beyond the horizon (or, if you prefer, they will be so far red-shifted that they will be moving away at over the speed of light and thus become physically undetectable). We are privileged and can see our history, but this will not be true forever.
The book gives a nice summary of what we know today and how we know it. The reasoning is fascinating. The bottom line is that dark energy is driving the universe to expand.
Another fun fact: if you are old enough to remember TV in the days of yore, you will remember that TV was broadcast and picked up with antennae. In the dead of night, the broadcasters stopped broadcasting and the channel in question would appear as "snow"… just a lot of static. About 1% of the snow you see is the after-glow of the big bang! This microwave background radiation can be used to calculate the age of the universe: 13.72 billion years.
The fundamental base of the book is one of book keeping. We got a universe from nothing. But how. Energy (i.e.: matter and other stuff) is a zero sum game and so, suggests Krauss is the universe. If there are equal amounts of positive energy and negative energy (yes, there is such a thing), then the books still balance and sum to zero! And we get a flat universe…. Which is nice because curvy universes are more complex.
Krauss quotes Chris Hitchens often when it comes to the implications of all this. One thing seems clear, for Krauss there is no need of a creator. And the universe cares not what you might think of it. Stephen Weinberg is known for saying that science does not make it impossible to believe in god, it makes it possible to not believe in god.
This is a quick read. But the contents are deep and I may come back and read it again in a few years.
One analogy I liked for how it came about is this:
Take a ball and throw it in the air. It will fall to Earth. Throw it harder, and it will still fall back to Earth. But throw it hard enough and it will never come down. This is a kind of symmetry breaking. One can imagine the potential for space doing this for eternities stacked on eternities, until one day, the ball did not come back down, and the universe was born.
One final quip from the book: One answer to "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is "There won't be for long!"
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.