Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Review: The American Magic

The American Magic: Codes, Cyphers, and the Defeat of Japan
Ronald Lewin

The American Magic isn't about how Japan's codes were broken; it's about how the U.S. used that information. It's largely book for specialists. Some of the information is interesting, but none of it is revelatory at this late date, and it's not presented with the narrative verve that would make it generally accessible. The details of how the various bureaucracies were organized, for example, is important but not exactly page-turning. 

The most entertaining bits come when Lewin takes a few full-arm swipes at Douglas MacArthur (who, incredibly, still has star-struck hero-worshipers writing adoring books about him). Otherwise, this is a book for people with both a good working knowledge of the history of the Pacific War and a substantial investment in the subject matter.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea
Gary Kinder
History, archaeology

It's hard to go wrong when you're starting with disaster at sea, sunken treasure, a slightly larger-than-life protagonist, and high tech exploration. Gary Kinder doesn't disappoint. SoGitDBS is a page turner. It reads like a cross between drama-at-sea journalism (e.g. The Perfect Storm, Dead Wake) and the meticulous biography-centered investigations of Tracy Kidder. It's non-fiction that reads like a novel.

There is, furthermore, a curious and surprising sequel. The book came out in 1998. Subsequent to its publication . . . stuff happened. I'm not going to spoil it. Only, after you read it--not before!--you should Google for the primary protagonist.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: Lightning Man

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse
Kenneth Silverman

"Accursed" may seem a little strong for a man who was an acclaimed painter, became world-famous for inventing a successful telegraph, and got rich from it. It's nontheless not without insight. Morse always felt himself thwarted by fate, beset by foes, betrayed by friends, and followed by tragedy. The accursedness of his life came as much from within as without, though.

For starters, Morse was manifestly depressive. (At least one of his brothers was depressive as well.) He also had great difficulty in settling down to pursue any one thing as a young man; that may have been an aspect of a depressive personality, although it affects many people (*ahem*). His father couldn't have helped, either: Jedediah Morse was one of the less admirable sorts of Christian ministers--intelligent but narrow-minded, self-righteous, zealous in finding fault, a stranger to forgiveness, snobbish, and puritanical. Regrettably, he passed on a good deal of this to Samuel, who idolized him.

It's the snobbishness, perhaps, that's at the core of everything. Morse seems to have been obsessed with being, and being among, the Best People. He was an ardent supporter of slavery and an ardent foe of immigration. Late in life he became addicted to the many decorations showered on him by European aristocratic regimes.

Most importantly--and I give author Silverman considerable credit for discerning this--Morse's relentless snobbishness led him into an endless, pointless morass of legal and public disputation. At issue was the supposed question of who "invented" the telegraph: Morse, or any one of several other claimants. The truth is that no one person "invented" the telegraph. ("When it's time for light bulbs, you get light bulbs.") It was in the air.

Morse, however, deserves enormous credit for making a working, viable, successful telegraph. Not only did his design have major technical innovations, he badgered an almost unbelievably dilatory and imbecilic Congress into funding a demonstration, and then made the demonstration work. (True fact: one congressman proposed matching the $30,000 eventually given to Morse with a grant to one "Mr. Fish" to study mesmerism.)

Morse should have been proud of being the engineer who perfected the telegraph. Instead, he was obsessed with being the scientist who invented the telegraph. Because scientists were gentlemen, while engineers were mere mechanics.

I think there are a few places where Lightning Man omits important technical detail. There's barely a word about the eponymous Morse Code, for example, and the description of his "repeater" (a simple amplifier which boosts signals over long distances) is inadequate. As a portrait of Morse the man, however, it's unbeatable.

As I've noted before, one of the joys of reading is to find cross-overs among books. Morse bought a house on the Hudson River, a few miles from Franklin Roosevelt's boyhood home. Both the Morse and Roosevelt estates were influenced by the theories of Andrew Jackson Downing, mentor of Frederick Law Olmsted. Morse's long-time lawyer and confidante was Amos Kendall, Andrew Jackson's postmaster. Among my less-recent reading, Morse figuers prominently in David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, while his nemesis Charles Jackson is prominent in Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: Finding North

Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human
George Michelson Foy

Finding North is what I've dubbed a personal-theme book. It is, however, far more "personal" than "theme". There's some factual information in there around navigation and wayfinding and whatnot, but mainly this book is about George Michelson Foy.

In other words, if you're looking for another Rust, or even another The Triumph of Seeds, this isn't the place to find it. You won't learn much. The longest fact-oriented segment in Finding North occurs when Foy visits the U.S. Air Force center that controls our G.P.S. system. There he gathers the same information he could have gotten from a Wikipedia article--which he admits he doesn't really understand, but condenses and summarizes anyway.

Foy isn't really interested in things. He's interested in his reaction to things. (In this he reminds me of Paul Theroux, whom I find alternately involving and pretentious.)

With that out of the way, I quite liked Finding North. Foy is an unusually lucid, fluent, and lyrical writer. He's terrific with description, with sense of place. His personal story, which drives the book's narrative, is both interesting and moving. Granted that he's a little precious sometimes--non-fiction written in the present tense is always a danger sign--he mostly gets away with writing deliberately for style, for effect.

In addition to Foy's five-generation family saga, Finding North contains continuing minor chord of complaint against G.P.S. and all it represents. I must be one of the few people in the western hemisphere who has literally never navigated using G.P.S., nor had any real need to do so. Ergo, I have a certain sympathy with his viewpoint--especially when it's backed up by one of the few really informative scientific passages in the book. It's a little bit predictable, all the same. Foy is, and writes as, a humanist in a technological world. It puts limits on Finding North's audience. Given how good some of the writing is, I can't help but think that's a shame.

The writer who most lucidly combines a literate style with a command of facts is probably Tracy Kidder. Though technologically long outdated, his The Soul of a New Machine remains a don't-miss classic about what it feels like to be an engineer.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

It's Official!

I've just mailed off a contract for my first published short story. "The Adventure of the Disguised Passenger"--a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, as one might deduce from the title--has been accepted by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (For those of you from the SF side of the cultural divide, this is a sister publication of Asimov's Science Fiction.)

Extra-special thanks go to the dazzling Mr. Steve Hockensmith, whose soon-to-be-relaunched Holmes on the Range sequence got me thinking about this tale in the first place.

I don't yet know in which issue the story will appear. Needless to say, there will be further posts when I do.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
A. O. Scott
Literature, culture

I wanted to read this book for obvious reasons: I take some pride in these book reviews, and I want to make them better. I was hesitant, though, because Scott is a film critic. I don't watch many movies. I figured that Better Living Through Criticism would be full of references that I wouldn't get.

Surprise! Better Living Through Criticism is almost devoid of specifics. Instead, it's virtually 100% at the level of (broadly speaking) theory--maybe even philosophy. Scott barely touches on movies. Heck, he barely touches Earth. He's too busy reeling off a checklist of intellectual touchpoints. Aristotle! Ranier Maria Rilke's sonnet Archaic Torso of Apollo! The appalling Edmund Wilson! Susan Sontag! Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment!

The weird thing is that Scott eschews the one thing that one would expect from a critic: drawing a conclusion. Is Kant right? Is Sontag wrong? Scott doesn't say--or, rather he says both no and yes. He proceeds by a relentless, repetitive cycle of Hegelian synthesis (see, I can be an intellectual name-dropper too). Here's a juicy but totally typical example:
The impulse to conserve and move slowly, to build incrementally and protect what has already been done, is an honorable one. So is the drive to start again, to bend the energies of creation towards an unseen future. But this is also to say that both sides are wrong. Each one's error is inevitable, since it reflects an ineradicable fact of the human predicament. We live at the mercy of time and can only fail in our efforts to master it, to speed it up or slow it down.
Uh, okay, A.O. If you say so. It's not clear that this helps me think about art, pleasure, beauty, or truth, though.

Scott's devotion to the theoretical is just baffling. He quotes with evident approval a long piece of poetical lit-crit that is, basically, one giant failure of basic logic. He loves good critical writing, but he doesn't seem to care whether it makes much sense or has anything material to say about How to Think About Art etc. Better Living Through Criticism has some neat if slightly self-conscious postmodernist prose, but the overall effect is that of watching someone else play a complicated and largely pointless game of solitaire.

Book Review: The Great Iron Ship

The Great Iron Ship
James Dugan
History, engineering

I don't think I can put it any better than the back cover.

This [the S.S. Great Eastern] is the ship that 
  • Killed her designer
  • Drowned her first captain
  • Logged four mutinies
  • Killed thirty-five men
  • Survived the Atlantic's weirdest storm
  • Laid the Atlantic Cable
  • Sank four ships
  • Made six knights
  • Caused sixteen lawsuits
  • Was six times at auction
  • Boarded two million sightseers
  • Ended as a floating circus
Aside from that, The Great Iron Ship is well-written, occasionally sardonic, briskly-paced, not exhaustively deep, and well-structured as a narrative. I think Dugan pays maybe a little too much attention to the so-called "jinx" on the Great Eastern. To my mind, the real story is not the jinx but just how astonishingly it was, in the mid-19th century, people getting randomly killed or maimed in fights or crowds or just weird stuff. (Imagine someone getting killed nowadays by an accident when firing a 21-gun salute, for example. It wouldn't just be waved off!) And, of course, I want more engineering! Still, a very good book.