Skeleton Man

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Tony Hillerman

There are lots of good westerns, but not too many good Western mystery writers. There are even fewer good dramatizations.Turn on the tube and any night you’ll see Belgians, retired English spinsters, medieval English monks, even impoverished food experts. So when I moved out here almost 8 years ago, and wanted to start reading Western mysteries,my only real choice was Tony Hillerman. Luckily.

I’ve spent a lot of time driving west of I-25. I been on practically every paved inter-city and interstate road in Colorado,and driven through every western state at least twice. Part of the reason I moved out here was to save the travel day eachway on my vacations. So when Hillerman describes Shiprock, or the Painted Desert, or the gas station in Cameron, or even themountains of northern New Mexico at dawn, I’ve been there.

Hillerman also introduced me (and several million others) to the Navajo mythology. I don’t agree with the Navajo conceptionof the world. But remember, as Indian tribes go, the Navajo have been more successful than most in protecting their sacredspots, and expanding their territory. So since they have a semi-autonomous region within the borders of the US, it’sprobably worth learning something about them. In this case, Hillerman extends his view to the Hopi, teaching us somethingabout their origin mythology and a little about their present-day practice.

This story revolves around some diamonds, an actual 1956 airplane collision over the Grand Canyon, Some diamonds may have turned up from that crash, andthat’s got some heirs and potential heirs very interested. It’s also got Jim Chee trying to help his Hopi friend, CowboyDashee, to clear Dashee’s cousin of a robbery where he allegedly picked up one of the diamonds. Chee and Bernie Manuelito arefinally engaged, and a subplot deals with his trailer and her cold feet.

Joe Leaphorn does make a cameo, but Hillerman may be starting to phase him out. Leaphorn’s been retired a while, and his reappearances are becoming increasingly contrived.

Skeleton Man is, by my count, the 18th book featuring Joe Leaphorn and/or Jim Chee. There have been some opinions that Hillerman has started to lose his touch. While Fallen Man was considered substandard by many Hillerman fans, I thought both Sinister Pig and Wailing Wind were pretty good. The problem here is different. This mystery readsmore like a suspense – there’s no whodunit. By the middle pages we already know all the characters and their motivations, and we’re pretty much seeing how the story plays out. The storytelling is superb, and you do end up caring how it turns out.

Just don’t expect a mystery.

Churchill On Leadership

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Steven Hayward

Why should business leaders study Churchill, a political leader. Steve Hayward notes that Churchill’s leadership was primarily during wartime. So he may have more lessons for business leaders, who are always in competition, than for politicians, who more often seek consensus. Compare, for example,Churchill to Herbert Asquith, who was a tremendous peacetime leader, but whose skills were whollyunsuited for wartime. Churchill’s relentless energy and wide-ranging intellect also made him suitedfor basically one position – Prime Minister. That should appeal to aspiring CEOs, who feel stifled in their current jobs.

Hayward posits four basic keys to understanding Churchill: his candor and plain speaking, his decisiveness, his historical imagination, and his ability to balance the big picture with attentionto detail. While some of these are typical of leaders, historical imagination stands out. Churchill’sability to learn not merely from his own mistakes (more on that later), but from others’, often distantin time, helped him imagine options that eluded others.

Churchill’s speaking style comes into play – his love of short words, his persuasion by analogy, therhythms of his speech. At one point, Hayward lays out a passage from one speech as blank verse, andit reads better that way. CEOs are more likely to communicate by memo than by address, and we also see some examples of clear writing. Churchill’s famed energy – always driving the machine forward – is another key to his success.

Perhaps a less-known, and less-appreciated aspect of Churchill’s success was his love of innovation.He switched the fleet from coal to oil, extending its range considerably. He practically inventedthe notion of naval flight, and pushed, well out his department, the WWI development of the tank. Sadlyfor the Allies, when he was sacked in 1915, he was no longer around to push the idea, and there wasalmost no one left who had given a thought to its proper use. It may well have cost the Allies a yearof extra fighting.

In fact, though, it was his drive for innovation that led to an opportunity to exercise another of hismaxims – learning from mistakes. Churchill saw that Asquith’s passive leadership was allowing the generals to get away with conventional thinking, and that was leading to the stalemate on the WesternFront. Hayward goes into some detail on the ill-fated Dardanelles expedition, which turned on Churchill’swatch into Gallipoli, an operational disaster. Without strong central leadership, the military plannerscouldn’t figure out what to do with the operation, and eventually abandoned it on the point ofsuccess. It also proved to be an object lesson in how a poor system can swallow a subordinate with ideas.

Perhaps the greatest asset a wartime leader can have, and perhaps one that eludes most businessmen,is a sense of moral vision. Hayward points out that while Hitler used many of the same politicaltactics as Churchill, history has judged them very differently. Churchill was tempermentally optimistic,and carried a courage born of that optimism. It served to inspire an entire country.

Hayward unfortunately does a poor job of explaining why the CEO could benefit from the same. Too often, business leaders lack the moral vision that’s necessary to inspire. It’s not merely the running of acompany in an ethical manner, or good corporate governance that’s at stake. It’s not even the belief thatone’s particular business is going to change the world, appealing though that idea may be. (Certainlymany dot-coms got their employees to work 80-hour weeks for more than just stock options – there was a realsense of being present at the revolution.)

No, moral vision in this context is the sense that by engaging in business, one is engaging in a fundamentallymoral enterprise. If successful, it will lead to the direct employment of many people, and the indirectemployment of many more. It will raise the standard of living of even more, both customers and employees.It will almost certainly lead to innovation, in the imagination or making of its products, or by some suppliereager to capture the company’s business. Michael Novak, in Business as a Calling and The Spiritof Democratic Capitalism argues that while the excessive love of money can corrupt, engaging in businessis a fundamentally virtuous pursuit. And belief in the rightness of what one is doing, not merely how one isdoing it, is the key to a moral vision.

The Future And Its Enemies

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Virginia Postrel

The Future, argues Virginia Postrel, is not static. It’s not discovered, it’s created.

The Clinton Administration sought to capture the public imagination about the future by alluding to the grand engineering projects of the past. “Bridge to the Future.” “Information Superhighway.” “Stairway to Heaven.” (Okay, maybe not the last one.) Postrel insists that these are exactly the wrong allusions. Stairways, if they’re built at all, should act like the ones at Hogwarts, although she’d probably claim that the castle itself was too static.

They also suggest another metaphor which Postrel finds problematic: the notion of an abyss between “the Past” and “the Future.” Yes, there’s a chasm between the way we live now and they way we lived 20 years ago. But we lived through the change, making incremental decisions along the way about what directions we would take new technologies. A bridge is the wrong metaphor because it denies the intermediate steps.

Postrel calls people who think this way “stasists” (not statists, like Communists, but stasists, as in, “static”). Opposed to them are the real engines of change, the dynamists.

Stasists want control an inherently uncontrollable outcome. They want to pick winners ahead of time, frequently out of the belief that they know who the winners should be. They’re not necessarily consciously opposed to change, just opposed to unknown change. In trying to manage and control change as it happens, stasists generally end up killing it. And so, they become the enemies of the future.

Dynamists embrace change. Not in the Clintonian way of killing it with kindness, but in all its messy unpredictability. Dynamists see the world as a self-learning system, building on itself through trial-and-error, through combining existing bits of knowledge in new and unexpected ways. What keeps us growing is free experimentation, and what keeps us experimenting is competition.

So far, so good. As Americans, we like to think that we all embrace these nostrums. Most of us see Jeremy Rifkin’s neo-Luddite fear-mongering for what it is. But lack of control is a harder sell that it might seem. We all dream of curing cancer, but resist bio-engineering and stem cell research. We like Free Trade, but also like the sound of Fair Trade. Do we long for hedge-fund-like returns? Of course. But maybe it’s a good idea if the SEC requires them to register, just the same. The Unknown Future is all right in abstract, but it takes real courage to look it in the eye and give up your favorite rules.

The Free Trade/Fair Trade debate illustrates the problem. Stasists have the stronger appeal to fear – they can point to concrete gains that may be lost by playing around with a good thing. Dynamists have a harder time. They can appeal to the fear of not gaining something, and more subtly, may be able to appeal to the fear of national decline. Their strongest appeal is to hope, and to love of knowledge. The problem is, while all the prizes of civilization have been gained this way, there’s no way to point to the next Big Thing with any certainly, no way to measure what you will have tomorrow that you didn’t have yesterday.

Consider Status vs. contract. Stasists like status – I sit because I’m white. Dynamists like contracts – I sit because I paid, even if 20 years ago I was someone else’s property. Stasists argue that contracts devalue people, destroying community and identity. In fact, contracts build community, because they require trust, and they require openly accessable courts for redress. Every business transaction requires an element of trust, and what is business, if not contracts?

Postrel closes with a chapter building on Daniel Boorstin’s “fertile verge,” those places of interface between different physical environments, or intellectual or cultural ideas. Cities not only encourage specialization, they put the specialists in close contact with one another. The Internet puts dissonant, or even seemingly irrelevant ideas cheek-by-jowl. One of the joys of reading the best bloggers is the odd, playful connections they come up with. She contrasts the “fertile verges” if the imagination with the “sterile verges” between interest group politics and stasist philosophy.

Postrel challenges all of the stasist orthodoxies, of the Left and Right. If there’s a flaw, it the traditional complaint about libertarians: they don’t really answer when we, as a society, have the right to conclude that an experiment may be popular but damaging. Still, her dichotomy is powerful. So powerful, that I have found myself reading the newspaper, from politics to business, through the dynamist/stasist lens. asking myself who’s playing what role. (Hint: Eliot Spitzer probably isn’t much of a dynamist.) There’s no question that for a society seeking to hold on to that all-too-fragile activity and creativity, the assumption should be dynamist, the burden of proof on the stasists.

Europe’s Last Summer

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by David Fromkin

World War I is arguably the major war both least interesting to and most important to Americans. It’s traditionally viewed here as a European Civil War that we tried mightily to stay out of. It’s frequently argued even now that our involvement was largely unnecessary, Zimmerman Telegram and unrestricted submarine warfare notwithstanding. It was not our great national crusade – that was WWII.

Still, World War I created the 20th Century. World War II, the Cold War, post-colonialism and the decline of Europe all flowed from it. It remains to most Americans a mystery as to why one of the greatest civilizations the world has seen plunged to its death over the murder of a middle European royal couple.

The traditional view of the war is well-known. Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by the Serbians. The crisis built through the Summer, as all Europe anticipated war. Austria moved against Serbia, Russia moved to defend its client, and the dominoes fell in rapid succession: Germany moved against Russia, France mobilized, Germany attacked France through Belgium, which brought in Britain.

David Fromkin’s thesis in Europe’s Last Summer is that Europe didn’t jump, it was pushed by Germany. And almost everything about that narrative is wrong.

Austria did not move quickly against Serbia – it took weeks to mobilize and fight. That delay, by an Austrian government too rickety to take decisive action, gave the German Foreign Office and General Staff the opening it needed to fight the war it wanted.

Germany was gripped by an existential crisis. The Junker ruling class knew that its days were numbered. It believed that if it didn’t fight a war, Germany would slide back from its status as primus inter pares in Europe, despite all signs to the contrary. It would need a larger army, whose numbers would swamp the traditional Junker leadership whose culture defined the military. The Army and the Foreign Office had both persuaded themselves that Germany needed to fight a war, sooner rather than later, in order to preserve its position in the world.

But how? It couldn’t just invade Russia or France. It needed a provocation. It needed to catch France unawares. Russia’s mobilization provided just such an opportunity. The original plan, hatched by Germany and Austria in secret, was for Austria to mobilize and crush Serbia, partitioning the country and eliminating a nationalist threat the Austria’s integrity. The world would allow Austria to act in what it would see as justified anger, believing that Austria wanted merely to punish Serbia.

By delaying, Austria gave Russia time to mobilize. Russia probably wouldn’t have gone to war, possibly not even against Austria. But the mobilization gave Germany the alignment of the stars it needed to fight its war. Austria needed to call off its war against Serbia, take the brunt of the Russian attack, let Germany knock out France and then turn to a weakened and diverted Russia.

Here’s where the secrecy came into play. In traditional histories, the storm clouds gather all throughout the summer. In fact, it was only just prior to the war that the rest of Europe realized it had a general crisis on its hands. The German-Austrian planning had been done in secret, and Germany’s threats to Russia were almost as much of a surprise to its Austrian ally as to the rest of Europe.

In effect, Fromkin says, there were two wars, not one. Germany persuaded Austria to let its war against Serbia take a back seat to Germany’s war against, well, everyone else. Ironically, the Kaiser desperately tried to avert war, almost succeeding at the last minute, but outmaneuvered by his own Foreign Office. The next time someone tries to tell you that the diplomatic corps just implements the executive’s policy, hand them a copy of this book.

So the mystery is solved. Europe didn’t go to war over two unloved highnesses. It went to war for the best and worst of reasons – who would dominate the continent.

Fromkin is a superb storyteller. After brief character sketches of the major players, he lets their actions define them. (He’s included a directory of names at the end of the book for reference.) I’m perfectly sane, but Fromkin builds suspense so well, noting points where war might have been averted, that I had to remind myself that, in fact, it was not averted. And Fromkin does something else original: he provides periodic resets of the situation, recapping the situation, how we got there, and what the countries and their agents were thinking. In a story as complex as this one, I’m surprised I had never seen that used before.

Fromkin makes full use of archival material that has been uncovered in the 40 years since Barbara Tuchman wrote The Guns of August. Fromkin is too smart to make arguments from silence, but one key supporting point is the unique thoroughness with which the Germans destroyed their own paperwork. They were the only country to do so. Ironically, one of the surviving memos is a letter from von Moltke, expressly taking the credit for starting the war.

The Outlaw Sea

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by William Langewiesche

We think of the ocean as being a lot like the land, only wetter. We can identify ships. They travel in well-established shipping lanes according to well-established timetables. The ships themselves are in good shape, subject to regular port inspections. They fly the flags of recognized countries, which are responsible for their registration, and they have home ports they come back to every so often. We think of ships as big, ocean-going trucks, maybe airplanes, that operate in a well-ordered system.

Not a chance, argues William Langewiesche, in The Outlaw Sea. Order may exist in ports, and the Coast Guard is trying hard to establish control of the coastline. But once you get about 10 miles out, utter chaos. Not only can’t we meaningfully reduce it, we’re King Canute trying to calm it before it sweeps into our ports and coastlines.

The maritime industry hides behind its bureaucracy. Ship owners may flag their ships under another country, whose registry is only an office in a third country. Ships needn’t even visit their home ports. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), publishes impressive-looking rule books for the maintenance and inspection of ships. Without enforcement authority to back them up, the books go pretty much ignored. Because of meaningless inspections, ships with perfect paperwork routinely break up at sea, killing their impoverished crews. Even giving the IMO enforcement powers wouldn’t help. It operates on an all-nations-as-equals system, and the countries that benefit from the current setup, raking in registration fees, finding employment for their people, far outnumber those who want to tidy things up.

The sheer size of the sea makes piracy a fact of life. Most pirates are still small-scale opportunists. But the biggest hauls come from international crime syndicates that put together teams in a few weeks. They scout the target, kill the crew, take the haul, and put into port where people don’t ask too many questions. Whole ships disappear and reappear under new names and flags. Of course, there’s nothing comparable on land, because ships don’t have VINs.

Huge percentages of the world’s shipping go through choke points vulnerable to attack. If some pirates are terrorists, so far it seems to be for profit, but there’s nothing stopping them from taking a floating bomb into a port and pulling a Halifax on New York Harbor. Bureaucrats in civilized countries may dream of putting tamper-proof seals on every ship coming into port. They forget that the sea’s a big, big place. If you want to put a bomb on a ship, you wouldn’t do it in a port. You’d do it at some GPS-enabled rendezvous point in the middle of the South Pacific. You’d bribe government officials to give you containers. You’d forge papers, manifests, or even entire seals.

And you’d blow up New York Harbor without a second thought.

Almost as important, the global economy is so tightly bound together that imposing requirements like that would be the global equivalent of putting a toll booth on the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour. It’d probably be more efficient to line the ships up, pave over the decks, anddrive the merchandise from Europe to America.

Like Langewiesche’s previous work, it’s well-written, and realistic. He focuses much more on reporting the story than on making presumptuous judgments on the people involved. One particularly detailed and gruesome account of an Estonian ferry accident, and the investigatory aftermath and nightmare takes on all angles, but probably could have been shorter. The descriptions of people waiting to die, of the breakdown of social order, of the utter chaos during a storm are chilling.

And fairly representative of the Lord-of-the-Flies world that the sea is.

What Went Wrong?

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Bernard Lewis

When Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared Western civilization “superior” to Islamic civilization, the vehemence of the reaction was in direct proportion to his accuracy. Mr. Berlusconi wasn’t commenting on the religious validity of Islam, but on the relative successes of Islamic society and Europe. Islam, despite having the dominant civilization for most of the Middle Ages, has been chasing Europe for almost 500 years, falling progressively further behind. The what went wrong informs Bernard Lewis’s lucid analysis of Western rise and Muslim eclipse over the last half-millennium.

What went wrong was a lack of freedom. The arbitrary, if not always centralized, power, of the Ottomans, the Shahs, and the Egyptian Pashas, bred fear of success, and thus also of innovation. No longer able to innovate for themselves, they chased the latest European developments. Governments forced change on an unwilling and unprepared citizenry.

By 1700, repeated losses on the battlefield had forced Islam into retreat. These losses continued despite the Ottomans’ successful efforts to beg, borrow, and steal Europe’s best military and industrial technology. Factories quickly became obsolete, and rusted away. Concern turned to alarm, and the Ottomans were forced to swallow the very bitter medicine of studying not only Europe’s technology, but their society as well.

Under European influence and sometimes by treaty, the Ottomans and much of Islam reluctantly removed or reduced the three institutionalized forms on inequality. They freed slaves, removed religious barriers in social and economic life, and, belatedly and incompletely, freed women from their second-class status. The economy never really relied on slavery, and freedom for women is still an open question. But the dissolution of the separate official religious communities forced everyone into unsettled and uncertain relationships.

Simultaneously, the Ottomans engaged in another destructive experiment, taking in the twin Trojan Horses of nationalism and patriotism modeled after French Revolutionary ideas. Nationalism in the Balkans only fueled Christian attempts to rid themselves of what they saw as oppressive foreign Muslim domination. It also proved a destructive force within Islam, creating for the first time a separate “Egyptian” identity. Ottoman patriotism merely proved sterile.

From the 1850s to the interwar European protectorates, governments tried to impose parliaments. But Sultans, Pashas, and Shahs dissolved them when they become too troublesome. Strongmen hijacked them when the French and British left.

In The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, Lewis discusses the different and sometimes conflicting religious, political, and social identities of its residents. Europe made the transition from Medieval religious identities to modern ones on its own, although not always smoothly. Islam has found itself behind the curve, lacking the freedom and flexibility to develop new ones to accommodate changing identities. Changes from above or outside merely served to disrupt, without delivering more innovation or success. Now, the challenge is to make older identities, religion and language, work within structures built to accommodate newer ones, such as nation and country.

Century after century, Muslim leaders found themselves chasing the latest developments in the West, trying to impose from above what the West had developed organically from below. It is precisely the same pattern as the old Soviet Union, that of a sclerotic society, no longer capable of innovation, trying to compete by copying, but unable to skip steps in its development. Unwilling to accept the price of a free society, they have also forfeited its benefits.

Lewis’s clarity of thought translates into clarity of writing. His analysis is cool, level-headed, and sympathetic. He judges Muslim civilization of the last half-millennium not harshly or arbitrarily, but on Western standards that Islam itself has accepted. Read along with his defense of Western academic study of Muslim civilization in Islam and the West, it makes one wonder why anyone takes Edward Said seriously.

The frequent overlap among his books only emphasizes the fantastic breadth and depth of his understanding of Muslim civilization. A paragraph in one book turns into a chapter in another; a chapter turns into a whole book. What Went Wrong? provides not only a summary of the last 500 years of Muslim decline, but also a fine jumping-off point for those who want to learn more.

Talmudic Images

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Adin Steinsaltz is one of the most versatile and wide-ranging writers in Judaism today. In areligion that places a premium on learning, his works are all geared to teaching andencouraging a general audience. After several books on chasidic thought, he returns to theTalmud with a series of character sketches, Talmudic Images.

The Talmud is both the source and the model for the Jewish “Great Conversation” of religious,social, and philosophical ideas, and the rabbis are its earliest participants. Its associativeorganization and detailed debates often leave one confused. The rabbis can seem mere namesattached to this opinion or that. The text treats them as if they all knew one another, eventhose living centuries apart. It is easy to forget that they were actual people, distinctivein both circumstance and temperament. As in his previous book, Biblical Images, Steinsaltz tries to bring their individual personalities into relief.

This idea is not entirely new. Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf fictionalizes thelife of Elisha ben Avuyah. But Steinberg admits that he changes or ignores aggadic accountsto suit his story.

By contrast, Steinsaltz’s sketch is rigorously faithful to the Talmudic text, trying to accountfor all the evidence presented therein. However, he is not writing a reference book, such asShulamis Friedman’s Who’s Who in the Talmud. Steinsaltz’s book is comprehensive intime and geography, chronologically profiling Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis over a periodof 400 years.

We get to know a wide cast of characters. While most of us have heard of Hillel, Shammai, andAkiva, the majority of talmudic discussions are actually driven by debates between Rabbi Yohananand Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, or Resh Lakish.

When Resh Lakish is living in the world of the professional gladiator, Rabbi Yohanan has established himself as a leading scholar. Their meeting, a test of wills, and Rabbi Yohanan’ssuccess in luring Resh Lakish back to the study house, is among the most dramatic in aggadicliterature. Their story of their deaths is among the most tragic. As they studied andargued, they fueled one of the most creative periods in rabbinic history.

Fittingly, Steinsaltz finishes with Rav Ashi, the last of the Talmudic rabbis, and traditionallyregarded as its initial redactor. While the reduction of the Oral Law to written text hadbegun several centuries previous, with the Mishnah and Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the Oral traditionhad remained substantially memorized. Writing it down must have been as wrenching a decisionfor Rav Asi as it had been for Rabbi Judah. The style and content of the Talmud reflect RavAshi’s conscious attempt to determine not only the proper subjects for future debate, but alsothe form that debate should take.

Steinsaltz walks a fine line in these essays. He manages to give the rabbis the benefit of thedoubt without glossing over or rationalizing their flaws. Doing so would defeat his purpose,placing Talmud study beyond the abilities of the average student.

As an aide, the Talmudic sources appear fully quoted in extensive footnotes. From these,Steinsaltz is able to synthesize convincing and realistic portraits.

North Star Over My Shoulder: A Flying Life

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Robert Buck

If anyone is qualified to write a history of piloting, it is Robert Buck. Lindbergh inspired him to start flying, and he still glides and flies near his Vermont home. He’s been writing about flying since before World War II and is the author of the definitive pilot’s guide to flying through weather.

The story of flight in the 20th Century is largely one of the progressive obviation of skills. Technology advanced so quickly that many skills and technologies that were essential in the 1930s are obsolete.

Buck had tremendous longevity, and seniority frequently placed him among the first pilots to use new technology or fly new routes. Still, he rejects the title “pioneer,” reserving that for those like Antoine de St. Exupery, author of The Little Prince, philosopher, and early mail pilot. “St.-Ex” had to fly unreliable craft over hostile territory. Buck may have had piston engines, but the price of a breakdown was rarely death. Even his wartime flying was through Allied or neutral airspace.

Technology has separated the pilot from his environment. For one thing, weather no longer invades the cockpit, like in the DC-2. For another thing, we fly over most of it. A jet pilot flies through the airspace, rather than over the ground. The jet created “flyover country.” Before jets, out where I live, it was more like “fly-into country.”

In the early days, the airlines made their money carrying mail. Pilots took risks that general aviation pilots today, with better equipment, would never consider responsible, or the FAA legal. They flew through weather, without proper instruments or knowledge of how best to use the ones they had, hoping to peek through the clouds to see where they were. While Buck minimizes the fatalities from this sort of thing, William Langewiesche’s fine article, “The Turn,” in Inside the Sky, explains how sightless flight was made safe, and the foolish pride that kept it unsafe for so long.

For a jet flight, the only ground weather that matters is near the airports. The upper atmosphere matters more, primarily for fuel efficiency. An eastward flight will get a tailwind from the jet stream. A jet engine is most efficient at cooler temperatures. The pilot seeks the tropopause, where the ground atmosphere, or troposphere, meets the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere, and temperature is at a minimum.

As propellers were on their way out, during and immediately after World War II, Buck captained a specially-equipped B-17 around the world in search of bad weather. Its purpose was to research precipitation static, which interrupted communications. Buck learned a lot about flying more safely into thunderstorms, a major source of static. No doubt this experience led to Buck’s best-known book, Weather Flying, still in print after 30 years. The primary research was quickly made unnecessary. FM radio got rid of the static, and jet planes climb past storms altogether.

Improvements in navigation have also separated pilots from external cues. Navigation began with mechanical flight calclators, fixed landmarks, ambiguous radio beacons, and celestial navigation. No small part of Lindbergh’s achievement was his navigation over thousands of miles of water. As high-frequency began to give both directional and distance information, reference to maps became less frequent. Now, GPS displays a map with the plane’s position and direction.

In one of those seemingly frequent confluences of diverse technologies, pilots were allowed to stop looking at the ground just when they could no longer see it.

Buck’s storytelling parallels these changes, talking progressively less about the mechanics of flying and more about the trips themselves. We hear more about France, Switzerland, and Israel, and less about weather, fuel requirements, and engine reliability. Tyrone Power, it turns out, was fairly down-to-earth, and a pretty good pilot, to boot. Howard Hughes really was nuts.

Disappointingly, Buck sometimes uses flying terminology without explaining it first. Anyone who doesn’t know beforehand what compass lag is, what flaps do, or what carburetor ice can do to an engine, may find himself scratching his head. Having gone to such lengths to establish the book for the layman, Buck should have been more careful not to assume his readers would have an aeronautical dictionary close at hand.

Robert Buck saw up close the maturation of the aircraft and the airlines. At a time when politicians are calling general aviation a threat to the nation’s security, some perspective is in order. This book is as good a place to start as any.

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Rabbi Ira F. Stone

Rabbi Ira F. Stone of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, has been leading Talmud discussions for many years, basing his interpretive style on that of the great French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas, long known in Europe, has recently become the subject of intense American scholarly interest. And while many of Levinas’s works have been available in translations for years, Stone’s Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud is the first major effort to explain him to the general public.

Rabbi Stone begins with a “Levinasian Dictionary,” intended to convey the main thrust of Levinas’s philosophy. In this he succeeds well, given his limited space.

Levinas was highly critical of the path of Western philosophy. He believed that it was too inclined to try to explain everything by comprehensive systems of thought. He also believed that it concentrated too much on the self, the individual consciousness, and its being. Levinas saw the antidote to these problems in the argumentative, often inconclusive style of the Talmud, and its emphasis on responsibilities to others. His task was to translate Talmudic thought into the language of Western thought.

Levinas wrote in a dense style, almost impenetrable to casual readers, and even to many serious ones. More accessible are his shorter articles on Talmudic subjects. For these, Levinas would take a sugya, or subject of discussion, and interpret it as a metaphor for philosophical inquiry. The result is a series of brilliant lectures that are well worth the effort to understand. About 14 of them have been published in two books, Nine Talmudic Readings and Beyond the Verse.

Rabbi Stone takes us through this process as he practices it, with a short example. He brings with him immense respect for the text on its own terms. And in doing so, he raises the stakes in Talmus study. No longer is the game only to understand the legal arguments. Now, we also try to understand the larger points the Rabbis were making about our relationship to God, the world, and each other.

Make no mistake: this interpretive reading makes rigor and detail all the more important. Every Biblical reference and its context, every argument followed, and every argument not followed, frame the debate. The whole enterprise becomes much more alive.

Stone might have taken several of Levinas’s articles and explained them. Certainly they would have given us legitimate insight into Levinas’s ideas. Instead, Stone chose his own sugyot, and his own interpretations of them, leaving us to wonder what Levinas himself thought. The end result is a conceptual disconnect. Having spent half the book persuading us to care about Levinas, Stone delivers himself instead.

At this point, a reader familiar with the text might be advised to pick up some of Levinas’s original lectures on his own. However, Rabbi Stone’s own articles are both short enough and substantial enough to interest and encourage the beginner. Any reader should come away wanting to study more, and wanting to learn more about this remarkable and original philosopher.

Semites and Anti-Semites

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
Comments Disabled

by Bernard Lewis

One might think that a 1999 book about the Middle East would be hopelessly overtaken by events. Truly surprising is that a book originally written in 1987 would be so up-to-date. Even then, he noted things that journalists are only now beginning to cite: the growing menace of religious radicalism, replacing nationalism and Marxism, its extensive Saudi support, and the Arab penchant for saying one thing in Englishand another in Arabic. Reading Semites and Anti-Semites now, one understands why Mr. Lewis has gone from being ignored by Middle Eastern Studies departments to being the Dean of that discipline.

“Semitic” was originally a linguistic term, describing Middle Eastern languages. One hears that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic, they themselves being Semites. Leaving aside the questionable psychology, it’s clear there are Arabs, many writing newspaper articles and conducting diplomacy, who are Anti-Jewish. anti-Semitic has become a synonym for Anti-Jewish. Thus are semantic evasions demolished.

The one, indisputable fact is that Arab anti-Semitism traces back to the European strain. European anti-Semitism itself evolved from a religious resentment of alleged deicide into an ineradicable racial hatred. The turning point was the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jewish ancestry itself first became reason for suspicion. By the time Europe developed a theory of race, the ground had been prepared.

It is at this point, in 1840 that the Passover blood libel makes its first appearance in Damascus, Syria. Even if the Muslims had no reason to pick up on the story, for the first time, the ideas became current and available in the Ottoman Empire.

While there was a kernel of anti-Jewishness within Islam itself, the elements were weak and unimpressive. The Jews of Palestine were supposed to have tried to crucify Jesus, but were thwarted by God, a superior schemer. The Jews of Medina were duplicitous, but ultimately ineffective and unimportant in their opposition to Muhammad. Neither episode is dwelled upon at length. Both the Jews and the Christians were tolerated, but with a diminished status, that of dhimmi, recipients of previously valid but eventually corrupted monotheistic revelation.

This changed with the Zionist movement. In the past, dhimmi communities that overstepped their bounds were quickly disciplined. But with Palestine in British hands, Muslims were powerless this time. The loss of Muslim land was troubling in any event, but its loss to a people caricatured as cowardly was intolerably humiliating. Much of the Arab intelligentsia and religious elite seized on European Jewish-conspiracy theories as the explanation. Fed by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and nursed by Der Sturmer, the notion of Jewish Evil implanted itself in the Arab consciousness.

Lewis carefully distinguishes between legitimate political differences and outright anti-Semitism. He defines “legitimate grievances” as broadly as possible. Almost any political dispute qualifies. But amid the rhetoric of national struggle and countries at war, he discerns tell-tale signs of an emerging anti-Semitism. The Arab use of and attempts to influence Christian theology stand out sharply. (Both Muslim and Christian Arabs opposed the Vatican II declaration absolving Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus.) The role of the Jews as enemies of Muhammad has greatly expanded. Jewish conspiracies have gone from worldly and mundane to cosmic and Satanic.

Lewis also notes, this 15 years ago, the growing double-standard among the academic Left, one that reserves its only passion for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a world awash in such conflicts. It also uniformly blames the more civilized, Westernized side for that conflict, and objects only to its offenses. That trend has overflowed its banks to swallow much of European politics and American journalism.

We have seen the fruits of this pernicious hatred again in our lifetimes. While most of us were caught by surprise, Mr. Lewis was onto the game early, but was long ignored in the name of “peace.” Fortunately, we now have to chance to start paying attention.