Review: War Dances

September 8th, 2019

I really enjoy and appreciate Sherman Alexie’s poetry and short work that I’ve read. War Dances feels much the same as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in all the right ways.

I don’t have much else to say.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Private Empire

August 30th, 2019

Private Empire is a well-reported history of ExxonMobil’s history between the Exxon Valdez disaster and the first term of the Obama administration. Steve Coll does a fairly even-handed job of both documenting the corporate actions and animating them with the personalities who drive them.

One cannot approach the history of a corporation that acts on the scale of a nation in without some bias, but Coll is even handed enough that I believe that I got a clearer sense of the motivations of the players in the corporation. I came away with two insights: ExxonMobil policy is driven as much by the personalities of the executives who steer it as by the structure of the industry and market it exists in.

The corporation projects the economic mass of a nation channeled by a single industry and market. The industry leads the corporation to search into places with oil that one can get at. Getting at oil includes at least geology, changing technology, the government (or other organization) that controls the legal claims to that geology, and the public relations of getting access to it and selling it. As complex as the problem is, that is much more constrained than what drives nations. Under those constraints oil companies act in a pretty broad range of ways.

Coll argues that the personalites of the executives steer those actions. Over this period ExxonMobil was headed by basically two people: Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson. Their mix of aggressive drive and Boy Scout upbringing led to more nuanced responses to their problems. The company’s expansion (including merging with Mobil) and geopolitical adventures (including responding to kidnappings and pulling a legal heist on the nation of Venezuela) are surprising in ways I approve and disapprove of. I understand them better having read this.

Seeing Tillerson as a cross between Boy Scout and Robber Baron makes his tenure as Secretary of State pretty surreal.

Recommended.

Chino and Cable

August 17th, 2019

I took some time Friday afternoon to polish take-offs and landings. I rambled off to the very hospitable Chino (KCNO) airport for practice and Cable (KCCB) for lunch. The last time I was out doing instrument practice, a couple of my roll-outs were wobbly. My safety pilot was happy to make excuses for me, but I try to be honest with myself on these things.

Chino is a lively GA airport with a couple parallel runways and active flight schools, so they were quite able to accommodate me. I flew out of Santa Monica, where they bill you by the landing, and tucked into the pattern at Chino, where they’re free.

Chino is home to at least two air museums: Planes of Fame and Yanks. I mention it both because I’m a member and supporter of Planes of Fame and I got to share the pattern with Yanks 1936 Lockheed Electra. What a beautiful plane. I took a couple pictures of it, and it’s something to see in motion.

I was trying out two things: flap use on take-off and landing roll-outs. The flap use is recommended in the Viking POH, though not by my transition instructor. The POH recommends the flaps to keep a less nose-up attitude during take-off. After trying a few, it is noticeably different and visibility is arguably better. It’s also closer to the attitude on a go-around, which seems to make that process a little safer. I got to test that when I miscalculated how long the Electra would be on the runway. I’ll keep playing with it.

The roll-outs were trickier. The Viking is squirrely enough on the ground that it’s worth keeping current with its handling. I used to be more aware of it on the take-off roll, but I’ve gotten very used to that. I think that made me more complacent on roll-out. Today’s practice got me more focused on it and my roll-outs were markedly improved.

Um, except for the one at Cable. Sigh.

Cable remains a great little uncontrolled – er, untowered – field. Maniac Mike’s seems to be undergoing a renovation. It was open, though, and I got a decent meal. Sadly the patio was closed, so I didn’t get to sit out there.

Winds were getting more variable when I got back to SMO, but the approach and landing were fine.

Review: Manuscript Found

August 17th, 2019

Literary sources abound in the modern world. This book came to me as a Patreon perk from Nathaniel Lloyd’s Historical Blindness podcast. His podcast is worth its own review, but not here.

Manuscript Found is a historical novel told with a metafictive bent. Lloyd is writing a novel about Joseph Smith and the founding documents of Mormonism. He’s also commenting on both the contents of the historical record and how an author – or historian – injects their views into their writings. It’s a nice mix, though it can be a little dry and subtle.

Lloyd braids this with a thread about authors of documents exposing the workings of Masonry. I find that choice to be illuminating. Revealing the workings of a secret society and presenting the foundations of a religion that is particularly shrouded in silence raise questions about how each arise and address the release of them. Alongside that he presents other protagonists’ involvement with the Underground Railroad. The Railroad is another secretive historical society whose motivations for secrecy are driven primarily by practicality.

His use of a fictional historian relating the workings and motivations of those groups fleshes the ideas even a bit more. He challenges many preconceptions about history and people through the historian’s voice.

I found it very intellectually challenging and thought provoking, though less emotionally engaging than some. I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter’s fiction. I admire the thinking and structure behind it, but wold love some more dynamism.

Stopping by Camarillo on a Summer Day

August 3rd, 2019

I had an opportunity to stop in at Camarillo Airport‘s Waypoint Cafe after doing some pattern work at San Gabriel Valley Airport (the former El Monte Airport), and I’m happy I did.

I’ve long been a fan of Camarillo Airport in general and its restaurant in particular. The airport’s community has been a thriving and vibrant one as long as I’ve been flying in SoCal. The Waypoint was always a great stop or lunch destination. Good food and weekend tri-tip barbequeues were big draws for me. A few years ago someone bought the place and the lines started getting longer. I haven’t been in a while because as Yogi says “No one goes there anymore, it’s too popular.” I figured that on a Friday the place might be slower than on a weekend.

The traffic pattern was pretty packed. That was great fun. The tower controllers were a joy to watch work. They were working probably 6-8 folks in the pattern along with transients incoming and outgoing. There was a helicopter making circuits as well. This is a lively place.

(Incidentally, San Gabriel was also hopping. Not as busy, but the controllers were conducting it all well. The hospitality and professionalism was top rate as always – as our traffic controllers so often are.)

I was wrong about the restaurant being slower. I got there around noon and there was a line. They have a counter, though and the woman running the joint – a maitre ‘d in a more pretentious place – pointed me at it when I asked about the line. It was much more a come-on-over than a we-offer-this-service tone. That welcome got warmer the longer I was there.

Incidentally, the folks waiting weren’t suffering. There were beautiful places to sit that overlook the ramp and the airplanes and complimentary refreshments. I was tempted to wait anyway.

The counter folks were super friendly and attentive. I never had an empty glass or anything else missing. The food was all delicious and the biscuit fantastic. The place was packed and everyone had time to be cheerful, helpful, and kind.

Perhaps even better, everyone else eating at the counter seemed to know everyone working behind it. That kind of community of regulars is a ringing endorsement of a restaurant – especially an airport restaurant. This is a thriving place that opened its arms to me. I’m no one special, so I expect that they do so for everyone. If you’re in the area, try it out for yourself, pilot or no.

It was sobering to return to Santa Monica. My home airport was once that vibrant (and had good food as well) but the city voters decided to use the land our community lived on for other things. That’s their right, of course, but I miss the hum.

Review: The History Of White People

July 7th, 2019

As titles go, The History Of White People, is pretty confrontational. Nell Irvin Painter is definitely issuing a challenge with it, though one can choose to fight her, wrestle with the works she does, or with your own preconceptions. I advocate a bit of all three.

The history one hears is shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of the tellers. For many, this makes history – told with any passion or even sense of narrative at all – more engaging and illuminating than even the intricate nuts and bolts description of the technical systems that power the world. (The styles and content of technical and historical works do overlap and the best and worst of the two broad areas cross over.) Because histories can engage intellect and passion together, they can motivate readers to learn more and take action like few other writings. Readers need to remember that first sentence – all humans who write history bring their perspective to it. I can easily forget that, so I remind myself whenever I can.

I mention all that to underscore my admiration for Painter’s title. When a Black historian who is proudly African American releases a work with that title, she puts her ambitions and perspective squarely on the table. Painter is famous enough that she doesn’t need to be so brash just to sell books or gain attention. I take it to be a declaration of boldness framed with historical responsibility.

Painter certainly writes from her advertised position, recognizing that having come to fight she needs to support her positions carefully and with direct and clear connections to the original sources. She does so with aplomb and accuracy; her scholarship seems compelling.

I find her arguments to be generally sound and interesting. Her detailed and compelling deconstruction of the stunningly broad range of eugenic race theory is rich in detail and merciless in prosecution. Given how subjective and malicious this body of work is, this is shooting fish in a barrel. She expands her assessment into the literary and historical – giving Emerson a few sharp kicks in the shins that challenges the reader to reassess his writing and biases. She convinced me that there’s a fair amount more bathwater around Emerson’s babies than I remember. If and when I wade back into those tubs, I’ll be looking with a more jaundiced eye.

Her writing style is well suited to this kind of exploration and challenge. She writes clearly and precisely, connecting solidly to primary sources and also providing the occasional cutting comments that remind readers how biased and self-serving the overall picture is. I imagine that some will find her style dry, but I respect the tightrope she walks. For my money, the writing matches perfectly.

Recommended.

Review: The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet

July 6th, 2019

I picked this up as a result of an offhand recommendation on the History Is Sexy podcast, and I’m pretty happy I did. It’s somewhat off my usual path, even in the scope of SF. It’s space opera writ small in that we see operatic machinations from a ground-level view. Becky Chambers handles it all deftly.

World building gets great respect from some SF fans, me often included. These days I tend to value world building that forms a milieu that frames the societal or technical aspects of the world that are the target of the author’s themes. Chambers brings just the right amount of detail to her world to make it believable and habitable without making it so complex that it is distracting. Her universe abstracts ours to make her characters and their trials and tribulations shine.

Her focus is on the people who are making a living by trading in an opening galaxy, the bonds they form as they ply their trade, and the ways that big events toss them about. It’s quite a refreshing approach. She makes our society alien enough to see in new ways and familiar enough to be relatable. It’s quite a joy to bond with the family taking shape even as it continues to evolve.

Recommended.

Review: Operation Mincemeat

June 21st, 2019

I am a pretty big fan of history, but I find myself gravitating to the histories that cover longer timeframes or individual lifetimes. A friend recommended Ben MacIntyre’s history of a classic act of disinformation, Operation Mincemeat which is neither. I went in with a bit of trepidation.

I should not have worried. MacIntyre’s writing is extremely engaging and lively. He coveys the idea that a team of eccentric, mostly patriotic, enthusiastic British intelligence officers came up with an idea just crazy enough to work that would enable one of the key landings in WWII. He balances the giddy rush of lets-put-on-a-show with the tension of a tight Mission Impossible episode. Also Weekend At Bernie’s.

MacIntyre has been writing about British Intelligence long enough to have found some of the most colorful members of it. There’s something inherently charming about a team that includes Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene – skilled intelligence experts who are also talented writers. None of those folks are center stage of Mincemeat, but the folks who are involved have their own quirk and wit. And conflicted motivations. MacIntyre tells their story whimsically and with scholarly backing.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Apocalypse Codex

June 15th, 2019

Back to The Laundry.

My admiration for Charles Stross’s work in general and the Laundry books specifically is sizable and enduring. I love the mix of spy thriller, horror, and organization management review. All the computer science, networking, IT, and aviation references help a lot, of course. Great fun for me.

The Apocalypse Codex shows off Stross’s world-building and attention to the clockwork of plot. I didn’t come away with the same feeling of gleeful pastiche that I have in other Laundries, but I came away with a deeper understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes in the world.

One way that manifests itself is in Stross’s understanding and explication of the world of megachurches, both functionally and philosophically. The view is – perhaps surprisingly – sympathetic. The details of the way the church administration blends faith and business practices are clear and believable. It extends to the implicit comparison with the application of similar constraints and techniques inside the Laundry. Some of these practices and motivations are inherently exploitative. Stross lets neither organization off the hook for that. The social criticism of both Megachurches and National Intelligence Services is subtle, but pointed.

Meanwhile, Bob Howard is becoming a more mature and responsible manager of people and himself. Stross blends the natural ripening of a human with the guidance and discipline of the (faith-influenced?) organizational management styles in believable ways that are enjoyable, subtle, and worth reflection.

Finally, there are some plot twists for the series that make one gasp in the how-did-I-miss-that way that great spy writers can pull off.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Always Running

April 15th, 2019

Crux was a memoir that derived its impact from the literary framing that Guerrero put on her family’s story. In Always Running, Luis Rodriguez comes at his memoir from another direction. He tells his story plainly – starkly in places. That clean, simple approach lets his times and his perspective imbue his experience with heft and meaning.

Rodriguez writes crisply and evocatively without poetical flourishes that might distract from his narrative. Much of his point is that so many shared his circumstances and faced their own difficulties, victories, and tragedies all around him. Directly relating his life and the others it touches magnifies it.

That said, the differences that inspire him to challenge his readers and his society are all the more powerful because they seem so small at first. A few little choices mean the difference between a life of petty violence and a life of social reform. His life and his friends’ lives are continually balanced on a razor’s edge.

Recommended.