Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Some Light Reading for Our Second Guilded Age


Coming soon to C-suite office bookshelves and rich dads’ Father’s Day lists: Jet Dreams (Baseturn, $120 US), an illustrated tribute to owner-flown jets and their illustrious owners. Author Jessica Ambats features forty “plucky” CEOs who have acquired Embraers, decommissioned fighter planes, and other luxury aircraft and learned how to pilot them. In some cases, when they or the author wanted to take dramatic multi-aircraft photos, the owners graciously allowed ex-fighter jocks to fly their dream vehicles, confining themselves to riding shotgun.

This one's for you, Junior Birdman.

Ambats adduces several reasons why chief executive officers might want to buy and fly jets, including childhood wish-fulfillment, bonding with millionaire dads, undertaking charitable works for cougars, and getting away from it all. Thorsten Veblen, I dare say, could have identified several more, but then he couldn’t even have afforded a piddling Cirrus Vision SF50, the cheapest private jet on the market.


Incidentally, for the cost of that Cirrus (about $2,500,000 US), one could buy a pretty nice house in these here parts - 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, lakeside view, perhaps a private boat slip. Or one could pick up nine or ten gently-used Cessna 172 Skyhawks and fly forty friends and relatives to their favorite sportsball game. Or one could take 50-60,000 people out to dinner at Olive Garden (reservations recommended). The more pragmatic millionaire could simply buy something more personally useful, like a Congressman.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

In the Army Now

When in 1948 the American ambassador to Egypt, Stanton Griffis, asked for an estimate of army strength in a nearby Southwest Asian country*, his attache replied “five thousand men under arms, half…usually absent without leave, and other half looking for them. When they find them they change places.” This seems an eminently sensible strategy to me, applicable to service in many non-military institutions as well.


Sources: Stanton Griffis, Lying in State (1952), p. 215; Douglas Dixon, Beyond Truman: Robert Ferrell and Crafting the Past (Lanham, MD, 2020), 135.


* The ambassador did not identify the country in question, but I suspect it was Lebanon, whose army was then new, small, and underfunded.



Monday, January 30, 2023

Take That, You Tower-Building Fiends

 The Eiffel Tower, most iconic of Paris’s monuments, has no obvious function beyond holding up an expensive restaurant and thousands of bewildered tourists. It also has no obvious significance. Notre Dame attests to the legitimizing relationship between the national government and God Almighty. The Arc de Triomphe celebrates the victories of France’s greatest general. Sacré Coeur Basilica expresses the Third Republic’s regrets for letting the proles get out of hand in 1871. The celebrated tower, however, says nothing except “Look at me, for I am tall.” Tourist oriented media identify two primary goals of Gustav Eiffel and his construction company: to demonstrate the capabilities of steel frame architecture, and to adorn the 1889 Paris exposition. Simon Winder argues, however (in Lotharingia [2019], p. 469, n.13.1), that the Tower’s great height, and the message it sent to a certain neighboring country, were its real purposes.

In the late nineteenth century France and Germany undertook an extended pissing contest over which nation had the tallest building in the world. France had held that rank since Louis XIV occupied Strasbourg (1681), whose cathedral’s spire rose to 142 meters. Germany took the record-setting building when it annexed Strasbourg, along with the rest of Alsace, in 1871. Unable to make good the loss of national territory, French builders redressed the new Franco-German height imbalance by completing the hideous metal spire of Rouen Cathedral (1876), height 151 meters. Germany riposted with Cologne Cathedral, whose *two* spires reached 157 meters upon completion in 1880. The Eiffel Tower, at 300 meters nearly twice as tall as its predecessor, represented a giant raised middle finger to German architects: “Follow that, you silly bastards.”

Strasbourg Cathedral, where all the trouble started.

France eventually lost the world height record to the Americans, upon completion of the Chrysler Building (319m) in 1930. By then the Republic had recovered Alsace and Strasbourg Cathedral, the start of the whole architectural arms race, in the First World War. It’s a pity that the French and Germans didn’t continue to sublimate their geographical rivalry into a tower-and-skyscraper contest, but I suppose they didn’t think a protracted phallus-calibrating contest was manly enough.

1889 view of the A Bas les Allemands Tower.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

What I've Been Reading

Herewith, some of the more memorable books Your Humble Narrator read this year:


The Ballad of Black Tom: Say what you will about Cthulhu, at least he isn’t a damn racist.


Between Two Fires: Demonic hordes invade western Europe during the Black Death. Piling on, one might say. This is - no lie - the best fantasy novel I’ve read since N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season.


Danubia: Essentially, the Habsburgs were all magic-users.


The Dawn of Everything: Very long, and not entirely convincing. But Graeber and Wengrow have persuaded me that inequality is not a prerequisite for complex societies.


Echogenesis: A crashed-spaceship story infused with eau d’Edge of Tomorrow. All of the parts are derivative, but the execution is original.


Invisible Sun: Stross didn’t want to write this novel, but he did so anyway, and did so competently. Yay?


Lost Tribes Found: The “Indians are the Ten Lost Tribes” trope was invented by whites but employed by some Native Americans for political reasons.


Midwest Futures: The Midwest has always been a Gernsbackian sci-fi story disguised as a self-satisfied just-so story.


Ogres: Another “is it sci-fi or fantasy?” mystery. Well plotted and a quick read.


The Power Broker: “Baby Screamed; Rat in Crib” should have been Robert Moses’ epitaph.


Saga, volume 10: Superbly written; worth the three-year wait.


Superman: Red Son: This is the only Superman movie I’d willingly watch.


Tobacco Road: Reading this was like spending all night in a cheap brothel, then taking a bath in a pig wallow.


Walking to Aldebaran: A science-fictional First Contact story meets Dungeons and Dragons, with lots of bloody body-horror mixed in. Whoever is re-making Alien should film this instead.


William Howard Taft: Several American presidents didn’t really want the office. Taft was one. What he really wanted was a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. And so it came to pass.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Any Good News in 2022?

Courtesy of Future Crunch, here is a selection of good-news stories from the past year. Most did not make it into mainstream media (whatever that means nowadays), because good news is generally statistical, while bad news - “powerful people behaving badly,” “something went wrong” - often takes the form of a narrative. We like a good story, even if it makes us feel terrible. These stories are drier, but won’t leave the reader feeling helpless and hopeless.


Africa: Morocco expanded paid paternity leave to 15 days. Niger has reclaimed 400,000 hectares of desert land under the multi-national Green Wall project. Benin legalized abortion. Sierra Leone’s president announced the allocation of 22 percent of next year’s budget to education. Togo announced eradication of four tropical diseases, including trachoma and trypanosomiasis. The Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Zambia outlawed the death penalty. Rwandan hospitals used drones to make 250,000 medical deliveries.

Students in Sierra Leone. Credit: The Guardian


Asia: As of 2020, 97 percent of India’s households have access to electricity. The Philippines banned child marriage. “You’ll have to go to the United States for that sort of thing,” officials in Manila reportedly said. In China, the city of Chaozhou is planning a 43 GW wind farm in the Taiwan Strait. Thailand legalized medical marijuana.


Europe: Several large western European countries have announced plans to replace home gas boilers with heat pumps and boost wind turbine construction. A certain Russian president may have had something to do with this. Poland accepted over two million refugees from the Ukraine war. 92 Saimaa seal pups were born in Finland. Seville, Spain is building underground canals to help cool the city. London turned seven billion lbs. of earth from the Elizabeth Line excavation into a wetland bird sanctuary. British firms announced an increase in productivity from their experimental four-day work week; four out of five plan to continue the experiment voluntarily.

Saimaa seal stamp (Wikimedia)


North America: Canada approved psilocybin and MDMA as psychiatric drugs. Canada also announced plans to increase annual immigration to 500,000 by 2025. I don’t know if these stories are related. The following two might be: solar power capacity in the United States has risen 2,000 percent since 2011, and Duke Energy announced it will fully exit coal-fired power generation by 2035. The American Inflation Reduction Act allocated about $40 billion for conservation. The Snoqualmies bought 12,000 acres of ancestral land in Washington state. Five other Native nations partnered with the U.S. to manage Bears Ears National Monument. Colorado, California, and Maine will provide free school meals to all public-school students. California announced plans to manufacture insulin for state residents. In Mexico, same-sex marriage is now legal in all states, and bullfighting is illegal.

Bear's Ears Natl. Monument (Wikimedia)


South America: Lula defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election. This is unqualified good news for the whole planet. Also in Brazil, the golden lion tamarin has been saved from extinction. The Rainforest Trust protected one million more acres of tropical forest in Ecuador, Central America, and southeast Asia.

I AIN'T DEAD YET (Wikimedia)


The World at Large: Artemis I successfully launched and rounded the Moon in November. Global child mortality reportedly dropped from twelve to five million between 1990 and 2020. The Intl Energy Agency reports that renewable and nuclear power now employ more people globally than fossil fuels. In Australia, ranchers are raising asparagopsis seaweed as an additive to cattle feed. It will reduce methane omissions by up to 95 percent and make cows more comfortable in social situations.


Artemis I heads to the Moon (Wikimedia)


Monday, October 31, 2022

No Amount of Praise Is Ever Enough


Longtime fans of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight will recall his episode (12 Aug. 2019) on Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the incumbent autocrat of Turkmenistan. President Berdimuhamedov’s egotism and eccentricities - including his single-minded love of horses -  and his cavalier attitude (cough) toward civil liberties seem fairly typical of post-Soviet dictators. What Oliver failed to capture in his segment was the modesty and transparency of Mr. Berdimuhamidov’s regime when compared to that of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, alias Turkmenbashi. At some point in his career, someone must have handed Comrade Niyazov a biography of Caligula and challenged him to outdo the mad emperor in sheer dictatorial excess. Turkmenbashi did so. During his fifteen-year reign (1991-2006), the Autocrat of All the Turkmen made these contributions to the annals of megalomania:


1 Added “the Great” to his official name, and claimed descent from Alexander (an early member of the Great family) and Muhammed.

2 Emblazoned his portrait on all the nation’s currency and in the top corner of every state television broadcast.

3 Renamed the months of the year after members of his family.

4 Outlawed all institutions and practices that he considered detrimental to the spiritual health of the Turkmen people, or just offensive to him personally, e.g. circuses, ballet, Internet cafes, long hair on men, and makeup on TV actors.

5 Wrote* a national bestseller, Ruhnama, The Book of Wisdom, an encomium to the Turkmen and their Father, Turkmenbashi. The Ruhnama became the subject of a giant monument in Turkmenistan’s capital, the principal text used in high school and college classes - replacing such inferior subjects as the humanities - and an obligatory text in mosques. Driving tests, too.

6 Financed his expensive remaking of the capital city, Ashgabat, by firing 110,000 teachers and health workers.


Turkmenbashi wishes you Bon Voyage!

Most of these policies were ended by Turkmenbashi’s dentist and successor, the aforementioned Gurbanguli Berdimuhamedov. The new president continued Niyazov’s suppression of dissent and imprisonment of political rivals; modern Turkmenistan has won no accolades from Amnesty International, and it rivals North Korea in its attitude toward press freedom. Still, in an age when many of us can only look forward to the next dictator, it is comforting to know that some dictators are less chaotic and vicious than others.


* They always write a book, these dictators. Mussolini even wrote a romance novel, The Cardinal's Mistress (1910). I understand its obscurity is not entirely undeserved.



Source:  Erika Fatland, Sovietistan (Pegasus, 2021), 48-56.