Reading about an ever-changing world

I don’t know if anyone else has an active interest in foreign policy or geopolitics, but it’s the bulk of my political reading, and I’m constantly on the hunt for interesting new takes.  Bold items in the list below are those which I’m definitely interested in, and will certainly buy or read at  some point.

China 
Belt and Road:  A Chinese World Order, Bruno Maçães  (Purchased)
The Problem with Me, Han Han
The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, James Griffiths

Middle East 
China and the Islamic World: How the New Silk Road is Transforming Global Politics, Robert Bianchi
Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy, Dalip Hiro
Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism and the Future of Arabia, Ginny Hill Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empire 

Latin America:
Forgotten Continent: A History of The New Latin America, Michael Reid (Purchased)

Global
The New Silk Roads
The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, Deboroah Brautigam
Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century, Richard McGregor
China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa 
Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia, Srinath Raghavan
The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa, Dayo Olopade

The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai

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Code Girls

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers of World War 2
© 2017 Liza Mundy
640 pages

At the outset of World War 2, the United States’ military intelligence apparatus, much like its military, was minimal.  Following the Japanese Empire’s sneak attack at Pearl Harbor,   the desperate need for men, material, and intel to fight a global war on multiple fronts meant that bright women of ability previously hidden away in schools and libraries had an opportunity to serve their country and the free world.    Code Girls delivers an eye-opening history of WW2-crytoanalysis by telling the story of several communities of  young women who were instrumental in the success of the Allied war effort —  both in penetrating Axis codes, and in doing the kind of analysis that allowed the Allies to later pull off one of the greatest ruses of the war.

I’ve read numerous histories of the  Second World War which refer to the Axis powers’  codes as being broken fairly early on – Japan’s “MAGIC”  in 1942, for instance, allowing for the Battle of Midway – thus allowing for an Allied comeback despite Germany and Japan’s running start.  What those casual accounts overlook is that enemy codes were a red queen’s race:   they were complex and ever-changing, requiring constant work on the part of Army, Navy, and civilian contractors to keep up with.   Although there are quiet moments throughout the book – lulls between one code being broken and another, still more arcane one instituted, where the author focuses on the women’s  personal lives and the changing society during WW2  —   keeping pace with the enemy was a nonstop job that ended only with Japan’s surrender.

Mundy explores both the technical and personal sides of the codebreakers’ lives, explaining how a Japanese cipher might work, for instance, as well as communicating how personally taxing the job could be. Not only were young farm girls thrown into a growing metropolis, surrounded by strangers and suddenly expected to conform to a new culture, but they operated on enormously taxing problems under immense pressure:   they knew  first-hand how  dangerous the Atlantic their brothers and fathers were sailing in  was, despite the ready assurances from the newspaper that victory was just around the corner.  Although they would triumph –  the codebreaking community allowed the U.S. Navy to destroy two thirds of the Japanese merchant marine —  1942 – 1944 were horribly tense years, where many in the codebreaking community feared the Allies were losing. The women’s efforts were not limited to breaking enemy codes and allowing for operations like the aerial assassination of Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind Japan’s Pacific victories: teams  assigned to analyze American com traffic for vulnerabilities were able to build a representative model of what a given Army group might produce; this model was converted into fake chatter to convince Germany that a fictional army group was preparing both a feint into Norway, as well as a general invasion at Calais.   After the war’s end, not everyone retired into civilian life: some  used their new skills to good use in the early programming industry, working with Admiral Grace Hopper (see Broad Band).

The waiting list for this book at my library was six months long, and it was still worth it. As with Broad Band, this book should not be consigned to “women’s studies”, or regarded as just another effort to encourage girls to pursue  STEM classes.  Code Girls is genuinely interesting in its own right,  delving into a side of the war few are familiar with.

 

RELATED:
Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied the Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire Evans
Hitler’s Undercover War:  The Nazi Espionage Invasion,  William Breuer

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Ten Treklit Favorites

Today’s a TT freebie, so I’m doing… Star Trek novels! I’ve been inspired by the world of Star Trek since I was a kid, both for the sci-fi appeal and its promise of a better world.   The novels and their authors have had an outsized role in my appreciation of the series , which is why I’m more than a little concerned about the “new” stuff slowly but surely taking over the lit scene.  While the ‘real’ Trek universe has lived through the books despite the Abrams movies, now that there’s a revival in Trek shows, the novelists are writing for them  and David Mack (author of the phenomenal Destiny series)  intimated in a podcast that the prime verse’s lit days are numbered.

  1. Star Trek DS9 #22: Vengeance, Dafydd ab Hugh. The first Trek novel I ever read,  I have a special attachment to this story set during the Klingon-Federation crisis that STDS9 season four began in.  Truthfully, I don’t imagine the novel will have aged well;  the numbered novels were generally of mediocre quality, with recycled plots and meaningless aliens.  Still, I can’t forget  Bashir and O’Brien’s resistance to a sudden Klingon takeover of the station after the Defiant is manipulated into a wild goose chase, nor of Worf’s difficulty in fighting his own brother.

  2. Star Trek: Millennium.  Written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, the Millennium trilogy were the best Trek books ever, as far as I was concerned, and it wasn’t until  the Destiny trilogy arrived that they had competition.  Beginning with a grisly discovery of a body beamed into the bulkheads of DS9 decades before,  Millennium’s mystery quickly deepens  and culminates with the station being destroyed, and a few survivors being thrown into a nightmare future that’s eagerly anticipating the induced obliteration of the cosmos.  The Reeves-Stevens had a superb handle on the shows’ character voices,  and the arc of plots produces a variety of interest.

  3. ST: The Dominion War, various authors.     This two-duology series, one part original fiction and the other an expanded novelization of the shows,   was set in Trek’s hugest spectacle to date (the Dominion War was  the prime verse’s WW2, basically).  Again, while these novels probably wouldn’t age too well, they were among my first and favorites.   The DS9 novels simply expanded on what we saw in the show, but the TNG novels followed the Enterprise-E during the war,  including a prolonged spy arc wherein Picard and Data investigate claims that the Cardassians are building an artificial wormhole to bring in more troops from the Gamma Quadrant.   The Badlands ship graveyard scene is memorably spooky, although it helps to have read it as a kid.

  4. Star Trek: Avatar.   As a dedicated Niner, I’m irrationally proud that  Star Trek Deep Space Nine created the Relaunch, which since 2004 has carried the Trek banner high and proud and created characters and stories far better than we often saw on the shows.  It all began with S.D. Perry’s Avatar books, which introduced us to a few new faces on the DS9 crew —   unprecedented — and then killed them.   The Avatar books grew, and now every Trek series has its own Relaunch series, and they all shared a continuity and it’s terrific.   Not everything was terrific – -the Mission Gamma books bored me, and I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated the Andorian arc,  so much so that I’d watch the Andorians on ST ENT and wish the books were more like the show. Commander Shran was cool.  (Though to be fair, Jeffrey Combs  was just that good.)

  5. Star Trek: Destiny.   It took me a few years to get to Destiny: I was a penniless college student, they were  praised to the heavens, and they promised  a cosmos-shattering ending.  But when I started Destiny,  I couldn’t stop. I literally drove an hour to a bookstore to pick up the next books in the series after I read the first one.   Destiny brought together alllllll the Relaunch characters into one big ol’ trilogy, one that concludes the Great Borg War series (my name, not the publishers).    Destiny is  still the king of modern Treklit.

  6. Disavowed & Control, David Mack.    A decade after the Borg were resolved in full — their origins and destiny —   Mack was given the similarly formidable task of handling Section 31.  Control was the first cybersecurity Trek novel I ever read, and I enjoyed it more than any Trek book in years.

7. Rise Like Lions, David Mack.   Although several authors contributed to the  redemption of the ST MU, turning it into a serious story far removed from the bizarro world of DS9’s mirror universe  (sorry, DS9, you did many great things but not that),  Mack was the one who fulfilled it in the end, with the same style as Control and Destiny.

8. ST TNG Cold Mirror, Diane Duane. Speaking of the Mirror Universe, Duane did a TNG mirror story before DS9’s own offering. Duane  developed the Terran Empire as one that, like Alexander, had conquered all it could.  The TNG crew investigate their mirror counterpart’s sneaking investigation of their own universe, and realize:   the Federation is its next target.   Duane portrayed the MU — at least its humans — as innately more amoral. Picard is horrified at its Shakespeare, and dares not  open the Bible.  The ‘real’ ST MU is more of an alternate history,  with a point of departure some point in the 20th century — perhaps a Nazi  win in WW2.

9. Full Circle and Unworthy, Kirsten Beyer.     The start of the Voyager relaunch (okay, there were two books before, but we all pretend they didn’t exist),    Beyer’s books would put meat on characters like Paris, Kim, and Chakotay,  and….bring Janeway back!   (….you didn’t know she died? Sorry. Borg war.)

10. ST TNG: The Buried Age, Christopher L. Bennett.    The only Lost Years book I’ve read, this follows Picard during a hiatus from Starfleet, and features Troi and Data as young lieutenants.

Honorable mentions: 
The Stargazer books and  Starfleet :Year One, both by Michael Jan Friedman. I read and re-read these books and when we’re talking about personal favorites, they’d have to be here….but honestly,  Friedman could be a lazy author and I couldn’t justify  dropping any Mack, Beyer, or Bennett off the list when they’re undeniably better.  And now that I think about it, I feel guilty for not including any Greg Cox, my other favorite pre-Relaunch author, and one who’s actually penned some novels after the Relaunch era.    His KHAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNN! trilogy is definitely of interest.

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More short rounds: hackers and silly vicars

Needing a quick break from all the classics,  I read The Hacker Crackdown, a bit of cybersecurity history.  Sterling first delivers the background of the telecommunications system in the United States, specifically the expansive growth of AT&T and its recent dismemberment at the hands of  the courts system.  A near-total  network outage during a national holiday, while  entirely a spontaenous glitch based on weaknesses in AT&T’s software,    was blamed on outside intruders ; the government’s own increasing interest  in suppressing pirate BBSes distributing pilfered, sensitive, or suspicious materials (everything from emergency telecom protocols to bombs), coupled with AT&T’s need for a villain,  combined into a general campaign against “cyberpunks”.     Hacker Crackdown is a fun look back at ‘the internet prior to the World Wide Web.

After play comes work, or rather something in the middle: The Vicar of Wakefield, originally scheduled for April,  was finally completed yesterday morning. I started on it last week but started slowing down as the silliness increased.  The March girls — Jo, Meg, Beth,  and Amy — introduced me to this book, which they thought was quite amusing.   Principally, it’s about the Job-like descent of a country vicar’s family into near-total ruin — and their rebound.   The vicar himself is a man of good intentions and principles, the latter of which are ignored when he gets distracted.    When the story opens, the vicar and his family are moving to a new position,   their fortune having been squandered by a poor investment.  Despite the vicar’s tendency to rattle off sermons and speeches on virtue, the family quickly ruins itself even more by trying to climb the social ladder, ignoring any sense of prudence: at one point,   someone’s been abducted, someone’s in jail, someone is lost on the continent, and the house is on fire.   There’s a lot of coincidences in the endgame, so much so that the Vicar comments on them, and in the end they muddle through to a happy ending — presumably a little wiser,  though human nature being what it is I doubt that wisdom will linger for very long.

Next up in the classics queue would be The Education of Henry Adams, though I also need to find time to tackle the first volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire if I’m to catch up fully before the year is out.  For the moment, I’m going to relax a bit with a couple of non-classics!

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Perspective from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

I recently finished Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a slim little volume introducing readers to relativity (special and general), quantum mechanics, particle physics, heat, time, and our place in the universe.   As it’s less than a hundred pages I don’t know that I’ll give it full comments, but it is beautifully written, and offers powerful perspective (the kind Carl Sagan was good at delivering) along with some inkling into the basics of modern physics.    Below follow a few quotes:

“That is to say: space curves where there is matter. That is it. The equation fits into half a line, and there is nothing more. A vision — that space curves — became an equation. But within this equation there is a teeming universe.” 

“Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance. What we see does not cease to astonish us. “

“Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amid the infinite arabesques of forms that constitute reality, we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes. “

“Our moral values, our emotions, our loves are no less real for being part of nature, for being shared with the animal world, or for being determined by the evolution that our species has undergone over millions of years. Rather, they are more valuable as a result of this: they are real. They are the complex reality of which we are made.  Our reality is  tears and laughter, gratitude and altruism, loyalty and betrayal, the past that haunts us and serenity. Our reality is made up of our societies, of the emotion inspired by music, of the rich intertwined networks of the common knowledge  that we have constructed together.”

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Short rounds: Star Trek and Musketeers

It’s been open season on the classics this month: not only did I finish up June ( and take care of July, but I’ve recently advanced into August’s reading, defeating The Three Musketeers, and am about to mount an attack on The Vicar of Wakefield, to start making up for April.      Before moving forward, I wanted to wrap up with some comments.

 

First, on The Sun Also Rises: I read this shortly after A Farewell to Arms, or rather I finished it. I began reading it last year, and had lingered in it halfway through, completely apathetic about the novel’s characters or what happened to them.  I still didn’t care when I was finished.   They eat, they drink, they go to Spain and fish and watch bullfights, they go home.   It must have made some impact in its day to be remembered nearly a century hence, though.

Next up, not a classic, was Star Trek Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel.    Admiral Johnathan Archer and his faithful friends, Captains T’Pol and  Reed, are working to secure Rigel’s entrance into the Federation despite the resistance of natives who find the idea of becoming part of an alien organization frightening, and the fact that Archer is being framed for attempted murder.  Despite that premise and the fact that Bennett’s novels are among my favorite Trek reads, I…didn’t care about the story here. Or the characters.

 

And lastly, The Three Musketeers,  which begins with the promising sight of a young man given three gifts and promptly losing them by getting into a fight with the first person he meets who has an unkind word about his horse — the horse he doesn’t even like. D’Artagnan’s desire is to join the Musketeers, but his youthful bravado gets him into fight after fight — including three duels with men he later learns are musketeers!  Although he cannot join the celebrated corps with a broken sword and a lost letter of recommendation, D’Artagnan’s  swordplay and loyalty earn him the friendship of the three Musketeers, and with them at his side he stumbles into a kidnapping with kingly importance: there’s a scheme to foment war between France and England afoot, aided and abetted by a murderously charming woman, Milady de Winter.    I enjoyed the novel well enough, but it’s…a strange adventure story, where the main character spends a good bit of the time half in love with his adversary and ends up getting promoted by the…..antagonist. Well…OK.

And that catches me up, I think. Now, on to the Vicar of WakefieldThe Education of Henry Adams, and….well, a few more, but not many at this point!

 

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Tranquility Base here….the Eagle has landed.

 

Prometheus, they say,  brought God’s fire down to man
And we’ve caught it, tamed it, trained it, since our history began
Now we’re going back to heaven, just to look Him in the eye
There’s a thunder across the land, and a fire in the sky

Gagarin was the first, back in 1961,
When like Icarus undaunted
He climbed to reach the sun
And he knew he might not make it,
For it’s never hard to die —
But he lifted off the pad, and rode a fire in the sky

Yet a higher call was calling, and we vowed we’d reach it soon
So we gave ourselves a decade to put fire on the moon
And Apollo told the world, we can  do it if we try —
There was One Small Step, and a fire in the sky!

I dreamed last night
Of a little boy’s first space flight
it turned into me watching a black and white TV
There was a fire in the sky
I”ll remember until I die
A fire in the sky
A fire in the sky!

Then two decades from Gagarin, twenty years to the day
Came a shuttle named Columbia to open up the way
They say she’s just a truck, but she’s truck that’s aimin’ high
See her big jets burnin’ ,  see her fire in the sky!

Yet the gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made
And with Challenger and seven, once again the price is paid
Though a nation watched her falling
Yet a world could only cry
As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky

Now the rest is up to us,
And there’s a future to be won
We must turn our faces outward
We will do what must be done
For no cradle lasts forever,
Every bird must learn to flry
And we’re goin’ to the stars —
See our fire in the sky

Yes, we’re goin’ to the stars
See our fire in the sky

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