All posts by jkkblog

I'm a freelance writer with a background in history and foreign languages.

Excellent books you may not even know exist

Other day, I was sitting out with a cigar and a book about how to avoid speeding tickets. It was insightful and well worth the re-read. It occurred to me that I had read a number of such books, profited from what I’d learned, yet never shared these hidden gems with you all.

That’s no way to treat all the nice people who take the time to read my blog.

What these all have in common: they all conveyed to me some form of important understanding, be it practical, geopolitical, financial, historical, whatever. After reading them, I felt more like a motorboat and less like an inner tube on the choppy waters of life.

Eagan, James: A Speeder’s Guide to Avoiding Tickets. It’s not that I habitually speed, because I do not. It’s that if by chance the police are thinking about stopping me, I hope they won’t, and if they do, I hope they won’t give me a ticket. Some of the technological tips may be dated, but I doubt that the insights into police mentality and habits are obsolete. This twenty-year veteran of the New York State Police got his most helpful possible endorsement when some police-connected official condemned the book. If the police do not want you to read it, obviously, it’s the first thing you should be reading.

Poundstone, William: Big Secrets. Poundstone, an investigative reporter and student of the human mind, dug into many subjects such as Freemasonry initiations, Colonel Sanders’s recipe, and all those supposed backward messages in records. (For those, he rented a studio and split the tracks, playing them both forward and backward.) It is a bit dated, but very interesting and mostly remains relevant. There are two sequels, with no decline in interest level or quality.

Kelly, Jason: The 3% Signal. Most of you who invest are still either picking your own stocks or paying expensive professionals (to underperform more often than not) through conventional mutual funds. The evidence is in, and it says most of you are doing this wrong. Kelly is a very interesting fellow, a Colorado Buff English major who lives in Japan and writes a financial newsletter. Not only does he write well, his market insight is spot on and his investing plan is so simple that even a self-declared financial boob could probably handle it. I’ve been using it for three years and it has made me feel much better about my investing methods.

Anderson, Kurt: How to Back up a Trailer…and 101 Other Things Every Real Guy Should Know. Anderson is that guy we all need to know. He’s like my father, who could have taught me all this stuff had I shown the slightest bit of interest, had I not been practicing the development method of “ignore adulthood and hope it will never arrive.” Unlike many who are gifted in the area of life’s physics, Anderson can write and never comes off as a horse’s ass about it all. The irony, of course, is that the people who should rush out to buy this book are majority female. Girls and women aren’t taught enough of this in life, especially growing up in cities (whereas your average farm girl could have written this book), and capability equals independence. Anderson’s book is their liberator.

Cahill, Tim: A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg. A world in which Bill Bryson sells more books than Tim Cahill is a world with lousy taste, a world that lets people with vested financial interests tell it what to like. The travel genre has many subsets, and one of my favorites is adventure travel. Cahill, a Sconnie now living in Montana, has a laconic descriptive method that knows how to let the humor speak for itself. Unlike some travel writers, he also seems like a man who could safely go back to most of his adventuresome haunts. One of the nicest things my bro John ever did was give me a copy of this book, which opened the way to the other seven-odd Cahill travel books.

Loewen, James W.: Sundown Towns. Prof. Loewen’s name is better known for his studies of mendacious monuments, but I consider this his most important work because it answers a question about how African Americans came to be concentrated in cities. It explains the difference between Southern and Northern post-Civil War racisms. As someone who used to live in a former sundown town (Kennewick, WA, which has never come to terms with this racist past and has instead chosen to avoid the conversation as the eyewitnesses die off), this book supplied a crucial lack in my understanding of American history. If we are ever to repair this ongoing rent in the national fabric, we must arrive at that understanding.

Horwitz, Tony: Baghdad Without a Map. It’s hard to pick a favorite book with authors who always do it right. In cases like these, I choose the one that first drew me in. Horwitz may be best known for Confederates in the Attic, his study of Civil War re-enactor culture, but a Jew traveling all over the greater Middle Eastern region shows me serious chutzpah. Like Cahill, Horwitz knows how to let the reader find the humor. All his books are good, including his historical take on John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry seizure, Midnight Rising. I find him an exception to the rule that journalists should be kicked in the groin if they start making moves toward writing history books. (“But I checked three sources! I can write it!”)

Perkins, John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. When you look at a globe, you may not see the strings by which the United States manipulates the world. Perkins explains how we weave them, how we reeve them, and how we yank them to make less fortunate countries do our bidding. If you’ve ever watched a documentary about how drug dealers work hard to develop new addicts because addicts are customers and can be controlled through their addictions, this book will show you how effective (if heartless) that business model can be on a larger scale.

Eskeldson, Mark: What Car Dealers Don’t Want You to Know. The fine art of screwing the auto-purchasing public is an evolutionary game, so books will tend to become dated. So is this one, but much of its content is still relevant. The essential lesson is that the process of buying a car is a three-card monte game with the dealer making a cameo. An updated version for the Internet buying era would be especially helpful, but no matter the timeframe, the fundamental mentality does not change; when it proclaims itself kinder, honest, and forthright, that is when it is the sleaziest. Car dealers hate when you are not forthright with them because deceit is supposed to be their playground. Definitely a good guide to how they think.

Sullivan, Bob: Stop Getting Ripped Off. I’d like to give a copy to every young person graduating from high school. Thanks to the time value of money combined with ignorance and naïveté, the first twenty years of independence are when the mistakes are likeliest to be costly when all is calculated with eyes wide open. One must learn to be one’s own advocate, and that advocacy must evolve, because what worked for your mom and stepdad may no longer be feasible for you. While the title is a bit misleading, at least in the body of the book Sullivan admits that there are areas where you are going to be ripped off and cannot stop the process. My view: at least if you know what the ripoff is and who does it, you’ll know who to hate.

Molloy, John T.: Molloy’s Live for Success. Okay, so you want to get ahead in the office/corporate world, but you don’t have the right connections, the right personality, the right clothes, the right vibe. You keep wondering why lazy, stupid assholes get promoted and you do not, in spite of your competent diligence. This resentment builds on itself, because you are an honest hard worker who tries hard to get along with others and go the extra mile, thus worsening the gap between you and success. That resentment hits close to my home, because the dawning of reality shortened my naïve, selectively brilliant, industrious father’s life. It would have shortened mine too, except that I decided I didn’t want that type of career. But if I had–if I’d been willing to subordinate my basic identity to a perfectly manufactured persona that kissed the right butts, appeared at the right places, and otherwise gave off the vibe of being a club member–at least I would have had the right textbook. I read it in my early twenties and it helped me to decide that I wasn’t the type to reach the executive suite. It helped me to understand the warm, affectionate, grandfatherly smile of the Sears executive whom I am certain vetoed their hire of me (a great kindness, now that I understand the world better). But if you are that type, the only things that have changed are the technologies and clothes. Even if you are not, if you work for a hierarchy, reading this will help you understand how that hierarchy got where it is (and why, at the rate you’re going, you aren’t getting a slot in it unless you are already slotted by genetics and upbringing to join it). Molloy is much better known for his Dress for Success books, but this is the book that will enumerate the rest of the entry fee.

Happy reading.

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The role of bird poop in US history

Guano, as we towers of literary force are supposed to refer to bird excrement, has the surprising tendency to accumulate on islands frequented by numerous birds. What in the continental United States would be referred to as ‘parts of rural Georgia,’ far out to sea, may once have been worth planting the flag and bringing a shovel.

In 1856, the United States decided that it was entitled to claim any island that was:

  • a) uninhabited (perhaps because it was too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there);
  • b) too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there; and
  • c) unclaimed by anyone else (perhaps because it was too covered in bird dook to be of interest).

This resulted in us claiming about eighty islands worldwide. Considering the nitrate-rich nature of bird poop, this was somewhat less stupid and arrogant than it might seem–though that bar wasn’t set terribly high.

Weirder: we still claim some of them. Some have even been strategic in wars. Others, strategic or not, got the shit kicked out of them in those wars. The United States: Not Only Will We Control Your Islands Of Bird Ca-Ca, You May Wish You Had Thought Of That Before We Did, Suckers.

Here are the ones we’re still hanging onto, even if our yearning for bird turds has declined or, more plausibly, if we already confiscated all the bird turds we deemed essential to our national interest:

Bajo Nuevo Bank, a.k.a. the Petrel Islands. A couple of very narrow atoll-like reefs with minimal land area (as in, if you have a decent arm you could throw a baseball from the east beach to the west beach at most points): draw a line north from the Panamá Canal, stop where you reach the latitude of the north Nicaraguan border well to the west, and you’re in the right neighborhood. Colombia claims them, and the International Court of Justice agrees, but for some reason we still dispute the sovereignty. Thus, it is a pair of guano islands that still fit into the conversation. I doubt that we will ever go down and start shooting at the Colombian Navy over this, although given trends in our national leadership, I no longer put any stupidity or lunacy past them.

Baker Island, originally New Nantucket. Just over three-quarters of a square mile, it’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia and very close to the Equator. We built an airfield and used it as a base during World War II, partly in response to some Japanese air attacks. We left a lot of airfield-and-army-related junk there, where it all still rusts or otherwise deteriorates. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates it as a wildlife refuge, which means in essence leaving it alone since it has no human population or strategic value. They visit it every couple of years, just to see how everything’s coming. You know, make sure no one has set up a meth lab, look for Gilligan, that sort of stuff.

Howland Island. This isn’t far from Baker Island, about thirty miles nearly due north, and is in roughly the same ignored condition. Its land area is a little over a square mile and a half. Before she disappeared, that great Kansan Amelia Earhart was searching for her preplanned stopover point on Howland Island. We had big plans for this place in the 1930s, intending it as a refueling stopover for intercontinental air travel, and to that end we set up a colonist program where four Hawaiians at a time would come to live there. This was not easy in peacetime, but got worse when the Japanese bombed it the day after Pearl Harbor, killing two of the colonists. We evacuated the other two, landed a battalion of Marines, and prepared to hold fast. After the war, we abandoned Howland Island; now it’s another Fish & Wildlife-administered/ignored refuge.

Jarvis Island, formerly Bunker Island. Well southeast of Baker Island–far enough to be almost due south of the Hawaiian island chain–is another square mile and three-quarters of former guano mine. We tried a small settlement there, which led to some drama when the colonists saw a submarine surfacing not long after Pearl Harbor. They figured the US Navy was there to rescue them. When the sub opened up on them with its deck gun, the colonists reconsidered their hypothesis. Later, the Coast Guard picked up the Jarvis Island colonists, then shelled their former settlement. Not to be outdone in the destruction of uninhabited places, another Japanese sub swung by and also shelled the ex-settlement. This too is now a wildlife refuge.

Johnston Atoll. This small group of islands, the largest of which amounts to a square mile, sits about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii. There’s a long reef, the primary island, and a couple of minor islands. In aerial photos, they mostly look sculpted by Seabees. You will not believe the things we have done to Johnston Atoll.

For a variation on the usual theme, we did the wildlife refuge thing first. Given that tensions with Japan were on the rise in those days, that didn’t last long. Over the next seventy years, we would:

  • Base warplanes out of it
  • Base the Coast Guard out of it
  • Plaster it with nuclear weapons, including some failed launches
  • Set up an anti-satellite missile base (we did not shoot down any actual satellites from here, at least not that we admit to)
  • Track satellites and recover film cans dropped from satellites
  • Test biological weapons
  • Store chemical weapons
  • Store Agent Orange
  • Destroy the chemical weapons
  • Knock down all but one building, then abandon it
  • Come back to clean up all the chemical and nuclear mess we’d made over the years
  • Kill some invasive ‘crazy ants’

And there may have been other activities that have never become public. In fact, I think you could just about bank on that.

Kingman Reef, formerly Danger Reef. Its total land area is .012 square kilometers, and it sits there and gets wet about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. After about ten minutes of mathematical ineptitude, I collapsed with apathy before figuring out whether its area was the size of a basketball court, or a football field, or a baseball card. Then I found out it’s three acres, so much of it awash that there is not much need to take any action except refraining from hitting it with a boat (odds of which, by accident, are rather remote). Another wildlife refuge run by those hardworking and dedicated public servants at Fish & Wildlife, and another guano island that found its way into the United States due to bird feces.

Midway Atoll. Now we’re talking! Imagine you are on Hawaii’s big island and you get this craving to boat along the line of the islands, headed for Japan. As you pass between Kauai and Ni’ihau, you say screw it, I’m just going to keep going. About a third of the way to Japan, you’d hit Midway. It has three islands (one is dinky), surrounded by a reef, so unless you looked alive on the approach you would probably run your boat aground and suffer an ignominious and very expensive rescue. You aren’t supposed to go to Midway without advance permission, so there is no reason for the permanent workforce of forty to make nice with you, even if you hum the Marines’ Hymn and say you only came out to visit the war memorials. Total land area is about two and a half square miles, so there are a finite number of places to sneak in, and you would somewhat stand out. Do not do it.

While history has proven Midway an ideal location for carrier-based naval warfare battles (look this up if you doubt me, then come back and apologize), its location was incredibly strategic in World War II. Had the Japanese won the 1942 carrier/air battle and occupied Midway, they would have been positioned to threaten the Hawaiian Islands. Having fought so hard to keep it, the armed forces just couldn’t break up with Midway for another fifty years. The Navy finally shut down its last operations in 1993. The people who live/work there are with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s another refuge. It has proven a good place to study the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which stands as an enormous monument to corporate and government social responsibility when no one is around to punish them for doing the wrong thing.

Navassa Island. About a third of the way from Haiti to Jamaica, you’ll find this two-square-mile uninhabited island. Columbus’s men visited it and reported back that it had no water, giving people (even those Native Americans Columbus and his successors failed to eradicate) reason to avoid it for another three hundred and fifty years. Only when its bird crap value became evident (and it met the other conditions) did the young United States pounce on this place. Haiti protested. Even then, we knew we could win a war against Haiti, so we stood our guano. It was the scene of some ugliness when a phosphate (bird crap) mining company hired 140 black contract workers from Maryland to extract the fabled feces. Conditions were awful, the workers revolted in 1889, and in a move much envied by so many in the modern world, they killed five of their supervisors. Take a guess at how that went over in our justice system, knowing how it functions even today.. At least we didn’t execute them, but only because President Harrison intervened.

For some years we kept up a lighthouse on Navassa, but the Coast Guard took it down in 1996. I gather that what happens there now is: Fish & Wildlife officially has charge of it, Haitian fishermen camp out there when they feel the need, the U.S. prohibits this but does nothing to prevent it, and the end result is a wildlife refuge that mostly works in spite of a disputed claim no one seems to press.

Palmyra Atoll. Had you gone looking for Kingman Reef, but missed about twenty miles south, you would come to one of the few guano islands (this one, in fact, did not contain significant guano, so the original basis for a claim was flawed) with a permanent staff. One wonders what sins one must commit in order to be assigned there. Anyway, Palmyra amounts to a little more than two and a half square miles, girdled by reefs on three sides, and divided into a whole bunch of little islands. In a clever attempt to disguise its true purpose, the one with the airstrip is called “Aviation Island.” Back when there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, said kingdom claimed Palmyra. The United States incorporated it into the Territory of Hawaii, but it is not now part of the state; the government took it away upon statehood. It did service as an airbase during World War II, and now the Nature Conservancy owns part of it, with an ongoing population of a half to two dozen.

As for the other seventy-odd, other countries claimed them, or got them in treaties, or for whatever other reason we decided not to be difficult about it.

And that’s the story of our guano islands, the territory we annexed in the name of bird deuces.

Scumbag studies: Reichsleiter Rudolf Hess

This story is weird because its subject is weird.

Hess, a WWI veteran, was one of Adolf Hitler’s earliest kool-aid drinkers. You might say that he was even a kool-aid taster, helping develop Hitler’s kool-aid vintages and varietals. Hess would have swallowed fishing sinkers and jumped into the Rhine if Hitler jumped first. While Hitler did time for the Beer Hall Putsch, Hess typed up the manuscript that became Mein Kampf. Call him whatever else you will, with just cause, but Hitler was very loyal to those whose loyalty to him never flinched. Hess rose to the position of Deputy Führer.

Hess’s brain wiring was unlike that of others. He was definitely an anti-Semite and instrumental in the rise of the Nazi party as well as the persecution of Jews, so he fits my definition of scumbag. He had a streak of hypochondria. Today, he would probably be an anti-vaccine activist. It seems reasonable to suppose that he was prone to mental illness. But for a plane trip, he would have stayed in Hitler’s shadow throughout the war. He would have continued to lose influence due to Martin Bormann’s machinations, and would not have cared, so long as he retained Hitler’s personal affection. As one of the few men Hitler addressed in the familiar form ‘du’ and called “Hessrl” (‘Hessie’), Hess could do whatever he wanted provided it never ran counter to Nazi aims. By war’s end, surely he would have accumulated enough wrongdoing to hang. I am not alone in believing it a poor form of justice that he did not.

He would eventually correct that injustice himself, if indeed he did hang himself in Spandau all those many years later.

The official version is that on 12 May 1941, in defiance of Hitler’s orders and perhaps due to a decline in sanity, Hess jumped in his Bf-110 aircraft and flew to Scotland. He behaved as though he expected to be able to return. His goal was to broker peace between Germany (which he knew would soon be at close quarters with the Soviet Union) and Britain. The British heard him out, but did not find his proposals compelling. (Short version: “Herr Hitler never wanted to destroy you and still does not. If you get out of the war and give him back our African colonies, he will let you live.”) They debriefed him, but kept him under comfortable yet strict confinement for the duration of hostilities. At one point he attempted suicide and failed. The British made sure that didn’t happen again.

Came war’s end, Hess was among the high-profile Nuremberg defendants. He had behaved strangely in captivity, and put on a convincing display of missing marbles in court. Despite this infirmity or act, the tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment. He would be the final prisoner held in Spandau Prison, West Berlin, purportedly hanging himself on 17 August 1987. My own weird connection to the situation is that my college days ended just one year before that, and I happened to know a young woman (I delivered mail to her dorm and she would chat with me while I stuffed the boxes) who was a distant relation of Hess. I once tactlessly asked, “Any relation?” Best I can describe it is that a shadow passed over her eyes as she said, simply, sadly, “Yes.” Perhaps that is why the case has interested me.

Anyway, not everyone swallows the official version. Did you really think they would? When have they ever? All right, let’s consider Team Tinfoil’s claims. It may surprise you that I believe they at least have a couple of valid insights.

The real Hess died in a flying boat crash in Scotland during the war. This story goes that a double replaced him, acting the fool at Nuremberg, then spending decades in Spandau. Far as I’m concerned, this is stupid. Who would agree to do this? Where would they find such a person who also resembled the very distinctive-looking Hess? When Hess finally agreed to start seeing his wife and son again in the late 1960s, they seemed to think he was the real deal; in what universe could a double have manufactured the shared memories to fool them? What on earth could they gain from being in on some cover-up?

And those questions don’t even touch on why the British might cover up Hess’s death in such an accident. It’s not a war crime to fly prisoners around, especially important ones. This theory is so goofy it impairs the credibility of anyone who advances it.

Hess had Hitler’s permission and encouragement to go. In the past, I thought this was likely because of the problematic nature of stealing an escort fighter in the notoriously fascist Third Reich, but I have learned that Hess had his own Bf-110 on permanent assignment and knew how to fly it. There are reliable reports that Adolf chucked a trademark Hitlertantrum when he heard the news, which at least suggests the flight was unauthorized. A better reason to doubt Adolfian approval is that the odds were high of an outcome involving propaganda adverse to Nazi interests. How would it look to the Italians, at grips with the British in North Africa, if Nazi Germany seemed likely to make a deal with the Allies? What if Italy were to react by abandoning a war in which they had so far gained little and lost much? Nah, I don’t think Adolf sent him. It does, however, look very weird that Hess flew his mission on the very day after the Blitz ended. Whether or not the British knew that the concentrated raids were over, the Nazis did.

The British expected him. I strongly doubt that the Churchill government in power expected a visit from Hess. That some members of the upper classes might have been defeatist, and hoping for a substantive peace proposal…I am distrustful enough of ruling elites to imagine that possible. I can easily see where, after months of bombing and lost shipping, with no evident end in sight and no Americans riding to the rescue, wealthy elites might seek to act so as to save themselves and their riches above all.

We aren’t supposed to believe that. We’re supposed to believe that the wealthy deliberately stepped up for the noble sacrifices. Experience suggests I shouldn’t accept that comforting assumption so readily. Certainly our own wealthy elites in the modern USA would sell out Mom, country, Constitution, and people if it meant saving their own butts. Hell, they’d do it for a tax break. I do suspect that at least some in the British aristocracy were ready to see a way out of the war. Did Hess travel there in answer to back-channel communications of such nature? I don’t know. What one conspiracy book says, and not unconvincingly, is that an unspecified source got a look at the file folders still being held back from public release, and that each contains a single sheet stating that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. If so, that puts it in a place beyond any force in British law save one: the personal command of the reigning monarch.

If that’s where the actual material has gone, why put it there? If isn’t true, why invent that story? My suspicion is that there was indeed some evidence that at least some of the aristocracy weren’t as committed to the ultimate victory as public morale demanded that the public believe. If that were true, wouldn’t it suck for them to have that become public knowledge? Where could such an multi-generational embarrassment be stashed where it could never come back to haunt anyone? That would be the place.

I am reminded of a passage from John T. Molloy’s Live for Success, in which the author talked about a study his company did regarding chief executives’ résumés and potential fiction therein. Short version: so many of the résumés were so loaded with bullshit that Molloy ordered the report destroyed. Inexact quote: “It wouldn’t kill them; it would kill us.” I have little difficulty imagining a highly placed peer in the British intelligence community saying to an underling: “Give me that. Understand that you never worked on it, for it never existed.” And then taking it to Churchill, and it then being passed along to the King, who would have had the power to sequester it. But I do not know.

Hess was murdered, and thus did not hang himself. Possible. The usual reasoning advanced is that it was to prevent him from revealing WWII secrets. If so, I wonder what secrets he had not yet found a way to share with his now-adult son and aging wife, but it’s possible. I consider “they would never stoop to such a thing” as a terribly naive statement to make about any intelligence agency when it comes to perceived national interests. Some of the claims on both sides are facile, though it would not shock me if he were murdered to prevent any possibility of his being released if the Soviets finally relented on their longtime commitment to make sure he would die behind bars.

Hess didn’t expect to become a POW. To me, this is obvious. Toward his family, before departure he behaved as though he would be back within a few days. He expected that the British would grasp at any chance to make peace. To grasp this, we need to try and view the world from Hess’s rather muddled perspective.

Suppose you’re Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s BFF. Hitler = bae. The Adolf Hitler you know–and you believe, with cause, that you know him as well as any living man–is all-powerful, yet a kinder and more merciful man than the cruel, intolerant, blinded world can be allowed to see. You have often heard him say that he never wanted to crush the British. As things stand, obviously he will destroy them because obviously no one can stand against the obviously insurmountable Third Reich when led by such an incredible mind. However, the Führer is planning to invade the USSR soon. You fought in a two-front war just a generation ago; you were wounded there. You know that the Blitz is about to end, but the British don’t; all they will know is that a day will soon come when they aren’t being bombed.

Your BFF might lose face if he approaches the British now, but you can see he urgently needs a loyal friend to help him out by getting Churchill’s stubborn Spitfires and enormous Royal Navy out of the war. You’ve gotten word that the British aristocrats are beginning to see reason, thanks to the fierce might of the German Blitzkrieg and a good pounding by the Luftwaffe. Of course they do. Neither you nor Hitler ever imagined the British stupid or cowardly. In a sane world, of course, they would have sided with their Aryan brethren to begin with. Only after a pummeling could the British consider honorable terms, and they have had a rough lesson in German dominance. They’ve been softened up nicely.

Is not now your moment to be your BFF’s hero, by doing that which he can not? You can ensure that there will be no two-front war, win peace without giving up anything Germany has taken, get the hated obstinate wiseass Churchill pushed aside, avoid the need for a potentially disastrous cross-Channel invasion, and be the Fatherland’s man of the hour. Since it is obvious Germany will triumph, surely it is impossible that the British will be so suicidally stupid as to do anything like throw you in a POW camp. After all, you are a very important person, high in the favor of the Führer. You are responsible for the spilling of pages of adverbs. You are no one to trifle with. The British may have been foolish enough to be drawn into the Jewish conflict, but surely they would not show indignity to an important plenipotentiary entrusting his life and future to them as a sign of the Führer’s good faith. They are misguided, but they aren’t animals. Surely they have manners and are still sane. They will fall all over themselves in haste to do the only logical thing, and in gratitude for the magnanimity that lets them retain empire and honor.

If you were Rudolf Hess, with Hess’s experiences and his years in the Nazi rabbit hole of fascism, egotism, and delusion, might your thought process have worked that way?

We don’t know, but I have heard far less plausible scenarios that do far less to explain the known facts.

So no, I don’t believe it was a fake Hess at any time. I strongly doubt his Baedolf encouraged him to go, or knew about it. I think he saw his chance to be the big hero, and misjudged British resolve based on hints about Lord Fothersail or the Duke of Flatbroke having some doubts about the war effort. I don’t think he realized that the Allies already considered his people brutal barbarians led by a serial liar and bigot with whom the only peace could be had at the point of an Enfield barrel–or an air-dropped avalanche of fire and steel.

Summed up, I believe that the best way to understand more about this situation is to toss away idealistic wishful thinking about our side, and overtly myopic assumptions about the subject himself, and ask ourselves why each event might happen. Then dismiss those that are too stupid to dignify.

What remains is at least possible until we have trustworthy reason to reject it.

Myths (and truths) about Ireland

I like Ireland, though not everything about Ireland, and not as much as my wife does. She would move there tomorrow if I were to let down my resistance for an instant. I think some of that is how much she has enjoyed travel there, but traveling in a place differs very much from living there.

One suspects that a part of her perspective still buys into a little of the mythology. It occurs to me that Ireland is a very mythologized country in the United States. Maybe I can clear some of these up by stating the myth or perception as I have heard it, and clarifying the reality as I saw it.

Ireland is dangerous due to sectarian and nationalist violence. False. Even at the worst times of the Troubles, as they are known, most of Ireland was far safer than much of the United States. To get caught in the crossfire, a visitor would have needed a) tremendous bad luck and the worst imaginable timing, or b) enormous stupidity. A sensible visitor would have been, and would now be, far more concerned about an auto accident on a narrow road. Nowadays, concern about Trouble-related violence makes about as much sense as avoiding Midland, Texas for fear of Comanche raids.

All of Ulster is in Northern Ireland. False. In fact, three counties of Ulster are within the Republic. None of Leinster or Connaught’s counties are in Northern Ireland. (Munster does not border Ulster, thus sparing us that question entirely.) Thus, when you say ‘Ulster’ to refer to the North, this is imprecise.

The Republic is Catholic and the North is Protestant. Partly false. Catholics form a large majority in the Republic, but are also a strong presence in the North, which is about half Catholic and half Protestant. Of course, a percentage do not identify with either religious direction from the standpoint of practice, but may still identify with one as a cultural factor. Every religion has its own culture. Just as I know nominally Mormon people who practice almost none of the LDS faith’s strictures (yet still describe themselves as Mormon), you could find atheists and agnostics in Ireland who come by Catholic or Protestant identify through family heritage and upbringing. I would say that the Irish are less religious than Americans, but since religion is so connected to culture in Ireland, it conveys something of a misleading impression to the observing outside world.

Gaelic is a dead language. False on two counts. In the first place, ‘Gaelic’ is inspecific as a descriptor, as it could also refer to Scots. With regard to Ireland, the the suitable term is ‘Irish.’ Irish is not a dead language, though it may be fair to say it might have died out but for strenuous efforts toward its preservation. In the first place, the Republic of Ireland’s Bunreacht (constitution, in force since 1937) states that the Republic has two official languages, Irish and English, and that an Irish citizen may receive all official services in either language. What is more, the Irish version of the Bunreacht is the definitive original. You should be able to see where this goes. Gardaí (police), many government officials, and so forth must be capable of serving the public in Irish, thus must be conversational. Irish is spoken as a first language in certain areas, mainly in Connaught and Munster but also heavily in western Donegal, called Gaelteachts.

In my experience, while one may function well in English in Gaelteachts, locals will welcome a sincere effort to speak Irish. One would have to search very hard for a part of Ireland where one would need to speak Irish in order to function, but I am sure they exist. Some in Ulster also speak Scots Gaelic, which is very akin to its Irish sister language. I can tell you from experience that an American speaking Irish in the Republic is considered something of a wonder, though that American should take a little care in trotting out his or her ability. I found that many Irish felt they should be more proficient in the language, and that it embarrassed them a bit for an American to be more conversant with it than they. It’s never good manners to embarrass one’s hosts, especially hosts as patient as the Irish.

Ireland rains all the time. More true than false. Ireland is fairly rainy even in summer (though they tell me that is changing), and very much so in winter. Drainage and flooding are always issues. I doubt any part of Ireland uses, needs, or wants irrigation, in much the same way that few equatorial nations spend much effort on central home heating. However, even in winter in Ireland, there’s a fair chance of a sunny day. And a sunny day in Ireland is something to treasure and soak up.

There’s a castle everywhere you look in Ireland. Partly true. Ireland is loaded with old buildings and ruins, some of which are or were castles or forts. Some are open to the public some of the time. Some are open to some members of the public who know the right way to pose the question, which in Ireland is often not in the most direct way. In my experience, the best way to search for anything in Ireland involves a pub and some patience. In a pub, some locals get the chance to size you up and decide whether to refer you onward or not, make a phone call for you or not, give you directions or not. Once they make up their mind about you, in their own time and in a positive way, they tend to look out for you. Attempts to rush the Irish only serve to annoy them.

The Irish drink a lot. Depends on perspective. In terms of per capita consumption, the Republic stands slightly above the UK (which includes the North) and Germany, slightly below Australia, and well below much of eastern Europe. The French and South Koreans drink more than the Irish, for example. So if your perspective is American, on balance, drinking is slightly more. If it’s Ukrainian, the Irish are relatively light drinkers. I have seen a lot of people drinking in Ireland, but I have rarely seen anyone sloppy drunk, and in those cases I saw clear evidence of general disapproval.

What is true (though gradually changing): the pub is a social center. While some pubs still have the old ‘snug’ (women’s area), it’s kind of an artifact. Nowadays women and children are more than welcome, and it is unremarkable to see an entire Irish family having dinner at the pub. A non-drinker is still welcome in most pubs provided, as in most hospitality establishments, he or she at least buys something. A recovering alcoholic, if asked, might explain that s/he has taken the Pledge (a religious vow). This is an acceptable excuse for declining to have a pint with someone, as is a strict religious observation. The Irish understand that some faiths (LDS, Islam) drink no alcohol.

The Irish remember everything forever. True–both the good and the bad. There is a monument in County Cork to the Choctaw, who in response to the 1840s famines gathered up as much money as they could find and sent it to help alleviate the famine. Roadside markers show the points where Volunteers fell during the struggles for independence. Even during the Troubles, it was remembered which families had bought their land many years before, and which had appropriated it. The Irish build monuments to historians; I have seen them myself. If a fairy mound happens to be in the way of a proposed road, workers cannot be found to bulldoze it. The road will simply have to go around. Do good deeds in Ireland, and be remembered for them. Do wrong there, and be remembered as well. Cromwell has been gone for nearly four hundred years, and they haven’t even begun making an effort to forget his deeds.

Irish time is ‘-ish’ time. Mainly true. Business hours, where posted, tend to flexibility. The most pointless thing one can do in Ireland is try to pressure anyone to do anything faster; they will not comply, and it will only irritate them. If a flock of sheep is blocking the road, it will continue to do so until the shepherd gets them where he wants them. Honk and you prove yourself a fool. Wave in a friendly way and be patient, and the shepherd will be prone to get the beasts moving a little faster.

Ireland has made it easier to get to its most famous destinations. True, but at the cost of making them unappealing. The Cliffs of Moher? Newgrange? Giant’s Causeway? Blarney Castle? Killarney? All generously equipped with tour bus parking, the dreaded ‘Visitors’ Centre’ (except Killarney, all of which is a de facto Visitors’ Centre, thus it needs none) and suitable entry fees. Sweater and other traps, of course, for your shopping pleasure. The Giant’s Causeway so saddened us that we coined the verb “to causeway”: to take an otherwise appealing and beautiful place and garbage it up for money. I understand that everyone needs to make a living, that it is their island to do with as they choose, and that they don’t want or need my advice on that subject. I also understand that most of them despise this trend. Look on the bright side: there are many locations just as appealing and special that are rarely overrun by huge green tour buses labeled “Paddy Wagon” and displaying a large Disney cartoon leprechaun. I very much doubt that every worthwhile place in Ireland will become causewayed in my lifetime. I do not think the Irish will allow that.

Bless them.

What happened to your favorite author (or his/her kid)

If you follow enough authors long enough, some of them will turn to garbage.

Repetition. Gaping plot seams with stitches bursting.

Story twists that wring the neck of what was once great about the franchise.

Bad editing. No editing. Bad proofreading. No proofreading.

How could someone capable of such greatness now turn out this steaming garbage?

Very many people ask that question; few receive answers. In few cases will they ever learn which answers apply. In most cases, it will be one or more of the following:

Profitable Franchise Syndrome. Through careful promotion and at least some display of some form of talent at some point, a select few authors become cash cows. Any book with Cash Cow’s name on the cover is guaranteed X number of copies sold which will produce a profit of $ZZZ,000 at the minimum. Once an author reaches PFS, many publishers no longer give a damn what s/he writes. If the author also no longer gives a damn, there are no barriers to the publication of wretchedness. For obvious reasons, such a publisher will never sick a sharp-penned editor on said author, to tell the author what s/he needs to hear. No one will risk causing a bad case of mastitis in the cash cow, least of all the cow him/herself.

Writing is hard and ideaing is sometimes harder. Some writers loathe above all (even above “will you please read my ms?”) the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” When writers run out of original ideas, they recycle, or steal, or meander without aim. When writers get sick of sewing together mismatched plot points, correcting inconsistencies, and otherwise trying to reduce eventual scarring on the patient, they stop bothering. Why bother, when people will buy it anyway? The priority is not to write a great book this year. The priority is to get a damn book written this year, keep the milk flowing, keep the name on endcaps.

Dotage. Sometimes this combines with PFS. The Grand Old Author has written one more book, after years of not writing. How come these are so often like watching a former home run king hit .189 a year after he turns forty? Because the author is often, at this point, well washed up, and probably either wanted or needed money.

Freelancers. When PFS is reached, the writing may not even be that of the ‘author.’ I have seen books in which it was sadly clear that each chapter had been done by a different ‘lancer and no one had checked the stitching, resulting in a couple of dozen rehashes of the same background material as each ‘lancer felt obligated to make sure the reader knew the pertinent backstory. The author did not bother to remove these redundancies. This is how little they care.

Delusions of inherited writing talent. Just because Mom could write does not mean #2 Son can write. Just because Dad could write really, really does not mean #1 Son can write. This, however, may not stop the grown child of the Famous Author, because said grown child may be a career screwup who sees in Famous Author’s inherited glory and name One Last Chance For An Easy Living. By that time, Ma or Pa may be too old to care. He or she may feel that dues have been paid, and that if this will keep the kid out of debt hell, that is their business. And it is–except for the money that honest readers will waste on dishonest, substandard effort. That is their bad business.

Psychological rabbit holes. In fiction writing, and in particular with first-person fiction that is semi-autobiographical, at times the author reaches a Nietzschean moment. Remember his famous quote? “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Life has taught me that Nietzsche knew what he was talking about, and writing life has countersunk all the screw holes for that lesson. Imagine you’ve got a major inner bugaboo (for example, sexual bondage and domination), and that it’s always been complicated for you. That balance of desire and aversion, the tension between two points, can be a productive wellspring for fiction ideas. It can also become the abyss into which you gaze too long, taking you to a place from which you can not easily come back. Your writing may reflect that, and it may get away from what your readers liked best about your work. Most anyone can take a mental illness (or some lesser condition/neurosis/syndrome/disorder/dysfunction/bugaboo) and use it to write a book. To do so without making the condition much worse, and without having the condition consume the franchise alive–that’s the tough part.

Fetishism. Closely related to the above, of course, and with some overlap, but not the same. One good example was a writer of Westerns with an obvious girlfight fetish. Rare was the book of his in which a pair of women didn’t mix it up. Do I even need to mention that blouses never survived a single battle? Okay, so let’s consider this. Suppose that’s your fetish, and while it does not consume you, you write enough of it to develop an audience–and business is good. Then you decide, okay, I’ve done my time on the pole and I can now de-emphasize my little kink. And sales fall off; reviews scowl. Your audience doesn’t like you so well when it doesn’t get its accustomed dose of the fetish. Tired of writing about breasts flopping loose in a fracas? You are stuck, because that’s the audience you attracted and that’s your brand. You may or may not be able to redefine your brand. You may just end up churning ’em out, supplying the expected unrestrained dairy tackle, because making house payments beats missing house payments, and writing what you know is easier than seeking new horizons.

There may be other reasons (opinions welcomed), but those are some of what I’ve seen. Your favorite author is like a car. It may run for a long time, it may be the best one you ever had, but one day you won’t be able to get parts for it. You may keep it as a classic, a project, but it won’t be your daily drive. You’ll get something you can rely on. By the time your heirs get the old one, they’ll wonder why you kept it so long past its prime.

Amazon blacklists

In case you were hoping to see such a list, I want to make sure the first line tells you that you won’t find one in this post. Legal reasons. However, don’t fret; on the worst one, I’ll drop enough clues.

There was once an aspiring writer who sent his ms to a famous literary personage for comment. The cunning aspirant pasted a couple of his pages together, so that when he got his ms back (children, we used to create these things on typewriters, and copying was so expensive that we sent our originals out to publishers, accompanied by return postage since we did want them back once inevitably rejected), he could see if the personage had finished it. The pasted pages had not been separated, the personage panned the ms, and the aspirant wrote in to complain. “You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know if it’s rotten,” answered the literary personage.

On this philosophy I base a good deal of my life. If something is bad, it is not necessary to continue suffering with it. One ought to be shut of it without remorse. Be it a Facebook moron, a mediocre restaurant, or a crappy Amazon vendor, one may dismiss it. If one can, one probably should.

Amazon does not offer a feature to block or flag a bad seller. One can write a nasty review (and watch the bad seller get it removed), but might someday forget that seller’s name. In such a case, one might send that seller repeat business. We wouldn’t want to do that, would we?

What makes a bad seller? From my standpoint, it’s poor handling when something goes awry. I have learned that there is almost a small industry that rips sellers off: it requests returns and refunds for items where the shipping cost is rather expensive, and it becomes cheaper for the seller to refund the money and not ask for the item back. Disgusting that anyone would do business that way, but this is humanity, and in humanity, if there is a way to do something dishonestly, it will be discovered within seconds of the honest method’s invention.

What it means is that many sellers start out with chips on shoulders. They come to assume that anyone with an issue is angling for something free. Some have procedures they demand be followed, which may or may not be reasonable. They all know that you have them over a barrel, if you want to roll out said barrel, but they try to steer you away from that.

I decided not to make the same mistakes twice (although an infuriating one, noticed this very day, somehow got past me), so I created an Amazon blacklist. It’s a Word table listing the vendor’s name and why I placed them on a no-buy list. Since I try hard to shop with independent vendors rather than accept a 2¢ discount to get it from Amazon’s undercut pricing (yeah, they do that), I’m not the kind of customer the indies should mess with. Yet a few do, and they end up on my blacklist.

In one case, I learned that a whole bunch of idealistic-sounding book vendors were in fact branches of one larger book vendor. It took me some time to find and blacklist them all. Not only have they been jackasses both times something went wrong with an order, but they have the maddening habit of using barcode stickers on the exterior spine. These are usually very difficult to remove without damaging the dust jacket spine or actual spine. Their labels are so fiercely adhesive and persistent that it can take an hour’s soak with Googone to loosen them, and because they are on the spine, that is harder than it would otherwise be. All dozen-odd of their locations are blacklisted. I see them very often when book shopping, and I get a little bit of joy every time I cheerfully pay someone else fifty cents more.

Until Amazon comes up with a blacklisting system for us, I guess it’ll have to do.

The Social Grenadier’s Helpful Keyboard-Launched Grenade Assembly Guide

The descent of Facebook into its natural level–a place where no one can get the living snot whaled out of him or her for being just plain rude, thus people say things they would not say in person and expect no backlash–has led us to a new means of lowering the dialogue level. I call it the Social Grenade.

A social grenade is a statement that follows fairly close to the model: “If you disagree, you have no value.” I call it a social grenade because it catches everyone who sees it in the blast radius, sparing only those it imagines that it exempts. I thought of calling it the social mortar round, but a mortar (an indirect fire weapon) lacks the personal connotation of a hand-thrown or launcher-fired fragmentation grenade. A modern trip through Facebook feels like a trip through no-man’s-land in which both sides pitch periodic grenades and rarely look to see where they fell.

I suspect it is exhausting. People may be having difficult times coming up with suitably alienating and relationship-impairing social grenades. My initial reaction was to compose a post like “If you throw social grenades, please tie a garbage bag tightly over your head.” I am normally a believer in fighting fire with napalm fire, revenge doubling the wrong done, letting people see how it feels, making sure the lesson takes; however, blind adherence to past practice leads to dumb present practice. The brain is not obsolete, even if it may happen to be in disfavor. Don’t always go with your gut, for it is sometimes queasy.

After giving it about two seconds of thought,  I thought I would light a candle rather than curse the darkness. I would offer something proactive and helpful: a handy social grenade assembly guide to smooth and assist in the complete deterioration of all worthwhile dialogue. If the goal is to wreck the maximum number of relationships, let’s streamline the process. Why make alienation harder than it needs to be?

To use this quick-assembly tool, when you come to bracketed items, choose the option that best fits. Please remember that these are only suggestions; if none of the given choices are sufficiently fanatical, invent and insert your own. (If they are all too fanatical for you, you are not the type to throw social grenades, so this is unhelpful for you. When all the social grenadiers have blown up all their relationships, look around you: the survivors will be those who did not participate. They may be very fun people.)

The social grenade begins with your statement of opinion (or absolute truth, if your view does not allow for any remote possibility of differing views qualifying as opinions). So:

My

  • [opinion]
  • [belief]
  • [thesis]
  • [truth]
  • [personal hobbyhorse]
  • [monomania]
  • [objective reality]
  • [divine revelation]
  • [horoscope]
  • [meme]
  • [{other} ________]

is that [{expound your viewpoint here}______________________] and that this view is

  • [divinely revealed, that’s why I called it a damn divine revelation]
  • [fundamentally perfect]
  • [way cool]
  • [duh, winning]
  • [too obvious to explain to idiots]
  • [Zen master wisdom]
  • [the best ever]
  • [eternal truth]
  • [bae]
  • [the only valid perspective]
  • [woke with a mighty waking]
  • [obvious to anyone who was not randomly trepanned in infancy]
  • [directly from the {Bible/Qur’an/Talmud/sports section/bathroom graffiti/________}]
  • [{morally/intellectually/genetically/_____ly} superior]

[{./!/!!!/!!!!!!!!!!!!!!}]

If you disagree, your

  • [perspective]
  • [delusion]
  • [Cthulhu worship]
  • [baffling lapse in reason]
  • [opinion]
  • [conclusion]
  • [tragic mental deficiency]
  • [raving]
  • [idiocy]
  • [psychological incontinence]
  • [cretinism]
  • [ideological perv]
  • [demonic evil]
  • [drug-induced foolishness]
  • [laughable standpoint]
  • [dipshittery]
  • [warped reality]

  • [is wrong]
  • [sucks real hard]
  • [would embarrass a lobotomized tree sloth]
  • [is actively leading us to degeneracy]
  • [makes me puke]
  • [makes me prolapse my stomach, I took selfies as proof]
  • [is cray cray]
  • [makes a strong case for whacking one’s head against a bridge abutment]
  • [admits liking Justin Bieber]
  • [wrote in Kim Jong-Un during the last election for all the offices]
  • [saddens me for humanity]
  • [poaches baby elephants]
  • [would drive a living saint to opium addiction]
  • [is worse than Hitler]
  • [is worse than Hitler and Himmler combined]

Therefore, if you feel this way,

  • [hang yourself]
  • [unfriend me now]
  • [unfriend and block me now]
  • [unfriend, block, and sue me now]
  • [unfriend, block, and ambush me now]
  • [consume a sack of penises]
  • [I will burn your name over a purple flame mounted in a virgin’s skull at midnight]
  • [auto-euthanasia is worth exploring]
  • [you suck]
  • [add some tinfoil to your next pizza]
  • [add some drano to your next pizza]
  • [please get cancer]
  • [I hate you]
  • [your feelings are invalid]
  • [in the garage is a running engine with your name on it]
  • [never speak to me again]
  • [you are such a fuckhead]
  • [you deserve a fatal yeast infection]
  • [I will hunt you down with a nailgun and a bad attitude]
  • [you need mental help]
  • [you need mental health institutionalization]

[./!/!!!/!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!/]

There. Hope that makes it easier!