May 16, 2014

Happy Friday. Nice day here. We went bike riding last evening and saw people sitting out on their decks enjoying the weather.

I’ve been reading The End, by Ian Kershaw, author of a two-volume biography of Hitler, who describes in this book the last 10 months of the Nazi regime from July 1944 to May 1945, ending in Hitler’s suicide and the collapse of the party with US and British troops and Soviet troops converging on the center of Germany. We know how that worked out.

The book starts with some background, then relates the attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb at a staff meeting on July 20, 1944. Hitler, leaning over the heavy oak table under which the bomb had been left in a briefcase, survived the blast even though others in the room were blasted out the windows. He suffered loss of hearing in one ear and was never well after that until his death the following year. The perps were shot and the shock of the event led the Nazi Party to clamp down on all dissent even more fiercely.

As the war tilted in favor of the Allies, Albert Speer made heroic efforts to maintain armaments production for the Wehrmacht (the army), but the Luftwaffe (air force) was overpowered by Allied air power and could not defend Germany against massive bombing raids that destroyed industrial capacity and transport and demoralized the population. Meanwhile, the Red Army was advancing rapidly from the East, 2.5 million strong. Still, anyone who criticized the party or the Leader (der Fuherer) was apt to be shot or hanged with a sign around their neck saying this is what happens to traitors and defeatists.

As a result, due to a combination of fanaticism by the Nazis and fear among the populace, Germany fought on long after it was clear they were losing the war, resulting in massive unnecessary destruction and loss of life. The book details the exasperation of the German generals, who with few exceptions believed Hitler was a lousy strategist whose war plans often resulted in disaster. Hitler famously fired a series of generals who displeased him by suggesting other ways to position the troops to wage the war.

Anyway, very interesting book. For some reason Kershaw overuses the word “mentalities” in the first 20 pages, but after that the writing gets progressively better and makes for compulsive reading. In paperback, though my hardback copy was remaindered even cheaper. For the military history buff.

Kershaw The End

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May 1, 2014

Happy Thurs. Nice morning here. Should get into the high 50s this afternoon. Still a little snow here and there, mostly where it got piled by plows.

In yokel news, we’ve been watching a series of lectures on the American Revolution by Alan Guelzo, a college professor whose book on Gettysburg is currently a best seller. His style of lecturing is very different from any I’ve seen. Basically, he tells the story of the revolution in considerable detail without notes except for reading passages from letters by George Washington or John Adams or a British general to illustrate what they were thinking at the time. He can rattle off which regiments were at which battles, who the generals and lieutenants were, what date they marched where and also tell interesting stories about the personalities. He also covers the new congress, but his main focus is on Washington and the Continental Army.

I’ve learned a lot from this series, and we’ve augmented it with History Channel videos on the subject. There are 24 30-minute lectures. We did #23 last night. If you want a pretty detailed overview of the Revolution, this is a good bet. His storytelling ability would work well with audio if you like that format. The video uses maps and pictures to illustrate. Guelzo looks the part of the frumpy college professor, but he’s obviously given these lectures many times and loves telling the story. From the public library.

Guelzo American Revolution

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April 30, 2014

Good Wed. Grayish here. Snow still melting.

On the weekend we went to see “Noah” the movie. It was pretty entertaining, if not especially close to the classic text. OTOH, the classic text (Genesis 7-9) is a conflation of two stories (hence one pair of each animal in one version, and seven pairs of “clean” animals in the other). And there are intriguing hints of “giants in the earth in those days” who were messing around with the women folk. The critics have been pretty harsh about “the Watchers” depicted as encrusted with rock. I kind of liked them. But really, if you had a large ship and the world was flooding, would you be surprised that all your neighbors wanted on board? In our visual/oral culture, where few actually read the classics, including the Bible, this may become the best known version of the story. Imagine the new religions waiting to sprout.

Anyway, the flood special effects were suitably astonishing, though I doubt such a vessel would float for long. Putting the animals to sleep was a good move—does away with concerns about food and its effects. Well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but if you cross Exodus and Lord of the Rings, you get the idea. Spectacular, with okay acting. Russell Crowe as Noah and Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain, the bad guy, were pretty good. Shem and Ham were annoying. The women did good.


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April 25, 2014

Happy Fri. Nice morning here. Temp got up to 52 yesterday, and the snow is going pretty fast. We still have some in the yard, and there are piles of it where people cleared streets and driveways. The spring bird migration is on. We saw 8 trumpeter swans at Creamer’s Field refuge, along with many geese and a few ducks. Sunday I heard the first junco of the season in our neighborhood.

We watched the movie Nebraska on DVD. If you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty good. Pam was born in Nebraska and has relatives there, so there was added interest. The scenes of people conversing while watching TV are pretty funny if a bit sad. The plot evolves from an old man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), receiving a publisher’s clearing house type notice that he “may have won $1,000,000.” He has lost his driver’s license due to dementia issues, so he pressures his younger son David to drive him from Billings, MT to Lincoln to collect the prize.

When they stop over in his hometown of Hawthorne, NE, the relatives are impressed with his good fortune and some of them start calculating the value of old debts and favors and want to collect from Woody due to his new-found wealth. Everybody wants to shake his hand. The resulting complications are funny and sad. Well acted, in black and white.

nebraska dvd

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March 25, 2014

Happy Tues. The snow is gradually melting around here. Temp got up to +38 yesterday afternoon and is currently 21.

Yokel news is slow. We watched a good History Channel docu-drama about Benedict Arnold, the Revolutionary War hero turned traitor. Washington was rich and could afford to serve without pay. Arnold wasn’t and couldn’t. After winning some important battles for the rebels, he fell for a loyalist woman who suggested he could make his fortune by betraying the fort at West Point on the Hudson River to the British. Her former BF arranged the subterfuge. At the last moment BF was apprehended with a pass signed by BA and the jig was up.

Arnold escaped to England where he lived out his unhappy days. BF was hanged. West Point was saved. According to the film, Arnold’s perfidy (wotd!) swayed many continental soldiers to reenlist and within a few years the US came into being. The film shows that the mix of rebels, loyalists, and neutrals in the colonies was volatile. Also, the congress, then as now, was unreliable, being composed of self-important blowhards willing to damage the country’s interests in pursuit of their own pet projects. We already knew this.

Locally we had a couple of gun in a crowd incidents but fortunately no one was shot. One perp was easy to identify because he was wearing a jersey with the number 7 on it. LOL. Police: “How tall was he? Hair color? Etc.” Witnesses: “Number 7 did it.”

And statewide we have this headline

Alaska Game Board bans drone use by hunters

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March 21, 2014

Happy Friday. Just 1 degree. Sunny.

We’ve been watching two series of lectures by linguist John McWhorter. The first series was Understanding Linguistics. McWhorter is an interesting lecturer and the topics he covers are mostly interesting and often fascinating. How do children learn language? They first learn some words, but they quickly figure out how to combine them into meaningful sentences that they have never heard before. How do they do that? Why is Shakespeare’s English hard for us to understand now? Why do some languages put the verb last in a sentence while other languages put it first?

The second series is The Story of Human Language, which covers language families of the world and gives two lectures on whether we can trace all languages back to one proto-language that everyone spoke before decamping from Africa for other lands. Some linguists have proposed that the so-called Click Languages of southwest Africa may be the oldest languages on earth because languages tend to get easier to pronounce over time and meaningful clicks are hard to produce. Not sure what to make of that. There are about 6,000 languages in the world, but only about 200 of them have writing and most are destined to die out as the principal languages of the world spread with modern communications and transportation.

McWhorter explains how most languages people learn after childhood are really dialects of a range of languages that constitute “French” or “German” or “English.” People who take classes usually learn the most literate way to speak in a nation’s capital, rather than a variety of the language that is spoken elsewhere. People in the north of France or Germany speak different dialects from the ones spoken in the south. Compare Scots English to English spoken in London or New York or Texas or Jamaica and you get the idea. Both lecture series were from the public library. On DVD and CD or download.

McWhorter Story of Human Language

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Intelligent life

March 20, 2014


Life cannot be classified in terms of a simple neurological ladder, with human beings at the top; it is more accurate to talk of different forms of intelligence, each with its strengths and weaknesses. This point was well demonstrated in the minutes before last December’s tsunami, when tourists grabbed their digital cameras and ran after the ebbing surf, and all the ‘dumb’ animals made for the hills. -B.R. Myers

(Referring to the tsunami of December 26, 2004, that devastated coastal Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.)

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March 17, 2014

Good Mon. Looks to be a pleasant day here today. -6 degrees presently.

We watched an interesting documentary about Bobby Fischer the chess prodigy who won the US Chess championship at age 14 and went on to beat the Russian Boris Spassky, the world champion, in a 24 game match in Iceland in 1972. The match was held at the height of the Cold War and the Russians were our national enemies, so there was a great deal of interest in the match. The TV news, then available on three national channels only, led with updates from the match, which was televised live world wide. Fischer, 29, was noted for his brilliant play and for his eccentric, not to say erratic, behavior. As the match’s opening day approached Fischer demanded more prize money for the winner. In those days, chess masters basically played for free. The figure agreed on was $130,000, a large sum in those days, probably worth a million today.

Fischer almost missed the start of the match while he was holed up in seclusion first in Pasadena and then in New York. The first match began with Spassky’s first move and Fischer, who had not arrived at the match site, had one hour to make his first move. He arrived in the hall with about 15 minutes remaining and moved his piece to join the competition. He blundered on a move mid-game and lost that game to Spassky. The scoring was 1 for a win and ½ point for a tie. Spassky, the reigning world champion, was up 1-0, with 12 points needed for him to win the match. Fischer as challenger needed 12 ½ points. The next day Fischer forfeited game 2 by not showing up. Most knowledgeable observers believed it would be impossible for Fischer to catch up. He complained about TV cameras whirring in the background. They moved the match into a smaller room and had the cameras film through holes in the wall.

Fischer won two of the next three games and the third was a tie, making the score Fischer 2 ½ to Spassky 2. The Russians complained that the US had wired Spassky’s chair and were electronically annoying him. Inspection of the chair revealed two dead flies but no electronics. In game 6 Fischer destroyed Spassky so effectively that the audience burst into appreciative applause and Spassky himself applauded Fischer’s play. Fischer went on to clinch the title in the 21st of a possible 24 games to become the World Chess Champion.

But then something happened. Fischer was required to defend his title at least every three years to retain it, but he never played in an internationally sanctioned match again, though he lived another 35 years. He grew increasingly paranoid and secretive, and ended his days as a mentally unbalanced person who talked only of paranoid fantasies. The documentary explains Fischer’s strange childhood, living with his mother but not knowing who his father was. He started playing chess at age 6 and lost interest in anything else. His mother was constantly off at demonstrations for world peace and Bobby played chess at local clubs under the tutelage of a series of father figures. Somehow he never went to school or played with other children.

His mother was suspected by the FBI of being a Russian spy (her mother was Russian), but she was actually a bit out there herself. So Bobby put all his effort into chess and developed an intuitive grasp of the game that astonished the best players in the game. Many of Fischer’s tournament games are studied today as classics of chess, and his book for beginning chess players is the best-selling chess book of all time. The film features interviews with a number of chess masters who knew Fischer and mentored him. Interesting film.

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) DVD Cover

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March 14, 2014

Happy Fri. 26 degrees here and likely to go above freezing by noon.

We’ve been watching the HBO series of yore, John Adams, about our second president, rival and friend of Jefferson, VP under Washington. He was a complex man, son of a shoemaker, studied law and married up in the world, loving and respectful of his sensible and intelligent wife Abigail, cold and domineering toward his sons, idealistic about the Revolution and the new government, enamored of aristocratic titles, defender of the rule of law and of British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, signer of the Alien and Sedition Act that prohibited speech that brought contempt upon the national government.

The series, if you have not seen it, is extremely well done. It looks pretty authentic, down to the bad teeth everyone had after about age 30 in those days before dentists. Much of it was filmed in Williamsburg. The acting is excellent, bringing Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton to life, while behind the scenes Adams pushed his oldest son John Quincy to excel but lost his second son to alcoholism along the way. We have one more episode to go, part 7, about Adams in the last years of his long life, after he lost his bid for reelection in 1800 to Jefferson, who narrowly won it over Aaron Burr, the latter now known mainly as the man who shot Hamilton to death in a duel a few years later.

Adams lived to be 91 and died on the Fourth of July, 1826, 50 years after he signed the Declaration of Independence, and the same day Jefferson died. The series highlights the difficulties of leading mostly illiterate Americans in an era of poisonous politics. Sound familiar? The scenes of slaves working on the new presidential house in “Washington City” remind us that much of the early centuries of our land of the free was based on a slave economy. Well worth watching.

John Adams dvd

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February 26, 2014

Happy Wed. +1 here and kind of hazy cloudy. There was a pink sunrise.

Not too much to report here. We watched all four Ed Sullivan variety show programs from 1964-65 that featured the new singing phenoms The Beatles. These appearances were credited with gaining the group a huge US audience. The first three appearances were on consecutive weeks, and already the Beatlemania in the audience was pretty extreme. Most people thought the boys (all in their 20s) had really long hair. Compared to the butch cuts that were the norm for the day in the US, that was true. But they wore matching suits and ties and grinned affably. It appeared to me that Paul and Ringo were the natural crowd-pleasing performers. George was pretty focused on his huge guitar and John sang but didn’t talk much except to tell the audience at one point to shut up when he couldn’t make himself heard.

18 months later they returned just as HELP hit the record stores, to be followed soon by the movie. By that time they could hardly perform live anymore due to the screaming crowds. Paul sang solo with acoustic guitar his new song, Yesterday, which became the most recorded song in music history. The rest of each show is good for nostalgia buffs who remember when there were only three TV channels and Ed ruled the airwaves on Sunday evening. The other acts—singers and comedians, mostly—were almost uniformly awful, verging on camp. The best acts were throwbacks to vaudeville like acrobats, magicians, and dancers. If you enjoy the saga of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, these DVDs are worth watching. If not, not. From the public library. You can find them on YouTube also.


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