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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reading List: Journals

Scott, Robert Falcon. Journals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1913, 1914, 1923, 1927] 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-953680-1.
Robert Falcon Scott, leading a party of five men hauling their supplies on sledges across the ice cap, reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912. When he arrived, he discovered a cairn built by Roald Amundsen's party, which had reached the Pole on December 14th, 1911 using sledges pulled by dogs. After this crushing disappointment, Scott's polar party turned back toward their base on the coast. After crossing the high portion of the ice pack (which Scott refers to as “the summit”) without severe difficulties, they encountered unexpected, unprecedented, and, based upon subsequent meteorological records, extremely low temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf (the “Barrier” in Scott's nomenclature). Immobilised by a blizzard, and without food or sufficient fuel to melt ice for water, Scott's party succumbed, with Scott's last journal entry, dated March 29th, 1912.

I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
R. Scott.

For God's sake look after our people.

A search party found the bodies of Scott and the other two members of the expedition who died with him in the tent (the other two had died earlier on the return journey; their remains were never found). His journals were found with him, and when returned to Britain were prepared for publication, and proved a sensation. Amundsen's priority was almost forgotten in the English speaking world, alongside Scott's first-hand account of audacious daring, meticulous planning, heroic exertion, and dignity in the face of death.

A bewildering variety of Scott's journals were published over the years. They are described in detail and their differences curated in this Oxford World's Classics edition. In particular, Scott's original journals contained very candid and often acerbic observations about members of his expedition and other explorers, particularly Shackleton. These were elided or toned down in the published copies of the journals. In this edition, the published text is used, but the original manuscript text appears in an appendix.

Scott was originally considered a hero, then was subjected to a revisionist view that deemed him ill-prepared for the expedition and distracted by peripheral matters such as a study of the embryonic development of emperor penguins as opposed to Amundsen's single-minded focus on a dash to the Pole. The pendulum has now swung back somewhat, and a careful reading of Scott's own journals seems, at least to this reader, to support this more balanced view. Yes, in some ways Scott's expedition seems amazingly amateurish (I mean, if you were planning to ski across the ice cap, wouldn't you learn to ski before you arrived in Antarctica, rather than bring along a Norwegian to teach you after you arrived?), but ultimately Scott's polar party died due to a combination of horrific weather (present-day estimates are that only one year in sixteen has temperatures as low as those Scott experienced on the Ross Ice Shelf) and an equipment failure: leather washers on cans of fuel failed in the extreme temperatures, which caused loss of fuel Scott needed to melt ice to sustain the party on its return. And yet the same failure had been observed during Scott's 1901–1904 expedition, and nothing had been done to remedy it. The record remains ambiguous and probably always will.

The writing, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was done, makes you shiver. At the Pole:

The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.

… Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.

and from his “Message to the Public” written shortly before his death:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

Now that's an explorer.

Posted at 23:51 Permalink

Monday, February 25, 2013

ANTarctica—Fourmilab South Pole Expedition 2013

I have just posted the photo essay of Fourmilab's January 2013 expedition to the South Pole.

At the Pole

Posted at 23:40 Permalink

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reading List: The Last Man

Flynn, Vince. The Last Man. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4165-9521-2.
This is the thirteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the two previous installments, American Assassin (December 2010) and Kill Shot (April 2012), this book is set in the present, as the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from the quagmire of Afghanistan and pay off locals to try to leave something in place after U.S. forces walk away from the debacle. Joe Rickman is the CIA's point man in Jalalabad, cutting deals with shady figures and running black operations. Without warning, the CIA safe house from which he operates is attacked, leaving its four guards dead. Rickman, the man who knows enough secrets from his long CIA career to endanger hundreds of agents and assets and roll up CIA networks and operations in dozens of countries, has vanished.

Mitch Rapp arrives on the scene to try to puzzle out what happened and locate Rickman before his abductors break him and he begins to spill the secrets. Rapp has little to go on, and encounters nothing but obstruction from the local police and staffers at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, all of whom Rapp treats with his accustomed tact:

“You're a bully and a piece of shit and you're the kind of guy who I actually enjoy killing. Normally, I don't put a lot of thought into the people I shoot, but you fall into a special category. I figure I'd be doing the human race a favor by ending your worthless life. Add to that the fact that I'm in a really bad mood. In fact I'm in such a shitty mood that putting a bullet in your head might be the only thing that could make me feel better.”

… “In the interest of fairness, though, I suppose I should give you a chance to convince me otherwise.” (p. 17)

Following a slim lead on Rickman, Rapp finds himself walking into a simultaneous ambush by both an adversary from his past and crooked Kabul cops. Rapp ends up injured and on the sidelines. Meanwhile, another CIA man in Afghanistan vanishes, and an ambitious FBI deputy director arrives on the scene with evidence of massive corruption in the CIA clandestine service. CIA director Irene Kennedy begins to believe that a coordinated operation must be trying to destroy her spook shop, one of such complexity that it is far beyond the capabilities of the Taliban, and turns her eyes toward “ally” Pakistan.

A shocking video is posted on jihadist Web site which makes getting to the bottom of the enigma an existential priority for the CIA. Rapp needs to get back into the game and start following the few leads that exist.

This is a well-crafted thriller that will keep you turning the pages. It is somewhat lighter on the action (although there is plenty) and leans more toward the genre of espionage fiction; I think Flynn has been evolving in that direction in the last several books. There are some delightful characters, good and evil. Although she only appears in a few chapters, you will remember four foot eleven inch Air Force Command Master Sergeant Shiela Sanchez long after you put down the novel.

There is a fundamental challenge in writing a novel about a CIA agent set in contemporary Afghanistan which the author struggles with here and never fully overcomes. The problem is that the CIA, following orders from its political bosses, is doing things that don't make any sense in places where the U.S. doesn't have any vital interests or reason to be present. Flynn has created a workable thriller around these constraints, but to this reader it just can't be as compelling as saving the country from the villains and threats portrayed in the earlier Mitch Rapp novels. Here, Rapp is doing his usual exploits, but in service of a mission which is pointless at best and in all likelihood counterproductive.

Posted at 20:59 Permalink

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading List: Going Clear

Wright, Lawrence. Going Clear. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-307-70066-7.
In 2007 the author won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, an exploration of the origins, structure, and activities of Al-Qaeda. In the present book, he dares to take on a really dangerous organisation: the Church of Scientology. Wright delves into the tangled history of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the origins of the church, which, despite having occurred within the lifetimes of many readers of the book, seem cloaked in as much fog, misdirection, and conflicting claims as those of religions millennia older. One thing which is beyond dispute to anybody willing to examine the objective record is that Hubbard was a masterful confidence man—perhaps approaching the magnitude of those who founded other religions. This was apparent well before he invented Dianetics and Scientology: he moved into Jack Parsons' house in Pasadena, California, and before long took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his savings with a scheme to buy yachts in Florida and sell them in California. Hubbard's military career in World War II is also murky in the extreme: military records document that he was never in combat, but he spun a legend about chasing Japanese submarines off the coast of Oregon, being injured, and healing himself through mental powers.

One thing which nobody disputes is that Hubbard was a tremendously talented and productive writer of science fiction. He was a friend of Robert A. Heinlein and a regular correspondent with John W. Campbell. You get the sense in this book that Hubbard didn't really draw a hard and fast line between the fanciful stories he wrote for a living and the actual life he lived—his own biography and persona seem to have been as much a fabrication as the tales he sold to the pulp magazines.

On several occasions Hubbard remarked that the way to make a big pile of money was to start a religion. (It is often said that he made a bar bet with Heinlein that he could start a religion, but the author's research concludes this story is apocryphal. However, Wright identifies nine witnesses who report hearing Hubbard making such a remark in 1948 or 1949.) After his best-selling book Dianetics landed him in trouble with the scientific and mental health establishment, he decided to take his own advice and re-instantiate it as a religion. In 1954, Scientology was born.

Almost immediately, events took a turn into high weirdness. While the new religion attracted adherents, especially among wealthy celebrities in Hollywood, it also was the object of ridicule and what Scientologists viewed as persecution. Hubbard and his entourage took to the sea in a fleet of ships, attended by a “clergy” called Sea Org, who signed billion year contracts of allegiance to Scientology and were paid monastic subsistence salaries and cut off from contact with the world outside Scientology. Hubbard continued to produce higher and higher levels of revelation for his followers, into which they could be initiated for a formidable fee.

Some of this material was sufficiently bizarre (for example, the Xenu [or Xemu] story, revealed in 1967) that adherents to Scientology walked away, feeling that their religion had become bad space opera. That was the first reaction of Paul Haggis, whose 34 years in Scientology are the foundation of this narrative. And yet Haggis did not leave Scientology after his encounter with Xenu: he eventually left the church in 2009 after it endorsed a California initiative prohibiting same-sex marriage.

There is so much of the bizarre in this narrative that you might be inclined to dismiss it as tabloid journalism, had not the author provided a wealth of source citations, many drawn from sworn testimony in court and evidence in legal proceedings. In the Kindle edition, these links are live and can be clicked to view the source documents.

From children locked in chain lockers on board ship; to adults placed in detention in “the hole”; to special minders assigned to fulfill every whim of celebrity congregants such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise; to blackmail, lawfare, surveillance, and harassment of dissidents and apostates; to going head-to-head with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and winning a tax exemption from them in 1993, this narrative reads like a hybrid of the science fiction and thriller genres, and yet it is all thoroughly documented. In end-note after end-note, the author observes that the church denies what is asserted, then provides multiple source citations to the contrary.

This is a remarkably even-handed treatment of a religion that many deem worthy only of ridicule. Yes, Scientologists believe some pretty weird things, but then so do adherents of “mainstream” religions. Scientology's sacred texts seem a lot like science fiction, but so do those of the Mormons, a new religion born in America a century earlier, subjected to the same ridicule and persecution the Scientologists complain of, and now sufficiently mainstream that a member could run for president of the U.S. without his religion being an issue in the campaign. And while Scientology seems like a mix of science fiction and pseudo-science, some very successful people have found it an anchor for their lives and attribute part of their achievement to it. The abuses documented here are horrific, and the apparent callousness with which money is extracted from believers to line the pockets of those at the top is stunning, but then one can say as much of a number of religions considered thoroughly respectable by many people.

I'm a great believer in the market. If Scientology didn't provide something of value to those who believe in it, they wouldn't have filled its coffers with more than a billion dollars (actually, nobody knows the numbers: Scientology's finances are as obscure as its doctrines). I'll bet the people running it will push the off-putting weird stuff into the past, shed the abusive parts, and morph into a religion people perceive as no more weird than the Mormons. Just as being a pillar of the LDS church provides a leg up in some communities in the Western U.S., Scientology will provide an entrée into the world of Hollywood and media. And maybe in 2112 a Scientologist will run for president of the Reunited States and nobody will make an issue of it.

Posted at 23:40 Permalink

Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading List: Bug Jack Barron

Spinrad, Norman. Bug Jack Barron. Golden, CO: ReAnimus Press, [1969] 2011. ISBN 978-1-585675-85-2.
In his Berkeley Baby Bolshevik days Jack Barron dreamt of power—power to change the world. Years later, he has power, but of a very different kind. As host of the weekly television show “Bug Jack Barron”, he sits in the catbird seat, taking carefully screened calls from those abused by impersonal organisations and putting those in charge in the hot seat, live via vidphone, with no tape delay. One hundred million people tune in to the show, so whatever bugs the caller, bugs Jack Barron, and immediately bugs America.

Jack's Berkeley crowd, veterans of the civil rights battles, mostly consider him a sell-out, although they have sold out in their own ways to the realities of power and politics. But when Jack crosses swords with Benedict Howards, he is faced with an adversary of an entirely different order of magnitude than any he has previously encountered. Howards is president of the Foundation for Human Immortality, which operates centres which freeze the bodies of departed clients and funds research into the technologies which will allow them to be revived and achieve immortality. Only the well-heeled need apply: a freezer contract requires one to deposit US$500,000 (this is in 1969 gold dollars; in 2012 ObamaBucks, the equivalent is in excess of three million). With around a million people already frozen, Howards sits on half a trillion dollars (three trillion today), and although this money is nominally held in trust to be refunded to the frozen after their revival, Howards is in fact free to use the proceeds of investing it as he wishes. You can buy almost anything with that kind of money, politicians most definitely included.

Howards is pushing to have his foundation declared a regulated monopoly, forcing competitors out of the market and placing its governance under a committee appointed by the president of the United States. Barron takes on Howards with a call from a person claiming he was denied a freezer contract due to his race, and sets up a confrontation with Howards in which Barron has to decide whether his own integrity has a price and, if so, what it is. As he digs into Howards' foundation, he stumbles upon details which hint of secrets so shocking they might overturn the political landscape in the U.S. But that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

This is one of the iconic novels of “new wave” science fiction from the late 1960s. It is written in what was then called an “experimental”, stream of consciousness style, with paragraphs like:

The undulating blue-green light writhing behind her like a forest of tentacles the roar of the surf like the sigh of some great beached and expiring sea animal, seemed to press her against the glass reality-interface like a bubble being forced up by decay-gas pressure from the depths of an oily green swamp pool. She felt the weight, the pressure of the whole room pushing behind her as if the blind green monsters that lurked in the most unknowable pits in the ass-end of her mind were bubbling up from the depths and elbowing her consciousness out of her own skull.

Back in the day, we'd read something like this and say, “Oh, wow”. Today, many readers may deem such prose stylings as quaint as those who say “Oh, wow”.

This novel is a period piece. Reading it puts you back into the mindset of the late 1960s, when few imagined that technologies already in nascent form would destroy the power of one-to-many media oligopolies, and it was wrong in almost all of its extrapolation of the future. If you read it then (as I did) and thought it was a masterpiece (as I did), it may be worth a second glance to see how far we've come.

Posted at 23:56 Permalink