Sunday, January 31, 2021

Most Secret and Confidential, Steven Maffeo

An interesting twist on warfare in earlier centuries is that while some aspects of the combat itself might be conducted under rigid rules demanded by the limited technology available, other things common to modern warfare were much more haphazard. The use of intelligence at sea during the Napoleonic wars offers a good example, as outlined by Steven Maffeo in 2012's Most Secret and Confidential.

Maffeo, who has served in the United States Navy in different intelligence-related fields, begins by sketching the role of intelligence in military and government policy work during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the time frame of Great Britain's conflict with France. What we find is that the practice o intelligence-gathering was not well-defined and, outside of battlefield information, not particularly emphasized. Different government agencies had responsibilities connected to the gathering of information about rivals and enemies and their activities, but it was rarely coordinated unless some high-ranking government minister had that mindset. Military intelligence was often in the same situation: Commanders who appreciated its value would invest in developing information networks and sources and put what they learned to use. Others would not.

Even for commanders who realized the importance of information-gathering were hampered by 18th and early 19th-century communication technology, and Maffeo devotes a section of the book to showing how the limited communications made it hard to actually use some of the intelligence that agents had gathered. The commanders of individual ships, detached from large fleets or squadrons, were the most likely to be able to make effective use of information since they could act immediately on what they had learned. A fleet admiral might be able to do so, but often information he gathered would be outdated by the time he could bring it to the attention of government ministers.

Maffeo concentrates on the English side of the war, with some attention paid to French intelligence work, and also focuses on the ways that naval commanders handled the discipline of intelligence more than land-based forces. He includes episodes from well-known Napoleonic naval fiction such as the stories of Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturn series as examples of what his research uncovers. The book concludes with three case studies of how intelligence gathering informed (or didn't) three major battles of the era, offering examples of his earlier explanations.

Maffeo's style is clear and not overly academic. Most Secret suffers a little because Maffeo is not always clear when he's discussing a fictional character and the description of the autonomy of a ship-captain on detached duty stretches a little longer than it needs to. The book does not seem to be intended as a deep historical study of Napoleonic-era intelligence but is a well-written and well-researched aid that can bring welcome context to readers interested in learning the basics of the field in the era under consideration.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Welcome Back

During the Trump administration, media folks paid far more attention to comments and communication from the former president himself than from spokespeople. For one, he never shut up, even when he would have benefited from doing so. And since he could still make money for Twitter company officials had no interest in shutting him up. Combine these factors with the duty many of those people felt to Save the Republic and we generally had to dig down fairly deeply into the average news item to learn what someone who knew more than the president did about something might say.

This situation meant that we missed out on one of the frequent features of the Obama administration, the tone-deaf statement from some political automaton about the real-life concerns of people whose lives they knew nothing about. Although former president Obama could do these himself -- the man who had never operated a business telling those who had created them, "You didn't build that." -- the job was usually left to said automata and apparatchiks.

With the dawn of the Biden administration (motto: "Whose third term?") we have some of those statements beginning to surface again, perhaps from some of the same people. Some excellent examples have happened when members of the administration are confronted with claims that their green energy emphasis hurts employment in the traditional energy sectors. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry countered that claim with one that coal miners could now be solar power technicians, without any recognition of how different the two jobs are and the amount of time needed to retrain for the new one. You may remember Kerry as the Obama administration's second Secretary of State, who didn't show up in France for an anti-terrorism unity march following the Charlie Hebdo massacre but did bring James Taylor with him the next week for an event titled Homage de John Kerry a Paris. Rumors that Kerry's title will be changed to Special Presidential Envoy Without a Clue are, as yet, unfounded.

Even non-governmental groups got in on the action. The fact-checking site Politifact, in examining a claim that revoking the Keystone XL pipeline construction permit would cost 11,000 jobs, said that the construction jobs involved were only "temporary." I've never worked a construction job, just like most of the people at Politifact and the sources it used for its report, but even I can figure out that most construction jobs are only temporary -- because the project being constructed is eventually finished. Justifying the job loss in whatever numbers it may be on this basis is the kind of thing we just haven't seen enough of over the last four years.

It brings back fond memories of Obama adviser David Axelrod explaining why the president boosted the thermostat in his office while talking about energy conservation: "He's from Hawaii, OK?" At the time the former president was 48 and had lived a total of 12 years in Hawaii, most recently about 30 years previous. He spent the bulk of the subsequent years in Chicago and New Haven, Connecticut, where folks often achieve indoor warmth by following the lead of native Georgian Jimmy Carter and putting on a sweater.

Considering the larger fibs that most every politician tells with respiratory regularity, these kinds of tone-deaf head-scratchers may seem like quibbling, and they probably are. But when all of the little clues suggest the emperor or empress has no knowledge of what he or she is talking about then it may be time to recognize the big zero in the room.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Perspective, Again


It might seem that, during a time of feeling particularly at sea and powerless, the contemplation of the vastness of the universe would not be a calming exercise -- circumstances can't be altered on even our tiny scale, so why would we look at a picture in which we realize that each shining pinpoint is a sun the size of our own?

But once one adds in the fudge factor of belief in a Creator, one who personally relates to creation and cares for it? Then the mind may turn to a realization that the power which made a universe so large and vast is the same one that tends even the tiny bits of protoplasm that walk around on the surface of a small planet in an unremarkable solar system in an rural stretches of an unremarkable galaxy.

Mindful of us, indeed.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Someone to Watch Over Me, Ace Atkins

In the 48th Spenser book overall, Ace Atkins puts in a callback to his first outing with Robert B. Parker's main creation, Spenser. In 2012's Lullaby, he helped Mattie Sullivan find the actual men who killed her mother. In this year's Someone to Watch Over Me, a grown Maddie comes to Spenser for help with what seems like a small matter: A friend's young sister unwisely took $500 to be a "hostess" at a well-heeled private Boston club. The girl's encounter with a powerful man there unsettled her enough that she fled immediately, leaving behind a backpack and laptop. Although the girl asked Maddie to help, she only got herself thrown out of the club and she would like a little help from Spenser.

He freely gives it, but this small rock turns over to reveal corruption deep and wide as wealthy and powerful people indulge their appetite for young girls while being protected by public officials -- some of whom are just bought off but some of whom participate in the lead baddie's sordid entertainments. Now working with Maddie as well as his longtime friend Hawk, Spenser pursues women willing to tell the truth about the rot and the predators at its core. They won't go quietly, though, and to threaten Spenser or just plain stop him they hire the Gray Man, a professional assassin who once nearly killed him.

Up until last year's Angel Eyes, Atkins had a string of strong outings with Spenser. Its less-focused, less-disciplined narrative left it mostly unsatisfying and unfortunately Someone is a second miss in a row. Atkins ignored a rule that Parker -- intentionally or otherwise -- created in the last decade or so he wrote Spenser -- when your story features Rugar, the Gray Man, it's going to stink. The monochromatic assassin first appeared in Small Vices, where he nearly killed Spenser. Despite his importance as a lever for the narrative, he had a relatively small part. But he came back in on Spenser's side in Cold Service and then as an antagonist again in Rough Weather. Neither book was very good, and part of the reason was the way they traded in the global espionage sort of market in which you might find a super-assassin. They detracted from the realism that usually grounds a Spenser book (A Catskill Eagle, though lacking the Gray Man, has a similar problem of scale).

The banter between Mattie and Spenser is fun, but the obvious Jeffrey Epstein analogue storyline and the way connections to Hawk's supposed Foreign Legion and mercenary past are drawn into the story leave Someone very un-Spenser like and ultimately unsatisfying. It's Atkins' first real miss with the series, so we can hope he bounces back with his next outing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Gathered

-- Thanks to this Nature article by Ben De Haas at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany, we might have some folks learning the benefits of discovering that they might be wrong. We might also learn that people who describe "settled science" or say they "trust in science" betray a limited understanding of what science actually is. But back to the "what do do if you learn you might be wrong" thing; one wishes that this article were somehow translated into words and concepts elected officials could understand and piped into their brains via direct, uninterruptable information feeds.

-- Paul Atreides, please call your office.

-- Real-world busyness prevented me from noting the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron, whose class and dignity outshone even his stellar diamond achievements. He titled his 1992 biography I Had a Hammer after the 1949 Pete Seeger/Lee Hays folk protest song and his frequent nickname, "Hammerin' Hank." But as his courage and dignity in his civil rights work and in facing down the vicious racism that surrounded his bid to break Babe Ruth's home run record demonstrated, Hank Aaron didn't have a hammer: He was the hammer.

-- Washington developments over the past several weeks have mostly turned me off news coverage because it wears me out. I read some of what I considered "old reliable" writers -- some of whom aren't old -- partly because I trust their takes and partly because I know where their biases might show up and shade what they're telling me. But beyond that I'm just exhausted. So even though I'm a few years older than comedienne and columnist Bridget Phetasy and I don't value the late Kurt Cobain's thinking as highly I join her in sighing Kurt's Gen X-defining sigh: "Whatever, never mind."

Oh, and in thinking Smells Like Teen Spirit is a great song.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Secret Service, Tom Bradby

One of the things Len Deighton did best in his nine volumes featuring British intelligence agent Bernard Samson was to show both the everyday life of the spy as well as the humdrum bureaucracy of a national intelligence service. Tom Bradby captures both aspects as he sets out to relate the tale of Kate Henderson, one of MI-6's upper management employees as well as a wife and the mother of two teenagers. In 2019's Secret Service, we learn that the spy work is not necessarily the most challenging of the roles Kate must fill.

Acting on a tip from an old friend, Kate has run an undercover operation which points the finger of suspicion at several high-ranking government officials as potential secret Russian assets. But a glitch in the op puts Kate on thin ice and unable to confirm which, if any of the officials is really sending secrets to Russia and influencing government policy to favor Russian interests. The sudden resignation of the Prime Minister due to illness sharpens the question considerably: Is England about to put a literal spy into Number 10 Downing Street? Even though she is not in her superior's good graces, Kate and her team must try to unmask which candidate is truly the traitor. And she has to do it while her marriage is shaking, her children resent the time her job takes from them and figuring out how to continue to care for her increasingly failing mother, guilty of a long-ago affair that haunts Kate to this day.

The plot described sounds like it would fit in a slightly racier version of a Lifetime movie but Bradby manages to keep all of these balls in the air as well as weave them in an intricate and intriguing pattern. Kate is good at her job but co-workers and supervisors sometimes worry more about their own bureaucratic turf and career advancement than the safety and security of their nation.

Kate Henderson's debt to Bernard Samson is clear, down to the middle-aged supervisors more interested in projecting their dressed-down images as part of their attempts to recapture lost youth. Deighton made clear that Bernard was not entirely reliable as a narrator and Kate seems a little more dependable, but they both find their ability and clear understanding of what's going on thwarted by less-intelligent overseers. Bradby skillfully sketches his few actual "action" scenes and just as skillfully describes the day-to-day routines Kate follows, both domestic and professional. We learn of Kate's struggle through her interior monologue and responses to what's going on around her -- in other words we are shown, not told what is going on, and Secret Service is much the better for it.

The second book of the trilogy, Double Agent, appeared in 2020 and the conclusion is scheduled for later this year. So far, Bradby's millennial "spy mom" is holding her own with Deighton's baby boomer "spy dad," and we can hope it continues.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Rabbie!

January 25 was the birthday of Scotland's national poet, the great Robert Burns. In his "Extempore Epistles to Gavin Hamilton, Esq.", grouped as one of the "Stanzas on Naething," we find him anticipating Seinfeld by 203 years

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Almost Makes You Pity the Virus

A couple of days ago, Buzz Aldrin noted he had received his first COVID-19 vaccine. He is a prime candidate; he was almost 91 on the day he received his shot.

It does seem a little unfair, though. He's Buzz Aldrin: It's not like the virus had much of a chance against him in the first place.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Timing

Alas, the high tension level in Washington, D.C. today left me thinking my desire to post a Joe Biden joke on my Facebook feed would have been poorly received. I should have used it back closer to election day, but who would have guessed something like this mess?

Anyway, my joke was that I was looking forward to Inauguration Day because I very much wanted to see whose Inauguration speech President Biden would deliver. Oh well. And as far as I've been able to see, the new president decided not to "channel" Neil Kinnock in this one. He did talk a lot about unity, and I appreciated that although I think a number of his supporters smiled, clapped and made approving faces while still thinking that anyone to their right dragged knuckles on the ground when they walked.

But to be honest, I don't know if I really want unity. I know I don't want it if it means I have to think like he does, because he's wrong about a lot of things. And according to Robert Gates, who was Defense Secretary while President Biden was Vice-President Biden, those things include "nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." That's not good.

I also don't necessarily want unity if it means President Biden and everyone thinks like I do. I can be wrong (trust me -- I've seen me do it) and it's only when someone thinks differently than I do when I'm wrong that we learn what's right.

What I think I would like are good manners. That may sound very very Church-Ladyish but I sort of mean it. What if I thought differently than someone else -- and in fact, thought they were flat-out doorpost dumb? But I didn't tell them I thought they were dumb, because doing so would be...bad manners. What if I thought that a particular public official, either current or very recently former, had next to no character and didn't deserve the high office he or she held but I didn't verbally brand that idea into every conversation I had with everyone every day because doing so would be...bad manners? Say someone told me they'd heard the best poem they'd ever heard today but they'd be hard-pressed to tell me the second-best poem they'd ever heard, and I thought that meant they were responding more to the occasion than whatever actual poetry might have been said. But I didn't tell them because that would be...bad manners.

You get the idea. No demands for conformity masquerading as unity cosplay. But also no shouting. Just good manners. I'm probably being hopelessly bourgeois, but I really think there's a possibility here. Maybe I'll try to act on it.

Monday, January 18, 2021

New Message Available?

The key to developing the COVID-19 vaccine is something called "messenger RNA," which is a substance the body uses to, in essence, tell DNA what to do.

Broadly speaking, the vaccine is a certain kind of mRNA which tells the body to act like it is infected with the COVID-19 virus even though it is not. It thus produces antibodies for the virus and if the virus shows up later the antibodies necessary to give it a mitochondrial smackdown are already present. The minor side effects some people report from the vaccination -- soreness, tiredness and such -- come from the immune system ramping up, not from a very mild case of COVID. Neither live weakened virus or dead virus are ever injected into people with the vaccine.

One of the cool potential fallouts from the research that led to this vaccine was the way that mRNA could then be used to create other vaccines for things that go wrong in the body we currently don't have a way to fight. This week the company BioNTech and researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany announced what might be one of the first of these new series of vaccines -- targeting multiple sclerosis. MS, in which the myelin sheaths of nerve cells deteriorate and progressively damage the nerves themselves, is a disease without a cure. Physical therapy and some drug treatments slow or lessen its effects, but people diagnosed with it generally live five to ten years less than people without it. There is no cure...yet.

Tests in mice have shown the new vaccine prevents the development of the disease if the genetic conditions that lead to it are present. It also has halted MS in its early stages and reversed some of the loss of motor muscle control that had already happened. Could another scourge of humanity be next on the list for mRNA to promise relief from?

I mean medically, of course. The solution to that other scourge of humanity is the ballot box, but the problem is the frequent need for booster doses when the promised solution turns out to be a half-baked idea from an unbaked brain.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Alas!

Calvin learns that the leader pays a heavy price if he attempts a movement without convincing the people of the rightness of his vision.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Burninatin' the Ballot!

Today, Trogdor becomes a legal adult and registers to vote! Predictably, he kept his party affiliation secret but he did receive a new Homestar homepage design in his honor.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Long Ago and Far Away

Even in the wild wild world of e-publishing books have to have something of a return in order for a series to continue, and apparently Evan Currie's alternative history tale Steam Legion never quite demonstrated the legs to get anyone to invest in continuing the series. Which is too bad because it's a neat twist on both the alternative history and steampunk genres, offering a simpler and more realistic outing in the one and welcome new ground for the other in 2012's Steam Legion.

Dyna of Sparta studies under Heron of Alexandria in the first century Roman Empire. The long-simmering revolt of the Zealots in Judea has spilled out into other provinces, endangering the Egyptian city and its fabulous library. While the Spartans of her day are more of a joke than the feared fighters of legend, Dyna is of the line of Leonidas and is not about to abandon her teacher, his work or the knowledge the library contains to mobs operating under cover of devotion to their monotheism. As a Spartan noble she has some authority under Roman law and she marshals the few Roman soldiers still on station. They use working models of Archimedes' steam cannon built by Heron to repel the invaders. But enough escape to link up with other Zealot forces, and they will be back. Dyna, the Roman commander Cassius and Heron have only a brief window to put more of Heron's test models to work and help them defend the city before a Zealot army returns to destroy them all.

Currie has fashioned a straightforward story to introduce his planned series and he gives it very little distracting adornment. In our history, the city of Alexandria faded into obscurity despite its famous library, as partial destruction by Julius Caesar and neglect gnawed it to a slow death. The first Jewish-Roman war, unaided by secret Roman political manipulation, did not spread from Judea into Egypt. He tweaks history just slightly to rope in the city and library so he can introduce Heron and the obviously-destined-for-greatness scholar/warrior Dyna. As befits the intended first volume of a series, the characters are only partially developed outside the broadest strokes. Dyna carries the shame of the pale reflection her people are of their past as it spurs her to guard the honor of the line of Leonidas even more resolutely. Cassius is not at all sure a woman is the right person to follow into battle -- even more when she insists on working with the philosopher/artisan Heron and his contraptions -- but the results speak for themselves.

What Currie had planned for his cast following Steam Legion isn't clear, although they've drawn the attention and ire of some high-level plotters against the emperor Nero by thwarting their plans to foment unrest and their peaceful return to the Library seems unlikely. It works as a stand-alone, though, because his character development is organic as well as incremental; it serves the purpose of the story it's in as well as setting the stage for possibilities later. His battle scenes, including the fearsome new steam cannons, hit with force and reality and he's well-capable of accent spots of wry humor here and there to counter the potential ridiculousness of taking the story too seriously.

Since 2012 Currie has busily written a few series and a handful of stand-alone novels. They are surely genre fiction and don't aspire to be more than good diverting yarns with interesting situations and characters to root for. Steam Legion fits well within that category and has the advantage of being significantly better done that a lot of its competitors in the field.

-----

Just about anyone who knows the words to the "Marine's Hymn" knows that it includes the phrase, "on the shores of Tripoli." The actual battle involved is the Battle of Derna, originally planned to be one piece of a plan to put an American ally -- Hamet Karamanli -- on the throne of the Pasha of Tripolitania. The Pasha was one of the many Barbary states leaders who pirated shipping in the Mediterranean Sea and the United States had an eye on his removal and replacement with someone less predatory. Kevin Emmet Foley offers a slightly fictionalized version of the battle and its lead-up in his 2016 historical fiction novel Fort Enterprize.

The plan begins when American diplomat William Eaton heads to Egypt in 1804 to meet with Hamet and persuade him that with American help he can regain the throne from his brother, the usurper Yusuf Karamanli. Hamet recruits mercenaries to his cause, and US Navy Commodore Samuel Barron commits some small ships to provide shore bombardment when the invading force attacks cities. He also provides a small detachment of US Marines, led by 1st Lt. Presley O'Bannon, to help the land-based forces. They will have a long march overland from Alexandria to Derna but if they take it they will be within striking distance of Tripoli and be able to free captured American sailors.

Foley uses O'Bannon as his focal point, with a brief framing narrative about a writer distantly related to him who interviews him not long before he passes in 1850 to get the "true story" about the affair. Through interviews and some books O'Bannon has on the history of the Tripolitan conflict, we see the story unfold of Eaton's original plan, the suffering of the captive sailors, the long and hard march from Alexandria to Derna (called "Derne" by Foley) and the swirl of martial prowess undercut now and again by greedy and incompetent diplomats. Foley works to make his style have a Victorian air and influence with moderate success and he takes just enough liberties with history to make his story better. He also, in the framing narrative, highlights what O'Bannon's experiences with Barbary states slavery make him think of the somewhat milder but still repugnant version he finds when he returns home.

Enterprize clunks in some places -- the circumlocutionary style of the Victorian era or antebellum South is not easily mastered and there are places where the seams show. Better editing would help as well; "gentile" and "genteel" may resemble each other aurally but they differ widely in meaning. The aforementioned impact of O'Bannon's view of slavery is a nice touch in explaining how his story has an impact on his great-nephew, but we don't really find out why we should care.

The Battle of Derna is one of only two named locations in the "Marine's Hymn," representing the first time an American-led armed force ever captured an enemy stronghold on land and the first time the American flag flew over eastern hemisphere soil. Although negotiated settlements would eventually free American captives and undermine the work done by Easton, O'Bannon and the others, the Corps considers it a great marker in their long and proud history. Foley's book may not be the best historical fiction to cover the march to Derna and subsequent battle, but it's certainly an honorable homage and a reasonably enjoyable read.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The 21st Century Way

Burning books is old-fashioned and messy -- and probably, in the minds of the complainers in this story, environmentally problematic. If you just threaten the stores that sell books you don't like you can have the same impact without the risk of burning yourself. Or, you know, looking like the kind of people who burn books.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Fusion

A photographer has made a specialty of blending celebrity facial images using editing software to create hybrids of the two.

He deliberately chooses people with some similar facial features, which is probably why some of the blends just really look like one of the celebrities more than they do an actual blend. Number 29 might be a blend of Idris Elba and Mahershala Ali but it still looks like a picture of Elba. The collection at the link contains a couple male-female blends -- I suppose they might give an impression of what the children of such a couple might look like.

One thing I believe I can say for certain about them, though, is that no matter whose facial features are dominant in #12, the result has either a) never been funny or b) not been funny in a long, long time.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Definitions

I'm appalled at the rioting that took place in the United States Capitol on Wednesday. I'm appalled at the series of bone-headed decisions that made it possible, made it likely and made it last a lot longer than it should have.

I'm appalled (but not surprised) that the chump in the White House -- who, by the way, works for us -- didn't match his actions to his words and march his wrinkled Boomer "law and order" behind down to where a bunch of thugs were breaking stuff I as a taxpayer own and threatening my other employees in the House and Senate (who don't get much good work done when they're not being chased out of the building, let alone when they are). I'm appalled that two gents who've sold themselves as really smart guys because they clerked for Supreme Court justices understand neither history nor their operating instructions well enough to see that following the lead of Barbara Boxer as well as the engineers of the Compromise of 1877 are bad ideas.

I'm appalled at stupid tactical decisions that emboldened rioters enough to charge armed guards and get one of them killed. I'm appalled that this whole mess gives a group of people (the aforementioned employees) who do very little more than talk about themselves and posture the opportunity to do more talking and posturing. I'm appalled at the years-long history of people who keep trying, with the same single-minded delusion that you can pick up a cow chip by the clean end, to use the inexplicable appeal of the aforementioned chump for their own benefit and thus put him in a place where he can break things.

But attempted coup? Because some reform school dropout sat in the Speaker of the House's chair? Because some goon with a buffalo headdress ran through the rotunda? Let's say that these people were somehow able to occupy the Capitol Building. Just what levers of governmental power would they have then taken over? Just what would they have been able to do? The United States Congress met in a hotel for three months in 1814 because the British burned the Capitol Building down. A completely inaccessible Capitol Building would not weaken Congress's ability to do its job by one bit (an absence of TV cameras, on the other hand...) If this truly was an attempted coup, it was easily the most cuckoo coup imaginable.

Let's assess why this happened. Let's assess how this happened. Let's assess ways to reduce the chance it happens again. And then let us waste no more time on it. The human capacity for indignation may be inexhaustible but time and energy aren't -- and these mouth-breathing would-be "Rubespierres" and their vain, shallow Napoleon wannabe have taken up enough both already.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Updates

-- Last week this space mocked the Food and Drug Administration for its plans to assess a $14,000 fee on small distilleries that had switched production lines to creating hand sanitizer in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Well it turns out that this blog is read by the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, because he directed the FDA to not only not collect the fee but to remove it from the Federal Register. You may say that's because he read about it in one of the mainstream media outlets that reported on this matter as well, but until you produce conclusive proof that he does not read this blog I'll say it my way and you can say it yours.

-- Last May 4 some officers of the Lethbridge Police Service in Lethbridge, Alberta Canada responded to emergency calls about a person with a weapon in front of the Coco Villa Galactic Cantina. On arrival they observed a person in white plastic clothing and a helmet obscuring their features holding a black weapon of the general size of a rifle. They immediately ordered the person to drop the weapon and get on the ground, using force only when the subject failed to immediately comply with police commands. Officers also warned people away who were attempting to interfere with the performance of their duties. The subject was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car while both she and the Cantina owner were questioned, and she was released when it was determined that no crime had been committed.

That's the way that the Lethbridge Police Service would like the story told, but people who remember it know that account leaves out the fact that the white plastic clothing and helmet were a Star Wars "stormtrooper" costume and the weapon was a chunk of plastic shaped like a "blaster." And it leaves out that the woman wearing the costume was trying to get to the ground in the mobility-limiting armor when she was shoved down hard enough to get a bloody nose and that the people warned away were recording this whole textbook exercise in stupidity on their cell phones when they were threatened with arrest for doing so, and that the owner was threatened when he was yelling that the woman was his employee, dressed up for a "May the Fourth Be With You" day at the business.

The Lethbridge Police Service did not investigate its own officers' conduct -- although you'd think that admitting you were smart enough to know your officers erred and how would be the wise course of action -- but turned it over to the Medicine Hat Police Service and the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team. Those bodies, after a thorough review of the evidence that took only seven months -- two months faster than the development of a vaccine for a brand-new virus the world had never before seen in humans -- have decided that the incident warrants the filing of no criminal charges against the officers.

Which, OK. If the investigation was trying to see if the officers' errors rose to the level of felony crimes I'd have to agree. And maybe even misdemeanors are a little excessive, but you'd think there's be something that they could at least write someone a ticket for. Like maybe "Failure to recognize one of the most ubiquitous characters of one of the largest movie franchises in history on a pop culture holiday dedicated to that franchise." Or, "Failure to differentiate between inert plastic toys shaped like no known firearm because they are meant to be fictional ray guns and actual firearms." That one probably with aggravated circumstances, because it occurred in broad daylight instead of some dimly-lit alley. Perhaps, "Failure to understand that if a stiff bullet-proof vest makes moving around harder to do then a head-to-toe suit of stiff plastic might make it even more so."

But no. So now any disciplinary action will come as a result of an internal professional misconduct investigation by the Lethbridge Police Service. My personal recommendation is that all of the officers be required to do foot patrol wearing Princess Leia's metal bikini for at least one full week. That has the advantage of potentially punishing whichever Lethbridge resident called police to begin with, by making sure he or she is exposed to the sight.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Middlin' Spies

The recent death of Sean Connery brought a blip in attention to his James Bond movies as examples of mid-60s attitudes and imagery, leaving co-authors Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens a prime debut point for their Bond homage about British MI6 agent John Sand, Come Spy With Me.

Sand, they suggest, is the actual spy on whom Ian Fleming -- who goes unnamed in the book -- based his Bond novels. The renewed notoriety of the books accompanying the major box office success of the movie series raised his profile and ruined his usefulness as a secret agent, seeing as how he wasn't all that secret anymore. So he retired and settled down with Stacey Boldt, the Texas oil heiress whose life he saved in his final adventure. As an executive with her company, Sand's time is taken up with deals and boardrooms instead of caper and bedrooms -- until the President of the United States sends an invitation to a meeting. Rogue elements of the CIA plot deadly and destabilizing moves in the Caribbean, and the President doesn't know who among his own people he can trust. Can John Sand, retired, happily married and rather averse to upsetting his wife by getting into the gunsights of enemy agents, help him? After all, nobody does it better.

Come Spy With Me takes a lot of great ingredients -- the swagger of
mid-60s popular culture, the chance to take on a Bond-type character without the layers of icon varnish, the nostagia-strengthened moral certitude of honest American and English good guys vs. authoritarian and megalomaniacal bad guys -- and from them creates a pretty bland entrée. The book title riffs of a Frank Sinatra album and promises some good old-fashioned Rat-Pack 'tude that never really comes across, even though Frank and the boys make a swinging cameo early in the story.

The central plot of Sand trying to uncover and thwart the rogue CIA and organized crime elements who want the region open for their kind of business never really gets into high gear, almost seeming like a prologue to the personal dangers Mr. and Mrs. Sand may yet face from villains thought buried. Collins and Clemens reach for Fleming's energy but don't re-create it even with all of these kinds of meta-narrative touchstones at their disposal. In the same way that a program for a museum exhibit may show pictures of artwork that may be very well-done but aren't the work themselves, Come Spy With Me is a well-done homage to a character and an era while only being so-so done itself.

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National Review writer Jim Geraghty had some moderate success with his initial spy thriller, Between Two Scorpions. In it, he introduced us to the Dangerous Clique, an ad hoc team of United States agents aimed at only the most dangerous international baddies. The book did well enough that Geraghty was writing a sequel, set to be released in 2020. Then a worldwide pandemic happened, and the plot of the novel didn't work right in a world of COVID-19. So Geraghty shelved the story he had to that point and began a new one, this time taking the pandemic into account as he wrote Hunting Four Horsemen.

The Clique learns of a rogue biological weapons expert going by the name "Hell Summoner" who is offering his services to the highest bidder. Those services involve tailoring a virus to a population with shared genetic characteristics, even down to a single shared gene. The list of evil people who would love to possess a plague that would kill their enemies and not endanger their own population -- or at least, not endanger more than a small percentage of them -- is long and the only reason that someone hasn't gone ahead and hired this mysterious fiend is because he wants more money than all but a few players on the world scene have to hand. But a couple of them may get together and the Hell Summoner may lower his price, so the Clique have to move fast to track him down and learn who's hired him if they want to stop his horrifying plan.

Plenty of thriller authors will probably not write the pandemic into their storylines, but Geraghty is smarter than a lot of them are and he not only includes the reality of COVID into his fictional world but also into his plot. Unfortunately he does so with massive sections of tell-not-show infodumps that stall out the narrative almost to a dead stop. Obviously a world of travel limitations and widespread sickness and death would have an impact on everyone, including spies and operators. Among the Clique, the devil-may-care Alec has always been the group comic relief, but the weight of the devastation wrought by COVID leaves him uncharacteristically quipless for most of the book. Again that's not at all unusual, but Geraghty just tells the reader this rather than showing it.

Geraghty did an immense amount of research into the pandemic and possible causes for the viral spread during its early days. Unfortunately more than one chapter of Hunting Four Horsemen reads more like a good magazine or newspaper article than a suspense thriller. Horsemen has some good action sequences, a great in-joke nod to listeners of Geraghty and Greg Corombos' podcast The Three Martini Lunch and a marvelously inventive twist. Perhaps more time could have helped Geraghty work his extensive research more naturally into the other elements.

Even though Horsemen isn't as much of an improvement over Scorpions as a reader might want, it still gives some reason to look forward to the third outing of the Clique and not give up on them yet.
 

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Lurking Menace Grows

Unfortunately the new year has not saved the unnamed midwestern town, as the snow goon discovers its horrifying power of modification...