July 2005

Sloane, Eric. Diary of an Early American Boy. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1962] 2004. ISBN 0-486-43666-7.
In 1805, fifteen year old Noah Blake kept a diary of his life on a farm in New England. More than a century and a half later, artist, author, and collector of early American tools Eric Sloane discovered the diary and used it as the point of departure for this look at frontier life when the frontier was still in Connecticut. Young Noah was clearly maturing into a fine specimen of the taciturn Yankee farmer—much of the diary reads like:
21: A sour, foggy Sunday.
22: Heavy downpour, but good for the crops.
23: Second day of rain. Father went to work under cover at the mill.
24: Clear day. Worked in the fields. Some of the corn has washed away.
The laconic diary entries are spun into a fictionalised but plausible story of farm life focusing on the self-reliant lifestyle and the tools and techniques upon which it was founded. Noah Blake was atypical in being an only child at a time when large families were the norm; Sloane takes advantage of this in showing Noah learning all aspects of farm life directly from his father. The numerous detailed illustrations provide a delightful glimpse into the world of two centuries ago and an appreciation for the hard work and multitude of skills it took to make a living from the land in those days.


Faverjon, Philippe. Les mensonges de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paris: Perrin, 2004. ISBN 2-262-01949-5.
“In wartime,” said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” This book examines lies, big and small, variously motivated, made by the principal combatants in World War II, from the fabricated attack on a German radio station used as a pretext to launch the invasion of Poland which ignited the conflict, to conspiracy theories about the Yalta conference which sketched the map of postwar Europe as the war drew to a close. The nature of the lies discussed in the various chapters differs greatly—some are propaganda addressed to other countries, others intended to deceive domestic populations; some are strategic disinformation, while still others are delusions readily accepted by audiences who preferred them to the facts. Although most chapters end with a paragraph which sets the stage for the next, each is essentially a stand-alone essay which can be read on its own, and the book can be browsed in any order. The author is either (take your pick) scrupulous in his attention to historical accuracy or, (if you prefer) almost entirely in agreement with my own viewpoint on these matters. There is no “big message”, philosophical or otherwise, here, nor any partisan agenda—this is simply a catalogue of deception in wartime based on well-documented historical examples which, translated into the context of current events, can aid in critical analysis of conventional wisdom and mass stampede media coverage of present-day conflicts.


Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.


Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Rocket Boys. New York: Doubleday, 1998. ISBN 0-385-33321-8.
The author came of age in southern West Virginia during the dawn of the space age. Inspired by science fiction and the sight of Sputnik gliding through the patch of night sky between the mountains which surrounded his coal mining town, he and a group of close friends decided to build their own rockets. Counselled by the author's mother, “Don't blow yourself up”, they managed not only to avoid that downside of rocketry (although Mom's garden fence was not so lucky), but succeeded in building and launching more than thirty rockets powered by, as they progressed, first black powder, then melted saltpetre and sugar (“rocket candy”), and finally “zincoshine”, a mixture of powdered zinc and sulphur bound by 200 proof West Virginia mountain moonshine, which propelled their final rocket almost six miles into the sky. Their efforts won them the Gold and Silver award at the National Science Fair in 1960, and a ticket out of coal country for the author, who went on to a career as a NASA engineer. This is a memoir by a member of the last generation when the U.S. was still free enough for boys to be boys, and boys with dreams were encouraged to make them come true. This book will bring back fond memories for any member of that generation, and inspire envy among those who postdate that golden age.

This book served as the basis for the 1999 film October Sky, which I have not seen.


Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called “Petroleum Scorched Earth” (“Petro SE”) which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient—the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible—if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult—refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), “dirty bombs” composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) “could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years”. What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, “Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat”, estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back—enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine—it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things—they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.


Aagaard, Finn. Aagaard's Africa. Washington: National Rifle Association, 1991. ISBN 0-935998-62-4.
The author was born in Kenya in 1932 and lived there until 1977 when, after Kenya's ban on game hunting destroyed his livelihood as a safari guide, he emigrated to the United States, where he died in April 2000. This book recounts his life in Kenya, from boyhood through his career as a professional hunter and guide. If you find the thought of hunting African wildlife repellent, this is not the book for you. It does provide a fine look at Africa and its animals by a man who clearly cherished the land and the beasts which roam it, and viewed the responsible hunter as an integral part of a sustainable environment. A little forensic astronomy allows us to determine the day on which the kudu hunt described on page 124 took place. Aagaard writes, “There was a total eclipse of the sun that afternoon, but it seemed a minor event to us. Laird and I will always remember that day as ‘The Day We Shot The Kudu’.” Checking the canon of 20th century solar eclipses shows that the only total solar eclipse crossing Kenya during the years when Aagaard was hunting there was on June 30th, 1973, a seven minute totality once in a lifetime spectacle. So, the kudu hunt had to be that morning. To this amateur astronomer, no total solar eclipse is a minor event, and the one I saw in Africa will forever remain a major event in my life. A solar eclipse with seven minutes of totality is something I shall never live to see (the next occurring on June 25th, 2150), so I would have loved to have seen the last and would never have deemed it a “minor event”, but then I've never shot a kudu the morning of an eclipse!

This book is out of print and used copies, at this writing, are offered at outrageous prices. I bought this book directly from the NRA more than a decade ago—books sometimes sit on my shelf a long time before I read them. I wouldn't pay more than about USD 25 for a used copy.


Lefevre, Edwin. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. New York: John Wiley & Sons, [1923] 1994. ISBN 0-471-05970-6.
This stock market classic is a thinly fictionalised biography of the exploits of the legendary speculator Jesse Livermore, written in the form of an autobiography of “Larry Livingston”. (In 1940, shortly before his death, Livermore claimed that he had actually written the book himself, with writer Edwin Lefevre acting as editor and front-man; I know of no independent confirmation of this claim.) In any case, there are few books you can read which contain so much market wisdom packed into 300 pages of entertaining narrative. The book was published in 1923, and covers Livermore/Livingston's career from his start in the bucket shops of Boston to a millionaire market mover as the great 1920s bull market was just beginning to take off.

Trading was Livermore's life; he ended up making and losing four multi-million dollar fortunes, and was blamed for every major market crash from 1917 through the year of his death, 1940. Here is a picture of the original wild and woolly Wall Street—before the SEC, Glass-Steagall, restrictions on insider trading, and all the other party-pooping innovations of later years. Prior to 1913, there were not even any taxes on stock market profits. Market manipulation was considered (chapter 19) “no more than common merchandising processes”, and if the public gets fleeced, well, that's what they're there for! If you think today's financial futures, options, derivatives, and hedge funds are speculative, check out the description of late 19th century “bucket shops”: off-track betting parlours for stocks, which actually made no transactions in the market at all. Some things never change, however, and anybody who read chapter 23 about media hyping of stocks in the early decades of the last century would have been well cautioned against the “perma-bull” babblers who sucked the public into the dot-com bubble near the top.