August 2009

Weber, Bruce. As They See 'Em. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7432-9411-9.
In what other game is a critical dimension of the playing field determined on the fly, based upon the judgement of a single person, not subject to contestation or review, and depending upon the physical characteristics of a player, not to mention (although none dare discuss it) the preferences of the arbiter? Well, that would be baseball, where the plate umpire is required to call balls and strikes (about 160 called in an average major league game, with an additional 127 in which the batter swung at the pitch). A fastball from a major league pitcher, if right down the centre, takes about 11 milliseconds to traverse the strike zone, so that's the interval the umpire has, in the best case, to call the pitch. But big league pitchers almost never throw pitches over the fat part of the plate for the excellent reason that almost all hitters who have made it to the Show will knock such a pitch out of the park. So umpires have to call an endless series of pitches that graze the corners of the invisible strike zone, curving, sinking, sliding, whilst making their way to the catcher's glove, which wily catchers will quickly shift to make outside and inside pitches appear to be over the plate.

Major league umpiring is one of the most élite occupations in existence. At present, only sixty-eight people are full-time major league umpires and typically only one or two replacements are hired per year. Including minor leagues, there are fewer than 300 professional umpires working today, and since the inception of major league baseball, fewer than five hundred people have worked games as full-time umpires.

What's it like to pursue a career where if you do your job perfectly you're at best invisible, but if you make an error or, even worse, make a correct call that inflames the passion of the fans of the team it was made against, you're the subject of vilification and sometimes worse (what other sport has the equivalent of the cry from the stands, “Kill the umpire!”)? In this book, the author, a New York Times journalist, delves into the world of baseball umpiring, attending one of the two schools for professional umpires, following nascent umpires in their careers in the rather sordid circumstances of Single A ball (umpires have to drive from game to game on their own wheels—they get a mileage allowance, but that's all; often their accommodations qualify for my Sleazy Motel Roach Hammer Awards).

The author follows would-be umpires through school, the low minors, AA and AAA ball, and the bigs, all the way to veterans and the special pressures of the playoffs and the World Series. There are baseball anecdotes in abundance here: bad calls, high profile games where the umpire had to decide an impossible call, and the author's own experience behind the plate at an intersquad game in spring training where he first experienced the difference between play at the major league level and everything else—the clock runs faster. Relativity, dude—get used to it!

You think you know the rulebook? Fine—a runner is on third with no outs and the batter has a count of one ball and two strikes. The runner on third tries to steal home, and whilst sliding across the plate, is hit by the pitch, which is within the batter's strike zone. You make the call—50,000 fans and two irritable managers are waiting for you. What'll it be, ump? You have 150 milliseconds to make your call before the crowd starts to boo. (The answer is at the end of these remarks.) Bear in mind before you answer that any major league umpire gets this right 100% of the time—it's right there in the rulebook in section 6.05 (n).

Believers in “axiomatic baseball” may be dismayed at some of the discretion documented here by umpires who adjust the strike zone to “keep the game moving along” (encouraged by a “pace of game” metric used by their employer to rate them for advancement). I found the author's deliberately wrong call in a Little League blowout game (p. 113) reprehensible, but reasonable people may disagree.

As of January 2009, 289 people have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. How many umpires? Exactly eight—can you name a single one? Umpires agree that they do their job best when they are not noticed, but there will be those close calls where their human judgement and perception make the difference, some of which may be, even in this age of instant replay, disputed for decades afterward. As one umpire said of a celebrated contentious call, “I saw what I saw, and I called what I saw”. The author concludes:

Baseball, I know, needs people who can not only make snap decisions but live with them, something most people will do only when there's no other choice. Come to think of it, the world in general needs people who accept responsibility so easily and so readily. We should be thankful for them.

Batter up!

Answer: The run scores, the batter is called out on strikes, and the ball is dead. Had there been two outs, the third strike would have ended the inning and the run would not have scored (p. 91).


Flynn, Vince. Separation of Power. New York: Pocket Books, [2001] 2009. ISBN 978-1-4391-3573-0.
Golly, these books go down smoothly, and swiftly too! This is the third novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. It continues the “story arc” begun in the second novel, The Third Option (June 2009), and picks up just two weeks after the conclusion of that story. While not leaving the reader with a cliffhanger, that book left many things to be resolved, and this novel sorts them out, administering summary justice to the malefactors behind the scenes.

The subject matter seems drawn from current and recent headlines: North Korean nukes, “shock and awe” air strikes in Iraq, special forces missions to search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and intrigue in the Middle East. What makes this exceptional is that this book was originally published in 2001—before! It holds up very well when read eight years later although, of course, subsequent events sadly didn't go the way the story envisaged.

There are a few goofs: copy editors relying on the spelling checker instead of close proofing allowed a couple of places where “sight” appeared where “site” was intended, and a few other homonym flubs. I'm also extremely dubious that weapons with the properties described would have been considered operational without having been tested. And the premise of the final raid seems a little more like a video game than the circumstances of the first two novels. As one who learnt a foreign language in adulthood, I can testify that it is extraordinarily difficult to speak without an obvious accent. Is it plausible that Mitch can impersonate a figure that the top-tier security troops guarding the bunker have seen on television many times?

Still, the story works, and it's a page turner. The character of Mitch Rapp continues to darken in this novel. He becomes ever more explicitly an assassin, and notwithstanding however much his targets “need killin'”, it's unsettling to think of agents of coercive government sent to eliminate people those in power deem inconvenient, and difficult to consider the eliminator a hero. But that isn't going to keep me from reading the next in the series in a month or two.

See my comments on the first installment for additional details about the series and a link to an interview with the author.


Drury, Bob and Tom Clavin. Halsey's Typhoon. New York: Grove Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8021-4337-2.
As Douglas MacArthur's forces struggled to expand the beachhead of their landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro on December 15, 1944, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey's Third Fleet was charged with providing round the clock air cover over Japanese airfields throughout the Philippines, both to protect against strikes being launched against MacArthur's troops and kamikaze attacks on his own fleet, which had been so devastating in the battle for Leyte Gulf three weeks earlier. After supporting the initial landings and providing cover thereafter, Halsey's fleet, especially the destroyers, were low on fuel, and the admiral requested and received permission to withdraw for a rendezvous with an oiler task group to refuel.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the chain of command, this decision set the Third Fleet on a direct intercept course with the most violent part of an emerging Pacific (not so much, in this case) typhoon which was appropriately named, in retrospect, Typhoon Cobra. Typhoons in the Pacific are as violent as Atlantic hurricanes, but due to the circumstances of the ocean and atmosphere where they form and grow, are much more compact, which means that in an age prior to weather satellites, there was little warning of the onset of a storm before one found oneself overrun by it.

Halsey's orders sent the Third Fleet directly into the bull's eye of the disaster: one ship measured sustained winds of 124 knots (143 miles per hour) and seas in excess of 90 feet. Some ships' logs recorded the barometric pressure as “U”—the barometer had gone off-scale low and the needle was above the “U” in “U. S. Navy”.

There are some conditions at sea which ships simply cannot withstand. This was especially the case for Farragut class destroyers, which had been retrofitted with radar and communication antennæ on their masts and a panoply of antisubmarine and gun directing equipment on deck, all of which made them top-heavy, vulnerable to heeling in high winds, and prone to capsize.

As the typhoon overtook the fleet, even the “heavies” approached their limits of endurance. On the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, Lt. (j.g.) Jerry Ford was saved from being washed off the deck to a certain death only by luck and his athletic ability. He survived, later to become President of the United States. On the destroyers, the situation was indescribably more dire. The watch on the bridge saw the inclinometer veer back and forth on each roll between 60 and 70 degrees, knowing that a roll beyond 71° might not be recoverable. They surfed up the giant waves and plunged down, with screws turning in mid-air as they crested the giant combers. Shipping water, many lost electrical power due to shorted-out panels, and most lost their radar and communications antennæ, rendering them deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the fleet and vulnerable to collisions.

The sea took its toll: in all, three destroyers were sunk, a dozen other ships were hors de combat pending repairs, and 146 aircraft were destroyed, all due to weather and sea conditions. A total of 793 U.S. sailors lost their lives, more than twice those killed in the Battle of Midway.

This book tells, based largely upon interviews with people who were there, the story of what happens when an invincible fleet encounters impossible seas. There are tales of heroism every few pages, which are especially poignant since so many of the heroes had not yet celebrated their twentieth birthdays, hailed from landlocked states, and had first seen the ocean only months before at the start of this, their first sea duty. After the disaster, the heroism continued, as the crew of the destroyer escort Tabberer, under its reservist commander Henry L. Plage, who disregarded his orders and, after his ship was dismasted and severely damaged, persisted in the search and rescue of survivors from the foundered ships, eventually saving 55 from the ocean. Plage expected to face a court martial, but instead was awarded the Legion of Merit by Halsey, whose orders he ignored.

This is an epic story of seamanship, heroism, endurance, and the nigh impossible decisions commanders in wartime have to make based upon the incomplete information they have at the time. You gain an appreciation for how the master of a ship has to balance doing things by the book and improvising in exigent circumstances. One finding of the Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the disaster was that the commanders of the destroyers which were lost may have given too much priority to following pre-existing orders to hold their stations as opposed to the overriding imperative to save the ship. Given how little experience these officers had at sea, this is not surprising. CEOs should always keep in mind this utmost priority: save the ship.

Here we have a thoroughly documented historical narrative which is every bit as much a page-turner as the the latest ginned-up thriller. As it happens, one of my high school teachers was a survivor of this storm (on one of the ships which did not go down), and I remember to this day how harrowing it was when he spoke of destroyers “turning turtle”. If accounts like this make you lose sleep, this is not the book for you, but if you want to experience how ordinary people did extraordinary things in impossible circumstances, it's an inspiring narrative.


Jenkins, Dennis R. and Jorge R. Frank. The Apollo 11 Moon Landing. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-58007-148-2.
This book, issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, is a gorgeous collection of photographs, including a number of panoramas digitally assembled from photos taken during the mission which appear here for the first time. The images cover all aspects of the mission: the evolution of the Apollo project, crew training, stacking the launcher and spacecraft, voyage to the Moon, surface operations, and return to Earth. The photos have accurate and informative captions, and each chapter includes a concise but comprehensive description of its topic.

This is largely a picture book, and almost entirely focused upon the Apollo 11 mission, not the Apollo program as a whole. Unless you are an absolute space nut (guilty as charged), you will almost certainly see pictures here you've never seen before, including Neil Armstrong's brush with death when the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle went all pear shaped and he had to punch out (p. 35). Look at how the ejection seat motor vectored to buy him altitude for the chute to open!

Did you know that the iconic image of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon was retouched (or, as we'd say today, PhotoShopped)? No, I'm not talking about a Moon hoax, but just that Neil Armstrong, with his Hasselblad camera and no viewfinder, did what so many photographers do—he cut off Aldrin's head in the picture. NASA public affairs folks “reconstructed” the photo that Armstrong meant to take, but whilst airbrushing the top of the helmet, they forgot to include the OPS VHF antenna which extends from Aldrin's backpack in many other photos taken on the lunar surface.

This is a great book, and a worthy commemoration of the achievement of Apollo 11. It, of course, only scratches the surface of the history of the Apollo program, or even the details of Apollo 11 mission, but I don't know an another source which brings together so many images which evoke that singular exploit. The Introduction includes a list of sources for further reading which I was amazed (or maybe not) to discover that all of which I had read.


Gray, Theodore. Theo Gray's Mad Science. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009. ISBN 978-1-57912-791-6.
Regular visitors here will recall that from time to time I enjoy mocking the fanatically risk-averse “safetyland” culture which has gripped the Western world over the last several decades. Pendulums do, however, have a way of swinging back, and there are a few signs that sanity (or, more accurately, entertaining insanity) may be starting to make a comeback. We've seen The Dangerous Book for Boys and the book I dubbed The Dangerous Book for Adults, but—Jeez Louise—look at what we have here! This is really the The Shudderingly Hazardous Book for Crazy People.

A total of fifty-four experiments (all summarised on the book's Web site) range from heating a hot tub with quicklime and water, exploding bubbles filled with a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, making your own iron from magnetite sand with thermite, turning a Snickers bar into rocket fuel, and salting popcorn by bubbling chlorine gas through a pot of molten sodium (it ends badly).

The book is subtitled “Experiments You Can Do at Home—But Probably Shouldn't”, and for many of them that's excellent advice, but they're still a great deal of fun to experience vicariously. I definitely want to try the ice cream recipe which makes a complete batch in thirty seconds flat with the aid of liquid nitrogen. The book is beautifully illustrated and gives the properties of the substances involved in the experiments. Readers should be aware that as the author prominently notes at the outset, the descriptions of many of the riskier experiments do not provide all the information you'd need to perform them safely—you shouldn't even consider trying them yourself unless you're familiar with the materials involved and experienced in the precautions required when working with them.