A new book, The Age of AI and Our Human future has just been released. The authors are Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher and, astonishingly, Henry Kissenger. Now 98, Kissenger keeps popping up everywhere, as if to prove that the longevity of the human brain can seem unlimited, at least in some people.

   I recently listened to an interview with Kissenger by The Economist magazine. If anything, he seems somewhat more coherent than he used to be. I was never a fan of his disastrous Vietnam policies when he was Secretary of State for Presidents Nixon and Ford. However, his breakthrough in the opening of China to the West at that time was where he made his mark, and it has kept him in demand as a China expert to this day.

   In a review of the book by Kevin Roose in the New York Times on December 12, 2021, Roose gives a less than enthusiastic review. He had been hoping for more from a book about artificial intelligence by a 98-year-old diplomat, a former Google chief executive, and an M.I.T. professor, an intriguing coalition if there ever was one.

   Tongue in cheek, at least somewhat, Roose has the brainstorm idea of having an A.I. writing program help with the review. Using Sudowrite (there's a great name), the app uses GPT-3, a cutting edge A.I. system. Provide a snippet of text, and GPT-3 will try to complete it, using what it has learned from billions of examples of other people's writing, along with the help of a supercomputer with 285,000 processors, and a neural network that ranks among the world's most powerful A.I. engines.

   As a writer myself, I have to wonder what I wasted my life on for the past forty years when I could have simply logged onto GPT-3 instead. Roose provides us several paragraphs of the GPT-3 review, and it frankly reads quite reasonably. It's doubtful any reader could have told the difference...at least after the system's first somewhat clunky efforts: "The book which you are reading at the moment is a book on a nook, which is a book on a book, which is a book on a book on a subject, which is a subject on a subject, which is a subject on a subject."  "GPT-3," writes Roose, "had gotten stuck in some kind of odd, reclusive loop."

   But apparently the A.I. program simply needed to get warmed up. Just like humans, evidently, a few cups of coffee and stretching exercises were needed. The program soon began producing cogent analysis. So don't get your hopes up, fellow writers. Our A.I. replacements are eagerly waiting in the wings.

   What The Age of AI  seems to be telling us is that while A.I. systems can be clunky and erratic, they are improving quickly and will soon surpass humans in a number of different areas. At that point, the authors tell us, A.I. will "transform all realms of human experience."

   I found the participation of Henry Kissenger in this endeavor somewhat surprising. He has little in-depth knowledge of this new technology. However, his own experience on the stage of world politics suggests one futuristic need of the human race. Perhaps we could turn over the running of world government to A.I.

   It could hardly do a worse job.

   

Sunday, 05 December 2021

The Last Great Stories of WW II

   I've written before about the many fascinating stories that have come out the so-called Great Generation of WW II. Many of these stories have only been revealed following the deaths of those involved. Their obituaries appear less and less frequently now, as the few remaining survivors near or even surpass 100 years of age.

   One of the most recent, and most fascinating, of these stories follows, paraphrased from the New York Times obituary of November 19, 2021, written by Alex Vadukul. It is the story of Justus Rosenberg, who recently passed away at the age of 100. For the past sixty years, Rosenberg was a much respected professor of literature at Bard College. But he also represented one of the last living links to Holocaust history.

   As a teenager in WW II, he served as a courier in the fabled rescue team of Varian Fry, an American journalist who started a covert operation to provide safe passage to artists and intellectuals seeking to escape from Vichy France. Among those aided were such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagal.

   Rosenberg went on to fight in the French Resistance, throwing grenades at German tanks, aiding the U.S. Army as a reconnaissance scout and earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart after the jeep he was riding in hit a land mine.

   Born into a prosperous Jewish family in 1921 in what is now Gdansk, Poland, he watched the rise of the Nazis throughout the  1930s. Anti-Semitism spread across his homeland. His friends began to avoid him, and mobs destroyed Jewish businesses. His parents finally sent him to study in Paris when he was just sixteen. It would be fifteen years before his family would see him again. When the Germans took Paris, Rosenberg fled with thousands of others. He ended up in Toulouse.

   There he met an American student named Miriam Davenport. She encouraged him to travel with her to Marseille where she had a job for him. That job was with Varian Fry, who had been sent to Europe with Eleanor Roosevelt's blessing by the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group of leading New York intellectuals who wanted to help cultural figures stranded in collaborationist Vichy France. Fry's operation became one of the most successful private U.S. rescue missions of WW II, saving some 2,000 people.

   Varian Fry needed a courier he could trust to deliver messages across Marseille, which had become a city filled with desperate refugees trying to flee the country. As a young, Aryan-looking and French-speaking man, Rosenberg said: "I looked very bland, very Germanic and younger than my own age, so I wouldn't be stopped often to be asked for papers, because I looked so innocent and angelic."

   Rosenberg bought passports on the black market and scouted escape routes for Fry's illustrious clients. He helped refugees escape across the Pyrenees into Spain. Among those he rescued were the writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel, along with their wives. Werfel's wife, Alma, was the composer Gustav Mahler's widow.

   By 1941, Rosenberg was forced to leave France after the Vichy government became aware of his activities. His protection vanished, and he was soon rounded up with others and sent to a detention camp outside Lyon. A guard told him they were being transferred to a labor camp in Poland. To avoid being deported, Rosenberg pretended to have peritonitis and was sent to the infirmary. When he woke up, he discovered his appendix had been removed. He managed to make contact with a secret network of priests connected to the Resistance who helped him to escape.

   After healing from his operation, he joined the Resistance, was given a new identity and went on to retrieve airdrops of weapons from the British, to spy on the Nazis and to collect military intelligence. He became part of a guerilla unit that ambushed and fired on German convoys. After D-Day, Rosenberg fought alongside Americans and was assigned to the Army's 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He served them as a guide and interrogated prisoners in German. When the war ended, he became an officer at a displaced persons camp operated by the United Nations.

   Rosenberg returned to Paris and studied literature at the Sorbonne, finally emigrating to the United States in 1946, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati and later joined Bard's faculty in 1962. He also taught courses at the New School in Manhattan for over fifty years.

   After he was settled in America, Rosenberg wrote to Miriam Davenport to tell her that he was still alive. In her reply, she wrote: "You were a symbol of sorts, to me, in those days. Everyone was moving heaven and earth to save famous men, anti-fascist intellectuals, etc. And there were you, a nice, intelligent youngster with no family, no money, no influence, no hope, no fascinating past."

   At the age of 96, Rosenberg was decorated by the French government as a commander of the Legion of Honor for his service in WW II. A year before he died, he publiished a memoir, "The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground."

   Karin Rosenberg, who first met her husband in the 1980s, knew nothing of his valor for many years. "I believe he was a hero," she said. "But he did not think of himself as a hero. To him, he was just doing what needed to be done."

 

 

Monday, 22 November 2021

The Ends of the Universe

   The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched into space on December 18 of this year. It will enable scientists to see farther into space and back into time than ever before. They may observe the formation of the first galaxies, perhaps back close to the time of the Big Bang, more than 13 billion years ago.

   The excitement of scientists and astronomers who are building the Webb telescope is palpable, for it was first conceived in 1989, months before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. It has been more than thirty years in the planning. There is also great speculation about what they will learn. Just in 2021, astronomers believe they have spotted the first extragalactic exoplanet beyond our own galaxy, some 28 million light-years away near the heart of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Astronomers relied upon X-ray data to make the discovery. But using Webb, exoplanets within our own galaxy may be seen with enough definition to be able to learn if they have atmospheres and perhaps even discover the biosignatures of life.

   If we ever discover life elsewhere in the universe, it is most likely to be in the form of bacteria or other simple cellular systems. But while the odds of finding intelligent life are small. scientists remain excited at the possibility. In the movies, aliens come to Earth in order to attack and conquer us. But experts believe this is an unlikely scenario. Any aliens who manage to travel across the universe to visit us will be far more advanced than we are. It is more likely they will be interested in studying us as primitive life forms. They are not going to want to eat us. They are not going to want to conquer our planet, which would undoubtedly be unlivable for them. What is possible is that they might be able to answer our questions and perhaps tell us how to solve our problems.

   Any intelligent life that travels to Earth would give us evidence that it is possible for humans to survive our own technological infancy. It has long been speculated that all civilizations reach a point where they threaten their own existence, just as we are now facing the threats of global warming, nuclear holocaust and deadly pandemics.

   But of course, we know of no life in the universe other than our own. Given the size of the universe, it is possible that life is common. But it is also possible that it may be very rare. Many, many lucky events have to happen to allow a planet like the Earth to form and allow life to be created. I lean to the notion that with so many trillions of planets that we now believe must exist (we have found thousands so far just in our very early explorations of our own galaxy) that other intelligent life may be common. Some Webb scientists believe, however, that the scarcity of planets like Earth should make us realize that our own thin line of habitable existence is vanishingly rare and that we should value and protect it, for Earth may be all we have.

   I believe there may be other civilizations that have survived their technological infancy. What is it about humans that makes us so destructive? Well, primarily, I believe it is our individuality. That individuality leads to conflicts between each other and among nations. We see this clearly in our own history. As individuals, we want things, new territory foremost among them. This conflict has been our undoing.

   But why can't there be a different form of life out there? One that doesn't rely on competition in order to advance. I believe there could be a form of intelligence that would be collective, as we see in a bee or ant colony here on Earth. Every member of the life form works collectively in order to survive. Why couldn't intelligent life develop in this manner? Imagine if a society of aliens worked collectively, using their intelligence to advance civilization, just as bees all provide their individual effort to promote the hive. This seems quite clearly possible to me. And it might be a way to avoid the deadly competition that our own technology is causing. A collective spirit of life would mean that individuals all work together to a common goal, and this might be a way that other civilizations could survive where ours may not be able to.

   Humans are probably not going to be able to deal with global warming, because we each want a piece of the pie. But an alien species that develops a consciousness that acts collectively might be a way forward that would enable such a species to not only survive but evolve into a higher form of life.

   Imagining another kind of intelligence seems a foreign concept to humans. But some scientists have already speculated about this. They believe that artificial intelligence may be the way forward, indeed, may be the natural course of evolution.

   Only time will tell, of course. Be nice if we are around to experience it.

   

Thursday, 19 August 2021

America on Defense

   Most Americans are only vaguely aware that their government spends about $750 billion dollars a year on the nation's defense budget. However, few really comprehend that this is only the tip of the iceberg of money that goes into defense in all its various categories. There are at least ten different pots of money that are dedicated to fighting wars, preparing for future wars and dealing with the consequences of past wars.

   A brief tally of the expenses of the U.S. national security state in 2019 includes: $544 billion for the Pentagon's base budget, $174 billion for its private slush fund called the War Budget, $25 billion for the development of our nuclear arsenal, $216 billion for the Veterans Affairs budget, $69 billion for the Homeland Security budget, $51 billion for the International Affairs budget (mostly military aid to foreign nations), $80 billion for the Intelligence Budget (those intel agencies that Trump never listened to) and $156 billion for the defense share of the National Debt (figures from the Center for Defense Information). There are a number of smaller amounts in other areas I haven't bothered to list here, though they total in the tens of billions.

   Final total: $1.2542 trillion spent on our national security state every year. It is almost beyond comprehension and is easily way more than the defense budgets of the next ten major powers combined.

   What on earth is going on here? It kind of reminds me of my annual insurance premiums which go up every year, nickeling and diming my policies endlessly with hidden extra fees and charges. We have committed ourselves, virtually without any real knowledge or understanding, to wasting vast amounts of our nation's capital. President Eisenhower warned us about the ever growing military industrial complex. He would be astonished to see what has happened since he uttered those prescient words.

   The United States government runs the largest military state on earth. We currently have 750 military bases in some 80 countries. Now that is truly an empire on which the sun never sets. Every time a politician says that we are the greatest nation on earth, what he is really saying is that we spend the most money on our military. This obeisance to the military is our nation's greatest sin. A day never goes by that one doesn't hear at least a dozen statements from politicians about how wonderful our selfless soldiers are. Every president says it daily. President Biden ends every speech with "God bless our troops."

   I suppose this has to be done in order to dupe millions of our citizens into joining the military, now that we have a completely volunteer service. Of course, the real reason most enter the service is because they can't find a real job in our struggling economy. One of the reasons the Vietnam War was finally brought to an end was because parents were tired of seeing their kids come home in body bags or with serious injuries. The voluntary army made it all the harder to stop our endless string of costly and unnecessary wars all around the globe.

   Imagine the good we could have done with an extra $1.2 trillion that we could have been investing in our own nation every year. Free medical care? No problem. New technologies developed to fight global warming? Easily done. A modern transportation system, finally equal to all those tiny European countries we love to visit? A drop in the bucket.

   The list goes on and on. Instead of killing millions of people, we could have been saving millions of lives all these years. We would be living in a very different country today if we had invested in our own people instead of in fighting wars in other countries. How well did Vietnam work out for us? Korea? Iraq? Afghanistan? It is hard to see any war since the Second World War that was justifiable.

   We could have used our nation's incredible wealth to influence other countries along the lines of the Marshall Plan after WW II. Seeding new democracies instead of ceding countries to life behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, we have squandered and continue to squander our health, our economy and the very future of our world by ignoring climate change.

   It's a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Ice at the End of the World

   This new book by Jon Gertner is a fascinating look at how exploration and technology worked together for over a century and a half on the island of Greenland to lead the way to a possible solution for global warming in the modern world of today.

   The early explorers of this strange land, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen and many, many others, risked sanity, starvation, falling into the oblivion of crevasses, the loss of frozen toes and noses and ultimately death in the frozen wastelands.

   Greenland is five times the size of California with a population of just 56,000. The ice sheet that covers it is 700 miles wide and 1500 miles long. It is composed of some three quadrillion tons of ice. Gertner explores how Greenland evolved from one of our planet's last frontiers into a multi-national home and laboratory for scientific exploration.

   Those early explorers had little notion of the journey they were embarking upon. What drove them was a desire for conquest, exploration, fame and a need to fill in the map of one of the last frontiers on earth. They traveled at first by foot and sled dog, then by horses, skis and crude motorized sleds. The first of these men braved the wastelands at the turn of the 20th century and many of them died cruelly on the ice. They would have shaken their heads in disbelief if one had tried to tell them that just a few decades later, exploration would spread out across the massive ice sheet via men sitting in the comfort of heated airplanes, mapping and exploring the depths of the ice with lasers and GPS.

   They strove to survive hurricane force winds and blinding hail and snow storms. They struggled to find food and ways to shelter from the Arctic cold. Exhaustion and starvation would be the reward for most, while a few made contact with remote Inuit tribes. For the most part, the Inuit welcomed these intruders who seemed so helpless and taught them how to survive. Some of the explorers, like Robert Peary, took wives and had children, whom they eventually deserted to return to their civilized homes and families in Europe.

   But they laid the first steps that would lead to scientific exploration. Gradually, scientists began to leave the idea of exploration for its own sake behind. The new breed built lonely encampments far out on the ice and began to drill, eventually going down miles and drawing out ice cores that would reveal the greatest mysteries of our planet's past, going back hundreds of thousands of years.

   Over time, the U.S. military became interested in rare mineral deposits and in the installation of radar stations. One young scientist, Carl Benson, was hired to locate radar installations near Thule, the military's vast new air base in northwestern Greenland. By the spring of 1952, Benson related how Thule had become "a place of chaos and wonder, a project so massive and crowded with contractors and equipment that the total economic costs struck him as beyond compute."

   Surely this new wonder on the icecap would have shocked Peary, Rasmussen and the others. But the need for scientists to unravel the mysteries of the deep ice grew by leaps and bounds as men began to contemplate the possibility that the icecap might be moving...and melting...as a result of the buildup of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere from industrial development and other causes. The race was on to determine whether, if the icecap melted, all the great cities of the planet would soon be underwater.

   Today, scientists from all over the world are using every tool at their disposal to uncover Greenland's secrets. Through the miracle of computers and technology, they may now sit in the comfort of their homes and offices and contemplate the latest scientific discoveries. No longer any need for endless treks in the cold or starvation or being lost in the wilderness. Greenland has been mapped and studied, all in the name of saving the human race, if such a thing is even possible.

   Only time will tell. Time and the movement of ice at the end of the world.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Family Business

   This is an exciting time for my son, Callum Angus, who has just published his first book, A Natural History of Transition. Cal is the fourth generation writer in our family. No pressure there, right Cal?

   In truth, Cal may be the best of the lot. He writes fluidly and beautifully. But what stuns me is how purposefully he has gone about his business. This is not an easy time to be a writer. Publishing houses have consolidated into fewer and fewer outlets available, and they no longer coddle their writers as they did in my parents' day. Less promotion and fewer editing services are offered. While some independent bookstores are hanging on, they face daunting competition from online booksellers like Amazon.

   As an older writer myself, perhaps the most difficult part for me has been adapting to the altered landscape. If you are unable to navigate social media, your chances of having your work seen, much less published, are negligible. Fortunately, Cal has found his own way. Like many of his generation, social media and computer technology are second nature. His path to success was infinitely different from mine.

   When I started out, manuscripts or magazine articles and essays were submitted after a laborious process of typing and retyping to get a perfect copy, then packaging them up and snail mailing them to publishers, who for the most part took anywhere from a few months to seven years to make a decision on them. Yes. Seven years. That happened to one book of mine that was eventually published, after what they called a "seven year study period." One thing I learned from that experience is the importance of finishing one work and immediately starting another. No sitting around waiting to hear that your best seller has been accepted.

   Today, everything is done online. With spell-check, voice recognition, even automatic editing in some cases, preparing a clean text is much less trouble, though there is no substitute for a good, live editor. And no mailing. Manuscripts are submitted by email in seconds. Indeed, I have fielded a request from an editor for a piece, written it and submitted it in just a matter of days for publication within a week. This feels more like reporting than literature to me.

   Cal has become expert at this and at developing contacts across the country and around the world using social media. His resume consists of an impressive list of credits, many in online publications that didn't exist when I started out, things with names like BuzzFeed, Pulpmouth, them  (wasn't that a scary movie with James Arness?) and The Millions. He has also published in the L A Review of Books and Nat. Brut, for which his short story, In Kind, was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

   I'm sure my grandfather, a frustrated dentist in Manhattan, who translated Russian poetry out of a pure love for words, would have little idea what I am talking about here. But what he did counts in my book. He was the first writer in the family, so far as I know, seventy or eighty years ago. He immigrated from Siberia in the early twentieth century, traveling around the world at the age of sixteen and passing through Ellis Island like so many others to establish himself in America.

   I used to fear Cal's career choice, made shortly after getting his undergraduate degree. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to be a writer. It was more difficult for me than it was for my parents. Even after a certain amount of success on my part, I have learned the hard lesson that previous success comes with no guarantee that it will continue. I have known many quite successful writers, even an American Book Award winner, who had to teach their entire lives in order to make ends meet. Fewer than 5% of writers are able to make a living at it. But I believe it may be easier for Cal, for he writes in a more academic, literary style. This will make it easier for him to have an academic career, if he so chooses, along the lines that my parents had. They were both university professors of English. But this may not be Cal's choice. I believe he has an expansive world view and has already had experience working in teaching, publishing, book selling and university administration.

   As I peruse Cal's resume online, I am astonished at the number of jobs he has already had, the number of colleges where he has taught, the publications he has produced and the number of skills he has perfected, all at a much younger age than I was before publishing my first serious work.

   I no longer have any fear about his career choice. He is self-directed and capable, I truly believe, of achieving anything he sets out to do.

 

Sunday, 14 February 2021

How Smoking Rewrote History

   My parents made a big deal about my not smoking when I was growing up. It was one of many important things they taught me. This is somewhat surprising given that one of my clearest memories of growing up in my parents' big, old Victorian home was of the academic cocktail parties they gave.

   My parents were both university professors of English. In the 1950s and 60s, smoke-filled cocktail parties were de rigueur in their crowd. Our house would fill up with forty or fifty people, virtually all of whom smoked nonstop. The room was literally blue with smoke. They also had regular bridge parties where, of course, everyone smoked. I tell my friends today, some of whom were family friends from that period, that I knew all the damaging gossip on the college faculty circuit. My bedroom upstairs had a heat duct that connected with the living room. I would sometimes lie on the floor and listen to the party. That duct seemed to amplify and clarify voices. I heard many things that would never have been said around a ten-year-old. Of course, that duct also wafted clouds of smoke into my face until I had to give it up and close the vent. I knew all about second-hand smoke by the time I was ten.

   The amount of talent lost to the world as a result of smoking seems almost infinite. Of course, we see this all the time when watching old movies on TV. Everyone smoked. A list of those who died young or before their time as a result of smoking includes: Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Richard Boone, John Candy, Johnny Carson, Chuck Connors, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, John Huston, Burl Ives, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Michael Landon, Dean Martin, Lee Marvin, Groucho Marx, Water Matthau, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, George Peppard, Vincent Price, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Rod Serling, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwick, Robert Taylor, Gene Tierney, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and John Wayne.

   The list is nearly endless. Certain categories of professions seemed particularly susceptible. In addition to actors there were musicians, politicians, writers, directors, artists, professional athletes and on and on. Again, the numbers are incalculable. Royalty also carried their own weight. Four monarchs that we know of died of smoking related illnesses, including Edward Vll, George V, Edward Vlll and George Vl. Also Queen Mary and Princess Margaret. I'm sure that is just the tip of the royal iceberg.

   But I think the actors stand out because we can see them still, over and over, being cool on the big screen while they puff in the fumes that will kill them in their forties, fifties and sixties. So much talent lost. I love to watch Casablanca, but every time I see Bogie take a deep and oh so cool puff on his ever handy cigarette, I have to think about his wife Lauren Bacall and their young children he left behind when he died at only 57.

   Cigarettes became a prop for actors and actresses. Anytime a director wanted to show an actor lost in thought or being sorrowful or lovelorn, he would tell them to light up and stare off into the sunset. Cigarettes made many a successful scene, from John Wayne flicking his butt away as he steps forward to outdraw some villain to Paul Henreid who started a popular cultural fad when he lit two cigarettes at once in the movie Now, Voyager and gave one to Bette Davis, who later died from lung cancer. Guys across America and the world followed suit. For ten years after that scene, I doubt many women ever lit up their own cigarettes. There were smokers with famously hoarse voices like Louis Armstrong, Tallulah Bankhead and Rod Serling.

   Entire generations studied Paul Henreid's cigarette lighting technique. And we also learned how to hold a cigarette, how to flick it away, how to talk with a fag handing from our lips, how to roll our own, how to blow smoke rings, how to inhale and then let it out through our noses and how to insult someone by exhaling in their faces. It was technique, it was art, it was culture, it was cool. And it killed off entire generations.

   Then there were the politicians. They all smoked. We have historical film of FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, all of whom smoked heavily. Stalin was gone at 75 from cerebral hemorrhage. FDR succumbed to a stroke at 63. Churchill, as in most things, was a standout in this area. Despite smoking 15 cigars a day (and drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol) he lived to be 90.

   So here's a big thank you to my parents. They both smoked in the 1950s. Given those smoke-filled parties, how could they not? But I distinctly remember them both giving up the habit around the time I became a teenager. And it wasn't easy for them. I came across each of them sneaking a smoke from time to time. But they kicked the habit, for my benefit as much as anything, and I will be forever grateful.

   

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Amazing story of survival in WW II

     There seem to be an endless number of amazing WW II stories that have, for the most part, been forgotten. As a history buff, I have used many of these incidents in my work as an author. One source for many of these stories has come from reading the obituaries of WW II veterans. Their numbers dwindle now to only a precious, remaining few. Still, every few weeks, I read of another. They are inevitably in their late nineties and now some even over a hundred. I highly recommend reading these obituaries of the last members of the Great Generation. There are stories about those who unraveled wartime secrets, stories of inventions that affected the war, stories of women who played major rolls in the outcome and stories of spies and heroes and sacrifice. In just a very few years, these stories will no longer appear.

     I recently came upon one such story, not from an obituary but from watching an old war movie on TV. The movie was "A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH."  It stars David Niven as an air force pilot who is shot down. Wiith his plane on fire, he bails out without a parachute. The movie goes off into issues of the afterlife. How could he survive? Well, in the movie, it is because of an error in heaven and there follows a trial up above as Niven argues that he should not have to report to die because he had survived and come back long enough to fall in love. Now, the powers that be owed him and the woman he loves, a full life. Of course, he gets his wish.

     In commentary after the movie, it is mentioned that there actually was a man who fell out of his plane during the war and survived. I had never heard this story and so looked it up.

     The man's name was Nicholas Alkemade. He was a Flight Sergeant in the 115 Squadron RAF during the second World War. On the night of March 24, 1944, 21-year-old Alkemade was one of seven crew members in a Lancaster bomber, returning from a 300-bomber-raid on Berlin. They were attacked by a German Junkers Ju 88 night-fighter--flown by Hauptmann Gerhard Friedrich. As a result, the English bomber caught fire and started to spiral out of control. Alkemade's parachute had gone up in flames and was no longer serviceable. So Nicholas Alkemade jumped from the plane without his parachute, preferring to die by impact rather than burn to death.

     Alkemade fell 18,000 feet to the ground below. Incredibly, his fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. His only injury was a sprained leg. The Lancaster crashed in flames, killing several other members of the crew. Alkemade was captured by the Germans. It was his bad luck to still be over Germany when he fell, though it would seem to have been better luck than if he had fallen into the British Channel. The Gestapo, who interviewed him, was initially suspicious of his claim to have fallen without a parachute until the wreckage of the plane was found and examined. The Germans actually gave Alkemade a certificate testifying to the truth of his incredible survival, and he became a celebrated prisoner of war before being repatriated in May 1945.

     After the war, Alkemade worked in the chemical industry. He appeared on the ITV series Just Amazing, a program that interviewed people who had, through accident or design, achieved feats of daring and survival. He died in 1987.

     It's interesting to speculate whether or not the movie, made in 1946 but not released until 1947, could have been partially inspired by Alkemade's 1944 true life adventure. But I will leave that to another researcher to determine.

     

     Fritz Julius Lemp came on my radar while I was doing research for my novel, The Last Titanic Story. The U-boat commander had, simultaneously, one of the most celebrated and most disastrous of naval careers. So of course, I had to find a place for him in my story.

     Lemp is credited (if that is the word) with having sunk the first ship fired upon in World War II. The unfortunate vessel, the Athenia, was traveling from Glasgow, Belfast, and Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal. It was carrying passengers of British, Canadian and U.S. citizenship as well as a number of refugees from Europe. There were about 1400 passengers and crew on board when she was hit by Lemp's torpedo from his U-30 off the northwest coast of Ireland on September 3, 1939 just hours after war had been declared.

     The Athenia  has long been a little known chapter of the war. It is easy to see why it was overlooked, given all of the disastrous consequences that followed during the next five years. I have a personal relationship to the tragedy. My former brother-in-law, Arch Miller, was a passenger on the Athenia. He was traveling home to Canada with his mother and older brother. Arch was about ten years old. I talked to him at length about his experience, and in reading the 2012 book, Athenia Torpedoed, by Francis M. Carroll, I was surprised at how true Arch's memories were, compared to the memories of others who had been on board.

     Arch had been alone on deck when the torpedo hit and clearly remembered the feeling of impact. In the panic that followed, he managed to locate his brother and mother and they all got onto one of the lifeboats. About 112 passengers died. The rest were picked up from their lifeboats by several passing ships and taken to various ports, including on to Canada.

     Lemp tried to deny that he had taken the action because he understood that Hitler was furious that he had sunk a ship with American passengers, which the Fuhrer feared would bring America into the war. Instead, Germany made up a story that it was Winston Churchill who had ordered the ship sunk by his own navy in order to bring the U.S. into the war. The true story did not fully come out until after the war crimes trials in Nuremberg in 1946.

     Lemp went on to a highly decorated career as one of the most successful U-boat commanders in the early part of the war, receiving the Iron Cross and other awards from Hitler. Being successful, in this context, means Lemp sank a huge number of ships during the conflict.

     However, Lemp had another direct impact on the war's outcome. In a new submarine, the U-110, during a "wolf pack" attack on a convoy southwest of Iceland on May 9, 1941, Lemp's luck ran out. During the attack, Lemp successfully sank three freighters. But in the ensuing destroyer counter-attack, the U-110 was badly damaged and forced to the surface. Lemp ordered his crew to abandon ship, as he expected the destroyers to ram and sink his vessel. But somehow, Lemp ended up in the water and drowned. However, HMS Bulldog, under Commander A.J. Baker-Cresswell, attempted to take U-110 under tow, though it sank before they could reach Iceland. But before that happened, British sailors were able to board the submarine and retrieve a working Enigma cipher machine. This feat, unknown to the Germans, contributed substantially to the ability of the British to read German naval radio messages throughout the rest of the war.

     It was also Fritz Julius Lemp's second major blow to the German war effort. Sinking the Athenia had been the first, as it led to the United States increasing its support of the British war effort and indirectly to the Americans coming into the war. The Enigma helped defeat Germany itself by contributing to the end of the U-boat menace that had threatened to isolate Britain from receiving food and munitions during the conflict.

     So here was U-boat commander Fritz Julius Lemp, one of Germany's most successful and decorated U-boat captains and simultaneously the man who, perhaps more than any other, contributed to Germany's defeat. Quite a career run for a man who never made it out of his twenties.

Tuesday, 03 November 2020

Election Year 2020

     It is early morning on election day, 2020, as I write these words. Many have called it "The most important election of our lives." It is hard to dispute that notion.

     Joe Biden leads narrowly in final polls, both nationally (remember how well that worked out for Hillary) and in battleground states. We need to get rid of the electoral system which utterly distorts our elections. A state with half a million people gets two senators, while a state like California with forty million people gets the same number. Early voting turnout approaches 100,000,000, a record. Final tallies after election day may approach 150,000,000, which will also be a record.

     Still, Democrats, burned by the 2016 election, remain worried. President Trump has broken all norms as president. He has lied more than 20,000 times. Virtually no word escapes his lips that is not a lie or distortion of the truth. It has been an amazing display and further proof, if any is needed, that he is a con-man of the first order. Add in his other character traits: racist, bigamist, white nationalist, misogynist, accused rapist, tax cheat, corrupt businessman...the list goes on and on...and voters know he will go to any lengths to lie, cheat and manipulate the election results. His need to remain in office is existential. The list of federal and state charges that will be brought against him the moment he is no longer protected by the office he holds, is long. He could end up in prison.

     One could hold that Trump's one saving grace is that he is really stupid. He never reads. He has no idea how government works. He knows nothing about history. But the result of that is that he does whatever he wants to do. He breaks laws, fires anyone who opposes him, has taken over the Justice Department, ignores his own intelligence officials. He has pointed out as we have never had pointed out to us before, how strong the office of the presidency is and how few controls there are on that institution for someone who simply ignores the law. His admiration for dictators around the world is well known. He clearly would like to emulate them, destroy our democracy and establish his own family as an autocratic dictatorship. And he has managed to pack the courts on every level all the way up to the Supreme Court with his own sycophantic supporters.

     Virtually the only resistance to Trump at this point comes from the fourth estate. Here, he has another backstop. Fox News gives Trump his own arm of the media, essentially state run media. Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and other billionaires try to manipulate in his favor. And of course, all those foreign dictators work around the clock to interfere in our elections, including, most importantly, Vladimir Putin, the man who helped swing the 2016 election to Trump and who put bounties on the lives of American troops. And we shouldn't forget social media. Facebook, Twitter and the rest have made it much easier to spread the lies and misinformation and to enlist conspiracy theorists to further strengthen Trump supporters. Expect them to be out in force today, strutting about carrying assault weapons and "guarding" poll stations. I will consider it a minor miracle if some crazy doesn't shoot voters waiting in line somewhere.

     So today will be crucial in deciding whether or not the American democratic system will survive. Like everyone else, I will be glued to the TV tonight watching returns. High voter turnout suggests people are tired of Trump. Lord, let it be true. But win or lose, we can expect months of watching Trump lawyers try to undo the results of the election. Meanwhile, Covid will kill hundreds of thousands more in our country.

     How did we ever get here? We have dropped the ball in so many ways. Millions of Americans are tired of government that never seems to affect their lives. Income inequality has become endemic. Workers see no way to get ahead. Higher education has become prohibitively expensive, blocking the only way forward for many. The lack of leadership on things like global warming has led to the displacement of people all over the country because of floods, super hurricanes and fires. The failure to at long last end racial discrimination is another major problem. Having an avowed racist in charge for four years has only exasperated this. And the loss of millions of jobs and hundreds of thousands of businesses threatens us all with another Great Depression.

     It all comes down to voting. That is our last chance. If Trump gets four more years, none of us will recognize the country that we will have to live in...or die in.

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