Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review 391: The Road to Stalingrad; The Road to Berlin

THE ROAD TO STALINGRAD: Stalin’s War with Germany, by John Erickson. 594 pages, illustrated. Yale paperback
THE ROAD TO BERLIN: Continuing the History of Stalin’s War with Germany, by John Erickson. 877 pages, illustrated. Westview

English historian John Erickson’s subtitles sum up his massive operational history of the Russo-German war. In the preface to the second volume, he notes that a Russian scholar criticized him for personalizing the “Great Patriotic War” and the efforts of the Soviet people.

Erickson sticks to his point, and, in fact, considering the cult of personality Stalin constructed, it would rather require an explanation why it was not Stalin’s war. Every crucial decision was filtered through him, when not made directly by him.

Many, perhaps most of these decisions were wrongheaded, sometimes spectacularly so, but the three crucial decisions, which determined the outcome of the war (as much as any human decisions laid on top of the economic, industrial, climatic and other non-human factors that influence the outcome of wars can), were right.

The first decision was all-out industrialization and militarization. Russia was the second nation (after Japan) to arm during the interwar years, and by 1939 it had more warplanes than all other countries combined and more tanks than all other countries combined.

Timing worked against the USSR. By starting early, it was stuck with weapons that were obsolete or becoming so in the aftermath of the big leap forward in capabilities that begin around 1935. The Red Army had a few first-class weapons (like the T-34 tank) but not many of them; and a mass of weapons that would have served admirably in 1931 (and did so even as late as 1938 at Nomonhon) but that were of small value by 1941. Among the deficiencies was an antitank gun that could tackle heavy armor.

Stalin’s prewar policy was defensive and pacific, and it failed. Poland was the key; Germany would have a hard time getting at Russia as long as Poland was independent. Stalin (through Maisky, his foreign minister) worked hard to interest Britain and France in a guarantee of Poland, but they hated pacific Russia more than aggressive Germany; and the Poles, remembering 1863, wanted no part of Russians.

Stalin’s defensive policy was in effect both east and west. After demolishing a Japanese invasion in 1938, he was careful to restore borders exactly as they had been. In the west, although the doctrine of the Red Army imagined a stout stand against an attack at the border, followed by a counterthrust into the enemy’s territory, Stalin clearly had no confidence in that. Thus, he attempted to buy Karelia from Finland to provide a buffer for Leningrad.

Finland, with its own bad memories of Russians, had no desire to help. 

As a result, Stalin reversed course and agreed with Hitler on a third partition of Poland, thus moving  his border farther from important parts of the USSR. This was a mistake in several ways, made worse by failure to properly adjust the defensive belt in the west.

Stalin was playing for time. Like leaders of several nations (including professional military men in Germany), he thought he would be ready for war in 1942. By June 1941, he had reason to think he had made it. Napoleon had started for Russia on June 24 and reached Moscow by October, and Hitler’s armies, which included 600,000 horses, moved no faster than Napoleon’s. If Hitler’s goal was Moscow, it was dangerously late — indeed, too late as events proved — and if Hitler’s goal was the Donbas (as Stalin wrongly guessed) then it was way too late.

The German army was concentrated menacingly on the border, but it could have been a bluff. (Hitler in 1944 was convinced the Red Army’s concentration on the road to Berlin was a bluff.) Stalin thought, correctly, that leading elements in Britain and America wanted Germany and Russia to fight to the death, to save themselves.

Warnings from many sources were wrong. They said the attack would begin by June 10, but it didn’t. At that time, the warning from Sorge in Japan was discounted because the USSR did not yet know how good Sorge’s source was.

But, most of all, Stalin was justified in his skepticism because no one in Germany was stupid enough to want a war on  two fronts. He was wrong. One man was that stupid.

Luckily for Stalin and Russia, the generals were incompetent, as generals usually are. The German generals, then and later, were happy to tell the world that they were the most skilled generals the world had ever seen. In fact, they were as incompetent as the British and French generals who had invaded Crimea in 1854. Whether the German army could have reached Moscow before winter or not, the German army made no provision for winter clothing, lubricants or shelter.

The army froze. Obviously, the Germans expected the Red Army would not fight. But Russians were not Frenchmen. They fought furiously.

There is a rightwing myth that the Russians fought only because NKVD men with submachine guns herded them forward. There were penal battalions, and the NKVD did herd those men forward, but even early in the war the Russians fought tenaciously. German officers marveled that surrounded reds (sometimes) fought to the last round.

Stalin soon latched onto this patriotism and dropped most communist rhetoric (and the commissars). It is hard to understand. Russians fought tenaciously for the tsar, too, for a time. Nether regime deserved such devotion.

Soon enough, though, the Germans gave the Russians reason to fight, whether they liked the regime or not. The White and Little Russians had greeted the Germans as liberators (from the Great Russians and the commissars), but German racism soon changed that.

Erickson seldom remarks about such things, but he does note that, in the final drive into Germany, the savage retribution taken by the Red Army was inflamed by the savage exhortations (in Red Star newspaper) of Ilya Ehrenburg.

Ehrenburg’s ferocious attacks against “fascist beasts” were extreme, but the fascists really were beasts.

The Russians absorbed losses that would have ended any other army (except the Japanese). Millions were taken prisoner (to be deliberately starved), more millions were wounded and killed. Yet, no matter how many the Germans eliminated, there were always just as many more.

Erickson is shy about statistics, but another English historian, John Overy, says that, in effect, the German army destroyed the Red Army twice; but Stalin replaced it thrice.

By the end of the war, even Russia’s human reserves were running out. The Germans, operating with a smaller population, had long since begun shrinking.

Early in the war, the Red Army, the one that wouldn’t fight, was inflicting 30,000 casualties a week on the Germans (and Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Spaniards who collaborated).

The failure of the German logistical system was immediately apparent. By September, the Germans had managed to replace only 50,000 out of 150,000 casualties at the front.

The failures at the top (on both sides) were incredible, and if the Germans had fought even minimally effectively, the USSR would have been defeated.

It is a matter of choice which was the greatest failure. Entering the war believing the Red Army would not fight is one candidate. Beginning without establishing a strategic objective is another.

During July and August, the German army paused, in part to refit and reorganize after a rapid advance that stunned the world. The halt stretched on for 18 hot, sunny days while the Germans argued what to do. The broad options were to strike for the capital or for the food and minerals of Ukraine. Stalin was convinced it would be Ukraine.

He was wrong, sort of. The Germans decided on Moscow but could not make themselves concentrate.

Had they begun earlier, they would have had time to get to Moscow before the autumn rains. They failed, and at this point Stalin made the second of his three decisive moves.

The population of Moscow was panicking and the generals were doubtful they could hold off the Germans without reinforcements. Stalin demanded a stand but without extra troops. In the meantime, he assembled a huge, hidden force to counterattack once the ground (and the Germans and their weapons) froze.

At at least three points during the war, Stalin broke down. Not here. With unflinching self-confidence that was frequently ill-considered, Stalin held his hand. The Russians, deficient in so many skills of war, were always masters of deception. The Germans were stunned.

Here, if not earlier in September when the German army began to weaken numerically, the outcome of the war was decided. The democracies had little to do with it and the United States nothing. It was settled before the USA got involved.

The Battle of Moscow was the first defeat of the Nazi war machine.

Stalin nearly threw away his advantage be pressing on, thinking he could push the Germans right out of the USSR.

This led to another vast encirclement and capture of hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers.

Nevertheless, the Germans were now too weak to attain any strategic objective.

After a summer of vast retreats in the south, Stalin pulled off the same coup at Stalingrad, only this time the margin of the unreinforced defenders (the 62bd Army and their commander, Chuikov, who wasn’t afraid of anybody) was cut very much thinner than at Moscow.

The counterattack was even more successful, and Stalin made the same error of pressing it too long and turning a strategic victory into a tactical defeat.

There was one other result from the victory at Stalingrad. Although Stalin never trusted anybody, after Stalingrad he began to let the generals fight their battles more or less as they wished.

In the summer, Stalin was sure the German offensive would switch back to Moscow, and, as always, he preferred the offensive.

His marshals correctly predicted an offensive in the south and after much argument got Stalin to let them fight a defensive action. The result was the overwhelming victory at Kursk.

From this point, Erickson’s narrative broadens. For the most part, he deals in nothing smaller than an army (equivalent to a U.S. corps). As the Red rebound begins, he looks a bit more deeply at the forces involved, until by the final push on Berlin he sometimes deigns to mention something as small as a regiment (U.S. battalion).

He also spends many pages in detailed consideration of the postwar political settlement, dominated by the feckless Poles, to whose behalf the whole monstrous destruction was in principle devoted.

Not much else diverts Erickson from the disposition of armies and army groups. There is not much about logistics, weapons development, economic organization, civilian mobilization or anything else.

For the human dimension, we have to read others.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

So's your mamma

If the highest duty of the government is to protect its citizens -- as Whiny Baby Donald says he thinks -- then the second-highest must be to do something effective about it.

For example, in 1942, Americans really were under mortal threats, but rounding up Japanese citizens and immigrants in California, stealing their property and immuring them in concentration camps was not an effective way of protecting anybody. It was racism.

Just so with Trump's idiotic motion against Muslims, on the grounds that some may be ready to attack Americans. It's true, some are. But then, so are some Christians.

The Supreme Cort decision (per curiam, but 6-3, showing that a minority of justices have not lost their heads), does nothing effective to protect anybody. The order reads, in relevant part:

    The injunctions remain in place only with respect to parties similarly situated to Doe, Dr. Elshikh, and Hawaii. In practical terms, this means that §2(c) may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States. All other foreign nationals are subject to the provisions of EO–2.
The Trumpeters interpret this vzgue order to mean, as close as your mother.

The flaw is obvious to anybody. Everybody has a mother, and everybody's mother lives somplace.

If she happens to live in the United States, that tells us exactly nothing about whether her child is or is not planning to attack Americans.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Nazis? What Nazis?

Neonazis rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Why not?

The son of Trump's favorite Flynn was scheduled to speak, but I have not been able to find a report that says whether he did or didn't.

A lot of people -- me, included -- have wondered what the attraction was that Flynn has for Whiny Baby Donald. 

All in all, another brick in the wall.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Another Trump ally exposed

This time it's the tub-thumper for fake news about voting, Kris Kobach. A federal court fined him $1,000 for lying.

Admonitions from courts are not rare but fines are. So Kobach really screwed the pooch. The Los Angeles Times reports:

The court took Kobach at his word, O'Hara wrote, but upon review of the documents – produced under a court order – found that they did relate to the voting rights case.

The judge wrote that while the court could not say that Kobach "flat-out lied," the "defendant’s statements can be construed as wordplay meant to present a materially inaccurate picture of the documents."

To make America great . . .

. . . you have to find great Americans.

 Like William Bradford.

In a December 2016 tweet, Bradford referred to former President Barack Obama as a “Kenyan creampuff.” In another tweet, he dubiously claimed Obama might refuse to leave The White House at the end of his presidential term and suggested a “military coup” could be necessary to remove him.

That's perhsps his most decent tweet. Oh, and, yes, you don't even have to ask. He faked his CV.

He's a Trump appointee.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

L.A. homes back to 2007 prices

Nominally, anyway, although the Los Angeles Times notes that, adjusted for inflation, they are still 11% short.
In summer 2007, the Los Angeles County median home price hit an all-time high of $550,000. It soon plunged as the housing bubble burst and the national economy crashed.

Now the median, the point where half the homes sold for more and half for less, has finally passed the heights of 10 years ago — the result of an improving economy, historically low mortgage rates and a shortage of listings.

According to a report released Wednesday from real estate firm CoreLogic, the county’s median price in May rose 6.8% from a year earlier to reach $560,500 as sales jumped 4.8%.

When adjusted for inflation, May’s median remains 11% below the 2007 high . . .
I mention this in a Maui blog only because of "shortahe of listings." We have that, too.

If you don't build house, you won't have enough houses.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Winning edge

In 1884, an Oxford undergraduate, Charles Oman, won the Marquess of Lothian’s Prize for an essay on “The Art of War in the Middle Ages.”  Although he essay is still read and has even been updated to reflect 20th century scholarship, it hardly seems likely to be of more than antiquarian interest in the 21st century. However, this is not the case.

Oman, nothing if not a confident 24-year-old, had a  message for his elders in his essay, although they were too obtuse to learn it until the events on the battlefields of Flanders 30 years later demonstrated how right he was. But there is more to it even than that, because the same lesson — suitably modified for modern times — applies today, and the masters of war of our time are proving as obtuse and stupid as the generals and politicians of late Victorian and Edwardian time.

While the theme of the essay is tactics, the lesson concerns the difficulty of recognizing when the terms of battle have fundamentally changed.

In brief, from the Battle of Adrianople (378), the supremacy of the Roman infantry legion was superseded by the charge of the heavy armored horseman — the cataphract, a development of, primarily, Iranians that spread to dominate Europe and western Asia for over a thousand years, fundamentally reshaping economies, politics and social organization.

From the late 13th century, two innovations began to overthrow the undisciplined, aristocratic knights: the phalanx of Swiss pikemen and the corps of Welsh longbowmen. Yet for over a century, the knights refused to recognize the change, no matter how many of them were slaughtered at, for example, Crecy.

The run of the Swiss and the English was much shorter, less than two centuries, and they, too, were very late in recognizing that a new way of fighting had made them vulnerable.

Push of pike
The introduction of firearms set up a period of innovation and confusion so that for some time there was no obvious best form of fighting, but the introduction of the long-range rifled musket in the 1840s began a new period of mastery.

The generals did not know it, as proven by Grant at Cold Harbor in 1864, and when Oman wrote in 1884, the supremacy of infantry in field works armed with long range weapons was still denied. The supremacy was enhanced by the introduction of breechloaders, repeaters and finally of machine guns. Small armies could defeat big ones, as the Turks demonstrated at Plevna.

The generals, who tend always toward incompetence, did not notice, until July 1 on the Somme in 1916 when more men were killed in a day than had happened since, perhaps, Cannae 2,100 years earlier.

The tank was invented to overcome the fieldworks, but its run was short. It was over for most conflicts by 1945.

For the past 70 years, in most conflicts where one side had tanks and planes and the other did not, the tankless, planeless fighters prevailed. As long as the population shelters him the guerrilla — if he can get submachine guns, rocket grenades and bullets, as he usually could in the age of nuclear standoff between the great powers — prevails.
The United States and the NATO nations spend close to a trillion dollars a year on their militaries. More planes, more ships, more radars — however necessary to deter similar national actors — are unlikely to gain results against committed fighters who have the backing of locals.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gimme shelter

The Grenfell fire reminds us that if you are afraid of -ists, you are threatened more by capitalists than by Islamists.

Material used in the cladding that covered the Grenfell Tower was the cheaper, more flammable version of the two available options, an investigation of the supply chain has confirmed.
Although the Grenfell tower was public housing (council housing in England), its maintenance had been privatized. It provides a sickening confirmation of a phenomenon RtO has often written about, the "Fireproof Hotel"scheme.

(I wrote a summary today as a comment on a call not to attribute "wickedness' to the Grenfell perps: 

(Don't define wickedness down. I have often commented on the 'Fireproof Hotel' ploy. If you own a hotel, you can attract more business by advertising that it is fireproof. You can either paint 'fireproof hotel' on a firetrap or you can invest in fireproofing. You will make more money by using just paint, at least until your hotel catches fire. If you're lucky you will outcompete the honest hotelier and drive him out of business. That appears to have been the case at Grenfell. Seems wicked to me, even when no one burns to death.)

On a side note, when I heard on a radio broadcast that a high-rise was on fire "on every floor" I was skeptical. Tall buildings cannot do that; regulations forestall it.  But it turns out that the myth of over-regulated Britain is a myth akin to other rightwing fake news. Again, The Guardian:

In the UK there are no regulations requiring the use of fire-retardant material in cladding used on the exterior of tower blocks and schools. But the Fire Protection Association (FPA), an industry body, has been pushing for years for the government to make it a statutory requirement for local authorities and companies to use only fire-retardant material. Jim Glocking, technical director of the FPA, said it had “lobbied long and hard” for building regulations on the issue to be tightened, but nothing had happened.
I had planned to write about subsidized housing in Britain and Maui before the Grenfell fire. I delayed and now events sharpen the point.

Before the election in the UK, John Lanchester in The London Review of Books had written about London real estate in terms that sounded a great deal like Maui:

   A person who didn’t know modern Britain well might guess that the body in charge of this hugely ambitious project would be one with formidable powers of oversight and planning, combined with decades of expertise. A person who knew modern Britain better would be more likely to guess the truth, which is that there is no such body. No one is in charge of VNEB. There is no plan. The developments are the result of developers’ proposals, as well as occasional blurting interventions on the part of central government, under the supervision of local councils, in this case Wandsworth and Lambeth. Mayoral action and inaction play a role too. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were both pro-skyscraper; Johnson came up with a great phrase about not wanting to create ‘Dubai-on-Thames’, and then did everything in his power to do exactly that. In 2007, the mayor acquired the power to override local councils on ‘strategic’ questions of building, though this power doesn’t seem yet to have included restricting tall buildings, as opposed to allowing them. From this mismatch arises the marvel that will be VNEB, a chaotic patchwork of architectural ambition, developers’ greed and mostly well-meaning but always overmatched local councils. The new ‘homes’ are being targeted mainly at overseas investors. When the first properties in Battersea Power Station went on sale Businessweek ran a story about it that you didn’t need to read. All you had to do was look at the byline: Kuala Lumpur. Typical of the flats that have gone on sale so far is a two-bedroom apartment for £1.5 million. No Londoner – no Brit – is going to spend that kind of money to live in a two-bedroom flat in Vauxhall. The target market is glaringly, self-evidently non-local.
This is happening in a city where, by universal consent, one of the biggest problems is the lack of affordable housing. For many Londoners, younger people especially, the cost of housing is their first concern; living in what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calls ‘housing-cost-induced poverty’ is central to their experience of life in the capital. This is one reason London is suffering a net loss of people in their thirties – a terrible warning sign for any city, especially one so pleased with itself. There is something here which reaches beyond the standard four-legs-good, two-legs-bad of party allegiance. Look at it from a Vauxhall local’s point of view: 1. housing is in crisis and desperately needs fixing; 2. the single biggest thing to be happening in the local economy in decades is a housing development; and yet 2 has nothing to do with 1, will not alleviate it in any respect, and may even (if it succeeds in flooding the London market with yet more foreign capital) make 1 worse. There is a total disconnect between what a majority of citizens want – I’m guessing, but London is a city where the majority of people are renters rather than owners – and political outcomes. Who should you have voted for, if you didn’t want things to get to this point? Most of it happened under Labour, at all three levels, local, mayoral and governmental. The Tories made it worse. Who should you vote for in Vauxhall at this general election, if you want to stop what’s obviously going to happen: the creation of a huge number of the very last things the city needs, new luxury flats under absentee foreign ownership?
The answer is that it doesn’t much matter, because on this issue you have no agency. I know that this may look like a trick answer, since planning decisions are taken by local not central government (except when the reverse is true, à la Prescott Towers). But our political system is man-made, not the creation of divine decree, and it is the system which is failing in this respect. In the case of housing, the solution to this problem is obvious and has been known for years. It is to build more housing. The Barker review in 2004 came to the conclusion that the UK has an annual shortage of 245,000 new homes.
I encourage you to read the whole, wordy thing.

Maui's housing deficit is said to be 16,000 although I believe it is considerably higher.

16,000 is 30 Waiehu Heights projects, which I propose as a model for adding housing for households with 2 earners of middling income.

As for where, acquire 1,000 hot, dusty acres from HC&S in the vicinity of Puunene. Houses there would not be so attractive to offshore buyers.

I did not hear his talk, but Peter Savio was on Maui last week. A friend who went to see him tells me he said if you want affordable housing, the gummint must absorb the infrastructure costs; sewer, water, open space etc.   

Even then, any housing would be affordable only to the middling sort. You cannot build new housing that is affordable by people working in retail, the largest category of workers on Maui

 In other places, affordable housing is older housing -- sometimes originally mansions, sometimes originally tract houses or cheap apartments -- that is in decline. This works only where there is a stock of older housing; it doesn't work in expanding communities like ours.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

And a fraud against the Congress

Secretary of State Tillerson has been smoking rabbit grass again.

Don't these guys ever check anything?

A fraud against the courts

If you read all 86 pages of the 9th Circuit’s devastating ruling against Whiny Baby Donald and his travel ban, the big message — never explicitly stated — comes through like thunder: the judges are not ready yet to allow the neonazis in the White House to permit wholesale fraud against the courts.

Had the same arguments and judgments been written against what the ruling calls EO1 (the first Executive Order, the one Whiny Baby likes), then that could not be said. Lawyers write bad papers sometimes.

But after their errors have been shown to them (and the whole world), if they repeat the same errors, the judges are going to be irritated.

The 9th Circuit judges are vastly irritated.

Even if, as the judges said is not the case, Whiny Baby could have made a persuasive case, he did not even try. The Immigration and Naturalization Act requires specific steps (and consultation with Congress) to even think about doing what Trump did. He didn’t bother.

That he did not bother confirms the suspicion that 1) he had (and has) no intention of acting lawfully and 2) he had no intention of having a temporary travel ban.

(Note: the ostensible purpose of EO1 and 2 was to allow time for reviewing and improving the clearance procedures for certain applicants. Some on the left have said, see, it has been far longer than 90 days, and the new rules have not been announced. But this is unfair: Judge Watson enjoined the agencies from initiating an internal review, but the appeals court removed that. The clock is now running on the 90 days. Mark your calendar; the revised procedures should be announced around Sept. 11.)

Not only did the EO not provide the necessary determinations when WBD signed it, when the District Court enjoined it, the government lawyers did not bother to rebut the assertion of failure (page 14).

The ban was intended to be permanent.

However, in reality, the ban was not addressed at the 6 or 7 countries, or even at its root against  Muslims. It was really aimed at fearful, ignorant Americans — of whom there are many —and their votes and support in opinion polls.

When times are troublous, the cry of “the nation in danger” is often a vote-getter. The nation does not have to actually be in danger; as the appeals court noted, no one from any of the target countries has ever committed an act of terror in the United States.

The danger is mythical and the rightwingers didn’t even pretend to the court that it is anything but.

However, something up toward half the population is terrified. The terrorists have won without committing any act.

(If WBD were really concerned about religiously motivated acts of violence, he would be ginning up a campaign against Christians, who are the source of more political violence in America than any other cult, or than all other cults combined.)

RtO has warned now for months about the rightwing assault on the courts. The courts have noticed. The appeals judges observed that (quoting a 1977 opinion), “Over no conceivable subject is the legislative power of Congress more complete than  it is over the admission of aliens.” (Page 33) The assault on the courts is also an assault on the legislature but the Republicans in Congress are too bemused by their chairmanships to see that.

About claims that a president has an inherent superior power to defend the nation, the court tartly says, “National security is not a ‘talismanic incantation’ . . “ (Page 43)

Even presidents have to comply with the laws.

The 9th Circuit judges said they didn’t have to get to Hawaii’s claims about constitutional rights, since WBD’s misfits had so completely screwed up even the bare machinery of following the statutes. But it is pretty clear that if Congress were to rewrite the statutes(which the court advised it could do), the constitutional claims would still be powerful.

Listing the many deficiencies in EO2, the judges wrote, it “does not provide any link between an individual’s nationality and their propensity to commit terrorism or their inherent dangerousness.” (Page 39)

The judges did not cite the WorldWar II absurdity that locked up antiNazi German aliens (many of them Jews) because of their nationality. That was more evident in Britain than in the United States, although it happened here, too.

Nationality is a state of mind, and that should be evident above all to the quivering cowards in the Republican Party who are so exercised at the thought that white people from European countries are traveling to fight for the Islamic State in the Mideast.

The mistakes of World War II ought to have taught us something, but clearly they did not. This blade cuts both ways. In a summary list of immediate harms to Hawaii interests, one is reduction  of tourism.

In 1942, when German submarines were torpedoing scores of tankers and freighters moving up and down the East Coast, at night, using the backlight from beach towns to silhouette their targets, the Navy proposed a blackout. Numerous mayors squealed loudly that that would ruin the tourist trade. The lights stayed on and sailors burned to death in oily seas.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Grade inflation

And another one bites the dust.

Inflating a 4-week course in credit management into an Ivy League degree isn't as uncommon as it ought to be, because you can get away with it in the low-pressure atmospere of small town country clubism. If you are one of the handful of poseurs that Trump has dredged out of Babbitt country to work for the peple, it will be harder to escape notice.

That this small fry banker massaged his resume isn't as interesting as the fact that the Trump staff still hasn't figured out background searches or the Internet.

Bloomberg, by the way, is mining news gold out of the tailings in the Trump slag heap.

I wonder whether the outing of Otting came thanks to a $1.30 background search or thanks to a Dartmouth grad working for Bloomberg who recognized the lie.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review 390: The Gene

THE GENE: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 592 pages. Scribner, $32

Evolution by means of natural selection is the profoundest concept in biology; it may be the profoundest concept that humans are capable of. It can be expressed in a couple of sentences, and this has seduced many people to think that it is easy to understand.

This applies as well to those who pursue it as science or medicine as to those who disbelieve it because of religious bigotry.

But it is not easy to understand. We are now just 150 years from the germinal researches of Darwin and Mendel and capable — thanks to the research of a couple of yogurt scientists (yes, really) — of manufacturing genes to order with a high specificity.

Yet Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene” is both a cautionary and a triumphal story. Time after time, people have thought they knew enough to move from research to action. Some of these people were (and they are still around) ignoramuses who knew nothing about genetics; some were among the most advanced researchers and thinkers of their time.

(The following paragraph is relevant to Mukherjee’s book but is not explored in it. The antievolutionists of today who smear evolution as the progenitor of fascism or racial exterminationist ideologies are not only ignorant of the science of evolution, they turn history upside down. Evolutionary thinkers were (and some still are) guilty of racist and murderous thinking, but such thoughts did not have to await the “Origin of Species” to be thought. They were already around. The racists found evolutionary knowledge, especially as it stood in the late 19th century, handy to their purposes, but they had other impulses, primarily derived from Christianity. The word eugenics preceded the word genetics by 20 years.)

Natural selection requires something to select against, and it soon became clear that that something was physical. Darwin drove incorporeal vital forces out of biology, but for a long time that something was almost entirely unguessable. The word gene did not arrive for about 50 years and it remained an idea without a physical analogue for a long time. .

Not until the 1940s was it known for sure what genes were made of. After that huge conceptual breakthroughs came just about every decade — almost as if a kind of Moore’s Law (but slower paced) was acting in genetics.

The structure of the gene was revealed in ’53, the code was cracked less than 10 years later, and barely 10 years after that the prospect of genetic manipulation, as reality not dream, was so imminent that a famous conference on the ethics of knowing about the gene was called at Asilomar. There was “no comparable moment in scientific history,” Mukherjee says.

Mukherjee, a cancer researcher, is superb at explaining the concepts and experiments behind these breakthroughs (although as the reach into the gene becomes ever more detailed the explanations for lay readers become less so), but the best parts of the book are the ethical puzzles.

Mukherjee’s family included examples relevant to genetic research— a pair of identical twins, a cluster of apparently heritable madnesses — and it is here that his portrait of the gene becomes intimate.

His views are cosmopolitan, perhaps as a result of his family background, as refugees from what was then East Pakistan, then as migrants to America, and his own transoceanic education (Stanford, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford). Thus such insights as that the (apparent) power to direct genes led to concerns about biohazards among American researchers, moral hazards among students in Europe.

Soon enough ordinary people will have to come to terms with both. Mukherjee quotes the researcher Eric Topol: “Genetic tests are also moral tests. When you decide to test for ‘future risk,’ you are also, inevitably, asking yourself, what kind of future am I willing to risk?”

That, at least, is a more humane question than the assertion of the fascist eugenicists that “the future belongs to me.”