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M. J. Duggan (uk)

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Command and Control
Command and Control
by Eric Schlosser
Edition: Hardcover

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If I knew then what I know now !!, 23 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: Command and Control (Hardcover)
I was born in 1958, so I guess I'm a Cold War baby. I can't say I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but as a teenager, and a young adult I was aware that nuclear oblivion was no more than the push of a button away. I took a history degree, and grew into adulthood as a supporter of nuclear deterrence, I liked the idea that war was so terrible that nobody dared risk starting one, even if peace came at the price of fear and paranoia I thought this was better than the mass slaughter of two world wars. I considered individuals and groups who called for nuclear disarmament to be idealistic, and naïve. Furthermore I never gave a thought to the safety, security, and reliability of the bombs which kept the peace. A hydrogen bomb going off by accident, being pinched by terrorists , or being detonated as a result of a software glitch never occurred to me. Atom bombs were safe, they were fail safe, everybody knew that.
Bloody Hell! was I wrong!!
If Mr Schlosser's book had appeared in 1980 I don't know what it's effect on public opinion would have been, but I am sure that it would have persuaded many people that the gravest risk of nuclear oblivion did not come from superpower rivalry, but from an accident resulting in the detonation of a bomb, or some panic stricken service man launching his nuclear weapons as a consequence of receiving false information. This is the gist of Command and Control, atomic weapons are not safe, the command and control mechanisms which determine their use are not infallible, and this fine book provides dozens of instances where the danger of a nuclear detonation happening was seconds away, and in almost every instance it was a combination of good luck, skill, heroism, and divine intervention that prevented a catastrophe.
This is an excellent book, and I would recommend it to anyone. It handles the big picture of international power politics, and the details of the operation and maintenance of nuclear arsenals against that backdrop without becoming confused or mired down in too much technical detail. Mr Schlosser has done a great deal of research ,and leg work, as the huge list of notes, and long bibliography it contains attest. He handles the scientific, and technical details easily and makes them comprehensible to the lay reader. And he never forgets that this is a human story, with its heroes and villains, thankfully mostly heroes, such as men willing climb into the cockpit of burning bombers loaded with live nukes, or men risking their careers to highlight failings in the design, or security of nuclear weapons.
It's hard to put this book aside without the uneasy feeling that we survived the Cold War more by luck than good judgement.
Lastly the short final chapter which brings the story up to date is truly scary, the risk of nuclear Armageddon between the USA and Russia now seems highly unlikely, but the risk of nuclear weapons being used is increasing as more countries covet them. The world seems less safe than it did twenty years ago, The Middle East, Asia, and the former Soviet Union all offer potential flash points for open war. Many of the nations in these regions have the bomb, or are hellbent on getting one. It's a frightening conclusion to a worrying story. Nuclear weapons still pose the gravest and most immediate danger to human civilisation, and they aren't going to go away any time soon.

Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern
Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern
by Simon Winder
Edition: Paperback

13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars spare us from enthusiasts, 11 Jan. 2011
I have a good friend whose hobby is amateur dramatics, he and his mates spend two nights a week for six months in the upstairs room of a local working mens' club happily practicing for their one week performance of some play or other. Sometimes its a great like Macbeth, and sometimes it involves singing,like South Pacific. Occasionally there is a farce which usually means people running on or off stage in their underpants. But whatever the play you can be guranteed one thing:plenty of enthusiasm.Skill, talent, experience; well, finding these qualities within the cast is a bit like looking in the Christmas tin of Quality Street for the big blue chocolate with the nut in it. You might get lucky, but the chances are you'll end up with the toffee penny that gets stuck to the roof of your mouth. But as you sit in a Civic Theatre whose central heating conked out around the time of the miners' strike on a folding seat less forgiving than the Terminator you think to yourself, 'this is rubbish; but at least they've got a bit of enthusiasm.' Afterwards in the pub with your missus, and assorted friends of the cast everyone agrees it was a pretty good show, and didn't they all try hard. No one is going to be mean, or under the pretence of being objective start putting the boot in, no way: these are your friends, and Am Dram is their hobby. And everyone knows you don't mock another man's hobby. Enthusiasms are personal, and usually a bit embarassing for the rest of us, but we've all got them, so we make allowances and keep quiet.

Now I am fairly sure that Simon Winders hobby is wandering around ancient monuments in Germany. For me this is just fine, indeed as hobbies go its a big step up from from forgetting to bring the daggers on stage for murder scene in Macbeth, although not as funny.(Is this a dagger I see before me?).So if Mr Winder had kept his enthusiasm for Gothic spires, and fortifications to himself all would have been well. Alas he does not, what he does is attempt to give us a potted history of Germany and its culture based almost entierly on his experices whilst wandering about dusty town halls, and art galleries in obscure German towns many Germans would struggle to place on the map. He cheerfully 'fesses up to being hopeless at languages, and tells us in some detail of his failed efforts to master arabic amongst others,and including, yes you guessed; German. He can't speak or write it. His study of German history is as patchy as a sixteenth century map of the place, and can be summed up thus.
1.The Romans didn't much care for the Germans, considering them to be hairy and
2.Medieaval Germany was a very confusing place, with lots of different princes, and
kings, and other notables squabbling with each other.
3.In the nineteeth century some Germans decided it would be good idea if there was
just one country called Germany. This was called German reunification.
4.In the twentieth century a wicked man called Adolf Hitler arrived and killed
loads of people.
5.This marked the end of German history.

It's hopeless, I showed this book to a German friend of mine, she looked at the cover and burst out laughing, then said."Why haven't they got a picture of a footballer on it too, beating England of course." She's right as well, because the cover tells you everything you need to know.It contains just about every other twee, cliched, Little Englander cosy misapprehension about Germany. There is a pikelhelm, a valkierie,a stein, even an Alsatian dog, and of course a sausage. After all we couldn't have a book about Germany with out mentioning pork related produce could we.
This isn't a history of Germany, Winder simply hasn't put in the time and the effort to even attempt that, and more disastrously it isn't some form of travel writing which attempts to give the reader some feel of the country he is writing about.Winder has abslolutely no empathy for the people he is amongst. This is no more than the ramblings of a middle class English hobbyist abroad, which would have been fine had done no worse than shared them with like minded folk, and occasionally inflicted them on friends and family who would make allowance. My Am Dram friend will never appear on the professional stage,but he's quite happy where he is with his mates, enjoying his hobby in peace. Mr Winder should have done the same.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 12, 2012 9:41 PM GMT

Passage To Juneau: A Sea and Its Meaning
Passage To Juneau: A Sea and Its Meaning
by Jonathan Raban
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.38

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So you think you know where you are headed?, 29 Mar. 2008
This is a beautiful, and sombre story, told by one the finest writers of English prose. If you have no interest in travel writing, could not care less for fulsome travel brochure descriptions of scenery or city, find patronising anecdotes of quaint and quirky locals and their customs annoying then this is the type of travel writing that you may want to read.
Mr Raban sets off from Seattle with the intention of sailing his yatch single handed to Juneau in Alkaska by a route known as the Inside Passage. A serpentine journey round islands,and reefs. There are tricky, dangerous tidal races, half submerged logs,and sudden violent squalls to be avoided. It is a daunting journey for a middle aged man, who readily admits to being a timid, and nervous sailor. He is out of his depth, and he knows it. Hence the description of the actual sailing is one of constant watchfulness, and anxiety. Hazards real and fanciful keep him in a state of permanent neurosis, constantly looking for a sheltered anchorage where he can ride out the storm or calm his nerves.

Mr Raban has taken a keen interest in the history of the native Americans who live on the west coast of America, and his opinions of their culture and development are scholarly, and humane. He is amused by the contemporary view of the Indians as proto-enviromentalists at one with nature, when they patently were not. Also he has taken a keen interest in the activities of the first European explorers and settlers of the region and makes constant references to the voyage of Captain Vancouver along the same route as his own in 1797.
But the real interest and drama lie not in the voyage or the history but with the author. As the voyage progresses Mr Raban emerges as the real story, not merely it's narrator. What we find is a man beset by worry and fretfulness, excited by his adventure but self reproachful for leaving his infant daughter and wife behind. The journey is brought to a jarring halt by the news of his father's illness, then death, and finally by a dreadful personal disaster that lands like a blow upon a bruise which sends him listing forlonly back to Seattle.
This is a story with a simple message, told against a seascape. You can chose your destination, plot your course, and steer as cautiously as you can, but it may do you no good. Unpredictable, and willful forces beset your voyage and you can never be sure where you will make landfall, or worse you may simply disappear beneath the foam.
Mr Raban writes simple,lucid and subtle storytelling at its very best. If you read this book I think you will come from it feeling as if you too have been on a long voyage, and returned to a place you thought you knew well, but are now less sure.

by John Updike
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrorist threat. Unfullfilled promise., 20 Sept. 2007
This review is from: Terrorist (Paperback)
Just about everyone, including me, agrees that John Updike is one of the world's greatest living authors, but in my opinion this is not one of his best works. I have been a fan of his writing ever since I read his first Rabbit novel over twenty years ago. But the qualities which attracted me to his work are missing in his latest novel. There is none of the sly humour, subtle well rounded characters, or stop you dead and re-read that sentence prose which has made his writing so good.
Terrorist has the worthy feel of a book which should be written, as a result it never takes off and soars like it should. What Updike gives us is a dismal view of contemporary America, it is a selfish, valueless society where the souless pursuit of material gain has corrupted the ideals of liberal democracy and civic responsibility. Furthermore this nihilistic society exists in a state of constant fear and paranoia as a result of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terrorist scares, both real and illusory.
But the anger and despair of the writer hobble his work, and as a result his characters are obvious and two dimensional, for example we are given an angry idealistic young Muslim confronting a disillusioned, ageing, liberal Jew. This feels too cliched. Characters like this have no depth and don't invite the empathy of the reader.
There is no plot to speak of, although plots have never been Updike's strong point, but if you are attempting to write a thriller then you must try to include a few cliff hangers to keep the reader turning the next page.
What Updike offers us is a series of lectures and observations on contemporary America in the form of his characters' internal monologues, and their conversations. This kills any sponteneity and makes the speech seem contrived. "We can never be happy again-we Americans", exclaims one of them, and given the author's foul mood you can't disagree.
If this review reads like an attempt to put off prospective readers, then don't let it. John Updike is a great writer, and even the very best have their off days. I'm just a little disappointed, but that's only my opinion, so read the book and judge for yourself.

What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way
What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way
by Nick Cohen
Edition: Paperback

51 of 64 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars nothing left out, 26 May 2007
The central theme of Nick Cohen's book is that the liberal left in Europe and the USA has behaved badly in its attitude towards islamism and the US led invasion of Iraq. Cohen argues that the liberal left is consumed with hatred for George Bush and the neo-conservatives to the extent that it is prepared to find common cause with a right wing, religious fundamentalist ideology which is opposed to left wing values such as democracy,toleration of dissent, respect for the rule of law and sexual equality.

In my opinion he makes a decent case, but in doing so he is also self indulgent, discursive and like all left wingers is unable to resist the opprtunity to score points against fellow left wingers he has fallen out with. The end result is a hotchpotch of a book which gives a one sided history of the the left in the 1930s,criticises the appalling grammar of left wing writers, and settles a few scores with little known leftist groups such as the Socilaist Workers Party which enjoyed a brief notoriety in the 1970's. There are other diversions too, but unlike Mr Cohen I'll try and stay on track, and say that I was disappointed by this account because it could have been so much better, and hard hitting if only he had kept his eye on the ball.

Islamism and other fundamentalist, tyranical and anti democratic ideologies are gaining strength across the globe, and Mr Cohen is correct in his view that the left is too preoccupied with criticising the system of government which allows left wing values to prosper, and is failing to confront the real enemies of democracy.

I'll give this book full marks for its good intentions, but the vital arguments are smothered by irrelevant diversions

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