Undefeated – A well-written new WWII combat narrative by military historian Bill Sloan – #bookreview

Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor
By Bill Sloan
(Simon & Schuster,
hardback, list price $28.00; Kindle edition, $14.99)

Japan wanted to attack the Philippines on the same day as Pearl Harbor. But bad weather kept its planes grounded on Formosa until December 8. Yet even with a day’s warning that war had begun, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the United States Army Forces, Far East, “committed two grave blunders,” according to this excellent combat narrative.

“First, he forfeited the opportunity for his B-17s [and bomber crews] to strike a decisive blow against the Japanese and save themselves from destruction on the ground in the process,” author Bill Sloan, a military historian, contends.

“And second, he ordered General [Jonathan M.] Wainwright’s raw, inept Philippine Army divisions to attack and destroy the Japanese landing force on the beaches of Luzon. He might as well have ordered them to fly to the moon.”

The American-led Filipino troops outnumbered the Japanese, but they had few weapons and very little military training.

There were others to blame, as well, for the devastating loss of the Philippines, Sloan adds. Throughout the 1930s, Congress had refused funding “to update a military still operating with World War I leftovers.” And, a few months prior to Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill “to a wartime grand strategy of ‘Europe First,’ giving top priority to halting the Nazi blitzkrieg on the other side of the Atlantic and relegating the Japanese Pacific threat to secondary status.”

Countless tales of heroics, sacrifice, cowardice, barbarism and desperation unfolded once Japanese troops landed in the Philippines, which was an American commonwealth from 1935 to 1946.

Sloan’s well-written and well-researched book highlights how the outgunned U.S. and Filipino troops tried to battle the invaders. And he deftly mingles their stories with accounts of military leaders struggling to hold out and then stage an orderly retreat to Bataan and Corregidor, two American fortresses that guarded Manila Bay.

As resistance collapsed, many soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen joined any military unit they could find. Some attempted individual escapes to Australia, and others melted into the hills and jungles to become guerilla fighters. Still, most American and Filipino troops became prisoners of war after May 7, 1942, when Gen. Wainwright was forced to surrender to avoid large-scale slaughter.

Sloan’s book pushes headlong into the brutal horrors that followed, including the long Bataan Death March that killed thousands and the sufferings of the Americans and Filipinos that were packed aboard transport ships bound for slave labor camps in Japan. Thousands died aboard those ships, either from appalling mistreatment or from air and sea attacks by American forces that were unaware of the human cargo.

The few who survived the Death March, the sea journey and slave labor’s brutalities faced yet one more challenge: Their captors had orders to execute them if America invaded Japan. What finally saved the POWs, with dramatic suddenness, Sloan makes clear, were the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He relates stories of incredible tenacity, courage and honor amid conditions that seeming utterly impossible to endure. He also offers shocking accounts of how some desperate American servicemen resorted to murder and cannibalism in their efforts to stay alive.

A prize-winning former investigative reporter, Sloan has drawn upon an extensive gathering of author interviews, oral history accounts, published historical materials, and first-person memoirs, both published and unpublished, to create Undefeated. His other combat narratives include Brotherhood of Heroes, The Ultimate Battle, and Given Up for Dead.

Balancing his criticisms of Gen. MacArthur’s leadership, particularly in the Philippines, Sloan emphasizes that the general later proved dramatically successful as post-war Japan’s “substitute emperor.” Indeed, “his success in transforming a tyrannical, rapacious, America-hating outlaw regime into a model democracy is unparalleled in political history.”

But Sloan never loses sight of those who gave the most to defend and eventually liberate the Philippines. “We were surrendered,” he quotes some of the soldiers as emphasizing, “but we were never defeated!”

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

 

The New London explosion – Two views of America’s worst school disaster – #bookreview #texas #history

 My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion
By Ron Rozelle
(Texas A&M, hardback, list price $24.95; Kindle edition, list price $24.95)

 Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History
By David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin
(Potomac Books, hardback, $29.95; Kindle edition, list price $29.95)

On March 18, 1937, in East Texas’ tiny New London community, a natural gas explosion killed some 300 students, teachers and others at London Junior-Senior High School.

Seventy-five years later, the exact death toll in America’s worst school disaster remains uncertain. But its grim lessons are relevant and timely again as school districts across the nation struggle to cut their operating expenses without endangering student safety. 

Briefly, at least, the New London catastrophe made world headlines. Even Adolph Hitler sent a message of condolence. One of the reporters who covered the explosion’s aftermath was a young Dallas newsman named Walter Cronkite.

But 1937 was a year full of troubling currents and undercurrents, including the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Germany, Italy and Japan as military powers, and the Roosevelt Administration’s continuing struggles to lift the American economy out of the Great Depression.

Across most of the world, the devastating event soon faded into the global swirl of tensions and distractions. 

But not in New London. The shock continued to run so deep, townspeople “refused to speak of the explosion or of its victims, to the press or even to each other,” Ron Rozelle notes in My Boys and Girls Are in There.

Indeed, four decades passed before the first commemoration could be organized. And, 75 years after the school tragedy, some people still shudder when the explosion is mentioned. Pains and fears it created continue to be carried forward by survivors, witnesses, family members, and friends of the dead and injured.

“Sorrow is ambulatory, and refuses to be left behind,” writes Rozelle, an author and educator who grew up 80 miles from New London. Rozelle’s father was one of many volunteers who helped search the destroyed school for survivors and victims.

Rozelle’s book is written to read like a novel, yet its chapters arise from historical records, extensive follow-up research, and interviews with people who lost loved ones, survived injuries or otherwise were scarred.

Meanwhile, one of the authors of  Gone at 3:17, David M. Brown, also grew up in East Texas and has spent more than two decades interviewing New London survivors, rescuers and others. His co-writer, Michael Wereschagin, is a veteran journalist who has covered several large disasters. Their factual account likewise reads like a story. And, benefitting from doubled manpower, it offers some additional details on survivors, witnesses, investigations, and where victims were buried.

Both works are well-researched and well-written, and they bring fresh perspectives to the New London school explosion and its aftermath.  They also can be emotionally wrenching to read.

A key lesson from New London remains valid today as states struggle to reduce their school budgets. New London’s school was part of the London Consolidated School District, which may have been America’s richest rural school district in 1937. Tax revenues from oil production and related industries were plentiful. Indeed, London Junior-Senior High was the first secondary school in Texas to get electric lights for its football field. Yet, the superintendent and at least some of the board members still bore down hard on costs, to the point that money finally was put above student safety.

Late in 1936, the superintendent, with quiet approval from four board members, decided to disconnect the school from commercial natural gas and tap into a free, unregulated and widely available byproduct of gasoline refining: waste natural gas. Their hope was to save $250 a month.

Refineries pumped the waste gas back to oil rigs through networks of bleed-off lines, and rig operators were required to dispose of it. Most released it into the air through tall pipes, and the gas was burned, lighting the sky night and day with flaring orange flames.

“The practice of tapping into waste gas lines was something of an open secret in the oil patch,” Brown and Wereschagin write. Homeowners and business owners welded valves to some of the bleed-off lines, and they installed regulators to try to control gas pressures that varied widely. “With no one monitoring it, it came with no bill,” they note.

One pipeline passed 200 feet from New London’s school, and in 1937: “The [connection] crew had gone out in early January—a janitor, two bus drivers, and a welder the school had contracted….”

Blame for the blast often has been placed on the superintendent and on some of the board members he reported to. However, both of these new books highlight bad choices made by others, as well.

For example, refiners failed to enforce policies barring gas line taps, Brown and Wereschagin point out. And no one could smell the odorless gas as it leaked and collected in the school’s big basement, Rozelle emphasizes.

A single electrical spark from a basement light switch apparently set off the explosion.

Afterward, Texas quickly passed laws that might have been enacted sooner, if politics had not stood in the way. One law added a malodorant, “a distinctive, faintly repulsive scent,” to natural gas to provide as leak warning. Another law required “anyone working with gas connections be trained and certified as an engineer by the state.” Other states soon followed Texas’ action.

Today, Brown and Wereschagin stress,  most Americans “have never heard of the New London, Texas, school explosion” and have no idea how or why natural gas got its noxious smell.

These two timely books provide painful but important reminders why the New London school explosion and its grim lessons should never be forgotten.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available now in paperback. He is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

 

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works – A smart business startup guide – #bookreview

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works
By Ash Maurya
(O’Reilly, hardback, list price $24.99; Kindle edition, list price $19.99)

Starting a business soon?
Still sketching one out on cocktail napkins but getting ready to approach potential partners and staff?

Don’t launch without spending some well-focused time with the second edition of this thought-provoking and popular book.

If you have launched already and now have doubts about what you are trying to do, it’s not too late to consult Running Lean and pivot in a better direction. (The first edition was an ebook aimed mostly at those who create web-based products. This new edition adds tested new materials for a much wider business audience.)

The book’s goal is to help you “find a plan that works before running out of resources,” by “stress testing” Plan A and quickly moving to a new plan – even all the way to Plan Z and beyond – if your original schemes flounder.

Running Lean aims to provide “a better, faster way to vet new product ideas and build successful products” so you are able to make the best use of any startup’s most critical resource: time.

The book also is “about testing a vision by measuring how customers behave.” It is “about engaging customers throughout the product development cycle.” And, Ash Maurya writes, it is about getting your butt out of the building and away from your computer and your labs.

“You have to get out and directly engage customers.”

Furthermore, you have to push that engagement in a way that avoids the “classic product-centric approach [that] front-loads some customer involvement during the requirements-gathering phase but leaves the customer validation until after the software [or other product] is released. There is a large ‘middle’ when the startup disengages from customers for weeks or months while they build and test their solution,” Maurya emphasizes.

“During this time, it is quite possible for the startup to either build too much or be led astray from building what the customer wants.”

This excellent book, the first in O’Reilly’s new “Lean Series,” pulls together ideas from Steve Blank in The Four Steps to the Epiphany, Eric Ries in The Lean Startup, and others, as well as Ash Maurya’s multiple successes with startups. Eric Ries is the series editor.

Running Lean provides a well-structured guide to putting Lean Startup ™ principles directly to work in virtually any new business venture. And it could help you revitalize an existing enterprise, while you still have time and resources, if your current Plan A needs a Plan B, Plan C, or Plan Z, ASAP.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available soon in paperback. He also is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case That Shook the Texas Prison System – #bookreview #in

The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case That Shook the Texas Prison System
By Michael Berryhill
(University of Texas, hardback, list price $29.95; paperback, list price $25.00)

A prizewinning journalist has dug deeply and impressively into a double killing that still haunts the Texas Department of Criminal Justice more than 30 years after it happened.

In 1981, a prison farm manager and a warden were killed by a black inmate who claimed self-defense. Many predicted the inmate, a convicted burglar and robber named Eroy Brown, would be executed.

But just a year earlier, Texas inmates had won a huge federal civil rights victory against “unrelenting cruelty” and brutal civil rights violations within the Texas prison system. In three trials that followed the killings, juries repeatedly considered the state’s evidence and found Brown innocent each time.

The verdicts, writes Berryhill, “marked the end of Jim Crow justice in Texas.” His account of Eroy Brown’s “astonishing” defense is based on trial documents, exhibits, and journalistic accounts and also draws upon Brown’s story told in his own words.

Berryhill, an excellent writer and researcher, chairs Texas Southern University’s journalism program. He previously has won a Texas Institute of Letters prize for nonfiction.

He has written for a number of well-known publications, including Harper’s, the New Republic, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times magazine.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir available soon in paperback. He also is the author of a detective novel, Erwin’s Law, a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

A best-seller for your thoughts: Thinking, Fast and Slow – #bookreview

Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardback, list price $30.00; Kindle edition, list price $12.99)

Some of us do, but most of us don’t, have an attention shortage. We know how to pay attention. Indeed, these days, we try to pay attention to too many things at once. For example: texting while ordering a mocha, fumbling through a wallet for a credit card, bantering with the person in line behind us, and hearing the coffee barista call out: “Latte for Linda, ready at the bar!” as an ambulance screams by outside and we wonder what happened and who’s inside.

At many moments, our immediate thought processes are badly fragmented by our surroundings, our choices and the expanding reach of our technology. And other things likely may be going on inside our heads within those same attention-splintered instants: sad thoughts; something remembered undone at work; a memory from childhood; a sudden doubt there is a Devil or a God or a solution to America’s growing economic-cultural-political divide; a fear that the oven may not have been turned off when we left home.

We spend a lot of time living and rummaging around inside our heads and wishing we were smarter and better thinkers. So it is hardly a surprise that Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, recently has been running high on best-seller charts and recently has received several prestigious plaudits as one of 2011’s best books.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman expands and expounds upon two modes of thinking previously identified by psychologists and he uses the simple labels, System 1 and System 2, previously assigned by psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West.

“System 1,” Kahneman says, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” This “fast” level is driven by intuition and emotion.

Meanwhile, “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” It is the “slow” thinking level where deliberation and logic hold sway.

These two “systems” do not exist in separate compartments within our brains, of course. They are convenient concepts for trying to better grasp how our thinking processes work and interact — and how they fail us, sometimes.

Writes Kahneman: “System 2 is the only one that can follow rules, compare objects on several attributes, and make deliberate choices between options. The automatic System 1 does not have these capabilities. System 1 detects simple relationships (‘they are all alike,” “the son is much taller than the father’) and excels at integrating information about one thing, but it does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once, nor is it adept at using purely statistical information.”

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist – with a Nobel Prize in economic sciences. His writings challenging “the rational model of judgment and decision making” have won him acclaim as one of America’s “most important thinkers.” Thinking, Fast and Slow brings together “his many years of research and thinking in one book.”

It is not fast reading, and there have been some reader complaints about formatting glitches in the book’s Kindle edition.

But understanding the two thinking “systems” can help us make better judgments and decisions, Kahneman contends. Particularly if we can become more aware of “the marvels as well as the flaws of intuitive thought” and how Systems 1 and 2 interact within intuition.

States Kahneman: “System 1 is…the origin of much that we do wrong, but it is also the origin of most of what we do right—which is most of what we do,” he writes.

 What we must do better to “block errors that originate in System 1,” he argues, is learn how to learn how to “recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”

But “…it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so.”

In many daily situations, you will have to make snap decisions straight out of System 1. Yet, where possible, particularly in business, investing and various critical areas of your personal life, you will be wise to slow down a bit, listen more to System 2 and learn how integrate its powers of logic and deliberation into your choices.

 Thinking, Fast and Slow can help you do this – while it changes the way you think about how you think.

Si Dunn‘s latest book is a detective novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, including The 7th Mars Cavalry, all available on Kindle. He is a screenwriter, a freelance book reviewer and a former technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist.

The Cult of LEGO – #bookreview #lego #afol

The Cult of LEGO®
By John Baichtal and Joe Meno
(No Starch Press, list price $39.95, hardback)

Looking for an inspiring and informative Christmas gift for the adult or teenage LEGO® fan in your life? Stack up some consideration for this colorful new coffee table book from No Starch Press.

The Cult of LEGO® is a well-illustrated, smoothly written and often eye-opening look at the Danish toy sets that have swept the world since their inception as a stackable plastic block in 1947.

Today, LEGO® products are in the hands and toy boxes of countless millions of children. And there are many thousands of adults using the interlocking little plastic “bricks” to build everything from life-size dinosaur statues to massive models of battleships, fanciful spacecraft, Yankee Stadium and Easter Island’s mysterious stone sculptures.

Many men and women, in fact, call themselves AFOL – Adult Fans of LEGO®.—and they sometimes speak of “the Dark Age,” the time in their lives when they stopped playing with LEGO sets, because puberty, high school, college, careers, marriage and other milestones and pressures of life got in the way.

Now that they have emerged from the Dark Age, they are once again able to design and build fanciful creations using the little blocks, plus the various product additions and enhancements introduced by the LEGO Group during the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s and early 21st century.

Numerous businesses also offer specialized LEGO-compatible products, such as tiny plastic weapons, “minifigures” of famous characters (Indiana Jones, Albert Einstein, etc.) and specialized “bricks” that light up. Meanwhile, the LEGO Group has added  hundreds of LEGO enhancement parts such as gears, wheels, microcontrollers and other devices to its product offerings.

Two important aspects of the basic LEGO building “bricks” are their quality and durability. One former LEGO Group employee notes in the book that “[t]he fact that 15- to 20-year-old parts are still compatible with current sets from the store is pretty amazing—and the old pieces just need a ride in the washing machine!”

The Cult of LEGO®’s authors definitely are not strangers to the world of LEGO. Joe Meno is founder of BrickJournal, a print and online LEGO® fan magazine. He also has helped design LEGO sets, acted as an advisor on LEGO projects, and organized and run LEGO fan events. John Baichtal is a contributor to MAKE magazine and Wired’s GeekDad blog. He also has written for tabletop gaming magazines.

A note in The Cult of LEGO® points out: “This unofficial book is not endorsed or authorized by the LEGO Group.”

Nonetheless, the book’s lively and intriguing contents likely will inspire many adults and serious young builders to launch new LEGO® projects or complete old ones. There are many lively photographs and illustrations, as well as interviews, anecdotes and descriptions of resources for the serious AFOL and younger enthusiast alike.

Si Dunn