A Manhunt across Scotland in the Name of Justice

Andrew Miller: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free ISBN 978-1-444-78466-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ No, this book isn’t about Brexit, thanks God, even if some ideas about human narrowmindedness may seem very familiar! But the novel is rather about a manhunt, an improbable romance and most of all it is about human endurance and the quest for justice. In the end it is also about love. Captain John Lacroix returns from war, a guerilla war in Spain and Portugal, where a British expeditionary army and Spanish irregulars fight Napoleon’s troops.  Lacroix has witnessed a brutal incident that might embarrass the British government if it became known to the general public. The incident involved civilian casualties, collateral damage as one would say today, and the Spanish allies cry for justice. Lacroix has to run fast and far.

Lacroix  covers his track, but a British corporal and a Spanish officer have been tasked to apprehend him and suppress him. He seeks refuge in the Western Hebrides, a remote spot, where he finds a new family. But Corporal Calley and Lieutenant Medina are relentless in their pursuit and Calley has some very good personal reasons to kill Lacroix. As in any good spy thriller, nothing is what it seems. Calley was involved in the incident in Spain and Lacroix knows it. Truth will be the death verdict for one of the two.

Lacroix is perfectly aware that he is a scapegoat and to be sacrified for – for what actually? For the greater good perhaps? But then again sending an expeditionary force to Spain, undertrained and badly equipped, with weak leaders and no strategic concept wasn’t perhaps such a good idea. (Doesn’t that sound a little like Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy? 😜) It actually was a military disaster crowned by the humiliating British retreat after the Battle of Corunna and the death of the commanding general. Is it really the greater good that is at stake? It’s rather the pride of selected British officers and public servants, the unwillingness to acknowledge strategic and tactical errors.

Miller’s plot is exhilarating, but his language is even more ravishing. The way he portray’s the characters – the three men and a couple of women that play important second roles – is impressive. The way he describes the rough beauty of the Hebrides made me go back to my own memories of the place, happy memories. “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free” is a beautiful novel and reading it was a rare treat. I will most likely reread it in a few months which amounts to a great distinction given that I have so many more books to read a first time and to present perhaps here. A wonderful surprise.

The Hebrides are not quite the Orkneys, but both spots are a must for Romanticists. I connect wonderful memories to both Scottish island groups and Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy captures some of the spirit of the region:

Fantasizing over Belligerent Norse Kings

Imagining the Fusion of Man and Melody



Geoff Dyer: But Beautiful. A Book about Jazz
ISBN 978-0-85786-402-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What a sad book this is. What a wonderful book this is. Geoff Dyer is imagining key moments in the life of the world’s most famous jazz musicians. Lester Young, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell… Do you realize that I love jazz almost as much as I love classical music? On the eight day, God created jazz – music that encapsulates all the joys and even more all the sufferings of this world. All God had created before. God was a musician. Johann Sebastian Bach knew it. Charlie Parker knew it.

Dyer’s book speaks about proud and broken men, about misery, drug abuse, racism, loneliness, violence and perpetual erring. The corollary of musical genius, unbound creativity, fearless improvisations, innate harmony, the intense fusion of man and melody, of man and instrument. His approach to these musicians and their indiviual style is very personal: He recounts their lives the way they tell it to him through their music. A post-humous reconstruction. Artificial, but faithful. It’s a tool from my own toolbox I sometimes try in my posts about classical music and its composers, past and present. With less success than Dyer, but him doing it, validates the idea.

I am writing this at an airport on a day most things went wrong. A missed flight, a lost afternoon, a long wait for an alternative flight, a late night arrival with all the associated hassle. But. But I had this book with me, Wifi access, sufficiant battery capacity and storage memory on my smart phone. Ben Webster, Charles, Mingus, Chet Baker and and many more made me happy that afternoon. Music as a lifeline… It’s not the first time I experience this. Great consolation is to be found in the musical testimony of these man, and the missed plane is quickly forgotten.

Read the book! And listen to Thelonious Monk’s recording “Misterioso”! There’s a song called “In Walked Bud”. Bud like in Bud Powell. Because this book is also about true love and true friendship.

 

The Homo Sovieticus is Alive and Kicking

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Masha Gessen: The Future is History. How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia ISBN 978-0-525-53406-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Masha Gessen’s book intends to draw a psychogram of the Russian society, a fascinating endeavour for anyone interested in current political affairs and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. I cannot judge how close Gessen gets to draw an accurate and complete picture of how the Russian society ticks today, but by following the fate of four former Soviet and now Russian citizens from the terminal stage of the USSR until today, she gave me a highly valuable insight into the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, a species that did outlive its natural habitat.

The lives of Zhanna and Masha, both born in 1984, Seryozha, born in 1982, and Lyosha, born in 1985, are the four lenses through which different steps of contemporary Russian history are examined. They represent different social backgrounds, different ways of education and socialization, but they share a common fate: They are crushed by the weight of an ever more oppressive political system and their wishes for a life in a free society did not find fulfillment.

Gessen basic theory is that the Homo Sovieticus had learnt to be ruled by ruthless rulers without complaining too much and that any new ideas – i.e. those imported by the West like democracy, liberalism, the rule of law – will not be met with enthusiasm by the Russian society. Modern Russian society functions both at the level of the rulers and at the level of the ruled according to the norms of the USSR.

Basic pillars of social cohesion in the USSR were the narrative of a glorious Soviet victory in World War II, a certain ideal of presumed Russian traditions (xenophobia), the opposition to the United States and great power status. The Homo Sovieticus thrived on these, and modern Russia looks back with nostalgia according to Gessen. The capacity for “doublethink”, the admission of contradictory experiences in one mindset, a capacity well-developed among Soviet citizen, was of great help to adjust to the situation then and now.

President Vladimir Putin, an old hand in the art of manipulation, exploits this nostalgia by promising Russians the return of the apparently golden times. This, and the Russians’ longing for “stability” after the turmoil that signaled the end of the USSR, made it possible for Putin to turn Russia into an authoritarian state. He succeeded in petting a complacent, silent majority against minorities: students pursuing a liberal society, foreign NGOs, non-ethnic Russians and the LGBT community. And he succeeded in creating the illusion that Russia is under threat from all sides, a situation that requires an active defense which he alone can lead.

Obviously Putin did not succeed simply by coming to power. He needed the backing of the rich elite, that is the oligarchs who managed to gain control over large parts of the Soviet economy when Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin broke up the state monopolies to fill the government’s purse. Putin had them choose between two options: a) accept political control under Putin’s leadership and retain the majority of their wealth b) oppose Putin’s policies and face detention and the loss of all their wealth. For most oligarchs the choice was easy. They backed Putin, had their second residence in Switzerland and were left alone.

Ordinary Russians, who could not choose between two residencies, had another choice. They could rebel openly, demonstrate in Moscow, distribute flyers or stage protest actions like the Punk group Pussy Riot. They would have to face arrests, beatings by the police, psychological harassment and the loss of their job. Or they could tacitly agree with Putin’s policies, participate in pseudo-elections and be left alone too. Many chose the latter option since this was what had guaranteed the Homo Sovieticus a more or less untroubled life. It proved to be a good survival strategy once more.

True, human rights abuses under Putin are minimal compared to the totalitarian rule of Stalin. But Putin does not need Stalinist terror. A little pressure here and there seems sufficient, especially when his policy has elements the Homo Sovieticus can agree wholeheartedly: Yes to Russian grandeur, no to foreign interference. Yes to traditional family values, no to pedophiles (i.e. homosexuals in Putin’s propaganda). Yes to a strong ruler, no to democratic experiments that lead to anarchy.

By exploiting the deep-seated fears of the Homo Sovieticus, Putin has imposed his idea of a “guided democracy” upon Russia. More and more dissidents leave the country, the silent majority stays. Putin benefitted from a booming economy, but even successive political and economic disasters like the sinking of the submarine “Kursk” and the banking crisis have not paved the way for a leadership change and a different, more open society. The few years of relative freedom under Yeltsin were not enough to foster western ideas about a modern, liberal and democracic society in Russia. And by now it is too late as Putin exercises sufficient control over what the Homo Sovieticus reads, hears, sees and thinks to make any revolt a hopeless endeavour.

But let’s turn to our four dramatis personae. Zhanna is the daughter of the longtime politician and activist Boris Nemtsov, murdered in Moscow. As such she is an eye-witness to the gradual worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. Masha for her part grew up with an admiration for the Soviet Union’s strength. She wanted to become a military officer. At the end of day however we find her marching with thousands of protesters in Moscow against the manipulation of elections in Russia.

Seryozha grew up in a privileged part of Soviet society, the nomenklatura. He had his political awakening in 2008 at the presidential elections, which he recognized as what they were: a farce. Finally Lyosha. He knew he was in trouble as soon as he had discovered he was gay. Even before Putin started to blame the LGBT community for making Russia weak in every aspect, be it demography, the field of national defence or the political arena, living homosexuality in the open was problematic in Russia. Under president Putin it became life-threatening.

Gessen paints a depressing picture of today’s Russia, and Western leaders and businessmen should not be trusted when they present Russia as an opportunity and try to persuade us that closer political and economical ties would benefit ordinary Russian in pursuing their dream of a free society. That dream is dead, and the formula “change through interaction” has already failed with China.

Gessen has written a good book, an important book, nevertheless some of the last chapters irritated me. She emphasizes the persecution of the LGBT community as this is a good indicator of the degree of individual diversity the rulers and the vast majority of Russians are willing to tolerate. Needless to say that by now the tolerance is zero. Putin and his propaganda masters have turned the population into enforcers of  discriminating laws, mainly by equating gay men with pedophiles, foreign agitators, spies and Jews. As important as this part of Putin’s policy may be, is it the only indicator of an authoritarian state worth mentioning?

Gessen sees Russia in the fangs of totalitarianism, but she offers not enough elements to substantiate this claim. The take-over of most media outlets would have been an example, the selective access to the internet another. Gessen remains rather silent about this. Putin’s ideas on economical autarky, useful if you want to limit exposure to foreign ideas, is not mentioned at all. The militarization of youth movements like “Nashi” and the growing budgets for defence expenditures are subjects omitted in Gessen’s book.

These elements may have little to do with the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, but a lot with Gessen’s claim that Russia is a totalitarian state. By focusing on the LGBT community, Gessen suggest that their persecution is the biggest problem of Russia. It clearly isn’t. It’s part of what is wrong in Russia, but it’s not the key issue. The key issue is the question whether Putin’s idea that Russia is different from the US and from Europe and thus not suited for democracy and an open society is echoed by a majority of the Russian population. This is crucial for us who live outside Russia.

What does Putin’s vision of Russia mean for Poland and for Hungary whose leaders do not look like they share the fundamental values of the European Union? What does it mean for our dependency on Russian gas? And what does it mean for the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump? Gessen offers no answers except personal indignation. Am I unfair towards the author? She’s an LGBT activist and has a substantial journalistic talent, she is not a political scientist after all. To this I would like to object that totalitarianism in the shape of National Socialism and Stalinism is too serious an issue to serve as selling argument for a book.

The Soviet composer Edison Denisov once complained about “fossilized academicalism” in the Soviet Union. He was a student of Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the greatest Russian composers of all times, and in 1954 he wrote a wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano:

A Student’s Reverence to Dmitry Shostakovich

Treason, Emprisonment and Two Heroes

combo montecristo_edited-2Alexandre Dumas: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (Tome 1 & 2) ISBN 978-2-253-09805-8/978-2-253-09806-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tom Reiss: Black Count. Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo ISBN 968-0-307-38247-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Holocaust has been an important subject on this blog lately, and I must confess, reading about it was exhausting and at times depressing. What I needed then in terms of reading was a radical break, and I found it in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”. What a beautiful work! There’s love, treason, conspiracy, suffering and vengeance. In the end, the evil ones will be punished while the just triumph and real romances starts to blossom. What more can you expect from a novel in the middle of the summer? I was amused by the plot devised by Edmond Dantès alias the Count of Monte Cristo, captivated by Dumas’ extensive descriptions of people and landscapes, and en passant I learned a couple of new-old French words I had to look up in my battered dictionary. Well done!

The novel by Dumas naturally led me to Tom Reiss’ book about the person who inspired the character of Edmond Dantès: Alexandre Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a nobleman and a slave from Santo Domingo, the Haiti of these days. Dumas senior was the first black general of the French army, a hero of his times. He was a contemporary of another general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Dumas contributed in a decisive way to Napoleon’s victory of Austria and took part in his ill-fated Egypt expedition. Being a black man in a high position illustrated that the decade following the French Revolution let France’s human rights record glow in a bright light.

However once Napoleon announced his political ambitions and turned into a violent autocrat, this light began to fade. Black people in France became subject to ever stricter segregation rules. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was to suffer from both this worsening climate and the jealousy of Napoleon. Dumas was famous, he was an imposing figure and the Austrians called him the “Black Devil”. Napoleon did not tolerate any perceived rivals, and certainly not black ones. His government abandoned Dumas when he was taken prisoner by the Italians and thrown into jail. Dumas even suspected that the French government gave the order to poison him.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ fate at the hands of the Italians inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas the novelist, to start his novel with the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. And when Dumas mocks the customs of the French nobility and the newly empowered bourgeoisie in his novel, he obviously refers to the climate in which his father first strived and then sunk into misery. Dantès’ quest for justice under the alias of the Count of Monte Cristo reflects the novelist’s desire to avenge his father and to have his former glory restored.

Tom Reiss book is remarkable for two reasons: The story of the black general needed to be told as he has been forgotten in France while Napoleon is still glorified by many. And the way Reiss let’s the reader embark on his own investigation about this man is a brilliant story in itself. Digging through French military archives and breaking into a safe to get hold of the general’s personal document – mon Dieu! “Black Count” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and again I would like to say: Well done!

Edmond Dantès was illegally imprisoned after a vile denunciation, and Dumas novel is about the transformation of a man in a cold and damp cell. Dantès learns of a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo, and after his escape from the Château d’If, he takes up the alias “Comte de Monte-Cristo” first to help hose who helped his father while he was locked away, and then to punish those responsible for his captivity. This transformation from protector to avenging angel is one of the turning points of the novel, and it’s setting is Rome during the carnival season. What other music could I recommend than Hector Berlioz’ overture “Le Carneval Romain”:

The Cursed Saltarello or Why We Should Be Foolish

Fighting Tomorrow’s Wars

Paul Scharre: Army of None. Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. ISBN 978-0-393-35658-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You don’t read books about military affairs? You should. Weapons research has reached a point where humanity faces moral, legal and technical choices similar to those at the beginning of the nuclear arms race. High-performance sensors, remote platforms like satellites, artificial intelligence, communication networks and real-time transmission of high volumes of data converge and make the fielding of autonomous weapons a realistic option – weapons with little or no human input. Does that correspond to the future we want? Think about it.

We all know about drones circling above the Gaza strip, Ukraine, Syria or Afghanistan to locate and kill targets. So far there’s still a human being in the OODA loop: Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action. An analyst decides whether a target is eligible for a kill within a set legal framework, an operator pushes the button that fires the lethal missile.

But what if computers would take over these decisions? What if an algorithm would decide about who is to live and who is to die? After all computers are unemotional, never tired, never stressed, never sadistic. Objective in a way. What if a computer would release the missile from a long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or a seaborne platform? No more costly and dangerous deployments to war theatres far away. It could all be done from a terminal in the US or Europe or from a ship far away from a hostile coast.

Paul Scharre takes us on a journey into the world of software programmers and weapons engineers, of robotics and Artificial Intelligence to show where we stand in terms of technological progress. From there on he explores the moral choices we face and outlines the shape of tomorrow’s wars. This is insofar relevant as all major military powers push research in these fields, and in a world of global political and economic competition, war is always an option – open, offensive as well as undeclared, clandestine wars for some, purely defensive actions for others.

One of the key take-aways is summed up by Brad Tousley, the director of DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D agency tasked to imagine tomorrow’s game-changing military technologies: “Until the machine processors are equal to or surpass humans at making abstract decisions, there’s always going to be mission command.” This means that human beings will remain in charge when it comes to evaluate options for action the machine may propose. A target may be identified by an algorithm to be legitimate, e.g. a person carrying a rifle in an enemy controlled territory. But only a human will recognize that it is an adolescent guarding his sheep and understand that pictures of killed children help the enemy’s propaganda.

For the time being, algorithms seem to be unable to analyze multi-dimensional contexts in the way the human brain does. This may explain why Google, Twitter, Facebook etc. have such trouble finding and removing extremist propaganda from their networks. Context is key and context is complex when it comes to human behaviour. Our brain, the collective rules that govern our societies, our empathy, our experience – evolution has produced a sophisticated system over thousands of years that technology can not easily emulate or surpass. However technology is getting better and better. Drones take off and land by themselves on an aircraft carrier. Unmanned ships have put sea and navigate on their own and may soon hunt submarines. Automated logistics systems and surveillance platforms are already operational.

Humans make mistakes, no doubt. Usually the consequence of one human error of judgment is limited. But machines make mistakes too, even those with Artificial Intelligence. And if one machine makes a specific mistake, all machines of that type will make the same mistake. And they will repeat the mistake until a human steps in. In autonomous weapons there would be no human to step in. A horrifying scenario!

The key question for developers is: Can we build a piece of technology that fulfills mission requirement with a high level of reliability? Soldiers want weapons they can trust under many different circumstances. Their life may depend of it. If a certain piece of hard- or software is mission-critical and its reliability is not proven beyond doubt, it may be safe to keep a human operator or supervisor in the loop.

Not that this will prevent fatal errors. When the US attacked Iraq after 9/11, Patriot batteries shot down two allied fighters. The software did what it should do: track incoming targets and destroy them when authorised by the operator. Man in the loop working on tested equipment. The software however did not distinguish between Iraqi ballistic missiles and friendly planes. And the operators did not question the information the battery’s sensors fed back to them. Soldiers need to trust their weapons – but not blindly.

In his book Scharre goes to great lengths to point out what technology cannot do yet and what it may be able to do in the future. And he highlights the machines’ vulnerabilities and their inherent shortcomings. Each course of action in terms of developing and fielding autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons needs an ethical evaluation and a consistent set of rules for its operation, embedded itself in a general strategy. This is the point where the human input will always remain crucial: Man sets the rules.

Technology will do what we will let it do. We can decide not to pursue certain types of research. It has happened before with the neutron bomb. We can prohibit the use of certain technologies as we prohibited the use of (not very smart) anti-personnel mines and biological weapons. But first of all, we, the tax payers, must know what is possible. We may then ask our politicians to present to us options and cost-benefit analyses. And then we can make an informed political choice. This is why this book is so important. Stay informed not only about politics or climate change, but also about technology. All three factors will shape our future more than any time before.

This said I recently enjoyed a ride in what Luxembourg calls its “first autonomous bus shuttle”. Point 1: Its route is pre-defined by a human. The vehicle transports six passengers from a pedestrian escalator to a railway station and back. Point 2: It has an operator on board who defines when the bus moves and stops. The shuttle’s sensors identify obstacles on their own and forces the bus to stop, but the operator gives the go to move on once the obstacle is gone. Point 3: It is moving at a slow speed and it comes abruptly to a stop. At best we may call it semi-autonomous. And as far as its capacities are concerned, walking from the escalator to the station is smoother and almost as fast. But of course riding the shuttle was a lot funnier!

Napoleon Bonaparte revolutionized military affairs in the fields of training, tactics and grand strategy. His intellectual genius and his daring mindset enabled him to subjugate the European continent with the exception of Great Britain. He and his troops however failed to beat Russia in 1812. Napoleon’s lines of communication were overextended, his once successful maneuvering strategy failed when the enemy retreated further and further into the vast Russian plains. He occupied Moscow only to discover the Russians had set it on fire. Napoleon had to retreat without a decisive victory and his army was annihilated in rear-guard engagements, weakened by a harsh winter and a lack of both food and ammunition. Technology wasn’t an issue. Bad human judgment was the problem. Pyotr Tchaikovsky has set to music the events of 1812 in an overture of the same name:

Wargames at the Sound of Tchaikovsky