200 mph is the easy part

Posted in American, Just for Fun, Sports, Television by Alex L. on June 28, 2012

Photo from IndyCar.comAs a kid, strong and shining institutions seem immutable: they arise from a misty golden past and will continue even stronger into the future. To see them decline instead of increase is something of a shock and (to me at least) a rallying cry to take up their cause.

I have always loved the instruments of accelerating human movement: automobiles, airplanes, and ships. In the ’90s, IndyCar racing was enjoying a wave of popularity in America: it was our homegrown open-wheel racing series. Not so anymore. On YouTube, which usually squelches unauthorized uploads of sports broadcasts with a silicon fist, videos of full races generously posted by the IndyCar authorities barely manage to scratch together a couple thousand views.

But I’ve a soft spot for lost causes and have been following every race of IndyCar this season. And the drama is truly exciting. During the first couple of races, the series and drivers were still recovering from the death of Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2011 Indy 500, on the track last year. The cars were redesigned to improve safety (but also reduced speed and style).

IndyCar has also taken cues from the vastly more popular (in Europe, that is) Formula 1 series. They have resolved a long-standing dispute in the series by combining two competing organizations into one. They have been racing on street courses — not just the traditional ovals — for the past several years. In 2012, IndyCar introduced technological diversity to the cars by allowing teams to choose engine and chassis manufacturers. Currently, Chevy and Lotus have jumped into the game in addition to the incumbent Honda (although it’s both comical and sad to see Lotus cars break down so early in each race — their engines need more development). (more…)

“Go, present yourself to Ahab”

Posted in Literature, Reading by Alex L. on June 27, 2012

Illustration of whale chaseHerman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of those classic novels which I’ve picked up to read several times in former years — only to put it back on the shelf. My enthusiasm has died several deaths on the rack of 19th-century prose. But when I started reading it again last week, I was finally hooked.

What I didn’t realize before was that Moby Dick is a retelling (or at least it seems this way to me through page 80) of the biblical book of Jonah. That book is one of the pithiest in the Bible. In the span of four chapters, Jonah tries to escape from an errand God has earmarked for him but is finally persuaded to return and complete it after spending three days repenting in the stomach of a whale.

Melville spells out the analogy to the Jonah story by having his narrator — Ishmael — listen to a sermon about the book of Jonah early in Moby Dick. The sermon is delivered by an old sea captain turned pastor in a church which resembles as much the inside of a whaling ship as it does a place of worship. But this captain-pastor adds many details out of his imagination to the story of JonahMuch like Melville in the entirety of Moby Dick.

Ishmael represents Jonah, escaping from unpleasant realities on land by running away to sea. If Ishmael is Jonah, his cannibal friend Queequeg may represent the Gentile shipmates with whom Jonah sailed. Captain Ahab may represent the wicked Ninevites in the book of Jonah. But Ahab is also an idolatrous Israeli king talked about in several other books of the Hebrew Bible. Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale seems to be like the idol-worship that is condemned in many books of the Hebrew Bible.

I’m just a fraction of the way into the book, but I like how Melville has taken a well-worn short story from the Bible and created an elaborate modern version out of it. Moby Dick, published in 1851, may seem like a far-removed story to 21st-century American readers, but if you keep in mind that it’s retelling a story that’s actually over 2,000 years old, Herman Melville’s novel comes off as remarkably contemporary.

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New songs for old strings

Posted in Music, War by Alex L. on June 9, 2012

Photo of orchestra is courtesy of Pedro Sánchez via WikipediaJake Runestad is the same age as me (26) and is already making a contribution to society. His new project is described in “Out of War, a Symphony,” an article in the New York Times blog At War. Runestad is composing a three-part piece for orchestra, piano, and chorus hoping to capture the emotional journey that soldiers experience when they go to war and back. He is relying on poetry, memoirs, and interviews with American veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to get a sense of their experiences.

Aside from the social benefit of lifting the veil (if only slightly) for the civilian public about what warfare wreaks on the psyche, Runestad is also helping the cause of classical music. Like other forms of expression which originated many generations ago (including, for that matter, the profession of history) classical music has to confront the stigma of irrelevance. A great way of exhibiting the richness of expression that classical music has to offer is to pair it with the emotional experiences of a new generation. New wine may fare better in new skins, but nothing enlivens the sound of an old instrument like a new song.

New history books (April 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on June 5, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).


Book coverReaders of this blog may notice that my interests have lately been skewed toward the world wars (in particular the air and naval conflicts). When I was a boy my imagination was fired up by stories from my grandfather, who told me about his service as an aviator for the Soviet Navy during the Second World War. I suspect this was when I first became interested in history (I also remember my grandfather reading me a children’s book about the ancient origins of everyday objects, such as matchsticks and clothing irons). Stories about pilots during World War II were my Iliad and Odyssey: they helped me understand concepts such as friendship and courage when I was very young.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that there is hardly anything written in English about the air war on the Eastern Front during World War II. The struggle for dominance in the skies over Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 was the largest and longest air campaign in history according to amateur historian Christer Bergström (whose two sets of books about this conflict — Black Cross/Red Star and The Air Battle series — are some of the only comprehensive histories in English on the subject). That’s why I was eagerly awaiting the release in late March of a new book by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, titled Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. An overhaul of a previous work, Red Phoenix Rising will hopefully do justice to the drama and significance of this struggle (Bergström’s works, if meticulous, are admittedly dry to read). (more…)

First skydiver to land without a parachute

Posted in Uncategorized by Alex L. on June 2, 2012

First skydiver to land without a parachute

Gary Connery of England set an amazing record last month. He dived from 3,000 feet in a wing-suit and crash-landed into a “runway” of 18,000 cardboard boxes, becoming the first person to land from great height without a machine or a parachute strapped to him. This throwback to the reckless early days of aviation inspires the imagination even in the age of ubiquitous commercial jets.