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The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk, by Walter Lord. Published in the United States by Viking (1982) and in Great Britain by Allen Lane (1983). 324 pages.

Last week, in a post about summer movies, I wrote about the movie “Dunkirk,” which is to be released on July 21 and which seems sure to become a summer blockbuster. I mentioned in the post that I was looking for a good book to read on Dunkirk. I ended up with The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord.

I could not put this book down.

When I started the book, I knew nothing about the author, Walter Lord. I just now looked him up on Wikipedia. He was an American, born in 1917, died in 2002. He was an American blue blood, went to Princeton and earned a law degree at Yale. It is obvious, reading this book, that what fascinates Lord so much about Dunkirk is not the military angle, but rather the human angle, whether foible or great depth of character. The author’s sheer niceness and love of humanity somehow come through on every page, though the story is told by aggregating the memories of the men who were at Dunkirk.

Lord also wrote, in 1965, a book about the American civil rights era, The Past That Would Not Die. I do believe that Lord was a liberal, like me, and I think that must be the factor that can make a book about war so relevant. This is not a book that glorifies war or that makes little patriotic mascots out of veterans (though it treats the veterans with great respect). I believe I will read Lord’s book on the civil rights era. Obviously he is a writer who deserves to be remembered and kept in print. At least one of Lord’s books, a book about the Titanic (1955), was a bestseller. Lord was a consultant to the director who made the movie about the Titanic in 1997. I would not be at all surprised to learn that this book on Dunkirk fed into the screenplay for the new movie. I will watch the credits carefuly.

Whether or not this book was used by the screenplay writers of this summer’s Dunkirk movie, this book would have been perfect. Lord tells the story through the eyes of Dunkirk veterans, including even some Germans. Lord actually lists his cast of characters in the back of the book. The list is 14 pages long. While reading the book, I wondered how he assembled so much extraordinary detail. He explains this in the back of book with a section on source materials. Partly he relied on written reports filed with the British admiralty. But he also interviewed, and exchanged letters with, many Dunkirk veterans.

Lord’s last chapter, “Deliverance,” occurs on June 4, 1940. That’s the day that Winston Churchill delivered his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons.

This book is out of print, but it can be ordered from used booksellers on Amazon. Somehow I ended up buying the British edition, though I didn’t realize it. The book was shipped by international priority mail from Goring by Sea, which is just west of Brighton. The book was delivered in nine days. It’s kind of cool, actually, that my copy of the book came from a bookshop right on the channel, not far from the action at Dover. Yup, I’ve been to Brighton, and to Dover, though I’ve crossed the channel only by the tunnel train. I have not been to Dover castle, which was used as headquarters for managing the Dunkirk evacuation. If I’m lucky enough to make another trip to England, I must visit Dover castle.

“It’s up to us, the people”

This is a brief new video with Ken from Signature Views / Signature Reads.

Too hot to fly

This is a nerd post!

The Washington Post has an interesting story today about how flights in and out of Phoenix have been canceled this week because of the heat: It’s so hot in Phoenix that airplanes can’t fly

The story is misleading in that it suggests that particular models of aircraft have maximum operating temperatures. But it’s more complicated than that. Though no doubt there is a maximum operating temperature, there also is a maximum takeoff and landing temperature, which might be much lower.

The efficiency of an airplane, and thus its ability to take off or land on a given runway, actually is a formula with a number of factors. The factors include the weight of the plane, the air temperature, the altitude of the airport, and even the humidity.

Hot air is thinner than cold air. Air at high altitudes is thinner than air at low altitudes. Thinner air affects not only the airplane’s airfoil (its wings); thin air also affects the efficiency of the airplane’s engines. So, to determine whether an airplane can fly in a given situation, a flight computer must make a calculation on all these factors — plus, of course, the runway length and the altitude of any high terrain around the airport that must be cleared.

As a student pilot many years ago, it was easy to feel, just from the controls of an airplane, that airplanes are perky and responsive on cold days, but also that they’re sluggish and much more disobedient on warm, humid days, or at mountain airports.

But the thing that really brought this point home to me was flying on a packed-to-the-gills Air India flight from Bangkok to Delhi some years ago. Those heavily loaded flights into and out of New Delhi, I learned, usually land and take off in the middle of the night. Why is that? Because it’s too hot for the planes to fly during the daytime. And in my limited experience, Air India planes are packed to the max, so air temperature becomes a critical factor.

I wouldn’t worry, though. Today’s airplanes are incredibly sophisicated, and their behavior is easily modeled. If your flight to Phoenix is canceled, it’s because the airlines know their business and their airplanes. Still, unless it’s hotter than the airplane’s maximum operating temperature (which I doubt), the plane would be able to fly with a lighter load, even in the heat. But these days, airplanes tend to be packed, and apparently it makes more business sense to cancel a packed flight than to drag enough people and their luggage off the plane to lighten the plane enough to satisfy the OK-to-fly computation.


Every Southern landscape requires mimosa. We were late in acquiring it, because such old-fashioned items are not always easy to find. Plus, the first effort to get one started failed. But this mimosa, which was planted just last fall, is blooming for the first time. It’s in a chicken-wire cage to protect it from the deer. It will be safe from the deer after it’s tall enough.

Amazon buys Whole Foods??

This morning we learned that Amazon has bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in cash. What’s up? Information on Amazon’s plans for Whole Foods is in short supply at present, except that it’s known that Amazon wants to get into the grocery business, that Amazon was interested in a brick-and-mortar presence, and that Whole Foods was hurting, chiefly because of cheaper competition.

I feel a very strong interest in this, because it happens that Whole Foods and Amazon are the two organizations that get most of the money I spend. Until we learn more, I’m forced to speculate about what’s going to change.

First of all, Whole Foods was starting to show (at least in the Winston-Salem store where I shop) alarming signs of money problems. Staff seemed increasingly spread thin. The coffee bins and bulk bins were sometimes empty and neglected, with no bags. The produce wasn’t as fresh and beautiful as it used to be. Basic perishables such as cream would be out of stock. The decline troubled me so much that I shopped one week at a competitor, Fresh Market, to investigate whether I should switch stores. I decided to stick with Whole Foods and hope for the best.

One of the sad things about Whole Foods is that much of the new competition has been coming from grossly inferior stores — Publix, Aldi, and a new one, Lidl. Aldi, as far as I could tell having only been in one once without buying anything, is what grocery stores would be like in hell. You had to deposit a quarter to get a grocery cart! The produce looked more like compost prewrapped in plastic. How such dreadful stores could give Whole Foods a hard time puzzles me, but apparently that was the case.

So then, Amazon could have seen its grocery future in an Aldi-like store, or even a Publix-like store, stores with a mass-market and warehouse feel to them. Certainly that’s what Amazon Pantry implied. Amazon Pantry sells only mass-market stuff that I would never buy. But instead Amazon chose Whole Foods, with its high-end, high-priced reputation, a chain that everybody knew was starting to get into trouble and that needs some repair to its reputation. Surely this tells us something about Amazon’s intentions for Whole Foods. Until I find out otherwise, I’m going to take the optimistic view: That Amazon will spend heavily to spiff up Whole Foods stores that were starting to show signs of hardship, and that Amazon is aiming at the high end and leaving the low end to a now crowded low-end market. Also, there is bound to be some kind of integration between online grocery shopping and going to the local Whole Foods.

This could be great! For a while, it looked as though bottom-feeder stores like Aldi were going to make life harder for high-end shoppers like me by driving high-end stores like Whole Foods into poverty. Now suddenly the prospects have turned. With Amazon aligned with Whole Foods, we may soon see the bottom-feeder stores starting to look shabby.


Grocery stocks tank on news that Amazon is buying Whole Foods

Like sandpaper

If only I had a video camera with a nice, long lens, it would be obvious what the squirrel was up to. In ordinary photos, it requires explaining. The squirrel was sliding along the railing, scratching its tummy. From the looks of its tummy, it hasn’t been going hungry, thanks to my peach trees.

The squirrels can leap straight out of the woods into the poplar tree that overhangs the deck. From there they can drop down onto the deck to hang out. Sometimes they go in for a little house-climbing. And they like to look in the back door and see what the cat is up to.

What the critters so generously leave behind


If I had ever really understood how much effort (and defeat) is involved in defending a garden, an orchard, and some chickens against all the hungry mouths that want to eat everything, I might never have had the heart to start. The hungry mouths come from everywhere — out of the woods, down from the sky, and up from the ground. Hawks and raccoons want to eat your chickens. Snakes want to eat your eggs. Squirrels and raccoons will raid the orchard and carry off peaches, apples, and figs just before you were going to pick them. Raccoons and rabbits and voles raid the garden. And we haven’t even started to talk about insects and blights. The abbey, to be sure, is in a worst-case situation — up against the woods in some very fine animal habitat.

No one understands your grief, of course, better than your local agricultural agents. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to befriend them. One of the abbey’s friends is a horticulturist whose help and advice during the past eight years have been invaluable. He’s a very busy guy, and you can’t get him to dinner very often. But this evening he’s coming to dinner, so this afternoon I got my shears and a sack and went out to see what the critters had left me for a home-grown supper.

The squirrels took every last one of the peaches from one of the trees, the tree that bore first. They’ll be after the other trees soon enough. They’ve already stolen some green apples as well. I see the trees shaking and go up to the orchard to ask the squirrels what the heck they think they’re doing. They just glance at me and go on chewing. If I shake a stick at them they’ll run back into the woods with a peach in their mouths. Every now and then I see a chicken peck a squirrel, because the chickens like the fallen peaches. Good work, chickens.

OK, then. I can make chutney from green apples, and maybe I can even get away with putting some unripe peaches in it. A nice red onion would do nicely in the chutney. So far, the snakes seem not to have found a way into Ken’s new chicken house, so there are plenty of eggs. That means omelets with a filling including onions, green tomatoes, day lily buds, and basil. I’m covered up with squash. The squash will get roasted on the grill. There was enough late lettuce for small salads. The first two cucumbers of the season were ready to pick. And there will be a loaf of fresh-baked sourdough bread.

So it promises to be a decent supper for a horticulturist (or a hobbit), though it’s not the sort of supper that can happen every day.

Ken, by the way, is in Alaska, again in a summer job with the Park Service as a backcountry ranger deep in grizzly bear territory where he’s assigned a shotgun. Maybe the squirrels aren’t so bad after all.

When I bring stuff in from the garden, I like to wash it immediately in cold water, wrap it in a muslin towel, and put it in the refrigerator to chill. The lettuce is in a vase of cold water. I’ll pick the lettuce leaves off the stalk right before they go into the salad. When stuff is fresh, a little extra care will keep it that way.

Soon to be chutney

Summer movies


It’s a good summer if there is at least one summer movie that’s worth going to the theater for. There is one for sure this summer. That’s “Dunkirk,” to be released July 21.

We all know this history, but we never get tired of hearing the story retold. At the time, an alliance of six countries was struggling to hold the Nazis back — Britain, France, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, and Canada. In June 1940, in the Battle of France, these allies endured what Winston Churchill called a “colossal military disaster.” The British people assembled a fleet of every boat that was fit to cross the channel, about 800 boats in all, and rescued 338,226 soldiers who were in retreat and trapped in France.

We cannot remember this history without hearing the voice of Winston Churchill, who was surely one of the greatest wartime leaders and greatest orators in history. I rarely read military history, but I’m resolved to find and read a good book about Dunkirk before I go to see this film.

There are trailers here.

On June 4, 1940, Churchill gave a brilliant speech in the House of Commons to which we now give the title “We Shall Fight on the Beaches.” Here is link to the audio, which of course was recorded by the BBC. The full text of the speech is here.

Below is the last paragraph of this speech.

Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government — every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

The reference to “the New World” is of course addressed to America. It was another year before the United States even sent military supplies. And it was not until almost two years later — December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor — that the United States came into the war.

Long live the desktop!

Inside the new Mac Pro

In the land of nerds — Apple nerds, anyway — Apple’s obsession in recent years with iPhones, iPads, and the iOS operating system for small devices has been disturbing. Sure, nerds have iPhones and iPads and love them. But real computers are for getting work done. Apple was accused — rightly — of neglecting its iMac desktop line of computers and squandering the work of its engineers on consumer doodads designed for distraction and entertainment rather than for getting work done.

Even worse, for a while Apple was saying that it wanted to make its operating system for desktops — Mac OS — more like iOS. That was horrifying. iOS is creepy, really. Its “apps” have no standard user interface, which guarantees that most apps are quirky, gawky, silly-looking, unusable, and aimed at adolescent needs and tastes. Much worse, iOS devices take control away from the device’s owner in the interest of security. For security, that makes sense. But nerds don’t like being locked out of their own computer.

Last year, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, tried to reassure the nerds that Apple wasn’t turning its back on serious computers. The reaction from nerds was skeptical: Harumph. So you say. Prove it.

Apple just proved it. The specifications of the new iMac Pro are breathtaking, way beyond what even the most optimistic desktop nerd might have hoped for. The iMac Pro is to be available in December. Prices start at $4,999. That may seem like a lot of money, but for people who use their computers to make money and who need all the desktop power they can get — for video work, for example — the iMac Pro actually is surprisingly cheap and easy to cost-justify.

Will I buy one? Absolutely not. I don’t need that much computing power on my desktop. But I do need a real computer on my desktop. It’s a certainty that the technical advances inside the iMac Pro will trickle down to the iMacs in the $2,000 range.

Best of all, the release of such a high-end workstation means that Apple can’t neglect its workstation operating system — Mac OS. I’m guessing that the new version of Mac OS that Apple will release in the fall will make up for some lost time. Sure, nerds want their iMacs to talk to their iPads. But we most definitely don’t want a desktop OS that is dumbed down and cartoonized and childproofed the way iOS is.

I’ve been using Macintoshes since 1986, more than thirty years. The drama of Apple’s evolution has been fascinating to watch. Apple just proved (I hope) that the company is not going to devolve into a company that only makes cool, expensive toys. They’re going to continue to make real computers and do superb engineering.

Now make us some cars, Apple! I won’t be able to afford one, but I can’t wait to see what kind of car you make.

Looking for economic indicators

From our pockets to theirs

Last year, we were transfixed by the horror of the 2016 election. So far this year, we can’t take our eyes off the train wreck of Trump in the White House. Most of us haven’t been paying much attention to the economy. It would be smart to take a look.

I am not an economist, nor was I ever any good at stock picking. But I did defend my retirement nest egg pretty well with thoughtful (and conservative) financial planning, by keeping an eye on economic cycles, and with a healthy respect for cash. I’m not offering any advice here. But I am suggesting that we mustn’t let the political pig circus distract us from economic cycles.

Though I said I wouldn’t offer any advice, one rule I honor is this: Pay no attention to anything on television, pay no attention to anything you come across on Facebook, and pay no attention to Republicans unless his name is Charles Schwab. Who, then, do we pay attention to? I look at the track records of economists. For example, Nouriel Roubini nailed the housing bubble and made accurate calls on the financial crisis that was the grand finale of the Bush-Cheney administration. Though Paul Krugman was slow in seeing the housing bubble, Krugman correctly predicted the long, slow schlog that is required for recovery from any banking and financial crisis, as bad debt and unwise debt gets slowly unwound. More than eight years after the banking and finance train wreck, interest rates are still low, as Krugman said they had to be. (While all that time Republicans kept predicting runaway inflation and the destruction of the dollar.)

What are Krugman and Roubini saying at present?

Krugman has had very little to say, actually, about the American economy, simply because the recovery was long, slow, and stayed on course during the Obama years. Krugman was more interested in Europe during the Obama years, actually, because it was in Europe where the proponents of austerity were proving yet again that austerity does not lead to prosperity but does lead to human misery. Krugman remains distracted by politics, but surely he will weigh in before long on current economic indicators — though Krugman has expressed concern that the Federal Reserve was keen on raising interest rates too soon.

As for Roubini, much of his research is now available to subscribers only. But in early May he did write an article expressing concern that markets are ignoring geopolitical dangers to global economic stability, including Russian aggression and North Korea. And if there is a calamity somewhere on the globe — as there almost certainly will be sooner or later — we can be certain that the current occupants of the White House will do everything wrong and make everything worse (unless you’re a billionaire or have fossil fuels to sell).

I was amused a few days ago to come across an article with the headline “Reclusive Millionaire Warns: ‘Get Out of Cash Now.'” From Googling I could see that the article showed up in lots of places that subscribe to cheap or free “news feeds.” These so-called news feeds help feed the swamp of fake news and scam bait that we all are exposed to. I’m not sure what the article was pushing — probably gold or someone’s stock picks. But it’s interesting that Charles Schwab — as honest and impartial a brokerage as I know of — is subtly suggesting that its customers consider increasing their holdings of cash. Charles Schwab himself actually is a Republican, but he’s a San Francisco Republican.

Schwab’s view would be consistent with standard Dow theory: When unemployment is low and when interest rates are rising, watch out for irrational exuberance in the stock market.

Again, a disclaimer: I’m not giving any financial advice here. I’m just saying that we musn’t let political turmoil distract us from the course of the economy.