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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 20, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Brainworms, Israeli Weapons, PopCorners

I have always loved singing in choirs, especially after I learned in my twenties how to bend my baritone voice to sing most tenor parts. (The "Hallelujah Chorus" from Messiah rides that high G too hard for me to sustain it, alas.)

On Easter Sunday we sang a couple of good choir arrangements. But now as I write this, it's a day later and I can't get those songs out of my brain.

This didn't happen before the performance, when you'd think my anxiety about not messing up the music would have those tunes and words running constantly through my head. No, it's only after I gave the last performance of those scraps of melody.

And it's never the whole song. I know the whole song, or I did yesterday, anyway. But all my brain will do is play just a phrase or two over and over. And over.

Right now I'm listening to Ana Moura's wonderful Aconteceu album while I write. Ana Moura is a noted singer of Portuguese fado music. ("Fado" means "fate," and the music is linked to the Portuguese word "saudade," a kind of longing for things that are permanently lost, so that the longing can never be healed.)

Yet even as I listen to Ana Moura's wonderful singing, I still have those scraps of melody intruding into my mind. My solo part in one of the sings ("Feed My Sheep") consisted of Jesus' words to Peter after the resurrection, repeated three times: "Simon Peter, lovest thou me?" Why does my brain need to keep asking that question, considering how well I know the answer?

And the other song that won't stop ranting at me is one I didn't actually sing. The children under age 12 learned a minor-key song called "Gethsemane." The message of the song is fine, but the lyrics and music come from that school of thought that says, "If it's kind of awful, it'll still be good enough for children."

And, of course, it is, because the children are cute and sweet and they're singing to a congregation consisting mostly of their parents. We're just grateful if they're mostly on pitch. And they were. They did fine. But considering how much I came to loathe the song as they practiced it for several weeks (since I teach a class of nine-year-olds, I was with them during the practices), why is that one of the songs that won't leave my brain?

There's no answer to that, I know. But why do we have brainworms at all? They're even more useless than dreams.

Let's distinguish between brainworms and mental background music. When I was a child, about eight years old, I remember noticing that in a silent room I was hearing, inside my head, a familiar piece of music -- I believe it was from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, which got played a lot in our house in those days.

This memory music included the complete orchestra, exactly as it was in the recording. Until, of course, I noticed that I was hearing it and realized I'd been listening to it for some time. As soon as I was aware, the orchestration began to recede, and soon I was left with nothing but the melody line, because that single line was all that my conscious mind could handle.

For me, at least, brainworms never come like that memory music. They consist only of the words and music as I would sing them -- the single line, without accompaniment. And since I'm helpless to turn that scrap into a whole song, it just loops over and over.

Here's a question: Does anybody ever have brainworms of spoken language? I've memorized theatrical roles, both long and short, so that somewhere in my brain there must reside vast landscapes of Shakespeare, Wilde, Schaffer, Simon, and many other playwrights' work. Why don't any of those wonderful speeches pop into my head and play in a continuous loop?

What about poems or quotations we memorized in school? Anybody ever have a brainworm of "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation ..." Or mnemonics like "A, e, i, o, u, el burro sabe mas que tu" or "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue"? (What a fascinating quatrain those two mantras make.)

Or what about that once-ubiquitous recitation, the Pledge of Allegiance? Brainworms of that, anyone?

For me, anyway, it's only songs that ever play back involuntarily. And annoying as these scraps of Easter music are, it could be worse. I could be replaying truly hideous musical scraps like "Yummy yummy yummy, I've got love in my tummy."

Oh, no! What have I done!

*

As long as I mentioned Ana Moura, let me tell you a bit more about her. In the past decade, she has issued some of Portugal's bestselling albums. Visiting pop singers -- like Mick Jagger-- seek her out to sing duets. Portugal may be a relatively small market, but they hold fiercely to their own culture even as they participate in world music.

Listening to Moura (pronounced MO-rah), I find myself comparing her to Edith Piaf -- except that Moura is always on pitch, completes her musical phrases, and doesn't sound like she's yelling at somebody else's children. Better comparisons are with the mother of Brazilian soul, Maria Bethânia, and the greatest of the American singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell. And her singing also reminds me of Cape Verde morna music.

It used to be that anyone who wanted to hear foreign music that wasn't already mainstreaming in the U.S.A. had to seek out "World Music" in a record store, which could be a mixed bag. Am I going to hear polished, musically pleasing and fascinating songs? Or some kind of anti-melodic percussion and chanting that can only be borne once?

Now that we can sample almost everything online before we buy, all I need to tell you is that you can find a good selection of Moura's music on Amazon or iTunes. It'll give you a taste of Portugal. And you'll find out just how cheering sad Portuguese music can be!

*

Let's look at The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower, by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot. This compelling book by two Israeli journalists tells the story of how Israel, with the "advantage" of being constantly at war since 1948 (and earlier), had to become as self-reliant as possible in developing high-tech weaponry and defenses.

During their early years, the Israeli Defense Force had to find ways around a weapons ban for the Middle East by the U.S., Britain, and France. The major powers' goal was to avoid giving the USSR any reason to start supplying weapons to anyone.

The problem was that while the surrounding Arab nations had had years to assemble weapons and ammunition before their war of annihilation with Israel began, Israel hadn't been a nation. Under tight British control in Palestine, the Israelis had to smuggle in every weapon they had -- which was especially complicated as they created an air force.

They sent their pilots to the few places where warplanes were available, and the pilots supervised the complete disassembly of the planes. They were then crated and transported under highly misleading labels, then reassembled in Israel.

Just in case you wonder, this is not a convenient way of acquiring an air force, and it is not surprising that Israel had only a few airplanes and pilots when their war for survival began. Yet the fact that they had them at all was a testimony to their resourcefulness and determination. Whatever they had, they made use of to accomplish whatever it needed to accomplish.

Scavenging from military leftovers in Czechoslovakia, and then adapting brand-new and barely tested aircraft from other countries, was the sort of thing they had to do until the USSR started supplying weapons to Israel's enemies. Then the floodgates opened and Israel started getting aid from the Western powers.

Of course, the aid came with strings -- as when Nasser of Egypt seized the Suez Canal, which till then had been owned and operated by the British and French. Those two nations pressed Israel to join them in punishing Egypt for this bold act of taking control of a lucrative commercial channel entirely within their territory.

When Israel handily won the campaign, all their gains disappeared because President Eisenhower used the clout of the United States to insist that Britain, France, and Israel return everything they had seized.

Needless to say, Israel made few friends with that 1956 war. But they did make a point -- they beat the Egyptians with surprising ease.

And Israel learned something important. They were never going to get the cutting edge technology from the countries that were (finally) supporting them. Besides, there was no guarantee that the U.S., Britain, or France would always be the cutting edge.

That's why Israel pours 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product into research and development, and a third of that goes into military R&D. Contrast that with Germany, where only 2 percent of their R&D goes into military tech, and even in the U.S., only 17 percent of our R&D goes into military projects.

But money doesn't begin to explain their success at innovation. Part of what works for them is how tiny their country is. With all citizens required to join the military when they come of age -- men and women -- everybody knows everybody.

Inside the military, this means that military discipline and hierarchy don't always hold sway. If a commander rejects an underling's suggestion, the underling is quite likely to call up an old friend from college or military service or a company they both worked for, and explain the problem he's having.

When that friend happens to be the commander's boss, or the boss of his boss, a good idea doesn't always die on the vine, as usually happens in most military hierarchies. This system is called by the Polish word protexia (connections), and it's a fact of life throughout Israel.

Israelis just don't get worshipful toward their leaders or celebrities. Nicknames abound.

And they work to make sure everybody has access to and personal knowledge of people at every level. For instance, "when the commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) flies on a training mission ... you would expect him to fly with senior pilots like himself. Instead, he usually takes the backseat to a younger pilot, sometimes half his age."

When a visiting U.S. official came to find out the Israeli assessment of the American-made F-16 fighter -- of which Israel possessed one of the largest fleets in the world -- the U.S. officer witnessed something remarkable. "Then one of the participants started arguing with the base commander about the plane's drawbacks.... He was a noncommissioned officer, a lowly mechanic, who was arguing with a one-star general. Yet, he presented his case and was listened to, because ranks aside, he made sense."

In Israel, speaking "out of turn" is expected. "What the mechanic was doing was exactly what he had been trained to do and what he thought was expected of him -- to speak his mind."

I can almost see some of my friends in the U.S. military either shuddering or weeping at the very thought of such freedom of conversation in the Israeli military. Some would be horrified; others would be insanely envious.

But these cultural practices would be meaningless if it weren't for Israel's amazing track record of creativity.

An Israeli sees some footage of remote-controlled airplane hobbyists and he thinks: What might happen if you attached a camera to one of those? Because he didn't give up trying to explore this idea, he ended up bringing some American toy airplanes home in a diplomatic package, and then tested them at the Suez Canal.

In the years right after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel's western border was the Suez Canal. On the other side, the Egyptians might be building anything behind barriers of sand, and the ceasefire terms forbade either side from sending airplanes over the other's territory.

On the day of the test of the remote-controlled planes, a sandstorm wrecked visibility. But the leader ordered the controllers to keep their planes climbing until they were above the storm. Then they continued their missions and took pictures that Israel could not otherwise get.

In those days, they had to use cameras with film, and it took a day to get the pictures developed. But they learned that the Egyptians were building movable bridges designed to be slapped down over the canal so that large numbers of vehicles could be brought across -- a definite step toward an invasion of Israeli-held territory.

You'd think that this triumph would have assured the continuation of reconnaissance by remote-controlled airplane, but no. The program was discontinued only a few months before Egypt and Syria brought off their coordinated surprise attack that we now call the Yom Kippur War. Had those little camera planes still been flying, Egypt could not have achieved the surprise that cost 2,000 Israeli soldiers their lives and that nearly led to the destruction of Israel.

This incident reassures us that Israel's military leadership is as capable of stupidity as any military establishment. But in Israel, they learned from their mistakes, and out of that early success and needless failure was born Israel's drone program.

That's right. Drones were effectively invented in Israel. America had a program, but their prototype had a wider wingspan than the manned U-2 planes, which makes it hard to get them off the ground.

You've heard of the Predator drone? The design is Israeli. Americans made adaptations, because our needs were felt to extend beyond intelligence-gathering. But tell me, please: How many of you had any idea that drones, which have saved the lives of so many American soldiers, came from Israeli R&D and Israeli manufacturers?

Don't we get the impression that all our military hardware was invented by American companies? Don't misunderstand -- our military tech development has been very good. But the Israeli R&D, dollar for dollar and head for head, outperforms pretty much everybody else's in the world.

And Israeli inventiveness did not stop with the Predator. In fact, that's pretty old tech. And Israel isn't ashamed to buy the best tech from any nation or company that developed it. IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers now go into battle equipped with small drones that can be carried on their backs, and which they launch by throwing them like a football.

That drone then allows them to see what's waiting for them behind a hill or a building that they have to approach. This saves lives -- especially because it's completely under the control of the very soldiers whose lives depend on the intel that it obtains.

Then we come to armor. Because Israelis in the R&D companies have actually been inside the vehicles that get attacked by IEDs and missiles, they had a powerful incentive to develop armor that could keep Israeli soldiers safer. R&D engineers don't just talk to a liaison officer from the military. They personally know soldiers who are using their designs -- because they're serving alongside them as reservists.

Plasan Sasa is the name of the Israeli company in Galilee, not far from the Lebanese border, that developed "armor made of dense composite material that could protect vehicles from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and ... IEDs without adding significant weight."

When the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and started facing the same kinds of attacks that the Israelis had dealt with for years, "orders at Plasan skyrocketed, and so did the company's profits." But let's translate this into terms other than money: Plasan's armor was saving American lives, and the U.S. had to acquire that armor from an Israeli company because they invented it, and it was better than anything we had.

Why was it better? Because it was both effective and light. Vehicles equipped with Plasan's armor can move faster, with considerably less fuel expense, than much heavier vehicles armored with thick metal.

In American companies, it's actually quite rare for the brightest minds to have any power over the bureaucracy. I've had brilliant and creative friends who came to hate their jobs because everything they do gets crushed and sidelined by bureaucrats who are only looking out for their own career.

Israel can't afford careerism. So instead of leaving their best and brightest to languish under the control of the careerists, Israel created a unit called Talpiot.

Named for a word meaning "fortification" in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, it is Israel's premier technological unit. Out of thousands of applicants, Talpiot accept only about thirty new members a year.

The first "prize" they get is a nine-year enlistment -- three times the normal.

"These soldiers usually have skill sets that make them suitable to be pilots or operators in elite commando units. But Talpiot trumps everyone and takes whoever it wants." Created after the fiasco of the Yom Kippur War, Talpiot is part of Israel's determination never to be taken by surprise and never to face an enemy that is technologically equal or superior to them.

What makes Talpiot so valuable is that its members "receive a multidisciplinary education and become familiar with the entire spectrum of the IDF's technological capabilities. The idea was to provide them with skills needed to come up with solutions that cross bureaucratic borders and technological limits."

This sounds like a fantasy to American military personnel. In America, any such unit would immediately be frozen out by protective bureaucratic generals -- because our system is designed so that nobody's career can advance without having the protection and sponsorship of a general.

Thus, most generals would immediately reject and fight against something like Talpiot, because it would feel like some other general was getting a huge advantage in the bureaucratic rough-and-tumble.

Even in Israel, plenty of high officers resented the idea of Talpiot taking away their very best pilots, analysts, and field commanders. But, unlike America and practically every other country with a standing military, in Israel everyone knows that their national survival hangs by a hair all the time, and they'll put up with anything that looks promising.

After all, what good is your career if your country is wiped out by an enemy whose victory could have been prevented by an organization like Talpiot? Where's your career then?

There's nothing like a completely believable existential threat to concentrate the mind.

I remember that on my one visit to Israel, I was talking to a group of Israeli students who were attending the sci-fi convention I was speaking at. One of them said to me, fervently, "Thank you for what you did with Israel in Ender's Game."

At the moment, I had no idea what he was referring to. "Two hundred years in the future," he said, "and you show that Israel still exists."

At the age when American college students are protesting in order to shut down freedom of speech and obliterate American defenses, these Israeli students understood how fragile their nation was, and how precious to them its survival must be.

What do we learn from The Weapon Wizards?

1. Our military aid to Israel has been more than repaid by their sharing of technological advances with us. When we compare how many American lives have been saved by drones and armor invented and manufactured in Israel, the expense of military aid to Israel is cheap. Let's remember how much Israel has meant to our own success and survival, and not begrudge them our help.

2. American culture and Israeli culture are very, very different. But wouldn't it be nice if we could carve out a few places in our society where the good of the nation might trump careerism and generic protests and the freedom-hating Left?

Our military is doing the best it can, among the captains and majors and colonels who do most of the innovative thinking in that culture. At every civilian round table on military preparedness that I've attended, the smartest and most creative people in the room were not at the table -- they consisted of the men and women in uniform standing or sitting around the edges of the room, observing.

I remember in the first Gulf War, back in 1991, when our Patriot missiles were supposed to shield Israel and our own troops from Iraq's SCUD missiles. Our missile defenses were barely functional.

But Israel has innovated and now produces their own missile defenses. What they have now, guarding against missiles from Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist armies in Gaza and Lebanon, makes our Patriot missiles look like a sad joke. Like comparing a microwave to an Easy-Bake Oven.

And their cyberwarfare experts are believed to have crippled Iran's nuclear program a few years ago, setting it back by years.

But of course Israel's enemies -- and ours -- are not sitting still. They, too, are working on ways to defeat whatever Israel just showed them. So Israel has to keep innovating in order to stay ahead. Because to Israel, staying ahead is staying alive.

Thank God they're on our side.

*

Game of Thrones is starting to promote its next season on HBO. It's a simple teaser -- we just see the brooding faces of characters we love (or hate), reminding us of how much we care and how eager we are to see how it all comes out.

Why is this dark story of vicious families at war with each other in a made-up medieval world so compelling to so many people? I think it's not unlike the way that The Lord of the Rings became practically the Bible for the same generation that declared itself to be "anti-war."

What? The long epic of a terrible war is emotionally vital to young people who refuse to fight?

What if Game of Thrones is an important story to many in a nation that is almost evenly split between pro-defense red-staters and anti-defense blue-staters, because they all know something is deeply wrong with the world ("Winter is coming") and we can see that all the governments and all the politicians are quarreling over personal or political advantage instead of trying to do something real and important?

In Game of Thrones, we, the audience, get a pretty clear idea of just what's at stake, and there are mysteries that are finally beginning to be cleared up. (Yes, folks, Jon Snow is half Stark but his father was Targaryen, and he is nephew to Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, just as he was nephew to the man he thought was his father, Ned Stark.)

And, as a male, by long tradition his claim to the Iron Throne precedes hers. The difference is that Jon (a) doesn't want it and (b) doesn't have any dragons, which means he's not likely to be able to get Cersei Lannister off of that throne.

So here's my own prediction. With their wolf sidekicks, the Stark children (and Jon) are established as having the ability to dwell in and control other intelligent beings. Bran even showed us that with the right need, he can control other humans, though at devastating cost to Hodor.

I don't see Sansa doing much with this ability -- she lost her wolf so early in the series -- but Jon and Bran have both made extensive use of this ability, while Arya may be able to match their powers, though she's been training for other purposes.

So as Daenerys flies with her one loyal dragon, there are two other dragons who are angry and untamed. They follow Daenerys's dragon -- but do they follow her?

What if Jon and Bran -- or, perhaps, Arya -- take possession of one, two, or all three of Daenerys's dragons? Bran, deprived of the use of his legs, could fly more gloriously than any three-eyed crow. And Jon could act to protect the Wildlings who are, in effect, treating him as their king.

It is doubtful they could lead them in battle against Daenerys -- but if they act together in bringing down the Lannisters and then fight together against the White Walkers from beyond the wall, we might find ourselves with a Stark-Targaryen alliance that could save the world.

Or not. Because George R.R. Martin, the series author, is devious and wise, and whatever I think of, he'll have something better up his sleeve.

Martin's The Song of Ice and Fire is the first work of epic fiction that comes near the standard that J.R.R. Tolkien set with The Lord of the Rings.

But there is another waiting in the wings, and that's Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive, consisting at this moment of only two volumes, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. The third volume, Oathbringer, is purported to be in its fourth and fifth drafts (both at once?). But who knows how long Sanderson will take, now that he has realized he can't do a Stormlight novel ever year, or even every two years?

Brandon Sanderson is a young man still, and I hope he's taking care of his health -- and never texting while driving. George R.R. Martin is my age, maybe a titch older, and I hope he hasn't allowed the existence of the Game of Thrones TV series to dull his appetite for finishing the novels. Because for most of us -- i.e., all of us with any sense -- the novels are the real story.

Martin has given the writers of the series a great deal of freedom, and we know that the storylines diverge considerably, the nearer we come to the end. I'm reasonably sure they will converge again in the main points of the ending -- but there are characters who died on TV who are still alive in the books. George, please learn a lesson from Robert Jordan and get this done while yours are the hands on the keyboard!

*

Come on, who that has ever flown United was even slightly surprised at the way they handled that doctor when they tossed him from a flight in favor of a crewman?

I have never, not once, flown United without being subject to unbelievable rudeness directed at me, or being in a position to witness even worse rudeness directed at other passengers. United is the employee-owned airline where the customer is always wrong.

No, more accurately: At United, the customer is to be treated like old bubble gum. They just want to get you off their shoe.

*

Here's a reasonably healthy treat that is capable of keeping me from eating chocolate: PopCorners Natural Popped Corn Chips. They consist of corn-chip sized triangles that are halfway between really good popcorn and RealFoods Corn Thins (which I also recommend).

The easiest -- no, I mean safest -- way of consuming them is from one-ounce packages. They have less than half the fat of Lay's potato chips, and they're never fried, non-GMO verified, vegan, and have "no artificial anything."

They come in various flavors: Cheddar, Salt, Sweetly Salted, Carnival Kettle, Smokin' Jalapeño, and super-salty Cinema Style. You can buy a Variety Sampler Pack of all six flavors (a box of 40 small bags) and then decide your favorites.

I've already decided mine. While none of them are anything less than good, the Carnival Kettle PopCorners are my favorite. I hope they really catch on, because I'll be disappointed if I can't keep snacking on PopCorners while I watch television.

If you eat ten packages at a sitting, you haven't actually saved any calories, so keep yourself under control. Anything this delicious is dangerous. Eat them sparingly. One or two packages a day. Anything more, and I can't be responsible for the results ...


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