Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
- George Crile

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."
- Rudyard Kipling, 'The Young British Soldier'

When you study history in school, everything seems very structured and comprehensive, very coherent when viewed through the lense of economics and cause-and-effect. History is all about treaties and laws, trade, economic theory, statesmen and the hard realism of power....but then, time and time again, as you flip through the pages of history, they come at you - rollicking out of the mist with some grand wild-eyed vision, a chaotic elemental force that just seems to skew everything sideways...and at the end of the day you are left surveying an empire in ruins, millions of people freed from oppression and a blowback that is today, still only barely understood or acknowledged.

At the end of the day, Zia ul Haq's observation "Charlie did it." rings utterly true.

Charlie Wilson was a womanizing, alcoholic wastrel, an East Texas congressman best known for his booming voice, drinking, congressional junkets and proclivity for showgirls and Playboy bunnies. He was also the hinge and the catalyst for the largest covert operation in history - the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson's War is, quite frankly, an extraordinary piece of work. George Crile, a producer for the television news show 60 Minutes, has put together a vivid and fascinating book that tellingly examines how a U.S. congressman essentially hijacked U.S. foreign policy into supporting the Afghan mudjahideen to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This quixotic politician became obsessed with the plight of Afghanistan, the Afghan people,and with taking the fight to the Soviets directly. This passionate ambition (or obsession depending on your perspective) brought Wilson into play initially as the primary critic of the CIA's early efforts in Afghanistan, and through his political machinations, almost single-handedly pushed the CIA into a far more active covert role than they had planned. The operation evolved into one of the most critical centerpieces of the Cold War and a major contributing factor in the collapse of the USSR.

Crile's ability to draw vivid and motivated portrayals of the many people working with Charlie Wilson is one of the defining characteristics of this compulsively readable book. Charlie Wilson was aided in is endeavors by an unlikely and diverse cast of characters including Gust Avrokotos, a street-smart, "working-class" CIA agent of Greek-American descent, adrift in a sea of bureaucratic Ivy League "cake-eaters"; code-breakers, eccentric politicians trading favors and committee funding votes, suicidal mujahidden, Israeli weapons dealers, the President of Pakistan Zia ul Haq (who seemed to find a kindred spirit in Charlie Wilson), a Dallas housewife turned belly-dancer and an ex-Green Beret who helped turn the muj into an effective and deadly army of peasant techno-guerillas. Maybe too effective...

The result of Charlie Wilson's obsession was eventually 25,000 dead Russian soldiers...and a profoundly changed world.

I have just three words to emphasis: Read. The. Book. It is simply terrific.

For some historical perspective on Afghanistan and its role as a crossroads of empire (and a relentless eater of foreign armies) , I highly recommend Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, and that timeless classic Kim by Rudyard Kipling. You may also want to consult this chap...

For a slightly different, very moving and evocative take on Afghanistan check out An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, a first-rate travel book that was published just after 9-11.

For more on Afghanistan check out Afghanistan Online , the CIA World Factbook , Afghanistan News Net and Afghanistan's Website .

Interested in what Afghanistan looks like? Be sure to check out National Geographic's Afghanistan in Crisis site. Also check out the University of Texas's Afghanistan Map Collection and get a look at life in Afghanistan here, here and here.

As a crossroads between Islam and Buddhism, Afghanistan and Central Asia are a priceless archaeological treasure trove, albeit one that has been difficult, if not impossible to study in recent years. Find out more at Central Asia Archaeology or if you are feeling ambitious, read another solid work by Peter Hopkirk called Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia.

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Feel free to post comments or book suggestions below. And be sure to buy all your books through BookLinker - Christmas is coming, so get your shopping done early!

Friday, November 14, 2003

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

The Internet has been a fantastic boon for conspiracy theorists. Let's face it, everybody has suspicions that the world you see, the history that you inhabit, is not what it seems to be on the surface at first glance. The world is often a strange place...and you start to see things that may or may not be connected...the unspoken truth that you can glimpse only in those moments where the ice is thin or the veneer is flawed...and the raw, naked reality is suddenly staring you coldly in the face...or you may just be a raving lunatic...

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is one of those books. Brown has concocted a gripping and strongly paced thriller that weaves together The Holy Grail, pagan symbolism, secret Templar societies, biblical studies, the history of the Church, and the work of Leonardo Da Vinci into a melange that, weirdly enough, melds into a very readable and fairly taut story.

Following the symbolic code left by a murdered curator of the Louvre Museum, Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, must unravel a 2,000 year old mystery that cuts to the heart of the Christian faith, following the clues hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. Aided by the curator's (naturally enough) beautiful cryptographer daughter, the trail leads them to the Priory of Sion, a clandestine Templar society that is protecting a deadly secret, now being hunted by another group that will stop at nothing to protect the faith.

Although I've heard some mixed reviews regarding the historical accuracy of the information that Brown bases his trhiller on, his rich interpretation of symbolism provides the heart of the story and the clues to the mystery are endlessly fascinating.

In the end the book will probably be regarded as sensationalist and trashy by some, and truthful, thought-provoking and challenging by others. For myself, I found it to be a throughly agreeable thriller, easy to delve into and hard to put down, although I noted that Brown, when discussing Da Vinci's Mona Lisa in copious detail in the story, failed to note the first thing that struck me while gazing at the painting - that she has no eyebrows.

Interested in some of the alternative versions of the Bible (which, of course is online - you can find it here)? Check out The Dead Sea Scrolls which contain fragments of early testaments, some of which suggest new interpretations of what are considered the biblical facts. Here's some more moldy original documentation for you...

If Grail lore floats your boat, check out Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh, a work cited by Dan Brown as a major source for The Da Vinci Code. Interested in the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar?

Want to know more about Renaissance genuis of Leonardo Da Vinci? There are innumerable sites dedicated to this artist, inventor, scientest and engineer. I recommend The Artcyclopedia for a good overview of links and sites, and Boston's Museum of Science site Leonardo. Also available is an online collection of Da Vinci's sketches and a site covering his famous Leichester Codex, now owned by none other than ....Bill Gates.

Talk about your conspiracies...

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Feel free to post comments or book suggestions below. And be sure to buy all your books through BookLinker's Amazon links - Christmas is coming, so get your shopping done early right here!

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Bringing Down The House

Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions - Ben Mezrich

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit." - R. E. Shay

Once upon a time I made a little stop on a business trip and found myself sitting at a green baize-covered table flipping the pasteboards in a blaringly loud casino. The game was blackjack and, quite astonishingly, I found myself up $300 by the end of the evening. I was always quite pleased with myself for winning...and more importantly for walking away with my winnings in my pocket instead of fruitlessly pursuing more.

I was never foolish enough to attribute it to anything but dumb luck.

Bringing Down the House is the highly readable, if not mesmerizing, tale of MIT's underground blackjack club. The book tells the story of Kevin Lewis, a math-science "whiz kid" from Exeter, MIT student and card-counter extraordinaire, outlining his recruitment into the world of professional card-counting. Lewis joined a small, secretive, MIT-based card-counting team that would, eventually, take the major casinos of Las Vegas for more than $3-million, before fate and the casino security operatives eventually caught up with them.

Ben Mezrich brings a vivid cast of characters and settings to life, outstripping what you find in most fictional thrillers, opening up the hidden world of blackjack, professional gamblers, card counters, and casino backrooms to scrutiny. Interestingly enough, the card-counters of MIT weren't breaking the law (card-counting is perfectly legal as long as no artificial means are being used to count and the integrity of the game is not being violated)...just emptying the casino's pockets by cutting out their statistical edge.

Blackjack, more than any other casino game is predictable at a mathmatical level. It has a history - you know what cards have been played and can therefore guess what cards remain in the dealers' hand. You can't know the exact outcome, but you can know the statistical probability of the remaining unplayed cards. With a team tracking the cards, you can bet accordingly and ... bring down the house.

Mezrich's book is rich with compulsion, greed and adreneline, and filled with...well everything you need to know to count cards at blackjack, including Spotters, Gorillas, Big Players, the Eye-in-the-Sky, code signals, "back-rooming" and shuffle-tracking. Highly entertaining, tense and difficult to put down, Bringing Down the House is no gamble, it is a terrific read.

Did you know that playing cards have been traced back in popular culture to 1377? Check out more on the history of playing cards here or here.

Try out this magic virtual card trick. Did you figure out how he did it?

Want to find out what's happening right now in Vegas? Check out Las Vegas LiveCams for a look at where the gamblers like to roam.

Think you have a system that can beat the casinos? Have I got a card game for you!

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Feel free to post comments or book suggestions. I'd love to see some feedback and some discussion on these reads, so dive right in!