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Ordering up a New World Posted - Mar 18, 2018
They were 18th-century Scottish philosophers, and what they did was order up a new world that became the United States. Fittingly, they’re the subject of a recent book, “The Infidel and the Professor,” by Dennis C. Rasmussen. The “infidel” is David Hume and “the professor” is Adam Smith. The author is Dennis C. Rasmussen, associate professor of political science at Tufts University.

Hume was born in Edinburgh and spoke with a decided Scottish burr, while Smith, who was born a few miles to the north, in Kirkcaldy, Fife, did not. Both were highly gifted students. Hume attended Edinburgh University, but did not graduate. Smith attended Glasgow University, and did. Both suffered temporary breakdowns as a result of overstudy. Hume did not teach, and spent most of his adult life writing, which came easily to him. Smith taught at Glasgow U, and struggled with the pen. Neither married (few great philosophers do), although Hume did fall madly in love with a lady of Parisian society but ended the relationship fearing it would draw him away from his true passion, study and writing.

Hume wrote about human behavior, ethics, religion, political theory, economic theory, and authored a stellar six-volume history of England. Smith wrote two books, one concerning political theory, and one concerning economic theory.

Unlike a number of Enlightenment writers, neither Hume nor Smith were radicals. They did not advocate grand schemes for radically restructuring society. They embraced the benefits of the rule of law, limited government, religious tolerance, freedom of expression, private property, and commerce, while insisting that necessary societal changes should be implemented in a gradual, measured way. Unlike other revolutions to come, this was exactly the result of the the American Revolution–gradual rather than sweeping change.

“The Infidel and the Professor” is almost as much about Hume’s and Smith’s friendship as it is about their books. The author devotes approximately two chapters to Hume’s writings and two chapters to Smith’s: one to “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and one to “The Wealth of Nations.” Of the two, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” was more popular in Smith’s day. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hume’s and Smith’s books were widely studied in America by the Founding Fathers, particularly Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Thanks to the scholarship of historian Douglass Adair, we know that Madison was greatly influenced by the political theories of David Hume. Writes Adair: “It was David Hume’s speculations on the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’ . . . that most stimulated James Madison’s thought on factions.” He goes so far as to say Madison had a copy of Hume’s book at his side while writing Federalist No. 10. For his economic ideas, Madison drew upon Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.”

According to historian Forrest McDonald, it was the opposite with Hamilton. For his economic theories, Hamilton drew more on Hume’s economic theories, and for his political theories drew more on Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Unfortunately, Rasmussen does not discuss in any depth the actual influence Hume and Smith had on America's founding. That said, I enjoyed his book, and recommend it to anyone desiring to know more about two of the greatest and most influential writers of the 18th century Enlightenment. To learn more about their impact on America’s founding, I suggest “Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution” by Forest McDonald; “Explaining America: The Federalist” by Garry Wills; and “Fame and the Founding Fathers” by Douglass Adair.

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Hue 1968—book review
Posted - Mar 05, 2018
January 31st marked the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Tet offensive. The fiercest fighting took place in the ancient capital city of Hue (pronounced “Hway”). Mark Bowen, who gave us “Black Hawk Down” (1999), has written a book about it, entitled “Hue 1968” (2016). Below is my review:

The Vietnam War was thought to be all but over by January 1968. The commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, declared the end to be in sight. In Washington D.C., Lyndon Johnson’s special assistant for National Security, Walt Rostow, told New York Times reporter Gene Roberts that, apart from a few “brush fire episodes,” the United States had won the war.

So it came as a complete shock when, in the pre-dawn hours of January 31,1968, the Tet Offensive was launched with deadly fury throughout South Vietnam. The taking of Hue was the primary objective, a bold undertaking that Hanoi believed would spark an uprising of South Vietnamese civilians, turn the tide, and win the war at long last.

After 24 days of bloody and unrelenting fighting—with 10,000 dead and 80 percent of Hue in rubble—U.S. forces took back the city. The cost was so overwhelming that American debate over the war was never again about winning, only about how to leave. Ironically, the reporter told by Walt Rostow the war over, was on the scene during the battle of Hue. His name was Gene Roberts. According to the author, Roberts’ reports for the New York Times were the first and among the best to come out of Hue.

The author describes “Hue 1968” as “mostly the work of a journalist,” the result of four years of travel (twice to Vietnam), investigation and interviews with those who were there. He tells the story from the points of view of American and Vietnamese politicians and generals as well as those who did the actual fighting. The result is a gripping day-to-day account of troop movements, fighting inside and nearby the city, and of the U.S. high command that was completely out of touch with what was taking place in Hue. General Westmoreland believed the thrust of the Tet Offensive was going to be directed at Khe Sahn, and planned accordingly for several weeks despite overwhelming evidence that the real target was Hue.

In the first days of fighting, the U.S. high command did not believe reports from the CIA, or from those fighting on the front lines, that the well-trained and well-supplied National Liberation Front (combined North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces) had taken the city. Two companies—about 300 Marines—were ordered to attack a force far larger than anyone believed possible—10,000 Front soldiers who had sneaked into the city without detection. These marines suffered enormous losses as a result. When they informed the military command in nearby Phu Bai that they were vastly outnumbered, their reports were not believed. They were accused of exaggeration, timidity and even cowardice, and ordered to attack. As a result, entire units were badly decimated, by as much as two-thirds, and one unit almost completely wiped out.

Meanwhile, the U.S. command continued to send in small units while denying air, naval and artillery support for fear of damaging Hue’s historic buildings, and thereby embarrassing the U.S. All the while, a fleet of helicopters could not keep pace with the mounting casualties that needed to be airlifted to hospitals in Saigon. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, the U.S. command finally sent in the entire 1st Marine Regiment and part of the 1st Cavalry Division, plus aircraft and heavy artillery, and began taking back the city in grim block-by-block fighting.

Hue proved to be the bloodiest battle of the entire Vietnam War. When at last the few remaining Front soldiers fled for the countryside, Hue lay in ruins. Casualties—combatants on both sides as well as citizens—exceeded 10,000. U.S. Marines and soldiers killed were 250 and the wounded 1,554.

For most of the battle, General Westmoreland was in a state of self-denial, busy preparing for the attack on Khe Sahn that never came. It seemed Americans back home were better informed than the U.S. high command, having followed the daily news reports coming out of South Vietnam. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, a supporter of the war, was reading the daily news reports as well and becoming deeply disturbed. He flew to South Vietnam to see the battle of Hue for himself, something Westmoreland decided not to do. A few weeks later, Cronkite’s report on the CBS evening news confirmed what had been reported in U.S. newspapers for several years: America was losing the war, and the battle of Hue was yet one more example of U.S. high command playing fast and loose with the truth. Writes Bowden: “(Walter Cronkite) may not have declared an end to the war, but he had declared the end of something far more significant. For decades, certainly since World War II, the mainstream press and, for that matter, most of the American public, believed their leaders, political and military. Tet was the first of many blows to that faith in coming years. Americans would never again be that trusting.”

The first casualty of war is truth, someone once said. Both sides—U.S. and North Vietnamese—were guilty of withholding the truth in order to advance their cause. For U.S. soldiers in Hue, the results were tragic. Had their initial reports been believed, the outcome very likely would have been far different. Going in with full force at the outset would have avoided the slaughter and devastation that resulted. Fewer soldiers would have died or been wounded, not to mention the citizens of Hue trapped in the city by the incessant fighting, and the ancient city itself might have been spared.

Finally, the incredible sacrifices asked of those who did the fighting, American soldiers most of them 18-to-22 year-olds. Only a few of them actually volunteered for duty. None ever dreamed they would find themselves caught up in such a horrendous situation. Neither had the men who led them into battle, lieutenant colonels in their 30s who had volunteered for Vietnam to promote their military careers. The word “courage” seems hardly adequate to describe soldiers who, having seen so many of their own shot to pieces by snipers, are ordered to step into the line of fire for the upteenth time in a single day, knowing full well the odds of returning home alive or in one piece are slim indeed.

Whether you have no military experience or only a limited knowledge of the Vietnam War, the author makes events vivid and easy to understand. He reveals the battle for Hue as disorganized, and the fighting as gruesome and savage.

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Unforgettable Nat King Cole
Posted - Feb 19, 2018
Nat King Cole was versatile. He was a jazz pianist who quite by accident evolved into the smoothest of pop singers. His second biggest selling album was a collection of country standards. Swing or ballad, Cole made it seem effortless. Unlike Frank Sinatra, who worked very hard to milk a lyric for the subtlest emotion, Cole achieved the same effect with deceptive ease. Sinatra rehearsed long hours and sweated the details. Cole did not work nearly as hard. “Mine is a casual approach to a song,” he said. “I lean heavily on the lyrics. By that I mean I try to tell a story with the melody as background.” What follows are reviews of three of his most notable albums.


The record industry had not yet figured out what do with the newly developed LP (long playing record) when UNFORGETTABLE was released in 1952. The possibilities were clearly evident for recording symphonies and opera, but pop tunes? UNFORGETTABLE was not of a whole but a collection of singles. But what a collection. Of the eight songs contained on the original 10” release, all but one were top 20 hits, with three having topped the charts as nationwide #1 hits: “For Sentimental Reasons,” “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young.” The eight songs were recorded between 1946 and 1951, when Cole was making the transition from jazz singer to pop vocalist. Ironically, the single, “Unforgettable,” which would became Cole’s signature song, didn’t actually reach #1, but peaked at #12.

By the time the LP was expanded to the eventual standard of 12”—12 song format in 1954, the transition was complete and four more top-20 songs were added in a new release: “Pretend,” “Make Her Mine,” “Answer Me, My Love” and “Hajji Baba.” In a sense, UNFORGETTABLE was Cole’s first greatest hits collection. What pulls the LP together thematically is that all the songs are ballads about young love. All but a few are arranged by incomparable Nelson Riddle. Thanks to digital transfers from the original source, UNFORGETTABLE sounds better than ever.


After midnight is the witching hour of music, when old songs evoke old memories and musicians kick back and play the tunes they love to play, pleasing no one but themselves.

The album AFTER MIDNIGHT is Nat Cole returning to his first love—to jazz. The musicians are seasoned pros who enjoy each other’s company: Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet, Willie Smith on alto sax, Juan Tizol on valve trombone, a reunited Nat King Cole Trio, and the man himself on piano. Cool jazz? Try medium cool jazz, upbeat and understated, with Cole in the forefront, performing HIS standards: "Sweet Lorraine," "It's Only A Paper Moon," "(Get Your Kicks) On Route 66," and 9 others.

You could say AFTER MIDNIGHT is Cole's "Get Back" album, a return to his jazz roots. "Just You, Just Me" and "I Know That You Know" were in the original Trio's repertoire as instrumentals; here they are given vocal treatments. The rest of the tunes were new. No matter: Cole and company put their personal stamp on them all.


Frank Sinatra made a career singing saloon songs, as heard on such classic albums as “FOR ONLY THE ONLY” and “NO ONE CARES." Nat Cole's “WHERE DID EVERYONE GO?" is his only stab at saloon songs and, as with nearly everything he recorded, it's first-class through and through. The arranger is Gordon Jenkins with whom Cole recorded the multi-platinum “LOVE IS THE THING.” This time the mood is darker and more complex, 12 takes on love gone bad, mostly classic tunes from the Great American Songbook, among them "Say It Isn't So,” "If Love Ain't There,” "Spring is Here,” "The End of a Love Affair” and "Am I Blue.” Cole never overplays his hand; he plumbs the emotional depth of the lyrics and sings honestly. Like Sinatra, he had an unerring ear for finding the exact right mood and expressing it simply. And Gordon Jenkins, master of the orchestra’s string section, makes the perfect accomplice.

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An Encyclopedia of Los Angeles
Posted - Feb 05, 2018
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. . . .”

The above is from “The Red Wind.” It’s among the most quoted passages by mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s novels and short stories have been called “an encyclopedia of Los Angeles.” The City of Angels is more a state of mind than an actual place, as Chandler demonstrates in the following:

“I used to like this town. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven-hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style. . . . It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either.”

The voice is that of Phillip Marlow, the hard-boiled private detective who inhabits the mean streets of Chandler’s Los Angeles. Marlow’s cynical voice recalls that of actor Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep,” the latter based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler.

“We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs . . . the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. . . . Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood—and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”

When Raymond Chandler spun his best yarns, from 1933 to 1943, the Los Angeles Basin was a vast, arid, patchwork of farms, oil fields and small towns, connected by a network of two-lane highways. Los Angeles was the center, growing in fits and starts beside a riverbed that was dry ten months out of the year. Hollywood, Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean were to the west; Long Beach, Wilmington, and Signal Hill with its forest of oil derricks and rotten-egg smells, to the south; Pasadena, San Bernardino, and orange groves as far as the eye could see, to the east; and the rural San Fernando Valley and more orange groves to the north. Chandler connected the whole in his seven novels, and dozens of short stories that appeared in pulp fiction magazines. The following is a night ride along the Santa Monica Bay, from “The Big Sleep.”

“We drove away . . . through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses down on the sand close to the rumble of surf and larger houses built back on the shapes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet vast emptiness. . . .”

Marlow had his office (“my doghouse”) in a rundown Los Angeles office building, as described in “The Little Sister”: “The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: ‘Phillip Marlow . . . Investigations.’ It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor, in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next door to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in—there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you’re from Manhattan, Kansas.”

In “The High Window” he describes the world outside his office. “It was getting dark outside now. The rushing sound of the traffic had died a little and the air from the open window, not yet cool from the night, had that tired end-of-the day smell of dust, automobile exhaust, sunlight rising from the hot walls and sidewalks, the remote smell of food in a thousand restaurants and perhaps, drifting down from the residential hills above Hollywood—if you had a nose like a hunting dog—a touch of that peculiar tomcat smell that eucalyptus trees give off in warm weather.”

The following (from “The Little Sister”) is a particular favorite of mine. It’s a road trip out of Hollywood that goes through the San Fernando Valley to Ventura County before swinging south back to L.A. along the coast, a journey of about seventy miles.

“I drove east on Sunset but didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped down Fords shot in and out of traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and sloughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives.

“I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car-hops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

“Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. . . . The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night. . . .

“I drove on to the Oxnard cut-off and turned back toward the ocean. The big eight-wheelers and sixteen-wheelers were streaming north, all hung over with orange lights. On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California night. . . .

“I saw Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifties stories high, solid in marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”

Want more? Try one of Chandler’s Big Four: “Farewell, My Lovely, “The Lady in the Lake,” “The Big Sleep” and “The High Window.”

“Chandler stopped the Los Angeles kaleidoscope,” is how one critic described these novels. “He arrested its spinning, so confusing to most writers who have tried to see the city clearly; and then he fixed in prose of poetic intensity the brilliant bits and pieces, until we find in his ‘Big Four’ a glittering mosaic of greater Los Angeles from San Bernardino to the sea.”

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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