Monthly Archives: April 2019

Traitors – Spies, Sex & Murder in Post- World War II London

Traitors on Netflix is a perfect spy series where sex, murder and lies are all part of the great game of world espionage. Emma Appleton stars as Feef Symonds a beautiful upper-class young British woman who is recruited by the Americans to spy on her own government. Seduced by the excitement, Feef soon learns that her actions can end the lives of real people, including herself.

Emma Appleton as the spy Feef in "Traitors"
Emma Appleton as the spy Feef in “Traitors”

Michael Stuhlbarg is the American spymaster Rowe, who is a zealot about destroying the beginnings of Communism in the U.K. Rowe is convinced that the new British Socialist government was put into power by the Russians and is being controlled by them.  Rowe is so intense in his beliefs that we are never sure if he is a strategic genius or a dangerous lunatic.

Michael Stuhbarg is the spymaster Rowe in "Traitors"
Michael Stuhbarg is the spymaster Rowe in “Traitors”

Brandon P. Bell is Jackson, Rowe’s American colored driver. (The term African-American did not yet exist). Jackson’s only goal is to earn as much money as he can and Rowe has access to cash. For envelopes full of money, Jackson will silently eliminate problems, or even bodies. As the series progresses, however, we see that Jackson is much more complex than people realize. His greatest asset in the spy world is that everyone underestimates him.

Brandon P. Bell is Jackson in "Traitors"
Brandon P. Bell is Jackson in “Traitors”

A communist threat in post war England was not just something Americans imagined. The Soviet Union was determined to spread its workers revolt worldwide.

Traitors was a joint collaboration between Netflix and U.K. Channel 4, and the British slant really shows. In fact, that is the one part of the series that gets to be a little too much. The Americans are crude violent zealots, while the British, even the British Communists, are multifaceted and sensitive.

Traitors glosses over why the Americans ran their own intelligence operations without consulting the British. It is a historic fact that during this time period any secrets the Americans told the U.K. government immediately found their way to the Soviet Union. The American OSS was not being paranoid when it decided to spy on the U.K. government to stop the leaks.

In real life, it was British class arrogance that allowed the U.K. government to become infiltrated by Communists. The British took it for granted that members of the upper classes who had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge would naturally be completely loyal to The Crown.

"Kim" Philby who the British never suspected as a spy because he came from the upper class
“Kim” Philby who the British never suspected as a spy because he came from the upper class

In fact, the Soviet Union had cleverly recruited to Communism students who were from “the best” families in England, and who would be well placed in government after graduation. The most successful of these was Kim Philby who was actually working for the Soviet Union while he was head of all counterintelligence in the U.K. He was not discovered until 1963, and even then escaped to the Soviet Union before British Authorities could arrest him.

Keeley Hawes as Priscilla in 'Traitors"
Keeley Hawes as Priscilla in ‘Traitors”

Traitors ignores these historic facts, but Traitors is not trying to be a historical documentary. Traitors is an exciting adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat trying to guess who is really a traitor, and who is just an innocent victim. Emma Appleton is perfect as the sensuous, fragile yet dangerous Feef. Keeley Hawes is wonderful as Priscilla, a high ranking government bureaucrat who feels that women must downplay and hide their own sexuality in order to rise through the ranks in a government dominated by men.

Like all great spy stories, Traitors has plots within plots and people are never exactly who they seem. This combined with the action, eroticism and mystery make it a “must-see series.”

We rate Traitors Five Stars *****

Read – Will Season 3 of The Crown Dare Mention Northern Ireland?

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My Mother was A World War II Codebreaker


My mother was a naval counterintelligence officer during World War II, something no one would have suspected of this tiny woman with bright dyed-blond hair. (Her whole life she insisted that the hair color was natural). 

America was in World War II when Elsie White graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University. She immediately joined the Navy and after a 3 month training course was commissioned an Ensign. Regular Navy officers derisively called these new Ensigns the “90 day wonders”.

Elsie White marries Jack Farrell during World War II
Elsie White marries Jack Farrell during World War II

Elsie did not start her military career with an exciting assignment. Like most women who joined up, she was relegated to back-office work. Elsie worked in New York City processing Navy payroll. That’s when she noticed something odd about a certain Admiral’s paycheck. It looked to her like the Navy was paying the Admiral the wrong amount. Her supervisors were not interested, but Elsie worked on her own time to research the back reports. Sure enough, Elsie was able to prove that the Navy had been under-paying the Admiral for years. The Navy owed the Admiral thousands of dollars, and Elsie saw to it that he was reimbursed in his next paycheck.

No one would ever suspect that the 1950s house wife was once a secret code-breaker during World War II
No one would ever suspect that the 1950s house wife was once a secret code-breaker during World War II

The Admiral took the time to find out who had discovered the error and gotten him his money. About a month later Elise received a formal invitation to join the Admiral and his officers for lunch aboard the Admiral’s ship.  It was a thrilling experience for Elise, but she never thought anything would come of it. The next day she was back at work in the payroll office.

But the Admiral had not forgotten about the tiny Ensign. The Admiral realized that someone as intelligent, detail oriented and persistent as Elsie would be perfect in the counterintelligence branch of the Navy.

A blurry old photo of Elsie White's commission as a United States Navy Ensign September 21, 1943
A blurry old photo of Elsie White’s commission as a United States Navy Ensign September 21, 1943

Soon Elsie was ensconced deep in the sub-basement of a building on Church Street in New York City. She was the newly appointed officer in charge of a team of Navy code breakers. Just to get to work was no small task. Two Marine guards checked ID’s at the entrance of the building. Two more Marines guarded the elevator to the sub-basement. In the sub-basement itself, 4 fully armed Marines stood ready

During one inspection, Elsie was given a formal reprimand for not wearing a fully loaded .45 caliber side-arm per regulations. She did not want to admit that she could barely lift the weapon, much less hold it out straight to aim at anyone.

Elsie may not have been proficient at combat, but she was good at solving puzzles, which is how she approached codes. While the British were busy cracking the German code and its Enigma machine, the Japanese codes presented a much different problem to the Americans. Instead of having 1 code, the Japanese had numerous codes which they changed continuously. Teams of Americans in the Pacific and in the U.S. were given stacks of Japanese codes to crack.

Elsie’s New York code breaking group was an odd assortment of misfits. Most were quiet introverts and a few were alcoholics who smuggled flask bottles of gin into the underground lair. The Navy tolerated all these oddballs, as long and they broke codes. And break codes they did.

Elsie recalled one mousy woman who worked at a back desk and had never spoken to anyone in the unit. One night the mousy woman came up to Elsie and whispered in an respectful tone, “I am sorry to disturb you Ensign, but I think I just broke this code.” It turned out that the little mouse had, in fact, broken the code.

No one knew of Elsie’s wartime adventures until 20 years after World War II had ended. That’s how long all Navy officers in code breaking units were required to keep silent about their duties. As far as most people knew, she had been processing payrolls her whole time in the Navy.

The other day I walked by the office building on Church Street in New York which had once been the site of the secret Navy code breaking unit. Nothing from its outward appearance would every lead anyone to guess its secret past. Much in the same way, no one would ever have guessed that Elsie White Farrell, the tiny blonde mom in her blue Buick station wagon had once worked in the sub-basement serving her country during war.

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“Billions” uses The Holocaust as a joke. This is a disgrace.

In its Chickentown episode, Billions uses The Holocaust as a trivial punchline to refer to the  killing of chickens. It is disgraceful that the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis is so trivialized that it is compared to the death of chickens. Has American culture really gotten to the point where anything, no matter how horrible, is simply fodder for stupid humor?

Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for "scientific" experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army) NARA FILE #: 111-SC-204480 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1103
Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for “scientific” experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army) NARA FILE #: 111-SC-204480 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1103

It is bad enough that the United States has growing numbers of neo-Nazis and White Supremacists who insist that The Holocaust never actually happened. This Billions episode may indicate that there are even more people who know The Holocaust happened, but simply don’t care. Sadly there has been no protest against Billions. The only fan reaction on the internet was that the Billions Chickentown episode was not very good compared to the normal high quality of Billions.

Protestors claiming The Holocaust never actually happened.
Protestors claiming The Holocaust never actually happened.

In the Billions Chickentown episode, trader “Dollar Bill” (played by the aptly named Kelly AuCoin) needs chicken prices to rise or Axe Capital will lose a fortune. However, there is an oversupply of chickens and the price is going to plummet. Dollar Bill calls Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and announces he has found a “final solution” to the overabundance of chickens. After the phone call Bobby asks, “Did he just say what I think he said? Is he talking about a Chicken Holocaust?”

Kelly AuCoin is Dollar Bill on Billions.
Kelly AuCoin is Dollar Bill on Billions.

Sure enough, Dollar Bill’s plan is to smuggle a diseased chicken into the stock of healthy chickens, thereby poisoning thousands of birds. Bobby Axelrod ends this idiotic idea. The entire episode was not very good and the comic use of the word Holocaust by the Jewish Bobby Axelrod does not ring true.

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in BILLIONS (Season 3, Episode 02, "The Wrong Maria Gonzalez"). - Photo: Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: BILLIONS_302_1419.R.jpg
Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod in BILLIONS (Season 3, Episode 02, “The Wrong Maria Gonzalez”). – Photo: Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME – Photo ID: BILLIONS_302_1419.R.jpg

We hope that in the future Billions goes back to its usual superb writing and does not trivialize something as tragic in human history as The Holocaust.

The Inventor – Out for blood in Silicon Valley

The Inventor – out for blood in Silicon Valley – is a fascinating HBO documentary about the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, the scam artist who was once praised on the cover of Fortune Magazine as the next Steve Jobs. In addition to losing millions of dollars of investor’s money, Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, actually put people’s lives at risk by marketing a blood testing machine that gave false results to patients.

Older men found Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, irresistible.
Older men found Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, irresistible.

Elizabeth Holmes is a type of genius. She was able to identify a real problem in the healthcare system that people desperately wanted fixed, and she offered them a solution. Anyone who has ever had a blood test knows that they are expensive and that the technicians take large quantities of blood from a vein to do even a simple test. Consequently many people risk their own health by avoiding blood tests completely.

Former Secretary of State Charles Schultz, who still believes in Elizabeth Holmes
Former Secretary of State Charles Schultz, who still believes in Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes claimed she had invented a machine that could perform 200 blood tests with a single drop of blood, at a fraction of the cost that Quest or LabCorp charged. It was a revolution in the medical field.

The Theranos blood testing machine
The Theranos blood testing machine

However, the real genius of Elizabeth Holmes was her ability to promote herself. She was especially adept at attracting the attention of older, powerful men. Former Secretary of State George Schultz, was one of her most ardent supporters.

Elizabeth Holmes demonstrates how a tiny droop of blood is all that is needed for 200 tests.
Elizabeth Holmes demonstrates how a tiny droop of blood is all that is needed for 200 tests.

Elizabeth Holmes has incredibly huge blue eyes, porcelain pale skin, a husky voice with an intense manner of speaking. She always dresses in black, trying to present herself as the female Steve Jobs. All of this enabled Elizabeth Holmes to attract a cult-like following of employees and investors.

Theranos was set up in Silicon Valley and the company got to work building the blood testing machine. It was beautiful. The only problem was that after millions of dollars and thousands of hours of testing, the doctors, engineers and computer scientists could not get the machine to work properly. Tests were wrong, blood got spilled, machine parts broke.

The Theranos headquarters when the company was valued at $6 billion
The Theranos headquarters when the company was valued at $6 billion

Elizabeth Holmes reported none of this to her investors. In fact, she stated that the machines worked perfectly. They were put in place in Walgreens stores and blood tests were begun on real patients.

The Inventor – out for Blood in Silicon Valley is a fascinating study of the whole disaster. Elizabeth Holmes is not presented as an evil character, but as a complex, possibly mentally unbalanced semi-genius who actually believes her own lies. It seems she truly thought that if she said something enough, it could actual happen.

Tyler Schultz & Erika Cheung, the whistle blowers who brought down Theranos
Tyler Schultz & Erika Cheung, the whistle blowers who brought down Theranos

Ironically it was Tyler Schultz, the grandson of Charles Schultz, who brought down Theranos. By that time the Silicon Valley start-up was valued at more than $6 billion and Tyler Schultz worked in the labs. He saw that Theranos was giving false medical information to patients. False data that could possibly result in a patient death. Tyler Schultz along with fellow lab worker Erika Cheung became whistle blowers. Tyler went to the Wall Street Journal and Erika to the Food and Drug Administration.

They were both immediately sued and put through Hell by Theranos lawyers. Legal fees for Tyler Schultz were over $500,000. His parents had to drain their personal savings and mortgage their house to help him pay the legal fees. Tyler’s grandfather, former Secretary of State Charles Schultz to this day, still believes that Elizabeth Holmes is an honest woman.

Elizabeth Holmes on the cover of Fortune
Elizabeth Holmes on the cover of Fortune

The Inventor – out for Blood in Silicon Valley shows the dangers of blindly believing in the hype of every wannabe tech genius. Just wearing black clothes and having a flashy presentation does not make someone a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

In the end Theranos want bankrupt and all the employees lost their jobs. The investors lost all their money and Elizabeth Holmes and other executives are being sued. The only good news is that no one got killed by the Theranos “miracle” machine. As my grandfather used to say, “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

We rate The Inventor – out for Blood in Silicon Valley 5 Stars *****

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