War of the Whales us about the harm caused to whales by the intense active sonar used by modern navies to find submerged submarines and the effort to rein in active sonar use by the US Navy. Active sonar involves producing a sound underwater and listening for the returning echo; in that sense it is analogous to radar.
Most of the events occur between the spring of 2000, when 9 beaked whales beached on a single day in the Bahamas, and the fall of 2008 when the relevant court case was heard by the US Supreme Court. Major characters include Ken Balcomb and Diane Claridge, a couple who kept a census of whales in the Bahamas and Puget Sound, and Joel Reynolds, the attorney who organized the lawsuits against the navy by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). On March 15, 2000, Balcomb and Claridge received multiple reports of whales stranding themselves. Most stranded whales are apparently dead before they arrive on shore; these standings were unusual in that the whales were alive, and thus that the stranding was an attempt by the whales to escape from a threat. These whales, mainly squid-eating beaked whales, normally live and hunt in the deep Great Bahama Canyon, and normally do not venture into shallow waters were they may be prey for sharks. Normally 9 whales do not strand in the Bahamas in a year, much less a day. Balcomb and Claridge, with the help of long-term volunteer Dave Ellifrit and short-term Earthwatch volunteers, managed to get some whales off the beach and also succeeded in removing and freezing the heads of some dead whales for autopsy to determine the cause of death. Balcomb, who had attended graduate school without completing his PhD, contacted Bob Gisner, an employee of the Office of Naval Research whom he knew from graduate school. Gisner in turn arranged for Darlene Ketten, a specialist in whale hearing, to have the heads CT-scanned and dissected after Balcomb and Claridge got the heads to Boston.
Balcomb appears to have had a fair idea of what happened, because he had been a sonar specialist in the navy in the 1970s and because he saw a US destroyer in the area on a flight to examine one of the stranded whales. In the late 1990s there was a mass standing of whales in Greece following a NATO naval exercise; it had been suspected that sonar use had caused this stranding, but the autopsy evidence was spotty. Ketten found blood hemorrhaged in both ears of the whales during the CT scan, suggesting damage from sound. As there had not been any earthquakes in the area or any oil prospecting (the industry uses very loud air guns to seismically study the seabed for oil), sonar was the only plausible culprit.
Beaked whales use their own sonar to hunt at great depths where the light is too dim to see. They also communicate with other members of their species by sound. Ironically, the US Navy has trained dolphins and other small whales to use their sonar to find mines and find enemy divers attempting to place explosive charges on the hulls of ships. Sounds produced by humans in the oceans can disrupt reproduction and migration even when the decibel level is too low to kill. Besides sonar and oil prospecting, the ever-increasing number of ever larger cargo ships puts a lot of sound in the oceans.
In May of 2000 Balcomb went public with his opinion that sonar had caused the deaths, using his videotaping of some of the autopsies (I think the autopsies Ketten made during a brief visit to the Bahamas) and his copy of the CT scans (which Ketten didn't think he had the right to show without her permission), and appearing on an episode of the news program 60 Minutes. These events made Balcomb a pariah among many of his fellow whale researchers, among the personnel of the National Marine Fisheries Service who were supposed to be regulating the navy, and probably was the event that ended his marriage to Claridge, who did not appreciate that he didn't consult her, particularly as his action would probably harm her efforts to gain research funding in her just-beginning scientific career; the Office of Naval Research is the primary patron of whale research and oceanography in general in the United States.
Balcomb's public comments are also almost certainly what caused the navy and the fisheries service to investigate the incident, releasing a "preliminary" report just late on a Friday afternoon on December 21, 2001, that for the first time admitted that sonar was the cause of these deaths in particular and were a risk to whales in general. A final report was never published.
This report allowed Reynolds, the NRDC lawyer, an opening to sue the navy. Reynolds had in the 1990s successfully engaged in litigation with the navy regarding where the navy planned to test the resistance of new ships to underwater explosions; the navy's original plan had these tests occurring in a marine preserve. Without going into the details, Reynolds consistently won in the lower federal courts but suffered a partial loss in the Supreme Court in 2008. The uniformed leadership of the navy had insisted that the case be appealed to the Supreme Court, as they did not want any limitations on sonar training and were worried about their own lawyers propensity to settle. However the decision written by Chief Justice Roberts was narrowly tailored to get a majority and left 4 of the 6 mitigation measures intact. Looking back over a couple of decades of litigation, the navy has been moved to training and test regimes that are less harmful to marine life.
On Monday August 22, 2011, Leonardo da Vinci's painting the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. Quite a hullabaloo ensued.
The museum was cl...moreOn Monday August 22, 2011, Leonardo da Vinci's painting the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. Quite a hullabaloo ensued.
The museum was closed to the public on Mondays, and the painting's absence was noticed only on Tuesday when Louis Beroud arrived to continue his hobby of painting a copy of the original, an activity encouraged then by the Louvre. It was not immediately apparent that a theft had occurred, as the museum had no administrative process to track when paintings were removed from the galleries for photography or other purposes. AFter some checking with the photography department, it became apparent that innocent explanations for the absence were unlikely and the Paris police called in during the early afternoon. The theft was made easier because the Louvre did not securely fasten its pictures to the walls, so the picture and its protective case could be simply lifted from the wall. The picture's frame and the protective case were found in a service stairway. France's best crime scene investigator, Alphonse Bertillon, was called in and was able to lift a perfect thumbprint, from a left hand, off the frame.
This clue had no immediate effect on the investigation. Despite thoroughly searching the museum and interviewing and fingerprinting the staff, no further evidence was found. Thanks to a sort of prank carried out in the columns of a Paris newspaper, the Paris-Journal, a set of different thefts were uncovered, however. In return for cash, an anonymous thief turned over a statuette removed from the Louvre, and told the newspaper that he had stolen other small items and sold them to a painter friend. The art critic Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested for this theft, given away by the nom de plume used in the article, Baron Ignace d'Ormesan, the name of a character in collection of stories by Apollinaire. Most likely a former house guest (and lover?) of Apollinaire, Joseph Gery Peret, had stolen the items and Apollinaire had been aware of the thefts. Pablo Picasso, , Apollinaire's friend, was the painter referred to the article as the receiver of the stolen goods, one of which was represented in his Les Demoiselle d'Avignon. The police were however disappointed in their hope that Apollinaire and his coterie had been involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa.
The investigation came to a standstill. Nothing was learned of the whereabouts of the painting until Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian who had worked in the Louvre, attempted to sell the painting to the Italian art dealer Alfredo Geri in December 2013. Meeting Geri in his home city of Florence, Peruggia attempted to sell the painting to Geri on December 11. Geri and Uffizi museum director Giovanni Poggi instead called the police, after having removed the painting from Peruggia's hotel room under pretence of needing to take it to the Uffizi to make comparisons to ensure its authenticity.
Peruggia claimed to be motivated by Italian patriotism, stealing the Mona Lisa to get back at France in general and Napoleon in particular for stealing so much Italian art work a century earlier. Aside from the fact that the Mona Lisa arrived in France when Leonardo moved their at the invitation of the French monarch Francois I in 1516, various notes and letters of Peruggia, as well as the testimony of his family, suggest he was motivated by money. Peruggia should have been caught in France at the time of the theft; the police interviewed him as a former employee of the Louvre, but failed to search his room or note that he had a minor criminal record in France. The fingerprint on the frame would have been evidence that he was involved, but the print was from the left hand and at the time the French police used only the prints on the right hand to cross-reference their fingerprint records. Peruggia spent a little over half a year in an Italian prison, and afterwards was a solid citizen who served in the Italian army in the First World War, married, and returned to France to open a shop, dying in 1947.
It is unclear if Peruggia acted with more than the low-level assistance he eventually fingered. The author, R. A. Scotti, wonders if Peruggia would have thought of the theft on his own. In June 1932 the American journalist Karl Decker published a story in the Saturday Evening Post that said that 18 years earlier a rich Argentinean who went by the pseudonym Marques Eduardo de Valfierno had told Decker in Casablanca that he, Valfierno, had arranged the theft. Supposedly the point of the theft was that it made possible the sale of number of forgeries of the Mona Lisa to gullible but rich Americans, because without the original around there was no way to disprove the authenticity of the paintings. Presumably no one would compare the copies to each other because as each owner believed to be the possessor of the original, that would have been tantamount to being involved in the theft. Unfortunately for this excellent story, Decker during his long career, Decker is not a good source because during his longer career with the Hurst papers he had learned to fabric news when nothing interesting was going on, and there is no independent evidence for the existence of the Marques Eduardo de Valfierno. So we still don't know.
Owen makes the case that increasing efficiency is bad for the environment, because increasing efficiency is equivalent to lowering a price. When you l...moreOwen makes the case that increasing efficiency is bad for the environment, because increasing efficiency is equivalent to lowering a price. When you lower the price of something, people often either buy more of it, or use the money saved to buy something else. The notion is called Jevon's paradox, after the Victorian British economist who enunciated it.
Own intermixes this basic idea with a fair amount of what might be called ranting, against for example organic farming and locovore movement. His point is usually that these comparative expensive actions can have aide-effects, such as requiring more land for agriculture and thereby reducing land available for other species, and more importantly that these actions are distractions that will never ameliorate our most important environmental problem, climate change. However, I think he overdoes it, as I sometimes felt he was basically telling the other resto of the world to get off his lawn.(less)
Our collective attitude towards gold is odd. Although the stuff has few practical uses and hasn't been linked in any official way to currency since Pr...moreOur collective attitude towards gold is odd. Although the stuff has few practical uses and hasn't been linked in any official way to currency since President Richard Nixon took the United States off the gold standard embedded in the Bretton Woods accord, many still view it as a safe place to store wealth. If the price of the stuff wasn't so volatile, and if the stuff could be readily exchanged for everyday needs, that might be true. But it isn't.
Although Hart devotes a few pages to the place of gold in history and about stealing the stuff, he mainly describes current industrial gold mining.
Still, we are fascinated by the stuff, and the price has certainly increased greatly since Nixon's decision, prompting an increase in gold mining. Hart examines mining in South Africa, Nevada, China (Outer Mongolia), in the Congo and in Senegal. In the poorer countries industrial mining is always accompanied by small-scale mining as locals try to get in on the action. THis small-scale mining can be a form of theft, as when people in South Africa sneak into old, now unused, tunnels of industrial-scale mines and mine the remaining ore. Or locals may mine in the area around the big mine. Finding gold often seems to be in part a cat and mouse game, in which company geologists and local peoples scrutinize where each other has found or looked for gold.
The structure of "official" mining industry is divided into companies called juniors, who look for new gold deposits, and seniors, who exploit the deposits found by juniors. It is the goal of juniors to be bought out at the highest possible price by a senior. The financial center of gold mining is Toronto, which surprised me - I would have thought it was New York, or London, or maybe South Africa.
Extracting metallic gold from ore involves deadly chemicals. The favored industrial process requires cyanide; local, informal miners may use instead the older, less efficient process that involves mercury. Hence gold mining has the risk of serious environmental damage.(less)
The Detonators by sports journalist Chad Millman is one of the better books about German sabotage in the United States in the years before America bec...more The Detonators by sports journalist Chad Millman is one of the better books about German sabotage in the United States in the years before America became a belligerent in the First World War. The destruction of Black Tom, a spit of land in New Jersey on whose piers munitions were loaded for the British and French customers. The author’s skill is obvious when one considers that although most of the text is about the legal events before the Mixed Claims Commission during which the American plaintiffs attempted to gain compensation, he holds the readers interest.
The book is roughly divided into two unequal parts, the first of which is the doings of various German and German-American saboteurs and the second of which covers the many years in which the Mixed Claims Commission debated the need for compensation for the destruction of Black Tom.
The Germans were motivated to sabotage because the United States sold munitions to Britain, France, and Imperial Russia for years before the United States became a belligerent. More that the destruction of Black Tom is considered in the first part: the Germans managed to cause mid-ocean fires in many freighters, destroy several munitions plants, buy up some munitions to prevent their enemies from using them, create labor strife on the docks to disrupt shipments, and had some success in a brief episode of biological warfare during which they infected horses, and other draft animals purchased by Germany’s enemies, with anthrax or glanders. Oddly, the German lawyers representing their country before the Mixed Claims Commission had less trouble admitting to germ warfare than to setting fire to Black Tom.
The main character throughout most of the chapters on the legal events is John McCloy, who came to be the epitome of the American establishment during the Second World War and much of the Cold War. McCloy had grown up poor in Philadelphia after his father died during his childhood, but his mother was able to wrange enough upper-clas connections to get him into a boarding school, Amherst, and then anIvy League law school. Although his partners in his New York law firm for many years wondered why he was spending so much time on the case, ultimately it made his reputation. (less)
Richard M. Muller, a physics professor at University of California Berkeley, has written another book on science and national policy, this one focused...moreRichard M. Muller, a physics professor at University of California Berkeley, has written another book on science and national policy, this one focused on energy use. His previous book Physics for Future Presidents, had a broader scope. Topics covered include the 2011 nuclear accidents at Fukushima, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010, climate change, the recent group in natural gas and shale oil reserves from a combination of fracking and horizontal drizzling, energy productivity (aka efficiency), solar energy, storing energy by means of batteries, flywheels, capacitors, fuel cells and other means, nuclear power (fission and fusion,), biofuels, electric cars, and such alternative sources of energy as wind, hydrogen, geothermal, tides, and waves. He also includes a chapter towards the end on what energy is and a final chapter on his policy views, though most of these are obvious by the time you are get to the conclusion. Muller does recycle some of the material, and I think some of the wording, from his earlier book.
The first chapter is on the Fukushima accident. I am willing to believe Muller’s conclusion, based on calculations on how radiation effects cancer rates, that relatively few (perhaps a hundred, I believe) extra cancer deaths are likely to result from this accident. What I think Dr. Muller is missing is how much social disruption was required to keep the number that low, by moving people out of the most effected areas and by banning the consumption of various food products from the effected areas. I wonder how much of these areas are useable now. I don’t recall any accidents at conventional power plants that required this level of evacuation. In addition, Muller’s description of the accident seems misleading to me. On pages 14 and 15 he writes:
Unlike at Chernobyl, the reactor at Fukushima, did not explode> A buildup of hydrogen gas caused the upper building to explode, but the reactor itself survived the tsunami, turned itself off, and sat safely for several hours. Even though the chain reaction had stopped, there was enough radioactive material in the core to generate dangerous levels of heat, but cooling pumps initially kept the situation from getting out of hand. The most modern reactors don’t need these pumps; they are designed to use the natural convection of the water to keep it circulating. But the Fukushima reactor was not the most modern kind. It depended on auxiliary power systems to keep the pumps going.
Actually, as those who have read a bit of Lochbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan’s Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster know, there were several reactors at Fukushima. Two reactors had core melt-downs that resulted in hydrogen explosions that destroyed their containment buildings, and a third containment building blew up due to an explosion that seems to be associated with the heating up of spent nuclear fuel rods after the water in the cooling pool drained away due to the earthquake or tsunami damage. One of the reactors that had the core meltdown had a cooling system that was not entirely dependent on pumps to work, and anyway I don’t believe that the Fukushima reactors were much different from a design common in the United States, so I’m not sure I’d take much comfort from the knowledge that more modern designs don’t depend on pumps to circulate the cooling water.
In chapter 11 on fission reactors, Muller describes how conventional nuclear reactors work and advocates a particular design called a small modular nuclear reactor. Conventional reactors cannot explode like a nuclear bomb, because the uranium they contain is mostly the most commonly occurring isotope, Uranium-238. To make a nuclear bomb you need much more of the far less common isotope, Uranium-235. Given the low percentage of Uranium-235 in a typical nuclear reactor, it can at most explode with the force of an equal weight of TNT, which is what the Chernobyl reactor did in 1986 in the Ukraine. This explosion can create an ungodly mess of nuclear waste, particularly if like the Chernobyl reactor there is no containment building, but can’t duplicate the greater destruction of a nuclear bomb.
I think Muller’s advocacy of the modular nuclear reactor is ill-advised, for although this design doesn’t require pumps to keep the nuclear fuel sufficiently cool to prevent a meltdown, it does fuel enriched to about 20% Uranium-235. It is much easier for 20% enriched uranium to be further purified to make a bomb than it is to take the fuel used in a conventional reactor, enriched to perhaps 4%, and further enrich it to make a bomb. Muller seems to me to be very optimistic that it would be readily noticed that the nuclear fuel had been removed from a modular reactor, which are intended to buried underground and basically require no maintenance. I think that assumes that the government of the area containing the nuclear reactor isn't colluding with or instigating the theft. I preferred the pebble bed reactor that Muller advocated in his earlier book, which I don’t believe required such enriched fuel. With regard to nuclear waste, Muller thinks we should reverse the closure of Yucca Mountain and put it to use, rather than leaving waste scattered in cooling ponds across the country. I’m sympathetic, but I don’t think Yucca Mountain had a chance of being put to use even before it was officially closed due to the politics in Nevada.
Fusion is worth continuing research on, but isn’t going to be an energy source anytime soon, if ever.
Alternative energy sources are discussed in chapters 8, 9, 13, and 15: wind and solar are promising. Hydrogen, tidal power, and wave power are not promising, because the first is just a an energy storage technique which at present would require using natural gas as the source of the hydrogen, and the latter two have too little energy density to be readily captured. Geothermal is helpful in a few places, like Iceland, that have lots of geological activity, but in most of the world the energy density from geothermal is too low to be useful. Useful bio-fuels, not including corn ethanol which does nothing for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are conceivable but would take an awful lot of area to produce enough energy to be helpful in meeting current American consumption. Photovoltaic solar energy is promising, but using solar energy to heat fluids to generate electricity is not. Wind power is most readily available off-shore, a difficult environment to work in cost-effectively due to the corrosive quality of seawater, or on the Great Plains. A “smart-grid” to move electricity around the United States would be helpful in making wind power more useful.
With regard to climate change, Muller believes it is real (he felt the need to do his own analysis to convince himself) but believes that the contribution by the United States to the problem will be too small in the coming century for us to do much about it on our own. Most of the additional greenhouse gasses in the coming century will come from what is now the developing world. Muller advocates helping developing countries, such as China, make use of fracking and horizontal drilling technologies so that they can burn more natural gas and less coal, because coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit energy. Muller thinks that the potential water pollution due to fluids used in and resulting from fracking should be dealt with by the straightforward regulatory requirement that the water from fracking be purified to the extent that it is potable. I wonder if any developing country will be willing to do anything about climate change if we won’t. Of course, any attempt by the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not guarantee that other nations will make a similar effort.
Chapter 7, on energy productivity has interesting points but has one flaw, an insufficient concern with Jevons’s paradox (sometimes called “blowback”: neither term is in the index). Muller usually shows how more reflective roofs, more efficient light bulbs, and energy-efficient refrigerators could reduce energy use. He doesn’t always show that they have done so. Jevons’s paradox is that increased efficiency can go hand-in –hand with more energy use, either on the service in question or more generally, because increased efficiency is equivalent to a lower unit price, thus leaving people with more money to spend on other energy-using things. The controversial aspects regarding Jevons’s paradox are 1) how frequently it occurs, and 2) if it is a causal relationship or just a correlation. Muller appears to be aware of the issue, considering how he describes the program encouraging California electric utilities to reduce power consumption monitors usage, not just efficiency, but I don’t think he appreciates how big the problem can be. For example, his discussion of energy-efficient refrigerators doesn’t appear to get at the question of whether or not we are refrigerating a bigger volume collectively, and if our total energy use devoted to this sector has increased , decreased, or stayed the same: he seems to discuss only efficiency per unit volume. Muller believes that increasing energy productivity is the most important policy issue to focus on. I can see this being helpful, but I suspect that Jevons’s paradox indicates that efficiency alone won’t reduce overall consumption.
Muller really dislikes electric cars. He likes hybrids, but electric-only or plug-in hybrids he abhors, because 1) batteries can only be recharged about 500 times before they need to be replaced, 2) replacement batteries for all-electric vehicles are very expensive, at least $40 per pound, and 3) if the battery is recharged from power than comes from a coal plant you aren’t reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Once you include the cost of replacing the battery, the operating costs of an all-electric vehicle are high. The same is not true for a hybrid such as the Prius, because the battery is much smaller, is recharged by capturing energy that would otherwise be wasted heating up the brakes, and anyway the battery is used less. Muller is not optimistic that we can expect quick improvements in batteries: the chemistry is well-known, what is needed is an understanding what is going on at the nano-scale so that the number of recharges can be increased, thereby reducing the number of replacements needed.
I found the second chapter, on the gulf oil spill of 2011, the weakest of the lot. Muller primarily complains that politicians exaggerated the scale of the disaster and that the moratorium on drilling on off-shore drilling, and that the size of the area where fishing was banned was excessive. There are only 3 references for this chapter, all to newspaper articles. I don’t necessarily disagree with his points, but there seems in this chapter to be little material a scientist, particularly one who is not a marine biologist, can usefully comment to enlarge the reader’s understanding of these issues. As the point of the book is to show how science can inform public policy, I think this chapter should have been edited out.
I preferred Muller’s earlier book, Physics for Future Presidents, because it generally gave the reader greater insight into the relevant scientific principles and facts for evaluating these issues, principles and facts that could be used by the reader in evaluating arguments given by other authors. Sometimes Energy for Future Presidents also does this, especially in the chapter on solar power, but generally to a lesser extent than the earlier book. After the first two weak chapters, the material in Energy for Future Presidents is generally quite informative. I think the author often seems oblivious to environmental concerns beyond climate change; there is nary a word about how different policy choices might affect biodiversity, for example. (less)
The seven elements the author, a former BP executive, discusses are iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon. Iron, carbon, and sili...more The seven elements the author, a former BP executive, discusses are iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium, and silicon. Iron, carbon, and silicon are central to developed economies today and gold used to be the basis for many monetary systems in the western world. Iron is the basis for much of the infrastructure, as since the mid nineteenth century steel can be manufactured inexpensively and is a material strong both in compression and tension, and isn't brittle. Carbon, in the form of coal, oil, or natural gas, is the basis for most of the energy we use.
Silicon has been important for longer than one might first realize, because it is the basis for glass as well as computer chips. The invention of telescopes supported challenges against the prevailing Aristotelian view of the universe and eventually resulted in changes in how we view our relationship to the universe. Silicon first became important in electronics in the form of transistors, as a replacement for unreliable and power-hungry vacuum tubes. The miniaturization of these transistors and their combination with other electronic devices as integrated circuits on tiny wafers of silicon made possible the spread of computers, including the miniature variety known as the smart phone. The semiconductor properties of silicon are also the basis for photovoltaic cells.
Gold first attracted the attention of humanity for religious reasons, by a process of associative reasoning. Gold resembles the color of the disk of the sun, and does not tarnish; consequently it was often viewed as having divine qualities among widely scattered cultures. The use of gold as money was important in the western world for millennia; the monetization of gold in the western world had terrible consequences for non-western peoples, because this use of gold encouraged a ruthlessness in acquiring it not seen in cultures that valued gold artistically and religiously but not in a monetary sense.
Silver was also important in monetary systems, as a basis for small change. In societies which used both silver and gold as money, the varying relative supply of these two metals resulted in monetary crises when the official exchange rate between the two metals at the national mint did not correspond to the relative market valuations, an inconsistency which led to one or other metal being either exported or horded. Until digital photography became common, silver was essential to photography, and the development of photography from about 1840 onwards was the basis for important aspects of mass media, such as cinema.
The use of titanium and uranium have changed the world, but have not become ubiquitous in everyday life, as once was expected. Uranium is of course needed to produce nuclear weapons, and thus has modified our politics. The use of nuclear power to generate electricity has not become as commonplace as was expected several decades ago, due to both cost and safety concerns. Titanium is useful in extreme aerospace applications, such as the Blackbird spy plane (and hip replacements.). The high cost of smelting the stuff has kept the use of titanium metal more restricted than was once expected. Titanium dioxide, however, is ubiquitous: it’s used to make white paint. (less)
The materials discussed in this short book by the British materials scientist Mark Miodownik are steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, gla...moreThe materials discussed in this short book by the British materials scientist Mark Miodownik are steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain, and the broader topic of implants, such as hip replacements. There is also a summary chapter that proposes a hierarchical spatial scale, from atoms to objects visible with the unassisted eye, as a way of categorizing how aspects of one scale do, or do not, affect our sensory experience of objects. One principle that is most obvious in the chapter on graphite is that just knowing the chemical composition of an object is not enough to predict its properties. Graphite and diamond are both made of carbon, but have very different properties. It appears that the structure at the molecular scale is more informative; whether or not the material is a crystal (like steel or cocoa butter, and, if I understand rightly, cured concrete and porcelain) or not (like glass), what kinds of crystal structures the material can form (very important for the cocoa butter component of chocolate), and the imperfections in the crystal structures, such as in steel. Some materials, like the protein collagen that is an important part of one's all too fallible bone joints, are suspended in a sort of open skeleton like a foam. In the summary chapter Miodownik explains that a reason for the current technical interest in nanoparticles is that these structures, generally composed of about a 100 atoms, are capable of self-assembly due to the greater relative strength of electrostatic forces compared with gravity for such small objects. The ability to engineer materials at such small scale, combined with their ability to self-assemble, , opens the possibility for materials that act more like biological cells. Miodownik is very aware of the sensual properties of materials (the chapters on chocolate and surprisingly paper attest to this), but discusses only fleetingly the environmental consequences of our choices in which materials to use.(less)
Edward Dolnick has written a good popular history of the 17th century development of modern physics (laws of motion and gravity), the part of mathemat...moreEdward Dolnick has written a good popular history of the 17th century development of modern physics (laws of motion and gravity), the part of mathematics called calculus, and astronomy. I would say the sub-title is a bit misleading, as the Royal Society as a group doesn't have much to do with most the story, although several of the individuals involved, such as Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were members.
The story starts more or less with Nicolaus Copernicus, whose 1543 book proposed a sun-centered universe (the universe was smaller those days) to replace the Earth-centered one devised by Claudius Ptolemy more than a millenium earlier. Copernicus did not have observations indicating that his was the superior model, nor did it make better predictions - his motivation was aesthetic, in that his model reduced the number of the circles on circles (epicycles) needed to account for apparent motion of the planets as seen from earth. Such complexity was needed to account for the apparent reversal of direction of the planets motions, as seen from earth, when using only circles to make up the orbits. Both Ptolemy and Copernicus used only circles, which had been deemed since the ancient Greeks as the most perfect two-dimensional geometrical form. Copernicus also couldn't explain why we don't notice the motions of a moving earth.
Galileo did answer that question, when he showed that moving at a constant speed is indistinguishable from not moving at all, without external cues. You can still pour water into a cup on a moving jetliner, despite you, the cup, and the water are all moving several hundred miles an hour with respect to a point on the earth.
Galileo also argued, correctly as it turned out, that objects (in the absence of air resistance) fall at the same speed, regardless of their weight. His argument required generalizing from experiments rolling balls down and up ramps, because in the absence of accurate clocks the time that dropped objects spent falling was too brief to measure.
In astronomy Galileo was one of the first to point a telescope at the sky. His discovery of moons around Jupiter indicated that not all objects orbited the earth, providing a possible analogy for the earth orbiting the sun. His discovery that the moon was not a perfectly smooth ball, and that the sun had spots, suggested that celestial objects were just as imperfect as the earth had been deemed to be by Aristotle, and that therefore celestial objects and the earth were made of the same stuff.
Galileo was a Copernican who stuck with the notion of circular orbits. It took the strange genius of Johannes Kepler to find that elliptical orbits with the sun at one focus better fit the data (Kepler had the best, from Tycho Brahe). This result means that planets are not a constant distance from the sun. Kepler also found some odd results that were later of use by Newton in working out his theory of gravity, such as that planets "sweep out" equal areas of their elliptical orbit no matter how close or far from the sun they happen to be - I believe that result indicates that the planets are moving faster when they are closer to the sun than further away. This means that planets further out from the sun not only have a bigger path to complete one orbit, but that they are moving more slowly when they do so. Kepler also found that the square of the period (the time needed to orbit the sun once, times itself) is proportional to the cube (multiply something by itself twice) of the planet's distance from the sun.
Kepler buried these useful results in a larger quantity of mathematical mysticism. For a while he though that the planets orbits could be enclosed within certain regular three-dimensional geometric objects called the Platonic solids. There are only a few possible Platonic solids, the number of which happened to match up with the number of planets then known. He tried to figure out what notes the music of the spheres was playing. So later scholars had to go through much dross to find the gold.
Finding a way to describe planetary motions and describe a cause (gravity) required the development of new mathematics, calculus. Calculus can be used to describe speed and acceleration, and also to calculate areas and volumes. The ancient Greeks had not been much concerned with motion, as they saw it as in some sense imperfect and unnatural. They also shied away from notions of infinity, with which the mathematical logic behind calculus becomes enmeshed. Dolnick does a good job describing the logic behind calculs when applied to motion, using graphs rather than equations. He also correctly points out that calculus was put on firm logical foundations long (about 150 years) after it was invented. To the scholars of the 17th century, it was too useful an idea to worry overmuch about its logical foundations.
The development of calculus brought about a nasty priority dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over who discovered it. They seem to have discovered it independently of one another, with Newton discovering it first about 1665, but Leibniz publishing long before Newton, in 1684 - Leibniz starting working on the problem in 1675. In the early 18th century, after decades of anonymous sniping about who was first, Leibniz made the mistake of appealing to the Royal Society to adjudicate the dispute. Newton had become president of the Royal Society, and he used his position to make sure that the investigating commission came out firmly on his side and that the report included charges of plagiarism against Leibniz. Newton had also taken the opportunity when he became president to make sure that the only portrait of Robert Hooke, a detested rival (with some reason) of Newton disappeared, Hooke having died previously to Newton accession.
One of the reasons for Newton's dislike of Hooke was a priority dispute between them over who had thought of the idea that the force of gravity diminishes as the square of the distance (say from the sun to the earth) between two objects. Hooke possibly may have thought of it first, but Newton was definitely the one who worked out the mathematical logic and consequences of this statement in his 1687 Mathematica. Hooke and Newton had already clashed over Newton's discovery that white light is in fact a mixture of many colors. Nor was Newton the only one who suffered from Hooke claiming that he had been there first.
Dolnick nicely describes the motivations of the earliest scientists, and how their views differed from the common opinions of their time, and ours. This material was the most interesting to me, as it was the least familiar. The primary intellectual motivation behind their work was that the universe had been designed by a perfect, all-knowing Christian God who would not have created a disorderly universe. This belief kept the early scientists plugging away dispute the considerable difficulty in finding any simple pattern in the data. This rock-solid theological conviction is probably uncommon in current-day scientists. The search for patterns also encouraged them to strip away complexities, like air resistance, when needed to find a "deeper" truth - and I'd agree that in a sense they had found deeper truths. The early scientists differed from their contemporaries in being unwilling to settle for arguments by authority, such as the works of Aristotle or Ptolemy. Thier emphasis on experiment, which involves manipulation of the material, as opposed to simple observation also distinguished them from the common opinion of their time.
Marchant writes about what happened to the mummy after it was re-located by Howard Carter in 1923. It hasn't been pretty. The autopsy conducted just a...moreMarchant writes about what happened to the mummy after it was re-located by Howard Carter in 1923. It hasn't been pretty. The autopsy conducted just after Carter reopened the tomb involved among other things cutting the body in two through the backbone, a fact that was not exactly advertised in the publications about the autopsy, though recorded in the doctor's notes. The body was returned to the tomb in the Valley of the Kings across the Nile from Luxor, where it remains, but thieves probably disturbed the body during the Second World War and it take many decades to place it in a climate-controlled case, which is unfortunate because the moisture from the breath many visitors to the tomb caused some additional decay. Since then it has been X-rayed at least a couple of times, and DNA samples have been taken. The results of the DNA sampling has been controversial, as it turns out that the scientists who sample ancient DNA are divided into two separate camps, one of which doesn't believe that any DNA could survive in the environmental conditions of Egypt and that the results reflect contamination from other sources of human DNA, the latter a problem that plagued the early (1980s) results from sampling ancient human DNA. One important fact that tends to be left out of most accounts is that it has been known since 1923 that a large chunk of King Tut's chest was missing, perhaps the result of an accident or injury that caused his death.(less)
Since he was a child, archaeologist Bob Bier was a collector. He collected stamps and baseball cards, but the focus was more on organizing his collect...moreSince he was a child, archaeologist Bob Bier was a collector. He collected stamps and baseball cards, but the focus was more on organizing his collections than on the objects themselves. With his research on Egypt, there was an obvious focus for collecting as an adult, but there is a problem: it is no longer acceptable for an archaeologist to collect artifacts, hasn't been for decades. But he and his spouse found an alternative: collecting stuff showing the interest western culture has had in ancient Egypt. This interest was present at least as far back as ancient Rome, but Bier focuses on more recent centuries. The variety of items he found surprised me: sheet music about mummies (more usually a lament for an absent partner than something intended to frighten, cigarette packets, cigar boxes, cigarette cases, cigarette lighters, breakfast cereal (Kamut Flakes, available at Trader Joe's), candy (yummy mummies), cologne, party mix, china, and jewelry. In addition to this there are newspaper articles about Egyptology, books about ancient Egypt, museum displays of artifacts,and of course movies.
The production of these items tends to increase when ancient Egypt becomes news. My impression is that the 21 volume French book, Description de l'Egypte, based upon the information collected by the scholars Napoleon brought along during his 1798 invasion, is what set off the fairly sustained interest over the last two centuries. Besides producing a well-illustrated book, the invasion also made the Rosetta Stone known to the west, providing Thomas Young and especially Jean-Francois Champollion the material needed to decipher the hieroglyphs in the early nineteenth centThe ury.
The press not only covered archaeological work, but also covered the odd habit of westerners of taking ancient Egyptian obelisks and moving them to their home countries. Ancient Rome had already done this, but we don't know how. The first well-documented moving of an obelisk seems to be the 1556 transport of an obelisk brought to Rome in classical times and then moved by Domenico Fontana from outside the old St. Peter's Basilica to the site of the new St. Peter's Basilica. In the nineteenth century obelisks were removed from Egypt to Paris, London, and New York City, the one going to London briefly lost at sea when it detached from the ship towing the obelisk while it was encased in a buoyant caisson. In the nineteenth the London Illustrated News is apparently an excellent source for information about such doings, as well as for archaeological coverage, so Bier has been collecting old issues. I don't understand the motivation for moving obelisks, but I am impressed by the effort and ingenuity required to do so.
The final portion of the book is mainly devoted to movies, and to the various Tutankhamen tours; to the latter we owe such contributions as Egyptian-themed cologne and party mix. Of the movies, the one that caught my interest was the 1966 Polish film (available with English subtitles) Faraon, which focuses on a usurpation at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty in the New Kingdom. The others seem to be largely mummy movies or about Cleopatra (the Elizabeth Taylor one nearly bankrupt Fox), neither of which are of much interest to me. However, both subjects have been filmed over several decades, with a commercially successful silent version of Cleopatra featuring Theda Bara filmed in 1917, so I may well be in a minority here.
My favorite item made use of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of spells with illustrations intended to aid in the rebirth of the dead. The item in question is a 24-carat gold cigarette case (plate 18) marketed to female smokers in the 1920s. Given the dangerous nature of the smoking habit, I think there is something fitting about embossing a cigarette case with scenes intended to aid in one's rebirth, as smokers may be in more immediate need of such aid than the rest of us.
The book includes 46 color plates, some black and white illustrations, notes, a bibliography, and an index.(less)
I have very mixed feelings about this book, and learned much from it. The authors write well. They have interviewed experts in the field and taken car...moreI have very mixed feelings about this book, and learned much from it. The authors write well. They have interviewed experts in the field and taken care to consult the empirical studies of these scholars. Below I discuss some of what I learned (in roughly chronological order) and then what I disliked. Though the authors discussed the usefulness of teaching children self-control as a way to improve their academic performance (a most interesting chapter), and the doubtful usefulness of positive psychology exercises in improving children’s moods, I can think of little to say about these matters and will not discuss them.
What I learned
Praise can have detrimental effects on children. In order to continue receiving praise, children may avoid attempting activities that they doubt they are good at, or may cheat to keep up the good results. Children can perceive praise as manipulative, while adults, particularly adults in white-collar professions are likely to take it at face value and will increase their efforts in response to praise. I think the kids have a point regarding the motivations for giving praise. Useful praise is specific, and perhaps more focused on effort than telling the child what a genius he or she is. Parents appear to use praise as an ill-judged means of letting their children know that they are loved.
Children lie, while being opposed to lying. The authors appear to include an economy of candor, as well as outright falsehoods, in their definition of lying. As they age from about three to about six, their lying gets better, as their cognitive and social skills increase. Young children will lie to avoid punishment, while a primary motivation for teenagers lying to their parents is to avoid harming the relationship, with fear of punishment a lesser concern. Young children perceive lying as an deviation from the precise truth, regardless of whether this deviation was intentional or accidental. Parents say they are against lying, but invariably they unconsciously teach children to lie by their use of lies to spare the feelings of others. Because children don’t necessarily understand the motivation for such lies, they tend to take it as carte blanche to lie in general. Parents also generally don’t punish an offense plus lying any more harshly than the same offense without lying, so the children have no incentive not to lie. In setting standards for behavior, parents should probably try to avoid as much as possible putting their children in the position either lying or being punished.
A related matter is whether or not teenagers are being disrespectful when arguing with their parents; they see themselves as being respectful when arguing, since they are being open about being in conflict. If teenagers aren’t arguing, it may be because they are lying; teenagers tend to see arguing and lying, not truth-telling and lying, as the essential dichotomy.
With regard to disciplining children, it appears that whether or corporal punishment results in behavioral problems depends upon the context and spirit in which it is given. In families where corporal punishment is a routine way of correcting behavior, its use does not cause behavioral problems. Corporal punishment does cause behavioral problems when it is used in a context where it suggests that the child is considered beyond the pale of civilized society. Thus paradoxically corporal punishment is likely to result in bad effects when it is used by an angry parent who does not generally apply corporal punishment, because its use in this context suggests to the child that he or she is being drummed out of the family. With regard to means, I assume that the authors are talking about a spanking or something of similar impact, rather than something clearly abusive, like tying up the kid and leaving he or she in a closet without food or water for days at a time.
More generally, it appears (unsurprisingly) that effective discipline consists of having a relatively small number of rules and punishing infractions consistently. Making lots of rules that you don’t enforce doesn’t improve behavior, it just leads to more lying.
IQ tests don’t give stable results until the children reach about the beginning of third grade. What this means is that IQ tests given before then will not predictive of future performance, while those given in the third grade or after are likely to be predictive of future performance. This has considerable implications for gifted programs, which often accept children at a young age but don’t retest them; many of the children accepted aren’t actually gifted. The authors advocate waiting until the children’s scores are stable before making admission decisions. They also appear to advocate kicking out the kids who turn out not to be gifted; I wouldn’t want to be the one making such decisions, because the parents of the effected children will be very vocal in their displeasure. The authors say that modern IQ tests lack the class and racial biases in their actual procedures that earlier test have; I strongly suspect that the tests will nonetheless still disproportionately pick out the whiter and richer children as being gifted, due not necessarily to anything in the test but rather to more subtle benefits of the more comfortable and richer home environment that these children are likely to experience.
Just putting children in a racially diverse environment (say at school) will not lead them to grow up without racial prejudice. It may even increase prejudice, and typically the children will self-segregate by race. The latter point was hardly a surprise to me, as a white guy who went to a public high school after the system was forced to desegregate. I would add that my impression was the relatively academically advanced classes I took had far fewer African-Americans than did the school population as a whole. It appears that children quickly notice differences in skin color and categorize people by this difference. If the parent’s objective is to teach their children not be prejudiced, they should not pretend that racial categorizations don’t exist, but rather discuss them with their children. A fear of bringing up the issue is much more likely to be true of white parents as opposed to African-American or Latino parents.
If you want your children to not grow fat and do well in school, the best thing you can do is to make sure they get lots of sleep. Despite the common belief, television viewing is not correlated with obesity. Sleep deprivation is. Because teenagers become sleepy later than either younger children or adults (something about differences in the timing in melatonin levels in response to darkness seems to be the biochemical mechanism here, it would be helpful for more high schools to start classes later.
When learning to talk or increasing their vocabulary, how the parents respond to vocalizations or words is more important than the richness of the parent’s vocabulary. By encouraging children who vocalize, gradually focusing on new words and avoiding reinforcement of some of the less meaningful vocalizations, parents can increase the speed at which children start to talk and the richness of their vocabulary. Also, children do not learn words or sounds by voice alone, but often in association with what they see. They may be focusing on an adult’s face; lip-reading appears to important in developing vocalizations that will be used in sounding out words. When teaching children (for ages up to early toddler status I think) the name of an object, care-givers can speed up the process by moving the object around while repeating the name in a sing-song voice. Children who learn vocabulary more slowly can sometimes make up the difference with their quicker-learning peers in later years.
Empathy is not a end in itself, it is a means of improving ones’ social standing, just as excluding others, verbal abuse, or violence can be. The most empathetic teenagers are also often the ones most likely to be socially (clique formation) or verbally cruel, and are also generally the most popular. That these behaviors are interlinked means that “no tolerance” policies at schools can backfire, by removing those who are simultaneously most capable of empathy as well as cruelty. and are unlikely to be enforced anyway because the teachers like these kids too.
I do think the point the authors make in their conclusion, that practices that benefit adults cannot be assumed to be helpful to children, is an excellent one. The example they use are such “positive psychology” exercises such as keeping a gratitude diary.
What I disliked
Book appears to be basically aimed at upper-middle class folks and focuses on their concerns. There is discussion of pre-schools with waiting lists that give IQ tests to prospective students, programs for gifted children (who often aren’t), teenagers with multiple after-school activities, and a great concern about getting into prestigious colleges. As the parenting in this stratum doesn’t appear from the authors’ own text to be on balance better that parents from other classes, I’m not sure why the concerns of the upper middle-class should be emphasized. There is hardly a mention of day care (they do mention in passing the cognitive benefits of quality day care; good luck finding any, especially quality day care that most parents can afford), or that working class mothers may be leaving their six-week-old infants in day care. With regard to racial matters, there is no mention of the considerable residential racial segregation in America, and the consequent segregation of public schools in different districts. There is not enough discussion of ordinary children in ordinary schools. Also the authors appear to take the parents suspiciously appropriate responses regarding what non-prejudicial racial attitudes they want to inculcate, the value they place on honesty, and so forth at face value, a decision I question.
I thought that a naiveté marked much of the tone of the writing: the authors are shocked that children would lie, that they might enjoy drinking alcohol to excess, having sex, or trying illegal drugs, that they would change their behavior in possibly detrimental ways to receive praise, or that children would be emotionally manipulative to advance their social status among their peers. The authors appear to regard children rather like delicate pottery, likely to shatter at the least disturbance. Hence the need to make sure you teach your children vocabulary in the best way, praise them properly, and so on, lest they be permanently damaged. Now, I would agree that it is desirable to discourage your teenager daughter from sneaking so she can drink until she blacks out and have unprotected sex (the habits of one honors student, one of the few voices from a poorer family), but the angst regarding much of the other issues to me seems exaggerated. As it seems to me that most children grow up to be tolerable adults, I find this difficult to believe. In general, I would like to know if any of the recommended procedures actually result in better adults; I don’t care if test scores a few years later in elementary or middle school are better. (less)
I haven’t read much about the Kennedy assassination, and probably won’t in the future. Part of the reason is that I’m not convinced he was a particula...moreI haven’t read much about the Kennedy assassination, and probably won’t in the future. Part of the reason is that I’m not convinced he was a particularly good president. I found A Cruel and Shocking Act by Philip Shenon interesting, but wouldn’t pretend I’m well-versed with the controversies.
I think it is generally agreed that John F. Kennedy was killed by gunshots on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas. The controversies have been about whether Lee Harvey Oswald, former Marine, would-be defector to the Soviet Union, and current employee of the Texas Book Depository, the building of which is (was?) located on the plaza did the deed, if there were other shooters, and if someone put him up to it. Potential members of the conspiracy that have been bruited about include the Soviet Union, Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Cuban Government, anti-Castro Cubans angry about Kennedy’s actions in relation to the Bay of Pigs, and I think also the FBI or CIA.
The Warren commission was set up to investigate the assassination of Kennedy in order to put to rest the various rumors that quickly sprung up regarding the circumstances and participants in his killing, an ironic motive given future events. It began roughly in December 1963 and finished up its work in the fall of 1964, Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren began looking for staff in 1963, but the commission didn’t really get started until early 1964. The other commissioners were Representative Hale Boggs, Senator Richard B. Russell, Representative Gerald Ford, Senator John Sherman Cooper, John J. McCloy, and former CIA director Allen Dulles. Aside from Warren, Ford was the hardest-working of the commissioners.
The heart of the book is how the Warren Commission assembled its evidence, and the constraints on the collection of the evidence. The commissioners themselves did little of the evidence collecting, evaluating, or report writing. That was left to generally young attorneys, who were paired with older attorneys who sometimes contributed to the work, but in other instances did not. With the exception of one of the senior attorneys, the African-American William Coleman, and one of the junior attorneys, Alfredda Scobey, the professional staff appear to have been all white men. The concentration of Yale and Harvard law school graduates was almost comical. Among the junior lawyers, David Belin was responsible for identifying the assassin, Arlen Specter compiled the time line of the events on November 22, 1963, David Slawson examined the possibility of a foreign conspiracy, Melvin Eisenberg became the commission’s criminologist by reading many a textbook, and Burt Griffin was on the neglected team looking into Jack Ruby.
Earl Warren’s determination to get the commission’s work done quickly and his desire to spare the Kennedy family the need to formally testify regarding their experiences were the cause of many of the failings of the commission’s report. In particular, Jacqueline Kennedy was not interviewed promptly, even though she was telling her story to many other people in gruesome detail, and when she was interviewed it was Earl Warren himself rather than the appropriate staff member, Arlen Specter. The failure to have President Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy testify were also failings. Warren was inclined to the “lone gunman” theory, but I don’t think he was so strongly inclined that he would have covered up strong evidence of a conspiracy. The younger lawyers were generally hoping to find a conspiracy because finding one would burnish their careers. Warren kept a distant relation with the younger attorneys, generally working though the commissions ‘s general counsel, J. Lee Rankin, and there was a fair amount of friction between Warren and the legal staff.
Rankin was inadvertently responsible for a major controversy among the commission’s members, in that he hired his acquaintance Norman Redlich, a professor specializing in tax law at New York University, to be the main author of the report. Redlich had been a member of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, an organization the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee considered a subversive Communist-front organization. Rankin hadn’t known this and Redlich hadn’t volunteered it. Commissioner Gerald Ford tried unsuccessfully to get Redlich fired.
The evidence regarding what happened almost immediately began to be poorly collected. The autopsy was conducted at the Bethesda Naval Hospital by 3 pathologists, James Humes, J. Thronton Boswell, and Pierre Fink, two of whom (including the lead, Humes) had no experience in pathology as a branch of forensic science. Fink was the only one with such expertire. The Navy in general didn’t have this sort of expertise, which I don’t see how Jacqueline Kennedy could have known when she decided to go with Bethesda rather than the Army’s Walter Reed because Kennedy had been a naval officer. In addition, the doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas who operated on Kennedy created confusion when their recorded remarks which weren’t always consistent with the findings of the autopsy, in particular with respect to where the first bullet entered Kennedy, from the front or from the back (the emergency room doctors never turned over the body, which is the reason they thought it came from the front). The fact that the remarks of the emergency room doctors were recorded, but that the commission’s report didn’t always go along with them, is one of the reasons for the controversies over the commission’s report. Just to make things much worse, James Humes burned his original notes when he compiled his final report (his given reasons being they were covered with blood and he didn’t want them to become souvenirs), and Earl Warren wouldn’t let the relevant commission staff, principally the future senator Arlen Specter, examine the X-ray films and photographs taken during the autopsy.
The hypothesis of a second gunman on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza gets short shrift. First, no cartridge cases or other evidence was found there. Secondly, although the Zapruder film does show Kennedy’s head snapping back, as simple physics would suggest would happen if shot from his front (such as from the grassy knoll) rather than from behind and above (the book depository), apparently there is more than simple physics involved. Basically, the argument for discounting back snap of the head as evidence that the shot was from in front is that the body still has working muscles and nerves that could cause the backward snap even though the shot came from the “wrong” direction: Arlen Specter was reminded of the chickens his father killed, whose bodies still squirmed after they were beheaded. Basically, the idea of a single shooter in the book depository is plausible.
Army tests on anesthetized goats and human cadavers lent support to the commission’s single bullet hypothesis, the idea that the first bullet that hit Kennedy passed through his throat and then struck Texas governor Connally, Basically the tests showed that a single bullet could pass through one body and still have enough residual momentum to go through another one. In this case, FBI notes during the autopsy, recording what apparently was speculation by the pathologists rather than fact, are responsible for some of the controversies regarding this matter.
I think that these days the idea of conflicting eyewitness testimony would be less surprising, because we can see it in real time. The conflicting information that comes out during a school shooting or say the Boston bombing is now a common phenomena. There certainly was plenty of conflicting testimony, regarding the number of shots heard, for example, and one person on the railroad bridge was sure he had seen someone firing a weapon from the grassy knoll.
So is the Warren report without major flaw? Well, no. The possibility that Oswald was involved in a foreign conspiracy was not explored well enough. In the decades that have passed since the report, enough has leaked out regarding the doings of Oswald in Mexico City to at least make the idea of a conspiracy possible. The reason this wasn’t known at the time was that both the CIA and the FBI were economical with their reporting to the Warren Commission, economical to the point of lying. Both the CIA and the FBI had at different times had had Oswald under surveillance. Sometimes they may have just lied, but my impression is that not telling the commission things that would just bother it was their main tactic. In addition, they placed obstacles in the way of interviewing an important witness, Silvia Duran. Duran was (and is) a Mexican citizen who at the time worked at the Cuban embassy and assisted Oswald in his efforts to obtain a visa. She also allegedly (and most probably) went on some dates with Oswald, as Mexican author Elena Garro and her daughter Helen attested to shortly after the assassination. Duran was married at the time, the sort of information the FBI always liked to know. She was arrested by the Mexican police and beaten up during their interrogation of her regarding Oswald, The commission staff got a summary of her interrogation but, as mentioned above, didn’t get to interview her in Mexico. These obstacles might not have mattered had Earl Warren allowed the witness to be flown the United States to testify, but he forbad it – not sure what his reason were.
If the CIA and FBI had been more energetic, the assassination might haven thwarted. While in Mexico City in the fall of 1963, Oswald not only entered both the Soviet and Cuban embassies, he also appears to have declared in the Cuban embassy (without Cuban prompting) that he intended to kill Kennedy. In the Soviet embassy he met with a KGB agent (who posed as a diplomat) who specialized in assassinations. The CIA station operating out of the American embassy in Mexico City apparently had pertinent photograph evidence and audio tapes (from wire taps of various phones, I think mainly or exclusively in the Cuban embassy) relating to Oswald. All of this information, that the CIA station ought to have encouraged more speed in their reporting they could have let the Secret Service watch out for this guy, particularly as the FBI office in Dallas kept an eye on Oswald because of his Marxism and because he had lived in the Soviet Union, having gone there with the intention of renouncing his American citizenship (he changed his mind.)
My basic sense was that Oswald might have received encouragement, more likely from the Cubans, but he probably decided on the assassination on his own. There is also some evidence that the Cuban’s thought he was crazy. I’m more skeptical of Soviet involvement, mainly because I don’t see what they would have had to gain. The meeting in the Soviet embassy is definitely suspicious, but apparently spies have to do real diplomat work to keep their cover and perhaps meeting unstable people was part of his job. You could see the bad reporting by the CIA and FBI as intentionally hoping that Kennedy would get killed, but I have my doubts given that although the Agency didn’t get the support from Kennedy that it wanted during the Bay of Pigs, he was encouraging the CIA to assassinate Castro and in general my impression is that he expanded rather than diminished the CIA’s mission and budget. As for the FBI, it seems to me that Hoover would have used more subtle means, with all the unflattering material on JFK he possessed and could have used to discredit the President.
With regard to the commission’s work, the lack of transparency (to put it kindly) from the CIA and FBI had two effects. First, it reduced the attention given to the possibility of a conspiracy. Second, it shielded the two organizations from more searching criticism, in particular the CIA which received no criticism in the report. The FBI was criticized in the report, which Hoover complained about publicly but in private agreed with, disciplining a number of agents even before the report came out (and repeating the exercise when it was published).
Robert Kennedy also was not forthcoming (again putting it kindly) with the commission. He had supervised the various plots against Castro, but never mentioned them to the commission. These attempts to assassinate Castro would have been, had the commission known about them, an obvious motive for Cuban support of an assassination attempt. And of course commissioner Allen Dulles would have known something about these matters as well, and never spoke up.
Some of the central witnesses didn’t help either. Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s Russian-born wife, was economical with the truth, not mentioning to investigators that Oswald had already tried to kill retired army general, and John Birch Society member, Edwin Walker by shooting at him, and had also thought of assassinating Nixon. She only spoke up about these matters when other witnesses told the commission that she had mentioned these events to them. Lee Harvey’s mother, Marguerite Oswald, seems to have been a fantasist seeking attention and book contracts. Marina and Marguerite together destroyed some photos showing him holding his rifle, the pistol used to kill Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit, and some left-wing newspapers on the day after the assassination, Saturday November 23, 1963.
As an organization, I think the Warren commission suffered from the following short-comings. I do not include here the failure to ferret out what the CIA and FBI were not telling them, because I don’t know how an outside body could make them be candid in the absence of continuous and overwhelming presidential support. The main failings were trying to get things done quickly, and too small a staff. With regard to the former, not only were loose ends unnecessarily left untied due to the lack of time, but there was the knock-on effect of staff leaving before the report was done, because they had originally told their law firms. The staff was drawn from too narrow a stratum; the lawyers should have been leavened with former police and a forensic pathologist. Also, I suspect that having so many Ivy-League lawyers probably contributed to the unjustly high opinion of the CIA among the staff, as my impression is that CIA officers were drawn from a similar background. The less elevated origins of FBI agents probably contributed to the staff’s disdain for the Bureau. (less)
This is a history and biography of Socrates, informed by archaeology. The author is a historian, not a philosopher. Although the execution of Socrates...moreThis is a history and biography of Socrates, informed by archaeology. The author is a historian, not a philosopher. Although the execution of Socrates is the focus, the book is rich in discussing the context.
There appears to be more evidence that Socrates actually existed than the works of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. Though the former are the fairly complete writings still available about Socrates, we have references in other ancient works about philosophy that make reference to other texts about Socrates. Also, the major sources make references to specific aspects of the architecture of Athens the 4th and 5th centuries BC that are confirmed by archaeology, such as the location of particular cobbler's shop. It seems unlikely that anyone writing a work of fiction would bother with such verisimilitude.
An important part of the context of Socrates' trial is how religious Athens was; only a day or two in the year weren't festival days for a god. The Athenian democracy had also shown before Socrates' trial that it could be touchy about people who questioned established beliefs. The "corruption of youth" charge against Socrates seems to have been about the beliefs he was spreading, rather than pederasty. One of those who brought charges against Socrates had a son who had been influenced by Socrates. Among other things, Socrates was known to not be entirely sympathetic towards Athenian democracy; the business about selecting many public officials by lot was one feature he particularly disliked.
If Athens had been in a better mood, probably the charges wouldn't have come up. However, in 399 Athens had not only been recently (404) been defeated by Sparta (the city walls were still torn down as per the peace terms), but then Athens had gone through a nasty civil war which began with a Spartan-favored governing clique assassinating about 1200 democratic citizens. Socrates had been known to associate with some of this clique during better days, though that this same clique had ordered him not to teach during its rule was ignored during the trial, as well as his association with some enthusiasts for the democracy.
Possibly one reason for the trial of Socrates is that he reminded many Athenian citizens of the smooth-talkers who had gotten them involved in a calamitous war, even if he wasn't one of advocates of war.
Besides learning about the main event, I learned a bit about the Peloponnesian war, the status of women and slaves in Athens, and other aspects of Socrates life. With regard to the war, Athens was hardly the innocent party; Sparta had put up with numerous provocations during Athens empire-building days, not to mention the numerous city states that found themselves ruled by Athens. I was also surprised about how quickly Athens began losing, those city walls and a lack of a Spartan navy until near the end being major reasons why Athens could continue fighting. Socrates had been a hoplite,a well-equipped footsoldier, and fought in two of Athens campaigns.
I had known that Athenian women were at best second-class citizens, a condition generally confirmed in the book. I was a bit surprised about one inconsistency in this ill-treatment, in that several important cults appear to have been run by priestesses. Socrates seems to have been less sexist than the average Athenian male, though I think the author has a slight tendency to ascribe all the virtues to Socrates.
The majority of Athens inhabitants were slaves. Slaves dug up the silver that was a major source of Athenian weath. One important step towards Athenian defeat was a major slave revolt in the mines late in the war, in which the slaves successfully absconded to behind Spartan lines (Sparta had been trashing the area of Attica outside the city walls since the beginning of the war) which resulted in a great decrease in Athenian income. The flute-girls (prostitutes who were also skilled musicians), who seem to have been slaves, were publically jubilant when the walls of Athens were torn down.
The book is well-written and contains photographs of many of the archaeological sites referred to by the author. She also provides source notes. (less)
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 and died in 1924. His parents were of Scottish descent; his grandparents and his mother were born in Britain. W...more
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 and died in 1924. His parents were of Scottish descent; his grandparents and his mother were born in Britain. Wilson's father was a presbyterian minister. Although born in Ohio, Wilson's father had moved to the south for employment and adopted the views of his parishioners, siding with the faction that set up a separate southern Presbyterian denomination. Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, but subsequent moves resulted in Wilson growing up in Georgia and South Carolina. Wilson had difficulty learning to read, probably due to dyslexia. This difficulty delayed his beginning school and thus his academic standing as a child and 'tween compared to his peers, but made up for his late start by an impressive spurt of learning in his adolescence.
As a youth Wilson had one hobby that foreshadowed his future political career; he liked writing constitutions, first for organizations that existed only in his imagination. Later it seems that every club (debating, baseball, etc.) blessed with his membership had its bylaws spiffed up by Wilson. Wilson's interest in debate also foreshadows his considerable abilities as a college lecturer and his oratorical abilities as a politician. Incidentally, despite the impression to contrary Wilson was actually a very sociable man; besides becoming an active member of various clubs he kept in touch with fellow members of his Princeton class.
His higher education began with a brief stint at Davidson College in North Carolina, followed by a BA from Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and studying law at the University of Virginia. A brief and half-hearted attempt at practicing law in Atlanta was followed by graduate school at John Hopkins from which he received a Ph. D. I fear Wilson's example will discourage the electorate from electing another Ph. D.
Wilson taught briefly at Bryn Mawr (he seems to have felt teaching women was beneath him and his first wife Ellen seems to have agreed), then more happily at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, before returning to Princeton as faculty.
From 1902 to 1910, Wilson was president of Princeton. My impression is that the first half of his tenure was quite impressive, the second half marked by failure to push through his agenda. He markedly raised the academic standard of both students and faculty at Princeton, and implemented a system of instruction resembling the tutorial system of Oxford and Cambridge, employing young faculty as tutors for terms of a few years (to avoid burn-out). The later part of his time as Princeton's president was marked by a feud over the location of a graduate school and a failed attempt to break up Princeton's dining clubs, whose social exclusiveness dismayed Wilson. He lost when the board of trustees turned against him. In this context, the offer of the state Democratic machine to nominate him as its candidate for governor in 1910 was a relief.
During his 2 years as governor, Wilson had an impressive reform agenda, rendered more impressive in that it required making life difficult for the Democratic Party machine. That Wilson meant what he said became apparent early on, when he refused to support the quest of the head of the machine to return to the Senate and supported instead the winner of New Jersey's non-binding primary (Senators were then still elected by state legislatures).
Wilson won the Presidency in 1912 thanks to Theodore Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote by running on the Progressive party ticket against Wilson and President Taft. During his early presidency Wilson enacted important reform legislation, such as establishing the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Clayton anti-trust act. Given the current American attitude towards raising income taxes, I was surprised that to make up for a substantial cut in tariff rates, at the time the federal government's main source of revenue, with an income tax, the latter recently made possible by a constitutional amendment.
Wilson's first wife, Ellen, died of kidney failure in 1914. Wilson's ability to marry a woman of considerable artistic ability demanding that she give up all of interests was one of his most pleasant traits. Wilson was very lonely after Ellen's death, despite their three daughters. He remarried fairly quickly. His second wife Edith owned a jewelry store in Washington, having successfully taken over the management of the store when it passed to her upon her first husband's death.
Wilson's presidency was marked by an attempt to avoid getting involved in the First World War, an effort which of course he eventually abandoned. Britain's blockade of Germany definitely infringed on what the United States viewed as its right to export to whom it wished, but the death of American citizens due to German submarine attacks, and the occasional sinking of an American merchant ship, understandably had a greater impression on the public. I think Wilson was mistaken in not following the advice of his first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, in forbidding the export of munitions to the combatants and preventing loans to them. I think allowing loans and munition sales did build a constituency for the victory of Britain and France, because the naval power of Britain denied Germany the chance to import American supplies while Britain and France could, despite the German submarine attacks. However, I think it is still likely that the United States would have ended up on the Allied side, because German submarines would have still tried to sink Allied merchant ships (resulting in mostly unintended American causalities and ship losses) regardless of who was financing the import of these supplies and because the Germans would still be tempted to engage in unrestricted (i. e. sink everything in the war zone regardless of nationality) submarine warfare.
Oddly, while not enthusiastic about becoming involved in the European war, Wilson was more enthusiastic about involving the United States in the Mexican revolution. He understandably disliked some of the players in this bloody event, but I think he greatly over-estimated the ability and interest of the United States in improving conditions in Mexico, and gravely underestimated how offensive such involvement was to most Mexicans. I wouldn't say that the United States would necessarily have remained uninvolved (what would you expect after Pancho Villa crosses the border and shoots up a town), but perhaps American involvement could have been delayed and reduced in magnitude. I fear that these incidents indicate Wilson's propensity to be both impractical and to disregard the (important) views of others.
I also felt Berg was too easy on Wilson's attitude towards African-Americans. Berg seems to have felt Wilson was conflicted; I think he was just prejudiced. Wilson permitted, though did not require, his cabinet officers to racially segregate civil service employees. Earlier as president of Princeton he had discouraged African-American men (Princeton didn't admit women then) from applying to the college. As a historian Wilson described Reconstruction as a horror. Where I think Wilson was conflicted was in his attitude towards the Civil War and slavery; although he understandably disliked the Union victory, he also thought that the continuation of slavery would have resulted in the south's continued economic stagnation.
Wilson narrowly won the election of 1916 against Charles Everett Hughes. Running on a platform of "he kept his out of war" was not entirely Wilson's idea, as he wasn't completely confident he could do it. The German's implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare caused more sinkings of American ships and American deaths and resulted in Wilson asking for and getting a declaration of war. Despite the obvious possibility that the United State would be involved in war, Wilson hadn't done much to strengthen the armed forces; the army was especially unprepared. Wilson was afraid that having large armed forces would induce the United States to look around for opportunities to use them, an unpleasant possibility that seems quite reasonable given the last 50 years of American history. I think Berg gives Wilson too much credit for the American mobilization, which still relied to a great extent on European weaponry, in particular French artillery and tanks from both France and Britain. Given the circumstances, the results of American mobilization were impressive. Despite the collapse of the Russian military and accompanying revolution, the Germans were defeated after one more great offensive on their part.
Wilson wanted more from a peace settlement than a near-return to the pre-war status quo. He wanted national sovereignty, freedom of the seas, and most especially the League of Nations. I am puzzled by Wilson's belief that an institutionalized talking shop (using military force against violators through the League of Nations would have required near unanimity, an unlikely possibility) would ensure world peace; if governments wanted to resolve things without violence, there was already nothing to stop them. Getting the League necessitated Wilson making concessions on other issues, such as reparations.
Though he got his fellow heads of government to agree to a treaty containing some of what he wanted, Wilson could not get an unmodified treaty through the Senate. It's not obvious that the modifications the Senate, in particular Henry Cabot Lodge, would have caused problems in relation to foreign governments. Wilson took up a public speaking tour to try to get public support to push the Senate to approve the treaty without modifications. Wilson's heath collapsed during this tour, and shortly after returning to the White House he suffered a major stroke.
Wilson appears to have suffered two earlier strokes; one was diagnosed as such at the time. Wilson never fully recovered, and especially during the first few months after the stroke Wilson's ability to be carry out his duties was drastically reduced and access to him was filtered through his second wife Edith, Grayson his doctor, and Wilson's secretary Joseph Tumulty. Routine government business such as appointments to office were delayed, and there is the suspicsion that those close to Wilson, in particular his wife, were making decisions in his name. The stroke probably contributed to Wilson's unwillingness to compromise on the treaty and his suspicsion that his cabinet members, in particular Secretary of State Robert Lansing, were conspiring against him.
Even after he partially recovered, Wilson still had major disabilities resulting from his stroke. His left leg and arm were not very functional and he doesn't seem to have been able to concentrate enough to really do mental work - he never wrote much after the stroke, though his handwriting was restored to its previous excellence. I also wonder if the stroke contributed to episodes of delusional thinking, such as that he could get a third Democratic Presidential nomination in 1920.
My commute was made more pleasant for many weeks by listening to Mr. Berg's book. Despite having some reservations regarding his interpretations, it is well-written and provides enough information for readers to make up their own minds.
As I listened to this book over many weeks, I some fact-checking with Wikipedia in writing this review. (less)