January 20, 2017

When Winston Churchill Met Mark Twain

(p. C13) . . . [a] pleasant immersion in America's political history is Mark Zwonitzer's "The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism." It is a story of a friendship that flourished in spite of differences about momentous issues of war, peace and national identity. All of Mr. Zwonitzer's pages are informative and entertaining, but none are more so than those recounting the meeting between the 65-year-old Twain and a 26-year-old British parliamentarian at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan in 1900. Suffice it to say that Twain and Winston Churchill differed vigorously about the Boer War.

For Will's full book recommendations, see:

George F. Will. "12 Months of Reading." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2016): C13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 7, 2016, and has the title "George F. Will on Stalin's last spy.")

The book recommended, is:

Tombs, Robert. The English and Their History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

January 16, 2017

How Englishness Developed

(p. C12) . . . , "The English and Their History" by Robert Tombs, takes the reader through the entirety of English history--from the Angles and Saxons to the present day. Remarkably, Mr. Tombs limns over a millennia of history without putting you to sleep. And lurking throughout is a fascinating and timely concept: how Englishness as an identity developed through the centuries.

For Vance's full book recommendations, see:

J.D. Vance. "12 Months of Reading." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2016): C12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 7, 2016, and has the title "J.D. Vance on an epic history of England.")

The book recommended, is:

Tombs, Robert. The English and Their History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

December 15, 2016

Intellectuals Embrace Despair

(p. A23) Public conversation is dominated by people's ahistorical insistence that this country is sliding toward decline. As Arthur Herman writes in his book "The Idea of Decline in Western History," "The sowing of despair and self-doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance -- even when it is directly contradicted by our own reality."

For the full commentary, see:

Brooks, David. "The Age of Reaction." The New York Times (Tues., SEPT. 27, 2016): A23.

The book quoted in the above passage from the Brooks commentary, is:

Herman, Arthur. The Idea of Decline in Western History. New York: Free Press, 1997.

October 25, 2016

Modern Technology Adds to Knowledge of Culture and Religion

(p. A6) Nearly half a century ago, archaeologists found a charred ancient scroll in the ark of a synagogue on the western shore of the Dead Sea.

The lump of carbonized parchment could not be opened or read. Its curators did nothing but conserve it, hoping that new technology might one day emerge to make the scroll legible.

Just such a technology has now been perfected by computer scientists at the University of Kentucky. Working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, they have used a computer to unfurl a digital image of the scroll.

It turns out to hold a fragment identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and, at nearly 2,000 years old, is the earliest instance of the text.

The writing retrieved by the computer from the digital image of the unopened scroll is amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll's blackened and beaten-up exterior. "Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it," said Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Scholars say this remarkable new technique may make it possible to read other scrolls too brittle to be unrolled.

. . .

The experts say this new method may make it possible to read other ancient scrolls, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from Herculaneum, which were destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

. . .

The feat of recovering the text was made possible by software programs developed by W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. Inspired by the hope of reading the many charred and unopenable scrolls found at Herculaneum, near Pompeii in Italy, Dr. Seales has been working for the last 13 years on ways to read the text inside an ancient scroll.

. . .

He succeeded in 2009 in working out the physical structure of the ruffled layers of papyrus in a Herculaneum scroll.

He has since developed a method, called virtual unwrapping, to model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Technology Unlocks Secrets of a Biblical Scroll." The New York Times (Thurs., SEPT. 22, 2016): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 21, 2016, and has the title "Modern Technology Unlocks Secrets of a Damaged Biblical Scroll.")

October 12, 2016

"Giving Peas a Chance"

(p. C1) Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.

"A monk coaxing mice to (p. C4) mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians," writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in "The Gene: An Intimate History." So Mendel switched -- auspiciously, historically -- to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, "giving peas a chance."

Love Dr. Mukherjee, love his puns. They're everywhere. I warn you now.

. . .

Many of the same qualities that made "The Emperor of All Maladies" so pleasurable are in full bloom in "The Gene." The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people.

. . .

But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn't already beaten its way into the room. The subject immediately commands our attention; it's almost impossible to deny, and not to hear, the emotional clang of its appeal. In Dr. Mukherjee's skilled hands, the story of this frightening disease became a page-turner. He explained its history, politics and cunning biological underpinnings; he traced the evolving and often gruesome logic underlying cancer treatment.

And in the middle of it all, agonizing over treatment protocols and watching his patients struggle with tremendous existential and physical pain, was the author himself.

There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics. "The Gene" is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans.

. . .

But any book about the history of something as elemental and miraculous as the gene is bound, at least indirectly, to tell the story of innovation itself. "The Gene" is filled with scientists who dreamed in breathtakingly lateral leaps.

Erwin Schrödinger in particular was one visionary cat: In 1944, he hazarded a guess about the molecular nature of the gene and decided it had to be a strand of code scribbled along the chromosome -- which pretty much sums up the essence of DNA.

For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SENIOR. "Books of The Times; In Molecular Pursuit of the Genetic Code." The New York Times (Mon., MAY 9, 2016): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 8, 2016, and has the title "Books of The Times; Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee's 'The Gene,' a Molecular Pursuit of the Self.")

The book under review, is:

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History. New York: Scribner, 2016.

July 31, 2016

Bourgeois Ideology Caused the Great Enrichment

(p. A13) What accounts for the wealth and prosperity of the developed nations of the world? How did we get so rich, and how might others join the fold?

Deirdre McCloskey, a distinguished economist and historian, has a clarion answer: ideas. It was ideas, she insists--about commerce, innovation and the virtues that support them--that account for the "Great Enrichment" that has transformed much of the world since 1800.

. . .

. . . , this monumental achievement was caused by a change in values, Ms. McCloskey says--the rise of what she calls, in a mocking nod to Marx, a "bourgeois ideology." It was far from an apology for greed, however. Anglo-Dutch in origin, the new ideology presented a deeply moral vision of the world that vaunted the value of work and innovation, earthly happiness and prosperity, and the liberty, dignity and equality of ordinary people. Preaching tolerance of difference and respect for the individual, it applauded those who sought to improve their lives (and the lives of others) through material betterment, scientific and technological inquiry, self-improvement, and honest work. Suspicious of hierarchy and stasis, proponents of bourgeois values attacked monopoly and privilege and extolled free trade and free lives while setting great store by prudence, enterprise, decency and hope.

For the full review, see:

DARRIN M. MCMAHON. "BOOKSHELF; The Morality of Prosperity; Grinding poverty was the norm for humanity until 1800. It changed with the rise of values like tolerance and respect for individual liberty." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 13, 2016): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 12, 2016.)

The book under review, is:

McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital, Transformed the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

July 30, 2016

King Henry I Might "Have Liked Being Buried Under a Car Park"

(p. A4) LONDON -- Looking for a dead medieval king? You might want to check under a parking lot.

That theory, at least, is on the minds of archaeologists and historians in Reading, about 40 miles west of London, who this week will begin searching for the high altar of the abbey founded by King Henry I. They believe that the altar -- and, they hope, the king's remains -- could be under the parking lot of a local prison, near the abbey ruins. The area around a nearby nursery school will also be searched.

Nearly four years ago, archaeologists discovered King Richard III's grave under a parking lot in Leicester, about 100 miles northwest of London, on the site of a former monastery.

. . .

John Mullaney, a historian who is part of the team undertaking the search, said that archaeologists knew "within a few yards" where Henry was probably buried. He said the team would use ground-penetrating radar to search the area around the prison, and around a nearby nursery school.

. . .

As to whether a former monarch would roll in his grave at the prospect of spending eternity under a parking lot, Mr. Mullaney was philosophical.

"I'm afraid that England is a nation of car drivers," he said. "We are a small country and most people travel by cars, so we need lots of car parks. Henry was a reforming king and would have been fascinated by the idea of cars and transport, and may well have liked being buried under a car park."

For the full story, see:

DAN BILEFSKY. "The Search Is On for King Henry I, Who May Be Buried Under a Parking Lot." The New York Times (Tues., JUNE 14, 2016): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 13, 2016, and has the title "Search Is On for King Henry I, Who May Be Buried Under a Parking Lot.")

July 12, 2016

Edgar Speyer Was Entrepreneur Who Created Innovative London Tube Infrastructure

(p. A13) Before World War I, Edgar Speyer headed the London branch of the German-based Speyer banking conglomerate. Among other things, he was a great lover of music. His mansion on Grosvenor Square was a cynosure for composers-- Debussy, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg--all of whom availed themselves of the luxuries of the house, playing or conducting their work in private performances. "We live even more elegantly than kings and emperors," Grieg wrote, referring to the mansion's suite of rooms for visitors.

Not all of Edgar Speyer's interests were so ethereal. The British Speyer branch was a key source of railroad finance, and Edgar himself was best known for creating--in partnership with Charles Yerkes, a Chicago entrepreneur--the London tube system, with its innovative "deep-tube" design. Edgar persisted in expanding the system despite its precarious finances and for many years functioned as its chief executive.

. . .

The Speyer bank, Mr. Liebmann tells us, had roots going back to the 14th century, at the threshold of a long surge in international commerce. New forms of paper--bills of exchange, letters of credit and much else--allowed traders to leverage up their businesses quite remarkably. Over time, houses like those of Baring, Rothschild and Speyer shifted out of their traditional-goods trading for the higher volumes and higher fees available from trading just the paper claims. The Speyers were known as the leading investment and trading house in Frankfurt, Germany, usually ranked just behind the Rothschilds in the Jewish financial imperium.

For the full review, see:

CHARLES R. MORRIS. "BOOKSHELF; Second Only to the Rothschilds; Speyer banks funded the London underground, placed the first Union Civil War bonds in Europe and built the Madeira-Mamore railroad." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 26, 2016): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 25, 2016.)

The book under review, is:

Liebmann, George W. The Fall of the House of Speyer: The Story of a Banking Dynasty. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2015.

July 8, 2016

Franklin Was Appalled by the Boston Tea Party, But Was More Appalled by British Arrogance

(p. A13) When George III assumed the throne in 1760, Franklin was full of praise for his "virtue" and "steadiness." Many American associates considered him somewhat sycophantic.

Mr. Goodwin's assessment is gentler. "Franklin was a proud Briton, but he was not starry-eyed." By 1770 he was frustrated by Britain's "treatment of her American colonies as one giant farm and forest of raw materials." His relations with Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies, became venomous. Lord North, the prime minister, icily ignored him. Franklin began to produce anonymous satires rebuking British attitudes toward America.

The nadir came in December 1773, when word reached London of the Boston Tea Party. Incensed, the king's Privy Council summoned Franklin to Westminster. He was already in bad odor for having leaked impolitic correspondence from the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. The Privy Council chamber was, on this occasion, packed with counselors and curious members of the public. Other than Edmund Burke, they were hostile. Franklin stood grimly motionless as the solicitor general pounded the table and subjected him to "an hour-long verbal assault." The council roared approval as he accused Franklin of acting for "the most malignant purposes." The American had "forfeited all the respect of societies and of men."

The humiliation of Benjamin Franklin gratified the grandees of George III's government, but the episode epitomized their arrogant maladministration. Franklin was hardly an anti-British zealot. He favored reconciliation and might have been an effective mediator had he been respected and trusted. Franklin was so appalled by the Boston Tea Party that he offered to personally repay the East India Co. That this rather Anglophilic colonial served as the Privy Council's whipping boy demonstrates how obdurate the government had become.

Franklin's revenge was served hot. He left England in March of 1775 under threat of arrest. Twenty months later he arrived in France, where his diplomacy would deliver a mortal blow to Britain's American empire.

For the full review, see:

JEFFREY COLLINS. "BOOKSHELF; A Revolutionary Loyal to Britain; Franklin's years in France resulted in military aid and recognition of American independence. His time in London? Slightly less successful." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., March 11, 2016): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 10, 2016.)

The book under review, is:

Goodwin, George. Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

June 10, 2016

Imperial Passivity of the Holy Roman Empire Allowed Liberty and Diversity

(p. C7) On Aug. 6, 1806, an imperial herald decked out in full court regalia galloped purposefully through the streets of Vienna to a magnificent medieval church at the center of the city. Once there, he ascended to the balcony, blew his silver trumpet and declared that the Holy Roman Empire, an institution that had lasted for more than 1,000 years, was no more.

. . .

But because the empire never evolved into a viable nation-state, many scholars and politicians regarded it as a failure. The Germans in particular (including the great 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke) blamed the empire for the fact that Germany remained a "delayed nation" that was only unified (through Prussian machinations) in 1871.

Yet it was precisely this lack of political centralization, Mr. Wilson argues, that provided the empire with its greatest strength. Imperial passivity meant that individual rulers and states were largely left alone to govern as they wished. And all subjects had the right to appeal to the emperor if they believed their rights had been trammeled upon. Jews, for example, were given imperial protection as early as 1090; and though forced to live as second-class citizens during much of the empire's history, many viewed its dissolution as a catastrophe.

Political fragmentation also had cultural benefits. Unlike France and England, with their single capital and monarch, the Holy Roman Empire had numerous kings, courts and centers of patronage. The result was a remarkably wide distribution of educational and cultural institutions, one that is still observable in the former imperial lands. It was probably also no coincidence that both the printing press and Europe's first mail service were launched within the fragmented empire or that the imperial territories experienced higher levels of economic growth than regions of Europe with more centralized control.

. . .

Though far from perfect, the empire lasted for as long as it did because it strove to provide the two things most hoped for in a state: liberty and security.

For the full review, see:

MARK MOLESKY. "The Strength of a Weak State; In the Holy Roman Empire, individual rulers and states were largely left to govern as they wished." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 21, 2016): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2016.)

The book under review, is:

Wilson, Peter H. Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2016.

June 1, 2016

Mao's Cultural Revolution Murdered a Million Chinese

(p. A5) A fur coat that kept a family's three children warm at night, seized and still in the home of their tormentors. A 5-year-old's finger, broken while fleeing from the scene of a terrifying beating. A stone memorial in a village to a "good" family that was largely wiped out.

These are some of the things readers recalled when asked how their families were affected by the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political upheaval unleashed by Mao Zedong half a century ago that left a million or more in China dead and many more traumatized. In dozens of responses, the message was clear: People remember. Families talk. The imprint of old fears remains. Those who suffered teach their grandchildren that it is safer to work hard and keep quiet. "The Cultural Revolution is over," wrote Huang Xin, a reader from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. "But the Cultural Revolution is never far away."

Here is a selection of the responses. Some have been condensed and edited for clarity, or translated from Chinese.

. . .

Jonathan Yang, 32, New York

As a first-generation Chinese American, I heard at great length about my mother's struggles to survive her "bad upbringing" (wealthy) and how her family was decimated when she was 8 years old. Growing up in work camps, her adolescence was robbed and although she was lucky enough to escape China under political asylum under Nixon's open-door policy, the trauma of the revolution lingers in her to this day.

Her stories captivated me. However, they did not seem real because we were never taught how horrendous China's history was in school. We were taught relentlessly about atrocities such as slavery and the Holocaust, but somehow China's dark past never seemed to be part of our education. To say this is a disservice is an understatement. Americans for the most part have no idea how heinous Mao's regime really was. The sheer numbers as compared to slavery and the Holocaust are at least tenfold. Yet there is no memorial, no education. It is almost as if this history does not matter.

For the full story, see:

"After Half a Century, the Imprint of China's Cultural Revolution Is Still Deep." The New York Times (Tues., MAY 17, 2016): A5.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold and italics in original online version.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 16, 2016, and has the title "Readers Respond: The Cultural Revolution's Lasting Imprint." Where there are differences in the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

May 22, 2016

More Evidence that Once-Dynamic Florence Is Now Stagnant

(p. C1) New research from a pair of Italian economists documents an extraordinary fact: The wealthiest families in Florence today are descended from the wealthiest families of Florence nearly 600 years ago.

The two economists -- Guglielmo Barone and Sauro Mocetti of the Bank of Italy -- compared data on Florentine taxpayers in 1427 against tax data in 2011. Because Italian surnames are highly regional and distinctive, they could compare the income of families with a certain surname today, to those with the same surname in 1427. They found that the occupations, income and wealth of those distant ancestors with the same surname can help predict the occupation, income and wealth of their descendants today.

For the full story, see:

JOSH ZUMBRUN. "Florence's Rich Stay Rich--for 600 Years." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., May 20, 2016): C1-C2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 19, 2016, and has the title "The Wealthy in Florence Today Are the Same Families as 600 Years Ago." Where there are minor differences in the two versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The Barone and Mocetti working paper, is:

Barone, Guglielmo, and Sauro Mocetti "Intergenerational Mobility in the Very Long Run: Florence 1427-2011." Bank of Italy Working Paper #1060, April 2016.

May 21, 2016

"Liberated People Are Ingenious"

(p. C1) Nothing like the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries had ever happened before. Doublings of income--mere 100% betterments in the human condition--had happened often, during the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, in Song China and Mughal India. But people soon fell back to the miserable routine of Afghanistan's income nowadays, $3 or worse. A revolutionary betterment of 10,000%, taking into account everything from canned goods to antidepressants, was out of the question. Until it happened.

. . .

(p. C2) Why did it all start at first in Holland about 1600 and then England about 1700 and then the North American colonies and England's impoverished neighbor, Scotland, and then Belgium and northern France and the Rhineland?

The answer, in a word, is "liberty." Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther's reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England's turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

To use another big concept, what came--slowly, imperfectly--was equality. It was not an equality of outcome, which might be labeled "French" in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Piketty. It was, so to speak, "Scottish," in honor of David Hume and Adam Smith: equality before the law and equality of social dignity. It made people bold to pursue betterments on their own account. It was, as Smith put it, "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice."

For the full commentary, see:

DEIRDRE N. MCCLOSKEY. "How the West (and the Rest) Got Rich; The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has one primary source: the liberation of ordinary people to pursue their dreams of economic betterment." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 21, 2016): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 20, 2016.)

McCloskey's commentary is based on her "bourgeois" trilogy, the final volume of which is:

McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital, Transformed the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

May 5, 2016

Forrest McDonald Defended Founders and Entrepreneurs

Forrest McDonald wrote one of the first detailed accounts of the life of Samuel Insull, an entrepreneur who helped to develop electric utility systems in the United States, and who was persecuted by the FDR administration.

(p. 20) Forrest McDonald, a presidential and constitutional scholar who challenged liberal shibboleths about early American history and lionized the founding fathers as uniquely intellectual, died on Tuesday [January 19, 2016] in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

. . .

As a Pulitzer Prize finalist in history and a professor at the University of Alabama, Dr. McDonald declared himself an ideological conservative and an opponent of intrusive government. ("I'd move the winter capital to North Dakota and outlaw air-conditioning in the District of Columbia," he once said.) But he refused to be pigeonholed either as a libertarian or, despite his Southern agrarian roots, as a Jeffersonian.

. . .

In "Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution" (1985), which was one of three finalists for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in history, he pronounced the founding fathers as singularly qualified to draft the framework of federalism. He reiterated that point when he delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities' Jefferson Lecture in Washington in 1987.

"To put it bluntly," Dr. McDonald said then, "it would be impossible in America today to assemble a group of people with anything near the combined experience, learning and wisdom that the 55 authors of the Constitution took with them to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787."

. . .

Dr. McDonald wrote more than a dozen books, including biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-Span's "Booknotes" in 1994, Dr. McDonald revealed that he typically wrote in longhand on a yellow legal pad and in the nude. ("We've got wonderful isolation," he said, "and it's warm most of the year in Alabama, and why wear clothes?")

For the full obituary, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "Forrest McDonald, 89, Critic of Liberal Views of History." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., Jan. 24, 2016): 20.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date JAN. 22, 2016, and has the title "Forrest McDonald, Historian Who Punctured Liberal Notions, Dies at 89.")

The McDonald book mentioned by me way above, is:

McDonald, Forrest. Insull. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

April 22, 2016

Today Is 16th Anniversary of Our Betrayal of Elián González

GonzalezElianSeizedOn2000-04-22.jpg"In this April 22, 2000 file photo, Elian Gonzalez is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the ocean, right, as government officials search the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, early Saturday morning, April 22, 2000, in Miami. Armed federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday, firing tear gas into an angry crowd as they left the scene with the weeping 6-year-old boy." Source of caption and photo: online version of JENNIFER KAY and MATT SEDENSKY. "10 years later, few stirred by Elian Gonzalez saga." Omaha World-Herald (Thurs., April 22, 2010): 7A. (Note: the online version of the article is dated April 21, 2010 and has the title "10 years after Elian, US players mum or moving on.")

Today (April 22, 2016) is the 16th anniversary of the day when the Clinton Administration seized a six year old child in order to force him back into the slavery that his mother had died trying to escape.

April 3, 2016

New Libertarian Consensus?

(p. A17) In "Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America's Postwar Political Order," Mr. Piereson argues that America has undergone three earthquakes in its history: the Jeffersonian revolution, which ushered in a long period of dominance of a new anti-Federalist party; the Civil War, which vanquished slavery and set off the ascendancy of northern Republicanism; and the New Deal, which dramatically expanded the size and intrusiveness of the federal government in Americans' lives. "In each period, an old order collapsed and a new one emerged . . . the resolution of the crisis opened up new possibilities for growth and reform," he writes. Looking out at our paralyzed and polarized polity, he argues that we are on the brink of yet another collapse--but this one might not have a happy ending.

Mr. Piereson, a hero of philanthropy who faithfully spent the Olin Foundation out of business after supporting the work of think tanks, small magazines and groundbreaking scholars like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray, views the Obama presidency as the beginning of the collapse of an 80-year consensus, forged in the post-World War II years. That consensus "assigned the national government responsibility for maintaining full employment and for policing the world in the interests of democracy, trade, and national security." Such a consensus, which "is required in order for a polity to meet its major challenges," Mr. Piereson argues, ". . . no longer exists in the United States. That being so, the problems will mount to a point where either they will be addressed through a 'fourth revolution' or the polity will begin to disintegrate for lack of fundamental agreement."

. . .

A system failure is only a matter of time. At some point, what Democrat Erskine Bowles has aptly labeled "the most predictable crisis in American history" will be upon us, as the federal government defaults by one means or another on its unpayable promises. A revolt of the betrayed elderly, or of the plundered young, could be the catalyst for Mr. Piereson's revolution. Perhaps even sooner, one state rendered destitute by reckless government spending and public pensions will attempt to dump its hopeless debt problem on the rest of the union. Which of these scenarios is most likely? Which most dangerous? Could the fourth revolution manifest itself in a separatist movement by states where majorities feel culturally estranged and disinclined to pick up the tab for the extravagance of less responsible states? Could the growing number of citizens professing economic conservatism coupled with libertarian social views be the front edge of a new consensus?

For the full review, see:

MITCH DANIELS. "BOOKSHELF; America's Next Revolution; The U.S. has experienced three earthquakes: the Jeffersonian revolution, the Civil War and the New Deal. Are we on the brink of another?" The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 15, 2015): A17.

(Note: ellipses within paragraphs, in original; ellipsis between paragraphs, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 14, 2015,)

The book discussed in the review, is:

Piereson, James. Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America's Postwar Political Order. New York: Encounter Books, 2015.

March 18, 2016

"Ordinary People Should Have a Go"

(p. A11) The classical archaeologist and now big-picture historian Ian Morris, whose last book argued that war is good for you, now explains why coal is too. In "Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels," Mr. Morris puts "energy capture" at the center of human values since the Ice Age, through three eras: the Foragers to begin with; the Farmers after about 8,000 B.C.; and, in the past few centuries, the Fossil Fuelers.

. . .

A culture favorable to liberty and dignity for commoners came out of the Reformation and 16th-century Holland, spread to Britain and Britain's colonies in the 18th century, and resulted after 1800 in an explosion of ingenuity.

This Great Enrichment, which Mr. Morris acknowledges but does not explain, increased income per head not by the 100% or 200% of earlier efflorescences but by anything from 2,000% to 10,000%. Routine materialism of Mr. Morris's sort can't explain the most important secular event in human history. He wants to pin it all on energy capture. The correct story is one of ideas of human equality changing, starting with a conviction novel in the 17th century in northwestern Europe that ordinary people should have a go. This led to massive innovation, among which was energy capture. We do not have a fossil-fuel civilization. We have a free and ingenious one.

For the full review, see:

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY. "BOOKSHELF; Oil on Troubled Waters; In this telling, progress is explained by the rising use of fossil fuels. Yet the Industrial Revolution was powered by water, not coal.."The Wall Street Journal (Mon., July 6, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 5, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Morris, Ian. Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, The University Center for Human Values Series. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

March 2, 2016

George Washington as Entrepreneur

(p. C7) While Washington was only an adequate battlefield general, Edward G. Lengel, who oversees George Washington's papers at the University of Virginia, makes a strong case in "First Entrepreneur" that he was a superb military administrator--skills he learned as a young man serving in the French and Indian War as an aide-de-camp for commanding officers. By carefully monitoring all aspects of the complex business of running a military operation, he held his ragtag army together despite a frequent lack of money, clothing, weapons and food. Without Washington's management, the Continental Army would likely have disintegrated and the Revolution fizzled out. Mr. Lengel brings needed attention to this vital and neglected aspect of Washington's generalship.

Washington was also a superb administrator of his own assets. Born to modest wealth, he married into much more and worked hard and creatively to maximize his return on investment. By the end of his life he was one of the new country's richest men.

Tobacco, the cash crop that had brought prosperity to Virginia, was declining in profitability by the mid-18th century. It exhausted the soil, and prices had been falling on the British market. Washington began to rotate and diversify his crops, import better seed, and exploit Mount Vernon's other assets, such as the springtime fish runs up the Potomac.

By the end of his life, Washington was not only growing new crops but manufacturing as well, turning his wheat production into both whiskey and flour. When the American inventor Oliver Evans developed a new, more productive type of flour mill, Washington quickly installed one. When the king of Spain sent him a donkey, named Royal Gift, Washington put him to work fathering mules, which were more efficient than horses at farm work. As Mr. Lengel makes clear, Washington was always a bottom-line man, a fact that makes this often remote figure more human.

For the full review, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "Washington Discovers America; Washington traveled through all 13 states to promote the newborn federal government." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Feb. 13, 2016): C7.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 12, 2016.)

The book under review, is:

Lengel, Edward G. First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His--and the Nation's--Prosperity. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2016.

February 19, 2016

Federal Government "Deputized" the Ku Klux Klan to Enforce Prohibition Against "Immigrants, Catholics and African-Americans"

(p. C4) . . . in her new book, "The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State" (W. W. Norton), the historian Lisa McGirr tells anything but a nostalgic story. The 18th Amendment, she argues, didn't just give rise to vibrant night life and colorful, Hollywood-ready characters, like Isidor Einstein, New York's celebrated "Prohibition Agent No. 1." More enduringly, and tragically, it also radically expanded the federal government's role in law enforcement, with consequences that can be seen in the crowded prisons of today.

In The New York Times Book Review, James A. Morone writes that the book "could have a major impact on how we read American political history." In a recent email interview, Ms. McGirr, a professor at Harvard, discussed Prohibition's political legacy, the surprising enforcement role of the Ku Klux Klan and the character from her story she'd most like to have a drink with. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

. . .

Q. You argue that Prohibition gave rise to today's "penal state." How did that happen?

A. By birthing a new national obsession with crime, Prohibition -- and the violence that came with it -- pushed the federal government in the direction of policing and surveillance. This was the moment that saw the first national crime commission, the birth of the Uniform Crime Reports, an expanded prison system and the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The F.B.I. also won expanded authority.

. . .

Q. You describe how the Ku Klux Klan helped enforce Prohibition in places like Williamson County, Ill., where federal authorities deputized its members to conduct sometimes deadly raids on distilleries, bars and private homes -- taking particular aim at Italian immigrants. What made the Klan such an ally in the war on alcohol?

A. The Klan sold itself to white Protestant evangelicals as a law enforcement organization, winning droves of recruits with its promise to clamp down on bootlegging. There were plenty of Klansmen who imbibed, but that did not stop them from leveraging the law to target the drinking of the presumed enemies of white Protestant nationalism: immigrants, Catholics and African-Americans.

For the full interview, see:

JENNIFER SCHUESSLER, interviewer. "A Word with Lisa McGirr; Throwing a Cold Splash on Prohibition Nostalgia." The New York Times (Thurs., DEC. 31, 2015): C4.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date DEC. 30, 2015, and has the title "Lisa McGirr Discusses 'The War on Alcohol' and the Legacy of Prohibition.")

The book under discussion, is:

McGirr, Lisa. The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2015.

February 11, 2016

Those on the Scene Matter for Outcome of Crisis

Amanda Ripley has argued that in many disasters, it is not the well-trained "first responders" who matter most for the outcome, but those who happen to be close to the scene. The problem is that often the "first responders" do not arrive soon enough to save lives or head off the crisis. The story sketched in the passages quoted below, seems to be another example for her thesis.

(p. B1) "We had a one-minute warning," recalled Dr. Lax, a mathematician who was the director of the university's computer center at the time. "The son of a friend ran in" and shouted that the demonstrators were coming for the computer, he said. "It was too late to call the police and fortify."

. . .

Jürgen Moser, a mathematician who was the director of the Courant Institute, the university's prestigious math research center, tried to stop the demonstrators when they swarmed into Warren Weaver Hall. According to a chapter in a biography of Dr. Lax by Reuben Hersh, Dr. Moser, who died in 1999, said he was "pushed and shoved around, and was unable to deter them."

. . .

After a two-day occupation, the protesters decided to end the takeover. But they did not carry out everything they had taken in, as two assistant professors, Frederick P. Greenleaf and Emile C. Chi, discovered when they ran in.

"We thought, 'Let's go take a look before the place gets locked down,' " Dr. Greenleaf recalled last week. "They had knocked the doorknobs off the door so you couldn't open it."

But there was a small window, high up in the door, and they peered in. "We could see there was an improvised toilet paper fuse," he said. "It was slowly burning its way to a bunch of containers, bigger than gallon jugs. They were sitting on the top of the computer."

. . .

Already, he said, smoke was curling under the door.

He and Professor Chi grabbed a fire extinguisher in the stairwell.

The only way to douse the fuse was to aim the fire extinguisher under the door. The only way to know where to aim it was to look through the window in the door, which was too high for whoever was operating the fire extinguisher to look through and aim at the same time.

So one functioned as the eyes for the pair, sighting through the window and directing the other to point the fire extinguisher up or down or left or right. "In a minute, we had managed to spritz the fuse," Dr. Greenleaf said.

For the full story, see:

JAMES BARRON. "Grace Notes; The Mathematicians Who Saved a Kidnapped N.Y.U. Computer." The New York Times (Mon., DEC. 7, 2015): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 6, 2015, and has the title "Grace Notes; The Mathematicians Who Ended the Kidnapping of an N.Y.U. Computer.")

The Ripley book mentioned above, is:

Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

January 30, 2016

Some Heroes Are Punished for Doing What Is Right

At some point in the last few months watched, and jotted a few notes, on a C-SPAN presentation by Ralph Peters related to his historical novel Valley of the Shadow, that I caught part of. C-SPAN lists the show as first airing on June 23, 2015. My attention was drawn when Peters started talking about Lew Wallace. I had a minor curiosity about Lew Wallace for two obscure reasons. The first is that in young adulthood my favorite actor was Charlton Heston, one of whose most notable movies was Ben Hur, which was based on a novel by Lew Wallace. The other was that as an adult Lew Wallace lived in Crawfordsville, Indiana where there is still a small museum in his old study, a museum that holds memorabilia related to the Heston Ben Hur movie. The reason I know about the museum is that I graduated from Wabash College, which is also located in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Peters said that he was fascinated by forgotten figures and that one of these was Lew Wallace. According to Peters, Lew Wallace saved the union during the Civil War. A confederate general named Jubal Early would have seized Washington, D.C., if Wallace and an officer named Jim Ricketts had not taken the initiative to lead a force to stop Early. For doing what had to be done, Wallace risked court martial, and Wallace was indeed fired from the army. After Ricketts gave a full account of what had happened, Wallace was re-instated, but Lincoln did not approve of his receiving a new command. Peters said that this was because Wallace was unpopular with some powerful Indiana Republicans, and that Lincoln was facing an election in which he needed to win Indiana.

The above is a rough summary of Peters's account. I don't know if any of it is disputed by other experts. But it is a good story, and I hope that it is true.

The Peters historical novel discussed on C-SPAN, was:

Peters, Ralph. Valley of the Shadow: A Novel. New York: Forge Books, 2015.

January 18, 2016

Madison Revised Notes to Aid Jefferson's Attack on Hamilton

C-SPAN Book TV today played an extended interview with Mary Sarah Bilder about her book on James Madison's notes on the constitutional convention. Madison revised his notes to share with Jefferson, who had not been present during the convention. Chernow, in his biography of Hamilton, reports how Jefferson criticized Hamilton for aristocratic tendencies. What is most surprising about Bilder's comments is that Madison had made comments at the convention similar to Hamilton's discussing whether there might be merits to monarchy. But in his revision of the notes, he deleted those comments before passing the notes to Jefferson, presumably as part of his desire to ally himself more closely with Jefferson and to join in Jefferson's vilification of Hamilton.

This is not an earth-shattering finding, but it adds support to Chernow's defense of Hamilton. Jefferson was the slave-holding aristocrat in practice, while Hamilton opposed slavery, and Hamilton's intellectual speculations on the best form of government were not notably monarchist within the context of the time.

The book discussed on C-SPAN, was:

Bilder, Mary Sarah. Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

The Chernow book I mention above, is:

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

January 10, 2016

The Filth, Slaughter and Disease, That Was Rome

McCloskey's "Great Fact" says that life was very bad for tens of thousands of years until the capitalist industrial revolution started to make it better. The tens of thousands of years can be thought of as a horizontal hockey stick handle, with the capitalist industrial revolution represented by a sharply ascending blade. Rome was a bump on the hockey stick handle, but as the last paragraph quoted below suggests, not too much of a bump.

(p. C4) . . . Ms. Beard is competent and charming company. In "SPQR" she pulls off the difficult feat of deliberating at length on the largest intellectual and moral issues her subject presents (liberty, beauty, citizenship, power) while maintaining an intimate tone.

"In some ways, to explore ancient Rome from the 21st century is rather like walking on a tightrope, a very careful balancing act," she writes. "If you look down on one side, everything seems reassuringly familiar: there are conversations going on that we almost join, about the nature of freedom or the problems of sex; there are buildings and monuments we recognize and family life lived out in ways we understand, with all their troublesome adolescents; and there are jokes that we 'get.'"

"On the other side, it seems completely alien territory. That means not just the slavery, the filth (there was hardly any such thing as refuse collection in ancient Rome), the human slaughter in the arena and the death from illnesses whose cure we now take for granted; but also the newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps, the child brides and the flamboyant eunuch priests."

For the full review, see:

DWIGHT GARNER. "Early Rome: Its Warts and Wonders." The New York Times (Weds., Nov. 18, 2015): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 17, 2015, and has the title "Review: In 'SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,' Mary Beard Tackles Myths and More.")

The book under review, is:

Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2015.

On the hockey stick, see:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "McCloskey's Great Fact; Review of: McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World." Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy 1, no. 2 (2012): 200-05.

January 6, 2016

Was "the Naturally Aloof" Washington, an Introvert?

(p. C6) In "The Washingtons," an ambitious, well-researched and highly readable dual biography, Flora Fraser has worked hard, despite the limited documentation that is available, to portray George and Martha, and their extended family, as fully rounded, flesh-and-blood people, freeing them from the heavy brocade of hagiography.

. . .

Her social graces, . . . , served the naturally aloof George well during his eight increasingly trying years as president. Martha had a way of keeping conversation flowing around her, Ms. Fraser says, while George's "silences could unnerve the most confident." An official dinner with the Washingtons could be an ordeal, since George was a terrible conversationalist and was known to sit silently tapping his spoon against the table, obviously impatient for the evening to end.

For the full review, see:

FERGUS M. BORDEWICH. "Domestic Tranquility; Martha kept conversation flowing at dinner; George's silences 'could unnerve the most confident.'" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 14, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 13, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Fraser, Flora. The Washingtons: George and Martha, "Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love". New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

January 2, 2016

Key Roman Institution Was Citizenship for All

(p. C5) . . . , early in the fourth century B.C., everything changes. Somehow Rome's wars began to escalate in scale, their victories turned into conquests, their victims into allies, and Roman expansion became a bow wave rolling across Italy. Exactly how this "great leap forward" was achieved remains unclear. There are fragments of laws, a tradition of civil conflict leading to political reform, and the tombs of the first generation of great military leaders. But, as Ms. Beard says, "the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle become hard to fit together."

The best we can say is that, sometime in the early fourth century, consuls, senators and people emerge rapidly from the shadows, carrying all before them. By the time this was noticed by the other great powers of the day--Phoenician Carthage in what is now Tunisia and the Macedonian kings who had ruled everything east of the Adriatic since Alexander the Great--it was too late to stop Rome. Roman institutions did not drive this expansion, as Polybius had thought. In fact they played desperate catch-up for the rest of the Republic, trying to create ways of governing an empire that was not exactly accidental but certainly not planned. The one institution that Ms. Beard leaves in place as a motor of expansion rather than a response to it was Rome's unusual capacity to absorb the defeated and redirect their arms and resources to its own ends. "SPQR" ends with the logical culmination of that process, the extension of full citizenship to almost every one of Rome's 60 million subjects in A.D. 212.

For the full review, see:

GREG WOOLF. "Dawn of the Eternal City." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 14, 2015): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 13, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2015.

December 5, 2015

"Racist" Woodrow Wilson Adopted "White Supremacy as Government Policy"

(p. A25) In 1882, soon after graduating from high school, the young John Davis secured a job at the Government Printing Office.

Over a long career, he rose through the ranks from laborer to a position in midlevel management. He supervised an office in which many of his employees were white men. He had a farm in Virginia and a home in Washington. By 1908, he was earning the considerable salary -- for an African-American -- of $1,400 per year.

But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.

By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson's first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.

Many black men and women suffered similar fates under Wilson. As the historian Eric S. Yellin of the University of Richmond documents in his powerful book "Racism in the Nation's Service," my grandfather's demotion was part of a systematic purge of the federal government; with Wilson's approval, in a few short years virtually all blacks had been removed from management responsibilities, moved to menial jobs or simply dismissed.

My grandfather died before I was born, but I have learned much about his struggle -- and that of other black civil servants in the federal government -- from his personnel file.

. . .

Consider a letter he wrote on May 16, 1913, barely a month after his demotion. "The reputation which I have been able to acquire and maintain at considerable sacrifice," he wrote, "is to me (foolish as it may appear to those in higher stations of life) a source of personal pride, a possession of which I am very jealous and which is possessed at a value in my estimation ranking above the loss of salary -- though the last, to a man having a family of small children to rear, is serious enough."

And the reply he received? His supervisor said, simply, that my grandfather was unable to "properly perform the duties required (he is too slow)." Yet there had never been any indication of this in his personnel file.

Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.

For the full commentary, see:

GORDON J. DAVIS. "Wilson, Princeton and Race." The New York Times (Tues., NOV. 24, 2015): A25.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title "What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather.")

The Yellin book praised in the passage quoted above, is:

Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

See also:

Patler, Nicholas. Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration: Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2004.

December 4, 2015

While Woodrow Wilson Was President of Princeton, "No Blacks Were Admitted"

(p. A1) PRINCETON, N.J. -- Few figures loom as large in the life of an Ivy League university as Woodrow Wilson does at Princeton.

. . .

But until posters started appearing around campus in September, one aspect of Wilson's legacy was seldom discussed: his racist views, and the ways he acted on them as president of the United States.

The posters, put up by a year-old student group called the Black Justice League, featured some of Wilson's more offensive quotes, including his comment to an African-American leader that "segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you," and led to a remarkable two days at this genteel (p. A17) campus last week.

. . .

Perhaps best known for leading the United States during World War I and for trying to start the League of Nations, Wilson as president rolled back gains blacks had made since Reconstruction, removing black officials from the federal government and overseeing the segregation of rank-and-file workers.

Raised in the South, he wrote of "a great Ku Klux Klan" that rose up to rid whites of "the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes."

During Wilson's tenure as president of Princeton, no blacks were admitted -- "The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied," he wrote -- though Harvard and Yale had admitted blacks decades earlier. Princeton admitted its first black student in the 1940s.

For the full story, see:

ANDY NEWMAN. "At Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, a Heralded Alum, Is Recast as an Intolerant One." The New York Times (Mon., NOV. 23, 2015): A1 & A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 22, 2015.)

December 2, 2015

Humans Suffered from Plague by at Least 5,000 Years Ago

(p. D4) Historians and microbiologists alike have searched for decades for the origins of plague. Until now, the first clear evidence of Yersinia pestis infection was the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, which severely weakened the Byzantine Empire.

But in a new study, published on Thursday [Oct. 22, 2015] in the journal Cell, researchers report that the bacterium was infecting people as long as 5,000 years ago.

For the full story, see:

"Archaeology: Plagues Said to Have Hit During Bronze Age." The New York Times (Tues., OCT. 27, 2015): D4.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the much shorter online version of the story has the date OCT. 22 (sic), 2015, and has the title "In Ancient DNA, Evidence of Plague Much Earlier Than Previously Known." The passage quoted above is from the online version.)

The academic article mentioned in the passages quoted above, is:

Rasmussen, Simon, Morten Erik Allentoft, Kasper Nielsen, Ludovic Orlando, Martin Sikora, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Anders Gorm Pedersen, Mikkel Schubert, Alex Van Dam, Christian Moliin Outzen Kapel, Henrik Bjørn Nielsen, Søren Brunak, Pavel Avetisyan, Andrey Epimakhov, Mikhail Viktorovich Khalyapin, Artak Gnuni, Aivar Kriiska, Irena Lasak, Mait Metspalu, Vyacheslav Moiseyev, Andrei Gromov, Dalia Pokutta, Lehti Saag, Liivi Varul, Levon Yepiskoposyan, Thomas Sicheritz-Pontén, Robert A Foley, Marta Mirazón Lahr, Rasmus Nielsen, Kristian Kristiansen, and Eske Willerslev. "Early Divergent Strains of Yersinia Pestis in Eurasia 5,000 Years Ago." Cell 163, no. 3 (Oct. 2015): 571-82.

November 15, 2015

Dogged Dreamers Developed Deadly Dirigibles

(p. C7) "Dirigibility" means the ability to navigate through the air by engine power, unlike balloon flight, which is captive to the wind. Beginning and ending with the Hindenburg vignette, C. Michael Hiam gives in "Dirigible Dreams" a concise but comprehensive history of the airship and its evolution. With style and some flair, Mr. Hiam introduces a cast of dogged visionaries, starting with Albert Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian whose exploits from 1901 onward usually culminated in our hero dangling from a tree or a high building, shredded gas bags draped around him like a shroud. For all of these pioneers, problems queued up from the outset: Insurance companies, for example, refused to quote a rate for aerial liability. (Try asking your broker today.) And to inflate the craft the engineers were stuck with hydrogen, since non-flammable helium was too scarce and hot air has insufficient lifting force.

. . .

In 1929, British engineers pioneered a giant dirigible--at 133 feet in diameter, Mr. Hiam notes, it was "the largest object ever flown"--powered by six Rolls-Royce Condor engines. But too many died as the still-flimsy crafts plunged to the ground in flames. His Majesty's secretary of state for air perished in a luxurious airship cabin on the way to visit the king's subjects in India. One by one, nations gave up their dirigible dreams, especially after 35 souls burned to death on the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., one of the first transport disasters recorded on film. After that tragedy, commercial passengers never flew in an airship again, and by the start of World War II just two years later "the airship had become entirely extinct."

For the full review, see:

SARA WHEELER. "Inflated Hopes; Early airship experimenters found that insurance companies refused to quote rates for aerial liability." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 18, 2014): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated on Oct. 23, 2014.)

The book under review, is:

Hiam, C. Michael. Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2014.

November 11, 2015

In 13th Century England, William Marshal Defended Property and Brokered Magna Carta

(p. C7) On Saturday, May 20, 1217, two armies gathered outside Lincoln, a walled cathedral town in the northeast Midlands of England. One was a party of barons loyal to the French prince Louis the Lion, who had come to batter down the walls of the town's large stone castle. The second party was there to relieve the siege. It was led by an energetic 70-year-old: William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the most famous knight of his time and one of the most storied men in Christendom. Marshal was the official guardian of the 9-year-old English king Henry III, whom Louis was aiming to replace. Lincoln was one of the most important strategic military bases in England, controlling the major roads between London, York and the southwest. The fate of a kingdom really did rest in William Marshal's hands.

According to a 19,000-line verse biography, written in old French during the 1220s and commissioned by Marshal's son, the aged hero prepared his men for a battle with a barnstorming speech. "Those men have seized and taken by force / our lands and our possessions," he cried. "Shame upon the man who does not strive, this very day, to put up a challenge / . . . if we beat them, it is no lie to say / that we will have won eternal glory / . . . I can tell you that they will come to a sticky end / as they descend into Hell." Then Marshal was astride his horse and at the front of the charge. He was so excited that he nearly rode off to fight without his helmet on.

. . .

Marshal was one of the few loyal men left at the end of John's reign, and in June 1215 he helped broker Magna Carta, the document that (temporarily) mollified the king's opponents by granting them a long list of legal rights and privileges. John died the next year, and the now-elderly Marshal was appointed as guardian to Henry III. He reissued Magna Carta as a political manifesto, rather than a peace treaty, which helped to begin the charter's long and legendary afterlife. He won the battle of Lincoln, and then he died. His corpse was wrapped in silk that he had brought home from a journey to the Holy Land.

For the full review, see:

DAN JONES. "The Servant of Five Kings; One of the few men who remained loyal to King John, William Marshal helped broker Magna Carta." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C7.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipses internal to paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Asbridge, Thomas. The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones. New York: Ecco, 2014.

November 7, 2015

Biography of Muhammad Documents Oldest and Youngest of His 12 Wives

(p. C6) The Prophet Muhammad might justly be described as the Jekyll and Hyde of historical biography. For centuries, he has been "alternately revered and reviled," as Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University, notes in her excellent overview of the abundant literature. As a result, Muhammad presents two violently incompatible faces to the historian. For devout Muslims, relying both on the Quran and the vast corpus of sacred traditions, the hadith, he serves as the unimpeachable model for human behavior, not only in matters of faith and ritual but in the most humdrum aspects of daily life, from marital and business relations to personal hygiene, including even the proper use of the toothpick. For non-Muslims, drawing on the same sources, he has been viewed from the earliest times as lustful and barbarous, as a raving impostor aping the ancient prophets; nowadays he is further charged with misogyny and pedophilia. The contrast is so stark as to appear irreconcilable.

. . .

Two of the book's best chapters deal with the most prominent of Muhammad's 12 or so wives: the saintly Khadija, a Meccan businesswoman 15 years older than he; and the more spirited--and controversial--Aisha, the child-bride who became Muhammad's "favorite wife" in later years. For both Muslim and non-Muslim biographers, Khadija represents a model wife. She is Muhammad's comforter in moments of doubt or distress--an "angel of mercy," according to the modern Egyptian biographer Muhammad Husayn Haykal--and their household is an abode of domestic felicity. Much is made of the fact that Muhammad took other wives only after Khadija's death.

His marriage to Aisha is another matter altogether. She was only 6 years old when she became engaged to Muhammad, but he considerately postponed consummation of the marriage until she was 9. Though earlier critics said surprisingly little about this marriage--they seemed not even to note the anomaly of the couple's ages--modern commentators have denounced it roundly, accusing Muhammad of pedophilia. Muslim biographers squirm to defend it, and some quibble over whether the bride was in fact only 9 when she was ushered into the marriage bed (to which she also brought her childhood toys, according to traditional accounts). A recent biography by one Abdul Hameed Siddiqui even goes so far as to praise the union with the fatuous remark that by marrying an older man, "the bride is immediately introduced and accustomed to moderate sexual intercourse." For pious Muslims, the marriage raises a painful dilemma. For non-Muslim polemicists, Ms. Ali says, the marriage and its presumed consummation are reasons to vilify Islam generally--to believe that "all of Islam and every Muslim is tainted."

For the full review, see:

ERIC ORMSBY. "Ways of Looking at the Prophet; Devout Muslims see him as the model for human behavior. Non-Muslims have seen him as lustful, barbarous or worse." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 10, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 9, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Ali, Kecia. The Lives of Muhammad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

September 4, 2015

Most Early Christians Blended in as Ordinary Romans

(p. C9)The earliest Christian building excavated anywhere in the Roman Empire, the famous house-church of Dura-Europos (now under the enlightened protection of Islamic State), dates to the mid-third century. Literary sources, both Christian and non-Christian, make it abundantly clear that Christian communities grew up everywhere in the Mediterranean in the 150 years after Jesus' death: Think of the famous congregations of Corinth, Colossae and Ephesus, vividly evoked in Paul's letters. But to the archaeologist these communities are completely invisible. Where are they?

In his lively new book, "Coming Out Christian in the Roman World," Douglas Boin offers an answer. Early Christian writers like St. John of Patmos or Tertullian of Carthage rejected any hint of compromise with the Roman imperial state or with their non-Christian neighbors: "No man," warned Tertullian grimly, "can serve two masters." But there is no particular reason to think that Tertullian's views were widely accepted at the time. Fundamentalist zealots often have the loudest voices. In fact, it seems, most early Christians were quite happy to rub along quietly with the Roman world as they found it. They served in the Roman army, honored the emperor and even participated in pagan sacrificial ritual. Their archaeological invisibility is easy to explain: Aside from their personal convictions (revealed every now and then in their choice of graffiti), most early Christians were just ordinary Romans.

For the full review, see:

EVAN HEPLER-SMITH. "Rome at the Crossroads; Apart from their convictions, most early Christians were just ordinary Romans. They served in the army, honored the emperor and even participated in pagan sacrificial ritual." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C9.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Boin, Douglas Ryan. Coming out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar's Empire. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015.

August 23, 2015

Starting in Late Middle Ages the State Tried "to Control, Delineate, and Restrict Human Thought and Action"

(p. C6) . . . transregional organizations like Viking armies or the Hanseatic League mattered more than kings and courts. It was a world, as Mr. Pye says, in which "you went where you were known, where you could do the things you wanted to do, and where someone would protect you from being jailed, hanged, or broken on the wheel for doing them."

. . .

This is a world in which money rules, but money is increasingly an abstraction, based on insider information, on speculation (the Bourse or stock market itself is a regional invention) and on the ability to apply mathematics: What was bought or sold was increasingly the relationships between prices in different locations rather than the goods themselves.

What happened to bring this powerful, creative pattern to a close? The author credits first the reaction to the Black Death of the mid-14th century, when fear of contamination (perhaps similar to our modern fear of terrorism) justified laws that limited travel and kept people in their place. Religious and sectarian strife further limited the free flow of ideas and people, forcing people to choose one identity to the exclusion of others or else to attempt to disappear into the underground of clandestine and subversive activities. And behind both of these was the rise of the state, a modern invention that attempted to control, delineate, and restrict human thought and action.

For the full review, see:

PATRICK J. GEARY. "Lighting Up the Dark Ages." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 30, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 29, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Pye, Michael. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Pegasus Books LLC, 2014.

August 15, 2015

Spread of Robots Creates New and Better Human Jobs

(p. A11) The issues at the heart of "Learning by Doing" come into sharp relief when James Bessen visits a retail distribution center near Boston that was featured on "60 Minutes" two years ago. The TV segment, titled "Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?," combined gotcha reporting with vintage movie clips--scary-looking Hollywood robots--to tell a chilling tale of human displacement and runaway job loss.

Mr. Bessen isn't buying it. Although robots at the distribution center have eliminated some jobs, he says, they have created others--for production workers, technicians and managers. The problem at automated workplaces isn't the robots. It's the lack of qualified workers. New jobs "require specialized skills," Mr. Bessen writes, but workers with these skills "are in short supply."

It is a deeply contrarian view. The conventional wisdom about robots and other new workplace technology is that they do more harm than good, destroying jobs and hollowing out the middle class. MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee made the case in their best-selling 2014 book, "The Second Machine Age." They describe a future in which software-driven machines will take over not just routine jobs--replacing clerks, cashiers and warehouse workers--but also tasks done by nurses, doctors, lawyers and stock traders. Mr. Bessen sets out to refute the arguments of such techno-pessimists, relying on economic analysis and on a fresh reading of history.

For the full review, see:

TAMAR JACOBY. "BOOKSHELF; Technology Isn't a Job Killer; Many predicted ATMs would eliminate bank tellers, but the number of tellers in the U.S. has risen since the machines were introduced." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 21, 2015): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Bessen, James. Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

August 11, 2015

"The Great Fact" of "the Ice-Hockey Stick"

(p. 2) Economic history has looked like an ice-hockey stick lying on the ground. It had a long, long horizontal handle at $3 a day extending through the two-hundred-thousand-year history of Homo sapiens to 1800, with little bumps upward on the handle in ancient Rome and the early medieval Arab world and high medieval Europe, with regressions to $3 afterward--then a wholly unexpected blade, leaping up in the last two out of the two thousand centuries, to $30 a day and in many places well beyond.

. . .

(p. 48) The heart of the matter is sixteen. Real income per head nowadays exceeds that around 1700 or 1800 in, say, Britain and in other countries that have experienced modern economic growth by such a large factor as sixteen, at least. You, oh average participant in the British economy, go through at least sixteen times more food and clothing and housing and education in a day than an ancestor of yours did two or three centuries ago. Not sixteen percent more, but sixteen multiplied by the old standard of living. You in the American or the South Korean economy, compared to the wretchedness of former Smiths in 1653 or Kims in 1953, have done even better. And if such novelties as jet travel and vitamin pills and instant messaging are accounted at their proper value, the factor of material improvement climbs even higher than sixteen--to eighteen, or thirty, or far beyond. No previous episode of enrichment for the average person approaches it, not the China of the Song Dynasty or the Egypt of the New Kingdom, not the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome.

No competent economist, regardless of her politics, denies the Great Fact.


McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

July 22, 2015

Woodrow Wilson Violated Free Speech

I viewed part of a CSPAN presentation on June 27, 2015 by Margaret MacMillan, based on her book The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. (It was probably a rebroadcast.) The presentation seemed serious, well-informed, and judicious in trying to be fair and balanced to Woodrow Wilson. MacMillan is more sympathetic to Wilson than I am, but she made it quite clear that he enacted serious violations of free speech.

MacMillan's book is:

MacMillan, Margaret. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. New York: Random House, 2013.

July 6, 2015

Competition between Greek City-States "Led to Specialization and Innovation"

(p. C8) Mr. Ober's approach is theoretical, not narrative-driven. When he does discuss the specifics of classical history, in the second half of the book, he does so largely to support the theses he has developed in the first half about the key causes of Greece's rise.

These causes, in Mr. Ober's view, derived from the competitive world of small, self-governing city-states that emerged in Greece starting around 800 B.C. Competition between states led to specialization and innovation, as exemplified by the high-grade ceramics industry at Athens, and to a spirit of "rational cooperation" among the members of each polity (think of those ants). Within each state, self-governance created what Mr. Ober terms "rule egalitarianism": a sense of fairness and security that "encouraged investment in human capital and lowered transaction costs." The result was a rise not only in standards of living but also in civic pride, technological progress and refinement of artisanship.

. . .

It's no accident that Mr. Ober's terminology overlaps with the language of modern economics--"creative destruction" is a phrase he uses frequently. He wants to encourage comparisons between ancient Greece and the modern West. They offer two examples of "political and economic exceptionalism," featuring both pluralistic government and the rapid growth of wealth.

For the full review, see:

James Romm. "Greeks and Their Gifts; Competition among self-governing city-states led to specialization, innovation and cooperation." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 23, 2015): C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 22, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

June 12, 2015

Constitutional Superheroes Created the American Nation

(p. 12) When and how did the United States ­become a nation? This question is the core of "The Quartet." In his customary graceful prose, Joseph J. Ellis, the author of such works of popular history as the prizewinning "Founding Brothers," argues that the United States did not become a nation with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Rather, he says, American nationhood resulted from the creation, adoption and effectuation of the United States ­Constitution.

Ellis declares, "Four men made the ­transition from confederation to nation ­happen. . . . George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison" (along with three supporting players: Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson). He writes that "this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history."

. . .

Ellis's "quartet" are constitutional superheroes, the Fantastic Four of American nationalism.

For the full review, see:

R. B. BERNSTEIN. "Gang of Four." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 10, 2015): 12.

(Note: ellipsis internal to paragraph, in original; ellipsis between paragraphs, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 5, 2015, and has the title "''The Quartet,' by Joseph J. Ellis.")

The book under review, is:

Ellis, Joseph J. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

May 12, 2015

Aaron Burr Gave Jeremy Bentham a Copy of The Federalist Papers

(p. 720) For four years, the disgraced Burr traveled in Europe, resorting occasionally to the pseudonym H. E. Edwards to keep creditors at bay. Sometimes he lived in opulence with fancy friends and at other times languished in drab single rooms. This aging roué sampled opium and seduced willing noblewomen and chambermaids with a fine impartiality. All the while, he cultivated self-pity. "I find that among the great number of Americans here and there all are hostile to A.B.-- All-- What a lot of rascals they must be to make war on one whom they do not know, on one who never did harm or wished harm to a human being," he recorded in his diary. He befriended the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and spoke to him with remarkable candor. "He really meant to make himself emperor of Mexico," Bentham recalled. "He told me I should be the legislator and he would send a ship of war for me. He gave me an account of his duel with Hamilton. He was sure of being able to kill him, so I thought it little better than murder." Always capable of irreverent surprises, Burr gave Bentham a copy of The Federalist. The shade of Alexander Hamilton rose up to haunt Burr at unexpected moments. In Paris, he called upon Talleyrand, who instructed his secretary to deliver this message to the uninvited caller: "I shall be glad to see Colonel Burr, but please tell him that a portrait of Alexander Hamilton always hangs in my study where all may see it." Burr got the message and left.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

(Note: italics in original.)

May 8, 2015

Self-Made, Abolitionist, Meritocratic Hamilton Viewed as Elitest

(p. 627) To Jefferson we owe the self-congratulatory language of Fourth of July oratory, the evangelical conviction that America serves as a beacon to all humanity. Jefferson told John Dickinson, "Our revolution and its consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe." At least on paper, Jefferson possessed a more all-embracing view of democracy than Hamilton, who was always frightened by a sense of the fickle and fallible nature of the masses.

Having said that, one must add that the celebration of the 1800 election as the simple triumph of "progressive" Jeffersonians over "reactionary" Hamiltonians greatly overstates the case. The three terms of Federalist rule had been full of daz-(p. 628)zling accomplishments that Republicans, with their extreme apprehension of federal power, could never have achieved. Under the tutelage of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, the Federalists had bequeathed to American history a sound federal government with a central bank, a funded debt, a high credit rating, a tax system, a customs service, a coast guard, a navy, and many other institutions that would guarantee the strength to preserve liberty. They activated critical constitutional doctrines that gave the American charter flexibility, forged the bonds of nationhood, and lent an energetic tone to the executive branch in foreign and domestic policy. Hamilton, in particular, bound the nation through his fiscal programs in a way that no Republican could have matched. He helped to establish the rule of law and the culture of capitalism at a time when a revolutionary utopianism and a flirtation with the French Revolution still prevailed among too many Jeffersonians. With their reverence for states' rights, abhorrence of central authority, and cramped interpretation of the Constitution, Republicans would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve these historic feats.

Hamilton had promoted a forward-looking agenda of a modern nation-state with a market economy and an affirmative view of central government. His meritocratic vision allowed greater scope in the economic sphere for the individual liberties that Jefferson defended so eloquently in the political sphere. It was no coincidence that the allegedly aristocratic and reactionary Federalists contained the overwhelming majority of active abolitionists of the period. Elitists they might be, but they were an open, fluid elite, based on merit and money, not on birth and breeding--the antithesis of the southern plantation system. It was the northern economic system that embodied the mix of democracy and capitalism that was to constitute the essence of America in the long run. By no means did the 1800 election represent the unalloyed triumph of good over evil or of commoners over the wellborn.

The 1800 triumph of Republicanism also meant the ascendancy of the slaveholding south. Three Virginia slaveholders--Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--were to control the White House for the next twenty-four years. These aristocratic exponents of"democracy" not only owned hundreds of human beings but profited from the Constitution's least democratic features: the legality of slavery and the ability of southern states to count three-fifths of their captive populations in calculating their electoral votes. (Without this so-called federal ratio, John Adams would have defeated Thomas Jefferson in 1800.) The Constitution did more than just tolerate slavery: it actively rewarded it. Timothy Pickering was to inveigh against "Negro presidents and Negro congresses"-- that is, presidents and congresses who owed their power to the three-fifths rule. This bias inflated southern power (p. 629) against the north and disfigured the democracy so proudly proclaimed by the Jeffersonians. Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington's first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

May 1, 2015

Resilient Italian Entrepreneur Planned to Build Trattoria and Ended Up Building Museum

FaggianoAndSonsDigToFixPipe2015-04-19.jpg "Luciano Faggiano and his sons were digging to fix a pipe in Lecce, Italy. They found a buried world tracing back before Jesus." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) LECCE, Italy -- All Luciano Faggiano wanted when he purchased the seemingly unremarkable building at 56 Via Ascanio Grandi was to open a trattoria. The only problem was the toilet.

Sewage kept backing up. So Mr. Faggiano enlisted his two older sons to help him dig a trench and investigate. He predicted the job would take about a week.

If only.

"We found underground corridors and other rooms, so we kept digging," said Mr. Faggiano, 60.

His search for a sewage pipe, which began in 2000, became one family's tale of obsession and discovery. He found a subterranean world tracing back before the birth of Jesus: a Messapian tomb, a Roman granary, a Franciscan chapel and even etchings from the Knights Templar. His tratto-(p. A8)ria instead became a museum, where relics still turn up today.

. . .

If this history only later became clear, what was immediately obvious was that finding the pipe would be a much bigger project than Mr. Faggiano had anticipated. He did not initially tell his wife about the extent of the work, possibly because he was tying a rope around the chest of his youngest son, Davide, then 12, and lowering him to dig in small, darkened openings.

. . .

Mr. Faggiano still dreamed of a trattoria, even if the project had become his white whale. He supported his family with rent from an upstairs floor in the building and income on other properties.

"I was still digging to find my pipe," he said. "Every day we would find new artifacts."

. . .

Today, the building is Museum Faggiano, an independent archaeological museum authorized by the Lecce government. Spiral metal stairwells allow visitors to descend through the underground chambers, while sections of glass flooring underscore the building's historical layers.

His docent, Rosa Anna Romano, is the widow of an amateur speleologist who helped discover the Grotto of Cervi, a cave on the coastline near Lecce that is decorated in Neolithic pictographs. While taking an outdoor bathroom break, the husband had noticed holes in the ground that led to the underground grotto.

"We were brought together by sewage systems," Mr. Faggiano joked.

. . .

"I still want it," he said of the trattoria. "I'm very stubborn."

For the full story, see:

JIM YARDLEY. "Home Repair Opens a Portal to Italy's Past." The New York Times (Fri., APRIL 15, 2015): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 14, 2015, and has the title "Centuries of Italian History Are Unearthed in Quest to Fix Toilet.")

April 30, 2015

Hamilton Fostered the Preconditions for Capitalism

(p. 345) In a nation of self-made people, Hamilton became an emblematic figure because he believed that government ought to promote self-fulfillment, self-improvement, and self-reliance. His own life offered an extraordinary object lesson in social mobility, and his unstinting energy illustrated his devout belief in the salutary power of work to develop people's minds and bodies. As treasury secretary, he wanted to make room for entrepreneurs, whom he regarded as the motive force of the economy. Like Franklin, he intuited America's special genius for business: "As to whatever may depend on enterprise, we need not fear to be outdone by any people on earth. It may almost be said that enterprise is our element."

Hamilton did not create America's market economy so much as foster the cultural and legal setting in which it flourished. A capitalist society requires certain preconditions. Among other things, it must establish a rule of law through enforceable contracts; respect private property; create a trustworthy bureaucracy to arbitrate legal disputes; and offer patents and other protections to promote invention. The abysmal failure of the Articles of Confederation to provide such an atmosphere was one of Hamilton's principal motives for promoting the Constitution. "It is known," he wrote, "that the relaxed conduct of the state governments in regard to property and credit was one of the most serious diseases under which the body politic laboured prior to the adoption of our present constitution and was a material cause of that state of public opinion which led to its adoption." He converted the new Constitution into a flexible instrument for creating the legal framework necessary for economic growth. He did this by activating three still amorphous clauses--the necessary-and-proper clause, the general-welfare clause, and the commerce clause--making them the basis for government activism in economics.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

April 26, 2015

Hamilton "Was the Clear-Eyed Apostle of America's Economic Future"

(p. 344) The American Revolution and its aftermath coincided with two great transformations in the late eighteenth century. In the political sphere, there had been a repudiation of royal rule, fired by a new respect for individual freedom, majority rule, and limited government. If Hamilton made distinguished contributions in this sphere, so did Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. In contrast, when it came to the parallel economic upheavals of the period--the industrial revolution, the expansion of global trade, the growth of banks and stock exchanges--Hamilton was an American prophet without peer. No other founding father straddled both of these revolutions--only Franklin even came close--and therein lay Hamilton's novelty and greatness. He was the clear-eyed apostle of America's economic future, setting forth a vision that many found enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail. He stood squarely on the modern side of a historical divide that seemed to separate him from other founders. Small wonder he aroused such fear and confusion.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

April 25, 2015

Lincoln Defended Innovative Rail Against Incumbent Steam

(p. A15) "Lincoln's Greatest Case" convincingly shows that 1857 was a watershed year for the moral and political questions surrounding slavery's expansion to the west, something that Jefferson Davis's preferred railroad route would have facilitated. Mr. McGinty's discussion of Lincoln's philosophy and the career-making speeches he would develop in the late 1850s allows us to see the transportation disputes in light of the political and cultural dynamics that would lead to the Civil War. The book is also a case study of discomfort with new technology--and the futility of using a tort suit to prevent the adoption of inevitable innovation.

The book ends on an elegiac note, with steamboats making their inevitable passage into the mists of history. The rails, which could operate year-round through paths determined by man, not nature, would reign supreme, thanks in part to the efforts of a technophile future president.

For the full review, see:

MARGARET A. LITTLE. "BOOKSHELF; When Steam Was King; A dispute over a fiery collision pitted steamboats against railroads and the North against the South. Lincoln defended the rail." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Feb. 23, 2015): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 22, 2015, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Technology's Great Liberator; A dispute over a fiery collision pitted steamboats against railroads and the North against the South. Lincoln defended the rail.")

The book under review is:

McGinty, Brian. Lincoln's Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2015.

April 22, 2015

Today Is 15th Anniversary of Our Betrayal of Elián González

GonzalezElianSeizedOn2000-04-22.jpg"In this April 22, 2000 file photo, Elian Gonzalez is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the ocean, right, as government officials search the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, early Saturday morning, April 22, 2000, in Miami. Armed federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday, firing tear gas into an angry crowd as they left the scene with the weeping 6-year-old boy." Source of caption and photo: online version of JENNIFER KAY and MATT SEDENSKY. "10 years later, few stirred by Elian Gonzalez saga." Omaha World-Herald (Thurs., April 22, 2010): 7A. (Note: the online version of the article is dated April 21, 2010 and has the title "10 years after Elian, US players mum or moving on.")

Today (April 22, 2015) is the 15th anniversary of the day when the Clinton Administration seized a six year old child in order to force him back into the slavery that his mother had died trying to escape.

April 21, 2015

Homer Spoke from a "Vengeful, Frighteningly Violent Time"

(p. 17) The Homeric epics are long, contradictory, repetitive, composite works, riddled with anachronisms, archaic vocabulary, metric filler and exceedingly graphic brutality. Over the millenniums, Nicolson asserts, they have been cleaned, scrubbed and sanitized by generations of translators, editors, librarians and scholars, in order to protect readers from the dangers of the atavistic world lurking just below the surface of the words. He writes that everyone from the editors at the Ptolemaic library in Alexandria to the great 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wished to civilize or tame the poems, "wanted to make Homer proper, to pasteurize him and transform him into something acceptable for a well-­governed city." Part of Nicolson's objective is to follow the poems back to the vengeful, frighteningly violent time and culture from which they came, and to restore some of their rawness.

For the full review, see:

BRYAN DOERRIES. "Songs of the Sirens." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., DEC. 28, 2014): 17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date DEC. 26, 2014, and has the title "'Why Homer Matters,' by Adam Nicolson.")

The book under review is:

Nicolson, Adam. Why Homer Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014.

April 18, 2015

In American Political System "It Will Be far More Difficult to Undo than to Do"

(p. 330) Jefferson traced the formation of the two main parties--to be known as Republicans and Federalists--to Hamilton's victory over assumption. For Jefferson, this event split Congress into pure, virtuous republicans and a "mercenary phalanx," "monarchists in principle," who "adhered to Hamilton of course as their leader in that principle."

Why did Jefferson retrospectively try to downplay his part in passing Hamilton's assumption scheme? While he understood the plan at the time better than he admitted, he probably did not see as clearly as Hamilton that the scheme created an unshakable foundation for federal power in America. The federal government had captured forever the bulk of American taxing power. In comparison, the location of the national capital seemed a secondary matter. It wasn't that Jefferson had been duped by Hamilton; Hamilton had explained his views at dizzying length. It was simply that he had been outsmarted by Hamilton, who had embedded an enduring political system in the details of the funding scheme. In an unsigned newspaper article that September, entitled "Address to the Public Creditors," Hamilton gave away the secret of his statecraft that so infuriated Jefferson: "Whoever considers the nature of our government with discernment will see that though obstacles and delays will frequently stand in the way of the adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted, they are likely to be stable and permanent. It will be far more difficult to undo than to do."


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

(Note: italics in original.)

April 14, 2015

"The Most Celebrated Meal in American History"

(p. 328) If we are to credit Jefferson's story, the dinner held at his lodgings on Maiden Lane on June 20, 1790, fixed the future site of the capital. It is perhaps the most celebrated meal in American history, the guests including Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and perhaps one or two others. For more than a month, Jefferson had been bedeviled by a migraine headache, yet he presided with commendable civility. Despite his dislike of assumption, he knew that the stalemate over the funding scheme could shatter the union, and, as secretary of state, he also feared the repercussions for American credit abroad.

Madison restated his familiar argument that assumption punished Virginia and other states that had duly settled their debts. But he agreed to support assumption--or at least not oppose it--if something was granted in exchange. Jefferson recalled, "It was observed... that as the pill would be a bitter one to the southern states, something should be done to soothe them." The sedative measure was that Philadelphia would be the temporary capital for ten years, followed by a permanent move to a Potomac site. In a lucrative concession for his home state, Madison also seems to have extracted favorable treatment for Virginia in a final debt settlement with the central government. In return, Hamilton agreed to exert his utmost efforts (p. 329) to get the Pennsylvania congressional delegation to accept Philadelphia as the provisional capital and a Potomac site as its permanent successor.

The dinner consecrated a deal that was probably already close to achievement. The sad irony was that Hamilton, the quintessential New Yorker, bargained away the city's chance to be another London or Paris, the political as well as financial and cultural capital of the country. His difficult compromise testified to the transcendent value he placed on assumption. The decision did not sit well with many New Yorkers. Senator Rufus King was enraged when Hamilton told him that he "had made up his mind" to jettison the capital to save his funding system. For King, Hamilton's move had been high-handed and secretive, and he ranted privately that "great and good schemes ought to succeed not by intrigue or the establishment of bad measures."


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

April 10, 2015

In Hamilton's Financial System the "Cogs and Wheels Meshed Perfectly Together"

(p. 302) Much later, Daniel Webster rhapsodized about Hamilton's report as follows: "The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jove was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States as it burst forth from the conception of Alexander Hamilton." This was the long view of history and of many contemporaries, but detractors were immediately vocal. They were befuddled by the complexity of Hamilton's plan and its array of options for creditors. Opponents sensed that he was moving too fast, on too many fronts, for them to grasp all his intentions. He had devised his economic machinery so cunningly that its cogs and wheels meshed perfectly together. One could not tamper with the parts without destroying the whole. Hamilton later said of this ingenious structure, "Credit is an entire thing. Every part of it has the nicest sympathy with every other part. Wound one limb and the whole tree shrinks and decays."


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

(Note: italics in original.)

April 5, 2015

Railroad Regulation Helped Kill Passenger Service

(p. 1179) By 1970, passenger service was a not only losing money, but had deteriorated to such an extent that it was no more the elegant transportation mode as it once was. No more were the Hollywood stars long distance rail passengers. No more movies like "North by Northwest," which featured the New York Central's Twentieth Century Limited service from New York to Chicago. The book highlights the factors causing the decline of private rail passenger service and the creation of AMTRAK. The authors cite ICC regulation, the growth in alternative modes, which were heavily subsidized, the mix of freight and passenger service on the same lines, and public policy, which favored the airline industry.

. . .

One public policy that government got right is deregulation. This started with the 3R Act, then the 4R Act and then the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which had a massive impact on the industry. Deregulation culminated in the ICC Elimination Act, in which the ICC was replaced by the Surface Transportation Board--or STB--with substantially diminished regulatory power. Gallamore worked in government when much of this legislation was passed and gives a firsthand account of the debates that took place in Congressional (p. 1180) hearings and the discussions in and out of government on the merits of deregulation.

In the concluding chapter of the over 500-page book, entitled "Decline and Renaissance of American Railroads in the Twentieth Century" the authors provide a summary of the history of the railroads and the lessons for public policy in the future. This chapter is such a great summary, that the reader may be best off starting with it, before reading the book. But don't forget the afterword, which provides the authors' recommendations for future U.S. policies for the railroads. It is a very insightful chapter.

. . .

American Railroads should be on the reading list of economists interested in transportation and logistics, economic historians, government officials, and rail fans who would like to know more about the history of the railroads in the twentieth century, and are interested in understanding the economics of the industry and the problems of government regulation. Gallamore and Meyer, at the end of the book, sum up why it should be read:

This book's authors love railroads because they have a great history, fascinating operations, intriguing technology and untold opportunity for the future, but we also love them because no other enterprises illustrate elegant economic principles quite so well (p. 435).

For the full review, see:

Pagano, Anthony M. "American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century." Journal of Economic Literature 52, no. 4 (Dec. 2014): 1178-80.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:

Gallamore, Robert E., and John R. Meyer. American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

April 4, 2015

Heckman Thinks that Economists Who Are Only Economists May Be Dangerous

The Journal of Political Economy, edited by the University of Chicago economics department, is one of the three or four most prestigious journals in the economics profession. For the last 20 years or so (if memory serves) the back cover of each issue has had a funny quote or interesting or unusual anecdote, related to some aspect of economics.

I was surprised to see that the quote from the October 2014 issue as "suggested by James J. Heckman." Heckman is a Nobel-Prize-winner who is known mainly for developing new econometric techniques in the area of labor economics. When I was a graduate student at Chicago, his graduate students tended to be among those who were most oriented to formalism and technique. So I was surprised to see that he had suggested the following quote from neo-Austrian economist and fellow Nobel-Prize-winner F.A. Hayek:

(p. 463) But nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist---and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.


Hayek, F. A. "The Dilemma of Specialization." In The State of the Social Sciences, edited by Leonard D. White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

(Note: I do not have the book, and cannot find the page range of Hayek's article in the book.)

April 2, 2015

Hamilton Thought "Contracts Formed the Basis of Public and Private Morality"

(p. 297) Hamilton argued that the security of liberty and property were inseparable and that governments should honor their debts because contracts formed the basis of public and private morality: "States, like individuals, who observe their engagements are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those who pursue an opposite conduct." The proper handling of government debt would permit America to borrow at affordable interest rates and would also act as a tonic to the economy. Used as loan collateral, government bonds could function as money--and it was the scarcity of money, Hamilton observed, that had crippled the economy and resulted in severe deflation in the value of land. America was a young country rich in opportunity. It lacked only liquid capital, and government debt could supply that gaping deficiency.

The secret of managing government debt was to fund it properly by setting aside revenues at regular intervals to service interest and pay off principal. Hamilton refuted charges that his funding scheme would feed speculation. Quite the contrary: if investors knew for sure that government bonds would be paid off, the prices would not fluctuate wildly, depriving speculators of opportunities to exploit. What mattered was that people trusted the government to make good on repayment: "In nothing are appearances of greater moment than in whatever regards credit. Opinion is the soul of it and this is affected by appearances as well as realities." Hamilton intuited that public relations and confidence building were to be the special burdens of every future treasury secretary.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

March 29, 2015

Rich Slaveholders "Posed as Plucky Populists"

(p. 267) As Hamilton tangled with Lansing, neither knew that Virginia had on June 25 become the tenth state to ratify the Constitution. Like their New York counterparts, antifederalists there posed as plucky populists, even though their ranks included many rich slaveholders. Patrick Henry, the leading antifederalist, warned delegates who supported the Constitution, "They'll free your niggers." George Washington noted the hypocrisy of the many slaveholding antifederalists: "It is a little strange that the men of large property in the South should be more afraid that the Constitution will produce an aristocracy or a monarchy than the genuine, democratical people of the East."


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

March 25, 2015

Few Founding Fathers Toiled Harder Against Slavery than Hamilton

(p. 211) The magnitude of southern slavery was to have far-reaching repercussions in Hamilton's career. The most damning and hypocritical critiques of his allegedly aristocratic economic system emanated from the most aristocratic southern slaveholders, who deflected attention from their own nefarious deeds by posing as populist champions and assailing the northern financial and mercantile interests aligned with Hamilton. As will be seen, the national consensus that the slavery issue should be tabled to preserve the union meant that the southern plantation economy was effectively ruled off-limits to political discussion, while Hamilton's system, by default, underwent the most searching scrutiny.

Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled (p. 212) harder to eradicate it than Hamilton--a fact that belies the historical stereotype that he cared only for the rich and privileged.

. . .

(p. 213) The issue surged to the fore with the peace treaty that ended the Revolution. At the prompting of Henry Laurens, article 7 placed a ban on the British "carrying away any Negroes or other property" after the war. This nebulous phrase was construed by slaveholders to mean that the British should return runaway slaves who had defected to the British lines or else pay compensation. The British, in turn, claimed that the former slaves had been freed when they crossed behind British lines. Conceding that Britain may have violated article 7 on technical grounds, Hamilton nevertheless refused to stand up for the slaveholders and invoked a higher moral authority:

In the interpretation of treaties, things odious or immoral are not to be presumed. The abandonment of negroes, who had been induced to quit their masters on the faith of official proclamations, promising them liberty, to fall again under the yoke of their masters and into slavery is as odious and immoral a thing as can be conceived. It is odious not only as it imposes an act of perfidy on one of the contracting parties, but as it tends to bring back to servitude men once made free.

This fierce defender of private property--this man for whom contracts were to be sacred covenants--expressly denied the sanctity of any agreement that stripped people of their freedom.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

(Note: italics in original.)

March 24, 2015

The Underground Railroad Was No Myth

(p. C7) The first scholarly study of the Underground Railroad, published by Wilbur Siebert in 1898, named some 3,200 "agents," virtually all of them white men, who presided over an elaborate network of fixed routes, illustrated with maps that looked much like those of an ordinary railroad.

That view largely held among scholars until 1961, when the historian Larry Gara published "The Liberty Line," a slashing revisionist study that dismissed the Underground Railroad as a myth and argued that most fugitive slaves escaped at their own initiative, with little help from organized abolitionists. Scholarship on the topic all but dried up, as historians more generally emphasized the agency of African-Americans in claiming their own freedom.

But over the past 15 years, aided by newly digitized records of obscure abolitionist newspapers and local archives, scholars have constructed a new picture of the Underground Railroad as a collection of loosely interlocking local networks of activists, both black and white, that waxed and waned over time but nevertheless helped a significant number reach freedom.

. . .

In "Gateway to Freedom," Mr. Foner ties much of that work together, while uncovering the history of the eastern corridor's key gateway, New York City.

"This book is a capstone," said Matthew Pinsker, a historian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who will be teaching it to K-12 educators at a workshop this summer. "The Underground Railroad was real, and Foner will help ordinary people understand that in a way that doesn't rely on fiction or quilt stories, but on actual documents and records."

For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SCHUESSLER. "Words From the Past Illuminate a Station on the Way to Freedom." The New York Times (Thurs., JAN. 15, 2015): C1 & C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date JAN. 14, 2015.)

The book under review is:

Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

March 21, 2015

Cornwalis Betrayed the Slaves Who Had Helped Him

(p.161) Dug in on high ground, Cornwallis had been throwing up earthwork redoubts since early August, employing thousands of slaves who had defected to the British lines in expectation of earning their freedom.

. . .

(p. 164) Cornwallis had grown so desperate that he infected blacks with smallpox and forced them to wander toward enemy lines in an attempt to sicken the opposing forces.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

March 20, 2015

Moral Progress Accelerated in the 18th Century

(p. A11) For hundreds of years, people flocked to public hangings as a form of entertainment. Onlookers crowded into town squares and brought their families, reveling in the carnival atmosphere. Today most people are sickened at the idea of merriment at an execution. (Many are disturbed that executions take place at all.) We recoil from other once-common practices, too: slavery, the mistreatment of children, animal cruelty. Such shifts in attitude or belief surely constitute a form of moral progress and suggest, for once, that civilization is advancing and not receding.

. . .

Mr. Shermer defines moral progress as an "increase in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings," which he illustrates with graphs and charts that reveal, among other things, a decline in war-related deaths, the expansion of the food supply, the reduction in major epidemics, the growth of world GDP and the spread of democracy.

Humanitarian achievements in the West, Mr. Shermer notes, began in earnest [in] the 18th century. Yet the ability to reason ethically is not a product of the Enlightenment. A moral instinct seems to be present at birth: Even infants possess innate intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, as Mr. Shermer explains. All societies punish free riders. The Golden Rule and Babylon's Code of Hammurabi (advocating proportionate punishment) predate the ancient Greeks. So why did we need an Enlightenment to jump-start our moral progress?

For the full review, see:

SALLY SATEL. "BOOKSHELF; Getting Better All the Time; Crowds once flocked to watch executions. Now we recoil at the idea. What causes such transformations of ethical standards?" The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 20, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 19, 2015.)

The book under review is:

Shermer, Michael. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015.

March 13, 2015

"Hamilton Constantly Educated Himself"

(p. 110) During the winter encampments, Hamilton constantly educated himself, as if equipping his mind for the larger tasks ahead. "Force of intellect and force of will were the sources of his success," Henry Cabot Lodge later wrote. From his days as an artillery captain, Hamilton had kept a pay book with blank pages in the back; while on Washington's staff, he filled up 112 pages with notes from his extracurricular reading. Hamilton fit the type of the self-improving autodidact, employing all his spare time to better himself. He aspired to the eighteenth-century aristocratic ideal of the versatile man conversant in every area of knowledge. Thanks to his pay book we know that he read a considerable amount of philosophy, including Bacon, Hobbes, Montaigne, and Cicero. He also perused histories of Greece, Prussia, and France.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

March 9, 2015

George Washington's "Entrepreneurial Bent"

(p. 87) Washington proved an excellent businessman, first as a canny speculator in western lands, then as lord of Mount Vernon. Sometimes buying human cargo directly from the holds of slave ships, he came to own more than one hundred slaves by the Revolution and expanded his estate until it encompassed thirteen square miles. An innovative farmer, he invented a plough and presided over a small industrial village at Mount Vernon that included a flour mill and a shop for manufacturing cloth, an entrepreneurial bent that appealed to Hamilton.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

March 5, 2015

Hamilton Was an Autodidact

Others who might be considered autodidacts include Andrew Carnegie, Winston Churchill, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Guglielomo Marconi. When the self-taught can achieve so much, it raises the question of whether we over-emphasize formal education? (Chernow also mentions Hamilton being an autodidact on pages 110, 206, and 682.)

(p. 42) Hamilton's early itinerary in America closely mirrored the connections of Hugh Knox. Through Knox, he came to know two of New York's most eminent Presbyterian clergymen: Knox's old mentor, Dr. John Rodgers-- an imposing figure who strutted grandly down Wall Street en route to church, grasping a gold-headed cane and nodding to well-wishers--and the Reverend John M. Mason, whose son would end up attempting an authorized biography of Hamilton. Through another batch of Knox introductory letters, Hamilton ended up studying at a well-regarded preparatory school across the Hudson River, the Elizabethtown Academy. Like all autodidacts, Hamilton had some glaring deficiencies to correct and required cram courses in Latin, Greek, and advanced math to qualify for college.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

March 4, 2015

Depression of 1920-21 Ended Quickly, Without Government Stimulus or Bailouts

(p. C3) Beginning in January 1920, something much worse than a recession blighted the world. The U.S. suffered the steepest plunge in wholesale prices in its history (not even eclipsed by the Great Depression), as well as a 31.6% drop in industrial production and a 46.6% fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Unemployment spiked, and corporate profits plunged.

. . .

In the absence of anything resembling government stimulus, a modern economist may wonder how the depression of 1920-21 ever ended. Oddly enough, deflation turned out to be a tonic. Prices--and, critically, wages too--were allowed to fall, and they fell far enough to entice consumers, employers and investors to part with their money. Europeans, noticing that America was on the bargain counter, shipped their gold across the Atlantic, where it swelled the depression-shrunken U.S. money supply. Shares of profitable and well-financed American companies changed hands at giveaway valuations.

Of course, the year-and-a-half depression must have seemed interminable for all who were jobless or destitute. It was, however, a great deal shorter than the 43 months of the Great Depression of 1929-33. Then too, the 1922 recovery would bring tears of envy to today's central bankers and policy makers: Passenger-car production shot up by 63%, for instance, and the Dow jumped by 21.5%. "From practically all angles," this newspaper judged in a New Year's Day 1923 retrospective, "1922 can be recorded as the renaissance of prosperity."

In 2008, as Lehman Brothers toppled, the Great Depression monopolized the market on historical analogies. To avoid a recurrence of the 1930s, officials declared, the U.S. had to knock down interest rates, manipulate stock prices to go higher, repave the highways and trade in the clunkers.

The forgotten depression teaches a very different lesson. Sometimes the best stimulus is none at all.

For the full commentary, see:

JAMES GRANT. "The Depression Fixed by Doing Nothing; The agonizing but often forgotten 1920-21 economic crisis suggests that sometimes the best stimulus is none at all." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 3, 2015): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 2, 2015, and has the title "The Depression That Was Fixed by Doing Nothing; The often forgotten 1920-21 economic crisis suggests that sometimes the best stimulus is none at all.")

Grant's commentary is elaborated on in his book:

Grant, James. The Forgotten Depression: 1921, the Crash That Cured Itself. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

March 1, 2015

Probate Court Kept Hamilton Waiting for a Year

(p. 25) For a year after his mother's death, Alexander was held in painful suspense by the probate court and perhaps absorbed the useful lesson that people who manipulate the law wield the real power in society.


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

February 28, 2015

Stalin Showed that a Single Individual's Decisions Can Matter

(p. C29) . . . , [Stephen Kotkin] is not shy about assailing what he regards as false interpretations by other historians. His Stalin is not a disciple who deviates from Lenin; he is Lenin's true disciple, in pitiless class warfare, in the inability to compromise, and, above all, in unshakable ideological conviction.

. . .

There is little equivocation in Mr. Kotkin's judgments. Scholars who argue collectivization was necessary to force Russian peasants into a modern state are "dead wrong." The conclusion by the British historian E. H. Carr that Stalin was a product of circumstances, and not the other way around, is "utterly, eternally wrong." On the contrary, it is one of Mr. Kotkin's major theses that Stalin "reveals how, on extremely rare occasions, a single individual's decisions can radically transform an entire country's political and socioeconomic structures, with global repercussions." Or, as he puts it in a more graphic passage: "The Bolshevik putsch could have been prevented by a pair of bullets" -- one for Lenin and one for Stalin.

. . .

This reader, for one, still hopes for more evidence that Stalin was indeed singular, a historical malignancy, and not a product of circumstances of the kind that might already be shaping the next chapter of Russian history. And that only whets the appetite for the next installment, in which Stalin decides to starve Russia almost to death to bring peasants under state control. That, Mr. Kotkin has already declared, was an assault on the peasantry for which there was no political or social logic, and that only Stalin could have done. It is a testament to Mr. Kotkin's skill that even after almost a thousand pages, one wants more.

For the full review, see:

SERGE SCHMEMANN. "From Czarist Rubble, a Russian Autocrat Rises." The New York Times (Sat., JAN. 8, 2015): C29.

(Note: ellipses, and book author's name in brackets, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date JAN. 8, 2015.)

The book under review is:

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

February 26, 2015

The Case that Hamilton Was Better than Jefferson

One of my entrenched beliefs has been that Thomas Jefferson was one of the great heroes of human history, and Alexander Hamilton was not. It is rare that I read something that changes my entrenched beliefs. But Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton did that. He makes a strong (and long) case that Alexander Hamilton was mainly a decent, brilliant, courageous, hard-working, self-made man, who not only talked the talk on liberty, but walked the walk (taking fire in the revolution, and strongly opposing slavery). He wasn't perfect in either his personal life or his beliefs. But he now has my vote as one of the great heroes of human history (and Jefferson does not).

In the next few weeks, I will quote several of the most revealing or thought-provoking passages of Chernow's book.

PS: I also previously learned a lot from Chernow's Titan, a big book about a big entrepreneur.

Main book discussed:

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

Other book, briefly mentioned:

Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Random House, 1998.

February 9, 2015

The "Miracle Machines" of Farming

(p. 75) Nobody had washing machines, vacuum cleaners, or incandescent light bulbs. But the farmers did have their miracle machines. In fifteen years, the Lucas family had gone from a walking plow pulled along behind a mule, to a riding plow, in which horses carried the blade through the soil, to a fine-tuned internal combustion plow.

"Machinery is the new Messiah," said Henry Ford, and though that sounded blasphemous to a devout sodbuster, there was something to it. Every ten seconds a new car came off Ford's factory line, and some of them were now parked next to dugouts in No Man's Land.


Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

February 5, 2015

Justice on the Plains

(p. 71) "What are you doing here?" the judge asked again.

"I cannot talk," Ehrlich answered, in his hybrid English-German. "This guard will stab my heart out."

"You talk to me," Judge Alexander told him. "Now what are you people here for? It's the middle of the night."


"What's that? A picture?"


An officer produced the picture that Ehrlich kept in his house--Kaiser Wilhelm and his family in formal pose.

"That's a beautiful picture," the judge said, then turned to the police. "Is that all you got against these people?"

"They're pro-German. They're hurting the war effort. Spies, for all we know."

The judge turned to the Germans from the Volga. "How many of you are supporting America in the war?" All hands went up.

Ehrlich reached into his pocket and produced two hundred dollars' worth of government stamps issued to support the war effort . A friend produced war bonds. The judge looked at the sheriff and asked him how many of his officers had war bonds or stamps. None.

(p. 72) "Take these people home," the judge said. "If anything happens to them, I'll hold you responsible ." They drove back in the freezing predawn darkness and released the men to their families at sunrise. A daylong party followed.


Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

(Note: italics in original.)

January 29, 2015

Government Encouraged the Dust Bowl of the 1930s

Timothy Egan in The Worst Hard Time helps us to understand the motives and struggles of those who suffered in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains of the United States. Sometimes he also illuminates the role that the government had in encouraging ordinary people to move to a place that would soon be hell on earth.

In the next few weeks, I will quote several of the most thought-provoking passages of Egan's book.

Book discussed:

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

January 27, 2015

Stalin Was "a People Person"

(p. 12) In "Stalin. Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928," a masterly account that is the first of a projected three-volume study, Kotkin paints a portrait of an autodidact, an astute thinker, "a people person" with "surpassing organizational abilities; a mammoth appetite for work; a strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher, Lenin."

For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SIEGEL. "'Stalin,' by Stephen Kotkin." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., NOV. 30, 2014): 12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date NOV. 26, 2014, and has the title "'Stalin,' by Stephen Kotkin.")

The book under review is:

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

December 18, 2014

The Washing Machine Is a Great Bulwark of Women's Liberation

(p. C9) If the past is foreign country because they do things differently there, we're lucky to have such a knowledgeable cicerone as Ruth Goodman.

. . .

"I like to put time and effort into studying the objects and tools that people made and used, and I like to try methods and approaches out for myself," she writes in "How to Be a Victorian." This sounds straightforward enough but hardly hints at the leaps of imaginative empathy the author is so good at: When she visits a museum to examine a Victorian farm worker's wool coat, for example, she sees both the husband "who sweated and left stains on his clothes, who physically felt the cold" and the wife who "spent hours carefully and neatly sewing up the tear."

Ms. Goodman observes that the wife's technique for repair matches one taught in working-class textbooks, a fact that raises questions in her mind. "How widespread was such needlework education, and was it likely to have been women who carried out such repairs?" she wonders. "If it takes me over an hour to do the work, would my Victorian forebears have been quicker? When would they have fitted such a chore into their day?" That little rip in the man's coat, it turns out, is like a tiny window into "the great sweeps of political and economic life" that in turn "bring us back to the personal." Trade disruptions in textiles during the American Civil War, for instance, "pushed up the price of the labourer's coat, making that repair more necessary."

. . .

Many, many things about daily life are far better now: "My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the great bulwarks of women's liberation, an invention that can sit alongside contraception and the vote."

For the full review, see:

ALEXANDRA KIMBALL. "Living Like a Queen; You might get used to using soot to brush your teeth. But steel corsets? Never." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 4, 2014): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 3, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'How to Be a Victorian" by Ruth Goodman; You might get used to using soot to brush your teeth. But steel corsets? Never.")

The book under review is:

Goodman, Ruth. How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014.

December 10, 2014

Churchill Was More than an Epiphenomenon

(p. C2) It is easy to see why so many historians and historiographers have taken the Tolstoyan line, that the story of humanity isn't the story of great people and shining deeds. It has been fashionable to say that those so-called great men and women are just epiphenomena, meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history. The real story, on this view, is about deep economic forces, technological advances, changes in the price of sorghum, the overwhelming weight of an infinite number of mundane human actions.

The story of Winston Churchill is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey.

For the full essay, see:

BORIS JOHNSON. "He Still Stands Alone." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 8, 2014): C1-C2.

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date Nov. 7, 2014, and has the title "Churchill Still Stands Alone.")

The passage quoted above is related to Johnson's book:

Johnson, Boris. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. New York: Riverhead, 2014.

November 28, 2014

When Pirates Were More Enlightened than Most Governments

(p. A11) While slaves were oppressed by the social order, Mr. Rediker argues, pirates on the high seas were remaking it. An estimated 2,500 buccaneers prowled the Atlantic and the Caribbean at any given time during the first half of the 18th century. The great majority were former merchant seamen, or deserters from the Royal Navy. They were aged between 14 and 50, though most were in their 20s. Married men were not welcome for fear that they might desert and compromise an entire pirate crew.

Here, Mr. Rediker suggests, egalitarianism was being practiced at sea half a century before it became a catch-cry of the French Revolution. And, he adds, there was a striking uniformity of rules and customs on all pirate vessels. At the start of each voyage, or whenever a new captain was chosen, a wide-ranging social compact would be drawn up listing rights and responsibilities. The articles would allocate authority, deal with the distribution of plunder, and set the rules of punishment to enforce discipline. Booty was usually allocated according to skills and duties--the captain might be given two shares; gunners, boatswains, mates, carpenters and medics one and a half shares; and the rest of the crew a share each. In times of battle, the crew gave the captain unquestioned authority whether fighting, chasing or being chased. What perhaps set the pirates most apart from their former colleagues in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy was punishment. The lash, for example, was rarely used. Fighting was not allowed on board and disputes between crew had to be settled ashore by sword or pistol. This brought an unusual degree of harmony to the pirate ship. Incorrigible trouble makers were unceremoniously dumped and left behind on deserted islands. Vengeance was also freely taken upon captives, and woe betide any ship's captain who had tyrannized and abused his crew.

For the full review, see:

MICHAEL FATHERS. "BOOKSHELF; Motley Crew at the Helm; Egalitarianism was being acted out at sea by pirates half a century before it became a catch-cry of the French Revolution. The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Aug. 22, 2014): A11.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 21, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Outlaws of the Atlantic' by Marcus Rediker; Egalitarianism was being acted out at sea by pirates half a century before it became a catch-cry of the French Revolution.")

Book under review:

Rediker, Marcus. Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014.

November 20, 2014

Robert Morris Financed the Revolutionary War, and Private Ventures, But Ended in Debtors' Prison

(p. C7) The Philadelphia merchant banker Robert Morris, reputedly the richest man in Revolutionary America, performed prodigies in financing the war and then staving off the new country's insolvency. He was bullish on America's future, and when he returned to private life in 1784, he initiated a variety of ventures--a fleet of ships trading with China and India, multiple manufacturing enterprises, and, not least, vast assemblages of unimproved interior land--that eventually landed him in debtors' prison. Ryan K. Smith offers a readable and enlightening portrait of this busy and turbulent life in "Robert Morris's Folly."

For the full review, see:

CHARLES R. MORRIS. "Financing the Founders; Morris built a French-style palace out of Pennsylvania logs in the hope that Marie Antoinette would visit." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., AUG. 30, 2014): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date AUG. 29, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Robert Morris's Folly' by Ryan K. Smith; Robert Morris built a French-style palace out of Pennsylvania logs in the hope that Marie Antoinette would visit.")

The book being reviewed is:

Smith, Ryan K. Robert Morris's Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder, The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

November 12, 2014

FDR Ruthlessly Manipulated Political Process

(p. D8) Michael C. Janeway, a former editor of The Boston Globe and executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly who wrote two books chronicling what he saw as the intertwined decline of democracy and journalism in the United States, died on Thursday [April 17, 2014] at his home in Lakeville, Conn.

. . .

The second book, "The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power From FDR to LBJ," published in 2004, measured some of the ideas in his first book against the history of the New Deal. It focused on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inner circle of advisers, a group of political operatives and thinkers often called Roosevelt's "brain trust," who helped conceive ideas like the minimum wage, Social Security and federal bank deposit insurance.

Mr. Janeway's father, Eliot Janeway, an economist, Democratic hand and columnist for Time magazine (a portfolio not unheard-of in those days), was a prominent member of that group.

Michael Janeway suggested that in undertaking the radical changes necessary to yank the "shattered American capitalist system into regulation and reform," Roosevelt and his team manipulated the political process with a level of ruthlessness that may have been justified by the perils of the times. But in the years that followed, he wrote, the habit of guile and highhandedness devolved into the kind of arrogance that defined -- and doomed -- the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Roosevelt's last political heir.

For the full obituary, see:

PAUL VITELLO. "Michael Janeway, 73, Former Editor of The Boston Globe." The New York Times (Sat., APRIL 19, 2014): D8.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has title "Michael Janeway, Former Editor of The Boston Globe, Dies at 73.")

The book mentioned in the passage quoted above is:

Janeway, Michael. The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ, Columbia Studies in Contemporary American History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

November 8, 2014

Shetl Golden Age Ended When "Russia Repurposed Shtetl Jews as Scapegoats"

(p. 15) Smuggling looms large not only in the economy of Petrovsky-Shtern's shtetl but for its symbolism, too. The author is interested in the way aspects of one world slide inside another. His golden-age shtetl was born when Russia swallowed a giant slice of Poland at the end of the 18th century and went from having few Jews to overseeing vast numbers of them, many of whom lived in privately owned Polish towns.

These towns are the essential ingredients of the hybrid world Petrovsky-Shtern is celebrating. Polish nobles had permitted Jews to live there on the condition that they ran the outdoor markets, sold liquor and in general acted as engines of trade. When the towns fell under Russian rule, Jews retained many of their economic privileges while expanding their civil rights, especially after they displayed a willingness to inform on their erstwhile Polish overlords.

Shtetl dwellers became adept at playing the declining Polish nobility off against bribable Russian officials. The czar had not yet laid his heavy hand on the trade by which shtetl Jews powered the economic growth of western Russia. Neither had he made nationalism the supreme ideology and Eastern Orthodoxy synonymous with Russian nationalism.

That would come, and as the Russian treasury bought up more and more of the private towns and trade died, Russia repurposed shtetl Jews as scapegoats for a restive peasant population.

For the full review, see:

JONATHAN ROSEN. "World of Our Great-Grandfathers." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., July 27, 2014): 15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 25, 2014.)

The book under review is:

Petrovsky-Shtern, Yohanan. The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

October 31, 2014

Declaration and Constitution Built Upon Philosophical Radicals Locke, Spinoza, Epicurus and Lucretius

(p. C7) In Mr. Stewart's telling, the central tenets of "philosophical radicalism" worked their way into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by a kind of ideological stealth. When, for example, Jefferson referred in the first paragraph of the Declaration to "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle" a nation, he wasn't just offering a palatable conception of deity to his religious or nominally religious readers. He was drawing on a radical tradition stretching back to John Locke and especially to the Dutch rationalist Baruch Spinoza, who himself had drawn on the ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius.

For the full review, see:

BARTON SWAIM. "How Radical Were the Founders?; Was America's revolution driven by political philosophers, or practical men reacting to events?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 26, 2014): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 25, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Nature's God' by Matthew Stewart & 'Independence' by Thomas P. Slaughter; Was America's revolution driven by political philosophers, or practical men reacting to events?")

The book discussed in the quoted passage is:

Stewart, Matthew. Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

October 19, 2014

Fleck Made Two Versions of His Typhus Vaccine: A Worthless Version for the SS Troops and an Effective Version for His Fellow Buchenwald Inmates

(p. C7) Ludwik Fleck (1896-1961), who earned a doctorate at Lwów University while studying under Weigl, also became interested in typhus during World War I, when he too was drafted by Austria-Hungary. Fleck's specialty was immunology, and in 1919 he joined Weigl's institute. Somewhere between 1921 and 1923 he crafted a way to diagnose typhus, but despite this achievement, Polish anti-Semitism denied him the academic recognition that his talent merited. During this period, he would occupy government posts (until 1935, when anti-Semitic policies made it impossible for Jews to hold such positions) and, with his wife's dowry, opened his own laboratory.

By August 1942, Fleck, though confined to Lwów's Jewish ghetto, managed to create a vaccine from the urine of typhus patients. (Fleck's vaccine may have been easier to produce than Weigl's.) Six months later, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he worked in a bacteriological research unit and where he was treated somewhat better than most camp inmates. In December 1943, Fleck was dispatched to the Buchenwald concentration camp to work on a typhus vaccine.

The Germans wanted the Buchenwald typhus-vaccine prisoner unit--some were physicians and scientists, some weren't--to follow instructions for making a vaccine that had originated at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. It was a convoluted process that involved rabbit lungs and the organs of other animals. The unit's inmates, including Fleck, who understood immunology better than anyone else at Buchenwald, conspired to produce two kinds of vaccine: large quantities of worthless serum that were shipped to SS troops at the front; and much smaller doses of effective vaccine that were used to secretly immunize prisoners. Their daring sabotage could have led to their execution, of course, but their Nazi overseers in the camp were too medically ignorant to understand what was transpiring. If senior SS officials elsewhere became suspicious, the prisoners would supply the real vaccine for testing by the skeptical parties.

For the full review, see:

HOWARD SCHNEIDER. "The Fever that Gripped Europe." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 19, 2014): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 18, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl' by Arthur Allen; Two scientists who worked to beat typhus and sabotage the Nazis.")

The book being reviewed:

Allen, Arthur. The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

My dissertation adviser, Stephen Toulmin, recommended a philosophy of science book by Ludwig Fleck that I have owned for several decades, but never gotten around to reading. It is said to anticipate some of the issues discussed by Thomas Kuhn in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The Fleck book is:

Fleck, Ludwik. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. pb ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981 [first published in German in 1935].

September 21, 2014

"A Small Masterpiece of Animal Literature"

(p. A13) In the annals of publishing, there may be a precedent or two for a venerable military historian setting aside his generals and artillery to evoke the love affair that consumed him as a younger man, but it's probably safe to say that in none of these memoirs is the object of adoration feathered, 10 inches tall and given to maniacally attacking the historian's shoelaces. Such is the case with Martin Windrow's "The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar." If the above description makes the book sound funny, touching and divertingly novel, so it is. But there's more to it than that. In relaxed yet lapidary prose, Mr. Windrow--best known for "The Last Valley," his 2004 account of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu--has produced an homage to both a creature and its species that is almost Leonardo-like in its precision and spirit of curiosity. The result is nothing less than a small masterpiece of animal literature.

. . .

Mumble became his mate-equivalent, and he hers. With the restraint typical of an educated Englishman of his generation, he does not dilate on what she meant to him, but we feel it the more keenly for his reticence.

A paradoxical pitfall of animal literature is that it achieves its effects too easily: Consider how quick we are to laugh when a writer so much as mentions a monkey. The good stuff, however, stands out for its refusal to push buttons or indulge in glib anthropomorphism. In this perfect book, Mr. Windrow may compare Mumble to a samurai and think of her as hurling at pigeons the owlish equivalent of a certain Anglo-Saxon expletive, but he never loses sight of what she is: Strix aluco, a beautiful alien.

For the full review, see:

BEN DOWNING. "BOOKSHELF; Full Feather Jacket; A military historian and an owl make a home together in a London high-rise. Visitors are issued vintage helmets for protection." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 2, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 1, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar' by Martin Windrow; A military historian and an owl make a home together in a London high-rise. Visitors are issued vintage helmets for protection.")

The book being reviewed is:

Windrow, Martin. The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

September 10, 2014

Cardinal Explained to Emperor that It Is OK to Lie to Heretics

Notwithstanding the assurances that the pope, the council, and the emperor had given him, Hus was almost immediately vilified and denied the opportunity to speak in public. On November 28, barely three weeks after he arrived, he was arrested on order of the cardinals and taken to the prison of a Dominican monastery on the banks of the Rhine. There he was thrown into an underground cell through which all the filth of the monastery was discharged. When he fell seriously ill, he asked that an advocate be appointed to defend his cause, but he was told that, according to canon law, no one could plead the cause of a man charged with heresy. In the face of protests from Hus and his Bohemian supporters about the apparent violation of his safe-conduct, the emperor chose not to intervene. He was, it was said, uncomfortable about what seemed a violation of his word, but an English cardinal had reportedly reassured him that "no faith need be kept with heretics."


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: this quote is from somewhere on pp. 167-168; I bought the Kindle version which does not give page numbers correctly and I can't recover pages on this one from Google books; I would guess it is all on p. 168.)

September 9, 2014

"Et La Liberté!"

(p. C7) [A] milestone in the diary comes in 1943 when [Guéhenno's] students are drafted into compulsory work service in Germany; many escape to Spain or join resistance groups. Nor was Guéhenno exempt from the repression. That same year he was demoted by the Vichy education minister to the rank of a beginning instructor, assigned to teach 17 hours of class a week rather than the usual six and faced with supervising hundreds of students. "Stammering with fatigue," he wondered how he would have time to keep his diary going. But he cheered up whenever he contemplated how many of the authors in his curriculum were bona fide revolutionaries: "Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Danton, Robespierre, Chénier, Hugo, Michelet ..., I have nothing to discuss but suspects." He liked to end his class sessions by shouting "Et la liberté!"

For the full review, see:

Alice Kaplan. "Shedding Light on Nazi-Occupied Paris." The New York Times (Thurs., JUNE 26, 2014): C7.

(Note: ellipsis in original; words in brackets were added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date JUNE 25, 2014.)

The book being reviewed is:

Guéhenno, Jean. Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris. Translated by David Ball. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

September 2, 2014

Poggio Helped Invent Italics Script

(p. 115) What Poggio accomplished, in collaboration with a few others, remains startling. They took Carolingian minuscule--a scribal innovation of the ninth-century court of Charlemagne--and transformed it into the script they used for copying manuscripts and writing letters. This script in turn served as the basis for the development of italics. They were then in effect the inventors of the script we still think of as at once the clearest, the simplest, and the most elegant written representation of our words. It is difficult to take in the full effect without seeing it for oneself, for example, in the manuscripts preserved in the Laurentian Library in Florence: the smooth bound volumes of vellum, still creamy white after more than five hundred years, (p. 116) contain page after page of perfectly beautiful script, almost magical in its regularity and fineness.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

August 29, 2014

Notaries Were Useful in a Contractual Society

(p. 111) Notaries were not figures of great dignity, but in a contractual and intensely litigious culture, they were legion. The Florentine notary Lapo Mazzei describes six or seven hundred of them crowded into (p. 112) the town hall, carrying under their arms bundles of documents, " each folder thick as half a bible." Their knowledge of the law enabled them to draw up local regulations, arrange village elections, compose letters of complaint. Town officials who were meant to administer justice often had no clue how to proceed; the notaries would whisper in their ears what they were meant to say and would write the necessary documents. They were useful people to have around.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

August 25, 2014

Human Freedom and Dignity Lived in Florence

(p. 125) Ancona was, like Florence, an independent commune, and Salutati was urging its citizens to revolt against the papal government that had been imposed upon them: " Will you always stand in the darkness of slavery? Do you not consider, O best of men, how sweet liberty is? Our ancestors, indeed the whole Italian race, fought for five hundred years . . . so that liberty would not be lost ." The revolt he was trying to incite was, of course, in Florence's strategic interest, but in attempting to arouse a spirit of liberty, Salutati was not being merely cynical. He seems genuinely to have believed that Florence was the heir to the republicanism on which ancient Roman greatness had been founded. That greatness, the proud claim of human freedom and dignity, had all but vanished from the broken, dirty streets of Rome, the debased staging ground of sordid clerical intrigues, but it lived, in Salutati's view, in Florence. And he was its principal voice.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

August 21, 2014

Salutati Defended the Independence of Florence

(p. 124) The independence of Florence--the fact that it was not a client of another state, that it was not dependent on the papacy, and that it was not ruled by a king, a tyrant, or a prelate but governed by a body of its own citizens--was for Salutati what most mattered in the world. His letters, dispatches, protocols, and manifestos, written on behalf of the ruling priors of Florence, are stirring documents, and they were read and copied throughout Italy.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

August 17, 2014

Salutati Imitated Antiquity "in Order to Produce Something New"

(p. 124) " I have always believed," Salutati wrote . . . , that "I must imitate antiquity not simply to reproduce it, but in order to produce something new. . . ."


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: first ellipsis added, second ellipsis in original.)

August 12, 2014

The "Miasmic Smog" of Europe's Nostalgia "Stifled the Imaginations of Those Who Stayed"

(p. D12) Most people remember Mr. Drucker, a longtime contributor to the Journal who died in 2005, as the most influential management consultant of the 20th century. What they may not know is that, like Mr. Zweig, he was born in Austria and fled from the Nazis when Hitler came to power. What's more, Mr. Drucker's memories of prewar Vienna, which he compared in "Adventures of a Bystander" to Atlantis, Plato's imaginary island paradise that fell from favor with the gods and disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean, are no less richly evocative than those in "The World of Yesterday."

. . .

Born in 1909, three decades after Mr. Zweig, [Drucker] concluded as a young man that Europe's nostalgia for its prewar past was a "miasmic smog" that stifled the imaginations of those who stayed there. So he emigrated to the U.S., where he found an open society that was bumptiously naive but also vital and forward-looking: "Unlike Europe, where it was felt that 'the center cannot hold,' the 'center' held in America. Society and community were sound, hale, indeed triumphant." And whereas Mr. Zweig succumbed at last to despair, Mr. Drucker unhesitatingly embraced America's democratic culture and flourished, building a new career for himself.

For the full essay/review, see:

TERRY TEACHOUT. "SIGHTINGS; One War, Two Fates." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 6, 2014): D12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay/review has the date June 5, 2014.)

The Drucker book discussed by Teachout is:

Drucker, Peter F. Adventures of a Bystander. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

August 10, 2014

McCloskey's "Great Fact" of "the Ice-Hockey Stick"


Source of image:

(p. 2) Economic history has looked like an ice-hockey stick lying on the ground. It had a long, long horizontal handle at $3 a day extending through the two-hundred-thousand-year history of Homo sapiens to 1800, with little bumps upward on the handle in ancient Rome and the early medieval Arab world and high medieval Europe, with regressions to $3 afterward--then a wholly unexpected blade, leaping up in the last two out of the two thousand centuries, to $30 a day and in many places well beyond.

. . .

(p. 48) The heart of the matter is sixteen. Real income per head nowadays exceeds that around 1700 or 1800 in, say, Britain and in other countries that have experienced modern economic growth by such a large factor as sixteen, at least. You, oh average participant in the British economy, go through at least sixteen times more food and clothing and housing and education in a day than an ancestor of yours did two or three centuries ago. Not sixteen percent more, but sixteen multiplied by the old standard of living. You in the American or the South Korean economy, compared to the wretchedness of former Smiths in 1653 or Kims in 1953, have done even better. And if such novelties as jet travel and vitamin pills and instant messaging are accounted at their proper value, the factor of material improvement climbs even higher than sixteen--to eighteen, or thirty, or far beyond. No previous episode of enrichment for the average person approaches it, not the China of the Song Dynasty or the Egypt of the New Kingdom, not the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome.

No competent economist, regardless of her politics, denies the Great Fact.


McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 9, 2014

20 Years Before Fall of Rome, Ammianus Described "a World Exhausted by Crushing Taxes"

(p. 48) . . . ghosts surged up from the Roman past. An ancient literary critic who had flourished during Nero's reign and had written notes and glosses on classical authors; another critic who quoted extensively from lost epics written in imitation of (p. 49) Homer; a grammarian who wrote a treatise on spelling that Poggio knew his Latin-obsessed friends in Florence would find thrilling. Yet another manuscript was a discovery whose thrill might have been tinged for him with melancholy: a large fragment of a hitherto unknown history of the Roman Empire written by a high-ranking officer in the imperial army, Ammianus Marcellinus. The melancholy would have arisen not only from the fact that the first thirteen of the original thirty-one books were missing from the manuscript Poggio copied by hand--and these lost books have never been found--but also from the fact that the work was written on the eve of the empire's collapse. A clearheaded, thoughtful, and unusually impartial historian, Ammianus seems to have sensed the impending end. His description of a world exhausted by crushing taxes, the financial ruin of large segments of the population, and the dangerous decline in the army's morale vividly conjured up the conditions that made it possible, some twenty years after his death, for the Goths to sack Rome.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 5, 2014

"A Unique Moment in History . . . When Man Stood Alone"

(p. 71) . . . , something noted in one of his letters by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." No doubt one could quibble with this claim. For many Romans at least, the gods had not actually ceased to be--even the Epicureans, sometimes reputed to be atheists, thought that gods existed, though at a far remove from the affairs of mortals--and the "unique moment" to which Flaubert gestures, from Cicero (106-43 BCE) to Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), may have been longer or shorter than the time frame he suggests. But the core perception is eloquently borne out by Cicero's dialogues and by the works found in the library of Herculaneum. Many of the early readers of those works evidently lacked a fixed repertory of beliefs and practices reinforced by what was said to be the divine will. They were men and women whose lives were unusually free of the dictates of the gods (or their priests). Standing alone, as Flaubert puts it, they found themselves in the peculiar position of choosing among sharply divergent visions of the nature of things and competing strategies for living.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 1, 2014

The Unintended Consequences of Requiring Monks to Read

(p. 28) The high walls that hedged about the mental life of the monks--the imposition of silence, the prohibition of questioning, the punishing of debate with slaps or blows of the whip--were all meant to affirm unambiguously that these pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome, places that had thrived upon the spirit of contradiction and cultivated a restless, wide-ranging curiosity.

All the same, monastic rules did require reading, and that was enough to set in motion an extraordinary chain of consequences. Reading was not optional or desirable or recommended; in a community that took its obligations with deadly seriousness, reading was obligatory. And reading required books. Books that were opened again and again eventually fell apart, however carefully they were handled. Therefore, almost inadvertently , monastic rules necessitated that monks repeatedly purchase or acquire books. In the course of the vicious Gothic Wars of the mid-sixth century and their still more miserable aftermath, the last commercial workshops of book production folded, and the vestiges of the book market fell apart. Therefore, again almost inadvertently, monastic rules necessitated that monks carefully preserve and copy those books that they already possessed.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

July 27, 2014

New Details on Babylonian Version of Noah's Ark


Source of book image:

(p. C8) Mr. Finkel, a curator of cuneiform inscriptions at the British Museum, details his own long-standing fascination with the ark and that of his British Museum predecessors. First among these was George Smith, who in 1872, at age 32, deciphered a clay tablet that demonstrated that 1,000 years before the likely composition of the Book of Genesis, ancient Babylonians had been brooding over the same story of divine retribution that we find in the biblical account of Noah. So great was Smith's shock that, on confirmation, he began to run about the room tearing off his clothes.

. . .

The tablets containing what we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh were unearthed in the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who was an avid collector of texts. His famous library was torched in 612 B.C., but, as Mr. Finkel points out, "fire to a clay librarian" is not the disaster it is to one who studies works on paper. Fired clay tablets endure, and nothing, Mr. Finkel assures us, can equal the thrill of digging one out from the earth like a potato.

But the most important tablet of Mr. Finkel's career didn't come from the ground. It was delivered to him in 1985 by a man named Douglas Simmonds, who brought in a number of cuneiform tablets collected by his father, a member of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East at the end of World War II. One of these--an iPhone-shaped tablet--had what was recognizably the first lines of a Babylonian flood narrative, but the rest was illegible at a superficial glance, and Simmonds was reluctant to leave the tablet at the museum for analysis. It wasn't until 2009 that Mr. Finkel was able to borrow this treasure and undertake a meticulous study, which revealed an "instruction manual for building an ark" in the tablet's 60 lines.

. . .

So then what was the Ark Tablet for? It is puzzling that it contains no narrative, listing rather shape, size, materials and their quantities. Attractive though it may be to think it was a hand-held guide for the boat builder, Mr. Finkel suggests instead that it served as an aide-mémoire for an itinerant storyteller. The detail is explained by audience demand: No one wants to be put on the spot with difficult "how" questions when facing an audience who knew all about building coracles. Ancient audiences, it seems, were as intrigued--and as skeptical--about the ark as we are.

For the full review, see:

JANET SOSKICE. "Make Yourself an Ark; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 17, 2014): C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 16, 2014, an has the title "Book Review: 'The Ark Before Noah' by Irving Finkel; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds.")

The book under review is:

Finkel, Irving. The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2014.

July 21, 2014

How De Rerum Natura Aided the Early Italian Renaissance

I am interested in how the dominant ideas in a culture change. Greenblatt's The Swerve discusses how some early Renaissance Italians sought lost and forgotten works from antiquity to broaden their ideas. In particular it emphasizes the rediscovery of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.

I am not as unreservedly enthusiastic about Lucretius as Greenblatt is, but The Swerve includes much that is thought-provoking about a place and time that I need to better understand.

In the next few weeks I will quote a few of the passages that were especially memorable, important or amusing.

Book discussed:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

July 3, 2014

Rickenbacker Wasn't the Best Pilot or the Best Shot "but He Could Put More Holes in a Target that Was Shooting Back"


Source of book image:

(p. C6) With his unpolished manners, Rickenbacker encountered a good deal of arrogance from the privileged sons of Harvard and Yale, but after he had downed his first five enemies, criticism ceased. About Rickenbacker's killer instinct his colleague Reed McKinley Chambers had this to say: "Eddie wasn't the best pilot in the world. He could not put as many holes in a target that was being towed as I could, but he could put more holes in a target that was shooting back at him than I could."

For the full review, see:

HENRIK BERING. "Daring Done Deliberately." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 31, 2014): C6.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 30, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Enduring Courage' by John F. Ross.")

The book under review is:

Ross, John F. Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed. New York: St Martin's Press, 2014.

May 30, 2014

Young Inca Woman Was Probably Murdered

MurderedIncanYoungWoman2014-04-28.jpg "The Incan mummy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Hobbes famously wrote that for most of human existence, life has been "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Further evidence:

(p. D4) Scientists who have examined the mummy of a young Inca say that her death was most likely a homicide and that it was not because of Chagas disease, the tropical parasitic infection that she had.

For the full story, see:

"Observatory; A Verdict of Murder." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 4, 2014): D4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 3, 2014.)

The famous Hobbes quote can be found on p. 70 of:

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Dover Philosophical Classics. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006 [first published 1651].

April 22, 2014

Today Is 14th Anniversary of Democrats' Infamous Betrayal of Elián González

GonzalezElianSeizedOn2000-04-22.jpg"In this April 22, 2000 file photo, Elian Gonzalez is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the ocean, right, as government officials search the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, early Saturday morning, April 22, 2000, in Miami. Armed federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday, firing tear gas into an angry crowd as they left the scene with the weeping 6-year-old boy." Source of caption and photo: online version of JENNIFER KAY and MATT SEDENSKY. "10 years later, few stirred by Elian Gonzalez saga." Omaha World-Herald (Thurs., April 22, 2010): 7A. (Note: the online version of the article is dated April 21, 2010 and has the title "10 years after Elian, US players mum or moving on.")

Today (April 22, 2014) is the 14th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history---when the Democratic Clinton Administration seized a six year old child in order to force him back into the slavery that his mother had died trying to escape.

April 3, 2014

As a Young Inventor, Edison Patented Fast

Edison filed patent applications as fast as the ideas arrived.


Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

March 14, 2014

Carnegie Was Depressed by Initial Inactivity of Retirement

(p. 592) IT IS DIFFICULT to picture Andrew Carnegie depressed, but there is no other way to describe his state of being in the months following his retirement. Carnegie confessed as much in an early draft of his Autobiography, but the editor John Van Dyke, chosen by Mrs. Carnegie after her husband's death, perhaps thinking his melancholic ruminations would displease her, edited them out of the manuscript.

. . .

(p. 593) The vast difference between life in retirement and as chief stockholder of the Carnegie Company was brought home to him as he prepared to leave for Britain in the early spring of 1901. For close to thirty years, he had scurried about for weeks prior to sailing tying up loose ends. There were documents to be signed, instructions to be left with his partners in Pittsburgh and his private secretary in New York. Retirement brought an end to this round of activities and a strange, inescapable melancholy.


Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: ellipsis added, italics in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)

February 6, 2014

Reagan "Was Canny Enough to Take His Cues from Technicians, Who Would Be Candid with Him about What the Doctors Really Meant"


Source of book image:

(p. C7) It has been nearly 30 years since President Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. The attack is well remembered, but the details are not. One reason for the memory lapse, according to Del Quentin Wilber, the author of "Rawhide Down," a newly revealing account of this potentially deadly attack, is that Reagan survived it so smoothly. Twelve days after being fired upon, he was back at the White House looking sensational. He ultimately enhanced his popularity by rebounding with such courage, resilience and even good cheer.

. . .

"Rawhide Down" is a fast-paced book that captures many points of view. Nurses and medical technicians have especially candid memories of the pressure they faced, the uncertainty about how to deal with such an important patient and the ad-hoc solutions they devised. They decided to call him Mr. Reagan rather than Mr. President; the situation would be less frightening that way. They were amazed by his joking, his courtesy and his general lack of V.I.P. attitude.

They were also impressed by his bravery. Throughout the incident the president had no clear idea of what had happened to him or what to expect. He struggled to breathe, brightened at any mention of the first lady and was canny enough to take his cues from technicians, who would be candid with him about what the doctors really meant. As he got ready to undergo chest surgery, one worker assured him that being taken from the E.R. to the operating room was a good thing. If he were really in peril, she said, doctors would never allow him to be moved.

For the full review, see:

JANET MASLIN. "Books of The Times; Reconstructing the Day Reagan Fell: Chaos After a President's Shooting." The New York Times (Thurs., March 10, 2011): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated March 9, 2011.)

The book under review is:

Wilber, Del Quentin. Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2011.

January 21, 2014

Carnegie Created "Plausible Fictions" on the Future Demand for Minor Railroads

Economists and historians continue to debate the importance or unimportance of railroads in the economic growth of the United States. This is a debate that I need to explore more.

(p. 129) It is doubtful that either [Scott or Carnegie] . . . truly believed that the new railroads, when built, would carry enough traffic to earn back their construction costs. A great number of them were along lightly traveled routes, which, like the Gilman, Springfield & Clinton Railroad in Illinois, connected small cities that did little business with one another. The roads were being built because money could be made building them. Carnegie profited from the commissions on the bond sales; Scott from diverting funds earmarked for construction into the hands of the select number of investors, himself included, who were directors of both the railroad and the improvement companies.

To raise money for roads not yet built and probably not really needed, Carnegie and Scott trafficked in what Richard White refers to as "the utilitarian fictions of capitalism." Together, they constructed "plausible fictions" about the railroads, the passengers and freight that would ride them, the tolls that would be collected, the villages that would grow into towns and the towns into cities, creating new populations, products, and commerce.

Carnegie, a consummate optimist, took naturally to the task.


Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: bracketed words and ellipsis added.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)

January 8, 2014

Unpedigreed, Self-Educated, Obese Knox Understood Artillery


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) In "Sons of the Father: George Washington and His Protégés," we can see how Washington's ideas about character evolved over the course of the war and after. This collection of essays, edited by Robert M.S. McDonald, explores Washington's relationships with a series of younger men.

. . .

Knox came to Washington's attention in 1775 for his work on the defenses around Boston. His resourcefulness and keen interest in military science proved invaluable. When Washington allowed Knox to head for Fort Ticonderoga in hopes of retrieving some 50 British cannon captured by Ethan Allen, Knox succeeded against long odds. Over nine harrowing weeks, Mark Thompson writes, Knox and his men hauled 60 tons of artillery 300 miles "through the New York backcountry, along waterways and gullied roads, across ice and snow." Deployed on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston, the guns helped persuade the British to abandon the city. But Knox was far more than a herculean teamster. Washington put him in charge of all Continental artillery, and the batteries under his direction loomed large at Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth and Yorktown. After the war, Knox became Washington's secretary of war.

Washington saw merit in the unprepossessing Knox, as he did in others, despite the lack of a "gentlemanly" pedigree. Forced as a child to support his mother when his father abandoned the family, Knox was a mere bookseller before the war, self-educated and obese. But he understood artillery and could see its role in sieges and in the mobile warfare that would characterize the Revolution. More than that, he could discuss its theory and application with Washington. Jefferson and Madison, in their more playful approach to ideas, complicated matters; Knox clarified them.

For the full review, see:

ALAN PELL CRAWFORD. "Bookshelf; A Few Men of Character." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Dec. 10, 2013): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 9, 2013, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'George Washington: Gentleman Warrior,' by Stephen Brumwell and 'Sons of the Father,' edited by Robert M.S. McDonald; By 1775, Washington had strong ideas about how to run an army. Officers, he said, should be men of independent financial means.")

Book under review:

McDonald, Robert M. S., ed. Sons of the Father: George Washington and His Protégés, Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013.

January 1, 2014

"Carnegie Watched, Listened, Learned" from Scott's Process Innovations

(p. 65) Later in life, Scott would be better known for his political skills, but he was, like his mentor Thomson, a master of cost accounting. Together, the two men steadily cut unit costs and increased revenues by investing in capital improvements--new and larger locomotives, better braking systems, improved tracks, new bridges. Instead of running several smaller trains along the same route, they ran fewer but longer trains with larger locomotives and freight cars. To minimize delays--a major factor in escalating costs--they erected their own telegraph lines, built a second track and extended sidings alongside the first one, and kept roadways, tunnels, bridges, and crossings in good repair.

Carnegie watched, listened, learned. Nothing was lost on the young man. With an exceptional memory and a head for figures, he made the most of his apprenticeship and within a brief time was acting more as Scott's deputy than his assistant. Tom Scott had proven to be so good at his job that when Pennsylvania Railroad vice president William Foster died unexpectedly of an infected carbuncle, Scott was named his successor.


Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)

November 17, 2013

Foreign Aid Frees Despots from Having to Seek the Consent of the Governed


Source of book image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) IN his new book, Angus Deaton, an expert's expert on global poverty and foreign aid, puts his considerable reputation on the line and declares that foreign aid does more harm than good. It corrupts governments and rarely reaches the poor, he argues, and it is high time for the paternalistic West to step away and allow the developing world to solve its own problems.

It is a provocative and cogently argued claim. The only odd part is how it is made. It is tacked on as the concluding section of "The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality" (Princeton University Press, 360 pages), an illuminating and inspiring history of how mankind's longevity and prosperity have soared to breathtaking heights in modern times.

. . .

THE author has found no credible evidence that foreign aid promotes economic growth; indeed, he says, signs show that the relationship is negative. Regretfully, he identifies a "central dilemma": When the conditions for development are present, aid is not required. When they do not exist, aid is not useful and probably damaging.

Professor Deaton makes the case that foreign aid is antidemocratic because it frees local leaders from having to obtain the consent of the governed. "Western-led population control, often with the assistance of nondemocratic or well-rewarded recipient governments, is the most egregious example of antidemocratic and oppressive aid," he writes. In its day, it seemed like a no-brainer. Yet the global population grew by four billion in half a century, and the vast majority of the seven billion people now on the planet live longer and more prosperous lives than their parents did.

For the full review, see:

FRED ANDREWS. "OFF THE SHELF; A Surprising Case Against Foreign Aid." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 13, 2013): 4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 12, 2013.)

The book reviewed is:

Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013.

October 31, 2013

After 25 Years of Government Harassment, A&P Was Finally Allowed to Lower Prices for Consumers

The two main types of creative destruction are: 1.) new products and 2.) process innovations. Much has been written about the new product type; much less about the process innovation type. Marc Levinson has written two very useful books on process innovations that are important exceptions. The first is The Box and the second is The Great A&P.

(p. A13) A prosecutor in Franklin Roosevelt's administration called it a "giant blood sucker." A federal judge in Woodrow Wilson's day deemed it a "monopolist," and another, during Harry Truman's presidency, convicted it of violating antitrust law. The federal government investigated it almost continuously for a quarter-century, and more than half the states tried to tax it out of business. For its strategy of selling groceries cheaply, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company paid a very heavy price.

. . .

A&P was Wal-Mart long before there was Wal-Mart. Founded around the start of the Civil War, it upset the tradition-encrusted tea trade by selling teas at discount prices by mail and developing the first brand-name tea. A few years later, its tea shops began to stock spices, baking powder and canned goods, making A&P one of the first chain grocers.

Then, in 1912, John A. Hartford, one of the two brothers who had taken over the company from their father, had one of those inspirations that change the course of business. He proposed that the company test a bare-bones format at a tiny store in Jersey City, offering short hours, limited selection and no home delivery, and that it use the cost savings to lower prices. The A&P Economy Store was an instant success. The Great A&P was soon opening one and then two and then three stores per day. By 1920, it had become the largest retailer in the world.

. . .

While shoppers flocked to A&P's 16,000 stores, small grocers and grocery wholesalers didn't share their enthusiasm. The anti-chain-store movement dates back at least to 1913, when the American Fair-Trade League pushed for laws against retail price-cutting.

. . .

Thanks in good part to the Hartfords' tenacity, the restraints on discount retailing began to fade away in the 1950s. Chain-store taxes were gradually repealed, and state laws limiting price competition to protect mom and pop were taken off the books. By 1962, when Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, and other modern discount formats were born, the pendulum had swung in consumers' favor.

For the full commentary, see:

MARC LEVINSON. "When Creative Destruction Visited the Mom-and-Pops; The A&P grocery company may be nearing its sell-by date, but a century ago it was a fresh, revolutionary business." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 12, 2013): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 11, 2013, and had the title "Marc Levinson: When Creative Destruction Visited the Mom-and-Pops; The A&P grocery company may be nearing its sell-by date, but a century ago it was a fresh, revolutionary business.")

Levinson's book on A&P is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.

October 24, 2013

Puritan Slavery


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

We are taught in elementary school that the roots of America lie in the religious Puritans and Pilgrims. But I believe that there is something to Russell Shorto's argument that we under-appreciate the contribution of the secular libertarian Dutch of New Amsterdam. In this continuing debate, it is useful to have an accurate history of all sides.

(p. A11) The great Puritan divine John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, probably wouldn't make it through Allegra di Bonaventura's book without suffering a cardiac episode. Set principally in the seaport town of New London, Conn., "For Adam's Sake" provides an astonishing worm's-eye view of Winthrop's beloved Bible Commonwealth in the throes of its ghastly unraveling, even as it narrates an intimate history of racial slavery in early New England through the entwined lives of five families (the Winthrops among them).

Many readers will be surprised to learn that slavery flourished in colonial New England--albeit on a smaller scale than on the plantations of the antebellum South. And they might be forgiven their incredulity: "New Englanders in the nineteenth century," Ms. di Bonaventura writes, "studiously erased and omitted inconvenient and unsavory aspects of their region's collective past in favor of a more heroic and wholesome narrative of their own history." Such acts of moral cleansing all but obscured the lives of enslaved New Englanders well into our own time.

For the full review, see:

KIRK DAVIS SWINEHART. "BOOKSHELF; Not Your Parents' Puritans; Slavery flourished in colonial New England. Yet the Puritans' erasure of its signs have obscured their crimes well into our own time." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 5, 2013): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 4, 2013.)

The book under review is:

di Bonaventura, Allegra. For Adam's Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

The relevant book by Russell Shorto is:

Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

October 14, 2013

Brazilian Entrepreneur Inspired by "The Men Who Built America"

HangLucianoArrivesAtFlagshipHavanStoreInBrusque2013-09-29.jpgThe co-founder of the Havan chain, Luciano Hang, arrives at the chain's flagship store, which is in Brusque, Brazil. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) "My philosophy is pro-capitalism, so of course the best symbols for this come from the United States," said Mr. Hang, who flies around Brazil on a Learjet to visit the nearly 60 stores in his chain, called Havan. "I tell people that we're about freedom: the freedom to stay open when we choose, the freedom to work for us and the freedom to shop," he added. "I know this can be controversial, but I think those who disagree with my approach are few and far between."

. . .

The son of textile factory workers, descended from German and Italian immigrants, Mr. Hang said he admired European culture but preferred the United States. He said he was inspired by a show on the History Channel, "The Men Who Built America," about industrial titans like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

"I couldn't sleep after I saw that program," he said.

His business model is partly based on Walmart, whose small-town origins he admires, as well as its method of turning economies of scale into low prices.

For the full story, see:

SIMON ROMERO. "Reshaping Brazil's Retail Scene, Inspired by Vegas and Vanderbilt." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., September 15, 2013): 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 14, 2013.)

October 8, 2013

Immigration to the U.S. Is the Story of Hope, Achievement, Youth, Freedom and Creation


Source of book image:

(p. C6) In his new book, "To America With Love," the British critic A. A. Gill attempts to make up for his fellow Britons' grouchiness, sending the United States a frilly, funny valentine.

. . .

Perhaps the most provocative thing in "To America With Love" is Mr. Gill's European take on our history of immigration. He argues that America over the years has been a magnet, drawing "the young and the strong from Europe; the adventurous, the clever, and the skilled."

In the United States, "immigration is the story of hope and achievement, of youth, of freedom, of creation," he writes. "But all entrances on one stage are exits elsewhere. In Europe it is loss. Every one a farewell, a failure, a sadness, a defeat." Between 1800 and 1914, he says, "more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the New World: one in four Irishmen, one in five Swedes, three million Germans, five million Poles, four million Italians. There is not a country, a community, a village or household that wasn't affected by the lure of the West."

As Mr. Gill sees it, much of the bitterness that animates trans-Atlantic relationships (Europeans, he says, patronize America "for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child") can be traced back to this dynamic. "The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of the States is not about them at all," he writes. "It's about us, back here in the ancient, classical, civilized continent."

Europe's view of America, he contends, "has been formed and deformed by the truth that we are the ones who stayed behind, for all those good, bad and lazy reasons: because of caution, for comfort, for conformity and obligation, but mostly, I suspect, because of habit and fear. We didn't take the risky road."

For the full review, see:

MICHIKO KAKUTANI. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; A Rebellious Trans-Atlantic Infatuation: Take That, Mrs. Trollope!" The New York Times (Thurs., August 22, 2013): C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 21, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Gill, A.A. To America with Love. Reprint ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.


"A. A. Gill" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited above.

September 30, 2013

Among 1890s Wall Street Elite, "It Was Fashionable to Be Anti-Semitic"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A11) J.P. Morgan may well have been the most powerful banker who ever lived. Certainly he was the most powerful American banker. But the banking world that he and his firm dominated was a short-lived one, lasting only from the 1890s to the Depression of the 1930s. Susie J. Pak explores Morgan's world, especially its social aspects, in "Gentlemen Bankers," and the exploration is very interesting indeed.

. . .

In Wall Street at the time, there were two groups of private banking firms; those with Jewish partners and those with gentile ones. And while they did business together, often forming syndicates to handle large underwritings, they led separate social lives. They belonged to different clubs, stayed at different hotels and resorts. They didn't attend the weddings of one another's children. The reason, of course, was anti-Semitism. But as Ms. Pak notes, it had nothing to do with the ancient, religiously motivated anti-Semitism typical in Europe. This latter-day anti-Semitism was essentially social in character: To be blunt, it was fashionable to be anti-Semitic.

In earlier decades of the 19th century, affluent Jews had mingled socially with their gentile neighbors. They had been among the founding members of such old-line clubs as the Union Club (est. 1836) and the Union League Club (1863). Jesse Seligman, a partner in the well-regarded Jewish banking firm of J. & W. Seligman, was vice president of the Union League Club in 1893. But when he put his son up for membership that year, he was rejected. "Those who voted against him," a biographer of the Seligman family wrote, "said they had nothing against him personally; they objected to his race." His stunned father resigned from the club. He died the next year, aged 66; some said the incident contributed to his death.

For the full review, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Gentlemen Bankers' by Susie J. Pak; In the age of J.P. Morgan, the sons of Jewish bankers attended Ivy League colleges, but were excluded from the myriad social and athletic organizations." The Wall Street Journal (Fri, August 30, 2013): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 29, 2013, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Gentlemen Bankers' by Susie J. Pak; In the age of J.P. Morgan, the sons of Jewish bankers attended Ivy League colleges, but were excluded from the myriad social and athletic organizations.")

The book under review, is:

Pak, Susie J. Gentlemen Bankers: The World of J.P. Morgan, Harvard Studies in Business History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

September 10, 2013

Margaret Thatcher Funeral: "Suddenly from the Crowd a Great Roar"

ThatcherSupporterWithSign203-09-02.jpg "A supporter of Margaret Thatcher holds a banner outside St. Clement Danes church in London." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) The funeral of Margaret Thatcher was beautiful, moving, just right. It had dignity and spirit, and in that respect was just like her. It also contained a surprise that shouldn't have been a surprise. It was a metaphor for where she stood in the pantheon of successful leaders of the 20th century.

. . .

At the end of the funeral they all marched down the aisle in great procession--the family, the queen, the military pallbearers carrying the casket bearing the Union Jack. The great doors flung open, the pallbearers marched forward, and suddenly from the crowd a great roar. We looked at each other. Demonstrators? No. Listen. They were cheering. They were calling out three great hurrahs as the pallbearers went down the steps. Then long cheers and applause. It was electric.

England came. The people came. Later we would learn they'd stood 30 deep on the sidewalk, that quiet crowds had massed on the Strand and Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill. A man had held up a sign: "But We Loved Her."

. . . When they died, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher were old and long past their height of power. Everyone was surprised when Reagan died that crowds engulfed the Capitol; people slept on sidewalks to view him in state. When John Paul died the Vatican was astonished to see millions converge. "Santo Subito."

And now at the end some came for Thatcher, too.

What all three had in common: No one was with them but the people.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, rest in peace.

For the full commentary, see:

PEGGY NOONAN. "DECLARATIONS; Britain Remembers a Great Briton; Margaret Thatcher's coffin stood over he crypts that hold the tombs of Nelson and Wellington. It mattered." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 20, 2013): A15.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 22, 2013 (I did not see any update in the part I quoted above), and has the title "DECLARATIONS; Noonan: Britain Remembers a Great Briton; Mrs. Thatcher is with Wellington and Nelson now.")

August 9, 2013

Less Credentialed Hazlitt Got More Right than Keynes and White


Source of book image:

(p. C5) One of the many merits of "The Battle of Bretton Woods," a superb history of mid-20th-century monetary affairs, is the timing of its publication. Today, as never before, central banks are printing money, suppressing interest rates and manipulating markets. You wonder where it will all end.

. . .

(p. C6) According to Mr. Steil, the recondite Bretton Woods debates failed to engage the American public as a political issue. If so, it was no fault of Henry Hazlitt's. An editorial writer for the New York Times, Hazlitt directed persistent, withering fire against White's and Keynes's brainchild. (His collected editorials, titled "From Bretton Woods to World Inflation," were published in 1984.) The conference had it all wrong, Hazlitt thundered in the Times. The IMF would subsidize unsound policies. What was wanted were sound ones.

"The broad principles should not be difficult to formulate," the readers of the Times were reminded on the eve of the gathering in New Hampshire. Governments should balance their budgets, forswear 1930s-style impediments to free trade (quotas, exchange restrictions) and refrain from "currency and credit inflation." And the currency itself? It should be "redeemable in something that is itself fixed and definite: for all practical purposes this means a return to the historic gold standard."

. . .

White was a Harvard Ph.D. Keynes was, at least according to Mr. Steil, "the most innovative and iconoclastic economist of his age, if not of all time." Hazlitt was no trained economist at all. But it was he, not the two acclaimed experts, who turned out to be right.

For the full review, see:

James Grant. "A Fateful Meeting That Shaped the World." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 16, 2013): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 15, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

August 4, 2013

Hunter-Gatherers Had High Child Mortality and Died Before Age 40

(p. 31) Child mortality in foraging tribes was severe. A survey of 25 hunter-gatherer tribes in historical times from various continents revealed that, on average, 25 percent of children died before they were 1, and 37 percent died before they were 15. In one traditional hunter-gatherer tribe, child mortality was found to be 60 percent. Most historical tribes had a population growth rate of approximately zero. This stagnation is evident, says Robert Kelly in his survey of hunting-gathering peoples, because "when formerly mobile people become sedentary, the rate of population growth increases." All things being equal, the constancy of farmed food breeds more people.

While many children died young, older hunter-gatherers did not have (p. 32) it much better. It was a tough life. Based on an analysis of bone stress and cuts, one archaeologist said the distribution of injuries on the bodies of Neanderthals was similar to that found on rodeo professionals--lots of head, trunk, and arm injuries like the ones you might get from close encounters with large, angry animals. There are no known remains of an early hominin who lived to be older than 40. Because extremely high child mortality rates depress average life expectancy, if the oldest outlier is only 40, the median age was almost certainly less than 20.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

August 3, 2013

Wittgenstein Heirs Lost Family Wealth and "Found Little Happiness"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. W10) As he lay dying during Christmas 1912 -- from a gruesome throat cancer -- the Viennese industrialist Karl Wittgenstein no doubt took some comfort in the fact that he was leaving to his heirs one of the largest fortunes in Europe. He had acquired his wealth in just 30 years, the period during which Wittgenstein, an engineer, transformed a small steel mill into Europe's largest steel cartel through a combination of hard work, luck and ruthlessness. As der österreichische Eisenkönig (the "Austrian iron king"), he was the chief executive, principal shareholder or director of dozens of industrial companies and banks that provided the ore, manufacturing and financing for most of the steel products of the Habsburg Empire.

In his spare time, Wittgenstein acquired a spectacular house in Vienna, grandly styled as the family's Palais Wittgenstein.

. . .

Today, though, the Wittgenstein millions are gone and the Palais replaced by a hideous concrete apartment block. "Riches," Adam Smith wrote, ". . . very seldom remain long in the same family." Alexander Waugh's grimly amusing "The House of Wittgenstein" shows how the family fortune was lost and how the family members themselves, despite instances of prodigious talent and accomplishment, found little happiness in their own lives or pleasure in their sibling relations.

For the full review, see:

JAMES F. PENROSE. "BOOKS; A Viennese Blend: Riches and Rancor; Blessed by Musical and Intellectual Gifts, and Lots of Money, a Family Still Struggled to Find Harmony." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2009): W10.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 28, 2009.)

The book under review is:

Waugh, Alexander. The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

July 27, 2013

In 1916 a Single Home Motor Would Drive All Home Machines

(p. 301) By the 1910s, electric motors had started their inevitable spread into homes. They had been domesticated. Unlike a steam engine, they did not smoke or belch or drool. Just a tidy, steady whirr from a five-pound (p. 302) hunk. As in factories, these single "home motors" were designed to drive all the machines in one home. The 1916 Hamilton Beach "Home Motor" had a six-speed rheostat and ran on 110 volts. Designer Donald Norman points out a page from the 1918 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog advertising the Home Motor for $8.75 (which is equivalent to about $100 these days). This handy motor would spin your sewing machine. You could also plug it into the Churn and Mixer Attachment ("for which you will find many uses") and the Buffer and Grinder Attachments ("will be found very useful in many ways around the home"). The Fan Attachment "can be quickly attached to Home Motor," as well as the Beater Attachment to whip cream and beat eggs.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: the quote above omits the copy of a 1918 electric motor ad that appeared in the middle of the original paragraph.)

July 22, 2013

Great-Grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt Privately Built First Highway Dedicated to Cars


Source of book image:

(p. 13) It survives only as segments of other highways, as a right of way for power lines and as a bike trail, but the Long Island Motor Parkway still holds a sense of magic as what some historians say is the country's first road built specifically for the automobile. It opened 100 years ago last Friday as a rich man's dream.

As detailed in a new book, "The Long Island Motor Parkway" by Howard Kroplick and Al Velocci (Arcadia Publishing), the parkway ran about 45 miles across Long Island, from Queens to Ronkonkoma, and was created by William Kissam Vanderbilt II, the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

. . .

The younger Vanderbilt was a car enthusiast who loved to race. He had set a speed record of 92 miles an hour in 1904, the same year he created his own race, the Vanderbilt Cup.

But his race came under fire after a spectator was killed in 1906, and Vanderbilt wanted a safe road on which to hold the race and on which other car lovers could hurl their new machines free of the dust common on roads made for horses. The parkway would also be free of "interference from the authorities," he said in a speech.

So he created a toll road for high-speed automobile travel. It was built of reinforced concrete, had banked turns, guard rails and, by building bridges, he eliminated intersections that would slow a driver down. The Long Island Motor Parkway officially opened on Oct. 10, 1908, and closed in 1938.

. . .

But by the end of Vanderbilt's life (he died in 1944), the public had come to feel entitled to car ownership. And there was growing pressure for public highways, like the parkways that the urban planner Robert Moses was building.

. . .

In 1938, Moses refused Vanderbilt's appeal to incorporate the motor parkway into his new parkway system. The motor parkway just could not compete with the public roads, even after the toll was reduced to 40 cents, and Moses eventually gained control of Vanderbilt's pioneering road for back taxes of about $80,000. The day of public roads had come, supplanting private highways.

. . .

The parkway marked the beginning of a process: the road was designed for the car. But in offering higher speeds, the parkway and other modern roads would push cars to their technical limits and beyond, inspiring innovation. In that sense, the first modern automobile highway helped to create the modern automobile.

For the full story, see:

PHIL PATTON. "A 100-Year-Old Dream: A Road Just for Cars." The New York Times, SportsSunday Section (Sun., October 12, 2008): 13.

(Note: the centered bold ellipses were in the original; the other ellipses were added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date October 9, 2008.)

The book mentioned in the article, is:

Kroplick, Howard, and Al Velocci. The Long Island Motor Parkway. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.

LongIslandMotorParkwayRouteMap2013-07-21.jpg "Approximate Route of Long Island Motor Parkway." Source of caption and map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

July 10, 2013

Samuel Adams Is Underrated Founder Because He Burned His Paper Trail


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) "Samuel Adams: A Life" makes it abundantly clear why the British so detested Adams. He started talking independence more than a decade before the Declaration and did more than anyone to organize opposition to colonial taxes and to make "no taxation without representation" a rallying cry. . . .

. . .

If Mr. Stoll's biography lacks the narrative power of books on other Founders, such as David McCullough's "John Adams," the reason may be that the paper trail left by Samuel Adams is frustratingly short. He destroyed much of his correspondence during the revolutionary years, fearful that it could fall into the wrong hands. Some of the letters that remain end with the words "burn this." This Adams wasn't playing for the history books. He was trying to plot a revolution. Mr. Stoll makes a convincing case that Samuel Adams is not just the most underrated of the Founders but also one of the most admirable, down-to-earth and principled (he worked to abolish slavery).

For the full review, see:

JONATHAN KARL. "Revolution Is No Tea Party; Rabble-rouser, wordsmith, strategist and defender of liberty." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 3, 2008): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:

Stoll, Ira. Samuel Adams: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2008.

July 6, 2013

In the England of the Late 1600s, Coffeehouses Were "Crucibles of Creativity"


Source of book image:

(p. 8) Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world.

. . .

Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, "gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece."

. . .

. . . , coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England's pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as "penny universities." It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his "Principia Mathematica," one of the foundational works of modern science.

Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan's, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd's.

And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece "The Wealth of Nations" in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.

For the full commentary, see:

TOM STANDAGE. "OPINION; Social Networking in the 1600s." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 23, 2013): 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 22, 2013.)

The author of the commentary is also the author of a related book:

Standage, Tom. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.

June 12, 2013

Patents Turned Steam from Toy to Engine


Source of book image:

(p. 20) The obvious audience for Rosen's book consists of those who hunger to know what it took to go from Heron of Alexandria's toy engine, created in the first century A.D., to practical and brawny beasts like George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket, which kicked off the age of steam locomotion in 1829. But Rosen is aiming for more than a fan club of steam geeks. The "most powerful idea" of his title is not an early locomotive: "The Industrial Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolution in invention," he writes, "a radical transformation in the process of invention itself." The road to Rocket was built with hundreds of innovations large and small that helped drain the mines, run the mills, and move coal and then people over rails.

. . .

Underlying it all, Rosen argues, was the recognition that ideas themselves have economic value, which is to say, this book isn't just gearhead wonkery, it's legal wonkery too. Abraham Lincoln, wondering why Heron's steam engine languished, claimed that the patent system "added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Rosen agrees, offering a forceful argument in the debate, which has gone on for centuries, over whether patents promote innovation or retard it.

Those who believe passionately, as Thomas Jefferson did, that inventions "cannot, in nature, be a subject of property," are unlikely to be convinced. Those who agree with the inventors James Watt and Richard Arkwright, who wrote in a manuscript that "an engineer's life without patent is not worthwhile," will cheer. Either way, Rosen's presentation of this highly intellectual debate will reward even those readers who never wondered how the up-and-down chugging of a piston is converted into consistent rotary motion.

For the full review, see:

JOHN SCHWARTZ. "Steam-Driven Dreams." The New York Times (Sun., August 29, 2010): 20.

(Note: ellipsis added; italicized words in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 26, 2010.)

The book under review, is:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

June 10, 2013

After Failing to Enslave Indians, Starving Jamestown Colonists Ate 14-Year-Old Girl


"A facial reconstruction of a 14-year-old girl whose skull shows signs that her remains were used for food after her death and burial." Source of caption and image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Acemoglu and Robinson in the long, but thought-provoking, opening chapter of their Why Nations Fail book, discuss starvation at the Jamestown colony. Only they don't mainly attribute it to a harsh winter or a slow rescue from England, as does the article quoted below (it is from the New York Times, after all).

Economists Acemoglu and Robinson (p. 23) instead criticize the colony's initial plan to thrive by enslaving natives to bring them gold and food. Eventually John Smith made the bold suggestion that the colonists should try to work to produce something to eat or to trade. The rulers of the colony ignored Smith, resulting in starvation and cannibalism.

(p. A11) Archaeologists excavating a trash pit at the Jamestown colony site in Virginia have found the first physical evidence of cannibalism among the desperate population, corroborating written accounts left behind by witnesses. Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl show that her flesh and brain were removed, presumably to be eaten by the starving colonists during the harsh winter of 1609.

The remains were excavated by archaeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The skull bears tentative cuts to the forehead, followed by four strikes to the back of the head, one of which split the skull open, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, where the find was reported Wednesday.

It is unclear how the girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered. According to a letter written in 1625 by George Percy, president of Jamestown during the starvation period, the famine was so intense "thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them."

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Girl's Bones Bear Signs of Cannibalism by Starving Virginia Colonists." The New York Times (Thurs., May 2, 2013): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 1, 2013.)

The Acemoglu book mentioned above is:

Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Business, 2012.

JamestownBonesShowCannibalism2013-05-14.jpg "Human remains from the Jamestown colony site in Virginia bearing evidence of cannibalism." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 8, 2013

The Eccentric History of How Bureaucratic Paper-Pushing Drives Clerks Crazy


Source of book image:

(p. C4) If paperwork studies have an unofficial standard-bearer and theoretician, it's Mr. Kafka. In "The Demon of Writing" he lays out a concise if eccentric intellectual history of people's relationship with the paperwork that governs (and gums up) so many aspects of modern life. The rise of modern bureaucracy is a well-established topic in sociology and political science, where it is often related as a tale of increasing order and rationality. But the paper's-eye view championed by Mr. Kafka tells a more chaotic story of things going wrong, or at least getting seriously messy.

It's an idea that makes perfect sense to any modern cubicle dweller whose overflowing desk stands as a rebuke to the utopian promise of the paperless office. But Mr. Kafka traces the modern age of paperwork to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which guaranteed citizens the right to request a full accounting of the government. An explosion of paper followed, along with jokes, gripes and tirades against the indignity of rule by paper-pushing clerks, a fair number of whom, judging from the stories in Mr. Kafka's book, went mad.

For the full story, see:

JENNIFER SCHUESSLER. "The Paper Trail Through History." The New York Times (Mon., December 17, 2012): C1 & C4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 16, 2012.)

Kafka's book, mentioned above, is:

Kafka, Ben. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books, 2012.

KafkaBenAuthor2013-05-13.jpg "Ben Kafka, author of "The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 5, 2013

Early Societies Were Violent, Superstitious and Unfair

(p. 89) Human nature is malleable. We use our minds to change our values, expectations, and definition of ourselves. We have changed our nature since our hominin days, and once changed, we will continue to change ourselves even more. Our inventions, such as language, writing, law, and science, have ignited a level of progress that is so fundamental and embedded in the present that we now naively expect to see similar good things in the past as well. But much of what we consider "civil" or even "humane" was absent long ago. Early societies were not peaceful but rife with warfare. One of the most common causes of adult death in tribal societies was to be declared a witch or evil spirit. No rational evidence was needed for these superstitious accusations. Lethal atrocities for infractions within a clan were the norm; fairness, as we might think of it, did not extend outside the immediate tribe. Rampant inequality among genders and physical advantage for the strong guided a type of justice few modern people would want applied to them.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

June 4, 2013

Edison, Not Muybridge, Remains the Father of Hollywood


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Wish it though we might, this strangely off-center Briton isn't really the Father of Hollywood, nor even a distant progenitor of "Avatar." The famous time-lapse images that he took for Stanford, proving that a horse does take all four hoofs off the ground while galloping--and the tens of thousands of photographs that he went on to make of birds flying and people sneezing or bending over and picking things up--were soon so comprehensively overtaken by newer technologies (lenses, shutters, celluloid) that his stature as a proto-movie-maker was soon reduced to a way-station. His contribution was technically interesting but hardly seminal at all. The tragic reality is that Thomas Edison, with whom Muybridge was friendly enough to propose collaboration, retains the laurels--though, as Mr. Ball points out with restrained politeness, Muybridge might have fared better had he been aware of Edison's reputation for "borrowing the work of others and not returning it."

For the full review, see:

SIMON WINCHESTER. "BOOKSHELF; Lights, Camera, Murder; The time-lapse photos Muybridge took in the 19th century were technically innovative, but they didn't make him the Father of Hollywood." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., February 6, 2013): A13.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 6, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Ball, Edward. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

May 23, 2013

Wealth from Innovation Is Nobler than Wealth from Litigation


Source of book image:

(p. C7) In business, Green routinely sued her competitors. . . .

. . .

It was precisely Green's vision of life as a zero-sum game, a match between enemies, that proved her flaw. She appreciated the idea that dollars compound, but she never seemed to grasp that the compounding of ideas, innovation, is just as important, that in certain, non-litigious, environments ideas "fructify," to use a period verb. Litigation like Green's prevented the kind of innovation in which she might have wanted to invest. Wealth is created when Apple beats Samsung, but more wealth is created when Apple comes up with a new phone.

For the full review, see:

AMITY SHLAES. "Quarrelsome Queen of the Gilded Age." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 29, 2012): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 28, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Wallach, Janet. The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2012.

May 20, 2013

"Lowest-Paid Burger Flipper" Is "Better Off than King Henry"

(p. 76) After going from room to room, skipping none except the garage (that would be a project in itself), we arrived at a total of 6,000 varieties of things in our house. Since we have multiple examples of some varieties, such as books, CDs, paper plates, spoons, socks, on so on, I estimate the total number of objects in our home, including the garage, to be close to 10,000.

Without trying very hard, our typical modern house holds a king's ransom. But in fact, we are wealthier than King Henry. In fact, the lowest-paid burger flipper working at McDonald's is in many respects (p. 77) better off than King Henry or any of the richest people living not too long ago. Although the burger flipper barely makes enough to pay the rent, he or she can afford many things that King Henry could not. King Henry's wealth--the entire treasure of England--could not have purchased an indoor flush toilet or air-conditioning or secured a comfortable ride for 500 kilometers. Any taxicab driver can afford these today. Only 100 years ago, John Rockefeller's vast fortune as the world's richest man could not have gotten him the cell phone that any untouchable street sweeper in Bombay now uses. In the first half of the 19th century Nathan Rothschild was the richest man in the world. His millions were not enough to buy an antibiotic. Rothschild died of an infected abscess that could have been cured with a three-dollar tube of neomycin today. Although King Henry had some fine clothes and a lot of servants, you could not pay people today to live as he did, without plumbing, in dark, drafty rooms, isolated from the world by impassable roads and few communication connections. A poor university student living in a dingy dorm room in Jakarta lives better in most ways than King Henry.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

May 17, 2013

21st Century Person Would Be Sick in Dickens' 1850 London

NancyFromOliverTwist2013-05-04.jpg "Anderson found Dickens World to be "surprisingly grisly" for a park that markets itself to children; he noted several severed heads and a gruesome performance of "Oliver Twist" in the courtyard. Here, a mannequin of Nancy from "Oliver Twist."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 48) . . . even if it were possible to create a lavish simulacrum of 1850s London -- with its typhus and cholera and clouds of toxic corpse gas, its sewage pouring into the Thames, its (p. 49) average life span of 27 years -- why would anyone want to visit? ("If a late-20th-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period," Peter Ackroyd, a Dickens biographer, has written, "he would be literally sick -- sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him.")

For the full story, see:

SAM ANDERSON. "VOYAGES; The Pippiest Place on Earth." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., February 7, 2012): 48-53.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 7, 2012 (sic), and has the title "VOYAGES; The World of Charles Dickens, Complete With Pizza Hut.")

May 16, 2013

New Technology Gets Better, Cheaper and More Diverse

(p. 75) Devices not only get better, they also get cheaper while they get better. We turn around to peer through our window into the past and realize there wasn't window glass back then. The past also lacked machine-woven cloth, refrigerators, steel, photographs, and the entire warehouse of goods spilling into the aisles of our local superstore. We can trace this cornucopia back along a diminishing curve to the Neolithic era. Craft from ancient times can surprise us in its sophistication, but in sheer quantity, variety, and complexity, it pales against modern inventions. The proof of this is clear: We buy the new over the old. Given the choice between an old-fashioned tool and a new one, most people--in the past as well as now--would grab the newer one. A very few will collect old tools, but as big as eBay is, and flea markets anywhere in the world, they are dwarfed by the market of the new. But if the new is not really better, and we keep reaching for it, then we are consistently duped or consistently dumb. The more likely reason we seek the new is that new things do get better. And of course there are more new things to choose from.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

May 11, 2013

The Process of Picking a Pope


Source of book image:

(p. C3) The popes appointed by the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in the early 11th century were . . . unconventional but . . . edifying. Determined to purge the corruptions of Rome, Henry personally appointed four outstanding popes, reformers to a man, all of them Germans. The greatest of them, St. Leo IX (1049-1054), arrived in Rome as a barefoot pilgrim and was the first pope to travel widely through Europe, stirring local bishops to tackle corruption and undertake renewal.

Henry III's German popes ended the tradition that the Bishop of Rome had to be a local man, and medieval conclaves chose popes from the small but international College of Cardinals. Exceptions to this rule were seldom a success.

The most notorious case was St. Celestine V (1294), an 85-year-old hermit and visionary from Naples chosen in the hope that an "angelic Pope" would free the papacy from its financial and political entanglements. But the old man was hopelessly incompetent and easily swayed by forceful politicians. After only six months, he was badgered into resigning by Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who succeeded him as Boniface VIII and promptly imprisoned him.

The experiment of electing a non-cardinal was tried again in 1378. After a run of seven French popes based in Avignon, the Roman mob demanded an Italian. Sixteen terrified cardinals obliged by electing Urban VI. A distinguished administrator as Archbishop of Bari, Urban VI was unhinged by his elevation. Aggressively paranoid, he alienated all supporters and appears to have murdered five of his cardinals. The French cardinals elected a rival pope, who returned to Avignon, starting a schism that would last a generation.

For the full commentary, see:

EAMON DUFFY. "When Picking A Pope Was A Perilous Affair." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 16, 2013): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date February 15, 2013.)

Duffy's related book, is:

Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Third ed., Yale Nota Bene. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

May 4, 2013

Steam-Powered Cars Show that Old Technologies Rarely Totally Disappear

(p. 53) In my own travels around the world I was struck by how resilient ancient technologies were, how they were often first choices where power and modern resources were scarce. It seemed to me as if no technologies ever disappeared. I was challenged on this conclusion by a highly regarded historian of technology who told me without thinking, "Look, they don't make steam-powered automobiles anymore." Well, within a few clicks on Google I very quickly located folks who are making brand-new parts for Stanley steam-powered cars. Nice shiny copper valves, pistons, whatever you need. With enough money you could put together an entirely new steam-powered car. And of course, thousand of hobbyists are still bolting together steam-powered vehicles, and hundreds more are keeping old ones running. Steam power is very much an intact, though uncommon, species of technology.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

April 28, 2013

Reinhart Rogoff Result Robust: High Debt Lowers Growth Rate from 3.5 to 2.3 Percent

(p. A29) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. In May 2010, we published an academic paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Its main finding, drawing on data from 44 countries over 200 years, was that in both rich and developing countries, high levels of government debt -- specifically, gross public debt equaling 90 percent or more of the nation's annual economic output -- was associated with notably lower rates of growth.

. . .

Last week, three economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, released a paper criticizing our findings. They correctly identified a spreadsheet coding error that led us to miscalculate the growth rates of highly indebted countries since World War II. But they also accused us of "serious errors" stemming from "selective exclusion" of relevant data and "unconventional weighting" of statistics -- charges that we vehemently dispute.

. . .

Our 2010 paper found that, over the long term, growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product. The University of Massachusetts researchers do not overturn this fundamental finding, which several researchers have elaborated upon.

. . .

There were just 26 cases where the ratio of debt to G.D.P. exceeded 90 percent for five years or more; the average high-debt spell was 23 years. In 23 of the 26 cases, average growth was slower during the high-debt period than in periods of lower debt levels. Indeed, economies grew at an average annual rate of roughly 3.5 percent, when the ratio was under 90 percent, but at only a 2.3 percent rate, on average, at higher relative debt levels.

. . .

The fact that high-debt episodes last so long suggests that they are not, as some liberal economists contend, simply a matter of downturns in the business cycle.

In "This Time Is Different," our 2009 history of financial crises over eight centuries, we found that when sovereign debt reached unsustainable levels, so did the cost of borrowing, if it was even possible at all. The current situation confronting Italy and Greece, whose debts date from the early 1990s, long before the 2007-8 global financial crisis, support this view.

For the full commentary, see:

CARMEN M. REINHART and KENNETH S. ROGOFF. "Debt, Growth and the Austerity Debate." The New York Times (Fri., April 26, 2013): A29.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 25, 2013.)

The full reference to the authors' book is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

April 18, 2013

Hunter-Gatherers Complained of Hunger and Food Monotony

(p. 30) Based on numerous historical encounters with aboriginal tribes, we know [hunter-gatherers] often, if not regularly, complained about being hungry. Famed anthropologist Colin Turnbull noted that although the Mbuti frequently sang to the goodness of the forest, they often complained of hunger. Often the com-(p. 31)plaints of hunter-gathers were about the monotony of a carbohydrate staple, such as mongongo nuts, for every meal; when they spoke of shortages, or even hunger, they meant a shortage of meat, and a hunger for fat, and a distaste for periods of hunger. Their small amount of technology gave them sufficiency for most of the time, but not abundance.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: "hunter-gathers" substituted for "they" by AMD.)

April 14, 2013

Hunter-Gatherers Lived "in the Ultimate Disposable Culture"

(p. 30) In a very curious way, foragers live in the ultimate disposable culture. The best tools, artifacts, and technology are all disposable. Even elaborate handcrafted shelters are considered temporary. When a clan or family travels, they might erect a home (a bamboo hut or snow igloo, for example) for only a night and then abandon it the next morning. Larger multifamily lodges might be abandoned after a few years rather than maintained. The same goes for food patches, which are abandoned after harvesting.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

April 6, 2013

In Later Middle Ages Machines Replaced Slaves and Coolies

(p. 7) By the European Middle Ages, craftiness manifested itself most significantly in a new use of energy. An efficient horse collar had disseminated throughout society, drastically increasing farm acreage, while water mills and windmills were improved, increasing the flow of lumber and flour and improving drainage. And all this plentitude came without slavery. As Lynn White, historian of technology, wrote, "The chief glory (p. 8) of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power." Machines were becoming our coolies.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

April 5, 2013

"Before British Settlement" American Indians Lived Lives of "Violence, Terror and Stoic Suffering"


Source of book image:

(p. C8) Mr. Bailyn opens with an account of the Indians of eastern North America in the years before English settlement. He reviews their economy, technology, religion and much else, drawing examples from the Powhatan, the Pequot and other tribes. He emphasizes the violence, terror and stoic suffering in their lives rather more than the contemporary specialists in the subject would, but brutality--on just about everyone's part--is a major theme throughout this book.

For the full review, see:

J.R. MCNEILL. "BOOKSHELF; Before Plymouth Rock, and After." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 17, 2012): C8.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 16, 2012.)

Book under review:

Bailyn, Bernard. The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

March 26, 2013

New York Resisted Roosevelt's Enforcing "Stupid" Vice Laws


Source of book image:

(p. C9) . . . as Richard Zacks's excellent "Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York" ably shows, while we might like to believe that the stretch from 1970 to 1995 represents the city's nadir, it was just about business as usual in New York over the centuries.

From its time as a Dutch colonial outpost, the city has always been pretty bad. You'd almost think New Yorkers prefer it that way. Of course, we don't like fraud, robbery, assault, arson, rape or murder any more than anyone else does. But the deliberate injury of one's fellow citizen isn't the only way to break the law. There are also those crimes that fall under the broad category of "vice": things such as gambling, prostitution, indecent exposure and selling alcohol at a convenient time. Historically, the average New Yorker has not greeted these acts with the same immediate urge to suppress that many of his or her fellow Americans have had. You don't get a nickname like "The City That Never Sleeps" without having a certain amount of things worth staying up for.

. . .

In the end, Mr. Zacks's exhaustively researched yet lively story is a classic battle between an irresistible force, Roosevelt's ego, and an immovable object, the people of New York's unwillingness to follow laws they thought were stupid. In this case, the object won, and handily. Mr. Zacks's account of the way the city's saloonkeepers instantly turned their establishments into hotels to take advantage of a loophole in the law is particularly amusing. Eventually, the police department, not unsympathetic to the Sunday tippler, began finding ways to wriggle out from under the commissioner's thumb, and beer-friendly Tammany Hall, with the people solidly behind it, began peeling away his allies.

For the full review, see:

DAVID WONDRICH. "BOOKSHELF; Teddy's Rough Ride." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 17, 2012): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 30, 2012.)

Book under review:

Zacks, Richard. Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

March 13, 2013

To Avoid Economic Crises We Need to Look at Evidence from Economic History

(p. 1093) Methodologically, the most fundamental and forceful message from the book is that, by ignoring history and the fact that crises remain frequent, recurrent, episodic events--in both rich and poor countries--almost everyone, including researchers and policymakers, made themselves vulnerable to the wishful thinking encapsulated in the book's title. There is a deeper statistical point here. Crises, and for that matter large recessions and other phenomena that are of first-order interest given their implications for economic activity, occur at quite a low frequency. They are rare events, meaning that they do not occur so frequently, at least for most countries in a short-span time series. Thus recent experience can be an unfaithful guide for scholars and statesmen alike, a good example being the complacent thinking that accompanied the erstwhile Great Moderation of recent decades even as financial pressures built up nationally and internationally. Possibly the most important lesson that readers will take away from this book is that if we are to do better in future, from our policy thinking in the chambers of power to our macroeconometric analyses in academe, (p. 1094) we need to admit the existence of, and come to grips with, a much broader universe of evidence.

For the full review, see:

Taylor, Alan M. "Global Financial Stability and the Lessons of History: A Review of Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff's This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 4 (Dec. 2012): 1092-105.

(Note: italics in original.)

The book that Taylor reviews, is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

February 26, 2013

Yang Documents How Mao Starved the Proletariat


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(p. C12) Yang Jisheng's "Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" exemplifies E.H. Carr's famous dictum: "Study the historian before you study the facts." Mr. Yang is not the first historian to exhume the darkest crime of the political party that still rules China but the first Chinese journalist and longtime Party member to do so. He uses the Party's own historical records and the perpetrators' own words to craft his devastatingly detailed indictment.

For the full review essay, see:

Sylvia Nasar (author of passage quoted above, one of 50 contributors to whole article). "Twelve Months of Reading; We asked 50 of our friends to tell us what books they enjoyed in 2012--from Judd Apatow's big plans to Bruce Wagner's addictions. See pages C10 and C11 for the Journal's own Top Ten lists." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): passim (Nasar's contribution is on p. C12).

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Yang, Jisheng. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

February 2, 2013

Eastern Europeans Were Lab Rats in Stalin's Monstrous Experiment


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(p. C12) In a stunning follow-up to "Gulag," Anne Applebaum takes readers back to the events that triggered the half-century-long standoff between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Instead of the usual aerial view, "Iron Curtain" re-creates what it was like on the ground for those who became the lab rats in Stalin's monstrous social experiment.

For the full review essay, see:

Sylvia Nasar (author of passage quoted above, one of 50 contributors to whole article). "Twelve Months of Reading; We asked 50 of our friends to tell us what books they enjoyed in 2012--from Judd Apatow's big plans to Bruce Wagner's addictions. See pages C10 and C11 for the Journal's own Top Ten lists." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): passim (Nasar's contribution is on p. C12).

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

January 20, 2013

Socialism Failed in Jamestown

(p. 226) Stephen Slivinski discusses "Economic History: The Lessons of Jamestown." In the years after the Jamestown settlement of 1607, the settlers often lacked food. "The company sent Sir Thomas Dale, a British naval commander, to take over the office of colony governor in 1611. Yet, upon arrival in May--a time when the farmers should have been tending to their fields--Dale found virtually no planting activity. Instead, the workers were devoted mainly to leisure and 'playing bowls.' . . . All land was owned by the company and farmed collectively. . . . The workers would not hope to reap more compensation from a productive farming of the land any more than the farmers would be motivated by an interest in making their farming operations more efficient and, hence, more profitable. Seeing this, Dale decided to change the labor arrangements: When the seven-year contracts of most of the original surviving settlers were about to expire in 1614, he assigned private allotments of land to them. Each got three acres, 12 acres if he had a family. The only obligation was that they needed to provide two and a half barrels of corn annually to the company so it could be distributed to the newcomers to tide them over during their first year. Dale left Jamestown for good in 1616. By then, however, the new land grants had unleashed a vast increase in agricultural productivity. In fact, upon returning to England with Dale, John Rolfe--one of the colony's former leaders--reported to the Virginia Company that the Powhatans were now asking the colonists to give them corn instead of vice versa."

As quoted in:

Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 219-26.

(Note: ellipses added by Taylor.)

The Slivinski article is:

Slivinski, Stephen. "The Lessons of Jamestown." Region Focus 14, no. 1 (First Quarter 2010): 27-29.

December 31, 2012

Ancient Recipe Rights Protection

"The Sybarites," Phylarchus [the 3rd cent. BCE historian] says, "having drifted into luxury wrote a law that women be invited to festivals and that those who make the call to the sacrifice issue their summons a year in advance; thus the women could prepare their dresses and other adornments in a manner befitting that time span before answering the summons. And if some cook or chef invented an extraordinary recipe of his own, no one but the inventor was entitled to use it for a year, in order that during this time the inventor should have the profit and others might labor to excel in such endeavors. Similarly, those who sold eels were not charged taxes, nor those who caught them. In the same manner they made those who worked with sea-purple dye and those who imported it exempt from taxes."


Athenaeus. Deipnosophistae (the Scholars at Dinner), XII 521c2-d7.

(Note: as quoted on the back cover of Journal of Political Economy 118, no. 6 (December 2010).)

December 24, 2012

Williams Made Providence a Sanctuary for the Persecuted


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I have not yet read Barry's book on Roger Williams, but I did enjoy and learn from his earlier The Great Influenza book.

(p. 12) Williams struck overland, through snow and bitter cold, "wch I feele yet," he reminisced later in life. He survived because he had help. "The ravens fed me in the wilderness," he said, comparing himself to the scriptural prophets sustained by bird-borne morsels, though his "ravens" were Indians. With their assistance, he reached the upper bend of a bay that would be named for its inhabitants, the Narragansett. There, Williams bought land from its native proprietors and established a settlement he called Providence, to honor the divine assistance given to him and other Christians on their flights from persecution.

. . .

Next, Williams refused to take an oath of fidelity to Massachusetts, on the grounds that anything sworn in God's name for worldly purposes was corrupt.

The authorities in Massachusetts were so outraged that having failed to arrest Williams, they tried to obliterate his new settlement. He went back to England to get a charter to protect his colony on his own terms: with a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world." In several publications, he argued that the individual conscience should not -- could not -- be governed, let alone persecuted. If God was the ultimate punisher of sin, it was impious for humans to assume his authority. And it was "directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus . . . that throats of men should be torne out for his sake."

Barry shows how controversial these beliefs were at the time, and in this way reinforces the standard image of Williams as an early proponent of liberty of conscience.

For the full review, see:

JOYCE E. CHAPLIN. "Errand in the Wilderness." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 26, 2012): 12.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis internal to quotation was in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 25, 2012 and has the title "Roger Williams: The Great Separationist.")

The book being reviewed, is:

Barry, John M. Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. New York: Viking Adult, 2012.

December 19, 2012

"The Only Benefit of War Rationing"

(p. 538) The only benefit of war rationing, of which I am aware, is that an alert entrepreneur invented the bikini so as to conserve on the textiles that were then hard to come by for civilian use.


Shughart II, William F. "The New Deal and Modern Memory." Southern Economic Journal 77, no. 3 (Jan. 2011): 515-42.

November 22, 2012

"Highly Leveraged Economies, . . . , Seldom Survive"


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(p. 762) Every once in a while, a work comes along whose key points ought to be part of the information set of every literate economist. Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff's This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly is such a work. It describes and analyzes a long international history of several types of financial crises.

. . .

The authors resist giving too much structural interpretation to their analysis. Most would agree with their conclusion that " . . . highly leveraged economies, particularly those in which continual rollover of short-term debt is sustained only by confidence in relatively illiquid underlying assets, seldom survive" (p. 292).

For the full review, see:

Boskin, Michael J. "Review of: This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." Journal of Economic Literature 48, no. 3 (September 2010): 762-66.

(Note: ellipsis internal to the final quotation, and the italics, are in the original; ellipsis between paragraphs is added.)

(Note: the "p. 292" refers to a page in the book, and not a page of the review.)(

The book being reviewed, is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

November 14, 2012

Entrepreneurs of Coffee, the Battlefield, and Missing Minerals


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[p. 167] The book . . . contains a variety of entertaining stories and colorful facts about entrepreneurship that could potentially be used for teaching. [p. 168] Murray, for instance, explains that the word "entrepreneur" was borrowed from the French language in the late Middle Ages, a time when it was used to describe a battlefield commander (p. 88). Kuran describes how Middle Eastern coffee entrepreneurs originally faced harsh resistance from many clerics who believed that "coffee drinkers reap hell-fire" (pp. 71-72). Hudson traces early merchant activity and entrepreneurship all the way back to Sumerian cities in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC (pp. 11-17). These cities, made rich by their fertile alluvial soil, still needed to acquire other important minerals, missing in their own ground, from the distant Iranian plateau or Anatolia. Since military conquest proved too expensive and because the Sumerian cities really needed these resources, they pioneered international import-export activities in their temples and palaces.

For the full review, see:

Bikard, Michael, and Scott Stern. "The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times." Journal of Economic Literature 49, no. 1 (March 2011): 164-68.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the page numbers in square parentheses refer to the review; the page numbers in curved parentheses refer to the book under review.)

Book being reviewed:

Landes, David S., Joel Mokyr, and William J. Baumol, eds. Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

November 12, 2012

Edison Foresaw Phonograph Music Potential

EdisonWangemannGroupPhoto2012-11-11.jpg "EUROPEAN JOURNEY; Thomas Edison, seated center, sent Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann, standing behind him, to France in 1889. From there Wangemann traveled to Germany to record recitations and performances." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Edison is often ridiculed for failing to foresee that playing music would be a major use for his phonograph invention. (Nye 1991, p. 142 approvingly references Hughes 1986, p. 201 on this point.) But if Edison failed to foresee, then why did he assign Wangemann to make the phonograph "a marketable device for listening to music"?

(p. D3) Tucked away for decades in a cabinet in Thomas Edison's laboratory, just behind the cot in which the great inventor napped, a trove of wax cylinder phonograph records has been brought back to life after more than a century of silence.

The cylinders, from 1889 and 1890, include the only known recording of the voice of the powerful chancellor Otto von Bismarck. . . . Other records found in the collection hold musical treasures -- lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.

. . .

The lid of the box held an important clue. It had been scratched with the words "Wangemann. Edison."

The first name refers to Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann, who joined the laboratory in 1888, assigned to transform Edison's newly perfected wax cylinder phonograph into a marketable device for listening to music. Wangemann became expert in such strategies as positioning musicians around the recording horn in a way to maximize sound quality.

In June 1889, Edison sent Wangemann to Europe, initially to ensure that the phonograph at the Paris World's Fair remained in working order. After Paris, Wangemann toured his native Germany, recording musical artists and often visiting the homes of prominent members of society who were fascinated with the talking machine.

Until now, the only available recording from Wangemann's European trip has been a well-known and well-worn cylinder of Brahms playing an excerpt from his first Hungarian Dance. That recording is so damaged "that many listeners can scarcely discern the sound of a piano, which has in turn tarnished the reputations of both Wangemann and the Edison phonograph of the late 1880s," Dr. Feaster said. "These newly unearthed examples vindicate both."

For the full story, see:

RON COWEN. "Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th-Century Germany." The New York Times (Tues., January 31, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 30, 2012.)

EdisonPhonograph2012-11-11.jpg "Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann used a phonograph to record the voice of Otto von Bismarck." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

November 3, 2012

"Richly Researched" Study of "Ironies of Antitrust Policy" in Retailing

(p. 819) Levinson's book opens up a crucial discussion on the role of integrated retailer-distributors in shaping the twentieth-century U.S. economy. As he rightly notes in the book's conclusion, A&P was in many ways the Walmart of its day: it used its buying power to squeeze inefficiencies out of supply chains, it was widely reviled for upending small-town business patterns and bitterly fighting union organizers, and yet it drew waves of customers who appreciated its low prices. While we have many business histories of mass-production industries, we have only a handful of richly researched studies of the mass retailers that have, in the words of historian Nelson Lichtenstein (2009), "become the key players in the worldwide marketplace of our time." Levinson has produced a valuable book for business and economic historians interested in retailing, supply chains, and the ironies of antitrust policy. As a former editor for The Economist, furthermore, Levinson is particularly effective at translating challenging economic concepts into language that lay audiences and undergraduate students can grasp.

For the full review, see:

Hamilton, Shane. "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America." Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 3 (Sept. 2012): 818-19.

(Note: italics in original.)

The book under review is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.

The Lichtenstein book mentioned is:

Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. hb ed. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

October 11, 2012

Garfield's Doctors "Basically Tortured Him to Death"


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(p. 15) Had Garfield been left where he lay, he might well have survived; the bullet failed to hit his spine or penetrate any vital organs. Instead, he was given over to the care of doctors, who basically tortured him to death over the next 11 weeks. Two of them repeatedly probed his wound with their unsterilized fingers and instruments before having him carted back to the White House on a hay-and-horsehair mattress.

There, control of the president was seized by a quack with the incredible name of Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss. Dr. Doctor Bliss insisted on stuffing Garfield with heavy meals and alcohol, which brought on protracted waves of vomiting. He and his assistants went on probing the wound several times a day, causing infections that burrowed enormous tunnels of pus throughout the president's body.

Garfield's medical "care" is one of the most fascinating, if appalling, parts of Millard's narrative. Joseph Lister had been demonstrating for years how his theories on the prevention of infection could save lives and limbs, but American doctors largely ignored his advice, not wanting to "go to all the trouble" of washing hands and instruments, Millard writes, enamored of the macho trappings of their profession, the pus and blood and what they referred to fondly as the "good old surgical stink" of the operating room.

Further undermining the president's recovery was his sickroom in the White House -- then a rotting, vermin-ridden structure with broken sewage pipes. Outside, Washington was a pestilential stink hole; besides the first lady, four White House servants and Guiteau himself had contracted malaria. Hoping to save Garfield from the same, Bliss fed him large doses of quinine, causing more intestinal cramping.

The people rallied around their president even as his doctors failed him. The great Western explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell helped design Ameri­ca's first air-conditioning system to relieve Garfield's agony. Alexander Graham Bell worked tirelessly to invent a device that could locate the bullet. (It failed when Dr. Bliss insisted he search only the wrong side of Garfield's torso.) Two thousand people worked overnight to lay 3,200 feet of railroad track, so the president might be taken to a cottage on the Jersey Shore. When the engine couldn't make the grade, hundreds of men stepped forward to push his train up the final hill.

The president endured everything with amazing fortitude and patience, even remarking near the end, when he learned a fund was being taken up for his family: "How kind and thoughtful! What a generous people!"

"General Garfield died from malpractice," Guiteau claimed, defending himself at his spectacle of a trial. This was true, but not enough to save Guiteau from the gallows.

For the full review, see:

KEVIN BAKER. "Death of a President." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., October 2, 2011): 14-15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 30, 2011, and has the title "The Doctors Who Killed a President.")

The full reference for the book under review, is:

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. New York: Doubleday, 2011.

October 3, 2012

Big Science Done Privately at Great Risk


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(p. 23) Next time you find yourself grousing when the passenger in front reclines his seat a smidge too far, consider the astronomers of the Enlightenment. In 1761 and 1769, dozens and dozens of stargazers traveled thousands of miserable miles to observe a rare and awesome celestial phenomenon. They went by sailing ship and open dinghy, by carriage, by sledge and on foot. They endured discomfort that in our own flabby century would generate years of litigation. And they did it all for science: the men in powdered wigs and knee britches were determined to measure the transit of Venus.

. . .

The British astronomer Edmond Halley had realized that precise measurement of a transit might give astronomers armed with a clock and a telescope the data they needed to calculate how far Earth is from the Sun. With that distance in hand, they could work out the actual size of the solar system, the great astronomical problem of the era. The catch was that it would take multiple measurements from carefully chosen locations all over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But that was somebody else's problem. Halley knew he wouldn't live to see the transit of 1761.

That challenge fell to the French astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, who managed to energize and rally his colleagues in the years leading up to the transit, then coordinate the enormous effort that would ultimately involve scientists and adventurers from France, Britain, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and the American colonies. When you think about how hard it is to arrange a simple dinner with a few friends who live in the same city and use the same language when e-mailing, it's enough to take your breath away.

. . .

Sea travel was so risky in 1761 that observers took separate ships to the same destination to increase the chances some of them would make it alive. The Seven Years' War was on, and getting caught in the cross-fire was a constant concern. One French scientist carried a passport arranged by the Royal Society in London advising the British military "not to molest his person or Effects upon any account." Others were shelled by the French or caught in border troubles with the Russians. An observer en route to Tobolsk, in Siberia, found himself floating in ice up to his waist when his carriage fell through the frozen river they were traveling in lieu of a road. He made it to his destination. Another, heading toward eastern Finland via the iced-over Gulf of Bothnia, was repeatedly catapulted out of his sledge as the runners caught on the crests of frozen waves. He made it too.

For the full review, see:

JoANN C. GUTIN. "Masters of the Universe." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 20, 2012): 19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 18, 2012.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:

Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

ApparatusTransitVenus2012-09-01.jpg Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

September 29, 2012

How a Group of "Natural Philosophers" Created Science in a London "Full of Thieves, Murderers and Human Waste"


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(p. 19) London before the mid-1600s was a general calamity. The streets were full of thieves, murderers and human waste. Death was everywhere: doctors were hapless, adults lived to about age 30, children died like flies. In 1665, plague moved into the city, killing sometimes 6,000 people a week. In 1666, an unstoppable fire burned the city to the ground; the bells of St. Paul's melted. Londoners thought that the terrible voice of God was "roaring in the City," one witness wrote, and they would do best to accept the horror, calculate their sins, pray for guidance and await retribution.

In the midst of it all, a group of men whose names we still learn in school formed the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. They thought that God, while an unforgiving judge, was also a mathematician. As such, he had organized the universe according to discernible, mathematical law, which, if they tried, they could figure out. They called themselves "natural philosophers," and their motto was "Nullius in verba": roughly, take no one's word for anything. You have an idea? Demonstrate it, do an experiment, prove it. The ideas behind the Royal Society would flower into the Enlightenment, the political, cultural, scientific and educational revolution that gave rise to the modern West.

This little history begins Edward Dolnick's "Clockwork Universe," so the reader might think the book is about the Royal Society and its effects. But the Royal Society is dispatched in the first third of the book, and thereafter, the subject is how the attempt to find the mathematics governing the universe played out in the life of Isaac Newton.

. . .

To go from sinful "curiositas" to productive "curiosity," from blind acceptance to open-eyed inquiry, from asking, "Why?" to answering, "How?" -- this change, of all the world's revolutions, must surely be the most remarkable.

For the full review, see:

ANN FINKBEINER. "Masters of the Universe." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., March 27, 2011): 19.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 25, 2011, and had the title "What Newton Gave Us.")

The full reference for the book under review, is:

Dolnick, Edward. The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

September 25, 2012

"Science Is Weakest in the Lands of Islam"


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(p. 18) The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of "lost" knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book's subtitle.

The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during "the world's most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece." Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that ­al-Mamun stands as "the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers."

Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.

But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. "Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam," Salam said in despair. "The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age."

By recounting Arabic science's luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will "propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society."

For the full review, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "The Muslim Art of Science." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 22, 2011): 18.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2011.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:

al-Khalili, Jim. The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.

September 9, 2012

Economists Optimistic that Economy Can Adapt to Climate Change


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(p. 222) Efficient policy decisions regarding climate change require credible estimates of the future costs of possible (in)action. The edited volume by Gary Libecap and Richard Steckel contributes to this important policy discussion by presenting work estimating the ability of economic actors to adapt to a changing climate. The eleven contributed research chapters primarily focus on the historical experience of the United States and largely on the agricultural sector. While the conclusions are not unanimous, on average, the authors tend to present an optimistic perspective on the ability of the economy to adapt to climate change.

For the full review, see:

Swoboda, Aaron. "Review of: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present." Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 1 (March 2012): 222-24.

Book under review:

Libecap, Gary D., and Richard H. Steckel, eds. The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Report. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

August 29, 2012


(p. 183) In 1832, a young man was fired from his job and lost his bid for election to the state legislature. The next year his new business failed. Three years later he suffered a nervous breakdown. After recovering, he was defeated as speaker in the state legislature. He was defeated in his efforts to win his party's nomination to Congress in 1843. He was rejected as land officer in 1849. In 1854, he was defeated in the U.S. Senate election and, in 1856, his efforts to win the nomination as his party's vice president failed. The string of failures continued. He was again defeated in the Senate election in 1858. Finally, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the sixteenth president of the United States.


Audretsch, David. "Review of: Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure." Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 1 (March 2012): 183.

August 20, 2012

Catherine the Great as Benevolent Despot


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(p. C3) Bereft of husband and child, a lonely Catherine began to read the histories, philosophy and literature of Greece and Rome and of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu's "The Spirit of Laws," which analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of despotic rule, had a powerful impact on her. She was particularly interested in his thesis that the conduct of a specific despot could partially redeem that form of rule. Thereafter, she attributed to herself a "republican soul" of the kind advocated by Montesquieu.

Voltaire, the venerated patriarch of the Enlightenment, had concluded that a despotic government might well be the best possible form of government--if it were reasonable. But to be reasonable, he said, it must be enlightened; if enlightened, it could be both efficient and benevolent. Soon after ascending to the throne, Catherine began a correspondence with Voltaire that eventually extended to hundreds of letters over more than 20 years.

. . .

Near the end of her reign Catherine was asked how she understood the "blind obedience with which her orders were obeyed." Catherine smiled and answered, "It is not as easy as you think.... I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and so in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience."

Catherine died in 1796, when George Washington was finishing his second term in office. Since then, the temptations of absolute power have remained great; despots have continued to appear, afflicting people everywhere. We have learned, at enormous cost, the difficulty of combining despotism with benevolence. Few rulers have even tried. Catherine tried.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT K. MASSIE. "Catherine the Great's Lessons for Despots; Russia's erudite empress tried to redeem absolute rule; her failures highlight dangers still present today." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 12, 2011): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

For Massie's full biography of Catherine the Great, see:

Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. New York: Random House, 2011.

August 10, 2012

Shedding Light, or "The Greatest Symbol of Modern Progress"


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(p. 5) IN the wake of widespread violence during the New York City blackout of 1977, a newspaper columnist quipped that just one flick of a light switch separated civilization from primordial chaos.

Leaving the hyperbole aside, artificial illumination has arguably been the greatest symbol of modern progress. By making nighttime infinitely more inviting, street lighting -- gas lamps beginning in the early 1800s followed by electric lights toward the end of the century -- drastically expanded the boundaries of everyday life to include hours once shrouded in darkness. Today, any number of metropolitan areas in the United States and abroad, bathed in the glare of neon and mercury vapor, bill themselves as 24-hour cities, open both for business and pleasure.

. . .

. . . there was never any question that 19th-century communities welcomed lamps, which in conjunction with police forces, posed a powerful deterrent to lawlessness. Another benefit lay in the numerous pedestrians drawn by their inviting glow, whose very presence helped to discourage crime.

"As safe and agreeable to walk out in the evening as by day-light," pronounced a New Yorker in 1853.

Certainly, public anxiety over the recent removal of lamps should not be minimized. No longer are there witches and wolves to fear, but research strongly suggests, as one might expect, the critical value of street lighting as a hindrance to crime and serious accidents.

. . .

Financial costs and public safety, however, are not the only issues. Without the benefit of street lighting, towns and cities, after sunset, will be diminished as communities. Families will be more apt to "cocoon" at home, rather than visit friends or attend sporting and cultural events. And, too, our appreciation for night itself will suffer. Evenings can be best enjoyed if they remain inviting and safe, whether for neighborhood gatherings, walking Fido or gazing at the heavens -- all with less chance of losing your wallet or stumbling into a ditch.

For the full commentary, see:

A. ROGER EKIRCH. "OPINION; Return to a Darker Age." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., January 8, 2012): 5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 7, 2012.)

Ekrich wrote a related book:

A. Roger Ekirch. At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

July 23, 2012

Alexander Field Claims 1930s Were "Technologically Progressive"


Source of book image:

(p. 1) UNDERNEATH the misery of the Great Depression, the United States economy was quietly making enormous strides during the 1930s. Television and nylon stockings were invented. Refrigerators and washing machines turned into mass-market products. Railroads became faster and roads smoother and wider. As the economic historian Alexander J. Field has said, the 1930s constituted "the most technologically progressive decade of the century."

. . .

(p. 6) The closest thing to a unified explanation for these problems is a mirror image of what made the 1930s so important. Then, the United States was vastly increasing its productive capacity, as Mr. Field argued in his recent book, "A Great Leap Forward." Partly because the Depression was eliminating inefficiencies but mostly because of the emergence of new technologies, the economy was adding muscle and shedding fat. Those changes, combined with the vast industrialization for World War II, made possible the postwar boom.

In recent years, on the other hand, the economy has not done an especially good job of building its productive capacity. Yes, innovations like the iPad and Twitter have altered daily life. And, yes, companies have figured out how to produce just as many goods and services with fewer workers. But the country has not developed any major new industries that employ large and growing numbers of workers.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011.)

Book discussed:

Field, Alexander J. A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth, Yale Series in Economic and Financial History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

July 15, 2012

Hitchens Adds to the Case Against Woodrow Wilson


Source of book image:

Reading the review quoted below, reminded me of how much I will miss Christopher Hitchens.

(p. 12) If General Pershing's fresh and plucky troops had not reached the scene in the closing stages of the bloodbath, universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms. Without President Wilson's intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor. (Unsentimental to the last, though, he shows that many of them went on to lose or waste their lives on Bolshevism, the other great mutant system to emerge from the abattoir.) This is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.

For the full review, see:

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS. "Mortal Debate." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 15, 2011): 1 & 12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 13, 2011, and has the title "The Pacifists and the Trenches.")

The book under review is:

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2011.

July 11, 2012

Muckraking Friend of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson Was "Intrigued by Mussolini" and "Captivated by Lenin"


Source of book image:

(p. 29) As one of the original "muckrakers," Steffens wrote newspaper and magazine exposés that gave journalism a new purpose, . . .

. . .

He learned to write and to invest, and within nine years was the managing editor of McClure's, one of the most popular and prestigious magazines in the country.

He was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. Volatile Sam McClure was transforming his namesake publication into a journal that would rip the veil from American life, forcing readers to confront the corruption that had seeped into every seam of their democracy. The January 1903 issue alone featured an installment of Ida Tarbell's groundbreaking history of the Standard Oil Company; . . .

. . .

He managed to remain friends with Roosevelt and then Woodrow Wilson . . .

. . .

Intrigued by Mussolini, Steffens was captivated by Lenin, whom he interviewed briefly during the revolution. He became one of the first of that sad little band of Western intellectuals who fell head over heels for the Soviet Union. Unlike most of them, he did not deny the stories of atrocities leaking out of the workers' paradise. Even more chilling, he simply believed them necessary to bring about the great changes to come. He never wavered from his infamous first impression of the U.S.S.R., "I have seen the future, and it works." Instead, living comfortably on money he made from the stock market, he insisted that "nothing must jar our perfect loyalty to the party and its leaders," and that "the notion of liberty . . . is false, a hangover from our Western tyranny."

For the full review, see:

KEVIN BAKER. "Lincoln Steffens: Muckraker's Progress." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 15, 2011): 29.

(Note: ellipses added except for the one inside the last quoted paragraph.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 13, 2011.)

The book under review is:

Hartshorn, Peter. I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011.

June 15, 2012

Hatfields and McCoys Show that Idleness Begets Violence


Kevin Costner as the patriarch of the Hatfield clan on the HBO miniseries. Source of photo:

Kevin Costner plausibly suggests that when the productive activities of capitalism and entrepreneurship are not available or sought, people are more likely to let annoyances lead to violence:

(p. 15) Q. What was the root of the feud?

K.C. It's fair to say that the economics of the time were the provocateurs in this story. I think there was a moment when Hatfield and McCoy would have laid down their guns. But these young guys didn't have jobs anymore as we moved toward industrialization. They started to have children, and their families doubled in size, and suddenly they had to feed 26. Young men killing young men -- it really has a lot to do with the offspring not having enough to do. Look, you're talking about alcohol and guns, and you're talking about unemployment, so there's a reason for the bitterness.

For the full interview, see:

Kathryn Shattuck, interviewer. "Firing Bullets Across a Border And a Bloodline." The New York Times, Arts&Leisure Section (Sun., May 27, 2012): 15.

(Note: bold in original.)

June 13, 2012

Lincoln "Would Abhor" Roosevelt's "Progressivism"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) In 1912, . . . , Robert Lincoln uncharacteristically leapt into the arena of national debate to challenge Theodore Roosevelt's appropriation of his father's name for TR's "New Nationalism" agenda. Robert, writing in the Boston Herald, labeled Roosevelt's progressivism a doctrine that the elder Lincoln "would abhor if living."

For the full review, see:

RYAN L. COLE. "BOOKSHELF; The Son Also Rises; Prominent lawyer, self-made millionaire, cabinet secretary--Robert Lincoln was more than just his father's greatest advocate." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., May 9, 2012): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 9, 2012.)

The book under review is:

Emerson, Jason. Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

May 22, 2012

Entrepreneur Krupp Was Paternalistically "Benevolent" and Was Skeptical of Capitalism


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Harold James, professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University, portrays a vastly different organization in "Krupp," a painstaking chronicle of a company that traces its roots to a steel foundry in Essen in 1810. Mr. James's Krupp is a company for which the manufacturing of war matériel was always of secondary interest to that of civilian production. The company might have preferred to concentrate on manufacturing railroad equipment and consumer goods, but in the developing and expansionist German empire of the 19th century, state requirements for the tools of power dovetailed with Krupp's desire for regular long-term contracts. The result for Krupp was a practical, if not deliberate, focus on armaments.

From the manufacturer's perspective, the emphasis on war matériel did not consign Krupp to the ranks of belligerent militarists; it was just smart business. "The purpose of work should be the common good," founder Alfred Krupp once said, or at least that quote graces a statue the company erected after his death in 1887. All through the 19th century, Mr. James says, the pursuit of profit was less central to the Krupp mission than building a solid enterprise within a framework of social responsibility. As early as 1836, Krupp established a voluntary health-insurance program for its workers. By the middle of the century, life-insurance and pension plans had been instituted. Workers' hostels and company hospitals were constructed. In exchange for this paternalistic benevolence, Krupp expected complete loyalty from its work force and vehemently opposed the slightest hint of union organization or political activity among its employees.

"Alfred Krupp perfectly fits the mold of the heroic entrepreneur," Mr. James writes. "Profoundly skeptical of joint-stock companies, banks, and capitalism in general, but also of big-scale science and modern research methods, he was a genius at extending to its utmost limits the possibilities of the craft entrepreneur."

For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SIEGEL. "BOOKSHELF; Heavy Industry, Burdened Past; The company's 19th-century founder said it was devoted to the "common good." In World War II, it worked hard for the Third Reich." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 17, 2012): A13.

(Note: the online version of the interview is dated April 16, 2012.)

April 10, 2012

James Morrison Was a "Retailing Genius"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Morrison was not an inventor-capitalist but a retailing genius, more Sam Walton than Steve Jobs. He catered to England's growing consumer class by diversifying his wares and, in his ever-growing network of shops, introducing luxurious showrooms. He was a disciple of volume, seeking "high turnover, small profits, and quick returns." He sent his traveling men not to find buyers, as was typical, but to find the best suppliers. Advantageously purchased in bulk, goods would sell themselves. Morrison's buyers were specialists, anticipating the practices of later department stores. He kept his finger on the pulse of fashion and on "market making" events. Legendarily, he was never caught short of black crepe when a member of the royal family was ill. "The Duke of York has died most conveniently," he once quipped while tallying profits.

The "Napoleon of shopkeepers" went on to found his own merchant bank and accumulate a prodigious investment portfolio, much of it in American bonds. Strategic lending to broke aristocrats greased Morrison's way into Parliament, where he served as a "radical Whig," championing political reform and free trade.

. . .

. . . Morrison conducted both his retailing and his banking business with impeccable transparency. The investments he sold were honestly structured, and the risks he ran were his own, backed by sufficient collateral. Morrison's was an era before bailouts, an era of some moral luck but little moral hazard. Markets rose and fell with reasonably predictable effects. For him and many of his contemporaries, credit remained a personal matter of the highest consequence. In this, alas, a character such as Morrison now seems more alien than familiar.

For the full review, see:

JEFFREY COLLINS. "BOOKSHELF; King of the Shopkeepers; The lessons of a merchant prince and a brilliant retailer whose wool, linen, silk, thread and lace flew off the shelves." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., March 5, 2012): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:

Dakers, Caroline. A Genius for Money: Business, Art and the Morrisons. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

March 23, 2012

Faraday and Einstein Were Visual and Physical Thinkers, Not Mathematicians


Source of book image:

(p. C6) Michael Faraday is one of the most beguiling and lovable figures in the history of science. Though he could not understand a single equation, he deduced the essential structure of the laws of electromagnetism through visualization and physical intuition. (James Clerk Maxwell would later give them mathematical form.) Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday over his desk, for Einstein also thought of himself primarily as a visual and physical thinker, not an abstract mathematician.

. . .

Faraday's text is still charming and rich, a judgment that few popular works on science could sustain after so many years. Though he addresses himself to an "auditory of juveniles," he calls for his audience to follow a close chain of reasoning presented through a series of experiments and deductions.

. . .

. . . : "In every one of us there is a living process of combustion going on very similar to that of a candle," as Faraday illustrates in his experiments.

In his closing, he turns from our metabolic resemblance to a candle to his deeper wish that "you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you."

For the full review, see:

PETER PESIC. "BOOKSHELF; Keeper of the Flame." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Book under review:

Faraday, Michael. The Chemical History of a Candle. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2011.

March 21, 2012

In History, Documenting Your Sources Matters More than Your Credentials


George Dyson. Source of photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.

(p. D11) BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- More than most of us, the science historian George Dyson spends his days thinking about technologies, old and very new.

. . .

Though this 58-year-old author's works are centered on technology, they often have an autobiographical subtext. Freeman Dyson, the physicist and mathematician who was a protagonist of Project Orion, is his father. Esther Dyson, the Internet philosopher and high-tech investor, is his sister. We spoke for three hours at his cottage here, and later by telephone. A condensed and edited version of the conversations follows.

. . .

. . . today you make your living as a historian of science and technology. How does a high school dropout get to do that?

Hey, this is America. You can do what you want! I love this idea that someone who didn't finish high school can write books that get taken seriously. History is one of the only fields where contributions by amateurs are taken seriously, providing you follow the rules and document your sources. In history, it's what you write, not what your credentials are.

For the full interview, see:

CLAUDIA DREIFUS, interviewer. "Looking Backward to Put New Technologies in Focus." The New York Times (Tues., December 6, 2011): D11.

(Note: question bolded in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview is dated December 5, 2011.)

Dyson's most recent book is:

Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

March 15, 2012

"The Astaires' Defiant New World Optimism"


Source of book image:

(p. C6) The Astaire universe was made of crazy joy, that guiltless worldview unique to the art of the American 1920s. The Astaires' trademarked exit was the gleefully mischievous "runaround," in which they trotted about the stage in ever increasing circles as if joined at the hip, expanding their geometry till they reached the wings and vanished. It was goofy and expert at once, a way of defining musical comedy as the state of being young, cute and in love with life.

. . .

"For all their jazz-fueled modernity," Ms. Riley writes of the Astaires' London réclame, they were "anti-modernist." This pair was more than sunshine. The sheer zest with which they frisked through a show ran "counter to High Modernism's pervasive sense of the instability of the self and the universe." This was the time, Ms. Riley notes, of "The Waste Land," "Ulysses," "Vile Bodies." Art was in despair. But the Astaires' "defiant New World optimism" proved a remedy: meeting cute, assuming disguises and high-hatting the blues with fascinating rhythm. It's a very American notion: that a strong foundation in popular art creates a positive worldview in general. Call it the audacity of charm.

. . .

They don't make shows that way anymore, and Ms. Riley's book is thus a resuscitation of a naive but perhaps more authentically native showbiz, an art of natural forces. "The Astaires" is a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.

For the full review, see:

Kathleen Riley. "BOOKSHELF; Sibling Revelry." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 3, 2012): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:

Riley, Kathleen. The Astaires: Fred & Adele. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

March 11, 2012

"Innovation and Invention Don't Grow Out of the Government's Orders"

ZhouYouguangTrendyOldGuy2012-03-07.jpg""You can have democracy no matter what level of development. Just look at the Arab Spring."- Zhou Youguang" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A5) BEIJING. EVEN at 106 years old, Zhou Youguang is the kind of creative thinker that Chinese leaders regularly command the government to cultivate in their bid to raise their nation from the world's factory floor.

So it is curious that he embodies a contradiction at the heart of their premise: the notion that free thinkers are to be venerated unless and until they challenge the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.

Mr. Zhou is the inventor of Pinyin, the Romanized spelling system that linked China's ancient written language to the modern age and helped China all but stamp out illiteracy. He was one of the leaders of the Chinese translation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1980s. He has written about 40 books, the most recent published last year.

. . .

His blog entries range from the modernization of Confucianism to Silk Road history and China's new middle class. Computer screens hurt his eyes, but he devours foreign newspapers and magazines. A well-known Chinese artist nicknamed him "Trendy Old Guy."

. . .

THE decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 wiped out Mr. Zhou's lingering belief in communism. He was publicly humiliated and sent to toil for two years in the wilderness.

. . .

About Mao, he said in an interview: "I deny he did any good." About the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: "I am sure one day justice will be done." About popular support for the Communist Party: "The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know."

As for fostering creativity in the Communist system, Mr. Zhou had this to say, in a 2010 book of essays: "Inventions are flowers that grow out of the soil of freedom. Innovation and invention don't grow out of the government's orders."

No sooner had the first batch of copies been printed than the book was banned in China.

For the full story, see:

SHARON LaFRANIERE. "THE SATURDAY PROFILE; A Chinese Voice of Dissent That Took Its Time." The New York Times (Sat., March 3, 2012): A5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date March 2, 2012.)

February 28, 2012

Carnegie and Twain Opposed Roosevelt's Imperialism


Source of book image:

Marxists and others on the left often claim that big business is the main force behind U.S. imperialism. Is it not ironic that the most imperialistic U.S. President was the anti-big-business "progressive" Teddy Roosevelt who was vehemently opposed by big businessman Andrew Carnegie?

Mark Twain is sometimes accused of insufficient sympathy with the downtrodden. Those who so accuse, misunderstand his message. He too opposed Roosevelt's war on the Filipinos.

(Carnegie and Twain's friendship is discussed in David Nasaw's biography of Carnegie.)

(p. 13) There was within the United States a strong and vocal anti-imperialist movement, which included former President Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain, but it struggled to tamp down the country's growing expansionist zeal, and to compete with the energy, tenacity and bulldog ambition of one man in particular: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who in just six years rose meteorically from New York City police commissioner to president, nurtured a deep and unshakable contempt for what he called the "unintelligent, cowardly chatter for 'peace at any price.' " Not only had the "clamor of the peace faction" left him unmoved, Roosevelt wrote, it had served to strengthen his conviction that "this country needs a war."

. . .

Although Roosevelt moves in and out of Jones's narrative, disappearing for long stretches, he still manages to steal the spotlight, just as he does in every book in which he appears. When McKinley dragged his feet before sending troops to Cuba, Roosevelt sneered that the president had "no more backbone than a chocolate éclair." In the Department of the Navy, Roosevelt gleefully took over while his boss was on summer vacation, anointing himself the "hot weather secretary" and crowing to a friend that he was having "immense fun running the Navy." In Cuba, after choosing his regiment of Rough Riders from 23,000 applicants, he ordered his famous charge up Kettle Hill wearing a custom-made fawn-colored Brooks Brothers uniform with canary-yellow trim.

For the full review, see:

CANDICE MILLARD. "Looking for a Fight; At the Turn of the 20th Century, Theodore Roosevelt Set Out to Transform the United States into a Major World Power." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., February 19, 2012): 13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 17, 2012 and has the title "Looking for a Fight; A New History of the Philippine-American War.")

The book under review is:

Jones, Gregg. Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream. New York: New American Library, 2012.

The Nasaw book on Carnegie mentioned in my initial comments is:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)

January 22, 2012

Hunter-Gatherers Suffered Violence, Famine and Disease--No Idyllic Golden Age

(p. 44) The warfare death rate of 0.5 per cent of the population per year that was typical of many hunter-gatherer societies would equate to two billion people dying during the twentieth century (instead of 100 million). At a cemetery uncovered at Jebel Sahaba, in Egypt, dating from 14,000 years ago, twenty-four of the fifty-nine bodies had died from unhealed wounds caused by spears, darts and arrows. Forty of these bodies were women or children. Women and children generally do not take part in warfare - but they are (p. 45) frequently the object of the fighting. To be abducted as a sexual prize and see your children killed was almost certainly not a rare female fate in hunter-gatherer society. After Jebel Sahaba, forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max.

It was not just warfare that limited population growth. Hunter-gatherers are often vulnerable to famines. Even when food is abundant, it might take so much travelling and trouble to collect enough food that women would not maintain a sufficient surplus to keep themselves fully fertile for more than a few prime years. Infanticide was a common resort in bad times. Nor was disease ever far away: gangrene, tetanus and many kinds of parasite would have been big killers. Did I mention slavery? Common in the Pacific north-west. Wife beating? Routine in Tierra del Fuego. The lack of soap, hot water, bread, books, films, metal, paper, cloth? When you meet one of those people who go so far as to say they would rather have lived in some supposedly more delightful past age, just remind them of the toilet facilities of the Pleistocene, the transport options of Roman emperors or the lice of Versailles.


Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

January 18, 2012

You Have More Servants than the Sun King

(p. 36) The Sun King had dinner each night alone. He chose from forty dishes, served on gold and silver plate. It took a staggering 498 people to prepare each meal. He was rich because he consumed the work of other people, mainly in the form of their services. He was rich because other people did things for him. At that time, the average French family would have prepared and consumed its own meals as well as paid tax to support his servants in the palace. So it is not hard to conclude that Louis XIV was rich because others were poor.

But what about today? Consider that you are an average person, say a woman of 35, living in, for the sake of argument, Paris and earning the median wage, with a working husband and two children. You are far from poor, but in relative terms, you are immeasurably poorer than Louis was. Where he was the richest of the rich in the world's richest city, you have no servants, no palace, no carriage, no kingdom. As you toil home from work on the crowded Metro, stopping at the shop on the way to buy a ready meal for four, you might be thinking that Louis XIV's dining arrangements were way beyond your reach. And yet consider this. The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella). You can buy a fresh, frozen, tinned, smoked or pre-prepared meal made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, prawns, scallops, eggs, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage, aubergine, kumquats, celeriac, okra, seven kinds of lettuce, cooked in olive, walnut, sunflower or peanut oil and flavoured with cilantro, turmeric, basil or rosemary . . . You may have no chefs, but you can decide (p. 37) on a whim to choose between scores of nearby bistros, or Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Indian restaurants, in each of which a team of skilled chefs is waiting to serve your family at less than an hour's notice. Think of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.

You employ no tailor, but you can browse the internet and instantly order from an almost infinite range of excellent, affordable clothes of cotton, silk, linen, wool and nylon made up for you in factories all over Asia. You have no carriage, but you can buy a ticket which will summon the services of a skilled pilot of a budget airline to fly you to one of hundreds of destinations that Louis never dreamed of seeing. You have no woodcutters to bring you logs for the fire, but the operators of gas rigs in Russia are clamouring to bring you clean central heating. You have no wick-trimming footman, but your light switch gives you the instant and brilliant produce of hardworking people at a grid of distant nuclear power stations. You have no runner to send messages, but even now a repairman is climbing a mobile-phone mast somewhere in the world to make sure it is working properly just in case you need to call that cell. You have no private apothecary, but your local pharmacy supplies you with the handiwork of many thousands of chemists, engineers and logistics experts. You have no government ministers, but diligent reporters are even now standing ready to tell you about a film star's divorce if you will only switch to their channel or log on to their blogs.

My point is that you have far, far more than 498 servants at your immediate beck and call. Of course, unlike the Sun King's servants, these people work for many other people too, but from your perspective what is the difference? That is the magic that exchange and specialisation have wrought for the human species.


Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

January 6, 2012

In 1800 the Life of a Peasant Was Not Pleasant

(p. 12) There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquility, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the (p. 13) simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.

Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father's Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 - not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour's lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week's wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father's jacket cost him a month's wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.


Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

December 20, 2011

A&P Sold Consumers Better and Lower-Priced Food


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) Mr. Levinson's history centers on the two Hartford sons who followed their father into the business. They would spend their entire working lives at the company being known simply as "Mr. George" and "Mr. John." Thoughtful and studious, Mr. George's idea of excitement was a good jigsaw puzzle; Mr. John, somewhat more outgoing, liked the horses but also a daily lunch of milk and crackers. Together the brothers, neither of whom had finished high school, built what would be, for 40 years, the largest retail outlet in the world.

The brothers' business philosophy was simple, writes Mr. Levinson: "If the company keeps its costs down and prices low, more shoppers would come through its doors, producing more profits than if it kept prices high." The more stores they could open, the greater the take.

But the Hartfords had a public-relations problem. Since the nation's earliest days, small family stores had served as community anchors. There were thousands across the country. Mom and pop knew every customer who came through their door; they extended credit to families down on their luck. If low-priced chains drove out such stores, what would happen to small-town America?

In fact, many mom-and-pop operations were inefficiently and incompetently run. A&P might be coldly corporate by comparison, but it offered consumers far more variety and fresher, better-quality goods at less cost to the family budget.

For the full review, see:

PATRICK COOKE. "BOOKSHELF; How a Grocer Bagged Profits; At its peak, the chain had nearly 16,000 stores. Critics charged it with competing unfairly by offering too-low prices." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 29, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The book under review is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.

December 5, 2011

"Private Life Was Completely Transformed in the Nineteenth Century"

(p. 448) Private life was completely transformed in the nineteenth century - socially, intellectually, technologically, hygienically, sartorially, sexually and in almost any other respect that could be made into an adverb. Mr Marsham was born (in 1822) into a world that was still essentially medieval - a place of candlelight, medicinal leeches, travel at walking pace, news from afar that was always weeks or months old - and lived to see the introduction of one marvel after another: steamships and speeding trains, telegraphy, photography, anaesthesia, indoor plumbing, gas lighting, antisepsis in medicine, refrigeration, telephones, electric lights, recorded music, cars and planes, skyscrapers, motion pictures, radio, and literally tens of thousands of tiny things more, from mass-produced bars of soap to push-along lawnmowers.

It is almost impossible to conceive just how much radical day-to-day change people were exposed to in the nineteenth century, particularly in the second half. Even something as elemental as the weekend was brand new.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

December 1, 2011

Justice for He Who Taxed Unjustly

(p. 444) At the height of the agricultural crisis, the British government under the Liberals did an odd thing. It invented a tax designed to punish a class of people who were already suffering severely and had done nothing in particular to cause the current troubles. The class was large landowners. The tax was death duties. Life was about to change utterly for thousands of people, including our own Mr Marsham.

The designer of the new tax was Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt, the chancellor of the exchequer, a man who seems not to have been liked much by anyone at any point in his life, including his own family. Known familiarly, if not altogether affectionately, as 'Jumbo' because of his magnificent rotundity, Harcourt was an unlikely persecutor of the landed classes since he was one of them himself. The Harcourt family home was Nuneham Park in Oxfordshire, which we have visited in this book already. Nuneham, you may remember, was where an earlier Harcourt reconfigured the estate but failed to recollect where the old village well had been, fell into it and drowned. For as long as there had been (p. 445) Tories, the Harcourts had numbered themselves among them, so William's joining of the Liberals was seen within his family as the darkest treachery. Even Liberals were startled by his tax. Lord Rosebery, the prime minister (who was himself a big landowner), wondered if some relief should at least be granted in those cases where two inheritors died in quick succession. It would be harsh, Rosebery thought, to tax an estate a second time before the legatee had had a chance to rebuild the family finances. Harcourt, however, refused all appeals for concessions.

That Harcourt stood almost no chance of inheriting his own family property no doubt coloured his principles. In fact, to his presumed surprise, he did inherit it when his elder brother's son died suddenly, but heirlessly, in the spring of 1904. Harcourt didn't get to enjoy his good fortune long, however. He expired six months later himself, which meant that his heirs were among the first to be taxed twice over in exactly the way that Rosebery had feared and he had dismissed. Life doesn't often get much neater than that.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

November 23, 2011

No Evidence that Parents Were Ever Indifferent to the Well-Being of Their Children

(p. 404) No one expressed parental loss better (as no one expressed most things better) than William Shakespeare. These lines are from King John, written soon after his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven in 1596:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

(p. 405) These are not the words of someone for whom children are a product, and there is no reason to suppose - no evidence anywhere, including that of common sense - that parents were ever, at any point in the past, commonly indifferent to the happiness and well-being of their children. One clue lies in the name of the room in which we are now. 'Nursery' is first recorded in English in 1330 and has been in continuous use ever since. A room exclusively dedicated to the needs and comforts of children would hardly seem consistent with the belief that children were of no consequence within the household. No less significant is the word 'childhood' itself. It has existed in English for over a thousand years (the first recorded use is in the Lindisfarne Gospels circa AD 950), so whatever it may have meant emotionally to people, as a state of being, a condition of separate existence, it is indubitably ancient. To suggest that children were objects of indifference or barely existed as separate beings would appear to be a simplification at best.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

November 15, 2011

Patent on Cotton Gin Not Enough for Whitney to Get Rich

(p. 395) Whitney patented his 'gin' (a shortened form of 'engine') and prepared to become stupendously wealthy.

. . .

(p. 396) . . . , the gin truly was a marvel. Whitney and Miller formed a partnership with every expectation of getting rich, but they were disastrous businessmen. For the use of their machine, they demanded a one-third share of any harvest - a proportion that plantation owners and southern legislators alike saw as frankly rapacious. That Whitney and Miller were both Yankees didn't help sentiment either. Stubbornly they refused to modify their demands, convinced that southern growers could not hold out in the face of such a transforming piece of technology. They were right about the irresistibility, but failed to note that the gin was also easily pirated. Any halfway decent carpenter could knock one out in a couple of hours. Soon plantation owners across the south were harvesting cotton with home-made gins. Whitney and Miller filed sixty suits in Georgia and many others elsewhere, but found little sympathy in southern courts. By 1800 - just seven years after the gin's invention - Miller and Catharine Greene were in such desperate straits that they had to sell the plantation.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)

November 11, 2011

Unable to Compete with Cotton "European Textile Workers Bayed for Protection"

(p. 390) Cotton is such a commonplace material now that we forget that it was once extremely precious - more valuable than silk. But then in the seventeenth century, the East India Company began importing calicoes from India (from the city of Calicut, from which they take their name), and suddenly cotton became affordable. Calico was then essentially a collective term for chintzes, muslins, percales and other colourful fabrics, which caused unimaginable delight among western consumers because they were light and washable and the colours didn't run. Although some cotton was grown in Egypt, India dominated the cotton trade, as we are reminded by the endless numbers of words that came into English by way of that trade: khaki, dungarees, gingham, muslin, pyjamas, shawl, seersucker, and so on.

The sudden surge of Indian cotton pleased consumers, but not (p. 391) manufacturers. Unable to compete with this wonder fabric, European textile workers bayed for protection almost everywhere, and almost everywhere they received it. The importation of finished cotton fabrics was banned in much of Europe throughout the eighteenth century.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

November 7, 2011

The Penalty for Insulting the Future King

(p. 390) Brummell's fall from grace was abrupt and irreversible. He and the Prince of Wales had a falling out and ceased speaking. At a social occasion, the prince pointedly ignored Brummell and instead spoke to his companion. As the prince withdrew, Brummell turned to the companion and made one of the most famously ill-advised remarks in social history. 'Who's your fat friend?' he asked. Such an insult was social suicide. Shortly afterwards Brummell's debts caught up with him and he fled to France. He spent the last two and a half decades of his life living in poverty, mostly in Calais, growing slowly demented but always looking, in his restrained and careful way, sensational.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

October 29, 2011

Statute of Caps "Required People to Wear Caps Instead of Hats"

(p. 381) Sumptuary laws were enacted partly to keep people within their class, but partly also for the good of domestic industries, since they were often designed to depress the importation of foreign materials. For the same reason for a time there was a Statute of Caps, aimed at helping national capmakers through a depression, which required people to wear caps instead of hats. For obscure reasons, Puritans resented the law and were often fined for flouting it. But on the whole sumptuary laws weren't much enforced. Various clothing restrictions were enshrined in (p. 382) statutes in 1337, 1363, 1463, 1483, 1510, 1533 and 1554, but records show they were never much enforced. They were repealed altogether in 1604.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

October 26, 2011

Arabic Numerals Enabled Better Accounting Systems


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Humans have been recording counts for at least 35,000 years, if the notches in a Paleolithic-era baboon's fibula are an indicator.

. . .

Before the 13th century, European businessmen recorded figures in Roman numerals and computed with their fingers or a counting board. But these creaky accounting systems began to buckle under the growing complexity of regional and international finance. In 1202, Leonardo of Pisa--better known by his family name, Fibonacci--published the "Liber Abbaci," or "Book of Calculation," a 600-page tome detailing the rules of Hindu-Arabic arithmetic and algebra. Fibonacci's volume was directed not to scholars but to merchants, the first work in the West to demonstrate the commercial utility of Eastern mathematics. The book was an instant success and propelled the Pisan maestro d'abbaco to fame.

The "Liber Abbaci" inspired a flood of regionally produced (and lesser) primers on the subject. Arithmetic schools sprang up throughout Italy and would eventually count among their pupils da Vinci and Machiavelli. German merchants flocked to Venice during the 1300s to learn the new accounting practices. In "The Man of Numbers," mathematician Keith Devlin makes the case that Fibonacci's book spearheaded the decline and fall of the Roman numeral and transformed scientific, technological and commercial calculation in the West.

At age 15, Fibonacci accompanied his father, a Pisan trade representative, to the North African port of Bugia (now Bejaia, in Algeria). In the preface to "Liber Abbaci," Fibonacci writes of his early introduction to the "art of the nine Indian figures" and their computational power. After more than a decade of his own studies and tutelage under Arabic mathematicians across North Africa, he returned to Pisa to write his masterwork. Such was the acclaim that Fibonacci appeared before Emperor Frederick II--a colorful intellectual who referred to himself as Stupor mundi or Wonder of the World--and vanquished the emperor's court mathematician in an arithmetic duel.

. . .

. . . as Mr. Devlin reminds us, even something as prosaic as a sequence of 10 numbers can remake an entire world.

For the full review, see:

ALAN HIRSHFELD. "BOOKSHELF; Counting On Progress; Roman numerals were fine for adding and subtracting. Fibonacci saw that complex math required a better system." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JULY 7, 2011): A13.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

Book under review:

Devlin, Keith. The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution. New York: Walker & Company, 2011.

October 22, 2011

Easter Island Was Ravaged by Rats, Peruvian Slaving Parties and Nonnative Diseases, Not by Ecocide


Source of book image:

The natives call Easter Island "Rapa Nui."

(p. C5) With the forest gone, Rapa Nui's soil degraded; unable to feed themselves, Mr. Diamond argued in his best-selling "Collapse" (2005), Easter Islanders faced "starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism." The fall was abrupt and overwhelming; scores of giant statues were abandoned, half-finished. Roggeveen had discovered a ruin--and a powerful eco-parable.

Books and articles by the hundred have pointed to Rapa Nui as the inevitable result of uncontrolled population growth, squandered resources and human fecklessness. "The person who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree," wrote Paul G. Bahn and John Flenley in "Easter Island, Earth Island" (1992). "But he (or she) still felled it." "The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious," Mr. Diamond proclaimed. "The clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources," he said, Rapa Nui epitomizes "ecocide," presenting a stark image of "what may lie ahead of us in our own future."

No, it doesn't, write archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in "The Statues That Walked," a fascinating entry in the pop-science genre of Everything You Know Is Wrong. Messrs. Hunt and Lipo had no intention of challenging Mr. Diamond when they began research on Rapa Nui. But in their fourth year of field work, they obtained radiocarbon dates from Anakena Beach, thought to be the island's oldest settlement. The dates strongly indicated that the first settlers appeared around A.D. 1200--eight centuries later than Heyerdahl and other researchers had thought.

Wait a minute, the authors in effect said. Rapa Nui is so remote that researchers believe it must have been settled by a small group of adventurers--a few dozen people, brave or crazy, in boats. The new evidence suggested that their arrival had precipitated catastrophic deforestation "on the scale of decades, not centuries." The island then probably had only a few hundred inhabitants. Some ecologists estimate that the island originally had 16 million palm trees. How could so few people have cut down so much so fast?

. . .

The real culprit, according to "The Statues That Walked," was the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), which stowed away on the boats of the first Polynesian settlers. In laboratory settings, Polynesian rat populations can double in 47 days. Throw a breeding pair into an island with no predators and abundant food and arithmetic suggests the result: ratpocalypse. If the animals multiplied as they did in Hawaii, the authors calculate, Rapa Nui would quickly have housed between two and three million. Among the favorite food sources of R. exulans are tree seeds and tree sprouts. Humans surely cleared some of the forest, but the real damage would have come from the rats that prevented new growth.

"Rather than a case of abject failure," the authors argue, "Rapa Nui is an unlikely story of success." The islanders had migrated, perhaps accidentally, to a place with little water and "fundamentally unproductive" soil with "uniformly low" levels of phosphorus, an essential mineral for plant growth. To avoid the wind's dehydrating effects, the newcomers circled their gardens with stone walls known as manavai. Today, the researchers discovered, abandoned manavai occupy about 6.4 square miles, a tenth of the island's total surface.

More impressive still, about half of the island is covered by "lithic mulching," in which the islanders scattered broken stone over the fields. The uneven (p. C6) surface creates more turbulent airflow, reducing daytime surface temperatures and warming fields at night. And shattering the rocks exposes "fresh, unweathered surfaces, thus releasing mineral nutrients held within the rock." Only lithic mulching produced enough nutrients--just barely--to make Rapa Nui's terrible soil cultivable. Breaking and moving vast amounts of stone, the islanders had engineered an entirely new, more productive landscape.

Their success was short-lived. As Messrs. Hunt and Lipo point out, the 18th and 19th centuries were terrible times to reside in a small, almost defenseless Pacific nation. Rapa Nui was repeatedly ravaged by Peruvian slaving parties and nonnative diseases.

. . .

Easter Island's people did not destroy themselves, the authors say. They were destroyed.

. . .

Oral tradition said that the statues walked into their places. Oral tradition was correct, the authors say. By shaping the huge statues just right, the islanders were able to rock them from side to side, moving them forward in a style familiar to anyone who has had to move a refrigerator. Walking the statues, the authors show in experiments, needed only 15 or 20 people.

In a 2007 article in Science, Mr. Diamond estimated that hundreds of laborers were needed to move the statues, suggesting that the eastern settlements of the island alone had to have "a population of thousands"--which in turn was proof of the island's destructive overpopulation. By showing that the statues could have been moved by much fewer people, Messrs. Hunt and Lipo have removed one of the main supports of the ecocide theory and the parable about humankind it tells.

For the full review, see:

CHARLES C. MANN. "Don't Blame the Natives; It was a rat that caused the sudden collapse of Easter Island's civilization." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JULY 30, 2011): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

Source of book under review:

Hunt, Terry, and Carl Lipo. The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. New York: Free Press, 2011.

October 21, 2011

Bathtubs Started Out "Extremely Expensive" and Then Prices Fell

(p. 372) At last the world had baths that looked good and stayed looking good for a long time. But they were still extremely expensive. A bath alone could easily cost $200 in 1910 - a price well beyond the range of most households. But as manufacturers improved the processes of mass manufacture, prices fell and by 1940 an American could buy an entire bath suite - sink, bath and toilet - for $70, a price nearly everyone could afford.

Elsewhere, however, baths remained luxuries. In Europe a big part of the problem was a lack of space in which to put bathrooms. In 1954 just one French residence in ten had a shower or bath. In Britain the journalist Katharine Whitehorn has recalled that as recently as the late 1950s she and her colleagues on the magazine Woman's Own were not allowed to do features on bathrooms as not enough British homes had them, and such articles would only promote envy.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

October 17, 2011

The Lancet Accused Snow of Being "in the Pocket of Business Interests"

(p. 365) It is hard now to appreciate just how radical and unwelcome Snow's views were. Many authorities actively detested him for them. The Lancet concluded that he was in the pocket of business interests which wished to continue to fill the air with 'pestilent vapours, miasms and loathsome abominations of every kind' and make themselves rich by poisoning their neighbours. 'After careful enquiry,' the parliamentary inquiry concluded, 'we see no reason to adopt this belief.'


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

October 13, 2011

Only John Snow Saw Flaw in Miasma Theory

(p. 362) The miasma theory had just one serious flaw: it was entirely without foundation. Unfortunately only one man saw this, and he couldn't get others to see it with him. His name was John Snow.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

October 12, 2011

If Truman Had Not Used the Bomb, Hundreds of Thousands More American Soldiers Would Have Died


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) . . . , the author reminds us of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who had died in the conventional bombings of places like Tokyo and Kyoto while Roosevelt was president, but with relatively little opprobrium attaching to FDR. Father Miscamble cites as well the horrific massacre of innocents for which the Japanese were responsible, a savagery still being unleashed in the summer of 1945, and the awful cost of battle in the Pacific, including 6,000 American dead and 20,000 wounded at Iwo Jima and 70,000 casualties suffered while capturing Okinawa. With these precedents, Herbert Hoover warned Truman that an invasion of the Japanese home islands could result in the loss of between half a million and a million American lives. Marshall, Leahy and Gen. Douglas MacArthur each had his own projected figures, none of them wildly different from Hoover's.

Under these circumstances, it was inconceivable that Truman would not have ordered the use of a potentially war-winning weapon the moment it could be deployed. It is impossible to imagine the depth of the public's fury if after the war Americans had discovered that their president, out of concern for his own conscience, had not used the weapons but instead condemned hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to certain death on the beaches and in the cities of mainland Japan.

For the full review, see:

ANNE JOLIS. "BOOKSHELF; In Defense Of 'Little Boy'; Herbert Hoover warned President Truman that invading Japan would cost at least half a million American lives." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 13, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Book reviewed:

Miscamble, Wilson D. The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, Cambridge Essential Histories. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

October 9, 2011

The Stinking Past

(p. 356) The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man - the most junior, we may assume - was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments. The Gentleman's Magazine in 1753 related the case of one nightsoil man who went into a privy vault in a London tavern and was overcome almost at once by the foul air. 'He call'd out for help, and immediately fell down on his face,' one witness reported. A colleague who rushed to the man's aid was similarly overcome. Two more men went to the vault, but could not get in because of the foul air, though they did manage to open the door a little, releasing the worst (p. 357) of the gases. By the time rescuers were able to haul the two men out, one was dead and the other was beyond help.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

October 5, 2011

In Middle Ages "Nearly Everyone Itched Nearly All the Time"

(p. 346) . . . in the Middle Ages the spread of plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene and what they might do to modify their own susceptibility to outbreaks. Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapours to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn't wash, or even get wet, if they could help it - and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everyone itched nearly all the time. Discomfort was constant, serious illness accepted with resignation.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 3, 2011

"Coolidge Helped Americans Prosper by Letting Them Be Free"

(p. A15) Ronald Reagan, who grew up during the Coolidge presidency, admired "Silent Cal," even going so far as to read a biography of the 30th president as he recovered from a surgery in 1985 and to praise him in letters to his constituents. To Reagan, Coolidge wasn't silent, but was silenced by New Deal supporters, whose intellectual heirs control much of Washington today.

. . .

Unlike President Obama, President Coolidge didn't want to "spread the wealth around," but to grow it. He didn't call for "shared sacrifice"--Americans had sacrificed enough during the great war--but for good character.

There "is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character," he said in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. And from the White House lawn in 1924 he said, "I want the people of America to be able to work less for the Government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom."

. . .

As Coolidge saw things in 1924, "A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny. It condemns the citizen to servitude." Coolidge helped Americans prosper by letting them be free.

For the full commentary, see:

CHARLES C. JOHNSON. "How Silent Cal Beat a Recession; The late president inherited a bad economy, and he cut taxes and slashed spending to spur growth." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., August 4, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

September 27, 2011

Brits Sent Low Quality Goods to American Colonists

(p. 299) It was easy - and for many agents irresistibly tempting - to offload on to Americans clothes and furnishings that were unsold because they were no longer fashionable in England. 'You cannot really form an idea of the trash that is to be found in the best shops,' an English visitor named Margaret Hall wrote home to a friend. A cheerful catchphrase of English (p. 300) factories became: 'It's good enough for America.' Being over-charged was a constant suspicion. Washington wrote furiously to Cary after one consignment that many of the products supplied were 'mean in quality but not in price, for in this they excel indeed far above any I have ever had'.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

September 23, 2011

Navigation Acts, Were "Insanely Inefficient, but Gratifyingly Lucrative to British Merchants and Manufacturers"

(p. 297) Many of Monticello's quirks spring from the limitations of Jefferson's workmen. He had to stick to a simple Doric style for the exterior columns because he could find no one with the skills to handle anything more complex. But the greatest problem of all, in terms of both expense and frustration, was a lack of home-grown materials. It is worth taking a minute to consider what the American colonists were up against in trying to build a civilization in a land without infrastructure.

(p. 298) Britain's philosophy of empire was that America should provide it with raw materials at a fair price and take finished products in return. The system was enshrined in a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts, which stipulated that any product bound for the New World had either to originate in Britain or pass through it on the way there, even if it had been created in, say, the West Indies, and ended up making a pointless double crossing of the Atlantic. The arrangement was insanely inefficient, but gratifyingly lucrative to British merchants and manufacturers, who essentially had a fast-growing continent at their commercial mercy. By the eve of the revolution America effectively was Britain's export market. It took 80 per cent of British linen exports, 76 per cent of exported nails, 60 per cent of wrought iron and nearly half of all the glass sold abroad. In bulk terms, America annually imported 30,000 pounds of silk, 11,000 pounds of salt and over 130,000 beaver hats, among much else. Many of these things - not least the beaver hats - were made from materials that originated in America in the first place and could easily have been manufactured in American factories - a point that did not escape the Americans.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

September 22, 2011

Deregulation Revived Railroads


"ALL ABOARD: The Wasp magazine in 1881 lampooned railroad moguls as having regulators in the palms of their hands." Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C8) Mr. Klein has written thoroughly researched and scrupulously objective biographies of the previously much maligned Jay Gould and E.H. Harriman, remaking their public images by presenting them in full. Now he has published the third and final volume of his magisterial history of the Union Pacific railroad, taking the company from 1969 to the present day.

Union Pacific--the only one of the transcontinentals to remain in business under its original name--is now a flourishing business. Thanks to a series of mergers, it is one of the largest railroads in the world, with more than 37,000 miles of track across most of the American West. Thanks to its investment in new technology, it is also among the most efficient.

In 1969, though, the future of American railroading was in doubt as the industry struggled against competition from airplanes, automobiles and trucks--all of which were in effect heavily subsidized through the government's support for airports and the Interstate Highway System.

Another major factor in the decline of the railroads had been the stultifying hand of the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC had come into existence in the late 19th century to limit the often high-handed ways of the railroads as they wrestled with the difficult economics of an industry that has very high fixed costs. ( . . . .) But the ICC soon evolved into a cartel mechanism that discouraged innovation and wrapped the railroad industry in a cocoon of stultifying rules.

Mr. Klein notes that in 1975 he wrote a gloomy article about the sad state of an industry with a colorful past: "Unlike many other historical romances," he wrote back then, "the ending did not promise to be a happy one."

Fortunately, a deregulation movement that began under the Carter administration--yes, the Carter administration--limited the power of the ICC and then abolished it altogether. As Mr. Klein shows in the well-written "Union Pacific," the reduction of government interference left capitalism to work its magic and produce--with the help of dedicated and skillful management--the modern, efficient and profitable railroad that is the Union Pacific.

For the full review, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "Tracks Across America." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JUNE 11, 2011): C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Book reviewed in the part of the review quoted above:

Klein, Maury. Union Pacific: The Reconfiguration: America's Greatest Railroad from 1969 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.

September 15, 2011

Obstacles to Curing Scurvy: A Deadly Experiment and Putting Theory Before Evidence

(p. 165) What was needed was some kind of distilled essence - an antiscorbutic, as the medical men termed it - that would be effective against scurvy but portable too. In the 1760s, a Scottish doctor named William Stark, evidently encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, conducted a series of patently foolhardy experiments in which he tried (p. 166) to identify the active agent by, somewhat bizarrely, depriving himself of it. For weeks he lived on only the most basic of foods - bread and water chiefly - to see what would happen. What happened was that in just over six months he killed himself, from scurvy, without coming to any helpful conclusions at all.

In roughly the same period, James Lind, a naval surgeon, conducted a more scientifically rigorous (and personally less risky) experiment by finding twelve sailors who had scurvy already, dividing them into pairs, and giving each pair a different putative elixir - vinegar to one, garlic and mustard to another, oranges and lemons to a third, and so on. Five of the groups showed no improvement, but the pair given oranges and lemons made a swift and total recovery. Amazingly, Lind decided to ignore the significance of the result and doggedly stuck with his personal belief that scurvy was caused by incompletely digested food building up toxins within the body.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

September 11, 2011

"Comfort" at Home Was Unfamiliar Before 1770

(p. 135) If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly. Until the eighteenth century the idea of having comfort at home was so unfamiliar that there wasn't even a word for the condition. 'Comfortable' meant merely 'capable of being consoled'. Comfort was something you gave to the wounded or distressed. The first person to use the word in its modern sense was the writer Horace Walpole, who remarked in a letter to a friend in 1770 that a certain Mrs White was looking after him well and making him 'as comfortable as is possible'. By the early nineteenth century, everyone was talking about having a comfortable home or enjoying a comfortable living, but before Walpole's day no one did.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

September 8, 2011

Arthur Murray "America's First Space Pilot," RIP


"Maj. Arthur Murray in 1954." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A18) "I begin to feel weightless, and I'm flying so fast my instruments can't keep up -- they show what happened two miles ago. I'm climbing so steeply I can't see the ground, and I feel confused. I have a sense of falling and I want to grab something for support."

It was May 28, 1954, and Maj. Arthur Murray, test pilot, would wrestle for the next 15 terrifying seconds with a rocket plane racing over 1,400 miles an hour and spinning wildly, supersonically out of control. In the turmoil, he would fly higher than any human being had ever been, 90,440 feet over the earth.

Finally, Major Murray's plane, a Bell X-1A, sank back into heavier air, and he had time to look at the dark blue sky and dazzling sunlight. He became the first human to see the curvature of the earth. At the time, he was called America's first space pilot.

Arthur Murray, known as Kit, died on July 25, in a nursing home in the town of West in Texas, his family said. He was 92. He requested that his ashes be scattered over the Mojave Desert, where some of his fellow test pilots crashed and died.

Tom Wolfe marveled at the test pilots of Edwards Air Force Base in his 1979 book "The Right Stuff" exclaiming, "My God -- to be part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!"

For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Arthur Murray, Test Pilot, Is Dead at 92." The New York Times (Fri., August 5, 2011): A18.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated August 4, 2011.)

The wonderful Tom Wolfe book mentioned is:

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1979.

September 7, 2011

At First, Some Feared Electricity

(p. 133) Something of the prevailing ambivalence was demonstrated by Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt, who went to a costume ball dressed as an electric light to celebrate the installation of electricity in her Fifth Avenue home in New York, but then had the whole system taken out when it was suspected of being the source of a small fire. Others detected more insidious threats. One authority named S. F. Murphy identified a whole host of electrically induced maladies - eyestrain, headaches, general unhealthiness and possibly even 'the premature exhaustion of life'. One architect was certain electric light caused freckles.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

September 3, 2011

Edison Excelled as an Organizer of Systems

(p. 131) Where Edison truly excelled was as an organizer of systems. The invention of the light bulb was a wondrous thing but of not much practical use when no one had a socket to plug it into. Edison and his tireless workers had to design and build the entire system from scratch, from power stations to cheap and reliable wiring, to lampstands and switches. Within months Edison had set up no fewer than 334 small electrical plants all over the world; (p. 132) within a year or so his plants were powering thirteen thousand light bulbs. Cannily he put them in places where they would be sure to make maximum impact: on the New York Stock Exchange, in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, La Scala opera house in Milan, the dining room of the House of Commons in London. Swan, meanwhile, was still doing much of his manufacturing in his own home. He didn't, in short, have a lot of vision. Indeed, he didn't even file for a patent. Edison took out patents everywhere, including in Britain in November 1879, and so secured his preeminence.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

August 26, 2011

"Only One Person in History Thought Hermann Sprengel Deserved to Be Better Known: Hermann Sprengel"

(p. 130) . . . in the early 1870s Hermann Sprengel, a German chemist working in London, invented a device that came to be called the Sprengel mercury pump. This was the crucial invention that actually made household illumination possible. Unfortunately, only one person in history thought Hermann Sprengel deserved to be better known: Hermann Sprengel. Sprengel's pump could reduce the amount of air in a glass chamber to one-millionth of its normal volume, which would enable a filament to glow for hundreds of hours. All that was necessary now was to find a suitable material for the filament.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 19, 2011

"A Brilliant and Exhilarating and Profoundly Eccentric Book"


"David Deutsch." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. 16) David Deutsch's "Beginning of Infinity" is a brilliant and exhilarating and profoundly eccentric book. It's about everything: art, science, philosophy, history, politics, evil, death, the future, infinity, bugs, thumbs, what have you. And the business of giving it anything like the attention it deserves, in the small space allotted here, is out of the question. But I will do what I can.

. . .

The thought to which Deutsch's conversation most often returns is that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or something like it, may turn out to have been the pivotal event not merely of the history of the West, or of human beings, or of the earth, but (literally, physically) of the universe as a whole.

. . .

(p. 17) Deutsch's enthusiasm for the scientific and technological transformation of the totality of existence naturally brings with it a radical impatience with the pieties of environmentalism, and cultural relativism, and even procedural democracy -- and this is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes creepy. He attacks these pieties, with spectacular clarity and intelligence, as small-­minded and cowardly and boring. The metaphor of the earth as a spaceship or life-­support system, he writes, "is quite perverse. . . . To the extent that we are on a 'spaceship,' we have never merely been its passengers, nor (as is often said) its stewards, nor even its maintenance crew: we are its designers and builders. Before the designs created by humans, it was not a vehicle, but only a heap of dangerous raw materials." But it's hard to get to the end of this book without feeling that Deutsch is too little moved by actual contemporary human suffering. What moves him is the grand Darwinian competition among ideas. What he adores, what he is convinced contains the salvation of the world, is, in every sense of the word, The Market.

For the full review, see:

DAVID ALBERT. "Explaining it All: David Deutsch Offers Views on Everything from Subatomic Particles to the Shaping of the Universe Itself." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., August 14, 2011): 16-17.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis in Deutsch quote in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated August 12, 2011 and has the title "Explaining it All: How We Became the Center of the Universe.")

Book under review:

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.

August 6, 2011

Entrepreneur Frederic Tudor Spent Family Fortune to Make Ice Obsession a Business Success

(p. 71) Lake ice was a marvelous product. It created itself at no cost to the producer, was clean, renewable, and infinite in supply. The only drawbacks were that there was no infrastructure to produce and store it, and no market to sell it to. In order to make the ice industry exist, it was necessary to work out ways to cut and lift ice on a large scale, build storehouses, secure trading rights, and engage a reliable chain of shippers and agents (p. 72) and, above all, create a demand for ice in places where ice had seldom or never been seen, and was most assuredly not something anyone was predisposed to pay for. The man who did all this was a Bostonian of good birth and challenging disposition named Frederic Tudor. Making ice a commercial proposition became his overweening obsession.

The notion of shipping ice from New England to distant ports was considered completely mad - 'the vagary of a disordered brain', in the words of one of his contemporaries. The first shipment of ice to Britain so puzzled customs officials as to how to classify it that all 300 tons of it melted away before it could be moved off the docks. Shipowners were highly reluctant to accept it as cargo. They didn't relish the humiliation of arriving in a port with a holdful of useless water, but they were also wary of the very real danger of tons of shifting ice and sloshing melt-water making their ships unstable. These were men, after all, whose nautical instincts were based entirely on the idea of keeping water outside the ship, so they were loath to take on such an eccentric risk when there wasn't even a certain market at the end of it all.

Tudor was a strange and difficult man - 'imperious, vain, contemptuous of competitors and implacable to enemies', in the estimation of Daniel J. Boorstin. He alienated all his closest friends and betrayed the trust of colleagues, almost as if that were his life's ambition. Nearly all the technological innovations that made the ice trade possible were actually the work of his retiring, compliant, long-suffering associate Nathaniel Wyeth. It cost Tudor years of frustrated endeavour, and all of his family fortune, to get the ice business up and running, but gradually it caught on and eventually it made him and many others rich. For several decades, ice was America's second biggest crop, measured by weight. If securely insulated, ice could last a surprisingly long while. It could even survive the 16,000-mile, 130-day trip from Boston to Bombay - or at least about two-thirds of it could, enough to make the long trip profitable. Ice went to the furthest corners of South America and from New England to California via Cape Horn. Sawdust, a product previously without any value at all, proved to be an excellent insulator, providing useful extra income for Maine lumber mills.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

July 30, 2011

Capitalism Was Not Inevitable


Source of book image:

(p. 15) What is the nature of capitalism? For Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born economist whose writings have acquired a special relevance in the past year or two, this most modern of economic systems "incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." Capitalism, Schumpeter proclaimed, cannot stand still; it is a system driven by waves of entrepreneurial innovation, or what he memorably described as a "perennial gale of creative destruction."

Schumpeter died in 1950, but his ghost looms large over Joyce Appleby's splendid new account of the "relentless revolution" unleashed by capitalism from the 16th century onward. Appleby, a distinguished historian who has dedicated her career to studying the origins of capitalism in the Anglo-American world, here broadens her scope to take in the global history of capitalism in all its creative -- and destructive -- glory.

She begins "The Relentless Revolution" by noting that the rise of the economic system we call capitalism was in many ways improbable. It was, she rightly observes, "a startling departure from the norms that had prevailed for 4,000 years," signaling the arrival of a new mentality, one that permitted private investors to pursue profits at the expense of older values and customs.

In viewing capitalism as an extension of a culture unique to a particular time and place, Appleby is understandably contemptuous of those who posit, in the spirit of Adam Smith, that capitalism was a natural outgrowth of human nature. She is equally scornful of those who believe that its emergence was in any way inevitable or inexorable.

. . .

. . . , she captures how a new generation of now forgotten economic writers active long before Adam Smith built a case "that the elements in any economy were negotiable and fluid, the exact opposite of the stasis so long desired." This was a revolution of the mind, not machines, and it ushered in profound changes in how people viewed everything from usury to joint stock companies. As she bluntly concludes, "there can be no capitalism . . . without a culture of capitalism."

. . .

The individual entrepreneur is at the center of her analysis, and her book offers thumbnail sketches of British innovators from James Watt to Josiah Wedgwood. She continues on to the United States and Germany, giving readers a whirlwind tour of the lives and achievements of a host of men whom she calls "industrial leviathans" -- Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie in the United States; Thyssen, Siemens and Zeiss in Germany. All created new industries while destroying old ones.

For the full review, see:

STEPHEN MIHM. "Capitalist Chameleon." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., January 24, 2010): 15.

(Note: ellipses added except for the one in the "there can be no capitalism . . . without a culture of capitalism" quote.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated January 22, 2010.)

Book under review:

Appleby, Joyce. The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

July 25, 2011

Medieval Pollution

(p. 58) One thing that did not escape notice in medieval times was that nearly all the space above head height was unusable because it was so generally filled with smoke. An open hearth had certain clear advantages--it radiated heat in all directions and allowed people to sit around it on all four sides--but it was also like having a permanent bonfire in the middle of one's living room. Smoke went wherever passing drafts directed it--and with many people coming and going, and all the windows glassless, every passing gust must have brought somebody a faceful of smoke--or otherwise rose up to the ceiling and hung thickly until it leaked out a hole in the roof.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

July 21, 2011

"People Condemned to Short Lives and Chronic Hardship Are Perhaps Unlikely to Worry Overmuch about Decor"

If "necessity is the mother of invention," then why did it take so long for someone to invent the louvered slats mentioned at the end of this passage?

(p. 55) In even the best homes comfort was in short supply. It really is extraordinary how long it took people to achieve even the most elemental levels of comfort. There was one good reason for it: life was tough. Throughout the Middle Ages, a good deal of every life was devoted simply to surviving. Famine was common. The medieval world was a world without reserves; when harvests were poor, as they were about one year in four on average, hunger was immediate. When crops failed altogether, starvation inevitably followed. England suffered especially catastrophic harvests in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, and 1311, and then an unrelievedly murderous stretch from 1315 to 1319. And this was of course on top of plagues and other illnesses that swept away millions. People condemned to short lives and chronic hardship are perhaps unlikely to worry overmuch about decor. But even allowing for all that, there was just a great, strange slowness to strive for even modest levels of comfort. Roof holes, for instance, let smoke escape, but they also let in rain and drafts until somebody finally, belatedly invented a lantern structure with louvered slats that allowed smoke to escape but kept out rain, birds, and wind. It was a marvelous invention, but by the time it (p. 56) was thought of, in the fourteenth century, chimneys were already coming in and louvered caps were not needed.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

July 17, 2011

Medieval Halls of the Rich Incubated Plague in a Nest of "Filth Unmentionable"

(p. 51) In even the best houses, floors were generally just bare earth strewn with rushes, harboring "spittle and vomit and urine of dogs and men, beer that hath been cast forth and remnants of fishes and other filth unmentionable," as the Dutch theologian and traveler Desiderius Erasmus rather crisply summarized in 1524. New layers of rushes were laid down twice a year normally, but the old accretions were seldom removed, so that, Erasmus added glumly, "the substratum may be unmolested for twenty years." The floors were in effect a very large nest, much appreciated by insects and furtive rodents, and a perfect incubator for plague. Yet a deep pile of flooring was generally a sign of prestige. It was common among the French to say of a rich man that he was "waist deep in straw."


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

July 13, 2011

Medieval Halls Did Not Conduce to Comfort or to Observing Modern Proprieties

Practically all living, awake or asleep, was done in this single large, mostly bare, always smoky chamber. Servants and family ate, dressed, and slept together--"a custom which conduced neither to comfort nor the observance of the proprieties," as J. Alfred Gotch noted with a certain clear absence of comfort himself in his classic book The Growth of the English House (1909). Through the whole of the medieval period, till well Into the fifteenth century the hall effectively was the house, so much so that it became the convention to give its name to the entire dwelling, as in Hardwlck Hall or Toad Hall.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

July 10, 2011

"We Are All Dutchmen Now"


Source of the book image:

(p. A15) Samuel Pufendorf, a 17th-century German historian, described the English people as "having been ­always inclined to rebellion and intestine commotion." But England's regime change in 1688--soon called "glorious"--was a revolution with a difference. Instead of overthrowing the existing order in violent upheaval, it put "government upon its ancient and proper basis, which the measures of a mad bigot had almost ­destroyed." The "mad bigot" was, in this case, James II, the Stuart king (and a Catholic) who was deposed in ­favor of William of Orange, a Protestant from the Dutch Republic. Edmund Burke famously contrasted England's balance of change and continuity in 1688 with the ­ferocity in France a century later.

In "1688: The First Modern Revolution," Steve Pincus challenges this received account to argue that the ­Glorious Revolution marked a much greater break with history than Burke realized--and proved to be an ­emblem of the West's future. James II, Mr. Pincus notes, sought to extend state power at the expense of Parliament and the privileges of local communities. James's adversaries preferred the dynamism of commerce; they believed that wealth sprang from the limitless striving of human endeavor rather than the finite availability of land. France under Louis XIV provided James with a pattern for absolutism; the Dutch Republic provided his opponents with a commercial ideal. The Glorious ­Revolution is often seen as a clash ­between ­"popery"--the term for authoritarian ­Catholicism--and ­ancient English liberties. But Mr. Pincus persuasively describes it as the collision of two ideas about the state in society. In a sense, he implies, we are all Dutchmen now.

For the full review, see:

WILLIAM ANTHONY HAY. "Going Dutch; When a dynamic commercial ideal won out over centralized power." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., September 1, 2011): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated AUGUST 31, 2009.)

The book under review is:

Pincus, Steve. 1688: The First Modern Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2009.

An alternative view is presented in a a book by Lisa Jardine (reference below). She argues that William of Orange was more interested in grabbing power than in promoting liberty. Her view is persuasively disputed in the following review by Andrew Roberts:

ANDREW ROBERTS. "A New William The Conqueror." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., August 28, 2008): A13.

The Jardine book is:

Jardine, Lisa. Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

July 9, 2011

38 Theories Why Humans Became Sedentary

(p. 36) . . . if people didn't settle down to take up farming, why then did they embark on this entirely new way of living? We have no idea--or actually, we have lots of ideas, but we don't know if any of them are right. According to the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, at least thirty-eight theories have been put forward to explain why people took to living in communities: that they were driven to it by climatic change, or by a wish to stay near their dead, or by a powerful desire to brew and drink beer, which could only be indulged by staying in one place. One theory, evidently seriously suggested (Jane Jacobs cites It In her landmark work of 1969, The Economy of Cities), was that "fortuitous showers" of cosmic rays caused mutations in grasses that made them suddenly attractive as a food source. The short answer is that no one knows why agriculture developed as it did.

Making food out of plants is hard work. The conversion of wheat, rice, corn, millet, barley, and other grasses into staple foodstuffs is one of the great achievements of human history, but also one of the more unexpected ones.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)

July 2, 2011

Partage Provides Incentives to Recover Antiquities and the Means to Preserve Them


Source of book image:

(p. D1) In some cases, it makes aesthetic or archaeological sense to keep artifacts grouped together where they were found, but it can also be risky to leave everything in one place, particularly if the country is in turmoil or can't afford to excavate or guard all its treasures. After the Metropolitan Museum was pressured to hand over a collection called the Lydian Hoard, one of the most valuable (p. D2) pieces was stolen several years ago from its new home in Turkey.

. . .

(p. D2) In his book "Who Owns Antiquity?", James Cuno argues that scholars have betrayed their principles by acquiescing to politicians who have exploited antiquities to legitimize themselves and their governments. Saddam Hussein was the most blatant, turning Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar, but other leaders have been just as cynical in using antiquities to bolster their claims of sovereignty.

Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it. . . .

As the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dr. Cuno has his own obvious motives for acquiring foreign antiquities, and he makes no apology for wanting to display Middle Eastern statues to Midwesterners.

"It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange," Dr. Cuno writes. "And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another."

Some of the most culturally protectionist nations today, like Egypt, Italy and Turkey, are trying to hoard treasures that couldn't have been created without the inspiration provided by imported works of art. (Imagine the Renaissance without the influence of "looted" Greek antiquities.) And the current political rulers of those countries often have little in common culturally with the creators of the artifacts they claim to own.

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY. "FINDINGS; A Case in Antiquities for 'Finders Keepers'." The New York Times (Tues., November 17, 2009): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated November 16, 2009.)

The Cuno book discussed above, is:

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

July 1, 2011

500 Kinds of Hammers: Even Marx Knew that Capitalism Produces Variety


The diversity of hammers, part 1. Source of graphic: page 4 of the Basalla book quoted and cited aways down below.

(p. 21 of Bryson) Suddenly, for the first time In history, there was in most people's lives a lot of everything. Karl Marx, living in London, noted with a tone of wonder, and just a hint of helpless admiration, that it was possible to buy five hundred kinds of hammer In Britain. Everywhere was activity, Modern Londoners live in a great Victorian city; the Victorians lived through It, so to speak. In twelve years eight railway termini opened In London. The scale of disruption--the trenches, the tunnels, the muddy excavations, the congestion of wagons and other vehicles, the smoke, the din, the clutter--that came from filling the city with railways, bridges, sewers, pumping stations, power stations, subway lines, and all the rest meant that Victorian London was not just the biggest city in the world but the noisiest, foulest, muddiest, busiest, most choked and dug-over place the world had ever seen.

The 1851 census also showed that more people in Britain now lived in cities than in the countryside--the first time that this had happened anywhere in the world--and the most visible consequence of this was crowds on a scale never before experienced. People now worked en masse, traveled en masse, were schooled, imprisoned, and hospitalized en masse. When they went out to enjoy themselves, they did that en masse, and nowhere did they go with greater enthusiasm and rapture than to the Crystal Palace.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

On Marx and hammers, Bryson references p. 156 of Petroski:

Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts--from Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers--Came to Be as They Are. New York: A. Knopf, 1992.

Actually, Petroski's source on Marx on hammers clearly is Basalla who he quotes on pp. 23-24:

(p. 23 of Petroski) George Basalla, in The Evolution of Technology, suggests the great "diversity of things made by human hands" over the past two hundred years by pointing out that five million patents have been issued in America alone. . . . (p. 24) He then introduces the fundamental questions of his study:

The variety of made things is every bit as astonishing as that of living things. Consider the range that extends from stone tools to microchips, from waterwheels to spacecraft, from thumb-tacks to skyscrapers. In 1867 Karl Marx was surprised to learn . . . that five hundred different kinds of hammers were produced in Birmingham, England, each one adapted to a specific function in industry or the crafts. What forces led to the proliferation of so many variations of this ancient and common tool? Or more generally, why are there so many different kinds of things?

Basalla dismisses the "traditional wisdom" that attributes technological diversity to necessity and utility, and looks for other explanations, "especially ones that can incorporate the most general assumptions about the meaning and goals of life."

(Note: italics in original; first ellipsis added; second ellipsis in original.)

Petroski then again mentions Marx on hammers on the p. 156 that is referenced by Bryson:

(p. 156 of Petroski) In spite of Marx's astonishment that five hundred different kinds of hammers were made in Birmingham in the 1860s, this was no capitalist plot. Indeed, if there were a plot, it was to not make more. The proliferation of hammer types occurred because there were then, as now, many specialized uses of hammers, and each user wished to possess a tool that was suited as ideally as possible to the tasks he performed perhaps thousands of times each day, but seldom if ever in a formal social context. I have often reflected on the value of special hammers while using the two ordinary ones from my tool chest: a familiar carpenter's hammer with a claw, and a smaller version that fits in places the larger one does not. The tasks I've applied them to have included driving and removing nails, of course, but also opening and closing paint cans, pounding on chisels, tacking down carpets, straightening dented bicycle fenders, breaking bricks, driving wooden stakes, and on and on.

The Basalla book is:

Basalla, George. The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge Studies in the History of Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

On p. 2 of Basalla, he writes:

(p. 2 of Basalla) The variety of made things is every bit as astonishing as that of living things. Consider the range that extends from stone tools to microchips, from waterwheels to spacecraft, from thumbtacks to skyscrapers. In 1867 Karl Marx was surprised to learn, as well he might have been, that five hundred different kinds of hammers were produced in Birmingham, England, each one adapted to a specific function in industry or the crafts . . .

(Note: ellipsis added.)

In Basalla's notes to this chapter, the only Marx he mentions is the first volume of Capital. Searching volume one of Capital in Google Books for "hammer," one discovers the relevant passage on p. 375:

(p. 374 of Marx) Manufacture is characterized by the differentiation of (p. 375) the instruments of labour--a differentiation whereby implements of a given sort acquire fixed shapes, adapted to each particular application, and by the specialisation (sic) of those instruments, giving to each special instrument its full play only in the hands of a specific detail labourer. In Birmingham alone 500 varieties of hammers are produced, and not only is each adapted to one particular process, but several varieties often serve exclusively for the different operations in one and the same process. The manufacturing period simplifies, improves, and multiplies the implements of labour, by adapting them to the exclusively special functions of each detail labourer.

The Marx book is:

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, 1906 [first German edition in 1867].


The diversity of hammers, part 2. Source of graphic: page 5 of the Basalla book quoted and cited somewhere above.

June 27, 2011

"A Tax on Air and Light"

(p. 11) Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury Item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass--so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days after being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed--sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but ¡t cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically In limitless volumes.

Allied with this was the timely abolition of two long-standing taxes: the window tax and glass tax (which, strictly speaking, was an excise duty). The window tax dated from 1696 and was sufficiently punishing that (p. 12) people really did avoid putting windows in buildings where they could. The bricked-up window openings that are such a feature of man period
buildings in Britain today were once usually painted to look like windows. (It Is sometimes rather a shame that they aren't still.) The tax, sorely resented as "a tax on air and light," meant that many servants and others of constrained means were condemned to live In airless rooms.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

June 23, 2011

"The Century's Most Daring and Iconic Building Was Entrusted to a Gardener"

(p. 10) . . . the risks were considerable and keenly felt, yet after only a few days of fretful hesitation the commissioners approved Paxton's plan. Nothing--really, absolutely nothing--says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener. Paxton's Crystal Palace required no bricks at all--indeed, no mortar, no cement, no foundations. It was just bolted together and sat on the ground like a tent. This was not merely an (p. 11) ingenious solution to a monumental challenge but also a radical departure from anything that had ever been tried before.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

April 17, 2011

Monster Mao


Source of book image:

(p. 11) After Mao comes to power, Chang and Halliday show him continuing his thuggery. This is more familiar ground, but still there are revelations. Mao used the Korean War as a chance to slaughter former Nationalist soldiers. And Mao says some remarkable things about the peasants he was supposed to be championing. When they were starving in the 1950's, he instructed: "Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel. The State should try its hardest . . . to prevent peasants eating too much." In Moscow, he offered to sacrifice the lives of 300 million Chinese, half the population at the time, and in 1958 he blithely declared of the overworked population: "Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die."

At times, Mao seems nuts. He toyed with getting rid of people's names and replacing them with numbers. And discussing the possible destruction of the earth with nuclear weapons, he mused that "this might be a big thing for the solar system, but it would still be an insignificant matter as far as the universe as a whole is concerned."

Chang and Halliday recount how the Great Leap Forward led to the worst famine in world history in the late 1950's and early 1960's, and how in 1966 Mao clawed his way back to supreme power in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Some of the most fascinating material involves Zhou Enlai, the longtime prime minister, who comes across as a complete toady of Mao, even though Mao tormented him by forcing him to make self-criticisms and by seating him in third-rate seats during meetings. In the mid-1970's, Zhou was suffering from cancer and yet Mao refused to allow him to get treatment - wanting Zhou to be the one to die first. "Operations are ruled out for now" for Zhou, Mao declared on May 9, 1974. "Absolutely no room for argument." And so, sure enough, Zhou died in early 1976, and Mao in September that year.

This is an extraordinary portrait of a monster, who the authors say was responsible for more than 70 million deaths.

For the full review, see:

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF. "The Real Mao." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., October 23, 2005): 22.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

(Norte: the online version of the review has the title "'Mao': The Real Mao.")

Book reviewed:

Chang, Jung , and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Knopf, 2005.

April 9, 2011

If Countries Have Souls "Then America's Is the Patent System"


Source of book image:

(p. 46) [Julia Keller] discusses Lincoln's little-known interest in personally testing new Army weapons and, in a brilliant passage, rhapsodizes about creativity and the Patent Office: "If a country can be said to possess a soul, then America's is the patent system: the simple, fair method of staking claim to a new idea and getting the chance to make money from it."

For the full review, see:

MAX BYRD. "The Bullet Machine." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 9, 2008): 46.

(Note: bracketed name added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated November 7, 2008.)

Book reviewed:

Keller, Julia. Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It. New York: Viking, 2008.

April 7, 2011

Mickey Mouse: "A Little Fellow Trying to Do the Best He Could"


Source of book image:

(p. 17) After a fond, lingering look at "Shall We Dance" -- Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the spotlight, romancing to songs by George and Ira Gershwin -- Dickstein sums up expertly: "Each number is a miniature of the movie, moving from singing alone, dancing alone, dancing with the wrong person, or dancing to the wrong music to making beautiful music together." With his next breath he roughly reminds us of the context: "It's the music, the dancing, that saves all this from familiar romantic cliché. As photography documents the Depression, dance countermands it." And then he takes one more step back to give us an even broader view: "The culture of elegance, as represented by Astaire and the Gershwins, was less about the cut of your tie and tails than the cut of your feelings, the inner radiance that was one true bastion against social suffering. They preserved in wit, rhythm and fluidity of movement what the Depression almost took away, the high spirits of Americans, young and modern, who had once felt destined to be the heirs and heiresses of all the ages." Sheer delight, pure escapism, serves its cathartic purpose -- and it means something, too.

Which makes the omission of Walt Disney (his name doesn't even appear in the index) all the more perplexing. Even if one rejects the provocative claim by the historian Warren Susman that "Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt," it's hard to deny Disney a place in the pantheon of the decade's movie­makers, if only for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Fantasia." Whether or not the cartoons that delighted '30s audiences are complex works of art, they would have slotted nicely into several of Dickstein's chapters. On the lookout for a cultural artifact that served to "lift sagging morale and stimulate optimism about the future"? Try any one of the dozens of animated shorts featuring that cartoon collective, Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy. Every gag is an explosion of energy, and the whirligig of slapstick invention always ends happily, thanks to the orchestrated efforts of our heroes. Mickey, described by Disney as "a little fellow trying to do the best he could," may have been born in the late '20s, but he grew up a pure creature of the '30s.

For the full review, see:

ADAM BEGLEY. "Side by Side ." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., September 27, 2009): 17.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated September 25, 2009.)

Book reviewed:

Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

April 5, 2011

Affluence Has Made America More Libertarian


Source of book image:

(p. 16) Various scolds and worrywarts have exclaimed, with Wordsworth, that "getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." To such Jeremiahs, Lindsey provides an essentially cheerful, although not altogether so, counterpoint: affluence has made America a more libertarian, and hence a nicer, place.

First came material improvement. Until very recently, he notes, when people prayed for their daily bread, they often were praying for just that. Not so long ago, many ordinary lives of quiet desperation ended especially dismally: about 10 percent of burials in New York City in 1889 were in potter's fields. In 1900, 1.75 million children between the ages of 10 and 15 -- almost one-fifth of all children in that age cohort -- were in the work force. Children provided one-fourth to one-third of the incomes for working-class families, which spent more than 90 percent of their household earnings on food, shelter and clothing. In 1900, Americans spent nearly twice as much on funerals as on medicine, and less than 2 percent of Americans took vacations.

. . .

Affluence, Lindsey writes, has provided "a mad proliferation of choices -- and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose?"

For the full review, see:

GEORGE F. WILL. "Land of Plenty." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., June 10, 2007): 16-17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Book reviewed:

Lindsey, Brink. The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

April 3, 2011

U.S. Holds "Edge in Its Openness to Innovation"


Source of book image:

(p. 24) Judging by Charles R. Morris's new book, "The Tycoons," it takes about 100 years for maligned monopolists and "robber barons" to morph into admirable innovators.

Morris skillfully assembles a great deal of academic and anecdotal research to demonstrate that Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J. P. Morgan did not amass their fortunes by trampling on the downtrodden or ripping off consumers - . . .

. . .

Though Morris only hints at it, the truth is that the real heroes of the American industrial revolution were not his four featured tycoons, but the American people themselves. I don't mean this to sound like a corny burst of patriotism. In the 19th century, the United States was still young. Most families had either been booted out of Europe or fled it, and they didn't care about tradition or the Old Guard. With little to lose, they were willing to bet on a roll of the dice, even if it was they who occasionally got rolled. Europe was encrusted with guilds, unions and unbendable rules. Britons took half a day to make a rifle stock, because 40 different tradesmen poked their noses into the huddle. American companies polished off new rifle stocks in 22 minutes.

The United States still holds an edge in its openness to innovation. In 1982, French farmers literally chased the French agriculture minister, Edith Cresson, off their fields with pitchforks because she suggested reform. By contrast, back in the late 1850's, Abraham Lincoln was a hot after-dinner speaker. Was he discussing slavery? No. The title of his talk was "Discoveries and Inventions." The real root of economic growth is not natural resources or weather or individual genius. It's attitude, not latitude. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called innovations gales of "creative destruction." Americans, not Europeans, had the gall to stare into those gales - with optimism.

For the full review, see:

TODD G. BUCHHOLZ . "'The Tycoons': Benefactors of Great Wealth." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., October 2, 2005): 24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the title "'The Tycoons': Benefactors of Great Wealth.")

Book under review:

Morris, Charles R. The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. New York: Times Books, 2005.

March 19, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Defence of the Patent System

William Rosen quotes a key passage from Abraham Lincoln's speech on "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements":

(p. 323) The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery. And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenious toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt. What appears strange is that neither the inventor of the toy, nor any one else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy. . . . . . . in the days before Edward Coke's original Statute on Monopolies, any man could instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. . . . The (p. 324) patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery of new and useful things.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and ellipses in original.)

March 15, 2011

Lincoln's Popular Speech on "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements"

(p. 322) Lincoln, the only American president ever awarded a patent, had a long and passionate love for things mechanical. He made his living for many years as a railroad lawyer and appears to have absorbed something of the fascination with machines, and with steam, of the engineers with whom he worked. . . .     . . . , in 1859, after his loss in the Illinois senatorial race against Stephen Douglas, he was much in demand for a speech entitled "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements" that he gave at agricultural fairs, schools, and self-improvement societies.

The speech--decidedly not one of Lincoln's best--nonetheless revealed an enthusiasm for mechanical innovation that resonates (p. 323) powerfully even today. "Man," Lincoln said, "is not the only animal who labors, but he is the only one who improves his workmanship . . . by Discoveries and Inventions."


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and last ellipsis in original; other ellipses added.)

March 11, 2011

"Rocket" Showed the Motive Power of the Industrial Revolution

Stephenson's steam locomotive, called "Rocket," won the Rainhill Trials in 1829. Rosen uses this as the culminating event in his history of the development of steam power.

(p. 310) The reason for ending with Stephenson's triumph . . . seems persuasive. Rainhill was a victory not merely for George and Robert Stephenson, but for Thomas Saverv and Thomas Newcomen, for James Watt and Matthew Boulton, for Oliver Evans and Richard Trevithick. It was a triumph for the iron mongers of the Severn Valley, the weavers of Lancashire, the colliers of Newcastle, and the miners of Cornwall. It was even a triumph for John Locke and Edward Coke, whose ideas ignited the Rocket just as much as its firebox did.

When the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson met Stephenson in 1847, he remarked, "he had the lives of many men in him."

Perhaps that's what he meant.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)

March 7, 2011

Better Rails Were Needed Before Train Would "Work"

(p. 300) The other weight problem was the one that licked Trevithick at Penydarren: The tracks on which the locomotive ran were just not able to survive the tonnage traveling over them. Driving a five-ton steam locomotive over rails designed for horse-drawn carts was only slightly more sensible than driving a school bus over a bridge made of wet ice cubes. In both cases, it's a close call whether the vehicle will skid before or after the surface collapses.

. . .

(p. 301) Two years later, Stephenson, in collaboration with the ironmonger William Losh of Newcastle, produced, and in September 1816 jointly patented, a series of' improvements in wheels, suspension, and--most important--the method by which the rails and "chairs" connected one piece of track to another. Stephenson's rails seem mundane next to better-known eureka moments, but as much as any other innovation of the day they underline the importance of such micro-inventions in the making of a revolution. For it was the rails that finally made the entire network of devices--engine, linkage, wheel, and track--work.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

February 19, 2011

"A Great Artisan Can Make a Family Prosperous; A Great Inventor Can Enrich an Entire Nation"

(p. 247) We feel real poignancy when we recall the bucolic life (even if we do so through the soft focus of nostalgia) of a country weaver happy in his work skills and content with his life. But those skills, like those of a medieval goldsmith or an ancient carpenter, could not, by their very nature, reproduce themselves outside the closed community of the initiates. One lesson of the Luddite rebellion specifically, and the Industrial Revolution generally, is that maintaining the prosperity of those closed communities--their pride in workmanship as well as their economic well-being----can only be paid for by those outside the communities: by society at large. A great artisan can make a family prosperous; a great inventor can enrich an entire nation.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

February 11, 2011

Luddism in France

(p. 240) Not only was Richard Hargreaves's original spinningjenny destroyed in 1767, but so also was his new and improved version in 1769.

Nor was the phenomenon exclusively British. Machine breaking in France was at least as frequent. and probably even more consequential, though it can be hard to tease out whether the phenomenon contributed to, or was a symptom of, some of the uglier aspects of the French Revolution. Normandy in particular, which was not only close to England but the most "English" region of France, was the site of dozens of incidents in 1789 alone. In July, hundreds of spinnigjennys were destroyed, along with a French version of Arkwright's water frame. In October, an attorney in Rouen applauded the destruction of "the machines used in cotton-spinning that have deprived many workers of their jobs." In Troyes, spinners rioted, killing the mayor and mutilating his body because he had favored machines." The carders of Lille destroyed machines in 1790; in 1791, the spinning jennies of Roanne were hacked up and burned. By 1796, administrators in the Department of the Somme were complaining, it turns out presciently, that the prejudice against machinery has led the commercial classes . . . to abandon their interest in the cotton industry.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

February 7, 2011

After a Series of Anonymous Threats, Cartwright Power Looms Were Burned Down

(p. 239) Cartwright constructed twenty looms using his design and put them to work in a weaving "shed" in Doncaster. He further agreed to license the design to a cotton manufacturer named Robert Grimshaw, who started building five hundred Cartwright looms at a new mill in Manchester in the spring of 1792. By summertime, only a few dozen had been built and installed, but that was enough to provoke Manchester's weavers, who accurately saw the threat they represented. Whether their anger flamed hot enough to burn down Grimshaw's mill remains unknown, but something certainly did: In March 1792, after a series of anonymous threats, the mill was destroyed.

Cartwright's power looms were not the first textile machines to be attacked, and they would not be the last.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

January 30, 2011

Carlyle (and Rosen) on Arkwright

(p. 236) The greatest hero-worshipper of them all, Thomas Carlyle. described Arkwright as

A plain, almost gross, bag-checked, potbellied, much enduring, much inventing man and barber... . French Revolutions were a-brewing: to resist the same in any measure, imperial Kaisers were impotent without the cotton and cloth of England, and it was this man that had to give England the power of cotton.... It is said ideas produce revolutions, and truly they do; not spiritual ideas only, but even mechanical. In this clanging clashing universal Sword-dance which the European world now dances for the last half-century, Voltaire is but one choragus [leader of a movement, from the old Greek word for the sponsor of a chorus] where Richard Arkwright is another.

. . .

Arkwright was not a great inven-(p. 237)tor, but he was a visionary, who saw, better than any man alive, how to convert useful knowledge into cotton apparel and ultimately into wealth: for himself, and for Britain.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: internal ellipses in original; ellipsis between paragraphs added.)

January 22, 2011

When Yarn Was Scarce There Was Less Incentive to Develop Power Looms

(p. 223) Though power looms had existed, at least in concept, for centuries (under his sketch for one, Leonardo himself wrote, "This is second only to the printing press in importance; no less useful in its practical application; a lucrative, beautiful, and subtle invention"), there was little interest in them so long as virtually all the available yarn could be turned into cloth in cottages. This fact reinforced the weaver's independence; but it also encouraged another group of innovative types who were getting ready to put spinning itself on an industrial footing.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

January 15, 2011

Higher Cancer Rates Due More to Longer Life Spans than to Modern Life Styles

PrehistoricSkullCancer2011-01-12.jpg"DIAGNOSIS. Evidence of tumors in the skull of a male skeleton exhumed from an early medieval cemetery in Slovakia. Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) When they excavated a Scythian burial mound in the Russian region of Tuva about 10 years ago, archaeologists literally struck gold. Crouched on the floor of a dark inner chamber were two skeletons, a man and a woman, surrounded by royal garb from 27 centuries ago: headdresses and capes adorned with gold horses, panthers and other sacred beasts.

But for paleopathologists -- scholars of ancient disease -- the richest treasure was the abundance of tumors that had riddled almost every bone of the man's body. The diagnosis: the oldest known case of metastasizing prostate cancer.

The prostate itself had disintegrated long ago. But malignant cells from the gland had migrated according to a familiar pattern and left identifiable scars. Proteins extracted from the bone tested positive for PSA, prostate specific antigen.

Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us.

. . .

(p. D7) . . . , Tony Waldron, a paleopathologist at University College London, analyzed British mortality reports from 1901 to 1905 -- a period late enough to ensure reasonably good records and early enough to avoid skewing the data with, for example, the spike in lung cancer caused in later decades by the popularity of cigarettes.

Taking into account variations in life span and the likelihood that different malignancies will spread to bone, he estimated that in an "archaeological assemblage" one might expect cancer in less than 2 percent of male skeletons and 4 to 7 percent of female skeletons.

Andreas G. Nerlich and colleagues in Munich tried out the prediction on 905 skeletons from two ancient Egyptian necropolises. With the help of X-rays and CT scans they diagnosed five cancers -- right in line with Dr. Waldron's expectations. And as his statistics predicted, 13 cancers were found among 2,547 remains buried in an ossuary in southern Germany between A.D. 1400 and 1800.

For both groups, the authors wrote, malignant tumors "were not significantly fewer than expected" when compared with early-20th-century England. They concluded that "the current rise in tumor frequencies in present populations is much more related to the higher life expectancy than primary environmental or genetic factors."

. . .

"Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells the license to proliferate," said Dr. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute. "It is simply a consequence of increasing entropy, increasing disorder."

He was not being fatalistic. Over the ages bodies have evolved formidable barriers to keep rebellious cells in line. Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier diets and taking other preventive measures can stave off cancer for decades. Until we die of something else.

"If we lived long enough," Dr. Weinberg observed, "sooner or later we all would get cancer."

For the full story, see:

GEORGE JOHNSON. "Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate." The New York Times (Tues., December 28, 2010): D1 & D7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 27, 2010.)

January 14, 2011

Taking Away Patents Would Be "Cutting Off the Hopes of Ingenious Men"

(p. 208) For Watt, the theft (as he saw it) of his work was a deeply personal violation. In (p. 209) 1790, just before realizing the extent of what he perceived as Hornblower's theft of his own work he wrote,

if patentees are to be regarded by the public, as . . . monopolists, and their patents considered as nuisances & encroachments on the natural liberties of his Majesty's other subjects, wou'd it not be just to make a law at once, taking away the power of granting patents for new inventions & by cutting off' the hopes of ingenious men oblige them either to go on in the way of their fathers & not spend their time which would be devoted to the encrease [sic] of their own fortunes in making improvements for an ungrateful public, or else to emigrate to some other Country that will afford to their inventions the protections they may merit?


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and ellipsis in original.)

January 8, 2011

Longfellow Created a "Hero Whose Bravery Can Inspire"

(p. C13) When it comes to the galloping meter of a narrative poem with a message, Longfellow has no equal.

Unfortunately, this poetic tradition has fallen on hard times. Academics have come to prefer different forms--mainly lyrical verse on personal topics more suited to the tastes of intellectuals than the masses. In recent years, many of Longfellow's works have fallen out of literary anthologies. The reputations of his contemporaries Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman have eclipsed his own.

In his day, however, Longfellow was America's most widely read poet--and his most widely read poem was interpreted as both a warning cry and a call to action on the eve of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow achieved a larger purpose, creating a national hero whose bravery can inspire his fellow citizens down the generations: "For, borne on the night wind of the past / Through all our history, to the last / In the hour of darkness and peril and need / The people will waken and listen to hear / The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed / And the midnight message of Paul Revere."

For the full review, see:

JOHN J. MILLER. "MASTERPIECE; Spotty History, Maybe, but Great Literature." The New York Times Book Review (Sat., December 18, 2010): C13.

December 29, 2010

"A Nation's Heroes Reveal Its Ideals"

(p. 133) Robert and John Hart were two Glasgow engineers and merchants who regarded James Watt with the sort of awe usually reserved for pop musicians, film stars, or star athletes. Or even more: They regarded him as "the greatest and most useful man who ever lived." . . .

. . .

(p. 134) . . . the hero worship of the brothers Hart is more enlightening about the explosion of inventive activity that started in eighteenth-century Britain than their reminiscences. For virtually all of human history, statues had been built to honor kings, solders, and religious figures; the Harts lived in the first era that built them to honor builders and inventors. James Watt was an inventor inspired in every way possible, right down to the neurons in his Scottish skull; but he was also, and just as significantly, the inspiration for thousands of other inventors, during his lifetime and beyond. The inscription on the statue of Watt that stood in Westminster Abbey from 1825 until it was moved in 1960 reminded visitors that it was made "Not to perpetuate a name which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, but to shew that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude" (emphasis added).

A nation's heroes reveal its ideals, and the Watt memorial carries an impressive weight of symbolism. However, it must be said that the statue, sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey in marble, might bear that weight more appropriately if it had been made out of the trademark material of the Industrial Revolution: iron.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

December 24, 2010

A Late Bronze Age "Cornucopian Example of Multiculturism"

BronzeAgeContainer2010-12-20.jpg"Influences from Egypt and Mediterranean Asia appear to merge in this container, from around 1390 to 1352 B.C." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The cultural flowering (see above and below) brought about by Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade, is highly compatible with arguments made in Tyler Cowen's Creative Destruction, which argues that capitalism promotes the important kind of diversity that within cultures increases creativity and options for individual choice.

It would be interesting and useful to know more about the causes and effects of the dark age mentioned below--the one that started around 1200 BC. An earlier entry mentioned archeological evidence of a small family group near Katilimata on Crete who attempted to hunker down to defend themselves and their property from the invaders from the sea mentioned below.

Sometimes the Phoenicians are given credit for the trade, and Paul Johnson in his recent Heroes book (p. 4), identifies the evil invaders who killed the trade as being the Philistines.

(p. C28) For a truly cornucopian example of multiculturalism, though, nothing matches the contents of the Late Bronze Age merchant ship recovered from the sea off the southern coast of Turkey. Discovered by a sponge diver in 1984 and considered the oldest surviving example of a seagoing ship, it probably sank around 1300 B.C., packed with cargo representing a dozen cultures, from Nubia to the Balkans.

Although the ship's home port is unknown, it appears to have traveled a circular route through the Mediterranean and Aegean, stopping in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, picking up and unloading as it went. Bulk materials included copper ingots, Cypriot pottery, African wood and Near Eastern textiles, all for waiting markets.

Divers also found luxury items, possibly personal possessions of the ship's crew and passengers. Examples of ivory containers in the form of ducks have parallels with Egyptian prototypes, but were probably made in Mediterranean Asia. The two sources merge in a figure found in a tomb: a nude female swimmer with a chic, Nile-style pageboy who is hitching a ride behind an ivory-headed bird.

More precious and enigmatic is a standing bronze figure of a woman, probably a goddess, her head and face still covered with the sheet gold that may once have encased her whole body in a radiant epidermis. The exhibition catalog suggests that she might be a talismanic charm intended to protect the ship from harm.

Harm came anyway, as it did to much of the Mediterranean world, around 1200 B.C. with the arrival of mysterious, sea-based invaders, who conquered most of the great maritime cities, interrupting trade and easy cultural exchange, and bringing on a dark age, a depression. The depression -- or was it severe recession? -- didn't last forever. The passion for acquisition, exchange and accumulation survived it, as it always does.

This passion is, of course, our own. It is one reason that we can, if we try, identify with the diverse people who, thousands of years ago, made the objects in this show. The globalist, all-in-it-together world model they invented is another reason. Their dark age could be one too.

For the full review, see:

HOLLAND COTTER. "Art Review; 'Beyond Babylon'; Global Exchange, Early Version." The New York Times (Fri., November 21, 2008): C23 & C28.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 20, 2008.)

The Cowen book mentioned in my initial comments, is:

Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

The Paul Johnson book mentioned in my initial comments, is:

Johnson, Paul M. Heroes. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

December 19, 2010

Chinese Centralized Autocracy Prevents Sustained Innovation

Zheng He's voyages of exploration were mentioned in a previous blog entry.

(p. C12) The real problem with contemporary China's version of the Zheng He story is that it omits the ending. In the century after Zheng's death in 1433, emperors cut back on shipbuilding and exploration. When private merchants replaced the old tribute trade, the central authorities banned those ships as well. Building a ship with more than two masts became a crime punishable by death. Going to sea in a multimasted ship, even to trade, was also forbidden. Zheng's logs were hidden or destroyed, lest they encourage future expeditions. To the Confucians who controlled the court, writes Ms. Levathes, "a desire for contact with the outside world meant that China itself needed something from abroad and was therefore not strong and self-sufficient."

Today's globalized China has apparently abandoned that insular ideology. But it still clings to the centralized autocracy that could produce Zheng's voyages in one generation only to destroy the technology and ambition they embodied in the next. It still officially celebrates "harmony" against the unruliness and competition that create sustained innovation. Its past would be more usable if it offered models of diversity and dissent or, at the very least, sanctuary from the all-or-nothing decisions of absolutist rule.

For the full commentary, see:

VIRGINIA POSTREL. "COMMERCE & CULTURE; Recovering China's Past on Kenya's Coast." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 4, 2010): C12.

December 17, 2010

Financial Gain an Important Motive for Invention

(p. 121) In 1930, Joseph Rossman, who had served for decades as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, polled more than seven hundred patentees. producing a remarkable picture of the mind of the inventor. Some of the results were predictable; the three biggest motivators were "love of inventing," "desire to improve." and "financial gain," the ranking for each of which was statistically identical. and each at least twice as important as those appearing (p. 122) down the list, such as "desire to achieve," "prestige," or "altruism" (and certainly not the old saw, "laziness," which was named roughly one-thirtieth as frequently as "financial gain"). A century after Rocket, the world of technology had changed immensely: electric power, automobiles, telephones. But the motivations of individual inventors were indistinguishable from those inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution.

. . .

In the same vein, Rossman's survey revealed that the greatest obstacle perceived by his patentee universe was not lack of knowledge, legal difficulties, lack of time, or even prejudice against the innovation under consideration. Overwhelmingly, the largest obstacle faced by early twentieth-century inventors (and, almost certainly, their ancestors in the eighteenth century) was "lack of capital." Inventors need investors.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 13, 2010

"The Most Important Invention of the Industrial Revolution Was Invention Itself"

(p. 103) Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote that the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

December 12, 2010

Rockefeller Is Vilified Despite His Entrepreneurial Genius and His Philanthropic Generosity


Source of book image:

(p. C7) . . . as Suzanne Loebl rightly emphasizes in "America's Medicis," the Rockefellers' patronage has been notable not only for its generosity but also for its deliberativeness. By founding such diverse institutions as MoMA, Colonial Williamsburg, the Cloisters, Riverside Church and the Asia Society--as well as by commissioning the distinguished artworks that enliven the office complex at Rockefeller Center--various members of the family have been guided by a perception that a moral responsibility comes with the possession of great wealth.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937), the founder and chairman of Standard Oil, was routinely vilified in the press as a ruthless monopolist who crushed competition the way a giant might crush a bug.     . . .     . . . yet he was not the cold-hearted miser that some supposed. A devout Baptist, he donated substantial sums every year to one or more of the congregations he attended, as well as to associated causes, such as the American Baptist Education Society, which founded the University of Chicago with his support in 1890.

. . .

Unfortunately, not everyone behaved well in the face of Rockefeller munificence. The Mexican painter Diego Rivera, commissioned to create a sprawling mural for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, chose to deviate from his preparatory drawings and place an enormous portrait of Lenin at the center of the finished composition. Refusing to amend this egregious provocation, Rivera was paid in full for his work, which was then duly destroyed. A predictable uproar ensued, garnering the artist abundant publicity, which may have been his objective all along.

. . .

Ms. Loebl's account is well grounded both in the existing literature and in original archival research. She has striven to be comprehensive and done a good job of incorporating lesser-known Rockefeller projects, for example the charming Wendell Gilley Museum of carved birds, in Maine, funded by Nelson's son Steven. But several worthy undertakings, such as Junior's restoration of the châteaux of Versailles and Fontainebleau, receive scant attention--as do Laurance Rockefeller's extensive gifts for the purpose of creating and expanding our national parks.

For the full review, see:

JONATHAN LOPEZ. "BOOKSHELF; The Splendid Spoils of Standard Oil; The Rockefeller family's vast cultural legacy resulted from a sense of civic duty and a love of beautiful things." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., NOVEMBER 20, 2010): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The book being reviewed, is:

Loebl, Suzanne. America's Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

November 26, 2010

First Writing Grew from Commerce


"A Sumerian clay tablet from around 3200 B.C. is inscribed in wedgelike cuneiform with a list of professions." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C5) CHICAGO -- One of the stars of the Oriental Institute's new show, "Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond," is a clay tablet that dates from around 3200 B.C. On it, written in cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, is a list of professions, described in small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing.

In fact "it is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far," according to the institute's director, Gil J. Stein, and it provides insights into the life of one of the world's oldest cultures.

The new exhibition by the institute, part of the University of Chicago, is the first in the United States in 26 years to focus on comparative writing. It relies on advances in archaeologists' knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations -- the Chinese and Mayans -- also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.

. . .

The Oriental Institute, which opened in 1919, was heavily financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had been greatly influenced by James Henry Breasted, a passionate archaeologist.

. . .

Experts are still struggling to understand just how writing evolved, but one theory, laid out at the Oriental Institute's exhibition, places the final prewriting stage at 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first began using small clay envelopes like the ones in the show. Some of the envelopes had tiny clay balls sealed within. Archaeologists theorize that they were sent along with goods being delivered; recipients would open them and ensure that the number of receivables matched the number of clay tokens. The tokens, examples of which are also are in the show , transmitted information, a key function of writing.

For the full story, see:

GERALDINE FABRIKANT. "Hunting for the Dawn of Writing, When Prehistory Became History." The New York Times (Weds., October 20, 2010): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 19, 2010.)

November 23, 2010

When Inventors Could Get Patents that Were Durable and Enforceable, "the World Started to Change"

(p. 50) . . . Coke, who had . . . been made Lord Chief Justice of' England, drafted the 1623 "Act concerning Monopolies and Dispensations with penall Lawes and the Forfeyture thereof," or, as it has become known, the Statute on Monopolies. The Act was designed to promote the interests of artisans, and eliminate all traces of monopolies.

With a single, and critical, exception. Section 6 of the Statute, which forbade every other form of monopoly, carved out one area in which an exclusive franchise could still be granted: Patents could still be awarded to the person who introduced the invention to the realm--to the "first and true inventor."

This was a very big deal indeed, though not because it represented the first time inventors received patents. The Venetian Republic was offering some form of patent protection by 1471, and in 1593, the Netherlands' States-General awarded a patent to Mathys Siverts, for a new (and unnamed) navigational instrument. And, of course, Englishmen like John of Utynam had been receiving patents for inventions ever since Henry VI. The difference between Coke's statute and the customs in place before and elsewhere is that it was a law, with all that implied for its durability and its enforceability. Once only inventors could receive patents, the world started to change.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

November 20, 2010

Capitalism's Market Entrepreneurs Benefit the Common Man

VanderbiltFiskCartoon2010-11-14.jpg"Rails to riches: An 1870 cartoon depicting James Fisk's attempt to stop Cornelius Vanderbilt from gaining control of the Erie Railroad Company." Source of caption and cartoon: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

I have read H.W. Brands' Masters of Enterprise book and found that it contained some interesting anecdotes, but not very insightful interpretation. From Amity Shlaes' useful review quoted below, I would expect the same from Brands' most recent book.

(p. C7) Mr. Brands laments that capitalism's triumph in the late 19th century created a disparity between the "wealthy class" and the common man that dwarfs any difference of income in our modern distribution tables. But this pitting of capitalism against democracy will not hold. When the word "class" crops up in economic discussions, watch out: it implies a perception of society held in thrall to a static economy of rigid social tiers. Capitalism might indeed preclude democracy if capitalism meant that rich people really were a permanent class, always able to keep the money they amass and collect an ever greater share. But Americans are an unruly bunch and do not stay in their classes. The lesson of the late 19th century is that genuine capitalism is a force of creative destruction, just as Joseph Schumpeter later recognized. Snapshots of rich versus poor cannot capture the more important dynamic, which occurs over time.

One capitalist idea (the railroad, say) brutally supplants another (the shipping canal). Within a few generations--and in thoroughly democratic fashion--this supplanting knocks some families out of the top tier and elevates others to it. Some poor families vault to the middle class, others drop out. If Mr. Brands were right, and the "triumph of capitalism" had deadened democracy and created a permanent overclass, Forbes's 2010 list of billionaires would today be populated by Rockefellers, Morgans and Carnegies. The main legacy of titans, former or current, is that the innovations they support will produce social benefits, from the steel-making to the Internet.

The second failing of "Colossus" is its perpetuation of the robber-baron myth. Years ago, historian Burton Folsom noted the difference between what he labeled political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs. The political entrepreneur tends to compete over finite assets--or even to steal them--and therefore deserves the "robber baron" moniker. An example that Mr. Folsom provided: the ferry magnate Robert Fulton, who operated successfully on the Hudson thanks to a 30-year exclusive concession from the New York state legislature. Russia's petrocrats nowadays enjoy similar protections. Neither Fulton nor the petrocrats qualify as true capitalists.

Market entrepreneurs, by contrast, vanquish the competition by overtaking it. On some days Cornelius Vanderbilt was a political entrepreneur--perhaps when he ruined those traitorous partners, for instance. But most days Vanderbilt typified the market entrepreneur, ruining Fulton's monopoly in the 1820s with lower fares, the innovative and cost-saving tubular boiler and a splendid advertising logo: "New Jersey Must Be Free." With market entrepreneurship, a third party also wins: the consumer. Market entrepreneurs are not true robbers, for their ruining serves the common good.

For the full review, see:

AMITY SHLAES. "An Age of Creative Destruction." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 16, 2010): C7.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 29 (sic), 2010.)

The book under critical review by Shlaes:

Brands, H.W. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

The Folsom book rightly praised in passing by Shlaes is:

Folsom, Burton W. The Myth of the Robber Barons. 4th ed: Young America's Foundation, 2003.

October 29, 2010

History Forgets Those Who Leave Little Paper Trail


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

Like most of his fellow students, Barry stayed on just long enough get a grasp on the three Rs without abandoning his Catholic faith. One result of this abbreviated education was a lifelong tendency to keep all correspondence as short and simple as possible. Thus this brave, able man of action left only a minimal paper trail for future historians and biographers. John Paul Jones--an eloquent, prolific and unabashedly self-promoting letter writer--has inspired at least three major biographies in the past few years alone. It has been 72 years since the appearance of the last reliable biography of his rival, William Bell Clark's "Gallant John Barry."

For the full review, see:

ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.. "BOOKSHELF; The Revolutionary War's Other Naval Hero." The New York Times (Sat., JUNE 5, 2010).

The book under review is:

McGrath, Tim. John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010.

August 11, 2010

Documenting Dangers of Growing Public Debt (and of Replacing History with Math)

RogoffReinhart2010-08-04.jpg "Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart at Ms. Reinhart's Washington home. They started their book around 2003, years before the economy began to crumble." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) Like a pair of financial sleuths, Ms. Reinhart and her collaborator from Harvard, Kenneth S. Rogoff, have spent years investigating wreckage scattered across documents from nearly a millennium of economic crises and collapses. They have wandered the basements of rare-book libraries, riffled through monks' yellowed journals and begged central banks worldwide for centuries-old debt records. And they have manually entered their findings, digit by digit, into one of the biggest spreadsheets you've ever seen.

Their handiwork is contained in their recent best seller, "This Time Is Different," a quantitative reconstruction of hundreds of historical episodes in which perfectly smart people made perfectly disastrous decisions. It is a panoramic opus, both geographically and temporally, covering crises from 66 countries over the last 800 years.

The book, and Ms. Reinhart's and Mr. Rogoff's own professional journeys as economists, zero in on some of the broader shortcomings of their trade -- thrown into harsh relief by economists' widespread failure to anticipate or address the financial crisis that began in 2007.

"The mainstream of academic research in macroeconomics puts theoretical coherence and elegance first, and investigating the data second," says Mr. Rogoff. For that reason, he says, much of the profession's celebrated work "was not terribly useful in either predicting the financial crisis, or in assessing how it would it play out once it happened."

"People almost pride themselves on not paying attention to current events," he says.

. . .

(p. 6) Although their book is studiously nonideological, and is more focused on patterns than on policy recommendations, it has become fodder for the highly charged debate over the recent growth in government debt.

To bolster their calls for tightened government spending, budget hawks have cited the book's warnings about the perils of escalating public and private debt. Left-leaning analysts have been quick to take issue with that argument, saying that fiscal austerity perpetuates joblessness, and have been attacking economists associated with it.

. . .

The economics profession generally began turning away from empirical work in the early 1970s. Around that time, economists fell in love with theoretical constructs, a shift that has no single explanation. Some analysts say it may reflect economists' desire to be seen as scientists who describe and discover universal laws of nature.

"Economists have physics envy," says Richard Sylla, a financial historian at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He argues that Paul Samuelson, the Nobel laureate whom many credit with endowing economists with a mathematical tool kit, "showed that a lot of physical theories and concepts had economic analogs."

Since that time, he says, "economists like to think that there is some physical, stable state of the world if they get the model right." But, he adds, "there is really no such thing as a stable state for the economy."

Others suggest that incentives for young economists to publish in journals and gain tenure predispose them to pursue technical wizardry over deep empirical research and to choose narrow slices of topics. Historians, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on more comprehensive subjects -- that is, the material for books -- that reflect a deeply experienced, broadly informed sense of judgment.

"They say historians peak in their 50s, once they've accumulated enough knowledge and wisdom to know what to look for," says Mr. Rogoff. "By contrast, economists seem to peak much earlier. It's hard to find an important paper written by an economist after 40."

For the full story, see:

CATHERINE RAMPELL. "They Did Their Homework (800 Years of It)." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., July 4, 2010): 1 & 6.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 2, 2010.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

The reference for the book is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.


Source of book image:



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