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Changes in the Land

March 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Not quite a year ago, I wrote with great enthusiasm about William Cronon‘s 1992 book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, calling it a “thrilling experience” and “the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine.” Since then, I’ve been intending to read his first book, from 1983, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. I mentioned a month ago that I had downloaded it. Monday night, after finishing Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War, I started it. It’s a short book, much shorter than the Chicago book, and last night I finished it.

Changes in the Land is another fabulous blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology, plus culture. Highlights include the treatment of the differing conceptions Indians and colonists had of land rights and ownership, the complex nature of the forest ecology circa 1600, and the deforestation that took place over the next two centuries. The blurb for the book at Amazon gets it right:

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists’ sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, “The people of plenty were a people of waste,” Cronon’s enduring and thought-provoking book is ethno-ecological history at its best.

I do have one major complaint, not about the book itself but about the rotten thing that was done with its Kindle-ization. A year ago, when I finished Cronon’s Chicago book, I looked on Amazon for this one and saw that it was available only as a paperback, that being the 20th anniversary re-issue described in the blurb above, with preface and afterword. Had there been a Kindle version, I would have downloaded and begun reading it instantly. Instead, I simply put added it to my list of books to read.

A month ago, I went looking again and was surprised to discover that there was a Kindle version. I didn’t see it at first. In contrast to Amazon’s normal setup, in which when one goes to a book’s webpage, one sees listings of all available versions, including Kindle versions, the paperback page does not show a Kindle version. I stumbled on it in a separate search, not usually necessary, revealing an independent listing of a 2011 Kindle version at the unusually low price of $6.99. That’s what I downloaded a month ago.

Just today, in looking for the Amazon webpage to insert in this post, I saw the blurb quoted above and was reminded that there’s such a thing as the 20th anniversary edition. That’s great, but the Kindle version is the 1982 original. No preface. No afterword. And no warning. Geez. I feel cheated. I’ll have to find a copy of the new version in the library and read the missing pieces. I’m especially interested in Cronon’s afterword.

But don’t let me distract you from the main point. Cronon is brilliant. Read his books. If you read only one, make it Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. If you don’t read it all, read the three central chapters, each with a separate theme: grain, lumber, meat. As I wrote a year ago, “each is a gem. I can think of no better microeconomics primer, as we watch capitalism take root and transform the western regions of the country along with the way of life of its population and the land itself. Prairie makes way for farming, the white pine of the north woods makes way to fence the prairie and house its inhabitants, and plains buffalo make way for cattle range land. People’s lives improve, but at a cost, which Cronon always keeps in our field of view.”

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Categories: Books, Environment, History

Emmy Noether in the News

March 27, 2012 Leave a comment

[Bryn Mawr College Archives]

NYT science writer Natalie Angier devoted her column in today’s science section to one of the twentieth century’s great mathematicians, Emmy Noether. Angier is a superb writer. I was thrilled that she chose one of my favorite mathematicians to write about, and I urge you to read her piece. But I have to confess that Angier didn’t succeed in conveying Noether’s greatness. Angier points out early on that “Noether was a highly prolific mathematician, publishing groundbreaking papers, sometimes under a man’s name, in rarefied fields of abstract algebra and ring theory.” A sentence later, Angier moves on to Noether’s contributions to physics, never to return to those rarefied fields.

I get it. I get that if you choose to write a short piece for the general public about the mathematician who laid the foundations for modern algebra, and who also happened to prove a theorem fundamental to modern physics, you’ll shy away from the algebra and head toward the physics. In doing so, however, you will miss the opportunity to describe her impact on mathematics itself.

In the fall of 2008, Princeton University Press published The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. I bought a copy when it came out, and wrote about it when Ron’s View was just a month old, observing that

Part VI, Mathematicians, contains 96 short biographies of mathematicians, arranged chronologically by birth. The few I’ve read were superb, even given the severe space constraints. The first and last mathematicians treated are Pythagoras (born ca. 569 B.C.E.), about whose life nothing is known, and Bourbaki (1935), who didn’t even have a life. Two of the ninety-six are women: Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850) and Emmy Noether (1882).

In quoting this, I wish to highlight how special Noether was, one of just two women sufficiently important in their mathematical contributions (through the early twentieth century; the situation would look much different now) to be included. I fear that Angier has not given a rounded picture of why.

Yet, Angier does succeed in conveying how admired Noether was by her contemporaries. David Hilbert was the leading mathematician of the era, based in Göttingen, the leading mathematical center. Angier tells the story of his efforts to hire Noether:

Noether’s brilliance was obvious to all who worked with her, and her male mentors repeatedly took up her cause, seeking to find her a teaching position — better still, one that paid.

“I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her,” Hilbert said indignantly to the administration at Göttingen, where he sought to have Noether appointed as the equivalent of an associate professor. “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.” Hilbert failed to make his case, so instead brought her on staff as a more or less permanent “guest lecturer”; and Noether, fittingly enough, later took up swimming at a men-only pool.

I taught a course on abstract algebra and ring theory this past winter for our math majors. The mathematician I most frequently mentioned was Emmy Noether. I concluded the course by giving an overview of her work (circa 1920) that, in effect, united number theory and the theory of smooth curves in one setting. She continues to be an inspiration, eighty years after her much too early death.

Categories: Biography, Math

The Crimean War

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I mentioned in my post a week ago on Jim Dodson’s American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf that I had started Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History, but set it aside 60 pages in when the Dodson book appeared. That night I returned to the Crimean War history and this morning I finished it.

What a book! I learned so much. It starts slowly. Figes even warns in the Introduction that a reader eager to get to the war without reading the preliminary chapters on the conditions that led to war should just skip ahead. This would amount to jumping to about page 150 of its 500 pages. And it would be a huge mistake, since much of what makes the book so good is the context it provides for the war. On the other hand, the pace certainly picks up once the war starts.

I had intended on several occasions over the past week to write about the book’s many strengths. Now that I’m done, I hardly know what to highlight. I’m tempted simply to say read it yourself and you’ll see. Plus, much of what so fascinated me may reveal more about my prior ignorance than about the book itself. Still, it’s a superb primer on the tensions from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth between Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire over the former, present, and future countries, the principalities, and assorted ethnic and national groups that surround the Black Sea. Underlying all these tensions is the religious divide between Islam and Christianity, along with the divide within Christianity between Orthodox and western Christians, and still further between Protestants and Catholics, as well as divides between modernizing Muslims of Turkey and more fundamentalist Muslims throughout the Ottoman Empire or within areas controlled by Russia. It’s for good reason that the original British title of Figes’ book is Crimea: The Last Crusade.

I can try to elaborate on all of this, but there’s a reason Figes takes 500 pages to lay it out. Any attempt on my part to summarize would be silly. Keep in mind, when it comes to the complexity of the religious and political considerations, that ultimately France and Britain would go to war against Russia on the side of the Ottomans. Russia saw itself as the protector of Orthodox Christianity, the rightful heir since the fall exactly 400 years earlier of Constantinople. Britain was more interested in preserving its trade routes through Ottoman-controlled lands to India, and in supporting a liberalizing Turkey against what it perceived to be an expansionary Russia. But this is simplifying.

The broader issues aside, there are the amazing stories of poorly trained troops (with ample quotes from their letters), the never-ending wonder of the siege of Sebastopol, bad weather, inadequate supply lines, sea battles, reporters in the field getting word back home via telegraph, war photography. And, of course, the battle of Balaklava with its Charge of the Light Brigade. Oh, and don’t forget Florence Nightingale. Tolstoy too.

Time and again, as I read the book, I would recognize the ground being laid for conflicts of the twentieth century. The Balkans. The Caucasus. Afghanistan. Recent developments such as the Chechen War and the 2008 conflicts between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia all make more sense to me now. Not to mention that I know where they all are. I have a complete picture for the first time in my life of the geography of the Black Sea (which happens to be where my grandmother was born and spent the first part of her childhood, in Odessa). And for good measure, I’ve extended my picture eastward past the Caspian Sea into Central Asia, inspired in part by the book and in part by attending the Central Asian ikat exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum two weeks ago. Indeed, I can now name and locate all 15 former Soviet republics.

The Black Sea at the time of the Crimean War

[Mike King, in The New York Review of Books, June 2011]

I’m getting away from the point, which is that like all great history, the book has much to teach us, both about the past and about our present time. Here’s one example, from early in the book, in a discussion of British attitudes toward Russia:

In November 1835 [David] Urquhart launched a periodical, The Portfolio, in which he aired his Russophobic views, of which the following is typical: “The ignorance of the Russian people separates them from all community with the feelings of other nations, and prepares them to regard every denunciation of the injustice of their rulers as an attack upon themselves, and the Government has already announced by its Acts a determination to submit to no moral influences which may reach it from without.”

I have to confess that when I read about a country whose people regard “every denunciation of the injustice of their rulers as an attack upon themselves,” with a government determined “to submit to no moral influences which may reach it from without,” I could not help but think of our own country under President Bush, though I fear that Obama is little different in this regard. You may think otherwise, but I promise you this. If you read Figes book, time and again you will find passages that resonate with the present day.

(See also reviews by Max Hastings last June in The New York Review and Gary Bass last July in the NYT.)

Categories: Books, History

New Day for Metropolitan Diary

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been a long-time fan of the NYT’s weekly Metropolitan Diary feature. Fellow readers will know that each Diary consists of four to six short tales sent in by readers, each showing the human side of life in New York: conversations overheard on the bus; unexpected encounters on the street; clever remarks by storekeepers or taxi drivers; an appreciative note from a tourist. In recent years, the Diary has been a Monday staple. In the national edition, one would find it by turning a page or two forward from the editorial page.

As I began to move more of my NYT reading from the printed paper to the internet, I found that I would sometimes forget to read the Diary. Having already scanned the website Sunday night for most of the items of interest, I would take a quick look at the paper Monday morning and miss the Diary. Thanks to OmniFocus, I solved that problem — I added a weekly reminder that appears each Sunday telling me to read the Diary. Come evening, I do a search at the NYT website for Met Diary, find it, and read it. I no longer worry that the Diary will go unread.

Last night, though, something strange happened. I searched and searched without finding the Diary. Finally, I discovered that starting two days ago, the Metropolitan Diary has been converted from a weekly feature to a daily one. Online anyway. The weekly format will continue in the print edition, but each day a single Diary entry will appear online. Here is the explanation of the new system (along with perhaps a better description of the Diary than the one I attempted above):

For nearly 36 years, Metropolitan Diary has been a place for New Yorkers, past and present, to share odd fleeting moments at Bloomingdale’s, at the deli around the corner, in the elevator or at the movies. Since its debut, overheard conversations have shifted from the backseat of Checker cabs to Crown Vics, from pay-phone booths to cellphones and from the IRT to the JMZ. Still, punch lines delivered by surly waiters, witty train conductors, lively bus drivers, erudite window washers and adult children facing off with an overbearing parent continue to surprise us.

Glenn Collins, the third editor of the column, one of nearly a dozen diary editors, called it an “elegant cocktail of the city.”

While it’s hard to imagine a 20-pound mailbag as “interactive,” back in 1976, when Metropolitan Diary first appeared in The New York Times, a letterbox was the only inbox that existed. Predating the Internet and fax machines, the diary was an early example of a user-generated feature at the newspaper and served as a constant dialogue between readers and editors that captured the zeitgeist.

Taking this concept into the age of the Internet, we aim to make Metropolitan Diary even more interactive on City Room. For our dedicated newspaper readers, not to worry. You’ll still be able to read items in print on Mondays; but online, you can now share and comment on your favorite entries.

[snip]

Published contributors were once rewarded with a Champagne delivery, but today’s reward is a bylined entry into New York’s story canon, an ingredient of this “elegant cocktail of the city.”

Sometimes it takes readers years to gather the courage to submit, while others offer these New York moments unabashedly. Whatever your speed, whatever your medium, we hope you’ll share your tale with us.

You can read the initial four entries here. Plus, you can subscribe to the RSS feed. I did last night. No need anymore for my elaborate Sunday reminder and search system. I can instead await the new one each day in my newsreader.

I do have one beef with the Diary: the tradition too many entrants follow of concluding their tales with “Only in New York.” Geez. Really? If you’re standing on 34th Street, you look up, and you see a gorilla atop the Empire State Building, fine, submit a piece to Metropolitan Diary and say “Only in New York.” I get that. But otherwise, spare me. It just ruins the story.

Categories: Humor, Newspapers

Ignorance versus Snobbery

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Four weeks ago, I wrote a post that I soon came to regret, the one titled We Are All Snobs Now. This was my response to Rick Santorum’s widely publicized remark calling President Obama a snob for wanting to provide the opportunity for everyone to go to college. My regret came from the realization that I had been manipulated. Santorum set the bait; I swallowed it. What’s the point of allowing such hypocritical pandering to get the better of me?

Last Tuesday, Charles Simic provided what amounts to a more considered reply, in the post Age of Ignorance at the New York Review of Books. Simic is a member in good standing of Snob Central: poet, poetry editor, professor, MacArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize recipient, US Poet Laureate. At the same time, he personifies all that a politician of Santorum’s ilk would extol as the greatness of the United States — growing up in the Yugoslavia of WWII and its aftermath, leaving communism behind for the US, achieving great success in his adopted land and language. Perhaps this gives Simic credibility.

Let’s dip into Simic’s post for a taste of what’s on his mind.

Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.

[snip]

If this lack of knowledge is the result of the years of dumbing down of high school curriculum and of families that don’t talk to their children about the past, there’s another more pernicious kind of ignorance we confront today. It is the product of years of ideological and political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties in that conflict to manufacture more ignorance by lying about many aspects of our history and even our recent past. I recall being stunned some years back when I read that a majority of Americans told pollsters that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11 terrorist attacks. It struck me as a propaganda feat unsurpassed by the worst authoritarian regimes of the past—many of which had to resort to labor camps and firing squads to force their people to believe some untruth, without comparable success.

… Where else on earth would a president who rescued big banks from bankruptcy with taxpayers’ money and allowed the rest of us to lose $12 trillion in investment, retirement, and home values be called a socialist?

[snip]

What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently.

I think Simic may have Santorum in mind at the end there.

What a snob!

Categories: Education, Politics

Change We Can Believe In, XXX

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Expanding the Security State

Good news: our government has expanded its powers to spy on us. On Thursday, Attorney General Holder signed new guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). As Charlie Savage explained in the Friday NYT,

The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.

[snip]

They set up three tracks by which the center could retrieve information gathered by another agency: by doing a limited search itself for certain data, by asking another agency to perform such a search, or — in cases whether neither was sufficient — by replicating the database and analyzing the information itself.

The new guidelines keep that structure in place, but put greater emphasis on the third track, while also relaxing restrictions on how long data on Americans who have no known tie to terrorism may be stored. The old guidelines said data on innocent Americans must be deleted promptly, which the agency interpreted to mean if no tie to terrorism was detected within 180 days.

The new guidelines are intended to allow the center to hold on to information about Americans for up to five years, although the agencies that collected the information — and can negotiate about how it will be used — may place a shorter life span on it.

To understand the meaning of this, let’s turn to the blogger emptywheel, who read through the guidelines and provided a preliminary analysis in a post on Friday. Her analysis is short. I recommend reading it in full. Her main theme is that the guidelines “allow the NCTC to obtain information on US persons, dump it into their datamining, and then ultimately pass it on. In this, I’ll show how, by magic of cynical bureaucracy, the government is about to turn non-terrorist data into terrorist data.”

Emptywheel takes us through some key passages, describing how the document “blathers on about how NCTC also has the responsibility to request information and pass it on. This is the legal language they’re going to translate to mean the opposite of what it says.” She highlights the following passage from the guidelines —

NCTC’s analytic and integration efforts … at times require it to access and review datasets that are identified as including non-terrorism information in order to identify and obtain “terrorism information,” as defined in section 1016 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004, as amended. “Non-terrorism information” for purposes of these Guidelines includes information pertaining exclusively to domestic terrorism, as well as information maintained by other executive departments and agencies that has not been identified as “terrorism information” as defined by IRTPA. [emptywheel’s emphasis]

— and identifies the sleight of hand:

Note that bolded section is not a citation from existing law. It is, instead, NCTC turning NCTC’s authority to sometimes get domestic terrorism information into authority to get any dataset maintained by any executive agency that NCTC believes might include some information that might be terrorism information.

Those of us in the US Government’s tax, social security, HHS, immigration, military, and other federal databases? We’ve all, by bureaucratic magic, been turned into domestic terrorists.

So in addition to all of us in government databases–that is, all of us–being deemed domestic terrorists, the data the government keeps to track our travel, our taxes, our benefits, our identity? It just got transformed from bureaucratic data into national security intelligence.

Not exactly a surprise, but now this policy has been approved by our attorney general (and president).

Categories: Law, Security

Collecting and Art

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Folding chairs, Bill and Ruth True Collection

[Ken Lambert, The Seattle Times]

Some people collect art. Lots of people collect stuff. What’s the difference? Might all of us be art collectors? These questions underlie Collecting: Art is a Slippery Slope, the current exhibition at the Wright Exhibition Space. I’ve written three times before (most recently last June) about exhibitions at the Wright, a small gallery not far from the Space Needle that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection. (Together, the Wrights built the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest.) The gallery is open on Thursdays and Saturdays only, with free admission. Collecting: Art is a Slippery Slope is curated by the Wrights’ daughter Merrill, and we visited yesterday.

The weekly Seattle paper The Stranger offers the following handy summary of the show (see also Michael Upchurch’s review in the Seattle Times):

Collecting: Art Is a Slippery Slope is a spectacularly bric-a-bracky exhibition organized by daughter of Seattle’s leading collectors of modern art, Merrill Wright. She invited 24 of her friends to share what they collect and each collector (including: Art dealer James Harris and partner Carlos Garcia, and Dina Martina, among others) was given an eight-foot-long shelf in the airy galleries. The range of objects is mind-blowing, from hair wreaths to folding chairs to chain-saw carvings to magician’s stands to NASCAR memorabilia.

On entering the gallery, one picks up a xeroxed compendium of descriptions of the collections, each written by the collector him/herself or a third party. Merrill Wright uses her blurb to discuss the impetus for the exhibition:

Growing up, people would come into our house and we would often hear some variation on, “You call that art?” That has become one of my favorite questions. First of all, it is rude and rudeness is fascinating. Secondly, it begs further questions, “What is the fine line that defines art?” And, “Who’s making the call?” Some art, like Allan McCollum’s, can stray into flirting with commodity. My early Warhol is actually an advertisement for men’s clothing while my table is really a piece of Franz West’s floor. Most of my art can slide both ways — as art or thing. And sometimes my things can become art. Like a 1965 diorama of the Kennedy assassination that is absolutely transcendent. Or a 1790s ceramic fish tray depicting the French Royal family incognito. Collecting means you can define for yourself what is art. All collections are personal in different ways.

Space Needles, Merrill Wright Collection

[Ken Lambert, The Seattle Times]

Bill and Ruth True, like the Wrights, collect contemporary art and have set up a space, Western Bridge, a renovated warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, to show art drawn from their collection. We’ve had the pleasure of spending an evening at their home and seeing the art on display there. I was therefore particularly eager to see their contribution to Collecting: Art Is a Slippery Slope. The guide’s blurb about it, written by Eric Fredericksen, explains that

for Slippery Slope, Bill and Ruth thought to explore an interest they shared in a seemingly simple thing, the folding chair. As inveterate entertainers, hosts and event organizers, they appreciated the flexibility of this object, a great accommodation to have when you set out to host a small dinner and end up welcoming dozens of guests. They were also drawn to the surprising variety of design approaches to the task of making a chair fold flat. The mundane folding chair is a surprisingly interesting intersection of craft and art, aesthetics and engineering. Presented on the floor, the wall, and the shelf, the chairs can be seen as reliefs, sculptures.

Gail enjoyed this particular collection less than I did. I found it revelatory, for it awakened me to the realization that one can collect without investing much money. What must be invested is time: time to develop an overarching vision, to keep that vision in mind in one’s daily wanderings, to be on the lookout for objects that fill gaps or broaden the vision, and ultimately to curate the collection.

I now know that I’ve been collecting art all my life. If only I hadn’t deaccessioned my childhood collection of milk bottle caps.

Categories: Art