Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category


September 26, 2009 Leave a comment


In looking ahead, online, at tomorrow’s NYT Sunday Book Review, I came upon Jim Holt’s review of the graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. I read the review, looked at some sample pages available from the review’s webpage, went to the book’s website, realized that there will be a book reading here in Seattle in two weeks, and ordered it. I have a bit of a book backlog, as usual, but I knew I would want to read this eventually, so why not just get it?

As best I can tell, the book tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s decades-long failed effort to find a logical foundation for mathematics. Along the way, other famous logicians and mathematicians appear, including Gottlieb Frege, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, Russell’s co-author Alfred North Whitehead, and, of course, Kurt Gödel, the greatest of all logicians, hero to us all. Plus, various world events intervene. How could I resist?

Perhaps I’ll have more to say after I read it, or after I attend the book reading. If you’re skeptical that such a book might be interesting, I suggest that you read the NYT review and visit the book’s website. See too, among many choices, Rebecca Goldstein’s recent book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel.

Categories: Biography, Books, History, Logic, Math

Torture and Hypocrisy

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment


This morning, as part of my continuing catch-up efforts following our trip last week, I finally read James McPherson’s article in the current NY Review of Books reviewing a few of the many books on Abraham Lincoln that have appeared recently in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. McPherson is himself an eminent scholar of Lincoln and the Civil War era, author of the mammoth, Puliter-Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which I read with pleasure many years ago. Having just a few minutes earlier read Glenn Greenwald’s latest blog post at Salon, about an editorial in today’s Washington Post, I was particularly struck by one passage about Lincoln in McPherson’s article.

Let me start over again, with a look at the WP editorial on which Greenwald commented. Read more…

The Rural Life

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment


Norman Borlaug, the great plant scientist, father of the Green Revolution, and recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, died on Saturday at the age of 95. I have little to add to what has been written about him in many places, such as this NYT obituary. When I read the obituary yesterday, though, I was taken by the one short passage about his childhood, as it made me think of the life my father-in-law must have led at much the same time among Norwegian immigrants in rural northeastern South Dakota.

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, in his grandfather’s farmhouse near the tiny settlement of Saude, in northeastern Iowa. Growing up in a stalwart community of Norwegian immigrants, he trudged across snow-covered fields to a one-room country school, coming home almost every day to the aroma of bread baking in his mother’s oven.

He was a high-spirited boy of boundless curiosity. His sister, Charlotte Culbert, recounted in an interview in 2008 in Cresco, Iowa, that he would whistle aloud as he milked the cows, and pester his parents and grandparents with questions. “He’d wonder why in some areas the grass would be so green, and then over here it wouldn’t be,” Mrs. Culbert recalled.

Gail’s great-grandparents came to South Dakota from Norway, and her grandparents and father grew up there. Much of the family, including Gail’s father Stewart, would ultimately leave South Dakota for the Seattle area, but one of Gail’s uncles stayed behind. The uncle’s three daughters and grandchildren still live there. Gail visited regularly when she grew up. Her last visit — and my only one — was in June 1999. We went with Stewart and Joel so Stewart could attend his 60th high school reunion in Groton. Gail, Joel, and I stayed in the tiny (really tiny) community of Claremont with her aunt, while Stewart stayed farther north in Britton with one of Gail’s cousins. We almost made it to his parents’ family farm between Claremont and Langford, but the road was under water. Indeed, much of the area was under water, a phenomenon you can see if you fly east from Seattle to New York and look out the left window. The standard route takes you over Aberdeen, the main city in northeastern SD, with Groton another 20 miles to the east and Claremont 20 miles north of Groton. Look to your left and you’ll see lots and lots of lakes that weren’t there 70 years ago. Somewhere amidst the lakes is the farm.

Stewart’s life was nothing like Norman Borlaug’s, but like Borlaug, Stewart never left the farm behind. I don’t think he ever felt as at home as when he was around one. He would have enjoyed our little garden if he were still alive. Gail picked our first tomatoes of the season — at long last — just yesterday. She’ll be using them in tonight’s dinner. I hope.

Categories: Biography, Family, Science

Robert McNamara

July 13, 2009 Leave a comment


Robert McNamara died a week ago today. He left the Department of Defense on my 16th birthday, having stopped believing in the US mission in Vietnam long before that, but never speaking out publicly against it. His failure to alter the course he was largely responsible for setting was high in his list of sins.

Perhaps because of my age, I have focused more over the years on Kissinger’s Vietnam sins than McNamara’s, though of course without McNamara (and Johnson and Bundy), there would be no Kissinger. Nonetheless, Kissinger was the architect of war strategy when I went off to college in 1969 and when I registered for the draft in 1970, so he’s the one whose sins I have carried with me for decades.

On a side note, I didn’t have a birthday in 1970. This led me to imagine that maybe I wouldn’t turn 18, thereby being free from registering. But I decided the government wouldn’t see it that way. I also had a related hope, a year and a half later, when the draft lottery for my birth year was held in August 1971, that they might leave out February 29. They didn’t. (On the other hand, the date drew number 305, so I had nothing to complain about.)

As for McNamara, Errol Morris had a blog post about him in the NYT last Tuesday. Morris, of course, made the 2004 documentary Fog of War, drawn from Morris’s interviews of McNamara. Here’s an excerpt from his post:
Read more…

Categories: Biography, History, Politics

Bill Russell

July 6, 2009 1 comment


I read Bill Russell’s new book Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend (written with Alan Steinberg) last Thursday. A pleasant little book, though extremely repetitious. I bought it for Joel for his birthday 10 days ago, knowing he might not be too keen to read about the Boston Celtics, but thinking he might enjoy the historical perspective it would provide on basketball in the 1950s and 1960s. He went back to Boston a week ago and the book stayed here. When I was in the midst of some project in the basement bedroom Thursday afternoon, I saw it sitting around, so I began to read the Prologue. A few hours later, I had finished the book.

Bill Russell is one of the giants of sport whom I always regret that I came to appreciate too late. Like a number of other figures of that era, he was still at the height of his powers when I began to follow the given sport, but I was too focused in those early years of fandom on rooting for my own team to enjoy the greatness of players on other teams. And none in basketball was greater than Russell. Only in his final two years as player (and coach), when the Celtics yet again won the NBA title, did I begin to understand that there might be something special about him. I eventually got to place him in proper perspective: the NCAA championships for the University of San Francisco in 1955 and 1956, the Olympic gold medal in 1956, then the NBA championship in his first season as a Celtic, in 1957, followed by eight in a row from 1959 to 1966, the break in 1967 when that great 76er team of Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham won, and then the final two championships. A record unrivaled by anyone in any other major team sport. And the Celtics won all those championships because Russell re-defined the game, in partnership with his coach Red Auerbach, putting defense and quickness at its heart.

Well, you can read about it in the book, though without much detail. It’s mostly a collection of anecdotes about Russell’s relationship with Auerbach alternating with repetitious philosophizing about what true friendship is. I enjoyed it. In part, I enjoyed getting a fuller picture of two men I used to view as enemies. But Joel’s comment when I told him I had read it struck me as on target. He had in fact started it before he returned to Boston, but decided it was written for nine-year-olds.

For more thoughts, see Bill Bradley’s review in the New York Times last month.

Categories: Biography, Books, Sports

David Herbert Donald

May 20, 2009 Leave a comment


I was sad to learn this afternoon of the death of the historian David Herbert Donald. I saw an obituary at the NYT website. I have read only one of his books, but it’s a masterpiece of biography. Simply titled Lincoln, it is, yes a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The obituary mentions “that the historian Eric Foner, speaking on National Public Radio in February, put [it] at the top of the long list of Lincoln biographies.”

I read it shortly after it came out. What I’ve always remembered is how, as the book went on, the sense that I was reading about a different time disappeared, page by page, until I was immersed in the world of Lincoln. I could hardly bear to read the final few pages. I knew how it would end, but I hoped for the best. And in the last two pages, I felt I was there, beside Lincoln in the Peterson house as he died. Great book. Great story.

We visited Ford’s Theatre and the Peterson house one morning in August 1996, during our brief stay in DC as part of our cross-country train trip. (Seattle to Chicago to DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York.) Both are part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. It was a pretty full day, and a hot and humid one, during which we also toured the White House, headed up to Baltimore, and watched the Orioles play the Mariners at Camden Yards. The theatre just underwent a major renovation, re-opening on February 12 this year as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

As for Mr. Donald, the obituary indicates that he was still working at 88, “on a study of John Quincy Adams, beginning with his defeat by Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1828.” When I was around 15, I read several of Thomas Wolfe’s novels. I’m thinking I should read Donald’s biography of him. It is described in the obituary as follows:

Mr. Donald won his second Pulitzer, in 1988, for “Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe” (1987). He had been infatuated by the novelist since adolescence, certain, he wrote, “that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story.” Cool reassessment forced him to admit that Wolfe “wrote more bad prose than any other writer I can think of,” but drawing on a mass of letters, diaries and manuscripts, he developed a compelling portrait of Wolfe as an idiosyncratic genius consumed with his self-imposed mission to become “the bard of America,” in Mr. Donald’s phrase.

Categories: Biography, History