Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Through the Eye of a Needle

March 4, 2013 1 comment


Another book for the reading list. Darn. How am I supposed to keep up? Especially with my New Year’s resolution in force to read fewer books this year.

Yesterday’s NYT book review had an interview with Gary Wills that opened with the question, “What was the best book you read last year?” His reply: “Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle. Puts a stethoscope to the fourth through sixth centuries C.E.”

Following the link takes us to the book’s Princeton University Press webpage and the following description:

Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.

Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.

Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.

Still not convinced that this is a must-read book? I wasn’t either, but then it occurred to me that Wills must have written a review—one that escaped my attention—for the New York Review of Books. Sure enough, here it is.

Check out Wills’ conclusion:

Brown is not vulnerable to the things that made the old conjectural historians lose their credibility. They had a narrow range of material evidence from which to calculate their probabilities, and Brown has a huge range. Also, they were sure that human nature was the same in all times and places, and Brown knows better—which is why he so usefully brings in cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts. These things mark his difference from even so brilliant a conjectural historian as Gibbon. And surely we have the most convincing picture of the period Brown covers here that we are likely to get. To compare it with earlier surveys of this period is to move from the X-ray to the cinema. He marshals masses of evidence, much of it heterogeneous and unfamiliar, yet he is never tedious. Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.

See too Tim Whitmarsh’s review in the Guardian.

The story is built around two narrative strands, interwoven like a double helix. The first is the rise of Christianity in the fourth century AD from a niche cult in the multi-religious world of the Roman empire to the dominant religion of the west. The second is the collapse of centralised imperial authority in the fifth century, and the transition to what Brown calls a “local Roman empire”. These two combined processes allowed Christianity to move from a counterculture based around an ideology of renunciation of worldly goods to an institutional infrastructure built on corporate wealth.


It is hard for modern readers to shed their cynicism towards attempts to justify the hoarding of vast wealth, especially in the context of subsistence economies. What makes this such a fine book is, ultimately, the challenge it issues to overcome that cynicism and to enter a very different imaginative world – one where corporate wealth was not yet tainted with corruption and capitalist acquisitiveness, where the possibility of a divine purpose for riches was still alive.

This is a book I have to read. Not just yet, but it’s on my list.

Categories: Books, History

Arguing About Slavery

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment


I’m working hard at realizing my New Year’s resolution of reading fewer books this year, making only slow progress through my current book, Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (about which, more some time soon, but what a fabulous mix of family, Irish, and Turkish early-to-mid-twentieth-century history). The last thing I need is more tips on good books to read. Alas, now I have another to add to my list, William Lee Miller’s 1996 Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress.

In my post of a few minutes ago, I wrote of my love for Charles Pierce’s daily writings on politics at Esquire and the effort I make not to devote post after post to his latest comments. Now I’m about to succumb twice in succession, for it was in a post this morning that I learned of Miller’s book.

Pierce has an ongoing series, This Week in the Laboratories of Democracy, about the latest legislative acts of craziness at the state level. Today we learn about the goings on “in Missouri, where they not only don’t like gun laws very much, but they also don’t like people who talk about passing gun laws, so they…wait for it…wrote up a law to prevent people from talking about gun laws. The law’s proponent, one Mike Leara, makes it quite plain right at the start that he’s wasting everybody’s time, including his own, but that he’s wasting time because, you know, FREEEEEDOOOOMMMMMMM!!!!!!”

Pierce then connects this news to a nineteenth-century precursor, which is where Miller’s book comes in parenthetically:

As with everything emanating from those parts of the country who think things went badly wrong on the third day at Getttysburg and nothing ever was quite the same again, this particular exercise in highly principled futility has its philosophical roots in the constitutional crisis occasioned by the right to own black people, which at least was a constitutional crisis stemming from a clear interpretation of what the Constitution actually said. In 1837, congresscritters from the slave-holding states were fed up with the flood of petitions from abolitionists demanding an end to the abomimation in question in Washington and in federally held territories elsewhere. The House thereupon passed a rule that banned discussion of these petitions. That rule stayed in effect for eight years. Former president John Quincy Adams, who’d been elected subsequently to the House from the Commonwealth (God save it!), led a ferocious counterassault against the so-called gag rule, finally achieving its repeal in 1844. (The history of the rule and the fight to repeal it is described brilliantly in William Lee Miller’s Arguing About Slavery.) The gag rule was the parliamentary manifestation of a desire not only to squash any attempt to rid the country of slavery, but also to squash any discussion of ridding the country of slavery.

In looking to learn more about Miller’s book, I found a Sunday NYT review from January 1996 by Drew Gilpin Faust, famed Civil War historian and current president of Harvard. She writes that

[Congressman] Hammond’s motion began a nine-year battle between those wishing to gag all discussion of slavery and those who believed that the maintenance of republican institutions required freedom of petition and debate.

Mr. Miller’s goal, as he says, is not simply to “summarize and report” this battle, but to “re-create it.” His account — dramatic, immediate, immensely readable — does nearly that. With extensive quotations from records of the Congressional debates, he transforms much of his text into something like a screenplay — almost a cinematic presentation of the verbal exchange that served as the essence of the battle.

But Mr. Miller does more than simply reproduce the debates. Perhaps his most valuable contribution is his lucid explanation of how the machinery of rules and parliamentary methods in the House became a matter of substance, not just procedure. It came to make a considerable difference, for example, that a simple majority could lay a question on the table, but a two-thirds vote was required to take it off. One of Mr. Miller’s larger agendas is to show how politics can operate as a vehicle for translating ideals into action and to demonstrate that the “practical and realistic bent” of politicians makes them not contemptible but admirable, no “less worthy than the abolitionists and reformers” who have garnered the bulk of credit for the antebellum struggle against human bondage.

Additional praise is found in Fergus Bordewich’s review from the December 1996 Smithsonian:

In an effort to suppress the still feeble antislavery forces, Southern Congressmen proposed what was, in effect, an intellectual blockade. They urged federal authorities to allow states to censor literature that they deemed “incendiary,” including not only abolitionist broadsides but also a wide range of general magazines, Northern newspapers and religious journals that only occasionally mentioned slavery. Postmasters were encouraged to monitor citizens’ mail and remove anything that they deemed related to abolitionism. All petitions to Congress on the subject of slavery were to be automatically tabled, without being printed or referred to in any way.

More shocking still, a gag rule imposed by Southerners and their Northern Democrat allies forbade members to discuss the subject of slavery upon the floor of Congress, under threat of censure. Not only was the enslaved black person denied every freedom but now the white person was even to be denied the freedom to talk about it.

The hero of Miller’s story is John Quincy Adams, the only former President in American history to later be elected to Congress, where he served with distinction for 17 years. Steeped from childhood in the hardheaded New England idealism of the Revolutionary era, Adams not only deplored slavery in principle, as many of his contemporaries did, but went far beyond most of them in condemning racial prejudice, which, as he put it, “taints the very sources of moral principle” by establishing “false estimates of virtue and vice.”


This is not only fine and provocative history. In it lies a message for modern Americans as well: that politics matters, and that even if they fail in their immediate aim (Adams was never permitted to submit a single abolitionist petition), free argument and debate have the capacity to shift our minds for the better.

I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but it’s on the list.

Categories: Books, History

Blood-Dark Track

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment


Having finished What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer’s account of the 1988 presidential election, yesterday and written about it last night, I was ready for my next book. The lead review in the Sunday NYT book review today is Joy Williams’ look at Karen Russell’s new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Reading it online Friday, I was prompted yet again to consider reading Russell’s acclaimed 2011 novel Swamplandia! But what really got my attention was Williams’ description of Russell’s first book, “that extraordinary debut collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” — 10 astonishments inimitable in style and execution.”

I added St. Lucy’s to my reading list, downloaded the free opening section, read a page or two, then turned instead to another book, Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. It appeared initially in 2001. When O’Neill’s novel Netherland became such a success in 2008, it was reissued. I loved Netherland, but wasn’t prompted to read Blood-Dark Track at the time. Perhaps it wasn’t even available. Last week, having seen a reference to Netherland somewhere, I looked up O’Neill and was reminded of Blood-Dark Track. Now I’m reading it.

What’s it about? In his February 2002 NYT review, Colin Harrison summarized:

How few of us truly know our grandfathers. Even if our lives overlap, even if they are geographically proximate, the men who fathered our parents are often depleted or ill by the time we may question them. Their struggles are decades past, their money and marriages made or lost, their paths long taken. And if by chance they remain vigorous, the particulars of their lives — their secrets — are not necessarily for the sharing.

Joseph O’Neill faced an especially tantalizing impasse. As a boy, he became aware that his Turkish grandfather, Joseph Dakad, had been imprisoned in Palestine during World War II. ”A shiver of an explanation accompanied this information,” O’Neill writes; ”the detention had something to do with spying for the Germans.” He also learned that his Irish grandfather, James O’Neill, had been jailed in Ireland during the same war, a member of the Irish Republican Army. But in neither case were more details forthcoming. O’Neill’s parents rarely discussed the men whose names he shared.

”Blood-Dark Track” is O’Neill’s reconstruction of the lives of his grandfathers, what he calls ”a slow, idiotic awakening” that for the reader is anything but. Rather, the book is an enormously intelligent plunge into the World War II era that involves, among other elements, an unsolved 65-year-old murder, a rusted pistol, clandestine train travel and assignations in the dark. O’Neill, who is the author of two novels, adeptly makes scene and character where otherwise there might be only chronology, but he also draws on his experience as a lawyer for insight into the Realpolitik of armies, embassies, prisons and families — or anywhere else men and power inevitably collide.

I’m only about 20 pages in, so I have nothing to add, other than seconding Harrison’s statement about not knowing our grandfathers. One of mine, a colorful figure, was born in Chelm (in Poland), moved to New York, made and lost lots of money, lost family as well (to the Holocaust), and died just after I turned three. The other, also arriving in New York from Eastern Europe, remarried shortly after my grandmother’s death—when my father was young—and ultimately moved to Florida. I saw him only a handful of times prior to his own death during my senior year in high school. I couldn’t write a book as interesting as O’Neill’s, but I’m confident that there’s material for one.

Blood-Dark Track also received a 2002 review in the New York Review of Books, where Fintan O’Toole wrote:

Joseph O’Neill is the epitome of cosmopolitanism, about as far from the ferocious demands of blood, soil, and ethnicity as it seems possible to go. He was born in Cork in the south of Ireland in 1964, and regards himself as Irish. Though his father is from Cork, however, his mother came from the Syrian Christian minority in the Turkish port of Mersin. O’Neill’s father was a project manager for international construction companies, so Joseph spent his early childhood traveling through Africa and Asia, and then grew up in The Hague. He spoke Dutch on the street, French at home, and English as one of the multinational group of students at the city’s British school. He now lives in London, speaks with an English accent, and works as a business lawyer and novelist. If anyone can be said to have escaped from history, it is him.

This very removal, perhaps, prompted him at the age of thirty in 1994 to intrude on what he calls “the jurisdiction of parental silence.” He had been told that both of his grandfathers, Joseph Dakad in Turkey and James O’Neill in Ireland, had spent much of World War II in prison camps. Dakad, a well-to-do hotelier, was arrested by the British on a business trip to Palestine and interned on suspicion of spying for the Germans. O’Neill, a member of the IRA, which allied itself with the Nazis and mounted a bombing campaign in England, was interned by the Irish government. In the face of his family’s reluctance to discuss these events, he decided to investigate. Blood-Dark Track is a record of this journey into the past. What makes it fascinating is the honesty with which O’Neill confronts the powerful attraction of an unyielding political fanaticism even for a rational, sophisticated, deracinated man like himself.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

Categories: Books, History

Augusta National, 1934

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I know next to nothing about video games. Thanks to the kids, I played versions of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong on early Nintendo game consoles years ago. That’s about it, other than occasionally looking in on what Joel’s doing when he’s home. But now a game is coming out that I can get excited about. In March, EA Sports will release the latest edition of their golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14.

Video golf allows you to play on representations of real golf courses, famous ones from around the world. What’s exciting about Tiger Woods 14 is that it will feature Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament. Not today’s course. The 1934 course! That’s the year of the first Masters. From the press release two weeks ago:

For the first time ever, users will experience Augusta National Golf Club as it was when the course played host to the very first Masters Tournament — what was known in 1934 as the Inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament.

The development of this exclusive feature was researched with meticulous detail in an effort to re-create the original 1931 design of world-renowned golf course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie and legendary golfer Bobby Jones.


Game play will place players in a 1934 environment, which takes into account everything from the clothing to the equipment. On the golf course, users will discover a new way to enjoy the timeless layout, and as it would have played when the first Tournament field competed in the Club’s inaugural invitational. This includes everything from the golf course’s nines being reversed to its original green contours and speeds.

Spend a minute watching the video at the top and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store. How about that 12th hole (starting at the 32 second mark)? Beautiful as always.

Hat tip to golf writer and architect Geoff Shackelford for alerting his readers to the new release and the video, about which he writes, “for those of us fascinated by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones’ original Augusta National design, the attention to detail looks amazing.”

Categories: Games, Golf, History

The Idea Factory

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment


In writing about George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe last weekend, I mentioned that my earlier resistance to reading it was weakened by Marc Levinson’s WSJ survey of the best business books of 2012. As I explained, I had enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger and trusted him as a guide. However, as I also noted, Levinson confused matters by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Moreover, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012, having reviewed it last March. She wrote then:

In “The Idea Factory,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.


Mr. Gertner’s portraits of … talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.

I’m just over 200 pages into the book now. It’s an exciting story. I’m especially enjoying the “spirited portraits” of these intellectual giants: Claude Shannon, William Shockley, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, John Pierce. The wonderful anecdotes make me wish for more.

What I also wish for more of is the science and the math. I realize this isn’t a technical book, but I think there would have been room for Gertner to expand on his treatment of the physics and chemistry of transistors, or the mathematics of information theory, without offending the reader. I’m departing here from Kakutani, who admires his ability “to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible.” As the daughter of a famous mathematician, she surely has a sense of what mathematical comprehensibility looks like. And Gertner is eminently comprehensible, as far as he goes. I just think he could have pushed on a little further, especially with Shannon. What are error correcting codes? A single example would have made all the difference in revealing what the subject is about.

Well, it’s Gertner’s book to write, not mine. He had to make decisions about its focus and its level, which he did. I’m grateful for the result.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

Turing’s Cathedral

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment


When Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, George Dyson’s history of the famous computer built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the late 1940s, was published last March, I resisted it.

I’m a sucker for Institute history. And, of course, for mathematicians. What could be better? On the other hand, could there be a story in the book that I hadn’t read three or four or five times? I feel like I grew up with these characters. Johnny von Neumann (the star of the book, its title notwithstanding). Alan Turing. Stan Ulam. J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Or, from the Institute’s early history, the Bambergers, who acquired a fortune by selling their department store to Macy’s and set out to do good with it by founding a medical school in greater Newark. Abraham Flexner—fresh from revolutionizing medical education in the US—whom they turned to for advice and who proposed an institute for abstract research instead. Oswald Veblen, the Princeton mathematician who helped Flexner with the conception of the Institute. Einstein, one of the founding faculty. Marston Morse. Kurt Gödel. Reading another book about these people and the Institute would be redundant.

But reading Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 earlier this month put me in a New Jersey frame of mind. Among his topics is the Battle of Princeton, which took place on what is now Institute and neighboring grounds. And then, two Fridays ago, as I was nearing the book’s end, the Wall Street Journal printed Marc Levinson’s survey of the best business books of 2012. Having enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, I trusted him as a guide. My resistance to Turing’s Cathedral weakened when I read:

The Institute for Advanced Study is at once prestigious and obscure. Endowed in 1930 by the Bamberger family, which had owned the eponymous department store in Newark, N.J., the institute grew into an intellectual paradise where selected scholars came to think great thoughts. For a few years after World War II, its bucolic campus in Princeton was an improbable technological hotbed as a group of mathematicians and engineers built one of the first electronic computers and developed the concept of directing the machine’s actions by electronic instructions—what we now call software—rather than by repeated rewiring. In “Turing’s Cathedral,” George Dyson combines careful documentary research with oral history to uncover the story of how the programmable computer came to be.

Levinson confused matters, though, by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Three days later, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012. Maybe I could quench my thirst for New Jersey history with this and skip Dyson.

A few days ago, I downloaded the free opening portions of both books and started them. Gertner’s book was tempting, but reminded me of a book I had never finished and always intended to return to, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, with its overlapping history of the transistor. This tipped the scales in favor of Dyson, whose book I am now five-sixths of the way through.

Turing’s Cathedral turns out to be nothing like what I imagined. For one, it is not a chronological history of the IAS computer. The story jumps back and forth in fits and starts, often starting a chapter with a new character and following that character’s story forward, which may entail taking the story of the computer backward. For another, Dyson emphasizes the role played by the building of the atomic and thermonuclear bombs in spurring the development of electronic computing. The close link between scientists and engineers at Los Alamos and the Institute is a recurring theme. Hardly news, what with Oppenheimer leaving Los Alamos and taking over as IAS director in 1947. But more notable is von Neumann, leaving Hungary behind in the ’30s to come to the Institute as a pure mathematician, passing through Los Alamos during the war, and returning to the Institute as a committed bomb builder.

Whatever else the Institute computer might do, its raison d’être was the calculations necessary for the development of a hydrogen bomb. Humans and calculating machines in tandem could perform the work at Los Alamos for the A-bomb. Greater speed and programmable flexibility were needed for the H-bomb. Thus, military funding came to the Institute. The famous split among Institute faculty for and against the project was not simply a matter of pure and abstract (in math or physics or history) versus applied and concrete. It was the freedom to do research unencumbered by external goals and pressures versus the need to achieve explicit benchmarks to meet external needs.

There’s more than bomb calculations. We learn about the start of meteorological forecasting via computer modeling. Of evolutionary modeling. And there are many interesting characters beyond the famous Institute mathematicians and physicists, such as computer engineer Julian Bigelow, meteorologist Jule Charney, and pioneering computational geneticist Nils Barricelli (who would later spend a few years here at the University of Washington).

Dyson tempts us with glimpses of von Neumann’s two wives, Mariette and Klára. The story of his courtship of Klára, divorce of Mariette, arrangements to get Klára out of Hungary to the US in 1938, and their marriage is stirring. But one wishes for more, especially on learning of Klára’s role as an early, self-taught computer programmer. As for von Neumann himself, here’s a quote about him that Dyson includes from a draft computer history written by electrical engineer Jack Rosenberg.

Johnny used to meet with each of us individually about once a week, asking what we had built, how it worked, what problems we had, what symptoms we observed, what causes we diagnosed. Each question was precisely the best one based on the information he had uncovered so far. His logic was faultless—he never asked a question that was irrelevant or erroneous. His questions came in rapid-fire order, revealing a mind that was lightning-fast and error-free. In about an hour he led each of us to understand what we had done, what we had encountered, and where to search for the problem’s cause. It was like looking into a very accurate mirror with all unnecessary images eliminated, only the important details left.

Judging from Francis Spufford’s review last March in The Guardian, the best awaits me. He begins:

At first sight – and it’s a long first sight, lasting a good 200 of the book’s 340 brilliant and frustrating pages of text – Turing’s Cathedral appears to be a project for which George Dyson has failed to find a form. Ostensibly the story of the building of one of the earliest computers at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 50s, it keeps digressing wildly. The Institute for Advanced Study’s MANIAC gets under construction over and over, in chapter after chapter, only for Dyson to veer off again into the biographical backstories of the constructors, and a myriad of alternative intellectual hinterlands, from hydrogen bomb design to game theory to weather prediction, by way of the café society of interwar Budapest. It’s not that these aren’t relevant. They are; but they aren’t introduced in the cumulative, surreptitiously spoon-feeding way in which good pop-sci writing usually coaxes a linear narrative out of complex material.

If this is a cathedral, it doesn’t have anything as geometrical as a nave. It’s a mass of separate structures joined by spiders’ webs of coloured string. But it isn’t a failure. It isn’t one thing at all. It’s three successes: three separate and different and differently impressive books Dyson might have written, all bizarrely shredded and mixed into a heap whose sorting is left as an exercise for the reader. Some of it is a painstaking oral history of MANIAC, built on an archivist’s certainty that everything is worth rescuing from entropy that can possibly be known about the dawn of the digital computer. …

Some of it is an intellectual biography of MANIAC’s chief architect John Von Neumann and the circle around him, determined to do justice to the polymathic range of his genius, and therefore dipping into everything he contributed to, from bomb design to game theory to robotics. … in comes the third separate thing the book is, a speculative, even visionary account of the philosophy of programming.

This last, marvellous element dominates the end of the book.

I am now getting into this third part. Spufford continues.

Is it worth persisting? Absolutely. Let me give you, appropriately enough, three reasons why.

One: no other book about the beginnings of the digital age brings to life anything like so vividly or appreciatively the immense engineering difficulty of creating electronic logic for the first time; of creating originally, and without a template, the pattern of organisation which has since become absolutely routine, and been etched on silicon at ever smaller micron-distances in chip foundries. …

Two: no other book has engaged so intelligently and disconcertingly with the digital age’s relationship to nuclear weapons research, not just as a moral quandary to do with funding, but as an indispensable developmental influence, producing the conceptual tools that would unlock the intellectual power of the computer. …

Three: no other book – this is where we get visionary – makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer’s origin and the possible paths of its future.

High praise. Had I read that to begin with, I never would have imagined that the book might be redundant.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning somewhere along the way that the author is the son of retired IAS faculty member Freeman Dyson, an outstanding physicist and mathematician in his own right. Having grown up there, George writes about Institute life with authority.*

*And, for what it’s worth, I write with a tiny bit of authority myself. Really tiny, having been an IAS member twenty-five years ago, living with my family in Institute housing on von Neumann Drive. And having an office for half of my year there in the ECP (Electronic Computer Project) building, the very structure built (with military funds, as I now know, the IAS chipping in to cover the cost of the brick facade) to house von Neumann’s computer. When visiting the Institute, von Neumann’s daughter Marina would stay in the vacant apartment below ours and we would say hi.

One more thing. Below is the video of a lengthy conversation with Dyson about the book last March at the Computer History Museum.

Categories: Books, Computing, History

My American Revolution

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment


A few weeks ago, while reading Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I downloaded the free portion of Robert Sullivan’s new book, My American Revolution and started it. Sam Roberts’ Sunday NYT review appeared a couple of days later, confirming that I made a good choice. Once I finished the Rankin novel, I returned to it.

But not for long. As I explained in my post on Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, that’s the book I really wanted to read, and so I did. Then I stumbled on two more books, thanks to various end-of-year book lists, and read them too. (See here and here.) Finally, while proctoring a final exam on Wednesday morning, I got absorbed in My American Revolution.

What’s it about? I’ll quote from Roberts’ review.

Sullivan has written a provocative Baedeker for a landscape of loss, Gen. George Washington’s route from Brooklyn to “the very first Middle America” and back — the states that, Richard Brookhiser once said, can be traversed by jet plane on the New York-Washington shuttle in 20 minutes, but where the American Revolution raged for much of its seven years.

We may never learn for certain what Sullivan himself is revolting against, but it’s a good bet that convention and linearity are among his targets. He approaches them with gusto, not only chronicling re-enactments of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” but embarking on his own 33-mile march to Morristown, N.J., in the Continental Army’s footsteps and engaging a retinue of game wingmen in replicating Washington’s triumphal return to New York by barge from Elizabeth.


Sullivan’s travels (a map would have been helpful) are recounted in appetizing bite-size morsels, often delivered with knowing asides to his reading audience and accompanied by extended footnotes. No pebble is left unturned. In his note on sources regarding John Honeyman, who may or may not have been a Colonial spy, Sullivan volunteers that Honeyman’s New Jersey house was near the home of George Harsh, whose exploits as a World War II prisoner of war partly inspired the film “The Great Escape” — as well as a riveting half-page biography by Sullivan.

Rarely are an author’s self-­deprecating and sometimes sheepish introspections (on his aching back, say) and virtually irrelevant digressions (a painting of Gowanus Bay, we’re told, is available on the Web site of the state library of Tasmania) so beguiling. Nor are most families of a boots-on-the-ground observer so forbearing. During one escapade, his daughter stands guard in the music room of a school in Brooklyn while the author positions himself in the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey with a Boy Scout mirror to replicate a Revolutionary scout’s alarm. “Looking out the window at a distant hill where your father was signaling from a Revolutionary War vantage point and not seeing the signal,” Sullivan allows, “is not the kind of thing that wins you respect among your middle school peers.”

Roberts concludes, “What a trip!”

It’s too bad I didn’t have this book 25 years ago, when we lived in Princeton for a year. We made regular weekend drives to nearby New Jersey’s Washington Crossing State Park, and would have been far better informed with Sullivan as our guide. Not to mention having him along in Princeton itself, or Trenton, or Quaker Bridge Mall, all of which are part of his story.

Like Sullivan, we traveled from Princeton to Morristown. But Sullivan did it on foot, in winter, trying to follow as best he could the route of Washington and his troops, arriving at the site where they would spend a historically cold winter, not far from where his parents were living. We drove. And we were oblivious to the history of the route. We just wanted to get to the US Golf Association Museum (“home to an extensive collection of artifacts from the great players of the past to current stars like Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods”). Or I did. The rest of the family may not have shared my enthusiasm.

After the museum, we walked around Morristown, saw some historical markers. And we wanted to stop in at Morristown National Historic Park. Maybe we did. I don’t even remember. But I know the sun was going down, we were getting cold, it was late, and we were out of time. According to the website, “Morristown National Historical Park commemorates the sites of General Washington and the Continental army’s winter encampment of December 1779 to June 1780, where they survived through what would be the coldest winter on record.”

Roberts mentions the “bite-size morsels” that make up the book. At first, I found this a bit of a distraction, as Sullivan jumped around between short historical treatments and recountings of his own travels. Eventually, I got into the rhythm of it. I especially enjoyed the later sections of the book, in which Sullivan discusses the Battle of Brooklyn (which preceded the Delaware crossing, Battle of Princeton, march to Morristown, and Morristown winter, the book’s chronology not matching the war’s).

Sullivan’s exploration of New York’s harbor is fascinating. Between his water journeys from Brooklyn to Manhattan (retracing Washington’s evacuation) and from Elizabeth to Wall Street (again paralleling Washington, on his way to New York for his presidential inauguration), we learn that setting out into the harbor isn’t so easy. There’s limited water access, and there’s a presumption that if you’re sailing around the harbor in a small vessel, you’re up to no good. Sullivan’s insights into contemporary New York and New Jersey are as enjoyable as the historical passages.

I just remembered that what tipped me off to the book was a short review in the New Yorker in late October, which describes it as “historically fascinating and deeply personal.” Good book, especially if you have an interest in the history and geography of the region.

Categories: Books, History, Travel

Darwin’s Ghosts, 2

August 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Five weeks ago, I wrote about Rebecca Stott’s new book Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, which had received strong reviews in the WSJ (by historian of science Laura Snyder) and the Sunday NYT (by anthropologist Hugh Raffles). Although I was only a chapter into the book, I was enjoying it so far.

Assorted events intervened, bringing book reading to a halt for a few weeks. When my reading resumed, I moved on to two other books, Michael Sandel’s philosophical examination of recent trends in capitalism, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and Martin Walker’s crime novel of rural France, The Devil’s Cave (newly out in the UK but not yet available here). Tuesday night I returned to Darwin’s Ghosts, finding it even more engaging than I remembered and finishing it Friday night.

The opening chapter of Darwin’s Ghosts treats Darwin’s concern about identifying and giving proper credit to earlier scholars who in some way anticipated the ideas he published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Each of the eleven chapters that follow focuses on one or a small handful of such people, ones Stott has chosen to tell us about, not necessarily those whom Darwin had identified. We start with Aristotle 2200 years earlier, jump 1100 years to the Islamic scholar Jahiz, who lived in Basra and later Baghdad and wrote the Book of Living Things. Another jump takes us to Renaissance Italy and France, after which the pace slows down and we focus on a series of scholars in France and Britain. These include Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus; the great French trio of Cuvier, Lamarck, and Geoffroy; the Scot Robert Chambers; and finally, inevitably, Alfred Wallace.

Each chapter functions as an independent piece, the book resembling a linked collection of short stories. And indeed, each chapter has the narrative drive of a short story, with the historical setting and secondary characters economically yet marvelously sketched. One on-going theme is the importance for all of Darwin’s predecessors of close study of animals and fossils. Only through detailed empirical examination could they gain new insight. In this way, the chapters double as case studies on the development of scientific method.

What emerges as well is the enormous value of collections, not as a random assortment of curiosities, but as the source of new knowledge. The Cuvier-Lamarck-Geoffroy chapter is especially informative on this point, conveying the significance of Paris’ Jardin des Plantes and the establishment within, by the revolutionary government in 1793, of the Museum of Natural History. This is a good reminder, today as well, that beyond the exhibits one sees when one visits such museums lie vast collections that form the basis of fundamental scientific research.

It perhaps goes without saying — but I’ll say it — that another continuing theme is the ever-present and complicating role of religion, as both encourager of the study of animal anatomy, physiology, and species differentiation as a means of appreciating God’s wonders and discourager of new ideas that point toward the long history of the earth and the continual appearance (seemingly obvious once one looks at the data) of new species.

Coincidentally, just after I finished Darwin’s Ghosts, the NYT published excerpts from an interview with Rebecca Stott. Here are three of the questions and her answers.

Q. The very first sentence of your book is: “I grew up in a creationist household.” How much did that drive your interest in Darwin?

A. Darwin was described as the mouthpiece of Satan in the fundamentalist Christian community in which I was raised. His ideas were censored, and of course censorship can act as a kind of provocation to curiosity. The school library had a good encyclopedia with several pages on Darwin. I can’t say I understood much of his ideas back then, but I understood enough to be mute with fascination. It was extraordinarily different from the biblical version of how things had come to be – but no less strange.

Q. Aside from Wallace, who came closest to scientifically (as opposed to metaphorically) figuring out natural selection before Darwin?

A. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was one of the first men of science to have access to enough fossil and living animal specimens and bones to really gather the weight of evidence that would be needed to understand the ways in which species evolve. Lamarck worked in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which in 1800 had the most remarkable collection of natural history specimens in the world – Napoleon Bonaparte had stolen hundreds of famous European natural history collections during the Napoleonic Wars and brought them all to Paris.

Q. You start in 344 B.C. Then you hop forward to A.D. 850. And then to the late 15th century. What accounts for such large gaps between periods of progress in this subject?

A. I wish I knew. Perhaps certain thinkers or schools of thought have been lost to history. Perhaps in the West it was due to the dominance of Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, over intellectual inquiry. Some of the periods of acceleration in the history of evolutionary thought were caused by material changes – the development of the printing press or of the microscope, growth in literacy rates, the gradual opening up of libraries and natural history collections to the public – but it always strikes me as salutary that one of the greatest periods of acceleration in evolutionary speculation took place in post-Revolutionary Paris between 1790 and 1815, when the priests had been banished and the professors had been given license to pursue any question they liked. That’s when evolutionary ideas really came into their own.

Categories: Books, History, Science

Walla Walla, 5

August 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Three weeks ago, we were on the wine tour in Walla Walla that I wrote about in my posts titled Walla Walla 1, 2, and 3. These covered our drive over there and our two days of winery touring. I never wrote Walla Walla 4, about our drive home. But, to the extent that a fourth post about the trip was needed, my friend Russ has now been kind enough to supply it, at his blog Stance and Balance.

Russ offers several valuable complements to my account, including a link to this charming story about our wine guide extraordinaire, Philippe Michel. Recall that Philippe owns Oak Tradition, purveyor to the industry of barrels and more.

Now that I’ve returned to the subject, I’ll fill you in on the last day of the trip.

We began it at the breakfast buffet in the dining room off the Walla Walla Hampton Inn lobby. Once again, we were surrounded by Little League baseball teams from suburban Seattle, in Walla Walla for a statewide tournament. On getting food and taking seats, I filled Gail in on some remedial reading I had done the night before about French wine regions, and my thoughts on where the Walla Walla wines fit into this picture. I then mentioned a winery we visited in north Sonoma County on our Healdsburg trip four years ago, Silver Oak, maker of high end Cabernets. I recalled that this is all they made, but Gail thought they made merlots too. We went back and forth on this, until a fellow sitting alone two tables away intervened, assuring us as a long-time Silver Oak customer that they make both. This was a special moment, one of those rare occasions when Gail could shut me up by appeal to a higher authority. She was very happy.

A few hours later, during our drive home, we told Cynthia the story and she compared it to the famous Annie Hall scene in which Marshall McLuhan appears from nowhere to tell a pompous blowhard that he understands nothing about McLuhan’s work. I, of course, was playing the blowhard role. Here, see for yourself:

As Gail drove, Cynthia and I did independent research on our phones, finding no evidence that Silver oak makes merlots. So there! I may be a pompous blowhard, but I also may be right!

After breakfast, we checked out and drove through town to Whitman College, which we had never seen before. From their website:

Whitman is the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community. Since becoming a college in 1882, Whitman College has a history of graduating ethical, accomplished leaders. The tree-lined campus is home to an intellectually dynamic, diverse, active and supportive community. Students find a balance at Whitman between challenging academics and developing meaningful and enduring personal relationships through an involved campus community.”>Whitman is the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community.

Since becoming a college in 1882, Whitman College has a history of graduating ethical, accomplished leaders. The tree-lined campus is home to an intellectually dynamic, diverse, active and supportive community. Students find a balance at Whitman between challenging academics and developing meaningful and enduring personal relationships through an involved campus community.

I didn’t know much about Whitman when I moved out this way a few decades ago. In fact, I probably knew nothing. But I learned quickly. One of my best and most engaging students that fall turned out to be an alumnus, having come all the way from Hawaii to attend it. Since then, I’ve met many alumni, and a colleague of mine moved there a few years ago to become the president. I wasn’t about to leave town without visiting.

On the other hand, we had a deadline. I needed to be back in Seattle and on campus by 5:00 PM. Thus, as much as I wanted to see the sights on our way home, we couldn’t linger anywhere. The result was that we drove around the edges of the campus, parked, wandered into a big grassy area surrounded by dorms and academic buildings, then returned to the car and headed out of town on Highway 12.

The other site I had long anticipated seeing if I ever got to Walla Walla was the National Park Service’s Whitman Mission National Historic Site, which is just off the highway about seven miles west of town. The NPS website doesn’t seem to do a good job of summarizing the history. Here’s a bit of it, from wikipedia:

Whitman Mission National Historic Site is a United States National Historic Site located just west of Walla Walla, Washington, at the site of the former Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. On November 29, 1847, the family of Dr. Marcus Whitman and others were massacred by Native Americans of the Cayuse. The site commemorates Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, the role they played in establishing the Oregon Trail, and the challenges encountered when two cultures meet.

In 1836, a small group of Presbyterian missionaries traveled with the annual fur trapper’s caravan into “Oregon Country”. Among the group, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding became the first white women to travel across the continent. Differences in culture led to growing tensions between the native Cayuse people and the Whitmans. Their mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail, and passing immigrants added to the tension. A measles outbreak in 1847 killed half the local Cayuse. Some of the Cayuse blamed these deaths on Dr. Whitman. Dr. and Mrs. Whitman were killed along with eleven others; Forty-seven other mission residents were taken hostage. The deaths of the Whitmans shocked the country, prompting Congress to make Oregon a U.S. territory, and precipitated the Cayuse War. In more recent times, the site has been excavated for important artifacts, and then reburied. A memorial obelisk, erected fifty years after the event, stands on a nearby hill. The historic site was established in 1936 as Whitman National Monument and was redesignated a National Historic Site on January 1, 1963.

The site has a park building with a small museum and an auditorium. Out back, a hundred yards behind the building, is the mission grounds, with the shape of each mission structure outlined in stone where it actually stood. A walkway loops around, with signs explaining what’s what. For instance, as you look at the plan of the Whitman home, you can see where Marcus was shot, and where he died after running outside. There’s a path leading back to the hill and the memorial obelisk.

Our friend Julie had told us the day before that one of the really cool things at the site is the Oregon Trail wagon wheel tracks. Gail mentioned these to the ranger when we first arrived, and she quickly disabused us of the notion that they’re real. After talking with the rangers, we split up, Gail and Cynthia checking out the exhibits while I watched the ten-minute video. I thought the video gave a good overview, so I urged them to see the next showing, during which I visited the exhibits. Then we headed out back, looked at a stagecoach that’s on display, went farther back to the mission site, and took the loop. We had been lucky with the weather the previous two days, but this was going to be a hot one, and it was already hot and humid. Between that and my hurry to get back to Seattle, we didn’t linger. We will next time.

Back on Highway 12, we reversed our route of three days earlier that I described in my first Walla Walla post. West to meet the Columbia River at the Wallula Gap, northwest and west along the Columbia to the Tri-Cities, through Pasco (with Kennewick on the other side of the river), over the river into Richland, then a climb out of the Columbia River Valley and on to the Yakima Valley.

Once in Prosser, the easternmost Yakima Valley town and a major wine center in its own right, we stopped for lunch. Had I not been in a hurry, we could have visited — among others — Hogue Cellars, Desert Wind Winery, or Kestrel Vintners. Instead, we filled the car with gas, then went looking for a restaurant where we could get excellent food with minimal wait. And you know what? We found just what we needed, right at the corner of Merlot Drive and Chardonnay Avenue. A place called Subway. It’s pretty cool. You go in, choose your bread, choose your meats and cheese, choose whether or not to have the sandwich toasted, then you get to select all these vegetables: lettuce, tomato, onion, olive, pickle, several kinds of peppers. And what an assortment of spreads! Different mustards, mayo, oil and vinegar. Bottles and bottles filled with options. Plus, it’s really good! The staff is friendly. The lighting is warm. They have — get this — wallpaper with New York City subway maps. It’s great fun. I’m going to have to see if there’s any place like it around here.

We left filled and happy. Soon we were nearing Yakima, and the cherry stand Tobae had discovered through an internet search the night before. We pulled off. They had four varieties of cherries, plus peaches and assorted other fruit. Everything looked and tasted good. We bought several pounds of cherries, then continued our journey.

In Ellensburg, we switched drivers, Gail taking us the final 110 miles into Seattle. There was traffic on I-90 once we got into Bellevue, slow going across Mercer Island and through Seattle, then we got off onto local roads for the final stretch. Home at 4:45 PM, just in time for me to unload our wine from the car and head to work.

Categories: History, Travel, Wine

War and Executive Power

June 12, 2012 Leave a comment

War as a tool to consolidate executive power is an old theme. Still, I was taken by surprise by a couple of passages I read yesterday in Gordon Wood’s review of four books on the War of 1812 and James Madison in the current New York Review of Books. (One of the four, George Daughan’s 1812: The Navy’s War, is featured above.) Somehow, there’s never-ending novelty in the news that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Reviewing the historical background to the US’s declaration of war on Britain, Wood explains (emphasis mine) that

Both Democratic-Republican presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and their Republican colleagues in Congress had strenuously sought to prevent any augmentation of the country’s military establishment. In January 1812 the Republicans in Congress actually voted down any increase in the size of the navy that was to fight the war they voted for six months later. The Republican Party feared military establishments and war-making because these were the means by which governments had traditionally enhanced executive power at the expense of liberty. Indeed, the Republicans seemed to believe that America’s military posed a greater threat to the United States than it did to Great Britain. Armies and navies, declared John Taylor of Caroline, the conscience of the Republican Party, “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruption.” Even a strong navy, warned a Republican congressman from Philadelphia, might become “a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive.”

Later in the review, Wood analyzes President Madison’s war record, concluding (emphasis mine again):

The burning of Washington and other defeats, the many misjudgments, the poor appointments, and the bureaucratic snafus all reveal that the War of 1812 was not Madison’s finest hour. He may have been at times a very successful practical politician, but he was not a decider. He was a legislator, not a natural executive; he was someone who sought to persuade, not command. Believing devoutly in republican principles, he was ill at ease in exercising executive authority. He was, as Henry Clay privately admitted, “wholly unfit for the storms of war.”

But in one important respect President Madison redeemed himself. Throughout all the administrative confusion, throughout all the military failures, throughout all the treasonous actions of the Federalists, Madison remained calm in the conviction that in a republic strong executive leadership—the leadership of a Napoleon or a Hamilton—could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought. Unlike the Federalists who during the Quasi-War with France in 1798 had passed the harsh Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress the opposition, President Madison, as one admirer noted, had withstood both a powerful foreign enemy and widespread domestic opposition “without one trial for treason, or even one prosecution for libel.” No subsequent American president has ever been able to constrain the growth of executive power in wartime as much as he did.

Of course, it helps if the president actually has an interest in constraining the growth of executive power. We know Bush didn’t, and now we know that Obama doesn’t. I won’t go on about that again. I’ll just quote the opening from this piece put out yesterday by

Let’s go back to school for a minute. Remember learning that the United States had three separate branches of government and a system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful?

Congress could make laws; the president could veto them and propose other laws; Congress could override the president’s veto, control the purse strings and had the sole power to declare war while the president served as commander-in-chief; members of the Supreme Court – nominated by the president and approved by the Senate — could declare a law unconstitutional.

This fragmentation of power was seen at the time the Constitution was drafted as the best way to guard against tyranny and protect liberty.

It’s worth pondering what is left of this system in the post 9/11 world where President Obama has embraced and further enlarged the radical assertion of executive authority handed to him by the Bush Administration.

Has there been any serious attempt by Congress to check rapidly expanding presidential power? No. However bent the Republicans might be on denying President Obama any domestic accomplishments, Congress has largely closed ranks behind a “let the executive branch do it” national security agenda.

Categories: History, Law, War