Category: history

Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky

Cod by Mark KurlanskyThis wonderful little book (283 pages including 40 pages of recipes) by Mark Kurlansky is a great introduction to viewing history through a different kind of lens. We are all to used to history as told from the point of view of great men (almost always me) and nation states. Codis about the fish, fishing, processed food, ecology, trade, slavery, rum, fishing technologies, food around the whole of the Atlantic and beyond and more. It is a wonderful example of regional history.

How did the “sacred cod” sculpture end up hanging from the ceiling of the Massachusetts State House? Or, how did salted cod come to be such a prominent part of the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, France and other countries? How did it come that European fishermen competed for access to cod fisheries along the coast of New England and Canada well before the Pilgrims ever arrived? Where did cod fit into the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Caribbean, and North and South America?  How did cod come to be almost fished out of existence in the 20th century?

The_Sacred_Cod_of_Massachusetts

The Sacred Cod of Massachusetts - MA State House

This book answers these questions and more.

Title: Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1997
Reviewer: Mark Orton

A Theory of Preservation and Restoration? – Carole Osterink’s Posting about Ft. McHenry’s Viewshed

The September 17, 2011 posting on Carole Osterink’s Gossips of Rivertown blog, “Of National Heritage and Viewsheds” caught my eye. Here it is in its entirety:

Of National Heritage and Viewsheds

We all know the story. Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer from Georgetown, witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which lasted for twenty-five hours, from September 13 to September 14, 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. At first light, after the cannon fire had finally ceased, the sight of the flag known as the “Star-Spangled Banner” still flying over the fort inspired Key to write a poem called “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which became the lyrics for our national anthem. 

A stirring and significant moment in American history. The successful defense of Baltimore marked the turning point in the war. Fort McHenry should be a national historic shrine, and indeed it is, but here’s the view from Fort McHenry today.view from Fort McHenry Baltimore MD

 

This is a strikingly industrial, perhaps more mid-twentieth century than contemporary, view. The unstated but clear implication of this posting is that this view is unfortunate and that the  “viewshed” should be returned to something resembling that of 1814. 

At some level I am sympathetic with this line of thinking. But, as I thought about the boundaries and criteria for deciding what kind of viewshed (and other) restoration is appropriate I became more troubled.

Then I thought of how we might apply Carole’s Fort McHenry example to a city whose history I am much more familiar with, Boston. Go to Dorchester Heights to visit the location of the canon emplacements that George Washington built to force an end to the British occupation of Boston in 1777. Here is where an amazing feat of endurance brought canon, dragged all the way from Ft. Ticonderoga in the dead of winter, to bear on the British army and fleet. In one day Washington ended the occupation and effectively closed British military presence in New England. This sight may not have inspired a poem, but it was of enormous strategic importance to the conduct of the Revolutionary War. 

Dorchester_Heights_Historic_District_South_Boston_MA_01

view from Dorchester Heights, S. Boston - borrowed from Wikipedia

So, this viewshed is arguably as worthy of protection as the one from Ft.McHenry.  What you see from Dorchester Heights is a view shed of a city completely transformed by great feats of 19th century civil engineering. To return this to it’s condition in 1777, you would have to tear down the Bulfinch-designed state capital (hidden in the photo by the mass of downtown buildings) and return 60 feet of soil to the top of Beacon Hill from the harbor where it was pushed by early 19th century real estate developers. Then you would need to haul all of the 30 or more feet of material brought into Back Bay back out to Needham. Large parts of Cambridge would be returned to salt marsh including the site of most of MIT. Harvard Stadium and the Harvard Business School would meet a similar fate. And the list of changes would go on and extend into the 20th century with the elimination of Logan International Airport, built on filled land in the 1930’s. 

 I could go on…..

Now you might complain, with good justification, that I am carrying this to absurd lengths. But, how are we to decide where restoration(or preservation)of viewsheds is appropriate? What are the principles that we can apply? What is on the other side of that Lehigh Cement1 storage facility? More industrial uses? Would it be OK to have housing there? 

Where one person sees an ugly industrial structure I see wonderfully massed cylinders connecting two modes of transport (ship and train) to supply one of the fundamental building materials of our society. Or, to extend our visit to Boston, should the industrious people of the 19th century not leveled the original five hills of Boston to more than double the land area of the city. Should the vast project of filling the Back Bay not been undertaken and Commonwealth Ave. never built because we had to preserve things as they were at some entirely arbitrary moment of earlier history?

Where are the principles to guide preservation and restoration ventures? 

 

  1. one can not but wonder that possibly the fact that this bit of perceived ugliness is a cement facility adds to Carole’s disapproval []

FBI Training – another clever use of the Cartesian coordinate system

I sometimes wonder why I poke at my Wired Magazine app almost every day…. Today brought a little reward, if one considers revelations of such nonsense as a reward.

Here is a chart from this training manualon “mainstream” Muslims:


How anyone with any level of day-to-day common sense, or rudimentary knowledge of history, any history, could believe that the followers of the Torah or Bible have been becoming less violent must be on some pretty serious drugs. I will leave it to those with a more serious understanding of the relative bellicosity of believers in the Koran to weigh in on the horizontal line…..

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II

Slavery by Another Name by BlackmonThis book brings to light the extent to which the Jim Crow laws were in fact part of a totalitarian system of government that ruled the South for more than seventy five years. How these laws came to be called Jim Crow by historians instead of  “a system of racist oppression and exploitation” is a mystery. The fact that historians and school textbook writers  adopted this term,which is derogatory in its basis, points to a shameful lack of focus on the facts of life in the South during the period between 1876 and roughly 1965.  Worse it aided the systematic cover up of the actual functions of these laws and their impact on African-Americans. If the word Apartheid had been invented earlier this would also be a useful term.

The research and the writing is compelling. Blackmon has a website devoted to the book and the production of a documentary movie on PBS that will air in 2011.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II
Author: Douglas A. Blackmon    Publisher: Doubleday, $29.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0

The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson

Warmth of Other Suns - Isabel WilkersonIsabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s great migration,1 creates  whole new planes of awareness of our history.

This book startled me to a new understanding of how encompassing and pervasive the Jim Crow laws and social rules of the South really were. Without much thinking on my part, I have always equated Jim Crow with images of separate water fountains, lunch counters, and schools, along with denial of voting rights. Included were images of lynchings and mob violence. Wilkerson’s work brings to life the real depth of the American system of Apartheid. These laws and social rules were so extensive as to lead to separate break times in factories so that whites and blacks would not even use a stairway at the same time.

This is the story of the six million African Americans who left the South for the North and West of the US between 1910 and WWII. Wilkerson builds her narrative of the main courses of this migration through the stories of three people leaving three different parts of the South, venturing to the three main destinations, NYC and the northeast, Chicago, and Los Angeles over three decades (teens through 40’s). Her overall research included interviews with over 1,200 people.

The stories do not end with the escape from the South. Wilkerson follows the stories as they unfold in their new environs. Here the transition from the oppressions of the South to the new realities of the north and west. No surprise the escape from the South did not mean an instant escape from racism institutionalized or otherwise. This part of the story is more familiar to a Northern urbanite.

This book, along with Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name – the re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII2 are compelling additions to understanding the history of racism in the US. Both are must reads.

  1. New York City, Random House 2010 []
  2. NYC Doubleday, 2008 []

How Did We Come To Consider Corporations to Be Natural Persons? – What To Do Next?

This week’s decision by the US Supreme Court to allow corporations, including unions, to hold full rights to free speech and political action under the First Amendment to the Constitution once again reminds me of the strange practical and ethical relationship we have with corporations. In the 1886 ruling, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company1, the court reporter wrote in a summary: “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”  I have not read very much at all about the history of how corporations came to be persons and I will not enter into the disputes about how this came to be. It is clearly a well established fact in our laws that corporations are people.

With this new policy handed down by the Supreme Court,  corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money carrying out political activities. The are many troubling aspects of this situation.  Besides the obvious fact that an artificial socio-economic artifact like a corporation can not possibly be a natural person, there are numerous features of corporations that make them particularly dangerous to us human beings. Corporations never die, excepting the rare death by dissolution. Corporations act globally with many agents in place to carry out policies that favor the corporation wherever and whenever required. Through the wonders of contracts and financialization of assets corporations can appear and disappear from any locality at will. One can observe an example of this phenomenon several years ago when corporations like Tyco International moved its headquarters to an off-shore island to avoid US corporate taxes. This, despite the fact that Tyco had dozens of manufacturing facilities and other operations employing thousands here in the US.

Book Review: Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises by Kindleberger

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises, fourth edition by Charles P. Kindleberger (New York: Wiley 2000)

Manias,Panics,and Crashes by KindlebergerA recent Wall St Journal article described this book as a “must read” classic for anyone involved in financial markets. I have been involved directly in financial markets in two ways recently. First, I spent a year chasing around chasing angel investors and venture capitalists during the DotCom boom to fund Valuedge (the software company I co-founded in 1999 and left in 2004, though I still hold a large ownership interest).  Second, I receive quarterly statements for my 401K retirement investments. Primarily driven by my experiences with Valuedge and the phenomenal boom time of the DotCom era, I read through Kindleberger’s durable book (originally published in 1978 and never out of print since).

Although I have come to refer to the year 2000 as the Tulip Phase of Valuedge after the well-known Dutch tulipmania in the 1630s. Little did I know that financial bubbles, booms, and the inevitable crashes and depressions are a very common feature of capitalism. The first couple of chapters describe or mention dozens of bubbles and booms located around an amazing array of geopolitical centers. These have been focused on anything and everything: the well-known tulips in the 1630s; railroads; copper; English country houses; agricultural land; private companies going public (Britain 1888, US 1928 and IPOs 1998-2000); and many others.

The first lesson, then, is that booms and speculative bubbles are a commonplace feature of the capitalist world.

So, why do these bubbles and speculative manias occur? The answers are complex, involving human psychology, malfeasance, regulation (or lack), banks, and government. Read Kindleberger .

An important explicit message from Kindleberger is that economists’ models of “homo economicus” and “the market” are far from a useful mirror of what actually goes on. People are not even vaguely rational in their economic behavior and markets never constructively approach the model of a market found in Econ 101 or for that matter anywhere else that I have ever heard of.

This is not just an academic concern. In recent years our politics has displayed a dominant rhetoric that calls for the application of “market solutions” to almost every area of our lives, particularly those where traditionally we expect government to provide services, regulations, etc. Instead, we now reflexively think that “market solutions” are inherently more efficient and effective than government services. Liberals, trapped in their abandonment of even the moderate criticism of capitalism that the Catholic Church, for instance, engages, have provided no useful critique of “market solutions” as a universal policy approach.

At a practical level, this public policy fixation on “market solutions” combined with a generalized attack on all government spending, is driving a generalized impoverishment of the public infrastructure of our civil society and not coincidentally an enrichment of the wealthy and particularly the super-rich.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the day-to-day political and economic life of the world.

Book Review: Diamond Street – Hudson, NY: the story of the little town with the big red light district

Diamond Street by Bruce hallDiamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District by Bruce Edward Hall (Black Dome Press, Hensonville NY 1994 and 2005)

This is a fairly readable history of Hudson as seen from the other side of the tracks and from the corrupt office holders in city government and local police. Sheds new light on how Hudson has been dependent for a very long time on “weekenders” to support a significant portion of the local economy. the difference is that the current economy is not dependent on men’s interests in gambling, drinking and sex.

Lots of wonderful stories and much local color and geography. Somewhere a wonderful, marvelous in its excess, statistic appears that Hudson once had 76 bars packed into its 2+ square miles.

Book Review: Looking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York

Looking for Work by Peter stottLooking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York, The Emergence and Growth of Local Industry as Revealed in Surviving Sites and Structures by Peter H. Stott, Syracuse University Press, 2007

This is a comprehensive review of industrial sites in 18 towns and the City of Hudson in Columbia County. There is a narrative historical description of the industry in each town and more detailed descriptions of the 134 sites. A great resource for anyone interested in the history of Columbia County and industrial archeology in general. The author has earlier written A Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Boston Proper (MIT Press, 1984)

More information and to purchase here.

North Korea – a visit to the "Axis of Evil"

Bruce Cumings -North KoreaRecently, in the context of some discussion of the Bush regime, my step-son Jonathan pointed me towards several books on Korea. He said that Bruce Cumings is simply the best author writing in English on Korea. So, a quick trip to the local library and I had this compact little book in my hands.

The book is organized around five topics: (1) the impact of the Korean War on North Korea, (2) the genesis of Korea’s nuclear programs, (3) the legend of Kim Il Sung, (4) daily life in North Korea, and (5) the current leader (dictator) Kim Jong Il. The text is not what one might expect of an academic from the University of Chicago. Cumings writes in an openly polemic style that is directed to providing maximum exposure to North Korea and our miserable knowledge of this country.

This book is relatively brief and a compelling introduction to North Korea and a portion of our foreign policy history that was substantially new to this reader