Reevaluating Lee

Gen. Stanley McChrystal: “At 63, I Threw Away My Prized Portrait of Robert E. Lee.” “Lee was a willing and active participant in a society and economy that rested on slavery, and he fought ferociously to defend it. Lee was a Southerner, and efforts to depict him in opposition to slavery run contrary to his actions.” (The Atlantic)

Digitizing history

The New York Times is using Google AI to digitize 5-7 million historical photos.

The newspaper’s “morgue” has 5 million to 7 million photos dating back to the 1870s, including prints and contact sheets showing all the shots on photographers’ rolls of film. The Times is using Google’s technology to convert it into something more useful than its current analog state occupying banks of filing cabinets.

Specifically, it’s using Google AI tools to recognize printed or handwritten text describing the photos and Google’s storage and data analysis services, the newspaper said. It plans to investigate whether object recognition is worthwhile, too.

[Stephen Shankland/CNET]

“These Are the Voyages”

I’ve been reading “These Are the Voyages,” an obsessively detailed history of Star Trek.

I don’t mean it’s a history of the fictional universe of the Federation — I mean it’s a history of the classic 1960s TV show. It’s utterly fascinating (see what I did there?). It’s nearly an example of microhistory, placing a small event (a single TV show) in a larger context of the history of its time.

I haven’t been rewatching the episodes. But I’ve seen them all many times. So it’s as if I were rewatching as I read.

I had somehow picked up the idea that it was common wisdom that the first season of Trek was the best, the second season was nowhere near as good, and the third season was drek.

But I’m a couple of episodes into reading about Season 2, and I’ve reviewed the episode list. Now I think that was classic Trek’s best season. It had found its stride by then.

Sure, there were a couple of episodes in Season 1 that were Trek at its best, but Season 1 was often pompous (A Taste of Armageddon, The Alternative Factor). And at least one episode that was acclaimed in the past just doesn’t hold up today (Devil in the Dark — we did watch that one recently, it was the first and only episode of what was intended to be a ToS rewatch).

In Season 2, Trek was hitting on all cylinders: Drama (“Amok Time”), high opera (“Who Mourns for Adonais”), and campy fun — pretty much any episode where the Enterprise visits an alternate history Earth.

Yes, Season 2 was Trek at its best.

We’ll just pretend “Friday’s Child” and “The Omega Glory” never happened.

Preserving the history of technology

In the future, communities might choose, like the Amish, to remain static at past technology levels — the year 2000, say, or 1950 — as a living record of people’s relationship with technology and how it changes over time.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything:

Social Media theorist Nathan Jurgenson wants us to understand what is truly revolutionary about ephemeral photographs and platforms like Snapchat, Fred Ritchin says we are going to get our minds blown “After Photography” and Finn Bruntun explains why we need to preserve our transition from Analog to Digital.

The data are on Clinton’s side. About half of Trump’s supporters really are deplorable. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic:

We know, for instance, some nearly 60 percent of Trump’s supporters hold “unfavorable views” of Islam, and 76 percent support a ban on Muslims entering the United States. We know that some 40 percent of Trump’s supporters believe blacks are more violent, more criminal, lazier, and ruder than whites. Two-thirds of Trump’s supporters believe the first black president in this country’s history is not American. These claim are not ancillary to Donald Trump’s candidacy, they are a driving force behind it.

Facebook censors iconic Pulitzer-prize-winning ‘napalm girl’ photo

A Norwegian newspaper published the photo as one of seven that “changed the history of warfare.” Writer Tom Egeland was suspended from Facebook. Now, the Norwegian prime minister published the photo, had it deleted by Facebook, and called on the social company to change its policies.

What if Facebook decides Trump is a monster who must be stopped, and starts censoring pro-Trump posts?

Facebook deletes Norwegian PM’s post as ‘napalm girl’ row escalates

You can’t make this stuff up

Sometimes I don’t know why I bother! – Charles Stross:

Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln (Wikipedia biography here) … was (variously) a Jewish, Presbyterian, Buddhist, spy, British MP, Nazi, propagandist, and would-be Balkan oil cartel mogul. Oh, I forgot to mention: claimed reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and Japanese-backed candidate for the Emperor of China. (Not bad for a poor shtetl boy who started out as a Hungarian orthodox Jewish yeshiva student.) Nothing about this man makes any sense whatsoever unless he’s a character from a movie script written by Thomas Pynchon for Woody Allen.

A brief history of hippopotamus ranches in America: a story about agriculture and espionage

peter_potamus_by_tr3forever-d60k4q7The Longform podcast interviews Jon Mooallem, author of “American Hippopotamus,” about that time 100 years ago there was a brief but serious movement to launch hippopotamus ranches in the US.

The American frontier was vanishing and the environmental movement was just starting. Advocates had the idea that hippo ranches would turn wetlands into useful meat-producing agricultural areas.

From gladiator duels to Caesar’s last words: the myths of ancient Rome

Fresh Air podcast:

Our guest, historian Mary Beard, can give you the real story of the Spartacus uprising. And in a bit, she’ll share what we think Julius Caesar really said as he was being stabbed by Roman senators. It wasn’t et tu, Brute?

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University who’s spent a career studying Rome and written a dozen books. She also does TV and radio documentaries, writes a well-read blog and has become somewhat famous for taking on Internet trolls. Beard’s latest book covers about a thousand years of Roman history, but it isn’t just kings and emperors. She offers insights into the reasons for Rome’s prosperity and military expansion and provides fresh interpretations of turning points in Roman history.

And she makes ordinary Romans a central part of the story, describing both their impact on important events and their daily lives. Mary Beard’s book “SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome” is out in paperback next month.

As a small boy, the ferocious mad Emperor Gaius was a pet of the Roman legions, who dressed him up in a child-sized uniform and gave him the nickname “Caligula.” History teachers today translate the name to “Little Boot,” but Beard says it’s more properly translated “Bootykins.” No wonder Caligula was always pissed off.

“SPQR” looks like a good one — I’ve put it high on my Amazon wishlist.

Harry Truman: Born to lose

Everybody knew for months that Truman was going to lose to Thomas Dewey, so much so that Dewey took long breaks from campaigning, says Lillian Cunningham on the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast. And by the time Truman left office, he was staggeringly unpopular. But now he’s one of the most-respected and best-loved Presidents in American history.

In the newest episode of the Presidential podcast, biographer David McCullough looks at some of the most difficult calls President Truman made during his time in the White House, including the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, push for civil rights legislation and fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Washington Post polling manager Scott Clement also joins the episode to explain the biggest polling failure in presidential history—when Truman won the 1948 election, despite the many polls that seemed to show he didn’t stand a chance.

Whose side was she on? ‘American Heiress’ revisits Patty Hearst’s kidnapping

Author Jeffrey Toobin describes the 1974 kidnapping and its aftermath in a new book, “American Heiress.” Terry Gross interviews Toobin on the Fresh Air podcast:

Hearst was eventually captured by the FBI, convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in federal prison. She served 22 months before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. Later, President Bill Clinton pardoned her.

Toobin calls the presidential actions on Hearst’s behalf an example of “wealth and privilege in action.”

“The fact that she got these two presidential gestures of forgiveness is the purest example of privilege on display that frankly I have ever seen in the criminal justice system,” Toobin says.

Claire North unmasked! Why one life isn’t enough for “Harry August” author

Charlie Jane Anders interviews the pseudonymous author of “The First First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” which Julie and I both loved.

The author’s real name is Catherine Webb, who write her first book when she was 14, and who wrote seven more successful young-adult novels and a series of fantasy novels for adults using the pseudonym Kate Griffin. Pseudonyms keep a writer from being pigeonholed, but they have their own pitfalls.

Webb made the protagonist of “Harry August” male because a female protagonist would have inevitably made gender more of a focus of the novel than Webb wanted it to be.

The biggest reason for writing a male protagonist was the history of the 20thcentury itself. When Harry August is born, women still don’t have the vote; by the time he dies, the women’s rights movement is a loud voice fighting battles across the world. The change in society in that century is massive, but women were – and are still – discriminated against. Knowing what I do of my own politics, it seemed unlikely that I’d get through the book without being drawn massively into the world of gender politics and the changing battle for women’s rights throughout the century, and while this is vitally important and a story that must be told, the story of the kalachakra didn’t feel like the right way in which to tell it. Writing a male protagonist, therefore, allowed me to focus on the story of the Cronus Club that seemed most appropriate to the narrative.

Webb has training as a historian, and says writing a historical novel requires a mind-trick:

 A great deal of the history wasn’t about big events – Harry August spends a lot of time dodging World War Two, for example – but about zooming in on little things that made the time come alive. Thus, 1936 would not be described by someone living in it as ‘a year when war became inevitable’ since in 1936, war wasn’t inevitable and no one without the burden of retrospect would think of it in terms of war, whatever history has to say on the subject now. Rather, it is a year of jazz, economic recovery and the rise of ‘talkie’ movies. A generic knowledge might point to Charlie Chaplin as being active in this era; a quick internet search reveals the movies he made; a look at the movie of the year (Modern Times) shows that by then talkies were well underway; another click through gives the names of rival ‘talkie’ movies and fairly quickly, from just a general sense of what was happening in a decade, you have the kind of details of leading actors and popular musicians that can bring a year to life.

Franklin Roosevelt, through Eleanor’s eyes

eleanorroosevelt

Lillian Cunningham, The Washington Post’s Presidential podcast:

Following President Franklin Roosevelt’s death, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt decided to downplay her role in his administration. She saw that as a way to help elevate and secure his legacy, according to founding editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, Allida Black.

In this new episode of the Presidential podcast, Black—along with FDR Presidential Library and Museum Director Paul Sparrow and White House speechwriter Sarada Peri—examine FDR’s leadership through the lens of the first lady’s contributions to his presidency.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary American who left a huge mark on the country and world. Truly one of our greatest Americans.

Also, I love this quote, read on the podcast:

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.

Skeleton helps solve 150-year-old mystery of Smithsonian scientist’s death

Robert Kennicot was a charismatic, handsome young explorer and naturalist who died mysteriously in 1866 while on a struggling Yukon expedition. Now, forensic anthropologists examining his skeleton have likely found out how he died.

Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post:

The last anyone heard of Robert Kennicott was his cheerful hum as he strolled into the Alaskan wilderness early on the morning of May 13, 1866.

It was good to hear the scientist sing. It had been a long and punishing winter at Fort Nulato, where Kennicott’s expedition to map the Yukon had spent the last five months, and he bore the setbacks badly. The frigid cold and endless dark left no time for exploration or research, a fact that rendered Kennicott “entirely broken down,” a friend wrote.

This was not a young man used to failure. By age 30, Kennicott had become an accomplished explorer and celebrated naturalist for the Smithsonian Institution. He was bold, brilliant and fearless; someone who handled venomous snakes with his bare hands.

When Kennicott didn’t return, his men began to worry. The expedition’s engineer brought up a note their leader left for him that morning, which included instructions “in case of any accident happening to me.”

A search party was hastily mobilized; rescuers fanned out across the bleak, mountainous landscape. Soon two of them arrived at the Yukon River, just south of the fort, where their worst fears were confirmed. Kennicott lay on his back on the muddy shore, his arms across his chest, his hat fallen on his face, his body completely still. He was dead.

Tenderly, the devastated men lifted their leader’s body and began to carry it back to the fort. That’s when they noticed something strange: The small vial of medicinal strychnine that Kennicott always carried with him was missing.

In 1866, whispers traveled faster than ships. By the time Kennicott’s remains were returned to his family homestead in Illinois, called the Grove, eight months after his death, the rumor that Kennicott had killed himself with a fatal dose of the poison had already taken hold. What else could explain the death of a man seemingly in his prime of life?

Stephan Swanson, director of the Grove, which is now a National Historic Landmark, as well as Smithsonian anthropologists Kari Bruwelheide and Doug Owsley, initially intended to return Kennicott’s skeleton for reburial at the Grove. Instead, with the permission of Kennicott’s descendants, the skeleton is being added to the museum’s human anatomy collection, and is already being used to research the effects of mercury-based dental fillings and test the accuracy of facial reconstruction software.

“We think he would like that,” Owsley said. “He’s a collector who was collected.”

George RR Martin’s “Wild Cards” books are coming to TV

The “Game of Thrones” author’s Wild Cards series are set in an alternate history where an alien virus in the 1940s gave superpowers to a tiny fraction of humanity. Martin worked on the books with Melinda Snodgrass and a team of about 30 collaborators, each writing individual stories in the larger universe.

I loved the first dozen or so volumes of the series, and I’m looking forward to the TV show.

Dalya Alberge at The Guardian:

It is a sprawling fantasy featuring deformed humans, superheroes who can read minds and fly, and plot lines exploring issues such as bigotry and raw political ambition. Like the blockbuster TV hit Game of Thrones, it is also based in part on the work of the cult fantasy writer George RR Martin.

Now Hollywood is betting that a major TV adaptation of Wild Cards, a series of science fiction books grounded in gritty realism that Martin began writing 30 years ago, can emulate the extraordinary worldwide success of the HBO show. If it does, it will fulfil the dreams of Martin’s collaborator on Wild Cards, Melinda Snodgrass, who has struggled in vain for 12 years to interest film and television producers.

The US writer and editor was praised by executives, only to be given excuses about why the books were not for them. She refused to be bowed by rejection and her determination has finally paid off. She is now heading an ambitious TV adaption of the series backed by Universal Pictures.

 

What the rest of the tech industry was doing 25 years ago when the World Wide Web launched

Tim Berners-Lee published “a short summary of the
WorldWideWeb project” on the newsgroup alt.hypertext Aug. 6, 1991.

Mike Murphy at Quartz has more:

The first website, which was literally a website explaining what a website was, went online in November 1992. It was created by Tim Berners-Lee, at the time a researcher at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). But before the site went live, Berners-Lee brought up the project he was working on—hyperlinks, the technology that allows pieces of information to be linked to each other on the internet—on a Usenet page. Usenet was a pre-internet forum when just a couple million people were on the internet; its archives have since been acquired by Google. If you want to find the first rumblings of the modern web online now, you have to trudge through some incompletely archived pages on Google Groups.

Berners-Lee was responding to a question someone asked about whether anyone knew anyone working on the concept of hyperlinks. As one of the people directly working on that exact topic he seemed perfectly situated to respond.

Remembering Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the greatest mass murder in history

Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University, writes at the Washington Post that it’s important to remember the abuses of communism as we do for fascism, for the same reason — so history doesn’t repeat itself.

The horrendous history of China, the USSR, and their imitators, should have permanently discredited socialism as completely as fascism was discredited by the Nazis. But it has not – so far – fully done so.

Just recently, the socialist government of Venezuela imposed forced labor on much of its population. Yet most of the media coverage of this injustice fails to note the connection to socialism, or that the policy has parallels in the history of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other similar regimes. One analysis even claims that the real problem is not so much “socialism qua socialism,” but rather Venezuela’s “particular brand of socialism, which fuses bad economic ideas with a distinctive brand of strongman bullying,” and is prone to authoritarianism and “mismanagement.” The author simply ignores the fact that “strongman bullying” and “mismanagement” are typical of socialist states around the world. The Scandinavian nations – sometimes cited as examples of successful socialism- are not actually socialist at all, because they do not feature government ownership of the means of production, and in many ways have freer markets than most other western nations.

These are excellent points. But it is also true that capitalism seems joined at the hip with imperialism, genocide, and mass poverty, with slavery of one kind or another endemic to capitalist societies the way hip dysplasia is common to some breeds of dogs.

So if both socialism and capitalism are broken, then what?

Somin makes another point that’s inarguably true: The Great Leap Forward and other abuses of communism must be remembered because their survivors are still alive, and deserve respect and financial compensation.

The White House is mostly a reconstruction of the original

 

After a piano literally fell through a White House floor, engineers assessed the 150-year-old structure and found it was rotten and “in imminent danger of collapse.” It would have been cheaper to tear it down and build something better, maybe even on a larger tract of land. But President Harry S Truman was appalled by the symbolism. Instead, he shored up the outer walls, ripped out everything inside those walls, and had it rebuilt to “skyscraper strength.” The oldest section was “a mere shell,” with two new wings added, and concrete and steel beams replacing wooden joists. Later, Jacqueline Kennedy oversaw detailed restoration of the interior.

The White House is Mostly a Reconstruction of the Original  – Marissa Fessenden, Smithsonian