City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion

Catching up on 2017 must-reads for Bostonians, I recently enjoyed The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon.

The main story is familiar, but worth retelling.

All explosives require two components: a fuel and an “oxidizer,” usually oxygen. How destructive an explosive is depends largely on how quickly those two combine. With “low explosives,” like propane, gasoline, and gunpowder, it’s necessary to add oxygen to ignite them and keep them burning. If a fire runs out of oxygen, it dies. Another factor is speed. The rate of the chemical reaction, or decomposition, of low explosives is less than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. In contrast, a “high explosive” combines the fuel and the oxidant in a single molecule, making each one a self-contained bomb, with everything it needs to create the explosion. To ignite, a high explosive usually requires only extreme heat or a solid bump. Once started, the dominoes fall very quickly, ripping through the explosive material faster than the speed of sound.

“She had a devil’s brew aboard,” Raddall states of the Mont-Blanc, a perfect combination of catalysts, fuel, and firepower. The ship’s manifest included 62 tons of gun cotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 2,366 tons of picric acid, the least understood of the chemicals on board, but the most dangerous.

After the shipwrights had so carefully built the magazines, hermetically sealing each compartment, and the stevedores had packed it all systematically, the French government agent operating out of Gravesend Bay received a last-minute order from his superiors in France to pack what little space remained on Mont Blanc with urgently needed benzol, an unusually volatile fuel, the latest “super gasoline.” The stevedores followed orders, swinging 494 barrels containing 246 tons of the highly combustible accelerant into a few unused spaces belowdecks, on the foredeck, and at the stern, where they stacked the fuel three and four barrels high and lashed it with canvas straps, a somewhat slapdash approach compared to the thoroughness with which the shipwrights had built the magazines. When the crew walked past the drums on deck, they could smell the unmistakable reek of the benzol. With the final addition of the benzol, Mont Blanc now carried an impressive array of the most dangerous chemicals known to man at that time. While benzol can’t match the pure power of gun cotton, TNT, or picric acid—all high explosives—what the stevedores probably didn’t know when they stacked the barrels of benzol on deck was that the airplane fuel needed only a spark to ignite, while picric acid doesn’t explode until it reaches 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and TNT does not detonate until it reaches 1,000 degrees. But by making the last-minute decision to store most of the fuel on the deck and the TNT and picric acid below, the crew had unwittingly constructed the perfect bomb, with the easy-to-light fuse on top, and the most explosive materials trapped in the hold below.

Canada had a much larger stake in the war than did the U.S.:

Halifax sent 6,000 sons to the Great War, roughly a quarter of its male population. It seemed almost every home had sent a brother, a husband, a father, or a son. The Great War drained the town of its able-bodied young men and left behind women, boys, girls, and men too old or infirm to fight.

One question worth pondering is why more people didn’t chicken out and escape to the U.S. They knew what the trenches were going to be like:

When fresh recruits got to Halifax, they frequently made a beeline for any place that sold alcohol, where they met soldiers who had been recently discharged, were on leave, or were about to head back to the trenches. They told the recruits stories so horrifying that they might have been tempted to think they were exaggerating. The experienced soldiers knew the average infantryman lasted only three months before getting wounded or killed, so they were determined to make the most of their time on the safe side of the Atlantic. Their hard-earned fatalism fostered a devil-may-care disposition and all the elements that came with it, including scores of prostitutes from across Canada and bootleggers so fearless that they set up shop in the downtown YMCA—which was probably not what the YMCA’s benefactor, Titanic victim George Wright, had had in mind when he wrote his will. During the war years, Halifax experienced a spike in venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births. Local orphanages had to expand.

The Mont-Blanc makes it from New York to Halifax without incident, but before the sailors can go to the YMCA for a drink, there is a low-speed collision with another ship. The author describes the impact that resulted in the explosion as entirely the fault of the Imo‘s captain and pilot (see Wikipedia for a quick summary, but I highly recommend this part of the book). More than 10,000 people were killed or wounded. The book covers this staggering tragedy, but this post is about the physical destruction and the estimated cost of rebuilding:

The explosion destroyed 1,630 buildings and damaged 12,000 more, leaving some 25,000, almost half the population of Halifax-Dartmouth, without adequate housing and dangerously exposed to the elements.

After the fires had been extinguished and the wounded tended to, Colonel Robert S. Low assembled an army of carpenters, masons, plumbers, and electricians to rebuild the city, which had incurred more than $35 million in damages in 1917 U.S. dollars, or $728 million today.

It cost only $728 million to rebuild a whole section of a city. Our town will soon spend $110 million to renovate/rebuild a school that can hold only about 600 students. I talked with a guy recently who is involved in a $1.5 billion project to create 2,700 “affordable” apartments here in the Charlestown section of Boston (story). That’s $555,555 per apartment (less than 1,000 square feet on average) on land provided for free (city already has a housing project on the same footprint). Presumably these will be higher quality than whatever was built in Halifax in 1918.

[Note: poor people who are selected by the housing ministry to move into one of these apartments would actually be rich almost anywhere else in the world if they could only get their hands on the $555,555 capital cost as a direct grant instead of as an in-kind service! If they could also get their hands on the monthly operating cost and combine that with interest on the $555,555 they would be able to enjoy, without working, a middle class or better lifestyle in many of the world’s beach destinations.

How about folks who work at the median wage? That’s about $23/hour in Massachusetts (BLS) or $46,000 per year. NerdWallet says that someone earning this much in MA can afford a $258,500 house if he or she has saved $60,000 for a down payment, has a top credit score, and spends $0/month on food and other non-housing expenses. Zillow says $274,416 on a nationwide basis. So a dual-income couple in which both partners earn the median wage wouldn’t be able to afford one of these units without a taxpayer subsidy, even if landed were free and the unit were sold at zero-profit construction cost. The U.S. has apparently become a society in which Americans can’t afford to live like Americans!]

Maybe costs are lower up in Canada? Yes, but only a little:

Instead of drifting back into another long sleepwalk, Halifax has been accelerating, spending $11.5 million in 1955 to build its first bridge across the channel, another $31 million to build the second, right over the Narrows, and another $207 million in 2015 to raise the first bridge a few meters so container ships could get all the way to a dock in Bedford Basin. The city has spent $350 million to build a boardwalk along the bay and $57 million for a shiny new library downtown, an architectural centerpiece CNN judged to be the ninth most beautiful library in the world.

How about some other costs? A survivor of the explosion gets “$100 to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1919”. That’s $1,500 in today’s money, less than 1/30th of current tuition. He marries an American (same word “marriage” used, but really a different activity in those days before no-fault divorce):

Shortly after that invitation, Barss asked Helen to marry him. She said yes, but asked him to keep it between them until February, “so that if either of us wanted to get out of the deal, no one would be hurt.” Further, if Barss’s professors found out he was getting married, which med school students were forbidden to do, he could be expelled. “My father liked Joe & asked if he were a Republican or a Democrat,” Helen wrote. “He said he was a Canadian and voted for the man—Father said ‘If you ever live here and have anything or hope to have anything, you’ll be a Republican in self defense.’

Maybe it is good that this guy died before Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed their latest tax plans!

I found the numbers in the book sobering. If we wear down the infrastructure that we have or if perhaps it is destroyed for some reason, it doesn’t seem as though we could afford to rebuild it.

More: Read The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism


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Maybe we love war so much because we tell ourselves that we’re good at it

After reading World War II at Sea: A Global History you won’t accept media reports of military success uncritically. Some examples:

The Americans, too, inflated their achievement in the Coral Sea. Headlines in the New York Times insisted that American bombers had sunk no fewer than seventeen Japanese warships, including “the certain destruction of two aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser, and six destroyers.” The papers were initially silent, however, about American losses, reporting only that they were “comparatively light.” In fact, American losses in the Coral Sea were heavier than those of the Japanese, and the loss of the Lexington in particular, representing as it did one-quarter of the nation’s available strike force in the Pacific, was especially worrisome. At the moment, however, the public was hungry for good news, and the Navy Department did not discourage the national celebration.

The Battle of Savo Island was a humiliating defeat for the Allies. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, it was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy. It was so bad that, like the Japanese authorities after Midway, the American government kept the outcome an official secret. Based on the official navy briefings, the New York Times reported on August 18: “An attempt by Japanese warships to hamper our landing operations … was thwarted. The Japanese surface force was intercepted by our warships and compelled to retreat before it could take under fire our transports and cargo vessels.” While technically accurate, it was also deliberately misleading.

When there was an actual success to report, of course, the stories were more accurate (even then, however, missteps that wasted lives tended to be omitted).

Maybe we think that we’re great at war because our government and media tell us that things are going our way even when we’re losing?

See also the Vietnam War.

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We didn’t need to re-take the Philippines during World War II

World War II at Sea: A Global History by Craig Symonds reminds us how painful it was to be a grunt in the Pacific:

The Marines went ashore on Peleliu on September 15[, 1944]. The landings were difficult and the casualties substantial. Nevertheless, the Marines advanced inland and within three days they had secured the critical airstrip. That, however, proved only the beginning. Geologically, the island of Peleliu was dominated by a series of limestone ridges honeycombed with caves and tunnels that were impervious to aerial bombing or naval gunfire. The ten thousand Japanese defenders withdrew into those caves, determined to make the Americans pay in blood for every yard of soil. Amid temperatures that occasionally exceeded 115 degrees, men of the 1st Marine Division, soon reinforced by the U.S. Army’s 81st Division, had to go into the caves and take out the defenders one at a time. It took ten weeks for the Americans to clear the island, and they did so only at a great cost to both sides. Virtually all ten thousand Japanese defenders were killed—only two hundred were taken alive. American losses, while lighter, were nevertheless painful: a thousand killed and five thousand wounded—greater than the losses at Tarawa.

In terms of being an empire with the ability to move troops and supplies from place to place, Japan was essentially beaten by the end of 1944, says the author:

In December, on his inaugural patrol as skipper of the Flasher, George Grider sank four tankers displacing 10,000 tons each. The tankers, very likely filled with volatile crude oil from Java or Borneo, “disintegrated with the explosions.” It was so spectacular a sight that Grider allowed his crewmen to come topside two at a time to watch them burn. Only a few days later, the Flasher sank three more tankers off Indochina. As a result of such attacks, oil became so scarce that the Japanese began fueling their ships with soybean oil. They confiscated the rice crops of Indochina, causing widespread starvation, in order to turn the rice into biofuel. In effect, American submarines were doing to Japan what German U-boats had failed to do to Great Britain: starve it of the essential tools of war.11 By late 1944 Japan was running out of ships altogether. In the last two months of the year, Japanese ship losses actually declined from more than 250,000 tons a month to about 100,000 tons a month, not because American submarines had become less efficient but because fewer and fewer Japanese ships put to sea at all. Lacking sufficient transports and tankers, the Japanese (like the Italians in 1943) turned to using submarines and barges—even rafts—as supply vessels. By the end of the year, American subs were literally running out of targets.

This was foreseen earlier in 1944:

The American conquest of the Marshall Islands had been so swift and one-sided that it encouraged Nimitz and the Joint Chiefs to consider bypassing Koga’s main base at Truk altogether. It seemed a bold move at the time, for Truk had been the principal Japanese base in the Central Pacific since 1942. In fact, however, it was not nearly as well fortified as the Americans thought, for the Japanese had never quite believed the Americans would get that far. Now that they had, Nimitz and Spruance concluded that the Fifth Fleet could leap past it nearly fifteen hundred miles, all the way to Saipan in the Marianas.

Having penetrated the inner defenses of the Japanese Empire, the Americans were now in a position to block Japan from the essential resources of the South Pacific. That could be accomplished by seizing either the island of Formosa or the Philippines. The American chief of naval operations, Ernie King, strongly preferred Formosa. It was, after all, a single island, albeit a large one, as opposed to the more than seven thousand islands that made up the Philippine archipelago. Then, too, from Formosa, the United States could more easily supply their Chinese allies on the mainland. Dutifully arguing the navy’s position, Nimitz suggested that the Philippines could be bypassed and cut off as Rabaul and Truk had been.

Since the Japanese couldn’t supply the islands that they’d previously conquered, the mid-level analysts in the U.S. Navy wanted to bypass most of the islands, and the horrific battles that would inevitably ensue after an invasion, in favor of taking only places that could directly help with an invasion of Japan or support of allies in China. According to the author, Roosevelt and MacArthur wanted to liberate the Philippines for personal political advancement, despite the country’s military irrelevance. The Battle of Luzon alone cost more than 215,000 lives, essentially to no purpose if we believe this book. The battle was essentially won by March 1945, less than six months before the war ended.

More: Read World War II at Sea: A Global History

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Robot kamikaze submarines shaped like blue whales render navy ships useless?

One lesson from World War II at Sea: A Global History by Craig Symonds is that a huge expensive ship might be destroyed in a few minutes by a submarine or airplane:

Displacing 71,890 tons when fully loaded, the Shinano was the largest aircraft carrier ever built, a distinction she retained until 1961 when the U.S. Navy commissioned the nuclear-powered Enterprise. … Abe dutifully took the Shinano out of Tokyo harbor one hour after sunset on November 28[, 1944] with a four-destroyer escort. Two and a half hours later, the [U.S. submarine] Archerfish picked her up on radar.

At 3:00 a.m. on November 29, Abe ordered the Shinano and her escorts to turn west, toward the coast. It was the opportunity Enright had been waiting for, and at 3:17 he fired six torpedoes. For an attack on a carrier torpedoes would ordinarily be set to run at a depth of twenty-five to thirty feet, but Enright thought if he hit the big carrier higher up on her hull, it could make her top-heavy and more likely to capsize. He ordered the torpedoes set to run at only ten feet. That decision doomed the Shinano, because the torpedoes struck just above her armored blisters. As the Archerfish submerged, Enright thought he heard six explosions, though in fact only four of his torpedoes hit. It was enough. Tons of seawater rushed into the Shinano’s hull, and almost at once she took on a fifteen-degree list to starboard. With many of the watertight doors not yet installed, the flooding spread quickly. The ship’s list increased to twenty-five degrees, then thirty. Too late, Abe steered for the coast, hoping to run the Shinano aground in shallow water, where she might be recovered and repaired. He didn’t make it, and the Shinano sank just past ten-thirty the next morning. She had been in commission only ten days, and at sea for only sixteen and a half hours.

We have lost some expensive warships to submarines, e.g., the USS Wasp aircraft carrier and the USS Indianapolis cruiser.

After nearly 75 years since we last faced a serious naval adversary, the U.S. has spent $trillions building up and running a Navy full of large and costly warships. These do seem to intimidate Somali pirates (though not so much that they abandon their career?), but might they be vulnerable to an enemy spending only 1/100th of our budget?

What if an enemy were to built a fleet of robot kamikaze submarines? They’d pick up power from the sun when near the surface, be clad in rubber to have a SONAR signature like a whale’s, and have the same size and shape as a whale.

Our advanced systems would pick up these fake whales due to their spinning propellers? It is possible to build a machine that swims like a fish: RoboTuna. Would that make it tougher for SONAR systems to distinguish between an electric fish and a real fish?

Readers: Does it make sense to spend $billions on these Navy ships that could be attacked by robots?

World War II at Sea: A Global History on a guy who was able to predict the future fairly successfully:

Yamamoto was an outlier in other ways. He had spent two tours in the United States and had been profoundly impressed by its industrial strength, reflected by Henry Ford’s automobile assembly plant in Detroit, and the fecundity of the Texas oil fields. War against such an opponent, he concluded, was foolish. Fleet Faction admirals such as Katō did not entirely discount America’s material and economic superiority, but they insisted that the spirit of yamato-damashii could overcome mere wealth and numbers. Like Confederates after Fort Sumter who boasted that one Reb could lick five Yanks, they valued a martial culture over material superiority.

Another area in which Yamamoto defied the reigning philosophy of the Fleet Faction was his skepticism about the preeminence of battleships.

Like every other Japanese naval officer of his generation, Yamamoto had read Mahan’s book at Etajima, and he had initially embraced its tenets. By 1930, however, his natural skepticism led him to reconsider. Prior to his participation in the conference at London, he had been captain of the large aircraft carrier Akagi, and afterward he commanded the First Carrier Division, composed of the smaller carriers Ryūjō and Hōshō. Based in part on that experience, he became convinced that aircraft were poised to make battleships secondary, if not quite irrelevant. In 1934, he told a class of air cadets that battleships were like the expensive artwork that wealthy Japanese families put on display in their living rooms to impress visitors: beautiful, perhaps, but of no practical utility.


  • “China’s Navy Could Soon Have a New Weapon to Kill Navy Submarines” (National Interest, August 2018)
  • “Pentagon To Retire USS Truman Early, Shrinking Carrier Fleet To 10” (Breaking Defense): “Amidst rising anxiety over whether the US Navy’s thousand-foot-long flagships could evade Chinese missiles in a future war, the Pentagon has decided to cut the aircraft carrier fleet from 11 today to 10. By retiring the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Truman at least two decades early, rather than refueling its nuclear reactor core in 2024 as planned, the military would save tens of billions on overhaul and operations costs that it could invest in other priorities.” (the ship cost $4.5 billion when launched in 1996 (took two more years to commission))
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Antarctic aviation in the 1930s

If you love Antarctica stories and airplanes, Antarctica’s Lost Aviator: The Epic Adventure to Explore the Last Frontier on Earth is the book for you. Lincoln Ellsworth, whom the author says would be a multi-billionaire if his fortune at the time were adjusted to today’s mini-dollars, spent years organizing a flight across the continent and finally succeeded in 1935. He decided to become a polar explorer at age 44.

How had things gone for the world’s greatest polar explorer?

Roald Amundsen had devoted his life to polar exploration, and by 1924 it had left him bankrupt and bitter.

In truth, Amundsen’s biggest mistake was that he had won. A small team of hardy and hardened men from Norway, with experience and careful planning, had upstaged the ambitions of the proud and mighty British Empire and the Empire did not like it. Burdened by debt, made weightier by accusations of cheating, Amundsen again sought refuge on the ice, but his plans were interrupted by World War I. After the war, he made an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage, before deciding his future was in the sky. He gained a pilot’s license and resolved to fly to the North Pole and across the Arctic Ocean. He took an obsolete plane to Wainwright, Canada, but crashed it landing on rough ground. Amundsen reasoned that what he really needed was a plane that could take off and land on water or ice: a flying boat. The best available at the time were the Italian-built Dornier Wal flying boats. But how to pay for them? Amundsen was forced to turn to the only way he knew to raise money: touring and lecturing. The money was in America, so that’s where he went. Thus, in October 1924, Roald Amundsen was holed up in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, refusing to accept visitors lest they be creditors and “nearer to black despair than ever before,” on a tour that, “was practically a financial failure”:

Amundsen, Ellsworth, and some well-qualified pilots and mechanics of the day did head up towards the North Pole in two German-designed Italian-built Dornier Wal seaplanes (two 350 hp engines). Mechanical issues prevent them from reaching the Pole, however. They have better luck in an airship, making it from Svalbard to Alaska via the North Pole in 1926 (story).

What were prices like in the early 1930s?

Bernt Balchen agreed to be the pilot [of a trans-Antarctic flight in a Northrop Gamma] if he was paid $800 a month plus his expenses, for the length of the expedition. For a successful flight across Antarctica he would receive a $14,700 bonus. It was a lucrative contract at a time when professionals, such as doctors, were earning $60 per week and production workers were lucky to manage $17.

Women today are generally prevented from taking flying lessons. A T-shirt from a flight school in Bentonville, Arkansas

Back in the 1930s, however, men were not sufficiently organized to exclude women from aviation:

While at Mittelholzer’s airfield, the fifty-two-year-old Ellsworth met Mary Louise Ulmer, a fellow American, twenty-five years his junior, who was taking flying lessons. Ulmer was the daughter of an industrialist, Jacob Ulmer (who had died in 1928) and Eldora, who was fulfilling her duty as the wealthy, idle socialite mother of a plain, awkward, and painfully shy daughter. Eldora was dragging her child around Europe in the hope of finding a suitable husband. When Ellsworth and Mary Louise met at Mittelholzer’s airfield, Eldora instantly knew she had hit the jackpot. Ellsworth was older, equally shy, and, she may have suspected from his bachelor status, gay. But he had two qualities that made him an ideal son-in-law: he was incredibly wealthy and he was well practiced in doing what he was told. … ten days after they met, Ellsworth proposed marriage to Mary Louise.

Having succeeded in her safari to the continent to hunt down a husband for her daughter, Eldora’s next task was to return to America to display the trophy. Any fleeting attention Ellsworth might have given to his polar expedition was redirected to surviving the less forgiving environment of a society wedding.

By 1930, Antarctica was still 90 percent unknown. Maybe this is because explorers were usually too plastered to make maps?

Ellsworth also sent on board forty bottles of whisky for his personal consumption, in addition to the whisky and beer taken on board for the crew.

The expedition leader had some reasons to drink:

[Hubert] Wilkins tried to make sense of his life and plan what he should do next. He had no money and was living on the small salary that Ellsworth was paying him to take care of the Wyatt Earp. He felt that his debt—moral or financial—had been repaid. He had organized the expedition and got everything successfully to the Ross Ice Shelf, until circumstances beyond his control had brought the whole affair to a premature end. He was alone and lonely; famous for a failed submarine expedition to the North Pole, while living in hotels at the bottom of the world, touring country towns and showing his films for a little extra cash. … On the personal front, Wilkins had not seen his wife in two years and was conscious that she was dating other men. He had married Suzanne Bennett, an Australian-born chorus girl working in New York, shortly after he was knighted. It was a whirlwind romance, consummated at a heady time in Wilkins’s life. It was soon apparent to Wilkins that Suzanne’s main motivation in attaching herself to the famous explorer was to gain the title Lady Wilkins, then put it to use to elevate her career from chorus girl to movie star. (A strategy that was spectacularly unsuccessful.) Wilkins constantly wrote Suzanne long letters expressing his love, but she rarely replied, and when she did it was usually only to taunt him about his lack of success, his age, or the fact he was going bald.

(The wife later writes to him saying that she is pregnant.) He dispenses life advice to the crew: “Remember, Magnus, you will never gain anything without personal wealth, or government backing.”

The Southern ocean was not any better behaved back then

The Wyatt Earp had a rough trip south. In heavy weather it would roll fifty degrees to each side. From being heeled over to port, rolling though one hundred degrees to starboard, then back to port, took only four and a half seconds. Anything not secured would be catapulted about the cabins with dangerous velocity.

The first trip was going great until the ice shelf from which they had planned to launch the airplane split apart, in cartoon-like fashion, right underneath the airplane. The plane dangles into the crack, supported by the wings on both sides. The season of 1933-34 wasted.

The season of 1934-35 is ruined by a mechanic’s error in trying to start the engine without first draining the preserving oil, then by some bad weather.

The author explains why a lot of folks have had trouble in one particular part of this continent:

Today we know that on each side of Antarctica there is a huge bight. On the side facing the Pacific Ocean it is the Ross Sea, while facing the Atlantic Ocean it is the Weddell Sea. Currents, which are driven forcibly from the oceans to the north, flow into these great bights to scoop up millions of tons of ice that have descended from the Antarctic Plateau and, in a swirling clockwise motion, sweep it out to sea. In the Ross Sea where, at the western extremity Victoria Land does not extend north, the piled pack ice easily reaches open water. At the western end of the Weddell Sea, however, the Antarctic Peninsula extends north. Here the ice cannot escape so freely. Trapped, it becomes deadly as it is caught, crushed, jumbled, and tumbled over itself. And small rocky islands jut from the water and conspire with the ice to crush any ship foolish enough to venture into the area. The northwest corner of the Weddell Sea is the most dangerous coastal area in the Antarctic. In February 1902, Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld and a small party were landed on Snow Hill Island at the edge of the Weddell Sea. Returning in December, their relief ship found it impossible to reach them and had to move away from shore. Returning again in February 1903, the ship was caught and smashed by the ice, marooning the relief party on nearby Paulet Island. Nordenskjöld’s group, which had already built a hut, spent a second winter in Antarctica, while the relief group survived in a small stone shelter, before all the men were eventually rescued. Nordenskjöld claimed the area had “a desolation and wildness, which perhaps no other place on earth could show.” Another person to risk entering the Weddell Sea was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who ignored the advice of the whalers and based his decision on his two trips to the more benign Ross Sea. When he attempted to unload the team that planned to walk across Antarctica, his ship Endurance was famously caught and crushed. In the twenty years since the Endurance, no one had tried to navigate the Weddell Sea. In fact, in more than thirty years, no one had returned to visit Nordenskjöld’s hut. But Wilkins’s previous experience told him there was no other possibility of finding a flat runway. Venturing into the infamous Weddell Sea was their only hope.

Supposedly we are living in a woker-than-ever age of tolerance. People in the old days were morally defective by comparison. Yet when Sir Wilkins’s wife sends him a letter repeating gossip regarding Ellsworth being gay, he replies “I am not the least bit concerned as to what people say. He may be a sissy for all I know, but I do know that I gave my word that I would do the job of putting him in a position for doing the flight he has made up his mind to do and that is that. One does not argue or ask to get out of a contract by word of honor.” The unconventional sexual choices purportedly made by Ellsworth did not keep him from being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal twice, one of only four people to have achieved this. Nor did his sexual orientation prevent a lot of stuff on the map from being named “Ellsworth” (plus a hall at the American Music of Natural History).

For the 1935-36 season, the pilot is Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, born in England 38 years previously and with 6,000 flying hours behind him.

During the months before the flight, the author describes what is surely Ellsworth’s most remarkable achieve: “he went tiger hunting in the jungles of Brazil.”

The challenge and the proposed solution:

Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon had to fly 2,200 miles, more than half of which was over an unexplored area of the Earth’s surface. That unexplored area, lying roughly in the middle of their flight, could be flat ice shelf, towering mountains ranges, or a series of islands. They would be taking off from a point north of the Antarctic Circle (63°5′ South, 55°9′ West), flying to within six hundred miles of the South Pole, and through more than one hundred degrees of longitude (over a quarter of the way around the globe) to an ice shelf the size of France, on which they needed to locate a buried base, only indicated by radio aerials protruding from the snow.

Balchen was proficient at dead reckoning navigation. So was Wilkins. Importantly, Balchen and Wilkins knew that a key to dead reckoning was knowing the plane’s flying speed, and the only way to accurately measure that was to time a flight from point A to point B. Balchen had flown the Polar Star and claimed its top speed was 220 mph and that it cruised at 150 mph. But Balchen had made that test flight in

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Provincetown Public Library

One of the exciting things that I am able to do after 18 years of flight training is go to public libraries in different towns. The photos below are from a recent rare calm-wind, above-freezing day in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Adjacent books in the featured Young Adult Non-Fiction section:

From the rest of the shelf:

What about New (and/or featured) Children’s Fiction?

I do hope that at least one candidate in 2020 adopts Gordon Jack’s slogan of “When they go low, we go slightly lower.”

In between the fiction and non-fiction sections:

What about for little kids? The library is in a converted church and makes great use of the high ceilings:

There is a restroom:

The little kids have their own books, in which it turns out that adults and cisgender boys are guilty of cisgender-normative and hetero-normative prejudice.

The reviews of I’m a Girl on Amazon:

  • A wrongheaded picture book attempts to celebrate “girl power” and the rejection of traditional gender roles but ends up perpetuating stereotypes. … The damaging fallacy extends in every direction, though, as the bystanders’ sometimes derisive comments, which assume that she’s male (“Ugh! Boys are so messy.”), support an additional set of (binary) gender stereotypes.
  • Besides the message of “you can be as annoying as you want as long as you’re breaking gender stereotypes,” having to read “I’m a girl!” with emphasis throughout the entire story gets tedious.
  • Intentional or not, it’s about gender identity and being misgendered. … It never says she is trans, but could easily be read that way

And of 10,000 Dresses:

  • I am building a collection of books and lessons to help my children understand what the GLBTIQ crowd experiences to help teach them how to treat others and how NOT to treat others.
  • I selected this book as part of an independent English literature course that I am taking that involved examining LGBT experience through literature. This is an excellent selection for starting discussion on transgender identity in childhood. The author’s use of pronouns is especially insightful and overall it’s a reaffirming story. I removed one star from my review because the main character’s parents and sibling are rude and intolerant and the book in no way addresses this.
  • I do have a problem with the girl running to a stranger’s house and going in as if that is a perfectly safe behavior.
  • I returned mine today and was appalled as I read the story to my son before reading it to myself. Kids need to feel safe at home, especially when dealing with gender non-conformity.
  • This book seems intended to be positive about a boy wearing dresses, but in the story, the boys’ parents and sibling reject him, and one girl becomes his friend and makes dresses with him. The issues with his family are never resolved.
  • [From American University] 10,000 Dresses is a true depiction of what a young child goes through when feeling that they do not fit in. … There are also no diverse races in this book; every character that is depicted is Caucasian. Since children of color are unable to see themselves represented in the book, they cannot relate to the greater message behind the story.
  • The story is poorly conceived: the parents are unsupportive and cold, while a stranger provides comfort.
  • A child is systematically mocked by each member of his family, only to find refuge with a random stranger.

Should these paper forms be called “Normally aspirated tax”?

From the convenience store, we learn that customers are passionate about marijuana, but that the claimed health benefits for humans do not translates into health benefits for our canine companions:

What’s happening in the rest of the town?

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Order of tidying up from Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, suggests a tidying-up order.

The Preface, typically used by authors and publishers to motivate readers to invest time in the rest of the book, seems to suggest starting by cutting back on the number of adults in the space:

Here are just a few of the testimonials I receive on a daily basis from former clients… “Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce. Now I feel much happier.”

After that, the high-level sequence is 

  1. Discard
  2. Organize (find a place for each thing that managed to justify its continued existence)

With the Discard phase, use the following sequence:

  1. clothes
  2. books
  3. papers
  4. misc. items (komono)
  5. sentimental items

Komono may be tidied in the following subsequence:

  1. CDs, DVDs(!)
  2. Skincare products
  3. Make-up (nearly all of her clients are women)
  4. Accessories
  5. Valuables
  6. Electrical equipment and appliances
  7. Household equipment (stationery, sewing)

A key to the discard phase is to put everything on the floor (this method is for people with young backs!). Kondo says that only by holding the thing can one know whether it sparks joy. This may seem absurd for books, but Kondo insists.

In the organization phase, one key is to keep similar items together so that it is easy to put things back. Kondo points out that people are a lot more motivated when they need to use something so it isn’t necessary to make retrieval super easy. Another one of Kondo’s idea is to try to use what she calls “vertical storage” (arranging things like books on a shelf).

One non-obvious idea is to try to cover up or remove extraneous text, e.g., on storage drawers, boxes, bottles of detergent, etc. Her point is that a space, even if wonderfully organized, can be “noisy” with all of the irrelevant text. (Keep the Poison Hotline number handy, though, in case you get those de-labeled bottles mixed up!)

Kondo is dismissive of the value of specialized storage gear and of the very idea of being a “storage expert.” Better to discard a lot of unneeded stuff and then use a few shoeboxes as dividers within larger spaces. So you’d think that The Container Store would try to discourage folks from reading her book. Au contraire! The company is brave enough to confront the tidying expert head-on in “A MESSAGE ON DECLUTTERING & SPARKING JOY Marie Kondo and The Container Store” (from the wife of a co-founder who is now a senior executive):

I was intrigued by the similarities to our own philosophies until I got to the part where I learned that she felt it was a bad idea to shop in stores like ours! To buy organizational products is frivolous. … I finally read the book on a plane to New York this spring. I loved it!

When we opened our store in 1978, we offered multifunctional utilitarian products that were essentially “repurposed”, much like the items Marie Kondo might use. Dairy Crates, Wire Leaf Burners, Barrels, Wooden Boxes, Dishwashing Pans, Restaurant Bus Tubs, Mailboxes, Industrial Parts Bins…all very simple concepts inspiring creative ideas and solutions for our customers.

Today, The Container Store’s offerings are more specific in use, not as esoteric, but the fundamental values of our concept still exist in the product selection. We look for multifunctional items that are versatile enough to last and be repurposed for a lifetime of use. They are beautiful and functional. They enhance our lives and make us better. They help to fulfill our Promise of an Organized Life.

This letter is one of the things that I love about the Internet. It is easy to find multiple perspectives on the same topic. (And, since Trump is not involved on either side of this debate, we need not label one side evil and the other virtuous!)

More: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

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If Marie Kondo goes missing…

… the first place to search would be Issaquah, Washington (Costco headquarters), under the cui bono theory.

One of Kondo’s theories is that people who live in untidy environments (i.e., all of us who haven’t been her clients) buy more stuff partly because they don’t realize how much stuff they already have.

She is negative on the idea of stockpiling in Costco-style quantities, pointing out that you’re not running a retail store so it doesn’t matter if you run out.

Kondo never suggests a time period as a way of setting household stock levels. A Costco pallet of paper towels, for example, isn’t a crazy purchase because it may be used up within a month (a friend likes to use an image of an entire roll of paper towels used in a single kitchen clean-up by an au pair to illustrate what happens when people are insulated from pricing, as in health care consumption, for example). On the other hand, in the Amazon Prime age can it make sense to buy a pack of 8 toothbrushes? Or a 16-count Gillette Fusion razor cartridge pack (Dorco might be better!)?

In an American suburban home with basement and garage, why wouldn’t it be reasonable to keep two months of non-perishable consumables somewhere in the house?

More: Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.

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Marie Kondo ignores the Digital Age

Friends in Manhattan had two(!) copies of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, in their apartment and gave me one.

Kondo herself says that one of the best things to do with a gift is throw it out:

The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not ‘things’ but a means for conveying someone’s feelings. … Just thank it for the joy it gave you when you first received it. … When you throw it away, you do so for the sake of the giver too.

I love almost everything Japanese (except dessert!) so I read the book (big print, double-spaced, so it takes only about one hour for a first read-through).

One thing that jumped out at me is that the book, first published in 2010, barely mentions the Digital Age in which we live. She talks about tidying up CDs, but does not note that 500 at a time can be ripped to a thumb drive. She talks about discarding some papers, keeping other critical ones, and putting receipts in a special place in her house. Why not scan? Is it because that just turns household clutter into C: drive clutter? Or because Marie Kondo hasn’t done any work with scanner?

Maybe she ignores the digital because Kondo is so in love with the physical. For someone who motivates people to throw out what must be millions of lbs. of usable stuff annually, she is herself far more devoted to stuff that the average person:

I began to treat my belongings as if they were alive when I was a high school student. … I can think of no greater happiness in life than to be surrounded only by the things I love. … All you need to do is get rid of anything that doesn’t touch your heart like this. There is no simpler way to contentment.

When you treat your belongings well, they will always respond in kind. For this reason, I take time to ask myself occasionally whether the storage space I’ve set aside for them will make them happy. Storage, after all, is the sacred act of choosing a home for my belongings.

[Your typical Cessna or Cirrus is probably pretty miserable, then, in its aging prefab T-hangar or merely tied down on the ramp!]

When she comes home she talks to the house, says “Thank you very much of your hard work,” to her shoes, “Good job!” to her jacket and dress, and tells her (emptied) handbag “You did well. Have a good rest.”

More: Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.

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Reading list for 2019…

… or at least for the next couple of months. Here are some books that I’ve ordered and perhaps readers will want to check out some of these so that we can have a discussion here.

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