Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the Mosquito

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, marking the anniversary of the beginning of European immigration to the U.S. (Who will be brave enough to suggest a further renaming of Columbus Day to “Destruction of Native Society via Immigration Day”?)

I’m in the middle of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, which blames smallpox, measles, and other diseases than can be transmitted from person to person for the majority of Native American deaths as a consequence of this immigration.

I recently finished The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. This book, by contrast, says that it was mosquito-borne diseases, notably malaria and yellow fever, that were responsible for most of the killing. North America had mosquitoes prior to European migration, but was free of malaria, yellow fever, and a variety of other diseases spread by mosquitoes:

The deadly yellow fever virus disembarked in the Americas with African slaves and an imported Aedes breed of mosquito that easily survived the journey on the slave ships, reproducing in the plentiful barrels and pools of water. European slave traders and their human cargo provided ample opportunity for a continuous cycle of viral infection during the voyage until fresh blood could be claimed upon arrival at a foreign port. The Aedes mosquito quickly found its niche and a suitable home in the cheerful climate of its new world and thrived both in its superiority to domestic species and in its role as a deliverer of suffering and death.

Readers: What do you think? Most of what I have read suggests that malaria and yellow fever were at their deadliest in the coastal South. Yet Native American populations were largely destroyed throughout the continent.

Related:

Full post, including comments

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The crowds are thinning out at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I simply showed up on a recent Sunday afternoon and was able to walk in (in theory this is possible only on weekdays in the off season).

The most prominent funders of the museum are white do-gooders:

And they are challenging stereotypes by serving fried chicken and collard greens in the cafeteria:

Slavery is presented as something that white Europeans did to African blacks. This sign regarding Olaudah Equiano is about as close as the museum ever gets to noting that black Africans were predominantly captured and sold into slavery by fellow black Africans and/or Arabs.

The museum confidently presents an economic history in which black labor is the basis of American wealth:

The Smithsonian does not explain how it is possible that enslaved blacks generated most American wealth and yet the South was much poorer than the North, to the point that it lost a war where the defense had a big advantage.

Suppose that the $250 million number for the value of cotton produced by slaves in 1861. A guesstimate of U.S. GDP at the time was $4.6 billion (source, in which it is noted that the $8.3 billion number for 1869 might be good, but earlier numbers are extrapolations).

Also, if slaves guarantee long-term wealth, why aren’t the other parts of the world that had a lot of slaves in the mid-19th century very rich today?

Most of the exhibits consist of “artifact plus explanatory written sign” that would have been familiar to a visitor to the British Museum circa 1759. And the collection is actually kind of short on artifacts, so much of the experience becomes reading while standing in a crowd. Will this be compelling for visitors in 25 years after everyone has grown up wearing AR glasses?

That said, there are some cool artifacts. A Stearman open-cockpit biplane trainer used by the Tuskegee Airmen:

The most shocking revelation to me was that the future P-51 fighter pilots were also doing needlepoint:

A KKK hood from New York and Chuck Berry’s Cadillac:

An updated touch-screen lunch counter for sit-ins:

The museum explicitly notes that “the critical role played by women in the Civil Rights Movement has not received enough recognition,” that attention should be paid to a “black lesbian feminist group,” and that the Third World Women’s Alliance “encouraged women to recognize their ‘triple jeopardy’: racism, imperialism, and sexism.”

After telling visitors that women are important, the museum shows that one man’s achievements far exceed those of all women collectively:

The shrine to Barack Obama, whose connection to formerly enslaved African Americans is never explained, continues in the bookstore:

A giftshop section “Because of Her Story” does not come close to tilting the scales in favor of women against Barack Obama:

(Unrelated, but fun:

)

Does black gay man beat black straight woman in the Victimhood Order of Hands? If so, the museum is ready:

African Americans are the group whose prosperity is most injured by low-skill immigration (Harvard study) and the museum notes that “Caribbean immigration increased 1,000 percent from 50 years earlier.”

(Result: lower wages, but some awesome calypso albums.)

The art museum part of the museum has some great pieces that are conventionally organized and presented:

The first African American to star in a TV drama is a challenge for the curators:

Fortunately, we will always have Oprah:

Full post, including comments

Northwest Passage and Donald Trump

I’m in Washington, D.C. today. What does the former malarial swamp have to do with the mostly-frozen (still) Northwest Passage? It turns out that timbers from a British Royal Navy ship sent out to search for Franklin, HMS Resolute, were used to make the Resolute desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Who is using the desk now? Donald Trump! (at least until he is convicted following the impeachment process that the New York Times assures us is right around the corner)

Where else in the U.S. do folks love polar exploration? One of the experts on our cruise had studied the Arctic at Ohio State, home of the Institute for Polar Studies (renamed “Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center” because #ClimateMatters).

Here are some photos from Nome, Alaska, commemorating the Amundsen-Ellsworth airship trip over the North Pole, very likely the first time that humans reached that point:

Readers: What do we make of the fact that most American presidents do much of their work at a desk that is associated with a famous British failure?

Related:

  • In the #MeToo age, let’s just be grateful that no furniture associated with the polar hero Fridtjof Nansen is in the White House; it turns out that he was sending nude selfies (made with a view camera?) to a woman 30 years his junior (Vice)
Full post, including comments

New Englanders: Father’s Day weekend at the tank museum

New England’s latest museum to open is the American Heritage Museum in Hudson/Stow, Massachusetts. It is run by the long-established Collings Foundation, which owns priceless warbirds and classic cars, but shows off a new collection of armored vehicles.

It is a great museum any time (passionate and knowledgeable volunteer guides bring the machines alive), but especially great this coming weekend when they’re having the “Tanks, Wings, and Wheels” event.

[It is currently not simple to buy a membership at the front desk, so if you want to get an annual membership, sign up via the web site.]

Full post, including comments

Whites in the American West were settlers or migrants?

Here’s a book cover that shocked me at the San Diego airport:

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West bears a subtitle that makes me wonder how many Native Americans would agree that the white-skinned folks from the East were “settlers” (the land wasn’t already settled? Shouldn’t they be called “migrants”, “invaders”, or “immigrants”?) and/or were bringing “the American ideal” (but maybe the “ideal” included killing and displacing the natives?).

How did this one get through a major publishing house?

Who has read this book? I’m a huge fan of this author’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.

Separately, here’s the first photo that I took after arriving in California:

Full post, including comments

Novel: Bright Air Black

Bright Air Black is a much more detailed imagining of Medea’s inner life than we get from the ancients (the element that she killed her own children was likely tacked on by Euripides; in previous sources she kills only her younger adult female rival with poison (and then the king/father of the victim dies accidentally from contact with the poison) and then her children are killed by an angry mob).

The male-named author (David Vann) is careful to offer his feminist bona fides before purporting to mansplain:

I first read Medea when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, in a year-long Great Works of Western Literature course (the final year it was offered). The instructor, Leslie Cahoon, was a classicist and feminist who shaped nearly all my future interests. Because of her I took a feminist thought workshop with Adrienne Rich, learned Latin and am currently translating Ovid, studied all of Chaucer’s works in graduate school, learned Old English and translated Beowulf, became interested in depictions of hell from Bede to Dante to Blake to McCarthy, and of course became influenced by the Greeks. My novels are all Greek tragedies, I’m a neoclassical writer, and it was a particular pleasure to try to bring Medea more fully to life after twenty-five years of thinking about her. So I want to thank Leslie for her enormous and lasting influence.

Medea is dirty. She has sex with Jason in public and surrounded by the bloody corpse of her brother. While sailing away with her father in pursuit:

I let him have me, she yells to her father over the water. Here on deck, in front of his sailors. The daughter of a king. Or what used to be a king.

Medea takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick. She spits, licks and spits again and again, three times to atone. Mouth filled with the taste of her family’s blood, and she throws this piece of Helios into the waves.

Greeks put themselves at the center of the world, but Vann reminds us that they were pathetic when compared to Egypt:

What she realizes is that they haven’t built the Argo. This is an Egyptian ship, somehow captured or given or bought. The Argo not something these people could have built. She looks again carefully at the wood worn smooth at the locks, walks back to the mast to see how the deck has chewed into its sides, walks back farther to see the rudder posts worn and infirm, loose. An old ship, not new. The bow and stern platforms gone, the heavy rope that runs the length of the deck, held up by forks, gone. Crude short benches added along the sides for the oarsmen to sit. But otherwise this is the same as Egyptian ships that have come to Colchis. She has given up everything to live with scavengers.

Vann writes a strong scene of Pelias and circle laughing at the tales of the Argonauts. It takes a long time before she can finally prevail over this foe, with the help of his daughters. I don’t think these details are in the ancient tales:

Your father can be made young. We can rejuvenate him. That’s the gift that will set you free. Asteropeia’s eyes open. You can do that? Bring another of your sisters, and bring an old ram. Tomorrow night. We must hurry, before the moon changes. I will make this ram young, and then we’ll do the same for your father.

What makes him old is in his balls, Medea says [to Pelias’s daughters]. Old ram same as your father. His children have taken his life. But if you break each one in your teeth and then spit into the cauldron, all that constrains him will be broken. This is how he will be made young again. Death will lose its hold. Peisidike looks at the dark meat in her hands, wet hide, testicles unsheathed and wrapped in vein or worse. But she raises this horror to her mouth, bites into a testicle, breaks it, and vomits onto the floor.

Medea with a long thin paddle made of wood stirs the great vat, pushes the pieces of the ram under, chants to Hekate in her barbarian tongue, song unintelligible to the sisters. Hekate, she calls. Tonight I kill a king. My sons will not be slaves. I will not be a slave. My husband will not be a slave. Tonight I kill a king and feed his balls to his daughter. Hacked into pieces with no burial, no funeral rites, fed to his family. Son of Poseidon cooked in a stew. The only great waves to form will be from whatever I stir. I will rule Iolcus, and all will be my slaves, and my sons will walk on streets of flesh. Torches, Medea says to Asteropeia and Peisidike in their ugly tongue. Light torches in the fire and go outside to pray to the moon, to Hekate, for this old ram to be made young. We must pray to Hekate until a young lamb emerges from the cauldron. That body is forming now, but we must help it along, help Hekate and Nute give birth in night.

There is a sexual relationship between Medea and a daughter of Pelias that the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t have recognized.

The competition is introduced:

Jason held close between Kreon and his daughter, Glauce, who stretches her neck and tilts and coos and studies his arms and eyes and mouth. Young, very young, hardly more than a girl, and never made a slave or mother. Her only concern is ornament. Glancing at her own wrists, at gold bracelets, how they fall, folds of thin Egyptian cloth over her breasts. If her breasts were cauldrons, she would fall in, drawn by her limitless desire for herself, and Jason would fall with her. He speaks with Kreon and never sees him, sees only young flesh.

Their children will inherit Korinth and have a claim, also, to Iolcus, surrounding Athens. Kreon’s dreams, but Jason will want only that ripe young body and release from a wife who has been difficult from the first. Night without end. Rise and fall of breath, her sons’ hearts beating beneath her hands, feel of their ribs. Her own body engorging, filling with hate and hollowed, void under pressure increasing in her head and chest, unfairness so enormous nothing can be done. Jason does not return. Sounds dying away, no more music, no more shouts, quiet of night, and still no husband but gone to another bed. Medea’s breath fast, in panic, though she only lies here holding her sons. Glauce in some royal bed very close, only a few arm’s lengths away, lit in torchlight, baring herself for Jason, spreading her legs, untorn by children.

Jason is not a hero in this book:

I know who you are, bitter woman, butcher, barbarian. I’ve brought you to this civilized place. I’ll marry Kreon’s daughter, and our sons will have royal brothers. You should thank me.

Be grateful, Jason says. A woman is never grateful but always wants more.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested to see how an old story can be told in the modern style.

More: Read Bright Air Black.

Full post, including comments

Washington, D.C. chosen as national capital so that founding fathers could profit

As we send in your checks today to keep the wise planners in D.C. funded, let’s consider why D.C. is where it is.

In our government-funded K-12 system, I learned that the location between Maryland and Virginia was a political compromise and that the interests competing were those of multiple states.

From America’s Founding Fathers, a lecture series by Allen Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College, I have learned that actually the interests competing were those of individuals.

The original idea was a capital near Philadelphia on the Susquehanna River. Why relocate to a swamp along the Potomac River? Professor Guelzo says that this was a much better location for shareholders of the Potomac Company, which was building canals to facilitate shipping up and down the river.

Who were the shareholders and principals of the company? George Washington was one of the biggest! And his Mt. Vernon estate happened to be quite close to the eventual site of the national capital. Many additional “founding cronies” helped themselves to what they expected to be massive personal profits by moving the site of the capital to the river whose navigation they were improving.

Maybe the next Mueller investigation can look at whether Donald Trump has been scheming to move the capital to Palm Beach?

Full post, including comments

Zero progress in American politics since 1776

I’ve been listening to America’s Founding Fathers, a lecture series by Allen Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College.

It turns out that all of the things that Americans fight and fret about today were issues around the time of the country’s creation (i.e., the traitorous and illegal secession from Great Britain).

People questioned whether a republican form of government made sense. From the notes:

… there had been only a few examples of successful republics in human history—particularly, Rome and Athens—and they offered only a handful of useful rules for guidance:

First, a republic must be harmonious. It cannot be divided in purpose; it must be guided by a common vision of the public good.

Second, it must be homogeneous—composed of citizens who are ethnically, economically, and socially more or less equal in wealth and status.

Third, a republic must be small, if only because harmony and homogeneity break down whenever the boundaries of a republic are drawn to include too many different kinds of people or so much territory that people cannot keep vigil over their fellow citizens.

Fourth, every citizen of a republic must be independent and self-sufficient enough to be able to occupy a public office.

Our Founding Fathers, including George Washington, questioned whether Americans were sufficiently virtuous to govern themselves. With the average person being primarily concerned with making money and quite a few folks “corrupt, selfish, and indolent,” how could the resulting conglomeration of these folks ever be sustainable? Washington, 1783:

the want of energy in the Federal government, the pulling of one state and party of states against another and the commotion amongst the Eastern people have sunk our national character much below par [and] brought our politics and credit to the brink of a precipice.

(i.e., we’ve been on the brink of a precipice for more than 230 years!)

During the Confederation period, Americans attacked political opponents, e.g., Robert Morris, the rebellious colonies’ first “superintendent of finance,” by alleging that people with high-level executive jobs were enriching themselves via corruption.

Politicians were not necessarily examples of traditional virtue in private matters:

[President of Congress Thomas] Mifflin retired from his congressional presidency and spent most of the remaining 16 years of his life in Pennsylvania politics and in what one critic described as “a state of adultery with many women.” Several towns and structures were named for him, but he also burned through most of his family’s fortune and ended up hiding from bill collectors.

The course is replete with examples of “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Samuel Johnson). Patrick Henry:

In 1774, when he called on the House to begin arming Virginians for resistance to the Crown, Henry spoke his most famous words: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty, or give me death!”

Paying 1-2 percent of income in total tax (see this article Foreign Policy on what American colonists paid) was an intolerable state of “slavery” and equivalent to being in “chains,” for Henry, “a slaveholder throughout his adult life” (Wikipedia).

Early Americans complained about concentrations of wealth and considered themselves fortunate that the disparities were not as large as in Europe.

States maintained a degree of independence and sovereignty to a degree that would be unimaginable today. They would use this to issue their own paper currency, help their citizens escape paying debts to Britons or citizens of other states, and weasel out of their own financial commitments to the Continental Congress.

The bad news is that we’re not making any progress, but maybe the good news is that the disputes that described as “crises” every day in the New York Times were with us in the 1780s.

Full post, including comments

Slide Rule by Nevil Shute

A reader was kind enough to give me a hardcopy(!) version of Slide Rule by Nevil Shute. It turns out that the popular novelist was an aeronautical engineer during the golden age of aviation. One of the luxuries of getting in on the early days was working with two of the greats: Geoffrey de Havilland and Barnes Wallis, of Dambusters fame.

Shute says that “the halcyon period … died with the second world war when aeroplanes had grown too costly and too complicated for individuals to build or even to operate.” Those are fighting words at Oshkosh and I think that Game Composites refutes this gloomy perspective to some extent (albeit one of the “individuals” had to be a Walmart heir!).

Shute was an airship designer at a time when a government-run operation was building the R101 (crashed and burned due to incompetence, according to Shute) in competition with the R100, a private effort. I still can’t figure out how airships ever worked. The R100 made it to Canada and back, but got kicked up 4,000 fpm in a light thunderstorm. The British airship industry was doomed by the crash of the R101 and improvements in heavier-than-air planes, but I don’t know why anyone thought that it would ever be practical given the power of Nature and the inability of an airship to outrun a storm.

Social norms were different between the Wars. Shute describes a “married woman living apart from her husband, who established herself in the village while her divorce matured.” Her sexual relationship with one of his bachelor test pilots results in an uprising by the “Wives Trades Union of Yorkshire,” upset that they might have to encounter “that woman.” (see Real World Divorce for how things have changed for the better, from a plaintiff’s perspective, in England!) Shute says that he prefers a married-with-children test pilot who will bring back a prototype at the first sign of trouble.

Airship aviation is an indoor/outdoor experience. Crew members are able to walk on top of the ship, move around outside to make repairs while the airship is flying, go to sleep in a cabin, etc. The weather has to be crazy bad before there is anything that could be called “turbulence” to disturb passengers.

The book covers topics that would be familiar today to anyone involved in startups: raising money and growing a business despite a shortage of capital. Shute co-founded an airplane manufacturer called Airspeed Ltd. in 1931 (i.e., during the Great Depression). Despite an industry that grew as fast as hoped, a war that resulted in huge demand from governments around the world, and thousands of airplanes produced and flown away by customers, the company never thrived financially and was eventually absorbed into de Havilland. A cautionary tale for those who today would try to make money on self-driving cars, electric cars, solar power, or any other obviously booming technology. Shute’s Airspeed simply couldn’t make a significant profit in the face of competition from higher-volume manufacturers that kept reducing their unit costs. The Royal Family bought an Airspeed Envoy, but that still wasn’t enough to stave off the competition.

Shute is eventually pushed out (1938), which he says in retrospect was a smart decision: “I would divide the senior executives of the engineering world into two categories, the starters and the runners, the men with a creative instinct who can start a new venture and the men who can run it to make it show a profit. They are very seldom combined in the same person. … I was a starter and useless as a runner…”

So… to Wes: thanks! to everyone else: read Slide Rule if you’re interested in aviation, engineering, or entrepreneurship.

Full post, including comments

Socrates was not tried for being annoying…

According to The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, by Douglas Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law.

My dim memory of Classical history was that Socrates was put on trial for asking annoying questions and making people uncomfortable.

Linder’s view, however, is that Socrates was primarily prosecuted for his hostility to democracy and support for Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants. Supporters of the tyrants couldn’t be prosecuted for their support per se due to an amnesty, so Athenians went after Socrates on other charges. From the course notes:

Athenians considered the teachings of Socrates—especially his disdain for the established constitution—partially responsible for the death and suffering during those two awful periods. Thugs with daggers and whips roamed the streets, murdering opponents. Many of Athens’s leading citizens went into exile, where they organized a resistance movement. It is no coincidence that Anytus, the likely instigator of the prosecution of Socrates, was among the exiles.

Socrates, unbowed by the revolts and their aftermaths, resumed his teachings. Once again, it appears, he began attracting a band of youthful followers. The final straw may well have been another antidemocratic uprising—this one unsuccessful—in 401. Athenians finally had had enough of their know-it-all busybody. It was time to send a message that the city would do whatever it took to defend its precious democracy.

Anytus, on the other hand, was a well-known politician, highly influential, and the driving force behind the prosecution. Anytus had a number of reasons to be upset with Socrates, including Socrates’s (likely sexual) relationship with Anytus’s son and the philosopher’s antidemocratic political message.

The professor also points out that the Salem Witch Trials conveniently often pitted low-wealth accusers against high-wealth defendants, whose property often ended up in the hands of the accusers after the inevitable hanging. Also, something I hadn’t heard before: accusers and defendants were generally those who’d been on opposite sides of a schism in the local church.

The lecture on the Trials of Oscar Wilde was also interesting.

An 1885 law criminalized acts of “gross indecency,” which had been interpreted to apply to any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex. Interestingly, the 1885 law was widely seen at the time of its passage as progressive legislation. Prior to 1885, sexual assaults on boys over the age of 13 that fell short of rape were not crimes at all. The law was passed to protect boys from preying adults, not to punish consenting adults.

Prior to Wilde’s trials, prosecutions for consensual homosexuality in England were about as rare as they were in the United States at the end of the 20th century. What offended Victorian society about Wilde’s conduct was not so much that it involved sex with other males, but that Wilde had sex with a large number of young male prostitutes. Wilde was not prosecuted because he was the lover of a social equal who happened to be male; he was prosecuted for his participation in a somewhat indiscreet prostitution ring

This guy is a great lecturer. If you’re looking for inspiration to go to law school (at the University of Missouri at least), look no further!

Full post, including comments