Weekend in Gettysburg

Richard and I flew down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over the weekend to visit his brother, a professor at Gettysburg College.

On the way down we stopped at the Kingston-Ulster airport and were picked up by Richard’s friend Annie, a flying kinetic whirl of activity whose mass could only be characterized by a probability distribution.  We drove a few miles to Bard College’s new auditorium, designed by Frank Gehry.  From the air this had seemed like a misshapen metal-clad lump.  From the ground it still looked misshapen but not ugly.  It cost $60 million to build.  Running a not-for-profit college would seem to be a very good way to accumulate cash.  Even after spending $60 mil the school had enough money left over to pay lots of security guards.  A performance was in progress in the small theater and every door was locked and guarded.  Annie was not be deterred.  We walked around the back and walked in the stage door with the members of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, unchallenged past the security guard who was reading a book.  Lesson:  never hire a hippie college kid to work security.  The main theater did not impress but the backstage was amazingly huge and intricate.

While the local swells attended a play the students played Frisbee and sang folk music in front of the Student Center.  Posters advertised a show of “Palestinian Art; Four Decades of Response to Oppression” (with the world’s fastest-growing population (5% per year) and most of their money being siphoned off by kleptocratic rulers perhaps the Palestinians are now going to support themselves via indigenous arts and crafts).  We walked past the booths selling tie-dyed clothing and through the campus until we arrived at a mansion on the Hudson River, complete with formal garden.

After a late lunch in Rhinebeck we got back into the DA40, bound for Gettysburg.  We flew up a beautiful river valley that crammed together an enormous open-plan new prison, an enormous fortress-like old prison, a golf course, and a scattering of McMansions around the fairways.  We followed a ridge of uplifted hills, cut through by rivers and highways, then climbed to a more efficient altitude of 6500′.  We passed near Harrisburg and over the Three Mile Island nuclear power plants (two cooling towers dead; two blowing steam) before landing at the Gettysburg Airport.  This airport is right next to a mobile home park in which you could buy a nice trailer for $20,000 then rent a hangar for $200 per month.  All the convenience of an airpark without the expense!

The Gettysburg battlefield park is one of the best-preserved and most interesting among those in the U.S.  This was the pivotal battle of the War of Northern Aggression (know to the victors as the “American Civil War”).  The Southern armies under General Robert E. Lee had come to bring the fight into the North and were briefly in a position to reach the big cities of the Northeast.  After the South went home on July 4, 1863, the outcome was inevitable.  This was the first time that artillery, the rifle, and the digging of trenches came together to give the defense a huge advantage.  The Civil War was thus the first modern war in terms of tactics, in terms of press coverage (photographers were embedded with the troops), and in terms of the total mobilization of industrial civilian economies.  The offense did not gain the upper hand until Hitler’s air power, tank columns, and mechanized infantry conquered Europe in the 1930s and 40s (we’re still in the “offense wins” epoch of war, apparently, if the invasion of Iraq can be considered typical).

[To see what an improvement in political leadership can be achieved via professional speechwriters and Microsoft PowerPoint, check out the Gettysburg Address (original and improved).]

Being a professor at Gettysburg College seemed like a lot of fun.  First of all, even on a professor’s salary you can afford a large newish house on several acres of land, typically part of a recently subdivided farm (subdividing farms is to this decade what day trading was to the 1990s).  Now that you’ve got the big house you can start throwing parties for your colleagues.  Most of them will show up because there isn’t much else to do in Gettysburg.  Thus your life consists of going from one party to another, mixing with academics from every area of inquiry.

[Why doesn’t this happen at MIT?  First, the young fun people who work at MIT can’t afford to live anywhere near the school unless they want to cram themselves into a studio or 1-bedroom apartment, not suitable for parties.  Second there are all kinds of social and entertainment opportunities in a big city like Boston.  Third, there are too many professors in one’s own department to get to know and therefore one is unlikely to be coerced by circumstance into socializing with people from other fields (the EECS department at MIT has more than 150 faculty).]

Having soaked up the scenery and the smell of the apple blossoms it was time to depart this morning.  We were greeted by a dreary mist, clouds hanging on the hills, and a steady rain.  Flight Service said that the warm front was coming through sooner than expected but that the weather was clear to the northeast.  Richard and I departed under instrument flight rules (IFR).  This is a bit tricky at an airport with no control tower and no radio repeater for the air traffic controllers (ATC).  You need to take off and gain altitude before you can talk to ATC but it isn’t safe, prudent, or legal to climb into the clouds unless you’ve already talked to ATC.  We picked up our clearance with a cell phone call to Washington Center from the airplane as we sat on the ground in Gettysburg.  They cleared out the airspace north of Gettysburg for 10 minutes, giving us enough time to depart (if we’d had a problem taking off we would have called them back to cancel).

Despite a headwind, we were on the ground in Boston 2.75 hours later.  We had climbed up to 5500′ and never entered the clouds.

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Biographical Focus: Jeffrey Amherst, the first biowarrior

It’s Sunday, a time for looking at inspiring biographies.  Today we consider Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America during the French & Indian War (1754-1763).   The town of Amherst, Massachusetts is named after this pioneer in the field of biological warfare.  It was Lord Amherst who came up with the idea of giving smallpox-infested blankets to the Indians.  This theme is explored in a bit of detail on this page at UCLA and more profoundly in tonight’s highly recommended episode of South Park (rebroadcast from Wednesday):  “Red Man’s Greed”.

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Saudi Royals, Big Rockets, and Hitler

The May 2003 Atlantic Monthly merits a trip to the library or newsstand.  While the great minds of the Boston Globe fret about Cessna 172s, Robert Baer’s “The Fall of the House of Saud”  points out that a simple terrorist strike at one location in Saudi Arabia could remove from the world markets an amount equal to one third of the U.S.’s oil consumption.  The article is rich with details on the more eccentric princes, such as Abdul Aziz who built a magnificent $4.6 billion palace and Islamic theme park that “includes a scale model of old Mecca, with actors attending mosque and chanting prayers twenty-four hours a day.”  For those who slept through 9/11 and its aftermath, Baer recounts the Saudi funding and manning of Al-Qaeda and its continued obstruction of FBI investigations.

Gregg Easterbrook also has an article in this issue, about the Russian-American Sea Launch company that sails from Long Beach to the equator, fires off huge rockets into space, then sails back to LA.  The cost is 1/10th that of the Space Shuttle for a comparable payload.

Timothy Ryback visits the Library of Congress and discovers the “remnants of the private library of Adolf Hilter, a man better known for burning books than for collecting them.”  In fact Hitler had thousands of books and, even when his means were modest, spent lavishly on books and bookshelves.  Hitler was not a huge fan of novels but enjoyed non-fiction, being motivated to underlining by a nineteenth century writer’s call for “the relocation of the Polish and Austrian Jews to Palestine”.

If you’re soaking in the bathtub and done with New Yorker magazine, give the May Atlantic a whirl.

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Biographical Focus: Idi Amin

Sundays on this blog will be for focusing on one person, ideally someone connected to current events but who has slipped from notice.  Today’s focus is Idi Amin.

Idi Amin might seem like an odd choice because he has not been in the news for more than a decade and in fact many Westerners have the impression that he is dead.

Amin earns his place in this blog today because of the fact that the whole crop of modern Islamic rulers are merely following the trail blazed by Idi Amin. Amin, who ruled Uganda in the 1970s, took on the challenging project of creating a true Islamic nation out of a country that was only about 6 percent Muslims at the time. Amin, accused of murdering hundreds of thousands of Christians, did not get too much good press in the West (like Saddam) but he was a hero to Arabs and Muslims worldwide (like Saddam). Like Saddam, Idi Amin was the victim of a long-distance Israeli air raid (Entebbe 1976).  Like Saddam, Idi Amin was overthrown by a foreign military (in Amin’s case it was the war that he started against neighboring Tanzania that ultimately brought Tanzanian troops back to Kampala, the capital of Uganda).

Idi Amin made and kept friends throughout the Middle East.  For example, Yasser Arafat was Best Man at Amin’s 5th wedding.  After Idi Amin was overthrown he was set up by the Saudis in a magnificent seaside villa in the Red Sea port of Jiddah (i.e., when we fill up our SUVs part of the money goes to pay for Amin’s wives, cars, servants, etc.).

Idi Amin turned 78 years old on January 1 and currently lives in Mecca.

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Happy Friday: the ice pack is breaking up

A wise man once told me that people tended to be unhappy because they focussed on the problems in their life.  Things that were going well did not require attention and therefore did not get it.  Consequently if you asked a person what he or she had been thinking about it was generally an unpleasant and difficult to solve problem.  This blog will try to fight this tendency with a Happy Friday policy.

Yesterday my friend Brad and I took the DA40 out of its hangar and headed out to Williamstown, Massachusetts.  There are three great art museums within 3 miles of the Harriman and West Airport (paved but VFR-only and surrounded by mountains):  Clark, MassMOCA (installation art fueled by approx. $50 million of Massachusetts taxpayer funds; run by New Yorkers who dress and sound like Dieter on Saturday Night Live), and Williams College’s art museum.  We stopped by Williams College and looked at their magnificent 9th century BC Assyrian tablets plus a visiting show of Tibetan art.

The Assyrian tablets remind one that the current conflict in Iraq is not the first one and that the artifacts of ancient civilization in Iraq have nothing to do with its current Arab rulers.  The Assyrians are the heirs to a literary and cultural traditional that goes back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Sargon’s kingdom circa 2350 B.C.  For some reason it became conventional in Assyrian literature for heroes to be discovered in baskets floating on rivers, washed into the reeds.  This is how Gilgamesh was found and also Sargon.  For those of you going to a Passover Seder this year, a good way to really piss off your hosts is to start asking questions about whether the story of Moses being found in a basket in the Nile wasn’t simply copied from much earlier Assyrian stories.  Suppose that it is true that Moses grew up in an Egyptian royal household but not that he was found in the river.  That would make Moses, the Jewish leader of the Jews, … an Egyptian pure and simple.  (The descendants of Moses’s relatives would therefore be the Coptic Christian minority that survived the Arab invasion of Egypt.)

Assyrians converted to Christianity shortly after the death of Jesus and have been fighting a losing battle with Muslim Arab invaders since the 7th century A.D.  They seem to be a forgotten oppressed minority in an Arab country but they do have a Web site: http://aina.org/aol/

From the art museum we walked out into the 50-degree sunshine and along a creek filled with snowmelt.  A young woman came up behind us, smiling, red-faced, and walking briskly with wet hair.  She had been celebrating Spring by taking a swim in the freezing water.

For our return flight to Boston we took off just as the sun was setting in the Berkshires.  The hilly landscape around the Connecticut River was painted with a pinkish light reminiscent of the Hudson River School.  We could distinguish the subtle tones with our eyes but there is no way that film would have captured it so Brad and I just enjoyed it.  In flying over lakes we noticed that the pack ice was broken up and covering less than 50 percent of the surface.  Spring is here.  Brad flies for American Airlines so you’d think that he would have become jaded with aerial scenery but he looked out the window in wonder (and in fear; I did much of the flight with a hood on so that I could see only the instruments while Brad looked for other airplanes and critiqued my performance on 4 instrument approaches).

Now that we New Englanders seem finally to escaped the clutches of Winter it may be worth reflecting that it could have been much worse.  Here’s a note from Marion, an old friend who lives in Alaska:

I am curious whether you heard as far away as Boston about the storm of the century we had here in Anchorage about two weeks ago. 130 mph winds, right off the inlet and onto our poor little condo. The winds and low temperatures also meant there was about a -30 degree F windchill. First the power went out and the car alarms in the neighborhood were going off like crazy. Debris was flying everywhere, trees were going down, and the dust was high. Then the roof flew off next door (from the green house on the corner), up about 15′ and onto our building’s roof, crushing it and breaking a joist. Boards were falling from the ceiling onto Sylvia & Jerry while they were in bed (Jerry tried to dismiss Mom’s complaints about the roof falling in until a board hit him in the ear! That is what he deserved). Then, early in the morning, our downstairs neighbor, Sherman, came flying into my condo announcing that the pipes had burst and water was spraying everywhere. We had to shut off the water. Concurrent with this, we also lost our heat. The water and heat stayed off for about a week. 

Marion lives in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska and one of the places with the mildest climate. Full post, including comments