Sunday, June 29, 2008

Herodotus and Ibn Battutah

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has an essay in the Summer 2008 Slightly Foxed in which he alludes to a Damascene poet's description of Ibn Battutah, that 14th century traveller who in so many ways mirrored Herodotus in his travels as well as his near contemporary Marco Polo.

The wonderful description of Ibn Battutah (and all eyes-wide-open travellers) by that unnamed poet is:
. . . He it was
who hung the world, that turning wheel
Of diverse parts, upon the axis of a book.

Tennyson's Ulysses

One of the few blessings of ignorance is the pleasure derived from its banishment. Though I have had occasion to read and enjoy a sampling of Tennyson's poems, I have never made any sort of diligent reading of his works. What a pleasure then to stumble across his marvelous Ulysses.
Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So many excellent lines in this comparatively brief poem.
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

and that final stanza
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Woof! How did I ever miss out on this one for so long?

Sophie Masson on Reading

Sophie Masson has an article in the Summer 2008, No. 18 edition of Slightly Foxed, titled A Cat's Life. The article centers on the works of Nicholas Stuart Gray and in particular his book, The Stone Cage.

She leads off the article with:
If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family and school and public events, but also in the stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly recall picking them up from the shelf - an ordinary act - and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, into another world where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility.

The Bibliographic mark of having arrived

- When you have sufficient books and a library that warrants a library ladder.

The Sunday June 30th, 2008 New York Times has an article, Ladders of Memory, by Caroline H. Dworin, on the Putnam Rolling Ladder Company.

Glad to be selling children's books in a country that has children

Interesting article in today's, Sunday June 30th, 2008, New York Times, No Babies?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Harry Truman anecdotes

Harry Truman has turned out to be one of those presidents whom history has treated with much greater respect and honor than did his contemporaries. I picked up a copy of The Wit and Wisdom of Harry Truman by Ralph Keyes at a favorite used bookstore the other day. A couple of anecdotes:
After high school Truman spent what he later called the best ten years of his life working on his family's six-hundred-acre farm. Truman regarded farming as good training for a future man of affairs. "I thought of Cincinnatus and a lot of other farm boys who had made good," he explained, "and thought maybe by cussing mules and plowing corn I could perhaps overcome my shyness and amount to something."

And also, referring to his activities as a commander of an artillery unit in World War I:
Truman earned his men's devotion by giving his horse to injured soldiers and joining the rest on foot. When a colonel passing by ordered an infantryman with a sore ankle to dismount, Truman told him, "You can take these bars off my shoulders, but as long as I'm in charge of this battery the man's going to stay on that horse." The colonel rode off.

Some anecdotes seem to be good to be real but sometimes when they are that good, they should be real.

I liked this one as well where loyalty and respect transcends politics - wish we had more of that today.
Although a partisan Democrat, Truman once supported a Republican named John Miles for county marshal. This later cost him votes when he was charged with being a disloyal Democrat. But Miles had been Truman's commanding officer in France. He'd seen him in places that made hell look like a playground, Truman told voters. He'd watched Miles and his men hold off a German attack when they were badly outnumbered. "He was of the right stuff," Truman concluded, "and a man who wouldn't vote for his comrade under circumstances such as these would be untrue to his country. I know that every soldier understands it. I have no apology to make for it."

Once you dip into a book like this, sometimes it is hard to extricate oneself. One last anecdote (maybe):
As war clouds gathered in 1940, Truman asked Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to activate him at his Reserve rank of Colonel. The General pulled his glasses down on his nose and asked Missouri's senator how old he was. Fifty-six, said Truman. "We don't need old stiffs like you," Marshall told him. "You'd better stay home and work in the Senate." When Truman became Marshall's commander in chief, his appointments secretary asked the general what he'd say under those circumstances. "Well, I would tell him the same thing," said Marshall, "only I would be a little more diplomatic about it."

BTW - Was Truman our last president not to have graduated from college?

Calendars, Human Nature and Shared Humanity

In the Emergency Room last night with a kidney stone and a wife that mocked me for my emergency pack of money, phone, reading glasses, two magazines and a book. In the event, it was good that I did have reading material as it was a number of hours before we saw the doctor.

I came across this interesting passage in Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race. He is using the Mesoamerican calendars to simultaneously illustrate both the underlying tendency of people towards diversity and at the same time the shared nature of their humanity.
This family of calendars provides a good example of a phenomenon widespread in human cultures. Few societies can do without a calendar of some kind, and a complex society needs a reasonably precise one. Once it posesses such a calendar, it may have to adjust it from time to time, but there is no need to embroider it. Our own claendar is a case in point: it works, and for the most part that is enough for us. But cultures have a way of picking on some aspect or other of their pragmatic arrangements, and elaborating them in respects that have no obvious utilitarian justification. This seems to be the case with Australian subsections; it is undoubtedly so with Mesoamerican calendars. What we see here is again a human propensity for gratuitous cultural embroidery. The reason the example is a good one is simply its dramatic visibility to anyone coming from a Western culture: it so happens that our restraint in calendric matters contrasts sharply with the extravagance of the Mesoamericans.

Yet these same calendars can also be used to illustrate the limits of cultural diversity among humans. A Mesoamerican calendar is immediately recognizeable for what it is - a calendar, not some exotic practice bearing only a faint resemblance to what in our culture is called a calendar. Moreover, it is quite obviously a calendar developed by people living on the same planet as ourselves: it takes the day for granted as the basic calendric unit and constructs a year of 365 days. Where we have trouble grasping the workings of these calendars, the reason is merely that they are intricate and unfamiliar; they are far from being so deeply alien to us that we do ot know how to begin to understand them.

New words

One of the joys of the English language is that there are always new words to discover. A couple from today.

In Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race, talking about the Mesoamerican calendars:
The number twenty was very much in place in Mesoamerica because the counting system was vigesimal (in other words, the base of the system was 20, not 10 as it is with us).

And here's an old friend I haven't seen used in forever. From Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages, describing the sights, sounds and smells of living in a medieval town:
But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinntabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Speaking of learning

Pertinent to the post I just made, I came across this article from December 29, 2007 in the Seattle Times describing the Parent-Child Home Program and the early results from its initiation in Seattle. Sounds like just what might be an appropriate response to the consequences experienced by New York City with their testing.

Education, Diversity, Poverty and Culture

There is an interesting report in today's (June 19th, 2008) New York Times, Gifted Programs in the City Are Less Diverse.

Apparently this past year, New York City instituted uniform standards for admission into public school gifted programs with the consequence that this year the children from the wealthiest districts are disproportionately represented in those programs and the share from the least privileged districts in the school system have seen their proportion of admissions decline steeply.

What is interesting in the article, once you strip away the rhetoric and make allowances for the weak analysis of the data, is that the City was motivated by ostensibly sensible goals but completely ignored the fact that some of its goals were in direct conflict with popular interpretation of those goals. The responses from various advocates, as reported in the article, shows that they have missed the mark completely in terms of learning what the results might show needs to be done, as opposed to just complaining about the results.

All of this is confused by trying to shoehorn the issue into one of race as opposed to what is clearly an issue of class, culture and to some degree wealth.

The objectives of the City as set out in the article were to 1) "equalize access to programs that critics complained were dominated by white middle-class children" 2) "even the playing field and eliminate any advantage held by certain parents", 3) "ensure equal access", and to increase 4) "fairness and transparency."

All of these are good goals and uncontroversial in their own right. The problem arises when some of these goals get misinterpreted. Ensuring equal access by setting standard objective tests is clearly a logical means of accomplishing these stated objectives. But only if fairness is defined as equal access and standards for everyone. If fairness is interpreted as equal outcomes, then there is a problem. One of the fundamental laws faced by every wealthy, diverse and free society is that Freedom of Choice + Diversity of Values = Varied (unequal) Outcomes. The greater the freedom and the greater the diversity, the more disparate will be the outcomes.

An interesting example of this was a recent study which was examining potential gender discrimination in the sciences. As part of her analysis the researcher looked at representation in the hard sciences fields (engineering, physics, chemistry, maths, medicine, etc.) in various countries to determine the degree of female participation. Perturbingly, what was discovered was that those societies that were the wealthiest and most free were the ones with the greatest gender disparities. Those countries with the least freedom were the ones where genders were more equally represented. It was a truly intriguing study.

Despite local efforts to make everything an issue of race, it is clear that the issue is one of class, culture and wealth, not race. And that is what I would think that the numbers ought to be telling the city. If equal standards apply to all and we also want there to be equal outcomes, then what interventions do we need to make in those districts where they perform particularly poorly?

This is difficult terrain for three reasons. One is that, as the article notes, experts were "warning that standardized tests given to young children were heavily influenced by their upbringing and the preschool education", i.e. class, culture and wealth. If this is accepted as true (and I believe it is), then in order to improve test results in low performing areas, the interventions have to be designed to change values surrounding the child's upbringing as well as their preschool education. Socially this smacks of social engineering and is very dangerous territory. The second issue is that such interventions, even if agreed to, have a huge price tag and consequently require a huge political commitment to helping to change the circumstances and culture of the poorest members of the community. The third issue is that it puts responsibility back into the hands of parents. Teachers can do a more or less good job but a good teacher can help a decent student who comes from a background with high expectations, values learning, etc. A great teacher working with a child unequipped with these values and with no home-front support will probably only make a marginal difference. Gifted teachers, diligent administration, and adequate resources are all important but can not on their own, overcome the issues of culture and class.

How does this all relate to reading? It is certainly true that factors such as class size, dollar resources committed to education, teacher certifications standards, and teaching techniques all have some impact. However, in virtually every well-structured study I read, contrary to expectations, the overall influence of these factors on outcomes is pretty small. At the same time, virtually every well-structured study I read and all my real world experience across many countries, seems to point towards home values and pre-school education as the primary predictors of reading capability and reading volumes. Reading is then in turn highly correlated to general academic and material success. So I take this general education article as a corollary to the more specific issue of reading capabilities.

As I say, an interesting article. Hopefully someone looks at figuring out how to make the right investments to bring all up to the same standards rather than to simply omit or lower the standards because they reveal needs that are not easily or cheaply fulfilled.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

William Fogel and The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700 - 2100

In the past day I have come across, in three separate instances, a previously unknown (to me) book, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700 - 2100 by William Fogel. It sounds like an excellent read and I am going to track down a copy.

Over at the blog 2Blowhards, there is an interesting posting as well as good commentary following, based on the content of Fogel's book.

The key point that they make in their post about the American Revolution is:

I dimly remembered most of this stuff. The revolutionaries still come off looking a bit like wild men who went to war over a far lower level of governmental interference in their affairs than contemporary Americans experience daily.

However, I read a very interesting book recently that puts the American grievances into a rather more understandable context. The book is Robert William Fogel's The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. (You can buy it here.) Fogel is a Nobel prize-winning economist and socio-economic historian whose work incorporates biometric data (like people's heights, weights, lifespans, etc.) to supplement the more narrow financial metrics of traditional economics. This too-slim book covers a number of fascinating topics including contemporary health care and welfare-state finance, but the part I want to highlight here is material from the first chapter.

According to Fogel's table 1.1., Life Expectancy At Birth in Seven Nations, 1725-2100, Americans had an interpolated life expectancy in 1775 of 53.5 years. Citizens of England or UK had an interpolated life expectancy in 1775 of 36.5 years. That's a seventeen year advantage for the American colonists. According to the same table, by the way, the English didn't reach the life expectancy of the American colonists of 1775 until sometime in the first half of the 20th century (like maybe the 1920s).

Fogel also provides a discussion of how well people ate in various countries. He begins by discussing both calories and the amount of protein available in diets, chiefly to highlight how poor (by modern standards) were the diets of even the 'advanced' nations of Europe in the 18th century:
the energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year in the tables of the World Bank. England's supply of food per capita exceeded that of France by several hundred calories but was still exceedingly low by current standards. Indeed, as late as 1850, the English availability of calories hardly matched the current Indian level. The supply of food available to ordinary French and English families between 1700 and 1850 was not only meager in amount but also relatively poor in quality.

He continues by looking at the amount of calories available for work:
One implication of these low-level diets needs to be stressed: Even prime-age [British] males had only a meager amount of energy available for work. Dietary energy available for work is a residual. It is the amount of energy metabolized (chemically transformed for use by the body) during a day, less baseline maintenance. Table 1.3 shows that in rich countries today, around 1,800 to 2,600 calories of energy are available for work to an adult male aged 20-39. During the eighteenth century, France produced less than one-fifth of the current U.S. amount of energy available for work. Once again, eighteenth-century England was more prolific, providing more than a quarter of current levels. Only the United States provided energy for work equal to or greater than current levels during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
I should stress that by 'energy for work' Fogel means energy for any purpose beyond simply staying alive and digesting food. In short, he might well have termed this 'energy for life.'

Finally, Fogel treats another biometric variable: height. His data suggest that men maturing in the third quarter of the 18th century in Great Britain had an average height of 165.9 cm. During this period the average American adult male height increased from 172 to 173.5 centimeters. The difference, 6.75 cm. or 2.66 inches would have been clearly visible to contemporaries.

Given that most Americans of the Revolutionary War period were of British extraction and could hardly have been ignorant of conditions there, it must have been as plain as the nose on their faces that people lived far longer, ate far better and grew up more sturdily in the Colonies than in the Mother Country. So when the British government started tightening the screws on the colonies in the wake of the French and Indian wars, the mental calculation of the colonists must have been pretty simple: Let me get this straight: you British aristocrats, in your infinite wisdom, want to make us Americans more like the average British working man? In short, you want us to live as poorly as you do? I think not, if I have anything to say about it. Martha, what did you do with my rifle?

In short, it appears that rather than being the work of ultra-touchy libertarians, the American Revolution was one of the most substantively motivated conflicts in history. The colonists had a good thing going, and didn't intend to give it up lightly. Who wouldn't go to war, even today, if the disputed prize was a 17-year difference in life expectancy?

I am always fascinated by how it is often the day-to-day, concrete things of life, (and those that are most often overlooked), that drive so much of history.

Another example of this is a simple demographic fact. One of the best predictors of civil unrest is the percentage of the population (particularly male population) that is under age eighteen. The higher this is, the more probable it is that there will be civil unrest. Given that Americans had much greater access to calories, one of the consequences was much large families and infant survival. This in turn meant that at the time of the Revolution, significantly more than 50% of the population was less than 18 years of age (compared to 25-30% in recent decades).

Ryszard Kapuscinski

There is an article on the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist/travel writer, by Chris Bird in Slightly Foxed, No. 18 Summer 2008.
From the essay:
"His travels sometimes came to a halt when his pieces went against the political creed of the day. But near the end of his life, he was declared Poland's 'Journalist of the century'. In a speech in 2003, Kapuscinski looked to the Greek historian Herodotus as his model for opening up the world to others:
Herodotus comes across as a man open and full of good will toward others, making contact with strangers easily, curious about the world, investigative, hungry for knowledge . . . His attitude and bearing show reporters what is essentially important to a reporter: respect for another man, his dignity and worth. He listens carefully to his heartbeat, and the way thoughts cross his mind.

The gently spoke writer could not have better summarized his own work."

Saturday, June 7, 2008

New Yorker articles

Sometimes it seems as if our most productive relationships are the most uncomfortable ones. I have for years been a subscriber to The New Yorker magazine and in that time my experience has always been somewhat problematic. I was exasperated for a number of years when they had a surfeit of longwinded essays about tendentious topics of such anemic interest that you could barely read a paragraph before setting it aside. More recently I have been exasperated by many of their mainstay writers such as Hertzberg and Hirsch who appear to be so comfortably esconced in their own world view that it admits no consideration to readers who do not share their prejudices and biases. Whose writing appears to be powered solely by unremiting outrage and whose arguments are only loosely based on facts or reason. A consequence has been that each week's magazine is like as not to be put in the pile of books and magazines that I will get to later - at the current pace, later being sometime between retirement and dotage.

And yet. Every now and then some issue comes along with a set of essays or articles or fine writing that I would not find anywhere else. They every now and then have a writer taking a position with which I natively disagree but who writes so well and persuasively and respects me enough as a reader to offer facts and a logic to their interpretation such that I read all the way through to the end. Sometimes my position is modified, sometimes unchanged but I feel that the time has been well spent. And each year I sign up for more.

This week's edition has some wonderful little vignettes on the kaleidoscopic experience of faith. Birght little pieces of the jagged color of experience. Well worth a read.

Also related to faith, don't miss James Wood's review, Holiday in Hellmouth.

Friday, June 6, 2008

All the circumstances have to be just right

From Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map.

A point made again and again in Johnson's narrative is how, despite the number of extremely bright and well intentioned people involved in trying to protect London from diseases, it took a combination of very particular circumstances as well as surprising levels of coordination and collaboration in order to break the back of this medical mystery. He also makes the point that nothing happened easily or quickly. Dr. John Snow made his case, but it was the better part of a decade before the theory of the waterborne nature of the disease effectively displaced the competing miasma theory (spread through the air.)
And so Snow's immunity to the miasma theory was as overdetermined as the theory itself. Partly it was an accident of professional interest; partly it was a reflection of his social consciousness; partly it was his consilient, polymath way of making sense of the world. He was brilliant, no doubt, but one needed only to look to William Farr to see how easily brilliant minds could could be drawn into error by orthodoxy and prejudice. Like all those ill-fated souls dying on Broad Street, Snow's insight lay at the intersection of a series of social and historical vectors. However brilliant Snow was, he would never have proved his theory - and might well have failed to concoct it in the first place - without the population densities of industrial London, or Farr's numerical rigor, or his own working-class up-bringing. This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton's famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson Recommended

Steven Johnson, author of a number of non-fiction books, recently (2006) published a new title, The Ghost Map. I enjoyed the book - actually more than that, I found many nuggets of really interesting information, numerous passages of distinctive insight and all written well.

The book itself is actually really more like two books. Three quarters is the story of the outbreak of cholera in London in 1854 and the seminal medical detective work that surrounded the investigation of the cause of the outbreak and the solution required to bring the spreading illness to a halt. Dr. John Snow was the thriving, self-made medical doctor and pioneer of anesthesia who independently and voluntarily investigated the potential sources of the outbreak, working off of the theory that the disease was waterborne, eventually collaborating with the local Anglican curate to make the case that the true source could be located at the Broad Street pump. As told in traditional histories, the simple solution was the removal of the pump handle.

As is often the case, the story has a lot more twists and turns than the apocryphal retellings. What is not always the case, is that the real story is even more interesting than the apocryphal one, at least in the hands of Steven Johnson.

The other quarter of the story is really more of an extended essay building on the implications of the origins, spread and containment of contagion in cities as exemplified by the 1854 cholera outbreak. While interesting, this is almost an anticlimax and might have been better as a stand-alone essay.

All-in-all though, I particularly enjoyed this book. It has the same compelling pacing of such great historical narratives as The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, Isaacs Storm by Eric Larson and Walter Lord's various books.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


"Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending." George Eliot in Middlemarch