Category Archives: Biography

“No Man Knows My History” by Fawn M. Brodie

After reading this book, I can see why LDS church leaders really got ticked off at Fawn Brodie and excommunicated her.  But it was really well written, seems to be well researched, and was very interesting to read for someone familiar with other Joseph Smith accounts. Brodie assumes and makes the case that Joseph Smith was most definitely a fraud, either intentionally to make a living (and later as his standing grew among his people, to get whatever he could — mostly other men’s wives or young girls in bed) or perhaps due to being incapable of distinguishing physical reality from his Bible-influenced fantasies.

Brodie’s history of Joseph’s early days contain many discrepancies with the official church account.  His first autobiographical sketch in 1834 “contained no whisper of an event that, if it had happened, would have been the most soul-shattering experience of his whole youth” — the First Vision.  “If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family.”  Furthermore, Joseph spent the years after his remarkable vision not in preparing the way or himself somehow for his prophetic mission, but in searching out secret treasures — “money digging.”

After an arrest and acquittal on fraud for money digging activities, Brodie suggests Joseph retooled his methods and came up with his next act.  There was a lot of speculation about Indian origins and artifacts around his area of New York, particularly burial mounds.  Per Joseph, an angelic visitor named Moroni led him to secret buried golden plates, from which he “translated” the Book of Mormon.  (Quotes around “translated” since by all accounts he didn’t actually read from the plates, but rather read the English words off a seerstone.)  Alexander Campbell sarcastically noted that the Book of Mormon neatly solved all religious controversies debated in New York over the previous ten years.  Also, to couple with the First Vision ambiguities, the original Book of Mormon clearly made Christ and the Father the same God … odd since Joseph had seen them as two distinct beings.  (Well, at least there were two beings in a few of the First Vision accounts…)  Most of these references to one God were subsequently changed, but some still remain.

Other notes of interest:

  • Brodie seemed to suggest in her explanation of the witnesses, and visions shared with Cowdery that Joseph was a hypnotist??  Or maybe I misunderstood.  Would be interesting…
  • One of Joseph’s miracles was healing Elsa Johnson’s arm.  But contrast with numerous failed healings at the first general conference in Kirkland… Maybe many of the “miracles” we hear about today were only a fraction of the attempts, a kind of survivor bias.
  • Similarly, most of Joseph’s prophecies went bust.  One that is still trotted out from time to time is his prediction of the Civil War, beginning in South Carolina.  Well, actually he was anticipating a much shorter term realization of that prophecy, in what became known as the Nullification Crisis … of course about 30 years too early for the real war.  The prophecy was apparently an embarrassment until dug up by Brigham in the 1860’s.
  • Zions camp was kind of hilarious, eg. getting so mad at cousin Sylvester Smith that he threw the Ram’s horn used to call the camp to attention at him, breaking it.  But the whole thing was really a strategic debacle – marching an army made the Missouri situation more desperate and forced the mobbers hand, thwarting efforts of the Governor to bring peace.
  • During the defense preparations in Far West, Joseph along with Rigdon were very outspoken in calling for violence, eg. “Joseph Smith or the sword” and insinuating anyone anyone fleeing the coming fight should be killed.  Joseph preached that the power of God would prevail and angels would fight with them “And for every one we lack in number to match the mob, the Lord will send an angel to fight alongside.”  But later during the siege, he secretly sent emissaries secretly to “beg like a dog for peace” and surrendered the next day.  “You are good and brave men, but there are 10,000 men approaching Far West, and unless you were angels themselves you could not withstand so formidable a host.”  Uh, wait a minute, Joseph, what about your promise from yesterday???
  • Short but revealing account during the Far West time of Rigdon saying something disapproving about Joseph’s wrestling on the Sabbath, then Joseph going over to him, ripping his coat and mocking him.  Kind of seems like an arrogant person who thought himself above the law, including God’s.
  • Never realized this:  one reason the Saints found (temporary) peace in Nauvoo was that they were a bargaining chip in Illinois politics.  Desiring to please the leader of this new, large voting bloc, politicians of both main parties felt the incentive to keep Joseph from being extradited back to Missouri, and otherwise give in to his demands (eg. Nauvoo charter).
  • Lying for the Lord: Joseph made numerous public denials of polygamy, as did other leaders and even some of his wives.  Apparently they rationalized this because they were against “polygamy” but for “the doctrine of plurality of wives”.  Ok….
  • Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde: sad stories of having wives taken…
  • In the later Nauvoo years, Joseph kind of seemed to go off the rails. On attorneys – “I know more than they all”. “God is my right hand man.”  Said to Josiah Quincy, in joking tone – “They think I’m a prophet!”  And this is ridiculous: “He had the city council pass an ordinance providing that if any officer came to Nauvoo with a writ for his arrest based on the old Missouri difficulties, he should be arrested, tried, and if found guilty sentenced to life imprisonment in the city jail. He could be pardoned by the governor only with the consent of the Nauvoo mayor – that is, Joseph himself.”

Brodie’s picture is of an actor playing a role. Joseph was a prophet because he thought he was a prophet, and people believed him.  When claiming a “revelation” he was really saying ‘I’ve thought long and hard about this and I feel that this must be the Lord’s will, since it is so obvious to me that it’s the very thing that he would want to tell his people right now.’

‘Joseph would allow no arrogance or undue liberties,’ said one friend, ‘and criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable, and contradictions would rouse in him the lion at once, for by no one of his fellows would he be superseded.’. Herein was his great strength and his most fatal weakness. For no man whose chief virtues were love of compromise, justice,and prudence could set himself up as a prophet. But neither could any man who trampled on these virtues survive as a political force in America.

 

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“Magnificent Desolation” by Buzz Aldrin

 

If you want a story about Apollo, this isn’t it.  It’s much more a story of Buzz’s journey through alcoholism and depression in the decades since his famous moonwalk.

His response is kind of understandable – his whole life, he always had big goals driving him.  Fighter pilot, MIT PhD, astronaut training, then going to the Moon.  But once you have walked on the Moon, what other goal can even come close?  What do you do after accomplishing your dream?  I’m not sure if Aldrin is satisfied yet, but I think he is on the right track with trying to inspire others to achieve similar goals (return of manned space travel, especially to Mars).

He tells that wherever he goes, people always tell him about where they were on the day he walked on the Moon.  Buzz thought it was strange how consistently people felt the need to share.  Then he realized what it meant – Apollo 11 had permanently inspired in some way virtually everyone who witnessed it.  (I wasn’t alive yet; but I get choked up and a little teary-eyed thinking of the grandeur of it all, if that is even the right word…)

A good chunk of the latter part of the book is a lot of gushing over how great his (third) wife Lois Driggs Cannon is, and how she saved him from depression, etc.  It’s all pretty cringe-worthy, since he and Lois divorced two years after this book was published, and he and his next flame apparently met and started their relationship during the book tour for this book that says so many great things about Lois…

Lois gets a backstory chapter or two, and for some reason the tale of her first husband stuck in my brain.  Maybe because they were/are Mormon?  He was kind of a “most likely to succeed” type in school, then launched a successful business career and family with by all accounts a charming wife.  But he was always restless.  He was unhappy with a series of great executive level jobs.  He took the family on some wild adventures, RVing around Europe for one and river boating around Europe for the other.  But he never found whatever could cure the restlessness.  He eventually divorced Lois out of the blue.  (At least according to Buzz’s account.)  Anyway, seems kind of boring as write about it but I dunno…at my point in life approaching mid-life (“crisis” you might say) I kind of understand that restlessness: what’s the point of it all?

Anyway, enough about that.  Some other interesting tidbits:

  • Buzz was a big supporter of getting non-astronauts up in to space, particularly artists, poets, or songwriters who could convey the emotions better than pilots or engineers.  The first time NASA tried this was … the Challenger mission.  They ended up sending a teacher as the first civilian in space, but Buzz reports that at least at some level John Denver was considered for the post.  I think post-Challenger, NASA got very gunshy about sending civilians up on dangerous journeys … too much potential backlash if things go wrong, with an huge downside of losing all public support.
  • The Omega Speedmaster watch Buzz wore on the Moon was later stolen.  The “Holy Grail” of Apollo collectors.  Gotta be out there somewhere.

“Houdini!!!” by Kenneth Silverman

 

Houdini (FYI – he didn’t really like the “Harry” and not even “Mr. Houdini” – just “Houdini”) was a remarkable figure.  “He achieved afterlife as a fabulous archetypal being.”  How did he get to this point?

Skill and dedication to his craft certainly played a part.  He gained fame initially as the “Handcuff King.”  He claimed to be able to get himself out of any pair of handcuffs that were in working condition.  How it did it is not always known.  But, certainly part of the trick involved substantial research – knowing the intricacies of the 20 or 30 most popular models of handcuffs in current use, and having the master keys or relevant lockpicks hidden somewhere on his person.   (For the famous “naked” escapes … there were some rubbery capsule-like objects found in Houdini’s effects that could hold a key or two and then be inserted into some bodily oriface…)  Then there were the “strange” cuffs which were one-offs or custom-made jobs.  For these, he often made a show of testing them out with the owner’s key, then swapping out their key with similar looking one. Or he would make sure the strange cuffs were put higher up the arm so they could be wiggled off easier.  Or, finally, there was always old-fashioned bribery in order to get a copy of the key or obtain similar help.

Besides skill, being an extreme publicity hound undoubtedly helped Houdini find lasting success.  Starting out America, he claimed to be famous all over Europe before he’d even been there; after building up a reputation in the States he did go to Europe and found great success in England and Germany; then when he got back to America he was a really big star.  One successful technique was to visit the local police station when arriving in a new city, and offering to test out there security by being locked up and put in a cell.  Invariably, he would invite members of the press to attend the event, and they would obligingly write up wonderful stories after Houdini freed himself from the best the city’s police could muster after only a few minutes (undoubtedly using some of the methods described above).  He was also famous for being suspended by a crane or from the tallest building in town a hundred feet in the air or more, upside down, and extricating himself from a straightjacket (lots of wiggling!) in just a few minutes.

Later, as he expanded beyond magic into other endeavors, his publicity-seeking gene remained alive and well.  He bought a second hand plane and learned to fly it shortly before a trip to Australia; he whole motivation to learning to fly was to be able to claim being the first to fly a plane on that continent.  (Apparently that claim is now not really recognized.)  He wrote a large number of articles, books, and short stories, but used unattributed ghost writers so extensively it is hard to tell what’s really his own work.

Finally, he ensured an air of mystery about his life because he never really revealed how he did all his tricks.  Unfortunately, the author of this book is also a magician and follows the “code” – he doesn’t  explain the tricks either!  Being curious, I looked up most of them.  There are some good Houdini-specific explanations I found, but the best overall “reveals” were Youtube excerpts from the show “Magic Secrets Revealed.”  (Apparently, the “masked magician” from this show got a lot of heat, but justifies breaking the magician’s code for these tricks because they are so old and well-known anyway.)

Houdini was born as Ehrich (“Harry” comes from “Ehry”) Weiss in Hungary, to a Jewish rabbi father.  The family emigrated to the US when he was a child, but Mayer Weiss struggled to find steady work and provide for large family.  Houdini grew up in poverty.  But, apparently it was a loving childhood – he always respected his father and felt like he got a raw deal; and Houdini had an almost reverential affection for his mother.  Her death really depressed him for the rest of his life, and when he himself died, per his own request Houdini’s burial pillow was a stack of letters his mother had written.

That said, this book didn’t contain a whole lot of info on his childhood.  The story pretty much starts with him doing magic shows at cheap “dime museums” (aka freak shows). How did he get there? What made him want to be a magician?  Unanswered questions…

Houdini was always interested in magic history and used his fortune to build up a formidable collection of texts and artifacts.  While on tour around the world, he looked up and visited with elderly magicians of yesteryear.  One touching story in the book is about his visit to Wiljalba Frikell in Germany.  The aged Frikell was very excited anticipating the visit — but he died the same day Houdini was slated to arrive.  Houdini “retained all his life a small scrap of paper found in Frikell’s dress suit, on which the revolutionary magician had written his last words, in pencil, illegibly.”

This sentence may be a linguistic paradox: As a magician, Houdini knew that magic wasn’t real.  (After being impressed with one of his shows, Theodore Roosevelt asked Houdini whether there really was something supernatural about it all.  “No Colonel – it’s just hocus pocus.”)  Trained magicians like Houdini were well positioned to recognize the fraud of the popular Spiritualist movement, in which mediums claimed communication with dead spirits.   However, most hesitated to speak out, since the mediums’ tricks were often the same as their own: “such exposés came perilously near violating the cardinal rule of magic: Don’t Expose.”

Houdini, however, was famous enough to make a stand without worrying too much about incurring the wrath of his fellows (he was president of the Society of American Magicians, after all).   He was famously intransigent as a member of the Scientific American committee investigating the claims of “Margary“, when the committee was nearly convinced of the veracity of her paranormal claims.  Houdini quickly saw through her shams but nonetheless struggled to convince his academic colleagues.  “Men like <them> are menaces to mankind, because laymen believe them to be as intellectual in all fields as they are in their own particular one.”

Houdini’s death from appendicitis and subsequent infection was sudden, as often the case in a world before antibiotics.  It does seem like an overconfidence in his invincibility, and a failure to heed warning signs about his own health, sadly contributed to his demise.

All-in-all, it seems Houdini lived a genuine and a happy life.  I liked the little anecdote in the book’s appendix by one of his nieces — when she was 4 or 5, she would jump into Houdini’s bed in the mornings.  They would both have their arms outside the covers, but something would start pinching her legs!  Houdini’s dexterous toes were undoubtedly another factor, whether natural or practiced, which contributed to his escapes.

 

“Carrying the Fire” by Michael Collins

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Michael Collins, most famous as the third man in the Apollo 11 crew along with Armstrong and Aldrin, is a very gifted writer.  This account of his time as an astronaut – six years and two space flights, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 – was a joy to read.  Collins seems very down-to-earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Lots of good humor and great storytelling here, along with some very candid impressions and recollections of his fellow astronauts, the training process, and the events of his two space missions.

As I am realizing happens with most men who achieve “greatness,” Collins didn’t set out to particularly do any “great” thing, much less go to the moon.  Rather, he was an intelligent, capable individual who took opportunities as they came.  Collins went first to West Point, then into the Air Force as a pilot, then an experimental test pilot, and finally to the astronaut corps.  Even his assignment to Apollo 11 was somewhat of a fluke; he was originally slated to fly Apollo 8 (which admittedly would have also been a pretty big deal) but had to have neck surgery and was bumped to 11.

There are some funny stories about the astronaut jungle and desert survival training, ostensibly required in case of a landing in some remote area.  Most of the astronauts laughed off this chance; however contingency planning was a hallmark of NASA in these early days.  Much of it was never needed, but Collins agrees it was time and money well spent.  For example, the consideration of using the LM as survival craft was already well documented prior to Apollo 13.

Surprisingly for a pressure suit expert, and as a Gemini EVA veteran, Collins admits to some claustrophobia during certain suit tests, but of course never reported it for fear of being grounded.  Everything ended up just fine during his EVA, but it made me wonder … what other dangerous conditions did other astronauts conceal for fear of losing their chance at glory?  (This is one of those process-breaking things that occur when humans get involved … we are not always dispassionate creatures of logic.)

During a down moment as CAPCOM for Apollo 8, Collins relayed a question from his son to the crew enroute to the moon: “Who’s driving, is it Mr. Borman?” Answer: “Nope, Isaac Newton is driving now.”  It really is incredible how Apollo was shot to the moon – 250,000 miles and three days out, towards a spot ~40 deg away from the moon’s position at launch – and then hitting within 60 miles or so.

As also reported in “First Man”, the Apollo 11 crew didn’t seem to be very close or communicate much beyond the technical.  Collins also reports the same “distance” with John Young during Gemini 10.  Maybe there was just so much going on that there was little time or brainspace to spare for non-technical matters?

The crew knew that Apollo 11 was going to be a big deal and expected a certain amount of fanfare upon their return, but none of them could have predicted what the never-ending fame (including being asked “What was it really like up there?” approximately one million times) would actually be like.  For three introverted engineers, dealing with fame was not always enjoyable.  Furthermore, nothing in life ever really seemed to come close to the challenge or fulfillment that came from making the moon shot.  I guess that nothing on earth can really compare once you’ve already done the impossible.  But I suppose that, among all hardships, this is not the most terrible one to experience.  Also, it really put some problems in perspective – hard to be terribly concerned with issues where lives are not on the line, and also some of planet Earth’s squabbles and feuds seem so small when you can view the whole Earth as a tiny ball outside a single viewport of your spacecraft.  On the other hand, even the great honors of the Earth that were bestowed on the crew don’t seem like much — “through it all, the earth continues to turn on its axis …. I am less impressed by my own disturbance to that serene motion, or by that of my fellow man.”

The crew also returned to a pivotal moment in the future of manned space flight, as the voices in opposition to the vast sums being spent on such endeavors where becoming loud indeed.  Collins’ book was published in 1974 and it is clear he and NASA were at least by then very much on the defensive.  I think he and many in Apollo would be surprised that we still as of 2017 haven’t sent a man to Mars yet — it seemed like the next logical step.

Nearly fifty years too late, but let me say, “Great job, Mike!”  And also to the other astronauts and literally thousands of others who made it all happen.  Apollo is a story which will inspire humanity through the ages.

“First Man” by James R. Hansen

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Listened to the audio book.  My impression of Neil is that he was a fine engineer – slightly socially distant and awkward as all good engineers are – and a hard worker intent on completing the job at hand, but very uncomfortable with his unasked-for celebrity status after being the first man to walk on the moon.

In his pre-astronaut days, Neil took pilot lessons of his own initiative at a very early age.  He became one of the youngest fighter pilots in Korea.  Then he took a job with NASA testing the X-15 at Edwards AFB.  When he applied to be in the second group of astronauts, it was almost like the eligibility requirements had been written just for him.  Tragically, just before applying to be an astronaut his 2-year old daughter Karen died.

His first space mission, Gemini 8, was more important than typically remembered, overshadowed as it was by later Apollo 11.  Gemini 8 was the first time two spacecraft docked in orbit.

As for Apollo 11, the lunar landing itself was the real pinnacle of achievement for Neil, not stepping foot on the moon.  The more I learn about Apollo, the more in awe I am at this great engineering achievement.  I wish there was something comparable going on today.

I never knew that Buzz took no pictures of Neil on moon’s surface.  Apparently he just didn’t think about it at the time.  Neil took plenty of Buzz when he was behind the camera.  There’s some who think there might have been some lingering jealously on Buzz’s part, since early on it was thought he might be the first man, but despite (or maybe because of?) some lobbying on his part, the honor was given to mission commander Armstrong (who never sought it).

After the mission, life was never quite the same.  Armstrong easily could have given in to being a “professional celebrity” full-time (and he did do many things to help worthy causes with his notoriety) but he just wanted to keep on being an engineer.  That never really was possible; the myth and legend surrounding him was just too great.  He never sought the limelight and was uncomfortable with constant attention.  Ironically, this relutance may have driven up his public fame “scarcity” and thus drove even more extreme behavior from fans.

Many people tried to “cash in” on even loose associations with Armstrong.  Lots of people from his hometown told blatantly false stories – one in particular stuck in my mind: a local amateur astronomer told the media about how Neil came on a Scouting activity to look through his telescopes and then frequently came to observe the moon and wonder if man would ever go there.  Sounds great, but … not true.

I didn’t know that Neil’s wife Janet left him in the 1990’s.  Apparently, she thought life would calm down after their children grew up and left home, but Neil just kept on going with his many corporate board activities, leaving little time for her.  Also living on a working farm probably didn’t help matters.  Why in the world did they move to a working farm?  That seemed a bit much for him being gone all the time, thus leaving a lot of work on Janet’s plate.  …. doing a little psychoanalyzing here: maybe he was thinking he could get away from the publicity and all by “retiring” to a more pastoral way of life.

“41: A Portrait of My Father” by George W. Bush

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In the intro, George W. writes that he heard David Mccollough lament that John Quincy Adams never wrote a bio of his father.  So George W. sets out to rectify that here.  It’s a pretty personal account of George H.W.’s life.  Kind of funny how W. brings up parallels to his own presidency time and again – very different from a typical bio where the author keeps out of it.

George H. W. Bush is a great example of leadership and decency that I wish we had more of in our country today.

A few stories from the book stick in my mind.  As a torpedo bomber pilot in the Navy, Bush was on a mission to attack Chichi Jima when his plane was hit by flak.  He managed to bailout, but got injured in the process.  Luckily some other plane dropped a raft and he madly paddled away from the nearby island.  Some Japanese ships tried to get at him, but they backed off after being strafed by other Navy planes.  Finally, a US submarine rescued Bush.  Some of the Japanese later said how they marveled at all those resources being directed to save a single pilot.

Second is the tragedy of losing daughter Robin at age 3 to leukemia.  I can’t imagine how this must make a parent feel.

Finally, there is the pain of loss in 1992.  George seems to have a bit of a grudge against Ross Perot even now – the split vote was probably the reason for Bush’s loss.

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932” by William Manchester

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First off an appropriate quote on the value of history from Winston himself: “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”

Listened to this book on CD – 32 of them if I remember correctly.  The narrator, Frederick Davidson, initially cracked me up but I ended up really enjoying him – British accent, and he gave all the “characters” different voices.  High pitched for the ladies, a whiny child’s voice for young Winston and a decent Churchill impression for his later years.  He even sang songs a capella when they were quoted in the text.

This monstrous book is undoubtedly a biography, but as Winston was inextricably tied up in the general history of the times it was also a pretty good history of the Victorian British Empire and on into World War One.  I was surprised to learn of the selfishness and neglect from both of Winston’s parents.  His mother was a flapper before it became popular, and his father despised him and seemed generally to be a disagreeable individual.  Winston was basically raised by his nanny, “Woom.”  Despite the neglect, his father was his hero and a life in politics, following in his father’s footsteps, was never a question for Winston.

Winston, nurtured by Macaulay and Gibbon, was a gifted writer from early on.  After graduating from Sandhurst, he became what we would today call a war correspondent.  Although a cavalry officer himself (and gifted polo player), he didn’t really care much for military life, but was fascinated by its potential to make him famous and therefore able to win elections.  He used his mother’s flirtatious connections with the rich and powerful to obtain opportunities to “be there” at various hot spots: Cuba (observer of Spain putting down a native rebellion), Afghanistan, Egypt/Sudan.  (One of his early postings was to India; when the ship was approaching the docks he wrenched his shoulder climbing an iron ring.  This gave him shoulder troubles the rest of his life.  He resolved to carry a pistol since he was not confident he could adequately wield a cavalry saber.  He says this unconventional decision to carry a pistol likely saved his life at Omdurman.)

During the Second Boer War, Winston was captured by the Boers but later escaped from prison camp alone, hopped a train and was eventually smuggled out to Portuguese Africa by British sympathizers.  On this adventure and in other battles he was always daring, fearless, and didn’t regard his own safety.  I got the impression of some calculated bravery on his part — he either thought he was invincible, or maybe was just fatalistic “if it happens, it happens” and chose to live the brave life because that was what would win votes.  Makes me think if he and other similar “war heros” were just lucky winners of survivor bias — I wonder how many others were like him, but not so lucky.

In politics, Winston was one-of-a-kind.  He started out with the Conservative party like his father, then opportunistically jumped to the Liberals.  Then when their star faded, he jumped back to the Conservatives.  “Anybody can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”  I don’t think he was ever really solid Conservative or Liberal; he was always just Winston.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston took the fall for Gallipoli, even though all agreed it was a good plan at the beginning.  It just suffered from a botched execution, starting with the Czar’s insistence on laying claim to Constantinople when allowing Greece to take it would have pulled them in to the Allied side, and continuing with the timidity of de Robeck and incompetence of Hamilton.  After being forced out of the Admiralty, Winston re-joined the army and spent five months commanding a battalion on Western Front.  Here he exhibited the same disregard for his personal safety as did before.

Winston presciently saw the potentials of new military technology.  He was an early proponent of airplanes; he even took flying lessons himself.  During the War he saw great benefit to the tank at breaking the trench stalemate when no one did.  He oversaw the introduction of the tank as Minister of Munitions, and claimed success after the battle of Cambrai.  (The Germans took note too, and would come back with their own Panzers in 1939!)

As written in the book, World War One was nearly lost before the Americans arrived just in the knick of time.  Maybe the Germans were pressing hard precisely because they knew time was short before the arrival of the American hordes?  In any case, there was almost a silly perception in Britain that “we won the war” when their whole strategy of attrition failed miserably (British losses were almost always proportionally greater than German losses).  Once the Russians were out, I think to anyone it’s clear that Britain was saved only by American involvement.  Winston said something to the effect that “if all we get out of this war is lasting friendship with the Americans, it will be well worth it”  That’s about all they did get out of it; the near term gains of Versailles were not lasting, Britain lost an entire generation of its bravest men and the Empire was poised for dismemberment.

Two other random WWI events that I found fascinating:

“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

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Great story: Albert Einstein, patent office clerk, upended the scientific world in his “miracle year” of 1905 with four separate revolutionary papers.  The myths about him being a bad student are pretty much untrue; he did end up at the patent office after he had trouble finding an academic job, but that was more due to his contempt for authority and lack of social conformance than any scientific deficiencies.

Einstein was born in the new German Empire, but was disillusioned in his youth with the nationalism that eventually led to WWI.  His concept of political freedom jived more with the Swiss, which is why he went to school in Zurich and worked at the patent office in Bern.   Later, he jumped around a few universities before ending up in Berlin for many years; but left for Princeton in the early 1930’s (although not to Princeton University – he was with the Institute for Advanced Study) as Einstein’s Jewish background and political ideas clashed with the rising Nazis.

As successful as Einstein was professionally, he was mediocre at best or even a failure in the home.  His self-described “happiest point in his life” was when he finalized his general relativity equations … precisely the time as his first marriage had just failed and WWI was in full swing.  They guy was really motivated by his work!!  Before his divorce from Mileva Maric (and later remarriage to his cousin Elsa), they tried separating for a time and even wrote up a spectacular “contract” that included her not speaking to him and serving meals in his room…. sheesh.

Stemming from the 1905 papers, Einstein is considered a founder of both relativity theory (primarily an explanation of gravity) and quantum theory.  He always objected to the key tenant of quantum theory that there is an inherent randomness in the universe, particularly that certain states are unknown and actually indeterminate until they are measured.  He preferred to think of an absolute underlying reality that we just don’t understand enough to characterize.

Einstein’s work past age 40 concerned the quest for a unified field theory, which would unify both gravity and electromagnetism.  Unfortunately, experimental results over the same period pushed physics into the other direction – more fragmentation rather than unity.  Still, Einstein kept at it, but never had much to show.

Favorite Einstein quotes:

To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.

I have no special talents; I am only passionately curious.

“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” by Wallace Stegner

powell

I put this book on my to-read list after seeing the Powell monument at the Grand Canyon a few years back.  Kind of a dated book in terms of some of the Western policy discussion (but a lot is still relevant) but at least it begins with a good adventure.

A surprisingly unimportant fact about John Wesley Powell, given all that he later achieved, was that he lost an arm during the Civil War.  Thereafter, his initial claim to fame was leading the first expedition which ran the Colorado River, from the Green River in Wyoming all the way to about present-day Las Vegas. (the river had been explored up from the mouth to that point already by others)  Each rapid was a plunge into the unknown.  When possible, they emptied the boats, carrying their supplies by foot to be reloaded at a safer place downriver, and gently lowered the boats by ropes.  But there were other times when no landings were available and they had to run the rapid blind.  At one such point near the end of the trip, a couple of Powell’s companions called it quits rather than face the rapid.  They were later killed by Indians while trying to hike out to Mormon settlements.

Afterwards, Powell led up a geographical survey which returned him to the same part of the country.  He often used Indian guides (sometimes through intermediaries like Jacob Hamblin) to find accessible paths to certain points along the river.   He became interested in Indian culture and ethnology, and eventually convinced enough Senators in Washington to set him up as the first head of the Bureau of Ethnology, under the Smithsonian.

Powell’s political wheeling and dealing was not nearly finished.  He must have been a very shrewd persuader because he frequently got funding through unusual means, like as an add-on rider to some larger appropriations bill.  Like the geological systems he studied, he figured out how Congress and government worked, and used that to his advantage.  He eventually became the second head of the US Geological Survey (after largely instigating its creation), leading the noble effort to map the country.

Powell became very influential on Western policy issues.  Powell’s firm belief was that the West was fundamentally different from the rest of the country due to aridity and thus should be settled differently and much more sparsely.  This was at odds with a view of a land of milk and honey (and gold, copper, and silver) espoused by Gilpin and Stewart.   Powell was eventually forced out of his position at the USGS by pro-settlement factions, but I believe he has been vindicated by history as many current policies seem to follow his initial vision.  He saw the most danger in the “in-between” lands — those places where, to the East, there is plenty of rainfall; to the far West is the desert, where there is no way to survive but by irrigation, but once established agriculture is fairly secure — but in the middle, a string of good rainfall years trick settlers into thinking the land is good, but there can just as easily be a string of bad years which induce famine and hardship.

“Duty” by Robert M. Gates

gates-duty

Been listening to this on CD for several weeks now.  Quite a lot packed in here.  Mostly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which Gates was brought into for salvage duty.  Often frustrated with dealing with a two-million strong military bureaucracy, he nonetheless worked to improve the lot of the troops in the field by providing MRAPs and improving healthcare, while at the same time re-focusing the leadership on getting the job done.

He expressed great respect for both Bush and Obama, who both made independent, courageous decisions often against the wishes of their advisers.  It’s easy to lob criticism against the president, whoever he might be; but considering the immediacy of problems requiring a decision, the risks involved, the uncertainty of information, and the variety of viewpoints surrounding them, they do all right.  It’s almost a wonder that we are still here as a nation.

In the book’s closing remarks, Gates echoes lessons that hopefully our leadership has learned and will remember:  our military is strong (necessarily since we have many enemies) but do not let that cause us to be too quick to wage war.  And remember that exit strategies are important, up front!

Finally this was somewhere in the book … never heard it before but it rings true.  “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” (attributed to George Orwell)   Thanks, guys.