American Elephants


How Much Do You Read? What’s the Best Book You’ve Ever Read? by The Elephant's Child

What do you do when someone asks you to read an article because it’s “an important one?” Do you obediently read it, assuming that if your friend recommends it, it is worth your time? Do you accept the article, suggesting that you will read it later when you have more time? Do you just refuse to read it because you’re sure it is not of interest?

I fit in the first category. I’m a speedy reader, and it doesn’t take me long to get through even a long piece. But I have known a lot of what I think of as ‘lazy readers’ whose first reaction is that they don’t have time. Or they only want to read what they choose to read. It’s as if reading is a task to be engaged in only when required. Was learning to read a struggle in school? There are people who read competently, but without enjoyment or need for information, but who will spend hours on Twitter. Do you prefer to get your information instead by video, or podcast? Is reading a chore?

I have a friend who is a special education expert, with particular emphasis on reading, and reading disabilities. She went into her state’s prisons at one time, to test prisoners, and found that the numbers who had some form of reading disability was far, far higher than in the general population.

There are lots of people out there who just don’t read much, and people who do not read books at all.  They are just busy with other things.

If you prowl around the internet and read blogs, you are clearly a reader. But what about those other folks who are not? How do people go all the way through university, and, as adults, never read?

Seattle is usually described as the part of the country where most people read a lot. We have busy libraries, lots of colleges and universities, and lots of writers. Must be something to do with the weather, which encourages a brisk fire in the fireplace. a good book and a cup of coffee.

ADDENDUM: I guess I shouldn’t ask others about their favorite books, if I don’t reveal my own. Patrick O’Brian’s series of books about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and the Royal Navy in the late 1700s and early 1800s. There are 20 books in the series and I have read them probably ten times, and always found them fascinating to re-read. Most novels don’t welcome even a second reading. Master and Commander is the first, and only a page in and you are hooked. Master and Commander was a great movie too, although based on bits from several of the books.



We’ve Come A Long Way Baby! London – 1854 by The Elephant's Child

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The Night-Soil Men

         It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers. Just the names alone read now like some kind of exotic zoological catalogue; bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshes, shoremen. These were the London underclasses, at least a hundred thousand strong. So immense were their numbers that had the scavengers broken off and formed their own city, it would have been  the fifth-largest in all of England. But the diversity and precision of their routines were more remarkable than their sheer number. Early risers strolling along the Thames would see the toshers wading through the muck of low tide, dressed almost comically in flowing velveteen coats, their oversized pockets filled with stray bits of copper recovered from the water’s edge. The toshers walked with a lantern strapped to their chest to help them see in the predawn gloom, and carried an eight-foot-long pole to test the ground in front of them, and to pull themselves out when they stumbled into a quagmire. The pole and the eerie glow of the lantern through the robes gave them the look of ragged wizards, scouring the foul river’s edge for magic coins. Beside them fluttered the mud-larks, often children, dressed in tatters and content to scavenge all the waste that the toshers rejected as below their standard: lumps of coal, old wood, scraps of rope.
………Above the river, in the streets of the city, the pure-finders eked out a living by collecting dog shit (colloquially called “pure”) while the bone-pickers foraged for carcasses of any stripe. Below ground, in the cramped but growing network of tunnels beneath London’s streets, the sewer-hunters slogged through the flowing waste of the metropolis. Every few months, an unusually dense pocket of methane gas would be ignited by one of their kerosene lamps and the hapless soul would be incinerated twenty feet below ground, in a river of raw sewage. …
………It usually takes the bone-picker from seven to nine hours to go over his rounds, during which time he travels from 20 to 30 miles with a quarter to a half hundredweight on his back. In the summer he usually reaches home about eleven of the day, and in the winter about one or two. On his return home he proceeds to sort the contents of his bag. He separates the rags from the bones, and these again from the old metal (if he is lucky enough to have found any). He divides the rags into various lots, according as they are white or coloured; and if he have picked up any pieces of canvas or sacking, he makes these also into a separate parcel. When has finished the sorting he takes his several lots to the ragshop or the marine-store dealer, and realizes upon them whatever they may be worth. For the white rags he gets from 2d. to 3d per pound, according as they are clean or soiled. The white rags are very difficult to be found; they are mostly very dirty therefore sold with the coloured ones at the rate of about 5 lbs. for 2d.

                                                               *************

London in 1854 was a Victorian metropolis trying to make do with an Elizabethan public infrastructure. The city was vast even by today’s standards, with two and a half million people crammed inside a thirty-mile circumference. Most of the  techniques for managing that kind of population density that we now take for granted—recycling centers, public-health departments, garbage collection, safe sewage removal — hadn’t yet been invented. These people were actually performing an essential service for their community. Removing the refuse of a large city is one of the most important social functions. The scavengers of Victorian London weren’t just getting rid of all that refuse, they were recycling it.

The above excerpt comes from a fascinating  and thought-provoking book called The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. In that summer of 1854, London was seized with a violent outbreak of cholera that no one knew how to stop. As the epidemic spread a maverick physician and a local curate try to solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

There is so much there, the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry. If we don’t have an understanding of history and from whence we have come, we can’t really understand today.



Richard III’s Remains Discovered in Leicester, Just Where History Told Us He Would Be.. by The Elephant's Child

What a fascinating story. DNA testing has confirmed that the skeleton dug up below a parking lot behind the council buildings in Leicester, is that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. Richard III was one of Shakespeare’s great villains. The bones were found amid the foundations of a Franciscan friary, the very place where history said Richard’s body was taken after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

RichardIII 1.

Modern science could compare mitochondrial DNA taken from the 500-year-old skeleton with DNA from a living descendant of Richard’s sister. Richard became king in 1483, taking power from his nephew, the 12-year-old Edward V. Richard was said to have imprisoned his two nephews in the Tower of London, and within months of Richard’s taking the throne, the two nephews disappeared. Tudor supporters claim that he had his nephews murdered.
Richard III (2)

This portrait from the National Portrait Gallery dates from the 16th century, so it may not be representative, or may be derived from lost sketches.

Plantagenet supporters say a closer look at Richard’s reign shows him as one of the most progressive rules of his time who promoted trade and books. Another battle will occur over where Richard’s remains are to be buried. Leicester wants to keep him as a tourist attraction, others believe he should be interred. Richard III enthusiasts had called for the skeleton to be buried in York and others in Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, where other monarchs are interred.
RichardIII (3)

What is most fascinating to me is the extent to which the discovery of the skeleton confirms the history as it is known. The body’s hands appeared to have been tied, and the skeleton shows that he probably died from blows to the head, which is consistent with contemporary accounts. The skeleton shows severe spinal abnormality from scoliosis which shows that Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard as a hunchback was accurate. The discovery will renew interest in the last Plantagenet King of England, and perhaps renew interest in history as well.

 



The HMS Bounty Is Back in the News! by The Elephant's Child

The tall ship HMS Bounty, is a replica of the famous ship sent by the Royal Navy on a botanical mission. It was sent to the South Pacific to acquire breadfruit plants and transport them to the British West Indies. The mission was never completed. Anger and bad relationships between the ship’s commander, Lieutenant William Bligh and his acting Sailing Master, Fletcher Christian, led to one of the world’s most famous mutinies. Fletcher Christian and about half the crew seized the vessel on October 28, 1789.

On December 23, 1787, the Bounty sailed from Spithead for Tahiti. The crew spent an entire month trying to round Cape Horn, but the weather prevented it. Bligh proceeded East, and rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and crossed the Indian Ocean. Bounty reached Tahiti on October 26, 1788 after ten months at sea. Bligh and the crew spent five months in  Tahiti. Many of the crew formed relations with young women, had themselves tattooed in native fashion. They set sail with their cargo of breadfruit on 4 April 1789.

Some 1300 miles west of Tahiti, near Tonga, mutiny broke out. The ship was taken bloodlessly, and apparently without any struggle except by Bligh himself. Of the 42 men on the ship, 22 joined Christian in mutiny, 18 remained loyal to Bligh and two were passive.

The mutineers ordered Bligh, two midshipmen, the surgeon’s mate, and the ship’s clerk into the ship’s boat, along with a few of the seamen. They sailed 30 nautical miles to Tofua in search of supplies, but were forced to flee when they found the natives hostile and one man was killed.  Bligh then set out for the Dutch port of Coupang, 3,500 nautical miles from Tofua, one of the great feats of navigation and seamanship.  He safely arrived there 47 days later, having lost no men during the voyage.

The Mutineers returned to Tahiti, where they set the loyalists and sixteen of the mutineers ashore. Fletcher Christian, eight other crewmen, six Tahitian men and eleven women, one with a baby set sail in the Bounty. They passed through the Fiji Islands, and the Cook Islands trying to find a safe place. On 15 January 1790 they rediscovered Pitcairn Island, which had been misplaced on admiralty maps. To prevent discovery and anyone’s escape, the ship was burned in what is now called Bounty Bay.

The stories were admirably told by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall in a trilogy : Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island. They were originally published in the 1930s, and in many other versions ever since. Amazon has a selection of all different printings.I loved the books when I was a kid.

Movies have been made of Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, (1935),  with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard (1962), and a 1984 movie called The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins —who goes somewhat mad. There was an earlier one with Errol Flynn, and one even earlier than that from Australia which is long lost. It’s a great sea story, based on real history, and always popular. Captain Bligh is portrayed as cruel, totally mad, a master navigator and a firm but harsh captain. Books have been written about Bligh’s accomplishments, the aftermath for Pitcairn Islanders, the rediscovery of Pitcairn. That one voyage has proved to be fodder for a multitude of stories.

Which brings us back to today. The HMS Bounty, which I believe is the replica built for the 1962 movie, was caught up in Hurricane Sandy off Cape Hatteras today. They lost steerage, and were taking on water. The Coast Guard performed a heroic rescue, and picked up 14 of the 16 crew members, all in survival suits. Two were missing, but the Coast Guard continued to search.

The sea is relatively warm, around 70° and one was known to be wearing a survival suit, though they didn’t know if the other missing man had one. It’s not known if the Bounty is still afloat.  It is 223 years and one day since the original Mutiny took place.

ADDENDUM: The Coast Guard has suspended their search for the Captain of the Bounty. The missing crew member was found, unresponsive, and died at the hospital. The ship has gone down.



Who is Writing the Big Bestseller on the Automotive Fiasco? by The Elephant's Child

There is a huge exposé begging to be written about the scandalous Auto Bailout. An inexperienced, and naive new president, who had little understanding of the responsibilities of the office, and no respect for the separation of powers, was faced with — not an industry — but two car companies that were in deep financial trouble. Naturally, he assumed his job was to rescue them from bankruptcy.

General Motors and Chrysler were faced with crippling government regulation, unduly high labor costs, exorbitant pension requirements. American bankruptcy laws had been devised to deal with just this sort of situation. A company would get temporary relief from their debts, and skilled bankruptcy judges would, under temporary protection from creditors, reorganize the company. Has a long, mostly successful history, though not all companies survive.

Bankruptcy carefully follows the laws, so bond investors get first calls on available funds in a reorganization.  Oops! Obama decided to stiff the bondholders.  It will be interesting to find out how many laws were broken and by whom.

Problem is, it would — also reorganize union participation. Obama wanted to give the unions a big chunk of the company, force the companies to accept partial union management, give a big chunk of Chrysler to Fiat.  All actions completely illegal for a president to do. And he wanted to force GM to make and sell the Chevy Volt, which GM did not believe was ready for prime time.

For unknown reasons they decided to get rid of most of the GM and Chrysler Dealers, at least the smaller ones. The relationship of the car companies to their dealers is interesting. If I understand it correctly, the sales arm for the entire car company consists of small private businesses who buy their stock of automobiles from the car companies with a line of credit from the car companies’ finance arm. But the dealers are privately owned businesses. So Obama, or whoever was in charge, cut off the line of credit to the dealers and just shut them down.

What? The President of the United States just shuts down hundreds of private businesses — fires all the people, around 10o per dealer, dumps their carefully built customer relations, the repair shops, lifetime investment, all that just shut down? That’s legal? What were they going to do about it. Some got on the phone  to their congressmen and got  “waivers”— those instruments that were to become so useful for the Obama administration.

We had a succession of CEOs for what came to be called” Government Motors”, none of whom seemed to be car people; but they came and went in short order. Delphi was the major supplier of auto parts. They seemed to get reorganized too. The Union workers at Delphi’s jobs were saved, their pensions saved, their health insurance continued. The unions contribute to Obama’s campaign, you see. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner apparently decided to stiff the salaried workers. The salaried people were left to go hang. No jobs,  no health insurance, and pensions cut way back.  Here’s what some Delphi people have to say.

Add on the brilliant idea of “Cash for Clunkers.” This was an interesting program where taxpayers gave people who were ready to buy a new car a big discount on the car, for no discernible reason, if they would just turn in their old car. Folks with quite recent cars rushed to turn them in to take advantage of the windfall. The cars, supposed to be “clunkers” that is old gas-hogs emitting nasty fumes, weren’t. They were ordinary used cars, and when they were immediately crushed, it wrecked the market for used cars for years, used car parts and those dealers, and all those people who depended on used cars, found the market diminished and the prices raised beyond reach. Big waste of money as well.

The whole thing has gone dramatically bad. Assorted CEOs assured us that GM was returning to profitability, but that wasn’t true. The Volt was a remarkable flop, too expensive, even with taxpayer subsidies, and nobody wanted them.

The most recent revelation is that GM has been making subprime car loans to jack up their balance sheets while Obama announced on the campaign trail that GM was back on top, Number one in sales in the world. There is no sign that the taxpayers will ever be paid back, and GM stock is dropping like a stone.

Think of all the juicy stories that lurk behind these broadly sketched events, by someone who has no understanding of the workings of the internal combustion engine. I hope someone is writing it all up. It should be a huge bestseller.



Paul Revere’s Ride by The Elephant's Child
April 19, 2012, 8:22 pm
Filed under: Freedom, History, Literature, Military | Tags:


[A little Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for the eighteenth of April]
Today is the 237th anniversary of the “Shot heard Round the World”

Listen, my children, and  you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend,”If the British march
By land or sea from the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light—
One if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said, “Good night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, a British man-of-war:
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street,
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed to the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the somber rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade—
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night-encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay—
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now gazed at the landscape far and near.
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth
And turned and tightened his saddle girth:
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and somber and still.

And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides:
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock,
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.

And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest.  In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm—
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will awaken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the  midnight message of Paul Revere.

A lovely paperback edition illustrated by Ted Rand, if you have kids.

Rick Moran has a nice bit of history of the day at American Thinker. It’s hard to imagine an essentially unarmed, unprepared nation without even an army taking on the British Empire, but Americans have never been afraid of a challenge.



Oregon Winter. by The Elephant's Child
December 2, 2011, 6:26 am
Filed under: Freedom, Literature | Tags: ,

The rain begins.  This is no summer rain,
Dropping the blotches of wet on the dusty road:
This rain is slow, without thunder or hurry:
There is plenty of time—there will be months of rain.
Lost in the hills, the old gray farmhouses
Hump their backs against it, and smoke from their chimneys
Struggles through weighted air.  The sky is sodden with water,
It sags against the hills, and the wild geese,
Wedge-flying, brush the heaviest cloud with their wings.
The farmers move unhurried.  The wood is in,
The hay has long been in, the barn lofts piled
Up to the high windows, dripping yellow straws.
There will be plenty of time now, time that will smell of fires,
And drying leather, and catalogues, and apple cores.
The farmers clean their boots, and whittle, and drowse.

                                                                Jeanne McCahey

from Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle




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