Preaching to the Choir – a much safer audience

This phrase refers to attempts to convert someone who is already a believer – that is, a waste of time. According to Phrase Finder, this is a fairly recent phrasing, originating in the United States, based on an older version.

The first reference is from The Lima News, Ohio, January 1973:
“He said he felt like the minister who was preaching to the choir. That is, to the people who always come to church, but not the ones who need it most.”

An earlier English version dates back around a century further and is first cited in a letter to The Times in November 1857:
It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.

It was subsequently made popular by John Stuart Mill.

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading

Doing Something That Doesn’t Work For Five Hundred Years

Drunkenness of Noah - a problem that's been with us a long time

Drunkenness of Noah – a problem that’s been with us a long time

Author Susan Cheever sets out to fill a gap in American History with Drinking in America, Our Secret History, and her personal life doubtlessly influences her writing. A third of the way through the book, Cheever writes of her own family’s battle with alcohol and notes that “alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.” She herself stopped drinking when “brought to my knees by alcoholism.” Authors of straight history “texts” don’t get personal in the body of their work.

Despite her family, Cheever acknowledges that alcohol, and the “unstoppable” “crazy courage,” “both brilliance and incompetence” of drunks, has contributed to America. Drinking has led to American disasters and triumphs. “Rum could make you brave, confident, and scornful of conventional obstacles.”

She offers excellent retellings of many familiar pieces of history: the Pilgrims and Puritans (not the same people at all!), the Revolution, Civil War, woman’s suffrage and Prohibition, Kennedy’s assassination – with vivid details I had never read. The idea that some of the Pilgrims’ difficulties were due to most of them being drunk (by modern standards) almost all the time is intriguing. And you’ll find some famous names revealed as heavy drinkers, along with others who hated alcohol and drunkenness, beginning with the Pilgrims. Reviewers on Amazon point out Cheever’s speculation and factual errors (“riddled” says one), and her book isn’t footnoted like a text would be, but it’s worth your reading time.

But I’d like to note her comments on history. While there have been historians seeking to push an agenda or prove a point, “modern history, for the most part, claims to be objective… observant neutrality occasionally punctuated with some wise commentary. There are many advantages – no ax to grind, no idea to sell, no political point to make. But there are disadvantages… Historians miss a lot.”

This view of history limits our perspective. She notes that, after reading “hundreds of indexes and tables of contents, and dozens of books… [she finds that] few historians even mention drinking and its effects.”

I assume historians skip across drinking in history, in part, because ascribing any positive outcome to drunkenness is embarrassing – or at least, counterintuitive. The idea that inebriation was part of daily life for men, women, and children (!) as well as founding fathers and Nobel winning authors simply doesn’t click.

Yet it seems to me that the truth is worth knowing, and Cheever’s book offers something to add to my view of history. It does reinforce my basic feeling that The War on Drugs is a mistake, and I try to be skeptical of books that confirm my pre-existing biases. But even punishments from the 1600s that would be considered torture today didn’t stop drunkenness, which pretty much agrees with the effects of modern punishments on drug addicts. Perhaps, by ignoring an element of history, we are repeating it.

American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

american-dreamerI obtained this book through the interlibrary loan system with the single purpose of checking out an original reference for the book I’m writing about the Rocky Flats Plant during the Cold War. I was surprised that the book has over 600 pages, checked the page with the reference I wanted, and then began skimming it. Much to my surprise the book drew me in. For those unfamiliar with him, Henry Agard Wallace was a fascinating character. He grew up in a farm family that published a newspaper that focused on farming and political issues associated with farming. He was raised to be a completely moral Christian, and seldom allowed even the most vicious political attacks he would eventually suffer later in his public life to stir him to do more than offer a reasoned defense.

Most people probably know something about Wallace because John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President for his first two terms, strongly opposed FDR running for a third term. (Garner had been chosen as the Vice President in a deal that allowed FDR to receive his first nomination by the Democratic Party. FDR and Garner were polar opposites, and my impression is that they detested each other and went out of their way to avoid the need to have any contact.) A large slate of candidates wanted to have the VP slot, but FDR chose Wallace.

FDR had chosen Wallace to be his Secretary of Agriculture during his first two terms despite the fact Wallace was a Republican. Party difference was immaterial, because Wallace was a strong Progressive. He also was a brilliant man who studied and comprehended the role of genetics in crop yields. He and his wife formed a hybrid corn seed business that eventually made them wealthy. The chickens he bred eventually provided a substantial portion of eggs to the nation and the world.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about the key role Wallace played in his position of Secretary of Agriculture in the New Deal during years when famers were being crushed by the Great Depression. Fans of small government will be astonished and disturbed at the growth and reach of his department. His first personnel action was to appoint Milton Eisenhower, Ike’s brother, head of information services with instructions “…to transform the department immediately into a vast action agency to restore parity of income to American farmers.” The primary focus of the many government actions taken under Wallace’s leadership was to improve farm income by the “…promotion of planned scarcity.” Wheat was the easiest crop for the new strategy, because many wheat growing areas were experiencing a crushing drought. “It would not be necessary to plow under growing wheat; nature had done it—unequally, cruelly, to be sure, but decisively…” Millers and bakers didn’t like the new processing tax that paid expenses for the new program until they understood they could blame the price increases on the government. Continue reading

Government Support of Rugged Individualism

VillaUncleSamBerrymanCartoonMy recent review of The Oregon Trail couldn’t cover everything – it’s a long and interesting book. But I found this fascinating:

With reference to the Pacific Wagon Road Act of 1857, author Rinker Buck notes that “among other improvements to the trail… [it] became one of the largest government-financed projects of the nineteenth century… This model of government support for a major development project became popular and was accepted as the new norm. Each new phase of frontier growth… was also supported by either outright government subsidies, land giveaways, or federally supported irrigation and bridge-building projects. That was the tradition established by the Oregon Trail and it has always amused me that the myth of ‘rugged individualism’ still plays such a large role in western folklore and American values. In fact, our vaulted rugged individualism was financed by huge government largess.”

I’m no historian, but that resonates for me.

Certainly in my own home area of southwest New Mexico, the federal government conquered Native American and Mexican lands to allow Anglo Americans to move in – perhaps not the history we most wish to brag about. But denying the role of government is simply silly.

We New Mexicans try to come to terms with some of our history – the American town of Columbus recently “celebrated” Pancho Villa’s raid 100 years ago with its Mexican neighbor-town of Palomas. Maybe “celebrated” is wrong because people died – “commemorated”, perhaps – or just found a good reason for a street fair. In 1916, the United States invaded another country to protect its citizens! But today we all remember a freedom fighter for Mexico and our ties across the boarder. BTW – Do you know that American school buses pick up American-born children in Columbus and transport them to Deming every school-day?

When traveling to Palmoas for cheaper drugs or eye-care or dentistry, I always have lunch in Mexico at the Pink Store. If you ever get down here, I recommend it.

Celebrate the rugged pioneers, taciturn cowboys, and self-reliant ranchers – they were all of those things – but remember that without government support, the American West would be a very different place. That’s still true today.

Inside the Nazi War Machine

nazi-war-machineThis book by Bevin Alexander has a subtitle, “How Three Generals Unleashed Blitzkrieg Upon the World,” and is an excellent book for people interested in military history. The three generals were Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, and they developed a military strategy that opposed that of the German high command and Hitler. My simplistic summary is that they refused to fight battles on a wide front. They led with concentrated panzer attacks against the widely-spread “penny packets” of French tanks. They almost always outpaced the infantry divisions that followed. They refused to slow the assault to allow consolidation of the flanks, which the high command believed would be vulnerable to counterattack. The conventional thinking was that the French army, which was “…the most formidable and best-equipped army in Europe…” with their British, Holland, and Belgian allies would pinch in from the sides and capture the tanks and soldiers in the deep penetration. The remarkable outcome was that the massive French army mostly just surrendered at the shock of how quickly the center of their front had been destroyed by Nazi fire power. The Luftwaffe supported the attacks with old and slow Stuka dive bombers that could precisely target French tanks or other forces that stood in the way. Static warfare that had been the norm throughout World War I was replaced by “maneuver warfare,” or Blitzkrieg.

The book portrays how the German generals continually successfully implemented their concentrated assaults and refused to acknowledge orders from the high command to stop and allow the supporting troops to catch up. Overall military organization is also described as being valuable to the Germans and paralyzing to the French. German commanders believed they should lead from the front where they could quickly recognize situations presented by opposing forces and terrain and make immediate adjustments. French units couldn’t deviate from existing orders without written orders, which often took days to be prepared and delivered. The German commanders also had the admiration and support of their soldiers, which resulted in achieving sometimes incredible results. Rommel was said to insist on being in the first vehicle going forward in an assault. Once he insisted on standing on the middle of a bridge important to a planned attack that was under bombardment by British bombers. He wanted it known how valuable the bridge was to German plans and risked his life to demonstrate it. Continue reading

Westward Migration – History and Recreation of Traveling the Oregon Trail

oregon trailThe Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck offers three travel tales braided together. There is the westward migration of Americans starting around 1840; the tale of Buck’s own crossing of the old trail with a mule team and wagon; and memories of his father’s horse and mule, wagon and carriage adventures – and unresolved father issues.

Buck decided to make “an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail.” In preparation he read many travel diaries and historical accounts. The trail “has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail” but also crossing private land. I was surprised to learn that, “except for two bad stretched of suburban sprawl,” the trail is generally accessible, especially since much of the way is now farm and ranch roads or even paved highways.

Early in the book Buck presents a lengthy story of the brother who accompanied him. The brothers woes of unemployment after the Republican Recession of 2008 and temporary crippling in a building accident segues into the 1840s and 1850s, when “families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade” further aggravated by “religious squabbling and labor strife” and the political issue of slavery. Migration west became “a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.”

Pioneer knowledge has been lost
Buck recounts his efforts to obtain a wagon and mule team – somewhat hard to do since no one does this sort of trip anymore. He’s lucky to have his childhood familiarity with livestock and Amish and Mennonite friends who use horses for farming.

But horses aren’t suited to a long hard trip. Draft horses of the 1800s were “agrarian mastodons” while mules were smarter, tougher, and “the common phrase ‘stubborn as a mule,’ [is] a classic example of a man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself.”

Buck provides a lot of information about mules. “No less a figure than George Washington was America’s original maharajah of mules… [students don’t know] that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer.”

I enjoyed this part of Washington’s life, which I hadn’t read about before. Europeans viewed Washington as a hero for defeating the despised British, so in 1785 the king of Spain sent him donkeys as breeding stock for working mules. I’ve met little burro donkeys with backs a bit higher than my waist and big riding donkeys – so different – so I found the descriptions delightful.

Buck also shares his efforts to recreate a suitable wagon, and even diagrams of the triple-tree design for hitching a three-mule team to a wagon. I didn’t know that the term “Conestoga” refers to an eastern cargo wagon that played almost in role in the western migration, or that the first factory assembly line produced wagons, not Ford cars. There’s even a side trip through how building the famous eastern canal system helped evolve a practical wagon.

After a hundred pages, the journey west begins
There’s a lot of information from trail diaries on the trip west. Runaway teams, disease, and hunting accidents caused frequent injury and death. Bridges are a special hazard for mules, which “can get a third of the way across… look sideways… panic… and overturn the wagon or crash into cars in an attempt to escape.” Covered bridges prevented this by blocking the animals view – and I thought they were just pretty! Buck includes a story of his father getting a terrified team across a bridge with his kids help.

RVs are a special hazard for Buck. They would often drive slowly very close to the mules to take pictures or drive ahead to stop, nearly blocking the road, to take more pictures as Buck drove by. He calls RVer men who wanted to make jokes about the wagon as “himbos,” as a play on “bimbos.”

An amazing woman pioneer
The westward migration was a huge change from fur traders and “backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone [who] could disappear into the great forests for months alone. Carrying just a small haversack, a musket, and a long knife.” But in 1836 there was “enormous prejudice against” white women going west with their husbands. This led into a wonderful tale of Narcissa Prentis, the firs white woman to cross the Rockies. She married a fellow missionary – apparently for the convenience of both – and sent installments of her diary back east with various fur traders they encountered who were headed that way. (People seemed to take the burden of delivering letters very seriously.)

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