Saturday, April 28, 2012

Don't lose your head!

So maybe I'm a little weird but my all-time favorite novels are stories about castaways on tropical islands, and when I read those books it almost sounds like an adventure. Okay, maybe "adventure" is a bit much, since the castaways faced plenty of hardship, but there's something weirdly alluring about the idea – for me at least. But what if your island wasn't deserted? What if your island was inhabited by cannibals or headhunters or worse?

Well, it turns out some headhunters are actually very nice and generous people. In The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith M. Heimann (notice the choice of words in the title?), we learn of the crew of a B-24 which went down in the jungles of Borneo in November 1944 and spent eight months living with the natives. The Dayaks were headhunters who had converted to Christianity and were chaffing under the harsh treatment of the Japanese occupiers. At great personal risk to himself and his family and village, William Makahanap (the District Officer), first hid the airmen and then later organized a rebellion against the Japanese, and for a brief time headhunting was again practiced – Japanese heads only, though.

If you liked Unbroken and Lost in Shangri-La you'll probably enjoy this one, too. It's not quite as well-told as those books but it's a great story nonetheless – although I do have a few quibbles. Hopefully Mrs. Heimann's research into the most pertinent aspects of the story is sound, but some of the peripheral information is wanting. She didn't explain clearly what headhunters did with a head, which I think would have been terribly fascinating. And on page 26 she says the downed airmen didn't know "to look for water in the cups of the many pitcher plant blossoms," except it's the leaves that hold liquid, not the tiny flowers. I don't know if natives really drink from them (and she doesn't give us these details) but since the plant is carnivorous I expect you might get a mouthful of dead bugs if you tried (which might not bother you if you're that thirsty). Also, on page 10, she says "The men of the Bomber Barons, like army airmen elsewhere, loved the B-24." But I think it was Retribution by Max Hastings that tells of very different emotions fliers had for the B-24 and explained the extensive problems the plane was known for in the Pacific war. The B-24 "Liberator" was much more difficult to fly than the B-17 "Flying Fortress" and with less armor was more vulnerable to damage during battle. Wikipedia says it was "notorious among American aircrews for its tendency to catch fire" and was dangerous in crash landing situations where the fuselage tended to break apart. Anyway, just a few quibbles on my part but it does call some of her research into question.

But if the book sounds interesting to you please don't let my concerns dissuade you from giving it a chance, because it really is a good story.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Perfectly horrifying"

Quite often you see people who have a round scar on their upper arm about the size of a nickle. If I'm not mistaken it's from a vaccination for smallpox, something that is no longer done. It's no longer done because smallpox has been stopped - people don't get the disease anymore. It's a fact that we frequently take for granted today, but wiping out smallpox was an enormous accomplishment.

In the history of the world it is estimated that smallpox has killed more people than any other events (like wars) or disease (with the possible exception of the Black Plague). The variola virus only aflicts humans and is extremely contagious and kills between 10 and 30 percent of its victims. There are some variations which are nearly 100% fatal, but they're so disgusting and horrific I'll skip describing them (Jamie got really mad at me when I read aloud to her while she was eating, but it was fascinating!).

But there's a happy ending to the story. In 1796 an English physician named Edward Jenner developed a vaccine by using the virus that causes cowpox. In the 1950s efforts to vaccinate people began to show signs of success although 2 million people a year were still dying from the disesase. In 1966 a worldwide eradication campaign led by Donald A Henderson and supported by the CDC and the WHO began sending teams to vaccinate people wherever an outbreak occurred. The hope was to create a ring around each outbreak and stop it from spreading uncontrollably. It was pronounced successful in 1980.

Surprisingly for a time of Cold War tensions, a great deal of vaccine and support for the campaign came from the Soviet Union. After it was eliminated, the virus was supposedly kept only in 2 freezers - one in Atlanta, Georgia, and another in Siberia, in the USSR. But as the date neared for destroying the remaining samples of the virus in the late 1990s, some began to object and word got out that the Soviets had been producing huge amounts of weaponized smallpox. Soviet defectors told of progams that had produced tons of bioengineered and genetically modified virus, and other evidence tended to confirm the news. The Soviets denied such work, but experts say it's wishful thinking to believe the virus is still only in those 2 freezers - especially following the breakup of the USSR in the early 1990s.

Two excellent books detail the history and dangers posed by smallpox today. Jonathan B. Tucker calls smallpox "the world's most dangerous prisoner" in his book Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox which focuses more on the inspirational erradication of the virus but also covers the potential threats from known and unknown stockpiles. The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story by Richard Preston covers much of the same information but starts with the anthrax deaths shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the potential for biological weapons (not just smallpox but also anthrax and ebola) is covered in more depth. Both books are excellent - Scourge is perhaps more informative while Demon is slightly more readable - but the only downside is that both may be a bit dated by now - Scourge was published in 2001 and Demon in 2003. Nonetheless, they're both books I highly recommend.

And those smallpox vaccinations? They only provided immunity for about 5 to 10 years. Think about that!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Man, this is baseball, you gotta stop thinking!"

Even though my kids don't care to watch baseball games, they love watching baseball movies. The favorite, of course, was "The Sandlot" until the DVD went missing. I love that scene where the fat kid says "Check it out, I'm the Great Bambino" and the new kid says "who's that?" The kids aren't just shocked – they're scandalized! – and they start rattling off names like the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout, the Titan of Terror, the King of Crash...

Call him what you will, the Great Bambino was a hero to millions. Fans called him The Babe but his teammates called him The Bam. He was legendary for his ability to smash home runs, setting a record that stood until recently (and many will argue that it still stands), and nearly every one was "the longest ball ever hit" in that park. Legend has it that near the end of his career he even had the arrogance to point to the center field stands and then hit the ball there on the very next pitch – "The Called Shot." He started out as a pitcher – and a good one, too – but hitting the ball was what brought the crowds to the stadium. You could even say he single-handedly changed the game. He had a talent for baseball and boundless energy that few have ever matched.

Unfortunately, that energy earned him plenty of trouble off the field. His off hours were usually spent eating and drinking excessively and carousing all night long. That didn't stop him from turning in another great performance at the ballpark the next day, but it ruined his marriage and chances of coaching after his career was finished. He was hard enough to handle as a player and owners didn't want to deal with him as a manager. He was a lousy father and a worse husband – never having seen a good example of either on account of being left to an orphanage at a young age. All those years of privation and meagerness came busting out in a headlong rush once he had money, and the money usually followed just as fast.

Leigh Montville has done a great job of putting together the life and times of George Herman Ruth in The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. He's done extensive research but doesn't try to fill in the unknown gaps – "the fog" – where little or nothing is known. He presents the facts and stories and legends and lets the reader decide. He's not trying to "tear down the myths" but to tell the "Sportscenter generation" the story of one of the greatest baseball players ever, even if it isn't always the prettiest story to tell. And that's what is so entertaining about this book: it's part hero-worship that shows us the hero was part-man, too. The pedestal Ruth stands on may be a little wobbly, but he's still up there.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Even though I enjoy reading history, I can't think of many professions that sound more boring and unglamorous than 'historian.' And yet historians do seem to make headlines now and then. Newt Gingrich claims he was a historian for Fannie Mae (or was it Freddie Mac?), and got paid rather exorbitantly for... whatever it was he did for them. Bill O'Reilly, someone who apparently shouts and argues enough to challenge the generally accepted notion of historians as dusty and sedate old duffers, was a high school history teacher and has had a history book at the top of the NYTimes bestseller list since last fall. But for me, one of the more interesting historians is Joseph J. Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his own bestsellers. Professor Ellis is renowned for his character analyses of the leaders of the American Revolution and is credited with igniting the recent interest into the mostly forgotten John Adams (which was further fueled by David McCullough's own later Pulitzer-winning book and subsequent HBO miniseries). But what made Prof. Ellis interesting and newsworthy were some revelations that his own character was seriously lacking.

Apparently, Ellis supplemented his lectures with colorful stories of his involvement in the Vietnam War and the civil rights and peace movements. Among other things, he claimed to have fought in Vietnam as a paratrooper and platoon leader and worked for General Westmoreland in Saigon. The truth was that he was a grad student at Yale and taught history at West Point during those years, and didn't participate actively in any social movements. When the Boston Globe broke the "scandal" the school was forced to suspend him and Ellis issued apologies for his "lies" and "sins."

I have read a number of his books, including First Family and His Excellency and found them to be convincing and insightful looks into the characters of some of the most important leaders in our nation's history. Ellis brings them to life in a way that you feel like you understand them and their motivations a lot better - warts and all. But I wondered how trustworthy someone with such character warts of his own could be as I read American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Now that I've finished, I think he does a really good job.

Understanding Jefferson has long been a puzzle for historians, and Ellis presents him as a series of contradictions. He famously wrote "all men are created equal" at the same time he owned 200 slaves. He was a strong proponent of paying off the national debt (which he accomplished during his two terms in office) yet couldn't contain his own lavish spending and died so deeply in debt that his beloved Monticello was auctioned off instead of being passed down to his family (they inherited the remainder of his monumental debt). Jefferson was also a fierce advocate of states' rights and against a large federal government, yet his own overreach of federal power and authority was fundamentally unconstitutional when he purchased the Louisiana Territory. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

Ellis does a good job of making sense of the many things Jefferson said and wrote, and how it corresponded with his actions. And Ellis has his usual keen insight for understanding what Jefferson probably thought and his unusual ability to think on “parallel tracks.” He portrays Jefferson essentially as a dreamer and visionary who above all else believed in individual liberty and the inherent rightness of "the will of the people." Unfortunately, not all Jefferson's dreams were all that practical, and frequently his good friend James Madison had to keep him grounded. He also discusses the issue of slavery extensively and is frequently critical (all in context of Jefferson's time and place, of course). (My copy was a later edition with an update after the Sally Hemmings link had since been proven with DNA evidence – and Ellis admits his prior conclusion was wrong.) But Jefferson's contributions are significant, from the Declaration of Independence to the Louisiana Purchase, which became a “fountain of youth” for the country. But while Ellis does an excellent job of illuminating Jefferson's character it's not an especially easy read. I found myself constantly having to re-read parts to make sure I understood what he was saying, and I think having some decent familiarity with Jefferson's life is helpful before tackling this one.

Personally, I'm not concerned that Prof. Ellis' judgment might have been colored or clouded unfairly in his character assessments of Jefferson. None of us are perfect and I find that my own failings and shortcomings provide me with different and hopefully more perceptive insights into the experiences of others. It's unfortunate that Ellis felt the need to embellish his life and contributions, but maybe it shows that he's as human and insecure as the rest of us, and he's had to live with the embarrassment it caused. And I'll keep recommending his books.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The (disaffected) "Youth of the Nation"

What's a new wave guy like me listening to a rap/rock song like this?  Hmmm... good question.  I heard it in the movie Blue Crush (I love surfer movies) and... well, I liked it.  I like the video, too - it's got some pretty strong visuals with the yearbook pictures as a background and the way the singer swings his long dreadlocks around - it goes very well with the heavy drumbeat.  Plus the anti-violence message and the haunting 'choir' at the end.  And that's a pretty cool car, too. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Confronting Catastrophe-speak

Do you believe in global warming? If so, do you think mankind is causing it? What do you think we should do about it? And perhaps most importantly, how have you come to your conclusions?

I've always considered myself an "environmentalist," although maybe not a Sierra Club kind of environmentalist. I believe we have a responsibility to take care of the world around us – we shouldn't ruin it for quick economic gains and should always clean up our messes. We should be mindful that our actions can have effects on others downstream or downwind – and not necessarily just the humans. But at the same time I believe in a God who created this world for us – his children – and our benefit, although that's no excuse to trash the place. So maybe I'm not a "real environmentalist," but I'm still concerned.

And the problem is that nearly every day we hear news stories about how global warming is going to destroy EVERYTHING and we must do something RIGHT NOW! If there's a flood or a hurricane or a polar bear dies it's because of global warming and it's ALL OUR FAULT! And yet there are a few voices – big oil capitalists, no doubt – who question the science and have their own studies dismissing any problems.

I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I believe either side completely. I'm certainly no expert and haven't read all the literature, but one person that I think might be more trustworthy (more than Al Gore, anyway) is Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish mathematician and statistician and author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming. And Lomborg is clear about one thing: global warming, or climate change, is real, and we're causing it.

And yet Lomborg is as hated among some environmentalists as Salman Rushdie is by radical Islamists – but to me, he sounds like a fairly rational voice. He looks at the statistics behind polar bears and finds that of the 17 populations only 2 are declining – the rest are growing – and that we could save more bears by limiting hunting than passing the Kyoto Treaty. He does this with all kinds of doomsday scenarios – heat waves, rising sea-levels, melting glaciers, hurricanes, floods, etc. – and explains what is really likely to happen based on real and peer-reviewed scientific research (he uses the United Nations report by the Int’l Panel for Climate Change [IPCC] extensively), instead of the wild and unsubstantiated 'end-is-near' predictions that are most often the basis of those frantic news headlines. And the Kyoto Treaty comes off sounding like a lot of hot air after he explains why it won't make a significant difference.

But even more importantly he discusses ways we CAN make substantial changes, and his focus is on improving human welfare. He is a strong proponent of addressing issues which are killing millions of people right now, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and malnutrition. In place of Kyoto he advocates R&D investments (as a percentage of GDP) by all nations towards addressing the harmful effects of global warming (not all effects will be negative) in whatever way each nation chooses (instead of focusing single-mindedly on carbon emissions). Best of all, his suggestions won't ruin the global economy like Kyoto and other harebrained proposals will.

In the end, however, Lomborg cautions that the greatest problem today is that climate change has become more of a political issue than a scientific or environmental one, and for some reason a lot of very loud and increasingly frenzied voices are demanding changes that will do little real good and much economic harm. Personally, I'm leaning toward the more rational-sounding voice.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Adventures in cheese

A friend of mine once wrote "Not sure what I'd do if I didn't have a book in my hand," and in case you couldn't tell, I'm the same way. With the Kindle app on my phone it makes it a little easier than carrying a physical book around, and best of all there are TONS of free books online - if you don't mind reading old "classics." Recently, while browsing on Amazon, I noticed that a lot of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs are listed as "popular downloads," particularly the John Carter of Mars series (because of the recent movie, I'm sure), and even his Tarzan series is enjoying renewed popularity. I read a couple of the Mars books when I was a teenager (#'s 2 and 4, I think - in addition to a few other cheesy sci-fi books) but didn't really get into them.

But I recently read a similar kind of book from another writer of that earlier era - Henry Rider Haggard. Haggard is considered to have started the "Lost World" literary genre of writing with his books King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain (who was the inspiration for Indiana Jones). I read The People of the Mist about Leonard Outram who goes to Africa to seek his fortune after his family lost their English estate. He and his Zulu sidekick, Otter (who's a dwarf), end up saving a beautiful woman named Juanna Rodd, and with several of her servants they all set off on a quest to find the mysterious "People of the Mist." Supposedly, this lost people has a hoard of jewels which they offer to their giant crocodile-god, and a handful of these would allow Leonard to buy back his family estate, redeem the family name, and marry his childhood sweetheart, Jane Beach. But the ruggedly handsome Leonard hasn't heard from Jane these many years and doesn't even know if she's married another or if she's still alive. Meanwhile, there's also a budding relationship with the beautiful but independent-minded Juanna...

Yeah - I know - it's kind of a cheesy story-line, but it was also surprisingly fun to read. I was reminded the whole time I read it of an 80s movie called Romancing the Stone - which was also kinda cheesy - but a fun adventure tale. Not the kind of thing you take too seriously, but fun in an escapist kind of way. And the book was free.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"None of our men are 'experts'."

The Amazon Jungle is a pretty forbidding place, swallowing golden cities and guys with wimpy names and never spitting them out. Even Teddy Roosevelt found it could whip his tail, and he was so tough he got his face carved on a mountain! So what made Henry Ford think he could tame it? Maybe some people have more money than sense, or maybe they just get a little too full of themselves. Of course, Greg Grandin is more than happy to tell us all about it in Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.

Henry Ford liked to boast that he didn't employ experts, because experts always know "why something cannot be done." "We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert - because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job" (pgs 147-148). Most of that was just talk, but Ford certainly had good luck taking competent people and giving them the opportunity to shine. But when it came to Fordlandia, he should have consulted more experts.

Fearing that a European rubber cartel could threaten his manufacturing processes, Ford sought to control his own rubber supply. He decided to establish a rubber tree plantation along the Amazon instead of Africa because of a friendlier business climate. The vast rubber plantations in Southeast Asia came from seeds smuggled out of Brazil so the logic was that the trees would thrive best in the land where they were native. Also, frustrated in his attempts to establish a type of utopian community in the US, he wanted to show that his ideas would work and bring prosperity to a downtrodden people in the jungle.

But he never consulted any experts, or at least people properly familiar with cultivating rubber trees. The natural fungi and pests which kept rubber trees in check in the Amazon didn't exist in Asia, so Asian plantations were possible and highly profitable whereas South American plantations just didn't work out. Also, the people of the Amazon didn't adapt well to the regimented assembly line style of work that had served Ford so well in the United States - there simply wasn't the same kind of economy or the same culture. Furthermore, Ford insisted on creating his own view of civilized society in Fordlandia, including the same style of homes and buildings which were often highly impractical, and sometimes dangerously lethal!

Mr. Grandin presents not only the history of Ford in Brazil and Michigan, but the context of what was happening in the bigger world. His narrative also encompasses lots of relevant peripheral information as well, and all told in a very interesting manner that adds to the story rather than detracting from it. The only negative was the sense that things weren't always told in a chronological order, which was a little confusing. There also seems to be a bit of a sneering attitude toward a lot of Ford's well-intentioned but misguided philosophies, and he seems to blame Ford (at least in part) for the sad state of the Amazon now (deforestation, poverty, etc.) which seemed rather unfair. But it was still an excellent history and loaded with lots of b&w photos and my complaints are minor. I really enjoyed this book and it seems an excellent choice for business classes to illustrate many of the mistakes corporations often make.

Oh, and by the way, Henry Ford never actually went to Brazil himself - how's that for hubris!