Octavo Dia

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: The Nation Reunited

Murphy, Richard W. The Nation Reunited: War's Aftermath. The Civil War. Alexandria, VA; Time-Life, Inc., 1987.

Well, this is it. There are just a couple of photo essays in the last volume.

This book covers Reconstruction, quite possibly my least favorite chapter of American history. The one thing I learned from this book was just how much power the Klan and various associates groups had. From page 143, "In the resultant bloody showdown, White Leaguers routed a force of 3,500 black militiamen and city police led by former Confederate General James Longstreet." It's difficult to imagine any non-governmental organization having that sort of power today.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What happened to the unicorns

In the August 2010 issue of National Geographic, they discuss an archeological discovery on page 29:

"Now a recently translated Babylonian tablet, related to the Epic of Gilgamesh, floats an intriguing alternative in which the archetypal ark was round and made of pitch-covered reeds, much like a coracle, a craft still used today on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. 'The ark wasn't going anywhere,' explains Irving Finkel, assistant keeper of cuneiform at the British Museum, who did the translation. 'It simply had to bob along the surface until the waters went down.'"

I'll leave aside the question of the structural integrity of a reed boat when scaled up to ark size. However, though you can't really fault him for being a landlubber, a quick thought experiment demonstrates that this ark is entirely unworkable:

You are in a round ark during a global flood. There are no landmasses to dissipate the force of a storm. The only thing which would stop a hurricane from growing and growing is veering towards the colder waters of the poles. So you pretty much have massive hurricanes all the time in southerly climes. Massive, spinning, hurricanes. You are in a round ark which cannot maintain its orientation. In short order, you are an ark-sized tilt-a-whirl.

So yes, it is an intriguing alternative, in that you get to imagine what a few months in a tilt-a-whirl would do. I theorize that the unicorns died of seasickness.

Book Review: The Assassination

Clark, Champ. The Assassination: Death of the President. The Civil War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, Inc., 1987.

My lack of knowledge of late Civil War continues to astound me. I didn't remember that anyone was targeted other than Lincoln, nor that there was more than one conspirator. I guess my image of an assassination is the JFK style lone-gunman.

That truly that was a different era. I'm so used to the activities of the President being shrouded in secrecy and security. (My closest glimpse of a president, the elder Bush, was from several hundred yards away. For all I could tell, they had Cookie Monster on the stage.) They published that Lincoln was going to attend Ford's theater in the newspaper, for Pete's sake. He had a single bodyguard with him, who, by various accounts, either found a seat to watch the play himself, or went next door to the saloon for a drink. It's astounding how little attention they paid to security in the middle of a war with tens of thousands of dead.

On pages 80-1, they have an image of what Lincoln was carrying in his pockets when he was assassinated. The one thing that really endeared him to me was the pair of glasses that he had repaired with thread. That's something my parents would do.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

And he blew the house down

Answers in Genesis has a column about cavemen.

I think they miss a major reason for dwelling in caves: would you live in a timber-frame house with dinosaurs tromping around?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review: Moon-o-theism, Chapter 12

Unfortunately, this chapter reminds me of Lost. Everything is interconnected. Everything means something. There are no coincidences, no simple aesthetics. I think Yoel Natan belabors his case to the point I began to question it again. It would have been better had he cherry picked the strongest arguments and presented those alone.

And I'll end with a lyric from The Diver's song "Aquaman" (the hidden track on Walkies in the Park):

Dude, man, it's all there!
The passing of the realm to the infinite shadows toward the infinity of the vortex!
It's all so perfectly obvious! Man!

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Book Review: Pursuit ot Appomattox

Korn, Jerry. Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles. The Civil War. Alexandria, VA; Time-Life Inc., 1987.

Prior to college, it seemed to me that the crowning achievement of world history was the cotton gin. Every year we'd start history talking about the Native Americans, move on to a wide variety of mostly indistinguishable Conquistadors, hit the colonial period and the American revolution, and the year would end in the period just prior to the Civil War with the invention of the cotton gin. Why bother recording anything else, because the next year, rather than picking up with the Civil War, we'd start a new textbook and talk about the Native Americans again.

I can only imagine something similar happened to me when I was taking Civil War history in college. We must have hit Grant's transfer east and the end game just as the semester was winding up, so we rushed through the last year of the war in a class or so.

I don't remember ANY of this. Had I stopped to think about it, I would have realized that somehow Lee had to have gotten out of Richmond and Petersburg in order to surrender at Appomattox. Maybe the author just writes it well, but surely I would have remembered the dramatic chase with Sheridan blocking Lee at every turn, the supplies Lee desperately needed always being just out of reach, and an all-black unit closing the trap after a three-day, 96-mile march.

The two best parts of the book were Lincoln's boat getting stuck on a sandbar in part of Richmond that hadn't been occupied yet, and Longstreet's upbraiding Custer for his flagrant breach of military etiquette. I'm ashamed to admit it, but the most fitting description of General Custer is a strong vulgarity. My printable vocabulary has failed me.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Statistics, Sensationalism, and Legal Liability

Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, and not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert? - Abraham Lincoln

Humans are by nature horrible statisticians, which is why this article is tremendously damaging. The only redeeming factor about that article is that it has a relatively narrow audience. People will not remember that this is entirely conjectural. People will not think that 12,000 people died in 2009 from a preventable disease. People will not know that a critical distribution of vaccinated people kept even more from becoming infected an dying. All they will remember is the blurb: flu vaccines cause paralysis! There is no context, and even if there was, the natural tendency to remember a dramatic event, rather than a dry statistic, would cause them to forget it.

What will happen as a result of this article? More people will remember it and refuse the vaccine. More people will get sick and die. Will those be reported? No, that's just another hash mark in the CDC statistics. Will the flu season be particularly bad this year because we didn't have the critical mass of vaccinated people? It depends on the article's reach, but it can happen. Vaccines are very much victims of their own success. People don't see the cases of polio, mumps, scarlet fever, etc., that didn't happen, but they do see the rare adverse reaction, and that's what sticks in their minds. They then refuse vaccination, and their freeloading works for a time, because a disease can't travel in a vaccinated population. It isn't until we have an outbreak of a preventable disease that people understand why we vaccinate people.

I think the author of that article should be sued for endangering the public health.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review: The Shenandoah in Flames

Lewis, Thomas A. The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864. The Civil War. Alexandria, VA; Time-Life, Inc., 1987.

It seems my knowledge of the Civil War is sorely lacking towards the end. The late war march on Washington by Jubal Early? I had no idea that happened. I had a relatively good grasp of what went on early in the war, but my grasp of end was limited to: Grant goes east. Big bloody battle. The end. I knew that the Shenadoah fared badly in the Civil War, though that's probably just the impression I got from the Jimmy Stewart movie.

As a student of counter-insurgency, what most grabbed my attention in this book was the effect on the irregulars in the valley. The scorched earth policy did nothing. If there's enough for a civilian to survive, there's enough for irregulars to survive. Unless you want to reduce the civilians to starvation (and even that may not be enough), no amount of sacking and burning will do the job. What the scorched earth did do, however, was make the valley impassible for bodies of regular troops, which served the purpose and allowed Sheridan to march to join Grant anyway.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Book Review: War on the Frontier

Josephy Jr., Alvin M. War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. The Civil War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, Inc., 1986.

This book was simultaneously boring, puzzling, and educational.

It was boring because so little of it seemed to matter. They'd win a victory, and the end result would be about the same as if they'd lost.

It was puzzling because of how few men were involved and how little attention was paid to it. When I play strategy games, I pick off the weak outlying provinces first, and work my way in. Everything in the Civil War was devoted to the eastern front. A single brigade of cavalry could have swept away everything on the frontier, but that much was a rounding error in the east.

It was educational because I knew so little about it, despite having lived in Minnesota where the Dakota Conflict (formerly known as the Sioux Uprising) took place. You had to feel sorry for the Native Americans, however. It did make sense--make war on the Americans while they were busy killing each other--but it was too little too late.

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