Current Events

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Red Mutiny; The Hidden Reality, Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos; Tried by War; Inventing a Nation; and Before the Dawn, Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Neal Bascomb.  Red Mutiny.  This is the full story of the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin, a Russian battleship in the Czar’s Black Sea fleet.  The action begins in the Potemkin’s home port of Odessa and ends when the crew accepts amnesty in the Romanian port of Constanta.  There was unrest everywhere in Russia in 1905, and the Potemkin crew hoped that they could get other ships in the fleet to join them and then take their revolution ashore.  Workers were already demonstrating and the sailors thought they could unite with them and then persuade the army to join them.  They hoped to go all the way to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Mutinies on other ships failed to materialize and after ten days the Potemkin crew, low on food and fuel, had no chance of survival if they stayed with the ship.  Many of them later returned to Russia as revolutionaries.  When you read what Russian sailors, peasants and workers had to endure; you can’t help but sympathize with them.  One wonders what would have happened, if they had succeeded.  Would the results of a successful 1905 revolution been better than those of the 1917 revolution in terms of lives lost and lives lived in freedom and comfort.  When I finished reading the book, I watched Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin from 1925.  You get only bits and pieces of the story and there is the feeling all the way through that Soviet censors are looking over Eisenstein’s shoulder as he directs the action.  March 2013

Brian Greene.  The Hidden Reality, Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.   I spent a few hours with this and learned a lot, but eventually found I could not follow the explanation as it got more and more complex.  Finally I concluded that if I wanted to know more about quantum mechanics, string theory, Hilbert space et al, I should take one or maybe several college courses in physics, or at least get a print copy of the book so I could refer back and reread until the material sank in.  The presentation of the subject matter is straightforward and clear but would require time and effort that I might expend more usefully on subjects I know more about, perhaps history, art history or economics.   March 2013

James M. McPherson.  Tried by War.   After reading this, I have a better sense of the chronology of Civil War battles, so many of which were fought just across the Potomac from where I live.  What comes through the narrative more than anything else is the difficulty Lincoln had in getting his generals to engage the enemy and to press their advantage when they had it.  The most basic principal of warfare is that destroying the army of the enemy takes priority over all other objectives.  Lincoln’s generals, particularly in the Army of the Potomac, had many opportunities to destroy Confederate armies and shorten the war, but they repeatedly failed to press the advantages they had in numbers and position.  When Lincoln was sworn in as President, he had had no meaningful military experience, but he taught himself to be a better general than any of the professional soldiers available to command his armies.  The only one who came close was Grant, and once Grant took over, Lincoln pretty much let him run the war.  March 2013

Gore Vidal.  Inventing a Nation.  Gore Vidal always had a new slant on whatever he wrote about, and he usually embroidered his work with fascinating little asides.  In this book on the founding of our nation he takes time out to tell us that George Washington was rumored to be Alexander Hamilton’s father, that Aaron Burr carried General Montgomery off the field at the battle for Montreal, that the French secret police reported that Benjamin Franklyn’s underwear was the whitest they had ever seen and that the Hessians were the best soldiers to take the field during the Revolutionary War but that their main contribution was to provide handsome husbands for America’s young women.   On the serious side he rambles through our whole history with insights on major events and ideas.  He writes that while Franklyn fully supported the idealistic principles that formed the basis for our constitution, he did not think the system would endure and foresaw the corruption of our democracy into a system of privilege.  Franklyn was right, as usual.  Vidal notes that three of the great political thinkers of the 18th century, Franklyn, John Adams and Jefferson were absent in Europe while the Constitution was conceived and developed by Madison and Hamilton.  He has some bitter words about the strict constructionists on the Supreme Court who studiously avoid the ideas laid out in the Federalist Papers.  He notes John Adam’s major contribution – he kept us out of war with France in 1800.  His account of the Louisiana Purchase is the best I can recall.  He finishes with reminiscence about a conversation with JFK at Hyannisport about the great men of history.  Their joint conclusion was that the men they admired were the ones who took time to think.  March 2013

Nicholas Wade.   Before the Dawn, Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors.   Recently I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and was fascinated by how much he could tell us about our past and why we are what we are by synthesizing developments in medicine, linguistics, archeology and anthropology.  Nicholas Wade adds a whole new dimension by introducing genetic analyses based on compilations of DNA samples from an ever expanding list of sources.  He notes that about 50,000 years ago the founding population, from which all humans are descended, numbered about 5000 and that about 175 of these crossed the Red Sea at its mouth and spread along the coast of Asia Minor on into India and from there to the whole world outside of Africa.  Contrary to what archeologists and anthropologists like to tell us, he believes that people were universally warlike and only began to become less so as they developed complex civilizations.  He spends a lot of time describing chimpanzee society to support this conclusion .  He believes that abandonment of nomadic life and formation of permanent settlements preceded the development of agriculture and animal husbandry.  He notes that genetic developments based on natural selection can happen much more quickly than is generally supposed.  As examples he mentions the development of lactose tolerance in what is now the Netherlands about six thousand years ago and the intellectual development of Ashkenazi Jews as a result of being forced to pursue a limited number of occupations for a thousand years or more.  Their average IQ is 115, which is an order of magnitude higher than the general population.  While linguists generally maintain that it is not possible to reconstruct languages spoken more than 5000 years ago, Wade believes that methods used for genetic analyses can push that back to 10,000 or even 15,000 years ago.  Perhaps the most important thing that Wade has to say is that evolutionary change can happen relatively quickly.  Wade has included quotes from Darwin throughout, and it is amazing to learn how prescient he was.  March 2013

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