points of origins

18 December 2009

You know those stories about immigrants having their names changed, not by their own choice, upon arrival at Ellis Island or other points of entry? I hadn’t given them much thought, but it turns out that most of the stories, at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were produced before departure; these records may have contained errors that were reproduced in the U.S., but they were not created by Ellis Island officials.

This is not to say that immigrants didn’t have their names changed, just that – as this article linked in the comments to the archives’ post explains in more detail – the stories behind those changes are more complicated.


20 May 2009

May 2005

Interview with Jared Diamond published in World History Connected:

DIAMOND: Partly. I have lots of discussions with people in the social sciences, especially economists. And there are some groups of historians—environmental historians, economic historians, yes, and world historians who I talk to, yes. But conventional early 16th century Dutch historians? No.

Almost all scientists I know are interested in the humanities and social sciences. Many people in the humanities I know are not interested in science and are ignorant in science. This is something one sees more explicitly in the humanities-based publications like the New York Review of Books or the The New Yorker. The New Yorker does not publish articles by scientists.

WHC: I remember some years ago that The New Yorker published John McPhee’s series on California geology [later the basis for McPhee’s book Assembling California]. Was that just an exception?

DIAMOND: I don’t think of John McPhee as a scientist. The New Yorker publishes articles about science, but not by scientists.

WHC: Do you find that a problem?

DIAMOND: Yes, I find that a serious problem.

WHC: Why?

DIAMOND: Though the accounts of science that one reads in The New Yorker make good reading, they involve serious misunderstandings about science. I think I’ll stop at that point, because I don’t want to mention any names.

April 2008

Jared Diamond article “Vengeance is Ours” published in April 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.


Jared Diamond sued by subjects of error-filled article in The New Yorker.

big sky, country

19 February 2009

Who would have thought that in a democracy based on geographic representation, elected officials would have the effrontery to announce that their policies would help their constituents? But it’s happening. Despite all the talk about not having earmarks in the stimulus, despite all the talk of a new tone in Washington, people who voted for the stimulus bill are now announcing that it’s a good bill that will help people in their home districts.

Take the example of Max Baucus from this recent report (links in the original):

Other remarks describe projects that really don’t count as earmarks, but in a new, bacon-barded tone. “Senate Passes Jobs Bill that Will Pump Money into Montana,” reads the title of a statement from the office of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. (Compare that to “Senator’s Plan to Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances,” only a couple weeks earlier.) But the Montana money he mentions is distributed by formula through programs that will be available to all states.

These remarks contrast with the earlier tone most Democrats adopted to build support and stanch a political bleed that accelerated in proportion to the bill’s rising price tag. Stock press releases like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) described a bill with “unprecedented levels of accountability” that “will create American jobs now” but declined to go into local details.

Yes, let’s compare those two Baucus press releases. (Hoyer will have to wait.)

The most recent is dated February 10, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:


Baucus, Tester Praise Bill That Will Create Good-paying Jobs, Cut Taxes, Boost Economy

The earlier press release is dated January 27, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:


Senator’s Plan To Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances

Notice anything odd about this? For one thing, the reporter has compared the headline of the first release with the subheadline of the second. I don’t see why he couldn’t make the same comparison headline to headline.

But that’s a minor problem compared with the dates. The premise of the whole article is that:

And as the [stimulus] bill cleared its final legislative hurdles Friday, so did some congressional Democrats who tallied their handiwork in dispatches to constituents. [Note: what’s going on with the parallel structure here?] Members switched from guarded rhetoric about a pork-free package to messages plugged with lardoons to highlight local projects, industry boons and in some cases, specific programs squeezed into the bill by individual lawmakers.

Ok, but that Friday was the 13th. The most recent Baucus press release is dated on the 10th, after the Senate passed its version of the bill but before the conference report was agreed to. If Baucus changed his tone between one release and the other, it didn’t come as a result of that Friday’s events. I suppose this could be waved off as another minor problem with the article: once the bill got through the Senate, there wasn’t much doubt that a conference report would be approved eventually and that the bill would be signed into law. Still, the 10th is not the 13th.

But, leaving the date discrepancy aside, did Baucus change his tone from one release to another? Did he start promoting provisions in the stimulus that would benefit Montana which he had refrained from mentioning before? Did Baucus adopt a “new bacon-barded tone”?

Read the rest of this entry »

if it’s not in a dictionary, is it even a word?

8 January 2009

Often, yes.

civilian leadership

4 November 2008

Timothy Noah wonders why, since 1964, presidential candidates who were war heroes have been so unsuccessful:

With the sole exception of George H.W. Bush in 1988—who won by waging the dirtiest presidential campaign of the modern era and then served only one term—no war hero has won the presidency since John F. Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960. Before Kennedy, there was Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Before Eisenhower came a century and a half of American history during which war heroes and battlefield commanders routinely won the presidency, starting with George Washington and continuing through Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Between TR and Truman came a dry spell of 36 years during which no sitting president had served in the military. But that anomaly can be explained partly by the fact that for nearly half that time the president was a single person—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moreover, both Roosevelt and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had performed enormously significant civilian duties in World War I, Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy and Hoover as a highly enterprising organizer of famine relief, first as a private citizen and later as an appointee of President Woodrow Wilson. The Oval Office’s current drought of military leaders, then, would seem historically unique.

Noah then runs through a few possible explanations, which I don’t find particularly satisfying, even when I agree with them. Part of the problem is that I’m not sure if this is the right question.

Noah suggests that it was historically the norm for presidents to have been war heroes, but he’s only able to name 14 who fit his description (which he never really defines); add Hoover and FDR – and I think he has a better case for Hoover than for FDR – and you still have just 16.* That’s a substantial number, to be sure, enough to say that presidents who were war heroes have been a recurring feature in American politics, but hardly enough to say it’s also unusual for presidents not to be war heroes.

Now take a look at the wars involved:

  • Revolutionary War: 1 (Washington)
  • War of 1812 and related Indian wars: 2 (Jackson, Harrison grand-pere)
  • Mexican-American War: 1 (Taylor)
  • Civil War: 5 (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison (petit-fils), McKinley)
  • Spanish-American War: 1 (TR)
  • World War I: 2 or 3 (Truman, Hoover, maybe FDR)
  • World War II: 3 (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush pere)

Notice any pattern here? The Civil War accounts for at least one third of all war heroes; it plus the two world wars account for two thirds. So the supposed norm largely comes down to the effects of three wars, each of which involved unusually large mobilizations – and you still have to stretch to get more than one president out of the first World War.** Moreover, each of the remaining wars were not just significant victories for the United States but seen as turning points in the country’s history and development. Given that the United States hasn’t been involved in a war on the scale of the Civil or the two World Wars since 1945, and that the main candidate for a smaller, turning point war is Vietnam, it’s hardly surprising that there haven’t been more war hero presidents in recent times.


*If you expand the category to include all Presidents with any prior military service you get to about 30 – depending on how you treat those who served in the militia/national guard but did not serve in active combat. But Noah specifically rules out that kind of expansion when he writes

Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were all World War II veterans, but their service records were unexceptional.

Most of the increase comes from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and World War II. All of the Civil War vets are already on the hero list. And no, Fillmore’s Civil War service doesn’t count towards his presidential electability.

**And it’s only by stretching that you break up the 36 years between TR and Truman without a war hero president. By the way, does Noah really expect us to go along with his math when he claims that FDR’s 12 years took up “nearly half” of that period?

the Atlantis mythly

12 June 2008

Let’s not get carried away. The scientists discovered no traces of human habitation in the Lost City, let alone a Patrick-Duffy-lookalike sub-species of homo sapiens, but it must be more than a coincidence that they discovered something deep under the Atlantic that looked to them like a ‘lost city’ in a place known as ‘Atlantis’. Perhaps some time from the ninth to the seventh century BC, some ancient Phoenicians had got blown adrift as they tried to circumnavigate Africa and someone had fallen overboard and been sucked down to the deepest depths by a freak current during a freak tsunami, and had briefly seen the white chimneys and imagined it was a lost city, his imagination somewhat disorientated by the intravenous bubbles of the bends.

Perhaps with his last gasp, this hypothetical Phoenician deep-sea-diver-despite-himself had described what he had seen to his shipmates, and they had passed the information on to the Egyptians, who wrote it up in hieroglyphs. And perhaps the Egyptians had passed it on to Solon of Athens (flourished c.600 BC), and perhaps Solon had passed it on to Critias the Elder, who passed it on to his grandson Critias the Tyrant, just as Critias’ cousin Plato insisted. After all, have scientists not discovered just such grains of truth in the stories of the Flood (the creation of the Black Sea) or of Exodus (a reddish algal bloom that might, had it occurred, have been misinterpreted as blood, and have driven out the frogs to produce a salientian plague and an explosion in the fly population; volcanic activity leading to an opportune parting of the Red Sea or of a similar-sounding stretch of water)?

Well, haven’t they?

I expected the linked piece to be mostly about the search for Atlantis, but it’s more a reflection on the task of the historian in general, and on the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, in particular:

In his little history of Plato’s myth therefore the two sides of his historical activism come together: on the one hand, the analysis of the myth qua myth, a work of imagination, produced for a specific purpose in a specific historical context by an ingenious enemy of historians; on the other, the narrative of failures to recognise Plato’s hoax for what it was. Here history appears above all as work to be done and truth as something to be fought for, in need of constant subsidy over years, decades and centuries.

But perceived parallels between Atlantis and the Dreyfus Affair mean that Vidal-Naquet perhaps overemphasises the role of raison d’état in the success of Atlantomania and they provoke him to set up a binary opposition between total truth and total lies, between purely imaginative works of construction and historical events, an opposition that is neither plausible nor necessary. It is not, after all, completely impossible that the Egyptians did notice and record the submersion of Santorini, that Plato noticed the submersion of Helike or indeed of other cities, that there were traditions about a lost city or a lost continent, that information was garbled in time and translation. I would be surprised if that were so, but even if I were surprised I don’t see how that would make the slightest bit of difference to Vidal-Naquet’s argument. What could be more effective for a writer interested in reality-effects than a touch of reality itself? The most dangerously seductive myths are the ones that are sprinkled with the little-seeming grains of seeming truth.