70 Years of Instant Photographs


Today is the 70th anniversary of Edwin Land’s first demonstration of the Land camera introducing instant photography to the world. I’m currently processing a collection of Polaroid Corporation records related to Land at my place of work, so these historic moments on my mind.

My first camera as a child was a Polaroid 600-type, so somewhere I have many Polaroid photographs, most of them out of focus and poorly framed, but I don’t where they are except for one.  So on this momentous anniversary, enjoy my photograph of Shea Stadium from September 1986.

Book Review: The Detonators by Chad Millman


Author: Chad Millman
TitleThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice
Narrator: Lloyd James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2006)
Summary/Review:

This work of history unravels an overlooked incident in American history: the Black Tom explosion.  This munitions depot on a spit of land on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor was detonated by German saboteurs on July 30, 1916, before the United States had entered the World War.  Debris from the explosion damaged the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and shattered windows in Manhattan, so it is surprising that it is not a more well-known event. Millman traces the actions of the network of German spies who caused the explosion.  But the better part of the book is dedicated to the legal efforts to hold Germany responsible for the explosion and the series of legal proceedings that occurred over decades until Germany was forced to pay legal damages in 1939, just before another war was about to begin.  The book is plodding at times, and the explosion occurring so early in the book makes the rest feel anticlimactic, but it is a fascinating incident in American history that deserves greater awareness
Recommended booksThe Day Wall Street Exploded by Beverly Gage
Rating: ***

Book Review: So Close to Home by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary


Author: Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary
TitleSo Close to Home
Narrator: Elijah Alexander
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

The severity of the German u-boat campaign on American ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in the early days of World War II is often overlooked.  Tougias and O’Leary tell that history through the story of the Downs family of Texas as they sail on the cargo ship Heredia from Costa Rica to New Orleans.  The ship is destroyed by torpedoes on the May 19, 1942, and the Downs family are separated in the wreck, each having their own survival journey along with some members of the crew.  It’s a very gripping tale, but Tougias and O’Leary have a bigger story to tell based on the records of u-boat captains and the crews who were big heroes in Nazi Germany.  This means that the Downs’ story is broken up by long sections about the u-boat warfare in general and the experiences of their crew.  Perhaps the Downs’ story was too thin to make a book of its own, but the approach taken here makes the narrative very uneven.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into an overlooked period in American history.

Recommended booksUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Rating: ***

It Can Happen Here


When governments power falls into the hands of tyrants.

When justice is replaced with cruelty.

When the will of the people is denied by the wealthy and powerful.

The people then have the right and duty to rise up through acts of protest, civil resistance, and direct action foment nonviolent revolution.

This is how “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is restored.

It happened in the Philippines.

It happened in Estonia.

It happened in East Germany.

It happened in Czechoslovakia.

It happened in Yugoslavia.

It happened in the Arab Spring.

It’s happening in South Korea.

It can happen here.

Book Review: Who Was John F. Kennedy by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was John F. Kennedy
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Continuing our way through the “Who Was…?” series with my son.  This book again shows the series’ ability to be age-appropriate, but to also offer honest appraisals of their subjects.  I was particularly impressed by the details of Kennedy’s pre-Presidential life.

Rating: ***

Book Review: SPQR : A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard


AuthorMary Beard
TitleSPQR : a history of ancient Rome
Publication Info: New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Beard attempts the very difficult, a single volume history of Ancient Rome, and succeeds. There’s the evolution from Republic to Empire (which is not the clean split it often appears in retrospect) and there is the succession of warriors and philosophers and all those emperors, which is covered gamely. But Beard covers deeper questions such as the idea of citizenship, which Rome uniquely expanded beyond the boundaries of the city, thus cementing the empire. And Beard gives glimpses of everyday life for the ordinary Roman citizens. It’s a great introduction to Roman history and scholarship. 
Favorite Passages:

It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that make the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.

Roman expansion. There was one obligation that the Romans imposed on all those who came under their control: namely, to provide troops for the Roman armies. In fact, for most of those who were defeated by Rome and forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’, the only long-term obligation seems to have been the provision and upkeep of soldiers. These peoples were not taken over by Rome in any other way; they had no Roman occupying forces or Roman-imposed government. Why this form of control was chosen is impossible to know. But it is unlikely that any particularly sophisticated, strategic calculation was involved. It was an imposition that conveniently demonstrated Roman dominance while requiring few Roman administrative structures or spare manpower to manage. The troops that the allies contributed were raised, equipped and in part commanded by the locals. Taxation in any other form would have been much more labour-intensive for the Romans; direct control of those they had defeated would have been even more so.

In extending citizenship to people who had no direct territorial connections with the city of Rome, they broke the link, which most people in the classical world took for granted, between citizenship and a single city. In a systematic way that was then unparalleled, they made it possible not just to become Roman but also to be a citizen of two places at once: one’s home town and Rome. And in creating new Latin colonies all over Italy, they redefined the word ‘Latin’ so that it was no longer an ethnic identity but a political status unrelated to race or geography. This set the stage for a model of citizenship and ‘belonging’ that had enormous significance for Roman ideas of government, political rights, ethnicity and ‘nationhood’. This model was shortly extended overseas and eventually underpinned the Roman Empire.

So what kind of political system was this? The balance between the different interests was certainly not as equitable as Polybius makes it seem. The poor could never rise to the top of Roman politics; the common people could never seize the political initiative; and it was axiomatic that the richer an individual citizen was, the more political weight he should have. But this form of disequilibrium is familiar in many modern so-called democracies: at Rome too the wealthy and privileged competed for political office and political power that could only be granted by popular election and by the favour of ordinary people who would never have the financial means to stand themselves. As young Scipio Nasica found to his cost, the success of the rich was a gift bestowed by the poor. The rich had to learn the lesson that they depended on the people as a whole.

If the assassination of Julius Caesar became a model for the effective removal of a tyrant, it was also a powerful reminder that getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny. Despite all the slogans, the bravado and the high principles, what the assassins actually brought about, and what the people got, was a long civil war and the permanent establishment of one-man rule.

ONE SIDE OF the history of Rome is a history of politics, of war, of victory and defeat, of citizenship and of everything that went on in public between prominent men. I have outlined one dramatic version of that history, as Rome transformed from a small, unimpressive town next to the Tiber into first a local and eventually an international power base. Almost every aspect of that transformation was contested and sometimes literally fought over: the rights of the people against the senate, the questions of what liberty meant and how it was to be guaranteed, the control that was, or was not, to be exercised over conquered territory, the impact of empire, for good or bad, on traditional Roman politics and values. In the process, a version of citizenship was somehow invented that was new in the classical world. Greeks had occasionally shared citizenship, on an ad hoc basis, between two cities. But the idea that it was the norm, as the Romans insisted, to be a citizen of two places – to count two places as home – was fundamental to Roman success on the battlefield and elsewhere, and it has proved influential right up into the twenty-first century. This was a Roman revolution, and we are its heirs.

The basic rule of Roman history is that those who were assassinated were, like Gaius, demonised. Those who died in their beds, succeeded by a son and heir, natural or adopted, were praised as generous and avuncular characters, devoted to the success of Rome, who did not take themselves too seriously.

And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic and mad as they are painted, it made little or no difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes.

Most evocative of all is the story of a man from Palmyra in Syria, Barates, who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE. It is not known what brought him the 4,000 miles across the world (probably the longest journey of anyone in this book); it may have been trade, or he may have had some connection with the army. But he settled in Britain long enough to marry Regina (‘Queenie’), a British woman and ex-slave. When she died at the age of thirty, Barates commemorated her with a tombstone, near the Roman fort of Arbeia, modern South Shields. This depicts Queenie – who, as the epitaph makes clear, was born and bred just north of London – as if she were a stately Palmyrene matron; and underneath the Latin text, Barates had her name inscribed in the Aramaic language of his homeland. It is a memorial which nicely sums up the movement of peoples and the cultural mix that defined the Roman Empire, and raises even more tantalising questions. Who did Queenie think she was? Would she have recognised herself as that Palmyrene lady? And what would this couple have thought about the ‘Rome’ in whose world they lived?

The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: What Was the First Thanksgiving? by Joan Holub


Author: Joan Holub
TitleWhat Was the First Thanksgiving?
Publication Info: Grosset & Dunlap (2013), 112 pages
Summary/Review: This is a simple but honest children’s history of the settlers of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag people and what really happened on that first Thanksgiving.  There’s a fair amount of myth-busting as well as using surviving records to determine actual events.  There’s also a short history of how Thanksgiving became an American holiday and a detailed chapter about visiting Plimoth Plantation (very useful to my son and I since we’re taking a field trip there next month).

Rating: ***

Book Review: 1493 : Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann


Author: Charles C. Mann
Title1493 : Uncovering the new world Columbus created
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Previously Read by Same Author1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Summary/Review:

A sequel of sorts to 1491, this book investigates the wide-ranging impact of contact between Eurasia & Africa and the Americas and exchange of people, animals, plants, and micorganisms that followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyages.  This is called the Columbian Exchange and is the root of today’s globalism.  Mann investigates a wide variety of topics, places, and times right up to the present day that resulted from this exchange.  It’s a fascinating overview of social and economical forces at work through history.
Recommended books:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook , and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Rating: ****

Photopost: Old Sturbridge Village


To celebrate the beautiful weather our autumnal holiday, I wanted to get out of the city, get the kids outdoors, and enjoy some foliage. We go to do all three with a visit to Old Sturbridge Village, where we also witnessed an ox plowing competition, rode on a stagecoach, watched a musketry demonstration, and was amazed by a potter at at work at the wheel, among other things.

Here are some highlights of a most photogenic day.

Book Review: Hark! : a Vagrant by Kate Beaton


AuthorKate Beaton
TitleHark! : a Vagrant
Publication Info: Drawn and Quarterly (2011), Edition
Previously read by the same authorStep Aside, Pops!
Summary/Review:

This is the first collection of the hilarious webcomics on historical and literary themes from the brilliant Kate Beaton.  I was going to post links to my favorites but I lost the file so you’ll just have to find the book and read.  And laugh.  And then say, “hmm…yes, I’ve learned something.”  Cuz they’re that good.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Games by David Goldblatt


Author:  David Goldblatt
Title:   The Games
Narrator: Napoleon Ryan
Publication Info:  Tantor Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free audiobook copy of The Games through the Library Things Early Reviewers program.

Goldblatt’s history of the modern Olympic Games from 1896 to the present is a top-down overview of the International Olympic Committee and organizing committees more than the stories of participants in the games and particular events that I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, it’s an interesting look at general trends and growth of the Olympics.  For example, in the early 20th century the Olympics were more of a sideshow to World’s Fairs (Paris, St. Louis, London) held over several months  rather than discrete sporting events.  Yet, the Intercalated Games of 1906 in Athens, which were inline with the Olympic movement’s founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of a quasi-religious sporting ceremony, yet Coubertin refused to attend.  The Olympics came into their own in the 1920s and Los Angeles and Berlin used the games to make major vision statements for the future.  After some quieter, austere post-war games, Rome, Tokyo, and Munich all used the Olympics to reintroduce their countries to the world, while Mexico City and Montreal attempted to introduce themselves to the world stage.  The Lake Placid and Moscow games are the clearest examples of how the Olympics being outside politics was never true.  The Los Angeles and Barcelona games showed that the Olympics could make a lot of people a lot of money, but Atlanta, Beijing, Sochi, and Rio showed that the Olympics makes money through the most exploitative and neoliberal practices possible.

Goldblatt’s narrative makes it clear that whatever lofty goals the Olympic movement professes the contemporary games fail to live up to them, and that this is pretty consistent with the Olympics’s history.  Whatever joys the Olympics bring, it does more harm than good.

Recommended books:

Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper, How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer, and Eight World Cups by George Vecsey
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Who was Franklin Roosevelt? by Margaret Frith


Author: Margaret Frith
TitleWho was Franklin Roosevelt?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2010.
Summary/Review:

A good introductory biography of one of America’s greatest Presidents.  It’s not warts and all, but like many books in this series it includes some of Roosevelt’s failures as well as his success.  Another great historical read with my son.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: What was the Alamo? by Pam Pollack


Author: Pam Pollack
TitleWhat was the Alamo?
Publication Info: New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., [2013]
Summary/Review:

The Alamo is something this northeasterner only knew the vague details about, so I was pleased to read this children’s history book with my son.  Interesting details include the infighting and poor planning of the “heroes” of the Alamo that contributed to their defeat, as well as a broader picture of the conflicts among the Mexicans and American settlers in Texas.

Rating: ***

Book Review: What Were the Twin Towers? by Jim O’Connor


Author: Jim O’Connor
TitleWhat Were the Twin Towers
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Random House, [2016]
Summary/Review:

Following on the Hurricane Katrina book, my son and I read this history of the World Trade Center in New York City.  The book is a full history of the Twin Towers dating back to its conception by David Rockefeller in the 1960s and deals with controversies such as the removal of Radio Row by eminent domain.  There’s a lot of detail about the design and construction of the buildings, and fun stories such as Philipe Petit’s walk on the wire.  The book also dedicates a chapter to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  The September 11 attacks are of course a major subject of the book, and again done in a clear manner appropriate to the age of the reader.  There is also a chapter on the memorial, museum, and new One World Trade Center building.  On the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this was a good way to remember the events of that day with someone to young to remember it himself.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: What Was Hurricane Katrina? by Robin Koontz


Author: Robin Koontz
TitleWhat Was Hurricane Katrina
Publication Info: New York New York : Grosset & Dunlap, An Imprint of Penguin Random House, [2015]
Summary/Review:

I find it easier to work through difficult issues through books so I was impressed when my son picked out out this history of Hurricane Katrina written for children.  The book does a good job of setting up the history of New Orleans’ location and the necessity of levees as well as a primer on hurricanes and other storms.  The details about the storm and the flooding are clear and not sugar-coated (without being overly graphic) and it does not shy away from the poor decisions of political leaders.  There is also a chapter on the role that climate change played in the disaster.  All in all it’s a good introduction for children to one of the great tragedies of recent years, but something that may seem a long time ago to them.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Louis Armstrong by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was Louis Armstrong
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2004.
Summary/Review:

The life of musician and icon Louis Armstrong is explored at a kids level, focusing mostly on his early life up to the 1930s.  Armstrong grew up in poverty in New Orleans and spent time in a reform school although he claimed that it saved him as it introduced him to the cornet.  Armstrong is celebrated both for his musical talent and innovation and for breaking down barriers for black people.  It’s an interesting book about a fascinating person, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the nuances of race such as when critics called him an “Uncle Tom.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Jesse Owens by James Buckley, Jr.


Author: James Buckley, Jr.
TitleWho Was Jesse Owens
Publication Info: New York, NY : Grosset & Dunlap, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Jesse Owens is well-known as a legendary track and field star who was a pioneer for black athletes, attending Ohio State University, going to the Olympics, and winning four gold medals.  Much is made of Owens being a black man demonstrating his prowess in front of Hitler and the Nazis, but this book also points out that German fans cheered for him and a German athletes befriended him.  There’s also an unsettling moment when it appears that the US Olympic Team may have made Owens run a relay in place of a Jewish runner.  Celebrated at home, Owens also received jeers from prejudiced whites and from more radical blacks who thought he should not have gone to Nazi Germany.  Later in life, Owens criticizes the Civil Rights movement but later has a changed of heart.  All in all this is a story of remarkable and complex man, and I appreciate that this children’s biography worked through the many layers of nuance.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Who Was Annie Oakley by Stephanie Spinner


Author: Stephanie Spinner
TitleWho Was Annie Oakley
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2002.
Summary/Review:

I keep learning things I never knew from my son’s biographies of notable people.  Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter and that was all I knew about her.  Turns out she made an interesting life out of her skill traveling around the country and Europe with circuses and Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  The relationship with Cody could be contentious, especially since Annie Oakley was the star attraction.  But it appears that she also was always a kind person and spent her later years on philanthropic pursuits as well as teaching women how to shoot, for free.

Rating: ***

Book Review: In the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan


Author: Pete Jordan
TitleIn the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
Publication Info: New York : Harper Perennial, c2013.
Previously Read by Same Author:   Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States
Summary/Review:

Pete Jordan’s book serves three purposes:  first, it’s a memoir of his coming to Amsterdam in 2002 for a five month urban studies program and ending up staying for over a decade so far and raising a child with his wife.  Second, it’s a distillation of the ideas behind what makes a great cycling city. But mostly it is a detailed history of over a century of cycling in Amsterdam based on deep archival research.  Jordan focuses on the rise of cycling in Amsterdam and the many aspects of the culture that makes it successful but also chaotic.  The occupation by Nazi Germany leads to attempts to ban the Dutch from biking and the bike becoming a symbol of the resistance.  The bike is also central to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (although the famous White Bike program was more powerful as a myth than in reality).  And in the 1970s and 1980s, when Amsterdam became overwhelmed by cars, there was the fight to reclaim the city for bikes. There’s a downside to biking in Amsterdam with the high levels of bike theft, and Jordan also ponders why so many bikes end up in the canals (and admiringly watches the city employees who have to fish them out).  Even a bike tunnel through the Rijksmuseum is a constant source of wonder and conflict.

It’s a wonderful and engrossing book filled with humor and smart observations and it makes me want to pack up and move to Amsterdam right now.
Favorite Passages:

It was past midnight. What the hell were all these people doing out on their bikes? Why were they all moving so unhurriedly? And why were they in my way? That’s when it struck me: It’s the middle of winter; it’s past midnight—and I’m stuck in a bicycle traffic jam. My haste vanished. I decelerated, accepted the pace of the others and appreciated the rest of my ride home. From then on, whenever anyone asked why I had immigrated to Holland, I didn’t hesitate to reply: “So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight.”


The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required


The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required the lingering animosity toward the Nazis for all of their misdeeds. Over the next few years, whenever a German tourist in the Dutch capital asked a local for directions, the Amsterdammer was apt to either give false directions or ask for his bike back. If a German requested service in an Amsterdam café or restaurant, oftentimes the response was: “First, return my bike.”


A car is acceptable as a means of transport only within thinly populated areas or from a thinly populated area to the city. Cars are a dangerous and totally unsuitable means of transport within the city. There are better ways of moving from one city to another. For these purposes, the automobile is an outdated solution.


The film drew the audience’s attention to each renegade cyclist, leading us to overlook the obvious: the vast majority of the cyclists were actually obeying the traffic rules. Later I watched the film again. The number of cyclists highlighted as lawbreakers? Nine. The number of cyclists in the film who broke no laws (that is, stopped for the traffic signal, rode within the bike lanes)? One hundred and seventy-four. By featuring the 5 percent of the cyclists in view who were scofflaws, the film helped to embellish the image of the Amsterdam cyclist as out of control. Yet if the film had highlighted the law-abiders, the message could just as easily have been this: 95 percent of Amsterdam’s cyclists obey traffic laws. Maybe we aren’t such a bad lot after all.

Recommended booksAmsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak,  Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne, and  Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ****

Book Review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann


Author: Charles C. Mann
Title1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Narrator: Peter Johnson
Publication Info: Minneapolis, Minn. : Highbridge Audio, p2005.
Summary/Review:

This book attempts to reconstruct what the world of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere was like before contact with the Europeans.  Often what the first conquerors and colonists saw was not representative of the pre-Columbian reality as the diseases that preceded them decimated the Indians leading to political instability, and often a faction allying with the Europeans and hastening the demise of the culture in it’s entirety.  Mann focuses on three main points, presenting evidence for and against these hypotheses:

  • the population of the New World was much greater than generally accounted for, possibly more populous than Europe
  • people arrived in the Americas much earlier than the popular Bering land bridge theory would suppose
  • the Indians left an indelible mark on the landscape, building cities, managing ecoystems, and even creating the Amazon jungle

In many ways this book raises more questions than it answers, but dang are they good questions.  Ultimately, the full story of the pre-contact Americas may never be known, but the assumptions of what it was like have been tested and failed to hold up.

Favorite Passages:

What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

Recommended booksGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond and A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ****