Grant by Ron Chernow

I’ve read a few biographies of ex-presidents, about Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln — the big ones, the founders and the man that, arguably saved the nation from splitting. Arguably, because one could make a case that Ulysses S. Grant did as much or more to keep the nation together, both as military commander during the Civil War and as the president that, primarily, oversaw Reconstruction and tried to implement the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and other laws that were passed to eliminate slavery and give rights to black Americans.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Grant, beyond the fact that he was a Civil War general, a president, and that he is on the $50 dollar bill. Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, entitled, simply, Grant, is a wonderful introduction into this man that almost passed through life as an abysmal failure, until the Civil War happened.

As described by Chernow, Grant was the most unassuming man. Never pursuing glory or power or promotion on his own behalf, he still rose to be supreme commander of the Union Army. Before the Civil War, he was a disgraced soldier, having been discharged from the Army for drunkenness. However, the Civil War brought out his strengths, and he shown, being one of the few generals that brought the fight to the South, as Lincoln had constantly admonished his previous generals. Grant wasn’t just fighting a war, he was fighting it to win.

After the war, he became president, not so much because he sought the office, but because he was by far the most famous and well liked American at the time. The terms he gave Lee at Appomattox upon Lee’s surrender were gracious and, while the South certainly didn’t spare any love for Grant, at least they felt he had not made them suffer unduly. This was in an era when candidates didn’t actively campaign for the office, they were nominated at the convention and either accepted or not. Grant accepted his nomination and was elected to two terms, where he primarily oversaw Reconstruction and the fight against the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. He and his administration and generals squashed that incarnation of the KKK. However, it wasn’t enough, and white resentment about the War and the newly enfranchised former slaves led to great violence against those same black Americans, with the goal of making them terrified to vote. The first years after the War saw blacks vote, obtain office, and political power. But, soon, the retaliation of whites led to a dominance of the Democratic party, which was aligned with the previous slave owners.

Grant wasn’t elected to a third term (back then, there was no limit), but was nearly nominated three years later, again on the strength of his fame.

In Chernow’s telling, Grant comes across as an unflappable figure, who never lets his emotions show. He simply does his job, as best as he is able, and, as a soldier and general, he did it better than anyone else. (In other pursuits, he was miserable, such as in business.) Grant let power come to him rather than chase it directly. And power did come, along with responsibilities and headaches. Grant’s one fatal flaw is that he could not see the flaws in his friends, and that weakness led to multiple disappointments and betrayals.

Grant is an excellent biography, possibly one of the best I’ve read, both because of Chernow’s masterful telling and the new-found understanding of what, after reading this book I believe to be, is one of our most underrated presidents. I would now rate Grant as one of the top five, maybe even top three, presidents in my personal list, maybe after Washington and Lincoln (and ahead of my boyhood hero Jefferson).

Maybe one of the reasons that Grant’s story resonates with me is that I see a little bit of my dad in him. My dad was also trusting to a fault, and that led to some of his business woes. He was a generally reserved man, but came alive when around his friends (though, granted, he had a language barrier that Grant did not). He worked hard and let his work speak for itself.

Grant led a life that one can respect and, possibly, even strive for. Not in being a soldier, necessarily, but in how to live life, how to treat others, how to receive praise, how to simply be. Maybe, though, with an added bit of skepticism about the motives of people around you.

I highly recommend this book. This is one I may tap into again in the future. I can’t say enough good things about it. It makes me want to see some of the memorials to Grant, such as Grant’s Tomb in New York City. Next time I’m there!

To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg, is a history of science. As he states at the very beginning, it isn’t necessarily to track our progress in science, though that naturally comes along for the ride, but rather “how we came to learn how to learn about the world.” He isn’t interested in how well the ancient Greeks did in their efforts to understand the world so much as how they did as scientists. Did they apply a scientific method? Did they perform tests of their ideas to try to validate them? Did they leave the realm of pure hypothesizing and look for real world implications of their ideas? Weinberg concludes that, for the most part, no, the Greeks weren’t much of scientists.

This is a different and often-times refreshing look at the history of science. By focusing less on what was learned and more on how it was learned, Weinberg takes us on a journey of what it means to do science. How has science, in a broader sense, evolved? How have we used it to understand the world around us?

Along the way, there are lots of examples of scientific discovery and how we did learn specific things about the universe. While Weinberg’s intention is that one doesn’t need much math to follow, the truth is that many of these concepts are rather challenging and require some time to think about them (more than I often devoted to them). Particularly when considering some of the ideas of the ancients, in which they built complex and clumsy scaffolds to support hypotheses that, for example, the Earth was the center of the universe, the more complex the model, the harder it is to get one’s head around it. He does provide an appendix of sort that goes into some of these in more detail, but unless one has pencil and paper at hand to work through them in detail, even these are less than intuitive.

However, this does bring me to one of the coolest experiences with this book. In one of the appendices, he describes a proof for Thales’ Theorem, which says that if we have a circle and a diameter, and we create a triangle from any point on the circle and the intersections of the diameter with the circle, the triangle is a right triangle. I described this proof to my daughter and she got so excited when she understood and was able to reproduce the proof. She genuinely loved the idea of being able to prove something like that.

So, there is a lot of love of science and the joy of discovery in this book. As the human race learned more about the universe around them, they also learned how to learn, to, essentially, do science. Weinberg describes this journey as a stern parent might, critiquing how far away those ancients (and not so ancients) were from true science, how they were so close but missed a key element. He isn’t criticizing, per se, but rather evaluating whether we should truly call what they were doing science.

He has a number of interesting observations about the scientific endeavor that he makes along the way, most of which I agree with:

  • “Inspiration and aesthetic judgment are important in the development of scientific theories, but the verification of these theories relies finally on impartial experimental tests of their predictions.”
  • “The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.”
  • “Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.”
  • “Science is now international, perhaps the most international aspect of our civilization.”
  • “Science and technology benefit each other, but at its most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.”

These last two, in particular, resonate strongly with me. We do science for science’s sake, to learn, to push the boundaries of knowledge. Some of that science may turn into useful technology, but that might not happen for decades or longer. And science is the one view of the world that has become international, embraced by parts of pretty much every culture and society in the world. It is a way of discovering knowledge that can truly be called universal.

Weinberg goes pretty deep into various aspect of Greek and Arabic knowledge, more than I want to capture here. (He does make an interesting reference to the Arab’s contribution to science: “For while in the East al-Rashid and al-Mamun were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy, their contemporaries in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were dabbling in the art of writing their names.”) Again, the goal is to put that knowledge into context, to show how scientific their approaches to generating that knowledge was. Some of their achievements are truly amazing, and Weinberg highlights those. But, he is really interested in how they made those achievements. And, in most cases, he concludes it wasn’t really scientifically.

It wasn’t until Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, where a predictive model of the solar system was developed based on simple laws, that what we might call modern science came to be. These scientists took observations, built models that matched them, and tested them. Galileo was an important forefather of this as he did laboratory experiments to test his ideas, not relying simply on observation of the natural world. These developments ushered in the age of science.

Overall, this was an excellent journey through the history of human learning, of the development of our abilities to do science. Along the way, there are lots of interesting tidbits of scientific (and not-so-scientific) discovery and understanding. I highly recommend it to any student of science. It provides not only context for how and why we do science, but captures that joy and spirit of discovery that drives a lot of scientific pursuit.

If Politics is in the Gut, What Does That Mean for Democracy?

In the March 2019 issue, The Atlantic published a very interesting story about the differing reactions between liberals and conservatives to “disgusting” images. Summarizing a study by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, and his colleagues, the story reports that liberals and conservatives have measurably different responses to images such as “mutilated animals, filthy toilets, and faces covered with sores.” They found that, monitoring people’s reactions via MRIs, he could predict whether they were liberal or conservative with 95% accuracy. They further found that “conservatives tend to have more pronounced bodily responses than liberals when shown stomach-churning imagery.”

This is pretty amazing, if you ask me. It suggests that, to a large extent, our political views are not shaped by reasoned thought about the issues. Rather, they are strongly determined by neurological processes that we simply don’t control. “Gut reactions” to repulsive things. Regardless of which side of the proverbial aisle one sits on, if our beliefs are so strongly connected to primal reactions, what does that mean for democracy?

Democracy relies upon reasoned debate, with the goal of reaching compromise on complex issues. No one is ever fully satisfied, but to convince the other side to go along with your point of view, you have to persuade them that you have a solid argument. Debate is all about convincing the other side of your point of view. But, if your point of view is essentially a function of your gut, what is there really to convince them of? What is there to argue about? You can create arguments to support your belief, but that is building the scaffolding after you already have the core. Rather, informed debate should be about defending beliefs that you have based on reason. We shouldn’t be defending beliefs post-facto, but develop our beliefs based on the evidence around us. If our beliefs are founded on gut reactions, we are always going the wrong way.

To me, this has profound implications for democracy. We hope, that when our politicians are working, debating, arguing, fighting for something they believe in, even if they don’t agree with you or me, that at least they have strong reasons for their beliefs and that they are working to better society based on those beliefs. But, if they really don’t have any foundation for their views beyond their gut reaction, their neurological impulses, how solid can those beliefs and the subsequent arguments be? How well can they be tied to our best interests? If they are not based on evidence or reason, can they truly be the foundation of policy?

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf is one of the oldest stories in the English language, describing the adventures of Beowulf, a Norse hero. He fights a monster called Grendel and then is attacked by Grendel’s mother, furious due to the death of her son. Beowulf also kills her. This poem, dating to some time around the year 1000, is a cornerstone of English literature.

The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley, is a twist on the classic tale. Taking place in modern times, it revolves around two women — Dana Mills and Willa Herot. These are very different women. Dana is a veteran of the wars in the Middle East, while Willa is the product of high society, having found her way as the wife of a powerful developer in the heart of a new community. Dana grew up in the same area but before it became gentrified. It’s why, when she finds herself inexplicably pregnant and then the mother of Gren, a boy that has some generally undescribed characteristics that set him apart (though it is mentioned that he is furry and has long claws), Dana escapes to the heart of the mountain that abuts Willa’s idyllic community.

Dana and her son Gren live in isolation, in the heart of the mountain, until Gren, now older, notices the kids down in the community. In particular, he becomes friends with Willa’s son Dylan (who goes by Dil). This unleashes a chain of events that neither woman can stop, try as she might. Both are fighting forces beyond their control. The story is about the consequences of their actions as they try to maintain some amount of control in their lives.

While the original poem focuses on Beowulf, the Beowulf-like character here is a relatively minor player. Dana and Willa are the true hearts of this story and events are described alternatingly from their points of view. Both are products of their world, not necessarily always willingly. They try to exert some control on their respective worlds, worlds they did not create but that they are now at the center of. Both women are also struggling in worlds created by men, though their worlds are very different. Dana comes from a world of war, while Willa is at the center of a world of power.

Through her narration, Dahvana Headley provides what I felt was some intriguing insight into the world at large, the place of women in our modern society, and motherhood, a big focus of the novel since both Dana and Willa’s roles as mothers frames a lot of their actions. The book centers around conflict, the conflict between the characters but also larger conflicts, including war and progress. Dahvana Headley comments on these through her characters. Some examples include:

  • “People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction.”
  • “It’s international news, then national, then local. Tragedies happen every minute of every hour. The world is full of worse than anyone has yet imagined, and there’s only so much room.”
  • “You don’t really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind.”
  • “Here’s the truth of the world, here it is. You’re never everything anyone else wants. In the end, it’s going to be you, all alone, on a mountain, or you, all alone, in a hospital room.”

These kinds of comments about our world and society are peppered throughout the novel, providing both insight into the inner workings and feelings of the characters but also thought-provoking, if bleak, commentary on our world. If a novel gets you to think about something differently, that is a success. And The Mere Wife certainly does.

I would say that the structure of the novel, with the alternating points of view of Dana and Willa, and the way the story is essentially told as they think, can be a little disconcerting. It took me a little while to get into the flow. Once I got into it, though, it kept my attention and made me want to know what happened next. I knew, based on my knowledge of the original Beowulf, what I thought was going to happen, but how it all actually fell into place was still unexpected and engaging.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

One of the primary conceits of Scooby-Doo is that there is a mundane explanation for all of the weird stuff that happens in their world. Carl Sagan praised this aspect of the show, lamenting how other shows glorified supernatural explanations. He liked how, in Scooby-Doo, “paranormal claims are systematically investigated and every case is found to be explicable in prosaic terms” (from his book The Demon Haunted World). But, what if, at least once, the paranormal turned out to be real?

That is the premise of Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero. A gang of kids spent their summer vacations in the coastal area of Oregon and stumbled on to some weird goings-on. They ultimately find that it was a man in a costume who was trying to scare people to get access to some ancient fortune. The kids — dubbed the Blyton Summer Detective Club — are heroes. But, it turns out, they also uncovered an ancient and real evil.

Now adults, they are haunted by the glimpses of that evil they saw as kids. They decide to confront it. The gang — Kerri, Andy, Nate and Tim, versions of Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby (I won’t say why Fred isn’t here) — head back to Oregon to figure it out.

I won’t give too much away, but I will say that while Cantero violates the idea of Scooby-Doo that Sagan liked so much — that there is a “prosaic” explanation for all strange phenomenon — he still does manage to give a scientific basis for a lot of what goes on. For example, the kids are wandering in a mine and Nate, the Shaggy fill-in, asks how the miners knew where to dig to find gold. Kerri (who is a bookish Daphne) explains that the miners followed a quartz reef as gold was often found inside quartz veins. Later, in reference to how an earthquake can cause a pressurized lake to essentially explode, Kerri describes a limnic eruption. This happens when a body of water full of pressurized carbon dioxide becomes agitated, perhaps via an earthquake or tremor, violently releasing the CO2 as a deadly cloud of gas. So, Cantero, in creating the mystery the kids must solve, has still used science to an extensive and creative degree. While the core of the mystery still has elements of the supernatural, the rest of it is based on science in a way that I think does service to the ideas of Scooby-Doo.

So, I learned something new reading this book. I also found it very entertaining. The characters aren’t simple mash-ups of the Scooby characters, they have their own traits and flaws that make them unique. The plot is engaging and the quick pace almost feels like a movie. And, ultimately, there are enough twists and turns to keep it fresh. I enjoyed Meddling Kids and will be looking for more from Cantero.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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