Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe

A Reichsadler on a flaming red background -- essentially as though the German Reich is being torched.

I picked this book up because Pflanze mentioned it in his biography of Bismarck. The question that anyone had to ask after World War II was whether Bismarck planted the seeds for Hitler’s later rise to power, and apparently Friedrich Meinecke — an esteemed German historian whose life stretched from the creation of Germany under Bismarck to its downfall under Hitler — had asked this very question. I assumed that a historian (of all people) in the immediate aftermath of the collapse (of all times) would have some morally and intellectually probing thoughts on the matter.

It’s really sad that he doesn’t; I hate to say it, but The German Catastrophe is nothing so much as a work of moral cowardice. Germany — no, Germans — had just thrown the full power of the modern industrial state at the task of destroying human beings; this calls for an exhaustive moral accounting, which Meinecke is simply not willing to provide. The German people, he tells us, were fundamentally good, and he knew all along that they would emerge from the Hitler disaster. To the extent that he seeks out answers, he finds those answers in chance and historical contingency. If Hindenburg had not named Hitler chancellor, the Nazi movement might have faded out on its own. If Hindenburg’s mental faculties had not been on the decline, he might have been a stronger leader. And so forth.

I’m not denying the importance of chance in history. But if you’re going to pin the 20th century’s most important event on chance, you had better convincingly argue that you’ve excluded all other avenues first, and Meinecke doesn’t do this. He certainly doesn’t take the time to explain why Bismarck’s state is not at fault; he’d rather venerate the man and the Prussian state than study its failings in any depth. To the extent that he mentions Jews at all, it is to hint — none too subtly — that their own greed after World War I may have drawn the German people’s ire.

I’m also not singling out Germans as history’s most barbarous people, nor am I singling out the Holocaust as the only historical event that requires deep soul-searching. The United States still doesn’t appreciate the effects that slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, restrictive covenants, and the rest of the arsenal of racism have on the everyday lives of black people. We still don’t appreciate how deeply the legacy of slavery is baked into the very basic structure of our society, and we live in a land where actual legal slavery is nearly a century and a half behind us; you’d think we’d have the appropriate objectivity at this remove. So I can certainly understand why a German historian within five years of the end of the war would be unable to study his homeland’s destruction with probing detachment.

Which is why Meinecke’s book, written in 1950, is better viewed as a balm to wounded German souls while their country was still under Allied occupation than as a serious work of history. He meant to tell the German people that they were fundamentally good and that they would soon recover. Viewed as a homily, it may have had the intended effect. Viewed as a work of moral discovery, it is appalling.

Tiny, ever-so-brief note on Ferguson, by way of George Orwell

The issue was clear enough. On one side the C.N.T., on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

– George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Dan Barber, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food

Title in white, overlaid on a photo of soil and clover.

Did you read The Omnivore's Dilemma? If not, why not? If you didn’t, go read it now. I’ll wait.

Okay, great. Now that everyone reading this post has read Pollan, I think we can all agree that the bit about Joel Salatin — the Virginia farmer whose farm is “beyond organic” — is the best. Not only is Salatin pesticide-free; his cows wander the fields eating grass and leave poop behind, which yields fertilizer for future grass; the chickens follow behind the cows and peck at their poop. Salatin has created a closed ecological loop.

One bit of trouble is that farmers only produce what the market tells them to produce. If all the market wants is chicken breast, then chicken thighs and gizzards are going to go to waste. What to do?

Dan Barber’s answer in The Third Plate is that we need to widen our lens: sustainability has to include the farmer, the cook, the eater, the land … every part of the food system. If farmers will only produce what the market wants, then we need to change the market. And Barber, as a chef, knows that his people are vital to the shape of that market. We’re all about “farm to table” now, and we’re all about organic, and much of the impetus for these changes came from restaurant food movements — the nouvelle cuisines and Chez Panisses of the world. If we’re going to make the food system truly sustainable, chefs will probably be on the front lines, shaping what we eaters think the word “sustainable” means.

Barber travels around the world and meets a delightful cast of farmers who are trying to change how we think about sustainability. There’s Eduardo Sousa, who’s already famous (can’t remember where I read about him; maybe The New Yorker?) for producing foie gras without force-feeding his geese ("gavage"). There’s the farmer who shows Barber — and for my money, this is the most fascinating and disturbing part of The Third Plate — what the roots underneath modern industrial wheat and pre-industrial wheat look like. The modern roots are much shorter than the pre-industrial ones, meaning at least a few things: the roots are giving back less to the soil, they’re protecting less against the sort of soil devastation that led to the Dust Bowl, and they’re catching less rainwater than long, deep roots would. Since they catch less rainwater, they require more irrigation.

Modern wheat is inseparable from modern bread production. Since bread is now largely made at industrial scale, it requires huge quantities of flour. Whole-wheat flour turns rancid within a matter of hours after grinding, so industrial production requires some method of getting it shelf-stable. Hence: white flour.

All of this might be, at best, the sort of liberal more-sustainable-than-thou trolling that everyone knows and loves. But that’s where Barber turns this from Pollan++ into something that we can all appreciate: cuisine produced with an eye toward overall food-system sustainability just tastes better. Geese produced without gavage, who are allowed to forage for their own food, know where to look to get the nutrients they need, and those nutrients show up in what we taste. Cows allowed to wander on grassland seek out — in fact, have the anatomical equipment to seek out — very select grasses to get what they need at that exact moment. Wheat with deep roots can capture and yield up more minerals from the land. We can taste these subtleties; they taste better than fruits, vegetables, and meats that have been force-fed an industrially selected diet in order to rush them out the door as fast as possible.

One metaphor that makes this make intuitive sense to me is alcohol versus Sprite. A beautiful Scotch or bourbon tastes subtle and complex and transcendent in a way that a soft drink simply never will. In principle, industrial chemistry could build a drink that features the boundless flavor profile of a delightful spirit; but if nothing else, we can expect the constant push for higher profits to push Coca-Cola Brand Highland Scotch Whiskey ™ into something simple that’s reproducible at scale. Scotch is delicious for at least two reasons: first, that yeast produce countless chemicals that (I’m given to understand) we still haven’t entirely mapped out; and second, that there’s a patient human being tending to the process, tasting each small batch to confirm that it features all the notes expected from a good Islay malt. The patience, and the biology, just seem impossible to get at industrial scale. A world of industrial wheat is a world of Sprite rather than a world of Scotch.

Exactly because industrial wheat is built for industrial scale, it’s not clear that the world Barber envisions can supply the volume of food that our current industrial world does. There are plenty of counterarguments to this point. For one, the current system tries to shove more food into the same size mouths over time, with predictably rising obesity; a food system like Barber envisions wouldn’t require unsustainably rising output. The current system also turns a vast swath of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone every year as fertilizer empties out of the Mississippi River; Barber’s world wouldn’t borrow from tomorrow to pay off today. “Unsustainable” doesn’t mean anything hippie-dippie. It really means nothing more than Stein’s Law: If something can’t go on forever, it will stop. A sane food system would guarantee that our children have healthy, tasty food available to them.

Barber’s book is an attempt to understand what this means, literally from ground level. He meets the farmers, he meets the chefs, he foments arguments between them, and he eats their food. Anyone who read Michael Pollan and felt angry or inspired will need to pick up and devour The Third Plate.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Seemingly a woodcut of a tree with many branches growing out of knotted ground.

There are at least two ways to read this book, one of which I can get behind and the other of which I can’t. The one I can get behind is the practical and aesthetic advice on living a modern life when the Sabbath gift is available to us. We slouch through our ordinary workaday lives, not honoring the time available to us. Then the Sabbath comes. We should honor this gift of time. We should dress with respect in its presence [1]. To ignore the Sabbath is to ignore a gift.

Up to here I’m fine. More than fine, in fact. When I have kids, I intend to honor the Sabbath with them. What can be more of a gesture of respect to them than to tell them that on this day, my attention turns away from the grubby nonsense of daily living, and I focus entirely on those I love? On this day, I welcome the gift of time. Heschel’s book is largely poetry devoted to expanding on this principle, and devoted to making the reader feel its importance in his bones. In this, The Sabbath is a most eloquent success.

But Heschel was also a rabbi, so there’s a theological basis to all of this; I cannot follow him there. Time is a gift from God, says Heschel. Here I will grant that I may just not know how to read theological texts. A few years back I read a lot of theological texts and biographies of religious figures (see the list of books I’ve read over the last few years, and scroll back to 2006 or so), and every time they unavoidably made this final jump that I just couldn’t take with them: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, say. Heschel’s jump that I can’t take is that the Bible is special. It’s not just any other book. It’s not just the scribblings of some ancient tribe. This leads Heschel into the same sort of translation-mongering that you find among Christians who believe they’ve found The One True Meaning of the Bible, or among conservative legal scholars who believe that the words of the Constitution beget One True Meaning that the Framers intended.

If you don’t buy into the idea that the Bible is in any way special, then the translation-mongering is just odd. Why fuss over whether there are connections between the Hebrew for “wedding” and the Sabbath? If the document that you’re translating isn’t all that special, then this is perhaps interesting but not in any way important; discerning what the Bible intended to teach us about the Sabbath has no more importance than discerning what my grandfather, say, had to teach us about it.

If you’re Jewish, you’ll find Heschel’s idea that Judaism is a religion that honors time as well as space (with the Sabbath being God’s greatest gift of time) interesting. If you’re not, you may find it less so. To the extent that a religion of time influences your daily life as a non-Jew, you will still get value from Heschel.

So leave many of Heschel’s reasons aside. There is enough in The Sabbath without the theology. You can believe the conclusion without believing all of the reasons. And there’s reason enough in the practical value of the Sabbath. There’s reason enough in teaching us to appreciate the gift of time we have in front of us. For myself, I find it unimportant to ask who or what gave us that gift . The gift is here, and it is ours, and it is more important than ever to honor it.

[1] – I’m reminded here of Machiavelli’s letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

Heschel would say that we should behave humbly, respectfully, and with grace in the presence of the Sabbath, just as Machiavelli behaved in the presence of his ancestors.

David M. Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story

Scene from a hospital room where many, many children are in line to be inoculated. This book skates along many thin lines, somehow managing to stay on the right side of the boundary in every case. It could easily be hagiographic about Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, inventors of the primary polio vaccines, but it is honest and fair about both of them: Salk’s killed-virus approach to ending polio probably was the safer one, but Sabin’s mostly won the battle over the span of forty years. Moreover, Oshinsky could easily have treated Salk and Sabin as lone pioneers, locked in a gritty man-to-man war, but he doesn’t; he’s well aware — and spends most of the book explaining — that beneath the two scientists sits a vast scientific enterprise and a vast financial apparatus that put money in the men’s hands. Cosma Shalizi remarks somewhere that every scientist is an institution in miniature, and nowhere was it truer than in the race to find a cure for polio; Salk and Sabin by no means stood alone. Behind each was a veritable public-health Manhattan Project.

There was also a lot of PR magic involved in drumming up the funding that paid for the Manhattan Projects. It certainly helped, if that’s the word, that FDR developed polio in the prime of his life; he became the public face of the disease and of the organization that he promoted to end it, namely the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, commonly known as the March of Dimes. (Did you know that that’s part of why Roosevelt is on the dime? That’s a fun trivia fact that I only just learned from Oshinsky’s book. And I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know that was FDR on the dime until just the other day. I always thought it was Truman.) Without the funding, none of the other magic could have happened. And without convincing Americans that poliomyelitis could strike at their children at any time — that everyone was vulnerable — the funding would likely have dried up.

What I find perhaps the most fascinating about the whole anti-polio enterprise is the sheer mass of boring but utterly essential logistics that made it run. Consider the amount of labor, and the amount of crushing detail, required to conduct a massive program of inoculation for a disease that didn’t victimize all that many people: at its peak in 1952, there were 21000 paralytic cases. That’s not nothing, but even in 1952 the U.S. had well over 150 million people. So now imagine trying to figure out whether your vaccine stops the disease; you’d ideally want to give the vaccine to one group of people, not give it to another group of people, and see whether the first group gets less of the disease than the second group. But since the disease is rather rare to begin with, you’d need to vaccinate a lot of children (and monitor a lot of other unvaccinated children) to see any significant differences between the groups.

So you’re studying many hundreds of thousands of children. Now just think of the difficulties in running an experiment that large. First of all, let’s imagine that people believe your vaccine works; then you can expect doctors who know which vials contain vaccine and which don’t to reserve the vaccine-filled vials for their families; this and many other reasons dictate that doctors must not know whether they’re administering vaccine or placebo. But exactly because the drug was believed to be effective, it’s unethical to deny it to vulnerable populations. Yet rigorous science demands that the drug trial be controlled (some people get the drug; some don’t), and that it be doubly blinded (patients don’t know whether they’re getting vaccine or placebo, and doctors don’t know which they’re administering). Cutting that particular knot is at the intersection of politics, ethics, and science.

In a complicated vaccine schedule like the Salk one, which required three separate shots over a span of time, you can expect some people not to come back for their followup shots. In a pre-computer era, the record of who got which shot would go onto a piece of paper, and lots of those pieces of paper would end up in the mail to a central processing facility. Some of the pieces of paper will be lost, some of the patients will be mis-coded, etc.

These details are, indeed, all mind-numbing. So it would have been necessary to build process upon process around these forms, in the expectation that the people executing those processes would get bored and let their minds wander. Essentially, the process of testing a vaccine on millions of people would require hierarchical organization and a bureaucracy. The scientist’s work embodies a scientific community in miniature.

You can think about the experiment — with all its various protocols — like the deployment of a complicated piece of software. Eventually someone is going to find a bug in the protocols — an edge case that someone didn’t quite prepare for, where the code didn’t fail appropriately. That’s exactly what happened in the Cutter incident. Imagine being Jonas Salk, his reputation hanging on the vaccine that indelibly bears his name, during the nail-biting months after all those children were shot full of his vaccine. Any of those “protocol bugs” is yours; it has your name written on it. When children die after agonizing paralysis, their deaths are unavoidably thought to be your fault.

All of this — the logistics, the personal agony of Drs. Salk and Sabin, the lab work to produce live polio virus outside of neural tissue, the petty battles between scientific personalities, the PR, the financing — is covered in David Oshinsky’s absolutely gripping Polio. You couldn’t ask for a better work of scientific journalism, yet it has the scholarly rigor that you’d expect from a longtime history professor. It has a nearly staccato rhythm that pulls you unstoppably along. It is a great achievement.

New Rick Perlstein? Yes, please.

Leaving aside the substantive reason that led him to write the post, I see via Paul Krugman that Rick Perlstein has a new book called The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. I’m a terrible human for never having written a review of Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; it’s one of the best books that I’ve read in the last few years. I’ve not read his Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, but all indications are that it’s as much of a masterpiece as Nixonland.

So yes: more Perlstein in this world, please.

Some trivial notes on riding back from New York to Boston

  1. The Yglesias Method still works. The ratio of people who use the stupid, default method — the one I used from the first time I ever rode Amtrak out of Penn Station until approximately Thanksgiving of 2013 — to those who use the Yglesias Method must be on the order of 100 to 1.
  2. With the lead time that you have over the unwashed masses, you can get yourself to the quiet car. Amtrak happily tells you where to find the quiet car. On the Northeast Regional, it’s “adjacent to the business class car”. The only difficulty is knowing where, exactly, the business-class car is. Today the business-class car was the frontmost car; I assume that that’s normally the case when taking the train from Penn to South Station. Though you can always ask a conductor.
  3. No trip to New York is complete, for me, without grabbing a dozen bagels at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side. Perhaps one day soon Bagelsaurus will deliver unto Cambridge the bagels which were foretold in scripture.
  4. It’s really incredibly awesome that I can travel from the Upper West Side to Cambridge via walk-subway-train-subway-walk. I never want to live in a place where I need to own a car to make a similar journey. And I never want to take for granted that, despite its problems, the MBTA is better than what 90% of the United States has available.
  5. Momomfuku’s vegetarian ramen didn’t live up to the billing. The veggie ramen at Chuko is the original and still champion.
  6. To all my New York friends whom I neglected to see this time around: I’m sorry! I’ll see you soon.

“America’s Walking City”

Boston loves to call itself that, but I would like to observe a few reasons why that’s kind of nonsense:

  1. New York is obviously America’s real walking city. Sorry.
  2. If we’re being picky about it, Cambridge holds a better claim on being America’s walking city than Boston does. (Yes, that may be kind of cheating, given the student population here.)
  3. Follow Google’s directions from Central Square in Cambridge to Deep Ellum in Allston, and you will regret the day you ever thought of walking in Boston. (The presence of a rail yard along your route might begin to suggest the difficulty.)
  4. The intersection at Charles/MGH was just not meant for walkers. And there’s a series of ugly footbridge hacks around there to get you onto and off of the Esplanade. “A series of ugly hacks” defines a large part of Boston. (Sorry, I love this city, and I would like to raise a family here, but let’s be honest about this place.)
  5. The snow. It’s only been falling around here for 400 years or so. Give it another 400 and the city may figure out how to make sidewalks walkable in its presence.

Morris Kline, Mathematics for the Nonmathematician

Black background, white text. In the background is also half of the famous anatomical drawing, I think of da Vinci's.

Highly recommended, for a wide range of audiences. This book builds up mathematics from the most basic level, namely counting. More than that, though, it presents mathematics in historical, scientific, cultural, and artistic context. It proceeds through the history of mathematics, teaching theorems from geometry, arithmetic, algebra, and probability along the way. I’ve never really liked geometry, but this book made me find it fascinating. And not just the Euclidean geometry that we learn in high school; Mathematics for the Nonmathematician spends a lot of time explaining how Renaissance painters discovered the laws of perspective and based them on a rigorous geometry that they invented (namely projective geometry). I imagine my artist friends will be able to relate to this book in a way that they’ve never related to a math text before.

Then the sections on physics are astounding, and make me want to go learn the mechanics that I never really grasped in college.

Throughout, Kline sprinkles his historical discussions and his theorems with applications from as many fields as he can find. Without sacrificing much in rigor, Kline calculates the approximate distance to the moon and the Sun, and tells us how we could estimate the distance from Venus to the Sun without having to fly to Venus and set up a telescope there. He discusses the theory of optics that might have allowed the Greeks to design their famous parabolic mirror to light invading ships on fire. The volume of examples here is truly astounding, and make the book just endlessly fun.

Kline wants you to understand why mathematics is beautiful. Why, exactly, do people spend their time on this austere, arcane science? Why did the Greeks turn it into the foundation of true knowledge? And for that matter, were the Greeks as amazing as we’ve made them out to be, inventing branches of knowledge and ways of thinking that have persisted for thousands of years? (Short answer: yes.)

The Greeks believed that mathematics taught us the truth. To skip over a lot of careful explanation, Kline traces this belief from the Greeks to its demise in the 1800s. Mathematics teaches us what follows from certain axioms, but we can choose those axioms for the sake of convenience. We can invent different geometries if they’re useful to us; for that matter we can invent entirely new ways of adding numbers together if those are useful. (Kline has a particularly charming example of how you might build a system of arithmetic around baseball batting averages.) The gap between deduction, formerly thought to be the essence of infallible truth, and induction, formerly thought to be messy and error-prone, has narrowed somewhat. The axioms have to come from somewhere, and they don’t come from God. They come from humans, who pick axioms that seem to approximate some portion of the world around them. Given the axioms, we proceed step by step to certain conclusions; but the axioms are ours to create.

This is just such a fun book. I recommend it to anyone with the vaguest interest in how mathematics intersects with our world. And I thank my friend Paul for pointing me in this book’s direction.