Empire Express by David Haward Bain

bain_empire.jpgFor Christmas in 2002, my law school roommate gave me a copy of Stephen Ambrose's memoirs, titled To America. He structured the book to trace American history through the series of pivotal events to which he had devoted at least one of the many books he published in his career. Thus the chapters on Lewis & Clark (covered in his Undaunted Courage), World War II (D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers), and Dwight Eisenhower (Eisenhower).

One of the most interesting chapters in the book was that devoted to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Ambrose spoke compellingly of his love of railroads, and offered a brief but fervent defense of those who led the effort to build the grand road. My father is a serious lover of trains, I have fond memories of taking the commuter rail to see my grandparents in Skokie, and the six years I lived in Utah left me with a standing fascination with the American West. So I was greatly taken in by this brief account. Ambrose explored the topic more fully in his 2000 book, Nothing Like It in the World, but the book received rather mediocre reviews. Instead I turned, after a mere six year interlude, to David Haward Bain's lengthier, much lauded, Empire Express, which opens with the story of Asa Whitney, one of several forlorn visionaries of the cross-country railroad:

The importance of such a route was incalculable, [Whitney] said. Military forces could be concentrated at any point east or west in eight days or less. A naval station near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, "with a comparatively small navy, would command the Pacific, the South Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and the China seas." Using a combined rail and steamship route between New York and China, which would require only third days, the products of American factories could be exchange for Asia's rarities. Compare this to the round-trip sailing distance between New York and China (nearly thirty-thousand miles, requiring up to three hundred days). World commerce would be revolutionized, with Whitney's Pacific route its channel. Each state and every town "would receive its just proportion of influence and benefits," he wrote, "compared with its vicinity to, or facility to communicate with, any of the rivers, canals, or railroads crossed by this great road."

After decades of having such ambitions met by total government inaction, after a series of Congressional battles pitting unholy alliances of parochial congressman and business interests against one another, the bill authorizing the building of the railroad was finally signed by Lincoln on July 1, 1862. This landmark event allegedly prompted Theodore Judah, Whitney's successor as engineering visionary, to telegraph his colleagues, "We have drawn the elephant, now let us see if we can harness him up."

It was quite an elephant--exciting, ferocious, possibly ungovernable--dubious in many respects to the public interest and formidable both in spelling out the burden on the nation and in the rights and responsibilities of the railroad builders. At a time when the resources of the federal government were taxes to the limit, with McClellan's Army of the Potomac retreating on the peninsula, with the president having desperately replaced a poseur with a paper-pusher by naming Henry W. Halleck as new general-in-chief, the people were now committed, with this act, to do what had eluded them for nearly twenty years. Some twenty million acres of public land, and a $60 million loan, at least, were to be handed over to groups of obscure businessmen, most of whom had yet to prove themselves.

The focus of the book is on the railroad's construction and little else. This is a blessing and a curse; it allows Bain to keep his story centered, without the many possible distractions of the Civil War years, and to go into great detail about everything from supply shortages to corporate machinations. But it seems odd to fill 700 pages of text without a greater sense of context; there are scattered references to the war, to the social, economic, and political pressures that ebbed and flowed, to the whiskey towns that sprung up alongside. But only rarely did I ever really feel the context, get a real sense of when and where in America's history these events were taking place. Strangely enough, one of the book's few historical markers was Mormon leader Brigham Young, whose nascent religious colony is ideally located to reap the benefits of the cross-country race:

When Samuel Reed obtained an audience with Brigham Young, the Mormon leader was eager to discuss obtaining good-paying work for his faithful. In the valley there had been, memorably, plagues of crickets and grasshoppers, but now, with the Saints' empire firmly established and blooming, there were locusts; for three years running the farmers' crops had been affected. What surplus there was of hay, oats, and potatoes, Young knew, they would sell to the railroaders. Moreover, as and original shareholder in the Union Pacific, he savored the trains' approach, still blissfully convinced that the Pacific Railroad could never avoid running through the City of the Saints. Reed had been instructed to be non-committal on which way the railroad would turn upon reaching Ogden.

One of the book's other shortcomings, to my mind, is the paucity of maps. There are only 8 maps interspersed through the many hundred pages, and while they provide a basic sense of the geography in question, they were inadequate overall. There were numerous occasions when a passage begged for a visual accompaniment, and even if I flipped fifty pages backward or forward to the closest map, it rarely fit the bill. This was particularly true late in the book, when the race between Union Pacific and Central Pacific was being fought as much in the survey maps registered at the Department of the Interior in D.C. as on the construction line.

It also would have been most helpful to have something of a cast of characters, or at least a basic visual depiction of the corporate hierarchies of the UP and CP. Particularly since the tales of these men's unbridled avarice and zeal are key motivating engines behind the railroad's construction. It can become difficult to figure out which side of the race Bain is discussing at any particular time, especially when he is focused on the corporate fundraising, infighting, or political maneuvering. Since he frequently switches from one to the next with little more than a line break, it would have been helpful to have a management structure to refer to in order to keep all the names straight.

With those caveats, this is still a laudable effort by Bain. If at times a bit confusing or narrowly focused, Empire Express provides a thorough account of one of the great feats of 19th-century American ambition, greed, labor, and technological achievement.

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz

wilentz_rise.jpgThe past decade has seen a major revival of interest in America's revolutionary and founding era, demonstrated most prominently by the success of works by popular historians like David McCullough (John Adams, 1776) and Joseph Ellis (Founding Brothers, American Creation). And the Civil War publishing mill has not shown many signs of slowing down, with dozens of new books about America's internecine conflict hitting the shelves every year. Yet the half-century or so that falls between these events has traditionally received only a fraction of this attention, with most texts about the founding era ending at or before Jefferson's first inauguration, and most concerning the Civil War starting, at the earliest, with the Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To the extent any consideration is given to this period, it is usually devoted solely to the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Two authors have, in the past several years, made valiant contributions to correct this deficiency. To cover the period from 1815-1848 for the slowly-expanding Oxford History of the United States, UCLA Professor Daniel Walker Howe wrote What Hath God Wrought, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History last year. Taking on a slightly more expansive timeframe, if narrower subject matter, was Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, who published The Rise of American Democracy in 2005 with the apt subtitle "Jefferon to Lincoln." The Founding Fathers considered "democracy" an epithet, yet fifty years later a visiting Frenchman would achieve widespread success with two volumes titled De la démocratie en Amérique. That evolution is Wilentz' subject:

The changes were astonishing, but neither inevitable nor providential. American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history. Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accomodations, and unforeseen events, and the results could well have been very different than they were. The difficulties and contingencies made the events all the more remarkable. A momentous rupture occurred between Thomas Jeferson's time and Abraham Lincoln's that created the lineaments of modern democratic politics.

The early chapters of Wilentz' book are the most familiar, charting the revolutionary period, the early outbursts of populist strife (like Shays' Rebellion), and the growing breach during the Washington administration between Hamilton on the one hand, and Jefferson and Madison on the other. This breach erupted into near-open warfare during the Adams administration, culminating in the first truly contested presidential election for the young republic:

Jefferson's "revolution of 1800" did leave open some major questions about the democratization of American politics. The egalitarian fundamentals of his appeal, along with the democratic electioneering efforts undertaken by his supporters, surpassed anything seen before in national affairs. The Republicans' absorption of the techniques and the constituency of the city democracy... had created both a Republican infrastructure of newspapers, public events, and loyal operatives, and a national colaition of planters, yeoman, and urban workingmen allied against a Federalist monocracy...

Yet Federalism was far from dead, at least in the northern states. And the Republican coalition of city and country democrats, built in part ouf of the elements of the Democratic-Republican societies, was still commanded by Virginian gentry slaveholders. Traditional political arrangements, conducted by elected officials -- gentlemen for the most part, well removed from the voters -- still largely determined national political affairs. It remained far from clear that the patrician Republican leaders considered partisan popular politics -- described by Jefferson as recently as 1789 as "the last degradation of a free and moral agent" -- as anything more than an unfortunate and temporary expedient to ward off monocracy.

Indeed, the next two decades seem, from a distance, to have been a time of political drift. The quarter-century of rule by the Virgnia dynasty was notable not for its ideological purity, but for the various ways in which the Republicans had to compromise on so many of their ideals, like their supposed hatred of a national bank (the Second Bank of the United States was charted the Madison administration). The once-insurgent Republicans came to be seen as the party of privilege and inertia, exemplified most strikingly (if inaccurately) by the supposed "corrupt bargain" which saw John Quincy Adams appoint Henry Clay as Secretary of State after he won the 1824 presidential election in the House of Representatives (Clay was Speaker of the House).

Thereafter, the largest vehicle for expanding democracy became the flawed Jackson Democracy. Organized as a movement of reform to eliminate a perceived recrudescence of privilege, the Jacksonians combined the evolving city and country democracies into a national political force. They also created a new kind of political party, more egalitarian in its institutions and its ideals than any that had preceded it, unabashed in its disciplined pursuit of power, dedicated to securing the sovereignty that, as its chief architect Martin Van Buren observed, "belongs inalienably to the people."

...Yet the Jacksonians were hardly consistent egalitarians, nor did they encompass all of the democratic impulses that were breaking out in the 1830s. Above all, in order to preserve the spirit of the Missouri Compromise and their party's intersectional unity, the Jacksonians joined in the attack on the radical abolitionists and bent over backward to placate southern outrage, short of disunion, at attacks on slavery.

Indeed, the only major example of the Democratic leadership standing up to the south was the 1828 Nullification Crisis, which foreshadowed the extremist doctrine gaining sympathy in southern circles. Otherwise virtually every major event, from the "Compromise" of 1850, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to the Lecompton Constitution, to the Dred Scott decision, signified an effort to placate or substantiate southern sectionalism. Wilentz makes repeated references to the major constitutional defect which contributed to this outsized southern power: the Three-Fiths Compromise, which ensured that even as the country as a whole became more democratic, the South was overrepresented in the House of Represntatives and thus the Electoral College. But as the decades past, the ability for the political parties to withstand these centrifugal forces diminished, such that by 1860 they were either destroyed or irreparably divided:

Two factors -- the expansionist pursuit of Jefferson's empire of liberty, and the extraordinary continued growth of plantation slavery thanks to the cotten revolution -- upset the Democratic and Whig Parties that had formed by 1840, and hastened the growth of the antagonistic northern and southern democracies. Americans experienced the crack-up primarily as a political crisis, about whether slavery would be allowed to interfere with democratic rights -- or, alternatively, whether northern tyranny would be allowed to interfere with southern democracy. Over those questions, which encompassed clashes over northern free labor and southern slavery, the political system began falling apart in the mid-1840s.

From here the story becomes familiar again, particularly to those who have read any of the major Civil War histories (like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, reviewed here) or one of the great Lincoln biographies of the past several years (like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, reviewed here). Northern outrage at the 1850s' series of surrenders to the South, the perfection of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian electoral strategies by the infant Republican Party, and the fatal sectional division of the Democratic Party lead to Lincoln's election, secession, and civil war.

Wilentz's review of America's political history from Jefferson to Lincoln is undoubtedly thorough. If anything, too thorough, as it becomes rather difficult to follow the state-by-state analysis he conducts at various stages of the book, despite the colorful names of the antagonists (e.g. Locofocos). And those looking for a broader scope, touching on social, cultural, economic, military, or other historical forces, will be largely disappointed. Wilentz touches on these elements only insofar as they inform the political sphere. Still, a useful book for those who seek a fuller understanding of the development of this country's political system and the relationship between the government and the people.

John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith

smith_marshall.jpgIf Franklin Roosevelt is the undisputed champion of federal power in the last century, his 19th-century counterpart is surely John Marshall. It is fitting then, that a decade before Jean Edward Smith wrote his magisterial FDR (reviewed here), he devoted his scholarly attention to Marshall, the fourth, and greatest, Chief Justice of the United States.

Law students spend a disproportionate amount of their time reading the Supreme Court opinions of Marshall, which set not only the framework of commercial and constitutional law, but also determined the power and purview of the federal judiciary as well as the hotly-contested relationship between the federal and state governments. His decisions read like a laundry list of legal landmarks: Marbury v. Madison, Fletcher v. Peck, McCullouch v. Maryland, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, and Gibbons v. Ogden, just to name a few.

It was of some surprise then, to find that more than half of the 524 pages in Smith's John Marshall are dedicated to his life before taking the bench. Despite his youth relative to other Founding Fathers, Marshall managed to have a hand in most important events in our country's early life. The eldest of Thomas Marshall's fifteen children, his childhood was largely comfortable, though not luxurious. His father worked as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax (as did George Washington) and sought success in the west, eventually settling in the Kentucky frontier, then part of Virginia. Thomas had experience in the state militia, and when the Virginia convention authorized minutemen battalions in 1775, he was appointed as the Culpeper battalion's major. His son followed, and was commissioned a first lieutenant. When war came, both men saw their share of action, starting with an early skirmish in December 1775 at Norfolk:

"The alarm was immediately given," Marshall reported, "and, as is the practice with raw troops, the bravest [of the Americans] rushed to the works, where, regardless of order, they kept up a heavy fire on the front of the British column." At the same time, Colonel Stevens led the Culpeper riflemen onto some high ground to the left of the causeway, from which they sent a withering cross fire into the grenadiers' flank. Marshall's father, Major Thomas Marshall, assumed overall command of the troops at the breastworks; Lieutenant John Marshall was with the riflemen on the flank. Colonel Woodford subsequently reported to the Virginia convention that "perhaps a hotter fire never happened, or a greater carnage, for the number of troops" engaged.

The Marshalls also saw action at Brandywine and Germantown, and spent that famous winter at Valley Forge. John Marshall's experiences in the war, and the resulting attachments he felt to the nation, convinced him of the need for a strong federal government. After the war, Marshall studied law at the College of William and Mary, built a nascent legal practice in Richmond, and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. As the newly independent country struggled under the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, Marshall supported the Constitutional Convention's effort to strengthen the union:

His pragmatic nature resisted the adoption of a large number of a priori principles, but on four issues his views were firm. He believed in a strong central government, the supremacy of the constitution, the necessity for an independent judiciary, and the unalienable right to possess, enjoy, and augment private property. Marshall's views were consistent with the major currents of eighteenth century American thought. Locke, Blackstone, Hume, and Montesquieu--the writers most often cited in postcolonial America--stressed that the purpose of government was to protect private rights, especially the right to property, and that the tyranny of the majority was as much to be feared as the tyranny of the crown.

As the states began to consider the newly proposed Constitution, it became clear that Virginia would play the deciding role. By the time the question came to Virginia, eight states had ratified. One more was needed, and all eyes looked to the Old Dominion. Marshall maneuvered to ensure a convention was called, and that the enabling motion did not explicitly authorize amendments (as favored by anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, knowing it would scuttle the whole project if each state offered its own changes). An all-star cast was called to Richmond: Marshall, Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and more. From the start, the outcome was uncertain:

Opposite Henry, James Madison anchored the nationalist end of the spectrum. His tough-minded, interest-based view of politics defined the central thrust of the Constitution. "Let ambition counter ambition," he wrote in Federalist 51, and his advocacy of ratification without amendments was uncompromising. "The question on which the proposed Constitution must turn," he wrote to Edmund Pendleton, "is the simple one whether the Union shall or shall not be continued. There is in my opinion no middle ground to be taken." Marshall, who admired both Henry and Madison, captured the essence of their historic confrontation. Patrick Henry was much more than an orator, said Marshall. He was "a learned lawyer, a most accurate thinker, and a profound reasoner. If I were called uopn to say who of all the men I have known had the greatest power to convince, I should say Mr. Madison, while Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade."

Even in the crowd of luminaries, Marshall's incisive legal reasoning proved noteworthy; it may be that the nationalist views he would espouse from the bench got finely-honed during arguments with this company of giants. The federalists won, if only just (ratification passed 89-79), at which point Marshall was appointed to a committee charged with preparing proposed amendments. These "became the bases for the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution." Despite the heat and vigor with which the debate was joined, Marshall managed to remain on good terms with his political opponents, a skill he retained and put to good use throughout his career. In fact, he would even join forces with Henry as co-counsel on several high profile cases in the years ahead.

Marshall returned to the Richmond bar and quickly rose to prominence as one of the commonwealth's finest solicitors. The 1790s were a tumultuous time, and the legal arena was no different. A new country faces new issues and requires new precedents. The Virginia bar was beset with disputes, with cases especially numerous regarding land titles, debt repayments, and admiralty seizures. He remained politically active, and was amongst the most notable supporters of John Adams' policy of moderate neutrality (attacked by both Jefferson's Republicans and Hamilton's High Federalists). As a result of the high esteem in which Marshall was held, he was designated as one of the three peace emissaries sent to France to attempt to prevent open war, the mission that resulted in the infamous XYZ Affair. Marshall would subsequently serve in Congress and as Secretary of State before being nominated to the Supreme Court by the lame-duck Adams after John Jay declined to re-take the office:

Adam's decision came as a surprise, especially to Marshall. In retrospect, however, the choice appears inevitable. Apart from his devotion to the president, Marshall was one of the few Federalists to command the respect of both parties and one of the few who would bring to the Court both legislative and executive experience. He had represented the United States abroad with distinction, and, with the possible exception of Adams himself, no Federalist stood higher in public esteem. In addition, Marshall's legal skills were superb. His analytical mind and his pragmatic bent had made him one of Adams's most trusted colleagues, and his personal integrity was unchallenged.

Smith spends the latter half of the book examining in great detail the 34 years of Marshall's famed chief justiceship. He covers the shifting make-up of the court and the recurring struggle with radical Republicans to establish the independence of the judiciary. He also highlights the collegial atmosphere promoted by Marshall, resulting in a new practice of issuing an "Opinion of the Court" (usually unanimous and usually authored by Marshall) rather than individual, seriatim opinions. This practice continued through Marshall's tenure even as Republican executives filled the court with their own nominees (a great frustration to Jefferson, not dissimilar to that felt by Republican presidents in our own time). Smith also does a tremendous job discussing each term's important cases. He provides both the factual and procedural background to the key cases, examines the legal issues at stake, the arguments presented by counsel, and parses the court's opinions. Smith has a knack for discussing sophisticated legal issues in a layperson-friendly manner, a skill he also rightly credits Marshall with mastering.

One of the book's few real weaknesses is the dearth of information about Marshall's non-professional life, a stark contrast with Smith's thorough treatment of Roosevelt. Marshall appears to have been a devoted husband, particularly considering his wife's long years of invalidity, but there are few insights beyond that. This does not appear to be Smith's fault, however. Unlike many of his contemporaries who left prodigious records to be mined by historians, Marshall "saved none of his letters or memoranda and systematically destroyed his files at regular intervals."

If such records had survived, there is no doubt Smith would have cited them. As with FDR, Smith has demonstrated his scholarly chops with extensive endnotes (151 pages for 524 pages of text) and a 30-page bibliography. Smith put this research to good use, crafting a biography worthy of American's finest jurist. Marshall deserves a place in history for his non-judicial accomplishments; for his efforts on the bench he belongs on the shortlist of those most responsible for the nation's survival, growth, and prosperity.

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

smith_fdr.jpgAs we struggle through the most difficult economic situation in decades, with a new president swept into office on promises of economic renewal, many have seen parallels in another presidency that began in troubled times, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For some this is a source of hope, as Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest of presidents, and the country he found in trouble he left as the most powerful nation on Earth. For others this is a source of fear, since a repeat of Roosevelt's political genius could ensure decades of Democratic dominance in Washington. The latter possibility has already caused the partisan hacks to start making outlandish claims, such as that the New Deal didn't work. Nice try.

Either way, FDR's reputation is at present nearly coterminous with the New Deal (even though the last pieces of New Deal legislation were passed ten years before he died in office); a few folks might also remember he played a bit role in World War II. While covering these well-traveled aspects of Roosevelt's presidency in great detail , Jean Edward Smith's recent biography, titled simply FDR, also demonstrates that Roosevelt's life before the presidency prepared him well for the challenges he would face in the White House.

His was undoubtedly a life of great privilege, with fortunes abounding amongst both the Roosevelts and the Delanos (his mother Sara's inherited Delano fortune would provide him financial support even into adulthood). He excelled at both Groton and Harvard, where he rose to be editor-in-chief of the Crimson. Like so many other aimless post-grads, his next stop was law school, at Columbia. He took the bar exam during his third year, passed, and promptly dropped out. Those were different times.

His political journey started early, winning election to the New York State Senate in 1910 at the tender age of twenty-eight. Roosevelt ran on an anti-corruption platform, targeting the boss mentality in both parties and gaining few friends in Tammany Hall, a relationship he would see fit to mend later as his ambitions grew. Setting a pattern that would recur throughout his career, including his campaigns for governor of New York and the presidency, FDR won the office through pure personal exertion and charisma:

For four exhausting weeks, Franklin, Connell, and Hawkey spent day after day on the dusty back roads of Dutchess, Putnam, and Columbia counties, giving the same speeches as often as ten times a day. They spoke from the porches of general stores, atop hay wagons, in dairy barns, at village crossroads, sometimes standing on the backseat of the old Maxwell itself--any place where a group of farmers could be brought together. "I think I worked harder with Franklin than I ever have in my life," said Hawkey afterward.

FDR was having the time of his life. Nothing seemed to lessen his enthusiasm for jumping into a crow, pumping hands, and making friends. He was "a top-notch salesman," a Hyde Park housepainter, Tom Leonard, remembered. "He wouldn't immediately enter into the topic of policies when he met a group. He would approach them as a friend and would lead up to that... with that smile of his."

After throwing his support behind Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign, FDR was rewarded with an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two job in the department. This was at a time when the Navy department was a cabinet level department, before it and the Department of War were submerged into the Department of Defense in 1947. It was also a job previously held by FDR's cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, on his own path to the White House:

Roosevelt's duties as assistant secretary were not defined by statute. Traditionally, the secretary of the Navy worked with the president on policy matters, dealt with Congress, and watched over the fleet. The assistant secretary handled the Navy's business affairs, rode herd on the bureaus, supervised civilian personnel, and negotiated contracts. But, as FDR said, "I get my fingers into just about everything and there's no law against it." When TR had occupied the post, he had taken advantage of Secretary John D. Long's one-day absence from the department to flash the historic signal to Commodore Dewey to move against the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, and Franklin, whenever Daniels was away, enjoyed twitting reporters about potential parallels. "There's another Roosevelt on the job today," he would say with a grin. "You remember what happened the last time a Roosevelt occupied a similar position?"

Smith argues that this experience made Roosevelt the best prepared commander-in-chief, after Washington and Grant, as he "understood how the services operated and did not hesitate to assert presidential authority." It is no surprise that the supremely confident Roosevelt never doubted his primacy in such matters, but it is also worth noting his tremendous success in choosing his staff. Unlike Lincoln, whose greatness as president is certainly not derived from his choices in military personnel, FDR's picks were virtually flawless:

FDR did not second-guess or micromanage the military. More than any president before or since, he was uniquely able to select outstanding military leaders and give them sufficient discretion to do their jobs. Leahy, Marshall, King, and Arnold made a cohesive team at the highest level, and they handled their individual service responsibilities superbly. In the Pacific, Roosevelt turned to MacArthur over War Department objections, and he named Nimitz to command the fleet despite the lukewarm enthusiasm of more senior admirals. Eisenhower ranked 252nd on the Army list when Marshall chose him to head the North African invasion, and he was still well down when FDR tapped him as supreme commander.

This is a positive biography, but it is not hagiography. Smith notes a number of notable blunders on FDR's part, particularly his "wrong-headed" court-packing plan, his "catastrophic" slashing of federal spending in 1937, his "ill-considered in intervention in Democratic senatorial primaries in 1938," and his "petulant" treatment of Charles de Gaulle. Smith handles the president's personal life with a deft touch. He writes with candor about the problems in his marriage, the other women in his life, and the lapses in parenting which left the Roosevelt children struggling in the shadows (each of the boys would have multiple marriages, some as many as five). But if the portrayal is candid, it is not sensational. Smith does not claim such matters are outside the scope of his study, nor does he think these weaknesses should take center stage in a life filled with such success. It is a commendable balance.

Smith's book is well-written and comprehensive. It covers the key personal, political, and military events of Roosevelt's life, quotes liberally from primary sources to give a first-person sense to the history, and offers warm but judicious praise for one of America's great leaders. Smith has clearly done his research, as evidenced both by the extensive detail of the text and by the 153 pages of endnotes and the 35-page bibliography. I've got two other recent Roosevelt biographies on tap, by Conrad Black and H.W. Brands, but it will take a tremendous work to surpass what Smith has produced.

At several points in the text, the ordeals through which Roosevelt and our nation navigated were so great that I shed an unembarrassed tear at the boldness and bravery demonstrated therein. A testament to both Smith and his subject, who literally worked himself to death in the service of his country.

A Day We Have Waited For, A Day We Will Remember

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Election Day

This is a day I have been waiting for months. It is the greatest secular ceremony that our society performs. Every four years, we collectively make a choice about what direction our nation should take. It is always a beautiful thing.

This is the first year I've lived in a state that was actually contested. I voted for Al Gore in Massachusetts in 2000. I voted for John Kerry in Virginia in 2004. Barack Obama does not need Georgia's electoral votes to win, but I did my part to get them for him this morning.

My wife and I woke up at 6am, anticipating long lines at the polls based on the news about recent days at the early voting locations. After a quick stop at Starbucks for some fuel, we walked the six blocks or so to our polling location, All Saints' Episcopal Church. While I can't say I am 100% pleased with the notion of voting at a church, this location was wonderfully free of any partisan signs or campaigning. The polls opened at 7am, and we arrived about a quarter after. It took a long time to find the end of the line.

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The line wrapped all the way down the block, around the corner, to the end of the other block. While we waited, we made pleasant conversation with the gentleman in front of us, who happened to share my wife's alma mater, and enjoyed the pleasant if cool November morning. After about 35 minutes, we had made it to the corner.

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There is a deceiving "vote here" sign visible in that photo. While it points to the correct building, it comes about 50 yards before the actual entrance to the church. Another hour later, and we made it inside the building. From there, it took about fifteen minutes to make it to the table where we were issued our electronic key cards to activate the touchscreen voting machine. There were eleven "pages" of ballots (judges are elected in Georgia, and there were a number of ballot referendums) on the machine. I cycled through them all, then went back to the first line, the election for the next President of the United States, and cast the proudest vote of my life.

Now I will spend the rest of the day making pies, to distract myself.

Chattanooga

When my wife woke up Saturday morning, she decided we should take advantage of this extra weekend together (I was supposed to be back in Kuwait last week) and go on a spontaneous vacation up to Chattanooga. Neither of us had ever been before, but we had heard good things, and the city is just two hours up the road from us in Atlanta. I went online, found a room available in the Courtyard Marriott downtown, and we hopped in the car. The ride up I-75 is pleasant if dull, like most interstate highways in the Southeast, and we would have made it in under two hours if we had not been waylaid by an outlet mall along the way. Once we got there, however, it did not take long to see why people have been saying such good things about the city.

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A few caveats: our hotel was right by the Tennessee River, and we did not stray much past the two or three blocks closest to each bank This is where most of the museums, shops, and restaurants are. We did not go into the business district or any other neighborhoods, so I can't speak to the metro area as a whole.

But the riverside downtown area is just lovely. The centerpiece is the Tennessee Aquarium, the largest freshwater aquarium in the world after our own Georgia Aquarium. There is also a children's museum, a river walking path, and more than a dozen restaurants within a two-block radius.

Once we dropped everything off at the hotel, we began our quest for the first of two initiation rites I undergo each time I visit a new city: finding local pizza. For whatever reason, I love eating at little, locally-owned pizza parlors, and have made that a must on each vacation. We did it when we went to Boston, when we went to Key Largo, when we went to Chicago (the pizza mecca in my opinion). In Chattanooga, my hunger was satisfied by a visit to Lupi's, just a few blocks down Broad Street from our hotel and the museum district. An order of bruschetta and two slices of cheese later, I was a very satisfied tourist.

After lunch we wandered over to another picturesque area of downtown, centering on the Hunter Museum of American Art, the modern addition of which was built atop the edge of a bluff overlooking the river. In addition to the museum, the Bluff View Art District includes several restaurants and shops, an art gallery, and an inn. From there, a short pedestrian walkway takes you to my favorite part of Chattanooga, the Walnut Street Bridge.

This bridge, first built in 1890, connects the downtown area to the North Shore. Unlike the Market Street Bridge, it is closed to automobile traffic. It is a purely pedestrian bridge. It is wide, well-maintained, with lots of benches to sit on and enjoy the river scene. As we crossed this bridge the first time, it led us to Coolidge Park, where a Saturday night swing-dancing festival was underway. After poking our heads into a few of the shops on Frazier Avenue, we found a shady spot in the park and enjoyed the music for an hour before heading back to the hotel.

In the morning we discovered that not much is open in Chattanooga on a Sunday, and almost nothing is open early. Even after 10am, we wandered past closed coffee shops, walked across the river, passed closed restaurants, but fortunately persisted until we stumbled upon the Stone Cup Coffee House on Frazier Ave. One iced chai and an egg bagel later, I was ready to start the day. We had a riverboat tour scheduled for the afternoon, so we decided to spend the morning hiking the Guild-Hardy Trail on nearby Lookout Mountain. It was a very pleasant trail, and I loved how quickly we could transition from downtown Chattanooga to a mountain forest trail.

After we got back to the hotel and showered, it was time to board the Southern Belle riverboat for a 90-minute sightseeing cruise. This was the only real disappointment of the trip. The portions of the river that the boat cruises are just not very interesting, and the combination of loud music piped through the speakers and a lot of bored children (and bored adults) made for a rather desultory affair. A lovely river breeze, but we could have enjoyed that sitting on the bridge.

That night, still full from a late lunch at an excellent Thai restaurant (the only place we could find open at 4pm on Sunday), we relaxed in an IMAX film about dolphins and whales and then fulfilled the second of my vacation initiation rites: local ice cream. On Frazier Avenue on the North Shore we found Clumpies, and I happily ordered my standard Cookies & Cream milkshake. We took our treats down into Coolidge Park, much quieter than the evening before, enjoyed dessert, and watched children at play. We took a ride on the Coolidge Park Carousel before crossing the bridge to our hotel.

In the morning, we decided we wanted to spend most of the day at home in Atlanta, so we make an early crossing of the bridge, had breakfast once again at the charming Stone Cup, and hit the road. We made great time, and were back home in Atlanta before noon. It was an excellent way to spend a weekend.

Walkable Urbanism

What this article calls "walkable urbanism" could very well have been written about my wife and I, and summarizes pretty well exactly what we will be looking for in a home. It is interesting to see it tied into the current housing/foreclosure crisis:

While the foreclosure epidemic has left communities across the United States overrun with unoccupied houses and overgrown grass, underneath the chaos another trend is quietly emerging that, over the next several decades, could change the face of suburban American life as we know it.

This trend, according to Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, stems not only from changing demographics but also from a major shift in the way an increasing number of Americans -- especially younger generations -- want to live and work.

"The American dream is absolutely changing," he told CNN.

This change can be witnessed in places like Atlanta, Georgia, Detroit, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, said Leinberger, where once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls "walkable urbanism" -- both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything -- from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls "drivable suburbanism" -- a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

Thirty-five percent of the nation's wealth, according to Leinberger, has been invested in constructing this drivable suburban landscape.

But now, Leinberger told CNN, it appears the pendulum is beginning to swing back in favor of the type of walkable community that existed long before the advent of the once fashionable suburbs in the 1940s. He says it is being driven by generations molded by television shows like "Seinfeld" and "Friends," where city life is shown as being cool again -- a thing to flock to, rather than flee.

I think we are looking for a decent compromise. One of the things that drew us to Atlanta is that there are still quiet, residential communities within the city that offer both the safety and luxury of a single-family home and the advantages of urban proximity listed above. And they are relatively affordable (emphasis on relatively), at least for now.

Pollen in Georgia

Pollen has invaded Georgia over the past few weeks, and it has made itself known not just through a massive outbreak of allergy attacks, but by coating everyone's car with a golden-yellow sheen:

A yellow haze of pollen descended on the Southeast in the past week, coating cars and porch furniture and making people miserable in one of the worst allergy seasons in years.

"Everybody who walks through the door, you can see it in their faces," said Atlanta, Georgia, pharmacy owner Ira Katz, who is running low on medication to treat what he said is the worst allergy season of his 26 years in the business.

Atlanta's pollen count hit 5,499 particles per cubic meter of air Monday, the highest so far this season and the fourth highest in the 12 years that the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic has been keeping records. In South Carolina, the pollen count hit 4,862, according to the Allergic Disease and Asthma Center in Greenville.

The yellow dust -- which is coming mostly from pine trees -- is proving to be a gold mine for car washes, even though some are offering free repeat washes for cars that get covered again within 48 hours.

The dust created such a thick coat on my black car that my soldiers found it amusing to write "Wash Me" with their fingers all over the hood. I finally broke down and obliged on Wednesday, and already the car is covered again. It is finally looking a bit like rain, at long last, so hopefully the long pollen nightmare will soon be over. More likely, it seems, the clouds are just here to taunt us further.

Pride and Sci-Fi

rainbowflagWhat a very gay week I've had! This last weekend was the Pride celebration, and Atlanta has one of the biggest parades and festivals in the country. A little rain and some thunder delayed the start of the parade, but my wife and I still made it out to watch about 20 minutes of the procession. Lucky for us, the route took the parade directly past our condo, so all we had to do was walk out to the gate and we watched from there.

The event was especially moving for us since we'd just seen Brokeback Mountain for the first time the day before. We hadn't made a plan to watch it the same weekend as Pride, that's just how the Netflix queue worked out. But it was certainly emotionally satisfying to be out there and help the paraders celebrate the progress the country has made, hopefully to the point where two men like Ennis and Jack would not endure the fear and suffering that they do in the film.

To top it all off, I just finished reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, an excellent science fiction anti-war novel that stems from the author's own experiences in Vietnam. It also, rather coincidentally, includes the evolution of human society to an all-homosexual orientation, largely a result of the effort to control Earth's runaway population growth. This turn of events leaves the protagonist, who has been off fighting the war, as nearly the sole remaining human heterosexual, a provocative twist that showcases the unique way in which science fiction can function as social commentary (the novel was written in 1975).

Wal-Mart Jews

Whether it's the image of a synagogue in rural Arkansas or the splendid unintended consequences of the corporatization of America, there is much delight to be had in this story about the so-called Wal-Mart Jews:

Residents of Benton County, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, are proud citizens of the Bible Belt. At last count, they filled 39 Baptist, 27 United Methodist and 20 Assembly of God churches. For decades, a local hospital has begun meetings with a reading from the New Testament and the library has featured an elaborate Christmas display.

Recruited from around the country as workers for Wal-Mart or one of its suppliers, hundreds of which have opened offices near the retailer's headquarters here, a growing number of Jewish families have become increasingly vocal proponents of religious neutrality in the county. They have asked school principals to rename Christmas vacation as winter break (many have) and lobbied the mayor's office to put a menorah on the town square (it did).

Wal-Mart has transformed small towns across America, but perhaps its greatest impact has been on Bentonville, where the migration of executives from cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta has turned this sedate rural community into a teeming mini-metropolis populated by Hindus, Muslims and Jews.

Is there not something really worth celebrating in this story? A much-maligned corporate mammoth has encouraged cultural diversity and tolerance by doing no more than hiring the most qualified corporate executives, regardless of their religious background. It probably won't change anyone's opinion on Wal-mart, good or bad, and it certainly doesn't change mine. But it's nice to see a heretofore unexplored angle get some attention.

More on Home Depot Day Laborers

A few months ago I wrote an entry about my first experience seeing day laborers outside my local Home Depot. Today I got an email from PG directing my attention to a New York Times article on the growing controversy over how these laborers should be treated by Home Depot, their customers, and the government:

Morning after morning in city after city, contractors as well as homeowners needing an extra hand or two drive up to a Home Depot and hire laborers to paint walls, nail down roofing or trim branches, usually for $8 to $10 an hour. Not only has this caused friction between the stores and neighboring businesses and homeowners who do not want the men around, but it has also thrust the company into the nationwide debate about what to do about these workers, the majority of them illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

In Illinois, several Hispanic groups are angry with the company because 40 day laborers have been arrested in recent months, accused of criminal trespassing at a Home Depot in Cicero. One Hispanic shopper was arrested by mistake.

In California, a group called Save Our State has held protests at numerous Home Depots, asserting that the company has aided illegal immigration. But in Los Angeles, a city councilman has proposed requiring all new large home-improvement stores to build shelters that would provide day laborers with basic amenities like toilets and drinking water.

Like I said in my last post, this is an absolutely vexing political and moral problem, like many immigration issues. I don't really have a firm enough grasp to make intelligent commentary. Instead, I'll point out that not all home improvement stores are having the same problem:

Experts on day labor said they knew of only a handful of Lowe's stores - the No. 2 home improvement retailer - where workers congregate. Lowe's attracts far fewer day laborers, these experts said, because Home Depot is more popular with contractors.

A side benefit, perhaps, to the fact that Lowe's has targeted home improvement novices rather than professionals. There is a relatively new Lowe's in Atlanta's Edgewood shopping district, and I can't deny that I drive right past the Home Depot closest to my home in order to go to Lowe's. It is just so much more user-friendly to someone who walks in not necessarily knowing exactly what they want or need.

Yale Women's Prison

What a crazy coincidence! Since the first visit time I visited the campus (a tragic 24-21 loss in Novemeber 1999), I have thought Yale seemed a lot like a small women's prison in West Virginia. It turns out I'm not the only one:

Martha Stewart's euphemism for prison was to call it "Yale."

"I always wanted to go to Yale," she chuckled during an appearance Monday on David Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS to promote her two new TV shows.

That was her coping mechanism during her five-month prison sentence for lying to authorities about a stock deal.

The lessons Stewart learned at 'Yale?' "The rehabilitation really is non-existent for the most part," and anyone can live for five months without good food and luxuries.

Funny, I think that's what most people learn at Yale.

Watching a Tragedy Unfold

The news from New Orleans just seems to get worse. Acts of desperation, of malice, of fear. What started as an awful natural disaster has exposed fundamental questions about humanity and our country. Where to direct our outrage? At the looters and armed criminals who descend into lawlessness and wreak havoc at the most vulnerable? At a government that claims the destruction was unforeseeable? At a society that decided everyone in death's path should fend for themselves, leaving behind those without the means or health to flee? At the suspicion that things would have been handled quite differently if not for the race and class of most of those still in New Orleans?

No. Outrage is not the response. It may be justified. It may be necessary, at some later time. For now, compassion is the best thing any of us can offer. And crass though it may seem, perhaps the only currency in which compassion can be shared at this very moment is cash. So send it if you can. Send it even if you don't think you can. You'll make due better than those who need your compassion.

GM and Ford = Junk

Alright, I drive a Pontiac and love it. But Moody's, the other major credit rating agency, has followed S&P's lead and downgraded the debt of our beloved automakers:

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the two biggest U.S. automakers, were lowered to junk by Moody's Investors Service following two quarters of losses at both companies' North American auto operations.

Moody's lowered GM's senior unsecured credit rating two levels to Ba2 and the rating on its General Motors Acceptance Corp. unit to Ba1. Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford was reduced one level to Ba1, a step below investment grade. Ford Motor Credit Co. fell to the lowest investment grade. The Ford cuts affect about $150 billion in debt, Moody's said in a statement today.

GM and Ford have struggled to maintain U.S. market share this year, resorting to offers of employee discounts to all buyers in an effort to boost sales. Moody's gave Ford its second high-risk, high-yield rating, which will push it out of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.'s most widely followed investment-grade bond index. That may spark selling of the bonds.

I'm not a master of corporate finance, but my sense is that this is particularly troubling because it hinders the future fundraising of these companies that are already suffering present financial difficulties. This will only compound those difficulties, and likely mean that broader and deeper structural changes need to be made before any recovery becomes feasible. It ought to be noted, however, that the last paragraph of the story says that neither GM nor Ford has had a AAA rating (the highest) since 1981. It would be interesting to see if/how the ratings have fluctuated since then. Whatever the case, not good news for those companies today.

Atlanta Philanthropy

Some interesting info about my new hometown from Charity Navigator's 2005 Metro Market Study:

For the second year in a row, Atlanta's charities are the most efficient at fundraising: Atlanta's large charities rank 1st in fundraising efficiency (spending only $0.065 to raise a dollar in contributions) and 1st in fundraising expenses (spending only 4.5% of their budgets on fundraising costs), when compared to the other metropolitan markets in this study.

Like last year, Atlanta's charities are still growing more than any other city's: Atlanta's charities report the greatest program expense growth, with an annual growth rate of 9.7%. Their revenue is also growing faster than many other cities at a rate of 5.1% (ranked 9th). Both of these growth rates are well above the national median of 6.6% and 4.4% respectively.

CEOs in Atlanta continued to be well paid: The median compensation awarded to CEOs of Atlanta's largest charities is $150,000 (ranked 4th). This is much higher than the national median of $113,513, but slightly lower than the median value of $176,478 (ranked 1st) reported last year by Atlanta's charities. Only CEOs in New York City ($166,400), St. Louis ($157,871), and San Diego ($157,590) earn more.

Atlanta charities concentrated on religious and educational causes: Atlanta has more large religious and education focused charities than most cities in the nation.

There's some pretty interesting info in the study, and even more throughout the site, which is one of the most useful on the Internet right now.

Home Depot Day Laborers

I needed to pickup a few household things today (bug spray, etc) and decided to take a first step in becoming a loyal Atlantan by shopping at Home Depot instead of Lowe's. The closest Home Depot is only a couple miles away, so I printed out some Mapquest directions and drove over.

It was the first time I ever saw day laborers. On one side of the street was Home Depot and its enormous parking lot. On the other side, three dozen Hispanic men standing in groups of two or three or four. I could not for the life of me figure out what they all were doing there. It was not until I was walking back out to my car after making my purchases that I pieced it together. A shiny new Land Rover pulled up with a thirtyish white male behind the wheel. Two groups of laborers raced to the car and the first three that got there piled in. They spoke with the driver for a minute, and then the Land Rover pulled out with three new employees aboard.

I do not know anything about the morality of this situation, whether these unpleasant and unstable working conditions are deplorable, or the best chance that these men have to make money for their families here or in their home countries. It was just a very strange thing to see, to be confronted point blank with one of the most vexing questions facing our country today.

GM Employee Discount

I think it is sadly ironic that I received this in my inbox the day that General Motors announced it was cutting 17% of its workforce, or 25,000 people.

gm.jpg

One Interesting Travel Note

Maybe it was just that I had barely finished Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and was half-way into Kafka's The Trial, but navigating through the Atlanta airport (where we connected from Charlottesville to Montego Bay) and then Jamaican customs seemed even more bizarre than air travel usually does. Of particularly note was the flight that was supposed to be leaving from the gate directly opposite ours.

It was also a Delta flight, also going to Montego Bay. Ours was scheduled to leave at 10:25, and had an on-time departure. The "Other Flight" had been scheduled to leave at 8:40, but was now delayed until 10:40.

So bizarre thing number one, which I'm told happens all the time: our later flight was actually going to leave before the delayed one, even though they had all been waiting there for hours, and were going the same place as us.

That's nothing, however, compared to what happened next. For whatever airline stupidity reason, they had oversold our flight by at least 5 or 6 seats. So around 9:30, they start announcing over the PA system that they are willing to give "Delta dollars" and free hotel accomodations to anyone who will stay an extra day in Atlanta (not an easy task with a bunch of people headed to Jamaica).

But at the exact same time, the gate personnel for the Other Flight begin announcing that they have extra emergency row seats available, so anyone that wants to be able to stretch their legs should come to the desk and request a seat change.

I felt like I was going out of my mind. I turned to my wife and asked the apparently unthinkable, unanswerable question: why don't they just move a few people from our flight to the Other Flight?

My gut instinct is that we would eventually be much better off if we just let these crazy airline corporations drive themselves into collapse, and start fresh with a new system. This one is... well... broken.

Government: Eat Less, Exercise More

My fiancee wanted to make sure everyone saw this groundbreaking new diet advice from the federal government:

The government on Wednesday told Americans to slash their calorie intake and exercise 30 to 90 minutes a day, updating guidelines that advised people to lose weight but gave few specifics on how to do it.

"Eating fewer calories while increasing physical activity are the keys to controlling body weight," the guidelines said.

The guide also suggests moderation in consumption of salt and alcohol. You heard it here first.

How to Make Friends at Work

This is a good way to let people know who's in charge:

On his first day on the job, the new sheriff called 27 employees into his office, stripped them of their badges, fired them, and had rooftop snipers stand guard as they were escorted out the door.

The move Monday by Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill provoked an angry reaction and prompted a judge to order him to rehire the employees.

"It appears ... that employees of the Sheriff were terminated without cause" and in violation of the county's civil service rules, Judge Stephen Boswell wrote in granting a 30-day restraining order.

Hill, 39, defended the firings and said the new sheriff has the right to shake up the department in whatever way he feels necessary. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he fired the employees to "maintain the integrity of the department."

There's a lot more to this story, especially the possibility of strong racial motivations. Apparently Hill is one of several new black officials in a county previously controlled by whites, and the murder of DeKalb County Sheriff Derwin Brown is still fresh in some minds.

Parking Lot Disfunctions

I hate parking lots. All of them. Mall parking lots, strip malls, grocery stores, Wal-Mart. But the worst, by far, is the Barracks Road Shopping Center parking lot here in Charlottesville. It was obviously designed by a sadist, and has so many twists, bottlenecks, speed bumps, stop signs, barriers and bad drivers that I've often walked there from school rather than have to think about parking.

Parking lots are probably the single thing in my life that causes the most discomfort or stress. And that's despite the fact that I take the most effective approach to parking:

Connecticut-based Response Insurance surveyed its drivers and identified what it says are the four main species of mall parkers: "search and destroyers," "lay and wait," "stalkers" and "see it and take it."

But in the asphalt jungle, it turns out, it's the least aggressive who are getting the last laugh.

Search and destroyers roam the aisles, cruising endlessly for the perfect spot. Lay and wait parkers position themselves at the end of an aisle and wait for a space to open up in what they start to believe is their territory. Stalkers, the most predatory, slowly follow shoppers leaving the store back to their parking spot.

The three methods risk situations that can lead to stress or conflict. In Hrynyk's case, he was lucky he didn't run into another search and destroyer waiting for the same spot, said Ray Palermo, a spokesman for Response Insurance.

"It's not like road-rage, but it can cause a lot of stress, nevertheless," he said.

The favored method is to see it and take it, where shoppers don't care how far they have to walk. The company said it's less stressful and helps drivers save the most time.

It NEVER made sense to me, this need to find the closest parking space no matter how long it takes. The only sensible reason I can see for wanting a closer space is that it will be faster to get inside. Thus, in a completely empty parking lot, I would park as close as possible. But to actually spend more time looking for a spot than it would take to just park further away and walk in... well I think that's just a psychological disfunction of some sort.

Con Artists

I tend to think that the dangers posed by widespread fraud are underappreciated by most Americans. It is a crime that undermines the basic atmosphere of trust and mutual respect that allows a free market to operate. It is only more pernicious, and more disgusting, when purposefully targeted at those least able to detect and protect themselves against fraud or its consequences: the elderly.

MSNBC has two very interesting articles posted concerning frauds perpetrated by con artists: one focused more on phone fraud, the other on the general fake sweepstakes phenomenon. This has been an ongoing problem for years, but it is something I thing everyone should educate themselves about, and make sure their friends and family (especially older relatives) are aware of. Some key points:

Many cleverly-designed sweepstakes entries are really just a fishing expedition by con artists. Fill one out, send in the money and criminals know you are gullible. Your name and contact information land on what's known in the business as a "sucker's list," and it's sold over and over again to con artists.

What follows is a deluge of fraudulent telemarketing calls, almost always from Canadian-based con artists. If you'll pay $10 for a dream, the thinking goes, you'll probably pay $100, $1,000, or $10,000. Sometimes even more -- much more. Federal investigators say fraudulent sweepstakes entries have reached near epidemic proportions, particularly among the elderly.

Further tips:

If someone you know seems to be getting an unusual amount of sweepstakes, lottery and investment offers in the mail it's your best clue they either are or are soon to be targeted and already under the spell of phone gangsters. Some people end up getting hundreds of pieces of mail just in a week's time.

Phone gangsters always give their victims reasons why they should not talk about their prize winnings, tax payments or any investigations with anyone So if you suspect a loved one is under the spell of these criminals, just asking them may not be enough. And looking at their checking account may not provide clues either. Conmen often ask the victims to get cash and wire it or send cashiers checks.

If anyone calls asking you to send money for prize winnings or secret investments, hang up immediately. The more time you spend talking with these men, the more chance you have of being duped. They are often highly skilled conmen who will pursue you relentlessly if you give the slightest indication you can be engaged.

Don't let yourself or anyone you care about be scammed by these crooks.

Stolen Luggage

So the TSA is going to start paying for claims by airlines passengers that their luggage was damaged or stolen:

Two dozen screeners in New York, New Orleans, Detroit, Spokane, Wash., and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., have been charged with stealing from checked bags.

Lost, stolen or damaged items include watches, jewelry, suits, prescription drugs, computers, cash and underwear.

As the saying goes, one of those things is not like the others.

Trump in Less Trouble Than I Thought

Here's what the CNN headline actually said:

Trump set to fire himself

Here's what I thought it said:

Trump set fire to himself

Imagine my relief. Here's the actual story if you're interested in Trump's woes despite the apparent lack of any self-immolation whatsoever.

Is Wal-Mart a Drain on the Economy?

It turns out Wal-Mart might not be such a bargain after all:

A recent University of California, Berkeley study found that the fast growing retailer takes more from communities than it gives.

"Because of the low wages and because people do not have health insurance through their employer, people rely on public support to make ends meet," says the school's Ken Jacobs.

Estimates are the result is a tab to California taxpayers of $82-million a year for health care, food stamps, and other social services.

Wal-Mart counters that it pays far more in tax than that, and that it hires from areas of the workforce that are underemployed, including seniors and students.

It would take a more advanced understanding of economics for me to fully grasp what is going on here, but it seems to me that so long as Wal-Mart stays within the bounds of the law (which they have had some problems with), the government ought not have much to say about this. If we are really so concerned about these employees, we ought to increase the minimum wage and/or required certain benefits.

Of course, there is a bigger non-legal issue here, and that is what the story is going after: are Americans really saving money by shopping at discount stores, when the discount arises from low wages and no benefits to employees? If, as the study alleges, public support of those stores' employees is so costly, the required taxes may offset any in-store savings.

In the end, though, it is hard to imagine the average not-so-sophisticated American shopper recognizing that in the larger economic scheme of things, their Wal-Mart purchases are not saving them all that much money. These are the same people who have extra wages withheld in an attempt to save money, effectively taking out a zero-interest savings account with the US government when an interest-bearing account is available at any bank in America.

UPDATE:Sebastian Holsclaw points out some of the flaws in the study:

The first flaw is that the study assumes that if these people were not working at WalMart they would not be getting public assistance. That is an assumption which requires a serious defense if we are to get past it. Many WalMart jobs are the very first step into the working world. For many of these people this is either a first job or their first job in a long time. It doesn't seem a stretch to suspect that many of them would be unemployed if they weren't working at WalMart.

He's got a lot more, and it doesn't take an advanced understanding of economics to grasp the points he is making. Thanks, Sebastian.

Abstinence Only

I understand that people have a lot of mixed feelings about the effectiveness of abstinence-only curriculums in American public schools. I happen to think it a terrible idea, akin to closing one's eyes and hoping things just get better. But I would hope that certain aspects of the Texas textbook debate would embarrass even abstinence-only advocates:

For example, one textbook under review advises that a good way a teen-ager can prevent a sexually transmitted disease is to get plenty of rest so he or she can have a clear head about sex and choose abstinence.

Unbelievable.

No Atkins in Schools

Once in a while, public schools ought to be praised for getting it right:

Low-carb diets like Atkins and South Beach are changing the contents of grocery stores and the orders at fast-food restaurants.

But in school lunch lines -- and at the national meeting of the school food service association this week -- bread isn't a bad word.

I'm not even sold on Atkins diets being particularly healthy for adults, but that's an arguable question. The problem with children's diets is that they eat too much shit, not too many carbohydrates. So while a low-carb candy bar might be less harmful than a regular candy bar, the better answer would be fruit.

The story includes this groundbreaking news:

[H]uge portions and lack of exercise are the real causes of American obesity, not an occasional cookie or snack.

Try bringing back gym classes where they've been eliminated. Get children outside after school, keep track of how much they've been eating, and things will be fine. Let them eat crap, whether eggs and bacon or chocolate cake, and watch TV all night, and they'll be fat.

Contrasts

A study in contrasts for me coming out of the Metro this morning. Like many others, I read "Metro" (the free tabloid-style newspaper published by the Washington Post) on my way to work. Like many others, I am finished with it by the end of my commute. As you exit a metro station, they have conveniently put big newspaper recycling bins right next to the trash cans.

Yet as my fellow subway riders departed the station, the four people in front of people all tossed their newspapers in the trash. I was the only one to put it in the newspaper recycling bin. Seriously, what the hell is that about? I can understand (though not respect) the argument that recycling is more work, more expensive, whatever. But when the recycling bin is sitting right next to the trash can, and you still choose to throw it away... that's disgraceful.

Fortunately for me, my morning was wonderfully redeemed only minutes later during the escalator ride out of the station. An older Asian gentleman was sitting outside the station, as he is known to do once a week or so, and playing a gorgeous Eastern melody on what I assume is a cello. I absolutely love Chinese and Japanese string music (I'm less familiar with other Asian countries), so this is a delight for me everytime I encounter him. It always gives me great pleasure to put $5 in his jar. This gentleman and his music are pure grace.

Night Vision Goggles?

I understand the problem with music and film piracy. I really do, and I am sympathetic to some industry efforts to stem the tide. When they go overboard, however, as they seem so happy to do, I can't help but laugh. Case in point:

MPAA director John Malcolm said the industry has vowed to vigorously prosecute video pirates, and has encouraged theater owners to use metal detectors and night-vision goggles to secure screenings.

Yeah, that's the ticket. Charge us $10 to watch your crappy movie and $5 for bad popcorn. Then make us all pass through metal detectors to get to the theater. Nothing the moviegoer wants more than airport-like security at the cinema. And to top it off, give night vision goggles to the teenage theater ushers and have them roam around during the movie to try and catch film pirates. That's just a brilliant, brilliant plan. I have really got to hand it to these industry folks, they have successfully expelled all sense of reality from their minds.

Murderer's Parents

It is not that I am totally unsympathetic to the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers. To whatever extent, ultimately indeterminable, that they could not have predicted or prevented their son's crime, then they too are victims of the Columbine tragedy. They lost their son in two senses: most obviously in the fact that he died, but also in that he left them as a murderer, not as the person they thought he was. In addition to never knowing him again, they found out that they had never known him at all.

Nonetheless, I would have preferred they remain silent rather than give an interview which amounts to little more than evasion, denial, and confrontation. There is precious little that the parents of a murderer can offer to the parents of their child's victims, but I imagine silence is always preferable to defiance.

Low-Carb Coke

This story on low-carb Coke (I guess Diet Coke doesn't count?) reminds me of one of the more patently absurd things I've seen in a long time. In the local Harris Teeter, like many grocery stores I'm sure, they have started placing little flags signalling "Low-Carb Food!" to entice Atkins and South Beach fanatics.

That's all well and good, and I can't fault the stores for trying to capitalize on the latest health fad. But what was the first thing I saw labelled as such?

Butter. Unsalted sticks of butter. A low-carb food. Makes a great snack.

The Apprentice

A conversation overheard in Wal-Mart today:

Employee #1: Did you see the last episode of The Apprentice?
Employee #2: Yes.
Employee #1: Who won?
Employee #2: Bill.
Employee #3: Yeah, and now he get's a $250,000 job. They call it "reality TV." Whose reality is that?
Employees #1 and #2: [Pondering]
Employee #3: Yeah.

Well put.

OH Suspect Slipped Through

It looks like OH police had their sniper suspect within their grasp on multiple occasions:

The man authorities seek in connection with 24 Ohio shootings was pulled over twice for speeding after the attacks began last May, court records show.

Charles McCoy Jr. was ticketed for speeding May 26 -- more than two weeks after the shootings began. He was ticketed again November 4 -- three weeks before the one fatal shooting in the series of firings.

Imagine the frustration the police must feel upon learning about this. Though of course they likely had no reason to suspect or detain the man any longer than they did, this is the kind of thing that just eats at you.

This part caught my eye as well:

Pappas also said the suspect is considered "suicidal with homicidal tendencies," although he declined to say how authorities came to that conclusion.

It's a shame that people with suicidal and homicidal tendencies so often seem to act on the latter before the former. I think suicide is a tragic and terrible thing, but I don't think it's too cold-hearted to wish that a lot of the murders and murder/suicides we see were just suicides instead. Not much way to encourage such behavior though:

If you are planning to kill your family, your friends, your co-workers, or random strangers before killing yourself, please consider the alternative of simply killing yourself and wreaking no further harm or havoc on the world.

There's no hotline for that. Though sometimes I think there should be.

Transitory Values

Having briefly pondered Chekhov's views on the transitory nature of societal values and wisdom, I thought I'd throw open the question for discussion. One hundred years ago, it was widely believed that blacks were an inferior race, that racial purity must be maintained, that all women should stay at home, and so on. They likely did not have much hope of flight, either in the air or in space. They didn't have antibiotics. We look back on these things, and most of us shake our heads, either in disgust at their values or mild amusement at their limited understanding of science. I look back on 1904 and most envy the lack of urban sprawl, and am most disgusted at their racial policies.

Yet how will we be viewed in one hundred years? Here's the game I'd like to play, if you'd all be so obliged: name the one thing about America as it is now that the America (if it exists as such) of 2104 will look back on with the most admiration/envy/nostalgia, and the one thing the America of 2104 will look back on with the most disgust/pity.

I think people will be nostalgic for the days before total information awareness eliminated privacy, and disgusted at our massive consumption of nonrenewable resources and creation of garbage and waste.

UPDATE: Micah at Crooked Timber has posted his thoughts, and his commenters have interesting things to say as well.

States Visited

Via Sasha Volokh, I found a program that lets you mark all the states you've been to in red; my results:


Go here to make your own.

States Ending in "A"

I was actually offended at the ignorance of a radio disc jockey this morning. It takes a lot to provoke that reaction, since I've gotten pretty used to hearing stupid things on radio and television. Anyhow, this is the gist of his comments:

I want to apologize to everyone for a mistake I made on the air yesterday. I made the claim that Florida was the only state that ends with the letter "a." I got several angry calls from listeners from South Carolina, pointing out that South Carolina also ends with an "a." So I was wrong, there are actually two states that end with "a."

I was almost willing to forgive that he forgot [Alabama - sorry!], Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. But geez, if you've got South Carolina, shouldn't you at least be able to remember North Carolina? Anyhow, the only redeeming possibility is that it was a terribly unfunny attempt at humor, devoid of any irony or intelligence. It sure did not come across that way.

Common Ground

Finally, something David Bernstein and I can agree about:

I've noticed that Americans have a tendency to publicly attribute any success they have had--anything ranging from winning a Little League playoff game to winning the lottery--to God's intervention on their behalf. But I haven't noticed a countervailing tendency to blame God when things go wrong, an especially annoying defect in the sports world, where victories are freely attributed to Jesus's blessings.

Amen to that. Here's what I've said about this before:

There was a story a few months/years ago where a little boy was protected from a bullet by a Bible he was holding after leaving church. "God protected him," everyone said. Well his brother was standing right next to him, was shot, and died. I guess God didn't like him as much, right?

Gay Bishop Consecrated

I think this is fantastic. I'll tell you what I like best about it: it was not court-ordered. I may think the Boy Scouts (et al) are wrong to exclude gays (in fact I do), but I would much prefer to see internal pressures rather than injunctive relief resulting in the first openly gay man accepted as a scoutmaster.

Kudos to the General Convention for having the foresight to approve this and the courage to follow through.

Gay School Segregation?

I've not heard anything about this before, but right off the bat it sounds like a bad idea:

New York City is creating the nation's first public high school for gays, bisexuals and transgender students.

My initial reaction is to wonder how they will justify excluding heterosexual students if this really is a public school. It's unclear how the funding works:

The school is an expansion of a two-classroom public school program that began in 1984. A gay-rights youth advocacy group, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, has managed and financed the program since its inception.

My second reaction is to think this is a horrible example of self-segregation that does damage both to all involved. I mean, isn't this the anti-thesis of all the pro-diversity stuff we've heard about affirmative action? Those segregated will miss out on the benefits of normalcy (as well as the necessary socialization of being surrounded by heterosexuals). Those left in the normal schools will miss the important lessons of interacting with gays, instead suffering the traditional deprivation of thinking that no one they know is gay.

And New York City? Of all the places that ought to be able to have fully-integrated classrooms, a nice liberal urban place like New York should be at the top.

UPDATE: Check out Half the Sins of Mankind for more.

Class v. Weight

Here's a post that's probably going to come off as elitist or classist, but is intended as a legitimate question. Is there a correlation between income and obesity?

We keep hearing these dreadful statistics about how overweight Americans are, and I keep looking around and wondering where these people are. Over the past couple weeks I've made several trips to Wal-mart (which I assume has a pretty solidly lower and middle-class clientele), and have consciously noticed how overweight almost everyone seemed. The only connection I could make is that I've spent most of my life in very wealthy places (high school in Park City, Utah; college at Harvard; law school) and neither my peers nor my professors ever approached the average obesity level for our country. Now having spent the summer at the law school, I've also noticed that, for the most part, the only overweight people I see are secretaries or custodial staff.

Has anyone else noticed this? Have there been any studies? Am I totally wrong?

Be Nice to the Person Behind the Counter

I was at the bank this morning, and a gentleman at the next teller had to give a fingerprint verification for some reason. As soon as he was done, he asks the teller: "Now where am I going to wipe my hand?"

The teller hands him some dry tissues, but the gentleman is quite unsatisfied. "No, no, no, you're telling me you don't have any wet tissues? Well then I want to talk to your manager. Where is he? Oh, it's a she? Well I guess I just have a sexist attitude. This is a big customer service problem you have here, making customers get all this black crap on their thumbs and not giving them wet tissues to wipe it off with..." etc, etc, etc... then he starts talking about how he needs the cash because his other bank won't take a check, and blah blah blah.

And it's this 20-something teller, just looking at this guy with the most perfected blank stare.

It reminded me of the years I spend working in both the arts and athletic ticket offices at Harvard. I got yelled at because we reserved certain floor seats for handicapped persons in wheelchairs, we gave priority seating at Harvard/Yale to alumni, we limited Beanpot tickets to 4 per customer, we gave family benefits to unmarried gay couples but not unmarried straight couples, and so on. People would yell, bang on the window, hang up, huff away and come back fuming, and the like.

Why do people treat those behind the counter like this? You KNOW they aren't responsible for the policy you're upset with, and can't do anything about it. In addition, all the other customers have to listen to your whining, which does nothing but make you look like an asshole. So either politely ask for the manager (and then shut up and wait to speak to them) or save your bitching for something worthwhile.

What Goes Around...

Comes around:

Harvard has revoked its admission of Blair Hornstine, the prospective member of the Class of 2007 who made national headlines when she sued her school system to ensure she would be her high school�s sole valedictorian.

Following a widely-publicized report that Hornstine had plagiarized material in articles she wrote for her local paper, the Harvard admissions office has rescinded her offer to attend Harvard in the fall, according to a source involved with the decision.

Do I really wish this ill on Blair? No, I don't think I do. Certainly it'd be better to find a more direct way to teach her father a lesson, without further damaging her. But still, it is nice to see some consequences come of that family's outrageous behavior. I don't know if anyone will learn anything from the experience, but maybe some good will come of it.

The Economics of Milk

So here's a question for those whose knowledge of economics, unlike mine, did not end with AP Economics in high school. I was at the grocery store today and noticed that milk was on sale ($2.49 a gallon, down from $2.99). This struck me as rather strange, and got me thinking.

So my first question is, am I right in assuming that the profit margin on milk is probably small? My amateur logic assumes that the competitive market price could be pretty low because there are so many sources of milk, while still bringing in profits because it is such a high volume product.

On the off chance this thinking is correct, then taking almost 17% off the price would probably lead to a loss on the sale of that item. If so, why would they do this? One reason grocery stores put items on sale is to get people to give the product a try, hoping that they will continue to buy even after the sale is lifted. This seems an unlikely strategy to apply to milk, which would seem to already have a pretty stable demand. So the only thing I could think of is that they were selling milk as a loss leader. Does that sound right?

I know it's not a particularly interesting or complicated economic question, just one that I'd really like the answer to.

(By the way, all pints of Ben & Jerry's were $1 off... I bought 4 of the Half Baked frozen yogurt).

WTC Architecture

Daniel Berkman over at Red Weather (one of the new magistrates on the blogroll) has an interesting post about the importance of architecture, the potential of the WTC site, and how it might be squandered:

The rebuilding of the WTC proposed an architecture that had the power to change the way people thought about space, and the way they thought about their lives... The way people wanted to talk about the WTC competition at dinner parties reflected a new prominence for architecture in the national discourse.

But architecture is a process. It is a long process and things change... The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York now says that Larry Silverstein, the developer in charge of the WTC site, plans to change the proposal to include among other things a Mall(a Westfield Shopping town to be precise), a fountain on the footprint site, and a new bland office tower(or office towers).

Oh well. Here's to hoping that architecture as art isn't really dead.

UPDATE: Here's a follow-up at Red Weather.

Perspective

This is not the kind of person I'd be excited to hear speak at my high school graduation:

Blair Hornstine's latest report card had four A-plus grades in five courses. She scored a 1570 out of 1600 on the SAT and is deciding whether to attend Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Princeton or Cornell -- all of which have accepted her.

But despite her best-in-her-class grades, her school district wants to name her co-valedictorian with two other students.

Hornstine, the 18-year-old daughter of a state Superior Court judge, has asked a federal judge to intervene, saying that being forced to share with students with lesser grades would detract from what she has accomplished.

Has everyone lost the ability to sustain a self-identity independent of relative terms? Can't she just be happy with her successes and opportunities irregardless of who does or does not share them?

(Hey Blair, I did better than you on the SATs. Maybe I should sue to get your Harvard admission enjoined, since your attendance would detract from what I accomplished).

I hope the judge tosses this back in her face.

Okay. I'm exhaling now.

Video Games

Interesting study on the use of video games, emphasizing the difference between low and high income households, though this is the part I'm most interested in:

The study... found that overall, teenagers spend less time playing games than watching TV, going online or listening to the radio. However, game playing occupied more of their time than reading books and magazines, it said.

So let's get this straight, teenagers spend more time watching TV, on the Internet, listening to music, AND playing computer games than they do reading? That doesn't leave much time for books.

Losing Control

This is one upset man:

The angry North Carolina tobacco farmer who threatened from his tractor to detonate explosives on the National Mall in Washington last week erupted in a federal courtroom Wednesday, forcing a federal magistrate judge to flee as marshals struggled to haul the defendant away.

$2 at Taco Bell

Funny story (via Team Stryker, helping to add some humor to a rough day).

Thomas Jefferson gets no respect at Taco Bell. Fittingly, at Monticello they have piles of $2 bills to use when making change. It's a nice touch.

UPDATE: More stories about strange currency transactions.

Elizabeth Smart

Miracle. Elizabeth Smart was found. I went to high school with one of her cousins (the one on the right in the Reuters photo)... amazing to finally hear a happy ending to one of these horror stories.

Made in America

Very strange ad for Craftsman tools on page 19 of this month's Popular Science. The slogan reads:

Made in America.
Because you need something to fix the things that aren't.

Sound like the foreign policy of someone you know?

Religion in America

Charles Murtaugh has a good post summarizing the current debate about religion in America, and particularly the strain between secular liberals and evangelical Christians. I find myself in quite a strange position personally, as I'm often but not always liberal, and always religious but never Christian (raised in a secularly Jewish household but a student of Zen Buddhism since college).

What I have noticed in my own experience is that I usually connect better with people who have a devotion to something greater than themselves. It need not be religion (though that is a common source), it can be philosophy or nature or science. It just needs to be something that ties the world together and gives them a sense of their place in it.

D.C. in the Crosshairs

UPI is suggesting that D.C. is the most likely target for another terrorist attack:

It may well explain why the president spends so much time on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and away from the White House since this and other locations may well be far more easy to defend against unexpected surprise attack, possibly utilizing weapons of mass destruction.

It would explain why Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have been positioned around the Capitol and why guards there have been equipped with automatic rifles.

It would also explain why President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney who, by all accounts have excellent personal and professional relations, avoid each other like the plague as much as possible, putting entire states or large sections of the continent between them. This makes a great deal of sense if they believe that al Qaida is determined to launch more decapitation attacks to paralyze or even destroy the natural line of succession of the U.S. government.

What this doesn't explain is why Bush and Congress have failed to fund domestic terrorism preparations as promised.

Tech/Media Mergers

Many have objected to the growth of giant media conglomerations as an ominous sign for the future of creative and diverse content. Now it seems that the stronger argument against these mergers is that they just don't work. News.com has a brief look at AOL Time Warner in this context:

In announcing the merger, for example, executives of the two companies said that they wanted to provide America Online's Internet subscribers the music and publishing information offered by Time Warner and that they wanted to use Time Warner's cable operations to deliver that data online at lightening speed.

Much of this... might have been accomplished with licensing agreements and joint ventures, while keeping the companies separate. That would have avoided all the difficulties of blending two very different corporate cultures, and it would have made it easier to abandon joint projects that weren't panning out.

Ah yes, the good old days before vertical integration became the rage.