Friday, December 21, 2018

A subway by any other name....

Here's one of the stories about Elon Musk's proposal for underground roads for autonomous electric vehicles: Musk's Hole. Looks an awful lot like a subway to me.

This whole autonomous car thing is an attempt to combine the indvidual convenience of the car with the safety of rail. From a rail passenger's point of view, a subway car is an autonomous vehicle. "Leave the driving to us", Greyhound used to say. Well, when you ride in a train, someone or something else is driving. Properly controlled and isolated from cross traffic, a railroad is a horizontal elevator (as George Kneiling said many decades ago). The first elevators were controlled by human operators. Now they are automated. There's no reason not to automate passenger rail, except our weird notion that we should all be able to come and go as we please, and damn the expense.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

"The soul of the combat soldier in his worst hour"

     Franz Schneider and Charles Gullans, trans. Last Letters from Stalingrad (1961) From the introduction by S. L. A. Marshall Brig. Gen., USAR, Ret: “The writers were German, in that hour our enemies. But who may read and not weep for them?”
     The letters went out with the last plane from Stalingrad. They were confiscated and carefully examined for clues to the morale of the troops, which was so bad that the report was never forwarded to Hitler. This selection is from copies found in Potsdam. The saddest fact is that the letters did not reach the people to whom they were sent.
     There does not seem to be a German version of this book.
     If you can find a copy of this book, read it. ****

Friday, December 07, 2018

Jingoism and myth making: An early 20th century school history of the British Empire

     John M. Wood and Aileen G. Garland. The Story of England and the Empire (1951) A textbook for middle schools, adapted by Garland for Canada. This is a revised edition, containing hints that the first edition was published sometime in the 1920s or 30s. It’s a fascinating example of school history as propaganda and myth making. The message radiates from the title on out: Britain is the most important country in the world, it has created the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, the rest of the world still depends on British values and ideals to lead it into the uplands of a bright, happy future; etc. Not to mention British manufactures, which lead the world in quality.
     It’s also a Great Man history. Almost all the important actors are men (Elizabeth I is the major exception), usually characterised as one of the greatest soldiers/kings/etc; wise, strong, just; etc. Or weak, lazy and feeble; unable to command obedience; etc. The best rulers are described as gentle and just, making good laws, and making sure the people obeyed them. Clearly, you are supposed to be grateful for having such wise, strong, gentle, and just people in charge of your life.
     What’s even more interesting is what’s missing: there are almost no specific details or stories that would illustrate what life was like. It’s almost entirely about politics and economics. Vague words like prosperity, peace, happiness, etc, abound. The writer (Mackenzie) admires power, and has no sense of what middle school children (aged 10-14) would like to know about. I’m not surprised that from the late 1950s on the “enterprise method” became popular in Canada for teaching history. It set pupils the task of finding out about the everyday lives of their ancestors, and representing them in models, pictures, and stories.
     The tone and attitude of this book persisted for at least another generation, and fomented a sentimental and stupid nostalgia for the great days of empire, which has had a malign effect on British politics, most obviously in the Brexit vote. I think the fantasy of a Great Britain motivates a minority, but it was enough to bring the Leave vote over the 50% mark.
     School history has always been a contentious issue. Its primary purpose is to tell the nation’s story so that children will develop a proper sense of citizenship. This inevitably results in exaggeration of the nation’s international role and influence, and more or less obvious myth making and jingoism. For example, although the history I was taught in Austria in the 1950s wasn’t quite as jingoistic as this book exemplifies, it was focused on Austria’s past role in geopolitics, which was considerable. It was after all the murder of the Austrian Crown Prince that triggered the first World War, an event that itself testifies to the fantasy that some Great Man who leads a Great Power can make a decisive difference.
     What popular histories have tended to ignore or downplay is the fact that we can choose only from the (always limited) options available to us. Whatever influence we do have rarely produces new options for ourselves. It’s left to those who come after us to choose from the options we have created. That's usually some variation on cleaning up a bloody mess. Historians who tell the story more objectively tend to be ignored as mere academics.
     This textbook is interesting and IMO important data for anyone who wants to understand how popular sentiment affects the options available to our leaders, leaders who are themselves of course influenced by the same sentiments that we have developed in school, and which the press and entertainment amplify, simplify, and distort. As history, the book is awful. As sociological data, it’s priceless.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Stories of love and grief by Maeve Binchy

    Maeve Binchy. The Return Journey (1998) Binchy’s usual mix of bittersweet near-sentimentality, and sharply observed foolishness and vice. She’s very good at showing how self-deception and fantasy are more likely to cause trouble than the intentional wickedness of others. Her morality is straightforward: cheaters get their comeuppance as often as not, and good folk often get unexpected opportunities for happiness. Respectability is no shield against grief. And the apparently small injuries and disappointments of ordinary lives are as significant as the failures of the famous and powerful. More so, if anything. For most of us lead ordinary lives. Binchy’s talent is compressing a lifetime’s meaning into a few scenes. She loves ironic twists and poetic justice.
    I like her stories. This is an early collection. In her later work, she’s more willing to look at the evil that indifference, selfishness, and folly can cause. ***

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Textbooks as they used to be

      Miriam Rosenthal. The French Revolution (1965) A textbook for middle school, one of a series published by Longman’s. Ah, the days of carefully written history books for all ages of children. The assumption was not only that children should know a good deal of history, but that well-written books would interest them. This book addresses the reader directly, which may feel somewhat patronising to the adult reader. But it’s a pretty complete account of the Revolution, unafraid to comment on the characters involved, and equally willing to recognise the puzzles, for example, Why and how did Robespierre change from a man who refused to be a magistrate because of the death penalty into a man who dispensed death sentences with cool indifference. The answer is interesting: Robespierre was a man who “lived in a world of words”, not of people. He was what Fromm and others have called a True Believer, a man who believed he could make the world conform to his theory of what it should be. Such people sooner or later will kill those who can’t or won’t conform.
     Many illustrations, about as well printed as was possible back then, and a number of quotations from diaries, letters, etc. The general conclusion: The French Revolution was a necessary but sadly violent phase of the journey from autocracy to democracy, from oppression to freedom, from privilege for the few to rights for all. In 1965, one could still believe that democracy and universal human rights were well established, and life across the globe would continue to improve. Worth reading both as a helpful summary of a complicated history, and as an example of the values underpinning the teaching of history in the 1960s. ***

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Jewel Goes Missing (A Morse Mystery)

Colin Dexter. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991) The jewel is the tongue of an Anglo-Saxon bronze buckle, and will be returned by the widow of the man who bought it many years ago from a shady collector. She’s one of a busload of Americans on a tour of England. The tongue goes missing, the widow (remarried by this time) dies of a heart attack, the intended recipient (on behalf of the Ashmolean) is found in the Cherwell dead of a couple blows to the head. The usual cross-purposes and assorted sexual shenanigans interfere with the investigation.
     The story’s told in short chapters headed by more or less apt quotations. A note states that the novel is “based in part on an original storyline” supplied by Dexter to Central Television. That episode was titled The Wolvercote Tongue, and I think it’s much better than the book. Dexter indulges in his usual shticks, mostly foreboding foreshadowings and gratuitous leering. **