What if?

If you’re looking for a detailed description of how Pharaoh Amenhotep LXXVII might have responded to the attacks on the Twin Pyramids in New Memphis by fanatical followers of the jealous Judean war-god on September 11, 2001, the essays in “What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley might seem a little unimaginative. The essayists, who include Stephen Ambrose, John Keegan, David McCullough, and James McPherson, are not fiction writers but serious historians.

The above writers’ names, which are featured on the cover, suggest that the book is mostly about American military history but it covers a good stretch of Western civilization. The first essay, about if an outbreak of plague had not caused the Assyrians to lift their siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, is a little lame. It suggests only that had Jerusalem capitulated, Christianity and Islam, and therefore Western civilization might not have happened. That seems pretty obvious but it illustrates the great difficulty in writing counterfactual history: the farther back in history you start the greater the changes that are wrought. It would be a long essay indeed if the writer had to imagine Assyrian chariots rolling ashore in North America  2,000 years later.

The essays focus mostly on identifying the precarious pivotal moments in history and what didn’t happen; like after the recall of the Mongol army from frontiers of central Europe upon the death of their emperor the Mongols didn’t snuff out the embryonic centers of commerce and learning in medieval Europe. The American Revolution gets a lot of attention, as it was loaded with accidents and near misses which, had they not happened, the War of Independence might have been lost several times over. And we’d be the serfs of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II instead of Goldman Sachs.

I might pick up “What If? 2” later, but there is also a book called “For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga” by Robert Sobel which I would like to get a hold of. And if you’re looking for an enjoyable fictional alternate history, try “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, about Nazi Germany in 1964.

George Washington

Since I’ve seen Charles Willson Peale’s 1776 portrait of George Washington a million times in books, I wanted see it in person. We hustled up to Cedar Rapids because Its exhibition at the Museum of Art ends next weekend. Cedar Rapids, as is usual on a winter Sunday afternoon, was deserted and so was the museum, so we had George to ourselves for a little while. The iconic nature of this portrait is largely due its subject, but I’m willing to give Peale more credit for that now that I’ve seen it up close. If I looked him in the eyes, I could sense Washington’s legendary presence and the brass buttons appeared to practically pop off his blue uniform coat.

A man poses in front of a famous portrait of George Washington.
Washington meets history geek

The portrait was in a big room by itself with some interpretive panels about Washington, Peale, John Hancock (who commissioned the portrait perhaps to flatter the general and ensure Boston and Hancock’s wealth stayed out of British hands), and—since this is Cedar Rapids—Grant Wood, who included themes from the Revolution in several of his paintings and illustrations.

How to kill a mockingbird

My name is Scout. It’s a dumb name for a girl but then Jem is dumb name for a brother. My father’s name is Atticus. He’s a bad-ass lawyer with a shotgun. He shot the rabid dog. He shot that freak Boo Radley when he finally dared set foot outside. He shot Calpurnia just for shits ‘n’ grins. Anyway, he taught me how to kill those bastard birds that wake us up every morning. Fucking mockingbirds.

Bloomington, Indiana

The snow here in Iowa held off until my plane was due to land in Cedar Rapids. We didn’t see the ground until we were fifty feet above it. I was returning from a business trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is not a whole lot different from Iowa City. They are about the same size and dominated by big state universities. Bloomington has a good collection of unusual “ethnic” restaurants (Burmese, Turkish, Tibetan, Afghani).

A woman watches a man bowl a ball in a bowling alley
We bowled after a long day of work.

Our workshop was at the Indiana Memorial Union at the university, which combined a hotel, meeting rooms, food court, and recreation center. “Hoosiers” played regularly on the hotel’s in-house movie channel. The recreation center included a bowling alley, of which my colleagues and I made use. I could have gotten away with not leaving the building until I left for the airport today, though that would have been a little unhealthy. The Indiana University campus is pretty: an august-looking collection of limestone Italianate-style buildings. It has lots of quadrangles.

A graveyard surrounds a limestone chapel on a university campus.
This pretty chapel and cemetery were just outside our meeting room.
Sculptures with elliptical bodies and dangling tentacles hang from airport ceiling.
Neither an airport nor Indianapolis seemed appropriate for jellyfish sculptures.

On the way to Bloomington, I arrived in Indianapolis for the first time. We had a good view of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we landed. It’s big. The Indianapolis airport is not so enormous for a large city and felt a little empty. The spacious terminal is only a few years old. There are these weird jellyfish sculptures handing from the ceiling—not ugly, just out of place—and of course the obligatory light display in one of the connecting corridors that airports of big Midwestern cities seem to like so much.

An unoccupied ticket counter in a spacious new airport terminal.
The Indianapolis airport was spacious but empty.

I noticed some changes in the Detroit airport during my layover today: signs and announcements in Chinese. On previous trips I’ve noticed signs in Japanese; I presume these signs reflect either Detroit’s actual international trade or the trade it aspires to attract.

Area 51

If you’re like me, when you read a serious nonfiction book about Area 51 you keep asking yourself, “so where do they keep the aliens?” Annie Jacobsen, in her book “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base” focusses on experimental aircraft and nuclear weapons testing. At the beginning of the book Jacobsen dismisses the Roswell UFO crash as a Soviet hoax meant to precipitate fear and hysteria in the fashion of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” panic. She bases this on an interview with an anonymous eye witness who reported Cyrillic lettering stamped on the flying disk wreckage, and documents the subsequent investigation of German engineers through whom the Soviets may have acquired an experimental flying disk.

Much of the book talks about top secret experiments and weapons development without much discussion of the figurative fallout like radiation pollution and escalation of the Cold War. Much of it reads as if the activities at Area 51 had very few adverse consequences. I found that treatment a little disappointing but perhaps the purpose of the book wasn’t to catalog the collateral damage. Jacobsen points out that the government’s cover-ups  simultaneously created unneeded paranoia and provided useful red herrings to help conceal of its operations at Area 51.

Jacobsen returns to the Roswell UFO crash  at the end of the book with a real whopper of an explanation. Again her source is the anonymous eye witness. I won’t describe it here because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I’m not sure I buy her assertion that this account represents the simplest possible explanation. Jacobsen uses it to consider the implications for democracy when the public is kept so much in the dark. She is maddeningly unable to get more out of her anonymous source  who hints cryptically that he’s only revealed a small part of a larger mystery.

Some minor rejiggering

I’ve updated to WordPress 3.3. I’ve added “share” buttons to the posts again. I’ve also added an option for subscribing by e-mail.

I added “Photos” to the header menu to display posts with photos in them. I know I’ve done that on and off before but now I’ve gotten the posts to display how I want them to. Later I might try to make it more of an organized photo search page.


I remember somebody once making an analogy about singing the national anthem at the beginning of a Cubs game: it is a brief formality everyone observes before “all breaks loose”. Which is how I’ve always viewed choosing a font before I type up a document or design my website.

At least until I saw the documentary film “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit and read the book “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield. Good designers create and select typefaces with tremendous care; they are not just accidents or afterthoughts. For some important projects, like developing the signage for the London Underground, the designer was in on the plans from the beginning and created the Underground font when no other seemed perfect for the job.

In the film and the book, there is some discussion about whether a font should be “invisible”; if you don’t notice it then it must be doing its job. In “Just My Type”, Garfield uses Comic Sans as a counterexample, a typeface despised by professionals and laypersons alike:

Comic Sans is a type that has gone wrong. It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing, much less end up (as it has) on the side of an ambulance or gravestone. It was intended to be fun. And, oddly enough, it was never intended to be a typeface at all.

I hate Comic Sans. Hate it. I think it looks unprofessional or unserious, and Garfield agrees, but he points out that it is misuse or overuse that makes it the wrong font, not that the font itself is badly designed. And if I saw it on a Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper it would probably make me smile with affection.

Both the filmmaker and the author argue that the font ought not be totally invisible, that it should contribute something besides legibility and readability, like beauty or meaning, to the text. Many consider Helvetica dated, trite, corporate, and establishment. But there is something clean and concise and strong about it that I like. Or at least the film and my design-minded wife have gotten me to appreciate it, and with my new Mac I get to see it in action more (I’m typing in Helvetica now). Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, but offers its ugly stepsister Arial as a substitute. I couldn’t describe to you the graphical differences (like with many fonts the differences are so subtle) but it’s a like a Kardashian sister that is not named Kim; if you weren’t aware of her pedigree you probably would not turn your head for another look.

I didn’t agonize over my selections of fonts for my blog. WordPress’s present default theme fonts are Helvetica and Georgia, but I don’t use them. Georgia I find a bit blocky-looking, though it and its sans-serif counterpart Verdana (another I don’t care for) are designed for readability on the Web. Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, so it would appear to their users as Arial or another of the browser’s default sans-serif fonts. I’ve used Trebuchet (for headers) and Palatino (for long texts) on this website for a few years. Both are “Web safe” (compatible with different operating systems) and highly readable, which are important to my accessibility goals for this site. And they’re pretty. Palatino has a classy, warm, old style charm and Trebuchet is quirky but compact and fluid.

A history of Argentina

The Iowa City Public Library, for all its awesomeness, lacks a good collection of Latin American histories. They acquired upon my request “Argentina 1516-1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín” by David Rock. Rock’s history tears through almost 500 years of history in about 400 pages. It’s heavy on Argentina’s economic and political history with an emphasis on the 20th century. It’s a bit light on the social history or any kind of regional context. But it’s also a solid account of Argentina’s ups and downs, supported by balanced arguments and loads of economic data. In his introduction, Rock asks:

The central, compelling question about Argentina is simply, What went wrong? Why has Argentina failed to realize its promise?

He hypothesizes that Argentina never fully overcame its colonial past. Even after independence from Spain, the country still suffered from the predatory behaviors of elite classes of landowners and merchants, dependence on British capital and markets, and the unbalanced authority of Buenos Aires over the interior. Argentina got off to a slow start after independence, as less a nation-state than a fragmentary confederation dominated by provincial warlords. After the national government in Buenos Aires asserted its authority, Argentina had a pretty good run in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was a fairly prosperous mid-sized country but very dependent on agricultural exports. Participatory democracy struggled but made some progress by the 1920s. Attempts by the nationalist leader Juan Perón in the 1940s and 1950s to radically reorder the country’s class and trade relationships may have done as much harm as good. A dismal forty-year stretch of indebtedness, inflation, and instability followed Perón’s controversial decade in power. This dark period reached its nadir in the 1970s with a particularly nasty police regime in which capped off years of violent repression and economic stagnation with a military disaster in the Falklands. The book ends with a short summary of restored democracy and important political reforms in the 1980s.

The question, what went wrong? can seem a little foreign to Americans used to reading our own history and asking, how did we get so great? How awesome was it that we beat the Nazis and put men on the moon? And then we faced down the Bolsheviks. Yet we’ve had our share of corrupt political elites, regional divisions, economic inequalities, civil war, genocides, discrimination, exploitation, and so on. The differences between Argentina and the United States are not that great, but are perhaps magnified by each country’s peculiar circumstances. In fact, now might be a good time for Americans to turn off the History Channel and turn down the jingoism. The Nazis have been gone for more than half a century and who knows if those footprints are even still on the moon. Communism might be dead but Communists have stayed in business by owning our debt and selling us shoddy, dangerous crap. If we don’t soon cure our insular, fearful obsessions with security and materialism, our own dismal decades may just be beginning.

Republican precinct caucus

The Johnson County Republicans’ website proclaimed the somewhat un-Republican exhortation, “Rock out with your caucus out!” I can’t imagine a Michelle Bachmann supporter writing something like that. It read more like an overzealous college-aged Ron Paul supporter.

The caucus-goers in my precinct were less brash than that: a good spread of ages but otherwise the usual well-behaved Iowa crowd. Nobody was visibly armed or foaming at the mouth or turning red with anti-everything rage. There were 200 or so folks in attendance. Like me, a number of people there had caucused with the Democrats in the past and changed registration to participate in the competitive Republican vote this year.

The Republicans caucus a little differently from the Democrats. They have no preference groups or 15 percent viability threshold and the precincts do not elect delegates. Representatives of the candidates are each allowed a short speech before a simple write-in vote which the precinct officers tally and report to the party. Mitt Romney won in my precinct and Paul came in second. My preference tied for last, as usual. I stayed for some other business of approving nominations for the Central Committee before I left.

Voters wait seated and standing in a school cafeteria.
Waiting for the tally

I probably won’t vote Republican in November. I gave John McCain a fair shake in 2008, but they’ve gotten far too extreme for me to even consider them. Problem is, I won’t vote for the dishrag-like leadership of Barack Obama either. Hope and change indeed.