The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.

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I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.

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I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.

Fast Food Nation

“There is nothing inevitable about the fast food nation that surrounds us –– about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald’s and its imitators was by no means preordained.”

“Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies” – the former president of Archer Daniels Midland

The most recognizable symbols of Americana are brand names such as McDonalds, Subway, Coca Cola, and now Starbucks. Fast Food Nation is Eric Schlosser’s classic work of investigative reportage that looks at the food and labor systems that led to the first major wave of these corporations.

Schlosser traces the fast food phenomenon to California in the 1940s and 50s where drive-in hotdog and burger joints began to pop up, catering to the newfound car culture. At the heart of these restaurants was the “Speedee” system that applied the principles of the assembly line to food service, simultaneously ensuring a consistent product across locations and reducing the need for skilled staff.

Allowing for some variation––Ray Kroc, for instance, expanded McDonalds by purchasing land for new franchisees and becoming their landlord––the model is simple: offer large quantities of tasty food to consumers at the lowest possible price point, while making a profit through a) volume and b) reducing the cost of both labor and supply. The superficially-attractive combination of taste, quantity, and cost feeds into the first, while the second is accomplished through increased efficiency, industrial supply chains, and anti-union activity.

From the point of sale, which takes up the entirety of part one, in part two, Schlosser works backward through the supply chain, profiling the conditions in the potato and meat industry in a reprise of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The common thread in Schlosser’s account is the overwhelming priority on corporate profit that pushes the speed in slaughterhouses past the point of safety for either workers or consumers.

Fast Food Nation is dated. Schlosser does not predict, for instance, the meteoric rise of pizza chains and Starbucks (admittedly, the story of coffee supply chains follows a different form of exploitation) or the local and slow food movement, and his cautionary tale about mad cow disease is more at home in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Public discussion of the industry also continued after 2001 when this was published. In 2004, the documentary Super Size Me set out to demonstrate the catastrophic health consequences of eating a McDonalds-based diet, in 2012 there was outrage surrounding “Pink Slime,” a finely processed meat product added to hamburger meat, and in 2016, The Founder dramatized Ray Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s franchise.

And yet, while non-historical details have changed, the broad strokes of Fast Food Nation remain relevant.

Fast food, both of the sort Schlosser profiles and of the so-called fast-casual variety, remains ubiquitous in the American foodscape. Reading about the corporate systems gave me flashbacks to the years 2009 through 2012 when I worked in Quiznos restaurants. Everything about the menu, from the recipes to prep to the script with customers was finely choreographed. The production line had four stations even though by the time I worked there we almost never had even four people working at the same time. Every station assembled food from prepared ingredients according to recipes on easy-to-follow job aids. Drinks were the largest profit item on the menu, at the time a $1.99 drink cost $.27 in paper and syrup––the credit card transaction fee was higher––and most skilled job (other than customer service) was handling the bladed tools for slicing meat, cheese, and tomatoes.

Quiznos marketed itself as a cut above fast food, with quality recipes, ingredients, and sauces, putting it in a class with the likes of Panera. In some ways this is true, but its primary competition was Subway, a fact immediately apparent in the handful of regional corporate meetings I attended. Most notably, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash (the year I graduated college, which, in part, led to this employment), Quiznos was trying to stay competitive with Subway at a time when it worried that a premium price point was driving customers away. Their solution introduced 5-dollar large sandwiches: basic subs without fancy sauces to match the Subway 5-dollar footlong.

Quiznos had already peaked by the time I worked there, beginning a decline that saw it lose more than 90% of its locations in about ten years. Cutting corners on supply and labor couldn’t compensate for discounted prices and the restaurant was no longer profitable for franchisees. Nevertheless, the fingerprints of the fast food revolution were all over the Quiznos experience, from the shiny but sterile veneer designed to draw people in while being easy to clean to the Taylorization that had inspectors time how long it took employees to make a sandwich at each station. The only things lacking were cars and the overt marketing to children.

As Fast Food Nation approaches its 20-year anniversary, I am left reflecting on how the financial crisis of 2008 might have contributed to its continuing relevance. There has been a renaissance in food culture in the past decade, with food competitions and explorations splashed across the television landscape and waves of excellent food––high class, diverse, local, ethical food–– have sprung up across the country. We don’t yet have a taco truck on every corner, but we’re inching in that direction.

Yet, it seems that the only thing that millennials are not killing is fast food, with the possible exception of McDonalds (depending on who you believe). Fast food continues to dominate the restaurant marketshare, with particular growth in pizza restaurants.

(A few years back I read an investigative feature on fast food pizza that looked at cheese consumption and how the industry’s demand for cheap tomatoes was warping the Nigerian economy, but I can’t remember which outlet had it and can’t find a link. Sorry.)

The war for which company can offer the greatest combination of taste and quantity at the lowest price…while paying workers as little as possible, rages on. Schlosser’s story details how entrepreneurial innovation can metastasize into runaway greed and remains relevant at time when fast food workers have been protesting for a living wage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is also a larger point. The ubiquitous fast food restaurants that dot American highways, cities and malls are just one manifestation of the larger systems that lie behind the American diet. These corporations might have started a seismic shift in US food systems, but these same systems lie behind the American diet from readily available processed foods in stores to innumerable restaurants that all purchase from the same suppliers. In short, the US remains a fast food nation.

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I have since finished another of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunthor novels, 2017’s Trace, and have begun reading A Long Day’s Evening, a Turkish novel by Bilge Karasu. Largely set in 8th century Byzantium, the novel offers a meditation on the obligations between the individual and authority.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

The evolution, or, as some would call it, the metastatic mutation, of the Republican party is one of the most unescapable facts of US politics in recent memory. The normalization of over-the-top spending in political elections has gone hand-in-hand with the changes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. In fact, thanks to the reporting of Jane Mayer, among others, acknowledging PACs and other forms of Dark Money in the political discourse has become accepted practically to the point of banality.

But, as Mayer makes clear, the explosion of Dark Money after Citizens United was the culmination of a process, not a new innovation. Published in 2016, Dark Money examines the deep roots that sprouted the present political environment.

Mayer identifies the earliest ferment of “the second gilded age” during a time when there was relative economic equality. The first signs, as she identifies them, took place during the 1930s when some wealthy families took umbrage at being accused of causing the financial panic and conservative groups chanted against the Roosevelts in an eerie foreshadow of the 2016 election rallies.

Men such as Fred Koch made fortunes in this period on government contracts (Koch also made money building building oil refineries for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) and, at the same time, were adamant that the government never get any of it back in taxes.

The solution lay in a provision of US tax code that encouraged philanthropy. Ordinarily the government taxed generational wealth through the estate tax, but trusts that dedicated their returns to charitable endeavors for a period of years passed virtually tax-free, while other donations were tax-deductible. Fred Koch, like many others, took to philanthropy as an inheritance scheme.

It was Koch’s sons––Charles, most notoriously––who realized the potential in weaponizing the donations to advance their libertarian political agenda. David Koch made an abortive bid for the Vice Presidency on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, funding it with his estate, but already by that time they had a history of backing conservative groups such as the John Birch Society.

In the years to come, they founded a network of ultra-wealthy conservative donors that funneled enormous amounts money into educational institutes and activist non-profit organizations. As Mayer describes it, the this network took the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as an ominous portent and redoubled their political spending in each successive election.

Dark Money has entered into the public conversation around American politics, but Mayer makes what is now a simple thesis into an illuminating and infuriating piece of reportage. Time and again she paints a portrait of greed and corruption, from the cutthroat fraternal Koch wars to workplace fatalities of the Cignas corporation, to the extreme control over the workers in the Menard corporation, to the heir to the Gore (of Goretex) fortune who attempted to adopt her ex-husband for a larger cut of the inheritance.

Despite the fact that this story has become ubiquitous, there are two outstanding features of Dark Money. One, as laid out in brief above, is the long genesis of this movement. The other speaks to the current political moment.

Mayer explains at length the processes by which Dark Money reshaped the electoral maps after the 2010 census, swinging state and local elections that oversaw redistricting where every dollar went further. But for me the most enlightening passages were where she examined the methods that the non-profit organizations used to shape political discourse, including “astroturf” campaigns (i.e. artificial grassroots movements) that give the appearance of popular support and using the speed of media to set the terms of debate by issuing reports and studies based on false information, only to offer retractions after the fact. In Mayer’s view, these attacks on everything from climate change proposals to the ACA caught the Obama administration off guard and effectively thwarted his presidency.

Although Dark Money predates the 2016 election, it remains relevant for the Trump presidency. In part this is because a number of prominent individuals in the current administration, most notably Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, appear in the book. But it is also because the techniques of the Trump administration parallel the ongoing efforts of the various non-profits, albeit from an institutional platform. In other words, 2016 was a triumph for Dark Money, but, far from declaring victory and going home, it opened up new avenues of attack.

A few weeks ago I read Winners Take All, a look at philanthropic help-you-help-me do-gooderism and said that it marked a more generous look at similar processes. In retrospect, I would have liked to read Dark Money first. Mayer does a better job of examining the origins of the philanthropy, but these are two sides of the same coin. In one, what is good for the donor is good for the country; in the other, what is good for the country could also be good for the donor. Both Dark Money and a Winners Take All identify a core flaw at the center of the Second Gilded Age, while simultaneously examining all the ways in which these monied interests short-circuit the political will to institute effective change.

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I have since finished Archer Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt, which I will be writing up with his Three Can Keep a Secret, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. This morning I began a history of the Greek War of Independence.

The Devil in the White City

Chicago was an eventful city in the 1890s. It had a booming population, reaching the status of second city in time for the census at the start of the decade and, as a center of industry, its leading citizens were determined to make Chicago the site of the World’s Fair commemorating Columbus’ voyages to America. To the eastern elite Chicago was unsuited for this distinction as a smelly, uncouth, backward city. But win the bid it did, commissioning the architect Daniel Hudson Burnham to design a fair that had to be ready to open in 1893 and surpass the grandeur of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, by any means necessary.

The end result was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an event that set a single-day record for peace-time attendance at nearly three quarters of a million on Monday October 9. The White City and accompanying Midway with its massive Ferris wheel, the first of its kind, spinning above it, was a marvel of engineering and science. The designers had to overcome monumental challenges of the landscape during construction, and the final product featured the latest technological marvels, including widespread lighting systems powered by a grid using alternating currents.

But just a few blocks away from the fair there was another building designed with the utmost care. But where the fair was designed with an eye toward grandeur and beauty, this other building, designed by an amateur, was sinister in its functionality. This building was owned and operated by a charming young man who went by H.H. Holmes, the first known serial killer in the United States.

Erik Larson weaves a narrative from these two stories as they build toward their conclusions, with interspersed vignettes from a young man named Patrick Prendergast who believed he was owed a political appointment. The result is a highly engaging book that brings to life in 1890s Chicago and makes the case that this remarkable event shaped the direction of modern America in a myriad of ways.

From a purely aesthetic point of view I loved this book and I can see why it is a popular choice to assign students. But at the same time, the more I read, the more I thought it was a remarkable coincidence that Holmes was active at the same time as the fair. The details of Holmes’ method and the reality of his building offer the perfect counterpoint to the opulence taking place down the street, even if the two narratives are practically unconnected. Nor do I doubt that the broad strokes of the chillingly fascinating account of Holmes’ life are accurate, but Larson breathes life and pseudo-sexual motivation into the killer in a way that is based on supposition.

(Larson acknowledges the difficulties of the sources about Holmes in his notes, and it is not actually clear whether Holmes killed anyone in town just for the fair.)

The result is that while the part of my brain that was reading The Devil in the White City for pleasure ate this story up, the academic side of my brain was left asking what this part of the story contributed to Larson’s case that this fair shaped modern America.

There were other, smaller quibbles that gnawed at me at times, including Larson’s seeming obsession with gout that emerges from being overly enthralled by the characters in the book at the expense of systems that were taking place at the fair (tell me more about the food not at banquets, please). But these complaints notwithstanding, The Devil in the White City is a deeply engaging read that brings the city of Chicago of that era to life and death.

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I have been spending more time reading than writing over the past week. I’ve also finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m on the fence as to whether I will write about the first two, but I absolutely loved the third and have thoughts.

Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

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I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

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I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

Cheese and Culture – Paul Kindstedt

A cheese scientist at the University of Vermont by trade, Kindstedt’s Cheese and Culture traces the history of cheese and its role in Western Civilization. I grimaced at “Western Civilization” in the subtitle, but was reconciled to it because, as Kindstedt argues, cheese as it is currently known is a largely western phenomenon because lactase tolerance in adults was more common in the Middle East and Europe than elsewhere in the world.

Kindstedt starts in the Fertile Crescent with the domestication of dairy animals, but convincingly shows that the inability to process dairy meant that these animals were not milked, but used for meat and hides. The change came, he argues, when at a time of ecological crisis and food shortage that saw the milking of animals to feed children and, eventually adults. Cheese and butter, which retain much of the nutritional value of milk but eliminate some or most of the lactose, followed soon after. By biblical times, fresh cheese was an appropriate gift for deities.

The strongest element of Cheese and Culture is the careful observation of changes in cheese-making techniques, which is perhaps to be expected from a scientist of the processes. For instance, Kindstedt meticulously charts types of cheese fermentation, particularly acid, heating, and rennet, the last of which he reasonably posits came about by shepherds witnessing cheese curd in the stomachs of slaughtered animals. Thus Kindstedt leads the reader through changes, including Roman agricultural manuals on farm practices, monastic cheese production, and the transition to industrial cheese production.

It is on that last issue during the 19th Century that I found most interesting. Cheddar was the king of American cheese production during the entirety of the 20th century despite Cheshire having been the most common in 1851 when the first “cheese factory” opened in upstate New York. But Cheddar was easier to develop industrial processes for, including guidebooks on measurements, cooking temperatures, and so on, as well as being a cheese that lent itself to production in large blocks. Then, with the Civil War forcing women (the usual cheesemakers) to do other work on the farm and England lowering tariffs on cheese in desperation to feed of a burgeoning population–and that London particularly loved Cheddar, industrial cheesemaking exploded. However, industrial cheesemaking also diluted quality and taste because overproduction drove prices down.

Cheese and Culture is a book that is strikingly “Vermont,” including that there are several sentences complaining about EU trade regulations about naming rights on cheese and mocking the idea that Vermont Cheddar would have been named something like “Vermont Delight.”

There is a lot to recommend Cheese and Culture, but it is not without flaws. First, although Kindstedt does a passable job covering cheese in Greece and Rome, his framework is still somewhat set along the lines of the bible since the epitaph for each of the early chapters is taken from the Bible. Second, it is possible to quibble that cheese is as central to a narrative of world history. For instance, Kindstedt has a tendency to elevate cheese in places where cheese is but one of the commodities being traded, which might suggest a manipulation to make cheese more important than it actually was. (Not that I am unsympathetic, I might add, as a loyal son of Vermont and fervent caseophile.)

Third, the scope of Cheese and Culture is so large that Kindstedt necessarily speaks in some generalities. This is particularly true in the latter stages of the book where, after describing how there came to be a diversity of cheese (largely the result of variations in geography), Kindstedt falls back on generalities about American versus European cheese and the admittedly interesting account of trade wars.The problem is not that it doesn’t work in the context of this book about “Western Civilization,” but rather that he hints at a wider story about cheese in America. For instance, there is emphasis on New England cheese, but nothing about California or Wisconsin, and only passing mention about how Cheddar (probably including American) was the dominant cheese in America until passed by Mozzarella in 2001. The cause of mozzarella’s (and presumably other cheese’s) relegation? It was considered immigrant food. Just as with the bagel, there is a wider story about the American assimilation of food. This is not Kindstedt’s core theme and I should not criticize him for what he is not doing, but I found that adding one more section about the assimilation of non-Cheddar cheeses in America and regional variation would have strengthened the latter parts of the book. Instead, there is brief summation of the US-EU trade wars about cheese and brief mention of the return of artisanal cheese that offer taste in return for more money. These are important topics, but came across as somewhat anodyne compared to the more nuanced discussion about the creation of cheese diversity.

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I didn’t turn on my computer this past weekend in an effort to recharge a little bit, and so I have fallen behind on writing up my reading. I finished Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms (Dandelion Dynasty Book 2) last week and Michael Chabon’s idiosyncratic The Yiddish Policeman’s Union this morning. I am not sure what I am reading next, but on the nonfiction front it will either be Charles Mann’s 1493 or Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature; in terms of fiction, I have too many options to list and am currently pulled in several different directions.

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is an ambitious project, to offer a new global history that offers The Silk Road (the lines of communication and transit between China and Europe) as the spine of the world, not just in the premodern era, but also going forward. He is largely successful in this dizzying, weighty tome.

The book begins with the formation of the Silk Road in the years before and around 100 BCE and each chapter, usually described as a road with a description (e.g. “The Road to Catastrophe”), moves progressively forward until the book reaches the twenty-first century. Topically, The Silk Roads may be divided into the movement of three things: ideas, goods, and influence, the last in terms of geopolitical jockeying. All three types of movement feature throughout the book, but there is a progression such that the movement of ideas are most prominent in the early portions and the strategic concerns toward the end. At times The Silk Roads can be unbalanced, frequently losing one pole or the other in favor of showing how central Asia remained pivotal for developments that are usually considered to be centered elsewhere.

This imbalance is frustrating, but nevertheless understandable given the enormous and unwieldy scope of the book. Likewise, Frankopan necessarily glosses over some particularly heated scholarly controversies, sign-posting his position and moving on. Again, this is a necessary feature of a book of this scope, but in at least one case the decision was abrupt enough that I was led to ask someone more versed in the period in question about whether the scholar being cited was respected. She confirmed that Frankopan was indeed basing his narrative (in this instance) on a respected scholar even if not everyone agrees with the stance. This is to say Frankopan did his homework, but he also picks his fights, which makes The Silk Roads an entertaining read filled with a bevy of observations and declarations (always with citations if one wishes to know more).

As far as a new “global history,” The Silk Roads admirably demonstrates the interconnected world and shows how the roads influenced developments that had consequences far beyond its own narrow confines. Australia, Africa, and the Americas even make cameo appearances, but one might still quibble that this approach is biased, if necessarily, toward the northern hemisphere and has no time to spend on issues of social history. In fairness, these are not what Frankopan is trying to show and this is one of the best global histories I have yet come across, but they nevertheless remain a limit, particularly in the breathless rush through the twentieth century where much ink is spilt (yet again) on strategic concerns.

In sum, The Silk Roads has much to recommend it, being lively and readable despite its ambitious scope and hefty word count. Some inconsistency could have been ironed out and I would have liked to see more inclusion of India and China in the main narrative, though he showed himself attuned to modern developments initiated by the latter in the conclusion, so I can only assume that it was a deliberate choice to exclude these actors. These quibbles should not detract from the overall success of the book.

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I am now caught up on books I finished last week. Up next is Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, which I am about halfway through.