Presidents’ Day 2024

Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant

Since this is a book review, blog, let us consider U.S. presidents as authors. Here is an extract from Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, finished shortly before his death from throat cancer. Although some people today seem to be confused about the causes of the Civil War, Grant was very clear-eyed in 1885:

The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United Status will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that “A state half slave and half free cannot exist.” All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.

Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed; and in a country like ours where the larger portion of it was free territory inhabited by an intelligent and well-to-do population, the people would naturally have but little sympathy with demands upon them for its protection. Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite institution. They were enabled to maintain this control long after the States where slavery existed had ceased to have the controlling power, through the assistance they received from odd men here and there throughout the Northern States. They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law. By this law every Northern man was obliged, when properly summoned, to turn out and help apprehend the runaway slave of a Southern man. Northern marshals became slave-catchers, and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.

This was a degradation which the North would not permit any longer than until they could get the power to expunge such laws from the statute books. Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution.

In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats—in a word, rapid transit of any sort—the States were each almost a separate nationality. At that time the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind. But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized and, therefore, had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution.

It is probably well that we had the war when we did. We are better off now than we would have been without it, and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made. The civilized nations of Europe have been stimulated into unusual activity, so that commerce, trade, travel, and thorough acquaintance among people of different nationalities, has become common; whereas, before, it was but the few who had ever had the privilege of going beyond the limits of their own country or who knew anything about other people. Then, too, our republican institutions were regarded as experiments up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.

But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.

Many of the books written by presidents (or ghostwritten for them) are of course campaign books, mostly forgettable and largely forgotten, with a few exceptions such as JFK’s Profiles in Courage (actually written almost entirely by Ted Sorensen) and Obama’s Dreams from My Father. For an overview of presidents as author, I’ve acquired a copy of Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman. Perhaps a review will come later if it’s interesting.

Christmas Day 2023

Hecate the tortoise shell cat lying on a window seat.
Hecate is clearly working very hard today.


Happy Christmas to all who celebrate. This post is especially for those for whom Christmas is a working day.

One book that caught my eye is Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas by Adam Kay.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat . . . but 1.4 million NHS staff are heading off to work. In this perfect present for anyone who has ever set foot in a hospital, Adam Kay delves back into his diaries for a hilarious, horrifying and sometimes heartbreaking peek behind the blue curtain at Christmastime.

This is a love letter to all those who spend their festive season on the front line, removing babies and baubles from the various places they get stuck, at the most wonderful time of the year.

I would have tried to sneak in a capsule review but… gasp! the book is not readily available in ebook form. I’ve got a hardcover on order; maybe a review will show up in a few days.

Some more readings:

The First Christmas from The EMS Siren:

We arrived at the ER entrance and my partner opened the side door to help her out and into a wheelchair. Before turning to step down she looked at me, there was uncertainty on her face, the unknown of what was going on in her mind and in her future was palpable, but now he was here with her. She smiled a little smile and clasped my hand, nothing needing to be said.

From RedHat, 5 tips for being the family holiday sysadmin:

It’s the holiday season. That means an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family who we haven’t seen for a while, eat too many desserts, and use up the remaining vacation days before the New Year. For those of us who work in IT, that also means a chance to help our relatives with all of their technical problems.

Via Vox, an interview with Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, The history of Jews, Chinese food, and Christmas, explained by a rabbi:

In the last 35 years, Chinese restaurants on Christmas have really become this sort of temporary community where Jews in the United States can gather to be with friends and family. It’s a secular way to celebrate Christmas, but it’s also a time to shut out Christmas and announce your Jewish identity in a safe environment.

(And since Chinese dishes made from pork or shrimp are hardly kosher, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine on “Safe Treyf”: New York Jews and Chinese Food.)

Thanksgiving 2023

Galen here, once again borrowing Marlene’s blog to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

Luna the grey tabby cat emerging from underneath a quilt

As always, we are thankful for our cats (and Luna, pictured here, is thankful for quilts to nest underneath). Unlike 2018, 2020, and 2022, there have been no changes in our feline population: Lucifer, Hecate (and how did she suddenly become five?), George, Luna, and Tuna have been trucking along.

For today, “Harvest Moon” by Longfellow:

It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
Of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.

Indigenous People’s Day 2023: Two Courts

I. Chief Justice John Marshall, in his 1832 decision in the case Worchester v Georgia:

The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and.with the acts of congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.

Worchester was a missionary who lived in New Echota, the Cherokee capital at the time. He and some colleagues were attempting to help the Cherokee challenge encroachment of their territory by the state of Georgia. Georgia had Worchester arrested and sentenced to hard labor for violating a law that forbade white missionaries from living in Cherokee territory without a license from the state. The Cherokee, on the other hand, viewed it as their decision – and their decision alone – who would be allowed to live in their territory. The case made its way up to the Supreme Court.

The decision, if had been enforced, would have thrown a wrench into the gears of the State of Georgia’s plans to expropriate all Cherokee territory in the state. But it was not enforced, although the decision subsequently became one of the foundations of the current legal theory of Native American sovereignty.

II. A reconstruction of the court at New Echota:

The original court building did not survive the removal of the Cherokee to Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839. Oddly, Worchester’s house in New Echota did.

9/11 2023: Remember the sky #rememberthesky #neverforget911

As it did in 2021 and 2022, this year the 9/11 Memorial and Museum asks people to mark the anniversary of the fall of the World Trade Center by posting a picture of the sky, wherever you are. All this in memory of that bright, clear day twenty-two years ago.

So here, the sky in suburban Atlanta today:

Picture of a blue sky through a tree canopy.


An excerpt from the poem by “Remember” by Jo Harjo of the Este Mvskokvlke. This poem was written nearly 20 years before the towers fell.

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.

Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.

We who are here, no matter the degree of connection or not to that day 22 years ago, can at least do this: remember.

Labor Day 2023

Illustration from The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin (Author) and Marc Simont (Illustrator). Text reads "They are the members of the Philharmonic Orchestra, and their work is to play. Beautifully."

A quote for this year’s Labor Day post fell into my lap this morning. It comes from a review of an old’s children’s book, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin. The review is by another book blogger, Jane Psmith of Mr. and Mrs. Psmith’s Bookshelf.

So, yes, I cry when I read this book, because it’s about what it means to be a grown-up. It’s about what it means to be human. Yes, you (really, you!) can go out into the cold and the dark. You can force entropy back just a little. You can make something great — and done in the service of greatness, even the small, careful, everyday things begin to glow with its reflected light. So what if the symphony turns back into black notes on a white page when you stop playing? God put you on this earth to create your own little pool of light and order, to take Nature’s form-giving fire for your own, to work not because it’s how you get paid but because it’s how you leave your mark. I’ve read a great many books lately about how we do that, but this picture book is one of the very few that gives the why. Beautifully.

Another book for today: A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis:

This book focuses on ten major strikes in American history to tell the story of the United States through an emphasis on class and worker struggle. Combined, they weave a tale of a nation that promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that routinely denied that to workers, whether slave or free, men or women, black or white. They tell a story of nation divided by race, gender, and national origin, as well as by class. They place work at the center of American history. This book sees the struggles for the dignity of workers, the rights of people of color, and the need to fight racism, misogyny, and homophobia as part of the same struggle.

Independence Day!

From two speeches by Carl Schurz, a German-born immigrant to America who became a Union general, Senator, and Secretary of the Interior.

As its advocate I speak to you. I will speak of Americanism as the great representative of the reformatory age, as the great champion of the dignity of human nature, as the great repository of the last hopes of suffering mankind. I will speak of the ideal mission of this country and of this people.

You may tell me that these views are visionary, that the destiny of this country is less exalted, that the American people are less great than I think they are or ought to be. I answer, ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny. I invite you to ascend with me the watchtower of history, overlooking the grand panorama of the development of human affairs, in which the American Republic stands in so bold and prominent relief.

From his speech True Americanism, given in Boston in 1859.


I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves too clear-headed not to appreciate the vital difference between the expansion of the Republic and its free institutions over contiguous territory and kindred populations, which we all gladly welcome if accomplished peaceably and honorably—and imperialism which reaches out for distant lands to be ruled as subject provinces; too intelligent not to perceive that our very first step on the road of imperialism has been a betrayal of the fundamental principles of democracy, followed by disaster and disgrace; too enlightened not to understand that a monarchy may do such things and still remain a strong monarchy, while a democracy cannot do them and still remain a democracy; too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: “Our country, right or wrong!” They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: “Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”

From his speech The Policy of Imperialism, given at the Anti-imperialistic Conference in Chicago, Oct. 17, 1899.

Juneteenth 2023: Cooperatives

A year has passed since my first Juneteenth post. I still don’t know what specifically happened to the African American farmer cooperatives of Colleton County, South Carolina, but for today we can look more broadly at the examples of cooperatives after the Civil War.

Today I purchased the book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Quoting from an essay by Dr. Nembhard and her daughter Susan Nembhard,

When we closely examine African American history, we find the common phenomenon that even when Blacks have struggled to find employment, or have been discriminated against and oppressed at work, they have engaged in economic cooperation and solidarity. By cooperation we mean the founding of worker and consumer cooperatives – enterprises that are owned and democratically self-managed by their own workers or by the local community of consumers, not by a detached board and shroud of faceless profit-seeking shareholders. Though little-known and under-discussed even within radical circles, the Black cooperative movement in the US is one of the oldest and most successful examples of solidarity economy practices in the country. From the times of slavery through to Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and the present day, Black people have built up a solidarity economy in order to consolidate a base of material resources that placed real economic power directly in the hands of working-class Black people. Often, then and now, these have formed the economic backbone of the Black struggle for freedom against racial oppression.

The African American cooperative movement has been a mostly silent partner of the Long Civil Rights Movement in the US – throughout the struggle for Black liberation, activism for political, legal, and social rights was supported by demands for economic justice and cooperative economic practices. Early on African Americans realized that without economic justice – without equality, independence, stability, and prosperity for all – social and political rights were hollow, or not even achievable at all. In an editorial in 1933, W.E.B. Du Bois summed up the power of a cooperative economy for a subaltern population:

 …we can by consumers and producers’ cooperation…establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.

Look for a review of Collective Courage here in a few weeks.

Memorial Day 2023

Memorial marker for Lt. John R. Fox

When directing artillery fire, using the phrase “danger close” signifies that the desired target for the fire is close to friendly forces, possibly including the artillery observer — and that the observer is aware of that fact. The distance for a strike to be considered “danger close” varies with the type of weapon, but for artillery it’s at minimum 600 meters. The point of the phrase, of course, is to acknowledge that the request is dangerous but not suicidal.

Calling a strike directly on one’s own position is an evocative act. As a former artillery office put it on Quora: “People who called in artillery, or gunships, or aerial bombs on their own position have been noted to have received EITHER a posthumous Medal of Honor OR… considered to be foolish and excitable at their funerals.” And that makes sense; trying to live to fight another day is better than a heroic sacrifice that accomplishes little.

Of course, some times living to fight another day is not in the cards. Lieutenant John R. Fox found himself in such a position in Sommocolonia, Italy, on 26 December 1944. A group of U.S. soldiers were dug in defending the village against an overwhelming force of the Wehrmacht. Lt. Fox directed artillery fire against the attackers, but eventually his position was about to get overrun with no chance of Fox being allowed to be captured. Consequently, he called down fire on his own position.

As it happened, one of Fox’s best friends, Maj. Otis Zachary, was the gunner. Zachary refused Fox’s request until a colonel ordered that the fire proceed.

After the battle, the villagers were rounded up and made to leave the village. Their priest recalled seeing Fox’s body surrounded by the corpses of a hundred attackers.

Instant Medal of Honor? Not so much:

Medal of Honor Recipient John R. Fox

Like many African American soldiers, Lt. Fox’s sacrifice was not recognized at the time. The “Buffalo Soldiers” were, after all, just expected to melt away. Formal desegregation of the army wouldn’t happen for another four years.  It took 38 years for him to be awarded a Distinguished Service Medal; 53 to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The villagers of Sommocolonia had long acknowledged the sacrifice of the U.S. soldiers in defense of their town, but had it not been for the efforts of the survivors and families of the soldiers, as well as that of author Solace Wales, Lt. Fox may not have been remembered at all.

Remembrance is not a passive act. It takes time and effort to remember, especially of the things that for whatever reasons of prejudice were discounted or intentional forgotten.

On this Memorial Day, remember — actively.

Presidents’ Day 2023

As of the writing of this post, Jimmy Carter is at home receiving hospice care. However many hours, days, or weeks are left to him, he can rest assured of near-universal acclaim for having conducted the best post-presidency in the modern era.

A United States President nowadays commands awesome power, including quite literally the ability to instigate the end of civilization as we know it. That that power is wielded by a democratically elected official who can count on being held in contempt by a portion of the electorate is an irony of the modern age. Carter was of course not immune to that: Marlene recalls working as a librarian the 1980s and being asked for Rosalynn Carter memoir First Lady from Plains by a slightly different title: “First Lady Complains”.

Presidential power is not the domain of a Superman single-handedly changing the world; many hands are involved. What the President can do at best is to inspire, to lead, to exemplify, to cajole, to persuade, but almost never to directly do. Carter exemplified some of the best of that indirectness. Let us consider a few incidents.

Carter survived Admiral Hyman RIckover’s job interview – undoubtedly one of the toughest anywhere in the world – to serve in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine service. In 1952, an experimental nuclear reactor in Ontario, Canada, the Chalk River NRX, suffered a partial meltdown that resulted in a radioactive mess. The cleanup took 14 months, and since the NRX was being used to test fuel for U.S. nuclear submarines, Canada invited the U.S. Navy to provide men to assist with the cleanup (and to supplement the Canadian reactor staff, many of whom were reaching their legal radiation exposure limits). Rickover, seeing an excellent training opportunity, sent them over, including a team led by Carter.

Carter’s team was responsible for performing some of the disassembly of parts of the reactor and had to move quickly. According to his memoirs, they had about 90 seconds apiece to do their work before reaching the maximum permitted exposure. They came, they planned, they did their work, and went back home. While it left an impression on Carter – having to test your urine for six months before it stopped registering as radioactive tends to do that to a person – the tale subsequently grew in the telling (by others). Some accounts published in recent years might give one the impression that he saved Ottawa (which wasn’t in danger) by personally leading the entire cleanup effort (he was responsible for just one team consisting of between one and dozen men as part of a much larger operation run by the Canadians). But Carter himself had a more accurate perspective: he did his duty bravely, as many others did, and ensured that the men he led did theirs.

One of Carter’s signature accomplishments during his presidency was the signing of the Camp David Accords that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt. This time, Carter personally chivvied the negotiations along, including taking Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield to ponder the cost of war. While the Accords did not achieve all that Carter hoped for, as he had tried to get Syria and Jordan to participate, they led to a peace between Israel and Egypt that remains unbroken.

However, Carter’s best legacy may ultimately have nothing to do with nuclear power or high diplomacy. In fact, that legacy may be marked by an absence: specifically, that of Dracunculus medinensis, i.e., the guinea worm. In 1986, Carter’s foundation started an effort to eradicate the guinea worm. This project is the epitome of a group effort using boring means to achieve its aim. An eradication program inherently involves many international and national health agencies, and guinea worms do not lend themselves to extinction by the heroic efforts of genius medical research. Instead, the weapons are education, water filters, and patience. But nearly 40 years of patience can be enough: there were about 3.5 million cases of guinea worm disease in 1986. Last year, there were about 13.

Carter likely will not live to hear the World Health Organization’s proclamation of the end of the disease – but he can rest easy knowing that his efforts will outlive him and achieve a permanent solution to a major problem; the sort of legacy not every U.S. President is accorded.