Betsy-Tacy Road Trip!

Julia is totally enamored of the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, a Minnesota writer who turned her experiences as a young girl in the 1890s and 1900s into a long series of novels published in the 1940s and 1950s. They’re good books, full of very tame mischief and exciting-for-a-kid adventures and just enough period detail to get a smart kid thinking. I mean, she knows what shirtwaists are, and who ruled Spain in 1900, and why one of the character’s brothers died as a baby.

Julia has three of the novels, and she’s read each of them at least a dozen times. If she’s awake and in the house, she’s probably reading one of them or being dragged away from one of them or scheming to get back to one of them. It’s not too much to say that she has them memorized: if by intention or omission I skip a word while reading one of the books aloud, Julia instantly corrects me. Half the time, Vivi does, too.

All this is more than great of course, but for present purposes, the best thing about the Betsy-Tacy books is that they’re set in a fictionalized version of Mankato, Minnesota, which is an hour away from us. And as luck would have it, the Betsy-Tacy Society there owns and maintains the houses in which Maud Hart Lovelace (“Betsy”) and her best friend Frances ‘Bick’ Kenney (“Tacy”) grew up.

I dunno about you, but this means a road trip, and this weekend we’re taking a day trip to “Deep Valley” to see the houses and walk around the neighborhood and have lunch in the park where Betsy, Tacy, and Tib (who joined the two of them later on) picnicked and sit on the bench on which they sat and looked down at their little river town. Who knows – we might even pick up a copy or two of the official Betsy-Tacy coloring book.

Magic Treehouses

Julia’s fascination with the Magic Tree House books has reminded me of treehouses I have known. Growing up, lots of my friends had tree houses that ranged, in later elementary school, from a wooden pallet temporarily nailed to some low pine-tree branches to, in early elementary school, an elaborate room permanently fixed high in a huge leafed tree. That latter tree house was practically archetypal: it had a door that actually closed, “windows” on all four sides, a roof, a ladder of boards nailed into the tree trunk, and even a “No Girls Allowed” sign. The sign was useless, since my friends’ sister climbed up there as much as we did.

All that, and the view was great. Tucked in a back corner of my friends’ yard, we commanded a panoramic view. In one direction, we could see down their driveway into their front yard and beyond it, the town’s elementary school, where my mom taught. In another direction, we could watch traffic buzz up and down on the side street. Opposite to that, we could look down both sides of a massive hedgerow that separated their yard from the neighbor’s. It was heaven – a sniper’s nest, a library, a castle, a spaceship…

Cinco de Mayo

Though I knew that Cinco de Mayo commemorates a victory by the Mexican army over a French one in the 1860s, I didn’t know much about the actual battle, at Puebla, in 1862. In sketching out the context of the Battle of Puebla and its significance, Wikipedia offers up a few choice bits of history, including the fact that the battle didn’t prevent the French from occupying Mexico between 1863 and 1867 and installing the Emperor Maximilian as their client. Still more interestingly, the French invaded Mexico in 1862 after the Mexican government defaulted on its foreign debt. It seems some aspects of the international finance system never change.

And but so, happy Cinco de Mayo! Let the noted Mexican-American singer Liz Phair serenade you:

Galileo Looks at the Moon

Tonight, the moon is waxing toward a full moon on New Year’s Eve, which makes this as fitting a moment as any to note that almost exactly four hundred years ago, between November 30 and December 18, 1609, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei used a hand-made telescope (and other tools, as shown in this excellent Smithsonian article) to look at the moon, examining it for the first time in human history like a scientist – indeed, using his looking to help invent modern science. Using the telescope, Galileo scrutinized the discolored areas that are visible with the naked eye. As put on an excellent webpage by an undergrad at Rice,

Galileo’s observations led him to the startling conclusion that the moon is anything but perfect. With his telescope, he noticed small dark spots that had never been seen before on the illuminated part of the moon’s surface, along with similar light spots in the dark area. He observed that as time passed, these and other spots changed, either getting lighter and eventually disappearing or getting darker and more distinct. The interface between the light and dark sides of the moon was rough and uneven, rather than smooth as would be expected on a perfectly smooth sphere. Galileo also observed that the spots all “have a dark part on the side toward the Sun while on the side opposite the Sun they are crowned with brighter borders like shining ridges.” (Sidereus Nuncius, p 41)

From these and many other observations, Galileo concluded that the moon’s surface consists of valleys, plains and mountains much like the surface of the Earth (Sidereus Nuncius, p 48-49). The dark spots are shadows cast by these mountains and valleys as the sun falls on them. As the moon’s position relative to the sun changes, the shapes and intensities of these shadows change. Galileo’s conclusion was a shocking one– how can the moon, a heavenly body, not be perfect and spherical? If the moon is imperfect, could there be other imperfect heavenly bodies as well? If heavenly bodies can be imperfect, why can the Earth not be a heavenly body? Galileo’s conclusions about the moon did not give solid proof of Copernicus’ theory, but his observations paved the way for the theory’s eventual acceptance.

Not only did Galileo help advance the earthshattering ideas that Earth is not the center of the universe, and that perhaps God had not made all of the universe in a perfect form, but he drew some awfully good pictures of the moon as he saw it through his telescope. Indeed, the art historian Samuel Edgerton argues, in his recent book, The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe (thoroughly reviewed here), that Galileo’s skill as a draftsman, and especially his knowledge of perspective (an artistic and scientific innovation which was not even a century old when Galileo learned it), enabled him to understand that the discolorations visible on the moon were actually the evidence of not just of imperfections like spots on cowhide, but of irregularities such as mountains and craters. In other words, drawing led directly to scientific discovery – and spun off great art such as these sketches by Galileo.

Six Phases of the Moon, by Galileo
Six Phases of the Moon, by Galileo
Four More Phases of the Moon, by Galileo
Four More Phases of the Moon, by Galileo

Tractor Auction!

On my way back from a bike ride the other day, I saw something surprising and impressive: hundreds of pieces of farm equipment lined up in a field on the farm of Palmer Fossum, a well-known Northfield farmer who died in 2007The whole lot of them will be auctioned off next month, and could pull in as much as a half-million dollars, with some of the tractors being plain cool

Fossum Tractor
Fossum Tractor

and others being pretty rare:

A 1949 Ford 8N equipped with a flathead V-8, for example, originally sold for about $1,500… The tractor, one of three known originals in the world, could fetch upwards of $15,000.

The auctioneer’s website has close-up shots of many of the machines, but it’s amazing to see the whole field full of tractors, implements, combines, trucks, parts, and god knows what else… (Click here and here for the fuller-size images.)

Tractor Auction

Tractor Auction

Defeating Jesse James

For the first time in our four summers here in Northfield, we ventured as a family to the town’s famous (or at least well-known) Defeat of Jesse James Days, a huge celebration centering on the town’s counterattack and defeat of Jesse James and his gang when they tried to rob the First National Bank of Northfield (my bank!) in 1876.

Knowing we would be able to last maybe two hours, we tried to see the “Teddy Bear Band,” which was supposed to be playing in a tent right in the center of the hubbub. In walking from our car to that spot, we accidentally wandered past one of the bank-raid reenactments, and the noise and commotion (horses! guns firing blanks! people shouting! a huge crowd watching!) terrified the girls. We hustled toward the entertainment tent, only to find that they had stopped playing before we arrive. (Note to the DJJD organizers: if your schedule says that the Teddy Bear Band plays from two until four, why did they stop playing at 3:15) Between the noise of the raid reenactment and missing the whole reason for the trip, both girls were on the verge of tears fifteen minutes after we’d arrived – and we hadn’t even linked up with the friends we were planning to see.

Activity FAIL.

Then! As we tried to figure out whether and how to compensate for these problems, and began to settle on going to the carnival for some rides, a friend of Shannon’s wandered by and offered to sell us some unused carnival tickets. One shady-looking curbside transaction later, we had enough tickets for a few rides, and off we went for a good hour of fun at the carnival – three rides apiece for the girls and peoplewatching aplenty for the “gwowmups” – or at least for me.*

Activity WIN.

This Carnival Ride Defeated Jesse James
This Carnival Ride Defeated Jesse James

* Though I saw more amazing things than I could or should report here, I can list my three favorite t-shirt slogans:

  1. “I’m the coolest person here” – worn by a tween boy as he clutched his dad’s hand
  2. “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy the next best thing: BEER” – worn by a guy who acts on this maxim every day
  3. “I did WHAT last night?” – worn by a sixty-something grandma walking along with her grandkids

Carleton’s World Trade Center Architecture

Walking across Carleton’s campus, you don’t have to look hard to see 9/11.

Carleton’s Olin Hall of Science was designed by the prominent modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed four other Carleton buildings), built in 1960-61, and opened in 1961. (The building currently houses the departments of psychology and physics & astronomy.) A webpage about the building says that “the three-story red brick building is distinguished by an exterior arcaded screen of white, pre-cast concrete,” as shown in this view of the building’s northern facade

Olin Hall of Science (view from the north), Carleton College
Olin Hall of Science (view from the north), Carleton College

and in this view of the northeastern wing, which houses lecture halls.

Olin Hall of Science (detail), Carleton College
Olin Hall of Science (detail), Carleton College

If that arch-heavy screen looks familiar, it’s because Yamasaki also used it on his most famous commission, the World Trade Center towers, where the screens were used on the ground floors.

World Trade Center, 1986 (via Flickr user The MachineStops)
World Trade Center, 1986 (via Flickr user The MachineStops)

This is what they looked like just about eight years ago right now:

World Trade Center (via the Big Picture blog)
World Trade Center (via the Big Picture blog)

Tom Lewis, The Hudson: A History

The Hudson: A History The Hudson: A History by Tom Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this book up a week ago, just after seeing a northerly section of the Hudson – near Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga battlefield in upstate New York – and hoping that the book would offer a decent history of the river. Lewis certainly fulfills that hope, writing a wonderful overview of the discovery and settlement of the river, which was unusually important in early American history (from about 1600 to 1850), and not only because it was the waterway which New York City could use as its highway into the continent. Among other topics, Lewis discusses Henry Hudson, the river’s European discoverer; early Dutch settlers up and down the river; the coming of British dominance and then Britain’s loss of the river to the new United States; and the centrality of the river in 19th c. American visual and literary art. A concluding few sections treat, somewhat less satisfyingly, 20th century topics such as environmentalists’ battle against Con Ed’s plan to destroy Storm King Mountain for a hydroelectric project. (I expected more on the environmental history of the river, but there is relatively little such content.)

All in all, this is a wonderful, fluently written, and satisfying look at the history of the river. My only regret is that I didn’t read this before my trip, or I’d have known to have seen the river further south, along the great fjord that begins south of Albany. A cruise up the Hudson from New York to Albany sounds like a future dream vacation.

The book is full of excellent, illustrative anecdotes, but this is my favorite one:

On a cool and brilliant June day in 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England arrived at Hyde Park for a weekend visit. Roosevelt and the king drank cocktails in the library, spent an afternoon chatting on the lawn overlooking the Hudson, and the following morning attended services in St. James’ Episcopal Church. Afterward Roosevelt escorted the royal couple up to Top Cottage, a new fieldstone structure he had designed. There everyone feasted on American luncheon favorites, Virginia ham, turkey, and hot dogs. It was said that George –for by this time the presidnt had abolished formalities between them completely–ate two. Later, Anglophile criitcs said that hot dogs were not the dish to serve a king and queen, and certainly no one should address the royal couple the way the president had. But Roosevelt brushed the criticism aside. After all, he said, his family had lived in New York for centuries longer than the royal family had lived in England. In the Hudson Valley, where his great-grandfather had settled until [sic:] 1813, he counted himself (through his wife) a descendant of Robert Livingson. Compared with the Roosevelts, the Windsors were mere arrivistes.


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I skipped tonight’s conference-organized social activities (a chi-chi dinner and the New York City Ballet) in favor of a little drive down to the Saratoga battle site, which is just a few miles southeast of town. (My friend Rob recommended this outing, but I initially thought I wouldn’t have enough time. I was as wrong about that as Burgoyne was wrong about Clinton’s reinforcements in 1777.)

On the way out of town, I picked up a sandwich at a streetcorner deli in one of Saratoga Springs’ quiet residential neighborhoods. As I stood here, waiting for my cappicola hero, I realized that I had absentmindedly started watching the horserace feed on the TV. And that I was driving a car with New Jersey plates. Suddenly I was a character in the lamest Sopranos episode, the one about the grantwriter who orders a cappicola hero and watches a horserace on TV. Nothing else happens.

Soon enough, I was in Schuylerville, a little burg on the Hudson, due east of Saratoga Springs. There, I found the amazing Saratoga Monument, which commemorates the spot where British General John Burgoyne surrendered his army to the colonials in October 1777, ending Britain’s effort to split the rebellion into northern and southern halves.
Saratoga Monument

The monument looks a lot like the Washington Monument, which was put up around the same time, and has four niches for statues of the heroes of the Battle of Saratoga: General Horatio Gates, General Philip Schuyler, Colonel Daniel Morgan, and General Benedict Arnold. Through Arnold was arguably the most important American commander at the battle, his niche is empty, owing to his treason in 1780.
The Benedict Arnold Niche

Arnold’s niche faces south, toward the battlefield itself. Though I missed the cutoff time for the driving tour of the battlefield, I did spend a few minutes at the entrance to the park from the present-day highway. When Burgoyne came south from Canada to capture Albany, he tried to squeeze through this very gap between the Hudson on the east and the rougher, hilly terrain on the west – hills occupied by an American force that included artillery which commanded the river and the floodplain.

Burgoyne didn’t make it, being halted in September by American troops. He encamped here and waited weeks for reinforcements that he hoped had been sent up the river from New York by British Governor Sir Henry Clinton. Those troops never came, and Burgoyne’s men – mostly British troops, but also many Germans, some Indians, and quite a few women and children – ran out of supplies in the meantime. Finally, he ordered them to try to find the American lines and precipitate a battle that would allow him to move south again. But Burgoyne’s troops were now outnumbered by the Americans, who routed them on October 7. Retreating, Burgoyne led his men north, but bad weather and weakness slowed them, and they made it only as far as present-day Schuylerville, where American forces surrounded him and where he surrendered. The destruction of Britain’s main army in the north emboldened the Continental Army and induced Louis XVI to ally France with the American rebels, making the war into a global conflict and dramatically improving the military and political strength of the rebels.


Today was the full-on conference day, from the breakfast chit-chat at 7:30 a.m. through the cocktail hour and dinner, ending at 9 p.m. In between, we had four good sessions (and a lunch!). Throughout, I caught up with some colleagues I’ve met before – including a hilarious staffer from Barnard who is, and knows she is, basically a character in a Woody Allen movie. I also sampled some Saratoga Springs water, which was delicious and subtle, much lighter than San Pellegrino, and had a nice run through Skidmore’s “Northwoods” nature preserve. Now it’s time for bed.

Tomorrow we have fewer conference activities, so I think I might take advantage of our open time to head over to the Hudson River and see the historical monuments in Schuylerville, the town where, in 1777, British general John Burgoyne surrendered his army, breaking the king’s hold on the northern colonies and inducing the French to join the American colonies’ cause. Seems like a decent place to spend a few hours.

A Green-Energy War Effort?

I was surprised this morning to discover that a blogger on the Motley Fool personal-finance website quoted me – or rather, an article I wrote a few years back on the US economy during World War II – in an op-ed on the need to move to renewable and green energy. This would be gratifying even if I didn’t agree so much with the argument that we as a society have within our capacity, if not our will, to launch a huge effort to switch to sustainable energy sources, and then reap the economic, environmental, and social benefits of such a changeover. We need some bold leaders to push this point.

The History of Perspective

The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe by Samuel Y. Edgerton

My review

This is a mind-bending book that blends excellent history of science with excellent history of art. The core of the book is examination of the origins and early use in visual art of optical perspective, the technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane. The book has a good account of the invention (or at least rediscovery) by the Florentine craftsman and architect Brunelleschi of perspective in 1425, when he created two works (both now lost) that were the first effective, rigorous, and theoretically sound uses of perspective since at least antiquity. The section on Brunelleschi were wonderful, not least because they placed the reader in early-Renaissance Florence. The idea – much less the historical fact – that perspective was invented defies common sense, but Edgerton shows that while everyone does see perspectivally, representing the world in perspective required a genius like Brunelleschi.

Edgerton goes on to describe – with somewhat less surety – Renaissance artists’ use of perspective to make religious art seem more lifelike and therefore more powerful: a good perspectival painting could make the viewer feel that he or she was actually inside the space occupied by, say, the Madonna and Christ Child, or the crucified Christ. Edgerton goes even further than this, linking perspective in art to the development of the “perspective tube” – the device we call the telescope – and to the use of the telescope by Galileo to discover that the moon is actually lumpy, not smooth. Here, Edgerton is on firmer ground again: Galileo was an excellent artist, and was able to determine, based on his views of the moon in 1509, that the patterns of light and dark were actually sunlit and shadowed regions on the moon’s surface – a realization he made because he understood perspectival effects – and because he could render objects – even lunar craters viewed through a telescope – with perspectival techniques.

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Thoughts on Iran

The events in Iran are gripping both as they roil that country and possibly alter the world and as they are reflected in the social media, including especially Twitter. I’m confident that in four weeks – and in four years – we’ll know a lot more about the role of Twitter in facilitating the protests in Iraq, but I’ll guess now that the service will turn out to have been much less important than regular word-of-mouth and other local communication and organization in Iran.

The corollary is that some of us in the “First World” are so enamored of the idea of tweeting the revolution because we are so enamored of tweeting to begin with: we’re seeing what we hope to see and can see (through tweet aggregators like Twazzup, for instance), not necessarily what’s really happening in Iran.

And but so, for my money the medium that’s really showing us what’s going on in the Islamic Republic is the same one that’s been showing us world-shaking events since the 1860s: photography. And nobody does the photo-essay thing better than’s incredible “Big Picture” feature. Today’s series on the protests in Iran is nothing less than breathtaking. I can barely stand to look at this shot, for instance:

A supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mousavi is beaten by government security men as fellow supporters come to his aid during riots in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 14, 2009. (AP Photo)
"A supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mousavi is beaten by government security men as fellow supporters come to his aid during riots in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 14, 2009. (AP Photo)"

Ruined Detroit

As a native Michigander, I have a sad interest in the state’s continued decline, which is most evident in Detroit. On a far smaller scale, my hometowns in the Upper Peninsula experienced in the 1920s through the 1950s what Detroit has suffered since then. A building like this – from the incredible and shocking collection, “The Ruins of Detroit” by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre Photography – is reminiscent of buildings still (almost) standing in Hancock or Ironwood.

Brush Park House, Detroit
Brush Park House, Detroit