A jaunt into Manhattan recently let us visit the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. On exhibit is just a portion of this 125-year-old institution’s many treasures. Well worth a visit, the jaw-dropping free exhibition lets you see first-hand a wide selection of amazing artifacts—Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s handwritten farewell address, and the drafts of literary icons like Maya Angelou, manuscripts by musical geniuses Beethoven and Mozart and Dizzy Gillespie.
A small section shows some of the anti-Nazi pamphlets smuggled into Germany cleverly hidden in packages of food and the like. You can see all six of the Library’s copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. One of the interesting things about that display is that the descriptions enumerate the subtle—and not so subtle—differences among them. You can see the first great printed book, too—Gutenberg’s Bible—but before modern printing, individual copies of a book were not perfectly standardized. The discrepancies created fodder for innumerable dissertations and theories by Shakespeare scholars.
But, it’s not just books. It’s also stuff. The collection of stuffed animals that inspired the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, and Kanga. Five batons made for Arturo Toscanini in their unfinished state. Eventually, the wand would be painted white to look like ivory. The costume of ballerina Alexandra Danilova from a century ago. Cole Porter’s cigarette case. Charles Dickens’s desk and chair, and on and on. Globes, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick. Really, a feast for the mind, and every visitor will find at least one thing to love. You might forget to look up, you’ll be so fixed on the displays, but the ceiling of Gottesman Hall, where the exhibit is, is pretty spectacular too.
A recent Midwest trip involved a brief stayover in Pittsburgh, where my husband and I met as graduate students at Pitt. Whenever we’re in town, we seek vainly for traces of those days!
We drove into town late one afternoon and up to Mt. Washington, the neighborhood overlooking the Golden Triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. We had dinner at a restaurant cantilevered over the steep cliff, which you can reach by funicular (the red car in the photo), as well as by auto.
The meal was great, and we watched the pleasure boats, one big barge, and the Cruisin’ Tikis meandering around the rivers below. Also of interest, but not in a good way, was the swarm of Spotted Lanternflies in that part of town—and all over Pittsburgh, really. I stepped on as many as I could, but they tend to be too fast for me. We have these dangerous pests in New Jersey where we live, but not in numbers like this. We even saw one crawling up the inside of the restaurant window!
Over the years, we’ve visited many of the Pittsburgh’s museums and attractions and used this visit to catch up on two we’d missed. Neil had read David Randall’s The Monster’s Bonesabout the fierce competition between Andrew Carnegie and NYC’s Museum of Natural History to acquire dinosaur bones being discovered in Montana and Wyoming in the late 1800s. Neil wanted to see what Carnegie’s team had found, so we visited the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Wow! Dinosaurs obsession skipped me, but the curatorial staff has done a remarkable job of presenting the skeletons and the paleontology. Much else of interest to see there too. Like gemstones—more up my alley.
We stopped for a nourishing lunch at the Milkshake Factory. Exactly what it sounds like, though they sell ice cream sundaes too. Oh, and chocolate candy. The branch we visited was near the Pitt campus, and we strolled around, working off maybe 1% of those milkshake calories and visited the Stephen Foster memorial on campus—who knew?—near the Cathedral of Learning. (The University boffins were very proud of the Cathedral of Learning and showed it off to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose reaction was, “Nice lawn.”) Anyway, the Foster memorial seemed mostly closed, but it’s nice to know the composer of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” is honored in his home town.
The visit to the Heinz Memorial Chapel (yes, that Heinz, Mr. 57), dedicated in 1938, was something else again. It’s a beautiful small nonsectarian chapel, also near the CofL, which hosts about 2500 events every year. Its brilliantly colored stained glass windows depict leaders from science, literature, governance, religious, and human aspiration—with an equal number of male and female figures. Thus you find Sir Thomas More just above William Penn (pictured) and Queen Isabella above Florence Nightingale. The windows were designed by Bostonian Charles J. Connick, whose first training was in Pittsburgh, and contain almost 250,000 pieces of glass.
You can’t visit Pittsburgh without traveling over some of its many bridges, most painted an unexpected, bright yellow. We naturally had to cross the Andy Warhol Bridge to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. This was an attraction I enjoyed more than expected to. I was thinking, “I don’t even like canned soup,” but there was much to see, as the artist worked in so many different styles and media.
He was born on Pittsburgh’s South Side to an Austro-Hungarian family named Warhola. They were poor, had no indoor plumbing, and yet he became one of the most famous celebrities of his era. The exhibits included a how-to video about his method for creating his blotted line works (like those pictured in this article), which was fascinating. Well worth a visit!
A new presidential election season is fast-approaching, and it would be timely to take a look at the American Electorate. The publication Military Times recently reminded me of a survey reported a decade ago that found 12.6 million Americans believed that “Lizard People” run the country. Reptilians are popular characters in science fiction and fantasy, going back decades. Time enough for people to distinguish fact from fiction, you’d think.
Also at that time, as reported in The Atlantic, 37 percent of Americans believed global warming was a hoax. (Time to re-ask that one.)
Conspiracy theories explain this confusing world in simplistic and sometimes bizarre ways. Some of them boost their appeal by pretending to secret knowledge, playing on alienated individuals’ desire to be “on the inside.” Think QAnon. In fact, one social psychologist has suggested that the smaller the group believing a specific theory, the more attractive it becomes. “You’re special,” the belief conveys.
Perhaps the difficulty is not what conspiracy theorists believe, but what they don’t believe. They don’t believe government and other leaders work in their best interests. This can morph into disbelieving any information from official channels—for example, that 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook, that COVID vaccines work. Loss of trust in social, political, and economic institutions has many causes, some quite compelling, which is why effective accountability efforts are so important. They are more than a response to a single incident; they preserve the integrity of the entire institution.
With the election looming, conspiracy theories are likely to blossom in classic and new forms. Sometimes these theories focus on supposed external enemies, and sometimes the enemies are within, like the lizard people. Americans who feel alienated and powerless are more likely to believe them, as a way of explaining why their lives feel out of their control (and it’s not their fault). Ironically, the result may be that they are less likely to take action to improve their situation, consigning themselves to lives of dissatisfaction.
Former CIA operations officer Mark Davidson is writing the new column, “Chalk Marks,” for the national security news outlet, The Cipher Brief. The column will explore his interest inthe intersection of intelligence and espionage with literature, film and popular culture, and it promises to be quite entertaining.
His first posting responds to a frequent question he receives: “What is the best spy movie?” Of course, he acknowledges up front that the quality of the film has nothing to do with how realistic it is. He says, “I love the Mission Impossible films, but they are about as reflective of life in the clandestine service as Hogwarts is to boarding school.”
When it comes to realism, though, he has a solid recommendation from the Cold War era, which he believes strongly was the golden age of espionage—the John Le Carré/George Smiley era—a time when he says tradecraft and counterintelligence mattered most. He suggests:
The Good Shepherd (2006), directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon and a bunch of stars (trailer). While the film may be a little history-heavy (it ends in the early 1960s), it portrays “tradecraft, mindset and minutiae at a level that few films have ever attempted.” As a writer of stories, I find “mindset” vitally important. How would a character act in this particular situation? When a story gets it right, we barely notice; when it gets it wrong, we say, “they’d never do that!”
Hallmarks of this film are tradecraft, atmosphere, and how little things contribute to success or disaster. If you’ve watched Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, about disgraced MI5 agents, you’ve seen the importance of minutia again. Sometimes the complexity of the agent’s task is revealed by its going wrong. Davidson says, “The Good Shepherd is among the best at revealing the fine line between adrenaline and stress and the precipice between success and compromise that CIA officers experience every day, and how difficult it can be to know if you are winning or losing.”
In multiple scenes, Damon’s character works with CIA experts to tease information out of the unfathomable: analyzing a murky photo or sharpening a muffled recording. Davidson considers these scenes a rare and penetrating look at this vital aspect of the work. Of course 2020 technology has 1960s methods beat, but how analysts can patiently decode a less-than-optimal image or sound file “is breathtaking and the value, immeasurable.”
Davidson also appreciates the subtlety of some of the tradecraft. Signals are a good example. “An effective signal is seen only by the person it’s intended for; anyone beyond that is a problem.” He predicts that viewers will miss some of the ops acts in The Good Shepherd, at least the first time they see the film. “I missed several, and I did this stuff for a lot of years,” he says. All part of the fun!
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Saratoga always brings to mind two things: horse racing and poor Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. She’s desperate for gambler Nathan Detroit to take her to Niagara Falls and tie the knot, but he never makes it that far. “And they get off at Saratoga for the fourteenth time . . .” See it here!
Our recent upstate New York trip included a stop-off in Saratoga, less than two hours north of New York City, where we watched an afternoon of graded stakes races. Our betting system has a perfect record: we lose every time! But not this time. We won enough on one race to come out ahead. That’s if you don’t count parking, what we paid for the program, and a bag of chips. But a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
If you do go, note that you don’t need to go through the complicated reservation system for the Turf Club and other sit-down restaurants. There are plenty of food vendors. And I’ll bet (this one I won’t lose), you can get a beer or cocktail, too. You can find an online map of parking (including free parking), but parking is not a problem.
The pair of trumpeters who play the iconic call to the post wandered through the reserved seats and entertained a bit—“When the Saints Go Marching In” and the like. There are about forty minutes between races for walking around, finding a snack, and seeing the paddock area.
But the big attraction not to miss is Saratoga’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame “where the history of thoroughbred racing comes to life!” Fascinating permanent exhibits about horse racing in America (which started in the Colonial era with some of my ancestors) up to today. Artworks, replays.
And, at present, a special exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Secretariat and his jockey, Ron Turcotte’s, astonishing 31-lengths Belmont victory (see it here). We have a friend who was at that race! It was an amazing performance.
My husband rides every week, and we couldn’t feel more respect for these wonderful animals. I know there are plenty of questions about the ethics of horse-racing, and I won’t convince any anti-racing advocates. Certainly, everything should be done to protect the animals, like adopting some of the European practices that make the sport safer there, and, possibly, my friend Eileen’s idea that major races like the Kentucky Derby shouldn’t be for three-year-olds. Giving them another year might let them gain strength. Various sources say equine skeletal development and bone growth is complete by age two, though the supporting muscles and soft tissue may continue to increase. When you look at that 1500-pound animal and those immensely slender ankles, it’s no wonder the sport is risky.
Still, a well-run horse race is a thing of beauty.
Related Reading:Hyperion’s Fracture by Thomas Kelso about the effort to safe an injured race-horse. The veterinary aspect was fascinating, though the pharmaceutical exec bad-guy a little over-the-top for my taste. You learn a lot while rooting for Hyperion.
A short trip to Upstate New York last week involved a smorgasbord of activities, including getting my thumb stung by a hornet, which I do not recommend as a vacation enhancement.
We used Glens Falls as our base and drove along the west shore of Lake George up to Fort Ticonderoga, site of so many battles in Colonial times. We didn’t visit Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George, because it is already so fixed in my mind by my favorite movie, the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis Last of the Mohicans.
Instead, we headed to Fort Ticonderoga at the narrow southern end of Lake Champlain. The northern tip of Lake George and the southern portion of Lake Champlain, both north-flowing lakes, are connect via the difficult La Chute River. Although the river is only 3.5 miles long, it drops about 230 feet (more height than Niagara Falls), which made it a key portage point for the military, if not an easily traversable waterway. Fabulous views on this drive!
Fort Ticonderoga was a pivotal point in numerous battles; between French explorer Samuel de Champlain and the Iroquois (1609); during the French and Indian War, when the Colonials fought alongside the British (1758-59); and in the American Revolution when the Patriots fought the British (1775-1777). As you can imagine, it’s easy to get tangled up in this history as the flags flying over the fort were changing with great regularity.
To combat confusion, each year the nonprofit (non-governmental) organization that maintains the Fort and runs its extensive history education program, adopts a particular year and focuses some of its programming on the experiences of a particular set of combatants at that time. When we visited, the program was focused on 1760 and the final British campaign to conquer New France (i.e., Canada).
Another notable year in the Fort’s history was 1775. News traveled slowly in those days, and the fort’s small contingent of British occupiers hadn’t heard about the battles of Lexington and Concord—the start of the American Revolution. In the middle of the night, they were overwhelmed by a small group of Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen, and Massachusetts militia, led by Benedict Arnold (still on the American side at that point).
Their purpose in capturing the fort was to seize its cannon and transport them three hundred miles over the snow-covered Berkshire mountains to Boston. The cannon were desperately needed there, in order to end a nearly year-long British siege. Several famous artworks depict the struggle over rough terrain by men and oxen, but it is apocryphal that oxen were used in this way. The cannon were pulled on sleds by horses, no easy feat, either, though the myth persists.
Don’t miss the boat trip out into the lake which provides helpful views of the Patriots’ various military positions on both sides of the lake, including Mount Defiance and Mount Independence. Ticonderoga was uniquely situated to control any forces seeking to travel south from French Canada and thereby, it could protect the entire Hudson Valley, Albany, and New York. Although New York itself was in British hands, it could not be resupplied by this route.
Aside from the costumed tour guides and staff who put on a wide variety of programming, the property includes a really beautiful “king’s garden,” corn maze, hiking trail, colonial crafts demonstrations (tailoring, shoemaking, musket maintenance, and the like), and spectacular scenery. Kids and grownups were having a great time! We did too. Except for the, you know, hornet thing.
Photos: of the fort by Mwanner and of the soldiers by Gin; each used under this Creative Commons license, no changes made.
J. Robert Oppenheimer had close connections with Princeton, including his acquaintanceship with Albert Einstein and his tenure as head of the Institute for Advanced Study (one of the four colleges then in this New Jersey town). Our local nonprofit movie theater was able to arrange a U.S. premiere last Thursday, the day before the film’s general release. The Garden Theater produced a classy event—food, wine, free popcorn!—and attendance was enthusiastic.
But it was the movie itself, directed by Christopher Nolan, that made an indelible impression on me. Three hours long, and not a minute wasted. The music and some of the visuals, especially in the beginning, suggested how the young Oppenheimer grappled with the mysterious principles of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, the energy of the stars, and the movement of atoms. And their implications. He became the person who pulled all these ideas (and conflicting scientists’ egos) together to create the atomic bomb. When the Manhattan Project began, the United States was already four years behind German development of atomic weapons. While there were Americans who questioned whether the United States should deploy such a destructive weapon, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hitler wouldn’t hesitate.
Oppenheimer believed his role was to develop the weapon; it was up to the politicians when, where—and if—it should be used. Then politics threatened to undo him. The 1954 closed-door hearing in which his security clearance hung in the balance jeopardized his career. Physics was a field with too many secrets, and his government wanted to know whether he could be trusted with them. The brutal questioning and testimony at that hearing is intercut with testimony in another hearing—the Senate confirmation debate on Lewis Strauss’s nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. As chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss had become an Oppenheimer’s implacable enemy, because of the scientist’s qualms about developing the hydrogen bomb and remarks Strauss perceived as insults. The movie contains some astonishing quotes, and, apparently all are accurate.
While these may sound like dry bureaucratic proceedings, director Christopher Nolan has created a movie of incredible tension. Irish actor Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey, Jr., as Strauss, are formidable antagonists. The cast is further strengthened by the performances of Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, and Rami Malek, among many others.
The story is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The production team had only three months of preparation, and the film was shot in just 57 days. I see it as a testament to the value of being focused, whereas films whose creation sprawls over many months lose their edge. The powerful result speaks for itself.
A business trip to Las Vegas kept me from attending the opening weekend of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production, And A Nightingale Sang . . ., but I didn’t want to go without mentioning it to friends in the area, and encourage you to see it. A not-very-often produced play by Scottish playwright C.P.Taylor, it’s on stage for only one more week (through Sunday, July 30). Taylor was a native of Newcastle upon Tyne, and his characters speak with the broad Geordie dialect that must have been a bear for the actors to master (which they did!). This accent will be familiar to viewers of the television mystery series, Vera.
And a Nightingale Sang . . .the story of a northern England family during the Blitz and how, as one character says, Hitler changed their lives. There are lots of funny moments and sad ones too. The actors, particularly Monette Magrath whose role involves breaking the fourth wall and helping the audience understand how the pieces fit, do a remarkable job keeping up. Something—often more than one thing—is always happening.
Older sister Helen (played by Monette) believes she’s plain until she meets the friend (Benjamin Eakeley) of younger sister Joyce’s (Sarah Deaver) fiancé, Eric (Christian Frost). The men are in the army, training for battle, and the play’s six scenes take place at pivotal points in the war. The mother (Marion Adler) is religious—to a fault you might say—and her husband (John Little) distracts himself with playing the piano, including the title song, and politics. The grandfather (Sam Tsoutsouvas) always weighs in where he’s not wanted.
Retiring Shakespeare Theatre artistic Director Bonnie Monte chose this play for the aptness of its moment “as I read about what the Ukrainians are dealing with on a daily basis,” she says. Big world events affect individual people and families in a personal and private way.
Mention must be made of the set design by Brittany Vasta, economical in space for the small stage, but with multiple areas to hold the disparate action and suggestions of the war’s destruction. The lighting (Matthew E. Adelson) and sound (Drew Sensue-Weinstein) designs effectively evoked the terror as planes overhead drop their bombs nearer and nearer. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, contact the Box Office.
Unfortunately for paleontologists who want to study the fossilized ancestors of the world’s billion cats, such remnants are rare. Cats have been around for an estimated 30 million years, but only sixty species appear in the fossil record. Where did that cuddly creature who shreds your sofa and leaves hairs all over your black trousers come from? An article by Jonathan B. Losos in Natural History gives the story.
Millions of years ago, the feline family tree had two main branches. One branch, the saber-toothed cats that lived in many places worldwide, we know only through fossils. The other branch—the conical toothed cats (huh?)—gave rise to all forty-two current species. There are the Big Cats (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, puma, and cheetahs) and the little cats—bobcats, ocelots, Fluffy, and many more.
Big Cats eat big prey; little cats eat mice and bugs and small cans of chicken pâté. (My cats like Italian food.) Domestic cats are much more similar in anatomy, behavior, and ecology to other small cat species than they are to Big Cats. But family relationships aren’t solely a matter of size. There are seven species in the Big Cat family, including the medium-sized cloud leopard. Two members of the little-cat family are big—the mountain lion and the cheetah.
Genetic analysis is answering some questions about cat families’ common ancestors. Your kitty, sleeping on the clean laundry, is descended from the African wildcat. As natural selection has done its work, the intestines of domestic cats became longer (to handle a more varied diet) and their brains smaller (my cats, William and Charles, disagree with the science on this point, despite evidence the decline is in the areas related to aggression, fear, and instant reactivity, which a domestic cat needs less of, apparently).
Losos concludes that “From those humble origins somewhere between Egypt and Turkey, the cat of the Pharoahs has been on a great evolutionary ride, becoming one of the most successful carnivores that ever existed.”
In my award-winning short story “Burning Bright,” a pair of ne’er-do-wells wants to acquire a tiger. I wrote it in a fury that, at that time, four U.S. states still allowed private persons to own big cats without so much as a license. In fact, said the World Wildlife Fund, more tigers were living in U.S. backyards than in the wild. I’m happy to report that the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act finally was enacted late last year making the trade illegal. Current owners are grandfathered in, but had to register their ownership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by last Sunday. Charles and William (below) say they are not policy wonks, but they approve.
Could the image of a four-drawer filing cabinet, whose drawers extend backwards into, well, near-infinity help explain some of society’s current communication disconnects? In a recent New Yorker article, Jill Lepore suggests you can divide all human knowledge into these four drawers: The little paper label on the top drawer says “Mysteries,” the second is “Facts,” the third is “Numbers,” and the bottom drawer is “Data.”
In her analogy, the Mysteries drawer (drawer 1) contains things only God knows, “like what happens when you’re dead.” In the past, this drawer would have been crowded with speculations on such matters as how distant are the stars, what happened to the dinosaurs, how do cells and molecules and atoms work? Thanks to advances in the sciences, these topics have been moved into the Facts drawer (drawer 2). That drawer “contains files about things humans can prove by way of observation, detection, and experiment.” The Numbers drawer (drawer 3) holds what you might think: censuses, polls, averages—stuff that can be counted.
It’s drawer 4 on the bottom, “Data,” that captures most of Lepore’s and society’s attention today. Humans cannot know data directly, in her metaphor, but must derive it from a computer. This drawer used to be empty but is now jammed full. More full than we can use with all practicality.
Not only do the drawers collect different types of knowledge and information, they work differently. They follow different logics. You learn about mysteries by revelation and the discipline that studies them is theology. You collect facts “to find the truth” and you study them by way of law, the humanities, and the natural sciences. Numbers are collected in the form of statistics, acquired through measurement, and you study them through the social sciences. Data analysis by computer enables prediction, pattern detection, based on data science.
For any complicated question (the example she uses is mass shootings in the United States), she says “your best bet is to riffle through all four of these drawers.” Each has something useful to contribute. However, the default in recent years has been to reach for that bottom drawer, as if data science contains the only answers. I saw evidence of the shortcomings of this approach in a news story last week about American students’ declining test scores in history and civics. One commentator noted that the data do not point to reasons for the decline. “Ongoing debates over how to teach history may well be getting in the way of actually doing it,” he said. Once the data are there, then what?
Data science certainly doesn’t preclude the need to open the other three drawers; nor does it demand that we renounce “all the other ways of knowing,” Lepore, a historian (drawer 2), says. Her article goes on to discuss other topics, but she also might have considered whether the main reason people today can’t seem to reconcile differing points of view is that they are basing their views on the contents of different drawers.
Another cultural columnist, Virginia Heffernan, writing in the current issue of Wired, pulls all this together in a way that emphasizes the importance of data science in an article about the complexities of manufacturing modern silicon chips, “I Saw the Face of God in a Semiconductor Factory.” She calls these chips “the engine of nearly all modern abstraction, from laws to concepts to cognition itself” (drawer 2). The global economy of semiconductor chips (drawer 3) is “as mind-boggling as cryptocurrency markets and derivative securities (drawer 4). Or as certain theologies, ones that feature nano-angels dancing on nano-pins” (drawer 1).
Another danger of over-reliance on technoscience and the hubris that goes with it is one familiar to people as far back as the ancient Greeks, whose myths addressed the world-changing intervention of fire. Just ask Prometheus how that worked out for him.