The Killer Angels

The current controversy over the Confederate battle flag and Confederate memorials was catalyzed by the tragic mass murder of worshippers in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina last June. Referring to the entanglement of Confederate tributes with current headlines, Yale historian David Blight stated “Memory is always about the present” (Economist, 7/25/15, page 24). The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel about the battle of Gettysburg was published in 1974 as the Vietnam War was winding down. This book is the subject of the 5/31/11 edition of Slate’s Audio Book Club. Two journalists, Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, and David Plotz, host of the Slate Political Gabfest, discuss the book with David Blight. They note that the book won a Pulitzer Prize but didn’t become a best seller until two decades later. They speculate that the public was so disillusioned by the Vietnam War that there was little appetite at the time for another book about war. The Ken Burns Civil War documentary of 1990 and Gettysburg, the film version the book released in 1993, spurred the later jump in sales.

The Killer Angels is one of my favorite novels and sparked a long running fascination with the Civil War. By focusing on compelling characters, especially Confederate generals Lee and Longstreet, and Union colonel Joshua Chamberlin, Shaara tells a fascinating, historically accurate story, but necessarily glosses over other parts of the battle, including heroic contributions by Union officers besides Chamberlain. The novel is told from the point of view of several key actors in the battle. One of the interesting issues brought out is the disagreement Generals Lee and Longstreet have over defensive versus offensive strategy. This difference in strategic thinking plays out tragically in Picket’s Charge, ordered by Lee on the third and final day of the battle. Shaara portrays Longstreet trying to talk Lee out of this charge in favor of a more defensive strategy. Professor Blight points out that Shaara based this argument in part on statements made by Longstreet after the war, when he openly criticized Lee for the decision to launch the fateful charge on the third day of the battle.

Thanks in part to historian Douglas Southall Freeman, Robert E. Lee became immortalized as a great general and icon of the Civil War, second only to Lincoln in the popular imagination. Some historians referred to him as the “Marble Man” due in no small part to his portrayal in a Pulitzer-prize winning multi-volume biography of Lee written by Freeman in the mid-thirties. That biography was followed by Lee’s Lieutenants, another multi-volume work written by Freeman in the early forties. Professor Blight points out that Shaara uses Longstreet’s character as a vehicle to knock Lee off of the pedestal he rested upon and portray him as a soldier who made tragic mistakes as well as winning dramatic victories. Author Thomas L. Connelly offered a more nuanced view of General Lee around this time in his book entitled The Marble Man, published in 1977, in which he describes the construction of the Lee myth.

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The Artistry of Van Morrison.

I love the music of Van Morrison, and some of my friends are particularly passionate about his compositions. Once I saw him in an outdoor stadium in New York City and I was struck by how much the crowd loved him, with many fans singing along with him. Van has a large repertoire, and I knew there was a lot of music that I hadn’t really listened to yet, but this gap in my exposure to his work was driven home by the April 6, 2010 edition of OnPoint hosted by Tom Ashbrook. The show is entitled “Van Morrison’s Mystic Music” and Tom’s guest is Greil Marcus, cultural critic and author of the book “When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.” Marcus is eloquent in describing Morrison’s gift for writing and singing, and how his music touches people. Some of the songs Marcus talks about include “Madame George” from Van’s “Astral Weeks” album (which my daughter loves), “Rough God Goes Riding” from the album “The Healing Game,” “Into the Mystic” (one of my favorites) from the album “Moon Dance,” and “Why Must I Always Explain” (another favorite of mine) from “Hymns to the Silence.”

I love all of the songs on “Moon Dance.” I also love “Queen of the Slipstream,” “Alan Watts Blues,” and “Did Ye Get Healed” from “Poetic Champions Compose.” Van does a beautiful version of the traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision” on “Hymns to the Silence” that I love. I wish he would do an album of cover tunes from the Motown Era. I would love to hear him sing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye,” “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes, and “Bernadette” by the Four Tops, among others.

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The Age of Disruption.

Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor and Schumpeter columnist for The Economist, has written a book entitled “The great disruption: How business is coping with turbulent times.” He gave a fascinating talk on this subject at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Thursday 23rd April 2015, in London. Following are selected excerpts from his talk, some of which are paraphrased:

We live in a period of sustained disruption driven by technology. The pace of technological change has sped up, and it’s more pervasive than anything we’ve seen before. Television went from invention to common usage in about 70 years; electricity took about fifty years. The cell phone was used by relatively few people in the mid-nineties. Now most people on earth have a cell phone, including many poor people. The internet took less than ten years to gain wide usage, then began mutating at an extraordinary speed, evolving from something you look at for information to become social, mobile, and all pervasive.

Another disruption is the premium put on companies that are asset and people light. Companies driving the global economy today employ very few people. Contract based companies arrange transactions between someone who needs a service and someone who can provide it for a price. Uber exemplifies this trend, connecting people who need transportation with car owners. Companies are becoming intermediaries, facilitators of transactions. There is a spot market in talent, a spot market in opportunities, and no real organization, thus the virtualization of organizations. This trend goes beyond taxi services and includes professional services. In many ways this will become the employment model of the future.

Recorded highlights from Mr. Wooldridge’s talk are available in a program entitled “The Age of Disruption,” a segment on the program “Big Ideas” on RN, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast on 5/21/15.

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The Reading Mind.

When I was a young boy I did not enjoy reading and I didn’t enjoy being taken to the library by my mother, who loved to read. On occasion my mother would insist that I sit at the kitchen table and read in her presence. Eventually I came to enjoy reading. I still remember the first book I picked out on my own and really enjoyed: “The Dillinger Days” by John Toland. I was probably around twelve or thirteen at this time. When I moved to New York City and started commuting on the subway regularly I stepped up my reading tremendously. Instead of waiting impatiently for a train to arrive, I pulled out a book and got lost in it until the train came. I felt a sense of community reading on the subway. There were always several people reading around me and I enjoyed the variety of books I saw on the train: everything from Jane Austen to Tom Clancy. It was also interesting to see how many people were reading a current best seller. I had a lot of company reading Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” on the train, no doubt due in part to the fact that the book is set in New York City and seemed to foreshadow events and personalities in the news.

As I was browsing through the archive of past editions of OnPoint, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, I was intrigued by a program entitled “The Reading Mind,” which aired on 9/7/07. His guests were Maryanne Wolf, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”; Constance Steinkuehler, professor of educational communication and technology, University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Jack Beatty, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Professor Wolf explained that the act of reading actually shapes the human brain by causing groups of neurons to create new connections and pathways among themselves. Learning to read has a profound impact on a child’s brain. As children learn to read and the neurons in their brains get connected, this process facilitates the acquisition of cognitive skills like inferential thinking. Tom asked professor Wolf if exposure to digital media will impact the brain negatively and she was cautious in her reply. She said she knew for certain that reading print material is highly beneficial for the brain but she couldn’t say the same thing about digital media. When I walk into a library and see people sitting at computers and all the shelf space devoted to DVDs, I am glad to see people checking books out, especially when they have children in tow.

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A portrait of Weimar Germany.

Back in the late seventies I saw an exhibit of photographs by the German photographer August Sander. I was visiting a friend attending graduate school at the University of Michigan at the time and I saw the exhibit at a University gallery. Sander was a portrait photographer and this exhibit showcased a project he undertook to capture a cross section of German society during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). I was struck by the powerful beauty of the photographs and especially by the variety of people depicted. There were people of all classes, from laborers to executives, but there were also people dressed as if they were photographed in an avant-garde gallery in Soho in 1980s New York City.

I have never forgotten this exhibit, so my curiosity was piqued by the 10/30/07 edition of OnPoint, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, entitled: “Weimar Germany Revisited.” Tom’s guests in this show were Eric Weitz, then professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of the book “Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy” and Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Professor Weitz argued that this period in Germany has been overshadowed by twelve years of the Third Reich that followed it. He took pains to point out that the Republic did not “just collapse.” Rather, he argued, it was undone by a coalition of the established Right (those occupying powerful positions in state bureaucracy, churches, the officer corps, and universities) and the newer, extreme Right, including the Nazis. In addition to highlighting the many political and artistic achievements in this period, he offered a few lessons for our times, one of which is to beware of efforts of extreme groups to target as enemies particular ethnic or religious groups. Like August Sander, Professor Weitz painted a vivid portrait of this period in German history.

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And I am sure you will agree that was a great landing!

I live and work near several airports. It seems like I can hear a jet or see one on the horizon every time I look up in the sky. Given the number of flights every day, the industry has a very impressive safety record. In addition to amazing technology and rigorous maintenance practices, the industry benefits from excellent pilots. One such aviator, Qantas pilot Richard de Crespigny, tells the story of how he and his crew coped with a catastrophic engine explosion on an Airbus A380 in a riveting interview entitled “Richard de Crespigny,” a segment of the program Conversations with Richard Fidler on RN, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast on July 3, 2013.

Richard Fidler starts his interview with Captain de Crespigny by asking about his background and aviation training. The Captain describes a training flight while he was in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was in a fighter jet with a more experienced pilot who suddenly put the jet into a spinning dive, then sat back smiling with his arms folded and asked de Crespigny what he was going to do now. The new pilot pulled the jet out of the dive and never took a smooth flight for granted after that experience, which left him mentally prepared to deal with a sudden emergency at any time during a flight.

Richard de Crespigny was Captain of Quantas Flight 32 out of Singapore on November fourth, 2010. Shortly after taking off, an engine exploded, causing massive damage to several of the plane’s systems. The cockpit was flooded with warning messages and alarms from the jet’s computers. In order to deal with the engine explosion in the A380 he decided to “invert the logic,” a strategy that he recalled being used by Gene Kranz, NASA’s Flight Director during the Apollo 13 mission. The idea is to switch your focus from what isn’t working to what is still functional. The crew focused on establishing that they had an aircraft with systems functioning well enough to keep flying and safely land on the runway available to them at Singapore Airport. One step in this process was to simulate some landing maneuvers while still in the air.

The passengers felt and heard the engine explode and some of them could even see fuel leaking out of the plane. As related by Captain de Crespigny, the Cabin Services Manager, Michael Von Reth, exuded calmness and confidence throughout the ordeal and kept good order in the cabin. After the crew safely executed an extremely difficult and risky landing, Von Reth went on the public address system and calmly announced “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Singapore. The local time is ten to eleven on Thursday, November fourth. And I am sure you will agree that was a great landing!”

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Please, sir, I want some more.

My favorite paragraph in any novel is the first one in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. In addition to being a fantastic writer, Dickens was a highly influential social reformer. This point is driven home in “Please Sir, I Want Some More,” a segment on the program “Big Ideas” on RN, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast on 10/14/07. In this segment, host Terry Lane talks to Dickens biographer Jane Smiley and Professor David Paroissien, Editor of the Dickens Quarterly. When Dickens was a child his father fell deep into debt and as a result Charles had to go to work in a boot black factory and live with a highly unpleasant land lady. That experience gave him a lot of empathy for children with difficult lives. According to Smiley, Dickens broke with tradition by illustrating how mistreatment in childhood can lead to antisocial behavior in adulthood, including crime. Smiley contends that before Dickens popularized this enlightened view it was thought that people were criminals because they were born that way. Dickens also brought to light the appalling living conditions that poor Londoners had to endure. In this program an actor reads a strikingly powerful and eloquent excerpt from Oliver Twist, which describes living conditions in a slum in London.

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The internal report on innovation at the New York Times.

The New York Times recently completed an internal report that assesses the paper’s difficulties in positioning itself for success in the digital era. The report was leaked and is readily available on the Internet. It’s full of insightful analysis and a great source for anyone interested in the impact the Internet has had on journalism. Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, wrote an article about the report entitled “The leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media age.” Mr. Benton discussed the report in a program entitled “The internal report on innovation at the New York Times,” which aired on the May 22, 2014 edition of Media Report on Radio National from Australian Public Radio.

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Mr. Benton’s article, through which you can access a copy of the innovation report, can be accessed at this URL:

Digital photography, social media and memory.

I was at the Coast Guard Beach on the National Seashore on Cape Cod in Massachusetts one recent evening and saw an amazing moon rise. The moon first appeared as a deep red semi-circle; within a few minutes the full moon was visible low over the ocean in brilliant red; as it rose higher in the sky it turned silver within about twenty minutes. As I watched the moon rise I decided to take a picture of it with my phone. A friend commented on how digital photography has changed the way people take pictures, suggesting that the ease and low cost of taking pictures often leads people to pull out cameras and photograph images instead of savoring them in the moment.

This conversation was on my mind when I listened to a radio program on this very subject from the program Future Tense on Radio National from Australian Public Radio. “Staying in the picture: photography, social media and memory” was broacast on 3/30/14. Host Antony Funnell had four guests on the show, including Dr Linda Henkel, cognitive psychologist at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Dr. Henkel described a study she conducted in which subjects visiting the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University were instructed to either photograph objects in the museum or try to remember them. Among other findings, it turned out that those who photographed the objects had more trouble remembering what they had seen, which Dr. Henkel called the “photo-taking impairment effect.” If you want to use photos to remember an experience, Dr. Henkel advises reminiscing by looking at the photos as well as talking about and organizing them. I listen to podcasts freqently, sometimes several different programs, of varying lengths, in a single day. About five percent of them end up in this blog. I have found that unless I discuss a podcast with someone, take notes on it, or write a blog about it, I tend to forget it fairly quickly. Technology has amplified our ability to gather information in various forms, but evidence suggests that unless we take the time to think it over and, ideally, share what we have learned, we tend to retain relatively little of what we have captured in electronic form.

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Dr. Henkel’s study is described in a brief article, “Taking photographs ruins the memory, research finds,” published in The Telegraph, 12/10/13, available at this URL:

The Library of the Future.

The Internet has disrupted many industries, including travel agents, brick and mortar bookstores, car dealers, and journalism (particulary newspapers and magazine newsstand sales). Public libraries have also felt the impact of the digital revolution. People only have so much time to read and digital content is taking a growing portion of that time, allowing people to access reading material without going to a library. In this podscast, “The Library of the Future,” host Paul Barclay, along with three librarians (including one American) and a writer, discuss how public libraries can survive and thrive in the new digital world. This discussion was a segment on the feature “Big Ideas” on the program RN, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast on 3/10/14.

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