Glass Case of Delusion

Today in “Donald Trump doesn’t realize he is the President of the United States”:

President Trump refused to back down on Friday after his White House aired an unverified claim that Britain’s spy agency secretly monitored him during last year’s campaign at the behest of President Barack Obama, fueling a rare rupture between the United States and its most important international partner. …

“We said nothing,” Mr. Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a joint White House news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”

Donald Trump will tweet anything that is said on TV. And when I say anything, I mean a-ny-thi-ng. The only difference between him and Ron Burgundy is Ron faced consequences for it.

La La Librarians

Lots of great anecdotes from the New Yorker story “Scenes from the Oscar Night Implosion“, including this one on the Academy librarians planted in the corner of the press room:

In the back corner was my favorite part of the press room: the librarians’ table, where the Academy librarians are on hand to answer questions. Under a sign that said “Reference,” a librarian named Lucia Schultz had a thick binder of Oscar history and another of credits for the nominated films. Reporters came by to ask questions. Had there previously been two African-American acting winners in the same year? (Yes, in 2002, 2005, and 2007.) If Lin-Manuel Miranda won Best Original Song, would he be the youngest-ever “EGOT”? (Depends on whether you count noncompetitive awards. Barbra Streisand was younger, but she won a Special Tony Award.) Was Mahershala Ali the first Muslim to win an Oscar? (They couldn’t say, because the Academy doesn’t keep records on winners’ religious affiliations.) After Colleen Atwood won for Best Costume Design, a Metro.co.uk reporter rushed up to Schultz and asked if any other British people had won four Oscars. “Yes, but Colleen Atwood is from Washington State,” Schultz said.

Later on, as the Best Picture snafu was happening, Schultz had what we could call a run on the reference desk:

On the monitors, a guy in a headset was onstage, and the “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was saying, “This is not a joke. ‘Moonlight’ has won Best Picture.” When the camera zoomed in on the envelope, the press room collectively screamed. A reporter ran up to Schultz and asked, “Has anything like this ever happened before?” Schultz, who had not prepared for this scenario, was frantically searching her records. “I cannot think of a case where this has happened,” she said. “There are times when people thought it happened.” More reporters lined up with the same question—it was the most attention Schultz had got all night. She remembered something about Quincy Jones and Sharon Stone forgetting the envelope for Best Original Score, in 1996, but no other precedent came to mind. (In fact, Sammy Davis, Jr., once read from the wrong envelope, in 1964.)

Time to update those reference materials.

Fun New Things

Some fun stuff I’ve been enjoying lately:

“This Machine Kills Fascists” Pencils

From Frog & Toad Press in Rhode Island, which has several other colorfully messaged pencils and other goodies available.

Library Extension for Chrome

Not sure where I found out about this, but I’ve been digging it thus far not only with my personal browsing but for work as well. The wizards behind this extension, which will show you if a book you’re browsing on Goodreads or Amazon is in your local library catalog, were very quick to fix an error I pointed out, and seem to be fast overall with adding new libraries by request. I asked them if functionality with CDs and DVDs could be added, and they said it’s possible in a future release.

Library Life sticker pack for iPhone Messages (via TILT)

I mean, when isn’t it appropriate to use emojis like these?

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

In addition to being one of two people to serve in the U.S. House and Senate, a President’s Cabinet, and the U.S. Supreme Court, L.Q.C. Lamar was one of eight senators featured in Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which is one of those books you’ve heard about but never read.

A lawyer from Georgia, Lamar bounced between Georgia and Mississippi to practice law and teach before getting elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1853, and then three years later in Mississippi to the U.S. House. (Pick a state, man!) When secession time came around, he resigned from the House and joined the Mississippi Secession Convention, drafting the state’s Ordinance of Secession and mustering a regiment. When bad health kept him away from the battlefield, Jefferson Davis appointed him Confederate minister to Russia and special envoy to England and France until the end of the war.

Once former Confederates were allowed to hold office again, Lamar came right back, serving in the U.S. House (again) and then Senate, where he earned his spot in Profiles in Courage by eulogizing Charles Sumner instead of caning him again and voting against the “free silver” movement. Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of the Interior in 1885, then two years later nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court, where he died five years later.

Sources: 1, 2

What’s So Amazing About Grace Kelly

I rewatched High Noon after reading Glenn Frankel’s excellent new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. I first saw it in a high school film class and loved it. Because I hadn’t seen many westerns before that, I didn’t realize how unique it was among them, but I do now.

(John Wayne, a leading Hollywood Red-hunter and blacklist promoter, hated it, and made Rio Bravo as a response to it. Too bad that it’s way worse than High Noon.)

Frankel profiles all of the film’s major cast and crew, including Grace Kelly, who was 21 at the time and in only her second film. She hated her performance, but I think her cold rigidity, even if it was the result of bad acting, works within the context of the film.

It’s amazing how much Grace Kelly did in her five-year acting career. Out of her 11 total films, five are considered notable or downright classic: High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, and High Society. She also won Best Actress in 1954 for The Country Girl (though she should have been nominated for Rear Window, her absolute peak) and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Mogambo. She worked with Hitchcock, Ford, and Zinnemann, and starred with Cooper, Gable, Grant, Stewart, and Holden. And all of this before she turned 26.

Then she made herself a princess and ghosted. As a friend of mine would say: Be brief, be beautiful, be gone. Can’t argue with that.

Years that Rocked, Exploded, and/or Changed Everything

I noticed in my library-related wanderings that there was a whole lotta rockin’, explodin’, and changin’ going on for about 20 years in the mid-20th century:

The Ultimate (Frisbee) Theory of Immigration

Sunday afternoons there’s an amateur pickup game of ultimate frisbee at a nearby park I play in when I’m not working weekends or otherwise occupied. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. I get good exercise in fresh air and get to compete in a friendly atmosphere. There’s a core group of about a dozen people who come consistently, though it varies week to week.

One week, one of the regular high schoolers invited about ten of his ultimate frisbee teammates from school. Like most teens, they were in their own world. Their group split up between teams, so half of them were playing each other.

The problem was, in their minds they were only playing each other. They were basically goofing off, making silly throws just to impress each other. Meanwhile, the rest of us, those who come regularly to actually play and compete, felt our game dissolve into a chaotic free-for-all. Suddenly the game we’d all come to play wasn’t so fun anymore, and several people ended up leaving much sooner than usual.

This experience popped into my mind as I listened to the (pre-election) story on This American Life about the residents of St. Cloud, Minnesota, who felt alienated and sometimes threatened by the influx of Muslim immigrants to their small town. I suddenly felt a pang of recognition in a complicated political issue I hadn’t given much critical thought.

Setting aside the clear religious differences between the Protestants and Muslims of St. Cloud, the cultural differences alone are strong enough to cause friction. Since whatever culture we’re brought up in carries with it assumptions, parameters, and values that differ from other cultures, anytime a “new” culture arrives with overwhelming force, the change can feel much more disruptive than beneficial, regardless of the benefits it can also bring.

In frisbee, those of us in the usual crowd had a way of playing we all understood and participated in. We knew the “rules” (the amateur versions, anyway) and had played under those rules for a long time. And any week a new person or two joined, the existing culture could easily accommodate them because adding a few new people infuses new energy into the game, adds fresh legs, and hopefully improves the talent on either team. But when it was 10 or 12 new people joining at once instead of one or two, that new energy was so overwhelming that it became its own source of gravity, bending the very fabric of the frisbee continuum.

Not sure how far I can extend the frisbee analogy, but I hope the point is clear. I’m far from anti-immigration. I once was the new guy at frisbee, and am ever grateful for being welcomed into the culture. New people have joined since I’ve been going who have been great additions to the talent pool, and who make Sunday afternoons fun for me.

But we have to face the reality that immigration is hard on everyone, and that the “welcome to America!” romanticism and talent infusion exist alongside the culture clashes, economic strain, and perceived potential for violent religious extremism. Trump has become the avatar for this belief. You don’t have to like him to understand why, nor do you have to support the extreme anti-immigration measures he’s cultivating to acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns he represents.

It’s a hard issue without an easy remedy, made worse by the Syrian refugee crisis and a clumsy first attempt by the president to do something about it. But I think we can discuss the very real consequences of unchecked immigration—legal or otherwise—without calling its opponents xenophobes and without faulting its proponents for defending the vulnerable immigrants—legal or otherwise—who make this country run.

“Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world’s store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It’s a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.” — Alan Jacobs

The Book Thieves

As I read Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I kept thinking of Sean Connery’s line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

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All this book burning by the Nazis entailed looting a continent’s worth of libraries and archives, specifically to root out so-called subversive literature (i.e. anything Jewish). They were also abetted by a very willing populace, including (sad face) librarians:

Wolfgang Herrmann, a librarian who had involved himself with right-wing extremist student groups as early as the 1920s, had been working for several years on a list of literature “worthy of being burned.” The first draft only listed 12 names, but this was soon expanded to 131 writers, subdivided into various categories.

Well, that’s one way to weed your collection… But, as Rydell points out, the Nazis weren’t just about burning books:

The image of burning books has been altogether too tempting, too effective, and too symbolic not to be used and applied in the writing of history. But the burning of books became so powerful a metaphor for cultural annihilation that it overshadowed another more unpleasant narrative, namely how the Nazis did a great deal more than simply destroy books—they were also driven by a fanatical obsession to collect them.

There is a tendency to view the Nazis as unhinged destroyers of knowledge. It is also true that many libraries and archives were lost while under the control of the regime, either through systematic destruction or indirectly as a consequence of war. Despite this, a question that needs to be asked in the shadow of Himmler’s library is the following: What is more frightening, a totalitarian regime’s destruction of knowledge or its hankering for it?

It’s less hankering and more hoarding. Whatever the Nazis didn’t destroy they were perfectly willing to keep for themselves as treasures of conquest. But whether they destroyed undesirable knowledge or stole it and kept it for themselves, their mission was perfectly in sync with the human holocaust that was happening at the same time.

We can say it won’t happen again because books are so much more plentiful and we have the internet as a new means of free expression, but that would be too pat, wouldn’t it? We are never quite as safe from the slippery slope as we think we are.

Technically First

This happens to me all the time: I hear about a book (or movie or album, but usually book) and find it at my library, then I read it and see mention of another book or figure, sending me off into that direction, where I find another book to read. And so on. I’ll call it the Wikipedia Effect, which is a little less hippie-dippie than calling it the Everything Is Connected Effect, though it’s of the same spirit.

This time, I listened to the 99% Invisible episode on the U.S. Post Office, based on Winifred Gallagher’s new book How the Post Office Created America: A History, which I went to look at in the stacks. I didn’t end up checking it out, but as my eyes wandered a little farther down the shelf I did see an intriguing title: A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon.

Calling the story “heroic” is a bit much, but it’s a quick and well-done story of the small group of monied men in mid-eighteenth-century New York who staked their fortunes on basically willing the oceanic cable into being, even after some pretty serious setbacks. It’s a good companion with Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers, a broader history of the invention of telegraphy.

I spotted it on a shelf at the library when I was looking for something completely different—is there a word for serendipity striking in the library? Librindipity?—but my interest in it made me realize I’m intrigued by the stories of how innovative technologies came into being.

In addition to these two books about the telegraph, I’ve already read a few books I think fit into this theme of the development of a revolutionary technology or notable technical achievement:

  • Screw and screwdriver (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Chairs (Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Photography (River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit)
  • Longitude (Longitude by Dava Sobel)

Some of these were heralded in their time, known right away to be revolutionary, but some were not. I’m interested in both: how things came into being whether we noticed them or not.

A quick brainstorm yielded a few more ideas for future reading along these lines. (I’ll need a hashtag for when I catch up with these. Let’s go with #TechnicallyFirst). There’s no guarantee I’ll read these; they’re just ideas gathered in one place for future reference:

  • Transcontinental Railroad (Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen Ambrose)
  • Interstate Highways (The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift)
  • Electricity (Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes)
  • Pencils (The Pencil: A History Of Design And Circumstance by Henry Petroski)

Will have to keep adding to the list. But I thank A Thread Across the Ocean for sending me down this path, wherever it leads.