Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: Edison

Edison: Inventing the Century
Neil Baldwin
Biography, engineering

There's a pop-culture idea out there that denigrates Thomas Edison in favor of Nikola Tesla. There's no doubt that Tesla was a genius, but Tesla had basically one idea: perfecting the use of alternating current. It was a great idea--we depend on it today--yet ultimately Tesla veered off into showmanship and pseudoscience. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, had vast quantities of ideas; he made many of them come true; and he kept having them, and working on them, until he died. In terms of who had more impact, there's just no comparison.

Neil Baldwin's biography does Edison justice. Well, more or less: it puts a lot of emphasis on Thomas Edison the man. In part that's because there's a lot of ground to cover. Edison was a complex man. He neglected his first wife and their children. He did better with his second wife, but even the children of that marriage drifted in adulthood. He was, famously, a workaholic who inspired both fierce loyalty and bitter disenchantment among his employees. Baldwin gets full marks for depth of analysis and psychological acuity, particularly around the tricky area of Edison's creative processes.

But the actual inventive and engineering work gets short-changed. I can't avoid the impression that Neil Baldwin doesn't like or understand science. Edison contains numerous errors of detail, a few clunky bits, and some major omissions. For example:
  • Edison's first big innovations were in the world of telegraphy. Baldwin skips over the whole subject in a few paragraphs.
  • Baldwin seems to be under the impression that X-rays are "high-speed electrons". (They're high-energy photons.)
  • He also seems to believe that conservation of mass/energy was some quirky, semi-mystical notion of Michael Faraday's, rather than being a cornerstone of physics.
  • He refers to certain of Edison's notions as being "tantalizingly close" to the Big Bang theory. In context of what's quoted, that's absolutely ludicrous.
  • He describes Edison as having received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is a military decoration. Edison actually received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Instead of getting these facts nailed down, Baldwin chooses to spend a lot of words on ephemera. In several spots, for example, he gives long and detailed descriptions of (of all things) interior decorating. Seriously. There's one place where he goes on for a good two pages:
The luxuriously-furnished entrance hall, illuminated by a glass and silver chandelier and adorned in oak wainscoting, featured built-in settee and armchairs . . . The adjacent library . . . was made entirely of mahogany bookcases, their doors lined with box-pleated silk, while its walls and ceilings were stenciled decoratively . . . The drawing room was furnished entirely in rosewood . . . the dining room [was] covered in peacock-blue wallpaper on dull yellow ground with Persian figurings . . .
When Baldwin does introduce technical detail, he doesn't always do it well. Here, for example, is a description of Edison's late experiments with rubber: ". . . the specimen was treated with acetone . . . extracted with benzol. . . the acetone step was abandoned and replaced with more precise bromination . . . which essentially meant the addition of carbon tetrachloride and alcohol . . ." Unless you're a chemist, this isn't very informative; it reads to me as though Baldwin was paraphrasing some technical description that he didn't really understand either.

Least justifiably, Baldwin occasionally lets his lack of interest in science and technology filter over into condescension. "Edison's purpose," he writes in a not-atypical passage, was "to meld the pretense of music appreciation with blatant commercialism." Neither "pretense" nor "blatant" is in any way justified by the facts he reports; this reads suspiciously like a liberal-arts major's attempt to assert cultural dominance over the lowly mechanics of this world.

So: Edison has highs and lows. There are, to be fair, many more highs. It's nicely written and thoroughly researched: Baldwin had access to Edison's surviving descendants and family papers. It's neither too uncritically adoring nor too skeptical of its subject's achievements. It's insightful without lapsing into psychological babble. I just wish that someone with some level of technological literacy had gone over it before it was published. I'd be available.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America
Owen Matthews
History, Biography

After reading Glorious Misadventures, the best description I can come up with of Tsarist Russia c. 1800 is "government by an aristocracy consisting largely of Donald Trump clones". It's all here! The clash of massive egos. The self-interested pandering. The braggadocio. The grandiose dreams. The ill-concealed ruthlessness. And, especially, the obsessive pursuit of money, stature, money, and more money.

With material like this, it's not a surprise that Glorious Misadventures is a colorful tale. One of the back-cover blurbs compares it to a Flashman novel, which isn't a bad starting point--but Glorious Misadventures is more tragic than comic. It has no less than four major epicenters:

  • The court of Catherine the Great and her successors.
  • The Russian fur trade in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
  • Nikolai Rezanov's excursion to Japan.
  • His subsequent empire-building attempts in Oregon and California.
That makes it sound as though the book goes off in several different directions. There's some truth in that, but it still holds enough shape to be read as a whole. The unifying theme, I think, is not Nikolai Rezanov; it's the Bizarro-world nature of the whole endeavor. It's like a real-world Marx Brothers movie, except everyone in it takes it seriously.

The Dream of a Russian America never had much of a chance. Contemporary America had its share of these guys, but they were outnumbered and outweighed by the comparatively sober bourgeoisie. The Enlightenment was in the air . . . but Nikolai Rezanov and his compatriots weren't breathing it. They were doomed. We should be thankful.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Review: Murder Off Mike

Murder Off Mike: A Talk Radio Mystery
Joyce Krieg

This book describes itself as the "Winner of the 2002 St. Martin's Press / Malice Domestic Contest for Best Traditional Mystery". It's OK, nothing special. The protagonist is, God help us, "sassy"--never an ornament in my eyes. There's some good scene setting and an interesting background. The plot is fairly obvious; I spotted the murderer, for example, in the first scene in which the character appears. I would neither avoid nor seek out other books in the series.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Review: The American Magic

The American Magic: Codes, Cyphers, and the Defeat of Japan
Ronald Lewin

The American Magic isn't about how Japan's codes were broken; it's about how the U.S. used that information. It's largely book for specialists. Some of the information is interesting, but none of it is revelatory at this late date, and it's not presented with the narrative verve that would make it generally accessible. The details of how the various bureaucracies were organized, for example, is important but not exactly page-turning. 

The most entertaining bits come when Lewin takes a few full-arm swipes at Douglas MacArthur (who, incredibly, still has star-struck hero-worshipers writing adoring books about him). Otherwise, this is a book for people with both a good working knowledge of the history of the Pacific War and a substantial investment in the subject matter.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea
Gary Kinder
History, archaeology

It's hard to go wrong when you're starting with disaster at sea, sunken treasure, a slightly larger-than-life protagonist, and high tech exploration. Gary Kinder doesn't disappoint. SoGitDBS is a page turner. It reads like a cross between drama-at-sea journalism (e.g. The Perfect Storm, Dead Wake) and the meticulous biography-centered investigations of Tracy Kidder. It's non-fiction that reads like a novel.

There is, furthermore, a curious and surprising sequel. The book came out in 1998. Subsequent to its publication . . . stuff happened. I'm not going to spoil it. Only, after you read it--not before!--you should Google for the primary protagonist.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: Lightning Man

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse
Kenneth Silverman

"Accursed" may seem a little strong for a man who was an acclaimed painter, became world-famous for inventing a successful telegraph, and got rich from it. It's nontheless not without insight. Morse always felt himself thwarted by fate, beset by foes, betrayed by friends, and followed by tragedy. The accursedness of his life came as much from within as without, though.

For starters, Morse was manifestly depressive. (At least one of his brothers was depressive as well.) He also had great difficulty in settling down to pursue any one thing as a young man; that may have been an aspect of a depressive personality, although it affects many people (*ahem*). His father couldn't have helped, either: Jedediah Morse was one of the less admirable sorts of Christian ministers--intelligent but narrow-minded, self-righteous, zealous in finding fault, a stranger to forgiveness, snobbish, and puritanical. Regrettably, he passed on a good deal of this to Samuel, who idolized him.

It's the snobbishness, perhaps, that's at the core of everything. Morse seems to have been obsessed with being, and being among, the Best People. He was an ardent supporter of slavery and an ardent foe of immigration. Late in life he became addicted to the many decorations showered on him by European aristocratic regimes.

Most importantly--and I give author Silverman considerable credit for discerning this--Morse's relentless snobbishness led him into an endless, pointless morass of legal and public disputation. At issue was the supposed question of who "invented" the telegraph: Morse, or any one of several other claimants. The truth is that no one person "invented" the telegraph. ("When it's time for light bulbs, you get light bulbs.") It was in the air.

Morse, however, deserves enormous credit for making a working, viable, successful telegraph. Not only did his design have major technical innovations, he badgered an almost unbelievably dilatory and imbecilic Congress into funding a demonstration, and then made the demonstration work. (True fact: one congressman proposed matching the $30,000 eventually given to Morse with a grant to one "Mr. Fish" to study mesmerism.)

Morse should have been proud of being the engineer who perfected the telegraph. Instead, he was obsessed with being the scientist who invented the telegraph. Because scientists were gentlemen, while engineers were mere mechanics.

I think there are a few places where Lightning Man omits important technical detail. There's barely a word about the eponymous Morse Code, for example, and the description of his "repeater" (a simple amplifier which boosts signals over long distances) is inadequate. As a portrait of Morse the man, however, it's unbeatable.

As I've noted before, one of the joys of reading is to find cross-overs among books. Morse bought a house on the Hudson River, a few miles from Franklin Roosevelt's boyhood home. Both the Morse and Roosevelt estates were influenced by the theories of Andrew Jackson Downing, mentor of Frederick Law Olmsted. Morse's long-time lawyer and confidante was Amos Kendall, Andrew Jackson's postmaster. Among my less-recent reading, Morse figuers prominently in David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, while his nemesis Charles Jackson is prominent in Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: Finding North

Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human
George Michelson Foy

Finding North is what I've dubbed a personal-theme book. It is, however, far more "personal" than "theme". There's some factual information in there around navigation and wayfinding and whatnot, but mainly this book is about George Michelson Foy.

In other words, if you're looking for another Rust, or even another The Triumph of Seeds, this isn't the place to find it. You won't learn much. The longest fact-oriented segment in Finding North occurs when Foy visits the U.S. Air Force center that controls our G.P.S. system. There he gathers the same information he could have gotten from a Wikipedia article--which he admits he doesn't really understand, but condenses and summarizes anyway.

Foy isn't really interested in things. He's interested in his reaction to things. (In this he reminds me of Paul Theroux, whom I find alternately involving and pretentious.)

With that out of the way, I quite liked Finding North. Foy is an unusually lucid, fluent, and lyrical writer. He's terrific with description, with sense of place. His personal story, which drives the book's narrative, is both interesting and moving. Granted that he's a little precious sometimes--non-fiction written in the present tense is always a danger sign--he mostly gets away with writing deliberately for style, for effect.

In addition to Foy's five-generation family saga, Finding North contains continuing minor chord of complaint against G.P.S. and all it represents. I must be one of the few people in the western hemisphere who has literally never navigated using G.P.S., nor had any real need to do so. Ergo, I have a certain sympathy with his viewpoint--especially when it's backed up by one of the few really informative scientific passages in the book. It's a little bit predictable, all the same. Foy is, and writes as, a humanist in a technological world. It puts limits on Finding North's audience. Given how good some of the writing is, I can't help but think that's a shame.

The writer who most lucidly combines a literate style with a command of facts is probably Tracy Kidder. Though technologically long outdated, his The Soul of a New Machine remains a don't-miss classic about what it feels like to be an engineer.