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2010/12/31

Stupidity Never Dies

Stupid American History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions
by Leland Gregory

Gregory's previous book, Stupid History ws so much fun to nitpick that when I saw this one listed as free on KindleIQ I decided to pick it up. To his credit, Gregory's research has improved so there are far fewer falsehoods, and he even cites sources occasionally. However, the number of errors in the book remains attrocious.

* He claims the phrase "a more perfect union" is bad grammar since nothing can be better than perfect, ignoring the obvious interpretation of the phrase as "closer to perfect," which has been obvious to people for about 225 years now.

* He claims the Battle of New Orleans was pointless since it took place after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, and Andrew Jackson's subsequent use of the battle to bolster his reputation was thus dishonest. Never mind that Jackson had no way of knowing what was happening at Ghent, as Daniel Walker Howe points out in What Hath God Wrought, if the Brits had secured New Orleans, giving them effective control of all trade flowing out of the Mississippi basin, the treaty wouldn't've mattered.

* He claims that Dr. Spock was never jailed for his anti-Vietnam views, then says that Spock was arrested and convicted of telling young men how to avoid the draft, though the conviction was thrown out on appeal. So in that process, he never set foot in a jail cell?

* "We are led to believe, in our abbreviaed versions of history, that all slave-holding state seceded from the Union during the Civil War, or else they gave up the practice of slavery. But that's just not true. Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware remained in th Union but continued to allow citizens to own slaves.... [They] were joined by West Virginia when it was admitted to the Union in 1863." Several problems here. While it's true Kentucky and Missouri remained in the Union, they also seceded -- both states had rival governments throughout the war, with delegations to the congresses in both Washington and Richmond. Maryland and West Virginia both abolished slavery on their own before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The only slave state that didn't secede and didn't give up slavery on its own was Delaware, which had only a few hundred slaves in its territory. Gregory goes on to say that "this demonstrates that the Civil War was anything but black and white," showing sympathy, as he did in Stupid History, with the Lost Causers who seek to portray the Civil War as about issues besides slavery.

* He repeats the erroneous etymology of "red light district," stemming from railway workers who would hand red lanterns in front of whorehouss so they could be found in case of emergency.

* Claims that Francis Scott Key didn't write the Star Spangled Banner -- he wrot The Defense of Fort McHenry, which was excerpted for the Star Spangled Banner. The difference is?

* Claims that America didn't have taxes until the Civil War. No, we didn't have a Federal income tax. There are of course many other types of taxes. What does he think the Whiskey Rebellion was about?

* Claims that Jimmy Carter was "the first Southerner elected to the presidency followng the Civil War." No, that would be Woodrow Wilson who actually grew up in the Confederacy in a slave-owning family. Wilson was followed by Truman from Missouri and LBJ from Texas.

* Defines "revisionists" as "people who want to rewrite history to make it more politically correct." No, revisionism is the process of reevaluating history as more information become available. For example, the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis has been significantly revised in the last twenty years thanks to newly declassified documents from both the US and Soviet Union. We've discovered that, far from the original narrative of Kennedy staring down Kruschev, they reached an accomodation, whereby the US agreed to remove IRBMs from Turkey and to never attempt another invasion of Cuba. This is factual correctness, not political. It is true "revisionism" is sometimes used pejoratively to describe politically motivated reconsiderations, but such are as likely to be used for non-PC purposes, such as claiming the Civil War wasn't about slavery.

* "Julia Ward Howe sold her poem, Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was later set to music, to the Atlantic Monthly in 1862 for $5." No, she wrote the lyrics specifically for the music. The tune was a popular spiritual in the years leading up to the Civil War. At the start of the conflict, soldiers set new lyrics, known as John Brown's Body, to the tune. These lyrics were extremely coarse ("John Brown's body is mouldering in the grave"), and Howe disliked them, so she penned new religiously-themed words for the song. Why Gregory would go for a mundane piece of trivia when the full story is more interesting, I can't imagine.

* While claiming Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile, he points to various attempts at creating steampowered cars, which he notes didn't work. He never mentions the people who actually did invent the internal combustion engine.

* He makes the horrors of Andersonville sound like mere mismanagement.

* Discusses the fact that Alvin York tried to get out of the army as a conscientious objector. But the only reason anyone remembers York these days is because of the Howard Hawks film, which uses that as a primary element of the story. Why is Gregory mentioning this in a compendium of supposedly little-known facts?

* Claims that a Samuel Slater was, in addition to the founder of the American industrial revolution, created child labor. But child labor has been around since time immemorial. The reason people used to have so many children wasn't just the lack of condoms -- kids could be used to lessen the workload of the parents.

* He mentions Victor Berger's attempt to abolish the Senate but fails to note any of the more interesting facts of his life.

* Claims that no sitting President has lost a reelecton campaign in time of war. Only true if you don't count LBJ dropping out of the primary once he realized he couldn't win.

* The crown jewel of Gregory's shoddy research -- he claims that when the Titanic struck the iceberg, passengers were watching a D.W. Griffith film called The Poseidon Adventure. No such film exists. The Poseidon Adventure was a 1969 novel first filmed in 1972, 60 years after the Titanic sank. He appears to have gotten his facts from this Snopes page, but failed to check the references, which leads to this page which explains the story was made up by Snopes to demonstrate the importance of checking sources instead of reflexively believing everything you read. Heh.

2010/12/23

The Title Doesn't Lie

Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages
by Leland Gregory

The title doesn't lie. This is a book of stupid, easily disproven trivia, often with an absurd Amerocentric or Eurocentric slant. Among the highlights:

* It's impossible to fight in chariots since the reins require two hands. Luckily ancient cultures were smart enough to design -- get this -- chariots with room for passengers. Gregory claims Hollywood invented this "myth" -- apparently in his world, Homer was a script writer, considering the numerous examples of chariot battles in the Iliad.

* Lizzie Borden didn't kill her parents. The evidence for this claim -- why she was acquitted. Just like Klaus von Bulow and OJ Simpson.

* Horseshoe crabs "are survivors of a species that became extinct 175 million years ago." Leaving aside the question of how this is "history," how exactly can an extinct species have survivors? Maybe he means that they're descended from a species that is now extinct, but then so are humans.

* He gives a really garbled interpretation of what the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished, followed by that Lincoln quote that neo-Confederates like to throw around because, removed from context, it makes Lincoln sound like a political opportunist who didn't care about slavery.

* "On November 8, 1918, the United Press Association reported that Germany had signed a peace agreement, thereby bringing World War I to an end.... But the story was wrong. It all started when someone, now believed to be a German secret agent, called the French and American intelligence offices to report that Germany had signed an armistice.... The war did't officilally end until June 28, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versaille[sic]." Technically correct, but otherwise wrong. Fighting on the Western Front ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918 -- this is the event commemorated in America as Veterans Day, and known in the rest of the world as, yes, Armistice Day. The news report was three days premature, not seven months. And the treat of Versailles didn't end the war -- it set the terms of peace between Germany and the Anglo-French alliance. There were many more powers involved with the war, and as many treaties ending the conflicts between each country.

* An account of the 1657 fire in Edo (which Gregory anachronistically calls Tokyo) based upon legend instead of fact.

* "August 8, 1945, two days after the US Army Air Force dropped the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima and one day after Fat Boy [sic] devastated Nagasak, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. By doing so, the Soviets were able to partake of the spoils of the Pacific war without actually having to fight in it." The second bomb was Fat Man, and it was dropped on August 9, the day after the Soviets declared war. But far more importantly, the Soviets did fight against Japan in the week between their declaration of war and Japan's surrender -- and in fact, many historians argue that their entry into the conflict was as important to Japan's capitulation as the nuclear strikes.

* He gives a silly explanation of the phrase "sow wild oats," placing its origins in the Middle Ages, when in fact it dates back to antiquity.

* A story about a newspaper that accidentally included a picture of John Wayne Gacy in an article about National Clown Week. A quick google turns up lots of references to the story but no original source -- a classic hallmark of an urban legend.

* He gives a ludicrous account of the Emperor Claudius' death. Too bad no one knows what happened to Claudius -- most historians agree he was murdered, but how, or even where, is a matter of conjecture. Gregory's account is based upon just one of the contradictory versions found among ancient sources.

* "On April 24, 1898, Spain declared war on the United States.... The United States delared war the very next day but, not wanting to be outdone, had the date of the declaration of war read April 21 instead of April 25." April 21 was the day the US declared a blockade against Cuba; Congress backdated the declaration to give post hoc legitimacy to what had been an act of war.

* He repeats the story of Davd Rice Atchison who was allegedly President for one day. The tale is based upon the fact that in 1849 inauguration day fell on Sunday and Zachary Taylor decided to delay his oath for one day. Okay, if Taylor didn't become President on March 4, 1849 because he didn't take the oath, how did Atchison become President if he didn't take the oath either? A careful reading of the Constitution will show that Taylor did in become President on March 4, but couldn't exercise his powers until he took the oath the next day.

* Several examples of battles that didn't take place at the site they're named after. Okay, so what? Land battles are usually named for the strategic objective or a notable landmark in the vicinity.

* Several stories of nuclear bombs being involved in crashes and miraculously not detonating. Nukes are finicky devices -- if they don't go off in a very particular way, there will be no nuclear reaction.

* He claims the term "flea market" comes from the Dutch term for valley market and has nothing to do with fleas. No, it's a direct translation of a French term meaning, "flea market."

* He says sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage" in World War II. Close -- that happened in WWI.

* A downright racist story about the Emperor Menelik II ordering electric chairs be installed in Ethiopia without realizing they needed electricity. Ho, ho, ho, those stupid darkies and their savage ignorance. Gregory must imagine Menelik as something out of a Tarzan movie -- a guy in a loincloth and necklace of bones presiding over primitives from his grass hut. A little googling shows how stupidly offensive this story is.

* He repeats the legend of the Great Military Leader who grew tired of his soldiers wiping snot on their coat sleeves and ordered buttons sewn on to stop them. The story is normally attributed (without source) to Frederick the Great, but Gregory pins it to Napoleon -- during his campaign against Russia. Because it's not like the quartermasters had anything better to do than sew superfluous buttons on hundreds of thousands of uniforms.

* "The confusion abou Napoleon's size arose because after his autopsy, it was reported that he measurd five feet two. The problem is, he was measured based on the old French system of pied de roi ... which was shorter than the modern foot." Do the math. If Gregory's facts are correct (hah!), Napoleon would be shorter than 5'2 in modern units.

It Came from Schenectady




Barry Longyear is one of the best science fiction authors that nobody knows. He's won just about every major SF award, including a rare triple-crown (Hugo, Nebua, Campbell), yet the work most people will be familiar with is Enemy Mine -- not for the story, which won the aforementioned triple-crown, but won a second Hugo when WorldCon held a retrospective vote to determine the best of the best, but for the second-rate movie starring the not-crazy Quaid brother and the poor-man's Morgan Freeman in horrid makeup.

It Came from Schenectady (a great title that captures the tone of book) is a collection of Longyear's stories from the '70s and '80s (though not Enemy Mine). There are a few clunkers, but on the whole it's a great compilation of golden age-style stories.

We start off with "Collector's Item," which is the most golden agey of the stories, about a teacher who discovers several of his students are having disturbingly similar dreams of an apocalyptic future. This feels very much like a great episode of X-Minus One.

"Dreams," is a Mathesonesque style story about a man who discovers a world of dreams with real-world consequences. Not the best story in the lot -- it could be improved ifthe dreamworld had been more original -- but perfectly entertaining.

"The House of If" is about a security expert hired by the government to text effectveness of prisons. So far he's never found a place that's impregnable, but he may have met his match in an inventor who's created a device for inducing prisoners to experience an entire prison sentence in a matter of minutes. Would be better without the psychobabble towards the end, but otherwise a fine story.

"The Initiation" is more of a long joke than a short story. Amusing.

"The Portrait of Baron Negay" has my vote for the best story in this collection. It's the tale of an artist who has the secret to a unique artform that allows him to paint pictures that induce specific feelings in all who look upon them. But when he's coopted by a brutal regime, he faces a difficult decision.

"SHAWNA, Ltd." is an inconsequential story about space ships powered by philosophy. A little too cute for my taste.

"A Time for Terror" is a servicable tale about terrorism on the moon. Good but nothing special.

"The Homecoming," tells of what happens when a race of space-faring dinosaurs return to Earth after 70 million years to discover that tasty rodents have evolved into humanity. Longyear explains in the introduction to this story that it was an idea given to him by an editor, and he wasn't very keen on it himself. It shows. The story is good, but it feels as though something's missing -- something subtle, downright ineffable, yet tangible nonetheless.

"Twist Ending," is a second take on "The Homecoming," this time with time travel instead of spaceships. In this case, Longyear takes the opportunity to poke fun at the idea of the story. On the whole it's not as good as the previous story, but it does has that missing vivre.

"Catch the Sun," is a wonderful first contact story set on a slowly-rotatng planet where civilization has to keep moving to remain in the narrow habitable zone.

"Adagio" feels like a Twilight Zone story written by George R.R. Martin. (Why, yes, I am thinking of Sandkings, though there are a number of classic TZ eps that fit the mould as well.) A ship crashes on an alien world, and the survivors are bored stiff waiting for rescue. One crewman discovers that certain rocks in the area are in fact slow moving creatures. The man uses his speed to convince the creatures that he's a supernatural creature and orders them to engage in bloody wars against each other.

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas," is another too-cute joke, though as a coda to the book it's somewhat forgivable.