Friday, May 27, 2011

So long, Model T

On this date in 1927, Ford Motor Company ended production of the Model T automobile. The manufacturer's innovative assembly lines briefly shut down to retool for production of the Model A. As you can see, the latter was a bit cushier in the feature department.

Model T:

Model A:

The Model T is an icon of American history for its longevity, durability, putative ability to be repaired with baling wire and rubber bands and prominence as a mode of transportation for the great Dust Bowl-to-West Coast population migrations of the 1930s.

Perhaps more notable, however, was the manner in which the Model T was manufactured. Henry Ford was the first prominent manufacturer to introduce a moving assembly line, reducing the formerly complex work of assembling even a simple car like the Model T into a series of discrete, easily performed and endlessly repetitive elements. This enabled Ford to crank Model T automobiles off the line like nobody's business; it also resulted in a wave of recriminations for how such simple and unthinking labor degraded the workers who were performing such tasks. On the plus side, Ford tended to pay his workers well and operated a variety of services for workers and their families; on the negative side, part of the reason why he did this was to forestall the development of worker's unions that could challenge not only wages but things like working conditions and the mechanisms by which Ford ran his company.

Progress brings criticism. Innovation produces new challenges. Should progress and innovation halt? Not at all. The example of the Model T and the assembly line poses one in a litany of examples, however, of the law of unintended consequences. Lessons we would do well to note as we continue to explore the ways in which technology can transform our lives.

Auto images from's+Model+A+%26+T+cars [note typo in the site labeling this 1929 Model A (correctly identified in the photo information) as a 1921 car].

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mourning with those in Joplin and elsewhere

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Joplin, MO, as well as everyone else suffering from yesterday's tornado damage and all still reeling from the storms that hit the southeast several weeks back.

As I read and viewed photos about this tragedy online I was struck by an aside about the configuration of many homes in the Joplin area. Evidently the region experienced significant growth in the '60s--era of the rambling ranch house--and thus had been constructed without basements.

No basements. In tornado country.

I am sure this is not uncommon, nor, obviously, is it the fault of the residents. What, however, will it take to learn even the smallest lesson from an overwhelmingly destructive history? Tornadoes happen in the midwestern United States. They always have. One of the many reasons my own grandfather left Oklahoma for Oregon in the late 1940s was to escape the recurring threat of tornadoes.

The Wizard of Oz was written in 1900.

How much evidence did Americans need to realize that homes in tornado country should be constructed with basements, cellars or other shelter from such storms?

Again, this isn't anyone's "fault." Nor is it a regional foible. (See "unreinforced brick construction, West Coast earthquake zone.") In the wake of all this death and destruction, however, I hope we can learn some important engineering lessons--and apply them elsewhere, as well. Tragedy cannot always be avoided, and there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves, but we should certainly be doing what we can do. We--and our progeny who will live in what we construct today--deserve nothing less.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I say LBJ, you say...

Katie Couric played an interesting game of word association regarding the eight presidents under which retiring Secretary of State Robert Gates has served, available here. Fascinating. (Also, is that Vladimir Putin standing behind Gorbachev in the footage of Gorby and Reagan at about 2:10, or is my mind playing tricks on me?)


On this day in 1980:

[credit: Washington Post]

Mount Saint Helens lost approximately 1,300 feet of its height in the explosion. I was having Sunday lunch with my family at the Old Country Kitchen in southeast Portland.

I don't remember this particularly well (which is to say, not at all), having been one at the time. However, the legacy of the mountain's eruption in my own psyche as a child is a useful illustration of how historical memory can continue to inform our lives and dictate our emotions even when we do not personally "experience" a given historical event.

I should issue a disclaimer at this point that I was a jumpy child, prone toward worrying. (As opposed to the present, when I am a jumpy adult, prone toward worrying.) Nonetheless, the knowledge that nature could unleash fury of this magnitude in the seemingly solid, majestically inert mountains of my beloved Cascades was enough to unleash significant fear even in the absence of lived experience. I did not know personally what the mountains could do, but I knew, because I had seen the images and heard the stories.

Several years after 1980, my family was on a camping trip on Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens' neighbor to the south. We were taking a tour up at Timberline Lodge, the massive Works Progress Administration-era edifice located right at the tree line. I happened to be holding my mother's hand at the point the tour guide informed us that Mount Hood was not an extinct volcano, but rather was dormant--much like Mount Saint Helens once had been. Immediately, Mom says, my hand started to shake. I still remember riding down the mountain in Dad's truck, looking behind me to make sure the mountain hadn't exploded yet. Intellectually, I knew there would be warning signs and other indications, but emotionally, I was terrified.

On one level, this is a story about an amusingly high-strung child. On another, however, this is an example of the sort of reaction many of us have to that which we know without experiencing. This is historical memory. Another person, growing up in a different time and/or place, could have a very different set of inherited memories about what volcanoes can do. Hawaiian? Volcanoes spew lava. From Indonesia? Volcanoes can vaporize entire islands. Kansas? Explain this thing you call a "mountain." (Sorry; couldn't resist.) While this example deals with earth science, the principle is easily extendable. What is one population's historical memory regarding immigration? Industrialization? War? Race relations? And how will that differ from others'?

There are some facts about volcanoes--they erupt--that are more or less uniform. In reality, however, when Mount Hood blows, we can make predictions but we cannot know with certainty exactly what it's going to do. Mount Saint Helens can offer us clues, but Mount Hood's eruption will constitute something new and different. A broad analysis of the Cascade chain of volcanoes--comparative study--is likely to reveal more significant information than simply relying on our memories of 1980. Taking our study beyond the west coast of North America will likely be even more useful.

History is an important guide to the past. It gives us important, even vital, information about our future. It is not a crystal ball. We need the foundations of history upon which to build our predictions, but it does us little good to reduce the past to a single set of memories or a series of steps guaranteed to predict the future. When we absorb the lessons of the past, compare our historical memories and preserve a wide range of vision regarding the future, we will best serve ourselves and our progeny -- and our hands might shake a little less along the way.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dionne: "Lincoln Would Weep"

Interesting E.J. Dionne column on the implications of a doctrinally rigid GOP upon the Republican presidential candidate field in 2010 here.

I believe he has a strong point. I have been fascinated to note that of all the candidates declared thus far, Newt Gingrich (not, I must admit, my favorite politician) has been most willing to step out on a limb with his argument that the Republican-proposed overhaul of Medicare is just as radical as anything proposed by the Obama administration's health care policy.

Ideological rigidity is not a problem limited to one party. Both Democrats and Republicans have been (and are being) hurt by their reluctance to topple the straw men (straw people?) constructed on both sides of the political battlefield. Indeed, I almost typed "political spectrum" only to reflect that I fear we do not have a spectrum at the moment so much as two poles, separated by a chasm of don't-go-there... and it is in the more complicated terrain of the middle where we will find any true solutions to be had. There are some things upon which no compromise is possible, but most of the political problems we face at present just aren't among them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reality, edited

A Hasidic Jewish paper published in Brooklyn does not publish photographs of women out of concerns that the imagery could be too suggestive. However, the publication did want to use the widely-distributed image of President Obama and key decision makers during the Osama bin Laden operation. So, they digitally edited the shot to eliminate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism. See the image in an NPR report on the incident here.

Respect for religious belief is extremely important. Editing history to eliminate the role of women, however, is odious. There were other images. This newspaper should have used them.

We were watching the PBS Newshour the other night when, among others, Madeline Albright appeared as a panelist to discuss the events of bin Laden's assassination. My 5-year-old daughter regularly asks who a given person is when she sees them on television, and I explained to her that former Secretary Albright's pioneering role as Secretary of State helped make it possible for her to be anything she wants to be when she grows up. Hillary Clinton's reputable run for president and tenure as Secretary of State, of course, helps to further that, as do the accomplishments of Condoleeza Rice.

Anything she wants to be. Unfortunately, some people still won't give her the credit she'll be due. This is a fringe example, to be sure, but as someone who has struggled mightily with identity as a woman in contemporary society--and as mother to a daughter--it is profoundly discouraging.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Man in space

From the archives of Life magazine, posted on the Fox News Web site and brought to my attention via History News Network: cool, in many cases previously-unseen photographs of Alan Shepard and the early Apollo astronauts, commemorating Shepard's first American manned space flight 50 years ago yesterday (May 5, 1961). Here's one of my favorites, but all 8 are available here and there are several gems (the first one in the slide show is actually the least interesting, so keep clicking):

The object Shepard is holding in his right hand is a portable air conditioner, used to cool his pressure suit before he entered his (ridiculously claustrophobic-looking) capsule. I am struck by how closely these actual pressure suits resemble a Disney-fied "Tomorrowland" version of space travel... note, for example, the following image, taken by the Los Angeles Times in 1959 of then-Vice President Richard Nixon chatting with a "spaceman and spacegirl" [why not "spacewoman?"]:

Shepard's suit fits more snugly and he doesn't have the nifty radio receiver wire on top of his helmet, but they certainly got the silver part correct. In conclusion, a Shepard quotation included with the above Life photo:

"You should have courage and the right blood pressure [if you want to succeed as an astronaut.] And four legs ... You know, they really wanted to send a dog, but they decided that would be too cruel."

Photo credit for LA Times photo: uclalat_1429_b390_117469, UCLA Los Angeles Times Photo Digitization Project, [I had the honor of selecting this particular image while working for the project. Such are my grand contributions to our intellectual culture.]

Monday, May 2, 2011

Local Color

Interesting post to the "Lost Oregon" Web site on Portland's radical past, focusing particularly on the immediate post-World War II era:

I was struck once again by how many of these cases related to civil rights. Oregon's heritage in this regard is seriously scarred; the succession of stories about accusations of radicalism based upon race relations activism--and about radical groups standing, often nearly alone, on the side of racial justice--is a significant reminder that the practice of typecasting civil rights concerns as the work of Communist infiltrators seeking to arouse domestic unrest was not isolated to the South.

That said, we must bear in mind that this is not the complete story. Oregon Public Broadcasting's excellent 1991 documentary, "Local Color," outlines how a young Republican state legislator named Mark Hatfield, for example, played an important role in finally securing passage of a public accommodations bill in the early 1950s.

These are stories of which Oregonians (indeed, Americans more generally) should be aware, especially at a time when the leaders of cities such as Portland are just beginning to become aware of the darker side of gentrification. Significant numbers of African Americans are being driven from the very neighborhoods to which they were once confined by red-lining and de facto segregationist practices: see recent Oregonian coverage.

Too often, we fail to acknowledge the role the past plays in how we perceive the present. Ignoring Oregon's history doesn't erase the past; rather, it causes future division without equipping citizens to make thoughtful, informed decisions.

On Osama

Intriguing post from historian Gil Troy on the History News Network, reflecting on lessons he believes we can take from the career of Osama bin Laden and the events of 9/11:

I am profoundly relieved he is gone.

I suspect, however, that this is an occasion more for solemn remembrance and rededication to the tasks still before us than for jubilation. We're still a world fractured by divisions in ideology, and so many, many lives have been lost to reach this point.