Friday, November 18, 2016

Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal

Heaven's Ditch is a history of some of the key events in upstate New York in the early 1800s. The book interleaves a number of different events: the construction of the Erie canal, the story of Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism, William Miller and the adventist movement, Sam Patch and daredevil entertainers, William Morgan and the rise of the anti-Masonic movement, Charles Finney and abolitionists. It does not attempt to provide a general history of the area, but instead a history of these events that were in part enabled by the construction of the Erie canal. The book almost succeeds. It provides a nice overview of the spirit of the times. However, it loses focus, and provides both too little and too much detail. (It spends significant time wrapping up Joseph Smith's story in Missouri and Illinois, yet barely glosses over the enlargement and legacy of the Erie Canal.) The author tries to be objective in covering the events in the story. However, he does inject some of his views and color of the events. As a history, the book is week. However, it does tell an entertaining story that helps link together a number of key events that were happening in close proximity.

The Snowball

Warren Buffet is a rich midwesterner who has been obsessed with money from a young age. He grew up in Omaha and spent some time in Washington D.C. when his dad was a congressman. In both places he was working to earn money and have that money compound through investments. He then created his own fund to invest other people's money. He followed the conservative investing principals of Ben Graham (and even talked himself into Columbia Business School so that he could learn from Graham himself.) He was most eager to work for himself, and liked to take large stakes in companies. One company he bought was a New Bedford textile company, Berkshire Hathaway. He initially did not want to buy it, but he felt wronged and eventually took over the company. He would later say that it was one of his worst mistakes. However, that company would become the holding company for many other organizations.
The book portrays Buffet as a "country boy" who does not mind hob-knobbing with elites, yet is reluctant to venture out of his comfort zone. (He'd prefer to eat a hamburger and fried rather than Asian food while in Asia.) He knows what he is good at and sticks to that. He seems overly obsessed with money. However, he also wants to make sure his children can live comfortable but do not get undue benefit from their winning the "ovarian lottery". He realizes he was able to make a fortune due to being in the right place and working hard. However, he is in favor of inheritance taxes and other similar programs to share the wealth. People should be able to work on things that they are good at, but shouldn't have a life of idleness simply because of their birth. (He seems to be unable to stop working, in spite of "retiring" a few times.)


Scurvy is an extremely debilitating condition that had a simple cure (Vitamin C). The cure was even "discovered" a few hundred years ago. However, competing (but non-functional) cures from established figures delayed the widespread adoption of the real cure, leading to the loss of many lives.

Scurvy was often seen on ships, where crews had to travel for long periods of time, subsisting on barely edible, preserved food. It was also seen among the poor in the cities. These people had limited access to fresh food, and thus the needed vitamin C. On ships, the officers were less likely to get scurvy as they would often carry aboard some of their own fresh food or meat. Some theorized that it was the "Bad air" on the ship that caused the problems. (There were plenty of problems caused by the poor sanitary conditions on ships, but scurvy was not one of them.) Captain Cook lead a voyage to in part find a solution for scurvy. They did verify that citrus did prevent scurvy. However, it was expensive and "wort of malt" was the more popular solution. Not willing to rock the boat, Cook did not firmly denounce the "cheap cure", thus leading to its attempt to be adopted. IT took many more years before the citrus was more firmly adopted. (But even then, it was some of the least effective citrus.)

The delay in adopting a cure for scurvy may have also contributed to the American Independence. The British had trouble manning all of their ships due to the poor health of the mariners. They would round up men from the slums and overload their ships in anticipation of great casualties. (And thus overloading would contribute to more casualties.) They were thus unable to adequately man a defense of their remote outpost in the Americas. Later, however, their implementation of the cure would help them to dominate Europe and the world.

Spirit Animals: Book 1: Wild Born

In Spirit Animals, Brandon Mull breaks from his typical "modern fantasy" approach and goes into pure fantasy. The world is somewhat similar to ours, with kingdoms that resemble China and other places, but it is clearly its own thing. People have the opportunity to summon "Spirit Animals" when they come of age. These are animals that have a connection to great people of the past. At the time of the story, there is a great calamity unfolding, so more spirit animals are summoned. The "Green Cloaks" are attempting to gather the great summoners together to help save the world. The kids that have summoned these animals are from a broad spectrum of society. One is an elite that are used to summoning animals. Another is an orphan who was surprised, yet saw it as a ticket out of trouble. They each have their doubts about what is going on, and even question whether they are on the side of the good guys or bad guys. Then the book ends, clearly waiting to be picked up in the next book of the series. Currently, this ranks as my least favorite of the Mull series. I prefer his books that attempt to connect to our modern world.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The Curve of Time

A widowed mother travels boats around the Pacific Northwest with her childen in the pre-World War II era. They come across as seasoned mariners, who understand the unique weather patterns of the northwest and are comfortable going into areas that are uncharted at times. They encounter some "harrowing" experiences, including running into a "clergyman" who turns out to be a bear. (They quickly escape to their boat.) There are also numerous storms and various encounters with animals and isolated "pioneers" in the area. The book covered the experience of Northwest sailing and personal relationships. However, I was hoping for more specific geographic details.