Thursday, November 02, 2006

Award

I just got this nice e-mail:

"We are writing with the very nice news that World History Matters (the combined rubric for World History Sources and Women and World History--at http://worldhistorymatters.org) has been awarded the James Harvey Robinson Prize of the American Historical Association for its for “outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history.” The award will be made at the Annual Meeting of the AHA in January."

Excellent!

My contributions can be found here.

And here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Archaeological Blog review

The Newsletter of the Center for the Study of Architecture/Archaeology has just published my review of the Gath Project Blog in the Spring 2006 issue.

Blogging has come to the trenches! The Gath blog is worth checking out because it is both archaeologically sound (i.e. lots of good information about digging for students) and fun (i.e. lots of fun information about digging). The tone has the silly/losing our sanity vibe that digs tend to inspire.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Boy in the Bubble


Embarassingly, I forgot to post before the actual show, but PBS affiliates may be repeating the latest American Experience program this week. The show is on The Boy in the Bubble and I wrote the content for the accompanying website. I will write more later, but suffice it to say for the moment that I found this story one of the most heartbreaking in the series.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dawes

This is a bit tangential to anything, but it's almost Patriot's Day when we remember Paul Revere and once again forget William Dawes, the other guy who went to warn Sam Adams in Concord of the Redcoats.

I just heard this amazing story by Don Was about a song composed by Charles Dawes, a descendent of William's and Calvin Coolidge's Vice President. Dawes' melody was a hit midcentury and then acquired lyrics and became even more popular. Barry Manilow is the latest to cover the song, and Was played clips of Elton John and others singing it.

The whole thing is so weird that I suspected it was an April Fool's prank. Check it out.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Book Review: Positively Fifth Street

by James McManus
Okay, so I'm a little late getting into the poker phenomenon. (Or was I early? I did buy that poker table with Pete, although we tend to play dumb games that favor luck and not the new "official" poker game, no-limit hold 'em.)

When I was working on the American Experience Las Vegas site, one of my more enjoyable tasks was to read through Michelle Ferrari (with Stephen Ives)'s book, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History. I asked to excerpt a few passages from the book and had to get permission from the authors, one of whom was James McManus on the History of Poker. Seems I dealt with Good Jim because he was quite gracious even though I hacked great swaths of wordsmithing from his essay so that a) it would fit the pea sized brain of a web surfer and b) leave lots of juicy morsels to be found with said web surfer found either the Las Vegas book or McManus' own.

So what's with the Good Jim? And is there a Bad Jim? Apparently there is both of him(s). This was the one device that didn't quite click with me at first -- he traces his Good side to one set of grandparents, god-fearing and good people, and the Bad side to Grandpa Jim, the boozing, gambling, cheating on his wife grandpa. I wasn't crazy about this, but it actually grew on me as I read.

There's also a lot of words about the trial of Sandra Murphy and Rick Tabish, accused of murdering Murphy's lover (and Tabish's friend) Ted Binion, heir to the Binion fortune and part of the family that runs Binion's Horseshoe casino in Vegas and puts on the World Series of Poker annually. The Murphy Tabish stuff is vaguely interesting but that's not why I picked up the book.

What I wanted to read about was McManus playing poker. He gets an assignment from Harper's Magazine to cover the World Series, specifically on the increased number of women competing for (and with a legitimate shot at) the championship. But then he takes his advance/expense money, bets it in a poker game and wins $10,000 -- the fee to join the actual World Series itself. And then he does remarkably well in the tournament.

Along the way there are histories of poker and of cards, discussions of poker histories and strategy books, profiles of major poker players and analyses of various literary figures. There's even an excerpt from a David Sedaris writing project (McManus was a writing teacher of Sedaris' at the Art Institute of Chicago's school).

I have to admit, I've only seen televised poker a few times (we don't have cable) but despite this lack, McManus describes the lingo and strategy so thoroughly that the description of his games are very easy to follow and more exciting than any card game has any right to be. And, just when I start to understand how he's strategizing and someone makes a brilliant move, luck rears its randomly ugly head and takes someone out unexpectedly.

For anyone interested in poker, this book has to be read. For those interested in contemporary Las Vegas, this is also high on the list of required reading. And if anyone is wondering why people get obsessive about poker, this book will explain it to you.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Book Review: Moon Dust

Andrew Smith is a British magazine writer. Naturally, his writing is self-deprecating and full of pop cultures references. He was also born in New York and grew up in California in the 1960s and got caught up in the space race, especially the Apollo program.

His non-fiction book Moon Dust has a terrific premise. After hearing that Pete Conrad has died, Smith realizes that there are only nine men left alive who have ever walked on the moon. And they are all in their seventies (more or less). He sets out to interview each of them, ask them about Apollo ("was it worth it?") and their experience ("how did it change you?").

If, like me, you have an interest in Apollo for the characters (and although these are real live guys, they were definitely characters) as well as the history, this is excellent. After vaguely hearing about Buzz Aldrin being kind of crazy, I want to hear about him now. And what's Alan Bean like now that he's traded aerospace for fine art (albeit focusing on painting moonscapes)? What's up with John Young? And where the hell has Neil Armstrong gone?

Smith addresses all of these questions. Bean is a particularly compelling character, even more so now, I think, for being so content. And of course we have to know, was he really the model for Jack Nicholson's character in Terms of Endearment? (Yeah, also, strange as it may seem, for Bill Paxton's protrayal of Bean's colleague Fred Haise in Apollo 13.) Aldrin is the opposite, full of nervous energy, with a phobia for writing, even though he's written some science fiction novels (he draws graphs for what happens and his collaborators flesh it out). And though Smith focuses on the nine moonwalkers, he also contacts other astronauts -- including some of my personal favorites, William Anders and Michael Collins. He lets Scott Carpenter tell his side of the feud with Chris Kraft (although he says nothing that really contradicts Kraft's memoir he comes across as more sympathetic than the Director of Flight portrays him).

This is great stuff!

Unfortunately, there's some not as great stuff to slog through to get to the gems. There's a lot about Smith growing up and wanting to be an astronaut. We get to hear about how sexy his fourth grade teacher was. He reminds us that the Vietnam was going on and that 1968 was a hellish year. He tells us what was playing on the radio and t.v. All this may be important context for anyone under 30 who picks up the book without any prior knowledge of NASA before the space shuttle, but not so interesting to anyone who has glanced at a history book.

The other annoying tic is the referencing of pop culture. Now anyone who knows me knows that I like pop culture as much as anyone, but maybe not as much as the average Brit. (Remember the 1990s? I read in NME or Melody Maker that almost everyone in England -- grandfathers and pre-teen girls knew all the words to Oasis' big hits and would sing along to pub jukeboxes. Can you imagine that happening in America?) Anyway, my point is, it gets gratuitous. Do you need to know what Wayne Coyne thought of Apollo? (Actually, I was kind of curious until I read the rambling, riffing paragraph that sounded like a stoned college sophomore.) Or here, how about what Smith has to say about Jim Lovell's famous statement, "Houston, we've had a problem"?:
"With hindsight, the only good thing about the situation was Lovell's response, expressed with an understatement and timing which the combined writers of Friends, The Simpsons and Six Feet Under would have struggeled to better." (p. 207)
Huh? I'm sorry, was Lovell trying to make a joke? Is Friends the epitome of understated dialogue? Have you seen Joey?! (But then he makes up for this with another pop culture fact: Apollo 13 was a screwup. Period. until Al Reinart wrote that the mission was "NASA's finest hour" in his 1995 screenplay, no one else thought so.)

The last stylistic device that was a little odd was Smith's tendency to write about writing. He tells us what he wears to the interviews with the astronauts, and the interviews are presented as faux transcripts with Smith's chuckles of embarassment or humor, odd insights and frustrations all part of the package. In a sense, if you want to know what it's like to be a magazine writer, here's a good place to start.

These annoyances were easy to skip, however, and I did find myself breezing through the pages about young Andrew riding his bike through the streets of Orinda. And overall, it was probably worth it for the interviews. How strange is John Young? And how cool is Rene Carpenter, writing her own Life Magazine stories (edited by Loudon Wainwright, father of LW III and grandpa of Rufus), mocking the media circus, meeting Jackie Kennedy and later (after divorcing Scott) campaigning for RFK and present in Indianapolis when Bobby addressed the crowd following MLK's death?

Actually, all the wives seem pretty cool, even the second, third and fourth wives.

Aside from the individual stories, Smith does connect a few interesting dots. He realizes that all the moonwalkers were eldest sons. Moreover he finds that while the commanders of the moon missions all stayed pretty straight and narrow:
  • (11) Armstrong returned to Ohio to teach, does not like to be recognized as special for having stepped on the moon first;
  • (12) Conrad and (14) Shepherd both deceased ([13]Lovell never landed);
  • (15) David Scott, more reclusive than Armstrong, wrote a bookwith cosmonaut Alexei Leonov;
  • (16) John Young still works for NASA; and
  • (17) Gene Cernan still promotes space exploration and was at GW Bush's side when the president announced his Mars initiative (that went nowhere)
the lunar module pilots all diverged:
  • (11) Buzz Aldrin went through alcoholism, depression and is considered a little nuts (but in a "lovable ol' crazy uncle Edwin" way);
  • (12) Alan Bean became a successful painter;
  • (14) Ed Mitchell founded ION and studies ESP and other paraphenomenon;
  • (15) Jim Irwin (deceased) heard the voice of God on the moon and threw himself into the church upon his return;
  • (16) Charles Duke, with the help of his wife, also found God; and
  • (17) Harrison "Jack" Schmitt served in the US Senate.
Smith surmises that the LM pilots were less experienced and had fewer responsibilities for the mission and perhaps more time to contemplate their surroundings. It may also be that after the strict (even stricter than Mercury) second wave of recruitment that brought most of the commanders to NASA, more humanistically oriented men were brought in. Smith also suggests that perhaps Deke Slayton of the astronaut office (whose ghost shadows every man in the book) chose hardcore leftbrain men who would not be distracted to command the missions.

So now you don't have to read the book. No really, if you know nothing of Apollo, this is not a bad place to start (although Chaikin's Man on the Moon is the best), and if you want some sort of follow up on where they all are now, this is the place to find it.