Archive for July, 2008

Proposed Name: XiriuM

Monday, July 28th, 2008

I have written here a few times about my experience with satellite radio and my support for the proposed merger between XM and Sirius. See here and here and here. So naturally I was pleased to hear that the FCC voted 3-2 to approve the merger. I felt like I ought to say something about it, but I couldn’t have put it any better than Publius did at Obsidian Wings. So, you know, what he said: merger good.

50 Book Challenge: How the States Got Their Shapes

Monday, July 21st, 2008

How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein (Amazon, B&N, Powell’s). Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a geography nerd. When I was in junior high, I went to the state geography bee sponsored by National Geographic. I didn’t get very far, and I was nowhere near the national finals with Alex Trebek. But I was nerdy enough to get my bona fides. So, as you can imagine, this book appealed to me.

How the States Got Their Shapes is exactly what the title promises. It has chapters for every state and the District of Columbia. Stein describes the compromises and controversies leading to the boundaries we see on the map today. Even a pretty obvious state like Hawaii gets a whole chapter (mostly on why certain islands in the vicinity are or aren’t included in the state). The more oddly-shaped states get the full treatment, and soon you’ll be able to explain why Connecticut has a panhandle and why Michigan has that non-contiguous Upper Peninsula. I was surprised to learn how many borders prompted skirmishes between settlers, and not just the famous Kansas-Missouri one. And you’ll find out how just how often crooked borders are the result of nothing more significant than bad surveying (hint: very).

Stein had me hooked with his introductory chapter entitled “DON’T SKIP THIS.” And it’s good advice. That chapter discusses the big boundary events in American history — the Treaty of Paris, the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War, the Missouri Compromise, etc. When the U.S. acquired new territory, it had to decide how to carve it into states. Stein makes a good case that, very often, those designs were based on commendable Congressional foresight. There’s a reason state pairs like Alabama/Mississippi and Arizona/New Mexico are so similar in size (not to mention North and South Dakota). Despite, or maybe because, the original colonies were so dissimilar in size, thanks to royal grants, religious exclusion, and political power, Congress made a concerted effort to give equal size to new states, to the extent possible. Exceptions like Texas and California are truly exceptions. It’s pretty remarkable how successful legislators were in their efforts — as demonstrated by the number of western states that are precisely seven degrees of longitude wide or three or four degrees of latitude high.

That reliance on longitude and latitude is understandable, given the available technology. But it makes me wonder what the states would look like if they were being drawn up from scratch in the modern age. I suppose they would look like our gerrymandered election districts. Faced with that gruesome image, I’m just fine with those boring square states we have.

This book could have been written very differently, with lots of discussion of various Congressional hearings or the efforts by many states to grab a little more land. Stein provides a bibliography, so I suppose that kind of information is out there if you want to track it down. I do wish there had been some kind of index or timeline so one could read the book chronologically, but Stein also provides many cross-references in the individual chapters, so you can peek ahead to Wisconsin while you’re reading about Minnesota. But the essentially random nature of the alphabetical approach suits the reader who wants to jump around.

Stein’s book is a fun read for grown-up geography nerds like me, and also accessible enough for the junior high class trying to pick a winner of the school geography bee. Chock full of facts, highly interesting, certainly recommended for anyone who ever looked at a map and wondered, indeed, How the States Got Their Shapes.

(Previous 50 Book Challenge reviews)

50 Book Challenge: Legacy of Ashes

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (Amazon, B&N, Powell’s). Easily one of the best books I have ever read. This is a magisterial study of the CIA, from its birth in the WWII secret services to its post-September 11 demise as the intelligence agencies were melded together. Along the way, we learn of more failures than successes, but both are woven into America’s post-war history deftly.

I’ll get a minor flaw out of the way. Weiner provides a ton of detail about every little coup and insurgency the CIA participated in during the ’50s and ’60s. Most of that reporting was based on newly-declassified documents. I wondered what he was going to do with recent history, since the truth behind those events are still walled off. To some extent, he gets around that with lots of interviews (on the record) with relevant actors. But, aside from a highlight with the Iran-Contra mess, the post-Watergate events seemed a tad hurried over.

But in a book this massive and well-researched, that’s really a minor quibble. A part of the reason for it is that the Agency was so lost right after the Cold War, and was clearly unsure of its mission. And there’s plenty of meat in the rest of the sixty years covered by Legacy of Ashes (a prophetic phrase from President Eisenhower). The most compelling part of the work is probably the CIA’s many attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro, and the possible link between those activities and Cuban retaliation in the form of the assassination of President Kennedy. Spooky stuff.

The Agency’s efforts in the Middle East receive much attention from Weiner, deservedly so. It’s amazing how much history repeated itself. But that’s really the main theme of the book — the CIA’s utter inability to learn, either about its targets or from its mistakes. (And oh my goodness, how many times did the Soviets know exactly what we were doing?!) Ultimately, it’s depressing. But it’s absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in American history, politics, or intelligence.

(Previous 50 Book Challenge reviews)