Monday, April 29, 2013

Rad old photographs

To be specific, George R. Lawrence's rad aerial photographs of San Francisco around the time of the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress:

Looking southwest down market street in 1906 after the earthquake. The golden gate (sans bridge) is visible in the upper right. The destruction north of market is near total.

A view from Nob Hill, looking southwest. In the bay on the far left is Yerba Buena Island (I think). The fire burned almost everything down.

Let's move a few years ahead in time, to 1908. The following three photos were taken as the Great White Fleet, Teddy Roosevelt's burly new iteration of the U.S. Navy, cruised into San Francisco Bay. They stopped in San Francisco to refuel during their two year circumnavigation of the globe.

The ships of the fleet look like whitecaps on the distant bay. The photo seems to be taken from nearly the same position as the previous one: looking southwest, we see Yerba Buena island at the far left of the frame. Union square is the park with the statue on the lower right. This photo, taken two years after the fire, shows the extent of the city's recovery in that relatively short time. 

The ships are more easily identified here, as they steam east along the northern coast of San Francisco through the golden gate. Aquatic park is on the left (I think). I can't quite make out Fort Point (aka Fort Winfield Scott) at the northern-most point of San Francisco.

This one's not a Lawrence photo, and it's not aerial.  It's San Francisco during the fire on April 18, 1906. After doing some corroboration with google maps, I believe Hooper took it from Kite Hill. Market Street is the big thoroughfare leading into the smoke. Corona Heights is the hill on the left of the picture. Found on wikipedia.

Friday, April 26, 2013

About posting; a picture of beer

Yikes! I haven't posted anything for two weeks. Time to get back on the horse.

There's something a little tyrannical about social media (for me, at least). I get self-conscious when I don't make a blog post for a week or two, as if there were some great demand for my content or for me to connect to the world through the blog. I used to get similarly anxious about Facebook before I decided to almost completely withdraw from it. (Hmm. As I write this, it all sounds pretty narcissistic. Or maybe paranoid. Oh well.)

After a while, I remember: the blog is my space. I can use it however I want. If I post, great. If I don't, fine--so long as I don't want to. The only person I need to satisfy is myself. I don't have any big ambitions for the blog, and I haven't applied any concerted effort to cultivate a readership. I like it when people read and comment on my blog posts, either online or in person, but, as of now, that's not why I write here. I use the blog to work out ideas, to work out the presentation of ideas in writing, and to post pictures of food and my cat.

So, for the time being, I push away my narcissistic paranoia and present a beautiful picture of beer in a glass, because I like it.

From dinner at Great Maple. (Photo by Emily!)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Confederate Memorial at Arlington

I've seen a lot of Civil War statues and memorials. Some of them (the confederate memorials, usually) are problematic. But I'd never seen anything quite like the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery.

Headstones of dead confederate soldiers surround the statue. The inscription around the bottom reads like many others on many confederate memorials: an affirmation of the honor of the dead coupled with a vague reference to "duty." None of this is particularly odd. But this is:

The image above shows the south side of the relief encircling the middle section of the monument. Just to the left of center a black man marches off to war in uniform. He does not appear to carry a weapon. To the right of center a black woman holds a white child as its father, a confederate officer, embraces it. A white girl tugs at the slave woman's skirt.

The message is clear: slaves loyally supported the confederacy in war. The black man must be a body servant (you can read a fuller explanation of his function here) following his master to the front. The woman, a "mammy," shows the trust and close relationships masters shared with their slaves. In the image above, slaves are like family. All of this adds up to one of the key tenets of Lost Cause mythology: that slaves were happy, well-treated by their masters, and better off as slaves than free. The "duty" inscribed on the memorial, then, is to preserve a social order in which everyone--not just whites--was better off.

The big question I have about this monument is: why does it still exist?

Monuments reflect the political and social climate of the time they were built. But, unless that historical climate is explained, one might mistake a historical idea for a modern one. The Confederate Memorial at Arlington is presented without context, caveat, or interpretation. It is not presented as a historical artifact. It is presented as a memorial to dead confederates. Why? Even if a National Cemetery is an appropriate place to bury confederate dead*, is it an appropriate place to celebrate the Lost Cause? Is it an appropriate place to promote the UDC's (United Daughters of the Confederacy) views from 1912 on the relationship between master and slave, which has been discredited by historians again and again?

I don't know what the political hurdles to removing a memorial are--I'm sure they're substantial. The easier thing--and, perhaps, the more honest, educational, and better thing--would be to add interpretation to the memorial: place a few signs around the statue describing the UDC's organizational goals, the history of the statue's creation, why the memorial is problematic and what it means today.

*One might argue the opposite for many reasons, but perhaps the most important argument (at least in the case of Arlington) is that virtually no confederate soldiers qualify to be buried there because so few of them served in the U.S. army and were honorably discharged.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What books I read in March

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. A great example of what science fiction can do when a strong writer gets hold of a killer metaphor. Here's the premise: earth's government conscripts soldiers and deploys them against a dimly understood enemy in a dimly understood intergalactic conflict. When the soldiers return to Earth, many years have passed--due to time dilation, the soldier's "subjective time" elapsed away from Earth is decades less than those who stayed home--and our protagonist feels alien, out of place. To escape Earth he re-enlists, but as he travels more his feeling of alienation from Earth and his younger fellow soldiers only worsens.

Laying in the background of the novel is something of a paean for cultural relativism--for example: Earth goes from predominantly straight and anti-gay, to predominantly straight but gay friendly, to predominantly gay but straight friendly, to predominantly gay and anti-straight, to a place where gay and straight have no meaning. The world gets better, or gets worse, but whether it gets better or gets worse has little to do with culture. It has everything to do with politics, and with the war.

I couldn't help but think of Halo 4 as I read. The novel is something of a repudiation of everything Halo 4 stands for, several decades before Halo even existed. In Halo, intergalactic warriors fight senselessly, and its good--fun, even. In The Forever War, intergalactic warriors fight senselessly, and its terrible, psychologically destructive, and hopelessly stupid. Moreover, the novel continually reveals its violence as senseless, because its senselessness is so overwhelmingly obvious.

 At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. I didn't like all of the stories in this collection, but the ones I liked, I loved. I loved "The Man Who Bridged the Mist", I loved "The Horse Raiders", I loved "Spar." "Ponies" reads like a good George Saunders story, with its compound words and brutalizing truthfulness, and I loved it, too.