Gang Violence

Reading this week:

  • African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks edited by Mats Utas

I was reading, as I am wont to do, the New York Times, when I came across this article:

Veterans Fortify the Ranks of Militias Aligned With Trump’s Views

It, uh, it sparked some feelings and thoughts and frankly I’m not entirely sure what all of them are. Fortunately I have a blog on which I can write whatever half-baked thoughts I have, and also fortunately no one ever reads it so there is little risk of repercussion. So here we go.

The article is about the so-called “militias” (“armed gangs” or “terrorists” is a better term) that have grown over the past decade or so, and as you have gleaned from the headline, how a number of them include a high percentage of veterans.

My first half-baked idea has to do with the type of gun nut who thinks the second amendment exists because people might have to literally take up arms against a tyrannical government. This, in the 21st century, always seemed more than a bit whack to me, mostly because I don’t think it would work. While there are more guns than people in the US, gun ownership is concentrated in a fairly small number of people, and the government’s military has the advantage of things like warships with Tomahawk missiles and special forces soldiers and satellites and drones and all the other things that make it really effective at killing people, more so than civilians with rifles, even if they are assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. I have other objections to the general notion, including the fact that if you want to overthrow a government violent rebellion isn’t even the best way to go about it, but let’s just stick with the government-versus-people scenario.

Mostly I need a convenient place to stick this link, but first off the Pentagon has wargamed a scenario where it goes against a domestic threat. I don’t know what their assumptions are, but the probably deciding factor in a second civil war is which way the military would go in the scenario. This is part of what that New York Times article speaks to, I think. I think that the veterans in these groups sort of assume that the military would be on their side. On one level, that’s not a crazy assumption. I know I just said you can’t pigeonhole veterans, but I think it is fair to say that the military leans right on the political spectrum. I would hesitate to ascribe that, Heinlein-style, to any particular characteristics of the military lifestyle. I think the military mostly recruits from right-leaning areas of the country and so the people that wind up in the military are right-leaning. So these gangs/militias are right-wing, they have right-wing veterans who know a bunch of other right-wing military, so they might assume that the military would favor these groups. Not a crazy assumption.

The next half-baked notion I want to talk about has to do with the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. First off, and I will mention this because I don’t know where else to put this in, but I took the Oath of Office as a Peace Corps Volunteer which really threw me off. I didn’t know we did that, and so I was surprised when it happened, and for a while there I really had to think about my role in the Peace Corps and how I would defend and uphold the Constitution if called upon. I eventually just decided the enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic, weren’t going to be storming into my Zambian village, and gave up thinking about it. But of course I took the oath far more often as a member of the military.

The most significant thing I want to point out in this half-baked section is that upholding that oath is not necessarily a straightforward thing to do. This intersects with the article when it comes to the Oath Keepers. They’re another one of these gangs, but their schtick is that they claim to be continuing their oath to uphold, etc. The fact that these guys can claim to be doing that while the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” should be telling. Like I just said, I took the oath a lot as a member of the military. Specifically, as an officer, I took the Oath of Office. However, enlisted members of the military, and therefore the majority of the military, take the Oath of Enlistment. These are pretty similar, except that the Oath of Enlistment includes specifically the line that they swear to obey “the orders of the officers appointed over me,” while officers simply don’t swear that.

Why the difference? I always figured it was because while saying you’re going to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” sounds all nice and straightforward, man that is hard to put into practice. If you were to be serious about it, every single person who swears that oath would need to be a constitutional scholar. How else could you decide with any certainty whether or not any particular order you are given is against your oath to uphold and defend the Constitution?

I don’t think you could spin a scenario that would be obvious 100% of the time. If, as a member of the military, your commanding officer orders you to storm the White House and capture the President, that seems pretty straightforwardly like an unlawful order and unconstitutional. But then again what if the President is there illegally, because he refused to concede in a contested election, or something? Then maybe getting him out of there is pretty constitutional? But how is any member of the military really supposed to be able to tell? Even if you’re the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I’m going to bet you’re probably not an expert on that sort of thing, and you’re just going to have to go with the best advice you can get. If you’re some enlisted guy, what chance do you have?

The answer to the conundrum is mostly “well this doesn’t really come up all that often,” and the other part of the answer is the difference between the Oath of Enlistment and the Oath of Office, mentioned above. Every member of the military has an obligation to not follow an unlawful order. But for enlisted members (in my interpretation), the default assumption is that an order given to you by an officer is probably lawful. Unless there is a pretty specific reason you should know it’s unlawful, you won’t be faulted for carrying out those orders (and I think the bar is pretty high; you can seriously argue after massacring a village that you were just following orders). Officers, on the other hand, don’t get that pass. You have a responsibility, as an officer, to not simply assume an order you are given is lawful, and actively counter all those orders that you receive that don’t pass that bar.

But then again, I just pointed out that even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs probably isn’t going to be an expert on these things. So how is some random junior officer to know what to do? This is why I don’t think the military is likely to break from the government in power. In a scenario where the legality of a given order is in question, I personally think the military is going to default to the most conservative approach (do you have to emphasize “small-c” in writing?), which will be to follow orders. Even the almost universally beloved (within the military) “Mad Dog” Mattis will make the legally shaky move to deploy troops to the southern border when asked, and only actually balk when it came to not deploying troops to Syria. All that to say, I don’t think there is much chance of the military breaking with the government, even if the government orders it to deploy against American civilians.

The final half-baked bit is the alignment of these armed gangs. A few points here. The original NYT article I linked to notes that these gangs are “traditionally” anti-government. That makes sense to me, from a “the second amendment is in case we have to take up arms against a tyrannical government” perspective. But the alignment of a number of these groups have been changing, and again as the article notes “as [the militias] have inserted themselves in cities with large protests, the groups have found themselves sometimes welcomed by local law enforcement” (I personally wonder how much of that is due to the efforts of white supremacists actively working to infiltrate both the military and law enforcement, so that it’s not so much law enforcement welcoming the militias, but simply a case of overlapping membership). But these gangs aligning themselves in any way with either law enforcement or the military really undercuts the notion of fighting against a tyrannical government. It’s hard to say you’re defending the people of the United States when you kill those people. However, the point I was trying to wander to is that although I think it is unlikely that the military will break with the government, if these gangs are aligned with the government, they could wind up on the same side anyways. The real driving force behind these gangs isn’t to uphold freedom and democracy (because frankly you can’t do that from behind a gun), but just hateful, fearful, American racism. If your goal is to kill Black and brown people, aligning yourself with the American government is historically not a bad way to go about it.

Those are my half-baked thoughts. Maybe someday they’ll coalesce into something meaningful.

DeLorean Upgrades

Reading this week:

  • Politics in Africa: A New Introduction by Nana K. Poku and Anna Mdee

So as I have mentioned before, I own a DeLorean. DeLoreans are the most amazing car ever made, but also they have some design flaws. Plus, they’re all about 40 years old now, so they’re bound to have some quirks. A common one is a voltage leakage somewhere in the car, which means that if you leave the car alone long enough, you’ll come back to a drained battery, which sucks. Since I only ever drive the thing about once a week, I have long had installed a battery disconnect, so that when I park it I disconnect the battery.

This is pretty straightforward and easy. The battery compartment in the DeLorean is actually in the interior, behind the passenger seat. So the usual thing I do is sit down in the driver’s seat, reach over, move the passenger seat forward, reach into the battery compartment, and connect or disconnect the battery. It is a perfectly fine solution. Except that, you know, it probably takes a solid five seconds or something to do, and you wind up putting your arm at a weird angle, which, like, come on. So I decided there was a better solution. I started poking around for different battery disconnect solenoids I could find in the internet, before discovering that DeLorean Parts Northwest already had a kit put together. So I bought that.

The center console with one of the dummy switches removed. The two switches on the driver’s side are for the windows, though the switch for the passenger window is actually supposed to be right next to the passenger’s seat. It got moved by a shop I hired to install a new radio but who subsequently wound up breaking the gear shifter. That’s just how DeLorean repair typically goes, but the switch position has been bothering me for years now and the other thing I wanted to do today was put it back.

What they sent me is what is pictured up top. You got the solenoid, a chunk of battery wire, a toggle switch that’s already wired up, another thing for continual 12V power I didn’t wind up using, and some connectors and stuff. The kit is advertised in part as a security device – the toggle switch is supposed to be hidden somewhere, so a would-be thief wouldn’t actually know how to get the car started. I decided against that. The center console of the DeLorean, you see, has five switches… or so it appears. Two of the switches are for the windows, one is for the rear window defroster, and two of the buttons are just fake. They’re “dummy switches,” just for decoration. They do, however, just scream to be used, so I wanted to put the toggle switch in place of one of those. My initial idea was to get like a super cool red toggle switch thingy, but then I got a better idea to try to 3D print a switch cover that looks like the other DeLorean switches, but housed the toggle switch for the kit. So I learned how to do 3D cad for the first time and bashed this together:

Getting it printed was a whole different adventure. The number of 3D printers I don’t have access to right now is frankly astounding. I bought my dad one years ago, but my parents are moving and his is in storage. Yale has a center with 3D printers, but it is currently closed for COVID. New Haven Free Public Library also has 3D printers, and they are also closed. There are all the online services, but they were more expensive than I thought they would be, so turns out our local print shop in fact has 3D printer services, but the 3D printing guy was on vacation when I called, and when he showed back up, they were out of black filament, so I had to wait another week. Really frankly astounding.

Anyways. It was almost time to rip the car apart. But first, shopping! It was pretty impressive, if I say so myself, the level of stereotypical manliness that went into the Saturday morning when I did this. First I climbed into my 80’s sports car and drove to the hardware store, where I bought some connectors and some tools. Then I drove to the autoparts store, where I bought more parts for my sports car. Then I drove home, and started working on my sports car.

Stuff I bought so I could do this install. Buying small amounts of wire is annoying and expensive.

I actually approached the process with a large amount of trepidation. I am very good at taking the car apart, and not so good at putting it back together. Some things I have gotten good at via repetition, such as replacing the thermostat, and one time I did an alternator belt change in the nuke school parking lot while wearing my uniform. Of course, there was that time back in high school that I would up shattering the window and then drove to my girlfriend’s place just so I could cry on her shoulder. True story. But today went pretty well!

The first step (after taking out the battery) was to install the new solenoid in the battery compartment. For that I had to drill some holes in the fiberglass of the battery compartment. I was worried about that both because drilling random holes in the car feels dangerous, especially around electrical stuff, and also didn’t have a drill, which made it harder, lemme tell ya. But I got it installed with the provided bolts, so that worked. Then I had to take off the center console, made significantly simpler by following the instructions in the official DeLorean repair manual I purchased. I could have been smarter about where I put my bolts and screws, but in the end I got them all back in the right spot (pretty sure). The parts on my DeLorean don’t fit the greatest after 40 years of amateur repairs, but the people in the Lowe’s parking lot today thought it looked pristine, so I guess it’s fine.

Tools, phone for listening to podcasts, and repair manual.

The next step was measuring out the wire and then attaching the connection hardware. I repurposed the engine cover as a workbench. Hopefully I didn’t lose any little parts into the engine or anything. This all went perfectly fine which was nice, and then I really just had to attach everything up after running the wires into the right spot. I took the opportunity to clean some dust out so that was good. I didn’t do anything fancy with the wire runs; they just wound up snaking into the battery compartment through the normal battery compartment opening, and are hidden by the interior fabric that just flaps down in that spot. So you can’t see anything unless you dig and I didn’t have to fret about putting more holes in the car.

At this point I did a test by connecting the battery back up, and it worked great! You flip a switch, the solenoid gives a satisfying “thunk,” and then the car can operate or it can’t. Very neat! I disconnected the battery wire again, and managed to get the center console back together, only temporarily putting the gear shifter through the tear in the leather caused by the gear shifter getting pushed through the leather last time the center console was reassembled. I cleaned everything up, put my now very scattered tools away, and the day was complete, with no crying! This is a feat for me!

And now, before and after shots!

Battery compartment before:

Battery compartment after:

Center console before (you already saw it but here it is again):

And center console after:

Ain’t it a beauty????

Postscript:

Okay when I wrote the rest of the above I didn’t actually have my little button cover yet. I just got it today and installed the sucker, and um, well I’m happy with it, but it could be a lot better. So turns out I messed a few things up. First off I had planned on just ramming through a piece of a paperclip as the hinge, figuring the PLA of the print would be easy to melt through. And it was! But what was not easy was getting anything resembling an actual hinge to work, and I quit before I completely melted the thing. I also didn’t actually measure the hole it was supposed to be mounted into, and just measured one of the dummy switches, which was a mistake because turns out the dummy switch is designed the way it is because the hole was smaller than I thought it was, not because they were cheap on plastic, so I wound up having to chop off a chunk of it using a kitchen knife heated up with a grill lighter. This is the detritus of all those efforts:

After all that, turns out I chopped off the bits not quite center (because like, I was using a kitchen knife heated with a grill lighter) and so when I installed it into the center console it didn’t quite fit center, so the actual button itself is no longer flush with the level of the button housing. At this point, I was just happy the button itself went into the button cover rather nicely:

These pictures taken before I had chopped off all the necessary bits; doesn’t it look nice though?!

Overall I am pretty happy with the project. It is functional and it looks pretty nice actually. I mean, clearly it was printed out of PLA and boshed in there, but I think the power symbol on top of the button housing turned out really well. And it mostly sticks on there, despite the lack of hinge. The advantage of 3D printing is of course rapid prototyping, and I have all sorts of ideas of how to make it better, but printing this one cost me $37 because I don’t own my own printer. I am considering changing that. We shall see.

Infrastructure in Zambia

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This is another in my burgeoning genre of “op-eds I tried to publish somewhere else but couldn’t so here you go.” I wrote it in fall of last year when I knew slightly less about African infrastructure development.

For the past two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mbala District, Zambia, teaching fish farming to rural farmers. I also worked on projects in malaria and HIV prevention, nutrition, and women’s empowerment. I was enthusiastic about the work and unlike many PCVs I came back feeling energized about the ability to impact change in developing countries. But I also came back convinced that in a whole career of development work, there is nothing anyone could do in that village that would help them as much as building a paved road would.

My village was a mere 12km from the town of Mbala and connected via a dirt road. The quality of the road changed throughout the year, with the community spending weeks repairing it during the dry season only to have the rainy season carve deep chasms and massive mud pits into it. When rain hadn’t turned the road into a river, it took a 4×4 Land Cruiser about an hour to make the trip. Based on my experiences with that road, I have become an absolute convert to the school of infrastructure development.

I think the biggest long-term impact of building infrastructure will be on education. Newly hired teachers in Zambia are assigned to rural schools which probably don’t have access to electricity or running water. Teachers work as hard as they can to get transferred from these schools as quickly as possible. Building a road to a village followed quickly by power lines means rural schools will be better able to recruit and keep teachers so the kids in a village actually have a shot at education.

Even in schools with the best teachers, the lack of infrastructure massively hampers education. There are basic problems: students in Zambia have a required computer course to graduate secondary school, but at a school without electricity students will never see a computer, let alone get experience on one. Schools in Zambia are also responsible for printing standardized tests. At a school near me, which had only one government teacher and no electricity, printing these tests meant he had to walk 12km to town during the week. After printing them, he then had to walk back, leaving his students without a teacher for the day. With electricity and a printer, this all-day task becomes a 20-minute one.

Better infrastructure leads directly to better health outcomes. One of the major determining factors for the risk of a child dying of malaria in Zambia is the distance between that child and the nearest hospital. Right now, a child sick with malaria faces a walk under the African sun or an impossibly expensive taxi ride. Hiring a taxi to drive to my village over the dirt road cost 150-200 kwatcha. The farmers I knew struggled to earn 60 kwatcha for school fees every year. But in Zambia, paved roads are quickly followed by minibus service provided by plucky entrepreneurs. A minibus service over the same distance on a paved road would probably cost about 10 kwatcha. With paved roads, a sick child can actually get to a hospital when they need one.

Patients living with HIV have to travel to the hospital monthly to receive their medicine. An all-day 24km round trip walk every month can be insurmountable. That paved road and minibus service would save their lives too. Lacking their own transportation, health outreach workers rarely if ever make it to distant villages. A paved road makes it possible for these workers to actually go out and conduct bed net checks, provide training on malaria transmission and sexual health, and help make sure people are sticking to their regimens. Northern Zambia has one of the highest rates of malaria and HIV and both are problems that will never be kept in check until the infrastructure network is in place to make sure change happens.

The existence of basic infrastructure spurs other aid and development. Despite there being a variety of NGOs based in the town of Mbala, none of them operated in my area. They were willing to drive 50km west along the paved Chinese-built Mbala-Nakonde road (pictured up top), where they could access target villages in under an hour from town, but would not drive 12km east over a dirt road to my village. A village with a paved road is suddenly actually connected to the world’s development resources.

Roads extend the rule of law. The police in Zambia are chronically underfunded, and getting them to travel to a rural village often requires covering their expenses. Given the difficulty of getting to a rural village like mine, the police are unlikely to ever come. With a road in place, the police can actually show up. It would be easier for every other aspect of government to show up too: forestry officers can come and fight illegal logging, land surveyors can come and do the inspections necessary for rural farmers to get deeds to their farms, and the list goes on.

The United States has not helped to contribute to Zambian road infrastructure. From 2013-2018, the Millennium Challenge Corporation spent $332 million to help upgrade Lusaka’s water supply, which is necessary infrastructure I support, but nothing advertises America’s good will like a road. I never heard anyone talk about the water supply, but every road I traveled over people knew exactly who built it. Zambia is nearing completion of their Link 8000 project, named for the 8201km of roads constructed under the program. This should have been an ideal project for the US to get involved in; it was initiated by the local government and had clear, tangible goals. The US was invited to participate, but did not join. Zambia turned to China for funding instead, with work done by Chinese contractors. Spending America’s time and money on basic road infrastructure is a fantastic way to show the world how to do it right: at a reasonable cost, with as much skill and technology transfer as possible, to produce a high-quality product. Every kilometer of road America helps pave accrues good will and helps improve people’s lives.

American Samoa Op-Ed

American Samoa

The citizenship status of American Samoans has long bothered me. The status of all the people in the outlaying territories of the United States has bothered me since I was stationed in Guam, but America Samoa seemed particularly egregious. People forget that these places even exist; I knew a guy from Guam that liked to quiz people to get them to name the five territories, and I don’t know if I ever saw anyone get it. With the most recent upswell of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was thinking about American Samoans and how they were screwed by a lack of citizenship, so I decided to write an op-ed about it. After some Googling, turns out the situation was more complex than I thought, but I tried to write an op-ed about it anyways. After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that as a white guy who’s never even been to America Samoa, I wasn’t in a great position to speak to the issues in a way that ensured I was getting them right. I pondered trying to reach out to some American Samoans to see if I had successfully grasped the issues, but then worried I would be just trying to find a random American Samoan only to confirm my own viewpoints. So I decided to not try to get it published in any publication more widely read than my blog that no one reads, but I needed to get it out of my head. This is that attempt at an op-ed: 

As the United States continues to reckon with the racist legacies of its systems, I think an appropriate issue to raise is the citizenship status of American Samoans. Despite being a part of the United States, and under US jurisdiction, the people of American Samoa are not citizens, but are instead “US nationals.” The most straightforward way to say it is that this renders them second-class citizens, but of course they are not citizens at all. Because of their status, American Samoans are unable to hold certain federal jobs, vote in federal elections, or run for elected office. And as a mark of their status, their passports are stamped “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

American Samoan’s status as US nationals is rooted in the Insular Cases – a series of Supreme Court cases decided in 1901, during one of the most aggressive periods of US overseas expansion. During those cases, the Court invented a doctrine that allowed the United States to extend sovereignty over foreign lands, but without necessarily granting the people in those lands rights under the Constitution. The United States wanted the resources, but not the people. They believed that the “primitive” people inhabiting the Pacific islands the United States was claiming as its own were unworthy of full inclusion into the “civilized” society of the mainland, or else that granting them full citizenship could potentially “dilute” the US racial makeup.

The reason, therefore, that American Samoans are not automatically granted US citizenship at birth is rooted in century-old racism. On this topic we have luckily progressed somewhat – unlike in American Samoa, the people in the other US territories, including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands are citizens from birth. They gained this right via acts of Congress, as required by the Insular Cases.

In the 120 years since the US acquired the islands, there have in fact been several attempts to grant the people of American Samoa birthright citizenship. The most recent was last December, when a federal judge in Utah ruled that American Samoans had automatic citizenship under the Constitution, a ruling he immediately stayed pending appeals. However, these attempts have been opposed every single time by an extremely invested actor: the local government of American Samoa itself. The government of American Samoa fears that automatic citizenship would fundamentally threaten their way of life.

The American Samoan way of life, or fa’a Samoa, is rooted in communal land ownership and community networks. The American Samoans fear that, were they to fall under an increased scrutiny by the United States government, this method of communal land ownership would be declared unconstitutional and lead to the destruction of their culture. Based on the experience of other indigenous groups in the United States, I would say they are right to worry.

Here is the central tragedy of American Samoan’s position: their status as US nationals, and the indignities that heaps upon them, is because of outright racism in the burgeoning American Empire over a century ago. However, it is that same status that protects them from another aspect of American racism, the racism that disrespects native culture and indigenous ways of life, and has historically opened up native lands to expropriation and exploitation by colonizers and settlers.

There has to be a better solution than the status quo. American Samoans are able to gain full US citizenship via an abbreviated naturalization process that requires living in a US state or territory other than American Samoa for three months and paying $725 in fees. These requirements can be burdensome, preventing American Samoans that desire it from obtaining citizenship. Congress could instead allow American Samoans to automatically become citizens upon request, without a fee.

A better solution, of course, would be a United States that allowed for automatic citizenship to all the people under its jurisdiction, while managing to respect indigenous peoples and their ways of life. With a political movement dedicated to undoing the consequences of white supremacy against Black and Indigenous people of color, that America might be possible. In the meantime, it would help simply to grant American Samoans an easier path towards claiming the rights they deserve.

The Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum

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Two weekends ago, as you’re reading this, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum. I have a pretty strong affinity with Susan B., because when I was really young my mom had saved for me a Susan B. Anthony dollar, which I could look at if I asked really nice, with mom retrieving it from a box she kept in her room. I had three teddy bears, and they cycled through several sets of names because I kept forgetting them, until I named them “Susan,” “B,” and “Anthony” (Susan looked kinda like a “girl” bear I guess, and then B was dressed in a small t-shirt that had a picture of a pig on it diving into a pool, so B was “cool,” and got the “cool” name of “B,” and Anthony wore a little sweater so he was a nerd and Anthony was a nerd name).

So of all the places in the Berkshires, my aforementioned super amazing girlfriend had never been here because it was only opened about 10 years ago and she had never gotten around to it. That made it a convenient place for the two of us to go to, together. And plus, the centennial of women’s suffrage is coming up on August 26th, so that’s neat. Anyways, what with the pandemic and all, the place had timed tickets, and we arrived at 11:28 am, with the website having sternly warned us to wait in our car until the previous tour group had cleared out and there was sufficient social distance between us and them to be able to enter, at which point staff would come retrieve us. Except when we arrived, we were the only car in the four-car parking lot, and the place looked deserted, so we wandered up. We had the place to ourselves the whole time, which was nice, because it is not a large museum.

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The whole place is about four rooms. It’s pretty well done for what it is, and with the pandemic they (well, the one nice woman working there) handed us a tablet for a self-guided audio tour. You enter in the kitchen, divert into a pantry that holds the history of the house’s restoration and journey towards museum-dom, and then enter into the intensely named “birthing room,” where Susan B. herself and three of her siblings were born. In the kitchen and birthing room, they have some information on her early life and Quaker upbringing, and some excellent examples of needlework, so that is cool. The next room has a store display, and the story about how her dad was selling alcohol for a while, but then after a man died of exposure due to being drunk (someone else sold it to him, not Susan B.’s dad), he forswore it. There is also a cutout of Susan B. Anthony, with which you can take a selfie.

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It is in the fourth and actually final room that you get to the jam-packed story of Susan B. Anthony’s journey in advocacy and the suffrage movement. I had not realized that she was active in both the temperance and anti-slavery movements, and a friend of Frederick Douglass. Good thing I went to the museum!

Besides the displays, this is the room that really assembled a small but significant number of artifacts from the suffrage movement. I was drawn to some of the obvious, hit-you-over-the-head parallels to the current Black Lives Matter movement. Race and racism played a part even in the suffragette movement, as the figurine (on the left in the below, hastily assembled collage) clearly demonstrates. They seem to have had a hand-held laminated sheet to give some insight into the statue, but that was missing due to COVID, so I don’t know exactly what the statue means but I can make some guesses. And when it comes to Black Lives Matter, people are aghast that protests can turn violent, and property damage can ensue. I don’t want to delve into whether it is BLM protesters or right-wing agitators actually breaking windows, but the museum told us that the suffragettes would carry around toffee hammers like the ones below specifically to break windows as a form of protest. The toffee hammers were convenient, because the suffragettes could hide them in their purses, and breaking windows was convenient, because how else do the powerless assert power? For all the vapors people get over broken windows, I gotta say, it worked at least once, you know? The pin is only included because I found it witty.

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One thing I had to keep reminding myself of was that there were actually huge swaths of people out there that were very much against women’s suffrage. That was tough to remember because so many of the anti-suffrage pamphlets focused on the terrible world that awaited if women were given the vote. From the perspective of 2020, I think they read as awesome and amazing. Women hanging out on street corners chatting! Women wearing pants! Women achieving financial independence and having interests outside the home! And below is a terrible vision of a “future inauguration,” with a badass looking woman laying down, I assume, some truths, while other women listen and a sad-looking man in the corner carries around a ribbon on a pillow. I thought to myself “heck yeah” before I realized this was supposed to be bad:

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And with that the Susan B. Anthony birthplace museum was done. I actually managed to buy some lapel pins here, so that was cool. They also had a lovely garden full of Black-Eyes Susans outside, which I always like because heck yeah, Maryland, though it wasn’t until I wrote this blog post that I realized why they wanted Black Eyed Susans, and it wasn’t until I googled it and scrolled way down on this webpage that I figured out it wasn’t a pun on her name and the flowers were from the Anthony family homestead on West Road, apparently. Anyways. A lovely little museum, and remember, wear a mask:

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The Clark Museum

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Two weeks ago, as you’re reading this, my super amazing girlfriend and I were back in the Berkshires! The major upswing for you is that I have included a picture of some cute cows at the top!

But in addition to hanging out with entertaining farm animals, we also decided to get some culture in, and visited The Clark, which is an art museum. For social distancing measures, they had timed tickets, and we decided to get there as early as possible. When we arrived there were some early rains, courtesy of Isaias, leading to a somewhat gloomy-looking scene in their courtyard outside:

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The existence of The Clark made me ponder what is the ideal number of art museums to have. This museum surprised me; I had never ever heard of them, but they had Degas and Stuart and Monet and Renoir and Van Gogh and Rodin! Surely there is a number of art museums that is too high; if there were too many, you could never collect all those artists all in one place. Then again maybe an art museum for every individual person would make more room for newer artists and lesser-known artists instead of just these sorta dudes. It also has to be possible to have too few art museums. The Louvre, I hear, is pretty great, but already you can never get through it all. If all of earth’s art were crammed into one spot, then very few people could get to it, and no one could appreciate it.

When I walk around art museums, I like to take pictures. I think it gives me a sense of ownership over the pictures. I also really enjoy art museum gift shops, because they let you in some way take the art home. This is perhaps not the best way to appreciate art, but it does let me share with you versions of the artworks that are far worse than what you would see in person, by virtue of being taken on my just okay camera with my just okay eye for framing. My favorite was the piece below, titled “Reverie – The Letter:”

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Sometimes this whole “take a picture of the artwork so I can feel like I took a piece of it home” also extends to the physical pieces the wind up in these places, like the below. I have been meaning to check if I could find either of these things to buy and keep in the home, each for very specific reasons. The thing on the left is apparently a nutmeg grinder, and I have very fond memories of grinding fresh nutmeg over painkillers, so you can see why it appealed to me. The thing on the right, on the other hand, is called “sugar nippers,” which is inherently hilarious and you can also see why I would want one.

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I also sometimes take pictures of things in art museums that are only tangentially related to art. I noticed that the museum took great care to make the clamps that were holding pieces of artwork down blended into whatever they were clamping. They really put some effort into this! You can see some of those efforts in the collage below. On the painting, they made sure to do some sorta pointillist thing to make the clamps blend in, and on both of the statues they painted in some marbling which I found impressive. I just thought they were some fantastic little details:

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There is also another theme that is sure to get my attention in art museums, and that is boats! The gift shop had a postcard of the below painting, so I did in fact get to take some of the artwork home, but they didn’t have any lapel pins for sale. The Berkshires has a severe lack of lapel pins, frankly. Someone should get on that.

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The Clark is actually separated into at least two parts, and they had a separate annex where they were exhibiting some work by Lin May Saeed which was very interesting. There was one large piece done out of paper that really spoke to me because I had previously read The Marsh Arabs.

To get to the annex you had to take a ~8 minute walk on some trails outside the museum. We took different paths to get up there and to get back. The walk up took us through the woods which was lovely. The rain had just let up, so they were quiet and peaceful. On the way back we took a different path which took us by a field which apparently sometimes has cows. The fence pictured below is an artwork titled “Teaching a Cow How to Draw” by Analia Saban, a title which to me has strong Cow Tools vibes. But it seemed to me to be a pretty nice fence, and I think it was raw wood, so it would be interesting to see it age into the landscape.

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By the time we had made it down to The Clark proper, the sun was largely out and the museum had started to get more crowded, so people were out and about in the courtyard that had been rather rainy and gloomy just a bit before. It was nice to see the place populated, pandemic-related concerns aside. Places like that only come alive when there are people in them:

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Joe Biden’s Ties

Politicians

Reading this week:

  • Very Important People by Ashley Mears (fantastic)

Joe Biden is a man I am increasingly excited to vote for this fall. He was not my favorite during the primary, mostly because he was an old boring white guy. But his political talent is of course tacking to wherever the party is going, and the party is going left. It wasn’t until he started announcing his policies, however, that I finally came to appreciate the power of an old white guy to make things seem boring. The dude more or less adopted the Green New Deal whole cloth (okay, not quite, but like, mostly), and I don’t think there was much of a reaction! So I am excited to hopefully see the man lead the country into the most progressive era the country has ever seen, and see people mostly shrug it off for being obvious and commonsense (which it is, but I guess we needed an old white guy to tell us that).

That being said, this post is not about Joe Biden’s policies. This post is about Joe Biden’s ties.

Most politicians wear boring ties and boring clothes. Biden isn’t in the picture up top, but that picture does have a whole bunch of other politicians wearing boring things. The women are wearing the most exciting things, but even then the most exciting we get is Tulsi Gabbard with a red jacket over black pants and a black blouse with black shoes. The men all wear blue, and half of them wear a blue tie with it, one an aquamarine (?) tie, then one purple and one red tie. I think this is partially the fault of television, because a CRT television doesn’t mix well with stripes and radical colors can look weird on an improperly tuned screen, but also because politicians are never trying to seem too radical to begin with. So they wear boring clothes.

Joe Biden, for all his aviator glasses flair, is like any other politician and well within the bounds of generally boring dress. Here he is wearing a plain blue tie, for example:

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But then, there I was, reading the New York Times to make John Kerry proud, when I came across this article which featured at the top the below image. I thought to myself, huh, that’s an interesting pattern for a tie, not the normal boring tie you see politicians wear:

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So I opened up the image in a new tab, and I zoomed in. Do you know what I saw???

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That’s right I saw little sheep! Joe Biden was wearing a sheep tie, for no discernible reason except maybe that he liked sheep! This wasn’t a speech at a sheep industry event, this was just Joe Biden giving a normal speech, wearing a sheep tie! I had to know more, so I launched a brief investigation of Joe Biden’s ties (somewhat for my own benefit, but mostly for my super amazing girlfriend, who wants this talked about more).

Turns out, for a politician, Joe Biden has a nice little range of ties. Below, he is showing his patriotism by matching an American flag lapel pin (I hate those; politicians could do so much with their lapel but they all do the same boring thing) with a rep tie with American stripes:

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But in a nod to the importance of diplomacy, and the future work he will do to restore America’s diplomatic ties (get it?) with the world, here we see him with a European-striped tie:

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But he does have some swagger! Below is a tie that I initially interpreted as having the Vice Presidential Seal on it, but now which I think is simply the Great Seal, which, hell yeah, ‘Merica:

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What initially got us on this path was a tie with cute animals on it, and so to cute animals we return. Below is a picture of a serious-looking Joe Biden sporting a tie with a donkey motif on it, which, hey, very on-brand for a Democrat, rock on:

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But let me tell you, I have saved the best for last!!!!! Below is a picture of the person who, for the sake of our country, we desperately hope is the next President of the United States, saying presumably important things in front of both Chinese and American flags, while wearing, for absolutely no reason I can think of, a tie with little turtles on it!

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Please vote this fall, and please vote for every Democrat you can.

Update: not ties, but close.

YPs!

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Inspired by spotting that YP last week, I thought I would spend some time writing about them this week. YPs (technically short for “Yard Patrol,” Wikipedia, US Navy) are 110 foot long boats that are more or less designed to be a standard boat. Their purpose in life is for midshipmen to practice driving ships without having to like, go through all the time and expense of driving a destroyer around. Plus they’re smaller, so they fit in the Severn River a lot more nicely. They have two propellers and two diesel engines and a bridge and lookout stands and you can take ’em out and practice driving them around.

Every midshipman has some interaction with YPs. If you ask me, they should put a lot more effort into training midshipmen into surface warfare officers (SWOs), but nobody asks me. But you do things like seamanship classes and the like, and the practice evolutions for these classes are going out on YPs and driving them around. Some midshipmen interact with them even more and go on summer cruises on them for training. And then some midshipmen, some midshipmen are on the YP squadron.

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Some YPs from above.

For my first three years at the Naval Academy, I had less interaction than most with Yard Patrol craft. I was on the sailing team, you see, and we had a particular disdain for YPs. Why motor around on a YP, practicing going in straight lines and then turning on command, when you can sail around on the sleek, clean lines of a sailboat? But then halfway through my 2/C (junior) year, I decided to quit the sailing team when they wouldn’t give me a slot on a donated boat. Everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport, and for that spring semester I was on my company’s intramural basketball team.

Senior year, however, I had come to miss my days on the water with the sailing team, and chose instead for my sport to do… YPs. I joined the YP Squadron, mentioned above. So this is wild. Like I just said, everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport. Everyone. But one of the “sports” you can choose is to join the YP Squadron. What is wild is that it counts as a sport. What the YP squadron does is go out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and drive YPs. This mostly involves different people standing around in different, discreet spots, and maybe moving their hands or something and then saying things to each other. Absolutely wild that is a sport, but that is the sport I chose so I could get out on the water again.

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Looking into the bridge from the starboard bridgewing.

The Naval Academy, as far as I could tell from my time there, does not have a chess team. It was my opinion that all the people that would have joined the chess team instead joined the YP squadron. You had to be a special kind of nerd to do this. What you practice on the YP squadron is standard commands and docking and undocking boats and then like, navigation. All of which I love, but YP squadron is your sport, so you had to love it more than like, playing dodgeball. Rare breed at the Naval Academy indeed, despite what you’d think. The YP squadron actually gets a fair number of Plebes to sign up every year, because over Plebe Summer the squadron gives them a talk about how amazing and awesome it is and Plebes sign up, not knowing better.

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Down in the galley, with our zoomie on the left.

The squadron itself is in a lot of ways pretty bonkers. If you’re an officer at the Naval Academy, and you just love SWO stuff, you try to help out with the YP squadron. The squadron also attracted the exchange officers. The British guys were always a special kind of crazy because they have a longer naval tradition, and their deck officers are just deck officers; they don’t tend to do engineering stuff too like American officers. So they are fanatical about navigation and try to instill this fanaticism on the YP squadron members. I don’t know if it worked but it was fun to watch. When I was there, the squadron also managed to attract an exchange cadet from the Air Force Academy. I guess he just wanted the full experience. If I didn’t care much about what we did, the zoomie really didn’t. Plus one time we toured a destroyer and he kept calling it a “boat,” much to the annoyance of the officer showing us around, and that was funny.

I actually had a great time on the YP squadron. I was a 1/C (senior) at the time, so no one really like, tried to tell me what to do. And you got to be on the water twice a week, which was fun. And no one got too mad if I just missed it (I actually had a chemistry lab scheduled concurrently, but it usually ended early). I actually did love navigation, and was pretty good at it, so I spent most every afternoon with the YP squadron taking one of the hapless plebes and teaching them navigation, which was relatively undemanding and pretty rewarding. I hope there are navigators out there who might not remember but at least picked up a practical tip or two before their navigation class. Plus it was nice just being out on the water.

Where other sports go to competitions or whatever, the YP squadron went on MOs (Movement Orders). That is, we would just drive the boats somewhere. This was usually pretty neat, because navigating the boats around was fun, and you got some good parking spots. When we went to Norfolk we parked right next to the Wisconsin, and when we went to Baltimore we parked right in front of the aquarium. The squadron also went to the Army-Navy game in Philly, which compared to the bus is a pretty luxurious way to travel. Then we parked next to the Olympia.

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Dad at the helm.

The trip to the Army-Navy game was especially fun because on the way back I got to bring dad. Turns out dear ole’ dad was actually commodore of the YP squadron back when he was a Mid, cementing him as an absolute bonkers NERD. But he had YP experience, and I asked nice, and he got to come with us on the way back down. I told him to not miss our underway time, and he was diligently waiting in the mess decks on the ship before the sun came up and before anyone was even awake. He spent some time at the helm while I was driving (standing officer of the deck), so I was ordering him around and that was fun. He tried to be chill about it all but he had a grand time, even digging up and busting out his old deck jacket from when he was driving destroyers around.

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Imagine like, a bald eagle screeching too, please.

All in all my time on the squadron was absolutely great. For a professional writing/communications class my senior year, I even made a poster that was meant to promote the YP squadron, depicting some Mid on a lookout post looking patriotic (pictured above). I was hesitant to go to the YP Squadron annual dinner, feeling a bit like an interloper, but due to all the Plebes being underage and the organizers accidentally ordering too much toasting port, we had a great time talking YPs long into the (Tuesday) night. So I stand by my opinion that the YP squadron are all nerds, but for a bit… they were my nerds.

Mystic Seaport Museum

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Last weekend my absolutely amazing girlfriend and I went to the Mystic Seaport Museum, which was awesome. It was her idea; her family used to go to Mystic on vacation when she was a kid and so had some nostalgia for the area, and she also knows I like boats. I have been to Mystic a few times, but never actually made it into the museum, despite the aforementioned deep love of boats. So on a particularly hot Saturday in July we packed up the DeLorean and head up to Mystic to check it out.

It was a great day to go to the seaport. We got there right when it opened at 10, and initially had some confusion about the ticket counter (well, I had some confusion), though after a security guard cleared it up for us we were right in. They were handing out a free book that day with admission, Through Hand and Eye by a guy named Ted Hood, who I had never heard of but is a sailor dude and apparently important (or self-important) enough to get an autobiography published of himself that normally costs $50. And more importantly, they were renting out sailboats FOR FREE!!!!

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I was very excited for this because I very rarely get to sail and I do love it so. I guess on a normal day you can pay money to rent one of their sailboats, but given that large chunks of the museum were closed due to coronavirus, they were letting people just take boats out as a bit of compensation I guess. Since it was free, and first come first serve, I was anxious about getting there in time to be able to take a boat out. So I speed walked us right over there and arrived before the boathouse even opened up. I loitered nervously and made sure to get even closer when another couple arrived, though I shouldn’t have worried because they wanted a rowboat.

I was excited to take my girlfriend sailing because she had “maybe once, though I can’t remember for sure” gone sailing before. And I mean I talk endlessly about it. I even wrote an essay for a magazine about sailing mostly to impress her. So I was excited to take her sailing and show her both the literal ropes and the metaphorical ropes, and teach her all sorts of great vocabulary like “port” and “sheet.” To be able to take the sailboat out, you had to pass a rigorous knowledge test, which consisted of the person asking “do you have small boat sailing experience?” to which I cunningly answered “yes,” though I had specifically worn my 2009 Marion-Bermuda race hat to show off my sailing credentials.

So with a shove from the dockhand we were off! We were sailing in the river there and it was a lot of fun. The breeze was light but constant and there was plenty of room and not much traffic and we got to go around for like 40 minutes before I started to feel guilty and pulled us in with a slightly too aggressive docking maneuver (we made it anyways). I had her take the tiller for a bit and she did amazing, absolutely fantastic, because she is both absolutely amazing and absolutely fantastic. It was a great time.

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The YP (Yard Patrol) craft!

Then we were off to see the rest of the museum. One of the more exciting bits was discovering that the Joseph Conrad (pictured up top) was owned by Alan Villiers. I own a number of his books so it was really cool to walk around his boat. That era of ships is also pretty astounding to me, because of how it spans different eras. The Joseph Conrad is a square-rigged sailing ship, but has an iron hull, you know? Villiers was of an era where you could both work on sail-powered cargo ships and then later also see the moon landing.

As we walked over into the shipyard area, I was also absolutely delighted to discover they had a YP! I almost didn’t recognize it at first because I walked up to it at a weird angle, and it was painted a super weird blue instead of it’s usual inspiring grey. I guess this one is owned by the Merchant Marine Academy, and was at the seaport because they’re experienced with working on wooden hulls. But my long and lasting experience with YPs (which I think I’ll detail next week) meant she couldn’t hide from me for long.

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Walking around the rest of the museum was also very nice. It’s not a single building, but actually a small village-looking thing. Although like I mentioned, much of it was closed, there was still plenty to look at. There was a scale model of the river from 1870 or so, and an old US Life-Saving Service hut, and various buildings full of boats. In the above picture, I convinced my super amazing girlfriend to stand next to a triple-expansion steam engine, because I find steam engines very sexy. I am comfortable posting the above picture because she has a mask and that will provide her some deniability of my obsession with steam engines. Actually going through my camera roll I managed to take pictures of a whole host of engines that day:

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So yeah. It was a great day at the Seaport Museum. We saw all sorts of ships and saw all sorts of nautical stuff and even got to go sailing!!! We managed to have lunch at a seafood shack not too far away, and after we were hot and tired from walking around and getting excited about nautical stuff we went to downtown Mystic and had some ice cream. After all that, the only other picture I wanted to post for you guys was the one below of the two little sailboats (one of these we had taken out earlier) because I thought they looked like they were racing. Maybe they were just going about the same direction at about the same time, but it my heart you can’t have two sailboats doing that and not believe they are racing:

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Battle of Lake Tanganyika

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I’ve mentioned it before (briefly), but the Battle for Lake Tanganyika is probably one of the wildest naval expeditions to have ever happened.  During WWI, the Germans had set themselves up for naval dominance of Lake Tang, causing the British to launch an overland expedition to bring two tiny gun boats to the lake to try to even out the naval odds. It’s one of those tiny little episodes of history that are both nearly forgotten but also have a legend all their own (The African Queen is loosely based on it!). This post isn’t really about the battle, because I could hardly do it justice, there is so much crazy stuff that happened. For a long time I thought there wasn’t much to read about it, but I guess I finally googled it or something and came across Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden. Despite the name, it’s a book for like, adults, and is a colorful if straight history of the whole expedition (for a fictionalized account, A Matter of Time by Alex Capus is good if not entirely accurate).

Digging into the book, I was excited to discover that he had cited an article published in the October 1922 issue of National Geographic, which contained a whole series of photographs by the expedition’s historian, Frank Magee. With the power of the internet, I was able to buy the nearly century-old issue (which contained the “Special Map Supplement” of Africa), and it arrived on my doorstep mere days later.

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The point of this blog post was really to show you some of the pictures from the issue. There are like 30 of them. Unfortunately, the nature of my scanner is that I couldn’t really get good scans of the majority of pictures, though fortunately some were placed nearer to the margins and that is what you get to see here. These top two are nice because they actually show some of the ships involved in the battle, with the Mimi, one of the two gunboats, featured in the one up top. There are other, even wilder pics, including one of the gunboats being hauled up a hill by a whole team of oxen. If I can figure out a better way to get the pics scanned in, maybe I can give ’em a post.

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The bottom pic is at Lake Bangweulu.

The one point I wanted to make though is that in telling the story of the battle, the people that get lost in the tellings is the thousands and thousands of native Africans that were affected by it. I’ve written about the effect of WWI on the people of Africa before, and the short story is that it doesn’t go well. Fortunately, the Lake Tanganyika expedition doesn’t appear to have resulted in thousands of tenga-tenga dying or anything like that, but certainly the expedition couldn’t have happened without their support, as the pictures above illustrate. Giles Foden’s book actually touches on the lives of the people affected by the battle, and he goes to some lengths to find oral history about the battle from the people still living at the lake.

But when Foden tells his story, he has to rely on the primary sources, such as Magee’s article, and in those sources the story of these people is lacking. I’m not actually that familiar with 1920s era literature on Africa, so I can’t judge Magee against the standards of the time. I would judge him in a lot of ways sympathetic to the people, like when he tells the story of how at one point the expedition relied on “native women from local villages” carrying water in gourds and jars from eight miles away in order to fill the water tanks of the steam-powered tractors they were using the haul the boats. He notes that since water carrying is “domestic work,” the men refused to help, and expresses some disgust.

But way more often than he ponders the gender balance of work, he is concerned about all the cannibals he believes himself to be surrounded by. Graves of German sailors killed in the battle are guarded against natives “addicted” to cannibalism. On noting one particularly decked out chief, he notes “the origin of the spats and pink sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals.” But most of all the native population just aren’t characters in the story; the only Africa native that is mentioned by name in the whole article is a pet chimpanzee the expedition dubbed Josephine.

Then again who am I to judge? If you go back and read my blog articles from my time in the Peace Corps you won’t find a whole lot of names. A chunk of that is privacy, but a lot of that is just that, like the people on the Lake Tanganyika expedition, the people I met were more or less the background to my own adventures. In the link above (here it is again) where I mention the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, I was myself travelling to the lake to find a ship (the remains of one anyways). The people in that story don’t have names (even the ones that helped me along the way), and in that telling I treated them more has a hindrance to one white guy trying to find the material legacy of other white guys on their turf. I still have some lessons to learn.

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This photo is from the Nile river, not Lake Tanganyika, but I like dhows.