Friday, March 18, 2011


I could tell you a lot of nasty thing about General James Wilkerson (above), but in the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, let me begin by offering some known positives. His public manners were “accommodating and popular” -  in short he was a politician and ambitious. He was also brilliant. At twenty he was the youngest general in the American Continental Army. He was plump and ruddy faced and usually had a drink close at hand. And he knew how to dress well. He “made a showy appearance, wearing medals and gold buttons on his braided uniform.” And this was at a time when general officers in the Army usually designed their own accoutrement's. “Even in the backwoods, he rode around in gold stirrups and spurs while seated on a leopard skin saddle cloth.” He also fathered six children with two wives, and one of his distant ancestors tried valiantly to defend his reputation. It did not work.
George Washington did not trust James Wilkerson, nor did John Adams or James Madison. General Andrew Jackson called him a “double traitor.” John Randolph, Virginian politician supreme, described him as “…to the very core a villain!” One of his business partners published a book entitled, “Proofs of the corruption of General Wilkerson.” And that was just for the offenses people knew about. What the public suspected but could not prove until the 1850's was that the Spanish gave General James Wilkerson the title of “Agent 13”, and paid him $12,000 and several thousand acres of land to encourage Kentucky to separate from the United States, and he came close to pulling it off. Twice he was forced to resign from the Army. He betrayed every commanding officer he ever served, including Benedict Arnold. That is quite an accomplishment, to have betrayed the most famous traitor in American history. He also betrayed Generals Horatio Gates and George Washington. 
In fact the infamous Aaron Burr conspiracy was invented at least in part by James Wilkerson. And when President Jefferson (above) had Burr arrested for treason, Wilkerson became his chief witness against Burr. But the same Grand Jury that indicted Burr missed indicting Wilkerson by just two votes. And I've always felt that the primary reason Burr was not convicted of treason is that the jury disliked Burr less than they mistrusted Wilkerson.
General James Wilkerson was court martial-ed three times and investigated by Congress four times, and every time he came out smelling like a very well fertilized rose. The reason was simple - like J. Edgar Hoover, Wilkerson knew where all the bodies were buried, occasionally literally. He won the unquestioned backing of President Jefferson after he betrayed Burr, making Jefferson just about Wilkerson's only superior he did not betray. I'm sure it was just an accident. Among those who knew him only by his record, Fredrick Jackson Turner, the historian who closed the book on the American frontier, called Wilkerson “the most consummate artist in treason the nation ever possessed.” Teddy Roosevelt called him “the most disgraceful” commander the U.S. Army ever had. Wilkerson was, according to historian Robert Leckie “a general who never won a battle and never lost a court-martial” He was suspected of several murders, assorted frauds and constant graft.
He even warned the Spanish about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was only blind luck that prevented their murders by the Spanish agents sent after them. It was also Wilkerson who was responsible for the U.S. Army's worst peace time disaster. As top general in the American Army he had been dispatched to New Orleans in early 1809, when it looked like war with Britain might break out at any moment. Wilkerson paid more attention to his own land deals than he did to his troops. By April over one quarter of his army, 500 men, were on sick call. Things got so bad that the Secretary of War, penny pincher William Eustis, suggested that the General move his troop to healthier ground north of the city, even as far as Natchez . 
Instead, Wilkerson moved them down river, into the swamps – to a spot called Terre aux Boeufs. His reason was that he got a kickback from the $630 paid to the land owner for three months rent on the new campground.
The move was completed on June 9, 1809, just in time for the height of summer. First came the afternoon rains, which matched well with a level of humidity capable of inducing bread growth under the soldiers' armpits. And then came the lousy camp sanitation, because the officers were already learning from their commander. The food supplied to the troops was spoiled, the mosquitoes experienced a population explosion, the water supply was polluted, and the few medicines available were limited by orders from the Secretary of War to no more than $50 for the entire 2,000 man force for the entire year. And, as a topper, the War Department denied any expenditure for fresh fruit for the troops; too expensive. In January of 1810, after the Secretary specifically ordered the troops back to New Orleans, there were barely 1,000 men fit for duty, with 166 desertions and the rest dead. Of the officers, forty of them had either resigned or died. Lt. Winfield Scott, who would one day command the army himself, suffered through this debacle and publicly described Wilkerson as “a traitor, liar, and a scoundrel.” Wilkerson had him court martial-ed and sentenced to loss of pay and rank for one year. The net effect was to convince everybody that Scott was at least an honest man. It was an accusation never made against General Wilkerson.
The debacle of Terre aux Boeufs forced Wilkerson to resign from the army, but the War of 1812 got him reinstated, not as over all commander this time but at least as a general in command of 12, 000 men. This force was supposed to conquer Montreal...maybe. The new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, could never make up his mind what the objective of the campaign was supposed to be. And until the last moment, he was going to lead it himself, since he did not trust Wilkerson, and since the next in the line of command, General Wade Hampton, refused to work under Wilkerson. Hampton was thus dispatched to command troops on Lake Champlain. 
From day one things did not look promising for the campaign, and then at the last second Secretary Armstrong decided too dump everything into Wilkerson's lap, and head back to Washington. That left the biggest thief in uniform running the campaign, with predictable results. When Hampton got word that Wilkerson was now in command, and as threatened, he resigned.
As was to be expected, Wilkerson's army was poorly fed, and poorly supplied. They had no uniforms or training. Wilkerson led his dispirited troops up the St. Lawrence until they reached a narrowing of the river at a place called Crysler's Farm. Here the Canadians had established an outpost, and Wilkerson called a council of war to decide what to do next. His subordinates were unanimous in wanting to attack. But the next morning, faced with a cold rain and an impending battle, General Wilkerson came down sick, and the actual command fell to a General Boyd. It was 12,000 cold, hungry and disorganized Americans attacking a few thousand Canadian militia. The Canadians beat the pants off the Americans.
In the confused melee,  the Americans maneuvered and the Canadians attacked. The result was 31 Canadian dead, 148 wounded and 13 missing, while General Wilkerson admitted 102 killed, 237 wounded , but he never gave a total for the missing. In fact the Canadians reported the battlefield covered with American dead and captured 120 Americans. The Battle of Crysler's Farm is referred to north of the border as The Battle That Saved Canada.
Wilkerson retreated downstream into winter quarters. As spring of 1814 approached, General Wilkerson got word that the disaster was being blamed on him and he decided to save his reputation by taking a cheap shot at 80 British soldiers at an outpost on the Lacolle River. 
Wilkerson's attack fell on the Canadians on March 30h. He had 4,000 men and artillery. The Canadians had a few Congreve rockets. Once again the Americans maneuvered and the Canadians attacked The Canadians lost 11 killed, the Americans 13. Throughout the engagement, General Wilkerson rode about in full view of the enemy as if he wanted to get shot. But even in that, he failed. By evening the Canadians still held their positions and the Americans retreated. The score was now Canadians two and General Wilkerson nothing. Eleven days later General Wilkerson was relieved from command.
Afterward came the court-martial and the acquittal. And although it would be unfair to pile all of the blame for the debacle of the 1813 Canadian campaign on James Wilkerson, he did not help the situation one little bit. Two years later James Wilkerson published his memoirs, entitled “Memoirs of My Own Times.” It was not a best seller. Ever the schemer, in 1821 he went Mexico City, seeking a land grant in the disputed territory of Texas. And that was where he died, and where he was buried.
But let the last words be James Wilkerson's own. In the first decade of the 19th century, he wrote to the Spanish Governor of New Orleans. He was seeking a job as a secret agent for the Spanish government.  This was his job application as a traitor. “Born and educated in America," he wrote,"I embraced its cause in the last revolution, and remained throughout faithful to its interest, until its triumph over its enemies: This occurrence has now rendered my services useless, discharged me of my pledge, dissolved my obligations, even those of nature, and left me at liberty, after having fought for her happiness, to seek my own; circumstances and the policies of the United States having made it impossible for me to obtain this desired end under its Government, I am resolved to seek it in Spain.”
That ought to have been carved on his tombstone.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I think it profound that all telescopes involve mirrors. In 1846 this concept was stumbled upon by the obsessive-compulsive painter Alvan G. Clark. He realized there was more money to be made in making lenses for telescopes for rich benefactors than in just making portraits of rich people. And since both involved selling positive self images to wealthy clients, Alvan dropped his brush and took up the polishing rag. It was said of this self taught optician that while polishing his lenses, he could feel imperfections in the glass through his thumb. For over a half a century Alvin and his sons ground magnificent telescopes for rich clients who saw funding observatories as grand monuments to their own intellectual beneficence. Five times Alvin Clark and Sons produced lenses for the largest refraction telescopes in the world. But it is another sad truth that making optical telescopes is an ephemeral art form, since glass is not really a solid but a very, very slowly flowing liquid. So over time all lenses tell lies, even a Clark
One of Alvan Clark's most enthusiastic customers was Percival Lowell, whose mommy gave him a 2 1/4 inch Clark on his fifteenth birthday. Astronomy was the kind of hobby mother and son could share atop their Brookline mansion without engendering whispers from the neighbors. Although he had always had a love of mathematics, at his father's urging, Percival went into business in Japan (above - the tall looking one without the hat). But he always returned to his first love; astronomy. And as  the end of the 19th century approached, Percy was attracted by the approach of Mars.
The more people looked at the red planet, the more it looked like earth. Kepler was the first to realize that Mars was a neighbor of ours. But it was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who first drew detailed maps of the surface. Then in September of 1877, as the orbits of Earth and Mars converged, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a new telescope and drew even more detailed maps. He saw what looked like mountain ranges and plains and long mysterious grooves which criss-crossed the planet, which he described in Italian as “canalii”. It is sad to point out here, that although Percival Lowell spoke fluent Japanese, he did not speak Italian.
In 1896, Percival retired from the business world and built his own world class observatory in the mountains, 7,180 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, atop a peak he named Mars Hill. Here, for $20,000 (half a million today) Percival installed a 24 inch Clark refracting telescope. Every summer night for the next 23 years, Percival Lowell (above) sat at the bottom of his telescope, observing Mars. During the days he slept in the 24 room mansion he also built on Mars Hill. Being born rich has its advantages, and Percival would have been a fool if he had not taken advantage of his advantages.
And what he saw through the eyepiece of his expensive magical tube was amazing. He saw canals - real canals - more than 180 of them, some of them 4,000 miles long. And he wondered what sort of creatures had constructed such a massive, intricate water system. “Quite possibly, “ he wrote, “such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed...Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.”
Percival wrote three books, “Mars”, “Mars and its Canals”, and “Mars as the Abode of :Life”. Each and every book became a best seller. He inspired H.G. Wells to write “War of the Worlds”, as well as inspiring Edgar Rice Burrows, who besides “Tarzan” wrote 13 adventure books centering on Mars. By the year his third book was published, in 1907, Percival Lowell was the recognized world expert on the planet Mars. And then, almost over night, Percival's magical red world was deflated by his doppelganger, George Hale.
George Hale also came from a rich Boston family. But where Percival's father had insisted he attend business school, George's father had sent him to MIT to become a professional astronomer. And in 1908 George opened the lens cap on his new 60” reflector telescope in his new observatory atop California's 5,700 foot high Mount Wilson. And almost the first thing George peered at was Mars, where he found...no canals. Not a one. No matter how hard he looked. It is alleged that George saw an elf in his bedroom, but he saw no canals on Mars.
The photographic proof was conclusive. What Percival had seen as canals proved, when seen through a bigger newer telescope, to be just an optical illusion, or maybe the blood vessels in the back of Percival's own eye. Percival had a nervous breakdown. And when he recovered he sought to re-establish his reputation. He took up the search for the the last great mystery in the night sky, the powerful conundrum of Planet X.
According to Percival's own mathematics, there was something very odd about the planets Neptune and Uranus. They were too big, their orbits were odd, Neptune was spinning on its side and they both wobbled. It looked to Percival as as if there had to be another planet further out from the sun, tugging at Uranus and Neptune. He called his suspect Planet X. Percival had even calculated Planet X's mass, and he knew exactly where it had to be in the sky, 40 times further out from the sun than the earth.
For ten years Percival and his assistants – okay, mostly his assistants – scoured photographs of the night sky, searching for the tell-tale movement in the star field that would herald the discovery of Planet X. Twice the camera on Percival's 12” Clark took pictures of the moving X. But the humans who had to examine each one of the thousands of photographs, failed to notice the one dot that had moved slightly. And then, in 1916, at the age of sixty-one, Percival Lowell suffered a stroke and died. He was buried next to his beloved 12” Clark. But thanks to Percival's fortune, the search for Planet X continued.
In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X. And since he was being paid by Percival's endowment, and still using Percival's 12” Clark, Planet X was named using Percival Lowell's initials – PLuto. And isn't it amazing that Planet X became the official IX planet in the solar system? You don't often get to use Roman Numerals in a joke.
Ah, but things were about to get even more amazing. With the refinement of observations of the outer planets a number of new great mysteries appeared in the night sky, as they always do. The more you know the less you know, you know.
The first thing astronomers realized they did not know was why  two of those three cold blobs of rock and ice circling far out from the Sun– Neptune and Uranus - were so darn massive, too massive to have been formed so far out at the edge of the spinning disc that eventually became the solar system. In 2005 the mystery was solved (we think) at the University of Nice, France. Neptune and Uranus, said the French astronomers, had actually formed in the inner solar system, and out of rock, like the Earth, Venus and Mars.
Four billion years ago the newly formed gas giants Jupiter and Saturn had turned the inner solar system into pool table on the break -  with the still molten planets and asteroids slamming and careening into and off of each other. This gravitational pin ball game had pulled the moon into a collision with the Earth, and allowed its capture. It had ground up the rocks trying to form a planet into the asteroid belt. And it had flung Uranus and Neptune out of their formation orbits and into their current orbits, leaving behind a lot of oddities as they swerved out into the edge of our solar system.
And that left Pluto. The more people looked at the guardian of the outer realms the odder it looked. Better telescopes, including one in earth orbit, showed it to have less than two tenths of 1% of the mass of the Earth, and to be only about half the size of our moon. That was too small to have perturbed the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. In fact it was even too small to be classified as a planet.
On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union struck Pluto from the list of planets and gave it the new title of "134340 Pluto, dwarf planet".  It seems that for all of Percival Lowell's careful calculations, and for all of Clyde Tombaugh's perseverance, and for all the power of Alvan Clark's thumb, finding Planet X right where it was supposed to be was...just a coincidence. It was the human mind which mistook blind luck for a deep cosmological insight, just as the swelling in the blood vessels behind Percival Lowell's eye had built the canals of Mars.
It makes me wonder how we can ever really be certain we are certain of anything. And it seems that no matter how big our telescopes become, we will always looking into a mirror.
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Sunday, March 13, 2011


I believe that this year's recipient of the most un-coveted Ideas of March Political Award is indeed Caesar-like, in that just as Julius was warned about his arrogance, so a prophet foretold our winner that of his character flaw could doom his ambition. In this case the prophet warned that if the voters followed our winner, they should "hold onto their hats". The voters ignored that cryptic admonition and our winner was elected with 52% of the vote, just 2% less than polling by an independent company, Public Policy Polling, had predicted. On January 3, 2011 our winner took his oath of office, and by his behavior, a short 45 days later, he had reversed those election results.
According to a PPP survey, released on February 23, 52% of voters would now vote for the other guy, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who was also our prophet. The key to this shift was surprising. In the words of Tom Jensen, director of PPP, "Only 3% of the Republicans we surveyed said they voted for Barrett last fall, but now 10% say they would, if they could do it over again."  What can you say about a Republican who is so not a RINO that he is driving voters to the Democrats? You can say that he is the winner of the 2011 Ides of March Award!  Our winner was described by the Boston Globe as "...a boyish-looking man with sleepy eyes". He is a politician who has managed after just a month and a-half , to convert his administration into a real life re-enactment of "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree". He is a preacher's son who is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, who is showing an arsonists attraction to the fires of hell, an ideologue intent upon steering his party's bus over an ideological cliff, Wisconsin's Pooh-vernator, Scott Kevin Walker.
In a January 31 memo the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, a non-partisan state budget office, determined that Wisconsin would end the year with a $121.4 million surplus. The very next day, on February 1st. Governor Walker signed into law a $140 million tax cut give-away to corporations and wealthy individuals, which presaged the $137 million deficit, which he now claims can be blamed on the state's working stiffs. That claim, and the governor's choice of brinkmanship as his preferred governing style, has led Pooh-vernor Walker to his own brink, and revealed, like Pooh, a tear in his stitching. As Ezra Klein observed in the Washington Post, "The problem with trying to game out Gov. Scott Walker's negotiating style is that the guy doesn't seem like much of a negotiator. Another politician would've taken the concrete concessions on pensions and health-care benefits...and thrown himself a parade. But not Walker. Instead, he's rejected every compromise that's been offered -- and his allies are starting to notice. The State Journal, a paper that endorsed Walker, has advised him to take a deal. David Brooks (conservative voice on the NYTimes) has criticized him for an "unbalanced" approach to cuts. Andrew Sullivan (the Daily Dish and the Atlantic), whose initial position was sympathy for Walker, has turned....A few days ago, the question was: How long can the Democrats hold out? Increasingly, it's how long Walker can hold out."
Worse yet for Pooh, it is quickly becoming evident that Winnie the Governor has stumbled over the limit of public support for his "my way or the highway" style. The Pew Research Center found that 42% of Americans nationwide sided with the unions over the Pooh-vernor (31%). A CBS/NYTimes and a USA Today/Gallup poll both found 60% opposed to taking away collective bargaining rights for public employee unions, while just 33% favor it. And worse, for the Pooh - man, even the Republican Rasmussen Poll found that 52% of voters are opposed to limiting workers' rights to organize, while just 38% were in favor of it. - and specific to the current fight, 56% supported the workers, against 41% who supported the Pooh-vernor.
Rasmussen shamelessly insisted "Collectively the data suggest a fluid situation." Which means, I guess, that Governor Pooh is sinking. As poor Pooh observed when they pulled his bottom out of the Honey Tree, "You can never tell with bees!" Actually, you can, if you just ask anybody besides your base.
Wisconsin Majority Leader Senator Scott Fitzgerald was making noises as if he were having second thoughts about his fearless Pooh-leader's stand atop the barricades, but followed that up by pushing a vote to arrest the wayward Democrats who had fled the state to deny the Pooh his quorum. And just when it looked like this absurdity would be the place where reality could intervene, he followed it with a naked power grab by removing all pretense of an economic motive, and simply stripped the workers of all rights..
But he could not arrest the Democrats. Article IV section 15 of the Wisconsin state constitution, makes the members of the legislature "privileged from arrest". And a non-partisan court would tell Pooh that. In fact, when the Democrats fled the state they were following a valid and time honored practice used by both parties since the founding of the Republic. Even Abraham Lincoln once jumped out a window to avoid giving a majority party a quorum.
The very concept of a quorum was created to prevent a super majority from drowning out the voice of a substantial minority. It is a restriction designed by the founding fathers to force a governor to govern , not dictate. It is one of those nasty bits of reality this new generation of American pseudo-politicians seem not to have been taught in their right wing madrases, such as the high school aged Pooh's American Legion's Badger Boy's State Program, which paid for his trip to the Boy's Nation in Washington, D.C.
But just like Caesar, Pooh seems intent upon ignoring warnings and committing political suicide. At a refueling stop-over in one of Wisconsin's small towns, The Pooh was asked what school systems in the approximately 60 mid sized cities in the state were to do if the jobs blizzard promised by his tax cuts did not materialize. Pooh responded that they could demand even more from the unions. In other works, if the state gets stung following Pooh's economic plan, the problem is with the worker bees, not with Pooh's plan; never with Pooh's plan. As O. Ricardo Pimentel wrote in the conservative Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Scorched-earth warriors...don't win until everything is toast." And a professor of political science described the tactics as "...a high-stakes game of political chicken."
By early March even that right wing source-aqua, the vaunted Wall Street Journal, seemed to have taken notice of the ant farm the Pooh-man had laid all their beds upon. WSJ columnist Stephen Moore wrote, "It's foolish to believe that backing down will satisfy the unions. If history is any guide, more than 90 percent of union money will be used to defeat Republicans no matter what happens."  And every day Pooh refuses to let go of the honey pot of union busting, that 90% gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Gosh, who would have thought that could happen, other than all those Democrats who have been warning the Republicans they were toying with disaster. So what happens now to the Republican wave that was sweeping America, as the Pooh-vernor's legacy subsides into a generation of vicious recall elections, smashed political relationships, betrayed trusts and bitter anger? As was carved in Sir Christopher Wren's gravestone, "Si moumentum requiris, circumspice.", translated as "If you seek his monument, look around you." Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Scott Kevin.Walker, the closest thing to Julius Caesar this year.
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