Everybody knows that!

This is sort of a followup to the last post about the unreliability of eyewitnesses.

Closely related to the unreliable eyewitness account is the long held,unexamined belief. Now, don’t get excited;  I don’t mean religious beliefs.  I mean a factoid that becomes something everyone knows, but really doesn’t make much sense. As part of the book I’m working on The Secrets behind the Structures, I was writing about the Hindu temple at Brihadeeswarar. This temple has a tapering tower over 200 feet high topped by a large stone structure. Supposedly the structure was designed in such a way that the shadow from this tower never touches the ground and falls only on itself. This story has been widely accepted in the area and is taken as a fact by people who write about the temple. One quick check at the satellite view of Google maps however, easily disproves this claim. Even without this proof however it is hard to picture just how a structure could be built in such a way as to cast no shadow except on itself. If you could envision a very short and very wide pyramid with a short tower in the center only a few feet high, such a structure might possibly fill the bill, since the short shadow cast by the tower would fall only on the rest of the structure. The tower at Brihadeeswarer, however, is over 200 feet high and mounted on a base which is proportional, so clearly it does not fill the bill.

Brihadeeswara
One variation of this belief is the claim that the stone at the top of the tower only casts a shadow outside the limits of the enclosure. While this might be possible under some configurations, the limits of the enclosure are about 200 feet or more in every direction so this would seem unlikely as well.

800px-Brihadeeswara_temple

Whatever the reason, the Big Temple would seem to have enough remarkable features without inventing any more. For one thing, it is made entirely of granite, a notoriously hard and difficult to work stone, including the intricate sculptures. In addition, no one is quite sure just how the 80 ton capstone was placed on top of the tower. There are more fascinating facts in The Secrets behind the Structures, but for now, let’s just say that the Big Temple, with its World Heritage Site status casts a very big shadow….wherever it falls.

“I saw it with my own eyes!”

eyewitness

Most people think that eyewitness testimony is the best first-hand evidence you can get.” I saw it with my own eyes.” You just can’t get better testimony than that. It has to be true because that guy saw it…with his own eyes!
But as most attorneys will tell you, eyewitness testimony is often the least reliable. Memory is a funny thing and is affected by many factors. As time passes recollections pass as well, and people’s perception is influenced by external factors such as tension, noise, fear, distraction etc.
When I was researching Master Detective, I read lots of court transcripts, newspaper articles, memoirs, and magazine pieces, especially about the Lindbergh kidnapping. I was often struck by variations between first-hand accounts. Magazines seem to be the worst offenders but newspapers can get the facts wrong as well. And simply getting a second source, while a good idea, does not guarantee accuracy. You may have noticed when you’re looking something up in a search engine on the Internet that different sources writing about the same subject will use the exact same phrasing and sentence structure. Clearly they have all simply copied the same, earlier version. As long as the earlier version was correct that’s fine, but many times it isn’t, and the multiple sources simply perpetuate the inaccuracy. Many accounts of the Lindbergh kidnapping I read spoke of the step breaking on the kidnap ladder (It was even shown that way in the movie version), but the ladder step didn’t break; the side rail split lengthways. This is a basic fact that is very easy to verify, but some sources still get it wrong.
This tendency to remember things inaccurately extends to even the most basic level. Recently I found an old photograph of myself taken in our backyard when I was a child and sent it to my sister who lives in Texas. In the background of the picture was a picket fence which had been there the entire time we lived in that house. My sister however had no recollection of a picket fence, even though she spent the first 14 years of her life in that house.
Of course my memory is no better than hers so I’m sure there are some things she remembers clearly that I don’t. The point is that whether researching a book, or simply reminiscing, never assume something is true simply because someone says that it is. Always look for a collaborating source, but be suspicious of one hat uses identical wording.

More on websites

I have written before about my website, johnreisinger.com. (Nowadays, you can pretty much skip the www. prefix since most browsers can figure that part out on their own.)
I’ve had a site for over ten years and have modified and rearranged it many times after designing and constructing the site from scratch. Starting with the basic site, I added and modified as I went along, using an HTML editor. There were two problems with this approach. First, as the number of books and things I wanted to include on the site such as video trailers and related articles increased, the site became ever more busy and unwieldy. Adding another item or book meant rearranging the site and risking conflicts between the various sections. Second, the complexity of the site made it harder to keep the site consistent with the various browsers. Little coding glitches such as question marks and weird gaps or line spacing would appear and defy my efforts to get rid of them despite having a so-called WYSIWYG feature on the HTML editor.
When you get to this stage, managing the site starts taking up too much of your time and causing lots of frustration you don’t need.
So what to do?
What I did was pretty much start over with a system that did some of the work for me. Now, there are plenty of web hosting sites that have instant EZ websites included. You just answer a few basic questions and your website appears, using a standard template. The problem, of course, is that these sites are so generic, that they are only good for the simplest sites and give almost no flexibility or ability to modify. So somewhere between a rigid template and total do it yourself HTML, I found WordPress. WordPress has standard templates, or themes, but allows a certain flexibility in what is presented and how it looks. WordPress has two ways to go; WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
Wordpress.com is the site that many people use to construct blogs, but if you chose the static page option, it can be used to create websites as well. With a little patience, you can make a pretty professional looking web page with WordPress.com, and not have to worry about all the coding and formats. WordPress.com includes free web hosting, so you can’t beat the price. Two big drawbacks are that WordPress.com cannot support “storefront” buy and sell sites, and, unless you pay a fee, will give you an awkward URL such as yoursite.wordpress.com, rather than simply yoursite.com.
The way I went was with WordPress.org. WordPress.org is also free, but does not include web hosting, so you’ll have to make your own arrangements, and have your own domain name, but once you do, you’ll find wordpress.org is far more flexible and allows numerous plug ins that are not available on WordPress.com. You can pretty much modify every part of your page if you use a free program such as firebug to inspect the various elements so they can be modified. The template I chose has built-in drop down menus that are automatically keyed into whatever pages or subpages I add, making updates and revisions quick and easy. Both Wordpres.org and youtube.com have videos showing more details of how to construct and modify webpages. And you get to use your own domain name as your URL.
Anyway, this was just my experience. Your mileage may vary. You can view the result at johnreisinger.com. Below is what the page looks like.

webpage

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Technology

There used to be a T-shirt that said something to the effect “It’s a beautiful day: now watch some jerk come along and screw it up.” Of course, anyone who looks to T-shirt slogans for revealed wisdom and philosophical insights is bound to be disappointed, but in this case, the T-shirt was on to something, especially regarding technology.

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Technology is a wonderful thing. Comparing our life today with how things were just 20 years ago, it’s easy to see the technology has expanded our horizons and made life easier in many ways. Technology has been doing this since the beginning but there’s a downside. The fatal flaw of any technology is the fact that it can only be utilized by coming in contact with human beings, and that’s where things get really messy. One of the few absolutely predictable things about history is that some people will find a way to take even the most benign technology and use it for something stupid or evil. Take the airplane. It didn’t take long for the miracle of powered flight and an all that it promised for the betterment of mankind to become a vehicle for strafing and bombing. Even later, this marvelous liberating technology was used by terrorists for the glorious cause of mass murder.

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On a more mundane day-to-day level, we now have digital ways of recording phone messages, or giving the caller a response. If we’re not home or not in the office, we don’t miss the call. So what can possibly go wrong with such a simple and obviously beneficial bit of technology? Well here’s what can go wrong. Businesses, always looking for ways to enhance the bottom line by cutting costs have made the happy discovery that a voicemail system means they can get by with fewer people to actually interact with customers on the phone, and they invariably overdo it . The result is the ubiquitous message “Your call is important to us; please stay on the line and someone will assist you shortly.” Personally I have always found this message to border on insulting. A more truthful version would be “Your call is important to us but not so important that we would actually hire someone to answer it.” Accompanying this message is either an endlessly looping commercial, ear-grating music, or simply dead silence so that you have no idea whether you are still on hold or floating endlessly in cyber phone land. If you choose to leave a message, one of the few remaining humans at the other end may or may not call you back at some point. The technology that makes it easier to make a phone call also makes it harder to actually track down a human at the other end.

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So what’s the moral to this semi rant? The next time someone claims to have a new product, technology, or law that will usher in the new Golden age, remember Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Technology. Use technology and enjoy it, but don’t be surprised when someone finds a way to screw things up.

Amazon ego trip

I’m sure this happens to Steven King and John Grisham all the time but it’s a first for me.

We all know Amazon is a marketing behemoth. One way they sell so much is by having their computers track any browsing you do and try to see what you like so they can pitch similar products. Sometimes they are dead on and sometimes, not so much.

They apparently have banks of computers programmed to find the appropriate product just for you. If you’re someone who sells one of those products they could be pushing what you’re selling without you even knowing it.

One of my first books was called Nassau. It was a historical novel set in the Bahamas during the Civil War. At that time the Bahamas was being used as a transfer port by blockade runners who ran cotton out of the blockaded Southern ports and brought war material from England back in. It was a colorful and exciting history, and something many people know very little about.  I was preparing a PowerPoint presentation about the book and about the blockade to present to a Civil War group, so I was looking for more information. I checked out Amazon looking for information about the blockade the Civil War and the Bahamas. Apparently the Amazon computers took note and the very next day I got the following email.

amzonnas

That’s right; Amazon searched through their entire inventory and recommended my own book to me! I don’t know whether I should be proud that my book was selected or disappointed that Amazon doesn’t have a better filter for their recommendations!

Now if they could just recommend it to other people.

Culture again

I have written before about the mass escape of the Japanese POWs from a camp n Cowra, Australia in WW2, and how the Japanese were driven by their culture, rather than by any actual military considerations. The remarkable thing about the escape was both its size, several hundred at once, and its suicidal nature. The Japanese POWs considered themselves shamed to have become POWs and sought redemption in death, even in suicide. Actual escape was almost secondary.This redemption by death was a reflection of the Bushido code deeply embedded in Japanese culture.

The Real Samurai in The 19 Century (8)

Some killed themselves rather than be recaptured. As a result, they charged into a barbed wire fence in the face of machine gun fire. One group of five escapees broke free, but found themselves at an isolated section of railroad track with no prospects of either escape or of being killed by the Australians. They decided that suicide was the honorable way out. They waited until a train was coming, then burst from hiding and laid across the tracks with their necks on the rails. The engineer of the train could not stop in time and the Japanese were beheaded.

This destructive impulse, however, was not consistent. Despite local fears of the Japanese running amok, the POWs took care not to harm civilians. Japanese troops in the field often gleefully slaughtered civilians by the thousands and proudly sent photographs of their handiwork home to relatives in Japan. (Don’t believe it? Google The Rape of Nanking) This did not happen at Cowra, possibly because fugitives naturally act differently than conquerors. At any rate, during the Cowra escape, several Japanese showed up at a farmhouse where only the housewife was present. In China, this would have most likely resulted in the rape and murder of the unfortunate woman, but the escapees were polite and indicated they were hungry, since they had been on the run for almost two days. The farm wife, who probably should have won an award for coolness under pressure, invited them in and cooked them a dinner, which they ate quietly and gratefully. Meanwhile the woman slipped in the back room and called the camp to come pick up her dinner guests. When the truck arrived, the Japanese went quietly.

Culture, or just the unpredictability of human nature?

 

The History Channel goes to war- part 3- Peace breaks out

The last episode of the History Channel’s World Wars was pretty much like the rest of the series; ambitious, chock full of big facts, but a little shaky on the small ones. (MacArthur was not a five star general at the beginning of the war. He fled the Philippines on a PT boat, not in an airplane, and the American garrison wore the British style model 1917 helmets at that stage of the war, not the M1 pot helmet that became standard shortly thereafter.)

Image

And a lot of stock footage was used that didn’t quite fit, such as lines of captured Americans filing into a German POW camp when the narration was talking about the Holocaust, and a Japanese warship that appeared to be a modern guided missile frigate. The device of following several leaders and showing how their first war experience affected their actions in the second was an interesting take, and was mostly handled well, although some of the advertising claimed that World War 2 made both Hitler and Stalin into monsters when, in Stalin’s case especially, they were already monsters.

But the overall thrust and recounting of events was accurate, given the tremendous amount of material they had to cover. Sure, they left out important things such as the Dolittle raid and downplayed the Battle of the Atlantic, but most people who watched now know a lot more about the wars than they did before they started and that’s all to the good.

At any rate, it’s good to see so much actual history on the History Channel for a change. So much of the programming is about pawnshops, UFOs, truckers, lumberjacks, alligator hunters and topics that are more anthropology reality show than history.

Good job, History Channel. Keep it up!