The Chosen People and American Exceptionalism

Americans are exceptional in many ways but perhaps their greatest exceptional characteristic is their neighborliness. Americans are a private people dedicated to the proposition that all homes are created equal no matter the customs, rituals, and beliefs that guide and comprise them. In dealing with his neighbor, the American follows the rule: Be cheerful and helpful, be polite, and leave my neighbor alone to his home.

Monstrous Interpretations

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be the most over-interpreted book ever written. First published in 1818, it’s a tale of the emerging 19th-century worries about death and grave robbing. Or maybe the book is a rejection of Faust—at least, a rejection of the way in which Goethe’s 1808 classic was understood in England: a tale of a heroic Enlightenment intellectual rising up above the ordinary rules of humanity.

A Failed Attempt

Why wasn’t there a Jewish army in World War II to fight the Nazis? No group had more motivation to do so. Well, it’s not that they didn’t want one. Rick Richman’s Racing Against History skillfully recounts the efforts by three major Zionist leaders to raise a Jewish army in America to fight Hitler. Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion, representing the center, right, and left of the political spectrum, came to the United States on separate missions with the same goal in 1940.

The Fire This Time

As I write, the Black Hills are burning: over 70 square miles in the Legion Lake Fire, with a second fire starting at the French Creek horse camp and spreading through Wind Cave National Park toward the town of Buffalo Gap. For South Dakota’s national forest, the fire has proved devastating. But it’s just a blip when compared with the nearly 400 square miles now burning in California. The Thomas Fire, as it has been named, is already the fourth largest wildfire in California history, with a good chance to move up the rankings—and it follows the Tubbs Fire that blackened northern California and spread into the city of Santa Rosa at the end of October. The West, in other words, is a tinderbox, and this season the flames took hold.

The Virtual Is Not the Real

You can watch it on YouTube: the moment when Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most talented snooker player in the world, proves a good enough sport to try out a virtual-reality pool game for a software developer in California. He puts on the projecting headset like an oversized diver’s mask with the lenses blacked out, the haptic hand controls imitating a pool cue, and he studies the arrangement of the balls. Then he leans down to line up the shot on the virtual pool table—and promptly falls flat on his face, because the table isn’t, you know, actually there to support him. “@#$%&*,” he curses, “that’s scary.”

Trouble Online

It all started simply and with great optimism. The internet’s developers—dubbed cyber dreamers by the author—envisioned a free, accessible, and easy means of global communication. In many ways those hopes have been realized, but in Alexander Klimburg’s The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace, the reader is taken through a darker dream—the myriad ways cyberspace has been corrupted for criminal, terrorist, and political purposes.

Remembering Stalin’s Hunger

History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the effect of ideas. Scientific knowledge may progress by abandoning its old notions and even forgetting them. But political knowledge—the interplay of regimes and policies and personalities—advances only while we recall the political arrangements of the past and what came of them. In the old adage of Dr. Johnson, humankind is far more often in need of being reminded than of being instructed.

Fraud, American Style

Poor Buncombe County, North Carolina: home to Asheville, mountainous scenery, Vanderbilt’s robber-baron Biltmore mansion—and along the way, the origin of words for chicanery, flim-flam, and deception. Bunkum, bunk, debunk, the Bunco Squads that police forces used to have: We needed a word for the patter, the polished spiel, of confidence swindlers, and the old British cozenage and French fourberie just didn’t seem to have the oomph that Americans wanted. And so (by a strange path that begins with a bit of 19th-century political bombast), we borrowed Buncombe’s name.

Um, Tell Me What You Mean

It’s like, you know, hard to speak quickly and fluently. To patter on without fillers and pauses. Without ums and ahhs. The testimony of practiced speakers—from political orators to the folks who get up at meetings of Toastmasters International—is that these dribbled bits of linguistic grouting can be scrubbed from speech, if we put in the work to teach ourselves to avoid them.

Which Algorithm Watches the Watchmen?

Cameras, connected to facial recognition software, watch every corner in lower Manhattan. A “heat list” helps police pick out Chicago citizens who may be involved in a future shooting so they can pay a preemptive visit. Information culled from social media, shopping habits, and phone calls is used to build a precise profile of you, and to pinpoint your involvement in any crime.