Posted tagged ‘History’

Quote for the Day: Jacob Burckhardt hearts him some science writing dept.

November 25, 2008

Jacob Burckhardt is hardly a household name anymore, outside certain rather specialized houses, but it would be not too great an exaggeration to say that he “discovered” the Italian Renaissance, establishing the notion of a distinct period, a time and place in which fundamental changes took place that rung out the end of the ideas and culture of the middle ages, laying the foundations of for habits of mind and the concrete history of that time we think of as modern.

Perhaps most significantly, he was an early historian, perhaps the seminal one, who focused on the history of art in particular and “culture” more generally as essential approachs to “history,” full stop.  That attitude led him to think about the history of science in the Renaissance as something other than simply a chain of discoveries that form individual sequences within particular disciplines…which in turn led him to just about the earliest praise of science writing I’ve been able to find.

If it is a little back-handed, Burkhardt’s compliment still captures what I think of as a critical truth:  science is not self-contained;  it is an expression of culture, and its survival as a living human enterprise depends on culture at large remaining aware of its claim on the public’s understanding and emotion alike.  In his landmark work, The Civilization of the Renaissance, Burkhardt writes:

Even the simple dilletante of a science — if in the present case we should assign to Aeneas Sylvius so low a rank — can diffuse just that sort of general interest in the subject which prepares for new pioneers the indispensable groundwork of a favourable predisposition in the public mind.  True discoveres in any science know well what they owe to such mediation.

(Part Four.  The translation above comes from the Penguin Classics edition of 1990.)

I’d argue that science writing and science writers have more ambition than simply acting as cultural diffusers.  The ones I admire most think of themselves as writers whose subject is science, and not simply science writers; that is they (and I, in the privacy of my own thoughts) are trying to use language to the limits of capacity for expression, to move readers and not simply to inform them.  That said, Burkhardt is right:  a civilized culture, a civilized time manages to communicate some version of its most sophisticated thinking to every interested citizen.

Image:  Studies of Embryos by Leonardo da Vinci (Pen over red chalk 1510-1513).

Veteran’s Day — nee Armistice Day — poem and remembrance

November 11, 2008

Update: Check out Lovable Liberal’s remembrance too.

Michael D. over at Balloon Juice has dredged up the inevitable In Flanders Fields as a token of memory on this sad day.

I have to confess I hate John McCrae’s poem because of the third verse, with its appropriating of the dead to keep the torch burning that consumed so many young men in a truly pointless and brutally mis-led war.  It’s home-front poetry, for all that it was written by a man who fought and died in the conflict — by which I mean that it plays on the familiar tropes of glory and honor deemed suitable for the consumption of those gentlemen and ladies then a-bed safely removed from the horror and squalor of the trenches.*

In the comment thread, one reader offers up Owen’s equally famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an antidote — and it certainly does offer the honest soldier’s counter argument:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

For my part, two thoughts:  first to McCrae himself.  The poem was born of his direct experience that was fully immersed in the bloody and in-the-moment pointlessness of the war as anything Owen wrote.  Read the story of how the poem came to be here.  The third verse that so offends me?…I have no doubt that it was truly felt, the more so that the poem was written in the spring of 1915 — the first full campaign season in the trenches — and before the grinding fact of the four-year meatgrinder could fully crush its schoolboy bravado.  In any event, he was there, he saw what he saw and felt what he felt, and he gets to express that emotion any way he damn pleases.

It’s the use of the poem by those who have not earned that authority in the same way that gets me, especially now, in the wake of five years of war when my friends on the other side of keyboard wars have so often called for sacrifices as long as others make them.  Maybe I’m the one fighting old battles here, in the new world after November 4, 2008, but I don’t think so.

(Note that I haven’t even begun to write about the collective criminal folly that permitted the trenches to consume so many men for so long.  For a lucid professional’s take on that question, the best place to start is the classic:  B.H. Liddell Hart’s seminal work Strategy.  My own take on it can be found in, interspersed with other stuff, in chapters 3-12 of this book.**)

Second thought:  here is one more poem just to make sure that I  drive home the point about the cost of stupid decisions in war.

This is another by Wilfred Owen, much less well known, perhaps less well made than Dulce…. but in its own way yet more wrenching:

S. I. W.

“I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.”
W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace, —
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers — would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y.M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident? — Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

*There is no shortage of great prose accounts of the disasters of the Western Front.  The first I read were by two of the War Poets — Robert Graves, in Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sasoon in his trilogy collected under the title George Sherston’s Memoirs, now out of print.  The central work of the trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, can still be found.

**Here’s a passage from my attempt to capture the relentless pointlessness of the so-called Great War at the level of the battlefield.  The incident described took place 90 years ago to the day.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

Image:  Red Poppies at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.  Photograph taken on March 11, 2006.

Against Ta-Nehisi Coates…

October 24, 2008

…or rather, against his defense of white racism. The post is a meditation on why women are, in his perception, so harsh on Sarah Palin; his epiphany came when he tried to imagine a black equivalent to the Palin candidacy — and he couldn’t:

A brother in that position not only would not be considered for 2012, he would be impeached when he returned to governorship for embarrassing the state, and then have his ghetto card revoked for embarrassing the local Negrocracy.

For this, the writer is grateful, which makes perfect sense.  It’s better by far to have a strong sense of standards than some unthinking identity commitment.

That’s the implication of the Yiddish phrase, “A shande fur de goyim” — a shame before the non-Jews. Nothing could be worse than to be such a schande; it’s why Jews, or at least  those I hang with, wince with every Jack Abramoff or, to channel a different era, why Abbie Hoffman’s use of the phrase to describe Judge Julius Hoffman during the Chicago Eight trial was such a potent barb.

More deeply, we have a lot of history that tells us it is better on every level, from the moral to the practical, to be not merely no worse than the majority societies in which most Jews live, but to be closer to blameness, to bring no scandal to our names and homes. So, thus far, I’m with Ta-Nehisi.  But then he goes on to write who he could or would wish to credit for the existence of such internal correctives:

White racists have taken a lot of heat on this blog. But the truth of the matter is that they may be the single biggest promoters of black excellence in this country’s history. There is a reason Tony Dungy was the first winning coach in Tampa Bay’s history–he had to be.

Again, from where I sit looking over the ethnic/race/identity sorrows of history, I know that there is a partial truth here.   I’m enough older than Ta-Nehisi to have Jackie Robinson’s story as the archetype of the pressure on the standard-bearer.  There is no doubt that Dungy did a very hard thing — much harder than most watching him grasped, I think — but Robinson was literally in a league of his own on the need to combine superlative performance with extraordinary internal strength and self-control.  (For the record, I’m not so old that I ever saw Robinson play; but his was the story we read in grade school.)

The same dynamic played out time and again in public and in private Jewish lives — including the importance of public heroes finding someway to express both a particular and a universal greatness; think of Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur and you have a hint of the balancing act involved.

But where I think Ta-Nehisi goes wrong is in giving racists themselves credit for the excellence of a Dungy or anyone else.  I don’t doubt that there is a forged-in-fire power to the notion of proving oneself despite the efforts of those with evil intention to thwart you. But Ta-Nehisi goes astray (IMHO) when he writes this:

… A little bit of bigotry would have prevented all of this [the Palin debacle]. So to all the Ferraros out there I have one request–more racism please. It improves our stock. It makes black people, a better people.

No, it does not.  I don’t think you could or should credit racism for what Dungy can claim as his own achievement, nor that of Einstein, perhaps — or more on point for a science-and-public life blog — the life Percy Julian lived.

Percy Julian is not as well known as he should be.  Get introduced to him out here, and or watch the excellent two hour biography that NOVA broadcast a year or so ago.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who plays Julian, is worth the price of admission on his own, and to brag a little, my wife, Katha Seidman won her second Emmy for her design of the show.

The short form:  Julian was one of the pioneering synthetic chemists of the between the wars period and just after WW II.  If you have ever used a cortisone cream, other corticosteroid medicines, or birth control pills, you owe Dr. Julian a debt of thanks.

He had a great career; he was honored (belatedly); he got rich — all good.  He also was bedeviled by racist constraints from childhood through to the time he was getting his own company off the ground, and in particular institutional and individual bigotry kept him from the first career he intended to pursue, that of an academic chemist, pursuing whatever research that seemed to him most promising.

That he made an enormous contribution to his field as an industrial chemist is a tribute to just the kind of determined excellence Ta-Nehisi celebrates in Dungy.  But the price paid, the cost in opportunities not just lost, but actively barred has to be accounted for too.

I’ll stipulate that Ta-Nehisi knows this very well indeed. For my part, I’m lucky that my ethnic identifier, in this country at least, is farther removed than his from our own versions of the ghetto and Jim Crow.  It was my great-grandfather that made it out of the old country, and his stories have not survived the passing of the last of his own children.

I am not completely tone-deaf to irony and sarcasm either, nor the echoes of that supremely useful phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” as applied both to Governor Palin and such sometime-symbolic figures as the athlete formerly known as Pacman and Mike Tyson.

But I still think that Ta-Nehisi is undercounting the persistant tax that bigotry imposes on its targets.  You could call it the Julian tax, the daily toll exacted in the pursuit of excellence constrained within limits not of your own choosing.

I’ll stop here — but for a truly beautiful meditation that touches on this theme (and much else) look to Bill T. Jones’ memoir The Last Night on Earth.

Image:  Ben Shahn “Sign on a Restaurant, Lancaster Ohio” 1938.  Library of Congress [http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html].  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

McCain, Palin, Incitement to Riot, and the Occasional Necessity of Violating Godwin’s Law

October 10, 2008

The grotesque sight of major party candidates standing mute and in apparent agreement as their supportors call for the murder of their opponent is not supposed to be part of the American political process.

It is now.

It’s obvious what’s going on, and it’s obvious why.  John McCain and Sarah Palin have already lost this election on the arguments:  for just one of many examples, by an overwhelming margin economists (chasing the rest of us) favor Obama/Biden over  McCain/Palin on an economy in crisis.

But if the actual business of the election is over — we’ve pretty much sorted out which candidate is better for the job at the moment — what is there left for the losing side to do?

Desperate measures of course, which gets me to the Godwin side of the post.  (I.e. if  you don’t like going where Godwin’s law takes you, stop reading now.)

Here’s the background:  Two notable political triumphs were won in the early 1930s as responses to the economic crisis marked by the stock market crash of October, 1929.

One was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose temperament was praised  by Oliver Wendell Holmes as well suited to calm the frenzy of the moment.  There is, as the conservative humorist Christopher Buckley notes in his endorsement of Barack Obama, one candidate now who is living that role.

And then there was the rise of a German politician with a mesmerizing speaking style and perhaps the most exquisitely honed sense of shared resentment any public figure has ever had.

On the Republican ticket, it is Sarah Palin who has taken the lead as the exponent of a strategy more like this figure’s, one that seeks to focus broad feelings of betrayal and anger onto a single stock figure of treachery and deceit that she labels with the name of her opponent.

In this, she plays on the same chords struck by that other young, little-known politician making his first foray onto the national stage in 1923.  Here’s an account of one of those early rallies:

The writer Carl Zuckmayer attended several of his speeches that year, once getting so close to the platform that he could “see the spittle spraying from under his mustache.”  To Zuckmayer, he was “a howling dervish,” but he wrote that for those who believed, the speaker dominated “not by arguments but by the fanaticism of his manner, the roaring and the screeching..and especially by the hypnotic power of his repetitions delivered in a certain infectious rhythm.”  It was a style, Zuckmayer wrote, that “had a frightening, primitive force.”

(This is taken, lightly edited, from my book Einstein in Berlin, which was, in part an attempt to understand how things went so very wrong between 1914 and 1932, the years Einstein lived in the German capital.)

That line on rhythm is right on; just listen to Palin as she hits her spots, and see how skillfully she allows her listeners to finish the thought just as she delivers her punchline.  She’s good, just not Good.

I’m not the first to go here — consider Jon Stewart’s only slightly elliptical reference to Palin’s speeches as the kind of thing heard in the late days of the Weimar Republic.  And I am not saying that Sarah Palin wishes to do as Adolf HItler did — far from it.  I loathe just about everything I can find out about her politics, but she is a small-time American style faux-populist demagogue, not, in my humble opinion, a likely architect of global conflagration and mass murder.  Just to be clear.

But what people forget when viewing Hitler only as the monstrous force he was in power is that he was a masterful manipulator of genuinely democratic processes on his path to the German Chancellorship.  The speeches Zuckmayer witnessed were shockingly effective, coming as they did during the devastating economic crisis of the German hyperinflation, at time when the German middle class was largely wiped out.  Their themes and the framing of crisis as the focus of shared bitterness and resentment now serve as a model for what Palin and to a lesser extent McCain are now trying out.

Thus the reason that the current tack by the McCain and Palin team is leaving so many observers disgusted, frightened and angry:   it is because it does not take much historical memory to see the danger, the inherent dishonesty, and the moral bankruptcy of such an approach.

It was once possible to view this election as one that either side could lose without assaulting what Bruce Springsteen so beautifully described as “the repository of people’s hopes and dreams and desires” that is America.

Now, with the echoes of some of the worst moments in the long, sad twentieth century sounding in our ears, it has become clear that one side has now shown itself as the ticket that should lose.  John McCain, the engineer of his own dishonor, should be ashamed of himself.

Let Springsteen have the last word:

Update: Credit where credit is due.  John McCain today began pushing back against the worst impulses of his crowds.  As reported on Time‘s Swampland blog, McCain on several occasions corrected questioners who sought to demonize Barack Obama.  Key quote:

he … snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, “I’m scared of Barack Obama… he’s an Arab terrorist…”

“No, no ma’am,” he interrupted. “He’s a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements.”

The post above still stands, however, (a) as an indictment of Sarah Palin, and (b) as a reminder that John McCain has let this cancer eat away at his candidacy to this point.  But if he sustains this effort to remind his supporters of the need to distinguish between hating the (political) sin and loving — or at least respecting — the (from one vantage) political sinner, then he will have reclaimed some part of the honor that his campaign to date has cost him.  The next step is to make sure that Governor Palin gets the message — but this is a welcome first gesture.

Update 2: Of course, if we keep getting reeking nonsense like this from the McCain campaign, then shame doesn’t begin to cover that first full measure of moral degredation with which the Senator from Arizona will have achieved by the end of this election season.

It’s All Been Down Hill Since…

October 4, 2008

1908, when the first wax cylinder recordings were made of the two nominees in a Presidential election.

Via Sean at Cosmic Variance, I came across Ron Cowen’s story at the Science News website and learned that William Jennings Bryan used his time in the Edison recording room to advocate insurance for individual bank depositors and William Howard Taft devoted his three minutes or so to an analysis of the “Rights and Progress of the Negro.”

As Sean said, it’s a delight to realize that both of those topics are of purely historical interest.

That was epochal then.  No more secretely hired flacks to spread scandal, a la Jefferson and Adams (Good thing we don’t do that sort of stuff anymore). Now, of course, there is an entire industry devoted to using sound and image to permit the candidates to connect to an electorate with the (too intimate?)* illusion of direct one-one contact between individuals who never meet.

But what is so sweet about this story is that we can look back to a specific, single moment when it all began; if nothing else, the fact of such a sharply defined point of origin can help sharpen our thinking about what has happened since, for good and ill, at the intersection of mass media and politics.

Beyond that historical piety, there’s just one thing I’d like to add to Sean’s thought:  Taft’s and Bryan’s excellent adventure in audio is simply a reminder of how swiftly what we now take as almost immutable practice evolved from these humble beginnings.  It’s in the range of personal memory, of experience that reaches right into the present.

That is:  My youngest great uncle lived into the 1980s — I had a chance to speak with him into my own twenties.  He was born in 1900 — so soon before the census taker came to my great-grandparents’ house that he is listed on that year’s census form as Baby Levenson.

He was eight when Bryan and Taft and Edison between them made it possible to connect voice to ear, emotional pitch to voter’s limbic system, at a distance of both space and time.

My Uncle Moe and I talked about these recordings, of course — if we had I would hope I would have had the wit to write the story up myself — but we did reach back into that history. He could tell me what it was like to see cars appear; to experience the end of World War I, to go to college and be the first in his Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family to go to college and be able to major in something as not-obviously-useful as French literature.

The larger point here is that the conventional division of time into generations misses the way historical memory actually works.

If your grandfather is alive, he can tell you what his great aunt told to him.  On my mother’s side, that means my grandfather, a career British army officer, would have known senior officers in his mess old enough to have observed the American Civil War, with all the lessons that did not sink in about what happens when you apply industrial methods to infantry tactics.  On my father’s side, my grandparents were able to reach back into personal memory and immediate family experience of the life of Jews under Tsarist Russian rule.

This is personal memory — one or two links of conversation at most.  1908 is even closer. In my own adulthood, I reach back with just one conversation to the lived experience of the moment American politicians’ voices first broke out of the constraints of time and place.

All of which to say is that hearing Taft speak as if it were a century ago today should remind us that the transformation of modern politics into one dominated by modern media tactics is not an inevitable by-product of human nature, a required feature of democratic self governance in the 21st century.

It is a very recent technological manipulation that turns, to be sure, on close observation of the ways people receive and interpret information and experience.  But the 30 second hate spot is not some required response to a few million years of evolution from savanna to Savannah.

*One of the repeated little pleasures of this election is watching conservative lip-flappers self-immolate. Rich Lowry, however, exceeds expectations (even accounting for the soft bigotry of low expectations), and the quote linked above has to rank with at the top of the OMG-Did-I-Just-Hit-‘Publish’ scale.

Image:  Francis Barraud painted what became an iconic image of his brother’s dog Nipper listening to the horn of an early phonograph during the winter of 1898. Victor Talking Machine Company began using the symbol in 1900.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.  This may be a cliche (it is–Ed.) but it’s too good to pass up here.

Wednesday Isaac Newton Blogging: The (Very) Deep Roots of the Banking Crisis.

October 1, 2008

Coming up next June, I’ll be publishing my book, Newton and the Counterfeiter, in which I tell the story of Newton’s mostly unknown career as a criminal investigator and death penalty prosecutor.

It is as well a story that touches on the birth of the modern financial system — it covers the period when things like the Bank of  England, fractional reserve banking, a variety of paper instruments, debt-for equity swaps (a little later, actually) and other such esoterica were all being tried out.

Of great importance was the development of a bunch of different approaches to financing government expenditure.  All kinds of things got a work out. The book deals with some of them, including a marvelous chimera of an instrument that was at once a lottery ticket, paper money, and a bond.  Weird — but creditors of the Royal Navy, among others, were compelled to accept the notes at par.

Unsurprisingly, some writers on what was yet to be called the discipline of political economy had grave doubts about the transformation of money into paper, and government resources from receipts into debt.  They raised questions.  And on at least one occasion, Newton answered them.

In 1700, Newton, then Master of the Mint, got into a dispute with John Pollexfen, a member of parliament and a founding member of the Board of Trade (with Newton’s friend and admirer, the philosopher and theorist of money, John Locke).

Pollexfen was a hard money guy — paper might have some use in the financial system, but everyone knew real money took the form of silver and gold coins.

He argued that use of paper instruments depended on the money being held to support it.  Not for him was this new fangled notion of fractional reserve banking:  an institution issuing a note had to have the denominated amount in coin to back up the piece of paper that claimed to be money.  That is: paper was a convenient method of signifying the existence of an amount of real money; it was not money in and of itself.

Newton disagreed.  His handwritten draft of a reply to Pollexfen survives in his Mint papers, and in that draft he wrote that creation of paper instruments — including those issued by the government as debt — was essential to ensure that the nation’s economy did not collapse for want of an adequate money supply.  He wrote “If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work…the only proper way to lower it si more paper and credit till trading and business we can get more money.”

Interesting ideas, no?  Increase the money supply to lower the price of money, the interest rate, and thus enhance trade and employment.  What a notion!

The other Newton comment that I know of on the question of whether government debt instruments were a good idea is even more striking.  He wrote in a different context on the question of whether the creation of government debt instruments were inherently damaging to government finance and the economy that, in fact, credit was supremely useful because,

“Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon money [coined precious metal]…and the same opinion sets a value upon paper security…All the difference is …that the value of the former is more universal than the latter.”

Mere opinion!  This was a radical idea indeed at the turn of the eighteenth century

Newton did allow that credit was like doctor’s physic.  To a certain dose it was helpful; to excess it could be deadly… a sentiment which also has strangely contemporary echo.

None of this to say that Newton was anything like a pioneer of economic thought; he was not.  Most of his views represented variations on contemporary elite opinion — which was struggling to come to grips with a transformation in finance that accompanied the global expansion of English and European trade and economic life.

But even here there are parallels.  Much of our problem today derives from the toxic consequences of exotic variations on older financial tricks, some of which do in fact have roots that stretch back, through several removes, to this beginning.  Now, as then, the failure of many to grasp the implications, the risks, associated with such innovation presented opportunities both legal and definitely criminal.  Even the smartest were not immune to the lure of occult, effortlessly acquirable wealth…

…and not even Isaac Newton himself avoided the infection, as will be discussed in another post, soon.

(See G. Findlay Shirras and J.H. Craig’s article “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency” in The Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 218/219 Jun – Sep. 1945 for a fuller account of Newton’s involvement in the currency/credit issues of his day).

(Also:  I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to take a brief break and write about something that doesn’t have to do with either of the those-who-must-not-be-named who have been bedevilling my concentration these last too-many days.)

Image:  Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson, “The Great Hall of the Bank of England,” in Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11).  (Anachronistic, I know — but what a nice image.)  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

And while we are on the subject…

July 23, 2008

…I couldn’t resist posting this unbelievably cool picture:

From the summary description at my source for the image, Wikimedia Commons:

This image depicts an early oil field exploitation in Pennsylvania, around 1862. The two wells shown are the Phillips well and the Woodford well, both among the most productive of the time. Note the small distance between them. At the foreground appear wooden barrels in which the crude was stored, explaining why oil is still measured in “barrels”. Note the barrel size was not standardized yet : various size of barrels can be noticed.