Tag Archives: russia

Book Review: Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis (Harper Barnes 2001)

Rating: 5/5

David Rowland Francis was mayor of St. Louis and governor of Missouri, the only man to have done both in a state that distrusts its urban centers. When Academic Hall burned down at the University of Missouri, he kept the university in Columbia. Francis brought the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair to St. Louis. From 1916 to 1917, Francis was the US Ambassador to Russia, serving through the February Revolution and the October Bolshevik Revolution. In its first half, Standing on a Volcano details Francis’ family life and career in Missouri; in its second half, it details his service in Russia. In Missouri, Francis is a man in his element, a man who knows how the machine whirs; in Russia, we see Francis struggle to grasp the mechanisms of a society whose machine has gone haywire. It’s a fascinating biography and a fascinating history of St. Louis and the Russian revolution.


I attended the University of Missouri. I’m a St. Louis native, and I love Russian history. The quadrangle at Mizzou is the Francis Quad, but I didn’t learn about David R. Francis until the 250th anniversary of St. Louis exhibit at the Missouri Historical Society. I bought this biography in the gift shop.


  • Volcano (like so many St. Louisans) discusses why Chicago boomed and St. Louis didn’t. We often blame the Civil War, but Barnes suggests the steamboat. Chicago developed rail, while St. Louis languished.  A rail route crossed the Mississippi west of Chicago before the Civil War; the St. Louis Eads Bridge was completed in 1874, well after the contest was lost. Barnes also argues that the St. Louis business community was more conservative in an era that, overall, rewarded risk. After learning about the St. Louis business community in Veiled Prophet and the Chicago business community in Death in the Haymarket, this feels true.
  • Philip Jordan was a light-skinned black man from Jefferson City, an orphan or something close to it, a street fighter with a drinking problem. He became Francis’ indispensable companion, accompanying him to Russia. We so rarely learn about the support staff of our famous antecedents, and Jordan is fascinating. He became fluent in Russian, expertly navigating the food shortages of conflict-ravaged Russia. In Russia Jordan was perceived as native, but perhaps from the south. In the United States, he was often mistaken for white, but subject to the discrimination of the era whenever his race was known.
  • Volcano indirectly reveals how women and people of color get written out of history. Francis wrote little of Jordan, his companion, caregiver, and even partner of many years. A Russian woman, Matilda de Cramm, also occupies much of the book, and was a close friend to Francis during his time in Russia. Francis mentions her once in his book about the revolution. If we were to use only documents from Francis, we would see very little of Jordan or Madame de Cramm.
  • I enjoyed the examination contrast of diplomatic veterans with Francis. Although history has sometimes been unkind to Francis (Russia didn’t turn out so well, after all), Volcano makes the case for Francis.


  • It’s great that Volcano includes Matilda de Cramm, a Russian woman whom many suspected to be a German spy. Francis had some level of inappropriate relationship with her during his ambassadorship, which elicited a lot of gossip. But we learn little about her. The book includes dozens of contemporary speculations and frettings about de Cramm. It was a big part of Francis’ time in Russia, but ultimately, there is very little of substance. She doesn’t seem to have been a German spy. It was hard to track and boring after a while.
  • Francis’ Kentucky childhood and family genealogy was dull and I would have preferred less of it.



If you have an interest in St. Louis history or Russian history, at least half of this book is worth your while. I’ve never read a nonfiction book with such contrasting halves, but I really enjoyed it. The contrast made for an interesting human study as well. We see a man working in his element, and the same man struggling to tread water. We see 19th century American wheeling and dealing, and we see foreign policy. Francis was a free-market enthusiast, but saw the argument for socialism in Russia. The reader sees Francis’ thinking evolve with his experiences; he wasn’t an ideologue. I enjoyed Standing on a Volcano as a history and as a biography.


Interesting facts: 50-75

Today I post interesting facts 51-75. These last weeks have been incredibly intense, and it’s been tough meeting my 100 fact challenge celebrating reaching 100 posts. I will follow with the last 25 later this week or next Monday. The blog has had to take a backseat to work and to my book writing efforts; I will hit 70,000 words tomorrow and I am closing in on the finish. And without further ado, more facts!


51. Earth’s magnetic poles switch every few hundred thousand years, as a result of natural movements in iron in the crust. I wondered how this might affect migratory species using magnetic senses, but there isn’t enough evidence from the last switch 41,000 years ago to tell.

52. The creator of Kellogg’s cornflakes was at war with sexuality. The cornflakes were a part of this, as an unstimulating food. He was a strong advocate against masturbation– advocating circumcision and application of acid to the genitals.

53. Left-handed people are at a higher risk for numerous ailments, including schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression. I am what they call mixed-handed– I do some tasks with my right hand (writing), and some with the other (sports).

54. Eta Carinae is sometimes one of the brightest stars in the sky, and sometimes not. It is a system including a luminous blue variable, which grows a coat of obscuring gas, and then periodically blasts it off. In 1843, it was the second brightest object in the sky. It currently cannot be seen with the naked eye.

55. George Washington did not have wooden teeth. His dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth).

56. Goldfish actually have memories of about three months. As anyone who ever owned a goldfish should know.

57. Alfred Tennyson was troubled and interested by the science of his time. Themes about evolution and references to the contemporary phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (a since debunked scientific concept which claims an organism develops in vitro according to its phylum order) can be found in his poetry, specially In Memoriam.

58. Water-induced wrinkles are not caused by the skin absorbing water and swelling. They are caused by the autonomic nervous system, which triggers localized vasoconstriction in response to wet skin, yielding a wrinkled appearance. This may have evolved because it gives ancestral primates a better grip in slippery, wet environments.

59. Eating nuts, popcorn, or seeds does not increase the risk of diverticulitis.These foods may actually have a protective effect.

60. The Coriolis effect does not determine the direction that water rotates in a bathtub drain or a flushing toilet. The Coriolis effect induced by the Earth’s daily rotation is too small to affect the direction of water in a typical bathtub drain. The effect becomes significant and noticeable only at large scales, such as in weather systems or oceanic currents. Other forces dominate the dynamics of water in drains.

61. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball.

62. Nikola Tesla was a badass scientist. Thomas Edison isn’t as great as you thought. Tesla pioneered AC current distribution and the lightbulb. Edison stole ideas from Tesla and attempted to undermine him to increase his own profits.

63. Paul Erdös wrote over 1500 math papers. If you’ve heard of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this was originally known as the Erdös number, the number of degrees of separation from publishing a paper with Erdös. He was very eccentric. For years, he lived out of his suitcase, traveling across the world and collaborating on papers. He didn’t know how to open juice containers and used amphetamines to give him energy. His epitaph was “I’ve finally stopped getting dumber.”

64. Catherine the Great was the longest-ruling female monarch in Russian history. She was actually prussian, and married Peter the Great’s grandson. She probably conspired in his assassination, and took the throne. Her son changed Peter the Great’s succession laws to exclude women from rule.

65. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a nobel prize, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She discovered polonium and radium and x-rays. She used x-rays to help diagnose injuries in WW1. She eventually died due to radiation-related illness.

66. Ramanujan was an indian-born mathematical genius. With little formal instruction, he devised many theorems that are still being incorporated into mathematical theory. He died at 32.

67. Michael Faraday was a pioneering scientist in electromagnetism, although he also received little formal education. He discovered benzene, and discovered the relationship between light and magnetism. He knew little math beyond trigonometry. The unit of capacitance, Farad, is named after him, as well as numerous constants and devices.

68. the symbol pi, π, originally referred to the perimeter of a circle. only in 1706 was it used to mean the ratio of perimeter to diameter.

69. James Tiptree Jr., a prominent science fiction writer, was actually a woman. She wrote under the pseudonym for two decades until she killed her husband and then herself.

70. In the early years of the Soviet Union, a type of genetics besides Mendelian genetics became accepted as correct, known as Lysenkoism. In Lysenkoism, the way you raised a crop determined its outcome, not the type of seed. Widespread starvation occurred in the Soviet five-year plans, partially due to Lysenkoism.

71. There are over 20,000 species of orchids, or four times the number of mammalian species. Many of them are epiphytes, meaning they grow above the ground in tree-borne habitats.

72. East germans could only buy Trabant cars. Used Trabants were more expensive than new ones, because the waiting line was shorter.

73. A girl in Sweden survived her body temperature dropping to 55 F (13 C) in 2010.

74. Hypothermia is highly correlated to age. Older people suffer hypothermia at a much higher rate.

75. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is the tallest base to tip lighthouse in the United States. Due to shore encroachment, it was moved in 1999. Its light can be seen 20 miles out to sea.

100 posts, 100 fun facts

This list making business is slow stuff, and too interesting, so I decided to split it into two 50-fact posts. Happy memorial day, and happy 100 posts to me! Here are your first 50 factoids!

1. People from different cultures differ in what colors they perceive. As a simple example, english speakers deem pink as a different color than red. Russian speakers don’t, but they have a fundamentally different word for dark and light blue. In chinese, red and pink are red and pastel red, and likewise with blue.

2. Corrosion occurs preferentially where you can’t see it, such as under the head of a bolt or a foot or two under sea water. This is due to small concentration differences which cause a charge differential, which leads to corrosion. This is one reason trying to detect corrosion is very hard.

3. The biggest silicon wafers made are 45 cm or 17.7″, though they aren’t yet in production. The silicon is 99.9999999% pure, and monocrystaline.

4. Glass doesn’t have a set crystal structure; this is why it can cut so badly, because shards can be arbitrarily sharp. Auto glass is laminated with plastic to help hold it in place.

5. Many of the scenes in engineering in “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” are filmed at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Los Angeles. Look for the green labels reading “VF##”– these are vertical fermenters. In another part of the movie, Chekhov slides past some really shiny tanks on a red floor– these are horizontal fermenters. I used to work at an AB brewery, so I got really excited when I first noticed this.

6. A neutron star is so-called because all the electrons and protons are forced by immense gravitational pressure to combine. The whole star is nearly as dense as a nucleus, or 5.9×10^14 times denser than water. This is equivalent to the weight of a 747 in the space of a grain of sand.

7. Have you ever tried dividing by zero on a calculator? A black hole is remarkably similar to dividing by zero in space.

8. Near a black hole, forces called “tidal forces” (which are felt everywhere, but are crazy strong near a black hole) can be very strong over short distances, ripping anything apart. This is called “spaghettification” (no joke).

9.  After the death of Ivan the Terrible in Russia, three men claimed to be his lost son, Dimitri. They are collectively referred to as the false Dimitris. The first successfully became Czar for ten months, after which his was killed and cremated. His ashes were loaded into a cannon and shot towards Poland, as he was believed to be a Polish spy.

10. The word “defenestration” means “the act of being thrown from a window”. The need for such a word was precipitated by two such events in Prague.

11. The 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics were held in St. Louis. In the marathon, the man who finished first hitched a ride in a car, one favorite made himself sick eating apples, and another favorite was run off course by an angry dog.

12. Toasted ravioli, or breaded deep-fried ravioli, are a culinary delight in St. Louis. Also popular is provel, a cheese used almost exclusively in St. Louis (giving a hilarious Wikipedia by someone who seems unimpressed).

13. The Cahokia mounds are a set of artificial hills in Southern Illinois. They may look unimpressive, but they are about a thousand years old, built by a native culture which later abandoned them. An old nickname of nearby St. Louis is “mound city”, because similar mounds used to be found in the city.

14. Peter the Great of Russia was 6′ 7″. In his early adulthood, he traveled to Europe to learn about shipbuilding, a passion of his. He tried to pass off as a member of the company, but his great height continuously gave him away. The little shack where he lived in Holland still stands near Amsterdam.

15. Over 100,000 serfs died building St. Petersburg, Russia. Peter the Great commissioned the city because the only Russian port at the time, Archangel, was occluded by ice 6 months of the year.

16. 5 people died building the Empire State Building.

17.  The first electric light bulb and dynamo west of the Mississippi was on the campus of the University of Missouri at Academic Hall. The building caught fire and burned to the ground, leaving only the front columns of the building. They remain standing today.

18. Thomas Jefferson has two tombstones: one at his home of Monticello, and one at the University of Missouri. The University of the Missouri is the first land-grant university in the Louisiana Purchase, and many aspects of the university were modeled after Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

19. Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks has had over 600 recorded shipwrecks. The most recent occurred during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

20. In November 1956, the USSR invaded Hungary. The Hungarian water polo team fled the country after watching the invasion from nearby mountains. On December 4, the Russian and Hungarian teams met in the gold medal qualifying game of the 1956 Olympics. The game is called the “Blood in the Water” game, due to its violence. The story is told in a documentary called “Freedom’s Fury.”

21. The shortest player in the history of baseball was Eddie Gaedel, who batted for the St. Louis Browns on August 19, 1951. He stood 3’7″ tall, and wore the number”1/8″. Because he had such a small strike zone, he was walked. His contract was voided by baseball the next day.

22. Mercury is a toxic metal that used to be used in thermometers due to its consistent thermal expansion. The mad hatter concept owes to mercury poisoning in old hat makers. A researcher at Duke died in 1997 after a few drops of methyl mercury fell on her glove; organic mercury is incredibly toxic.

23. Humans now have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs, but at some point in history, they had 48 chromosomes, the same as chimpanzees. Scientists theorize that the number changed when the human population dwindled at one point in history.

24. Splenda is chemically identical to sugar, but it is the mirror image “left-handed” sugar. The left-handed sugar tastes the same as sugar, but it can’t be digested, because the human body only handles right-handed molecules. However, brain scans of people eating sugar or splenda show that the brain registers more reward sensation with sugar. The body can be clever! (I tried to find this study; unfortunately, searching about splenda turns up a lot of nonsense to wade through.)

25. Cuttlefish can change the color of their skin for communication or for camouflage. They can make complex, varying patterns, or they can match a stationary one. Check out this video of a cuttlefish matching a chessboard.

26. Women generally have a better sense of smell than men. in particular, they are better at smelling something they’ve smelled before, where men show less improvement.

27. The Marianas Trench, the deepest ocean trench, is 6.8 miles deep at its deepest point. We still know very little about our deep oceans.

28. Giant squids have been written about since ancient times, but we took our first picture of one in 2004.

29. Only two elements are liquid at standard room temperature: mercury and bromine.

30. The world’s deepest hand dug well in is Greensburg, Kansas. Greensburg was decimated by an EF5 tornado in 2007. It has since started rebuilding, and aims to be the first LEEDS certified green city in the US.

31. Hurricane Camille came over land in Louisiana in 1969 as a category 5 hurricane. Of the 259 deaths caused, 123 were in the mountains of Virginia, in Nelson County (over 1% of the population). The storm dropped 27 inches of rain in a few hours. 133 bridges were washed out, and birds drowned in the trees.

32. Many of Thomas Jefferson’s inventions still reside at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. There is a clock that tells the day of the week, a dumb-waiter, and a device for writing on two pieces of paper at once.

33. Blue eyes are caused by the presence of less pigment in the eye, resulting in a different light scattering pattern. Blue-eyed baseball players sometimes have much lower daytime hitting averages, because blue eyes filter out less glare.

34. Albinism is principally defined by eye defects caused by the lack of pigment during the formation of the eye. Without pigment in the iris, the eye doesn’t properly focus light, leading to numerous vision problems. It is possible to be albino while still having normally pigmented skin.

35. Catgut is prepared from animal intestine, and was used historically to make strings for instruments. Its name is probably a shortening from cattle gut, for those of us who like kitties.

36. Paper didn’t make its way to Europe until after the year 1000. It was made from old fabric and clothes. Old paper doesn’t yellow and age the same way as 1900’s paperbacks because it tended to be acid-free. Books can last centuries if the paper and ink are acid free.

37. Organisms around deep sea vents metabolize hydrogen sulfide from the vents to survive. 300 new species have been discovered around such vents; because exploration there is so hard, there are likely many more.

38. Hydrogen Fluoride is considered a weak acid, because hydrogen and fluoride bond strongly as resist dissociation. However, HF will go after just about anything including glass. HF is very dangerous to work with, because it does not hurt immediately. It seeps through the skin and begins to dissolve the bone.

39. Phosgene was used in chemical warfare in World War 1. The Japanese also used it extensively in World War 2. It smells like freshly cut grass.

40. The kite buggy was invented in China in the 1300s. It is a cart drawn by wind power. It seems hard.

41. Capillary action in trees helps fluid rise in trees. This is how tree several hundred feet tall supply water to the leaves.

42. The Negro Leagues baseball museum is in Kansas City, Missouri. Many of the negro leagues teams were fairly successful, and drew enthusiastic crowds. The exclusion of blacks from baseball was shameful, but they made something great in spite of it. You can learn about Satchel Paige or Buck O’Neal, as well as the various negro leagues teams.

43. The Eads bridge in St. Louis was the longest of its kind when it was built, over a mile wide. The supports are some of the deepest ever sunk, and 15 workers died due to decompression sickness.

44. The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis is the biggest brewery in the world. It outputs 25 million barrels per year. You can visit for free and get some complimentary beer.

45. The international rose test garden in is Portland, Oregon. It is free to visit and they have over 550 varieties.

47. The male paradise whydah grows out a foot-long feather during mating time to impress the female paradise whydah. The paradise whydah is a parasitic species that uses the nest of the melba finch.The male whydah imitates the melba finches song. In captivity, the whydah cannot reproduce without the melba finch also present.

48. The carrion flower is an enormous bloom that stinks of rotting flesh. It can be up to nine feet tall.

49. Blue is a rare color for organic molecules. This may be because the color is associated with alkaline conditions, which are relatively rare in organisms.

50. Monarch butterflies can sense the earth’s magnetic field. They use it to complete their 2000 mile migration.

Come back Thursday for 50 more interesting factoids! Happy 100 posts!

Soviet Comedy Movies

Soviet comedy movies are surprisingly awesome and funny. They also provide a window into a culture that was otherwise pretty cut-off from the west. A rather groomed and cultivated window, but still a window. And you can watch them on youtube, since they have no formal distribution in the west. This link contains a whole list of them; I will discuss a couple specific ones in this post.

The Diamond Arm (Russian: Бриллиантовая рука, Transliteration: brilliantovaya ruka) (number 6 on the playlist): A slapstick style comedy. Criminals conspire to smuggle jewels into Russia. The protagonist wins a vacation abroad, and due to a mix-up, unwittingly becomes a mule for the jewels.

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Russian: Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!, Transliteration: Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!) (Number 9 on the playlist): This is the “it’s a wonderful life” of Russia. They apparently play it all the time for New Year’s. A group of men go get very drunk at a bath house, before one of them flies out in the morning. They are still drunk in the morning, and accidentally put the wrong man on the plane. The man, who has been passed out, does not realize he is in the wrong city. He takes a cab to his street and building, and his key even opens the door, even though he is now in Leningrad, not Moscow. This is a spoof of the homogeneity of the Russian building style at the time. All the same street names, all the same buildings, even the same locks. The man gets a glimpse at how his life could be different.

The video below is a charming song from the movie called “esli u vas”. It’s an interesting study in Russian optimism. Basically, the lyrics of the song are about the things that can’t happen to you if you don’t expose yourself to them, but then you will have never experienced life. If you don’t have a dog, your neighbor can’t poison it (!), if you don’t have a house, you won’t fear house fires, if you don’t have friends, you won’t fight with them, etc. I couldn’t find a link with a nice translation.


Soviet Holiday Cards

Boingboing had a cool post yesterday about Soviet “Christmas” cards. Actually most of the cards say “s novum godom”– “to the new year”. I love all the science and rocketry themes. I also find it interesting how many things we associate with Christmas have been co-opted for a holiday the soviets found safer: New Year’s. You can find the original website for the cards here. Below are a few of my favorites, which can all be found at www.mazaika.com/postcard01.htm.


Style: Soviet Propaganda Posters

The 20-40s really seem like it was a golden age for illustration. Color photos were not as vibrant as they are today, yet mass printing existed. Thus, beautiful and stylized portraits of life were used in advertising and propaganda (Alphonse Mucha did lovely art nouveau illustrations for advertisers since the late 1800s, I wrote about him here). Many of us have seen the posters created for the Great Depression and WW2 by artists such as Thomas Hart Benton.

When I visited the Czech Republic, Budapest and East Berlin, I was struck by their propaganda posters from the same period. There was such a contrast between the lovely illustrations and the content that we would likely find oppressive. It can be a window into history to understand how people chose (or were forced into) their path. For good collections of Czech or CSSR Propaganda, check out the Communist Musuem in Prague and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. The featured image for this post is the poster for the Communist Museum; one of my souvenirs from Prague are some nesting dolls with this design.

To have more we must produce more (Wikipedia)

The Czech, Hungarian, and German posters seem hard to find, and I only know the languages a little (if anyone knows good sources, let me know!) I find the role of small countries in the early 20th century especially interesting since they are underrepresented. The countries of central Europe endured many of the worst hardships during the 20th century. There are many sources for Russian propaganda posters:


10 years since the revolution