Ulysses’ voyage (to respectability)

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Associated Press

Consensus among historians is hard to come by, but the disastrousness of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency has proved a reliable unifier over the years: The former Union general has a reputation as a drunk who handed his scandal-prone pals the keys to the country, and who was hopelessly at sea at navigating the economic upheavals of the time. When Arthur Schlesinger asked historians to rank each president from “great” to “failure” in 1948, Grant beat only the hapless Warren G. Harding, who once actually admitted, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”

Now comes a rousing defense of Grant’s much abused legacy in the fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, in which presidential historian H.W. Brands suggests that drunkenness aside—Grant did enjoy his whiskey—Grant inherited an unprecedented financial catastrophe and handled it with notable sophistication. When the Panic of 1873 hit—one major Philadelphia financial firm crumbled, pulling down other top firms and dozens of banks, and prompting mass layoffs by factories and railroads—there was no reason to think that President Grant, a Civil War hero and a failed businessman, would be equipped to handle the first country’s first national depression. Brands admits it’s hard to know how much Grant’s decisions had to do with the country’s eventual recovery, but he sees evidence of “a more subtle thinker than he was deemed by contemporaries and most historians since.”

Now, who’s the brave soul who’ll rescue Warren G. Harding?

The wisdom of crows



A few years ago, crows mesmerized the science world when it became clear the birds knew how to produce and use tools. Now a study suggests another high-level cognitive skill in the avian toolkit: The New Caledonian crow may possess the power of causal reasoning, previously believed to exist only in humans. Discover’s 80beats blog offers a nice summary of how researchers designed an experiment to test for the elusive skill, in which crows quickly learned to infer that a human entering and leaving a curtained area was responsible for a threatening stick wiggling in their enclosure.

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The authors of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say that this is the first time an animal has been shown to “make inferences about hidden causal mechanisms.” But it’s just the latest of several recent discoveries of animals performing eerily human-like functions, like birds that conduct “funerals” for their dead peers, apes that enjoy slapstick humor, and a chimp that conducts rigorous studies of primate behavior. (OK, that last one’s from The Onion.)

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.