Sunday, April 30, 2006 05/03/06-Commodity Futures

In today's excerpt, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the US Supreme Court decide the fate of commodity futures in the 1905 case Board of Trade v. Christie. The case was pivotal in the development of the radical notion that an idea is a legal entity in the same sense that a physical thing is--a development which has led to the huge, well established futures markets of contemporary finance. Farmers and commercial grain operators decried futures trading pits such as the one operated by the Chicago Board of Trade and protested that...

"the man who managed or sold or owned the immense fields of wheat has not as much to say with regard to the price of wheat as some young fellow who stands howling around the Chicago wheat pit. (Charles) Pillsbury indicted futures trading--a new form of trade in commodities, such as 'September wheat,' which had not yet been grown when it was sold...Notably, in the trading 'pits'--circumscribed spaces where buyers and sellers traded futures--commodities were exchanged without material things ever changing hands between buyer and seller...By 1890, futures trading had become the dominant mode of commodities exchange...

To critics, futures trading was 'unnatural,' 'deranged,' 'evil,' because it was detached from the 'selling of wheat actually in sight.' William F. Boyle of...the National Alliance of Farmers and Industrial Laborers said, 'Certainly no one can claim a right to sell that which he not only does not own, but never intends to acquire, and consequently never intends to deliver; for in that case he is selling that which nobody owns, and which, in the nature of things, has no real existence.'

...What made the courts tepid intervention noteworthy was that it distilled the fundamental conceptual problem of futures trading: were objects existing only in the minds of pit traders fictitious or as real as bushels of grain moving through the physical economy?

...It was, finally, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who decided the legitimacy of futures trading. In 1905, Holmes delivered the majority opinion...which declared futures trading not only legal but also desirable."

Jonathan Ira Levy, 'Contemplating Delivery: Futures Trading and the Problem of Commodity Exchange in the United States. 1875-1905,' The American Historical Review, April 2006, pp. 307-322

Saturday, April 29, 2006 05/02/06-Nutrition

In today's excerpt, the contribution of nutrition to the steep post-industrial revolution decline in disease and death:

"The third (and last key) element in the decline of disease and death was better nutrition. This owed much to increases in food supply, even more to better, faster transport. Famines, often the product of local shortages, became rarer; diet grew more varied and richer in animal protein. These changes translated among other things into taller, stronger physiques. This was much slower than those medical and hygienic gains which could be instituted from above, in large part because it depended on habit and taste as well as income. As late as World War I, the Turks who fought the British expeditionary force at Gallipoli were struck by the difference in height between the steak- and mutton- fed troops from Australia and New Zealand and the stunted youth of British mill towns. And anyone who follows immigrant populations from poor countries into rich will note that the children are taller and better knit than their parents.

...This world is divided roughly into three kinds of nations: those that spend lots of money to keep their weight down; those whose people eat to live; and those whose people don't know where their next meal is coming from."

David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Norton, 1998, p. xix 05/01/06-Da Vinci

In today's excerpt, Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1504:

"...during his (17 year absence from Florence) Leonardo's attitude to light and colour in painting had changed all out of recognition, and his return projected a new style of painting into the artistic world of Florence. He now used delicate and sober colouring; his paintings possessed a sensitive tonal unity; and, by contrast with the brilliant definition of his earlier painting, the transitions from light to shadow were gently blurred in a technique later called sfumato (indicating that the individual degrees of these transitions had 'vanished'). At its most obvious this contrast of styles may be seen by setting the early Uffizi Annunciation alongside the Louvre Virgin and Child with St Anne.

This picture in the Louvre also demonstrates a further novel aspect of Leonardo's painting. His figure compositions, like this one, immediately attracted attention on account of their fascinating complexity. Soft, gentle and sinuous, this was a style opposed in most particulars to the world of David and the Bathers cartoon (both by Michelangelo). Paintings of this Leonardesque type were intimate; they possessed delicacy, refinement and sensibility."

Bernard Myers & Trewin Copplestone, The History of Art, Dorset, 1990, p. 508

Thursday, April 27, 2006 04/28/06-Jane Jacobs

In today's encore excerpt, we take a little extra space to note with great sadness the passing of Jane Jacobs, iconoclastic author of such works as the landmark Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities. Jacobs, in our view, was one of the great original thinkers of our age. who, according to architectural critic Inga Saffron 'almost single-handedly launched the movement to stop America's cities from being paved over by highways, housing towers and high-handed urban renewal projects. Written in 1961, Death and Life was a withering critique of the post-World War II planning establishment, which believed it could cure what ailed America's cities by replacing dense downtown neighborhoods with a monoculture of concrete public-housing towers. Mrs. Jacobs took the then-radical view that cities derived their richness from their natural, if sometimes scruffy, mix of people, buildings and commerce. Her observations were initially derided as the quaint musings of a simple housewife with no academic degree. It didn't help that she was a woman commenting on a largely male profession, or that she wore her hair in a childish page-boy with self-cut bangs and owlish glasses. But Mrs. Jacobs had her revenge. Her revolutionary ideas have been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream thinking, while her critics have been discredited with one public-housing implosion after another. A review in the New York Times grandly declared her book 'the most influential single work in the history of town planning' ':

"Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers. To any one person, strangers are far more common in big cities than acquaintances. More common not just in places of public assembly, but more common at a man’s own doorstep. Even residents who live near each other are strangers, and must be, because of the sheer number of people in small geographical compass...

So long as we are content to believe that city diversity (which equates with success) represents accident and chaos, of course its erratic generation appears to represent a mystery. However, the conditions that generate city diversity are quite easy to discover by observing places in which diversity flourishes and studying the economic reasons why it can flourish in these places...

To generate exuberant diversity in a a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

2. Most Blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.

4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they maybe there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The purpose of explaining them (in this book) one at a time is purely for convenience of exposition, not because any one-or even any three- of these necessary conditions is valid alone. All four in combination are necessary to generate city diversity; the absence of any one of the four frustrates a district’s potential.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Press, 1961, pp. 30, 150

Sunday, April 23, 2006 04/27/06-Broadway Actors

In today's excerpt, the difficulty of performing on Broadway:

"It is always wisest to try and see a show as soon as possible after it opens (because) most shows go to hell, sometimes quickly
You can't blame the actors for the deterioration. Doing the same precise thing eight times a week, 416 times a year, becomes numbing to the soul.

Barry Nelson says, 'The longer you play the performance, the more your mind resents it. You're in the middle of a scene, and suddenly all you're thinking about is whether you should have Chinese food after the show.'

'I don't think any actor really likes long runs. I don't think humans were meant to do them.' "

William Goldman, The Season, Limelight, 1969, pp. 19-20 04/26/06-Savannah, Georgia

In today's excerpt, in the tense months leading up to his 'I have a dream' speech, Martin Luther King visits Savannah, Georgia:

"...they all flew to Savannah on an early morning flight. The mood of the occasion was grimly practical, but the preachers among them appreciated that the Savannah region was a fitting site for revolutions grounded in religion. From Savannah, in 1738, the British revivalist George Whitefield had launched his first phenomenal tour of the American colonies, creating a mass intoxication--known as the Great Awakening--that swept from Georgia to New Hampshire. He drew 30,000 people to the Boston Common in 1740, when the city's entire population was less than two-thirds that number. From Savannah, where John Wesley first landed from England with his Anglican theology shaken by Whitefield's preaching on the voyage, Whitefield's influence spawned Baptist congregations and later Wesleyan (Methodist) ones. The small, malaria-infested seaport in Georgia became mother to the two massed-based Protestant denominations that captured early American churchgoers. In Savannah itself, the spirit of conversion was so strong that many of the whites accepted the idea of promoting religion among the slaves. First African Baptist was established there in 1788 as one of the first Negro congregations on the North American continent. A pastor of First African led the slave preachers who parleyed with General Sherman when his March to the sea reached Savannah."

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, Simon & Schuster, 1988, pp. 688-9 04/25/06-Keeping an Ally in Office

In today's excerpt, managing Winston Churchill was a constant challenge for Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall of the United States military policy leaders during WW II. They needed his support, but he was given to proposing unsound and distracting strategies. The United States was helped, though, by the calming, reasonable presence of Sir John Dill, Churchill's liaison to the United States. There inevitably came the time that Churchill became frustrated with Dill and wanted to replace him, something that created great concern for General Marshall, who came up with an innovative way to keep Dill in office:

"Marshall suggested (to Secretary of War Stimson's special assistant Harvey Bundy) that getting Dill 'an honorary degree from your old friends at Harvard would impress the old man in England.'

Bundy tried but failed; Harvard would grant no quickie degrees nor call a special convocation to present an honorary doctorate.

'Try Yale,' Marshall ordered.

As an old Eli, Bundy felt more secure. But even his alumnus status could not circumvent the problem of granting a degree without a ceremony. Instead, the university's president, Charles Seymour, proposed Dill be named the first winner of the Charles P. Howland Award for contributions to international relations. Seymour offered to lay on a full-dress academic parade for the ceremony, and the Army's public relations staff arranged extensive press coverage. Marshall went on to line up other degrees for his friend, always making sure that the publicity crossed the Atlantic.

Six weeks later, a smiling Marshall informed Bundy, 'My underground tells me that the Prime minister said, 'You know, that fellow must be doing quite a job.' ' The honors-laden Dill would stay on."

Ed Cray, General of the Army, Cooper Square, 1990, p. 447

Monday, April 17, 2006 04/24/06-Simplicity

In today’s excerpt, a thought from Academy Award winning cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose work has included The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, and Manhattan:

“Generally, the trick on a movie is to take something that’s often very sophisticated and reduce it to something very simple. So that it reads out in a good way to an audience. That’s hard, because not too many people understand simplicity: They equate it with ‘no good.’

Gordon Willis as reported by William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Warner Books, 1983, p. 379 04/21/06-Shanghaied

In today’s excerpt, unsuspecting young men ‘shanghaied’ into servitude aboard the great 19th century sailing ships:

“The 19th century, the heyday of sail-powered merchants shipping, was also the heyday of the sea pimp, or crimp, who supplied unscrupulous captains with fresh crew members, often unwilling ones. In other words, the men were shanghaied. (The term crimp, originally British slang for ‘agent,’ probably arrived in America with British sailors. The term ‘shanghai’ likely arose because many crimped sailors ended up in Shanghai, China, a major port in the day of sail.) Crimping took place in all major ports around the world: London, New York, and Hong Kong were all infamously dangerous places…

Toward the end of the sailing ships' reign in the last quarter of the 19th century, the West Coast of the United States was reported to have the most dangerous ports in the world to have the most dangerous ports in the world. Portland was a rough, corrupt city whose economy had risen quickly through timber and grain shipping. In the 1890’s it was common for 100 windjammers to be docked in Portland Harbor…

(in one typical instance, Portland resident) A.E. Clarke was wandering down Burnside Street when he met a man who invited him aboard to a riverboat party. Clarke accepted the offer and spent the afternoon drinking and chatting with young women as the boat made its way to Astoria, a port town located where the Columbia River enters the Pacific Ocean. Once there, Clarke was told to sign a passenger list so the crew would know when everyone was back on board, and then he was taken on a ‘tour’ of an iron-hulled, deep-sea square-rigger. At that point, Clarke and the other victims were held at gunpoint, manacled and shoved in a dark hold. It was seven years before Clarke saw Portland again.

Steve Wilson, ‘Of Crimps and Shanghaied Sailors,’ American History, June 2006, pp. 58, 60 04/20/06-Dick Gregory

In today’s excerpt--comedian Dick Gregory. Gregory became the first black superstar in the post-World War II era, coming to prominence in the 1960’s, and going on to be a crucial leader in the black civil rights movement. He broke through to white audiences in 1962 in a performance at Chicago’s Playboy club, then one of the nation’s premiere comedy venues:

“…he was ready when the call came, unexpectedly, from the Playboy Club to replace Irwin Corey, who wanted to take a Sunday night off…The club that night was full of frozen-food-industry conventioneers from the South, whom Gregory quickly disarmed, much to the relief of nervous Playboy Club executives. As Gregory moseyed out onstage, his cool demeanor didn’t betray the turbulence beneath: ‘Good evening…glad to see all you fine Southern people here tonight. I know a lot about the South. I spent twenty years there one night’ He bent racial stereotypes back on themselves, like his classic line about going to a restaurant and being told, We don’t serve colored people here.’ ‘That’s all right,’ was his reply, ‘I don’t eat’em. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.’ By the end of the set, the southerners were eating out of his hand…

Joan Rivers once spent an evening out with Gregory when he was at the height of his success, going with him to see some black comics. She remembered: ‘He had just met Eleanor Roosevelt and kept talking about how she would not have had anything to do with him six years before, when he was a chauffeur. 'The anger and bitterness in him were so great you could see he would not last long as a comic. He could not keep himself from making a statement—and you cannot make statements through comedy.’ And yet, what better way?—‘You know the definition of a southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree’…’Shouldn’t be no race problem. Everyone I meet says, ‘Some of my best friends are colored,’ even though you know there ain’t that many of us to go around.’ “

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny, Back Stage Books, 2004, pp. 491, 503

Friday, April 14, 2006 04/19/06-Weasel Tails

In today's excerpt--weasel tails:

"Weasels, at first glance, seem to be designed wrongly. They are beautifully camouflaged in white, yet that conspicuous black tip of a tail seems an odd, inexplicable anomaly--until experiments showed that hawks easily captured fake weasels that had no black tipped tail. When the hawks were baited with fakes that had black tipped tails, however, the birds grew confused, either momentarily hesitating or attacking the tails as though they were the head-end. Other small animals also use deception-evolved tails. Many lizards, for example, have colorful, conspicuous tails that divert or distract predators. The tail is easily detachable, and starts writhing and flailing after being detached to divert the predator even more from the live whole animal that slinks away. Lycaenid butterflies also have similarly distracting and detachable "tails" on their wings that fake out a predator in much the same way a good basketball passer fools his opponent on the court. The butterflies' tails imply to a predator that its prey is about to head in one direction, when it then turns and escapes in the opposite."

Bernd Heinrich , Winter World, The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, Harper Collins, 2003, p. 48

Monday, April 10, 2006 04/17/06-How to Pick a Hit

In today's excerpt, Oscar winning screenwriter Bill Goldman reveals how hits are picked:
"...did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was offered to every single studio in town--and they all turned it down?

All except Paramount.

Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that may just cost them...over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody--not now not ever--knows the least g*dd*m thing about what is or isn't going to work at the box office.

...David Picker, a fine studio executive for many years, once said something to this effect: 'If I had said yes to all the projects that I turned down, and no to all the ones I took, it would have worked out about the same.' "

William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Warner Books, 1983, pp. 40-1 04/18/06-Native Americans

In today's excerpt, Larry McMurtry, who, among his other accomplishments, won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain and the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, writes about dealing with Native Americans:

"In the late 1800s, Colonel George Shoop reflected the view of most in the military as well as the noted historian and journalist J.P. Dunn, when, after successfully massacring over 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, he confidently announced that 'Sand Creek had taken care of the Indian problem on the Great Plains'--his comment was the prairie equivalent of Neville Chamberlains' famous 'peace in our time' speech, after Hitler had outpointed him at Munich. Shoop was every bit as wrong as Chamberlain. Sand Creek, far from persuading the Indians that they should behave, immediately set the prairies ablaze. It sparked the outrage among the Indian people that led to inevitably to....the Little Bighorn"

...General George Crook's career as an Indian fighter and administrator contradicts perhaps more clearly than any other J.P. Dunn's assertion that the Indians only respected merciless behavior. Crook was no softie, of course, but he did try to be fair, and the Indians recognized as much and respected him for it....Unlike most military administrators, Crook took the time to try to understand the differences between the nine branches of the Apache people.....It was Crook who recognized the folly of cramming disparate and incompatible bands onto the same reservation. He made real progress. Even Geronimo, a particularly hard sell, developed some respect for General George Crook."

Larry McMurtry, Oh What a Slaughter, Simon & Schuster, 2005, (pp. 105, 122-23)

Sunday, April 09, 2006 04/14/06-Politicians and Parents

Today's encore excerpt speaks to the relationships between politicians and their parents:

"There does seem to be a preponderance of distinctly type A, superdetermined parents--mother or father or both--behind the people who achieve prominence in Washington..."Harry Truman wrote his mother ("Dear Mama...") almost every day while he was president. Rebekah Johnson is generally credited with having assiduously propelled her son Lyndon up the ladder to making himself a public somebody. George Bush's (41) well-born mother is generally credited with imbuing the son with what he saw as the better-off person's duty to participate in public life. There were other driving dads, albeit fewer than driving moms. The hurricane force determination of John F. Kennedy Sr. is notorious.

"I don't count something totally exotic or peculiar to Washington...after all, the ability of doddering parents reduce even their aged offspring to kidlike universally understood and, to most of us, a matter of rueful amusement...

"I remember witnessing one such classic encounter between Rose Kennedy, then well into her nineties, and her fifty- or sixty-something children Edward Kennedy and Eunice Shriver...After dessert at a large, fancy dinner party Senator Kennedy gave for his mother during one of these visits, when Eunice Shriver had already made an affectionate, lighthearted toast referring to her mother's undiminished ability to terrorize them on such matters, and while her son, the Senate committee chairman, was still on his feet delivering his speech of welcome, Rose Kennedy, apparently provoked beyond endurance by what she considered yet another lapse, interrupted him in mid-sentence to hiss in reproving tones heard by all, "Teddy, the coffee should have been served by now."

Meg Greenfield, Washington, Public Affairs Press, 2001, pp. 110-1 04/13/06-Surgery and Depression

In today's excerpt, experimental surgery in the cases of extremely depressed patients where drug and talk therapy have not been successful:

"Finally, in the spring of 2004...Dr. Gebreihiwot Abraham received a fax from a University of Toronto research team asking if he had an appropriate candidate for a clinical trial of a new, experimental surgery for treatment-resistant depression. The operation borrowed a procedure called deep brain stimulation, or DBS, which is used to treat Parkinson's. It involves planting electrodes in a region near the center of the brain called Area 25 and sending in a steady stream of low voltage from a pacemaker in the chest.

...(Researchers) found that Area 25 was smaller in most depressed patients; that it lighted up in every form of depression and also in nondepressed people who intentionally pondered sad things, that it dimmed when depression was successfully treated; and that it was heavily wired to brain areas modulating fear, learning, memory, sleep, libido, motivation, reward and other functions that went fritzy in the depressed.

...As it turned out, 8 of the 12 patients he operated on...felt their depression lift while suffering minimal side effects--an incredible rate of effectiveness in patients so immovably depressed. Nor did they just vaguely recover. Their scores on the Hamilton depression scale...(became) essentially normal."

David Dobbs, A Depression Switch?, The New York Times Magazine, April 2, 2006, pp. 52-3 04/12/06-War and the End Times

In today's excerpt, Kevin Phillips, long-time Republican pundit and author of the ground-breaking 1969 book "The Emerging Republican Majority", on his recently articulated thesis on the association of war and religion:

"Although the Europe of 1900-1914 represented the world's most advanced civilization, talk of Armageddon and crusadership flourished. By 1919 military recruiting posters showed St. George, St. Michael, angels and even Christ in the background...The most extreme blessing of the cannons came from the bishop of London, A.F. Winnington-Ingram, who called the war 'a great crusade--we cannot deny it--to kill Germans.' He advised The Guardian that 'you ask for my advice in a sentence as to what the church is to do--I answer MOBILIZE THE NATION FOR HOLY WAR.'

...Few historians have paid much attention to the loss of faith, but one explanation may be safely ventured. Organized religion did not profit from the great disillusionment when the various chosen peoples turned out not to be. For Britain, the lesson followed a century in which British Christianity had moved in many of the directions that we have later seen in the United States--evangelical religion, global missionary intensity, end-times anticipation, and sense of biblical prophecy beginning to come together in the Middle East.

But when the Armageddon of 1914-1918 brought twenty million deaths instead of Christ's return, the embarrassment was not limited to flag-bedecked Anglican churches and noncomformist chapels that had joined in the parade. Religion in general seemed to have failed, and the British Church attendance shrank--and then shrank again."

Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, Viking, 2006, 250-1, 382-3 04/11/06-the term G.I.

In today's excerpt, origin of the term G.I., and the difficulty of determining origins:

"Col. Roger O. Egeberg, stepped on a semantic land mine when he casually referred to MacArthur's troops as G.I.s. The general immediately exploded: "Don't ever do that in my presence...G.I. means 'general issue.' Call them soldiers."

While General MacArthur took G.I. to mean general issue, the term also has been interpreted over the years as standing for garrison issue, government issue, general infantry, and galvanized iron. And as it happens, the last, which might seem to be the least likely, is the true progenitor.

G.I. appears in Army inventories of galvanized iron trash cans and buckets from the early twentieth century...During World War I it was extended to include heavy German artillery and large bombs, while G.I. itself began to be applied in the MacArthurian sense of general issue to such items as G.I. shoes, G.I. soap and G.I. brushes. Soldiers probably began referring to themselves as G.I.s during this war...but no examples have been found in writing prior to 1935...The transition from trash can to soldiers may have been aided by the roughness and toughness of galvanized iron."

American Heritage, History Now, May 2006, p. 16

Sunday, April 02, 2006 04/10/06-Hollywood

In today's encore excerpt, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman comments on Hollywood films vs. Independent films:

"There are really two kinds of flicks--what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films. Hollywood films--and this is crucial to screenwriters--all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.

Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.

Independent films, which used to be called 'art' films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don't want to know.

Independent films unsettle.

Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death of a Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here's what he says: 'I'll get you for this!' The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don't love much anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words. We do not want to watch Willy Loman's suicide...Most people want to be told nice things. That we really are decent human beings, that God will smile on us, that there is true love and it is waiting for you, just around the corner. That the meek really will inherit the earth."

William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?, Pantheon, 2000, pp. 274-5 04/07/06-William Shakespeare

In today's excerpt, words from William Shakespeare:

"Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable."

"Virtue and genuine graces in themselves speak what no words can utter."

"Action is eloquence."

"How poor are they who have not patience! What wound did heal but by degrees?"

"In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility."
William Shakespeare, English dramatist, 1564-1616 04/06/06-American Titles

In today's excerpt, 1789's newly formed United States government debates what to call its elected officials:

"The Senate...discussed at length British precedents in deciding issues such as how to receive the president on Inauguration Day or how to communicate with the House of Representatives. After (Pennsylvania's William) McClay objected, the Senate removed from its official minutes a reference to Washington's 'most gracious speech,' which, as McClay observed, were the words 'usually placed before the speech of his Britannic Majesty' and so would give offence to the American people, who found 'odious' everything related to 'Kingly Authority.' Some senators nonetheless advocated bestowing titles on high-ranking officials. 'All the world, civilized and savage,' had titles, argued Virginia's Richard Henry Lee, and without them officeholders would command no respect. There, Lee had the determined support of Vice-President Adams.

Only the objections of the House of Representatives undercut a Senate committee's recommendation that the president be addressed as 'His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.' In the interest of congressional harmony, the Senate finally agreed that the proper address would be " 'the President of the United States,' without addition of title." In this matter, at least, the view prevailed that British practice was 'of no rule to us," as Maryland's Senator Charles Carroll of Carrollton put it. Instead, the American Republic adopted as its stylistic model Roman simplicity--which conveyed the fact, as McClay said, that elected officials were 'the Servants not the Lords' of their constituents."

Maier, Smith,, Inventing America, Norton, 2003, pp. 251-2

Saturday, April 01, 2006 04/05/06-Billy Crystal

In today's excerpt, Billy Crystal writes about his world growing up:

"This was an important time to be laughing. We needed laughter, because we were in the middle of the Cold War. We had a president who was an aging war hero, and a first lady too old to wear bangs. We were terrified of the Russians. It all started in 1957 with Walter Cronkite telling us, 'This is the sound from Outer Space.' We heard a few electronic beeps, it was Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth. What the hell is this thing? Eighteen inches around with a bunch of small knitting needle-type prongs protruding from it. We're doomed, we all thought. It's a death ray!

Nikita Krushchev came into our lives then. A squat, scary little man, and his equally scary wife, and the fact that Krushchev didn't speak English made him even scarier, so I became even more frightened of his interpreter. How did we know this interpreter was getting it right? Krushchev came to the U.N. He took off his shoe and banged it on the table and screamed at us, 'WE WILL BURY YOU!' At least that's what they told us he said, what he really said was, 'THESE ARE NOT MY SHOES! WHO STOLE MY SHOES?'

'The Bomb' was on our minds all the time. We watched films in elementary school, showing what nuclear explosions looked like, what they could do to a city. Horrifying...We were practicing duck-and-cover drills in school in case of an enemy attack. They would hurry us into the hallway, we'd sit on the floor with our arms folded, our heads down, our legs crossed. This position was surely going to save me when the Russians dropped the big one on us."

Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays, Warner, 2005, pp. 99-100 04/04/06-Inventions

In today's excerpt, examining the 'heroic theory of invention':

"...the commonsense view of invention...overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That 'heroic theory of invention,' as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors therby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work. From a patent lawyer's perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors, like Athena springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.

In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim 'X invented Y.' For instance, we are regularly told, 'James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769,' supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a teakettle's spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt's repair work. Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that Frenchman Denis Papin designed...around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others.

All this is not to deny that Watts greatly improved Newcomen's engine (by incorporating a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery's."

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Norton, 1997, pp.244-5