Thursday, November 30, 2006 11/30/06-Spike Lee in 1987

In today's excerpt, Spike Lee's first commercially-released movie, She's Gotta Have It, which was pieced together on a $23,000 budget, has become an minor and unexpected hit. And a line from the movie--Mars Blackmon's "please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please"--is becoming a catch-phrase:

"Then Nike called, asking Spike to work on commercials to star a promising young basketball talent named Michael Jordan. ...

"Nike was then an upstart company, looking to overtake Adidas in the sneaker market. Adidas was the brand eulogized by Run DMC ... and Nike needed a figurehead to capture the imagination of the urban black market. ... Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight recollects, 'We were first introduced to Spike Lee by Michael Jordan. He'd just seen She's Gotta Have it, and he kept going around saying, 'Please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please.' I said, 'What the hell is that from?' And he talked about this movie and told the Weiden Kennedy [advertising] people about Spike. ...

"The Spike 'n' Mike 'It's gotta be the shoes' ads not only exposed Spike Lee to an audience that wouldn't have dreamed of lining up to see She's Gotta Have It; they also persuaded a whole generation that Nike Air Jordan sneakers were an accessory they couldn't live without. Nike quickly became the biggest sporting brand in the world, and Phil Knight would never forget the contribution made by Spike Lee: 'I think that the commercials had his fingerprints all over them. Everyone remembers what a great success the Jordan line has been--perhaps the biggest success in the history of the sporting-goods business. It continues to sell at a very high level. But in that year before the Spike and Mike adverts, the sales of Air Jordans actually went down. It was those advertisements that really revived the brand.' "

As told to Kaleem Aftab, Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It, Norton, 2005, pp. 52-4, 70-1.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 11/29/06-John D. Rockefeller

Today's encore excerpt shows a young John D. Rockefeller, immediately after the Civil War (circa 1865), beginning to build his oil business:

"Perhaps no industry so beguiled the Civil War veterans with promises of overnight wealth than the oil industry. In astonishing numbers, a ragtag group of demobilized soldiers, many still in uniform and carrying knapsacks and rifles, migrated to northwest Pennsylvania. The potential money to be made was irresistible, whether in drilling or in auxiliary services; people could charge two or three times as much as they dared to ask in the city. ...

"The war had also disrupted the whaling industry and led to a doubling of whale-oil prices ... Moving into the vacuum, kerosene emerged as an economic staple and was primed for a furious postwar boom. This burning fluid extended the day in cities and removed much of the lonely darkness from rural life. ... Congressman James Garfield alluded to the oil craze in a letter to a former staff officer: 'I have conversed on the general question of oil with a number of members who are in the business, for you know the fever has assailed Congress in no mild form. ... Oil, not cotton, is King now in the world of commerce.'

"In many ways, Rockefeller seemed a finely tuned instrument of the zeitgeist, the purest embodiment of the dynamic, acquisitive spirit of the postwar era. ... [S]haped by his faith in economic progress ... he steeled himself to persevere, subordinating his every impulse to the profit motive, working to master unruly emotions and striving for an almost Buddhist detachment from his own appetites and passions. ... As a self-made man in a new industry, Rockefeller wasn't stultified by precedent or tradition, which made it easier for him to innovate.

"Already by the late 1860s, stern prophecies were issued about the [oil] industry's impending demise. There were two types of oilmen: those who thought the sudden boom an insubstantial mirage and who cashed in their profits as soon as possible; and those, like Rockefeller, who saw petroleum as the basis of an enduring economic revolution."

Ron Chernow, Titan, First Vintage Books, 1998, pp. 99-102.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 11/28/06-China in 1970

Today's encore excerpt tells of the establishment of an office called the U.S. Liaison Office, an innovation developed behind the scenes by the U.S. and China as a step toward restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries:

"[In the early 1970's], long before the deluge of tourists and traders was allowed into 'Red China,' there were no direct flights between Hong Kong and Beijing. You traveled the 40 miles to Canton by train or hovercraft and then continued by plane to Beijing. On the flight a cheerful attendant in a baggy uniform made her way down the aisle pouring tea from a large dented and blackened kettle. She would return with your snack--stewed chicken feet or pickled cabbage--and keepsakes ...

"The U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing was a drab two story structure about the size of a Denny’s Restaurant. It did not look like the product of secret meetings between some of the towering figures of the twentieth century. On a trip to Vietnam in July 1971, Henry Kissinger disappeared for a weekend to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing. In 1972 came what a Tokyo paper ... called the 'Nixon Shokku.' Incredibly, Nixon and Mao Zedong had agreed to work toward a normalization of relations. At a follow-up meeting in February 1973, Zhou invented the concept of the 'Liaison Office,' which would allow a handful of American and Chinese nationals to work in each other's capitals before full diplomatic relations could be established.

"The State Department worked under the premise that the best way to get along with communist countries during the Cold War was by letting them learn as much as possible about our culture and the workings of democracy. My job was to help Chinese librarians, long isolated from all things Western, gain access to information from the States ... I stayed at the century-old Peking Hotel, its stolid facade hiding scars from the Boxer Rebellion. The hotel had been renovated in the 1950s and a new Soviet styled wing added on, but it was always stuffed with members of the USLO awaiting quarters, with entire families often jammed into a single room for months ...

"You were never in danger of losing you hotel key; you never got one ... hotel staff could walk into your room at any time. Unlocked doors may have threatened privacy, but they didn’t seem to affect security. I could leave my camera or a cash stuffed wallet in my room confident they would be undisturbed ...

"The chief and the deputy chief [of the USLO] had to share in entertaining visiting dignitaries, but their wives couldn't stage a dinner party on the same night because there was only one set of formal dinnerware ...

"After almost six years of diplomatic limbo, the day came [in 1979] to take down the sign for the Liaison Office and put up one that read United States of America Embassy."

Don Hausrath, "USLO Peking", American Heritage, September 2005, pp. 68-9.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Delanceyplace 11/27/06-Children in Victorian England

In today's encore excerpt, we get a glimpse into raising children in upper-crust London in the mid-1800's. Jean Rio Baker is married to Henry Baker, and they have eight young children, less the one who has died as a toddler:

"Child rearing was left to governesses, and the children were taught what one of them called 'the pure Queen's English' by private tutors, as Jean Rio pursued her musical career throughout Europe. A cook and butler handled domestic matters, and Jean Rio and Henry took their meals separate from the children. The family regularly attended public celebrations for Queen Victoria, and, to judge from their proximity to the royal family at these times, the Bakers were apparently among the elite of mid-nineteenth-century London society.

"Henry, a prominent engineer, built a miniature steam locomotive for his children. The couple routinely read Shakespeare aloud to their children from a leather-bound volume of the complete works--a book Jean Rio would eventually carry with her to Utah, along with many others. 'They were taught personal cleanliness, morals, manners, and religion in no uncertain terms,' wrote a descendant. As each child turned fourteen, he or she was invited to the family dinner table, having received training in etiquette. At that age, the sons were presented with a silver watch and chain. By that age as well, the children were expected to have mastered the common requirements in history and literature, as well as bookkeeping and higher mathematics that included algebra. Upon turning sixteen, the boys received a gold watch and, as son William George remembered the symbolic rite, were told by Jean Rio and Henry that they would now be expected to conduct themselves as proper gentleman at all times. All the children learned horsemanship and regularly rode the bridle path in Hyde Park; it was a proficiency that would serve them well in their future lives on the American frontier."

Sally Denton, Faith and Betrayal, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, pp.13-4.

Friday, November 24, 2006 11/24/06-Fayum Portraits

In today's excerpt, the extraordinary portraits from Fayum, Egypt, painted in the second century, C.E. These portraits exhibit a sophistication in lighting and expression not attained until centuries later in European art. The most famous is commonly known as "European Girl" and hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris:

"These portraits we now admire under sophisticated museum lighting were intended to be buried. The painters who created them would never have dreamed they would one day become visible again. This is something that should be borne in mind as we look at what are now known as 'Fayum Portraits.' Fayum is a fertile region in Egypt, one of the most important wheat-growing areas of the ancient world ...

"For these likenesses, painters worked together with the future deceased, not to enhance the social standing of the sitter or to glorify their art: their collaboration was intended to give the patron a face suitable for the afterlife. The aim was to produce an identity for an individual before he or she entered the realm of death; to have one's portrait painted was to prepare to cross over into the other world.

"The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Libyans, and Syrians who lived at Fayum during the Greco-Roman period all mummified their dead. Once finished, the 'face' of the deceased, painted on linen or on a thin plank of wood--usually poplar--and slightly smaller than the actual face, was inserted into the strips just above the mummy's head. Many different kinds of Fayum portraits exist. There are hundreds of them, all realized by untutored or local painters. The artists remain equally anonymous: some were second rank, but others were geniuses, such as the one who executed the fascinating face [below], which is now in the Louvre and known as the 'European Girl.' ...

"Every illusory trick is brilliantly deployed: the light is very slightly brighter on the upper lip, contrast is reinforced around the eyes ... but here as in nearly every such portrait, the most conspicuous and haunting features are the eyes, which have an infinitely expressive look of caressing softness, totally cleansed by the imminence of death or its expectation. The extraordinary humanity of this remarkable face is here allied to a feeling of abeyance, to a thoughtfulness that hovers on the brink of the eternal chasm.

Egyptian Girl : <>

Michel Nuridsany, Masterpieces of Painting, Flammarion, 2006, p. 17.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006 11/22/06-Truman Capote's memories

In today's excerpt, little seven-year-old Truman Capote, abandoned by his parents and raised by dirt-poor relatives in Alabama, is closest friends with his distant cousin, an elderly, simple minded, and slightly crippled woman named Sook. On a cold and empty Christmas afternoon she exclaims to him:

" 'My, how foolish I am!' she cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. 'You know what I've always thought?' she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but a point beyond. 'I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun shining through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort: to think of that shine takes away all the spooky feeling. But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are,'--her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie, our dog, pawing earth over her bone-- 'just what they've always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.' "

Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory, Modern Library, 1996, originally published in 1956, pp. 26-7.

Monday, November 20, 2006 11/20/06-John Wooden

Today's encore excerpt underscores that you can never be good enough to please everyone. The writer is John Wooden, whose UCLA basketball teams won 10 NCAA championships, including 7 in a row, both still considered untouchable records. Here, a booster approaches him after winning his 10th title:

"In 1974 we got to the Final Four once again and could have won our eighth national championship in a row. However, we lost to North Carolina State, the eventual champion, in the semifinals 80-77 in a double overtime. Our championship streak was stopped at seven in a row.

"Twelve months later, on March 29, 1975, we came back and won the national championship, our tenth overall, by defeating Kentucky 92-85 in the finals. As we stood waiting for the awards ceremony to begin in the San Diego Sports Arena, a longtime UCLA booster rushed up to my side and grabbed my arm. As he began wildly shaking my hand he shouted in my ear, 'We did it! We did it! You let us down last year, Coach, but we got'em this year!'"

John Wooden, Wooden, Contemporary Books, 1997, pp. 81-2.

Friday, November 17, 2006 11/17/06-Miles Davis

In today's excerpt, Miles Davis records Kind of Blue:

"In 1959, Miles Davis recorded his sixth album for Columbia Records, a small group session that would eventually be titled Kind of Blue. More than forty years after its release, it is still one of the most- sought-after recordings in the country; in fact, as late as 1998 it was the best-selling jazz album of the year. In both Rolling Stone and end-of- the-century polls, it was voted one of the ten best albums of all time--in any genre--and it is the only jazz album ever to reach double-platinum status. Yet its popularity is not the only extraordinary thing about Kind of Blue, In addition to being an uncontestable masterpiece, it is also a watershed in the history of jazz, a signpost pointing to the tumultuous changes that would dominate this music and society itself in the decade ahead."

"March 2, 1959 ... was the first of two dates on which Kind of Blue was recorded. Miles had worked on the tunes right up until the morning of the session. He had been thinking about this album for a while and had specific goals in mind. One was to steer a new course for jazz, away from Western musical theory [to explore the idea of using modes, or scales, instead of chord progressions]; another goal, even more important, was to record an album on which musicians were forced to play their solos with complete spontaneity. ... Musicians have often brought new compositions to a recording studio, but the Kind of Blue sessions went far beyond that. Not only had the the musicians (with the exception of [pianist Bill] Evans) not seen the tunes in advance, they had never before played music with the very structure of these tunes. ...

"Mile's commitment to spontaneity was in itself a key innovation of Kind of Blue. ... This is how Miles put it: "If you put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time, then he can do that--but he's got to think differently in order to do it. He has to use his imagination, be more creative, more innovative; he's got to take more risks.' "

Eric Nisenson, The Making of Kind of Blue, St. Martin's Griffin, 2000, pp. ix, 134-136

Thursday, November 16, 2006 11/16/06-The Perils of the Principle Wife

In today's encore excerpt, Magellan's shipmate and diarist, Antonio Pigaffeta, writes during their voyage in 1522 of an unusual funeral rite on the island of Bali:

"Pigafetta relished the tales he heard of Java, beginning with its funeral rites. 'When one of the chief men of Java dies, his body is burned,' he wrote. 'His principle wife adorns herself with garlands of flowers and has herself carried on a chair through the entire village by three or four men. Smiling and consoling her relatives who are weeping, she says, 'Do not weep, for I am going to sup with my dear husband this evening and to sleep with him this night.' Then she is carried to the fire where her husband is being burned [and burned alive]. If she did not do that, she would not be considered an honorable woman or a true wife to her dead husband.' For all its melodrama, this was a fairly accurate account of a funeral ceremony as practiced on the island of Bali, located little more than a mile east of Java, and in India."

Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World, Morrow, 2003, p.372

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 11/15/06-Amazing Grace

In today's excerpt--"Amazing Grace," the famous hymn composed by John Newton:

"Most of us at one time or another have heard or sung 'Amazing Grace.' What is less well known is the fact that for six years its composer was a successful slave trader, shipping hundreds of Africans across the Atlantic from Sierra Leone to the Caribbean.

" 'Amazing Grace' is the supreme hymn of Evangelical redemption: 'Amazing grace how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind but now I see.' It is tempting therefore to imagine Newton suddenly seeing the light about slavery and turning away from his wicked profession to dedicate himself to God. But the timing of Newton's conversion is all wrong. In fact, it was after his religious awakening that Newton became the first mate and then the captain of a succession of slave ships, and only much later that he began to question the morality of buying and selling his fellow men and women. ...

"John Newton's journal for 1750-51, when he was in command of the slave ship Duke of Argyle, lays bare the attitudes of those who lived and profited by the trade of human lives Sailing up and down the coast of Sierra Leone and beyond, Newton spent long weeks bartering goods for people, haggling over the price and quality with the local slave traders. He was a choosy buyer, avoiding old 'fallen breasted' women. On 7 January 1751 he exchanged eight slaves for a quantity of timber and ivory, but felt overcharged when he noticed that one of them had 'a very bad mouth.' 'A fine manslave, now that there are so many competitors' he complained, 'is near double the price it was formerly.' Note the word 'it.' He noted on the same day the death of 'a fine woman slave, No. 11.' "

Niall Ferguson, Empire, Basic Books, 2002, pp. 62-63.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 11/14/06-Custer

In today's excerpt--General George Armstrong Custer. After his many dazzling combat performances as a Union general in the Civil War, Custer finds himself in a command with very little action among the Indians. But he then receives new orders from General Phil Sheridan--the orders that will lead him to Little Big Horn:

"An Ohio blacksmith's son, impulsive and high- spirited, charming but self-absorbed, he had just scraped through West Point, accumulating 726 demerits and graduating last in his class. 'It was all right with him,' a classmate remembered, 'whether he knew his lessons or not; he did not allow it to trouble him.' And he was an unlikely looking soldier: his hair swept to his shoulders in gold ringlets, he carried a toothbrush in his jacket pocket so that, no matter what was going on around him, he could polish his gleaming teeth after every meal, and he had worn into battle a gaudy uniform of his own design--Confederate hat, red kerchief, velveteen jacket, and trousers decorated with gold lace.

"But he was born for war. His judgment would often be called into question, but no one ever questioned his headlong courage. Again and again, he led the charge ... as though no bullet or saber could touch him. Eleven horses were shot from under Custer, and at twenty-three, he became the youngest general in the Union Army, and perhaps its best-known divisional commander. ... [H]is men, many of whom admired him so much that they, too, wore red kerchiefs into battle--also suffered some of the Union Army's highest losses. ... [A]t the Grand Review, the great Washington parade that celebrated the war's end, three hundred admiring girls all dressed in blue showered him with blossoms ...

"At first, Custer professed to love the West, and he designed for himself a distinctively western costume, meant to catch the eye of visiting newspapermen. ... But the glory Custer assumed would once again be his as soon as he faced Indians in battle proved maddeningly elusive. ... Out hunting one day with his hounds, far from his column and in the heart of Indian country, he galloped after a buffalo, aimed his revolver--and somehow shot his own horse through the head. On foot, bruised and totally lost, he had to be rescued by his own men. Catching Indians was no easier. ... After weeks of fruitless campaigning, forage and supplies failed to materialize. ... The pitiless sun took a heavy toll on Custer's men and horses, and they began to desert in ones, twos, and threes. Then thirteen troopers left camp together. Custer ordered them hunted down and shot. One was killed outright, two more were brought back wounded. For two days, Custer refused them medical attention. One subsequently died. Custer, Captain Albert Barnitz told his wife, was 'the most complete example of a petty tyrant that I have ever seen.'

"[T]hen, to lead his winter campaign, Sheridan sent for Custer. It was all the younger man had hoped for--a chance to redeem himself ..."

Geoffrey C. Ward, The West, Back Bay Books, 1996, pp. 218-220, 233.

Monday, November 13, 2006 11/13/06-Dodgeball Truth

In today's excerpt--technology:

"Sooner or later, we all face the Dodgeball truth. This comes at the moment when you realize that one of life's possibilities -- a product, an adventure, an offer, an idea -- is really meant for people younger than you.

"This bitter revelation is named for the relatively new Web-based service This is a social networking site, and it represents most of what is supposed to be advanced and exciting about the current wave of 'Web 2.0' offerings. Dodgeball's goal is to help you figure out, at any moment of the day or night, whether your friends or people who might be friendly are nearby. Toward this end, users construct networks of contacts -- you list your friends, they list theirs, and on it goes -- and lists of 'crushes,' people they'd like to get to know. Then, with your cell phone or PDA, you send Dodgeball a text message saying that you've arrived at a particular bar or Starbucks or museum. Dodgeball messages you back with a list of people in your network who are within brief walking distance of your location -- and tells them, and your crushes, where you are.

"Dodgeball clearly meets most of the standards Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly Media, laid out last fall in his manifesto 'What Is Web 2.0.' (The paper can be found at It relies on users to create and continually refine its content. It combines, or 'mashes up,' different kinds of data and services: mapping systems, networking software, messaging services. (The single most annoying aspect of the annoyingly named Web 2.0 movement is the use of the term 'mashing up' to denote what in English we call 'combining.') Dodgeball is light, mobile, interactive. And for the life of me, I can't imagine when I would use it.

"Well, I can. Two years from now, if I'm at the Republican or Democratic national convention, I might want to find the 100 people I know amid the 50,000 I don't. Otherwise, I don't need Dodgeball to find the people who matter to me. My wife is in the other room, my kids are with their cell phones, I can trawl for friends and relatives via BlackBerry. Dodgeball is meant for people in their 20s -- my children's age. Anyone my age who has signed up is probably also lurking on MySpace."

James Fallows, "Homo Conexus," MIT Technology Review, July/August 2006, p. 76.

Friday, November 10, 2006 11/10/06-Lennon and McCartney

In today's excerpt--Paul McCartney talks about the personal tragedies he and John Lennon faced growing up:

"My mum dying when I was fourteen was the big shock in my teenage years. She died of cancer, I learnt later. I didn't know then why she had died. ... My mother's death broke my dad up. That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. I'd never heard him cry before.

"That became a very big bond between John and me, because he lost his mum early on, too. We both had this emotional turmoil which we had to deal with and, being teenagers, we had to deal with it very quickly. We both understood that something had happened that you couldn't talk about--but we could laugh about it, because each of us had gone through it. It was OK for him to laugh at it and OK for me to laugh at it. It wasn't OK for anyone else. ... John went through hell, but young people don't show grief--they'd rather not.

"John was the local Ted [tough guy]. You saw him rather than met him. ... [A]s I got older, I realised it was his childhood that made John what he was. His father left home when he was four. I don't think John ever got over that. ... He would wonder, 'Could he have left because of me?' ... Instead of living with his mother, he went to live with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George. Then Uncle George died and John began to think that there was a jinx on the male side: father left home, uncle dead. He loved his Uncle George; he was always quite open about loving people. All those losses would really have got to him. His mother lived in what was called 'sin'--just living with a guy by whom she had a couple of daughters ... John really loved his mother, idol-worshipped her. I loved her, too. She was great: gorgeous and funny, with beautiful long red hair. She was killed, so John's life was tragedy after tragedy."

The Beatles, The Beatles Anthology, Chronicle Books, 2000, pp. 19-20. 11/09/06-Teenagers

In today's encore excerpt--teenagers. It was primarily labor unions, in order to preserve jobs at the height of the Depression, who pushed for mandatory attendance of high school, thus creating "teenagers" as we know them--along with a presumption of immaturity and an imposed uniformity of experience on those teenagers:

"What was new about the idea of the teenager at the time the word first appeared during World War II was the assumption that all young people ... should have essentially the same experience, spent with people exactly their age, in an environment defined by high school and pop culture. ... [It has become] central to life.

"Today's teenagers serve a sentence of presumed immaturity, regardless of their achievements or abilities. The prodigy has to finish high school. The strapping well-developed young man shows his prowess not at work, but on the football or soccer team. The young woman who is ready to be a mother is told to wait a decade instead.

"That doesn't mean we have given up thinking about ourselves and others in terms of size, only that this mindset coexists uncomfortably with our practice of regimented age grouping. ... Today's young people grow to their full size and reach sexual maturity sooner than did members of earlier generations. The mismatch between young people's imposing physical development and their presumed emotional, social and intellectual immaturity is dramatic. Will these powerful young people, who are judged not ready to join the adult world, assert themselves and immediately careen out of control, endangering themselves and others? This is the perennial anxiety that's near the heart of the teenage mystique."

Thomas Hine, The Rise & Fall of the American Teenager, Avon Books, 1999, pp. 11, 16-17.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006 11/8/06-European, African and Asian Slaves

In today's excerpt--European, Asian and African slaves in the 8th and 9th century C.E.:

"By 740 C.E. the spectacular Muslim conquests had created a vast intercontinental empire extending from modern Pakistan westward across the entire Mideast and northern Africa to Spain and even southern France. This territorial conquest produced an immense flow of slaves from many ethnic groups for employment as servants, soldiers, members of harems, eunuch chaperons, and workers in the fields and mines. Since Islamic law prohibited the forcible enslavement of Muslims, the Arabs, Berbers, and their Muslim converts who made deep inroads into sub-Saharan Africa had strong incentives to acquire by purchase or capture large numbers of 'infidel' black slaves.

"Muslims, or 'Moors' as they were called, also enslaved enormous numbers of Europeans, but with the exception of the southeastern Byzantine region, Europeans were less accessible than East Africans. Between 1550 and the early 1800s the Moors of North Africa seized and enslaved well over one million Europeans--by raiding the coastlines from Italy to England and even Iceland as well as by capturing countless ships. But many of these white slaves were ransomed, thanks to the strength and negotiating power of European states and the concerted efforts of Christian benevolent societies. White captives tended to be given less onerous and degrading jobs than the blacks.

"The importation of huge numbers of black slaves into Islamic lands, from Spain to India, was the result of a continuous, large-scale migration—by caravan and sea over a period of more than twelve centuries, beginning in the 600s. It may have equaled, in total number, all the African slaves transported to the New World. Between 869 and 883, thousands of black slaves in what is now southern Iraq staged one of the greatest slave revolts in human history. Because the status of slavery came to be associated with the increasing number of sub-Saharan Africans, the Arabic word for slave, 'abd, came to mean only a black slave, and in some regions referred to any black, whether slave or free. Numerous Arab and Iranian depictions of black slaves were almost identical with the worst racist stereotypes in nineteenth-century America."

David Brion Davis, "Blacks: Damned By the Bible," The New York Review of Books, November 16, 2006, p. 38.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006 11/07/06-the game of chess

In today's excerpt--the game of chess:

"When and how and why was chess invented? The very oldest chess myths point toward its actual origins. One story portrays two successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhait. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man's dependence on destiny and fate; he invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game that would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. 'At this time chess was invented,' reads an ancient text, 'which the king preferred to nard, because in this game skill always succeeds against ignorance. He made mathematical calculations on chess and wrote a book on it ... The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movement of troops.'

"The game, in reality, was not invented all at once, in a fit of inspiration by a single king, general, philosopher, or court wizard ... After what might have been a century of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia (today's Iran) sometime during the fifth or sixth century. ... Each [player's] army was equipped with one King, one Minister (where the Queen now sits), two Elephants (where the Bishops now sit), two Horses, two Ruhks (Persian for Chariot), and eight Foot Soldiers. ...

"The game probably evolved along the famous Silk Road trading routes ... between Delhi, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, Kandahar, and China's Xinjiang Province. ... No doubt many other games were invented by the same roving merchants, but there was something different about chatrang. In a critical departure from previous board games, this game contained no dice or other instruments of chance. Skill alone determined the outcome. 'Understanding is the essential weapon' proclaims the ancient Persian poem Chatrang-namak, one of the oldest books mentioning the game. 'Victory is obtained by the intellect.'

"This was a war game, in other words, where ideas were more important and more powerful than luck or brute force. In a world that had been forever defined by chaos and violence, this seemed to be a significant turn."

David Shenk, The Immortal Game, Doubleday, 2006, pp. 16-18.

Monday, November 06, 2006 11/6/06-Woody Allen

In today's excerpt--Woody Allen. In 1962, after a series of low-level comedy-writing jobs, Allen approaches agent Jack Rollins regarding finding more writing work. Rollins, however, notes his potential as a stand-up comic and steers him that direction, thus launching Allen's meteoric public career:

" 'Woody was the shyest little bunny that ever was,' Rollins told me. 'Something about the guy made us crack up. He'd do [his jokes] in a monotone like a writer, not trying to presume to perform, and to us it came across hilarious. He undersold everything':

"[I]t wasn't just that Allen wrote funny jokes--his jokes were of a different kind from anyone else's, full of surreal concepts and funny images--like ... his joke about being raised in a home so strict that he had to be home by nine-thirty on prom night--'So I made a reservation at the Copacabana for five o'clock and I took my date and we watched them set up.'

" 'We put him in these little clubs that paid nothing, and because of his lack of cachet as a performer, he would come out, and not only was the material offbeat and strange to people, but he would present it like a kid doing a show-and-tell for school. Not a laugh. ... Allen said '[It] took more courage than I knew I had. I worked at my own expense, financially and emotionally, going down to some godforsaken, mostly empty club at eleven P.M. and then nobody would laugh. I wanted to die.' ...

"He found that 'what audiences want is intimacy with the person. They want to like the person and find the person funny as a human being. ... It's not the jokes that do it, it's the individual himself. The comedian has nothing to do with the jokes. It's just a great, great fallacy that turns out so many mediocre comedians and causes so much trouble. The best material in the world in the hands of a hack or someone who doesn't know how to deliver jokes is not going to mean anything. You can take the worst material in the world and give it to W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx and something funny will come out.' "

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny, Backstage, 2004, pp. 544-547.

Friday, November 03, 2006 11/3/06-John Singer Sargent

In today's excerpt--John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). He was the most successful portrait painter of his era, as well as a gifted landscape painter and watercolorist. He was an American expatriate who lived most of his life in Europe. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American parents and studied in Italy, Germany, and Paris. During the greater part of Sargent's career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings:

"When Sargent's portraits hung on the walls of galleries in London, Paris, New York, Boston, Chicago or Philadelphia, what seemed to distinguish them from works by other artists was the illusion they presented of life being lived, as if the membrane between real life and created art had been utterly thinned. At the Royal Academy in 1891, the Times critic wrote of La Carmencita:

" 'What one gets from it is an extraordinary sense of vitality: this, one is half-inclined to say, is not a picture, it is the living being itself, and when the music strikes up she will be bound away in the dance. For beauty, that is another matter; the painter has not gone in search of it in the first instance--he has preoccupied himself with life, in the hope that beauty would emerge with it.'

"In 1891 ... Sargent was still regarded as a young pretender. ... [T]he Pall Mall Gazette noted, 'They do not like his work at the Academy ... [and] the papers say he is an eccentric.' ... He was still very much a painter's painter, but his edgy style and innovatory compositions continued to arouse suspicion and unease. ... That changed during the spring of 1892 when Sargent painted two beautiful, cultivated women: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, the epitome of stylish repose, and Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, an exercise in nervy refinement. When the portraits were exhibited the following spring ... critics were transported, writing in language rich with the vocabulary of sensation and abandon. ...

"Sargent had developed a form of bravura realism crossed with impressionism, painting with an eye for the realities of light and colour in powerful and succulent brushstrokes so that his sitters were presented as real people. His vision and technique was introducing something new to the English portrait tradition and was beginning to stamp an exciting authority on the English art world."

John Singer Sargent: <>

La Carmencita: <>

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw: <>

Mrs. Hugh
Hammersley: <>

Richard Ormand and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent, Yale, 2002, pp. 12-15.

Thursday, November 02, 2006 11/2/06-Economic Growth

Today's encore excerpt shows the world's standard of living growing by only 50 percent from A.D. 1 to A.D. 1800, but soaring over 900 percent in the 200 years since:

"The past two centuries, since around 1800, constitute a unique era in economic history, a period the great economic historian Simon Kuznets famously termed 'the period of modern economic growth.' Before then, indeed for thousands of years, there had been virtually no sustained economic growth in the world, and only gradual increases in the human population. The world population had risen gradually from around 230 million people at the start of the first millennium in A.D. 1, to perhaps 270 million by A.D. 1000, and 900 million by A.D. 1800. Real living standards were even slower to change. According to [Angus] Maddison, there was no discernible rise in living standards on a global scale during the first millennium, and perhaps a 50 percent increase in per capita income in the eight-hundred-year period from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1800.

"In the period of modern economic growth, however, both population and per capita income came unstuck, soaring at rates never before seen or even imagined...the global population rose more than sixfold in just two centuries, reaching an astounding 6.1 billion people at the start of the third millennium, with plenty of momentum for rapid population growth still ahead. The world’s average per capita income rose even faster ... increasing by around nine times between 1820 and 2000. In today’s rich countries, the economic growth was even more astounding. The U.S. per capita income increased almost twenty-five-fold during this period, and Western Europe’s increased fifteen-fold. Total worldwide food production more than kept up with the booming world population...Vastly improved farm yields were achieved on the basis of technological advances. If we combine the increases in world population and world output per person, we find that total economic activity in the world rose an astounding forty-nine times during the past 180 years.

"By 1998, the gap between the richest economy, the United States, and the poorest region, Africa, had widened to twenty to one. Since all parts of the world had a roughly comparable starting point in 1820 (all very poor by current standards), today’s vast inequalities reflect the fact that some parts of the world achieved modern economic growth while others did not. Today’s vast income inequalities illuminate two centuries of highly uneven patterns of economic growth."

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty, The Penguin Press, 2005, pp. 27-9.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006 11/1/06-Al Qaeda Recruits

In today's excerpt--Abdullah Azzam recruits teenagers and young men for Al Qaeda's battles in Afghanistan during the mid-1980s, taking full advantage of their vulnerability born of oppression and deprivation:

"It was death, not victory in Afghanistan, that summoned many young Arabs to Peshawar. Martyrdom was the product that Azzam sold in books, tracts, videos and cassette tapes that circulated in mosques and Arabic language book-stores. ... He told stories of the mujahideen who defeated vast columns of Soviet troops virtually single-handedly. He claimed that some of the brave warriors had been run over by tanks but survived; others were shot, but the bullets failed to penetrate. If death came, it was even more miraculous. ... Bodies of martyrs uncovered after a year in the grave still smelled sweet and their blood continued to flow. ...

"The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum had failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtracted the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment--movies, theater, music--is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remains the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

"Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in its rewards. ... And for those young men who came from cultures where women are shuttered away and rendered unattainable for someone without prospects, martyrdom offered the conjugal pleasures of seventy-two virgins ..."

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, Knopf, 2006, pp. 106-107.