Thursday, May 31, 2007 05/31/07-LBJ

In today's encore excerpt--in one of our favorite passages, Robert Caro describes former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson's genius at "reading" others. Though ultimately disgraced as president due to his conduct of the Vietnam War, Johnson was regarded one of the most adroit and effective leaders of the U.S. Senate in American history:

"While Lyndon Johnson was not, as his two assistants knew, a reader of books, he was, they knew, a reader of men--a great reader of men. He had a genius for studying a man and learning his strengths and weaknesses and hopes and fears, his deepest strengths and weaknesses: what it was that the man wanted--not what he said he wanted but what he really wanted--and what it was that the man feared, really feared.

"He tried to teach his young assistants to read men--'Watch their hands, watch their eyes' he told them. 'Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it's not as important as what you can read in his eyes'--and to read between the lines: he was more interested in men's weaknesses than in their strengths because it was weakness that could be exploited, he tried to teach his assistants how to learn a man's weakness. 'The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he isn't telling you,' he said. 'The most important thing a man has to say is what he's trying not to say.' For that reason, he told them, it was important to keep the man talking; the longer he talked, the more likely he was to let slip a hint of that vulnerability he was so anxious to conceal. 'That's why he wouldn't let a conversation end.' Busby explains. 'If he saw the other fellow was trying not to say something, he wouldn't let it (the conversation) end until he got it out of him.' And Lyndon Johnson himself read with a genius that couldn't be taught, with a gift that was so instinctive that a close observer of his reading habits, Robert G. (Bobby) Baker, calls it a 'sense;' 'He seemed to sense each man's individual price and the commodity he preferred as coin.' He read with a novelist's sensitivity, with an insight that was unerring, with an ability, shocking in the depth of its penetration and perception, to look into a man's heart and know his innermost worries and desires.'

Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, p. 136.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 05/29/07-baseball mascots

In today's excerpt--baseball mascots in the 1910s and 1920s, the heyday of baseball's biggest stars Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, shows how much American societal norms have changed:

"Superstition flourished in baseball. Teams hired black children, hunchbacks, and mis-fits as good luck charms. The 1911 World Series had seen the clash of two of the most famous mascots, Charles "Victory' Faust, described by some as a lunatic, and Louis Van Zelst, a dwarf. (Faust's Giants lost; within three years, he was in an insane asylum.) The Tigers had a six- toed batboy in 1919. They adopted a mutt, nicknamed Victory, in 1923--a year after experimenting with a live tiger cub. The St. Louis Browns even toured with a monkey--until the team started losing.

"[Ty] Cobb himself had the exuberant Alex Rivers, who since 1908 had acted as his personal assistant and number-one devotee. Rivers, a five-foot-two black man from New Orleans, was a familiar sight at [Detroit's] Navin Field, bounding through the dugout to retrieve bats, flashing his toothy smile. 'I want Alex around,' Cobb said during a Detroit winning streak. 'I realize that the work of our players wins games, but just the same I wouldn't like to start one without Alex here. Superstitious? Well, maybe.' ...

"The Yankees employed the prize of all mascots. The much sought Eddie Bennett--a stunted, crippled orphan credited with helping the White Sox, Dodgers, and Yankees win pennants from 1919 to 1923--had joined the Yankees as a grinning, seventeen-year-old batboy in 1921. Before games, Ruth and Bennett sometimes entertained with a game of catch in which Ruth would continually hurl a ball just above Bennett's reach. Ruth wanted only Bennett to handle his bats."

Tom Stanton, Ty and the Babe, St. Martin's Press, 2007, pp. 104-5.

Friday, May 25, 2007 05/25/07-Incomplete Information

In today's excerpt--drawing conclusions from incomplete information:

"If science works because we live in a world of regularities, it works in the particular way it does because of some peculiarities in our own makeup. In particular, we are masters at drawing conclusions from incomplete information. We are constantly observing the world and then making predictions and drawing conclusions about it. That is what hunter- gatherers do, and it is also what particle physicists and microbiologists do. We never have enough information to justify completely the conclusions we draw. Being able to act on guesses and hunches, and act confidently when the information we have points somewhere but does not constitute a proof, is an essential skill that makes someone a good businessperson, a good hunter or farmer, or a good scientist. It is a big part of what makes human beings such a successful species.

"But this ability comes at a heavy price, which is that we easily fool ourselves. Of course, we know that we are easily fooled by others. Lying is strongly sanctioned because it is so effective. It is, after all, only because we are built to come to conclusions from incomplete information that we are so vulnerable to lies. Our basic stance has to be one of trust, for if we required proof of everything, we would never believe anything. We would never do anything--never get out of bed, never make marriages, friendships, or alliances. Without the ability to trust, we would be solitary animals. Language is effective and useful because most of the time we believe what other people tell us.

"But what is equally important, and sobering, is how often we fool ourselves. And we fool ourselves not only individually but en masse. The tendency of a group of human beings to quickly come to believe something that its individual members will later see as obviously false is truly amazing. Some of the worst tragedies of the last century happened because well-meaning people fell for easy solutions proposed by bad leaders. But arriving at a consensus is part of who we are, for it is essential if a band of hunters is to succeed or a tribe is to flee approaching danger.

"For a community to survive, then, there must be mechanisms of correction: elders who curb the impulsiveness of the young because if they have learned anything in their long lives, it is how often they were wrong; the young, who challenge beliefs that have been held obvious and sacred for generations, when those beliefs are no longer apt. Human society has progressed because it has learned to require of its members both rebellion and respect, and because it has discovered social mechanisms that over time balance those qualities."

suggested by a delanceyplace reader

Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 299-300.

Thursday, May 24, 2007 05/24/07-Mothers

In today's encore excerpt--mothers:

"As much as we may like to believe that mother animals are designed to nurture and protect their young, to fight to the death, if need be, to keep their offspring alive, in fact, nature abounds with mothers that defy the standard maternal script in a raft of macabre ways. There are mothers that zestily eat their young and mothers that drink their young's blood. Mothers that pit one young against the other in a fight to the death and mothers that raise one set of their babies on the flesh of their siblings.

"Among several mammals, including lions, mice and monkeys, females will either spontaneously abort their fetuses or abandon their newborns when times prove rocky or a new male swaggers into town. Others, like pandas, practice a post-natal form of family planning, giving birth to what may be thought of as an heir and a spare, and then, when the heir fares well, walking away from the spare with nary a fare-thee-well.

"When Douglas W. Mock of the University of Oklahoma began studying egrets in Texas three decades ago, he knew that the bigger babies in a clutch would peck the smaller ones to death. 'I figured that, if the parents were around, they'd try to block these things.' Instead, Dr. Mock witnessed utter parental indifference. ... 'In the 3000 attacks that I witnessed, I never saw a parent try to stop one. It's as though they expect it to happen.' "

Natalie Angier, "Oh, Mothers!", The New York Times, May 9, 2006, The Science Times, F1-4.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007 5/23/07-Anecdotal Evidence

In today's excerpt--the place of anecdotal evidence in science:

"It has been said, correctly in my opinion, that theories define facts as much as the other way around. ... Anecdotal evidence has sort of a slippery, jelly-like quality to it, and theories are needed to congeal the stuff together into single, solid facts. 'Anecdotal' is often used as a pejorative term in scientific circles, meaning unreliable. In practice it often means isolated, and therefore hard to assess. Think of a new field of science as a large jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are discovered one by one, and at first they are unlikely to fit together to make a picture. Things can look distinctly unpromising, sometimes for decades. But if you can bear the pain of feeling stupid and the humiliation of being wrong, anecdotal evidence is the call of the wild, the surest sign of the undiscovered. Columbus set sail on the basis of anecdotal evidence. The Mayan hieroglyphs were deciphered using anecdotal evidence. Life-saving remedies based on plants, such as aspirin and digitalis, were found by scientists who paid attention to anecdotal evidence.

"Scientific problems typically go through three phases. In the first phase, a few bold explorers discover a new land and map out its basic features. In the second phase, boatloads of immigrant scientists arrive and colonize the land. In the third phase, statues are erected on town squares, sometimes to the original discoverers, more often to the able administrators who built the roads and railways."

suggested by a delanceyplace reader

Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 108.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 05/22/07-Marconi

In today's excerpt--Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) invents wireless communication:

"The idea arrived in the most prosaic of ways. In the summer of 1894, when [Marconi] was twenty years old, ... he happened to acquire a copy of a journal called Il Nuovo Cimento in which he read an obituary of Heinrich Hertz (the discoverer of the electromagnetic wave). ... Something in the article produced the intellectual equivalent of a spark ... 'My chief trouble was that the idea was so elementary, so simple in logic that it seemed difficult to believe that no one else had thought of putting it into practice,' he said later. ...

"As a child, Marconi was possessive about electricity. He called it 'my electricity.' His experiments became more and more involved and consumed increasing amounts of time. The talent he exhibited toward tinkering did not extend to academics, however, though one reason may have been his mother's attitude toward education. 'One of the enduring mysteries surrounding Marconi is his almost complete lack of formal schooling,' wrote his grandson. ... [His mother] tutored Marconi or hired tutors for him and allowed him to concentrate on physics and electricity, at the expense of grammar, literature, history, and mathematics. ...

"In his attic laboratory Marconi found himself at war with the physical world. ... He knew that if his telegraphy without wires was ever to become a viable means of communication, he would need to be able to send signals hundreds of miles. ... The true scholar-physicist had concluded that waves must travel in the same manner as light, meaning that even if signals could be propelled for hundreds of miles, they would continue in a straight line at the speed of light and abandon the curving surface of the earth. Another man might have decided the physicists were right--that long-range communication was impossible. But Marconi saw no limits. He fell back on trial and error, at a level of intensity that verged on obsession. ... Theoreticians devised equations to explain phenomena; Marconi cut wire, coiled it, snaked it, built apparatus, and flushed it with power to see what would happen, a seemingly mindless process but one governed by the certainty that he was correct. ...

"[Years later, in 1909, after he successfully began transmitting wirelessly across the Atlantic Ocean] the overseers of the eight-year-old Nobel prizes awarded the prize for physics to Marconi, ... an immense honor and utterly unexpected, for he had never considered himself a physicist. ... And he frankly admitted that he still did not fully understand why he was able to transmit across the Atlantic, only that he could. As he put it, 'Many facts connected with the transmission of electric waves over great distances still await a satisfactory explanation.' "

suggested by a delanceyplace reader

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck, Crown, 2006, pp. 15-25, 312.

Monday, May 21, 2007 05/21/07-Saddam

In today's excerpt--the ruthlessness of dictators:

"According to [Saudi Prince] Bandar, Saddam required his bodyguards to do two things to prove themselves: kill somebody from within their own tribe and kill somebody from another tribe. So there would be a double vendetta.

"Bandar explained: 'This is smart evil because if you take evil out of it, it makes sense. If I want to trust you with my life, I want to make sure nowhere else you are safe except with me.'

"At another time Saddam pointed to the people around him--high and low--and told [Saudi King] Fahd, 'They are the most loyal to me.'

"It is nice to be surrounded by the most loyal people,' Fahd replied.

" 'Oh, no, no, I didn't say that, Your Majesty,' Saddam corrected. 'I told you they are very loyal to me because every one of them, his hand is bloody. Every one of them knows that when I die, you will never find a piece this big from my body.' Saddam indicated the smallest piece of flesh between his fingers. 'I'll be cut to pieces, and if that happens to me, they're all finished.'

"From his personal meetings with the Iraq dictator, Bandar said, 'The most amazing thing about Saddam is how confident he looks, how relaxed he looks, and how charming he is--and how deadly. And each of these attributes are clear at the same time.'

"Saddam could make his most senior generals shake, Bandar said. Once, while Bandar met with Saddam in the 1980s while trying to broker an end to the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam told him, 'Bandar, all those people are loyal to me. I know a man by looking into his eyes. I can tell you if he's loyal or not. And if he starts blinking, I know he is a traitor and then I exterminate him.' ...

" 'You are a man with presence,' Bandar told the Iraqi dictator. 'I would not be surprised that some poor young officer or minister might panic, which is natural. Are you going to tell me you are going to kill somebody because he panicked only because he is in awe of you?'

" 'Ha, ha, ha, ha, HA!' Saddam replied with the most deadly laugh. He then tapped Bandar on the shoulder. 'I'd rather kill somebody, not sure if he is a traitor, than let one traitor get by.' "

suggested by a delanceyplace reader

Bob Woodward, State of Denial, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 88-9.

Friday, May 18, 2007 05/18/07-The Beatle's Van

In today's excerpt--the Beatles drive their van, showing once again that even the famous pay their dues. Post-Hamburg, but pre-Shea Stadium, the not-yet-world-famous Beatles face regular and long road trips through England:

"GEORGE: After the Hamburg period we were driving up and down, doing gigs at the BBC in London a lot. ...

"RINGO: There are lots of driving stories. This is how a band gets close: in the van, going up and down the M1, freezing your balls off, fighting for the seats. ... There'd be the passenger seat for one of us, and the other three--whichever three, the rest of us--would sit behind on the bench seat, which was pretty miserable. ... I remember sliding all over Scotland. It was bloody freezing in the winter. ...

"JOHN: But we always got screams in Scotland. I suppose they haven't got much else to do up there. ...

"RINGO: We never stopped anywhere. If we were in Elgin on a Thursday, and needed to be in Portsmouth on Friday, we would just drive. ... One night I remember, when it was very, very cold, the three of us on the bench seat were lying on top of each other with a bottle of whisky. When the one on top got so cold that hypothermia was setting in, it would be his turn to get on the bottom. We'd warm each other up that way, keep swigging the whisky, keep going home.

"GEORGE: I had a good crash once. ... The accident had ripped the filler cap off and the petrol was pouring out. We got out and we had to shove T-shirts and things into the hole to try and stop the flow of petrol. ...

"RINGO: Another great van story was when George and Paul were both planning to drive the van. George got into the driving seat and Paul had the keys, and there was no way that one was going to help the other. We sat there for two hours. When you're touring, things can be pretty tense sometimes and the littlest thing can turn into a mountain. ...

"PAUL: There were a lot of laughs in the back of the car. ... I can't remember many deep conversations. There was a lot of giggling though."

The Beatles, The Beatles Anthology, Chronicle, 2000, p. 83.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 05/17/07-Nuclear Arsenals

In today's encore excerpt--in the 1950s, Israel becomes one of a now-growing list of countries that have made an unauthorized, clandestine entry into the world of nuclear armaments:

"The Israeli program is nearly as old as the state itself. [David] Ben-Gurion authorized it in 1952. ... [Benjamin Netanyahu] told me that if the survival of the country was at stake, the Israelis would use it and worry about the consequences later. ...

"In the 1950s, with French assistance, the Israelis had begun to construct a large reactor in the Negev and a facility for processing the fuel rods needed to make plutonium. Then, in 1959, De Gaulle became president of France and said French assistance could continue only if Ben-Gurion gave public assurance that the reactor would be used solely for peaceful purposes. This he did, while knowing full well that the reactor was going to be used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. The reactor was completed in 1963. During this time the Israelis and the Americans engaged in a kind of theater of the absurd. The Americans demanded inspections and the Israelis came up with one ingenious maneuver after another to avoid them. For example, the Americans were informed that the nuclear complex at Dimona was a textile factory. ... What brought an end to this farce was the testimony of an immigrant Moroccan Jew named Mordechai Vanunu.

"In 1977 ... Vanunu got a job as a manager in the graveyard shift at the nuclear plant. ... Vanunu's clearance gave him access to all levels of secure sites at the plant. ... He went to London with his story of Israel's nuclear program and photographs to back it up. These were published in the London Sunday Times and created a sensation. Vanunu was lured to Rome by a young woman, an Israeli agent, and kidnapped by the Mossad [Israel's intelligence agency]; he was taken back to Israel where he spent seventeen years in prison, partly in harsh solitary confinement. He is now living under tight security in Israel. It was clear from what he revealed. ... that Israel ... has a very considerable and varied nuclear arsenal."

Jeremy Bernstein, "The Secrets of the Bomb", The New York Review of Books, May 25, 2006, pp. 42-3.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007 05/16/07-Beer

In today's excerpt--beer, the first drink beyond water to come to prominence within civilization. It was the first of the six beverages through which the flow of world history can be charted, each helping to both define and influence its era. The five that followed were wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola:

"There was almost certainly no beer before 10,000 BCE, but it was widespread in the Near East by 4000 BCE, when it appears in a pictogram from Mesopotamia, a region that corresponds to modern-day Iraq, depicting two figures drinking beer through reed straws from a large pottery jar. (Ancient beer had grains, chaff, and other debris floating on its surface, so a straw was necessary to avoid swallowing them.) ...

"[There] cereal grains, it was soon discovered, had an unusual property: Unlike other foodstuffs, they could be stored for consumption months or even years later, if kept dry and safe ... and the ability to store cereal grains began to encourage people to stay in one place. ... Cereal grains took on greater significance following the discovery that they had two more unusual properties. The first was that grain soaked in water, so that it starts to sprout, tastes sweet. ... Moistened grain produces diastase enzymes, which convert starch within the grain into maltose sugar, or malt. ... At a time when few other sources of sugar were available [this] would have been highly valued. ... The second discovery was even more momentous. Gruel (mashed cereal grains mixed with water) that was left sitting around for a couple of days underwent a mysterious transformation, particularly if it had been made with malted grain: It ... turned into beer.

"Even so, beer was not necessarily the first form of alcohol to pass human lips. At the time of beer's discovery, alcohol from the accidental fermentation of fruit juice (to make wine) or water and honey (to make mead) would have occurred naturally in small quantities as people tried to store fruit or honey. But fruit is seasonal and perishes easily, wild honey was only available in limited quantities, and neither wine nor mead could be stored for very long without pottery, which did not emerge until around 6000 BCE. ...

"Later Egyptian records mention at least seventeen kinds of beer, some of them referred to in poetic terms that sound, to modern ears, almost like advertising slogans: Different beers were known as 'the beautiful and the good,' 'the heavenly,' 'the joy-bringer,' 'the addition to the meal,' 'the plentiful,' 'the fermented.' Beers used in religious ceremonies also had special names. Similarly, early written references to beer from Mesopotamia, in the third millennium BCE, list over twenty different kinds, including fresh beer, dark beer, fresh-dark beer, strong beer, red-brown beer, light beer, and pressed beer."

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker, 2005, pp. 10-16.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 05/15/07-Encouraging the Enemy

In today's excerpt--Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, and General William Westmoreland:

"By April 1967, thirteen thousand Americans had been killed in Vietnam. Thirty thousand men a month were drafted. On the morning of April 28 in Houston, at 701 Jacinto Avenue, [Muhammad] Ali left a taxi and hurried toward a federal building and the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station.

"From behind, Ali heard that familiar voice.

" 'Are you going to take the step, Muhammad?'

"It was [Howard] Cosell, microphone raised.

"Again. 'Are you going--to take--the step?'

"Ali smiled. 'Howard Cosell--why don't you take the step?'

"Cosell said, 'I did. In 1942.'

"The morning Ali and Cosell did their act on the federal building steps, a general of the army told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 'American forces will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor.' The day before, that same general, William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, complained that protesters and 'unpatriotic acts at home' encouraged the enemy to keep fighting. The general did not mention the truth that the Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh needed no encouragement. By then, they had been waging guerrilla war against assorted opponents for almost twenty years. Ho had defined the nature and accurately predicted the outcome of an earlier conflict with France's colonial forces: 'If ever the tiger [his army] pauses, the Elephant [France] will impale him on his mighty tusks. But the tiger will not pause, and the elephant will die of exhaustion and loss of blood.' "

Dave Kindred, Sound and Fury, Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2006, pp. 110-111.

Monday, May 14, 2007 05/14/07-Chance Occurrences

In today's excerpt--chance occurrences and probability:

"[In chance occurrences] we find the basis for superstition. A 'chance occurrence' occurs. Not knowing the odds behind it, we marvel. Now, really, what are the odds? Surely too tiny for chance!

"Alan Guth, a physicist at MIT, described an example from his own family of how easily we turn the random into an omen. An uncle of his, who'd lived alone, had been found dead in his home, and a policeman had come to deliver the bad news to Guth's mother. While the officer was there, Guth's sister, who was traveling on business, happened to call. 'My mother and sister were both shocked at the timing of the call, that it coincided with the policeman's visit, and the news of my uncle's death,' said Guth. 'They thought that there had to be something telepathic about it.' When Guth heard from his mother of this miraculous instance of kin-based telecommunion, he couldn't help but do some quick calculations. As a rule, his sister phoned their mother about once a week. She tended to call either first thing in the morning or in the evening, when she had a moment and when her mother was likeliest to be around. The policeman had arrived at his mother's house at about 5:00 p.m., and, because there were several solemn orders of business to discuss, his visit had lasted more than an hour, possibly two. All factors considered, Guth said to me, the odds of his sister calling while the policeman was on-site were [not especially low mathematically].

"The more one knows about probabilities, the less amazing ... coincidences become. ... John Littlewood, a renowned mathematician at the University of Cambridge, formalized the apparent intrusion of the supernatural into ordinary life as a kind of natural law, which he called 'Littlewood's Law of Miracles.' He defined a miracle as many people might: a one-in-a-million event to which we accord real significance when it occurs. By his law, such miracles arise in anyone's life at an average of once a month. Here's how Littlewood explained it: You are out and about and barraged by the world for some eight hours a day. You see and hear things happening at a rate of maybe one per second, amounting to 30,000 or so events a day, or a million a month. The vast majority of events you barely notice, but every so often, from the great streams of happenings, you are treated to a marvel: the pianist at the bar starts playing a song you'd just been thinking of, or you pass the window of a pawnshop and see the heirloom ring that had been stolen from your apartment eighteen months ago. Yes, life is full of miracles, minor, major, middling C. It's called 'not being in a persistent vegetative state' and 'having a life span longer than a click beetles.' Natalie Angier, The Canon, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 49-51.

Friday, May 11, 2007 05/11/07-The Boer War

In today's excerpt--the Boer War. By 1898, the Boers, farmers descended from the early Dutch settlers of the Cape of Good Hope, were striving to retain their independence in a land now governed by the British. Yet the strategic importance of South Africa and the recently discovered gold in their lands meant that their independence was difficult for the British to abide:

"[British Colonial Secretary] Chamberlain and [Alfred] Milner provoked the Boer War, believing that the Boers could be bullied quickly into giving up their independence, ... It was 'the British Empire against 30,000 farmers.' ... [But] what Vietnam was to the United States, the Boer War very nearly was to the British Empire, in two respects: its huge cost in both lives and money--45,000 men dead and a quarter of a billion pounds spent--and the divisions it opened up back home. ...

"By the summer of 1900, ... the British Army had advanced into Boer territory, capturing both Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, and Praetoria, capital of the Transvaal. ... Despite the loss of their principal towns the Boers stubbornly refused to surrender. Instead, they switched to guerrilla tactics. ... In frustration, [British Commander] Roberts adopted a ruthless strategy designed to hit the Boers where they were most vulnerable. ... British troops were authorized to burn down the Boers' homes systematically. In all, around 30,000 were razed. ... The only question this begged was what to do with their wives and children, whom the Boer guerrillas had left behind when they joined their commandos ... After some dithering, the generals came up with an answer. They herded the Boers into camps--to be precise, concentration camps. ... Altogether, 27,927 Boers (the majority of them children) died in the British camps. That was 14.5 percent of the entire Boer population, and they died mainly as a result of malnourishment and poor sanitation. More adult Boers died this way than from direct military action. A further 14,000 of 115,700 black internees--81 percent of them children--died in separate camps."

Niall Ferguson, Empire, Basic, 2002, pp. 226-233.

Thursday, May 10, 2007 05/10/07-Slide Rules and Logarithms

In today's encore excerpt--the invention of logarithms is followed almost immediately by the invention of the slide rule:

"John Napier, a Scottish mathematician, physicist and astronomer, invented logarithms in 1614. ... Logarithms--that horror of high school algebra--were actually created to make our lives easier. So how did Napier's logarithms work? ...

"[U]sing logs, multiplication simplifies into sums, division becomes subtraction, finding a square root turns into dividing by two, and figuring out a cube root becomes dividing by three. For example, to multiply 3.8 by 6.61, you look up the logarithms of those numbers in a table. There you will find 0.58 and 0.82. Add these together to get 1.4. Now go back to the table and find the number whose log is 1.4 to get a close approximation of the answer: 25.12. Begone ye slippery errors!

"Napier's invention revolutionized mathematics--mathematicians adopted it immediately to speed their calculations. German astronomer Johannes Kepler used these modern logarithms to calculate the orbit of Mars at the start of the 17th century. ... [B]ut ready access to books of log tables was crucial to the procedure. So in 1620 mathematician Edmund Gunter of London marked a ruler with logarithms ... [and] around 1622 William Oughtred, an Anglican minister in England, placed two sliding wooden logarithmic scales next to each other and created the first slide rule. ...

"Napier went on to invent the decimal point ... and to lay the groundwork for Isaac Newton's calculus."

Cliff Stoll, "When Slide Rules Ruled," Scientific American, May 2006, pp. 81-84.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007 05/09/07-Edison, Fame and Hustling:

In today's excerpt--Thomas Alva Edison (1847- 1931):

"Edison's fame came suddenly, while he was still young. Between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, he became the first hybrid celebrity-inventor, ... one of the most famous people in the world. ...

"When he stood on the threshold of fame, he could not have predicted what would follow--and he did not shy away. He directed assistants to maintain newspaper clippings about him, a practice he would maintain his entire life. The existence of those scrapbooks suggests that Edison gave up an appealing attribute of his young adulthood: his utter indifference to the expectations of others. After 'Edison' became a household name, he would pretend that nothing had changed, that he was as indifferent as ever. But this stance was unconvincing. He did care, at least most of the time. When he tried to burnish this public image with exaggerated claims of progress in his laboratory, for example, he demonstrated a hunger for credit unknown in his earliest tinkering. The mature Edison, post-fame, is most appealing whenever he returned to acting spontaneously, without weighing what action would serve to enhance his public image.

"One occasion when Edison cast off the expectations of others in his middle age was when he met Henry Stanley, of 'Dr. Livingston, I presume' fame, and Stanley's wife, who had come to visit him at his laboratory. Edison provided a demonstration of the phonograph, which Stanley had never heard before. Stanley asked, in a low voice and slow cadence, 'Mr. Edison, if it were possible for you to hear the voice of any man whose name is known in the history of the world, whose voice would you prefer to hear?'

" 'Napoleon's,' replied Edison without hesitation.

" 'No, no,' Stanley said piously, 'I should like to hear the voice of our Saviour.'

" 'Well,' explained Edison, 'you know, I like a hustler.' "

Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park, Crown, 2007, p. 10.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007 05/08/07-Drawing

In today's excerpt--drawing through the use of the 'picture plane,' a device made of clear glass or plastic through which the artist sees the object to be drawn and 'traces' the image on the picture plane. Picture planes often have lines drawn on them that divide the pane into sections to further aid the artists:

"[A]dult students in art generally do not really see what's in front of their eyes--that is, they do not perceive in the special way required for drawing. They take note of what's there, and quickly translate the perception into ... symbols mainly based on the symbol system they developed throughout childhood and what they know about the perceived object.

"What is the solution to this dilemma? Psychologist Robert Ornstein suggests that in order to draw, the artist must 'mirror' things or perceive them exactly as they are. Thus, you must set aside your usual [symbolic] categorizing and turn your full visual attention to what you are perceiving--to all its details and how each detail fits into the whole configuration. In short, you must see the way an artist sees. ... Basic realistic drawing is copying what is seen on the picture-plane.

" 'If that is so, you may object, 'why not just take a photograph?' I believe one answer is that ... by slowing down and closely observing something, personal expression and comprehension occur in ways that cannot occur simply by taking a photograph. ...

"Use of the picture-plane has a long tradition in the history of art. The great Renaissance artist Leone Battista Alberti discovered that he could draw in perspective the cityscape beyond his window by drawing directly on the glass pane the view he saw behind the plane. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's writings on the subject, German artist Albrecht Durer developed the picture-plane concept further, building actual picture-plane devices. Durer's writings and drawings inspired Vincent Van Gogh to construct his own 'perspective device,' as he called it, when he was laboriously teaching himself to draw. ... Another renowned artist, the 16th-century Dutch master Hans Holbein, who had no need for help with his drawings, also used an actual picture plane. Art historians recently discovered that Holbein used a glass pane on which he directly drew images of his sitters for the overwhelming number of portrait drawings required of him when he lived in the English court of Henry VIII."

Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Penguin, 1999, pp. 81-102.

Monday, May 07, 2007 05/07/07-Immigrants and Remittances

In today's excerpt, the rapid growth of global immigration and the things that have stemmed from that--opportunity, remittances, and heartbreak:

"About 200 million migrants from different countries are scattered across the globe, supporting a population back home that is as big if not bigger. Were these half-billion or so people to constitute a state--migration nation--it would rank as the world's third largest. While some migrants go abroad with Ph.D.'s, most travel ... with modest skills but fearsome motivation. The risks migrants face are widely known, including the risk of death, but the amounts they secure for their families have just recently come into view. Migrants worldwide sent home an estimated $300 billion last year--nearly three times the world's foreign aid budgets combined. These sums-- 'remittances'--bring Morocco more money than tourism does. They bring Sri Lanka more money than tea does.

"The numbers, which have doubled in the past five years, have riveted the attention of development experts who once paid them little mind. ... A growing number of economists see migrants, and the money they send home, as part of the solution to global poverty. ...

"The growth in migration has roiled the West, but demographic logic suggests it will only continue. Aging industrial economies need workers. People in poor countries need jobs. Transportation and communications have made moving easier. And the potential economic gains are at record highs. A Central American laborer who moves to the United States can expect to multiply his earnings about six times after adjusting for the higher cost of living. That pay raise is about twice as large as the one that propelled the last great wave of immigration a century ago. ...

"Yet competing with the literature of gain is a parallel literature of loss. About half the world's migrants are women, many of whom care for children abroad while leaving their own children at home. ... Television novellas plumb the migrants' loneliness. ... [A migrant] does not say he is off to make his fortune. He says, 'I am going to try my luck.' "

Jason DeParle, "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves," The New York Times Magazine, April 22, 2007, p. 52.

Friday, May 04, 2007 05/04/07-You

In today's excerpt--you is the fourteenth most frequently used word in the English language, following closely behind its fellow pronouns it at number eight and I at number eleven:

"The fact that you follows closely behind I in popularity is probably attributable to its being an eight-way word: both subject and object, both singular and plural, and both formal and familiar. The all-purpose second person is an unusual feature of English, as middle-schoolers realize when they start taking French, Spanish, or, especially, German, which offers a choice of seven different singular versions of you. It's relatively new in our language. In early modern English, beginning in the late fifteenth century, thou, thee, and thy were singular forms for the subjective, objective, and possessive, and ye, you and your were plural. In the 1500s and 1600s ye, and then the thou/thee/thy forms, faded away, to be replaced by the all-purpose you. But approaches to this second person were interesting in this period of flux. David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English that by Shakespeare's time, you 'was used by people of lower rank or status to those above them (such as ordinary people to nobles, children to parents, servants to masters, nobles to the monarch), and was also the standard way for the upper classes to talk to each other. By contrast, thou/thee were used by people of higher rank to those beneath them, and by the lower classes to each other; also, in elevated poetic style, in addressing God, and in talking to witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings.' The OED cites a 1675 quotation: 'No Man will You God, but will use the pronoun Thou to him.'

"Needless to say, this ambiguity and variability were gold in the hand of a writer like Shakespeare, and he played with it endlessly, sometimes having a character switch modes of address within a speech to indicate a change in attitude. Crystal cites Sir Toby Belch's advice to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in Twelfth Night, on how to get under the skin of an antagonist: 'if thou thou'st him some thrice, it will not be amiss.' Sir Toby, of course, is himself thou-ing Sir Andrew."'

Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, Broadway Books, 2007, pp. 202-204.

Thursday, May 03, 2007 05/04/07-The Smothers Brothers

In today's encore excerpt--television censorship circa 1969. By 1967, the Smothers Brothers, the charming, blazer-clad comedy team that had come to prominence lampooning the ubiquitous folk singing groups of the time ('mom always liked you best') had the biggest TV show in America, and were using it to comment on the social upheavals of the '60s. Since there were only three major commercial channels, plus PBS and a smattering of UHF channels, censors held sway in a way that is in theory less possible than in our current age of video clips on the internet. The show was cancelled by censors in a maelstrom of controversy and public debate during the 1969 season:

"Tom and Dick Smothers were the perky shills for the subversive satire that, between 1967 and 1969, turned their jaunty variety show into a comedy terrorist cell. The Smotherses were our jolly hosts, but also the secret instigators ... of songs and sketches that aggressively took on Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and racism while singing the praises of drugs, sex, the counterculture, and everything else that wasn't nailed down. Looking at the shows now, which give off the happy-go-lucky, devilish air of its chummy hosts, they seem as innocent as old newsreels of the naughty Jazz Age.

"A TV executive once instructed them, 'We want you to be controversial but at the same time we want everyone to agree with you.' A station owner once told Tom that he was 'incompetent to make social comments.' One CBS memo said it was fine 'to satirize the president, so long as you do it with respect.'

"It all ended noisily in '69 when CBS stepped in and deleted a David Steinberg monologue, a 'sermonette' about Solomon and Jonah that was to have run not only on Easter Sunday but the week of President Eisenhower's funeral. ... CBS could hide behind religion, not politics, by blaming the allegedly sacrilegious sketch by Steinberg. A single Steinberg line...caused CBS brass to explode: 'The gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw a Jew overboard, and Jonah was swallowed by a giant guppy.' The next line went, 'The New Testament Scholars literally grab the Jews by the Old Testament.' "

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny, Back Stage Books, 2004, pp. 446-452.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007 05/02/07-Prison

In today's excerpt--rape in U.S. prisons and children in Haitian prisons:

"Recent studies of prisons in four midwestern states suggest that approximately 20 percent of male inmates are pressured or coerced into unwanted sexual contact; approximately 10 percent are raped. Rates of sexual abuse in women's facilities, where the perpetrators are most likely to be male staff, seem to vary more by institutions but are as high as 27 percent of inmates."

"Since the U.S. now incarcerates more people than any other country, both relative to the population and in absolute terms, these percentages translate into horrifying real numbers. The congressional authors of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 ... estimate in the bill's "Findings" section that in the twenty years preceding its passage over one million inmates were victims of sexual abuse in American facilities."

David Kaiser, "A Letter on Rape in Prisons," The New York Review of Books, May 10, 2007, p.22.

"The boys warehoused at Fort Dimanche [Port-au- Prince's children's prison] are the products of poverty, child abandonment, rampant homelessness and an educational system that has failed to enroll 1 million school-age children. Their plight reflects a country overwhelmed by the problems of its young--more than 200,000 Haitian children have lost one or both parents to AIDS and 300,000 work as unpaid domestic servants in a system of bonded servitude, according to the U.N. Children's Fund. ...

"Some of the children were as young as six when they arrived, although determining their true ages is an inexact science. The street kids who show up at the prisons in Haiti generally come without birth certificates or parents; some don't even know their birthdays."

Manual Rolg-Franzia, "Haiti's Lost Boys," The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, March 12-18, 2007, p. 11.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007 05/01/07-Surnames

In today's excerpt--last names:

"In administration too Francis [I of France, 1494-1547] was a modernizer. ... Aware of the increased number and mobility of the population, he decreed that every person take or be given a surname. About the same time Henry VIII [1491-1547] did likewise for his English subjects. This expansion of self had interesting social implications. It raised the common man nearer to the noble lord, fully tagged and distinguished by a coat of arms. ...

"In the sixteenth century the surname was the consequence of cutting loose from one's native soil. Many late medieval and Renaissance poets and artists were and are still known by their first names: Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo; Dante is even a nickname, the short form of Durante. When confusion with another had to be avoided, the place name supplied it: Raphael da Urbino, Leonardo da Vinci. The peasant or artisan, the monk or midwife were content with a baptismal name as long as they kept to their usual narrow orbit. But with travel (and exile) more frequent, with the needs of stricter tax collecting and religious conformity, rulers at every level wanted to register their subjects unmistakably. In Spain, no edict was needed. The long conflict (and intermarriage) with the Moors and Jews had made descent a matter of uncommon pride and at times a claim to privilege. From this came the practice of double and sometimes multiple surnames, showing father, mother, title, and place of origin--Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra--and the longer the better: Maria Teresa Velez del Hoyo y Sotomayor.

"In other countries, after the call for verbal ID, the question was, where to look for a good tag. Four main kinds were hit upon: the nickname given by the neighbors--Bright, Stout; the dwelling place: Hill, Woods; the trade or office: Smith, Marshall; and paternity: John(son) or MacShane, which also means John's son. That this last leads to the contradiction of Mary Johnson only shows how words can defy their derivation."

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Perennial, 2000, pp. 113-114.