Friday, June 29, 2007 06/29/07-Atoms

In today's excerpt--atoms:

"There are more than than one hundred different types of atoms, from lightweights like hydrogen and helium through welterweights like tin and iodine and out to such mumbling mooseheads as ununpentium and ununquadium, but they're all much the same nearly nil size. You can fit more than three atoms in a nanometer, meaning it would take 10 to the 13th power, or ten trillion of them, to coat the disk of our pinhead. And the funny thing about an atom is that its outlandish smallness is still too big for it: almost all of its subnanometer span is taken up by empty space. The real meat of an atom is its core, its nucleus, which accounts for about 99.9 percent of an atom's matter. When you step on your bathroom scale, you are essentially weighing the sum of your atomic nuclei. If you could strip them all from your body, go on a total denuclear diet, you'd be down to about twenty grams, the weight of four nickels, or roughly the weight of the doornail that you would be as dead as.

"Those remaining twenty grams belong to your electrons, the fundamental particles that orbit an atom's nucleus. An electron has less than 1/1,800 the mass of a simple atomic nucleus. ... Viewed from the more impressive angle of volumetrics, we see that, while the nucleus may make up nearly all of an atom's mass, ... it takes up only a trillionth of its volume.

"Here it is worth a final reversion to metaphor. If the nucleus of an atom were a basketball located at the center of Earth, the electrons would be cherry pits whizzing about in the outermost layer of Earth's atmosphere. Between our nuclear [basketball] and the whizzing pits, there would be no Earth: no iron, nickel, magma, soil, sea, or sky, ... nothing, literally, to speak of. ... We live in a universe that is largely devoid of matter. Yet still the Milky Way glows, and still our hemoglobin flows, and when we hug our friends, our fingers don't sink into the vacuum with which all atoms are filled. If in touching their skin we are touching the void, why does it feel so complete?"

Natalie Angier, The Canon

Thursday, June 28, 2007 06/28/07-Systems and Anarchy

In today's encore excerpt, John Steinbeck and his biologist friend Ed Ricketts muse on the subjects of systems and anarchy in the shadow of World War II:

"We thought that perhaps our species thrives best and most creatively in a state of semi-anarchy, governed by loose rules and half-practiced mores. To this we add the premise that over-integration in human groups might parallel the law in paleontology that over-armor and over-ornamentation are symptoms of decay and disappearance. Indeed, we thought, over-integration might be the symptom of human decay. We thought: there is no creative unit in the human save the individual working alone. In pure creativeness, in art, in music, in mathematics ... the creative principle is a lonely and individual matter. Groups can correlate, investigate, and build, but we could not think of any group that has ever created or invented anything. Indeed, the first impulse of the group seems to be to destroy the creation and the creator. ...

"Consider, we would say, the Third Reich or the Politburo-controlled Soviet. The sudden removal of twenty-five key men from either system could cripple it so thoroughly that it would take a long time to recover, if it ever could. To preserve itself in safety such a system must destroy or remove all opposition as a danger to itself. But opposition is creative and restriction is non-creative. The force that feeds growth is therefore cut off, ... thought and art must be forced to disappear and a weighty traditionalism take its place. ... A too greatly integrated system or society is in danger of destruction since the removal of one unit may cripple the whole.

"Consider the blundering anarchic system of the United States, the stupidity of some of its lawmakers, the violent reaction, the slowness of its ability to change. Twenty-five key men destroyed could make the Soviet Union stagger, but we could lose our congress, our president and our general staff and nothing much would have happened. We would go right on. In fact we might be better for it. ..."

John Steinbeck, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, 1951

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 06/27/07-Influenza

In today's excerpt--the 'Spanish flu':

"Horse-drawn carts plied the streets with a call to bring out the dead in the city where bodies lay unburied for days. The afflicted die by the thousands, and survivors lived in fear. But this wasn't medieval Europe being stalked by the Black Death. This was Philadelphia, October 1918, and the city was under siege from a new variant of one of mankind's oldest specters: influenza."Between September 1918 and June 1919, 675,000 Americans died as a result of the 'Spanish flu' epidemic--more than the combined combat deaths of U.S. forces in Wold War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Conservative estimates place the worldwide death toll at 30 million to 40 million. ... Many assume, wrongly, that the flu had originated in Spain, where 8 million fell ill during a wave of relatively mild flu that had swept the globe in the spring of 1918. Because Spain was neutral and its press uncensored during the war, it was one of the few places where news about the epidemic was being reported. ...

"Flu victims were wracked by fevers often spiking higher than 104 degrees and body aches so severe that the slightest touch was torture. Cyanosis was perhaps the most terrifying hallmark of the pneumonia that often accompanied this flu. A lack of oxygen in the blood turned one's skin bluish-black--leading to speculation that the Black Death had again come calling.

"There were those who tried to quell the panic. An October editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer advised: 'Live a clean life. Do not even discuss influenza. ... Worry is useless. Talk of cheerful things instead of disease.' ... The tragedy played out with varying degrees of severity across the country. The city of San Francisco, where the flu hit hardest in late October, mandated that gauze masks be worn in public at all times. The mandate was widely followed, though in reality, masks did little to prevent the spread of flu. ... The epidemic was a crushing blow to [the credibility of] medical science, which had only recently come to be seen as a professional discipline. ...

"And then it was over. ... 'In light of our knowledge of influenza and the way it works,' explains [Los Angeles epidemiologist] Dr. Shirley Fannin, 'we do understand that it probably ran out of fuel. It ran out of people that were susceptible.' ... William Maxwell, writer and long-time editor at The New Yorker, was a ten-year-old in Lincoln, Illinois, when the flu struck his family, killing his mother. 'I realized for the first time, and forever, that we were not safe. we were not beyond harm,' he remembered eight decades later. 'From that time on there was a sadness, which had not existed before, a deep down sadness that never quite went away. ... Terrible things could happen--to anybody.' "

Christine M. Kreiser, "The Enemy Within," American History, December 2006, pp. 23-29.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 06/26/07-Moods

In today's excerpt--moods:

"One way moods differ from the grosser feelings of emotions, psychologists tell us, has to do with the ineffability of their causes: while we typically know what has caused an outright emotion, we often find ourselves in one or another mood without knowing its source. [Experiments] suggest, though, that our world may be filled with mood triggers that we fail to notice--everything from the saccharine Muzak in an elevator to the sour tone in someone's voice.

"For instance, take the expressions we see on other people's faces. As Swedish researchers found, merely seeing a picture of a happy face elicits fleeting activity in the muscles that pull the mouth into a smile. Indeed, whenever we gaze at a photograph of someone whose face displays a strong emotion, like sadness, disgust, or joy, our facial muscles automatically start to mirror the other's facial expression. ...

"We mimic the happiness of a smiling face, pulling our own muscles into a subtle grin, even though we may be unaware that we have seen the smile. That mimicked slight smile might not be obvious to the naked eye, but scientists monitoring facial muscles track such emotional mirroring clearly. It's as though our face were being preset, getting ready to display the full emotion. This mimicry has a bit of a biological consequence, since our facial expressions trigger within us the feelings we display. We can stir any emotion by intentionally setting our facial muscles for that feeling: just clench a pencil in your teeth, and you will force your face into a smile, which subtly evokes a positive feeling.

"Edgar Allan Poe had an intuitive grasp of this principle. He wrote: 'When I wish to find out how good or how wicked anyone is, or what his thoughts are at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my own mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.' "

Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, Bantam, 2006, 18-19.

Monday, June 25, 2007 06/25/07-Muslims, Greeks, and Distillation

In today's excerpt--at the end of the first millennium CE, it is the Muslims who save the wisdom of the ancient Greeks for the Western world, and--among many other things--apply the process of distillation to wine thus creating the distilled spirits that become so widely consumed in the West. The Arabic influence of this period shows up in such words as algebra and alcohol:

"At the close of the first millennium AD, the greatest and most cultured city in western Europe was not Rome, Paris, or London. It was Cordoba, the capital of Arab Andalusia, in what is now southern Spain. There were parks, palaces, paved roads, oil lamps to light the streets, seven hundred mosques, three hundred public baths, and extensive drainage and sewage systems. Perhaps most impressive of all was the public library, completed around 970 CE and containing nearly half a million books--more books than any other European library, or indeed most European countries. And it was merely the largest of seventy libraries in the city. No wonder Hroswitha, a tenth-century German chronicler, described Cordoba as 'the jewel of the world.'

"Cordoba was only one of the great centers of learning within the Arab world, a vast dominion that stretched at its height from the Pyrenees in France to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia, and as far south as the Indus Valley in India. At a time when the wisdom of the Greeks had been lost in most of Europe, Arab scholars in Cordoba, Damascus, and Baghdad were building on knowledge from Greek, Indian, and Persian sources to make further advances in such fields as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. They developed the astrolabe, algebra, and the modern numeral system, pioneered the use of herbs as anesthetics, and devised new navigational techniques based on the magnetic compass (from China), trigonometry, and nautical maps. Among their many achievements, they also refined and popularized a technique that gave rise to a new range of drinks: distillation.

"Simple distillation equipment dating back to the fourth millennium BCE has been found in northern Mesopotamia, where, judging from later cuneiform inscriptions, it was used to make perfumes. ... But it was only later, starting in the Arab world, that distillation was routinely applied to wine, notably by the eighth-century Arab scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan, who is remembered as one of the fathers of chemistry. ... Knowledge of distillation was one of the many aspects of the ancient wisdom that was preserved and extended by Arab scholars, and, having been translated from Arabic into Latin, helped to rekindle the spirit of learning in Western Europe. ... The modern word alcohol illuminates the origins of distilled alcoholic drinks in the laboratories of Arab alchemists. It is descended from al-koh'l, the name given to the black powder of purified antimony, which was used as a cosmetic to paint or stain the eyelids. The term was used more generally by alchemists to refer to other highly purified substances, including liquids, so that distilled wine later came to be known in English as 'alcohol of wine.' ... The abstemious Arab scholars who first distilled wine regarded the result as ... a medicine, rather than an everyday drink. Only when knowledge of distillation spread into Christian Europe did distilled spirits become more widely consumed.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker, 2005, 93-97.

Friday, June 22, 2007 06/22/07-America and Columbus

In today's excerpt--a young America struggles with its name, and, in need of a non-British hero after the scourge of King George III and the Revolutionary War, America resurrects the forgotten Christopher Columbus:

"Considerable thought was given in early Congresses to the possibility of renaming the country. From the start, many people recognized that United States of America was unsatisfactory. For one thing, it allowed no convenient adjectival form. A citizen would have to be either a United Statesian or some other such clumsy locution, or an American, thereby arrogating to ourselves a title that belonged equally to the inhabitants of some three dozen other nations on two continents. Several alternatives were actively considered--Columbia, Appalachia, Alleghania, Freedonia or Fredonia (whose denizens would be called Freeds or Fredes)--but none mustered sufficient support to displace the existing name.

"United States of Columbia was a somewhat unexpected suggestion, since for most of the previous 250 years Christopher Columbus had been virtually forgotten in America. His Spanish associations had made him somewhat suspect to the British, who preferred to see the glory of North American discovery go to John Cabot. Not until after the Revolutionary War, when Americans began casting around for heroes unconnected with the British Monarchy, was the name Columbus resurrected, generally in the more elegant Latinized form Columbia, and his memory generously imbued with the spirit of grit and independent fortitude that wasn't altogether merited.

"The semi-deification of Columbus began with a few references in epic poems, and soon communities and institutions were falling all over themselves to create new names in his honor. In 1784, King's College in New York became Columbia College, and two years later, South Carolina chose Columbia as the name for its capital. In 1791, an American captain on a ship named Columbia claimed a vast tract of the Northwest for the young country and dubbed it Columbia. (It later became the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, though the original name lives on north of the border in British Columbia.) Journals, clubs, and institutes ... were named for the great explorer. The song 'Hail Columbia' dates from 1798.

"After this encouraging start, Columbus's life was given a kick into the higher realms of myth by Washington Irving's ambitious, if resplendently inaccurate, History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which came out in 1828 and was a phenomenal best-seller in America, Europe, and Latin America throughout the nineteenth century."

Bill Bryson, Made in America, Perennial, 1995, 59-61.

Thursday, June 21, 2007 06/21/07-War and Bonds

In today's excerpt--the Rothschilds and other nineteenth century financiers are painfully aware of how bad war is for a given country's financial markets--increasing that state's expenditures as well as reducing its tax revenues, and disrupting trade and thus lowering tax revenues for all governments. The Rothschilds in particular were Europe's most powerful bankers--financing kings and countries in the age before the full ascendance of the central bank:

"The biggest crisis on the European bond market in the nineteenth century occurred during the two months after the outbreak of the 1848 revolution in Paris. ... Thus we find James de Rothschild assessing the implications of the revolution in France in October 1830: 'You can't begin to imagine what would happen [to financial markets] should we get war, God forbid.' ... As James's nephew Nat put it, during a later French crisis, 'In general when troops begin to move bondholders are frightened. ...'

"Towards the end of his career, James de Rothschild's tendency to assess political events in these terms had become the stuff of bourse legend. 'So, M. le baron,' the Piedmontese premier Cavour was heard to ask James a month before his country's French-backed war against Austria in 1859, 'is it true that the bourse would rise by two francs the day I resign as Prime Minister?' 'Oh, monsieur le comte,' replied Rothschild, 'you underestimate yourself!' Rothschild responded similarly to Napoleon III's inflammatory speech at Auxerre on 6 May 1866, in which the Emperor denounced the treaties of 1815. Once Napoleon had assured France's neighbours, 'L'Empire, c'est la paix' (The Empire means peace). But now, declared Rothschild, 'L'Empire, c'est la baisse': literally, 'the Empire means a falling market.' "

Niall Ferguson, The Cash Nexus, Basic Books, 2001, 274-277.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 06/20/07-Spice

In today's encore excerpt--the definition of spice:

"Broadly, a spice is not an herb, understood to mean the aromatic, herbaceous, green parts of plants. Herbs are leafy, whereas spices are obtained from other parts of the plant: bark, root, flower bud, gums and resins, seed, fruit, or stigma. Herbs tend to grow in temperate climates, spices in the tropics. Historically, the implication was that a spice was far less readily obtainable than an herb--and far more expensive. ...

"Chemically, the qualities that make a spice a spice are its rare essential oils and oleoresins, highly volatile compounds that impart to spices their flavor, aroma, and preservative properties. Botanists classify these chemicals as secondary compounds, so called because they are secondary to the plant's metabolism, which is to say they play no role in photosynthesis or the uptake of nutrients. But secondary does not mean irrelevant. It is generally accepted that their raison d'etre is a form of evolutionary response, the plant's means of countering threats from parasites, bacteria, fungi, or pathogens native to the plant's tropical environment. Briefly, the chemistry of spices--what in the final analysis makes a spice a spice--is, in evolutionary terms, what quills are to the porcupine or the shell to the tortoise. In its natural state cinnamon is an elegant form of armor; the seductive aroma of nutmeg is, to certain insects, a bundle of toxins. The elemental irony of their history is that the attractiveness of spices is (from the plant's perspective) a form of Darwinian backfiring. What makes a spice so appealing to humans is, to other members of the animal kingdom, repulsive.

"By any measure the most exceptional of the spices, and far and away the most historically significant, is pepper. The spice is the fruit of Piper nigrum, a perennial climbing climbing vine native to India's Malabar Coast. ... Black pepper, the most popular variety, is picked while unripe. ... White pepper is the same fruit left longer on the vine."

Jack Turner, Spice, The History of a Temptation, Vintage, 2005, xix-xxi.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 06/19/07-The Yellow Peril

In today's excerpt--the current outpouring of opposition to Hispanic immigration reflects similar outpourings at many points along the way in American history. One such example is the fear of Asian immigration in the early 1900s. However, not only was that fear unfounded, but fundamental global demographics have now changed:

"In 1907, William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner published a two-part Sunday supplement which warned that 'the Yellow Peril is here.' Hearst was hardly alone in his prediction that 'Japan May Seize the Pacific Coast.' Those who did not fear outright invasion feared being out-bred. ... 'If California is to be preserved for the next generation as a 'white man's country' there must be some movement started that will restrict the Japanese birthrate in California.' ... How different it is today. Fertility rates in Asia have reached such low levels that population loss is inevitable throughout much of the region.

"When asked how long it will take for the world's population to double, nearly half of all Americans say 20 years or less. This is hardly surprising, given the sensations of overcrowding all of us feel in our day-to-day lives and the persistent reports we hear of teeming Third World megacities. Yet looking beneath the surface of events, we can see that world population growth has already slowed dramatically over the last generation and is headed on a course for absolute decline. ... These predictions come with considerable certainty. The primary reason is the unprecedented fall in fertility rates over the last generation that is now spreading to every corner of the globe. In both hemispheres, in nations rich and poor, in Christian, Taoist, Confucian, Hindu, and especially Islamic countries, one broad social trend holds constant at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As more and more of the world's population moves to crowded urban areas, and as women gain in education and economic opportunity, people are producing fewer and fewer children.

"Today, global fertility rates are half what they were in 1972. No industrialized nation still produces enough children to sustain its population over time. ... Germany could easily lose the equivalent of the current population of East Germany over the next half century. Russia's population is already decreasing by over three-quarters of a million a year. Japan's population is meanwhile expected to fall by as much as one-third. ... Yet the steepest drops in fertility, and the most rapid rates of population aging, are now occurring in the developing world. ... Today, when Americans think of Mexico, for example, they think of televised images of desperate, unemployed youths swimming the Rio Grande or slipping through border fences. However, because Mexican fertility rates have dropped so dramatically, by mid-century Mexico [and most of Latin America] will be a less youthful country than the United States."

Phillip Longman, The Empty Cradle, Basic Books, 2004, pp. 47, 7-8.

Monday, June 18, 2007 06/18/07-The Yankees

In today's excerpt--in 1914, the New York Yankees are the decidedly unglamorous New York baseball franchise, especially when compared to the championship New York (now San Francisco) Giants. Then they are acquired by 'the two Colonels," who soon move to acquire Babe Ruth, the nascent superstar of the Boston Red Sox, a move that is central to transforming the Yankees into the greatest franchise in baseball history:

"Col. Jake Ruppert, age 53, was a member of the New York aristocracy, born into wealth, ... a lifelong millionaire bachelor who always explained his marital state with the saying 'he travels fastest who travels alone.' ... Col. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, whose name sounded far more regal, actually came from Cincinnati, the civil engineer son of a civil engineer. A captain in the Spanish-American War, he stayed in Cuba for ten years after the war ended and made a lot of money in a project to dredge and improve the harbors in Havana and other port cities.

"The two men were thrown together in an arranged marriage. Each much rather would have bought the New York Giants, the glamour team of the city, the team of John McGraw and Christy Matthewson and championships. ... When the Yankees, the very poor relations of New York sport, came up for sale at the end of the 1914 season, a friend suggested to Ruppert that he join with Huston to buy the team. ... On December 31, 1914, at the Hotel Walcott, they bought the Yankees for $450,000. Ruppert brought a certified check and an attorney to handle his half of the transaction. Huston came alone and reached into his pocket for a large roll of money and counted out 225 thousand-dollar bills. 'For $450,000,' Ruppert said, 'we got an orphan ball club without a home of its own, without players of outstanding ability, without prestige. ...

"By December 1919, the team had shown some progress, ... [and] the Colonels asked manager Miller Huggins what he needed to contend for a championship in 1920. Huggins replied, 'Get me Babe Ruth.' ... [In selling Ruth to the Yankees, financially-distressed Red Sox owner Harry] Frazee said, 'While Ruth, without question, is the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a uniform."

Leigh Montville, The Big Bam, Broadway Books, 2006, pp. 93-100.

Friday, June 15, 2007 06/15/07-Love

Today's special encore excerpt is from the dazzlingly talented Alan Jay Lerner, partner and co-writer with Frederick Loewe of Camelot, My Fair Lady, Gigi and other plays. Here he explains the painfully poignant lyrics of the Camelot song "How To Handle a Woman", sung by Arthur at a point when he is tragically both lost and losing Guinevere to Lancelot:

"By the middle of the first act, Guinevere has met Lancelot and has begun behaving in a manner that is to Arthur both perplexing and maddening. Alone on stage, he musically soliloquizes his confusion and out of desperation resolves it for himself in an uncomplicated reaffirmation of love in a song called 'How to Handle a Woman.' I had had that idea for two or three years, but I cannot claim sole inspiration for it. My silent partner was Erich Maria Remarque [author of All Quiet on the Western Front].

"He had just married an old friend of mine, Paulette Goddard, all woman, magnificently distributed, as feminine as she is female. One night when we were having dinner, I said to Erich (not seriously): 'How do you get along with this wild woman?' He replied: 'Beautifully. There is never an argument.' 'Never an argument?' I asked incredulously. 'Never,' he replied. 'We will have an appointment one evening, and she charges into the room crying, 'Why aren't you ready? You always keep me waiting. Why do you ...?!' I look at her with astonishment and say, 'Paulette! Who did your hair? It's absolutely ravishing.' She says, 'Really? Do you really like it?' 'Like it?' I reply. 'You're a vision. Let me see the back.' By the time she has made a pirouette her fury is forgotten. Another time she turns on me in rage about something, and before a sentence is out of her mouth I stare at her and say breathlessly, 'My God! You're incredible. You get younger every day.' She says, 'Really, darling?' 'Tonight,' I say, 'you look eighteen years old.' And that is the end of her rage.' I was as amused as I was admiring and I said to him: 'Erich, one day I will have to write a song about that.' The song was 'How to Handle a Woman' which ends:

"The way to handle a woman is to love her,
Simply love her; merely love her,
Love her, love her."

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live, Da Capo Press, 1978, pp. 193-4.

Thursday, June 14, 2007 06/14/07-America Recruits Immigrants

In today's encore excerpt--recruiting immigrants. Having completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869, U.S. railroad businesses and the U.S. government are forced to try to recruit foreign individuals and families to settle in the middle of the country to create farms and towns along railway--even if it meant granting total autonomy on things like language spoken and form of local governance. For the businessmen in particular, it was not only a way to support the operations of their railroads, but a way to increase the value of the landholdings they had received from the government as part of the inducement to build the railroads. This excerpt reflects the critical role that immigrants have continuously played in the growth of America's economy:

"It had at first been thought that no settlers could survive anywhere on the semiarid, mostly treeless Great Plains that rolled all the way from Montana and the Dakotas south into Texas ... but the Homestead Act of 1862 began to change all that. It promised 160 acres of public land to any person who filed a claim, paid a ten-dollar fee, and agreed to work the property for five years. As it happened, the 1870s and early 1880s were unusually wet years in the West, and the prairies, plowed and planted for the first time, yielded bumper crops. Promoters made the most of it ... [but] most of these efforts came to nothing. Factory workers [from the eastern U.S.] weren't farmers, and even those who might try it could rarely afford it. Land itself was cheap, but getting to it, getting started, and surviving for the five years required to get title to a homestead cost money that most of them didn't have.

"Prospects seemed better overseas. The [American] Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society recruited Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe to establish farming communes in Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, and the Dakotas. The First Swedish Agricultural and Galesburg Colonization Companies started the towns of Salemsborg and Lindsborg in Kansas. Small groups of Dutch, French, Bohemian, English, and Irish families scattered across the Plains. Two hundred Scottish families settled together on the Kansas-Nebraska border. By 1875, more than half of Nebraska's 123,000 settlers were members of families headed by foreign immigrants. ...

"Then C.B. Schmidt [of the Santa Fe railroad] was dispatched for the biggest prize of all--the German-Russian Mennonites. They were pacifists who had fled Prussia rather than serve in its army three-quarters of a century earlier. ... There was plenty of competition for these able and prosperous farmers. After Canada offered them immunity from military service and free transportation if they would settle there, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota all also solemnly offered to exempt them from military duty--although they had no legal authority to do so. Everyone promised them the right to govern themselves in their own communities, to speak German in their own schools, plenty of land at good prices, and easy credit.

"Mennonite emissaries were taken to Washington to meet President Grant. ... Secretary of State Hamilton Fish personally assured them the United States would not go to war again for at least fifty years."

Geoffrey C. Ward, The West, Back Bay Books, 1996, pp. 243-7.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 06/13/07-Fire, Cooking, and Language

In today's excerpt--fire, cooking, restrained impulses, and language:

"Many peoples have had legends of heroic figures or magical beasts who first seize fire, often from the gods. Perhaps this reflects a dim memory that the first fire was taken from a natural source, whether from volcanic activity, an outbreak of natural gas, or a blazing forest. However it was obtained, the use of fire was revolutionary. ... Immediately, it meant warmth and light, the conquest of the cold and the dark and therefore the extension of the habitable environment into them, even if only a little way at first. ... By occupying caves whose darkness had previously made them unusable, they were safer from the weather. Animals could now be driven out of their lairs and kept out. Wooden spears could be hardened in fire. Cooking became possible. As a result, eating became easier; marrow can be sucked out of cooked bones but getting it out raw is a laborious experience. Gibbons and gorillas have to spend much of their time simply chewing their raw food; cooking saved time, for food softened by it did not have to be chewed so long. Time was thus made available to do other things. More important still, substances indigestible in their raw state could become sources of food; distasteful or bitter plants could be made edible. This must have increased food supply and therefore made population growth a little easier. ... Finally, in the long run, eating cooked food helped to alter the shape of the face and the form of the teeth.

"Cooking would have encouraged further restraint on immediate impulses, too: you put off eating and did not give way to immediate appetite by swallowing raw food. The focus of the cooking fire as a source of light and warmth would have brought people together around it after dark and helped make a group more aware of itself as a community. They would have talked somehow: the development of language--of whose origins we know little--must have speeded up in this setting.

J.M.Roberts, A Short History of the World, Oxford, 2007, p. 10.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007 06/12/07-Nitrates

In today's excerpt--the discovery of a synthetic process for manufacturing nitrates lead directly and immediately to both the global population explosion and to the unprecedented casualty level-23 million people-of World War I:

"For all the ...guns that their factories could produce, Europeans could not manufacture nitrates, the stuff that made gunpowder explode--they had to find it in the natural world. ... Nitrogen is also crucial to the growth of plants. ... [T]he largest sources of naturally occurring nitrates are produced as animal waste. ... Paradoxically then, both the size of the global human population and its ability to conduct modern warfare depended on, and were limited by, nature. That fact led to a global search for naturally occurring deposits of nitrates, mostly in the form of bat and bird guano. ...

"The first clump of Peruvian guano was brought to Europe in 1804 by the German naturalist and world explorer Alexander von Humbolt, and then extracted in ever greater amounts and exported by British merchants. By 1890, the supplies of Peruvian guano were mostly exhausted, but another natural source (sodium nitrate, or 'saltpeter') that could be mined was found in southern Peru; in 1879 Chile had gone to war with Peru to gain control of the sodium nitrate, and exported it to the industrializing world, which used it to make both fertilizer and gunpowder. ...

"In 1909 a chemist named Fritz Haber synthesized ammonia (which contains nitrogen that could be processed into nitrates) in his laboratory, and a year later the issues of industrial production were resolved by Carl Bosch of the German firm BASF. The process of synthesizing ammonia, known as the Haber-Bosch process, shaped the subsequent course of world history.

"The synthesis of ammonia made possible the growth of the world's population. ... [B]y 1900, most of the good arable land in the world was already being farmed, so that increased food production could come most readily from the application of additional fertilizer. ... The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia made it possible to increase the food supply and support the world's current population of about 6.2 billion people. In other words, in the twentieth century, the population of the world increased from about 1.6 to 6.2 billion largely because of the Haber-Bosch process. That increase in the human population alone makes the twentieth century unique in all of human history. ... More than that, it also made possible the industrial production of explosives, and, because Germany was the first to use this new technology, increased the confidence of its military leaders. And that was to be a crucially important factor contributing to the outbreak of world war in 1914."

Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, 157-159.

Monday, June 11, 2007 06/11/07-Hefner and Monroe

In today's excerpt, in the travails of Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner gets his start:

"In 1949 [Marilyn Monroe] agreed to do a nude shoot for a photographer friend named Tom Kelley. He paid only fifty dollars, but she was living hand to mouth and she owed him a favor--he had lent her five dollars on an earlier occasion for cab fare. Besides, fifty dollars was precisely the amount of money she needed for the monthly payment on her secondhand car. She ... signed the model release with the name Mona Monroe. ...

"In February 1952, just as her career was taking off, there was an anonymous phone call to Twentieth Century-Fox. The naked girl in a nude calendar, said the male caller, was its newest star, Marilyn Monroe. The caller demanded ten thousand dollars. Otherwise, he said, he would take his proof to the newspapers. The studio people ... pressured her to deny she was the girl. It was a terrible moment for her: She was sure that her career was over. But she also decided to tell the truth and to take the initiative by leaking the story herself to a friendly writer. It was her on the calendar, she said, and there was no sense lying about it. 'Sure, I posed,' she said. 'I was hungry.' The public rallied to support her. ...

"In the fall of 1953 a young man named Hugh Hefner, anxious to start his own magazine, read in an advertising trade magazine that a local Midwestern company had the rights to the photo. Hefner drove out to suburban Chicago and bought the rights for five hundred dollars. ... It was a brilliant purchase for a magazine just being born. ... Hefner was only twenty- seven when he started [Playboy] magazine on a shoestring in the fall of 1953. He had been so uncertain of his chances of success that he did not even bother to put his name on the masthead; nor for that matter did he bother to put a date on the first issue--he hoped that if the initial sale was not high enough, he might be able to put it on the newsstand for another month. All of his limited savings were tied up in the magazine, and he was extremely nervous about the possibility of failure and bankruptcy. ...

"Hefner printed 70,000 copies of the first issue hoping it would sell at least 30,000 copies at 50 cents an issue. Instead, bolstered in no small part by the word of mouth on the Monroe photos, it sold 53,000, a huge success. Still, in the early weeks of its appearance Hefner was like a nervous parent, casing newsstands and checking sales, making sure that his magazine got proper display, covertly rearranging it in front of the other magazines. ... Within a year Playboy's circulation had reached 100,000. By early 1955, less than a year and a half after the first issue was so timidly cast forth, Playboy had $250,000 in the bank and Hefner turned down an offer of $1 million for the magazine."

David Halberstam, The Fifties, Ballantine, 1993, 567-572.

Friday, June 08, 2007 06/08/07-Evolution and Intelligence

In today's excerpt, the fallacy of thinking that evolution would always lead to complex intelligence:

"We are chauvinistic about our brains, thinking them to be the goal of evolution. And that makes no sense, for reasons articulated over the years by Stephen Jay Gould. First, natural selection does nothing even close to striving for intelligence. ... Over time the organisms acquire designs that adapt them for survival and reproduction in that environment, period. ... Every organism alive today has had the same amount of time to evolve since the origin of life--the amoeba, the platypus, the rhesus macaque, and [humans].

"But ... isn't it true that animals become more complex over time? And wouldn't intelligence be the culmination? In many lineages, of course, animals have become more complex. ... But in many lineages they have not. The organisms reach an optimum and stay put, often for hundreds of millions of years. And those that do become more complex don't always become smarter. They become bigger, or faster, or more poisonous, or more fecund, or more sensitive to smells and sounds, or able to fly higher and farther, or better at building nests or dams--whatever works for them. Evolution is about ends, not means; becoming smart is just one option. ... Organisms don't evolve toward every imaginable advantage. If they did, every creature would be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. ...

"[The brain has] disadvantages. ... First, the brain is bulky. The female pelvis barely accommodates a baby's outsized head. That design compromise kills many women during childbirth and requires a pivoting gait that makes women biomechanically less efficient walkers than men. Also, a heavy head bobbing around on a neck makes us more vulnerable to fatal injuries in accidents such as falls. Second, the brain needs energy. Neural tissue is metabolically greedy; our brains take up only two percent of our body weight but consume twenty percent of our energy and nutrients. Third, brains take time to learn to use. We spend much of our lives either being children or caring for children. Fourth, simple tasks can be slow. My first graduate advisor was a mathematical psychologist who wanted to model the transmission of information in the brain by measuring the reaction time of a subject pushing a button when they heard a loud tone. Theoretically, the neuron-to-neuron transmission times should have added up to a few milliseconds. But there were 75 milliseconds unaccounted for between stimulus and response--'There's all this cogitation going on, and we just want him to push his finger down,' my advisor grumbled. Lower-tech animals can be much quicker; some insects bite in less than a millisecond. Perhaps this answers the rhetorical question in the sporting equipment ad: The average man's IQ is 107. The average brown trout's IQ is 4. So why can't a man catch a brown trout?"

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, Norton, 1997, 152-4.

Thursday, June 07, 2007 06/07/07-Elizabeth Bishop

In today's encore excerpt, the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979):

"John Ashberry's praise for Bishop as a 'writer's writer's writer', whose work 'inspires in writers of every sort' an 'extraordinarily intense loyalty' seems apt. ...

"[A]t the time of her death, she had assembled fewer than ninety poems. ... She could mull over a draft for more than a decade in wait for the right line or word. ... Bishop's reticence seems less a matter of timidity and more of perfectionism, a trait now synonymous with her name. ... Part of Bishop's appeal involves the contrast between the work published in her lifetime ... and the pain and disorder of her often very messy life..."

Excerpts from her work:

The art of losing isn't hard to master.
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster

from One Art

The intimidating sound
of these voices
we must separately find
can and shall be vanquished:
Days and Distance disarrayed again
and gone
both for good and from the gentle battleground.

from Argument

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979

Wednesday, June 06, 2007 06/06/07-Re-used Lines

In today's excerpt, certain lines get re-used:

"The British [Post World War I, 1919] occupation of Iraq drew heavy criticism at home almost from its inception. In 1920, a large-scale Shiite insurgency cost the British more than 2000 casualties, and domestic pressure to withdraw from Iraq began to build ... The result was what historians have called the 'Quit Mesopotamia' campaign, which remained an issue in British politics until the end of the British mandate in Iraq in 1932. ...

"The Conservatives got the message and in 1925 initiated a series of increasingly desperate measures to sell their Iraq policy to the public. Colonial Secretary Leopold Amery led the rhetorical charge. In speeches in Parliament and before audiences throughout England, Amery blasted critics for their 'reckless disregard ... of the honour of their country.' Calls by British newspapers to pull out of Iraq only emboldened the country's enemies, Amery said, and a 'policy of scuttle' would expose the British to far greater dangers. ...

"Amery claimed the situation in Iraq was significantly better than his critics realized. ... The whole Middle East was undergoing fundamental changes, he declared, and Iraq would soon be a model of development and democracy for the entire region."

Joel Rayburn, "The Last Exit From Iraq", Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006, pp. 30-32.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007 06/05/07-Competition and Lies

In today's excerpt--gas lights were beginning to be established when several inventors, including Thomas Edison, developed electric lighting as an alternative. In the fierce competitive battle for customers that followed, executives on both sides put forward lies and exaggerations about the dangers of their competitors product and the safety of their own:

"The president of Edison Electric, Major Sherburne Eaton, [when confronted with the dangers of electrical shock] resorted to what appeared to be the easiest course: emphatic denial of the problem. He explained that he himself had 'taken the full force of the entire current with my naked hands, and have seen hundreds of others do it, both men and women, and always without the slightest shock.' Eaton was publicly expounding upon the impossibility of Edison Electric's current producing a shock at about the same time that Edison was privately telling [his colleagues] that, yes, the company's workers had accidentally spiked one of the electrical tubes in that spot, and the current was not dissipated harmlessly through the earth, as Eaton was telling reporters would be the case even had a rupture occurred.

"The Edison Electric Light Company in 1882 launched a counter-offensive to direct public attention to its most vulnerable competitors: the gas companies. [His electric competitors] the arc light companies could not be attacked without hurting the image of everyone in the electric power business; the lay public could not readily distinguish between direct and alternating current. The threat to public safety posed by gas, however, was easily understood. The Bulletin of the Edison Electric Light Company devoted considerable space to reports of devastation and death caused by gas. A man was found dead in his hotel room--with the gas turned on. Two young girls found dead in bed--gassed. An explosion blew out heavy plate glass from windows in a downtown office building--again, gas. Standing alone on a room lit with gas was no different from standing 'immured with 23 other persons all taking oxygen from the atmosphere,' according to the author of an article titled 'How To Escape Nervousness.' After several hours of oxygen deprivation, was it a surprise that 'your nerves should rebel as far as their weak state permits, and that your head should ache, your hands tremble, and that your daughter's playing on the piano almost drives you wild?'

"Gaslight customers could appreciate the simple physical fact that an electric light did not affect the quality of the air, nor generate heat ion a room. The gas industry, however, slyly instilled fear, uncertainty, and doubt among customers who were considering an alternative. The public was warned that the electric light projected a toxic ray that would turn the complexion of survivors green--and swell the death rate. Those claims clashed with positive ones issued by entrepreneurs touting the healthful benefits of electricity. An electric corset, for example, was advertised that would 'cause the wearer to grow plump and to enjoy the very best of health.' "

Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park, Crown, 2007, pp. 123-124.

Monday, June 04, 2007 06/04/07-Prepositions

In today's excerpt--prepositions:

"[O]ne of the all-time great grammatical shibboleths [is] that when writing a sentence or a clause, you must not ... make a preposition the last word you put in. This notion apparently originated with the poet John Dryden, who in a 1672 work quoted Ben Jonson's line 'The bodies that these souls were frighted from' and commented 'The Preposition at the end of a sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ'd in my own writings.' Probably, Dryden based his stand on two foundations. First, prepositions in Latin never appear at the end of a sentence, not surprising since praepositio is Latin for something that 'comes before.' Second, a principle of composition that's as valid in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth holds that, whenever possible, sentences should end strongly--and prepositions, as necessary as they undeniably are, are usually more of a whimper than a bang.

"Whatever its origin, the ban found favor with prescriptivists through the centuries, including Edward Gibbon; John Ruskin, who in an entire book (Seven Lamps) concluded a sentence with a preposition precisely one time; Lily Tomlin's officious Ernestine the telephone operator, who asked, 'Is this the party to whom I am speaking?'; and my mother-in-law, Marge Simeone, who is prone to saying things like 'In which car are we going?'... [B]ut [this rule] was always a bit suspect. It was blown out of the water by [Henry] Fowler, who wrote in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 'Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.' Fowler then gave twenty-four examples of the 'rule' being broken by such writers as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pepys, Swift, Defoe, Burke, Kipling, and the authors of the King James Bible. ... When the preposition occurs in a phrasal verb, the transposition task can be close to impossible. To 'fix' a phrasal-verb-concluding sentence like 'I'm turning in,' you'd have to come up with something like 'Turning in I am,' which not even Yoda from Star Wars could say with a straight face.

"To anyone still unconvinced, I offer two small anecdotes, in reverse order of familiarity.

"1. Winston Churchill, when corrected for violating this rule, supposedly replied, 'That is the sort of nonsense up with I will not put.'

"2. A guy from South Philadelphia, on vacation in London, asks a bowler-hatted gent, 'Where's the subway at?' The Londoner replies, 'Don't you Yanks realize that it's poor English to end a sentence with a preposition?' To which the South Philly guy says, 'Okay, where's the subway at, asshole?' "

Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, Broadway Books, 2007, pp. 163-165.

Friday, June 01, 2007 06/01/07-The Complexity of Go

In today's excerpt--the Asian board game "Go", regarded as the most complex board game in the world:

"A decade ago IBM's chess program, Deep Blue, beat world champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. The event marked a milestone, forcing humans to yield dominance of yet another strategic diversion. Only the Asian board game Go seem to be computer science's Achilles' heel: humans can soundly beat the machines. ...

"Go has proved enormously difficult for computer programmers because of the game's deceptive complexity. The objective of Go is to stake out territory and surround an opponent by placing black or white stones on the intersections of a nine-by-nine or 19-by- 19 line grid. Especially on the large board, the number of possible moves per turn is huge--200 on average for each midgame position compared with the several dozen possible in chess. There are also enormous branching factors. Given N positions on the board, the total number of possible game positions is 3 to the Nth power, because every position can be occupied by a black or white piece, or it can be empty. The total number of legal positions on the small board is about 10 to the 38th power; on the large board, about 10 to the 170th power. Additionally, more stones do not ensure victory, and players must be able to consider local positions and the board as a whole. ...

"[Recent software developments have led to a new program called] MoGo which demonstrated its abilities this past spring, vanquishing strong amateur players on nine-by-nine boards and beating weaker ones on large boards.. So [experts say] ending the reign of professional human Go players could occur in 10 years."

Karen A. Frenkel, "Silicon Smackdown," Scientific American, June 2007, pp. 32-34. 06/01/07-The Complexity of Go

In today's excerpt--the Asian board game "Go", regarded as the most complex board game in the world:

"A decade ago IBM's chess program, Deep Blue, beat world champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. The event marked a milestone, forcing humans to yield dominance of yet another strategic diversion. Only the Asian board game Go seem to be computer science's Achilles' heel: humans can soundly beat the machines. ...

"Go has proved enormously difficult for computer programmers because of the game's deceptive complexity. The objective of Go is to stake out territory and surround an opponent by placing black or white stones on the intersections of a nine-by-nine or 19-by- 19 line grid. Especially on the large board, the number of possible moves per turn is huge--200 on average for each midgame position compared with the several dozen possible in chess. There are also enormous branching factors. Given N positions on the board, the total number of possible game positions is 3 to the Nth power, because every position can be occupied by a black or white piece, or it can be empty. The total number of legal positions on the small board is about 10 to the 38th power; on the large board, about 10 to the 170th power. Additionally, more stones do not ensure victory, and players must be able to consider local positions and the board as a whole. ...

"[Recent software developments have led to a new program called] MoGo which demonstrated its abilities this past spring, vanquishing strong amateur players on nine-by-nine boards and beating weaker ones on large boards.. So [experts say] ending the reign of professional human Go players could occur in 10 years."

Karen A. Frenkel, "Silicon Smackdown," Scientific American, June 2007, pp. 32-34.