Monday, December 31, 2007 12/31/07-The Mariel Boatlift

In today's excerpt--Miami Beach in 1980, an economically depressed period shortly before its rebirth as America's Riviera. The 1980 Mariel boatlift unexpectedly overwhelms the capacity of Miami Beach's police force, jails and court system:

"In April 1980, an estimated ten thousand Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum. Eventually, Cuba's dictator, Fidel Castro, allowed these and tens of thousands more political refugees to depart for the United States from the port of Mariel in an international incident known as the Mariel boatlift. Over the next few months, the United States government allowed these refugees unrestricted entry into the country. But Castro duped President Jimmy Carter--of the approximately 125,000 Cubans who made their way to U.S. shores, an estimated 10 percent were violent criminals and sadistic sexual predators.

"[Miami Beach police chief Peter Corso said] 'The streets are a war zone, and it's not too hard to figure out why. Castro sends us 15,000 violent lunatics and career criminals, and suddenly we're in the middle of the worst crime wave in our history. And these criminals are animals. They're like nothing we've ever seen--and there are thousands of them. They place no value on human life, and they have no sense of contrition. ... Most of them have been in Cuban prisons or insane asylums for most of their lives. They've been tortured, beaten, starved, and shocked with electrodes. Our judicial system and the treatment we give our prisoners make American jails seem like heaven in comparison. They don't speak English, they can't get a job, and most of them end up committing crimes. ...

" 'Miami Beach will have over 77,000 calls for police service this year. ... The Miami jails are so crowded that unless the police charge the assailant with first-degree murder or armed violence, the jailers just let them go after they're booked. The criminals just have to sign a paper promising to return to court for arraignment. They send them back to the slums of South Beach on a Dade County bus because the city policy requires that when you release prisoners in Miami, you have to give them money to get back home. The criminals usually beat the arresting officer back to the beach and commit another crime before nightfall. We've arrested the same offender three times in one night.' "

Alex Daoud, Three-time Mayor of Miami Beach, Sins of South Beach, Pegasus, Copyright 2006 by Alex Daoud, pp. 75-77.

Friday, December 28, 2007 12/28/07-Fred Astaire

In today's encore excerpt, Delanceyplace favorite Alan Jay Lerner writes about the work ethic of great stars. The context is the preparation for his greatest hit, My Fair Lady, and Rex Harrison has voluntarily shown up before the rest of the cast to begin his rehearsals. This causes Lerner to reflect on another great star--Fred Astaire:

"[Right before we began rehearsals], while the rest of our future company was enjoying their Christmas in London, Rex arrived three days before the holidays to begin work in advance with Fritz [Loewe, Lerner's partner], Moss [Hart, the producer], and me.

"It was another example of something I found to be true throughout my professional life. Every genuinely great star with whom I have ever worked is a star not only because of talent and that indefinable substance, but because he works harder than anyone else, cares more than anyone else and his sense of perfection, which is deeper than anyone else's, demands more of him.

"I remember when I was doing a film with Fred Astaire, it was nothing for him to work three or four days on two bars of music. One evening in the dark grey hours of dusk, I was walking across the deserted MGM lot when a small, weary figure with a towel around his neck suddenly appeared out of one of the giant cube sound stages. It was Fred. He came over to me, threw his arm around my shoulder and said: 'Oh, Alan, why doesn't someone tell me I cannot dance?' The tormented illogic of his question made any answer insipid, and all I could do was walk with him in silence. Why doesn't someone tell Fred Astaire he cannot dance? Because no one would ever ask that question but Fred Astaire. Which is why he is Fred Astaire."

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live, Da Capo, 1978, p. 89.

Thursday, December 27, 2007 12/27/07-Sinatra

Today's encore excerpt shows the style of Frank Sinatra in expressing his love to the women in his life:

"Another [Sinatra] trademark: He adored openly and gave not a damn who saw. In the middle of parties, amid any gathering, he blurted encomiums of love and appreciation: 'Doesn't she look radiant?' he would say of Bacall. ('I remember feeling so happy,' she said of such eruptions.) Whatever his latest elations and fancies, they were always made grandly audible: 'No one prettier has ever been in my house!' 'You're beautiful tonight!' 'You look mah-velous!' (That was, in fact, exactly how he said it.) Public proclamation did not faze him; after all, he sang the same sentiments on records and stages--legendarily making every woman feel that he sang only to her.

"Thus, in 1965, to his still-secret girlfriend Mia Farrow, thirty years his junior: He popped his head out of the Palm Springs swimming pool, adjacent to the golf course. And there, dripping chlorine, with house guests agape, he bellowed toward her, 'I love you!' Recalled one witness, 'If anyone had been on the Tamarisk seventeenth green that second, they would have had the scoop of the year.' Before becoming, at age twenty-one, the third Mrs. Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow had shorn her locks, cropped them all but off, stirring a nationwide hubbub. (She was then an ingénue on television's Peyton Place, whose mailbags lumped with outrage de coiffure.) 'But,' she later wrote, 'there was no drama, no fight with Frank, he loved my hair the minute he saw it, so I kept it short for years.' Indeed, he promptly gave her a pale yellow Thunderbird-'to match your hair.' 'I'm proud of her,' he announced to everyone, crowing of her beauty and her brains and her bangs...

"While he was wooing Barbara Marx, his broadcasts took on epic sweep. He was loud and unabashed--throughout courtship, then marriage--before the eyes of Hollywood royalty, heads of state, or clustered intimates. He toasted her everywhere, lavishly so. She says, 'I've never known anything like it. He lifts his glass and says, 'I drink to you, my love, because I adore you!' He doesn't care who hears it.' Angie Dickinson, who has beheld these demonstrations, allows, 'He's great to her that way. What other man could really get away with that? But, of course, we know that the king can do things his subjects cannot.' Citing other such attentions, Barbara Sinatra continues: 'We can be in the middle of a huge party and he'll come and whisper the most sexy things in my ear. When we were dating, he would send a wire almost every day from wherever he was, and flowers every day. He would call and say, 'just called to tell you that I love you,' then hang up. There'd be no further conversation than that. It would knock me out. He's just a wonderful romantic.' "

Bill Zehme, The Way You Wear Your Hat, Harper Collins, 1997, pp. 149-152.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007 12/26/07-Horizons

In today's excerpt, the value of travel, whether physical, spiritual or mental--and the value of taking risks--as expressed by Kent Nerburn in his book Letters to My Son:

"Because I have traveled, I can see other universes in the eyes of strangers. Because I have traveled, I know what parts of me I cannot deny and what parts of me are simply the choices I make. I know the blessings of my own table and the warmth of my own bed. I know how much of life is pure chance, and how great a gift I have been given simply to be who I am. ...

"If we don't offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don't lift to the horizon; our ears don't hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting."

Kent Nerburn, Letters to my Son, New World, 1994, pp. 114-115.

Monday, December 24, 2007 12/24/07-Giving and Receiving

In today's encore excerpt, John Steinbeck eulogizes his recently deceased friend, Ed Ricketts, who was the real-life model for the character Doc in Steinbeck's novel, Cannery Row:

"I have tried to isolate and inspect the great talent that was in Ed Ricketts, that made him so loved and needed and makes him so missed now that he is dead. Certainly he was an interesting and charming man, but there was some other quality that far exceeded these. I have thought that it might be his ability to receive, to receive anything from anyone, to receive gracefully and thankfully, and to make the gift seem very fine. Because of this everyone felt good in giving to Ed--a present, a thought, anything.

"Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. ... It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it is well-done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

"It requires self-esteem to receive--not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself."

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Appendix, "About Ed Ricketts", Penguin Books, 1951, pp. 272-3.

Friday, December 21, 2007 12/21/07-Coca-Cola

In today's excerpt--the temperance drink:

"In May 1886 John Pemberton, a pharmacist who lived in Atlanta, Georgia, invented a drink. According to the Coca-Cola Company's official version, he was a tinkerer who stumbled on the right combination of ingredients by accident, while trying to devise a cure for headaches. ... The real story is rather more complicated, however.

"Pemberton was, in fact, an experienced maker of patent medicines, the quack remedies that were hugely popular in America in the late nineteenth century. ... Pemberton's attempts to make patent medicines had met with mixed success. ... Finally, in 1884, he started to get somewhere, thanks to the popularity of a new patent medicine ingredient: coca.

"The leaves of the coca plant had long been known among South American peoples for their stimulating effect; coca was known as 'the divine plant of the Incas.' Chewing a small ball of the leaves releases tiny quantities of an alkaloid drug, cocaine. In small doses, this sharpens the mind, much like caffeine, and suppresses the appetite. ... Cocaine was isolated from coca leaves in 1855, and it then became the subject of much interest among Western scientists and doctors. ... By the 1880s [Pemberton] and other patent-medicine makers were incorporating cocaine into their tablets, elixirs, and ointments. Pemberton's contribution to this burgeoning field was a drink called French Wine Cola.

"As its name suggests, this was coca-infused wine. In fact, it was just one of many attempts to imitate a particularly successful patent medicine called Vin Mariani, which consisted of French wine in which coca leaves had been steeped for six months. ... Pemberton copied the coca-infused wine formula and added kola extract too. The nuts of the Kola plant from West Africa were another supposed wonder-cure that had become known in the West at around the same time as coca, and also had an invigorating effect when chewed, since they contain about 2 percent caffeine.

"Sales of his French Wine Coca began to grow. But just when it seemed that Pemberton was on the right track, Atlanta and Fulton County voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol from July 1, 1886, for a two-year trial period. ... He went back to his elaborate home laboratory and started work on a 'temperance drink' containing coca and kola, with the bitterness of the two principal ingredients masked using sugar. ...

"The first advertisement for the new drink in the Atlanta Journal on May 29, 1886, was short and to the point: 'Coca-Cola. Delicious! Refreshing! Exhilarating! Invigorating! The new and popular soda fountain drink containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nut.' The new drink had launched just in time for Atlanta's experiment with Prohibition."

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker and Company, Copyright 2005 by Tom Standage, pp. 232-238.

Thursday, December 20, 2007 12/20/07-Istanbul

In today's encore excerpt--in 330 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine moves the empire's capital to Byzantium, which is renamed Constantinople and today is known as Istanbul and is Europe's largest city and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Why did he make this move? As discussed in this excerpt, Rome had become a backwater, and Roman Emperors had long had the habit of establishing their courts elsewhere-- especially those whose priority was leading military campaigns into the far regions of the Empire:

"When Constantine first set eyes on Byzantium, the city was already nearly a thousand years old. According to tradition, it was founded in 685 BC by a certain Byzas as a colony of Megara; there can, at any rate, be little doubt ... that the Emperor was right to choose it for his new capital. Rome had long been a backwater; none of Diocletian's four tetrarchs had dreamed of living there. The principal dangers to imperial security were now concentrated on the eastern frontier: the Sarmatians around the lower Danube; the Ostrogoths to the north of the Black Sea and--most menacing of all--the Persians, whose great Sassanian Empire now extended from the former Roman provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia as far as the Hindu Kush. But the reasons for the move were not only strategic. The whole focus of civilization had shifted irrevocably eastward. Intellectually and culturally, Rome was growing more and more out of touch with the new and progressive thinking of the Hellenistic world; the Roman academies and libraries were no longer any match for those of Alexandria, Pergamum, or Antioch. Economically, too, the agricultural and mineral wealth of what was known as the pars orientalis was a far greater attraction than the Italian peninsula, where malaria was spreading fast and populations were dwindling. Finally, the old Roman republic and pagan traditions had no place in Constantine's new Christian Empire. It was time to start afresh.. ...

"The advantages of Byzantium as a strategic site over any of its oriental neighbors were self-evident. Standing as it did on the very threshold of Asia ... it had been molded by nature at once into a magnificent harbor and a well-nigh impregnable stronghold ... protected by two long and narrow straits: the Bosphorus to the east and the [Dardanelles] to the west. ...

"Constantine spared no expense to make his new capital worthy of its name. Tens of thousands of artisans worked day and night. ... All the leading cities of Europe and Asia, including Rome itself, were plundered of their finest statues, trophies and works of art for the embellishment and enrichment of Constantinople. ...

"And yet the fact remained there had been no real change. To its subjects, it was still the Roman Empire, that of Augustus and Trajan and Hadrian. And they were still Romans. Their capital had been moved, that was all; nothing else was affected. Over the centuries, surrounded as they were by the Greek world, it was inevitable that they should gradually abandon the Latin language in favor of the Greek, but that made no difference either. It was as Romans they proudly described themselves for as long as the empire lasted ..."

John Julius Norwich, The Middle Sea, Chatto & Windus, 2006, pp. 54-55.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 12/19/07-Universities and Cities

In today's excerpt--the influence of universities on cities:

"More than half of the nation's colleges and universities are located in cities. ...From the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth, industry, financial institutions, and public utilities were typically the largest employers in most American cities. In recent decades, however, as manufacturing jobs moved out of cities and as banks and public utilities consolidated, universities and their associated medical centers have grown to become the largest employers in a surprising number of cities. In every one of the twenty largest cities in the United States, an institution of higher education or an academic medical center is among the top ten private employers, despite differences among these cities in age, region, and development pattern. Thirty-five percent of the people who work for private employers in these cities are employed by universities and their medical centers. And in four of those cities--Washington, DC, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Baltimore--institutions of higher learning and medical facilities account for more than half the jobs generated. ...

"In 1996, more than nineteen hundred urban-core universities in the United States collectively employed two million workers and spent $136 billion in salaries, goods, and services. ... This was nine times greater than federal direct spending that same year on urban businesses and job development. ...

"Attractions associated with universities, including musical performances, art shows, and lectures, stimulate ideas and energize people ranging from local schoolchildren to older, continuing learners. When a university channels its intellectual power and creativity, it has the potential to create a valuable dynamic that is mutually beneficial to the university and the community. ... When one considers the multitude of opportunities for strong city-university partnerships, the potential is enormous. ...

"Howard University is an excellent case in point. In response to criticism about its neglected real estate holdings, Howard paired with the Washington, DC, government, Fannie Mae, and corporate partners to transform forty-five properties in a crime-ridden neighborhood into more than three hundred housing units and $65 million in commercial development. Another institution that has assumed an active role in transforming its community is Virginia Commonwealth University, which formed a joint-venture with the state of Virginia and the City of Richmond to create the Virginia Bio-Technology Research Park. Out of this successful center, twenty-six companies have been created--with VCU faculty research accounting for 75 percent of them."

Judith Rodin, The University & Urban Revival, Penn, Copyright 2007 by University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 13-18.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 12/18/07-Comfort for Travelers

In today's excerpt--in 1273 AD, nineteen-year-old Marco Polo, who is traveling with his father and uncle, encounters an unusual sexual custom in Kamul, an outpost in present-day Xinjiang, China. The custom is so unusual that Mongke Khan, the Mongol ruler and descendent of Ghengis Khan, had tried to prohibit it:

"The women of Kamul (now called Hami) ... finally brought Marco out of himself. The people of the region as a whole struck him as wonderfully likeable children, freely sharing food and drink with 'the wayfarers who pass that way.' ...

" 'These people have such a custom,' he confides, 'If a stranger comes to his house to lodge, [a man] is too much delighted at it, and receives him with great joy, and labors to do everything to please,' instructing his 'daughters, sisters, and other relations to do all that the stranger wishes,' even to the point of leaving his house for several days while 'the stranger stays with his wife in the house and does as he likes and lies with her in bed just as if she were his wife, and they continue in great enjoyment. All the men of this city and province are thus cuckolded by their wives; but they are not the least ashamed of it.

"Yes, he admits, it could be said that this licentious behavior dishonored the women and men of Kamul, 'but I tell you that because of the general custom which is in all that province, and is very pleasing to their idols when they give a good reception to wayfarers in need of rest.' Even more remarkable, the family unit remained intact: 'All the women are very fair and gay and very wanton and most obedient to their husbands' orders, and greatly enjoy this custom.' ...

"Marco is discussing a well-established custom of the region and an exception to 'village endogamy,' in which the people of the same community intermarry to preserve assets and bloodlines. Endogamy brings with it the hazard of incest and birth defects. Exogamy, or marriage outside the clan, refreshes a depleted gene pool. If the outsiders were nomadic, as Marco suggests, the replenishing of the gene pool would be accomplished without challenging the existing order. ...

"Once [the emperor] Mongke [Khan] learned of [this practice], he levied 'great penalties to prevent it.' Wayfarers such as the Polos would have to stay in 'public lodgings,' not private homes, to prevent the 'shaming' of the householders' wives. Mongke had his way for three years, although the inhabitants of Kamul remained resentful. Matters worsened when their crops failed and sickness visited one household after another--misfortunes they took to mean they had to restore their customs if prosperity and health were to return. 'They sent their ambassadors,' Marco reports, 'who took a great and beautiful present and carry it to Mongke and pray him that so great a wrong with so great loss to them, and danger, should not be done.' ... With that ... "he revoked the order.' "

Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo, Knopf, Copyright 2007 by Laurence Bergreen, pp. 87-89.

Monday, December 17, 2007 12/17/07-Cooking and Brain Size

In today's excerpt--raw versus cooked. Since brain tissue requires 22 times the food energy that skeletal muscle does, Homo erectus would have had to chew raw food for six hours each day to obtain enough food energy to sustain its brain size. This fact has led to Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham's controversial theory that fire and cooking were the necessary steps that allowed for the evolution of larger brains:

" 'I tend to think about human evolution through the lens of chimps,' Wrangham remarks. 'What would it take to convert a chimpanzee-like ancestor into a human?' Fire to cook food, he reasoned, which led to bigger bodies and brains. And that is exactly what he found in Homo erectus, our ancestor that first appeared 1.6 million to 1.9 million years ago. H. erectus's brain was 50 percent larger than that of its predecessor, H. habilis, and it experienced the biggest drop in tooth size in human evolution. 'There's no other time that satisfies the expectations that we would have for changes in the body that would be accompanied by cooking,' Wrangham says.

"The problem with his idea: proof is slim that any human could control fire that far back. Other researchers believe cooking did not occur until perhaps only 500,000 years ago. ...

"So Wrangham did more research. He examined groups of modern hunter-gatherers all over the world and found that no human group currently eats all their food raw. Humans seem to be well adapted to eating cooked food: modern humans need a lot of high-quality calories (brain tissue requires 22 times the energy of skeletal muscle); tough, fibrous fruits and tubers cannot provide enough. Wrangham and his colleagues calculated that H. erectus (which was in H. sapiens's size range) would have to eat roughly 12 pounds of raw plant food a day, or six pounds of raw plants plus raw meat, to get enough calories to survive. Studies on modern women show that those on a raw vegetarian diet often miss their menstrual periods because of lack of energy. Adding high-energy raw meat does not help much, either--Wrangham found data showing that even at chimps' chewing rate, which can deliver them 400 food calories per hour, H. erectus would have needed to chew raw meat for 5.7 to 6.2 hours a day to fulfill its daily energy needs. When it was not gathering food, it would literally be chewing that food for the rest of the day. ... [Animals] expend less effort breaking down cooked food than raw. Heat alters the physical structure of proteins and starches, thereby making enzymatic breakdown easier.

"Wrangham's theory would fit together nicely if not for that pesky problem of controlled fire. Wrangham points to some data of early fires that may indicate that H. erectus did indeed tame fire.

Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Cooking Up Bigger Brains," Scientific American, January 2008, pp. 102-104.

Friday, December 14, 2007 12/14/07-Ciao!

In today's excerpt--thirteenth-century Venice, home to Marco Polo, the Basilica di San Marco, doges, canals, gondolas--and the trade center of the world:

"Venice hid from her enemies amid a seductive array of islands, 118 in all. ... Throughout Europe, travel was exceedingly slow and hazardous. But in Venice, conditions were very different. ... Travel was not the exception, it was the norm. Everyone in Venice, it seemed, was a traveler and a merchant, or aspired to be.

"Venice--seductive, Byzantine, and water-bound--was among the most important centers of commerce and culture in thirteenth-century Europe, a flourishing city-state that lived by trade. ... Venetians developed a reputation for efficient and thorough business administration--the most advanced in Europe. 'A trading venture,' [John Julius] Norwich says, 'even one that involved immense initial outlay, several years' duration, and considerable risk, could be arranged on the Rialto in a matter of hours.' Although the risks were great, riches beyond imaging lured the adventurous, the willing, and the foolish. Fortunes were made and lost overnight, and Venetian family fortunes were built on the success of a single trade expedition to Constantinople.

"Wherever Venetians went, they announced themselves with their distinctive accent and dialect, veneto. ... Some distinctive words in Marco Polo's world have leapt from veneto to English. Venetians of Polo's day bade one another ciao--or, to be more precise, sciavo or sciao vostro--which means, literally, 'I am your slave.' (The word came into the Venetian language from Croatian.) ... Arsenal, or a place where weapons are manufactured and stored, entered the Venetian language by way of the Arabic term dar al sina'ah, meaning 'workshop.' When Europeans of Marco Polo's era employed this word, they meant the Arsenal in Venice, renowned as a center of shipbuilding. A Spanish visitor named Pero Tafur ... counted the launching from the Arsenal of ten 'fully-armed' galleys within a six-hour span: one new warship every thirty-six minutes. No wonder that the speed with which the Arsenal of Venice could turn a bare keel into a fully rigged craft was admired throughout Europe."

Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo, Knopf, Copyright 2007 by Laurence Bergreen, pp. 11-17.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 12/13/07-Child Soldiers

In today's excerpt--the tragedy of child soldiers in contemporary Africa, usually forcibly recruited in their pre-teens or early teens:

"There seems to be a communal complicity in the recruitment of child soldiers, if only that parents, teachers and chiefs were, or felt themselves to be, incapable of doing anything to prevent these young children from being forced to participate in war. Having a child join the military was a strategy for protection of the child, the family, and the community.

"Military training of new recruits is designed to break down the boy soldier's ties to other people and create a new, warlike persona. As [Barbara] Roberts aptly states: 'A soldier must learn to dehumanise other people and make them into targets, and to cut himself off from his own feelings of caring and connectedness to the community. His survival and competence as a soldier depend on this process.' The heavy physical exercise of military training pushes children to high levels of physical exhaustion in order to create mental states conducive to ideological indoctrination. Many young former soldiers in Angola mentioned the [ritual celebration] during which young soldiers were forced to sing and dance non-stop the whole night through. The practice was aimed at making them forget about home and about their parents, brothers, sisters and friends. ... In both Mozambican and Angolan military camps, marijuana and bullet-powder were reported to be widely used to induce forgetting or insensibility, to enhance morale, and to make soldiers fearless when performing horrible deeds. Young boys who had been forcibly inducted often had to endure long periods of darkness, severe beatings, and deliberately instilled terror to impress on them that there was no going back. ...

"Boys in training received their weapons, not when they had simply learned how to use them, but when they demonstrated their willingness to kill. Fernando, a former child soldier from Mozambique who fought alongside RENAMO (the Mozambique resistance movement) recounted his story ... :

" ' They taught me to dismount and mount guns. After four months of training, they put me to a test. They put a person in front of me and told me to shoot him. I shot him. After the test they considered me good and they gave me a ... gun. And they told me that from that time on I was chief of a group of other children. ... My first task was to attack a village and steal cattle for the base. We burnt down the village. We killed cattle. We returned to the base. Some weeks after that, they ordered us to ambush a convoy which was passing by Maluana. ...

"[A boy named] Marula was kidnapped by RENAMO insurgents during a rebel attack. ... His father and younger sister also were kidnapped along with other villagers. ... He was not allowed to see his father and sister, but they managed to arrange secret meetings on a few occasions. During one of these meetings, they agreed to run away together, but they were caught attempting to escape. Marula was ordered to kill his own father, and so he did. Following this first killing, Marula grew into a fierce RENAMO combatant and was active for more than seven years. He does not even remember how many people he tortured, how many he killed, how many villages he burned. ... After the war, he returned to his village, but his paternal uncle, the only close relative who survived the war and whose brother Marula had killed, could not forgive his nephew and refused to welcome him home. Eventually, through the skillful intervention of his uncle's wife, Marula came to stay in the house despite his uncle's disapproval."

Alcinda Honwana, Child Soldiers in Africa, Penn Press, Copyright 2006 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 49-59.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 12/12/07-Brilliant Explosions

In today's encore excerpt--"the most brilliant explosion ever witnessed by humanity":

"Early in the morning of January 23, 1999, a robotic telescope in New Mexico picked up a faint flash of light in the constellation Corona Borealis. Though just barely visible through binoculars, it turned out to be the most brilliant explosion ever witnessed by humanity. We could see it nine billion light-years away, more than halfway across the observable universe. If the event had taken place a few thousand light-years away, it would have been as bright as the midday sun, and it would have dosed Earth with enough radiation to kill off nearly every living thing. ...

"The flash was another of the famous gamma-ray bursts, which in recent decades have been one of astronomy's most intriguing mysteries. ... Before 1997, most of what we knew about gamma-ray bursts was based on observations from the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) onboard the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. BATSE revealed that two or three gamma-ray bursts occur somewhere in the observable universe on a typical day."

Neil Gehrels,, Scientific American, Majestic Universe, 2004, "The Brightest Explosions in the Universe", pp. 65-6.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 12/11/07-Cicero

In today's excerpt--the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC). America's founding fathers were careful to avoid constructing the constitution as a direct democracy, since they were concerned that direct democracy would be tantamount to mob rule. Instead, citizens of each state voted for, or those states could otherwise appoint, electors, who in turn elected the president. Senators were selected by the state legislatures--not the people. Only members of the House of Representatives were directly elected. The founding fathers looked to the past for guidance on how to construct a balanced government--one with carefully constructed limitations and checks and balances--and no one influenced their thinking more than Cicero:

"Nearly two thousand years after his time, [Cicero] became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives. For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of [Cicero] were the foundation of their education. John Adams's first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

"Cicero wrote about how a state should best be organized and decisionmakers of the eighteenth century read and digested what he had to say. His big idea, which he tirelessly publicized, was that of a mixed or balanced constitution. He favored not monarchy nor oligarchy nor democracy, but a combination of all three. His model was Rome itself, but improved. Its executives had quasi-royal powers. It was restrained partly by widespread use of vetoes and partly by a Senate, dominated by great political families. Politicians were elected to office by the people.

"This model is not so very distant from the original constitution of the United States with the careful balance it set between the executive and the legislature, and the constraints, now largely vanished, which it placed on pure, untrammeled democracy. When George Washington, meditating on the difficulty of ensuring stable government, said, 'What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious,' he could have been quoting Cicero."

Anthony Everitt, Cicero, Random House, Copyright 2001 by Anthony Everitt, pp. vii.

With thanks to Steve Clemons

Monday, December 10, 2007 12/10/07-Public Houses and Taverns

In today's excerpt--the wretched state of America's taverns and public houses circa 1790, the time of George Washington's legendary tours of the United States. During these tours he eschewed invitations to stay at private homes to avoid the appearance of favoritism and instead stayed only in public houses. Within the next decade, America had invented its hotels, which were to become the most important form of public architecture in early America--due in no small part to the influence of both Washington's tours and the country's booming commercial needs at the dawn of the industrial revolution:

"Public house was the formal name for an establishment that sold alcoholic drinks and rented lodgings to travelers. Public houses were more commonly called taverns, inns, and sometimes ordinaries, terms that were used interchangeably. ... What made a public house public was its having been licensed by state or local officials. A tavern license involved a fairly simple quid pro quo: the innkeeper was given the privilege of entering the highly profitable business of retailing alcoholic drinks in exchange for a promise to offer overnight accommodations to the public. ...

"A 1973 archaeological study ... determined that taverns in eighteenth-century Virginia generally comprised only six to ten rooms, a size that recent studies ... suggest was close to the norm in the period. ... The small number of rooms in taverns made it impossible for guests to have their own bedchambers. ... While most travelers simply accepted this custom as necessity, it was resented by respectable wayfarers, who complained constantly about being forced into such close encounters with the unclean bodies and rude manners of tradesmen and laborers. One traveler complained that 'after you have been some time in bed, a stranger of any condition comes into the room, pulls off his clothes, and places himself, without ceremony, between your sheets.' ... Another confided to his diary that because other tavern patrons were drunk and staggering, and 'kept up Roar-Rororum till morning,' he had 'watched carefully all night, to keep them from falling over and spewing on me.'

"These were by no means the only criticisms leveled at American public houses. The nation's inns and taverns elicited torrents of invective from diarists and travel writers. The most common complaints involved tavern beds, which were described as dirty, uncomfortable, and insect ridden. ... One wayfarer ... echoing a frequent complaint about cleanliness, observed of his stew that 'everything was so nasty that One might have picked the Dirt off.'

"When President Washington first took office in 1789, the finest public house in the United States was a three-story building ... containing perhaps twenty rooms, and valued at roughly fifteen thousand dollars. Two decades later, in 1809, the nation's leading public accommodations occupied an enormous seven-story edifice which covered nearly an acre of land, comprised more than two hundred rooms, and cost more than half a million dollars."

A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, Hotel, Yale, Copyright 2007 by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, pp. 15-19.

Friday, December 07, 2007 12/07/07-Super Crunching

In today's excerpt--"super crunching," the increasingly common practice of analyzing very large sets of data on a particular subject for improving service, diagnosing, setting policy or making decisions--such as the stocking and pricing decisions at Wal-Mart or Amazon:

"When I say that "super crunchers" are using large datasets, I mean really large. Increasingly business and government datasets are being measured not in mega- or gigabytes but in tera- or even petabytes (1,000 terabytes). A terabyte is the equivalent of 1,000 gigabytes. The prefix tera comes from the Greek word for monster. A terabyte is truly a monstrously large quantity. The entire Library of Congress is about twenty terabytes of text. Part of the point of this book is that we need to start getting used to this prefix. Wal-Mart's data warehouse, for example, stores more than 570 terabytes. Google has about [five] petabytes of storage which it is constantly crunching. ...

"Tera mining of customer records, airline prices, and inventories is peanuts compared to Google's goal of organizing all the world's information. ... Google has developed a Personalized Search feature that uses your past search history to further refine what you really have in mind. If Bill Gates and Martha Stewart both Google 'blackberry,' Gates is more likely to see web pages about the email device at the top of his results list, while Stewart is more likely to see web pages about the fruit. Google is pushing this personalized data mining into almost every one of its features. Its new web accelerator dramatically speeds up access to the Internet--not by some breakthrough in hardware or software technology--but by predicting what you are going to want to read next. Google's web accelerator is continually pre-picking web pages from the net. So while you're reading the first page of an article, it's already downloading pages two and three. And even before you fire up your browser tomorrow morning, simple data mining helps Google predict what sites you're going to want to look at (hint: it's probably the same sites you look at most days).

"The granddaddy of all of Google's super crunching is its vaunted 'PageRank.' Among all the web pages that include the word [you are searching], Google will rank a page higher if it has more web pages that are linking to it. To Google, every link to a page is a kind of vote for that web page. And not all votes are equal. Votes cast by web pages that are themselves important are weighted more heavily than links from web pages that have low PageRanks (because no one else links to them). Google found that web pages with higher PageRanks were more likely to contain the information that users are actually seeking. And it's very hard for users to manipulate their own PageRank. Merely creating a bunch of new web pages that link to your homepage won't work because only links from web pages that themselves have reasonably high PageRanks will have an impact. And it's not easy to create web pages that other sites will actually link to."

Ian Ayres, Super Crunchers, Bantam Dell, Copyright 2007 by Ian Ayres, pp. 10-11, 39-41.

Thursday, December 06, 2007 12/6/07-Bad Wine, Worse Water

In today's encore excerpt, in the Middle Ages, both water and wine are hazardous and often highly unpleasant to drink. Using spices in wine helps mitigate one part of the problem:

"[Wine and ale were] certainly better than the available water. ... Particularly in Europe's densely crowded towns, with their poor drainage and rudimentary public hygiene, untreated water was a daily reality and an extremely effective vector of infection. ... It was most likely the physical consequences of drinking untreated water that explain the severity of a diet of bread and water, often handed out to errant monks as punishment or adopted willingly as a form of penitence ...

"Spices were, if anything, still more in demand in medieval wine and ale ... 'in order to keep the taste of the wine preserved.'

"Taken neat, medieval wine could be a harrowing experience. ... The wine consumed at the court of King Henry II tasted like paint stripper: it was 'sour or musty; muddy greasy, rancid, reeking of pitch and quite flat. I have witnessed occasions when such dregs were served to noblemen, they had to sift it through clenched teeth and with their eyes shut, with trembling and grimacing, rather than just drink it.'. ...

"[The problem stemmed] from the barrels in which wine was shipped and stored. Even if the wine survived shipping and storage in a reasonable condition in the barrel--a big 'if,' as barrels were often poorly sealed--the contents began to oxidize as soon as the barrel was tapped, rapidly acquiring a powerfully unpleasant taste, variously described as bitter, musty, smoky, ropy, or cloudy. To get the wine at its best, the contents of the barrel had to be drunk within the space of a few days--fine for feasts and binges but less than ideal for all but the largest or most alcoholic of households. ...

"With the advent of the technology of the bottle and cork in the sixteenth century, the need for spices in wine was abruptly less pressing. Winemaking techniques and the quality of the end result improved."

Jack Turner, Spice, Vintage, 2004, pp. 113- 117.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007 12/5/07-First Rome, then Greece

In today's excerpt--America's founding fathers use Rome as an ideal; by the time of Lincoln, that ideal has changed to Greece:

"America as a second Athens was an idea whose moment had come in the nineteenth century. This nation's founders first looked to Rome, not to Greece, for their model. Like most men of the eighteenth century, they thought Athens was ruled by mobs [through its democracy]. If any Greek city was admired, it was Sparta, whose discipline inspired the severe moralists of the early Roman republic. The 'mixed government' of Rome--not Athens' direct democracy--was the model invoked in debates over the proper constitution for the United States. The great republican of the new era, George Washington, was regularly referred to as a modern Cincinnatus, after the Roman who left the plow to serve the republic and then returned to his fields, relinquishing power. When Jefferson laid out his plan for the University of Virginia, he fashioned everything to Roman architectural standards.

"All this changed very rapidly as the eighteenth turned to the nineteenth century. Archaeology in Greece brought the ancient democracy to mind just as modern Greece was beginning its struggle for freedom from the Turks. Greece would prove just as important to the romantic movement as Rome had been to the Augustan age. Byron died as a military participant in the war for Greek liberty. Shelley wrote a Prometheus. Keats rhapsodized on a Grecian urn. ... Architects looked to the Parthenon now, not the Pantheon. It is significant of this changed taste that Washington completed his inherited home (as Jefferson conceived his own house) in the form of a Roman villa, while Lincoln's additions to the house he purchased were in the Greek revival style. This was a 'democratic' style in the eyes of Lincoln's contemporaries. ... [America's] Greek Revival ... set it apart from the architecture of Europe in a way never before achieved ... [and] must be understood as America's first national style of architecture."

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Simon and Schuster, Copyright 1992 by Literary Research, Inc., pp. 42-43.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007 12/04/07-Choice and Adaptation

In today's excerpt--Paris. In June 1940, a tired and unprepared Paris is overrun at the outset of World War II by Germans, who begin an occupation that lasts fifty months--the darkest period in the long history of the city. The occupation is massive and complete, and Parisians are quickly faced with the decision to cooperate or resist--with immediate economic and social consequences, and profound repercussions when the tide turns in August of 1944:

"A great many Germans found love and more among Parisians. As early as October 1943 some 85,000 illegitimate children had been fathered by Germans in France, and by the middle of the following year 80,000 Frenchwomen were claiming children's benefits from the military authorities, which French historians consider to have been 'only the tip of the iceberg.' The ordinary collabo horizontale perhaps deserves more sympathy from us now than she found at the time. The loss of two million French males sequestered in German prisoner-of-war camps or employed as slave labor represented a terrible deprivation to French womanhood; many of the occupying Wehrmacht were physically attractive and well-behaved. But most of all, as the war dragged on and life became harsher and harsher in Paris, sleeping with a German often became the only way a woman could keep her children from starvation. ...

"After all the humiliations, sorrow, dangers and deprivations of the Occupation, the three days of 24 to 26 August 1944 had provided Paris with an enormous catharsis. It would be pleasant to end the story of the Liberation on that heroic note, but its shadowy side now presented itself. In some ways what the French did to themselves after the Occupation was almost as painful as what the Germans had done to them during it. Even before the last Germans had left the city, the epuration began--in which vengeance was inextricably mixed with justice. The first victims, understandably, were the German troops themselves, often lynched or stood up against the wall when they emerged from their strongholds with hands raised. Then came the collabos--or the alleged collabos. The epuration took place all over France, but it was particularly far-reaching in Paris insofar as this was where collaboration had been more extensive and most visible. What especially struck Allied eyewitnesses was the ferocity with which women, the collabos horizontales, were treated. The shaving of heads, seen all over France, was perhaps the least indignity. Jean Cocteau records being shocked by the sight of one woman, 'completely naked,' on the Avenue de la Grande Armee: 'they tore at her, they pushed her, they pulled her, they spat on her face. Her head had been shaven. She was covered in bruises and carried around her neck a placard: 'I had my husband shot.' ' "

Alistaire Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Pan Books, Copyright 2002 by Alistair Horne, pp. 408, 424.

Monday, December 03, 2007 12/03/07-A Charlie Brown Christmas

In today's excerpt--in December 1965 came A Charlie Brown Christmas, the most successful special in television history. In a simple story from Peanuts' creator Charles Schulz where Charlie Brown looks for genuine meaning in Christmas while Snoopy and Lucy revel in its glitter, the show defied convention by using real kids' voices, no laugh track, sophisticated original music and uncluttered graphics:

"No one was more ready than Charles Schulz to write a parable about commercialism when [his agent] Lee Mendelson telephoned one Wednesday in May 1965 to announce that he had just sold a Christmas show to Coca-Cola. ... He brought in Bill Melendez, the Disney animator who had earned Schulz's respect by not Disneyfying the Peanuts gang ... [by] changing their essential qualities, either as "flat" characters or as his cartoon characters. ...

"[Schulz left] Lee and Bill to audition some forty-five kids, ages six to nine, then train the cast of seven principles, some of them too young to read ... [to deliver] their lines with startling clarity and feeling. ...

"Schulz loathed the hyena hilarity of canned merriment and rightly judged that an audience would not have to be told when and where to laugh; Mendelson countered that all comedy shows used such tracks. 'Well, this one won't,' said [Schulz] firmly. 'Let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way.' Then he rose and walked out, closing the door behind him. ...

"On the subject of scoring and music, however, Schulz put aside his own tastes ... [and his producer hired] Grammy Award-winning composer Vince Guaraldi. The catchy rhythm of 'Linus and Lucy' ... became the centerpiece of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and eventually a pop music standard. But it was the slower, mixed-mood, improvisational pieces in Guaraldi's jazz suite, especially 'Christmas Time is Here,' that elicited the unarticulated emotions lying below the holiday's joyful surface. ...

"Lee and his wife had read Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Fir Tree' to their children the previous year, and when he suggested that the show somehow involve a comparable motif, [Schulz] siezed upon the idea: 'We need a Charlie-Brown-like tree.' ... [And Schulz] insisted that the season's true meaning could be found in the Gospel according to St. Luke, and they agreed that the show would somehow work in the Nativity story. ... When the script was finished in June 1965, Lee Mendelson made a stand against Linus's recitation of the Nativity story, insisting that religion and entertainment did not mix on television. '[Schulz] just smiled,' Mendelson later wrote, 'patted me on the head, and left the room.' ...

"In a screening room at network headquarters in New York, two CBS vice presidents watched the show in silence. 'Neither of them laughed once,' Mendelson recalled. When the lights came on, the executives shook their heads and shrugged. 'Well,' said one, 'you gave it a good try.' 'It seems a little flat,' said the other. 'Too slow,' said the first, 'and the script is too innocent.' 'The Bible thing scares us,' said the other. The animation was crude--couldn't it be jazzed up a bit? The voice talent was unprofessional--they should have used adults. The music didn't fit--who ever heard of a jazz score on an animated special? And where were the laughs?"

David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by David Michaelis, pp. 346- 358.