Friday, May 30, 2008 5/30/08-The Discovery of America

In today's excerpt-the discovery of America. Author Tony Horwitz muses on the discovery of America after hearing from a Plymouth Rock tour guide named Claire that the most common question from tourists was why the date etched on the rock was 1620 instead of 1492:

" 'People think Columbus dropped off the Pilgrims and sailed home.' Claire had to patiently explain that Columbus's landing and the Pilgrims' arrival occurred a thousand miles and 128 years apart. ...

"By the time the first English settled, other Europeans had already reached half of the forty-eight states that today make up the continental United States. One of the earliest arrivals was Giovanni da Verrazzano, who toured the Eastern Seaboard in 1524, almost a full century before the Pilgrims arrived. ... Even less remembered are the Portuguese pilots who steered Spanish ships along both coasts of the continent in the sixteenth century, probing upriver to Bangor, Maine, and all the way to Oregon. ... In 1542, Spanish conquistadors completed a reconnaissance of the continent's interior: scaling the Appalachians, rafting the Mississippi, peering down the Grand Canyon, and galloping as far inland as central Kansas. ...

"The Spanish didn't just explore: they settled, from the Rio Grande to the Atlantic. Upon founding St. Augustine, the first European city on U.S. soil, the Spanish gave thanks and dined with Indians-fifty-six years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth. ... Plymouth, it turned out, wasn't even the first English colony in New England. That distinction belonged to Fort St. George, in Popham, Maine. Nor were the Pilgrims the first to settle Massachusetts. In 1602, a band of English built a fort on the island of Cuttyhunk. They came, not for religious freedom, but to get rich from digging sassafras, a commodity prized in Europe as a cure for the clap. ...

"The Pilgrims, and later, the Americans who pushed west from the Atlantic, didn't pioneer a virgin wilderness. They occupied a land long since transformed by European contact. ... Samoset, the first Indian the Pilgrims met at Plymouth, greeted the settlers in English. The first thing he asked for was beer.

Tony Horwitz, A Voyage Long and Strange, Henry Holt, Copyright 2008 by Tony Horwitz, pp. 3-6.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 5/29/08-The Upper House

In today's encore excerpt--why we call the Senate the upper house and the House of Representatives the lower house, a designation made at the start of the first Congress, March 4, 1789:

"So there was fear and expectation, excitement and hope as the elected members of Congress filed into Federal Hall, a building at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets, which served as New York's City Hall. Major Pierre-Charles L'Enfant (later to gain fame as the architect of the city plan for Washington, DC), a young French architect and engineer who had fought in the revolution as a volunteer, had been hired to convert the building into a handsome and appropriate site for the nation's new government. ... Rather strikingly, the building marked the beginning of the country's commitment to the uniquely Federal style of architecture.

"As congressmen entered the building, they found a three-story central vestibule with a marble floor and a splendidly decorated skylight under a small cupola. The House chamber was located off this vestibule. ... Senators found their chamber on the second floor via two stairways, one of which was reserved for congressmen, and was almost immediately referred to as the upper house. 'It is very true,' wrote Peter Muhlenberg to Benjamin Rush, 'that the appellation of Lower House will perfectly apply at present to the House of Representatives, but in this case, the upper and lower House derive their different rank from the whim and pleasure of the Architect.' ...

"Some sixty-five representatives were expected on that first day but only thirteen showed up. ... And many of the arriving members found New York 'a dirty city,' with pigs roaming loose to eat garbage thrown in the streets. The stench, especially for those from country areas, was 'so apparent,' wrote Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey to his wife, 'as to effect our smelling Faculties greatly.'...

"Not until April 1, 1789, with the arrival of Thomas Scott from western Pennsylvania, did the House finally have a quorum of thirty. It was April Fool's Day, noted Boudinot."

Robert V. Remini, The House, Collins, 2006, pp. 10-13.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 5/28/08-Hangovers

In today's excerpt--hangovers:

"A hangover peaks when alcohol that has been poured into the body is finally eliminated from it--that is, when the blood-alcohol level returns to zero. The toxin is now gone, but the damage it has done is not. By fairly common consent, a hangover will involve some combination of headache, upset stomach, thirst, food aversion, nausea, diarrhea, tremulousness, fatigue, and a general feeling of wretchedness. Scientists haven't yet found all the reasons for this network of woes, but they have proposed various causes.

"One is withdrawal, which would bring on the tremors and also sweating. A second factor may be dehydration. Alcohol interferes with the secretion of the hormone that inhibits urination. Hence the heavy traffic to the rest rooms at bars and parties. The resulting dehydration seems to trigger the thirst and lethargy. While that is going on, the alcohol may also be inducing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which converts into light-headedness and muscle weakness, the feeling that one's bones have turned to jello. Meanwhile, the body, to break down the alcohol, is releasing chemicals that may be more toxic than alcohol itself; these would result in nausea and other symptoms. Finally, the alcohol has produced inflammation, which in turn causes the white blood cells to flood the bloodstream with molecules called cytokines.

"Apparently, cytokines are the source of the aches and pains and lethargy that, when our bodies are attacked by a flu virus--and likewise, perhaps, by alcohol--encourage us to stay in bed rather than go to work, thereby freeing up the body's energy for use by the white cells in combatting the invader. In a series of experiments, mice that were given a cytokine inducer underwent dramatic changes. Adult males wouldn't socialize with young males new to their cage. Mothers displayed 'impaired nest- building.' ...

"But hangover symptoms are not just physical; they are cognitive as well. People with hangovers show delayed reaction times and difficulties with attention, concentration, and visual-spatial perception. A group of airplane pilots given simulated flight tests after a night's drinking put in substandard performances. Similarly, automobile drivers, the morning after, get low marks on simulated road tests. Needless to say, this is a hazard, and not just for those at the wheel. There are laws against drunk driving, but not against driving with a hangover. ...

"Some words for hangover, like ours, refer prosaically to the cause: the Egyptians say they are 'still drunk,' the Japanese 'two days drunk,' the Chinese 'drunk overnight.' The Swedes get 'smacked from behind.' But it is in languages that describe the effects rather than the cause that we begin to see real poetic power. Salvadorans wake up 'made of rubber,' the French with a 'wooden mouth' or a 'hair ache.' The Germans and the Dutch say they have a 'tomcat,' presumably wailing. The Poles, reportedly, experience a 'howling of kittens.' My favorites are the Danes, who get 'carpenters in the forehead.'

Joan Acocella, "A Few Too Many," The New Yorker, May 26, 2008, pp. 32-33.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 5/27/08-The Mystery of Monogamy

In today's excerpt--from Robert Wright's groundbreaking and controversial book, The Moral Animal, this background on monogamy versus polygyny (multiple wives), which he discusses as a precursor to his discussion of the logic of monogamy contrasted against the historical predominance of polygyny:

"A huge majority [of human societies]--980 of the 1,154 past or present societies for which anthropologists have data--have permitted a man to have more than one wife. And that number includes most of the world's hunter--gatherer societies, societies that are the closest thing we have to a living example of the context of human evolution. ...

"There is a sense in which polygynous marriage has not been the historical norm. For 43 percent of the 980 polygynous cultures, polygyny is classified as 'occasional.' And even where it is 'common,' multiple wives are generally reserved for a relatively few men who can afford them or qualify for them via formal rank. For eons and eons, most marriages have been monogamous, even though most societies haven't been. Still, the anthropological record suggests that polygyny is natural in the sense that men given the opportunity to have more than one wife are strongly inclined to seize it. ...

"[For] societies that have hovered right around the subsistence level, ... where little is stowed away for a rainy day, a man who stretches his resources between two families may end up with few or no surviving children. And even if he were willing to gamble on a second family, he'd have trouble attracting a second wife. ... The general principle is that economic equality among men--especially, but not only, if near subsistence level--tends to short-circuit polygyny. This tendency by itself dispels a good part of the monogamy mystery, for more than half of the known monogamous societies have been classified as 'nonstratified' by anthropologists. What really demand explanation are the six dozen societies in the history of the world, including the modern industrial nations, that have been monogamous yet economically stratified. These are true freaks of nature. ...

"Laura Betzig has shown that in pre-industrial societies, extreme polygyny often goes hand in hand with extreme political hierarchy, and reaches its zenith under the most despotic regimes. ... In Inca society, the four political offices from petty chief to chief were allotted ceilings of seven, eight, fifteen, and thirty women, respectively. It stands to reason that as political power became more widely disbursed, so did wives. And the ultimate widths are one-man-one-vote and one-man-one-wife. Both characterize most of today's industrial nations."

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Vintage, Copyright 1994 by Robert Wright, pp. 90-94.

Friday, May 23, 2008 5/23/08-Jonathan Wild

In today's excerpt--in the era of accelerating city size, but before professional police forces, stood men like London's Jonathan Wild. Wild served a police function, but like many before and since, used this position to operate on both sides of the law:

"By the time the hangman finished him off, Jonathan Wild had few friends. In his own way he had been a public servant--a combination bounty hunter and prosecutor who tracked down thieves and recovered stolen property; a useful figure in 18th-century London, which had no formal police force of its own. Such men were called 'thief-takers,' and Wild was good at his work. But along the way, he became more problem than solution.

"He called himself the 'Thief-Taker General of England and Ireland,' but he became London's leading crime boss, specializing in robbery and extortion. He frequently encouraged or even set up thefts and burglaries, fenced the booty for a relative pittance, then returned it to its owner for the reward. If his cronies tried to double-cross him, he had them arrested, to be tried and hanged--then collected the bounty. It was said that he inspired the term 'double-cross,' for the two X's he put in his ledger beside the names of those who cheated him.

"Daniel Defoe, a journalist as well as the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote a quickie biography of Wild a month after he was hanged, in 1725. Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, satirized him in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild. The great John Gay took him as his inspiration for the villainous Peachum in The Beggar's Opera.

"But by the time that work had morphed into the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill hit The Threepenny Opera two centuries later, Wild had all but faded from memory. And when Bobby Darin made a hit out of "Mack the Knife" 30 years after the play opened, Wild was largely a forgotten man."

Guy Gugliotta, "Digitizing The Hanging Court," Smithsonian 38, No. 1 (April 2007), pp.66-75.

With special thanks to Jane Malcolm

Thursday, May 22, 2008 5/22/08-The Boer War

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 5/21/08-Revolutionary Leadership

In today's excerpt--the leadership ranks of large-scale social and revolutionary movements--whether noble or tyrannic--are almost always highly populated with the young, along with the manichean self-assuredness and invincibility of these young. In this case, the movement is that of the Nazis (National Socialists) who rose to power in the economic rubble of the global depression, the humiliation of Versailles, and the accelerating upheavals of the Industrial Revolution itself:

"Like all other revolutionaries, the predominately youthful members of the Nazi movement had an urgent, now-or-never aura about them. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Joseph Goebbels was thirty-five years old; Reinhard Heydeich was twenty-eight; Albert Speer, twenty-seven; Adolf Eichmann, twenty-six; Josef Mengele, twenty-one; and Heinrich Himmler and Hans Frank, both thirty-two. Hermann Goring, one of the eldest among the party leadership, had just celebrated his fortieth birthday. And a decade later, in the midst of World War II, Goebbels could still conclude from a statistical survey: 'According to the data, the average age of midlevel party leaders is 34, and within government, it's 44. One can indeed say that Germany today is being led by its youth.' At the same time, Goebbels nonetheless called for a continuing 'freshening of the ranks.'

"For most young Germans, National Socialism did not mean dictatorship, censorship, and repression; it meant freedom and adventure. They saw Nazism as a natural extension of the youth movement, as an antiaging regimen for body and man. By 1935, the twenty- to thirty-year-olds who set the tone for the party rank and file viewed with open contempt those who advocated caution. They considered themselves men of action with no time for petty, individual concerns. 'The philistines may fret,' they mocked, 'but tomorrow belongs to us.' In January 1940, one ambitious young Nazi wrote of Germany's standing on the threshold of 'a great battle' and declared that, 'no matter who should fall, our country is heading toward a great and glorious future.' Even as late as March 1944, despite the terrible costs Germany had incurred, the faithful were still cheerfully gearing up for 'the final sprint to the finish in this war.'

"In a diary entry from 1939, a thirty-three-year-old described his decision to apply for a position helping resettle ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe in the expanding German empire: 'I didn't need to think about it for a second. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope they'll be able to use me and will accept my application. It would get me out of the confines of my office, which has grown very stale.' Two weeks later he noted: 'I'm awed by the size of the task. I've never been given such great responsibility before.' Female university students spent semester breaks in occupied Poland, staffing the provisional day care centers that freed German settlers to bring in the harvest. One student later wrote enthusiastically: 'It made no difference which school we were from. They were united in one great mission: to apply ourselves during our break in Poland with all our strength and whatever knowledge we had. It was truly an honor to be among the first students allowed to do such pioneering work.' "

Götz Aly, Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War and the Nazi Welfare State, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2005, pp. 13-14.

With thanks to Thomas E. (Pete) Jordon

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 5/20/08-Hard Work

In today's excerpt--Jay Leno tries to build a career in comedy:

"Born in 1951, [Jay] Leno grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, outside Boston, the son of an insurance salesman who ran motivational classes in which he'd inspire his salesmen with the Sinatra song 'High Hopes.' Leno struggled through high school and enrolled at the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance--then realized he had no aptitude for either. ... Leno decided to strike out on his own. 'It was a wonderful time to be a comic,' says Leno, 'because nobody else wanted to be a folksinger: 'Stop your war machine, Mr. President!' As comics, the audience couldn't wait to see us.' ...

"Leno pursued his stand-up career with the same dogged , can-do optimism of his dad's motivational lessons. In Boston he picked up work at Kiwanas clubs, retirement homes, hospitals, even prisons. He would walk into bars, plunk down a fifty-dollar bill, and tell the owner he wanted to do a set of stand-up; if he bombed, the proprietor could keep the money. (Most gave him back the cash no matter how he did.) ... [New York Improv owner Budd] Friedman remembers his first encounter with the eager youngster: 'He said, 'Mr. Friedman, my name is Jay Leno. This is the third night in a row I've driven down from Boston. I don't get on. When can I get on?' I said, 'You drive down from Boston and back in the same night?' 'Yeah.' 'You're on next.' ' ...

"There was something appealing, almost inspiring, about Leno's dogged, Horatio Alger-style enthusiasm. He went on TV auditions wearing his only suit; when he tried out for Jack Paar's variety show, they laughed at him. 'They said, 'Is that your suit?' It was so heartbreaking, I remember crying all the way home because I failed the audition.' His strategy was simply to work harder, and to stick to it longer, than anyone else. 'You'd spend your whole day sitting on the curb, waiting and waiting,' he wrote of lining up for auditions in his memoir, Leading with My Chin. 'Inevitably, somebody in front of you would say, 'This sucks!' and walk away. I always enjoyed that. All of a sudden, I had moved up! Without my doing a thing, my standing in show business had just improved!' "

Richard Zoglin, Comedy at the Edge, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Richard Zoglin, pp. 93-94.

Monday, May 19, 2008 5/19/08-Sex

In today's excerpt--evolutionary psychology; in this case, gleanings from the study of sex in the animal kingdom and the observation that males want lots of it, and sometimes bring gifts:

"In species after species, females are coy and males are not. Indeed, males are so dim in their sexual discernment they they may pursue things other than females. Among some kinds of frogs, mistaken homosexual courtship is so common that a 'release call' is used by males who find themselves in the clutches of another male to notify them that they are both wasting their time. Male snakes, for their part, have been known to spend a while with dead females before moving on to a live prospect. And male turkeys will avidly court a stuffed replica of a female turkey. In fact, a replica of a female turkey's head suspended fifteen inches from the ground will generally do the trick. The male circles the head, does its ritual displays, and then (confident, presumably, that its performance has been impressive) rises into the air and comes down in the proximity of the female's backside, which turns out not to exist. The more virile males will show such interest even when a wooden head is used, and a few can summon lust for a wooden head with no eyes or beak. ...

"For a species low in [the need] for male parental [involvement], the basic dynamic of courtship, as we've seen, is pretty simple: the male really wants sex; the female isn't so sure. She may want time to (unconsciously) assess the quality of his genes, whether by inspecting him or letting him battle with other males for her favor. She may also pause to weigh the chances that he carries the disease. And she may try to extract a precopulation gift, taking advantage of the high demand for her eggs. This 'nuptial offering'--which technically constitutes a tiny male parental investment, since it nourishes her and her eggs--is seen in a variety of species, ranging from primates to black-tipped hanging flies. (The female hanging fly insists on having a dead insect to eat during sex. If she finishes before the male is finished, she may head off in search of another meal, leaving him high and dry. If she isn't so quick, the male may repossess the leftovers for subsequent dates.)"

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, First Vintage, Copyright 1994 by Robert Wright, pp. 46-47, 59-60.

Friday, May 16, 2008 5/16/08-Praise

In today's excerpt--at fourteen, soon-to-be Broadway, cinema and television superstar Julie Andrews's singing talent is bringing her larger opportunities, in this case on a nationally broadcast radio program. However, she has also endured much hardship--poverty and an alcoholic stepfather who abuses both her mother, Barbara, and her younger brothers. Further, she has just been stunned with the discovery that the man she adores and believes to be her real father is in fact not. All of which has left her especially vulnerable to criticism and starved for praise. Here she performs in front of her mother and her highly regarded vocal coach, the demanding Madame Stiles-Allen, whose kind word at a mortifying moment is still remembered 58 years later:

"During my lessons with her, Madame gave me a valuable piece of advice, which has stayed with me over the years. 'Julie,' she said. 'Remember: the amateur works until he can get it right. The professional works until he cannot go wrong.' ...

"[Once], Madame attended a radio broadcast that I was doing. I sang the aria from La Traviata with the recitative 'Ah, fors'e lui,' which leads to the very difficult 'Sempre Libera.' There is an a cappella cadenza before the main aria begins. My pitch was usually flawless, but because Madame was in the audience, I tried too hard to sing correctly for her, and I began listening to my own sound. The result was that when I finished the cadenza, I landed a half-tone high. As the orchestra picked up the melody, I realized that I was sharp. My mother, who was also in the audience, berated me for making the mistake. I'm sure she wanted to shine for Madame as much as I did. I was mortified that I had goofed, especially as this had been a live radio broadcast. I was as much my own critic as anyone else.

"Madame rose to my defense.

" 'Be gentle with her, Barbara, she sang beautifully. She was trying so hard; you have to be a little kinder. She's only a young girl.' ...

"I had never sung sharp before, but I learned to watch my pitch even more closely from then on. I was forever grateful to Madame for her kind words.

Julie Andrews, Home, Hyperion, Copyright 2008 by Julie Andrews,
pp. 117-119.

Thursday, May 15, 2008 5/15/08-Baseball Mascots

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Delanceyplace 5/14/08-Cancer

In today's excerpt--from Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures, LLC--the idea that cancer can be detected long before a tumor is formed. Myhrvold, one of Microsoft's pioneers, brings intellectuals from different disciplines together to brainstorm new ideas--in this case physicist Lowell Wood meets with a group of doctors:

" 'Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,' Myhrvold recalled. 'He said, 'I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?' And we all said, 'We don't know. Ten times?' 'No,' he said, 'As many as a million times.' Isn't that amazing? If you had no time, you'd be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you've got a chance to intercept them.'

"How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. "It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood," he said. "And I looked at that figure and said, 'Something's wrong here. That can't possibly be true.' The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying-one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells."

"Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. ... 'It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ones,' he went on. 'Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn't it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You naïvely think it's once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn't. In other words, metastatic cancer--the brand of cancer that kills us--is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.'

"That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They're often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? 'You don't have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,' Wood went on. 'Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that's all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn't have to be a particularly efficient filter.' "

Malcolm Gladwell, "In the Air," The New Yorker, May 12, 2008, pp. 58-59.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 5/13/08-Rodney Dangerfield

In today's excerpt--the comedian Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004), who was born Jacob Cohen, then changed his name to Jack Roy when starting as a stand-up comic at the age of 19, and later changed it to Rodney Dangerfield, a name taken from a Jack Benny routine. He even resorted on occasion to the name Percival Sweetwater:

"Ruling the roost [at the New York Improv Club in 1966] was a former aluminum siding salesman who had started out doing stand-up under the name Jack Roy, left the business to raise a family, and was making an unlikely comeback calling himself Rodney Dangerfield. When Dangerfield first walked into the club, after a well-reviewed engagement at the Living Room, [club owner Budd] Friedman says he 'expected to see a guy right out of Princeton, and this middle-aged drunk showed up. He didn't want to get up onstage. I told him, I'll buy you a bottle of wine. He always told the story that I bought him for a bottle of wine.' Dangerfield soon became the club's regular emcee.

"Dangerfield was a larger-than-life character, a man of manic energy, dark depressions, and consuming appetites. Friedman recalls a Thanksgiving dinner at Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara's house when Dangerfield had too many martinis and fell asleep over the turkey. After dinner he woke up, went into the kitchen, and began attacking the carcass so ravenously that the caterer ran out to complain. Dangerfield drank lavishly, drove a car like a maniac, and smoked pot before most of the pot generation was born. But when it came to comedy, he was a disciplined pro. Weeks before he had a guest spot on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show, he would gather new jokes--jotting them down on the shirt cardboard from his dry cleaner, testing them onstage night after night, crafting a surefire five minutes. And though he was a classic 'necklace' comic--stringing disconnected one-liners together--he was hip to the new wave too."

Richard Zoglin, Comedy at the Edge, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Richard Zoglin, pp. 75.

Monday, May 12, 2008 5/12/08-Conglomerate Boom and Bust

In today's excerpt--the anatomy of an investment boom and bust of the type that inevitably occurs in U.S. financial markets once or twice per decade. In this case, it is the conglomerate boom of the 1960s--as described by George Soros:

"[The conglomerate boom] started when the managements of some high-technology companies specializing in defense recognized that the prevailing growth rate their companies enjoyed could not be sustained in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Companies such as Textron, LTV, and Teledyne started using their relatively high-priced stock to acquire more mundane companies, and, as their per-share earnings growth accelerated, their price-earnings multiples, instead of contracting, expanded. ... The success of these companies attracted imitators; later on, even the most humdrum company could attain a higher multiple simply by going on an acquisition spree. Eventually, a company could achieve a higher multiple just by promising to put it to good use by making acquisitions. Managements developed special accounting techniques that enhanced the beneficial impact of acquisitions. ...

"Investors responded like pigs at the trough. At first, the record of each company was judged on its own merit, but gradually conglomerates became recognized as a group. A new breed of investors emerged: the early hedge fund managers, or
gunslingers. ...

"The misconception on which the conglomerate boom rested was the belief that companies should be valued according to the growth of their per-share earnings no matter how the growth was achieved. The misconception was exploited by managers who used their overvalued stock to buy companies on advantageous terms, thereby inflating the value of their stock even further. ... Multiples expanded, and eventually reality could not sustain expectations. More and more people became aware of the misconception on which the boom rested even as they continued to play the same game. To maintain the momentum of earnings growth, acquisitions had to be larger and larger, and eventually conglomerates ran into the limits of size. ...

"When stock prices started to fall, the decline fed on itself. As the overvaluation diminished, it became impractical to make new acquisitions. The internal problems that had been swept under the carpet during the period of rapid external growth began to surface. ... The situation was aggravated by a recession, and many of the high-flying conglomerates literally disintegrated. ... The surviving companies, often under new management, slowly worked themselves out from under the debris."

George Soros, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, Perseus, Copyright 2008 by George Soros, pp. 59-61.

Friday, May 09, 2008 5/9/08-Warhol and Plastic

In today's excerpt--Pop Art icon Andy Warhol (born Andrew Warhola, 1928 - 1987) and plastic:

"A brief item in the New York Times on April 12, 1966, reported that a 'summons for operating without a cabaret license was served on Plastic Inevitable, a discotheque operated on St. Mark's Place by Andy Warhol, pop art entrepreneur.' Bored with painting and filmmaking, Warhol had invented the multimedia happening in a rented hall east of Greenwich Village. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was the preeminent avant-garde event of the season. As strobe lights flashed, the Velvet Underground played feedback-laden proto-punk, leather-clad dancers improvised on stage, and the improbably manic Warhol directed simultaneous projection of several of his films onto shifting areas of the auditorium, sometimes with handheld projectors, sometimes distorted by gel on the lens.

"Simultaneously, uptown at the Leo Castelli Gallery on East 77th Street, people could experience a more calming Warhol environment, an installation called Silver Clouds. In an otherwise empty white room floated an array of pillow-shaped balloons, each about five feet long. Fabricated with then-new metallicized polyester film and inflated with helium, these objects moved gently, randomly, reflecting vague patterns formed by each other, the floor, the walls, the lighting and passing visitors. In either case people could make of the experience whatever they wanted by projecting their own emotions and desires. ...

"Warhol's association with plastic derived from the early Pop Art that made him famous. But it was Warhol himself who evoked a sense of plastic artificiality. 'If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface,' he told an interviewer; 'there's nothing behind it.' His image was constantly shifting, becoming more artificial with each turn. As a young man Warhol altered his name and underwent plastic surgery on his nose. With fame he began wearing outrageously phony white or silver wigs that accentuated his unnatural pallor. In the mid-1960s he sent an imposter on the college lecture circuit. About fifteen years later this affinity for artificiality reached an extreme as he collaborated with a former Disney imagineer constructing an audioanimatronic Warhol robot of plastic and alloys--intended as the star of 'Andy Warhol's Overexposed: A No-Man Show.' "

Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic, Rutgers, Copyright 1995 by Jeffrey L. Meikle, pp. 231-232.

Thursday, May 08, 2008 5/8/08-Tea and Opium

In today's encore excerpt--Chinese tea, the balance of payments, and opium:

"The British East India Company discovered that there was a market for tea in England, and soon it began importing chests of it back home. ... By 1800, textile workers and coal miners were spending 5 percent of their income just on tea (10 percent if sugar is added). ... As tea consumption in England increased, and as the ability of the British to command New World silver shrank, in part because of the American Revolution, mercantilist fears of what the continued outflow of silver to China would mean for British power prompted the British to find substitutes for silver that the Chinese would accept for tea. ... The British colonialists were [finally] able to produce another commodity to finance British tea: the addictive drug opium.

"Many societies, China included, had long used opium for medicinal purposes, and so there was a small market there. In 1773, the British governor- general of India established an opium monopoly in Bengal, charged with increasing production of the drug there and pushing its sale in China. Finding some success even though the Chinese had prohibited opium smoking, the British expanded their market in China by distributing free pipes and selling the drug to new users at very low prices. ... Americans too had been bringing opium from Turkey to China, adding yet another source of supply. ... Huge numbers of Chinese became addicted to the drug....

"The [Chinese] Emperor appointed Lin Zexu special commissioner with the power to do whatever it took to end the opium traffic ... [and] Lin dissolved 21,000 chests of opium in irrigation ditches. ... Thus was launched the Opium War of 1839-1842 between Great Britain and China. ... [With the superior weapons of the Industrial Revolution, Britain won and] China ceded territory to the British (Hong Kong), and paid a $21 million indemnity in Mexican silver to cover the losses of the British drug traffickers. ...

"British trading companies imported about 50,000 chests of opium annually (6.5 million pounds) for sale to Chinese customers ... and great fortunes were built, not just in England but in the United States as well. ... Profits from the American opium trade added to the endowments of prominent East Coast universities, padded the fortunes of ... the Roosevelt family of New York, and provided capital for Alexander Graham Bell's development of the telephone. ... By the late 1800s, so much opium was entering China or being produced there that 10 percent of China's population, or forty million people, were users, with as many as half of those 'heavy smokers.' At the turn of the twentieth century, China was consuming 95 percent of the world's opium supply, with predictable social, economic, and political effects."

Robert Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, pp. 113-128

Wednesday, May 07, 2008 5/7/08-Knights, Chivalry, and War

In today's excerpt--in the golden age of knights in Europe, the words and deeds of Jean le Maingre, Sire de Boucicaut, and Jean de Beuil epitomize the romantic ideals of this knighthood along with a troubling love of war:

"Knighthood's zealot, Boucicaut at age twelve had served as the Duc de Bourbon's page in the Normandy campaign, at sixteen was knighted at Roosebeke, at 24 held the lists at St. Ingelbert for thirty days, the most admired exploit of his generation. Two years later, in 1391, he was created Marshal. Unable to endure repose, he had gone twice to fight with the teutonic knights in Prussia and, afterward, to the East to ransom D'Eu in Cairo and visit Jerusalem. In honor of an episode in Tunisia when the Saracens supposedly were stopped from attack by the descent from Heaven of two beauteous women in white bearing a banner with a scarlet cross, he created the Order of the White Lady with the stated purpose of providing defenders of the gentle sex whenever needed. He was the epitome, not the norm, of chivalry, and could well have expressed (although the words are those of Jean de Beuil, a knight of the next century) what it was that inspired his kind in an age of personal combat:

" 'How seductive is war! When you know your quarrel to be just and your blood ready for combat, tears come to your eyes. The heart feels a sweet loyalty and pity to see one's friend expose his body in order to do and accomplish the command of his Creator. Alongside him, one prepares to live or die. From that comes a delectable sense which no one who has not experienced it will ever know how to explain. Do you think that a man who has experienced that can fear death? Never, for he is so comforted, so enraptured that he knows not where he is and truly fears
nothing.' "

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, Ballantine, Copyright 1978 by Barbara W. Tuchman, pp. 556.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008 5/6/08-Torture

In today's excerpt--after a victory of the Algonquin Indians over the Iroquois in a skirmish near the St. Lawrence River in 1609, the Algonquin warriors torture an Iroquois warrior. As the author, esteemed historian and novelist Thomas Costain reports, this is in keeping with torture committed regularly and routinely on every continent and by every civilization for millenia prior to that day--a fact that illustrates how pervasive man's inhumanity to man has been through time, and how this inhumanity has also routinely been a source of public entertainment. Please do not read if you are uncomfortable with this subject area:

"The Algonquin lashed the Iroqouis warrior to a stake set up in a glade of the forest and told him to sing his death song. The unfortunate youth gave out a dismal and quavering chant. The dancing, jeering savages did not allow him to finish but dashed forward and set the wood around the stake to blazing. While the flames licked at the cringing copper flesh they indulged in other cruelties, tearing out his fingernails, pressing red-hot stones to his writhing limbs, ripping deep strips of flesh from his hide after breaking his bones and exposing the tendons. ...

"Cruelty was not a trait in which the aborigines of America had a monopoly. Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV [of France], was subjected to tortures before he was taken out to the Place de la Greve to die. ... They strapped his leg in an instrument called the brodequin, an iron boot which fitted closely from knee to ankle. They proceeded to drive stout wooden pegs between the flesh and the iron. Each blow tore the leg of the condemned man and caused him excruciating pain. By the time three pegs had been inserted the leg of the assassin was a broken, bleeding mass. ...

"In a weakened condition he was carried out to the execution square, where every inch of space was occupied by avid watchers and the housetops were black with people who had paid large sums for the privilege of standing there. Red-hot pincers were applied to the most tender parts of his body and then boiling oil was poured over the wounds. [Then] he was stretched on the ground and his arms and legs were chained to four horses. The straining animals were then driven in the four directions of the compass. His bones snapped and his limbs stretched grotesquely, but the horses lacked the strength, seemingly, to dismember the body. After more than half an hour of this, the crowds swarmed in and, with demoniac din, put an end to his life."

Thomas B. Costain, The White and the Gold, Doubleday, Copyright 1954 by Thomas B. Costain, pp. 69-70.

Monday, May 05, 2008 5/5/08-Coal and Slavery

In today's excerpt--coal and the abolition of slavery:

"With the harnessing of coal, which made labor less scarce, slavery and forced labor gradually became less attractive or economical. Right at the height of slavery and serfdom in the world, these two ancient arrangements were, rather rapidly, mostly abolished worldwide.

"The peak of slavery and serfdom came in the first half of the nineteenth century. Slavery quintupled between 1800 and 1860 in the U.S. South to produce cotton. It expanded in the Caribbean and Brazil to produce more sugar. In southeast Asia slaves on plantations produced sugar and peppers. In Russia millions of serfs raised wheat; in Egypt they formed the army and raised cotton; in North Africa slavery increased during this time, especially to raise palm oil, used as an industrial lubricant.

"Agitation to abolish slavery began with the Quakers in England and with the enlightenment philosophers in France in the late eighteenth century. Printing and travel circulated the idea. By 1807 in England and 1808 to 1830 in France the selling of slaves was abolished. In the 1820s Chile and Mexico abolished slavery itself; England did so in 1833. Other Atlantic countries followed: the United States in 1865, Spain in 1886, Brazil in 1888. In 1861 Russia abolished private serfs, who had to work at least nine more years to own their land communally; government serfs were freed in 1866. The Ottomans succumbed to European pressure and banned slave trading but never slavery itself, since it was recognized in Muslim law. In Africa, trading ceased by 1914, and abolition came in the first third of the twentieth century. On the whole, the abolition of slavery and serfdom represented a historic liberation for humanity; 50 million serfs in Russia alone gained their freedom. The use of fossil fuels helps explain why slavery has officially if not completely vanished."

Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History, The New Press, Copyright 2007 by Cynthia Stokes Brown, March 2008, pp. 217-218.

Friday, May 02, 2008 5/2/08-Dustin Hoffman

In today's excerpt--almost forty-five years ago, director Mike Nichols interviews unknown actor Dustin Hoffman for the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate:

"Nichols and [producer Lawrence] Turman knew the casting of Benjamin was crucial. ... 'I interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of men,' Nichols said. ... He even discussed the role with his friend Robert Redford, who was eager for the part. 'I said, 'You can't play a loser.' And Redford said, 'What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.' And I said, 'O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl? and he said, 'What do you mean?' And he wasn't joking.' ...

"After 10 years as a struggling actor in New York, Dustin Hoffman had won an Obie Award in 1966 for best Off Broadway actor, in Ronald Ribman's The Journey of the Fifth Horse. He'd been supporting himself with a series of odd jobs--selling toys at Macy's, working as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, on West 168th Street, waiting tables at the Village Gate--and sharing an apartment with Gene Hackman and his wife. After he won his Obie, his performance ... in an Off Broadway British farce called Eh?, landed him on the cover of the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times. ...

" 'I was riding high, so I felt I was going to have a career in the theater, which is what I wanted. So when the part came along, I read the book, I talked to Mike Nichols on the phone, and I said, 'I'm not right for this part, sir. This is a Gentile. This is a Wasp. This is Robert Redford.' ... Nichols replied, 'You mean he's not Jewish?' 'Yes, this guy is a super-Wasp. Boston Brahmin.' And Mike said, 'Maybe he's Jewish inside. Why don't you come out and audition for us?' ' ...

"[After the audition] he knew he'd blown it. ... The final humiliation occurred when, saying good-bye to the crew, he pulled his hand out of his pocket and a fistful of subway tokens spilled to the floor. The prop-man picked them up and handed them back, saying, 'Here, kid. You're going to need these.'

"Back in New York, Hoffman got word from his agent to call Nichols. He reached Nichols on the phone, afraid he had woken him up. After a long pause, the director uttered the most beautiful words an actor can hear: 'Well, you got it.' Those four words changed Dustin Hoffman's life."

Sam Kashner, "Here's to You, Mr. Nichols," Vanity Fair, March 2008, pp. 423-426.

Thursday, May 01, 2008 5/1/08-War and Religion

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

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

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

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

Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, Viking, 2006, 250-1, 382-3.