Thursday, July 31, 2008 7/31/08-Benjamin Franklin Unloved

In today's encore excerpt--Benjamin Franklin. Far from the benign, avuncular and aphoristic image we hold today, Franklin was a figure whose life was filled with risk, controversy, and reversal. Here we see two of several periods in Franklin's life where, although he was already both wealthy and world famous, the public turned against him. The first was in a 1764 re-election campaign for the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the second was in 1765 during the imposition of the hated Stamp Act at a point where Franklin was once again in London and was viewed as forsaking the interests of the colonies in his loyalty to Britain:

"The campaign for elections to the Pennsylvania Assembly in October 1764 was one of the most scurrilous in American colonial history, and both Franklin and [his young political lieutenant Joseph] Galloway lost their seats. Franklin was accused of a host of sins--of lechery, of having humble origins, of abandoning the mother of his bastard son, of stealing his ideas of electricity from another electrician, of embezzling colony funds, and of buying his honorary degrees. But what ultimately cost Franklin his seat was the number of Germans who voted against him, angry at an earlier ethnic slur [he had made] about 'Palatine Boors.'

"Franklin was stunned by his defeat. He had completely misjudged the sentiments of his fellow colonists, something he would continue to do over the succeeding decade. ...

"The stamp tax seemed to Americans such a direct and unprecedented threat to their constitutional right not to be taxed without their own consent that resistance was immediate, spontaneous, and widespread. ... Since many people in Pennsylvania actually blamed Franklin for bringing about the Stamp Act, the mobs threatened to level his newly built Philadelphia house as well. His partner David Hall wished that Franklin were in Philadelphia to deal with the events, but then added, 'I should be afraid for your Safety.' His wife, Deborah, and several of her relatives resolved to defend the new house, and that determination encouraged friends to protect her and her house successfully. But Franklin's reputation in America was not so easily defended. His enemies in Pennsylvania accused him not only of framing the Stamp Act but also of profiting from it. 'O Franklin, Franklin, thou curse to Pennsylvania and America, may the most accumulated vengeance burst speedily on thy guilty head!' exclaimed the young Benjamin Rush, not yet the famous Philadelphia physician and friend of Franklin. Some warned that Franklin might be hung in effigy."

Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Ben Franklin, Penguin, 2004, pp. 101, 111-2.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 7/30/08-A Nation of Immigrants

In today's excerpt--by 1850, the population of the United States had increased six-fold since George Washington was first sworn in as President. It was the period of the greatest population growth and wealth creation in America's history, and was fueled by immigration, especially the influx of the hated Irish, whose conflict with England had lasted centuries. With immigrants totaling thirty percent of its population, Philadelphia was representative of the country as a whole:

"Between 1815 and 1860, Philadelphians experienced dizzying growth. ... Though stripped of its federal and state capital status, the relatively contained city of just under one hundred thousand grew into a sprawling metropolis of more than half a million. ... With growth and manufacturing in the nation's second largest city came unheard of opportunities for some ... [but] historians now believe this was the most violent period of the city's history. ...

"The new manufacturing city demanded workers. From the hinterlands came young rural men and women seeking new opportunities in the city. From the South came thousands of African Americans, free or fleeing slavery. And from abroad came the English, the Scots, the Germans, and especially the Irish. Rapid industrial expansion and heavy immigration proved an explosive mix, so filling the city with political, religious, racial, and economic strife that the old concept of brotherly love seemed a lost and distant memory.

"A year [almost] never passed during the antebellum era without dozens of immigrant ships arriving at Philadelphia. ... Famine in Ireland and revolution in Germany brought especially heavy immigration from the late 1840s to the eve of the Civil War. By 1850, when the city and county of Philadelphia had 409,000 residents, nearly 30 percent were foreign-born, whereas census takers twenty years before had found that only ten of every hundred Philadelphians were born abroad. Almost 60 percent of all the new immigrants were from Ireland, with Germans (19 percent) and English and Scottish (17 percent) contributing smaller numbers to the ethnic melange."

Gary B. Nash, First City, Penn, Copyright 2002 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 144.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 7/29/08-Bin Laden and Reagan

In today's excerpt--in 1984, before his activities became overtly militant, Osama bin Laden was actively engaged in charitable work in support of the Afghani resistance against the Soviet occupation. In this excerpt, his half-brother Salem visits him at his Pakistani base:

"Osama visited Pakistan regularly from his home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but he had not settled down on the war front; he was a philanthropic commuter, encouraged by his religious teachers to fund charities and Arab volunteers who had just begun to arrive to join the fighting. ...

"[When his brother Salem arrived to visit], Osama led him on a tour of the charitable and humanitarian work that he was supporting in the Peshawar region to help the Afghans. They visited refugee camps where Afghan civilians and fighters displaced by Soviet bombing lived in primitive tents or shelters. They visited a hospital 'with people with amputated limbs,' and [were] amazed to hear tales of terrible atrocities carried out by the Soviets and how, nonetheless, the wounded rebels 'wanted to go back and fight for Afghanistan.' They visited an orphanage where the children lived in 'small blocks ... concrete blocks, and they were sleeping on the floor.' The children gathered together and sang songs for Osama's visitors. Salem recorded these scenes with a personal video camera, a large and awkward handheld device that he had brought with him. He appeared to be making a home movie to publicize Osama's work and to raise funds. ...

"The United States and Saudi Arabia each had already channeled several hundred million dollars in cash and weapons to the Afghan rebels since the Soviet invasion in 1979. It seems probable that when Salem reached Washington that winter [to assist with King Fahd's U.S. visit], he would have passed to King Fahd, if not directly to the White House, the video evidence he had just gathered documenting Osama's humanitarian work on the Afghan frontier. As he welcomed Fahd to the White House, [President Ronald] Reagan took pains to acknowledge Saudi Arabia's particular efforts to support Afghan refugees on the Pakistani frontier: 'Their many humanitarian contributions touch us deeply,' Reagan said. 'Saudi aid to refugees uprooted from their homes in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed here, Your Majesty.'

"That February of 1985, in Pakistan, the leading Saudi provider of such assistance was Salem's half-brother, Osama. Reagan's language suggested that he had been given at least a general briefing about Osama's work. 'We all worship the same God,' Reagan said. 'The people of Afghanistan, with their blood, courage, and faith, are an inspiration to the cause of freedom everywhere.' "

Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens, Penguin, Copyright 2008 by Steve Coll, pp. 8, 12.

Monday, July 28, 2008 7/28/08-Madame Curie and Toothpaste

In today's excerpt--Marie Curie (1867-1934), physicist, chemist and pioneer in the field of radioactivity:

"The nineteenth century held one last great surprise for chemists. It began in 1896 when Henri Becquerel in Paris carelessly left a packet of uranium salts on a wrapped photographic plate in a drawer. When he took the plate out some time later, he was surprised to discover that the salts had burned an impression in it, just as if the plate had been exposed to light. The salts were emitting rays of some sort.

"Considering the importance of what he had found, Becquerel did a very strange thing: he turned the matter over to a graduate student for investigation. Fortunately the student was a recent emigre from Poland named Marie Curie. Working with her new husband, Pierre, Curie found that certain kinds of rocks poured out constant and extraordinary amounts of energy, yet without diminishing in size or changing in any detectable way. ... Marie Curie dubbed the effect 'radioactivity.' ... In 1903 the Curies and Becquerel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. (Marie Curie would win a second prize, in chemistry, in 1911, the only person to win in both chemistry and physics.) ...

"Radiation, of course, went on and on, literally and in ways nobody expected. In the early 1900s Pierre Curie began to experience clear signs of radiation sickness--notably dull aches in his bones and chronic feelings of malaise--which doubtless would have progressed unpleasantly. We shall never know for certain because in 1906 he was fatally run over by a carriage while crossing a Paris street.

"Marie Curie spent the rest of her life working with distinction in the field, ... [though] she was never elected to the Academy of Sciences, in large part because after the death of Pierre she conducted an affair with a married physicist that was sufficiently indiscreet to scandalize even the French--or at least the old men who ran the academy, which is perhaps another matter."

"For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products, and at least until the late 1920s the Glen Springs Hotel in the Finger Lakes region of New York (and doubtless others as well) featured with pride the therapeutic effects of its 'Radioactive mineral springs.' Radioactivity wasn't banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Madame Curie, who died of leukemia in 1934. Radiation, in fact, is so pernicious and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890s--even her cookbooks--are too dangerous to handle. Her lab books are kept in leadlined boxes, and those who wish to see them must don protective clothing."

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway, Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson, pp. 109-111.

Friday, July 25, 2008 7/25/08-Seeing Ourselves

In today's excerpt--seeing ourselves in photographs and mirrors:

"Researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

" 'When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,' Dr. Bodenhausen said. 'A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.' Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself. ...

"In a report titled 'Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,' which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

"How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? 'Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don't look exactly the same every time,' explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. 'Which image is you?' he said. 'Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.' "

Natalie Angier, "Mirrors Don't Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes." The New York Times, Science Times, July 22, 2008, F1.

Thursday, July 24, 2008 7/24/08-Tailfins

In today's encore excerpt--the gray-suited executives in the early years of General Motors decide that style trumps substance, and so hire flamboyant Harley Earl, who brings America the tailfin:

"Earl was [hired by GM] in 1927. [He had] started out as one of the early customizers in the new auto business, adapting cars for the least conservative of Detroit's customers: movie stars. ... A Harley Earl car was easy to spot. He was fascinated by jet airplanes, so long and slim that they appeared to be racing into the future; he admired sharks, long, sleek, and powerful, and his futuristic cars were in some way based on their shape, with a single metal dorsal fin in the rear. ... His chief aim was to give his cars the look of motion, even while they were at rest. ...

"Harley Earl deliberately stood apart. ... Though he needed glasses, he almost never wore them because he believed they detracted from his image and thus diminished his power. ... [He] drove the Le Sabre, a highly futuristic car he designed himself. Typically, it was based on a jet plane, the F-86 Sabre jet. ...

"Earl had hundreds of suits, many of them linen and offbeat colors ... which he kept in a massive closet in his office, so that if his clothes became wrinkled during the day, he could change and put on a fresh outfit. ... [He] would go before the board in a cream-colored linen suit and a dark-blue shirt and blue suede shoes. ... He was tyrannical to his subordinates: He raged at them, pushed them, always demanded more. ...

"If Earl's designs did not always please intellectuals, they were stunningly successful with car buyers. ... Fins, the most famous automotive detail of the era, represented no technological advantage, they were solely a design element whose purpose was to make the cars seem sleeker, bigger, and more powerful. ... It was a kind of pseudo-change. ... Thus, during a time when the American car industry might have lengthened its lead on foreign competitors, it failed to do so."

David Halberstam, The Fifties, Random House, Copyright 1993 by The Amateurs Group, pp. 123-127.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 7/23/08-Nitrous Oxide

In today's excerpt--nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, and the famed British chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829). Davy is best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth elements, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He invented the Davy lamp, which allowed miners to enter gassy mine workings. Davy's laboratory assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to enhance Davy's work and in the end he became the more famous and influential scientist:

"In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use 'was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling.' For the next half century it would be the drug of choice for young people. One learned body, the Askesian Society, was for a time devoted to little else. Theaters put on 'laughing gas evenings' where volunteers could refresh themselves with a robust inhalation and then entertain the audience with their comical staggerings.

"It wasn't until 1846 that anyone got around to finding a practical use for nitrous oxide, as an anesthetic. Goodness knows how many tens of thousands of people suffered unnecessary agonies under the surgeon's knife because no one thought of the gas's most obvious practical application. ...

"A brilliant young man named Humphry Davy was appointed the Royal Institution's professor of [the burgeoning new science of] chemistry shortly after its inception in 1799 and rapidly gained fame as an outstanding lecturer and productive experimentalist. ... Soon after taking up his position, Davy began to bang out new elements one after another--potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and aluminum or aluminium, depending on which branch of English you favor. He discovered so many elements not so much because he was serially astute as because he developed an ingenious technique of applying electricity to a molten substance--electrolysis, as it is known. Altogether he discovered a dozen elements, a fifth of the known total of his day. Davy might have done far more, but unfortunately as a young man he developed an abiding attachment to the buoyant pleasures of nitrous oxide. He grew so attached to the gas that he drew on it (literally) three or four times a day. Eventually, in 1829, it is thought to have killed him.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway, Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson, pp. 102-104.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 7/22/08-Manufactured Controversy

In today's excerpt--Jumbo, named after an African word for "elephant,' stood 11.5 feet tall, weighed 6.5 tons, and was perhaps the most famous and celebrated animal in history:

"A baby elephant captured in the African jungles, ... the internationally famous Jumbo carried hundreds of thousands of children as they flocked to the Royal Zoological Gardens in London in the 1870s for rides.

"From across the Atlantic, [impresario of 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' P.T] Barnum greedily eyed the colossal pachyderm, 'but with no hope of ever getting possession of him.' Nevertheless, he made an offer to the London Zoological Society of $10,000, and not long afterward what had been the impossible suddenly became a distinct possibility. Jumbo had thrown some uncharacteristic temper tantrums in his zoo quarters, and in 1881, fearful that it might have a potential danger on its hands, the society decided to accept Barnum's offer. Back home, the delighted showman realized he couldn't just pack up his acquisition and sail away. An international tableau had to be created first, by means of a bit of cunning, double-barrel brainwashing. In order to prove to Americans what a prize was coming their way, he set about convincing the English that they were being tricked out of a national treasure. Once the seeds of discontent were planted, loyal Britishers, from the man on the street to the Prince of Wales, were duly outraged. ... 'Jumbo-mania' now swept across both countries. ...

"Letters from England poured in to the showman, begging him to reconsider. No, Barnum would not change his mind. A deal was a deal. After all, Jumbo wasn't born a British citizen. American children deserved him, too. Now, with protest and excitement seething, an enormous, rolling, padded, boxlike cage was built of oak and iron in which the continental switch was to be made. But, try as they might, Barnum's agents were unable to persuade Jumbo to step inside. 'Jumbo is lying in the garden and will not stir. What shall we do?' they wired home. Barnum's answer was to 'let him lie there a week if he wants to. It is the best advertisement in the world.' Huge sums were now offered Barnum to relent, Parliament and the Queen pratically begged, and lawsuits were brought against the society's officers for making the sale. ... Barnum stood firm. 'Hundred thousand pounds would be no inducement to cancel purchase,' he cabled. ...

"Not even Barnum knew quite what he had. ... Thousands of New Yorkers met the ship delivering Jumbo on April 9, 1882, and followed the procession through packed and cheering streets to the Hippodrome building--now named Madison Square Garden--where the circus was about to open. Barnum claimed the elephant had cost him $30,000 in all [almost $1,000,000 in today's dollars], but that sum would prove to be nothing beside the earnings power Jumbo proceeded to demonstrate. In the first three weeks, he pulled in $3,000 a day, covering more than his entire cost. For the years ahead, astronomical receipts were credited to his presence."

Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, P.T. Barnum, Knopf, Copyright 1995 by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, pp. 278-281.

Monday, July 21, 2008 7/21/08-Zimbabwe and the U.S.

In today's excerpt--the view in Zimbabwe of the U.S. Over the last few months, the dictator Robert Mugabe--author of that country's extreme political repression and hyperinflation--has again overcome opposition to maintain his grip on power. Here is an excerpt from a 1999 Zimbabwean high school textbook which presumably captures that government's propaganda on the United States--and supports the storyline that Mugabe stands up for African independence in the face of U.S. and British neo-colonialism. The excerpt is a discussion of the international pressure on South Africa to end the practice of apartheid:

"South Africa responded to international pressure and to the crisis at home by tightening the screws and by exporting terror and genocide to neighboring African countries. At home, the press was gagged. African activists were incarcerated or murdered and new laws to deprive the masses of any form of freedom of expression were promulgated. ... Reactionary groups were sponsored by the regime to fight wars of destabilization in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and periodically Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola and Alfonso Dhlakama's bandits in Mozambique wreaked havoc in those countries. In this, South Africa was supported by the USA administration which had publicly admitted giving aid to Jonas Savimbi.

"The unholy alliance between South Africa and Reaganism in America gained strength during the early 1980s when the Reagan era began. The Black American Republican, Jeane Kirk Patrick [sic], believed that rightest authoritarian regimes, no matter how oppressive, were natural allies of the USA as they were useful in combating the spread of communism. ...

"Ronald Reagan once asked of South Africa: 'Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we have ever fought, a country that is essentially strategic to the free world?' One might ask, 'how free a world was that of the South African blacks?' The point being made was clear. Thereafter, the USA vetoed every resolution that was intended to bring down apartheid at the UN."

[Note: Jeanne Kirkpatrick served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. under President Reagan from 1981 to 1985. She was part of a Republican administration, but not black.]

M. Sibanda and H. Moyana, The Africa Heritage: History for O level Secondary Students, Book 3, Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Publishing House (Pvt) Ltd., 1999, 115-116.

Friday, July 18, 2008 7/18/08-Damon Runyon

In today's excerpt--sportswriters in the 1920s, feeling underpaid, often took payments from sports promoters to give favorable coverage to certain athletes. One such sportswriter was the immortal Damon Runyon, star reporter for the Hearst newspaper chain, whose short stories were later turned into the Broadway smash Guys and Dolls:

"Though not yet famous, as he eventually would become, mainly because of his colorful and often exaggerated descriptions of sports events and his popular short stories about Broadway gamblers and their variegated associates, Damon Runyon was a man in perennial search of a buck. Or at least he was before he became famous after some of his make-believe Broadway characters became immortalized in the hit musical Guys and Dolls. Barney Nagler, one of the most highly respected boxing writers over a period that extended from the 1930s to the 1980s, was known to become almost apoplectic when he would hear a young sports reporter wax reverentially about Runyon's work. 'He was the crookedest writer around, with his hand in every promoter's pocket and in a lot of managers' and fighters' pockets, too,' the usually mild-mannered and soft-spoken Nagler once suddenly thundered.

"Indeed, Runyon had been on the take of promoters and fight managers since he was a very young sportswriter on the Pueblo Chieftain in Colorado, where he grew up. ... Early in his journalistic career, Runyon found out that managers and promoters were willing to pay a sportswriter or sports editor to ensure that their fighters got what they considered adequate space on the local sports pages. Taking a cue from some older writers, Runyon also bought, or was given, part ownership of some fighters in Pueblo and Denver, both good fight towns in the early part of the twentieth century. By owning a piece of a fighter, a sportswriter was even more inclined to write often and favorably about a fistic prospect.

"Runyon's ethical misbehavior went even further. In his 1991 biography of Runyon, Jimmy Breslin said that while running an annual Milk Fund boxing benefit [to help the children of the poor] at Madison Square Garden for the wife of William Randolph Hearst, Runyon was inclined to skim off some of the gate receipts--in effect, as Breslin put it, stealing money from the babies of indigent New York families. But by then some of Runyon's best friends were well-known New York gangsters whose scruples also left much to be desired."

Jack Cavanaugh, Tunney, Ballantine, Copyright 2006 by Jack Cavanaugh, p. 115.

Thursday, July 17, 2008 7/17/08-ethnic conflict

In today's encore excerpt--ethnic conflict, which is more pervasive today than ever before, is tragically fundamental to history and is essential to understanding situations such as present-day Iraq:

"The list of ethnic massacres is a long one. A nonexclusive list of victims of ethnic massacres since the Romans includes: the Danes in Anglo-Saxon England in 1002; the Jews in Europe during the First Crusade, 1069-1099; the French in Sicily in 1282; the French in Bruges in 1302; the Flemings in England in 1381; the Jews in Iberia in 1391; converted Jews in Portugal in 1507; the Huguenots in France in 1572; Protestants in Magdeburg in 1631; Jews and Poles in the Ukraine, 1648-1954; indigenous populations in the United States, Australia, and Tasmania in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Jews in Russia in the nineteenth century; the French in Haiti in 1804; Arab Christians in Lebanon in 1841; Turkish Armenians in 1895-1896 and 1915-1916; Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite Christians in the Turkish Empire in 1915-1916; Greeks in Smyrna in 1922; Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1936; the Jewish Holocaust in German-occupied territory, 1933-1945; Serbians in Croatia in 1945; Muslims and Hindus in British India in 1946-1947; the Chinese in 1965 and the Timorese in 1974 and 1998 in Indonesia; Igbos in Nigeria in 1967-1970; the Vietnamese in Cambodia in 1970-1978; the Bengalis in Pakistan in 1971; the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1956-1965; 1972, and 1993-1994; Tamils in Sri Lanka in 1958, 1971, 1977, 1981, and 1983; Armenians in Azerbaijan in 1990; Muslims in Bosnia in 1992; Kosovars and Serbians in Kosovo in 1998-2000. To show how far from exhaustive this list is, the political scientist Ted Gurr counted fifty ethnically based conflicts in 1993-1994 alone. ...

"As Scientific American said in September 1998, 'Many of the world's problems stem from the fact that it has 5,000 ethnic groups but only 190 countries.' ...

"Ethnic diversity does not automatically imply ethnic conflict, violent or otherwise, it merely reflects the potential for such conflict, if opportunistic politicians try to exploit ethnic divisions to gain an ethnic power base. Apparently such opportunism is common. ... High ethnic diversity is a good predictor of civil war and genocide. The risk of civil war is two and a half times higher in the most ethnically diverse quarter of the [countries in the] sample as compared to the least ethnically diverse quarter.. The risk of genocide is three times higher in the same comparison. ...

"[However,] ethnically diverse countries with good institutions tend to escape the violence, poverty, and redistribution usually associated with ethnic diversity. Democracy also helps neutralize ethnic differences; ethnically diverse democracies don't seem to be at an economic disadvantage relative to ethnically homogeneous democracies."

William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth, The MIT Press, Copyright 2001 by MIT, pp. 268-278.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 7/16/08-The Library of Alexandria

In today's excerpt--the legendary Library of Alexandria, located in Ancient Egypt, which made Alexandria the center of learning and knowledge for the entire Mediterranean world for over 600 years:

"Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 332 BCE but hung around just long enough to lay out the basic street plan and get construction underway. When he died a few years later, one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, took control of Egypt and made Alexandria his capital, building great palaces and temples, including a temple to the Muses (or Museum). His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, started the library, which was based in or next to the Museum, using Aristotle's personal library as its core. Ptolemy III Euergetes continued the work, determined to gather in the library all the knowledge of the world, and he instituted an aggressive policy of collection that involved acquiring scrolls, copying them and then returning the (inferior) copies while retaining the originals. He supposedly had every ship that passed through Alexandria searched for new scrolls and borrowed the entire scroll collection of Athens, willingly forfeiting his massive deposit in order to keep the originals. Eventually the collection [was reputed to have] numbered over 500,000 scrolls--700,000 by some accounts--making it, by a considerable margin, the greatest collection the ancient world had ever known. ...

"Along with the collection of parchment (and later vellum) scrolls, the Ptolemies paid for a permanent faculty of 30-50 scholars to live and work at the library, and over the centuries their number included most of the great names of antiquity, including Euclid (father of geometry), Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the Earth), Archimedes (legendary discoverer of the lever, the screw, and pi) and Galen (the most influential medical writer of the next 1,400 years). ...

"The Library was probably not a big as legend contends. Historian James Hannam has calculated that storing 500,000 scrolls would require 25 miles of shelving, which in turn would mean that the Library must have been a truly monumental building. None of the sources mention such a gargantuan edifice, and since the remains of the library have never fully been excavated its full extent remains a mystery.

"Most telling, however, is the evidence from other ancient libraries that have left remains, which show that even those renowned for their wealth and breadth had collections numbering in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. The finest library in the history of ancient Rome was the Library of Trajan, which probably contained around 20,000 scrolls, while the Library of Pergamon, arch-rival to the Alexandrian library, probably had around 30,000."

Joel Levy, Lost Histories, Barnes & Noble, Copyright 2006 by Joel Levy, pp. 28-30.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008 7/15/08-Our Housing Crisis

In today's excerpt--our housing crisis. Markets are characterized by boom and bust cycles--the S&L crisis, the conglomerate bust, the internet bust, the LBO bust, ad infinitum. Here George Soros explains the genesis of our current housing crisis:

"The current housing crisis had its origins in the bursting of the Internet bubble in late 2000. The Fed responded by cutting the federal funds rate from 6.5 percent to 3.5 percent within the space of just a few months. Then came the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. To counteract the disruption of the economy, the Fed continued to lower rates--all the way down to 1 percent by July 2003, the lowest rate in half a century, where it stayed for a full year. For thirty-one consecutive months the base inflation-adjusted short-term interest rate was negative.

"Cheap money engendered a housing bubble, an explosion of leveraged buyouts, and other excesses. When money is free, the rational lender will keep on lending until there is no one else to lend to. Mortgage lenders relaxed their standards and invented new ways to stimulate business and generate fees. ...

"From 2000 until mid-2005, the market value of existing homes grew by more than 50 percent, and there was a frenzy of new construction. Merrill Lynch estimated that about half of all American GDP growth for the first half of 2005 was housing related. ... Martin Feldstein, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, estimated that from 1997 through 2006, consumers drew more than $9 trillion in cash out of their home equity. ... By the first quarter of 2006, home equity extraction made up nearly 10 percent of disposable personal income. Double-digit price increases in house prices engendered speculation. ... By 2005, 40 percent of all homes were not meant to serve as permanent residences but as investments or second homes. ...

"Former Federal Reserve governor Edward M. Gramlich privately warned Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about abusive behavior in the subprime mortgage markets in 2000, but the warning was swept aside. ... Charles Kindleberger, an expert on bubbles, warned of the housing bubble in 2002. Martin Feldstein, Paul Volcker (former chairman of the Federal Reserve), and Bill Rhodes (a senior official at Citibank) all made bearish warnings."

George Soros, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, Public Affairs, Copyright 2008 by George Soros, pp. xiv-xix.

Monday, July 14, 2008 7/17/08-Greek Math

In today's excerpt--Greek math. In the Golden Age of Greece, the mathematical notations were still sufficiently primitive as to limit to development of advanced mathematics:

"The Greeks did not know arithmetic, at least not in a form that is easy to work with. In Athens in the fifth century B.C., for instance, at the height of Greek civilization, a person who wanted to write down a number used a kind of alphabetic code. The first nine of the twenty-four letters in the Greek alphabet stood for the numbers we call 1 through 9. The next nine letters stood for the numbers we call 10, 20, 30, and so on. And the last six letters plus three additional symbols stood for the first nine hundreds (100, 200, and so on, to 900). If you think you have trouble with arithmetic now, imagine trying to subtract from ! To make matters worse, the order in which the ones, tens, and hundreds were written didn't really matter: sometimes the hundreds were written first, sometimes last, and sometimes all order was ignored. Finally, the Greeks had no zero.

"The concept of zero came to Greece when Alexander invaded the Babylonian Empire in 331 B.C. Even then, although the Alexandrians began to use the zero to denote the absence of a number, it wasn't employed as a number in its own right. In modern mathematics the number 0 has two key properties: in addition it is the number that, when added to any other number, leaves the other number unchanged, and in multiplication it is the number that, when multiplied by any other number, is itself unchanged. This concept wasn't introduced until the ninth century, by the Indian mathematician Mahavira."

Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard's Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Pantheon, Copyright 2008 by Leonard Mlodinow, p. 30.

Friday, July 11, 2008 7/11/08-Country Music

In today's excerpt--country music was an oral history of the urban poor from California to New England, argues author Dana Jennings, not just the South-- especially in the pivotal period from 1950 to 1970. These were the years of Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and many more now legendary performers:

"Country music for decades was poor-people music, made by poor people, and bought by poor people. It sprang from the heart and the gut, and, like R&B and soul, it was the music of exile, meant to make being banished to the margins, if not a matter of pride, then at least more tolerable. It never surprised anyone that the original Carter Family came from Poor Valley. In a sense, that's where we all came from. ... People forget, or never knew, the poverty that once suffused country music. There are the songs that are explicitly about being poor, like [Merle] Haggard's 'Hungry Eyes' and Harlan Howard's 'Busted,' but poverty is also the silent pillar of lots of other country songs. In America, it's poor boys who most often wind up in prison, and it's among the poor that alcoholism is an epidemic. When you're poor, cheatin' isn't just adultery, it's stealin'. ...

"Which brings me to 'The Myth.' The myth, perpetuated these days by Nashville music executives who probably believe that Garth Brooks represents 'classic country,' is that country music is purely a white, rural, and Southern art. ... There's no question that the South is vital to country music and its history. But the scholar D.K. Wilgus reminds us that while country music's manifestation was Southern, 'its essence was of rural America.' ... Country musicians come from all over: Hank Snow, one of the music's biggest postwar stars, was from Nova Scotia; Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who owned the charts in the 1960s, defined the Bakersfield, California sound; Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings?-Texans through and through; and heck, Dick ('A Tombstone Every Mile') Curless hailed from Fort Fairfield, Maine.

"And the African-American influence runs strong and deep in musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley, whose first hits came on the country charts. Hank's breakthrough, 'Lovesick Blues' (1949), was written by a vaudeville piano player and a Russian-born Jew and popularized in the 1920s in the 1920s by minstrel Emmitt Miller. So much for regional purity."

Dana Jennings, Sing Me Back Home, Faber and Faber, Copyright 2008 by Dana Jennings, pp. 19-24.

Thursday, July 10, 2008 7/10/08-Vietnamization

In today's encore excerpt--Republican Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense and successor to Robert McNamara under Richard Nixon from 1968 forward. Laird was the architect of 'Vietnamization'--the ceding of the military burden to South Vietnam and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Writing in 2005, Laird revealed that he had to overrule the generals at each stage of withdrawal and increase the number of troops scheduled to return to the U.S. Even with Laird's efforts, this 'Vietnamization' and accompanying withdrawal process took almost five years:

"In Iraq, the United States should not let too many more weeks pass before it shows its confidence in the training of the Iraqi armed forces by withdrawing a few thousand U.S. troops from the country. We owe it to the restive people back home to let them know there is an exit strategy, and, more importantly, we owe it to the Iraqi people. The readiness of the Iraqi forces need not be 100%, nor must the new democracy be perfect before we begin our withdrawal. The immediate need is to show our confidence that the Iraqis can take care of Iraq on their own terms. Our presence is what feeds the insurgency, and our gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and the ability of average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgency. ...

"For each round of troop withdrawals from Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs suggested a miserly number based on what they thought they still needed to win the war. I bumped those numbers up, always in counsel with General Creighton Abrams, then the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Even Nixon, who had promised to end the war, accepted each troop withdrawal request from me grudgingly. ... I never once publicly promised a troop number that I couldn't deliver. President Bush should move ahead with the same certainty."

Melvin R. Laird, "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam", Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005, pp. 29-30.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008 7/9/08-The Caribbean

In today's excerpt--British adventurers in the Caribbean:

"The Caribbean was the Wild West of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, promising far more in the way of glamour, excitement, quick profit, and constant peril than the prosaic settlements along the North American coast. ... The English pioneers heard ample tales about the gold and pearls that had been found in the isles and stories of Spanish cruelty, English robbery, and Indian and Negro slavery. They associated the Indies with incredible wealth and amazing savagery. Everything was larger than life. The English colonists expected--and rather hoped--that outrageous things would happen to them, and they armed themselves with a code of conduct that would never be tolerated at home. ...

"Some had come looking for El Dorado, like [Sir Walter] Raleigh himself when he explored Trinidad and Guiana. But most had come to trade clandestinely with the Spanish colonists--or to seize their ships and loot their settlements. Here was the scene of Francis Drake's first outlandish exploit, where he stole £40,000 in silver, gold, and pearls from the Spanish Main. Nor did English privateering and illicit trade stop with the Spanish peace treaty of 1604. It is probable that English investors--chiefly London merchants--put more money into commerce and piracy in the Caribbean from 1560 to 1630 than into any other mode of long-distance overseas business enterprise, even the East India Company. ...

"The Elizabethan war was still being fought in the Caribbean, for the Indies lay 'beyond the line,' that is, outside the territorial limits of English treaties. In America, might made right, and international law was suspended. ...

"To live 'beyond the line' meant more than a flouting of European treaty obligations. It meant a general flouting of European social conventions. ... White men who scrambled for riches in the torrid zone exploited their Indian and black slaves more shamelessly than was possible with the unprivileged laboring class in Western Europe. And they robbed and massacred each other more freely than the rules of civility permitted in European combat. Sir Henry Colt thought the devil must have special power in America. 'Who is he that cann live long in quiett in these parts?' Colt asked. 'For all men are heer made subject to the power of this Infernal Spiritt. And fight they must, although it be with ther owne frends.' "

Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, University of North Carolina Press, Copyright 1972 by The University of North Carolina Press, pp. 9-12.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008 7/8/08-Arguments

In today's excerpt-evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers (b. 1943) argues that, consciously or subconsciously, we keep our rationales for our actions and beliefs carefully arrayed near the surface-ready as necessary for our defense:

"The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes ... that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, 'may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves.'

"The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right--and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than virtue.

"Long before Trivers wrote about the selfish uses of self-deception, social scientists had gathered supporting data. In one experiment, people with strongly held positions on a social issue were exposed to four arguments, two pro and two con. On each side of the issue, the arguments were of two sorts: (a) quite plausible, and (b) implausible to the point of absurdity. People tended to remember the plausible arguments that supported their views and the implausible arguments that didn't, the net effect being to drive home the correctness of their position and the silliness of the alternative.

"One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again--whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which--we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted."

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Vintage, Copyright 1994 by Robert Wright, pp. 280- 281.

Monday, July 07, 2008 7/7/08-Clara Barton

In today's excerpt --poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) encounters Clara Barton (1821-1912) in 1862 where they are both voluntarily attending the wounded during the Civil War. While Whitman's wartime experiences led to some of his finest poetry and a revolution in American literature, Barton's led to her truly monumental efforts in leading volunteers and obtaining and distributing supplies to wounded soldiers--and ultimately led her to organize the American Red Cross:

"Barton was still at the Lacy mansion [in Fredericksburg] when Whitman arrived, doing what she could for the hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers dumped unceremoniously on the carpeted floor. As Whitman had done before the war at the Broadway hospital in New York, Barton had begun her one-woman ministry by distributing little gifts of food, tobacco, whiskey, and simple human kindness to the Union soldiers stationed in Washington, where she was working as a copyist for the U.S. Patent Office. Since then she had expanded her duties to the field of battle, following the army's fluctuating fortunes. ... She was, in her way, as remarkable a personality as Whitman himself. Barely five feet tall, with a round face, high cheekbones, wide mouth, and beautiful, expressive dark-brown eyes, the Massachusetts born Barton had grown up 'more boy than girl,' ignored by her stern, unloving mother and taught to ride and shoot--she was a dead pistol shot--by her old, Indian-fighting father. ...

"Unmarried by choice--a friend observed that 'she was so much stronger a character than any of the men who made love to her that I do not think she was ever seriously tempted to marry any of them'--she nevertheless had many suitors, including one married Union colonel with whom she had a tempestuous love affair.

"In addition to her nursing career, Barton was also a pioneer in the area of women's rights, having withstood sexual harassment in the workplace to become the first woman to draw her own salary from the federal government (other women were filling in for disabled relatives and thus were paid under the men's names). Again like Whitman, she was proud of her physicality, eschewing all meats and stimulants, and she was capable of working long hours without sleep. Her favorite adjective to describe herself was 'athletic.' In many ways, she was Whitman's mirror image--stubborn, independent, sensitive, caring, affectionate, patriotic, robust and kind. Of course, Whitman was also a literary genius, the one characteristic that Barton could not match him, strength for strength.'

Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel, Oxford, Copyright 2000 by Roy Morris, Jr., pp. 53-54.

Thursday, July 03, 2008 7/3/08-Independence Day

Today's encore excerpt gives us a glimpse into the editing process for the Declaration of Independence, and shows that perhaps Thomas Jefferson has received a bit more credit than due:

"What is less well known is that the words (of the Declaration) aren't entirely Jefferson's. George Mason's recently published draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights provided what might charitably be called liberal inspiration. ...

" 'All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which ... they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.'

" 'Pursuit of happiness' may be argued to be a succinct improvement on 'pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,' but even that ... had been coined by John Locke almost a century before and had appeared frequently in political writings ever since. Jefferson's original version (of the sentence with 'happiness') shows considerably less grace and rather more verbosity:

" 'We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'

"Congress did not hesitate to alter Jefferson's painstakingly crafted words. Altogether it ordered forty changes to the original text. It deleted 630 words, about a quarter of the total, and added 146."

Bill Bryson, Made in America, Perennial, 1995, pp. 41-2.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 7/2/08-Star Wars Work

In today's encore excerpt--the hard work involved in creating new things. George Lucas, at a time when the success of American Graffiti is just becoming apparent, is hard at work on the script for Star Wars:

"Lucas did not hire a writer to work on Star Wars, despite his myriad preoccupations. It hadn't worked before, on THX and Graffiti, so there was no reason to try again. Instead, every day he'd walk up the stairs to his writing room at Medway--'it's like a little tower'--and plug away on the desk he'd built from three doors. 'I grew up in a middle-class Midwestern-style American town with the corresponding work ethic,' Lucas explains. 'So I sit at my desk for eight hours a day no matter what happens, even if I don't write anything. It's a terrible way to live. but I do it; I sit down and I do it. I can't get out of my chair until five o'clock or five thirty or whenever the news comes on. It's like being in school. It's the only way I can force myself to write.'

" 'I work with a hard pencil and regular lined paper,' he adds. 'I put a big calendar on my wall. Tuesday I have to be on page twenty-five, Wednesday on page thirty, and so on. And every day I 'X' it off--I did those five pages. And if I do my five pages early, I get to quit. Never happens. I've always got about one page done by four o'clock in the afternoon, and during that next hour I usually write the rest. Sometimes I'll get up early and write a lot of pages, but that doesn't really happen much.'

"Like most writers, even when not at his desk, Lucas was working. 'A writer is, every waking hour, constantly pondering scenes or structural problems. I carry my little notebook around and I can always sit down and write. That's the terrible part, because you can't get away from it. I'll lie in bed before I go to sleep, just thinking--or I'll wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, thinking of things, and I'll come up with ideas and I'll write them down. Even when I'm driving, I come up with ideas. I come up with a lot of ideas when I'm taking a shower in the morning.' "

J.W. Rinzler, The Making of Star Wars, Ballantine Books, Copyright 2007 by Lucasfilm, Ltd, pp. 14-15.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 7/1/08-Bananas and Foreign Policy

In today's excerpt--in the early 20th century, with American industry just beginning to expand overseas, and with Latin America still just emerging from its colonial shackles, bananas became one of America's first powerhouse industries:

"Bananas are the world's largest fruit crop and the fourth-largest product grown overall, after wheat, rice and corn. ... In Central America, [American banana companies] built and toppled nations: a struggle to control the banana crop led to the overthrow of Guatemala's first democratically elected government in the 1950s, which in turn gave birth to the Mayan genocide of the 1980s. In the 1960s, banana companies--trying to regain plantations nationalized by Fidel Castro--allowed the CIA to use their freighters as part of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. ... Eli Black, the chairman of Chiquita, threw himself out of the window of a Manhattan skyscraper in 1974 after his company's political machinations were exposed. ...

"On August 12, 1898, Spain surrendered [Cuba in the Spanish-American War], and the United States gained control over the island, opening a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Over the next thirty-five years; the U.S. military intervened in Latin America twenty-eight times: in Mexico, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba in the Caribbean; and in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in Central America. The biggest consequence of those incursions was to make the region safe for bananas. One of the first businesses to enter Cuba was United Fruit. The banana and sugar plantations it established would eventually encompass 300,000 acres. An 1899 article in the Los Angeles Times described Latin America as 'Uncle Sam's New Fruit Garden,' offering readers insight into 'How bananas, pineapples, and cocoanuts can be turned into fortunes.' ...

"[But the U.S.] public knew little about events like the 1912 U.S. invasion of Honduras, which granted United Fruit broad rights to build railroads and grow bananas in the country. They weren't aware that in 1918 alone, U.S. military forces put down banana workers' strikes in Panama, Columbia, and Guatemala. For every direct intervention, there were two or three softer ones, accomplished by proxy through local armies and police forces controlled by friendly governments. One of the few observers to take note of the situation was Count Vay de Vaya of Hungary, who ... upon returning from a visit to Latin America, described the banana a 'a weapon of conquest.' "

Dan Koeppel, Banana, Hudson Street, Copyright 2008 by Dan Koeppel, pp. xiii-xiv, 63-64.