Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/30/08-Raising a Princess

In today's excerpt--the life of the infant princess Mary (1516-1558), first child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine. Mary later reigned as the first queen of England and is remembered as "Bloody Mary":

"[Newborn] Mary was an attractive baby, and there was genuine parental affection. But she did not stay with them long.

"From these very early days, Mary would live close to, but separate from, her parents. As a baby she seems to have stayed very near them, and to have passed Christmas with them at Greenwich, but babies and all their paraphernalia did not figure in the day-to-day lives of 16th-century monarchs. ... The notion that Katherine raised her daughter herself is at odds with the role of a queen consort, and Katherine had been a very diligent practitioner of this role during her years of childlessness.

"So, in the first two years of her life, Mary was cared for by a wet-nurse, Katherine Poole (later Lady Brooke), wife of one of the king's gentlemen ushers, a team of four rockers, no doubt intended to sooth her when she was lying in her magnificent cradle, and the highly necessary person of a laundress, to deal with all the washing that a small child generates. In the feeding, changing and daily routine of her daughter's life, Katherine took no part. ...

"The princess's household seems to have been a functioning unit within days of her birth. As well as the nursery staff and the lady governess there was a treasurer to manage finances, a chaplain and a gentlewoman. Mary's expenses soon began to grow. In the six months between October 1517 and March 1518 they stood at £421.12s 1d. By 1519/20 they had risen to £1,100, about £400,000 today [or $735,000]. Not until her father's death in 1547 would Mary actually have an income of her own, but she grew up as the focus of a substantial business unit, whose members had considerable responsibilities as well as privileges. ...

"Although she was a little girl in an adult world, her life was not necessarily devoid of amusement. A later fixture of Mary's life was her fool, Jane Cooper, one of the few female examples we have of a role that was generally given to men. The two seem to have had a close relationship, with Mary meeting Jane's expenses for haircuts and illness. Fools were not just entertainers, they were something of an emotional safety valve. It is probable that as a child Mary enjoyed the antics of her father's court jesters. ...

"There are no records of Mary having contact with other children or being educated with them, unlike her siblings Elizabeth and Edward two decades later. This is not conclusive proof that she grew up in complete isolation, and it is possible that she knew the daughters of her aunt Mary."

Linda Porter, The First Queen of England, St. Martin's Press, Copyright 2007 by Linda Porter, pp. 14-15.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/29/08-Popular Names

In today's excerpt--after the Black Death, the terrifying plague that killed one-third to one-half of all Europe's inhabitants from 1347 to 1349, there was a change in the names parents gave their children:

"The centrality of religion in medieval European life is impossible to overstate. ... If you want to pray, you go to your parish and submit to the direction of a priest. If you want to confess, you sit in the confessional and [tell] your sins to the man on the other side of the partition, who pronounces judgement and penance. ...

"Then along comes the Black Death, mowing down the sinful and the sinless indiscriminately. ... You can be healthy on Monday, infected on Tuesday, and a corpse on Saturday, leaving precious little time to wipe the sin slate clean by confessing and repenting in preparation for your personal judgement day. The biggest hurdle of all might have been luring the priest, any priest, to one's deathbed of contagion in order to perform last rites, the final cleansing. If a cleric does show up, he might charge an outrageous price for mumbling a few prayers. Stories of deathbed fee-gougers also abound, adding to the popular perception that extravagance and greed motivate more often than not. ...

"Once the epidemic is over, the survivors increasingly turn away from organized religion. Instead, they put their faith in the saints, especially those associated with pain and suffering. One modern historian conducted a comparative study of the most popular names for boys in Florence following the Black Death, in part to determine its effect on religious practice. That effect appears to be, in a word, enormous. Virtually no Florentine born before 1350 was named 'Antonio,' after Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of the oppressed, the elderly, the poor, and the starving. After 1427 the name ranked second. At number six, also unknown preceding the plague, is Bartolomeo--after one of the original twelve apostles; he was purportedly flayed alive and crucified by the Romans, surely qualifying him for the pain-and-suffering category. (Michelangelo's The Last Judgement shows Bartholomew clutching his skin, the organ of the body that most visibly bears the signs of Black Death.)

"Also rising out of nowhere to the heights of post-plague fashion is Lorenzo. Here the inspiration is Lawrence of Rome, a third-century deacon who achieved martyrdom by being roasted on a gridiron. The sudden vogue for 'Christopher,' patron saint of pestilence, needs no further explanation."

Susan Squire, I Don't, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, pp. 166-167.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/26/08-Stadiums

In today's excerpt--the post-World War I boom in stadium building and 1923's new Yankee Stadium:

"[In 1923], the nation was in the midst of a stadium-building boom. Harvard University had built the first prestressed concrete stadium in 1903, and Yale, in the ever-running battle of one-upsmanship with its rival, doubled the size of Harvard's effort with the 80,000 seat Yale Bowl in 1908, but the end of the war had started the true building explosion. Games had gained a new importance. Physical training in the cantonments had brought many ordinary men to sport, to athletics, forced them to take part and enjoy physical competition for the first time in their workaday lives. The interest continued.

"Every university in the country seemed to be trying to raise funds to build a new stadium. Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Ohio State ... they all had new stadiums or stadiums under construction. In Los Angeles, the L.A. Coliseum was being built in an effort to attract the Olympics. In Chicago, a massive stadium, Soldier Field, was planned on the lake. The fact was pointed out in the Times that the Romans, the all-time lovers of sport, had constructed perhaps 10 to 15 larger stadiums and 100 smaller ones during their time of influence. The United States now not only had matched the Romans in stadiums, but had surpassed them in number and size. The Roman Colosseum, historians decided, held only 45,000 spectators. Bigger stadiums than that were being built every day....

"The new [Yankee] Stadium was an amazement. It was a giant three-decked wedding cake in the Bronx, a skyscraper in repose, covering the ten acres of land purchased from the Astor estate. The plan to enclose the field entirely had been altered to allow the structure to be built in 11 months and be ready for opening day. ... The Stadium was an instant hit. ...

"The Stadium was a grand monument to the drawing powers of the resident right fielder [Babe Ruth]. (Did the Romans ever build a stadium simply to show off the talents of one gladiator? And if they did, did they--as the Yankees did--situate the playing surface so the late-afternoon sun always would be behind their star attraction, not shining in his eyes?) ... Ruth was the one who drew the large crowds to the [New York Giants'] Polo Grounds [where they were the second-class tenant], invoking the jealousy of Giants owner Charles Stoneham, who asked the Yankees to leave. Ruth was the one who promised to bring big crowds with him to whatever new park was built, no matter the size. Ruth was the one who at last had given the second-class Yankees first-class style and pizzazz."

Leigh Montville, The Big Bam, Broadway, Copyright 2006 by Leigh Montville, pp. 172-174.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/25/08-Real Estate

In today's excerpt--prominent investor George Soros commenting on the real estate crisis well before the meltdown of the past few weeks:

"The [real estate] crisis was slow in coming, but it could have been anticipated several years in advance. It 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.

"[This] 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. Investment banks on Wall Street developed a variety of techniques to hive credit risk off to other investors. ...

"Double-digit price increases in house prices engendered speculation. When the value of property is expected to rise more than the cost of borrowing, it makes sense to own more property than one wants to occupy. By 2005, 40 percent of all homes purchased were not meant to serve as permanent residences but as investments or second homes. ... Credit standards collapsed, and mortgages were made widely available to people with low credit ratings (called subprime mortgages), many of whom were well-to-do. 'Alt-A' (or liar loans), with low or no documentation, were common, including, at the extreme, 'ninja' loans (no job, no income, no assets), frequently with the active connivance of mortgage brokers and mortgage lenders. ...

"It was bound to end badly. ... 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. Gramlich went public with his worries in 2007 and published a book on the subprime bubble just before the first crisis broke. ... Martin Feldstein, Paul Volcker (former chairman of the Federal Reserve), and Bill Rhodes (a senior official of Citibank) all made bearish warnings. ... As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, there were many hedge funds taking a bearish stance on housing, but 'they suffered such painful losses waiting for a collapse' that most eventually gave up their positions."

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/24/08-Babar the Elephant

In today's excerpt--the beloved children's book, French author Jean de Brunhoff's "The Story of Babar," published in 1931 in the days of the global French Empire:

"[In the book], an elephant, lost in the city, does not trumpet with rage but rides a department-store elevator up and down, until gently discouraged by the elevator boy. A Haussmann-style city rises in the middle of the barbarian jungle. Once seen, Babar the Frenchified elephant is not forgotten. ...

"Every children's story that works at all begins with a simple opposition of good and evil, of straightforward innocence and envious corruption. ...[In this story], Babar's mother, with her little elephant on her back, is murdered, with casual brutality, by a squat white hunter. ...(Maurice Sendak, in a lovely appraisal of Babar, recalls thinking that the act of violence that sets Babar off is not sufficiently analyzed--that the trauma is left unhealed and even untreated.) ...

"Babar, [some] interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the 'good' elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals--to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle-is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule. The animals that resist--the rhinoceroses--are defeated. The Europeanized elephants are, as in the colonial mechanism of indirect rule, then made trustees of the system, consuls for the colonial power. To be made French is to be made human and to be made superior. ...

"Yet those who would [so interpret] 'Babar' miss the true subject of the books. The de Brunhoffs' saga is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination. ... The gist of the classic early books of the nineteen-thirties--'The Story of Babar' and 'Babar the King,' particularly--is explicit and intelligent: the lure of the city, of civilization, of style and order and bourgeois living is real, for elephants as for humans. The costs of those things are real, too, in the perpetual care, the sobriety of effort, they demand. The happy effect that Babar has on us, and our imaginations, comes from this knowledge--from the child's strong sense that, while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild, and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park. ...

"All children's books take as their subject disorder and order and their proper relation, beginning in order and ending there, but with disorder given its due. ... Disorder is the normal mess of life, what rhinos like. Order is what elephants (that is, Frenchmen) achieve at a cost and with effort. To stray from built order is to confront the man with a gun. ... Fables for children work not by pointing to a moral but by complicating the moral of a point. The child does not dutifully take in the lesson that salvation lies in civilization, but, in good Freudian fashion, takes in the lesson that the pleasures of civilization come with discontent at its constraints: you ride the elevator, dress up in the green suit, and go to live in Celesteville, but an animal you remain--the dangerous humans and rhinoceroses are there to remind you of that--and you delight in being so. There is allure in escaping from the constraints that button you up and hold you; there is also allure in the constraints and the buttons. We would all love to be free, untrammelled elephants, but we long, too, for a green suit."

Adam Gopnik, "Freeing the Elephants," The New Yorker, September 22, 2008, pp. 46-50.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/23/08-Panics and Crashes

In today's excerpt--the history of the United States has been filled with financial panics and market crashes: The Panic of 1819, the Panic of 1837, and the stock market crash that signaled the Great Depression--to name just a handful. In 1819, the end of the Napoleonic Wars brought an economic boom, and when the crash came, the Second Bank of the United States sharply curtailed its lending, greatly worsening the problem. This monetary curtailment, also employed by the Federal Reserve in the early 1930s, stands in contrast to the policies being pursued by the Federal Reserve and Treasury during our current market crisis:

"February 20, 1817, would prove the zenith of the 'Era of Good Feelings' as far as the Bank of the United States [BUS] and American enterprise were concerned. A year later, [John Jacob] Astor warned [Treasury Secretary Albert] Gallatin that redoubled speculation, goaded by the BUS, now threatened 'a general Blow up' among the state banks. A year after that, the American economy collapsed from top to bottom. ... American staple prices and land values dropped by anywhere from 50 to 75 percent; and backward the dominos fell, from ruined speculator to merchant farmer. ...

"Early in 1819, pushed by Astor and [Stephen] Girard, the bank's directors finally dismissed [BUS president William] Jones and replaced him with the South Carolinian Langdon Cheves. The new president ... tightened the screws, reducing the bank's liabilities by more than half, sharply cutting back the total value of bank notes in circulation, and more than tripling the bank's specie reserve.

"Without question, Cheves's decision to contract instinctually made sense, both in halting the runaway inflation and in doing right by his stockholders. ... Yet, for the national economy, his timing and the extent of his actions could not have been worse, ... turning what might have been a sharp recession into a prolonged and disastrous depression. Just as the bank intensified its deflationary pressure, commodity prices for American staples on the world market collapsed. Coupled with the bank's brutal deflation, the free fall of agricultural prices prevented state banks from either collecting from their debtors or meeting their obligations to the BUS--leading to a tidal wave of bank failures, business collapses, and personal bankruptcies. As the financial writer and bank critic William Gouge later observed, 'The Bank was saved and the people were ruined.' "

Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, Norton, Copyright 2005 by Sean Wilentz, pp. 205-207.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/22/08-Babe Ruth

In today's encore excerpt--now that the last baseball game has been played in Yankee Stadium, a brief anecdote about the man for whom it was built-- Babe Ruth:

"The writers of the time ... reported much less than future generations would. Especially about the Babe. ... Was it news that he was drunk again late at night? Was it news that he had been with one, two, three women who were not his wife? ...

"An example: [New York Times reporter Richards] Vidmer [and other players] would often play bridge in the Babe's hotel room on the long barnstorming trips back from spring training. ... The phone would always ring. Vidmer would always answer.

" 'Is Babe Ruth there?' a woman's voice would ask.

" 'No, he's not here right now,' Vidmer would reply. 'This is his secretary. Can I tell him who called?'

" 'This is Mildred. Tell him Mildred called.'

" 'Mildred ...'

"Vidmer would look at the Babe. The Babe would shake his head no, not here, not for Mildred.

" 'I'm sorry,' Vidmer would say. 'He's not here right now, but I'll tell him you called ...'

"Invariably, the Babe would have instant second thoughts. Invariably, he would sprint across the room and grab the phone.

" 'Hello, babe. Come on up.'

" 'And she'd come up and interrupt the bridge game for ten minutes or so,' Vidmer said. 'They'd go in the other room. Pretty soon, they'd come out and the girl would leave. Babe would say, 'So long, kid,' or something like that. Then he'd sit down and we'd continue our bridge game. That's all. That was it. While he was absent, we'd sit and talk, wait for him.' ...

"Fred Lieb always told the story about the woman chasing Ruth with a knife through the Pullman car in Shreveport during spring training in 1921 as the train was almost ready to leave for New Orleans. Ruth was running as fast as he could, and the dark-haired, dark- eyed woman, said to be the wife of a Louisiana legislator, was five feet behind him. Ruth pounded through the car, jumped off the train, then jumped back on as it was leaving, the woman back on the platform.

"Eleven writers, playing cards, watched the whole thing. None of them wrote a word. 'Well,' Bill Slocum of the Morning American said as the card game continued, 'if she had carved up the Babe, we really would have had a hell of a story.' "

Leigh Montville, The Big Bam, Broadway Books, Copyright 2006 by Leigh Montville, pp. 162-164.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/19/08-The Wife's Lament

In today's excerpt--The Wife's Lament, a beautiful and haunting tenth-century English poem of 53 lines, an elegy in the manner of the Old English frauenlied, or woman's song--and a glimpse into both the emotional and poetic lives of our forbears:

"The wife doing the lamenting ... wants her husband back. ... The couple has been forced apart by vile in-laws, for unexplained reasons, and she has no hope that the two of them will ever be reunited. Her husband's kin have spirited him away, across the 'wild waves' of perhaps the English Channel. Now he lives in a foreign land somewhere far away, and she must exist in 'friendless exile' on hostile territory--her husband's family's lands. Her in-laws have thrown her out of the house, banishing her to an 'earth-cave' in a wooded grove, where she pines for him day and night.

"Full oft we pledged,
save death alone, naught should divide
us else; that is altered now.
Now is destroyed, as though it never were,
our friendship. ...

"Friends there are on earth,
lovers living, who lie abed,
when I, at daybreak, walk alone,
under oak-tree, through these earth-caves.
There I must sit the summer's day long,
where my exile-ways I mourn,
my many woes, for I never can
my careworn self compose,
nor all the longing in me that this life begat.

She and her 'much-loved one,' she thinks, both 'dwell wretched.' She feels his pain as sharply as her own, knowing that 'too often he will think upon a happier home,' which would be the marital home that no longer exists."

here to read the full poem <http://rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=001Qr0QZWMTNyNQXCeJyeI8ySJ8JB5y0nuXLKLW15NL2oQ1AHPvC0FzRHBKP64QDkl2jhA1U5D6r7vcxtvSqMeH2wjkBCzKs5ob2wtxd0Kh3vfEjyRqULDa07nPn06o7RLD>

Susan Squire, I Don't, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, p. 144

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/18/08-Kyoto Women

In today's encore excerpt, the liberated women of the aristocracy in tenth and eleventh-century Japan:

"It just happens that the women of Kyoto, in the days when it was the residence of the Japanese emperor and known as 'the capital of peace,' made a record of what they felt, illuminating human emotion ... While men wrote learned texts on the usual subjects of war, law and religion, in the language ordinary people could not understand (Chinese, the Japanese scholars' equivalent of the Europeans' Latin), women started writing novels in the everyday Japanese language, and in the process invented Japanese literature. For about a hundred years novels were written only by women ... The world's first psychological novel is the Tale of Genji, written between AD 1002 and 1022, by a widow in her twenties ...

"In this period, it was shameful for an aristocratic woman to be dependent financially on her husband. She did not move in to live with him on marriage; each kept their own home. ... [t]hey had both the ability and time to reflect on their relations with men, which were unusual in that there were virtually no restrictions on sexual intercourse. ... Men could have many wives (some went up to ten at a time) and even more concubines. ... Wives were encouraged to have all the lovers they could attract, and virgins were thought to be blemished, possessed by evil spirits.

"Nobody expected a partner, either short or long term, to be faithful. A wife, indeed, believed that if her husband had many mistresses, she was more likely to have exciting and affectionate relations with him, provided she was the woman he preferred; that was a constant challenge. But this system became a nightmare because these wonderfully elegant people could not stand the uncertainty. Both men and women were morbidly jealous, even though jealousy was regarded as a breach of good manners. They all pined for security, though they were bored by it."

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, Vintage, 1998, pp. 281-284.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/17/08-Groton

In today's excerpt--Groton, the Massachusetts preparatory school established in 1884 whose first thousand graduates included one president, two secretaries of state, two governors, three senators and nine ambassadors. Groton's early practices reflect the vast differences in both curriculum and corporal punishment compared to today's leading preparatory schools:

"Groton was the creation of Endicott Peabody, 'the Rector,' whose powerful presence was inescapable. ... Although Peabody admired the English public school system, he was careful to modify its traditions to American ways. There was no 'fagging,' whereby older [English] boys held the younger ones as virtual slaves and were allowed to cane miscreants. [At Groton], boys were given 'black marks' for misconduct. ... Peabody's system required a boy to work off each black mark with some assigned task, such as shoveling snow or mowing the lawn. ...

"There was, however, a method of punishment that was not officially sanctioned but was nonetheless permitted. When younger boys were deemed to have broken the Groton code--by cheating, for example--or were considered too 'fresh,' physical punishment was inflicted. There were two ways of doing so: the less severe, 'boot boxing,' consisted of being put in a basement locker assigned to each boy for boots he wore outdoors. While in the box, the culprit would be painfully doubled up for as long a time as he was forced to remain in his tiny prison.

"The second and more terrifying punishment was 'pumping.' This consisted of having one's face shoved under an open spigot in the lavatory for as long a time as it took to induce a sensation of drowning. If a boy was consistently out of line, two or three pumpings usually sufficed to curb any outward expression of his rebellion. ...

"The curriculum reflected the classical training of the English public school system. Latin was required, Greek optional with a choice between it and extra mathematics, physics, or chemistry. In history, Greece held two and a half years, Rome one year, western Europe and England each one year; the United States was restricted to half a year. French was not taught after the sophomore year, and German was taught the last two years. English was required throughout, but there was no geography, no biology, no music or art, no manual training. There was, of course, sacred studies, taught by the Rector."

James Chace, Acheson, Simon & Schuster, Copyright 1998 by James Chace, pp. 22-23.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/16/08-The Earth is Round

In today's excerpt--the ancient Greeks determined the Earth was a sphere and calculated its diameter over 1700 years before Columbus sailed to America:

"The Greeks had noticed that on occasion, Earth blocks the sunlight from hitting the Moon, causing what is called a lunar eclipse. By observing the shadow of Earth cast upon the Moon during a lunar eclipse, they could see that Earth was also a round body, a sphere, just like the Moon and the Sun.

"Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar and the chief of the famous ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, around 240 BCE, knew that in a town far to the south, Syene, there was a deep water well. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year--June 21--the full image of the Sun could be seen reflecting, for a brief moment, in the water of the deep well in Syene precisely at noon. Therefore, the Sun at noon must be passing exactly overhead in Syene. He noticed, however, that on this same day, the Sun did not pass directly overhead in his hometown of Alexandria, which was 800 km (500 mi) due north of Syene. Instead, it missed the zenith, the point directly overhead in the sky, by about seven degrees. Eratosthenes concluded that the zenith direction was different by seven degrees in Alexandria from that in Syene. Using some elementary geometry, he could determine the diameter of Earth and found it to be 12,800 km (8,000 mi).

"Earth's true diameter, as we know it today, depends slightly upon where you measure it, since Earth is oblate, that is, wider through the equator than through the poles, and it also has mountains, tides, and so on, that require us to quote only an 'average value.' The average diameter of Earth through the equator is about 12,760 km (7,929 mi), and through the polar axis, about 12,720 km (7,904 mi). This means that Eratosthenes derived the correct result for Earth's diameter to an astounding precision of better that 1 percent, assuming Earth was a sphere.

Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe, Prometheus, Copyright 2004 by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, pp. 18-19.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/15/08-Yellowstone

In today's excerpt--tidbits for your next Yellowstone National Park vacation:

"In the 1960s, while studying the volcanic history of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Christiansen of the United States Geological Survey became puzzled about something: ... he couldn't find the park's volcano. ...

"By coincidence just at this time NASA decided to test some new high-altitude cameras by taking photographs of Yellowstone, copies of which some thoughtful official passed on to the park authorities on the assumption that they might make a nice blow-up for one of the visitors' centers. As soon as Christiansen saw the photos he realized why he had failed to spot the [volcano]: virtually the whole park--2.2 million acres--was [a volcano]. The explosion had left a crater more than forty miles across--much too huge to be perceived from anywhere at ground level. At some time in the past Yellowstone must have blown up with a violence far beyond the scale of anything known to humans.

"Yellowstone, it turns out, is a supervolcano. It sits on top of an enormous hot spot, a reservoir of molten rock that rises from at least 125 miles down in the Earth. The heat from the hot spot is what powers all of Yellowstone's vents, geysers, hot springs, and popping mud pots. ... Imagine a pile of TNT about the size of Rhode Island and reaching eight miles into the sky, to about the height of the highest cirrus clouds, and you have some idea of what visitors to Yellowstone are shuffling around on top of. ...

"Since its first known eruption 16.5 million years ago, [the Yellowstone volcano] has blown up about a hundred times, but the most recent three eruptions are the ones that get written about. The last eruption was a thousand times greater than that of Mount St. Helens; the one before that was 280 times bigger, and the one before was ... at least twenty-five hundred times greater than St. Helens. ...

"The Yellowstone eruption of two million years ago put out enough ash to bury New York State to a depth of sixty-seven feet or California to a depth of twenty. ... All of this was hypothetically interesting until 1973, when ... geologists did a survey and discovered that a large area of the park had developed an ominous bulge. ... The geologists realized that only one thing could cause this--a restless magma chamber. Yellowstone wasn't the site of an ancient supervolcano; it was the site of an active one. It was also at about this time that they were able to work out that the cycle of Yellowstone's eruptions averaged one massive blow every 600,000 years. The last one, interestingly enough, was 630,000 years ago. Yellowstone, it appears, is due."

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway, Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson, pp. 224-228.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/12/08-The Anbar Awakening

In today's excerpt--in Shiite-controlled Iraq, a key has been evolving U.S. relations with Sunnis, who are as yet not integrated into this Shiite control. As part of this, the U.S. has hired almost 100,000 Sunni militiamen, some with a history of killing Americans:

"Unexpectedly, the most important political development in Iraq during the first year of [General David] Petraeus's command--the change of heart by the Sunni tribes--took place in Anbar Province, a large area stretching to the west of Baghdad, which had been the site of some of the war's bloodiest fighting for three years after the invasion.

"In September, 2006, long before the surge had been decided upon, Sunni tribal sheikhs had approached U.S. Marine commanders and offered to switch sides--to align themselves with the United States against Iraq's Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants. The sheikhs had grown weary of Al Qaeda's brutality, puritanism, and arrogance, and they resented its attempts to take control of tribal smuggling businesses. By the time Petraeus arrived, the Anbar Awakening, as it would become known, had started to spread. Petraeus and his commanders turned it into a national project; they spent millions of dollars of American funds and backed up the Sunni sheikhs with military operations against the tribes' enemies. Ultimately, during 2007 and 2008, the United States Army hired about a hundred thousand militiamen, known as Sons of Iraq, at three hundred dollars per month, to serve as neighborhood guards; the Army eventually expanded the program to include Shia militiamen. Most of these guardsmen were former insurgents, some with a history of killing Americans. To Petraeus and his advisers, however, the project presented a prime example of adaptive learning. 'Anbar, you could just feel it flipping,' Petraeus told me. 'Really, the early spring, the mid-spring of 2007, it just started to speed down the chain.' ...

"I joined Petraeus ... for a day of what Army officers call 'battlefield circulation,' a version of management-by-walking-around. ... Petraeus talked about the sectarian demographics in particular neighborhoods we passed. He pointed out the many concrete barriers, known as T-walls, that his forces had erected to separate Sunni areas from Shia ones, or to protect mixed districts from hostile outsiders. ...

"There remains a list of dangers that could reignite violence or even civil war in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Sunni Sons of Iraq must yet be transformed from militiamen into government servants in a Shia-dominated administration; so far, Maliki's government has been slow to accommodate these Sunni tribesmen. Earlier this year, when I spoke with Senator Joseph Biden about the surge, he emphasized the centrality of this challenge. Progress in Iraq will evaporate 'unless they figure out what to do about eighty thousand people in the Awakening,' he said. 'Guess what? They're awakened. . . . They want a piece of the action, and they're not getting any.' "

Steve Coll, "The General's Dilemma," The New Yorker, September 8, 2008, pp. 43-47.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/11/08-Recruiting for Al Qaeda

In today's encore excerpt--Abdullah Azzam recruits teenagers and young men for Al Qaeda's battles in Afghanistan during the mid-1980s, taking full advantage of their vulnerability born of oppression and deprivation:

"It was death, not victory in Afghanistan, that summoned many young Arabs to Peshawar. Martyrdom was the product that Azzam sold in books, tracts, videos and cassette tapes that circulated in mosques and Arabic language book-stores. ... He told stories of the mujahideen who defeated vast columns of Soviet troops virtually single-handedly. He claimed that some of the brave warriors had been run over by tanks but survived; others were shot, but the bullets failed to penetrate. If death came, it was even more miraculous. ... Bodies of martyrs uncovered after a year in the grave still smelled sweet and their blood continued to flow....

"The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum had failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtracted the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment--movies, theater, music--is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remains the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

"Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in its rewards. ... And for those young men who came from cultures where women are shuttered away and rendered unattainable for someone without prospects, martyrdom offered the conjugal pleasures of seventy-two virgins ..."

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, Knopf, 2006, pp. 106-107.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/10/08-Bonnie and Clyde

In today's excerpt--the 1967 box-office smash Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, turned the mores of mainstream Hollywood upside down, with a result that proved every bit as unsatisfactory as that which it replaced:

"The old Hollywood moguls were conservative men, kowtowing to the country's loud and well-organized moralists via a strict 'production code.' 'One basic plot had appeared daily in their fifteen thousand theaters,' the greatest screenwriter of old Hollywood, Ben Hecht, wrote in his 1953 memoir--'the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness.' Hecht wrote of the frustrating constraints under which he was forced to work:

" 'Two generations of Americans have been informed nightly that a woman who betrayed her husband (or husband a wife) could never find happiness; that women who fornicated just for pleasure ended up as harlots or washerwomen; that any man who was sexually active in his youth later lost the one girl he truly loved; that a man who indulged in sharp practices to get ahead in the world ended in poverty and with even his own children turning on him; that any man who broke the laws must always die, or go to jail, or become a monk; ... that an honest heart must always recover from a train wreck or a score of bullets and win the girl it loved; that the most potent and brilliant of villains are powerless before little children; ... that injustice could cause a heap of trouble but it must always slink out of town by the last reel; that there are no problems of labor, politics, domestic life or sexual abnormality but can be solved happily by a simple Christian phrase or a fine American motto'.

"Bonnie and Clyde sounded the death knell for all that.

"The Barrow Gang weren't bad folks, went the movie's moral logic, until an evil system forced them to extremity: robbing banks that repossessed farms, killing only when the System began closing in all around them ('You oughtta be protectin' the rights of poor folks instead of chasin' after the likes of us,' Clyde tells a Texas Ranger, that embodiment heretofore of everything upright and true.) Bonnie and Clyde made those around them feel alive--all except the squares who were chasing them, who were more or less dead anyway, with their sucker obsession with honest toil.

" 'Not in a generation has a single Hollywood movie had such a decisive and worldwide impact,' the Hollywood Reporter concluded of the furor that ensued. ... They advertised it with the slogan 'They're young ... they're in love ... and they kill people.' ...

"Director Arthur Penn also broke the old production code's most ironclad rule: show all the shooting you like, but never show what happens on the receiving end. In Bonnie and Clyde, the bullets were shown from first to last--not least in the final shot, Bonnie and Clyde riddled from law enforcement tommy guns in a low-down and dirty ambush. ... Newsweek called it 'reprehensible.' "

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland, Scribner, Copyright 2008 by Rick Perlstein, pp. 208-210.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/9/08-Jewish Boxers

In today's excerpt--the poor and disenfranchised, including Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants in early twentieth century America, often have disproportionate success in high-risk sports because these sports are seen as a way out of poverty:

"There had been a Jewish [boxing] champion as far back as 1791, when Daniel Mendoza, a native of London's poor Whitechapel neighborhood and only 5' 7" and 160 pounds, won the world heavyweight championship, which he held for four years. Mendoza, a Sephardic Jew, was a ring revolutionary in that during an era of roughhouse brawling, he introduced a scientific style of boxing, predicated on jabbing, counterpunching, and strong defense, qualities that were virtually unknown during the days of the bare-knuckle era. After losing his title in 1795 when he was thirty-one, Mendoza became London's most renowned boxing instructor.

"By the second decade of the twentieth century, six Jews had won world titles, and, in total numbers, Jews were third behind Irish and Italian professional boxers. That number continued to grow in the 1930s when seven Jews held world titles. The high point was in 1933 when Maxie Rosenbloom (light heavyweight), Ben Jeby (middleweight), Jackie Fields (welterweight), and Barney Ross (lightweight) held half of the eight world titles then recognized. ...

"For many young Jews, Italians, and Irish-Americans, boxing, for all its inherent risks, was seen as a way out of poverty. Also, Jews who grew up in crowded ghettos such as New York's Lower East Side or the Maxwell Street neighborhood in Chicago were disinclined to take up baseball or football because playing fields were virtually nonexistent. Boxing, by contrast, required little space, and settlement houses, where the sport was taught, abounded in Jewish ghettos.

" 'You did it for money, no other reason,' said Danny Kapilow, a good welterweight of the 1940s. ... 'It was very hard to get jobs before the war.' ... Some Jewish fighters of the era conceded that the street fights they got into after being attacked by Irish and Italian teenagers helped them develop into boxers. 'As a kid growing up in an Italian and Irish neighborhood in West New York, New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, I got into a lot of fights after being called a Jew bastard and worse.' "

Jack Cavanaugh, Tunney, Ballantine, Copyright 2006 by Jack Cavanaugh, pp. 96-97.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/8/08-Classical Music

In today's excerpt--audiences at a classical music performance:

"The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. ... The audience is expected to remain quiet for the duration of each work, and those who applaud between movements may face embarrassment. Around ten o'clock, the audience claps for two or three minutes, the performers bow two or three times, and all go home. ...

"[However], before 1900 concerts assumed a quite different form. ... Here is [James] Johnson's evocation of a night at the Paris Opéra in the years before the French Revolution:

" 'While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony--the paradise--away from the probing lorgnettes.'

"In other words, the opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé. ...

'Public concerts didn't become widespread until after 1800, and well into the nineteenth century they took the form of "miscellanies"--eclectic affairs at which all kinds of music were played before audiences that seldom sat still or quieted down. ... Applause usually erupted after movements, and at times during them, if the audience heard something it particularly liked.

"What changed? ... To some extent, these changes can be explained in anthropological terms: by applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder. 'The bourgeoisie isn't a class, it's a position,' the Journal des Débats advised. 'You acquire it, you lose it.' Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum."

Alex Ross, "Why So Serious?" The New Yorker, September 8, 2008, pp. 79-80.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/5/08-Divorce

In today's excerpt--divorce customs, ancient and not-so-ancient:

"For nearly a thousand years, an Englishman sick of his wife could slip a halter around her neck, lead her to market--the cattle market--and sell her to the highest bidder, often with her willing participation. This informal route to divorce for the lower classes lasted, amazingly, until at least 1887. ... [As reported by non- fiction authors Lawrence Stone in The Family, Sex, and Marriage and Samuel Menefee in Wives for Sale], a drunken husband sells his wife in the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), much to the astonishment of contemporary critics. Oblivious to the informal, unlawful marriage and divorce customs of the less literate brethren ('wife-sale' dates back to c. 1073), they could not imagine such a thing happening on British soil in the nineteenth century, even though popular broadsides depicting the practice (one of which illustrates the cover of Menefee's book) were still being produced and widely circulated during that same century. ...

"[In the Old Testament, the law allowed for divorce because of infertility, and] Israelite men could divorce their wives for reasons far more vague than infertility. (Wives couldn't divorce their husbands for any reason.) If, for instance, 'she fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her,' there's no need to hire a pricey lawyer. He simply 'writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.' He'd better be sure this is what he wants, because he can't have her back again. ...

"The Bible, leaving nothing to chance, provides soldiers with a lesson on the fine art of taking enemy women to wife after the enemy has been vanquished. ... You don't just throw her to the ground and have your way with her then and there. You don't throw her on the ground at all. And you don't have your way with her for an entire month. No, 'you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month's time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife.' The lesson includes instruction on how to get rid of her, too. No bill of divorcement is required, but restrictions do apply: 'Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money; since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her.' "

Susan Squire, I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, pp. 36-44, 227.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/4/08-Running Out of Money

In today's encore excerpt--as the Great Depression spreads, and cash itself becomes scarce, some local communities try to cope by printing their own money:

"One late summer day in 1931 in Salt Lake City, the money ran out. Not just the money in the banks, and not just the money in the town coffers--the money the citizens had to spend. Locals reached into their own pockets and, finding nothing, began to trade work and objects. Barbers traded shaves and haircuts for onions and Idaho potatoes ... The money drought that America was suffering from had a technical name: deflation. Deflation means that the currency was becoming more valuable every day, rarer and scarcer. ... Today we know the Treasury and the Federal Reserve might have done much to alleviate the deflation problem of the early 1930s. They could have ... taken what we call countercyclical action. ... But in the early 1930s the Fed and its member banks lacked tools and knowledge. They did the opposite of countercyclical action. They acted pro-cyclically--tightening and tightening in the face of a downturn. ...

"[As government action failed to stem the crises] American towns and neighborhoods rallied one more time. ... Salt Lake City had now gone further than barter. The townspeople had banded together and created a group ... that made its own money. They had given their unit the reverberating name of the vallar. Citizens could work to earn vallars. They came in different denominations: V5, V10, V15, V20, and V25. They then in turn could use those vallars to buy and sell oil, soap, coal, food, furniture, meals at a restaurant, and even medical treatment. ...

"Ventura, California, Minneapolis, and Yellow Springs, Ohio, were all also making some form of scrip. ... In Arizona ... the legislature, by a special act, ordained a state scrip, to be issued in denominations up to $20. ... In areas near the border, Mexican pesos began to trade at a premium; the peso, at least for a moment, had become another form of American money. ... The Lane Bryant Store issued money in Indianapolis ... By Spring there would be some 150 barter and/or scrip systems in operation in thirty states. ...

"Still, trading in kind, especially when one did not live on a farm, did not feel like progress. Even vallars could not keep mortgage holders from losing their homes. People were beginning to realize that the problem was simply not something they could solve in the neighborhood, or even in the state. The hour of the vallar was merely that--an hour."

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Amity Shlaes, pp. 105-139.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/3/08-The Rise of Christianity

In today's excerpt--in a Roman empire that was ruled by a small number of elites, heavily populated by slaves and the poor, and possessed of a flaccid paganism, Christianity grew from ten thousand believers in 100 CE to six million in 300 CE. It was the fastest spread of a religion in history until the rise of Islam in the sixth century CE. And it spread in spite of the difficulty of maintaining uniform beliefs given poor communication, poor literacy and wide geographical dispersion:

"Early Christianity was tiny and scattered. No precise figures survive, but best estimates suggest that there were considerably fewer than ten thousand Christians in 100 CE, and only about two hundred thousand Christians in 200 CE, dispersed among several hundred towns. The late-second-century figure equals only 0.3 percent of the total population of the Roman empire (which was about 60 million). ... The rapidity of its growth rate helps explain why coded statements of belief, rather than complex rules of practice, were the passport to full membership. The very small size of Christianity helps explain why the Roman state paid so little attention to suppressing it effectively. ...

"In the early stages of Christianity, at any one time, perhaps only a few dozen Christians could read or write fluently. On the numbers which I have just cited, and even if we allow for a significantly higher rate of literacy among Christians than among pagans (outside of the ruling elite), by the end of the first century all Christianity is likely to have included, at any one time, less than fifty adult men who could write or read biblical texts fluently. ...

"Religion was not a frontier along which the Roman elite considered it needed to defend itself with vigor, at least not until the middle of the third century. And when the state did attack the Christian church on a massive scale ... the number of Christians, in spite of temporary setbacks, continued to grow. ... By the end of the third century, perhaps 10 percent of the empire's population--6 million out of 60 million people--were Christians. The emperor Constantine openly converted to Christianity in 312, and the emperors who succeeded him were also Christian. ... It is difficult to decide whether this [turn of events], which had so much influence on the future course of western culture, should be called a triumph of the Christian church or the triumph of the Roman state.."

"What is amazing is that in spite of the practical difficulties of size, dispersion, rapid growth, and illegality, and in spite of the startling variety of early Christian beliefs, Christian leaders actively pursued and preserved the ideal of unity and orthodoxy.

Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods, Plume, Copyright 1999 by Keith Hopkins, 2001, pp. 82-84.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Delanceyplace.com 9/2/08-Wine Experts

In today's excerpt--there are many reasons to question the validity of various wine rating systems, such as the Parker ratings, which uses a scale to 100, and where the difference between a rating of 89 and 90 can make a huge difference in the sales of a given wine:

"Expectations affect your perception of taste. In 1963 three researchers secretly added a bit of red food color to a white wine to give it the blush of a rose. Then they asked a group of experts to rate its sweetness in comparison with the untinted wine. The experts perceived the fake rose as sweeter than the white, according to their expectation. Another group of researchers gave a group of oenology students two wine samples. Both samples contained the same white wine, but to one was added a tasteless grape anthocyanin dye that made it appear to be red wine. The students also perceived differences between the red and white corresponding to their expectations. And in a 2008 study a group of volunteers asked to rate five wines rated a bottle labeled $90 higher than another bottle labeled $10, even though the sneaky researchers had filled both bottles with the same wine. ...'

"Given all these reasons for skepticism, scientists designed ways to measure wine experts' taste discrimination directly. One method is to use a wine triangle. It is not a physical triangle but a metaphor: each expert is given three wines, two of which are identical. The mission, to choose the odd sample. In a 1990 study, the experts identified the odd sample only two-thirds of the time....

"Wine critics are conscious of all these difficulties. 'On many levels ... [the ratings system] is nonsensical,' says the editor of Wine and Spirits Magazine. And according to the former editor of Wine Enthusiast, 'The deeper you get into this the more you realize how misguided and misleading this all is.' Yet the ratings system thrives. Why? The critics found that when they attempted to encapsulate wine quality with a system of stars or simple verbal descriptors such as good or bad their opinions were unconvincing. But when they used numbers, shoppers worshipped their pronouncements. Numerical ratings, though dubious, make buyers confident."

Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard's Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Pantheon, Copyright 2008 by Leonard Mlodinow, 2001, pp. 132-133.