Wednesday, November 26, 2008 11/26/08-Charlie Brown

In today's encore excerpt--in 1952, the introduction of Charlie Brown and the comic strip Peanuts, with its clean drawings and psychological orientation, made for a stark contrast with both the clutter and the vaudeville-gag orientation in cartoon strips of the time:

"Most cartoon drawing is about distraction: popular masters like Walt Kelly and Al Capp crowded their panels with characters and activity; Pogo and Li'l Abner are dense with what actors call 'business.' Peanuts, full of empty spaces, didn't depend on action or a particular context to attract the reader; it was about people working out the interior problems of their daily lives without ever actually solving them. The absence of a solution was the center of the story. ...

"The American assumption was that children were happy, and childhood was a golden time; it was adults who had problems with which they wrestled and pains that they sought to smooth. Schulz reversed the natural order of things ... by showing that a child's pain is more intensely felt than an adult's, a child's defeats the more acutely experienced and remembered. Charlie Brown takes repeated insults from Violet and Patty about the size of his head, which they compare with a beach ball, a globe, a pie tin, the moon, a balloon; and though Charlie Brown may feel sorry for himself, he gets over it fast. But he does not get visibly angry.

" 'Would you like to have been Abraham Lincoln?' Patty asks Charlie Brown. 'I doubt it,' he answers. 'I have a hard enough time being just plain Charlie Brown.'

"Children are not supposed to be radically dissatisfied. When they are unhappy, children protest--they wail, they whine, they scream, they cry--then they move on. Schulz gave these children lifelong dissatisfactions, the stuff of which adulthood is made.

"Readers recognized themselves in 'poor, moon- faced, unloved, misunderstood' Charlie Brown--in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed baseball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults. He ... reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human--both little and big at the same time."

David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by David Michaelis, pp. 245- 247.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008 11/25/08-Reinhold Niebuhr

In today's excerpt--Reinhold Niebuhr, Missouri-born theologian and cassandric commentator on American culture in the mid-twentieth century, is invoked by a twenty-first century cassandra, Andrew Bacevich, in his commentary The Limits of Power:

"As pastor, teacher, activist, theologian, and prolific author, Niebuhr was a towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930s through the 1960s. Even today, he deserves recognition as the most clear-eyed of American prophets. Niebuhr speaks to us from the past, offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, he warned that what he called 'our dreams of managing history' ... posed a potentially mortal threat to the United States.' ...

"Niebuhr wrote after World War II [that] ... a position of apparent preeminence placed the United States 'under the most grievous temptations to self-adulation.' ...

"Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans, their 'culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort.' ... In Niebuhr's words, they will cling to 'a culture which makes 'living standards' the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as every social-moral value.' ...

"Niebuhr [also] wrote, 'One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.' ...

" 'The trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems,' he wrote a half century ago, 'adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age.' ... For all nations, Niebuhr once observed, 'The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually realize it too late.' "

Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power, Metropolitan, Copyright 2008 by Andrew J. Bacevich, pp. 8-12, 182.

Monday, November 24, 2008 11/24/08-Eunuchs

In today's excerpt-eunuchs, those castrated servants who performed a wide variety of functions for kings in ancient and even more recent times. The special value of eunuchs (literally bed-keepers) to kings and other high-ranking officials was that they could be better trusted since they had no desire for the wives and other women of the court, did not have the distractions of family life, and were thought to have less ambition. Here we see eunuchs in the capital of Constantinople circa the fifth century CE:

"Eunuchs gave the palace at Constantinople a special atmosphere. They were men who had been sexually damaged by disease, accident, or deliberate mutilation. Mutilation, as horrible as it sounds, was not always or only conscious cruelty, inasmuch as eunuchry was a path to power and safety for the marginal or the vulnerable. One source speaks of the Abasgi outside Roman territory at the eastern end of the Black Sea (modern Abkhazia retains the name), whose king sold boys for castration and killed their parents. If the fatality rate on these castrations was about ninety-five percent, few cared, and the survivors might feet themselves lucky in many ways.

"So normal a part of the landscape did the eunuchs seem, and so easily was their involuntary sexual isolation compared with religiously approved abstinence, that in later times when exegetes read of the service of the prophet Daniel at Nebuchadnezzar's court, they naturally assumed--meaning it as a respectful interpretation--that he must have been a eunuch too. On a higher level, the angels and their sexlessness gave sexless males below a kind of respectability. The general Narses, who replaced Belisarius and finally brought grim peace to Italy for [the emperor] Justinian, was a eunuch. By the eighth century, a eunuch could even rise to the patriarchal throne in Constantinople.

"At the pinnacle of the household was the grand chamberlain, always a eunuch and thus supposedly without family interest to corrupt his service, responsible for every aspect of management and control. He supervised the silentiaries (court officials) with their golden wands, who offered discreet guidance and control to ensure that all would be orderly and impressive, and whose influence could thus incidentally mean a great deal. On retirement they were normally admitted to the senate."

James J. O'Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, Harper Collins, Copyright 2008 by James J. O'Donnell, pp. 200-201

Friday, November 21, 2008

In today's excerpt-the three conflicting models for marriage inherited from early modern England, and our ongoing struggle to define and reconcile these models:

"What do we even mean by 'marriage'? While debate usually focuses on who can or should marry, the most basic question remains: what does it mean to be married? This question resonates on two levels. First, what or who determines that one is 'married'? Second, what are the consequences of being identified as married? One way of thinking about consequences is to focus on the rights, privileges, and responsibilities attached to being married. For the purposes of this study, I am most interested in assumptions about what kind of relation marriage imposes, enables, or sanctions between spouses. Our definitions of this 'fundamental' institution are contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is defined as a loving, erotic bond between two equal individuals. On the other hand, it is construed as a hierarchy in which someone, usually the husband, has to be the boss. Marriage is celebrated as the melding of two into one and as a contract between two autonomous parties. While some see the present conflict among different models of marriage as constituting an unprecedented crisis, I will argue that this conflict between incompatible models and irreconcilable expectations is the history of marriage. This conflict is thus a manifestation of continuity rather than rupture.

"Some would trace the history of marital conflict as far back as cave dwellers. While the institution of marriage does have deep, tangled roots, I focus on our debts to one particular cultural tradition, arguing that we have inherited three models of marriage from early modern England (1550-1700): marriage as hierarchy, as fusion, and as contract. These three models are incompatible and, to make matters worse, each is riddled with internal contradictions. Each can be understood as promoting love between spouses and fulfillment for each or as subordinating one to the interests of the other. In early modern England, a radically visionary model of marriage as a loving partnership between equals flourished in part because of the Protestant Reformation. While this ideal was not wholly new, it first found stable institutionalization, full articulation, and broad dissemination in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its promise remains unfulfilled because it never replaced a model of marriage as a hierarchy in which the husband must take the lead and the wife must obey; it also drew on the erotic and emotional appeal of a vision of marriage as the fusion of two into one without resolving the practical problems that vision obscures. Working with traditions that were already fractured and contradictory, then, the early modern period added new, equally vexed expectations for marriage.

"The emergent model of marriage as a contract seems to correspond to and ensure a partnership between equals; yet, as we will see, it did not escape or resolve presumptions about the unequal status of the parties to the marriage contract. Furthermore, the notion of spouses as contracting parties, each of whom acts out of self-interest, coexists uneasily with the ideal of marriage as a near mystical fusion in which one loses oneself. Each model proposes to explain the relationship between spouses. Yet, for all of the supposedly 'new' emphasis on spouses as companions and partners, early modern religious, legal, and popular discourses reveal a deep distrust of equality. Associating equality with conflict, they suggest that once spouses confront one another as equals only one can win the resulting battles. Conflict can only be evaded or resolved by privileging one spouse at the expense of the other. Thus the ultimate message is that marriage only has room for one. The question then becomes: which one?"

Frances E. Dolan, Marriage and Violence, Penn, Copyright 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 2-3

Thursday, November 20, 2008 11/20/08-Sharks and Slavers

In today's encore excerpt--sharks, slave ships and the depravity of man, circa 1780:

"Sharks began to follow slave ships when they reached the Guinea coast [of western Africa]. ... What attracted the sharks (as well as other fish) was the human waste, offal, and rubbish that was continually thrown overboard. Like a 'greedy robber,' the shark 'attends the ship, in expectation of what may drop overboard. A man, who unfortunately falls into the sea at such time, is sure to perish, without mercy.'

"If the shark was the dread of sailors, it was the outright terror of the enslaved. No effort was made to protect or bury the bodies of African captives who died on the slave ships. ... Slaving captains consciously used sharks to create terror throughout the voyage. They counted on sharks to prevent the desertion of their seamen and the escape of their slaves during the long stays on the coast of Africa required to gather a human 'cargo.' ... So well known was the conscious use of terror by the slave captain to create social discipline that when Oliver Goldsmith came to write the natural history of sharks in 1774, he drew heavily on the lore of the slave trade. ... Goldsmith recounted two instances:

" 'The Master of the Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least that some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, the sharks had bit off all but the feet.'

"A second case was even more gruesome. Another captain facing a 'rage for suicide' seized upon a woman 'as a proper example to the rest.' He ordered the woman tied with a rope under her armpits and lowered into the water: 'When the poor creature was thus plunged in, and about halfway down, she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning; but soon after, the water appeared red all around her, she was drawn up, and it was found that a shark, which had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle.' Other slave-ship captains practiced a kind of sporting terror, using human remains to troll for sharks: 'Our way to entice them was by Towing overboard a dead Negro, which they would follow till they had eaten him up.' "

Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship, Viking, Copyright 2007 by Marcus Rediker, pp.37-40

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 11/19/08-Rationalizing Choices

In today's excerpt--people's ability to rationalize choices after they are already made:

"Unspoken assumptions and implied information are important to both the perception of a trick and its subsequent reconstruction. Magician James Randi ("the Amaz!ng Randi") notes that spectators are more easily lulled into accepting suggestions and unspoken information than direct assertions. Hence, in the reconstruction the spectator may remember implied suggestions as if they were direct proof.

"Psychologists Petter Johansson and Lars Hall, both at Lund University in Sweden, and their colleagues have applied this and other magic techniques in developing a completely novel way of addressing neuroscientific questions. They presented picture pairs of female faces to naive experimental subjects and asked the subjects to choose which face in each pair they found more attractive. On some trials the subjects were also asked to describe the reasons for their choice. Unknown to the subjects, the investigators occasionally used a sleight-of-hand technique, learned from a professional magician named Peter Rosengren, to switch one face for the other-after the subjects made their choice.Thus, for the pairs that were secretly manipulated, the result of the subject's choice became the opposite of his or her initial intention. Intriguingly, the subjects noticed the switch in only 26 percent of all the manipulated pairs. But even more surprising, when the subjects were asked to state the reasons for their choice in a manipulated trial, they confabulated to justify the outcome-an outcome that was the opposite of their actual choice! Johansson and his colleagues call the phenomenon "choice blindness." By tacitly but strongly suggesting the subjects had already made a choice, the investigators were able to study how people justify their choices--even choices they do not actually make.

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, "The Magic and the Brain," Scientific American, December 2008, pp. 77-78.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 11/18/08-Queen Elizabeth I

In today's excerpt-the accession of Elizabeth I to be queen of a country that was in financial and political disarray:

"Elizabeth Tudor, one of the greatest and most fascinating of English monarchs, was the daughter of Henry VIII. Her elder half-sister Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, was queen before her and was brought up as a Catholic, Elizabeth as a Protestant. By November of 1558, when the last of close to 300 Protestants were burned alive as heretics, Queen Mary I, after five years on the throne, was childless, prematurely old at forty-two and seriously ill. Now twenty-five, Elizabeth was keeping quiet while important people deluged her with private messages of support. ...

"Mary died at St James's Palace in London at six in the grey morning of the November 17th. Parliament was assembled by eight o'clock and the Commons joined the Lords to agree that the Lady Elizabeth must be proclaimed Mary's successor immediately. ... London was seething with excitement. The new queen was a master of public relations and she endeared herself to her people with spectacular processions and brilliantly orchestrated events. Splendidly, dressed in purple velvet, she rode in procession on the 28th through crowded streets to the Tower of London. She had once been a prisoner there, but now children recited speeches to her at points along the route and there was much joyful music and firing off of guns. ...

"Elizabeth moved back to the Tower by water on January 12th in a display which an Italian onlooker compared favourably to the annual occasion in Venice when the city wed the sea. The climax of showmanship came with her procession from the Tower to Westminster on the 14th, escorted by a thousand riders on horseback through occasional snow flurries. Magnificently robed in gold, she was carried slowly along in an open litter, so that the cheering crowds could see her. Two mules in gold brocade bore the litter and in the procession marched the gentlemen pensioners in crimson damask carrying gilt battle-axes and an army of footmen in crimson jerkins adorned with a white and a red rose and the letters E.R. At intervals along the route through the City there were pageants and music, and recitations by children.

"Thousands of people had waited patiently for hours behind the barriers to see the show and banners saluted Elizabeth from windows along the way. The procession took the entire afternoon as she stopped the litter frequently for people in the crowd who wanted to speak to her or give her nosegays. She was crowned in Westminster Abbey the next day, and when she was formally presented to her people there was such a huge shout and noise of trumpets, fifes, drums and ringing of bells that an observer said it was as if the world had come to an end.

"Elizabeth had already begun to make herself the sun around which her country revolved. Even the grumpy Spanish envoy admitted that she 'gives her orders and has her way as absolutely as her father did' It was under her that England would emerge as a world power."

"The Accession of Elizabeth I," History Today, November 2008, p. 12

Monday, November 17, 2008 11/17/08-Scientists

In today's excerpt--science becomes a profession:

"It is natural to describe key [scientific] events in terms of the work of individuals who made a mark in science--Copernicus, Vesalius, Darwin, Wallace and the rest. But this does not mean that science has progressed as a result of the work of a string of irreplaceable geniuses possessed of a special insight into how the world works. Geniuses maybe (though not always); but irreplaceable certainly not. Scientific progress builds step by step, and as the example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace [who independently and simultaneously put forward the theory of evolution] shows, when the time is ripe, two or more individuals may make the next step independently of one another. It is the luck of the draw, or historical accident, whose name gets remembered as the discoverer of a new phenomenon.

"What is much more important than human genius is the development of technology, and it is no surprise that the start of the scientific revolution 'coincides' with the development of the telescope and the microscope. ... If Newton had never lived, scientific progress might have been held back by a few decades. But only by a few decades. Edmond Halley or Robert Hooke might well have come up with the famous inverse square law of gravity; Gottfried Leibniz actually did invent calculus independently of Newton (and made a better job of it); and Christiaan Huygens's superior wave theory of light was held back by Newton's espousal of the rival particle theory. ...

"Although the figure of Charles Darwin dominates any discussion of nineteenth-century science, he is something of an anomaly. It is during the nineteenth century--almost exactly during Darwin's lifetime--that science makes the shift from being a gentlemanly hobby, where the interests and abilities of a single individual can have a profound impact, to a well-populated profession, where progress depends on the work of many individuals who are, to some extent, interchangeable. Even in the case of the theory of natural selection, as we have seen, if Darwin hadn't come up with the idea, Wallace would have, and from now on we will increasingly find that discoveries are made more or less simultaneously by different people working independently and largely in ignorance of one another. ... The other side of this particular coin, unfortunately, is that the growing number of scientists brings with it a growing inertia and resulting resistance to change, which means that all too often when some brilliant individual does come up with a profound new insight into the way the world works, this is not accepted immediately on merit and may take a generation to work its way into the collective received wisdom of science. ...

"In 1766, there were probably no more than 300 people who we would now class as scientists in the entire world. By 1800, ... there were about a thousand. By ... 1844, there were about 10,000, and by 1900 somewhere around 100,000. Roughly speaking, the number of scientists doubled every fifteen years during the nineteenth century. But remember that the whole population of Europe doubled, from about 100 million to about 200 million, between 1750 and 1850, and the population of Britain alone doubled between 1800 and 1850, from roughly 9 million to roughly 18 million."

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. xix-xx, 359-361

Friday, November 14, 2008 11/14/08-The Dust Bowl

In today's excerpt-the American Dust Bowl, which lasted from 1930 to as late as 1940 in some areas. Rated the number one weather event of the twentieth century, the Dust Bowl covered one hundred million acres in parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, and left thousands dead, diseased and destitute:

"The rains disappeared--not just for a season but for years on end. With no sod to hold the earth in place, the soil calcified and started to blow. Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains--a force of their own. When the dust fell, it penetrated everything: hair, nose, throat, kitchen, bedroom, water well. A scoop shovel was needed just to clean the house in the morning. The eeriest thing was the darkness. People tied themselves to ropes before going to a barn just a few hundred feet away, like a walk in space, tethered to the life support center. Chickens roosted in mid-afternoon. ...

"Many in the East did not believe the initial accounts of predatory dust until a storm in May 1934 carried the windblown shards of the Great Plains over much of the nation. In Chicago, twelve million tons of dust fell. New York, Washington--even ships at sea, three hundred miles off the Atlantic coast--were blanketed in brown. Cattle went blind and suffocated. When farmers cut them open, they found stomachs stuffed with fine sand. Horses ran madly against the storms. Children coughed and gagged, dying of something the doctors called 'dust pneumonia.' In desperation, some families gave away their children. The instinctive act of hugging a loved one or shaking someone's hand could knock two people down, for the static electricity from the dusters was so strong. ...

"By 1934, the soil was like fine-sifted flour, and the heat made it a danger to go outside many days. In Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature soared above 100 degrees for thirty-five consecutive days. On the thirty-sixth day, it reached 117. ..."On the skin, the dust was like a nail file, a grit strong enough to hurt. People rubbed Vaseline in their nostrils as a filter. The Red Cross handed out respiratory masks to schools. Families put wet towels beneath their doors and covered their windows with bed sheets, fresh-dampened nightly. ...

"Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, [was the] day of the worst duster of them all. The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day. ... As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship's prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed."

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time, Mariner, Copyright 2006 by Timothy Egan, pp. 5-8

Thursday, November 13, 2008 11/13/08-L'Annee Terrible

In today's encore excerpt--the Siege of Paris or L'Annee Terrible: the overthrow and humiliation of Paris in 1870 by Bismarck after France had declared war on Prussia. France, still limping from the excesses of Napoleon, showed enough hubris to declare war on Prussia over a mere diplomatic incident--the proposed placement of a German prince on the Spanish throne ('The Liberal Empire goes to war on a mere point of etiquette'). Bismarck judged rightly that a war on France would enable him to bond together the loose structure of the German federation into a truly unified nation. Bismarck won after a siege that brought Parisians to the cruel brink of starvation, and he extracted as reparations Alsace, Lorraine and five billion francs--a price which led bitterly to both World Wars. Upon the German's departure, France imploded into a civil war that left 25,000 Parisians dead--more than in the Terror itself:

"By early October [1870] even bourgeois Paris had turned to horsemeat. ... As hunger tightened its grip, so many a splendid champion of the turf came to a well-spiced end in the casserole. Among them were two trotting horses presented by the Tsar to Louis Napoleon at the time of the Great Exposition, originally valued at 56,000 francs, now bought by a butcher for 800. It was mid-November, however, that supplies of fresh meat were exhausted--and it was then that Parisians invented the exotic menus with which the siege will always be linked. The signs 'Feline and Canine Butchers' made their first appearance. To begin with, dog-loving Parisians objected fiercely to slaughtering domestic pets for human consumption, but soon necessity overcame their fastidiousness. By mid-December [columnist] Henry Labouchere ... was telling his readers, 'I had a slice of spaniel the other day,' adding that it made him 'feel like a cannibal.' A week later he reported that he had encountered a man who was fattening up a large cat which he planned to serve up on Christmas Day, 'surrounded with mice, like sausages.' ...

"And then it was rats. Along with the carrier-pigeon, the rat was to become the most fabled animal of the Siege of Paris, and from December the National Guard spent much of its time engaged in vigorous rat- hunts. ... The elaborate sauces that were necessary to render them edible meant that rats were essentially a rich man's dish--hence the notorious menus of the Jockey Club, which featured such delicacies as salmis de rats and rat pie.

"As the weeks passed, Parisian diets grew even more outlandish as the zoos started to offer up their animals. ... By early January, [a young Englishman named Tommy Bowles] was noting, 'I have now dined off camel, antelope, dog, donkey, mule, and elephant, which I approve in the order in which I have written ... horse is really too disgusting, and it has a peculiar taste never to be forgotten.' His was not the only palate that became more discriminating: there was a significant variation in price between brewery and sewer rats. ... A lamb offered to one British correspondent ironically proved to be a wolf. ...

"Oddly enough, there was never any shortage of wine or other alcohol."

Alistaire Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Pan Books, Copyright 2002 by Alistaire Horne, pp. 295-297

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 11/12/08-Helping the Poor

In today's excerpt--over the last several decades, programs to aid the global poor that have been conceived at high levels within foreign aid organizations have routinely fallen short. Those conceived in the field have the better record of effectiveness:

"At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005, celebrities from Gordon Brown to Bill Clinton to Bono liked the idea of bed nets as a major cure for poverty. Sharon Stone jumped up and raised a million dollars on the spot (from an audience made up largely of middle aged males) for more bed nets in Tanzania. Insecticide-treated bed nets can protect people from being bitten by malarial mosquitoes while they sleep, which significantly lowers malaria infections and deaths. But if bed nets are such an effective cure, why hadn't planners already gotten them to the poor? Unfortunately, neither celebrities nor aid administrators have many ideas for how to get bed nets to the poor. Such net are often diverted to the black market, become out of stock in health clinics, or wind up being used as fishing nets or wedding veils. ...

"[Field workers at] Population Services International (PSI), headquartered in Washington, D.C., ... stumbled across a way to get insecticide-treated bed nets to the poor in Malawi, with initial funding and logistical support from official aid agencies. PSI sells bed nets for fifty cents to mothers through antenatal clinics in the countryside, which means it gets the nets to those who both value them and need them. (Pregnant women and children under five are the principal risk groups for malaria.) The nurse who distributes the nets gets nine cents per net to keep for herself, so the nets are always in stock. PSI also sells nets to richer urban Malawians through private-sector channels for five dollars a net. The profits from this are used to pay for the subsidized nets sold at the clinics, so the program pays for itself. PSI's bed net program increased the nationwide average of children under five sleeping under nets from 8 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004, with a similar increase for pregnant women.

"A follow-up survey found almost universal use of the nets by those people who paid for them. By contrast, a study of a program to hand out free nets in Zambia to people, whether they wanted them or not (the favored approach of the centralized planners), found that 70 percent of the recipients didn't use the nets. The 'Malawi model' is now spreading to other African countries."

William Easterly, The White Man's Burden, Penguin, Copyright 2006 by William Easterly, pp. 13-14

Tuesday, November 11, 2008 11/11/08-Nasser and the King of Iraq

In today's excerpt--in the late 1940s and 1950s, the countries that had been the unwilling colonies and protectorates of Britain and the West began to rebel. A leading voice on this in the Middle East was Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) of Egypt, who had seized his power in a coup, wrested control of the Suez canal away from Britain, and had grandiose plans for development in Egypt along with a vision for pan-Arab nationalism. In Iraq, however, the king that Britain had installed over that country remained:

"Throughout the Middle East, nationalism was bulding to a crescendo and Nasser was its driving force. Suez had been a great victory for him, proving that a Middle Eastern country could triumph not only against 'imperialistic' companies but also against the might of Western governments. He had extirpated the ignominy of Mossadegh's failure [in Iran, where he had been democratically elected but then overthrown and replaced by the Shah in a U.S. and British-led coup]. And now a notable technological innovation, the cheap transistor radio, was carrying his rousing voice to the poor masses throughout the Arab world, making him a hero everywhere.

"In 1958, further adding to Nasser's laurels, Egypt finally bamboozled a reluctant and skeptical Soviet Union into providing the funding to build the Aswan Dam. In the same year, in a great symbol of Nasser's appeal, Syria joined Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, seemingly the first step in the realization of his dream of pan-Arabism. The apparent merger, ominously, brought together two countries which--with the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Saudi and Iraqi pipelines passing through Syria--dominated the transit routes for Middle Eastern petroleum. Nasser was, at least theoretically, in a position to threaten single-handedly or actually even to choke off most of that supply. In order to counter what the British ambassador to Iraq called Nasser's 'stranglehold,' discussions ensued about quickly building Iraqi pipelines to the Persian Gulf as well as an export terminal at Fao, on the Gulf. But then the situation in the region, and in Iraq itself, went from bad to what seemed a total disaster.

"For three years, Nasser had been conducting a virulent propaganda war against Iraq and the Hashemites, the British-backed Royal Family that had been installed by Great Britain on a newly created throne in Baghdad after World War I. In July 1958, officers plotting a coup [against the Royal Family] told their troops the far-fetched story that they had been ordered [by the King] to march to Israel and surrender their weapons. That was sufficient to get the soldiers to support a rebellion. The coup that followed set off an explosion of violence and savagery. Crowds surged through the streets, holding aloft huge photographs of Nasser, along with live squirming dogs, which represented the Iraqi Royal Family. King Faisal himself was beheaded by troops that stormed the palace. The Crown Prince was shot, and his hands and feet were hacked off and carried through the city. His mutilated body, along with those of a number of other officials, was dragged through the streets, and then hung from a balcony at the Ministry of Defense. The pro-Western Prime Minister, Nuri es-Said, was recognized as he tried to flee the city, apparently disguised as a woman, and was lynched on the spot by a mob. His body too, was hauled through the streets, and then a car was driven back and forth over it until it was flattened almost beyond recognition."

Daniel Yergin, The Prize, Free Press, Copyright 1991, 1992 by Daniel Yergin, pp. 508-509.

Monday, November 10, 2008 11/10/08-Lincoln Ejects a Visitor

In today's excerpt--the portrait artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900), who used the White House as a studio while painting Abraham Lincoln, studied and painted Lincoln for nearly six months. On at least one notable occasion, he saw the forceful side of Lincoln's personality. He wrote:

"It has been the business of my life to study the human face, and I have said repeatedly to friends that Mr. Lincoln had the saddest face I ever attempted to paint. During some of the dark days of the spring and summer of 1864, I saw him at times when his care-worn, troubled appearance was enough to bring the tears of sympathy into the eyes of his most bitter opponents. I recall particularly one day, when, having occasion to pass through the main hall of the domestic apartments, I met him alone, pacing up and down a narrow passage, his hands behind him, his head bent forward upon his breast, heavy black rings under his eyes, showing sleepless nights--altogether such a picture of the effects of sorrow and care as I have never seen! ...

"A great deal has been said of the uniform meekness and kindness of heart of Mr. Lincoln, but there would sometimes be afforded evidence that one grain of sand too much would break even this camel's back. Among the callers at the White House one day was an officer who had been cashiered from the service. He had prepared an elaborate defense of himself, which he consumed much time in reading to the President. When he had finished, Mr. Lincoln replied that even upon his own statement of the case, the facts would not warrant executive interference. Disappointed, and considerably crestfallen, the man withdrew. ...

"[However, the man returned on two additional occasions and presented the same case in its entirety, and was twice again dismissed] Turning very abruptly, the officer said: 'Well, Mr. President, I see you are fully determined not to do me justice!' This was too aggravating, even for Mr. Lincoln. Manifesting, however, no more feeling than that indicated by a slight compression of the lips, he very quietly arose, laid down a package of papers he held in his hand, and then suddenly seized the defunct officer by the coat-collar, he marched him forcibly to the door, saying, as he ejected him into the passage: 'Sir, I gave you fair warning never to show yourself in this room again. I can bear censure, but not insult!' In a whining tone the man begged for his papers, which he had dropped. 'Begone, sir,' said the President, 'your papers will be sent to you. I never wish to see your face again.' "

Harold Holzer, Lincoln as I Knew Him, Algonquin, Copyright 1999 by Harold Holzer, pp. 193-195.

Friday, November 07, 2008 11/7/08-Atlantis

In today's excerpt--Plato writes of Atlantis, an island in the Atlantic Ocean, which was the great outer sea named for the Greek god Atlas:

"The classical writers and sages who warned of ship-devouring sea monsters also described fantastic and mysterious lands that lay out in the middle of these foreboding seas. They wrote of idyllic islands with names such as Saint Brendan, the Fortunate Islands, or the Hesperides, Antilla, Brasil, and Salvagio. All of these places, they claimed, were inhabited by gods or demigods or by humans living in a perpetual state of happiness. There was even talk of the existence somewhere far out into the Atlantic of a land known as the Terrestrial Paradise, claimed to be the original Garden of Eden.

"Most fabled of all was the island utopia called Atlantis, first mentioned and described by the classical Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written around 360 BCE. According to Plato, Atlantis, the kingdom of the god of the seas, Poseidon, was rich in advanced knowledge and commerce and was ruled by benevolent leaders. It was also a nation determined to extend its domain. 'Now in this island of Atlantis,' the philosopher wrote in Timaeus, 'there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent and furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.'

"Plato's legend, however, did not have a happy ending. The people of Atlantis, he proclaimed, eventually became greedy; their leaders became arrogant; and, as punishment, angry gods flooded and sank the island. Plato's account spawned generations of debate as to its veracity. Aristotle, Plato's student, rejected the story, although the Greek historian Plutarch (first century CE) espoused it in his writings. Perhaps the most vivid 'confirmation' came from Proclus, one of the last major Greek philosophers, in the fifth century CE. In his commentary on Plato's Timaeus, Proclus wrote:

" 'That an island of such nature and size once existed is evident from what is said by certain authors who investigated the things around the outer (Atlantic) sea. ... The inhabitants of it preserved the remembrance from their ancestors of the immeasurably large island of Atlantis and which had really existed there and which for many ages had reigned over all islands in the Atlantic sea and which itself had likewise been sacred to Poseidon.' "

Martin W. Sandler, Atlantic Ocean, Sterling, Copyright 2008 by Sterling Publishing, pp. 3-7.

Thursday, November 06, 2008 11/6/08-The Louvre

In today's encore excerpt--Napoleon establishes a museum at the Louvre in Paris in 1803. Once a royal palace, the Louvre is now the most visited museum in the world:

"Most important [of Napoleon's rebuilding projects] was the establishment in the Louvre, from 1803 onwards, of Europe's biggest art gallery, to provide a permanent home for the many works of art he had stolen from the countries he had conquered and occupied.

"To run this Musee Napoleon for him, the Emperor found one of those extraordinary geniuses ... Vivant Denon. ... The notion of a gallery open to the public stemmed from the historically much maligned Louis XVI. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the royal collections had been kept for the private delectation of the court and of privileged visitors. ... It was Louis XVI himself who suggested reuniting everything that the crown possessed of 'beauty in painting and sculpture' under the name of 'museum' (a concept borrowed from England). Explained Denon, 'The French Republic, by its force, the superiority of its light and its artists, is the only country in the world which could provide an inviolable asylum to these masterpieces.'

"Napoleon took a great interest--amounting to interference--in the museum named after him. On his return from [the Battle of] Jena in September 1806, he was already complaining about the queues on a Saturday afternoon--with the result that the hours on Saturday and Sunday were extended. He was also horrified to see the galleries filled with smoking stoves to keep the gardiens [gallery attendants] warm: 'Get them out ... they will end up burning my conquests!' Equally shocking was the lack of public lavatories, leading to the misuse of the galleries by the unhappy gardiens, who were paid a menial wage, one-tenth of what Denon received. It was hardly surprising that in 1810 thieves broke in to make off with some priceless tapestries.

"In September 1802, the Medici Venus--'The glory of Florence'--arrived at the Louvre after a journey of ten months. Rumbling across Europe, the heavy pieces of looted sculpture required special carriages drawn by up to fifteen pairs of oxen. The following March came the first convoy of loot from Naples. Napoleon's greed seems to have known no bounds; in 1810 he declared to a deeply embarrassed Canova, the great Florentine sculptor, 'Here are the principal works of art; only missing is the Farnese Hercules, but we shall have that also.' Deeply shocked, Canova replied, 'Let your Majesty at least leave something in Italy!' It was perhaps amazing that not more was ruined on the journey; describing in 1809 the looting of twenty masterpieces from Spain, Denon reported ominously, 'There has been more damage, due to negligence in the packing, of the first dispatch of Italian primitives,' The arrivals from Italy continued until the end of the Empire."

[Many were returned after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo]

Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Pan Books, Copyright 2002 by Alistair Horne, pp. 205-206

Wednesday, November 05, 2008 11/5/08-Brando and Method Acting

In today's excerpt--in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the American theater continued its sharp turn toward realism, portraying universal themes through the everyday lives of everyday people. This direction required an equal turn toward realism in acting--the paradox of real emotions produced on cue:

"In the midst of Broadway's 'victory season,' in March, 1946, an outraged ad denouncing the critics appeared in the Times. Sign by the production team of Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman, the ad failed to save their drama about returning vets, 'Truckline Cafe,' from closing after a mere thirteen performances. But the play has gone down in history, thanks to a five-minute speech made by a little-known actor in a secondary role: Marlon Brando, at twenty-one, played an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; in his final scene, he entered exhausted and wringing wet, and confessed that he had killed her and carried her body out to sea..

"Karl Malden, who played another minor role, reported that the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando's exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. The performance was as remarkable for what Brando didn't do as for what he did. Pauline Kael, very young herself and years away from a critical career, happened to come late to the play one evening and recalled that she averted her eyes, in embarrassment, from what appeared to be a man having a seizure onstage: it wasn't until her companion 'grabbed my arm and said 'Watch this guy!' that I realized he was acting.'

"The dismal fate of 'Truckline Cafe' inspired Kazan to form the Actors Studio. Of the entire cast, only Brando and Malden had given the kind of performances that he and Clurman wanted: natural and psychologically acute, as contemporary American plays required. Their ideal of acting derived from their days in the Group Theater, which had flourished in the thirties with brashly vernacular and politically conscious plays--Clifford Odet's 'Waiting for Lefty' was its first big hit--in which ordinary people were portrayed in a startlingly realistic style. ... This revolution in acting grew from Stanislavsky's accounts of his performances with the Moscow Art Theater--an approach eventually known simply as the Method--and in its quest for onstage honesty, replaced traditional theatrical training with exercises designed to stir up personal memories, refine powers of observation, and free the imagination through improvisation. ... For the actors, the goal was a paradox: real emotion, produced on cue.

"Although the Group had disbanded by the time Brando arrived in New York, in 1943, he soon began taking classes with a charter member, Stella Adler, who had actually studied with Stanislavsky, and whom he credited as his teacher to the end of his life. [But], as his fellow [Actors Studio] student Elaine Stritch later remarked, 'Marlon's going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.' "

Claudia Roth Pierpont, "Method Man," The New Yorker, October 27, 2008, pp. 66

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 11/04/08-Election Day 1968

In today's excerpt--Election Day, 1968. The Democrat Lyndon Johnson had won the presidency in 1964 in a historic landslide, but only four years later the Republican Richard Nixon eked out a victory over Hubert Humphrey. What accounted for the shift? A lot, most notably civil rights legislation, race riots, and the specter of busing that had given rise to Southern demagogues such as George Wallace. Nixon had won in part by subtly and deftly adopting some of the Southern message:

"The stroke of midnight: Hubert Humphrey was ahead by a point in the popular vote, with four of ten returns counted. In Nixon's familiar old suite at the Waldorf, ... [Nixon was] scribbling on yellow pads, working the phones, puzzling out the nation's precincts, the labyrinth that he knew better than any other man alive, as the nation's will slowly, agonizingly revealed itself.

"He knew it by 3:15 a.m.

"The networks weren't sure until well into the 9 a.m. hour.

"Humphrey didn't concede until eleven thirty. In fact, the victory wouldn't be certified for weeks. ...

"[Nixon won] with something no other Republican presidential candidate, with minor exceptions, had ever had before: electoral votes from the South. Wallace took Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana. But Nixon got Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina--and Strom Thurmond's South Carolina.

"George Wallace sent a congratulatory telegram. Nixon never acknowledged it. It spoke to the agony of victory. For it was barely a victory. 301 electoral votes for Nixon and 191 for Humphrey, 46 for George Wallace--and, in the popular vote, 43.42 percent, 42.72 percent, and 13.53 percent. Nixon had received only five or so points more than Barry Goldwater's humiliating share in 1964. With George Wallace claiming that symbolically the victory belonged as much to him as to Nixon: 'Mr. Nixon said the same thing we said,' he declared. If he hadn't, was Wallace's point, Nixon wouldn't have won. And indeed, a few thousand more votes for Wallace in North Carolina and Tennessee, a shift of 1 percent of the vote in New Jersey or Ohio from Nixon to Humphrey, and the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives, because Nixon wouldn't have won an electoral college majority."

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland, Scribner, Copyright 2008 by Rick Perlstein, pp. 353-354.

Monday, November 03, 2008 11/3/08-Happiness

In today's excerpt--happiness:

"Imagine a long, terrible dental procedure. You are rigid in the chair, hands clenched, soaked with sweat--and then the dentist leans over and says, 'We're done now. You can go home. But if you want, I'd be happy to top you off with a few minutes of mild pain.'

"There is a good argument for saying 'Yes. Please do.'

"The psychologist and recent Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman conducted a series of studies on the memory of painful events, such as colonoscopies. He discovered that when we think back on these events, we are influenced by the intensity of the endings, and so we have a more positive memory of an experience that ends with mild pain than of one that ends with extreme pain, even if the mild pain is added to the same amount of extreme pain. At the moment the dentist makes you his offer, you would, of course, want to say no--but later on, you would be better off if you had said yes, because your overall memory of the event wouldn't be as unpleasant.

"Such contradictions arise all the time. If you ask people which makes them happier, work or vacation, they will remind you that they work for money and spend the money on vacations. But if you give them a beeper that goes off at random times, and ask them to record their activity and mood each time they hear a beep, you'll likely find that they are happier at work. Work is often engaging and social; vacations are often boring and stressful. Similarly, if you ask people about their greatest happiness in life, more than a third mention their children or grandchildren, but when they use a diary to record their happiness, it turns out that taking care of the kids is a downer--parenting ranks just a bit higher than housework, and falls below sex, socializing with friends, watching TV, praying, eating, and cooking."

Paul Bloom, "First Person Plural," The Atlantic, November 2008, pp. 90-92.