Friday, May 29, 2009 5/22/09 - The Emptiness of Space

In today's excerpt - the emptiness of space, the distances between planets and stars:

"To gain a richer sense of cosmic proportions, we can paraphrase William Blake, and see the Earth as a fine grain of sand. The sun, then, would be an orange-sized object twenty feet away, while Jupiter, the biggest planet of the solar system, would be a pebble eighty-four feet in the other direction - almost the length of a basketball court - and the outermost orbs of the solar system, Neptune and Pluto, would be larger and smaller grains, respectively, found at a distance of two and a quarter blocks from Granule Earth.

"Beyond that, the gaps between scenic vistas become absurd, and it's best to settle in for a nice, comfy coma. Assuming our little orrery of a solar system is tucked into a quiet neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, you won't reach the next stars - the Alpha Centauri triple star system - until somewhere just west of Omaha, or the star after that until the foothills of the Rockies. And in between astronomical objects is lots and lots of space, silky, sullen, inky-dinky space, plenty of nothing, nulls within voids. Just as the dominion of the very small, the interior of the atom, is composed almost entirely of empty space, so, too, is the kingdom of the heavens. Nature, it seems, adores a vacuum.

" 'The universe is a pretty empty place, and that's something most people don't get' said Michael Brown of Caltech. 'You go watch Star Wars, and you see the heroes flying through an asteroid belt, and they're twisting and turning nonstop to avoid colliding with asteroids.' In reality, he said, when the Galileo spacecraft flew through our solar system's asteroid belt in the early 1990s, NASA spent millions of dollars in a manic effort to steer the ship close enough to one of the rubble rocks to take photos and maybe sample a bit of its dust. 'And when they got lucky and the spacecraft actually passed by two asteroids, it was considered truly amazing,' said Brown. 'For most of Galileo's journey, there was nothing. Nothing to see, nothing to take pretty pictures of. And we're talking about the solar system, which is a fairly dense region of the universe.'

"Don't be fooled by the gorgeous pictures of dazzling pinwheel galaxies with sunnyside bulges in their midsections, either. They, too, are mostly ghostly: the average separation between stars is about 100,000 times greater than the distance between us and the Sun. Yes, our Milky Way has about 300 billion stars to its credit, but those stars are dispersed across a chasmic piece of property 100,000 light-years in diameter. That's roughly 6 trillion miles (the distance light travels in a year) multiplied by 100,000 ... miles wide. Even using the shrunken scale of a citrus sun lying just twenty feet away from our sand-grain Earth, crossing the galaxy would require a trip of more than 24 million miles."

Natalie Angier, The Canon, Houghton Mifflin, Copyright 2007 by Natalie Angier, pp. 81-82

Thursday, May 28, 2009 5/28/09 - The Beatles and Their Van

In today's encore excerpt - the Beatles pay their dues and drive their van. Post-Hamburg, but pre-Shea Stadium, the not-yet-world-famous Beatles faced regular and long road trips through England:

"GEORGE: After the Hamburg period we were driving up and down, doing gigs at the BBC in London a lot. ...

"RINGO: There are lots of driving stories. This is how a band gets close: in the van, going up and down the M1, freezing your balls off, fighting for the seats. ... There'd be the passenger seat for one of us, and the other three - whichever three, the rest of us - would sit behind on the bench seat, which was pretty miserable. ... I remember sliding all over Scotland. It was bloody freezing in the winter. ..."JOHN: But we always got screams in Scotland. I suppose they haven't got much else to do up there. ...

"RINGO: We never stopped anywhere. If we were in Elgin on a Thursday, and needed to be in Portsmouth on Friday, we would just drive. ... One night I remember, when it was very, very cold, the three of us on the bench seat were lying on top of each other with a bottle of whisky. When the one on top got so cold that hypothermia was setting in, it would be his turn to get on the bottom. We'd warm each other up that way, keep swigging the whiskey, keep going home.

"GEORGE: I had a good crash once. ... The accident had ripped the filler cap off and the petrol was pouring out. We got out and we had to shove T-shirts and things into the hole to try and stop the flow of petrol. ...

"RINGO: Another great van story was when George and Paul were both planning to drive the van. George got into the driving seat and Paul had the keys, and there was no way that one was going to help the other. We sat there for two hours. When you're touring, things can be pretty tense sometimes and the littlest thing can turn into a mountain. ...

"PAUL: There were a lot of laughs in the back of the car. ... I can't remember many deep conversations. There was a lot of giggling though."

The Beatles, The Beatles Anthology, Chronicle, 2000, p. 83

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5/27/09 - The 80/20 Rule

In today's excerpt - the 80/20 rule, the expression commonly used to state that a small percentage of the total of any set accounts for a large percentage of the output or effect of that set:

"Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule? It is the common signature of a power law - actually it is how it all started, when Vilfredo Pareto made the observation that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the people. Some use the rule to imply that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. Or that 80 percent worth of effort contributes to only 20 percent of results, and vice versa.

"As far as axioms go, this one wasn't phrased to impress you the most: it could easily be called the 50/01 rule, that is, 50 percent of the work comes from 1 percent of the workers. This formulation makes the world took even more unfair, yet the two formulae are exactly the same. How? Well, if there is inequality, then those who constitute the 20 percent in the 80/20 rule also contribute unequally - only a few of them deliver the lion's share of the results. This trickles down to about one in a hundred contributing a little more than half the total.

"The 80/20 rule is only metaphorical; it is not a rule, even less a rigid law. In the U.S. book business, the proportions are more like 97/20 (i.e., 97 percent of book sales are made by 20 percent of the authors); it's even worse if you focus on literary nonfiction (twenty books of close to eight thousand represent half the sales).

"Note here that it is not all uncertainty. In some situations you may have a concentration, of the 80/20 type, with very predictable and tractable properties, which enables clear decision making, because you can identify beforehand where the meaningful 20 percent are. These situations are very easy to control. For instance, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an article in The New Yorker that most abuse of prisoners is attributable to a very small number of vicious guards. Filter those guards out and your rate of prisoner abuse drops dramatically. (In publishing, on the other hand, you do not know beforehand which book will bring home the bacon. The same with wars, as you do not know beforehand which conflict will kill a portion of the planet's residents.)"

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, Random House, Copyright 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, pp. 235-236

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 5/26/09 - Memory and Fear

In today's excerpt - memory and fear. The emotion of each memory is chemically encoded in the brain's amygdala. And each memory is changed - chemically altered - each time we retrieve it, for better or for worse. Therapists try and use this in helping patients overcome fears:

"Learned fears [such as stage-fright] are acquired in part in circuitry centering on the amygdala, which Joseph LeDoux likes to call the brain's 'Fear Central.' LeDoux knows the neural terrain of the amygdala intimately; he's been studying this clump of neurons for decades at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. The cells in the amygdala where sensory information registers, and the adjacent areas that acquire fear, LeDoux has discovered, actually fire in new patterns at the moment a fear has been learned.

"Our memories are in part reconstructions. Whenever we retrieve a memory, the brain rewrites it a bit, updating the past according to our present concerns and understanding. At the cellular level, LeDoux explains, retrieving a memory means it will be 'reconsolidated,' slightly altered chemically by a new protein synthesis that will help store it anew after being updated.

"Thus each time we bring a memory to mind, we adjust its very chemistry: the next time we retrieve it, that memory will come up as we last modified it. The specifics of the new consolidation depend on what we learn as we recall it. If we merely have a flare-up of the same fear, we deepen our fearfulness.

"But, ... if at the time of the fear we tell ourselves something that eases its grip, then the same memory becomes reencoded with less power over us. Gradually, we can bring the once-feared memory to mind without feeling the rush of distress all over again. In such a case, says LeDoux, the cells in our amygdala reprogram so that we lose the original fear conditioning. One goal of therapy, then, can be seen as gradually altering the neurons for learned fear.

"Treatments sometimes actually expose the person to whatever primes their fear. Exposure sessions begin with getting the person relaxed, often through a few minutes of slow abdominal breathing. Then the person confronts the threatening situation, in a careful gradation culminating in the very worst version.

"[For example], one New York City traffic officer confided that she had flown into a rage at a motorist who called her a 'low-life bitch.' So in her exposure therapy that phrase was repeated to her, first in a flat tone, then with increasing emotional intensity, and finally with added obscene gestures. The exposure succeeds when, no matter how obnoxious the repeated phrase, she can stay relaxed - and presumably when back on the street she can calmly write a traffic ticket despite insults."

Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, Bantam, Copyright 2006, pp. 78-79

Friday, May 22, 2009 5/22/09 - 1848

In today's excerpt - 1848, the year of revolution - perhaps the most pivotal year in the violent transformation of the countries of Europe from monarchies to democracies. By 1848, the industrial revolution was powerfully transforming Europe, creating a population explosion and a large middle class. This middle class began to form an irrepressible counterbalance to absolute monarchy and ultimately would not be denied the right to participate in government - and thus the industrial revolution itself spawned the democracies of the West. But the industrial revolution also created a new class of laborers subject to the hard and unending demands of the new manufacturing era, and these political revolutions were also replete with ethnic conflict:

"In 1848 a violent storm of revolutions tore through Europe. With an astounding rapidity, crowds of working-class radicals and middle-class liberals in Paris, Milan, Venice, Naples, Palermo, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Berlin toppled the old regimes and began the task of forging a new, liberal order. Political events so dramatic had not been seen in Europe since the French Revolution Of 1789 - and would not be witnessed again until the revolutions of Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, or perhaps the less far-reaching Bolshevik Revolution Of 1917. ... The brick-built authoritarian edifice that had imposed itself on Europeans for almost two generations folded under the weight of the insurrections. ...

"For the Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs, Croats and Serbs, the year was to be the 'Springtime of Peoples', a chance to assert their own sense of national identity and to gain political recognition. In the cases of the Germans and the Italians, it was an opportunity for national unification under a liberal or even democratic order. Nationalism, therefore, was one issue that came frothing to the surface of European politics in 1848. While rooted in constitutionalism and civil rights, it was a nationalism that, ominously, made little allowance for the legitimacy of claims of other national groups. In many places such narrowness of vision led to bitter ethnic conflict, which in the end helped to destroy the revolutionary regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. ...

"The revolutions were scarred almost everywhere by a bitter, often violent, political polarization. Moderates wanted parliamentary government - but not necessarily to enfranchise everyone - and they were challenged by radicals who wanted democracy - frequently combined with dramatic social reform - without delay....

"A third issue that came boiling to the surface in 1848 and never left the European political agenda was the 'social question.' The abject misery of both urban and rural people had loomed menacingly in the thirty or so years since the Napoleonic Wars. The poverty was caused by a burgeoning population, which was not yet offset by a corresponding growth in the economy. Governments, however, did little to address the social distress, which was taken up as a cause by a relatively new political current - socialism - in 1848. The revolutions therefore thrust the 'social question' firmly and irrevocably into politics. Any subsequent regime, no matter how conservative or authoritarian, ignored it at its peril. In 1848, however, the question of what to do about poverty would prove to be one of the great nemeses of the liberal, revolutionary regimes."

Mike Rapport, 1848, Basic Books, Copyright 2008 by Mike Rapport, pp. ix-x

Thursday, May 21, 2009 5/21/09 - Discovering America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 5/20/09 - Morality and Emotions

In today's excerpt - Jonah Lehrer proposes that morality is a form of decision-making, and is based on emotions, not logic:

"Psychopaths shed light on a crucial subset of decision-making that's referred to as morality. Morality can be a squishy, vague concept, and yet, at its simplest level, it's nothing but a series of choices about how we treat other people. When you act in a moral manner - when you recoil from violence, treat others fairly, and help strangers in need - you are making decisions that take people besides yourself into account. You are thinking about the feelings of others, sympathizing with their states of mind.

"This is what psychopaths can't do. ... They are missing the primal emotional cues that the rest of us use as guides when making moral decisions. The psychopath's brain is bored by expressions of terror. The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for propagating aversive emotions such as fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. ... Hurting someone else is just another way of getting what he wants, a perfectly reasonable way to satisfy desires. The absence of emotion makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible. G. K. Chesterton was right: 'The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.'

"At first glance, the connection between morality and the emotions might be a little unnerving. Moral decisions are supposed to rest on a firm logical and legal foundation. Doing the right thing means carefully weighing competing claims, like a dispassionate judge. These aspirations have a long history. The luminaries of the Enlightenment, such as Leibniz and Descartes, tried to construct a moral system entirely free of feelings. Immanuel Kant argued that doing the right thing was merely a consequence of acting rationally. Immorality, he said, was a result of illogic. ... The modern legal system still subscribes to this antiquated set of assumptions and pardons anybody who demonstrates a 'defect in rationality' - these people are declared legally insane, since the rational brain is supposedly responsible for distinguishing between right and wrong. If you can't reason, then you shouldn't be punished.

"But all of these old conceptions of morality are based on a fundamental mistake. Neuroscience can now see the substrate of moral decisions, and there's nothing rational about it. 'Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment,' writes Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. 'When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate ... Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.'

"Kant and his followers thought the rational brain acted like a scientist: we used reason to arrive at an accurate view of the world. This meant that morality was based on objective values; moral judgments described moral facts. But the mind doesn't work this way. When you are confronted with an ethical dilemma, the unconscious automatically generates an emotional reaction. (This is what psychopaths can't do.) Within a few milliseconds, the brain has made up its mind; you know what is right and what is wrong. These moral instincts aren't rational. ...

"It's only after the emotions have already made the moral decision that those rational circuits in the prefrontal cortex are activated. People come up with persuasive reasons to justify their moral intuition. When it comes to making ethical decisions, human rationality isn't a scientist, it's a lawyer. This inner attorney gathers bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make the automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a facade, an elaborate self- delusion. Benjamin Franklin said it best in his autobiography: 'So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.'

"In other words, our standard view of morality - the philosophical consensus for thousands of years - has been exactly backward. We've assumed that our moral decisions are the byproducts of rational thought, that humanity's moral rules are founded in such things as the Ten Commandments and Kant's categorical imperative. Philosophers and theologians have spilled lots of ink arguing about the precise logic of certain ethical dilemmas. But these arguments miss the central reality of moral decisions, which is that logic and legality have little to do with anything."

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, Copyright 2009 by Jonah Lehrer, Kindle Loc. 1922-79

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 5/19/09 - Pakistan

In today's excerpt - the origins of the name "Pakistan." In India, under British rule, in the early twentieth century, the centuries-old enmity between Muslims and Hindus burned hotter than ever. As Nicholas Schmidle reports in his new book on contemporary Pakistan, some from among the minority Muslims yearned to be independent of the oppression of the Hindu and to form their own Muslim country. They later got their wish with the cataclysmic 1947 partition of India into two countries - India and Pakistan:

"I soon learned about Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, the man who coined the name 'Pakistan.' Rahmat Ali belonged to the cast of characters - along with Mohammad Iqbal, the intellectual dubbed Pakistan's 'national poet,' and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a gaunt, sickly barrister - who helped to form Pakistan. Historians regarded Jinnah as the founding statesmen and lqbal as the founding philosopher. Rahmat All, however, enjoyed less influence inside Pakistan (he was living in England during the Partition) and most accounts of Pakistan's creation have confined him to a secondary role. 'Official Pakistan,' wrote a columnist in Dawn, an English-language daily newspaper, 'has apparently treated Rahmat Ali as the lunatic uncle who has needed to be locked up secretly in the attic.'

"Rahmat Ali's fame stemmed from a 1933 pamphlet he penned titled 'Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish For Ever?' He opened the treatise:

" 'At this solemn hour in the history of India, when British and Indian statesmen are laying the foundations of a Federation Constitution for that land, we address this appeal to you, in the name of our common heritage, on behalf of our thirty million Muslim brethren who live in PAKSTAN - by which we mean the five Northern units of India, viz.: Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan Province), Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan - for your sympathy and support in our grim and fateful struggle against political crucification and complete annihilation.'

"Thus, the name PAKSTAN made its debut. But it was more than just an acronym for the composite Muslim-majority provinces in northern India. In Urdu, 'Pak' means 'pure,' and thus 'PAKSTAN' meant 'Land of the Pure.'

"Rahmat Ali might have coined the name, but he wasn't the first to pitch the idea of combining Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sindh, and Baluchistan into a single political entity. Three years before Rahmat All's pamphlet circulated, Iqbal, acknowledged as a towering intellect even in his own day, had proposed this imagined configuration, which was to fall under the umbrella of an All-India Federation. But Rahmat All wanted total independence from India. An upstart student radical, twenty years junior to Iqbal, Rahmat Ali noted, with due politeness and respect, that his demand was 'basically different' from the one forwarded by the revered philosopher and poet. 'There can be no peace and tranquility in the land if we, the Muslims, are duped into a Hindu-dominated Federation where we cannot be the masters of our own destiny and captains of our own souls,' Rahmat Ali wrote.

"Rahmat Ali described the fate of Indian Muslims as having arrived at an apocalyptic intersection: 'We are face to face with a first-rate tragedy, the like of which has not been seen in the long and eventful history of Islam.' What happened to the days when they were 'custodians of the glory of Islam in India and defenders of its frontiers'? he wondered. Rahmat Ali added, in closing, 'We have a still greater future before us, if only our soul can be saved from the perpetual bondage of slavery forced in an All-India Federation. Let us make no mistake about it. The issue is now or never. Either we live or perish for ever.' "

Nicholas Schmidle, To Live or To Perish Forever, Henry Holt, Copyright 2009 by Nicholas Schmidle, pp. 6-8.

Monday, May 18, 2009 5/18/09 - Henry David Thoreau

In today's excerpt - Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), author of Walden and Civil Disobedience. For Americans, Thoreau has come to represent self-sufficient man living peacefully in the wilderness and communing with untrammeled nature, even though the hut he lived in for two years was only a few blocks from the city of Concord, and he took his dirty laundry home for his mother to wash. The Thoreau we now imagine is a priest of solitude and an icon of the modern-day green movement ...

"But here's another Thoreau. Here's a Thoreau who lives in town, in the center city of Concord, which, while not quite the size of a city, even though it wants to be, is a large town. Here is the Thoreau who is born in town and except for a few trips to the Maine and Massachusetts coast, except for a little less than a year in New York City, lives his entire life in his town. ... He comes back [from college at Harvard] to his hometown to discover that there are no jobs, a recession. He goes on the road, to Maine, and he can't find any jobs there either. Thoreau also returns to discover that Ralph Waldo Emerson - the most exciting intellectual and the most renowned intellectual reformer in America - is a neighbor. ... Thoreau moves to Emerson's house, takes care of Emerson's children, his carpentry, his yard work, his gardening, all the while doing other chores for other people around the village, the Transcendental handyman. Thoreau tries poetry, then essay writing, then edits the Transcendentalists' magazine, the Dial. In none of these endeavors does he manage to make much in the way of money. ... He moves to New York, tries to establish himself as a successful freelance writer, but gets homesick and returns early to Concord.

"When he comes home, he decides to build himself a little house on the pond on the edge of town, about forty New York City blocks from the village center on a woodlot owned by Emerson - a woodlot that is not so much woods, in the sense that we think of woods today, as it is a place where Emerson cuts the trees that each day heat his house as he writes away. Thoreau's friends visit - his neighbors and family come to the pond for picnics or to stop by for the watermelon party that Thoreau throws every year. ... Above all, he cherishes his manly self-sufficiency, even though he carried his dirty laundry to Concord for his mother to wash. ...

"Thoreau takes seven years to write and rewrite and rewrite his next book, Walden, his best-known work in America and, along with his essay on civil disobedience, one of the most famous works of American literature in the world. ... To call Thoreau a nature writer is more than limiting, given the way that we tend to think about nature writing; Thoreau writes about the whole world, and he writes of Walden Pond so as to change the world. ... Walden is a work that intended to revive America, a communal work that is forever pigeonholed as a reclusive one. And what is perhaps most surprising is that it's a comedy; it's an economic satire draped in the language of nature and farming and the self-help books of the day that shows the mass of economic men to be a bunch of unwitting saps. With some disdain, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to his Concord friend as 'a humorist.'

"Walden didn't sell. It didn't do as badly as Thoreau's first book, but it was no huge hit. Thus, after Walden, Thoreau takes on writing as a kind of full-time avocation, working in his family's pencil factory, doing odd jobs while selling the occasional travel piece. He is a singer and a dancer. He plays the flute and likes to take his friends on moonlit walks and, despite his reputation, rarely seems to have gone on a camping trip alone. He is also a surveyor, helping house builders build, farmers settle their disputes. When people think of Thoreau, do they imagine all the time he spent in court, testifying to land boundaries?

"He dies at forty-four. ... He dies at home. His aunt asks him if he has made peace with God. He tells her he did not know that they had quarreled."

Robert Sullivan, The Thoreau You Don't Know, HarperCollins, Copyright 2009 by Robert Sullivan, pp. 4-6.

Friday, May 15, 2009 5/15/09 - Opium

In today's excerpt - opium, a powerful illegal narcotic in its own right, and also the source for morphine and heroin. Opium harvesting is difficult to mechanize and requires an abundance of inexpensive labor, making it an ideal crop for the least developed countries of the world. Opium was a mainstay of late nineteenth-century home medicine cabinets in America:

"Opium poppies are relatively easy to grow, which has always made controlling their supply difficult. In the ancient world, poppy growing occurred first in Egypt, and then spread into Persia (Iran), India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, the so-called 'Golden Crescent.' The poppy followed Arab traders into Asia, and the 'Golden Triangle' of Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand became a major source for the global market in the mid-twentieth century. China began growing poppies in the nineteenth century to serve its population of opium smokers, while Mexico and Latin America began to export opiates in the twentieth century to supply the U.S. market. European countries - including Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, the Balkan states, and even Britain - all produced opium poppies at one time or another. ...

"Poppy cultivation requires a small investment in technology and capital, which makes it an appealing crop in poor areas. Opium poppies are hardy and need plentiful sun, not too much rainfall, and modestly rich soil, but little irrigation and few pesticides or fertilizers. Poppies spread naturally into the furrows left by the cultivation of staple crops, and thus allow farmers to use their fields intensively. While cultivation is not difficult, harvesting is a laborious process that is difficult to mechanize and requires an abundance of inexpensive labor, which is usually readily available in less developed regions of the world. ...

"Although opium has important medical uses, its conversion into a commodity of mass consumption in the nineteenth century dominates its modern history. European traders introduced tobacco, the tobacco pipe, and opium into China, and the practice of smoking a mix of tobacco and opium developed as a malaria preventative in China's coastal regions. ... The population of opium smokers exploded in the mid-nineteenth century after Britain defeated China in the opium wars and forced it to legalize the opium trade. By 1900, China consumed 95 percent of the world's opium crop, and over sixteen million Chinese smoked regularly. The practice of smoking opium followed the Chinese throughout the world, including to the United States ... and by the end of the nineteenth century, it had become popular among prostitutes, criminals, entertainers, and other habitues of the 'sporting life.'

"In the nineteenth century, the oral ingestion of opium was central both to medical practice and to commercial and home remedies for common ailments, and this led to more abuse than smoking opium did. Laudanum - as well as widely available patent medicines, syrups, and tonics - contained opium as the principal ingredient, and opium was one of the few effective forms of pain control. Physicians used opium pills to relieve a wide variety of symptoms, such as diarrhea and coughs, and women frequently resorted to opium-based medications to ease menstrual cramps. ... With the notable exception of Civil War veterans and Chinese and underworld opium smokers, the typical American opium user was a middle-aged white woman of middle-class background who had become habituated to opium through self-medication."

Eric C. Schneider, Smack, Penn Press, Copyright 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 1-5

Thursday, May 14, 2009 5/14/09 - Revolution and Youth

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 5/13/09 - Anno Domini

In today's excerpt - Charlemagne, and the establishment of "A.D." as the basis for calculating dates. At the beginning of the ninth century A.D., with Rome long since crumbled, Constantinople was capitol of the leading Christian empire, the Rome of the East. But the Frankish king Charlemagne had built a new Western empire to eclipse it extending across much of modern-day Europe. With that achievement firmly in hand, he came to Rome and knelt during Christmas Mass at the shrine of St. Peter in the Vatican, where unexpectedly and dramatically, Pope Leo crowned him emperor. But perhaps it wasn't so unexpected:

"So it was that Charlemagne came to rule as a second Constantine. ... The whole coronation, Charlemagne would later declare, had come as a surprise to him, a bolt from the blue. Indeed, 'he made it clear that he would not have entered the cathedral that day at all, although it was the very greatest of the festivals of the Church, if he had known in advance what the Pope was planning to do.' ...

"Yet still an aura of mystery lingered around the ceremony. Had Charlemagne truly been as ignorant of Leo's plans as he subsequently claimed to be, then it was all the more eerie a coincidence that he should have been in Rome, and in St. Peter's, on the very morning that he was. Eight hundred years had passed to the day since the birth of the Son of Man: an anniversary of which Charlemagne and his advisers would have been perfectly aware. Over the preceding decades, the great program of correctio had begun to embrace even the dimensions of time itself. Traditionally, just as popes had employed the regnal year of the emperor in Constantinople on their documents, so other churchmen had derived dates from a bewildering array of starting points: the accession of their local ruler, perhaps, or an ancient persecution, or, most extravagantly, the creation of the world.

"Such confusion, however, to scholars sponsored by the Frankish king, was intolerable. A universal Christian order, such as Charlemagne was laboring to raise, required a universal chronology. How fortunate it was, then, that the perfect solution had lain conveniently ready to hand. The years preceding Charlemagne's accession to the Frankish throne had witnessed a momentous intellectual revolution. Monks both in Francia itself and in the British Isles, looking to calibrate the mysterious complexities of time, had found themselves arriving at a framework that was as practical as it was profound. From whose accession date, if not that of some earthly emperor or king, were years to be numbered? The answer, once given, was obvious. Christ alone was the ruler of all mankind - and His reign had begun when He had first been born into the world. It was the Incarnation - that cosmos-shaking moment when the Divine had become flesh - that served as the pivot around which all of history turned. Where were the Christians who could possibly argue with that? Not at the Frankish court, to be sure. Clerics in Charlemagne's service had accordingly begun to measure dates from 'the year of our Lord' - 'anno Domini.'

"Here was a sense of time, Christian time, that far transcended the local: perfectly suited to a monarchy that extended to the outermost limits of Christendom. Charlemagne, crowned upon the exact turning point of a century, could hardly have done more to identify himself with it."

Tom Holland, The Forge of Christendom, Doubleday, Copyright 2008 by Tom Holland, pp. 32-34

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 5/12/09 - The Computer Mouse

In today's excerpt - the computer mouse. In 1964, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) invented what became known as the computer mouse. It was called the mouse because it was "chased" by the cursor on the screen, then known as a CAT:

"Engelbart had almost - but not quite - hit upon the concept of the mouse in his original 1962 paper. With his NASA funding, he began exploring pointing devices and became interested in the problem of selecting text or graphics objects that were displayed on his screen. The goal of the study was to discover which device would allow a user to get to a given point on the screen most quickly as well as repeatedly with the fewest errors. ...

"Other kinds of pointing devices were already in use, including light pens, trackballs, and tablets with styli. The RAND Corporation had invented the latter, and though Engelbart hoped for a while that he could persuade them to lend him one for their research, the company told him it didn't have any available.

"The actual idea of a rolling, handheld pointing device came to Engelbart one day when he was at a computer-graphics conference. As he often did, he was feeling like an outsider, because everyone was talking, and he was uncomfortable and having trouble making himself heard. At times like this, he frequently tuned out and dropped into his own reverie. ...

"Pulling a small notepad from his shirt pocket, he made a quick sketch of a device that would track movement across a desktop. The idea was to use the two wheels to drive two potentiometers - devices that would register varying voltages as they were turned. Each one would move depending on the degree to which the wheels turned, and the resulting voltage could then be translated into the position of a cursor - they originally called it a 'bug' - on the screen. ...

"[He] turned to an SRI draftsman to carve an elegant, hand-sized lacquered pine case large enough to contain the two wheels and two potentiometers, and then gave the case to a craftsman at the SRI machine shop to manufacture the other mechanical components. The original mouse that the team assembled was large and bulky, in part because of the size of the available potentiometers. [Bill] English had also figured that he would need a device that would roll about five inches, a distance that could be translated into the width of the screen. That, in turn, required large wheels, which would rotate only once in five inches of travel.

"Although it is commonly believed that the story of how the mouse got its name has been lost in history, Roger Bates, who was a young hardware designer working for Bill English, has a clear recollection of how the name was chosen. ... He remembers that what today is called the cursor on the screen was at the time called a 'CAT.' Bates has forgotten what CAT stood for, and no one else seems to remember either, but in hindsight it seems obvious that the CAT would chase the tailed mouse on the desktop."

John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, Penguin, Copyright 2005 by John Markoff, pp. 54-56.

Monday, May 11, 2009 5/11/09 - Druids

In today's excerpt - Druids. There is very little evidence to tell us who and what the Druids were:

"The word 'Druid' was one given to experts in magical and religious practice by the peoples speaking Celtic languages who inhabited northwestern Europe around 2,000 years ago. That is all that can definitely be said about it. Those who have tried to say more have relied on two different groups of sources. The smaller, but more famous of those groups consists of the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. These have the virtue of being the work of people who lived when Druids still existed. Their problem is that almost all relied on secondhand information of unknown quality, much of it very old even by their time. Moreover, none wrote more than a few sentences about Druids.

"The only one of these writers who could have encountered them himself was Julius Caesar, who conquered Gaul - present-day France, Belgium and the Rhineland - for the Roman Empire. In a famous passage he describes the Druids of Gaul as having great power and learning and being united in a national organization under a single leader. No other ancient author credits Druids with this degree of sophistication. Furthermore, his famous description of them is isolated amid detailed accounts of the wars in which he conquered Gaul. If the Druids had been anything like as powerful and well organized as Caesar insisted them to be, they should have featured constantly in those wars, yet they never appear in them at all. Many modern authors, therefore, have charged him with exaggerating the importance and organization of the Gallic Druids. By doing so he made the Gauls seem more dangerous and more worthy as adversaries and so his own conquest more glorious.

"In general, Greek and Roman accounts of Druids fall into three categories. Some, mostly Greek, treat them as great philosophers and scientists worthy of admiration. Others, mostly Roman, make them into bloodthirsty barbarian priests, epitomes of backwardness, ignorance and cruelty. Yet others, like Caesar, suggest that they were both. We have no means of telling which are closest to the truth. In general, the further away from real Druids an ancient author lived the nicer he tended to think they were. This could mean that the more favorable accounts of them are mere wish-fulfillment, fashioning romanticized portraits of noble savages. Those who lived closer to Druids may be regarded as staying more faithful to a brutal reality. On the other hand, the writers who were geographically closer to Druids had the strongest possible motive for exaggerating the danger and the horror that Druidry represented, justifying their conquest by Rome. By this reckoning, the more favorable accounts, mostly produced by Greeks who had themselves been conquered by Rome, could be the more truthful. We can never know.

"The second group of sources consists of portions of medieval Irish literature. These have the virtue of being produced by a society which itself had once included Druids. Furthermore, the references to Druids in Irish stories are far more frequent than those in Greek and Roman sources. There are, however, two problems with the Irish texts. The first, which they have in common with those from Greece and Rome, is that some portray Druids sympathetically as figures of great wisdom and power and some represent them as savage pagan priests. The second problem is that all the Irish texts were written, and perhaps composed, hundreds of years after the conversion of the Irish to Christianity when Druids had by definition ceased to exist. ...

"Among archaeologists there is currently no consensus over how material evidence relates to the Druids even within the same country. Not a single artifact [including Stonehenge] has been turned up anywhere which experts universally and unequivocally agree to be Druidic. In 2007, one archaeologist, Andrew Fitzpatrick, suggested that there is plenty of material evidence for people with religious knowledge and skills in Iron Age Britain but little for a specialized priesthood. More often, however, his colleagues tag Druids onto particular finds of theirs in order to draw public attention to them. This is inevitably controversial and in scholarly terms unhelpful. We may need to scrap the Druids from Iron Age archaeology at least for a time. ...

"[Yet druids remain powerful images from the past] because of, rather than despite, the paucity and unreliability of the historical references to them. As they are so insubstantial as historical figures they can be pressed into all manner of contexts."

Ronald Hutton, "Under the Spell of the Druids," History Today, May 2009, pp. 14-20.

Friday, May 08, 2009 5/8/09 - Michael J. Fox and Tom Hanks

In today's excerpt--Michael J. Fox and Tom Hanks, during the early years of the situation comedy, Family Ties:

"People start lining up on Gower Street two nights early now, to wait for tickets to [Family Ties]. Families write in and tell us that they're planning their vacation out to California around the availability of tickets to Family Ties. Michael Fox is receiving more mail than anyone else in the United States. ...

"After we had cast Mike as Alex, ... we actually had trouble closing the deal. Not because Mike wanted more money but because his agent, Bob Gersh, couldn't locate him. It seems Mike couldn't afford a phone, and he was using a Pioneer Chicken outlet up on Highland Avenue as his 'office.' Bob had no choice but to wait for Mike to show up at Pioneer, order a bucket of wings, and check in with him. Back then, Mike had a big round sectional couch in his living room, and he was selling off sections of the couch one by one to stay alive. I think he was down to a cushion and a half. He told me later that, had he not gotten the part of Alex Keaton, he was going to give up and quit. Go back to Canada.

"I will watch Michael Fox go from phoneless furniture salesman to one of the biggest stars in show business. And one day, with Back to the Future and Family Ties, he will find himself the star of a number-one movie and a number-one television show. Something that had never happened before.

"In our seven years together on Family Ties, Michael will never miss one day of work holding out for more money. He'll never ask to have his dressing room enlarged or his parking spot improved. Never ask to have his billing changed from third place, where it was in the original pilot. And he will make stage 24 at Paramount Studios an awfully exciting place to come to work each day.

"In the middle of that first year, Michael Weithorn creates the character of Elyse's younger brother, Ned, a business genius who's Alex's idol. And he has a young actor in mind to play that role--Tom Hanks. Tom had starred in a short-lived ABC show, Bosom Buddies, and he has a movie coming out soon, Splash, for which there are high hopes. But we're still able to sign him to do three shows for us at a fairly reasonable rate.

"For Mike Fox, it was love at first sight. After the initial reading of the script, Mike came back to the writers' room and was barely able to keep from floating up to the ceiling, he was so excited.

" 'I love this guy. I love him.' ...

"Between filming the first episode with Tom and beginning to film the second about two months later, Splash came out in theaters, and it was a huge hit, catapulting Tom Hanks into the ranks of legitimate movie stars. We immediately receive a call from Tom's agent, basically reneging on our agreement. There's almost no chance that he'll do the agreed-upon Family Ties episodes, we're cold, and if he were to do them, it would have to be for at least ten times the originally agreed-upon price. A day or two later the phone rings in my office, and it's Tom Hanks.

" 'Have these guys been bustin' your balls?' Tom wants to know, using the legal terminology for what's been going on here.

" 'A little bit,' I have to admit.

" 'Listen, man, I loved working with you guys. I love Mike Fox. Anytime, anywhere. At the original price, OK?'

" 'You drive a hard bargain, Tom. But OK.' "

Gary David Goldberg, Sit, Ubu, Sit, Three Rivers Press, Copyright 2008 by UBU Productions, pp. 118, 67-68

Thursday, May 07, 2009 5/7/09 - Sex

In today's encore excerpt - from the annals of evolutionary psychology, the observation that males want lots of sex, and sometimes bring gifts:

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 06, 2009 5/6/09 - Stephen Girard and Yellow Fever

In today's excerpt-French-born Philadelphian Stephen Girard and the yellow fever. Girard, an international merchant and trader who was perhaps the richest man in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with assets of $7 million at his death ($100 million in today's dollars), was also one of America's greatest philanthropists. In 1793, a yellow fever plague forced George Washington, the U.S. government, and almost every citizen of means in Philadelphia to leave. Girard, richest of them all, stayed behind saving lives:

"Unlike many philanthropists, Girard did not wait until he died to start helping others. His finest hour occurred during Philadelphia's great yellow fever epidemic in 1793. That episode, largely forgotten in American history, was one of the greatest disasters to befall any American city. The gravity of the epidemic increases when one realizes that Philadelphia was at the time the nation's temporary capital. Yellow fever, so named because the victim's skin turns a yellowish hue, is fatal to as many as half of those who contract it. If the afflicted does not successfully resist the disease, he dies a tortuous week-long death filled with bouts of high fever, chills, black vomit, and diarrhea. Were this not awful enough, the alleged cure for the malady, the one pushed by Philadelphia's leading physician, the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush, involved bloodletting and mercury purges. Rush, like Girard, bravely stayed in town and tried his utmost to aid the sick. Unfortunately, Rush's harsh treatment plan caused untold deaths.

"In 1793, the population of Philadelphia and its suburbs was approximately 45,000 [the largest in America]. ... Before the epidemic ended with the November frosts, some four to five thousand Philadelphians, about 10 percent of the city's population, lay yellowed and dead in pools of vomit and excrement. In a typical day just prior to the plague, an average of three Philadelphians died. On October 11, at the peak of the plague, 119 persons met their excruciatingly painful end. ...

"No one great or small was immune to this plague. None other than Alexander Hamilton caught the fever on September 5. Soon thereafter, his beloved wife Betsy also became in. Dr. Edward Stevens saw to their recovery, which became instant front-page news. Stevens's treatment was much milder than the aggressive bloodletting and purging that Dr. Rush espoused. Soon, controversy over the proper course of treatment divided Philadelphia's doctors and leading citizens. ...

"Stephen Girard could have, indeed should have, simply left town. But instead, he chose to risk his life to save others. ... He rolled up his sleeves and plunged into the fight, the fight against the disease itself, the fight against physicians with quack cures, the fight for the honor of the French refugees who many blamed for the scourge, and the fight for his business. ... Unlike some fifty merchants who ran away and reneged on their financial obligations, Girard defended his credit, his honor, his people, his city. ... When the call went out for volunteers, only thirty-seven stepped forward. Clearly, the hospital at [Philadelphia's] Bush Hill was no place for the faint of heart; the stench of death, vomit, and excrement filled the nostrils, overpowering even the strongest. After inspecting conditions at Bush Hill, Girard realized that such a small number of volunteers would prove insufficient unless they were efficiently organized. Therefore, at the September 16 meeting of the emergency plague committee, Girard and fellow Philadelphian Peter Helm offered to supervise the volunteers. Girard's actions, which many viewed as a death sentence, took observers aback.

"But Girard was not suicidal. ... Like Hamilton, Girard, who was conversant with the principles of medicine due to his youthful experience as a sailor, shunned Dr. Rush's harsh treatments in favor of the milder approach of Dr. Stevens. Moreover, Girard did not believe that the disease was contagious, attributing the far-reaching nature of the epidemic instead to the widespread distribution of the city's filth. ...

"For sixty straight days Girard managed the makeshift hospital and cared for the ever-growing number of sick. A contemporary observer noted that Girard had to perform 'many disgusting offices of kindness for [the patients], which nothing could render tolerable, but the exalted motives that impelled him to this heroic conduct.' "

Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen, Financial Founding Fathers, Chicago, Copyright 2006 by Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen, pp. 143-146

Tuesday, May 05, 2009 5/5/09 - Omens

In today's excerpt--eerie coincidences. Things often happen that seem like omens or fateful coincidences-the pianist at the bar starts playing a song you'd just been thinking of, or you pass the window of a pawnshop and see the heirloom ring that had been stolen from your apartment eighteen months ago, or a long lost friend calls just after you learn of a personal tragedy. Natalie Angier explains that often things we view as omens are instead reasonably probably outcomes:

"The more one knows about probabilities, the less amazing the most woo-woo coincidences become. ...

"John Littlewood, a renowned mathematician at the University of Cambridge, formalized the apparent intrusion of the supernatural into ordinary life as a kind of natural law, which he called 'Littlewood's Law of Miracles.' He defined a 'miracle' as many people might: a one-in-a-million event to which we accord real significance when it occurs. By his law, such 'miracles' arise in anyone's life at an average of once a month. Here's how Littlewood explained it: You are out and about and barraged by the world for some eight hours a day. You see and hear things happening at a rate of maybe one per second, amounting to 30,000 or so 'events' a day, or a million per month. The vast majority of events you barely notice, but every so often, from the great stream of happenings, you are treated to a marvel: the pianist at the bar starts playing a song you'd just been thinking of, or you pass the window of a pawnshop and see the heirloom ring that had been stolen from your apartment eighteen months ago. Yes, life is full of miracles, minor, major, middling C. It's called 'not being in a persistent vegetative state' and 'having a life span longer than a click beetle's.'

"And because there is nothing more miraculous than birth, [Professor] Deborah Nolan also likes to wow her new students with the famous birthday game. I'll bet you, she says, that at least two people in this room have the same birthday. The sixty-five people glance around at one another and see nothing close to a year's offering of days represented, and they're dubious. Nolan starts at one end of the classroom, asks the student her birthday, writes it on the blackboard, moves to the next, and jots likewise, and pretty soon, yup, a duplicate emerges. How can that be, the students wonder, with less than 20 percent of 365 on hand to choose from (or 366 if you want to be leap-year sure of it)? First, Nolan reminds them of what they're talking about--not the odds of matching a particular birthday, but of finding a match, any match, somewhere in their classroom sample.

"She then has them think about the problem from the other direction: What are the odds of them not finding a match? That figure, she demonstrates, falls rapidly as they proceed. Each time a new birth date is added to the list, another day is dinged from the possible 365 that could subsequently be cited without a match. Yet each time the next person is about to announce a birthday, the pool the student theoretically will pick from remains what it always was--365. One number is shrinking, in other words, while the other remains the same, and because the odds here are calculated on the basis of comparing (through multiplication and division) the initial fixed set of possible options with an ever diminishing set of permissible ones, the probability of finding no birthday match in a group of sixty-five plunges rapidly to below 1 percent. Of course, the prediction is only a probability, not a guarantee. For all its abstract and counterintuitive texture, however, the statistic proves itself time and again in Nolan's classroom a dexterous gauge of reality.

"If you're not looking for such a high degree of confidence, she adds, but are willing to settle for a fifty-fifty probability of finding a shared birthday in a gathering, the necessary number of participants accordingly can be cut to twenty-three."

Natalie Angier, The Canon, Houghton Mifflin, Copyright 2007 by Natalie Angier, pp. 50-52

Monday, May 04, 2009 5/4/09--Pocahontas and John Smith

In today's excerpt--Captain John Smith, later the founder of Jamestown, Virginia, visited Massachusetts before the Pilgrims arrived. There he met Tisquantum (Squanto), who would subsequently provide invaluable aid to the Pilgrims. And then there is the matter of the Pocahontas legend:

"Tisquantum [met Captain John Smith in Massachusetts] in the summer of 1614. ... when a small ship hove to the Massachusetts shores, sails a-flap. Its leader was a sight beyond belief: a stocky man, even shorter than most foreigners, with a voluminous red beard that covered so much of his face that he looked to Indian eyes more beast than human. This was Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame. According to Smith, he had lived an adventurous and glamorous life. As a youth, he claimed, he had served as a privateer, after which he was captured and enslaved by the Turks. He escaped and awarded himself the rank of captain in the 'army of Smith.'

"These preposterous tales may actually be true; other amazing Smith stories certainly are. While Smith was establishing a colony at Jamestown, for instance, Pocahontas likely did save his life, although little of the rest of the legend embodied in the Disney cartoon is true. The girl's name, for instance, was actually Mataoka--Pocahontas, a teasing nickname, meant something like 'little hellion.' Mataoka was a priestess-in-training in the central town of the Powhatan alliance, a powerful confederacy in tidewater Virginia. Aged about twelve, she may have protected Smith, but not, as he wrote, by interceding when he was a captive and about to be executed in 1607. In fact, the 'execution' was probably a ritual staged by Wahunsenacawh, the head of the Powhatan alliance, to establish his authority over Smith by making him a member of the group; if Mataoka interceded, she was simply playing her assigned role in the ritual. The incident in which she may have saved Smith's life occurred a year later, when she warned the English that Wahunsenacawh, who had tired of them, was about to attack. In the Disney version, Smith returns to England after a bad colonist shoots him in the shoulder. In truth, he did leave Virginia in 1609 for medical treatment, but only because he somehow blew up a bag of gunpowder while wearing it around his neck. ...

"Despite Smith's peculiar appearance, Tisquantum and his fellows native Americans in Massachusetts treated him well. They apparently gave him a tour, during which he admired the gardens, orchards, and maize fields, and the 'great troupes of well-proportioned people' tending them. At some point a quarrel occurred and bows were drawn, Smith said, 'fortie or fiftie' Patuxet surrounding him. His account is vague, but one imagines that the Indians were hinting at a limit to his stay. In any case, the visit ended cordially enough, and Smith returned to Maine and then England. He had a map drawn of what he had seen, persuaded Prince Charles to look at it, and curried favor with him by asking him to award British names to all the Indian settlements. Then he put the maps in the books he wrote to extol his adventures. In this way, Patuxet acquired its English name, Plymouth, after the city in England (it was then spelled "Plimoth')."

Charles C. Mann, 1491, Vintage, Copyright 2005, 2006 by Charles C. Mann, pp. 52-53.

Friday, May 01, 2009 5/1/09--Network Executives

In today's excerpt--network executives. Gary David Goldberg, creator of such network hits as "Family Ties," "Brooklyn Bridge," and "Spin City," producer of "Lou Grant," and writer on "The Bob Newhart Show," complains gently about the predictable interference from network executives, and then extols the more enlightened touch of certain of these executives--including Brandon Tartikoff:

"We've finished four episodes now, and NBC has tested them. [NBC Executive] Brandon Tartikoff's coming over, and he wants to talk about what they've discovered. He's been our biggest fan and supporter. ...

"NBC has been pretty good in terms of not bogging us down each week with a series of nitpicky notes. But occasionally they back-slide. All network notes are the same. There are really only three. And they never vary. Ever. Before the reading of any script I could put them in a sealed envelope. And at the end of that reading, these will be the network notes. I promise.

"One: Move the story up. If the murder takes place in scene two, move it up to scene one. If it already takes place in scene one, move it up to the main title. If it's in the main title now, move it up to the song. Just move it up.

"Two: Hang a lantern on it. This means make your main story point so startlingly obvious, so starkly black and white, that it will be robbed of all the shading and complexity and ambiguity that make characters, and life, interesting and compelling. ...

"Three: Raise the stakes. For some reason, every episode must have monumental consequences for all the main characters. Leaving them distraught, bereft, yet somehow enlightened.

"Never mind that the most successful TV comedy of all time, Seinfeld, rarely ever even had a story to move up. Didn't shine a flashlight, let alone hang a lantern, on anything. And had no stakes whatsoever to be raised.

"Brandon sits across from me now in my Paramount office, and he gets right to it. 'You've got lightning in a bottle here with [previously unknown actor] Michael Fox.' He hands me some pages that contain a summary of all the research they've done so far. Turns out even people who don't like the show like Mike. For the people who do like the show, they can't get enough of Mike. It cuts across all ages and gender categories. NBC would like the emphasis of the show to be more on him now.

" 'I'm not telling you what to do creatively,' Brandon went on. 'But I just thought you should see this.' That was typical of Brandon and one of the traits that made him such a great network executive. The best studio heads I've worked with--Grant Tinker, Frank Mancuso, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Alan Horn--all have that same manner and style. At the beginning of any 'creative' discussion with Alan Horn, he will say, 'At the end of this meeting, you will do exactly what you want to do. I'll support you one hundred percent and I'll never revisit these issues again. But here's what I think.' Alan, Jeffrey, Grant, Brandon, Frank--put them in charge of any type of business, and within three years, that business will be preeminent in that particular industry. In the end, you don't want to fail because you don't want to betray the trust they have in you."

Gary David Goldberg, Sit, Ubu, Sit, Three Rivers, Copyright 2008 by UBU Productions, pp. 41-43