Friday, July 31, 2009 7/31/09 - Whores

In today's excerpt - stories of prostitutes, courtesans, and ladies with injured reputations explode in the new mass media of 18th century Europe:

"Gossip about sexual liaisons first started to be broadcast in an explosion of print at the beginning of the 18th century. Sex and how it figured within the lives of prostitutes, bawds and aristocrats became a topic aimed at an audience with an increasing appetite for titillation. ...

"This market had been fostered by a long literary tradition. Daniel Defoe wrote about the adventures of Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724). The theme where the subject is a feminine protagonist who uses her sexual attributes to advance her fortunes was taken to its most extreme form in the adventures of Fanny Hill in John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749), which, though initially suppressed, was one of the most popular pornographic novels of the 18th century. Real-life prostitutes such as Sally Salisbury, Fanny Murray and Kitty Fisher became the subject of a genre of memoirs now known as Whore Biographies in books such as The Effigies, Parentage, Education, Life, Merry-Pranks and Conversation of the celebrated Mrs Sally Salisbury (1723), Memoirs of the celebrated Miss Fanny M*****(1759) and The uncommon Adventures of Miss Kitty F*****r (1759). Their full names in the titles were tantalizingly omitted, although everyone would have recognized who they were. Gossip around these women and their lovers filled the taverns. Broadsheets and pamphlets recorded their activities. Songs and poems were written about them and cartoons depicted them. Later memoirs often appeared as a series of instalments in magazines or cheap pamphlets, each ending in a cliff- hanger to keep the audience on edge. Those who could afford to might indulge in the full versions bound in calf skin.

"The bricklayer's daughter Sally Salisbury (c.1690-1724) was one of the first prostitutes to feature in biography. Two books on her life appeared in 1723. ... Men flocked to her but, at the height of her fame, she ruined it all when she stabbed with a bread knife one of her lovers, the Hon. John Finch, son of the 2nd Earl of Nottingham. She died of fever in prison but not before Finch had sent word of forgiveness and pleaded with the authorities to let her go. In the memoirs Sally is depicted as generous and witty but foolhardy and hopeless with money. These characteristics were to become standard in the writings about women of the town and featured in their own self-promotion when they wrote about themselves. ...

"Many of the better-known whores found themselves without a man's protection only to discover that biographers had already turned embellished versions of their life stories into hard cash. A flurry of books about courtesans who had made their names through their alliances with famous men appeared in the 1750s and 1760s. These so-called 'memoirs' were in fact written by hard-up male hacks eager to make a living. They tell us more about contemporary ideas of prostitution than about the women themselves. A set pattern emerges in descriptions of the women: they came from poor backgrounds, they had fallen into prostitution having been seduced or raped, their reputation ruined because of a single initial sexual misdemeanour; others clawed their way out of a life of poverty, acting as mistresses to a string of rich men. ...

"Many readers did not care whether the tales were excessive or not - they knew the characters involved and liked to read about their scandalous behaviour. Increasingly the women themselves started to wise up to these idealized memoirs, which presented a male-orientated view of prostitution and frequently fabricated details. Why let unscrupulous hacks and publishers make money out of their stories? However, like the fake 'whore' memoirs, the auto-biographies of real courtesans are also not necessarily true statements of fact, but filled with exaggerations, outrageous adventures and crises. There was a stock of virtues from which they portrayed themselves - they were charitable, kind to the elderly, honest and loving - although they also come across as extravagant and vengeful. Naming and shaming was a sure way to attract the attention these women felt they deserved. Courtesans took the opportunity to slate their erstwhile lovers who had reneged on their promises or who had not provided for them adequately. ...

"One of the ways to safeguard against a dwindling income in later life was for courtesans to secure annuities from their lovers at the height of an affair. These took the form of a certificate drawn up by a solicitor promising an annual sum to be paid by the man to the woman in return for her having given herself to him. In theory these would continue to be paid after the affair had died. Most men subsequently reneged on the deal.

"The whore autobiography reached its apogee in 1825 with the publication of the memoir of the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786-1845). Harriette was renowned in the late 18th century as a wit and thrower of good parties. Part of the demi-monde, she skirted the edges of respectability, taking her lovers from the elite. Walter Scott described her as 'A smart saucy girl ... with the manners of a wild schoolboy'. She displayed herself in theatrical boxes, entertaining young men and dropped titled men as she felt like it. At the top of her profession, she could demand small fortunes for her company, but once she aged, her clientele dwindled into a handful of older and less well-off beaus."

Julia Peakman, "Blaming and Shaming in Whore's Memoirs," History Today, August 2009, pp. 33-39

Thursday, July 30, 2009 7/30/09 - Nitrous Oxide

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 7/29/09 - The Asian Financial Crisis

In today's excerpt - the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which a number of economists view as the direct antecedent to our current financial crisis:

"In the 1990s, Asia was 'hot': observers were smitten with the Asian 'miracle'. Exactly why was puzzling."The Asian economics grew rapidly in the 1990s. Much of this growth was unsustainable. Analysts were impressed by the high savings rates. Political instability and the lack of a social welfare system forced people to squirrel away money (especially in Swiss bank accounts). Analysts focused sagaciously on the growth prospects and high returns for investors. Asian labour costs were low and there were no employment laws. Abundant natural resources were free to be exploited without environmental safeguards. Unexploited domestic markets excited foreign businesses.

"There were, of course, 'problems'. The sudden increase in the rate of growth and demand set off rapid price rises. The office space in Mumbai's Narriman Point business district was among the most expensive in the world, a matter of national pride. Productivity was pitiful. The phones and plumbing did not work. The traffic was horrendous.

"Some experts even claimed to know the rules of the game. ... [One such local 'expert' explained] 'There are distinct phases in investment madness in emerging markets. Phase one is growth. You get a lot of foreign investment. It is mainly relocation of production facilities. Cheap [local] people to do dirty jobs for nothing. You dig up, cut down everything you can. The locals deregulate everything because the World Bank tells them it will attract foreign investment. Government-owned businesses are sold cheaply to the favoured sons and their foreign cronies. Government controls are relaxed as the foreigners tell the locals that it will create jobs and wealth.' ...

" 'In phase two, living standards improve for the fortunate. For the bulk of people nothing changes, of course. A middle class develops chasing McDonald's and Wal-Mart consumer heaven. Property prices and shares go crazy. More and more money comes in. Local banks lend recklessly. Foreign banks lend recklessly to local banks. The foreign banks think the local banks won't fail because of government support. Investors dive in. They talk about 'growth' and 'portfolio diversification'. People are excited. Prices spiral up as the tidal wave of money pours in.

" 'Phase three. Costs rise to levels that make the economies uncompetitive. They are not cheap any more. Alas, the capitalist caravan must move on. Everything is over priced. Politicians talk bravely about the 'need to move up the value chain'. They launch ambitious initiatives - the world's tallest building, the world's longest building, a new port in a country which has no sea access, bridges over rivers between two cities that do not exist, entire new cities! Locals bristle at any criticism. Everybody tries to shake off the opprobrium of being an emerging market nation. Talk of new paradigms becomes popular - 'the Asian century', 'Asian values'.

" 'Prices don't make any rational sense. You only buy because you think you can sell it tomorrow to someone else at a higher price. You are caught in an endless spiral of higher and higher prices. Fear and greed rule financial markets. You are afraid that you might miss out. Your greed is endless. Foreigners develop a peculiar hubris. They are bulletproof. Fundamentals of value are irrelevant in this world. ... Then, of course, kaput. It all collapses'. This was in 1995. In 1997, Asia's run as the hottest new 'new thing' ended abruptly.

"Other seers dispensed more worldly investment wisdom. 'If you arrive at a country and discover limousines waiting to transfer foreign investors and their investment bankers to five star hotels, then generally speaking it is time to sell.' "

Satyajit Das, Traders, Guns and Money, Financial Times/Prentice Hall, Copyright 2006 by Satyajit Das, pp. 3-4

Tuesday, July 28, 2009 7/26/09 - Nations

In today's excerpt - the concept of a nation, in the modern sense of a place which is a primary source of identity for its inhabitants, is a very recent phenomenon:

"Of the many ways in which we can define ourselves, the nation, at least for the last two centuries, has been one of the most enticing. The idea that we are part of a very large family, or, in Benedict Anderson's words, an imagined community, has been as powerful a force as Fascism or Communism. Nationalism brought Germany and Italy into being, destroyed Austria-Hungary, and, more recently, broke apart Yugoslavia. People have suffered and died, and have harmed and killed others, for their 'nation.'

"History provides much of the fuel for nationalism. It creates the collective memories that help to bring the nation into being. The shared celebration of the nation's great achievements - and the shared sorrow at its defeats - sustain and foster it. The further back the history appears to go, the more solid and enduring the nation seems - and the worthier its claims. Ernest Renan, the nineteenth-century French thinker who wrote an early classic on nationalism, dismissed all the other justifications for the existence of nations, such as blood, geography, language or religion. 'A nation', he wrote, 'is a great solidarity created by the sentiment of the sacrifices which have been made and those which one is disposed to make in the future.' As one of his critics preferred to put it, 'A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.' Renan saw the nation as something that depended on the assent of its members. 'The existence of a nation is a plebiscite of every day, as the existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.' For many nationalists, there is no such thing as voluntary assent; you were born into a nation and had no choice about whether or not you belonged, even if history had intervened. When France claimed the Rhineland after World War I, one of the arguments it used was that, even though they spoke German, its inhabitants were really French. Although ill fortune had allowed them to fall under German rule, they had remained French in essence, as their love of wine, their Catholicism, and their joie de vivre so clearly demonstrated.

"Renan was trying to grapple with a new phenomenon because nationalism is a very late development indeed in terms of human history. For many centuries, most Europeans thought of themselves not as British (or English or Scottish or Welsh), French, or German but as members of a particular family, clan, region, religion or guild, Sometimes they defined themselves in terms of their overlords, whether local barons or emperors. When they did define themselves as German or French, it was as much a cultural category as a political one, and they certainly did not assume, as modern national movements almost always do, that nations had a right to rule themselves on a specific piece of territory.

"Those older ways of defining oneself persisted well into the modern age. When commissions from the League of Nations tried to determine borders after World War I in the center of Europe, they repeatedly came upon locals who had no idea whether they were Czechs or Slovaks, Lithuanians or Poles. We are Catholic or Orthodox, came the answers, merchants or farmers, or simply people of this village or that. Danilo Dolci, the Italian sociologist and activist, was astonished to find in the 1950s that there were people living in the interior of Sicily who had never heard of Italy, even though, in theory, they had been Italians for several generations. They were the anomalies, though, left behind as nationalism increasingly became the way in which Europeans defined themselves. Rapid communications, growing literacy, urbanization, and above all the idea that it was right and proper to see oneself as part of a nation, and a nation, moreover, which ought to have its own state on its own territory, all fed into the great wave of nationalism which shook Europe in the nineteenth century and the wider world in the twentieth."

Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History, Profile, Copyright 2008, 2009 by Margaret MacMillan, pp. 81-83.

Monday, July 27, 2009 7/27/09 - Derivatives

In today's excerpt - Robert L. Citron, the elected treasurer of Orange County, California, who succumbed to the aggressive overtures of Wall Street salesmen and bought inappropriately complex derivatives, resulting in the loss of $1.7 billion in 1994 that bankrupted the county and stunned the financial world:

"Robert L. Citron fit the Republican stronghold of Orange County, which travel guides have described as 'the most like the movies, the most like the stories, the most like the dream.' For Citron, the 1980s and 1990s were like a dream. He became one of the nation's best-known municipal treasurers, and his investment strategies produced consistently high yields, approaching 9 percent during the early 1990s. Citron had a reputation as a proud but stubborn man, not unlike John Wayne, for whom Orange County's airport is named, or Richard Nixon, who was born in Orange County.

"Like many of Orange County's 2.6 million residents, Citron lived in the past. He wore oversized turquoise Indian jewelry, garish neckties, polyester suits, pastel slacks, and white-patent leather shoes. He was an avid supporter of the University of Southern California, which he had attended in the 1940s. His car horn played the USC Trojan fight song, and his desk was adorned with a bronzed lump of horse manure from Traveler, USC's mascot. At treasurer's dinners Citron gathered colleagues around the piano to sing 1940s standards. He kept investment records on index cards, ledgers, and even a wall calendar. He ate lunch on the Formica tables of the Santa Ana Elks Club or Western Sizzlin'. His one nod to technology was dividing his lunch tabs to the penny on his wristwatch calculator. Citron refused to visit Wall Street and had been to New York only four times in his life. He was hard working and never took vacations, preferring to spend time with his wife in their modest ranch-style home in Santa Ana.

"The secret to understanding Citron was that, as one former Merrill salesman put it, 'he knows thirty percent of what he thinks he knows.' For example, although Citron appeared to be a faithful USC alumnus, he had failed numerous courses there and never graduated. Citron often demonstrated his ignorance in public. In one television interview he was showing off for a reporter how he used a row of color-coded telephones, each connected to a different broker. While he was saying, 'Now I'm talking to Merrill. ... Now I'm talking to Solly [Salomon Brothers],' he inadvertently bought bonds he didn't want and had to call a broker to reverse the trade. Citron was known for rambling and incomprehensible oral presentations, so much so that the county's board of supervisors eventually forced him to put his thoughts in writing - although that didn't help much. An example from a September 26, 1994, report read, 'We do not have the large inflationary wage increases, runaway building, both in homes, commercial, and those tall glass-office buildings. ... Few, if any, tall office buildings are being built.' Few, if any, Orange County employees understood Citron's concerns about tall buildings. At another point Citron seemed unable to grasp the concept of 'buy low, sell high,' and he flubbed by buying securities at the highest offered price. ...

"On Tuesday, January 17, 1995 [after the loss became known], Robert Citron and [Merrill Lynch derivatives salesman] Michael Stamenson delivered prepared statements in an all-day hearing before the California Senate Special Committee on Local Government Investments, which had subpoenaed them to testify. It was a pitiful display. Citron left his wild clothes at home, testifying in a dull gray suit and bifocals. He apologized and pleaded ignorance. He said, 'In retrospect, I wish I had more education and training in complex government securities.' Stuttering and subdued appearing to be the victim, Citron tried to excuse his whole life: He didn't serve in the military because he had asthma; he didn't graduate from USC because of financial troubles; he was an inexperienced investor who had never even owned a share of stock. It was pathetic."

Frank Partnoy, F.I.A.S.C.O., Norton, Copyright 2009, 1997 by Frank Partnoy, pp. 155-157, 165.

Friday, July 24, 2009 7/24/09 - Mushrooms

In today's excerpt - our ignorance regarding mushrooms:"We don't know the most basic things about mushrooms.

"Part of the problem is simply that fungi are very difficult to observe. What we call a mushroom is only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger and essentially invisible organism that lives most of its life underground. The mushroom is the 'fruiting body' of a subterranean network of microscopic hyphae, improbably long rootlike cells that thread themselves through the soil like neurons. Bunched like cables, the hyphae form webs of (still microscopic) mycelium. Mycologists can't dig up a mushroom like a plant to study its structure because its mycelium is too tiny and delicate to tease from the soil without disintegrating. ... To see the whole organism of which [the mushroom] is merely a component may simply be impossible. Fungi also lack the comprehensible syntax of plants, the orderly and visible chronology of seed and vegetative growth, flower, fruit, and seed again. The fungi surely have a syntax of their own, but we don't know all its rules, especially the ones that govern the creation of a mushroom, which can take three years or thirty, depending. On what? We don't really know. ...

"Fungi, lacking chlorophyll, differ from plants in that they can't manufacture food energy from the sun. Like animals, they feed on organic matter made by plants, or by plant eaters. Most of the fungi we eat obtain their energy by one of two means: saprophytically, by decomposing dead vegetable matter, and mycorrhizally [like chanterelles and morels], by associating with the roots of living plants. Among the saprophytes, many of which can be cultivated by inoculating a suitable mass of dead organic matter (logs, manure, grain) with their spores, are the common white button mushrooms, shiitakes, cremini, Portobellos, and oyster mushrooms. Most of the choicest wild mushrooms are impossible to cultivate, or nearly so, since they need living and often very old trees in order to grow, and can take several decades to fruit. The mycelium can grow more or less indefinitely, in some cases for centuries, without necessarily fruiting. A single fungus recently found in Michigan covers an area of forty acres underground and is thought to be a few centuries old. So inoculating old oaks or pines is no guarantee of harvesting future mushrooms, at least not on a human time scale. Presumably, these fungi live and die on an arboreal time scale.

"Mycorrhizal fungi have coevolved with trees, with whom they've worked out a mutually beneficial relationship in which they trade the products of their very different metabolisms. If the special genius of plants is photosynthesis, the ability of chlorophyll to transform sunlight and water and soil minerals into carbohydrates, the special genius of fungi is the ability to break down organic molecules and minerals into simple molecules and atoms through the action of their powerful enzymes. The hyphae surround or penetrate the plant's roots, providing them with a steady diet of elements in exchange for a drop of simple sugars that the plant synthesizes in its leaves. The network of hyphae vastly extends the effective reach and surface area of a plant's root system, and while trees can survive without their fungal associates, they seldom thrive. It is thought that the fungi may also protect their plant hosts from bacterial and fungal diseases.

"The talent of fungi for decomposing and recycling organic matter is what makes them indispensable, not only to trees but to all life on earth."

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Penguin, Copyright 2006 by Michael Pollan, pp. 374-37

Thursday, July 23, 2009 7/23/09 - Manufactured Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 7/22/09 - Swearing

In today's excerpt - swearing helps relieve pain:

"Bad language could be good for you, a new study shows. For the first time, psychologists have found that swearing may serve an important function in relieving pain.

"The study, published today in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer.

"Although cursing is notoriously decried in the public debate, researchers are now beginning to question the idea that the phenomenon is all bad. 'Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it,' says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, who led the study. And indeed, the findings point to one possible benefit: 'I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear,' he adds.

"How swearing achieves its physical effects is unclear, but the researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives hinge on evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half.

"One such structure is the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain. Indeed, the students' heart rates rose when they swore, a fact the researchers say suggests that the amygdala was activated. ...

"In extreme cases, the hotline to the brain's emotional system can make swearing harmful, as when road rage escalates into physical violence. But when the hammer slips, some well-chosen swearwords might help dull the pain.

"There is a catch, though: The more we swear, the less emotionally potent the words become, Stephens cautions. And without emotion, all that is left of a swearword is the word itself, unlikely to soothe anyone's pain."

Frederik Joelving, "Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief," Scientific American, July 12, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 7/21/09 - Masada

In today's excerpt - the mass suicide of nine hundred and sixty Jews at the Dead Sea fortress of Masada in 72 AD, as reported by the ancient historian Josephus in his classic The Jewish War (circa 75 AD). These Jews chose suicide rather than give themselves up to be slaves to the Romans, who were in the process of decimating the Jews throughout Palestine in the First Jewish-Roman War. As a result, Masada has become a powerful symbol of courage and defiance for Jews, the nation of Israel, and many beyond as well:

"[Eleazer, the leader of the small band of Jews besieged by the Romans inside the fortress of Masada, said to the group], 'My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God who alone is the true and righteous Lord of men: now the time has come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it: we must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case it is evident that daybreak will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honourable death with our loved ones. ...

"Now all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate, let us at once choose death with honour and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness. After all, we were born to die, we and those we brought into the world: this even the luckiest must face. But outrage, slavery, and the sight of our wives led away to shame with our children - these are not evils to which man is subject by the laws of nature: men undergo them through their own cowardice, if they have a chance to forestall them by death and will not take it. ... A man will see his wife violently carried off; he will hear the voice of his child crying 'Father!' when his own hands are fettered. ... So let us deny the enemy their hoped-for pleasure at our expense, and without more ado leave them to be dumbfounded by our death and awed by our courage.'

"Eleazar had many more arguments to urge, but all his listeners cut him short and full of uncontrollable enthusiasm made haste to do the deed. As if possessed they rushed off, everyone anxious to be quicker than the next man, and regarding it as proof positive of manliness and wisdom not to be found among the last: so irresistible a desire had seized them to slaughter their wives, their children, and themselves. ... At the very moment when with streaming eyes they embraced and caressed their wives, and taking their children in their arms pressed upon them the last, lingering kisses, hands other than their own seemed to assist them and they carried out their purpose, the thought of the agonies which they would suffer at the hands of the enemy consoling them for the necessity of killing them. In the end not a man failed to carry out his terrible resolve, but one and all disposed of their entire families, victims of cruel necessity who with their own hands murdered their wives and children and felt it to be the lightest of evils!

"Unable to endure any longer the horror of what they had done, and thinking they would be wronging the dead if they outlived them a moment longer, they quickly made one heap of all they possessed and set it on fire; and when ten of them had been chosen by lot to be the executioners of the rest, every man flung himself down beside his wife and children where they lay, put his arms round them, and exposed his throat to those who must perform the painful office. ... And [later] the one man left till last, ... summoning all his strength drove his sword right through his body and fell dead by the side of his family. Thus these men died supposing that they had left no living soul to fall into the hands of the Romans; but an old woman escaped, along with another who was related to Eleazar, in intelligence and education superior to most women, and five little children."

Josephus, The Jewish War, Penguin, Copyright 1959, 1970 by G.A. Williamson, pp. 398, 403-404

Monday, July 20, 2009 7/20/09 - Chinese Cars

In today's excerpt - Chinese cars:

"In 2004 China shook automakers worldwide with the incredible speed and strictness of the auto fuel efficiency standards it enacted, which are 5 to 10 percent stricter than U.S. standards and among the toughest in the world.

"The task of writing the rules fell to the Ministry of Standards. ... Yin Minhan, director of the Department of Industry and Transportation, ... is the epitome of bright efficiency: Since 2000 he's worked on energy standards for a fast-forward social history of Chinese consumerism: first electric motors, then refrigerators, air conditioners, and now cars.

"Yin's group met with consultants from China as well as the Energy Foundation, a U.S.-funded NGO, and then traveled to Japan, the United States, and Europe to gather opinions on efficiency regimes. They decided to create a scheme that rewarded smaller cars and imposed stricter fuel efficiency standards on larger ones. The standards go into effect in two stages. In the first stage, only one U.S.-made SUV passes. The second stage is harder still. 'We learned our lessons from the U.S.,' says Wang Junwei, one of the five hundred or so people involved in auto standards at the ministry. 'We are going to clamp down on SUVs early!'

"But there was a bigger strategy behind the rules than merely saving fuel and preventing pollution. The ultimate intent of the regulations was to make Chinese-built cars more exportable to high-end markets, such as Europe. Designed to pressure joint ventures like GM and Volkswagen to send their newest technology to China, the standards are part of the slow revolution that could make China the new Detroit.

"When the Chinese bureaucrats in charge of the standards listened to Detroit auto executives denigrate fuel economy standards, they heard an opportunity. The team perceived Detroit's reluctance as a strategic weakness and a clear way for China's industry to become more competitive. 'China doesn't subscribe to the idea that what's good for GM is good for the country,' an American consultant who worked with the government team says with a laugh. ...

"[Outside of Shanghai] sits six square miles named Shanghai International Auto City, recently carved from the rice fields of a town called Jiading. Three years ago Shanghai decided it wanted to build a place for its auto industry to become the largest in the world. Out went Jiading's farmers and little factories. In went Tongji University's College of Automotive Studies, spaces for joint-venture auto assembly plants, parts suppliers, testing facilities, a car museum, a wind tunnel, a golf course, and a $320 million state-of-the-art Formula One track - in the shape of the first character of Shanghai's name, which means, roughly, 'upward.' "

Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Copyright 2007 by Lisa Margonelli, pp. 269-270, 272

Friday, July 17, 2009 7/17/09 - Robin Williams

In today's excerpt - the comedian Robin Williams gets his start:

"Robin Williams was an acting student in the early 1970s at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, where his classmates were Christopher Reeve and William Hurt. As producer George Schlatter recalls, 'He didn't graduate because they asked him to leave after his junior year. They said, 'No, Robin, there's just nothing more we can teach you. So you should go out and work.' ' Williams himself remembers the conversation with the school's founder, the esteemed director and actor John Houseman, a bit differently: 'Mr. Williams, the theater needs you. I'm going off to sell Volvos.' ...

"Robin Williams was born in Chicago in 1952 and was raised in a well-to-do suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan, where his father was a busy senior executive with the Ford Motor Company. Neglected by his family, Williams grew up in a thirty-room mansion, where he had the entire third floor to himself. To entertain himself, he created an array of imaginary playmates. ...

"When Williams turned sixteen, his father took early retirement and moved the family to Marin County, just north of San Francisco. 'It was mellow times,' he recalled. 'That's where I found out about drugs and happiness. I saw the best brains of my time turned to mud.' Williams returned there after leaving Juilliard and soon ventured to Los Angeles, where he did the stand-up rounds. Budd Friedman recalls, 'I put him on every time he'd walk in and people would say, 'Why are you putting him on? He ain't got no act.' Trust me, he's got an act. And Robin became a favorite so quickly.' George Schlatter [observed], 'He came out in overalls, with a straw hat on, barefoot - it was Jonny Winters squared, you know? And he had a pole, and he put it out over the audience, and he says, 'I'm fishing for assholes.' The moment you saw him, you said, 'This is gonna be an important force. Not just a talent, but an important force in show business.' ' Williams made his featured debut [on the short-lived revival of Laugh-In] in late 1977; his first line was 'Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I'm here to talk to you about the very serious problem of schizophrenia - No, he isn't! - SHUT UP, LET HIM SPEAK!' ...

"Over at the soundstages at ABC, there was a hit number one sitcom called Happy Days. Producer Garry Marshall, on a whim suggested by his seven-year-old son, decided to drop an alien from space down on Fonzie and his friends. Finding the right actor would be crucial, and Marshall called on his sister, Ronnie, who was his casting director. Marshall recalled: 'Get me Jonathan Winters, get me John Byner, get me one of those crazy guys - Don Knotts, I'll take.' 'No, we got a guy, Robin Williams,' my sister Ronnie said. 'What he's done, Robin Williams?' 'He stands on a street corner and he does funny things and mimes and he passes the hat. That's his credit.' This is who I'm gonna see over the people I want to see? 'Yes, you gotta see him.' And I said, 'But why?' And I remember my sister said very clearly, 'You should see him - it's an awful full hat.'

"Williams's debut as Mork from Ork whipped the studio audience into pandemonium; in the days of sitcom spin-offs, a vehicle was not far behind. Mork and Mindy was hastily arranged for the following fall. ...

"On the first day of shooting, Marshall had to contend with the fact that his star was out of orbit: He was all set to go, I said, 'All right, Robin, we have three cameramen.' Three cameras for Mork and Mindy, and the average age of the cameramen is seventy-nine, eighty. And so I said, 'Okay, Robin, ready, action.' And he ran around, he did a very funny thing, he ad-libbed a little, he said the lines, he was all over the place, and I yell, 'Cut! Great!' And to Sam, my oldest cameraman, I said, 'Did you get that, Sam?' And Sam said, 'Never came by here.' I said, 'You gotta move the camera, Sam. The man's a genius.' And Sam said, 'If he's such a genius, he could hit that mark right over there and he'll be on camera.' So we hired a fourth camera, just to follow Robin."

Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon , Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, Twelve, Hachette Book Group, Copyright 2008 by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, Kindle Loc. 5003-44

Thursday, July 16, 2009 7/16/09 - Bananas and Foreign Policy

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 7/15/09 - Operation Praying Mantis

In today's excerpt - 1988's little-known Operation Praying Mantis, one of the more influential naval engagements in U.S. history:

"Early on the morning of April 18, 1988, Bosun's Mate Third Class Anthony Rodriguez got up and began to go about his business on the deck of the USS Wainwright, which was sitting in the Persian Gulf, preparing to shoot an Iranian oil platform. ...

"Officially neutral [in the then on-going Iran-Iraq War], the United States 'tilted' toward Iraq, and was escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers (which had been reflagged as American ships) through the Gulf to protect them from attacks. ...

"Four days earlier, an Iranian mine had torn a massive hole in the U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts. This morning's attack, named Operation Praying Mantis, would be retribution against the Iranians for that mine. ...

"At 7:55 A.M, Operation Praying Mantis began. The Wainwright and two smaller ships took positions around an oil platform and announced in Farsi and English that the crew had five minutes to get off. The crew asked for extra time to exit. The U.S. captain gave them about a half hour. At 8:30 the three ships began firing a thousand five-inch bullets at the platform. ...

"[At 9:00] Rodriguez heard someone scream 'video separation,' which meant a missile had been fired [from an Iranian warship] at the Wainwright. The missile heading toward the ship was a U.S.-made Harpoon, which had been sold to Iran when the Shah was in power. ...

"As the day wore on, fights broke out all over the Gulf. As planned, three other U.S. ships attacked another oil platform named Salman. Then small Iranian speedboats shot at a U.S. helicopter, attacked a U.S. supply boat, and peppered an oil platform off the coast of Abu Dhabi with grenades and machine gunfire for four hours. An Iranian frigate fired on three navy jets, which shot it with laser-guided bombs before a U.S. warship sank it with a Harpoon missile. The Wainwright, though, wasn't done. Two Iranian F-4 Phantom jets (also purchased from the United States when the Shah was in power) came in to attack, and the Wainwright shot at them. Then U.S. bombers attacked one of Iran's largest warships. By the end of the day this accidental battle had become, according to naval historian Craig Symonds, one of the most influential naval engagements in U.S. history, right up there with the Battle of Midway. And it was the beginning of a complex, often contradictory U.S. military involvement in the Gulf. ...

"The nine-hour fight ended with two oil platforms burned, wiping out 150,000 barrels of oil production a day, six Iranian ships sunk or damaged, one Iranian plane down, and at least fifteen Iranians dead and twenty-nine wounded. Half of Iran's navy had been destroyed. A helicopter accident killed two Americans. ... Operation Praying Mantis was the beginning of it all, but it remains, in Rodriguez's words, 'one of those mini-epic battles not many people know about.'

"In the years since 1988, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf has grown from nothing, to $50 billion a year for the 1990s, to a full-scale occupation costing more than $132 billion a year in 2005. By one estimate, the hidden costs of defense and import spending are the equivalent of an extra $5 for every gallon of imported gasoline, a cost that doesn't show up at American gas pumps.

"I came across Operation Praying Mantis in a 2003 ruling by the International Court of Justice. The ruling, which didn't get much press in the United States, determined that the U.S.'s destruction of the Iranian platforms was not justifiable as self-defense."

Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Copyright 2007 by Lisa Margonelli, pp. 200-203

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 7/14/09 - The Risk of Being Loved

In today's excerpt - the risk inherent in positive emotions: observations from the psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has long been the chief curator of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running - and probably the most exhaustive - longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years:

"As Freud was displaced by biological psychiatry and cognitive psychology - and the massive data sets and double-blind trials that became the industry standard - Vaillant's work risked obsolescence. But in the late 1990s, a tide called 'positive psychology' came in, and lifted his boat. Driven by a savvy, brilliant psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the movement to create a scientific study of the good life has spread wildly through academia and popular culture (dozens of books, a cover story in Time, attention from Oprah, etc.).

"Vaillant became a kind of godfather to the field, and a champion of its message that psychology can improve ordinary lives, not just treat disease. But in many ways, his role in the movement is as provocateur. Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman's graduate students on the power of positive emotions - awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). 'The happiness books say, 'Try happiness. You'll like it a lot more than misery' - which is perfectly true,' he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they'd cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

"In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they're future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs - protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections - but in the short term actually put us at risk. That's because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

"To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his 'prize' [Harvard] Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. 'On his 70th birthday,' Vaillant said, 'when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, 'Would you write a letter of appreciation?' And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters - often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.' Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. 'George, I don't know what you're going to make of this,' the man said, as he began to cry, 'but I've never read it.' 'It's very hard,' Vaillant said, 'for most of us to tolerate being loved.' "

Joshua Wolf Shenk, "What Makes Us Happy?" The Atlantic, June 2009, pp. 47-48.

Monday, July 13, 2009 7/13/09 - George Lippard

In today's excerpt - George Lippard (1822-1854) was the best-selling author in America in the 1840s. His popularity came from his belief that the common man was the true hero of America - not the generals or the politicians:

"Born of obscure parents in 1822 near Philadelphia, George Lippard in his early twenties flashed across the literary sky like a meteor. A callow, crusading journalist, he took up labor's cause during the latter stages of the severe depression of 1837-1844. Sharpening his skills as a writer for the penny newspaper Spirit of the Times, whose motto was 'Democratic and Fearless,' Lippard turned into a 'literary volcano constantly erupting with hot rage against America's ruling class.' His Quaker City, or, the Monks of Monk Hall became a best seller in 1844. A muckraker before the term was coined, Lippard described Philadelphia as a stomach-turning subversion of American democracy and an insult to the old ideal of the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia's venerated leaders, charged Lippard, displayed a 'callow indifference to the poor' that was 'equaled only by their private venality and licentiousness.' The book made him the most widely read author in the nation. His sales far exceeded those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Washington Irving; in fact, Lippard's books sold more than those of all the authors of the transcendentalist school put together.

"In 1846, Lippard began churning out legends of the American Revolution. ... Mixing hair-raising descriptions of the terrors of war with florid portraits of American battlefield heroism, Lippard presented the Revolution as a poor man's war, one that he hoped would provide inspiration for mid-nineteenth century labor reformers whom he admired and promoted. His stories in Washington and His Generals (1847) and Washington and His Men (1849) gave Washington his due, but it was the common man on the battlefield who was the true hero. ... 'The General who receives all the glory of the battles said to have been fought under his eye, who is worshiped in poetry and history, received in every city which he may enter by hundreds of thousands, who makes the heavens ring with his name; this General then is not the hero. No; the hero is the private soldier, who stands upon the battle field; ... the poor soldier ... whose skull bleaches in the sands, while the general whose glory the volunteer helped to win is warm and comfortable upon his mimic throne.' Lippard cautioned his audience to 'worship the hero ... [andl reverence the heroic; but have a care that you are not swindled by a bastard heroism; be very careful of the sham hero.'

"Lippard gave polite history a bad name; but the public loved him. He became their cultural arbiter and provided their understanding of the American Revolution. ...

"Lippard's stories ... extended his lesson about heroes and heroism. 'You may depend upon it,' he wrote, 'John Smith, the rent payer, is a greater man, a truer hero than Bloodhound the general, or Pumfrog the politician. True,' Lippard continued, 'when John is dead there is only another grave added to the graves of the forgotten poor, while your general and your politician have piles of white marble over their fleshen skulls. But judging a hero by the rule that he who suffers most, endures most, works most, is the true hero ... When you read the praises of Great Statesmen, in the papers, don't be fooled from the truth by these sugar-tits of panegyric. These statesmen are not heroes.' "

Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution, Viking, Copyright 2005 by Gary B. Nash, pp. xxiii-xxvi

Friday, July 10, 2009 7/10/09 - Tennessee Williams

In today's excerpt - the personal notebooks of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), the American playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, The Glass Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo received the Tony Award for best play:

"The notebooks of Tennessee Williams span the years 1936 to 1981, the period from a few weeks before Williams' twenty-fifth birthday to almost two years before his death at age seventy-one in February 1983. The thirty known journals are a collection of unremarkable-looking notebooks, in which Williams recorded his daily thoughts and emotions. Much of his writing is casual, spontaneous, and at times confessional. ... Unlike his letters, where he modulated his tone and style to suit the recipient, the journals reveal Williams' authentic voice - genuine and unadorned.

"Williams: Keeping a journal is a lonely man's habit, it betrays the vices of introspection and social withdrawal, even a kind of Narcissism, ... It has certain things to recommend it, it keeps a recorded continuity between his past and present selves, it gives him the comforting reassurance that shocks, defeats, disappointments are all snowed under by the pages and pages of new experience that still keep flaking down over him as be continues through time, and promises that this comforting snowfall of obliteration will go right on as long as be himself keeps going. ...

Wednesday, 3 December 1941

"Wednesday Night. Very blue. Very down hearted. Thoughts of despair in my feverish head. Very sick last night. Raging fever and pounding heart. The grippe I suppose. Tormented till daybreak. Then felt asleep and woke much improved, fever gone, but weak. Spent the day walking idly about Tampa - wound up at a movie, the usual anesthesia. Visited a bar with plump child-like B-girls & soldiers - called 'The Broken Mirror'. Home & read a detective story account of the bestial treatment of prisoners in Alcatraz - which made me feel even worse. I feel helpless, unprotected. This little moratorium seems to have stretched its limit and I have written no long play nor do I have a reliable idea for one - and my eye looks worse and I am unbearably shy and had no luck at sex for several weeks. I feel wretched & frightened. more than usual. Tomorrow I will pack off to St. Pete and the beach - God be merciful. Truly - En Avant. ...

Spring 1979

"Did I die by my own hand or was I destroyed slowly and brutally by a conspiratorial group? There is probably no clear cut answer. When was there ever such an answer to any question related to the individual human fate? Perhaps I was never meant to exist at all, but if I hadn't, a number of my created beings would have been denied their passionate existence. This season I purchased a home on a lovely residential street in Key West and removed my sister Rose from Stony Lodge and placed her there: perhaps mistakenly, it remains to be seen. But will I remain to see it? Today I must leave for New Orleans for medical examination and possibly for surgery: the chronic disease of my gastro-intestinal system has, for several weeks now, flared up alarmingly and there is no true relief. I suffer no pain. But I am observing my life and the approaching conclusion of my life and I see a long, long stretch of desolation about me, now at the end. Or will I yet survive? In what condition, under what circumstance? ... The best I can say for myself is that I worked like hell."

Margaret Bradham Thornton, Tennessee Williams Notebooks, Yale University Press, Copyright 2006 by the University of the South, pp. v, ix, 267, 739

Thursday, July 09, 2009 7/9/09 - Albert "Lazy Dog" Einstein

In today's encore excerpt - young Albert Einstein:

"In the early 1900s, Einstein was a brilliant young scientist (26 in 1905) working independently of the usual academic community, who was obsessed with the idea of proving that atoms are real. [The existence of atoms was widely conjectured but not yet proven at this time.] ... This search was being carried out in the context of Einstein trying to obtain a Ph.D., which, by the beginning of the twentieth century was already being seen as the scientist's meal ticket, an essential requirement for anyone hoping to pursue a career in university research. Einstein had graduated from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH - the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich in 1900, but although he had done well in his final examinations, his attitude had not endeared him to the professors at the ETH (one of his tutors, Hermann Minkowski, described young Albert as a 'lazy dog' who 'never bothered about mathematics at all'), and he was unable to get a job as one of their assistants, and equally unable to get a decent reference from them for a junior academic post.

"So he had a variety of short-term and part-time jobs before becoming a patent officer in Bern in 1902. He spent a lot of time working on scientific problems (not just in his spare time, but also at his desk when he should have been working on patent applications) and published several papers between 1900 and 1905. But his most important project was to obtain that Ph.D. and reopen the doors to academia. The ETH did not award doctorates itself, but there was an arrangement whereby graduates from the ETH could submit a doctoral thesis to the University of Zurich for approval, and this is the path Einstein took. After an abortive attempt on a piece of work which he decided in the end not to submit, he was ready in 1905 with a paper that would prove entirely satisfactory to the examiners in Zurich, and was the first of two papers in which he established the reality of atoms and molecules beyond reasonable doubt."

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. 392-393

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 7/8/09 - From Polytheism to Monotheism

In today's excerpt - Israel, like many other nations, had gone from polytheism to monolatry - the worship of one god in preference to others - primarily because kings could enhance their perceived power if they were closely identified with the primary god and then all other gods were subordinated. But what then brought about the next decisive and epoch-making step: Israel's transition from monolatry to true monotheism - the disappearance of other gods? Monotheism was the innovation that then became the basis for the three great and interrelated Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - that are embraced by half the world's population today. Some scholars suggest that monotheism was born out of the terrifying, hideous trauma of the Babylonian exile of the Israelites in 586 BCE:

"When King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, they captured him, killed his sons before his eyes, plucked out those eyes, then burned Yahweh's (Jehovah's) temple to the ground. And they completed a process they'd started years earlier, the transfer of Israel's upper classes to Babylon. Now, as of 586 BCE, the Babylonian exile - the most famous trauma in the story of ancient Israel - was in full swing. No doubt the Babylonians, following theological conventions of the day, took all this to signify Yahweh's humiliation at the hands of their national god, Marduk. ...

"The retributive impulse is universally human, almost certainly grounded in the genes of our species. And it is deeply, often hotly, felt. But, however laden with emotion, it has an intrinsic logic, and in terms of this logic Israel's monotheism makes sense. The core of the logic is, as the Bible puts it, an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth; punishment is proportional to the original transgression. And what was the magnitude of the transgression that Israel's exiles had suffered? The Babylonians hadn't just conquered their land and belittled their god. They had removed them from their land and, ostensibly, killed their god. Whereas [previously] Assyria had stripped Jerusalem's temple of its treasures, the Babylonians had destroyed the temple itself. And a god's temple was, in the ancient Middle East, literally the god's home.

"The ultimate transgression calls for the ultimate punishment. An apt response when a people kills your god is to kill theirs - to define it out of existence. And if other nations' gods no longer exist, and if you've already decided that Yahweh is the only god in your nation, then you've just segued from monolatry to monotheism.

"This isn't to say that monotheism followed from retributive logic as rigorously as four follows from two plus two. ... [Yet] there is a sense of humiliation so massive that counterbalancing it would require Yahweh's elevation to unprecedented heights - which meant the demotion of the world's other gods to unprecedented depths, perilously near the subsistence level. Monotheism was, among other things, the ultimate revenge."

Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, Little, Brown, Copyright 2009 by Robert Wright, pp. 165, 177-178

Tuesday, July 07, 2009 6/7/09 - The Oil Curse

In today's excerpt - the curse of abundant oil resources in developing countries. Developing countries without oil grow four times faster than those with oil. Developing countries with oil are far more likely to be militarized and devolve into civil war:

"[With its oil wealth], Venezuela began to import more and more and produce less, a typical symptom of Dutch disease, where resource-rich countries see other parts of their economics wither. (Venezuela actually had Dutch disease before the Dutch, but that term wouldn't be invented until the natural gas boom in the Netherlands in the 1960s torpedoed the country's economy. The condition should be called the Caracas cramp.)

"[After the discovery of oil in Venezuela in 1921], nobody paid taxes. If you're an oil state, it's far more efficient to ask oil buyers for more money than to collect taxes from your population, which requires a vast network of tax collectors, a bureaucracy, laws that are fair, and a justice system to administer them. Collecting oil money, by contrast, requires a small cadre of intellectuals to set policy and diplomats to make it happen. ... The political, economic, and psychological ramifications of this ... are profound.

" 'Systematically the government went after oil money rather than raising taxes,' says economist Francisco Monaldi. 'There is no taxation and therefore no representation here. The state here is extremely autonomous.' Whether it's a dictatorship, a democracy, or something in between, the state's only patron is the oil industry, and all of its attention is focused outward. What's more, the state owes nothing more than promises to the people of Venezuela, because they have so little leverage on the state's income.

"When a state develops the ability to collect taxes, the bureaucracy and mechanisms it creates are expensive. They perpetuate their existence by diligently collecting as much money as possible and encouraging the growth of a private economy to collect taxes from. A strong private economy, so the thinking goes, creates a strong civil society, fostering other centers of power that keep the state in check. Like other intellectuals I talk with in other oil states, Monaldi finds taxes more interesting and more useful than abstract ideas about democracy and ballot boxes. Taxes aren't democracy, but they seem to connect taxpayers and government in a way that has democratizing effects. Studies by Michael L. Ross at UCLA found that taxes alone don't foster accountability, but the relationship of taxes to government services creates a struggle for value between the state and citizens, which is some kind of accountability. ...

"Abdoulaye Djonouma, president of Chad's Chamber of Commerce, says oil brought about economic and agricultural collapse in Nigeria and Gabon. For Chad, which has fewer resources, he fears worse: militarization. He ticks off all the former French colonies that have become militarized. Virtually all. (One study found that oil-exporting countries spend between two and ten times more on their militaries than other developing countries.) ...

"At Stanford, Terry Lynn Karl's analysis of Venezuela's economy during the 1970s and '80s shows that countries whose economy is dominated by oil exports tend to experience shrinking standards of living - something that Chad can hardly afford. Oil has opportunity costs: A study by Jeffrey Sachs and Andres Warner showed that of ninety-seven developing countries, those without oil grew four times as much as those with oil. At UCLA, Michael L. Ross did regression studies showing that governments that export oil tend to become less democratic over time. At Oxford, Paul Collier's regression studies show that oil, and mineral-exporting countries have a 23 percent likelihood of civil war within five years, compared to less than 1 percent for nondependent countries."

Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Copyright 2007 by Lisa Margonelli, pp. 146-147,174-176.

Monday, July 06, 2009 6/6/09 - Daniel Boone's Daughter

In today's excerpt - Daniel Boone rescues his daughter near the tiny and remote settlement of Boonesborough, Kentucky. In 1776, wandering too far from their home, thirteen-year-old Jemima Boone and her friends, fourteen-year-old Fanny Callaway and her sixteen-year-old sister Betsy, were captured by a war party of five Indians. The Indians were hostile because of the settlers' encroachment on their lands and their mercenary efforts in the service of the British. The rescue electrified imaginations throughout America and contributed to Boone's path toward placement in the pantheon of early American heroes:

"Led by Boone, [a group of] settlers pursued. On the second day Boone became concerned that they were not gaining on the Indians because the captors' trail was hard to follow. There was also the risk that if the settlers followed in the Indians' footsteps, the Indians would hear them coming and have time to tomahawk the girls before the settlers could get to them. The tracks told Boone that the Indians intended to cross the Licking River at the Upper Blue Licks. Boone decided not to follow the tracks but to head directly to where he thought the Indians were likely to cross. As Nathan Reid remembered it, 'Paying no further attention to the trail, [Boone] now took a strait course through the woods, with increased speed, followed by the men in perfect silence.' Later in the day the settlers once again came upon the tracks of the Indians, which renewed their confidence in Boone's woodcraft. Mid-morning on the third day Boone and his men came upon a creek. Boone paused, Reid said, 'and remarked that from the course [the Indians] had traveled, he was confident they had crossed the stream a short distance below.' The men went downstream 'and strange to say, we had not gone down more than 200 yards before we struck the trail again. '

"Boone started jogging, and the other men followed. The pace was dauntingly fast, and they had already covered over thirty miles. Some of the men were quite young - Samuel Henderson was thirty, John Floyd around twenty-six, Nathan Reid twenty-three - but Boone, who was setting the pace, was forty-one. There were more frequent signs now - a wounded and dying snake, the carcass of a recently killed buffalo calf, blood still trickling down from its back, where part of its hump had been cut off. Boone was sure the Indians would stop to cook the buffalo meat at the first water they reached. ...

"[Indian leader] Hanging Maw admired Jemima's looks, especially the long black hair that fell nearly to her knees. On that morning he asked Jemima to dress his hair and 'look over his head' - that is, check for lice, as the girls regularly did for each other. Jemima did so. (Many years later Jemima's niece, hearing Rebecca tell the story, said, 'I wouldn't have done it, look at a lousy Indians head, not I.' 'Oh yes, you would,' Jemima told her. 'Every such thing tended to delay their progress, and that was what we studied every art to effect, for we felt sure father and friends would exert every nerve for our rescue.')

"Betsy Callaway sat on a log not far from the fire. After Jemima had finished with Hanging Maw's hair, Jemima and Fanny Callaway knelt near Betsy Callaway, the oldest of the three girls. Betsy began 'opening their hair, lousing their heads, and shedding a torrent of tears.' Jemima heard a sound in the woods, looked up, and saw her father a hundred yards away, 'creeping upon his breast like a snake.' She kept still. Fanny Callaway, who was looking at an Indian standing by the campfire, saw blood spurt from the Indian's chest before she heard the gun that shot him.' 'That's Daddy,' Jemima cried out. ...

"Boone, John Floyd, and the others raised the war whoop and charged the camp. The Indians fled, as Floyd put it, 'almost naked, some without their mockisons, and not one of them with so much as a knife or tomahawk' Betsy Callaway ran toward the rescuers, disheveled, her dress cut short, her dark hair loose. One of the rescuers, thinking she was an Indian, raised his just-fired rifle to club her. Boone yelled out, 'For God's sake, don't kill her when we've traveled so far to save her!' Boone's cry stopped the man just before he brained her.

"The girls' clothes were torn to shreds; their legs were bleeding. Boone covered them with blankets. 'Thank Almighty Providence,' he said, 'for we have the girls safe. Let's all sit down by them now and have a hearty cry.' Jemima remembered that 'there was not a dry eye in the company.' "

Meredith Mason Brown, Frontiersman, LSU Press, Copyright 2008 by LSU Press, pp. 108-110

Friday, July 03, 2009 7/3/09 - Independence Day

In today's encore excerpt - America formally declares its independence from England. The long-standing British occupation had turned into war, and Americans had already fought the British well at Bunker Hill, Dorchester Heights, and Fort Ticonderoga, and in July of 1776, were days away from a demoralizing loss at the Battle of Brooklyn. But America had not yet formally declared its independence:

"In Philadelphia, the same day as the British landing on Staten Island, July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress, in a momentous decision, voted to 'dissolve the connection' with Great Britain. The news reached New York four days later, on July 6th, and at once spontaneous celebrations broke out. ... On Tuesday, July 9th, at six in the evening, on (Washington's) orders, the several brigades in the city were marched onto the Commons and other parade grounds to hear the Declaration read aloud.

"The formal readings concluded, a great mob of cheering, shouting soldiers and townspeople stormed down Broadway to Bowling Green, where, with ropes and bars, they pulled down the gilded lead statue of George III on his colossal horse. In their fury the crowd hacked off the sovereign's head, severed the nose, clipped the laurels that wreathed his head, and mounted what remained of the head on a spike outside the tavern."

David McCullough, 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005, pp. 135-137.

"Congress adopted independence on July 2, 1776. It issued the Declaration on the fourth. ... It was only after it was on parchment and brought back to Congress on August 2 that they formally signed the document. ... Congress didn't actually circulate a copy of the document with signatures until January 1777. Why? Well, this was a confession of treason. You were putting your head in the noose. And the war was going very, very poorly in 1776. Only after Trenton and Princeton made it possible (in December) to believe that Americans might win this war did they circulate the document with their signatures."

Pauline Maier, from Brian Lamb's Booknotes, Penguin, 2001, p. 13

Thursday, July 02, 2009 7/2/09 - Madame Curie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 01, 2009 7/1/09 - yahweh and asherah

In today's excerpt - controversial hints that the Old Testament god Yahweh (Jehovah) had a female companion named Asherah, the Canaanite goddess famed for her wisdom who was also known as Athirat. In the Canaanite religion, or Levantine religion as a whole, El (the name just means "god") was the supreme god, the father of humankind and all creatures, and Asherah's husband. Archeologists have established that there were numerous female idols among the carved idols in households of the region, and some theorize that Asherah was worshipped in ancient Israel as the consort of El and in Judah as the Queen of Heaven and consort of Yahweh. The Hebrews baked small cakes for her festival. Some scholars further theorize that El, the preeminent god in northern Canaan, was eventually merged with Yahweh, the preeminent god of southern Canaan, in a manner very characteristic of the combinations and exchanges of gods that occurred regularly in ancient religious history:

"One oft-claimed difference [by biblical scholars] between the Abrahamic god and other gods in the vicinity is that whereas the pagan gods had sex lives, Yahweh didn't. 'Israel's God,' as [biblical scholar Yehezkel] Kaufmann put it, 'has no sexual qualities or desires.' It's true that there's no biblical ode to Yahweh that compares with the Ugaritic boast that Baal copulated with a heifer '77 times,' even '88 times,' or that El's penis 'extends like the sea.' And it seems puzzling: If Yahweh eventually merged with El, and El had a sex life, why didn't the postmerger Yahweh have one? Why, more specifically, didn't Yahweh inherit El's consort, the goddess Athirat?

"Maybe he did. There are references in the Bible to a goddess named Asherah, and scholars have long believed that Asherah is just the Hebrew version of Athirat. Of course, the biblical writers didn't depict Asherah as God's wife - this isn't the sort of theological theme they generally championed - but rather heap disdain on her, and on the Israelites who worshipped her. However, in the late twentieth century, archaeologists discovered intriguing inscriptions, dating to around 800 BCE, at two different Middle Eastern sites. The inscriptions were blessings in the name not just of Yahweh but of 'his Asherah.' The word 'his' puts an intriguing spin on a passage in 2 Kings reporting that, near the end of the seventh century, Asherah was spending time in Yahweh's temple. A priest who didn't favor polytheism 'brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.' (2 Kings 21: 7, 23: 4-6)"

Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, Little, Brown, Copyright 2009 by Robert Wright, pp. 118-119