Monday, August 31, 2009

In today's excerpt - James K. Polk (1795 - 1849), the eleventh U.S. president, was one of the most aggressively expansionary presidents in U.S. history, and his actions brought vast new areas of land, including Texas, the American southwest, and the American northwest into the possession of the U.S.:

"In the fall of 1843, James K. Polk appeared to be politically dead. Despite seven terms in Congress, two of them as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Polk's attempt to win reelection as governor of Tennessee had failed miserably - not just once but twice. Even the political power of ex-president Andrew Jackson, now an aging sage ensconced at the Hermitage, appeared unlikely to rescue him.

"Yet eighteen months later, this man was inaugurated the eleventh president of the United States. How did this happen? Was James K. Polk really a dark horse who came out of nowhere to win the 1844 Democratic nomination, as conventional wisdom has long suggested, or was he one of the most experienced and astute politicians of his time?

"And what of the country? What forces - Manifest Destiny some called them - were at work not only to annex Texas but also in the span of four years under Polk's leadership to nearly double the American nation with the acquisitions of Oregon, California, and all of the Southwest?

"Unabashedly proclaiming the policy of the United States to be one of continental expansion, Polk welcomed Texas into the union, bluffed the British out of half of Oregon, and went to war with Mexico to grab California and the Southwest. Yet a change of just 5,000 votes in New York would have elected Henry Clay president instead. Clay appeared content to let Texas remain independent and Oregon remain in British hands. How different the map of the United States might look today if that had happened.

"Polk announced his intent to serve only one term even before his election. He immediately became a lame duck, but it allowed him to spend his political capital freely and he did so aggressively expanding the powers of the presidency more than any other president before the Civil War.

"[His story] is also the story of aging Andrew Jackson, would-be president Henry Clay, cagey Martin Van Buren, feisty Thomas Hart Benton, and a young Whig from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who challenged Polk to name the exact spot where American blood had been spilled as his pretense for war with Mexico. It is also the story of bruising presidential campaigns, spoiler third parties, and less than stunning popular - vote triumphs - all suggesting that recent presidential politics is nothing new.

"It has long been popular to paint James K. Polk as a dark horse, but the record does not square with that tradition. If he was indeed one, he chose to ride boldly across a bright land and in doing so opened up the American West to half a century of unbridled expansion."

Walter R. Borneman , Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, Random House, Copyright 2008 by Walter R. Borneman, pp. xiiv-xiv.

Friday, August 28, 2009 8/28/09 - Babysitters

In today's excerpt - for almost one hundred years, American parents have been wary of the teenage babysitter:

" 'A good babysitter is hard come by,' explained a reporter on CBS News during the summer of 2007.' A year earlier, a mother blogged that 'babysitters seem to care nothing about kids and charge $16 an hour to watch TV and text message their boyfriends.' And then, of course, reported Living Safely magazine in the 1990s, there were the 'horror stories: parents arriving home to find their sitter has thrown a party, or gone to one. . . .' Intrinsic to such typical complaints is a longing for the golden age of babysitting when teenage girls were both pleasant and plentiful. Yet the view that babysitters today are hard to take and even harder to find is not new. In a letter to 'Dear Abby' in 1969, one woman described the batch of hungry sitters 'who ate the fridge to the bare walls' and disparaged the one with 'the gall' to raid the 'deep freeze.' What is unknown to these recent observers is that a prior idyllic age of babysitting is more apparent than real: distressed parent-employers have suspected their sitters of doing wrong ever since the beginning of babysitting nearly one hundred years ago. In fact, parent-employers have been complaining about babysitters since the advent of the 'modern' American teenage girl, a debut that coincided with the creation of babysitting, the job that defaulted to white, middle-class, female adolescents by virtue of their sex, race, class, and age.

"Though researchers have dated anxieties about babysitters to the expansion of babysitting after World War II, babysitters had already earned considerable notoriety by then. It was during the 1920s - when babysitting was just in its infancy - that one parenting guide first urged mothers not to hire 'high school girls' who trundled 'babies about to hockey games, basketball practice, and [engaged in] street-corner flirtation.' As the 'babysitter' gained ground during the Great Depression (when the word was originated though rarely used), advisers focused on the unkempt clothing and garish cosmetics of female adolescents suspected of preferring their 'crowd' of friends to the kids in their care, Then, despite attempts to make scandalous V-girls into patriotic babysitters during World War II, Newsweek reported that a veteran and his wife arrived home after an evening out only to find their 'bobby-soxer' babysitter dancing with friends and their toddler teething on marbles. Represented as villains who have caused danger, and as victims who have courted it, in the innumerable stories adults have been telling for almost a century, babysitters have ostensibly damaged property, ruined marriages, and destroyed families.

"Though most often babysitting proceeds without a serious hitch, the problems associated with it have been widely and sometimes wantonly exaggerated. ... The omnipresent babysitter has been notorious for sneaking her boyfriend in the back door, talking on the telephone, sitting glued to the TV, eating her employers out of house and home, and neglecting the children while paying too much attention to the man of the house. This deceptively simple stereotype of the unruly babysitter expresses the anxieties of parents as well as the concerns of the culture about teenage girls. Left to do as they please, girls will recklessly transgress the essential boundaries between private and public, family and community, labor and leisure, childhood and adulthood girlhood and womanhood, love and lust, reality and fantasy, culture and chaos, yours and theirs."

Miriam Forman-Brunell, Babysitter, NYU Press, Copyright 2009 by NYU Press, pp. 1-2

Thursday, August 27, 2009 8/27/09 - Mecca and 500,000 Goats

In today's encore excerpt - the Hajj, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, is the fifth pillar of Islam, a journey to Mecca that must be carried out at least once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. It lasts for five days each year, and is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people, and their submission to Allah. During the past few decades, the number of Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj has grown so massive that the logistics have become daunting and the danger of being crushed or killed has increased markedly - in 2006 there were reputedly some 600 casualties among Hajj pilgrims. (Hajji is the honorific title of one who has completed the Hajj.):

"When King Abdulaziz founded Saudi Arabia early in the twentieth century, a busy Hajj season might see fifty thousand pilgrims visiting the kingdom. The jet age, the oil boom, and the growth of middle-class Muslim populations in Asia and elsewhere meant that by the end of the 1990s, a typical number annually was about 2 million. The pilgrims all arrived at the same time of year and all went to the same places, Medina and Mecca, more or less simultaneously. They arrived, too, in a heightened state of spiritual awareness, if not longing or near-rapture. ...

"Each year, all the pilgrims assembled in tent camps on the plain of Arafat, about nine miles from Mecca city; at a prescribed time, known as the Day of Standing, they stood together in an awesome assembly in the desert, beseeching God. That huge gathering was followed by a mass symbolic stoning of the Devil, carried out by hurling pebbles at certain columns several miles from Arafat. Each pilgrim was also expected to purchase and sacrifice a sheep or other animal, as an offering to God. The logistical and sanitary challenges presented by the occupation of an open desert camp of 2 million people, followed by group rock throwing and animal slaughter, can be readily imagined. Hajj after Hajj, a stampede, fire, collapsing bridge or other mishap would claim hundreds of pilgrim lives. Even in the absence of such calamities, the heat of a summer Hajj on Arafat could be too much for many elderly pilgrims. Then, too, there was traffic: 'The largest traffic jam I have ever seen,' recalled Mark Caudill, an American Pilgrim. ...

"King Fahd ... tried to alleviate this traffic-induced suffering. His approach, however, was typical of transportation development approaches popular in the United States: more roads, more parking lots, more tunnels, and more bridges ... [and the Kingdom] built parking lots at Arafat and elsewhere during the mid-1990s, totaling millions of square feet. Above the Arafat plain, to cool off the faithful during the Day of Standing, they installed an overhead water piping system that spewed out thin jets of water above the pilgrims' heads. They dug new connector roads and flyovers, laid down pedestrian walkways, installed water fountains, and put in 14,200 public toilets. They built a modern slaughterhouse that could accommodate 500,000 goats and sheep, plus another that could handle 10,000 camels and cattle."

Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens, Penguin, Copyright 2008 by Steve Coll, pp. 438, 446-447

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 8/26/09 - Tokyo Sex Trade

In today's excerpt - the tragedy and horror of the global sex trade - in this case, Frank Partnoy's unvarnished comments on investment bankers in Tokyo in the 1990s, and the sex trade that catered to that industry's excesses:


"It didn't take me long to discover that the social life of American investment bankers in Tokyo is just as bizarre as the derivatives transactions they sell. At night one square block in an area called Roppongi is constantly filled with American expatriates. No one seems to go anywhere else. In a city filled with twenty million people, the few hundred American bankers stick together.

"Occasionally the locals take an American out for a good time at one of the notoriously expensive hostess bars, but a couple of nights in Roppongi was enough for me. I was working long hours, trying to learn about the Japanese deals everyone was pitching. By the time I returned to the Imperial Hotel, I was ready for sleep.

"Americans in Tokyo expend enormous energy exploiting the bizarre sexual culture, which is cleanly bifurcated between really soft core and really hard core. Just having sex with a prostitute is of no interest to anyone and costs only about three dollars. But getting a hostess to serve you a beer and talk to you costs about three hundred dollars. And whipping a teenage girl with a sharply studded leather belt costs about thirty thousand dollars.

"I met people who had done all three. Only the native Japanese salesmen could visit the bargain-basement prostitutes, although they did it often enough for everyone. The Japanese are deathly afraid of AIDS, and they exclude non-Japanese from the local 'soap lands,' where a good 'soaping' was quite reasonably priced. The more expensive hostess bars were available to Americans. The hostesses at these bars typically were non-Japanese and did not offer soaping. One salesman said he had tired of spending his entire salary on hostesses and saved a fortune by paying two of them to quit their jobs and simply follow him around the one square block in Roppongi.

"The most surprising side of Tokyo was the whip-and-chain dark side. Hard-core Japanese brothels made New York's Eighth Avenue look like Candyland. One Tokyo salesman told me about a Korean client who visited Tokyo just so he could go to an underground club where he would beat up a teenage Japanese girl. The cost, millions of yen for about twenty minutes, was more than made up for in transaction fees.

"I obviously wasn't in Kansas anymore, and I stayed close to my hotel room."

Frank Partnoy, FIASCO, Norton, Copyright 2009, 1997 by Frank Partnoy, pp. 240-241

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 8/25/09 - Hunting and the Buck

In today's excerpt - early American hunters depleted the deer and other game so quickly that hunting lost its commercial importance within just a few decades - but not before the term "buck" entered the American lexicon as a synonym for dollar:

"Game was abundant on the upper Yadkin [in North Carolina]. There were countless wild turkey in the bushes and beaver, otter, and muskrat in the streams and ponds. Bear were common, too. According to one local story, Bear Creek, near the Yadkin forks, took its name when Boone killed ninety-nine bear on the creek in a single season. Deer were even more numerous. Daniel Boone and another hunter reportedly killed thirty deer in a single day near the head of the Yadkin. Deerskin was a major part of the local economy and had been for years. In 1753 over thirty thousand deerskins were exported from North Carolina. As early as 1700, an average of fifty-four thousand deerskins were being exported each year to England from southern Carolina. There was so much trade in deerskin that a 'buck' - a dressed skin weighing about two and a half pounds, worth about forty cents a pound-became the synonym for a dollar in the American colonies. ...

"To hunt successfully and to survive in Indian country, you had to know where and when to find the game, how to prepare it, how to get it to market, how to tell whether Indians were nearby, and how to avoid them. Boone hunted many kinds of game, among them deer, bear, buffalo, beaver, otters, panther, and turkey. For Boone, and for white and Indian hunters overall, deer were the most important. There was nothing paltry about peltry commerce in Boone's day. In 1767, for example, the commissary at Fort Pitt, at the site of what is now Pittsburgh, recorded receipt of 282,629 deerskins - 178,613 'Fall Skins' and 104,016 'Summer Skins.' That volume was comparable to the volume of deerskins passing through Charleston and New Orleans. White and Indian hunters at that time must have been killing far more than a million deer a year in the watershed of the Mississippi River. Deerskins were important not only for sale in the colonies but also for export. In 1770 the British continental colonies in North America shipped out deerskins weighing 799,807 pounds and worth 57,750 pounds sterling. That aggregate value was not large relative to America's dominant exports at the time, such as tobacco (906,638 pounds sterling), bread and flour (505,553 pounds sterling), dried fish (375,394 pounds sterling), and rice (340,693 pounds sterling), but deerskins accounted for close to 2 percent of all American exports. ...

"The long hunter's life in Boone's Kentucky was inherently transient. There was an inexorable dynamic to market hunting and the fur trade - one that pushed the hunters ever farther westward and that ultimately destroyed hunting as a significant factor in the American economy. The simple fact was that Boone and the other market hunters killed far more game animals each year than were born in the wild, and fewer and fewer of these animals would be born each year as the number of adults shrank and as encroaching settlements destroyed the animals' habitat. The yield from hunting was not sustainable."

Meredith Mason Brown, Frontiersman, LSU Press, Copyright 2008 by LSU Press, pp. 10, 31, and 35

Monday, August 24, 2009 8/24/09 - Dopamine

In today's excerpt - dopamine, pleasure, and too much pleasure:

"The importance of dopamine was discovered by accident. In 1954, James Olds and Peter Milner, two neuroscientists at McGill University, decided to implant an electrode deep into the center of a rat's brain. The precise placement of the electrode was largely happenstance; at the time, the geography of the mind remained a mystery. But Olds and Milner got lucky. They inserted the needle right next to the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a part of the brain that generates pleasurable feelings. Whenever you eat a piece of chocolate cake, or listen to a favorite pop song, or watch your favorite team win the World Series, it is your NAcc that helps you feel so happy.

"But Olds and Milner quickly discovered that too much pleasure can be fatal. They placed the electrodes in several rodents' brains and then ran a small current into each wire, making the NAccs continually excited. The scientists noticed that the rodents lost interest in everything. They stopped eating and drinking. All courtship behavior ceased. The rats would just huddle in the corners of their cages, transfixed by their bliss. Within days, all of the animals had perished. They died of thirst.

"It took several decades of painstaking research, but neuroscientists eventually discovered that the rats had been suffering from an excess of dopamine. The stimulation of the NAcc triggered a massive release of the neurotransmitter, which overwhelmed the rodents with ecstasy. In humans, addictive drugs work the same way: a crack addict who has just gotten a fix is no different than a rat in an electrical rapture. The brains of both creatures have been blinded by pleasure. This, then, became the dopaminergic cliche; it was the chemical explanation for sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

"But happiness isn't the only feeling that dopamine produces. Scientists now know that this neurotransmitter helps to regulate all of our emotions, from the first stirrings of love to the most visceral forms of disgust. It is the common neural currency of the mind, the molecule that helps us decide among alternatives. By looking at how dopamine works inside the brain, we can see why feelings are capable of providing deep insights. While Plato disparaged emotions as irrational and untrustworthy - the wild horses of the soul - they actually reflect an enormous amount of invisible analysis."

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Copyright 2009 by Jonah Lehrer, Kindle Loc. 463-538

Friday, August 21, 2009 8/21/09 - More Opium, and the First Opium War

In today's excerpt - the Chinese attempted to stop the British from smuggling opium into China, but the British used armed force to reestablish their opium trading rights in the first Opium War, which ended with China's humiliation in the Treaty of Nanking, and the establishment of Hong Kong as a major trading center:

"[In the early 1800s], the Chinese authorities had begun to jail large numbers of local opium smugglers, and brought trade [with Britain] to a standstill. In March 1839, Canton commissioner Lin Tse-hsu increased the pressure by making foreign merchants criminally liable for any illicit shipments. Shortly thereafter, Lin ordered the public beheading of Chinese opium dealers under the eyes of horrified Europeans and then held all the resident foreigners - English, American, Parsi, and French - hostage in their factories for several weeks until they agreed to turn over more than twenty thousand chests of opium. Only after Lin's forces had destroyed the huge haul were the foreigners released. ...

"Several months later, in August 1839, following the murder of a local villager by a drunk English seamen, Lin cut off food and water to the British naval forces and demanded that the sailor be handed over for trial. [British Superintendent of Trade Charles] Elliot refused and instead submitted the defendant to a British jury of merchants, who meted out a fine and a six-month sentence, to be served in England. (When the sailor arrived in England, he was set free on the grounds that the jury, which included James Matheson, had been improperly constituted.) At about noon on September 4, missionary Karl Gutzlaff, under orders from Elliot, presented letters to the commanders of two Chinese junks off Kowloon and informed them that if supplies were not forthcoming within thirty minutes, their ships would be sunk. No food or water arrived, and HMS Volage fired on the vessels."In retaliation, Lin ordered that all trade with Britain be forever banned and that English ships would be fired on.

"Meanwhile, [wealthy British trader] William Jardine and other veterans of Lin's blockade of the Canton factories made their way back to England. On arrival, they asked the cabinet of the Whig prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to demand an apology from the Chinese and negotiate a more 'equitable' treaty that would open several other ports to the West. ...

"Jardine and his allies further recommended that their demands be backed up with naval force. All that remained was a means to finance the war. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the war minister, supplied it: have the Chinese pay reparations. Melbourne dispatched a force consisting of a dozen men-of-war and several thousand marines that arrived in China in June 1840.

"The first Opium War had started. It would not end until 1842 and the infamous Treaty of Nanking, which awarded Britain monetary recompense, eliminated the [Chinese traders'] monopoly, set Chinese export and import tariffs at a low rate, and opened Canton and four other treaty ports (Shanghai, Amoy, Foochow, and the island of Ningbo). In these ports, Britons had the privilege of extraterritoriality (immunity from Chinese law) and were governed by British consuls. No mention was made of opium, whose continued importation was tacitly understood by both sides. To this day, the humiliation of the Treaty of Nanking burns in China's national consciousness. That not one American in a hundred has heard of it does not augur well for Sino-American relations in the twenty-first century.

"The English sought, in addition, a permanent colony. ... Elliot, a former naval officer, coveted Hong Kong's superb harbor, and on his own initiative had its transfer written into the treaty. Even before the treaty was signed, [influential British trader James] Matheson moved his partnership's headquarters to Hong Kong, beginning the island's and the firm's dual ascent to prosperity."

William J. Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, Atlantic Monthly Press, Copyright 2008 by William J. Bernstein, Kindle Loc. 3729-70

Thursday, August 20, 2009 8/20/09 - Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull

In today's encore excerpt - master showman Buffalo Bill Cody takes opportunism to new heights by hiring Sitting Bull - the very man who had defeated General George Custer at Little Bighorn - to draw crowds to his highly successful Wild West Show:

"When fabled bison hunter William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody first staged his Wild West show in 1883, he needed more than heroic cowboys, villainous Indians, teeming horses and roaming buffalo to transform it from a circus into a sensation. He needed star power. And there was one man who guaranteed to provide it: the Sioux chief widely blamed for the uprising that overwhelmed George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn only a decade earlier. 'I am going to try hard to get old Sitting Bull,' Cody said. 'If we can manage to get him our ever lasting fortune is made.'

"It took two years, but Cody finally got his man. In June 1885, Sitting Bull joined the Wild West show for a signing bonus of $125 and $50 a week - 20 times more than Indians who served as policemen on reservations earned. Buffalo Bill reckoned his new star would prove to be an irresistible draw. With the Indian wars drawing to a close, and most Plains Indians confined to reservations, Buffalo Bill set the stage for a final conquest of the frontier. Since accompanying an army patrol as a scout shortly after the Battle of Little Bighorn and scalping the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair, he was known as the man who took 'the first scalp for Custer.' As the man who now controlled Sitting Bull, he symbolically declared victory in the war for the West and signaled a new era of cooperation with the enemy. Cody excluded the chief from acts in which other Indians made sham attacks on settlers and then got their comeuppance from heroic cowboys. All Sitting Bull had to do was don a war costume, ride a horse into the arena and brave an audience that sometimes jeered and hissed.

"Sitting Bull's mere presence reinforced the reassuring message underlying Cody's Wild West extravaganza, as well as the Western films and novels it inspired, that Americans are generous conquerors who attack only when provoked. At the same time, Cody's vision of the West spoke to the fiercely competitive spirit of an American nation born in blood and defined by conflict on the frontier, where what mattered most was not whether you were right or wrong but whether you prevailed. The lesson of his Wild West was that sharpshooting American cowboys like Buffalo Bill could be as wild as the Indians they fought and match them blow for blow. The real frontier might be vanishing, but by preserving this wild domain imaginatively and reenacting the struggle for supremacy there, he gave millions of Americans the feeling they were up to any challenge."

Stephen G. Hyslop, "How the West Was Spun," American History, October 2008, pp. 26-27

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 8/19/09 - Opium

In today's excerpt - opium, and the British business of trading opium for Chinese tea. The British were buying so much tea from China, that they had a balance-of-payments crisis. The solution was ingenious - grow opium in India and smuggle it into China for sale:

"For several thousand years, humans have dried the juice of the common poppy, Papaver somniferum, into opium. As with many modern crops, the poppy is a cultivar, that is, a cultivated variety that does not grow easily in the wild, which suggests that agricultural societies take their drugs as seriously as their food.

"Humans probably first extracted opium for consumption in southern Europe, and the Greeks and Romans used it extensively. Arab traders transplanted the poppy to the more hospitable soils and climates of Persia and India, and then to China, where its use is recorded as early as the eighth century after Christ.

"For almost all of recorded history, no particular opprobrium was attached to consuming opium as a painkiller, relaxant, work aid, and social lubricant. The Dutch in Indonesia were the first to smoke opium, in the early 1600s, when they began adding a few grains to a recent New World import, tobacco. The Chinese probably acquired the practice from the Dutch base in Formosa, whence the opium pipe rapidly spread to the mainland. As early as 1512, [the Portugeuse apothecary] Tome Pires observed opium commerce in Malacca (south of Singapore), centuries before the British and Dutch became involved in the trade. This indicates that the drug was a high-volume item in Indian Ocean emporium commerce well before the English came to dominate it.

"Nineteenth-century Europeans swallowed enormous amounts of opium, whereas the Chinese smoked theirs. Since inhaled opium is more addictive than opium taken orally, it was considered much more dangerous in China than in the nations of the West. In England, horticultural organizations awarded prizes for particularly potent domestically grown poppies (although most opium used in Britain came from Turkey), and opium was consumed guiltlessly by both high and low, most famously by Samuel Taylor Coleridge ('Kubla Khan'), Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an Opium Eater), and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The drug could be purchased freely in England until the Pharmacy Act of 1868, other Western nations did not restrict its use until around 1900. ...

"At the end of the eighteenth century ... [Britain's East India Company(EIC)] sold its high-end branded opium to private traders, who shipped it to China's mountainous Pearl River estuary island of Lintin, where they based themselves on easily defended floating hulks just off its shore. Local smugglers brought the contraband upriver and slipped it past Canton's customs inspectors. The smugglers paid Chinese silver to the English private traders, who then exchanged it at EIC offices for silver bills drawable by them on Company accounts in Calcutta and London. The EIC, in turn, used the silver obtained from the private traders to pay for tea.

"The popular image of an entire Chinese population and its economy ravaged by opium is a misconception. In the first place, the drug was quite expensive and largely the province of the mandarin and merchant elite classes. Second, like alcohol, it was catastrophically addictive in only a small proportion of its users. Even the infamous opium dens did not live up to their seedy reputation. ...

"Academic research [bears out that] opium was largely a social drug that harmed only a tiny percentage of users. One modern scholar estimates that although as many as half of men and one-fourth of women were occasional users, and in 1879 only about one Chinese person in a hundred inhaled enough opium to even be at risk of addiction. ...

"The Chinese emperor and the mandarins did express some moral outrage over the debilitation caused by opium, but they were far more concerned about the drug's damage to their balance of trade. China subscribed to European-style mercantilism as faithfully as any seventeenth-century Western monarchy. Before 1800, the tea trade was, at least in the terms of the mercantilist ideology of the day, grossly favorable to the Chinese. The EIC's records pinpoint 1806 as the year when the silver flow reversed. After that date, the value of opium imports exceeded that of tea exports, and Chinese silver began flowing out of the Celestial Kingdom for the first time. After 1818, silver constituted fully one-fifth of the value of Chinese export goods."

William J. Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, Atlantic Monthly Press, Copyright 2008 by William J. Bernstein, Kindle Loc. 3616-47

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 8/18/09 - Washington Square Park

In today's excerpt - Washington Square Park, internationally known symbol of Greenwich Village and New York City - a park that was almost destroyed by city planner Robert Moses - was first a graveyard, a gallows, and a dueling ground:

"After the British took over in 1664, and renamed the city in honor of the Duke of York, the center of commerce remained in lower Manhattan, but English military officers built large homes to the north, in the countryside that reminded them of Greenwich, England. ... The spot that became Washington Square Park remained undeveloped, but it wasn't a park from the beginning. It was a graveyard.

"At the end of the eighteenth century, the city was in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic, and officials needed a place to bury the poor people dying monthly by the dozens. ... It is believed that some twenty thousand bodies remain under the park, and bones and skeleton-filled underground chambers have periodically turned up during construction and utility excavations.

"The area was also used as a public gallows - leading the big English elm at the northwestern corner to be called the 'hanging elm,' though no records exist of an execution from its limbs - and a dueling ground. Philip Hone, a wealthy military hero from the War of 1812 who became mayor of New York in 1826 ... launched a campaign for a military parade ground at the site, winning approval in time for a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the square was officially renamed in honor of George Washington. ...

"From 1830 to the turn of the century, the neighborhood around the park was the most desirable in New York. ... It was the Vanderbilts and Astors whose lavish parties and costume balls prompted Mark Twain to call the materialistic post-Civil War era the 'Gilded Age.' All the while, a community of the arts and letters grew up around the square. ..."The park got its signature arch at the end of the nineteenth century [when] city officials were planning the centennial of George Washington's presidency. ... It was instantly a postcard image of New York and Greenwich Village. ...

"Its central location also made it a popular spot for agitated New Yorkers of all kinds to hold protests, vigils, and demonstrations. In 1834, stonecutters unhappy with New York University's decision to use prison labor for the marble fixtures for its campus buildings fanned out around the park smashing windows and marble mantels. Fifteen years later it was the Astor Place Opera House riot, pitting English against Irish. Then came the draft riots of 1863, when predominantly Irish laborers roamed the streets around the park, cutting telegraph lines and beating and killing black men. Suffragettes and veterans of the Spanish-American War marched through. ...

"At the turn of the twentieth century, Greenwich Village became a magnet for rebellious artists, painters, writers, and social commentators. Walt Whitman and the newspaper pioneer Horace Greeley were in the vanguard, hanging out at the nearby beer hall Pfaff's. ... The Village continued its spirit of rebellion through the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition and was, naturally, the site of several infamous speakeasies. ... In the 1950s, the beat writer Jack Kerouac, the poet Allen Ginsberg, the jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and folksingers like David Sear all came to inhabit the cafes and clubs and studios and apartments of [the neighborhood].

"As an urban historian, [preservation activist] Jane Jacobs appreciated the extraordinary evolution from cemetery, gallows, and dueling ground to a setting for Victorian promenades and classic Beaux Arts monumentality, to an outdoor rendezvous for Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, and on into the age of Aquarius. Hoop dresses to black jeans: that was the power of a place that was unplanned and organic. It was everything that was proper and respectable and aristocratic about New York City life - and at the same time it represented rebellion against the establishment, authority, and order."

Anthony Flint, Wrestling with Moses, Random House, Copyright 2009 by Anthony Flint, pp. 67-71

Monday, August 17, 2009 8/17/09 - Pre-Columbus America

In today's excerpt - the raging controversy over the population of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Estimates have ranged from a low of a few million to over 100 million, which would have made the Americas among the most densely populated areas on earth at the time. The differences relate primarily to widely divergent beliefs regarding Native American deaths from smallpox and other disease epidemics brought by Europeans, with significant evidence that these mortality rates were extremely high:

"From a few incidents in which before and after totals are known with relative certainty, anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns calculated that in the first 130 years of contact [dating from the arrival of Columbus] about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died [from smallpox and other diseases]. ...

"Historians had long wondered how many Indians lived in the Americas before contact. 'Debated since Columbus attempted a partial census at Hispaniola in 1496,' Denevan, the Beni geographer, has written, 'it remains one of the great inquiries of history.' ... Alfred L. Kroeber, the renowned Berkeley anthropologist [estimated the population at] 900,000 - a population density of less than one person for every six square miles. Just 8.4 million Indians, Kroeber suggested, had lived in the entire hemisphere.

"Recognizing that his continent-wide estimate did not account for regional variation, Kroeber encouraged future scholars to seek out and analyze 'sharply localized documentary evidence.' As he knew, some of his Berkeley colleagues were already making those analyses. ... In a series of publications that stretched to the 1970s, physiologist Sherburne E. Cook and Woodrow W. Borah, a Berkeley historian, combed through colonial financial, census, and land records. Their results made Kroeber uneasy. When Columbus landed, Cook and Borah concluded, the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants. ...

"Based on their work and his own, Dobyns argued that the Indian population in 1491 was between 90 and 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that when Columbus sailed more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.

"According to a 1999 estimate from the United Nations, the earth's population in the beginning of the sixteenth century was about 500 million. If Dobyns was right, disease claimed the lives of 80 to 100 million Indians by the first third of the seventeenth century. All these numbers are at best rough approximations, but their implications are clear: the epidemics killed about one out of every five people on earth. According to W George Lovell, a geographer at Queen's University in Ontario, it was 'the greatest destruction of lives in human history.'

"Dobyns published his conclusions in the journal Current Anthropology in 1966. They spawned rebuttals, conferences, even entire books. ... Most researchers thought Dobyns's estimates too high but few critics were as vehement as David Henige, of the University of Wisconsin, whose book, Numbers from Nowhere, published in 1998, is a landmark in the literature of demographic vilification. ...

"When Henige wrote Numbers from Nowhere, the fight about pre-Columbian population had already consumed forests' worth of trees - his bibliography is ninety pages long. Four decades after Dobyns's article appeared, his colleagues 'are still struggling to get out of the crater that [his] paper left in anthropology,' according to James Wilson, author of Their Earth Shall Weep, a history of North America's indigenous peoples after conquest. The dispute shows no sign of abating."

Charles C. Mann, 1491, Vintage, Copyright 2005, 2006 by Charles C. Mann, pp. 103-106.

Friday, August 14, 2009 8/14/09 - Detroit and Motown

In today's excerpt - Detroit and Motown:

"Motown would become the first successful black-owned record company and eventually the nation's largest black-owned enterprise of any sort.

"Without Detroit, there could have been no Motown. The company was an outgrowth of the car industry, specifically of the black immigration spurred by the industry's swift rise and seemingly endless demand for labor. Industrial migration swelled the black population of most northern cities, but none more quickly than Detroit. Between 1910 and 1930, the number of African Americans nearly tripled in Philadelphia and New York, and quintupled in Chicago. But in Detroit it went up by more than twenty times, from just under 6,000 to over 120,000.

"The main draw was Henry Ford's factory, which, in 1914, put out the word that it was paying assembly-line workers five dollars a day. In response, blacks moved from the South to Detroit at the rate of 1,000 per month; by 1922, the figure rose to 3,500 per month. If' Ford's lines were full, a strong worker could find a job at some other factory. By 1925, there were three thousand major manufacturing plants in Detroit; thirty-seven of them were building cars. At the start of World War II, Detroit became the arsenal of America's military machine, and the demand for workers soared further. A half million more migrated to Detroit in the war's first two years.

"There was little assimilation of the black families that poured into Detroit in the early waves of this migration; most of them were crammed into dilapidated tenements on the city's south side. During the even larger influx brought on by World War II, things got ugly. Most of these new migrants were black, as before, but there were also many Polish immigrants and white Appalachians, all competing for the same jobs. A quarter of the city's 185 war plants refused to hire blacks. Many car factories, even after all these years, would not mix black and white workers on the same assembly line. In 1943, the NAACP and the United Auto Workers staged an 'equal opportunity' rally, with over ten thousand black men attending. When, as a result, three black workers were promoted to skilled slots at a Packard plant, twenty-six thousand white workers walked out.

"That summer, race riots erupted. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to send in six thousand federal troops to quell the violence, which left thirty-four people dead (twenty-five of them black), hundreds injured, and $2 million worth of property damage. The city planners responded with the Detroit Plan, which demolished hundreds of buildings and displaced thousands of black families, inspiring the observation that 'urban renewal' was a euphemism for 'Negro removal.'

"Amid this de facto segregation, the African Americans in Detroit created their own culture and institutions - and, because of the decent-paying jobs at Ford and other factories, they had enough money to sustain the effort."

Fred Kaplan, 1959, Wiley, Copyright 2009 by Fred Kaplan, pp. 213-215

Thursday, August 13, 2009 8/13/09 - Castro and Batista

In today's encore excerpt - Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) was the dashing Cuban dictator who protected the monied elite and ignored the needs of the poor - and took bribes and graft totaling a reported $300 million. Fidel Castro (b. 1926) was the revolutionary who toppled Batista. Given that, it is ironic to note that Batista grew up in stark poverty and Castro came from prosperity and privilege:

"Fulgencio Batista grew up in the shadow of the United Fruit Company. ... The [company town of Banes] was divided into several neighborhoods based on the social status of the residents. North American employees - identified in the company literature as 'first-class Anglo-Saxon employees' - were provided free housing and maid services. There was a less prestigious neighborhood for lower-ranking Cuban managers and technicians, and an even worse neighborhood for workers. It was here that Batista was born of mixed-race (mestizo) parents and raised around the corner from a street called simply Callejon del Negro (the Black Man's Street).

"Batista's father worked for the United Fruit Company cutting sugarcane. It was backbreaking work. ... Batista's father was not employed directly by United Fruit but rather by a contractor hired by the company to organize and pay the work crews. The contractors were often free to exploit the workers by cheating them out of wages. ... By the age of eight, young Fulgencio was forced to abandon his primary-school education and join his father as a cane cutter. ...

"Batista was a beautiful creation. In one of his early forms of employment as a railroad brakeman for the United Fruit Company railway line, he earned the nickname 'El Mulato Lindo' - the pretty mulatto - from his fellow employees. ... Although he took pains to present to the public a masculine image, his looks suggested a Cuban Adonis, with a type of [androgynous] handsomeness that was the envy of both men and women. ...

"Castro cut a dashing figure, tall and strapping, with curly black hair and a traditional, finely manicured Cuban mustache. He had been an exemplary student athlete and had a self-confidence that was attractive to women. He came from a prosperous family (the father owned land in Oriente Province) and married a young woman from a politically connected family. He borrowed money from his father so that he and his wife could honeymoon in New York City. They stayed at least one night at the Waldorf-Astoria....

"[In 1948], although not yet famous across the island, Fidel was well-known at the University of Havana. Since the uprising against the presidency of Gerardo Machado in the early 1930s, the university had been a major source of political agitation and organized dissent. Castro had proved himself a dynamic orator and a future leader to be reckoned with, but he was also, according to some, overly enamored with the trappings of gangsterismo."

T.J. English, Havana Nocturne, Morrow, Copyright 2007, 2008 by T.J. English, pp. 59-61, 69-70

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 8/12/09 - The Inca

In today's excerpt - the Inka (Inca) empire, a now lost empire that was located in the Andean region on the west coast of South America, and Inkan royal mummies:

"In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great's expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude - as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo. ...

"The Inka empire, the greatest state ever seen in the Andes, was also the shortest lived. It began in the fifteenth century and lasted barely a hundred years before being smashed by Spain. ...

"The Inka sovereign had the title of 'Inka"- he was the Inka - but he could also include 'Inka' in his name. In addition, Inka elites changed their names as they went through their lives. Each Inka was thus known by several names, any of which might include 'Inka.' ...

"People in Andean societies viewed themselves as belonging to family lineages. (Europeans did, too, but lineages were more important in the Andes; the pop-cultural comparison might be The Lord of the Rings, in which characters introduce themselves as 'X, son of Y' or 'A, of B's line.') Royal lineages, called panaqa, were special. Each new emperor was born in one panaqa but created a new one when he took the fringe. To the new panaqa belonged the Inka and his wives and children, along with his retainers and advisers. When the Inka died his panaqa mummified his body. Because the Inka was believed to be an immortal deity, his mummy was treated, logically enough, as if it were still living. Soon after arriving in Qosqo (the Empire's capital), Pizarro's companion Miguel de Estete saw a parade of defunct emperors. (Pizarro was the Spaniard who conquered the Inkans). They were brought out on litters, 'seated on their thrones and surrounded by pages and women with flywhisks in their hands, who ministered to them with as much respect as if they had been alive.'

"Because the royal mummies were not considered dead, their successors obviously could not inherit their wealth. Each Inka's panaqa retained all of his possessions forever, including his palaces, residences, and shrines; all of his remaining clothes, eating utensils, fingernail parings, and hair clippings; and the tribute from the land he had conquered. In consequence, as Pedro Pizarro realized, 'the greater part of the people, treasure, expenses, and vices were under the control of the dead.' The mummies spoke through female mediums who represented the panaqa's surviving courtiers or their descendants. With almost a dozen immortal emperors jostling for position, high-level Inka society was characterized by ramose political intrigue of a scale that would have delighted the Medici. Emblematically, (new emperor) Wayna Qhapaq could not construct his own villa in [his country] - his undead ancestors had used up all the available space. Inka society had a serious mummy problem."

Charles C. Mann, 1491, Vintage, Copyright 2005, 2006 by Charles C. Mann, pp. 71, 75, 98-99

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 8/11/09 - Farmers

In today's excerpt - with the productivity gains of the Industrial Revolution, the percent of the population required to feed the world dropped from up to 80% to 2%, and thus allowed the world to move from villages to cities:

"Most Malthusian (pre-Industrial Revolution) economies had 70 or even 80 percent of the population employed in agriculture. By 1861 that share had dropped to 21 percent in England. But that switch to industry, as we shall see, was due to the idiosyncrasies of England's geography and demography. There is, in fact, nothing inherently industrial about the Industrial Revolution. Since 1800 the productivity of agriculture has increased by as much as that of the rest of the economy, and without these gains in agriculture modern growth would have been impossible. We have to resign ourselves to the fact that one of the defining events in human history has been mislabeled. ...

"Material well-being has marched upward in successful economies since the Industrial Revolution to levels no one in 1800 could have imagined. After six hundred years of stasis, income has increased nearly tenfold since 1800. ...

"As income marched upward the share of farm products in consumption treaded downward, and the share of farmers among producers declined in step. In preindustrial economies farmers made up 50 - 80 percent of the population. Today, if we had a free market in food, 2 percent of the population could feed everyone. The farm population share in the United States, for example, is 2.1 percent. Half of these people are kept in farming by government subsidies that futilely try to stem the inexorable exodus from the land and from rural communities. A mountain of European Union subsidies keeps 3.3 percent of the French in their beloved campagne. The less sentimental British, with a more efficient agriculture, employ only 1.2 percent of the population in farming. The Industrial Revolution looks peculiarly industrial largely because of the switch of population and production out of agriculture and into industry thanks to higher incomes.

"The switch of labor out of agriculture has profoundly affected social life. In Malthusian societies most of the population lived in small rural settlements of a few hundred souls. They had to be close to the daily grind of their work in the fields, since they walked to work. In the southeast of England, for example, villages in the eighteenth century were on average only two miles apart. Typically they had fewer than a hundred residents. The countryside was densely settled because of all the labor required in inefficient preindustrial agriculture: plowing, reaping, threshing, hauling manure, tending animals.

"With an ever-dwindling proportion of the population tied to the land through agriculture, modern populations are footloose. People can locate anywhere, but they have concentrated increasingly in urban centers because of the richer labor market and the social amenities they offer. "

Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Copyright 2007 by Princeton University Press, Kindle Loc. 3439-8

Monday, August 10, 2009 8/10/09 - Chips and Missiles

In today's excerpt - the microchip was invented and then first manufactured in 1959, but it required the high demand of the missile and space programs to make it economical enough to usher in the era of mass computing:

"The microchip was invented not by a vast team of physicists but by one man working alone, a self- described tinkerer - not even a physicist, but an engineer - named John St. Clair (Jack) Kilby. ...

"In 1947, he got a job at the Centralab division of Globe Union in Milwaukee, working on miniaturizing circuits. That year, William Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Laboratories, revolutionizing the world of electronics.

"Before transistors, electrical devices were powered by vacuum tubes, which were big, heavy, fragile, and very hot. By contrast, transistors were compact and light; they had no moving parts, they ran cool, and the switching and amplifying were handled by a semiconductor, not a glass bulb. ... By Christmas 1954, the first transistor radio, small enough to fit in a pocket, hit the market at a retail price of $49.95 and quickly became the biggest-selling consumer product the country had ever seen. ...

"[But progress beyond things like the transistor radio was difficult.] The problem was this. If you wanted a computer or some other electronic device to perform more complex operations more quickly, you would need an extra set of components - transistors, resistors, capacitors, diodes, rectifiers, and the wires to connect them all into a circuit - for each increment in speed, memory, or storage space. The futuristic miracle machines of science fiction would require so many extra components - and so much wiring, all connected precisely by hand - that, as a practical matter, they could not be built. ... The barrier was called 'the tyranny of numbers.'

"Miniaturization became every electronics firm's mantra. ... Still, miniaturization alone wouldn't topple the tyranny of numbers. In some ways, because smaller components were more difficult to wire, it only intensified the problem. To break through the barrier would require a whole new approach. But what was it?

"In May 1958, Kilby moved from Milwaukee to Dallas to take a job with Texas Instruments, which had just opened a new building devoted to semiconductor research. In July, most employees took their two-week summer vacation, but Kilby hadn't been with the company long enough to earn the time off. So he stayed at the new lab and thought about the problem, all alone.

"Texas Instruments had made a big investment in silicon, so he focused on that as his basic material. Typically, silicon would be purified for the manufacture of transistors. But if it were treated with certain impurities, it could be used as a conductor. Treated and molded in another way, it could serve as a resistor. It could be the material for any component in a circuit - not the ideal material, but good enough.

"This was Kilby's initial insight, ... but this realization sparked a much larger conceptual breakthrough, the basis for a solution to the fundamental problem, the tyranny of numbers: If all the parts of a circuit could be made from the same material, maybe they could all be manufactured on a single monolithic slab. If you wanted more complexity, you wouldn't need more components or more wiring and soldering to connect them.

"On July 24, Kilby drew a rough sketch of the idea in his lab notebook and wrote, 'The following circuit elements could be made on a single slice: resistors, capacitor, distributed capacitor, transistor.' Thus was born the integrated circuit. ...

"There was no guarantee that the integrated circuits would get off the ground. ... In the beginning, they were very expensive. To make a dent in the marketplace, they'd have to be much cheaper; but to be cheaper, they would have to have made a big dent in the marketplace - there would have to be high demand, so that they could be produced in mass quantity. That wouldn't happen until the beginning of the sixties, when President John Kennedy ordered production of the Minuteman II missile - which required tiny, reliable circuits for its guidance system - and, especially, when he set the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Missiles and space created the large demand. In 1961, a single chip cost $32. By 1971, thanks to the economies of large-scale production, the cost would plunge to $1.25. (By 2000, after the consumer market had vastly expanded, the price of a much more powerful chip would be less than a nickel.)

"As with many of the breakthroughs converging on the eve of the sixties, the space race and the arms race - the twin prospects of infinite expansion and instant annihilation - spurred America and the world into a lightning-flash new era."

Fred Kaplan, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Wiley, Copyright 2009 by Fred Kaplan, pp. 76-81

Friday, August 07, 2009 8/7/09 - The First Rule of Holes

In today's - the American Revolution, population trends, and holes. In the 1770s, Great Britain's population was roughly nine million people, and the combined population of the thirteen American colonies was almost three million and growing, diminishing the likelihood that Britain could keep the Americans subjugated in colonies. The population gap between Britain and America was closely rapidly - America was experiencing far higher rates of inmigration, and at seven children per family, American birthrates significantly exceeded Britain's, leading Ben Franklin to say after one battle that "Britain ... has killed 150 Yankees this campaign. ... During the same time 60,000 children have been born in America":

"Are there lessons for America in its own revolution that can be applied to Iraq and Afghanistan? In a Dissent symposium on exit strategies, historian Stanley Weintraub, author of Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783 (2005), says he has found a few.

"In the 1760s, Britain, fresh from defeating the French in North America, saw 'only profit and prestige ahead' in its colonies. First, though, it was deemed necessary to rebuild the British economy, which had been pinched by fighting a seven-year war 3,000 miles from home. To Parliament, it made perfect sense to tax those who had benefited most from the war. But the colonists saw things differently, objecting to their lack of representation in Parliament, among many other grievances. British observers, such as Samuel Johnson, grumbled that the colonists were no less politically excluded than inhabitants of some of the teeming districts of London. Americans, he said, were 'a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.'

"Johnson's contempt was matched by that of many royal supremacists. In the 1770s, few of them recognized that 'the sprawling overseas colonies, more than 1,800 miles north to south, would become more populous than the mother country and would be impossible to subdue.' Yet as early as 1775, when hostilities broke out, Benjamin Franklin was able to do the math. 'Britain, at the expence of three millions, has killed 150 Yankees this campaign, which is [£]20,000 a head. ... During the same time 60,000 children have been born in America.' It was easy enough to 'calculate the time and expense necessary to kill us all, and conquer our whole territory.' The Yankee war effort didn't have to be brilliant, just protracted.

"King George III helped matters by dispatching a series of disastrous commanders, 'ambitious careerists, with promotions, titles, and parliamentary gratuities dancing in their heads.' As these commanders of noble birth fumbled in the colonies, a London newspaper jeeringly remarked on the contrast with the rebel generals: 'a boat builder, a servant, a milkman, a jockey, a clerk.'"In 1776, London dispatched an armada to take New York City and Long Island that would not be surpassed in numbers until D-Day. But the British never managed to wipe out the rebels, while attrition gradually sapped the redcoats' ranks and spirit. Parliament took to hiring Hessians and other mercenaries. By February 1781, almost six years after the first shot was fired, a member of the House of Commons moved to end 'this mad war,' but the measure failed by a single vote. The game finally ended at Yorktown in October, with French intervention tipping the balance: 'Third forces are often crucial,' Weintraub notes.

"The real failing of the British, he writes, is that they 'had no exit strategy other than victory.' Only after defeat did King George III recognize 'the first rule of holes: When you realize you're in one, stop digging.' A lesson learned, but seldom followed. Weintraub adds, 'Future governments would pour vast resources into subjugating, yet failing to assimilate ... the subcontinent of India' as well as large parts of Africa, 'all at staggering cost to the home islands. It was always foolhardy to be tempted to stay, and always too late to get out.' "

Stanley Weintraub, "The First Rule of Holes," The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2009, pp. 79-80, Source: "The American Colonies" by Stanley Weintraub, in Dissent, Winter 2009

Thursday, August 06, 2009 8/6/09 - Be Simple and Slow in Speech

In today's encore excerpt--Confucius (551 - 479 BC), a Chinese thinker and social philosopher whose influence extends to the present, attempts to define goodness. In the Analects, his definition of goodness starts with the "golden rule," but he takes his concept further, famously stating that to be good, one must be "resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech." [Note: Most current historians do not believe that any specific documents can be said to have been written by Confucius]:

"The Master said, 'To be resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech, is to approach true goodness.' (Analect 13.27 [17]). Commentator Wang Su said, 'Gang [resolute] is to be without desire; yi [firm] is to be determined and daring; mu is to be simple; na is to be slow in speech. To be possessed of these four qualities is to approach true goodness.' ...

" 'Simple and slow in speech' becomes almost a refrain in the teachings of Confucius. For instance, in 12.3, he says, 'The person of true goodness is restrained in speech.' Throughout the text he repeatedly cautions his followers not to mistake eloquence for substance, as in 1.3: 'The Master said - artful words and a pleasing countenance have little, indeed, to do with true goodness.' ...

"Commentator Zhu Xi wants to understand why this is so. The answer for him is partly that restraint in speech indicates a general self-restraint, which, in turn, indicates that one's original mind and heart, with its endowed true goodness, has been preserved and not won over by selfish desires. ... For Zhu, words that are not simple but, rather, are 'artful' are evidence of 'adorning oneself on the outside in an effort to please others, a matter of human desire having grown dissolute.' "

Daniel K. Gardner, Zhu Xi's Reading of the Analects, Columbia, Copyright 2003 by Columbia University Press, pp. 75-76

Wednesday, August 05, 2009 8/5/09 - Texting

In today's excerpt - texting, and the effect of texting on contemporary writing:

"By 1848, the new electric telegraph was already being hailed as a modern marvel that would revolutionize commerce, journalism, and warfare. In that year, a prominent New York attorney and editor named Conrad Swackhamer wrote an article predicting that it would transform the language as well. After all, he noted, the telegraph required above all else that its users be brief and direct. As people got used to sending and receiving telegrams and reading the telegraphed dispatches in the newspapers, they would inevitably cast off the verbosity and complexity of the prevalent English style. The 'telegraphic style,' as Swackhamer called it, would be 'terse, condensed, expressive, sparing of expletives, and utterly ignorant of synonyms' and would propel the English language toward a new standard of perfection.

"That was the first time anybody used the word telegraphic to describe a style of writing, with the implication that a new communications technology would naturally leave its mark on the language itself. It's an idea that has resurfaced with the appearance of every writing tool from the typewriter to the word processor. And now there's a resurgence of Swackhamerism as the keypad is passed to a new generation, and commentators ponder the deeper linguistic significance of the codes and shortcuts that have evolved around instant messaging and cell-phone texting. The topic got a lot of media play last month with the release of a study on teens and writing technology sponsored by the College Board and the Pew Research Center. According to the report, more than half of teens say they've sometimes used texting shortcuts in their school writing. The story was a natural for journalists. It combined three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: 'the language is going to hell in a handbasket'; 'you'll never get me onto one of those newfangled things'; and 'kids today, I'm here to tell you ...'

"It wasn't hard to find critics who warned of apocalyptic consequences for the language. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said that IM and texting were bringing about 'the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence.' ...

"I've got a little prediction to make myself a generation from now all this stuff is going to sound awfully silly. Did people really imagine that rules of written English sentence structure that go back to the Renaissance would suddenly crumble because teenagers took to texting each other over their cell phones instead of passing notes under their desks in class?

"In fact, apart from contributing some slang and jargon, new writing technologies rarely have much of an effect on the language. They can give rise to specialized codes, but those tend to flow alongside the broad channel of standard English without ever mixing with it. As Conrad Swackhamer predicted, the Victorians developed a breathlessly compressed style for sending telegrams, like the message Henry James had one of his characters cable in Portrait of a Lady: 'Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.' But that telegraphic style didn't leave any traces on Victorian prose - when you think of James's own writing, terse and condensed are not the words that come to mind. The linguistic features of the new media are sure to follow the same pattern. ...

"What happens in email stays in email. Kids catch on to this quickly. They may sometimes let texting shortcuts slip into their schoolwork, but they know there are different rules for formal writing, and that you ignore them at your peril."

Geoffrey Nunberg, The Years of Talking Dangerously, Public Affairs, Copyright 2009 by Geoffrey Nunberg, pp. 150-152

Tuesday, August 04, 2009 8/4/09 - Risk

In today's excerpt - investors, both those that were supposed to be sophisticated and those that weren't, entered into complex derivative transactions. The investment banks that sold these derivatives were careful to make sure these investors received and signed legal disclosures evidencing they had read and understood the risks associated with them. Yet when these investments went sour, some investors brought lawsuits against these investment banks claiming that they didn't understand the risks and that the investment banks should have known that the derivatives were not appropriate for them. In the case below, the investment bank had sold a derivative to an Indonesian noodle maker that now stood to fail because of a loss of tens of millions of dollars on the investment:

"Did the investor understand [the risk]? Most of the money managers should have; as professionals they were paid to know things, after all. The thing was that they wanted the forbidden fruit. The widows and orphans were different; Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Omaha, Nebraska - did they know all this? They generally salivated at the high interest rates offered. Had the Indonesians understood what the dealers had structured for them?

"We always got the client to sign all sorts of papers saying that they were sane, doing this of their own free will and had been given a 'product disclosure statement' (PDS) outlining the risks of the investment. The clients generally never read the statements. [A colleague of mine], in one of his diligent moments, had taken it upon himself to vet my carefully crafted description of one of our products for a PDS. 'What is this shit?!' He thundered. 'If I read this crap I wouldn't know what I was buying.' I took this as the highest compliment. A small army of lawyers had vetted the PDS and had passed it as legally correct. In some countries, regulators had also reviewed it and passed it fit for investor consumption, but it was unreadable gibberish. The detail was in the drivel.

"Our tax lawyer, a 50-something woman from the most expensive law firm in town, was my role model. On her wall was a framed excerpt from a judgment in a case concerning a clause that she had drafted. The judge had commented that he had found the clause to be of 'stupefying legal density beyond human comprehension'. She was pleased with her efforts. I had a long way to go."

Satyajit Das, Traders, Guns, and Money, Financial Times/Prentice Hall, Copyright 2006 by Satyajit Das, p. 48

Monday, August 03, 2009 8/3/09 - Take Five

In today's excerpt - Western musicians almost never vary from conventional "beats" or time signatures, especially the well-worn 4/4 (four beats to a measure, a quarter note gets a beat) and 3/4 (the so-called waltz time). A Cold War era trip by high-profile jazz musicians to foreign countries brought about a famous, though brief, departure from this convention:

"[In 1955, Congressmen Adam Clayton] Powell proposed a plan for boosting the nation's image around the world. ... Let them see and hear our jazz bands. Not only would jazz tours refute the Soviet line that America lacked a native culture; they would also soften the image of American racism, as many jazz bands featured black and white musicians playing together. ...

"The State Department approved Powell's idea. Powell convinced his good friend Dizzy Gillespie to make the first goodwill tour, leading an eighteen-piece big band. ... Musicians like Gillespie, [Louis] Armstrong, [Benny] Goodman, [Duke] Ellington, and [Dave] Brubeck were superstars, and their tours became sensations. ... It was never clear whether the Jazz Ambassadors - whose tours continued through the early seventies - affected world opinion of American foreign policy; probably not. But in many countries, they did have a substantial impact on the broader image of America, its vitality and its culture.

"The influence worked both ways. On their tours, the jazzmen didn't just play; they also listened to local musicians. And just as they brought a taste of America to the rest of the world, they also brought a taste of the world back home. Dave Brubeck and his quartet were sent on an exhaustive tour in 1958, encompassing East Germany, Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Iran, and Iraq - a 'circle of Russia,' as Brubeck's wife, Iola, would later call it.

"Walking around Istanbul one morning, Brubeck heard a group of street musicians playing an exotic rhythm, fast and syncopated. It was in 9/8 time - nine eighth notes per measure - a very unusual meter in Western music, and the players phrased the notes in a still more jarring way: not 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, as might be expected, but 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3.

"Later that day, Brubeck had an interview scheduled at a local radio station. Like many broadcasters at the time, the station had its own symphony orchestra. When Brubeck arrived, the musicians were taking a break from a rehearsal. He told some of them about the rhythm that he'd heard on the streets and asked if anyone knew what it was. He hummed the tune, and several of the musicians started playing it, adding flourishes and counterpoint, even improvising on it. It was a traditional Turkish folk song, widely known - at least in Turkey. ...

"All during the 1958 tour, Brubeck heard odd meters and raga rhythms from local musicians, and when his quartet played with them, they were all astonished that his drummer, Joe Morello, could match these rhythms precisely.

"When Brubeck got back to the United States, he was inspired to make an album that would break out of the standard 4/4 time that marked almost all jazz tunes, no matter how adventurous they might otherwise be. And he especially wanted to write something based on that 9/8 folk tune he'd heard in Istanbul.

"Brubeck was one of the most famous jazz musicians in the country ... [and] could do pretty much whatever he wanted. ... Brubeck and the quartet flew to New York and - over three sessions, on June 25, July 1, and August 18 - made the album that he'd wanted to make. It was called Time Out, and it would become, after Kind of Blue, one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever. After they realized that they had a hit on their hands, Columbia Records executives also released a 45-rpm single - consisting of two songs from the album - and it sold a million more copies. On one side of the single was 'Take Five,' a Paul Desmond composition in 5/4 time (five quarter notes per measure instead of the usual four). On the other side was 'Blue Rondo à la Turk,' based on the staccato 9/8 rhythm of the Istanbul street song.

"The record's huge success signaled that American audiences, on the eve of the sixties, were ready, even yearning, for at least a taste of the exotic."

Fred Kaplan, 1959, Wiley, Copyright 2009 by Fred Kaplan, pp. 127-132