Monday, November 30, 2009 11/30/09 - germany and mexico

In today's excerpt - in 1917, the American public was
resistant to entering World War I, and Woodrow
Wilson had just been re-elected on the promise to
keep America out of that war, when Germany made a
colossal diplomatic blunder that drew America

"As 1917 began, the war was not going well for Britain.
There seemed to be no end to the slaughter on the
Western Front yet there were no obvious signs of
Germany being defeated. Food shortages threatened
and the Asquith government had fallen. Worse,
Germany was about to start unrestricted U-boat
warfare in the Atlantic from February 1st with, it was
feared, a substantially larger U-boat fleet. Much
depended on whether America could be brought into
the war.

"Unrestricted U-boat warfare meant that every enemy
and neutral ship found near the war zone would be
sunk without warning. The Germans envisaged U-
boats sinking 600,000 tons a month, forcing Britain to
capitulate before the next harvest. Admiral von
Holtzendorff told the Kaiser: 'I guarantee that the
U-boat will lead to victory ... I guarantee on my word as
a naval officer that no American will set foot on the

"Enter Arthur Zimmermann, the new German Foreign
Minister, a blunt speaker who considered himself an
expert on American affairs. He developed a plan to
keep America out of Europe once U-boats started
sinking American ships. He proposed to establish a
German-Mexican alliance, promising the Mexicans
that if America entered the war, and following a
German victory, Mexico would have restored to her the
territories of Texas, New Mexico and
Arizona. ...

"On January 16th,
1917, [Zimmermann] sent a coded cable via the
American cable
channel to his ambassador in Washington, Count
Bernstorff. It contained his overture to Mexico
proposing a military alliance against America.
Bernstorff was instructed to pass on the message to
his counterpart Ambassador Eckhardt in Mexico
City. ...

"The full text of the Zimmermann telegram

"Most Secret: For Your Excellency's personal
information and to be handed on to the Imperial
(German) Minister in Mexico.

"We intend to begin un-restricted submarine warfare
on the first of February. We shall endeavour in spite of
this to keep the United States neutral. In the event of
this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of an
alliance on the following basis: Make war together,
make peace together, generous financial support, and
an understanding on our part that Mexico is to
reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and
Arizona. The settlement detail is left to you.

"You will inform the President [of Mexico] of the above
most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the
United States is certain and add the suggestion that
he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to
immediate adherence and at the same time mediate
between Japan and ourselves.

"Please call the President's attention to the fact that
the unrestricted employment of our submarines now
offers the prospect of compelling England to make
peace within a few months. Acknowledge receipt.
Zimmermann. ...

"The telegram
[intercepted and decoded by the British
and] was passed to Washington with the explanation
that the British copy had been 'bought in Mexico'.
The contents of the telegram were passed on to the
Associated Press on February 28th. It sparked
eight-column headlines next morning. It caused a
sensation in America but at the same time aroused
suspicion among Washington politicians about
whether the telegram was authentic. Some even
sniffed a cunning British scheme to propel America
into war.

"Confirmation came from an unexpected source. To
Lansing's 'profound amazement and relief',
Zimmermann himself admitted his authorship.
Overnight the mid-Western isolationist press dropped
its pacifist posture. The Chicago Daily Tribune said
the United States could no longer expect to keep out
of 'active participation in the present conflict.'

"On April 6th 1917, America went to war with Germany,
as Wilson told a joint session of Congress: 'The world
must be made safe for democracy.' "

David Nicholas, "Lucky Break," History Today,
September 2007, pp. 56-57.

Friday, November 27, 2009 11/27/09 - lincoln ejects a visitor

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 11/25/09 - washington's blunders

In today's excerpt - early in the American
Revolution, General George Washington's
blunders and misjudgments led to terrible
battlefield losses in New York and in the
Brandywine river valley, and put his job in
jeopardy to General Horatio Gates, whose
stirring victory at Saratoga had been crucial
to American prospects:

"Washington's string of blunders [in New
York] was certain to lead to recriminations,
perhaps even to calls for his removal.
Already aware of the displeasure
among some in Congress, he discovered on the
last day of November that
even some in the army had lost confidence in
him. On that day, a letter
from General Charles Lee arrived for Joseph
Reed, Washington's former secretary,
now the army's adjutant general. As Reed was
away from headquarters on
a mission, Washington, who was desperate for
information, tore open
Lee's letter. What he read was lacerating.
Washington's 'fatal indecision,'
Lee had said in his customarily caustic
manner, would doom the American

"From things that Lee said, it was also clear
that Reed, heretofore
Washington's closest confidant in the army,
shared Lee's views. (Reed,
with pitiless honesty, had told Lee that
Washington's 'indecisive Mind'
had been among the army's 'greatest
Misfortunes,' and he added that had
it not been for Lee, Washington's army would
never have escaped Manhattan.) One of the few
men with the backbone to criticize Washington
to his face, Lee had already told the
commander that he was foolish to act
on the advice of his generals, most of whom
were 'Men of inferior judgment.' Though
Washington was unaware of it, Lee had also
urged General Horatio Gates to hurry to
Washington's side to 'save your army,' as
'a certain great Man is most damnably
deficient.' ...

"[The next year after his loss at the Battle
of the Brandywine], Washington was besieged
with rumors that a
'Strong Faction' within Congress wished to
remove him and name Gates
as the new commander of the Continental army.
Washington did not
know precisely what was occurring behind the
curtain in Congress, but he
probably knew that some congressmen believed
- as Pennsylvania's Dr.
Benjamin Push, a signer of the Declaration of
Independence, put it - that
the army 'under General Gates [was] a well
regulated family,' while
'Washington's [was but an] imitation of an
Army' that bore the look of
'an unformed mob.' Some proclaimed that Gates
had 'executed with vigor
and bravery,' attaining 'the pinnacle of
military glory.' Washington's command,
according to the whispers, was characterized
by such 'negligence'
that it was hardly surprising he had been
'outwitted,' 'outgeneraled and
twice beated [sic].' It was unsettling enough
to have congressmen complain about his
leadership, but atop that Washington soon
learned that some
of his officers had lost confidence in

"Washington did not know the full extent of
the disaffection with his
leadership. But he knew enough to become
convinced that he was in the
maw of a great crisis."

John Ferling, The Ascent of George
Washington, Bloomsbury Press, Copyright
2009 by John Ferling, pp. 119, 139.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 11/24/09 - more innovation

In today's excerpt - small firms have an
advantage over larger firms in innovation,
and venture capital plays a
disproportionately large role economic

"Initially, economists generally overlooked
the creative power of new
firms: they suspected that the bulk of
innovations would stem from
large industrialized concerns. For instance,
Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), one
of the pioneers of the serious study of
entrepreneurship, posited that
large firms had an inherent advantage in
innovation relative to smaller
enterprises. ...

"In today's world, Schumpeter's hypothesis of
large-firm superiority
does not accord with casual observation. In
numerous industries, such
as medical devices, communication
technologies, semiconductors,
and software, leadership is in the hands of
relatively young firms whose
growth was largely financed by venture
capitalists and public equity
markets. ...

study by Zoltan Acs and David Audretsch
examined which firms developed some of the
most important innovations of the twentieth
century. They documented the central
contribution of new and small
firms: these firms contributed almost half
the innovations they examined. ...

"What explains the apparent advantage of
smaller firms? Much of it
stems from the difficulty of large firms in
fomenting innovation. For
instance, one of Schumpeter's more perceptive
contemporaries, John
Jewkes, presciently argued:

" 'It is erroneous to suppose that those
techniques of large-scale operation and
administration which have produced such
remarkable results in some branches of
industrial manufacture can be
applied with equal success to efforts to
foster new ideas. The two
kinds of organization are subject to quite
different laws. In the one
case the aim is to achieve smooth, routine,
and faultless repetition, in the other to
break through the bonds of routine and of
accepted ideas. So that large research
organizations can perhaps
more easily become self-stultifying than any
other type of large
organization, since in a measure they are
trying to organize what
is least organizable.'

"But this observation still begs a question:
what explains the difficulties of larger
firms in creating true innovations? In
particular, there are at least three reasons
why entrepreneurial ventures are more innovative:

"The first has to do with incentives.
Normally, firms provide incentives to their
employees in many roles, from salespeople to
Yet large firms are notorious for offering
employees little more than
a gold watch for major discoveries. ...
Whatever the reason, there is a striking
contrast between the very limited incentives
at large corporate labs
and the stock-option-heavy compensation
packages at start-ups.

"Second, large firms may simply become
ineffective at innovating.
A whole series of authors have argued that
incumbent firms frequently have blind spots,
which stem from their single-minded
focus on existing customers. As a result, new
entrants can identify
and exploit market opportunities that the
established leaders don't

"Finally, new firms may choose riskier
projects. Economic theorists suggest that new
firms are likely to pursue high-risk strategies,
while established firms rationally choose
more traditional approaches. Hence, while
small firms may fail more frequently,
they are also likely to introduce more
innovative products. ...

"On average a dollar of venture capital
appears to be three to four times more potent
in stimulating patenting than a dollar
of traditional corporate R&D."

Josh Lerner, Boulevard of Broken
Dreams, Princeton, Copyright 2009 by
Princeton University Press, pp. 45-49, 62.

Monday, November 23, 2009 11/23/09 - the pilgrims and columbus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009 11/20/09 - innovation

In today's excerpt - historically, 85% of the increase in
per capita GDP (gross domestic product or wealth) in
the U.S. economy has come from innovation - the
invention of new products and services or the
invention of better ways to make existing products and
services. It follows that any durable and sustainable
program to create jobs in an economy would focus
foremost on innovation:

"Since the 1950s, economists have understood that
innovation is critical to economic growth. Our lives are
more comfortable and longer than those of our great-
grandparents on many dimensions. To cite just three
improvements: antibiotics cure once-fatal infections,
long-distance communications cost far less, and the
burden of household chores is greatly reduced. At the
heart of these changes has been the progress of
technology and business.

"Economists have documented the strong connection
between technological progress and economic
prosperity, both across nations and over time. This
insight grew out of studies done by the pioneering
student of technological change, Morris Abramowitz.
He realized that there are ultimately only two ways of
increasing the output of the economy: (1) increasing
the number of inputs that go into the productive
process (e.g., by having workers stay employed until
the age of sixty-seven, instead of retiring at sixty-two),
or (2) developing new ways to get more output from
the same inputs. Abramowitz measured the growth in
the output of the American economy between 1870
and 1950 - the amount of material goods and services
produced - and then computed the increase in inputs
(especially labor and financial capital) over the same
time period. To be sure, this was an imprecise
exercise: he needed to make assumptions about the
growth in the economic impact of these input
measures. After undertaking this analysis, he
discovered that growth of inputs between 1870 and
1950 could account only for about 15 percent of the
actual growth in the output of the economy. The
remaining 85 percent could not be explained through
the growth of inputs. Instead, the increased economic
activity stemmed from innovations in getting more stuff
from the same inputs.

"Other economists in the late 1950s and 1960s
undertook similar exercises. These studies differed in
methodologies, economic sectors, and time periods,
but the results were similar. Most notably, Robert
Solow, who later won a Nobel Prize for this work,
identified an almost identical 'residual' of about 85
percent. The results so striking because most
economists for the previous 200 years had been
building models in which economic growth was
treated as if it was primarily a matter of adding more
inputs: if you just had more people and dollars, more
output would invariably result.

"Instead, these studies suggested, the crucial driver of
growth was changes in the ways inputs were used.
The magnitude of this unexplained growth, and the
fact that it was exposed by researchers using widely
divergent methodologies, persuaded most
economists that innovation was a major force in the
growth of output.

"In the decades since the 1950s, economists and
policymakers have documented the relationship
between innovation - whether new scientific
discoveries or incremental changes in the way that
factories and service businesses work - and
increases in economic prosperity. Not just identifying
an unexplained 'residual,' studies have
documented the positive effects of technological
progress in areas such as information technology.
Thus, an essential question for the economic future of
a country is not only what it produces, but how it goes
about producing it.

"This relationship between innovation and growth has
been recognized by many governments. From the
European Union - which has targeted increasing
research spending as a key goal in the next few years -
to emerging economies such as China, leaders have
embraced the notion that innovation is critical to

Josh Lerner, Boulevard of Broken Dreams,
Princeton, Copyright 2009 by Princeton University
Press, pp. 43-45.

Thursday, November 19, 2009 11/19/09 - scientists

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

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

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

"Although the figure of Charles Darwin dominates any
discussion of nineteenth-century science, he is
something of an anomaly. It is during the nineteenth
century - almost exactly during Darwin's lifetime - that
science makes the shift from being a gentlemanly
hobby, where the interests and abilities of a single
individual can have a profound impact, to a
well-populated profession, where progress depends
on the work of many individuals who are, to some
extent, interchangeable. Even in the case of the theory
of natural selection, as we have seen, if Darwin hadn't
come up with the idea, Wallace would have, and from
now on we will increasingly find that discoveries are
made more or less simultaneously by different people
working independently and largely in ignorance of one
another. ...

"The other side of this particular coin,
unfortunately, is that the growing number of scientists
brings with it a growing inertia and resulting
resistance to change, which means that all too often
when some brilliant individual does come up with a
profound new insight into the way the world works,
this is not accepted immediately on merit and may
take a generation to work its way into the collective
received wisdom of science. ...

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 11/18/09 - occupiers and plebiscites

In today's excerpt - occupiers often manipulate
plebiscites or other data to "prove" that their new
subjects support them. But that often masks a
pending revolt. And so it was with the British
occupation of Iraq (Mesopotamia) in 1917 - which
locals viewed as a British attempt to extend their
empire - and the violent revolts that followed. Given
Woodrow Wilson's world-shaking proposal in the
aftermath of World War I that all people should be able
to self-determine their own government, such
plebiscites had become especially crucial:

"On March 11th, 1917, British and Indian soldiers of
the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (MEF)
marched into Baghdad and occupied it in order to
restore order and halt the looting that had followed the
city's evacuation by Ottoman forces the previous day.
On March 12th, the British War Cabinet issued a
proclamation to the inhabitants of Baghdad. This
flowery document pledged that 'our armies do not
come into your cities and lands as conquerors or
enemies, but as liberators'. ...

"After March 1917 the emphasis of [British] operations
in Mesopotamia shifted towards the pacification of the
British-occupied areas and the introduction and
extension of civil machinery designed to regulate the
mobilization and extraction of the manpower, food and
fodder needed in ever greater quantities for the
military. This involved the 'submission by political
means' of local tribes and the visible downward
penetration of British control to all levels of
society. ...

"The logistical requirements of maintaining and
supplying the MEF, which peaked at 420,000
combatants and non-combatants in 1918, made
enormous demands on local resources of manpower,
food and fodder, ... causing great hardship to a
populace already weakened by poor harvests in 1916
and 1917, and the commercial dislocation caused by
three years of war.

"At the end of the war, Mesopotamia remained under
British occupation. With President
Woodrow Wilson and the peace-makers in Paris
championing self-determination, the British
administration in Baghdad sought to find 'up to date
reasons' for continued British rule that would make
them 'both indispensable to, and acceptable by, the
native community', even as they entrenched
themselves more firmly in the region. ... The British
failed to identify the true degree of opposition to their
presence in Mesopotamia. They manipulated and
misrepresented the results of a plebiscite on 'local
opinion' in 1919 to produce what one Cabinet
member in London, Edwin Montagu, called
an 'authoritative statement' to President Wilson and
the peace conferences indicating popular local
support for British policies.

"British demands for labour and foodstuffs continued
throughout 1919 and 1920 and the methods of
collection became more effective. They combined with
the cumulative impact of food shortages, high price
inflation and the introduction of taxation to create
significant pools of discontent as British control
became increasingly visible, ... creating a multitude of
grievances that eventually found their outlet in violent
unrest. The speed and ferocity with which the [Iraqi]
revolt took root and spread between July and October
1920 shook the foundations of British rule in
Mesopotamia and necessitated a level of financial
and military expenditure that London could ill afford at
a time of significant discontent in India, Ireland and
elsewhere. ...

"[Prominent among the revolt leadership was] a family
called Sadr, [whose grandson Moqtada al-Sadr is a
belligerent in the current Iraqi War]."

Kristian Ulrichsen, "Coming as Liberators," History
Today, January 2007, pp. 47-49.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 11/17/09 - subjugating ireland

In today's excerpt - subjugating Ireland in the early
1600s. England, having recently broken away from the
Catholic Church, feared that Catholic Spain would use
still-Catholic Ireland as a stronghold for invading
England, and therefore had incentive to subjugate
and "colonize" Ireland. England could look to the new
European experiences in the New World for examples
of how to colonize and subjugate. And the colonizing
mission required colonists to wear civilized clothes
and inhabit civilized housing - however impractical that
might be:

"Ironically and perhaps fatefully, early English
conceptions of Indian life and character became
intertwined with the justification of another colonizing
venture. Ireland was nominally under English rule, but
effective control did not extend beyond the small
district known as 'the Pale,' centered on Dublin. The
rest of the island was home to 'the wild Irish,' who
were divided into loose collections of warlike people
with a common interest in defying the English. With
the Spanish seemingly set on ruling the world,
England awakened to the danger that Catholic Spain
might take over Catholic Ireland as a stronghold for
invading England. Subjugating the Irish became a way
of forestalling Spain. Elizabeth began by parceling out
the country to her favorites, [Sir Walter] Ralegh among
These English overlords could either tame their wild
Irish tenants or supplant them with a more productive
and tractable population. It was the same problem
that Ralegh faced at Roanoke and the Virginia
Company would face at Jamestown, not to say the
problem the United States would face in its long
march across North America.

"[To the English,] the Irish shared with American
Indians a profound
deficiency that required correction if they were to make
proper subjects: they were not civil. That word carried
hidden meanings and connotations that would
reverberate throughout American history. Civility was a
way of life not easily defined, but its results were
visible: substantial housing and ample clothing.
Uncivil peoples were naked and nomadic. Civility
required of those who deserved the name a sustained
effort, physical and intellectual. It did not require belief
in Christianity, for the ancient Greeks and Romans
had it; but Christianity, or at least Protestant
Christianity, was impossible without it. The Irish
Catholics and those Indians converted by Spanish or
French missionaries were not, in the English view,
either civil or Christian. The objective of colonization
was to bring civility and Christianity to the uncivil, in
that order.

"The objective was threatened, indeed civility itself
threatened, if lazy colonists, coveting the unfettered life
of the uncivil, went native, or, it might be said, went
naked. 'Clothes were of tremendous importance, ...
because one's whole identity was
bound up in the self-presentation of dress. The Scots
and Irish - and soon the American Indians - could not
be civil unless they dressed in English clothes, like
civilized people, and cut their long hair,' signs of a
capacity to submit to the enlightened government of
their superiors.

"England's preferred way of civilizing the Irish was
through force of arms, but after ruthless military
expeditions failed to bring widespread peace, and
with it civility, the new solution was to plant the country
with people who already rejoiced in that condition.
Refractory natives would learn by example, or simply
give way, left to a wretched existence on the margins
of a profoundly transformed Ireland. Not long before
the Virginia Company began supplying people to
Jamestown for much the same purpose, the English
authorities began settling far larger numbers across
the Irish Sea, an estimated 100,000 by 1641."

Edmund S. Morgan and Marie Morgan, "Our Shaky
Beginnings," The New York Review of Books,
April 26, 2007, pp. 21-22.


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Monday, November 16, 2009 11/16/09 - washington's half-brother

In today's excerpt - for young George
Washington, a
father dying young, the resulting
interruption of his
education, and the dashing example of an older
half-brother helped forge a burning ambition and

"At his birth in 1732, George Washington's
were poor. He was a product of his father's
second marriage. The sons
from the first marriage, George's
half-brothers, had been provided a formal
education, including study abroad. They also
received a bountiful inheritance when their
father, Augustine Washington, died in 1743.
But Augustine's demise appeared to stop
George's ascent before it began. There was
no money for continuing George's formal
education, much less for sending
him to England to complete his schooling, and
his inheritance was meager.
George received ten slaves and Ferry Farm, a
worn-out tract across the
Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg,
Virginia. With that bequest he
might become an important figure in King
George County, though no one
in the broader world would know him. But from
an early age, George Washington wanted more.
He wanted to stand apart from others. He
wanted to
be seen as a man of substance.

"George said almost nothing about his father,
mentioning him in only
three passing references in thousands of
pages of correspondence. Augustine had
accumulated a small fortune as a tobacco
planter, land speculator,
and proprietor of an iron forge, and he was a
prominent figure in northern
Virginia, where he held several local
offices. Ambitious young males usually
aspire to surpass the accomplishments of
their fathers, and that appears to
have been true of George. Yet it was not
Augustine who was George's role
model. It was Lawrence Washington, an older
brother from their father's
first marriage.

"Fourteen years older than George, Lawrence
had studied in England.
After returning home, he enlisted as an
officer in a colonial army raised to
fight alongside British regulars in a war
with Spain, the oddly named War
of Jenkins' Ear that erupted in 1739.
Lawrence was sent to the Caribbean,
then to South America, where he experienced
combat. The war was a
bloodbath for the American troops, and
Lawrence was fortunate to survive
and return home. Worldly, educated,
well-to-do, dashing in his resplendent
uniform, and deferred to as a hero by the
most influential men and
captivating women in Virginia, Lawrence cut
an impressive figure.

stature increased when he was appointed
adjutant general of Virginia, a
post that made him the foremost soldier in
the province. Soon, he was
elected to the House of Burgesses, Virginia's
assembly, a feat never realized
by Augustine. The crowning touch came in
1743. Lawrence married into
the Fairfax family, which claimed title to
six million acres in Virginia and,
needless to say, was the most prominent clan
in the Northern Neck, the
area around the Rappahannock and Potomac
rivers. Lawrence and his bride
took up residence on a lush green rolling
estate overlooking the Potomac
River. Having inherited the property from his
father, Lawrence named his
country farmhouse in honor of a British
officer under whom he had recently served. He
called it Mount Vernon."

John Ferling, The Ascent of George
Washington, Bloomsbury Press, Copyright 2009
by John Ferling, pp. 9-10, 13.

Friday, November 13, 2009 11/13/09 - chinese myths

In today's excerpt - Chinese myths:

"The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Long
March, even the Giant Panda? Myths, declare
the revisionist scholars. ...

"Contrary to the tourist brochures, the Great
Wall has been shown to be
not 'over 2,000 years old', not '6,000 miles
[9,700 kilometres] long', not 'visible
from outer space' - not visible on the ground
in many places - and never
to have been a single continuous structure.'
It did not keep out marauding
nomads nor was that its original purpose;
instead of defending and defining
Chinese territory, it was probably designed
to augment and project it.' Those
sections near Beijing that may conveniently
be inspected today have been
substantially reconstructed for just such
inspection; and the rubble and footings from
which they rise are those of Ming
fortifications no older than the
palaces in the Forbidden City or London's
Hampton Court.

"Likewise the Grand Canal. Reaching from the
Yangzi delta to the Yellow
River (Huang He), a distance of about 1,100
kilometres (700 miles), the canal
is supposed to have served as a main artery
between China's productive
heartland and its brain of government. Laid
out in the seventh century
AD, it did indeed connect the
rice-surplus south to the often
cereal-deficient north. Yet it, too, was
never a single continuous
construction, more a series of
well-engineered waterways. ... The system was
rarely operational
throughout its entirety because of variable
water flow, the rainy season in
the north not coinciding with that in the
south; colossal manpower was
needed to haul the heavily laden transports
and work the locks; dredging
and maintenance proved prohibitively
expensive; and so frequent were the
necessary realignments of the system that
there are now almost as many
abandoned sections of Grand Canal as there
are of Great Wall.

"More controversially, the Long March, that
1934-35 epic of heroic
communist endeavour, has been disparaged as
neither as long nor as heroic
as supposed. It is said the battles and
skirmishes en route were exaggerated, if not
contrived, for propaganda purposes; and of
the 80,000 troops
who began the march in Jiangxi in the
south-east, only 8,000 actually
foot-slogged their way right round China's
mountainous perimeter to
Yan'an in the north-west. As for the rest,
some perished but most simply
dropped out long before the 9,700-kilometre
(6,000-mile) march was
completed. And of those who did complete it,
one at least seldom marched;
Mao, we are assured, was borne along on a

"Maybe the Giant Panda, a byword for
endangered icons if ever there
was one, is on safer ground. In the 1960s and
'70s the nearly extinct
creature, together with some acrobatic
ping-pong players, emerged as a
notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of
the beleaguered People's Republic.
Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the
pandas, especially females, were
freely bestowed on deserving heads of state.
The presentations were
described as 'friendship gestures', and
experimental breeding was encouraged as if a
successful issue might somehow cement the
political entente.
But not any more. From sparse references in
classic texts such as the 'Book
of Documents' a pedigree of undoubted
antiquity has been
constructed for the panda and a standard name
awarded to it. Now known
as the Daxiongmao or 'Great Bear-Cat', its
habits have been found sufficiently
inoffensive to merit its promotion as a
'universal symbol of peace';
its numbers have stabilised, perhaps
increased, thanks to zealous conservation;
and lest anyone harbour designs on such a
national paragon, no
longer may Giant Pandas be expatriated. All
are Chinese pandas. Foreign
zoos may only lease them, the lease being for
ten years, the rental fee
around $2 million per annum, and any cubs
born during the rental being
deemed to inherit the nationality of their
mother - and the same terms of contract. Like
its piebald image as featured in countless
brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself
become a franchise."

John Keay, China, Basic Books,
Copyright 2009 by John Keay, pp. 1-3.

Thursday, November 12, 2009 11/12/09 - the dust bowl

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

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

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

"By 1934, the soil was like fine-sifted flour, and the
heat made it a danger to go outside many days. In
Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature soared above 100
degrees for thirty-five consecutive days. On the thirty-
sixth day, it reached 117. ...

"On the skin, the dust was like a nail file, a grit strong
enough to hurt. People rubbed Vaseline in their
nostrils as a filter. The Red Cross handed out
respiratory masks to schools. Families put wet towels
beneath their doors and covered their windows with
bed sheets, fresh-dampened nightly. ...

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 11/11/09 - nixonomics

In today's excerpt - U.S. Presidents have had a
pronounced tendency to pressure the Federal
Reserve into keeping interest rates low, and Federal
Reserve presidents are often predisposed to please.
But deferring needed rate increases always eventually
backfires, and imposing price controls always
eventually backfires:

"Maintaining the gold value of the dollar [by increasing
interest rates] conflicted with the Kennedy growth
imperative in 1962, although it was finessed by the
foreign security tax ploy. Starting about 1965, Lyndon
Johnson started running big budget deficits to finance
the war in Vietnam and his domestic program [and]
the floods of new money were already generating
inflationary pressures. ...

"And once again, the prescribed medicine - raise
interest rates and reduce borrowing - was not on the
table, for it conflicted with Richard Nixon's desire to
win a second presidential term.

"The first two years of the Nixon administration were
very difficult economic sailing, to the point where the
administration was seriously worried about the 1972
election. During the five years of Johnson's
presidency, despite the uptick in inflation, the real, or
inflation-adjusted, annual rate of growth exceeded 5
percent. But in 1970, growth plunged to near zero,
while inflation was scraping 6 percent - dreadful
numbers for a campaign launch. There was little room
for maneuver. The 1970 federal deficit was already as
big as any Johnson had run, so fiscal stimulation was
likely to spill over into more inflation. ...

"But few politicians had Nixon's gift for the bold stroke.
In August 1971 he helicoptered his entire economics
team to Camp David for a weekend that Herbert Stein,
a member of the Council of Economic Advisers,
predicted 'could be the most important meeting in the
history of economics' since the New Deal. After the
meeting, ... Nixon announced that he would cut taxes,
impose wage and price controls throughout the
economy, impose a tax surcharge on all imports, and
rescind the commitment to redeem dollars in gold. ...

"After the final decisions had been taken, Volcker was
charged with drafting Nixon's and [Treasury Secretary
John ] Connally's speeches announcing the changes.
His draft, he recalled, was 'a typical devaluation
speech' filled with the 'obligatory mea culpas.' None
of it saw the light of day. The Volcker draft was handed
over to uber speechwriter William Safire and emerged
as a proclamation of 'a triumph and a fresh

"Politically, it was a masterstroke. With price controls
in place Nixon and his Federal Reserve chief, Arthur
Burns, could gun up the money supply without
worrying about price inflation - both the narrow and
broad measures of money jumped by more than 10
percent in 1971, at the time the biggest increase ever.
Economic growth obediently revived, and was back up
over 5 percent by the 1972 election - just what the
political doctors had ordered.

"Consumers were happy with flat prices, while big
business loved the tax breaks, the import surcharges,
and the price controls. All in a single weekend, Nixon
had delivered them from union wage pressures,
supplier price hikes, and foreign competition. ...

"Although Nixon got his landslide, the cracks in the
economy were too big to hide. The 1971
wage-and-price '90-day freeze,' as it was originally
billed, lasted for three years. Controls are always
easier to put on than to take off. The underlying
inflation builds to a point of explosiveness, and the
inevitable thicket of rules offers profitable little crevices
for the lucky or the well-connected. Organized labor
stopped cooperating in 1974, but by then Nixon was
deeply ensnared in the coils of Watergate. Congress
forced the end of all controls in the spring, except for
price controls on domestic oil. Removal of controls
triggered double-digit inflation, the first since the
1940s, and the country suffered a nasty recession in
1974 and 1975."

Charles R. Morris, The Sages, Public Affairs,
Copyright 2009 by Charles R. Morris, pp. 124-127.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 11/10/09 - businessman and womanizer

In today's excerpt - Richard Rodgers was a
towering giant among 20th century composers,
but his often sweet, sentimental and
reaffirming music belied the fact that he was
a tough-minded businessman and vulpine

"In the months following the opening of
Oklahoma!, Richard (Dick) and Oscar
Hammerstein began setting up
a series of other business arrangements
through their lawyer, Howard Reinheimer.
Between them they laid the foundation for
what would become within a few short years
one of the most powerful and influential
organizations in the American theater. Their
basic intention was to put themselves in a
position, vis a vis their own work, that would
have turned even [Flo] Ziegfeld green with envy.

"In 1951, the magazine Business Week
estimated the income of the team as
around $1,500,000 a year {$12.5 million in
today's dollars]. By the mid-50s, the firm
was grossing well over $15,000,000 a year
[over $120 million in today's dollars], by
which time it had also bought back The
Theatre Guild's investments in the
early Rodgers and Hammerstein triumphs. Dick
and Oscar owned one hundred percent
of everything they wrote, and a good-sized
piece of everything else.

"They set [the] rules and stuck to them.
Anyone wanting motion picture rights to
their work had to pay up 40 percent of the
profits of the movie, and no haggling.
Collaboration with Rodgers and Hammerstein
meant that Rodgers and Hammerstein
got 51 percent of the credit, and 51 percent
of the billing, not to mention the action.
The effect of this was to consolidate the
Rodgers and Hammerstein interests, to make
them into an empire with Rodgers (and, to a
much lesser degree, Hammerstein) at its

"Rodgers was no longer a theatrical
songwriter with business interests, but a
chairman of
the board who happened to write songs. He
supervised every detail - he even signed the
weekly paychecks - spending more and more
time in an office above a bank on
Madison Avenue that had as little charm as a
dentist's waiting room, the only concession
to his craft a Steinway grand he rarely
played. ...

"For all that, throughout his career Rodgers
was unfailingly courteous, endlessly
patient, infinitely available to the hundreds
and hundreds of people who felt they had to
talk with him, offer him ideas, seek his
support. ...

"Nevertheless, everyone seems to agree that
after South Pacific there was a change.
Success seems not to have made him blossom,
but to have soured him. He became more
ruthless, almost dictatorial. He flew off the
handle more often. 'He didn't take criticism
well and he was always getting his feelings
hurt,' actress Billie Worth recalled. And
there were other
more personal problems. His wife Dorothy
underwent a hysterectomy shortly after the
show opened, another internal operation a
year later. He was suffering from a depression
he would not admit to, and drinking heavily.

"If the recent revelations of his daughters
are anything to go by, Rodgers was imprisoned
in a desperately unhappy marriage. Dorothy
Rodgers, beautifully poised and chic
in a Duchess of Windsor sort of way, was also
a neurotic hypochondriac, the kind of
woman whose house was so organized there were
postage stamps on the envelopes in the
guest-room writing desks. Perhaps as a
result, or perhaps anyway, he was a vulpine
womanizer. And he wasn't very subtle about
it, either. Many, many years earlier Larry Hart
had commented that Dick adored chorus girls.
What kind? 'Blonde. And very
innocent-looking. Brains not essential - but
they must be innocent-looking.' ... Josh
Logan probably put it as simply as it
can be said. 'We used to say to him, 'Dick,
for God's sake don't screw the leading lady
till she's signed the contract.' ' "

Frederick Nolan, The Sound of Their
Music, Applause, Copyright 2002 by
Frederick Nolan, pp. 149-150, 216-217.

Monday, November 09, 2009 11/9/09 - murder

In today's excerpt - murder rates in the
United States are the highest among affluent
democracies, and historians and
criminologists have only recently attempted
to construct theories to explain these high

"The United States
has the highest homicide rate of any affluent
democracy, nearly four times that of
France and the United Kingdom, and six
times that of Germany. Why? Historians
haven't often asked this question. Even
historians who like to try to solve cold
cases usually cede to sociologists and other
social scientists the study of what makes
murder rates rise and fall, or what might
account for why one country is more murderous
than another. Only in the nineteen-seventies
did historians begin studying homicide in any
systematic way. In the
United States, that effort was led by Eric
Monkkonen, who died in 2005, his promising
work unfinished. Monkkonen's research has
been taken up by Randolph
Roth, whose book 'American Homicide' offers a
vast investigation
of murder, in the aggregate, and over time.

"In the archives, murders are easier to
count than other crimes. Rapes go
unreported, thefts can be hidden, adultery
isn't necessarily actionable, but murder
will nearly always out. Murders enter the
historical record through coroners' inquests,
court transcripts, parish ledgers,
and even tombstones. ... The number of
uncounted murders, known as the 'dark
figure,' is thought to be quite small. Given
archival research, historians can conceivably
count, with fair accuracy, the frequency with
which people of earlier eras
killed one another, with this caveat: the
farther back you go in time - and the
documentary trail doesn't go back much
farther than 1300 - the more fragmentary
the record and the bigger the dark

Europe, homicide rates, conventionally
represented as the number of murder
victims per hundred thousand people in the
population per year, have been falling for
centuries. ... In feuding medieval Europe,
the murder rate hovered
around thirty-five. Duels replaced feuds.
Duels are more mannered; they also have
a lower body count. By 1500, the murder
rate in Western Europe had fallen to
about twenty. Courts had replaced duels.
By 1700, the murder rate had dropped
to five. Today, that rate is generally well
below two, where it has held steady, with
minor fluctuations, for the past century.

"In the United States, the picture could
hardly be more different. The American
homicide rate has been higher than Europe's
from the start, and higher at just
about every stage since. It has also
fluctuated, sometimes wildly. During the
Colonial period, the homicide rate fell,
but in the nineteenth century, while Europe's
kept sinking, the U.S. rate went up
and up. In the twentieth century, the rate
in the United States dropped to about
five during the years following the Second
World War, but then rose, reaching
about eleven in 1991. It has since fallen
once again, to just above five, a rate that
is, nevertheless, twice that of any other
affluent democracy. ...

"2.3 million people are currently behind bars
in the United States. That works out to
nearly one in every hundred adults, the
highest rate anywhere in the world, and four
times the world average. ...

"[Roth theorizes]
that four factors correlate
with the homicide rate: faith that government
is stable and capable of enforcing
just laws; trust in the integrity of
legitimately elected officials; solidarity among
social groups based on race, religion, or
political affiliation; and confidence that
the social hierarchy allows for respect to
be earned without recourse to violence.
When and where people hold these sentiments,
the homicide rate is low, when
and where they don't, it is high."

Jill Lepore, "Rap Sheet," The New
Yorker, November 9, 2009, pp. 79-81.

Friday, November 06, 2009 11/6/09 - whaling

In today's excerpt - whaling. In the 1800s, the whaling
industry - as immortalized in Moby Dick - was one of
the most important industries in America, powering
both economic growth and America's growing global

"Consider the whale. Hunted since antiquity, by the
nineteenth century it had become an economic engine
that helped turn the United States into a powerhouse.
Every square inch of it could be turned into something,
so the whale afforded
one-stop shopping for a fast-growing nation: material
for the manufacture of paint and varnish; textiles and
leather; candles and soap; clothing and of course
food (the tongue was a particular delicacy). The whale
was especially beloved by the finer sex, surrendering
its body parts for corsets, collars, parasols, perfume,
hairbrushes, and red fabric dye. (This last product
was derived from, of all things, the whale's
excrement.) Most valuable was whale oil, a lubricant
for all sorts of machinery but most crucially used for
lamp fuel. As the author Eric Jay Dolin declares in
Leviathan, 'American whale oil lit the world.'

"Out of a worldwide fleet of 900 whaling ships, 735 of
them were American, hunting in all four oceans.
Between 1835 and 1872, these ships reaped nearly
300,000 whales, an average of more than 7,700 a
year. In a good year, the total take from oil and baleen
(the whale's bonelike 'teeth') exceeded $10 million,
today's equivalent of roughly $200 million. Whaling
was dangerous and difficult work, but it was the
fifth-largest industry in the United States, employing
70,000 people.

"And then what appeared to be an inexhaustible
resource was - quite suddenly and, in retrospect, quite
obviously - heading toward exhaustion. Too many
ships were hunting for too few whales. A ship that
once took a year at sea to fill its hold with whale oil
now needed four years. Oil prices spiked accordingly,
rocking the economy back home. Today, such an
industry might be considered 'too big to fail,' but the
whaling industry was failing indeed, with grim
repercussions for all America.

"That's when a retired railway man named Edwin L.
Drake, using a steam engine to power a drill through
seventy feet of shale and bedrock, struck oil in
Titusville, Pennsylvania. The future bubbled to the
surface. Why risk life and limb chasing underwater
leviathans around the world, having to catch and carve
them up, when so much energy was just waiting, in
the nation's basement, to be pumped upstairs?

"Oil was not only a cheap and simple fix but, like the
whale, extraordinarily versatile. It could be used as
lamp oil, a lubricant, and as a fuel for automobiles
and home heating; it could be made into plastic and
even nylon stockings. The new oil industry also
provided lots of jobs for unemployed whalers and, as
a bonus, functioned as the original Endangered
Species Act, saving the whale from near-certain

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner,
Superfreakonomics, William Morrow, Copyright
2009 by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, pp.

Thursday, November 05, 2009 11/5/09 - eunuchs

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

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Yahoo! Lotto Org 11/4/09 - cognitive misers

In today's excerpt - the human brain is a "cognitive
miser"- it can employ several approaches to solving a
given problem, but almost always chooses the one
that requires the least computational power:

"We tend to be cognitive misers. When approaching a
problem, we can choose from any of several cognitive
mechanisms. Some mechanisms have great
computational power, letting us solve many problems
with great accuracy, but they are slow, require much
concentration and can interfere with other cognitive
tasks. Others are comparatively low in computational
power, but they are fast, require little concentration
and do not interfere with other ongoing cognition.
Humans are cognitive misers because our basic
tendency is to default to the processing mechanisms
that require less computational effort, even if they are
less accurate.
Are you a cognitive miser? Consider the following
problem, taken from the work of Hector Levesque, a
computer scientist at the University of Toronto. Try to
answer it yourself before reading the solution.

Problem: Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking
at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a
married person looking at an unmarried person?

A) Yes

B) No

C) Cannot be determined

"More than 80 percent of people choose C. But the
correct answer is A. Here is how to think it through
logically: Anne is the only person whose marital status
is unknown. You need to consider both possibilities,
either married or unmarried, to determine whether you
have enough information to draw a conclusion. If Anne
is married, the answer is A: she would be the married
person who is looking at an unmarried person
(George). If Anne is not married, the answer is still A:
in this case, Jack is the married person, and he is
looking at Anne, the unmarried person. This thought
process is called fully disjunctive reasoning -
reasoning that considers all possibilities. The fact that
the problem does not reveal whether Anne is or is not
married suggests to people that they do not have
enough information, and they make the easiest
inference (C) without thinking through all the
Most people can carry out fully disjunctive reasoning
when they are explicitly told that it is necessary (as
when there is no option like 'cannot be determined'
available). But most do not automatically do so, and
the tendency to do so is only weakly correlated with

"Here is another test of cognitive miserliness, as
described by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel
Kahneman and his colleague Shane Frederick.

"A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs
$1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball

"Many people give the first response that comes to
mind - 10 cents. But if they thought a little harder, they
would realize that this cannot be right: the bat would
then have to cost $1.10, for a total of $1.20. IQ is no
guarantee against this error. Kahneman and
Frederick found that large numbers of highly select
university students at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Princeton and Harvard were cognitive
misers, just like the rest of us, when given this and
similar problems."

Keith E. Stanovich, "Rational and Irrational Thought:
The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss," Scientific American,
November/December 2009, pp. 35-36.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 11/3/09 - global cooling

In today's excerpt - in the 1970s, the
science pages of The New York Times,
Newsweek, and other publications sounded
the dire warning of impending global cooling.
Headlines from The New York Times of
the period included "International Team of
Specialists Finds No End in Sight to 30-Year
Cooling Trend in Northern Hemisphere," and
"New Studies Point to Ice Age Again." The
excerpt below is from a New York Times
article titled "Scientists Ask Why World
Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be
Ahead." There were, inevitably, dissenting

"There are specialists who
say that a new ice age is
on the way - the inevitable
consequence of a natural cyclic process, or
as a result
of man-made pollution of the
atmosphere. And there are
those who say that such pollution may
actually head off
an ice age.

"Sooner or later a major
cooling of the climate is
widely considered inevitable.
Hints that it may already
have begun are evident. The
drop in mean temperatures
since 1950 in the Northern
Hemisphere has been sufficient. for example,
to shorten
Britain's growing season for
crops by two weeks. ...

"The first half of this century has
apparently been the
warmest period since the
'hot spell' between 5,000
and 7,000 years ago immediately following the
last ice
age. That the climate, at least
in the Northern Hemisphere.
has been getting cooler since
about 1950, is well established - if one
ignores the
last two winters. ...

"From the chemical composition of Pacific
from studies of soil types
in Central Europe and from
fossil plankton that lived in
the Caribbean it has been
shown that in the last million
years there have been considerably more ice
ages than
previously supposed.

"According to the classic
timetable, four great ice ages
occurred. However, the new
records of global climate
show seven extraordinarily
abrupt changes in the last
million years. As noted in the
academy report, they represent transition, in
a few centuries 'from full glacial to
full interglacial conditions.' ...

"In a recent issue of the
British journal Nature, Drs.
Reid A. Bryson and E. W.
Wahl of the Center for Climate Research at
the University of Wisconsin cite records
from nine North Atlantic
weatherships indicating that
from 1951 to the
period surface water temperatures dropped
steadily. The fall was comparable,
they reported, to a return
to the 'Little Ice Age' that
existed from 1430 to 1850. ...

"There is general agreement
that introducing large
amounts of smoke particles or carbon dioxide
into the
atmosphere can alter climate. The same would
be true of
generating industrial heat
comparable to a substantial
fraction of solar energy falling on the
earth. The debate
centers on the precise roles
of these effects and the levels of pollution
that would cause serious changes. ...

"The observatory atop Mauna Loa, the great
volcano, has recorded a
steady rise in the annual
mean level of carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere, amounting
to 4 per cent between 1958
and 1972. That, however, was
a period of global cooling - not the reverse,
as one would
expect from a greenhouse
effect. ...

"If worldwide energy consumption continues to
increase at its present rates,
catastrophic climate changes
have been projected by M.
I. Budyko, a leading Soviet
specialist. He says that the
critical level will probably
be reached within a century. This, he has
written, will lead to 'a complete destruction
of polar ice covers.'
Not only would sea levels
rise but, with the Arctic
Ocean free of ice, the entire
weather system of the Northern Hemisphere
would be altered."

Walter Sullivan, "Scientists Ask Why World
Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be
Ahead," The New York Times, May 21, 1975.

Monday, November 02, 2009 11/2/09 - more andalusia - and slaves

In today's excerpt - under Muslim rule, Spain became
the center of wealth in Europe, and Cordoba was
Europe's most glamorous city. Converting to Islam
became fashionable, and one of Christian Europe's
most profitable new businesses was selling slaves to
the Muslims, the highest-quality of which were
eunuchs. The ruling dynasty in that era was the
Umayyads, the ruler himself was known as the
Caliph, and his domain was known as the Caliphate.
That part of Spain under the Caliph's rule was
al-Andalus or Andalusia:

"At the start of the tenth century, it has been estimated,
the population of al-Andalus was only one-fifth
Muslim; by 976, that percentage had been reversed.
The status of Christians in Islamic Spain had
[become] unfashionable. The Church in al-Andalus
had long been thundering against the passion of its
flock for Saracen (Muslim) chic; but increasingly,
whether translating the scriptures into Arabic, or
adopting Muslim names for themselves, or dancing
attendance on the Caliph at his court, even bishops
were succumbing to its allure. ...

"The Caliphate offered, to the ambitious merchant, a
free-trade area like no other in the world. Far
eastwards of al-Andalus it extended, to Persia and
beyond, while in the markets of the great cities of
Islam were to be found wonders from even further
afield: sandalwood from India, paper from China,
camphor from Borneo. What was Christian Spain, with
her flea-bitten little villages, to compare? Why, unlike
their equivalents in Italy, they were not even good for

"The Andalusis were now the importers of slaves; and
a swarm of Christian suppliers,
with little else to offer which might serve to tickle
Andalusi palates, had competed to corner the market
[in slaves] no less eagerly than their Muslim
competitors. ... In Arabic, as in most European
languages, the word 'Slavs' was becoming, by the
tenth century, increasingly synonymous with human

"Nothing, indeed, in the fractured Europe of the time,
was more authentically multicultural than the
business of enslaving Slavs. West Slavs captured in
the wars of the Saxon emperors would be sold by
Frankish merchants to Jewish middlemen, who then,
under the shocked gaze of Christian bishops, would
drive their shackled stock along the high roads of
Provence and Catalonia, and across the frontier into
the Caliphate.

"Few opportunities were neglected in
the struggle to obtain a competitive edge. In the
Frankish town of Verdun, for instance, the Jewish
merchants who had their headquarters there were
renowned for their facility with the gelding knife. A
particular specialization was the supply
of 'carzimasia': eunuchs who had been deprived of
their penises as well as their testicles. Even for the
most practiced surgeon, the medical risks attendant
on performing a penectomy were considerable - and
yet the wastage served only to increase the survivors'
value. Exclusivity, then as now, was the mark of a
luxury brand.

"And luxury, in al-Andalus, could make for truly
fabulous profit. The productivity of the land; the
teeming industry of the cities; the influx of precious
metals from mines in Africa: all had helped to
establish the realm of the Umayyads as Europe's
premier showcase for conspicuous consumption.
Cordoba, the capital of al-Andalus, was a wonder of
the age. Just as Otto,
emperor [of the Holy Roman Empire] though he was,
lacked a residence that could rival so much as the
gatehouse of the palace of the Caliph, so was there
nowhere else in western Europe a settlement that
remotely approached the scale and splendour of
Cordoba. Indeed, in the whole of Christendom, there
was only a single city that could boast of being a more
magnificent seat of empire - and that was
Constantinople, the Queen of Cities herself."

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