Wednesday, March 31, 2010 3/31/10 - how we got the electoral college

In today's excerpt - in the United States, the President is elected by an Electoral College, which was the bizarre and contorted invention of the framers of the Constitution intended as a compromise between those who objected to the legislature electing the President and those who objected to the people electing the President. This unsatisfying arrangement was partially overcome later as a party system emerged - and as states began to mandate that their Electors cast their ballots solely for the candidates who won the most votes in that state:

"The delegates [to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia] spent much of the next week and a half in a puzzled discussion of how to elect or appoint the single person who would wield the 'executive power.' There were two obvious possibilities - election by the legislature or by the people - and one contrived alternative that grew attractive whenever the defects of the other methods became apparent, which they quickly did. Election by the legislature had the advantage of leaving the choice up to the nation's best-informed leaders. But because the framers were intent on making the president politically independent of the legislature, the victorious candidate could serve only a single term, lest he become a toady to a dominant faction - which would seem to deny the republic the potential benefit of experience gained in office.

"Popular election posed two major problems. First, it would clearly favor candidates from northern states, because with a single national constituency, the enslavement of much of the southern population would always make the free citizens of the North a majority of the electorate. More important, the framers worried that voters would naturally prefer candidates from their own states and ignore contenders from others, making it difficult for anyone to gain a majority without some costly cycle of repeated elections.

"In response to these doubts, the framers hit upon the idea of appointing a select corps of electors, well-informed citizens who might make a knowledgeable choice without gaining any lasting political influence of their own. For a moment this notion became almost a panacea - until the framers started doubting that these electors 'would be men of the first or even the second rank.' The delegates finished this round of debate where they began it, with an executive appointed by the legislature for a single term of seven years.

"[Weeks later] the curiously named Committee on Postponed Parts ... created the electoral scheme that came to be known as the Electoral College - a college that could never meet as one deliberative body, but could gather only as separate faculties in the individual states, vote on the same day, and then disband. The electoral scheme combined the two major decisions on representation, which the framers, their tempers having cooled, were now more disposed to treat as compromises than they had been in July. Each state would get a number of electors equal to its total membership in Congress. The most populous states would have the advantage in promoting the candidates they favored, or at least in making front-runners. In the event that no candidate received a majority of electoral votes -a situation which many delegates thought would be the rule rather than the exception - the choice would devolve on the Senate, where the states would vote equally. Incumbents would also be free to seek reelection.

"But here lay a problem: the Senate and president were now going to share the treaty-making and appointment powers. How could the president exercise independent judgment when decisions in these areas needed the approval of the body that had already elected and would possibly reelect him? It took three days of debate for Roger Sherman to hit upon an ingenious scheme: let the House select a president from the five leading candidates to emerge from the first round of electoral voting, but require its members to vote as delegations rather than individuals, so that each state would have one vote. This allowed the Electoral College to replicate the earlier compromises over representation while allowing the president to remain politically independent of the Senate."

Jack N. Rakove, The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Belknap Harvard, Copyright 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, pp. 40-46.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 3/30/10 - silk

In today's encore excerpt - silk, one of the most rare and precious commodities of the ancient world:

"Millennia ago, only the most prized merchandise - silk, gold and silver, spices, jewels, porcelains, and medicines - traveled between continents. The mere fact that a commodity came from a distant land imbued it with mystery, romance, and status. If the time were the third century after Christ and the place were Rome, the luxury import par excellence would have been Chinese silk.

"History celebrates the greatest of Roman emperors for their vast conquests, civic architecture, engineering, and legal institutions, but Elagabalus, who ruled from AD 218 to 222, is remembered, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for his outrageous behavior and his fondness for young boys and silk. During his reign he managed to shock the jaded populace of the ancient world's capital with a parade of scandalous acts, ranging from harmless pranks to the capricious murder of children. Nothing, however, commanded Rome's attention (and fired its envy) as much as his wardrobe and the lengths he went to flaunt it, such as removing all his body hair and powdering his face with red and white makeup. Although his favorite fabric was occasionally mixed with linen - the so-called sericum - Elagabalus was the first Western leader to wear clothes made entirely of silk.

"From its birthplace in East Asia to its last port of call in ancient Rome, only the ruling classes could afford the excretion of the tiny invertebrate Bombyx mori - the silkworm. The modern reader, spoiled by inexpensive, smooth, comfortable synthetic fabrics, should imagine clothing made predominantly from three materials: cheap, but hot, heavy animal skins; scratchy wool; or wrinkled, white linen. (Cotton, though available from India and Egypt, was more difficult to produce, and thus likely more expensive, than even silk.) In a world with such a limited sartorial palette, the gentle, almost weightless caress of silk on bare skin would have seduced all who felt it. ...

"The gods themselves could not resist: Isis was said to have draped herself in 'fine silk yielding diverse colors, sometime yellow, sometime rose, sometime flamy, and sometime (which troubled my spirit sore) dark and obscure.' ...

"Although the Romans knew Chinese silk, they knew not China. They believed that silk grew directly on the mulberry tree, not realizing that the leaves were merely the worm's home and its food. ...

"[Silk] was costly enough in China; in Rome, it was yet a hundred times costlier - worth its weight in gold, so expensive that even a few ounces might consume a year of an average man's wages. Only the wealthiest, such as Emperor Elagabalus, could afford an entire toga made from it."

William J. Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, Atlantic Monthly Press, Copyright 2008 by William J. Bernstein, Kindle location 26-51.

Monday, March 29, 2010 3/29/10 - a human foot-stool

In today's excerpt - in the harsh and barren New Mexico territory, a war between the Navajo and the invading Spaniards had been carried on since the Spaniards first started arriving in the 1500 and 1600s. This war was often low-grade, an uneasy coexistence with parties on both sides raiding the other to steal sheep, horses and people they kept as slaves. And so it still was when the Americans claimed the territory during the 1846 Mexican American War:

"[The new territory governor Charles Bent wrote that] 'The Navajos are an industrious, intelligent and warlike tribe,' he wrote, 'numbering as many as 14,000 souls. They are the only Indians on the continent ... that are increasing in numbers. Their horses and sheep are said to be greatly superior to those raised by the New Mexicans. A large portion of their stock has been acquired by marauding expeditions against the settlements. ... They have in their possession many prisoners, men, women, and children, taken from the settlements of this Territory, whom they hold and treat as slaves.'

"Not that the New Mexicans had failed to find ways to make Navajo life miserable. They, too, stole Navajo sheep and horses and women and children. Although slavery was technically illegal, anyone of means in the province had at least one or two Indian criados (servants), and a young Navajo woman was considered most valuable of all - in large part because of her assumed talent for weaving.

"There were slave markets in Taos and other towns where Indian servants could be purchased for a pittance. Often captives were sold in the town plazas on Sunday afternoons following mass. Other tribes that happened to be enemies of the [Navajo] came to understand their high market value, and so inevitably, Navajo children in ever larger numbers would end up on the auctioning blocks. There was also a phenomenon known as the 'New Mexican Bachelor Party,' in which a groom and a few of his swashbuckling friends would gamely push into Navajo country and go hunting for a few slaves to give to the bride on her wedding day to help her keep house. Professional slave raiders were part of the ordinary commerce of daily life.

"Remarked one disgusted traveler to Santa Fe: 'I have frequently seen little Indian children six years of age led around the country like beasts by a Mexican who had probably stolen them from their mother not more than a week before and offered for sale from forty to one hundred and twenty dollars.' Said Lewis Kennon, an American doctor well acqainted with life in New Mexico: 'I know of no family which can raise one hundred and fifty dollars but what purchases a Navajo slave. Many families own four or five - the trade in them being as regular as the trade in pigs or sheep.' It has been estimated that of the six thousand people then living in Santa Fe, at least five hundred were Indian slaves or peons. ...

"In an 1846 ball to fete the American military conquerors, [Susan Magoffin] noted in her diary that the '[Santa Fe] ladies were all dressed in silks, satins, ginghams - and decked with showy ornaments, huge necklaces, countless rings. They had large sleeves, short waists, ruffled skirts. All danced and smoked cigarettos.' In one corner she was somewhat distressed to see a 'dark-eyed senora' from a well-to-do Spanish family who had brought along a 'human foot-stool,' as Magoffin called it - an Indian servant crouched on the floor for her mistress to use, between dances, 'as an article of furniture.' "

Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Anchor, Copyright 2006 by Hampton Sides, pp. 157-8, 141.

Friday, March 26, 2010 3/26/10 - truffles

In today's excerpt - truffles, the revered culinary delicacies, are symbiotic with trees, and evolved their rich aromas as an enticement to foraging animals to aid in their spore disbursement:
"Throughout history, truffles have appeared on the menu and in folklore. The Pharaoh Khu fu served them at his royal table. Bedouins, Ka lahari Bushmen and Australian Aborigines have hunted them for countless generations in deserts. The Romans savored them and thought they were produced by thunder. Modern epicures prize truffles for their earthy aroma and flavor and are willing to pay steep prices at the market - recently more than $3,000 per kilogram for the Italian white variety. Yet despite humanity's abiding interest in the fungi, much about their biology has remained veiled in mystery. ...
"Truffles, like mushrooms, are the fruit of fungi. These fleshy organs are temporary reproductive structures that produce spores, which eventually germinate and give rise to new offspring. What sets truffles apart from mushrooms is that their spore-laden fruit forms below ground rather than above. ...
"All truffles and mush rooms produce networks of filaments, or hyphae, that grow between plant rootlets to form a shared absorptive organ known as a mycorrhiza. Thus joined, the fungus provides the plant with precious nutrients and water, its tiny hyphae able to reach into pockets of soil inaccessible to the plant's much larger roots. The plant, in turn, furnishes its consort with sugars and other nutrients that it generates through pho tosynthesis - products that the fungus needs but cannot produce on its own because it does not photosynthesize. So beneficial is this partnership that nearly all trees and other woody plants re quire it for survival, as do the associated fungi. Most herbaceous plants (those that do not have a permanent woody stem aboveground) form mycorrhizae too, albeit with different fungi. ...
"Given that truffles require aboveground dispersal of their spores to propagate, why would natural selection favor the evolution of species that hide underground? Consider the reproductive tactic of mushrooms. Mushrooms ... all have fruiting bodies that can discharge spores directly into the air. ... It is a highly effective approach.
"The mushroom strategy is not foolproof, how ever. Most mushrooms have little defense against environmental hazards such as heat, drying winds, frost and grazing animals. Every day a few spores mature and are discharged. But if in clement weather dries or freezes a mushroom, spore production usually grinds to a halt.
"Where such hazards are commonplace, new evolutionary adaptations have arisen. The most successful alternative has been for the fungus to fruit underground. Once the soil is wet enough for the subterranean fruiting body to form, it is insulated from vagaries of weather. The truffle develops with relative impunity, continuing to produce and nurture its spores even when
above- ground conditions become intolerable to mush rooms. At first glance, the truffle's solution might seem facile. The form of a truffle is visibly less complex than that of a mushroom. No longer does the fungus need to expend the energy re quired to push its spore-bearing tissues aboveground. The truffle is but a lump of spore-bearing tissue, usu ally enclosed by a protective skin.
"The problem is that the truffles cannot them selves liberate their spores, trapped as they are in their underground realm. That feat demands an alternative dispersal system. And therein lies the complexity of the truffle's scheme. Over mil lions of years, as truffles retreated underground, mutations eventually led to the formation of ar omatic compounds attractive to animals. Each truffle species has its own array of aromatics that are largely absent in immature specimens but intensify and emerge as the spores mature. ... When an animal [is attracted by the aroma and] eats a truffle, most of the flesh is digested, but the spores pass through un harmed and are defecated on the ground, where they can germinate if the conditions are right."
James M. Trappe and Andrew W. Claridge, "The Hidden Life of Truffles,"Scientific American, April 2010, pp. 78-81.

Thursday, March 25, 2010 3/25/10 - zeptoseconds, yoctoseconds, and chronons

In today's excerpt - a fraction of a second:

"What happens in subsections of seconds? In a tenth of a second, we find the proverbial 'blink of an eye,' for that's how long the act takes. In a hundredth of a second, a hummingbird can beat its wings once. ... A millisecond, 10-3seconds, is the time it takes a typical camera strobe to flash. Five-thousandths of a second is also the time it takes a Mexican salamander ... to snag its prey.

"In one microsecond, 10-6 seconds, nerves can send a message from that pain in your neck to your brain. On the same scale, we can illuminate the vast difference between the speed of light and that of sound: in one microsecond, a beam of light can barrel down the length of three of our metric-resistant football fields, while a sound wave can barely traverse the width of a human hair.

"Yes, time is fleeting, so make every second and every partitioned second count, including nanoseconds, or billionths of a second, or 10-9 seconds. Your ordinary computer certainly does. In a nanosecond, the time it takes you to complete one hundred-millionth of an eye blink, a standard microprocessor can perform a simple operation: adding together two numbers. ... The fastest computers perform their calculations in picoseconds, or trillionths of a second, that is, 10-12 seconds. ...

"Ephemera, however, are all relative. When physicists, with the aid of giant particle accelerators, manage to generate traces of a subatomic splinter called a heavy quark, the particle persists for a picosecond before it decays adieu. Granted, a trillionth of a second may not immediately conjure Methuselah or Strom Thurmond to mind, but Dr. [Robert] Jaffe observed that the quark fully deserves its classification among physicists as a long-lived, 'stable' particle. During its picosecond on deck, the quark completes a trillion, or 1012, extremely tiny orbits. By contrast our seemingly indomitable Earth has completed a mere 5 x 109 orbits around the sun in its 5 billion years of existence, and is expected to tally up only maybe another 10 billion laps before the solar system crumples and dies. ... In a very real sense, then, our solar system is far less 'stable' than particles like the heavy quark. ...

"Scaling down to an even less momentous moment, we greet the attosecond, a billionth of a billionth of a second, or 10-18 seconds. The briefest events that scientists can clock, as opposed to calculate, are measured in attoseconds. It takes an electron twenty-four attoseconds to complete a single orbit around a hydrogen atom - a voyage that the electron makes about 40,000 trillion times per second. There are more attoseconds in a single minute than there have been minutes since the birth of the universe.

"Still, physicists keep coming back to the nicking of time. In the 1990s, they inducted two new temporal units into the official lexicon, which are worth knowing for their appellations alone: the zeptosecond, or 10-21 seconds, and the yoctosecond, or 10-24 seconds. The briskest time span recognized to date is the chronon, or Planck time, and it lasts about 5 x 10-44 seconds. This is the time it takes light to travel what could be the shortest possible slice of space, the Planck length, the size of one of the hypothetical 'strings' that some physicists say lie at the base of all matter and force in the universe."

Natalie Angier, The Canon, Houghton Mifflin, Copyright 2007 by Natalie Angier, pp. 77-78.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 3/24/10 - too many scientists?

In today's excerpt - does the U.S. produce too many scientists?
"For years, Americans have heard blue-ribbon commissions and major industrialists
bemoan a shortage of scientists caused by an inadequate education system. A lack
of high-tech talent, these critics warn, so threatens the nation's continued competitiveness
that the U.S. must drastically upgrade its K-12 science and math education and import
large numbers of technically trained foreigners by promptly raising the current
limit on the number of skilled foreigners allowed to enter the country to work in
private industry. ...
"But many ... prominent labor economists, disagree. 'There is no scientist shortage,'
says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic
labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other
observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities
for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers - about 18,000 of them American
citizens - who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year. ...
"The competition for science faculty jobs is so intense that every advertised opening
routinely attracts hundreds of qualified applicants. Most PhDs hired into faculty-level
jobs get so-called 'soft-money' posts, dependent on the renewal of year-to-year
funding rather than the traditional tenure-track positions that offer long-term
security. ...
"Despite these realities, ... 'almost no one in Washington' recognizes the 'glut'
of scientists, nor the damage that lack or opportunity is doing to the incentives
that formerly attracted many of America's most gifted young people to seek scientific
and engineering careers, he says. ...
"One thing that's not in short supply are scientifically talented American students,
whose academic achievements have been increasing rather than declining in recent
years. 'Students emerging from the oft-criticized K-12 system appear to be studying
science and math subjects more and performing better in them, over time,' said Michael
Teitelbaum, labor economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in Congressional testimony
in November 2007. 'Nor are [they] lagging far behind comparable students in economically
competitive countries, as is oft asserted.' The number of Americans earning PhDs
in science and technical fields has risen by 18 percent since 1985, according to
the authoritative Scientific and Engineering Indicators 2008, published by the
National Science Board. ...
"Arguments for the shortage based on the inadequacy of American education generally
begin with the results of standardized tests used in international comparisons.
Average scores for K-12 students in the U.S. never top those lists in either science
or math (although they do in both reading and civics). On one widely cited assessment,
Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which tested American third
and eighth graders between 1995 and 2003 and American 12th graders in 1995 and 1999,
U.S. students ranked between fifth and 12th in math and science - results bemoaned
by many as dangerously deficient.
"But a detailed study of students' performance on TIMSS as well as on the Programme
for International Student Assessment (PISA), another widely reported international
comparison test, by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University's Institute for the
Study of International Migration and Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute in Washington,
D.C., suggests otherwise. 'Their point is that the average performance of U.S. students
on these comparative international tests is not a meaningful number,' Teitelbaum
says. Far from trailing the developed world in science education, as some claim,
'on PISA, the U.S. has more high-scoring kids in science than any other country'
and nearly as many in the top math category as top-scoring Japan and Korea, Salzman
says. ...
"Scientists are not generally recruited from the average students, [and] raising
America's average scores on international comparisons is, therefore, not a matter
of repairing a broken educational system that performs poorly overall, as many critiques
suggest, but rather of improving the performance of the children at the bottom,
overwhelmingly from low-income families ... This discrepancy, of course, is a vital
national need and responsibility, but it does not reflect an overall insufficient
supply of able science students. Nor do American students lose interest in science
once they reach college. ...
"The root of the problem, many believe, is [that research] has been done largely
at the nation's universities and paid for through competitive, temporary grants
awarded to individual professors by federal funding agencies such as the National
Institutes of Health [which now dispenses more than $28 billion a year and is the
largest funder of non-military research on the planet] and the National Science
Foundation, ... 'while other countries have permanent ways of staffing their labs,'
often with PhD staff scientists in career positions, says Georgia State University
economist Paula Stephan, an authority on the academic labor force."
Beryl Lieff Benderly, "Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?," Scientific American,
February 22, 2010.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 3/23/10 - esperanza spalding

In today's excerpt - twenty-six year old jazz phenomenon Esperanza Spalding, whose
brisk-selling major-label debut "Esperanza" - by turns ebullient and reflective
- lays forth her gifts as a composer, bassist, and singer:
"Spalding was born in 1984 in Portland, Oregon, to a single mother
of African-American, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic ancestry.
Spalding spent her childhood, with her mother and brother, who is seven years her
senior, in the King neighborhood of northeast Portland. ... Spalding's mother worked
several jobs - carpenter, security guard, dish-washer, day-care worker - but there
was never enough money. The family
was reduced to near-homelessness many times, and on at least one occasion was forced
to live in the attic of a friend.
"Yet Spalding says she was largely unaware of the difficulty of
their situation. 'You can grow up with literally nothing and you don't suffer if
you know you're loved and valued,' she told me. 'A lot of people I grew up
with, by the time they were eight they were completely disillusioned with the
world. They already felt this system is wrecked and it's hopeless.' Spalding's
mother, convinced that the local public schools fostered such disillusionment, removed
her in the middle of fifth grade and successfully applied to
have her homeschooled. Because her mother worked full time, Esperanza
effectively educated herself from sixth grade through eighth, checking books
out of the library, completing lesson plans, and taking tests. 'We had to do
that, legally,' she said, 'so my mom could keep 'homeschooling' - quote unquote.'
"Her mother had a piano in the apartment, and when Spalding
was four she heard her struggling with a simple piece by Beethoven. Afterward, Spalding
climbed onto the bench and played the piece by ear. Soon she was writing her own
songs on the piano. When she had a completed melody, her mother said, 'she'd arrange
it in every style of music you could imagine, from bluegrass to classical to jazz.
She'd call me over, and say, 'Look, I can play it this way. And I can play it this
way, and then I can play it this way and this way."
"At the age of five, she saw Yo-Yo Ma play cello on 'Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood' and told her mother she wanted to do that. Her mother had
enrolled her in a free community-band program that offered loans of donated
used instruments, but there were no cellos available. There was a violin,
which Spalding took up. Though lax about practicing (for several years, she
feigned sight-reading and learned her parts by ear), she earned a spot in an
advanced youth orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, and by
fifteen was the orchestra's concertmaster. She also earned a full scholarship to
the Northwest Academy, a private arts high school in downtown Portland.
There she caught the attention of Brian Rose, who taught jazz-improv classes
and electronic music. Rose recalls once coming upon her when she was writing
out a symphonic score for strings and horns while listening, on headphones,
to Latin music. 'I said, 'You can't do that!' ' Rose recalls. 'She said, 'Oh, the
stuff I'm writing is all in my head. I don't need to hear it - I already know
what to write.' ' "
John Colapinto, "New Note," The New Yorker, Mar 15, 2010, pp. 34-35.

Monday, March 22, 2010 3/22/10 - kit carson

In today's excerpt - any discussion of the expansiveness and fierce independence
of the American character must center in part on the mountain men of the early
American west. Here we find a very young Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809
- 1868), who became perhaps the most famous of these mountain men, learning the
trade of beaver trapping in the early 1800s:
"[Nineteen-year old] Kit Carson began to soak up the nuances of the trapping trade
-how to read the country and follow its most promising drainages, how to find the
'slicks' along the banks where beavers had slithered from their tree
stands, how to set and scent the traps with a thick yellow oil called castoreum
taken from the beaver's sex glands, how to prepare and pack the pelts, how to cache
them safely in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. And when the traps came
up empty, how to invade and dismantle a dam and club the unsuspecting animals in
their dark, wet den.
"From his new comrades, Carson learned to savor beaver tail boiled to an exquisite
tenderness - the trapper's signature dish. He became expert with a Hawken rifle
and a Green River skinning knife. He began to pick up the strange language of the
mountain men, a colorful patois of French, Spanish, English, and Indian phrases
mixed with phrases entirely of their own creation. 'Wagh!' was their all-purpose
interjection. They spoke of plews (pelts) and fofurraw (any unnecessary finery).
They 'counted coup' (revenge exacted on an
avowed enemy), and when one of their own was killed, they were 'out for hair' (scalps).
They said odd things like 'Which way does your stick float?' (What's your preference?)
They met once a year in giant, extended open-air festivals, the 'rendezvous,' where
they danced fandangos and played intense rounds of monte, euchre, and seven-up.
Late at night, sitting around the campfires, sucking their black clay pipes, they
competed in telling legendary whoppers about their far-flung travels in the West
- stories like the one about the
mountain valley in Wyoming that was so big it took an echo eight hours to return,
so that a man bedding down for the night could confidently shout 'Git up!' and know
that he would rise in the morning to his own wake-up call.
"From these men, too, Carson began to learn how to deal with the
Western Indians - how to detect an ambush, when to fight, when to bluff, when to
flee, when to negotiate. It is doubtful whether any group of nineteenth-century
Americans ever had such a broad and intimate association with the continent's natives.
The mountain men lived with Indians, fought alongside and against them, loved them,
married them, buried them, gambled and smoked with them. They learned to dress,
wear their hair, and eat like them. They took Indian names. They had half-breed
children. They lived in tepees and pulled the travois and became expert in the ways
of Indian barter and ancient herbal remedy. Many of them were half-Indian themselves,
blood or inclination. Washington Irving, writing about Western trappers, noted this
tendency: 'It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything
that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures,
and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment
than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave.'
"The fur trappers knew firsthand that Native Americans were ferocious fighters -
some legendarily so, like the Blackfoot and the Comanche. But they also knew that
the Indian style of battle was often very different from European warfare, that
it was difficult to engage Native Americans in a pitched battle, that their method
was consistently one of raid and ambush, attack and scatter, snipe and vanish. The
mountain men said that Indians were often like wolves: Run, and they follow; follow,
and they run."
Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Anchor Books, Copyright 2006 by Hampton Sides,
pp. 19-21.

Friday, March 19, 2010 3/19/10 - hope and the p21 gene

In today's excerpt - new hope for the regeneration of tissue in humans, based on
experiments with mice and similar in type to the regeneration of tissue and limbs
in creatures like newts, flatworms, and sponges:
"A quest that began over a decade ago with a chance observation has reached a milestone:
the identification of a gene that may regulate regeneration in mammals. The absence
of this single gene, called p21, confers a healing potential in mice long thought
to have been lost through evolution and reserved for creatures like flatworms, sponges,
and some species of salamander.
"In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers
from The Wistar Institute demonstrate that mice that lack the p21 gene gain the
ability to regenerate lost or damaged tissue.
"Unlike typical mammals, which heal wounds by forming a scar, these mice begin by
forming a blastema, a structure associated with rapid cell growth and de-differentiation
as seen in amphibians. According to the Wistar researchers, the loss of p21 causes
the cells of these mice to behave more like embryonic stem cells than adult mammalian
cells, and their findings provide solid evidence to link tissue regeneration to
the control of cell division.
" 'Much like a newt that has lost a limb, these mice will replace missing or damaged
tissue with healthy tissue that lacks any sign of scarring,' said the project's
lead scientist Ellen Heber-Katz, Ph.D., a professor in Wistar's Molecular and Cellular
Oncogenesis program. 'While we are just beginning to understand the repercussions
of these findings, perhaps, one day we'll be able to accelerate healing in humans
by temporarily inactivating the p21 gene.'
"Heber-Katz and her colleagues used a p21 knockout mouse to help solve a mystery
first encountered in 1996 regarding another mouse strain in her laboratory. MRL
mice [a strain of mouse that exhibits remarkable regenerative abilities for a mammal]
which were being tested in an autoimmunity experiment, had holes pierced in their
ears to create a commonly used life-long identification marker. A few weeks later,
investigators discovered that the earholes had closed without a trace. While the
experiment was ruined, it left the researchers with a new question: Was the MRL
mouse a window into mammalian regeneration? ...
"[Researchers] found that p21, a cell cycle regulator, was consistently inactive
in cells from the MRL mouse ear. P21 expression is tightly controlled by the tumor
suppressor p53, another regulator of cell division and a known factor in many forms
of cancer. The ultimate experiment was to show that a mouse lacking p21 would demonstrate
a regenerative response similar to that seen in the MRL mouse. And this indeed was
the case. As it turned out, p21 knockout mice had already been created, were readily
available, and widely used in many studies. What had not been noted was that these
mice could heal their ears.
" 'In normal cells, p21 acts like a brake to block cell cycle progression in the
event of DNA damage, preventing the cells from dividing and potentially becoming
cancerous,' Heber-Katz said. 'In these mice without p21, we do see the expected
increase in DNA damage, but surprisingly no increase in cancer has been reported.'
Science Daily , March 16, 2010, based on the article "Lack of p21 expression links
cell cycle control and appendage regeneration in mice," by Khamilia Bedelbaeva,
Andrew Snyder, Dmitri Gourevitch, Lise Clark, Xiang-Ming Zhang, John Leferovich,
James M. Cheverud, Paul Lieberman, and EllenHeber-Katz, from Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, doi:10.1073/pnas.1000830107.

Thursday, March 18, 2010 3/18/10 - grammar myths

In today's encore excerpt - grammar myths:
"Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they
can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they 'is
plural.' Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they
as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s,
in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree ("Each
man in their degree").
"Maybe when the sentence is as far back as Middle English, there is a sense that
it is a different language on some level than what we speak - the archaic spelling
alone cannot help but look vaguely maladroit. But Shakespeare is not assumed to
have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, 'There's not a man
I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend' (Act IV, Scene
111). Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off 'A person can't help their birth.'
"Or there's the objection to nouns being used as verbs. These days, impact comes
in for especial condemnation: The new rules are impacting the efficiency of the
procedure. People lustily express that they do not 'like' this, endlessly writing
in to language usage columnists about it. Or one does not 'like' the use of structure
as in I structured the test to be as brief as possible.
"Well, okay--but that means you also don't 'like' the use of view, silence, worship,
copy, outlaw, and countless other words that started as nouns and are now also verbs.
Nor do many people shudder at the use of fax as a verb....
"Over the years, I have gotten the feeling that there isn't much linguists can do
to cut through this. ... There are always books out that try to put linguists' point
across. Back 1950, Robert Hall's Leave Your Language Alone! was all over the place,
including a late edition kicking around in the house I grew up in. Steven Pinker's
The Language Instinct, which includes a dazzling chapter on the grammar myths, has
been one of the most popular books on language ever written. As I write, the flabbergastingly
fecund David Crystal has just published another book in the tradition, The Fight
for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. But the air of frustration
in Crystal's title points up how persistent the myths are. ...
"English is shot through with things that don't really follow. I'm the only one,
amn't I? Shouldn't it be amn't after all? Aren't, note, is 'wrong' since are is
used with you, we, and they, not I. There's no 'I are.' Aren't I? is thoroughly
illogical - and yet if you decided to start saying amn't all the time, you would
lose most of your friends and never get promotions. Except, actually, in parts of
Scotland and Ireland where people actually do say amn't - in which case the rest
of us think of them as 'quaint' rather than correct!"
John McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Gotham, Copyright 2008 by John McWhorter,
pp. 65-69, 80

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 3/17/10 - guernica

In today's excerpt - the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, made more astonishing
because it was not a strategic military target, was for most the terrible dawn of
the age of aerial bombardment, and was the inspiration for Pablo Picasso's most
famous painting:
Click here to view Picasso's Guernica []
"The bombing of the sleepy Basque market town on April 26th, 1937 has probably provoked
more savage polemic than any single act of war since and much of that has revolved
around the reporting of London Times journalist George Steer. This is partly because
what happened at Guernica was perceived as the first time that aerial bombardment
wiped out an undefended civilian target in Europe. In fact, the bombing of innocent
civilians was a well-established practice in the colonies of the Western powers
and had most recently and most thoroughly been carried out by the Italians in Abyssinia.
Even in Spain, the bombing of Guernica had been preceded by the destruction of nearby
Durango by German bombers at the end of March 1937. As the special envoy of The
Times with the Republican forces in Bilbao, George Steer, who had witnessed the
horrors of bombing in Abyssinia, described what was done at Durango as 'the most
terrible bombardment of a civil population in the history of the world up to March
31st, 1937'. However, with the aid of Picasso's searing painting, it is Guernica
that is now remembered as the place where the new and horrific modern warfare came
of age. ...
"Steer's report, which appeared on April 28th in The Times and the New York Times,
subdued and unsensational in tone, managed to incorporate a vivid sense of both
the scale of the atrocity and of the extent to which it represented a new kind of
warfare. ...
"The article stimulated compassion for the plight of the victims but also indignation
about the wider implications of what had taken place. In the form of its execution
and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its
objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was
not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town
and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay
far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization
of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.
"Steer did not know that the attack had been planned by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen
who would later mastermind the Blitzkrieg attacks on Poland and France. Nevertheless,
his prophetic view of this new kind of warfare ensured that his dispatch would have
a more disturbing impact than those of his colleagues....
"On April 29th Steer's report was reprinted in the French Communist daily, L'Humanité
where it was read by Pablo Picasso. At the time, he was working on a commission
by the Spanish Republican government to provide a mural for the great Paris Exhibition
for the summer of 1937. On May 1st, 1937, he abandoned his original scheme, and
began work on what would become his most famous painting.
"The [Spanish] Nationalists immediately denied that Guernica had happened."
Paul Preston, "No Simple Purveyors of News: George Steer and Guernica," History
Today, May 2007, pp. 12-16.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 3/16/10 - florence nightingale

In today's excerpt - Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was a British citizen who,
depressed and uneasy with the opulent circumstances of her upbringing, found her
life's calling in elevating the profession of nursing worldwide. Though initially
unwelcome, she came to prominence during the Crimean War and was dubbed "The Lady
with the Lamp" after her habit of making rounds at night to tend injured soldiers.
Nightingale laid the foundation stone of professional nursing with the principles
summarized in the book Notes on Nursing:
"Florence Nightingale was born in the Italian city which named her in 1820.
Her early life is nowadays popularly presumed to have been comfortably unexceptional.
In fact her father was a well-off Sheffield banker's son who inherited a large fortune
from a Derbyshire uncle. That he could afford to buy a second country estate of
4,000 acres, Embley Park in Hampshire, for £125,000 in 1825, proclaimed enormous
wealth. ... The company there certainly sparkled for the house guests at Embley
included the political heavyweight Lord Palmerston, the future seventh Earl of
Shaftsbury who introduced Florence to the 'delights' of government statistics, the
mathematician Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin. ...
"Florence would later use her family's wealth and connections to good advantage.
But inwardly she was anything but at ease. Predisposed to ill-health and depression,
increasingly uneasy with the opulence around her, and above all frustrated that
her talents were being honed for no practical purpose, her teens and twenties were
often desperately unhappy. ... [Then] Britain and France declared war on Russia
in March 1854.
"On 20 September 1854, Allied forces gained victory over the Russians at the Battle
of the River Alma. Like many however, Nightingale was moved less by stories of soldierly
heroism than by reports of the privations suffered by the wounded. In his report
of 13 October to The Times, William Howard Russell focused specifically on hospital
conditions 'worthy only of the savages of Dahomey.' Army nursing was, as it always
had been, carried out by a mixture of male army pensioners and troops who were convalescing.
The superior French medical provision, by contrast, included Sisters of Charity.
'These devoted women,' Russell informed the British public, 'are excellent nurses,'
... The government was stung into action and [family friend] Sidney Herbert was
Secretary at War. On 21 October he proposed that she head a nursing party at government
expense. There was, he added, 'but one person in England that I know of who would
be capable of organizing such a scheme.' Serene whilst those around her flustered,
Nightingale left London on 21 October as Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment
in the English General Military Hospitals in Turkey. With her went 38 volunteers.
"Nightingale's party, entered the largest British base hospital in the war, the
Barrack Hospital at Scutari, in Turkey, on 4 November. It was immediately clear
that they were unwelcome with many in the army and medical hierarchy. Nightingale
responded by setting her charges to work on such useful menial tasks as making bandages
and scrubbing floors. Yet four days later, overwhelmed by the influx of casualties
from the Battle of Inkerman, doctors summoned their assistance.
"Over the next weeks Nightingale's legend was born. A 15-20 hour working day was
not untypical for her. She was literally 'hands on', whether killing rats or assisting
with amputations. Soon her nurses were tending over 2,000 patients in beds I8 inches
apart. John Macdonald of The Times immortalized her as 'a ministering angel' ...
in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor,
every poor fellow's face softens with gratitude at the sight of her'. In the midst
of a military campaign whose progress was equivocal her success could be reported
R.E. Forster, "Florence Nightingale: Icon and Iconoclast," History Review, No. 66,
pp. 7-8.

Monday, March 15, 2010 3/15/10 - the gunfighter

In today's excerpt - while most demobilized soldiers return to ordinary lives, a
disproportionate number have always turned upon return to a life of crime. Examples
abound - from the returning veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam
War who filled the ranks of motorcycle and street gangs, to the veterans of the
Mexican American War who became the outlaws in the early West. There is no better
example, however, that the veterans of the American Civil War whose numbers filled
the ranks of the James and Quantrill gangs and became prominent among the cowboys
and gunfighters in the most storied days of the American West. Their close familiarity
with death gave them advantage against all that they encountered. This was made
worse by the bitterness between North and South that remained etched in their minds:
"Among the gunfighters [of the American West] death was never far away; many of
them had lived with death as a companion and were conditioned to it.
Those who had fought in the Civil War were especially haunted by the specter of
imminent death. For most men the ending of hostilities had meant that they could
stop killing and return to normal lives. But veterans of frontier conflicts, spies,
sharpshooters, and guerrillas were conditioned to view killing as a means to an
end. The unwary sentry whose throat had been cut, the unarmed men shot down for
the information they could reveal, meant little to such men. Self-reliant and independent
men who had learned to abide with death found the restrictions of civilized society
intolerable. The idea of a life without danger in a world where they were not masters
of their own destiny appalled them. To them there was only one alternative - an
occupation suited to their particular talents. A Kansas newspaper editor [in 1867]
noted the effect that the Civil War had had on the men who later became scouts and
guides for the United States Army against the Indians:
" 'What a pity that young men so brave and daring should lack the discretion to
sheath their daggers forever when the war terminated! But such is the demoralizing
effect of war upon those who engage in it and certainly upon all who love the vocation.
We learn from a gentleman who has frequently met these wild and reckless young men,
that they live in a constant state of excitement, one continual round of gambling
drinking and swearing, interspersed at brief intervals with pistol practice upon
each other.
" 'At a word any of the gang draws his pistol and blazes away as freely as if all
mankind were Arkansas Rebels, and had a bounty offered for their scalpes [sic].
How long these Athletes will be able to stand such a mode of life; eating, drinking,
sleeping (if they can be said to sleep) and playing cards with their pistols at
half cock, remains to be seen. For ourself, we are willing to risk them in an Indian
campaign for which their cruelty and utter recklessness of life particularly fit
"Pointed but undiscerning comments of this nature reveal a lack of understanding
of the feelings, reactions, and motives of the men who got into gunfights. A man
who could draw his gun and shoot another man without hesitation had a cold-blooded
attitude toward life that most people were spared. The man-killers of the West thus
had an advantage over men basically reluctant to kill. When his life was threatened,
the gunfighter could and would shoot to kill. Although he might appear calm and
cool-headed under fire, his inner feelings were probably in turmoil. This man, facing
death and
wrestling with thoughts and emotions, was a far cry from the gunfighter of fiction.
For him each fight, which could easily be his last, was a fight for life - his own."
Joseph G. Rosa, The Gunfighter, University of Oklahoma Press, Copyright 1969 by
the University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 117-118.

Friday, March 12, 2010 3/12/10 - styles of directing

In today's excerpt - successful movie directors can be found within every style
and personality type, from highly controlled and controlling to flexible and improvisational.
Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player) was an extreme
example of the improvisational approach:
"GRAEME CLIFFORD (assistant director): Altman had a preproduction
speech at the beginning of [a] movie that just captured his whole
approach. He said, 'Anybody can come up to me at any time and give
me any ideas they have or discuss anything they want. Sometimes I'll
use them and sometimes I won't. I may not always have time to tell you
why I'm not going to use your idea, but I'll always listen.' I didn't work
for anybody else for the next five years, and I just assumed everybody
worked this way - the way he treated the crew, the way he treated
actors. I stole that speech and I use it on any movie I make, but you
think many directors say that? ...
"MARK RYDELL (actor and director): Bob [Altman] sent me the script [to The Long
Goodbye]. I looked at it and thought, 'This part is just
not well written.' So I called him and I said, 'Bob, what would you
think if I rewrote this part and made it two hundred percent better? I
have a concept for a character.' He said, 'Go ahead.' The character in
the book was wishy-washy, really, had no character. ... So Larry Tucker and I
decided to make him this Jewish gangster who was insanely brutal,
completely capable of any kind of brutality, yet at the same time deeply
religious, offended that he wasn't in shul, where he should have been
on this night. At the same time, the challenge was to make it funny.
Make it not only cruel and horrendous, but charming and funny. So we
did that. And we sent the pages to Bob. He called back in five minutes
and said, 'That's it. Throw out everything else, I'm inserting your
pages right in the script.' That's the kind of guy he was. All he wanted
was the best from his people.
"One of the first things he used to say on a set was, 'I'm interested in
everything you have to bring.' So he had that remarkably paternal and
constructive quality of nurturing people and giving them permission to
be as good as they can be. He rarely directed them in obvious ways. His
ways were more subtle. He would encourage you. 'What've you got in
mind?' he would say. 'Show me. That's great, let's use it.'
"His directorial style was improvisational and permissive. And actors
loved him because of it. Because they could bring their skills and their
instincts, which he admired and respected, to the moment. If it came
from you, he was interested. He didn't want to give you something and
have you execute it because he knew that anything he gives you is by
nature less good than what you come up with yourself. He instinctively
knew that the way to get relaxed and realistic performances was to
encourage the creative spirit of each individual actor, and he cast that
way. He cast in an effort to find people who are inventive."
Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman, Knopf, Copyright 2009 by the Estate of Robert B.
Altman and Mitchell Zuckoff, pp. 155, 248.

Thursday, March 11, 2010 3/11/10 - blood is the manure of the tree of liberty

Jefferson, writing when the states were truly
thirteen separate governments under the Articles of Confederation, thought blood
to be the manure in which the tree of liberty grows, and wished for rebellions no
less than every twenty years. Later, as President under the new Constitution, he
underscored his preferences on this point by pardoning all those prosecuted under
the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had (among other things) made it a crime to publish
"false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials:
"I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary
in the political world as storm in the physical. "
To James Madison, Paris, January 30,1787
"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that
I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better
so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now & then. It is
like a storm in the Atmosphere"
To Abigail Adams, Paris, February 22, 1787
"God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people can
not be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented
in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet
under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public
liberty. We have had 13 states independent for 11 years. There has been one rebellion
[Shays's Rebellion]. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each
state. What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion?
& what country can preserve its liberties, if their rulers are not warned from time
to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.
The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify
a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from
time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure."
To William Stephens Smith, Paris, November 13, 1787
"For my own part I consider the [Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798] as merely an experiment
on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the constitution."
To Stevens Thomson Mason, Monticello, October 11, 1798
"I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law,
because I considered & now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as
palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image;
and that it was as much my duty to arrest its execution in every stage, as it would
have been to have rescued from the fiery furnace those who should have been cast
into it for refusing to worship their image."
To Abigail Adams, Washington, July 22,1804
John P. Kaminski, The Quotable Jefferson, Princeton, Copyright 2006 by the Princeton
University Press, pp. 390-391, 134.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 3/10/10 - 'tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections'

In today's excerpt - in the U.S. Constitution, Indians who renounced their tribe
were counted toward a given state's population for the purpose of determining how
many members of the House of Representatives each state had. "Other persons," the
Constitution's euphemism for "slaves," counted as 3/5 of a person for this same
purpose. The debate over this horrible compromise unleashed a level of vitriol among
the framers that barely subsided before it erupted again scarcely more than thirty
years later and then finally erupted in the American Civil War:
United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2: Representatives and direct Taxes
shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this
Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding
to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term
of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
"Census enumerators began to include Indians who had renounced their tribes in 1860.
The instructions provided for the 1880 census said 'Indians not taxed' meant 'Indians
living on reservations under the care of Government agents, or roaming individually,
or in bands, over unsettled tracts of country.' In 1940 the government did away
with the category 'Indians not taxed.'
"[The 'other persons' clause] is one of the most infamous clauses in the Constitution,
because not only did it countenance slavery but it was seen as
doubly demeaning to the men and women held in bondage that they
were each counted as but three-fifths of a person. The political dynamic behind
this clause, however, is full of ironies. It was the North that opposed counting
a slave as a whole person. It was the South that wanted slaves to be so counted.
The three-fifths compromise meant that the ill-gotten gains of slavery were no longer
solely financial but that slaveholders were to receive political gains as well -
the more slaves a state had, the more representatives it would have in the Congress.
"Under the Articles [of Confederation that preceded the Constitution], in which
each state had the same representation, there was no incentive to show a large population,
and states faced the threat of a population-based tax. So they had an incentive
to understate their true population. The Constitution changed the equation. Suddenly
representation in Congress was no longer equal for each state but was based on population.
So states now had reason to bolster their population. The issue was an existential
one for the country. William Davie of North Carolina is recorded in The Records
of the Federal Convention as saying that he 'saw that it was meant by some gentlemen
deprive the Southern States of any share of Representation for their
blacks. He was sure that N. Carola. would never confederate on any
terms that did not rate them at least as 3/5. If the Eastern States meant
therefore to exclude them altogether the business was at an end.'
"Of the three-fifths clause, Gouverneur Morris, the Pennsylvania
delegate, said this to the Convention: 'The admission of slaves into the
Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant
of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance
of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures
from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel
bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of
the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa or N. Jersey who views
with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.' The three-fifths clause,
Luther Martin declared in The Genuine Information, involved 'the
absurdity of increasing the power of a State in making laws for free
men in proportion as that State violated the rights of freedom.' "
Seth Lipsky, The Citizen's Constitution, Basic Books, Copyright 2009 by Seth Lipsky,
pp. 7-8.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010 3/9/11 - from the sun king to karzai

In today's excerpt - historians argue that the situation in Afghanistan today, with
a central government with little real power beyond the capital city, and relatively
independent (war)lords in the territories beyond the capital, parallels the situation
in most European countries at around 1600 AD:
"Up until the seventeenth century, the European continent was divided into many
small political units with vague and porous borders. Where kings reigned, they usually
were only titular leaders with little power outside a capital city. They had little
contact with, or even direct impact on, their supposed subjects. The dominant authority
figures in most people's lives were religious leaders or local notables, and popular
identities were based on religion, locality, or community rather than anything that
could truly be called nationality. Christian clergy exerted immense social, cultural,
and political influence, and the church carried out many of the functions normally
associated with states today, such as running schools and hospitals or caring for
the poor.
"Responsibility for security, meanwhile, lay chiefly with local or regional nobility,
who maintained private fortresses, arsenals, and what would now be called militias
or paramilitary forces. Political life in this prestate era was brutal: warfare,
banditry, revolts, and religious and communal conflict were widespread. Even in
England, where authority was centralized earlier and more thoroughly than elsewhere
in Europe, one-fifth of all dukes met unnatural, violent deaths during the seventeenth
"Around 1600, however, many European kings began to centralize authority. Their
efforts were fiercely resisted by those with the most to lose from the process --
namely, local political and religious elites. ... Through the sixteenth century,
France was essentially a collection of loosely affiliated communities with independent
institutions, customs, and even languages. It was primarily during the reigns of
Louis XIII (1610-43) and, especially, Louis XIV (1643-1715) that the monarchy expanded
its armed forces, legal authority, and bureaucracy and took control of the country.
"This process was remarkably conflictual. Its first several decades were marked
by peasant revolts, religious wars, and the obstinate resistance of provincial authorities,
which culminated in the series of conflicts known as the Fronde (1648-53) and threatened
to plunge the country into complete chaos. Louis XIV eventually defeated the recalcitrant
nobles and local leaders on the battlefield, but the costs of victory were so high
that he decided to complete the process of centralizing power by co-opting his remaining
rivals rather than crushing them.
"During the second half of the seventeenth century, accordingly, he and his ministers
focused on buying off and winning over key individuals and social groups that might
otherwise obstruct their state-building efforts. Adapting and expanding a common
practice, for example, they repeatedly sold state offices to the highest bidders;
by the eighteenth century, almost all the posts in the French government were for
sale, including those dealing with the administration of justice. These offices
brought annual incomes, a license to extract further revenues from the population
at large, and exemptions from various impositions. The system had drawbacks in terms
of technocratic effectiveness, but it also had compensating benefits for the crown:
selling off public posts was an easy way to raise money and helped turn members
of the gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie into officeholders. Rather than depending
on local or personal sources of revenue, these new officeholders eventually developed
new interests connected to the broader national system. ...
"Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, the chief ministers to Louis XIII and XIV, respectively,
studied the relationships that allowed local elites to control their underlings
and reward their supporters and tried to supplant those with new relationships centered
on the king and his ministers. They selected provincial brokers who had excellent
contacts in far-flung areas but whose loyalties were to Paris and then gave these
brokers money and benefits that could be channeled to others in turn, thus expanding
the reach of the crown throughout the periphery.
"Another tactic designed to secure the state's authority was the construction of
Louis XIV's glittering palace at Versailles, which was officially established as
the seat of the French court in 1682. The luxury of the palace was more than merely
a celebration of the wealth and power of the Sun King; it was also a crucial weapon
in his battle to domesticate the obstreperous French nobility. Louis XIV made the
aristocracy's presence at Versailles a key prerequisite for their obtaining favor,
patronage, and power. By assembling many of the most important local notables at
his court, he was able to watch over them closely while separating them from their
local power bases. The tradeoff was clear: in return for abandoning their local
authority and autonomy, nobles were given handsome material rewards and the opportunity
to participate in the court's luxurious lifestyle."
Sheri Berman, "From the Sun King to Karzai," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010.

Monday, March 08, 2010 3/8/11 - so much money we can't keep track of it

In today's excerpt - Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish financial genius who built International
Match, the world's largest publicly held company during the 1920s, but who used
deception and massive fraud to achieve his goals. Central to his deceit was withholding
information from his American accounting firm, Ernst & Ernst, regarding how much
money was missing and how dire his cash position routinely was. When Albert Berning,
the Ernst & Ernst accountant assigned to his company, became too insistent on a
more close examination of his books, Ivar came up with an ingenious new method for
evading him. Eventually, International Match suffered a spectacular global collapse
and Kreuger committed suicide:
"Ivar decided he needed to be more forthcoming to Albert Berning about his Swedish
accountants, or at least to appear to be so. ...
"Meeting in Berlin, ... Ivar told Berning a secret. He understood Berning's suspicions,
and he confided that, indeed, the financial statements for International Match were
in error. There were mistakes. But not for the reasons Berning might have imagined.
Instead, the financial statements were wrong because they massively understated
Ivar's profits. Ivar told Berning he was involved in politically sensitive deals
with numerous governments, many of which would generate substantial profits, and
these dealings simply could not be disclosed to anyone. Ivar said Berning should
draw comfort from the safety net of secret deals that were not even mentioned in
his corporate accounts. The International Match financial statements weren't supposed
to accurately reflect the value of Ivar's enterprises. They were merely a floor,
a minimum amount that only hinted at the much higher, true value.
"For example, Ivar showed Berning a copy of what he called the 'Spanish
contract,' which appeared to be signed by Miguel Primo de Rivera, the
Spanish ruler who had taken over from King Alfonso in a recent coup. Ivar
suggested that he had met with King Alfonso in 1923, and he said Primo de
Rivera secretly had agreed to honor the terms of a ... deal between Ivar and the
king. Unfortunately, Primo de Rivera had abandoned his pre-coup promise to rule
for only ninety days, and instead suspended Spain's constitution, established martial
law, and imposed a system of strict censorship. There was no way for Berning, or
anyone, to confirm or deny Ivar's assertions about such a secret deal. Berning
understandably would have been reluctant to travel to Spain to try to verify Primo
de Rivera's signature.
"Ivar also showed Berning a certificate of deposit showing that the Nederlandish
Bank held 400 million francs of French government bonds for the
account of Continental Investment Company, Ivar's Lichtenstein subsidiary.
When Berning said he hadn't heard of the Nederlandish Bank, Ivar explained
that it existed 'in order to keep certain transactions secret from Swedish and
foreign bankers.' ...
"Moreover, Ivar behaved like someone who understated, not overstated, his
income. One time, Ivar sent the money for International Match's dividends to
America early, indicating to Berning that 'we have so much money over here,
you might as well have this now.' Another time, Ivar sent an extra million
dollars, and later responded, 'Oh, we simply made a mistake. We have so
much money here, we just can't keep track of it.' These were either the acts
of a crazed risk taker or a man in such solid financial condition that he really
couldn't be bothered with minor seven-figure details. The latter explanation
seemed more plausible: Ivar, and International Match, must have had substantial
undisclosed assets."
Frank Partnoy, The Match King, Public Affairs, Copyright 2009 by Frank Partnoy,
pp. 100-101.

Friday, March 05, 2010 - robert altman

In today's excerpt - Robert Altman, director of such influential films as M*A*S*H,
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Prêt-à-Porter, and Gosford Park,
on his view of life. Before beginning his life in film, Altman was in the U.S. Army
Air Force and piloted B-24s in fifty bombing missions in the Pacific theater during
World War II:
"I was the eldest child in my family. Born in 1925. Had I been
born in 1935 instead of 1925, my life would be totally different. I
would be a totally different person. Same if I had been born in 1915.
"It all depends on when you're placed into the river, and where that
river takes you - it couldn't happen the same way a week earlier or a
week later. You're in your time and space in the river. Now, you can
swim over toward the bank where the current isn't as fast, but basically
from that point you're going down the river. You can swim upstream.
But just for a little bit. If you swim up against the current a lot, by the
time you die you have only covered a short distance along the bank. If
you go over to the edge and go with the mainstream, you cover a lot
more territory, but you're not exercising. I don't think you ever have
the energy to beat the river. The river is always going faster than you
can swim against it. The reason I think you fight against something is
simply because it's there to fight against.
"I think I go upstream because it's the easiest place for me to go. But
I'm over at the edge, not in the center of it. In other words, I'm not out
there making the long-distance swim across the channel. I take the easiest path
upstream. ...
"I don't think anybody remembers the truth, the facts. You remember impressions."
Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman, Knopf, Copyright 2009 by the Estate of Robert Altman
and Mitchell Zuckoff, pp. ix, 20.

Thursday, March 04, 2010 - ronnie and nancy

In today's encore excerpt - Ronald Reagan takes Nancy Davis off the blacklist, then
marries her:
"In the spring of 1952, while Ronald Reagan's career as a union politician reached
its zenith, his acting career was in free fall. ... A B actor was a B actor, and
rarely climbed onto the A-list in Hollywood's artificial caste system. ...
"On the domestic front, things were much better. To begin with, he had found Nancy
Davis, or rather she had found him. Claiming she was being mistaken in casting calls
for a Communist actress by the same name, the thirty-year-old Davis complained to
director Mervyn LeRoy. He advised her to talk to the SAG president about the problem.
After she asked Reagan to help keep her name off the studio blacklists, he went
her one better. He asked the petite, attractive brunette to dinner. Reagan later
described in his memoirs how they wound up at Ciro's watching Sophie Tucker perform
until after midnight. It was just like the good old days, when Reagan first met
Jane Wyman and the two of them lived it up at the Cocoanut Grove with other fun-loving
couples, like Jules and Doris Stein.
"On March 4, 1952, Reagan married Nancy Davis and moved with his bride into a three-bedroom,
two-story home in Pacific Palisades. They began to live like real movie stars. Reagan
even splurged on a 290-acre chunk of real estate in the Santa Monica Mountains which
he called Yearling Row Ranch. All it had on it was a two-bedroom, two-bath house
and a caretaker's shack, both built in 1918, but the price was a mere $65,000 and
it seemed like a great site on which to build his dream ranch someday.
" 'The marriage to Nancy seemed to solidify him, because she was very supportive
of his career,' recalled actress Rhonda Fleming, his costar in Hong Kong (1952).
'Suddenly, after a few years of being divorced, he had the solidity of a marriage,
a woman who adored him, and he obviously adored her--plus he had the powerful position
as leader of the actors' union. He was like a new person. As he entered middle age,
Reagan achieved balance in every aspect of his life except his career. His future
was obviously not on any producer's A-list. To pay for his new marriage and his
new mortgages, Reagan began taking anything MCA sent his way: magazine ads, personal
appearances, testimonial dinners. He even emceed a Las Vegas variety show. The one
thing Reagan resisted was TV. Television was declasse."
Dennis McDougal, The Last Mogul, Copyright 1998 by Dennis McDougal, Da Capo, pp.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010 3/3/10 - decapitation

In today's excerpt - American strategy to combat terrorist groups such as al Qaeda
has centered on finding and removing the leaders of these groups, a strategy known
as "decapitation." A rigorous analysis of all 298 such cases of leadership decapitation
in terrorist groups from 1945 to 2004 suggests that this may be an unproductive
strategy - that these leadership gaps are quickly filled and that groups become
more virulent as a result compared to similar groups where this strategy is not
"Immediately following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
President George W. Bush announced that a 'severe blow' had been dealt
to al Qaeda. Leadership decapitation is not limited to U.S. counterterrorism
efforts. The arrests of the Shining Path's Abimael Guzman and the Kurdistan
Workers' Party's (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan are commonly cited as examples of
successful decapitation. Israel has consistently targeted the leaders of HAMAS.
The arrest of Basque Homeland and Freedom's (ETA) leader Francisco Mugica
Garmenia was seen as likely to result in ETA's collapse, but authorities
determined that the organization was much more complicated than they had
assumed. The recent arrests of two ETA leaders in May and November of
2008 have been characterized by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez
Zapatero as a 'definitive operation in the fight against ETA.'
"Despite a tremendous amount of optimism toward the success of decapitation, there
is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational
collapse. Moreover, there are inconsistencies among current studies of decapitation.
A core problem with the current literature and a primary reason for discrepancy
over the effectiveness of decapitation is a lack of solid empirical foundations.
In order to develop an
empirically grounded assessment of leadership targeting, this study examines
variation in the success of leadership decapitation by developing a comprehensive
dataset of 298 cases of leadership decapitation from 1945-2004. The overarching
goal of this article is to explain whether decapitation is effective. ...
"Optimism toward the success of decapitation is based primarily on theories
of charismatic leadership. ... Social network analysis, which is rooted in sociological
studies of organizational dynamics, would predict more variability
in the success of decapitation. ...
"A [terrorist] group's age, size, and type are all important
predictors of when decapitation is likely to be effective. The data indicate
that as an organization becomes larger and older, decapitation is less likely
to result in organizational collapse. Furthermore, religious groups are highly resistant
to attacks on their leadership, while ideological organizations are
much easier to destabilize through decapitation.
"Second, the data also show that decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism
strategy. Decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse
beyond to a baseline rate of collapse for groups over
time. The marginal utility for decapitation is actually negative. Groups that
have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups
whose leaders have been removed. Decapitation is actually counterproductive,
particularly for larger, older, religious, or separatist organizations.
"Finally, in order to determine whether decapitation hindered the ability
of an organization to carry out terrorist attacks, I looked at three cases in
which decapitation did not result in a group's collapse. The results were
mixed over the extent to which decapitation has resulted in organizational
degradation. While in some cases decapitation resulted in fewer attacks, in
others the attacks became more lethal in the years immediately following
incidents of decapitation. I argue that these results are largely driven by a
group's size and age.
"Ultimately, these findings indicate that our current counterterrorism
strategies need rethinking. The data show that independent of other measures,
going after the leaders of older, larger, and religious groups is not
only ineffective, it is counterproductive. Moreover, the decentralized nature
of many current terrorist organizations has proven to be highly resistant to
decapitation and to other counterterrorism measures."

Jenna Jordan, "When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,"
Security Studies, 18: 719-755, 2009, Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, ISSN:
0963-6412 print/ 1556-1852 online.
You can find the full paper and beta version of the terrorism database at:

CPOST Terrorism Database

Tuesday, March 02, 2010 3/2/10 - collapse of empire

In todays excerpt - the collapse of a long-standing
empire has very
often occurred in a very short span of time:

"What is most striking about [Rome's] history is the
of the Roman Empire's collapse. In just five decades,
the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters.
Archaeological evidence from the late fifth
century - inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer
coins, smaller cattle - hows that the benign influence
of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western
Europe. What [Oxford historian Brian] Ward-Perkins
calls 'the end of civilization' came within the span of a
single generation.

"Other great empires have suffered comparably swift
collapses. The Ming dynasty in China began in 1368,
when the warlord Zhu Yuanzhang renamed himself
Emperor Hongwu, the word hongwu
meaning 'vast military power.' For most of the next
three centuries, Ming China was the world's most
sophisticated civilization by almost any measure.
Then, in the mid-seventeenth century, political
factionalism, fiscal crisis, famine, and epidemic
disease opened the door to rebellion within and
incursions from without. In 1636, the Manchu leader
Huang Taiji proclaimed the advent of the Qing dynasty.
Just eight years later, Beijing, the magnificent Ming
capital, fell to the rebel leader Li Zicheng, and the last
Ming emperor hanged himself out of shame. The
transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy took
little more than a decade.

"In much the same way, the Bourbon monarchy in
France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing
rapidity. French intervention on the side of the colonial
rebels against British rule in North America in the
1770s seemed like a good idea at the time - a chance
for revenge after Great Britain's victory in the Seven
Years' War a decade earlier - but it served to tip
French finances into a critical state. In May 1789, the
summoning of the Estates-General, France's
long-dormant representative assembly, unleashed a
political chain reaction that led to a swift collapse of
royal legitimacy in France. Only four years later, in
January 1793, Louis XVI was decapitated by
guillotine. ...

"The sun set on the British Empire almost as
suddenly. In February 1945, Prime Minister Winston
Churchill was at Yalta, dividing up the world with U.S.
President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier
Joseph Stalin. As World War II was ending, he was
swept from office in the July 1945 general election.
Within a decade, the United Kingdom had conceded
independence to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Egypt,
Eritrea, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Madagascar,
Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Suez crisis in 1956
proved that the United Kingdom could not act in
defiance of the United States in the Middle East,
setting the seal on the end of empire. Although it took
until the 1960s for independence to reach
sub-Saharan Africa and the remnants of colonial rule
east of the Suez, the United Kingdom's [centuries old]
age of hegemony was effectively over less than a
dozen years after its victories over Germany and

"The most recent and familiar example of precipitous
decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With the benefit of hindsight, historians have traced all
kinds of rot within the Soviet system back to the
Brezhnev era and beyond. Perhaps, as the historian
and political scientist Stephen Kotkin has argued, it
was only the high oil prices of the 1970s that 'averted
Armageddon.' But this did not seem to be the case at
the time. In March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev
became general secretary of the Soviet Communist
Party, the CIA estimated the Soviet economy to be
approximately 60 percent the size of the U.S.
economy. This estimate is now known to have been
wrong, but the Soviet nuclear arsenal was genuinely
larger than the U.S. stockpile. And governments in
what was then called the Third World, from Vietnam to
Nicaragua, had been tilting in the Soviets' favor for
most of the previous 20 years. Yet less than five years
after Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in
central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed
by the Soviet Union itself in 1991. If ever an empire fell
off a cliff - rather than gently declining - it was the one
founded by Lenin."

Niall Ferguson, Complexity and Collapse,
Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010, pp. 28-30.


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Monday, March 01, 2010 3/1/10 - anger and aggression

In today's excerpt - expressing anger
amplifies aggression:

"People often opine that releasing anger is
healthier than bottling it up. In one survey,
66 percent of university undergraduates
agreed that expressing pent up anger is a
good way of tamping down aggression. This
belief dates back at least to Aristotle, who
observed that viewing tragic plays affords
the opportunity for catharsis, a cleansing of
anger and other negative emotions.

"Popular media also assure us that anger is a
monster we must tame by 'letting off steam,'
'blowing our top' and 'getting things off our
chest.' [That] advice echoes the counsel of
many self-help authors. One suggested that
rather than 'holding in poisonous anger,' it
is better to 'punch a pillow or a punching
bag. And while you do it, yell and curse and
moan and holler.' Some popular therapies
encourage clients to scream, hit pillows or
throw balls against walls when they get
angry. Practitioners of Arthur Janov s
'primal therapy,' popularly called primal
scream therapy, believe that psychologically
disturbed adults must bellow at the top of
their lungs or somehow otherwise release the
emotional pain stemming either from the
trauma of birth or from childhood neglect or

"Yet more than 40 years of research reveals
that expressing anger actually amplifies
aggression. In one study, people who pounded
nails after someone insulted them became more
critical of that person than did their
counterparts who did not pound nails. Other
research shows that playing aggressive
sports, such as football, actually boosts
self-reported hostility. And a review of 35
studies by psychologist Craig Anderson of
Iowa State University and psychologist Brad
Bushman of the University of Michigan at Ann
Arbor suggests that playing violent video
games such as Manhunt, in which participants
rate assassinations on a five-point scale,
heightens aggression in the laboratory and in
everyday social situations.

"Psychologist Jill Littrell of Georgia State
University concludes from a published review
of the literature that expressing anger is
helpful only when accompanied by constructive
problem solving or communication designed to
reduce frustration or address the immediate
source of the anger. So if we are upset with
our partner for repeatedly ignoring our
feelings, shouting at him or her is unlikely
to make us feel better, let alone improve the
situation. But calmly and assertively
expressing our resentment ('I realize you
probably aren't being insensitive on purpose,
but when you act that way, I don t feel close
to you') can often take the sting out of

"Why is this myth so popular? People probably
attribute the fact that they feel better
after expressing anger to catharsis, rather
than to the anger subsiding on its own, which
it almost always does. Odds are, they would
have felt better if they had merely waited
out their anger."

Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John
Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein, "Busting Big
Myths in Popular Psychology", Scientific
American - Mind, March/April 2010, pp. 44-45.