Wednesday, June 30, 2010 6/30/10 - memory

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In today's excerpt - how memory works:
"Many people wish their memory worked like a video recording. How handy would that be? Finding your car keys would simply be a matter of zipping back to the last time you had them and hitting 'play.' You would never miss an appointment or forget to pay a bill. You would remember everyone's birthday. You would ace every exam. Or so you might think. In fact, a memory like that would snare mostly useless data and mix them willy-nilly with the information you really needed. It would not let you prioritize or create the links between events that give them meaning. For the very few people who have true photographic recall - eidetic memory, in the parlance of the field - it is more burden than blessing.
"For most of us, memory is not like a video recording - or a notebook, a photograph, a hard drive or any of the other common storage devices to which it has been compared. It is much more like a web of connections between people and things. Indeed, recent research has shown that some people who lose their memory also lose the ability to connect things to each other in their mind. And it is the connections that let us understand cause and effect, learn from our mistakes and anticipate the future. ...
"Learning and memory are not sequestered in their own storage banks but are distributed across the entire cerebral cortex. ... The significance of these findings is profound. It means that memory is dispersed, forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions. It means that learning and memory arise from changes in neurons as they connect to and communicate with other neurons. And it means that a small reminder can reactivate a network of neurons wired together in the course of registering an event, allowing you to experience the event anew. Remembering is reliving. ...
"The hippocampus [is] an essential mediator in [connecting neurons]. In a very small brain, every neuron might be connected to every other neuron. But a human brain that worked on this model would require that each of hundreds of billions of neurons be linked to every other neuron, an impossibly unwieldy configuration. The hippocampus solves this problem by serving as a kind of neural switchboard, connecting the distant cortical regions for language, vision and other abilities as synaptic networks take shape and create memories
"[People with hippocampus damage] appear to have impairments that go well beyond the loss of memory creation. They also have severe difficulty imagining future events, living instead in a fragmented, disconnected reality. Recent studies show that imagining the future involves brain processes similar to, but distinct from, those involved in conjuring the past. We also tend to remember the people and events that resonate emotionally, which is why forgetting an anniversary is such an offense: it is fair evidence that the date is not as important as the ones we do remember. The discovery that memory is all about connections has revolutionary implications for education. It means that memory is integral to thought and that nothing we learn can stand in isolation; we sustain new learning only to the degree we can relate it to what we already know. ...
"The connections across the brain also help us conceive the future, as recent imaging studies have shown. Functional magnetic resonance imaging ... shows that a mosaic of brain areas similar to those involved in memory is active when participants imagine details of hypothetical or prospective events. ...
"[This] can sometimes cause us problems by altering our memories instead of
augmenting them. ... Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus [has shown] how easy it is to create false memories of past events. In one study, participants watched a film of a car accident. Researchers asked some subjects how fast they thought the cars were going when they 'smashed into' each other and asked other subjects how fast the cars were going when they 'hit' each other. The subjects who heard the word 'smashed' gave significantly higher estimates of the speed. In other experiments, subjects were fed incorrect information about an accident after watching the film; they might, for instance, be asked repeatedly
whether a traffic light had turned yellow before the collision when in fact the light was green. Many then remembered a yellow light that never existed -
which is why eyewitness testimony after police interrogation can be so unreliable."
Author: Anthony J. Greene
Title: "Making Connections"
Publisher: Scientific American Mind
Date: July/August 2010
Pages: 22-29
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Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010 6/29/10 - the future of china

In today's excerpt - China. Most commentators view China as an inevitable world superpowers over the course of the 21st century. Noted futurist George Friedman disagrees:

"My discussion of the future has to begin with a discussion of China. One-quarter of the world lives in China, and there has been a great deal of discussion of China as a future global power. Its economy has been surging dramatically in the past thirty years, and it is certainly a significant power. But thirty years of growth does not mean unending growth. It means that the probability of China continuing to grow at this rate is diminishing. And in the case of China, slower growth means substantial social and political problems. I don't share the view that China is going to be a major world power. I don't even believe it will hold together as a unified country. But I do agree that we can't discuss the future without first discussing China. ...

"The vast majority of China's population lives within one thousand miles of the coast, populating the eastern third of the country, with the other two-thirds being quite underpopulated. ... [After Mao], the coastal regions again became prosperous and closely tied to outside powers. Inexpensive products and trade produced wealth for the great coastal cities like Shanghai, but the interior remained impoverished. Tensions between the coast and the interior increased, but the Chinese government maintained its balance and Beijing continued to rule, without losing control of any of the regions and without having to risk generating revolt by being excessively repressive. ...

"Underlying this is another serious, and more threatening, problem. ... Between Asian systems of family and social ties and the communist systems of political relationships, [bank] loans have been given out for a host of reasons, none of them having much to do with the merits of the business. As a result, not surprisingly, a remarkably large number of these loans have gone bad - 'nonperforming,' in the jargon of banking. The amount is estimated at somewhere between $600 billion and $900 billion, or between a quarter and a third of China's GDP, a staggering amount....

"Japan's bad debt rate around 1990 was, by my estimate, about 20 percent of GDP. China's, under the most conservative estimate, is about 25 percent -
and I would argue the number is closer to 40 percent. But even 25 percent is staggeringly high. China's economy appears healthy and vibrant, and if you look only at how fast the economy is growing, it is breathtaking. Growth is only one factor to examine, however. The more important question is whether such growth is profitable. Much of China's growth is very real, and it generates the money necessary to keep the banks satisfied. But this growth really does not strengthen the economy. And if and when it slacks off, for example because of a recession in the United States, the entire structure could crumble
very fast.

"This is not a new story in Asia. Japan was a growth engine in the 1980s. Conventional wisdom said it was going to bury the United States. But in reality, while Japan's economy was growing fast, its growth rates were unsustainable. When growth slumped, Japan had a massive banking crisis from which it has not really fully recovered almost twenty years later. Similarly, when East Asia's economy imploded in 1997, it came as a surprise to many, since the economies had been growing so fast. ...

"A Chinese businessman in Shanghai ... makes far more money from relationships with Los Angeles, New York, and London than he does from Beijing. As Beijing tries to clamp down on him, not only will he want to break free of its control, but he will try to draw in foreign powers to protect his and their interests. In the meantime, the much poorer people in the interior of the country will be either trying to move to the coastal cities or pressuring Beijing to tax the coast and give them money. Beijing, caught in the middle, either weakens and loses control or clamps down so hard that it moves back
to a Maoist-type closure of the country. ...

"A [very real] possibility is that under the stress of an economic downturn, China fragments along traditional regional lines, while the central government weakens and becomes less powerful. ... A very real future for China in 2020 is its old nightmare - a country divided among competing regional leaders, foreign powers taking advantage of the situation to create regions where they can define economic rules to their advantage, and a central government trying to hold it all together but failing. A second possibility is a neo-Maoist China, centralized at the cost of economic progress. As always, the least likely scenario is the continuation of the current situation indefinitely."

Author: George Friedman
Title: The Next 100 Years
Publisher: Anchor Books
Date: Copyright 2009 by George Friedman
Pages: 88-100

Monday, June 28, 2010 6/28/10 - morgan meets cleveland

In today's excerpt - after the Panic of 1893 brought on a severe economic depression in the United States, a highly reluctant President Grover Cleveland met with legendary banker J.P. Morgan:

"By law and custom the Treasury was expected to maintain $100 million in gold, usually a sufficient cushion against the quotidian buffets of supply and demand, but the extraordinary circumstances after the 1893 panic suggested this wasn't enough. During 1894 the Treasury's reserve flirted with the $100 million floor; by year's end the hoard was barely above the mark. On January 24, 1895, the gold reserve fell to $68 million; one week later it was $45 million. As large dollar-holders converged on the Treasury and scrambled to convert their paper to gold, the panic resembled runs that had brought down thousands of commercial banks since the depression began. But now
the imperiled institution was the federal government. The solvency of the republic was at risk.

"The danger of the dollar overwhelmed [banker J.P.] Morgan's reluctance to show himself in public. He left the comfort and security of New York, where he was respected, if not exactly loved, and headed for Washington, where his enemies clustered. He traveled by private railcar, to avoid the hostile glares as long as possible. Grover Cleveland learned he was coming. The president hadn't invited the banker; even as the country approached the brink, Cleveland hoped something would occur to spare him the ignominy of turning to Morgan. And when Morgan reached the capital, Cleveland tried to keep him at a distance. He sent his secretary of war and closest confidant, Daniel Lamont, to intercept Morgan at Union Station. Lamont said the president would not meet with Morgan; he would find another solution to the problem.

"Morgan refused to be put off. There was no other solution, he said. And having ventured this far into enemy territory, he wasn't going to retreat without accomplishing his mission. 'I have come down to see the president,' he told Lamont. 'And I am going to stay here until I see him.' He climbed into a cab and drove to a hotel near the White House.

"All that evening Cleveland agonized. Morgan's journey to Washington had been reported in the papers; his presumed intervention heartened investors and diminished the pressure on the Treasury. The president wondered if he could somehow capture the financial benefits of Morgan's proximity without paying the political costs. Lamont brought word of Morgan's determination to remain in Washington; Cleveland considered riding out the siege. Morgan affected nonchalance. Reporters circled his hotel, swarming the entryways and infiltrating the lobby. He remained inside, silent and unseen. His few friends in
the capital dropped by to visit; he greeted them one by one. After the last visitor left, he stayed up playing solitaire. Hotel workers later told reporters that the light in his room didn't go out till after 4 a.m.

"But the next morning by 9:00, he was shaved and ready for breakfast. He received with his juice the first reports of the opening of business in
New York, and learned that the run on the Treasury had resumed. He hadn't even lit his post- breakfast cigar when a messenger arrived from the White
House. The president would see him. ...

"The president's discomfort was obvious. He spoke of the crisis in terms suggesting he still hoped to avoid a Morgan rescue. Morgan listened briefly, then brought the matter to a head. His sources had told him that the Treasury's reserve was around $9 million. Other sources revealed that a single investor held a draft of $10 million against the Treasury's gold. 'If that $10 million draft is presented, you can't meet it,' Morgan declared. 'It will be
all over before three o'clock.'

"Cleveland realized he had no choice. 'What suggestion have you to make, Mr. Morgan?' Officials at the Treasury had been considering a public bond offering; Morgan declared this method too slow. A private sale was necessary, he said. He would gather a syndicate that would take the government bonds and give
the Treasury the gold it needed to stay afloat. ...

"Cleveland asked Morgan how large a transaction he had in mind. One hundred million, Morgan replied. Cleveland groaned. To the public it would appear that Morgan wasn't simply rescuing the Treasury but taking over the place. The president said $60 million would have to do.

"He then asked the critical question. 'Mr. Morgan, what guarantee have we that if we adopt this plan, gold will not continue to be shipped abroad, and while we are getting it in, it will go out, and we will not reach our goal? Will you
guarantee that this will not happen?' Morgan didn't hesitate. 'Yes, sir,' he said. 'I will guarantee it during the life of the syndicate, and that means until the contract has been concluded and the goal has been reached.'

"Morgan was as good as his word, and his word was as good as gold - quite literally. As soon as news of the rescue flashed along the telegraph lines to New York and London, the gold that the Morgan syndicate pledged to deliver was almost superfluous. The fact that Morgan had become a cosigner on the federal debt was what impressed the markets. Within days the Treasury's condition stabilized; within weeks the dollar's danger had passed."

Author: H.W. Brands
Title: "Upside-Down Bailout"
Publisher: American History
Date: August 2010
Pages: 31-32

Friday, June 25, 2010 6/25/10 - how babies learn

In today's excerpt - the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain associated with emotional maturity, does not fully develop in humans until they are in their mid-twenties. This may be because the prefrontal cortex, though it brings emotional balance, focus, planning and efficient action, restricts a person from the most creative aspects of learning:

"From an evolutionary perspective, one of the most striking things about human beings is our long period of immaturity. We have a much lon ger childhood than any other species. Why make babies so helpless for so long and thus require adults to put so much work and care into keep ing their babies alive?

"Across the animal kingdom, the intelligence and flexibility of adults are correlated with the immaturity of babies. 'Precocial' species such as chickens rely on highly specific innate capaci ties adapted to one particular environmental niche, and so they mature quickly. 'Altricial' species (those whose offspring need [long] care and feeding by parents) rely on learning instead. Crows, for instance, can take a new object, such as a piece of wire, and work out how to turn it into a tool, but young crows depend on their parĀ­ents for much longer than chickens.

"A learning strategy has many advantages, but until learning takes place, you are helpless. Evo lution solves this problem with a division of la bor between babies and adults. Babies get a protected time to learn about their environment, without having to actually do anything. When they grow up, they can use what they have learned to be better at surviving and reproduc ing-and taking care of the next generation. Fundamentally, babies are designed to learn.

"Neuroscientists have started to understand some of the brain mechanisms that allow all this learning to occur. Baby brains are more flexible than adult brains. They have far more connec tions between neurons, none of them particular ly efficient, but over time they prune out unused connections and strengthen useful ones. Baby brains also have a high level of the chemicals that make brains change connections easily.

"The brain region called the prefrontal cortex is distinctive to humans and takes an especially long time to mature. The adult capacities for fo cus, planning and efficient action that are gov erned by this brain area depend on the long learning that occurs in childhood. This area's wiring may not be complete until the mid-20s.

"The lack of prefrontal control in young chil dren naturally seems like a huge handicap, but it may actually be tremendously helpful for learn ing. The prefrontal area inhibits irrelevant thoughts or actions. But being uninhibited may help babies and young children to explore freely. There is a trade-off between the ability to ex plore creatively and learn flexibly, like a child, and the ability to plan and act effectively, like an adult. The very qualities needed to act efficient ly-such as swift automatic processing and a highly pruned brain network-may be intrinsi cally antithetical to the qualities."

Author: Alison Gopnick
Title: "How Babies Think"
Publisher: Scientific American
Date: July 2010
Page: 81

Thursday, June 24, 2010 6/24/10 - it is difficult to tolerate being loved

In today's encore excerpt - it is difficult to tolerate being loved because of the risk inherent in positive emotions: observations from the psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has long been the chief curator of the Harvard Study of Adult Development:

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

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

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

Author: Joshua Wolf Shenk
Title: "What Makes Us Happy?"
Publisher: The Atlantic
Date: June 2009
Pages: 47-48.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 6/23/10 - curbing democracy

In today's excerpt - in the thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence but before the U.S. Constitution was written and in place, the state governments of the thirteen states reigned supreme. Many of these states had constitutions that were bold experiments in democracy, and some state legislatures had more common people in office than gentry. The result was often a chaos - inflation, liberal debtor relief, and even rebellion - that created great discomfort for the founders, who were almost all landed gentry. And so the U.S. Constitution was designed in no small part to curb this democracy and the excesses of these state governments:

"The Federal Constitution of 1787 was designed in part to solve the problems created by the presence in the state legislatures of [common people]. In addition to correcting the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was intended to restrain the excesses of democracy and protect minority rights from overbearing majorities in the state legislatures. But could that be done within a republican framework? Some thought not. 'You may think it very Extraordinary,' Joseph Savage of New Jersey told his son in July 1787, 'but the better sort of people are very desirous of a Monarchical government and are in daily Expectation of having it recommended by those Gentlemen in Philadelphia.' Of course, the middling sorts in the states
did not think there was too much democracy in the various legislatures. ...

"Certainly no one described the crisis of American politics in 1787 more acutely than did the thirty-six-year-old Virginian James Madison. Madison had become a member of the Continental Congress at age twenty-eight and was thoroughly familiar with the Confederation's weaknesses. Indeed, throughout the middle 1780s he, along with other national leaders, had wrestled with various schemes for overhauling the Articles of Confederation. But it was his experience serving in the Virginia assembly in 1784-1787 that convinced him that the real problem of American politics lay in the state legislatures. During the 1780s he saw many of his and Jefferson's plans for reform mangled by factional fighting and majoritarian confusion in the Virginia assembly. More than any other Founder, Madison questioned the conventional wisdom of the age concerning majority rule, the proper size for a republic, and the role of factions in society. His thinking about the problems of creating republican governments and his writing of the Virginia Plan in 1787, which became the
working model for the Constitution, constituted one of the most creative
moments in the history of American politics. ...

"The Constitution corrected the deficiencies of the Confederation by granting the new national government some extraordinary powers, powers that ambitious state-builders could exploit. The Convention, however, rejected Madison's impractical plan for a national congressional veto over all state laws, a rejection that Madison feared would doom the Constitution to failure. Instead, the Convention in Article 1, Section 10, prohibited the states from exercising a remarkable number of powers, including levying import or export duties, printing paper money (which they had done in abundance and had created inflation and fiscal chaos), and enacting various debtor relief laws and laws impairing contracts. But if these prohibitions were not enough to prevent the excesses of localist and interest-ridden democracy in the states, then the expanded and elevated structure of the federal government itself was designed to help."

Author: Gordon S. Wood
Title: Empire of Liberty
Publisher: Oxford
Date: Copyright 2009 by the Oxford University Press, Inc.
Pages: 31-33

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 6/22/10 - environmental disasters

In today's excerpt - many contend that the current Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. Others disagree. Some of the other contenders are the Dust Bowl, the Johnstown Flood, and the Lakeview Gusher:

"For sheer disruption to human lives, several [environmental historians and other experts] could think of no environmental problem in American history quite equaling the calamity known as the Dust Bowl. 'The Dust Bowl is arguably one of the worst ecological blunders in world history,' said Ted Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University. Across the High Plains, stretching from the Texas Panhandle to the Dakotas, poor farming practices in the early part of the 20th century stripped away the native grasses that held moisture and soil in place. A drought that began in 1930 exposed the folly.

"Boiling clouds of dust whipped up by harsh winds buried homes and cars, destroyed crops, choked farm animals to death and sent children to the hospital with pneumonia. At first the crisis was ignored in Washington, but then the apocalyptic clouds began to blow all the way to New York, Buffalo and Chicago. A hearing in Congress on the disaster was interrupted by the arrival of a dust storm. By the mid-1930s, people started to give up on the region in droves. The Dust Bowl refugees joined a larger stream of migrants displaced by agricultural mechanization, and by 1940 more than two million people had left the Great Plains States.

"However, the Dust Bowl lasted a decade, and that raises an issue. What exactly should be defined as an environmental disaster? How long should an event take to play out, and how many people have to be harmed before it deserves that epithet? Among sudden events, the Johnstown Flood might be a candidate for worst environmental disaster. On May 31, 1889, heavy rains caused a poorly maintained dam to burst in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending a wall of water 14 miles downriver to the town of Johnstown. About 2,200 people were killed in one of the worst tolls in the nation's history. At the time it happened, that event was understood as a failure of engineering and maintenance, and that is how it has come down in history. Perhaps a one-day flood is simply too short-term to count as an environmental disaster.

"On the other hand, if events that played out over many decades are included, the field of candidates expands sharply. Perhaps the destruction of the native forests of North America, which took hundreds of years, should be counted as the nation's largest environmental calamity. The slaughtering of millions of bison on the Great Plains might qualify. Craig E. Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University, nominates 'the human overhaul of the Mississippi River Valley,' which destroyed many thousands of acres of wetlands and made the region more vulnerable to later events like Hurricane Katrina. However, those activities were not seen as disasters at the time, at least by the people who carried them out. They were viewed as desirable alterations of the landscape. It is only in retrospect that people have come to understand what was lost, so maybe those do not belong on a disaster list.

"Oil spills, too, seem to be judged more by their effect on people than on the environment. Consider the Lakeview Gusher, which was almost certainly a worse oil spill, by volume, than the one continuing in the gulf. In the southern end of California's San Joaquin Valley, an oil rush was on in the early decades of the 20th century. On March 14, 1910, a well halfway between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, in Kern County, blew out with a mighty roar. It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. 'It's the granddaddy of all gushers,' said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area. The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.

"The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten. That is surely because the area is desert scrubland, and few people were inconvenienced by the spill."

Author: Justin Gillis
Title: "Where Gulf Spill Might Place on the Roll of Disasters"
Publisher: The New York Times
Date: June 18, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010 6/21/10 - slaves

In today's excerpt - slave labor on sugar plantations had to be replaced every ten to thirteen years:

"Because of its centrality to the sugar trade, the slave trade was the most hotly contested European venture on the face of the globe. The numbers themselves shock one into an awareness of its significance. Between 1501 and 1820 slavers took 8.7 million Africans in chains to the Western Hemisphere; between 1820 and the final abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, 2.3 million more were sent. A total of 11 million men and women can from Africa to the New World colonies in comparison with the 2.6 million Europeans who crossed the Atlantic in the same period. Over one hundred thousand separate voyages brought this human cargo, 70 percent them owned by either British or Portuguese traders.

"Sugar was one of capitalism's first great bonanzas; its successes also revealed the power of the profit motive to override any cultural inhibitions to gross exploitation. Slavery was old. Egyptian slaves had built pyramids; Roman ones, bridges and aqueducts. What capitalism introduced was sustained and systematic brutality in the making of goods on a scale never seen before. It's not size alone that distinguishes modern slavery from its ancient lineage in Greece and biblical times; it's also race. Slavery then often had an ethnic component because slaves were taken as the captives of war, but never a consistently racial one. When the Portuguese brought back captured Africans to work in depopulated Lisbon starting in the fifteenth century, the trade didn't differ much from the commerce in slaves that the Arabs had been conducting for several centuries throughout central and eastern Africa. A hundred years later, something new had been added to this commerce in human beings: They were integrated into an expanding production system. Those sent to the Caribbean were put to work in gangs planting sugarcanes, chopping weeds, cutting the harvest, crushing the canes in the mills that turned out molasses and sugar. The very size of the trade promoted warfare in Africa in order to meet the new demand for slaves. ...

"Sometimes bands of freelancing armed Africans raided villages and sold their captives to all comers. Along thirty-five hundred miles of coastline from Senegambia to Angola, traders gathered slave cargoes that they sold for European goods. Slave sellers particularly favored guns with which to capture more men and women. Separated by sex for the voyage across the Atlantic, the captives were packed into ships, each person confined to a space of four square feet for a period of eight to twelve weeks. A typical voyage would carry 150 to 400 persons, 12 to 15 percent of whom usually died en route. Revolts broke out in about 10 percent of all voyages, almost always in the first weeks....

"The sugar planters, who invested their capital in plantations, worked their slaves and land as hard as possible. They accepted the inevitable decline of soil in the pursuit of quick returns. So profitable was the crop and so cruel the plantation owners that they literally worked their slaves to death. The labor force in the Caribbean had to be replaced about ever ten to thirteen years."

Author: Joyce Appleby
Title: The Relentless Revolution
Publisher: Norton
Date: Copyright 2010 by Joyce Appleby
Pages: 124-125, 129-130.

Friday, June 18, 2010 6/18/10 - rip van winkle

In today's excerpt - Rip Van Winkle, who was author Washington Irving's vehicle for conveying the lightning pace of change in early America - the period in which Americans became the first people to expect and to prize change, and during which business and working for profit became more praised and honored than in any other country in the Western world:

"During the second decade of the nineteenth century, writer Washington Irving developed an acute sense that his native land was no longer the same place it had been just a generation earlier. Irving had conservative and nostalgic sensibilities, and he sought to express some of his amazement at the transformation that had taken place in America by writing his story 'Rip Van Winkle.' Irving had his character Rip awaken from a sleep that had begun before the Revolution and had lasted twenty years. When Rip entered his old village, he immediately felt lost. The buildings, the faces, the names were all strange and incomprehensible. 'The very village was altered - it was larger and more populous,' and idleness, except among the aged, was no longer tolerated. 'The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility' - a terrifying situation for Rip, who had had 'an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour.' Even the language was strange - 'rights of citizens - elections - members of Congress - liberty ... and other words which were a perfect babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.' When people asked him 'on which side he voted' and 'whether he was Federal or a Democrat,' Rip could only stare 'in vacant stupidity.'

" 'Rip Van Winkle' became the most popular of Irving's many stories, for early nineteenth-century Americans could appreciate Rip's bewilderment. Although superficially the political leadership seemed much the same - on the sign at the village inn the face of George Washington had simply replaced that of George III -beneath the surface Rip, like most Americans, knew that 'every thing's changed.' In a few short decades Americans had experienced a
remarkable transformation in their society and culture, and, like Rip and his creator, many wondered what had happened and who they really were.

"Before the Revolution Of 1776 America had been merely a collection of disparate British colonies composed of some two million subjects huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast - European outposts whose cultural focus was still London, the metropolitan center of the empire. Following the War of 1812 with Great Britain - often called the Second American Revolution - these insignificant provinces had become a single giant continental republic with nearly ten million citizens, many of whom had already spilled into the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The cultural focus of this huge expansive nation was no longer abroad but was instead directed inward at its own boundless possibilities.

"By 1815 Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to one another and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them. And this transformation took place before industrialization, before urbanization, before railroads, and before any of the technological breakthroughs usually associated with modern social change. In the decades following the Revolution America changed so much and so rapidly that Americans not only became used to change but came to expect it and prize it.

"The population grew dramatically, doubling every twenty years or so, as it had for several generations, more than twice the rate of growth of any European country. And people were on the move as never before. Americans spread themselves over half a continent at astonishing speeds. Between 1790 and 1820 New York's population quadrupled; Kentucky's multiplied nearly eight times. In a single decade Ohio grew from a virtual wilderness (except, of course, for the presence of the native Indians, whom white Americans scarcely acknowledged) to become more populous than most of the century-old colonies had been at the time of the Revolution. In a single generation Americans occupied more territory than they had occupied during the entire 150 years of the colonial period, and in the process killed or displaced tens of thousands of Indians.

"Although most Americans in 1815 remained farmers living in rural areas, they had become, especially in the North, one of the most highly commercialized people in the world. They were busy buying and selling not only with the rest of the world but increasingly with one another, everyone, it seemed, trying to realize what Niles' Weekly Register declared 'the almost universal ambition to get forward.' Nowhere in the Western world was business and working for profit more praised and honored."

Author: Gordon Wood
Title: Empire of Liberty
Publisher: Oxford
Date: Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Pages: 1-2

Thursday, June 17, 2010 6/17/10 - charlie chaplin

In today's encore excerpt - Charlie Chaplin in exile (1889-1977). Chaplin's Little Tramp character had catapulted him to fame and fortune perhaps not exceeded even to this day. However, late in his career, his political views - though moderate by some contemporary standards - were seen by many as communistic, and J. Edgar Hoover instructed the FBI to keep extensive secret files on him. This, coupled with the controversy associated with his attraction to younger women (at fifty-four, for example, he married eighteen-year-old Oona O'Neill), led to his departure and exile from the United States. To add to this sorrow, he began to feel trapped by the Little Tramp character he had created:

"Thanks to the combined scandals of his 'un-American' politics and his underage bedfellows, Chaplin had been exiled [by the FBI in 1952] from the country whose most popular art form he helped to define. Decamping to a villa in Switzerland, he lived out the next twenty years with his devoted fourth wife, Oona, at his side, returning to the US in 1972 for 'the great American recantation,' when Hollywood offered him an honorary Oscar, and the opportunity for some preening. He died five years later, at the age of eighty-eight, widely considered cinema's greatest genius.

"Although the international adoration the Tramp inspired was gratifying at first, Chaplin came to resent the 'mask' he had assumed: 'There are days when I am filled with disgust at the character that circumstances forced me to create,' he said late in life: 'That dreadful suit of clothes.' This seems less a rejection of the suit itself, than of a career defined by - or as - a suit of clothes, the lingering horror of a costume that became both straitjacket and carapace. But as James Agee pointed out, Chaplin's genius was precisely for finding 'inflections,' for ranging across human nature while remaining within this one, apparently fixed, identity.

"Nonetheless, becoming a living legend is, by all accounts, not much fun. Like Marilyn Monroe after him, Chaplin felt imprisoned by his own creation, as his audiences refused to let him play anyone else. Unlike Monroe, however, Chaplin had the wealth and the creative control to make the attempt. After dozens of shorts and a handful of classic features starring the Tramp, including The Gold Rush and City Lights, Chaplin set about killing him off, first turning him into Hitler, in The Great Dictator, and then into Monsieur Verdoux, the sociopathic serial killer who justifies murdering a string of wives by means of the atomic bomb. Monsieur Verdoux was greeted with a mixture of incomprehension and hostility; although it was nominated for best screenplay of 1947, it lost to that beloved masterpiece, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer starring Cary Grant and Shirley Temple. Chaplin made only one more film in Hollywood, the mawkish and self-pitying Limelight, before the House Un-American Activities Committee drove him into exile."

Author: Sarah Churchwell
Title: "The Tramp and the sort-of-lady"
Publisher: The Times Literary Supplement
Date: June 12, 2009
Page: 7

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 6/16/10 - ugly japanese stereotypes

In today's excerpt - the treatment and descriptions of the Japanese by the American media during World War II, the controversial suggestion that those descriptions helped justify dropping the atomic bomb, and the more controversial suggestion that dropping the bomb helped the Communists come to power within china:

"[Concern] for the fate of the Japanese people had certainly not been evident in [Time and Life] magazines' coverage of the Pacific war. Time had expressed no concern about the Japanese-American relocation in 1942 and had reported sunnily on the 'decent treatment' that these interned American citizens received. Time, Life, and even Fortune had joined eagerly in the extraordinarily racist depictions of the Japanese that pervaded most of the American media throughout the war - depictions that many contemporaries and some scholars have argued were significant factors in justifying the use of the bomb. Portraying the Japanese as savage, even barely human, made it easier to authorize unusually harsh assaults. One of Time's first covers after the attack on Pearl Harbor had presented an almost simian portrait of Admiral Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Pacific fleet, in which both the background and the admiral's face were colored entirely in a vivid and lurid yellow.

"Another cover in early 1942, at the time the Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese, had portrayed a Dutch naval officer, with a small picture behind him of a monkey wearing a Japanese helmet and carrying a gun swinging by his tail from a tree. 'What would the [American] people say in response to Pearl Harbor?' Time asked shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. 'What they said was . . . "Why the yellow bastards!' Life light-heartedly captioned a photograph of American soldiers in a Pacific jungle: 'Like many of their comrades they were hunting for Japs, just as they used to go after small game in the woods back home.' There is no evidence that [Time-Life owner Henry] Luce personally encouraged these racist stereotypes. but - like almost all American editors during the war - he did little to stop them (although he did publish an anguished letter to Time from Pearl Buck reminding him that using 'yellow' pejoratively would offend many non-Japanese Asians). Nor had Luce raised objections to the horrendous firebombings of Tokyo and other cities, which had produced more carnage than either of the atomic bombs.

"Whatever his views at the time, Luce's ultimate concern about the atomic bombings had less to do with Japan than with China. The demonization of the Japanese in the Time Inc. magazines was, in part, an effort to distinguish them from their portrayal of America's valiant Chinese allies. Life once ran a notorious photo essay, 'How to Tell Japs from Chinese,' concluding that the Japanese 'squat ... massively boned head [had] aboriginal antecedents,' as compared to the more refined and cultured features of the Chinese. But most of all, the atomic bomb contributed to what Luce considered the 'massive failure' of the United States to stabilize China. 'If the bomb had not been dropped,' he wrote years later in an unfinished memoir, 'and if the well-laid
plans for the MacArthur invasion had been carried out - then, almost certainly ... there would have been a major Chinese offensive, with American-trained Chinese divisions.... It would have been successful.... Chiang Kai-shek would have been in a position to move armies up to Peking and Manchuria.' As a result 'Chiang would have had a chance.' But the abrupt end of the war against Japan led instead to the introduction of Soviet troops into Manchuria, the rapid disengagement of American troops in China, and the ability of Mao's Communist forces to conserve their strength for the battle against the Nationalists. His views in 1945 never changed. Even in the year before his death, Luce continued to insist that sustained American support would have provided China with the 'great chance' to create a democratic nation."

Author: Alan Brinkley
Title: The Publisher
Publisher: Knopf
Date: Copyright 2010 by Alan Brinkley
Pages: 316-317

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6/15/10 - phone sex

In today's excerpt - the rules that phone sex workers have to follow:

"There were many mothers [among the phone sex workers]. All were great women, and talking with them during the slow periods was the best part of the job. Let's just say odd jobs collect odd characters to work at them, so the stories they had were great. ...

"The first call [I received] was on the one-nine-hundred number, which requires the workers to follow special rules. The one-eight-hundred number involves the use of a credit card to talk to a woman, so the age of the caller can often be verified, but many callers who use the nine-hundred line are under eighteen. We had a fiber optic Big Brother occasionally monitoring the phone calls to make sure we followed the rules. So we needed to make sure that we obeyed the rules and didn't verbally give any hard-ons to minors (without them really working for it).

"In addition, the rules for phone sex lines out of California in the late '90s, as explained by my supervisors, specified that there could be no talk of bestiality, underage sex, or incest. This was taken so seriously that we couldn't even use phrases like 'Daddy's little girl' or 'Let me be your sex kitten' without verbally clarifying that we were over eighteen and not related to the callers, or that we weren't actually feline. Do you know what a c**k block it is, during a naughty-high-school-cheerleader-being-disciplined-by-the-principal story, when you have to stop and explain twice that you are an eighteen-year-old high school cheerleader?

"So, to make sure the callers were eighteen or older, we played the math game: We had to get the callers to give us not only their age, but year born and year graduated from high school. There was a chart of corresponding years so the phone sex workers wouldn't have to do the math. If callers messed up on the math, they failed, and not only did they not get any 'Baby, give it to me, give it to me hard:' but their coded phone numbers were put on a list. If any number appeared on the list more than three times, our supervisor would call the parents. Yes, the phone sex line would turn you in, junior.

"Along with Minor Math, we had to play Feed Me the Line. We couldn't use any sexually explicit words or phrases till the caller used them first. We couldn't actually talk dirty to callers till they talked dirty to us, and strangely enough, getting a very horny man to talk dirty to you isn't as easy as it seems. Most of the callers are slightly socially retarded toward women. If they were able to talk to women about what they wanted, they would be getting laid without Ma Bell playing madam. The typical caller expected you to be an easy verbal lay: Just dial the number and instant orgasmic satisfaction. But I couldn't give them what I knew they wanted without them 'feeding me the line.' So it was a conversational tug-of-war: 'Talk dirty to me.' 'Tell me about what you want me to do for you.' 'Talk dirty to me.' 'Come on, baby, tell me your fantasy.' 'I want you to talk dirty to me.' 'Tell me exactly what you want me to talk about.' 'Talk
dirty to me.' And so on and so on."

Author: David Henry Sterry and R.J. Martin, Jr., Editors, from a contribution by Lilycat
Title: Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys
Publisher: Soft Skull
Date: Copyright 2009 by David Henry Sterry and Richard Martin
Pages: 184-185.

Monday, June 14, 2010 6/14/10 - teaching

In today's excerpt - teaching. Through many years of systematic observation of some of the very best teachers, teacher Doug Lemov has identified forty-nine key techniques that separate the very best teachers from merely good ones. One of these forty-nine techniques he has labeled "Right is Right":

" 'Right Is Right' is about the difference between partially right and all-the-way right - between pretty good and 100 percent. The job of the teacher is to set a high standard for correctness: 100 percent. The likelihood is strong that students will stop striving when they hear the word right (or yes or some other proxy), so there's a real risk to naming as right that which is not truly and completely right. When you sign off and tell a student she is right, she must not be betrayed into thinking she can do something that she cannot.

"Many teachers respond to almost-correct answers their students give in class by rounding up. That is they'll affirm the student's answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it fully correct even though the student didn't provide (and may not recognize) the differentiating factor. Imagine a student who's asked at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet how the Capulets and Montagues get along. 'They don't like each other,' the student might say, in an answer that most teachers would, I hope, want some elaboration on before they called it fully correct. 'Right,' the teacher might reply. 'They don't like each other, and they have been feuding for generations.' But of course the student hadn't included the additional detail. That's the 'rounding up.' Sometimes the teacher will even give the student credit for the rounding up as if the student said what he did not and what she merely wished he'd said, as in, 'Right, what Kiley said was that they don't like each other and have been feuding. Good work, Kiley.' Either way, the teacher has set a low standard for correctness and explicitly told the class that they can be right even when they are not. Just as important, she has crowded out students' own thinking, doing cognitive work that students could do themselves (e.g., 'So, is this a recent thing? A temporary thing? Who can build on Kiley's answer?').

"When answers are almost correct, it's important to tell students that they're almost there, that you like what they've done so far, that they're closing in on the right answer, that they've done some good work or made a great start. You can repeat a student's answer back to him so he can listen for what's missing and further correct - for example, 'You said the Capulets and the Montagues didn't get along.' Or you can wait or prod or encourage or cajole in other ways to tell students what still needs doing, ask who can help get the class all the way there until you get students all the way to a version of right that's rigorous enough to be college prep: 'Kiley, you said the Capulets and the Montagues didn't get along. Does that really capture their relationship? Does that sound like what they'd say about each other?'

"In holding out for right, you set the expectation that the questions you ask and their answers truly matter. You show that you believe your students are capable of getting answers as right as students anywhere else. You show the difference between the facile and the scholarly. This faith in the quality of a right answersends a powerful message to your students that will guide them long after they have left your classroom.

"Over the years I've witnessed teachers struggle to defend right answers. In one visit to a fifth-grade classroom, a teacher asked her students to define peninsula. One student raised his hand and offered this definition: 'It's like, where the water indents into the land.' 'Right,' his teacher replied, trying to reinforce participation since so few hands had gone up. Then she added, 'Well, except that a peninsula is where land indents into water, which is a little different.' Her reward to the student for his effort was to provide him with misinformation. A peninsula, he heard, is pretty much 'where the water indents into the land' but different on some arcane point he need not really recall. Meanwhile, it's a safe bet that the students with whom he will compete for a seat in college are not learning to conflate bays and peninsulas."

Author: Doug Lemov
Title: Teach Like a Champion
Publisher: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint
Date: Copyright 2010 by John Wiley & Sons
Page: 35-37

Friday, June 11, 2010 6/11/10 - cleopatra's father

In today's excerpt - Ptolemy XII, the father of Cleopatra VII, who was the famed lover of both Caesar and Mark Antony. How do you lose a kingdom? Through profligate spending. Ptolemy's reckless spending and negligent administration led to unrest throughout Egypt, and meant that he had to turn to Roman bankers to rescue him, making the country of Egypt itself the collateral for the Roman loan. And when Ptolemy left the country in disgrace, the Romans had to restore him to power so he could try and make good on his loan. He never fully did, and as a result, Rome's takeover of Egypt from his daughter Cleopatra, though caught in the intrigue of a power struggle between Caesar and Mark Antony, was less a conventional military conquest and more the collection of an overdue loan:

"Ptolemy's lavishness cost him dearly, with both internal instability and Roman concern increasing. There are scattered notices of disturbances in Egypt all through the 60s B.C. The historian Diodoros, who visited Egypt about this time, witnessed a riot and lynching that occurred when someone accidentally committed the sacrilege of killing a cat, an incident that was notable for the failure of government officials sent to the scene to intervene. Taxes were increased, resulting in strikes by farmers in the villages: as was usual in times of financial excess and overseas adventures, the poor suffered the most. It was said that money to pay the king's debts was exacted by force. Even the gold sarcophagus of Alexander the Great was melted down. Civil disturbances reached such a point that in 63 B.C. Ptolemy had to issue an order that unauthorized persons could not enter temple treasuries. His expenditures soon reached a point that he went into debt, borrowing from the famous Roman banker C. Rabirius Postumus. ...

"Discontent and opposition to his rule, especially his failure to hold traditional Ptolemaic territory and to keep it from the Romans, as well as his financial policies, resulted either in his expulsion or, more likely, voluntary departure from Egypt in the summer of 58 B.C., [leaving his wife Cleopatra VI in charge.] ...

"The indebtedness of Ptolemy XII to Roman bankers meant that his political survival was more than an idle question in Rome, since the best way to ensure that the debts would be paid would be to implement his restoration and thus give him renewed access to the Egyptian treasury. ...

"In Alexandria the death of Cleopatra VI during her husband's exile created an awkward situation, as the surviving queen Berenike IV had no husband [so] one had to be found. ... A certain Archelaos was finally successful. His background is contradictorily described in the sources, but he claimed to have been a descendant of Mithradates the Great and happened to be a protege of [triumvirate member] Pompeius.

"The Romans were not finished with Ptolemy XII, however. Although Archelaos and Berenike seemed firmly in control in Egypt with Archelaos now accepted as king, the Roman bankers, led by Rabirius Postumus, knew that restoration of Ptolemy was their only means of salvation. Yet discussions about whether to restore the king led to rioting in Rome, less out of concern about Ptolemy's future than the machinations of those in power, whose interests included the future of Egypt. Pompeius persuaded Gabinius, the governor of Syria, to bring about the restoration, and his willingness to comply was eased by 10,000 talents provided by Ptolemy."

Author: Duane W. Roller
Title: Cleopatra
Publisher: Oxford
Date: Copyright 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Pages: 21-24

Thursday, June 10, 2010 6/10/10 - the american revolution and debt

In today's encore excerpt - American debtors and the Revolution:

"In England, statutes decreeing imprisonment for debt date to the thirteenth century. The point wasn't to lock you up - as the proverb had it, 'A prison pays no debts' - but to terrify you into paying, to avoid incarceration. Nine times out of ten, that's just what happened, which is why the practice prevailed in most parts of the early modern world and, in the seventeenth century, travelled, with English common law, to America. A 1641 Massachusetts law known as the 'Body of Liberties' closely followed English practice, declaring of the insolvent that 'his person may be arrested and imprisoned where he shall be kept at his owne charge, not the platife's till satisfaction be made.' ... There were no terms: you weren't sentenced for a month, a year, a decade; you stayed in jail until your creditors were satisfied.

"This didn't work that well in the New World. As many as two out of every three Europeans who came to the colonies were debtors on arrival: they paid for their passage by becoming indentured servants. Early on, labor was so scarce that colonists who fell into debt once they got here paid with work; there was much to be done, and there weren't many prisons. In 1674, a Massachusetts court ordered Joseph Armitage, who owed John Ruck twenty-two pounds, to serve as Ruck's servant for seven years. (What relieved the colonies' labor scarcity and spelled the end of debtor servitude was the rise of the African slave trade.) The colonies were also a good place to go to run away from your debts. Some colonies were, basically, debtors' asylums. In 1642, Virginia, eager to lure settlers, promised five years' protection from any debts contracted in the Old World. North Carolina did the same in 1669. Creditors, in any case, found it all but impossible to pursue fugitive debtors across the Atlantic. (Not for nothing did Defoe's Moll Flanders, born in London's Newgate Prison, sail to Virginia.) Then, there was an early version of a farm subsidy: Connecticut and Maryland forbade the prosecution of debtors between May and October and released prisoners to plant and harvest on the unassailable argument that 'the Porest Sort of the Inhabitants' were often 'undone in that they cannot be at Liberty to make their Cropps.' ...

"In London, debtors' prisons filled. And then they teemed. James Oglethorpe, a member of Parliament, ... had an idea: what about just shipping the miserable wretches across the ocean? In 1732, he founded Georgia, a colony intended as a refuge for debtors released from English prisons.

"This only strengthened a prevailing perception: that the colonies' relationship with England was that of a debtor to a creditor. By the seventeen-sixties, sympathy for debtors had attached itself to the patriot cause. Weren't all Americans debtors? Whenever New York's Sons of Liberty held a banquet, they made a show of sending the leftovers to the city's imprisoned debtors. Virginia planters like Jefferson and Washington were monstrously in debt to merchants in London. A creditor was 'lord of another man's purse'; hadn't the British swindled Americans out of their purses, their independence, their manhood? This, anyway, is how many colonists came to view their economic dependence on Britain. Declaring independence was a way of canceling those debts. The American Revolution, some historians have argued, was itself a form of debt relief. ...

"Debtors in New York used to be locked up in the garret of City Hall, at the corner of Wall Street, in a cramped nook under the eaves. From its dormers, they would lower shoes, tied to a string, to collect alms from passersby. Debtors' prisons in other cities and towns had what were called 'beggars' grates,' iron bars through which prisoners in cellar dungeons could extend outstretched palms."

Author: Jill Lepore
Title: "I.O.U."
Publisher: The New Yorker
Date: April 13, 2009
Pages: 35-37

Wednesday, June 09, 2010 6/9/10 - the elements

In today's excerpt - the elements. At one point, aluminum was considered more rare and precious than silver:

"There are ninety-two naturally occurring elements on Earth, plus a further twenty or so that have been created in labs, but some of these we can immediately put to one side - as, in fact, chemists themselves tend to do. Not a few of our earthly chemicals are surprisingly little known. Astatine, for
instance, is practically unstudied. It has a name and a place on the periodic table (next door to Marie Curie's polonium), but almost nothing else. The
problem isn't scientific indifference, but rarity. There just isn't much astatine out there. The most elusive element of all, however, appears to be francium, which is so rare that it is thought that our entire planet may contain, at any given moment, fewer than twenty francium atoms. Altogether only about thirty of the naturally occurring elements are widespread on Earth, and barely half a dozen are of central importance to life.

"As you might expect, oxygen is our most abundant element, accounting for just under 50 percent of the Earth's crust, but after that the relative abundances are often surprising. Who would guess, for instance, that silicon is the second most common element on Earth or that titanium is tenth? Abundance has little to do with their familiarity or utility to us. Many of the more obscure elements are actually more common than the better-known ones. There is more cerium on Earth than copper, more neodymium and lanthanum than cobalt or nitrogen. Tin barely makes it into the top fifty, eclipsed by such relative obscurities as praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium, and dysprosium.

"Abundance also has little to do with ease of detection. Aluminum is the fourth most common element on Earth, accounting for nearly a tenth of everything that's underneath your feet, but its existence wasn't even suspected until it was discovered in the nineteenth century by Humphry Davy, and for a long time after that it was treated as rare and precious. Congress nearly put a shiny lining of aluminum foil atop the Washington Monument to show what a classy and prosperous nation we had become, and the French imperial family in the same period discarded the state silver dinner service and replaced it with an aluminum one. The fashion was cutting edge even if the knives weren't.

"Nor does abundance necessarily relate to importance. Carbon is only the fifteenth most common element, accounting for a very modest 0.048 percent of Earth's crust, but we would be lost without it. What sets the carbon atom apart is that it is shamelessly promiscuous. It is the party animal of the atomic world, latching on to many other atoms (including itself) and holding tight, forming molecular conga lines of hearty robustness - the very trick of nature necessary to build proteins and DNA. As Paul Davies has written: 'If it wasn't for carbon, life as we know it would be impossible. Probably any sort of life would be impossible.' Yet carbon is not all that plentiful even in humans, who so totally depend on it. Of every 200 atoms in your body, 126 are hydrogen, 51 are oxygen, and just 19 are carbon."

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Publisher: Broadway Books
Date: Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson
Pages: 250-251

Tuesday, June 08, 2010 6/8/10 - wealth and gold

In today's excerpt - wealth without resources. In the 1500s and 1600s, the experience of two countries seemed to defy all that had gone before. Spain had amassed the largest supply of gold in history thanks to its New World conquests, but saw inflation and near bankruptcy as a result. And in Holland, the Dutch were gaining greater wealth than most any country on earth by trading in fish and other mundane items - in the beginnings of a strange new way that came to be known as a market economy:

During the seventeenth century, the Dutch extracted tons of herring from waters that washed on English shores, had the largest merchant fleet in Europe, drew into their banks Spanish gold, borrowed at the lowest interest rates, and bested all comers, in the commerce of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the West Indies. Dutch prosperity, like Dutch land, seemed to have been created out of nothing. The inevitable contrast with Spain, the possessor of gold and silver mines now teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, only underscored the conundrum of Dutch success.

The Netherlands represented a kind of anti-fairy tale. The rags-to-riches heroes of medieval folklore invariably found pots of gold or earned fortunes through acts of valor. Elfin magicians, fairy godmothers, and subdued giants were the bestowers of great wealth. Spanish exploits in the New World had been entirely in keeping with this legendary tradition. The conquistadors had won the fabled mines of the Incas and Aztecs wih their military prowess. Even the less glamorous triumphs of the Portuguese conformed to the 'treasure' image of getting wealthy. Venturing into uncharted oceans, they had bravely blazed a water trail to the riches of the Orient.

The Dutch, on the other hand, had made their money in a most mundane fashion. No aura of gold and silver, perfumed woods, rare stones aromatic spices, or luxurious fabrics attended their initial successes. Instead their broad-bottomed flyboats plied the waters of the North Sea in an endless circulation of European staples. From this inglorious foundation the industrious people of the Low Countries had turned their cities into the emporiums of the world. The Dutch were the ones to emulate, but to emulate was not easy, for the market economy was not a single thing but a complicated mix of human activities that seemed to sustain itself. ...

In the Dutch example there were challenging contradictions between appearances and reality with puzzling divergences between expectations based upon established truths and what actually happened. Without mines, how did the Dutch come to have plenty of coin? With few natural resources for export, how could the Dutch engross the production of other countries? How did the Dutch have low interest rates and high land values? How were high wages maintained with a burgeoning population? How could high prices and widespread prosperity exist simultaneously in the Low Countries (Holland)?

Author: Joyce Appleby
Title: The Relentless Revolution
Publisher: Norton
Date: Copyright 2010 by Joyce Appleby
Pages: 99-100

Monday, June 07, 2010 6/7/10 - the beat cop

In today's excerpt - the "beat cop." Community members regularly lament the demise of the beat cop - the officer who knew everyone in the neighborhood and who chastised wayward children and settled disputes between neighbors and family members without ever having to resort to making an arrest. But the idealized beat cop is a myth that has never existed in the real world of constrained budget and backlogs of unsolved crimes, according to John Timoney, four-star police chief in the New York City Police Department, later Police Commissioner of Philadelphia, and then Police Chief of Miami:

"Over the course of my career, [the lament I heard repeatedly from community members was] 'the only thing I really want is a cop on the beat, like the guy who patrolled the streets when I was growing up.'

"The first time I heard the lament regarding officers who knew their community was when I was a young police officer walking a foot beat in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. The sentiment seemed to make sense, but as I thought back to when I was a young teenager growing up in Washington Heights, I didn't remember a police officer walking the beat. I do remember police officers in police cars who broke our chops on a daily basis for playing stickball in the street or curveball underneath Mrs. Lemondrop's window. I concluded that the reason I didn't remember a specific police officer in my community on his foot beat was because foot beats must have stopped in the late 1950s and thus were a thing of the past. Fast-forward twenty years: as a captain and later as a deputy chief, I continued to hear the same lament from people who were aged forty or fifty - my age!

"In Philadelphia and then again in Miami, the longing for the days of the foot beat officer who knew everyone in the neighborhood and who chastised wayward children and settled disputes between neighbors and family members without ever having to resort to making an arrest continued to be voiced at community meetings. I vowed to myself that I would find this ubiquitous foot beat officer. After much research, what I did find was that this lament was not of recent vintage. The case of Police Commissioner Louis Valentine is illustrative.

"Valentine entered the NYPD as a rookie in 1902. His rise through the ranks was periodically stalled as he ran afoul of different police administrations due to his desire to see a corruption-free NYPD. Eventually, Valentine became the police commissioner under New York's reform mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. In his autobiography, Nightstick, Commissioner Valentine lays out what his priorities were when he became police commissioner in 1934. First and foremost among his goals was to return to the days before he first came on 'the job,' about 1903, when the police officer on the beat knew everyone in the neighborhood, and everybody in the neighborhood knew him. ... You get my point.

"My research took me to Hollywood, where I think I found our missing beat officer. His name was Officer McShane. He walked a foot beat in the 1945 movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Officer McShane knew the problems of the people on his beat intimately. He was around day and night, and he looked after the neighbors on his beat, including the family with the alcoholic father and exasperated wife and two adorable little girls. Eventually and predictably, the father dies from his affliction and Officer McShane is there to ease the widow's pain. ...

"Yes, I found the beat officer, or should I say, I found the myth. There is nothing wrong with this myth. It is really an ideal that most people have regarding police officers in their communities. Most people like police officers or want to like police officers. It is the job of every police officer and every police chief to help make the myth a reality, or at least make the ideal a goal."

Author: John F. Timoney
Title: Beat Cop to Top Cop
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Date: Copyright 2010 by University of Pennsylvania Press
Pages: 322-324.

Friday, June 04, 2010 6/4/10 - life magazine

In today's excerpt - 1936, having founded Time magazine and become wealthy and famous in the process, Henry Luce founded a new magazine based primarily on displaying photographs which he called Life:

"Even before the first issue appeared, it was becoming clear that Life would be an enormous popular success - a result of effective advertising, extensive press coverage, the reputation of the company, and the popular hunger for pictures that Luce had cited as a reason to create Life. ...

"There were 235,000 subscribers by the time the first issue appeared - almost the entire guaranteed circulation before any newsstand sales, for which requests were also growing fast. Shortly before publication, the circulation manager announced that because of the frenzied, anticipatory interest 'every dealer is to receive the same number of copies of Life that he receives of Time.' 'One dealer in New York who sells two copies of Time a week placed an order for 250 copies of Life,' Pierre Prentice, the circulation manager, wrote. 'All the dealers are ... mad that we were not able to supply them with more copies of Life. '

"Nothing, however, truly prepared Luce and his colleagues for the public response to Life when it finally went on sale. Some images collected by the editors at the time suggest the character of the magazine's first weeks: a used-book shop with a sign pasted in the window - 'Life Wanted, Good Prices Paid'; a classified ad in the San Francisco Examiner in December 1936 - 'Life magazine, 1st edition; 2; $3.50 each (they retailed for $0.10 per copy). Phone
VA1 - 5927. Afternoons'; a drugstore in Detroit with a copy of Life in the window below a sign - 'Sold Out But Read It Here'; heavily marked up distribution lists from newsstands in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Keyport, New Jersey, from dealers who were saving copies of Life for regular customers (the Keyport dealer rationed copies by selling the magazine to each customer only on alternating weeks); and a cartoon in an advertising magazine showing a group of businessmen around a table, one of them sputtering, 'W-w-what's that! You say you saw an unsold copy of this week's 'Life' at a newsstand on 42nd Street?' ...

"All two hundred thousand newsstand copies sold out the first day, some of them in the first hour. Dealers from around the country wired their distributors that they could sell five hundred more copies (Cincinnati), one thousand more (Lansing, Michigan), fifteen hundred more (Worcester, Massachusetts), five thousand more (Cleveland). 'The demand for Life is completely without precedent in publishing history,' the overwhelmed Prentice wrote. 'If we could supply the copies, the dollar volume of our newsstand sales of Life this month [December 1936] would be greater than the dollar volume of sales of any other magazine in the world. There was no way we could anticipate a bigger newsstand business the first month than magazines like Collier's and Saturday Evening Post have built up in thirty years.' ...

"By the end of 1937, a year after Life's birth, circulation had reached I.5 million - more than triple the first-year circulation of any magazine in American. ...

"Increasing supply to keep up with demand required an almost Herculean effort. The production of Life was constrained by a serious shortage of paper, an inadequate number of presses, and serious fire hazards in the gas-heated presses already in use, which were running dangerously almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."

Author: Alan Brinkley
Title: The Publisher
Publisher: Knopf
Date: Copyright 2010 by Alan Brinkley
Pages: 219-222

Thursday, June 03, 2010 6/3/10 - the post office and valentine's day

n today's excerpt - the U.S. Post Office and Valentine's Day cards:

"It can take people a while to grasp the implications of a new communications system. When Thomas Edison invented his improved telephone receiver in 1877, he thought it would become a medium for broadcasting concerts and plays to remote auditoriums. For twenty-five years after the radio was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, people chiefly regarded it as a means of ship-to-shore communication.

"Then there's the US Postal System. For the first half century after its founding, its main function was to circulate newspapers to a national audience. Not that you couldn't send letters, too, but the rates were much higher than for periodicals. In 1840, sending a letter from Boston to Richmond cost 25 cents a sheet, at a time when the average laborer made 75 cents a day. Postal inspectors were always on the alert for people who sent each other newspapers at the cheaper rate and added coded personal messages by putting pin pricks in certain letters.

"That all changed in 1845, when Congress enacted the first in a series of laws that sharply reduced the cost of sending letters. The new rates led to a vast surge in personal correspondence and set up a communications revolution that the historian David Henkin has chronicled in a fascinating new book called The Postal Age.

"One dramatic effect of the cheaper postage was to allow Americans to keep in touch with one another in what was becoming the most mobile society on earth. But as Henkin recounts, the post was used for other purposes. Businesses made mass mailings of circulars, and swindlers sent out letters promoting get-rich-quick schemes. People sent each other portraits of themselves made with the recently invented daguerreotype process. They sent seeds and sprigs to distant friends and family eager for the smells of home. And, oh yes, they also sent valentines.
"St. Valentine's Day was an ancient European holiday. Back in England, people drew lots to divine their future mates and exchanged love poems and intricately folded pieces of paper called 'puzzle purses,' the ancestors of the fortune-telling cootie-catchers that children still make today. But before the 1840s, puritan Americans almost completely disregarded the holiday, like the other saints' days of the Old World.

"The drop in postal rates set off what contemporaries described as 'Valentine mania.' By the late 1850s, Americans were buying 3 million ready-made valentines every year, paying anything from a penny to several hundred dollars for elaborate affairs adorned with gold rings or precious stones. People sent cards to numerous objects of their affection, often taking advantage of the possibilities for anonymity that the mail provided.

"That was alarming to moralists who complained that the postal system in general promoted promiscuity, illicit assignations, and the distribution of pornography - and actually, they weren't entirely wrong about any of that. But fully half of the valentine traffic consisted of comic or insulting cards that people sent anonymously to annoying neighbors or unpopular schoolmasters. By the time the craze tapered off a few decades later, people were sending each other cards for Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, as the greeting card became a fixture of American life."

Author: Geoffrey Nunberg
Title: The Years of Talking Dangerously
Publisher: Public Affairs
Date: Copyright 2009 by Geoffrey Nunberg
Pages: 141-143.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010 6/2/10 - baptists and presbyterians

In today's excerpt - in Virginia, in the period immediately before the American Revolution, dissenters from Anglican worship could still be fined or even imprisoned. John Clay, a Baptist preacher who was the father of legendary American statesman Henry Clay, was among those jailed. Although "taxation without representation" was the ostensible cause of the Revolution, it was deeply felt resentment from Presbyterians, Baptists and others against this heavy-handed Anglicanism that provided the Revolution with much of its urgency and emotional weight, and preachers throughout America railed against King George, the head of the Anglican Church, as the "Great Satan":

"Around the time of his marriage, [Virginian John Clay] received 'the call.' Eventually he became the Baptists' chief apostle in Hanover County, working to change attitudes that were not necessarily irreligious but did find the Church of England emotionally unsatisfying and spiritually moribund. After the Great Awakening [which began in the 1730s] swept its revivalist fervor across the country, Virginians found the mandatory nature of Anglican worship - dissenters could be fined and even imprisoned - infuriating, and a simmering discontent over the lack of religious freedom helped stoke dissatisfaction with other aspects of British rule.

"Presbyterians became the dominant denomination in literate areas as converts in the Tidewater and Piedmont were matched by Scots-Irish migrations from Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley. In the region between - Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover counties - the less literate gravitated to the Baptists, whose services were long on emotion and short on complicated liturgical teachings.

"Because of this, the number of Baptists markedly increased in the 1760s and 1770s, particularly among lower-class whites and slaves. Preachers could be unschooled and were always uncompensated, at least by any hierarchical authority. They came to their pulpits after an extraordinary religious experience
referred to as 'the call.'

"After John Clay received the call, he organized churches in Henrico and Hanover counties, including a large congregation at Winn's Church in 1776. Most of his flock comprised a sect known as New Light Baptists, not exactly economic levelers but noted for simple attire and the practice of calling each other 'sister' and 'brother' regardless of social rank or economic status. They were clearly more democratic than class-conscious Anglicans, and congregations even allowed slaves to participate in worship services. That eccentric practice alone caused Anglican planter elites anxiety over the influence of Baptists, a troubling, troublesome lot who made even Presbyterians look respectable.

"Baptists took such contempt as a badge of honor. They and the Presbyterians grew increasingly angry about the power of establishment Anglicans, in particular evidenced by onerous taxes and reflexive persecution. At least once John Clay himself felt the weight of Anglican anger when he was jailed for his dissent. Such experiences, though, fueled rather than suppressed enthusiasm for religious liberty. As protests over British taxes became more strident, calls for spiritual freedom matched them. The drive for independence gained momentum, and the calls for disestablishing the Church of England became more vocal."

Author: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Title: Henry Clay
Publisher: Random House
Date: Copyright 2010 by David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler
Pages: 6-7

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 6/1/10 - oysters

In today's excerpt - most of America's oysters come from the Gulf coast, in spite of what your menu might say. (A potentially troubling fact for oyster lovers given the Deepwater Horizon disaster):

"The murkiness of the Galveston Bay, or 'turbidity,' as scientists call it, came from suspended sediments and plankton. 'The Adriatic is beautiful blue,' Croatian-born Galveston oysterman Misho Ivic told me, 'but there's nothing living in it. It's sterile. Galveston Bay looks muddy because the water is
full of food. Good for the oysters, good for the crabs.'

"I didn't trust him, of course. East Coast and West Coast oystermen say that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are filthy. And maybe they are. But oysters live in brackish water in freshwater estuaries, not in the Gulf of Mexico. And the scientists I interviewed said that Galveston Bay was in pretty good shape.

" 'We always fight the perception that the bay is polluted, but the reality is that the water quality overall is good,' Scott Jones, water and sediment quality coordinator for the Galveston Bay Estuary Program, told me. He said dissolved oxygen levels have gone up markedly in the last thirty years thanks to a cleanup of wastewater treatment plants mandated by the Clean Water Act of 1972.

"Misho Ivic and a marine biologist named Dr. Sammy Ray put pollution into a historical perspective for me by comparing Galveston Bay to Chesapeake Bay. Chesapeake Bay produced millions of bushels of oysters in the 1800s, before it was polluted. It now produces about 1 percent of its historic peak. Conservationists in Maryland and Virginia are making progress and the oyster harvests are increasing, but since the surrounding wetlands were long ago destroyed, the long-term prospects are limited.

"In 1900, Galveston Bay and a couple of other small bays in Texas produced a record 3.5 million pounds of oyster meat. But modern harvests regularly exceed that. In 2003, the largest harvest of oysters ever recorded was taken - 6. 8 million pounds, nearly double what was produced at the turn of the century.

"New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay lost their oysters due to industrial pollution. Galveston Bay is at its historic peak production. In 2003, Misho Ivic's oyster company alone outproduced the entire Chesapeake Bay. ... Places that were famous for their oysters one hundred years ago, like Chincoteague Bay, Maryland, and Blue Point, Long Island, aren't the centers of oyster production anymore. But people still clamor to buy oysters with famous names, so oystermen engage in a 'shell game,' if you'll pardon the pun. Texas oysters make great stunt doubles. They're sold as 'Blue Points' in many oyster bars across the country. They're also served in Washington, D.C., and Maryland oyster bars, where people assume they're eating Chesapeake Bay oysters.

"I once asked the waiter at a Houston chain restaurant called Willie G's where the oysters came from. Hilariously, he told me the oysters I was eating were Blue Points from Long Island. I asked him to bring me the bag tag. By federal law, oysters must be packaged with a tag stating their place of origin and date of harvest. This allows health authorities to trace the origin of the oysters in case they cause any illnesses. Oyster bars aren't required to show the tag to customers, but if they refuse, it's usually because they're trying to put one over on you. I bet my tablemate five bucks the oysters came from Galveston Bay. That was some easy money.

"Check out the statistics on commercial oyster landings and you can probably win a few wagers yourself: Annual totals for 2003 (pounds of oyster meat) - Gulf Coast, 27 million; Pacific Coast, 11.5 million; East Coast, 2.8 million."

Author: Robb Walsh
Title: Sex, Death & Oysters
Publisher: Counterpoint
Date: Copyright 2009 by Robb Walsh
Pages: 5-6, 9-10