Friday, July 30, 2010 7/30/10 - bacteria

In today's excerpt - bacteria:

"It's probably not a good idea to take too personal an interest in your microbes. Louis Pasteur, the great French chemist and bacteriologist, became so preoccupied with them that he took to peering critically at every dish placed before him with a magnifying glass, a habit that presumaby did not win him many repeat invitations to dinner.

"In fact, there is no point in trying to hide from your bacteria, for they are on and around you always, in numbers you can't conceive. If you are in good health and averagely diligent about hygiene, you will have a herd about one trillion bacteria grazing on your fleshy plains - about a hundred thousand of them on every square centimeter of skin. They are there to dine off the ten billion or so flakes of skin you shed every day, plus all the tasty oils and fortifying minerals that seep out from every pore and fissure. You are for them the ultimate food court, with the convenience of warmth and constant mobility thrown in. By way of thanks, they give you B.O.

"And those are just the bacteria that inhabit your skin. There are trillions more tucked away in your gut and nasal passages, clinging to you hair and eyelashes, swimming over the surface of your eyes, drilling through the enamel of your teeth. Your digestive system alone is host to more than a hundred trillion microbes, of at least four hundred types. Some deal with sugars, some with starches, some attack other bacteria. A surprising number, like the ubiquitous intestinal spirochetes, have no detectable function at all. They just seem to like to be with you. Every human body consists of about 10 quadrillion cells, but about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells. They are, in short, a big part of us. From the bacteria's point of view, of course, we are a rather small part of them.

"Because we humans are big and clever enough to produce and utilize antibiotics and disinfectants, it is easy to convince ourselves that we have banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don't you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.

"Bacteria, never forget, got along for billions of years without us. We couldn't survive a day without them. ... And they are amazingly prolific. The more frantic among them can yield a new generation in less than ten minutes; Clostridium perfringens, the disagreeable little organism that causes gangrene, can reproduce in nine minutes. At such a rate, a single bacterium could theoretically produce more offspring in two days than there are protons in the universe. 'Given an adequate supply of nutrients, a single bacterial cell can generate 280,000 billion individuals in a single day,' according to the Belgian biochemist and Nobel laureate Christian de Duve. In the same period, a human cell can just about manage a single division."

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Publisher: Broadway
Date: Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson
Pages: 302-304

Thursday, July 29, 2010 7/29/10 - the oil curse

In today's excerpt - the curse of abundant oil resources in developing countries - in this example, Venezuela. Developing countries with oil grow only one-fourth as fast as those without, and are far more likely to be militarized and devolve into civil war. In fact, oil and mineral-exporting countries have a 23 percent likelihood of civil war within five years, compared to less than 1 percent for nondependent countries.:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Lisa Margonelli
Title: Oil on the Brain
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2007 by Lisa Margonelli
Pages: 146-147, 174-176

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 7/28/10 - buffalo

In today's excerpt - the tragedy that ensured the doom of the North American Plains Indian was the unprecedented slaughter of the American buffalo since they had become almost completely dependent on the buffalo for identity, sustenance and supplies:

"The greatest threat of all to the [North American Plains Indian] identity, and to the very idea of a nomadic hunter in North America, appeared on the plains in the late 1860s. These were the buffalo men. Between 1868 and 1881 they would kill thirty-one million buffalo, stripping the plains almost entirely of the huge, lumbering creatures and destroying any last small hope that any horse tribe could ever be restored to its traditional life. There was no such thing as a horse Indian without a buffalo herd. Such an Indian had no identity at all.

"The first large-scale slaughter of buffalo by white men with high-powered rifles took place in the years 1871 and 1872. There had been a limited market for buffalo products before that. Even as far back as 1825, several hundred thousand Indian-tanned robes had made it to markets in New Orleans. There had been demand for buffalo meat to feed the railway workers building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, spawning the fame and legend of hunters like Buffalo Bill Cody. But there was no real market for buffalo hides until 1870, when a new tanning technology allowed them to be turned into high-grade leather. That, combined with a new railhead in Dodge City, Kansas, meant that the skins could be shipped commercially.

"For hunters, the economics of the new business was miraculous, all the more so since the animals were so stupefyingly easy to kill. If a buffalo saw the animal next to it drop dead it would not flee unless it could see the source of the danger. Thus one shooter with a long-range rifle could drop an entire stand of the creatures without moving. A hunter named Tom Nixon once shot 120 animals in 40 minutes. In 1873 he killed 3,200 in 35 days, making Cody's once outlandish-sounding claim of killing 4,280 in 18 months seem paltry by comparison. Behind the hunters stood the stinking, sweating skinners, covered head to toe in blood and grease and the animals' parasites. Legendary hunter Brick Bond, who killed 250 animals a day, employed 15 such men. Covered wagons waited at [the trading post of] Adobe Walls to take the stacked skins to Dodge City. Except for the tongues, which were salted and shipped as a delicacy, the carcasses were left to rot on the plains. The profits, like the mass killing itself, were obscene. In the winter of 1871-72 a single hide fetched $3.50.

"Within two years these hunters, working mainly the Kansas plains close to Dodge City, had killed five million buffalo. Almost immediately, they were victims of their own success. By the spring of 1874 the herds on the middle plains had been decimated. The economics of hunting became a good deal less miraculous. As one scout traveling from Dodge City to the Indian territory put it: 'In 1872 we were never out of sight of the buffalo. In the following autumn, while traveling over the same district, the whole country was whitened with bleached and bleaching bones.' Thus the hunters were forced to move farther from the railheads in search of prey. ...

"Surprisingly, only a few voices cried out against the slaughter of the buffalo, which had no precedent in human history. Mostly people didn't trouble themselves about the consequences. It was simply capitalism working itself out, the exploitation of another natural resource. There was another, better explanation for the lack of protest, articulated best by General Phil Sheridan, then commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. 'These men [hunters] have done in the last two years ... more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years,' he said. 'They are destroying the Indians' commissary ... For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy.' Killing the Indians' food was not just an accident of commerce; it was a deliberate political act."

Author: S.C. Gwynne
Title: Empire of the Summer Moon
Publisher: Scribner
Date: Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne
Pages: 259-262

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 7/27/10 - phonograph-records

In today's excerpt - when commercial radio first appeared in 1920, the sales of phonograph-records began to collapse. The unlikely savior of the phonograph-record companies was a little-known genre of music from the South that came to be called country music:

"The first shot in the media revolution occurred on November 2, 1920, when the first commercially licensed radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, made its debut broadcast by announcing the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election. Within months, new commercial stations were popping up around the country like dandelions after a spring rain. Some were a little bizarre - an early Washington, D.C., station was licensed to a priest and boasted the call letters WJSV, 'Will Jesus Save Virginia.' Others went to big commercial enterprises, like Chicago's WLS, owned by Sears and standing for 'World's Largest Store.' Still others were licensed to insurance companies, like Nashville's WSM - standing for 'We Shield Millions,' the slogan of the owners, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. By 1922 and 1923, most major cities could boast of a radio station, and in the uncluttered airwaves of the time, people routinely picked up signals from hundreds of miles away.

"One effect of the popularity of the new radios had was to knock the bottom out of phonograph-record sales. The flat 78 rpm records had been around since the turn of the century, but record companies saw them as playthings for well-to-do families of the time; they featured a lot of light opera, pieces by Sousa's Band, vocal solos by Caruso, and barbershop harmonies by the Peerless Quartet. Now, suddenly, people found they could hear music free on the radio; why buy records for seventy-five cents apiece? Desperate to maintain sales, the record companies began casting about for new markets. They stumbled upon one in 1920, when the Okeh label released a song called 'Crazy Blues' by a vaudeville singer named Mamie Smith. It was the first blues record by an African-American artist, and it became a bestseller by appealing to a hitherto untapped record market - black Americans.

"In June 1923, the same man who had recorded Mamie Smith - Ralph Peer, a thirty- one-year-old, moon-faced A&R (artists & repertoire) chief who had been born in Kansas City, Missouri, but now worked out of New York - found himself in Atlanta looking for talent. A local dealer promised to buy five hundred copies if Peer would record the town character - Fiddlin' John Carson - a fifty-five-year-old former millworker who had won fame at the Municipal Auditorium's annual fiddling contest. Peer agreed and in a temporary studio recorded Carson playing the fiddle unaccompanied and singing 'The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.' 'I thought his singing was pluperfect awful,' Peer admitted years later. But he released the record - and was surprised to see it become a modest hit.

"Within months, the race was on as the major record companies scrambled to tap into this new market of working-class southerners. At first they didn't even know what to call the music: Some ads mentioned 'oldtime southern tunes,' others 'hill country music,' others 'oldtime music.' Victor called its series 'Native American Melodies.' In 1924, a Texan singer working in New York, Vernon Dalhart, actually had a nationwide hit with a train-wreck ballad called 'The Wreck of the Old '97.' He followed this up in 1925 with a topical 'broadside' ballad called 'The Death of Floyd Collins,' about the miner who attracted widespread attention when he was trapped in a Kentucky sand cave; this record sold more than three hundred thousand copies, and if any of the record companies had lingering doubts about the marketability of southern music, these reservations were put to rest.

"Following Ralph Peer's lead, the companies began sending talent scouts into the South to hunt up and record on-location fiddlers, singers, banjo players, and gospel quartets. In the summer of 1927, Peer hit pay dirt once again. In an old hat factory doubling as a temporary studio, in the Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol, he discovered the two acts that were to dominate country music's first decade: a singing trio called the Carter Family and a former railroad brakeman named Jimmie Rodgers."

Author: Edited by Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren, and Jim Brown
Title: American Roots Music
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Date: Copyright 2001 by Ginger Group Productions Inc. and Rolling Stone Press
Page: 20

Monday, July 26, 2010 7/26/10 - coco chanel

In today's excerpt - Coco Chanel. The flamboyance and frills of Paris fashion were lost in the liberation of European and American women during World War I. The leader of the new fashion revolution was Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel:

"Ornate styles were obsolete by the 1920s. Emancipated during World War I, females were now working in factories, offices and shops; riding subways, buses and bicycles; and, in some instances, driving cars. They had neither the time nor the patience for fastidious trimmings, and the designer who intuitively sensed this transition was Gabrielle Chanel - 'Coco.' Conceiving le genre pauvre, she put women into men's shaggy sweaters, sailors' tricots, carpenters' coarse corduroys, ditchdiggers' grainy denims, waitresses' bleached aprons, soccer players' striped jerseys, students' sturdy gabardines.

"Nothing was too banal for her - sandals, bandannas, berets. Slender and athletic, with the lissome gait of a racehorse, Chanel made the kinds of clothes that she herself liked to wear. Her gamine creations presaged unisex, yet essential chic in her mind was a prosaic dress drenched in diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Fashion, she asserted, ought to appeal to the masses rather than be restricted to a precious few. When a coalition of couturiers petitioned the government to enact tough legislation to prevent piracy, she dissented, maintaining that fraudulent copies earned them popularity. The conceits of her confreres, she said, were preposterous. 'We are furnishers, not artists. At first art seems ugly and then becomes beautiful; at first fashion seems beautiful and then becomes ugly.'

"The daughter of an Auvergne wine dealer, she was reared on a farm by two maiden aunts and, at the age of seventeen, fled to Paris to escape the boredom of the provinces. After a stint as a milliner, she opened a dress shop adjacent to the Ritz, and it remained her headquarters. She would turn on her charm to induce boulevardiers to escort her to trendy spots like Maxim's, Fouquet's and the Pre Catalan, where she could parade her own raiment before the crème de la crème. Her styles clicked, and, by the 1930s, she was raking in an estimated four million dollars a year - and reportedly had assets of ten million. 'Under her glossy facade,' commented a Paris banker, 'she is a shrewd, calculating peasant.' Her penchant for the common touch notwithstanding, Chanel rattled around in a mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore and consorted with snooty cronies at their chateaux and ski chalets, or aboard their yachts in the Mediterranean. Yet she fiercely protected her individuality. When the Duke of Westminster asked her to marry him, she demurred, saying, 'There have been several duchesses of Westminster; there is only one Chanel.' "

Author: Stanley Karnow
Title: Paris in the Fifties
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Date: Copyright 1997, 1999 by Stanley Karnow
Pages: 272-273

Friday, July 23, 2010 7/23/10 - practice

In today's excerpt - practice. Rather than being the result of genetics or inherent genius, truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved with less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years' time

"For those on their way to greatness [in intellectual or physical endeavors],
several themes regarding practice consistently come to light:

  1. Practice changes your body. Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs, and brains of those showing profound increases in skill level in any domain.
  2. Skills are specific. Individuals becoming great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at other skills. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultraspecific responses to particular skill requirements.
  3. The brain drives the brawn. Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy), and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real time.
  4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
  5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it's impossible to become great overnight.

"Across the board, these last two variables - practice style and practice time - emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players to soccer players to violin players, it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that K. Anders Ericsson came to call 'deliberate practice.' First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. 'Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,' explains Ericsson. 'Unlike playful
engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It ... does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one's current level which is associated with frequent failures.' ...

"In other words, it is practice that doesn't take no for an answer; practice that perseveres; the type of practice where the individual keeps raising the bar of what he or she considers success. ...

"[Take] Eleanor Maguire's 1999 brain scans of London cabbies, which revealed greatly enlarged representation in the brain region that controls spatial awareness. The same holds for any specific task being honed; the relevant brain regions adapt accordingly. ...

"[This type of practice] requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one's capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again. ...

"The physiology of this process also requires extraordinary amounts of elapsed time - not just hours and hours of deliberate practice each day, Ericsson found, but also thousands of hours over the course of many years. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years' time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark."

Author: David Shenk
Title: The Genius in All of Us
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2010 by David Shenk
Pages: 53-57

Thursday, July 22, 2010 7/22/10 - yahweh and asherah

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

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

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

Author: Robert Wright
Title: The Evolution of God
Publisher: Little, Brown
Date: Copyright 2009 by Robert Wright
Pages: 118-119

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 7/21/10 - ethnic differences

In today's excerpt - ethnic conflict, which is more pervasive today than ever before, is tragically fundamental to history. In fact, many of the world's problems stem from the fact that it has 5,000 ethnic groups but only 190 countries, and ethnic conflict is essential to understanding situations such as present-day Afghanistan and Iraq:

"The list of ethnic massacres is a long one. A nonexclusive list of victims of ethnic massacres since the Romans includes: the Danes in Anglo-Saxon England in 1002; the Jews in Europe during the First Crusade, 1069-1099; the French in Sicily in 1282; the French in Bruges in 1302; the Flemings in England in 1381; the Jews in Iberia in 1391; converted Jews in Portugal in 1507; the Huguenots in France in 1572; Protestants in Magdeburg in 1631; Jews and Poles in the Ukraine, 1648-1954; indigenous populations in the United States, Australia, and Tasmania in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Jews in Russia in the nineteenth century; the French in Haiti in 1804; Arab Christians in Lebanon in 1841; Turkish Armenians in 1895-1896 and 1915-1916; Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite Christians in the Turkish Empire in 1915-1916; Greeks in Smyrna in 1922; Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1936; the Jewish Holocaust in German-occupied territory, 1933-1945; Serbians in Croatia in 1945; Muslims and Hindus in British India in 1946-1947; the Chinese in 1965 and the Timorese in 1974 and 1998 in Indonesia; Igbos in Nigeria in 1967-1970; the Vietnamese in Cambodia in 1970-1978; the Bengalis in Pakistan in 1971; the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1956-1965; 1972, and 1993-1994; Tamils in Sri Lanka in 1958, 1971, 1977, 1981, and 1983; Armenians in Azerbaijan in 1990; Muslims in Bosnia in 1992; Kosovars and Serbians in Kosovo in 1998-2000. To show how far from exhaustive this list is, the political scientist Ted Gurr counted fifty ethnically based conflicts in 1993-1994 alone....

"As Scientific American said in September 1998, 'Many of the world's problems stem from the fact that it has 5,000 ethnic groups but only 190 countries.' ...

"Ethnic diversity does not automatically imply ethnic conflict, violent or otherwise, it merely reflects the potential for such conflict, if opportunistic politicians try to exploit ethnic divisions to gain an ethnic power base. Apparently such opportunism is common. ... High ethnic diversity is a good predictor of civil war and genocide. The risk of civil war is two and a half times higher in the most ethnically diverse quarter of the [countries in the] sample as compared to the least ethnically diverse quarter.. The risk of genocide is three times higher in the same comparison. ...

"[However,] ethnically diverse countries with good institutions tend to escape the violence, poverty, and redistribution usually associated with ethnic diversity. Democracy also helps neutralize ethnic differences; ethnically diverse democracies don't seem to be at an economic disadvantage relative to ethnically homogeneous democracies."

Author: William Easterly
Title: The Elusive Quest for Growth
Publisher: The MIT Press
Date: Copyright 2001 by MIT
Pages: 268-278.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 7/20/10 - the colt revolver

In today's excerpt - in fighting Comanche warriors, the newly founded Texas Rangers were at a severe disadvantage because a Comanche could get off twenty close-range shots with his bow and arrow in the same time it took a Ranger to fire three shots. In the meantime, a teenager in New Jersey had just invented the first multi-shot sidearm - a revolver - but the U.S. Army could see no use for it:

Despite his success fighting Comanches, [the twenty-five year old leader of the Texas Rangers, Captain Jack] Hays still faced one very large and intractable problem: his single-shot, hard-to-reload rifles and old-style pistols put him at a severe disadvantage against Comanches who carried twenty arrows in their quivers. There was no way around it. He had tried to adapt the long rifle to mounted use - and had actually worked minor miracles - but it was still a clumsy weapon that was best fired and reloaded on the ground. It was still the old backwoods rifle from Pennsylvania via Kentucky. Its short-comings accounted, in large part, for the berserk aggressiveness of Hays's Rangers in battle. To stand pat was to be soon peppered with iron-tipped arrows. Headlong attack, for all of its risks, remained a far safer idea.

Meanwhile, back in the civilized, industrializing East, an enterprise was under way that would soon solve Hays's problem, and in so doing change the world, but for now was mired in failure and obscurity. In 1830 a sixteen-year-old with big ideas and a knack for intricate mechanics named Samuel Colt had carved his first model of a revolving pistol out of wood. Six years later, he took out a patent on it. In 1838 a company in Paterson, New Jersey, began to manufacture Colt's patented firearms. Among them was a .36-caliber, five-chambered revolving pistol with an octagonal barrel and a concealed trigger that dropped down when the gun was cocked. It was not the first such idea, but it was believed to be the first that was put into production for general use.

There was just one problem with the new gun. No one wanted it. The weapon's natural market, the U.S. government, could not see any application and refused to subsidize it. The weapon had the feel of a cavalry sidearm, but just then the U.S. Army did not have a cavalry. Nor did the new pistol seem to interest private citizens. It was a nifty, if somewhat impractical, product. Oddly, the only people who wanted it were in the exotic and faraway Republic of Texas. In 1839, President Mirabeau Lamar directed the Texas navy, of all things, to order 180 five-shot Colt revolvers from the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson. Later the Texas army ordered another forty. The pistols were shipped and paid for. There is no particular evidence that they were ever used by sailors or anyone else in the service of the Texas government. It seemed to be an obscure and impractical weapon destined for an obscure and irrelevant branch of the Texas military. Such as it was. And there they languished.

No one knows exactly how these revolvers came into the hands of Jack Hays and his Rangers. But they most certainly did. ... The test [of the Colt revolver] came to be known as the Battle of Walker's Creek, a minor Texas Ranger military [victory] that became one of the defining moments in the history of Texas and of the American West. Indeed, it can be argued that before Jack Hays arrived in San Antonio in 1844, Americans in the West went about largely on foot and carried Kentucky rifles. By the time he left in 1849, anybody going West was mounted and carrying a holstered six-shooter. Walker's Creek was the beginning of that change.

Author: S.C. Gwynne
Title: Empire of the Summer Moon
Publisher: Scribner
Date: Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne
Pages: 144-146

Monday, July 19, 2010 7/19/10 - kay ryan

In today's excerpt - Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States:

"Kay Ryan has become a famous poet in much the same way Ernest Hemingway described a man going broke: 'gradually and then suddenly.' She was nearing forty when her first, self-published book appeared, in 1983, but neither that debut nor the two books that followed got much response from readers or critics. ...

"Today, Ryan is entering her second term as poet laureate of the United States, and has received most of the awards American poetry has to give. The appearance of 'The Best of It: New and Selected Poems' confirms her stature: only the most eminent poets command this kind of publication, which represents for a poet what a career retrospective at a major museum means for a painter. ...

"To a poet like Ryan, nothing could be more of an anathema than bigness. Open 'The Best of It' to any page, and you will find a narrow column of verse,
held aloft by taut rhythms and irregular rhymes, her poems are seldom longer than a page and never longer than two. There have been great poets devoted to glut, but Ryan belongs to the other - and usually more trustworthy - camp, the one ruled by what she calls 'That Will to Divest':

Meaning: once
You've swept
the sheIves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

"In American poetry, the contest between glut and starvation is inevitably epitomized by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Between these two tutelary spirits, Ryan would of course choose Dickinson, and the resemblances between them have been made much of by critics. This is natural enough - after all,
Ryan, too, writes brief, compressed lyrics, and has been a kind of outsider to the literary world. ...

"Ryan is no killer, of course, though when she writes about nature she does tend to sympathize more with the predator than with the prey: 'Rabbits are
one of the things /coyotes are for,' one poem observes. But Lawrence's other adjectives are a faithful enough description. 'It takes a courageous/ person to leave spaces/ empty,' Ryan writes in 'Leaving Spaces,' [a poem that] condemns the medieval mapmakers who filled up their blanks with monsters or pretty
designs: 'Of course they were cowards /and patronized by cowards.' She uses the same metaphor in protesting creative-writing classes: 'One must
truly HOLD A SPACE for oneself. All things conspire to close up this space.' If this were simply a complaint about the poetry world, it could be dismissed as mere crankiness; as an expression of Ryan's sensibility, or even her philosophy of life, it goes much deeper. Thoreau would have understood it perfectly."

Author: Adam Kirsch
Title: "Think Small"
Publisher: The New Yorker
Date: April 12, 2010
Pages: 76-78

Friday, July 16, 2010 7/16/10 - comanches

In today's excerpt - in the seemingly inexorable subjugation by Americans of Native Americans and their march westward from the original thirteen colonies to California, they were turned back dramatically only once - in a war with the most fierce tribe of them all, the Comanches of Texas and the Llano Estacado:

"Six years after the end of the Civil War, the western frontier was an open and bleeding wound, a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys, a
place where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of law, where
Indians and especially Comanches raided at will. Victorious in war, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the Union now found itself unable to deal with the handful of remaining Indian
tribes that had not been destroyed, assimilated, or forced to retreat meekly
onto reservations where they quickly learned the meaning of abject subjugation and starvation. ... No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French,
Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so
much havoc and death [as the Comanches]. None was even a close second.

"Just how bad things were in 1871 along this razor edge of civilization could be seen in the numbers of settlers who had abandoned their lands. The frontier, carried westward with so much sweat and blood and toil, was now rolling backward, retreating. Colonel Randolph Marcy, who accompanied [Civil War hero and general in chief of the army William Tecumseh] Sherman on a western tour in the spring, and who had known the country intimately for decades, had been shocked to find that in many places there were fewer people than eighteen years before. 'If the Indian marauders are not punished,' he wrote, 'the whole country seems in a fair way of becoming totally depopulated.' This phenomenon was not entirely unknown in the history of the New World. The Comanches had also stopped cold the northward advance of the Spanish empire in the eighteenth century - an empire that had, up to that point, easily subdued and killed millions of Indians in Mexico and moved at will through the continent.

"Now, after more than a century of relentless westward movement, they were rolling back [European] civilization's advance again, only on a much larger scale. Whole areas of the borderlands were simply emptying out, melting back eastward toward the safety of the forests. One [Texas] county - Wise - had seen its population drop from 3,160 in the year 1860 to 1,450 in 1870. In some places the line of settlements had been driven back a hundred miles. If General Sherman wondered about the cause - as he once did - his tour with Marcy relieved him of his doubts. That spring they had narrowly missed being killed themselves by a party of raiding Indians. The Indians, mostly Kiowas, passed them over because of a shaman's superstitions and had instead attacked a nearby wagon train. What happened was typical of the savage, revenge-driven attacks by Comanches and Kiowas in Texas in the postwar years. What was not typical was Sherman's proximity and his own very personal and mortal sense that he might have been a victim, too. Because of that the raid became famous, known to history as the Salt Creek Massacre.

"Seven men were killed in the raid, though that does not begin to describe
the horror of what [was] found at the scene. According to Captain Robert G. Carter, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had their brains scooped out. 'Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths,' wrote Carter, 'and their bodies, now lying in several inches of water and swollen or bloated beyond all chance of recognition, were filled full of arrows, which made them resemble porcupines.' They had clearly been tortured, too. 'Upon each exposed abdomen had been placed a mass of live coals. ... One wretched man, Samuel Elliott, who, fighting hard to the last, had evidently been wounded, was found chained between two wagon wheels and, a fire having been made from the wagon pole, he had been slowly roasted to death - 'burnt to a crisp.' "

Author: S.C. Gwynne
Title: Empire of the Summer Moon
Publisher: Scribner
Date: Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne
Pages: 3-5

Thursday, July 15, 2010 7/15/10 - chinese cars

In today's encore excerpt - Chinese cars:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Lisa Margonelli
Title: Oil on the Brain
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Copyright 2007 by Lisa Margonelli
Pages: 269-270, 272.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 7/14/10 - washington, dc

In today's excerpt - George Washington's plans for Washington, DC:

"Because of his [interest in symbols and events that would give cause to citizens of the new United states for national pride above state pride], Washington was especially interested in the size and character of the White House and of the capital city that was to be named after him. The huge scale and imperial grandeur of the Federal City, as Washington modestly called it, owe much to his and his backing of the French-born engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant as architect.

"L'Enfant had migrated from France in 1777 as one of the many foreign recruits to the Continental Army. In 1779 he became a captain of engineers and attracted the attention of Washington for his ability to stage festivals and design medals, including that of the Society of the Cincinnati. In 1782 he organized the elaborate celebration in Philadelphia marking the birth of the French dauphin, and in 1788 he designed the conversion of New York's City Hall into Federal Hall. Thus it was natural for L'Enfant to write Washington in 1789 outlining his plans for 'the Capital of this vast Empire.' L'Enfant proposed a capital that would 'give an idea of the greatness of the empire as well as ... engrave in every mind that sense of respect that is due a place which is the seat of a supreme sovereign.' His plan for the Federal City, he said, 'should be drawn on such a Scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.'

"Washington knew the site of the national capital had to be larger than that of any state capital. 'Philadelphia,' the president pointed out, 'stood upon an area of three by two miles. ... If the metropolis of one State occupied so much ground, what ought that of the United States to occupy?' He wanted the Federal City to become a great commercial metropolis in the life of the nation and a place that would eventually rival any city in Europe. The new national capital, he hoped, would become the energizing and centralizing force that would dominate local and sectional interests and unify the disparate states.

"L'Enfant designed the capital, as he said, in order to fulfill 'the President's intentions.' The Frenchman conceived of a system of grand radial avenues imposed on a grid of streets with great public squares and circles and with the public buildings - the 'grand edifices' of the 'Congress House' and the 'President's Palace' -placed so as to take best advantage of the vistas across the Potomac. Some of the early plans for the rotunda of the Capitol even included a monumental tomb that was designed eventually to hold the first president's body - a proposal that made Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson very uneasy.

"Although the final plans for the capital were less impressive than what Washington originally envisioned, they were still grander than those others had in mind. If Jefferson had had his way, L'Enfant would never have kept his job as long as he did, and the capital would have been smaller and less magnificent - perhaps something on the order of a college campus, like Jefferson's later University of Virginia. Opposed as he was to anything that smacked of monarchical Europe, Jefferson thought that fifteen hundred acres would be enough for the Federal City.' "

Author: Gordon S. Wood
Title: Empire of Liberty
Publisher: Oxford
Date: Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Pages: 79-80

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 7/13/10 - kinsey, masters and johnson

In today's excerpt - Alfred Kinsey, and later William Masters and Virginia Johnson, endured rejection and ridicule to publish what ultimately became recognized as groundbreaking studies on human sexuality:

"Kinsey is of course best known for his daring, encyclopedic surveys of sexual behavior. In the 1940s and early '50s, Kinsey - with colleagues Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin, and Paul Gebhard - interviewed 18,000 Americans about their sex lives and published his findings in two ground-breaking, best-selling, ultimately career-tanking volumes. ...

"[Kinsey's studies included] stutterers, amputees, paraplegics, even those with cerebral palsy. Kinsey wanted to document the full spectrum of human sexuality, but it was more than that. He believed these people might have things to teach us about the physiology of sex. And he was right. These groups alerted Kinsey - and the scientific community as a whole - to the complicated and crucial role of the central nervous system in sex and reproduction. Kinsey had noted that a stutterer in the throes of sexual abandon may temporarily lose his stutter. Similarly, the phantom limb pain some amputees feel temporarily disappears. Even the muscle spasticity of cerebral palsy may be briefly quieted. The body's limiting factors seem to get shut off. The organism is driven toward nature's singular goal - conception, the passing on of one's genes - and anything that stands in the way is pushed into the background. Sensory distractions become imperceptible: noises go unheeded and peripheral vision all but disappears - a fact some prostitutes use to their advantage, working with 'creepers' who emerge from the shadows when the action heats up and go through the john's pockets as easily as if he were unconscious. The most dramatic example of this biological priority shift is a sexually mediated disregard for pain and physical discomfort. Whatever ails you pretty much stops ailing you during really hot sex. ...

"It was 1954 when William Masters embarked on his own investigation of sexual physiology. Kinsey was under fire from conservatives. The Rockefeller Foundation, partly because of its funding of Kinsey's work, was the subject of a congressional investigation. (As a result, the foundation pulled Kinsey's funding. He died less than two years later.)

"Given the political climate, it was exceedingly brave of Masters - then a gynecologist at Washington University in St. Louis - to undertake such a project. This was to be a large (nearly 700 participants), nonclandestine observational study of human sexual arousal and orgasm. To try to get funding and permission for such a venture in 1954 must have been, well, like trying to do it [today]. Understandably, Masters went to great lengths to appear as scientific, objective, and morally upstanding as he could. His hiring of a female associate, Virginia Johnson, helped ward off accusations of impropriety. ...

"Masters and Johnson launched their book-length write-up of the project, Human Sexual Response, in 1966. (Medical journals had rejected the team's papers, deeming them pornographic.) 'The hate mail was unbelievable,' Masters recalled during a talk at the 1983 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. 'For the next year and a half we had extra secretaries ... just answering mail.' Eventually, the rancor cooled, and the book went on to become an enduring bestseller and a classic in the field. It is hard to say which contributed most to its acceptance: the cloak of formal science that Masters so assiduously pinned to his work, or the simple fact that times had changed. Nineteen sixty-six was worlds away from 1954."

Author: Mary Roach
Title: Bonk
Publisher: Norton
Date: Copyright 2008 by Mary Roach
Pages: 32-41

Monday, July 12, 2010 7/12/10 - sir arthur conan doyle

In today's excerpt - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In later life, Conan Doyle converted completely to 'spiritualism,' rejecting the rational and consulting mediums to visit with the dead. The backdrop for his spiritualism was his father's own desperate alcoholism, and the death of his brother and son in the horror of World War I:

"Arthur Conan Doyle's books strike the reader as part of a (possibly unconscious) project - a series of attempts to articulate systems of thought which might make sense of the chaos of life and the human condition ('this circle of misery and violence and fear', as Holmes puts it in 'The Cardboard Box'). First comes the ratiocination of Baker Street, inspired by the techniques of Conan Doyle's old university teacher Dr Joseph Bell (who, in 1892, reviewed the original Holmes adventures, calling his former clerk 'a born story-teller'), then extreme patriotism (in 1899, [George] Bernard Shaw boasted that he had converted Conan Doyle from 'Christmas-card pacifism to rampant jingoism') and, finally, the magical world-view of spiritualism, a philosophy which could render even the slaughter of the Great War explicable. In 1914, Conan Doyle was praising the 'glorious spectacle' of mass enlistment and imagining that 'our grandchildren will thrill as they read of the days that we endure'. Twelve years later, following the deaths of his brother and his eldest son, he had come to see the trenches as 'God's first warning to mankind' ('ten million young men were laid dead upon the ground . . . twice as many were mutilated'), even claiming to be glad that his son was killed ('am I not far nearer to my son than if he were alive . . . ?'). Spurning 'Victorian science' for having 'left the world hard and clean and bare, like a landscape in the moon', the doctor was reduced to arguing that "'have always held that people insist too much upon direct proof'. ...

"The figure behind much of this is surely Arthur's father, the artist Charles Altamont Doyle. A chronic alcoholic who, according to Andrew Lycett's biography Conan Doyle: The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes (2007), was sometimes to be found dragging 'himself around the floor . . . unable to remember his own name', and who, 'when nothing else was available . . . drank furniture varnish'. He spent the last twelve years of his life in an asylum, or 'Convalescent Home', as Arthur disguised it in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, where he wrote that the old man's 'thoughts were always in the clouds . . . he had no appreciation of the realities of life'. Russell Miller, another recent biographer, adduces Charles's confession to his doctor that he was 'getting messages from the unseen world' and also, significantly, his belief in fairies. ...

"When one thinks of Charles Altamont Doyle (who on occasion stripped off his clothes in the street with the intention of selling them to buy drink), ... It is as though Conan Doyle began his writing life by assuming a position which repudiated all of Charles's weaknesses, associating himself instead with the substitute father of Bell before gradually - painfully - giving himself over to a worldview that vindicated his parent's supposed insanity and which reduced Bell's rationalism to blinkered, pharisaical refusal to accept the truth."

Author: Jonathan Barnes
Title: "Mediumistics"
Publisher: The Times Literary Supplement
Date: June 25, 2010
Page: 4

Friday, July 09, 2010 7/9/10 - comedy movies

In today's excerpt - comedy movies. The comedies of the writer-directors of the past, like Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and John Hughes, have given way to the more improvisational comedies of today's writer-actor:

"Nowadays in the comedy industry, a 'Bucket Brigade' of actors, writers, and directors pitches in to punch up one another's films; the nearly all-male group includes Jay Roach, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Nicholas Stoller, Jason Segel, John Hamburg, Garry Shandling, Sacha Baron Cohen, Robert Smigel, Adam McKay, and Will Ferrell. Many of the group's members trained at Second City, or with such newer improv groups as the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade. They read one another's drafts, attend one another's table reads and rough cuts, and give notes. Lots and lots of notes. ...

"Bucket Brigade movies are usually ensemble affairs in which every character is funny, as opposed to an Eddie Murphy movie, in which Eddie Murphy is sometimes funny. As in a sitcom, the banter tends to be filmed with three cameras at once, which eliminates the technical problem of 'matching' the action if an actor does a great improv that you've filmed only in closeup - that is, of having to reshoot the improv from the other actors' perspectives to maintain the continuity of the scene. (Shooting with three cameras can compromise the lighting; comedies, like documentaries and porn, aren't expected to have great production values.)

"Most directors of unimprovised comedies shoot around five hundred thousand feet of film and edit it down to the eight thousand feet that constitutes a ninety-minute film. Roach shot more than nine hundred thousand feet for [the upcoming Steve Carell movie] 'Dinner for Schmucks,' Adam McKay shot more than a million for 'Step-brothers,' and Judd Apatow always shoots at least a million. Apatow often runs off an entire eleven-minute magazine of film - a thousand feet - on a take, hollering alts or letting the actors riff. ['Dinner' director Jay] Roach said, 'It's a sloppy approach. One out of ten moments is great, and you watch the nine others go by and hope.'

"It's all a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity, a huge planning effort to encourage accidents. ... But, even as members of the Bucket Brigade troll for every last chuckle, they remain mindful that it's not the comedy in comedies that keeps people interested; it's the structure. 'Revenge of the Nerds' and 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' were nearly devoid of laughs, but they were big hits simply because of their clock-work plots. The screenwriter Dennis Klein observed, 'In standup, improv is the ability to be funny at will, but in movies even Jim Carrey bending over and talking out of his ass will get cut if the improv doesn't connect to the ongoing story.' [In 'Austin Powers'], Dr. Evil's 'Sh!' comedy run works so well because his refusal to listen to [his son] Scott is what will allow Austin Powers to escape - and because he and Scott hate each other.

"The rise of improv expands screenwriting into the realm of acting. The best contemporary improvisers - including Ferrell, Myers, and Carell - can riff in keeping with the underlying story because they often wrote the underlying story. Comedies, once the province of writer-directors like Preston Sturges, woody Allen, and John Hughes, now belong to the writer-actor."

Author: Tad Friend
Title: "First Banana"
Publisher: The New Yorker
Date: July 5, 2010
Pages: 54-55

Thursday, July 08, 2010 7/8/10 - mushrooms

In today's encore excerpt - we still know very little about mushrooms:

"We don't know the most basic things about mushrooms.

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

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

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

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

Author: Michael Pollan
Title: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Publisher: Penguin
Date: Copyright 2006 by Michael Pollan
Pages: 374-375

Wednesday, July 07, 2010 7/7/10 - greenbacks

In today's excerpt - the birth of the "greenback," the national paper money created as a means of helping to pay for the unprecedented cost - $3.4 billion in 1865 dollars or $50 billion today - of the U.S. Civil War:

"To support the war effort, Union leaders also resorted to a device utilized liberally during the Revolution: the printing press. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, federally issued money consisted of gold, silver, and copper coins. [Founding Father Alexander] Hamilton had been clear in warning that 'the stamping of paper is an operation so much easier than the laying of taxes that a government in the practice of such paper emissions would rarely fail in any such emergency to indulge itself too far' His fear, of course, was that the overzealous printing of money would lead to inflation, whereas notes issued by an independent, nationally chartered bank, backed by gold, would be a credible national currency.

"But there was no central bank in 1861. ... To make matters worse, the banking system was in chaos. In the years immediately before the Civil War, roughly sixteen hundred state-chartered banks dotted the American landscape, each issuing its own notes. Roughly seven thousand varieties of banknotes were in circulation. Some were issued by legitimate state-chartered banks, but many were of dubious quality or simply counterfeit. ...

"Because the notes of state-chartered banks were generally accepted only in the state of the issuing bank, the government had difficulty in procuring goods and services for the military, just as it did during the War of 1812. ... The Union government 'needed to establish a currency [that would be] uniformly acceptable.'

"In December 1861, the Ways and Means Subcommittee ... drafted a bill to create a new currency that ... would not be redeemable on demand for specie [gold]. [Treasury Secretary Salmon] Chase, who believed the financial system should be rooted in gold, registered his profound objections. Like Hamilton, he favored a currency consisting of notes issued by nationally chartered banks that were backed by government bonds, which were in turn backed by gold.

"The idea immediately drew fire on the House floor. The horrible precedent of the 'Continentals' [which almost became worthless during the Revolutionary War] was frequently cited. Congressman George Pendleton of Ohio ... warned, 'If this bill is passed, prices will be inflated ... incomes will depreciate; the savings of the poor will vanish; the hoardings of the widow will melt away; bonds, mortgages, and notes -everything of fixed value - will lose their value.' Chase threatened to resign if the legislation was enacted. ... Opponents also argued that the Constitution gave Congress the power only to 'coin money' and 'regulate the value thereof' - not to print money. The collapse in value of the Continentals had been much on the minds of the framers when this provision was written.

"On February 3, 1862, desperate for cash, Chase changed his tune. 'Immediate action is of great importance,' the secretary informed Congress; 'The Treasury is nearly empty.' ...

"[Many legislators] considered legal tender "of doubtful constitutionality' and admitted that it 'shocks all my notions of political, moral and national honor,' but reconciled themselves to it because 'to leave the government without resources in such a crisis is not to be thought of.'

"Late in February, Congress passed the Legal Tender Act, authorizing an initial issue of the new federal currency. ... The new 'legal tender' was printed with green ink on one side, and the notes were quickly nicknamed "greenbacks." (Confederate currency, printed with blue-gray ink, was known as "blue backs. ") Chase, who was planning to challenge Lincoln for the Republican presidential nomination in 1864, had his portrait featured on the widely circulated one-dollar bill.

"Despite supporting the printing of greenbacks and having his picture placed on them, Chase later had second thoughts. After failing to dislodge Lincoln as the Republican nominee, and then being fired by him, Chase was appointed by the president to be chief justice of the United States. In 1870, Chase wrote the Court's majority opinion striking down the Legal Tender Act, holding that it was a violation of the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against taking property without due process because it forced Americans to accept greenbacks in repayment of private debts that originally had been contracted to be settled in gold. This decision was reversed in 1871, after President Ulysses S. Grant deliberately appointed two justices who disagreed with the 1870 decision.

"The $450 million worth of greenbacks that were issued covered nearly 15 percent of the cost of the war. ... As Hamilton had predicted, overly enthusiastic use of the federal printing press proved to be a significant contributor to inflation ... and prices rose by nearly 25 percent annually. This hit workers and soldiers on fixed salaries especially hard, contributing to social unrest.

"The Confederacy fared much worse. Its economy was devastated by a 9,000 percent inflation rate, caused primarily by far greater resort to the printing press due to a weak tax base and an inability to raise outside funds."

Author: Robert D. Hormats
Title: The Price of Liberty
Publisher: Times Books
Date: Copyright 2007 by Robert D. Hormats
Pages: 74-78

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 7/6/10 - sports illustrated

In today's excerpt - Sports Illustrated. Time, Inc. founder Henry Luce launched the new magazine in 1954, an era in which the biggest change in American life was the rapid growth of leisure and entertainment. The writing was superb - William Faulkner wrote an account of the 1955 Kentucky Derby - but it did not produce a profit until its tenth year:

"By the spring of 1953 Luce was once again in what [employee John Shaw] Billings called 'an empire-building mood,' which usually meant launching a new magazine. And even though Luce had never been very much interested in sports or wilderness activities himself, he began to imagine a "sporting- magazine" that would capture what he believed was a growing market for leisure, and thus for sports. ... Some of his colleagues were aghast at the idea, convinced that a sports magazine would degrade the Time Inc. brand by focusing on trivial and consumer-driven activities. ... Other colleagues were similarly dubious about the project, and many of them told Luce bluntly that he was making a dangerous error. He was not impervious to these criticisms, and at times he wavered in his commitment. ...

"Throughout the development stage of the magazine, the working title was 'Sport.' There was, however, already a magazine using that name, which had offered to sell itself to Time Inc. for $ 250,000, more than Luce was willing to pay. In May, with the publication date approaching, Harry Phillips, the Time Inc. publisher of the as yet unnamed magazine, ran into a friend in a restaurant who offered an alternative. The friend owned the title of a defunct magazine, Sports Illustrated. Everyone involved was immediately enthusiastic, and the company purchased the name for five thousand dollars. ...

"From the start Luce expected Sports Illustrated to be unprecedented. It would not be a 'fan' magazine, filled with gossip, adulation, and over-the-top language. It would not compete with the daily newspaper coverage of sports. It would not focus too much on what had happened in the previous week. ... It would look at sports not just as fun but, Luce wrote, as something that was 'deeply inherent ... in the human spirit.' ...

"The first issue of Sports Illustrated was published on August 16, 1954, a few days after issues actually appeared on newsstands. It sold out quickly. ... The first story in this first issue, 'The Duel of the Four-Minute Men,' chronicled the classic rivalry between Roger Bannister and John Landy, the first two men to run a four-minute mile. It also illustrated how unconventional a sports magazine it intended to be. 'The art of running the mile consists, in essence, of reaching the threshold of unconsciousness at the instant of breasting the tape,' the Sports Illustrated writer Paul O'Neil began:

" 'It is not an easy process ... for the body rebels against such agonizing usage and must be disciplined by the spirit and the mind. ... Few events in sport offer so ultimate a test of human courage and human will and human ability to dare and endure for the simple sake of struggle.'

"This elegant and sophisticated language was a sign of what Sports Illustrated aspired to be, and often accomplished-a magazine that would elevate the world of sports from being 'just a game' to being a powerful metaphor for the human condition. ... On February 21, 1955, the magazine ran a cover of a smiling young woman in an unrevealing swimsuit (part of a feature on sports fashion) - an augury of one of the magazine's most popular and sometimes controversial features of later decades.

"Luce took particular pride in the quality of the writers he could attract to Sports Illustrated. The revered New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling submitted an elegant essay on Stillman's Gymnasium in New York City, where many notable boxers were trained. Wallace Stegner wrote an elegy to Yosemite National Park. Budd Schulberg wrote a sympathetic story about an aging prizefighter who was finally making it big. John Steinbeck insisted he could not write for Sports Illustrated because 'my interests are too scattered and too unorthodox.' But he wrote a long letter on his eclectic interest in sports that the magazine published anyway. And William Faulkner wrote an extraordinary (and predictably unorthodox) account of the 1955 Kentucky Derby. ...

"Circulation exceeded five hundred thousand in every issue in 1954, rose to six hundred thousand the following year, and climbed steadily through most of its history (to more than three million a week in 2009). It quickly established itself as by far the most famous and influential sports magazine ever published in the United States. ... Not until 1964, however, ten years after its first issue, did Sports Illustrated produce its first profit."

Author: Alan Brinkley
Title: The Publisher
Publisher: Knopf
Date: Copyright 2010 by Alan Brinkley
Pages: 397-405

Friday, July 02, 2010 7/2/10 - independence day

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

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

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

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

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

Author: David McCullough
Title: 1776
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: Copyright 2005 by David McCullough
Pages: 135-137

Thursday, July 01, 2010 7/1/10 - cures for impotence

delanceyplace header
In today's encore excerpt - from the annals of science: in 1917, a cure was found for impotence and related maladies that involved transplanting the glands and testicles of goats, monkeys and humans into the patient. Though ultimately found to be fraudulent, it became a craze that swept across the U.S. and captured as patients a wide swath of Americans from movie stars to moguls:

"Ever since man began to walk upright, he had been obsessed when his penis would not behave likewise and searched for ways to fix the problem. The world's earliest known medical document, the so-called Edwin Smith Papyrus of Egypt dating from 1600 B.C., presents a strikingly sophisticated view of trauma surgery - except on the back, where one finds 'Incantation for Transforming an Old Man into a Youth of Twenty.' In ancient Greece an herb called satyrion, recommended by the philosopher Theophrastus in 320 B.C., was swiftly harvested to extinction. During the ensuing centuries cloves, ginger, and massaging one's genitals in ass's milk all had their vogue. In England around the year 1000, men were devouring 'love bread' (naked maidens romped in wheat, which was then harvested counterclockwise). The Middle Ages favored lubrication of the afflicted member with melted fat from camel humps. ...

"[For doctors experimenting in the 1910s], finding a human donor [of testicles for transplants to test a 'cure' for impotence] was actually easy, thanks to the help of Dr. Leo Stanley, chief surgeon at San Quentin prison in California. Three or four hangings a year offered the perfect chance to relieve relatively young men of their testicles without an argument. ... Testicles of these deceased felons were inserted into other prisoners, usually geezers with no chance of parole. According to Dr. Stanley's reports, most showed improvement. Seventy-two-year-old Mark Williams, half-senile at the implant, perked up within five days. ... Scientific journals, including JAMA, gave this work wide and respectful coverage. Dr. Stanley himself ... injected or implanted testicular material, both animal and human, into 643 inmates and 13 physicians. ...

"At the Park Avenue Hospital in Chicago in 1920, Dr. John Brinkley performed thirty-four goat-gland transplants, pausing often to chat with reporters. ... He had to say that his own technique, in which the goat gland 'humanized' in the scrotal sac, was 'far in advance of the Old World experts.' ... Dr. Stanley was now averaging fifty operations a month at $750 apiece, for a take of almost half a million dollars a year (in 1920s currency). Most patients walked in and lay down without even asking how the thing worked. 'I suppose a goat gland is a good deal like a potato,' said seventy-seven-year-old A.B. Pierce of Nebraska. 'You can cut a potato all in pieces and plant it and every eye will grow.' "

Author: Pope Brock
Title: Charlatan
Publisher: Crown
Date: Copyright 2008 by Pope Brock
Pages: 32-53

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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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