Thursday, September 30, 2010 9/30/10 - the comedian albert brooks

In today's encore excerpt - comedian Albert Brooks (b. 1947), graduate of Beverly Hills High School and veteran of such films as Broadcast News and Lost in America, was a stand-up comedian in the late 1960s in the vanguard of a new direction in comedy. Where Lenny Bruce and his acolytes had set out to make comedy more socially relevant, Brooks set out to lampoon the narcissism of celebrity and show business itself:

"Brook's comedy didn't seem to be about anything but show business itself - or more to the point, making fun of show business. ...

"For the most part they were lampoons of bad show business acts. Brooks played an animal trainer, for example, whose elephant has gotten sick at the last moment and has to be replaced by a frog; he gamely tries to do his routine with the stand-in, apologizing when the tricks (roll over; grab a peanut) don't come off. He did a parody of the old vaudeville stunt in which a man tries to keep a dozen plates spinning simultaneously on top of poles. Instead of plates, Brooks brought a half-dozen people on stage and tried to keep them all laughing at the same time; whenever the yuks started to die down, he scurried around trying to rev them up again with a new joke.

"In another bit, Brooks dressed up in a leotard, slippers, and Marcel Marceau whiteface to play the world's worst mime. He starts out by telling a bit of his life story ('My mother was quite domineering. I was afraid to speak ...') and becomes so caught up in the monologue that soon he's puffing a cigar and delivering Vegas zingers ('Take my wife - si vous plait!'). When he finally performs his mime, he provides a running commentary to explain what he's doing ('climbing ze stairs'), before belting out 'Make Someone Happy' for the schmaltzy, Jolson-style big finish.

"It was inspired nonsense, Brooks's demolition of the entire history of cheesy showbiz. ... At the first American Music Awards, he appeared as a children's songwriter who performs a Vegas-style tribute to his own greatest hits, simplistic ditties like 'Eat Your Beans' and 'Brush Your Teeth.' ...

"Some dubbed it post-funny, or anti-comedy: the joke was how bad the jokes were. Comedians before him, like Carlin and Klein, had poked fun at the slick and foolish and insincere in show business. But Brooks carried it a step further: he was making fun of how show business had infected all of us, creating a world of amateurs and wannabes so desperate for applause that they could barrel through any kind of inanity."

Author: Richard Zoglin
Title: Comedy at the Edge
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Date: Copyright 2008 by Richard Zoglin
Pages: 110-114

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 9/29/10 - clouds

In today's excerpt - clouds and the names of clouds:

"The person most frequently identified as the father of modern meteorology was an English pharmacist named Luke Howard, who came to prominence at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Howard is chiefly remembered now for giving cloud types their names in 1803. ...

"Howard divided clouds into three groups: stratus for the layered clouds, cumulus for the fluffy ones (the word means 'heaped' in Latin), and cirrus (meaning 'curled') for the high, thin feathery formations that generally presage colder weather. To these he subsequently added a fourth term, nimbus (from the Latin for 'cloud'), for a rain cloud. The beauty of Howard's system was that the basic components could be freely recombined to describe every shape and size of passing cloud - stratocumulus, cirrostratus, cumulocongestus, and so on. It was an immediate hit, and not just in England. The poet Johann von Goethe in Germany was so taken with the system that he dedicated four poems to Howard.

"Howard's system has been much added to over the years, so much so
that the encyclopedic if little read International Cloud Atlas runs to two volumes, but interestingly virtually all the post-Howard cloud types - mammatus, pileus, nebulosis, spissatus, floccus, and mediocris are a
sampling - have never caught on with anyone outside meteorology and not terribly much there, I'm told. Incidentally, the first, much thinner edition of that atlas, produced in 1896, divided clouds into ten basic types, of which the plumpest and most cushiony-looking was number nine, cumulonimbus.* That seems to have been the source of the expression 'to be on cloud nine.'

"For all the heft and fury of the occasional anvil-headed storm cloud, the average cloud is actually a benign and surprisingly insubstantial thing. A fluffy summer cumulus several hundred yards to a side may contain no more than twenty-five or thirty gallons of water - 'about enough to fill a bathtub,' as James Trefil has noted. You can get some sense of the immaterial quality of clouds by strolling through fog - which is, after all, nothing more than a cloud that lacks the will to fly. To quote Trefil again: 'If you walk 100 yards through a typical fog, you will come into contact with only about half a cubic inch of water - not enough to give you a decent drink.' In consequence, clouds are not great reservoirs of water. Only about 0.035 percent of the Earth's fresh water is floating around above us at any moment.

" *If you have ever been struck by how beautifully crisp and well defined the edges of cumulus clouds tend to be, while other clouds are more blurry, the explanation is that in a cumulus cloud there is a pronounced boundary between the moist interior of the cloud and the dry air beyond it. Any water molecule that strays beyond the edge of the cloud is immediately zapped by the dry air beyond, allowing the cloud to keep its fine edge. Much higher cirrus clouds are composed of ice, and the zone between the edge of the cloud and the air beyond is not so clearly delineated, which is why they tend to be blurry at the edges."

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Publisher: Broadway
Date: Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson
Pages: 263-265

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 9/28/10 - war and crime

In today's excerpt - soldiers, demobilizing after the end of a war, are vulnerable to the lures of crime. They are largely young, have few marketable skills, are often unemployed, and are trained to fight. Two of the greatest periods of pirate activity in the Mediterranean and Caribbean followed the ends of two of England's long wars, and those periods of piracy died out soon after those generations passed:

"Two of the most dramatic increases in pirate activity took place when peace was declared after long periods of naval warfare and large numbers of seamen were out of work.

"[The first such surge began] when fifty years of hostilities between England and Spain were finally ended in 1603, [and] hundreds of seamen from the Royal Navy and from privateers were thrown on the streets. Their only skill was in handling a ship, and many turned to piracy. For the next thirty years, shipping in the English Channel, the Thames estuary, and the Mediterranean was ravaged by pirates

"The second surge in piracy took place in the years following the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which brought peace among England, France, and Spain. The size of the Royal Navy slumped from 53,785 in 1703 to 13,430 in 1715, putting 40,000 seamen out of work. There is no proof that these men joined the ranks of the pirates, and Marcus Rediker has pointed out that most pirates were drawn from the merchant navy, not the Royal Navy; but many contemporary observers believed that the rise in pirate attacks in the years after the Peace of Utrecht was due to the large numbers of unemployed seamen. They particularly blamed the Spanish for driving the logwood cutters out of the bays of Campeche and Honduras after the Treaty of Utrecht, and they also blamed the privateers. Many privateering commissions had been issued in the later years of the seventeenth century, particularly in the West Indies. Peace put an end to this, and the Governor of Jamaica warned London of the likely outcome: 'Since the calling in of our privateers, I find already a considerable number of seafaring men at the towns of Port Royal and Kingston that can't find employment, who I am very apprehensive, for want of occupation in their way, may in a short time desert us and turn pirates.' "

Author: David Cordingly
Title: Under the Black Flag
Publisher: Random House
Date: Copyright 1996 by David Cordingly
Pages: 192-193

Monday, September 27, 2010 9/27/10 - the dark ages

In today's excerpt - the dark ages:

"The decline and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire in the West during the fifth century CE plunged the world into centuries of doom and gloom, wherein humanity became a collection of dull-witted, superstition-ridden dolts who accomplished next to nothing and waited around for the Renaissance to begin.

"Or not.

"Actually, the 'Dark Ages' - the term used to describe the first half of what is traditionally described as the 'Middle Ages' - is something of a misnomer. So is the 'Middle Ages' for that matter. The idea that there was a thousand-year period between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Renaissance where nothing much happened was fostered mainly by intellectuals starting in the fifteenth century, especially in Italy. These bright lights wanted to believe - and wanted others to believe - that they had much more in common with the Classical Age than they did with the centuries that had just preceded them. By creating, and then denigrating, the Dark, or Middle, Ages, the 'humanists' also sought to separate themselves from the very real decline in the quality of life in most of the European continent after the Roman system fell apart.

"It was a pretty Eurocentric view of things. In reality, there were a lot of places in the world where mankind was making strides. Centered on what is now Turkey, the Byzantine Empire was a direct link to the culture and learning of ancient Greece and Rome. In the deserts of what is now Saudi Arabia, an empire centered on the new religion of Islam was spreading with lightning speed, and carrying with it not only new beliefs but also new ways of looking at medicine, math, and the stars. In the North Atlantic, Scandinavian ships were exploring the fringes of a New World, while in the Pacific, the Polynesians were pushing across even more vast aquatic distances to settle in virtually every inhabitable island they could find.

"In the jungles of Central America, the Maya were reaching the peak of a fairly impressive civilization. In the jungles of Southeast Asia, the Khmer were setting up an equally impressive cultural and trade center. Even in Europe, which admittedly was pretty much a mess, devoted monks were doing their best to keep the flame of learning burning. ... [and] there was progress. Stone and wooden tools were replaced with metal implements. The water-powered mill became commonplace. Farmers learned to rotate their crops in order to rejuvenate soil. And the harness was redesigned so that it fell across a horse's shoulders rather than its throat, thus increasing its proficiency in pulling a plow.

"There were astounding feats of human endeavor, such as the construction of the Grand Canal in China, which stretched more than 1,200 miles and connected the farmlands of the Yangtze Valley with the markets of Luoyang and Chang-an. ... And there were equally astounding feats of individual endeavor, such as the founding of a major world religion by a comfortably fixed middle-aged Arab trader who became known as the Prophet Muhammad...."

Author: Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand
Title: The Mental Floss History of the World
Publisher: Harper
Date: Copyright 2008 by Mental Floss LLC
Pages: 127-128, 137

Friday, September 24, 2010 9/24/10 - chinese christians

delanceyplace header

In today's excerpt - efforts by Christian missionaries in the 1800s to convert the largely rural Chinese to their faith stumbled badly, amid cultural dissonance, social and political maneuvering, and libelous claims and counterclaims. But British economic and military superiority soon made it advantageous to for Chinese to convert:


"Out of a total population of over four hundred million, only a tiny fraction of rural Chinese in the 1890s had ever seen a white man. Villagers were by nature open and friendly toward strangers, but in times of crisis there was a dread of foreign things...


"By 1870 some two hundred fifty Catholic missionaries could claim a Chinese flock of four hundred thousand. The three hundred fifty Protestant missionaries, who spent the greater part of their time quarreling among themselves, could claim only six thousand converts. ... Missionaries forbade their converts to take part in any form of ancestor worship or to contribute financially to rituals and festivals that in a village were the only distraction from a life of toil. This set Chinese Christians apart and increased the burden on everyone else. Anxious to save souls and to keep account books, missionaries often were satisfied with converts who were the dregs of society-freeloaders referred to contemptuously by Chinese as 'Rice Christians' - and uncharitably demanded preferential treatment for them in lawsuits and disputes over land.


"At Ningpo, nearly all the Protestant Chinese converts were in the direct employ of the missionaries who had 'converted' them. By professing Christianity they got jobs and job security.


"By the 1890s resentment of these Rice Christians and their missionary sponsors was being deliberately provoked by clever, widely distributed anti-Christian propaganda  ... [which] accused Christians of indulging in incest, sodomy, emasculating little boys, and using magic to accomplish perverted ends. ...  Stimulated in this way, antiforeign and anti-Christian fury grew as the nineteenth century ended; missionaries and converts were attacked and murdered and mission property destroyed. During the 1890s antimissionary outbreaks occurred in all eighteen provinces. Missionaries were accused of being spies, profiteering merchants, and hedonists. ...


"Great Britain threatened to intervene militarily if the Chinese government failed to punish the regional officials taken to be responsible. Peking gave in and sacked and degraded the governor of Szechwan and six other mandarins, executed thirty-one peasants, and imprisoned or banished thirty-eight others. Edicts were issued making it clear that further attacks on foreign missionaries, their churches, and their Chinese converts would not be tolerated. Other edicts warned local officials that they would be held responsible if there were further incidents. The message was loud and clear that from here on Christians would be given imperial protection. ...


"The result in places like rural western Shantung was that local officials became reluctant to risk any confrontation with missionaries or their flocks, and there was a flood of conversions by Chinese who were seeking missionary protection from local enemies or trying to avoid prosecution by local officials for a wide range of crimes. Whole bandit communities put themselves under the protection of Catholic priests. Village rivals facing lawsuits had themselves baptized in order to gain legal advantage in court. Recognizing a golden opportunity for more conversions, Catholic priests defended converts willy-nilly, pressing their cases before government officials, or had pressure applied in provincial capitals and even through the bishop to legations in Peking. Every demonstration of Christian influence attracted more converts, many of them bad characters. Shantung's governor, General Li Ping-heng, called them 'weed people.' A vicious cycle began in which individual missionaries were encouraged to abuse their temporal power to increase their heavenly dividends."


Author: Sterling Seagrave

Title: Dragon Lady

Publisher: Vintage

Date: Copyright 1992 by Sterling Seagrave

Pages: 289-291

About Us

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, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 

To visit our homepage or sign up for our daily email click here
To view previous daily emails click here.
To sign up for our daily email click here.
Safe Unsubscribe
This email was sent to by | | Philadelphia | PA | 19103

Thursday, September 23, 2010 9/23/10 - indian fire

In today's encore excerpt - Native Americans systematically used large-scale fires to transform the American landscape in the centuries before European dominance of the continent:

"Adriaen van der Donck was a Dutch lawyer who in 1641 transplanted himself to the Hudson River Valley. ... He spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee [tribe], whose insistence on personal liberty fascinated him. ... Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to 'the woods, plains, and meadows,' to 'thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.' At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. 'Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks,' he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists' boats passed through a channel of fire, their passengers as goggle-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. 'Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides...a delightful scene to look on from afar.' ...

"[From] Hudson's Bay to the Río Grande, the Haudenosaunee and almost every other Indian group shaped their environment, at least in part, by fire. ... For more than ten thousand years, most North American ecosystems have been dominated by fire. ...

"Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it - at least until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used 'to set fire of the country in all places where they come.' The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska: all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.' Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles. ...

"Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm. Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first. 'When Lewis and Clark headed west from [St. Louis],' wrote ethologist Dale Lott, 'they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.'

"In 1792 the surveyor Peter Fidler examined the plains of southern Alberta systematically, the first European to do so. Riding with several groups of Indians in high fire season, he spent days on end in a scorched land. 'Grass all burnt this day,' he reported on November 12. 'Not a single pine to be seen three days past.' A day later: 'All burnt ground this Day.' A day later: 'The grass nearly burnt all along this Day except near the Lake.' A month later: 'The Grass is now burning [with] very great fury.' ... ' 'These fires burning off the old grass,' he observed, 'in the ensuing Spring & Summer makes excellent fine sweet feed for the Horses & Buffalo, &c.' ... Captain John Palliser, traveling through the same lands as Fidler six decades later, lamented the Indians' 'disastrous habit of setting the prairie on fire for the most trivial and worse than useless reasons.' ...

"Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature - but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if 'stable' is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash."

Author: Charles C. Mann
Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Publisher: Vintage
Date: Copyright 2005, 2006 by Charles C. Mann
Pages: Kindle Loc. 4587-4681.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 9/22/10 - pirates

In today's excerpt - pirates. Pirates have been present throughout history, have long been most numerous in the teeming shipping lanes of the Far East, but are best remembered in Western culture for the Caribbean pirates of the early 1700s:

"There has been piracy since the earliest times. There were Greek pirates and Roman pirates, and centuries of piracy when the Vikings and Danes were ravaging the coasts of Europe. The southern shores of England were infested with smugglers and pirates during Tudor times. A group of Dutch pirates called the Sea Beggars, or Watergeuzen, played a small but critical role in the history of the Netherlands. ...

"In the Mediterranean, pirates took part in the holy war which was waged between the Christians and the Muslims for several centuries: Barbary corsairs intercepted ships traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar or coming from the trading ports of Alexandria and Venice, swooping down on the heavily laden merchantmen in their swift galleys powered by oars and sails. They looted
their cargoes, captured their passengers and crews, and held them to ransom or sold them into slavery.

"The French played a major part in the history of piracy. Many of the most successful and most fearsome of the buccaneers who prowled the Spanish Main came from French seaports. Corsairs based at Dunkirk menaced the shipping in the English Channel in the mid-seventeenth century. Their most famous leader was Jean Bart, who was responsible for the capture of some eighty ships. He later joined the French navy and was ennobled by King Louis XIV in 1694.

"The Red Sea and the Persian Gulf were always notorious for pirates, and the Malabar coast on the western shores of India was home to the Maratha pirates, led by the Angria family, who plundered the ships of the East India Company during the first half of the eighteenth century.

"In the Far East there was piracy on a massive scale. The Ilanun pirates of the Philippines roamed the seas around Borneo and New Guinea with fleets of large galleys manned by crews of forty to sixty men, launching savage attacks on shipping and coastal villages until they were stamped out by a naval expedition in 1862. But the most formidable of all, in terms of numbers and cruelties, were the pirates of the South China Sea. Their activities reached a peak in the early years of the nineteenth century, when a community of around forty thousand pirates with some four hundred junks dominated the coastal waters and attacked any merchant vessels which strayed into the area.
From 1807 these pirates were led by a remarkable woman called Mrs. Cheng, a former prostitute from Canton.

"[But] this book concentrates on the pirates of the Western world, and particularly on the great age of piracy, which began in the 1650s and was brought to an abrupt end around 1725, when naval patrols drove the pirates from their lairs and mass hangings eliminated many of their leaders. It is this period which has inspired most of the books, plays, and films about piracy, and has been largely responsible for the popular image of the pirate in the West today."

Author: David Cordingly
Title: Under the Black Flag
Publisher: Random House
Date: Copyright 1996 by David Cordingly
Pages: xv-xvii

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 9/21/10 - roman concrete

In today's excerpt - creating and sustaining the world's first city of one million people took many things; among them control of the entire Mediterranean, the continual extraction of food from the farthest regions of its empire, and the invention of concrete used to build the aqueducts that supplied its water:

"Although not famed for their technological originality, Romans did use water to make one transformational innovation - concrete - around 200 BC that helped galvanize their rise as a great power. Light, strong, and waterproof, concrete was derived from a process that exploited water's catalytic properties at several stages by adding it to highly heated limestone. When skillfully produced, the end process yielded a putty adhesive strong enough to bind sand, stone chips, brick dust, and volcanic ash. Before hardening, inexpensive concrete could be poured into molds to produce Rome's hallmark giant construction projects. One peerless application was the extensive network of aqueducts that enabled Rome to access, convey, and manage prodigious supplies of wholesome freshwater for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and sanitation on a scale exceeding anything realized before in history and without
which its giant metropolis would not have been possible. ...

"Yet nowhere was Rome's public water system more influential than in Rome itself. Indeed, Rome's rapid growth to a grand, astonishingly clean imperial metropolis corresponded closely with its building its 11 aqueducts over five centuries to AD 226, extending 306 miles in total length and delivering a continuous, abundant flow of fresh countryside water from as far away as 57 miles. The aqueducts funneled their mostly spring-fed water through purifying settling and distribution tanks to sustain an urban water network that included 1,352 fountains and basins for drinking, cooking and cleaning, 11 huge imperial baths, 856 free or inexpensive public baths plus numerous, variously priced private ones, and ultimately to underground sewers that constantly flushed the wastewater into the Tiber. ...

"Sustaining and housing a population of I million may not seem like much of an accomplishment from the vantage point of the twenty-first century with its megacities. Yet for most of human history cities were unsanitary human death traps of inadequate sewerage and fetid water that bred germs and disease-carrying insects. Athens at its peak was about one-fifth the size of Rome, and heaped with filth and refus at its perimeter. In 1800, only six cities in the world had more than half a million people - London, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Istanbul, Canton. Despite Rome's hygienic shortcomings - incomplete urban waste disposal, overcrowded and unsanitary tenements, malaria-infested, surrounding lowlands - the city's provision of copious amounts of fresh, clean public water washed away so much filth and disease as to constitute an urban sanitary breakthrough unsurpassed until the nineteenth century's great sanitary awakening in the industrialized West.

"Although there are no precise figures in ancient records on how much freshwater was delivered daily, it is widely believed that Roman water availability was stunning by ancient standards and even compared favorably with leading urban centers until modern times - perhaps as much as an average of 150 to 200 gallons per day for each Roman. Moreover, the high quality of the water - the Roman countryside offered some of the best water quality in all Europe, and still does so today - was an easily overlooked historical factor in explaining Rome's rise and endurance."

Author: Steven Solomon
Title: Water
Publisher: Harper
Date: Copyright 2010 by Steven Solomon
Pages: 85-88

Monday, September 20, 2010 9/20/10 - winning

In today's excerpt - tennis superstar Andre Agassi wins Wimbledon, his first grand slam tournament and the pinnacle of achievement in his sport, and reports what many sports champions have reported before him - winning does not feel as good as losing feels bad, and fame is a surreality that quickly becomes ordinary:

"I'm supposed to be a different person now that I've won a slam. Everyone says so. No more Image is Everything. Now, sportswriters assert, for Andre Agassi, winning is everything. After two years of calling me a fraud, a choke artist, a rebel without a cause, they lionize me. They declare that I'm a winner, a player of substance, the real deal. They say my victory at Wimbledon forces them to reassess me, to reconsider who I really am.

"But I don't feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I've been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I've won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn't feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn't last as long as the bad. Not even close. ...

"In 1992, however, [life] suddenly becomes more complicated. ... People appear from nowhere, requesting my picture, demanding my autograph, seeking my attention or opinion. Wimbledon has made me famous. I thought I was famous long ago - I signed my first autograph when I was six - but now I discover that I was actually infamous. Wimbledon has legitimized me, broadened and deepened my appeal, at least according to the agents and managers and marketing experts with whom I now regularly meet. People want to get closer to me; they feel they have that right. I understand that there's a tax on everything in America. Now I discover that this is the tax on success in sports - fifteen seconds of time for every fan. I can accept this, intellectually. ...

"Fame is a force. It's unstoppable. You shut your windows to fame and it slides under the door. I turn around one day and discover that I have dozens of famous friends, and I don't know how I met half of them. I'm invited to parties and VIP rooms, events and galas where the famous gather, and many ask for my phone number, or press their numbers on me. In the same way that my win at Wimbledon automatically made me a lifetime member of the All England Club, it also admitted me to this nebulous Famous People's Club. My circle of acquaintances now includes Kenny G, Kevin Costner, and Barbra Streisand. I'm invited to spend the night at the White House, to eat dinner with President George Bush before his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. I sleep in the Lincoln

"I find it surreal, then perfectly normal. I'm struck by how fast the surreal becomes the norm. I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They're confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It's something we always hear - like that old adage that money can't buy happiness - but we never believe it until we see it for ourselves. Seeing it in 1992 brings me a new measure of confidence."

Author: Andre Agassi
Title: Open
Publisher: Vintage
Date: Copyright 2009 by AKA Publishing, LLC
Pages: 167-168

Friday, September 17, 2010 9/17/10 - making mistakes is normal

In today's excerpt - error is normal, and making mistakes is a necessary part of learning. In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov's brilliant distillation of forty-nine techniques for teachers to use to improve student performance, he writes that teachers should normalize error and avoid chastening students for getting it wrong. (Lemov's book has application far beyond the classroom):

"Error followed by correction and instruction is the fundamental process of schooling. You get it wrong, and then you get it right. If getting it wrong and then getting it right is normal, teachers should Normalize Error and respond to both parts of this sequence as if they were totally and completely normal. After all, they are.


"Avoid chastening wrong answers, for example, 'No, we already talked about
this. You have to flip the sign, Ruben.' And do not make excuses for students
who get answers wrong: 'Oh, that's okay, Charlise. That was a really hard one.'
In fact, if wrong answers are truly a normal and healthy part of the learning
process, they don't need much narration at all.

"It's better, in fact, to avoid spending a lot of time talking about wrongness
and get down to the work of fixing it as quickly as possible. Although many
teachers feel obligated to name every answer as right or wrong, spending time
making that judgment is usually a step you can skip entirely before getting to
work. For example, you could respond to a wrong answer by a student named
Noah by saying, 'Let's try that again, Noah. What's the first thing we have
to do?' or even, 'What's the first thing we have to do in solving this kind
of problem, Noah?' This second situation is particularly interesting because it
remains ambiguous to Noah and his classmates whether the answer was right or wrong as they start reworking the problem. There's a bit of suspense, and they will have to figure it out for themselves. When and if you do name an answer as wrong, do so quickly and simply ('not quite') and keep moving. Again, since getting it wrong is normal, you don't have to feel badly about it. In fact, if all students are getting all questions right, the work you're giving them isn't hard enough.


"Praising right answers can have one of two perverse effects on students. If you make too much of fuss, you suggest to students - unless it's patently obvious that an answer really is exceptional -that you're surprised that they got the answer right. And as a variety of social science research has recently documented, praising students for being 'smart' perversely incents them not to take risks (apparently they worry about no longer looking smart if they get things wrong), in contrast to praising students for working hard, which incents them to take risks and take on challenges.

"Thus, in most cases when a student gets an answer correct, acknowledge
that the student has done the work correctly or has worked hard; then move on: 'That's right, Noah. Nice work.' Champion teachers show their students they expect both right and wrong to happen by not making too big a deal of either. Of course, there will be times when you want to sprinkle in stronger praise ('Such an insightful answer, Carla. Awesome'). Just do so carefully so that such praise isn't diluted by overuse."

[Editor's note: We were reminded of this principle recently when touring the Franklin Institute's nationally recognized Science Leadership Academy and finding that the powerful learning mantra of the engineering department was "fail early, fail often."]

Author: Doug Lemov
Title: Teach Like a Champion
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Date: Copyright 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Pages: 221-223

Thursday, September 16, 2010 9/16/10 - our bloody english heritage

delanceyplace header
In today's encore excerpt - William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, crossed the English Channel from France in 1066 and conquered the English, thus starting what historians consider the true beginnings of modern Britain. William, who had known blood, fear and treachery since his earliest childhood, built a fighting force considered the fiercest in Europe, and his horse-mounted army decisively bested the horseless soldiers of England's King Harald. After the conquest, he tried to include English lords as partners in his new regime, but their treachery led to a need to use savage methods to break the entire kingdom:

"[The child] William was inured to the spectacle of slaughter: two of his guardians were hacked down in quick succession; his tutor as well; and a steward, on one particularly alarming occasion, murdered in the very room in which the young duke lay asleep. Yet even as blood from the victim's slit throat spilled across the flagstones, William could feel relief as well as horror: for he at least had been spared. ...

"[Years later], in 1066, there could be no doubting that William ranked as a truly deadly foe. His apprenticeship was long since over. Seasoned in all the arts of war and lordship, and with a reputation fit to intimidate even the princes of Flanders and Anjou, even the King of France himself, his prime had turned out a fearsome one. So too had that of his duchy. Quite as greedy for land and spoils as any Viking sea king, the great lords of Normandy, men who had grown up by their duke's side and shared all his ambitions, had emerged as an elite of warriors superior, in both their discipline and training, to any in Christendom. ...

"[After defeating the England's King Harald at the Battle of Hastings], what was left of the English turned at last and fled into the gathering darkness, to be hunted throughout the night by William's exultant cavalry, and it was the reek of blood and emptied bowels, together with the moans and sobs of the wounded, that bore prime witness to the butchery. Come the morning, however, and daylight unveiled a spectacle of carnage so appalling that even the victors were moved to pity. 'Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in gore.' ...

"[After the victory] William's coronation oath, which stated that he would uphold the laws and customs of his new subjects, had been sworn with all due solemnity - and sure enough, for the first few years of his reign, he did indeed attempt to include them as partners within his new regime. But the English earls could never quite forgo a taste for revolt - with the result that, soon enough, an infuriated William was brought to abandon the whole experiment. In its place, he instituted a far more primal and brutal policy. Just as his ancestors had cleansed what would become Normandy of its Frankish aristocracy, so now did William set about the systematic elimination from England of its entire ruling class. ...

"The task of the Norman lords, set as they were amid a sullen and fractious people, [became] no different in kind to that of the most upstart castellan in France. In England, however, it was not just scattered hamlets and villages that needed to be broken, but a whole kingdom. In the winter of 1069, when the inveterately rebellious Northumbrians sought to throw off their new king's rule, William's response was to harry the entire earldom. Methods of devastation familiar to the peasantry of France were unleashed across the north of England: granaries were burned, oxen slaughtered, ploughs destroyed. Rotting corpses were left to litter the road. The scattered survivors were reduced to selling themselves into slavery, or else, if reports are to be believed, to cannibalism."

Author: Tom Holland
Title: The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2008 by Tom Holland
Pages: 289, 316, 325, 327-8.
About Us

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. 

To visit our homepage or sign up for our daily email click here
To view previous daily emails click here.
To sign up for our daily email click here.
Safe Unsubscribe
This email was sent to by | | Philadelphia | PA | 19103

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 9/15/10 - cahokia

In today's excerpt - Cahokia, the largest settlement in North America until Philadelphia, which stood in Illinois near modern day St. Louis, and in which stood Monks Mound, a structure larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Part of a four-thousand-year-old Native American tradition of mound-building, it was built by people who came to be known as Mississippians:

"There was one remarkable community north of the Rio Grande, a city that by 1150 CE had become the largest urban center north of Mexico, a record that would stand until Philadelphia surpassed it in the late 1700s. It is difficult to
imagine a city covering more than six square miles flourishing in the Mississippi Valley some 350 years before Columbus reached the New World, a city, which at its zenith in about 1150 contained a population estimated by some experts to have been as high as thirty thousand, more inhabitants than any contemporary European city, including London. Its people constructed enormous pyramid-shaped earthen mounds (the largest, Monks Mound, has a base larger than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt), designed and built solar observatories, and carried out a far-flung trade. Its name was Cahokia. ...

"The city of Cahokia was physically dominated by the Monks Mound, named for French Trappist monks who lived in a monastery nearby in the early 1800s and gardened on the mound. Cahokia was built in a dozen or more phases beginning in about 900 CE, a time described by archeologists as the 'Big Bang,' a period in which, for still unknown reasons, thousands of Native Americans from surrounding regions poured into Cahokia and the city experienced as much as a tenfold increase in its population.

"Covering an area of fourteen acres, making it larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza, the clay stab that serves as the base of Monks Mound is about 954 feet long and 774 feet wide. The enormous structure stretches 100 feet from its base to its top. ...

"Most archaeologists who have worked the site are in agreement that the temple or palace atop Monks Mound was the focal point from which Cahokia's rulers carried out various political and religious rituals, including prayers for favorable weather to nurture the acres of maize that stretched out from the city as far as the eye could see. Excavations have also revealed that at some point in the mound's various phases of construction a low platform was extended out from one of its sides, creating a stage from which priests could perform ceremonies in full view of the public.

"What is perhaps most intriguing of all is the question of how Monks Mound was constructed. Archaeologists calculate that the structure contains twenty-two million cubic feet of earth, which was dug with stone tools and carried out in baskets on people's backs to the ever- growing mound.

"Sally A. Kitt Chappell provided a graphic calculation of the enormous effort that went into building Monks Mound: This pharaonic enterprise required carrying 14,666,666 baskets, each filled with 1.5 cubic feet, of dirt weighing about fifty-five pounds each, for a total of 22 million cubic feet. For comparison, an average pickup truck holds 96 cubic feet, so it would take 229,166 pickup loads to bring the dirt to the site. If thirty people each carried eight baskets of earth a day, the job would take 167 years. ...

"[The complexity implies] the presence of individuals with specialized knowledge of soils and earthen construction. Despite the instability of the materials they had on hand and the fact that they built their enormous structure on a floodplain, these ancient engineers achieved nothing less than the largest prehistoric construction in the Americas, and there it has stood for more than one thousand years."

Author: Martin W. Sandler
Title: Lost to Time
Publisher: Sterling
Date: Copyright 2010 by Martin W. Sandler
Pages: 20-27

Tuesday, September 14, 2010 9/14/10 - study habits

In today's excerpt - researchers have identified better ways for students to study, yet they often contradict received wisdom and have been ignored by the education system:

" 'We have known these principles [for improved study] for some time, and it's intriguing that schools don't pick them up, or that people don't learn them by trial and error,' said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. 'Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.'

"Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are 'visual learners' and others are auditory; some are "left-brain" students, others "right-brain." In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. ...

"Psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms - one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard - did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics. ...

"Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting - alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language - seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills. ...

"In a study recently posted online by the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor of the University of South Florida taught a group of fourth graders four equations, each to calculate a different dimension of a prism. Half of the children learned by studying repeated examples of one equation, say, calculating the number of prism faces when given the number of sides at the base, then moving on to the next type of calculation, studying repeated examples of that. The other half studied mixed problem sets, which included examples of all four types of calculations grouped together. Both groups solved sample problems along the way, as they studied. A day later, the researchers gave all of the students a test on the material, presenting new problems of the same type. The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children.

"This finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study. 'What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it's picking up what's similar and what's different about them,' often subconsciously.

"Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn - it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out. ... [In contrast] an hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now - so-called spacing - improves later recall without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found."

Author: Benedict Carey
Title: "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits"
Publisher: The New York Times
Date: September 6, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010 9/13/10 - the highest paid athlete in history

In today's excerpt - Gaius Appuleius Diocles, the highest paid athlete in history:

"Last fall, Forbes magazine was all atwitter as Tiger Woods closed in on becoming 'the first athlete to earn over $1 billion' in the course of his career. Presumably his fortunes will now start to droop, but Forbes missed the mark-taking the long view, Tiger was never all that well paid to begin with when compared with the charioteers of ancient Rome.

"The modern sporting spectacles we manage to stage - and on occasion be appalled by - pale by comparison to the common entertainments of Rome. The Circus Maximus, the beating heart at the center of the empire, accommodated a quarter million people for weekly chariot races. These outdrew stage plays (to the deep chagrin of the playwrights), the disemboweling of slaves and exotic carnivores in the gladiatorial combats of the Coliseum, and even the naval battles emperors staged within the city limits - real war ships with casts of thousands - on acres of man-made lakes they had dug out and drained the Tiber to fill.

"For the races, spectators arrived the evening before to stake out good seats. They ate and drank to excess, and fights were common under the influence of furor circensis, the Romans' name for the mass hysteria the spectacles induced. Ovid recommended the reserve seating as a good place to pick up aristocratic women, and he advised letting your hand linger as you fluff her seat cushion.

"Drivers were drawn from the lower orders of society.They affiliated with teams supported by large businesses that invested heavily in training and upkeep of the horses and equipment. The colors of the team jerseys provided them with names, and fans would often hurl violent enthusiasms, as well as lead curse amulets punctured with nails, at the Reds, Blues, Whites, and Greens.

"The equipment consisted of a leather helmet, shin guards, chest protector, a jersey, whip, and a curved knife-handy for cutting opponents who got too close or to cut themselves loose from entangling reins in case of a fall. They adopted a Greek style of long curly hair protruding from under their helmets and festooned their horses' manes with ribbons and jewels. Races started when the emperor dropped his napkin and a hapless referee would try to keep order from horseback. After seven savage laps, those who managed not to be upended or killed and finish in the top three took home prizes.

"The best drivers were made legends by poets who sung their exploits and graffiti artists who scrawled crude renderings of their faces on walls around the Mediterranean. They could also be made extraordinarily wealthy.

"The very best paid of these - in fact, the best paid athlete of all time - was a Lusitanian Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who had short stints with the Whites and Greens, before settling in for a long career with the Reds. Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles - likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash - the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money. The figure is recorded in a monumental inscription erected in Rome by his fellow charioteers and admirers in 146, which hails him fulsomely on his retirement at the age of '42 years, 7 months, and 23 days' as 'champion of all charioteers.'

"His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period-enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year. By today's standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion. Even without his dalliances, it is doubtful Tiger could have matched it."

[Editor's note: Comparisons of monetary value over significant spans of time are notoriously difficult, and other methodologies would yield different results than that shown above.]

Authors: Peter Struck
Title: "Greatest of All Time"
Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly Roundtable Blog
Date: August 2, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010 9/10/10 - perfection

In today's excerpt - in 1994, Andre Agassi found himself at a crossroads. He was young, one of the brightest stars in tennis, but had underachieved in his career. So Agassi and his manager approached Brad Gilbert, a fiery, veteran tennis player of good ability known as an overachiever, to offer him the job as Agassi's coach. But first, they wanted to hear Brad's assessment of Agassi's abilities:

"When Brad is finally settled, half a cold Bud Ice down his gullet, [my manager] starts.

"So, listen, Brad, one reason we wanted to meet with you is, we want to
get your take on Andre's game.

"Say what?

"Andre's game. We'd like you to tell us what you think.

"What I think?


"You want to know what I think of his game?

"That's right.

"You want me to be honest?


"Brutally honest?

"Don't hold back.

"He takes an enormous swallow of beer and commences a careful, thorough, brutal-as-advertised summary of my flaws as a tennis player.

"It's not rocket science, he says. If I were you, with your skills, your talent, your return and footwork, I'd dominate. But you've lost the fire you had when you were sixteen. That kid, taking the ball early, being aggressive, what the hell happened to that kid?

"Brad says my overall problem, the problem that threatens to end my career prematurely - the problem that feels like my father's legacy - is perfectionism.

"You always try to be perfect, he says, and you always fall short, and it f**ks with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason. You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time.

"He talks a mile a minute, a constant drone, not unlike a mosquito. He builds his argument with sports metaphors, from all sports, indiscriminately. He's an avid sports fan, and an equally avid metaphor fan.

"Quit going for the knockout, he says. Stop swinging for the fences. All you have to be is solid. Singles, doubles, move the chains forward. Stop thinking about yourself, and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses. Attack his weaknesses. You don't have to be the best in the world every time you go out there. You just have to be better than one guy. Instead of you succeeding, make him fail. Better yet, let him fail. It's all about odds and percentages. You're from Vegas, you should have an appreciation of odds and percentages. The house always wins, right? Why? Because the odds are stacked in the house's favor. So? Be the house! Get the odds in your favor.

"Right now, by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you're stacking the odds against yourself. You're assuming too much risk. You don't need to assume so much risk. F**k that. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid. Be like gravity, man, just like motherf**king gravity. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you're doing? You're chasing something that doesn't exist. You're making everyone around you miserable. You're making yourself miserable. Perfection? There's about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can't lose to anybody, but it's not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It's the other times. It's all about your head, man. With your talent, if you're fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you're going to win. But if you're ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you're going to lose, lose, lose."

Author: Andre Agassi
Title: Open
Publisher: Vintage
Date: Copyright 2009 by AKA Publishing, LLC
Pages: 186-187

Thursday, September 09, 2010 9/9/10 - immigration and prosperity

delanceyplace header

In today's encore excerpt - beginning in 1840, the largest human migration in history brought over 30 million immigrants to America. This period of massive immigration brought with it unprecedented prosperity, and by the time it was interrupted in 1914 by World War I, America stood as the most prosperous nation on earth:

"The reasons for the largest human migration in history had been long in coming.

"One of the main factors was the enormous increase in the European population that took place in less than a century - from 140 million people in 1750 to 250 million in the 1840s. As the numbers increased, peasant families were constricted into increasingly smaller plots of land by powerful landlords who were anxious to reap profits by creating larger farms to feed the growing cities. Soon alarming numbers of peasants found themselves unable to subsist. They were joined in their plight by legions of artisans whose special skills - passed on from father to son and mother to daughter for generations - had earned them both a livelihood and a respected place in society. Now, however, scores of the goods they had so expertly handcrafted were being produced by the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of these artisans found themselves out of work, forced to move to the cities and work in factories, where low wages, drudgery, and the loss of their personal independence resulted in a sadly diminished quality of life.

"Devastating as they were, none of these problems compared to the series of famines that, beginning in the 1840s, descended upon various European nations. Nowhere was the situation more desperate than in Ireland where, in 1845, a fungus destroyed the potato crop, the single food staple upon which the poorer classes of the country depended for survival. By the time the disease began to abate in 1849, more than a million Irish men, women, and children had starved to death. ...

"It was not only in Ireland that famine struck. ... A quote from the archives of the Iowa State Historical Society by a Polish youngster put it more personally, 'We lived through a famine,' he explained, '[so] we came to America. Mother said she wanted to see a loaf of bread on the table and then she was ready to die.'

"There were other important reasons for the mass exodus as well. Despite the notions of liberty and equality that both the American and French revolutions had spawned, oppressive governments in countries such as Russia, Germany and Turkey had denied freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or other rights and had brutally put down rebellions aimed at bringing about reform. In Russia and Poland, massacres called pogroms erupted. Designed to eliminate minority groups who lived within their borders - particularly Jews - some of these pogroms were carried out by the governments of these two countries; others were unofficially endorsed by them. ...

"They came in waves; ... more than five million of them arrived between 1840 and 1880, an influx slightly greater than the entire population of the United States in 1790. Most emigrated from northern and western Europe - Scandinavians who settled in the American Midwest; Germans who established enclaves in New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee; and British and Irish who poured into Boston, New York, and other northeastern communities.

"Beginning in 1880 a great shift occurred when an even larger flood of newcomers came from eastern, central, and southern Europe - Russians, Poles, Austro-Hungarians, Greeks, Ukrainians, and Italians. In 1880 less than twenty percent of the 250,000 Jews living in New York had come from Eastern Europe. In the next forty years the number grew to 1,400,000. That was one-fourth of the city's entire population. In the first quarter of the 1900s, more than two million Italians arrived. By the time the human tide was interrupted in 1914 by World War I, some thirty-three million people had fled their native lands, risking all to start life anew across the ocean."

Author: Martin W. Sandler,
Title: Atlantic Ocean
Publisher: Sterling
Date: Copyright 2008 by Martin W. Sandler
Pages: 356-364
About Us

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. 

To visit our homepage or sign up for our daily email click here
To view previous daily emails click here.
To sign up for our daily email click here.
Safe Unsubscribe
This email was sent to by | | Philadelphia | PA | 19103

Wednesday, September 08, 2010 9/8/10 - women in confucian china

In today's excerpt - in Confucian China, women were little more than slaves, a status that remained true through the turn of the twentieth century:

"Nowhere were women treated with greater contempt than in a Confucian state. Chinese ideographs that include the character for 'woman' mean: evil, slave, anger, jealousy, avarice, hatred, suspicion, obstruction, demon, witch, bewitching, fornication, and seduction. Confucius warned gentlemen against being 'too familiar with the lower orders or with women.' As the poet Fu Xuan wrote in the third century:

How sad it is to be a woman!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like gods fallen out of heaven.

"Marriage in China was less of a union between man and woman than a contract of indentured servitude between a girl and her mother-in-law. A wedding was arranged by parents in an effort to advance themselves socially, politically, or financially. In traditional Chinese society a girl married into her husband's family and gave up all contact with her own parents. A bride was subservient to everyone in the new household but especially to her husband's mother, for whom she toiled without rest. Wife and mother-in-law were jealous rivals for the affection of the husband/son. Publicly a husband and wife were indifferent toward each other, never openly acknowledging the existence of the other. In private the wife would have to struggle to win her husband's respect, and only through her grown sons did she have any real hope of security. No
wonder she then exhibited little affection toward her son's bride, and the cycle repeated itself.

"A concubine was a serious and usually permanent member of a household. She was brought in to bear a son, after the first wife had failed, then remained as an assistant wife, with all the responsibilities and few of the privileges. Once the man lost interest, she was just another servant. In most cases she was purchased from her parents, so in fact she was a slave, though she could not be discarded without arriving at a settlement with her family."

Author: Sterling Seagrave
Title: Dragon Lady
Publisher: Vintage
Date: Copyright 1992 by Scribbler's Ltd
Pages: 29-30

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 9/7/10 - spartans and helots

In today's excerpt - Spartans and helots. The legendary and often celebrated Spartan culture of rigor and militancy was as much needed to control its own underclass, the helots, as it was to combat Athens and other Greek neighbors:

"Spartans, ... the Dorian invaders who conquered the southern Greek city of Messenia in the eighth century BCE, set up a rigid class system separating a tiny group of 'citizens' from a giant population of native 'helots' who worked in slavery-like conditions. The system became even more brutal after the helots tried to revolt in the seventh century BCE. By the fifth century BCE, there were about ten thousand citizens versus perhaps two hundred thousand helots. The Spartan hierarchy was incredibly strict: helots had no political rights or freedom of movement, and gave up half of every harvest to the Spartan overlords.

"The Spartans were equally hard on themselves, creating a military society with one goal: training invincible soldiers to control the helots. Spartan life centered on military preparation. Weak and deformed newborn children were exposed to the elements and left to die by order of the state. Boys entered military school at the age of seven, where their first task was to weave a mat of coarse river reeds they would sleep on for the rest of their lives. They were forced to run for miles while older boys flogged them, sometimes during of exhaustion, and were encouraged to kill helots as part of a rite of passage. At age twenty, after thirteen years of training, the surviving young men finally became soldiers. They served in the Spartan army until age sixty, living in communal barracks, where they shared meals and bunked together.

"They were allowed to marry bur rarely saw their wives until they 'graduated' to 'equals,' at age thirty. Ironically, this gender separation helped Spartan women accumulate property and power. Women are believed to have owned about 40 percent of Sparta's agricultural land and were at least sometimes responsible for managing the labor of helots, making them far more 'liberated' than other Greek women.

"The Spartans created one of history's more unusual governments. Somewhat like in Athens, all male citizens age thirty and up formed an assembly. But that's where the similarities ended. In Sparta, the assembly picked a council of twenty-eight nobles, all over the age of sixty, to advise not one but two kings. This dual-kingship was hereditary, but if the rulers were incompetent, they, could be deposed by the real bosses of Sparta - a group of five powerful men called ephors, who were elected annually by the assembly, leading it in wartime, when the kings were away"

Authors: Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand
Title: Mental Floss History of the World
Publisher: Harper
Date: Copyright 2008 by Mental Floss LLC
Pages: 41-43

Friday, September 03, 2010 9/3/10 - andre agassi

In today's excerpt - tennis champion Andre Agassi. In this passage from his stunningly insightful autobiography, Agassi writes about the final tournament of his life and the preparation for a match that may be last of his career. And about the loneliness of tennis:

"Now I can take a nap. At thirty-six, the only way I can play a late match, which could go past midnight, is if I get a nap beforehand. Also, now that I know roughly who I am, I want to close my eyes and hide from it. When I open my eyes, one hour has passed. I say aloud, It's time. No more hiding. I step into the shower again, but this shower is different from the morning shower. The afternoon shower is always longer - twenty-two minutes, give or take - and it's not for waking up or getting clean. The afternoon shower is for encouraging myself, coaching myself.

"Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Pitchers, golfers, goalkeepers, they mutter to themselves, of course, but tennis players talk to themselves - and answer. In the heat of a match, tennis players look like lunatics in a public square, ranting and swearing and conducting Lincoln-Douglas debates with their alter egos. Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players - and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer's opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at.

"In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They're inches away. In tennis you're on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement, which inevitably leads to self-talk, and for me the self-talk starts here in the afternoon shower. This is when I begin to say things to myself, crazy things, over and over, until I believe them. For instance, that a quasi-cripple [me] can compete at the U.S. Open. That a thirty six-year-old man can beat an opponent just entering his prime. I've won 869 matches in my career, fifth on the all-time list, and many were won during the afternoon shower.

"With the water roaring in my ears - a sound not unlike twenty thousand fans - I recall particular wins. Not wins the fans would remember, but wins that still wake me at night, Squillari in Paris. Blake in New York. Pete in Australia. Then I recall a few losses. I shake my head at the disappointments. I tell myself that tonight will be an exam for which I've been studying twenty-nine years. Whatever happens tonight, I've already been through it at least once before. If it's a physical test, if it's mental, it's nothing new.

"Please let this be over.

"I don't want it to be over.

"I start to cry. I lean against the wall of the shower and let go."

Author: Andre Agassi
Title: Open
Publisher: Vintage
Date: Copyright 2009 by AKA Publishing, LLC
Pages: 8-9

Thursday, September 02, 2010 9/2/10 - the new world and new food

n today's encore excerpt - Columbus's discovery of America brought new foods, including tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, and sugar, that transformed the European diet:

"Before Columbus, the diet of Europeans had remained basically unchanged for tens of thousands of years, based mainly on oats, barley, and wheat. Within a quarter century of his first voyage, the European diet became richer, more varied, and more nutritious. As Roger Schlesinger wrote in his book, In the Wake of Columbus: 'As far as dietary habits are concerned, no other series of events in all world history brought as much significant change as did [the discovery of the Americas].' The list of foods that made their way into Europe is extensive and includes maize, squash, pumpkin, avocado, papaya, cassava, vanilla, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes (yams), strawberries, and beans of almost every variety.

"The potato was one of the first American foods to be transported to Europe. Valued by the conquistadores, they made it a key item in the diet of their sailors. The potato then spread to England and Scotland, and to Ireland where it became the staple of the Irish diet.

"It was also the Spanish who discovered the tomato, first distributing it throughout their Caribbean possessions and then bringing it to Europe. In both Italy and Great Britain, the tomato was first thought to be poisonous, and it was not until the 1700s that the fruit became widely eaten. As was the case with sweet potatoes, which were regarded by some Europeans as having aphrodisiac-like qualities, the tomato was also viewed in some circles as having medicinal value. ... Actually, some of these claims may not have been as farfetched as they seem, since many Old World ailments were caused by the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. ...

"Tapioca, made from cassava root, eventually became a European delicacy, as did a drink made from the cocoa plant. By the time that Hernan Cortes and his men witnessed Aztecs drinking chocolatl, South and Central American natives had been consuming the beverage for hundreds of years. ...

"As diet transforming as all these newly introduced foods became, sugar, perhaps, had the greatest impact of all. As ever-increasing amounts of sugar were transported from New World plantations to Europe, the types of foods that were eaten, and just as significantly, the ways in which they were cooked, were changed forever. Before the early 1500s, sugar was sold in European apothecary shops where, because of its scarcity, only the rich could afford it. But as sugar-laden ships arrived in Old World ports, prices tumbled and sugar became an important foodstuff for the masses. At the time, honey was both expensive and in short supply, but even if that had not been the case, most people found sugar to be a much more desirable sweetener. As a result, tea and coffee drinking gained a popularity that would never diminish.

"Even more important, the availability of sugar led to the proliferation of confections and jams that soon graced tables throughout Europe. ...

"Sugar's impact on the European diet went way beyond jams and confections and the sweetening of tea, coffee, and other beverages. Such leftover foods as rice and bread could now be given new life and a whole new taste when sprinkled with sugar and reheated. Fruits and vegetables could be inexpensively preserved when immersed in a sugary syrup. Sugar's popularity also led to the introduction of a host of new cooking utensils and accoutrements, including new types of saucepans, pie plates, cookie molds, sugar pots, sugar spoons, and tongs."

Author: Martin W. Sandler
Title: Atlantic Ocean
Publisher: Sterling
Date: Copyright 2008 by Martin W. Sandler
Pages: 92-100