Friday, June 30, 2006


Known as the ugliest woman in the world, Julia Pastrana (born 1832 in Mexico; died 1860 in Moscow) was a Mexican Digger Indian who at maturity stood 4-and-a-half feet tall. Her face, arms and breast were covered with shiny black hair; she had large ears, a wide, squat nose and enormous nostrils; apelike jaws, each with a double row of teeth (noted by Darwin in The Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 1868); and large deformed lips surmounted by a heavy moustache.

Nevertheless, she had deep black eyes and a graceful figure, and her promoter (later her husband) Frederick Lent, toured her throughout England and Europe wearing fine gowns. When she appeared on stage, people gasped at her hideousness, yet Pastrana maintained enough composure to dance in the style of Lola Montez (albeit with more clothes on) and sing Mexican songs in a small, gentle, nostalgic voice. Offstage, she was known as a curious, well-read, spiritual young woman who spoke three languages and was generous with the money she earned as one of the world's top sideshow attractions. Lent eventually proposed to Pastrana, who accepted without pause, telling critics who cynically accused Lent of doing so merely to secure his relationship with her against rival promoters, that Lent "loves me for my own sake."

While touring in Moscow, she gave birth to their son, whom Pastrana had hoped would bear his father's normal features. Unfortunately, however, the infant turned out to be a gravely ill miniature of herself, and he died within 36 hours. Heartbroken, Pastrana died shortly thereafter. Either crazy from grief or simply greedy, Lent took the corpses of his dead wife and son to a local professor who was an expert in mummification and had their bodies preserved. The mummies were on tour with one operator or another for at least 30 years afterward.

According to eyewitness accounts, the preservation of Pastrana's body was remarkable -- "like an exceedingly good portrait in wax, but it was not formed of wax," said one writer who had once seen Pastrana before she died. If anything, Pastrana was a larger draw in death than in life, accompanied by the mummy of her son. The whereabouts of the bodies of Julia Pastrana and her son were unknown until 1990, when they were rediscovered at the Oslo Forensic Institute.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Peter and Paul

The feasts of Saints Peter and Paul, whose life-legends form much of the narrative of earliest Christianity, are celebrated today by many Christians around the world.

Peter was, of course, one of the 12 disciples of Christ. Originally called Simon, he and his brother Andrew were fishermen on Lake Galilee when Jesus called them to his side. After the arrival of John and James the Greater, the four of them -- Simon, Andrew, John and James, each hardy fisherman who could stand up to sudden squalls in the Gulf of Pigeons -- became Jesus' closest disciples, and big Simon was their spokesman and leader. Jesus nicknamed him "Peter" (the "rock"), although one of the interesting literary twists of the New Testament is that Peter seems like anything but the rock that Jesus knew him to be for much of Jesus' life story.

It is at the end, however, that Peter arises from his mistakes and shortcomings to lead Jesus' disciples and to build the church. Peter was strong and loyal, but a man of appetites and impulses; he might quibble with Jesus, stumble and lose steam, but he was warm-hearted and his faith was childlike and deep. Peter's house at Capernaum was Jesus' headquarters, and his boat was always at Jesus' disposal. When Jesus asked the disciples whom they thought he was, Peter spoke for them, saying "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus responded by telling him, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to kingdom of heaven." However, Peter refused to believe Jesus' prediction of Jesus' own rejection and death, and Jesus rebuked him for his short-sightedness and attachments.

At the Last Supper, Jesus again predicted Peter's future leadership, while at the same time predicting that Peter would 3 times deny his involvement with Jesus, which Peter passionately contradicted. When Jesus began to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter protested and demanded that Jesus wash his entire body. After being chosen to stand guard in the garden of Gethsemane with John and James, he fell asleep, although he did stand to brandish a sword at Jesus' captors (which again brought a rebuke from Jesus). As predicted, Peter denied his connection to Jesus on 3 occasions after the arrest, but afterward, remembering Jesus' words, Peter repented of his weaknesses.

After Christ's crucifixion and burial, Peter was the first to enter Christ's empty tomb, and was the first to whom the resurrected Jesus showed himself. During a private appearance, according to the Gospel of John, the risen Christ 3 times instructed Peter to "shepherd the flock" and "feed the sheep," in effect redeeming him for his repentance. Peter took charge of the group after Christ's ascension, and according to the Book of Acts, began to perform miracle healings in Jesus' name.

At the Council of Jerusalem, he disagreed with Paul over the desirability of a liberal policy toward Gentile Christians who did not choose to follow Jewish laws, but he agreed to the negotiated solution of James the Just that Gentile Christians could remain outside the Jewish tradition. With Paul as the crusader of the church outside Jerusalem, with Peter principally preaching at Corinth and in Asia Minor, the ways of the Gentile Christians prevailed; a new church, rather than a Jewish reform movement, was at hand.

Peter spent his final years at Rome, where he allegedly provided material to Mark for his Gospel. He was executed by being hung upside down on a cross in a general persecution of Christians in 64, and was buried, according to legend, on the site where the Vatican was built; very literally, he was the rock upon which at least the Roman Catholic Church was built. In the late 2nd century, Peter began to be identified as the first bishop of Rome, and the first in the succession of Roman Catholic popes. Having received the keys to heaven from Jesus, Peter is the protagonist of a million irreverent jokes about people trying to get in.

His comrade Paul was born a Jew whose father had Roman citizenship, and therefore he had 2 names -- the Roman "Paul" and the Jewish "Saul" after the first king of the Jews. Although his trade was making mohair for tents, Paul/Saul was an educated, Torah-adhering man whose cultural identity was as a "pharisee," a Jew who as (at least) a quasi-rabbinical defender of the Jewish traditions of the Law, was unnerved by Jesus' popularity among Jews. Along with his fellow pharisees, he saw Jesus as a symbol of the decay of the Jewish world, and he did his best to belittle Jesus' teachings -- even to the point of persecuting his followers, approving (though possibly not actually participating in) the stoning of Stephen in 34 A.D. He excelled, however, at providing the intellectual underpinnings of the pharisees' attack on Jesus: a relentless partisan with a sharp, incisive mind and quick tongue, he was not the sort of person one wanted as one's enemy.

Then, suddenly and alarmingly for one who seemed so sure of himself, Paul/Saul's world flipped upside down. According to Acts and his own testimony, shortly after Stephen's death, Paul/Saul was riding to Damascus in search of more followers of Jesus to taunt when he was knocked off of his donkey by a shaft of light much brighter than the desert daylight. Scrambling to his feet, he found that he was blind; and then, an unknown voice asked him, "Saul, why do you persecute me?" When Paul/Saul asked the identity of the voice, the voice replied, "I am Jesus of Nazareth." Paul/Saul was led to Damascus by his companions, where he rested, unable to eat or drink for several days, until one of Jesus' followers, Ananias, came to him and restored his eyesight by laying his hands on Saul.

Later, the converted Paul would say that the curious incident on the road to Damascus was the moment when the resurrected Jesus had personally visited him, just as he had visited his disciples in Jerusalem shortly after the crucifixion. Most strikingly, though, it was the moment when Paul suddenly felt empathy for the objects of his persecution, when he was able to divest himself of the comforts of his own dogma and in his blindness begin to view the world through the hopeful and compassionate eyes of Jesus' followers.

Following his conversion, Paul was as relentless in his advocacy of Jesus' message as he previously was in its opposition, focusing on the most powerful rhetorical elements of what Jesus said and did and what had happened to his followers to articulate a coherent intellectual formulation of the beliefs of the "Christians," Jesus' followers. Paul left Damascus for Arabia, where he tried out his new message: that Jesus the Messiah's baptism, death and resurrection represented for the disharmonious sons of Adam a new covenant with God in which they (we) have been entrusted with new tools to replace the Law: reconciliation, gentleness, forgiveness, compassion, love.

Paul returned again to Damascus, where his new missionary intensity was met with threats of violence, causing him to have to sneak out of town under cover of night. He continued to travel and preach, wandering into commercial centers as an itinerant tentmaker, making commercial connections with his targets, who would have the benefit of experiencing Paul as an ethical businessman before hearing his quirky message (a technique less calculatingly illustrated by Muhammad much later).

He visited Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion, arriving on Peter's doorstep like an excited fan club president coming to interview the rhythm guitarist who always stood just a few steps outside the spotlight of the rock star, talking a mile a minute. At first somewhat suspicious of this pharisee-by-reputation, the big-hearted Peter slowly realized that Paul was giving structure to his good intentions and embraced him.

With Paul's zeal came the community's first crisis: Paul had traveled to a number of places outside the Jewish world, where preaching about the Torah would have been a non sequitir; whereas in Peter's world, and that of Jesus' half-brother James, adherence to dietary laws and circumcision were part and parcel of Jesus' message. Paul the Jew struggled with this aspect of his mission, but was convinced that the central truths of Jesus' vision could be imparted to the Gentiles without requiring basic training in the Jewish tradition, and James would ultimately settle the quarrel by permitting Paul to continue his work with the Gentiles.

Paul spent the rest of his life touring and preaching, suffering persecution and hardship ("5 times have I had 39 lashes from Jews, 3 times been beaten by rods, once stoned, 3 times shipwrecked, adrift on the open sea for a night and a day . . ." and in Ephesus he was even forced to fight wild animals); but most importantly, he became the first Christian theologian, sending letters to the communities which he had seeded to provide instruction, correction and encouragement. In his Epistles to the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Galatians, the Philippians and others, he is sometimes an impatient father who feels it is his duty to deflate self-satisfaction among the children. While readers have debated the minutiae of his advice for 2 millennia, Paul wasn't ultimately interested in clothing or hairstyles (he was, however, self-conscious about the novelty of the Christian message and therefore wanted to make sure Christians didn't go around looking too wacky), but rather the egalitarian respect and compassion with which people treated each other -- without division between rich and poor, slave and freeperson, or even man and woman.

(The most oppressive words ascribed to Paul, the misogynist statements contained in First Timothy about keeping women silent, were probably not even written by Paul, and would in any event have been inconsistent with the behavior of the early church and Paul's overarching theological concerns.)

In 58, Paul was placed in protective custody by the Romans in Jerusalem after he was beaten by a crowd of Jews at the Temple who recognized him as the Jew who taught others to forsake the Law; he was later transferred to Caesarea to stand trial for disturbing the peace and profaning the Temple, where he was held for 2 years. At the trial, he asserted his Roman citizenship and expressed his desire to be judged by the emperor. After a long and hazardous journey to Rome, Paul waited another 2 years in prison before being released in 64, but was arrested again in 67 and beheaded during the persecutions by Emperor Nero. Tradition holds that he was buried at the later site of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, on the Ostia Way, outside Rome.

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." -- St. Paul, I Corinthians 13.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006


"Each one must arrange his mask as best he can -- his outer mask. For inside of it there is then the inner mask, which often fails to square with the outer. And nothing is true!" -- Luigi Pirandello.

Playwright Luigi Pirandello was born on this date in 1867 in Agrigento, Sicily.

A teacher at a girl's school, Pirandello experimented with verse and narrative prose (especially the latter, under the tutelage of Luigi Capuana) and criticized the drama as a second-rate art form -- perhaps in part due to some bad experiences in attempting to bring certain of his early works to the stage. His career path as a playwright, however, was sealed when in 1916 an old friend was cleaning Pirandello's apartment, found one of his old plays and sent it to the director of a Sicilian theatrical company. Once enticed, Pirandello unleashed an avalanche of new plays.

His masterpiece, Six Characters in Search of an Author, premiered in Rome in 1921 -- and after the first performance, a near riot broke out on the stage as actors, critics and members of the audience fought about what they had just experienced. The play ended up being one of the most influential stage works of the 20th century, containing a heavy dose of theatrical self-consciousness, a play within a play and sudden shifts of mood from the comic to the tragic and from the naturalistic to the grotesque, with stock dramatic effects heaped one upon the next with the result that they finally destroy contemporary theatrical conventions altogether.

Underlying his works was a feeling of isolation associated with the impossibility of communication in an absurdly organized world, and a proposed antidote for such impossibility, namely the wearing of another, perhaps more convenient personality. He joined the Italian fascists in 1924 -- perhaps forgiveable only to the extent one understands Pirandello's deep-seated fear of chaos and his own willingness to wear a convenient mask -- and was rewarded by Mussolini for a time with a state-funded theater company.

Pirandello won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934 (although some say the fascist-hating Italian writer Benedetto Croce would have been the winner that year were it not for the political intrigues of Mussolini's ambassador in Sweden).

Pirandello died on December 10, 1936.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006


"The point is once you get the table, you don't ever want to give it back. You can destroy a man in this game if he has to sit on the sidelines while you run 100 balls at a time." -- Willie Mosconi.

Mosconi was born on this day in 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Around my grandfather's house, Willie Mosconi was something of an icon. My grandfather graduated from boxing to billiards as a youth, and when he was old enough and wealthy enough, he realized a dream when he built a detached playroom dominated by a big beautiful pool table. A copy of Mosconi's Winning Pocket Billiards was always on hand nearby.

One doesn't normally think of the 1940s and 50s as a period in which a professional sport was completely dominated by a single performer -- except maybe, in the case of rodeo and billiards. While Jim Shoulders was roping rodeo world titles like they were gimpy goats, dapper and diminutive Willie Mosconi racked up 15 world billiards championships between 1940 and 1957. With his gentlemanly, meticulous air, Mosconi also managed to cultivate a better image for billiards, lifting it out of the seedy urban tavern and making it an acceptable activity for one's grandfather's playroom. Shoulders didn't quite get that far with rodeo.

The son of a ranked bantamweight boxer, Mosconi learned his craft as a child and embarked on a hectic exhibition tour at the age of 20, facing billiards legend Ralph Greenleaf in 107 matches and remarkably winning 50 of them. In one famous 8 p.m. Times Square match, Mosconi ran 125 straight balls against Greenleaf in less than a half an hour, finishing in time to take his seat for the 8:30 p.m. opening curtain of Anne Nichols' play Abie's Irish Rose a few blocks away. While at the peak of his powers, Mosconi set a world record by running 526 balls consecutively.

Always a great promoter of family billiards, Mosconi was disgusted by the back-alley behavior of billiards player Minnesota Fats Wanderone, and finally got a chance to embarrass him in a few 1978 televised exhibition matches in which Mosconi beat Minnesota handily. Ironically, Mosconi had served as technical advisor on the 1961 film The Hustler, upon which Wanderone built his own reputation.

He died on September 16, 1993 in Haddon Heights, New Jersey.

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Monday, June 26, 2006


"It may be another 50 or 75 years before such a performer as Mildred Didrikson Zaharias again enters the lists. For even if some yet unborn games queen matches her talent, versatility, skill, patience and will to practice, along with her flaming competitive spirit . . . there still remains the little matter of courage and character, and in these departments the Babe must be listed with the champions of all times." -- Paul Gallico.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was born Mildred Ella Didrikson on this date in 1913 in Port Arthur, Texas. Widely considered to be the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century, Didrikson excelled at running, throwing the javelin, high-jumping, basketball, swimming, diving, figure skating, golf, tennis -- and she even played a mean harmonica.

While still in high school, the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas hired her as a typist (85 wpm) and as a basketball player for the Company team. While men's teams typically scored 25 points per game during those days, Didrikson averaged 42 points per game by herself, leading the Company to the 1930 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) women's championship.

Then the Company started a track team -- with Didrikson as the only member -- and despite her lack of experience, Didrikson was acknowledged as the best woman track athlete in the country by 1932, her annus mirabilis. At the AAU National track meet in 1932, the one-woman Didrikson team scored 30 points to win the championship, taking first place in the 80-meter hurdles, the baseball throw, long jump, shot put and javelin; the next best team, the Illinois Women's Athletic Club, scored only 22 points.

At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Didrikson showed herself to be the best in the world, winning gold medals and setting world records in the 80-meter hurdles (11.7 seconds) and javelin throw (143"-4'). She would have tied for a third gold in the high jump, but settled for a silver for the fact that her head preceded her torso in the jump, an illegal technique then but commonplace today; U.S. teammate Jean Shiley took the gold.

Without a commercial outlet for her talents, Didrikson hit the vaudeville stage, telling jokes, tumbling, throwing the shot put and, yes, playing the harmonica, and picked up extra money barnstorming with the men's "House of David" baseball team. She married wrestler/sports promoter George Zaharias in 1938, and attempted to reinstate her amateur status so she could compete in women's golf and tennis tournaments.

In 1946, she was permitted to play in amateur golf competitions; and during 1946 and 1947 she won 17 consecutive golf tournaments, including the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur (becoming the first American woman to do so). In 1948, the Lady's Professional Golf Association (LPGA) virtually formed around Didrikson's drawing power, and she won the U.S. Women's Open in 1948, 1950 and, against all odds while fighting colon cancer, in 1954. She died of cancer on September 27, 1956 in Galveston, Texas.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Milton Jerrold Shapp

Milton Jerrold Shapp, Governor of Pennsylvania, was born on this day in 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Shapp founded Jerrold Electronics Corporation in 1948 and was one of the pioneers of cable television, coming up with a way to consolidate the bouquet of TV antennas on top of urban buildings through the use of coaxial cable and signal boosters capable of accommodating multiple signals at once. As a promoter of this new technology, he provided equipment, financing and encouragement to such early cable system owners (including folks like Bill Daniels and the Rigas family, among others), enabling them to provide better reception to TV viewers in rural areas where broadcast signals were weak. He also had a progressive record as an employer; the Philadelphia Bulletin referred to Jerrold Electronics as "a little United Nations," because of its record for hiring and promoting African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other minorities, and Shapp was one of the first in the business to promote women to top management positions.

By the 1960s, Shapp was a restless millionaire in search of a new calling, so he studied the problems of state government in Pennsylvania and surprised Democratic party leaders by securing the nomination for governor in 1966, becoming one of the first of many post-World War II millionaire-politicians to enter politics by spending huge amounts of money on a media campaign. Though he lost the general election in 1966, he was elected the first Jewish governor of Pennsylvania in 1970. In eight years as governor he gained a reputation for efficiency and proactivity, making national news in 1974 for settling a truckers' strike as the federal government stood by helplessly.

In 1975 he announced his intention to run for president, but caused barely a ripple; columnist Jack Germond, for one, noted that the dour, nebbishy Shapp was "about as charismatic as a head cold," and instead of being asked whether his candidacy was really an attempt to secure the vice-presidential nomination, some insisted on asking Shapp if he were "really running for Secretary of Transportation." Shapp withdrew from the race after just a few primaries in March 1976, having been the first Jew to undertake a serious campaign for president. He died in 1988.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Devil's Lexicographer

"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."

Ambrose Bierce -- misanthrope, hack journalist, critic and the devil's lexicographer (as author of The Devil's Dictionary, 1881-1906) -- was born on this day in 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio.

He disappeared in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. He was last heard from in December 1913 in Chihuahua, where he was covering Pancho Villa and his army. In one of his last letters, the 71-year old Bierce wrote: "Good-by — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia."

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Friday, June 23, 2006


"One day ladies will take their computers for walks in the park and tell each other, 'My little computer said such a funny thing this morning.'" -- Alan Turing.

Mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing was born on this day in 1912 in London. A brilliant youth who was neglected by his parents, Alan Turing was shy and socially-awkward, despite being a gifted athlete as well as a math whiz. At boarding school he developed a deep friendship with a schoolmate, Christopher Morcom, whose death when Turing was 18 left Turing devastated. Both before and after Morcom's death, it appears that Turing was confused about his own sexuality, although in later years, while he made occasional comments about having children and settling down, he was thought to have been exclusively homosexual.

In 1931, Turing entered King's College, Cambridge and found it rocked by a debate over the limits of mathematical analysis in reaction to the concept of "undecidables" put forward by Kurt Godel, who proved that there were some mathematical problems that were beyond the reach of logic. At 25, Turing imposed his indelible stamp on the debate -- and the history of computer science -- with a paper entitled "On Computable Numbers," in which he described an imaginary machine that would be capable of answering any mathematical question which could be logically answered through algorithms. Turing observed that such a machine (which he dubbed the "Universal Turing Machine"), though universal in its ability to apply mathematical logic to a problem, would be incapable of deciding whether a question was "undecidable," thus supporting Godel's view.

More interesting to computer historians, however, was that Turing's conceptualization of the Universal Turing Machine was a theoretical blueprint for the modern programmable computer. Before anything could be made of the idea, World War II had begun and Turing was invited to join the secret group of British cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, where he led the British government's attempts to break German codes scrambled by Arthur Scherbius' Enigma scrambling machine by conceptualizing the descrambling approach and stringing together multiple descramblers. In conducting the war, Winston Churchill came to rely heavily on Turing's work, and even increased funding to the project based on a direct request from Turing himself.

After the war, Turing worked with the British National Physical Laboratory and at the University of Manchester to attempt to build a prototype of the Universal Turing Machine. A proponent of artificial intelligence, Turing unveiled his now famous "Turing test" in 1950, whereby a subject would be locked in a room to pose questions to 2 unseen answer providers, one human, one computer; if the subject was not able to tell which was the human and which was the computer by the content of the answers, then according to Turing the machine would be said to be "thinking" as well as the human.

In 1952 he admitted to police that he was having a homosexual affair, and was convicted of "gross indecency." Subjected to female hormones as "therapy" for curbing homosexual lust, Turing grew depressed and committed suicide on June 7, 1954 in Wilmslow, Cheshire, England by eating a cyanide-poisoned apple (he had been an avid fan of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) at the age of 41. His role in cracking the Enigma code would not be revealed until the 1970s.

Also an accomplished marathon runner, during the 1940s, Turing was unofficially one of Britain's finest, achieving a personal-best time of 2:46:3, only about 11 minutes behind Delfo Cabrera's 1948 Olympic gold-medal winning time of 2:34:51.6.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Everest's Forgotten Scout

"The relationship between a man and what he does on a mountain is one of humility. They make you feel small, mountains, which is a salutary feeling. And therefore, to feel that you've conquered them is a presumption." -- Sir John Hunt.

Sir John Hunt was born on this day in 1910 in India. A career Army officer and great-great-grand-nephew of explorer Richard Burton, Col. John Hunt assumed the leadership of the British effort to place the first men on the summit of 29,002-foot Mt. Everest in October 1952, having been appointed by the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club after the previous leader, Eric Shipton, resigned (or was forced to resign) over differences of opinion with the Committee over the size and scope of the 1953 Everest expedition.

Hunt responded stoically with a soldier's focused sense of planning and logistics to what could easily have been the thankless task of leading a group of men who had already climbed under the leadership of the popular Shipton on what was sure to be Britain's last attempt to be the first to scale Everest; the British received a permit from the Nepal government for the 1953 climbing season, but had no permits for 1954 (reserved for a French expedition) or 1955 (reserved for the Swiss). Arriving in Nepal in March 1953, Hunt had assembled an expeditionary inventory of 12 British climbers (including Ed Hillary, a New Zealander), 36 Sherpa guides (including Tenzing Norgay), 362 Nepalese porters and some 10,000 pounds of baggage and supplies.

The team reached base camp on April 12, and on May 29, after an unsuccessful assault by two other members of the British team, Hillary and Tenzing stood on the summit. Upon hearing of their success, Hunt wept for joy at base camp; although he wanted to be there with them, he felt he could not lead the expedition very well while enduring the harsh final ascent.

Hunt and Hillary were knighted, and later in the year Hunt published an exhaustive account of the expedition, The Ascent of Everest. It should be said that Hunt was no accidental hero: by the time of the Everest expedition, Hunt had ascended about 60 peaks in the Alps and participated in several Himalayan climbs, as well as seeing military action in India during the civil disobedience campaigns of the 1930s (where he was commended for treating his Indian colleagues as equals, unlike many British officers, and earning their trust) and in Italy during World War II, receiving the Military Cross for heroism.

In 1966 he was elevated to the House of Lords with the title of Baron Hunt of Llanfairwaterdine, and advised Prime Minister Harold Wilson during the 1960s on the Nigerian civil war. He died on November 7, 1998 in Henley-on-Thames, England

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian and co-founder of both the United Church of Christ (created from mergers of the Evangelical Synod, the Reformed Church and the Congregational Church in 1934) and of the Americans for Democratic Action (1947), was born on this day in 1892 in Wright City, Missouri.

Niebuhr spent his career drawing the Bible together with Western political philosophy, and his writings took aim not only at the complacency of orthodox Christianity, but also at the self-righteous secular relativity of liberal Christianity, as well as the deification of the "proletariat" by the Marxists. Recognizing the inability of human beings to transcend ego and selfishness -- admitting, unlike liberal Christians, that man is basically flawed, though capable of responding to divine grace -- Niebuhr asserts that therefore it is heresy for any church is to identify itself completely with God and to declare that opposition to its way is opposition to God's way. While Christians should never sit quietly by while evil becomes manifest, according to Niebuhr, realistically Christians are limited to trying to mitigate the influence of selfishness through contrition and the spirit of love, while recognizing that the ultimate cure for what is evil in our world can be none other than genuine, voluntary conversion and placing one's trust in God.

During the course of his career -- first as a pastor at the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit (1915-28), as a Socialist candidate for office (he was a supporter of the Socialist campaigns of Norman Thomas until World War II), and as a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary (1928-60), he turned his observations upon such social problems as racial conflict, economic injustice, industrial exploitation (becoming a harsh critic of Ford Motors' labor policies, for example) and the morality of nuclear warfare. He died on June 1, 1971 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Over 4 billion people on this Earth, as of the beginning of the 21st century, claim Abraham as their spiritual progenitor: for 15 million Jews, Abraham is the first of the patriarchs of Israel who received God's promise of a great nation; for 2 billion Christians, following the lead of St. Paul, Abraham is the father of the faith of the followers of Christ; and for 1.2 billion Muslims, he is "Khalil" (God's friend) and founder of the dynasty of Muhammad through Abraham's first son Ishmael. For all of them, Abraham is the semi-mythical first personality of ethical monotheism, the individual whose earnestness and loyalty first defined the concept of intimacy with God.

The Book of Genesis and Jewish legend combine to fill in the details of Abraham's life. Born in Ur of the Chaldees (present day southern Iraq), according to Jewish legend Abraham had adopted his one-God view as a youth: placed in charge of his father Terah's idol shop, Abraham supposedly took an axe and smashed all the idols in the shop but one, placing the axe in the remaining idol's hands. His father, angered at the suggestion that the remaining idol smashed the others, sputtered, "You know these idols can't move!", to which Abraham supposedly replied, "If they can't save themselves, then we are superior to them -- so why should we worship them?"

During the collapse of the Babylonian empire, Terah and his family fled to Haran (southeastern Turkey), where God first spoke to Abraham, telling him to leave behind everything he knew to trek "to the land that I will show you . . . And I will make you a great nation." Faithful in the notion that God was not a regional phenomenon but instead could be found everywhere, Abraham headed south with his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and a large retinue, through Damascus to Shechem in Canaan, where God said "To your seed I will give this land." Abraham built an altar to the Lord there, but finding the Canaanites to be idol worshippers, Abraham retreated to the high country.

Within a short time, drought drove Abraham to Egypt for food; fearing that the Pharaoh would covet the beautiful Sarah and have Abraham killed, however, Abraham asked Sarah to pose as his sister. As Abraham had predicted, the Pharaoh was taken with Sarah, brought her into his home and gave Abraham gifts. To save Sarah from the Pharaoh, God intervened by afflicting the Pharaoh and his house with the plague (somehow letting the pharaoh know that Sarah's presence in the house was the source of the Pharaoh's ill-fate), and admonished Abraham for his lying for personal gain.

By the time Abraham left Egypt, however, he was a wealthy man, and realized that he might find himself in dispute with his nephew Lot over the lands in Canaan needed to support their wealth; but rather than pursue the dispute, Abraham played peacemaker and allowed the younger man to choose his lands first. Lot chose the green river valley of the Jordan, settling in Sodom (he didn't fare well); Abraham settled at Hebron, becoming a force in local political affairs, and was told by God that he and his descendants would have all the lands he could see in every direction.

Thus far, with Abraham having reached his 80s, God had focused on his promises to provide Abraham with land, but had not addressed the matter of his progeny. Sarah had mourned her infertility for many years and gave Abraham her servant, Hagar, as his concubine, by whom he produced a child, Ishmael. Thirteen years later, however, angels came to Abraham and told him that God was going to give him a son by his wife Sarah. The 90-year old Sarah laughed at the news, but soon thereafter gave birth to Abraham's son, Isaac, whereupon God commanded Abraham to circumcise his children as a sign of their covenant.

God had one more test for Abraham, however: he commanded that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham painfully but dutifully prepared to do so, taking the boy to Mount Moriah and raising the blade of his knife to Isaac's neck. God stopped Abraham's hand at the very last moment -- giving him not only an injunction against human sacrifice and expressing the profound meaning of fatherhood, but also honoring Abraham's attentive faith in Him.

Abraham was said to have died at the age of 175, and was buried with Sarah in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Legend leads to the conclusion that God had of course correctly predicted that within centuries, Abraham's children would have all the lands between Egypt and the Euphrates; Muslim, Jew and Christian alike all live there, a dysfunctional family still paying for their father's foibles. Perhaps in family, there is hope, although it is also true that familial wounds slash deeper than any other.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Stooge #1

At the height of their film careers, the Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and a third -- sometimes Moe's older brother Shemp, sometimes Moe's younger brother Curly, sometimes a Curly substitute) were space-fillers, poverty row grotesques who were barely acknowledged by Hollywood as their own. When their short films began to be shown on TV in the 1950s, they became mid-day children's favorites; and by the end of the 20th century, they went from being the guilty pleasures of adults who grew up during the 1950s to being lauded as pop culture icons of comic idiocy.

Moe Howard (born Moses Horwitz on this day in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York) began his professional life as a comedian with his childhood friend Ted Healy in vaudeville, at one point, in 1912, playing "diving girls" in swimmer Annette Kellerman's diving act. Later they developed their own act: while Healy performed on stage, Howard would heckle him from the audience. Eventually Fine and Shemp joined the act, and for the next several years, the mob of them played the top vaudeville circuits around the country as "Ted Healy and his Gang," "Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen," "Ted Healy and his Racketeers," and eventually, "Ted Healy and his Stooges."

In the early 1930s, Ted Healy was signed by MGM to appear in a few short films with the Stooges in support, but when Moe, Larry and Curly were invited to join Columbia Pictures (then considered close to the bottom of the barrel of Hollywood studios), Healy stayed with MGM and the "Three Stooges" were born. In 190 short films from 1934 to 1959, their formula stayed simple: put them in some highly unlikely context (as archaeologists, or in an artist's studio, or in a society mansion), give them a mission (often a get-rich-quick scheme), and watch their tiny brains turn their plan and everything around it into chaos.

Moe, the caustic, marginally more intelligent character, was usually the leader and the chief deliverer of the carefully-choreographed cartoon punishment for which the Stooges are famous, displaying a staggering variety of ways to slap, jab, poke and hit Larry and Curly (with appropriately inane sound effects); in the arc of Stooge engineering, however, Moe would usually get his own back. Looking like preposterous little human specimens to begin with (Moe's physique was marked by his trademark bowl haircut, his puggish mug and, in the words of Jack Kerouac, his "thunderstorm of eyebrows"), the violence never seemed real or particularly painful, and in the words of critic Nora Sayre, it was "a pleasure to see them bashing skulls and tweaking noses while falling about like small children unaccustomed to ice skates."

They appeared in a few feature films after their retirement from Columbia (such as Snow White and the Three Stooges, 1961), their timing so perfectly refined that it was scarcely noticed that they were 60-year olds -- but despite their iconic status, "refined" is the last superlative people generally think of when considering the Stooges, and to this day, Moe and the Stooges are still regarded by canon-compilers as crude interlopers in the history of cinematic comedy. Moe Howard died on May 4, 1975 in Los Angeles, California.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

'Because It's There'

On May 2, 1999, an expedition of climbers reported that they had found the frozen body of George L. Mallory, the leader of the 1924 British Mt. Everest expedition, at 26,800 feet on the North face of the mountain, where it apparently had lain for 75 years. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory famously replied, "Because it's there." To his friends, he also revealed a fear of "drying up like a pea in its shell" if he were to turn his back from adventure.

Born on this day in 1886 in Mobberley, England, the son of a Cheshire parson, Mallory read history at Magdalen College Cambridge (where he befriended such budding talents as Rupert Brooke, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant, for whom he posed for paintings and photographs) and in 1910 he became a teacher at the Charterhouse School; but he was mountain-wild, climbing in the Alps and in Wales with every bit of spare time.

In 1921, Mt. Everest was a remote objective -- especially since the nations that it straddled, Tibet and Nepal, were closed to foreigners -- but after negotiating the appropriate permits, Mallory participated in a British reconnaissance mission on the North Col of Everest, climbing several nearby peaks to gain a sense of the climbing environment. Convinced there was a clear route on the North Col, in 1922, Mallory led an expedition back up the North Col, but it ended tragically as an avalanche overran the party, killing 7 sherpas.

He hesitated about going back in 1924 -- he had a new job at Cambridge and was enjoying married life -- but he was unable to resist the call of adventure. Thus it was that Mallory and another member of the British party, 22-year old Andrew Irvine, attempted to climb the North Col again in 1924, with the express aim of reaching Everest's summit.

As far as we know, Edmund Hillary was the first person to reach the summit of Everest (29 years later, along with Tenzing Norgay), and as Hillary descended, he mused "Wouldn't Mallory be pleased if he knew about this." Many have speculated, however, over whether Mallory and Irvine had actually reached the top before their disappearance, and while the discovery of Mallory's body yielded no clues, investigators still hope to find Irvine's body, and perhaps a camera with undeveloped film showing the summit. Hillary himself observed, however, "The point of climbing Everest should not be just to reach the summit. I'm rather inclined to think that maybe it's quite important, the getting down."

Everest veteran Reinhold Messner was opposed to the effort to find Mallory's body on the grounds that it robbed the climber of the air of mystery surrounding his achievements; and although he was also quite skeptical about whether Mallory was skilled enough to tackle the Second Step, the steep rock outcropping just near the summit, Messner refers to Mallory's expedition as a "masterpiece in the annals of high-altitude mountaineering," achieved in tweed coats and hobnailed boots as opposed to the modern equipment available to climbers today, and argues that all who have attempted Everest since owe him a debt of gratitude.

See also my previous post, Going Up is Optional, Getting Down is Mandatory.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Nelson's Xanadu

"The story of Ted Nelson's Xanadu is the story of the dawn of the information age. Like the mental patient in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow who believes he is the Second World War . . . Nelson, with his unfocused energy, his tiny attention span, his omnivorous fascination with trivia, and his commitment to recording incidents whose meaning he will never analyze, is the human embodiment of the information explosion." - G. Wolf.

Information theorist Ted Nelson was born on this day in 1937 in Chicago, the son of film director Ralph Nelson and actress Celeste Holm.

After studying philosophy at Swarthmore, Nelson was pursuing a master's degree in sociology at Harvard when he enrolled in a computer course and began to have visions about the future of information. There he made an attempt, before the invention of word processing systems, to create a "writing system" which would allow writers to store and edit their work; unfortunately, he took an "incomplete" in the course. In the 1960s, he became known as a computer theorist, without actually producing software, and coined the words "hypertext" and "hypermedia" to refer to the linking of related texts or media -- a concept which had been explored as early as 1945 by Vannevar Bush.

With a growing reputation as a visionary, Nelson worked in and out of business and academia attempting to advance his ideas about the nonsequential, interlinked presentation of information and his predictions of millions of simultaneous users of this information, but his chronic lack of focus (he suffers from attention deficit disorder) and rebelliousness (among his favorite maxims are "most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist and everything is wrong") got him bounced from job to job.

From the late 1960s, however, Nelson has been actively supervising the design of Xanadu (named after the "pleasure dome" referred to in the unfinished poem by Samuel Coleridge, Kublai Khan), a proposed hypertext system in which all links between text are two-way and which would provide for the publication of comments on existing works to appear as anntotations; parallel retrieval and editing; version management; and an efficient system of copyright management. In effect, he had envisioned a universally accessible, self-updating electronic library/town meeting.

In its early days, the proposed system anticipated Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web; since the emergence of the Web in 1990, Nelson has offered his proposed system as a less autocratic, more multi-dimensional and interactive alternative to the Web, which he disparages as a mere "child's wagon" in terms of its power and complexity. Like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu construction project in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Project Xanadu is "still unfinished," although it has had the backing of no less than Autodesk (for a time) and despite the fact that Nelson had predicted its release as long ago as 1976, 1988 and 1991. According to the official Xanadu website, Nelson's investors forced his work to be made available in an "open source" environment in 1999, although Nelson is seeming to insist that Project Xanadu is ongoing as an independent project.

Nelson's critics tend to portray him, at worst, as a woolly charlatan, leaving behind him a pile of unfinished projects, disgruntled investors, and a collection of clever new buzzwords (including "docuverse," "cybercrud" and "softcopy"); at best, they see him as a brilliant, compulsive mad-monk, squandering his genius by toiling away at the mystically unattainable -- like Isaac Newton in his later years, searching for the keys to alchemy.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Put One Foot in Front of the Other, and Step Off the Edge

Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post (1969-79) and chairman of the Washington Post Company (1973-91), was born on this day in 1917 in New York City.

After she left her job as a reporter with the Washington Post in 1945, Katherine Graham probably had no reason to believe that she would be anything other than a Washington hostess, mother and housewife. Her father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the Washington Post in 1933, and Katherine took a job there at age 20. Shortly thereafter, however, Katherine married Philip Graham, and left the Post to raise their family. Philip bought out Katherine's father and proceeded to expand the company, buying Newsweek and the Washington Times-Herald.

Philip Graham suffered from manic depression, however, and in 1963, he committed suicide, leaving Katherine in control of the Washington Post. In her memoirs, published in 1997 (for which she won a Pulitzer Prize), Graham wrote: "I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be doing, so I set out to learn. What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge."

During the 1960s and 70s, the Post became known for its tough investigative reporting under Graham's leadership, as she brought on Ben Bradlee as editor-in-chief; published the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, against the advice of attorneys; and pressed the polices that resulted in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's reports on the Watergate scandal, and ultimately in the resignation of President Nixon -- despite the fact that at the time the Nixon administration was threatening to pull the FCC licenses for her TV stations in Florida. When Carl Bernstein called to inform John Mitchell, Nixon's campaign chair and former Attorney General, that the Post would be printing an article linking him to the fund which paid for the Watergate burglary, it was perhaps a measure of Graham's personal power and charisma within the corridors of power in Washington when Mitchell testily responded "Katie Graham's gonna get her t*t caught in a big fat wringer if that's ever published." Mitchell was later convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury, and served 19 months of a 2-1/2-to-8 year prison sentence in a minimum-security federal prison in Alabama.

Not only did Graham help to make the Washington Post an internationally respected newspaper, but by the mid-1970s she was being hailed as the most influential woman in the U.S. When she retired as CEO of the Washington Post in 1991, she was one of only 2 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. She died on July 17, 2001 in Boise, Idaho, from head injuries after a fall on a sidewalk while attending a conference.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Harry Langdon

"The oddest thing about this whole funny business is that the public really wants to laugh, but it's the hardest thing in the world to make them do it." -- Harry Langdon.

The unlikeliest of silent comedians, the oldest of the four worthies (Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd being the others), the last to reach the movie screen, and, according to Mack Sennett, the greatest of them all. Born on this day in 1884 in Council Bluff, Iowa to Salvation Army parents, he left home at 13 to join a medicine show. By 1906, while working the vaudeville circuit he had created the rough edges of the character which would see him through his brief but brilliant turn as a silent movie comedian: sleepy, child-like mannerisms, baggy trousers, a round hat with a punched-in crown, and a white pancake face with eyes, eyebrows and lips darkly outlined, reducing his facial features to a few cartoon-like smudges.

As vaudeville began to vanish, Langdon was plucked out of the circuit and signed by Sennett to a star contract. Initially, Sennett didn't know what to do with Langdon: most Sennett comedians ran very fast and had a certain natural malevolence -- they'd think nothing of tripping the cop, or throwing a brick at him. The principle behind Langdon's blinking "baby-man" character was entirely the opposite: he functioned more as a comic pause in the action, the ridiculous calm at the eye of the tornado of slapstick around him. And throwing a brick was out of the question: Langdon was the child of fate, and if fate would somehow see fit to drop a brick on the cop's head, then Langdon would make it home safely.

Sennett entrusted Langdon's offbeat brand of pantomime to a young writer, Frank Capra, who helped Langdon figure out how to make his character work on celluloid in Langdon's three best feature films: The Strong Man (1926), Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926, with Joan Crawford) and Long Pants (1927).

Langdon's fame quickly faded as the silent era drew to a close, although he continued to work as a character actor and gag writer for Laurel and Hardy, once even subbing for Laurel opposite Hardy in Zenobia (1939) when Laurel left the studio during a contract dispute. He died on December 22, 1944 of a cerebral hemorrhage while on a movie set.


Mo for President

One of Mo Udall's favorite stories was about the time he walked up to a pair of elderly men in Keene, New Hampshire to shake their hands, tell them his name was Mo Udall and that he was running for president. "We were just laughing about that," they told him, according to Udall.

U.S. congressman Morris K. Udall was born on this day in 1922 in St. Johns, Arizona. The son of an Arizona Supreme Court justice, Mo Udall lost an eye in an accident when he was 6, but that didn't stop him from starting as a forward for the NBA's Denver Nuggets in 1949 (he grew to 6'-5"in the meantime) after graduating from University of Arizona Law School. He retired from basketball after one season and opened a law firm in Tucson with his brother Stewart, and until 1961 he practiced law, serving a stint as county attorney and as a labor law professor.

In 1961 he was elected to Congress from the Tucson area as a Democrat, succeeding brother Stewart who left Congress to become John Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior. After a single term he became a mentor to newer congressmen, schooling them in the arcane House rules while advocating reform of the House seniority system. Soon he became a leading liberal voice in the House, denouncing U.S. involvement in Vietnam as early as 1967 and losing in maverick bids for the speakership against old-line incumbent John McCormack and for majority leader against Hale Boggs. His liberal principles even led him to leave the Mormon Church due to his opposition to what he perceived as its policies of racial exclusion.

At the urging of congressional colleagues, Udall announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976. Despite a strong following which led to his placing second in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan primaries and second overall in delegates to the eventual nominee, Jimmy Carter, Udall kept his campaign light with his self-deprecating, Lincolnesque sense of humor.

After his unsuccessful presidential bid, he originated much significant environmental legislation -- including strip mining reforms, the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, and a 1982 nuclear waste act -- and succeeded in adding 8 million acres to the federal wilderness system, as well as serving as one of the Reagan Administration's sharpest critics on environmental issues and Central American policies. In 1988, three years before retiring from Congress, he published his autobiography, Too Funny to be President. He died on December 12, 1998 in Washington, D.C., a victim of Parkinson's Disease.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Blood Types

Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Karl Landsteiner was born on this date in 1868 in Vienna.

After studying chemistry (with Emil Fischer, among others) and medicine, Landsteiner settled in Vienna to teach pathological anatomy. He was interested in the practice of blood transfusion to counteract blood loss in patients, once discredited for some years, but experiencing a resurgence during the 19th century. The problem with it was that sometimes transfused blood clotted inexplicably, leading to severe kidney problems, and sometimes the transfusion worked just fine. Assuming that there were intrinsic similarities and differences in blood from different humans, Landsteiner began to analyze human blood and arrived at a set of simple categories, based on blood cell antigens, which could allow medical professionals to know who could give and receive blood transfusions safely: people with type A blood could receive blood from type A and O donors; people with type B blood, from B and O donors; people with type O blood, only from O donors; and people with type AB blood (discovered later), from all donors.

Following Charles Drew's pioneering work on blood preservation during the 1930s, blood transfusions became a routine procedure. In addition to aiding successful blood transfusions, Landsteiner’s blood types also helped determine paternity, opened the way for successful organ transplantation and became invaluable in genetic studies of the origins of human populations. Landsteiner fled politically chaotic Vienna in 1922 and joined the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1930 for his discoveries.

Landsteiner was also the first to discover that allergies had an immunochemical basis; defined the relationships between antibody and antigen with chemical precision, thus encouraging the pursuit of effective prophylactic immunization; isolated the virus which caused polio, which ultimately empowered Jonas Salk’s work on the polio vaccine; and discovered the Rh blood factor, linking it to brain damage and death in newborn infants and leading to the design of a life-saving test for infants. Landsteiner’s lifetime of discovery involved a great deal of lab work and animal experimentation (including the use of Rhesus monkeys as experimental confederates in the treatment of syphillis) -- a fact which animal rights activists have narrowmindedly held against him -- and he personally performed 3,639 human postmortem examinations.

After he was awarded the Nobel Prize, his fame grew, but being a somewhat timid man he never felt comfortable with his notoriety, preferring the solace of the laboratory. He died at his lab bench on June 26, 1943 in New York City.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lo, Indeed

MIT computer jock Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at UCLA, was born on this day in 1934 in New York City.

Kleinrock created the basic principles of packet switching which were eventually adopted by Vinton Cerf within the project which came to be known as the Internet during the 1960s. He also directed the transmission, in 1969, of the first message ever to pass over the Internet. Intending to spell the word "login," the system crashed after the letters "lo" -- or "Lo!," if you're romantically-disposed.

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Art by the Yard

Husband-and-wife sculptors Christo and Jeanne-Claude, known for wrapping up huge landmarks in colorful cloth and other media (the white cliffs of Dover, the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pont Neuf in Paris, "the Gates" in New York City's Central Park), were both born on this day -- respectively, Christo Javacheff in 1935 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, in the very same year in Casablanca, Morocco.

One of their large-scale pieces resulted in mortal tragedy: their Umbrellas (1991, consisting of thousands of heavy blue and yellow umbrellas installed along 12 miles of coastline in Japan and 15 miles of coastline in California) killed one person in California when one of the umbrellas got loose from its moorings in a freak windstorm, and in Japan a maintenance worker was electrocuted while dismantling the project when he touched high power lines with one of the metallic umbrella shafts.

Jon Stewart: Is [The Gates] great art?
Stephen Colbert: Yes, Jon, because like all great art, it challenges what we thought we knew about the world. For instance, I used to think $21 million could be used to achieve something noble, like, uh, I don't know, build a hospital wing. But "The Gates" has forced me to re-contextualize my notion of what $21 million can be used for -- in this case, redecorating a bike path.
--The Daily Show, Feb. 14, 2005.


Monday, June 12, 2006

Heidi Bowl

Novelist and children's writer Johanna Spyri was born Johanna Louise Heusser on this day in 1829 in Hirzel, Switzerland. She died on July 7, 1901 in Zurich.

Although Heidi (1880-1, in 2 parts), is considered to be one of Switzerland's best loved pieces of literature, her appeal has lost some its luster over the years. A TV adaptation of Heidi starring Maximilian Schell became the infamous focal point of a network TV gaffe on November 17, 1968 when, with 50 seconds to go in a football game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets, NBC cut away from the game to its previously scheduled broadcast of Heidi; in less than 48 seconds, the Raiders came back from a 3-point deficit, scoring 2 touchdowns to beat the Jets 43-32. While Heidi crawled across a mountainside to reach her grandfather, an NBC message crawled beneath her across the screen announcing the result of the game. Outraged fans deluged the NBC switchboard with complaints, causing the NFL to include a "whole game" clause in future TV contracts.

The "Heidi Bowl" aside, a more recent film interpretation of Heidi by Markus Imboden (2001) depicts Heidi as an alienated modern latchkey kid, sending text messages and emails back and forth to her pal Peter and his friends at a Berlin cybercafe. Future Heidis will no doubt have all the web-enabled tools necessary to determine the final score of any NFL game.

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The American Afghan Prince

The Afghan "Prince of Ghor and Lord of the Hazaras" was born on this date in 1799 in, of all places, Newlin Township, Pennsylvania.

While on a merchant mission to India in 1822, a "Dear John" letter from his fiancée stirred Josiah Harlan, a Quaker and Freemason, to stay in Asia and find his fortune. Without any meaningful training for the profession, Harlan's fast talk landed him positions as a surgeon, first for the British East India Tea Company, and later for the Bengal artillery under British colonel George Pollock during the First Burmese War (1824-6).

Finding himself out of work after the war and inspired by tales of Alexander the Great's conquest of Central Asia, Harlan insisted on traveling to a part of the East that few Westerners -- let alone any Americans -- had ever seen. In a small border town in 1827, Harlan met the deposed former king of Afghanistan, Shoja al-Molk Shah, and promised him that he would go to Kabul, raise his supporters, and overthrow the new regent, Dost Mohammad Khan. Hedging his bets, he also offered his services as a military reconnaissance scout to the leader of the Sikhs in the Punjab, Ranjit Singh.

Arriving in Kabul in 1829, after mastering Persian and successfully navigating the complex relationships among Afghan tribes while masquerading as a Muslim holy man, Harlan quickly determined that Dost was a worthy and formidable ruler, and he abandoned his effort, returning to the Punjab with copious intelligence about Dost's regime to become Singh's governor of the provinces of Durpur and Jesota. In 1835, Dost's army launched an attack on Singh, who in retaliation sent Harlan along to infiltrate Dost's camp and bribe his men with gold, resulting in Dost's retreat. Harlan nevertheless decided to switch sides and join Dost in 1836, organizing and training Dost's army and preparing them for their defeat of Singh at the battle of Jamrud in January 1837. For his service to Dost, Harlan was named "prince of Ghor, lord of the Hazaras," a title he enjoyed for only a short time before the British entered Afghanistan in their bid to conquer it in 1839, forcing him to leave.

Appalled by British tactics and what he perceived to be their fatal insensitivity to local customs ("I have seen this country, sacred to the harmony of hallowed solitude, desecrated by the rude intrusion of senseless stranger boors, vile in habits, infamous in vulgar tastes," he wrote), Harlan returned to the U.S. and wrote a scathing critique of the British in A Memoir of India and Afghanistan (1842). In view of the fact that it was published in the same year that the British were driven out of Afghanistan by Dost, Harlan's point of view was rather harshly denounced by the smarting British.

Harlan married and settled down on an estate in Chester County, Pennsylvania, briefly involving himself in an effort to import camels to the U.S. in 1856. He fought in the Union Army during the Civil War as commander of "Harlan's Light Cavalry," participating in the Peninsular campaign before retiring, due to ill health, to San Francisco in 1862, where he practiced his ill-informed version of medicine, fading into obscurity. He died October 1871 in San Francisco, California.

Tales of the unprincipled, delusional, yet seemingly effective American mercenary -- some derisive, some admiring -- continued to drift among British adventurers, ultimately forming the basis of Rudyard Kipling's fictional story "The Man Who Would be King" (1888; filmed by John Huston with Sean Connery in the anglicized role based on Harlan), and providing an interesting background and counterpoint to 20th/21st century American foreign policy in Afghanistan, from its support of the Mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s to the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 2001.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

O Rare Ben Jonson

As between his beloved pal Shakespeare and himself, Ben Jonson was in his day heralded as the finer artist of his generation -- perhaps because it was known that he was self-consciously involved in the creation of Art with a capital "A" unlike his rough-and-tumble friend. Jonson's assessment of Shakespeare's work ("Would he had blotted out a thousand [lines]") is instructive: although Jonson's life was certainly wild and woolly, his interest was in infusing his writing with classical virtues -- balance, formality, restraint -- in an effort to civilize and tame the "humours" of his age.

Born on this day in 1572 in London, his father (a Protestant minister) died before he was born, and he was raised by his mother and his bricklaying step-father. After a pretty good classical education at the Westminster School (thanks to an anonymous sponsor), he briefly entered his step-father's trade and then served in the military before becoming an actor and hack-writer.

A hard-drinking, hard-playing fellow, Jonson was briefly imprisoned for writing a "lewd" and "seditious" play (The Isle of Dogs, 1597, with Thomas Nashe) and shortly afterwards was again arrested, this time for killing actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel. He narrowly escaped execution for the crime, and while in prison converted to Catholicism (a fad which stuck with him for 12 years). He hit his stride as a playwright with his first solo effort, Every Man in his Humour (1598), which premiered with Shakespeare in the cast, and its sequel, Every Man out of his Humour (1599). The latter play was the first of several in which Jonson included satirical portraits of playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker, after Marston had attacked Jonson in his play Histriomastix. The "War of the Theatres" continued for a few plays until Jonson turned his attention to tragedy, based on models from antiquity, notably in Sejanus (1603).

With James I's accession to the throne, Jonson started writing lighthearted masques (with occasionally dark undertones) for the court, working with architect Inigo Jones on sets. He patched up his quarrels with Marston and Dekker and even collaborated with them; when James I found Eastward Ho (1605, co-written with Marston and George Chapman) offensive to the Scots, he imprisoned Marston and Chapman, and Jonson voluntarily joined them out of solidarity. Jonson's 5 comedies from this period -- Volpone, or the Fox (1605), Epicene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614) and The Devil is an Ass (1616) -- are considered to be his masterpieces; full of the mischief and color and vitality of his time, Jonson gives his topical circuses an angle of moral instruction and civilizing reason.

Throughout this period until the end of his life, particularly as James' poet laureate, poetry provided an ideal canvas for his classical palette; Jonson's verse is graceful, masculine and controlled, especially by contrast to the excesses of contemporary love poets, as exemplified in his famous poem "To Celia" (which begins "Drink to me, only, with thine eyes"). In 1619, he walked from London to Scotland (buying a new pair of shoes in Darlington) and stayed for a time with poet William Drummond. Although he continued to write in later years, he exercised more influence as elder statesman of English letters, presiding over meetings of his "sons" in authorship at the Mermaid Tavern and giving weight by his presence to the notion of literature as a profession.

At the end, he was bed-ridden from a stroke, living at Westminster with a drunken servant and a pet fox. He died in 1637, and he was buried standing up in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription "O Rare Ben Jonson" added to his comically small, square tomb-slab almost as an after-thought at the behest of a passing admirer.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

If an Explorer Falls Down in the Forest . . .

Frederick A. Cook -- explorer, oil promoter and convicted fraud -- was born on this day in 1865 in Calicoon Depot, New York.

Trained as a physician, Cook served as surgeon on three expeditions to Greenland led by Robert Peary (1891, 1893, 1894) and a Belgian Arctic expedition (1897). In 1906 he led his own expedition to Mt. McKinley, and claimed to be the first to successfully ascend the peak, although the Explorers Club of New York and the American Alpine Club refused to acknowledge Cook's claim after reviewing the evidence. Next Cook claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole on April 21, 1908 and was greeted as a hero on his return, but Peary publicly questioned his claim, and a report by Copenhagen University discredited Cook's story, paving the way for Peary to claim to be the first to reach the Pole the following year.

Cook enjoyed popularity on the lecture circuit for a time, but drifted into oil well promotion, eventually starting the Petroleum Producers Association in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1922 and raising funds through the sale of stock. A year later, however, he was indicted and convicted for fraudulently disbursing stock-sale proceeds as dividends to early investors, claiming revenue from non-producing wells and misrepresenting the company's financials. He was sentenced to 14 years, 9 months in prison, but was paroled after 7 years in Leavenworth.

Cook was pardoned by President Roosevelt shortly before his death on August 5, 1940 in New Rochelle, New York. The Frederick A. Cook Society continues to advocate on behalf of Cook's claims of priority on Mt. McKinley and at the North Pole.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

As Natural as 'Yogic Flying'

John Hagelin, the founder of the U.S. Natural Law Party and its only presidential candidate, was born on this day in 1954 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A Harvard-trained quantum physicist and devotee of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, John Hagelin founded the U.S. Natural Law Party in 1992 (an affiliate of Natural Law Parties established by followers of the Maharishi in a number of countries) under the slogan "Bringing the light of science into politics" and based on a public policy model that espouses the improvement of human consciousness through Transcendental Meditation techniques (including "yogic flying," or meditation that results in levitation), and the subsequent harnessing of the "laws of nature" to solve acute social problems.

Telegenic and reassuringly even-tempered, he quickly increased the Party's visibility while running for president as the Party's nominee in 1992 (39,179 votes; 8th place) and 1996 (113,670 votes; 7th place). In 2000, Hagelin took a stab at hijacking what remained of Ross Perot's Reform Party, but lost his bid for control to the right-wing followers of Pat Buchanan, and subsequently returned to the ballot as the Natural Law nominee for president again (83,712; 7th place).

In 2003, Hagelin and the Party endorsed Dennis Kucinich for president, but the Party was abruptly dissolved in April 2004 before Kucinich could be provided with the Natural Law Party's extensive ballot access. Since then, Hagelin appears to have abandoned electoral politics in favor of an initiative called the U.S. Peace Government, a purported shadow-government which, among other things advocates the deployment of a "Vedic Defense Shield" -- essentially a program of targeted meditation to diffuse regional tensions that result in war.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Secret of Life

Physicist and molecular biologist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA with James Dewey Watson (1953) and co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, was born on this day in 1916 near Northampton, England.

The son of a shoe salesman, Francis Crick studied physics at University College London, and during World War II designed non-contact "magnetic" mines for the British navy. After the war, influenced by his own long-held atheism and by Schrodinger's What is Life?, Crick decided to immerse himself in the "living-nonliving borderline" of biology to study the basis of life, taking up the call of Linus Pauling, who just after the war had boasted about the prospective role of structural chemistry in understanding the biological microworld.

Crick went to Cambridge and eventually joined Max Perutz's X-ray crystallography lab which was then investigating the structure of proteins. Although it was thought that the genetic material in a cell was a protein and that a polymer, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), might be a factor in the manufacture of proteins, little insight had been gained into why this polymer was particularly suited to replication.

Meanwhile, in 1951, young Jim Watson, an American biochemist, arrived at Perutz's lab, and the two became fast friends and office-mates; apart from both having read Schrodinger, they shared a ruthless, somewhat arrogant sense of the same mission -- figuring out the relationship between the structure of DNA and its function in molecular genetics. Relying upon the experimental work of others (including the X-ray photographs of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin in Maurice Wilkins' lab at University College London), Crick and Watson began to build models of the DNA molecule out of cardboard, wire and beads. On February 21, 1953, Watson noticed the complementary shape of adrene-thymine and guanine-cytosine, the base pairs of proteins underlying DNA, and together Crick and Watson worked out a picture of DNA as a ladder-like double helix, founded upon what was known through experiments, showing two chains of molecules linked by hydrogen bonds.

Watson says Crick went to the Eagle Pub at the end of the day and announced at the top of his lungs that he had discovered the secret of life; Crick's wife said he was always saying things like that, so she didn't pay him any particular attention. Crick and Watson published a short paper on their hypothesis in Nature (Apr. 1953), and in it noted, "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
Watson left Cambridge shortly thereafter, but Crick stayed on at Cambridge to become a dominant force in molecular biology, predicting the discovery of transfer-RNA as a mechanism for the manufacture of proteins within a cell and postulating the "central dogma" in molecular genetics (since unraveled by the behavior of certain viruses, but still largely revered as a key principle), that genetic information could only pass one way -- from protein to RNA to DNA. In 1976, Crick moved to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California to study consciousness and the brain. In The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994), his materialist habits of mind revealed themselves again as he theorized an electrophysical basis of human consciousness. He died July 29, 2004 in San Diego, California.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, born on this day in 1848 in Paris, was the son of a French journalist and his Peruvian wife, and the grandson of feminist novelist/journalist Flora Tristan. Brought up in Lima, he joined the merchant marines as a teen but eventually returned to Paris to marry and become a successful stockbroker.

He might have been a content member of the bourgeoisie, with 5 children and a respectable career, were it not for his visit to First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. He was so transfixed by the experience that he promised himself that he would become a painter, and he befriended one of the artists on display there, Camille Pissarro. Pissarro advised Gauguin to "look for the nature that suits your temperament," whereupon Gauguin promptly painted a landscape in Pissarro's style and had it accepted at the Salon in 1876. His encounters with Cezanne led him to down the road to a new, more personal style, which he had more time to develop when his bank laid him off during the recession of 1883; from 1884 onwards, he painted full time.

Settling first in Rouen, he eventually abandoned his family and retreated to the artist's colony at Pont-Aven (with interludes in Panama and Martinique), there producing one his first important works, Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888), showing a desire to return to pre-Renaissance sources for a restored primitive sense of composition (in which time and space could no longer be represented with the illusion of objectivity), combined with an exotic, intense, flat coloration derived perhaps from the art he had encountered in the Southern hemisphere. Gauguin explained his new style as a "synthesis" of remembered experiences rather than a depiction of something perceived in nature, a concept eventually adopted in the critical literature as Symbolism or Synthetism.

After a short, unfortunate visit with Van Gogh at Arles, Gauguin's interest in primitive forms became mirrored in his desire for a primitive lifestyle: in 1891, he held an exhibition of his own work with the goal of selling enough paintings to finance a trip to Tahiti, where he could survive on "ecstasy, calmness and art." With 10,000 francs from the exhibition, he left for Tahiti, where his artistic primitivism matured while his hope for salvation in a primitive life was disappointed -- leading him to attempt suicide in 1897.

In paintings such as Two Tahitian Women (1899), his colors became more harmonious, and his interests seem to shift to the delight of painting beautiful bodies and faces, while pieces such as Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892) and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going To? (1897) combine such meditations on beauty and line with enigmatic portrayals of primitive faith in flux. In 1901 he left Tahiti for the Marquesas, where he died on May 8, 1903, impoverished and syphilitic.



Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti on this day in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio.

An icon of 1960s, middle-aged "cool," Dean Martin boxed (using the name "Kid Crochet"), worked in a steel mill and served as croupier in an illegal gambling club before launching his career as a nightclub singer styled gesture-for-nuance after Bing Crosby (with a healthy dose of Harry Mills thrown in for good measure). He achieved only minor success on the nightclub circuit until an impromptu pairing with frenetic young comic Jerry Lewis at the 500 Club in Atlantic City in 1946, in which Martin sang and acted as slightly patronizing straight man to Lewis' obstreperous interruptions.

The act caught on, and soon Martin and Lewis were headliners at the Copacabana in Manhattan, their pay increasing from $350 to $5,000 a week as the most popular post-war nightclub act around. Their success led to a quick succession of Hollywood movies (beginning as supporting characters in My Friend Irma, 1949, reaching starring status in At War with the Army, 1951). Although his singing career was moderately successful ("That's Amore" reached the top 5 on the charts in 1953), Martin was increasingly marginalized in the Martin and Lewis movies, and having to take a backseat to the Lewis put a strain on their relationship.

On the 10th anniversary of their first show together, they split up the partnership, giving a farewell performance at the Copacabana, and it was widely believed that Martin would fade quickly thereafter. To the surprise of nearly everyone, however, Martin turned out to be quite a good dramatic actor, holding up well alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in The Young Lions (1958), and that year he also managed to conquer TV (with his first color variety special on NBC), concerts (with successful live appearances at the Sands in Las Vegas), and the charts ("Volare"). With his appearance in Some Came Running (1959) with old friend Frank Sinatra, the "Rat Pack" (also consisting of Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, not to mention John Kennedy, known as "Chicky Baby" to the Pack) was born, and Martin began to assume the persona by which he would be known for the rest of his life: with cigarettes and booze as props, Martin was the quip-happy dipsomaniacal hipster, the likeable, leisure-loving screw-up who could trade comic insults with the best of them -- all of which obscured his self-discipline, contemplative nature, need for privacy and intense fraternal generosity and loyalty.

After the Rat Pack dates in Las Vegas and movies (such as the original Ocean's Eleven, 1960) played their course, Martin starred in a popular series of "James Bond" parodies as the swingin' secret agent "Matt Helm." In 1964, he knocked Lennon and McCartney off the top of the charts with "Everybody Loves Somebody" (which became his signature song) and in 1965, he agreed to host his own weekly variety series on NBC, becoming one of the most highly paid entertainers in show business and spinning off the hit Celebrity Roast specials during the 1970s.

After his son Dean Paul died in an Air Force Reserve plane crash in 1987, the already semi-retired Martin lost his good-life pretenses for good. He bailed out of a 1988 Rat Pack reunion tour and spent his last years in solitude. He died on Christmas Day, 1995 in Beverly Hills, California.

"Martin was what the Italians called a menefreghista - 'one who simply does not give a f***.'" -- Nick Tosches.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Con Scott

"Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale." -- Scott’s last diary entry, March 29, 1912.

Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott was born on this day in 1868 in Devonport, England.

Con Scott’s conquest of the South Pole is one of the most brutal and heartbreaking stories of modern exploration. While he took greater risks, showed more grit and suffered through greater hardships than most of his contemporaries, he was unfortunately given less recognition for it in his day; today, however, one can scarcely talk about the successes of his chief rivals, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, without pausing to give tribute to Scott’s tragic record and lamenting his naive belief in his own invincibility.

An officer in the British Royal Navy, at 32 Scott was given the command of the National Antarctic Expedition, which was to be an exploration of the ice barrier discovered by Sir James Clark Ross in the Antarctic Sea in 1841. During the 1901-04 expedition, Scott led his crew (which included Shackleton) into Antarctic waters further than any explorer before him and spotted the Antarctic continent. Despite dropping anchor and waiting for the summer thaw, Scott was unable to go any further due to the build-up of pack ice; an attempt to cross the Ross ice shelf resulted in a grueling, unsuccessful 59-day dogsled trek.

As the man who had gotten closest to the South Pole, Captain Scott was welcomed as a hero when he returned to England, but he was not satisfied -- and neither was his spirited fiancee/later wife, the beautiful young sculptor Kathleen Bruce. They both determined that Scott should go back and find the South Pole. On June 1, 1910 -- 2 years after Shackleton’s unsuccessful attempt, and a year or so after Commander Peary reached the North Pole -- Scott set out with a crew of eleven on the ship Terra Nova to become the first man to reach the South Pole. Upon reaching Melbourne, Australia in October, Scott received word that a Norwegian party, led by Roald Amundsen, was also on its way to the South Pole, racing him to become the first to reach the South Pole.

Scott landed at his Ross Island base camp in January 1911, and spent the winter setting up supply depots; Amundsen did the same from the Bay of Whales, a much better starting point as it turned out. Amundsen left his base camp for the Pole in mid-October 1911. Scott’s party left 2 weeks later, traveling on dog sleds, Siberian ponies and experimental motorized vehicles. Within a few days into the continent, however, in the midst of ferocious blizzards, the vehicles had worn out and the ponies had died, leading Scott somewhat smugly (and calamitously) to prefer man-hauling over dog-hauling for the rest of the trek.

With 7 of his men turning back due to exhaustion and frostbite, Scott pressed on with 4 of his crew: Lawrence Oates, Edward A. Wilson, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans. Scott and his party arrived at the South Pole on January 18, 1912, only to discover the Norwegian flag planted there by Amundsen on the previous December 14. Utterly discouraged after the brutal journey, Scott wrote in his journal, "This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority." Along the 800-mile return trek, Scott decided to collect as many geological specimens as he could, perhaps in hopes of achieving at least some scientific distinction for his efforts, but in the course of doing so delayed the return by several weeks.

Evans was the first to crack under the strain; he died a short distance before reaching the last supply camp on the Beardmore Glacier. After traversing the Queen Maud Mountains, the badly frostbitten Oates knew he could go no farther and announced he was going to leave the tent for a few minutes. He was never seen again, leading Scott to speculate that Oates sacrificed himself so as not to be a burden on the others. Less than 11 miles from the last supply depot and 200 miles away from base camp, on March 20, 1912 Scott, Wilson and Bowers were stopped by another violent white-out. Scott and his comrades died in their sleeping bags after using up all their food and fuel, and were not discovered until the following November. Meanwhile, the surviving members of Scott’s team (the ones who turned back early) waited in a snow cave at base camp, subsisting on penguin and seal meat, until they were finally rescued in October 1912.

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