Thursday, November 30, 2006


"My books are water; those of the great writers are wine. Everybody drinks water." -- M. Twain.

Considered by many critics to be the greatest American writer, there are some who are tempted to see him as simply a writer of humorous children's books such as the boyhood reveries The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Although his sense of humor was irrepressible (sometimes to his own chagrin), Twain was raised in an atmosphere of Presbyterian guilt, however, and he spent much of his literary life attempting to throw off the yoke of his conscience through cynical and increasingly dark and bitter writings. His writing is deep and rewarding at both ends of the light-dark spectrum.

Samuel Clemens -- born on this day in 1835 in Florida, Missouri -- spent his boyhood on the banks of the Mississippi, and his boyhood experiences are a recurring backdrop for his work, not only in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but in Life on the Mississippi and many magazine articles. He worked as a riverboat pilot for about 4 years, but eventually became an itinerant printer, settling with his brother Orion in Keokuk, Iowa, and moving with him to Nevada in 1861 when Orion was named secretary to the governor of Nevada, James Nye.

There Clemens became a full-time reporter, and shortly thereafter began to use the pen name "Mark Twain" (a resurrection of the pen name of an old riverboat captain, derived from a warning of shallow water on the river) to distinguish his lighter pieces from his routine political reporting. He moved to California in 1864, where he continue to work as a reporter; but there his fiction was given encouragement by Bret Harte and he published a story which would change his life, "Jim Smiley and his Frog" (1865), a comic report of chicanery involving a wager over jumping frogs which earned Twain a national reputation with its colorful use of Western country vernacular and sly, irreverent review of the differences between genteel Easterners and rough Westerners. Meanwhile, he continued to work as a reporter, although his byline was now becoming more prominent, covering the Hornet shipwreck in the Sandwich Islands in 1866; and after a steamship expedition to the Holy Land he published The Innocents Abroad (1867).

He returned from the Holy Land to New York City to find that he was a celebrity, selling out the Cooper Union with a humorous lecture on the Sandwich Islands. After marrying Olivia (Livy) Langdon in 1870, Twain began to concentrate on making money. At his father-in-law's urging, Twain bought into the Buffalo Examiner and marketed his books throughout the country with traveling salesmen who could reach people who would not find themselves in a bookstore.

In support of his books, Twain often traveled himself, on an almost perpetual book tour, lecturing to appreciative audiences and perpetuating his image as the wild-haired (and eventually white-suited) smart-aleck, sage and celebrity -- an image appropriated in the 20th century by such writers as Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. Livy, whom he loved deeply, appealed to his Presbyterian side, and was responsible along with his somewhat blue-nosed occasional editor, Mrs. Fairbanks, for toning down his comic irreverence at times; while Twain toured, Livy would send him copies of Henry Ward Beecher's sermons to develop piety in him. It did not; it did little more than to inflame his resentment over duties of conscience, a theme which would occupy a greater role in his work as he grew older.

During the 1870s he poured his energies into the Examiner as well as writing humorous short stories and other pieces for a New York City journal, the Galaxy (including Twain's personal favorite among his own short works, a hilarious "burlesque map of Paris" which allowed him to poke fun at his days as an ink-monkey). Many of these short pieces (including such works as "Political Economy," 1870; "The Stolen White Elephant," 1878; "The £1,000,000 Bank-Note," 1893; and "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg," 1900) ended up in collections which Twain later published and circulated. In keeping with his obsession for marketing and investing, he developed the "Mark Twain Scrapbook," a set of empty gummed pages with special tabs and other features which became a popular dime store item, started his own publishing company (which, notably, published the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and yielded $400,000 to his bankrupt heirs); and threw away $200,000 on a typesetting machine invented by James Paige which never caught on.

Known for his vernacular writing and his spoofing, Twain was not thought to be a serious writer by the Eastern establishment, William Dean Howells took up his cause, published his work in the Atlantic and introduced him to some of the great Eastern writers. On the occasion of John Greenleaf Whittier's 70th birthday, Howells invited Twain to speak to the assembled crowd, which included three-named literary gods Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes; Howells recalled that the speech was a "disaster," that Twain's irreverent burlesque merely succeeded in freezing the room, and Twain hurriedly followed with letters of apology to each of them, although none of them had actually taken offense to anything he had said.

After the success of The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and Huckleberry Finn, Twain continue to publish popular novels including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894); The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895) failed to make as much of an impression, however. Twain's later work, particularly that written after the death of Livy in 1904, has been characterized as having been "written from the grave," full of regret and misanthropy with occasional flashes of Twain's signature wit, including: The Diaries of Adam and Eve (1904-6), the philosophical dialogue What is Man? (1906), Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909) and The Mysterious Stranger (1916, published posthumously). Twain died on April 21, 1910 in Redding, Connecticut.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Busby Berkeley -- born William Berkeley Enos on this day in 1895 in Los Angeles -- grew up in the theater: his parents were performers in a traveling repertory company, and Berkeley was nicknamed "Busby" after stage actress Amy Busby, one of the stars of his parents' troupe. Berkeley's parents shipped him off to a military academy and by 1914 Berkeley was a management trainee at a Massachusetts shoe factory.

In 1917, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in France during World War I, where he had his first experiences in conducting large numbers of people through complex marching patterns as a field artillery lieutenant, working out a trick drill for 1,200 men.

Returning to the states, he entered the theater as an actor, significantly in the role of fashion designer "Madame Lucy" in a Broadway revival of Irene (1923-26). Soon, however, he was serving as dance director for Broadway productions, despite the fact that he had never taken a dancing lesson in his life, bluffing his way through choreography sessions by getting his dancers to demonstrate what he had in mind. By 1930, he was one of the most sought after dance directors on Broadway with a reputation for devising intricate dance spectacles involving staircases and multi-layered platforms.

He went to Hollywood in 1930 to direct dance numbers for an Eddie Cantor vehicle, Whoopee, in which Berkeley stretched the envelope of static early sound film technique, forcing his director to enter the realm of pure cinema by lifting the camera above the soundstage to see Berkeley's dancers form geometric patterns. In 42nd Street (with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell) and Footlight Parade (with Keeler, Powell and James Cagney) (both 1933; directed by Lloyd Bacon) and in later Warner Brothers musicals, Berkeley emerged as a true screen original, choreographing elaborate dance numbers involving hundreds of dancers moving in syncopated precision on oversized sets, through waterfalls and giant swimming pools, and on winding staircases and aerial platforms -- or as described by one film critic: "kaleidoscopic patterns of female flesh, dissolving into artichokes, exploding stars, snowflakes and the expanding leaves of water lillies."

His interest in using the camera and editing in inventive ways to highlight his production numbers led him to try directing, which he did successfully in a variety of musicals, including Babes in Arms (1939; with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) and The Gang's All Here (1943; with Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda).

Among the stars who got their start as Berkeley dancers were Lucille Ball, Paulette Goddard and Betty Grable. As musicals fell out of favor in the late 1950s, however, so did Berkeley, but his reputation re-emerged in the 1970s as Berkeley's work became celebrated as one of the essential liberating influences of 1930s cinema. Berkeley died on March 14, 1976.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lady Mountbatten

Beautiful, vivacious, intelligent and compassionate, Edwina Ashley (born on this day in 1901 in London) was a wealthy heiress when she married Lord Louis Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and a rising star in the British Royal Navy, in 1922. They went on an extended honeymoon in the U.S., rubbing elbows with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and becoming favorites among the Broadway set in New York City. Lady Mountbatten is credited with having rescued George Gershwin's classic song "The Man I Love" from a Broadway flop and popularizing it among London bands, and she was rather famously (and somewhat morbidly) painted by Salvador Dali in 1940.

While her husband fought in World War II and served as Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia, Lady Mountbatten worked devotedly with the Red Cross, and following the War inaugurated the relief effort with respect to returned prisoners of war. In 1947, Lord Mountbatten became Viceroy of India -- the last, as it turned out, as Great Britain granted India later that year. A persistent rumor held that Lady Mountbatten's close relationship -- some said "affair" -- with Indian partisan Jawaharlal Nehru helped to influence Lord Mountbatten in dividing Kashmir between the Indians and the Pakistanis, to the detriment of the Pakistanis. The "affair" has been consistently denied -- U.S. ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith once asking impatiently, "Can't people realize that men and women can be friends?" -- but is known that they were devoted intimates. Whatever their relationship or the measure of her influence over the Kashmir partition, Lady Mountbatten was a perceptive and persuasive politician during the founding of independent India.

She was traveling on behalf of relief organizations in South East Asia when she died suddenly on February 20, 1960, and was buried at sea.


Monday, November 27, 2006


By the time Clovis acceded to the leadership of the Franks, the Roman Empire was in a shambles: puppet emperors had been under the control of the Suevians since 456, but the Suevian power-broker Ricimer had died in 472, and the last person to hold the title of Roman emperor, the 16-year old boy Romulus Augustus, abdicated in 476. While Clovis' father Childeric still had to contend with stray Roman armies, by 481 these armies were little more than lost patrols. Clovis took the opportunity to drive the Romans out in 486, defeating (and decapitating) Syragius, the son and successor of the Roman governor of Gaul, Aegidius, and the model for the Arthurian romance Sir Sagramore the Foolish. After defeating Syragius, Clovis began to plan his conquest of the other "barbarians" along the Rhine.

He chose as his wife Clotilda, a devout Catholic and the orphaned daughter of a brother of the Burgundian king Gontebaud; Gregory of Tours later suggested that Clovis's choice of spouse was meant to unnerve Gontebaud, who had supposedly murdered Clotilda's father. In any event, Clotilda had attempted to convert the pagan Clovis at the time of their marriage, but it wasn't until Clovis found himself having trouble with the Alemanns that Clovis relented. He vowed to become a Christian if he defeated the Alemanns; and after he defeated them, he received baptism amid great pomp and circumstance from St. Remigius on Christmas Eve, 496 -- becoming the first Christian king of the Franks and enjoying the cooperation of the Church thereafter.

Conspiracy theorists suggest that Clovis' baptism was actually the consummation of a bargain struck by the Roman Catholic Church -- that in exchange for the Church's support in temporal affairs, Clovis and his progeny would renounce the Merovingian claim that the family line began with the union of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalen. If conspiracy theories about Roswell, Marilyn, Kennedy and Elvis have got you scratching your head, imagine what motivates a modern mind to hatch a conspiracy theory focusing on the baptism of a Frankish king from the 5th century. Today's Merovingian partisans mourn the reign of the independent-minded Dagobert II (676-9) as the last true Merovingian king under the bargain, and regard the papally-supported Carolingian coup which relegated Merovingian figurehead Childeric the Lazy to a monastery in 751 as the last semi-bloody deed in the silencing of the radical Christianity of Jesus' half-brother, James the Just; on the other side of the coin, the anti-Merovingians claim that the Merovingians went underground through organizations such as the Knights Templar and are at present the unseen powers behind international industry and finance.

Clovis subsequently took on and defeated Clotilda's uncle, Gontebaud, king of the Burgundians and one of the last sponsors of the Roman emperors, in 500, and went after the Visigoths, killing Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, at Toulouse in 507 -- thereby extending the Frankish kingdom to include much of modern France and Germany. He established his court at Paris, thereby establishing the city as the preferred capital of Gaul (or France) for centuries, where he promulgated the earliest Frankish canon of written laws and meddled poorly in church affairs. According to custom, when Clovis died (on this date in 511 in Paris at the age of about 46) his kingdom was split among his four sons, two of whom (Childebert I and Chlotar I) emerged as dominant kings of the Frankish realm for a time.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006


Charles M. Schulz was born on this day in 1922 in Minneapolis, Minneapolis.

A shy, awkward World War II veteran known to his friends as "Sparky" (named after "Spark Plug," the horse in Billy DeBeck's cartoon Barney Google), Schulz drew a one-panel cartoon for the St. Paul Pioneer Press called Li'l Folks, but could not manage to get it accepted for syndication until lowly United Features bought it in 1950, renaming it Peanuts (a name, by the way, that Schulz could not stand).

The strip, drawn simply without much background detail, focused on the adult-sounding conversations of a neighborhood of children -- principal among them Charlie Brown, the hopeful misfit loser; Linus, the little savant with a security blanket; Linus' sister Lucy, the challenging "fussbudget"; and Charlie's cool, multifarious beagle Snoopy. During the 1950s, his comic strip was a critical and campus pleasure, but as culture and politics roiled amid violent changes during the late 1960s, Schulz's gentle comic strip -- blending the pain of unrequited love and occasional bursts of anger at being misunderstood, with gnomic wisdom and compassionate humor -- became the most popular of all newspaper comic strips in the U.S., read alike by conservative adults and the rebellious youth. While Tom Stafford commanded Apollo 10 to the moon, with a command module named Charlie Brown and a lunar module named Snoopy, clear across the pop culture landscape the Grateful Dead's keyboardist Ron McKernan adopted the name of another Peanuts character, "Pig Pen." As commentators would observe, Schulz's Peanuts was an area of common ground for feuding generations.

By 1969, Peanuts became a multi-media phenomenon, with an Emmy-winning Christmas special (A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965, featuring the piano jazz score of Vince Guaraldi), a musical (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, 1967, starring Gary Burghoff and Bob Balaban as Charlie Brown and Linus) and a feature-length movie (A Boy Named Charlie Brown, 1969). Books, dolls, lunchboxes, T-shirts and countless other promotional items eventually netted United Features over $1 billion a year, and collections of Schulz's comics eventually sold over 300 million copies in 26 languages. Although Schulz was earning $40 million a year at the height of Peanuts' popularity, he remained a reclusive homebody, giving millions to charity while preferring to work away at his drawing table.

During the 1980s and 90s, Peanuts was no longer the touchstone it had once been, but it still invariably occupied the place of honor at the top of the front page of the comics in nearly every newspaper in the U.S. Schulz was diagnosed with Stage-4 colon cancer and announced his retirement on December 14, 1999, admitting in a TV interview, "It is amazing that they think that what I do was that good . . . I just did the best I could."

Schulz passed away on the evening before the appearance of the last comic strip he created, on February 12, 2000 in Santa Rosa, California. On Saturday, May 27, 2000, his fellow newspaper cartoonists honored Schulz in an unprecedented fashion by including a reference to Peanuts in each of their strips.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Public Opinion

Public relations guru Edward Bernays was born on this day in 1891 in Vienna, Austria.

The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays' family emigrated to New York City when he was an infant. After graduating from Cornell with a degree in agriculture, Bernays almost immediately abandoned farming to become a theatrical press agent, initially handling publicity for Eugene Brieux's Damaged Goods (1913) and later attracting such clients as Enrico Caruso and Sergey Diaghilev.

After a stint working with George Creel's Committee on War Information, managing Latin American promotion of the Allies' aims in World War I, Bernays saw the possibilities of counseling clients in the management of public opinion. Abandoning the transparent approach advocated by public relations expert Ivy Ledbetter Lee that "full disclosure" was the best policy, Bernays sought to "interpret the client to the public," and vice-versa. Employing theories from his Uncle Sig, Gustave LeBon and Walter Lippmann, Bernays cloaked his interactive approach as "applied social science," a deft use of his own methods to manage the image of his services.

He argued that the mass public was inherently irrational and they frequently relied upon inaccurate stereotypes, and he consciously assisted his clients (which included General Motors, Liggett & Myers, Philco and Procter & Gamble) to benefit from these facts by "engineering consent" for his clients' views or products. Thus, for example, his campaigns for Dixie Cups focused not on the product itself but on "expert views" on health and sanitary issues, with the suggestion that disposable cups could help reduce disease; and for the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s, he rolled out a barrage of news coverage about the health benefits of women staying slender, then suggested cigarettes as a non-fat way of fighting cravings for sweets, thus finding a stereotype that would encourage more women to smoke.

The crowning achievement of his career may have been in the early 1950s, when he designed a public relations campaign on behalf of United Fruit Company -- which was locked in a bitter land disagreement with Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz -- that was calculated to show the American public that Arbenz was a Communist. The campaign apparently helped engender support (or at least a lack of dissent) for the CIA-backed coup against Arbenz in 1954.

While his braggadocio (notably through his books Crystallizing Public Opinion, 1923; Propaganda, 1928) inspired critical hostility for his methods (some comparing him to Nazi PR man Joseph Goebbels), it is a statement of the obvious to say that Bernays' propensity for creating news stories and manipulating stereotypical beliefs has become the stock in trade of public relations, and although he closed his office in 1962, Bernays was still being consulted on public relations strategies at age 100. He died on March 5, 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Categories: Business-&-Finance, Psychology, Freud

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


"When truth is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to arise. There has never been a dispute as to whether there is daylight at noon." -- Voltaire.

One of the key figures of the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire was known and admired throughout Europe by such diverse figures as Bolingbroke, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin and James Boswell as France's great philosopher, satirist and wit. At the same time, he lived the life of a revolutionary for much of his career, spending years in exile and months inside the Bastille for sedition, waging a running battle with the Catholic church and settling in a French border town (Ferney, near Switzerland) so that he could escape the country easily in the event of another state crackdown. As he himself put it, "Philosophers should always have two or three underground holes in case of dogs hunting them."

As to his "philosophy," Voltaire never developed a systematic political theory, but rather he popularized, through poems, plays and essays, what he viewed as enlightened thinking -- characterized by a rational, scientific approach to political matters and technological progress, condemnation of superstition, and an uncompromising devotion to freedom of thought, speech and religion.

Born Francois-Marie Arouet on this day in 1694 in Paris, his father was a conventional bureaucrat who sent him to a Jesuit college (where he learned "Latin and nonsense" as he put it), but Voltaire's earliest intellectual guidance came from his godfather, the free-thinking Abbe de Chateauneuf, who introduced him to scientific skepticism. Voltaire, although educated to practice law, settled down to write plays and poems in a writing style that was brutally logical, trenchant and almost always bitingly humorous, and became the light of Paris society.

In 1717, however, he was falsely accused of lampooning the regent, and was thrown into the Bastille for a year. While there, he wrote his first play, Oedipe (1718) which was hugely successful, as well as an epic poem about Henry IV called the Henriade. Henry IV, as well as Louis XIV (about whose reign Voltaire later wrote in Le Siecle de Louis XIV, 1751), represented Voltaire's ideal of the enlightened despot, an absolute ruler who promoted rational discourse, kept the clergy in its place, and promoted religious tolerance; political liberty, in Voltaire's view, was not necessary if the king is enlightened.

Almost as instantly as his success took hold in France, he was forced into the Bastille again and into exile due to a quarrel with an important French family. He went to England in 1726, mixed in the intellectual society of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, learned English so that he could read and study Shakespeare, John Locke and Isaac Newton in their native tongue, and developed a great admiration for the religious tolerance and freedom of speech practiced there.

He returned to France 3 years later, consolidated the fortune he had begun to amass through the success of his writings and wise investments, and wrote works popularizing the Empiricism of Locke (Lettres philosophiques, 1734) and the scientific principles of Newton (Elements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), who became his intellectual heroes. Fleeing a warrant for his arrest for sedition in 1734, he took refuge at the country chateau of Madame du Chatelet, a well-read woman with a passion for metaphysics and science, with whom he enjoyed his longest relationship despite the fact that she was married.

During another period of exile Voltaire answered the invitation of the newly-crowned king of Prussia, Frederick II (the Great), to join him in his court at Potsdam. Frederick collected Voltaire almost as he would have collected a painting, for his sparkling wit at court and literary achievements, but their relations became strained as the Prussians treated Voltaire as a demi-god of sorts, and Voltaire soon departed. Nevertheless, they remained friends after Voltaire left.

In the 1750s, Voltaire began to write stories, including Micromegas (1752), arguably the first story in which the Earth is visited by alien beings from another planet. In 1758, Voltaire wrote his masterpiece, Candide (about a Romantic philosopher who experiences a conversion to science and rationalism after suffering misfortune), in response to the "anti-rational," Romantic positions of his intellectual enemy Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire assumed the role of activist during the infamous Calais Affair in 1762, in which a Protestant shopkeeper was brutally tortured and executed for murder following the suicide of his son, who was despondent over not being allowed to practice his trade due to his religion. The incident was fertile ground for Voltaire's critique of Catholicism, but he also became personally involved in the matter, conducting his own investigation into the matter, paying expenses for a new inquest and providing financial support to the widow.

When Voltaire died on May 30, 1778, crowds gathered in mourning outside his Paris apartment; and although the Catholic church attempted to deprive him of a Christian burial, some local church officials defied the church and provided him with one anyway at the Abbey of Seillieres. After the French Revolution, Voltaire was again declared a hero and his remains were moved to a position of honor in the Pantheon in Paris.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Hubble's Universe

Edwin Hubble changed our understanding of the universe by showing, in 1929, that galaxies were moving away from Earth with a speed proportional to their distance or, in effect, that the universe itself was expanding.

Born on this day in 1889 in Marshfield, Missouri, Hubble took the long way around to becoming an astronomer -- although he had an interest in the stars from an early age (inspired in part by reading the novels of Jules Verne). A high school track star who broke the Illinois state high jump record, he attended the University of Chicago on a scholarship, lettering in track, basketball and boxing, and working as a lab assistant to famed physicist Robert Millikan. He went to Queens College Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1910 and studied Roman and English law, returning to the U.S. in 1913 to enter the bar. After a half-hearted year of practice in Louisville, Kentucky, he left the law to enter the University of Chicago again, this time as an astronomy graduate student. "I knew that even if I were second-rate or third-rate," he later recalled, "it was astronomy that mattered." After finishing his doctorate there, he turned down an invitation to join the staff of the prestigious Mt. Wilson Observatory to enter the Army in World War I.

After the War he did join Mt. Wilson, where he worked with the world's best telescope (100-inch) for almost the rest of his life. Before Hubble came onto the scene, there was no consensus as to the boundaries of our galaxy, the Milky Way, or with regard to whether certain spiral nebulae (far off, fuzzy patches of light) contained individual stars within our Milky Way or were separate "island universes." By accurately measuring the distance from Earth to the Andromeda nebula in 1924, Hubble not only showed that it was about 100,000 times further away from Earth as the nearest stars, but that the nebula was comparable in size to our own cluster of stars; the Andromeda nebula, it seemed, should be thought of as its own galaxy -- at least in light of the definition of the Milky Way previously proposed by Harlow Shapley. (When Hubble wrote to Shapley to report this, Shapley was heard to remark, "Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe.")

Hubble also used a spectograph to determine the Doppler shift of the light spectra coming from stars as they moved further away from the Earth, and plotted a formula showing that the "redshift" of light from distant galaxies (i.e. the evidence of their movement away from Earth) was proportional to their distance from Earth. "Hubble's law" turned out to be accurate based on additional observation, leading Hubble to the conclusion that the universe was expanding. This conclusion was consistent with Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity and one that lent credibility to Georges Lemaitre's Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, the idea that the movement of bodies within the universe in part reflected its origin from the explosion of an atom. The result was an entirely new cosmology than the one astronomers had previously projected; Einstein himself, who had previously assumed that the universe was static, became convinced of Hubble's conclusion after visiting Hubble in California, a circumstance which catapulted Hubble into scientific stardom.

After World War II, Hubble assisted in the design of a 200-inch telescope and first operated it in 1948. He died in 1953 in San Marino, California. 37 years after his death, NASA launched the space-based Hubble Telescope, named in his honor, which after a series of repairs has opened entire new vistas to astronomical observation.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Giving Christmas Back to the Chipmunks

We had barely recovered from Halloween in Napa, its inevitable San Francisco repercussions, and the great grinning mania of Election Day -- when sitting in our local grill the other day, looking up from our pints of Bass Ale, my wife and I suddenly noticed that the bar had already been decorated for Christmas. Silent Night played softly in the background, while someone on Fox News was announcing that Steny Hoyer had been elected House majority leader. "All is calm, all is bright . . ."

Okay -- so it seemed a little early to be thinking about Christmas, but that's a well-worn cliche at this point. The question is why -- why do our friends in commerce feel the need to initiate the celebration of Christmas some time after Election Day and well before Thanksgiving? And why do I have the sneaking suspicion that Christmas will start being celebrated just before Labor Day by 2010?

I think the main reason for "Christmas drift" has to do with the size of Christmas today, as compared with the size of Christmas 35 years ago. When I was a kid, we threw up a tree and put the big colored lights on the facie of the house, we practiced the school Christmas show for a week, sang some songs, and opened up presents on Christmas Day. That was it. Today, the logistics and scale of Christmas for the average family seems to have exploded from that simple sequence into something that compares favorably to a major public construction project. It is now, of course, de rigueur for every middle-class American family to have its own personal Holiday on Ice pageant, combined with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Space Mountain and The Price is Right -- until, all swirled up, it feels a lot more like a holiday edition of Survivor. In one's own family room. You can't pull that off in just a week.

This is no different, in fact, from what has happened with presidential election campaigns. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson wasn't even sure he was running for president as late as April -- a mere seven months before he nearly won the popular vote in the general election. Fast forward to 2006: we've just had a mid-term election, the coffin lids haven't even been nailed down on losing incumbents like George Allen and Rick Santorum yet, and here, 22 months before the 2008 presidential election, we have John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Tom Vilsack already forming exploratory committees. Spending on all campaigns for federal office has mushroomed from less than $250 million in 1952 to $3 billion in 2000. Bigger almost always means more time.

But I digress. As I started to think about the simplicity of my own childhood Christmases, inevitably my mind turned back to a classic among Christmas music albums, a tiny gem of an LP that we would play on our little portable turntables in our little suburban bedrooms. I am speaking, of course, about Christmas with the Chipmunks (Vol. I), originally released in 1962.

This was pure low-tech fun of the kind today's children can barely appreciate. In fact, once you got the hang of what producer Ross Bagdasarian was doing with recording and playing speeds, you could turn all your parents' Andy Williams or Vikki Carr albums into Chipmunks records by flipping the turntable speed switch from 33-1/3 to 45. Try doing that on your iPod. (As comedian Patton Oswalt has famously observed, you could also turn your Chipmunks album into "three normal, monotone guys singing a song about Christmas," with Ross Bagdasarian as the Chipmunks' impresario, David Seville, sounding like a "demon from the ninth level of murderers and traitors," by turning the switch from 33-1/3 to 78. He's not lying.)

How can you not just break out into a silly smile listening to the album's first song, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)"?:

(All right you Chipmunks! Ready to sing your song?
-I'll say we are!
-Let's sing it now!
Okay, Simon?
Okay, Theodore?
Okay, Alvin? Alvin? ALVIN!

Christmas, Christmas time is near
Time for toys and time for cheer
We've been good, but we can't last
Hurry Christmas, hurry fast
Want a plane that loops the loop
Me, I want a hula hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas, don't be late.

(Okay fellas get ready.
That was very good, Simon.
Very good Theodore.
Ah, Alvin, you were a little flat, watch it.
Ah, Alvin. Alvin. ALVIN!
That, my friends, was a song that spent four weeks on the top of the charts. Critic Stanton Swihart says the tune has "the allure of an old Italian love song."

With fine familial harmonies, Alvin, Simon and Theodore have always seemed to me like a cartoon version of the Beach Boys. This was brought home to me in high relief with the release of the Help Me Ronda Sessions not too long ago, in which Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Carl and Dennis, arrives in the middle of the session and manhandles the boys, drunkenly berating and humiliating them by turns for their lack of discipline. "David Seville" did much the same thing with the Chipmunks, only without the Chivas on his breath, and perhaps without so much out-and-out abuse or such far-reaching psychological effects on his young charges.

Whatever the psychodramatic backstory, here it certainly produces some charming results. The Chipmunks' covers of "Frosty the Snowman," "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Over the River and Through the Woods" are startlingly wide-eyed and innocent in their embrace of the Christmas holiday -- they are irresistibly quirky reminders of an elegantly simple flavor of a child's Christmas Past that lasted little more than a decade or so within American culture . . . a kind of Eisenhower Christmas before the intrusion of the Holiday Industrial Complex, if you will.

If I could get away with it, I would block Christmas out of my mind until December 19 or so, and then enjoy it to the hilt by wrapping gifts and listening to albums like Christmas with the Chipmunks. As you may recall, however, I sold all of my LPs to make room for my wife's collection of Christmas decorations. So if anyone needs me today, I'll be out front reassembling the digital holographic audio-animatronic nativity scene.

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A blue-eyed, muscular, robust, highly intelligent and emotional man who was convinced that God had planned a great destiny for him, James Abram Garfield -- who was born on this day in 1831 in Orange, Ohio -- grew up in dire poverty and compensated for his material shortcomings with fisticuffs. This pugnacity developed into a sharp debating skill as he matured, studying in Hiram, Ohio and at Williams College, where he devoured classical literature and scripture and frequently preached to Disciples of Christ congregations. It is said that he could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other at the same time, which really isn't even much of a party trick when you think about it.

He taught for awhile before entering the bar, and shortly thereafter joined the Union Army, seeing action at Middle Creek, Sandy Valley and Chickamauga. He was elected to Congress in 1862, resigned his commission as major general and took his seat. He supported Lincoln coolly, suspecting that Lincoln did not have the missionary's stomach for the anti-slavery cause, and after the Civil War voted to impeach Andrew Johnson for his lenient policies toward the conquered South. Garfield made his first appearance in court as a lawyer in 1866 -- before the U.S. Supreme Court, of all places -- and won.

In 1873, Garfield was accused of accepting a loan and shares of Credit Mobilier in exchange for kind votes with respect to Credit Mobilier's railroad construction activities; Garfield denied receiving shares and admitted receiving the loan, but declared that the transaction did not influence his votes. Despite the implications, he won reelection to Congress.

By 1880 he was House minority leader, and as the Republicans deadlocked between renominating Ulysses Grant and nominating James Blaine or John Sherman for president that year, Garfield was offered as a compromise candidate. A "half-breed" Republican who supported civil service reform, Garfield was not well-liked by the "stalwarts," who forced him to take Chester Arthur, a New York political hack, as his running mate. Garfield squeaked by Democrat Winfield S. Hancock in one of the closest ever popular elections, 48.3% to 48.2% (in electoral votes there was less suspense, 214 to 155).

True to his reformist nature, he appointed an independent candidate to the key patronage position of collector to the Port of New York (a position formerly held by vice president Arthur), prompting stalwart ringmaster Roscoe Conkling to resign from the Senate in protest. Within months after taking office, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a deluded stalwart footsoldier and religious fanatic who believed that God had told him to kill Garfield in order to save the Republican party.

Garfield survived the immediate wound, but his condition worsened as doctors prodded and poked him while determining that the wound was inoperable. He asked to be moved from Washington to the New Jersey shore, and he was transported by special railcar to Elberon (across tracks covered with straw to reduce the noise), where he died on July 2, 1881. Arthur was in grief over the stalwart connection to Garfield's murder, and, quite astonishingly, became a reformer.

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Friday, November 17, 2006


BBC film cwitic, satiwist and talk show waconteur Jonathan Woss . . . I mean Ross . . . was born on this day in 1960 in Leytonstone, London.

"Ever since that trendy Jonathan Ross starting wearing his big, baggy suits on television, he set a fashion that has been extremely lucrative for the British cotton industry . . . [and now] the textile workers want a share of those profits." -- A Sales Director for a Dyeing Company in 1988, blaming Ross for a textile workers strike.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Maxwell's Equations

"The most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics." - Richard Feynman.

A shy, somewhat dull child who earned the nickname "Dafty" while at Edinburgh Academy, James Clerk Maxwell -- born on this day in 1831 in Edinburgh -- had an intense curiosity about the mechanics of everyday objects, and later, much ahead of his schoolmates, developed an appreciation for the power of mathematical models. At 14 he wrote a paper on a method of drawing elipses using pins and thread which was published by the Edinburgh Royal Society (a not entirely new idea -- the mathematical basis for it was proposed by Descartes -- but it was a remarkable adaptation for a 14 year-old).

He read Newton at the University of Edinburgh and in 1850 went to Cambridge, where he met the cream of Britain's young scientists; they found him eccentric and a bit difficult to follow as he jumped excitedly from topic to topic, but nonetheless they seemed to recognize his intellectual gifts. After graduation in 1854, he went to teach at Marischal College in Aberdeen, where he studied the rings of Saturn and described them as being composed of numerous small solid particles (that being the best mathematical explanation for their stability), a description which was verified by NASA's Voyager probe in 1980. He married the daughter of the principal at Marischal in 1859, but that did not save his job as a junior professor when Marischal merged with King's College Aberdeen the following year. He managed to obtain the chair of natural philosophy at King's College London shortly thereafter, where he did his most important work.

Before Maxwell's work on electromagnetism, although predecessors such as Michael Faraday did develop a sophisticated understanding of the circumstances in which electrical induction could exist and how to produce it, they did not have a mature or very clear picture of the shape of electricity and its movements. Maxwell replaced the old "machine-like" models of electricity (put it in here and it comes out here) with a mathematical model which would predict electrical phenomena. Before a mystified Royal Society meeting in 1864, Maxwell read his "Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field," unveiling the equations which comprise the basic laws of electromagnetism, and showing that an electric charge sends waves through space at some frequency.

From his work, Maxwell could predict the existence of the whole invisible spectrum of electromagnetic frequencies, including radio waves, microwaves, infrared and ultraviolet waves, X-rays and gamma rays, as well as pinpointing the speed of electricity at about 300,000 kilometers per second - so close to the speed of light as to suggest that light itself was an electromagnetic disturbance. Maxwell's equations, which finally appeared in their most developed form in Electricity and Magnetism (1874), were puzzling to scientists of the time; but after Maxwell's death, Heinrich Hertz (at the urging of Heinrich von Helmholtz) confirmed Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism in a series of experiments which measured electromagnetic "waves" and showed how electricity behaved like light.

The verification of Maxwell's equations, then, became an important first step in the development of 20th century atomic physics; on the practical side of things, Maxwell's equations are used today in the design of everything from integrated circuits to cellular phones to predict and reduce levels of electromagnetic interference. Applying a similar theoretical basis to the study of gases, Maxwell also shares credit for the "Maxwell-Boltzmann" kinetic theory of gases: working independently of Ludwig Boltzmann, Maxwell showed that temperatures and heat were manifestations of molecular movement, and Maxwell attempted to describe such movement mathematically.

At the time of his death on November 5, 1879 of abdominal cancer (at age 49, the same age his mother died of the same disease), most scientists were pretty sure Maxwell was onto something, but only time would show the true extent of his brilliance and influence.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady, born on this day in 1815 in Johnstown, New York, was the 7th of 10 children, the daughter of a New York jurist. Her only brother died when she was 11, leaving her father distraught at the prospect of not leaving a male successor.

At that moment, she recalled, she wanted to be everything a man could be. She consciously pursued her goal by studying Greek and horse handling, to become "learned and courageous" like the men she knew. She would never gain the recognition she sought from her father, a fact which perhaps drove her throughout her life to pursue equality for women. She studied at Emma Willard's seminary (1830-32), and through anti-slavery activities met her future husband and father of her 7 children, Henry Stanton, whom she married in 1840 (with the word "obey" stricken from their ceremony).

Immediately after the ceremony, the Stantons attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, but Elizabeth was shocked to find that she and Lucretia Mott were refused admission to the Convention on the grounds of their sex. As a response to this narrow-mindedness, the two women eventually called the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls on July 19-20, 1848, at which Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments," the first public demand for women's suffrage in the U.S., was read, marking the beginning of a 72-year struggle for the right to vote.

In 1849, Stanton co-founded, with Amelia Jenks Bloomer, a women's rights journal, The Lily, in which Stanton pounded at practical themes aimed at reducing the artificial barriers between male and female activity, including the promotion of dress reform and the wearing of "bloomers" (named for her cohort), loose trousers covered by a short skirt for ease of movement. In 1851, she met Susan B. Anthony, and soon Stanton and Anthony became partners in the cause, with Stanton staying home with her children and writing the speeches, and the unmarried Anthony stumping on the circuit. As Stanton observed: "While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years; arguments that no one has answered."

Stanton's philosophy, representing a convergence of Comte, Spencer and Fourier molded around feminist principles, tugged her past women's suffrage at times to defend even more controversial ideas, such as free love and eugenics. As Stanton's children grew, she began to play a more active role in the movement, being the first woman to address a joint session of the New York state legislature (1860), arguing against the 14th Amendment (which granted the right to vote to African-Americans but not to women; her disdain for African-Americans and indeed for recent immigrants and members of the working class was often unvarnished in her pronouncements), running for Congress (1866), campaigning around the country for suffrage and engaging in civil disobedience by attempting to vote.

In 1892, she delivered her most famous address, "The Solitude of Self," before the Senate and House judiciary committees. In 1892, nearly blind, she published The Woman's Bible, an attempt to "correct" biblical interpretations which demeaned women; her criticism of Judaism and Roman Catholicism within the book caused it to be condemned by the 1896 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (an organization of which she once served as president), signaling that Stanton's WASP-supremacy leanings were no longer embraced by the new fighters for women's suffrage.

Nonetheless, by the 1880s, although women's suffrage was still a number of years away, Stanton was revered as an elder statesperson, her 80th birthday celebrated as "Stanton Day" in New York City with a festival at the Metropolitan Opera. Susan B. Anthony highlighted Stanton's preeminent role as wordsmith of the women's suffrage movement following her death on October 26, 1902 by noting, "Well, it is an awful hush." Stanton's daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, followed in her mother's footsteps as a suffrage activist.


Friday, November 10, 2006


TV announcer George Fenneman was born on this date in 1919 in Beijing, the only child of an American accountant and his missionary wife.

A clean-cut good sport with a rich broadcast voice and courtly manner, George Fenneman was plucked from radio obscurity to be Groucho Marx's announcer and comic foil on Marx's quiz show, You Bet Your Life, beginning on radio in 1947 and continuing on television from 1950 to 1961. Fenneman died on May 29, 1996 in Los Angeles.

"Groucho called him the male Margaret Dumont. George took it as the highest praise. Groucho called him the perfect straight man." -- F. Ferrante.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Homework Assignment

George Dantzig, who, as an advisor to the U.S. Defense Department in 1947, introduced the "simplex method" of optimizing linear programming, initially in dealing with logistical issues but ultimately in the creation of computer programs, was born on this day in 1914 in Portland, Oregon.

Dantzig's entry into the academic field of mathematics was the subject of an oft-told anecdote, here related by Dantzig himself:

During my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day to one of Neyman's classes. On the blackboard were two problems which I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework -- the problems seemed to be a little harder to do than usual. I asked him if he still wanted the work. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever. About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o'clock, Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: "I've just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication." For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard which I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.

Dantzig died on May 13, 2005 in Palo Alto, California.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols was born on this day in 1931 in Berlin.

The grandsons of Jewish socialist/anarchist Gustav Landauer and opera librettist Hedwig Lachmann, Michael Peschkowsky and his brother Robert were sent by their family from Nazi Germany to live with an English family in America in 1938; their parents followed shortly thereafter, and they adopted the surname "Nichols" after his father's Russian patronymic "Nicholaiyevitch." Although the family was impoverished, Mike Nichols attended private schools on scholarship (with a reported IQ of 180); but he was a loner, the sour-tongued bald kid (having lost all of his hair at age 4 due to a reaction to a whooping cough vaccination) with the German accent.

At the University of Chicago, he got a job as a staff announcer on a classical music station (shedding the German accent for a crisply sophisticated American one), but he found his real outlet in the theater. Paul Sills, the founder of The Compass improv group (later called Second City), brought his friend Elaine May to see Nichols on stage, telling her "I want you to meet the only person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you." Nichols and May got into each other's respective craws immediately, and in 1957 they began performing deadpan comic dialogues on stage at The Compass that were so close to being straight that you could cut the gender-tension with a knife. Their comedy emerged directly from the ambiguous negotiations of this man and this woman -- whether it was a "romantic spat between dentist and hygienist during oral surgery" or a pair of hopeful pseudo-intellectual singles discussing Bartok and Nietzsche. They released a popular record of their material (Improvisations to Music, 1958), appeared on radio and TV, and from Chicago they played their act to critical acclaim on Broadway in 1960. The record of their Broadway show, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, won a Grammy in 1961, but in that year they abruptly announced their break-up; according to Nichols, he gave it up because satire got too trendy.

Nichols turned to directing (avoiding writing almost altogether), winning his first 2 of 7 Tony Awards for his productions of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (1964) and The Odd Couple (1965). He made his debut as a film director with a well-received version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), but Nichols was hailed as the great new director of his generation with The Graduate (1967; best director Oscar), a film that focused on 20-somethings before it was trendy to do so, used a contemporary score (by Simon and Garfunkel), and featured the lemony Dustin Hoffman as a rather unconventional leading man.

With Hollywood at his feet, Nichols' natural orneriness, perhaps, led him to take on a series of offbeat challenges as follow-up projects, including a disappointing version of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1970) and the sexually candid Carnal Knowledge (1971). After The Fortune (1975, with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty), he returned to the theater for a time, but reemerged in Hollywood with Silkwood (1983). During the 1980s and 90s, he turned out a series of more conventional, immaculately realized comedies with stellar casts, such as Working Girl (1988), Postcards from the Edge (1990), Wolf (1994), The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998). In 2001 he won an Emmy for his HBO production of Wit (with Emma Thompson) and scored another triumph with the HBO mini-series based on Tony Kushner's Angels in America (2003).

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Howard Hughes Hoax

On December 7, 1971, McGraw-Hill Book Co. announced that "The Autobiography of Howard Hughes," compiled by Clifford Irving based on over 100 hours of secret interviews with billionaire Hughes (which Irving claimed took place in park cars and hotel rooms in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and other exotic locales), would soon be published; Life magazine simultaneously announced that it had purchased the rights to excerpt the book beginning in early 1972.

Irving (born on this day in 1930 in New York City), a former Middle East correspondent for NBC-TV and a freelance writer and novelist, was previously best known for his non-fiction book, Fake!, about the famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, and had no particular credentials to have been selected as Hughes' ghost-writer. Nevertheless, when he came to McGraw-Hill with what purported to be an unfinished manuscript with Hughes' margin notes, McGraw-Hill was ecstatic -- finally, the elusive, eccentric tycoon Hughes would be breaking his silence in print.

However, shortly after McGraw-Hill's announcement, the Hughes organization disavowed the announcement and Irving's manuscript, vowing to halt the book's publication. The publishers stood by Irving; spokesmen for Life's corporate owner, Time, Inc., said "We've checked this thing out. We have proof," and that Irving "would have to be a near genius of a writer" for the manuscript to have been a hoax.

Hughes' publicist, William R. Hanna, arranged an unusual press conference to disavow the manuscript: seven reporters, all chosen for their personal connections with Hughes prior to his self-imposed isolation, were invited to interview Hughes over a speaker phone as TV news cameras recorded the event. A disembodied voice fielded "test" questions from the journalists over the phone in order the confirm his identity as Hughes, and then proceeded to deny any involvement with Irving. "This must go down in history," said the voice, "I don't remember any script as wild or as stretching the imagination as this yarn turned out to be . . . I don't know Irving. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention." The journalists concluded that the voice did indeed belong to Hughes.

Meanwhile, Irving began to crumble as government investigators closed in: Irving confessed that the manuscript was of his own authorship, and that he and his wife Edith had taken checks from McGraw-Hill for $650,000 made out to "H.R. Hughes" and deposited them in Swiss bank accounts under the name "Helga R. Hughes." A Danish pop singer, Nina Van Pallandt, testified that she was with Irving constantly during his trips to Mexico, and that it would have been impossible for Irving to have met Hughes at the times he claimed.

The manuscript itself, written in a voice which fooled McGraw-Hill as authentically Hughes', was an amalgamation of old press clippings, well-known anecdotes and appropriations from an unpublished manuscript by Hughes' former aide, Noah Dietrich, which Irving had obtained surreptitiously through a mutual friend. Irving, his wife and his researcher Richard Suskind pleaded guilty to grand larceny; Irving served 16 months of a 2-1/2 year sentence, and returned to writing mystery novels thereafter.

For his own part, Irving claims he never really intended any criminal behavior, just a great gag-- he banked on Hughes never emerging to repudiate the work (due to illness or otherwise), and that McGraw-Hill would have made good money on a well-written book which would have given greater stature to Hughes as a wise and heroic man.

Lasse Halstrom has directed a film based on Irving's account of the matter, called The Hoax, which is scheduled for release in the U.S. in April next year, starring Richard Gere as Irving.

"When Hughes finally repudiated the book the way he did, at that press conference, with all those reporters, I thought, 'How could you do that to me, Howard?'" -- C. Irving.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Malachy's Prophecies

Malachy O'Morgair, also known as St. Malachy, died on this date in 1148.

In his time, Malachy O'Morgair was known as an able priest and administrator who restored discipline to the lazy monks at Armagh. Afterwards he traveled through Europe, visiting Innocent II in Rome and St. Bernard in Clairvaux, in whose arms he died at the age of 54.

A subsequent tradition about Malachy is that during his visit with Innocent in 1139, he was granted a vision of each of the future popes, which he set down as a list of aphoristic prophecies about each of them, which he gave to Innocent to comfort his mind about his work. In 1590, a Benedictine monk "found" the list in the Vatican archives.

Although the work has been dismissed as a forgery perpetrated by restless Jesuits, there have been some uncanny connections between the aphorisms attributed to Malachy and some actual popes. For example, for the 84th pope after Innocent, the motto is "Sydus Olorum" or "constellation of swans," and (depending on whom you count) the corresponding pope, Clement IX, apparently occupied the chamber of swans at the time of his election. The motto for the 256th pope, "Balneo Etruria," is interesting because the supposed 256th pope, Gregory XVI, was a member of an order founded by St. Romuald at Balneo in Etruria.

The motto corresponding to John XXIII was "Pastor et Nauta" ("pastor and marine"), which is said to refer to John's previous position as patriarch of Venice. John Paul II was born during a solar eclipse, and the motto corresponding to his reign is "De labore Solis," which can be translated as "labor of the Sun" or "eclipse of the Sun." Many assumed that the next pope, corresponding to the motto "Gloria Olivae" or "glory of the olives," would have been a Benedictine monk, since the olive is a prominent symbol for the Benedictines, but Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did choose the name "Benedict XVI" upon his election.

The prophecies end with one more pope after Benedict XVI, "Petrus Romanus," who will reign in extreme persecution.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Laxmi Prasad Devkota

The poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota, considered to be Nepal's greatest, is traditionally held to have been born on this date in 1909 in Kathmandu.

Born to the impoverished family of a Hindu priest, Devkota left school early to help support his family, and by the age of 25 found that by selling his poetry, he could earn a meager living. In 1934 he sold 3 poems to the Nepali journal Sharada and attracted widespread attention within the literary community. Two years later he published his first collection, Muna Madan. His poetry was a combination of traditional Sanskrit idioms and themes with currents from European Romantic poetry -- at times evidencing a desire for change in the oppressive regime in Nepal. He occasionally found his poems censored by the ruling Rana family.

Despite publishing and being awarded cultural and government positions, Devkota toiled in poverty throughout his life; his early death by cancer is thought to have resulted from receiving inadequate medical treatment.

"Dirty hands and golden plates -- what can you do with wealth? Better to eat greens and nettles with a happy heart."
-- L. Devkota, from Muna Madan.

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