Thursday, December 28, 2006

Murnau


"Reality in his films was surrounded by a halo of dreams and presentiments, and a tangible person might suddenly impress the audience as a mere apparition." -- S. Kracauer.

Film director F.W. Murnau -- whose work was marked by an art historian's sense of composition and the use of imagery, and the poignant, almost ghostly characterizations he inspired from his actors -- was born on this day in 1888 in Bielefeld, Westphalia.

Murnau graduated from Heidelberg University where he studied art history and literature and started acting in Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater, when he was drafted into the German infantry in the First World War. Before long he was transferred to the air force as a pilot, and survived seven crashes before being captured in Switzerland. During his internment there as a P.O.W., Murnau was permitted to direct theatrical productions and compile propaganda films for the German embassy in Bern.

After the war, Murnau began to direct films, first through a production company he founded with actor Conrad Veidt, and later through other German producers. Among his great German works were the chilling Nosferatu (1922), a breakthrough film in Germany for its use of real locales, based broadly on Bram Stoker's Dracula (in fact, Murnau was sued for infringement); The Last Laugh (1924), about a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) who loses his job, his uniform and his station in life; and Faust (1926), based on the Goethe epic.

Murnau moved to the U.S. and made his finest film, Sunrise (1927) based on Hermann Sudermann's A Trip to Tilsit. At the time of its release, Robert Sherwood called it "the most important picture in the history of movies" and even 31 years later it was voted the greatest film of all time in a Cahiers du Cinema poll.

After an ill-fated South seas collaboration with documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty (Tabu, 1931), Murnau was killed on March 11, 1931 when his Rolls Royce went off the road while he was driving up the coast from Los Angeles with friends.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry


Leave it to my Irish in-laws to teach me something about Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

A few years ago, when I first started accompanying my future wife Kerstin to the Jersey Shore for the holidays, I was puzzled by the hirsute little figures that were hanging all over Aunt Patty’s Christmas tree. “Those are Belschnickels,” she said. “Haven’t you ever heard of them?”

The Belschnickel (also spelled as “Belsnickel” or “Peltznichol”) -- something that translates loosely as “Nicklaus in furs” -- is apparently a favorite Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas legend. He’s a kind of “Anti-Claus,” a wild, scary-looking creature with a long scraggly beard, dressed in a raggy robe of fur and wearing a furry hood or a hat. Sometimes he wears a robber’s mask, too, and he carries with him a sack of mischief in one hand and a switch or a whip in the other.

The Belschnickel visits children at Christmastime, and if he finds that they have not been good all year, he might smack them with the switch, or leave coal in their stockings – or both. If they’ve been good enough, they might get a piece of candy from him. (I just hope he keeps them separated in his sack – coal dust on your candy can’t be good for you.)

If Santa Claus represents parental patience, kindness, generosity and love -- the unconditional love that we all want from our mothers and fathers, especially during Christmas time -- the Belschnickel is a holiday fable born of sober reality. He’s your boss watching over your shoulder with a Christmas bonus in one hand, and a stack of unfinished business in the other … or that frowning major client of yours who needs you to finish his year-end project or else he’s not going to be paying your bill until the next fiscal year … he’s your father, keeping you in line with carrot-and-stick discipline, telling you to eat your peas or else you won’t be getting a bicycle under the tree this year.

The sources tell us that the Belschnickel is not so well-liked by children, but beloved by Pennsylvania Dutch parents. No doubt it is a useful tool for them. At the same time, for those of us who have lost touch with our Pennsylvania Dutch roots – or, in the case of my wife’s family, who never had any Pennsylvania Dutch roots – the Belschnickel represents a welcome opportunity to acknowledge our missteps and laugh heartily at them. Even our two-year old little cousin understands the ritual power of this kind of annual confession. When we ask him what he’s getting for Christmas this year, he replies, “Nussing. I don’t listen to my mommy and daddy, and I take off all my clothes.”

Along with the other family traditions I’ve adopted since marrying Kerstin (such as saying we’re not exchanging gifts and doing it anyway; singing songs we’ve written to the tunes of familiar Christmas carols about all the misfortunes our family has suffered during the year; and gathering around the chimeneya on the front deck in 47° weather, knocking back Rolling Rock ponies), I’ve joined my family in collecting Belschickels for the tree. We get ours from a cherished source, hand-made for our Christmas trees by a second-generation Belschnickel-maker from the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

As of this Christmas, I now have two of them. But -- as Aunt Patty reminds me -- I’d better be a good boy next year, or Santa won’t be bringing me another one.

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Merry Christmas, 2006


At a Borders Books near us, the staff apparently thought it was appropriate, during this holiday season, to stock The Life of Jesus next to a book about Pilates -- not Pontius Pilates, mind you, but the similarly-named fitness regimen.

For a reminder of what Christmas is all about, see last year's post on the childhood of Jesus.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Mountain Madness


"[What scares me most is] making a bad decision and dying in the mountains, to be perfectly honest. Not coming home from a trip, leaving my kids without a dad . . . We can control a lot of things [on expeditions] but even so, things happen." -- Scott Fischer.

Mountaineer Scott Fischer was born on this day in 1955 in Muskegon, Michigan.

Fischer became interested in high-altitude climbing as a child in New Jersey after seeing a TV documentary on climbing. After high school, he dedicated himself to climbing, working his way up to become an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming. The bold, blonde-ponytailed climber was the first American to climb Lhotse (27,923 feet); had led the 1987 North Face Everest expedition; had reached the summit of K2 (28,253 ft.) via the Abruzzi Ridge without supplemental oxygen; and in 1994 led an environmental expedition in which mountaineers carried down 250 old oxygen bottles and 5,000 pounds of trash left by previous Everest expeditions. Fischer also led a group of executives to the top of Kilimanjaro to raise money for the relief organization CARE in January 1996.

In 1984, he founded Mountain Madness, a Seattle-based guiding service that helped clients who could afford hefty fee (about $65,000 for Everest in 1996) to climb major peaks under Fischer's expert supervision. With a group of Mountain Madness clients (including socialite Sandy Hill Pittman), Fischer made his fifth assault on Everest in May 1996. Assisted by elite Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, Fischer led 6 of his clients to the top of Everest, summiting himself on May 10. It was his habit to trail after the team and help those of his clients who needed special attention, but on his way up, he admitted to struggling, and was apparently beginning to suffer from the incapacitating effects of altitude sickness, something that can affect even the most experienced climbers without notice.

As Fischer attempted to descend from the summit, a surprise snowstorm with winds of 75 mph hit the mountain, and he collapsed an hour above Camp IV (at 26,000 feet). When Sherpa guides were finally able to get to him, he was in a coma, roped to Makalu Gao, the leader of a Taiwanese expedition who was also severely ill after being stuck in the snowstorm. Unable to bring two people down, the Sherpas brought down Gao, who was regarded to be saveable, and by the time Boukreev managed to get to Fischer on May 11, Fischer had already died.

By the end of the snowstorm, Fischer, Rob Hall (a rival commercial expedition leader from New Zealand) and 3 members of Hall's expedition had perished on the mountain, leading elite mountaineers and others to criticize the commercialization of Everest trips for dilletante climbers as unreasonably risky and even irresponsible.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Doubting Thomas


The feast of St. Thomas, one of Jesus' twelve disciples, whose feast is celebrated by some Christians on this day.

Although he is barely mentioned in the first three Gospels, Thomas is featured prominently in John's Gospel. Like the sons of thunder, John and his brother James, Thomas is a loyal fire-breather, suggesting that all of Jesus' followers accompany him to Bethany in Judea to visit Lazarus when it seemed likely that Jesus would be in danger there -- "Let us all go," he says, "that we may die with him."

Later, at the Last Supper, Thomas shows his interest in logistics when he questions Jesus about his impending departure and Jesus' promise to prepare places for his faithful followers: "Lord," he says, "we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way?" Jesus takes the opportunity to draw Thomas' attention beyond physical reality, telling him "I am the way, and the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would without doubt have known my Father also: and henceforth you shall know him, and you have seen him."

After Jesus' crucifixion, Thomas' Aristotelian drive to pull it all apart and put it all back together arises again when, being absent from the Upper Room when the resurrected Christ first appeared, he says that he won't believe Jesus had returned until he can see, with his own eyes, the holes in Jesus' hands where the nails had been, and to touch, with his own fingers, Jesus' wounds. Eight days later, when Jesus arrives and invites Thomas to "put in thy finger," Thomas is humbled, exclaiming breathlessly, "My Lord, and my God," stating more simply and directly than any of the other disciples the conclusion of his faithful questioning. Jesus, however, gently rebukes him for his habit of mind, stating that while Thomas had to see Jesus in the flesh to believe, "blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed." For this episode, Thomas is forever to be known as "Doubting Thomas," and held out as an example of imperfect faith. His namesake, Aquinas, would later provide the world with the model of the Aristotelian Christian, the faithful scientist whose faith is perfected through the exercise of logic.

Thomas is said to have led a mission to India, where he is supposed to have promised to build King Guduphara a palace which would last forever; according to legend, Guduphara gave Thomas the money to build the palace, but Thomas gave the money to the poor. When Guduphara confronted Thomas, Thomas explained (perhaps learning Jesus' lessons on metaphysics after all) that the palace he was building was in heaven, not on Earth. A Christian community on the Malabar coast of India claims its lineage to Thomas' mission, which ended when he was apparently slain with a spear while praying on a hill in Mylapur near Madras. His remains were said to have been buried there, and afterwards transported to Edessa, from which they were retrieved 800 years later and conveyed to Ortona, Italy.

The Roman Catholics name Thomas as the patron of a number of constituencies, including architects, construction workers, the blind, geometricians and theologians, as well as of India and Portugal.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pudge


Pudge Heffelfinger, the first "professional" football player, was born William W. Heffelfinger on this day in 1867 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The 6'-3", 200-pound Heffelfinger was a standout on both offense and defense with the Yale football team from 1888 to 1891, pioneering a variation of the single-wing formation and beating Princeton's famous "wedge" with his ferocious defensive line play -- so injurious that it inspired rules changes to protect the collegians. As the greatest player of his day, in November 1892 he was invited by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, and he received $500 (equal to the annual salary of a 19th century schoolteacher) as a "game performance bonus for playing" a single game with the Alleghenies (and yes, they did win).

Heffelfinger spent much of the rest of his life coaching collegiate football, although he defended the rights of team captains to call their own shots on the field. His ferocity on the field did not mellow with age. In 1916, at the age of 49, he joined the scrubs in a Yale scrimmage before the big Harvard game, breaking the ribs of the varsity guard and injuring 4 more Yale players before being yanked from the practice by the irritated Yale coach.

Heffelfinger served as a commissioner of Hennepin County, Minnesota from 1924 to 1948, and lost a bid for Congress as a Republican in 1930. He died on April 2, 1954 on the family ranch near Blessing, Texas.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Freedom Ride


"White cab drivers were hanging around the bus station, with nothing to do. They saw our Trailways bus delayed, and learned the reasons why. Here was something over which they could work out their frustration and boredom. Two ringleaders started haranguing the other drivers. About ten of them started milling around the parked bus. When I got off to put up bail for the two Negroes and two whites in our group who had been arrested, five of the drivers surrounded me. 'Coming here to stir up the n*****s,' snarled a big one with steel-cold grey eyes. With that, he slugged me on the side of the head. I stepped back, looked at him, and asked, 'What's the matter?' My failure to retaliate with violence had taken him by surprise." -- James Peck.

James Peck was born on this day in 1914 in New York City.

A civil rights activist and pacifist, known for his participation in the Journey of Reconciliation (1947, designed to provoke hostile state responses to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional) and in the 1961 Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C. to Mississippi, Peck was brutally beaten by segregationist thugs in Birmingham, Alabama during the Freedom Ride. The brutality he and his fellow activists suffered there ultimately inspired the Kennedy Administration to pressure the Interstate Commerce Commission to end discrimination in bus terminals. Peck died on July 12, 1993.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Moses Said So


Robert Moses was born on this day in 1888 in New York City.

A Phi Beta Kappa political scientist from Yale, Oxford and Columbia, Moses was hired as a technical expert by the New York City Civil Service Commission in 1915 to implement the meritocratic (anti-patronage) reform ideas he had articulated in his doctoral thesis, but before he could make much headway, reform mayor John Purroy Mitchel was defeated for reelection. Governor Al Smith then hired Moses, eventually appointing him the president of the Long Island State Park Commission, marking the beginning of Moses' extraordinarily long career as a public builder.

Supervising the construction of parkways, bridges and highways around New York, Moses was publicly admired as an expert manager who conducted his business above the political fray, but behind the scenes he was a Machiavellian who wielded more political power over public works than any elected politician. One of his favorite strategies for doing so was extending the maturities of existing public bond issues, thereby restricting the legislature's ability to second-guess him without jeopardizing the state's role as fiduciary to the public bondholders. Even his detractors had to admire his energy, intellect and technical talents: as governor of New York and later as president, Franklin Roosevelt resented Moses' authority, but felt moved to pour millions of dollars into his projects, such as the remarkable Triborough Bridge (1940) and numerous zoos, parks and monuments which kept Depression-era construction laborers in full employment.

His skills as an organizer were not always matched with socially visionary judgment: his housing projects and expressways often fractured neighborhoods and displaced the underprivileged, resulting at times in increased racial and ethnic tensions in neighborhoods which had enjoyed relative peace and leading to the reorganization of large portions of New York from pastoral pedestrian niches to an often alienating car culture. When his projects succeeded, as they often did despite his estrangement from their social consequences, his autocratic management style was tolerated, but by the 1960s, as community involvement in planning decisions became a political flashpoint, Moses found himself being marginalized politically, particularly by the policies of New York City mayor John V. Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Rockefeller finally drove Moses out of all his political posts when Moses was 75. Although he had taken his own paternalistic reform ideals to their logical limits, he ultimately fell victim to another reform movement, with ideals which focused on democracy and not exclusively on efficiency. He died on July 29, 1981 in West Islip, New York.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Jaime Lerner


Jaime Lerner was born on this day in 1937 in Curitiba, Brazil.

Lerner is celebrated internationally for having masterminded and implemented a city plan for what is known as one of the "greenest" cities in the world -- Curitiba, Brazil. The son of Polish immigrants, as head of Curitiba's School of Architecture and an architect in the city's department of urbanism, during the 1960s Lerner helped to formulate several plans for the redesign and improvement of Curitiba, all of which fell victim to bureaucratic neglect.

After the military seized control of Brazil in a coup, in 1971 the military governor of Parana "suddenly" appointed the 33-year old Lerner mayor of Curitiba (although one suspects that Lerner was enough of a smooth operator to attract the notice of the military authorities). Choosing first to deal with the traffic snarl downtown, noting that "the less importance you give to cars, the better the city becomes for people," in the middle of the night on May 2, 1972 he assembled a convoy of city work trucks on the XV de Novembro, Curitiba's main shopping avenue, and turned it from a multi-lane asphalt street into a pedestrian mall with flower beds and trees in planter boxes. When the shopkeepers returned at the end of the weekend and began to protest that it would hurt business, Lerner was there to greet them, asking them for 30 days' patience; before the end of the week, as pedestrians flocked to the area in droves, a petition landed on Lerner's desk from the rest of the XV de Novembro merchants asking him to close the remaining 10 blocks to cars as well.

Lerner also created a 17-square mile industrial area 6 miles from downtown to encourage the local economy; forced developers to leave a third of any development project's area for parks in return for zoning concessions elsewhere in the city; discouraged the building of high-rises in the city center, instead relaxing the zoning along public transportation routes; and began the bikepath-connected park system, manicured daily by roaming sheep, which sprawls throughout the city. He served 2 terms before leaving office for a private consulting career, but after the military government retreated and democracy was reinstated, Lerner was drafted to run for a 3rd term, which he won in a landslide. He then devoted himself to improving the city's bus lines -- resulting in a network which pays for itself and is used by 75% of the city's population, a higher usage rate than in any city in the Western hemisphere -- and in organizing the city's poor to assist with the city's recycling project, in which 70% of the population participates and the proceeds from which aid the city's poor children.

Lerner was elected governor of Parana for two terms beginning in 1995. Despite his green record in Curitiba, he has occasionally come under fire from activists who accuse him of doing too little to conserve the Atlantic rain forest of Brazil.

Lerner's legacy as a director of planning easily rivals that of New York's Robert Moses in its revolutionary scope, yet Lerner's outlook has always been much more human-centered than that of Moses the great builder.

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Welcome Back, Mr. Matthews


Today we celebrate the return of muppety TV pundit Chris Matthews to the airwaves after a brief illness. Coincidentally, Matthews was born on this day in 1945 in Philadelphia.

We can think of no greater tribute to Chris than the observation of Ana Marie Cox on Chris' performance during the second inaugural of George W. Bush in 2004: "It's days like today that bring out the best in Chris Matthews. And by 'best' we mean, rambling, incoherent, insane brilliance. He's like Rain Man, can't help but comment on any and every thing set before him. Here's Chris on . . . the White House floor: 'Look at this great, great camera angle . . . Look at that shiny, shiny floor. . . '"

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Rock 'n Roll


Alan Freed was born on this day in 1922 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Freed was a journeyman disc jockey who, while emceeing a rhythm 'n blues show for white kids on WJW-Radio in Cleveland in 1951, is thought to have coined the phrase "rock 'n roll."

He later became an influential presence in the promotion of rock at radio and TV stations in New York. He was at the height of his fame as the host of an ABC dance show when the sight of Frankie Lymon dancing with a white girl caused ABC's Southern affiliates to ask for Freed's head. After promoting a live rock show at the Boston Arena, he was charged with incitement to riot, resulting in his being fired by ABC. He later declared bankruptcy. Subsequent convictions on commercial bribery and federal tax evasion charges sealed his fate. He died on January 20, 1965 in Palm Springs, California.

He was posthumously admitted to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Le Vert Galant


Henry IV, king of France (1589-1610), known as "Le Vert Galant," was born on this day in 1533 in the castle Pau in the Pyrenees.

A direct descendant of Louis IX and a grandson of writer Marguerite of Navarre, Henry was baptized as a Catholic but joined the French Protestants (Huguenots) under his mother's influence, and he fought on their side during the religious civil wars which ravaged France during the 16th century. When his mother died in 1572, Henry became king of Navarre and married Margaret of Valois, the daughter of the powerful Catholic regent of France, Catherine de Medicis.

Catherine had consented to the marriage to placate the Huguenots; nevertheless, it is surmised that she was complicit in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Protestants, including several important Protestant leaders, were rounded up and murdered six days after the "scarlet nuptials"of Henry and Margaret. Henry himself barely escaped the attack by pretending to submit to a forced "conversion" to Catholicism, and the civil wars resumed with even greater fury following the Massacre. When Henry III was assassinated, Henry of Navarre claimed the French throne for himself.

He was, however, a pragmatist. Realizing that he could never hold the French throne as a Protestant (the Huguenots represented only about 10% of the population), Henry converted to Catholicism with a display of earnestness, stating for the record that "Paris is well worth a mass," and thereafter began the arduous process of receiving papal absolution for his sins against the faith from Clement VIII. With the Catholics and the more politically realistic Huguenots supporting him, Henry took the revolutionary step of issuing the Edict of Nantes (1598), granting nobles the right to conduct Protestant services, permitting Protestantism in certain towns (not Paris) and promising that Protestants would enjoy the same civil rights as Catholics. The Edict quelled the Huguenot rebellion, but only after Henry took charge of the wary court system and imposed the Protestant detente upon the countryside.

Having settled the religious wars, Henry paved the way for the rebuilding of the nation through the enforcement of taxes and the initiation of public works projects (a 17th century "New Deal," a la FDR), building canals, roads and bridges.

It was said that Henry's mother sprinkled wine on his tongue when he was born to give him the right spirit. Whether it was the right spirit or not, it certainly seemed to foreshadow Henry's boisterous appreciation for wine, food and beautiful women, hence his nickname ("Le Vert Galant," or the "gay old spark"). Enormously popular by the end of his reign, Henry was assassinated on May 14, 1610 in Paris by a crazed fanatic who believed that he was a menace to the Catholic Church. Henry's killer was fed to wild dogs by Henry's incensed subjects.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

John Jay


Possibly the one participant in the American Revolution who deserves more credit in schoolhouses than he currently gets for shaping the American nation, John Jay was viewed by contemporaries as the nation's greatest diplomat and one of its greatest legal minds.

Born on this day in 1745 in New York City, a graduate of Columbia (King's College), Jay successfully practiced law in New York City from 1768, and was initially opposed to colonial agitation and estrangement from England, fearing that American independence would result in mob rule. While he served in the First Continental Congress, he helped to formulate the "Olive Branch Petition" (an attempt at reconciliation with the King, which George III refused to read) and considered leaving North America altogether.

With the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, however, he cast his lot with the revolutionaries and became a fervent supporter of American independence. In 1777, he drafted New York's first constitution and served as the state's first chief justice. The following year, New York sent Jay to the Second Continental Congress, where he was elected president, and in 1779 he was sent to Spain on a diplomatic mission. An exceptionally perceptive negotiator, he was summoned to Paris by Benjamin Franklin to assist in reaching a peace accord with England. Despite being told not to act without the knowledge and concurrence of the French, Jay surreptitiously opened direct talks with the British and on his own won exceedingly liberal terms resulting in the Treaty of Paris (1783), which formally ended the Revolutionary War.

Upon his return he was named secretary of foreign affairs to the Continental Congress, a post which he served in for 5 years. His frustration with the weakness of Congress led him to argue for a stronger central government, and along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Jay authored essays for The Federalist in favor of a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

In 1789, George Washington appointed Jay as the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As chief justice, Jay was disappointed over the high Court's lack of apparent legitimacy. Nevertheless, he handed down some decisions which were important in shaping the role of the Court, defending the separation of powers among the branches of government in Hayburn's Case (1792) and affirming the subordination of the states to the federal government in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). When the latter decision was met with defiance and the introduction of the 11th Amendment in Congress, Jay took his leave from the Court, and Washington sent him to England again to negotiate another treaty over certain disagreements which had accumulated since 1783.

The Jay Treaty (1794) settled conflicts over unpaid debts, sequestration of Loyalist estates and New World trading rights, establishing bilateral commissions for the resolution of future disputes. While in England, Jay was elected governor of New York, and upon his return he officially resigned from the Court to serve in the New York statehouse. At the end of Jay's term in 1800, John Adams asked him to return to the Supreme Court, but Jay refused, declaring that the Court lacked "energy, weight and dignity." Alienated by the anti-federalist policies of Thomas Jefferson, Jay retired to his farm in Westchester County, New York for the last 27 years of his life, emerging occasionally to support the anti-slavery cause.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ada


Ada Byron -- born on this day in 1815 in Piccadilly Terrace, Middlesex -- was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and his wife Annabella. Shortly after Ada was born, however, Annabella had had enough of the poet's excesses and threw him out. Byron, who left England for the rest of his relatively short life, never knew his daughter, but pined after her -- at least mimetically -- in his lines from Child Harolde: "'Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!/ Ada! sole daughter of my house and of my heart?/ When I last saw thy young blue eyes they smiled/ And then we parted -- not as now we part, but with a hope.'"

Ada's mother, knowing all too well Byron's capacity for b.s. and thus a little skeptical of her daughter's bloodlines, recommended an intensive course in mathematics for her daughter, unusual for a woman then sadly as now, to ward against the "heedlessness, imprudence, vanity, prevarication and conceit"she might otherwise inherit from the old man. When she was still a teen, while attending a women's literary meeting at the home of Mary Somerville, Ada first heard of Charles Babbage and his design for a calculating machine, the Difference Engine, which could be used to determine the polynomial equation for a table of data, and she was inspired by his notion that a machine might be made, not only to foresee, but to conduct some activity based on that foresight.

She put her inspiration on hold temporarily, marrying Lord William King in 1835 and having 3 children, but she maintained her acquaintance with Babbage, and became fascinated by the possibilities of Babbage's new proposal for a more sophisticated calculating machine that could perform any kind of calculation, the Analytic Engine, understanding much more quickly than many of Babbage's male contemporaries how it could work and what it could do.

After Babbage delivered a talk on the Analytic Engine in Italy in 1841, Luigi Menabrea published a paper about the machine. Attempting to channel her passionate interest in Babbage's work into something meaningful, Ada translated Menabrea's paper from French into English, and at Babbage's suggestion, added her own extensive commentary. Published in 1843, Ada's translation was in fact almost a completely new book on Babbage's proposed machine, 3 times the length of Menabrea's article, in which she outlined the fundamental concepts by which the machine could be "programmed" to complete certain tasks (observing that a working Engine could "weave[ ]. . . algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves"), the main elements required in any mechanical "language" used to program the machine (including a discussion of the machine might be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers, a discussion which some have cited as perhaps the ealiest articulation of a computer program), and her predicitions that such a machine might be used to compose music, produce drawings and handle other practical and scientific tasks.

The article was not simply the best description of the Analytic Engine and its capabilties to date, but a work of some vision, as unappreciated until the 20th century as Babbage's plans ultimately were by his contemporaries. After the article was published, the charming, vivacious countess of Lovelace (who also numbered David Brewster, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday among her parlor guests) fell ill with uteran cancer, and treated herself with alcohol, opium and morphine, leading no doubt to the instability which inspired her to become, in her final days, a compulsive gambler (albeit a mathematically talented one) and going into debt before her death at age 36.

A Pascal-based software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1979 was named "ADA" in her honor, and Tilda Swinton played her in an unusual fantasy film, Conceiving Ada (1997).

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dame in the Water


Reviewing the career of champion swimmer Eleanor Holm, it strikes one that if hard-drinking, hard-partying baseball great Mickey Mantle had the stamina of Miss Holm, he might have had a longer career, and would have been, indisputably, the greatest baseball player ever. Heck, Eleanor Holm trained on "champagne and cigarettes" (to use her own words), and was one of the finest backstrokers ever, living to age 90. Too bad Mickey was such a lightweight!

Eleanor Holm was born on this day in 1913 in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a fireman. By the time Holm was 14, she was already competing in the Olympics, finishing 5th in the 1928 100-meter backstroke. By 1932, despite taking a career detour as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer at age 16, Holm was indisputably the best backstroker in the world, setting new world records at every distance between 1929 and 1932. She won the 1932 Olympic gold medal in the 100-meters, setting a new world record in Los Angeles which bested the previous standard by almost three seconds.

Her performance in Los Angeles, combined with her trim good looks and vivacity led to her signing a $500 per week contract with Warner Brothers to appear in films. She soon quarreled with the Warners, however, since they wanted her to swim on film, which would have jeopardized her amateur status, so she quit. In 1933 she married bandleader Art Jarrett and traveled with him as the band's singer, burning the candle at both ends while remaining undefeated in numerous swim competitions and establishing new world records in the 100- and 200-meters.

On her way to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, she partied round the clock with sportswriters aboard the S.S. Manhattan, drinking with the likes of writer Charles MacArthur, smoking and gambling. When U.S. Olympic czar Avery Brundage learned of her behavior, he banned Holm from competing in Berlin, accusing her of being drunk and disorderly. While she admitted drinking heavily, she pointed out that she won a couple of hundred dollars shooting craps, which someone who was intoxicated wouldn't be able to do. Brundage didn't find the argument very amusing (despite receiving a petition signed by more than half of the U.S. Olympic team members to let her back in), and Holm found herself in Berlin, banned for life from amateur competition, but nevertheless enjoying a white-hot celebrity glow. Goering, for one, was captivated by her, and gave her a sterling silver swastika (which she later had reset with a Star of David in the middle).

In 1937, Holm returned to Hollywood to star in Tarzan's Revenge with Olympic decathlete Glenn Morris, and after divorcing Jarrett married show business promoter Billy Rose, starring in his 1939 New York World's Fair Aquacade. She divorced Rose in 1954 (the saga was labeled the "War of the Roses" by the tabloids), and settled in Miami Beach working as an interior decorator. She entered the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966 and was one of the first six women to be selected for induction in the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. She died on January 31, 2004 in Miami.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Fetish of Tragedy


Film director Fritz Lang was born on this day in 1890 in Vienna.

Following the wishes of his architect father, Lang studied architecture for a time before joining the Vienna Academy of Graphic Arts to pursue a course in painting. Facing his father's disapproval, Lang moved to Brussels around 1909 and made his living selling sketches. In 1910, he took to the sea, visiting North Africa, Asia Minor, China, Japan and Bali before settling in Paris, renting a studio at Montmartre and studying at the Academie Julien.

During World War I, Lang found himself in the Austrian Army; blinded in one eye after being wounded, Lang spent his time in military hospitals writing film scripts. He wrote several scripts for Erich Pommer's Decla film company in Berlin before directing his first film, The Half-Caste (1919), followed by the first episode of a popular adventure serial, The Spiders (1919). He was slated to direct Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) based upon a scenario to which he contributed, but instead he was assigned to direct another episode of The Spiders serial; Caligari became a classic in the hands of Robert Wiene.

Annoyed at losing Caligari, Lang left Decla for a time, but returned to direct his first international success, Destiny (1921), the visual style of which caused comparisons to Durer and Grunewald in the French journals. From a thematic perspective, Destiny also typified Lang's preoccupation with despair and the inevitability of fate, or as Lang himself described it, his "fetish of tragedy." In 1922, he completed Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, the first of a series of films featuring the fiendish criminal mastermind, which he followed with two films based on the German legend Die Nieblungen (Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, 1924). In 1926, Lang completed the greatest of his silent films, Metropolis (with Brigitte Helm), a social melodrama set in the year 2000 against "an exaggerated dream of the New York skyline, multiplied a thousandfold and divested of all reality." (L. Eisner)

Although Metropolis was not a box office success, Lang's preeminence among German directors was assured as he began work on his first sound film, M (1930; with Peter Lorre), a film about how the criminal underground organizes to capture a child murderer whose activities are bad for business. In 1934, Lang arrived in the U.S., where he made a pair of dark, moralistic character studies, Fury (1936; starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney) and You Only Live Once (1937; with Sidney and Henry Fonda).

Lang's early efforts in Hollywood did not endear him to the studios, which favored light material with happy endings, nor did his insistence on detail. Nevertheless, Lang survived, making such eerie minor classics as the stark western, The Return of Frank James (1940; with Fonda); a Graham Greene mystery, Ministry of Fear (1944; with Ray Milland); the twin nightmares Woman in the Window (1944; written by Nunnally Johnson) and Scarlet Street (1945) (both with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea); and The Big Heat (1953; with Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin). His career went into sharp decline after 1956, although his films continued to be appreciated by younger film directors; in homage to Lang, Jean-Luc Godard cast Lang as himself in Contempt (1963). Lang died on August 2, 1976 in Beverly Hills.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The Gates of Paradise


Lorenzo Ghiberti's lofty reputation begins and ends with essentially 2 works: the bronze doors depicting New Testament stories on the north portal of the Baptistery (just outside the Cathedral of Florence), on which he worked for 21 years (1403-24), and the bronze doors on the east portal of the same building, on which he worked for 23 years (1425-52).

In 1402, as a 24 year-old painting student without any formal affiliation in metallurgy he entered the competition for a set of bronze reliefs for the north doors, the test subject of which was a panel depicting Abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac, and was chosen as one of the top 2 entrants, the other being Filippo Brunelleschi. Comparing Brunelleschi's design to Ghiberti's, it is not hard to see why Ghiberti was given the commission. While Brunelleschi's design is bold, naturalistic and dramatic, his twisted figures tearing their way to and fro within the boundaries of the quatrefoil panel, Ghiberti's entire composition displays a graceful, delicate unity, subtly revealing the inner lives of Abraham and Isaac while drawing the eye along the sweeping shapes and lines through a deliberate use of lighting effects. His figure of Isaac is sometimes referred to as the first truly Renaissance nude figure, demonstrating naturalistic values in his detailed rendering of young Isaac's musculature, while at the same time letting the figure exist quietly, in the manner of the very silent nudes of antiquity. (In addition, it turns out that Ghiberti's bronze casting technique was less costly than Brunelleschi's would have been. The Baptistery booster club may not have known anything about art, but they sure knew how to save money.)

Brunelleschi never forgave Ghiberti for winning the competition, and in 1404, when Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were chosen as part of a committee to design the cupola of the Cathedral of Florence, Brunelleschi did his best to make Ghiberti look silly at every turn, setting engineering traps into which the less experienced Ghiberti repeatedly and publicly blundered. For the most part that mattered little to Ghiberti, who was shrewd enough to retreat quietly from the project and to spend most of the energies of the rest of his life finishing the Baptistery doors.

In 1425 he was given the commission for the east doors, which have come to be known as the "Gates of Paradise" (according to legend, so named by Michelangelo, who said they were truly worthy of the honor), depicting Old Testament stories, this time in heavily gilded square panels appearing like paintings rather than reliefs.

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