Sunday, April 30, 2006


"I was recently in Pennsylvania at the site of a zinc factory whose airborne wastes were formerly so laden with pollutants that they denuded an entire mountainside . . . From a GDP perspective, however, this was wonderful. First there was the gain to the economy from all the zinc the factory had refined and sold over the years. Then there was the gain from the tens of millions of dollars the government must spend to clean up the site and restore the mountain. Finally, there will be a continuing gain from medical treatments for workers and townspeople made chronically ill by living amid all those contaminants. In terms of conventional economic measurement, all of this is gain, not loss . . . In short, the more recklessly we use up natural resources, the more the GDP glows." Bill Bryson, Notes from a Big Country.

Economist Simon S. Kuznets was born on this day in 1901 in Kharkov, Ukraine.

With funding from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, Kuznets was the first economist to compute national income (gross national product, now boiled down as gross domestic product, or GDP) in a systematic fashion, breaking it down by industry, finished product and use, and assisting the U.S. Department of Commerce in standardizing the measurement of GDP. He won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Economics for his empirical work on economic growth, which showed, among other things, that in poor countries economic growth increased the disparity between rich and poor, while in wealthier countries economic growth seemed to decrease that disparity. He died on July 9, 1985.

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Saturday, April 29, 2006


"I have never known a person to throw wealth around in such a dégagé manner as did Hearst. Rockefeller felt the moral burden of it, Pierpont Morgan was imbued with the power of it, but Hearst spent millions nonchalantly as though it were weekly pocket money." -- Charlie Chaplin.

In the half-century since his death, William Randolph Hearst has become almost indistinguishable in the public memory from "Charles Foster Kane," the protagonist of Orson Welles' classic film Citizen Kane (1941). Kane was based on Hearst, but Kane was a cartoon -- a wondrous and compelling cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless. Hearst himself was one of the great showmen of the century, much more shrewd and self-conscious than Welles' monstrous child-man, a P.T. Barnum who found his outlet in newspapers, media and politics (the latter being only a stone's throw from Tom Thumb and the Cardiff giant, after all).

Born on this day in 1863 in San Francisco, the son of mining magnate George Hearst (who later became a U.S. senator), William Randolph Hearst attended Harvard where he concentrated on improving the financial condition of the Lampoon (Harvard's satirical rag); he was suspended for staging a too-boisterous celebration of President Cleveland's victory in 1884, and thrown out for a practical joke involving the delivery of chamber pots to professors.

After an apprenticeship with Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst persuaded his father to give him control of a Democratic newspaper which the elder Hearst operated at a loss, the San Francisco Examiner. Here Hearst employed the turn-around tactics which would mark his publishing style throughout his career: he paid high prices for writing and administrative talent, and spared no opportunity for getting attention, valuing cheap emotional appeal (even faking the news in the service of his slant) over balance and accuracy. In his hands, the Examiner became the leading paper in San Francisco, making a profit despite high overhead.

It was a natural next step for Hearst to expand to meet Pulitzer's New York World in head-to-head competition in 1895, raiding the World for its star cartoonist R.F. Outcault (creator of the "Yellow Kid") and continuing his shrill style of "yellow journalism," targeting the vast immigrant masses for his readership with stands against corporate exploitation and a presentation-style best described as "dumbing-down." He capitalized on his success with new newspapers around the country as well as magazines (Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harper's), and eventually he even entered radio and motion pictures to build the first modern diversified media empire.

It is generally agreed that Hearst precipitated American involvement in the Cuban revolt against Spain by sending correspondents to Cuba to trump up news of Spanish atrocities. When Hearst artist Frederick Remington complained that the situation was quiet, Hearst purportedly answered, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Due in large part to the pressure brought by Hearst's papers and his gigantic readership (1.25 million copies sold per day in New York alone), Republican president McKinley reluctantly declared war against Spain in April 1898.

Feeling his political oats, Hearst bandied his own name as a possible Democratic vice-presidential nominee with reform-minded principles in 1900, but within a year he was being branded as a traitor. Shortly after the assassination of Kentucky governor William Goebel, Hearst published an editorial by Ambrose Bierce which caustically prophesied that the assassin's bullet was "speeding here to stretch McKinley's bier." After McKinley's own assassination in September 1901, Hearst became a target of hatred for the editorial, and he was burned in effigy around the country. Surprisingly, he survived the incident to be elected to 2 unremarkable terms in Congress from Manhattan, and to make a nearly successful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904; he was beaten by the nonentity Alton J. Parker, the Democrats perhaps having had an overreaction against Hearst's notoriety. Hearst then nearly beat George McClellan for mayor of New York, and lost the New York governorship to Charles E. Hughes by less than 600,000 votes. He ran for mayor of New York one last time in 1909, placed 3rd, and relegated himself to the role of kingmaker and molder of public opinion.

His mildly pro-German views during World War I, however, were unpopular, and it became increasingly clear that Hearst's ability to start and stop wars single-handedly was no longer what it used to be. He still wielded tremendous influence over public perceptions, however, helping to foment anti-immigrant and increasingly anti-union sentiment throughout the 1920s.

Hearst's private attentions shifted away from New York back to California in 1917 coincident with the beginning of his long-term, open extramarital relationship with actress Marion Davies (despite the fact that he was still married to his wife, a former showgirl), whose career Hearst handled with Svengali-like control and enthusiasm, mobilizing his media resources to make her a star of sorts. With the construction of his elaborate estate at San Simeon (known as "Hearst's Castle"), he and Davies became the reigning hosts to the Hollywood elite, everyone from Chaplin to Pickford to Elinor Glyn to John Gilbert.

He had a hand in securing Franklin Roosevelt's nomination for president in 1932, but turned against Roosevelt as Hearst's own politics became ever-more reactionary and protective of his own millions. His erratic and arbitrary management tactics, along with his liberal personal and corporate spending habits, threatened to destroy his empire, and after pulling back a public bond offering due to charges of private use of company funds, Hearst turned the company over to a receiver in 1937 with the condition that he would maintain some measure of editorial control. Downsizing prepared the Hearst empire for the post-War boom, to the point that by the time Hearst died (on August 14, 1951 in Beverly Hills, California), Hearst managed to regain economic control over the empire and left an estate of $59.5 million. Today, the Hearst Corporation is still a large media conglomerate.

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"1 J/degree K = 10(23) bits"?

Information theorist Tom Stonier was born on this day in 1927 in Hamburg, Germany.

Stonier emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. He first won acclaim as the author of Nuclear Disaster (1964), a report to the New York Academy of Sciences on the potential biological effects of the detonation of a 20-megaton bomb in Manhattan.

An early proponent of the introduction of computers in education, Stonier followed the rise of computers with an eye on their effect upon the biological nature of human beings. In his book Information and the Internal Structure of the Universe (1990), Stonier observed that while science began as a study of the properties of "matter," during the past 200 years it has concerned itself with the properties of "energy," culminating in Albert Einstein's assertion that energy and matter are transducable (by way of the equation E=mc²). Stonier argued that "information" -- representing the changing expressions of all forms of organization on psychological, physical and biological levels -- has been identified by thinkers of the late 20th century as elemental, much like matter and energy, and from this premise he proposed the seemingly preposterous yet compelling notion that information, matter and energy are all transducable from each other.

In an updating of Norbert Wiener's observations, Stonier analyzed the relationship between entropy (energy which becomes unavailable, disintegrating into disorder, as the irreversible process of change occurs within our universe) and information, with the chronological moments in the history of the universe as the sample points on a graph: at the far right, entropy and information are at zero, but as one moves left along the graph, away from the "Big Bang" which begins to differentiate gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism, matter evolves into more complex forms, with systems (from atoms to molecules to bacteria to humans to civilizations) becoming more complex and ultimately self-organizing, information expands exponentially, even as entropy theoretically increases. As Stonier put it, "One does not start with zero information and have proverbial monkeys typing at random hoping to author Hamlet. Instead, a highly advanced information system named William Shakespeare was born into an advanced information culture, and in due course added further information as the universe cycled on."

His radical conclusion: "The concept that as the universe evolves, its information content increases, is in opposition to the idea that the increase in entropy will inevitably lead to the 'heat death' of the universe" -- as if to say that new ways of processing information, of recreating order within our systems, have seemed to evolve as the universe evolves and produces more information to be processed.

Stonier seemed to be suggesting a transduction of energy into information, something that is knowable at some level by some perceiving system -- an atom, a person, a human nervous system, one's genes. The suggestion of a common denominator for psychological, physical and biological systems somewhere at the confluence of matter, energy and information is an interesting anti-Cartesian metaphor, and may yet have intriguing implications to our collective approach to scientific questions in the future about areas as diverse as neurobiology, energy processing and genetics.

Stonier died on June 28, 1999.


Friday, April 28, 2006

Over near Roswell

On April 28, 1899, a future cattle and sheep rancher named William Ware Brazel III was born. The infant's family nicknamed him "Mack" because they thought he looked like President McKinley.

On July 4, 1947, while checking on his herds after a severe thunderstorm, 48-year old Mack Brazel found some curious metal debris strewn in a 300-foot by 3/4-mile area in a field on the Foster Ranch near the town of Corona. The debris consisted mostly of I-beams and small parchment-like, paper-thin pieces of metal which purportedly could not be broken in half, cut or burned. Collecting some samples, Brazel reported his find to the local sheriff, who in turn called the local Air Force base.

In the meantime, local radio station KGFL called Brazel and interviewed him about what he had found. The next day, Brazel was visited by military personnel, who sealed off the crash area and took Brazel into custody. The next day they took Brazel back to the radio station, where he explained that he had found a weather balloon. Released from military custody a week later, when he was asked about the incident, Brazel said only that he had taken an oath not to talk about it, and would not comment further thereafter.

Decades later a legend of gargantuan proportions grew up around Brazel's discovery: according to the tale, military personnel found a UFO crash site where Brazel had picked up his metal samples, complete with 4 small alien bodies (bearing large, pear-shaped heads and skinny arms and legs) which they took back to secret laboratories at the Roswell base for autopsy and analysis.

UFOlogists would later claim that the government covered up the incident, and that some important advances in modern technology (including fiber optic communications, much to the amusement of inventors Narinder Kapany and Charles Kao, I'm sure) were copied from the UFO debris found at Roswell. Roswell has turned into a mecca for UFO enthusiasts, and the town milks the phenomenon for all it is worth, while Fox and A&E television run "documentaries" about the mystery of Roswell -- even going so far as to show, in 1995, a faked alien autopsy film, verified as authentic-looking by now-embattled Pittsburgh coroner Cyril Wecht.

While the level-headed experts surmise that what Brazel found in Corona was the crash site of a giant, high-flying balloon used by the military to detect Soviet nuclear tests as part of the top-secret "Project Mogul," conspiracy theorists prefer to see Roswell as yet another malevolent government machination, to be grouped with the Kennedy assassinations, the faked death of Elvis, the black boxes of the Federal Reserve and the Council on Foreign Relations and the Order of the Skull and Bones, among other modern mysteries about which it is obvious that we (wink, wink) know the real truth.

Admittedly, it is quite appealing to the spirit to believe that we are not alone in the cold darkness of space. What is probably true about lightning rod-tales such as the one about Roswell is that kernels of fact here and there probably add up to innumerable mundane truths which we will never fully understand.

Brazel died on October 1, 1963 in Catron County, New Mexico.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Rights, and Wrongs, of Women

"Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice." -- Mary Wollstonecraft.

The eldest daughter of an unsuccessful farmer who didn't believe in the education of women, Mary Wollstonecraft (born on this day in 1759 in Hoxton, London) learned to love literature through the kindly intervention of a nearby childless couple.

At 19, she defied her parents to become the paid companion of a wealthy widow, but she proved to be too independent and critical-minded to settle easily into society. In 1781, she left her position to nurse her dying mother, then rushed to her sister Eliza's side upon the birth of Eliza's daughter in 1783, finding Eliza suffering from a breakdown due to her unhappy marriage. Wollstonecraft assisted Eliza in escaping from her husband's household, eventually taking her to Newington Green, London, to open a school for young women. Shortly after establishing it, Wollstonecraft left for Portugal to be with her best friend, Fanny Blood Skey, who was pregnant, and arrived just in time to see her friend die.

When she returned to Newington Green, the school had to be closed, but her friends at Newington Green recognized her talent, and urged to her to turn to writing. In 1797, while serving as a governess in Ireland, she wrote a pamphlet, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and followed that by a novel, Mary, a Fiction (1788), a satire on manners drawn from her experiences in Ireland. She returned from Ireland to London, joining a circle of independent thinkers which included Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Henry Fuseli and William Blake, and began contributing short pieces to The Analytical Review. In 1789, she edited an anthology for women's education, The Female Reader, which included excerpts from Shakespeare, the Bible and William Cowper.

Her next project grew out of contemporary politics. A friend of hers, Dr. Richard Price, delivered a sermon in November 1789 praising the first steps of the French Revolution as advances in human liberty; in response, Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolutions in France (1790), which asserted that liberation was the product of adherence to tradition, not of bloody revolution. Wollstonecraft responded to Burke with her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which was a source of controversy not only for its radical views, but that it represented the attempt of a woman to enter the male world of political debate.

Wollstonecraft was exhilarated by her notoriety, and with her mind turning upon a significant point which was left unsaid in her Rights of Men pamphlet, she wrote and published a follow-up, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791). Rights of Women became a landmark in the history of women's writing: in it, she analyzed the ways in which women have been held subservient to men throughout the centuries and made the startling point that women were not naturally submissive, but that femininity and submissiveness was taught to young women and rewarded.

Where she was a curiosity before the publication of Rights of Women, afterwards she was a genuine literary celebrity. Her very celebrity, however, undermined her effectiveness as a commentator; conservatives who wished to repudiate her views on women's education pointed with hushed whispers to her personal life. Before moving to Paris in 1792, she had attempted to engage Fuseli, who was married, in an "open marriage" arrangement with his wife (she was rebuffed and humiliated by the attempt); then entered a relationship with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer in Paris, and became pregnant. Her daughter Fanny was born in 1794, and shortly thereafter Imlay grew tired of Wollstonecraft and fled, leaving Wollstonecraft almost hysterical.

Despite the personal turmoil, she wrote An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794). She followed Imlay back to London, hoping to set up house with him, but he had moved onto other things, and Wollstonecraft fell to grief and attempted suicide. Feeling guilty, Imlay invited her to accompany him to Sweden on business; it was an unsatisfactory trip, and Wollstonecraft returned to London in 1795 and attempted to drown herself in the Thames River.

Shortly thereafter, she renewed her acquaintance with William Godwin, an admirer of her work, and they became lovers. Though they both reviled marriage as an oppressive institution, they surprised their friends by getting married in 1797, a few months after Wollstonecraft discovered she was pregnant by Godwin. During her pregnancy, she worked on another novel, The Wrongs of Women (unfinished but published posthumously by Godwin, 1798). Her daughter, Mary Godwin (who would later know fame as the novelist Mary Shelley) was born on August 30, 1797; but Wollstonecraft died a few days later from complications of childbirth.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, William Shakespeare

A minor but persistent strain of Shakespearean criticism refuses to believe that a man of Shakespeare's biographical shortcomings should be responsible for his works, proposing instead that such persons as Christopher Marlowe (admittedly a great playwright), Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford were the actual authors; these theories are wholly unimportant to the Shakespearean legacy, except as comic relief in the critical canon.

Who was Shakespeare? In his own words: "You know me well. I am he." (Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene I). Baptized on this day in 1564 at Stratford-on-Avon, he has been nearly unanimously canonized as the greatest writer in the English tongue for almost 400 years, except perhaps during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, when his friend Ben Jonson was more highly praised.

His father was a prominent if chronically unsuccessful leathermaker and local politico, and consistent with his family's modest status, Shakespeare received only a little formal schooling in English, Latin and Greek. At 18 he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, who was then pregnant with his first child, Susanna; less than two years later there followed the twins, Hamnet and Judith. It is perhaps hardly surprising that a young man with the restless intellect and creative energy evidenced by his writings should have found himself feeling stifled in this atmosphere; and some time in the late 1580s he left his wife and family behind and sought his fortune in London as an actor in the theater. He acted and wrote for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a London professional troupe, shared in the profits from the performance of his plays at the Globe and at Blackfriars Theatre, and through his practical business sense was able to retire comfortably to Stratford, where at his death on April 23, 1616 (at 52, after a night's drunken revel with Jonson and Michael Drayton) he left his wife his "2nd best bed."

His earliest published works were poems (Venus and Adonis, 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece, 1594), but his lasting fame comes from his works for the stage. Thirty-eight plays bear his name, written between 1590 and 1613: a series of historical plays dealing with the War of the Roses showing a wry and world-weary sense of the arc of fate, as well as occasional flashes of crowd-rousing patriotism, such as in the jingoistic Henry V; earthy yet morally chaste comedies, both light (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and dark (Measure for Measure); and brilliant tragedies, from the early Romeo and Juliet to the four masterpieces, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet.

According to Jonson he worked as a quick and careless scribbler (in much the same way that 21st century popular culture imagines Mozart to have worked), yet his superior powers of material observation, sure ear and a rough-and-ready capacity for walking right into the three-dimensional consciousness of real or imagined human beings (something like Art Clokey's Gumby), apparently gave Shakespeare the ability to draw compelling scenes from all walks of Elizabethan and Jacobean life, from the curb up. Nevertheless, his plays have a transcendent quality which has enabled succeeding generations to adopt Shakespeare as their own, in countless productions of his plays, in other literary adaptations, music, visual arts and in films.

He also had the effect of enriching and stabilizing the English language itself: he loved to invent new words and reinvent old ones, and the longevity of his work assured that many of his usages would become common parlance (including "puke," faint-hearted," "monumental," "lackluster," "assassin," "useless," etc.).

For a few hundred years, the publication of a new critical edition of Shakespeare's works, or some other critical interpretation, was an essential task to be undertaken by the best and the brightest of subsequent generations: John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, to name but a few, all took their turn at dressing and undressing the Bard's corpus. It has been observed that you have to be nuts to produce a Shakespeare play today, with all the critical baggage which has collected around his old literary bones; yet the rewards for wading through it remain rich.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Things I Learned This Weekend #1

• Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking made me laugh harder than most people sitting through it, though I think it is because I don't believe the movie was about lobbying or smoking. Rather, it is about what me and my neighbors and colleagues face every day in our own lives – the daily humiliation of compartmentalizing one's moral core "to pay the mortgage," and the paradoxical rush of adrenalin one gets from doing it so well.

• While watching the McLaughlin Report with my father-in-law, I learned that Starbucks spends more money on healthcare for its employees than on coffee for its customers. Now, if they could only figure out how to sell healthcare.

• While attending a private mass for friends and family at the Capuchin-Franciscan St. Conrad Friary, led by the son of one of our friends, I learned that five women who grew up with each other in Philadelphia in the 1940s can still sort of remember the hymns they sung when they were youngsters without having an organ to lead them.

• While watching Leonard Slatkin conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony, I learned that the old man -- jumping up and down and flailing and causing his own snow white comb-over to sway gently above his head like a wheatfield, especially during the "Mars" and "Jupiter" movements of Holst's The Planets -- can call to mind a B&W negative of a film clip of Cab Calloway cutting his swath through "Minnie the Moocher."

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"The Fitzgerald persona communicates as pure and humble, and most of her peers rate her as their favorite singer." -- Linda Dahl.

Die-hard pure jazz aficionados tend to place Billie Holiday on a higher plane than Ella Fitzgerald: while Billie’s singing was raw, intense and rhythmically sophisticated, Ella possessed qualities which are sometimes undervalued in the jazz world -- superb diction, a bell-like tone, and a jaunty, youthful, light touch. Pure jazz fans aside, Fitzgerald emerged by the end of the 20th century as one of the definitive jazz singers (or pop singers, if you prefer), charming and immediately accessible, and was surely the queen of be-bop, entrancing audiences by revitalizing the old form of "scatting" used so well by Louis Armstrong in the 1920s within the idiom of bop.

Born on this day in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia and orphaned at 15, Fitzgerald moved in with an aunt in New York City and cultivated dreams of some kind of stardom. Though shy and somewhat hulking and awkward, while still a teenager she entered a talent show hoping to dance her way to the prize, but she changed her mind at the last minute and tried singing. The episode was not a success, but she continue to pursue singing, and in 1934 she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem singing "Judy" in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell. Friends finally convinced drummer/bandleader Chick Webb to take her on as his protégé ("Listen to the voice, don’t look at her," was how he convinced his own manager of the project), becoming her legal guardian (she was living in an orphanage at the time) and her professional mentor, honing her craft and even taking charge of her wardrobe.

Within a short period of time, Fitzgerald became a hit at the Savoy Hotel and began recording with Webb on Decca, making such sides as "I’ll Chase the Blues Away" and "Sing Me a Swing Song and Let Me Dance," principally for the dance audience. In 1938 she recorded the swinging "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (on which she co-wrote the lyrics) which became a huge smash hit. Webb died in 1939, and Fitzgerald became the nominal bandleader until 1941, when she decided to go solo.

Although she could have rested on her laurels as a dance band vocalist with a string of commercial hits, with the advent of bop she stretched herself artistically, honing her improvisational skills on tour with Dizzy Gillespie, and by the 1950s she was an accomplished scat-singer ("her scatting was . . . a revelation" -- according to Dahl), with mesmerizing renditions of "Lady Be Good," "Flying Home" and "How High the Moon."

In 1955, she appeared in a Hollywood movie, Pete Kelly’s Blues (directed by and starring Jack Webb) and then signed on with Verve Records to begin recording her most memorable works, a series of "Songbook" albums featuring top-shelf popular songs by such songwriters as Cole Porter (1956), Duke Ellington (1956-57), Rodgers and Hart (1957), Irving Berlin (1958) and George and Ira Gershwin (1958-59). Other remarkable recordings during the 1950s and 1960s included her live, improvised rendition of "Mack the Knife" and the classic live album, Ella in Berlin (1960).

In the 1970s, she had eye surgery, which slowed her down, but with the initiation of Pablo Records in 1971, she turned it up again, recording splendid jazz albums with Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson and Count Basie. She also lent her voice and image to an oft-imitated TV commercial for Memorex audio tape, scatting to a high-note climax which shattered a wine glass before the off-screen announcer asked, "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" She died on June 15, 1996 in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 78, having all but retired during the 1980s due to eye and heart problems associated with diabetes.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Shakespeare and Buddhism

A few days ago, I listed the tenets of the "Eightfold Noble Path," as taught by Buddha. Today, on the day on which William Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally celebrated, I thought I would share with you an interesting coincidental illustration of the Eightfold Noble Path from Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Polonius provides instruction on living a good life. This excerpt is from the book Whacking Buddha: The Mysterious World of Shakespeare and Buddhism, by Mark Lamonica, with Patrick McCulley (by way of Tricycle, Winter 2005):

I couldn't make this up even if I wanted to; there are eight precepts in Polonius's speech, interchangeable (depending on how you interpret them) with the Buddha's Eightfold Path:
Polonius: There; my blessing with thee! And these few precepts in thy memory see thou character.
1. Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion'd thought his act. (right thought)
2. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. (right mindfulness)
3. Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel, / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. (right livelihood)
4. Beware / of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, / Bear't the opposed may beware of thee. (right action)
5. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. (right speech)
6. Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment. (right concentration)
7. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, / But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy; / For the apparel oft proclaims the man, / And they in France of the best rank and station / Are of a most select and generous chief in that. (right effort)
8. Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. / This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man. (right understanding)

Just another example of how we cannot help ourselves when it comes to Shakespeare – as a culture, we cannot rest until we see everything in his works. Next we'll be using them to predict oil prices.

The disarming thing about this habit of culture, however, is that Shakespeare is so damned obliging.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Roy Orbison

Elvis Presley said he was his favorite singer; Bruce Springsteen said he wished he could have had a voice like his. Roy Orbison was an original -- a romantic rockaballadeer with a quavering, operatic, ranchero tenor voice.

Orbison was born on this day in 1936 in Vernon, Texas. He grew up as an awkward kid with thick glasses (later replaced by his trademark dark shades), immersing himself in his music and learning the social lessons which he would use to create the pop icon persona of the heartbroken outsider. After touring around west Texas and singing on radio shows, he cut a straight rockabilly single, "Ooby Dooby" for Sam Phillips at Sun Records which became a minor hit in 1956.

He was capable as a rockabilly cat, but he wasn't really finding his stride, and it was easy to get lost in a Sun Studio stable inhabited by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, so he left Sun to devote himself to songwriting (scoring one early hit with "Claudette," recorded by the Everly Brothers). Signing with Monument, he finally found his groove, launching his real career with "Only the Lonely" (1960, a #2 hit), a monologue of romantic despair with a note of stoic hope which matched perfectly with his poignant, tremulous sighs and whispers. Other hits in this vein would follow ("Running Scared," 1961, #1; "Crying," 1961, #2; "In Dreams," 1963, #7), as well as a few in a rougher, more sensual and swaggering vein ("Dream Baby," 1962; "Candy Man," 1961; and his biggest hit, "Oh, Pretty Woman," 1964, #1).

In 1963, he headlined a European tour with the Beatles, and when they came to the U.S., they asked him to manage their first U.S. tour, but his schedule forced him to turn down the potentially lucrative adventure. Ironically, the British invasion of U.S. rock and roll turned down the heat on Orbison's career, and in the late 60s he suffered personal setbacks (losing his wife in a motorcycle accident, losing his home in a fire).

The huge comeback came, however, when "In Dreams" was featured in a particularly bizarre moment of David Lynch's bizarre Blue Velvet (1986). Shortly afterward, he signed on for a lark with old friends and new collaborators George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and ELO-refugee Jeff Lynne on the Traveling Wilburys recording project, which produced a few easy-going pop hits and renewed exposure for Orbison. He was enjoying tributes as an elder statesman of rock and the expected release of a new album, Mystery Girl (1989), when he died of a heart attack at age 52 on December 6, 1988 in Madison, Tennessee.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Hoxton Creeper

"Facing the people you know, seeing the shock and pity and horror in their eyes -- that's tougher than anything that ever happened at the front. To any casualty, the hardest part of war is coming home." -- Rondo Hatton.

The hideously ugly Rondo Hatton is known principally for his indifferent but atmospheric portrayals of "The Hoxton Creeper," a back-breaking behemoth, in The Pearl of Death (1944, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; based on Arthur Conan Doyle's story "The Six Napoleons") and in two B-movie star turns, House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946; with Jane Adams).

He was not always ugly. Born on this day (some sources say April 29) in 1894 in Hagerstown, Maryland, Rondo came by his ugliness from the progressive effects of acromegaly, a rare endocrine disease caused by excess secretion of pituitary growth hormones. As a youth, Hatton was handsome and talented: twice voted best-looking boy in his home town of Hillsborough, Florida, Hatton went on to the University of Florida and allegedly, according to a 1946 profile in Pageant magazine, became captain of the football team and a member of the All-Star Southern Eleven. (I've never been able to confirm the part about the Southern Eleven.)

He left Florida for World War I service, where he was felled by nerve gas on the Western front -- dubiously claimed to be the cause of his acromegaly. As acromegaly began to take hold in him and his facial features grew into a Neanderthal bluntness, Hatton tried to become a football coach, but the physical strain was too much for him, and he spent the better part of 10 out of the next 28 years in hospitals, fighting migraine-like pain and bouts of blindness. In between treatments, he got a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Tampa, and married a beautiful dressmaker named May.

In 1929, his editor sent him to cover Hollywood director Henry King on location in Tampa; upon meeting Hatton, King cast him as a "Barbary Coast" extra in Hell's Harbor. Afterward, King tried to persuade Hatton to move to Hollywood for a career in pictures, but Hatton declined. Nine years later, however, Hatton wrote to King to take him up on the invitation, thinking that a move to the dry climate of Southern California might improve his health.

In his first three years in Hollywood, Hatton appeared in 23 films, but made his living as a reporter for the Inglewood Daily News. After appearing in The Pearl of Death, however, Hatton became a minor star, bringing in an avalanche of fan mail. Universal Studios moved quickly and signed Hatton to a 7-year contract; but after only two mediocre films, Hatton died of a heart attack on February 2, 1946 in Beverly Hills.

Although he lacked the skill of a Karloff or Lon Chaney, Sr. to breathe life into his monsters, Hatton has managed to leave his mark as an arresting figure in the history of horror movies. His name remains synonymous with male ugliness to this day within pop culture circles -- the way poor, hirsute Julia Pastrana has begun to emerge as a symbol of female ugliness within women's literature. Frank Zappa, for one, paid homage to him during the 1970s by occasionally introducing himself in concert as "Rondo Hatton."

Some writers have faulted Universal for exploiting Hatton's medical condition; a 1980 letter to the editor of the Revolutionary Worker even made Hatton's case into a sarcastic retort to the American defense build-up ("The fact that Hatton gained his marketable skill through the armed forces also reveals a hitherto little considered benefit of combat duty"). However the country or the film industry are judged in the Hatton Affair, it appears that he struggled through his last painful years bravely.

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David Hume had left the upper floors of Western philosophy in a most untidy state with the publication of An Inquiry into Human Understanding in 1740: standing ruthlessly on the principle that all knowledge is based on experience, Hume argued that the concept of Causation, among other bedrock concepts, was an unsupportable belief, since it could never really be experienced. While this (almost nihilist) declaration might have been akin to a market crash leading a number of weakly diversified philosopher-investors to jump out of the tower windows, Immanuel Kant would not be so easily disheartened. He would simply pick up a broom and start sweeping.

The son of a genial leather cutter and his uneducated but practical and intelligent wife, born on this day in 1724 in Konigsberg, East Prussia, Kant grew up in relative poverty. At 18, he began studying theology at the University of Konigsberg, but soon his mind wandered to Newton, mathematics and the sciences. When his father died in 1746, Kant and his 5 sisters were penniless, and Kant was forced to leave the University without a degree and to eke out a living as a tutor to the children of the country-gentry. Although the pay was meager, the little man was dressed well by his patrons and encouraged to mingle, all of which drew him out of his cold, hard shell long enough for him to practice at dry wit and a diffident social grace.

At 31, he left the comfort of his patronage and returned to the University to finish his degree, taking up as a junior lecturer in the sciences at large for 15 years -- often drawing a crowd from outside the University who came to enjoy his shrewd and vivid use of language (characteristics which were regrettably not present in his notoriously turgid written works). During this period he immersed himself in the works of Newton, Leibniz, Hume and especially Rousseau, and cheerfully simmered in them while developing his eccentric daily routine which he would maintain for the rest of his life -- dining, writing, walking, and so on, all at an unvaried, precise time of day, come sun or storm. He grew impatient with Leibniz, and began to be convinced by Hume's destruction of metaphysics, until one day, in a flash, he believed he knew how he could restore order to the post-Hume world.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant agreed with Hume that innate ideas were a myth, but countered that experience could not be accessed without knowledge; Space, Time, Quality, Quantity, Relation and Causality might be subjective concepts, but without them experience would not be sensible. Kant promoted these "categories" as articles of "pure" or "a priori reason," things that could be known prior to experience. Kant also distinguished between "analytic" judgments (assertions which by their meaning alone are logically absurd if denied, e.g., "all wives are married") and "synthetic" judgments, often cast as laws of nature (such as Newton's third law of physics, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction") which we cannot know through experience alone -- they can be denied without logical absurdity, but their truth and necessity are evident without exhaustive observation of "every action."

Hume had argued that all judgments are either "analytic a priori" or "synthetic" and based on experience ("a posteriori"), but Kant holds, in support of the metaphysically knowable, that concepts in geometry and mathematics, for example, are synthetic judgments that are known prior to experience ("synthetic a priori") -- in effect, that geometry represents a set of not exhaustively experience-able rules about Space, and mathematics represents a set of not exhaustively experience-able rules about Time or Quantity.

Underlying all of that was Kant's highly influential rendering of human psychology, showing the distinction between perceiving (sensing and apprehending particulars) and thinking (understanding and applying concepts to particulars), and the view that because of the conceptual overlays which are necessary in order for humans to understand the things they experience, that we can never know the real world (the "thing-in-itself"), only the thing as perceived and processed.

In 1786, Kant found himself the target of a witch hunt in the court of Frederick William II for denying proofs of the existence of God in Pure Reason, leading him to promise to the king that he would refrain from writing about religion. The king died in 1787, however, and Kant broke his silence in Critique of Practical Reason (1788), in which he studies the metaphysical grounds for morality, in effect to bring God back into the equation. There he stated his famous "categorical imperative": "Act only in accord with a principle which you would at the same time will to be a universal law."

In 1790, he published Critique of Judgment, which dealt with aesthetics and attempted to articulate an a priori principle that makes judgments about beauty possible. He never finished his final project, a patently unreadable fragment he intended to call Transition from the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science to Physics, succumbing following a stroke at age 78 on February 12, 1804.

Kant's resurrection of metaphysics from the clutches of Hume's deadening skepticism launched the next wave of German Idealist philosophy, which culminated in the work of Hegel; his categorical imperative is a concept which lingers through the work of Rawls and Habermas; and his approach to perception and thought contributed to the development of Gestalt psychology and laid the groundwork for major movements in experimental psychology.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Heloise and Abelard

The forbidden love affair of Heloise and famed theologian Peter Abelard has inspired writers for centuries: Jean de Meun, Francois Villon and Alexander Pope, among others, kept the legend alive for future generations, as did the novelist George Moore with his popular novel Heloise and Abelard (1921); and meanwhile, the jilted, the lovesick and the romantic at heart have been making pilgrimage to the tomb of Heloise and Abelard at Pere Lachaise in Paris for years. As Mark Twain cynically observed, "Go when you will, you will find someone snuffling over that tomb."

Born to noble parents in Brittany in 1079, the handsome, proud young Peter Abelard steadily won fame as a teacher throughout France as he roamed in academic circles like some kind of a scholastic gunslinger, knocking off the local champion with his superior logical and rhetorical skills. Stimulated by controversy and bored by lectures, Abelard helped to foster the rebirth of the Socratic dialogue as a teaching method in medieval France, shedding light on complex issues by assaulting his students with probing questions.

He was at the top of his game as head of the Cloister School in Paris when, in his 40s, he met the 18-year old Heloise, a niece of one of the local canons, and herself a renowned scholar -- not leastly for the fact that a woman who could read and write was a complete anomaly at the time. He consented to become her teacher, but soon found himself seducing her. She fell in love with him completely, and soon the two scholars were living recklessly and making love without inhibitions. Abelard abandoned his other pupils and allowed his love songs to Heloise to be sung in public. Angered by the gossip, Heloise's uncle Fulbert tried to separate them, but they took even greater chances to be together, and soon Heloise found she was pregnant with Abelard's child. Abelard whisked her off to Brittany to stay with his family, where she gave birth to their son, whom she named Astralabe; Abelard's sister took the child at their request and raised it as her own.

Abelard returned to Paris. With an outward veneer of invincibility, he had always aspired to the chastity of St. Jerome -- an element of character that he believed to be essential to his own fame as a scholar. Nevertheless, Abelard made an offer to Fulbert to marry Heloise to quell his anger, as long as the marriage could be kept a secret -- thus preserving at least publicly his reputation as a peer of Jerome. Fulbert accepted Abelard's offer, but Heloise protested to Abelard, realizing the futility of the gesture. Abelard prevailed: the two passed a night of secret vigil in a Paris church and at daybreak received the nuptial blessing, witnessed by Fulbert and a few friends.

If Abelard thought he could save his reputation in this way, he misjudged Fulbert, who spread the news of the marriage in order to save his own face. Abelard and Heloise denied the marriage, and as if to prove that it never happened, Abelard sent Heloise to live at Argenteuil to her old convent school, where she masked her connection with Abelard by entering religious life as a nun. Now Fulbert thought himself to be deceived by Abelard, that Abelard went through the charade of a sham marriage just to be rid of Heloise. In his anger, Fulbert and several allies crept into Abelard's Paris quarters one night and violently castrated him.

Abelard's guilt over giving in to his fleshly desires and over ruining Heloise's life, was unbearable, shattering all aspirations he had to be a great philosopher. In his shame, he became a monk at the Abbey of St. Denis near Paris in 1119, where he earned a reputation as an exacting theologian, criticizing the other monks for their disingenuous lifestyles. Making no friends at St. Denis and finding his major work of theology, Theologia, condemned and burned at the Council of Soissons in 1121, Abelard briefly and unsuccessfully served as abbot at the remote monastery of St. Gildas, and finally went off to live on some land donated to him by a sympathetic friend called the Paraclete, where he established a modest religious community. He donated to community to Heloise in 1129 for the foundation of a convent, of which she became the prioress.

While outwardly, Heloise was a model nun, widely admired for her commitment to prayer, inside she was in agony, still deeply in love with Abelard. In a series of letters to Abelard written during the 1130s, she curses God and yearns for their reunion. In one letter, Heloise writes: "I am still young and full of life; I love you more than ever and suffer bitterly from living a life for which I have no vocation . . . I who should tremble at what I have done, sigh after what I have lost." In his half of the correspondence, Abelard also shows himself to be devoted to Heloise, but does his best to seek her forgiveness and attempt to convince her to accept God as her master in place of him.

Meanwhile, in 1135, Abelard moved to Mont-Sainte-Genevieve outside Paris and again became a celebrated teacher and philosopher. During this period, he wrote furiously: he completed a second edition of his controversial Theologia; composed his Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian; and in his Ethica, he espoused the revolutionary idea that human actions do not make a person better or worse in the sight of God, but rather that it is the intentions behind the actions, the consent of the mind, that makes a sin. He attracted many pupils, including John of Salisbury and future Popes Celestine II and Celestine III, but he also attracted the hostility of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who criticized Abelard's exercises in logic as revisions of basic Christian dogma. Leading the Council at Sens in 1140, Bernard condemned Abelard and his work, a decision upheld by Pope Innocent II.

Devastated, Abelard withdrew to Cluny, where the abbot Peter the Venerable succeeded in mediating his conflict with St. Bernard. Sick and old but finally at peace, Abelard died at Cluny(on this day in 1142) as a most modest and unassuming monk. His body was transported to the Paraclete, and when Heloise died 21 years later her last wish to be buried with him was honored, first at the Paraclete and eventually at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

It is not known whether Heloise ever found peace with the God whom she had cursed; however, she may have felt some comfort at the words of Peter the Venerable: "Venerable Sister, he to whom you were joined first in the flesh and then by the stronger and more perfect bond of divine charity, he with whom and under whom you too have served the Saviour, is now sheltered in the bosom of Christ. Christ now protects him in your place, indeed as a second you, and will restore him to you on the day when He returns from the heavens between the voice of the archangel and the sounding trumpet." Or perhaps not.

Abelard's passion for classical antiquity, and the anguished, personal analyses he revealed in his writing have led some critics to identify Abelard as an intensely bright precursor of the Renaissance -- two centuries before it came to pass. However, it has been the status of these lovers as characters in a legend of reckless and forbidden love, the kind of love that makes you want to rip your own head off -- if you will, a kind of medieval 'Sid-and-Nancy' tale, inside-outsky, where instead of heroin and the punk sub-culture, the drug of choice was pride and their milieu the impossible purity of the Academy -- that keeps Abelard and Heloise alive for us today.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Harold Lloyd - Silent Comedy's Adventure Capitalist

Harold Lloyd's silent comedies -- once among the most popular of the era -- were rarely seen for a number of years due to squabbles over ownership, but one image of Lloyd has remained indelible in pop consciousness: the picture of a man in a dark business suit and round horn-rimmed glasses, hanging for dear life from the hour-hand of a clock high atop a tall building in some downtown American metropolis.

Thrilling and funny within its context (the 1923 feature Safety Last), it is also portentous, and a little bit haunting -- and not just incidentally. More than any other major comedian of the era, Lloyd sought identification as a budding American capitalist, usually a smart, hard-working yet kind-hearted junior clerk who has his sights set on the top of the corporate ladder. For the capitalist, the image is a chilling metaphor: money is time, time is money, timing is everything, and even those who have climbed to the top (in this case, literally) are only holding on for dear life by the most slender of handles. The identification behind Lloyd's on-screen character (so close in so many ways to his own personality), for all its jaunty optimism as well as for its underlying recognition of how fragile the world of the capitalist can be, was perhaps the secret of Lloyd's popularity.

Young Harold, who was born on this day in 1893 in Burchard, Nebraska, grew up as a resourceful lad in a habitually relocating Midwestern family -- delivering telegraph messages or newspapers, soda-jerking, selling popcorn, anything to supplement the meager family income. In 1907, the family settled in San Diego, just as the film industry was beginning to move into California. Lloyd caught the show business bug working as an usher in theaters and in small parts in the local rep companies before landing his first screen bit, as a Yaqui Indian in an Edison film in 1912.

In Los Angeles, he eventually caught on as a regular extra at Universal, where he met another young extra named Hal Roach. In 1914, Roach inherited some money and decided to start his own film studio, inviting Lloyd along to play a comic character in a handful of short films which were ultimately never released. One of Roach's shorts did manage to catch the attention of Pathe for distribution, and after a brief falling out between Roach and Lloyd over wages, Lloyd signed on to create a Chaplin knock-off character, "Lonesome Luke," a tramp in tight clothes as opposed to Chaplin's baggy ones. While neither Roach nor Lloyd really cared much for the character, it was very popular, and together with Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard, Lloyd made over 100 "Lonesome Luke" shorts during 1916-7.

Half-way through "Luke's" run, however, Lloyd and Roach convinced Pathe to accept a new character Lloyd was working on, an average-looking all-American young man in regular clothes and horn-rimmed glasses; and by 1918, Lloyd's "glasses" character became one of Hollywood's most popular comic characters. Not only was he a bright, diligent gent, but he would often find himself in some spectacularly precarious physical predicaments -- tottering around the high girders of a skyscraper under construction, edging along lofty ledges or hanging from the connection rod of an out-of-control streetcar -- earning him the nickname "king of daredevil comedy." He performed these stunts despite the loss of his right thumb and forefinger when a prop bomb went off in his hand during the filming of Haunted Spooks (1920); if you look closely, he always wore thick gloves in his movies which concealed prosthetics, and his right hand was almost always in his pocket for posed photographs.

During the 1920s, Lloyd jumped from shorts to feature films, including: Dr. Jack (1922) and Safety Last (both of which featured his soon-to-be-wife, Mildred Davis); Why Worry? (1923, in which our Harold becomes involved in a revolution in a small Latin American country, yet another mythically pregnant setting for Lloyd as adventure capitalist); Girl Shy (1924); Hot Water (1924); The Kid Brother (1927); and Speedy (1928).

Having left Roach in 1923, he produced his own films, and charted his own destiny into a few sound comedies, but age was catching up with his young-man-in-a-hurry image and his voice did not seem to match well, either. Lloyd shrewdly took his profits and closed the doors on his storefront after only a few talkies, retiring to his 44-room Italian Renaissance-style villa in Beverly Hills.

Preston Sturges coaxed him out of retirement in 1947 for a Howard Hughes production, Mad Wednesday, which begins with a cynical joke on Harold's old image: we see the young capitalist busy at his desk, followed by a calendar montage which brings Harold from 1925 to 1945, still sitting at the same desk, without discernible change in station. The film was a flop -- perhaps because audiences would rather have imagined young Harold the capitalist as the eventual retiree in a 44-room villa than as a drudge at a desk -- and Lloyd went back into retirement, emerging occasionally to revive his films, as he did at Cannes in 1962 to a standing ovation. Lloyd passed away in Beverly Hills on March 8, 1971.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Lawnchair Larry

"[If] the FAA was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk." -- Larry Walters.

Larry Walters was born on this day in 1949.

A 33-year old Vietnam veteran and truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, Walters set an unofficial altitude record for a flight with gas-filled clustered balloons when, on July 2, 1982, he filled 45 weather balloons with helium, tethered them to an aluminum lawn chair, and took off in his craft, dubbed the Inspiration I, from the roof of his girlfriend's home in San Pedro, California. As friends, neighbors and reporters looked on, Walters sailed into the sky across Los Angeles Harbor toward Long Beach carrying a bottle of soda, water bottles for ballast, a pellet gun, a portable CB radio, an altimeter and a camera.

The balloons took Walters up faster than he had expected, and he soon found himself drifting 16,000 feet above Long Beach. Delta and TWA airline pilots flying over nearby Long Beach Municipal Airport alerted air traffic controllers that a man in a lawnchair was floating across the flight path, while Walters, cold and dizzy from the high altitude, began shooting at some of his own balloons in an attempt to bring himself down. Aiming toward the Long Beach Country Club, Walters missed his mark, landing in some high voltage wires about ten miles from his launch site; while the landing knocked out power in a Long Beach neighborhood, the plastic tethers insulated him from electrocution, and he returned to the ground without injury.

The Federal Aviation Administration fined Walters $4,000 for violating regulations relating to airworthiness, creating a danger to other air traffic and failing to maintain two-way communication with air traffic controllers, but the fine was eventually reduced to $1,500. Walters became an instant minor celebrity, appearing on Late Night with David Letterman and in ads for Timex watches. He never made it back into the air, though, and like many other daredevils was unable to capitalize much on his feat.

He later worked as a security guard and was a some-time Forestry Service volunteer when he committed suicide in 1993 in Angeles National Forest, California.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Wahoo Sam

"So you're doing a book about baseball in the old days. Why does a young fellow like you want to spend his time on something like that? Do you remember what Robert Ingersoll used to say? 'Let the dead past bury its dead.' That's what he used to say. Robert Ingersoll, remember him? A great man. I always admired him. He was a very famous lecturer in the late 1800s. Very famous and very controversial. He was supposed to be an atheist, but he wasn't really. More a skeptic, more an agnostic, than an atheist. You should read his Lectures some time. Very interesting. Now he's forgotten. Hardly anybody remembers his name any more. That probably proves something, but I'm not sure what.
"Anyway, those days are all back in the past. We're going to spend the rest of our lives in the future, not the past: 'Let the dead past bury its dead.' On the other hand, Santayana said: 'Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.' So maybe there are two sides to this matter. But I don't think we'll ever repeat the old days in baseball. They'll never come back. Everything has changed too much."

-- Sam Crawford, to Lawrence S. Ritter, in The Glory of Their Times.

Baseball star Wahoo Sam Crawford was born on this day in 1880 in (where else?) Wahoo, Nebraska. Though considered to be somewhat prickly and a prima donna by some of his contemporaries, rightfielder Sam Crawford was at least more popular with Detroit fans than his teammate in centerfield, the paranoiac, violent Ty Cobb. Crawford's popularity and established stardom at the time of Cobb's arrival in Detroit caused a career-long personal rift between the two men. Nevertheless, the usually unforgiving Cobb campaigned strenuously for Crawford's election to the Hall of Fame, such was his admiration for Crawford's abilities.

Crawford was, and still is, the greatest triples hitter in history, holding the lifetime record with 312 -- 15 more than Ty Cobb -- and finished his major league career in 1917 just 36 hits hits shy of 3,000. As Ritter would note, "Most baseball writers of that period agree that Sam Crawford was the outstanding power hitter of the dead ball era."

Sam Crawford died on June 15, 1968 in Hollywood, California.


Monday, April 17, 2006

S'Alright, Señor

Ventriloquist Señor Wences was born Wencesleo Moreno on this day in 1896 near Salamanca, Spain.

Best known for his almost 30 appearances on TV's Ed Sullivan Show during the 1950s and 60s, Señor Wences was making American audiences laugh on the vaudeville stage since 1934, bickering with "Johnny," a "puppet" with a high-pitched Spanish accent who came to life when Wences put lipstick on his own thumb and forefinger and drew eyes on the top of his hand. "Deefeecult for you, easy for me," Johnny would boast as the two would try to get through a song. Sometimes Wences would give Johnny (i.e. his own hand) a drag on a cigarette, and Johnny would emit perfect smoke rings. Alternatively, Wences might parry with another imaginary friend, Pedro (a head in a box) of whom he would inquire, "S'okay?"; "s'alright" would be the standard reply.

Wences did not do jokes or riddles like Edgar Bergen, but instead moved quickly from character to character, smoking and drinking and juggling as his puppets traded meandering, unmappable patter with him, made all the more ludicrous by Wences' deadpan, aristocratic bearing. The simplicity of the act concealed Wences' discipline and judgment as an entertainer: when Sullivan tried to make an innocent suggestion about Wences' act, Wences refused to appear on Sullivan's show for 3 years. "What will Wences do without Sullivan?" a columnist asked Wences' wife Natalie. "What will Sullivan do without Wences?!" she replied.

After Sullivan went off the air, Wences moved to Paris and headlined at the Crazy Horse Saloon, and at the age of 90 he went on the road with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in Sugar Babies. He retired to an apartment in Manhattan, living to the age of 103.

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Phair and Unphair

Once describing herself as "an upper-middle-class cute girl with smart parents singing dirty words," Liz Phair, born on this day in 1967 in New Haven Connecticut, was adopted as an infant and indeed raised by well-to-do parents in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. After graduating from Oberlin with an art degree, she became involved with indie-rock, and over the course of a few years had compiled an amorphous set of basement demo tapes, known as Girly Sound, which inspired independent record label Matador to sign her.

Her first album, Exile in Guyville (1993), was as influential as any album of the 1990s: somewhat ludicrously described by Phair as a song-for-song reply to Jagger and Richards' sexist strutting and posturing on Exile on Main Street (1972), the unexpected critical applause and MTV support for Phair's stripped-down, low budget sound (featuring ferociously awkward, fuzzy guitar lines, one-dimensional head-banging percussion and Phair's living-dead vocals), combined with surprisingly frank, wise-cracking yet at times self-loathing and confessional lyrics about sex, male egos and latent misogyny in American culture, sent mainstream labels into a panic to sign as many rough women angst-poets as they could. While songs like "F--- and Run" and "B----- Queen" could not be played on the radio, Phair became an icon in women's alternative rock circles, "summon(ing) into existence not only . . . Alanis Morissette but Jewel" by starting an "action girl" revolution which was quickly co-opted by the major labels to return "to a reassuring format certain not to frighten the horses" (J. Clover, Spin).

Her next albums, Whip-Smart (1994) and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), were considered disappointments when compared to the impact of Exile, but did show Phair's maturing musical and vocal ability and an untarnished ability to write perceptive, acerbic lyrics.

In 2003, Phair did a switcheroo on her old fan base, releasing an unabashedly poppy eponymous album. Her lyrics were still edgy on such songs as "H.W.C.," but much of the album was filled with high-gloss Britney-esque pop productions such as "Why Can't I" and "Rock Me" (actually produced by Avril Lavigne's team) -- leaving die-hards to theorize that there was probably a joke in there somewhere. The old controversies about her weak singing were only rekindled when she performed "Why Can't I" live from Bryant Park on TV's Good Morning America (a venue which would have been out of the question in the old days) -- sounding all-too tentative while going acoustic out of necessity on the morning after the nation's worst-ever blackout. Her 2005 follow-up, Somebody's Miracle, left the faithful all the more perplexed -- though it should be emphasized that one doesn't need "indie cred" to be interesting. That's a bit of hubris that is ripe enough to be the target of Liz Phair's wit, on a good day.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Tramp

"The Tramp is as centrally representative of humanity, as many-sided and mysterious, as [Shakespeare's] Hamlet, and it seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety or poignancy of motion." -- James Agee.

The man who once had the most recognizable face on Earth and gave joy to millions of moviegoers began life much like a waif in a Dickens novel: born on this day in 1889 in London to a pair of unstable music hall performers, Charlie Chaplin spent most of his childhood in public charity houses and on the streets. Brought to London by stage actor William Gillette with his tour of Sherlock Holmes in 1905, Chaplin eventually joined Fred Karno's vaudeville troupe and soon became its star attraction, known around England and America for his "comic drunk" sketches. On his second tour of America, Mack Sennett offered Chaplin a film contract, and Chaplin accepted.

Initially puzzled by film continuity, for one film he continued in the Sennett tradition of knockabout comedy with very little pause for character development. Beginning with his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), however, Chaplin wore a small moustache, bowler hat, baggy pants borrowed from Fatty Arbuckle and floppy shoes, twirled his walking stick and began to create a new comic character, the "Tramp."

In shorts made for Keystone (some co-starring Mabel Normand) and later Essanay, Chaplin framed his scenes to enhance the audience's connection with his "Tramp" and slowed the action slightly to permit flashes of social and psychological observation amidst the chases and cartoon brutality. The Tramp also had the ability, it seemed, to animate the inanimate, waging a protracted and very personal battle against a saloon door or carrying a running conversation with a statue of a female nude. With his graceful manner belying his tattered clothes, and his compassion for the meek, he was an outsider in the world of silent comedy -- but Chaplin also set up his character as a social outsider within the stories in his films. In shorts such as The Tramp (1915), he typically enters bourgeois society by providing assistance to a soul in distress (often Edna Purviance), beats off the villains, dreams for a moment of settling down with Edna, but is always reminded of his poverty and, blithely, moves on to his next adventure.

Chaplin's popularity, matched for a time only by that of Mary Pickford, reached heights not previously known in the history of cinema: audiences around around the world awaited his next film with anticipation, and nickelodeons had only to put up his picture with a sign saying "I'm here today!" to attract long lines.

He moved from Essanay to Mutual, bringing along his own little company of players and technicians (Purviance, the leviathan Eric Campbell, cameraman Rollie Totheroh), and made a dozen brilliant two-reel comedies (including The Immigrant, The Rink and Easy Street) which are warm and hilariously funny pieces of cinema.

In 1918, he signed a $1 million contract with First National, during which he gradually transitioned from short films to features, culminating in his most ambitious film to date, The Kid (1921, with little Jackie Coogan), combining Victorian melodrama with beautifully choreographed sight gags.

Chaplin joined other members of "Hollywood royalty," Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, in establishing United Artists (UA) in 1919, and preserved for himself complete control over his work for the rest of his life. (He even went so far as to compose his own film music -- including two hit songs, "Smile" for Modern Times, and "Eternally" for Limelight.) For UA he made his last 4 silent films -- The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1927), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1935, with some sound sequences, made 7 years after talking pictures had arrived) -- each of them classics containing elements of his earliest work (the Tramp's pluck and essential alienation), developed on a grander scale, resulting in some of the most memorable moments in cinema: the Tramp eating his own shoe in The Gold Rush, the famous ending shot of Chaplin in City Lights during which the flower girl who has regained her sight suddenly recognizes him, and the ending scene of Modern Times, in which the Tramp finally goes off into the sunset with the girl (his third wife Paulette Goddard).

Agonizing over how to permit his Tramp to join the world of talking cinema, Chaplin seized upon the Tramp's superficial resemblance to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, and made The Great Dictator (1940), playing upon the prevailing American opinion of Hitler, prior to his exposure as a genocidist, as an anti-Semitic clown.

During the 1940s, Chaplin became the target of J. Edgar Hoover and other anti-Communists who were suspicious of his leftist leanings and his apparent support of the Russian second front during World War II. A sexual adventurer, Chaplin was an easy target, and the FBI helped to trump up a paternity case against him through the cooperation of a former lover of his, an unstable aspiring actress named Joan Barry, in 1943. Genetic evidence, excluded from the trial, proved that Chaplin was not the father of her child, but a jury tagged him for support. Meanwhile, at age 54 Chaplin married Oona O'Neill, the 18 year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill. After being refused admission to the U.S. on the grounds of his "unsavory reputation" following a European trip in 1952 (again the work of Hoover, whose file on Chaplin was 1,900 pages long), Chaplin and Oona settled in Switzerland.

He continued to make films sporadically until 1967 (working with such talents as Claire Bloom, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren). In 1972, he made a triumphal return to the U.S. to receive a special Oscar (despite Hoover's lobbying against giving him an entry visa), and in 1975 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He passed away on Christmas Day, 1977 in Vevey, Switzerland.

Richard Attenborough made a not half-bad biopic of Chaplin's life, Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr., in 1992.


Coxey and His Army

Unemployment agitator Jacob Coxey was born on this day in 1854 in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

A scrap metal dealer and quarry owner, Jacob Coxey became a wealthy man selling crushed sandstone for use in the steel and glass industries. By the 1890s, Coxey was a gentleman-dilletante with an interest in thoroughbred race horses (which led to the dissolution of his first marriage; two years later he married his former maid), monetary theory, and ultimately, the Depression of 1893. He proposed two novel ideas for combating unemployment: (1) put the nation's unemployed to work building roads, and (2) pay for the roads and other job-creating construction projects by issuing non-interest-bearing bonds.

The fact that Coxey's silicate business might benefit from such a program should not be taken cynically. Coxey was an earnest crank who believed in grand plans and in doing good. His earnestness, in fact, caused him to fall prey to the influence of a fast-talking traveling medicine showman wearing a sombrero and a fur cape, one Carl Browne of California, who convinced Coxey that he was divinely fated to lead the meek to glory. Hearing about the marches of the unemployed in California, Coxey declared that he should "send a petition to Washington with boots on." Browne egged him on, getting the newly-styled "General Coxey" to spend a lot of money on a march of "Coxey's Army" to Washington.

They left Massillon on March 24, 1894, and the pageantry of the bizarre march, as the crew paraded through American cities and towns, was irresistible to the press. Coxey's march became the most extensively reported American event between the Civil and the Spanish-American Wars. On May 1, 1894, Coxey's scant hundred, joined perhaps by another 200, followed Coxey down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, with Coxey's wife Henrietta and infant child Legal Tender riding in a carriage and Coxey's 17-year old daughter Mamie dressed as the goddess of freedom, to the cheers of nearly 30,000 spectators.

Coxey had been granted a parade permit, but was warned not to take the throng to the steps of the Capitol; but as the parade turned aside, Coxey and Browne jumped over a low wall and attempted to address the crowd from the Capitol grounds. The grand march of Coxey's Army ended with a whimper: Coxey and Browne were jailed for 20 days for walking on the Capitol lawn. Shortly afterward, Coxey broke his ties with Browne when he discovered that Browne had been courting Mamie behind his back. Browne and Mamie eloped the following year.

Coxey returned to Massillon and became a perennially unsuccessful office-seeker, running as a Democrat, Republican, Populist or Farmer-Laborite as the prevailing winds suggested. Surprisingly, he won election as mayor of Massilon in 1931 as a Republican. The following year, he ran for the Republican nomination for president and eventually accepted the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Party, launching a quixotic campaign in which he was largely ignored (he garnered just 7,309 votes). After losing his mayoral re-election bid in 1934, he launched one last, forgettable run at the presidency in 1936.

At age 90, on May 1, 1944, Coxey returned to Washington and was granted permission by Speaker Sam Rayburn and Vice President Henry Wallace to mount the Capitol steps and finish the speech he had intended to give 50 years earlier. His audience, largely curious federal employees, heard nothing radical -- for by that time, Coxey's once new ideas had actually formed the basis of some of Roosevelt's New Deal. He died on March 18, 1951 in Massillon, Ohio.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Leonardo Da Vinci

In many of the "most important people of the millennium" lists which popped up at the end of 1999, Leonardo da Vinci placed in the top 10, yet some historians argued that he was not deserving of the honor: as a painter, he produced relatively little work which survives; and as a scientist, while his copious private notebook doodles and commentaries are revealing about the thought processes and unfinished projects of a peculiar Italian dilettante, they produced little in terms of direct, lasting influence.

What continues to attract us to Leonardo, perhaps, is his unrelenting eye, the curiosity which drove him to dissect and probe and theorize in the manner of our 20th century heroes of science and technology. Those notebooks, in which Leonardo wrote from right to left in his careful, angular handwriting so that they may only be read with the aid of a mirror, showed not just a freelancer with an interest in topics ranging from architecture and botany to physics, engineering, cartography, anatomy and military science, but an innovator -- someone who saw his mission as one of searching for tiny lightbeams of visible scientific truth out in the darkness and encouraging their brilliance through previously unimagined practical designs (much as his style of painting seems to present the light of human forms struggling out of the shadows). In that sense, historians notwithstanding, Leonardo's life stands as a sort of signpost for the twinkling millions of anonymous workshop geniuses without specialty, and the elevated admiration popularly held for Leonardo (similar to the feelings reserved for Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) is a method of doing them honor.

Born on this day in 1452 near Vinci, the illegitimate son of a notary, his lowly social status ensured that the clever child would not be whisked into a traditional profession, thereby allowing him the freedom to shape his own profession as nomad, thinker and craftsman. Seeing artistic talent in him, when he was 16 Leonardo's father apprenticed him to the workshop of Florentine painter/sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, with whom it is said Leonardo developed a close bond. Some have surmised that Verrocchio used the handsome young Leonardo as the model for his bronze statue of David. Leonardo quickly surpassed the skills of his teacher, particularly in rendering the musculature of the human body, the suggestion of motion and in his bold use of light and shadow (in contrast to the flat "stage" lighting of many of his contemporaries).

He enjoyed some unusual commissions while other more established artists began to leave Florence for the papal art boom in Rome, but abruptly left Florence himself in 1481 to seek his fortune as a military advisor and genius-at-large in the court of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. There he designed fortifications against potential invasions by the French, while filling his notebooks with designs for the most sadistic machines of human destruction one could imagine -- cold evidence of his detachment from other human beings (which he referred to as "sacks for food") despite his obvious admiration for the beauty of the human form. Yet he did not seem to be filled with hatred; rather, his calculating scientific eye seemed to blot out any access in him to love or hate, even as he could cultivate charm, grace and even humor when the company of society served his aims.

While in Milan, Leonardo painted one of his most famous works, The Last Supper (1495-98), on the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, recalling Castagno's earlier Last Supper in its composition (except that Judas now sits on the same side of the table as the other disciples) but surpassing it in Leonardo's intimate rendition of the emotional states of each disciple at the moment Christ predicts his betrayal, and in his use of an ideal (rather than purely realistic) perspective design in which there is no place one can stand to make the lines of the picture come right. As to the latter innovation, Leonardo employed a kind of super-realistic plane of experience with which to engage the viewer, in effect "cheating" on the perspective to emphasize the drama, with Christ at the mathematical center of the mural and Judas' diagonal planes jutting exaggeratedly away from Christ, identifying his separateness. Use of this kind of super-real perspective would become a hallmark of the High Renaissance in the work of his younger contemporaries, Michelangelo and Raphael.

In 1502, Leonardo went to work for Cesare Borgia designing more fortifications and hydrological plans, making maps and giving strategic advice, although Borgia's mercurial temper ultimately drove Leonardo away within a few months. Back in Florence the following year, Leonardo began his portrait of the 24-year old Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, wife of Florentine big shot Francesco del Gioncondo. Known as Mona Lisa, or La Gionconda, the portrait took Leonardo three years to complete, and ultimately he never gave it to Sr. Gioncondo, as it was in his own estate at the time of his death. Since then it has become the most famous of Leonardo's works, if not the most famous painting in history, a definitively reusable pop culture referent (see Nat King Cole's hit song, "Mona Lisa," 1950, among other manifestations) as well as the subject of years of intense analysis and comment by art critics, Renaissance historians and Sigmund Freud, among others. Thus, it is probably too easy to overstate its influence, yet it is clear that Leonardo's singular decision to paint the entire torso and head of Sra. Gioncondo in three-quarter view (as opposed to the close facial portrait typical of the time) became the standard in serious portraiture well into the 19th century.

Leonardo spent his last years as the beloved wise man of the French court of Francis I, ironically after spending so many years in the service of Italian nobles obsessed with French attacks. Vasari says that Leonardo stubbornly raised science over God even as he met his end on May 2, 1519 near Cloux, France, while other sources suggest he spent his last hours in pious observance, asking God to forgive him for squandering his time on science instead of his God-given talent for painting. It is perhaps more important to note that for Leonardo, art and science were intimately related, one toiling in the service of beauty and the other in the service of truth, both beginning and ending under the watch of the preeminent human eye.

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Friday, April 14, 2006


Around 563 B.C.E. in Kapilavastu (now Nepal), Suddhodhana Gautama, the reigning chieftain of the Shakya clan, had a wife who was with child, and a dilemma: his wife, Maya, dreamed that at the moment of the conception of her child, a white elephant entered her body. Unrestricted by P.T. Barnum's cynical conceptualization of white elephants centuries later, Suddhodhana's wise men interpreted Maya's dream as a prophecy that the child would either grow up to be a mighty king or a great spiritual leader.

Horrified that his progeny could grow up to live the inconsequential life of a mystic, Sudddhodhana did his best to train his son Siddhartha for kingship. He schooled Siddhartha in the arts and sciences, hosted banquets and floor shows for him, surrounded him with pretty young female attendants and robust courtier-buddies, and kept him isolated from poverty and suffering; in short, Suddhodhana did everything to encourage Siddhartha's desire for sensual pleasures and material luxury.

Prince Siddhartha married and had a son, but he was as intellectually restless as the domesticated Shakespeare would later prove to be at that age, and his desire to understand life beyond the four walls of the palace led Suddhodhana to arrange four guided tours outside the palace for him.

By legend, the 29-year old Siddhartha was profoundly moved by the first-time experience of seeing a man bent with age outside the first gate; by seeing a crippled man outside the second gate; by seeing a corpse outside the third gate; and by meeting a humble, peaceful monk outside the fourth gate, metaphorically representing the potential triumph of the soul over age, sickness and death.

His desire for inner peace led him to take one last look at his sleeping wife and child and to steal away from the palace in the dead of night, shaving his head and donning the clothes of a beggar -- a decision which no doubt embarrassed and exasperated Suddhodhana. Siddhartha spent six years living in systematic and extreme self-deprivation among Hindi yogis, but soon realized that the sense of macho pride which he had developed in his ability to withstand the harshness of his self-deprivations had blinded him from spiritual insight. Sitting cross-legged under a pipal tree in Buddh Gaya, India, Siddhartha decided to moderate his diet and meditate until he achieved enlightenment.

In one evening he explored his past incarnations (evidence of Siddhartha's Vedic world view) and broke through the facade of existence to see in all living things the endless cycle of suffering played out in death, life and rebirth. While the yogis faced this through abstinence from earthly pleasures to the point of starvation, the vast majority of people tried to ignore the inevitability of suffering by giving in to sensory experience and its illusory primacy, only to find themselves in misery when their desires went unfulfilled.

Siddhartha, now assuming the identity of the Buddha, sought to teach people a "Middle Way": leading moderate and ethical lives, supplemented by a level of earnest awareness of the impermanence of one's existence, one could end desire and ultimately, one could avoid rebirth into another life of suffering. Roaming the countryside of northern India with his follower Ananda for 45 years, he preached to anyone who would listen the tenets of his "Eightfold Noble Path":

(1) right ideas (recognition of the cycle of suffering and the impermanence of existence);
(2) right resolution (not allowing pain or suffering to restrict one's pursuit of the noble path);
(3) right speech (expressing wisdom, respect and kindness);
(4) right behavior (murder, adultery and abuse of alcohol are prohibited; honesty and self-control are encouraged);
(5) right vocation (employment should not involve harm to others, greed or deceit);
(6) right effort (tending to the goodwill of others in priority over one's own desires with sincerity and perseverance);
(7) right mindfulness (staying clear of dogmatism and considering things in relation to their underlying meanings and not merely their appearance); and
(8) right dhyana (absolute concentration on the path, to be retrieved when lost through meditation).

Around 483 B.C.E., at the age of 80, he declared he would live no more, telling Ananda, "Whatever is born bears within itself the seeds of destruction. Compound things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with earnestness." Lying on his side, facing west with his head to the north, he achieved the "final nirvana," a state of total extinction.

For many years after Buddha's death, his teachings were followed by only handfuls of people in northern India -- particularly among merchants and start-up entrepreneurs, who saw in Buddhism a way of breaking the stale class relations inherent in the Hindu caste system, and who were attracted by Buddha's action-centered, self-reliant approach. With the conversion of Indian emperor Asoka to Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C., the relatively obscure religion spread quickly throughout southern Asia, fragmenting into thousands of sects; dominant strains include Theravada Buddhism (which recognizes that Buddha was an extraordinary human being but not a god, and that following the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to achieve nirvana) and Mahayana Buddhism (which postulates a transcendent existence beyond the impermanence of the empirical world, and that Buddha himself forms a part of the transcendental realm).

Artistic images and interpretations of Buddha have persisted for 25 centuries, more than most heroes of history, and he has found a most receptive audience among Western artists and thinkers in the 20th century -- perhaps because in the midst of a culturally exotic and enticing context, Westerners can find teachings not all that dissimilar in some respects to those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Among many modern examples of Western artists finding fascination in Buddha include Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha (1922); Jack Kerouac's retelling of Buddha's life, Wake Up; and Bertolucci's film Little Buddha, 1993, with Keanu Reeves (of all people) as Siddhartha.