Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

I keep a copy of “A New Dictionary of Quotations” by H.L. Mencken next to my desk and flip it open to a random page to pass the time while my older-than-dirt laptop boots up.

Here are a few quotations from the page I randomly opened to today:

“You have no idea how destitute of talent are more than half of the members of Congress. Nine out of ten of your ordinary acquaintances are fully equal to them.” – Sergeant S. Prentiss, in a letter to his sister, February, 1833

“We do not elect our wisest and best men to represent us in the Senate and the Congress. In general, we elect men of the type that subscribes to only one principle – to get re-elected. – Terry M. Townsend: The Doctor Looks at the Citizen, 1940

“You can’t use tact with a Congressman. A Congressman is a hog. You must take a stick and hit him on the snout. – Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams, 1918 (Quoting an unnamed member of the Grant Cabinet, c.1875

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” – S.L. Clemens (Mark Twain)

Congress hasn’t changed much, has it?

plus ca change | 9:18 pm CST
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Friday, January 20th, 2017

George Washington, in his farewell address:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence … the jealously of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.

 

Washington’s warning | 12:01 am CST
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Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Paul Asterer, responding to the question, “What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?” in The New York Times Book Review:

English as She Is Spoke: The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English,” by Pedro Carolino, first published in America in 1883, with an introduction by Mark Twain. As Twain puts it, “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book,” and indeed it is ridiculous — a guide to English written by someone who had not the slightest grasp of the language. More than a hundred pages filled with such sentences as: “You have a proof your love for the learnings” or “Nothing is more easy than to swim; it do not what don’t to be afraid of.” The book is pure Dada, and as Twain writes, “its immortality is secure.”

 

pure dada | 12:00 pm CST
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Monday, January 16th, 2017

This synopsis of the coming inauguration of the US president was printed in The Sunday Herald, Scotland, UK:

After a long absence, The Twilight Zone returns with one of the most ambitious, expensive, and controversial productions in broadcast history. Sci-fi writers have dabbled often with alternative history stories — among the most common is the “What if Nazis had one the Second World War” setting — but this huge interactive virtual reality project, which will unfold on TV, in the press and on Twitter over the next four years, sets out to build an ongoing alternative present. The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 in which huge sections of the US electorate have somehow been duped into making Donald Trump president. It sounds far-fetched, and it is, but as it goes on it becomes more and more chillingly plausible. Today’s feature-length opener concentrates on the gaudy inauguration of President Trump, and the stirrings of protest and despair surrounding the ceremony, while pundits speculate gravely on what lies ahead. It’s a flawed piece, but a disturbing glimpse of the horrors we could stumble into, if we’re not careful.

 

Twilight | 10:14 am CST
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Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Seems appropriate somehow:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed — in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical — and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, anti-Nazi dissident, writing from prison

stupidity | 1:02 pm CST
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Saturday, January 17th, 2015

…if one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on him the most terrible of punishments so that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it and dread it beforehand, one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

crush | 9:04 am CST
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Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Indifference to what words actually say; willingness to accept a vapid truism as a useful, even revelatory concept; carelessness about where a supposed quotation comes from – that’s all part of what I like least about the Internet. A “blah blah blah, who cares, information is what I want it to be” attitude – a lazy-mindedness that degrades both language and thought.
     – Ursula K. LeGuin


indifference | 9:10 am CST
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Sunday, July 20th, 2014

footprint on the moon

“We have been given eyes to see what the lightyear worlds cannot see of themselves,” Ray Bradbury wrote. “We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?”

footprint | 10:34 am CST
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Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Everyone in academia , especially Brandon Smith, Kentucky state senator, agrees: Fifty-eight degrees below zero is the average daytime temperature in Kentucky:

 I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.

He doesn’t want to get into a debate about it. He just wants to give us the facts, and the fact is that the weather on Mars and the weather on Earth are no different! No one in academia will dispute that. Also, there are no factories on Mars. That he knows of.

Uneducated hicks and pandering politicians everywhere thank you, Senator Smith, for reinforcing their stereotypes.

academia | 7:02 am CST
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Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

CRAIG FERGUSON: I used to have a terrible fear of flying. To combat that, I took flying lessons. I became a pilot, bought a small airplane and flew it around for a bit. I wasn’t flying it enough, so I sold it. That’s a fear I confronted by running straight at it.

PLAYBOY: And you didn’t conquer it?

FERGUSON: Oh no, not at all. If you get me on the right day, I still have the same fear of flying I had before I became a pilot. Which is insane.

PLAYBOY: So the experiment didn’t work?

FERGUSON: No, the experiment always works. There’s no such thing as an experiment that doesn’t work. There are only results, but results may vary. Here’s what I learned: When I’m flying the plane, I’m fine. When you’re flying the plane, I’m not as good. So the experiment yielded results. What I’m afraid of is not, in fact, flying. It’s you. [laughs]

Fergy | 6:11 pm CST
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Monday, March 31st, 2014

WEB DuBois in a letter to his daughter, Yolande:

Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.

From Letters of Note

discipline | 7:43 pm CST
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Thursday, October 17th, 2013

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.

– Neil Gaiman, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, The Guardian


books as sharks | 2:48 am CST
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Sunday, June 9th, 2013

There’s one trope zipping around out there at the moment in connection with the current storm over phone records and data mining that makes me a little bit crazy – and that is the discussion of whether or not the American people will “trade off” civil liberties for what is really merely a sense of security. The terms of the transaction are obviously incorrect. The American people are not being asked to “trade” their civil liberties. They are being asked to surrender them, for all practical purposes, permanently.

Civil liberties are not something you get to “trade,” not least because they don’t all belong to you. They belong to me, too…. You give yours away, you’re giving mine away, too, whether I want you to do so or not. Therefore, we all surrender those civil liberties. We do not trade them because we don’t get anything back. And it’s not like we can cut another deal later to get them back. We at least should be honest about this. We aren’t making a square deal with an equal partner here. We are committing ourselves to be less free.

— Charles P. Pierce, writing in Esquire’s The Politics Blog

trading liberty NOT | 5:02 pm CST
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Saturday, January 12th, 2013

There are lots of reasons I’d rather not argue about guns — excuse me, sorry, I didn’t mean to say “argue,” I meant to say “join the conversation about guns.”

It’s not that I don’t like guns. I do. I’m a gadget geek all the way down to my bones. As far as I’m concerned, guns in almost all their incarnations are some of the coolest gadgets ever contrived by the human mind. They’re shiny; the best ones have lots of moving parts; they make enough noise to thrill just about anybody; and, if you have a really good gun and you practice every day, you can hit the bull’s eye of a target a mile away. Don’t try to tell me that’s not cool, because I won’t listen.

On the flip side, most guns are made to do just one thing: Kill people, immediately, from a safe distance. Not cool at all. A very douchey thing to do, when it comes down to brass tacks. If you want to kill someone, man up and do it with your bare hands. Argue all you want about how you need to kill people with a gun, but I won’t listen to that, either.

Which brings me to the most important reason I’d rather not argue about guns: I don’t want to get shot. Arguing about guns seems to elevate the blood pressure of the people doing the arguing. I’m not saying there’s going to be a shooting in every argument, I’m just saying it’s a lot more likely in a heated argument where you can be pretty sure at least one side has a gun. You can just have that argument between yourselves while I go play with my toys in my basement lair. You’re always welcome to join me, of course. Don’t bring your gun, though.

That said, I’m going to argue anyway. Shoot me.

My argument, in fact, is with Thomas Jefferson, who gets dragged into this “conversation” by way of his famous quote about the tree of liberty:

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

It’s a strange quote to invoke, not least because I would think that patriots wouldn’t like it implied that they’re full of the same kind of shit you’d find in tyrants. It’s one of those metaphors that sounds all lofty and highfalutin, but only if you don’t think about it too much.

If you’re going to quote one of the founders in support of your argument in favor of taking up arms against the government, it seems to me that Jefferson is probably not your best choice, either. You might consider quoting somebody like Washington instead. A guy who will sneak up on the enemy in the middle of the night and kill them in their sleep, on Christmas, carries a little more weight than a career politician who picks up a pen instead of a gun and writes a few grand words now and then about how great it would be if somebody else did the rebelling. There’s my two cents on that.

The rebellion Jefferson was talking about in this quote above is not the American revolution, but Shay’s Rebellion. Shay led a bunch of armed citizens on a raid of a federal armory. He gets a lot of credit for moxie, but his rebels got stomped like bugs, and Shay’s Rebellion, instead of warning the country’s rulers not to fuck with armed citizens, pushed them instead in the direction of a stronger federal government. Maybe I’m getting the wrong message here, but I feel like that’s a story you’d want to stay away from if you’re arguing for less government, particularly when, four years later, Washington used his newly-ratified constitutional powers to stomp some more rebels in the Whiskey Rebellion and, not incidentally, make him more badass than before.

It seems to me that armed uprisings aren’t all that Jefferson seems to think they’re cracked up to be. I wonder how he’d feel about rebellions if he’d fought in one? I could be wrong, but maybe he’d have put it the way Major General Smedley Butler did:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

Butler was a badass Marine. And a two-time Medal of Honor winner. And his name was Smedley. Nuff said.

smedley | 8:35 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, yet another rant | Tags:
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Friday, January 11th, 2013

As far as I’m concerned, a house should look lived-in, and I consider it clean as long as I don’t stick to it and it doesn’t give me cholera. I can ignore the piles of clothes on the guest room bed because I know they’re all straight from the dryer and just waiting to be folded. I see it as a personal achievement … a physical manifestation of all the laundry I’ve done in the last few months. It’s like a strange trophy made of clothes that I’ve forgotten I even owned.
 
     —Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

 

strange trophy | 9:58 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, entertainment
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Monday, December 24th, 2012

One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly. In fact, because time moves more slowly in Kid World — five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of more than five miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases, and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable — it goes on for decades when measured in adults terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling.
 
— Bill Bryson, The Life And Times of The Thunderbolt Kid

 

Kid Time | 4:05 pm CST
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Monday, November 26th, 2012

This:

When the English stormed the Emerald Isle in the 17th century, they took everything that was worth taking and burned everything else. Thereafter, the Irish had no land, no money, no future. That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality.

And this:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

— Joe Queenan
My 6,128 Favorite Books

morning quote | 6:07 am CST
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Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Recently on an Amtrak train, a fellow passenger across the aisle from me in the Quiet Car was involved in an animated cellphone conversation about a real estate transaction. The conductor came through and said: “Sir, I must ask that you refrain from using your cellphone. You are in the Quiet Car.”

Annoyed, he looked up and said: “I can’t hear you. I’m on the phone.”

TRICIA BARDENWERPER
New Castle, N.H., Nov. 18, 2012
Letter to the Editor, The New York Times

 

can’t hear the quiet for the trees | 9:10 am CST
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Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The only fit snack while reading is the olive in a martini.

— P.J. O’Rourke


book snack | 4:47 pm CST
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Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

And the greatest arrogance of all: Save the planet! What? Save the planet? We haven’t learned how to care for one another, but we’re going to save the planet? Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine! The people are fucked. Compared to the people, the planet is doing great! The planet’s been here four and a half billion years! We’ve been here, what, a hundred thousand, maybe two hundred thousand years? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, solar flares, sunspots, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of cosmic bombardment by comets, asteroids, meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … and we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere – we are! We’re going away! The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas! The planet will be here for a long, long long time after we’re gone. The air and water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, then the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: The Earth Plus Plastic! The earth doesn’t share our prejudice about plastic. Plastic came out of the earth! The earth probably sees plastic as another one of its children! Could be the only reason it allowed us to spawn in the first place! It wanted plastic. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to that age-old philosophical question: Why Are We Here? Plastic.
 
– George Carlin

 

plastic | 6:00 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, entertainment, play, yet another rant
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Thursday, September 27th, 2012

image of Saturn

“…the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour – not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, ‘Congratulations! What does this mean?’ I tell them it’s great, that we’re going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, ‘But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?’ So I say, ‘First of all, it’s $3.3 billion divided by twelve. It’s a twelve-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.’

“At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, ‘Over to you, Katie.’ When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who’d been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, ‘We want to go to Saturn!'”

NEAL DEGRASSE TYSON, Space Chronicles

space chronicles | 8:30 pm CST
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Friday, September 21st, 2012

image of the Milky Way in the night sky“Unlike other animals, humans are quite comfortable sleeping on our backs. This simple fact affords us a view of the boundless night sky as we fall asleep, allowing us to dream about our place in the cosmos and to wonder what lies undiscovered in the worlds beyond.

The effect is to leave us restless for want of a plan to discover. We know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide. Because without them, our culture stalls and our species withers. And we might as well go to sleep facing down.”

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON


face up | 5:34 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Friday, June 8th, 2012

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?

Andy Chaikin, who has made a life out of writing about space explorers, remembers Ray Bradbury

requiem | 5:50 am CST
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Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Steve Curwood’s show, Living On Earth, explaining why sending people into space is a good thing:

CURWOOD: So, tell me, why should we explore space, with people?

TYSON: I’ve got my own reasons for exploring space, that I don’t presume others should have these reasons. I think we should explore space because it’s cool to do and that you discover interesting things tomorrow that you didn’t know today, and that’s enlightening. That’s why I like to explore.

But I’m not going to require others to want to write the checks for those reasons. We should do it because our economy is tanking right now and people need to recognize the role and value of innovation as a cultural directive on the health of an economy. And by innovation, I mean the capacity to dream about a tomorrow that doesn’t exist today, the capacity to want to accomplish something tomorrow. In space it would require some kind of application of science, engineering, and technology to do something tomorrow that you didn’t know how to do today and when you innovate on that scale, you invent the economies of tomorrow.

And when you do that, the kids want to become scientists because they can see what role, it’s writ large in the daily headlines, they see what role science and engineering fluency plays in the trajectory of your society. And then the entire country becomes a participant on that frontier rather than sitting on our hands watching the rest of the world do exactly what we used to dream about doing for ourselves.

Listen to the whole show, see nifty pictures and read a transcript.

cool | 9:50 am CST
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Friday, December 30th, 2011

Oh I have just passed a most happy hour watching Brian Cox explain how atoms work. No, really. You may think you don’t have an hour to watch a video about a subject that you think you’ve never been interested in about knowledge you think you’ll never use, but just give him at least ten minutes of your time and see if you’re not infected by his enthusiasm.

I think my favorite moment is when he gets Jonathan Ross to help him calculate the probability that all the atoms in a diamond will leap five centimeters to the left. I’m sure a guy like Cox does this kind of math dozens of times a day, but I’m equally sure Ross doesn’t. Remember how to reckon numerators and denominators? No, neither do I.

Professor Brian Cox: A Night With the Stars

If I tell you one of the stars is Simon Pegg, would that make you want to watch it?

The best theory we have to describe matter is quantum theory.

Now, I understand why quantum theory can seem a bit odd. It makes odd statements. It says, for example, that things can be in many places at once. In fact, technically, it says that things can be in an infinite number of places at once. It says that the subatomic building blocks of our bodies are constantly shifting in response to events that happened at the edge of the known universe, a billion light years somewhere over there. This is all true, but that isn’t a license to talk utter drivel.

Quantum theory might seem weird or mysterious, but it describes the world with higher precision than the laws of physics laid down by Newton, and it’s one of the foundations of our understanding of nature. It doesn’t, therefore, allow mystical healing or ESP or any other manifestation of new-age woo-woo into the pantheon of the possible. Always remember that quantum theory is physics, and physics is usually done by people without star signs tattooed on their bottoms.

stars | 10:11 am CST
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Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson gets all worked up about why the study of quantum mechanics matters:

In the 1920s, quantum physics was discovered. That is the science of the small: the science of electrons, protons, neutrons, particles, nuclei. At the time, you’d say, This is just physicists burning tax money. Who cares about the atom? I got a horse to feed, I got kids, I got – you know, you got issues in society, yet it’s quantum mechanics that is the entire foundation of our entire technological revolution. There would be no computers. There would be no – none of what you take for granted – your iPod, your iPhone, cell phones, the space program – without our understanding of the laws of physics at that atomic and molecular and nuclear level. The chemist has no understanding of the periodic table of elements without quantum mechanics. To them, it’s just a list of elements. Quantum mechanics tells you why this column is there, and that’s there, and why this mates with that, and why that makes a molecule with that – that’s quantum mechanics, and it’s unheralded. You ask me, Is there any discovery that has changed how we live? It is quantum mechanics. And I make this point because there are people who say, Why are we spending money up there when we got problems on earth? People don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how that’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the product that comes out of it. That is so short-sighted that that’s the beginning of the end of your culture.

quantum | 5:45 pm CST
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Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently appeared on the “Ask Me Anything” page of Reddit and blew the minds of Redditors during an hour-long Q & A. Here are some of my favorite questions and the answers Tyson gave:

Q. If you could impress one thing on young people today, what would it be?

N.d.T. That adults are not all they’re cracked up to be. And most of them are wrong most of the time. This can be quite revelatory for a kid – often launching them on a personal quest of exploration, rather than of Q&A sessions with their parents.

Q. If you could add one course to a student’s curriculum, what would it be?

N.d.T. Course title every university should offer: “How to tell when someone else is full of shit”

Q. Can we inspire more kids to pursue space-related science and research? If so, how?

N.d.T. Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. The beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.

Q. What one improvement would you make to the way our society as a whole approaches science if it were within your power?

N.d.T. Society needs to see science not as a luxury of funding but as a fundamental activity that drives enlightenment, economics, and security. Science agencies should never have to go hat in hand to congress.

One idea would be for the USA (or any other country for that matter) to earmark 10% of its budget to R&D. Like a good startup company might do. That way everyone knows what to expect annually. And long term research projects will have some hope of funding stability.

Q. What is the simplest thing in your life that makes you happy?

N.d.T. Watching a person learn something new – not simply a new fact (those are cheap and easy) – but achieve a new understanding for how the world works. That’s the only reward a (true) educator ever seeks.

Q. What is your opinion about science/math education in high school? It seems to me like we emphasize far to much on facts that most people will never need, rather than encouraging people to think creatively and logically.

N.d.T. Agree 100%. Any time we are answer-driven rather than idea driven, we have lost the true meaning of education.

Q. What is your favorite fact about the Universe?

N.d.T. That it will never end. That it’s on a one way trip of expansion. Something that many find to be philosophically unsettling. My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer.

My two very favorite exchanges I saved for last. I loved that Tyson answered this flip question with a very considered answer:

Q. If a taco and a burrito are traveling near the speed of light and collide, will the result be delicious?

N.d.T. The result would be an explosion large enough to destroy a small village. High speed collisions do that, whether or not they are made of Mexican food.

And the answer to this question is still blowing my mind:

Q. Since time slows relative to the speed of light, does this mean that photons are essentially not moving through time at all?

N.d.T. Yes. Precisely. Which means — are you seated?

Photons have no ticking time at all, which means, as far as they are concerned, they are absorbed the instant they are emitted, even if the distance traveled is across the universe itself.

This Q & A spawned a long discussion between dozens of Redditors, one of which attempted to explain the answer this way:

You can’t ascribe macroscopic analogies to quantum scale events. It doesn’t work because nature on that scale is so different than our everyday experiences.

To sum up the central point – photons don’t travel. They don’t really exist in flight. You can’t sidle up next to light passing from here to alpha centauri and watch it mid-flight. As soon as you do, it’s not in flight anymore.

What actually happens in reality is that an electron (or charged particle) over there will move in a particular way, and that makes an electron over here move in a particular way. Nothing else.

We can use a model based on waves to determine, probabilistically, where that effect is likely going to take place. We can also use a model based on particles (photons) to describe the nature of how that effect will act.

But it’s just a model. One must be extremely careful that we don’t ascribe other properties inherent in the model, such as existence, to the phenomenon being described.

The discussion ended (as much as a discussion such as this can end) with this poetic observation:

I love how existence can be a property that some things are capable of not having.

Tyson | 5:07 pm CST
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Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

I’m a huge geek for space flight. I’m not sure why it’s called “manned” when there are women doing it now, and I’m as puzzled about calling it “flight” when it can and often is done without wings, but even so, I geek out in a major way whenever I run across a book or photo or web site that has anything to do with manned space flight. Geeking out isn’t about trying to make sense of it. It’s a Pavlovian response. Or is it? Maybe it’s not conditioned; maybe I was wired that way at birth.

Whatever. If I’d had the brains to do it, I would’ve gotten a couple PhD’s just for the privilege of working for a manned space flight program no matter how frivolous or questionable the motives for pursuing it are. I know the whole point of landing a man on the moon was to win a political argument. So what? It was still pretty cool. And our nation devotes a lot of time, energy and money to other political arguments – immigration, war, those kinds of things – that aren’t nearly as awesome as flying in space, supposedly because they’re important and space flight is pointless. “What are you going to do in space?” goes the argument. Well, you could live there. Takes a while and a lot of hard work to figure out how, but it could be done.

And if the argument against manned space flight is even more basic, if all that the argument against it boils down to is, “Why?” I’d answer, Because somebody is going to do it. In the whole of history, we’ve climbed into ships and gone as far as we could, and now that we’ve figured out that we can go to space, the move to working and then living in space is inevitable. It has to happen, because that’s what we do.

Actually, it’s happening. Right now. There are people living on a space station in orbit above us. They’ve been living in it for years, and will go on living in it for years, and they’re doing it mostly to figure out how to go on living in space for generations to come. If you think that’s not freaking awesome, then what is?

I got all wound up about this after astronomer Pamela Gay, appearing on a panel at the annual TAM science meeting, got shut down by astrophysicist Neal de Grasse Tyson after she made the comment that manned space flight was “kind of awesome … but there isn’t the budget in the world right now to do it right.” You cannot say that kind of thing around Neal (he lets me call him Neal) without expecting a broadside in return:

I’ve got to rebut that: To say there’s no budget in the world – the federal budget is three point something trillion dollars … It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we have chosen to not afford it. … The U.S. bailout of the banks exceeded the 50-year budget of Nasa. If you want to do something with three and a half trillion dollars, you can do whatever you want, whatever you judge to be important to the profile of the nation. The Nasa budget is four-tenths of one percent of a tax dollar. If I cut into a tax dollar four-tenths of one percent, it doesn’t even get into the ink! So I will not accept the statement that we cannot afford it.

Yeah. What he said.

ink | 11:04 am CST
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Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, considering the inevitability of life:

If you had asked your chemistry teacher fifty years ago, once you looked at that mysterious chart of boxes that sat in front of your class, the periodic table of elements, Where did those elements come from? The chemistry teacher would not have had an answer for you. He would have said, Well, you dig them from out of the earth. That’s not where they come from. It took modern astrophysics to determine the origin of the chemical elements.

We observe stars. They explode, laying bare their contents. And what we have discovered is that the elements of the periodic table derive from the actions of stars that have manufactured the elements, exploded, and scattered their enriched guts across the galaxy, contaminating – or enriching – gas clouds that then form a next generation of stars populated by planets, and possibly life.

When you look at the ingredients of the universe, the number one ingredient is hydrogen. Next is helium, next is oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Those are the top ingredients in the universe. Then you look at earth, because we like to think of ourselves as special … We say, We’re special! Well, what are we made of? What’s the number one molecule in our bodies? Water! What’s water made of? H-two-O. Hydrogen and oxygen.

Hmmm.

If you rank the elements in the human body, with the exception of helium, which is chemically inert, useless to you for any reason other than just to inhale it so you sound like Micky Mouse … number one is hydrogen. Matches the universe. Number two: oxygen. Matches the universe. Number three? Carbon! Matches the universe. Number four, nitrogen – matches the universe!

We learned in the last fifty years that, not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us. Had we been made of some rare isotope of bismuth, you would have an argument to say, We are something special! There are people who are upset by that fact, saying, Well, does that mean we are not special? Well, I think it’s special in another kind of way. When you look up at the night sky it’s no longer, we’re here, and that’s there. It’s, We are part of that! That association, for me, is quite enlightening and ennobling and enriching. In fact, it’s almost spiritual, looking up at the night sky and finding a sense of belonging.

So, now we have ourselves – are we alone in the universe? We’re made of the most common ingredients there are! Our chemistry is based on carbon! Carbon is the most chemically active ingredient in the periodic table! If you were to find a chemistry on which to base something really complex, called life, you would base it on carbon! Carbon is, like, the fourth most abundant ingredient in the universe! We’re not rare! You can make more molecules out of carbon than you can out of all the other ingredients in the periodic table combined. If we were to ask ourselves, Are we alone in the universe? It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we are alone in the cosmos. The chemistry is too rich to declare that! The universe, too vast! There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. There are more stars in the universe than there are all sounds and words ever uttered by all the humans who have ever lived. To say we’re alone in the universe!

No, we haven’t found life outside of earth yet. We’re looking. Haven’t looked very far yet. Galaxy’s this big – we’ve looked about that far, but we’re looking. And how about life on earth? Is it hard to form? Just because we don’t know how to do it in the lab doesn’t mean nature had problems. So it may be, given that information, that, given the right ingredients, which are everywhere, life may be inevitable – an inevitable consequence of complex chemistry.

inevitable | 3:13 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, story time | Tags: ,
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Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

David Sedaris’s laundry list of the worst ways to die, from When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

My list of don’ts covered three pages and included such reminders as: never fall asleep in a Dumpster, never underestimate a bee, never drive a convertible behind a flatbed truck, never get old, never get drunk near a train, and never, under any circumstances, cut off your air supply while masturbating. This last one is a nationwide epidemic, and it’s surprising the number of men who do it while dressed in their wife’s clothing, most often while she is out of town. To anyone with similar inclinations, a word of warning: after you’re discovered, the police with take snapshots of your dead, costumed body, which will then be slid into photo albums and pored over by people like me, who hole themselves up in the records room, moaning, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” not sure if they’re referring to your plum-colored face or to the squash blossom necklace you’ve chosen to go with that blouse.

Good to know.

Engulfed | 7:56 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I realize I posted a quote from Michael Perry’s Coop just yesterday, but I can’t help bringing this one to your attention today. Consider this a forewarning. I have a feeling this book’s going to be pregnant with quotable material.

Sometimes during the day when the cows were settled we kids went to the barn and lay lengthwise along the backs of the tamer animals to absorb their warmth. Because of the way she tucks her hindquarters, a cow at rest tilts off-kilter, allowing you to nestle rump to withers against the ridge of the backbone while draping your limbs across a hemisphere of abdomen. You rise and fall with each bovine breath, and if you hold especially still you will feel the subterranean thump of a five-pound heart. At regular intervals the cow will lurch softly and summon a cud. The dewlap ripples, and a wad of ruminated forage rises visibly up the throat. Rolling the bolus to her tongue, she’ll work her jaw forty or so times, swallow, wait a patient moment, then raise another. It’s hard to imagine regurgitation as a form of meditation, but for cows, it is so.

I thought this passage was worth quoting for exactly three reasons:

As far as quirky juxtaposition goes, I’m not sure you can get quirkier than pairing regurgitation with meditation. Or maybe you can but I’m just not trying hard enough.

And from a grammatical point of view, “summon a cud” has to be the quirkiest juxtaposition of noun and verb I have seen in recent memory. Possibly longer. But I love it. It’s perfect.

But the quirkiest position I would ever dare to juxt in real life would have to be laying on a cow’s back. It simply would not have occurred to me ever under any conditions, or at least I think so now. But since he mentioned it, it seems as natural and obvious as crawling into a hammock, which you know in your heart is a pretty goofy way to relax if you’ve ever done it.

Anyway, them’s my thoughts on that.

Coop once again | 6:23 pm CST
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Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

From Michael Perry’s Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg:

I am open to the idea of home birth because I love my wife and this is what she wants, but I am also bucky about the idea of delivering babies old-style if it is simply in service of some whole-grain earth mother sensibility picked up during a women’s studies course in Colorado. As a former fundamentalist gone agnostic, I tend to dig my heels in at the first whiff of evangelism, whether it be deployed in the service of Girl Power, salvation, or the curative wonders of organic yams. There is also the frank issue of testosterone — four years in nursing school and three Indigo Girls albums notwithstanding, I am not purged of all and not interested in achieving complete anemia. In short, a man likes to drive. Even when he is lost.

Amen to that, brother.

Coop | 5:35 pm CST
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Monday, February 14th, 2011

The ordinarily even-tempered academic Henry Adams goes all Chuck Norris on De Witt Clinton:

With a violence that startled uninitiated bystanders, Cheetham in his American Citizen [newspaper] flung one charge after another at [Aaron] Burr; first his judiciary vote; then his birthday toast; then the suppression of a worthless history of the last Administration written by John Wood, another foreign adventurer, whose book Burr bought in order, as Cheetham believed, to curry favor with the New England Federalists; finally, with the rhetorical flourish of an American Junius, Cheetham charged that Burr had tried to steal the Presidency from Jefferson in February, 1801, when the House of Representatives was divided. All the world knew that not Cheetham, but De Witt Clinton thus dragged the Vice-President from his chair, and that not Burr’s vices, but his influence made his crimes heinous; that behind De Witt Clinton stood the Virginia dynasty, dangling Burr’s office in the eyes of the Clinton family, and lavishing honors and money on the Livingstons.

All this was as clear to Burr and his friends as though it were embodied in an Act of Congress. No one ever explained why Burr did not drag De Witt Clinton from his ambush and shoot him, as two years later he shot Alexander Hamilton with less provocation.

Yeah! Whyn’t he just SHOOT ’em? Some people just need killin’!

BLAM! | 8:17 pm CST
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Thursday, February 10th, 2011

When it sucks to be a Genius:

John Fitch, a mechanic, without education or wealth, but with the energy of genius, invented engine and paddles of his own, with so much success that during a whole summer Philadelphians watched his ferryboat plying daily against the river current. No one denied that his boat was rapidly, steadily, and regularly moved against wind and tide, with as much certainty and convenience as could be expected in a first experiment; yet Fitch’s company failed. He could raise no more money; the public did not want it, would not believe in it, and broke his heart by their contempt. Fitch struggled against failure, and invented another boat moved by a screw. The Eastern public still proving indifferent, he wandered to Kentucky, to try his fortune on the Western waters. Disappointed there, as in Philadelphia and New York, he made a deliberate attempt to end his life by drink; but the process proving too slow, he saved twelve opium pills from the physician’s prescription, and was found one morning dead. Fitch’s death took place in an obscure Kentucky inn, three years before Jefferson, the philosopher-President, entered the White House.

– from “The Formative Years: A History of The United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,” by Henry Adams

Genius | 7:21 pm CST
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Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Saith the Duc de Liancourt, writing in 1797:

… it must be acknowledged that the beauty of the American ladies has the advantage in the comparison [to European ladies]. The young women of Philadelphia are accomplished in different degrees, but beauty is general with them. They want the ease and fashion of French women, but the brilliancy of their complexion is infinitely superior. Even when they grow old, they are still handsome; and it would be no exaggeration to say, in the numerous assemblies … it is impossible to meet with what is called a plain woman.

As to the young men, they for the most part seem to belong to another species.

Not much has changed in two-hundred-plus years, has it?

– from “The Formative Years: A History of The United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,” by Henry Adams

The Ladies | 7:29 pm CST
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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Politics was a lot more fun back in the day:

… delegation-selection proceedings were under way in several states that had not yet adopted the primary system. On 23 January, Oklahoma’s Fourth District Republican convention grotesquely dramatized the factionalism of a party splitting three ways.

The local committee chairman, Edward Perry, was a Roosevelt man who hoped to create a progressive stampede for the Colonel. A letter from Gifford Pinchot reminded him that, as yet, La Follette was Taft’s only official challenger. Perry read the letter to the convention, but made plain that he still favored Roosevelt. This infuriated the rank and file supporting Taft. Pandemonium ensued, with Perry roaring, “Slap Roosevelt in the face if you dare!” over contrary shrieks and howls. A posse of fake Rough Riders invaded the hall. For fifteen minutes they tried to storm the stage, but found it harder to take than the Heights of San Juan. Cigar-smoking Taft forces repelled them. One cavalryman got through on a miniature pony: the young son of Jack “Catch-’em-Alive” Abernathy, a friend of Roosevelt’s famous for seizing wolves by the tongue. The boy shrilled “I want Teddy!” to the crowd, touching off further furor. But then the organization men suppressed him, and the convention endorsed Taft over La Follette by a vote of 118 to 32. Perry, locally known as “Dynamite Ed,” showed his displeasure by going outside and detonating five hundred pounds of high explosives.

I almost hate to admit this, but I’d sign up to be a Republican in a minute if they still had guys like “Dynamite Ed” Perry.

Dynamite Ed | 8:31 pm CST
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Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Robert Goddard was the father of American rocketry, or maybe something more like the crazy uncle. Like Tsiolkovsky in Russia and von Braun in Germany, he not only cobbled together working rockets, he was inspired by a compelling inspiration to fly to other planets, which was crazy talk in his day, and I mean people called Goddard crazy, but not at all in a joking way. Even though he could build flying rockets, most people thought of them as toys and Goddard as a raving nutjob, totally whacko, out of his freaking gourd to think he could ever fly to the moon on one.

He didn’t take it too well. To avoid any further harsh criticism, he packed up his rockets and moved from the east coast to the desert of New Mexico, and didn’t share the results of his experiments with anybody else. Fine, then, I’ll just take my rockets and go!

Goddard might have been a trifle insecure about his calling, but he was a romantic right down to his bones. Here’s a story I’d never heard about him before I read it in First Man, the biography of Neil Armstrong:

At age seventeen, Goddard climbed to the top of his backyard cherry tree. “It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England,” recalled Goddard in notes for his autobiography, “and as I looked toward the fields to the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet … I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”

For the rest of his life, Goddard celebrated October 19 as his “Anniversary Day.” After his marriage in 1924, he lived with his wife in a house near where the cherry tree stood. When he subsequently moved his rocket-testing experiments from Massachusetts to New Mexico, he visited the tree whenever he could.

Oct 19, 1927: “Got rocket weighed and ready, in afternoon. Stopped at cherry tree at 6 p.m.”

Oct 19, 1928: “Took out trailer to farm, with Sachs. Went out to cherry tree.”

Oct 19, 1932: “Worked on flow patterns in afternoon. Went to cherry tree — Anniversary Day.”

In the fall of 1938, Goddard received a letter from a Massachusetts friend informing him that his cherry tree had been uprooted in a nor’easter. In his journal that night, the father of American rocketry wrote, “Cherry tree down — have to carry on alone.”

A Different Boy | 9:00 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

image of book: Truman by David McCullough

I finished it! It’s been about three weeks and almost a thousand pages after I started, and I am honestly sorry it’s over. I think I can say this is the best biography of anybody by anybody I’ve ever read. Maybe I’m biased a bit by the fact that I’m a huge fan of David McCullough fan, but in my mind it’s like this: When a historian can write a thousand-page book about Truman and make every single page a delight to read, that’s quite an accomplishment by almost any standard.

If you still would never read a book this thick just because you couldn’t commit yourself to reading anything that large – and that’s no small consideration; my only gripe about this book is that it’s almost too big and heavy to hold open in two hands – I would beg you to reconsider, if only to read Chapter 14, “Fighting Chance,” devoted to Truman’s whistle-stop campaign for re-election in 1948. Chapter 13, “The Heat In The Kitchen,” is a terrific lead-in to the campaign, but if you read nothing else, read Chapter 14. I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

I’ve always thought of Truman as my favorite modern president. I haven’t decided yet if my very favorite of them all is John Adams or his son, John Quincy Adams; there’s plenty to like about them both. (McCullough wrote a cracking good bio of John Adams, by the way.) But this book has cemented my opinion of Truman as the best of the presidents who walked the earth while I was alive. (I was shocked to learn that Truman passed away in December, 1972. I was two weeks past my twelfth birthday at the time. It must have been a huge event, and yet I have no memory of it.)

Born in the Gilded age, the age of steam and gingerbread Gothic, Truman had lived to see a time of lost certainties and rocket trips to the moon. The arc of his life spanned more change in the world than in any prior period in history. A man of nineteenth-century background, he had had to face many of the most difficult decisions of the unimaginably different twentieth century. A son of rural, inland America, raised only a generation removed from the frontier and imbued with the old Jeffersonian ideal of a rural democracy, he had had to assume command of the most powerful industrial nation on earth at the very moment when that power, in combination with stunning advances in science and technology, had become an unparalleled force in the world. The responsibilities he bore were like those of no other president before him, and he more than met the test.

Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines; work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.

Truman – Finished! | 6:38 pm CST
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Monday, October 18th, 2010

I’m two-hundred pages into the biography of Harry Truman by David McCullough. My Darling B gave it to me for Christmas after I spent months trolling the aisles of every used book store in town, looking for it. Now that I have a copy, I notice that there are three on the shelves at Saint Vinnie’s that have been there for weeks. Isn’t that just the way?

I’ve just reached the point in the book where Harry – he lets me call him Harry – gets into politics, by way of the Kansas City political machine, run by the Pedergasts PeNdergasts. Is there anything today that compares to good old-fashioned politics?

The pattern of the organization followed the pattern established by law for election purposes. There was a ward leader, a precinct captain for each precinct, and a block leader for every square block within the precinct. The precinct captain was the first person who called on newcomers to the neighborhood, who saw that their water was connected, gas and electricity turned on. Coal in winter, food, clothing, and medical attention were all provided by the organization to whomever was in need at no charge.

When winter storms hit the city, trucks from the various Pendergast enterprises would arrive int he West Bottoms loaded with overcoats and other warm clothing to be handed out to the homeless, the drunken derelicts, to any and all who were suffering. At Christmas, Tom [Pendergast] gave out three thousand free dinners. Many people would remember for the rest of their lives how at the height of the deadly influenza epidemic in 1918-19 and at great personal risk Tom Pendergast had made a personal survey, house to house to see who needed help.

All that was expected in return was gratitude expressed at the pools on election day. And to most of his people this seemed little enough to ask and perfectly proper. Many, too, were happy to be “repeaters,” those who voted “early and often” on election day. The woman who worked in the hospital laundry, as an example, started as a repeater at age eighteen, three years shy of the voting age … she would vote at least four or five times before the day ended. “Oh, I knew it was illegal, but I certainly never thought it was wrong.”

Man, they sure knew how to rig an election back in the day.

Truman by McCullough | 8:57 pm CST
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Friday, June 25th, 2010

image of Martian tripod

I finally finished The Great Influenza, a history of the Spanish influenza pandemic. Very cheery book. Millions died, nobody quite got the hang of a vaccination, and the message throughout the book was “The next pandemic is on the way!” You should read it.

Back home, I found a copy of The Right Stuff while I was fishing The Great Influenza out of my backpack. I’d been reading The Right Stuff up until I found The Great Influenza at the thrift store and made the mistake of opening it up to read the first few pages, see if it was any good. It was, so The Right Stuff got put aside, the last ten chapters unread.

Until yesterday. What a great book. Finished it off over my lunch hour. So for right now I’m between books and poking through the thickest volumes on our shelves for the next tome to attack. But I needed something light and fun before bedtime last night, so I picked up H.G. Wells’s The War Of The Worlds and got stuck on the first page, reading the opening paragraphs over and over. It’s like poetry:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.

Ex Libris | 8:05 pm CST
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Thursday, December 31st, 2009

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
      – Abraham Lincoln

My goodness me, that man could write.

freemen | 5:57 am CST
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