(Roughly) Daily

“To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace”*…

 

What does having money mean for us and for our neighbors? When the art critic John Ruskin took up this question in 1860, he started from the assertion that more money for us means less money for them, and he didn’t have to go much further to conclude that disparity, after all, might be the whole point of the enterprise…

Suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel; countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants?

In order that he may be able to have servants, someone in his neighbourhood must be poor and in want of his gold—or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of wasteland, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”

The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. What is really desired under the name of riches is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person).

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, John Ruskin on the Master/Slave paradox: “Blessed are the Poor.” (From Ruskin’s “The Veins of Wealth.”)

[Image above, from here.]

* Confucius, The Analects

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As we wonder about wealth, we might recall that it was on this date in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote (the first version, he varied the lyrics over time) of “This Land is Your Land.”; he didn’t record the song until 1944, nor publish it until 1954.

Guthrie wrote the lyrics (to an extant tune) in response to to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent. Tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio, he lifted his pen…as he’d considered writing a retort, he’d thought to name it “God Blessed America for Me”; happily, it surfaced with the title we know.

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Written by LW

February 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors”*…

 

Your family tree might contain a few curious revelations. It might alert you to the existence of long-lost third cousins. It might tell you your 10-times-great-grandfather once bought a chunk of Brooklyn. It might reveal that you have royal blood. But when family trees includes millions of people—maybe even tens of millions of people—then we’re beyond the realm of individual stories.

When genealogies get so big, they’re not just the story of a family anymore; they contain the stories of whole countries and, at the risk of sounding grandiose, even all of humanity…

The story of the largest family tree so far found– 13 million people. (And yes, that includes Kevin Bacon.): “What Can You Do With the World’s Largest Family Tree?

* Edmund Burke

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As we ruminate on roots, we might spare a thought for Sara Josephine Baker; she died on this date in 1945. A physician and public health pioneer, she was active especially in the immigrant communities of New York City.  In 1917, she noted that babies born in the United States faced a higher mortality rate than soldiers fighting in World War I, and undertook her fight against the damage that widespread urban poverty and ignorance caused to children, especially newborns.  She founded the Bureau of Child Hygiene after visiting mothers on the lower east side, was appointed assistant to the Commissioner for Public Health of New York City, then headed the city’s Department of Health in Hell’s Kitchen for 25 years.  Among many other initiatives, she set up free milk clinics, licensed midwives, and taught the use of silver nitrate to prevent blindness in newborns.

She is also known for (twice) tracking down Mary Mallon, the infamous index case known as Typhoid Mary.

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“Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all”*…

 

Over his forty-year career, he has become a shaman of coffee. He’s known among third-wave coffee producers as a prophet of the terroir-focused, light-roast way of life, a man who gives three-hour PowerPoint presentations detailing every facet of the production process, and the rare boomer in a scene made up mostly of people who were either in grade school or not even born when George opened his first shop. People who have worked with him, or seen him speak, or run into him in Ethiopia or Guatemala (“at origin,” in coffee-world lingo), talk about his enthusiasm, his taste, his curiosity, his strong opinions on coffee processing. But mostly they talk about his pragmatically mystical conviction that a higher truth of coffee exists, and that we can figure out how to get to it…

The highly-caffeinated story of George Howell, the man responsible for third-wave coffee– and the Frappuccino: “The Coffee Shaman.”

* David Lynch

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As we take it black, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that the Dr. Miles Medicine Company of Elkhart, Indiana introduce Alka-Seltzer, an effervescent combination of aspirin for headache relief, fevers, and body pain and bi-carbonate of soda to neutralize acids and settle the stomach.  (Twenty years later, Miles introduced their “Speedy” mascot.)

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Written by LW

February 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Magnetism, you recall from physics class, is a powerful force that causes certain items to be attracted to refrigerators”*…

 

Concentric incision on a jar handle from Ramat Rahel, in modern-day Israel

Of all the environmental amenities that this hospitable planet provides, the magnetic field is perhaps the strangest and least appreciated. It has existed for more than three and a half billion years but fluctuates daily. It emanates from Earth’s deep interior but extends far out into space. It is intangible and mostly invisible—except when it lights up in ostentatious greens and reds during the auroras—but essential to life. The magnetic field is our protective bubble; it deflects not only the rapacious solar wind, which could otherwise strip away Earth’s atmosphere over time, but also cosmic rays, which dart in from deep space with enough energy to damage living cells. Although sailors have navigated by the magnetic field for a millennium and scientists have monitored it since the eighteen-thirties, it remains a mysterious beast. Albert Einstein himself said that understanding its origin and persistence was one of the great unsolved problems in physics…

Direct measurements of the magnetic field now span almost two hundred years, and iron-rich volcanic rocks on the ocean floor provide a lower-fidelity chronicle of its erratic behavior—including wholesale reversals in polarity—back about a hundred and fifty million years. But reconstructing the field’s behavior between these two extremes has been difficult. The trick is to find an iron-bearing object that locked in a record of the magnetic field at a well-constrained time in the past, in the way that wine of a given vintage preserves an indirect record of that year’s weather conditions…

Last Monday, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of Israeli and American archeologists and geophysicists reports the most detailed reconstruction yet of the magnetic field in pre-instrumental times, using a set of ceramic jars from Iron Age Judea…

In the geophysical community, the tales told by the Judean jars may cause unrest. Both the height and the sharpness of the spike they recount push up against the limits of what some geophysicists think Earth’s outer core is capable of doing. If the eighth-century-B.C. geomagnetic jeté is real, models for the generation of the magnetic field need significant revision. Given the importance of a stable magnetic field to our electricity-dependent, communications-obsessed culture, these questions are of more than academic interest…

More on these befuddling fields at “Earth’s mysterious magnetic field, stored in a jar.”

* Dave Barry

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As we look for True North, we might send undulating birthday greetings to George Fitzgerald Smoot III; he was born on this date in 1945.  An astrophysicist and cosmologist, Smoot discovered the signature of gravitational waves– ripples in space-time were first predicted by Albert Einstein– in his study of the cosmic microwave (“background”) radiation that originated with the Big Bang.  He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006; three years later he became the second person to run the board on the quiz show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, and took home the $1 million grand prize.

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“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered”*…

 

Perhaps understandably, most people tend to ignore scraps of paper they see lying on the ground. But Sydney-based artist Laura Sullivan has always found herself intrigued by the promise of scrawled handwriting, and has been picking up stray to-do lists, IOUs, poems, and angry letters for the past twelve years.Now, a selection of the 400 notes she has collected in public spaces around the world will be exhibited in a gallery show that puts the intimate concerns of anonymous strangers on display for all to see…

The serendipitous story in full at “Turns out, Other People’s Shopping Lists Are Oddly Poignant.”

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we celebrate chance, we might send thrilling birthday greetings to Ross Thomas; he was born on this date in 1926.  The author of 20 novels under his own name, and another six as “Oliver Bleeck,” Thomas specialized in building yarns around the machinations of professional politics and the intrigues of global corporations– so successfully that he is considered by many to be the Len Deighton or John Le Carre of the U.S.– only funnier. As the Village Voice put it, “what Elmore Leonard does for crime in the streets, Ross Thomas does for crime in the suites.”  His debut novel, The Cold War Swap, won the 1967 Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Briarpatch earned the 1985 Edgar for Best Novel; and in 2002, he was honored with the inaugural Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award, one of only two authors to earn the award posthumously (the other was 87th Precinct author Ed McBain in 2006).

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Written by LW

February 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If I had to choose a superhero to be, I would pick Superman. He’s everything that I’m not.*…

 

The images that pop up in most people’s heads when they think about superheroes can be traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman and the genre evolution that followed. But it’s possible to go back even further, connecting the Hulk to the ancient epic poem of Gilgamesh, and Batman to 17th Century cross-dressing crimefighter Moll Cutpurse…

 Heroic history at: “How Ancient Legends Gave Birth to Modern Superheroes.”

* Stephen Hawking

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As we investigate our icons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the U.S.   Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn has been controversial from it birth (e.g., here and here)– indeed, the controversy began before its birth:  The UK and Canadian edition came out two months earlier; the U.S. version was delayed because one of the engravers added an obscenity to one of the illustrations: on p. 283, an illustration of Aunt Sally and Silas Phelps was augmented by the addition of a penis.  Thirty thousand copies of the book had been printed before the unwanted addition was discovered.  A new plate was made to correct the illustration and repair the existing copies; still, copies with the so-called “curved fly” plate remain valuable collectors items.

Huck, as drawn by E. W. Kemble for the original edition of the book

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Written by LW

February 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above / Don’t fence me in”*…

 

All of humanity could fit in a building the size of this red box, though it wouldn’t be very comfortable…

The human urge to own land sometimes borders on the absurd… Do we have too many cities with too few people in them? (Answer: Yes!) But there’s an implicit question embedded in that notion of anti-NIMBY place-making, once posed by Leo Tolstoy: “How much land does a man need?”

Tolstoy’s answer was pretty grim. But leave it to a YouTuber to take that existential literary question literally by asking, “How much land does humanity need?”

That’s the issue enterprising online video-maker Joseph Pisenti explores on his channel, Real Life Lore.

Pisenti ups the ante on the density game by examining two more specific questions in three videos: How large would a city need to be to fit all of humanity, and how big would a building need to be fit every human being?…

More metropolitan musing– and all three of the videos– at “Could the Human Race Fit in a Single City?

* Lyric from the song “Don’t Fence Me In”; music by Cole Porter, lyrics by Porter, adapted from a poem by Robert Fletcher.  Originally written in 1934 for an unproduced film musical (Adios, Argentina), it was recorded a decade later by Roy Rogers, and (almost simultaneously) Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters; later it was covered by Ella Fitzgerald, and many others.

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As we speculate about space, we might spare a thought for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; he died on this date in 1673.  Better known by his stage name, Molière, he was a respected French actor who became one of the great comedic playwrights in Western literature.  His worldy farces– The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman.–  earned him popular adulation… and the scorn of moralists and the Catholic Church.  At the time of his death, French law forbade the burial of actors in the sacred ground of a cemetery. But Molière’s widow, Armande, asked the King if her spouse could be granted a normal funeral at night.  The King– a fan– agreed, and Molière’s body was buried in the section of a cemetery reserved for unbaptized infants.  (Molière’s remains were later transferred to grand Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and re-laid to rest near those of La Fontaine.)

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Written by LW

February 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

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