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Posts Tagged ‘history

“Words cannot do justice to the pleasures of a good bookshop. Ironically.”*…

 

Today, few people are likely to remember James Lackington (1746-1815) and his once-famous London bookshop, The Temple of the Muses, but if, as a customer, you’ve ever bought a remaindered book at deep discount, or wandered thoughtfully through the over-stocked shelves of a cavernous bookstore, or spent an afternoon lounging in the reading area of a bookshop (without buying anything!) then you’ve already experienced some of the ways that Lackington revolutionized bookselling in the late 18th century. And if you’re a bookseller, then the chances are that you’ve encountered marketing strategies and competitive pressures that trace their origins to Lackington’s shop. In the 21st-century marketplace, there is sometimes a longing for an earlier, simpler age, but the uneasy tension between giant and small retailers seems to have been a constant since the beginning. The Temple of the Muses, which was one of the first modern bookstores, was a mammoth enterprise, by far the largest bookstore in England, boasting an inventory of over 500,000 volumes, annual sales of 100,000 books, and yearly revenues of £5,000 (roughly $700,000 today). All of this made Lackington a very wealthy man—admired by some and despised by others—but London’s greatest bookseller began his career inauspiciously as an illiterate shoemaker…

The remarkable story of “The Cheapest Bookstore in the World”– and the birth of the modern bookshop: “The Man Who Invented Bookselling As We Know It.”

* Waterstones, Trafalgar Square (a descendent of The Temple of the Muses)

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As we inhale the blissful scent of ink and paper, we might spare a thought for Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton; he died on this date in 1873.  A novelist, poet, playwright, and politician, he was immensely popular with the reading public in his day and wrote a stream of bestselling novels, which earned him a considerable fortune.  He coined the phrases “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and “dweller on the threshold.”

But he may be best remembered as the inspiration for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, held annually by the English Department of San Jose State University.  Inspired by Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal “It was a dark and stormy night…”** (the opening line of his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford), entrants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” – that is, deliberately bad.

** The full opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

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“Sympathy is the child of imagination”*…

 

This fantastic eye chart — measuring 22 by 28 inches with a positive version on one side and negative on the other — is the work of German optometrist and American Optometric Association member George Mayerle, who was working in San Francisco at end of the nineteenth century, just when optometry was beginning to professionalise. The chart was a culmination of his many years of practice and, according to Mayerle, its distinctive international angle served also to reflect the diversity and immigration which lay at the heart of the city in which he worked. At the time it was advertised as “the only chart published that can be used by people of any nationality”…

Read more– and see the full chart– at “George Mayerle’s Eye Test Chart (ca. 1907).”

* Clarence Darrow

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As we welcome all comers, we might send enlightened birthday greetings to Benjamin Franklin; he was born on this date in 1706.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.  And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.

Relevantly to this post, Franklin invented bifocal glasses.

In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.

– Henry Steele Commager

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Written by LW

January 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Doubtless we cannot see that other higher Spaceland now, because we have no eye in our stomachs”*…

 

An ” Amplituhedron“, an illustration of multi-dimensional spacetime

Our architecture, our education and our dictionaries tell us that space is three-dimensional. The OED defines it as ‘a continuous area or expanse which is free, available or unoccupied … The dimensions of height, depth and width, within which all things exist and move.’ In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant argued that three-dimensional Euclidean space is an a priori necessity and, saturated as we are now in computer-generated imagery and video games, we are constantly subjected to representations of a seemingly axiomatic Cartesian grid. From the perspective of the 21st century, this seems almost self-evident.

Yet the notion that we inhabit a space with any mathematical structure is a radical innovation of Western culture, necessitating an overthrow of long-held beliefs about the nature of reality. Although the birth of modern science is often discussed as a transition to a mechanistic account of nature, arguably more important – and certainly more enduring – is the transformation it entrained in our conception of space as a geometrical construct.

Over the past century, the quest to describe the geometry of space has become a major project in theoretical physics, with experts from Albert Einstein onwards attempting to explain all the fundamental forces of nature as byproducts of the shape of space itself. While on the local level we are trained to think of space as having three dimensions, general relativity paints a picture of a four-dimensional universe, and string theory says it has 10 dimensions – or 11 if you take an extended version known as M-Theory. There are variations of the theory in 26 dimensions, and recently pure mathematicians have been electrified by a version describing spaces of 24 dimensions. But what are these ‘dimensions’? And what does it mean to talk about a 10-dimensional space of being?…

Experience says we live in three dimensions; relativity says four; string theory says it’s 10– or more… What are “dimensions” and how do they affect reality? Margaret Wertheim offers a guide: “Radical dimensions.”

* Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

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As we tax our senses, we might spare a thought for Robert Jemison Van de Graaff; he died on this date in 1967.  A physicist and engineer, he is best remembered for his creation of the Van de Graaff Generator, an electrostatic generator that creates very high electric potentials– very high voltage direct current (DC) electricity (up to 5 megavolts) at low current levels.  A tabletop version can produce on the order of 100,000 volts and can store enough energy to produce a visible spark. Such small Van de Graaff machines are used in physics education to teach electrostatics; larger ones are displayed in some science museums.

Boy touching Van de Graaff generator at The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum. Charged with electricity, his hair strands repel each other and stand out from his head.

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Written by LW

January 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We only have what we give”*…

 

There’s a great deal of concern over whether or not the new tax bill will decrease charitable giving in the U.S.; as noted below, it’s painfully well grounded.  But there may be another threat to not-for-profits on the immediate horizon: competition from politics…

In very late 2016, following the election, and continuing into 2017, there was a surge in donations to not-for-profits like the ACLU, public broadcasting stations, Human Rights Watch, and the Sierra Club– organizations that addressed concerns that donors worried would be given shorter shrift in the new administration.  Patrick Rooney (Director of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at the University of Indiana) recounts:

American individuals, estates, corporations and foundations donated a record US$390 billion to charitable causes in 2016. [It is too early to know the tabulation for 2017.] Total giving grew 1.4 percent, adjusted for inflation. Donations from individuals amounted to nearly three-quarters of all giving and grew more than giving by foundations, corporations or bequests with a 2.6 percent gain to $282 billion…

We have, however, witnessed a shift in giving to groups devoted to animal welfare and environmental issues, as well as international affairs. These categories were so small that we couldn’t track them until 1987.

While they still draw less support than others – religious groups, at $123 billion, and educational institutions and organizations, at nearly $60 billion, still top the list – animal welfare and environment groups and international affairs organizations made big strides in 2016…

But as a result of the new tax bill, Dr. Rooney suggests, there will be roughly $21 billion less per year to charity.  That’s almost four times the amount of growth in the sector last year.  So, if Dr. Rooney is right, the not-for-profits that have lately had the wind at their backs may find themselves sailing into it starting in 2018.  

But that may not be the whole story.  Even as charitable contributions are under pressure, political contributions look poised to rise.  They were already astronomical: 2016 contributions to presidential campaigns were over $2 billion; congressional (Senate and House) races brought in over $4 billion; and state-wide races, over $1,5 billion (all, new highs, and all not counting an unmeasured amount of soft/dark spending).

2018 will, of course, be an election year– one for which interest and momentum are already building.  It’s not a presidential year, of course; still, it promises to be a big one. There’s every indication that Democrats are readying to field a record number candidates at every level in the mid-terms, and to fund them at record levels.  At the same time, it seems clear that Republicans are preparing to match their efforts.  Which is to say:  while there remain concerns about voter engagement, there’s every indication that there will again be an increased level of contributions to the campaigns.

So, the new tax bill is likely to reduce funding to not-for-profits, at the same time that political concerns are likely to make a greater demand on the “giving budget” of Americans.

Research conducted on the 2012 election (pdf), suggest that a donor’s political contributions do not decrease his/her charitable giving.  And with luck, that will hold true through 2018.  But the amounts in question, on both the charitable and the political fronts, continue to rise dramatically… and at some point, there is a limit to the amount that an individual can or will give– especially if that individual is not a member of the 1%… Those not-for-profits that experienced a “Trump Bump” in their funding in late 2016 and 2017 might find that, with the double-whammy of the new tax bill and “competition” from politics, they are facing head-winds in 2018.

I am a scenario planner by trade; I’ve learned the wisdom of contemplating all of the scenarios– the plausible futures– that we might face in order to be ready for any of them.  We certainly hope that there’ll be no hit to charitable contributions; but if this dark scenario unfolds, what do we do?

For the smaller donors who were the backbone of the Clinton and (before that, the Sanders and Obama campaigns), many of whom re-directed their support to charities after the 2016 election, there may come a set of choices:  First, for the many who will no longer itemize, do I continue to contribute though now I can no longer deduct the gift?  And second, for all, a Hobson’s Choice:  do I give to support the non-government organizations stepping in to try to fill needs (services, advocacy) from which government is retreating, or do I support an effort to reconfigure the government so that it pre-empt/address those needs?  The obvious right answers are “yes” and “both,” which may well require all of us to stretch to, if not beyond, the limits of our capacity to give.

For not-for-profits, this a moment to be cautious.  Dr. Rooney’s warning notwithstanding, it may be that Americans have the capacity to sustain their increased contributions at the same time that they increase their political giving.  But the strategically-robust position is to assume that they cannot, and to make plans– if only contingency plans– for level, even reduced contribution income.

Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

* Isabel Allende

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As we dig deeper, we might celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this day marked in his honor.  The holiday was established in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating this federal holiday.  Reagan had opposed the holiday, citing its cost, joining southern Republicans like Jesse Helms, who were more naked in their reasoning; but the enabling legislation had passed by a veto-proof margin.

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“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me”*…

 

In 1878, W.S. Halsey, Commissioner of Inland Customs, reported on the state of British India’s giant hedge. The hedge had grown to more than 1,100 miles long, he wrote, long enough to stretch from Berlin to Moscow. More than half of the barrier, Halsey reported, was made up of “perfect and good green hedge” or “combined green and dry hedge.” In parts, it was 12 feet tall and 14 feet across.

The British Empire had been working on this giant hedge for at least 30 years. It had, at long last, reached “its greatest extent and perfection,” wrote Roy Moxham in The Great Hedge of IndiaIt was an impressive monument to British power and doggedness. One British official wrote that it “could be compared to nothing else in the world except the Great Wall of China.”

As he reported on the extent and health of the hedge, though, Halsey knew its time was coming to an end. That same year, the empire stopped all funding for the mad project, and it was not long before the hedge had disappeared entirely. When Moxham, an English writer, went looking for it in 1996, he couldn’t find a trace…

The strange, sad tale of a quixotic colonial barrier meant to enforce taxes: “The British Once Built a 1,100-Mile Hedge Through the Middle of India.”

* Donald J. Trump

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As we agree with Mark Twain that, while history never repeats itself, it often rhymes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1639 that the Connecticut General Court adopted The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut— considered by many scholars to be the first written constitution that created a government.

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Written by LW

January 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The ghost in the machine”*…

 

Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

* Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)

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As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.

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Written by LW

January 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering, there is nothing real”*…

 

Opium’s history in the United States is as old as the nation itself. During the American Revolution, the Continental and British armies used opium to treat sick and wounded soldiers. Benjamin Franklin took opium late in life to cope with severe pain from a bladder stone. A doctor gave laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with alcohol, to Alexander Hamilton after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

By 1895, morphine and opium powders, like OxyContin and other prescription opioids today, had led to an addiction epidemic that affected roughly 1 in 200 Americans. Before 1900, the typical opiate addict in America was an upper-class or middle-class white woman. Today, doctors are re-learning lessons their predecessors learned more than a lifetime ago…

Doctors then, as now, overprescribed the painkiller to patients in need; and then, as now, government policy had a distinct bias.  Learn more at: “Inside the Story of America’s 19th-Century Opiate Addiction.”

* Andre Malraux

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As we moderate our intake, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Norman Rufus Colin Cohn; he was born on this date in 1915.  A historian of fanaticism, his remarkable The Pursuit of the Millennium, a tracing back of the mythologies associated with medieval apocalyptic movements that characterized– and ultimately marred– the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, was ranked as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century in a survey conducted by The Times Literary Supplement.  He was a Fellow of the British Academy, an honor to which he was nominated by Isaiah Berlin.

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Written by LW

January 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

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