how the moon was created — 6/21/17

Today's selection -- from Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Astrophysicists believe that the Moon was formed when a Mars-sized proto-planet collided with the Earth: "From a distance, our solar system looks empty. If you enclosed it within a sphere -- one large enough to contain the orbit of Neptune, the outermost planet -- then the volume occupied by the Sun, all planets, and their moons would take up a little more than one-trillionth the enclosed space. But it's not empty, the space between the planets contains all manner of chunky rocks, pebbles, ice balls, dust, streams of charged particles, and far-flung probes. The space is also permeated by monstrous gravi­tational and magnetic fields. "Interplanetary space is so not-empty that Earth, during its 30 kilometer-per-second orbital journey, plows through hundreds of tons of meteors per day -- most of them no larger than a grain of ...

a brief guide to the interstate highway system — 6/20/17

Today's selection -- from The Long Haul by Finn Murphy. A trucker's tips for understanding the U.S. Interstate Highway system: "Here's a kind of fun primer for you four-wheeler drivers out there: On the US Interstate Highway System there's always a mile marker represented by a small green sign on the right shoulder. Truckers call them lollipops or yardsticks. Within each state, mile markers run south to north, so in South Carolina mile marker 1 is one mile from the Georgia border, and mile marker 199 is at the North Carolina border. On a horizontal plane, mile markers run west to east, so on I-80 in Pennsylvania mile marker 311 is at the New Jersey border, and mile marker 1 is near the Ohio border. When truckers communicate with each other, they use lollipops to give a location such as 'Kojak with a Kodak 201 sun­set,' meaning a state ...

the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century — 6/19/17

Today's selection -- from The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the plight of blacks in America got decidedly worse, with voting rights effectively removed and economic opportunities vastly curtailed. Then came the First World War, which brought accelerated demand for industrial production in the factories of the northern United States, and an opportunity for "escape" for Southern blacks: "[Blacks] fled as if under a spell or a high fever. 'They left as though they were fleeing some curse,' wrote the scholar Emmett J. Scott. 'They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket, and they left with the intention of staying.' ... They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. ... "It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage ...

the origins of america’s national parks — 6/16/17

Today's selection -- from The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley. In early American history, the promotion of nature preserves and national parks came from elite gentleman hunters and fishermen. In fact, the legendary painter John James Audubon, considered a founder of America's conservation movement, was an avid huntsman. Notably, President Andrew Jackson was not a supporter of nature preserves. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who is remembered for his enthusiastic support for conservation and national parks: "[In the early 1900s, President Theodore] Roosevelt and [American Museum of Natural History curator Frank] Chapman weren't unique in their promotion of vast re­serves. They were, in fact, reviving conservationist convictions that had been stalled by shortsighted politicians. Since the American Revolution the idea of game bird laws and habitat conservation had struck a respon­sive chord. In 1828 President John Quincy Adams set aside more than 1,378 acres of live oaks on Santa Rosa ...

incentives can impede productivity — 6/15/17

Today's encore selection -- from Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. Financial incentives, or "pay-for-performance," have been demonstrated as effective for improving productivity in jobs that are repetitive or transactional. But as the type of work in our society increasingly evolves toward creative work -- such as designing new software, creating new marketing campaigns or inventing new products -- it is worth noting that not only are financial incentives less effective in eliciting improved performance for this type of work, they can actually impede performance: "Behavioral scientists often divide what we do on the job or learn in school into two categories: 'algorithmic' and 'heuristic.' An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there's an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no ...

chiang kai-shek was surrounded by yes men — 6/14/17

Today's selection -- from Chiang Kai-Shek by Jonathan Fenby. Imperial China had been overthrown in the Revolution of 1911, which was most closely associated with Dr. Sun Yat-sen. But this revolution led to years of internal wars among Sun's successors, especially Chiang Kai-Shek, and a number of regional warlords. Chiang eventually emerged as China's new leader, but led his poorly prepared army to disastrous results against Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. Chiang's leadership was characterized by gross mismanagement and corruption, and by 1949 the Communist Party under Mao Zedong had taken over the country: "After the outbreak of [the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937], Chiang had been given dictatorial 'emergency powers'. He was free to act as he wished in military, party and political matters, and to issue decrees as he chose. Chronically incapable of delegating or of letting any organisation escape from his grasp, he amassed jobs ...

the historical origin of the amazons — 6/13/17

Today's selection -- from Amazons by Adrienne Mayor. With the current success of the movie Wonder Woman, who is presented in the movie and in comic books as having come from among the Amazons, we take a brief look at the origin of the these warriors: "Who were the Amazons?

Amazon wearing trousers and carrying a shield

c.470 BC, British Museum, London.
"In Greek myth, Amazons were fierce warrior women of exotic East­ern lands, as courageous and skilled in battle as the mightiest Greek he­roes. Amazons were major characters not only in the legendary Trojan War but also in the chronicles of the greatest Greek city-state, Athens. "Every great champion of myth -- Heracles, Theseus, Achilles -- proved his valor by overcoming powerful warrior queens and their armies of women. Those glorious struggles against foreign man-killers were re­counted in oral tales and written epics and illustrated in countless art­works ...

the mystery of dark matter — 6/12/17

Today's selection -- from Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Eighty-five percent of all the gravitational force in the universe comes from a source we cannot identify: "...We've now been waiting nearly a century for somebody to tell us why the bulk of all the gravitational force that we've measured in the universe -- about eighty-five percent of it -- arises from substances that do not otherwise interact with 'our' matter or energy. Or maybe the excess gravity doesn't come from matter and energy at all, but ema­nates from some other conceptual thing. In any case, we are essentially clueless. We find ourselves no closer to an answer today than we were when this 'missing mass' problem was first fully analyzed in 1937 by the Swiss­American astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky. ... "Zwicky studied the movement of individ­ual galaxies within a titanic cluster of them, located far beyond ...

hemingway took away the nazis’ pants — 6/9/17

Today's selection -- from Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. In August of 1944, the Nazis were losing control of Paris, a city they had occupied since 1940. Aware that the U.S. Army was now marching across France, Parisians began occupying government buildings and putting up barricades. Berlin ordered two Panzer tank divisions south to Paris to "restore order in the city at any price". Hope now lay with the Americans, who were just 30 miles from Paris: Two Panzer divisions ... were on their way south. [Generalfeld-marshall Walther Model] had only one sharp parting phrase [for Paris' commander General Dietrich von Choltitz] 'Restore order in the city at any price.' "The streets of Paris which, a few hours earlier, had rung with the proud words 'Aux Barricades!' now echoed a more anguished cry, rising up from those first flimsy fortifications. It was 'The ...

the horrors of surgery in the nineteenth century — 6/8/17

Today's encore selection -- from Dr. Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. Surgical lectures at medical universities in the early 19nth century were brutal, for the teacher, student and patient. Medical training was limited, tools were often not sterile (in some cases a wound oozing and pus filled would indicate a successful surgery), and anesthesia was limited to wine: "In Philadelphia, there were two great medical colleges -- the University of Pennsylvania and Jef­ferson Medical College -- and it was customary for the rival schools to hold surgical demonstrations so that prospective students could choose between them, a glorified public relations exercise. ... The lectures were often packed, as eager established and prospective doctors thrilled at the city's best sur­geons attempting to outdo one another with their skill and showmanship. However, the combination of ambitious surgeries and unprepared young [doctors] sometimes proved disastrous. On one occasion, a Jefferson Medical College professor ...

the illegal “pig” trade — 6/7/17

Today's selection -- from Sun Yat-sen by Harold Z. Schiffrin. Sun Yat-Sen was one of China's most important revolutionaries and the founding father of the Republic of China. Because of poverty, a number of his relatives made the dangerous journey to work in America. They were among the hua-ch'iao, (the overseas Chinese, referred to in other countries by the derogatory term "coolie"), some of whom spent thirty years working abroad to provide for their families before returning to live the last few years of their lives with their families: "[Sun Yat-sen's father] Ta-ch'eng's meager holdings -- no more than half an acre -- were not enough to support his family, and after the fifth child, Wen (Sun Yat-sen's original given name), was born he took on extra work as the village watchman. He also engaged in petty trading and in various odd jobs. The rest of the family helped; ...

his choice was hanging or cutting off his own ears — 6/6/17

Today's selection -- from Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock. Histories of the American Revolution tend to gloss over the violence of that war, often leaving the impression that it was a civilized war. These same histories tend to minimize the presence of colonials that remained loyal to the British crown. Yet it was a violent, cruel war, and this violence was often savagely played out in conflicts between those colonials who wanted to separate from Britain [Patriots or Whigs] and those who remained loyal to the crown [Loyalists or Tories]: "The night after the battle [of Kings Mountain in 1780] presented a grim scene: 'The groans of the wounded and dying on the mountain were truly affecting­ -- begging pitteously for a little water; but in the hurry, confusion, and exhaustion of the Whigs, these cries, when emenating from the Tories, were little heeded.' ... The following day the ...

scotland, william wallace, and the english king — 6/5/17

Today's selection -- from Edward I by Andy King. For centuries, England attempted to conquer Scotland. That struggle continued until 1707, when Scotland entered into a political union with the Kingdom of England to create the new Kingdom of Great Britain. Even today, that alliance rests uneasy with a narrowly-lost 2014 referendum to separate from Britain, and the current discussion to separate as a consequence of Brexit. One of the early attempts to conquer Scotland was in 1296 under King Edward I. As was often the case, Scotland buttressed its defenses against England by reaching out to European nations, especially France. William Wallace, glamorized by Hollywood in the movie Braveheart, played a minor part:
The site of the battle of Stirling Bridge
"The Scots had allied with the French against the English before, notably during the reigns of Henry II and John; faced with the increasing intrusiveness of Edward's ...

theodore roosevelt versus mark twain — 6/2/17

Today's selection -- from The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer. The late 1800s were the years in which European powers, especially England, aggressively expanded their empires across Africa and Asia. With the Spanish-American War of 1898, some in the United States were tempted to pursue this same course. This led to a great national debate between the "expansionists" and the "anti-imperialists": "Many Americans wished to see [freedom's] blessings spread around the world. In 1898 they began disagreeing passionately on how to spread those blessings.
"Anti-imperialists saw themselves as defenders of freedom because they wanted foreign peoples to rule themselves, not be ruled by Ameri­cans. They saw the seizure of faraway lands as blasphemy against what Herman Melville called 'the great God absolute! The center and circum­ference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!' "Expansionists found this preposterous. They believed that concepts like freedom, equality, and self-government had meaning ...

the computer mouse — 6/1/17

Today's encore selection -- from What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff. The computer mouse. In 1964, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) invented what became known as the computer mouse. It was called the mouse because it 'chased' the cursor, then known as CAT, on the screen: "Engelbart had almost -- but not quite -- hit upon the concept of the mouse in his original 1962 paper. With his NASA funding, he began exploring pointing devices and became interested in the problem of selecting text or graphics objects that were displayed on his screen. The goal of the study was to discover which device would allow a user to get to a given point on the screen most quickly as well as repeatedly with the fewest errors. ... "Other kinds of pointing devices were already in use, including light pens, trackballs, and tablets with styli. The RAND Corporation ...

comic books are dangerous — 5/31/17

Today's selection -- from The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. In 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature published a blacklist of comics it viewed as dangerous, including the immensely popular new comic Wonder Woman. Comic book publishers turned to psychiatrists to try and disprove this claim: "It seemed to [Wonder Woman publisher] Charlie Gaines like so much good, clean, superpatriotic fun. But in March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of 'Publications Disapproved for Youth.' The list was used in local decency crusades: crusaders were supposed to visit news dealers and ask them to take titles off their shelves. Wonder Woman was banned. ... "'Our youth are in danger,' [Anthony] Comstock warned [about dime store novels while campaigning against obscenity in 1884]. 'Mentally and morally they are cursed by a literature that is a disgrace to the nineteenth century....

“democracy” as a civil religion — 5/30/17

Today's selection -- from Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) an American poet, essayist and journalist. Both hoped for a thoroughly secular "democracy" as a civil religion displacing conventional religion: "Whitman and Dewey were among the prophets of [an American] civic religion. They offered a new account of what America was, in the hope of mobilizing Americans as political agents. The most striking feature of their redescription of our coun­try is its thoroughgoing secularism. In the past, most of the stories that have incited nations to projects of self-improve­ment have been stories about their obligations to one or more gods. For much of European and American history, na­tions have asked themselves how they appear in the eyes of the Christian God. American exceptionalism has usually been a belief in special divine favor, as in the writings ...

america creates a new world order at bretton woods — 5/26/17

Today's selection -- from The Accidental Super Power by Peter Zeihan. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. was so globally dominant that it could create a new economic order announced at Bretton Woods that relieved both allies and former enemies of much need for military defense and entitled them to free trade access to the rest of the world. It led to decades of global peace and the economic defeat of the Soviet Union. However, Zeihan argues that the cost of this arrangement to the U.S. has been high: "[With the looming post-war threat of the Soviet Union,] what the Americans needed were not just allies to help carry the defense burden, but allies who were so eager that they would be willing to stand up against the awesome force of the Red Army, a Red Army that was still roused by the fact that ...

we are surrounded by dinosaurs — 5/25/17

Today's encore selection -- from Birdology by Sy Montgomery. Birds, which are more different from us than any other class of creatures we commonly see, can see polarized and ultraviolet light, can experience colors we can never know, can sense the earth's magnetic field, and can navigate using subtle changes in odor and barometric pressure: "Birds are the only wild animals most people see every day. No matter where we live, birds live with us. Too many of us take them for granted. We don't appreciate how very strange they are, how different. We don't realize what otherworldly creatures birds are. Their hearts look like those of crocodiles. Birds are covered with modi­fied scales -- we call them feathers. Their bones are hollow, permeated with extensive air sacs. They have no hands. They give birth to eggs.
"No other scientific classification of living creature we commonly see is so different ...

norse mythology was foreboding — 5/24/17

Today's selection -- from Literary Wonderlands by Editor Laura Miller. Planned as a textbook, The Prose Edda, is a collection of Norse mythology written by Snorri Sturluson around 1220. Here we read a summary of the collection. A note, for those who are curious, explore American Gods and Norse Mythology both by Neil Gaiman: "Snorri's main purpose in writing The Prose Edda was to provide a guide to poetic diction and allu­sion for future poets. He drew on and quoted older poems, both heroic and mythological, of which many survive as a group called The Poetic Edda. "Snorri's text describes a variety of interrelated worlds: The gods ( or Æsir) live in Asgard; the giants in Jötunheim; Svartalfaheim is home to the dwarfs; Alfheim is where the 'light-elves' live; and Niflheim is a dark world of pri­meval chaos. The world of humans is a flat disk encircled by ocean, ...