On life support since 2006: R.I.P., VHS

December 24, 2008

The last U.S. source of pre-recorded VHS videos has pulled the plug.

VHS is dead, but for the twitches of life carrying on in schools and homes where people cling to the format Hollywood has not supported for the past two years.

Stories in ArsTechnica and The Los Angeles Times say Distribution Video Audio, the last U.S. supplier, will toss its inventory in early 2009.

After three decades of steady if unspectacular service, the spinning wheels of the home-entertainment stalwart are slowing to a halt at retail outlets. On a crisp Friday morning in October, the final truckload of VHS tapes rolled out of a Palm Harbor, Fla., warehouse run by Ryan J. Kugler, the last major supplier of the tapes.

“It’s dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt,” said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. “I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I’m done. Anything left in warehouse we’ll just give away or throw away.”

How much longer can DVD hold on?

Asked how the death of VHS might affect U.S. education, Mrs. Americanteacher said, “Hold on, I need to stoke the wood in the stove here, and clean the chalkboard.  Just a minute.  I’ll get back to you.”

VHS was about 30 years old.

Interment will be in thousands of landfills across North America, though some relics will be sent to small shrines in bars and bodegas around the world, mostly in second- and third-world countries.


Who invented Santa Claus, and the Night Before Christmas?

December 24, 2008

An encore post from 2007

Thomas Nast invented Santa Claus? Clement C. Moore didn’t write the famous poem that starts out, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house . . . ?”

The murky waters of history from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub soak even our most cherished ideas and traditions.

But isn’t that part of the fun of history?

Santa Claus delivers to Union soldiers, "Santa Claus in Camp" - Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Jan 3, 1863

Thomas Nast’s first published drawing featuring Santa Claus; for Harper’s Weekly, “A Journal of Civilization,” January 3, 1863 Nast portrayed the elf distributing packages to Union troops: “Santa Claus in camp.” Nast (1840-1904) was 23 when he drew this image.

Yes, Virginia (and California, too)! Thomas Nast created the image of Santa Claus most of us in the U.S. know today. Perhaps even more significant than his campaign against the graft of Boss Tweed, Nast’s popularization of a fat, jolly elf who delivers good things to people for Christmas makes one of the great stories in commercial illustration. Nast’s cartoons, mostly for the popular news publication Harper’s Weekly, created many of the conventions of modern political cartooning and modeled the way in which an illustrator could campaign for good, with his campaign against the graft of Tammany Hall and Tweed. But Nast’s popular vision of Santa Claus can be said to be the foundation for the modern mercantile flurry around Christmas.

Nast is probably ensconced in a cartoonists’ hall of fame. Perhaps he should be in a business or sales hall of fame, too.  [See also Bill Casselman’s page, “The Man Who Designed Santa Claus.]

Nast’s drawings probably drew some inspiration from the poem, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” traditionally attributed to Clement C. Moore, a New York City lawyer, published in 1822. The poem is among the earliest to describe the elf dressed in fur, and magically coming down a chimney to leave toys for children; the poem invented the reindeer-pulled sleigh.

Modern analysis suggests the poem was not the work of Moore, and many critics and historians now attribute it to Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828) following sleuthing by Vassar College Prof. Don Foster in 2000. Fortunately for us, we do not need to be partisans in such a query to enjoy the poem (a complete copy of which is below the fold).

The Library of Congress still gives Moore the credit. When disputes arise over who wrote about the night before Christmas, is it any wonder more controversial topics produce bigger and louder disputes among historians?

Moore was not known for being a poet. The popular story is that he wrote it on the spur of the moment:

Moore is thought to have composed the tale, now popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” on December 24, 1822, while traveling home from Greenwich Village, where he had bought a turkey for his family’s Christmas dinner.

Inspired by the plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errand through the snow-covered streets of New York City, Moore penned A Visit from St. Nicholas for the amusement of his six children, with whom he shared the poem that evening. His vision of St. Nicholas draws upon Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appears at Christmas time, as well as the German legend of a visitor who enters homes through chimneys.

Again from the Library of Congress, we get information that suggests that Moore was a minor celebrity from a well-known family with historical ties that would make a good “connections” exercise in a high school history class, perhaps (”the link from Aaron Burr’s treason to Santa Claus?”): (read more, below the fold)

Clement Moore was born in 1779 into a prominent New York family. His father, Benjamin Moore, president of Columbia University, in his role as Episcopal Bishop of New York participated in the inauguration of George Washington as the nation’s first president. The elder Moore also administered last rites to Alexander Hamilton after he was mortally wounded in a tragic duel with Aaron Burr.

A graduate of Columbia, Clement Moore was a scholar of Hebrew and a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. [See comment from Pam Bumsted below for more on Moore.] He is said to have been embarrassed by the light-hearted verse, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823. Moore did not publish it under his name until 1844.

Tonight, American children will be tucked in under their blankets and quilts and read this beloved poem as a last “sugarplum” before slipping into dreamland. Before they drift off, treat them to a message from Santa, recorded by the Thomas Edison Company in 1922.

Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph
By Arthur A. Penn, Performed by Harry E. Humphrey.
Edison, 1922.
Coupling date: 6/20/1922. Cutout date: 10/31/1929.
Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Listen to this recording (RealAudio Format)

Listen to this recording (wav Format, 8,471 Kb)

But Henry Livingston was no less noble or historic. He hailed from the Livingtons of the Hudson Valley (one of whose farms is now occupied by Camp Rising Sun of the Louis August Jonas Foundation, a place where I spent four amazing summers teaching swimming and lifesaving). Livingston’s biography at the University of Toronto site offers another path for a connections exercise (”What connects the Declaration of Independence, the American invasion of Canada, the famous poem about a visit from St. Nick, and George W. Bush?”):

Henry Livingston Jr. was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on Oct. 13, 1748. The Livingston family was one of the important colonial and revolutionary families of New York. The Poughkeepsie branch, descended from Gilbert, the youngest son of Robert Livingston, 1st Lord of Livingston Manor, was not as well off as the more well-known branches, descended from sons Robert and Philip. Two other descendants of Gilbert Livingston, President George Walker Herbert Bush and his son, President-Elect George W. Bush, though, have done their share to bring attention to this line. Henry’s brother, Rev. John Henry Livingston, entered Yale at the age of 12, and was able to unite the Dutch and American branches of the Dutch Reformed Church. At the time of his death, Rev. Livingston was president of Rutgers University. Henry’s father and brother Gilbert were involved in New York politics, and Henry’s granduncle was New York’s first Lt. Governor. But the law was the natural home for many of Henry’s family. His brother-in-law, Judge Jonas Platt, was an unsuccessful candidate for governor, as was his daughter Elizabeth’s husband, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson. Henry’s grandson, Sidney Breese, was Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Known for his encyclopedic knowledge and his love of literature, Henry Livingston was a farmer, surveyor and Justice of the Peace, a judicial position dealing with financially limited criminal and civil cases. One of the first New Yorkers to enlist in the Revolutionary Army in 1775, Major Henry Livingston accompanied his cousin’s husband, General Montgomery, in his campaign up the Hudson River to invade Canada, leaving behind his new wife, Sarah Welles, and their week-old baby, on his Poughkeepsie property, Locust Grove. Baby Catherine was the subject of the first poem currently known by Major Livingston. Following this campaign, Livingston was involved in the War as a Commissioner of Sequestration, appropriating lands owned by British loyalists and selling them for the revolutionary cause. It was in the period following Sarah’s early death in 1783, that Major Livingston published most of his poems and prose, anonymously or under the pseudonym of R. Ten years after the death of Sarah, Henry married Jane Patterson, the daughter of a Dutchess County politician and sister of his next-door neighbor. Between both wives, Henry fathered twelve children. He published his good-natured, often occasional verse from 1787 in many journals, including Political Barometer, Poughkeepsie Journal, and New-York Magazine. His most famous poem, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” was until 2000 thought to have been the work of Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), who published it with his collected poems in 1844. Livingston died Feb. 29, 1828.

More on Henry Livingston and his authorship of the Christmas poem here.

Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa Claus, Harper's Weekly, Jan 1, 1881

 

Our views of Santa Claus owe a great deal also to the Coca-Cola advertising campaign. Coca-Cola first noted Santa’s use of the drink in a 1922 campaign to suggest Coke was a year-round drink (100 years after the publication of Livingston’s poem). The company’s on-line archives gives details:

In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The ad featured the world’s largest soda fountain, which was located in the department store of Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, Mo. Mizen’s painting was used in print ads that Christmas season, appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in December 1930.

1936 Coca-Cola Santa cardboard store display

  • 1936 Coca-Cola Santa cardboard store display

Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the next campaign to show a wholesome Santa as both realistic and symbolic. In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa, as Mizen’s work had portrayed him.
1942 original oil painting - 'They Remembered Me'

  • 1942 original oil painting – ‘They Remembered Me’

For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of Santa that was warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human. For the next 33 years, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa that helped to create the modern image of Santa — an interpretation that today lives on in the minds of people of all ages, all over the world.

Santa Claus is a controversial figure. Debates still rage among parents about the wisdom of allowing the elf into the family’s home, and under what conditions. Theologians worry that the celebration of Christmas is diluted by the imagery. Other faiths worry that the secular, cultural impact of Santa Claus damages their own faiths (few other faiths have such a popular figure, and even atheists generally give gifts and participate in Christmas rituals such as putting up a decorated tree).

For over 100 years, Santa Claus has been a popular part of commercial, cultural and religious life in America. Has any other icon endured so long, or so well?

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________________________
Below:
From the University of Toronto Library’s Representative Poetry Online

Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828)

Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas

1 ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
2 Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
3 The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
4 In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
5 The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
6 While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,
7 And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
8 Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap –
9 When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
10 I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
11 Away to the window I flew like a flash,
12 Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
13 The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
14 Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
15 When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
16 But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
17 With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
18 I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
19 More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
20 And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
21 “Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
22 “On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
23 “To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
24 “Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
25 As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
26 When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
27 So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
28 With the sleigh full of Toys — and St. Nicholas too:
29 And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
30 The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
31 As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
32 Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
33 He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
34 And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
35 A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
36 And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
37 His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,
38 His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
39 His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.
40 And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
41 The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
42 And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
43 He had a broad face, and a little round belly
44 That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
45 He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
46 And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
47 A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
48 Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
49 He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
50 And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
51 And laying his finger aside of his nose
52 And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
53 He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
54 And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
55 But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight –
56 Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Remember the Pueblo, the crew and Commander Bucher, and the Great Hoaxes of 1968

December 24, 2008

They are safely back on American soil.  Except for the boat, the U.S.S. Pueblo, which remains in North Korea, the biggest bauble for a failed North Korean government that clings to power at the price of the lives of its people.

 General Charles H. Bonesteel III, U.S. Army, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, (left) and Rear Admiral Edwin M. Rosenberg, USN, Commander Task Force 76, (right) greet members of Pueblos crew as they arrive at the U.N. Advance Camp, Korean Demilitarized Zone, on 23 December 1968, following their release by the North Korean government. USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and her crew had been captured off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Note Christmas decorations.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

General Charles H. Bonesteel III, U.S. Army, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, (left) and Rear Admiral Edwin M. Rosenberg, USN, Commander Task Force 76, (right) greet members of Pueblo's crew as they arrive at the U.N. Advance Camp, Korean Demilitarized Zone, on 23 December 1968, following their release by the North Korean government. USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and her crew had been captured off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Note Christmas decorations. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

40 years ago, yesterday, the crew of the Pueblo was repatriated, after 11 months of grueling prison time, and torture, and hoaxes that best demonstrate American views on authority.

Harry Iredell, one of the most active chroniclers of the Pueblo, wrote:

On December 23rd, 11 months to the day of their capture, the crew of the PUEBLO walked, one every 15 seconds, across the Bridge of no Return to freedom and the opportunity to live the rest of their lives.

I had expected to write a lot more about 1968 through this year, the 40th anniversary — but events overtake a part-time blogger, often, and I am no exception.

I would like to see some recognition given to the crew of Pueblo at the end of this year.  They deserve it for their great service to our nation, in the first place.

But in the second place, their story is a talisman of what happened to the U.S. in that stormy year, a year that I believe was one of the most traumatic in U.S. history.  It was a year of bad news mostly, from Vietnam, in civil rights with the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in politics with the assassination of New York’s Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. on the night he won the California primary in the presidential race. One reason we think to remember the good news of Apollo 8 at the end of the year, is that the rest of 1968 was so bad.  Apollo 8’s stunning success in the last week of the year was a refreshing and hopeful contrast to the despairing news from the rest of the year.  Even the release of the Pueblo crew did not erase the bad taste from the capture, and their torture by North Korea.

Here is what I wrote about 1968 a while ago, in “Penetration however slight:  More on a good and noble hoax — the U.S.S. Pueblo” :

1968 was depressing.

What was so bad? Vietnam manifested itself as a quagmire. Just when Washington politicians predicted an end in sight, Vietcong militia launched a nationwide attack in South Vietnam on the Vietnamese New Year holiday, Tet, at the end of January. Civil rights gains stalled, and civil rights leaders came out in opposition to the Vietnam war. President Johnson fared poorly in the New Hampshire primary election, and eventually dropped out of the race for the presidency (claiming he needed to devote time to making peace in Vietnam). Labor troubles roiled throughout the U.S., including a nasty strike by garbage collectors in Memphis. It didn’t help to settle the strike that the sanitation workers were almost 100% African American, the leadership of Memphis was almost 100% white, and race relations in the city were not so good as they might have been – the strike attracted the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – who was assassinated there in early April. In response, riots broke out in 150 American cities.

Two months later, in June, with the Vietnam War as a very divisive issue, the presidential campaign was marked by great distress of voters and increasing polarization. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy appeared to pull into the lead when he won the California primary in June, but he was assassinated that night. Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters, angry at President Johnson, showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – with Johnson out of the race, the protests were essentially for show. Mayor Richard J. Daley took offense at the protesters, and Chicago policemen, who considered themselves the political opposites of the shaggy-haired protesters, attacked the protesters with clubs and tear gas. A national commission later called it a “police riot.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey could not make his opposition to the Vietnam War known soon enough or broadly enough, and had a tough campaign against Republican, former Vice President Richard Nixon, who promised that he had a “secret” peace plan for Vietnam. Nixon won in a squeaker. Nixon had no secret peace plan.

At the end of the year, the U.S. got a feel-good story out of the Apollo Project, when NASA launched Apollo 8, which orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve.

Throughout the year, there was the continuing sore of Americans held captive by the Republic of North Korea.

Commander Lloyd M. Bucher and the men of the U.S.S. Pueblo were captured by a superior force of North Korean gunboats on January 23, 1968, a few days before the Tet Offensive. The capture and 11 months of captivity were a trial for the 84 men, and an embarrassment for the U.S. Tortured and unable to effect an escape, Bucher and his men did the next best thing: They played hoaxes that made the North Koreans look silly.

Among other things, Cmdr. Bucher had signed a confession demanded (by torture) by North Korea. When news of this confession was revealed in the western press, observers were concerned that a U.S. citizen would succumb to making what was regarded as a false confession, but a coup for communist totalitarians. The texts of the confessions and other material from the captives, however, revealed something quite different. The confessions were written or edited largely by Bucher and the crew, and to an American with any familiarity with popular culture, they were hilarious.

My recollection was that at least one of the confessions was that the Pueblo had indeed penetrated North Korean territorial waters, but it was phrased to make it sound like the definition of rape offered in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). I could not find any record of that confession on the internet.

At some length, I succeeded in getting a copy of the out-of-print autobiography of Cmdr. Bucher, to check my memory of the confessions. The book is out of print. I found a couple of copies at a used book vendor, very inexpensive, through Amazon.com. However, shortly after ordering the books, I was informed by both the Post Office and the vendor that the books had been destroyed by sorting machinery. Fortunately, they had been shipped separately, and one finally arrived.

Unfortunately, the “Final, final confession” does not contain what I recall. However, the book revealed that after the writing of the “Final, final,” Bucher’s crew was asked to write more – apologies to the people of North Korea, and other propaganda documents. It was in those documents that the text I recalled, appeared.

2008 marks 40 years since that terrible year, 40 years since the Pueblo incident. For the sake of posterity, and to aid your lesson plans, here is the part of the confessions I recall which has not been available lately.

Bucher: My Story, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, USN, with Mark Rascovich, Doubleday 1970, Dell 1971; p. 342

We did in fact get away with a composition that matched my Final, Final Confession for brazen kidding of the KORCOMS, and which far surpassed it in subtlety. Blended into the standard Communist verbosity were such lines of our own as:

“We, as conscientious human beings who were cast upon the rocks and shoals of immorality by the tidal waves of Washington’s naughty policies know that neither the frequency nor the distances of these transgressions into the territorial waters of this sovereign peace-loving nation matter because penetration however slight is sufficient to complete the act. (“Rocks and Shoals” is Navy slang for the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the last line contains the essential definition of rape.)

This was both delivered over film and TV and published in the “Ping-pong Times.” The Glorious General was well pleased and set the same team to working on the next letter.

North Korea was anxious to cash in on the propaganda opportunities of the confessions and other material, and spread these documents as far as their naïve public relations offices could. Eventually, in late November or early December, a photograph of the captives, intended to show them healthy and having a good time, was distributed to newspapers. In the photo, the crew were shown smiling on a basketball court, holding a basketball, with a few of their North Korean guards. The photo was not published widely in the United States, however, because almost to a man, the crew were displaying what they had told the North Koreans was a “Hawaiian good luck symbol” – extended middle fingers. U.S. papers thought the photo inappropriate. European papers published it, however, and eventually Time Magazine ran the photo, with an explanation.

When news got back to Pyong Yang that the North Koreans had been hoaxed, the North Koreans instituted a week of beatings and torture. Within a couple of weeks, however, the North Koreans handed over the crew back to the U.S., at Panmunjon. U.S. officials were convinced that their signing an insincere confession got the Pueblo crew released. Anyone who ever read O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief suspected the North Koreans got the crew out of North Korea before they could hoax the government completely away.

Fortunately, Lloyd Bucher and the crew of the Pueblo did not follow H. L. Mencken’s advice after the Fillmore Bathtub hoax, and swear off hoaxes completely.

The “confessions” were hoaxes, great and glorious hoaxes in the best “Kilroy was here” spirit of American fighting forces.  Unsure that they wouldn’t be executed, after being tortured, American Navy people still had the piss and vinegar to kick their captors in the ass.

A Navy Yeoman Second Class holds a U.S. flag, to be used to drape the coffin of Seaman Duane Hodges, who was killed when USS Pueblo  (AGER-2) was captured by the North Koreans off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Seaman Hodges body was returned to American custody with the ships other crewmen, at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, 23 December 1968.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph

A Navy Yeoman Second Class holds a U.S. flag, to be used to drape the coffin of Seaman Duane Hodges, who was killed when USS Pueblo (AGER-2) was captured by the North Koreans off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Seaman Hodges' body was returned to American custody with the ship's other crewmen, at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, 23 December 1968. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

There ought to be a special medal for that sort of stuff.  There isn’t.  More people should know and remember the story.  Not enough do.

Resources:

At Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

Other sources



CNN Poll: 20% of Americans

December 23, 2008

Either 20% of Americans have never heard of Aaron Burr, or only 20% of Americans are paying attention.  I can’t decide which, but this CNN poll clearly points to one, or the other, depending on your view:

WASHINGTON (CNN) – A new national poll suggests that one of out of five Americans think that Dick Cheney is the worst vice president in American history.

Twenty-three percent of those questioned in a CNN-Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday say that Cheney is the country’s worst vice president, when compared to his predecessors. Another 41 percent feel that Cheney is a poor vice president, with 34 percent rating him a good number two.

Only 1 percent of those polled say that Cheney is the best vice president in U.S. history.

Aaron Burr, Library of Congress image

Aaron Burr, Library of Congress image

Vice President Richard Cheney, White House photo

Vice President Richard Cheney, White House photo

Aaron Burr, you recall, is the vice president who, when the electoral college organization goofed and put him into a tie with Thomas Jefferson for president, suddenly thought he was better qualified than Jefferson and tried to take the race from him; the only vice president ever tried for treason; and the fellow whose dueling killed Alexander Hamilton, the financial genius of our nation’s early years.

20% of Americans think Cheney was worse than Aaron Burr?  Wow.  Just wow.

Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton, or Dick Cheney hunting doves in Texas?

Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton, or Dick Cheney hunting doves in Texas?


Robert Zajonc, and what he revealed to teachers, politicians, and propagandists

December 23, 2008

The Situationist brings the sad news:  Psychologist Robert Zajonc died on December 3. (It’s a repost of a story by Adam Gorlick from Stanford News Service.)

Zajonc wasn’t a household name (I didn’t even know it rhymes with “science”), but his research was.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Plus, he led a stunning, dramatic and sometimes wonderful life, surviving horrors in the Holocaust and contributing great things to science.

Gorlick’ s memorial may be best read there, and I encourage you to click over there to read it.

Several of  Zajonc’s articles are listed as “Classics” at Science Magazine, including his 1981 defense of research spending, in the first year of the Reagan administration.

I also urge you to consider what teachers might do with some of Zajonc’s findings, things that propagandists and dastardly politicians (and a few nice politicians) have already used:

  • People like images they see over and over, the “mere exposure” effect  (It’s important what pictures you post in your classroom, yes?)
  • Parental contact with older children can raise their IQs — well, parental contact does raise the IQs of older children, but having less time for younger children tends to keep the younger kids’ IQs from developing as much.  (Did you read to your youngest kid last night?)
  • Challenging kids to tell why things work the way they claim makes them smarter. (This was the same research:  The younger kids’ challenging the older kids made the older kids smarter.  Heck, their challenging of the parents probably make the parents smarter, too.  Do we make students defend their views to other students?)
  • Facial expression affects emotions (“Emotions and Facial Expression,” Zajonc, Science 8 November 1985: 608-687; DOI: 10.1126/science.230.4726.608-b)
  • People who perform tasks well, perform them even better in front of an audience.
  • People who perform an unknown task before an audience tend to make more mistakes than they would if they practiced it in private.

Some of Professor Zajonc’s most influential work concerned “social facilitation” — the effect of the presence of others on a person’s performance of a specific task. Previous research on the subject appeared contradictory, suggesting that spectators helped performers in some cases but not in others. But in which cases?

What Professor Zajonc found was that when performers have mastered a skill at a high level, they are helped by the presence of an audience. (Think of professional musicians or athletes.) But he also found that when a performer has mastered a skill only imperfectly, the existence of onlookers is a hindrance. (Think of Sunday duffers in any arena.)

Elsewhere in his work, Professor Zajonc explored the nexus between psychology and physiology. In one widely reported study, he found that smiling or frowning can alter blood flow to the brain as facial muscles relax or contract. This in turn affects the parts of the brain that regulate feelings, helping induce happy or sad emotional states.

And do you ever wonder about why old couples tend to resemble each other so much?  Zajonc worked that out, too.

Why didn’t he get a Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Resources:


Want to poison Boise? Apply within

December 23, 2008

Ada County, Idaho, is home to the state capital, Boise.

As with most county governments in the U.S., a lot of work is delegated to groups that are governed or advised by citizen boards.  Volunteers make up these boards.  In many municipalities, it’s difficult to recruit good citizens to do the work.

Perhaps Ada County is having difficulty getting volunteers to worry about mosquito abatement. Maybe that’s why the advertisement at the city’s unofficial “City Smart”  website urges unnecessary DDT poisoning of the town.

Tell Ada County What to Do

The Ada County Courthouse, in Boise Idaho.  HPB photo by LCA Architects

The Ada County Courthouse, in Boise Idaho. HPB photo by LCA Architects

Feeling disenfranchised? Not happy with how the elections turned out? Well, there is still a way for you to impact the body politic in Ada County—the County Board of Commissioners is calling for volunteers to serve as advisors on a number of boards.

The County Commissioners, Paul Woods, Rick Yzaguirre, and Fred Tilman, made the appeal for volunteer advisors in the most recent edition of Ada County’s monthly newsletter.

“The county has numerous volunteer boards and advisory committees that help the Ada County Board of Commissioners in policy development and general operations in areas ranging from housing, planning and zoning, social work and recreation. The unpaid volunteer positions give citizens a unique, insider look at county government while they roll up their sleeves to help their local community. While each board has its own bylaws and varying terms of service, interested parties are always encouraged to apply for a position on any volunteer board,” the county said.

The county went on to describe eight examples of boards that rely on volunteer participation, I’ve profiles the three coolest boards here.

Historic Preservation Council—Are you one of those folks that loves to see historical photos from Ada County’s storied past? Would you love to help identify sites of historical significance or help with education efforts? When then consider helping out with the Ada County Historic Preservation Council where, according to the county, “members must demonstrate an interest, competence, or knowledge in history or historic preservation” and can have a positive effect on how the county coordinates its preservation activities.

Mosquito Abatement Advisory Board—I’m a huge advocate for bringing back DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) that insecticide extraordinaire which got a bad rap in the 1960’s when it was panned in Rachel Carson’s inaccurate book, Silent Spring. Turns out that DDT is safe for humans and Silent Spring, “contains certain statements at variance with the facts as we now understand them”, as Cecil Adams so eloquently put it in his The Straight Dope column from December 13, 2002. If you feel like I do about slaughtering mosquitoes and ending West Nile Virus in Idaho, then consider volunteering for the Ada County Mosquito Abatement Advisory Board wherein you can meet to discuss our collective war on these blood-sucking bugs. If you are a mosquito-lover who thinks bugs are people too, I would not recommend this board for you. [emphasis added]

Board of Community Guardians—Finally, if you have a heart for the disabled or the mentally ill, you might be the right sort of volunteer for this important board. According to the county, “The Board of Community Guardians manages the Community Guardian Program, which assists individuals who cannot make decisions for themselves because of mental and/or physical impairments or disabilities. These individuals, who are either legally incapacitated or destitute with no financial security or family support., can be determined a ward of the county, and court-appointed volunteers oversee those wards.

If you are interested in volunteering for any of these advisory boards contact:

Board of Ada County Commission office

200 W. Front St., Third Floor, Boise.

Even the vaunted Cecil Adams writes a clunker from time to time, and his agreement with the wholly unsupportable claim that Rachel Carson was wrong is one of those clunkers (but his description of Lyndon Larouche will make you smile).  The facts differ from the claim in this ad:

  1. DDT’s “bad rap” was well deserved.  In the past three years dozens of news articles matched the science journals commemorating the recovery of bald eagles, brown pelicans, osprey and pergrine falcons — recoveries made possible by ending the use of DDT in the wild.  DDT kills entire ecosystems, starting with the predators at the top.  It’s dangerous stuff.
  2. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, pioneered the use of good, hard scientific data in popular writing.  In its 53 pages of footnotes to scientific studies, science journals and correspondence, critics have been unable to find inaccuracies.  Especially on the issue of DDT’s effects on wildlife, more than a thousand follow-up studies vindicated Carson.  I have not found a contrary study, not one.
  3. DDT is NOT the pesticide of choice for West Nile, in any case.  It’s almost like arguing that DDT is the pharmaceutical of choice to use against malaria — confusing the pesticides used to kill insects with the pharmaceuticals used to treat disease in humans.  DDT is unsuitable for outdoor use, illegal for outdoor use under the 1958 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and its subsequent amendments because it is “uncontrollable.”  DDT kills non-target species, often better than it kills target species. For mosquito abatement, DDT kills mosquito predators much more effectively than it kills mosquitoes. Plus, it sticks around for years, and it bioaccumulates up food chains, multiplying poison doses to predators, sometimes millions of times.
    West Nile mosquitoes can be effectively treated as larva, if their water homes are known; but DDT is particularly ill-suited for use in water. DDT works best when its spread can be confined indoors, which is where malaria-carrying mosquitoes usually bite. West Nile carriers live and bite outdoors.

I hope Ada County gets volunteers for the mosquito abatement board who know a little bit more about DDT, or who are open to listening to the mosquito abatement experts.


The Case of the Purple Squirrel

December 22, 2008

Little mysteries pose a lot of fun.

How did this come to be?

Pete the purple squirrel - Telegraph.co.uk.com

Pete the purple squirrel - Telegraph.co.uk.com

Pete, as the squirrel has come to be known, shows up most days at Meoncross School in Stubbington, Hants, England (near Portsmouth, in southeast England).

“We don’t think he is a mutant squirrel but he may have had a mishap around the school, [said Dr Mike Edwards, an English teacher at the school.]

“The old building where we have seen him nipping in and out is a bit of a graveyard for computer printers. He may have found some printer toners in there.

“We haven’t seen any purple baby squirrels yet.”

TV wildlife expert Chris Packham believes Pete will moult and lose his purple fur in time for spring.

He said: “I have never seen anything like it before.

“Squirrels will chew anything even if it’s obviously inedible. It is possible he has been chewing on a purple ink cartridge and then groomed that colouring into his fur.

“Alternatively he may have fallen into a bucket containing a weak colour solution that has stained his fur.

“Underneath there’s a normal grey squirrel who has just given himself an unusual hair colour – you would pay a fortune for that in some salons.

What will creationists make of this?

Squirrels come in different colors naturally, too.  The squirrels common throughout the eastern U.S., the eastern grey squirrel,  have a black variant in some parts of Canada and the U.S.  Some of these black squirrels were imported to Washington, D.C., during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.  When we lived in Cheverly, Maryland (1983-1987), we had families of black squirrels spotted among the grey squirrels in our next-door forest.  The two groups rarely mixed, oddly enough.

East of the Russell Senate Office Building there was an albino squirrel for several years, prior to 1985.  One friend said she’d seen at least two at the same time in the same park.  White squirrels show up from time to time, either albinos or mutants.  Naturally, squirrels tend to be either grey or reddish-brown, most of the time.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Current.com.

Resources:


Creationism vs. Christianity

December 20, 2008

Several weeks ago I responded to a lengthy thread at Unreasonable FaithThe original post was Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon of the guy in a doctor’s office, just diagnosed with an infection.  The physician asks the guy if he’s a creationist, explaining that if he is, the doc will treat him with old antibiotics in honor of his belief that evolution of bacteria doesn’t occur. [Time passes: You may find the Doonesbury cartoon here, at Nature.com, in an article discussing issues with creationism.]

Point being, of course, that evolution occurs in the real world.  Creationists rarely exhibit the faith of their claims when their life, or just nagging pain, is on the line.  They’ll choose the evolution-based medical treatment almost every time.  There are no creationists in the cancer or infectious disease wards.

At one point I responded to a comment loaded with typical creationist error.  It was a long post.  It covered some ground that I’ve not written about on this blog.  And partly because it took some time to assemble, I’m reposting my comments here.  Of course, without the Trudeau cartoon, it won’t get nearly the comments here.

I’ll add links here when I get a chance, which I lacked the time to do earlier.  See my post, below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Holy Pythagoras! Creationists are targeting math

December 20, 2008

They complain that they shouldn’t be compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but then creationists do what the Taliban do.

Watch out.  Creationists appear to be targeting mathematics, in addition to their misaimed criticisms of biology.  You remember the “God centered” math courses at Castle Hills First Baptist School, in San Antonio.

So, when I came across this post, at Joe Carter’s Home for Wayward Evangelicals, I thought it time to sound an alarm.  See “Mathematics and Religiously-based Explanations.

Did Leibniz’s religion seriously affect his mathematics?  Is it time to call in the men in white, with the nets?

Mark at Pseudo-Polymath adds to the discussion — it’s difficult to tell if he’s writing in parody or not.


Typewriter of the moment: William Faulkner in California

December 19, 2008

I love this photo.

William Faulkner (1897-1962) reclines in a chair in front of typewriter in Hollywood, California, December 1942.  Alfred Eriss/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

William Faulkner (1897-1962) reclines in a chair in front of typewriter in Hollywood, California, December 1942. Alfred Eriss/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Read more about Faulkner at The American Masters site at PBS.

Resources:


Historic winds of December

December 17, 2008

In English, it’s just one letter difference between “winds” and “wings.”  An encore post, commemorating one historic event from December 17 involving both winds and wings:

December 17, written in the wind

Wright Bros. flyer at Kittyhawk, first flight

Photo from Treasures of the Library of Congress; “First Flight” by John T. Daniels (d. 1948); this is a modern gelatin print from the glass negative.

Ten feet in altitude, 120 feet traveled, 12 seconds long. That was the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine achieved by Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio, at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

From the Library of Congress:

On the morning of December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took turns piloting and monitoring their flying machine in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Orville piloted the first flight that lasted just twelve seconds. On the fourth and final flight of the day, Wilbur traveled 852 feet, remaining airborne for 57 seconds. That morning the brothers became the first people to demonstrate sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine under the complete control of the pilot.

No lost luggage, no coffee, no tea, no meal in a basket, either.

Resources on the Wright Brothers’ first flight:


Typewriter of the moment: Muckraker Upton Sinclair

December 17, 2008

Without typewriter, however.*

A journalist and novelist, labeled by President Theodore Roosevelt as a “muckraker,” Upton Sinclair. The caption to the Associated Press photo said it was Sinclair working on his first movie screenplay in 1943, part of his generally forgotten life in California. In fact, several of his works were made into movies.

Upton Sinclair, Los Angeles Times

Upton Sinclair, from the Los Angeles Times

* I had difficulty getting the images to work in this post.  Odd stuff kept popping up.  Then, as a reader Michael Todd gently noted, I discovered I’d used a picture of Sinclair Lewis in place of Upton Sinclair.

In working to correct the problem, I discovered no photos of Upton Sinclar with his typewriter.  So, here we have Upton Sinclair, without typewriter.  How embarrassing.


Waiting for the New President: Doctoring data on global warming

December 16, 2008

ArborDay.org map showing changes in hardiness zones between 1990 and 2006

ArborDay.org map showing changes in hardiness zones between 1990 and 2006, a map climate change denialists wish did not exist.

We need a new category of urban myth or urban legend.  Jan Brunvand’s inventions and development of the study of folk stories that people claim to be true long enough that they become legends, needs to be updated to include internet stupidity that just won’t die.  Especially, we need a good, two-word label for politically-motivated propaganda that should go away, but won’t.

Perhaps I digress.

One might be filled with hope at the prospect of the administration of President Obama. Science issues that have been ignored for too long may once again rise to due consideration.  Friends in health care worry that it will take four or eight terms of diligent work to undo the damage done to medical science by neglect of spending and budgeting during the last eight years.

I take a little hope in this:  Maybe we can get an update of the planting zones maps relied on by farmers, horticulturists, and backyard gardeners.

New maps were delayed through the Bush administration.  The last serious update, officially, was 1990.  Perhaps much has changed in climate in the last generation, and perhaps that is why the new maps were delayed, though they had been painstakingly prepared by the American Horticulture Society.

Why?

Plants cannot be fooled by newspaper reports.  Plants are not partisan in political issues. Plants both respond to and clearly demonstrate climate change.  To those who wished to suppress or deny climate change, suppressing the hardiness zone maps may have seemed like a good way to win a political debate.

Robust discussion based on the facts, a casualty of the past eight years, ready to be resurrected.

Resources:


Domestic terrorist at the White House

December 16, 2008

Old joke said Nixon took crime off the streets, and put it into the White House.  It’s not really funny, though.  Read the story at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and more at Secular Right.

Where are those who worry about Bill Ayers when the terrorists actually show up at the White House?  Chuck Colson got a medal?

There’s an air of hypocrisy about the whole thing, and an air of sadness, and oddly, an air of fire and brimstone that makes Hugo Chavez look like a prophet.  Anything with anyone who makes Hugo Chavez look good is beyond funny.  Farce or tragedy, Madison worried, or maybe both;  in this case tragedy eclipses farce.

There were deserving medal winners, too.  Perhaps much good, with the bad. January 21, 2009, cannot come too soon.


Supreme Court won’t review challenge to Obama

December 15, 2008

The Associated Press reports that the Supreme Court refused for the second time to take a second case challenging the eligibility of Barack Obama to be president.

Cort Wrotnowski alleged that Obama’s father’s British citizenship made Obama’s birth citizenship different from “natural born” citizenship as the Constitution says the president must be.

There was no comment on the case from the Court, just a note that the appeal was not taken.

Tinfoil hat concessionaires on Capitol Hill were disappointed.

In other news, electors are meeting today to elect Obama president.


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