“Maybe the best reason yet for being happy that Obama was elected”

January 4, 2009

Go look at Barry Weber’s post at First Morning.

Spend at least a full minute looking at that photograph.


Look at every single face. Each face is the verse of an epic poem. Each expression is a note in a symphony. Here are a hundred eyes full of excitement and joy, and..(though these kids don’t know it yet their parents and grandparents do)..hope. This is the kind of Hope that straightens paths, brightens colors, and builds bridges to possibilities. It is the kind of Hope that I feel so grateful to have been able to witness, and even feel in my own heart.

But, just look at these kids! Whatever I might feel is peanuts compared to the smiles, laughter, and amazement of these young ones.

By many accountings, these are dark days for the United States.  Those faces show the light of the future — they may be the light of the future.

Nice catch, Mr. Weber.

Found it! Hoax Museum is right: Zinsser got it wrong

January 4, 2009

Found it!  [See previous post.]

I had done a search for Zinsser’s book, Rats, Lice and History, many weeks ago, and come up dry (how many weeks?).

But a more careful search in Google Books turned up a copy of most of the text, from Read Books — and in that edition, appearing to have been published in London*, there is a page 285!

On that page 285, there is the quote cited, claiming that the bathtub did not come to America until about 1840.

The quote is found in chapter XVI, in the first section, a couple of paragraphs prior to the second section — page 217 in the editions of the book I have.

So, the Hoax Museum is right in saying Zinsser was hoaxed, too.  Zinsser’s book appeared first in 1935, with plenty of time for Mencken’s 1917 hoax to have spread into sources Zinsser trusted.

Even the best can be taken in by a hoax crafted well enough, or on a subject obscure enough.


* RATS, LICE, AND HISTORY, Being a Study in Biography, which, after Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of TYPHUS FEVER.   Also known, at various stages of its Adventurous Career, as Morbus pulicaris (Cardanus, 1545); Tabardiglio y puntos (DeToro, 1574); Pin fas Febris pur purea epidemica (Coyttarus, 1578); Febris quam lenticulas vel puncticulas vocant (Fracastorius, 1546); Morbus hungaricus; La Pourpre; Pipercorn; Febris petechialis vera; Febris maligna pestilens; Febris putrida et maligna; Typhus carcerorum; Jayl Fever; Fiévre des hôspitaux; Pestis bellica; Morbus castrensis; Famine Fever; Irish Ague; Typhus exanthematicus; Faulfieber Hauptkrankheit; Pcstartigc Bräune; Exanthematisches Nervenfieber, and so forth, and so forth. By HANS ZINSSER; LONDON, GEORGE ROUTLEDGE, BROADWAY HOUSE, 68-74 CARTER

Hoaxes on hoaxes: Bathtub hoax debunkers start a new hoax?

January 4, 2009

[If you’re interested in the hoax aspect, see this update post.]

Is this just an error, or a new hoax on the way to debunking an old one?  This is a story of an insider’s hoax, or an interesting error.

It’s from the Museum of Hoaxes.  Surely they would be careful about such matters, no?

The Museum of Hoaxes’ History of the Bathtub is largely a history of H. L. Mencken’s famous 1917 hoax history of the bathtub, in which he claimed Millard Fillmore had bravely led America to indoor bathing by installing a bathtub in the White House in 1853.

Readers of this blog well know this story.  Fillmore wasn’t the first to put a bathtub in the White House.  He wasn’t the first to put plumbing in the White House.  He wasn’t the first to put a plumbed bathtub in the White House, nor the first to run hot water to it. Anything in Mencken’s column that squares with history did so accidentally.  Mencken was making a big joke.

And one of the little delights of reading history is finding people who should know better, who have been suckered in by Mencken’s hoax.

So of course I read the piece at the Hoax Museum.

What ho!  Here is a section that discusses how the hoax refuses to die:

Curtis MacDougall, writing in 1958, reported finding fifty-five different instances since 1926 of Mencken’s bathtub history being presented to audiences as fact. Some of the examples that MacDougall collected follow:

October, 1926: Scribner’s included an article, “Bathtubs, Early Americans,“ by Fairfax Downey, based almost entirely on Mencken’s story.

March 16, 1929: In “Baltimore Day by Day,“ by Carroll Dulaney, in Mencken’s own newspaper, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the story is told under the heading, “Painting the Lily.“

September 26, 1929: The Paris, France, edition of the New York Herald rewrites an article by Ruth Wakeman in the New York Sun entitled, “Americans Once Frowned on Bathtubs, Condemning Them for Fancied Hazards.“

December 1, 1931: The Tucson, Arizona, Daily Star interviews C.R. King, manager of the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company branch in Tucson, on the imminent birthday of the bathtub. Mr. King, who according to the Star “had apparently studied the matter considerably,“ hands out the same old facts, which are printed under a two-column head, “Bathtub Will Have Birthday in America During December.“

April 27, 1933: A United Features Syndicate feature, “How It Began,“ by Russ Murphy and Ray Nenuskay includes an illustration of Adam Thompson in his first bathtub.

1935: Dr. Hans Zinsser, professor in the Medical School of Harvard University, says on page 285 of his best-selling Rats, Lice and History: “The first bathtub didn’t reach America, we believe, until about 1840.”

November 15, 1935: R.J. Scott’s “Scott’s Scrapbook,“ syndicated by the Central Press Asociation, includes a sketch of a policeman chasing a bather away from his bath, together with the caption: As late as 1842 some American cities prohibited the use of bathtubs.”

May 27, 1936: Dr. Shirley W. Wynne, former commissioner of health for New York City, uses the “facts” in a radio address, “What Is Public Health?“ over WEAF.

February, 1937: The United Press Red Letter includes a story from Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Dr. Cecil K. Drinker, dean and professor of physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, has discovered that his great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Drinker of Philadelphia, had a bathtub in her home as early as 1803, thus disputing Cincinnati’s claim to fame for having the first American bathtub. (The Chicago Daily News used the story March 27, 1937.)

September 28, 1938: Hearst’s American Weekly includes an article, “There’s a Lot of History Behind Your Bathtub,“ by Virginia S. Eiffert, research expert and contributor to Natural History, official magazine of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and other publications. Miss Eiffert’s research has uncovered the old stand-by.

Sept. 20, 1942: Julia Spiegelman retold the entire Adam Thompson tale as fact in an article, “Bathtub’s United States Centennial” in the Baltimore Sun, Mencken’s own newspaper.

April 28, 1951: In this day’s issue of The New Yorker John Hersey revealed, in a profile on Harry S. Truman, that “the president seemed reluctant to let go of his belief” in the fact that Millard Fillmore introduced the first bathtub into the White House in 1850. President Truman was known to include the spurious facts in the “lecture” he gave visitors to the renovated executive mansion.

Sept. 16, 1952: In a speech in Philadelphia, President Truman told the story to illustrate what great progress has occurred in public health.

I noted the Tucson Daily Star mention — I spent a year in Tucson at the University of Arizona, and on a couple of projects spent hours poring through old copies of the Star and it’s competitor, The Tucson Daily Citizen, but never getting close to any story on Fillmore, bathtubs, or Mencken.  Interesting.

And did you see?  There’s a reference to Zinsser’s great book, Rats, Lice and History.   One of my favorite books of all time. Other suggested it should be included in the small, essential library of any historian or teacher of history, when I was working on assembling a list of necessary books (a project I really should get back to one day).

Zinsser was the guy who isolated the pathogen that causes typhus, and developed a vaccine against the disease.  More importantly, he was a bit of a rake and an excellent, and funny, writer.  The book is a breezy read,  packed with enlightening discussions of history, wars, economic booms and busts, sieges of great cities, and how disease stalks the pages of history much more than merely during the outbreaks of the plague in the middle of the second millennium.

I read the book the year I graduated from high school, though now I don’t remember whether it was during the school year or after.  It was recommended to me by a college English professor, Kirk Rasmussen (the Utah guy), whose wife was my last high school debate coach.  Kirk laughed all the way through the book.  I borrowed his paperback copy and finished it off in a week or two.

You can learn a lot about ecology studying how a disease is spread.  A disease like typhus, which involves insect, louse, rodent and human carriers, exposes the links that, however improbable or preposterous, are necessary to keep a pathogen going.  Zinsser gives a great rundown of the history of rats, the history of fleas, the history of lice (which are not insects, if you wish to be carefully accurate, which you do, of course).

So his book is useful in literature classes.  It’s a good source of history.  Plus, it’s a good meta source for biologists and medical researchers.

In fact I have a copy here on this desk — I was trying to find a short excerpt that I could use in my world history classes, something to intrigue students and give them fodder for an exercise or project.

So, I looked at that listing, and thought I should check it out:

1935: Dr. Hans Zinsser, professor in the Medical School of Harvard University, says on page 285 of his best-selling Rats, Lice and History: “The first bathtub didn’t reach America, we believe, until about 1840.”

You can see this one coming, can’t you?

Rats, Lice and History has only 228 pages, in all three editions I have here at the house.

So of course I checked pages 185, 85, and 28.  Nothing.

Then I looked at the table of contents (there is no index), to see in what chapter such a comment might find a home.  Zinsser wrote in the U.S., was born in the U.S., so it wouldn’t be wholly out of his character to note some little item of public health at the White House.  But I’ll be doggoned if I can figure out where such a comment would fit in the book.

Is this just a miscitation by Museum of Hoaxes?  Or is it a new hoax altogether?  Is it a hoax the Museum of Hoaxes has fallen victim to, or is it of their invention?

Now I wonder about all the other mentions there.  Are they accurate?  Are they whole cloth fiction, voodoo history?  Did the Tucson Daily Star even exist in 1931?

We never solve one mystery that we don’t open up a dozen more.

Readers, can you shed light?

I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation.

Teaching evolution is good for business

January 4, 2009

Do you remember this study, the “2008 Massachusetts Life Sciences Super Cluster report?” This goes to the heart of the business issue in biology education:  Can a state have a thriving life sciences sector when it teaches against such industries in public school science classes?

Life sciences is a major contributor to the economy of Massachusetts.  These reports document the contributions, and tell what needs to be done to keep the successes flowing.

This report confirms the testimony to the Texas State Board of Education by Andy Ellington, in the current rounds of science curriculum rewrites — Texas needs to boost its science education achievement, not hobble it with weak academics.  Here’s the press release:

Sector Driving Job Growth, Contributes $8.8 billion to State’s Economy

The Massachusetts life sciences “Super Cluster” continues to change the face of medicine by driving research innovation, but it faces increasing competition for talent and funding from other states and countries, according to the 2008 Massachusetts Life Sciences Super Cluster report, released today by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the New England Healthcare Institute, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, Xconomy and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

The Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives organization has estimated that the life sciences sector contributes approximately $8.8 billion annually to the Massachusetts economy. Behind the related industries of healthcare and education, the life sciences industry is a powerful driver of job growth in Massachusetts, directly employing 77,247 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ analysis. Its workforce grew eight percent in the five-year period between 2001 and 2006 while the entire Massachusetts workforce shrunk by 2.5 percent in the same period.

Massachusetts has a high concentration of life sciences assets in close proximity, including academic medical centers, researchers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and biotechnology, medical device and pharmaceutical companies. While the report highlights the region’s strength, it also says there are signs that industry and government may need to work harder to protect the state’s pipeline of innovation and ensure Massachusetts long-term success in life sciences.

Despite the fact that Massachusetts receives more funding from the National Institutes of Health on a per capita basis than any other state, NIH grants to Massachusetts researchers declined for the first time in 2006, and in 2007 were at their lowest level in three years, according to the report. Nationally, NIH funding has not kept pace with inflation for the past five years, and if this trend continues, the report states, it could hit particularly hard in Massachusetts, whose young researchers have served as a wellspring of ideas and products for the rest of the industry.

The 2008 Massachusetts Super Cluster report includes the personal perspectives of some of life sciences industry leaders from Massachusetts and findings of a survey of 147 industry executives from Massachusetts life sciences organizations. The report also raised some concerns about whether Massachusetts companies will be able to continue to mine its strengths in research and commercialize the ideas coming out of the state’s laboratories. According to the findings in the survey:

* With federal research funding falling behind the rate of inflation in recent years, nearly half of respondents (44%) said that a lack of funding for collaborative efforts was the factor that had the biggest negative impact on cooperation between institutions.
* Only one in four survey respondents (27%) rated the Commonwealth’s venture capital firms as strong in their “willingness to fund radically new ideas.”
* Just one in four respondents (28%) from life sciences companies said their own organization is “effective” at spinning off or commercializing new ideas that do not fit its core mission or business lines.

“A key takeaway from the report is that while Massachusetts has world renowned scientists and researchers and is positioned to thrive in an environment that places a premium on innovation, making the jump from pure research to marketable products will require strengthening the partnerships among universities, teaching hospitals, life sciences companies and venture capitalists,” said James Connolly, PricewaterhouseCoopers partner and New England life sciences assurance practice leader.

“Massachusetts has a tradition of innovation in the life sciences that has produced a true Super Cluster of talent. However, we must build on the strength of this Super Cluster, because the future of our economy depends on it. That is why the Governor proposed a 10-year, $1 billion investment package to assist the private sector, academia and the research community in working together to reaffirm the position of the Commonwealth as the international home of the life sciences,” said Daniel O’Connell, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development.

The survey respondents see Massachusetts researchers excelling in several of the most promising areas in the life sciences during the coming decade. More than a quarter (27%) cited convergent technologies, such as drug-device combinations, as being the area in which the Commonwealth is most likely to excel, followed by biologic products (21%) and personalized medicine (19%). Other highlights of the 2008 Massachusetts Life Sciences Super Cluster Survey:

* While nearly three in five respondents (58%) are based in the Boston-Cambridge area, notable concentrations of life sciences researchers and companies are emerging in the Lowell, Lexington-Waltham and Framingham-Marlborough areas.
* Seven in 10 respondents (71%) said it was important for them to be in the Massachusetts Super Cluster, in close proximity to other life sciences firms.
* More than half (51%) said that the ability to just “run into” people has resulted in a business opportunity or research collaboration.

“Talent attracts talent, and success breeds success,” said Dr. Wendy Everett, president of the New England Health Care Institute. “This clustering brings enormous benefits to the organizations and communities involved, such as ease of collaboration. That is why it is so important to maintain the momentum that the Massachusetts Super Cluster has made possible.”

When asked what would cause them to consider leaving Massachusetts, surprisingly, fewer than eight percent cited the commute to work. One-quarter of respondents cited “pay” and four in 10 said “lifestyle.” Each of these factors has been raised as a concern by employers attempting to recruit and retain workers in Massachusetts.

In spite of their concerns about the life sciences industry, the survey respondents looked to the future optimistically:

* More than half (55.1%) said that job opportunities in the Massachusetts Super Cluster would strengthen during the next decade, and an additional 35.9% said they would stay the same. Only nine percent thought that the life sciences job market would weaken.
* Seven in 10 (69.6%) were confident that, if they lost their job today, they could find an opportunity in Massachusetts at an equivalent or higher level.
* Two-thirds of respondents (66.2%) consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, and an even larger number (68.8%) expect their next position to be in a start-up company.

Source: PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Download the .pdf of the report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, here.

Quote of the moment: Stephen Jay Gould, evolution a question that thinking people ponder

January 4, 2009

Stephen Jay Gould, Massachusetts Academy of Sciences portrait

Stephen Jay Gould, photo from New York Times obituary

Q. Why is your work so popular?

A. It’s the subject more than anything else. I often say there are about half a dozen scientific subjects that are immensely intriguing to people because they deal with fundamental issues that disturb us and cause us to wonder. Evolution is one of those subjects. It attempts, insofar as science can, to answer the questions of what our life means, and why we are here, and where we come from, and who we are related to, and what has happened through time, and what has been the history of this planet. These are questions that all thinking people have to ponder.

Stephen Jay Gould, interviewed by Daniel S. Levy, for Time Magazine, published Monday, May 14, 1990

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