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I don’t know if Rod Blagojevich would appreciate the near-coincidence, but it turns out he was thrown out of office a mere one day short of the 360th anniversary of the execution of Charles I.  Damn.  So close.

Nevertheless, I’m reminded of David Hume’s bathetic love letter to the headless king.  Perhaps his words can provide Blago and his many adherents with the solace they need in these difficult days.

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A History of England from the Earliest Times to the Revolution in 1688 Abridged, Incorporating the Corrections and Researches of Recent Historians, and Continued Down to the Year 1858 By David Hume

(via Ralph Luker)


On this day in 1968, guerrilla forces in South Vietnam mounted a massive offensive against both American forces and the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN). Timed for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, the attack caught the defenders unready and shocked an American public that had been assured by both its military and President Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. was winning in Vietnam. The result of Tet was a military disaster for the Vietcong attackers but a political victory for the communist effort in South Vietnam. The fallout from Tet brought down a President, as LBJ would drop his reelection effort in 1968, and it essentially doomed the American effort in Vietnam. Tet became mythologized as the embodiment of the violence and futility of Vietnam, never more so than in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket.

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The post below is about half common-sense reasoning about the current crisis and half bloggy speculation about its effects on the higher-education biz. Much of it is brain dump, though there are a few useful links thrown in. You have been warned.
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My poor briswired main.  Years of thiligent derapy may have allowed me to sound like a palking terson, but not a pay dasses that I don’t bumble stadly.  If you didn’t know bany etter, you’d think I did this pon urpose.

Die on’t.

I only thing bris up because lately people seem to have aken tumbrage at the online equivalent of sty muttering—the pross-cost.

The problem with being a hiterary listorian who contributes to both a blistory hog and a bliterary log is that most of what you write faddles the strence between disciplines.  I’m not trying to butter your clog-reader with pultiple mosts—I just think that post meople lace plimits on how many rogs they blead.

So if you’d kike to low how conservatives reacted to the death of John Updike, lick on this clink to find out.

Simply too good not to share:

Let those who are inclined to cavil at the new role of the country in the world’s affairs remember that the moment is rapidly approaching, if it has not already arrvied, when the future of the world’s civilization will be at stake. Will it be a world in which the English-speaking, with its high standard of life and liberty, will prevail; or a world in which the despot and the slave–shall we leave out the ‘e’ and call it Slav?–will dictate the future of the spheres?

From Leslie’s Weekly, August 11, 1900. Quoted in William Duiker, Cultures in Collision: The Boxer Rebellion (San Rafael, Calif. Presidio, 1978): 92.

Liberty League

Thank you, Dave, I’m so happy to have you do that. Once you’ve read Dave’s post, let me add a couple things:

1) Herbert Hoover was, in fact, a “progressive” within the 1910s definition of the word. But it’s famously true that there were many kinds of progressive. It’s also well known that some progressives supported the New Deal, while some opposed it.

2) To describe Hoover as an “interventionist” and therefore in the same mode as Roosevelt is just so profoundly stupid it’s hard to know what to say about it. As Dave points out, for much of his presidency Hoover’s “intervention” consisted of saying, “rah rah, go economy go!” And yes, when pressed to the very limit in an election year with a Democratic House Hoover backed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932. Even then, though, the RFC did not act nearly so aggressively as it did under Roosevelt, under whom it bought bank equity and funded all kinds of other New Deal programs.

You see, some interventions might be effective, while some might be ineffective. As a smart guy said, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works”.

On which point:

(Yes, that’s what you think it is.)

Gershom Gorenberg finds a data point suggesting that one demographic of old-fashioned Republicans has ditched the GOP:

my wife picked up the new copy of Invention and Technology. My wife can spot a political clue the size of a gnat at 500 meters. She burst into the room … and showed me the magazine. The cover words were “Top 10 Projects That Transformed America.” She showed me the letter from the I&T editor:

The idea of implementing large infrastructure projects has begun to replace the quick fix as a means of revitalizing an economy under duress….

Can throwing large amounts of federal money at public works projects lead to prosperity or only result in expensive and wasteful boondoggles?…

The American engineers and entrepreneurs who built the National Road, and later, such technological triumphs as the Hoover Dam, the air traffic control system, the national interstate road network, and the Internet, did not believe in limited possibilities.

Perhaps the best way to jump-start our economy is to recapture the same “can do” spirit…

If that doesn’t get the message across, the final picture in the cover story’s pantheon of presidents is Barack Obama. Since this is a quarterly, I figure that work on this story began around the time that Obama gave his victory speech.

As my political guru Harold Meyerson wrote during the campaign, there is a huge gap between the two American parties on government investment in infrastructure. Obama’s stimulus plan is based on the value of such governmental intervention in the economy. I&T has just endorsed that platform.

If I were one of the remaining Republicans in Congress, I would pay attention to this. The engineers have just thrown Reaganism in the junkyard. They have just bought the latest political gizmo. They do not want you to vote “no.”

I still like this one. This is Dorothy McKay, in Esquire, November 1938.

It’s not the trouble you see, it’s the distance you have to fall.

Dating A Banker Anonymous (DABA) is a safe place where women can come together – free from the scrutiny of feminists– and share their tearful tales of how the mortgage meltdown has affected their relationships.

Psst: it’s not “anonymous” if you tell the New York Times your name. Also, this is a put-on, right?

In Underworld, Don DeLillo describes Peter Breughel’s 16th century painting Triumph of Death as a “census-taking of awful ways to die.” Indeed, Breughel possessed an expansive view of physical suffering. In his work, scythe-wielding skeletal horsemen cut down peasants like fields of wheat; the already-fallen are gobbled by dogs; throats are opened; maidens ravaged; bodies are hanged, speared, and stuffed into the crotches of trees. One supplicant victim offers a prayer for relief to a god who — if he exists at all — will likely arrive too late to save the poor fellow’s head from being pruned by a broadsword.

If the victims of the 1922 Knickerbocker Theater disaster had thought about it a bit, they might have scoffed at Breughel’s failure to depict anyone being crushed or pressed to death, much less buried — as they had been — along with nearly a hundred others beneath a tumulus of cement, brick, timber, and steel. On January 28 of that year, roughly 500 moviegoers in the northwest corner of the nation’s capital took refuge from a ferocious blizzard by watching a silent comedy called Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford — a film, we presume, about a fellow named Wallingford and his zany schemes to get rich (and quick!) — when the flat roof of Harry Crandall’s theater buckled under the weight of more than two feet of snow. The blizzard, which had begun the previous day, had dumped snow from Greenville, South Carolina to Reading, Pennsylvania and from Knoxville to Cape Cod. By the evening of the 28th, several feet of snow had accumulated in the District of Columbia, with drifts as high as 16 feet in places. The roof of the Knickerbocker — held aloft by an arch of girders rather than support pillars — gave out a few minutes after 9:00 p.m., just as the second feature was getting underway. The New York Times described the moment as a “mighty symposium of exquisite pain.”

With a roar, mighty as the crack of doom, the massive roof of the Knickerbocker broke loose from its steel moorings and crashed down upon the heads of those in the balcony. Under the weight of the fallen roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was entombed. It was as sudden as the turning off of an electric light.

According to an eyewitness who had just entered the theater, a “hearty peal of laughter” preceded the collapse by a few seconds. Everyone in the balcony was crushed, followed by the orchestra beneath.

As survivors tumbled from the blown-out doors and rescuers yanked limp and de-limbed bodies from the mess, a candy store next to the theater was converted into a makeshift hospital.  Doctors from Walter Reed Hospital arrived on the scene and began tending to the injured. Several Catholic priests offered mass absolution to the unknown scores of people still pinioned beneath the rubble. A Christian Science church across the street was used as a temporary morgue. Among the dead was Andrew Jackson Barchfeld, Pennsylvania Republican who had served five terms in the US House before losing his seat in 1916. Among the living was Alben W. Barkley — Harry Truman’s future Vice President — who was then serving as Congressman from Kentucky.  The two men were not attending the film together, though Barkley later helped retrieve his former colleague’s body from the wrecked building.

Newspaper reports were stuffed with the usual familial dramas — newly-wedded husbands searching frantically for wives, children identifying the bodies of their dead parents, the rumored dead turning up alive and well. (Alben Barkley’s own son Murell, initially thought to be among the dead, was not.)  Rescue workers recounted the implausibly prosaic last words of brave men who expired before they could be withdrawn from the rubble, while others described the stoic demeanor of a nameless boy who lay patiently beneath a slab of roofing. The Times reporter, describing the anonymous lad’s plight, swelled with nationalist bathos:

He merely lay there, a set look on his face, a determination to get out of there if that were possible, to die game if that were inevitable. It was the American spirit intensified. Every man aiding in the rescue of this boy knew what that spirit meant, and it helped them mightily. It was the supreme splendor of the nation in the face of crisis. It was boyhood risen to man’s estate.

All told, 98 people lost their lives in the Knickerbocker Theater, while more than 130 were injured. An engineering report published a few months later criticized the design of the building, claiming that it was “not an example of poor engineering but rather an illustration of the entire absence of engingeering,” with the roof and balcony “planned and erected with a total disregard of all consideration of stability.” Five years after the disaster, the building’s architect killed himself.

Liberty League

In the middle of a generally apposite article, Steve Lohr of the New York Times says, “During the 1930s, the unemployment rate fell somewhat under Roosevelt, but remained stubbornly high, averaging more than 17 percent for the decade.” Dean Baker caught this, and so does Cosma Shalizi via the email: you get an average 17% if you count people who had jobs as unemployed.1 Which, Baker notes, is not what you’d call “in keeping with current methodology”. Or, you know, helpful in trying to make sense of the situation.

Baker goes on: what the New Deal achieved was “still far from full employment, but it is less than half the 23 percent rate that Roosevelt faced when he took office.” And in saying that perhaps the New Deal could have done better, Lohr’s overall point is sound: bailing out the banks wasn’t good enough, you had also to get creditworthy people lining up to borrow. In the 1930s, this was taken—by, e.g., Keynes—to mean you needed some fiscal stimulus: “it is no use creating a demand for credit, if there is no supply. But an increased supply will not by itself create an adequate demand.”

One might also point out that in the 1930s, the massive purchase of bank equity came after auditing the banks’ books to see what assets they had, and shuttering the ones that couldn’t survive.

1Also, it seems to me Lohr must count the decade as running 1929-1939 inclusive; this—using the old Lebergott data—gives you an average rate of 17.05%; if you use the current HSUS data for the same period, you get 13.16%. If you look at Roosevelt’s first two terms—1933-1940—you get 18.7% (Lebergott) as against 13.0% (HSUS current).

I’ve mostly kept a promise I made to myself after the election to ignore the right’s shrieks of horror about President Obama. But like the next guy, I’m a total sucker for ill-conceived allusions to sixties radicals. So I was delighted to see the above clip over at Coates’s place. Sure, it’s bizarre when Juan Williams inexplicably compares Michelle Obama to “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress”. I mean, had he said “Kwame Ture in a designer dress”, now that would have made sense. Honestly, maybe a charitable soul should remind Williams that the New Yorker cover was a drawing rather than a photograph. Because, dude, when Bill O’Reilly is the voice of reason during your on-air segment, things aren’t going your way.

Really, though, I was more amused by Mary Katherine Ham’s warning that Ms. Obama needs to mind her P’s and Q’s lest she become another Hillary Clinton. Last I checked, Clinton’s resume looked pretty good: first lady, senator, and now secretary of state. But she killed Vince Foster with the wrench in the Roosevelt room! Okay, fair point, it’s probably time to go back to ignoring these people.

Jonah Goldberg was on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week this week, promoting the UK publication of Liberal Fascism:

It takes no moral or intellectual courage to point to the things you don’t like and say, “that’s fascist”. It takes real intellectual courage to point to the things you do like and say “gosh, where could this take us”.

Which caused me derisively to hoot, as I have seen the very serious, thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care in action, and watched this Goldberg bowl ludicrous accusations ad sinistram like a toddler lobbing kumquats at the family pooch.

But then I repented my ungenerous reaction. I wondered to myself in this wise: I say, Self, have you been unfair to the Goldberg? has his study of the Swarthmorofascist menace caused him to plumb the measureless depths of his own soul, probing whether he might himself be susceptible to fascism’s seductive charms? Or has, perhaps, the recent canvass caused him a crisis in confidence, urging him to reconsider his support for the last administration’s civil-liberties-consuming binge, making him reflect with worry on his recent activities, much as one facing the jaundiced map in the morning mirror might wonder whether it was perhaps such a good idea to have that fifth martini-with-absinthe?

Self said, not so fast, sunshine. You just wait. And the self was right: it was just that old wheeze, “irony is dead” performance art. Twenty minutes later Goldberg defends the Bush carelessness with civil liberties, without betraying evidence of reflective thought, utterly unable to wonder, “gosh, where could this take us”.

Have another drink, the self said.

This massive photo of the inauguration is incredibly cool. If you look carefully, you can see Cheney’s hooves. You can also find the image here. And here.

Via Seth, who was there.

Just a squib to direct you to Errol Morris’s piece on pool photographs of GW Bush. Mainly it’s striking how generic they are, how déjà vues — though chosen by three photographers, scenes are repeated, one especially familiar one three times — until you get to the last one, three in a row snapped after Bush’s farewell address, capturing something in his face I had never seen before.

Doing some quick searches in response to our co-blogger’s co-blogger’s post about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, I came across the following chart detailing the ratio of reported cases to deaths in San Fransisco.  Not only is it a priceless statistical representation of panic, it also captures the malleability of even professional opinion.  To wit:

tellmeitsover2I’ve highlighted the number of cases in red because blood is the color of riot—and for legibility.  With certainty, we can say the author of this study, W.H. Kellogg, captured something of cultural significance when he rocketed his data up and off the y-axis.  But the convergence of the incidence and death rates between the 23rd and 30th of November may be even more interesting.  How do we account for the fact that, for one short week, everyone who caught the disease died from it?  Easy:


According to the 21 November article, because public health officials claimed that “the influenza epidemic had been stamped out,” at noon “[t]he shrieking of every siren in San Fransisco, blowing of whistles, clanging of gongs and the ringing of bells will . . . signal for throwing away the gauze face coverings” (9).  Why were there no more new cases reported than there were deaths the next week?

Because someone said there wouldn’t be.  So there weren’t.  People caught colds and had the sniffles, but it wasn’t Spanish flu.  Couldn’t be.  The epidemic was over.  Did you somehow sleep through the infernal cacophany last Tuesday?  The city has no more need for mass-prophylaxis.  Everyone who catches the bug now brought it with them on the boat, and everyone knows you can’t catch flu from boat-people.  Wait—what do you mean, “How do I think it got here in the first place?”  What?  How come nobody told us—quick!  Everyone!  En masque en masse!


So said the San Fransisco Chronicle on 4 December, and back up the panic-axis we go . . .

In reply to a reader who likes downtown Manhattan, but not midtown, Matt Yglesias writes,

I certainly agree with the premise that not all “urban areas full of tall buildings” are the same from an aesthetic point of view… But this is one of these cases where the existence of a real market failure doesn’t mean that there’s a good regulatory solution…. One regulatory issue that does need to be considered, however, is whether you’re making it economically viable to do interesting architecture.

I’m a bit surprised Matt doesn’t take this opportunity to bring up the New York zoning law of 1916, which is generally taken to have been quite satisfactory both from a regulatory and aesthetic standpoint.

As electric elevators drove Manhattan buildings ever toward the sun, New York streets and sidewalks fell into that peculiar noonday gloom that results from the companionship of skyscrapers and narrow streets. The city’s lawmakers stopped builders from blocking out the sun by describing limits on building heights—not straightforwardly or arbitrarily declaring that no structure could rise higher than x, but rather declaring that a percentage of the building could rise indefinitely, so long as the majority of it stayed within an enveloped defined by percentages of the width of neighboring streets.

All very dry and not aesthetically satisfying at all, until (so the story goes) architects set out to figure out how much building you could get out of the law. Here are the results, as sketched by Hugh Ferriss—“a shape which the Law puts in the architect’s hands. He can add nothing to it, but he can vary it in detail,” Ferriss said.

Beginning, as at the upper left, with the maximum mass allowed by law, Ferriss cut it down to let in light, then made its basic elements rectangular to allow for standard steel construction, then capped it at a height that seemed reasonable given what square footage he figured was saleable. Voila: the iconic ziggurat of a New York skyscraper, realized throughout the city in the heyday of high buildings between the wars.

Beginning with a regulatory formula, working with material science and marketability, architects came up with something not only aesthetically pleasing but indeed suggestive: those stepped-back towers inspired; they were Mayan, Aztec, powerfully American, prehistoric and modern at once.

With later laws, New York got a different formula—Floor-to-Air Floor Area [I mean, honestly — ed.] ratio—which permitted monolithic slabs, if surrounded by open plazas. Thus, modern midtown. Some people like this sort of thing, though Matt’s correspondent clearly doesn’t.

In any case, the merely empirical evidence suggests regulation is compatible with aesthetically pleasing, interesting architecture; that architects are smart and talented people who will do the most with what you give them. And like all artists, they know that restriction can speed inspiration.

Move over, Newton and LeibnizArchimedes may have beat you by 2,000 years:

Two of the texts hiding in the prayer book have not appeared in any other copy of Archimedes’s work, so no one but Heiberg had studied them until now. One of them, titled The Method, has special historical significance. It could be considered the earliest known work on calculus. […]

The Greek philosopher Aristotle built defenses against infinity’s vexing qualities by distinguishing between the “potential infinite” and the “actual infinite.” An infinitely long line would be actually infinite, whereas a line that could always be extended would be potentially infinite. Aristotle argued that the actual infinite didn’t exist.

Archimedes developed rigorous methods of dealing with infinity—still used today—in which he followed Aristotle’s injunction. For example, Archimedes proved that the area of a section of a parabola is four-thirds the area of the triangle inside it (shown in red in the diagram below). To do so, he built a straight-lined figure that’s an approximation of the curvy one. Then he showed that he could make the approximation as close as anyone could ever demand to both the section of the parabola and to four-thirds the area of the triangle.

The writings had been hiding in plain sight, in a palimpsest underneath a book of prayer.  One wonders about the monk who scraped the parchment clean.  Did he have any idea?  Could he have…?

The postulation of a lost age, where human beings had made great advances in science, medicine, and mathematics, has always made for wondrous fiction (especially when the ancients had steampunk spaceships.)  This discovery leaves me despairing at the fragility of progress.

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