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[Editor’s note: zunguzungu, long-time commenter and friend of the blog, has stepped up with a guest post today. Thanks for this. We really appreciate it.]

Henry Morton Stanley pretended to have written something in his diary on November 23rd, 1871. Perhaps he did, though the pages in his diary are torn out, so we can’t know for sure. The event he claimed to have recorded — but probably didn’t — also probably didn’t happen, or at least not the way it’s usually “remembered.” He most likely didn’t say “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” on meeting the older doctor (Tim Jeal says so in his new biography), and he didn’t even meet him in the jungle at all. He met him in a town, as this image from How I Found Livingstone illustrates:

As Claire Pettitt put it in her excellent Dr Livingstone I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire, it’s a phrase we remember without really remembering why, and pages torn out of a diary are an apt figure for the ways that forgetting what really happened have been the first step in making the event meaningful. For example, while Welsh-born Stanley would eventually give up the pretense of being from Missouri, he was, at the time, widely recognized as an American figure allowing the event to be contemporaneously interpreted by reference to an Anglo-American partnership that was going through a rough patch. As Pettitt illustrates, news of his discovery literally competed for column space with news of the negotiations in Geneva where the issue of British support for the Confederacy was being officially resolved, and this was symptomatic more broadly: Stanley’s narrative of the American finding a revered English abolitionist (though he was actually Scottish) in the jungles of Africa did a similar kind of work as the diplomats in Geneva in re-cementing a sense of Anglo-American moral identification. Read the rest of this entry »

On this day in 1973, Richard Milhous Nixon held a press conference with reporters and newspaper editors gathered in Orlando, Florida for a convention at Disney World. In a lengthy question-and-answer session, Nixon admitted that he had paid only $792 in taxes for 1970 and $878 for 1971. And, as R.W. Apple of the New York Times noted, “the most vivid comment came when Mr. Nixon told the editors he was not ‘a crook’ — unusual language from a President, even one under fire.” Discussing charges that he had allowed the price of milk to go up in exchange for promises of campaign contributions from the dairy industry, a defiant Nixon stated that, “I’ve made my mistakes, but in all my years of public life I’ve never profited from public service. I’ve earned every cent. I’m not a crook.”

Beyond that, the President turned most of his attention to the ongoing Watergate scandal, maintaining his innocence throughout the grilling. As Apple reported, “The editors, who came here from 43 states, clapped tepidly when the President entered the meeting room at the Contemporary Hotel on the Disney World grounds. But they, and particularly their families, responded much more warmly at the conclusion.” Nixon would resign less than nine months later.

On this day in 1972, the Dow Jones industrial average closed above the 1,000 mark for the first time in its history. International Business Machines led the way, moving up more than 11 points, to 388. One trader remarked: “This thing has an obvious psychological effect. As for the permanence of it — well, I just don’t know.” The New York Times, meanwhile, compared the milestone to “the initial breaking of the four-minute mile,” noting that the stock exchange resembled a carnival:

At 3:29 P.M., red light bars flashed on above and below each of the time clocks surrounding the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. This was the traditional visual signal to show that one minute of training time remained. At the same moment, a bell began clanging on the speaker’s rostrum — the auditory warning.

Traders, brokers and clerks on the floor — aware that history was in the making — broke into cheers that lasted about 20 seconds. Some paper was tossed in the air and drifted down like confetti.

Said another broker, “There’s a sort of renewed confidence in the whole economic outlook.” Ah, those were the days. The market finished today off more than 337 points, down almost 4%. And shares of IBM now sell for just over 80.

Update: See the comments for an explanation of the impact of splits on IBM’s stock price. And then if you can figure it out, explain it to me. Thanks.

All are welcome to attend this event today at 5 at the UC Davis University Club, which is free and open to the public. Planned last spring, with the idea that this is the 75th anniversary of the New Deal’s origins, we had no idea it would touch on immediate political concerns. But we’ll have David Kennedy, the Stanford professor who won the Pulitzer prize for his book Freedom from Fear, which explained how the New Deal relates to World War II; Sarah Phillips, the Columbia professor and a scholar of the New Deal’s conservation and agricultural policies, whose book This Land, This Nation uses environmental history to understand the New Deal—this is especially interesting going forward, as any “new New Deal” would have to adapt itself to the environmental concerns of the present moment; and Andrew Cohen, the Syracuse professor and a scholar of the New Deal’s relationship to the business community and government regulation of the business community. His book The Racketeer’s Progress shows how difficult it was to craft business regulation that would respect America’s legal and political past. (Readers of this site will know him for his other work.)

I will be chairing the discussion. You can hear a preview on Sacramento’s public radio station, Capital Public Radio, this afternoon and you can read about it in the Aggie here.

On this day in 1969, the nation learned that the U.S. Army was investigating accusations that Lieutenant William Calley had murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in March 1968.  The Army called the location of the massacre “Pinkville.”  The Vietnamese knew it as My Lai.

The soldiers of Charlie Company had charged into the hamlet looking for Viet Cong.  They found only civilians.  “It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids,” said one witness. “As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.”

Despite the absence of enemy soldiers or weapons, the soldiers began a frenzy of killing.  They set fire to huts and then shot the residents as they ran out; they herded the villagers into groups and machine-gunned them; they tossed grenades at the people who tried to hide in ditches.  The soldiers believed that they were taking revenge for the buddies they’d lost.  In that environment, they believed, it was impossible to tell friend from foe.  “And you know,” said another soldier, “if you can shoot artillery and bombs in there every night, how can the people in there be worth so much?”

The numbers are disputed, but the Vietnamese said that 567 people were killed that day.  The only U.S. casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot so he would not have to participate in the killing.

Though the Army tried to cover up the My Lai massacre, the word began to spread.  A young GI, Ron Ridenhour, who was not present at the massacre but heard about it later, began to write letters to public officials.  Eventually, two congressmen forced the Army to investigate.

The American public learned of the Army investigation thanks to the efforts of a free-lance reporter named Seymour M. Hersh, whose stories were distributed by a tiny outfit called the Dispatch News Service.  The story of Hersh’s reporting on My Lai is legendary among journalists.  Tipped off by sources, and funded by a small grant from a foundation, he spent days working the phone, and finally learned Calley’s name and the number of deaths.  Then he flew down to Fort Benning, Georgia, to try to find Calley.  He cajoled, bullied, and sneaked past various soldiers and Army officers in an effort to talk to the man at the center of the case.  In the course of a day, he knocked on hundreds of doors, downed many scotches and beers as he chatted up Calley’s fellow soldiers, and persuaded one soldier to steal Calley’s personnel file.  When he finally found the lieutenant himself, near midnight, Hersh convinced him to sit down, have some beers, and talk till dawn.

Hersh knew immediately what he had.  “If somebody would have said to me then: ‘What’s going to happen?’ I would have said: ‘I’m going to go work on this a little more and write the most incredible story that’s going to win me the Pulitzer Prize.  It’s going to be an incredible story.  The best story of anybody’s life.’  Okay?  I just knew it.”

He did work on it a little more, found more witnesses and participants, located a distributor (he knew that most newspapers and magazines wouldn’t touch it), and wrote an incredible series of stories that won him the Pulitzer Prize.  And he went on to spend a lifetime writing other incredible stories: CIA domestic spying; the secret bombing of Cambodia; the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Salvador Allende.  And, oh yes, Abu Ghraib.

When I worked at a college newspaper in the 1980s, we all wanted to be Seymour Hersh.  Not Bob Woodward, who had gone all establishment, but Hersh. Now, the newspaper industry is in free fall, and many of those inspired by Hersh have left journalism.  But Hersh himself, now past 70, is still making those phone calls, knocking on those doors, and persuading his sources that the American people deserve to know the truth.

Photo by Flickr user Skender.

Holograph of “In Flanders fields” by John McCrae from the Oxford First World War Poetry Digital Archive below the fold.

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Below the historians debate which American Presidents count as intellectual. Here I sing of math and the man, Gottfried Leibniz, German polymath, the smartest man that ever lived. I could sing out long and loud, but today I sing only one verse to make the case:*

In 1672, the Elector of Mainz sent the young diplomat Leibniz to Paris. The young diplomat Leibniz did little in the service of diplomacy, but instead met all of the intellectuals that he could find, including the Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens, and to his chagrin, the young Leibniz learned that his mathematical knowledge was quite deficient. So he decided to rectify the situation.

Three years later, on this day in 1675, he invented the calculus.


Of course, the claim that he invented the calculus was not (is not?) uncontroversial. Newton claimed to have developed his method of fluxions in 1666 or so, and thus Leibniz’s contribution, at most, was developing a better notation system for someone else’s discovery.

Historians of science sometimes speak of the calculus as ready to be discovered, and so, like the question of who discovered the New World, it’s simply a matter of who did it, when, and whether he did it on his own.** And the evidence at best is mixed. It’s clear that Newton did not publish his method of fluxions until 1693; Leibniz first publishes his differentials in 1684. But the intellectual currency of the day was manuscripts and letters, mostly undated, and it is not clear whether Leibniz saw Newton’s manuscripts prior to 1677, when he sent a note to Newton detailing some of the principles of his system.

Complicating the issue further is rabid partisanship. In 1687, Newton claims that he invented the calculus independently some twenty years earlier, but acknowledged Leibniz as a skilled geometer who had shared his own independently developed method ten years earlier. It was not until the early 1700s when charges of plagiarism began to appear on both sides. Neither man acquitted himself well:

All-out war began in 1710, when an English writer published an article bluntly accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. Understandably outraged, Leibniz demanded an independent inquiry from the Royal Society. In 1712, the Society duly organized a commission, which delivered its verdict: the accusation of plagiarism stands. The de facto chairman of the inquiry and author of its report on Leibniz was Isaac Newton.

An anonymous article appeared in the German press defending Leibniz and reversing the charge: Newton, the unnamed author declaims, plagiarized Leibniz. Leibniz was forced to disown the article, claiming it had been put out by a “zealous friend.” But it soon became clear to all parties that the “zealous friend” in question was Leibniz himself. In England, meanwhile, appeared an anonymous review of the dispute, according to which Newton was the innocent victim of Leibniz’s chicanery. The “anonymous” author, it turns out, was Newton himself.

The dispute resolved solomonically: We say they both independently invented the calculus. Newton invented it first. Leibniz invented it…. better.

*Diderot sings it shorter: “When one compares the talents one has with those of a Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die quietly in the dark of some forgotten corner.”

** I heart the locution “discovered.” As if the calculus were behind the sofa all along!

On this night in 1619, after a night in which he swears he was not carousing, René Descartes went to bed in an overheated, stuffy room in Ulm, and had three vivid dreams to which he later attributed the eventual course of his life.

In the first dream, a strong wind battered Descartes, and he sought shelter in the church of a college, only to be pushed back by the winds. After the winds abated he found himself surrounded by upright people, while he himself tottered along, leaning to the left. In the second dream, he perceived a loud thunderclap and saw the room filled with sparks of light. This apparently was a recurring dream for Descartes, so he meditated on logic until he fell asleep. (It’s like counting sheep, but for intellectuals.)

In the third dream, Descartes felt no terror, but instead came upon a book of verse, the first line of which read “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” and another poem, presented to him by an unknown man, with the first line “Est et non.” Which way of life shall I choose? It is and it is not.

It’s no tolle lege, but it’s surely proof that the universe has a sense of humor, having a man who would be identified with rationalism and whose books and teachings would be periodically banned, get his inspiration from a dream about a church. Descartes grew into a philosopher (and mathematician) whose method, more than his beliefs, distinguished him from the Scholastics, a method of metaphysical doubt: proceeding by extreme skepticism, he would discern those true principles which struck him as clear and distinct. And from there, he hoped, one could construct science upon firm foundations:

Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable. (Meditations II.)

Descartes presents this new method of doubt in the aptly titled Discourse on the Method (1637), but nowhere so vividly as in the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), in which he presents himself as a restless thinker, sitting by the fire in his pajamas (lit. toga),who over the course of six days meditates on what he can know with certainty, doubting his experiences (for has he not had similar experiences in dreams?) His first intermediate conclusion, a barbaric yawp: I am, I exist, I am a thinking thing. The famous formulation cogito ergo sum is not in the Meditations; some philosophers argue that this is omitted because Descartes did not think of the conclusion as an inference, but as a truth of unshakeable immediacy.

Descartes circulated the manuscript of the Meditations to the leading theological and philosophical thinkers of his day, and in an act that earned him the love of historians of philosophy, published the objections and replies as an addendum to the first edition. The critics press Descartes on a number of points, but they can be summarized by noting that while Archimedes needed a solid place to stand in order to move the world, he also needed a lever. Arguing from I am a thinking thing to the reality of God, logic, and the external world did not prove to be an easy task, and whether Descartes’ argument succeeds or falls to circularity is still the subject of scholarly debate.

I once was fortunate enough to hold in my hand an early (first or second edition) copy of the Meditations. It was fat, and fit easily in the palm of my hand, about the size of a book of prayers. It would have fit snugly in the pocket of a jacket. While it would be irresponsible to conclude anything about Descartes’ intentions or hopes from the small size of the book (many factors determine the size of a book), speculating is irresistible: the book of dreams from a dreamer, a book of meditations for the modern scientist from a man whose aspirations were much more modest:

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for so many ages by the most distinguished men; and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is still not in dispute and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others.

Jay DeFeo, during the removal of The Rose

On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Moving Company arrived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. In an apartment on the second floor, they cautiously unmounted an enormous painting — eight feet by eleven and weighing literally a ton — lowered it to the floor and packed it into a wooden crate. A carpenter cut out a window and part of the façade; the movers gently slid the painting out this slot onto the platform of a crane, then lowered it to the sidewalk and into the truck. The artist hovered, nervously smoking, clowning for a friend’s camera as her life’s work, unmanageable and well-nigh uncontainable, was shipped away.

Jay DeFeo was born in 1929, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She grew up in the Bay Area, and studied art at Berkeley, earning her MFA in 1951. After a year in Europe, she returned to Berkeley; in 1954, she married the painter Wally Hedrick, and they moved to San Francisco. Hedrick and others founded the Six Gallery, remembered today for the first reading of “Howl”. He and DeFeo established themselves on Fillmore Street, and for the next ten years, a rotating cast of San Francisco’s painting and writing bohemia rented other apartments in the building.

Through the 1950s, DeFeo painted productively, making a name for herself in the second wave of Abstract Expressionism. She had paintings in a group show in Los Angeles in 1959; then, she and Hedrick were invited to participate in “Sixteen Americans”, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside the likes of Johns, Rauschenberg and Stella. The curator, Dorothy Miller, wanted to include Deathrose, a large new painting, but DeFeo said it wasn’t ready. She and Hedrick didn’t attend — with true bohemian insouciance, they gave away the airplane tickets MOMA sent them — and in any case, by the time of the opening, DeFeo was already deep in work, extending her new painting beyond anything she’d done before.

She worked at it all day, every day, for the next five years. The basic design was set early on — an abstract sunburst or cloudburst radiating from a point a bit above eye level — but the surface kept changing, and growing. Photographs of its various stages show many different textures. Sometimes she carved into the growing surface, but mostly she built, layer on layer of paint, even before the last layer had properly dried. At one point, the paint spread outward off the canvas and onto the wall around it: she jerry-rigged a new frame around it to accommodate the new scale, and kept working.

She might never have finished The Rose (as it came to be called) without the intervention of fate. In March 1965, Walter Hopps of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) asked to show it. And then in September, the landlord at Fillmore Street served an eviction notice. Quickly, she accepted Hopps’ offer. The day after the painting was moved, DeFeo and Hedrick vacated the building, and separated. DeFeo followed the painting to Pasadena, and worked at it a few months longer before breaking off for good.

She returned to the Bay Area, but to Marin County, rather than San Francisco; she dropped out of the art scene, and didn’t pick up a brush for the next three years. She resumed painting in 1970, and continued painting, photography, and teaching (at Mills College) until her death in 1989, of cancer. (It’s hard not to suspect that the years of work on The Rose, living on paint fumes and Christian Brothers brandy, contributed.)

The painting itself returned to San Francisco in 1969. It was exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, but soon began to sag badly. To slow the damage, the Art Institute wrapped it up and plastered it into the wall, until the resources could be found to restore it properly. Finally, after DeFeo’s death, the Whitney Museum took on the project. The painting was excavated and carefully restored, with a new steel frame inside the layers and layers of paint. It first appeared in its new form at the Whitney on November 9, 1995, thirty years to the day after it was untimely ripped from its birthplace on Fillmore.

I saw it a year later, on loan at the Berkeley Art Museum. For such a massive, extravagant effort, it’s surprisingly reticent at first — the sunburst is muted, white on mostly gray. In the crevasses of the surface, though, other colors peek through, hinting at what’s buried beneath. The effect is at once overwhelming and shy.

Today it’s out of sight again, packed away in a metal cage in the Whitney’s storage facility. When I inquired this summer, they told me there’s no way to see it. These days in the City, we’re hearing a lot about the proposal of Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, to build a museum in the Presidio for his collection of modern and contemporary art. I would suggest to Fisher, once he gets the site he wants, that he make room in the building for The Rose — the greatest artwork ever made in San Francisco, and in need of a good home.

In the meantime, for a taste of the painting, you can’t do better than Bruce Conner’s beautiful short film of the removal, The White Rose (with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain for a score). I also recommend Jane Green and Leah Levy, Jay DeFeo and The Rose (2003) — great photos and useful writing.

[Updated to correct a serious misstatement at the end: the painting is inaccessible, not decaying again.]

Here’s what the Times had to say about what happened on this day in 1860:

The canvass for the Presidency of the United States terminated last evening, in all the States of the Union, under the revised regulation of Congress, passed in 1845, and the result, by the vote of New-York, is placed beyond question at once. It elects ABRAHAM LINCOLN of Illinois, President, and HANNIBAL HAMLIN of Maine, Vice-President of the United States, for four years, from the 4th March next, directly by the People.

The election, so far as the City and State of New-York are concerned, will probably stand, hereafter as one of the most remarkable in the political contests of the country; marked, as it is, by far the heaviest popular vote ever cast in the City, and by the sweeping, and almost uniform, Republican majorities in the country.

Lincoln later became the nation’s greatest President. Also: Eric had him killed so that FDR could do stuff that Lincoln couldn’t — like serving sixteen terms in office. True fact. It’s all about the rankings, see? And Eric plays to win.

On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln cashiered General George B. McClellan for the second and last time. Lincoln had been angry for some time with McClellan, whose victories typically seemed to result from happenstance, while his failures all appeared to be the result of hard work.

In the days leading to Antietam, McClellan had, for example, stumbled upon a detailed accounting of Robert E. Lee’s plans for his Army of Northern Virginia. And yet, because of his pathological cautiousness, McClellan’s federal troop had not routed their rebel foes at the war’s bloodiest battle. The Union, despite McClellan’s good fortune, narrowly carried the day.

After Antietam, Lincoln took a massive political risk, issuing his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Eager for more victories to raise morale and provide political cover, Lincoln practically begged McClellan to pursue Lee’s battered army. McClellan responded, time again, by noting that his Army of the Potomac was foot-sore and hungry. In mid October, the President, taking note of the fact that Lee’s men were in far worse shape than were McClellan’s, wrote the general, gently asking him, “Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?” Lincoln warned that McClellan did not have time to dither and instead had to move quickly to engage the enemy.

McClellan ignored him. He then discovered a new excuse for inactivity: his pack animals, like his men, were exhausted. Exasperated, Lincoln replied: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?” Finally, on October 26, the Army of the Potomac crossed its namesake river. It was too late. Lee had been reinforced. The Army of Northern Virginia remained intact. Richmond stood just out of reach.

Lincoln fired McClellan, noting that the general had a case of “the slows.” McClellan’s war career was over. He turned to politics, faring about as well as he had on the battlefield. McClellan lost the 1864 election to Lincoln, who, by that time, had cycled through a series of generals before finally tapping U.S. Grant to command the Union’s military. Grant may not have been fast. But nobody ever claimed, as Lincoln had of McClellan, that he was a “stationary engine.”

The call is, Barack Obama will serve in the country’s 44th presidency.

[Lori Clune returns for another guest post. Thanks, Lori, for freaking me out.]

On this day in 1950, the Washington Daily News ran a story describing “the crazy attempted assassination” of President Harry S. Truman. On November 1st – while the president took a nap in his underwear on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon – two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate Truman in hopes of sparking a Puerto Rican independence movement. Only a locked screen door and security guards stood between Truman and the assassins. Both men, Griselo Torresola and Oscar Collazo, were shot before they could get inside the house. Torresola, suffering a head wound, died instantly. Collazo, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, was saved when Truman commuted his sentence to life. President Carter ordered Collazo’s early release in 1979, and he died in Puerto Rico in 1994. He did not live to see a significant Puerto Rican independence movement.

The shooting, as detailed by John Bainbridge, Jr. and Stephen Hunter in American Gunfight, lasted nearly a minute with gunfire exchanged between the assailants and White House policemen and Secret Service agents. Three guards were wounded and a fourth was killed. None of the first family were harmed.

The gunfight actually didn’t take place at the White House. From 1948 to 1952, the White House underwent a $5.4 million renovation. Not known for living opulently, Truman saw his daughter’s piano leg break through the floor and into the room below before he agreed to replace the rotting wood with a steel skeleton structure. So, Harry, Bess, and Margaret moved across the street to Blair House for the duration. As a result of the assassination attempt, Truman was no longer allowed to walk from Blair House to the White House, causing him to state, “It’s hell to be President.”

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico remained a commonwealth. Just prior to the assassination attempt a three-day revolt – the Jayuya Uprising – had erupted in Puerto Rico and failed. The nationalists wanted to remove U.S. control; what they got was martial law. The ghost of Torresola rose on March 1, 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists entered the visitor’s gallery of the House of Representatives and shot into a crowd of congressmen. President Eisenhower wrote very nice sorry-you-got-shot-in-the-Capitol letters to each of the five wounded congressman. He also commuted the attackers’ death sentences to life. But Puerto Rico remained a commonwealth.

Throughout the Eisenhower years the country debated the merits of adding another star to the flag. Should we make Puerto Rico a state? How about Alaska? Hawaii? By 1959, a consensus emerged, though Eisenhower remained opposed to Alaskan statehood until the very end, vowing to veto statehood for “that outpost.” What if? Puerto Rico and Hawaii as the 49th and 50th states?

On this day in 1892, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published. Shortly thereafter, the titular brilliant sleuth was pressganged by philosophers into service as Exemplary Non-existent Object. Regrettably, his skill at singlestick did not save him, and poor Dr. Watson was shanghai’d, too. They have served notably as stock examples of things that do not exist, of characters that exhibit contradictory properties (Dr. Watson’s war wound is described as first in his shoulder and then in his leg), and of instances of cases where what we know to be true about the real world complicates how we evaluate what is true according to the story (the speckled band is not a constrictor, and as such, could not have climbed down the rope to bite the victim.)

But leave that aside.

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On this date in 1969, the inaugural message was transmitted on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a packet-switching network developed by the United States Department of Defense.  The internet’s deep ancestor, ARPANET originally consisted of four Interface Message Processors (IMP), which were sewn together by leased line modems that transferred an astonishing 50 kbit per second.  By early December 1969 — two months after the first message was sent — all four nodes of the original network were linked together.

I’ll be honest.  Almost none of the words in that last paragraph make any sense to me.  But the content of the first message may be viewed below the fold.

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On this day in 1966, the National Organization for Women convened its founding conference in Washington, DC. NOW chose as its first president Betty Friedan, author of the The Feminine Mystique, and drafted its “Statement of Principle”. That document charted a centrist path for the organization, explicitly rejecting separatism by beginning with the words, “We men and women”, before calling for equality between the sexes.

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On this day in 1980, Ronald Reagan, during his debate with President Jimmy Carter, suggested to the American people that they should ask themselves a series of questions before voting: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?” And on and on.

It was a devastating line of attack against an incumbent President. And Reagan, of course, went on to unseat Carter the following Tuesday.

Yesterday, in Canton, Ohio, Barack Obama rolled out his closing argument, highlights of which can be seen below. If you stick around until the 1:45 mark, you’ll hear Obama re-frame Reagan’s central question.

We’ve heard much of this before, but it’s still great stuff. Obama is, to my mind, the best campaigner I’ve ever seen. He has a gift: not just for rhetoric but also for organization, for tactics, for strategy. Should he win [throws salt over shoulder, spits twice, knocks wood, makes odd hand gestures to ward off the evil eye], I have no idea how he’s going to govern — as a cautious centrist, a bipartisan conciliator, a progressive firebrand, or none of the above — because events, more than anything else, will determine that future. In the meantime, though, I’m going to appreciate his gifts for persuasion and hope for the best.

I remember well how, on this day in 2007, I logged in to WordPress and started a new blog. Then, fatefully, I let Ari have the keys. In fairness, though, it was mostly Ari’s idea. The rest of this post is pure self-indulgence and a stab at one or two FAQs so I’ll put it under the fold.
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[Chuck Walker has decided to squander some of his precious time today by posting on the 1746 Lima earthquake. Chuck’s extraordinary new book, on the same subject, can be found here. Thanks, Chuck, for agreeing to join us.]

On this day in 1746 a massive earthquake walloped Lima, Peru, the center of Spain’s holdings in South America. Tumbling adobe walls, ornate facades, and roofs smothered hundreds of people and the death toll reached the thousands by the next day. About ten percent of this city of 50,000 died in the catastrophe. The earthquake captured the imagination of the world, inspired Lima’s leaders to try to rethink the city, and unified the city’s population–in opposition to these rebuilding plans. With constant aftershocks and horrific discoveries of the dead and wounded, despair as well as thirst and hunger set in quickly. Life was miserable for a long time. Limeños took to the street in countless religious processions, bringing out the relics of “their” saints such as Saint Rose of Lima or San Francisco de Solano. People took refuge in plazas, gardens, and the areas just outside of the walled city.

Things were worse in the port city of Callao, ten miles to the west of Lima. Half an hour after the earthquake, a tsunami crushed the port, killing virtually all of its 7,000 inhabitants. Some survivors had been inland or in Lima while a few made it to the top of the port’s bastions and rode it out. Several washed up alive at beaches to the south, telling their miracle stories to all who would listen. One woman had floated on a painting of her favorite saint. Merchants in Lima who kept houses, shops, and warehouses in Callao claimed that when they arrived the next morning they could not find the site of their property—no landmarks remained. The water not only ravaged people, animals, and structures but also swallowed up the city’s records. For years people petitioned to the courts about their identity or property, unable to show their papers in the well-documented Spanish colonial world.

The earthquake/tsunami takes us into areas where historians cannot normally venture—we have descriptions of where people were sleeping and life (and death) in cloistered convents. It also serves as an entryway into the mental world of the era, as people displayed their fears and priorities. Some worried about recovering their property and others about rebuilding social hierarchies; some more subversive-minded members of the lower classes saw it as an opportunity. Everyone suffered, however, with the loss of life and the misery of the following months.

The Viceroy and his inner circle did a remarkable job of stemming panic, assuring water and food supplies, and rebuilding the city. José Manso de Velasco, who would be titled for his efforts the Count of Superunda (“Over the Waves”), quickly gathered his advisors, surveyed the city on horseback, and took measures to rebuild water canals and find food from nearby towns and beached ships in Callao. His social control measures contained an ugly racialized side as authorities and elites fretted about slaves liberating themselves, maroons raiding the city, and free blacks dedicating themselves to crime. Martial law apparently stopped a crime wave although stories circulated about people tearing off jewelry from the dead or dying. People lined up at nearby beaches to collect washed up goods and many died when ransacking tottering houses—either from the caved in structures or angry crowds.

The viceroy managed to assure food, water and relative calm. The Bush administration would envy his success or at least his public relations coup. In part it reflected Manos de Velasco’s experience as a city builder (he had done this in Chile where he was stationed previously) and his relative hands-on approach. But absolutist authorities were good at emergency relief; in some ways, this is what they did. They couldn’t allow the people to go hungry (or to eat cake) and so Manso de Velasco requisitioned workers and flour and banned profiteering. People of all castes and classes lauded him for his willingness to sleep in the central Plaza.

Yet the Viceroy’s plans went far beyond immediate efforts in public safety. He and his advisors sought to change the city in classic eighteenth-century fashion. After deciding not to move it elsewhere (in part because they so fretted over the thought of maroons taking over the remains of the former viceregal capital), they sketched out a city with wider streets, lower buildings, and less “shady” areas. They wanted people, air, and commodities to circulate with greater ease, with all movement ultimately leading towards the Viceregal Plaza in the main square. Think of a frugal version ofVersailles. His plan, quite brilliant in theory, failed miserably. It managed to bring almost all Peruvians together, but in opposition. The upper classes rejected limiting their rebuilt houses to one story and tearing down some of their heavy facades, status symbols that proved deadly in earthquakes. They claimed he didn’t have the right and fought him for years. The Church saw the plan to impede them from rebuilding some churches, convents, and monasteries (there were an astounding 64 churches in Lima at the time) as a dangerous step towards secularization. They stressed their role in aiding the wounded and destitute and reasoned that since the earthquake was a sign of God’s wrath, did it make sense to anger him even more?

The lower classes did not like the plan. Afro-Peruvians resisted the social control campaigns aimed squarely at them and Indians (surprise, surprise) did not flock to the city to volunteer for rebuilding efforts. In fact, blacks and Indians organized a conspiracy that rocked the city less than four years after the earthquake and spread into a nearby Andean region, Huarochirí. Authorities arrested conspiracy leaders when a priest passed information about it that he had learned in confession. They executed six conspirators, displaying their heads for months. The rebels planned to flood the central Plaza and then kill Spaniards when they fled their homes. One participant proposed that any rebel who killed a Spaniard would assume his political position. While nipped in the bud in Lima, the uprising spread in the nearby Andean region of Huarochirí. After rebels took several towns and imprisoned and even killed local authorities, officials in Lima fretted that they would take the city, link with a messianic movement in the jungle, and even ally with the pernicious English. A Lima battalion, however, captured and executed the leaders. Manso de Velasco proved highly capable in efforts immediately after the earthquake. He was much less successful in using the catastrophe to create a new Lima.

There is an old, perhaps dead, journalism standard that third-world disasters merit little if any attention. Stories on “earthquake in South America kills hundreds” should accordingly receive an inch or two on page 19, at best. Did international savants and writers overlook Lima’s earthquake-tsunami? Not at all. Earthquakes fascinated the erudite in Europe and what became the United States. They debated their causes in this pre-plate tectonics era, contributing to trans-Atlantic polemics about whether the Americas was a younger, more humid, and inferior continent. The Comte de Buffon and Thomas Jefferson feuded on this question. Accounts of earthquakes also interested some Englishmen with imperial yearnings, who saw them as an opportunity to take over from the “weak” Spanish. This interest increased greatly in 1755 when the Lisbon earthquake took place and became an obligatory topic for virtually all European intellectuals. Lima plays a role alongside Lisbon in Voltaire’s Candide. One account of the Lima earthquake was published in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and English, including a lovely edition by Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1749). The 1746 earthquake was by no means an overlooked and distant “third world” disaster.

I was in Lima for the destructive August 15, 2007 earthquake and confirmed that the Peruvian state’s response to earthquakes has changed over the centuries, not necessarily for the better. President Alan García’s efforts were more Bush than Manso de Velasco. While making impassioned speeches and taking the obligatory tour of the ruins in Pisco, the epicenter south of Lima, his government was unable to guarantee food, water, and shelter. And while international organizations and governments promised relief, the people of Pisco still live in makeshift tents and most of the city remains in shambles. The May 2008 China earthquake pushed Peru out of the press. Perhaps Peru needs a viceroy or at least a more committed and efficient leader; the world could always use a Voltaire and a Benjamin Franklin.

On this date sixty years ago, a poisonous fog descended on the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania. An industrial community located 28 miles south of Pittsburgh, Donora’s economy depended on the American Steel and Wire Plant (a two-factory complex owned by US Steel) and the Donora Zinc Works. Although the three plants provided the livelihood for thousands of workers, air pollution had been a problem in the region since prior to World War I, as farmers reported periodic livestock deaths and crop damage. Several lawsuits were settled out of court during these years; a routine air sampling program, however, was halted in 1935.

On 26 October 1948, effluents from the town’s factories — including suphur dioxide, fluoride, carbon monoxide, and dusts from assorted heavy metals — were trapped by an air temperature inversion that swaddled Donora’s 13,000 residents in a deadly haze for five days. During an inversion, the air at ground level suddenly becomes warmer than the air above it, halting the ordinary convection currents that would ordinarily have lifted the poisonous industrial gases into the atmosphere. As the temperature inversion took place, observers reported that smoke from Donora’s three factories rolled out from the stacks and settled across the town’s rooftops like a thick, sweet-smelling blanket.

Russell Davis, driver for the Donora Fire Department, described the scene as he responded to emergency calls as townspeople began to cough up blood and lose consciousness

There never was such a fog. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, day or night. Hell, even inside the station the air was blue. I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window, steering by scraping the curb. We’ve had bad fogs here before . . . Well, by God, this fog was so bad you couldn’t even get a car to idle. I’d take my foot off the accelerator and – bango! – the engine would stall. There just wasn’t any oxygen in the air. I don’t know how I kept breathing. I don’t know how anybody did. I found people laying in bed and laying on the floor. Some of them were laying there and they didn’t give a damn whether they died or not. I found some down in the basement with the furnace draft open and their head stuck inside, trying to get air that way. What I did when I got to a place was throw a sheet or a blanket over the patient and stick a cylinder of oxygen underneath and crack the valves for fifteen minutes or so. By God, that rallied them. I didn’t take any myself. What I did every time I came back to the station was have a little shot of whiskey. That seemed to help. It eased my throat. There was one funny thing about the whole thing. Nobody seemed to realize what was going on. Everybody seemed to think he was the only sick man in town.

By mid-day on October 27, eleven people had died and the Board of Health advised residents with chronic respiratory or cardiac problems to evacuate Donora. Within three days, the death count stood at eighteen; when the air inversion lifted and rain dispersed the remnants of the fog, as many as fifty additional townspeople died of lung and heart ailments. The health of hundreds more was permanently undermined by the lingering effects of the Danora fog.

Formal investigations by the United States Public Health Service were inconclusive, blaming the weather rather than the chemical effluents or the companies themselves. The PHS results were not surprising. Oscar Ewing, head of the Federal Safety Administration — where PHS was housed at the time — was formerly a top lawyer for Alcoa, which was fending off multiple lawsuits throughout the United States as a result of wartime air pollution. Although the medical symptoms in Donora were consistent with fluoride poisoning, the final report refused to single out any particular chemical for blame for the deadliest air pollution disaster in United States history.

Unfortunately for researchers, the PHS records related to the Donora Fog have been permanently misplaced or destroyed; the investigative records of US Steel, which evidently still exist, are closed to public scrutiny.

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