Friday, January 27, 2017

Heinlein & Clarke On The Moon Landing

The THC Son alerted me to this delightful video from July 20, 1969, the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on to its surface.  I remember watching Walter Cronkite on CBS that day and Armstrong's first footstep.  What I had forgotten was that before and after that step, Cronkite was speaking with Robert A Heinlein (1907-88) and Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008), two of the world's greatest science fiction writers and favorites of mine.  I can't embed the video, but you can find it here.
Heinlein began writing in the 1930s and it was his juvenile sci-fi series in the 1950s that drew me in.  Looking back they were surprisingly sophisticated for young folks and unusually for that time featured strong women, African American, Hispanic and Asian characters.  In 1959 he published Starship Troopers which was so controversial his regular published rejected it (I thought it was amazing!) and later wrote novels such as Stranger In A Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
Arthur C Clarke is best known for 2001: A Space Odessey and visionary books like Childhood's End.  A scientist, Clarke was the first (in 1945) to publish a plan for the launching of geosynchronous orbiting satellites, which became the basis for today's global communication system.  Heinlein and Clark were friends, visiting each other in America and Ceylon (Clarke's longtime home).

What comes through in the video is the strong sense of optimism by Heinlein, Clarke as well as Cronkite.  Heinlein refers to the moon landing as "the happiest day of my life" and "the greatest event in all the history of the human race". They all saw this as just a first step to be quickly followed up.  Clarke predicts "the first baby will be born off the Earth before the end of the century" and says "there is a feeling this is where we belong".

Heinlein sums it up:
"We are going to all the planets and out to the stars . . . it doesn't matter whether it's yellow, black, brown, green, Chinese, Russian or American, it's the human race, they're going there and nothing can stop it".
All of them bemoan "defeatist attitudes" of some of the young folk in America and express hope that this will improve morale.  Near the end, Heinlein advocates getting women into space as soon as possible saying "It does not take a man to run a spaceship".

The last manned trip to the Moon was in 1972.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

I hadn't heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe until the THC Sister brought her to my attention.  How could I have missed her?  Sister Rosetta is really something.  A pioneer in gospel and blues music, an inspiration to many of the early rock n rollers and a fine guitarist as well as singer, she was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915.  Raised by her parents in the gospel tradition, she began recording in 1938 and was popular through the early 1950s, before seeing her career briefly revive during the early 1960s in the wake of the British fascination with American blues.  Sister Rosetta died in 1973.

From 1938, her first gospel hit, This Train.

That's All was also from Sister Rosetta's first recordings.  This version is probably from the 1950s.

In 1944 she recorded the old standard, Down By The Riverside.  This version is probably from the 1950s (catch the guitar solo!).

And finally, from her British tour in 1964, this is Sister Rosetta on a British TV show, singing and playing Didn't It Rain, in the rain.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Paperwork Reduction

Robert DeNiro explains the need for regulatory reform.
From the weird Terry Gilliam epic, Brazil.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Weird Of Hermiston

I'm going to a wedding
I'm going to a wedding dressed in black
I'm going to a party
Going to a party, won't be back
And I'm not going with you
From Jack Bruce's post-Cream solo career.  As always with Jack the song combines interesting music with  bizarre lyrics.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

First Thoughts

Well, it's real, and Donald Trump is President.  Some initial reactions to the inauguration speech and his actions during the transition.

The speech was consistent with his campaign themes.  The rhetoric was certainly not my style (this is more my style) but it was what got him here and I liked this passage early in his speech. 
For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
An entirely fair point when seven of the twelve highest income counties in the United States are now in the Washington DC metro area.  Anyone who has visited the city or its environs recently can see the booming economy.  Last summer, traveling from downtown DC to the Nationals ballpark I was astounded to see how many new buildings were under construction.  The governing class of both parties have made a mess for the rest of us, but have done well for themselves.

He also made remarks I found too apocalyptic in their view of America and promises too grandiose for my taste (though that is a characteristic he shares with more conventional politicians; at least he didn't promise the oceans would stop rising).

The speech reinforced that there will be no magical personality transformation as President.  More importantly it makes clear Trump is a nationalist and populist, not a conservative in the traditional sense.

I'm a process and constitution guy.  I care about the way you get things done, as it is critical to the maintenance of our society and ability to live peacefully together.  That does not appear, at least rhetorically, to be a Trumpian priority.  Nor was there any mention of freedom and liberty.  The message I come away with is Trump will conservative appointments or policies to accomplish his goals (and I do think that several of his appointments have been good) only as long as they have utility to him.  We will need to keep a very close eye on this.  And, I'll add, one of the yuuge reasons this election posed a dilemma for me is that the alternative was a Progressive party engaged in an ongoing assault on speech and dissent (more on that in an upcoming post).

What's important is what comes next.  All Presidents need to make choices among their promises which in most cases, including Trump, are incompatible.  That's how we learn what is really most important to them.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan had three priorities; beating the commies, cutting taxes and balancing the budget.  In office, he realized he could not accomplish all three and chose the first two (a decision I was okay with).  Trump will have to do the same and we will learn a lot more when that happens.

What makes this even more interesting is that some of his major cabinet appointees do not share all of his views, something I find encouraging, both in terms of Trump's willingness to select them and in injecting differing views into the Administration's policy debates.

Some of the media (aka Democrats with bylines) have emphasized the "darkness" of Trump's speech. To some extent I agree, but it is also hard to take seriously this criticism from those who would have been happy to see Bernie Sanders resentful rhetoric on display yesterday.  I'd also refer you to the 2016 platform of the Democratic Party, particularly in contrast to its 1996 platform (yes, I've actually read both).  The 1996 document is optimistic, references the importance of faith, talks often of economic growth, pronounces the end of "big government" but emphasizes the need for key government programs and for targeted new initiatives.   It also mentions the importance of immigration control; in fact, it is a document that, with the exception of trade, would have provided a platform that Donald Trump could have run on.  And I would have gladly voted for the Bill Clinton of 1996 over the Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump of this year.

In contrast, the 2016 Democratic platform is gloomy document - you'd hardly know Obama had been president for eight years.  There is no mention of faith or of growing the economy, but incessant references to inequality and the need for redistribution, along with a paeans to favored identity groups with implicit threats against the non-favored groups.  It is a crabbed, miserable view of America.

Trump's position outside the conventional ideological box, also points to a possible missed opportunity in Democrats overwhelming and unrelenting hostility to his election.  What opportunity?  Trump is not a conservative ideologue. He likes big government and executive power.  He does not care about the issues that drive social conservatives.  He is a non-interventionist on foreign policy.  He pledged not to touch Medicare and Social Security.  He has supported plenty of Democrats in the past, including Bill Clinton, and, let us not forget, Trump is clearly susceptible to flattery.

I thought that in the unlikely event Trump was elected he was as likely to make coalitions on an issue by issue basis with Democrats as well as Republicans; as a Washington Post headline yesterday put it, "Donald Trump completes hostile takeover of Washington, puts both parties on notice".  In the first couple of days after the election I viewed Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's (a very smart politician) initial reaction as attempting to encourage Trump in that direction.  He quickly changed course in light of the furious reaction of most Democrats.  What I see happening is that Trump, who is very sensitive to criticism, is now more likely to make alliances on the right because of the left's implacable opposition.  We'll see how this all plays out, because large segments of the Republican Party are not on board with parts of the Trump agenda. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Crossing The Rubicon fanciful portrayal of Caesar crossing the Rubicon)

This month marks the 2,066th anniversary of the crossing of the Rubicon River on the night of Jan 10-11, 49 BC, by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and his legions, an epochal historic event that spelled the end of the Roman Republic, triggered eighteen years of civil war across three continents and led to the birth of the Roman Empire (and speaking of epochal, his name became the title of all future Roman emperors as well as living into modern times via titles like Kaiser and Tsar).  Tottering for decades, this action brought about the final doom of the Republic.

The Republic had existed since 509 BC, when the last Roman king was overthrown. Governed by the wealthy families who carefully protected their status and jealously kept potential rivals from gaining unlimited power, the Republic existed in a delicate balance for many years.  As the territories ruled by Rome grew rapidly in the second century BC, after the end of the Second Punic War against Carthage in 201 BC, the flow of massive wealth and the disruption of Italy's small farmers by the need to man the growing number of legions in campaigns around the Mediterranean led to growing instability, particularly as the century neared its end when the first outright political violence erupted among the ruling class. in 100 BC, from timemaps)

Violence reached an unprecedented crescendo in the 80s, when the general Sulla stormed the city,  and embarked on a bloody proscription of his enemies after being awarded dictatorial powers for six months by the intimidated Roman Senate.  The Republic managed to stagger through the next three decades.  At the beginning of the decade of the 50s, the great general Pompey (106-48) with victories in Asia, Africa and Spain to his credit, Crassus (115-53) the wealthiest man in Rome (and the guy who defeated Spartacus), and the young upstart Caesar, formed the first triumvirate, allowing them control of provinces and legions.  Even with that, Roman politics was more complicated than three rivals forming an alliance.  Cato the Younger and the orator Cicero had their own agendas, as did with prominent senators from every Roman family of long lineage, each of whom thought they deserved to be among the leading men of Rome.  The result was a constantly shifting mosaic of alliances.

Caesar was allocated three provinces, Cispadane Gaul, Transpadane Gaul and Illyricum in 58.  In those days, Italy's northern border ran roughly along a line through modern Pisa and Florence to a point on the Adriatic Sea south of Ravenna.  To the north, in the Po River Valley, was Cispadane Gaul, conquered by Rome in the third century.  To the northwest, on the other side of the Maritime Alps in what is now Provence in France, was Transpadane Gaul.  Illyricum lay to the east and covered much of the former Yugoslavia., this portrayal is consistent with the physical descriptions we have of him)

As proconsul Caesar sought to gain military glory and wealth (he was highly indebted) in order to rise higher in the Roman hierarchy.  Initially undecided as to whether Illyricum or Transpadane offered the best opportunity, he eventually decided on the latter.  What ensued was nine years of campaigning in which Caesar conquered all of Gaul, from the Rhine to the English Channel (or "Ocean" as it was then called) all the way west to the Atlantic, bringing him glory and making him incredibly wealthy, even making two expeditions to the legendary island of Britain.  He emerged with a reputation as a talented commander, inspirational leader and fearless in combat.

By the time Gaul was finally subdued in 50 BC, the political landscape had changed in Rome.  Crassus was dead, killed by the Parthians when he undertook and ill-advised invasion of their kingdom in 53.  Pompey, increasingly jealous of Caesar's success and with their family bond ended in 55 when Caesar's daughter, who was married to Pompey (reportedly a love, as well as political, match) died in childbirth, began aligning himself with Caesar's enemies in the Senate.  As a further note on the tangle of Roman family politics, Caesar's longest running affair, lasting for many years, was with Servilia, the mother of Brutus who would be one of his assassins, and the half-sister of Cato, his implacable foe.

Suspicious of Caesar's ultimate designs and envious of his success, his rivals in Rome persuaded Pompey to oppose Caesar's proposal that he be allowed to return to Rome and eventually stand for election as counsel in 48, while being protected from prosecution in the interim (in the Roman system prosecution for alleged misdeeds while in office was a political tool used to bring rivals to heel and, in some instances, cause the forfeiture of their wealth).

Complicated negotiations between the various factions continued throughout the year of 50 but always foundered.  Then, on January 7, 49, the Senate passed a senatus consultum ultimum, asking "the consuls, praetors and tribunes, and all the proconsuls near the city to ensure that the Republic comes to no harm".  Though Caesar was not named, it was clear whom the resolution was aimed at.  In fear of their lives, the two pro-Caesar tribunes, Marc Anthony and Cassius, fled the city in disguise.

Caesar with about 3,000 soldiers was in Ravenna just north of the border of Italy.  Proconsuls were forbidden to enter the province without first relinquishing their authority and troops.  Upon receiving news of the decree, Caesar quickly, and characteristically, decided to act rather than wait on further events.  Crossing the Rubicon with his troops, a small river on the provincial boundary which has never been precisely identified by modern historians, he supposedly halted for a moment to utter the words "The die is cast" (iacta alea est).
(from mmdtkw)

Unprepared for Caesar's sudden advance, his opponents were thrown into panic and confusion.  By the middle of March, Pompey and many senators had left Italy for Greece, there to raise an army, and Caesar controlled Italy and Rome.  Over the next four years, Caesar campaigned in Greece, Egypt (where Cleopatra bore him a son), Syria, Asia Minor, Africa and twice in Spain, finally vanquishing his opposition.  Pompey, after losing a battle in Greece, fled to Egypt where he was treacherously murdered while wading ashore by agents of the Ptolemaic pharoah seeking to please Caesar.  In fact, Caesar was unaware and appalled at the murder.  His plan was to pardon Pompey, as he did with so many of his opponents during the war (also allowing them to keep their wealth), in contrast to Sulla who killed his opposition.  He planned clemency for Cato, but his plans were thwarted when his opponent committed suicide at Carthage after Caesar triumphed at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC.

Caesar finally returned to Rome in the late summer of 45 BC, only to be assassinated in March 44, an act which plunged Rome into further war, culminating in his nephew Octavian's (63 BC-14 AD) defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 and their deaths in 30.  Along the way, Cicero became the victim of Anthony's revenge in 43. Octavian became known as Augustus, the first, and longest reigning, of Rome's emperors.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lewis & Clark

A gorgeous guitar tune from Tommy Emmanuel.  Along with the lovely music I've always found this a very optimistic and spirited piece evoking the opening of the American West.   You'll feel better after listening.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Political Tactics & Identity Politics

As we approach the premiere of our new national Realty TV show, I'm doing a couple of posts to explain why many of those wary of a Trump presidency were as, or even more, concerned about not just a Hillary Clinton presidency**, but about the increasingly intolerant and repressive direction of Democratic Party politics.

I came across this article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik after reading about it in the always entertaining and politically unpredictable blog of Ann Althouse.  I've enjoyed Gopnik's travel writing, including Paris To The Moon, but have always found his forays into political thought naive and unsophisticated.

In The Democrats and the Seesaw Politics of Identity, Gopnik treats identity politics as a well-worn political tactic by both parties, which Democrats just got a little wrong on this go round, rejecting the thesis put forward by progressive author Mark Lilla in a recent New York Times piece, The End of Identity Liberalism, that identity politics was a dead-end political strategy for Democrats.

In her post, Althouse noted that Gopnik's approach, perhaps unwittingly, absolves the Trump campaign against charges of racism.  That's true, but not surprising, in an election that turned on voters who had twice supported Barack Obama failing to vote for Hillary Clinton.  My focus is elsewhere.  While Gopnik gets things wrong in almost every sentence, it is his overall thesis that is worth exploring to understand his fundamental misunderstanding.

Gopnik makes much of the point that electoral politics has often focused on identity politics, based on ethnicity, race and religion and thus there is nothing different about what today's Democrats are doing, except to the extent there are now some new identity groups on the scene.  He is correct that this has been a common element in campaigns for generations.

But where he goes wrong is confusing a political vote-getting tactic with a view of how the world, or more specifically America, should work.  There is a difference between appeals in an election designed to draw in members of varying groups (including running members of those groups as candidates) and a vision of America in which society should be divided up based upon group identity and whether those groups are identified as victims or oppressors.  It is the difference between the "melting pot" and today's progressive view of immutable differences that can, and should, define how individuals think and act in every aspect of their lives.

To understand why we need to go back in history to discuss how the Progressive movement has developed since its origins in the late 19th century.  Many Progressives are unaware of that history and many anti-Progressives misunderstand it.  While Progressive thought at its core has always been about centralizing government decision making and guiding it via a well-educated technocratic elite, until the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was strongly nationalist and assimilationist (for a penetrating critique of this era of Progressive thought read Forgotten Americans: Elihu Root).

What changed was the overlay of identity politics applied through the frame of victim/oppressor used to determine favored and disfavored identities.  Added was a bizarre admixture of post-modernist, deconstructionist view of society in which words and language is seen as only a ruse to disguise the underlying repressive power structures that dominate Western society (for a funny and appalling tour of that world read Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by the philosopher Roger Scruton or the THC post, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty).  Taken together you are left with a world in which ideas no longer matter, only your identity which determines whether you a part of, or subject to, the power structure.  Springing from this Progressives create the "black armband" history of the United States (see, for instance, the unfortunately popular history work of Howard Zinn), in which the establishment of America was a tragedy only redeemable by following the Progressive program and allowing them more control of society to make it work in the "right" way.  In the political realm there is no better practitioner of using this mix than President Obama with his talk of the "arc of history" and the rhetorical trick he employs to keep the focus on America's ills.  For an additional understanding of how this can play out in American politics read What Would Otter Do?

The implications of identity politics are poisonous in the long run for our society as they pit every group in society against each other in a Darwinian struggle for survival.  What many of us supported over the years as a quest for fair and equal treatment turned out for Progressives to only be a tactic once they came to dominate the heights of American culture; what they are interested in today is payback in a zero-sum society.

Mark Lilla's thoughtful piece seems unlikely to spark a much-needed rethink of identity politics by the Democratic Party.  The two leading candidates for Chair of the Democratic National Committee are Keith Ellison, the very radical former acolyte of Minister Farrakhan and Thomas Perez whose political rise has been based on exploiting identity politics.  Since Trump's election most Democratic political figures have double-downed on the usual litany of identity claims amidst their hysterical overreaction to the November results.  To understand how unhinged Progressives have become about identity politics, read the response of Columbia University Law School Professor Katherine Frank in which she likens Lilla to American Nazi David Duke:
In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown.  Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S.  Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable.  Again.
The pursuit of identity politics is unfortunate for this country.  Those who read this blog know I disagree with the basic tenets of Progressive thought, but I would welcome a return to the pre-1970 brand of Progressivism because it poses much less of a threat to the survival of our civil society than the current identity infused brand.

** For more on Secretary Clinton specifically, read Why Hillary?

Hot Stove League

Spring training starts in a month!  This will help you get ready.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Madain Saleh

 (Nabatean tomb in Madain Saleh, from King Abdullah University)

We've written quite a bit about the extent of the Roman Empire at its peak, stretching thousands of miles from Scotland to Arabia, Morocco to Armenia and from the Netherlands to the border of The Sudan.  One of the remotest outposts is at Madain Saleh in Saudia Arabia.  Along with Jawf in the Jordanian desert near the Saudi border, a third of the way between the Jordan River and the Persian Gulf, Madain Saleh was lightly garrisoned to control trade connecting southern Arabia with the Mediterranean coastal provinces of Rome.

Before its incorporation into the Roman Empire in 106 AD, Madain (known as Hegra in those days) was the southernmost settlement of the Nabatean Kingdom, which was centered around the headwaters of the Gulf of Aqaba and is best known for its capital of Petra (see the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Visiting Petra for a nice view of the place).

Most of the ruins date from the time of the Nabatean Kingdom, although in 2003 a Roman epigraph was found dating from the second century AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80), the Emperor portrayed in the early scenes of the movie Gladiator (see, The Real Maximus).

(from aramco world)

The inscription reads:
“For the welfare of Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Armeniacus Parthicus Medicus Germanicus Sarmaticus Maximus, the community of the Hegreni restored the wall, destroyed by the passage of time, at its own expense, under the governorship of Iulis Firmanus, legate of the emperor with the rank of praetor; the work being arranged by Pomponius Victor, centurion of Legion III Cyrenaica, and his colleague, Numisius Clemens, and construction being supervised by Amrus, son of Haian, the headman of their community.” 
Here, more than 2000 miles from Rome, a centurion was overseeing the repair of a wall around the ancient town.  The distance is even more impressive in light of the slowness of travel and communication in the second century.  It is astonishing the empire remained intact for as long as it did.

An even more recently discovered inscription surprisingly showed Roman occupation of the Forasan Islands at the south end of the Red Sea, near Aden and more than 1,200 miles from Alexandria in Egypt.
(From amusing planet)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

City Of New Orleans

Good morning America, how are you?
Don't you know me, I'm your native son
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans
I'll be gone 500 miles by the day is done

Whenever I hear City of New Orleans it brings me back.  I love its travelogue images of a mostly vanished America as the City of New Orleans rolls from Chicago to its namesake city.  Composed in 1971 by Steve Goodman, it became the only Top 40 hit of Arlo Guthrie's career.  Covered by many artists over the years (including an award-winning version by Willie Nelson in the 1980s) it retains its power to move.

Steve Goodman died of leukemia in 1984, at the age of 36.  A rabid Chicago Cubs fan and composer of several songs about the team, including A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request, he never got his wish fulfilled during his lifetime.  We hope he is happy now.

A Small Man Becomes Smaller

Having recently indulged in foreign policy as spite, when his administration implicitly denied a Jewish connection with the old city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, by changing long-standing American policy and refusing to veto an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations, all because he can't stand Prime Minister Netanyahu (hey, I don't like him either), even though the vote means the end of any chance, however slight, for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, President Obama has now indulged himself in another bit of revenge politics on his way out the door.

Obama's latest antic is to reverse long-standing American policy allowing any Cuban refugee who risks their life crossing the dangerous Florida Straits (the majority perish during the trip) to be granted American residency if they land on our coast.  Under the new policy, the refugees will be returned to Cuba.  This is part of Obama's nice guy policy to the Communist government of Cuba, which systematically looted and destroyed that island over the past six decades.  It's also payback, as Cubans, once they become U.S. citizens, tend to vote Republican as opposed to the Democratic leanings of most Latinos.  (For a reminder of what Obama's Cuban policy really means read these THC posts).

It will be a relief to see this petty and petulant man exit the Oval Office.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Forgotten Americans: The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

The phrase "the greatest thing since sliced bread" denotes any new, convenient and fantastic invention that enters our everyday life.  Its origin lies in the 20th century and my favorite first attribution of its use is by comedian Red Skelton telling a Maryland newspaper in 1952 that "television is the greatest thing since sliced bread". Skelton, phrase inventor)

But someone had to first invent a bread slicer in order for the phrase to have any meaning.  For that we need to thank Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa.  Now bread has been around for thousands of years.  Baked in loaves it was sold to customers uncut.  Otto was a jeweler, and though I can't find direct confirmation of this, it may be that this background and access to jeweler's blades ignited his imagination about creating a device that could automatically slice bread at the bakery. Frederick Rohwedder)

Rohwedder began working on his idea in 1912 and eventually built a prototype which was destroyed in a fire in 1917 which also drove him into bankruptcy.  Obsessed by his idea, he refused to give up, finally obtaining financial backing and recreating his machine in 1927 (the patent application for a machine for slicing and wrapping bread was filed on November 26, 1928, U.S. 1,867,377).

The first commercial application of the new slicing machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company, located in Chillicothe, Missouri, about ninety miles from Kansas City.  The company took out ads touting its sliced bread as the "greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped."  Sliced bread was a gigantic consumer favorite, and was soon adopted by the rest of the industry.  Within five years, 80% of American bread was sold pre-sliced.  In a serendipitous occurrence, it probably helped that the electric toaster was already invented (in 1909).

The biggest boost for sliced bread was Continental Baking Company's introduction of Wonder Bread in 1930 which became an enormously successful brand.

In 1931, Otto joined the Micro-Westco Co. of Bettendorf, Iowa, becoming vice-president of the Rohwedder Bakery Machine Division.  He obtained six more patents, all related to bread slicing.  Retiring in 1951, he passed away in 1960 at the age of 80.

The Smithsonian Museum has the original bread slicing machine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Parov Stelar

(Tip of the hat to faithful reader DM who made me aware of this video)

Parov Stelar is an Austrian producer and musician specializing in electro swing (whatever that is!).  This is Booty Swing which freely samples Lil Hardin Armstrong's 1938 hit, Oriental Swing.  Hardin was the second wife of Louis Armstrong.

The video features footage from dance films of the 1930s, mostly starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The opening scene is from their 1936 film Swing Time.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Fighting Band

Strategy Page continues its fine series of photos from the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 - January 1945).  The photo below is of members of the 28th Infantry Division Band and Quartermaster Company.  For their story, read on.

The German surprise attack on December 16 initially overwhelmed American forces in the Ardennes sector of Belgium and Luxembourg.  The 28th Infantry Division was one of the outfits in the direct path of the advancing Fifth German Panzer Army.  During those desperate days, the 28th did everything it could to slow the advance of German tanks on the vital crossroads at Bastogne.

The climax occurred on December 18-19 around the small town of Wiltz, which also served as Division headquarters.  Outnumbered and undergunned, everyone pitched in for the defense.  The band members dropped their instruments, picked up carbines and went into the front lines.  Though the defenders were finally forced to retreat the official military history concludes:
The fall of Wiltz ended the 28th Division's delaying action before Bastogne. Other American troops now had to take over the actual defense of that all-important road center, but without the gallant bargain struck by the 110th Infantry and its allied units-men for time-the German plans for a coup-de-main at Bastogne would have turned to accomplished fact. The cost had been high, much higher than American units expected to pay at this stage of the war: the 110th Infantry virtually destroyed, the men and fighting vehicles of five tank companies lost, the equivalent of three combat engineer companies dead or missing, and tank destroyer, artillery, and miscellaneous units engulfed in this battle.
Of the 60 band members, 47 were killed or captured.  Of 13 survivors, 11 were wounded.  For its gallant efforts, the band was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation.

In 1994, the 28th Infantry Division Band was invited to play at ceremonies honoring the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Luxembourg and Belgium.  Among the locations they played was at the graveside of one of the musicians killed during the action at Wiltz. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Droning The Great Wall

During my many business trips to China, I was fortunate to get to the Great Wall north of Beijing on three occasions.  Taking a cable car up to the mountain ridge on which that part of the wall is sited, walking the ramparts, and watching the wall sinuously wander over the hills and valleys in both direction as far as you can see is an overwhelming experience.  The section of the wall, I've walked is at Mutianyu (photo below).

It's also an experience that inspires the question, "What the heck were they thinking?".  Why build a wall on top of a mountain?  A mountain is a pretty effective wall in itself.  Enemy armies and raiders don't climb razor edge mountain ridges in order to attack.  They move through valleys, fields and low open hills.  One can be impressed by the structure, in awe (and horrified) at the difficulty, material and human cost of its construction, and simultaneously appalled that it was built just to demonstrate it could be done.  Of course, we should remember the Wall also crosses many of miles of desert and lowlands.

I recently learned of an Englishman, William Lindesay, who's spent the last 30 years exploring the entire length of the Wall, from its eastern end on the Manchurian coast to the edges of the Gobi Desert (the total length is 3,000 to 4,000 miles).  Most recently, he was given permission to fly a drone above the wall as he and his family trekked its length, which has provided us with some amazing footage.  You can find the BBC story with an embedded video here.   His website with stunning photos can be found here.  And below is a video containing spectacular footage from Lindesay's drone.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Melted Speedometer

I'm sure this has happened to most of us at one time or another.

From Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) starring Steve Martin and the unforgettable John Candy with Michael McKean joining in this scene.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Dave Barry's Year In Review

As we wait, poised between anticipation and dread about what awaits us on January 20, let's pause for a moment to solemnly reflect on the events of 2016.  Nah, let's read Dave Barry's summary instead - it's more fun.  Mr Barry starts out:
In the future, Americans – assuming there are any left – will look back at 2016 and remark: “What the hell?” . . . This was the Al Yankovic of years. If years were movies, 2016 would be “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside.

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It gets better, or worse depending on your perspective, from there.  Here's the whole thing.  Some excerpts:

On the primary campaign:
… the presidential primary season takes center stage. On the Republican side, the big issue – as you would expect, given the stakes in this election – is Donald Trump’s hand size, and whether it does or does not correlate with the size of his portfolio, which he claims is huge, although he is reluctant to show it to the non-supermodel public. The hand-size issue is raised by Sen. Marco Rubio, who scores in the early polls, then fades as voters realize that he is still in the early stages of puberty. Trump’s strongest rival is Sen. Ted Cruz, a veteran debater so knowledgeable and confident that Mahatma Gandhi would want to punch him in the face. Meanwhile Jeb Bush, who was considered the early favorite, fails to gain traction with the voters despite having by far the most comprehensive set of policy initiativezzz

Sorry! We nodded off thinking about Jeb, as did the voters.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is widely presumed to be the front-runner based on being a historic woman with a lengthy résumé of service to the nation who, with her husband, Bill, has serviced the nation for decades to the tune of several hundred million dollars. She is declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses via a controversial and confusing process that, in some precincts, involves dodgeball. But Clinton faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a feisty 217-year-old Vermont senator with a message of socialism, but the good kind of socialism where everybody gets a lot of free stuff, not the kind where starving people fight over who gets the lone remaining beet at the co-op. Sanders wins the New Hampshire Democratic primary, followed, in what some observers see as a troubling sign, by Vladimir Putin.
The Presidential debates:
… Clinton and Trump square off in the first presidential debate, which leads to a national conversation about an issue of vital concern to all Americans, namely the alleged weight gain of Alicia Machado, Miss Universe of 1996. This topic is raised by Clinton in an obvious attempt to bait Trump into wasting valuable campaign time talking about something that cannot possibly benefit him, so naturally Trump, who by his own admission has an extremely high IQ, latches onto it like a barnacle onto the Titanic. He focuses on the former Miss Venezuela with laserlike intensity for the better part of a week before getting back to his previous campaign strategy of engaging in bitterly personal Twitter feuds, often with other Republicans.
And, in the non-political sphere:
In yet another blow to Samsung, the Federal Aviation Administration announces that it will not permit commercial aircraft to fly over states known to contain Galaxy Note 7s.

In a disturbing development, North Korean troops mass near the South Korean border armed with what intelligence sources identify as “a large quantity of Samsung Galaxy Note 7s.”

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Reconsidering "Hail, Caesar!"

Last February I reviewed Hail, Caesar!, the most recent film by the Coen Brothers, rating it as a pleasant but middling entrant in their catalogue (my post is included at the bottom of this piece).  A couple of nights ago, I rewatched the film which caused me to reconsider my original assessment.  Though still not one of their classics, it is much better than I originally thought.

The film operates at two levels.  The first, and most accessible, as a funny and frivolous tribute to the Hollywood studio system of the early 1950s.  On rewatching I found it funnier, with sharp writing and clever references to other Coen Brothers films.  George Clooney is perfect for this type of film.

The second aspect became clearer on a second viewing; the serious themes just below the surface, a story of faith versus science, appropriate since the studio is in the midst of making its blockbuster epic, Hail, Caesar! (think of a cross between Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis).

The lead character, Eddie Mannix, the studio's fixer/publicist/general manager, is a devout Catholic.  Played by Josh Brolin, who does a terrific job giving a gravitas to his character without which the rest of the movie would just float away, is confronted on one side by subversive communists who proclaim a knowledge of economics that explains history and if properly applied would allow humans to scientifically manage everything with certain knowledge of outcomes and, on the other, by a tempting job offer from the Lockheed corporation, whose representative forcefully makes the case for the aviation company being the future of technology and on the cutting edge of science, in contrast to the outmoded, chaotic world of Hollywood.

Along with faith versus science, we also have utopianism versus practicality, or dreamers versus those who get things done, the reliable guys you can count on.  Mannix is a fixer; a man of faith who can be relied upon to solve problems.  He's willing to tackle the tough job at the studio enduring constant strain, long hours, and separation from his family, sacrificing himself, rather than take what he sees as a simpler, less stressful role at Lockheed.  Meanwhile the commie screenwriters are portrayed as impractical fools, for all their prattling about the scientific validity of their theories.  The  screenwriters revisit territory first staked out by the Coen Brothers in their 1991 film, Barton Fink, in which John Turturro plays the title character, a 1930s leftist screenwriter determined to write for "the common man" though having little actual interest in the thoughts of common men.  In a fitting touch Capitol Pictures is the studio which hires Barton Fink in the 1930s and employs Eddie Mannix in the 1950s.  Good continuity, bros!

The practical theme shows up in two other characters.  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) at first seems to be a simple-minded singing cowboy star of B movies, but is revealed to be a very shrewd, self-deprecating, decent, and self-aware fellow who, when called upon, is the only actor who can give Mannix practical advice and then take action.  It's also reinforced in a subplot involving aquatic superstar DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson), who, to the studio's potential embarrassment finds herself pregnant and without a husband.  DeeAnna bemoans the lack of "a good reliable man" to marry.  When she later meets Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), the surety agent through whom proper arrangements for the baby will be made (to understand the Hollywood background, read this), her first question is "and he's reliable?"  Since Silverman proves to be the most reliable man in Hollywood, it comes as no surprise that DeeAnna quickly marries him.

It turns out Hail, Caesar! works well at both levels and I definitely recommend it.

(February 2016 Review)

A pleasant diversion from the Coen Brothers.  Not one of their top-tier efforts such as The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, or Raising Arizona, nor one of their misfires like The Ladykillers or Inside Llewyn Davis.

If you like Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, circa 1951, and the films of that era you'll find a lot to enjoy.  Set in a Hollywood studio, the plot, such as it is, revolves around the kidnapping of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who is in the midst of filming the studio's epic about Jesus entitled Hail, Caesar!  The movie also features song and dance numbers, a spectacular water film a la Esther Williams, Chinese restaurants, an ecumenical review board for Hail, Caesar with a Catholic priest, Protestant minister, Orthodox bishop and rabbi, and a cabal of Communist screenwriters.

The movie revolves around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio's production head and chief fixer.  Brolin is terrific and most of the cast is solid.  Clooney reprises the numbskull roll he's played so effectively before for the Coens in O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty.  He's particularly funny discoursing on the dialectic after being brainwashed by the Commies.

Scarlett Johansson plays the Esther Williams-type character (no way can that be bad), Channing Tatum is the song and dance guy, with more going on than initially appears, Tilda Swinton plays characters based on Hollywood gossip legends Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Wayne Knight (Newman!) has a small, but pivotal part.

Best of all is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, an aw-shucks, singing cowboy and stunt man who turns out to be a lot sharper than it first seems and Veronica Osorio as Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda type actress.  It's fun to watch Ehrenreich and Osorio's interplay in their two scenes together.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year

. . . and a cold dose of reality from Prof. Walter Russell Mead over at The American Interest.  His jumping off point is the rejection of Russia sanctions by the leading candidate in the French presidential election, given that the existing sanction scheme "is a sham—a fake policy that allows Westerners to feel better about themselves while doing nothing serious about Russia’s attack on the post-1990 settlement in Eastern Europe."

Mead then goes on to make a larger point:
The past 25 years of world politics have rested on a series of polite fictions, agreed-upon conventions and hypocritical pretenses: That we had a policy to end the North Korean nuclear drive (ditto for Iran); That Europe was becoming a great post-historical power based on the mighty engine of the euro; That the two-state solution was just a settlement freeze away; That international institutions and civil society were replacing national governments at the center of world politics; That immigration was a no-brainer; That the progress toward free trade was inexorable; That democracy was irresistibly on the march; and so on. Americans and Europeans believed that the world would look more and more like we wanted it to without us doing any heavy lifting.

Those are all very comforting ideas, but sadly none of them are true. In the next few years we are going to have to face some less pleasant choices based on hard truths rather than comfy illusions. Having the kind of world we really want—safe, prosperous, democratic—is not fully achievable no matter what we do. And having a tolerable world involves working harder, spending more, and putting more skin in the game than we want. A different kind of statesmanship, harder-edged and less sentimental, is going to be needed.
Fasten your seatbelts.