Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Shifts

Harry Byrd Senior:  Racist, Democrat, Budget-Slasher
In 1963, the United States Congress was deadlocked.  A tax cut was being held up in the Senate Finance Committee.  Advocates of the bill insisted that it was essential for the nation's prosperity.  Opponents of the bill countered that it would lead to profligacy, bankruptcy, and ruin.  Budget hawks insisted on bloody cuts to government programs.  Young college educated know-it-alls dreamt of a vigorous government and the huge budgets that went with it.  There were calls to close military bases.  There were also calls for war.

These issues are familiar to news-reading Americans today.  Looking at them we automatically plop them in one of two camps--liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  The strange thing is that in 1963 the ideological lines were drawn slightly differently than they are today, leading to a Twilight Zone politics, a politics in which the words liberal and conservative and Democrat and Republican do not mean what we assume them to mean.

The 1963 tax cut bill was the policy of liberal darling John Kennedy, thought up of by Kennedy's brain-trust of young intellectual firebrands.  The thinking behind the 1963 tax cut was that cutting taxes would lead to more economic growth, and so raise revenue.  This is the same argument used to defend tax cuts by conservatives today.  The only difference is that Kennedy's bill cut top tax rates from a little over 90% to 70%.  Today they stand around 30% (or 15% from capital gains.)

The opponent of the tax cut bill was the conservative Senator Harry Byrd Senior, the chairman of the Finance Committee.  Byrd was an arch Virginia conservative.  He wanted limited government, was wary of racial equality, and was one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate.  He insisted that the government cut its budget below 100 billion dollars before he release his bill from committee.  Many of these cuts would come from slashing defense spending and closing military bases.

On one side, you have Eastern smarty-pants college-educated young men, who want tax cuts.  On the other side, you have a bigoted southern military base-closing deficit hawk, who fights these tax cuts.  Both sides are members of the Democratic party.

When we look at politics today, it seems that the policies associated with each ideology are necessary to it:  that conservatives have always and must be against wide-ranging social programs, raising taxes and protecting the environment; and liberals have always and must be against war, tax cuts and racial discrimination.  But in the massive tangle of politics and history, ideologies change.  They change slowly, usually so slowly no one can notice them, but if you look out from the broad view of decades and centuries, you see that many of the political positions that seem so entrenched and certain are merely contingent--they have changed and will change and must change.  Ever so slowly, history drags us on, and what it means to be who we are shifts--so slowly we only notice it after it's done.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Purity, Poetry, Prisms and Color

In the summer of 1665 plague swept through England, a country already wrecked by civil war and famine.  A young farmer's son named Isaac Newton traveled back to his family plot in Yorkshire to escape Cambridge, whose sweltering muck-splattered streets had become not only disgusting but deadly.  Instead of helping on the farm like his family wanted, Isaac retired to his room and delved into the mysteries of the universe, armed only with books, various scientific gadgets and his prodigious brain.  By the winter of 1666--still ensconced in his room--Newton was considered the one of greatest mathematicians in the world.  He was only 24 years old.

In addition to the whole theory of gravity thing and explaining circular motion, Newton turned his talents to an investigation of light.  Before Newton, people believed that sunlight was the among purest things in this crooked existance, as pure as God, and like God, impossible to reduce or to separate.  Newton had suspicions that this was wrong.

Newton got a prism, put it behind a cardboard screen with a slit in it, and waited for a beam of sunlight to pass through the prism at just the correct angle.  When it did, the prism scattered the light against the opposite wall into a rainbow of seven distinct colors.

This effect, while startling, was well-known.  It was believed that an impurity in the prism caused the pure white light to get rainbow-sullied.  What Newton did next to test this theory was the kind of thing that made Newton's name eternal.

If the rainbow effect of a prism was really caused by impurities in the prism, then it wouldn't matter what color light you fed into the prism--it would spit out a rainbow no matter what.  But if the prism was breaking light down into its elementary parts, then passing colored light through a prism should do nothing.  Newton positioned a second prism behind the first, and directed a single beam of colored light through it.

There was no change in the color of the light.  Newton moved the second prism so that inside the prism the rainbow was recombined into white light.  The prism could break light apart, and the same prism could put light back together.

Newton proved that white light wasn't really white at all, but instead a mix of seven constituent colors.  The greatest metaphor for simplicity and unity in the world turned out to be not to be as simple and unified as people had thought.

Not everyone was pleased with this result.  One of them was the German poet and erstwhile scientist, Johann Goethe, who lived about a century after Newton.  Goethe was more than just a dabbling science fan-boy.  After the publication of his famous epistolary suicidal novel the Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, Goethe became increasingly fascinated by science, conducting a wide range of curiously innovative experiments, and in the 1780s, some of these encouraged him to believe that Newton was wrong about what color was.

One afternoon Goethe was walking through a garden, gazing at some yellow crocuses.  This is standard behavior for a Romantic poet.  But when Goethe looked away, he saw a purple afterimage of the crocus remain on his eye for an instant.  Something was going on with how we perceived color that we still didn't understand.

Goethe decided to repeat Newton's experiment with the beam of light and prism--but couldn't.  His beams of light wouldn't split into a rainbow unless the distance between the prism and the thing that the beam hit was great enough.  This convinced Goethe that the way Newton had been thinking about color was all wrong.

In 1793 Goethe started work on a book called Zu Farbenlehre (On The Theory of Colors.)  He would spend the next two decades pondering, experimenting, writing, and studying.  When he was finished, the book--now more properly defined as a tome--ran to 1,400 pages.  Goethe was pretty happy with the results.
I do not pride myself at all on the things I have done as a poet. There have been excellent poets during my lifetime; still more excellent ones lived before me, and after me there will be others. But I am proud that I am the only one in my century who knows the truth about the difficult science of color.
There are many differences between Newton and Goethe's color theories.  Newton has seven colors, Goethe six.  Newton arranges the colors in a spectrum.  Goethe has his colors in a wheel.  Newton thinks that light is made up of 'globules'.  Goethe thinks color comes from an interplay between light and shadow.

But the biggest difference between the two men is why they studied color in the first place.  Newton wanted to figure out what light was.  He wanted a scientific theory, one that was as sure as the truths of mathematics.  But Goethe was interested in color--color, not as something that existed outside of a person, but color as it was experienced:  the color of a friend's hair in the sunlight, the color of a butterfly's wing in a dim attic, the color of the afterimage of a yellow crocus in a poet's eye.

Time wasn't kind to Goethe's color theory.  His concept of the color wheel influenced some artists, most notably J.M.W. Turner, but he was ignored by scientists.  Wittgenstein wrote a notoriously obtuse essay about Goethe called Remarks on Color, concluding that:
Goethe's theory of the origin of the spectrum isn't a theory of its origin that has proved unsatisfactory; it is really not a theory at all. Nothing can be predicted by means of it. It is, rather, a vague schematic outline, of the sort we find in James's psychology.
This post was inspired by two radio shows, In Our Time's episode on Goethe and the Science of the Enlightenment, and the latest Radiolab on Colors.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You've Made The World Too Small

In the 15th Century a wool-merchant’s son from Genoa fell in love with the sea.  By the age of ten he was already sailing.  At 25 he first sailed the Atlantic--the ocean on which he would find his fame--and his ship was set upon by pirates, burned, and the unfortunate sailor was tossed into the sea to die.  He had to swim six miles from the wreckage to the Portuguese shore, clinging on a piece of debris to save himself from drowning.  He recovered at Lagos, then moved to Lisbon where he settled, met his wife and learned the everything the Portuguese could teach him about the sea.

The man’s name was Cristoforo Colombo but depending on your language of choice you might call him Cristóbal Colón.  We know him today as Christopher Columbus.

Lisbon was a city open to the sea.  Countless ships from innumerable ports docked there every day, bustling with traders, pirates, adventurers, seamen; all the flotsam and rabble of long-distance life.  Over the next decade, Columbus learned all the Portuguese arts of maritime adventure:  what foods would not spoil on the months spent on long sea voyages; how to navigate the open oceans using the astrolabe and the sextant and the position as the stars; he sailed as far north as Iceland and as far south as Guinea; and most importantly, it was in Lisbon that Columbus learned of the marvelous riches of the East.

The East meant spices from the fabled strait of Malacca--nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper--seasonings worth more than their weight in gold.  The East meant fine lacquered boxes, silks, brocade, porcelain, tinctures, potions, and remedies from the nearly-mythical Empire of China.  The East meant Indian fabrics, so well-made that no European manufacturer could match them.  If you could get your ship to a port in the Far East and then return to Europe with your hold full of these luxuries, you made your fortune--if you returned alive.

Portuguese traders were trying to open a route to the East by following the western coast of Africa south, turning around the Horn of Africa, and only then going east.  It was a long and risky journey.  Columbus thought that he had a better way.  To reach the east he would venture west--and he would go around the earth.

The fact that the earth was round had been known since the time of Aristotle.  If there was an unbroken body of water girdling the earth, then if you sailed far enough west you would eventually make it to the East.  But how long would it take?  Columbus calculated that the distance from the Canary Islands--the westernmost extent of European settlement--to Japan was only 2,300 miles.  A long way on foot, to be sure--but a lot shorter than the slog around the horn of Africa.

But to make his journey around the globe, he needed ships, he needed men, he needed material and--after he had filled in the blank parts of the map, he wanted the promise that he would profit from the lands he had discovered.  But for that he required money and the support of a government that could muster the might to defend whatever trading routes he discovered.  Columbus pitched his plan to the venture capitalists of his age, the Kings of Europe.

First he met with King John the Second of Portugal. The King palmed off the scheming sailor to a committee who came up with the judicious ruling that Columbus was an idiot and no one should bother listening to him.  All Columbus would find if he sailed west, they reasoned, were barren rocky points.  Besides, Columbus had done his math wrong.  He had made the world too small.  He was nothing but an impractical visionary who would waste the crown’s money and his own life.

Unphased, Columbus next asked the Spanish crown whether they’d be interested in the whole discovering new routes to the East business, but they were too busy with battle to deal with discovery, so they advised Columbus to ask them again later.  Finally he went to Henry the 7th of England, who was too stingy to bother with impractical assails into unknown oceans.  For ten years Columbus was stuck in meetings, making proposals, going from one king to another--and he got no after no after no after no.

Finally in 1491 Columbus got the a yes from the Spanish.  He would get his ships and men and material, and the promise that he would be viceroy of all he discovered, as Admiral of the Ocean Seas.  The first person to see land on the journey would receive a pension of ten thousand marvedis a year for the rest of his life--a tidy sum when most sailors made close to twelve thousand marvedis a year by working in hazardous, pirate-rich waters.

In 1492 Columbus moved to the port town of Palos, where he was to muster ships and sailors for his crazy scheme.  The famous Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were soon commandeered, and about ninety sailors were rustled up from the reluctant population.

Columbus set sail on August 3rd, reaching the Canary Islands on September 6th.  From there it was weeks of open ocean, dead reckoning, and waiting--though the wind was swift, carrying them further and further west.  Some writers suggest that the crew attempted mutiny, worried whether they would make it to the East alive.  And then in the middle of September, the watchful sailors could see signs of land--birds, flying west across the water.

Finally in the deep morning of October 12, a seaman called Rodrígo de Triana saw something on the horizon that was not water, not a cloud, and not birds.  “Tierra!  Tierra!” he yelled.  Land.

Nope, Columbus said.  That’s not land.  Wait a second.  You see that?  Over there?  That thing.  Yeah.  That’s land.  And I’m the one who saw it first, not you, Triana you shortsighted scallywag.  That delicious ten thousand a year pension is all mine.

They were somewhere in the Bahamas.  Columbus thought that he landed in Japan.  He explored a few islands, spoke with the friendly natives, saw that some of the friendly natives wore gold studs in their noses, heard that other natives fruther west wore gold bands around their arms, searched for these natives so that he could find the source of the gold, was attacked by bow-wielding unfriendly natives, slaughtered these natives, and fled.  The Santa Maria struck a reef near the island of Hispaniola, and it was scrapped, and the wood used to build a fort.  Thirty-nine men were left behind with a year’s worth of provisions, at what became the first European outpost in the new world--christened La Navidad.  His survey done, Columbus sailed back to Spain with a few dozen live specimens of Indiankind to show off back home--seven of which survived the journey, to serve out their fate as discussion pieces for polite Spanish society.

On his return, Columbus was famous.  He dined at the same table as the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella.  He showed off gold trinkets, parrots, and tales of native attack to rapturous audiences.  With more ships and more men, he promised, he would secure spices, gold, treasure, and pagan souls.  Spain had recently conquered the last pockets of native Muslim resistance on the southern tip of the country, and their warriors--used to centuries of expansion and conversion--were happy to go aboard Columbus’ vessels to find new lands and new idolaters.  

When Columbus returned to La Navidad around November 1493, he found the site burned to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered.  A new European colony was founded called Isabella, built and maintained by a policy of forcibly enslaving the native population.  But Columbus’ governorship of his new possessions was graceless, and tension mounted between him and his colonists.

In letters home, unruly colonists complained that their adventures in the new world were less hack-and-slash and loot, and more toil.  They complained that Columbus’ brother, Diego--who Christopher had left in charge while he explored the Antilles--added the sin of being Italian to the inconvenience of incompetence.  The complaints became more vile, and the Spanish court began an investigation against the Columbus brothers.  Columbus was forced to return to Europe in late 1494, to explain himself before the situation got even more out of hand.

Columbus’ third voyage in 1498 was when things got really bad.  Columbus left his brother Bartolomeo in charge of the Hispaniola with orders to build a new city, while he set sail to discover Trinidad, the Orinoco River, and a couple idyllic islands ripe for conquest.

When Columbus returned to the settlement on Hispaniola, he found no shining city waiting for him like he had hoped.  He found riot and tumult, unrest and infighting, revolt and recrimination.  While Columbus had been enjoying the Bahamian beaches, the settlers had split into two factions, one loyal to the Columbus family, the other led by the headstrong Mayor Francisco Roldán.  It took two years of negotiation to bring peace to the colonists, and peace came with a grant of land to each man--along with rights to all the natives who happened to be living on it.

Columbus called for help.  Someone who might be able to square the high-minded plans Columbus had for permanent settlement, profit, and the spread of Christianity with the colonists’ hope for gold, slaves, and easy money.  A judge named Fransisco de Bobadilla was sent from Spain and was duly appointed governor of the Indies.  He took over Columbus’ house, his records, and his power, arrested Christopher and Bartolomeo, and sent them back to Spain in chains to be held in judgement for the crime of brutally mismanaging the new colony.  Columbus stroppily said that only the King or Queen of Spain would remove his chains.  When Isabella saw the former hero, shackled and grumpy, she ordered him released immediately.

On his fourth and final trip in 1502, Columbus was banned from visiting Hispaniola, the island he had discovered.  He was too weak to captain his own ship, leaving the actual sailing to subordinates.  He was looking for the straits of Malacca, where the spice was.  Of course, it was on the other side of the earth.  After being lashed by a hurricane, talking with traders in Panama, and being stranded on Jamaica for a year, Columbus returned home, never again to go out on the open sea--at least while he lived.  He returned home to live out his dotage, filing lawsuits and dying.

When Columbus died in 1506 he still believed that the islands he had discovered were the easternmost jut of Japan, and the natives he was dealing with were members of the Mongol Horde.  He was buried in Spain, a hero.

But even in death the great explorer could not stop moving.  In 1542 his body was exhumed and moved to the island of Hispaniola.  When the French took over Hispaniola in 1795, the Spanish hero’s body was reexhumed and then reinterned in Cuba, at the time an island still safely in the hands of the Spanish crown.  When Cuba wrested its independence from the mother country, Columbus was yet again yanked from the earth, set upon the sea, and moved to Seville--where he remains today.

Columbus was so important a figure in the history of the world that his name marks a change in era--we have time before Columbus, and time after Columbus.  His life was a hinge that connected Medieval and Modern Europe, old world and new, commerce and discovery.  But Columbus was only as great as he was because he was wrong.  If he had done his math correctly, he never would have dared to sail west at all.

This post was inspired by a great lecture by William Fowler called Early Atlantic Exploration. My main source for dates and details was a short biographical article by Thomas Tirado. The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on Columbus' failures.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Amazing Story Of The Six Thousand Year Old Earth

On the seventh day of the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' the examination turned to the age of the universe.  The lawyer Clarence Darrow asked the politician William Jennings Bryan if he believed that the world began in 4004 B.C.  "That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today," Bryan answered.  Darrow pressed Bryan.  Was this number, Darrow asked, based on the calculation from the "generations of man?"

Bryan didn't know.  "I do not think about the things I don’t think about."

“Do you think about the things you do think about?” Darrow jousted.

“Well, sometimes,” Bryan answered.

William Jennings Bryan is no artifact of the past.  As of 2010 about four in ten Americans think that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.  Many would say that the definite date of creation was October 23rd 4004 B.C.  Like Bryan, most of these Americans would be have a lot of trouble saying where on earth the 4004 B.C. number came from.

The date was fixed back in the 17th Century by a man named James Ussher, primate of all Ireland, based on biblical sources.  In today's science-sobered times we may sneer at Ussher's arrogance and folly--to think that we could discover the age of the universe simply by studying the books of the Old Testament!  But Ussher was no fanatic troglodyte.  He was a scholar, and his work stands as the culmination of a long intellectual tradition, one that was interdisciplinary, brave and rigorous--even if in the long arc of time it has been proven wrong.

The task facing Ussher and the rest of his co-chronologers is sometimes characterized as easy: simply add up the lengths the reigns of kings and patriarchs in the Old Testament until they match with a particular known date in the past.  But enough problems arose doing this to give even the most diligent modern professor a long pause and a thoughtful chin scratch .  And today we have Google.

The first glaring problem was that at the time there were many different copies of the Bible floating around in a confusion of languages and from a motley of traditions--and they disagreed about the length of particular rulers' reigns.  The Septuagint--the Greek translation of the Torah--added over a thousand years to the total reign length, compared with other versions.  Ussher and his contemporaries had to sort through the conflicting data of scrambled manuscripts and figure out which version of holy scripture was the right one.  Ussher decided to go with the Hebrew version.

We would hope that once this was done, the Bible would give us a long list of kings coming one after the other, so that we could use their reign-lengths much the same way dendrochronology uses the width of tree rings to fix the ages of wood.  The Bible does provide us with such a desired unbroken list of kings--but only up until the reign of Solomon.  After that the successions become confused by war, conflicting kings, and co-regents.  This was more work for Ussher, untangling the mess of deaths and wars and exiles in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

And then there is a gap of about half a millennium between Ezra and Nehemiah--the final books in the Old Testament--and the birth of Jesus, the first biblical event on which we can confidently fix a date in the current calendar.  (Jesus' birth turns out to be in 4 B.C., by the way.)  To figure out the exact length of this gap, Ussher had to turn to outside texts and match some dateable biblical event with a datable historical event, and then work forward.

To do this, Ussher found a concordance between a the exile of Jehoiachin and the death of the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II.  Once done, Ussher could hop over to the much more complete Chaldean and Persian records, before finally squaring these records with Roman ones.  This alone is a monumental achievement of archival genius, requiring knowledge of Hebrew, Sumerian, Persian and Latin--and who knows how many other minor languages; the assemblage and correspondance of ancient archives, histories, and lists of kings; and the resources and perseverance to do this archival work when there were no Amazon, no airmail, not internet.

Only after doing this could Ussher proudly unveil his work, and the true age of the universe.  His book, the frontispiece pictured above, ran to over two thousand pages of closely argued prose.  It settled once and for all the age of man.

Only not once and for all.  Future generations of scholars turned away from books and to the mountains, gorges, and rivers that stood outside their windows, and they saw in the landscape evidence that the world was much older than Ussher could ever have guessed.  It would take tens of thousands of years for rivers to etch fjords, for mountains to lift from the crust of the earth, for the hills to be ground down by wind.

But Ussher's scholarly work became a piece of ammo in the culture wars because in the 18th Century copies of the King James Bible started to carry handy annotations based on Ussher's chronology.  Look right there, the pages begged you, Creation--Part One--4004 B.C.  Today most Bibles no longer carry these dates.  But the 4004 B.C. date lives on.

This post is heavily indebted to Steven Jay Gould's lively essay on Ussher.  It was inspired by the In Our Time Episode on the Age Of The Universe, which is serious brain candy if you are curious about the historiography of of how old everything is--and aren't we all?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Pipe A Day Keeps The Plague Away

17th Century summers were seasons of plague.  Those rich enough to escape left the cities for the countryside.  Those who couldn't escape waited, fearful that soon they too would have to paint the tell-tale red cross of the plague on their doors, and watch their family be consumed by the pestilence.  Autumns sometimes fell with one in seven Londoners dead.

Bubonic plague, spread by fleas on the body of the black rat, is one of the most painful diseases observed on our sweltering earth.  Buboes--big pus-filled lumps--form around the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm and groin.  Sometimes they even explode.  Other symptoms range from fever to gangrene.

All the glories of 17th Century medicine were brought to cure the plague.  One of the most exciting panaceas touted at the time was a new miracle herb from the New World.  Think of it as the acai berry of the 17th Century.  It could cure migraines, toothache, worms, bad breath, cancer, lockjaw, and even poor fingernails.  Best of all--it tasted great!

Beloved diarest Samuel Pepys writes of prescribing himself the miracle cure after seeing a plague house:
This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and "Lord have mercy upon us" writ there - which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw - which took away the apprehension.
Yes, you read right.  During the 17th Century tobacco was considered medicine of the highest potency.  Some students at Eton were punished for not smoking.

The idea wasn't as crazy as it sounded.  The best-educated doctors of the time believed that the plague was spread by bad air.  Accordingly a lot of preventative medicine had the same character as potpourri:  replace the bad smells with good ones.  Doctors carried poultices, herbs, vinegar and masks--all to reek away the bad air.  Tobacco smokers, cloaked in a billow of non-pestilent smoke, were thought to be especially protected from malodorous vapors.

The other cures for plague out to be as effective as smoking a bowlful of tobacco.  Plague was caused by fleas, not noxious odors, so even the most expensive pot pourri was completely ineffective.  The best thing you could do when plague season came?  Run.  Run far away.  And don't keep pet rats.

My inspiration for today's post is the fantastic Shakespeare's Restless World episode, Plagues and Playhouse.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What's The Deal With Airplane Food?

It is a question that has beguiled stand-up comedians for ages.  What's the deal with airplane food?  At best your in-flight meal tastes like styrofoam and gravy.  At worst it tastes like low-price cat food, styrofoam and gravy.  Do the airlines just hate us?

It turns out that it's not just the food that's the problem, but everything else on the airplane.

Flimsy Forks

The first culprit is the cutlery.  To save gas, airlines use light-weight cutlery.  But humans turn out to be very picky eaters, and we significantly prefer food that we shovel into our mouths with heavier cutlery.  Since airplanes serve us low-weight cutlery and trays, our meals end up tasting a little weird.

When the Concorde was still flying, British Airlines spent months developing the perfect lightweight cutlery set, one that would befit the clade of air passengers rich enough to afford a berth on the super-sonic luxury airline.  They made a fantastic set out of titanium.  Then they tired them out on the population.  People hated eating with them.  They were just too light.  It seems that when you spend a bundle on a plane ticket, you expect your knife and spoon to have a certain heft to it.

Dining High

The next problem is the air--specifically the low humidity, low air-pressure, recirculated, germ-laced miasma of an airplane cabin.  At ten-thousand feet about a third of our taste buds switch off.  At thirty-five thousand feet the humidity in the cabins is kept so low that our mouths start to dry out.  When we vainly chomp on our in-flight meals and taste styrofoam, it's more the fault of our mouths than our meals.

Man It's So Loud In Here

The final piece of the puzzle is the noise.  The airplane cabin is a hideously loud environment.  Not only do you have the ambient chatter of a few hundred people jammed into a small tin-can, but you also have the whine of the recirculating air, and the drone of the engines.

A noisy environment significantly effects our taste.  When it's noisy, salty and sweet tastes don't taste as salty and sweet.  So the taste of our in-flight meals have literally been droned out by the sound of our next-door neighbor snoring.

Because of these three reasons, airplane food tastes bland, limp, and lifeless.  Airlines try to remedy the problem by serving us flavorful, salt-bombed meals, but the problems of eating in an airplane environment are just too much for a glass of dry red wine to remedy.

The next time I hear someone complain, however, I'm going to remind them that for all the indignities of air travel, it remains a lot easier than the alternative--going by boat.

I learned about this from neuroscientist Charles Spence, a guest on Dr. Karl's call-in show

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Lyndon Johnson And The Art Of The Impossible

Politics is the art of the possible.  No matter the justice of our causes--be they public healthcare or world domination--without enough votes, they remain only dreams, fit for little more than mid-level Political Science class discussion sections and Sunday newspaper magazine articles.

As a Senator Lyndon Johnson had learned the art of the possible better than anyone else.  He counted votes like a gambler counts cards.  No matter how glorious the cause, Johnson wouldn't step behind it unless he was sure that he could win.

This didn't mean Johnson wouldn't fight for things he believed in.  To pass the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, Johnson fought like an angry father in a revenge film.  Instead of giving speeches on the Senate floor, he pressed palms in the cloakroom, convincing people one-on-one, one-by-one, until he was sure that the vote would go his way.  But he fought because he looked at the votes and saw that he could win.  Though the law had been watered down when it passed, the 1957 bill was the first piece of civil rights legislation signed in 82 years.

At that point, Johnson had been sitting in public office for two whole decades, first as a Representative and then as a Senator, and he had done very little for the cause of civil rights.  For most of this time he had stood as an arch Southern conservative, batting down every mention of civil rights, squashing every attempt to promote equality between the races, filibustering every hope of reform.

Because the votes weren't there.  If he had promoted civil rights, he would have been abandoned by his southern allies--for what?  For a bill that would have never received enough votes to even win election for class president.  Lyndon Johnson would fight for causes he believed in--but only for causes that could win.

But Johnson teaches us that sometimes a politician must try the impossible.

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as America's 36th President and the nation mourned.  Four days later, on November 26th 1963, Johnson and his advisers tried to figure out what the new President would say to his first speech to the joint houses of Congress the next day.  The advisors told Johnson that he shouldn't talk at all about civil rights.  It would piss the Southerners off--and they were LBJ's base.  Why should LBJ piss the Southerners off just over a little thing like civil rights?  Civil rights was a lost cause.  The President shouldn't waste his time on lost causes.

"Well, what the hell's the Presidency for?"  Johnson asked.

The next day Johnson delivered a stirring speech that called for a landmark civil rights law in the memory of John Kennedy.  This would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the piece of paper that ended segregation in the South, and started to close the long chapter of legal racism in the US.

Johnson understood that the Presidency stands outside the normal political calculus.  The President is not bound by the normal strictures of political reality.  By the celebrity and respect of the President, he can rally support for those worthy but politically unpalatable causes that would otherwise languish in the Hall of Impossible Political Dreams.  If he fights for them.  And Johnson was a fighter.

Today America languishes, and every cure for our malaise seems to be outside the realm of the politically possible.  That's why today it is especially important to remember that what seems impossible can quickly become possible, as long as we're crazy enough to fight for it.