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Saturday, August 08, 2009

TELL TALE POE

I admit I smiled when it was revealed that Martin Eisenstadt, the McCain campaign staffer who admitted to being the source behind the “Sara Palin is an diva” leaks during the 2008 Republican campaign, turned out to actually be the team of Dan Mirvish and Etan Gorlin. These two pranksters had actually taken the time to “Punk” the media by inventing Mr. Eisenstadt. And a lot of major media had swallowed their gag. But I smiled at the adolescence of the thing, not the inventiveness. Claiming to have fooled the news media is like claiming credit for inventing the “Get the Ball-Where’s the ball” game with your dog. It’s been done before; a lot.In August of 1835 the “Penny Dreadful” New York Sun published a series of articles entitled “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel…” John Herschel was a famous astronomer who was the son of a famous astronomer. Using a new telescope he reported that he had observed on the moon “…nine species of mammalian …” including tail-less beavers that walked on two legs and lived in huts, unicorns and four foot tall people with bat wings.Of course Sir John Herschel had made no such report because he wasn’t nuts. But neither was Richard Adams Locke (above), who was the grandson of the philosopher and the actual author of the moon-beavers story. He was a one-time editor of the Sun, and an acquaintance of Edgar Allen Poe - who claimed he knew of “…no person possessing so fine a forehead as Mr. Locke”. The story of the moon-beavers raised the Sun's circulation from 15,00 t0 more than 19,000, which gave it an advantage in its sales war with its rival New York Herald. On September 18, 1835 the paper admitted the joke, and the only people not laughing were the editors of the Herald, who felt they had been made to look foolish for not knowing it had been a gag. But it is helpful to remember that in our age with unlabeled Corporate Video News Releases (VNRs) padding out local news programming from sea to shinning sea it’s gotten easier to fool the fools, not harder. In Edgar Allen Poe’s day fake news had to be an inside job. Even Edgar himself did it.Edgar had already written “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” but when he moved to Baltimore with a sick wife he had just $5 in his pocket. And myself , as a hungry writer, who has produced articles for such distinguished men’s publications as “Velvet” and “Velvet Talks”, (back in the 1980's they paid $125 for 1200 obscene words and $25 for three accompanying obscene “letters”) I sympathize with Edgar.Now, Edgar Allen Poe was “odd”. Both his parents died when he was young. He was adopted by a wealthy manic-depressive patriarch who was alternately loving and vicious toward him. The result was that Edgar became an un-socialized morose alcoholic who as a college student confided to his roommate that he had “joked” that he was going to murder their landlord, and the landlord had believed him: ha, ha.Edgar had gotten married when he was 25, to the sickly Miss Virginia Clemm, who was just 13 years old - Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with this guy. Faced with imminent starvation Edgar sought out Locke’s advice, and probably based on what Locke told him, Edgar wrote what would later would be called “The Great Balloon Hoax of 1844”, or as I like to call it, “72 Hours of Hot Air”. The headlines in the Sun read, “Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk! The Atlantic Crossed in Three days!...in the Steering Balloon “Victoria”, after a passage of Seventy-five hours from Land to Land! Full Particulars of the Voyage!” According to the 5,000 word front page story, the plan had been to cross the English Channel suspended beneath a silk dirigible filled with 40,000 cubic feet of coal tar gas. But once airborne above Wales, and impressed with their “Archimedean Screw” propeller, the decision was made “on the fly” to sail to North America instead. “We soon found ourselves driving out to sea at the rate of not less, certainly, than 50 or 60 miles an hour…as the shades of night have closed around us, we made a rough estimate of the distance traversed. It could not have been less than 500 miles…The wind was from the East all night…We suffered no little from cold and dampness…"Sunday, the 7th, this morning the gale…had subsided to an eight or nine knot breeze, and bears us, perhaps, 30 miles an hour or more…at sundown, we are holding our course due West...Monday the 8th, the wind was blowing steadily and strongly from the North-East all day…Tuesday, the 9th. One P.M. We are in full view if the low coast of South Carolina. The great problem is accomplished. We have crossed the Atlantic – fairly and easily in a balloon! God be praised!”According to Edgar’s unbiased reporting, on the day of publication the Sun’s offices were besieged. “As soon as the first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up," wrote Edgar, "at almost any price. I saw a half a dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper…I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.” And Edgar was there in the crowd, telling anyone who would listen, that he was the author of the story, and…that it was a gag. Now why would he do that?Poor old Edgar had a number of personality traits that confused even the people who liked him. For instance, he could not stop himself from maintaining contact with Elizabeth Ellet, a carnivorous little “pot-stirrer” and bad writer who made passes at Edgar in German. I mean, German has always been the language of love, hasn’t it? “Halten Sie mich schlieben, meine little Turtle Dove?” Doesn’t that make you feel all romantic? And then when Edgar cut off all contact with her, she told her brother that Edgar had insulted her. And he challenged Edgar to a duel. Luckily, since Edgar didn't own a gun the two fools ended up beating each other up, over a woman who clearly didn’t think much of either of them; men. Sigh.The point of all this, it seems to me, is that idiots who spend their time and energy perpetuating a hoax on the public are hoping the public will not be insulted. But even if the public is willing to laugh at themselves once, the chances are they will not trust the same source a second time, ever. Or, in the imortal words of George W. Bush, "...fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." The very day after the Sun published the balloon hoax there appeared on the back page of the paper the following notice; “…the mails from the south…not having brought confirmation of the balloon from England…we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous”. Well, that’s one way to maintain journalistic integrity: NOT!Me, I’m willing to bet that Edgar was paid $25 for writing the back page mea culpa. The publishing business hasn’t changed much in 200 years. And neither has the life of writers. Edgar’s wife died of tuberculoses in New York, three years after the Balloon Hoax.And two years later the New York Sun, which sold for a penny a copy, was bought for $250,000 (more than $6 million in today’s money). That was the same year Edgar Allen Poe died in Baltimore, flat broke as usual. Sigh. - 30 -

Friday, August 07, 2009

THE LOGIC OF WAR



I read all maps with skepticism, and civil war maps provide a good paradigm. In textbooks Pennsylvania is a solid blue union state. But the little town of 1,600, where the Hanover Pike crossed the road from Baltimore (30 miles to the southeast) was also a border town. It lay just five miles north of the Mason Dixon line(above), the official divide between “slave” and “free” states. So at 8 a.m. on the last day of June, 1863, when the 1st and 7th regiments of Michigan volunteer cavalry cantered up the Baltimore Pike, they were unsure of the kind of reception they would receive. A halt was called and their commander, newly promoted General George Armstrong Custer, ordered most the men to dismount and posted sentries on all the roads into town. Meanwhile, the newly appointed Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the 3rd Cavalry division, greeted the townsfolk and asked for information. He found them pleasant and helpful.So, after a short rest, when the 1st West Virginia cavalry, under General Farnsworth, arrived, Custer and Kilpatrick and the Michigan men remounted and continued on to the northeast, toward the Pigeon Hills and Abbottstown beyond.In their turn the West Virginians were replaced in Hanover by the 5th New York. And about 11 A.M. the newly formed 18th Pennsylvania cavalry regiment limped into Hanover and the New Yorkers, in their turn, began to head toward Abbottstown. Pennsylvanian Captain Henry Potter, commanding 40 men, relieved the New York pickets southwest of Hanover, out on Fredrick road. Their officer informed him of some suspicious men seen lurking at the edge of a nearby wood. When the New Yorkers left, Potter decided to investigate. He and his men advanced down the road to the southwest of Hanover. Three miles later, at a road junction and small farm owned by the Butts family, Potter's command was suddenly cutoff by 60 mounted men in grey appearing behind him. They were members of the 2nd North Carolina cavalry, and their officer demanded that Potter surrender. Instead, Potter ordered his men to draw their pistols and charge. They burst through the startled Rebel line, killing one Confederate trooper and wounding several others. Four of the Pennsylvania men were also killed, but they broke through and raced back toward Hanover. The rebels gave chase.This became a three mile gallop across the countryside, both sides firing wildly. As the pursuit neared Hanover it uncovered the men Potter had left behind. Their seven shot carbines forced the Confederates to pause. But as more of the North Carolina horsemen arrived they swarmed over the federals who retreated back down Fredrick street into town.The center square of Hanover was now jammed with the federal division’s supply train and ambulances, as well as the rear guard of the 5th New York which had yet to leave town. General Farnsworth was to
disentangle the one from the other. But he was overrun by his own retreating men, with the rebels pressing closely behind. Farnsworth's federals were driven out of the town.
Farnsworth quickly reformed his troopers, and was reinforced by more who were countermarching toward the sound of the guns. With the New Yorkers and the Pennslyvania regiment, he launched a dismounted charge back into the town. The federals now swarmed through the narrow side streets and alleys around the square.Now the mounted rebels found themselves engaged in close combat in the narrow side streets of Hanover, where there was little room to swing a saber or manuver a horse. The commander of the Confederate troops had his own horse shot out from under him, was thrown into a vat of dye. He was captured by a New York trooper.The Confederates were forced to withdraw from the town. As more confederates arrived, they formed battle lines on the hills to the south and west of Hanover, while the Federals were in a defensive arc centered on town. Rebel artillery began to lob shells. Battery E of the 4th U.S. Horse Artillery responded.At this point General Kilpatrick arrived back in Hanover, having driven his horse so hard that it immediately broke down and died from exhaustion. He thus lived up to his nickname of General “Kill Cavalry”. Kilpatrick put Custer’s dismounted men to the west of Hanover, and the fair haired Custer began to press toward the Confederate artillery position, forcing the rebels to reinforce that flank and pull their artillery back.And just for a few moments it looked as if a great battle might be fought here, with both sides feeding in men until it became a maw that ground up men by the thousands. But it was not to be. That night the Rebel troopers slipped around the union right flank and headed to the northeast, toward Dover. In the morning Kilpatrick’s horsemen followed the Confederates, to the north and to the east. There was to be no great battle in Hanover.But, that same morning, July 1st, 1863, the 2nd Federal Cavalry division was probing 12 miles due the west of Hanover, and found not Confederate cavalry but infantry, the entire right flank of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And this engagement would grow over the next three days into the climatic struggle of the American Civil War, in and around a small Pennsylvania crossroads town no larger than Hanover but destined to be more famous; Gettysburg.It was an accident of history that Hanover was not the site of the war’s crucial battle: lucky Hanover. It was a combination of human blindness and ambition, and accidents of terrain and of timing that the battle of Hanover produced 28 dead, 123 wounded and 180 missing or captured,... ...while at Gettysburg these same imponderables produced 7,864 dead, 27,224 wounded and 11,199 missing or captured. And that is what is called the logic of war.The first soldier killed at Hanover, out near the Butts farm, was Corporal John Hoffacker. He had served in the 18th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry for all of two months, and he died barely 20 miles from his home. That too is the logic of war.
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Monday, August 03, 2009

DOES YOUR COW POINT NORTH?

I am certain that some will think this story is much a moo about nothing. But I think it behooves us to consider the implications of what at first blush seems like a simply grazy observation. Zoologists Sabine Begall and Hynek Burda of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany have made the startling discovery that at any given instant on any given day, two out of every three cows standing in fields all over the earth have steered themselves along North-South magnetic lines, as if they were oversized leather covered compass needles. We don’t yet know for certain if they are headed for the North Star or aiming with their dairy-air south, but we now know that those of us with frontal mental lobes, single chambered stomachs and just two teats apiece have been missing the meat of this story for the last 10,000 years.The word “cow” derives from the Latin word ”caput”, meaning the head, which is the ancient way of counting cows, as in “Me and Tex are driving five hundred head to Abilene”. Clearly it was the head of the living cow that Gandi was thinking of when he wrote, “The cow is a poem of pity…She is the second mother to millions of mankind.” She is also, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the source of 18% of the world’s methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And almost one third of the world’s oversupply of cow burps (the primary source of methane) comes from India’s 280 million sacred cows. Cows belch so much because they re-chew their cuds, regurgitating and re-digesting the cellulose over and over again. So the first secret of cows is that every cow is bull-limic.The emotional life of the average Daisy or Bessie has been described as comparable to a potato on sedatives. But complexity was always hidden just beneath the hide. The American Humane Society has taken note that if one herd member is shocked by an electric fence, the entire herd avoids the wire. English linguistic bull artists have noted that cows moo in local dialects and inflections. And it has long been common knowledge that ungulates form their own bovine breakfast clubs. Three or four females establish lifelong bonds, a cow herd within the herd, or a “curd” if you will. Daisy actually enjoys a rich emotional life, nurturing animosities against her fellows, developing friendships and even mulling over the bovine equivalent of the Stephen Sondheim conundrum, “Is this all there is?"This shared arrogance of our two species matches the obsession of Bessie with a subject familiar to many obsessive humans; sex. Eric Idle has described cows as the “…librarians of the animal world; mild by day, wild by night." And John Webster, a professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University in England, describes cows as “gay nymphomaniacs”. The “curds” constantly cowlick one another. And a single Bessie in “heat” can set off a Daisy chain of cow girls “mounting” herd mates in a riot of bovine dominatrix behavior. Unseen by inattentive humans, a pasture of grazing Gurneys is in reality a seething mass of bored libidos on steroids. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “pasteurization”.Few have ever denied that individually cows process a certain personal magnetism. Their sheer bulk demands respect, if not religious devotion. These are not cuddly creatures. The one point three billion cows alive at this moment are ponderous moovers and shakers, and udderly unimpressed with humanities’ crème-de-la-crème, logic. Every dairyman has herd that cattle tend to face uphill, into strong winds or turn their flank steak to the sunny side on a cold morning; and that all seems plausible. But the idea that these cow hides might be sharing some kind of mystical, new-age ferris sensitivity seemed until recently to be an oxymoron. But scientists seeking out the magnetic orientation of hills created by the European ground mole (Talpa europaea), stumbled over the realization that perhaps larger mammals might also be influenced by something other than human magnetism.German researchers examined Google Earth photographs taken at the same local time of day, observing some 8,510 individual cows in 308 separate herds on five different continents, at essentially the same moment. And the humans stumbled upon this udderly amazing fact; cows got magnetism. Generally, at any given moment, 70 % of the cows in any herd are standing about five degrees off of true North-South orientation. In Oregon State, closer to the North Pole, the deviation of cows is all of 17.5 degrees. In the southern hemisphere (Africa and South America) the alignment was slightly more north-eastern, south-western. Still, adjusted for latitude, 70% of all cows point toward the magnetic pole, and this is much too large a percentage to be a mere homogenized coincidence. The next question is, of course, why have cows got magnetism? Cows are not migratory, but they once may have been. Cows share a common ancestor with whales, the “Pakictids”, which 53 million years ago had a whale’s ear and a cow’s teeth in a really ugly little dog’s body, sort of a Mexican hairless meth addict with hair. Could this ancient mongrel have been the source of the current magnetic deju moo? It could.So it seems, upon rumination, that we owe cows an apology, that to err might be human but to forgive could be bovine. But stop the stampede for animal rights. My guess is we could be apologizing to Daisy and Bessie “auf die Ewigkeit warten”, as they say in Germany, and it would make no difference because Daisy and Bessie are not particularly interested in our moo-tivations, because cows are just as conceited as we humans are. And in the final rendering the squeaky veal always gets the oil. Holy, cow!P.S. Photographs are from “The Secret Life of Cows” by Glen Wexler.

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