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Friday, May 13, 2011

POLITICAL SPEAK


I wonder how many of you know, dear readers, that the word “Gobbledgook”, being a nonsensical word or phrase designed to imply importance but in fact meaning nothing, has an actual birthday? The word was born on Sunday, May 21st, 1944, in the pages of “The New York Times Magazine”. And it is just one of the many American words born out of American politics.In 1812 the Massachusetts’s legislature contrived, with the help of Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Jerry"), to redraw the lines for the Essex County Congressional District, to insure who won the elections there. According to legend it was famed painter Gilbert Stuart who first examined the bends and curves of the new district and observed that, to him at least, a map if it resembled a salamander. But whoever said it first, it was Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston Sentinel, who renamed the proposed district a Gerrymander, after the Governor. That name now applies, as a verb, to the redrawing of congressional district boundaries (Gerrymandering) to insure the election of one particular candidate or party.Almost as old is the word “Bunko”, meaning a fraud or a fraudulent spiel used by salesmen of bad or faked products. Police departments around the nation still have squads of officers assigned to uncovering fraud and cheating scams, named “Bunko Squads”. Some linguists say this word originated with a Mexican card game, a version of three-card monty, but that is just so much "bunk". Thirty years before the invention of the Mexican card game the word was used to describe a speech by Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina. Walker had been born in 1753 in the mountains of western Virginia. He worked as a store clerk in Charleston, South Carolina, and tried homesteading with Daniel Boone in Boonsboro, Kentucky. He fought in the American Revolution, and served in the North Carolina House of Commons, the state legislature. In 1816 he was appointed to Congress, to represent the Blue Ridge ‘hollars’ and the French River valley of Buncombe Country. The county was named after American Revolutionary War hero Colonel Edward Buncombe, who had been wounded and captured at the battle of Germantown, in 1777. Recovering from his wounds in occupied Philadelphia in May, Colonel Buncombe was sleepwalking, fell and bled to death when his wounds reopened. The new county named in his honor was so large it was locally referred to as “The State of Buncombe.” Facing contentious re-election in 1818 and again in 1820, Felix Walker quickly learned the value of a well publicized and well received speech. And on February 25, 1820, while the House of Representatives was debating the crucial issue of the “Missouri Compromise”, deciding wether or not to take the first step that would lead to the Civil War, Congressman Walker arose and began to pontificate about the wonders of Buncombe County. The leadership were ready to put the matter of the Compromise to a vote, and after listening to Walker’s rambling speech for several minutes, they urged Walker to stop wasting the congresses’ time and sit down. But Walker explained that his speech was not intended for the benefit of the congress, but for the "simple folk of Buncombe County back home". And then Walker returned to his endless platitudes. Almost overnight Walker’s speech was transformed from being about Buncombe to being “pure Buncombe” itself. And, with a little modification in spelling, it changed from "Buncombe", to "bunkum", and then to "bunk", as in a useless, pompus and empty speech, or "bunko" a false promise intended to further a fraud. Gobbledygook has a much simpler history than bunko, and more recent. It was the purposeful invention of the one term Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and later Congressman, the Honorable Fontaine Muaury Maverick. The mayor served only one term because a communist had rented a meeting room in the cities' Civic Auditorium. By law, Mayor Maverick could not refuse to rent the room to anyone. But because he failed to "lock out" the commie his opponents were able to rabble rouse a riot, complete with tear gas shells being lobbed about in front of the auditorium. This typical "Texas-Hysteria”, was in response to Maury’s defense of "Freedom of Speech", and almost got him lynched. And it allowed his opponents to brand Maury himself as a communist, which led to his defeat for re-election as Mayor. But that is beside the point.Maury Maverick later won election to Congress, where, during WWII, his honesty, intellect and energy convinced others to make him chairman of the "Small War Plants Committee", overseeing and coordinating the work of thousands of small factories contributing to the American war effort, seeking to avoid duplication of effort, shortages of raw materials and general waste. Being a man interested in results Maury quickly grew frustrated with the growing complexity of official language which prolonged the already almost endless committee meetings he had to attend. In his article for the New York Times magazine, Maury defined his new word as a type of talk which is long, vague, pompous, and uses mostly Latinised words "…when concrete nouns are replaced by abstractions and simple terms by pseudo-technical jargon…" all of which made him think of the mating call of the wild turkey’s back home, as in "gobble, gobble, gobble, gook". In a later memorandum Maury ordered, in pure Texas style, "Anyone using the words “activation” or “implementation” will be shot”. Of course no one was executed. But perhaps because no one was, the continued human attraction to verbosity has since produced nonsense such as "Pentagonese", "Journalese", "circumlocution", and other such gobbledygook words used to describe Maury’s gobbledegook. In an interesting (I think) side note, gobbledegook was the Maverick family’s second addition to the American lexicon. The first was their family name. There was a Maverick aboard the Mayflower. And a 17-year old apprentice, Samuel Maverick, had been struck down by 'lobster backs' at the Boston Massacre. But the most famous Maverick of all was another Samuel, this one born in Pendleton, South Carolina, in 1803. This Maverick, Samuel Augustus, graduated from Yale in 1825 and was admitted to the bar in 1829. A year later, he ran for the South Carolina Legislature, but his anti-secession opinions contributed to his defeat. In 1835 Samuel Maverick moved to Texas. He was one of two men from the Alamo elected to the Texas Independence Convention. And his career in politics thus saved him from being butchered by Mexican troops under General Santa Ana. Because of his political obligations he also missed the victory at San Jacinto. He was elected Mayor and then Treasurer of the city of San Antonio, and later served in the seventh and eighth Texas Congresses. He also dabbled in East Texas land speculation, and sometime in 1843 or 1844, as payment for a bad debt, Samuel Augustus took possession of a ranch around Matagorda Bay, Texas. The only problem was that Maverick had no experience in ranching and no interest in learning. When he saw that every other rancher had branded their cattle, Augustus decided there was no need for him to bother with the expense of branding his. In 1847, when Samuel moved back to San Antonio, he left his cattle under the care of his ranch hands, who saw no reason to pay more attention to their jobs than their absentee boss. They let the animals wander the open range. Cowboys who found unbranded cattle thus identified them all as the property of "Mr. Maverick", and mavericks thus became any unbranded cow or horse. Samuel Augustus Maverick favored Texas being annexated by the U.S., and after it was, he fought its secession from the Union in 1861 until he realized there was no stopping it. After the Civil War he opposed Reconstruction. When he died in 1870 he left holdings of over 300,000 acres and a reputation for independence - not being branded by any special interests. His son, Samuel Maverick jr., fought with distinction in the Civil War (for the south) and was promoted to second lieutenant. After the civil war Maverick jr. helped preserve the Alamo, donated "Maverick Park" to San Antonio, and lived to swear in his own son, inventor of the term gobbledegook, as Mayor of San Antonio. Maverick junior died in 1936 at the age of 98. And so he never had to deal with the gobbledygook his son did.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

HOT AIR.

I find it short sided that Joseph and Jaques Montegolfier’s saw their invention merely as an extension of the family paper business. Thus it was that at two o’clock in the afternoon of November 21st, 1783, the first humans - neither of whom was a Montegolfier - made humanities’ first free flight. The brother’s built an open fire on a barbeque in a wooden basket suspended beneath their colorfully painted paper balloon. Then, surrounded by stacks of kindling, in a vessel that was built of kindling, the two volunteer aeronauts, Pilatre de Rozier and the marquis d’Arlenes, rose 500 feet above the Jardin du Chateau de la Muette outside of the palace of Vincennes. While the Montegolfiers were solidly grounded and accepting royal congratulations for their ingenuity, their two employees floated gently off toward Paris. The airborne pair had traversed some 5 miles before noticing their envelope was beginning to smolder and come apart at the seams. Desperately, Pilatre sacrificed his coat to smother the flames, and the cooling paper bag settled gently back to earth.
Meanwhile, back at the Chateau, a skeptical audience member asked, “What does Doctor Franklin conceive to be the use of this new invention?” And Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “What is the use of a new-born child?” He never explained his response. So I shall.
When he was fourteen John Wise built a working model of a Montegolfier hot air balloon in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When it landed on a neighbor’s roof, the open flame in the basket almost burned down his neighbor’s house. John’s father insisted that henceforth the boy limit himself to non-flammable kites and parachutes. In the long run this turned out to be an advantage.
John took a scientific approach to ballooning, so much so that he was generally refereed to as “The Professor”. He studied mathematics and parachutes. And it was not until May of 1835 that John became airborne himself for the first time when he undulated across nine miles of Pennsylvania farmland between Philadelphia and Hanover. He was so inflated by this success that he abandoned his career as a piano maker, and became a full time aerialist. And on July 24, 1837, when Robert Cocking became the first parachute fatality, John Wise was wise enough to realize that the problem was not the shape of Cocking’s parachute, but its 250 pound weight. The following year John invented a successful “rip panel” which, if pulled, would collapse a balloon’s envelope into a practical parachute, allowing a desperate aeronaut to float safely to ground.
On each flight, John made barometric readings, gauged wind speeds, and went high enough, often enough, that he was the first to suggest that there were great rivers of wind in the upper atmosphere, which would one day be called the Jet Stream. And being a dedicated balloonist, John also became expert in the manufacture of coal gas.
The process began by “cooking” coal in an airless oven, so it could not ignite. When the rock reached 2,000 degrees Celsius, all the water and aromatic hydrocarbons, the largest percentage of which was hydrogen, were driven off to be captured. Clearly the nomenclature was not intended to imply the stench of an “aromatic” hydrocarbon.
Now, the original goal of this process was the transformation of coal into coke, which was used to melt iron and steel without imparting any contaminates into them. But after this nifty bit of chemistry was completed the coke manufacturers were left with buckets of a stinking flammable semi-liquid substance called coal tar, and a stinking vaporous lighter than air substance called “coal gas”. Disposing of these vile and grotesque materials was both dangerous and expensive, so there was considerable motivation to find some profit in them.
In fact the search for profit from these waste products led directly to the entire field of organic chemistry, including the development of color dyes, explosives, fertilizers, even the creation of artificial rubber (plastics). Even today, most of what we call "organic chemistry" is realy petrochemicals. As part of that new science,  the noxious coal gas would eventually be renamed “Town Gas” because of its popularity as an economical source of street lighting. Even Ben Franklin in 1783 had no idea the paper balloon he saw rising over Vincennes would led to all of that chemistry -  any more than a 1960’s taxpayer could know that the Apollo Moon program would lead to a non-stick Teflon fry pan and the 21st century micro-chip computer that regulated the stove it was used on.  How could they? In the Lafayette, Indiana of 1960, for instance,  there was only one computer, and it occupied an entire floor in a building especially constructed to house it.  
A century earlier, Lafayette, Indiana was in many ways an average American town. It had a two story courthouse, a half dozen churches, a synagogue, two banks, three newspapers, several hotels, two breweries producing 4,000 bottle of beer a year, a bathhouse, a steam locomotive maintenance shop and businesses manufacturing everything from wagons, and farm machinery to bicycles, electric meters, steering gears, safes, and a meat packing plant. What made the town special was the Lafayette Gas Light Company, where coal was converted into town gas.
And it was because of the Lafayette Gas Works, and because the nationally respected chemist Charles Wetherill was in town to meet his new in-laws and to encourage the Hoosier wine industry, that history, and John Wise, paused in the village of 10,000 souls for a single monumentous moment. For “Professor "Wise was convinced, “…our children will travel to any part of the globe without the inconvenience of smoke, sparks, and sea-sickness, and at the rate of one hundred miles per hour.”
On Tuesday, August 16, 1859, next to the gas works at Forth and Union Streets in Lafayette, the fifty-one year old “Professor” John Wise began inflating his balloon with town gas.  Despite the large crowd gathered, estimated at 20,000, to witness the launch, a leaky value caused a 24 hour postponement. (an event which should be familiar to any who have watched a launch at Cape Kennedy.) So it was “precisely two o'clock the next afternoon (Wednesday, August 17, 1859) in the presence of a large number of citizens” that John’s gas bag finally rose into the sky.
John carried with him a number of scientific instruments, in order to conduct airborne experiments of the “ozone” for Mr. Wetherill. He also carried copies of the local newspapers, as well 123 letters consigned to him by the local postmaster, making this fight the first official “air mail” delivery attempt in the United States. All the mail was addressed to people in “New York City”. The likelihood of success was doubted by the Daily Courier; “The fact is, that the aerial ship "Jupiter" is about as well adapted to the navigation of the "upper current" as Mr. Wise is adapted to preach the gospel.”
The temperature was 94 degrees when the restraining ropes were released, and “The Jupiter” rushed straight upward, to an altitude of perhaps 12,000 feet. And there the gas bag hung in mid-air, fully visible to the townsfolk, suspended in a breathless sky. “Professor” Wise noted in his diary, ““My friends below wonder why I was not going on my voyage east. I thought so myself, but what can I do? Jupiter was full as a drum—no wind—not a breath!” After an hour of motionless hovering, Wise released 55 pounds of ballast, and the balloon rose to 15,000 feet, until the Wabash River was little more than “a crooked thread of water”. Still there was no discernable movement toward New York. That balloon envelope, John reported, was, “now quite flaccid in her lower hemisphere.” Finally, at 3:55 p.m., the barest breath of air began to move the Jupiter – south.
Forlorn and still sailing south, 25 miles later, “Professor” Wise floated over Crawfordsville, Indiana. With the sun setting, and not enough ballast left to compensate for the cooling of the gas with nightfall, Wise set the Jupiter down on the road, six miles south of Crawfordsville. As the Lafayette Courier explained, “So endeth the "trans-continental" voyage. That it was only trans-county-nental is no fault of the great Aeronaut.” The air mail was delivered to New York via the railroad. The deflation of spirits in Lafayette was attended to by Herbert’s brewery, and the town became, according to a local reporter, the scene of “a colossal drunk”. “Ever light pole had a lein on it”, wrote another newspaper humorist. Surely Doctor Franklin would have never foreseen that such a mass intoxication would be the result of his newborn child’s hesitant first steps.
The final act in this drama was perhaps easier to predict. John Wise was last seen alive on this earth suspended beneath yet another gas bag, at 11:14 p.m., on September 28, 1879, about 20 miles to the west of La Port, Indiana, headed north, out over lake Michigan. John had been accompanied on his last flight by a paying customer, Mr. George Burr, who was a cashier at the Bank of St. Louis, Missouri. Their flight had only been intended as a test, to last only a few moments. But the wires holding the balloon down were weak, the wind was up, and without adequate warning, the bag was pulled into the air, then blown across Illinois and Indiana, and then North over the chilly waters of the lake, giving passanger Burr more flight time than he had bargined for. A body assumed to his was washed ashore in Indiana several days later. But “Professor” Wise was never seen again, and was presumed dead.
But I am certain that old Ben Franklin could have predicted that tragedy, because he never risked his life in a balloon. He just sold them. Still, it was clear, that old Ben could recognize a revolution when he saw one, even if he could not imagine the details.
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