Sometimes There Are Second Acts in American Lives

LaughtonCharlesMutinyOnTheBounty2013-05-04.jpg “In the foreground, Ian Wolfe, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable in 1935’s ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.'” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. D10) In 1947 Charles Laughton’s career, if not quite on the skids, was definitely in the doldrums. Long acclaimed as Hollywood’s foremost character actor, he had made only one film of any artistic consequence, Jean Renoir’s “This Land Is Mine,” in the past seven years. The rest of the time he coasted, frequently indulging in self-parody–and nobody was easier to spoof than the man who played Captain Bligh in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He wouldn’t have been the first actor to sell his soul for a swimming pool (or, in his case, an art collection). But with Mr. Laughton the waste would have been unforgivable, since he was, in Laurence Olivier’s words, “the only actor I ever knew who was a genius.”

Instead, Mr. Laughton fooled everyone by returning to the stage for the first time since 1936. Nor did he choose a safe star vehicle for his return: He played the title role in the U.S. premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” and he translated the play himself.
. . .
Except for “The Night of the Hunter,” Mr. Laughton’s post-“Galileo” career is no longer widely remembered save by scholars. But enough of it survives on sound recordings and kinescopes to prove that F. Scott Fitzgerald was all wet when he claimed that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Charles Laughton, who moved from England to America to seek fame and fortune and came perilously close to losing his soul along the way, had a second act that redeemed all that came before it. No actor could ask for a better curtain.

For the full commentary, see:
TERRY TEACHOUT. “SIGHTINGS; Charles Laughton’s Late Bounty.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., March 2, 2012): D10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 1, 2012.)

You Can Buy a New Flint Knife or Stone Ax

(p. 55) Let’s take the oldest technology of all: a flint knife or stone ax. Well, it turns out you can buy a brand-new flint knife, flaked by hand and carefully attached to an antler-horn handle by tightly wound leather straps. In every respect it is precisely the same technology as a flint knife made 30,000 years ago. It’s yours for fifty dollars, available from more than one website. In the highlands of New Guinea, tribesmen were making stone axes for their own use until the 1960s. They still make stone axes the same way for tourists now. And stone-ax aficionados study them. There is an unbroken chain of knowledge that has kept this Stone Age technology alive. Today, in the United States alone, there are 5,000 amateurs who knap fresh arrowhead points by hand. They meet on weekends, exchange tips in flint-knapping clubs, and sell their points to souvenir brokers. John Whittaker, a professional archaeologist and flint knapper himself, has studied these amateurs and estimates that they produce over one million brand-new spear and arrow points per year. These new points are indistinguishable, even to experts like Whittaker, from authentic ancient ones.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

Imagining Oscar Wilde’s 1882 Visit to Omaha


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(p. 10) Hansen’s first collection, “Nebraska,” which appeared in 1989, was a work that in its wrought realism, its ways of culling grim beauty from the often harsh history of his native place, achieved a memorable intensity. “She Loves Me Not” republishes seven of those stories, but to suggest that he’s recycling would miss the larger point. Instead, he has used this early work as the basis for what becomes a very different, exploded, view of a place. In these pages, Nebraska — Omaha in particular — is both rendered and reappropriated, registered and riffed on through a range of tonalities.

The first story, “Wilde in Omaha,” is, as its title suggests, a playful reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s actual visit to that city in March of 1882. Recounted by a bumbling, fame-besotted journalist, the British writer’s short stay among the arts-avid, cornfed Nebraska bourgeoisie becomes a delightful anthology of some of this famed raconteur’s best bits. For Wilde will make no conversational response to any question that isn’t an epigram, as often as not a well-known one. Hansen’s setup lines can be almost groaningly obvious. When a Mr. Rosewater of The Daily Bee asks him, apropos of nothing, “Are you a hunter?” Wilde gets to deliver one of his celebrated bons mots: “Are you asking if I gallop after foxes in the shires? Indeed not. I consider that the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” Didn’t Monty Python run a similar shtick some years before? They did. But Hansen isn’t pretending otherwise.
“Wilde in Omaha” is followed by a string of stories from the “Nebraska” collection, and what a shift it is to go from that highly arch patter to the cruel horror of the blizzard of 1888 — a mere six years, but in terms of the circuit of human experience the very antipodes. “Wickedness” consists of a series of episodic encounters of farm people and townspeople with the completely unexpected — and unprecedented — storm. It’s mainly a catalog of last hours and final moments, but the detailing, the staging, is unsurpassed. Every moment is fully imagined. “A tin water pail rang in a skipping roll to the horse path.” A wife who has gone out to look for her husband is found “standing up in her muskrat coat and black bandanna, her scarf-wrapped hands tightly clenching the top strand of rabbit wire that was keeping her upright, her blue eyes still open but cloudily bottled by a half inch of ice, her jaw unhinged as though she’d died yelling out a name.”

For the full review, see:
SVEN BIRKERTS. “Odes to Omaha.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 11, 2012): 10.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 9, 2012.)

Currently Possible Inventions Are Not Inevitable; Someone Must Think of Them and Make Them Happen

(p. C4) . . . some inventions seem to have occurred to nobody until very late. The wheeled suitcase is arguably such a, well, case. Bernard Sadow applied for a patent on wheeled baggage in 1970, after a Eureka moment when he was lugging his heavy bags through an airport while a local worker effortlessly pushed a large cart past. You might conclude that Mr. Sadow was decades late. There was little to stop his father or grandfather from putting wheels on bags.
Mr. Sadow’s bags ran on four wheels, dragged on a lead like a dog. Seventeen years later a Northwest Airlines pilot, Robert Plath, invented the idea of two wheels on a suitcase held vertically, plus a telescopic handle to pull it with. This “Rollaboard,” now ubiquitous, also feels as if it could have been invented much earlier.
Or take the can opener, invented in the 1850s, eight decades after the can. Early 19th-century soldiers and explorers had to make do with stabbing bayonets into food cans. “Why doesn’t somebody come up with a wheeled cutter?” they must have muttered (or not) as they wrenched open the cans.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; Don’t Look for Inventions Before Their Time.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 15, 2012): C4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 14, 2012.)

In Latvia Deep Budget Cuts Lead to High Economic Growth

LatviaNewDairyFactoryOutsideRiga2013-05-04.jpg “A worker cleaned equipment at a new dairy factory outside Riga. The I.M.F. has hailed Latvia for its deep budget cuts.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

It is interesting that the New York Times photographer (see above) chose to display the Latvian economic success story in bleak shades of grey and darkness.

(p. A1) RIGA, Latvia — When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.

But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.
. . .
Hardship has long been common here — and still is. But in just four years, the country has gone from the European Union’s worst economic disaster zone to a model of what the International Monetary Fund hails as the healing properties of deep budget cuts. Latvia’s economy, after shriveling by more than 20 percent from its peak, grew by about 5 percent last year, making it the best performer in the 27-nation European Union. Its budget deficit is down sharply and exports are soaring.

For the full story, see:
ANDREW HIGGINS. “Used to Hardship, Latvia Accepts Austerity, and Its Pain Eases.” The New York Times (Weds., January 2, 2013): A1 & A6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 1, 2013.)

Steam-Powered Cars Show that Old Technologies Rarely Totally Disappear

(p. 53) In my own travels around the world I was struck by how resilient ancient technologies were, how they were often first choices where power and modern resources were scarce. It seemed to me as if no technologies ever disappeared. I was challenged on this conclusion by a highly regarded historian of technology who told me without thinking, “Look, they don’t make steam-powered automobiles anymore.” Well, within a few clicks on Google I very quickly located folks who are making brand-new parts for Stanley steam-powered cars. Nice shiny copper valves, pistons, whatever you need. With enough money you could put together an entirely new steam-powered car. And of course, thousand of hobbyists are still bolting together steam-powered vehicles, and hundreds more are keeping old ones running. Steam power is very much an intact, though uncommon, species of technology.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

Organic Animals Cause More Global Warming than Non-Organic Animals


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(p. A23) Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.

For the full commentary, see:
JAMES E. McWILLIAMS. “The Myth of Sustainable Meat.” The New York Times (Fri., April 13, 2012): A23.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 12, 2012.)

McWilliams’ book on related issues, is:
McWilliams, James E. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Cultural Impact of Industrial Design Is Greater than Cultural Impact of Fine Arts

(p. C3) Capitalism has its weaknesses. But it is capitalism that ended the stranglehold of the hereditary aristocracies, raised the standard of living for most of the world and enabled the emancipation of women. The routine defamation of capitalism by armchair leftists in academe and the mainstream media has cut young artists and thinkers off from the authentic cultural energies of our time.
Over the past century, industrial design has steadily gained on the fine arts and has now surpassed them in cultural impact. In the age of travel and speed that began just before World War I, machines became smaller and sleeker. Streamlining, developed for race cars, trains, airplanes and ocean liners, was extended in the 1920s to appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The smooth white towers of electric refrigerators (replacing clunky iceboxes) embodied the elegant new minimalism.
“Form ever follows function,” said Louis Sullivan, the visionary Chicago architect who was a forefather of the Bauhaus. That maxim was a rubric for the boom in stylish interior décor, office machines and electronics following World War II: Olivetti typewriters, hi-fi amplifiers, portable transistor radios, space-age TVs, baby-blue Princess telephones. With the digital revolution came miniaturization. The Apple desktop computer bore no resemblance to the gigantic mainframes that once took up whole rooms. Hand-held cellphones became pocket-size.

For the full commentary, see:
Paglia, Camille. “How Capitalism Can Save Art; Camille Paglia on why a new generation has chosen iPhones and other glittering gadgets as its canvas.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 6, 2012): C3.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 5, 2012.)

Global Warming Would Likely Prevent Coming Ice Age in North America

BencivengoBrianNationalIceCoreLab2013-05-01.jpg “Scientists like Brian Bencivengo of the National Ice Core Laboratory examine ice cores to determine past air temperatures at the location from which the core was obtained.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) In the . . . journal Science, Shaun Marcott, an earth scientist at Oregon State University, and his colleagues compiled the most meticulous reconstruction yet of global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, virtually the entire Holocene. They used indicators like the distribution of microscopic, temperature-sensitive ocean creatures to determine past climate.
. . .
Scientists say that if natural factors were still governing the climate, the Northern Hemisphere would probably be destined to freeze over again in several thousand years. “We were on this downward slope, presumably going back toward another ice age,” Dr. Marcott said.
Instead, scientists believe the enormous increase in greenhouse gases caused by industrialization will almost certainly prevent that.
During the long climatic plateau of the early Holocene, global temperatures were roughly the same as those of today, at least within the uncertainty of the estimates, the new paper shows. This is consistent with a large body of past research focused on the Northern Hemisphere, which showed a distribution of ice and vegetation suggestive of a relatively warm climate.

For the full story, see:
JUSTIN GILLIS. “Global Temperatures Highest in 4,000 Years.” The New York Times (Fri., March 8, 2013): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 7, 2013.)

The Marcott article mentioned, is:
Marcott, Shaun A., Jeremy D. Shakun, Peter U. Clark, and Alan C. Mix. “Report: A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years.” Science 339, no. 6124 (March 8, 2013): 1198-201.