Modernity’s Uninvited Guest

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple is fascinated by evil and by books that feature the word “evil” in the title, like Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, which was first published anonymously in 1756. Dalrymple considers evil to be modernity’s uninvited guest:

For Jenyns, as for all writers of his time, the word “evil” conveyed something much wider than it does today. It meant all that caused mankind suffering. It included “moral evil” — extreme human wickedness — but also “natural evil,” the suffering brought about by epidemics, earthquakes, droughts, floods, and the like. It is not surprising that the word should have undergone a change of meaning, for in the intervening period the proportion of human suffering caused by moral, as against natural, evil has increased dramatically, thanks to our growing mastery of nature. When Jenyns wrote, for example, half of all children died, principally from infectious disease, before they reached the age of five; the causes of every known disease remained utterly mysterious, notwithstanding the pedantic flummery of the epoch’s physicians.

A Free Enquiry appeared the year after the Lisbon earthquake, which killed some 30,000 people and destroyed in five minutes what it had taken centuries to build. The earthquake caused a philosophical crisis throughout Europe, for it was difficult to see the divine justice in this catastrophe, visited alike upon the virtuous and the vicious, the provident and the improvident, the humble and the proud. Earthquakes still happen, of course, but their effects have become attenuated in countries where many people are rich, educated, or leisured enough to worry about the origin of evil. The recent Chilean earthquake, many times more severe than its predecessor in Haiti, killed under half of 1 percent as many people because of Chile’s farsighted precautions against earthquakes. We have reached the stage when the harm done by what once would have been called acts of God seems as much the effect of moral as of natural evil.
The Enlightenment held out the hope that with enough of this “proper study,” man would come to know himself sufficiently to eliminate the evil and suffering that had always beset his existence. Man would obtain something like a Newtonian knowledge not only of the universe but of himself, with all the predictive and mechanical advantages that such understanding had brought in the study of inanimate nature.

And in a certain sense, the promise of the Enlightenment has been triumphantly fulfilled in our modern societies—surely as regards natural evil. Thanks to rational inquiry, to take but one instance, the infant-mortality rate since Jenyns wrote has fallen 98 percent. We live lives cleaner, more comfortable, and freer from pain than those of any people who have ever existed. Nobody today has to endure one-hundredth of the physical tortures, brought by illness and the efforts to treat it, that Philip II of Spain and Charles II of England had to endure.

Nor can one say that no moral advance occurred because of the Enlightenment. Just as we are freer from disease, so, too, our mental lives are freer. Of course, dictatorships over thought still exist in the world, but they are on the defensive and have come to seem somehow unnatural. Freedom is now the default setting of human thought. No one can tell us what to think, say, or write, at least not without our consent.

But an uninvited guest has arrived at this banquet of human advancement: evil. Whether men behave better or worse, individually or in the aggregate, than they did before the Enlightenment, is probably a question that we cannot answer approximately, let alone definitively. But what is certain is that moral evil has not only failed to disappear but has taken on a more deliberate, calculated character. Whereas the torturers of Damiens did their evil unself-consciously because it was the natural or preordained thing to do, modern evil is done after intellectual reflection, divorced from any tradition that might guide conduct.

The two greatest moral catastrophes of the twentieth century, wrought by Lenin and Hitler, were perverse effects of the Enlightenment. Lenin and Hitler were creatures of the Enlightenment not in the sense that they were enlightened, of course, but in the sense that they believed they had the right and the duty to act in accordance with their own unaided deductions from their own first principles. Everything else they regarded as sentimentality. Lenin preached no mercy to the non-proletarian, Hitler none to the Jew. The truth of their theories, supposedly rational and indubitable, was more evident to them, more real in their minds, than the millions killed as a consequence of those theories. If a syllogism ended in a command to commit unspeakable evil, you did not doubt the premises or the argument but obeyed the command.

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Does your language shape how you think? That’s the claim Benjamin Lee Whorf made 70 years ago, in MIT’s Technology Review:

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims.

Linguist Roman Jakobson clarifies where Whorf went wrong:

Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.

Guy Deutscher explains:

If different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

Experiments show that speakers of gendered languages associate inanimate objects with male or female qualities, depending on the gender of the noun in that language, but the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought comes from the language of space:

Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

When these peculiarities of Guugu Yimithirr were uncovered, they inspired a large-scale research project into the language of space. And as it happens, Guugu Yimithirr is not a freak occurrence; languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. For us, it might seem the height of absurdity for a dance teacher to say, “Now raise your north hand and move your south leg eastward.” But the joke would be lost on some: the Canadian-American musicologist Colin McPhee, who spent several years on Bali in the 1930s, recalls a young boy who showed great talent for dancing. As there was no instructor in the child’s village, McPhee arranged for him to stay with a teacher in a different village. But when he came to check on the boy’s progress after a few days, he found the boy dejected and the teacher exasperated. It was impossible to teach the boy anything, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take “three steps east” or “bend southwest,” he didn’t know what to do. The boy would not have had the least trouble with these directions in his own village, but because the landscape in the new village was entirely unfamiliar, he became disoriented and confused. Why didn’t the teacher use different instructions? He would probably have replied that saying “take three steps forward” or “bend backward” would be the height of absurdity.

So different languages certainly make us speak about space in very different ways. But does this necessarily mean that we have to think about space differently? By now red lights should be flashing, because even if a language doesn’t have a word for “behind,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that its speakers wouldn’t be able to understand this concept. Instead, we should look for the possible consequences of what geographic languages oblige their speakers to convey. In particular, we should be on the lookout for what habits of mind might develop because of the necessity of specifying geographic directions all the time.

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

Tech startups are changing the way workers are screened and hired

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Tech startups are changing the way workers are screened and hired:

Recruiters, who have transformed the corporate hiring landscape for the past 20 years, are touted for their ability to sift through candidates. But as more jobs require sitting in front of a screen, many recruiters are in a technology fog, which alienates gifted candidates. While they can ask potential hires whether they know certain programs, recruiters in the technology space often can’t assess what the applicants know. “They can’t tell the difference between the competent ones and the stars,” said Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, an early stage venture firm in Mountain View, Calif.
In a hiring climate in which companies find talented workers by seeing how they already perform, the RethinkDB founders turned to sites like and, where programmers collaborate and work on special projects. “You can see the code being written and how technically accurate they are,” said Glukhovsky, who inhabits a world where 95 percent of coders can’t complete basic computer-science tasks. Now, a few months from releasing their first product, RethinkDB is up to six people, a mix of full-timers and interns, both senior and junior.
Video is another underused tool. Screening candidates between the resume and the interview can help solve the “looks good on paper” problem, in which someone appears for an interview and it is clear that the candidate isn’t right for the job. A handful of Bay Area startups, such as Airbnb, a person-to-person site for finding a place to stay while traveling, have started using HireHive, a Y Combinator-funded company that offers monthly plans to pre-screen applicants on video. Another startup, RoundPegg, funded by TechStars, a seed-stage investment firm, assesses how a candidate will fit into the culture of a workplace. A series of short surveys and analysis by an organizational psychologist can tell the hirer whether an applicant will have a problem with the manager or team.

UFC Heads to Asia

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The UFC is heading to Asia, where many other sports have failed to take off, the Wall Street Journal reports:

To manage UFC’s Asian business, the fight group owned by Las Vegas-based Zuffa LLC is turning to Fischer with the hope that some of his magic touch in marketing the NBA can rub off on their fledgling Asian franchise.

Basketball has been one of the few American sports imports to become a winner in China.

Under Fischer’s direction from 2003 to 2008, the NBA managed to ink more than 20 marketing partnerships with leading brands in the country. Tsingtao, for instance, is now the official beer of the NBA in China. The NBA has actually set up a separate corporate entity for its China operations, which was valued at $2.3 billion when it was set up in 2008.

Other sports, which came to the party a little later, just haven’t had the hot hand when it comes to gaining acceptance in the Chinese market.

National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Inc. executives went on a China junket in 2007 to drum up sponsors and gauge what potential interest might exist for its brand of high-octane, fuel-fired racing thrills. So far, the answer appears to be very little. Meanwhile, the National Football League set its sights on China in 2009 and has been staging exhibitions and rebroadcasting games in the country with Chinese color-commentary. However it, too, seems to be getting blitzed in China.

Sports like auto-racing, football, and even baseball suffer from a want of attention in a country where the focus is on winning medals and national glory.

Major League Baseball has a 10-year development program that it has recently put in place in the country, but there are doubts about how successful it can be, according to reports in state media outlets. The marquee stadium in Beijing, built for the Olympic Games in 2008, has already been demolished to make room for new real estate developments.

This sounds like a job for Cung Le, who has successfully transitioned from sanshou to MMA.

Progressives Against Progress

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Conservatives have a tragic view of Man as imperfect and imperfectible — but modern conservatives have a generally favorable view of Civilization, what it has accomplished, and what it may accomplish yet if we don’t dismantle the traditions and institutions that have brought us this far.

Modern liberals and progressives hold the opposite set of views, Fred Siegel notes:

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, American liberals distinguished themselves from conservatives by what Lionel Trilling called “a spiritual orthodoxy of belief in progress.” Liberalism placed its hopes in human perfectibility. Regarding human nature as essentially both beneficent and malleable, liberals, like their socialist cousins, argued that with the aid of science and given the proper social and economic conditions, humanity could free itself from its cramped carapace of greed and distrust and enter a realm of true freedom and happiness. Conservatives, by contrast, clung to a tragic sense of man’s inherent limitations. While acknowledging the benefits of science, they argued that it could never fundamentally reform, let alone transcend, the human condition. Most problems don’t have a solution, the conservatives maintained; rather than attempting Promethean feats, man would do best to find a balanced place in the world.

In the late 1960s, liberals appeared to have the better of the argument. Something approaching the realm of freedom seemed to have arrived. American workers, white and black, achieved hitherto unimagined levels of prosperity. In the nineteenth century, only utopian socialists had imagined that ordinary workers could achieve a degree of leisure; in the 1930s, radicals had insisted that prosperity was unattainable under American capitalism; yet these seemingly unreachable goals were achieved in the two decades after World War II.

Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism’s path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.

Math Mastery

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Aretae remarks that Arnold Kling only thinks that he’s talking about economics, when he’s really describing many fields:

I suspect that a big reason that mathematics took over economics is that it gives you a sense of mastery. Indeed, it may give you a false sense of mastery. As you learn mathematical economics, you realize that you are getting really good at doing something that only a small group of people is able to master. And you get the sense that because you completed a mathematical proof that you accomplished something. It is very seductive.

The World’s Largest Tidal Turbine

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Atlantis Resources Corporation recently installed the world’s largest tidal turbine, the AK1000, in 35 meters of water, at the European Marine Energy Centre (“EMEC”), located in Orkney, Scotland:

Despatching 1MW of predictable power at a water velocity of 2.65m/s, the AK1000™ is capable of generating enough electricity for over 1000 homes. It is designed for harsh weather and rough, open ocean environments such as those found off the Scottish coast. The turbine incorporates cutting edge technology from suppliers across the globe, has an 18 meter rotor diameter, weighs 1300 tonnes and stands at a height of 22.5 meters. The giant turbine is expected to be environmentally benign due to a low rotation speed whilst in operation and will deliver predictable, sustainable power to the local Orkney grid.

Driving a Steak through the Heart of Conventional Wisdom

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Seth Roberts drives a steak [sic] through the heart of conventional wisdom — or, rather, some pork bellies:

One and a half years ago, in February 2009, I got a heart scan. It’s an X-ray measurement of how calcified your arteries are. Persons with high scores are much more likely to have a heart attack than persons with low scores. Scores in the hundreds are dangerous. Tim Russert, who died at age 58 of a heart attack, had a score of about 200 ten years before his death. Above age 40, the scores typically increase about 25% per year. That puts Russert’s score when he died at around 2000.

A few weeks ago I got another scan, at the same place with the same machine. Here are my scores. February 2009: 38 (about 50th percentile for my age). August 2010: 29 (between 25th & 50th percentile). In other words: 47% lower than expected. The earlier scan detected 3 “lesions”; the recent scan detected 2. The woman who runs the scanning center — HeartScan, in Walnut Creek, California — told me that decreases in this score are very rare. About 1 in 100, she said.

The only big lifestyle change I made between the two scans is to eat much more animal fat. After I found that pork fat improved my sleep, I started to eat a large serving of pork belly (with 80-100 g of fat) almost every day. Later I switched to 60 g of butter every day. The usual view, of course, is that to eat so much animal fat is very very bad and will “clog” my arteries. In fact, the reverse happened. Judging from this, the change was very very good.

(Hat tip to Aretae, who recently switched to a paleo diet.)

Roll-Your-Own Cigarette Machines Evade Steep Tax

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Roll-Your-Own cigarette machines are helping smokers and tobacconists evade steep taxes in a fairly predictable manner:

At Smoke Zone and other retailers, The Wall Street Journal found, store employees or customers insert into the machines tobacco labeled “pipe tobacco.” This substantially reduces the stores’ and smokers’ costs because the federal excise tax on pipe tobacco is $2.83 a pound — compared with $24.78 a pound for the rolling tobacco traditionally used to make hand-rolled cigarettes.

Congress in 2009 sharply raised the federal excise tax on rolling tobacco to help finance the expansion of a children’s health-insurance program backed by President Barack Obama.

The Rent-a-Womb Capital of the World

Monday, August 30th, 2010

India has become the Rent-a-Womb capital of the world:

Reproductive tourism in India is now a half-a-billion-dollar-a-year industry, with surrogacy services offered in 350 clinics across the country since it was legalized in 2002. The primary appeal of India is that it is cheap, hardly regulated, and relatively safe. Surrogacy can cost up to $100,000 in the United States, while many Indian clinics charge $22,000 or less. Very few questions are asked. Same-sex couples, single parents and even busy women who just don’t have time to give birth are welcomed by doctors. As a bonus, many Indians speak English and Indian surrogate mothers are less likely to use illegal drugs. Plus medical standards in private hospitals are very high (not all good Indian doctors left in the brain drain).

The Study of History

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

The study of history reduces to two tasks, Mencius Moldbug says — reading primary sources and assessing their credibility — and one good way to assess their credibility is to test their predictions against hindsight.

This test is especially useful when the prediction comes from someone on the losing side, powerless to make his predictions come true, like Confederate theologian R. L. Dabney, who made the following declarations in his Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant-General Thomas J. Jackson (1866):

History will some day place the position of these Confederate States, in this high argument, in the clearest light of her glory. The cause they undertook to defend was that of regulated constitutional liberty, and of fidelity to law and covenants, against the licentious violence of physical power. The assumptions they resisted were precisely those of that radical democracy, which deluged Europe with blood at the close of the eighteenth century, and which shook its thrones again in the convulsions of 1848; the agrarianism which, under the name of equality, would subject all the rights of individuals to the will of the many, and acknowledge no law nor ethics, save the lust of that mob which happens to be the larger.

This power, which the old States of Europe expended such rivers of treasure and blood to curb, at the beginning of the century, had transferred its immediate designs across the Atlantic, was consolidating itself anew in the Northern States of America, with a wealth, an organization, an audacity, an extent to which it never aspired in the lands of its birth, and was preparing to make the United States, after crushing all law there under its brute will, the fulcrum whence they should extend their lever to upheave every legitimate throne in the Old World.

Hither, by emigration, flowed the radicalism, discontent, crime, and poverty of Europe, until the people of the Northern States became, like the rabble of Imperial Rome, the colluvies gentium. The miseries and vices of their early homes had alike taught them to mistake license for liberty, and they were incapable of comprehending, much more of loving, the enlightened structure of English or Virginian freedom.

The first step in their vast designs was to overwhelm the Conservative States of the South. This done, they boasted that they would proceed first to engross the whole of the American continent, and then to emancipate Ireland, to turn Great Britain into a democracy, to enthrone Red Republicanism in France, and to give the crowns of Germany to the Pantheistic humanitarians of that race who deify self as the supreme end and selfish desire as the authoritative expression of the Divine Will.

By the way, you probably know Thomas Jackson by his nickname: Stonewall.

Mumbai’s The Word

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

After the terrorist attack on Mumbai a few years ago, William Dalrymple asserted in The Observer that the well-dressed, clean-shaven killers were thoughtfully fighting oppression:

These were not poor, madrasah-educated Pakistanis from the villages, brainwashed by mullahs, but angry and well-educated, middle-class kids furious at the gross injustice they perceive being done to Muslims by Israel, the US, the UK and India in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir respectively.

It’s pretty clear now that the killers were poor, madrasah-educated Pakistanis from the villages, brainwashed by mullahs.

Theodore Dalrymple, no relation to William, doesn’t make that point.  Instead he takes issue with the shock and surprise that violent guerrillas would be well off:

The assumption underlying this surprise is that there is some direct connection between poverty and ignorance on the one hand, and extreme political violence or terrorism on the other. Well-to-do people are not driven to the desperation of terrorism. And this view, it seems to me, genuinely implies an almost total absence of knowledge of world history, to say nothing of an inability to make fairly obvious connections.

Although I am not an historian, it has long seemed to me that some acquaintance with the history of Nineteenth Century Russia is absolutely crucial to understanding the modern world, for it was there that the various forms of modern revolutionary terrorism, and politics as the pursuit of an ideological end, first developed. And the first terrorists were certainly not downtrodden peasants brainwashed by religious or other leaders: they were either aristocrats suffering angst at their own privilege in the midst of poverty, or members of the newly-emerged middle classes, angry that their education had not resulted in the influence in society to which they thought themselves entitled by virtue of their intelligence, idealism and knowledge.

This pattern has been repeated over and over again. Latin America is a very good example. Castro was the spoilt son of a self-made millionaire who had a personal grudge against society because he was illegitimate and sometimes humiliated for it; in other words, he was both highly privileged, with a sense of entitlement, and deeply resentful, always a dreadful combination. Ernesto Guevara was of partially aristocratic descent, whose upbringing was that of a bohemian bourgeois, who was too egotistical and lacking in compassion for individual human beings to accept the humdrum discipline of medical practice.

The leaders of the guerrilla movement in Guatemala (a country, oddly, with many parallels to Nineteenth Century Russia) were of bourgeois and educated origin; one of them was the son of a Nobel-prize winner, not exactly a true social representative of the population. The leader and founder of Sendero Luminoso of Peru, a movement of the Pol Pot tendency (and Pol Pot himself, of course, studied in Paris), was a professor of philosophy, and his followers were the first educated generation of the peasantry, not the peasants themselves. Peasants are capable of uprisings, no doubt, even very bloody ones, but they do not elaborate ideologies or undergo training for attacks on distant targets.

From what I can tell, the actual attackers were poor and desperate — in some cases sold into Lashkar-e-Taiba — while their handlers matched Theodore Dalrymple’s description of guerrilla leaders.

Henson donates original Kermit to Smithsonian

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Jim Henson’s widow, Jane, is donating the original Kermit the Frog puppet to the Smithsonian:

The first Kermit creation from Jim Henson’s Muppet’s collection appeared in 1955 on the early TV show “Sam and Friends,” produced at Washington’s WRC-TV. Henson’s widow Jane Henson on Wednesday donated 10 characters from the show to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

She said the original characters provided five minutes of fun each night after the local news.
The Smithsonian already has a familiar Kermit the Frog puppet made famous on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” But the original Kermit was more lizard-like, and a duller green. His body was made from an old coat thrown out by Henson’s mother.

Some of the other early Muppets donated to the museum include the puppets that inspired Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, as well as Sam from “Sam and Friends.” The puppets mostly mimed and would lip-sync to popular music.

Their first hit was “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” by Rosemary Clooney. Donning a wig, Kermit took the lead as “Kermina,” Jane Henson said. In 1969, Kermit made it big and joined “Sesame Street.”
Visitors will recognize the original Kermit, though he didn’t have his trademark collar and webbed feet.

Poisoned By Celebrity

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In his work as a doctor in a prison, Theodore Dalrymple came across a number of poisoners, who tended to be more interesting as a group than other murderers. Dalrymple shares the story of one famous English poisoner:

A man called Graham Young poisoned several people, some to death and others only to near-death, in the 1960s and 70s in England without any pecuniary motive, indeed without any obvious motive at all, starting when he was thirteen or fourteen years of age. Among his victims (who did not die) were his father and his sister. It is probable that he poisoned his step-mother (who was devoted to him) to death.

His sister, Winifred Young, who was eight years older than he, and whom he had tried to poison, wrote a book about him, published in 1973 entitled Obsessive Poisoner. It is a remarkable book in several ways, and not only because there can have been few memoirs by people who survived attempted poisonings. It is a valuable document of social history, for it implicitly records a period of great cultural change, not only in Britain but I suspect throughout the world.

Graham Young was born in 1947, to parents of the aspiring lower middle class. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young, and his father re-married in 1950, to the woman whom he was almost certainly to poison to death nearly twelve years later.

From an early age, Graham Young showed marked peculiarities. He did not make friends easily, or at all, and in so far as he sought out the company of other human beings it was of people considerably older than himself. He was almost emotionless, apart from a love of dogs. He was highly intelligent and looked down on people who were less intelligent than he, which was most people, but, while good at his schoolwork, was not perseverent in subjects that did not interest him. From about the age of eleven he displayed an obsessive interest in two subjects: the Nazis and poisons. He talked about them incessantly. One of his great heroes was Dr William Palmer, who was known as the Prince of Poisoners, who is suspected of having poisoned a great many of his close relations and friends in the 1850s for financial reasons.

He put belladonna in his sister’s tea in 1961, which she was prepared, out of an inability to imagine evil of her brother, to believe was an accident.

Their stepmother died in 1962 of symptoms that, in retrospect, were compatible with thallium poisoning. He put thallium in a sandwich that her brother-in-law ate at the post-funeral collation.

At the same time, Graham Young administered antimony to his father and to a friend of his, so-called, at school, as well as his ‘favourite’ aunt. With horrible cunning, he sought to console them as they suffered from what he had given them, as he had consoled his dying stepmother.

The penny finally dropped, he was arrested, tried aged 14 for attempted murder (unfortunately, his stepmother had been cremated and her ashes were not available for forensic examination, so he could not be charged with murder itself), and sent — as a psychopath — to Broadmoor, an institution for the criminally insane.

What shines through his sister’s narrative is the complete absence of motive for his crimes, and indeed the ordinary and even banal goodness of everyone by whom he was surrounded. Whatever else might be said, it could certainly not be said that his background had anything to do with what he did. His father was a steady, hardworking man, without obvious character defects, not very interesting or exciting perhaps, who for years did overtime in order to pay off the mortgage on his house — which he did, in fact, in 12 years — to secure the future of his children. He was the very archetype of the reliable, modest, industrious, law-abiding citizen upon whom the maintenance of civilisation partly, but importantly, depends.

Furthermore, the goodness of the author herself is obvious, precisely because she is herself so unaware of it. Not only was she reluctant to believe evil of her brother, but even when that evil became manifest to her she did not cast him into outer darkness. Her love, the ordinary love of a sister for a brother, exceeded her condemnation of him: which did not mean, however, that she sought any legal exculpation for him, or made any excuses for him. She loved him as a brother, but as a citizen she knew that he had to be punished and the public protected from him.

It is worth pointing out here that this morally sophisticated attitude was not that of an exceptionally-educated person: she was a secretary, without tertiary education. In other words, her moral sophistication was absorbed from the general culture, not from explicit teaching.

(Incidentally, but not coincidentally, her book was extremely well-written, far, far better written than many people with postgraduate degrees could write such a book today).

Graham Young spent ten years in Broadmoor, before being released in 1972. Between the time of his arrival and his departure the whole ethos of society had changed. He arrived shortly after a man died there in his eighties, having been sent to the institution (for a crime which could hardly have been more serious than Young’s) more than seventy years before. But, despite the fact that two psychiatrists at the time of his trial had asserted that it was unlikely that his perverse interest in poisons would ever decline, he persuaded his psychiatrist at Broadmoor, by then probably seeing himself in the role of Graham’s St George against the dragon of society, that he was ‘cured.’ And this, despite the fact that a patient at the institution in the meantime had almost certainly been poisoned to death with cyanide distilled from laurel leaves in the hospital grounds (though admittedly, this had not been proved to be Young’s handiwork) and that — beyond doubt — he had attempted to poison the tea of nearly a hundred fellow-inmates. By now, it seems, the need to think well of humanity in general trumped altogether the disinterested and objective examination of particular instances of it.

So Graham Young was released. He was sent to a government rehabilitation centre. Within two months, he was buying dangerous poisons again. But no one who dealt with him was informed of his background or his previous history, not even the probation officers whom he was told to visit every two weeks. Was he not cured? Did not the director of Broadmoor say that, if they thought there was any risk at all, they would not have released him in the first place? It would therefore be unfair to him, unduly prejudicial, to let people — anyone — know what he had been up to all those years ago.

A job was found for Graham Young in a photographic factory. His employers knew that he had had ‘mental problems’ that accounted for his lack of an employment history, but they took the laudably unprejudiced view that everyone deserved a chance, and that no one’s past should be held against him. The employers were not told that he had been a poisoner or an inmate of an institute for the criminally insane for ten years, and so when members of their staff began to suffer mysterious symptoms shortly after his arrival, they did not connect him with them.

So many of the staff, in fact, began to suffer from such symptoms as nausea and polyneuritis that the public health authorities were called in. The most likely explanation seemed to be a virus, especially as the factory was searched high and low for heavy metals that might equally have caused the symptoms, and none was found. Two of the staff died, and it was largely because Graham Young himself asked the local doctors at a meeting that they convened in the factory whether they did not think that the illness from which the deceased had died might not be thallium poisoning that he was first suspected and then arrested.

Stores clerks are not normally expected to be knowledgeable about toxicology, but so eager was he to prove his superiority over the doctors in public that he over-reached himself. Phials of thallium were found among his possessions in his lodgings.

Two things struck me about the narrative, apart from the literacy and goodness of his sister. The first was the deeply old-fashioned stoicism and devotion to duty of the staff of the company for which he worked.

Many of them were made desperately ill by his addition of poison to their tea (he again used two poisons, as he had when he was fourteen years old, antimony and thallium which, because they caused rather different symptomatology, confused the public health doctors), but despite being hardly able to walk or to hold anything down, they insisted that they would soon be all right, and continued to try to work. Above all, they did not want to make a fuss, until some of them were admitted as emergencies to hospital.

The other thing that struck me was the obvious and sometimes openly expressed desire of Graham Young to achieve celebrity by his poisonings. He wanted to be known and remembered as the greatest poisoner in history; he took great pleasure in the publicity that he received, and he was more concerned with the newspaper coverage of his first trial than with the medical condition of his blameless father whom he had poisoned.

He lived at a time of a fundamental shift in our culture. On the one hand he was very old-fashioned; he dressed conservatively, always in a shirt and tie, and with a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit. In writing to his future employers to accept the job they had offered him, he ended his letter as follows:

I shall endeavour to justify your faith in me by performing my duties in an efficient and competent manner.

Until Monday morning, I am,

Yours faithfully,

Graham Young

This is the language of an era soon to be as bygone as that, say, of the Etruscans.

On the other hand, he matured at the time when the cult of celebrity, for celebrity’s sake, was fast gaining ground. It was a new form of celebrity, disconnected from any solid form of achievement, of which an ability to attract publicity became the sine qua non. Graham Young was highly intelligent, without the character to stick at anything to achieve something solid, but with a burning desire to be acknowledged as superior, important and outstanding.

When trying to explain why he could not get close to people, he once said to his sister (and she ends her book with these words), ‘You see, there’s a terrible coldness inside me.’ Could a spread of that coldness not help to explain our contemporary preoccupation with celebrity?

Wookiee the Chew

Friday, August 27th, 2010

James Hance produces relentlessly cheerful art, like these Wookiee the Chew illustrations, done in the style of Ernest Shepard’s classic Winnie the Pooh “decorations” — but with Han Solo as Christopher Robin, Chewbacca as Winnie the Pooh, R2 as Piglet, and an AT-AT as Eeyore.