Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The War of the Worlds radio show

Whenever I ever hear anyone mention the 1939 radio show of HG Wells’ War of the World and the panic that ensued, I think of how naive and unsophisticated people must have been back then. But then I find myself stopping and reconsidering … I think of all the conspiracy theories around 911 and how so many people have so many wild ideas about the world. Perhaps we haven’t changed that much. Fear is still king. Today is it terrorism, but in 1939, the stories coming out of Germany were terrifying. Does fear make us na├»ve or do we just believe anything that comes out of an appliance in our living room?

On Halloween night 1939, Orson Welles and the production staff of CBS’s Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcasted a radio show of HG’ Wells’ sci-fi novel changing the setting from 19th century England to current day New Jersey. The show that night had a musical guest who was periodically interrupted with "news" reports of the Mars invasion. The mock news reports sounded realistic enough for the era. The actors playing the reporters studied Edward R. Morrow’s war reporting and tape of the Hindenburg tragedy to get a realistic feel. The Theatre of the Air was least popular show at that time slot, so Welles timed the news updates, "we interrupt this program," during lolls in the other shows so that they would catch channel surfers’ ears. Because of this, many of the listeners didn’t hear the disclaimer at the beginning of the show. They reported that an army of 7,000 were reduced to 120 by one Martian robot. Panic was widespread. The Trenton, NJ police received over a 2,000 calls that evening and the NY Times switchboard reported 875 calls to confirm the story. Many eyewitnesses reported seeing smoke over New York City and choking due to panic attacks. The town of Concrete, Washington had a power outage in the middle of the show making things a lot worse for them. They didn’t get the disclaimer at the end of the show so some sat in horror, in the dark, for hours.

In February 1949, the show was reproduced in Quito, Ecuador with even worse results. The local militia was mobilized to fight the Martians. When it was revealed as a hoax, a mob attacked the radio studio and 6 people were killed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Edison and the Elephant

Recently someone posted a video on YouTube of Thomas Edison (the founder of GE) electrocuting an elephant. It is not only real but Edison filmed it himself.

During the 1880’s, Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla were going through whats commonly known as the War of the Currents. Edison was a proponent of DC (direct current) while Westinghouse/Tesla had AC (alternating currents). DC was the standard method for the carrying of electric currents in North America at the time but AC was gaining popularity. To discourage the use of AC, Edison started a public campaign to show how dangerous it was. It mostly featured the electrocution of stray cats and dogs, but also a Coney Island elephant (which supposedly had problems and was scheduled for termination anyways). Think of this as like the battle between the Mac and Windows or between Blu-ray and HD-DVD but with the torturing of innocent animals. Edison also commissioned the creation of the first electric chair and referred to the act of electrocution as being "Westinghoused."

Part of the war was personal, Edison owed Tesla a lot of money. Not paying the "talent" appears to be a tenet of the GE philosophy. Westinghouse funded him out of spite. AC is now the standard for the distribution of electrical currents along long distances like from a power plant to your home. While DC is common in very short distances like the electrical system in your car.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bats and Bugs in Vermont

Some bats in Vermont and New York are suffering and dying from a condition that is being called "White Nose Syndrome." The white nose is merely a symptom and not the cause of the disease. Someone in causing them to deplete their fat early while they are hibernating therefore they are starving in their sleep.

This was first discovered last year in a cave west of Albany NY and this year 2 more in NY and one in VT which is scary because this means it is spreading. Since bats eat mostly bugs, expect a buggy summer in northern New England and New York which is not something that I am looking forward to. Also, the long term effect of having more bugs this summer will cause what? More sickness in humans and/live stock? Depletion of plant life?

I am concerned about the bats, of course. They are beautiful, fascinating creatures, but problems like this always have impacts elsewhere just like the mysterious death of bees last summer. I have to remember to hang up my bat house. It is sitting in the yard. Unfortunately, not much else I can do.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I learned today that the concept of boredom was first introduced by the Germans. I wonder if it was by someone who was reading Goethe. I get bored just thinking about him.

In defense of boredom, I have to say I am grateful for boredom for if not for boredom where would we be? Just think of all the great entertainment we’d be missing.. We’d be really bored.

Entertainment is the biggest industry in the world ... bigger than the defense or medical industries. So our need to be entertained far outweighs our paranoia of death. So when we are not defending against death and working out, we are looking for distractions to stop us from thinking about it. The more terrifying the world gets, the more we need to escape.

The word first appears in English literature in Dicken’s Bleak House. He refers to it a monster, "The fair Volumnia, being one of those sprightly girls who cannot long continue silent without imminent peril of seizure by the dragon Boredom..." So it is something that we battle with. He also refers to it as something we envy when others don’t have it, " the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of Giant Despair, almost hated her own maid for being in spirits." No wonder the house is so bleak! It is full of dragons and spirited maids.

No doubt ... I am quite bored at the moment. If not for MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia and the like, I know not what I’d do. I am grateful that people were bored enough to create them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Rachel Carson's Legacy

When I was 19 years old back in 1984, I started to attend Bryant College in Smithfield, RI (now called Bryant University). This is a small business school that basically caters to the children of CEOs and other executives, who really didn't do very well in high school, couldn't get into Harvard or any of the other really impressive business schools. My first day on campus, Freshman orientation, I walked through the school parking lot, after parking my '72 Dodge Dart which was overheating, through the smell of new cars. It was one of the first events that happened that quickly informed me that a youngest son of a janitor and a shoe clerk did not belong there.

My biggest motivation for going to college wasn't personal enrichment or intellectual curiosity, I reserve that right for those that can afford not to be employed after they spend $40k on an education. My motivation was to get a good enough education so that I could get the hell out of my neighborhood and never look back. I did not want to be poor. I saw what my parents went through and I would have none of it. I went to Bryant because I could drive to campus just 20 minutes away from my family's house. It served my purpose for upward mobility.

It was a decent education, but not a great one. It wasn't my education that got me where I am today but my network of co-workers. Whenever I find myself in need of a job, I find a friend who refers me to a position that fits my skills. Since they have worked with me, they understand my work ethic and my skills and I generally find a great job this way. This has little to do with my education, but a lot to do with my parents. I attribute this success to them, not to Bryant College.

I attribute one thing to my education that I never planned. At school, I achieved a cynicism about life that I could not have achieved if I had attended a state school and it has served me well. At school, I was exposed to a segment of life that I could have never found elsewhere in my life up to that time. I was exposed to the greediest, most unethical mother-fuckers that I could have ever imagined. They had acquired the art of cheating to the perfection of a masterpiece. I always thought that if they had spent as much time as they did figuring out ways to cheat, as they did to studying, I thinking we would be in a very different world now. Whenever I hear news of unethical and disgusting controversies like Enron or the Keating Five (remember John McCain's corruption), I just have think if the brats I went to school with at Bryant.

The title on my subject line is about Rachel Carson. You must be wondering what this has to do with her. I just listened to Bill Moyer's Journal's podcast about her. I knew her book, Silent Spring, was a landmark non-fiction book that is attributed with jump starting the environmental movement. What I never realized how much resistance the establishment greeted it with. It makes sense, but I never really thought about it before. This year marks the books 45th anniversary and if she were alive today, she'd be 100 this year. Some of the quotes I heard about her from the resistance involve some accusing her of having hormonal problems and a variety of other male chauvinistic comments. One said, "Why would a childless spinster care so much about genetics?" in reference to her chapter on pesticides. Attacks against her came from all sides, from all places on the political spectrum.

Hearing this kind of stuff brings me back. Working against the grain is hard. It was difficult to compete against people who were cheating and getting A's while I was getting C's thanks to the grading curve. They partied all the time while I had to work, sometimes three jobs. It tooks me 7.5 years to graduate due to the lack of funds some semesters. I remember my business ethics class where some of my classmates stated that they took it to know how to get away with "being unethical" ... really ... I am not kidding. I write this today after casting my vote yesterday in the Democratic Primary knowing full-well that the candidate that wins this thing will probably (hopefully) be our next president. They are inheriting a big mess from the current president with the worst record on the environment ever. This is only one of the messes they will inherit from him. Whoever wins will have to have the power to change the minds of people. They will have to a be a great speaker able change people's minds like Lincoln with slavery, like Kennedy with going to the moon. We can achieve great things in this country. Like Rachel Carson, the new president will have to have the ability to face great adversity from all sides. Call me a hope-monger, but I am hoping for a change ... soon.