Monthly Archives: July 2009

On Hiatus for Two Weeks

The Neighborhood will be on hiatus for the first two weeks of August while Mr. D gets some needed rest on the shores of Delaware and southern New Jersey.

I can still read e-mail and comments on any post, so feel free to continue.  New material will be coming later in August.

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Rock and History: Bruce Springsteen sings “The Erie Canal”

Sorry for the infrequency.  Between teaching at a workshop and preparing for our annual vacation to the Delaware shore, things have been hectic in the Neighborhood.

Above is Bruce Springsteen recording an American classic with the Seeger Sessions band.  “The Erie Canal” is one of the best known songs in American folk music, and commemorates the single most important public works project in American history. 

The Erie Canal, a 363-mile ditch between Lake Erie and the Hudson River, transformed New York into a commercial colossus, opened the western United States to settlement, and literally shaped New York State into what it is today.  80% of New York’s population live within a few miles of the canal route, which goes from New York harbor below Manhattan to the Lake Erie opening in Buffalo. 

The song was written after the railroad made the canal obsolete, in a mournful remembrance of a system that provided so much to America.  In my humble opinion, Springsteen’s version is the best I’ve ever heard.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 3: Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom

VirginiaHamilton2The more we peel the layers of a topic, the deeper we penetrate, and the more confused we become.

This is the conundrum of many themes, but none more so than the tragedy of human slavery.  In the United States, slavery pulses like a raw nerve because its lingering effects exist today, right in our faces.  This rawness, this immediacy makes slavery difficult to examine with a clear eye.

Years ago, historians and educators only touched on slavery as a cursory issue to other themes—the American Revolution or the Civil War, for example.  If it was examined at all, it was with the soulful eye of a guilty conscience: 400 years of kidnapping, bondage, hard labor and cruel mistreatment. 

None of this is in dispute, nor is the overall evil of slavery.  Yet it has only been recently that classrooms have the ability to put a human face on the slavery issue. 

The more we peel the layers of a topic, the deeper we penetrate, and the more confused we become.

This is the conundrum of many themes, but none more so than the tragedy of human slavery.  In the United States, slavery pulses like a raw nerve because its lingering effects exist today, right in our faces.  This rawness, this immediacy makes slavery difficult to examine with a clear eye.

Years ago, historians and educators only touched on slavery as a cursory issue to other themes—the American Revolution or the Civil War, for example.  If it was examined at all, it was with the soulful eye of a guilty conscience: 400 years of kidnapping, bondage, hard labor and cruel mistreatment. 

None of this is in dispute, nor is the overall evil of slavery.  Yet it has only been recently that classrooms have the ability to put a human face on the slavery issue.  Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom  by Virginia Hamilton, while not a definitive history, offers an excellent collection of narratives, letters and primary sources that deal with slavery in North America through to Reconstruction.

The narratives of enslaved Africans used to be the exclusive business of academia.  Even in most classrooms today, we hear the most prominent success stories, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.    Hamilton offers to young readers the exploits of others like Douglass and Tubman who have rich stories to tell.  Each tale tells of individuals or groups which add layer upon layer of detail to the narrative of American slavery.

Gabriel Prosser, for example, led an unsuccessful slave revolt in Virginia in 1800 and was hanged for his efforts.  Tice Davids led an escape in 1831–the same year Nat Turner led his famous slave uprising–that coined the term “underground road”, later to be modernized as “underground railroad.”  Olaudah Equiano, an African prince sold into slavery in the 18th Century, bought his freedom and became an important early abolitionist with his best-selling account of his live in bondage.  It was probably the first time whites in Europe and America bought so many volumes penned by an author of color. 

There are even moments of humor and laughter among the dark stories.  Henry “Box” Brown, for instance, decided to mail himself away from his master disguised in a wooden mail crate.  His story almost reads like a Three Stooges short, as he is bounced around his box by the wagon rides from Virginia to Philadelphia, where he finally gained his freedom.  It seems so funny until you realize how deadly serious the stakes were for runaways.

Two areas of special importance addressed in Hamilton’s work are the horrors of the Middle Passage and the Canadian role in slavery.  The Middle Passage, the harrowing kidnap and voyage from Africa to the slave markets in Brazil, the Caribbean and North America are given fresh voices from previously unknown sources.  Besides Equiano, one of the earlier stories is of a young African boy who winds up in a bad situation and gets sold to a Dutch slaver–showing how something as innocuous as bad luck can have devastating circumstances.

I, for one, am particularly pleased that Hamilton did not let Canada off the hook when it came to slavery in the British dominions.  For decades, Canada has lorded its role as the terminus of the Underground Railroad for enslaved Africans fleeing the United States.  Its own issues with slavery have been kept in the dark until now.  Remember that the British Empire did not outlaw the slave trade until 1807, and slavery itself was not abolished until 1833, when the monetary needs of the great sugar planters in the Caribbean colonies were met.  British North America had a full two centuries of experience with slavery, and several stories–including accounts of runaways–show that slavery was indeed alive and well in present-day Canada.

 This makes a wonderful narrative account for a classroom.  In the pictures and facts about the period, the study of slavery can often be as brutal as the institution itself.  These accounts make for magnificent storytelling, which can accent any social studies lesson.  More importantly, Hamilton’s work adds flesh and blood to a tragic era of our history.  

That flesh and blood, no matter how confusing or jarring it may seem, is the essence of this story.

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Why Capitalism Must Win: P.J. O’Rourke Lectures at Washington and Lee

Another clip of humorist P.J. O’Rourke, albeit a long one.  In March 2009 he was invited to speak at the annual Tom Wolfe Seminar/Lecture at Washington and Lee University.  Wolfe himself introduces P.J., which is almost as long as the lecture itself.  Even creepier, the lecture takes place at Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried right behind the rostrum.

Comments and critiques are welcome, as always.

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Follow the Dancing Graph; or How to Teach Economics in Today’s Classroom

I’m willing to bet that the great economists of history—Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Meynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman, John Forbes Nash—never had to deal with children.

Economics is a subject that only recently has received notice in the classroom as a stand-alone theme.  In most classrooms, the theory of supply and demand only went as far as the infuriating scarcity of pencils: “You brats demand all you want, because I’m supplying squat!”  Occasionally, in the math lesson on money or calculating interest, the subject of prices would surface now and again, with the foul-mouthed child blurting out “I can’t get shit for a dollar!”

That rude little bastard just learned about inflation.  He’s absolutely right, literally—most manure for fertilizer costs about $3.00 a pound.

It’s not that kids don’t learn about economics; they certainly begin to value scarcity when they beat up the kid with the most money to buy candy.  Now they have to create demand charts to show if beating up the rich kid moves the demand curve.  How would Keynesian economic theory of employment handle the need for new gym equipment?  Can the Nash Equilibrium get us the money for that field trip to Washington, DC?  Is the drug deal down the street conducted according to the Ricardian model of comparative advantage?

 I never learned about classical economics—the charts, the theories, the “if X happens, the Y curve moves this way” junk—until the end of high school, as an elective course.  I thought it was easy, until I got to college.  After a textbook full of graphs, droning lectures and inane problem sets, the graphs that moved in a slow waltz started bouncing all around to a slamming techno beat.  I think price elasticity was on Ecstasy.  I had to figure out why, or I’d flunk the course.  I try to figure out why, and I get a C in the class.  I shut up and memorize the graph movements like an Arthur Murray cha-cha, and I get a B or an A.  This is why I can’t understand economics.

As a matter of fact, neither can New York State.  According to the state standards for social studies, Standard # 4, Economics states that:

 “Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of how the United States and other societies develop economic systems and associated institutions to allocate scarce resources, how major decision-making units function in the U.S. and other national economies, and how an economy solves the scarcity problem through market and non-market mechanisms.” 

This is as clear as my freshman microeconomics textbook which, funny enough was written by a Marxist.  Most economists tend to be left-leaning, by the way, which makes sense considering the amount of clear, well-thought ideas that come out of an economics class. 

Imagine a fourth or fifth grade kid looking at this.  Once he wakes up after fainting to the floor, this kid will learn he’ll be tested on that stuff.  New York tests children on their knowledge of basic economic theory on their social studies tests in fifth and eighth grade.   Sure, he won’t be solving game theory or tackling Keynes’ “sticky wages” problem, but he will need some basic ideas about supply and demand, prices, production chains, wages, taxes, budgeting, and allocation of resources. 

It’s a tall order, to be sure, so here’s a way to whittle this down to an elementary school level:

Point # 1 – Nothing is for free

Everything we use in our lives, from trees and air to automobiles and computers, costs something to someone.  You may think it’s free, but having something means someone else does not have it.  The more people we have, the more air and resources we use, which does not necessarily replace itself.

 This is especially true with the stuff students have and use: it costs money and materials to make things.  Also, people who work for a living need to be paid, otherwise there’s no point to getting up in the morning.  If your kids still don’t buy into this concept, have them show you the tree that grows money.

Point # 2 – People want what they can’t have

This is the fundamental concept behind prices—supply and demand.  If everyone can have something, then it probably isn’t worth very much.  A pencil is a few cents; any bozo can buy one from the corner store.  A BMW convertible, on the other hand, will cost you a lot of pencils.  Since cars cost a lot to make and develop, car companies don’t produce as much as pencils on a per unit basis; hence the exorbitant sticker price. 

The best example of supply/demand dynamics is that celebration of gluttony MTV Cribs.  Ask your students if people would watch MTV film a half-hour video tour of your apartment.  The Scarface poster alone would cover a single wall.  The only Bentley in that place would be the annoying English guy on The Jeffersons.

Point # 3 – Nothing lasts forever

As times change, tastes change, therefore prices change.  My students were stunned when I told them that decades ago, a four-function calculator—the same one they get for free—cost hundreds of dollars.  A Panasonic pop-up VCR cost around $800 in the early 1980s.  The CD player may be marching toward a similar fate.

Prices change when people don’t want something anymore.  The Xbox 360 is a perfect example.  When it was released, the Xbox 360 cost approximately $300.00.  As long as people wanted this thing, stores would keep the price high.  Yet at some point, everyone who wanted one of these white glowing boxes had one in their house.  You don’t need two of these things.  So people don’t buy them anymore, the stockpiles climb, and stores have to lower prices to get rid of what was once the must-have item. 

Point # 4 – You can’t do it alone

Santa’s elves don’t make toys.  They probably outsource them to China, using packaging designed in Japan, marketing and advertising developed in the United States, shipped to the North Pole on tanker ships registered in Norway, laid on those Ice Road Truckers trucks to make the trip north.   Meanwhile elves merely supervise helpdesks in Hyderabad and Bangalore manned by Indian college grads in order to expedite shipments on Christmas Eve using multiple sleighs and routes mapped out on Google Earth and re-located on Garmin GPS devices.  Santa, by the way, is at his private island in the Bahamas.

The production, marketing, and distribution of products is a long, complicated process featuring multiple people in differing roles.  Students need to understand how factories, transportation, and communication work together to get things in stores.  No elf in the North Pole can make an IPhone by himself using a hammer and a piece of wood.  Steve Jobs tried, and the results just didn’t test well.

Point # 5 – Give the man his due

Along with the buying, selling and making of things, a group of people also need, want…even crave money to do things.  That group is our government, in all its levels.  Eventually, the subject of taxes will come up, especially in public schools that operate on taxpayer dollars (even some private schools, as well, thank you NCLB).  Taxes are never pleasant; throw money into a flushing toilet and you’ll get the gist of it.  Yet for all their unpleasantness, taxes are needed for government to function.

Transportation, hospitals, schools, highways, police, firefighters, prisons—you can spend a whole day making a list of the different places in the community that require taxpayer dollars.  Inevitably, this will lead to the discussion of teacher and administrator salaries.  Of course, you should never reveal your salary to your students.  More importantly, if a student asks if the principal is paid too much, smile and lie.

Now, this is basically the extent of detail you will need for the fifth grade.  Eighth grade may actually require the graphs.  Do your kids a favor and don’t show them your notes from Econ 101–especially the pot leaf you drew so painstakingly next to that production possibilites frontier graph.

To my surprise, there are a number of websites that relate to economics for young people.  Enjoy exploring them while you come up with an impossibly difficult interest rate problem that will leave your kids butting heads like bighorn sheep.

Social Studies for Kids – Economics – Good overall coverage of the basic points.

US Treasury for Kids – actually a portal to other kids sites in the federal government.  The US Mint for Kids is pretty neat.

Money Instructor – loads of lessons on basic econ for the kids to use. 

Brain Pop – Economics – always good for fun and for learning.

Fedville – apparently the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco created a site to teach kids about finance in a fun way.  As if the Fed can teach anyone about fiscal responsibility nowadays.

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Summer Vacation Humor: The History of the Drunk-Dial

From our friends at College Humor, here’s a history of one of our most embarrassing actions when inebriated.  The Drunk dial, in fact, predates the telephone–or so we’re led to believe.  Enjoy this clip.

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This Day in History 7/16: The Atomic Bomb and the Constant Search for the Ultimate Weapon

On July 16, 1945, a pack of scientists sat worried in the high desert of New Mexico.  Some of the greatest minds of their generation, they created what they thought was the ultimate super weapon. 

Yet no one was happy about it.

Some feared that this new “atomic bomb” would lead to the destruction of the Earth itself.  Others thought that the atmosphere would ignite, engulfing the planet in a ball of fire.  Still others thought the darn thing was a dud—there was no way a thing that small can cause the amount of destruction they had projected.

Yet once the countdown finished, the genie (or the demon, depending on your point of view) was out of the bottle.

The successful test of the first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico changed history.  It was then conceivable that a weapon can be created that was so destructive and so terrifying as to render warfare obsolete.  Yet even after the Cold War, we continue to feel the lasting effects of these weapons—on our budgets, our environment, our foreign policy, and our everyday lives.

The search for the one super weapon, the “ultimate weapon”, has existed since the dawn of man.  In a few decades, perhaps sooner, a weapon will be developed that supersedes the atomic missile.  Let’s hope the US Air Force is building a Death Star, so we can wipe out countries that are a little too fresh.  Until that time comes, here’s a few of the “ultimate weapons” of history:







The Chariot—Blitzkrieg was not a German invention (sorry, Adolf).  The chariot was the perfect example of making the best of a bad situation.  The Hyksos invaded Egypt in the 16th Century BCE and brought with them a light cart that provided quick mobility.  The Egyptians took the technology and perfected the first terror weapon in human history.  Gangs of chariots zooming down the field, with archers and spearmen in tow; the Egyptians were the first to utilize speed and overwhelming force in battle.








The Trireme—I knock the film 300 constantly, but here the offense is legitimate.  Xerxes was not defeated because of Gerard Butler and his scantily-clad Spartans, but rather due to an innovation in the Athenian navy.  The trireme was a fast, powerful galley vessel with three rows of rowers and a stout ramming prow.  These vessels not only defeated Xerxes at the straits of Salamis, but also propelled another half-century of Athenian dominance in the Mediterranean, spreading generic gyros and bland tzatziki sauce across an empire.





“Greek Fire”—I don’t mean the feeling you get when you see Stavros, the hot waiter at that Astoria diner.   Greek Fire was a true wonder weapon, used by the Byzantines for centuries.  Its composition and origins remain clouded in mystery, another plus if you want to spread wanton fear in your enemies.  Greek Fire managed to keep the Islamic armies at bay for centuries, until the Turks basically figured out its nothing more than a crude flamethrower.










The Trebuchet—used by the Chinese and Romans but later perfected in Medieval Europe.  If you needed to breach a wall, or lay siege to a castle, the trebuchet was often your only option.  Part slingshot, part catapult, it was designed to hurl projectiles over long distances at a high arc, similar to a low-altitude bombing.  It was also used in a crude form of biological warfare: sling a rotting, disease cow carcass over the wall and let the fun begin.









                                            The Firearm—the Chinese developed gunpowder around the second century CE, but firecrackers and bottle rockets can only do so much.  The firearm—first the cannon, then the musket—began showing up on European battlefields in the late 14th Century.  Heavily armed knights often had a good laugh at these toys, manned mostly by peasant conscripts or the local militia.  They weren’t laughing for long, not after they noticed the power and range of those weird brass and iron tubes. 




The Rifle—early firearms were no better than blowguns with a gunpowder ignition.  In the 18th Century, German hunters developed a musket with a spiral groove in the barrel to spin the bullet, providing increased speed, power and accuracy.  These hunters settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvania, where their invention found fans in American colonists, frontiersmen, trappers, and the Continental Army.  The rifle was especially useful in hunting game and hunting British officers.  Now that’s not very sporting, is it?












The “Ship of the Line”this was the first true “weapon of mass destruction.”  So called because of their single-file formation, “Ships of the Line” were giant sailing fortresses, often carrying over 100 cannon a piece.  The British navy were masters of this type of vessel, using “ships of the line” as protective convoys for Caribbean trade, in naval warfare with the French, Dutch and Spanish, and as intimidation for compliance (think Revolutionary Boston and New York).  Its high water mark came in 1805, as hundreds of British and French behemoths clashed at the straits of Trafalgar.  The British victory made Horatio Nelson a martyred hero and Trafalgar the name of a London square that drives motorists nuts.








The Iron Ship—Leave it to a civil war in the United States to render every navy afloat obsolete in a matter of months.  The Confederates, with few ships in their navy, took old wooden ships and slapped iron sheets on its sides, with gun ports on two sides.  Their first, an old Union ship called the USS Merrimack, rechristened the CSS Virginia, terrorized the southern Atlantic coastline.  The federals countered with the USS Monitor, a ship made entirely of iron with a revolving gun turret.  The world watched in awe—metal could indeed float, with terrifying consequences.










The Machine Gun—developed by different inventors at different times, the machine gun came very close to being the “mother of all weapons”, the weapon that would render war obsolete.  American inventors Richard Gatling (in 1862) and Hiram Maxim (1896) developed weapons that fired multiple rounds in succession.  Gatling’s gun required multiple barrels and hand cranking.  Maxim’s model was self-propelled, with a single water-cooled barrel and belts of ammunition to feed into the gun.  Its grand moment came in World War I, when centuries of tactics and strategy, tactics dating back to Napoleon, were cut to ribbons in the spray of machine gun fire.







                                             The Tank—armored vehicles are not a new concept; horses and other pack animals carried armored plating for centuries.  Yet when merged with automotive technology, heavy artillery and machine guns, you have a mobile killing machine.  The British first introduced the tank in 1917, and subsequent variations have spread destruction across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  It also provided another setting for Donald Sutherland to play a drugged-out weirdo (Kelly’s Heroes.)


Boeing B-17E







The Heavy Bomber—as the machine gun was the poster boy for World War I, the heavy bomber takes the prize for World War II.  If there was one machine responsible for the majority of death and destruction in a single war, this would be it.  German Heinkel He-177s, British Avro Lancasters, American B-17s, B-24s and B-29s laid down more ordinance over Europe than every other European conflict combined.   It’s also responsible for the infamous bombing of Dresden.  Those monsters, how could you bomb all those porcelain figurines?





                                     The Kalashnikov AK-47 Assault Rifle—another rifle?  Just hear me out.  The Soviets developed this Assault rifle at the tail end of World War II as a standard issue semi-automatic rifle for the Red Army.  It’s rugged, reliable, cheap to make, and easy to maintain.  The perfect weapon for the Communist on a budget, the AK-47 is the most ubiquitous firearm in the world.  In this case, don’t think quality, think quantity: find me a part of the world where you couldn’t get your mitts on an AK for a reasonable price…even a ridiculously low price.  These babies were going for $100 a pop in Sierra Leone not too long ago.

As usual, I probably missed many other candidates for the “ultimate weapon” of its time.  My apologies to the Greek phalanx formation, various Roman siege weapons, the longbow, the Mongol compound bow, the fighter plane, the heavy artillery of World War I (“Big Bertha”, or the “Paris Gun”), submarines, guided missiles, stealth technology and the neutron bomb.  Just to name a few.


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