A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR’s Fala Speech

by Michael Liss

August 8, 1940. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library website.

It is March of 1944, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is dying. His physicians, Lieutenant Commander Howard Bruen and Vice-Admiral Ross McIntire, know it, as do a handful of others McIntire brought in. FDR probably knows it as well, no matter how much his doctors may have sugar-coated their findings. He has cardiac insufficiency, arteriosclerosis, congestive heart failure, an enlarged and failing left ventricle, and mitral valve issues. Modern medicine would likely have offered more productive years of life, but, in the era before sophisticated heart surgery, before the development of a heart-lung machine, and with a very limited formulary of drugs, it is just a matter of time, maybe a year at most. 

His decline was obvious. You could see it on his face, in the amount of time he needed to recover from exertion, in the loss of weight. He had undertaken a long sea trip on the USS Baltimore to visit American forces in the Pacific, but spent much of it in his stateroom, resting. An ordinary man of that time would have scaled back, gradually becoming a convalescent. But FDR was no ordinary man, and 1944 no ordinary time. Obviously, the Democratic Party would re-nominate him for an unprecedented fourth term, if he wanted it, but there was deep concern in the family that he would never survive. Eleanor Roosevelt was later quoted as saying, “If Franklin loses, I’ll be personally glad, but worried for the world.” Read more »

A Story Of Fire And Ice

by Usha Alexander

[This is the second in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]

Image of wooly mammoths on the tundraWhen I was a kid, I used to wonder about the possibility that the planet could slip back into an ice age. I grew up in the Rocky Mountain region of the northwestern USA, where winters lasted half the year and summers were brief and blustery. I hated being cold all the time. Aware that ice ages result from some sort of natural cycles, I worried what might happen if the planet should head that way again. I tried to imagine how we would construct cities and farms, how we would travel between countries or even build roads, if huge glaciers grew down from the Arctic Circle and smothered our little mountain town. 

So I was surprised to learn, much later, that we actually do live in an ice age. In historical memory, we’ve been enjoying a warmish, rather pleasant phase of this ice age, to be sure—an interglacial phase, called the Holocene, that’s persisted for about ten thousand years. But interglacial phases, like our present one, have only been brief respites, as the ice age has cycled between glacial and interglacial phases over the past two million years. Past interglacials never lasted very long and, left to its own geological devices, all signs suggested that this one would end too, to be followed by a much longer glacial phase—the stuff of my nightmares. Read more »

Do Tell

by Rafaël Newman

Ferdinand Hodler, “Wilhelm Tell” (1897)

On the first day of August in Year One AC (anno coronae), I boarded an Intercity train in Zurich bound for Singen, in the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg. In Singen I transferred to the Intercity headed to Stuttgart but left the train a few stops shy of the state capital, at the town of Horb am Neckar, where I was met by friends and driven to Burg Hohenzollern. Looming over the mild and hilly Swabian countryside, the castle is the ancestral seat of the senior branch of the dynasty that would go on to rule Prussia, and eventually the German Empire, before retiring to wealthy obscurity at the end of World War One.

What was noteworthy about my first excursion across the Swiss border in over six months, since a winter holiday spent in Alto Adige before the lockdown, was not so much its particular destination (although that will bear mention below) as its timing: August 1, or Erschtouguscht in Swiss-German dialect, is the annual commemoration of Switzerland’s founding, and thus, depending on your political coloration, either a uniquely unpatriotic day to leave the country, or the ideal moment for an escape from the pathos and pyrotechnics of a populist rite.

European national holidays are typically history-laden affairs, at least in their original conception. Of the countries just beyond Switzerland’s borders, France hosts the most venerable festivities. The Quatorze Juillet marks the significant initial, if not particularly effective, revolutionary gestures of July 1789, and lends the symbolic elements of its exercise – stormed ramparts, tricolore, battle hymn – mutatis mutandis to the general vocabulary of national identity. Italy’s is the next eldest, although it celebrates a political event fully two centuries later: the Festa della Repubblica, on June 2, commemorates the referendum in 1946 in which the Italian electorate opted for a republican form of government following the fall of fascism, and features wreath-laying and a military parade. Read more »

The Super Fight

by R. Passov

In early 1970, after three years of fighting induction into the army, Muhammad Ali neared the end of his resources. In that same year, before he left for prison, my father gave me boxing lessons. I wasn’t going to be the type of fighter Ali was. According to my father, instead of back-peddling on my toes I needed to fight on the inside.

Between lessons I listened to stories about Jack Dempsey perfecting the weave, ducking under a jab, twisting all of his weight into a short left. Then about my father’s favorite, Rocky Marciano, who paid two punches to throw one and hit so hard it was worth it.

Rocky was from my father’s youth, when tough Irish, Italian and Jewish kids ran the black and white streets of eastern cities. An inside-the-game fighter, Rocky spoke straight at the camera in slow, perfect sentences, as if on the twenty-third take of his own thoughts. He didn’t threaten the limits of my father’s understanding. Instead, he was a man among his kind of men.

Ali was different; Black, lecturing, out of bounds, on his own, making change. I wanted from Ali what my father wanted from Rocky. Read more »

On the Road: The South Atlantic

by Bill Murray

Once we thought we’d look into a cruise. As skeptics in principle, we agreed we’d have to choose carefully. We wouldn’t join an enforced entertainment experience with a thousand shipmates enduring professional smiles.

We wouldn’t just pocket a few easy off-the-beaten-track conquests (although these look promising). The fun of those is getting there on your own. This ruled out a queasy crossing of the Drake Passage with newly retired strangers. Fine.

The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena

We wouldn’t sail anyplace that made our fellow cruisers too keyed up to have fun. This ruled out anything billed as a “trip of a lifetime.” Them’s marketing words. Finally, we hadn’t the free time for tramping aboard a cargo ship, although Gregory Jaynes’s Come Hell on High Water makes a strong case. One of these days.

We settled on sailing from Walvis Bay, Namibia on the world’s last royal mail ship, the RMS St. Helena, a stubby little bulldog bound for St. Helena and Ascension Islands, some 1800 miles east of Brazil and 1200 miles west of Angola, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, among the more remote places on earth. Read more »

How Black is Not White?

by Akim Reinhardt

Today in TV History: Bill Clinton and His Sax Visit Arsenio – TV ...During the 1990s, the impossibility of a black president was so ingrained in American culture that some people, including many African Americans, jokingly referred to President Bill Clinton as the first “black president.” The threshold Clinton had passed to achieve this honorary moniker? He seemed comfortable around black people. That’s all it took.

Because an actual black president was so inconceivable that a white president finally treating African Americans as regular people seemed as close as America would get any time soon.

In 1998, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison brought Clinton’s unofficial title to national attention with a New Yorker essay aimed at discrediting the impeachment proceedings against him. One of Morrison’s rhetorical devices was to check off all the boxes in which Clinton displayed “almost every trope of blackness,” including being raised in a working class, single-parent household, and loving fast food.

By 2003, the idea of a black president was still outlandish enough that it served as common comedic fodder. Chris Rock starred in the film Head of State, a fantasy comedy in which Chicago Alderman Mays Gilliam becomes a fluke president. And Dave Chappelle portrayed an unabashedly African American version of President George Bush in a Chapelle Show sketch. The skit’s running joke was how outrageous and “unpresidential” it would be to have a black chief executive. Read more »

Love Letter to a Vanishing World

by Leanne Ogasawara


Of all the places I’ve never been, Borneo is my favorite.

I have several times been within spitting distance: to the Philippines—as far south as Panay; to the court cities of central Java and to the highlands of Sulawesi, in Indonesia. I’ve spent many happy days on Peninsular Malaysia. Have lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Kaoshiung~~~But as they say, “Close, but no cigar!”

My college boyfriend was a great fan of Joseph Conrad. He wanted to follow in the great man’s footsteps. He planned it all out. We’d go up the Mahakam River. “More than a river, it’s like a huge muddy snake,” his eyes danced with excitement, “Slithering through the dense forest.” We talked about Borneo endlessly. He promised I would see Borneo’s great hornbills, wearing their bright orange helmets– with bills to match. And primates: maybe we would see a gibbon in the tangle of thick foliage –or an orangutan. There would be noisy parrots in the trees and huge butterflies with indigo wings like peacock feathers, fluttering figments of our imagination. He told me that nothing would make him happier than to see the forests of Borneo.

A cruel young woman, I vetoed Borneo –and dragged him off to Kashmir instead. And to make matters worse, a year later, Gavin Young came out with his highly acclaimed book, In Search of Conrad, in which he does just what my boyfriend had wanted to do: follow Conrad to that famed trading post up “an Eastern river.” Read more »

Nothing Else Sounds Quite Like This

by Philip Graham

I serve as the family cook as well as the family DJ, so no dinner party preparation is complete without a small stack of CDs waiting for guests to arrive. When the doorbell rings and my wife Alma walks to the front door to greet our earliest guests, I idle the burners on the stove and hurry to the living room stereo, where I press Play for the first CD. A song should already be in progress before the exchange of Hellos, because music, like furniture, is a form of home decoration, filling and defining silence the way a couch or chair fills and defines space. The music must be dialed low, just enough for a home to express quiet domestic welcome. I like to think that I’m long past my ancient feckless undergraduate days of booming a song through an open window.

Yet over dinner, rarely does someone ask, “What is that lovely music?” Such a longed-for question always fills me with joy—someone heard its beauty too!–and I’m happy to reply, “Oh, that’s Brian Eno’s Music for Airports,” or “We’re listening to the Afro-Spanish singer Buika Concha,” or “You like the Kora Jazz Trio, too?” Am I the only one who can be diverted from dinner chitchat by an airy chorus, or a husky vocal phrase, or a tack piano’s piquant modulation?

That magic question does get asked from time to time. I remember in particular one evening, many years ago, when I hit paydirt as guests passed serving plates and bowls back and forth at the dinner table and an austere mix of resonant metallic percussion, choral voices, an organ and a violin wafted from the living room.

“What are we listening to?” my old friend Bruce asked. Bruce! Of all my friends, I knew he had that question in him.

“It’s ‘La Koro Sutro,’ by a contemporary American composer, Lou Harrison.” Read more »

It took 13 years, but Jersey City finally has a poured-concrete SK8park – A story of local grass roots politics

by Bill Benzon

Do it yourself skate park near the old Morris Canal.

That, I assume, is the floor slab of a demolished industrial building. It’s located near one of the remaining fragments of the Morris Canal in Jersey City. Back in the day the Morris Canal delivered anthracite coal from Eastern Pennsylvania to New Jersey and New York City – the Hudson River is no more than half a mile to the right of this slab. Things have changed; the Morris Canal was abandoned in 1924. I don’t know just when guerilla skate boarders appropriated this slab for their sport, but I took the photo at 6AM on July 30, 2011. One feature in this do-it-yourself (DIY) skate park remains unfinished – that pile of dirt and rock to the right of center. Notice the Myspace URL at the bottom of the photo.

DIY parks have been an aspect of skate boarding for a long time. There aren’t enough purpose-built parks to meet the demand. People don’t like skate boarders using public sidewalks, plazas, parks, shopping centers, and streets, and skate boarders don’t like be harassed for doing what they love. What to do? Find an out-of-the-way spot and build your own park, that’s what. Read more »

Cool summer ambience (or winter, for those down under)

by Dave Maier

Perhaps imprudently, your humble blogger continues to toil in the philosophy mines for blogging material, even in this stressful time. And there will be such postage eventually, of that you can be sure! However, prudence enough remains to prevent him from posting half-baked nonsense; so in the interim, let us return once again to the podcast, and enjoy some fine music while we wait.

Thanks to everyone who rose to the occasion and contributed to Jon Hassell’s gofundme appeal, as promoted here in my last two posts (here and here; the mixes are here and here). If you haven’t contributed yet, now’s your chance!

As the notes below indicate, this mix as well includes an appeal, of a different sort. If you have been following the developing situation in Belarus and would like to help, TXT Recordings is offering a name-your-price option to pick up a release by Belarus artist Alexander Ananyev, the proceeds to be donated to Support for Belarus. (Also, the record is pretty good, and naturally we’ll be hearing a track from it here.)

Widget and link below. Enjoy! Read more »

The Middlebrow Men: Clive James on Philip Larkin

Simon Petch in the Sydney Review of Books:

This, Clive James’s final book, is a collection of his writings on Larkin and his work. James takes his title from the final words of Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (1959). The ninety four pages, which include copies of one manuscript letter and two typed letters from Larkin to James, don’t offer very much book for your money, but you do get Clive James, who’s always good value. His explanation of why Jack Nicholson is the only Hollywood actor appropriate to play Larkin onscreen justifies the price of admission.

The book consists of eleven reviews and two poems, all published between 1974 and 2018. There’s an introduction, dated 2019, and an undated coda. As a collection of occasional pieces, all of them short, this is anything but a sustained consideration of Larkin’s writing. It’s a bits-and-pieces book, and its critical reflections are hit-and-miss. The misses are few, the parade of hits is good, and James writes as well on Larkin’s prose as on his poetry. The best essay in the book (which is also the longest), ‘On Larkin’s Wit’, is reprinted from Anthony Thwaite’s 1982 collection Larkin at Sixty. Here, James maintains that the jazz reviews that Larkin wrote for the Daily Telegraph, collected in 1970 as All What Jazz, constitute ‘one of the great books of creative criticism in our language’. An extravagant claim, perhaps, but this essay remains a significant revaluation of what Larkin called ‘the one book of mine that no one ever bothers about’.

More here.

Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and the relationship that changed social science

Charles King in Nautilus:

In July 1925, Margaret Mead, a doctoral student at Columbia University, set off on a cross-country train journey with a young faculty member, Ruth Benedict. Mead was bound for the west coast and then American Samoa, her first fieldwork expedition as a junior anthropologist. Benedict was stopping in New Mexico to study myth and ritual in the Zuni Pueblo. The journey took them through Ohio to Illinois, across the prairie, then south toward the deserts. It was the longest the two of them had ever spent together, certainly the longest without their husbands in tow.

They had become acquainted more than two years earlier, Mead as an undergraduate at Barnard College, Benedict as her teaching assistant. It had taken time for Mead to stop referring to “Mrs. Benedict,” but over the years, something had changed. “She rests me like a padded chair and a fireplace,” Benedict jotted in her diary. Now, on the train west, Mead would remember weeping in Benedict’s arms, parsing her troubled marriage and other romantic entanglements. Benedict would later lie awake thinking of the nights they spent on the train—making love, kissing Mead’s fingers, trailing her lips across the palm of her hand. “Tofa, my sweetheart,” Mead wrote in a letter once she got to Samoa, using the local term for goodbye. “In my dreams I bury my face in your hair.” She had long signed her notes to Benedict with “love,” as one might to an older sister. But now she could say it all plainly, outright. “And always I love you.”

More here.

Two studies reveal how far away we are from fully automated vehicles

Tyson Fisher in Land Line:

Recently, researchers at MIT published a study that looks into autonomous vehicle mobility, employment and policy. The research found that self-driving vehicles will happen later than sooner.

Despite optimism from several stakeholders, including Google and Tesla, that fully automated vehicles will be available soon, MIT researchers believe it may be at least another decade before that becomes a reality. Even then, self-driving cars may be limited to urban and suburban areas in warmer climates. Winter climates and rural areas will experience longer transitions, according to the study.

One study projects employment changes under the assumption all driving becomes fully automated by 2050. However, the MIT study states “this is extremely unlikely to occur.”

“Current best estimates show a slow shift toward Level 4 systems even in trucking, one of the easier use cases, with only limited use by 2030,” the study states. “Overall shifts in other modalities, including fleets and passenger cars, are likely to be no faster, and so disruption to taxi, rideshare, and bus driver jobs is likely to be limited in the near term.”

More here.

Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy: We Can Still Avoid an Education Catastrophe

Sal Khan in the New York Times:

It is becoming clear that many of our nation’s children could be attending school from home for this school year and possibly longer. If educators and families aren’t empowered with the right support and tools, this will evolve from an education crisis to an education catastrophe.

As the founder of the philanthropically funded nonprofit Khan Academy, which provides free online exercises, videos and software to over 100 million users in 46 languages, I’m something of a poster child for online learning. It all started 16 years ago, when I was working as an analyst at a hedge fund in Boston and learned that my then-12-year-old cousin Nadia — who was visiting for my wedding — was struggling with math. She lived in New Orleans, so I offered to do distance tutoring with her every day. It helped her catch up with her class within a few months. Word soon spread in my family that free tutoring was available, and by 2006 I was working with 15 cousins and family friends in my limited spare time. I decided to make math practice software and videos to help even more. Before I knew it, people who were not my cousins started using those materials. Fast forward to today and that family side project has become my life’s mission: to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

More here.

US election swing states: The Florida Factor

Emily Tamkin in New Statesman:

Since 1964, the presidential candidate who has won Florida and its 29 electoral college votes has also won the White House in every election except 1992. In that time, the constant has not been whether Florida goes for Republicans or Democrats – both parties have been in power in the past three decades – but that the vote has been close. In 2016, Donald Trump won with 48.6 per cent of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 47.4 percent. In 2008, Barack Obama had 51 percent, compared to John McCain’s 48.2. And no one, of course, can forget the 2000 election, which came down to 537 votes out of six million cast (and a Supreme Court decision that eventually left George W Bush the winner). But why does the White House tend to swing in the same direction as this state? And why is the vote always so tight? What is it that, every four years, keeps our anxious eyes pointed towards the Sunshine State?

…Crucially, this isn’t also just another close presidential election in Florida. It’s happening during a pandemic in which, particularly in Florida, the death toll is still rising at time of writing. The need many will have to vote safely by mail therefore adds a logistical component to the concern about voter representation. “How many people are going to mail their ballot the day before?” Robinson asked, noting that her group is working to let people know that they need to get their votes in on time. “There could be a lot of ballots that aren’t counted.” Trump has generally tried to discredit mail-in voting, but tweeted that mail-in voting was safe in Florida, perhaps recognising that he needs the votes of Florida’s ageing population.

To Fernand Amandi, managing partner at leading multi-ethnic and multi-lingual public opinion research firm Bendixen & Amandi, Trump’s narrative that mail-in voting is illegitimate is the reason that, this time, Democrats will carry the state. “Like cult members, a lot of [Trump] supporters have said we’re not going to vote by mail,” Amandi said. “Just because Republicans aren’t going to vote by mail doesn’t mean millions of Democrats and independents aren’t going to do it.”

More here.

Waking Life

Lorissa Rinehart in Lapham’s Quarterly:

It was no coincidence that the world’s introduction to industrialized warfare determined the shape of Johan Varendonck’s opus on daydreams. Varendonck himself didn’t expect daydreaming to be the subject of his only book; his studies began in a different field. But World War I—and Freud—intervened. Born in 1879 to a Belgian schoolteacher and his wife, Varendonck hadn’t done much to distinguish himself by the time he turned thirty-five. Following in his father’s footsteps, he took up a career in education, becoming a lecturer at Ghent University, just eleven miles from his hometown of Zelzate. He eventually enrolled in a pedagogical doctoral program in Brussels, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s declaration of war on July 28, 1914, interrupted his graduate studies and pursuit of a better life.

Academic ambitions notwithstanding, Varendonck volunteered for armed service the moment Kaiser Wilhelm sent his army marching to France via Belgium. His passable command of English earned him a post as translator for the British Royal Naval Division stationed in Antwerp, where the Allies hoped to stop the German war machine before it got up to speed. The Allied commanders had reason to believe they might succeed. In the past, Antwerp had proved nearly impregnable, ringed by a series of earthen and stone fortresses collectively known as the National Redoubt.

But when the Germans arrived in August 1914, their Big Bertha guns effortlessly vaulted Antwerp’s medieval defenses. Bomb-laden zeppelins sailing far above defenders’ bullets dropped their payload on the city’s center. By September the Allies’ chances looked bleak. Things were not that bad for Varendonck, all things considered. His post kept him far from the front while most of the people he was tasked with translating for were occupied with battle, leaving him time to finish his original pedagogical thesis. By early October Varendonck’s scientific investigation of educational processes in Belgium was ready to send back to his advisers. Unfortunately, Antwerp erupted into chaos before he had a chance to put it in the mail. The city’s defenses collapsed on October 10, 1914. German artillery fell like a hailstorm, igniting oil tanks and apartment buildings until the entire city was one enormous conflagration. Civilians poured onto the docks of the Scheldt River, clamoring to board anything that would float. Hoping to fight another day, the Belgian army hastily retreated west, toward the Yser River.

Amid the pandemonium, the pages of Varendonck’s thesis disappeared.

More here.