The Daily

On History

Madness and Meaning

April 22, 2015 | by

Depictions of insanity through history.

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Nebuchadnezzar turned into an animal, 1410.

Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.

Western culture throughout its long and tangled history provides us with a rich array of images, a remarkable set of windows into both popular and latterly professional beliefs about insanity. The sacred books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are shot through with stories of madness caused by possession by devils or divine displeasure. From Saul, the first king of the Israelites (made mad by Yahweh for failing to carry out to the letter the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, and all their animals, too), to the man in the country of the Gaderenes “with an unclean spirit” (maddened, naked, and violent, whose demons Christ casts out and causes to enter a herd of swine, who forthwith rush over a cliff into the sea to drown), here are stories recited for centuries by believers, and often transformed into pictorial form. Read More »

A Writer in the Family

February 19, 2015 | by

On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.

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Vesuvius in eruption.

Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.

In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces. Read More »

Amazing Robot Brain Translates Russian

January 7, 2015 | by

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The general layout of the IBM 701. Photo via Computer History

Sixty-one years ago, on January 7, 1954, a massive, terrifying, IBM artificial intelligence—referred to in the press as a “giant brain,” a “robot brain,” and a “polyglot brainchild,” among other wide-eyed terms—translated more than sixty sentences from Russian into English. It was the first public demonstration of machine translation. And yeah, the people were pleased.

The computer was an IBM 701, which was, according to its manufacturer, “the most versatile electronic ‘brain’ extant,” used sixteen hours a day for “nuclear physics, rocket trajectories, weather forecasting, and other mathematical wizardry.” But translating was an entirely different pursuit, and substantially more difficult: in fact, the computer knew only six grammatical rules, and its vocabulary comprised just 250 terms.

Working with Georgetown linguists, and with dozens from the media watching in IBM’s New York headquarters, a woman “who didn't understand a word of the language of the Soviets punched out the Russian messages on IBM cards.” (They used a Romanized version of Russian.) She began with sentences about chemistry, which probably unnerved the newsmen in attendance—how were they supposed to captivate readers with such examples as “The quality of coal is determined by calorie content” and “Starch is produced by mechanical methods from potatoes”? Read More »

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New York’s First Daily Newspaper

December 9, 2014 | by

Here’s the front page of the inaugural edition of the American Minerva (“Patroness of Peace, Commerce and the Liberal Arts”), New York’s first daily newspaper, published on December 9, 1793, from Wall Street, “nearly opposite the Tontine Coffee House.” It aimed to contain “the earliest intelligence, collected from the most authentic sources,” and it’s full of those long s letterforms (ſ) that look like lowercase fs and were by then not long for this world.

Its editor was Noah Webster, a Federalist who wanted to discourage the French influence in the U.S. His first “address to the public” covered nearly the entire front page. (Must’ve been a slow news day.) “Newspapers,” he wrote,

from their cheapness, and the frequency and rapidity of their circulation, may, in America, assume an eminent rank in the catalog of useful publications in a great degree, supersede the use of Magazines and Pamphlets. The public mind in America, roused by the magnitude of political events and impatient of delay, cannot wait for monthly intelligence. Daily or at furthest weekly communications are found necessary to gratify public curiosity.

The American Minerva ran for 744 issues between 1793 and 1796. It was bought out and eventually became the New York Sun, which was around until 1950. Read More »

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A Brief History of Insect Control

November 17, 2014 | by

Long before environmentalism, Charles Valentine Riley had a problem with pesticide.

Spraying the capitol with pesticide, 1886.

In science, good ideas often trump great ones. Take, for instance, Charles Valentine Riley, the most prescient scientist of whom you’ve never heard. The man had a great idea. Then came Leland Howard, his prickly and calculating successor. He had the good one.

These men were late nineteenth-century entomologists, a humble vocation by the standards of the day. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture—new then, having been formed in 1862—asked them to accomplish something not so humble: they were to learn everything there was to know about agricultural pests, and then to destroy them. The intended beneficiaries of this project were panicked farmers whose fields were being decimated by insect invasions. Riley and Howard were charged with exterminating the very creatures they studied. If the irony registered, they never said so.

Riley was the older of the two gentlemen. He’d assumed leadership of the U.S. Entomological Commission in 1876 after spearheading the country’s first Grasshopper Commission. His big idea—the great one—was to merge the observational folk-wisdom of everyday farmers with the financial largesse of the federal government to help insects kill insects. Biological control, we now call it. If the concept of exterminating insects with insects seemed moony, American farmers were game. They’d seen it happen on the ground and they were desperate. Between 1860 and 1900—a time when agriculture began to pursue high-yielding monoculture in earnest—armies of chinch bugs, locusts, San Jose scales, boll weevils, Colorado potato beetles, and Hessian flies capitalized on the smorgasbord, moving steadily eastward and shredding the foodscape with biblical power. One Illinois farmer reported that there were so many locusts in his fields that “the ground seemed to be moving.” Pick up an agricultural report from the period—you know, just pick one up!—and you’ll find that an apocalyptic strain of agrarian rhetoric echoed across America’s amber waves of grain.

I’ve read nearly every word Riley wrote, at least every available report and letter, and my overwhelming impression is that the guy was one charming cat. He rode his bike all over D.C. for exercise. He had six kids and doted on them. Like many entomologists, he was a brilliant illustrator of insects. When he taught entomology classes at the University of Missouri in the 1870s, he was so thrilled to be talking shop that he would draw insects on the board with both hands at once. He grew his hair into a cascade of curls and his students adored him. I have no hard proof, but there was something about Riley’s zest for life in general—and for insect life in particular—that dissuaded him from the easy answer to the insect problem, the one that the power brokers of the day wanted: chemicals. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 2

November 7, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.

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Karl-Marx-Allee Block C South, 1951.

Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.

“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”

The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.

When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up. Read More »

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