Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bushspeak Update, First Half of 2008


Apparently recognizing that his second term would soon run out, President George W. Bush made fewer public appearances during the first six months of 2008 and thus made fewer public-speaking gaffes. One might hope that this was a sign that he was listening more and speaking less. He was true to form, however, in the unintelligibility of those of his words expressed in Bushspeak during the first six months of 2008.

"Let's make sure that there is certainty during uncertain times in our economy." Washington, D.C., June 2, 2008.

"We got plenty of money in Washington. What we need is more priority." Washington, D.C., June 2, 2008.

"And so the fact that they purchased the machine meant somebody had to make the machine. And when somebody makes a machine, it means there's jobs at the machine-making place." Said while visiting the Silverado Cable Co., Mesa, Ariz., May 27, 2008.

"We want people owning their home—we want people owning a businesses." Washington, D.C., April 18. 2008.

"Business leaders from many backgrounds, along with current and former senators, congressmans, mayors, diplomats, national security council people, Cabinet members from both parties—I emphasize, from both parties—support this agreement." Jacksonville, Fla., March 18. 2008.

"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office." Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008.

"Let me start off by saying that in 2000 I said, 'Vote for me. I'm an agent of change.' In 2004, I said, 'I'm not interested in change—I want to continue as president.' Every candidate has got to say 'change.' That's what the American people expect." Washington, D.C., March 5, 2008.

"A lot of times in politics you have people look you in the eye and tell you what's not on their mind." Sochi, Russia, April 6, 2008.

"And I, unfortunately, have been to too many disasters as president." Said while discussing flooding in the Midwest, Washington, D.C., June 17, 2008.

"There is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal. Maybe it's only Western people that can self-govern. Maybe it's only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government. I reject that notion." London, June 16, 2008.

HISTORY, IMPORTANCE OF "One of the things important about history is to remember the true history." Washington, D.C., June 6, 2008.

"We've got a lot of relations with countries in our neighborhood." Kranj, Slovenia, June 10, 2008.

"Take the Middle East seriously because that's the center of—that's the place where people get so despondent and despair that they're willing to come and take lives of U.S. citizens." On the advice he would give the next president, Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008.

"How can you possibly have an international agreement that's effective unless countries like China and India are not full participants?" Camp David, April 19, 2008.

"Oftentimes people ask me, 'Why is it that you're so focused on helping the hungry and diseased in strange parts of the world?' " Washington, D.C., April 18. 2008.

"Afghanistan is the most daring and ambition [sic] mission in the history of NATO." Bucharest, Romania, April 2, 2008.

"The United States has suffered terrorist attacks on its soil, as have Russia."Sochi, Russia, April 6, 2008.

"I thank the diplomatic corps, who is here as well." Washington, D.C., March 12, 2008.

"I'm oftentimes asked, ‘What difference does it make to America if people are dying of malaria in a place like Ghana?’ It means a lot. It means a lot morally, it means a lot from a—it's in our national interest." Accra, Ghana, Feb. 20, 2008.

"A clear lesson I learned in the museum was that outside forces that tend to divide people up inside their country are unbelievably counterproductive." Said after touring a genocide memorial, Kigali, Rwanda, Feb. 19, 2008.

"I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be—hold hands." On what he can contribute to the Middle East peace process, Washington, D.C., Jan. 4, 2008.

"Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency, it is the right decision now, and it will be the right decision ever." Washington, D.C., March 12, 2008.

"Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coastmen—Coast Guardmen, thanks for coming, thanks for wearing the uniform." The Pentagon, March 19, 2008.

"And so, General, I want to thank you for your service. And I appreciate the fact that you really snatched defeat out of the jaws of those who are trying to defeat us in Iraq." Meeting with U.S. Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, Washington, D.C., March 3, 2008.

"The German asparagus are fabulous." Said at Schloss Meseberg, in Meseberg, Germany, June 11, 2008.

"First, "I want to tell you how proud I am to be the president of a nation that--in which there's a lot of Philippine Americans. They love America and they love their heritage. I am reminded of the great talent of the--of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House. . . . And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madame President." Said in Washington, D.C., June 24, 2008, to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo about Philippine-born White House Chef Cristeta "Cris" Comerford, a natualized American citizen who studied culinary arts in the Philippines, Austria and the U.S.

A complete collection of all Bushspeak articles can be found at the following links:

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The View from Hubbert's Peak


The peak in question is not a mountain. And the view is depressing. Hubbert's Peak is the high point on a graph depicting world oil production in the past and predicting future oil production. Hubbert's graph is a bell curve, and the peak is the point at which half of the available oil has been used. It's all downhill from there. The concept is named for the late Marion King Hubbert, who was born in San Saba, Texas, in 1903. The lost San Saba Mine figures prominently in J. Frank Dobie's delightful exploration of Texas folklore titled Coronado's Children. I once heard the self-effacing Hubbert speak at a geological meeting; he had a sort of a lopsided face that he explained by saying that a log had rolled on him when he was a child.

Hubbert worked for many years as a geophysicist for the Shell Oil Company. In 1956, he made calculations of U.S. oil reserves and issued a prediction that shook the American oil industry. Many scoffed at Hubbert's forecast that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. He could hardly have been more accurate. The turnaround came in 1970, when U.S. oil production reached about nine million barrels per day.

Geologists who are concerned about the exhaustibility of the world's oil supply today have made similar calculations. All predict that another Hubbert's Peak, this time in world oil production, will occur in this decade. And it will come regardless of whether the amount of ultimately discoverable oil is the low estimate of 1.8 trillion barrels or the high estimate of 2.1 trillion barrels.

And if the oil runs out? Optimists point to alternate fuel sources: oil shale, tar sands, natural gas and even coal. But these will only add to the greenhouse effect. If the oil supply will only last for decades, they say, the world's supply of coal is good for hundreds of years, and we may one day see the return of the Stanley Steamer automobile. What that much coal burning will do the Earth's already warming atmosphere is something no rational human being would want to contemplate.

Future generations will undoubtedly despise us for what we have been doing with oil: burning it wastefully. But petroleum is an unusual commodity. It can provide raw materials for an infinite variety of products: plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, colorants, fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, artificial fibers. Ever since Edwin L. Drake, a former conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad, drilled the first American oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, our principal use of oil has been to burn it wastefully--first in lamps, then in the engines of automobiles and airplanes, and in the early 1920s, to heat homes.

Our profligate society has greedily plundered the planet of its oil--and other valuable raw materials--as if supplies were limitless--without exhibiting an iota of concern for future generations who will populate this planet after we are gone. Hubbert's Peak, the point when the world's supply of available oil reaches the halfway point, is rapidly bearing down on us--if it is not already here. It will occur when the rapidly diminishing supply of oil meets the rapidly rising demand for oil. Then we shall be driving our SUVs to the poor house while we struggle to live in the greenhouse we have created.

Casual is the word that best describes this nation's attitude toward the looming energy problem. Experts, many with ties to the fuel industry, contend that the world has enough oil to last for many years. And when it runs out, they tell us, we can turn to other sources of carbon fuels. Natural gas can be compressed to run internal combustion engines--until the Hubbert's Peak of natural gas is reached. Sedimentary rocks of the Green River formation found in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, they assure us, contain more shale oil than all the conventional oil in the world.

The term "shale oil" is a misnomer coined to attract gullible investors. And it is not oil at all. It's kerogen, a waxy substance that can be converted into oil if the shale is mined, crushed and heated, an expensive process. Then there are the so-called tar sands and oil sands found in Alberta, Canada, which yield oil at high cost and with a high sulfur content. Coal, one of the dirtiest of fuels, exists in quantities sufficient to last hundreds of years and now produces about half the electricity generated in this country. Most of the mercury already in our atmosphere, oceans and the fish we eat is the result of coal burning.

If, after the supplies of oil and natural gas run out, we begin to burn even more coal, we could create an unstoppable runaway greenhouse effect. The planet Venus is an example of this: space probes have shown that its atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide. Its surface temperature, 867 degrees Fahrenheit, is hot enough to melt lead.

Here on earth, there has always been a natural greenhouse effect, giving us a reasonably comfortable average global temperature of 57 degrees. Our atmosphere, made up mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, is transparent to sunlight, so that the Sun's radiation reaches the surface of the planet in the form of visible light. Other gases in the atmosphere--the so-called greenhouse gases--including water vapor, the largest component, methane, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons absorb the infrared energy reflected from the earth's surface and radiate it back to the earth and into space. What concerns scientists is that when James Watt's improved steam engine touched off the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere was 280 parts per million. This was roughly the same level it was at when civilization began in the Middle East. Today, it is 378 ppm, a rise of 35 percent.

Increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the amount of infrared energy radiated back to the earth, warming the planet. This has caused glaciers and polar ice caps to shrink, generating further warming by reducing the radiation reflected by the ice. There is one possible brake on global warming: because warmer air can hold more moisture, increased moisture may create more clouds that will keep sunlight from reaching the earth, but that will also cut agricultural production.

Is the planet heating up? It would seem so. Climatologically speaking, for many years we have been in the warm period that has always followed each period of continental glaciation. Antarctic ice cores reveal that our planet is now as warm as it ever has been in the last 420,000 years. Climate is fundamentally variable, of course, but five of the past seven years have been the hottest years since instrument records were kept. Permafrost in the Arctic is melting, major glaciers are shrinking, the oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, and the range between planetary day and nighttime temperatures is growing smaller.

Little is being done in the United States, the single largest emitter of carbon dioxide, to reduce CO2 emissions. Moreover, forests, which turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, are being clear-cut everywhere at an unsupportable rate. We should create tax incentives for those who improve insulation of their homes or purchase more efficient motor cars. We should expand public transportation. And we must explore alternate sources of energy. Waterpower has already peaked. Most stream valleys that could hold reservoirs have already been dammed. Interestingly, waterpower is not a renewable resource; reservoirs eventually silt up behind dams.

Tidal power is untapped. In 1966, France constructed the world's only tidal power plant in the La Rance estuary on the Brittany coast. It generates enough electricity to supply a city of 300,000. Other tidal power plants were planned until the French opted for nuclear power. Geothermal energy, using heat recovered from the earth's crust, is in its infancy. Solar power, employing panels of solar cells on earth or in space, is a new frontier. Wind power produces less than one percent of U.S. electric power today. Thanks to improved technology and tax breaks, wind farms are now competitive with gas- and coal-fired plants. But even if all nonpolluting alternative power sources were exploited to the fullest, it is unlikely they could directly replace oil and natural gas.

There are 441 nuclear power plants in the world, more than a hundred in the United States. Surprisingly, environmentalists are warming up to nuclear power, which adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as the only viable replacement for petroleum and natural gas. When the inevitable oil crisis occurs--and it will occur--fear of nuclear fission will be overcome by necessity, but concerns about waste disposal and safety will always remain. Nuclear power is not adaptable to vehicle propulsion, although it is fine for moving ocean-going vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines. Nuclear power can generate electricity to charge batteries for electric cars or make and compress hydrogen as an alternative automotive fuel. There are tradeoffs with every alternative. Although burning hydrogen or using it in fuel cells only produces water vapor as a byproduct, the inevitable release of hydrogen into the atmosphere would threaten the earth's protective ozone layer.

Another form of nuclear energy, nuclear fusion, if not standing in the wings, is hanging around the stage door. Its abundant raw materials are deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, and lithium. The process, which would also not create carbon dioxide, may one day be perfected; it is taking place right now--in the Sun. Increasing demand for oil and diminishing supplies can only lead to higher and higher oil prices, galloping inflation and global depression. Add to these economic woes a planet made less livable for its growing population by more frequent and more severe droughts and heat waves, shifts in patterns of violent storms, an increase in insect-borne diseases, changes in crops, and inundations of coastal areas and low-lying islands.

A lot of people in their monster suburban McMansions who can't imagine the energy honeymoon not going on forever will get hurt. The little people of the world, who have always managed to make do with less, will survive somehow. In the new energy-sparing society, we may see a return to self-sufficient small farms, the resurgence of farm animals, and even the horse and buggy. The Wal-Marts and huge shopping centers will disappear. Their places will be taken by a welcome revitalization of retail trade in small towns. Won't it be great to have an old-fashioned butcher in a straw hat, white apron and protective sleeve cuffs who knows your name, and a friendly grocer who totals up your few purchases in pencil on the paper bag in which you carry them home?

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Murder in Peekskill: A Literary Detective Story


Like many former Hudson River post-industrial towns, Peekskill, N.Y., has seen better days, With a picturesque location on hills gently sloping down to placid Peekskill Bay, it still offers picture postcard vistas. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, it participated in an orgy of urban renewal that almost destroyed its downtown.

A city since 1940, Peekskill is today enjoying a resurgence and has attracted a growing community of artists and writers, Two gems make it worth a visit: the Paramount Center for the Arts and the Bruised Apple, an old-fashioned second-hand bookstore. Browsing one day in the stacks of the Bruised Apple, I came across a 1963 biography, Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger, Jr. and the American Dream, by John Tebbel, whose credentials as professor and chairman of the Journalism Department at New York University, seemed impeccable. The price was right, and I snapped it up.

Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899) is today remembered as the creator of more than a hundred nineteenth-century novels with rags-to-riches themes. In these--by pluck and luck--a poor boy achieves success, usually toward the end of the last chapter. Originally a Unitarian minister, Alger gave up preaching religion in 1866 to become a crusading author of popular books for young readers in which he preached the gospel of success through work. Alger's literary output, extraordinary in numbers yet humdrum in content, sold in the millions. He died in 1899 at the age of 67.

A Murder in Peekskill
Perusing the Tebbel book at home, my attention was drawn to an account of a murder in Peekskill. It seems that one Jeremiah Hardy had been shot and robbed. Suspicion turned on his widow, who was arrested and charged with the crime. She denied it, and told police that she had seen a prowler in the neighborhood just before her husband was murdered.

The time period was the 1890's; Peekskill, famous for its foundries and cast-iron stoves, was in its prime. A police officer making his rounds had come upon the body of a Peekskill resident, Jeremiah Hardy, who had been shot and robbed. Suspicion focused on his widow, who was arrested and charged with the crime. She denied being involved, and told police she had seen a prowler in the neighborhood just before her husband was killed. Acting on this information, Peekskill police arrested a suspect who claimed to be Horatio Alger, Jr., the writer.

A stranger in town, Alger appeared disheveled and ill. When questioned, he became incoherent. Mrs. Hardy made a positive identification, so police released her and threw Alger into jail. Before the day was over, however, the real murderer came forward and confessed to the crime, so Alger was set free. This incident had the makings of a colorful local-interest story. According to Tebbel's book, the relationship between Edith Hardy and Horatio Alger did not end there. Out walking in Peekskill one day, she met the now-free Alger and invited him home for tea. Soon Horatio was romancing Mrs. Hardy's sister, Mrs. Russel [sic] Garth, newly returned with her husband after living in Europe. A smitten Horatio pursued Una Garth all the way back to Paris, an amour that left him temporarily insane.

Something seemed amiss and unlikely here. The prudish author of so many uplifting books for children involved in a love triangle? A lifelong bachelor in his 60's competing with a husband for his attractive wife's affections? This Peekskill murder story definitely had interesting overtones.

Alger died in 1899. By piecing together the few chronological markers in the book, I concluded the incident must have happened around the mid-1890s. I enlisted the aid of Barbara Zimmer, librarian at the local history archives of the Field Library in Peekskill, who undertook a diligent search. She checked Peekskill directories of the period, but found no trace of Jeremiah or Edith Hardy. She sifted through cemetery records. She searched the genealogies of Peekskill's families, compiled by Franklin Couch. She could find no record of a Hardy family in Peekskill in the 1890s.

In the preface to his Alger book, Professor Tebbel paid tribute to the research of an earlier Alger biographer, Herbert R. Mayes, saying, "It can hardly be improved upon nearly four decades later. The primary sources of Alger material are meager, indeed, but Mr. Mayes appears to have examined all of them, and no new original material has turned up in the intervening decades." Mayes's book was obviously the next place in which to search for clues. Extremely scarce, Alger: A Biography Without a Hero had been published in 1928. The Croton Free Library successfully located a copy for me through Interlibrary Loan.

In a chapter provocatively titled "Escapade," Mayes related the Peekskill murder story and the spicy romantic interlude, as well as other facts and anecdotes about Alger in Tebbel's book. To call Tebbel's book a knockoff of the Mayes book is to label it precisely. Tebbel had done virtually no original research, but had merely reprocessed Mayes's words of thirty-five years before to avoid a charge of plagiarism. Both books shared another similarity: a lack of dates--surprising lacunae for biographies. On publication, the Mayes book had received largely favorable reviews, but sold less than 1,500 copies. As the only biography of Horatio Alger, however, it soon acquired a cachet of authenticity, becoming the primary source for articles on Alger in every major encyclopedia and in the authoritative multivolume Dictionary of American Biography.

Upon publication, the Mayes book was regarded as definitive by critics. Such acceptance came as an embarrassing surprise to the author and his publisher, posing an especially thorny problem forthe latter. "Don't miss it!" Harry Hansen, respected reviewer for The New York World, urged his readers. Hansen and other literati who had praised the book were George Macy's friends; he simply could not offend them by revealing it was meant to be a spoof. Macy decided to say nothing and count himself lucky if he recovered the costs of paper, printing and binding.

Nevertheless, some literary researchers harbored suspicions. In 1945, critic Malcolm Cowley questioned the Mayes biography, and asked for substantiation. Mayes claimed that he had based his book on Alger's private diary, which he had later turned over to the Newsboys' Home in New York City, operated by the Children's Aid Society--but the material could never be found there. Thirteen years later, Mayes alleged to a persistently inquisitive Cowley that the Alger diary actually had been contained in a series of books. Mayes so intimidated inquirers that a defeated Cowley observed in the magazine Horizon that the Mayes biography of Alger was the best available book on the subject. For more than four decades, Mayes continued to stonewall questioners when asked about his sources, always citing the now-vanished Alger diary and letters.

Mayes Tells All
Herbert R. Mayes died in 1987 at the age of 87. Before his death, he decided to come clean. First in private correspondence and later in print, he acknowledged his book was--and these are his words: "a complete fabrication, with virtually no scintilla of basis in fact. Any word of truth got in it unwittingly. I made it up out of nothing. Most of the few facts I uncovered were intentionally distorted."

In 1927, Mayes, then editor of a Hearst-owned trade magazine, The American Druggist, had proposed to fledgling book publisher George Macy that he write Alger's life story. Mayes himself was a classic Horatio Alger hero. Born in a New York tenement, he later went on to become editor of Good Housekeeping and McCall's. When he began to research the subject, however, Mayes found little solid information on which to build an Alger biography. At Alger's request, his sister had destroyed his personal papers after his death.

Mayes decided to take a friend's advice and do a takeoff on Alger--a parody. He would create a fiction, a life the real Alger never lived. His publisher was unsure such an approach would work. But after Mayes showed him the first chapters, Macy was not only satisfied, he was overjoyed. Mayes was just as happy. "Here was a project that with scant trouble I felt I could handle in a matter of months or even weeks. All I had to do was to come up with a fairy tale. No research required. Nothing required but a little imagination.

"Thus I began, and the going was easy, particularly when I decided to quote from Alger's diary. If Alger ever kept a diary, I knew nothing about it. In any case, it was more fun to invent one. I had no letters ever written by Alger, which was fortunate. Again, it was more fun to make them up, as it was with letters sent to Alger, none of which I had ever seen. Because there had to be a few facts, I corresponded with a handful of people, interviewed a few and made a visit to South Natick (Alger's hometown in Massachusetts) for all of two days. The project was undertaken with malice aforethought--a takeoff on the debunking biographies that were quite popular in the 20's, and a more miserable, maudlin piece of claptrap would be hard to imagine."

Had Mayes dug deeper, he might have uncovered the secret that haunted Alger throughout the last half of his life. Alger had indeed abruptly given up the calling of Unitarian minister in the town of Brewster on Cape Cod, but not because he wanted to be a writer, as he claimed. In church records stored in a local bank vault, Mayes might have learned that Alger had resigned from the ministry upon being charged with pedophilia--engaging in sex acts with two young boys in his congregation--and threatened with prosecution. Alger's indiscretion was to remain hidden from public view for more than a hundred years until it was revealed by author Richard Huber in his 1971 book, The American Idea of Success. Alger left Cape Cod for New York City, where he began his successful writing career.

"As anyone who has read my book is aware," Mayes later wrote, "I made Alger out to be a pathetic, quite ridiculous character. I provided him with mistresses. I had him adopt and become quite attached to a little Chinese boy, and then had the boy killed by a runaway horse. I credited to him as a child essays and verses--never existent--that a child of ten might have written. I had Alger dreaming of a great novel that someday he would write. I put in the mind of the character I created the delusion that someday he might be President of the United States."

The Alger created by Mayes bore no physical resemblance to contemporary depictions or photographs. The real Alger was a shy little man, scarcely more than five feet tall, near-sighted, frail and sensitive. In later life, still short and still shy, he was described as pink, portly and balding--hardly anyone's image of a Lothario. Mayes lamented afterwards, "Unfortunately--how unfortunately!--the book when it appeared was accepted pretty much as gospel. Why it was not recognized for what it was supposed to be baffled the publisher and me."

How could the spurious Mayes biography have gone unquestioned for so long? There are several explanations: First, it appeared during the go-go years of the 1920's, and perpetuated Alger's image as the incurable apostle of business success. Also, few documents existed against which it could be checked. Because Mayes had avoided a sensitive area in Alger's past, surviving family members and friends did not object to his unlikely picture of Alger as a womanizer and a neurotic obsessed with getting ahead.

Surprisingly, Mayes's revelation of his astonishing literary hoax caused only a minor stir in the book world. One can only speculate how many earnest academics have written serious essays based on the false information in the Mayes book. And how many term papers by high school students incorporated the specious Alger facts now entrenched so solidly in standard reference works?

Four More Biographies
In the thirteen years between 1961 and 1974--before Mayes finally confessed to his deception--four other biographies of Alger appeared. These were Frank Gruber's Horatio Alger, Jr.: A Biography and Bibliography (1961), both fact-based and not well-received by critics; and two pseudobiographies, From Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger and the American Dream, the Tebbel 1963 work that originally sparked my curiosity and started this inquiry; Ralph D. Gardner's Horatio Alger, Jr. or the American Hero Era (1964); and Edwin Palmer Hoyt's Horatio's Boys (1974). All leaned heavily on Mayes's phony documents, invented anecdotes and fabricated facts. Not only did they fail to correct obvious distortions, they multiplied them.

So, on close investigation, a promising lead to a local-interest story about Horatio Alger, Jr., had evaporated. The murder in Peekskill turned out to be only a figment of the fecund imagination of Herbert Mayes, embellished and given extended life by four other writers. What these five authors succeeded in doing was to give the field of biography a bad name.

Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, suggested "nonfiction novel" as a category for books in which actual events are related using the devices of fiction. Using a similar new classification, perhaps librarians will find a way to shelve the three bogus Alger pseudobiographies where they belong--among works of fiction. It's the least they can do for that pink and portly little man who inspired so many young people to strive for success.


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