September 19, 2014

Hanging … It concentrates the mind wonderfully.


Many of the famed witticisms uttered by British writer, lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson were recorded for posterity in a journal kept by his admirer and friend James Boswell.

Boswell used entries from the journal as a foundation for his classic biography, Life of Johnson (first published in 1791).

One of Johnson’s oft-quoted quips comes from the entry Boswell wrote on September 19, 1777.

It’s a great bit of literal gallows humor that is widely cited in the short form:

       "When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Johnson made the remark in reference to an Anglican clergyman named William Dodd.

Dodd, whose clerical background led people to call him Dr. Dodd, had been executed by hanging at England’s Tyburn prison on June 27, 1777.

The “heinous” crime he was guilty of was a loan scam.

He had asked a money lender for a sizeable loan that he claimed was for his former student, the 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

That particular young gent was son of the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, known for those famous windy letters to his son that included platitudes like: “Take care of the minutes: for the hours will take care of themselves.”

Dodd didn’t actually give the money to Stanhope’s son. He pocketed it. And, when he failed to repay the loan, he was taken to court by the money lender, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Even in those days, when capital punishment was common in England, some people thought Dodd’s sentence seemed a bit harsh. One of them was Samuel Johnson.

Johnson tried to stop the hanging with a little scam of his own.

He penned an eloquent plea for mercy, full of Biblical quotes, and had it delivered to the court. Instead of signing it himself, Johnson made it seem as if it were a letter written by Dodd.

Unfortunately for Dodd, it didn’t work. He was hanged anyway, alongside another criminal named Joseph Harris.

The entreaty Johnson had ghost-written was “leaked” and soon published under the title The Convict’s Address to His Unhappy Brethren. It was credited to Dodd on the cover and became quite popular.

In his journal entry for September 19, 1777, Boswell noted that a friend of Johnson’s told the great man he suspected Dodd didn’t actually write the letter himself. It just seemed a bit too well written.

Johnson didn’t fess up at the time. But his response, as recorded in Boswell’s journal and published in the Life of Johnson, includes the memorable quote about hanging that appears on many websites and in many books of quotations:

“Why should you think so?” responded Johnson. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Eventually, Johnson’s authorship was revealed and The Convict’s Address is now generally – and properly – credited to him.

By the way, my favorite edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson is the “Classix Comix” version. It's cleverly illustrated by digital artist Rhoda Penmarq and edited by writer Dan Leo (creator of the great Railroad Train to Heaven online novel).

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September 16, 2014

“Too cheap to meter” – the infamous nuclear power misquote…


In the annals of the long, still-ongoing debate over nuclear power, the most infamous words are undoubtedly “too cheap to meter.”

The origin of this phrase is a speech given on September 16, 1954 by Lewis L. Strauss, a former Navy officer who was appointed Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ever since Strauss gave that speech, many anti-nuclear activists have assumed and claimed that he literally said electricity from nuclear plants would be too cheap to meter.

Of course, nuclear power did not turn out to be “cheap” from a cost-per-kilowatt-hour perspective. At least, not compared to traditional energy sources like coal, oil and hydropower, which have been economically “cheap” but are arguably more “costly” in terms of their long term impacts on the environment (barring incidents like the Fukushima meltdown).

Anyway, putting aside that debate, it has long been clear that electricity from fission-powered nuclear plants is not and never will be “too cheap to meter.”

Thus, for decades, the phrase has been ridiculed and held up as the prime iconic example of absurd claims made by supporters of nuclear power.

Except that Strauss didn’t actually say what opponents of nuclear power think he said.

The focus of his speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York City on September 16th, 1954 dealt with how modern scientific research, in general, would lead to better lives for future generations. And, his meter remark was about electric energy, in general, not nuclear power in particular.

As reported in the New York Times the next day, what Strauss really said was this:

“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter...will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”

For an excellent in-depth look at the facts about Strauss’ speech and his “too cheap to meter” remark, read the page about it on the Canadian Nuclear Society website.

And, regardless of which side of the nuclear power debate you’re on, you might want to keep in mind an old saying that applies to any type of energy that is used to generate significant amounts of electricity — “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

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September 12, 2014

The ironic dual anniversary of “subliminal advertising” and the Bushism “subliminable”…


On September 12, 1957, market researcher James Vicary held a press conference that made a new term famous.

Vicary claimed to have developed “hidden” ads that could be used in movies and TV shows. Ads that flashed by so quickly they were not consciously noticed by viewers, but affected their buying habits.

He coined the term subliminal advertising to describe this technique.

The term and concept generated widespread attention from claims he made at his press conference.

Vicary said he’d conducted a six-week experiment at a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

As viewers watched the movie Picnic, he supposedly used special equipment to flash two phrases on the screen for one three-thousandth of a second every five seconds – so fast that they were below the threshold of conscious perception.

One hidden message was “Hungry? Eat popcorn.” The other was “Drink Coca-Cola.”

Vicary claimed his subliminal ads increased Coke sales at the theater by 18% over normal levels and boosted popcorn sales by 57%!

This revelation may have sounded good product manufacturers, but alarmed and outraged the public and the media.

In 1958, the National Association of Broadcasters proactively banned the broadcast of subliminal ads.

But scientists who looked into Vicary’s research soon debunked the idea that such ads have any real effect.

Vicary later admitted he had falsified the data. In fact, it’s questionable whether he actually even conducted the Ft. Lee movie experiment.

Despite that, the bogeyman of “subliminal advertising” was launched into our language and cultural consciousness.

The issue of subliminal advertising made headlines again during the 2000 presidential campaign that pitted Republican George W. Bush against Democratic nominee Al Gore.

In September, a Republican attack ad aired on national television briefly flashed the word “RATS” on screen right after showing a photo of Gore, as the announcer ominously warns that under Gore’s health care plan “bureaucrats” would make  medical decisions.

If you watch the “RATS” ad very closely on YouTube, you will see that those four letters actually seem to be the tail end of the word “BUREAUCRATS” as that word is “flown into” the screen.

Is that true “subliminal” advertising. Maybe. Maybe not.

But the “RATS” ad drew outraged complaints from Democrats and created a media uproar.

So, on September 12, 2000, Bush responded to the controversy by uttering a classic Bushism :

“I wanna make it clear to people that, you know, the idea of putting subliminable messages into ads is, is ridiculous.”

Yes. He actually said “subliminable.”

In fact, he said it several times that day when addressing the ad hubbub.

And, that’s why the date September 12th is linked to both the original term “subliminal advertising” and to the newer, um, word “subliminable.”

It’s an incredidable coincidence!

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September 10, 2014

On this date in 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry launched two immortal naval quotations...


On September 10, 1813, American ships under the command of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry engaged a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

Perry’s flagship was a 20-gun brig that had recently been renamed The Lawrence, in honor of his fallen friend, U.S. Navy Captain James Lawrence.

On June 1, 1813, Capt. Lawrence was mortally wounded during a fight between American and British ships near Boston.

It was reported that, as he lay dying, Lawrence said: “Tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”

Commodore Perry helped immortalize the pithier, more famous version of this quote.

He had a special battle flag made that said “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP.” And, during the September 10th battle on Lake Erie, it was defiantly unfurled on The Lawrence.

It the June naval engagement that the took the life of Capt. Lawrence, the British had prevailed.

But in the Battle of Lake Erie, the Americans won a decisive victory and captured all of the British ships.

Commodore Perry quickly scrawled a brief report on the back of an envelope and had it sent to U.S. General William Henry Harrison.

He wrote:

Dear General:
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, 
O.H. Perry

The first line of his message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” became one of the most famous Naval quotations in US history.

And, the special battle flag Perry flew that day made turned short version of Capt. Lawrence’s dying words an immortal naval motto.

Perry’s flag is now on display at The United States Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland.

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September 07, 2014

Hope I die before I get old… then I can sleep when I’m dead…


Today’s date has an ironic link to two famous rock music quotes associated with the deaths of two of rock’s most legendary bad boys.

On September 7, 1978, Keith Moon — the great, drum-kit-destroying drummer for the British band, the Who — died of a drug overdose at age 31.

One of the Who’s first big hits, released in 1965, was “My Generation.”

It includes a line every rock fan knows: “Hope I die before I get old.”

       “People try to put us d-down
       Just because we g-g-get around
       Things they do look awful c-c-cold
       Hope I die before I get old.”

Moon was renowned for his self-destructive, drug-and-alcohol amped lifestyle.

Naturally, the famed “Hope I die...” line showed up in obituaries written about him in 1978 and is mentioned in many articles and books about him and the Who.

In an odd coincidence, on September 7, 2003, exactly 25 years after Keith Moon died, American rock musician Warren Zevon died of cancer at age 56.

Like Moon, Zevon was legendary for his substance abuse and other excesses.

One of the best known songs from Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album is “I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.”

The lyrics were written in Zevon’s darkly-humorous trademark style:

       “I’m drinking heartbreak motor oil and Bombay gin
       I'll sleep when I'm dead
       Straight from the bottle, twisted again
       I’ll sleep when I'm dead.”

Inevitably, the line “I’ll sleep when I'm dead,” was cited in many obits, articles and blog posts when Zevon died.

It was also used as the title of a book about him, compiled by his former wife, Crystal, and published in 2007. (The full title is: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.)

Talk show host David Letterman was a long time fan and friend of Warren Zevon and had him as a guest on The Late Show show many times.

On October 30, 2002, Warren made his last appearance on Letterman’s show.

At that point, it was public knowledge that Zevon’s cancer was likely to be terminal. His fan and friend Letterman asked him if facing death gave him any new insights about life.

Zevon’s reply included three words that became another famous quote: “Enjoy every sandwich."

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