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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August 30, 2014

The origins of the Cold War term “hot line” and the mythical “red phones”…

Many books and websites note that the famed “hot line” communication link between the Pentagon and the Kremlin was established on August 30, 1963.

Press reports about this new tool, intended to provide a possible way to avoid a nuclear war between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), soon cemented the term hot line into our language.

It also added a new plot device and the image of the red phones into movies and TV shows.

Two of my favorite examples were in movies released not long after the new link was established: Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

The term hot line (sometimes given as the single word hotline) had actually been used previously in other contexts, but not in the sense of the international hot line established in 1963.

That use is generally credited to Jess Gorkin (1936-1985).

Gorkin was the respected and influential editor of Parade Magazine, the widely-circulated Sunday newspaper insert. 

In the March 20, 1960 issue of Parade, Gorkin published an open letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev, titled “RE: ACCIDENTAL WAR.”

In it, he urged them to consider: “the establishment of a direct telephone line between prevent the possibility of an accidental war.”

He ended his letter with the rhetorical question: “Must a world be lost for want of a telephone call?”

Gorkin didn’t use the term hot line in that open letter, but he did use it in a subsequent series editorials in Parade in 1960, promoting the idea to presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

According to language maven William Safire’s great Political Dictionary, Gorkin’s editorial in the October 30, 1960 issue of Parade mentioned an internal “hot line” that the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) maintained for emergency communications.

Gorkin suggested that SAC’s “red telephone” system was a model for the communication link he believed the US and USSR should establish.

After Kennedy was elected President, Gorkin ran more editorials pushing the hot line idea.

And, after the US and USSR came to the brink of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev decided it was indeed a pretty good idea.

On April 23, 1963, Kennedy sent a personal letter of thanks to Gorkin for promoting the concept, calling it “an excellent example of the most constructive aspects of our free press.” 

Gorkin proudly published the letter in Parade.

On June 20, 1963, in Geneva, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev signed an agreement to create the crisis communication system Gorkin had suggested. The Washington-Kremlin hot line officially went live on August 30, 1963.

However, despite what we’ve seen in movies and TV shows, there never were red phones in the offices of the President of the United States and the Premier of Russia.

The hot line was actually a secure teletype connection between the offices of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. No phones, red or otherwise, were involved.

Sorry, movie fans.

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