September 17, 2015

“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 14, 2015

“Have Gun - Will Travel” lives on (as a linguistic “snowclone” and via modern digital media)

Today, the linguistic formula “Have X [some work tool] - Will Y [do something]” is firmly cemented into our language.

Prior to 1957, it wasn’t.

Then, on September 14, 1957, the great Western TV series Have Gun - Will Travel premiered on the CBS network. (The first episode was titled “Three Bells to Perdido.”)

Soon after that, variations of the show’s title became what linguists now call a “snowclone.”

This term, coined by economist Glen Whitman in 2004 in an exchange on the Language Log weblog, is applied to well-known clichés or “phrasal templates” that are recycled in multiple ways with varying words.

Examples are catchphrases like “We don’t need no stinking X,” or “I'm not an X, but I play one on TV” or advertising slogans like “Got X?”

The television show Have Gun – Will Travel starred Richard Boone as the main character, Paladin.

Yep, just Paladin. One name. Or you could call him Mister Paladin.

Paladin was what could be called a problem solving consultant, though most people thought of him as a professional gunfighter for hire.

He tried to make sure he only worked for people who were on the right side of some issue or problem. And, he tried to settle things without violence if he could.

But he could draw and fire a gun faster than, well, anyone he had to deal with in the show.

So, if you drew against Paladin, you were probably a bad guy or stupid. And, if you drew against Paladin, you’d probably end up dead.

In work mode, Paladin dressed in a black and wore a Colt .45 six-shooter in a distinctive holster embossed with a metal image of a chess knight, a piece associated with medieval knights in armor, once referred to as “paladins.”

When he wasn’t working, Paladin lived the life of a fancily-dressed dude in San Francisco.

That’s where people could contact him, as noted in his enigmatic business card, which also had the image of a chess knight, along with the memorable words:

       “Have Gun Will Travel.
              Wire Paladin
             San Francisco”

Any messages that came for Paladin would usually be delivered by the other regular character in the series, Hey Boy (played by actor Kam Tong).

Hey Boy was a Chinese bellhop at Paladin’s residence, the Carlton Hotel. He served as kind of an on-call gofer for Paladin.

Have Gun - Will Travel originally aired for six glorious seasons, from 1957 to 1963. It was so popular that it became one of the few TV shows that spawned a radio version. The radio series starred popular character actor John Dehner as Paladin and ran on the CBS Radio Network for two years, from 1958 to 1960.

I remember watching the TV series every week when I was a kid, on my family’s grainy black-and-white TV. And, I still know the words of the show’s theme song “The Ballad of Paladin,” sung by country music star Johnny Western at the end of each episode.

Nowadays, the show can be viewed streaming online on Youtube and elsewhere or on DVD. It can also sometimes be seen on some of the cable TV channels that feature “classic television” shows.

They don’t make many shows today that I like as much as Have Gun – Will Travel. But I will admit the technology for viewing is better than the TV set my family had in our living room in 1957.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to the date SEPTEMBER 14:

“Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.” - Hit song from the stage show George White’s Scandals of 1931, which opened at the Apollo Theatre in New York City on September 14, 1931.

“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” - President Calvin Coolidge, in a famous telegram about the Boston police strike that he sent to Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, on September 14, 1919.

“Say It loud: ‘I’m Black and I'm Proud’” - Hit song by James Brown, which entered Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart on September 14, 1968.

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September 05, 2015

The Birth — and Death — of “the Hippies”

Credit for the origin of the term “hippies” is generally given to San Francisco journalist Michael Fallon.

Fallon coined the term in an article published in the San Francisco Examiner on September 5, 1965.

It was the first of a series of articles he wrote about the “new generation of beatniks” who hung out in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, at places like the Blue Unicorn Café on the corner of Ashbury and Hayes.

It’s likely that Fallon came up with hippies as variation of the jazz buffs’ term hipsters.

When he wrote his series of articles, beatnik was the common, somewhat-derogatory name applied to  counterculture types by people who weren’t themselves beatniks.

That term was coined in 1958 by journalist Herb Caen in his “Bagdad-by-the-Bay” column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The headline for Fallon’s first article about hippies actually used Caen’s more familiar term.

Some online sources give the headline as “A New Haven for Beatniks,” though more authoritative sources say it was “A New Paradise for Beatniks.”

During the next couple of years, the term hippies was picked up by other journalists, by the media in general and by many hippies themselves.

It also became an epithet in the mouths of critics of the Sixties counterculture.

For example, by 1967 — “The Summer of Love” — California Governor Ronald Reagan began using an oft-quoted joke in his speeches, comparing hippies to Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah.

“We have some hippies in California,” Reagan deadpanned. “For those of you who don’t know what a hippie is, he’s a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.” 

By the fall of 1967, many hippies were tired of the term and all the media hype about them.

In October of 1967, a group of counterculture leaders organized a mock funeral event in San Francisco, called the “The Death of the Hippie,” to try to symbolically put an end to the term and the hype.

Some of the event’s organizers thought that the term freebie should be used to replace hippie.

That didn’t quite catch on — at least not as a replacement for the name commonly used for those of us who “dressed like Tarzan” and had “hair like Jane” back in those days. (My late father called us “He-She’s,” God bless him.)

September 5th is also the anniversary of On the Road, the most famous book by the coiner of the term “Beat Generation,” the grand-daddyo of “the beats,” Jack Kerouac.

It was first published on September 5, 1957 and includes a famous quote about “the mad ones” that might seem applicable to both the Beatniks and the Hippies. (See this post for more about the Kerouac quote.)

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