Tag: Professor

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History


“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.


Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 913: Psychiatric Pseudo-Symptoms Take Aim At Science


In more than one of his couch-quivering rants, Tom Cruise has expressed distrust and disdain for the science of psychiatry. Perhaps he believes Xenu and his intergalactic pals can do more for the struggling mind than can a branch of human medicine. I don’t agree – and I count that as a big win for my own sense of logic and reason. The science isn’t perfect but it’s progressing, and while the humans who administer its teachings are fallible, there’s still actual science there.

Psychologist and Stanford professor David Rosenhan also found the whole thing suspicious. It was the early 1970’s and psychiatric patients were treated somewhat differently than they are today, as anyone who read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest will know. Doc Rosenhan wasn’t convinced that patients were being properly diagnosed, and he wasn’t sold on the standard treatment procedure either. He came up with a devious plan.

What if someone perfectly sane were to talk their way into a psychiatric hospital, only to have their symptoms disappear once inside? What ensued was a damning criticism of psychiatry and psychiatric diagnosis, one which still resonates to this day. But was Doc Rosenhan’s experiment a genuine scalpel-slice through the pristine flesh of the science of mental health, or was it pseudoscience? His results were shocking, but in fact they need to be scrutinized beyond the knee-jerk swoop of an accusatory finger.

Dr. Rosenhan was also suspicious of the science of hair restoration.

Dr. Rosenhan was also suspicious of the science of hair restoration.

Doc Rosenhan drafted eight ‘pseudo-patients’ for his experiment, which included himself, a grad student, two other psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter and a housewife. The eight of them were to show up at ten different psychiatric hospitals around the country. Underfunded rural hospitals were targeted, as were revered urban university hospitals and one pricey private hospital. Everyone held true to their biographical details, apart from their names (which were changed to protect them) and in the case of those who were actually in the medical field, their occupations. Doc Rosenhan didn’t want any special treatment for anyone. Read more…

Day 876: Big Ben – The Boisterous Bell In The Belfry


If your first instinct when you looked at the above photo was that you were looking at London’s famous Big Ben, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Bemused Brits would scoff and toss old scones at you. Chances are you’ve never seen Big Ben. Until 2012 that structure was known simply as “the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster”. That year it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of our present queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the tower, and it’s not even the clock mechanism within it. Big Ben is just the bell.

The structure that Big Ben calls home is probably the best-known building in the entirety of England – the one structure you can safely use as an establishing shot if the next scene of your movie takes place in London. But the bell in its innards is the real star of the show; “Big Ben” represents London and London alone. Well, and Pittsburgh, but that’s a different Big Ben.

My wife asked me a question the other day, knowing full well I’d be using Google and not my musty, decaying storeroom of a memory to produce an answer: how the hell did they get Big Ben to the top of that tower using 19th century technology? I did my due diligence and found the solution, and along the way I learned all sorts of strange things about this brilliantly cliché piece of architecture.


Augustus Pugin was not the first architect called when the Palace of Westminster burned almost to the ground in 1834; Charles Barry did the majority of the work. But Pugin was the Judd Apatow of Gothic Revival mastery, in that everything he touched seemed to please and delight his target audience. Charles Barry (who was probably known by his friends as ‘Chuck Barry’) handled the big picture, but the guts of the palace – the wallpaper, the furnishings, the snuggly little details – that was all Pugin. In 1852, Barry asked Pugin for one more touch: the clock tower. Read more…

Day 857: How Ignaz Semmelweis Changed The Medical World And Never Lived To Know It


Does the name Ignaz Semmelweis mean anything to you?

My readers whose boot-prints lay along the medical mud-path (or in the frightening swamp of germophobia) will shout an esteemed “YES!”, probably with the reverence my musician friends would reserve for a Les Paul or a Robert Moog. Dr. Semmelweis’s work has probably saved millions upon millions of lives, which is particularly impressive considering he was virtually laughed out of the medical profession.

Many of history’s great geniuses have toiled in anonymity, but it’s a thing of spectacular bamboozlement when someone with the foresight to establish something that is accepted as a subconscious standard decades later was actually lambasted by his peers for thinking outside the box. Louis Pasteur is revered and regarded, with his name showing up on the sides of milk cartons, juice boxes, butter bars and syrup jars for his work in germ theory. But Dr. Semmelweis?

The poor guy doesn’t even pass the spell-check feature of Microsoft Word. And without him, Pasteur might never have uncovered all those secrets of the micro-universe between the filthy ridges of our fingertips.


Dr. Semmelweis (who, according to the photos I could find, may never have had a full head of hair) was born in the Buda part of Budapest, in what was then a part of the Austrian Empire. He earned his doctorate degree in 1844 and decided to specialize in obstetrics. He was assigned to the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, serving under Professor Johann Klein, a man whose contributions to the field of medicine appear to have been little more than squat. I mention this only because his dickishness plays into this story a little later. Read more…

Day 854: Training Your Barometer To Be A Really Long Ruler


One day a young student at the University of Copenhagen was asked if he knew how to measure the height of a building using only a barometer. The correct answer involves measuring the atmospheric pressure on the building’s roof and again on the street below, then calculating the height through the difference between the two results. The student came up with a number of alternative answers instead, forcing the professor to re-think the very nature of how he asked questions of his students. That young man was none other than Niels Bohr, future winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Don’t believe me? What if I told you that student was future Vice-President of the United States Spiro Agnew? No? How about a savvy teenage Marc Price, who played Skippy on Family Ties? Are you getting the sense that I have no idea what I’m talking about? 854 days and finally the truth is revealed.

The barometer question is one of the most pristine examples of a true urban legend. We can trace its publication origin perfectly, yet not even the super-sleuths at snopes.com can confirm whether or not such a dastardly comedic display of youthful insouciance ever actually occurred in a college classroom.

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Dr. Alexander Calandra, a test designer with a face that practically dares you to challenge his charming and home-spun anecdotes, included this story in his 1961 blockbuster, The Teaching of Elementary Science of Mathematics. The legend’s origins can be traced to a Reader’s Digest story three years earlier. Dr. Calandra claims the incident actually happened to his colleague during the Sputnik Crisis, when American scientific minds were in a panic to avoid being the second superpower nation to conquer outer space. Read more…

Day 850: When Society Slaps Back At The Intelligentsia


The dumbing-down mentality within our popular culture is so pervasive, even those at the bottom of the intellectual food chain are aware it’s happening. Lest you worry that this will turn into a kvetch-laden rant about the Grand Media Conspiracy, let me assure you that we are doing this to ourselves. We are collectively opting to pour more of our time into formulaic singing competitions like The Voice and American Idol than into listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the mysteries of the universe on Cosmos.

And that’s fine – I’m not here to place myself on a pedestal of intellectual lucidity and preach to the unwashed masses who while away their hours watching the lowbrow hijinks on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Hell, I’m one of those people; that show is deviously hilarious. And while I don’t believe it’s an obligation to devote one’s recreational boob-tubery solely to educational pursuits and high art, I think overall we can do a little better.

To be honest, I’m more concerned about dumbing-down as it applies to the greater threat of anti-intellectualism – a form of outright discrimination against those who over-emphasize their think-muscles. It’s frustrating to consider that Avril Lavigne’s insipid Kitty song is going to earn her more money than Sharon Jones will make off her brilliant new album, but when anti-intellectualism is allowed to become policy, we are in serious trouble.


So why the hate for intellectuals? Is it jealousy? Hypocrisy? A deep-seeded loathing for free-form jazz and prog-rock? The most sensible answer I could find was a disdain for the abject disconnect between the intellectual’s calculated ideal and the world of realistic application. To put it bluntly, unless the intellectual has gotten their hands dirty at some point, they don’t really know the whole story. It’s one thing to design an elaborate factory, tweaked to the last dusty micron to produce at maximum efficiency for an unheralded profit, but quite another to actually toil in that factory, and to experience how soul-sucking and physically exhausting that “brilliant design” can be. Read more…

Day 424: The Good Folk Of ’71


People – mostly the imaginary people who routinely accompany me in dull, solitary tasks like taking out the garbage or folding laundry – often ask me if I worry about exhausting the Wikipedian supply of kilograph-worthy topics. I have spent enough hours clicking ‘Random Article’ to realize that this will never happen. I could run this project through 10,000 days and still find fresh topics to draw my fingers into their daily tap-dance on my keyboard.

But I won’t. 1000 days and this project gets lit up like a cigar by a hundred-dollar bill. I’m out.

For now, I’m going to dip into a sampling of biographies of folks who may not warrant a full entry’s worth of prose, but whose life stories made me smile. Also, they were all born in 1871, so yes, there is a common thread.


In trekking through Wikipedia’s populace, I’ve tripped over numerous American football players and coaches. Most are abbreviated entries; some never even went pro. Writing an article about some guy who played left guard for Notre Dame in 1921 isn’t going to spark my muse.

Then there’s Fielding H. Yost. As a player, his record is dubious (after losing three times to Lafayette College as a tackle with West Virginia, Yost joined Lafayette mid-season for one game, just to play on a winning team), not a lot of coaches could match his numbers. In 1901, Yost hooked up with the Michigan Wolverines as head coach. His first season wasn’t bad – his team outscored their opponents by a combined 550-0, and he won the first ever Rose Bowl 49-0.

Nowhere to go but down from there. Actually, that’s not true. There’s always straight ahead, with no change of altitude. Michigan went a total of 56 games without a loss, outscoring their opponents 2821 to 42 over the next five years. Yost invented the position of linebacker. He was the first football coach to earn a living at it, making as much as a Michigan professor. Sixty-four men who coached under him as assistants went on to become head coaches, including two in the NFL. Bill Belichick can suck it – Yost is the man.


Hubert Cecil Booth (not an actual photo) was a British builder. Versatile is an understated adjective for Mr. Booth: he concocted everything from Ferris wheels to suspension bridges to engines for British Navy battleships. One day he was checking out a demonstration of a compressed-air cleaning system for railway carriages. He wasn’t impressed, but he was inspired. Rather than blow the debris and dust away from oneself, a machine that sucks air in through a filter might achieve the dual goals of cleaning a surface and not scattering crap all over the place.

The photo above is Booth’s (and the world’s) first electric vacuum cleaner. It should have made him wealthy beyond compare, but the Hoover company made better gadgets. Booth did okay, but Hoover ran the market.


Okay, an explorer born in 1871 doesn’t have a lot of uncharted earth left to cover. But David Wynford Carnegie found a few chunks of terrain that hadn’t yet been slapped on a map. Carnegie started out as a gold prospector in Western Australia. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out (pun intended – I’m embracing the velvety seduction of low-brow humor today). He wound up mapping out a significant portion of inner Australia. When his party would run low on water, they’d find some natives, capture them, then force them to lead his gang to a water source. It’s like they say, what happens in the outback stays in the outback. Usually because someone is dead.

In 1897, Carnegie returned to England. He published a book about his journey, gave a short lecture tour, and received a medal for his work by the Royal Geographic Society. Carnegie had found his calling. It was time to find some new land, to build upon his reputation as one of the 19th century’s preeminent explorers. Off to Africa!

In Niger he landed a job, as Assistant Resident of the Middle Niger – the kind of job that could only exist in a colony nation. Carnegie was sent out to apprehend a local fugitive. While searching through a nearby village, he was shot in the thigh with a poison arrow. He died fifteen minutes later, six months shy of his 30th birthday.


How awesome would it be to become the first woman ever elected to a Russian cabinet? Sofia Panina holds this honor, even though the party didn’t last. I mean that literally – the Kadet Party was knocked into the ashes five months later during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Sofia was one of the folks trying to keep the government together in the shadow of Lenin’s successful coup, and she got arrested for her troubles.

The charge was embezzling 93,000 rubles from the Ministry of Education, an accusation Sofia staunchly denied. The Bolsheviks held a trial that almost escalated to violence, before finding her guilty and insisting she pay back the money. That’s hard to do when one hasn’t actually stolen anything, but Sofia’s friends came through for her, and she was eventually released from prison. She spent the rest of her life in exile, settling in Prague. When the Nazis came knocking on the Czechoslovakian door, she fled once more, ending up where all the interesting folks seem to end up: New York.


Okay, Robert Stewart Sparks was awesome.

In 1912 he landed the gig in charge of issuing marriage licenses in Los Angeles. For whatever reason, thousands of lonely people wrote to his office, looking desperately for a mate. He played Cupid (and earned that nickname) by sifting through those letters with his wife and pairing up the lovelorn as pen-pals. According to Sparks, this led to hundreds of marriages.

He spent most of the 20’s on City Council. Under his direction, private hospitals were forced to take emergency patients, the Humane Society was denied an extra batch of tax-collectors (Sparks believed even poor kids deserved a puppy, even if they couldn’t pay to have it registered), and he vehemently opposed a proposal by religious groups to have a tribunal of seven members to rule on whether or not films could be screened in the LA area. Sparks was in favor of match-making and opposed to censorship. He’d have enjoyed the internet era.

I’ll leave you with a piece of matrimonial advice from Robert Stewart Sparks, who wound up issuing more than 200,000 marriage licenses to Los Angelinos: husbands should always remember their anniversary, and buy a nice gift for their wives. “If husbands do this and storm clouds arise, and the matrimonial lute shows signs of piping some sour notes, the wives recall that their husbands, alone and unaided, did remember the anniversaries, and the difficulties melt away.”

Right. I’m sure pointing out, “But honey, remember that bracelet I bought you for our anniversary eight months ago?” isn’t going to lessen the burn when you’re caught with three or four prostitutes. But I guess Sparks’ heart was in the right place.

Day 402: Sentences From The Depths Of Hell


As a writer, I have learned to love words. Specifically, I have learned to make sweet, sweet love to them in kinky and unfathomable ways that would make the Internet itself shut down and tell to join a support group. So when language straps on some weirdness of its own, dims the lights and tells me it wants to get a little funky, I’ll gladly lock the door, pick a safe-word and dive on in. This is one of those days.

The cluster of linguistic titillation on today’s menu is the following sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Whew! I’m glad I took one of those little blue pills so I can last this entire article. The above sentence makes perfect grammatical sense; all you have to do is bend it around your brain until you find the right shape to make it fit. William J. Rappaport, an associate professor at the University of (you guess it) Buffalo is credited for coming up with this sentence back in 1992.

By the way, Rappaport’s wife is the lady who bought Lucille Ball’s childhood home. That has nothing to do with anything, but I am forever the bitch of meaningless trivia. Read more…