Archive for April, 2021

Einstein on Irrelevancies

Albert Einstein visited the U.S. for the first time in April 1921.

On a two-month tour, ostensibly to raise money for the proposed Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Einstein met President Warren Harding and delivered a series of soldout lectures about his theory of relativity. Harding admitted that he didn’t understand Einstein’s theory at all, and he wasn’t the only one. “I sat in the balcony,” one Einstein lecture attendee told a reporter, “but he talked right over my head anyway.”

While in America, Einstein gave an interview with Don Arnald for the New York Times, in which zero of the questions were about science. Among Einstein’s notable insights and observations about life and culture:

On movies, he though they were mostly bad at the time but predicted they would continually improve. (A prediction that held true up through the ’90s.)

“And the movies? I am enthusiastic about them — I mean for the presentation of living moving things. They will develop more and more. In general, the pictures shown now are not so artistic, but they will get better, very much better, all the time… I think, all in all, the movies are only in their infancy. They are very beautiful, but they will get better, until the best plays can be shown.”

On New York City, which he deemed the best city on earth:

“He is asking what I think of New York. I tell him glorious! I tell him I see here the greatest city in the world, like Paris, like London, only better! I tell him here all people of all nationalities are melted together — and are happy. I tell him the stranger comes here and is full of joy because he goes to his people at once and feels at home.”

On Prohibition, which he argued had its benefits… but drew the line at banning tobacco, which was his personal vice of choice.

“I cannot say alcohol is as bad as people think it is. It may not be so good for men to spend all their wages on drinking. But it is more an economic question than a question of health. I think you will find it best for the economic welfare of the people in the end… If I do not wish to smoke, I say it is excellent to take my tobacco away. But I do wish to smoke, so I say I do not like you to do that.”

Hebrew University would open four years later in 1925, although Einstein’s own tour raised only $750,000 of a hoped-for $4 million towards the project.

This was hardly the last time he would visit the U.S. To escape persecution, he fled Germany in January 1932, the month before Hitler rose to power. Because of his Judaism and doubly because of his public criticisms of Hitler and Nazism, Einstein likely would have been killed had he remained in Europe. Instead, he spent the remaining 23 years of his life peacefully in the U.S.

 

 

Einstein on Irrelevancies (PDF)

Published: Sunday, May 1, 1921

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Written by Jesse

April 30th, 2021 at 10:01 am

Posted in Interview,Science

Doctor by Any Other Name

Last December, controversy swirled when a Wall Street Journal op-ed argued Jill Biden shouldn’t go by “Dr. Jill.” The same debate occurred a century prior, when in 1921 a group at UVA formed the Society for the Rationalization of the Title of Doctor.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine covered the story:

“It may be that the hovering spirit of Thomas Jefferson, renowned, whether justly or not, for conspicuously democratic habits and behavior, moved the professors at the university which he founded to declare that all men were not only free and equal but should show it by wearing the same title.”

So should the title “doctor” be reserved solely for physicians? The article also quoted Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, who argued that even physicians shouldn’t:

“I see no reason why the disagreeable habit of addressing certain persons by the title of doctor should not be done away with entirely,” he said to an inquirer the other day. “And there is no more reason for addressing a doctor of medicine as doctor than for so addressing a doctor of philosophy, of laws, or of theological. In fact, in England it is not done.”

The other side of the argument was that everybody who earns a doctorate should be called “doctor,” including Ph.D.’s and others.

How about the horn-rimmed-spectacled young man who has just won his degree by presenting the world with a thick volume entitled “The Intensive Use of  Skylights in the Monasteries of the Thirteenth Century,” with voluminous footnotes abounding in Latin on each page? And the other young man who has been similarly rewarded for his thesis on “The Declining Prestige of the Preposition ‘Ab’ After the Second Punic War.” And he who has chased the parts of speech all the way from H.G. Wells back to Chaucer and is off the press with a tome demonstrating beyond a doubt that Pope was more fond of intransitive verbs than was Francis Bacon? What of these? And of thousands of others like them? Is it not cruel and unusual punishment to deprive them of the glory for which they have so faithfully labored?

The debate continues today. Conservative author Joseph Epstein published a December 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that incoming First Lady Jill Biden shouldn’t call herself “Dr.”

The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences. Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field. At Columbia University of an earlier day, a secretary sat outside the room where these examinations were administered, a pitcher of water and a glass on her desk. The water and glass were there for the candidates who fainted. A far cry, this, from the few doctoral examinations I sat in on during my teaching days, where candidates and teachers addressed one another by first names and the general atmosphere more resembled a kaffeeklatsch. Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, or long after the terror had departed.

Jill Biden defended herself on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

That was such a surprise. It was really the tone of it. He called me ‘kiddo.’ One of the things I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I worked so hard for it. Joe came when I defended my thesis. But look at all the people who came out in support of me.”

I won’t wade into the debate over whether Jill Biden should call herself “Dr.” but hopefully we can all agree that Dr. Dre never received his doctorate. That man has been inflating his academic credentials since the late ’80s.

 

Doctor by Any Other Name (PDF)

Published: Sunday, April 24, 1921

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Written by Jesse

April 23rd, 2021 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Debate,Health

The Stranger Within the Gates

New York state passed its first antidiscrimination law in 1895, yet in 1921 it was still being flouted by businesses in all sorts of underhanded ways.

But, of course, in actual practice, the suave young hotel clerk practices just such discriminations every day in the week. If he sees you coming and registers his inward objection, “I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,” the best he can promise is a room in the annex, week after next. Experience has rendered him 100 per cent. efficient in turning down the unwelcome stranger, whether it be a too-swarthy gentleman from Haiti or South America or an unsterilized appearing customer who might be the forerunner of the Bolshevist convention.

So what recourse did a refused would-be customer have to right this wrong? In 1921, not much. Which explains why most of them didn’t try.

The applicant rebuffed may be mortally certain that the clerk’s declaration, “No room,” is a downright lie; but in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand the bona fida applicant slinks away meekly enough, to seek refuse elsewhere. The thousandth man makes a test case of himself in court, with all the hotel forces arrayed against him to swear that the facts were quite different from those that he states. If he does win his case, the jury may award him 6 cents damages.

It took another few decades before the problem would actually be solved, not just in law but in reality. Much of that effort was accomplished by individual New Yorkers striving to change the system one by one, business by business, as Michael Woodsworth described in his 2016 book Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City —

Activists across New York City worked to end informal segregation by sending out “testers” to hundreds of restaurants known to exclude black clientele. Though largely successful, these challenges gained less press coverage than the wave of lunch-counter sit-ins that swept the South after 1960. Ironically, the problem for New York activists was that segregation was illegal, even if it persisted on the ground. They could not hope to deal a fatal blow to the Jim Crow system, since the Jim Crow system did not officially exist. Because discrimination endured in so many restaurants, hotels, and construction sites, despite laws to the contrary, assailing it required hundreds upon hundreds of individual challenges. No wonder that Brooklynites were eager to identify with the more dramatic — and more dangerous — Southern campaigns, to which Bed-Stuy activists often lent a hand in person.

Fortunately for all of us, the Jim Crow system was dismantled by law, just as New York City’s culture of business discrimination was largely dissolved through changing culture norms. (Note the word largely. Although you don’t see businesses outright refusing to seat customers based on their race or ethnicity anymore, that same person’s ease in hailing a New York City cab may tell a different story.)

Actually, in the past few years, the single most prominent controversy in the U.S. regarding a private business’s refusal to accept somebody was a Virginia restaurant’s refusal to seat a straight white person, because they worked for the Trump administration.

 

The Stranger Within the Gates (PDF)

Published: Sunday, April 17, 1921

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Written by Jesse

April 16th, 2021 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Life

Our Kill-Joy Autocracy

Prohibition’s ratification was but one piece of evidence revealing a larger trend: by 1921, wrote columnist Charles Hanson Towne, America was being run by “killjoys.”

There is one maddening phase of all this nonsense — a point that pricks a sensible citizen to the bone — and that is the fact that the minority who got together and did it to us are the type of folk whom we wouldn’t like to go out to dinner with in any circumstances; a pack of kill-joys who, even were they willing to absorb all the cocktails and champagne in the world, couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be called “good fellows.”

While there’s no longer Prohibition, the same “killjoy” mentality could also be said of many of our most prominent politicians in the modern era. On the Democratic side, you have Hillary Clinton, who was parodied to a T with this fake op-ed in The Onion:

On the Republican side, Donald Trump refused to attend all three in-person White House Correspondent’s Dinners during his presidency, breaking a decades-long uninterrupted presidential tradition where the commander-in-chief was willing to endure all the jokes made about him. And as for whether Mitch McConnell is fun, I’ll let Barack Obama answer that:

 

Our Kill-Joy Autocracy (PDF)

Published: Sunday, April 3, 1921

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Written by Jesse

April 2nd, 2021 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Life