Dusty Little Fascinations

Battle and service and sport and art.


Featherweight and fiction-heavy, the potboilers and bodice-rippers that line our summer picnic baskets and beach bags have been around longer than you might imagine:

Today, this 19th-century focus on lightness seems amusingly explicit. But while these days we take holiday reading for granted, those all-caps advertising claims reflected what were then relatively new theories of vacationing. Each trip needed to be both relaxing and fun, if for no other reason than to prepare you to work harder, once your vacation ended. In the same way, readers in the second half of the 19th century wanted their vacation reads to be effortless. The Chicago Tribune, just before it unveiled its favorite summer reads for 1872, put it this way: The best summer book was one “the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves.”

In distinctly American fashion, even our vacation idleness was carefully planned to maximize utility: We work hard and must, therefore, rest harder. The nineteenth century’s Dan Browns and Daniel Steels walked that formula briskly to the bank.

And then, briefly, came the scolds:

For summer resorts, this led to a new commitment to virtuous and proper vacationing. (Towns along the Jersey Shore began posting the following notice: “Do not go through the streets in bathing costumes. It is coarse and vulgar, and is in violation of the city ordnance.”) And in terms of summer reading, it led to a backlash against purely pleasurable books. “It has come to be an accepted notion that in summer a person’s reading must be as light as his hat and as thin as his coat,” one critic observed in the Globe in 1890. “This belief is largely responsible for the vast amount of utterly empty literature that is dumped upon the newsstands and book counters of the country.”

This critic went on to bash both summer readers (“People who read summer literature in the summer read it all the time”) and summer reading (“Such books paralyze thought, sap the intellect, and, in time, drain the brain as empty as themselves”). Similar articles cropped up everywhere: Summer reading was now too slight, too wasteful, too enfeebling, no matter how warm the weather.

Poll a random section of the Ocean City beachfront in July. Tell me who won that culture war.


One If By Land, Two If By Social Networking

Metadata analysis has been caught somewhat conspicuously in the public eye lately, and who but Paul Revere and the clubby community of 1770s Boston patriots to provide a case study in the power of data mining? Kieran Healy channels an 18th-century sifter of “bigge data”:

The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. As you may be aware, Mr Fischer is an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies. I, on the other hand, have made my way from Ireland with just a little quantitative training—I placed several hundred rungs below the Senior Wrangler during my time at Cambridge—and I am presently employed as a junior analytical scribe at ye olde National Security Administration. Sorry, I mean the Royal Security Administration. And I should emphasize again that I know nothing of current affairs in the colonies. However, our current Eighteenth Century beta of PRISM has been used to collect and analyze information on more than two hundred and sixty persons (of varying degrees of suspicion) belonging variously to seven different organizations in the Boston area.

A little bit of math (specifically the multiplication of an adjacency matrix by its transpose) produces a handy index of associations between the various Bostonian rabble-rousers. Healy then uses various “centrality” measures to show that the manipulation of metadata can reveal the social dynamics of a large network and that Revere was a node par excellence in this particular social network. All that aside, of course, from his better-known equestrian exploits.

History. It doesn’t always look like “history”:


So pretty! And topical.

“The fact that so many phreaks were blind heightens the emotional investment.”

Bryan Alexander reviews Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone, a new history of phreaking, in Reason:

Before they were labeled phreaks (that happened in 1971, via an Esquire article) these outside explorers built machines to imitate the phone system’s signals and to link two phones to make an ad hoc conference call; they methodically discovered codes for bouncing long-distance calls across multiple cities, reaching hidden exchanges. Meanwhile, as AT+T gradually realized that they were being invaded, the company slowly developed policy responses, including working with the FBI, tracking users, and ultimately recording millions of phone calls.

Things You Don’t Expect to Learn about Rap While Reading a Business History of Baseball, Part One.

I’m reading John Helyar’s excellent Lords of the Realm, and he’s describing the slow death of Charlie O. Finley’s late-1970’s Oakland club, when suddenly:

The A’s front office was down to six people. One was a fourteen-year-old gofer named Stanley Burrell, listed on Oakland’s organizational chart as a vice president. He was black with a moon face that made him slightly resemble a young Hank Aaron. His nickname became “Hammer.” Years later, he would use it for his stage name, when he became rapper MC Hammer.

Photographic evidence:

Honestly, is there a need for anything in this world but air, bread, and baseball trivia?

A Counting Game

Read this John Thorn piece on the early history of advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Do it before the season starts next week. (Next week! The season starts next week!) Read it even if you don’t care a lick for baseball but you can appreciate a good story about the growth and complication of a simple idea. (Modestly stated, that there might be better ways to evaluate the quality of a ballplayer than batting average and pitchers’ wins.) Thorn:

Although the old ideas remained in place despite his efforts, [General Manager Branch] Rickey had shaken them to their foundations. He attacked the batting average and proposed in its place the On Base Average; advocated the use of Isolated Power (extra bases beyond singles, divided by at bats) as a better measure than slugging percentage; introduced a “clutch” measure of run-scoring efficiency for teams, and a similar concept for pitchers (earned runs divided by baserunners allowed); reaffirmed the basic validity of the ERA and saw the strikeout for the insubstantial stat it was; and more. But the most important thing Rickey did for baseball statistics was to pull it back along the wrong path it had taken at the crossroads long ago: to strip the game and its stats to their essentials and start again, this time remembering that individual stats came into being as an attempt to apportion the players’ contributions to achieving victory, for that is what the game is about.

Some of this stuff – Rickey’s “G,” or Earnshaw Cook’s “Scoring Index” statistic from Percentage Baseball (1964) – will seem neolithic to in-the-know fans of advanced baseball metrics. But you catch in it little glimpses of greater statistics to come – of wins above replacement, of weighted on-base average, of expected fielding independent pitching. More important than the alphabet soup is the crucial attitude – the skepticism, the belief that there are unsettled questions about baseball, that numbers can help us to answer those questions, and that a goodly portion of the conventional wisdom about the National Game (about life!) is just bunk.

Baseball is a traditional game and practically a museum unto itself. No surprise, then, that it took decades for numbers-heavy analysis with complex methodologies practiced by professional statisticians to catch on in the front offices. It still hasn’t really penetrated the baseball fan-base or baseball journalism, which is a predictable shame. (See: The Trout/Cabrera 2012 MVP kerfuffle.) There’s a good story there, too, and it’s as much a human drama as a mathematical one. If that’s more your speed, you can’t go wrong reading Moneyball.

“My name is Chubb, that makes the Patent Locks; Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair.”

Here’s the story of Alfred C. Hobbs, yankee lock-picker extraordinaire, who humbled both Jeremiah Chubb (haughty ironmonger and locksmith) and the British Empire (which apparently attached much of its mid-19th century pride to the unpickability of its locks):

It was a click that became a thundershot. “We believed before the Exhibition opened that we had the best locks in the world,” wrote the Times, “and among us Bramah and Chubb were reckoned quite as impregnable as Gibraltar.” But a “Great Lock Controversy,” as the papers called it, was afoot: Had Hobbs opened it properly? Was some form of mischief present? Was the lock safe against normal theft? With the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for contested elections, the press pored over the trial’s details. Bramah protested that while it had granted Hobbs the right to find the single instrument that would open the lock, “we never for a moment agreed that he was to be allowed to keep the spring fixed down as long as he pleased during his thirty days’ labour, and affix his apparatus to the woodwork in which the lock was enclosed, while he used at pleasure three other separate and distinct instruments to assist him in his operations.” Chubb, still stung after what it called the “doings at the empty house in Great George-street,” sniffed with enthusiastic scorn: “We congratulate Mr. Hobbs on the envied honour of having picked a Bramah’s lock after ‘16 days’ labour.’ ” With cool condescension, the Bankers’ Magazine wrote that “the result of the experiment has simply shown that, under a combination of the most favourable circumstances, and such as practically could never exist, Mr. Hobbs has opened the lock.”

I love the image of a peripatetic lock-picker who hops from town to town across the countryside, picking safes and selling replacement locks to frightened bankers. Very American.

The Bloody 1600s

Ron Rosenbaum interviews Bernard Bailyn, and they talk about the violent, tumultuous first century of English life in North America. But there’s a lot more than that up for discussion. Native religiosity:

“Their world was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories and purposes, that surround them, instructed them, impinged on their lives at every turn. No less real for being invisible…the whole of life was a spiritual enterprise…the universe in all its movements and animations and nature was suffused with spiritual potency.”

Puritan economic theory:

Free market theory dictates there should be only one motive in economic culture: getting the max. But early colonists integrated piety and humility into their economic lives. Spiritual considerations. One of his favorite stories is about the English merchant who couldn’t stop confessing the sin of overcharging.

“Robert Keayne,” he recalls, “was a very, very proper Puritan tradesman from London who made it big and set up trade here and then got caught for overpricing.”

“The guy who made a big apology?” I ask, recalling the peculiar episode from his book.

“He wrote endlessly, compulsively,” of his remorse, Bailyn replies.

The awesomeness of Roger Williams:

Bailyn’s description of the many contradictory aspects of Williams’ character stayed with me. A zealot, but tolerant. An outcast, but a self-outcast. Willing to be seen as a “nut case” in his time. A visionary sense of the way to a better future in that dark century. So much of the American character, like Williams, emerges from the barbarous years. And that century has left its stamp on us. Not the “zealous nut case” part, though that’s there. I’m thinking of that compound word Bailyn likes about Williams: “unlamb-like.” That’s us.