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Wednesday, November 12, 2014


When MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, one of the chief architects of Obamacare referred, in a year-old video last week, to the "stupidity of the American voter" and a "lack of transparency" as critical to the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, it ignited a fire storm of outrage.

But was Gruber wrong when he made those off-the-cuff remarks about the American electorate at an academic conference in 2013?

Sadly, it appears that he may have been right in his assessment. According to at least two recent surveys, Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to their country and its governance.

Ask them to name just one Supreme Court Justice and 65 percent can’t, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

It gets better. Ask Americans to name the three branches of their government and 36 percent of Americans can’t. Ask them to name just a single branch of government and 35 percent can’t even do that.

But in a nation consumed like no other with celebrity, ask Americans to reel off the names of the top rock stars, gansta rappers, Oscar favorites, superstars in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and any number of mindless reality TV shows and their minions and guess what? You will have no problem getting an answer.

So while Gruber is being pilloried for his remarks, the sad truth is that he is right. American voters are stupid--or perhaps apathetic or indifferent are better descriptions.

Lying to them, as the Obama administration did when it was ramming Obamacare through Congress and down our throats, was viewed as an acceptable tactic. After all, they reasoned, Americans are too stupid to know what's good for them.

While such a conclusion may smack of just somebody's opinion, it was backed up last month in a groundbreaking survey by the U.K. research firm Ipsos MORI. That survey highlighted the political “ignorance” of 11,527 people across 14 countries

It found that Americans are second only to Italians in how little we understand our nations and the issues facing it. (See Graphic)

Here are a few of the questions asked and the results:

·       What percentage of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim?
Americans guessed: 15%.  Reality: 1%

·       What percentage of the population do you think are immigrants to America?
Americans guessed: 32%. Reality: 13%

·       Do you think this statement is true or false: The murder rate is rising in America
70 percent of Americans guessed: True . Reality: False

·       What percentage of American girls aged between 15 and 19 years give birth each year? Americans guessed: 23.9%. Reality: 3.1%

 Back in 2008, Rick Shenkman, the editor-in-chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled: Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter.

Shenkman found that most Americans were, among other things:

·       Ignorant about major international events

·       Knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it

·       Were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country

·       Were easily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble.

Shenkman found that Americans, when they do pay attention, do so when they perceive that an issue may impact them, their families or friends personally. That is not earth shattering, but it does say something about the fact that Americans, like it or not, are part of the global family.

I spent some two decades as a foreign correspondent, covering stories throughout Asia and Latin America. During that time I discovered that relatively few Americans had any understanding at all of the impact events and policies in places like China or Japan can have on their lives.

For example, when products are manufactured more inexpensively in China or India or Vietnam that often means higher paid Americans lose their jobs.

When rapacious government policies allow a Chinese steel company to export its products at a price that is lower in the American market than the price charged in the domestic Chinese market, and thereby unfairly undercut American steel makers, that is called "dumping."

What most Americans may not know is that dumping is legal under World Trade Organization rules unless the aggrieved foreign country can demonstrate the negative impact of the exporting company on domestic producers. In order to counter dumping, most nations use tariffs and quotas to protect their domestic industry from the negative effects of predatory pricing.

But let's get back to that Ipsos MORI survey and Gruber's unflattering characterization of the American voter.

We often decry the quality of elected officials today. But what about the quality of voters?

How can we make informed decisions about places like Iraq and Iran, organizations like ISIS, government spending, and societal issues if we have no understanding of the essential specifics involved?

American educator and philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins may have said it best:

"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Students Support First Amendment Freedoms More Than Adults

There is a reason the very first amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1791 dealt with issues such as freedom of speech, the press, religion, the right of peaceful assembly and the right to redress grievances via government petition.

The founding fathers viewed those freedoms and rights as critical to a functioning democracy. Without them a government could exercise almost total control over its people.

Americans often talk about the First Amendment without really knowing what it says. Here is a refresher for those who may have forgotten the wording:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

It was heartening to me a few weeks ago when a national study of 10,463 high school students and 588 teachers funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that students are more supportive of the First Amendment than adults and that increased digital news consumption and classroom teaching are driving the change.

It makes me wonder if adults have become blasé about the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment--or worse.

When I hear people suggest that government should "reign in the media" or curb speech they don't like or agree with, it's like suggesting that government chip away at the foundation of the Capitol Building. Eventually, with enough chipping the building will collapse and with enough "reigning in" of the First Amendment we will find ourselves unable to speak or publish freely.

So it was encouraging that these students apparently understand the value of freedom of the press and speech when it comes to opinions they don't agree with.

"Student use of social, mobile and digital media to consume news is at all-time highs, and so is student support of the First Amendment," said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of Knight Foundation. "The most supportive students of all are heavy digital media users who also have had a class explaining the First Amendment."

The study, the fifth in a series of national surveys of high school students and teachers commissioned by the Knight Foundation during the past 10 years, holds important implications for the future of the First Amendment. Courts interpret the meaning of the first amendment within the context of public opinion.

Here are a few key findings of the Knight Study:

●      High school students are showing more appreciation for the First Amendment than adults. Only 24 percent of students said that the First Amendment goes too far in guaranteeing the rights of religion, speech, press assembly and petition. In comparison, a Newseum Institute survey that tracks adult opinions on the first amendment showed that 38 percent of adults feel this way. This marks a shift: 10 years ago students (35 percent) were more likely than adults (30 percent) to say that the First Amendment goes too far.

●      More students than ever before are showing support for the First Amendment: Nine in 10 students surveyed said that “people should be able to express unpopular opinions,” and 60 percent oppose government surveillance of online information and phone calls even to identify terrorists.

●      Both digital news consumption and First Amendment appreciation are growing among high school students. Seventy-one percent of students said they read news online daily; in 2006 only 31 percent said they got news and information from the Internet several times per week. And while only eight percent of students reported consuming news and information daily through mobile devices in 2007, the latest report shows 62 percent of students now use mobile for this purpose—the highest level measured by the survey.

●      Digital media works hand-in-hand with the classroom. First Amendment support is highest among students who had a class that dealt with the First Amendment and used digital media on a regular basis. For example, 65 percent of the students who use digital news daily agreed strongly that people should be able to express unpopular opinions, but if they had a First Amendment-related class, the strong support for free speech rose to 69 percent.

●      Most teachers do not support free expression for students creating content about their schools. In a generational divide, the majority of teachers disagree that First Amendment rights should apply to school activities. For example, 57 percent of teachers feel that students should not be allowed to report on controversial issues in student newspapers and 67 percent say that students should not be allowed to express their opinions about teachers and school administrators on Facebook without penalty.

Obviously, there is a parting of the ways when it comes to press and speech freedom for students.

When I was the Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois I also happened to be a member of the board of the non-profit Illini Media Company--the student run newspaper that serves the university community.

Thankfully, the Illini Media Company was not a constituent of the University--though its student editors and reporters were.

Did the Daily Illini occasionally make some errors in judgment? Did it sometimes print a story that was not entirely accurate? Did it criticize the University of Illinois administration on occasion?

Yes, yes and yes. It did all of those things. But it corrected its errors and it responsibly recognized, clarified and apologized for its inaccuracies.

But one thing it never did, was kowtow to the University administration when that august body was angry about a Daily Illini story that it didn't approve of.

And that is exactly what "reigning in the media" would mean for press freedom in this country.
As Finley Peter Dunne once said about the media: they should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

But beyond that, they should use the power of the First Amendment to be an unbiased and responsible watchdog of government and in so doing, speak and act on behalf of the people.

Because if the media do not, who will?

Here is a link to the survey:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Typhoid Mary & Kaci Hickox: "Don't Quarantine Me Bro"

When Doctors Without Borders Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox vowed to fight a state-imposed quarantine in Maine, I was reminded of a case of another woman who also fought against being quarantined and who became infamous for doing so.

Her name was Mary Mallon, but she was better known as Typhoid Mary--the first person in the United States recognized as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever.
"Typhoid Mary in Quarantine"

Unlike nurse Hickox, who is possibly facing a 21-day quarantine (the incubation period for Ebola) in her home, Typhoid Mary spent nearly 30 years forcibly isolated on New York's North Brother Island. 
So just who was Typhoid Mary?

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and came to the United States as teenager where she lived in New York with an aunt and uncle until their death.

Alone in the nation's largest city, the resourceful Mary first worked as a housekeeper in several homes. Then, in 1906 she was hired as a cook for a wealthy family in the fashionable Oyster Bay community.

Within two weeks 10 of the 11 family members were sick with typhoid. Mary moved on to three more households. In each case wherever Mary Mallon worked typhoid outbreaks occurred and each time that happened, she moved on.

One family stricken by the disease hired Dr. George A. Soper, an epidemiologist and sanitation engineer to investigate. Dr. Soper was a typhoid fever expert and was aware that the disease was often passed on by immune carriers, though he had yet to identify such a person.

By contrast, Ebola survivors who have developed immunity to the virus apparently do not carry the disease nor pass it on. In fact, some survivors are being trained to care for children in Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the UN's UNICEF agency.

That was not the case with the typhoid outbreak of 1906, however.

As Dr. Soper began his investigation he looked into the Oyster Bay family's eating habits. He investigated the possibilities that the illness was transferred through oysters or that sewage pipes could have tainted the family's drinking water.

 Finally, he focused on the kitchen staff. He soon identified Mary as the likely cause. Dr. Soper checked into her work history and discovered that most of the families she worked for in the past had suffered from typhoid outbreaks as well.

Soper ascertained that most of the food Mary served her employers was cooked (and therefore most likely safe from typhoid). However, Soper concluded that Mary's trademark ice cream and peaches dessert very likely infected the family.

By now, Mary was no longer working for the family that hired Soper and because she never left forwarding addresses when she left a household, it took considerable effort to track her down.

When he finally did locate her, Mary was unwilling to cooperate. Dr. Soper explained that Mary was infecting families with her cooking and asked her to provide urine and feces samples. As the story goes, Mary became so upset with the request that she chased the doctor from her kitchen with a large carving fork.

That was only a temporary reprieve for Mary, however. Dr. Soper reported Mary to New York City's Department of Health and convinced them to send a female health inspector, some policemen and an ambulance to bring her in for testing. When they arrived at the house, Mary ran and hid. They finally found her some three hours later and dragged her away, kicking and screaming.  

Testing concluded that Mary did carry the typhoid parasite. But why didn't she fall ill with the disease? A 2013 study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that the salmonella bacteria that causes typhoid fever hides in immune cells known as macrophages, a type of immune cell. The study said that if the germs are successful in pulling that off, then an infected person like Typhoid Mary can unknowingly spread the pathogen without falling ill herself.

According to the study: "Individuals can develop typhoid fever after ingesting food or water contaminated during handling by a human carrier. The human carrier may be a healthy person who has survived a previous episode of typhoid fever yet who continues to shed the associated bacteria, Salmonella typhi in feces and urine. Washing hands with soap before touching or preparing food, washing dishes and utensils with soap and water, and only eating cooked food are all ways to reduce the risk of typhoid infection,"

The Department of Health offered Mary Mallon a deal: give up cooking and she could go free. But Mary refused to promise anything and in 1907 she was quarantined on North Brother Island.
It didn't take long for New York's sensational newspapers to discover the story. They immediately christened her "Typhoid Mary." One newspaper illustration depicted Mary breaking egg-sized skulls into a skillet.

Just as nurse Kaci Hickox's situation has resulted in opposing opinions, so it was with Mary Mallon. Many Americans were convinced that Mary's civil liberties were being violated, while others viewed her as a public health menace.

Sound familiar?

Mary's quarantine on North Brother's Island ended in 1910 when a new and sympathetic health commissioner released her on condition that she never work as a cook again.  

But five years later health officials traced an outbreak of typhoid fever at Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan to a "Mrs. Brown," the facility's cook. "Mrs. Brown" turned out to be Mary Mallon. She was immediately sent back to North Brother Island, where she was forced to remain for the rest of her life. She died there on November 11, 1938, having lived a total of 26 years on the island.

Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox
Among the 47 typhoid infections Mary Mallon caused, at least three deaths were definitely attributed to her. However, because she used so many aliases and refused to cooperate with health authorities, the exact number is not known. Some officials estimated that she may have caused 50 fatalities.

The world has changed since 1915 when Typhoid Mary was quarantined for the final time. Nurse Hickox will never have to worry about being sent to a place like North Brother Island--even if she were to be found to have ebola.

But just as Mary Mallon insisted in 1915 that her civil rights were being violated by the authorities, so too has Kaci Hickox, who asserts she is not infected with the ebola virus.

Which leaves us with the same questions that were being asked almost 100 years ago when Typhoid Mary was quarantined: namely, when and under what circumstances can an individual's civil rights be trumped by the broader public's right to safety?

It's a dilemma in need of a resolution.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Islamic State Targeting Journalists

Last week the FBI officially warned news organizations that it has received "credible information" that a splinter group of the Islamic State has been ordered to kidnap journalists in the Mideast and take them to Syria.

I am not surprised by this news. It is, after all, a well-known tactic of Islamist terrorists to kidnap and murder journalists.

Beyond the obvious political reasons for kidnapping and murdering journalists is another less apparent motive.

Journalists, especially those from nations with a free press, disseminate information and there is nothing Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists hate more than free-flowing information. With information comes knowledge and the last thing religious fanatics like the Islamic State want is an informed and educated people who can actually think for themselves.

In its rare intelligence bulletin to news organizations the FBI warned that the group will attempt to hide its affiliation with the Islamic State in order to gain access to unsuspecting correspondents, cameramen and photographers.

The bulletin also cited an online post by an Islamic State supporter who wrote that media personnel such as "anchormen, field reporters and talk show hosts" were "prioritized targets."

The Islamic State has already beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and two British aid workers. The group is believed to be holding a several other Western hostages.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that more than 70 journalists already have been killed covering the Syrian conflict since it began in March 2011.

The U.S.-based organization estimates 30 local and international journalists are missing in Syria. One of them is Austin Tice, 33, a former U.S. Marine working as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers who was kidnapped August 2012 while working in Syria. (You can watch a video about Tice by clicking on the link at the end of this post.)

Kidnapped Journalist Austin Tice
 In light of the recent beheadings and the obvious danger of covering the civil war in Syria and brutal behavior of the Islamic State in Iraq, several American news organizations have stopped sending journalists to the region.

Instead their reporters file reports from Turkey and Lebanon and rely on secondary sources inside Syria. They also interview refugees and aid workers and monitor social media in the region.

As someone who once covered wars and revolutions from Asia to Latin America I can't imagine trying to cover a conflict without actually being on the ground where the fighting is taking place.

The closest I ever came to such a situation was the brief Falklands/Malvinas war between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982. Several hundred journalists (me included) were not allowed by Argentina to travel to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Instead, we had to cover the war from Buenos Aires and the Sheraton Hotel, where the Argentine authorities had set up a press room (AKA "Rubber Room") on the third floor.

There, we received government handouts that provided highly sanitized military reports on how the war was going. While it was the safest I had ever been while covering a war, it was also the most frustrating experience of my career as a war correspondent.

After an evening of consuming too much Argentine beer and wine eight of us correspondents decided to charter a fishing boat to take us to the islands. We actually found someone willing to do it for $5,000, but at the last minute the boat's captain refused to go, saying he had been warned that if he tried the Argentine Navy would sink his boat with all hands.

Looking back on it, I think I would rather have taken my chances of surviving an attack by the Argentine Navy than reporting the story from Syria today.

Covering war is dangerous work. As a noncombatant you risk being shot, shredded by shrapnel, or blown up by a mine or improvised explosive device. But covering war AND shielding yourself from fanatics like those in the Islamic State is asking a lot of reporters and photographers.

Sadly, many of the journalists who are putting themselves in harm's way today in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are freelancers.

For freelancers covering war has always been the fast track to establish their journalistic chops and work their way into a professional news organization. Reputations are made this way.

It takes guts to go into a war zone with little more than the clothes on your back and the vague promise that if you file enough "good stuff" you might "get a shot at the big time."

My advice to those who feel they MUST race off to places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan:  Make haste slowly. Life is already short. And I have yet to find a story that was worth more than my life, insignificant as it may be.

As a colleague of mine at the Chicago Tribune always told me: "Take time to stop and smell the flowers."

Good advice that.

(The link below will take you to a video about Austin Tice)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

An Idea to Save Book Stores and Help New Authors

One of the saddest events of the past ten years or so has been the inexorable demise of the brick and mortar book store. Fully half of the bookstores in the United States have vanished in the past ten years.

Gone are places like Borders, Crown Books, B. Dalton, Kroch's and Brentano's, Oxford Bookstore, Atlantic Books and Davis-Kidd Booksellers.

A few are still hanging on. Barely. Barnes & Noble, for example, and Follett's, Book Off USA, Hudson News and places like the sprawling and immensely popular Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

But for the most part, physical books stores are being shoved aside by online booksellers like Amazon, Alibris,,, ValoreBooks, etc.

The exception to this trend were recent reports by CNBC and Wall Street Journal that Amazon is planning on putting up a physical retail book store across from New York City's Empire State Building.

So far there has been no confirmation from Amazon.

But even if that were to happen, most experts see the demise of brick and mortar book stores continuing as more and more readers chose to buy their physical and e-books online.

So what can be done?

I recently received an e-mail containing an intriguing idea.

It came from author Doug Preston, who along with co-author Lincoln Child, has written such bestselling books as Relic, Riptide, Mount Dragon, Gideon's Sword and The Lost Island.

Preston attached a note containing an idea for saving book stores and helping authors sell more books in them. The idea was from author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, who has written books like The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and Why We Broke Up.

Rather than paraphrasing Handler's note and idea, I will include it here verbatim and add some final thoughts:

"Dear comrades-in-ink,

"Whether or not you are an author published by Hachette (as I am), you may lately feel as if you are engulfed in a rather unpleasant flood -- as if the fate of your books is whirling dreadfully out of your control, battered by the waters of some enormous South American river, the name of which I cannot remember at the moment. 

"While all this fierce sword fighting rages on without you, you may find yourself feeling even more hapless and hopeless than authors usually do, while your local independent bookstore struggles with a similar feeling that it's some sort of jungle out there.

There is Nothing Like a Book Store
"As a tonic, allow me to suggest a new program, cooked up by assorted interested parties and named, after some tipsy debate, Upstream.  The idea is to connect authors with their local independent booksellers to offer signed books as an alternative to, say, larger and more unnerving corporate machinations. Upstream was test-piloted this summer and is now spreading steadily, like optimism or syphilis.

"How does it work?  Easily, hopefully.  Here are some numbered steps.

"1. Choose and contact a bookseller close to your home.  If you cannot find one, the good folks at Indies First, coordinated by the American Booksellers Association, can be of service.  They are quite excited about the launching of this new and hopefully enormous campaign.

"2. The bookstore will order and sell your books; you will sign them.  Perhaps you'll stop by at regular intervals with your pen, or perhaps you can convince, with cake or gin, the bookseller to come to you.

"3. Both you and the bookseller will promote this arrangement as best you can, spreading the word not only about an exciting source of signed books to your readers anywhere in the country, but about a program anyone can join. 

"Feel free to tell your publicist you're participating.  Upstream should be in full swing in time for the holidays, when signed books are good gifts for loved ones and distance acquaintances alike.

"Will Upstream rescue us all from strife and worry?  Of course not.  But the hope is that it will remind both authors and booksellers of their local, less monolithic resources, and improve general esprit de corps at a disheartening time.

"With all due respect,

"Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket"

It sounds like a great idea. I have yet to approach any of my local bookstores about it, but I plan to. It seems like a win-win proposition. It's an opportunity to have authors in the store signing books and for readers to interact with authors.

E-book sales are fine. I have nothing against them. In fact, most of the sales of my own books have come as a result of Kindle, Nook and Kobo book sales.

But as convenient as e-books are they are also impersonal. You can't sign an e-book or talk to readers.
And let's not forget. What exactly are e-books? They are a collection of computer code that we essentially lease from companies like Amazon. Think about it. You can loan your physical books to as many people as many times as you wish.

But that is not the case with e-books. You may think you own an e-book, but you really don't. If you want to loan a Kindle e-book to a friend you must make sure the person you are loaning it to is using compatible e-book software. Then you can lend it only once for 14 days--and even then, you need to belong to Amazon's "Prime Program," which costs extra.

For an author like me, another frustration with e-books is this: if everybody on a train, or bus or plane is reading an e-book, I can't tell what they are reading. There are no covers, so I don't know if they are reading one of my books (highly unlikely) or one by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, or Stephen King. 

Finally, (and for me this may be the most important point) I like bookshelves. And I like bookshelves with lots of books sitting in them. An office or den or family room without a bookshelf filled with books seems naked to me.

Maybe that's why I like brick and mortar bookstores and why I hope they never vanish completely.
They have LOTS of bookshelves filled with books that you can pick up, handle, thumb through, take home and put in your own bookshelves.  

It's one of life's simple pleasures.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Amazing Mind of Nikola Tesla

When I look at the world that creative thinker and inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, I think it is a shame that this man never dabbled in science fiction.

The world Tesla foresaw, along with his inventions and ideas, was so far ahead of his time that they seem to have come from the realm of science fiction. Contemporaries such as sci-fi masters H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs must have taken inspiration from Tesla.

Yet, today, few Americans are aware of this genius and his contributions to our world.

 Tesla is the kind of character those of us who write historical fiction love to create and insert into our stories--brilliant, innovative, intractable, mysterious, intriguing, reclusive, eccentric.
Nikola Tesla

What he wasn't, unlike concurrent inventor Thomas Edison, was wealthy. Even after holding 700 patents, developing the Alternating Current (AC) electrical system, partnering with Westinghouse, and designing the nation's very first hydroelectric power plant in 1895 at Niagara Falls, N.Y., Tesla often was unable to fund his own research.

 Perhaps his boldest project was an idea in 1900 to build a global wireless system for the transmission of electricity using a special tower he constructed at Wardenclyffe, N.Y.  It was a system that Tesla said could provide "free electricity" to the whole world--not something profit-minded entrepreneurs like Edison and Westinghouse were in favor of.

Unable to generate funding for his tower project, he eventually abandoned the idea. And that wasn't the end of his commercial disappointments. Dozens of his valuable inventions were usurped and patented by others. These include radar technology, the induction motor, the dynamo, the rotating magnetic field, and x-ray technology.

Tesla, who was born in 1856 in Smiljan, Serbia (Croatia today), was an optimist who imagined a primarily utopian world where new scientific discoveries, rather than violent conflict, would guide humanity. He was a man less concerned with making money than with innovating for the public good.

“Today the most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education," he once said. "The twenty-first century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle.”

While that hopeful prediction has failed to materialize, many of his other forecasts were amazingly prescient.

Minds like Tesla's come along maybe once every few hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind, as does Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.

In addition to Tesla's native intelligence and creativity, we have his mother, Djuka Mandic, to thank for providing the spark to her son's powerful intellect. This was a woman who spent her spare time inventing small household appliances. No doubt she was a powerful influence on the young Nikola. She also made sure he obtained a first class education.

 He began his studies in the 1870s at the Realschule in Karlstadt, Germany. Then he moved on to the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, and finally studied at the University of Prague.  

Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884 and almost immediately began working with famed American inventor Thomas Edison. The two parted ways after a short time because of differing business and scientific philosophies.

Thomas A. Edison
Tesla did not have the commercial and marketing instincts that Edison had. He also battled Edison over their competing electrical systems. Tesla developed the AC or alternating current system of generators, motors and transformers still in use in most of the world today, while Edison favored the DC or direct current system.

Tesla held 40 patents on his AC system, all of which he eventually sold to George Westinghouse. In a well-publicized battle of wills and technologies, Tesla and Edison went head to head with their competing electrical systems at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Eventually Tesla and Westinghouse defeated Edison and his General Electric Co. when the exposition opted to use the AC system to light its sprawling array of buildings and attractions.

The two remained bitter enemies the rest of their lives.

Here are some of Tesla's other ideas and inventions:

·       The Wardenclyffe Tower Wireless Energy Transfer System. This aforementioned system was introduced at the 1893 Exposition in Chicago. Tesla demonstrated that you could transmit electricity wirelessly via a series of phosphorous light bulbs in a process he called "electrodynamic induction." He believed his technology would enable wireless transmission of electricity over long distances through the upper atmosphere, thereby supplying even the most remote locations with the energy needed to live comfortably.  Tesla actually succeeded in lighting 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles and shot man-made lightning into the atmosphere using a Tesla coil, a transformer antenna he had patented in 1891. Today, more than a century later, companies such as Intel and Sony are working to apply wireless energy transfer to devices such as cell phone batteries so you can charge them without power cables.

·       X-rays.  Tesla's research in the field of electromagnetism helped give radiologists everywhere the ability to peer into a person's anatomy without cutting them open — a concept that, in the late 1800s, sounded far-fetched. Although German physicist Willhelm Röntgen is widely credited with the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Tesla's own experiments with the technology eight years before Röntgen demonstrated the dangers of using radiation on the human body.

·       Death Ray. In the 1930s Tesla reportedly invented a particle beam weapon (laser). The device was, in theory, capable of generating an intense targeted beam of energy that could be used to dispose of enemy warplanes, foreign armies, "or anything else you'd rather didn't exist." The so-called "death ray" was never constructed.  Tesla shopped the device around to the military without success.

·       Robotics. Tesla predicted a future rife with robots that "would be able to perform labor safely and effectively." He envisioned a world filled with "intelligent cars, robotic human companions, sensors, and autonomous systems." In 1898, he invented and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat which many credit as the birth of modern robotics.

·       Earthquake Machine. In 1898, Tesla declared that he had constructed and set up a small oscillating apparatus that, when activated in his office, nearly shook down the building and everything around it. The device weighed just a few pounds, but Tesla was able to tune the timing of the oscillator at such a frequency so that each vibration created enough energy to shake apart almost any man-made structure. Realizing the destructive power and the potential disasters his oscillating device could cause, Tesla later said that he smashed the oscillator with a hammer, and told his employees to claim ignorance if anybody asked what had caused tremors.

When you put these five ideas and inventions into the context of the time (the late 19th and early 20th Centuries) you have the ingredients for several extraordinary science fiction novels.

Tesla died impoverished in 1943 in the New York hotel where he lived. Toward the end of his life, Tesla had been working on several ideas for new weapons. It was during World War II and any new weapon was coveted by both the allied and axis powers. That's why within hours of Tesla's death, the FBI seized all of his belongings, detailed schematics and notebooks.  

Among the items seized were Tesla's plans for the "Death Ray." After World War II the U.S. government established a secret project to turn Tesla's particle beam weapon idea into reality, but the project was shut down and the results of the experiments were never published.

Sounds like the starting point of an intriguing book.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Famously Wrong Predictions From the Past

Predicting the future can be a daunting, if not a sometimes embarrassing occupation. I have already posted on this topic a few times because as a writer of historical fiction I think it adds something when characters look ahead and wonder what the world will be like in one hundred or two hundred years.

Unfortunately, not all of us can be accurate prognosticators. Even the geniuses and giants of science and industry have faltered from time to time.

Here are a few examples:

·       "Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility--a development which we should waste little time dreaming about."--Lee de Forest, 1926, inventor of the cathode ray tube

·       "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."--Thomas J. Watson, 1943, Chairman of the Board of IBM

·       "It doesn't matter what he does, he will never amount to anything."--Albert Einstein's teacher to his father, 1895

·       "It will be years - not in my time - before a woman will become Prime Minister." --Margaret Thatcher, 1974
Margaret Thatcher

·       "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."-- Western Union internal memo, 1876

·       "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." -- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

·       "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"--H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927, pooh-poohing the idea of sound in film.

·       "640K ought to be enough for anybody."-- Bill Gates, 1981

·       "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." -- Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

·       "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." -- Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

·       "We don't need you. You haven't got through college yet." -- Hewlett-Packard's rejection of Steve Jobs, who went on to found Apple Computers

·       "Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value."-- Marshal Ferdinand Foch in 1911

Marshal Ferdinand Foch

·       "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market."-- Business Week, 1958

·       "Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping." -- Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, on December 4, 1941, three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

·       "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." -- Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, October 16, 1929, thirteen days before the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

Then, there these gaffes from the past:

·       King George II said in 1773 that the American colonies had little stomach for revolution.

·       An official of the White Star Line, speaking of the firm's newly built flagship, the Titanic, launched in 1912, declared that the ship was unsinkable.

·       In 1939 The New York Times said the problem of TV was that people had to glue their eyes to a screen, and that the average American wouldn't have time for it.

·       An English astronomy professor said in the early 19th century that air travel at high speed would be impossible because passengers would suffocate.

Someone once said that an optimist is someone who thinks the future is uncertain. 

But I always liked this variously ascribed quote:

"The future isn't what it used to be."

Amen, brother.