Sunday, April 22, 2018

THE CURRENT WAR

   



     I admit that's an intentionally devious title.  It's "current" as in electrical current, not "current" as in going-on-right-now.  I'm trying to ease back into blogging after a year's absence, and I'm not nearly ready to talk about what's going on in the world, right now.  So instead I'm going to write about a war I've been reading about lately that took place toward the end of the 19th century.  No battlegrounds, no military maneuvers, no firearms, but it was a war all the same, and there were deaths that resulted from it.
     I just learned today, after I'd almost finished writing this post, that the Weinstein Company had shot a film called THE CURRENT WAR on this very same subject, and that it was supposed to have been released toward the end of 2017.  But once the movie industry began actually acknowledging in public what it seems everyone in Hollywood had known for decades about Weinstein but hadn't had the guts to do anything about, it was decided by studio honchos that time needed to pass for the Weinstein taint to dissipate.  So now THE CURRENT WAR isn't expected to be released until December 2018.  But you might not want to wait that long to learn about the topic, and besides, the movie reportedly isn't very good anyway despite its Benedict Cumberbach star power.  So I, who know very little about science, am going to try to explain things to you in the hopes that you know even less than I do and will find this subject as interesting as I do.
     As we all learned in school, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  Except that he didn't.  Edison invented a light bulb - the first one that really worked without sooner or later heating itself up to the point at which it exploded.  But he wasn't the first person to tinker with the idea of lighting homes and businesses through the power of electricity.
     Joseph Swan, an Englishman, patented a light bulb made of a heated carbon rod enclosed in a vacuum tube in 1878.  When Edison tried to patent a light bulb with a carbonized cotton filament the following year, Swan sued him successfully for patent infringement, and Edison decided his best move would be to join forces with Swan.  The two went into business together for a short time, although Edison soon went out on his own.
     Edison had started his electrical career working with telegraph systems, which ran on direct current (DC) - current that ran from one terminal to another.  So DC current was Edison's natural choice when he began experimenting with electrical lighting.  This worked fine when the wiring was run over short distances, but not so fine when longer distances were required.  And that's where Edison's fatal flaw came in: he was so stubborn that he refused, then and for the rest of his life, to even consider the possibility that some other form of current might be able to do the job just as well and, in some regards, even better.  And that's why Edison - a man who loved winning at least as much as he loved inventing - ended up (SPOILER!!) losing the current war.
     In 1880 Edison installed the world's first electric lighting system.  It was done on a very small scale; the first beneficiary was a steamship.  Other gradually larger individual projects followed until in 1882 he chose Manhattan as the site of  his first electrical power station, and began wiring up the homes of wealthy New Yorkers.


     Meanwhile, a young Serbian who had studied the brand-new field of electrical engineering in Europe had found his way to a job with the Edison Company's Paris branch.  When he was offered a transfer to Edison's New York factory, Nikola Tesla was thrilled at the chance to work with The Great Man himself.  But what neither Edison nor anyone else employed by him in New York knew was that Tesla had already invented - in his head, but not in a tangible model - a motor that would run on alternating current (AC).


     Tesla was, by all accounts, somewhere on the autism spectrum.  He worked and thought alone; ideas came to him in sudden bursts of brilliance.  He expected to be compensated for them, but he had no real interest in acquiring money or power (and probably wouldn't have known how even if he had been interested).  Tesla's life was a story of rags to riches and then back to rags again.  He never married or had any intimate relationships.  He didn't last long with the Edison Company, but he stayed in New York for the rest of his life, living alone in a series of hotels.  For a while New York society found his particular combination of genius and lack of social skills to be adorable and he was wined and dined relentlessly, but it wasn't long before the novelty wore off.  The glitterati got bored and dropped him.  The man once celebrated as "The Wizard of Physics" and "Greater Even than Edison" died poor and alone in a hotel room, where his body was discovered by a maid.  But I'm getting ahead of my story.
     The difference between AC and DC was that inside an AC-powered motor the electrical field would rotate and the resulting current would constantly be reversing course every fraction of a second.  AC current produced higher voltages than DC; on the one hand, this meant that it could be transmitted over longer distances, but on the other hand, the high voltages caused many people (including Edison) to regard AC current as too dangerous to be of practical use.
     And here's where George Westinghouse, the third leg of this triangle, came in.  Westinghouse, an affluent inventor and businessman, was willing to take a risk on AC current, and he had the deep pockets to set Tesla's ideas into motion.  In fact, Westinghouse won the contract to illuminate the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and it therefore featured AC current sparked by huge generators and distributed throughout the fairgrounds via wires.  For a week, Tesla personally put on seemingly magical public demonstrations, including passing currents of enormous voltage through his own body with no ill effects.  The Electricity Pavilion was the undisputed showstopper at the Fair.


     But no sooner did Westinghouse enter the fray than Edison began a two-pronged attack against him: publishing pamphlets warning the public that AC current was deadly, while also suing him for patent infringement.  When those tactics didn't stop Westinghouse, Edison secretly teamed up with a self-educated electrical engineer named Harold Brown.  Brown's novel idea for proving that AC was deadly was to provide a series of public demonstrations in which he used AC current to kill animals by electrocution.  This enterprise was every bit as ghastly as it sounds but, of course, it caught the public's attention.  Most of the victims of the killings carried out in the name of the current war were harmless dogs, calves and horses.


      But Edison and Brown still weren't satisfied.  Electrocuting animals was for them only the means to an end: their real goal was killing off not animals, but the public demand for AC current once and for all.
     They saw their golden opportunity in 1888, when the New York legislature declared that from now on, capital punishment in that state would be applied via a very new invention: the electric chair.  And somehow (Edison had very powerful New York connections) it turned out that the only electrical mechanism that could be applied was AC current.
     William Kemmler had killed his wife with an axe, confessed, and displayed no remorse.  In May of 1889 he was the first person to be sentenced to death under New York's new Electrical Execution Act, and Kemmler was fine with that.  In his opinion, the sooner the better.  But he had to wait another year until the constitutionality of the Act worked its way up enough through the court system for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that electrocution didn't qualify as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  The execution was allowed to proceed.
     One morning in August of 1890 Kemmler was placed in a chair in the prison basement and electrodes were attached to his body.  The current was turned on, Kemmler's body became rigid, and the current was turned off again.  But while the chair's inventor was still congratulating himself to all those present on his wonderful new apparatus, spectators began to notice something: Kemmler wasn't dead.  He wasn't exactly alive either; he was in some horrible state between the two.  The current was hastily turned back on, and soon a terrible stench of burning filled the room.  Kemmler finally died on the second try, but no one could deny that he had endured agony during the two-step process.  Tesla later wrote that Kemmler had been "roasted alive."  The New York Times said in an article entitled "Far Worse Than Hanging:"  "Probably no convicted murderer of modern times has been made to suffer as Kemmler suffered."
     Finally the general public was nauseated enough by the spectacle of electrocuting living creatures to climb off the never-AC bandwagon; after all, AC current couldn't even properly kill someone when it tried.  Soon most electrical engineers acknowledged that DC and AC both offered their own advantages.  Anyway, by that point transformers and converters had become commonplace; voltage could effortlessly be stepped up or down, and AC converted to DC and vice versa.  The two systems worked best in tandem.  When Edison refused to accept this practical reality, the big money men of New York, principally J. P. Morgan, got together and ousted Edison from his own company, Edison General Electric.  They even removed his name from it, and the General Electric company was born.  Now, in 21st-century America, about 80% of our electrical power grid runs on AC.
     Edison nursed his wounds for a while, but he was by then a very wealthy man with an estate in West Orange, New Jersey (where I live!!) and a summer home in Florida.  He had a stableful of electrical engineers who, through Edison's methodical trial-and-error process, could eventually figure out how to do almost anything with electricity.  He got over losing the current war and moved on to the next big thing: motion pictures.

                                            Edison's "Black Maria" building, West Orange, N.J.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hi. It's me.

My relationship with this blog - like my relationship with writing in general - had gotten so complicated by last April that I stopped posting and took a yearlong break.  I'd been planning to reboot this month anyway, but (just in case I was going to back out) I got a much-needed fresh impetus last week: my dear e-friend Guilie Castillo, dog rescuer extraordinaire, got in touch to let me know that her new nonfiction book, IT'S ABOUT THE DOG, is going to be released on April 20th, and to ask me if I want to participate in her upcoming blog hop.  OF COURSE I do!!  So sometime within the next two or three weeks I'll be posting an interview I do with Guilie about the A to Z of dog rescue, and meanwhile I'll try to post about other things from time to time, working out the kinks.  I'm excited, and nervous, to be back.  Please stop back and say hello!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

BURSTING WITH PRIDE

     Some people - like my amazing 21-year-old daughter - are born with a gift.   And a smaller subset of those people - like my daughter - decide they want to use that gift to make the world a better place.  Amy plans to be an art therapist.
     This is her art-school junior-year thesis project, based on the Herman Melville story, Bartleby the Scrivener.  Her work is on display here at her school's show.


    

Sunday, March 26, 2017

TRUMPCARE

     First, the bad news: Trump remains in the White House, for now.  But here's the good news: the horrific, cynical, murderous Wealthcare bill is dead (for now).  Countless lives will be saved.  And perhaps most importantly, Trump has been severely weakened.  One of his Horcruxes has been destroyed.


   Now, let's all get to work on destroying the rest of them.


Monday, February 20, 2017

UPDATE: NOT MY PRESIDENT'S DAY

     So, my friends, the app idea I described two posts ago is now officially on indefinite hiatus.  Without funding, we can't move it forward.  But, to my own surprise, I don't feel like curling up into a ball and sobbing for a week, because there are other guides out there, and people are using them, and they're working.  Everyone who cares about these things knows about Indivisible by now, and what a phenomenal job that small group of dedicated young people has done in training the opposition to adapt and use Tea Party tactics against this administration.  And remember how, shortly after the election, the ACLU tweeted that if Trump violated the Constitution, they would see him in court?  Well, they were every bit as good as their word, and I have complete faith that they're going to continue to be.  (Plus, as an added bonus for lawyers like me, they actually make our profession look heroic!  How often does that happen??) 
     As far as the specific purpose Call to Action was intended to serve - putting access to their Representatives at millennials' fingertips - there are other groups that are doing that.  Check out Countable.com.  That site has a lot of bells and whistles which millennials (and others) might find overwhelming, but it's full of valuable news and information, and if you do a little looking on the site it's not hard to figure out how to step up and make your voice heard.  If you prefer to use a simpler tool, try https://5calls.org.  It's not an app, but it does almost exactly what our app would have done: give the user up-to-the-minute information about the latest government outrages, and tell him or her the most productive options for getting involved.
     I'm sad about Call to Action, but much less sad than I would have been if there was a dire need for its existence but we couldn't get it off the ground.  But people around the country - red states, blue states - are rising up and shouting: Not on my watch, Trump.  If you want to go after the poorest, the sickest, the most vulnerable members of our society - and you've made it crystal clear that you do - you're going to have to go through me first.  BRING IT ON.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

AN UNFAIR COMPARISON





  Tomorrow it will be a year since we lost Murphy (top photo).  Today we lit a yahrzeit candle for him and talked about how incredibly lucky we were to have him in our lives for almost 10 years.  I've been trying to come up with a blog post for today, and then a little while ago the idea hit me: why not compare Murphy to Donald Trump?
     For Murphy, "me" was not a concept (except for the half hour of his family's dinner time each night, when I have to admit he was really annoying).  For 23-and-a-half hours a day, all Murphy thought about was "us."  We were his pack, which isn't unusual for pet dogs.  What was unique about him was the role he saw for himself within the pack.  All day, every day, he saw it as his job to make sure that his humans knew exactly how much he loved us. 
     It was a job he took with utter seriousness.  We took him and Finney for a hike almost every weekend, and as soon as we got into the car with them, Murphy would know where we were headed and would strain every muscle to reach our faces from the back seat so he could properly thank us.  And once we were out on the hiking trail, he might exuberantly run ahead of us sometimes, but (unlike Finney) he would never voluntarily lose sight of us.  He would turn around and check to make sure we were still following, and if one of us happened to fall behind, he would walk back and join us to make sure we were okay.
     But he unfailingly thanked us for smaller things than hikes, too.  Hugs, treats, belly rubs, walks on the leash - we got our faces and hands thoroughly scrubbed every time.  He seemed worried that we would be sad, that we would think he didn't care.   
     Now let's talk about Trump.  He's a man who doesn't understand the word "us."  Dogs are pack animals, and Trump would never have made it as a dog because he wants to be the alpha without taking any responsibility for the rest of his pack. The only word he understands is "me."  I was struck recently when I read about an interview in which he spoke (and possibly bragged - for him the two are almost indistinguishable) about how little of a role he played in his children's lives when they were younger; in fact, he never even took them to the park.  Early in my career, I spent five years working as a law guardian for abused or neglected children.  The most heartrending lesson I learned from that experience was that the more extreme the abuse or neglect these children suffered at the hands of their parents, the more fiercely they clung to them and protected them.  They believed that the reason their parents had rejected them was that they (the children) had deserved it, and they unremittingly wore themselves out in futile efforts to be better and to deserve better.  I see signs of this same syndrome in Trump's children.  There doesn't seem to be anything they wouldn't do to gain their absent, self-adoring father's approval.  And can you even imagine his thanking them?  That would require a recognition on his part that they were separate entities, and he literally does not seem capable of that degree of insight.
     And now, to my utter horror, this man has become the alpha dog of the United States.  And unlike Murphy, he has no natural dignity or humility.  He lacks the most rudimentary understanding of our tripartite system of government, of the role each branch must take to check and balance the roles of the other two. Yesterday he tweeted: "When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot , come in & out, especially for reasons of safety &.security - big trouble!"  He believes that he is the country - he alone, and not the judicial system, not the legislature, not even the rest of what passes for his executive branch.  He believes that he is the reincarnation of  King Louis XIV of France, and with every act he proclaims again and again, "L'etat, c'est moi."   He takes credit for everything that goes right, even (especially) when it was the prudent leadership of the man most Americans wish were still our President that made it possible.
     Murphy was born a grownup.  From his earliest days, he exhibited empathy and compassion, not least toward Finney, the 8-week-old juvenile delinquent we brought into Murphy's life when he was two years old, and whom he helped us to raise.
     Trump is 70 years old.  He is pure ego with no modifying id, and that's who he will remain to the end of his days.  He doesn't care about the future of Earth's environment because if he personally won't be around when we've managed to poison our planet until it can no longer sustain life, what does it matter?  Is this a man you can picture caring about the world his own grandchildren will inherit, let alone anyone else's?  He doesn't care about the wellbeing of anyone who opposes his policies; in fact, judging by his words and actions, he mocks them and seeks vengeance against them. The shallowness of his mind is on full display for all to see.  In the midst of the extraordinary level of chaos he's unleashed on this country and on the rest of the world, to what subjects does he return obsessively?  The size of his inauguration crowd.  The fictitious voter fraud during the election which (as has been established beyond all reasonable doubt) Putin helped him win.  The U.S., for all its many flaws, has been the leader of the free world for at least the last eight years, if not much farther back than that, and its current leader functions on the emotional level of a five-year-old.
     I miss you, Murphy, more than you could ever imagine.  And God, how I miss the security of knowing that Barack Obama was in the White House.  He was human; he made mistakes; but in those eight years combined, I never knew a fraction of the fear I've felt every waking minute for the last three months. 
     As I acknowledged in this post's title, the comparison between Murphy and Trump really is an unfair one.  A ludicrous one, to be more precise.  The caliber of these two beings is so vastly different.  There are few humans - even among those who have consciences and a sense of morality - who could measure up to a noble creature like Murphy.  Donald Trump?  He never stood a chance.


Monday, January 23, 2017

AN INTROVERT GOES TO WASHINGTON

     Here's my completely idiosyncratic take on Saturday's march in D.C.  First, the good news: about half a million people showed up.  Now the bad news: about half a million people showed up.
     After a ride on the D.C. metro that reminded me of the worst rush-hour crush on the NYC subway, my son and daughter and I arrived near the site of the march at about 9 a.m. and followed the throng to what we assumed would be a decent viewing area, since nothing was scheduled to start until 10.  By 10:30 or so we realized that the speeches had begun but that we could see or hear nothing of them.  The signs people were holding up around us were great, though.  "I'm With Her," and arrows pointing in every direction.  "America: What Were You Thinking??"  "Why Are You So Obsessed With My Uterus?"  Maya Angelou quotes  everywhere. A small girl on her father's shoulders, wearing a cape that read "Not Up for Grabs." 
     We had little space to move around and no idea where to go even if we could, so at 11 or so we left the march site to get something to eat.  We returned an hour or so later and stood around, waiting for the march to get going.  At some point we realized that we were being funneled in a particular direction, but had no idea why.  Then at about 1:30 the people around us began walking to, and then up, Pennsylvania Avenue, and we followed along.  The march was fun, partly because it was such a relief to get moving, but more because it felt empowering to be among hundreds of thousands of people who were so determined to resist the pseudo-election of our pseudo-president and his very real, very threatening agenda and appointments.
     Most of the marchers were women - elderly women with walkers and canes (one of my favorite signs was "I marched in the 60s and now I'm marching in MY 60s"); middle-aged women in clusters, representing states up and down the East Coast as well as other regions of the country; young mothers with babies strapped to their chests or toddlers hoisted on their shoulders; knots of millennials  focused on climate change and reproductive rights.  But men were well represented too, many of them carrying signs that said things like "Quality Men Are Not Threatened By Equality."
     One sign I didn't see, but which my son told me about, really struck a chord with me: "Things Have Gotten So Bad, Even the Introverts Are Out Here!"  Indeed.  I'm so glad I had my kids with me for protection; they made me feel less overwhelmed.
     But now the marches are over and we need to turn to the question of what we can do next.  Which brings me to the secret project I've been hinting about.  It's no longer secret, but it might also be no longer viable, which is where YOU come in!  My friend Julie, who designs websites and video games for a living, came up with the brilliant idea of creating a free app to make it incredibly easy for young people to become politically active via their phones.  Here's how it works: the user will check off boxes to indicate the issues which are most important to them.  The app will then send them an alert when a vote on a bill involving one of those issues is pending a vote in the House of Representatives.  It will give the user contact info for his or her Representative, and provide a sample script for a phone call to the congressional office.  That's basically it.  Beautifully simple.  The idea is that, until we can recruit other volunteers to help, Julie does all the tech stuff and I monitor pending bills and write short blurbs about them.
     Here's the problem.  We have zero seed money.  It costs money to develop apps, and so far Julie has financed everything by taking the money out of her savings.  We're now at a point where the app development is on hold, and we need some kind of assurance that it will have a following before we proceed with development.  Bottom line: we don't want to start a crowdfunding campaign until we have a reasonable number of followers first.  If the app sounds like a good/great idea to you, could you please show your support by following the Facebook page, facebook.com/CalltoActionApp, and/or the Twitter account, @calltoactionapp?  I want so badly to get this thing off the ground, and very soon, but we need supporters.  Please help, and please tell your friends to help too!  I will be eternally grateful.  Thank you!!!