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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.



Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by 
What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.
Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)
By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell.
At this time in his life—around 1919, when he turned thirty—Wittgenstein wanted badly to transform himself. Convinced he was a moral failure, he took extreme steps to change his circumstances, divesting himself of his enormous family fortune (which he dispersed among his siblings, making sure he could never legally access it again); leaving the palatial family home he’d grown up in (it was literally called the “Palais Wittgenstein”); and looking for the kind of hard and honest work he hoped would distract him from his despair and allow him to do something of value. In choosing teaching he was influenced by a romantic idea of what it would be like to work with peasants—an idea he’d gotten from reading Tolstoy. His family was perplexed by his decisions. His sister Hermine told him that applying his genius to teaching children was like using a “precision instrument” to open crates. She reports his response:
You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.
In 1920, after a year of training, Wittgenstein took up a post at an elementary school in Trattenbach. It was a tiny farming and factory village in the mountains south of Vienna; Wittgenstein accepted the job there after rejecting one in a town he decided was too cosmopolitan. (It had a park with a fountain in it.)
He cut a strange figure in Trattenbach. Since, earlier, he’d tried to apply for work under a false name and had been found out, he was open this time about his background—the citizens knew he was descended of one of the richest families in Austria. Yet he lived in ostentatious poverty: he slept in the school kitchen and ate cocoa and oatmeal for dinner out of a pot he never cleaned. The adults of the village distrusted him from the beginning, but he made a more positive impression on some of his students. When one biographer visited Trattenbach fifty years later, he met with former pupils who still remembered Wittgenstein’s lessons, some of which were as charmingly philosophical as one might hope: one student recalled being introduced, at that young age, to the Liar’s Paradox (the Cretan who declares “All Cretans are liars …”).
But Wittgenstein was “interested in everything,” and he engaged his students in a sort of “project-based learning” that wouldn’t be out of place in the best elementary classrooms today. They designed steam engines and buildings together, and built models of them; dissected animals; examined things with a microscope Wittgenstein brought from Vienna; read literature; learned constellations lying under the night sky; and took trips to Vienna, where they stayed at a school run by his sister Hermine. Just to get to the train required a twelve-mile hike through the mountainous forest around Trattenbach; on the return trip, the students made this hike after midnight. On the way, Wittgenstein would ask them the names they’d learned of the plants in the forest. In Vienna they would discuss the architectural styles of the buildings they visited and look for examples of the machines they had modeled. Another project grew into what was, remarkably, the only book Wittgenstein published in his lifetime besides the Tractatus: a spelling dictionary he developed with the help of his students, which briefly saw official use in Austrian schools.
Wittgenstein and his pupils in Puchberg, 1923.
His expectations for his students were incredibly high. They were regularly made to work well beyond the standards for their ages, especially in math: Wittgenstein taught algebra and geometry to all of his elementary students. Some excelled and loved him. His sister reported seeing his students “positively climbing over each other in their eagerness” to answer questions. In each of the towns where he worked, Wittgenstein attracted small groups of devoted students whom he tutored for hours after the school day ended. These were always boys; he seems not to have been as successful with his female students, maybe in part because he held them to the same intellectual standard as the boys when the other adults in their towns did not.
We all struggle to form a self. Great teaching, Wittgenstein reminds us, involves taking this struggle and engaging in it with others; his whole life was one great such struggle. In working with poor children, he wanted to transform himself, and them. Their parents had no interest in his unforgiving honesty and/or his ambitions for their children. Thus he was in constant conflict with the towns where he taught; in his six years on the job, he worked at four different schools. Once he so despaired of a student’s narrow future, and was so convinced of his potential, that he proposed to adopt the boy and pay for his education in Vienna. The student’s parents declined the offer.
But Wittgenstein’s zeal also led him to abuse the children entrusted to him. It’s hard now to know how consistent his use of corporal punishment was with standard practice at the time. He would strike students not just for misbehavior but for their failure to grasp the questions he put to them—and this led to the shameful end of his teaching career. One day, Wittgenstein hit a student named Haidbauer, who was sickly. When Haidbauer collapsed after the blow, Wittgenstein carried him to the headmaster’s office and fled. A group of parents—who had apparently wanted Wittgenstein fired for some time—filed a complaint, which led to a hearing. He was cleared, ultimately, but he had already resigned, and years later he confessed to friends that he had lied at the hearing to protect himself. These events became known as the Haidbauer Incident, and they remained in the area’s public memory for years.
The event precipitated Wittgenstein’s leaving, but it wasn’t the sole cause—through his stint as a teacher, a steady stream of letters and visitors from the world of philosophy had reminded him of his genius. In his absence, the Tractatus had helped found a whole movement, the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. It was as though a Wittgenstein-shaped hole was forming in the philosophical community, making it very easy for him to go back and fill it.
When he did return, though, he didn’t simply take up leadership of his disciples. The “late Wittgenstein,” as scholars call him, is radically different than the “early”; among other things, he abandoned the idea that language could only function by picturing objects in the world. There have been many suppositions as to the catalyst for this change—his time with children is not popular among them. And yet his later work is full of references to teaching and children. His Philosophical Investigations opens with a long discussion of how children learn language, in order to investigate what the essence of language is. And Wittgenstein is sometimes explicit about the connection; he once said that in considering the meaning of a word, it’s helpful to ask, “How would one set about teaching a child to use this word?” If nothing else, the style of his later work is absolutely teacherly; his post-return writings are so full of thought experiments phrased in the imperative that they can feel like exercises in a textbook or transcripts of a class discussion. “Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’ … What is common to them all?—Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’—but look and see whether there is anything common to all … ”
The style reflects Wittgenstein’s new aim, which was pedagogical. In his later writings, Wittgenstein still held that philosophical questions are meaningless, and that they often result from looking for definitions of terms outside the contexts in which they’re used. But he was no longer content to simply state this. He wanted to make specific questions actually dissolve for his reader, to bring about a change in perspective that shows that the questions mean nothing. “The real discovery,” he wrote, “is the one which enables to stop doing philosophy when I want to—the one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions.”
This is why his later writing is so intense; it engages you directly. To work, it has to actually make you engage in the same radical introspection he did. If one is receptive to them, these books are potentially transformative. I think that’s why Wittgenstein, almost uniquely among modern analytic philosophers, has such a strong literary appeal. (That, and his pure and purifying personality.) Among the few writers who have treated his teaching years with interest and respect are novelists like W.G. Sebald, whose “Paul Bereyter” chapter in The Emigrants includes many details from Wittgenstein’s years in the mountains—such as the fact that he once boiled the skin off a dead cat so he could use its skeleton to teach his children anatomy. (Sebald changes the animal to a fox, for some reason.)
For two years after college, I taught middle-school science in New York. It took very little time for me to realize it was far more intellectually intense than I’d expected. I kept running, in practice, into ideas I’d encountered only as abstractions before. In an unpublished remark, Wittgenstein wrote that “any explanation has its foundation in training. (Educators ought to remember this.)” It’s good advice. I remember, for example, teaching a unit on “energy.” At some point, after I’d offered some unhelpful definition of energy—“the capacity for an object to do work”—and walked through its different forms, a student stopped me. “But what is energy?” It was clear she was asking me to name some thing, visible or not, that she could call “energy.” But the expectation that there’s something out there bearing the name energy is more confusing than helpful. I flailed. But as my lesson continued, the word kept coming back. “The flame added energy to the heat.” “That car had more energy than the other.” With training, the kids started to use the word right of their own accord. Their confusion was gone. There’s a big chunk of Wittgenstein’s late philosophy in stories like this. I can easily imagine him, in his devotion to clarity and truth, leaning down to show a student, and himself, that some such question need not torture them anymore.
Spencer Robins teaches children and adults. He lives in Los Angeles.


Wyoming: where the wild flowers are

Wyoming: where the wild flowers are - FT.com

Lupine Meadows in Grand Teton National Park

Lunch with the FT: Axel Dumas

Lunch with the FT: Axel Dumas - FT.com

Famous Paintings Can Reveal Visual Disorders

Famous Paintings Can Reveal Visual Disorders - Scientific American

New York Women Draw Their Own Boobs -- The Cut

New York Women Draw Their Own Boobs -- The Cut

9 basic concepts Americans fail to grasp

9 basic concepts Americans fail to grasp - Salon.com

9 basic concepts Americans fail to grasp

Firm beliefs | The Economist

Schumpeter: Firm beliefs | The Economist

Harvard Faculty Share Lessons from Work and Life

Harvard Faculty Share Lessons from Work and Life — Medium

The Harvard Gazette’s Experience series is a collection of interviews with some of the University’s most accomplished faculty members, including multiple Pulitzer Prize winners and a recipient of the National Medal of Science.
The conversations range from the indispensable guidance of early mentors, to useful mistakes, to career turning-points, sometimes making contact with wider cultural and political forces, such as barriers of race and gender. Animating them as a whole is an exemplary commitment to teaching and scholarship and a passion for lifelong learning.

Professor Stephen Greenblatt

‘So that represented my own little rebellion’
Professor Stephen Greenblatt is one of the most dazzling storytellers of his generation, making the magic of centuries-old literature come alive for modern audiences.
Read interview ›

Professor Melissa Franklin

‘Physics was paradise’
Professor Melissa Franklin, an experimental particle physicist, has had a career of firsts — some scientific, some social.
Read interview 

Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

‘I have always been temperamentally wired to carry on’
Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has found inspiration in the lives of her parents to push herself to illuminate the cultural dynamics behind good schools, good teachers, and good learning environments.
Read interview 

Dean Martha Minow

‘My life was going to have to deal with issues of social injustice’
For Dean Martha Minow of the Law School, early encounters with issues around public service and civic activism were formative in her pursuits as a scholar.
Read interview 

Professor E.O. Wilson

‘Search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression’
Professor E.O. Wilson stands as a giant of science for his groundbreaking insights as a theorist and biologist, and for a literary gift that has helped those insights reach a wider audience.
Read interview 

Professor Steven Pinker

‘What could be more interesting than how the mind works?’
A cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist, Professor Steven Pinker is fascinated by language, behavior, and the mechanics of human nature.Read interview 

Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

‘I had the advantage of disadvantage’
Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s first scholarly paper included a line that not only marked her for later fame, but serves as an expression of her own story: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Read interview 

Pictures: Driving Route 66 -- National Geographic Travel

Pictures: Driving Route 66 -- National Geographic Travel

Paris Review

The Look of the Sound of the Seventies

November 13, 2014 | by 
Photo: Audiophile USA
Harry Pearson, the founder of The Absolute Sound, died last week at seventy-seven, theNew York Times reports. From its inception in 1972, The Absolute Sound was (and remains) an audiophile’s dream magazine. As the Times describes it,
Mr. Pearson laid the foundations of a philosophy and vocabulary that helped give rise to a worldwide subculture of high-end audiophiles. He wrote about recorded music with the conviction and nuance that food critics brought to haute cuisine, assessing qualities of depth, naturalness and “three-dimensionality” in the sound made by some stereo components and not others ... When all those intangibles came together in the right way, he said, they produced “absolute sound,” which he defined as “the sound of actual acoustic instruments playing in a real space.”
And it must be said: The Absolute Sound had incredible cover art and design, especially in its first years. Just look at those covers!
“Mr. Pearson initially refused to accept advertising but relented after a few years, though vowing not to soften his analysis,” the Times notes. And sure enough, the back of an early issue I found carries maybe the finest, purest statement of revenue philosophy I’ve ever seen from a magazine:
WARNING: Do not lend your copy of The Absolute Sound to friends. You endanger the continued existence of the magazine by so doing. The Absolute Sound exists entirely on subscription revenues. Freeloaders decrease our revenues, and not surprisingly our incentive. If you really like the magazine and want it to survive you will needle your friends into subscribing.
Kudos to Pearson for his clarity of vision—would that his revenue model would’ve panned out. Here, in remembrance, are three of the best seventies-era Absolute Soundcovers I could find:



Why God cares only about what matters

Why God cares only about what matters – Benjamin Grant Purzycki – Aeon

British Museum


Dante can seem overwhelming. T.S. Eliot’s peremptory declaration that ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them: there is no third’ is more likely to be off-putting these days than inspiring. Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being staged and filmed, and in all sorts of ways, with big names in the big parts, and when we see them we can connect with the characters and the issues with not too much effort.
Dante is much more remote – a medieval Italian author, writing about a trip he claims to have made through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise at Easter 1300, escorted first by a very dead poet, Virgil, and then by his dead beloved, Beatrice. and meeting the souls of lots of people we only vaguely know of, if we’ve heard of them at all. First he sees the damned being punished in ways we are likely to find grotesque or repulsive. And then, when he meets souls working their way towards heavenly bliss or already enjoying it, there are increasing doses of philosophy and theology for us to digest.
Yet we might feel we should give it a go and grit our teeth, get hold of one of the hundreds of translations that have appeared since the first complete one of 1802 by Henry Boyd. With luck we will make it through to the end of Inferno, impressed by the geography of the afterworld and by Ulysses,Francesca da Rimini and some of the other leading figures, but generally still feeling uncomfortable with the idea that Dante might be doing something up to Shakespeare’s standard. In 1818 a friend of Byron’s, John Cam Hobhouse, was told by an acquaintance working for the Longman’s publishing firm that ‘the world was sick of Dante’. And even the well-intentioned contemporary reader can feel much the same deep down.
The fact is Dante has never been for wimps. There are stories of Florentine workmen chanting bits of the poem (badly), but serious early readers needed help almost as much as we do. Manuscripts produced less than twenty years after his death in 1321 are already full of notes explaining what words mean, who the characters are, what Dante is really saying. In other words Dante asks his readers to be ready to work at his poem, to put themselves into it, rather than just be passive recipients of otherworldly wisdom, and if they do, his bet is that they will get a great deal out of it.
That too may sound off-putting. Do you have to put in a daily dose of study over fifty years as W.E. Gladstone apparently did? Modern scholarship often gives the impression of being a hotbed of internal dissent, but it seems united in presuming that to understand Dante you have to know the Bible, Aristotle, the byways of Medieval thought and much more. If that’s the situation, maybe Dante really is unreadable for most people.
The Parnassus, by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Parnassus, by Raphael. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The opposite is true. With a modest amount of patience the busy modern reader, Italophone or not, should be able to get a long way into Dante and to enjoy him. There isn’t an end-point, any more than there is with Shakespeare. Dante presses his readers to think (and to enjoy thinking) in a way Shakespeare doesn’t, and he has some very clear ideas he wants us to accept and assimilate. But he provides fewer definitive answers to the problems he obviously raises than we might expect. That is one of the reasons for dissent among scholars, and also one of the reasons why every reader, given a certain amount of information about the context, idiom, and history, can think things through for himself or herself, and up to a point to construct his or her own Dante. And what we think about regards not just the fate of souls after death but even more human life on this earth. The idiom may be foreign, the world view long vanished, but, though Dante is not our contemporary, much of what he says about morality, politics, language and love bears in on our lives today (for instance, his insistence that organised religion and the secular state must not interfere with each other).
And then of course there is the poetry. The power, economy and delicacy of the phrasing may or may not trickle through into English, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the sheer inventiveness of his imagery, ranging from the suicide Pier della Vigna transformed into a barren but strangely articulate tree to lovers of wisdom appearing to Dante’s amazed gaze in heaven like circles of dancing stars; from the sad father-figure of Virgil to the beautiful, authoritative Beatrice.
The addictiveness is evident from the fact that Dante enthusiasts, Christian or not, find it hard to imagine Hell in any other way, and spend happy minutes musing about which circle is best suited to some particular friend, enemy or public figure. Dante thought Paradise was much more difficult to get into and much more difficult to describe. We are certainly not accustomed to prolonged evocations of happiness. Paradiso gives us one way, and an astoundingly dynamic one, of thinking about what human happiness might ultimately be.
Featured image credit: Beatrice Addressing Dante, by William Blake. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
- See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2015/02/enjoying-dante-vsi/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=oupacademic&utm_campaign=oupblog#sthash.uVIIr08m.dpuf



To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg. In Isaac Newton's three volume book Principia (or Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica), published in 1687, 1713, and 1726, he set out his three laws of thermodynamics. It is regarded by many as the most important scientific book ever written. But when he wrote it, he had not worked out some of the mathematical proof, and many of the computations he did make had errors -- due especially to the measurement limitations of that era. And when he published it, he encountered significant objections to his theories:

"Book III of Principia presents calculations of things already measured, and new predictions of things not yet measured, but even in the final third edition of Principia Newton could point to no predictions that had been verified in the 40 years since the first edition. ...

"The Principia established the laws of motion and the principle of universal gravitation, but that understates its importance. Newton had given to the future a model of what a physical theory can be: a set of simple mathematical principles that precisely govern a vast range of different phenomena. Though Newton knew very well that gravitation was not the only physical force, as far as it went his theory was universal -- every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their separation. The Principia not only deduced Kepler's rules of planetary motion as an exact solution of a simplified problem, the motion of point masses in response to the gravitation of a single massive sphere; it went on to explain (even if only qualitatively in some cases) a wide variety of other phenomena: the precession of equinoxes, the precession of perihelia, the paths of comets, the motions of moons, the rise and fall of the tides, and the fall of apples. By comparison, all past successes of physical theory were parochial....

Portrait of Isaac Newton in 1689 (age 46) by Godfrey Kneller
"Newton's theory did not meet universal acceptance. Despite Newton's own commitment to Unitarian Christianity, some in England, like the theologian John Hutchinson and Bishop Berkeley, were appalled by the impersonal naturalism of Newton's theory. This was unfair to the devout Newton. ...

"Another obstacle to the acceptance of Newton's work was the old false opposition between mathematics and physics that we have seen in a comment of Geminus of Rhodes quoted in Chapter 8. Newton did not speak the Aristotelian language of substances and qualities, and he did not try to explain the cause of gravitation. The priest Nicolas de Malebranche (1638-1715) in reviewing thePrincipia said that it was the work of a geometer, not of a physicist. Malebranche clearly was thinking of physics in the mode of Aristotle. What he did not realize is that Newton's example had revised the definition of physics.

"The most formidable criticism of Newton's theory of gravitation came from Christiaan Huygens. He greatly admired the Principia, and did not doubt that the motion of planets is governed by a force decreasing as the inverse square of the distance, but Huygens had reservations about whether it is true that every particle of matter attracts every other particle with such a force, proportional to the product of their masses. ...

"Starting already in Newton's lifetime, his theory of gravitation was opposed in France and Germany by followers of Descartes and by Newton's old adversary Leibniz. They argued that an attraction operating over millions of miles of empty space would be an occult element in natural philosophy, and they further insisted that the action of gravity should be given a rational explanation, not merely assumed.

"In this, natural philosophers on the Continent were hanging on to an old ideal for science, going back to the Hellenic age, that scientific theories should ultimately be founded solely on reason. We have learned to give this up. Even though our very successful theory of electrons and light can be deduced from the modern standard model of elementary particles, which may (we hope) in turn eventually be deduced from a deeper theory, however far we go we will never come to a foundation based on pure reason. Like me, most physicists today are resigned to the fact that we will always have to wonder why our deepest theories are not something different.

"The opposition to Newtonianism found expression in a famous exchange of letters during 1715 and 1716 between Leibniz and Newton's disciple, the Reverend Samuel Clarke, who had translated Newton's Opticks into Latin. Much of their argument focused on the nature of God: Did He intervene in the running of the world, as Newton thought, or had He set it up to run by itself from the beginning? The controversy seems to me to have been supremely futile, for even if its subject were real, it is something about which neither Clarke nor Leibniz could have had any knowledge whatever.

"In the end the opposition to Newton's theories didn't matter, for Newtonian physics went from success to success."

To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
Author: Steven Weinberg
Copyright 2015 by Steven Weinberg

Russia is considering plans for a 12,400-mile superhighway from London to Alaska - Business Insider

Russia is considering plans for a 12,400-mile superhighway from London to Alaska - Business Insider


21 Incredible Photos Of Cities As Seen From Above

21 Incredible Photos Of Cities As Seen From Above - ALLDAY


The Alphabet of Satire
Rube Goldberg was a laugh machine for seven decades.
Winter 2015
Goldberg at work
The name suggests a ghetto urchin along the lines of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and the Marx Brothers. And, indeed, like them, Rube Goldberg was born in the sunset of the nineteenth century; like them, he was Jewish, bright, creative, and wildly ambitious. But there, the resemblance ends. Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg was a native-born San Franciscan, the son of a prosperous businessman with serious money and powerful political connections.
Max Goldberg had come from Prussia at precisely the right moment. In the aftermath of the Civil War, he elbowed his way into the booming real-estate market, acquiring and selling oil-rich acreage and cattle ranches. Armed with profits, he backed local politicians. When they won, Max followed in their slipstream, working to shed his German accent, reading books by English and American writers, and serving, at various times, as the city’s police commissioner and fire chief.
In the 1870s, he married a fellow immigrant, Hannah Cohen, a delicate young woman who gave birth to seven children. Four survived. Hannah passed away, worn and prematurely aged, at 45. Bewildered and angry at his loss, Max became a rigid disciplinarian, thundering at his children in the tones of an Old Testament prophet. Despite his posturing, though, he was more dutiful than devout. Max attended synagogue only on the High Holy Days; Friday nights were reserved for poker. “The absence of any traditional religious baggage made Rube a free spirit,” observes biographer Peter Marzio, “an objective observer, willing to analyze facts as he found them, creating his own intellectual scheme complete with intricate iconography and wise sayings.”
The problem was that Max had his own intellectual scheme and wise sayings, and they didn’t coincide with his son’s. Early on, when the boy showed a talent for realistic portraiture and humorous sketches, his distressed father consulted Col. Daniel M. Burns, the Republican boss of California. In a memoir, Rube recalled the exchange: “ ‘Dan,’ muttered Pa, ‘my boy says he’s going to be an artist, and I just can’t get him away from the idea.’
‘Hum, that is serious,’ consoled Col. Burns. ‘There’s nothing hereditary about it, is there?’
‘That’s the remarkable part of it,’ answered Max Goldberg proudly. ‘Our family record is as clean as a whistle. We’ve never had a single solitary artist in it—not one.’ ”
Accordingly, Max directed Rube away from art school and toward a degree in engineering from Berkeley. The youth’s objections were countered with citations from history and economics. Rube was a southpaw; who ever heard of a left-handed painter? Okay, there was Leonardo da Vinci, but he knew more about designing catapults and bridges than he did about making pictures. And what about a paycheck? Who was going to pay for the lessons, the canvases, the tubes of oil paint, the easel, the studio? Not Max.
Rube sighed as an artist; he obeyed as a son. For the next several years, he commuted to Berkeley, studying for a degree in mining engineering. En route to the sheepskin, however, he signed up for a course in drawing. The textbook was Talks on Art, by William Morris Hunt, then a prominent teacher and theoretician. One sentence caught the student’s attention and stayed with him for the next 70 years: “No exaggeration can be stronger than Nature, for nothing is so strange as the truth.”
The more he sketched, the more Rube came to believe that all humans, and all human endeavors, could be rendered in cartoon form. He could hardly wait to show the world his ideas. But when he graduated in 1904, a large obstacle stood in the way of progress: the Old Man. Flexing some political muscles, Max had arranged a civil-service job for his son, mapping sewer pipes for the city. Rube would earn an entry-level salary of $25 a week, but he would have a future, moving on to map water mains, and who could tell? Perhaps reservoirs one day. The novice stayed on for six months, and then exploded. “I can’t stand it any longer, Pa,” he announced. Paternal threats and imprecations followed. The next day, Rube walked off the job and went crosstown to the San Francisco Chronicle, portfolio in hand. Something in the sketches he had made for the college newspaper and the art class appealed to the city editor. He hired young Goldberg for a munificent $8 a week.
Goldberg learned his trade the hard way, grinding out cartoons of prizefighters and ballplayers and attempting a few strips that never caught on. Then, in 1905, he learned of an opening on a rival paper, the San Francisco Bulletin. He tried out for sports cartoonist and won the position. Before long, though, he realized that he was running in place. Illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson had become famous, commanding large salaries and holding high social positions. Cartoonists, on the other hand, were still considered quick-sketch ruffians—the low men of the newspaper staff. Goldberg described the situation in an autobiographical short story. The hero drily remarks, “He’s an illustrator. I’m just a genius.”
Even so, the cartoonist knew that his talents lay in comedy, not in realistic images. The caricaturist continued; the genius remained unseen. By 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake, Goldberg was earning $50 a week and had become one of the city’s notables, recognized in every sports arena. But he wanted more, and for that, the young man knew that he would have to go to the place he called “ringside”: Manhattan, home of a dozen newspapers and font of American journalism. He stayed through the devastation and the rebuilding of Frisco, and then bought a one-way ticket to Grand Central.
Rube arrived in October 1907, ready to conquer the city. He was promptly turned down by the Morning Telegraph, the Sun, the Globe, theEvening Telegram, and the Evening World. Eventually, he caught on at the Evening Mail but only as a sports cartoonist. Goldberg didn’t come to New York to run in place. He tried strips, fillers titled “Life’s Little Jokes,” and vaudeville gags—like the panel showing an immigrant grousing as he laces up his wife’s enormous corset: “She vas built ven meat vas cheap.”
Nothing quite caught the public fancy, and Goldberg remained just another pen-and-ink comedian until autumn of the following year. In the lavishly illustrated Art of Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist’s granddaughter, Jennifer George, cites October 1, 1908, as the epochal day when fame came to call. As Rube remembered it, “I was drawing a picture to fill in the daily cartoon—a man who had fallen out of the window of a fifty story building and a woman, who was inquiring sympathetically, ‘Are you hurt?’ He replied, ‘No, I am taking my beauty sleep.’ ”
He titled the drawing “Foolish Question Number 1.” The next week, letters poured in from readers with their own suggestions. Goldberg grabbed the best ones and inked them in. Between November 1908 and February 1910, he drew 450 Foolish Questions and punch lines, ranging from “Oh, look, is that a snake?” “No, it’s a lost shoelace looking for a home,” to “Is that a folding bed?” “No, it’s a box for my new harmonica.” Following these was another series, called I’m the Guy, as in, “I’m the guy who put the hobo in Hoboken,” or “I’m the guy who put the sand in sandwich.” The phrase went as viral as possible in those pre-radio days; it appeared on pins and cigarette premiums, popped up in ads, and even inspired a hit song, “I’m the Guy,” with lyrics by Goldberg and music by Bert Grant, a charter member of ASCAP.
Syndication followed, and soon William Randolph Hearst, ever ready to outbid any and all newspaper rivals, offered this Goldberg phenomenon $50,000 per annum—this when the average yearly salary was less than $1,000. For once, Citizen Hearst was thwarted. The Mail matched his offer, and Rube stayed on. Commented the New York Times, “Goldberg has a following of 300,000 readers split up among forty-two different newspapers in all parts of the country. . . . [T]he aggregate of their payments to the Daily Mail, which was fortunate to get hold of Goldberg first, enables the paper to pay the artist what seems to be offhand a fabulous figure.”
The fabulous figure grew exponentially when Reuben Goldberg married Irma Seeman in 1916. Irma was the daughter (and, eventually, the heiress) of S. W. Seeman, owner of the burgeoning White Rose Tea and Grocery Company. The gilt-edged couple became the parents of two boys, Thomas and George, and bought a dwelling at the corner of 75th Street and Riverside Drive. Themes of domestic life began to appear in Rube’s drawings, but they rarely suggested the high lifestyle of the Goldberg family.
Not only did they own a chauffeur-driven car and a luxuriously renovated town house; their New Year’s Eve parties also became the stuff of legend. Each year, hundreds of guests packed the house. The A-list included sports figures, artists, and Broadway headliners. Under the Goldberg roof, George Gershwin and Groucho Marx traded lines; Houdini performed magic tricks; and Mayor Jimmy Walker performed his original song “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”
Yet today, Goldberg would be a forgotten celebrity—like hizzoner himself—had he confined himself to comic strips. Though his gags rapidly found their way into public conversation, they dated just as quickly. The pictures were amusing enough, but character was never his strength. “Mike & Ike—They Look Alike,” for example, concerned two morons who punned on standard phrases: “Ike, use the word ‘icing’ in a sentence.” “Sure, Mike—the patriotic gentleman rose and sang, ‘Sweet land of liberty, of thee “I sing.” ’ ”
But all along, the graduate engineer had been waiting for an opportunity to express himself. From college onward, Goldberg had been fascinated with the devices that were changing America—vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, the telephone, the telegraph, the automobile, the airplane. Finally, as the Roaring Twenties ended, a national magazine gave him the space for comic commentaries. “The Inventions of Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts” first appeared in the January 26, 1929, issue of Collier’s. “In my cartoons,” Rube noted, “Professor Butts invented elaborate machines to accomplish such Herculean tasks as shining shoes, opening screen doors, keeping moths out of clothes closets, retrieving soap in the bathtub and other innocuous problems. Only, instead of using the scientific elements of the laboratory, I added acrobatic monkeys, dancing mice, chattering false teeth, electric eels, whirling dervishes and other incongruous elements.”
“No More Gas Problems,” written and drawn long before the establishment of OPEC, was typical: Driver opens trapdoor (A). Monkey (B) reaches for banana (C), upsetting basket of cotton (D). A large flock of ducks (E) on leashes tied to automobile, mistaking cotton for snow, think winter has arrived and fly south, pulling car forward. “Simple Idea to Keep You from Forgetting to Mail Your Wife’s Letter” was more elaborate but just as fanciful: As you walk past cobbler shop, hook (A) strikes suspended boot (B), causing it to kick football (C) through goalposts (D). Football drops into basket (E), and string (F) tilts sprinkling can (G), causing water to soak coattails (H). As coat shrinks, cord (I) opens door (J) of cage, allowing bird (K) to walk out on perch ((L) and grab worm (M), attached to string (N). This pulls down window (O), on which is written “You sap, mail that letter.”
Likewise, Professor Butts’s method of eliminating a noisome insect: Carbolic acid (A) drips on string (B), causing it to break and release elastic of bean shooter (C), which projects ball (D) into bunch of garlic (E), causing it to fall into syrup can (F) and splash syrup violently against side wall. Fly (G) buzzes with glee and goes for syrup, his favorite dish. Dog (H) mistakes hum of fly’s wings for door buzzer and runs to meet visitor, pulling rope (I), which turns stop-go signal (J) and causes baseball bat (K) to sock fly, which falls to floor unconscious. As fly drops to floor, pet trout (L) jumps for it, misses, and lands in net (M). Weight of fish forces shoe (N) down on fallen fly and puts it out of the running for all time.
These oblong-shaped satires took on a life of their own. Dr. Seuss acknowledged his colleague’s influence in a cartoon signed “Rube Goldbrick.” In the early 1930s, “Rube Goldberg” entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an adjective defined as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Engineering majors in colleges across the country began to sketch their own “Rube Goldberg” inventions. And in 1936, Goldberg fan Charlie Chaplin offered the ultimate compliment: the assembly-line lunacies of Modern Times could have sprung full-blown from the head of Professor Butts.
But Goldberg was too restless to stay with any project for long—even this one. In the late 1930s, he abandoned the inventions and returned to strips. They met with indifference. A new kind of comic spirit had entered the arena. Magazines like The New Yorker featured artists with lighter ink lines and sharper punch lines. Goldberg began to tell friends that he felt like a back number. Rumors circulated: the old pro was hanging up his pen, leaving the arena to younger men and women. Thus, colleagues were astonished to read an item in the December 5, 1938, Newsweek: the New York Sun had signed Rube Goldberg to be the paper’s editorial cartoonist. This was not as much of a breakthrough as it appeared. As Marzio notes, “While Rube did not take part in morning editorial conferences, his Republican sympathies kept him in tune with the Sun’s views. The paper’s mediocrity, however, seeped into his work, and there seemed to be no one prodding him to perfection.”
The cartoons were drawn with his customary vigor, and he remained adept at caricature. But Goldberg’s ideas tended to be rudimentary—one showed the Nazi leader in an empty room. The caption read: “This is a picture of Adolf Hitler celebrating his 54th birthday with all his friends.” Labels took the place of ideas: Tax Payer, GOP, Dems, Common Man, Prices, Taxes, and so on. He persisted, nonetheless, through World War II, through V-E and V-J Days, through the early years of the Cold War. Here, he hit a nerve: a 1947 cartoon showed a couple precariously perched on an atomic bomb as it teeters between World Control and World Destruction. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Ever the dutiful son, Rube said, “I had hoped to win a Pulitzer ever since I joined the Sun. I only wish my father could have been alive to see it.” (Max had died five years earlier, after suffering a heart attack as he ran after a cable car. He was 93.)
Early in 1950, Goldberg switched to the New York Journal-American—Hearst had him at last. Thirteen years later, Goldberg felt burned out. In June 1963, more than 100 like-minded celebrities gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to throw him a surprise party. Invited guests included Walt Disney, Barry Goldwater, J. Edgar Hoover, Stan Musial, Joan Crawford, Richard Nixon, and Helen Hayes. It was at once a gratifying and unnerving occasion. Retirement was mentioned. The guest of honor bristled at the word. In an unpublished memoir, he wrote belligerently, “I would never let the muddy waters of retirement swallow up my old carcass while my mind was still functioning and my hands were free of the stiffness of arthritis and inertia. I was only eighty years old. I had to keep busy.”
He found a new avenue for his talents a week after the birthday party. In addition to length and width, he experimented with depth in an unaccustomed art form. Originally, he agreed with artist Ad Reinhardt, who defined sculpture as “something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” But in his golden years, Rube came to a different point of view. Though he took a few lessons to learn about molding and armature, he was essentially self-taught, experimenting as he went along, working with clay and taking the object to a studio, where the figure was copied in wax and then cast in bronze. Predictably, he began by making sculptural cartoons but soon became a serious artist, rendering people and animals with surprising felicity and grace.
Between 1963 and 1970, Goldberg made some 300 bronze objects. He was less impressed with critics’ praise than with the price tags: most of the sculptures were quickly snapped up at prices ranging from $700 to $3,000 (today, they go for ten times as much). All this paled before the ultimate tribute: a 1970 retrospective of Goldbergiana at the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit, titled Do It the Hard Way, featured drawings, sculpture, writings, and memorabilia, as well as a documentary film about a career that spanned the century. By then, alas, Goldberg’s omnipresent cigars had caught up with him, and he was suffering from throat cancer. Nonetheless, he walked cheerfully through the exhibit, marveling at the opening-day crowd of 2,000, and remarking, “It’s like seeing my own obituary written large and bright.”
That’s exactly what it was. Two weeks later, Rube was dead. Every major newspaper ran a large appraisal, all concentrating on the devices that would outlast everything else he had done. The New York Timeseditorialized that Goldberg’s “message is a lasting one: Beware of the all-knowing computers, supersonic gadgets and the rest of the hardware. Beware, too, of the proponents who aim to dominate the human element in life.” The Chicago Sun-Times stated that Goldberg’s “fantastically complicated devices to achieve ludicrously simple ends are today more profound commentaries on our times than they were when his mischievous mind first conceived them several generations ago.” Other papers joined the chorus, and then the cartoonists had their say. Karl Hubenthal was typical. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he pictured Goldberg at heaven’s gate. Saint Peter operates it by means of a contraption involving a rabbit, a pistol, a sailboat, a candle, a boiling kettle, a spool, and a length of string.
Most objects diminish as they grow distant. Goldberg has defied natural law by becoming larger since his death. Theta Tau, the oldest and largest professional engineering fraternity in the U.S., initiated the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in 1989. According to the rules, said machine must be constructed of real materials and use at least 20 steps to accomplish its task within two minutes. Past winners include Screw a Light Bulb into a Socket; Toast a Slice of Bread; and Select, Mark, and Cast an Election Ballot. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp, “Rube Goldberg’s Inventions,” featuring the Automatic Napkin Machine, first drawn in 1931. In 2010, the alternative rock group OK Go produced a music video featuring a giant Rube Goldberg machine, incorporating marbles, dominoes, wheels, complicated tunnels, and, at the end of the song, paint guns that splashed the group with colorful dyes.
Today, when Frances X. Clines writes about the “Rube Goldberg Approach to Campaign Transparency” in the New York Times, or Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column focuses on the Rube Goldberg Democrats, or the Daily Beast warns of the “danger of Rube Goldberg legislation,” no one has to ask what they mean. Goldberg’s reputation is as permanent and visual as a mischief-making cartoonist (A) absentmindedly putting his pen in the cat’s dish of milk (B), thereby frightening feline (C), which caterwauls, making dog (D) happy. Canine wags tail, accidentally knocking over a bottle of Jack Daniels (E) on coffee table (F). Parrot (G) flies from his perch (H) and laps up bourbon drops (I). Inebriated, the bird flies off, grabbing cartoonist’s nameplate (J) and dropping it into a shelf of reference books (K). It finds a home in there—for journalists, for engineers, for biographers, for humorists, for readers—forever.