Dec. 9, 2013

505 I would not paint -- a picture --

by Emily Dickinson

I would not paint—a picture—
I'd rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir—
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
It's finer—own the Ear—
The License to revere.
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

"I would not paint—a picture..." by Emily Dickinson, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson. © The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet John Milton (books by this author), born in London (1608). He studied at Christ's College at Cambridge University, where he was nicknamed "the lady of Christ's" for his good looks and delicate mannerisms. He described his lifestyle as "aloof from vice, and approved by all the good." After graduation, he lived for six years at his father's country estate in a small village called Horton, where he spent his days reading Greek and Roman writers, learning foreign languages, and writing poetry. After these years of self-directed study and some traveling in France and Italy, he wrote: "I began thus far to assent [...] to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joyn'd with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die." In the meantime, he served as a civil servant; wrote inflammatory pamphlets about politics, divorce, and freedom of the press; and supported the cause of the Commonwealth during the English Civil War, which eventually got him arrested. He lost his eyesight, and he spent the end of his life blind, living in seclusion in the countryside, where he dictated his epic poem Paradise Lost to his assistants, line by line.

He said, "What in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support, / That to the height of this great argument / I may assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."

It was on this day in 1935 that investigative journalist Walter Liggett (books by this author) was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His murder has never been solved. Liggett grew up on a farm in western Minnesota. As a teenager, he started reading McClure's, the magazine that pioneered muckraking journalism, and it inspired him to leave his father's agriculture school and become an investigative journalist himself. He worked as a reporter all over the country, from Minnesota to Alaska to New York City. He made a name for himself with a Pulitzer-nominated series of magazine articles about the crime and corruption flourishing in cities nationwide as a result of prohibition. One article focused on Minnesota, where politicians and law enforcement looked the other way while powerful gangsters ran elaborate bootlegging operations, bringing in huge amounts of liquor from Canada — including through an 18"-diameter pipe that pumped liquor across the Canadian border to an adjacent Minnesota farm.

Liggett met and married a fellow journalist, Edith Fleischer, and they had two children. In 1933, he moved his family back to Minnesota. He became deeply involved with the Farmer-Labor Party, a progressive political party that was gaining momentum fast in his home state. He took over a newspaper, renamed it The Midwest American, and used its pages to expose ties between organized crime, politicians, and business people. One of his favorite targets was Minnesota's most notorious mobster, Isadore Blumenfield — known as Kid Cann — who was the ringleader of the bootlegging industry. Another frequent target was Governor Floyd B. Olson, who had run as a Farmer-Labor candidate and won in a landslide. He was young, charming, progressive, and popular. He pushed through major populist reforms, but Liggett was suspicious of Olson — he thought the governor was too entwined with big business, and especially with the crooks who ran the liquor operations. Olson was the child of Scandinavian parents, but he was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in North Minneapolis, and he remained deeply connected to his networks there. Kid Cann grew up in North Minneapolis with Olson, and Liggett was convinced that the governor was in Cann's pocket.

About a year after Liggett's return to Minnesota, he was charged for a fabricated "morals" crime. One night during the trial, Liggett was beaten up by Kid Cann's men, and had to attend the rest of the trial with his face swollen and bruised. Less than a month after a jury acquitted Liggett, he was killed. On December 9, 1935, Liggett spent the day at home working on the next edition of The Midwest American — including a list of 12 reasons to impeach Governor Olson. It was a snowy late afternoon, and he and Edith stopped by the print shop, picked up their daughter from the library, and ran some errands. He parked in the alley behind their house, and had just stepped out of the car with a sack of groceries when a car with two men came barreling down the alleyway. The passenger had a machine gun, and he shot Liggett in the chest as they raced past, killing him immediately.

Edith got a good look at the gunman's face, and was able to identify him as Kid Cann. But putting Cann in jail was no easy feat. By this time the gangster was a millionaire, and he used his fortune to bribe law enforcement and witnesses. During his career, he was accused of three murders, defrauding the local rapid transit company of millions, and trafficking prostitutes, but he was acquitted over and over. The trial against him was going well until Edith claimed that Governor Olson's men were behind the murder. At this point, the governor was both popular and sick with cancer, and Edith's declaration probably ruined her case. A couple of police officers testified that it was too dark that evening for her to have seen the gunmen well, and that Edith was hysterical. It took just 90 minutes for the jury to acquit Kid Cann. He jumped up and went over to the jury box, kissing the hands of the four female jurors.

Edith Liggett took her children back to New York City. Olson died eight months later, and is remembered as a great governor. Decades later, Kid Cann was finally jailed for bribing a juror, but got out on parole after two years and moved to Miami Beach, where he made millions in real estate.

It's the birthday of one of the people who helped invent the modern computer: Grace Hopper, born in New York City (1906). She began tinkering around with machines when she was seven years old, dismantling several alarm clocks around the house to see how they worked. She was especially good at math in school.

She studied math and physics in college, and eventually got a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale. Then World War II broke out, and Hopper wanted to serve her country. Her father had been an admiral in the Navy, so she applied to a division of the Navy called WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. She was assigned to work on a machine that might help calculate the trajectory of bombs and rockets.

She learned how to program that early computing machine, and wrote the first instruction manual for its use. She went on to work on several more versions of the same machine. In 1952, Hopper noticed that most computer errors were the result of humans making mistakes in writing programs. So she attempted to solve that problem by writing a new computer language that used ordinary words instead of just numbers. It was one of the first computer languages, and the first designed to help ordinary people write computer programs, and she went on to help develop it into the computer language known as COBOL, or "Common Business-Oriented Language."

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