The Czar of the Ritz: Nucky Johnson

March 29, 2013

If the people who came to town had wanted Bible readings, we’d have given ’em that. But nobody ever asked for Bible readings. They wanted booze, broads, and gambling, so that’s what we gave ’em.  Local Attorney Murray Fredericks on the success of Atlantic City

[Johnson] was born to rule: He had flair, flamboyance, was politically amoral and ruthless, and had an eidetic memory for faces and names, and a natural gift of command … [Johnson] had the reputation of being a trencherman, a hard drinker, a Herculean lover, an epicure, a sybaritic fancier of luxuries and all good things in life. Nucky Johnson’s obituary, Atlantic City Press, December 10, 1968


A few weeks back I did a piece praising the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. In it I mentioned that the central character was based on a real historical figure Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. In the series they changed the surname to Thompson. This was probably a good idea as it gave them more artistic license. I love the TV series and I think Steve Buscemi is wonderful in the central role, but I wanted to know more about the real man.

To this end I recently read Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson (no relation to Nucky). The book looks at Atlantic City from its foundation in the 1850s to the arrival of Donald Trump in the 1980s. The star of the book is undoubtedly Johnson, the man who ran the city for almost three decades. The Czar of the Ritz would stroll along the boardwalk a dapper figure in an elegant 3-piece suit, a red carnation in his lapel, spats on his feet and a walking stick in hand. He was chauffeured around town in a powder blue limousine. He lived in a luxury suite at the Ritz hotel, but also maintained several residences. His largesse was legendary. He was a party animal who loved to host lavish bashes. He had enough servants and people willing to do his bidding to make even Lord and Lady Grantham feel envious. Who was this charismatic leader and how he was able to remain in power for three decades?

Enoch Lewis Johnson was born on January 20, 1883, in Galloway Township, New Jersey. His nickname “Nucky” is a derivation of Enoch. Johnson, who had a booming voice, was a tall, bespectacled, physically imposing man, standing one metre ninety-three and weighing more than a hundred kilos. If you have seen the HBO series, you will realise that the two Nuckys are very different.

In 1906 Nucky married his teenage sweetheart, Mabel Jeffries. Two years later he was elected Sheriff of Atlantic County when his father’s term expired. During his term as sheriff he was indicted for election fraud, but was acquitted and became a local hero and a rising political star. Then tragedy struck in 1912 when Mabel died.

With Mabel’s death, Nucky focussed all his energies on politics. He went from the sheriff’s office to the Republican Party machine. In 1911, local political boss Louis “the Commodore” Kuehnle had been convicted of electoral fraud and imprisoned, and Nucky Johnson stepped up as leader of the Republican political organization that controlled Atlantic City. He became secretary to the Republican County Committee. He may not have a salary, but it was the secretary who called meetings, established the agenda, and made decided on who was eligible to participate in the organization. Nucky was then appointed county treasurer, which may not sound particularly glamorous, but it gave him access to a lot of dough. As well as the money, he was responsible for selecting of candidates. Nucky had inherited from the Commodore a system that was working. But he was able to perfect it. A brilliant organiser and a cunning strategist, he had an acute sense of what made humans tick.

Nucky would remain county treasurer for the next 30 years. Like the Commodore he never actually sought election while he was boss. He believed that a boss should never be a candidate – running for election was beneath their dignity. Instead he would be a power broker. The Republicans had dominated Atlantic City since the end of the Civil War. Its hierarchy was based on the four voting wards of Atlantic City, which were where the party was able to crank out the votes that kept the Republicans permanently in power.

Nucky learnt another lesson from the Commodore – the poor also voted, and if you took care of them, you could count on their votes. In a time when there were no welfare provisions, he was their benefactor. Just like today’s Republican Party really! During the long winter he would see to it that people were tided over until the tourist season. A generous tipper, he even courted children, future voters. He was also loved by Atlantic City’s black population, who lived in the Northside district. He “owned” the poor vote and he could count on their presence at the polling station, sometimes more than once.  Nucky was a master in providing the large turnouts needed to produce the “right” election results.

Nucky knew that it was necessary to control the flow of money to the candidates. If you had a continuous flow of cash, you could make sure that reformers wouldn’t win. Under Nucky protection money paid by Atlantic City’s racketeers became a major source of revenue for the business of politics. These payments weren’t voluntary. If you didn’t pay up, he would shut you down.

The defenestration of the Commodore had shown Nucky that it wasn’t sufficient to be a local boss – he needed to be a force in the state of New Jersey. In 1916 he was Republican Walter Edge’s campaign manager in the latter’s run for governor. As well as raising money for Edge, Nucky began an unofficial alliance with Democrat boss Frank Hague. They struck a deal in which Edge effectively ceded North Jersey to Hague in return for keeping South Jersey for himself. When Edge became governor he rewarded Nucky by appointing him clerk of the State Supreme Court.

The system in Atlantic City was all-encompassing. You had to be on the right side of the party if you wanted to work in local government. Under a practice known as “macing”, city and county workers had to pay between 1% and 7% of their salary to the local Republican Party, if they wanted to keep their jobs.  He took an interest in everyone on the public payroll, personally interviewing and approving every person hired. Thus he established a personal link with them and they felt loyalty towards him.  Nucky also controlled every contract for public construction jobs and other tenders. But above all he controlled the police. They were his own personal force, vital for the protection of Atlantic City’s rackets and the collection of the payoffs from bars, gambling rooms, and whorehouses.

The most inaccurate part of the TV depiction of Atlantic City is the overplaying of the violence. Nucky never needed to be violent with adversaries. He worked by using the Republican Party machine to systematically destroy those that caused him trouble. The strength of the machine was so overwhelming that, if you crossed him, you would lose your government job, have your license revoked or see your business close because the customers would suddenly decide to go elsewhere.  Neither Nucky nor his followers are known to have ever had anyone killed or physically harmed. Not having to resort to violence, now that is real power. As Nelson Johnson put it – buck Nucky Johnson and you lost your livelihood, but not your life.

It was vice that made Nucky and Atlantic City so successful. The booze, broads, and gambling that the tourists demanded were what drove the local economy. Reformers or critics of the status quo were bad for business and couldn’t be allowed to prevail. There was only one ideology – economic success.  Nucky was a consummate politician who understood that what he had to deliver to maintain Republican Party hegemony. The way to achieve growth was through the protected violation of vice laws.

Early in his reign Nucky received a gift from heaven the nineteenth amendment and the Vorstead Act. Prohibition was good to Atlantic City – and to Nucky; it reduced the general availability of alcohol while greatly increasing the money available for political corruption and organized crime. It was party time and “America‘s favourite playground” knew how to give its visitors a good time. The liquor flowed and the party seemed as though it would go on forever. The real business of Atlantic City’s boss was protection money from the local rackets. He claimed a yearly salary of $36,000 – $6,000 as Republican county treasurer, and $30,000 a year in unspecified commissions. In fact, Nucky was raking in more than $500,000 a year as his share of the profits from Atlantic City’s vice industry. He got “tribute” of $6 per case on all alcohol brought into Atlantic City during Prohibition, “inspection fees” paid by brothel owners, “wire service charges” paid by horse race betting rooms, and a percentage of the profits from all the other gambling that was going on.

This was the period of the rise of the gangsters Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Johnny Torrio. Indeed, Atlantic City was chosen as the venue for the first meeting of the first nationwide crime syndicate. It was the logical choice; Nucky’s town was the envy of other mobsters. Here the rackets were immune from the police and the courts. In May 1929 the meeting took place. Long, black limousines carrying mobsters arrived in town from all over the country. They knew they would not be hassled and they would be able to experience Nucky’s legendary hospitality. The meeting marked the creation of the first nationwide criminal syndicate.

But the golden age was coming to an end. Less than six months after the meeting the stock market crashed, setting off the Great Depression. Illicit businesses were still thriving, but the hotels, restaurants and shops suffered. Then in 1933 Prohibition was repealed, which eliminated a source of income for Nucky and his machine. The final blow for Nucky came on May 10, 1939 when he was indicted for evading taxes between 1935 and 1937. In July 1941, after a two-week trial, Nucky was found guilty, and sentenced to ten years in federal prison and fined $20,000. On August 1, 1941, Nucky, now 58, remarried. His second wife was 33-year old Florence “Flossie” Osbeck, a former showgirl from Philadelphia, who had been his fiancée for three years. Ten days after the wedding Nucky entered Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Never again would Nucky reign over Atlantic City.

Nucky was paroled on August 15, 1945 and after his release lived with his wife and brother in Atlantic City. He did not seek public office instead working in sales for the Richfield Oil Company He continued to dress impeccably, including the trademark red carnation in his lapel. His popularity was undiminished and he used it to support his successor Frank S. Farley, who would also control the city for thirty years. Nucky’s health gradually deteriorated. His final days were spent drinking whiskey and talking about the glory days with his former cronies, who would pay him regular visits. On December 9, 1968, Nucky died at the age of 85; he is said to have had a smile on his face.

So there we have the singular life of Enoch Lewis Johnson. I have to admit I have an unhealthy fascination with the world of party machines, graft, gerrymandering, ballot-stuffing, kickbacks, bribes, extortion and the like. It would be comforting to see Nucky Johnson as a product of another time and place. And that is undoubtedly true. However, pick up any newspaper today and you will see that political corruption is still with us and is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Boadwalk Empire : an extract

March 29, 2013

Here is an extract from the prologue of Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times And Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson:

Luxury hotels weren’t something she knew about firsthand. Until now, she had never been inside the Ritz Carlton. The closest she’d come to the grand hotel was when walking on the Boardwalk. But here she was in the anteroom of a large suite of rooms, seated in a chair that nearly swallowed her. She was frightened, but there was no turning back. She sat there trembling, folding and refolding her frayed scarf.

As a housewife and summertime laundress in a boardinghouse, she felt out of place and her nervousness showed. Flushed and perspiring, she noticed that her dress and sweater needed mending and she grew more self-conscious. It was all she could do to keep from panicking and running out. But she couldn’t leave. Louis Kessel had told her Mr. Johnson would see her in a moment and she had to wait. To leave now would be embarrassing and, worse still, might offend Mr. Johnson. If it weren’t winter, and if there weren’t so many unpaid bills, she never would have worked up the courage to come in the first place. But she had no choice; her husband had been a fool and she was desperate for her family. Louis Kessel appeared a second time and motioned to her. She followed him, not knowing what to expect.

As she walked into Mr. Johnson’s sitting room, he took her hand and greeted her warmly. It was several years since she met him at her father’s wake, but Johnson remembered her and called her by her first name. He was dressed in a fancy robe and slippers and asked what was troubling her. In an instant her anxiety vanished.

In a rapid series of sentences she recounted how her husband lost his entire paycheck the night before at one of the local gambling rooms. He was a baker’s helper, and during the winter months his $37 each week was the family’s only income. She went on and on about all the bills and how the grocer wouldn’t give her any more credit. Johnson listened intently and, when she was finished, reached into his pocket and handed her a $100 bill. Overwhelmed with joy, she thanked him repeatedly until he insisted she stop. Louis Kessel motioned, telling her there was a car waiting to drive her home. As she left, Johnson promised that her husband would be barred from every crap game and card room in town. He told her to come back any time she had a problem.

Enoch “Nucky” Johnson personifies pre-casino Atlantic City as no one else can. Understanding his reign provides the perspective needed to make sense of today’s resort. Johnson’s power reached its peak, as did his town’s popularity, during Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. When it came to illegal booze, there was probably no place in the country as wide open as Nucky’s town. It was almost as if word of the Volstead Act never reached Atlantic City. During Prohibition, Nucky was both a power broker in the Republican Party and a force in organized crime. He rubbed elbows with presidents and Mafia thugs. But to Atlantic City’s residents, Johnson was hardly a thug. He was their hero, epitomizing the qualities that had made his town successful.

Originally conceived as a beach village by a doctor hoping to develop a health resort for the wealthy, Atlantic City quickly became a glitzy, raucous vacation spot for the working class. It was a place where visitors came knowing the rules at home didn’t apply. Atlantic City flourished because it gave its guests what they wanted—a naughty good time at an affordable price.

QI: A selection #12

March 23, 2013

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Vatican City has one of the highest crime rates in the world (608 crimes, 500 people in 2002). The small size (just 0.44sq km) accounts for the anomaly but also means the country has two Popes per sq km.

The record for the deepest any human has ever dived was set in 1960 by Jacques Piccard, and his assistant Don Walsh, in an area of the ocean called Challenger Deep, part of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. The trench is 1,580 miles (2,550km) long but only 225ft (69m) wide, and reaches a depth of about 6.8 miles (11km). It took them four hours and 48 minutes travelling in Trieste, a pressurised bathyscaphe (Greek bathos, “deep” + skaphos, “vessel”) in 1960. According to Piccard, “the bottom appeared light and clear”. In reality, the pressure there is so great you would have to heat water to 530C (986F) to get it to boil. In 2012, the film director James Cameron followed in their footsteps, and reached roughly the same depth in around 70 minutes.

Gangsters in Chicago were very unlikely to carry around machine guns in violin cases. Even a small weapon was unlikely to fit. Instead they used a nondescript “hard case” which looked a bit like a musical instrument carrier. It was compartmentalised to hold the different bits of the gun more easily.

Casu Marzu, an illegal Sardinian delicacy, is a putrefied cheese infested with live maggots. To make the cheese the makers encourage the cheese fly to lay eggs in Pecorino cheeses, which then hatch into maggots. The maggots then drag themselves through the cheese by their teeth, releasing an enzyme that causes the Pecorino’s fat to putrefy and turn into a sticky mass filled with worms, ready to eat. When you eat this, it is advisable to cover your eyes, as the maggots can jump and you really wouldn’t want one in your eye.

Jaffa Cakes are technically classified as cakes, not biscuits. Chocolate biscuits are subject to VAT at 17.5 per cent, but cakes are zero-rated. In 1991 the British government tried to have Jaffa Cakes reclassified as biscuits. McVitie’s vigorously opposed this, as it would have added considerably to the price. As part of their evidence to the VAT tribunal they baked a special 12-inch Jaffa Cake to demonstrate the product’s inherent cakiness, and won the case. The key difference between cakes and biscuits is that cakes go hard when stale, whereas biscuits go soft.

In recent years MI5 and MI6 have embraced a more transparent public persona. While the very existence of the services used to be denied, today the location of their head offices is widely available and staff members give interviews and write books. Not everything has changed, though. In 2008 an MI6 officer was interviewed on the One Show; but proceedings were interrupted when his false moustache fell off halfway through.

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu. It is the only capital city in the world with no traffic lights. When a test set was put in place residents complained because they were too impersonal; within days they were taken down and the traditional method – men in white gloves at either end of the main street – was reinstated. Bhutan had no roads, no electricity, no motor vehicles, no telephones and no postal service until the Sixties. Plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan since 1999 and in 2004 it became the first country in the world to outlaw tobacco.

Handwriting comes in cycles – a new form is introduced then develops into a finished style which becomes the ”hand of the period’’. You are ambidextrous if you have the ability to write with both hands. Former American President James Garfield (1831-81) could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with his other.

Historians can’t agree when we first started riding horses as well as eating them. They were probably domesticated independently many times and in many places, but the earliest known evidence points to Ukraine around 6,000 years ago, which is several hundred years before the oldest known wheel. It was one of the great turning points in human history (and an evolutionary meal ticket for the horse). Suddenly, we could travel huge distances quickly, trade across whole continents – and wage wars of unprecedented scale and savagery.

Joss sticks are incense-coated sticks burned in China and India, often in front of the thresholds to homes or businesses, as a propitiatory offering to the spirit of the place. The word “Joss” is a Chinese pidgin version of the Portuguese word for God – deus.

After you die, you could be turned into a coral reef (by a company called Eternal Reefs). Your ashes will be combined with concrete, sunk to the bottom of the ocean and will form an artificial reef to attract corals, sponges, algae and barnacles.

One of the last sovereign acts of Scotland was to invade the Panamanian isthmus of Darién. The scheme was dreamt up by William Paterson, the Scot who founded the Bank of England, who wanted to establish a trading post in Central America as a link between the riches of the Pacific and the trading nations of Western Europe. Patterson raised £400,000 in six months, a vast sum equal to a third of the total collective assets of the nation. Almost every Scotsman who could put his name to £5 invested. In 1698, 1,200 settlers left Leith. They were woefully underprepared and ill informed. The land was an un-farmable, mosquito-infested swamp. The colony barely lasted a year and only 300 people made it home. This was a disaster for Scotland that shattered morale and left the economy almost £250,000 in debt. Seven years later the country signed the 1707 Act of Union and accepted a political merger with England and Wales.

The piratical “Arrrr!” was invented by the actor Robert Newton for his role as Long John Silver in the 1950 film of Treasure Island. It was a (bad) imitation of a West Country accent. Maritime Pidgin English, to give it its grown-up name, is celebrated every September 29 on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The Stradivari family of Cremona were the most famous stringed instrument makers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Much of their mystique (and high price) is due to the quality of their sound. However, in blind testing conducted regularly from 1817 to the present, it has proved impossible to identify a “Strad” as being superior to comparably aged or even good modern instruments. The family didn’t only make violins: their output included mandolas, guitars and harps.

The mute swan is the heaviest bird in the world that can fly – it can weigh up to 22.5kg (about 3.5 stone). It isn’t mute: it hisses, snorts and grunts. The Pterosaur, a flying reptile that lived 100 million years ago is the largest known animal to have taken to the air. It had a wingspan the length of two buses.

Bagpipes, haggis, kilts, whisky and tartan: none of these originates in Scotland. Bagpipes are from Asia Minor; haggis was eaten in Ancient Greece. Kilts and whisky are an Irish invention. Even the Scots themselves were an Irish tribe who moved to what the Romans had called Caledonia in the fifth or sixth century AD.

H. L. Mencken quotes

March 23, 2013

Henry Louis Mencken, known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, and a savage critic of American life and culture. Mencken, a contrarian who admired the German philosopher Nietzsche, had little time for representative democracy or religion. He has also served as an inspiration for the American libertarian movement. As Don Boudreaux has pointed out, it’s a great shame that he was born before the creation of the blogosphere. He would have certainly have been worth reading. Here are some of my favourite quotes:

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.

When a new source of taxation is found it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned. It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before.

A church is a place in which gentlemen who have never been to heaven brag about it to persons who will never get there.

A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas.

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.

Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

On Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class: … a cent’s worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables…. It was as if the practice of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words were flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, were lost. One wandered in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It was, and is, impossible to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It was clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It was without grace or distinction and it was often without the most elementary order…. Worse, there was nothing at the bottom of all this strident wind-music – the ideas it was designed to set forth were, in the overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they were ideas that were almost idiotic. The concepts underlying, say, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” were simply Socialism and well water.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease.

Demagogue: one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.

If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

On the economics profession: Its dismalness is largely a delusion, due to the fact that its chief ornaments, at least in our own day, are university professors. The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing; he has a special and unmatchable talent for dullness; his central aim is not to expose the truth clearly, but to exhibit his profundity, his esotericity — in brief, to stagger sophomores and other professors.

Immorality: the morality of those who are having a better time.

The worst government is often the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.

Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99 % of them are wrong.

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies.

On Woodrow Wilson: he accomplished with a great deal more skill than they did themselves the great task of reducing all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones – that he knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else.  The vulgar like and respect that sort of balderdash.  A discourse packed with valid ideas, accurately expressed, is quite incomprehensible to them.  What they want is the sough of vague and comforting words – words cast into phrases made familiar to them by the whooping of their customary political and ecclesiastical rabble-rousers, and by the highfalutin style of the newspapers that they read.  Woodrow knew how to conjure up such words.  He knew how to make them glow, and weep.  He wasted no time upon the heads of his dupes, but aimed directly at their ears, diaphragms and hearts.

The strange American ardor for passing laws, the insane belief in regulation and punishment, plays into the hands of the reformers, most of them quacks themselves. Their efforts, even when honest, seldom accomplish any appreciable good.

The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.

Let those encyclopedias burn!

March 17, 2013

Indeed, the purpose of an encyclopaedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race in the future years to come. Denis Diderot

A certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

On those remote pages [of ‘‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’’] it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f ) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance. The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis Borges

I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopaedia. Let them walk to school like I did. Yogi Berra


The philosopher Julian Baggini recently set light to his 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britanica. I imagine that many of you will be horrified by such barbarism. It has echoes of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451. The German poet Heinrich Heine famously said: ‘Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.’ This remark was very prescient as it comes from a play written more than a hundred years before the rise of Nazism. Burning books is seen as a sacrilegious act; this quote from The Penultimate Peril, the sixth book in the Lemony Snicket series illustrates this taboo:

The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding–which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together–blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labour that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author . . .”

What motivated Baggini to engage in premeditated bibliocide? He makes an eloquent case for why the “mouldy, unread and long out of date” encyclopaedias had to go:

In my defence, this was more of a cremation than a burning at the stake. The books were already dead, terminally rotted after years of neglect. If I had committed a crime, it was to let them get into this sorry state, not finally to put them out of their misery.

Encyclopaedias have existed for some two millennia; the oldest still in existence, Naturalis Historia, was written in AD 77 by Pliny the Elder. The modern encyclopaedia evolved out of dictionaries around the 17th century. Some were one-volume works, but soon multi-volume encyclopedias would emerge. Indeed, the largest print encyclopedia in the world is the Spanish language Enciclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana. It is made up of 116 books, 175,000 pages and 200 million words.

An important landmark in the history of the encyclopaedia was the French Encyclopédie, which has been dubbed “the European Enlightenment in book form.” The project attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment – Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Denis Diderot. Their goal was to bring together all that was known of the world in one comprehensive encyclopaedia.

It has to be said that the beginnings in 1743 were not too auspicious. The original idea was to translation Chambers’ Cyclopaedia from English into French. The Parisian book publisher André Le Breton was the man behind the project. John Mills, an Englishman living in France, was hired. However, due to Mills’s deficient knowledge of French, – he could barely read or write it – the translation was a disaster.  The publisher had Mills beaten up – he was punched in the stomach and hit over the head with a cane. Mills sued for assault, but the French court ruled that Le Breton’s actions had been justified and acquitted him.

The project was then taken on by Jean le Rond d’Alembert, one of Europe’s leading mathematicians. His partner in crime would be the Enlightenment polymath Diderot, who was born 300 years ago. It became a bestseller with 28 volumes which were published in a period of more than 20 years. A complete set of the first edition cost some 1,000 livres, and there were over 4,000 subscribers. The publishers made a fortune even though the work was quickly pirated and reprinted in cheaper editions. Plus ça change.

Louis XV banned Diderot’s encyclopedia in 1759 for “damage that results from it in regard to morality and religion“. It was banned a couple of times. There were decidedly anti-religious overtones to the work. Religion was categorised as a product of human reason and not an independent source of knowledge. A famous example was the cross-references provided for cannibalism, which directed readers to the entries for Eucharist, communion and altar.

There is no doubt that the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, was conceived in part as a response to the Encyclopédie. The Britannica was primarily a Scottish enterprise. It is one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment, the period between when Adam Smith, David Hume and others helped Scotland become an intellectual powerhouse. It began as a three-volume set; the final print version came with 32 volumes. Last year, after 244 years, the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was finally killed off. If you want to consult it now, you have to go online. One man who will surely miss it is the journalist A.J. Jacobs, who spent nearly eighteen months reading the entire set, some 44 million words, for his entertaining memoir, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s several large popular encyclopaedias began to be sold on instalment plans. It is unfortunate that books that should be a celebration of human knowledge became associated with unscrupulous door-to-door salesmen. These shysters would use all the tricks of the trade as they preyed on hapless customers. They would often begin with the $10,000 limited edition. After that the $1,500 for the standard edition seemed like a bargain. Parents wanted their children to have the Britannia Advantage. I suppose you can interpret this in two ways. You could see it as a powerful example of how parents were prepared to make important sacrifices for their children’s future. On the other hand it shows how marketers were able to create a state of anxiety in their customers, playing on parents’ fears. It is an example of consumer culture driving unrealistic goals. As Baggini points out:

A child’s success does depend on school grades, but these depend more on the social background and the culture of the home than any purchased learning aids. A set of encyclopaedias that remains an item of furniture is not enough to give a child an edge; nor is it necessary if the household is one in which learning, inquiry and debate are all part of daily life.

Baggini believes that these would probably have been better off investing their money on real books that children might actually have read. Encyclopaedias may have been the most admired volumes on the bookshelves, but they were also the least read. I hardly remember ever consulting them. This is like when people have Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time on their bookshelves.

As the 20th century came to a close, encyclopedias were being published on CD-ROMs for use on home computers. I absolutely loved Encarta, which Microsoft launched in 1993. The encyclopaedia, which had no printed equivalent, had around 50,000 articles, with additional images, videos and sounds. Little did I know that the relentless march of creative destruction would do away with this wonderful tool – in 2009 Microsoft pulled the plug on Encarta. What killed it off were of course the online encyclopaedias, the most famous of which is Wikipedia. Microsoft just couldn’t compete with a product that apart from being free was much more dynamic, with it being possible to update articles in real time.

I celebrate the demise of the encyclopedia. We shouldn’t be taken in by its mystique – the smell of the leather binding and the intellectual authority that these weighty tomes embody. They may have been beautiful objects, but I prefer the freedom that an internet connection gives us. In Spain they like to invoke Saint Google.  Information has been democratised and I welcome it.

There is a deeper idea here. We need to forget the idea that knowledge, which is in a constant state of flux, can be set down in black and white. Encyclopaedias belong to a time when knowledge was owned by a handful of established authorities, who would decide not only what was true but what deserved to be included. How will we cope with a loss of faith in absolute knowledge?  I have no problem embracing uncertainty. The world is changing, and books, magazines and education will have to adapt to this. Baggini argues that we haven’t yet fully worked out what the demise of print encyclopaedias, and all they symbolise, means for truth and knowledge. We need to find a philosophically coherent position between absolute certainty and absolute relativism. Online encycopaedias better reflect the reality of human knowledge. The print encylopaedia is dead. Long live Saint Google!

Wikipedia’s unusual articles # 2

March 16, 2013

A while back I featured Wikipedia’s unusual articles page where Wikipedians list articles that you wouldn’t expect to find in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here is another selection:

Adwaita Possibly the oldest creature of modern times, this 255 year-old tortoise was the former pet of Robert Clive of the British East India Company.

Candiru A small parasitic freshwater catfish that swims into the gill openings of other aquatic species – or human penises.

Civet coffee Not coffee made from civets, but rather from ordinary coffee beans the civet has, well, excreted.

Das erste Wiener Gemüseorchester An Austrian orchestra whose musical instruments are made solely from vegetables.

David Hahn A 17 year-old, known as the Radioactive Boy Scout, who irradiated his back yard attempting to build a nuclear breeder reactor from spare parts.

Grammarians’ War At the start of the 16th century, British schoolmasters were insulting one another. In Latin, of course.

Heart Attack Grill Noted for its 8,000-calorie “Quadruple Bypass Burger”.

Klüver–Bucy syndrome A behavioral disorder with some very odd symptoms, including “hypersexuality” and a desire to examine objects with the mouth. Named after two doctors who gave psychotropic drugs to lobotomized monkeys.

Mary Toft An English woman who hoaxed doctors into believing that she had given birth to rabbits.

Metal umlaut Gïvë thë lögö för ÿöür hëävy mëtäl bänd ä töügh Gërmänïc fëël.

Möbius syndrome A disease, most envied by poker players, that makes facial expressions impossible.

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D  As if that wasn’t bad enough, it spawned a sequel.

Prince Philip Movement A religious movement on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu which holds that Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is a divine being.

Religious pareidolia A tendency to see religious imagery in in the textures of corn chips, cinnamon rolls, toast, clouds, etc, etc.

Robot jockey Robots designed to ride dromedary camels.

Rose   A goat that was married to a Sudanese man in 2006.

The Cure for Insomnia A movie that runs for 85 hours. Not the longest movie ever screened, however.

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement A movement that calls for the voluntary extinction of the human race.

Year 10,000 problem The collective name for all potential software bugs that will emerge as the need to express years with five digits arises.

The case for the defence

March 10, 2013

A criminal defence attorney has to be as proud of his enemies as of his friends.”

The quote above is by the American defence lawyer Alan Dershowitz. He was once asked in an interview what he would have done if he had been asked to defend the infamous Nazi Dr. Mengele. Dershowitz, who is himself a Jew, replied that he would have represented him, got him acquitted, and then strangled him outside the courtroom.

Alan Morton Dershowitz, who was born in 1938, is an American lawyer, jurist, and political commentator. A distinguished academic, he has spent most of his career at Harvard Law School, where in 1967, at the tender age of 28, he became the youngest full professor of law in its illustrious history. He is in the American context a political liberal. However, he has courted controversy with his proposal that judges issue torture warrants, and his impassioned defence of Israel, a subject guaranteed to raise the hackles of the left.

As well as his teaching and research, Dershowitz takes on a limited number of high-profile cases in his role as an appellate criminal defence lawyer. As he is paid by HarvardLawSchool, he does not depend on his income as a lawyer. This means that he has the luxury of picking and choosing the clients he is going to defend. You may not have heard of Dershowitz, but I am sure you will be familiar with some of his clients:

Claus von Bülow

Jim Bakker

Mike Tyson

O.J. Simpson

Bill Clinton

Patty Hearst


I should add that Dershowitz does not just represent celebrities; he takes half of his cases on a pro bono (free) basis. He has been dubbed the “winningest defence lawyer in history.” In his career Dershowitz has won more than 100 cases. He has an impressive strike rate for a part-time advocate who specialises in criminal appeals, which are notoriously difficult to win. In total Dershowitz has represented 36 people charged with homicide, 30 of whom were acquitted.” He does concede that most of them were probably guilty, but he can not know be sure which ones. For Dershowitz the system of justice is only as good as it is toward the worst person. He is quite open about representing guilty defendants – that is reality of being a defence lawyer. We might like to console ourselves with the Perry Mason image of the heroic defender. In the famous series Mason’s clients were always hapless victims of frame-ups, and the fearless lawyer was always able to unmask the real culprit at the end of the episode. Alas, this is pure fiction. Dershowitz argues that any defence lawyer who tells you that most of his clients are not guilty is either bullshitting or deliberately choosing only to represent a few innocent defendants. Dershowitz intentionally shies away from this. Whether the defendant is guilty, or his personal opinion about them, is irrelevant.  He is a gadfly who likes nothing better than representing guilty and contemptible defendants, whose prospects of winning appear minimal – this is one of the key obligations of being a defence lawyer. He likes to integrate his teaching and lawyering, and the challenging cases that he likes to take provide material for classroom discussion. What he ultimately strives for are those cases and that set a legal precedent.

What are the responsibilities of defence lawyer? I will be focussing mainly on the United States because their legal culture is so familiar to us through books and films. But much of what I’m going to say applies to many other legal systems. I could have looked at the rich English tradition of common law, or the alternative favoured in Spain and France – the inquisitorial system.

It is not the function of a defence lawyer to decide if his client is guilty or not. They must instead determine if the laws were followed in relation to the charges against their client. The fundamental duty of a criminal defence lawyer is to vigorously defend their client within the bounds of the law. This is the principle of zealous representation. The duty of a defence lawyer is not to do justice, but to defend their client. Their role is not analogous with that of the prosecutor whose role is not to prosecute, but to do justice. To effectively represent their clients defence lawyers must have a good grasp of the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful searches and seizures, while the Fifth Amendment governs the right to remain silent so you do not incriminate yourself. In the United States this is known as a Miranda warning, and it usually goes something like this:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.

In Britain it was tweaked a bit a few years ago:

You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.

If there are no constitutional violations, the work of a criminal defence lawyer might be more about negotiation, arranging a deal or plea bargain that permits their client to admit guilt to a lesser offense or that results in a lower sentence than if the accused has pleaded guilty.

The most famous obligation of a lawyer is that of confidentiality. To be admitted to the bar a lawyer must vow to “maintain inviolate the confidences of a client.”  Even if a client confesses to committing a serious crime, their lawyer cannot divulge this information to anyone. The rationale is that by assuring confidentiality the privilege encourages clients to make “full and frank” disclosures to their lawyers, enabling the latter to provide frank advice and more effective representation. A lawyer who violates this confidentiality may be reprimanded or even disbarred for life.

This is the theory. In practice it must be very hard to represent some types of criminal. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I got a paedophile off on a technicality or I had to cross-examine the victim of abuse. The recent case of Frances Andrade is a cautionary one. Andrade, a 48-year-old professional violinist killed herself on January 24th this year, three days after she had given evidence at the trial of choirmaster Michael Brewer, who was found guilty of five counts of indecent assault. The abuse took place when Andrade was a teenager. Could her suicide have been prevented? The case raises questions about the role of Kate Blackwell QC, the defence barrister who cross-examined her. After the trial Andrade texted a friend to say she felt like she had been “raped all over again” after appearing in the witness box at Manchester crown court. Blackwell had accused her of lying and being a fantasist. Does she bear some responsibility for Andrade’s death?

Technicalities are not trivial and the defence should be allowed to rigorously challenge evidence that could send someone to prison for many years. I found it a little unsettling when, after the recent Jimmy Saville case, the police were saying that victims “will be believed.” I always take issue with some feminists. When it comes to rape they seem to want to forget the rule of William Blackstone: It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.

Defence lawyers may be seen by some as ethical scumbags, but I don’t see it that way. We should only incarcerate people when there is overwhelming evidence to justify it. What emotions do they feel when their guilty clients go free? They know that the constitutional prohibition against “double jeopardy” means that their clients will go unpunished. But that is their job and it is one for which we should be grateful to them.

Must See TV # 1 Boardwalk Empire

March 10, 2013

“In less than two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation’s Congress. To those beautiful, ignorant bastards.” This deliciously cynical toast from Nucky Thompson is how this marvellous series begins. I am currently reading Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times And Corruption of Atlantic City. This book, written by Nelson Johnson, was the inspiration for the HBO series.  “Nucky” Thompson is based on the real life Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson, an Atlantic City, political boss and racketeer. From the 1910s to when he was sent to jail in 1941, he was the undisputed “boss” of the political machine that controlled Atlantic City. During Prohibition Atlantic City became a refuge for thirsty Americans. Johnson was able to satisfy their wants. Bootlegging, gambling and prostitution were all organised by Johnson and his cohorts. Incidentally Louis Malle’s wonderful Atlantic City, which I must have seen more than 30 years ago, an aging gangster, Lou, played by Burt Lancaster, mentions an incident involving “Nucky” Johnson. Anyway, if you haven’t seen it already, why don’t you take a trip in the time machine back to Atlantic City in the Roaring Twenties.

Taxes, death and queuing

March 3, 2013

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. George Mikes

It’s civilised to queue; it’s glorious to be polite. Chinese slogan in campaign to eradicate queue-jumping in Beijing during the Olympics


Queues occupy a special place in my life. I met my wife in a queue at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the Official Language School) in Madrid. I had just arrived in the Spanish capital from England and I wanted to know if there was a club where I could meet the locals, while my wife was there because they had spelt her name wrong on a certificate. I suppose that it is hardly surprising that we should meet in a queue, as it is claimed that we spend around four years of our lives waiting in line. This does seem a lot, but think about the following incomplete list:

traffic lights, traffic jams and tailbacks

doctors’ surgeries

supermarket checkouts

passport control

paperwork for the government


call centres

theme parks

The English have a reputation for being master queuers. According to Joe Moran, in his look at everyday life Queuing for Beginners, the orderly queue began in the early nineteenth century, a “product of more urbanised industrialised societies which bought masses of people together in one place.” The queue is a spontaneous organic formation in the great English liberal tradition: it is self-regulating, and based on tacit understandings between people. The queue draws on British traditions of decency, fair play and democracy.

Queues also bring to mind central planning and socialism. In a radio broadcast in 1950 Winston Churchill coined the term Queuetopia to caricature Britain under the Labour government. In the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc the interminable queues were the butt of many a joke:

I want to join the waiting list for a car. How long is it?

Ten years from today exactly

Morning or evening?

Why does it matter?

A plumber is due in the morning.


How will the problem of queues in shops be solved when we reach full Communism?

There will be nothing left to queue for.


In the capitalist West it is Disney that is the acknowledged expert in queues and how to manage them. “The Happiest Place on Earth” is not my idea of fun. Why would I want to spend my holiday waiting in queues? But there is no doubt that Disney, which owns and licenses 14 theme parks around the world, has got it down to a fine art. In the rest of this post I am going to look at the psychological aspects of queuing and the solutions that companies such as Disney have found for them.

There is a significant subjective element to the experience of queuing. Research has shown that we overestimate how long they’ve waited in a queue by around 36%. Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time. This principle is behind the placement of mirrors near lifts. At Houston airport passengers were frequently complaining about the long waits at baggage reclaim. The airport increased the number of baggage handlers and the average wait fell to just eight minutes, but the complaints did not abate. It was taking passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage reclaim and seven more minutes to actually pick up their bags. So nearly 90% of their time, was spent standing around waiting for their bags. By moving the arrival gates away from the main terminal and sending the luggage to the furthest carousel, passengers were made to walk six minutes to get their bags. Complaints fell to almost zero.

In-line” entertainment is a popular option at amusement parks. And in an experiment at Walt Disney World they’ve decided to eliminate the queue completely on their Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride. Visitors will be given pagers and invited into an interactive waiting area where they’ll pass the time until they are buzzed back to the ride. In a busy restaurant, the typical substitute for a waiting customer is a bar. At an outdoor attraction with long queues, a good substitute might be a marquee selling merchandise or food. Not only do these activities make the wait more tolerable for the customer, they are also an opportunity to generate additional revenue.

The length of a queue should coincide with the value of the product or service for which we’re waiting. The more valuable it is, the longer we will be willing to wait for it. We are more concerned with how long a line is than how fast it’s moving. Given a choice between a slow-moving short queue and a fast-moving long one, we will often opt for the former, even if the waits are identical. In a theme park you probably don’t want your visitors to see the whole of the queue, so you try to hide it.

Uncertainty makes waiting more stressful, while information such as expected wait times and explanations for delays reduces this uncertainty. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney systematically overestimates waiting times for their rides, so that its customers will end up pleasantly surprised when they get on their chosen ride ahead of schedule.

A number of inventions have improved the queuing experience. A very mundane piece of technology, the metal pole with a rounded base and a strip of retractable webbed tape at the top, has become essential for more civilised queuing. Then we have those machines, first developed in Sweden, that assign a number to when you arrive. And the fast-food chain Wendy’s are said to have been the inventors of the serpentine line. This channels all the customers into one big snaking queue. On reaching the head of the queue, you are directed to the next available register, teller, etc. The serpentine line may not always faster be faster than multiple queues. But what it does offer is the guarantee that you will never see someone who arrives after you getting served before you.

Fairness, or lack thereof, is the biggest influence on our feelings about queues. We are most familiar with first come first served. However I am not sure this is universal. How people queue in different countries will have to be the subject of another post.

Unfairness can cause queuers to get angry and we hear a lot about queue rage and the violence it engenders. I read about one case at a supermarket in Milwaukee where a woman was so annoyed that the person in front of her had too many items in the express lane that she followed her out to her car, and chopped off half her nose with a hunting knife. But in reality people’s reactions to queue jumping can be surprisingly restrained.

The social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose experiments have featured in this blog before, had his assistants travel around New York to 129 different queues in betting shops, railway stations etc. and barge into queues. They followed this protocol:

1. Enter queue at between the third and fourth person.

2. Say in a neutral tone: “Excuse me; I’d like to get in here.”

3. Step into line and face forward.

4. Only leave the queue when someone admonished them or after 1 minute, whichever was sooner.

On only 10% of occasions were queue-jumpers physically ejected from the queue. And half the times nothing at all happened, – no verbal rebukes, hostile gestures or even dirty looks. I do find this hard to believe. However, Milgram’s findings were replicated in another study by social anthropologist Kate Fox. In her book Watching The English Fox argued that it was easier to jump a queue in England, where the queue has an almost sacred status, than in other countries where queue-jumping is just a minor misdemeanour. She put it down to the fact that other social norms come into play. The desire not to make a scene meant that the queue jumper was generally not confronted by the people in the line.

Waiting in queues can be frustrating and boring; the nagging feeling that we are queuing our life away invades us. To adapt that famous Ben Franklin quote – there are only three things in life that are sure – taxes, death and queuing. And in the UK you can’t avoid queuing even when you die, as it can take two or three weeks before you are buried or cremated. So the next time you’re in a queue or spot a queue-jumper you could engage in a bit of amateur psychology. We’ll never eliminate queuing altogether, so I recommend a stoic attitude.

Dorothy Parker quotes

March 3, 2013

Here is a selection of my favourite quotes by the great American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist:


That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say No in any of them.


Of a performance by Katharine Hepburn: Miss Hepburn runs the whole gamut of emotion from A to B.


I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I’m under the table,

after four I’m under my host.


Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.


Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.


Responding to a hostess being described as ‘‘outspoken’’: Outspoken by whom?


You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.


Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.


There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.


Upon being challenged to use the word horticulture in a sentence: You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.


On being told at a party that people were ducking for apples:

There, but for a typographical error, is the story of my life.


If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you.


If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.


This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.


On being informed that editor Harold Ross had called her on her honeymoon demanding a belated article: Tell him I’ve been too fucking busy – or vice versa.


The only “ism” Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.


I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.


If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.


“Q: What’s the difference between an enzyme and a hormone?

A: You can’t hear an enzyme.”


“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”


On her abortion: It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.


I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.


That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.