Recycled Genius

RecycleI just updated my two articles based on Peter Lamont's book The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. The first one, Indian Rope Trick Part I, is mostly about the history of the trick and how it started in a made-up newspaper article. The second one, Indian Rope Trick Part II, is about an actual thing, which I call the "Indian Chain Trick." I discuss it and how I'm pretty sure it was done.

I wrote both of those articles just a few months after starting this blog. That was in the days when I took my time. Yet I managed to name both of the articles "Indian Rope Trip [sic]." And it wasn't just that. Some of the text was unclear. It just goes to show, expertise helps. When you have less skill, even working very hard will only take you so far. My dashed off work now, six years later, is better. But these are interesting articles — well worth reading.

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Poor Winners and the Progressive Fight

Paul Krugman - Poor WinnersPaul Krugman's Friday column comes out just after midnight my time on Thursday. I thought for a little while about live blogging the event. Now that even the most innumerate can see that Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic Party nomination, would Krugman move on to something besides another "Clinton rocks! Sanders sucks!" article. I thought the idea was very funny because I was almost certain that he would write something different. But I was wrong. Although his article, Wrath of the Conned, is nominally about the Republicans, it reads more like an attack on Sanders. Krugman is one of the great poor winners.

The article doesn't mention Sanders by name and certainly doesn't give him any credit in the campaign. You know, because Sanders sucks. The best we get is the truly ignorant claim that nonwhite voters supported Clinton because her "challenger" (Not Sanders!) "sometimes seemed to dismiss" the achievement of Obamacare. Yeah, it was all about Obamacare, Krugman. I'm a big Obamacare supporter, but it does far too much argumentative work for Krugman in his apologias for Obama.

Krugman also quoted the Crimson Hexagon study in the most facile way, saying that Clinton got the most negative coverage. That's true, but it's important to note that it wasn't that much more negative than the other candidates and that the same study found the media covered Clinton far more than it did Sanders.

I don't especially care, I suppose. But it is a good illustration of how people are often poor winners. Would it be so hard to say something nice about what the Sanders phenomenon has done? Clinton has turned left during this primary because Sanders was pounding her from the left. Imagine where we'd be now if Jim Webb had seen Sanders' level of support. We wouldn't be talking about the minimum wage; we'd be talking about who was going to drop more bombs on more countries.

Politicians do not exist in a vacuum. Clinton has shifted to the left on both trade deals and Social Security — because of the success of Bernie Sanders. Does he — Do we?! — get any credit for this? Or are the Krugman's the nation going to continue to stew about Sanders' unfortunate "Clinton isn't qualified to be president" comment (which he took back far more publicly than he stated it)?

Poor Winners Can Help Us!

Scott Lemieux wrote a really good article over at New Republic yesterday, Why Hillary Will Govern More Like Bernie Than People Think. This goes along with what I've been saying for some time to disappointed Sanders supporters, "He made Clinton, the Democratic Party, and America better." But now I find that I have to say it to Clinton supporters. Yes, Clinton is a politician, and like them all — including Bernie Sanders — she shifts with the political winds. And she would have been a far worse candidate if she had spent the last year having only to counter the insanity of the Republican Party.

Lemieux's article is mostly about Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and how he's turned out to be far more of a progressive than anyone would have thought given what a political hack he has always been. Lemieux noted:

Political context matters. If McAuliffe had been elected governor in the 1990s he likely would have been much more timorous and inclined to compromise with Republicans. But it ain't the '90s anymore, and McAuliffe has gotten the message.

And so too has Clinton, I believe. And it has happened in a big way. As Lemieux said, "Leaders often act as weathervanes, but this isn't a bad thing if the wind is blowing in the right direction." So maybe it's best that people like Krugman are determined to be poor winners. It can encourage the rest of us. We need to keep blowing — and hard.

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Morning Music: The Greatest Taste Around

Dispepsi - The Greatest Taste AroundToday, we end this week of Negativland, in observance of the death of Richard Lyons. I'm going to jump ahead to their 1997 album, Dispepsi. I want to end with it because when I asked my boss if she knew the band, she said, "Pepsi?" She is the hippest person I've ever known. Of course, Negativland doesn't have a song called "Pepsi"; I'm sure she's referring to "The Greatest Taste Around," which is the song we are going to listen to today.

The funny thing about the album is that the band was apparently afraid of being sued by Pepsi. This was not unreasonable, because as a band that made heavy use of sampling, pushing the bounds of IP law was kind of the norm. So the album cover does not have the word "Dispepsi" on it. It does have all the letters on it in various combinations. The album's song list is done as a food nutrition label with the headline "Ideppiss Facts." But Pepsi, wisely I think, had no intention of suing. Such acts are usually self-defeating. So the band started calling it "Dispepsi."

Although "The Greatest Taste Around" is about Pepsi most prominently, the whole album is about Pepsi, Coke, the soda industry, and the idea of having to advertise products people wouldn't normally want. The song "Hyper Real" is about the selling of New Coke. "Aluminum Or Glass: The Memo" does seem to feature an actual advertising memo. The whole album is brilliant in this way. It sounds great, but it is also great political and social satire: and it is all on YouTube.

"The Greatest Taste Around" is such an upbeat song that it's easy enough to miss how scathing it is. "Tractors plowing down the hills: Pepsi! Ghastly stench of puppy mills: Pepsi!" All to a I-IV-V chord progression. Brilliant!

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Anniversary Post: Bugs Bunny

Bugs BunnyOn this day back in 1938 Bugs' Bunny was born. Note that apostrophe. It is in reference to the director of the first cartoon to feature the character, Ben Hardaway, whose nickname was Bugs. The cartoon was, Porky's Hare Hunt. But that bunny is not himself. For one thing, he sounds like Woody Woodpecker -- literally. In 1940, Mel Blanc moved the voice from one character to the other. Also, this early character doesn't have the intellectual sophistication that he will eventually develop. He's mostly just a spaz, like Daffy Duck in his early versions. (He was first introduced in the similarly titled, Porky's Duck Hunt.)

In addition to this, Bugs doesn't look the same. He's quite short -- again, like the early Daffy Duck. And he is all one color. But there is a continuity. It's kind of like the old philosophy riddle about replacing the handle and the head of an ax: is it the same ax? There isn't one answer to that; it is just a way of thinking about what is is. But in the case of Bugs Bunny, I think we can say that this little Woody Woodpecker laughing bunny is indeed a form of the iconic character.

Happy anniversary Bugs Bunny!

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Long Hours and Wasted Time

Long HoursBack in 2000, I worked long hours for a company named Equilibrium. They were known for a product that was very popular among professional graphic artists, DeBabelizer. It converted graphic files from one format to another. But I was hired when the company was on a big expansion, creating a product that they still sell, MediaRich. At the time, it was pretty cool, but now sounds almost trivial. It allows websites to change images on the fly. So if you are looking at a page selling shirts, you could see the model in all the different colors the shirt comes in. And it could do a whole lot more than that.

I liked that job. It paid well and I worked with some really great people. But I remember this one meeting. We had been working long hours because we were getting ready for some kind of product launch and one of the vice-presidents said, "We work hard and we play hard!" I thought it was a stupid thing to say because I had heard the exact same thing said at every corporate job I'd ever had, including at Microsoft. And it was always said with the same cheerful enthusiasm that indicated that the speaker thought it was a clever phrase they had just made up rather than the most tired of cliches.

Long Hours Goofing Off

Over time, I've come to see that it was not just a cliche, it was also a lie. In fact, it is a double lie. My time in corporate America has shown that mostly, people do not work hard. They work long. It's a way of proving fealty to the corporation, "Look, I'm willing to spend 12 hours a day in this cubical and rarely see my wife and kids! I'm a team player!" Meanwhile, these same people mostly goof off. I even see it here on Frankly Curious. I had asked my direct boss why it was that traffic here goes down so much on the weekends; she said, "It's the same for every site; people surf the web most at work."

But the other part of this myth is the "play hard" part. I don't even know what it is to "play hard." But these people certainly didn't do it. They didn't play at all. It would be better to say that they "worked long and goofed off hard."

Similarly, my last job was a tiny startup. We did amazing work until we ran out of money and the company was taken over by a bunch of real estate investors who destroyed it through utter incompetence. But the head of the company was in every day, putting in those hours. But what was he doing? Every time I looked, he was on some website about sail boats (he was really into boats). It's pretty typical, though. So the idea that everyone is working hard is just nonsense.

At that point at that company, I wasn't working either. I was terribly sick (I almost died). But more, everything I had built the two years before was being destroyed in the name of the egos of a real estate agent and a boat mechanic. When I was at Equilibrium, however, I wanted to work and go home. I did not like this nonsense of hanging out at work. But then, I was about ten years older than the other workers and was far more interested in finishing my first novel. And it annoyed me that I was expected to work long hours as though it were some kind of religious observance.

But the other part of this myth is the "play hard" part. I don't even know what it is to "play hard." But these people certainly didn't do it. They didn't play at all. It would be better to say that they "worked long and goofed off hard." Because just killing time in a way that doesn't seem like you are goofing off is a large part of what the people at Equilibrium did.

This occurred to me today as I was reading Thomas Frank's new book, Listen, Liberal. A lot of the book is a critique of the "innovation mentality." You know what it is: this idea that if we all get college degrees and think like entrepreneurs, then we will live in a bright shiny world. He talks about how every town goes out of its way to bring in those great "innovators" who will revitalize the boarded up downtown regions where people only go if they want to by sex or drugs. Frank remarked:

I toured innovation center after innovation center, each one featuring brightly colored furniture, open workspaces, inspiring quotations about inventiveness, ping-pong tables, and Guitar Hero sets and other instruments of break-time levity (not one of which I ever saw actually being used)...

I remember at Equilibrium, we had a great big break room. And in it was a very expensive Foosball table. I never saw anyone play it. In fact, in all those long hours I never saw anyone in the break room (which I passed by often), except on Thursday mornings, when they would bring in bagels, and people would come in, get a bagel and cream cheese and take it back to their desks where they would eat and "work."

This all goes back to the breakdown of worker solidarity. And here we have a variation of the paradox of thrift. Everyone wants to prove to the boss that they are the hardest worker. But there isn't really that much work to be done. There were certainly times when long hours were required, but these were rare. And they were always because of sequencing: I needed to wait around for one person to finish something so that I could do my part. But the rest of the long hours is just one individual trying to outdo another individual. The end result, is that everyone ends up spending a whole lot more time at work, without any more getting done.

"Work hard, play hard" is a myth people use to justify wasting large parts of their lives.

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Morning Music: Helter Stupid

Helter StupidYesterday, I featured Negativland's song "Christianity Is Stupid." And I discussed how the song was used as the basis for a fake press release that claimed that the song had inspired David Brom to kill his family. The fact that so much of the media fell for the fake story seems to have delighted the band. Well, it's hard to tell. Maybe they were outraged. Regardless, it inspired them. The first side of their next album, Helter Stupid, is dedicated to it.

There was always a little of The Firesign Theatre in Negativland's work, and it really comes to the fore here. The following album side is composed of two songs. First is "Prologue." This is made up mostly of a story that KPIX did on the fake story. And then we move directly into "Helter Stupid." The basis of it is, I think, a sped up sample from Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby." On top of it is an amazing sound collage with bits from the original song, more of minister Estus Pirkle, Charles Manson, and lots of media reporting on the fake story. And then there is lots of laughing.

We also get a commercial for "Al's House of Meat (on the sirloin strip)." Then the people in the studio notice when they rewind it has evil messages. For example, "This child, is a child of evil." And, "Last night he murdered his parents; tonight his target is his aunt and uncle." Finally, they have some fun with the trailer of Death Wish II. You don't have to be analytical to figure out what they are saying.

When I was a teen, this idea that rock songs had evil things recorded backwards on them was very big. As I recall, "Stairway to Heaven" had "Sweet Savior Satan" or something. But even when I was young, the idea that people would somehow pick up on something said backwards was ridiculous. But isn't it just like Americans to look for something so fantastical to explain our violent culture when Death Wish II is given an MPAA rating of R mostly because of the sex?

Anyway, this is 22 minutes of brilliance. Really, listen to this. It is probably the greatest thing that Negativland ever did. (This is the whole album. The rest of it is interesting and funny, but not as great.)

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Anniversary Post: Botany Bay

Welcome to Botany Bay! Now go home!On this day in 1770, James Cook first landed in Australia in a place he will call Botany Bay. It was there that he first met with the aboriginal tribe, Gweagal. I think that must have been interesting. It is like us looking into the sky every day and mostly seeing nothing -- perhaps a small airplane in the distance. And one day a huge spacecraft shows up filled with people we did not previously know about. It is not surprising that the Gweagal were intrigued but shy toward the strangers.

These kinds of interactions between civilizations are fascinating to me. They show the lie of the libertarian utopia. As you may have noticed, Botany Bay is not under the control of the Gweagal. But when Cook showed up, it was their land. In fact, archaeological digs indicate that settlements date back 5,000 years. Meetings between stronger groups and weakers groups tend to go the same. Things often start out nice enough with trading. But after a while, the stronger group decides that they would like what the weaker group has. And regardless of how the stronger group justifies it, in the end it comes down to the fact that they take it.

This is so ingrained in people, that the great defender of individual rights herself, Ayn Rand, could not see that her own philosophy ultimately degenerated into: might makes right. Matt Bruenig has dealt with the subject from a philosophical standpoint, Non-Aggression Never Does Any Argumentative Work at Any Time. But the truth is that not even the libertarians who claim to follow the non-aggression principle even stick by it. And it doesn't make sense, anyway. Would it have been all right for the first human to think of it to say, "I own all property." And then no one could do anything because that would be interfering with his "rights"?

In a perfect world, we would have a just way of divvying up resources. But in the real world, we have no such method. So we stick with what we've always done: might makes right. And that is why bad things happen when civilizations collide. That's not to say that "might makes right" isn't also what's happening in downtown San Francisco, but it isn't as big an issue.

Happy anniversary for the "discovery" of Botany Bay!

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Harriet Tubman and Republican Ignorance

Harriet TubmanIt goes to show just how overworked I am that I'm only now getting to something I saw a week ago in a post at No More Mister Nice Blog, How Your Right-Wing Uncle Is Going to React to Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill. The point of the article is that Republicans will use Tubman differently how ever it works for them. So she will either be a terrible communist or a great gun loving Republican. It's this latter conception of her that I find interesting and incredibly annoying.

The truth is that Harriet Tubman was a gun loving Republican. But the problem with that is that you can't really compare someone who was born almost 200 years ago to someone today. Let's start with the most obvious and silly thing. Of course Tubman was a Republican! The Republican Party was the anti-slavery party. I assure you that if chattel slavery were an open issue today, it would be the Republican Party that would be on television reading passages from the Bible to justify it. In the 1960s, the Democrats and Republicans crossed paths on this issue. This is the main reason why the south went from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.

My message to Republicans: after decades of using racial dog whistles to win elections, it is time to embrace the fact that you are a racist party. The group of people who ended slavery in this country might have called themselves Republicans, but they don't represent who you are today.

Who'd've Thought Harriet Tubman Was Like That?!

The issue of guns is a little more subtle but far more interesting. You see, in the early days of the union, the Constitution really did protect gun rights in a most feeble way. It was only after the Civil War that gun rights started to be expanded because the southern states were trying to disarm former slaves. So of course Harriet Tubman would be pro-gun — both before and after the Civil War.

Compare this to what I've found in my life to be the typical gun owner: someone who owns a dozen or more guns and is waiting for the revolution that keeps not coming. You know: Ammon Bundy. These are people who live in a fantasy land where every Democratic president is a despot just waiting to storm their home. Its particularly funny when you consider that our military now has drones. So when Bundy and his fellow idiots occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it really didn't matter how many guns they had. The government could have just blown them all up using a drone.

On the other hand, guns actually did provide former slaves some degree of protection against state governments that really were trying to kill them. So it not only makes perfect sense that Harriet Tubman would be a gun loving Republican, it was entirely predictable. Yet we get absolutely fatuous statements from conservatives like this:

That awkward moment when leftist feminists find out that Harriot [sic] Tubman — who they voted to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill — was a gun-toting, Democrat shooting, 2nd Amendment supporting Republican.

So we are supposed to be surprised. Why? Because Republicans think we are as stupid and ignorant as they are.

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Morning Music: Christianity Is Stupid

Richard Lyons - Christianity Is StupidProbably the best known song from Escape from Noise is "Christianity Is Stupid." I think I said yesterday that Negativland could do any kind of music they wanted, and we hear that with this song too. It would be compelling, even without the lyrics. But the lyrics are what everyone remembers. And the lyrics are, "Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!" Over and over. It's got a very Nineteen Eighty-Four feel to it.

Apparently, the band took a sermon from Baptist minister Estus Pirkle. They grabbed seven words from it and rearranged it. Pirkle was known for his films like The Burning Hell (directed by Ron Ormond). Now, I think these of great bits of idiosyncratic art. But you can also tell that Estus Pirkle was a fire and brimstone preacher — and definitely an anti-communist. So it's great fun that Negativland managed to take his words and say something that he would find revolting.

Escape From Noise was the first Negativland album on SST Records — you know Greg Ginn's company created to put out Black Flag albums but also put out all of the Minutemen albums, as well as albums by a number of other great bands. So Negativland had found a home. And Escape From Noise was a surprisingly successful album. So they were expected to go on a tour. But SST had no money for it. What's more, Negativland wasn't really a live band. What to do?

Bandmember Richard Lyons came up with an idea to get the band out of having to tour. You will remember that Richard Lyons died last week, and he is the reason that we are listening to Negativland this week. He put out a press release that stated that mass murderer David Brom was inspired by the song "Christianity Is Stupid" to kill his parents and siblings. It stated the FBI had told the band not to leave town. Many news outlets picked up on the hoax press release and ran with it. And why not? Everyone always thinks that pop music creates murderers.

The following recording of "Christianity Is Stupid" goes along with scenes from Metropolis, which I still can't believe wasn't a hit when it first came out. And if you haven't seen it, shame on you. Here is a beautiful print of it for free: Metropolis.

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Anniversary Post: Mutiny on the Bounty

Mutiny on the BountyOn this day in 1789, the mutiny on the Bounty occurred. It is one of those sad stories where it is hard not to sympathize and also hate everyone involved. There is also the problem that it seems every historian who has tackled the subject has (understandably) come to different conclusions. So what you think about the event largely depends upon who you have read. Much better to watch the 1962 classic, Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard -- ahistorical as it may be.

What I nonetheless love about the whole thing is how very civilized it was. The mutineers did not kill the captain and his supporters. They just set them in a row boat. In fact, four of the supporters couldn't go in the boat, so they were dropped off in Tahiti. But the boat wasn't just set adrift. It was sent with (according to Wikipedia) "150 pounds of bread, some pork, 6 quarts of rum, 6 bottles of wine and 28 gallons of drinking water." And that explains how Bligh and his crew managed to make it to safety.

Unlike in the movie, Bligh returned to England a hero. It would seem that his reputation fell because towards the end of his life, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales. And he was so bad at getting along with people that he sparked the Rum Rebellion. I think that probably made a lot of people think that Fletcher Christian might have had more than just a little reason for his mutiny.

Happy anniversary mutiny on the Bounty!

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The Surprisingly Similar Attacks on Sanders Regarding the Soda Tax

Jonathan Chait - For Soda Tax If Sanders Is Against ItI wasn't going to write about it. And the truth is, I'm going to try to make this short. When Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, A Note on the Soda Tax Controversy, I figured I'd let it slide. After all, at this point, I do a search for "Sanders" on anything Krugman writes, and if I find it, I don't read the article. Or at least I try to. I usually manage to read at least half the article and it is usually nonsense. It's what I always say, and what neuroscience proves: we make up our minds and then we come up with arguments to justify ideas that might as well have come from our guts.

But then I noted this morning that Jonathan Chait (who might as well be Paul Krugman when it comes to any discussion of Sanders) wrote, Why Is Bernie Sanders Making Right-Wing Arguments Against Taxing Soda? Right-wing arguments? What could they be?! Well, it turns out it is only one argument and that it is only "right-wing." That is to say, it's right-wing in Chait-land where everything is either right-wing or communism if Jonathan Chait doesn't agree with it.

For those of you not following it, Hillary Clinton wants a soda tax on these sugary drink so that America gets healthier. It's not a bad idea. I'm not necessarily against it. Call me agnostic. And call me agnostic because there is another side to the issue. Bernie Sanders is against this tax because it is regressive. You can see what a right-wing argument he's making there. That is: you can see it if you have Jonathan Chait's eyes that allow him to throw out pejoratives for anything that he doesn't happen to agree with. It's interesting that when Michael Bloomberg wanted to ban soda in anything larger than 16 ounce containers, Jonathan Chait ridiculed it.

Paul Krugman - For Soda Tax If Sanders Is Against ItAs Chait noted, the fact that such a tax would hit the poor hardest would probably make the tax most effective, since the rich spend more of their money on pricey Gamay Beaujolais. But it occurs to me, a liberal, that are ways to make everyone more healthy that don't require doing it on the backs of the poor. It is only because Chait and Krugman and Clinton are all wedded to neoliberal approaches to social problems. Global warming?! How about a carbon tax! Obesity?! How about a soda tax! Both of these are regressive, but neoliberals don't care because they aren't poor.

And would it surprise anyone to know that the poor actually consume less junk food than their richer counterparts? But it seems that the modern Democrat has but one tool to deal with problem. So when Bernie Sanders isn't for a neoliberal "solution" to a problem he acknowledges, then he's "right-wing."

I happen to know that Sanders is for a far better solution to the problem of bad eating by the poor: more food stamps. Am I the only one who remembers the article in Mother Jones two years ago, People on Food Stamps Make Healthier Grocery Decisions Than Most of Us? The issue is poverty, not "incentives." And people like Chait, Krugman, and Clinton think the issue is training the poor, because it's their own damned fault.

But why listen to me? I am apparently "right-wing"!

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Morning Music: Escape from Noise

Escape from NoiseToday, we reach what is widely considered Negativland's masterpiece, Escape from Noise. It is the perfect mixing of sound and music. It also has the advantage of being more song oriented. As we saw yesterday with the first side of A Big 10-8 Place, songs mixed into one another and what was called a song was almost arbitrary. Here, that's not really true. Whether you think that's good or bad is up to you. I don't think it much matters.

But for today, we will listen to "Car Bomb." What I especially like about it is that's it's kind of a parody of maximum rock-n-rock. But it works as maximum rock-n-roll and is also better than the vast majority of maximum rock-n-roll. The truth is that Negativland could do anything, because they understood sound — a fact that was clear enough from their previous albums.

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Anniversary Post: A Vindication of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary WollstonecraftOn this day in 1759, the great writer Mary Wollstonecraft was born. She is probably best remembered today as one of the first and greatest feminist philosophers, but I think that is rather too small a box to cram her into. But there is no doubt that her ideas were far ahead of her time. She was even far ahead of the thinking of many of the suffragettes who came along a hundred years later. And among conservatives, I still commonly hear ideas that would offend Wollstonecraft's thinking over two centuries ago.

I like to think of her as the female Thomas Paine. And indeed, they were friends. In fact, they were both in France together where they faced the guillotine. Paine was jailed for some time, but it isn't clear whether or not Wollstonecraft was. She was the first to publish a response to Edmund Burke's apologia for hereditary rule, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her book was, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. And it contains the kind of fiery rhetoric I associate with Paine. For example, she suggests that Burke would have argued in favor of crucifying Jesus. The sad thing is that I'm sure she's right.

She followed that book two years later with what is probably her masterpiece, even though it was written hurriedly, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It is mostly an argument for the proper education of women. It was generally thought at that time—even by intellectuals—that women needn't more than a basic education. Rights of Woman is one of the founding documents of modern feminism.

Mary Wollstonecraft died young at the age of 38. It was ten days after the birth of her second daughter who would go on to be Mary Shelley, perhaps the greatest Romantic writer. Her death was due to blood poisoning from a broken placenta. It's extremely sad and a great tragedy for our culture, but there is something satisfying in the author of Frankenstein killing her creator.

There is much more to say about Wollstonecraft. She wrote a great deal and had a very colorful life. The Wikipedia page on her is rather good, or you could read, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. Or you could read her work, much of it is available at Project Gutenberg. She also wrote narrative fiction. She's well worth checking out.

Happy birthday Mary Wollstonecraft!

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