Category: Articles

Fire and Dice

Downstairs in the casino, little remained of the MGM Grand Hotel’s former glory. In the early morning hours of 21 November 1980, a fire had broken out in the Las Vegas landmark, ripping through the lounge in an explosive wave that instantly killed everyone in the area. Bodies sat frozen in front of what had once been slot machines, now no more than blackened pillars jutting upward from a flow of melted slag along the floor. The room’s plastic and chrome-plated decor, it turned out, had been as much a facade as its promises of riches.

Fortunately, the Clark County Fire Department had responded immediately, and the blaze never spread beyond the first floor. From where David Demers and his fire investigation team stood on the 23rd floor, no one would have even felt the temperature rise. Why, then, were they surrounded by corpses?

The Reconstruction of Ulysses S. Grant

In the second half of the 19th century, few Americans were better known—and revered—than the man whose face looks out today from the $50 bill. Ulysses S. Grant led Union troops to victory in the American Civil War, then thwarted attempts by President Andrew Johnson to suppress fundamental civil rights of newly freed black Americans. Twice elected president himself, Grant stewarded a war-torn nation as it struggled to reunify. After leaving the White House, he invested his name and entire life savings to a Wall Street brokerage firm. It would make him rich, he was told, and afford him a comfortable retirement. Instead, it would leave him penniless.

Like any army commander, Grant had lost battles and had known the pain of defeat. But this loss hit personally. Never before had he found himself in straits so dire, literally destitute. Fortunately, the former president and retired general had one more fight in him—because his real troubles had just begun.

The Greatest Baroque Composer Never Known

As a choirmaster in 1870s Salzburg, Innocenz Achleitner often saw sheet music treated in a less-than-reverent manner. It might be scattered across a composer’s desk, crammed into vocalists’ folios, or even marred with personal notes about bowings or breath marks. Never before, however, had he seen it wrapped around vegetables.

Only about 80% of men at the time were literate enough to sign their own name, so it’s possible Achleitner’s greengrocer didn’t recognize what the marks on his packing material meant, especially since each page stretched roughly 80 centimeters tall and resembled something more like newsprint rather than a standard sheet of music. The choirmaster knew better, of course, and quickly convinced his grocer to hand them over.

Thus, by a coincidence of his shopping schedule, Achleitner happened to rescue the Missa Salisburgensis, or Salzburg Mass, known today to be the largest surviving composition from the Baroque era. It would come to be recognized as one of the most important historical works of music, and it would certainly cement its composer’s place as a master at the forefront of the era…if experts could figure out who wrote it.

Foreign Exchange(s)

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By the summer of 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel had been mothballed for two years. Nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, the sprawling resort was once a favorite getaway for wealthy New Englanders. But in the wake of the Great Depression and the second war to end all wars, the end appeared nigh for this silent relic of America’s Gilded Age.

Then the US Treasury department offered its owners a staggering $300,000 if they would host a conference—to start in less than a month. An army of hotel workers and hastily recruited townspeople got to work. On the first of July, 730 delegates from 44 countries checked in and proceeded to conduct one of the most influential economic conferences of all time, carving into history the name of the sylvan outpost where it was held: Bretton Woods.

Known officially as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, the Bretton Woods talks focused primarily on foreign exchange rates (the price of US dollars, say, in British pounds) and other tedious minutia of monetary policy. With the world engulfed in war, few in those days were giving much thought to topics as arcane as these. But some people were giving it quite a lot of thought. One was US Treasury advisor Harry Dexter White, who had been toiling in relative obscurity to forge an exchange rate policy that all nations on earth would agree to. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.

Now the technocrat from humble roots was about to pull it off, earning recognition and his first official government title: Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury. Harry White would soon experience recognition of another sort, with his name splashed across newspaper headlines—but for reasons having nothing to do with exchange rates, economics, or Bretton Woods.

One of the outcomes of World War 1 was, quite unfortunately, the setting of political and economic conditions that led to World War 2. There were many factors at play, but the isolationist policies of the United States—such as its refusal to join the League of Nations—certainly didn’t help. After the second world war the US would play a far more active political role on the world stage as a key member of the United Nations. Lesser known is how the US propelled itself into the economic center of the post-war world and indeed came to dominate global finance. The man chiefly responsible for this turnabout was a most unlikely fellow.

Starving for Answers

In early 1945, 36 American men lay in their bunks in a windowless room, each man alone with his thoughts as he tried to fall asleep despite the hunger that gnawed at his gut. Just a few weeks earlier, they had all been fit, healthy young men, eager to serve their country. But then their overseers had decreed that their rations were to be cut in half, and the men assigned to feed them had shown no mercy. Now they were so weak from hunger that they could barely roll over in their bunks. During the day, they tried to smile and laugh with each other to keep their spirits up, but at night the depression that accompanied starvation seeped in, telling them to give in, to give up. But the men soldiered on, despite the fact that they were not actually soldiers at all: they were pacifists who had volunteered to be starved for the sake of science.

Ten Minutes in Lituya Bay

In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.

There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.

Miller interviewed some people familiar with the area, and heard tales of “cataclysmic floods” and such. He sliced samples from the trees along the edge of the old growth and saw signs of blunt trauma. He left Alaska still contemplating hypotheses, and he ended up writing a paper putting forward some possibilities. But the origin of the distinct damage would remain a geological mystery until five years later, when humans had the unsought opportunity to witness the cause of the terrifying phenomenon firsthand.

The King’s Letters

In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.

This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.

“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.

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