Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Question Everything

[Editor’s Note: Since I’m currently away on vacation and don’t have anything to write at the moment, I decided to post my college entrance essay. My mom recently emailed it to me and I think it really explains a lot about the way I think. I hope you enjoy and that everything’s going okay here while I’m gone.]

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, or risk that you have taken and its impact on you.

Question everything. It’s a lesson I learned in the eighth grade and it has really helped shape the way I think. The setting: U.S. History class, the day before winter vacation. The teacher: Mr. Bauer, a 28-year veteran who asked the same bonus question every year and then swore his students to secrecy. The question: What woman accompanied the three Americans involved in the XYZ affair to their meeting with Tallyrand? The reward: the first student to bring in the correct answer and source would receive an automatic A for the third quarter. I really wanted to be on vacation, but the idea of no homework or tests in history for a whole quarter was very tempting. As soon as I got home, I asked my mother to drive me to the library.

Others had obviously beaten me there. The only reference I could find said nothing about a woman. I looked through a couple of encyclopedias, nothing there either. I convinced my mother to take me to a library in another town. There I found a whole book just on the XYZ Affair. I was so confident I’d find what I needed I checked it out and went home. But again, no woman. I found the reference at a third library the next day.

As happy as I was, something was bothering me. Why had the answer only been in that one book? It seemed like a pretty important point; it just didn’t make sense. I noticed that the book with the answer seemed much older than the other. I looked at the copyright dates. The book with the answer had been published some time in the fifties, the one called The XYZ Affair in 1981. Now I was even more puzzled. Why would a more recent book, written specifically about the incident, not mention this important detail?

The only thing I could think of doing was to ask the author. But if I wrote a letter through the publisher, I’d never have the information back in time to be first at school. That’s when I noticed that the flyleaf said the author, William Stinchcombe, was a professor at Syracuse University. I decided to call and find out if he still worked there, figuring I’d ask for an e-mail address. Much to my astonishment, the operator told me to hold on and she’d connect me. When the voice on the other end of the line said, “Bill Stinchcombe,� I somehow managed to mumble something about why I was calling. At first, I didn’t even mention my name. (It was rather intimidating to talk to a college professor.) I have no idea what he must have thought about a kid calling to ask a question like that, but his answer was really direct. He not only told me my teacher was wrong, he told me where I could find the proof. I asked if he would mind sending me an e-mail because I was afraid Mr. Bauer would think I was lying.

There were five people ahead of me on the first day back after vacation, but I was the only one who could prove the question was wrong. Mr. Bauer gave the A to the first person on line with the ‘correct’ answer. He also gave me one — and never asked that question again. (A copy of the e-mail I received from Professor Stinchcombe is attached.) [Ed: Not to this blog post.]

Update (10/24/05): My mother was nice enough to type up the email I received from Professor Stinchcombe:

Mr. Brier:
I am a professor of history at Syracuse specializing in United States Diplomatic history.
It is absolutely clear that Madame Villette never accompanied the three American diplomats in their infrequent meetings with Tallyrand.
Madame Villete was never in the picture until they met W (Nicholas Hubbard), X Jean Hottinguer, Y Pierre Bellamy, and Z Lucien Hauteval. This is clear from two sources: the dispatches sent back to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and in the Marshall Journal. Both sources are in The Papers of John Marshall, vol. 3, which I edited.
Another source is the article of mine “THe Diplomacy of the WXYZ Affair,” which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1977.
My guess is that Mr. Bauer is reciting the old, and quite discredited, view that Madame Villette approached Charles C. Pinckney at a party. This rumor is taken care of in the article mentioned above.
I am sorry to quote only myself but on this issue my work is the most definitive.

October 19, 2005