Category Archives: History

Leonard Nimoy and me

I just learned that Leonard Nimoy has died. I only met him for a day but I remember it, even though it was almost thirty years ago. Let me tell you about it.

I was doing some movie extra work at the time Now a movie extra is a human being who is part of a movie or television show but has no lines. They are a human set prop and so insignificant they don’t even get named in the credits. Think about that for a second.

The placement and control of movie extras is the domain of the second or third assistant director. They tell you where to stand, how to look. They might send you to costume to become a person at the party, an office worker, or a camel driver, depending on the needs of the day. When they don’t want you on set they put you in the bullpen so you don’t wander off.

On the set of Three Men and a Baby, everybody knew the names of the stars. Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg had created quite a buzz in Toronto, and every starlet in the city wanted on that set. Coline Serreau, who wrote and directed the original French version, was set to direct this remake but dropped out after casting the three male leads.

Leonard Nimoy took over. Now he’d done a few TV shows and a couple of Star Trek Movies, but a screwball comedy with a baby, a girl, and three guys?

I remember we filmed at least three different scenes that day, which is productive for a movie. The first one included a live camel. After that, we broke for lunch. The production company fed us onsite; talent, grips, and the rest of the crew. We extras were lined up waiting to be fed, last. Leonard walked to the end of the line and stood behind the extras. Imagine the President of the U.S. standing in line with the waiters to get into a white house dinner.

The manager of the craft services found Nimoy, explained they had a special table for him, and started to lead him past us. Leonard went, but he apologized to us as he passed and shook hands with us. That’s how I shook Leonard Nimoy’s hand.

After lunch we were filming a scene that later ended on the cutting room floor. The ‘Third’ showed me my where to stand, handed me some papers and told me to point things out from them to another extra. Steve Gutenberg came on set and shook all the women’s hands. Ted Danson arrived a bit later and, as I remember it, he kept to himself.

Thirty extras, two principles, grips moved lights as the camera man kept making adjustments. The sound editor complained and adjusted the microphones. An electrician lay extension cords. Absolute chaos. In the midst of all of this Leonard Nimoy sat on a canvas seated chair, his legs crossed and his hands in front of him making a steeple. His eyes were closed, as if meditating. Every so often, he would ask, “Are you ready?” and then return to his meditation.

When the chaos cleared, he gave his instructions to Gutenberg and Danson in a voice so low I couldn’t hear him and I wasn’t that far away. He resumed his seat and called out “Action” in a voice barely louder than conversational, as calm as Spock.

I’ve been on other sets where the director roared his instructions. I’ve heard one curse out a sound technician in language that would make a sailor blush. I’ve seen them react with anger or annoyance when a shot was ruined by some gaff. Not Leonard Nimoy.

Not having read his biography, I didn’t know at that time how Spock had affected Nimoy. I only knew I saw a director who had that calmness in the midst of chaos. I saw him work with Danson, and they shot a three second snippet about fifty different ways in a couple of minutes. I saw a gentleman in the finest sense of the word, who taught me more about managing a team in that afternoon that all the books on motivating people I had read.

Leonard, the world is a poorer place without you.

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The Mother of a Nation that had no Children

In 1925, a French Army team opened a tomb in the Ahaggar Massif, in the land of the Tuaraeg people. What they found was the skeleton of a woman, with seven silver bracelets on her right arm and seven golden ones on her left arm.

A later examination of the body showed that the woman had probably be lame because of a deformation of her Lumbar and sacral areas.

Radio Carbon Dating show the tomb was constructed in the second half of the fifth century. After resting in the remote fastness of the Sahara for fifteen hundred years, French archeologists had broken into the tomb of Tin Hanin, and found it undisturbed. They had found the woman of legend.

This was the woman who united the Tuareg world and founded a kingdom in the Ahaggar Mountains. Even today in the oasis city of Tamanrasset, they celebrate her festival. The name Tin Hanin means literally “She of the Tents” literally. She was the mother of a nation. Yet she began with so little. She came from the Talfilalt oasis in the Atlas Mountains of what is today Morocco, with only one servant.

Last and most strangely, the physical examination of the skeleton within the grave revealed that the mother of a nation had never born a child.

The Tuareg are a Berber people, not Arabs. They are sometimes referred to as “People of the Veil” and “the Blue People”. The indigo color of their veils and other clothing sometimes stains the skin underneath. Among this race, the men, not the women, wear a veil. The difference doesn’t stop there, for the women can choose their husbands, and divorce them as well.

Today, about 1.2 million Tuaregs live within the countries of Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso. Their nomadic lifestyle doesn’t work well with modern nation states, and the decline of the caravan trade.


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As Movies Fade to Black

I watched the Academy Awards on Sunday evening for the first time in about fifteen years. It’s not that I didn’t want to see the Oscars, but that time and circumstance defeated me. In the world of cable I remain during my sailing time, a solitary standout. No television. Strangely, while Americans have parties for the Super bowl, they don’t even turn the television to the Oscars.

So I watched the entire thing from the red carpet to the last gasp thirty minutes later than predicted. Sad in some ways to see the faces on the red carpet. There’s no special lenses to hide the passage of time (Except for Nicole Kidman who appears to have gotten younger.) Then the ‘In Memoriam’. I knew more of the people in that segment than among the announcers. See what happens when you don’t pay attention for a decade.

The musical numbers have always been a big part of the show. It’s some real entertainment. However, none of the numbers moved me, with one exception. Lady Gaga nailed those songs from ‘The Sound of Music’, and demonstrated a well-trained, strong voice. In an age of lip-syncing, and pitch corrected recordings, this amazed me. Lady Gaga, who has been known for her shock tactics took the high road.

The dresses were lovely; the red carpet statements were banal. The speeches were a little better, but had nothing that will be played again and again. Remember Jack Palance and his one armed pushups at the age of seventy-three? No? Look it up on YouTube.

Overall, it struck me as nostalgic, old fashioned, and bit sad. While they celebrate, their ship has sailed and the future is pushing them onto the slag heap of history.

International video game revenue is estimated to be $81.5B in 2014. This is more than double the revenue of the international film industry in 2013. Video game growth in some segments is running 20% per annum.

No, movies won’t disappear in the next year. Movies are passive. Go to the theatre and sit. They are great for a date. However, ticket sales (not dollar sales) for 2014 were 1.27 billion, down from a high 1.58 billion in 2002. All the increase in dollars came from increased ticket prices. IMAX and 3D pictures have driven this trend.

Personally, and this is from a man whose favorite movie is in black-and-white with mono sound, I’m not sold on the new technology. I’m still adjusting to HD television and not always happy with the result. How many explosions can a single movie contain before it becomes boring?

Oh heck. I’m sounding like an old fart. It must be time for me to buy a new console and hook it to the television; maybe one of those body motion detectors. Then I could consider video games as a cardio workout. Maybe next year I’ll watch the Video Game Awards Show.

The Valentine’s Day Conspiracy


As a child at Our Lady of Lourdes, the nuns taught us that St. Valentine was a martyr during the early days of the church. The emperor, Claudius the Cruel had forbidden marriages, believing that single men made better soldiers, but Valentinus, a priest, continued to secretly perform marriages. After he was jailed, Valentinus he restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer, who wrote him a letter of thanks that became the first Valentine.

It was a great story, but a complete crock of doo doo.

To begin, there were three different martyrs name Valentinus in the early days of the church. We know little about any of them, and they had nothing to do with the exchange of love letters.

So how and when did this expensive annual habit actually begin? Blame Chaucer. He wrote a  poem in 1382 to honor the first anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement. In the poem he mentions that birds mated on St. Valentine’s feast day which was February 14. Did Chaucer make this up? We can’t tell for certain.

The poem that started it all.

In fourteenth century in France, during the age of courtly love, this caught on like wild fire. Three other notable authors (Otton de Grandson, John Gower, and Pardo from Valencia) made similar references and it took off faster than Fifty Shades of Gray. Letters and confections became the rage on this day. Wooers gave a charm in the shape of a key as a romantic symbol and an invitation to unlock the giver’s heart. Such charms were also given to children to ward off St Valentine’s Malady. He’s the patron saint of epilepsy. (He is also the patron of beekeepers (along with St. Ambrose) although I’m not sure if that is connected.)

The connection between love letters and February 14th continued in France and England through to the present. In Hamlet you’ll find a mention of the feast so it was familiar to Shakespeare and his audience in Elizabethan England. With the creation of a postal system and the printing of mass produced cards in the 1840’s in the United States, the day became part of our modern celebrations.

Alas, February 14th is no longer the feast day of St. Valentine. In 1969 the Catholic Church revised its Calendar of Saints. Saints Cyril and Methodius now claim that day.


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Reading, oh Me!


If you root around on the internet you’ll find more than a few articles that decry the modern educational system and explain that today’s illiteracy is caused by abandoning the phonics method of teaching English.

Now I find these attacks interesting and humorous for a couple of reasons. When I was learning to read, my parents thought that phonics was the source of all the reading problems. They were old school. You memorized spelling, and then you knew the world. If you didn’t know a word, you used a dictionary.

Those attacking modern education like to quote a book named “Why Johnny Can’t Read” published in 1955 by Rudolph Flesch. Yes, a sixty-year-old book about reading is still making waves.

Now Rudolph Flesch has a background that proves his intelligence. Flesch was born and raised in Austria. He finished university there, studying law. He would have learned German as his milk tongue, Latin, and Greek in high school. For law, at that time, a student required a proficiency in German, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and English.

Fleeing the imminent Nazi invasion, Flesch fled to the U.S. There he became a graduate student of Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D in English. (Pretty sharp guy.)

What started me on this topic? I just found this bit today:

Written by Mr. P. Thomas O’Dea of New Haven, Conn.:

When the English tongue we speak,

Why is “break” not rhymed with “freak”?

And the maker of a verse

Cannot cap his “horse” with “worse”?

“Beard” sounds not the same as “heard.”

“Cord” is different from “word.”

“Cow” is cow, but “low” is low.

“Shoe” is never rhymed with “foe.”

Think of “hose” and “dose” and “lose,”

And of “goose” and yet of “choose.”

Think of “comb” and “tomb” and “bomb,”

“Doll” and “roll” and “home” and “some.”

And since “pay” is rhymed with “say,”

Why not “paid” and “said,” I pray?

We have “blood” and “food” and “good.”

“Mould” is not pronounced like “could.”

Wherefore “done,” but “gone” and “lone”?

Is there any reason known?

And, in short, it seems to me,

Sounds and letters disagree.

It was printed in the Ann Landers column on July 19, 1995. However, the clipping is from sixty years earlier. As for Mr. P. Thomas O’Dea of New Haven, I can’t tell you a blessed thing.

However, for anyone wishing to explore phonetics and English there are a wide variety of sites on the Internet. Some have ten, some have forty-seven, and some have a hundred or more rules. You can even find tee shirts with the rules on the front and the back. (Do you know the thirteen rules for Silent letters? I don’t.)

I just warn you that all rules have exceptions.My favorite is one I saw a couple years ago. It goes as follows: “Dew, few, spew, flew, and stew all follow the same rule. If you think you need a lawyer to sew, then you are a phonetic reader.”


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A Taste of Honey

honeyDo you remember the taste of honey? Do you remember bread and butter, with honey sandwiches? The combination of the rich butter and the sweet taste of honey remains in my memory after all the decades since I last tasted one.

When I was young, honey was a treat, while sugar was a staple. The honey would come in a wooden box, with a honeycomb in it. I could skim the covers off the combs and drain the honey on the sandwich, or hack out honey and comb and spread the mixture on the bread.

Sometime I’d eat the honeycomb by itself. That would eventually result in a wad of wax that I could chew like gum.

The historical writer can relax on the subject of honey. Cavemen in Ancient Spain collected honey at least eight thousand years ago. The ancient Egyptians used it to sweeten cakes. Honey collecting began before records in both China, and the New World.

Wherever bees made honey, men would steal it and eat it.

Some interesting facts about honey. It never goes bad. I’m willing to bet you keep your honey in the refrigerator, although that isn’t necessary.

Because of its high fructose content, honey has more sweet flavor than other sweeteners. No two honeys taste exactly the same. Honey is a natural humectant and acts as an anti-irritant. Honey wine is called mead. Honey is a natural moisturizer.

A Sumerian tablet writing, dating back to 2100-2000 BC, mentions honey’s use as a drug and an ointment. Today honey can be used for hard-to-heal wounds, such as diabetic leg ulcers, even wounds with gangrene.

How? If poured on a wound, honey will seal it from outside contaminants. It has a low water content and acidic nature which both combat bacteria. More than that, when honey is diluted with wine or body fluids, enzymes in the honey create a small amount of hydrogen peroxide. Furthermore, honey on a wound reduces pain, and promotes healing.

So, maybe you should include honey in your first aid kit. And I might suggest some bread and butter as well.


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Sugar, a short history


I love sugar. However, that is not the reason for this blog. I read all sorts of stuff, especially when sailing. Almost every marina has a book place, where voyagers can offload books that they no longer want and pick up new reading material. However, you are at the mercy of other peoples’ tastes.

I picked up a Historical Romance set in the 12th century in Great Britain. In one scene the heroine feeds her horse a lump of sugar. Are you laughing? You understand. Are you wondering what the issue is? Read on.

Today, you can pick up a pound of sugar from sugarcane in the grocery store for less than a bottle of beer. That shows how greatly the world has changed.

Sugar, as we think of it today, is the product of either sugarcane, or the sugar beet. We can ignore the sugar beet for most of history. Why? The 16th-century scientist, Olivier de Serres, discovered a process for preparing sugar syrup from the common red beet. However, since crystallized cane sugar was available and tasted better, beet sugar never caught on. The commercial manufacture of sugar from beets didn’t take hold until the early 1800’s when the British blockaded the French ruled continent. The sugar beet has one advantage. You don’t need a tropical climate to grow it. Even with this advantage, beet sugar only accounts for about 12% of all sugar production today.

So, cane sugar is king, and always (aside from the necessities of war) has been.

Guess where the sugarcane plant came from. No, not the new world. Actually, sugarcane was first grown in New Guinea about 6000 BC. The practice spread to India, and the production of crystalline sugar began about 500 BC. Ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts mention sugar. Arab traders brought sugarcane to Mesopotamia by the 10th century AD.

Crusaders brought sugar home to Europe after their campaigns in the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans carrying “sweet salt.” Crusade chronicler William of Tyre, writing in the late 12th century, described sugar as “a most precious product, very necessary for the use and health of mankind.” The first record of sugar in English is in the late 13th century.

So, before the 13th century in England, sugar was unknown, except for returning Crusaders. Imagine a delicacy that had to be imported from the Holy Land. Do you think you would feed it to a horse?

How expensive was sugar? In the fourteenth century, a pound of sugar would cost as much as thirty-six gallons of ale or a couple of sheep.

Now remember this isn’t the same quality of sugar that we buy in the store today. Early refining methods involved grinding or pounding the cane and then boiling down the juice. The result looked like gravel. The Sanskrit word for “sugar” (sharkara) also means “gravel” or “sand.”

Then Columbus discovered America, and sugar production moved to the new world. Approximately 3,000 sugar mills were built before 1550 in the New World. The Spanish had the gold, but Portugal had Brazil and its sugarcane plantations.

The French and the British followed. For the British sugar formed one side of the triangle trade of New World raw materials, along with European manufactured goods, and African slaves. Sugar (often in the form of molasses) was shipped from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum.

France found its sugarcane islands so valuable that it effectively traded its portion of Canada, famously dubbed “a few acres of snow,” to Britain for their return of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia at the end of the Seven Years’ War. (Shush. Don’t tell the Quebeckers.)

Sugar and the European demand for it fueled the plantations. Those needed slaves, so the sweet stuff financed slavery in the Caribbean and South America. New England abolitionists tried to fight sugar from cane with the sugar beet. The “Beet Sugar Society of Philadelphia” was founded in 1836 by those who opposed the slavery on the sugar plantations.

At the same time, sugar began to work its way into every aspect of the cooking of Europe. As the price dropped, sugar changed deserts. It sweetened jams and marmalades. It even sweetened tea.

What we eat and drink today is much different from what people in the actual historical settings had. Sometimes describing an everyday meal can be a trap for the Historical Author.

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Grace Darling


Grace Darling was an English lighthouse keeper’s daughter, famed for participating in the rescue of survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838. In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Darling spotted survivors on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. She and her father William determined that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland). They took a rowing boat (a 21 foot, 4-man Northumberland coble) on a long route that kept to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. Darling kept the coble steady in the water while her father helped four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat.

Darling became a celebrity. Gifts including fifty pounds from Queen Victoria amounted to seven-hundred pounds. Painters flocked to her island to capture her image. Marriage proposals arrived with every mail.

However, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Grace Darling died of tuberculosis in October 1842, at the age of twenty-six.

And as you might suspect, there’s a poem in the works. The question was should I include the one by Wordsworth or by Swinburne? You read and decide.



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The boy stood on the Burning deck

The Explosion of the Orient by English painter George Arnald

I wrote a blog about parlor poetry a while ago, and thought about revisiting the subject. The poem in question is Casabianca. Don’t know it? Well it was a staple of elementary school readers in the United Kingdom and the United States over a period of about a century spanning, roughly, the 1850s through the 1950s.

More than that. Whether you read Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, or Ian Fleming’s ‘Moonraker’ you’ll find references to it. In film, look for it in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, or ‘The Unit’ and others.

The poem by Felicia Heman, celebrates an event during the Battle of the Nile in 1798 aboard the French ship Orient.

Here is the complete poem.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled onhe would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud‘say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound
The boyoh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.

The young son, Giocante, of Commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post. His name would have been forgotten, but for this poem.

Whenever you doubt the power of words and poems, just utter the first line of this poem and see who with you knows some more of it.

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Hope for Lost Works of Greek and Roman Times

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, The scrolls of Herculaneum were blasted by volcanic gas hotter than 300C. The scrolls still exist today, but are essentially ashes that haven’t fallen apart. How Many? The best count that I have found is 1,785. However, there are still 2,800 m² left to be excavated, so there could be more scrolls, many more.

Since their discovery this scrolls have been a source temptation and a source of anguish. What do they contain? We don’t know. To unroll the scroll is to destroy it. The riches trapped in the scrolls have been locked in their condition until most recently.

Using a 3D X-ray imaging technique Scientists this they may be able to read the scrolls without rolling them. Dr Vito Mocella from the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, Italy, has identified a handful of Greek letters within a rolled-up scroll for the very first time.

The technique doesn’t actually read the scroll it reads the difference in thickness caused by the dried ink on the papyrus. It reads the thickness of the ink, not the ink itself. It’s difficult because the Papyrus isn’t perfectly flat. Imperfections can disguise vertical and horizontal strokes, so letter with curved lines are easiest to detect.

With over seventeen hundred scrolls it is possible that some lost works of literature may be recovered. There is some speculation that the villa that housed the scrolls was owned by Father-in-law of Julies Caesar. It is believed that the library might have been collected and selected by Piso’s family friend and client, the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara.

I can speculate. Actually, anyone can. If this was Julius Caesar’s Father-in-law, we can hope to find the following works by the famous Roman:

  • Anticatonis Libri II (only fragments survived)
  • Carmina et prolusiones (only fragments survived)
  • De analogia libri II ad M. Tullium Ciceronem
  • De astris liber
  • Dicta collectanea (“collected sayings”, also known by the Greek title άποφθέγματα)
  • Letters (only fragments survived)
  • Iter (only one fragment survived)
  • Laudes Herculis
  • Libri auspiciorum (“books of auspices”, also known as Auguralia)
  • Oedipus
  • possibly some early love poems

By Cicero:

  • Four tragedies in the Greek style: Tiroas, Erigones, Electra, and one other.
  • Hortensius, a dialogue also known as “On Philosophy”.
  • Consolatio, written to soothe his own sadness at the death of his daughter Tullia Ciceronis

By Homer:

  • The Odyssey mentions the blind singer Demodocus performing a poem recounting the otherwise unknown “Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles”, which might have been an actual work that did not survive.
  • The sequel to the Odyssey?

By Livy:

  • 107 of the 142 books of Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome

By Ovid:

  • Medea, of which only two fragments survive.

Then there are the lost works that might, just might show up, but really don’t fit with a Roman library. The lost books of the bible for example, or the lost epistle of Paul.

We just don’t know what the library contains. However, today we have more hope of its recovery than before.

Yes, works can be lost and recovered. The most famous case is the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC).


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Gold for the Danes.

After the Viking victory at the Battle of Maldon in Essex, Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the aldermen of the south-western provinces, advised Æthelred the Unready to buy off the Vikings, to pay them to go away. (Got to love those names.)

In 991 the English made a payment of 3,300 kg of silver. In 994 the Danes returned and laid siege to London. Once more, the English paid Danegeld to make them go away. In 1002 and 1007 more payments. In 1012 the Vikings accepted 17,900 kg of silver to go away, but only after sacking Canterbury and killing its Archbishop. No, it wasn’t Sigeric the Serious who died in 994, but one of his successors.

In 1016, Canute, became the first Danish King of England. The Danegeld failed to keep the Danes away.

This fact of history might have been forgotten, but in 1911, Rudyard Kipling published the following poem. Why then and why this topic? In 1911, Kipling had long been predicting a war with Germany. Ten years earlier he became involved in the debate over the British response to the rise in German naval power known as the Tirpitz Plan to build a fleet to challenge the Royal Navy. He published a series of articles in 1898 which were collected as “A Fleet in Being”.

Perhaps Kipling realized his poetry had a greater impact than his political writings.


Rudyard Kipling


A.D. 980-1016

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: —
“We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ‘em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: —
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say: —

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!”

 To end this story: President Ronald Reagan read this poem at a meeting of the National Security Planning Group in 1985.


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Alfred and the Cakes

Alfred the Great. Ever heard of him?

Alfred was the King of Wessex (part of today’s England) from 871 to 899. Since he was the youngest of five sons of king Æthelwulf, there was little expectation that he would wear the crown and so he was sent to Rome to stay with Pope Leo IV for three years. He would almost certainly have received the education and tutoring appropriate to his station, but Alfred was never more than semi-literate according to all histories.

Despite the fact that he could not read, Alfred had a prodigious memory. As a child Alfred won a prize of a volume of poetry in Saxon, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it. Later in life he was reputed to be able to memorize complete books that were read to him. (Was he dyslexic?)

Alfred also suffered from a mysterious malady. Alfred’s illness continued, on and off, for twenty years. One of his three older brothers, King Athelbald also died of some similar illness, too, and even Alfred’s grandson, King Edred, suffered from a similar ailment. Modern doctors suggest it could have been Crohn’s disease.

Now at this time, Wessex was under constant attack from Viking raiders. An army of Danes landed in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England in 865. They conquered Northumbria and East Anglia. In 870 the Vikings turned their attention to Wessex.

By this point, three of Alfred’s brothers had died, two while wearing the crown. His brother Æthelred wore the crown. Alfred? Bishop Asser applied to Alfred the unique title of “secundarius” making his the recognized successor. As such, Alfred spent the next year in battle, nine engagements. Alfred was about twenty-two years old.

When his brother died, Alfred became king. Alfred probably paid the Danes gold to buy a peace that lasted five years. Then a new leader, Guthrum, led the Danes against Wessex once more. In January 878, the Danes attacked a royal stronghold where Alfred had been staying over Christmas. King Alfred with a little band made his way by the woods into the marshes of Somerset.

Now to the story of the burnt cakes.


Separated in the wilderness from his friends and companions, Alfred stumbled onto the cottage of a cowherd, where he asked for shelter. The man’s wife, a woman known for the sharpness of her tongue, did not recognize the king, but let him enter. As he stood by the fire, trying to warm himself, she told him to watch the barley cakes she was baking while she milked the cows.

However, Alfred soon forgot the cakes, deep in thoughts of his defeat and the defense of his kingdom. When the woman returned, she found the cakes burnt. Incensed she berated him. When he said he had forgotten to watch them she said, “Men! When you saw the cakes burning, why were you too lazy to turn them? For you are glad enough to eat them when they are all hot!”

My father insisted there was a moral to this story which he put roughly this way. Do all things that come to your hand well, no matter what.

After this.

Between 6 and 12 May AD 878, Alfred won the Battle of Edington. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. One of the terms of the surrender was that Guthrum convert to Christianity.

Alfred died on 26 October 899. During the last twenty years of his life, he had to contend with Danish raids. In addition to this he reorganized the military, the tax system, established a navy, revised the legal system and established a court school. Alfred proposed that primary education be taught in English. He also established a program to translate books deemed worthy from Latin to English.


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Holding back the Tide with Words


Recently, during a critique of one of my short stories, the reader asked about something and I had one of those epiphanies. Many of the stories and legends I heard and read about as a child have been lost. Younger readers have never heard the stories about King Canute and the tide, Alfred the Great burning the cakes, or Danegeld.

Why? These are stories of England before the Norman invasion. Certainly not a priority period for American educators, or European History professors. Yet, each story has some lesson of importance to the world.

This is the story of King Canute and the waves as I heard it from my Father.

Now King Canute was the king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. He ruled England for nineteen years, and prosperous ones they were for Canute was a leader in a war and a leader in peace. He brought in good laws, and the land was peaceful.

In his court, there was a certain lord who sought to curry the king’s favor with words of praise. Whatever King Canute said, he would stand behind it and would praise the king for his wisdom and his power. One day this lord made his praise more vainglorious than usual.

“Oh King,” The lord began. “Such is the power of your word, that the winds blow at your command and the tides flow as you set them to do.”

King Canute, a man learned in the ways of war and peace, was not impressed. He thought to correct the lord, but struck on a better plan.

The next day the court moved to a new location. At low tide, King Canute led all the courtiers, including the lord of vain words out onto the exposed beach. There, King Canute continued with the king’s business in the normal fashion.

Soon the returning water began reach the court, making more than one person nervous. When a courtier finally mentioned, King Canute stood up and commanded the tide to retreat once more. Then he sat on his throne and continued with the business of the kingdom.

The sea did not retreat. It continued to rise.

Finally, when the water had risen to their knees, the courtiers begged the king to return to land. Looking at the flatterer, King Canute said, “You said I could command the tides.”

“Oh king,” the lord replied. “I was wrong.”

King Canute smiled, and said, “A king may command many things, but he cannot command the winds or the seas, or the seasons. Only God can do that.”

With that the court returned to dry land.

King Canute is a real historic person who ruled England for nineteen years, until November 12, 1035. Look him up.

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What Star Trek TNG got right and got wrong – 3

If mankind has a hobby (or an obsession) it is the war. Thomas Hobbes called the natural state of man as ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ (war of all against all). Yet in TNG, the world is at peace. Perhaps that’s why the weapons on TNG are so primitive.

What do I mean? Watch any TNG episode. In most you’ll see the phasers (set to stun) drawn. Then there are a couple of minutes of shooting back and forth with visible beams fired by hand or rifle phaser that miss most of the time.

Today, prison guards in American prison have rifles with laser pointers that show where the shot will go. It cools the jail yard rioter when he sees the little red dot on his chest. Police, when they storm a position, use a stun grenade, also known at a flashbang or flash grenade. These disorient, stun, deafen, and blind the opponent. By the way they were first developed by the British Army’s SAS in the 1960’s.

The closest we have to a phaser is the Taser, which at close ranges does the job, but Riot police also have rubber bullets for standard pistols and rifles, plastic batons (plastic bullets) from specialized guns, and the Bean Bag round from shotguns to strike at a great distance without killing.

For more deadly results, consider the fire and forget facilities in development. US military research agency DARPA says it is homing in on its long-term ambition of producing self-guided bullets, after staging a test in which a sniper was able to shoot at a target at a radically wrong angle, and yet still hit it perfectly. The bullet has fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, and comes in a .50 round. That means a kill from a mile away, or farther.

Want something as an American civilian. TrackingPoint, an Austin-based company, builds smart-rifles with a computer to increase accuracy out to 1,000 yards. After the shooter tags the target the gun adjusts the scope’s crosshairs for a perfect shot when the trigger is pulled. Those Star Trek Phaser rifles haven’t changed since 1966, still with iron sites if any.

Want more fire power. As part of the military, you could add an under the barrel grenade launcher to your rifle today. Then go with a grenade that explodes after it has penetrated the wall and infra-red detection to spot the other guys through the wall.

Did I mention body armor?

Today’s Special Forces have the equipment and training to turn a TNG fire fight into ten seconds of slaughter.

In part, you have to remember that Rodenberry’s view of the 24th century for TNG. It was a utopia where the world is at peace. People are able to receive all of their basic needs. Money no longer exists. Small wonder small arms didn’t advance between the first generation and the second generation almost a century later. We’re not even with hailing distance of the part of the imagined future.

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What Star Trek TNG got right and wrong – 2

We have created some of the Star Trek technology in the last twenty-five-years. In other places we still have to a ways to go. Now TNG showed us the dream. What has been done to make the vision real?


What’s happened with the hypospray? That was a medical device to inject liquids into the body. It used compressed air to deposit the injectant into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery, without the use of a needle. It turns out that this wasn’t 24th century technology, even when TNG was in production. High pressure air injectors have been used by the military as a common initial entry vaccination method since at least the mid 1980’s. There are several models on the market today, principally used by the U.S. military. These devices used compressed air or co2 gas.


The latest entrant into the field is a device from MIT. This device uses a Lorentz-force actuator – a small, powerful magnet surrounded by a coil of wire that’s attached to a piston inside the drug ampule. No compressed air required.


However these devices do not inject into an artery and are not as safe as first thought. The jet injector breaks the barrier of the skin, so potential biological material can be transferred from one user to the next. One study tested the fluid remaining in the injector for blood after an injection, and found enough to pass on a virus. Blowback from the injection is still a problem. The World Health Organization no longer recommends jet injectors for vaccination due to risks of disease transmission. That’s why you haven’t seen a hypospray in your doctor’s office.


What happened to the medical tricorder? There’s actually an X-prize for creating one. The ten finalists have been chosen, and they must demonstrate their devices on humans in 2015 with three winners to be announced in 2016. Top prize is seven million dollars (U.S.). Part of the problem is definition. The medical tricorder of TNG acted could X-ray bones, scan organs like an MRI, test blood and analyze pathogens. That’s a lot in a hand-held device.


Specialized devices such as blood sugar monitors have made great strides in the last twenty years. Ask any diabetic. Another specialized testing device uses an app, a smart phone and the smartphone’s camera to deliver screening without the need for laboratories and highly trained staff.


For much of the world even this technology is out of reach. Cost is a consideration. Recently, in an attempt to do a mass test for cervical cancer, India resorted to less expensive solution. The test involves swabbing the cervix with vinegar, which turns the precancerous tumors white. The results can be seen in minutes. Using this test and some liquid nitrogen reduced cancer deaths by 31 percent in the testing area. This could save over 72,000 lives if used worldwide. It’s not sexy technology but it gets the job done.











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What Star Trek TNG Got Right and Wrong

Star Trek, the Next Generation, ran from 1987 to 1994.  That’s about over twenty-five-years ago. A generation. It’s set in 2364AD, or almost three hundred years from the broadcast of the first Star Trek series. I watched the first episode and cringed. It was so bad it set a new low for SF on television. Still, I did watch more. Why? A few years earlier I worked as an extra on a show with Gates McFadden who played Dr. Beverly Crusher on TNG.

I didn’t know Gates. I was on the same show and saw her on the set. If you were to ask me about her, all I could tell you is that she knew her lines, and hit her mark. I guess that is quite a lot when you come to think of it,

I have no need to tell you that the show went on to become a great success, spawned spin off shows and movies as well. I thought it would be interesting to look at technology and see the hits and misses as time moves forward.

In communication, Star Trek was ahead of its time, but we’ve caught up quickly. In the first show they had flip phones, and in the second they had the comm badges. Well flip phones have come and gone. I sort of miss them.  They were small, simple, and could hold a charge for a week, unlike my newer smart phone.

Wearable technology is making the comm badge a possibility. However, it will probably look more like Dick Tracy’s radio. The practical problem with the comm badge is that everyone in the room hears both sides of the conversation. No privacy. With current phones, I have had to remind commuters that their ‘cone of silence’ isn’t working and the entire train car can hear some of the conversation. (Remember this when you call your drug dealer.)

And remember how Captain Picard would go to his ready room to receive a video call from Star Fleet? Today you can do the same with your computer, its camera and Skype. Have you noticed that every laptop has a video camera built into it?

Remember, those pads that people would pass to the captain and he would read, while rubbing his chin? The replacement for paper? Then he would take out the attached stylus and make some marks. Well between ereaders and tablets, we can see the technology here today. However, our tablets are touch-screen, in color and have audio. We don’t need the stupid stylus anymore. Still, it will take a while before paper disappears.

How did TNG do with computers? Frankly I’m surprised they still had computers in the 24th century. Voice recognition and control software comes with your Window 8 machine today. Text to speech has been around even longer.  However, the computer voices on TNG sound much more wooden that the computer text of today. Even Lieutenant Reginald Barclay didn’t obsess over the computer’s voice. Contrast that to the character in the 2013 movie ‘Her’ who fell in love with the voice on his telephone.

Remember the iso linear optical chips on TNG. Current technology is getting there. You can go into any computer store in the world to pick up a MicroSD chip for 64Gig. That could hold about a thousand movies.  Solid State ram drives are available for your laptop. (I put one into a server five years ago.) Optical chips are a current topic in U.S. defense contracts. This would be one to visit in another ten years. That would improve capacity and speed. (Why do we need a one Terabyte microSD device?)

I always wanted a Universal Translator. I’m terrible at languages. Today you can buy a device, or down an app to your smart phone that will translate from one language to another. Furthermore, you can speak into it in one language and it will repeat it back in the other language, out loud.  I don’t think they have one that a third party can speak into in a foreign language and it will echo back in your language yet. Why? I once remember listening to a Pole and a Chinese person argue about the news in English. Accents are still a stumbling block for voice-to-text recorders. Who knows what can be done in twenty years on this?

A Company of Knaves and Poets

I’ve been reading about some of these Poet Laureates of Great Britain. My, what a bunch of knaves and poets. I imagine a party with the entire bunch and it would be fun, provided no one was killed.

Consider Ben Jonson. He began as a bricklayer, fought with English troops in Flanders, then returned to London to become an actor, playwright, and a tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh’s son. He’s the one I’d watch at the party. He was tried for killing a fellow actor in a duel in 1598. Imprisoned for this, he converted to Catholicism to be spared death for murder. Perhaps the duel was over a play called ‘The Isle of Dogs’. That piece caused such a stir they closed all the theatres in London.

William Davenant inherited the post on Jonson’s death. He was said to be the godson of William Shakespeare and even rumored to be his love child.

Then there is John Dryden, the only one to be fired from the job. Oh, it wasn’t his poetry. Politics was his downfall. Dryden refused to take an oath of allegiance to William III.

Thomas Shadwell replaced Dryden. This would be another to watch at the party. He was a heavy drinker, and an opium user. Shadwell died from an overdose of opium, which he took in part to relieve his gout. Maybe if he hadn’t drunk he wouldn’t have had the gout.

Nahum Tate is would be a fascinating one to talk to. On one had he wrote the Christmas carol ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’. On the other hand he revised Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘King Lear’ to give it a happy ending. (I can understand the urge, but that’s akin to putting a Pepsodent smile on the Mona Lisa.)

(We will skip the boring ones. OK?)

William Wordsworth received the appointment at the age of 73. He accepted on the condition he didn’t have to write any poetry on demand. A poet Laureate who didn’t write poetry? He wasn’t the first.

Alfred Tennyson served the longest as poet Laureate, and raised the position to new levels through his dedication, his work, and his poetry. On his death he was publicly mourned by millions, and in respect, no appointment was made to the post of Poet Laureate for four years.

John Masefield was originally a merchant marine officer. That’s probably where his love of the sea came from. However, he became ill in Chile, and following that lived a Hemingway sort of life. He was a vagrant, on the tramp, working in factories and bars in the United States. He returned to England to work on newspapers. He married his wife, a woman twelve years his senior. During the WWI he served with the Red Cross in France as a hospital orderly and on a hospital ship at Gallipoli. (He wrote a book about this battle.)

After the end of WWI, Masefield’s life becomes much more ordinary than that of Hemingway. When he was appointed poet laureate (instead of Kipling), Masefield took his appointment seriously and produced a large quantity of verse. In this capacity he sent his poems to ‘The Times’, including an SASE so they could be returned if unacceptable. A modest man.

In late 1966, Masefield developed gangrene in his ankle. This spread to his leg, and he died of the infection on 12 May 1967. He outlived Hemingway by almost six years. That made him the second longest serving Poet Laureate.

Have you ever read a detective story by Nicholas Blake? Those were written by the next poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis.

Ted Hughes is most noted in this role for writing poems for royal events, such as the christening of Prince Henry of Wales in 1985. I wonder what he would say about the ginger headed Prince Harry today.

Carol Ann Duffy currently holds the laurel. This is the first time a woman, a Scott or a gay person has received the honor. With her first poem as poet laureate, she tackled the scandal over British MPs expenses in the format of a sonnet. Since the pen is mightier than the sword, I wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side.

Imagine them all in the same room, talking, eating and drinking. Jonson and Masefield might be trading war stories. Thomas Shadwell and Dryden would certainly be trading insults. That would be one heck of a party.


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Poet Lauretes of Great Britain

Well I was disappointed in the list for Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureates. Not in the poets, but the paucity of the list. So I thought I would review the same list for Great Britain. The appointments began in England under Henry VII in fifteenth century and continue to the present. Here are the names of the poets:

  • Bernard André
  • John Skelton
  • Edmund Spenser
  • Samuel Daniel
  • Ben Jonson
  • William Davenant
  • John Dryden
  • Thomas Shadwell
  • Nahum Tate
  • Nicholas Rowe
  • Laurence Eusden
  • Colley Cibber
  • Thomas Warton
  • Henry James Pye
  • Robert Southey
  • William Wordsworth
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • Alfred Austin
  • Robert Bridges
  • John Masefield
  • Cecil Day-Lewis
  • John Betjeman
  • Ted Hughes
  • Andrew Motion
  • Carol Ann Duffy.

What shocked me were the names that are missing. Byron, Scott, Kipling. Browning (him and her) and Keats, Yeats, Coleridge, Shelly and Shakespeare. Why?

Well some poets refused the office. Imagine refusing a position with no duties that paid you money and traditionally rewarded you with a butt of canary or sack or sherry, the equivalent of 720 bottles. Cash payments have been presented as an alternative to wine: in 1952, for example, John Masefield was given £27. He should have insisted on the wine.

Some did refuse despite the wine. Thomas Gray, Walter Scott, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney, have declined the post.

Another reason for the missing names was the tenancy of the position. The post was for life until 1999. Tennyson held the position for an impressive forty-two years. Keats (died at the age of 25), Shelley (died at the age of 29) and Byron (died at the age of 36) simply didn’t live long enough to get a shot at it. However, others baffle me.

Well I have a list of poets to investigate now. And probably some interesting stories.



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Life Imitates Art

One of the mantras that writers live by is that they should ground their story in reality. ‘Write what you know.’ I’m not completely certain that this is correct and I have been mulling a story from last November that seems to suggest the complete opposite.

Now I’m going to talk about the Hunger Games. This trilogy follows the problems within a dystopian future. The Hunger Games is an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12–18 from each of the twelve districts surrounding the Capitol are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death. (If this plot seems familiar, it’s probably because the Greek Story of Theseus and the Minotaur starts roughly the same way.)

During the Hunger Games, Katniss befriends a 12-year-old girl from another district, Rue. After Rue dies, Katniss surrounds her body with flowers and gives a three-finger salute which becomes a symbol of revolution in the novel and later the movie.

A powerful graphic image on the movie screen.

The pro-democracy protesters in Thailand adopted this salute as a symbol of their movement. Naturally, the military junta responded. They canceled the release of the third of the Hunger Games in the country in November. Five Thai students who flashed the salute at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha have been detained. Army officials later confirmed that the students were taken to a military camp and were detained for “attitude adjustment”.

This is not the first time a salute has been linked with resistance. A raised fist has been featured in movements as diverse as Feminism, Black Power, and the Union Movement. However, that symbol goes back to Assyrian depictions of the goddess Ishtar.

We learn from reading fiction. We learn from watching movies about fictional people. In Thailand, they found a symbol, a salute to express their needs. Life imitates art.


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The Invention of the Cross-Word Puzzle

On December 21st in 1913 the first crossword puzzle was published in the New York World.

Arthur Wynne is usually credited as the inventor of the popular word game. Wynne puzzle had horizontal and vertical words with hints in the shape of a diamond, internal black squares. The numbering system was different from todays. Instead of grouping the clue by ‘across’ and ‘down’, the clues were indicated by a start and stop number.

Prior to Wynne invention, there had been word puzzles based on the word square, where the letter were arranged to read the same way vertically and horizontally.

In the 1920’s crosswords became an American obsession. One man shot his wife because she wouldn’t help him with a crossword. A Chicago woman sued her husband for divorce, claiming “he was so engrossed in solving crosswords that he didn’t have time to work.”

Yet Wynne didn’t invent the word crossword. He called the puzzle a word-cross. A typesetter reversed the words and crossword stuck.

At first the only place you could find a crossword puzzle was in the New York World. The New York Times resisted the pull of the puzzle until the 1940’s and only put them into the Sunday paper. Weekday puzzles wouldn’t appear there for another decade.

In the 20’s, a couple of young bloods named Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster began publishing books of crossword puzzles. They were very successful.

The term crossword first appeared in a dictionary in 1930.

Want to create crosswords, but need some help? Consider the Crossword Compiler. For $169, you can have the same tool used by the people who supply the New York Times and other.


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It Really is a Wonderful Life

Today, December 20, was the release date for Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in 1946. If you haven’t seen this picture, do so. The film has been in the public domain since the 1970’s.

Let’s go to the beginning. In 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern awoke from a dream that was inspired by Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’. He wrote ‘The Greatest Gift’ and rewrote it and played with the 4100 word story until 1943 without success. He couldn’t find a publisher. So, in frustration, he printed two hundred booklets and sent them out as Christmas cards that year.

Smart move. RKO pictures thought the story would be a perfect vehicle for Cary Grant. The actor thought so as well. They bought the movie rights from Stern for ten thousand dollars. (That would have been five years’ salary for a policeman at the time.) RKO commissioned a screen play. Then another screen play and then a third one. After that they unloaded the entire project on a director named Frank Capra.

Frank Capra was a well known and very capable director. His films before the war had been nominated for forty academy awards and had won eleven. After Pearl Harbor, at the age of forty-four, Capra enlisted as a major in the United States Army.

When the war ended, Capra and two other directors founded Liberty Films. Capra bought the movie rights to ‘The Greatest Gift’ and hired writers to create another screen play. This is the only time he took a writing credit for one of his films. He also renamed the picture to its present title.

Jimmy Stewart was also back from the war. He had worked with Capra before. Jean Arthur was considered for the role of Mary Hatch but had prior commitments so Donna Reed got the part.

Filming began on April 15, 1946, and ended on July 27, 1946. It took exactly ninety days as Capra had predicted.

The film was originally slotted for release in 1947, but RKO’s Christmas release of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ was delayed by production problems. ‘It’s a Wonderul Life’ was rushed into the theatres to take its place.

That’s where the story of the film turned sour. The critics didn’t like it. The movie was a financial failure. The film didn’t recoup its production costs. Liberty Films was sold to Paramount Pictures in May 1947.


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A Christmas Carol was published on Dec 19, 1843

Today, December 19th was the publication date for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Anyone who hasn’t read the story, or seen the movie (there are at least six versions.) should go to Gutenberg and get a copy. It’s in the Public Domain.

Dickens was unhappy with the amount it earned him. Dickens declined a lump-sum payment for the tale, chose a percentage of the profits in hopes of making more money thereby, and published the work at his own expense. (Tell that to people who look down at self-published books.)

The first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and the book continued to sell well into the new year. That was at a price of five shillings, a considerable sum.

In 1844 Parley’s Illuminated Library printed a pirated edition. Dickens sued and won his case. However, the book thieves declared bankruptcy and never paid.

Dickens, ever a man who knew the value of publicity and money, began to give readings of the tale in 1853. His last reading was in March 1870, three months before he died.

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Too much of a good thing

The snow falling on Buffalo is epic. That’s the only word that makes any sense. While a foot or so of snow is great for making snow angels and snowmen, seven feet of it cripples all the transportation and closes everything down.

While we instinctively understand that seven feet of snow (213 cm) is a lot, we tend to react with ‘It’s just snow’ and the ‘They don’t know what snow is’ response. Certainly people in Montreal and Newfoundland get a lot of snow each year.

The record for the most snow in a season goes to the Mt. Baker Ski area which received 1,140 inches (95.0 ft.; 29.0 m), during the 1998–99 season. Mt. Baker also enjoys the unofficially highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world, with 641 inches (53.4 ft.; 16.3 m). However, Mt Baker doesn’t hold the record for a single day.

The heaviest 24-hour snowfall on record in the mainland United States is 75.8 inches (192 centimeters), which fell at Silver Lake, Colorado, in 1921.

Currently Buffalo has received seven feet or 84 inches. They may have just set a new record for snowfall in a single day. Even if they don’t that much snow in a couple of days boggles the mind.

Today the City of Buffalo has started to prepare for the next catastrophe. With temperatures expected to go up the 50’s (13C) that snow will melt and it contains about 6 inches of water. Imagine six inches of rain in 24 to 48 hours. Remember that the snow will have the grates pugged.

Epic. Maybe not Noah level, but certainly the memory of a lifetime.


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A Hero you Never Heard of

Beginning on April 7, 1994, and continuing for one hundred days,   between 500,000 and one million people died because they were of the wrong race, in Rwanda. I don’t want to talk about the causes, or the failures. Instead I want to talk about one man, a man you probably have never heard of.

Mbaye Diagne was a captain in the Senegalese military and a UN military observer in Rwanda. At thirty-six, this devout Muslim was married with two children.

In the opening hours of the Genocide, the Prime minister, Agate Usilingiyimana and her husband were assassinated. The ten Belgian peacekeepers assigned to protect here were also killed.

What happened to her four children? No one knew. Mbaye came to investigate and found them hiding in a nearby housing compound. Eventually he hid the children under a tarp in the back of his car and drove them to the comparative safety of his hotel.

This set the tone for his days and nights. Captain Mbaye Diagne would find victims and try to save them, five or six at a time. He drove though militia checkpoints, using his wits, his humor, and his courage. He carried cigarettes, and even beer and whiskey to use as bribes. When that failed, he used money, even his own rations to buy the lives.

How much can one man do? We don’t’ know but the American Fulbright Scholar Richard Siegler thinks that he saved a 1,000 or more lives.

On the morning of 31 May 1994, Mbaye was taking an important written message from the head of the government army, Augustin Bizimungu, to the UN commander, Romeo Dallaire. Mbaye stopped at the checkpoint and a mortar round exploded on the road a short distance from his car. He was hit and died instantly.


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Measures for Historical Fiction

After writing about the creation of the Metric System, I began to wonder what came before it? In the English speaking world this is simple to see. Many of the measurements continue to be used in certain areas. However, I imagine that more modern readers wouldn’t know what they mean. The old measurements remain embedded in the language through novels, songs, and even proverbs.

So here are some of those measurements, and what they mean, and where they came from.

The Foot

The foot is a basic measurement of length, and the basis of all distance measurement for the United States today, and for most of the British Empire over centuries. This is a gift from the Roman past. The Roman’s had a measurement called a pes or foot. The general modern consensus places the Roman foot at 296 mm.

The foot is about the size an adult male foot, or an average adult male’s foot is about a foot long.

The Inch

The Romans divided their foot in two ways, digitus (finger) or uncia (thumb). The thumb became the English inch, and twelve inches to a foot came from the Romans as well. The earliest reference to this measurement comes from the seventh century where the laws defined the fine for various wounds.

An inch is 25.4 mm.

Other Roman measurements

The Romans has other measurements that have come down to us. These include palmus(hand) cubitus(cubit) passus(pace) stadium (furlong) mille passuum(mile) and Gallic leuga(league). While some of these measurements are not in common usage in even the United States, they remain in our language.

Hand and Furlong

The Hand measurement remains in some use as the unit to measure the height of a horse. You might run into it in American Westerns. However, you might also run into this measurement in historical novels about Ancient Egypt where it originated, along with the cubit.

A hand is 94mm. A cubit is 525mm.

The furlong also ties into horses, and other animals. Horse race distances were measured in Furlongs, and related to the plowing and land area in medieval times. Ontario Canada had major roads laid out every ten furlongs, so two highway exits are often every two kilometers. The furlong is about the same length as the Roman stadium, which they imported from the Greeks. That’s why you’ll find it in the King James Bible.

A furlong is about 201 meters.

Rods and Chains

Now here are two measurements that are obsolete, fun, and almost always misused in historical novels, the Rod and the Chain. Both are tools for surveying land. Why? You could have an actual Rod (or perch or pole) and an actual chain. Furthermore, you can’t stretch a rod or a chain. (Although I’m willing to bet that some scoundrels were not above shortening a chain or a pole if they could get away with it.)

The standardization of the length of a Rod and a Chain in England came in the sixteenth century. Those would have been the tools George Washington used when he acted as a surveyor.

A Rod is 5.03 meters.

A Chain is 20.11 meters

The Mile

So the mile started as a roman measurement of a thousand paces or five thousand feet. Don’t ask me why the English made it longer. The romans marked their roads with milestones and those stones remain to this day from England to the Middle-East. While that is the parent measurement, it has a raft of children.

The land mile is 1,609.34 meters

There is another mile in common usage, the nautical mile. This is approximately one minute of an arc along any meridian. The nautical mile remains in use by sea and air navigators worldwide because of its convenience when working with charts. A distance measured with a chart divider can be roughly converted to nautical miles using the chart’s latitude scale.

Now the nautical mile is a bit of a slippery distance. It varies between 1,842.9 meters at the equator to about 1,861.7 at the pole. (The earth is not perfectly round.) In 1929 it was set to exactly 1852 meters.

In the middle ages the Muslim geographers created a measurement based on the arc of the meridian as well. Caliph Al-Ma’mun commissioned astronomers and geographers to determine the length of this arc, and by calculation, the circumference of the Earth in 830 AD.

In the middle ages the Danish, German, Swedish, and Portuguese had variations on this theme that ranged from two to twelve kilometers.

The league

To the Romans a league was the distance a soldier could march in an hour, about three Roman miles. In English it is three land miles, but at sea it is three nautical miles. The measurement is no longer an official unit in any country. However it remains in our language because of poetry and fiction. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • Twenty thousand Leagues under the sea by Jules Verne.
  • The seven league boots of fairy tales



Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured.

Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Over a distance of a thousand miles only humanity works, not power.

A miss is as good as a mile.

After dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile.

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Ebola Spreads

Ebola. If you have never heard of this disease, you are truly out of touch with the world.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a disease caused by a virus that begins very much like the flu. Symptoms first appear between two and twenty days after the person is infected. This is a hemorrhagic fever, meaning that the infected person will bleed from various parts of the body. Between 50 and 90% of the people infected will die as a result.

There is no vaccine. There is no treatment, but some experimental ones are being developed.

Dead bodies can transmit the disease. The semen of a recovering man can spread the disease up to 50 days later.

Scared yet?

Good news about Ebola.

Only contact with blood or other bodily fluids from the sick spreads Ebola. It does not become contagious until after the symptoms appear. The disease was first detected in 1976. It has never spread from to the rest of the world

This current outbreak began in March of this year. It began in Guinea. It spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Most recent it has spread to Nigeria. Normally Ebola kills so quickly and completely that it wipes people out before they can spread the disease very far, especially in a rural setting.

Why does Ebola appear in rural settings? Scientists believe that the disease has a natural reservoir in the population of fruit bats. The fruit bats are also a form of bush meat in rural communities.

Why is this outbreak different?

The disease has not burned itself out. It has spread instead. Furthermore, it’s spread from rural to urban settings. Lagos, Nigeria has a population of 21 million. That’s much larger than Monrovia, which only had four hundred thousand citizens.

From these cities, cases or potential cases have appeared in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Benin and Uganda. The miracle of modern air travel brings people across the globe in hours.

How are conditions in Monrovia, Liberia?

Initially the people of the city denied that the disease actually existed insisting it was only a plot by the government to take greater control, and spend more money. (Sound like Republicans?) Then the rumors began. Doctors are harvesting organs from those that die for rich Europeans. Someone poisoned the water in the wells.

The reality is worse than the rumors. Medical staff have left their jobs to avoid the disease. For this reason, people with other diseases cannot find treatment. People are afraid to go to the hospital in case they are forced into quarantine with those infected with Ebola. Food prices are rising faster than the death toll.

Desperate to avoid the quarantine, people drag the dying from their houses to leave them in the streets.

In rural areas, aid workers and nurses in hazmat-like suits have been threatened and attacked.

The government has declared a state of emergency. It has closed schools and forbidden large gatherings.

British Airways has suspended its flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Troops have been deployed to quarantine the border.

Yet life continues.

The city is open, but different. Before entering a building, you must wash your hands in chlorinated water. The locals quip, “Our hands will really get white.” Some people are wearing masks and gloves. No touching. Many institutions have asked non-essential staff to stay home.

Finally, true to their nature, some politicians have attacked the government’s approach to fighting the disease.

What lies in the Future?

Despite the media campaign, there remains a strong distrust for the government’s efforts. With medical staff getting sick or deserting their posts, and the closure of one hospital in Monrovia, medical treatment for any illness is more difficult.

There have been riots because the government is too slow to pick up the bodies of the dead along the road. To speed this up the government is turning to cremation instead of burial.

Imagine Lagos, a city that is forty times as large. There are nine confirmed cases there.

To confirm Ebola, a blood sample must be taken, deactivated, and then tested for a specific genetic material. This can take more than forty-eight hours.

We can only hope that governments and people take the middle way. Life must continue. Trucks must carry food to the stores, and the fuel to the gas stations. On the other hand, vigilance, and care are required.

As for me. I think I’ll watch Contagion again, pick up some hand sanitizer, gloves and a mask, just in case.

Latest news:

Zambia has banned entry to all people coming from the West African nations where the Ebola virus has broken out. It becomes the second African nation after Ghana to impose a travel ban.

Test have shown that the suspected cases in Saudi Arabia, New York,  Ontario and Hong Kong  were not Ebola.

Nigeria has banned movement of dead bodies from within and outside the country as part of its measures to avoid the spread of the Ebola virus.

The Christian Council of Ghana has dismissed suggestions that the Ebola disease that has hit some West African countries is a punishment from God.

Contractors at ArcelorMittal SA’s iron ore mine in Liberia are evacuating the country and other miners are sending staff home to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

Romanian health authorities said on Sunday that a 51-year-old Romanian man suspected of having contracted a severe infectious disease during a visit to Nigeria last month did not have Ebola.

Even later

In Nigeria, health officials say they have ten confirmed cases and two deaths.

In Sierra Leone all bars, cinemas, video parlors and nightclubs were told to stop their activities. All “mushroom” and private health clinics must stop their operations. The Sierra Leone Police will organize regular patrols to prevent illegal activities including unauthorized movement of Ebola-infected persons. Non-essential travel will be restricted between the Ebola epicentres of Kenema and Kailahun and the rest of the country.

Monday snippets

The Nigerian Government has set up an isolated area at Mainland Hospital in Yaba, Lagos.

In the international wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos,  a middle -aged man slumped and died, while queuing up to get the yellow card. The new Minister of Aviation, Mr Osita Chidoka, was on tour of the Lagos Airport for the first time when he and his entourage stumbled on the corpse.

An airplane traveling over Norway was forced to land in Trondheim after a coughing fit in an African passenger triggered an Ebola panic.

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan  has stated that worshippers would henceforth receive the Holy Communion bread in their palms instead of the usual practice of sticking out their tongues to receive the bread. He also suspended the shaking of hands, a practice usually observed regularly during church service.


In Liberia people are turning to traditional healers to combat Ebola.  Some try exorcism performed in the church with touching and chanting. Other healers rub the body with limes and onions.

Con men sell ‘Ebola vaccinations’ in the markets.

In Nigera, rumor has it that Ebola can be prevented with ordinary hot water with salt. Two leading Nigerian newspapers, citing unnamed sources, reported that excessive salt consumption led to two deaths and 20 hospitalizations.

Wednesday and Thursday Snippets

Guinea, where the outbreak has killed at least 377, declared a “health emergency” on Wednesday and ordered strict controls at border points and a ban on moving bodies.

The United States ordered the evacuation of diplomats’ families from Sierra Leone.

The National Hajj Commission (NAHCON) on Thursday said that people who have contract Ebola would not be allowed to  perform this year’s pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Over 60,000 Nigerians are expected to participate in the 2014 hajj.

In Sierra Leone, the country’s chief medical officer, Dr Brima Kargbo, told of the difficulties facing health workers. “We still have to break the chain of transmission to separate the infected from the uninfected. There is a rejection among people of the existence of Ebola and hostility towards health workers.”

The Ebola virus has killed 56 people in just two days, bringing the global death toll to 1069, the World Health Organization says. The number of confirmed infections jumped by 128. New cases and deaths had been registered in all four west African countries.

Friday and Saturday

Makers of dietary supplements aggressively targeting Africans, claiming to have a cure for the lethal virus. Natural Solutions Foundation said that it’s product contains microscopic silver particles. Rima E. Laibow, posted an “open to heads of Ebola-impacted states,” dated July 29, claiming that NanoSilver cured Ebola.

Several widely available drugs that were initially developed to treat patients with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes may be effective. They don’t treat the Ebola, but they reduce the chances of organ failure from Ebola, which decrease mortality rates. This suggestion came from David S. Fedson,  a retired professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, and  Steven M. Opal,  a professor of medicine at Brown University.

Finally the World Health Organization (WHO) is reconsidering a potential Ebola treatment tried as far back as 1976. The treatment uses the blood of people who have recovered from an infection to treat those still fighting the virus. Convalescent serum has been used in other outbreaks (eg in China during SARS).

Kenya Airways has suspended commercial flight operations to Liberia and Sierra Leone temporarily effective Tuesday 19th August 2014.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month issued the first extensive guidelines for hospitals on how recognize and treat Ebola patients. The C.D.C. says that health care workers treating Ebola patients need only wear gloves, a fluid-resistant gown, eye protection and a face mask to prevent becoming infected.

No “moon suits”. Not everyone agrees.


A crowd of several hundred local residents, chanting, ‘No Ebola in West Point,’ drove away the burial team and their police escort. The mob then forced open an Ebola isolation ward and took the patients out, many saying that the Ebola epidemic is a hoax. The isolation center, a closed primary school originally built by USAID, was being used by the Liberian health ministry to temporarily isolate people suspected of carrying the virus. Some 10 patients had ‘escaped’ the building the night before, according to a nurse, as the center had no medicine to treat them.


the number of Ebola virus cases surpasses 1,600 in four African countries.

The authorities in countries affected by Ebola should check people departing at international airports, seaports and major border crossings and stop any with signs of the virus from traveling, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday.

Beware of Ebola virus e-mails! Cashing in on the Ebola virus syndrome, cyber criminals are using the fear of the virus as bait leading to malware infections. Anti-virus experts have already found three malware operations and one phishing campaign using the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa as a social engineering theme.


  • Cases in West Africa’s Ebola outbreak this year have risen to 2,240, including 1,229 deaths, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

In parts of Liberia they cannot bury the dead because they have no body bags.

The Liberian government has imposed a night time curfew.


Riot police and soldiers acting on their president’s orders used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their Liberian slum Wednesday, trying to contain the Ebola outbreak.

Liberian soldiers on Wednesday fired into a crowd of young men who were trying to escape a quarantine that cordoned off an Ebola-stricken neighborhood in the capital.

More than 700 Air France crewmembers, including pilots, have signed the petition. “They say we are trained to spot Ebola,” he told Le Figaro. “That’s false. We’re not trained to do anything other than put on rubber gloves and surgical masks and lock suspected patients in the lavatories. That’s not enough.”

Air France is the last remaining major European airline still flying directly to the Ebola-affected West African cities of Conakry, Guinea, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, causing ample concern.

The authorities in countries affected by Ebola should check people departing at international airports, seaports and major border crossings and stop any with signs of the virus from traveling, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday. – See more at:
The authorities in countries affected by Ebola should check people departing at international airports, seaports and major border crossings and stop any with signs of the virus from traveling, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday. – See more at:

On a Different Topic

I’ve been tracking down my stories that are available on the Internet and setting up pointers to them from my website. If you haven’t visited it recently, you’ll find new material.

To see some of my short stories go to


Where did Metric come from?

To most of the world today, the temperature is in Celsius, the road is in kilometers, and the butter is by the gram. The United States uses Fahrenheit, miles, and pounds.

However, in much of the British commonwealth, confusion rules in many places. You can still get a pint in a pub, before walking a mile or two to the station.

To create the Metric System, we needed a couple of things. One was the Arabic numerals, which were invented in India, and came back to Europe with the crusaders, along with the Gothic arch and other strange and interesting things. Why? The Metric System was based on the idea of tens, or tenths. Before the Arabic numerals, Europe used Roman numerals. Quick, how much is “IV” time “L”? Never mind. “IV” is four, and “L” is 50, so the answer is 200 or “CC”.

John Wilkins in 1668 was one of the first to propose a decimal system of measurement for length and mass in a paper to the Royal Society of London. Imagine an alternative history where this was accepted.

After the French Revolution, the new government created a department of Weights and Measures. This department recommended the country create a new system to replace the multitude of different systems throughout the country.

As France conquered Europe, it introduced its new standards for measuring distance and weight. After its defeat, some places returned to the old ways. However the simplicity of the Metric System gradually won acceptance for parts of Europe, starting with the Netherlands. By 1875, two thirds of Europeans and half of the World’s population had started to use the new system. Initially, England and Russia resisted. Russia switched to it in 1924. England adopted it in 1965.

Interesting fact. The gram was originally 1/100th of a grave. However, a grave was also a synonym for a count. That was too aristocratic a term for the egalitarian revolution. So the term was replaced with the kilogram.

Strange as it may sound, there is a strong American connection to the creation of the Metric System. In 1782, Jefferson argued for a decimal currency. He succeeded and the first American currency had one hundred cents to the dollar. The British retained their pounds, shillings and pence system until 1971. Jefferson also tried to create a decimal system of measurement, suggesting 10 inches to a foot. However, in this case, his efforts failed.

The American relationship with Metric continued. The Metric law of 1866 made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities. Then in 1927, several million people sent over 100,000 petitions backed by the Metric Association and The General Federation of Women’s Clubs urging Congress to adopt the metric system. Finally, in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act which declared the Metric system “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” A complete failure.

Personally, I like the old system. I like a world measured in inches, hands, spans, feet, yards, rods, furlongs, miles and leagues. I like a world where weight is measured in teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, pounds, stones, and tons. Still, when I want to do arithmetic, I revert to Arabic rather than Roman numerals. When converting cups into teaspoons I do the same thing, switch to metric to find the answer.

The point for any writer of historical fiction is simple. Remember metric measurement didn’t exist before 1790.



To see some of my short stories go to

The Last Footsteps on the Moon

On December 14, at 5:55 P.M. EST 1972, the ascent stage of the Lunar Module for the Apollo 17 mission lifted off. Aboard it, were the last two men to walk on the moon, Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan and Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt. Neither man would ever return to space.

Schmitt was the first scientist to fly into space, a geologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. The decision to send a scientist instead of a pilot met with some resistance.  Cernan was publicly critical of it. However, in Cernan’s words, Schmitt proved a capable LM pilot.

Cernan had served as a fighter pilot, pilot of the Gemini 9A and lunar module pilot of Apollo 10.  Before re-entering the LM for the final time, Gene Cernan said, “I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come.”

The men knew that this was a last mission in the Apollo program, and the last planned flight to the moon.  They did what they could with this last mission. They collected 244 pounds (111 kilograms) of lunar material. This included the strange orange soil that proved to be microscopic glass beads from volcanic activity.

Strange and interesting lunar facts
Cernan’s distinction as the last person to walk on the moon means that Purdue University holds the distinction of being the alma mater of both the first person to walk on the Moon and the last.

The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover had the last fender bender on the moon. Cernan caught his hammer under the right-rear fender, breaking it off. They repaired the fender with duct tape, but not before getting covered with moon dust.

Moon dust smells like spent gunpowder.

The Apollo 17 plaque has the inscription: “Here Man completed his first explorations of the Moon. December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”

President Richard M. Nixon’s signature is on this plaque.

While the American flag from the first landing was knocked over, when they took off, the one from the Apollo 17 mission remains standing as of April 21, 2012. There is a picture showing its shadow on the surface.

After forty years, the color has been bleached out of the flag by unfiltered sunlight.

Apollo 17 was the first night launch of a U.S. human spaceflight. It was also final crewed launch of a Saturn V rocket.

Man left the moon for the last time:
·    Before Microsoft was founded,
·    Before the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam,
·    Before Elvis Presley died,
·    Before Roe versus Wade legalized abortions in the U.S.,
·    Before Star Wars,
·    Before microwave ovens, cell phones, internet,
·    Before personal computers and YouTube.
On YouTube, you can watch the following:

·    Liftoff  –
·    Lunar Landing –
·    Lunar launch –
·    Splash down –

Apollo 17 spacecraft landed safely in the Pacific Ocean  at 2:25 P.M., 6.4 kilometers (4.0 mi) from the recovery ship, the USS Ticonderoga. Cernan, Evans and Schmitt were then retrieved by a recovery helicopter and were safely aboard the recovery ship 52 minutes after landing.


To see some of my short stories go to

Searching for the origin of January 1 as the beginning of the year.

The Summer solstice has passed. Now the days grow shorter. This got me to thinking of the importance of the longest day of the year and the shortest day of the year, which is December 21.

So why does the New Year begin almost two weeks later? It just didn’t make any sense to me. I decided to dig a little and the story gets stranger and stranger.

Until the last two hundred years, almost everyone worked on a farm. If the most technologically advance European countries had more farm workers than anything else. What’s the most important single issue for any farmer? When he should plant his crops. Plant too soon and a killing frost will destroy your work. Plant too late, and your crops won’t mature before the first frost of fall.

Early astronomy tracked the movements of the sun and moon, and hence the time of the year. The summer and winter solstice were critical since the lunar cycle doesn’t match the annual solar cycle.

The first thing I discovered was the New Year doesn’t begin on January first for everyone. The Chinese New year occurs on the New Moon of the first lunar month. That is somewhere between January 21 and February 21.

The Islamic Calendar is a lunar calendar of twelve months, made of 354/355 days. Right. It’s about ten days short of a solar year, so the new year keeps moving from year to year.

So that made me think I should investigate the beginning of the year and Christianity. When does the Catholic Liturgical year begin? It begins with the beginning of Advent, which begins four Sundays before December 25, Christmas Day. Sort of makes sense, but doesn’t help me in my quest.

Is the origin of January First rooted in ancient times? The Babylonians created the Zodiac about three thousand years ago. They were great astronomers and they gave us the Astrology we use today. I checked. Their new year was around the spring Equinox.

Now I remembered that the Romans used something similar, which is why December got the name of the tenth month, even though it was the twelve month. Is there nothing logical about our calendar?

However, that led me to another article. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar. The revised calendar was designed to stay in sync with the solar year without human intervention. Plutarch and Pliny wrote about it. The reform began by changing the length of the Roman months by adding days to them.

Now the month of January was named for the god name Janus, the god of doors and gates. Perhaps that is why Julius made the first day of that month the beginning of the year.

Whatever the reason, Julius Caesar gave us January 1 as the beginning of the year.


To see some of my short stories go to

The Battle of Kitty Hawk, NC

In Dare County, one part of the Carolina Outer Banks, lies a village with population of 3,272 people in 2010. Yet this speck of land in all the United States may prove to be at the central focus for the greatest issue of the 21st century.

The Outer Banks are a series of islands, sandbanks that stick above the waves, that stretch along the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. Hurricanes reshape them on a regular basis creating new inlets and closing old ones. However man has settled there, and he wants things more permanent, and North Carolina’s highway 12 is one of his efforts to make things permanent.

What is the name of this village and why is it important? The place is named Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright, walked into town and sent a telegram to their father to tell him of their first controlled airplane flight. Those flights actually took place four miles away, at the Kill Devil Hills. If you journey from Kitty Hawk, south on US 158, you eventually end up on NC-12.

In American History, Kitty Hawk ranks with Lexington, Manassas, and Gettysburg. These were all places where Americans hammered out their history. Its place in history has been cemented as the name has been used  on an aircraft carrier, and the Apollo fourteen command module.

Why could Kitty Hawk become central in a new issue? The town lies at an elevation of seven feet above sea level. Since the ocean is rising faster here than anywhere else on the Eastern seaboard, you have a flash point for the controversy over Global Warming.

This is where the story takes a decidedly political turn, and involves the American political system. In 2011 the state authorities accepted a prediction that sea levels would rise by 39 inches in the next 85 years. That spells death for the highway and the communities along the Outer Banks.

In 2012, the Republicans took control of the state. They selected a new forecast, one that only looks 30 years ahead, and predicts a rise of eight inches in ocean level.

The story fascinates me because it combines history, science and politics. If you look at a map, you can see that Kitty Hawk cannot be defended from the rising ocean by dykes. The ocean surrounds it. What will happen?

I don’t know. I have my own prediction, as do both the Democrats and the Republicans. Perhaps in 30 years the issue will be settled, one way or the other.

Just keep Kitty Hawk in mind. There are barrier islands from south of Virginia Beach to Key West and towns like Kitty Hawk along the way. What happens there, affects citizens from North Carolina to Florida.

To see some of my short stories go to

“The Few”

While reviewing stories that I had previously sold, I stumbled onto this one. It is flash fiction, or a micros-story. I’ve written a few stories this short, and they are a challenge to an author. To create character, conflict, action, and back story that can be described in less than five hundred words, means that no fat is allowed.

Worse still, the story is sent during WWII, in London.

The Blitz

The Blitz (from German, “lightning”) was the period of sustained strategic bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany. Starting on 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.

All that stood between the British cities and the German bombers were the pilots of the RAF fighter command. We are talking about less than three thousand men. During and after the blitz, a pilot couldn’t buy his own drink in London or much of England. The grateful public lauded them, and would treat them to a drink or a meal. Most of the pilots were young, with little expectation of living long. About 20% died in the conflict.

Winston Churchill said of them: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

What isn’t as well known is that the RAF fliers included men from other countries, and Poland led the pack. No. 303, Polish Fighter Squadron, was one of 16 Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. It was the highest scoring RAF squadron of the Battle of Britain.

So now that I have given you the setting,  here is the story:

The Phone Rang

When the telephone finally rang, Rosalie sobbed with relief. He was alive. He had called. She ran down the stairs to answer it, to tell Phillip all the promises she had made while waiting.

When Rosalie first met Phillip, he dazzled her with his smile and his pilot’s wings. After the battle of Britain any pilot in England had priority in seating anywhere, complimentary drinks and the best of everything. And the girls she’d had to fight off to keep him.

That he was handsome, with his blonde hair and high cheekbones made it worse. That he was hesitant in his English, which made him seem shy, added to the problem. She loved him with all her nineteen-year-old soul.

Her parents disapproved. She was too young to wed. The company she was keeping was too fast. Besides, after the war, he would just be another out of work hero.

“Medals don’t buy meals,” her father liked to say. “I saw that in the twenties. Now he’s a hero but once the war is over he’ll just be an out of work fly boy and a Polish one at that.”

The phone sounded its second ring.

“Damn these slippers,” Rosalie thought, kicking them off. “I’ll tell him I love him. I’ll marry him. We can live wherever he wants. I won’t try to change him. I won’t tell him not to fly.”

After the Battle of Britain, Phillip found a new form of flying that captured his soul. He began to fly Lysanders into France, landing in fields and taking off in four hundred yards. He delivered agents, carried supplies and picked up SOE agents. He flew at night in an unarmed plane, skipping over the hills or hiding in the clouds from German Messerschmitts.

It froze her heart with terror but he laughed at her fears, folded her into his arms and kissed her until she forgot she was a lady and molded herself to his body.

Would those planes take him away from her forever? She feared them more than other women. In her desperate battle to hold him close, she said the wrong things and lost him. They had fought yesterday, before his flight and he had stormed out of the house, not saying goodbye, not kissing her at all.

Then nothing. No calls. When she tried to call, national security silenced any response. Had he returned? Was he dead? If not, why hadn’t he called? Did he know what she was going through?

The phone had just finished its third ring when she picked up the receiver and said, “Phillip, I was wrong. Forgive me. I love you so much.”

The line was silent. No response. Was it dead?

“Hello?” she asked.

“I’m so sorry. I seem to have dialed the wrong phone number,” the stranger’s voice said.

I hope you liked it.

To see some of my short stories go to


William Shakespeare and his Time

These things you might not know about Shakespeare and his times.

The theaters were closed during lent. That gave Shakespeare a forty day break from acting and managing the company of actors.

Shakespeare was married at eighteen to a pregnant Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior.

Love’s Labors won was written before 1598 and published by 1603, but no copies are known to have survived.

William Kempe specialized in comic roles. He was one of the original players in early dramas by William Shakespeare, and often the comic roles were written specifically for him.

Shakespeare’s play-write contemporaries were a wild bunch. Ben Johnson was arrested for killing a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Thomas Kyd was arrested and tortured into giving evidence against Christopher Marlowe. Christopher Marlowe murdered in a lodging place in Deptford. It is believed that he was in a meeting with three Government agents, and that they were paid assassins.

Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. Every wonder why so many of his comedies were set in Italy? He took his plots from stories by Italian writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio.

Shakespeare was commanded to write The Merry Wives of Windsor by Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see “Falstaff in love”. However, this story was first recorded one hundred years later.

One of Shakespeare’s relatives on his mother’s side, William Arden, was arrested for plotting against Queen Elizabeth I, imprisoned in the Tower of London and executed.

Although it was illegal to be a Catholic in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Anglican Archdeacon, Richard Davies of Lichfield, who had known him wrote some time after Shakespeare’s death that he had been a Catholic.

Shakespeare never actually published any of his plays.

Between 1592 and 1594, all the theaters in London were closed because of the plague. Shakespeare used the time to write poetry.

I’ve written a short story called The Theater Conundrum which was published in Tales of Old.

To see some of my short stories go to

The Land of Poets and Rebels

Eire, Ireland. It has been the land of poets and rebels for more than a thousand years. Perhaps that is the reason that every generation has had its rebel songs. I want to talk about one such song, “My Dark Rosaleen”. You might know the words. It begins:

O MY Dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
For the complete text, go here.

Or you might remember hearing someone singing it. Here’s John McCormick:

Like most Irish I know the song. My father would sing it, along with a raft of others. Then I discovered the poem.
James Clarence Mangan wrote the poem which was published in The Nation in 1846. Actually, this was one of three translations of an older poem from Gaelic to English.

1846 was a beginning of the Great Famine that would see the sons and daughters of Erin leave or die in numbers beyond imagining. During the famine approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.

Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. Records show during the period Ireland was exporting approximately thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce.

The 1690 Penal laws were still in effect. To speak of rebellion would bring death. The memory of the rebellions of 1798 and 1803 remained in the minds of the ruled and the rulers.

Mangan’s poem is a love song, a love song to the country that was not a nation. In this he was tapping into an older Gaelic poem ‘Róisín Dubh’.

Rosaleen translates as little Rose. The song is named after Róisín Dubh, probably one of the daughters of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone in the late 16th Century. The song is reputed to have originated in the camps of Red Hugh O’Donnell (1572 – 10 September 1602). He led a rebellion against the English from 1593 to 1603 which has been called the Nine Years War.

A more recent translation of this poem was created by Pádraig Pearse. He was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 and died before a firing squad on May 3, 1916. You can find that translation here:

So the song to the little dark Rose spans three hundred years and, two languages. At one end is Red Hugh O’Donnell, and on the other is Pádraig Pearse.

To hear the original in Gaelic:

I like Westerns

I like westerns.  I watch the movies and I read the books. My problem is that so few of today’s westerns fit my sense of what a western should be.

A western story is generally seen as a story taking place west of the Mississippi between 1800 and 1900. The genre began with the “penny dreadfuls” in/after 1860 in the United States. Easterners want to know about the west, perhaps spurred on by Horace Greeley’s message: “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

Certainly these early books were cheaply sold, cheaply printed, and terribly written. However, the subject matter was pulled from the lives of people such as Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp (who was still alive at the time) and Billy the Kid.

Buffalo Bill was a combination of Indian scout, Pony Express rider, soldier, buffalo hunter and showman. For example; during the 1873–1874 winter season Cody  starred with “Wild Bill” Hickok in a play called Scouts of the Plains in Chicago. Cody stayed in show business. Hickok returned west.

Perhaps some easterners thought these books were factual. Certainly the Journals of Lewis and Clarke by Meriwether Lewis and other books/diaries of early explorers sold well to people planning to travel west.

The publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902 and especially Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912 elevated the Western into popular reading. Have you read The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter van Tilburg Clark, The Big Sky (1947) and The Way West (1949) by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., and Shane (1949) by Jack Schaefer?

I started with Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, Loren D. Estleman and Elmore Leonard. These were the Westerns of the 1940’s through the 60’s.  Available in paperback books, they were cheap, and usually short. A western back then was fifty thousand words, and concerned with one character and sometimes just one incident.

In structure Western stories were concerned with fundamental and simple issues. The hero was a moral creature, relying on his own skill and courage to achieve his goal. The stories portrayed men creating something of their own principally through their hard work.

After the Civil War, many men traveled west looking for a new start, where they found free land and open spaces. They tried to make their fortune in mining or cattle. Women came west as well looking for husbands, where there were ten men for every woman.

In many respect the Western story is the American morality play. As American has changed over the years, so has the play.

That’s why I write them too. They are fun. Sometimes it’s the story of men pushing a herd north to the rail head, of a woman looking for an escape from her loneliness.

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On this Day on April 27, which just happens to be today

This is the day that Ralph Waldo Emerson  was born. It’s also the birth for Carlos Castaneda,  but we’ll forget that. OK?

Actually it wasn’t a co-incidence.  I need inspiration and that popped up.

I’m not going to go into his biography,  his importance, his essays. That you can find it if you are interested.

Instead I’m going to give you some quotes:

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

“For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.”

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

OK. I’m going to stop there. There are so many, and less is better than more.

Still I can’t help wondering. Imagine Emerson walking through the woods, thinking these great thought. He trips over a root, and hits the ground. Does he say “Oh, shit!”

Sorry, but I keep wondering about that.

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Pioche, The Wildest Town in Nevada

When you think about the mining boom towns of the old West, Tombstone, Virginia City, and Leadville come to mind, but the roughest, toughest and wildest of the lot was Pioche, Nevada.
How rich were the Pioche mines? An estimated 130 million dollars worth of ore came out of its mines during the 1870’s, second only to the Comstock lode. How big was Pioche? At its height it had a population of six to eight thousand, almost half the size of Virginia city. As for wild. More than seventy men were buried in Boot Hill before anyone died of natural causes. If you visit the cemetery today you’ll find the section for murderers is still fenced to separate them from upstanding citizens, and it holds more than one hundred graves.

In 1864, settlers put down roots in a valley known as Panaca, about 190 miles northeast of Los Vegas and about 50 miles west of the Utah border. During the winter of 1863-64 a few Indians from the Santa Clara Piute tribe offered to show William Hamblin an outcropping of ore in return for some food and clothing. Silver! Hamblin and his the Meadow Valley Mining District and did some location work. However the remote location, lack of financial backing, and the American Civil War stymied development.

In 1868 E.M. Chubard and Joseph Grange reorganized the district and renamed it the Ely Mining District in honor of John H. Ely who had arrived late that year. Investment funds remained a problem. Mr. Ely managed to convince Francois L.A. Pioche, a French financier from San Francisco, to invest a large sum of money. In 1869, when the district began to flourish, the new town was named Pioche. (Mr. Pioche never visited the town named in his honor.)

That year the whisper traveled fast, “It’s boom or bust in Pioche!” About six thousand people descended on the new born town in months. Living quarters were so scarce that the most common kind of residence was a tent house. A tent house was a canvas tent boarded up around the sides about three feet high to protect the resident from the cold. When a man needed to move on he could take this dwelling with him.

Pioche soon became the scene of a wild rush of prospectors and fortune seekers and gained a reputation in the 1870’s for tough gunmen and bitter lawsuits. There were more than 200 victims of fast guns, knife fights and vigilante ropes.

For example, D.A. Myendorff shot George M. Harris for slapping him across the face. Myendorff was tried and acquitted. James Butler was killed by Special Officer Shea because of insulting and threatening language. Once more the shooter was acquitted.

Franklin A. Buck (“A Yankee Trader in the Gold Rush”), a college-educated businessman from California, wrote his sister a letter from Pioche, from which the following was taken:

“November 3, 1870

“About one-half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers and then we have some of the best folks in the world, and I don’t know but our lives and property are just as safe as with you. You can go uptown and get shot very easily if you choose, or you can live peacefully. I will send you a paper with an account of the last fight…I was in hopes eight or ten would have been killed at least, as these fights are a pest in the community.”

A wild life style were not the only problems for Pioche. Fire has plagued the town’s history. On September 15, 1871, while celebrating Mexican Independence, a restaurant caught fire and within a couple of hours the town burned down. Two thousand people were left homeless. Three hundred kegs of powder stored in the cellar of a local store exploded killing thirteen men, and wounding about fifty.

However the mines survived, and mining supported Pioche. The mines themselves contributed to the violence of the town. On December 28, 1872, Thomas Ryan was killed at Pioche in an underground fight between employees of the Raymond and Ely, and Pioche Phoenix Mining Companies. No one was punished for this deed.

The next day Charles Swanson was fatally shot by some unknown person as he was on his way to work in the Raymond and Ely mine. Guards were posted about the works. A reward of $1,650 was offered for the arrest of his slayer but he was never found.

In 1871 Pioche was designated as the seat of Lincoln County, Nevada, bringing government to Pioche, and corruption. The most notorious example of the excesses of the day still stands. The “Million Dollar” Lincoln County Courthouse was built in 1871 at an original estimated cost of $16,400.00. Between broken contracts, inflated material costs, declining mining and tax revenue, interest on bond payment, the building cost one million dollars by the time it was finally paid off in 1937 (66 years later).

On September 17, 1870, the first newspaper came to Pioche. The Ely Record was issued on a weekly basis by W. H. Pitchford and Co. from a canvas tent. Pat Holland (an acquaintance of Mark Twain) bought the paper on October 8, and Robert W. Simpson became his partner the following week. The Pioche Record was born. The paper would survive until 1908.

Even newspaper editors couldn’t stay out of the gun battles in Pioche. In 1877 (according to an account in The Salt Lake Herald) Pat Holland, the former proprietor of the Pioche Record, and then a traveling correspondent for the Virginia Enterprise, became embroiled in a gun battle with George T. Gorman, the current editor of the Record. An article in the morning Record sparked the trouble.

On the afternoon the article appeared, Holland created an elaborate poster with colorful penciling, and more colorful language which he tacked to the side of the Eldorado Saloon. When Gorman returned and saw this poster, he went looking for Holland.

The two men met about eight that evening at the doorway of the Eldorado, both armed with pistols. The Herald reported: “Holland’s pistol fired prematurely while he pulled it from his pocket. Gorman then got in two shots. Holland’s pistol now failed to fire, whereupon he coolly placed it on his knee, rearranged the trigger and it went off, grazing his hand. The two men were within ten feet of each other for the first five shots and did all the shooting around the center post of the saloon door. Holland ran through the back door, Gorman firing one shot after him.”

At the height of the boom Pioche had four different stage lines. Gilmour & Sullivan ran a stage line from Salt Lake to Beaver, and from Beaver to Pioche, with stops at Greenville, Adamville, Minerville, Sulpher Springs, Mt. Springs, Dessert Springs, Clover Valley, Bullionville, and Bennett Springs.

Another route ran from Hamilton to Oceola and down the west side of Mt. Wilson to Pioche.    Mr. Gilmour had another route that ran from Hamilton to Pioche. The exact route changed several times, as new silver camps opened. The fourth line was from Bullionville and Panaca to Pioche and back–twice a day.

The stagecoaches carried freight in and out of Pioche, and the silver to the railhead at Milford Utah, seventy miles across the mountains.

It wasn’t unusual for the stage to be carrying $200,000 to $300,000 in silver. Some enterprising people couldn’t resist the temptation. In one case the incoming stage was robbed just outside Pioche. Two hours later, when the stage left Pioche, it was robbed again–by the same robber.

To combat the robberies the mines started to pour the silver into 200 pound bars for shipping. If this didn’t discourage the robber, at least it would tire out his horse.

The railroads sort of came to Pioche.  The Utah Central/Utah Southern built a line between Salt Lake City and Milford, completed in 1880. The Utah and Pacific Railroad build a line between Milford and the Nevada state line. By 1888, Union Pacific had purchased these lines and run a line to Panaca, and up to Bullionville.

Bullionville, located about 10 miles south of Pioche, was established in 1870 to mill ore because of its plentiful water supply. A twenty-one mile narrow gauge railroad from the Pioche to Bullionville was completed in 1873 to haul ore. When a water works was constructed in Pioche Bullionville faded away.

As with most boom towns, the silver ran out and the population departed. Since Pioche was the county seat it survived the hard times as a supply and government center for a vast area, but by 1900 Pioche was almost a ghost town.

The town prospered again during World War II when its deposits of lead-zinc were developed. The government considered its mines essential so the miners were given exemption from military duty. Today, you don’t have to take a two day ride in a stage coach to reach Pioche. It’s on a main highway.


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When did man learn the speed of light?

The history of science has all sorts of interesting stories. When did scientists determine that the speed of light was finite?

What brought this to my attention was talking to a person, an apparently well educated American teacher, who didn’t know whether the speed of light was infinite or finite.

In ancient times, some famous  people argued that light was emitted from the eyes. (Actually it’s more complicated than that.) Euclid, the father of Geometry, and Ptolemy, the famous astronomer,  both accepted this viewpoint. Consequently they argued that the speed of light was infinite, for when we open our eyes we can see the most-distant star instantly.

This viewpoint dominated for more than sixteen hundred years. Remember Galileo? He dropped the two cannon balls from the top of the leaning tower of pizza to prove all objects fell at the same speed?  Well he tried to determine the speed of light and concluded, “If it is not infinite it must be extraordinarily rapid.”

Think about this.  Gutenberg had created the printing press. Luther had started the reformation. Columbus had discovered the New World.  This is the period the American colonies were created.

Then along came a Danish astronomer working at the Royal Observatory in Paris in 1676. Ole Rømer was observing one of the moons of Jupiter, Io.  This moon orbits Jupiter in 42.5 hours and it winks on/off as it passes into Jupiter’s shadow.

Ole Rømer noticed a variation in the time of this winking on/off throughout the year. The periods of Io appeared to be shorter when the Earth was approaching Jupiter than when receding from it.

See this BBC youtube on this

He estimated the speed of light at 220,000 kilometers per second. (Actually he didn’t us kilometers  because they hadn’t been invented yet.)  Think of that speed.  Something moving at that speed would go around the earth five and a half times in a second.  No wonder some people didn’t accept his figure. In reality he was about 25% under the actual speed.

So, to prove that the speed of light was finite,  a scientist needed a reliable clock, a telescope, and  Jupiter’s moon Io.

How important is the speed of light? The Special Theory of Relativity rests on it. All physics and astronomy rests on it.



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The Man who wrote ‘The Man with a Hoe’

I found this fascinating. I knew the poem but not the author until I looked him up in Wikipedia.

A Poet  Laureate for the state of Oregon and now most of his work has been forgotten. Do you want to read more of his poetry?


by Edwin Markham (1852-1940)

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

For further poems go to :


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The Man with a Hoe

This is a particular Parlor Poem that my father made me memorize. He  believed in the memorization of poetry and could recite poetry for hours. I lack that capacity.

The poem is as follows

The Man with a Hoe

by Edwin Markham

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back, the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this–
More tongued with cries against the world’s blind greed–
More filled with signs and portents for the soul–
More packed with danger to the universe.

What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of the Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world,
A protest that is also prophecy.

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings–
With those who shaped him to the thing he is–
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

The poem that inspired this poem is current part of the in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.


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Parlor Poetry

During the 19th century, most home entertainment was created by people at home. Some sang, others played instruments. However, no matter how lacking in talent, anyone with a voice could recite poetry.

The poems they recited were simple ones, easy to memorize, and ones that conveyed strong emotions. Some were written by the likes of Edgar Alan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Others were written by poets known only for a single work. If you see such a collection in your library or bookstore, pick it up.


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