Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Here is an interesting article by Virginia Postrel titled Resilience vs. Anticipation from Reason On-line, August 25, 1997. The whole article is a nice admixture of socio-geography, business strategy, macro-economics and technology history.

The only real relevance here is that I found it interesting and it provides some well-argued substance to a theme that the writer Lawrence Durrell used to speculate on, i.e. the influence of an environment on the character of a people.

Lawrence Durrell is most famous for his Alexandria Quartet, (constituting Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) which is generally admired by many literary critics and has always seemed popular among older Young Adult readers. For my money, though, in my teenage years, I far more enjoyed his travel writing, especially Prospero's Cell, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons, and Sicilian Carousel among others. Sadly all are frequently out of print but some are represented in an anthology the Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader. Also not to be overlookoed is the humorous gem Antrobus Complete and the rather unclassifiable Pope Joan, all grist for the YA mill.

A great ten-step reading program

Here is a wonderful reading program from John Bianchi and Frank B. Edwards at Pokeweed Press. No special subscriptions, no classes necessary. Nothing - simply add commitment and books and you are good to go.

Reading through the steps, I kept wanting to pull out a particular step for emphasis. Step 5 for example (Read for the fun of it) is especially important. But then again Step 6 (Ration TV as you ration junk food) I am whole-heartedly behind. And Step 7 (Fill your home with books) has got to be mentioned and endorsed. And on and on. I guess that is why I like their progam so much. That and the fact that it pretty neatly summarizes what we have done in our home.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tacitus, Germanic Tribes and Political Correctness

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus 56AD-117AD

In high school, I went through a Roman historian phase where I read many of the classic Roman historians; Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, etc. The issues addressed by those writers of two millenium ago often felt so contemporary and I found it fascinating.

I came across this interesting set of observations on the naiveté of Tacitus via a couple of bloggers, Glenn Reynolds and then Gail Heriot. Once again, it is a tying together of today with the long ago.

The essay is by John M. Ellis and is actually the first chapter of his 1997 book Literature Lost; Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

Opening excerpt:

What we now call "political correctness" may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kentucky Belle

Kentucky Belle
by Constance Fenimore Woolson

Summer of 'sixty-three, sir, and Conrad was gone away--
Gone to the country town, sir, to sell our first load of hay.
We lived in the log house yonder, poor as ever you've seen;
Roschen there was a baby, and I was only nineteen.

Conrad, he took the oxen, but he left Kentucky Belle;
How much we thought of Kentuck, I couldn't begin to tell--
Came from the Bluegrass country; my father gave her to me
When I rode north with Conrad, away from the Tennessee.

Conrad lived in Ohio--a German he is, you know--
The house stood in broad cornfields, stretching on, row after row;
The old folks made me welcome; they were kind as kind could be;
But I kept longing, longing, for the hills of Tennessee.

O, for a sight of water, the shadowed slope of a hill!
Clouds that hang on the summit, a wind that is never still!
But the level land went stretching away to meet the sky--
Never a rise, from north to south, to rest the weary eye!

From east to west, no river to shine out under the moon,
Nothing to make a shadow in the yellow afternoon;
Only the breathless sunshine, as I looked out, all forlorn,
Only the "rustle, rustle," as I walked among the corn.

When I fell sick with pining we didn't wait any more,
But moved away from the cornlands out to this river shore--
The Tuscarawas it's called, sir--off there's a hill, you see--
And now I've grown to like it next best to the Tennessee.

I was at work that morning. Someone came riding like mad
Over the bridge and up the road--Farmer Rouf's little lad.
Bareback he rode; he had no hat; he hardly stopped to say,
"Morgan's men are coming, Frau, they're galloping on this way.

"I'm sent to warn the neighbors. He isn't a mile behind;
He sweeps up all the horses--every horse that he can find;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men,
With bowie knives and pistols, are galloping up the glen."

The lad rode down the valley, and I stood still at the door--
The baby laughed and prattled, playing with spools on the floor;
Kentuck was out in the pasture; Conrad, my man, was gone;
Near, near Morgan's men were galloping, galloping on!

Sudden I picked up baby and ran to the pasture bar:
"Kentuck!" I called; "Kentucky!" She knew me ever so far!
I led her down the gully that turns off there to the right,
And tied her to the bushes; her head was just out of sight.

As I ran back to the log house at once there came a sound--
The ring of hoofs, galloping hoofs, trembling over the ground,
Coming into the turnpike out from the White-Woman Glen--
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men.

As near they drew and nearer my heart beat fast in alarm;
But still I stood in the doorway, with baby on my arm.
They came; they passed; with spur and whip in haste they sped along;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and his band six hundred strong.

Weary they looked and jaded, riding through night and through day;
Pushing on east to the river, many long miles away,
To the border strip where Virginia runs up into the west,
And for the Upper Ohio before they could stop to rest.

On like the wind they hurried, and Morgan rode in advance;
Bright were his eyes like live coals, as he gave me a sideways glance;
And I was just breathing freely, after my choking pain,
When the last one of the troopers suddenly drew his rein.

Frightened I was to death, sir; I scarce dared look in his face,
As he asked for a drink of water and glanced around the place;
I gave him a cup, and he smiled--'twas only a boy, you see,
Faint and worn, with dim blue eyes, and he'd sailed on the Tennessee.

Only sixteen he was, sir--a fond mother's only son--
Off and away with Morgan before his life had begun!
The damp drops stood on his temples; drawn was the boyish mouth;
And I thought me of the mother waiting down in the South!

O, pluck was he to the backbone and clear grit through and through;
Boasted and bragged like a trooper, but the big words wouldn't do;
The boy was dying, sir, dying, as plain as plain could be,
Worn out by his ride with Morgan up from the Tennessee.

But, when I told the laddie that I too was from the South,
Water came in his dim blue eyes and quivers around his mouth.
"Do you know the Bluegrass country?" he wistful began to say,
Then swayed like a willow sapling and fainted dead away.

I had him into the log house, and worked and brought him to;
I fed him and coaxed him, as I thought his mother'd do;
And, when the lad got better, and the noise in his head was gone,
Morgan's men were miles away, galloping, galloping on.

"O, I must go," he muttered; "I must be up and away!
Morgan, Morgan is waiting for me! O, what will Morgan say?"
But I heard a sound of tramping and kept him back from the door--
The ringing sound of horses' hoofs that I had heard before.

And on, on came the soldiers--the Michigan cavalry--
And fast they rode, and black they looked galloping rapidly;
They had followed hard on Morgan's track; they had followed day and night;
But of Morgan and Morgan's raiders they had never caught a sight.

And rich Ohio sat startled through all those summer days,
For strange, wild men were galloping over her broad highways;
Now here, now there, now seen, now gone, now north, now east, now west,
Through river valleys and corn-land farms, sweeping away her best.

A bold ride and a long ride! But they were taken at last.
They almost reached the river by galloping hard and fast;
But the boys in blue were upon them ere ever they gained the ford,
And Morgan, Morgan the raider, laid down his terrible sword.

Well, I kept the boy till evening--kept him against his will--
But he was too weak to follow, and sat there pale and still;
When it was cool and dusky--you'll wonder to hear me tell--
But I stole down to that gully and brought up Kentucky Belle.

I kissed the star on her forehead--my pretty, gentle lass--
But I knew that she'd be happy back in the old Bluegrass;
A suit of clothes of Conrad's, with all the money I had,
And Kentuck, pretty Kentuck, I gave to the worn-out lad.

I guided him to the southward as well as I knew how;
The boy rode off with many thanks, and many a backward bow;
And then the glow it faded, and my heart began to swell,
As down the glen away she went, my lost Kentucky Belle!

When Conrad came home in the evening the moon was shining high;
Baby and I were both crying--I couldn't tell him why--
But a battered suit of rebel gray was hanging on the wall,
And a thin old horse with a drooping head stood in Kentucky's stall.

Well, he was kind, and never once said a hard word to me;
He knew I couldn't help it--'twas all for the Tennessee;
But, after the war was over, just think what came to pass--
A letter, sir; and the two were safe back in the old Bluegrass.

The lad had got across the border, riding Kentucky Belle;
And Kentuck, she was thriving, and fat, and hearty, and well;
He cared for her, and kept her, nor touched her with whip or spur;
Ah! we've had many horses, but never a horse like her!

Barbara Frietchie


Barbara Frietchie
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Barbara Frietchie

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

"Halt!"—the dust-brown ranks stood fast,
"Fire!"—out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word:

"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Molly Pitcher


Molly Pitcher
by Kate Brownlee Sherwood

It was hurry and scurry at Monmouth town,
For Lee was beating a wild retreat;
The British were riding the Yankee down,
And panic was pressing on flying feet.

Galloping down like a hurricane
Washington rode with his sword swung high,
Mighty as he of the Trojan plain
Fired by a courage from the sky.

"Halt, and stand to you guns!" he cried.
And a bombardier made swift reply.
Wheeling his cannon into the tide,
He fell 'neath the shot of a foeman high.

Molly Pitcher sprang to his side,
Fired as she saw her husband do.
Telling the king in his stubborn pride
Women like men to their homes are true.

Washington rode from the bloody fray
Up to the gun that a woman manned.
"Molly Pitcher, you saved the day,"
He said, as he gave her a hero's hand.

He named her sergeant with manly praise,
While her war-brown face was wet with tears-
A woman has ever a woman's ways,
And the army was wild with cheers.

Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle

There is an edition of the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes and illustrated by Howard Pyle in electronic form which can be accessed via the Gutenberg Project: Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle

Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle (As she saw it from the Belfry)
by Oliver Wendell Holmes

'Tis like stirring living embers when, at eighty, one remembers
All the achings and the quakings of "the times that tried men's souls";
When I talk of Whig and Tory, when I tell the Rebel story,
To you the words are ashes, but to me they're burning coals.

I had heard the muskets' rattle of the April running battle;
Lord Percy's hunted soldiers, I can see their red coats still;
But a deadly chill comes o'er me, as the day looms up before me,
When a thousand men lay bleeding on the slopes of Bunker's Hill.

'Twas a peaceful summer's morning, when the first thing gave us warning
Was the booming of the cannon from the river and the shore:
"Child," says grandma, "what's the matter, what is all this noise and clatter?
Have those scalping Indian devils come to murder us once more?"

Poor old soul! my sides were shaking in the midst of all my quaking
To hear her talk of Indians when the guns began to roar:
She had seen the burning village, and the slaughter and the pillage,
When the Mohawks killed her father, with their bullets through his door.

Then I said, "Now, dear old granny, don't you fret and worry any,
For I'll soon come back and tell you whether this is work or play;
There can't be mischief in it, so I won't be gone a minute"
For a minute then I started. I was gone the livelong day.

No time for bodice-lacing or for looking-glass grimacing;
Down my hair went as I hurried, tumbling half-way to my heels;
God forbid your ever knowing, when there's blood around her flowing,
How the lonely, helpless daughter of a quiet household feels!

In the street I heard a thumping; and I knew it was the stumping
Of the Corporal, our old neighbor, on that wooden leg he wore,
With a knot of women round him, it was lucky I had found him,
So I followed with the others, and the Corporal marched before.

They were making for the steeple, the old soldier and his people;
The pigeons circled round us as we climbed the creaking stair,
Just across the narrow river O, so close it made me shiver!
Stood a fortress on the hilltop that but yesterday was bare.

Not slow our eyes to find it; well we knew who stood behind it,
Though the earthwork hid them from us, and the stubborn walls were dumb:
Here were sister, wife, and mother, looking wild upon each other,
And their lips were white with terror as they said, "The Hour has Come!"

The morning slowly wasted, not a morsel had we tasted,
And our heads were almost splitting with the cannons' deafening thrill,
When a figure tall and stately round the rampart strode sedately;
It was Prescott, one since told me; he commanded on the hill.

Every woman's heart grew bigger when we saw his manly figure,
With the banyan buckled round it, standing up so straight and tall;
Like a gentleman of leisure who is strolling out for pleasure,
Through the storm of shells and cannon-shot he walked around the wall.

At eleven the streets were swarming, for the red-coats' ranks were forming;
At noon in marching order they were moving to the piers;
How the bayonets gleamed and glistened, as we looked far down and listened
To the trampling and the drum-beat of the belted grenadiers!

At length the men have started, with a cheer (it seemed faint-hearted),
In their scarlet regimentals, with their knapsacks on their backs,
And the reddening, rippling water, as after a sea-fight's slaughter,
Round the barges gliding onward blushed like blood along their tracks.

So they crossed to the other border, and again they formed in order;
And the boats came back for soldiers, came for soldiers, soldiers still:
The time seemed everlasting to us women faint and fasting,
At last they're moving, marching, marching proudly up the hill.

We can see the bright steel glancing all along the lines advancing
Now the front rank fires a volley—they have thrown away their shot;
Far behind the earthwork lying, all the balls above them flying,
Our people need not hurry; so they wait and answer not.

Then the Corporal, our old cripple (he would swear sometimes and tipple),
He had heard the bullets whistle (in the old French war) before,
Calls out in words of jeering, just as if they all were hearing,
And his wooden leg thumps fiercely on the dusty belfry floor:

"Oh! fire away, ye villains, and earn King George's shillin's,
But ye'll waste a ton of powder afore a 'rebel' falls;
You may bang the dirt and welcome, they're as safe as Dan'l Malcolm
Ten foot beneath the gravestone that you've splintered with your balls!"

In the hush of expectation, in the awe and trepidation
Of the dread approaching moment, we are well-nigh breathless all;
Though the rotten bars are failing on the rickety belfry railing,
We are crowding up against them like the waves against a wall.

Just a glimpse (the air is clearer), they are nearer, nearer, nearer,
When a flash a curling smoke-wreath then a crash the steeple shakes
The deadly truce is ended; the tempest's shroud is rended;
Like a morning mist it gathered, like a thunder-cloud it breaks!

O the sight our eyes discover as the blue-black smoke blows over!
The red-coats stretched in windrows as a mower rakes his hay;
Here a scarlet heap is lying, there a headlong crowd is flying
Like a billow that has broken and is shivered into spray.

Then we cried, "The troops are routed! they are beat it can't be doubted!
God be thanked, the fight is over!" Ah! the grim old soldier's smile!
"Tell us, tell us why you look so?" (we could hardly speak, we shook so),
"Are they beaten? Are they beaten? Are they beaten?" - "Wait a while."

O the trembling and the terror! for too soon we saw our error:
They are baffled, not defeated; we have driven them back in vain;
And the columns that were scattered, round the colors that were tattered,
Toward the sullen silent fortress turn their belted breasts again.

All at once, as we are gazing, lo the roofs of Charlestown blazing!
They have fired the harmless village; in an hour it will be down!
The Lord in heaven confound them, rain his fire and brimstone round them,
The robbing, murdering red-coats, that would burn a peaceful town!

They are marching, stern and solemn; we can see each massive column
As they near the naked earth-mound with the slanting walls so steep.
Have our soldiers got faint-hearted, and in noiseless haste departed?
Are they panic-struck and helpless? Are they palsied or asleep?

Now! the walls they're almost under! scarce a rod the foes asunder!
Not a firelock flashed against them! up the earthwork they will swarm!
But the words have scarce been spoken, when the ominous calm is broken,
And a bellowing crash has emptied all the vengeance of the storm!

So again, with murderous slaughter, pelted backward to the water,
Fly Pigot's running heroes and the frightened braves of Howe;
And we shout, "At last they're done for, it's their barges they have run for:
They are beaten, beaten, beaten; and the battle's over now!"

And we looked, poor timid creatures, on the rough old soldier's features,
Our lips afraid to question, but he knew what we would ask:
"Not sure," he said; "keep quiet, once more, I guess, they'll try it
Here's damnation to the cut-throats!" then he handed me his flask,

Saying, "Gal, you're looking shaky; have a drop of old Jamaiky:
I'm afraid there'll be more trouble afore this job is done;"
So I took one scorching swallow; dreadful faint I felt and hollow,
Standing there from early morning when the firing was begun.

All through those hours of trial I had watched a calm clock dial,
As the hands kept creeping, creeping, they were creeping round to four,
When the old man said, "They're forming with their bayonets fixed for storming:
It's the death grip that's a coming, they will try the works once more."

With brazen trumpets blaring, the flames behind them glaring,
The deadly wall before them, in close array they come;
Still onward, upward toiling, like a dragon's fold uncoiling
Like the rattlesnake's shrill warning the reverberating drum!

Over heaps all torn and gory shall I tell the fearful story,
How they surged above the breastwork, as a sea breaks over a deck;
How, driven, yet scarce defeated, our worn-out men retreated,
With their powder-horns all emptied, like the swimmers from a wreck?

It has all been told and painted; as for me, they say I fainted,
And the wooden-legged old Corporal stumped with me down the stair:
When I woke from dreams affrighted the evening lamps were lighted,
On the floor a youth was lying; his bleeding breast was bare.

And I heard through all the flurry, "Send for Warren! hurry! hurry!
Tell him here's a soldier bleeding, and he'll come and dress his wound!"
Ah, we knew not till the morrow told its tale of death and sorrow,
How the starlight found him stiffened on the dark and bloody ground.

Who the youth was, what his name was, where the place from which he came was,
Who had brought him from the battle, and had left him at our door,
He could not speak to tell us; but 'twas one of our brave fellows,
As the homespun plainly showed us which the dying soldier wore.

For they all thought he was dying, as they gathered 'round him crying,
And they said, "O, how they'll miss him!" and, "What will his mother do?"
Then, his eyelids just unclosing like a child's that has been dozing,
He faintly murmured, "Mother!" and I saw his eyes were blue.

"Why, grandma, how you're winking!" Ah, my child, it sets me thinking
Of a story not like this one. Well, he somehow lived along;
So we came to know each other, and I nursed him like a mother,
Till at last he stood before me, tall, and rosy-cheeked, and strong.

And we sometimes walked together in the pleasant summer weather;
"Please to tell us what his name was?" Just your own, my little dear,
There's his picture Copley painted: we became so well acquainted,
That in short, that's why I'm grandma, and you children all are here!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Charge of the Light Brigade - October 25, 1854

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Ghosts of books past


I love serendipity - it is perhaps one of the key pillars of optimisim. As reported in the October 6, 2007 edition of New Scientist (and available on-line to subscribers here):
From ancient Syracuse, through the medieval Holy Land to Istanbul and, finally, California, it has been a long journey for a musty old prayer book. But what is written on it makes the journey worthwhile. "This is Archimedes' brain on parchment," says William Noel, curator of ancient manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Hidden beneath the lines of ancient prayers and layers of dirt, candle wax and mould lies the oldest written account of the thoughts of the great mathematician.

This invaluable artifact is a classic example of a palimpsest: a manuscript in which the original text has been scraped off and overwritten. It was discovered more than a century ago, but only in the past eight years have scholars uncovered its secrets. Using advanced imaging techniques, they have peered behind the 13th-century prayers inscribed on its surface to reveal the text and diagrams making up seven of Archimedes' treatises. They include the only known copies of The Method of Mechanical Theorems, On Floating Bodies, and fragments of The Stomachion in their original Greek.

See also a couple of BBC articles a while ago covering the emerging discoveries - Text reveals More Ancient Secrets April 26, 2007; X-rays reveal Archimedes' Secrets August 2, 2006; and the transcript of interviews with the scientists/curators working on the text, Archimedes Secret March 14, 2002.

From the BBC interview with one of the senior scientists investigating the text, Dr. William Noel:
When the manuscript first arrived, you know, shivers ran, ran down my spine. I have never before in my life handled a book that is the only material witness to the mind of someone who died 2,200 years ago.

The transcript of the BBC interview gives a good sense of the excitement of discovery surrounding this improbable recovery. That the Greeks were so far advanced in their conceptual thinking so long ago (Archimedes 287 BC - 212 BC) is impressive enough, but that Archimedes was already headed down the path that would lead to calculus and that we should know that solely from a fragment of his writings that survived only in the form of hidden text beneath a vellum prayer-book boggles the mind.

This is such a powerful story of hope; the survival of the document at all; the precious cargo of ancient thought literally hidden within its pages; the rapidly developing non-destructive technologies that allow us to do what has never been done before in peering underneath the surface of the pages; the opportunity to know the thoughts of someone so long ago; and the sheer excitement of unexpected discovery.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

John Lloyd Stephens

Idol at Copan by Frederick Catherwood 1841

Also in this month's (December) edition of American History is a good article on John Lloyd Stephens. Unfortunately the article is not available electronically but the magazine should be on the news stands for a while. Stephens was the explorer who in the early 1840's first brought to the attention of a wide audience the Mayan ruins in Central America with his two travel books

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood Suggested

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood Suggested

While the language, views and style are a little archaic, there is a certain freshness that is appealing. If there is anyone amongst young adults interested in archaeology, this might be an intriguing tidbit to put in front of them. The illustrations are a big part of the allure of the book. They make you feel as if you were there, back when it was all fresh and untrammeled.


There is an interesting article on the history of Levittown in this month's American History magazine.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

HMS Victoria

Illustration of H.M.S. Victoria.
Source: Index to late 18th, 19th and early 20th Century Naval and Naval Social History

In last week's mention of Rudyard Kipling's "Soldier an' Sailor too" under the header The Birkenhead Drill, his final stanza mentions the "Victorier."

The HMS Victoria, so named in celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, was a British battleship launched in 1887 and which sank in 1893 in the eastern Mediterranean following a tragic accident arising from miscommunication and obedient adherence to orders even when those orders were suspected to be erroneous.

I read of this incident as a relatively young child, perhaps eight or ten, in one of the first of many anthologies of sea mysteries, tragedies, shipwrecks, etc. which I have read over the years.

Admiral George Tryon commanded a squadron of British ships and was in the process of putting on a display of maneuvers. He had two lines of ships lined up in parallel and instructed that they were to turn in to each other and come around heading in the opposite direction in parallel with one another again, but now much closer together.

His watch officers questioned whether the distances were sufficient for such a maneuver but he dismissed their concerns and they obeyed their orders despite their misgivings.

The HMS Camperdown and the HMS Victoria, leading their respective lines, turned in towards one another. The distances were indeed insufficient and the Camperdown rammed the Victoria with the latter ship sinking within half an hour with the loss of more than half her crew; 358 men including Admiral Tryon who elected to remain at his post saying "It's all my fault."

I had never heard of the Royal Marines playing a particular role in this disaster so am not sure what Kipling is referencing but am guessing that this is the incident (rather than some other HMS Victoria) to which he is referring given that the ballad was written close to the time of the tragedy.

The wreck of the HMS Victoria was discovered by divers three years ago. Uniquely, the ship rests in a perpendicular position above the sea floor as reported at that time in the Cyber Diver News Network.

There is also a memorial to the Victoria in Portsmouth in the UK.

There is also a Wikipedia article on the incident.

A footnote to the sinking is that the one of the survivors was the executive officer, the second-in-command, of the HMS Victoria, John Jellicoe. Jellicoe later became Admiral and commanded the British fleet at the classic clash of battleships, the Battle of Jutland in World War I. Later in the war he became the First Sea Lord of the entire British navy.

The Metaphor by Louis Untermeyer

I have a ten year old in the house learning the elements of language, so this passage seemed especially pertinent when I came across it.

The metaphor is something more than an amusing literary device; it is a continual play of wit, an illuminating double entendre, a nimble magic in which writer and reader conspire to escape reality. Perhaps"escape" is the wrong word - the play of metaphor acts to enrich reality, even to heighten it. The average reader enjoys its intensification so much that he cannot help employing it. "My heart leaps," he says, knowing quite well that it contracts and expands quietly within the pericardium. Or, he declares still more mendaciously but earnestly, "my heart stopod still." Even while he scorns poetry, the ordinary man helps himself to its properties and symbols; his daily life is unthinkable without metaphor. Having "slept like a log," he gets up in the morning "fresh as a daisy" or "fit as a fiddle"; he "wolfs down" breakfast, "hungry as a bear," with his wife, who has a "tongue like vinegar," but "a heart of gold." He gets into his car, which "eats up the miles," steps on the gas, and, as it "purrs" along through the "hum" of the traffic, he reaches his office where he is "as busy as a one-armed paper-hanger with the hives." Life, for the average man, is not "a bed of roses," his competitor is "sly as a fox" and his own clerks are "slow as molasses in January." But "the day's grind" is finally done and, though it is "raining cats and dogs," he arrives home "happy as a lark."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Birkenhead Drill


The Birkenhead drill refers to the absolute discipline maintained by the Royal Marines as the HMS Birkenhead, having holed herself on an uncharted rock off the coast of South Africa, began to break up while they were still loading women and children into the few functioning lifeboats. Wikipedia has an entry for the Birkenhead incident and it is a story often recounted among maritime anthologies.

Though I am not particularly fond of his Barrack Room Ballads, one of Rudyard Kipling's poems pays tribute to those brave Royal Marines and the tradition they established of women and children first.

"Soldier an' Sailor Too"
(The Royal Regiment of Marines)
Rudyard Kipling

AS I was spittin' into the Ditch aboard o' the Crocodile,
I seed a man on a man-o'-war got up in the Reg'lars' style.
'E was scrapin' the paint from off of 'er plates, an' I sez to 'im, "'Oo are you?"
Sez 'e, "I'm a Jolly—'Er Majesty's Jolly—soldier an' sailor too!"
Now 'is work begins by Gawd knows when, and 'is work is never through;
'E isn't one o' the reg'lar Line, nor 'e isn't one of the crew.
'E's a kind of a giddy harumfrodite—soldier an' sailor too!

An' after I met 'im all over the world, a-doin' all kinds of things,
Like landin' 'isself with a Gatlin' gun to talk to them 'eathen kings;
'E sleeps in an 'ammick instead of a cot, an' 'e drills with the deck on a slew,
An' 'e sweats like a Jolly—'Er Majesty's Jolly—soldier an' sailor too!
For there isn't a job on the top o' the earth the beggar don't know, nor do—
You can leave 'im at night on a bald man's 'ead, to paddle 'is own canoe—
'E's a sort of a bloomin' cosmopolouse—soldier an' sailor too.

We've fought 'em in trooper, we've fought 'em in dock, and drunk with 'em in betweens,
When they called us the seasick scull'ry-maids, an' we called 'em the Ass Marines;
But, when we was down for a double fatigue, from Woolwich to Bernardmyo,
We sent for the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too!
They think for 'emselves, an' they steal for 'emselves, and they never ask what's to do,
But they're camped an' fed an' they're up an' fed before our bugle's blew.
Ho! they ain't no limpin' procrastitutes—soldier an' sailor too.

You may say we are fond of an 'arness-cut, or 'ootin' in barrick-yards,
Or startin' a Board School mutiny along o' the Onion Guards;
But once in a while we can finish in style for the ends of the earth to view,
The same as the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too!
They come of our lot, they was brothers to us; they was beggars we'd met an' knew;
Yes, barrin' an inch in the chest an' the arm, they was doubles o' me an' you;
For they weren't no special chrysanthemums—soldier an' sailor too!

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too!

We're most of us liars, we're 'arf of us thieves, an' the rest are as rank as can be,
But once in a while we can finish in style (which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me).
But it makes you think better o' you an' your friends, an' the work you may 'ave to do,
When you think o' the sinkin' Victorier's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too!
Now there isn't no room for to say ye don't know—they 'ave proved it plain and true—
That whether it's Widow, or whether it's ship, Victorier's work is to do,
An' they done it, the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too!

Sir Humphrey Gilbert


From Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes.

Gilbert, Sir Humphrey (?1539-1583) English soldier and navigator, half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh

Despite the advice of his lieutenants, Gilbert refused to abandon his little ten-ton frigate, the Squirrel, which was overloaded and unseaworthy. Having paid a visit to his men onboard the other remaining ship in his fleet, the Golden Hind, he insisted on returning to the Squirrel. On the afternoon of September 9, 1583, the frigate was almost overwhelmed by the waves, but finally was recovered. Gilbert, sitting near the stern with a book in his hand, shouted out to the Golden Hind as it came within earshot, 'We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.' That night the watch on the Golden Hind saw the lights of the Squirrel suddenly vanish, and he cried out, 'The general is cast away.' This was indeed true, and of the five ships that set out on the expedition, only the Golden Hind returned to England to tell the tale, together with Gilbert's noble last words."

On this day in 1865

Eclipse of the Moon by Lars Ploughman License (cc-by-sa-2.0)

On the Eclipse of the Moon of October 1865
Charles Turner

One little noise of life remained--I heard
The train pause in the distance, then rush by,
Brawling and hushing, like some busy fly
That murmurs and then settles; nothing stirred
Beside. The shadow of our traveling earth
Hung on the silver moon, which mutely went
Through that grand process, without token sent,
Or any sign to call a gazer forth,
Had I not chanced to see; dumb was the vault
Of heaven, and dumb the fields--no zephyr swept
The forest walks, or through the coppice crept;
Nor other sound the stillness did assault,
Save that faint-brawling railway's move and halt;
So perfect was the silence Nature kept.

Monday, October 1, 2007

He Fell Among Thieves

I am a fan of Henry Newbolt's poetry and this poem is among my favorites. I had not ever known the background to the tale though I suspected it might be based on a true event. In this quarter's Slightly Foxed, Peter Gill, in his article Heading for the Hills, confirms that Newbolt wrote this poem in response to the murder in 1869 in Dardistan of one of those intrepid British explorers of Central Asia, George Hayward.


He Fell Among Thieves
Henry Newbolt

'YE have robb'd,' said he, 'ye have slaughter'd and made an end,
Take your ill-got plunder, and bury the dead:
What will ye more of your guest and sometime friend?'
'Blood for our blood,' they said.

He laugh'd: 'If one may settle the score for five,
I am ready; but let the reckoning stand till day:
I have loved the sunlight as dearly as any alive.'
'You shall die at dawn,' said they.

He flung his empty revolver down the slope,
He climb'd alone to the Eastward edge of the trees;
All night long in a dream untroubled of hope
He brooded, clasping his knees.

He did not hear the monotonous roar that fills
The ravine where the Yassîn river sullenly flows;
He did not see the starlight on the Laspur hills,
Or the far Afghan snows.

He saw the April noon on his books aglow,
The wistaria trailing in at the window wide;
He heard his father's voice from the terrace below
Calling him down to ride.

He saw the gray little church across the park,
The mounds that hid the loved and honour'd dead;
The Norman arch, the chancel softly dark,
The brasses black and red.

He saw the School Close, sunny and green,
The runner beside him, the stand by the parapet wall,
The distant tape, and the crowd roaring between,
His own name over all.

He saw the dark wainscot and timber'd roof,
The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;
The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,
The Dons on the daïs serene.

He watch'd the liner's stem ploughing the foam,
He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;
He heard the passengers' voices talking of home,
He saw the flag she flew.

And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
And strode to his ruin'd camp below the wood;
He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
His murderers round him stood.

Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
The blood-red snow-peaks chill'd to a dazzling white;
He turn'd, and saw the golden circle at last,
Cut by the Eastern height.

'O glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore Thee.'
A sword swept.
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.