Saturday, January 31, 2015

Most Popular Posts 2012

We'll finish up the series with the ten most popular posts from the first year of THC:

1.  It remains by far the most popular post since this blog started, continuing to draw new readers:  One Hit Wonders 1964-68.

2.  Sly Stallone strikes again!  The review of The Expendables 2 includes our selections in the following award categories: Most implausible plot point; Best cameo; Hardest to guess if there is any difference between the actor on and off screen; Most difficult to understand actor; and Best sunglasses.

3.  On the evening of July 5, 1954 Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios for his first recording session.  The result was That's All Right.  You can learn the story behind what happened that night.

4. Homer Simpson's Paradox.  Woo hoo!  Closely related to Simpson's Paradox which once you are aware of it appears everywhere.

5.  A cable network's decision to fund and broadcast Oliver Stone's love poem to Joseph Stalin prompted this rant: Showtime's Agitprop

6.  Also about Joe Stalin but from a different perspective is one of the greatest novels ever written; Life And Fate

7.  THC's parody of a New York Times story apparently hit the mark. Did You See The NY Times Frontpage Story On Jon Corzine?

8.  Larry & Mark's Excellent Adventure is the tale of two old guys wandering around a Civil War battlefield.

9. All Possess Alike Liberty Of Conscience.  George Washington's 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island.  As relevant today as it was when written.

10. Perhaps some came looking for vacation rentals? Villas Of Ravello proved popular as have all of THC's Amalfi Coast posts.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Most Popular Posts 2013

Following up on the Popular Posts 2014, THC went back and looked at the results for 2013.  Here's the Top Ten:

1.  A Falling Of Fortresses: The Schweinfurt Raids.  This was a surprise to THC but it was #1 by a large margin.  The tale of the daring US Air Force raids in late 1943 on German ball-bearing manufacturing plants which resulted in the loss of so many bombers that it led to a complete rethinking of the American aerial assault on Germany.

2.  THC's review of US census data from 1860 in Civil War Demographics got a lot of attention.

3.  The post on FDR's most important wartime aide: Who Was Harry Hopkins?  A controversial figure even today.  THC remains an admirer.

4.  Glad to see that THC's favorite American politician from the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War was also popular with readers: Sam Houston: The Raven.

5.  Yes!  The Steely Dan Guitar Solo Series was a big hit.  You can buy a thrill.

6.  THC reviews a movie he refuses to see.  Find out why: The Company You Keep.

7.  Tarawa is where the United States began its offensive in the Central Pacific in November 1943.  The cost we paid in lives shocked the military and the public.

8.  Giuseppe Lampedusa's classic novel, The Leopard, portrays the decline of Sicilian nobility during the 19th century Risorgimento.  Beautifully written and recreating a melancholic world coming to an end.

9.  THC's recommended music to stay awake by when you're driving at 2am.  Take a look at the playlist for Late Night Driving Music.

And we had a tie for #10:

The battle between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for AM-radio dominance from late 1964 to early 1967 was recounted in Beatles/Stones Face-Off.

THC's favorite Baseball Nickname series rounds out the list.  The following nicknames did not make the final cut:
Ducky-Wucky Medwick, The Yankee Clipper, Hit Em Where They Ain't, The Flying Dutchman, Goose Gossage, Mudcat Grant, Catfish Hunter, Double X, The Mad Hungarian, Spaceman Bill Lee, The Bird, The Big Hurt, The Big Unit, The Say Hey Kid, Oil Can Boyd, The Peerless Leader, Little Eva, The Georgia Peach, The Big Train, The Fordham Flash, The Reading Rifle, The Wild Horse Of The Osage, Poosh 'Em Up, Big Poison, Little Poison, Boom Boom Beck, Dizzy, Daffy, Bobo, Satchel, Stuffy, Gabby, Frenchy, Minnie, Pie, Yaz, Maz, Bucketfoot Al, The Man, The Splendid Splinter, Hondo, Stretch, Daddy Wags, The Toy Cannon, Sudden Sam, Hammerin' Hank, The Wizard of Oz, Pudge, Cool Papa and Pietro Redlight District Distillery Interests

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Layla New Orleans Style

In 2011 Eric Clapton appeared at Lincoln Center in NYC with a group of jazz musicians assembled by Wynton Marsalis to perform New Orleans style jazz standards.  The only "new" song was Layla, composed and recorded by Clapton in 1970  when he was part of Derek & The Dominoes, and it's a glorious version.  Impassioned singing and guitar from Clapton followed by Marsalis on horn and  trombone and clarinet solos.  The song takes on new life in this arrangement.  Extra added bonus: at the start Clapton speaks for a bit which is a rarity for him in concert; and you'll never hear him again as he's retired from touring.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Zeugma Mosiacs

ancient mosaics discovered in ancient greek city of zeugma (1) 
Several ancient floor mosiacs in remarkably good condition were recently discovered in the ruins of Zeugma, a Greek-Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates River in Turkey, near the Syrian border.  Zeugma was founded as a Greek colony around 300 BC by one of the successors to Alexander the Great.  The mosiacs date from one to two hundred years later.  By the first century BC the area was dominated by Rome and in the first century AD it formally became part of the Roman Empire, within which it remained until the mid-7th century.

The mosiac seen above shows the Nine Muses, a source of inspiration to poets and writers.  This is a close up of one muse:
ancient mosaics discovered in ancient greek city of zeugma (2)This video shows the mosiac being cleaned:

Monday, January 26, 2015

Never Cry Wolf

Never Cry Wolf has stayed with THC since he first saw it (along with Mrs THC) in 1983.  On the surface, the film is deceptively simple. A Canadian wildlife biologist (superbly played by Charles Martin Smith who up till that time had mostly played goofy jerks in movies like American Graffiti) goes off to the Arctic to observe the habits of wolves who are thought to be decimating elk and caribou herds. The biologist's adventures are recounted. There are only four significant speaking parts - the biologist, a bush pilot (Brian Dennehy) and two Inuits. There's a lot more silence than dialogue. And it's a Disney movie.  THC didn't think he'd like it.  He was mistaken.

It's not your usual anthropomorphizing wildlife movie where everything works out happily in the end. Rather it's a meditation on the effects of humans interacting with wild animals and not just by the biologist and pilot, the two Inuits also play complex roles.  The cinematography is mesmerizing and the atmospheric score, by Mark Isham, is a character onto itself.  If you watch it at home via netflix or something else it is best seen on the largest screen you have and without interruption so you can immerse yourself in the mood it creates. This is the Siskel & Ebert review from 1983 (the quality of the video is poor but the commentary captures the essence of the film - notice that Ebert upgrades the Smith character to "goofy eccentric" from his usual goofy jerks.):
The opening credits with that wonderful score playing over it.
The Inuits:
Additional clips from the movie:
The movie is based on a controversial book of the same name by the controversial Canadian wildlife biologist Farley Mowat.  THC has not read Never Cry Wolf, although he did read And No Bird Sang, about his experiences in the Canadian army during WWII and eventual breakdown during the horrible, grinding campaign on the Italian peninsula. THC suggests you ignore the controversy over the book and just enjoy the film.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

An Empire On The Edge

On January 24, 1774 the British Colonial Office asked James Scott, captain of the Hayley, to come brief them on reports circulating in recent days of shocking events in Boston. The Hayley had arrived at Dover on January 19 carrying barrels of tar sent by a Boston merchant, John Hancock.  The very next day, the stock of the British East India Company (which we last encountered in Dr Brydon Reaches Jalalabad) began to fall and by January 21 the London papers were claiming that the company's tea had been dumped into Boston harbor.

The next day Hayley appeared and recounted the events of December 16, 1773 being careful not to implicate Hancock.  It is that event, known to us as the Boston Tea Party, that in the analysis of Nick Bunker, author of a new book, An Empire On The Edge, made the American revolution inevitable.

As Americans we are used to seeing the origins of the revolution through the eyes of our patriot leaders like Sam Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, James Otis and Patrick Henry while we have our own well-known path to revolt; The Proclamation of 1763, The Stamp Act, The Townsend Act, The Boston Massacre, The Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts.  Bunker tells the story from the other side, through British eyes, particularly those of the key government actors and he does it with an emphasis on finance and economics perhaps befitting given his background as an investment banker and then as a journalist for the Financial Times.  And it certainly looks different from that perspective.  For an American everything that happened leading to the revolution was important at the time it occurred but for the British, the North American colonies were mostly a backwater receiving little attention (the American colonies are not mentioned at all during the entire year of correspondence between Lord North and George III in 1773).

Bunker starts his story in late 1771, more than a year after the Boston Massacre telling two tales in parallel, the efforts of British officials to stop the massive about of smuggling contraband into the colonies in defiance of Britain's mercantile restriction and, a world away, of how the China tea trade and its boom and bust cycle led the East India Company into a financial crisis that threatened the stability of Britain and eventually to the shipping of surplus tea to Boston - along with explaining the cultural and economic importance of tea to Britain and all its colonies.  And two centuries on tea is still a big deal in England as The Kinks remind us: The first tale culminates with the burning of the British naval schooner Gaspe which had been hunting smugglers in the Providence River in the summer of 1792 and the inability of the government to prosecute anyone.  Bunker points out that even by that time Rhode Island and Connecticut were virtually independent under their colonial charters and with little or no Royal presence.
The tale of venality and speculation that led to the East India Company to the brink and the poor decision making by Lord North's government that resulted in the Tea Party while convoluted is told in a clear and very understandable way.  While the American colonists thought the East India Company and the government were in cahoots, Bunker says the reality was much different:
"George III disliked the company intensely.  A monarch of simple tastes . . . the king believed that the best parts of the nation were the farmers.  In his eyes, speculators like Colebrooke [Chairman of the East India Company] could never speak for an England with honest agriculture at its heart. . . . the king used the word 'rapine' to describe the misconduct that brought the East India Company to its knees.  Although Lord North expressed himself more diplomatically, he viewed the directors with the same distaste."
In fact, Lord North used the company's financial crisis to wring concessions from it that allowed more government control, including over its profitable India provinces.
All of this goes to the rather ramshackle way Britain acquired and managed its 18th century empire; which was much different from the empire of Queen Victoria from the mid-19 century.  It was above all a mercantile empire which was created by adventurers under charters granted by an England which lacked the funds to do it on its own.  The result was a sprawling company in Asia which had carved out first a commercial and then an actual land empire.  In North America and the West Indies there were more than 25 colonies most with their own charts and legislative assemblies and, particularly in North America, very little presence of British officials.

Bunker draws vivid portraits of the main government players, Lord North who remained Prime Minister through 1781, Lords Hillsborough and Dartmouth who ran the Colonial Office and a hot of other characters including Charles  Jenkinson, the aide at Treasury who authored the January 1773 plan to force Americans to buy the tea and pay the threepenny tax and who was described by biographer as "a born bureaucrat of restricted sympathies".

All of them shared a mindset that made it impossible for them to understand the concerns of the colonists.

For the British, the purpose of British North America was purely business.  As Lord Hillsborough put it in a memorandum of April 1772 the sole purpose of the colonies was "to improve and extend commerce, navigation and manufactures of this kingdom, upon which its strength and security depends".  He then lists the four reasons that justified their existence:

1) fisheries 
2) raw materials - timber, tar, hemp for the navy fleet
3) a captive market for goods manufactured in Great Britain
4) America's role in supplying food and lumber to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, which were of much more value to Britain than all the colonies on the mainland combined.

To control and maintain the colonies for this purpose Hillsborough concluded that they needed to remain coastal communities and their expansion to the west strictly limited which became a major grievance for colonists, particularly in the middle and southern colonies. North)
This inability to understand America in anything other than commercial terms (the government insisted that smugglers were the only troublesome colonists) and the way that American development had diverged from the Britain they knew had devastating consequences when they implemented policies such as the Tea Act in 1774.  In Bunker's words:
"It was a short term expedient intended to prop up the company, undercut the smugglers, and reassert the doctrine that Britain had the right to levy taxes in America.  It did not occur to North and his colleagues that while for them tea was just an object of trade, in the colonies it would acquire a new meaning [as a symbol of tyranny]."

". . . the British scarcely saw the colonies at all as anything more than a bundle of economic resources or a destination for convicts"
Even the mercantile speculators aspired to a life of the landed gentry in Britain.  A gentleman's rank and status was everything. 
"From North's perspective, a planter from Virginia might just qualify as the equal of an English landlord.  But even there he had his doubts, and the artisans and laborers of Massachusetts did not count at all.  In November and December 1773, when the people of Boston threw open their meetings to everyone, including the landless and the unemployed, they not only broke the law.  They violated every principle of government to which North and his colleagues adhered." 
Bunker writes that Hancock was particularly incomprehensible to North who viewed the merchant as duty-bound to defend the status quo.  He didn't realize that while in America "the wealthy expected to lord it over their neighbors, they had to ask their permission first" something simply unthinkable to North.

What also strikes the reader is the small size of the colonial bureaucracy and the difficulties of timely communication in a day of sailing ships.  The Colonial Office in London, which oversaw all the colonies, was staffed by less than ten people.  The government appointees on the ground in North America, other than the governors, were few and far between and mostly confined to the coastal port regions.  Even with the governors the quality and frequency of their official correspondence with the Colonial Office was extremely erratic and unreliable.  For this reason, until the verge of fighting in 1775 the officials in London thought the problem was mostly confined to Massachusetts while in reality their were major organized resistance groups forming throughout New England, New York, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina, the latter of which was in peaceful revolt for a year prior to Lexington and Concord.

Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virgina, the largest and most prosperous colony, was particularly derelict.  In March 1773 the Virginia assembly selected its own Committee of Correspondence (including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson) to coordinate with the similar committee established in Massachusetts by Sam Adams, a momentous step which should have indicated how serious and widespread a problem Britain was facing.  Yet in the six official letters Dunmore sent to the Colonial Office in the first half of 1773, none mentioned this committee and then the governor sent no further letters for nine months!

The Colonial Office's lack of information is astonishing.  It was only in 1774 that it sent a survey to all of the governors asking for the most basic information including population and simple economic data.

It was no better on the military side.  General Gage, the British Commander in Chief since 1765, was based in Manhattan and had no knowledge of New England or the southern colonies.  Nonetheless he felt confident enough when on leave back in England in early 1774 to advise George III that if Britain was firm the rebels would back down and show themselves "very meek".  When, later that year, Gage went to Boston to oversee the closing of the port and the buildup of the army garrison he realized how poor his advice had been.,_2nd_Earl_of_Dartmouth.jpg(Lord Dartmouth)
Finally, in late January 1775 Lord Dartmouth sent instructions to Gage to suppress the rebellion by force of arms and to arrest its leaders for treason.  Due to the vagaries of winter weather in the North Atlantic, Gage didn't receive the instructions until April 14.  Five days later the Redcoats marched out of Boston to seize reported rebel arms in Concord and into history.

A fitting epitaph was later written by William Knox, second undersecretary of the Colonial Office) whose recommendations for reform of the colonial system had been ignored:
"It was with no small degree of astonishment that I perceived a total want of plan or system in the British government" calling the history of British North America a sad chronicle of "neglect, Ignorance, bad Law and worse Policy".