Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Be Careful

As you're getting ready to go out tonight remember to be careful and don't do anything crazy!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 5 Reasons We Ended The Cuba Embargo


1.  Retro look of Havana appeals to hipsters.
 

2.  Travel to U.S. mostly by boat more environmentally-friendly than air travel.
http://ap-pics2.gotpoem.com/ap-pics/item/960/983.jpg?
3.  Income inequality solved by maximum monthly wage of $20.

4.  Fairness Doctrine implemented on Progressive principles grounded in concept that anything not approved by Government is unfair.

5.  Fertile ground for new Cash for Clunkers program.
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/04/acosta.cuba.blog.cars.art.jpg

Sunday, December 28, 2014

No Foolin'

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."

Richard Feynman (1918-88); author of the best book by a Nobel Prize winning physicist, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Friday, December 26, 2014

View Of Paestum

Two Views of Paestum by Antonio Joli (1758).   For more on this ancient Greek town on the Bay of Salerno in the south of Italy and to see how the temples look today see THC's photos at Paestum.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Gift

via Crossroads

From General Sherman to President Lincoln (December 22, 1864):
“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton” 
After being out of touch with Washington for a month on his march through Georgia, Sherman had reached the Atlantic Coast and captured the major port of Savannah.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Better Be Prepared

Something to ponder as you enjoy this December weekend.  Popular Mechanics reports that University of Connecticut philosophy professor Susan Schneider theorizes that, as the title puts it "Superintelligent Machines Are Probably The Dominant Lifeforce In The Universe". 

The magazine reports:
In her new paper "Alien Minds," she proposes that by the time civilizations are able to communicate by radio, they're a few short steps away from developing artificial intelligence. One they reached that level of advancement, they may have opted to upgrade their biology to something that's a biomechanical hybrid or something entirely synthetic. There could be a whole mess of Borg out there, in other words. 
You can read the whole thing here.

Looks like this really is our future:
http://cdn.screenrant.com/wp-content/uploads/terminator-reboot-genesis-images.jpg

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Favorite Songs Of 2014

This blog's three favorite songs released in 2014.  You'll note that two of the three artists have been around for awhile so THC is looking for recommendations on songs and artists who started a little more recently.

Chrissie Hynde released her first solo album, Stockholm, this summer and it contains several strong tunes.  My favorite is Like In The Movies.
Since we're talking about Chrissie, this gives THC an excuse to link his three favorite Pretenders songs; Night In My Veins (a terrific live version), Talk Of The Town and Middle Of The Road.

Next up is a new band, 7Horse, and Carousel Bar which sounds like what would happen if you had a band with Keith Richards on guitar and Warren Zevon on vocals.  Not likely to happen since Warren is hanging out with Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.
Finally it's the Tedeschi Trucks Band with Do I Look Worried.
Since THC didn't do this last year, he's gonna add his 2013 favorite new song Matmos by Amplifier.  To really appreciate this you need to hear it on a first-rate sound system.  It's an astonishing aural experience.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Birdman

http://s3.amazonaws.com/digitaltrends-uploads-prod/2014/06/Birdman-Michael-Keaton.png
 (from digitaltrends.com)

If you've been waiting to see Michael Keaton and Edward Norton running around in their undershorts (briefs, not boxers) this is the movie for you!  THC and Mrs THC liked it.

uuhh . . .let's start again because that makes THC and spouse sound a little weird.

Birdman serves as a reminder that everyone associated with the entertainment industry needs to be kept separate from the rest of humanity since, as THC friend CC observed, they are "a bunch of broken crazies in a dismal environment".  Did THC mention that he and the Mrs enjoyed the film?

hmmm . . . this is proving difficult.  We'll try again.

Birdman is bizarre, odd, a bit gimmicky and full of pathetic actor self-loathing.  It's also fascinating, funny, sad and compelling and yes, it will leave you scratching your head at times.  Also, like so many films these days they could have edited out about 20 minutes without losing anything.

The story follows Riggan Thomson (Keaton), the washed up former action movie star of the fictional "Birdman" franchise and it's probably no coincidence that Keaton starred in two Batman films 20+ years ago before downshifting his career.  Riggan is trying to resurrect his career and gain credibility as an actor by starring in a Broadway play based on an adaptation (by Riggan) of a Raymond Carver short story (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) which he is also directing.  His co-stars are played by Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough. Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan's lawyer and producer, Amy Ryan is Riggan's ex-wife and Emma Stone their daughter.

THC always liked Keaton and his off-kilter acting style (and personality) is great for this role which is definitely off-kilter.  Edward Norton, who THC has not liked in other movies, is perfect here because his unlikeable mannerisms fit right in.  Amy Ryan is good in everything and this movie is no different.  THC used to enjoy Galifianakis in films like the original Hangover but he got pretty tiresome in more recent films (including the awful Hangover sequels); he's marvelous here.  Watts and Riseborough are fine and can someone tell THC what they did with Emma Stone?  She's always had big eyes but in Birdman they take up half her face.  Did they create a CGI version of her head?

The film was shot in and around St James Theatre in Manhattan next to, and for one scene in, Times Square and is done in a way to make it look like one continuous shot.  THC doesn't have a clue how they did it but the movie looks amazing - it just pops off the screen.  The director is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu whose best-known movies, 21 Grams and Babel, sounded so grim THC avoided them.

THC won't tell you anything more about the story because he can't make sense of it but he can assure you he is not joking about the undershorts.  Here's the trailer.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Remember (My Visit To) The Alamo! (Part 3)

For Parts 1 & 2 see here and here.

The Alamo In TV And Movies

THC watched the Disney series on Davy Crockett as a four year old in late 1954 and early 1955.  He still remembers the details of a few scenes, including the last one at the Alamo.

In 1954 Walt Disney signed a deal with ABC to deliver an hour long TV show every week and get the funds he desperately needed to complete the construction of his revolutionary amusement park Disneyland.  The new show, also called Disneyland, premiered on October 27, 1954.  Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter debuted on December 15.  A second episode, Davy Crockett Goes To Congress was broadcast on January 26, 1955 and a third, Davy Crockett At The Alamo aired on February 23, 1955.  The response exceeded Disney's expectations, setting off a nationwide Crockett craze and marketing bonanza which last for most of 1955.  Even the theme song from the show, The Ballad Of Davy Crockett, went to #1 on the charts. And yes, THC proudly wore a coonskin cap.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4d/Davy_Crockett,_King_of_the_Wild_Frontier_FilmPoster.jpeg
In May 1955 Disney released an edited version of the three episodes as a full length movie, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier and late in the year broadcast two more TV episodes, Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race (Nov 16) and Davy Crockett And The River Pirates (Dec 14).  These last two also featured another legendary figure, Mike Fink (1770?-1823), the "King of the Keelboaters".

Disney made a star out of Fess Parker who played Crockett (and a decade later portrayed Daniel Boone in a hit TV series).  His co-star was Buddy Ebsen, who after escaping the Alamo returned to Tennessee, changed his name to Jed Clampett and while out hunting discovered oil, became rich and moved to Beverly - Hills that is.

Some of the series is available on YouTube.  One portion that THC did not remember portrays Crockett speaking in Congress in opposition to Andrew Jackson's request that Congress provide him funds for the removal of the Cherokees and four other southeastern Indian tribes; you can watch the segment below.  David Crockett really did speak in Congress in opposition though the Disney speech is just a mite different.  The measure passed by only five votes (102-97).  Crockett is portrayed as wearing a buckskin outfit which is not what he wore in Washington.  The picture of him in Part 2 shows the type of clothing he normally wore.
And here is the climax of Davy Crockett At The Alamo which shows Davy atop the north wall with the screen fading out as he's swinging his musket.  He's wearing a coonskin cap but as far as we know David Crockett did not wear coonskin caps at all, though it appears Davy Crockett did.   It also shows Bowie's death, though being debilitated by illness it's an open question whether he was conscious of what was going on around him by that time. The Alamo you see is much smaller than the real thing which had a three-acre open plaza in the middle.
As far as historical accuracy some of the basic framework of the Crockett story is right and the series pays attention to the self-awareness of Crockett and his friend about the propagation of the myth of Davy Crockett but overall it's not very accurate, though not nearly as awful as They Died With Their Boots On, the 1941 George Armstrong Custer biopic starring Errol Flynn.

In 1960 came The Alamo, directed by John Wayne, who also starred as Davy Crockett.  Co-starring Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey as William Travis the film was a commercial failure and deservedly so.   While Wayne made many classic movies this is definitely not one of them.  Both as history and movie it is terrible.

The scene below shows the end of the battle and Crockett's death.  Like the Disney series, The Alamo shows the attack taking place in full daylight while in reality it started in pitch darkness at 5am and ended as the sun was rising.  Once again Crockett is inaccurately shown wearing buckskins and a coonskin cap.  Unlike the Disney series it does show Crockett in the area of the Alamo we think most likely to have been his post but it also has him blowing himself up by putting a torch to the powder magazine which is completely fanciful.  Jim Bowie is seen dying on a bed that is placed outside while he was actually confined to his room, dying and delirious.  Pretty much everything that happens earlier in the movie is also wrong. [NOTE: The sound doesn't work quite right on this clip but it doesn't make any difference!] 


The next attempt to show the battle in a movie was The Alamo (2004).  Originally intended as a $200 million budget blockbuster, with Ron Howard directing, it was scaled back to a $100 million budget and directed by John Lee Hancock, a Texas native and one of the screenwriters.  Starring Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, Jason Patric as Bowie, Patrick Wilson as Travis, Dennis Quaid as Houston and Emilio Echevarria as Santa Anna it was another box office disaster.

THC has a soft spot for the 2004 movie.  Unlike Wayne's version it is somber, not stirring. It's uneven, some scenes sit there inert amidst clumps of clumsy dialogue, Quaid is lousy as Houston (the movie ends with the battle of San Jacinto) and Santa Anna is treated as a cardboard clown, but at the same time there are some very moving and subtle scenes, sparkling passages of dialogue (Travis and Bowie talking near the end, Crockett telling of his Indian fighting days around the campfire), Patric and Wilson are well-cast, the Mexican attack starts in the darkness and as history it is pretty well done; the sets and costumes are accurate and some of the ethnic complexities of the times are captured, particularly in the portrayal of Juan Seguin, a tejano who supported the revolution (though several years later he fled to Mexico as Anglo intolerance increased).  Most of all Thornton is just wonderful as Crockett, capturing David's awareness that he's also Davy Crockett and his ambivalence about it, at times reveling in playing the role and at other times feeling trapped by Davy.  At one point he tells Bowie:
If it was just me, simple old David from Tennessee, I might drop over that wall and take my chances but that Davy Crockett fella, they're all watching him.
This is the somewhat overwrought trailer:
This clip shows events on February 23 when Bowie's attempt to parley was interrupted by Travis' cannon shot.  In the scene you can see that Bowie seems familiar with General Castrillon which is an accurate portrayal.  When he came to Texas, Bowie married into one of the oldest and wealthiest Tejano families in San Antonio and he knew many senior Mexican officials.  His wife and most of her family died of fever leaving Bowie devastated.  The movie portrays him as a fatalistic and morose figure.
The most controversial scene in the movie is Crockett's death.  At the end of the prior scene we've seen Crockett and a few of his surviving men retreat into the church as Mexican soldiers overwhelm their position; the Mexicans charge and David and his men brace themselves.  The screen goes black and then suddenly we are in daylight.  This is the first time a version resembling the de la Pena account has been shown on screen.  The filmmakers do a good job meshing the David and Davy aspects together (you can hear Crockett muttering to himself "Davy Crockett" as he realizes he must play the role one last time).   It still wasn't enough for some folks who were outraged that Davy was not seen going down fighting but for THC who admires Crockett and thinks that something along the lines of de la Pena account is likely true it's a thumbs up.





Friday, December 12, 2014

Remember (My Visit To) The Alamo! (Part 2)

For Part 1 go here.

Part 2:  What About Davy Crockett?

Sam Houston didn't want a battle, believing San Antonio de Bexar was too isolated from the other Texian settlements and the Alamo indefensible with the small force at hand; the strategy of the commander of the Texian army was to lure Santa Anna deep into Texas, away from his supply lines buying him time to train and create a disciplined Texian army.  In January 1836 he sent James Bowie (b. 1796) to remove the cannon from the Alamo and bring them back to his growing army though he gave Bowie some discretion to act as he saw fit.
http://www.sanjacinto-museum.org/images/2013/commanders/SantaAnna-Large.png(Santa Anna from San Jacinto Museum)

With the exception of Santa Anna, none of the senior Mexican officers wanted a battle at the Alamo, believing that their advance should be along the Gulf coast of Texas and that the inland town of San Antonio was a strategic dead end.  Unfortunately, only Santa Anna's opinion counted.  And then having arrived in San Antonio, they believed Santa Anna's decision to attack an isolated position held by a small number of rebels instead of either leaving it under siege with a small force and proceeding with the bulk of the army deeper into Texas or, in the alternative, waiting a couple of days until their heavy artillery reached San Antonio, artillery which could knock down the walls of the Alamo and force the garrison to surrender, was an unjustified waste of the lives of their soldiers.

Bowie was returning to the town he'd first settled in when he came to Texas in 1830 having left Louisiana in the wake of a huge land fraud in which he played a leading role in, a fraud which triggered decades of property disputes in what became the state of Arkansas.  Bowie had achieved regional notoriety in 1827, after the bloody Sandbar Fight outside of Natchez, Mississippi in which he'd been badly wounded while killing another man with his famed Bowie knife.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/68/Jimbowie.jpg(Bowie; Wikipedia)
On February 3, Bowie was joi,ned in San Antonio by William Barret Travis (b. 1809), a lieutenant colonel in the new Texas army who brought eighteen soldiers with him.  Travis arrived in Texas in 1831, abandoning a wife, young child and failing law practice back in Alabama.  Unlike Bowie, he was an early and fervent advocate for Texas independence and his impetuous actions at the coastal town of Anhuac nearly triggered the revolution in 1832 before cooler heads prevailed.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a1/William_B._Travis_by_Wiley_Martin.JPG(Travis; Wikipedia)
Travis and Bowie agreed they should defend the Alamo, but quarreled over command eventually arriving at a tenuous agreement to share it.  The delicate nature of the arrangement was demonstrated when Bowie tried to parley with the Mexicans upon their arrival in San Antonio, a meeting disrupted by a cannon shot ordered by Travis.

Bowie, Travis and David Crockett (b. 1786) ascended into legend with their deaths at the Alamo (for a good combined biography of the three read Three Roads To The Alamo by William C Davis).  We have a pretty good idea how the first two perished.  Bowie, immobilized and delirious, likely with typhoid fever, was killed in his bed while Travis was shot in the head early in the fight while directing fire from the cannon on the north wall.  But what about Crockett, who in 1836 was the only nationally known figure at the Alamo?
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/David_Crockett.jpg(David Crockett; Wikipedia)

When David Crockett (he called himself David, not Davy) rode into San Antonio on February 8, he was a former three term U.S. Congressman from Tennessee, who after being defeated in the last election declared "You can all go to Hell, I'm going to Texas" and set out to establish a new life.  On his ride to Texas he was joined by about 30 friends and adventurers.  Arriving after the revolution  started he found that land grants were available for those joining the rebel forces.  He and his compatriots quickly signed up.

Crockett though, was more than just a former Congressman.  He was the first popular folk character from America's west, and its most nationally known figure, other than Andrew Jackson.  David Crockett, born poor, a frontiersman, hunter and scout went into politics, initially as an ally of Andrew Jackson, and later as his fierce opponent over the issues of the distribution of federal lands and on the removal of the Indian tribes from the southeast, a policy Crockett opposed, being the only Congressman in the southeast to vote against the removal, about which he wrote, "I believe it was a wicked, unjust measure".

The character Davy Crockett, after arriving in Washington in 1827, quickly became known for his entertaining storytelling and anecdotes and was converted into a figure of popular entertainment around whom myths and legends grew.  Many plays were staged with Davy or a thinly disguised version of him as the centerpiece, the most popular of which, Lion Of The West, premiered in New York City.  From 1835 through 1841 Davy Crockett's Almanack was published and in 1834 Crockett added to his renown with the publication of A Narrative Of The Life Of David Crockett, Written By Himself which became a best seller and sparked a nationwide speaking tour (Crockett was particularly popular in New England).http://blog.nyhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Crockett_1837_32.jpg(From NY Historical Society)
Of Crockett's actions during the siege, which began on February 23, we have little information; on the 25th Travis wrote in a message carried to Houston "The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points,
animating the men to do their duty", and Susannah Dickinson (of whom, more below) remembered  Crockett playing his fiddle to entertain the garrison.  Did Crockett, who by rank was only a private, play a significant role in planning the defense and leading the men during the siege?  It is impossible to know but the very limited evidence is suggestive, given that after the first two days Bowie was incapacitated with fever and Crockett was a famous and popular figure two decades older than Travis.

Our best information, from early in the siege, is that Crockett and his men were stationed behind a hastily erected wooden palisade fence that ran at an angle from the southwest corner of the Alamo mission church to the start of the south wall, making it a particularly vulnerable spot if attacked.  In the darkness of early morning on March 6, the Mexican assault breached the north and south walls first and then swept across the open plaza as some of the surviving Texians retreated into the Long Barracks.  The last  rebels left out in the open would likely have been Crockett and his men near the church.  Did they die fighting by the palisade?  Did some try to seek refuge in the church?  Had they moved their post by then?  Did Crockett move from the palisade and towards the north wall when Travis was killed early in the fight? Or were Crockett and some of his men among the up to 60 Texians who may have tried to escape by going over the walls near the palisade only to be cut down on the open prairie by the mounted Mexican lancers waiting for them?
(The palisade at which Crockett and his men were stationed started at the right side of the front of the Alamo mission church)
(Mark Churms painting giving good idea of relative placement of wooden palisade and Alamo church)

What are our sources for the end of the Alamo?  There are several Mexican ones, of which more below.  We also have accounts of various riders sent out with messages from the Alamo before March 3 and the stories of the few civilian survivors spared by Santa Ana, the most prominent of which were Joe, William Travis' slave, and Susannah Dickinson, wife of one of the defenders.  Joe's account was that he was with Travis until he was killed at which time he went into the church, joining Dickinson.  Both Joe and Dickinson reported that as they were being escorted out after the fighting ended they saw Crockett's body near the church, surrounded by dead Mexican soldiers.  It remains unclear how long after the fighting ended they left the church and observed the carnage outside, but their observations are consistent both with Crockett dying in combat or being executed at the end of the battle.

After that it gets murkier.  The best account THC found is Sleuthing The Alamo by James E Crisp, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, from which the summary below is drawn except as noted otherwise.  As a side note, Sleuthing The Alamo is an outstanding way to learn about how historians do their job.  Crisp takes the controversy around Crockett's death along with an alleged racist speech by Sam Houston and brings you along for the ride as he traces the origins of various stories and documents, going back to the primary sources to get to the truth.  It's a short, but very illuminating book written in an engaging personal and non-academic style.

Within a short time of the fall of the Alamo various stories were in circulation about the fate of Crockett with some newspapers reporting he went down fighting, others that he was captured and executed and a couple even reporting his escape!

Before we review those accounts there are two other events to give some context.
  • On March 27 the Mexican army massacred about 350 Texians at the coastal town of Goliad.  These soldiers had surrendered a few days earlier under a promise of clemency.  The local Mexican commander, General Urrea, protested vigorously against the execution order from Santa Anna, who sent an officer from Bexar to oversee the killing.
  • At San Jacinto on April 21, 1836 Sam Houston defeated a detachment of the Mexican army capturing several hundred men, including Santa Anna and other senior commanders, most of whom were imprisoned on Galveston Island until their return to Mexico.
As early as March 11 news reached the Texian army in Gonzales about the end at the Alamo.  On that same day Sam Houston wrote a letter stating "After the fort was carried, seven men surrendered and called for Santa Anna and quarter.  They were murdered by his order."

The June 9, 1836 edition of the New York Courier and Enquirer carried a letter from a correspondent in Galveston Bay who purported to convey an account from an eye witness:
After the Mexicans had got possession of the Alamo, the fighting had ceased, and it was clear day light, six Americans were discovered near the wall yet unconquered, and who were instantly surrounded and ordered by General Castrillon [a senior Mexican commander] to surrender, and who did so under a promise of his protection, finding resistance any longer in vain - indeed, perfect madness - Castrillon was brave and not cruel, and disposed to save them.  He marched them up to that part of the fort where stood "his Excellency" [Santa Anna] . . . David Crockett was one of the six. The steady fearless step and undaunted tread, together with the bold demeanor of this hardy veteran -"his firmness and noble bearing", to give the words of the narrator, had a most powerful effect on himself and Castrillon . . . Castrillon addressed "his Excellency" - "Sir, here are six prisoners I have taken alive; how shall I dispose of them?"  Santa Anna looked at Castrillon fiercely, flew into a most violent rage, and replied "Have I not told you before how to dispose of them?  Why do you bring them to me?"  At the same time his brave officers drew and plunged their swords into the bosoms of their defenceless prisoners!! 
Sergeant George Dolson served as an interpreter with the Texian army on Galveston Island.  On July 18, his superior officer asked him to attend the deposition of an unnamed Mexican officer.  The next day he wrote a letter to his brother in Michigan in which he described what happened; a letter published by the Detroit Democratic Free Press in September (though no written record of the deposition has been found).  Dolson wrote of the Mexican officer:
He states that on the morning the Alamo was captured, between the hours of five and six o'clock, General Castrillon, who fell at the battle of San Jacinto, entered the back room of the Alamo, and there found Crockett and five other Americans, who had defended it until defence was useless. They appeared very much agitated when the Mexican soldiers undertook to rush in after their General, but the humane General ordered his men to keep out, and, placing his hand on one breast, said "here is a hand and a heart to protect you; come with me to the General-in-Chief, and you shall be saved." . . . The brave but unfortunate men were marched to the tent of Santa Anna.  Colonel Crockett was in the rear, had his arms folded, and appeared bold as the lion as he passed my informant.  Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett, and said to my informant, "the one behind is the famous Crockett".  When brought in the presence of Santa Anna, Castrillon said to him, "Santa Anna, the august, I deliver up to you six brave prisoners of war."  Santa Anna replied, "who has given you orders to take prisoners, I do not want to see those men living - shoot them."  As the monster uttered these words each officer turned his face the other way, and the hellhounds of the tyrant dispatched the six in his presence, and within six feet of his person.
These stories of survivors being executed after the battle are also consistent with an account published in Mexico City in 1837 by Ramon Martinez Caro, Santa Anna's personal secretary during the Texas campaign (though it does not mention Crockett):
Among the 183 killed there were five who were discovered by General Castrillon hiding after the assault. He took them immediately to the presence of His Excellency who had come up by this time.  When he presented the prisoners he was severely reprimanded for not having killed them on the spot, after which [Santa Anna] turned his back upon Castrillon while the soldiers stepped out of their ranks and set upon the prisoners until they were killed . . . We all witnessed this outrage which humanity condemns but which was committed as described.  This is a cruel truth, but I cannot omit it.
Caro had been imprisoned at Galveston.  Could he have been the source for the Dolson letter?

Throughout the rest of the century and into the middle of the 20th there continued to be parallel stories of Crockett going down fighting, along with those of his being executed.  The giant 1905 painting in the Texas Capital showed him swinging a musket as the Mexican soldiers closed in.  At http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/alamo/crockett-alamo.jpgnearly the same time Teddy Roosevelt described Crockett's last minutes in his 1895 book, Hero Tales From American History (as quoted in Crisp's book):
. . . the last man stood at bay.  It was old Davy Crockett.  Wounded in a dozen places, he faced his foes with his back to the wall, ringed around by the bodies of the men he had slain.  So desperate was the fight he waged, that the Mexicans who thronged round him were beaten back for the moment, and no one dared to run in upon him.  Accordingly . . . the musketeers loaded their carbines and shot him down.  Santa Anna declined to give him mercy.  Some say that when Crockett fell from his wounds, he was taken alive, and was then shot by Santa Anna's order; but his fate cannot be told with certainty, for not a single American was left alive.
And as Crisp points out, as late as 1934 the frontispiece of the popular book The Adventures of Davy Crockett was a painting of a bound Crockett being brought to Santa Anna (below). 
It was in 1955 that two events happened that transformed the Crockett story.  One had an immediate impact; the other was a time bomb that would detonate two decades later.

The first was the broadcast of Walt Disney's three part series, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier which transfixed the American public, including 4-year old THC.  The series ended with Davy fighting to the end against the Mexican attackers (we'll have more on the Disney show in Part 3 of this series).  Disney established a contemporary image in our minds of an heroic Davy who would never surrender, and it was an image we liked.

The second was the publication in Mexico City of the diary of Jose Enrique de la Pena by Jesus Sanchez Garza.  De la Pena (1807-40), a Colonel in the Mexican army, was present at the Alamo.  How the diary (or more properly an account based upon diary entries) came into Garza's hands has never been determined.  The publication received little notice in the United States at the time, but controversy about it exploded in 1975 when an English translation by Carmen Perry was published.  THC recently read a 1997 edition of the translation with an introduction by Professor Crisp,  published as With Santa Anna In Texas.

Let's see what de la Pena wrote about Crockett and then we'll talk about the context, which is extremely important in understanding his document. On second thought, let's first note another Mexican memoir that was first published in 1966.  Lieutenant Colonel Jose Juan Sanchez Navarro briefly mentions the attack: "by six-thirty in the morning not a single enemy existed . . . some cruelties horrified me among them the death of an oldster whom they called Cocran".  While there was a defender named Robert Cochran he was only twenty six years old.  Could Navarro have been referring to Crockett who would have turned 50 that year and was one of the oldest Texians in the Alamo?La guerra de Tejas; memorias de un soldado(Briscoe Center for American History, U of Texas)

And what does de la Pena say?
Some seven men had survived the general carnage and, under the protection of General Castrillon, they were brought before Santa Ana.  Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face there was the imprint of adversity, but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor.  He was the naturalist David Croket, well known in North America for his unusual adventures, who had undertaken to explore the country and who finding himself in Bejar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected.  Santa Anna answered Castrillon's intervention with a gesture of indignation and, addressing himself to the sappers, the troops closest to him, ordered that they shoot them.  The commanders and officers were outraged at this action and did not support the order, hoping that once the fury of the moment had blown over these men would be spared; but several officers who were around the president and who, perhaps, had not been present during the moment of danger, became noteworthy by an infamous deed, surpassing the soldiers in cruelty. They thrust themselves forward, in order to flatter their commander, and with swords in hand, fell upon these unfortunate, defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey.  Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.  It was rumored that General Sesma was one of them; I will not bear witness to this, for though present, I turned away horrified in order not to witness such a barbarous scene. . .  I confess that the very memory of it makes me tremble and that my ear can still hear the penetrating, doleful sound of the victims.
Close-up of the top of the José Enrique de la Peña Narrative Top(Section of the de la Pena manuscript mentioning "Croket" in fifth line)

The 1975 publication found fertile ground in the turmoil of that decade in America, and set off heated debate between those, including revisionist historians, who delightedly took it as proof that the beloved American hero was a sniveling coward and used the diary's claims as part of a more general attack on American values and traditions, and those who insisted that an American hero like Crockett would have fought to the death rather than surrender and that de la Pena's claims must therefore be fraudulent and his supporters, by definition, anti-American.  In fact, a debate over the legitimacy of the diary and of de la Pena's writings about Crockett continues to this day, though it probably peaked in the 1990s.

Taking the account on its face, why would de la Pena, who by 1837 was in prison, write it?  His purpose was not to write an account of Crockett or even of the Alamo.  The edition THC read is about 190 pages of which less than one page contains the Crockett account and the entire attack is covered in just twelve pages. De la Pena's account is intended as a denunciation of Santa Anna and some of his senior commanders who, in his view, neglected the welfare of their soldiers and conducted a strategically foolish campaign resulting in the loss of Texas.  The very reason he was in jail was for participating in a failed rebellion against Santa Anna's government.

His introduction reveals to us an angry and anguished young man:
. . . the accumulation of lies told to falsify the events, . . . the ignorance, stupidity, and cruelty displayed by the ministry and the commander in chief in this war . . . the honor and self-esteem of every military man who participated, so deeply hurt by the great inaccuracies in official records as to dates, deeds and places; and above all the honor of the country, deeply compromised by its leaders and no less by the truth and the atrocity of its crimes - these are the principal causes which compelled me to publish the diary . . .

The infamies that have occurred in this campaign, infamies that must have horrified the civilized world and whose memory will continue to provoke pain for many years hence, should not remain hidden.  In referring to them, I shall thrust aside my personal feelings, and my friends will cease to be friends from the moment that I publish the evils committed against my country and the deeps perpetrated against humanity.
De la Pena is scathing about the lack of preparation for the march into Texas and Santa Anna's strategy of dividing his army instead of concentrating it for an advance up the coast, but his anger reaches a fever pitch when writing of what he, and other officers, believed was a completely unnecessary attack on the Alamo (he writes of the Mexican commanders having information that Travis would have surrendered if no relief came from Houston's army within the next two days), leaving many soldiers dead and hundreds wounded who suffered terribly without any medical treatment because of Santa Anna's failure to bring doctors and medical supplies with the army.  Above all, he was horrified by the killing of the Alamo survivors and the massacre at Goliad, a horror shared by many other officers.  De la Pena believed it was a criminal act that dishonored the army and was also counterproductive, since it incited even more resistance by the Texian rebels who knew their only alternatives were to win or die.  He was a Mexican patriot who condemned the Texas rebellion and believed it could have been defeated while still referring frequently to the bravery of the rebels and of their fair and honorable treatment of Mexican prisoners. From his perspective the purpose of telling the tale of the death of Crockett and his fellow survivors was to show how despicable Santa Anna was, and his description of their deaths is followed with this lament:
To whom was this sacrifice useful and what advantage was derived by increasing the number of victims? It was paid for dearly, though it could have been otherwise had these men been required to walk across the floor carpeted with the bodies over which we stepped, had they been rehabilitated generously and required to communicate to their comrades the fate that awaited them if they did not desist from their unjust cause. They could have informed their comrades of the force and resources that the enemy had.
http://www.rationalsys.com/images/parkville9.JPG
As just one example of the objections of the Mexican commanders to Santa Anna's death decrees, we have the consistent account of the actions of General Manuel Fernandez Castrillon, who protested not only the killing of the survivors at the Alamo but also the order to massacre the Goliad prisoners.  Castrillon, once a close ally of Santa Anna, grew disenchanted with him and was killed at San Jacinto where many of the Texians remarked on his bravery.  Castrillon was buried nearby at the plantation of his friend Lorenzo de Zavala, the tejano Vice-President of the newly proclaimed Texas Republic,

Jose Enrique de la Pena died in 1840 at the age of 33 before he could publish his broadside about the loss of Texas.  Santa Anna (1794-1876) was president of Mexico eleven different times from 1833 through 1855 during which he lost not only Texas ,but the entire northern territory of his country to the United States during the Mexican War (1846-8).  In one of his many periods of exile from Mexico he lived on Staten Island, New York for several years.
  
Some of those who have contested the authenticity of the de la Pena papers have raised valid points, which have triggered further fascinating research (you can get a sense of the back and forth by reading this).  One of the most instructive lessons for THC has been about the limitations of relying on translations of materials originally written in other languages.  It turns out that several points of apparent contradiction in the English version of de la Pena's work disappear when one goes back to the original Spanish, and that a previously unknown document written by de la Pena and located at Yale University in 1994 provides additional corroboration for his story.  While THC does not think the question has been resolved 100% (for instance, de la Pena's account of the death of Travis is inconsistent with other evidence) his judgement is that, on balance, the evidence favors the authenticity of the diary and of his account of the Alamo. While we will never know for certain the exact circumstances it is likely that David Crockett was among those executed at the end of the battle, though Davy Crockett seems to live on.

NEXT:  PART 3  The Alamo In TV And Movies




 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Remember (My Visit To) The Alamo! (Part 1)



In late October, THC visited the Alamo in San Antonio, where in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, between 182 and 253 Texians and American volunteers (the most prominent being David Crockett of Tennessee), under the command of William Travis and David Bowie, died in an assault by about 1,600 Mexican soldiers (of whom about 400 were killed or wounded) under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had laid siege to the Alamo for 13 days.  This was not the first time the Alamo had been captured in the fight for Texas independence which began on October 2, 1835.  The first time was on December 10, 1835 and it was a Mexican army unit which surrendered the Alamo!

The origins of the Texas revolution are still hotly debated, and the controversies deserve a post of their own, so for now THC will stick with a brief and very simplified summary.  Mexicans fought their own long war for independence from Spain from 1810 to 1821.  In 1824, a new Mexican Republic established a federal system in which the individual states had considerable autonomy.  That same year saw Mexico grant rights to Stephen Austin to establish a colony of American settlers in the Tejas section of the state of Coahuila y Tejas which included modern day Texas, as well as the Monclova and Saltillo regions of northern Mexico.  The new settlers had to pledge allegiance to Mexico and declare themselves to be Catholics.  Over the next decade thousands of settlers poured into the sparsely populated Tejas while Mexico underwent governmental turmoil and frequent changes in administration, all centered around disputes between factions supporting a federal republic and advocates of a centralized state, while at the same time the governments in Mexico City became more leery of the influx of Americans banning further immigration into Tejas in 1830, a ban that was mostly ignored. 

In 1834, federalists supported by General Santa Anna came into power but he reneged on his promises and the following year abolished the 1824 Constitution, imposing a centralized regime in its place.  In response, several Mexican states rebelled, including Coahuila y Tejas and indeed over the next several years three attempts were made to set up new independent republics, two of which failed (Republic of the Rio Grande and Republic of Yucatan) and one succeeded, the Republic of Texas.  All of this occurred as many of the Texas settlers were agitating to join the United States whose president, Andrew Jackson, had already tried unsuccessfully to purchase it from Mexico (for more see Sam Houston: The Raven).

By 1835 Texas may have contained 30-40,000 "Anglo" settlers, 7,000 Tejanos (of Mexican/Spanish origin) with the largest concentration in San Antonio de Bexar, and 5,000 slaves.  While the rebels were predominantly Anglo, they were joined by many Tejanos who objected to Santa Anna's dictatorship.

When war broke out in October 1835, a Texian militia force was raised and moved on San Antonio de Bexar, which housed a substantial Mexican army garrison.  After a prolonged siege of the town and then several days of house to house fighting beginning on December 5, the Mexican commander, General Cos and his 400 men took refuge in the Alamo.  Realizing it was indefensible Cos surrendered on December 10 and he and his men were allowed to leave upon pledging they would not fight again against the Texians.  They left behind 15 cannon.

With the Mexican army gone from Texas, the rebels set about trying to establish a regular army to resist the expected attempt by Santa Anna to reconquer the state the following spring, but Santa Anna moved quicker than expected, assembling an army (including Cos and his troops) and advancing in mid-winter.  His troops were poorly prepared for the harsh weather, and it is a tribute to their hardiness and determination that they were able to continue their march through a heavy snow storm and record cold, with many dying in the terrible conditions.  An advance guard marched into San Antonio on February 23, surprising the rebels and forcing them to quickly abandon the town and move into the Alamo without having made adequate provision for a siege.

The Alamo was originally built in 1717 as a Catholic mission to encourage the conversion of the Indians.  By 1800 it had been abandoned and after that was periodically occupied by soldiers during the Mexican War of Independence and thereafter.  Though walled, it was not built for defence against trained military forces and artillery, and much of it had crumbled into disrepair by 1835.

Visiting the Alamo today can be deceptive for the casual visitor.  All that remains of the mission is the church itself and part of what is known as the Long Barracks.  The walls that enclosed the open plaza in front of the church are gone, as well as all of the other structures along and within the walls ,making it difficult to visualize what it looked like in the 1830s.  And even what we see of the church is misleading.  At the time of the battle the church was a wreck without a roof and the distinctive "hump" in the middle of the roof front that most of us still instinctively associated with the battle.

Many visitors see the wall around and behind the current church and assume that it was the wall of the Alamo in 1835-6, but that wall did not exist at the time.  Below are three renderings of the Alamo as it existed back then, superimposed on the San Antonio of today, which give a good idea of the extent of the open plaza inside its walls.  The west wall of the Alamo lies in part under the Ripley's Believe It or Not, much of the north wall beneath a courthouse and post office, while the south wall is under the open plaza.  The extent of the walls and the plaza made defense with a mere 200 men impossible; at least double that number would have been required to successfully hold the Alamo against the well-trained Mexican army.

http://i101.photobucket.com/albums/m79/CAR101_2006/alamoarchaeology-1.jpg(from alamo studies)





http://www.taliesyn.com/ralph/images/alamo/Alamo_plaza_plan_with_new_buildings.jpg
 (from taliesyn.com)

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_e6Mfzl0BmZQ/TTkzfYuNZII/AAAAAAAAAlI/eCtbhpVpQ54/s1600/historical_map_alamo.gif(from hiddenvalleyrv)

PIX FROM THC VISIT

Taken from position of the South Wall.
From the West Wall.  Gives a sense of the scale of the open plaza between the walls and the Mission Church.
Monument to the Alamo defenders in the plaza
Ripley's on top of where the West Wall stood.
The Long Barracks.  This is where the last defenders held out.  There was hand to hand fighting in the darkness of the rooms in the barracks.
For Part 2:  What Happened To Davy Crockett go here
For Part 3:  The Alamo In TV And Movies go here

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

20 Feet From Stardom

Last night THC went to his local library (for the first time!) to see a screening of 20 Feet From Stardom, a 2013 film which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  The film's theme is that the difference between being a backup and a star is not just about the 20 feet onstage, it's about a leap that is often not directly related to talent.  Chronicling the careers of a slew of rock n roll backup singers from the early 1960s to today (and they still sound great today) it's a lot of fun to watch. The film includes interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow and Bette Midler and clips of many performers including David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner and Luther Vandross but the heart of the film is its focus on four singers.
https://rockhall.com/media/assets/inductees/default/darlene-love.pnghttp://i.huffpost.com/gen/1616421/thumbs/o-DARLENE-LOVE-facebook.jpg(photos from rockhall.com and huffington post)

Darlene Love was an uncredited voice on many of Phil Spector's huge hits of the early 1960s.  She did the lead vocals on She's A Rebel and Da Doo Run Run which were credited to The Crystals though they did not sing on the recordings as well as Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).  As part of the backup group The Blossoms she sang backup on a ton of other hit songs including Be My Baby by the Ronettes, Monster Mash by Bobby Pickett, That's Life by Frank Sinatra and appeared with Elvis Presley in his 1968 TV comeback special.  After briefly retiring from the business she returned in the 1980s and was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.  And she played Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon series!

You may not know the name Merry Clayton but you know her voice.  She sang with Jagger on Gimme Shelter, a performance that everyone who's heard the song, then and now, remembers.  In the clip below she tells the funny story behind the making of the song.  About two minutes in you can hear her unaccompanied solo part and it'll give you chills.  Mick Jagger is also in the segment along with another woman who turns out to be Gloria Jones who we wrote about in Tainted Love.

She sang with Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles and Carole King among others.  Merry also sang on Sweet Home Alabama, another good story told in the film.  Sadly, Clayton was very seriously injured in a terrible car crash in June 2014 and faces a long and difficult recovery.
http://www.thefancarpet.com/uploaded_assets/images/news/_98023_Medium.jpghttp://media.tumblr.com/6db00a9c9e0f45a78ce476f82b1745e2/tumblr_ml0ictKY1n1sn7wjto1_500.jpg(photos from fancarpet.com and film)

The Stones wrote Brown Sugar for Claudia Lennear and, as we learn from the movie, she and Jagger had a thing.  From the late 60s to through the mid-70s she sang with Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Dave Mason, David Bowie, Humble Pie, Gene Clark, Taj Mahal, Al Kooper, Delaney & Bonnie and Ike & Tina Turner.  After a try at a solo career failed she left music, got a college degree in French literature and art history and now teaches French, Spanish, English and remedial math at a community college.  You can hear her sing at this link.

The revelation for THC was Lisa Fischer.  She started as a backup singer with Luther Vandross, had a brief solo career and since 1989 has been the female vocalist on every Rolling Stones tour.  She can rock with anyone but can also do gorgeous subtle intonations and listening to her singing acapella is a stunning experience.  All of these singers were wonderful but she was celestial.  You can watch her sing solo at a screening of 20 Feet here and this is her solo hit How Can I Ease The Pain:
Here she is with the Stones doing Gimme Shelter in concert.  The clip drags along until Lisa moves upstage with Mick around 2:45.
She's still singing with the Stones - this is Lisa in concert with them this past summer.

And finally this is her own haunting interpretation of Gimme Shelter from a performance in Brooklyn in August 2014.



Saturday, December 6, 2014

I'm Not Like Everybody Else

A great, great rock song from the B side of the 1966 single Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks, their last US hit until Lola in 1970 (which, with the lyric "I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola" raised the eternal question; was Lola glad or a man?).  For more on what happened to The Kinks during those four years see Kinkdom.

For the youngsters out there 45 rpm records used to come out with an A side (with the hope that the disc jockeys would play it and make it a hit) and a B side, usually a throwaway tune because you had to have something on the other side of the 45 and often not included in the followup album if the A side became a hit.  The only exception in the 60s were The Beatles who often had both sides become hits (see Beatles/Stones Face Off).

THC remembers buying Sunny Afternoon, taking it home and listening to it a few times and then turning it over to see what the B side sounded like.   From the first 30 seconds he was hooked and played it repeatedly.  The song became unexpectedly popular with fans of The Kinks (admittedly a pretty small group at the time) and over the years became a highlight of the band's stage shows.  It's been covered by many other artists over years and was even played over the closing credits in an episode of The Sopranos.

At the meta level it is also interesting to think about how The Kinks (and Dave and Ray Davies in their solo careers) have made the song a singalong in their concerts.  It is a little unnerving to see hundreds or thousands of people chanting in unison "I'm not like everybody else"; who are they referring to?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Cannon Fried Shrimp

Looking to make something new for your holiday guests?  Try this:
(via Gawker)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Unbroken

http://collider.com/wp-content/uploads/unbroken-movie-jack-oconnell.jpg
Last night THC and the Mrs attended a pre-release screening at Yale of Unbroken, a new movie directed by Angelina Jolie which will have its premiere on Christmas Day.  THC was a huge fan of Unbroken and of Laura Hillenbrand's previous book Seabiscuit.  Hillenbrand is not a great writer but she is a gifted story teller and in the saga of the improbable comeback of a broken down race horse and the tale of a famous, but today forgotten, young athlete and his journey of survival, struggle and redemption she found wonderful stories to tell.

[A caveat on the comments below; it has been reported that the movie studio is re-editing the film so THC cannot confirm that what we saw is the version that will be released]

Though we went to the screening with great expectations we left disappointed.  The movie looks great but the storytelling choices made by the director and screenwriters, who include the Coen brothers, drained the power from Zamperini's story as told in the book.  In Hillenbrand's book, the journey of Louis Zamperini is one of immense suffering and survival followed by redemption and forgiveness.  The movie portrays the suffering and survival in excruciating and agonizing detail (Zamperini survived 47 days drifting in the Pacific after his B-24 bomber crashed and then two years of beatings and torture in Japanese POW camps during WWII) but skimps on the redemption part of the story by ending the film at a point well before the book does.  That painstaking and painful detail  works well in the book but in the film it is just too much, particularly when not balanced with the other major themes that Hillenbrand draws from Zamperini's life story.  Admittedly THC thought that Unbroken would be difficult to adapt to the screen but the filmmakers resolved those difficulties in a way that left us feeling flat at the movie's conclusion because by merely telling us of his redemption through serving God rather than showing us they surrendered the greatest asset of film making which is its ability to emotionally connect with the audience through the power of showing us.

Along with truncating the post-war part of Zamperelli's story it also simplifies his pre-war life when he was America's best long-distance runner and more importantly only shows flashes of his personality which is an important element in Hillenbrand's book.  None of these comments are meant to detract from Angelina Jolie's intentions in making the movie and it is clear from looking at the background to the making of the movie that she loved and admired Louis Zamperini.  Making a movie from a non-fiction book is difficult and often much is lost in the translation.  For a model of how to do it well see Peter Weir's adaption of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels in Master And Commander.

It may also be that the post-war recovery and transformation of Zamperini (who died earlier this year at the age of 97) is just too difficult for Hollywood to handle today since his transformative experience came about through attending the Billy Graham crusade but for whatever reason the way the film ends up as a compelling, but long and grueling, story of survival and perserverance but without the striking inspirational and spiritual aspects which Hillenbrand told so well. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ending Income Inequality & Climate Change

You ask and THC answers!  We handle the Big Questions here at Things Have Changed.

According to recent research by Experts:
. . . assortative mating has a role to play in household income inequality. Empirically, it has been found that the proportion of couples who share the same level of schooling has been growing over the past few decades. This has been accompanied by a rise in household income inequality.
Assortative mating is when people of similar economic and/or educational background marry each other and the rate at which this is occurring in our society is increasing.  In conjunction with the rise of children living in single-parent households over the past 40 years it is the major contributor to inequality.

At the same time other Experts have determine that divorce is a major contributor to the warming of the planet and the destruction of the Earth's resources.  According to a study reported by the Washington Post individuals post-divorce use between 42% and 61% more water and electricity than when they lived together and according to the UN State of the World Population Report (2009) "a divorce may cause more carbon dioxide emissions than an additional birth".

In addition we know that health outcomes are better for married couples as well as for children not raised in single family homes and controlling our country's rocketing health costs is extremely important, particularly now that the government is paying for more of such care.

Given this data the solution seems obvious.  The President needs to propose and Congress should enact a law declaring that urgent need to reduce income inequality and end the risk of dangerous global warming requires national action.  In order to meet these needs the President and the relevant executive branch actions would be authorized to take certain actions:
  • At 18 every citizen will be assigned a mate for purposes of marriage.  The process used will be developed by the same folks responsible for developing the algorithm under the President's recent Electoral Reform Proposal.  The algorithm will be designed to maximize marriages across economic and educational levels taking into account race, ethnicity, sex and gender.
  • Divorce laws be will nationalized and grounds for divorce will be strictly limited in order to minimize its environmental impact.
  • In those limited circumstances where divorce is permitted, the divorced parties will be given three choices:
           (i)   Assignment to live in a group home until such time as they are married again
          (ii)  Accept a new marriage partner as assigned to them by the algorithm
         (iii) Individuals may remain single and not live in a group home if they purchase the proper       regulatory determined amount of certified Carbon Offset Credits.

Now that we've solved that what's next?

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dream Of Scipio


Unsettling was the word his friend used to describe the book.  THC agreed that unsettling was a good word. The Dream of Scipio (2002) is unsettling from its opening sentences, "Julien Barneuve died at 3:28 on the afternoon of August 18, 1943.  It had taken him twenty-three minutes exactly to die, the time between the fire starting and his last breath being sucked into his scorched lungs.  He had not known his life was going to end that day, although he suspected it might happen", until its terse and chilling closing paragraph.

Scipio is an inverted version of author Iain Pears best selling novel, An Instance Of The Fingerpost (1997), concerning a curious series of events taking place in and around Oxford in mid-17th century England, as told in parallel narratives by four participants.  Like Fingerpost, Scipio is set in and around a specific geography, in this case the Avignon region of southern France, but unlike the earlier story it is set in three different time periods over a 1500 year period.  While Fingerpost is about the same events seen from multiple perspectives, Scipio tells of different events that all raise the same questions about how one should act and make choices in life.  The narrative in Fingerpost is more straightforward, even with the variations in the tale, but is more oblique in its approach to the larger questions it raises, questions that are front and center throughout Scipio, which employs an intertwined narrative moving back and forth across its three time periods.

The earliest historical setting of Scipio is the crumbling Roman province of southern Gaul around 475 AD.  Manlius Hippomanes is a member of the dwindling elite of wealthy Romano-Gallic aristocrats, educated in classical philosophy and literature in a world that no longer has use for either, and from which the last of the Roman Legions who protected them disappeared a decade before.  While the Goths approach from the west and the Burgundians hover threateningly to the north some of his compatriots dream of being rescued by a renewed Roman Empire and others, like the real-life Sidonius Apollinaris, actively resist, Manlius believes himself more practical minded and steers a course designed to save what he believes can be saved and to do whatever must be done to achieve that goal.
(Roman acqueduct near Avignon)
The middle section tells the tale of Olivier de Noyen, an aspiring poet and courtier of Cardinal Ceccani in the Papal Court at Avignon as the Black Death approaches and then engulfs the city during the middle of the 14th century.  His role as courtier to Cardinal involves him directly in the complicated plotting over whether the Papacy should stay in Avignon or return to Rome and entangles him with an actual historical figure, the Jewish rabbi Gersonides, eventually forcing him into choosing what, and whom, to save and to betray.  De Noyen is also a collector of ancient manuscripts and discovers a copy of The Dream Of Scipio, a puzzling tract written by Manlius who by this time is considered a saint in the Catholic Church. 
(The Papal Palace in Avignon)

The final setting is Vichy France during WWII, and centers on Julien Barneuve, a scholar and intellectual, emotionally numbed by his experience in the trenches during the prior war.  When questioned about his isolation by someone who observes that he is sitting in a library while the world burns he replies:
The world did burn.  I was at the cremation.  And it would have been better if I had stayed in a library.  One person, at least, would be alive now who is dead, because I wouldn't have been there to bayonet him.
With the defeat of France in 1940, Julien accepts an appointment from a friend as a minor functionary in the Vichy regime, a position from which he believes he may be able to save as much as possible from the barbarian Nazis.  At the same time he is studying de Noyen's poetry and through him Manlius' Dream.  Eventually Julien must make choices between Vichy, the Resistance, and his recently found long elusive love, while it dawns on him that he has fatally misread both de Noyen and Manlius.
(Prisoners taken by Vichy militia)

All three protagonists live in dark times of civilizational crisis; the end of the classical era amidst rampaging barbarians; the advent of the Black Death which may kill all; and the seeming triumph of the Nazis.  All are confronted with decisions about what is worth saving and face conflicts between friendship and loyalty.  Each makes compromises to try to preserve something they believe is of even more value.  Terrible consequences follow each decision even though the reader may conclude some choices were better than others.  The Dream of Scipio asks us, should we decide how to make a decision based upon its perceived consequences or are there values more important regardless of consequences since we cannot know in advance what those consequences may really be.  It asks, what is civilization?  How do we preserve it?  And, what if we are mistaken about what civilization consists of?  What if in saving civilization from barbarians we become barbarians ourselves? It asks, but does not answer. Or does it?  As Pears writes elsewhere:
Every cataclysm is welcomed by somebody; there is always someone to rejoice at disaster and see in it the prospect of a new beginning and a better world.  Equally, however much an act of God, there is always someone ready to take responsibility for any event or, failing that, to have blame thrust upon them.
In trying to answer these questions some of the characters commit what they know to be terrible acts in order to preserve what they believe is best in the world, while others commit acts that have horrible consequences they did not intend. 

Pears does not easily betray to the reader his own views nor do his characters always act in ways that fits expectation.  Julien's closest friends are Bernard, a skeptic, atheist, and man of the left who ends up with the Resistance, and Marcel, religious, and a man of the right who offers his friend a job with Vichy.  Pears deliberately makes it difficult for us to clearly sympathize with either and disrupts any preconceived notions we may have.  Julien recalls an incident when, as children, Marcel threw a stone, breaking a church window, a deed for which Bernard takes the blame:
This was the event Bernard had referred to, one of those moments of childhood from which the whole of adult life can be projected.  Julien, nervous, innocent, but standing fast.  The insouciant Bernard, making the grand gesture in the name both of friendship and of self-aggrandizement, his actions extravagant but generous.  And Marcel, a little cowardly and frightened, afraid of authority, not wishing to take on the ownership of his deeds, content for others to be punished instead of him.  The resister, the collaborator, and the vacillating intellectual . . . 

Except that Julien remembered it like that only because Bernard retold the story many years later and brought it back to his mind.  Imposed his narrative on what had become the faintest of recollections; created memories by his skill as a raconteur  . . . 

But, on a few occasions, he was almost certain he remembered that it was Bernard who had thrown the stone and run away, and Marcel who had been beaten.
There is a final layer to the novel for the reader to interpret. While there is no book by the fictional Manlius titled The Dream of Scipio, Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Scipio) is a famous piece by the 1st century BC Roman writer and politician, Cicero, which tells of the dream of Scipio Aemilianus (the destroyer of Carthage in 146 BC), in which his grandfather Scipio Africanus (who defeated Carthage to end the Second Punic War in 201 BC) appears and instructs his grandson on what makes a good Roman citizen while at the same time pointing out the relative insignificance of Rome in the scheme of the cosmos and discussing virtue from a Stoic perspective. In the novel, Olivier de Noyen initially thinks that what he has found is just another copy of this work before he realizes it is composed by Manlius.  In turn Cicero's work was the subject of a 5th century AD commentary by a Roman aristocrat, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, and both works have prompted philosophical analysis over the centuries.

Cicero himself was caught in the same dilemma presented in the novel.  Born in 106 BC, Cicero was one of the "new men" who rose to prominence in the last years of the Roman Republic.  Devoted to the preservation of the Republic, he opposed the ambitions of Julius Caesar, after earlier supporting him, and approved, after the fact, of his assassination, an act which in retrospect doomed the Republic.  When Octavian, Caesar's 19-year old nephew, and adopted heir, showed up in Rome amid the turmoil triggered by Caesar's death, Cicero felt confident he could manipulate the young man and  use him as a tool to restore the Republic but the calculating Octavian ultimately allies himself with Marc Anthony, an enemy of Cicero, in ending the Republic.  As a price for their alliance, Octavian agreed to Anthony's demand that Cicero die.  Eighteen months after Caesar's death, Cicero's hands and head were nailed to the Rostrum in the Roman Forum.

There is much more to this novel than can, or should, be included in a brief review, such as the three women characters, respectively a pagan, a young woman housekeeper for a rabbi, and a secular Jewish woman, who force Manlius, Olivier and Julien to confront the conflicts at the heart of the book.  THC has reread many books over the years but The Dream Of Scipio is the only one he can remember rereading within the same year and he will return to it again.  























Sunday, November 30, 2014

Interstellar


Interstellar is a long movie, almost three hours.  Or perhaps, now that THC has absorbed the science that underlies the movie (with the help of the THC Son, the Official Science Advisor of this blog who attended the IMAX screening with his father) it may have been 23 days long or 51 seconds long.  Actually THC's head still hurts thinking about this. That's what happens when you are dealing with a dying Earth, trying to save humanity, shooting through wormholes, falling into black holes and the Singularity all while worrying about the impact of relativity.

The movie is unsteady and erratic at times and the acting is bland with the exception of Matthew McConaughey and MacKenzie Foy (who plays the younger version of McConaughey's daughter) though the other actors include Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow.  Without McConaughey and Foy the movie would have no emotional center.  Also, the music is so loud at times you can't hear the dialogue.  With all that it is definitely worth seeing.  The story is intriguing and thought provoking, the visuals are striking and it is oddly optimistic about humanity in contrast to the tide of apocalyptic doom mongering movies of the early 21st century.  Plus, you get to see what the inside of a black hole may look like.
The film is directed by Christopher Nolan, whose brother Jonathan wrote the screenplay.  Nolan has made some of the most intricate and interesting films of the past few years including Memento, Inception and the last three Batman movies, of which the second, The Dark Knight is brilliant. 

And, in contrast to Lucy, the THC Son advises that Interstellar does a fairly decent job on getting the science right.  According to Wikipedia, Nolan hired Kip Thorne, retired Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech, as a consultant "to ensure the depictions of wormholes and relativity were as accurate as possible".  According to Thorne:
 "For the depictions of the wormholes and the black hole we discussed how to go about it, and then I worked out the equations that would enable tracing of light rays as they traveled through a wormhole or around a black hole—so what you see is based on Einstein's general relativity equations."
Wikipedia goes on to say:
"In creating the wormhole and a supermassive rotating black hole . . .  Thorne would provide pages of deeply sourced theoretical equations to the artists, who then wrote new CGI rendering software based on these equations to create accurate computer simulations of the gravitational lensing caused by these phenomena. . .  The resulting visual effect provided Thorne with new insight into the effects of gravitational lensing and accretion disks surrounding black holes, and will lead to the creation of two scientific papers, one for the astrophysics community and one for the computer graphics community.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Manhattan 1936

Taken from the George Washington Bridge.  If you look closely at the Empire State building you can catch a glimpse of King Kong.  From Twisted Sifter, it's one of 900,000 online photos from the New York City Department of Records which has a website worth browsing for some wonderful pictures of old New York.

Picture of the Day: New York Sunset from the GW Bridge, 1936

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mrs Richards

From my favorite episode of Fawlty Towers starring John Cleese from Monty Python (see also Enormous Savage Rodents); Mrs Richards, about a hard of hearing and hard to satisfy lady who comes to Basil Fawlty's B&B for a peaceful weekend.  Fawlty Towers is located in the lovely beachside town of Torquay in southwestern England.   Here Basil introduces Mrs Richards to her "room with a view".
This linked clip shows Basil and his wife Sybil attempting to calm Mrs Richards down about her loss of 85 pounds and concludes with Basil wistfully recalling the early days of his marriage.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Marching Through Georgia

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The last time we caught up with William Tecumseh Sherman he'd just sent a letter to the Mayor of Atlanta explaining why he was forcing civilians to evacuate the city.

On November 15 1864 General Sherman and his army left Atlanta on their March To The Sea, arriving in Savannah on the Atlantic Coast on December 21.  His goal: destruction of the South's economy and forcefully driving home to the civilian population the cost of continuing the war.

In late January 1865, Sherman restarted his destructive march, advancing through South Carolina, where he unleashed even more havoc than in Georgia, and into North Carolina where he accepted the surrender of Confederate forces in mid-April.

Anne Sarah Rubin has just published an account of that long march, Through The Heart Of Dixie: Sherman's March And American Memory along with a new website on which you can follow Sherman's march day by day using the accounts of Federal and Confederate soldiers, civilians and slaves.  Take a look.