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".

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Villa Of The Papyri

In 1752 excavations began near the small Italian town of Ercolano along the Bay of Naples, partially uncovering the largest Roman villa in the region and perhaps in the entire Roman world.  From the second century BC through the third century AD, the Naples region was the equivalent of today's Hamptons on Long Island.
The building found during the excavation had a frontage of more than 250 meters (two and a half football fields) on the bay and covered 30,000 square feet, surrounded by acres of gardens.  It is believed to have been owned in the first century BC by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, whose daughter, Calpurnia, became the third and last wife of Julius Caesar.  The villa was located just north of the town of Herculaneum (for photos of THC's 2013 visit to the town go here), and like the town was buried under 100 feet of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, an eruption which also destroyed Pompeii.

The magnificence of the villa has impressed all who have seen it and a recreation has been done at the J Paul Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades, California though much of the original still lies buried beneath the ash and a new round of excavation is underway.  But it was what the villa contained that is the most significant and historically important aspect and it is what has given the villa its modern name - Villa of the Papyri.  You can find a virtual model of the exterior and interior of the villa at this link.

Constructed in the early 1970s, the Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country home.(Reconstruction Getty)

In 1754 the excavators came upon a room filled entirely with what turned out to be 1,785 papyrus scrolls, an intact library from 2,000 years ago.  Unfortunately, the scrolls had been carbonized in the eruption of 79.  Efforts were made to unroll some of the papyri but it proved difficult to unroll without destruction and, in any event, nothing could be read of the contents.   Nonetheless classicists understood the potential.  So much of classical literature has been lost; could the contents of the villa contain some of those "lost" writings?  See, for instance, Robert Cotton's Library Catches Fire.  We know of many famous authors for whom only some of their works have survived - Aristotle, Tacitus, Livy, Archimedes - and of many authors of whom all we know is a reference to them contained in other works that have survived.  Even without knowing the contents, it was recognized that the find was something extraordinary as shown by the gift of six of the rolled scrolls to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. 
scroll-whole.jpg(A rolled scroll given to Napoleon)

During the course of the 20th century some progress was made on deciphering contents of the unscrolled rolls using binocular microscopes, x-rays and digital photography but these techniques did not work on the scrolled rolls which constitute the vast majority of the collection.  The scrolls that have been deciphered were all written in Greek and a number are previously unknown works by Philodemus an Epicurean philosopher.

Now, a scientific team has announced in the January 20, 2015 edition of Nature Communications it has been able to read two of the six scrolled rolls given to Napoleon using X-Ray Phase Contrast Tomography. At this point they have deciphered some letters which, in their words, are 'proof of concept", and believe that the remained scrolls may be able to be read in a decade.   That may sound like a long time but since we've already gone 261 years since the discovery of the scrolls THC thinks it's okay to wait a while longer.  And, by the way, there are indications that in the still unexcavated part of the villa is a second library, filled with scrolls written in Latin!  Perhaps eventually we will find some of the lost classics.

Below is some of what the researchers found on the scrolls.  For more detail read this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Daryl's House

Live from Daryl's House is on the Palladia Network and all over YouTube.  Featuring Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates from his home studio in Pawling, NY along with his guests it's worth a look and listen.  The hour long show consists of live music, switching between Hall & Oates tunes and those of the guest star and some eating and cooking.  THC thinks of him as younger than those rock stars from the 1960s but it turns out Daryl is 68 and still sounds great.

Here's a couple of cuts.  First up is Cee Lo Green (1/2 of Gnarls Barkley) with Daryl contemplating the eternal moral dilemma faced by humankind performing I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) a song THC didn't care for when first done by Hall & Oates but this version is terrific.  Next is Paris, a song by and with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals along with Daryl.  If you'd like to hear more from Grace listen to this cover of Cortez The Killer with an unearthly guitar solo from Joe Satriani and haunting horn from Willy Waldman.  It's not only the best of the approximately 37,522 covers of the song, it surpasses Neil Young's original.

We're Back

Go Pats!  We are undeflateable!


Monday, January 19, 2015

Best Movie Of 2015?

What might be the best new movie of 2015 will be released (in China) next month.

What is it? 

As readers of this blog know, THC holds Mr Jackie Chan is the highest regard (he's even read I Am Jackie Chan) and also fascinated with ancient Rome.  So what could be better than Roman soldiers encountering the Han Dynasty in a film starring Jackie Chan (along with John Cusack and Adrian Brody)?

It's called Dragon Blade.  Can't wait for the U.S. release!  Here's the trailer:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ike Makes His Farewell Address fine arts

President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address (for a version with Ike's handwritten notes go here) on January 17, 1961 made barely a ripple at the time being overshadowed by John Fitzgerald Kennedy's famous inaugural address a few days later, but just a few years later his warning of the potential dangers of a growing military-industrial complex gained wide circulation.

It remains little known that Eisenhower's address warned not of one, but of two, complexes.  The President cautioned us about the risks associated with an emerging scientific-technological elite, specifically the "prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money":
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
The dangerous trends noted by the retiring President have only accelerated in the intervening decades. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Portrait Of A Cigarette

Heard this on a mix by the THC son who was then in high school.  It's from a Florida based punk and grunge band called Discount.  Recorded in the late 1990s.  Only 1:06 long and very catchy.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rethinking Our Australia Vacation

We've been planning an excursion to Australia and New Zealand sometime in the next few years.  After seeing reading this post at Boredom Therapy, we are rethinking.  Here are a couple of the 38 pictures from the post.

A giant jellyfish:
Giant centipedes that eat snakes
Python eating a crocodile

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dr Brydon Reaches Jalalabad

Remnants Of An Army by Elizabeth Butler

It is one of the most famous images of Victorian England.  An exhausted man of indeterminate origin barely hanging onto the back of a worn-out horse nearing a walled town on an empty plain; empty except for the horsemen riding towards him out of the town's gate.

It's the afternoon of January 13, 1842.  The walled town is Jalalabad (now in Afghanistan near its border with Pakistan) and the rider is Dr William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the army of the British East India Company which left Kabul, Afghanistan a week earlier with 4,500 soldiers (690 British, 3,800 Indian) accompanied by 12,000 civilian camp followers.  Brydon is the first and only one to reach Jalalabad where the Company garrison has been anxiously awaiting the army from Kabul.  He brings news of one of the greatest disasters in British military history.

It all began well enough in 1839 when the British invasion of Afghanistan made rapid progress.  The origins of the campaign go all the way back to December 31, 1600 when Queen Elizabeth issued a charter for a new merchant company to trade in the East Indies.  Within a few years the company had established its first trading outposts in the Indian subcontinent.  Gradually expanding its interests, by the mid-18th century the company, now known as the British East India Company, had established its own effective government, based in the Bengal region, as well as its own army.  The Company had a complicated relationship with the British government being responsible both to its shareholders and to Parliament but, for the most part, became an effective tool of the foreign policy of its home country.

By the 1830s most of the subcontinent was under Company rule back by its army of over 200,000 men, predominantly Indian but with a substantial number of British troops and commanded by British officers.
Afghanistan was a far-off place behind towering mountains to the northwest of India.  An impoverished land of dynastic squabbles and violence holding little intrinsic interest to the British.  But there loomed a bigger threat to the north; the expansionist Russian Empire which was moving into Central Asia.  Always worried that the Russians were seeking control of the mountain kingdom in order to obtain access for its troops to invade India, the British were alarmed by reports of Russian domination of the regime in Kabul; reports that were grossly exaggerated; ironically, to the extent  there was Russian interest it was triggered by their own exaggerated worries of British advances in Central Asia.  For a detailed discussion of the convoluted maneuvering that led to the invasion and its disastrous outcome read Return Of A King by William Dalrymple.

The Company army took Kandahar and then entered Kabul on August 7, 1839 installing Shah Shujah as its picked ruler for Afghanistan.  The expedition, and Shah Shujah, were under the political direction of the Viceroy's envoy, Sir William Macnaghten, a fact increasingly obvious and offensive to Afghans.  Over the next two years, despite increasing evidence of tribal disaffection, with Macnaghten sending back dispatches reporting "perfect tranquility" the British felt secure enough to draw down the garrison and finally to leave the well-fortified palace area of Kabul to build cantonments outside the city for its troops and camp followers; an encampment which would be much more difficult to defend in the event of serious trouble.   As one observer noted:
it must always remain a wonder that any government, any officer, or set of officers, who had either science or experience in the field, should in a half-conquered country fix their forces in so extraordinary and injudicious a position.  
 In 1841 command of the Company's forces devolved onto Major General William Elphinstone described by British as: 
an elderly invalid now incapable of directing an army in the field, but with sufficient spirit to prevent any other officer from exercising proper command in his place.  General William Elphinstone.JPG(Elphinstone from Wikipedia)
Elphinstone had last seen action in 1815 at Waterloo only returning to active service in 1837 in order to pay off debts.  He had no liking for India or Indians though his uncle, Mountstuart Elphinstone, led the first British Embassy to Afghanistan in 1809.  Mountstuart had been skeptical from the start about the Afghan expedition writing to the Viceroy of India:
If you send 27,000 men up the Bolan Pass to Candahar (as we hear is intended) and can feed them, I have no doubt you will take Candahar and Cabul and set up Shuja.  But for maintaining him in a poor, cold, strong and remote country, among a turbulent people like the Afghans, I own it seems to me hopeless.
Serious trouble arrived on November 2, 1841 when a mob stormed the Kabul residence of Sir Alexander Burns, a senior British political officer, who had been warned by another prominent Afghan "you have brought an army into the country.  But how do you propose to take it out again?", murdering him along with several of his staff.  Elphinstone and Macnaghten, who had ignored the warning signs, reacted irresolutely which encouraged a general Afghan rising.Afghanistan 3.jpg(Alexander Burns from the Daily Mail)

Over the next few weeks the British were besieged in the their camp outside the city walls and with dwindling supplies.
The crisis point came on December 23 when Macnaghten was persuaded to attend a meeting with the Afghan rebels to discuss how to resolve the situation and was promptly murdered.  Once again, the British forces failed to react aggressively further heartening the rebels.

Short of supplies and with morale falling General Elphinstone agreed on January 6, 1842 to evacuate Kabul under a promise of safe passage by the rebels.  The retreating army would have to march through narrow mountain passes covered with snow with no supplies available along the route until reaching Jalalabad, 95 miles away. In order to clinch the deal, Elphinstone agreed to leave several officers and their families hostage with the rebels.

There is a very good interactive map of the retreat (not viewable on mobile devices).  And for a very entertaining, albeit fictional, account of the harrowing siege and catastrophic retreat, read Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, the purported memoir of the caddish, cynical and cowardly rogue Sir Harry Flashman.

The retreat was a nightmare from the start.  Rebel attacks began as soon as the the march started.  Many in the retreating column were killed both long-range rifle fire from cliffs overlooking the passes as well as by close-in attacks while even more perished from cold and exhaustion.  Strangely, on three different days the rebel leader, Akbar Khan, approached the British to make further demands to guarantee their passage.  Each time more officers and their remaining families were taken hostage, including on January 11, General Elphinstone himself.
Gandamak stand.jpg
(Last stand at Gandamak from planet military

By the following day only a few hundred of the original 16,500 were left.  The end came on January 13 when,  at Gandamak, the last group of 65, mostly British, soldiers were surrounded.  Most died making a last stand but the senior officer, Captain Souter was taken captive along with two other men, while six mounted men, including Dr Brydon, escaped, though five were hunted down and killed leaving Brydon as the lone survivor after a desperate ride that he barely survived.  According to Wikipedia:
Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword and he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood's Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor's life.
Brydon's arrival was noted in the diary of Captain Julian Brockman Backhouse:
Yesterday it had been impossible to write the horrible news of the day, and my soul is now filled with anguish at the melancholy catastrophe which has overtaken the Cabool Force --- all are lost --- the force is annihilated to a man --- Yesterday, about 1 P.M., Brydon, an Assistant Surgeon of the Shah's Service, reached this place, (on a horse scarcely able to move another yard) wounded and bruised from head to foot with stones, and he, alone, has arrived to tell the fearful tale. Brydon in the early 1850s from

A week later, Backhouse took down Brydon's report of the retreat which you can find here.  Backhouse added his own conclusion, one that is hard to argue with:
Time will, doubtless, reveal the true History of all that took place at Cabool at present, we, at least, know, for certain, that, a most blind confidence, totally unwarranted, brought about the danger, and, that, imbecility, unprecedented, completed the catastrophe.
Jalalabad was besieged by an Afghan army until relieved in April 1842.  That fall another British army invaded Afghanistan, capturing Kabul and installed its selected candidate to rule the country -  the same ruler they deposed in 1839!  Having made their point, and learning a lesson from the last invasion, the British declared victory and then promptly withdrew, not reentering Afghanistan for another four decades.

Though Brydon was the first survivor to reach Jalalabad he was not the only survivor of the retreat.  Over the next few days a number of Indian sepoys reached the town and when the British returned to Kabul later that year they freed 115 captives; British officers, staff and family who had survived being held hostage.  General Elphinstone was not one of the them, dying in captivity in April 1842.

To get more of a flavor of 19th century Afghanistan watch a very enjoyable film, The Man Who Would Be King, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine with Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling.  John Huston directed the adventurous tale.
Dr Brydon returned to his military surgeon duties serving in the Second Burmese War (1852).  In 1857 he was caught up in the turmoil of the India Mutiny which briefly threatened British rule.  As part of the besieged garrison in Lucknow, he provide medical assistance and was badly wounded in the thigh.  Though unsucessful, the Mutiny resulted in India being transferred from the East India Company to direct rule by Queen Victoria.

William Brydon retired and returned to his native Scotland where he died in 1873.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Artisanal Attorney

Brilliant satire from John Frank Weaver over at McSweeney's Internet Tendency: I Am An Artisanal Attorney.

Here is an excerpt but it is hard to do justice to the deadpan earnest structure of the piece without reading the whole thing.
Are you tired of large corporate law firms making the same cookie cutter litigation? Do you fondly remember a time when quality mattered in law suits, when there was art and craftsmanship in every court motion filed, when company records were drafted using the traditional methods and tools? If you have become dissatisfied with mass-produced legal representation, stop by my scriveners shop; for I am an artisanal attorney.
How is an artisanal attorney different from any other attorney? Like other artisans, I pay close attention to my ingredients and process; I am intimately involved in all stages of creation. Other attorneys print their documents on paper they buy in mass-produced boxes, tens of thousands of sheets at a time, using ink that mechanically jets onto the page. I make my own paper by hand, using the traditional methods of 14th-century book publishers, who printed their works on linen and vellum. The flax for the linen grows along the sides of a nearby swimming hole, and the plants’ growth is influenced by the laughter of children in the summer, when I pick it by hand. The vellum comes from the grass-fed cows of an area farm; to give the cows more agency in the vellum-making process, I let them choose the pumice I will treat their hides with after slaughter.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Most Popular Posts of 2014

Thanks for reading!

THC has compiled this list of the 15 most popular posts from last year (in the course of which he also looked at 2013 and 2012 and will do Top Ten lists for those years in subsequent posts).  In some cases they've matched his favorites, in others he was surprised by the results.  And away we go:

1.   There must be a lot of Sly Stallone fans out there because this review of The Expendables 3 topped the charts.  Of course it was a pretty good movie.

2.  Being drowned by a wall of rapidly flowing molasses proved intriguing to many: Great Boston Molasses Flood.

3.  THC didn't realize till recently that the 1981 hit Tainted Love was actually a cover of a very good 1964 original.

4.  The story of my grandfather Louis and his voyage on the RMS Republic proved popular.

5.  THC's imaginary combination of the careers of Dazzy Vance and Sandy Koufax in Dazzy Koufax (with references to Van Lingle Mungo and The Big Lebowski) was his most read baseball post and the related Gibson Koufax Marichal Mashup was #12. 

6.  Eddie Coyle's Friend: George V Higgins got some attention.  THC is very happy with that.

7.  The review of Bill Bryson's book One Summer: America 1927 which featured the fates of the aviators that year (Flyboys) was of considerable interest as was a related post which finished at #8, TWA Flight 599, about the fateful 1932 plane crash that killed Knute Rockne and transformed aviation safety.

8.  See #7

9.  Looks like a lot of folks enjoy the guitar playing of The Edge of U2 and maybe some want to learn to play just like him!

10.  Is Christopher Walken The Burt Bacharach Of Acting?  You'll need to read the post, if you haven't already, in order to find out.

11.  The ancient Roman city of Dura Europos on the Euphrates piqued reader's interest.

12.  See #5

13.  A lot of the readers went out to the ballgame with us on Ballpark Tour 2014.

14.  Many peeked at THC's list of his Favorite Songs of 2014.  Wonder if they agreed?

15. A very fast riser in the charts is the recent post Top 5 Reasons We Ended The Cuba Embargo.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Down By The River With Bradley Cooper

If the acting thing doesn't work out this guy has a future as an air guitarist.  It's Neil Young's Down By The River featuring the entire first guitar solo.  THC has not seen a lot of air guitar but this is the best he's seen; the man is a student of the song.  At the beginning you'll see Bradley gesturing to make the sound louder in precisely the same way Neil Young does in concert.  Watch the entire thing - it gets particularly surreal, while remaining accurate, around the 3:30 mark. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Big Unit

Randy Johnson, the Big Unit, was elected yesterday to baseball's Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.  Joining him were Pedro Martinez (see Pedro Fans 17), John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.  The election of Randy and Pedro was a given this year.  At his peak, Pedro Martinez was as good or better than any pitcher in baseball history, but it was a short career overall.  Randy Johnson (who has started a second career as a photographer since retiring from baseball) is in the discussion when talking about the best left-handed pitchers ever. oregon

So where does the Big Unit stand on the list of the best left-handed hurlers?

First, the man himself.  At 6'10" with scraggly hair, wiry body and just a mean look Johnson was one of the most intimidating pitchers of his era.  Particularly if you were a left-handed batter.  With his long arms and sidearm motion if you were left-handed it looked like he was throwing a rocket right at your head, or behind it.

This is from the 1993 All-Star game at Camden Yards in Baltimore, which THC was fortunate to attend.  Randy is facing John Kruk, a pretty good, but left-handed, hitter.  Watch what happens.
It got to the point where left-handers rarely faced the Big Unit.  This is his 20-strikeout game in 2001 against the Cincinnati Reds; note that there is only one left-hander in the lineup against him.
Johnson pitched from 1988 to 2009 with a record of 303 wins and 166 losses along with striking out 4,875 batters, second only to Nolan Ryan, including a record four consecutive seasons of 300+ strikeouts (averaging 354).  The man generally considered the greatest lefty is Lefty Grove (1925-41) with 300 wins and 141 losses.

Two other names sometimes come up in the discussion.  The first is Sandy Koufax (see Dazzy Koufax and Gibson Koufax Marichal Mashup).   Koufax was a great, great pitcher but both his peak (5 seasons) and his career (11 seasons) were short.  He also pitched in a more friendly pitching era than either Grove or Johnson.  The other is Warren Spahn who won 363 games over a very long career, including being a 20-game winner thirteen times and whom we'll discuss further below.

The two metrics THC most relies on in evaluating pitchers are ERA+, which compares them to their league and normalizes for ballpark factors, and WAR, Wins Above Replacement.

Lefty Grove's fourteen season peak was from 1926 through 1939 within which he had one awful season (1934) pitching with an injured elbow before being disabled.  During that period his ERA+ averaged 148 (100 is league average) and his average WAR was 7.8 (a WAR of 8.0 is generally considered a season worthy of MVP consideration).  He also had to reinvent himself as a pitcher after the 1934 injury.

Randy Johnson had a twelve year peak from 1993 through 2004 (though he also had five effective years before and after the peak compared to two for Grove) within which he had two injury-shortened years.  In those seasons his average ERA+ was 136 with an average WAR of 7.1.!)

Warren Spahn had the longest peak (1947-1963) with an average ERA+ of 126 but had only two seasons when his ERA+ exceeded Grove or Johnson's average for their peak periods and his average WAR was 5.4.  As an example of his remarkable consistency Spahn had ten seasons of ERA+ within the narrow range of 119 to 125. Though never as dominating as Grove or Johnson he knew how to get batters out, declaring "a pitcher only needs two pitches, the one they're looking for and the one you throw them".

My ranking:

1.  Lefty Grove
2.  Randy Johnson
3.  Warren Spahn
4.  Sandy Koufax
5.  Steve Carlton

Three other interesting tidbits that popped up in researching this piece:

From June 25 through July 15, 1999 Randy Johnson started five games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, completing three.  He threw 40 innings, giving up only 25 hits and 12 walks, striking out 62 with an ERA of 1.25.  He had four losses and a no-decision!  The game scores were 0-1, 0-2, 0-1, 0-2 and 2-3 (a game he left after 8 innings with a shutout). He won his next outing by throwing a shutout and then lost his next start in a complete game 1-2 loss.

1999 also shows the problems with relying on won-loss records to judge pitching effectiveness.   Through June 20, Johnson's record was 9-3 with an ERA of 3.36.  He posted an ERA of 1.85 over the remainder of the season but his record declined to 8-6.

Looking at the Big Unit's performance over the years at Baseball-Reference illuminates a striking change in pitching over the last decade; the increasing emphasis on pitch count resulting in fewer complete games.  Today, pitchers rarely exceed 100-110 pitches in a start and almost never exceed 120.  Johnson's pitching log shows him routinely throwing more than 120 pitches and exceeding 140 several times a year.  While looking at the data, THC got curious and looked at Nolan Ryan (see The Ryan Express).  Unfortunately we only have pitch counts starting in the late 1980s but the limited information on Ryan is startling.  In 1989, at the age of 42, Ryan threw 147, 146, 150 and 164 pitches in consecutive starts!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The New York Times And The Rectification Of Names

On Sunday the New York Times carried an article entitled Republicans Say They'll Act Fast To Push Agenda containing this passage:
Because the House has been in Republican hands since 2011, the real test comes in the Senate, where the new majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is armed with a 54-46 majority. He will still have to find a way to make legislation passed by the House attractive to enough Democrats to assemble the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles and send them to the president’s desk.
Notice anything about it?  Hint - look at the second sentence.

It's the curious reference to "procedural obstacles" which since it is not attached to any human agency seems to be something that has spontaneously arisen of its own accord.  THC believes that prior to the recent election the term "Republican filibusters" was commonly employed by the Times to describe the same situation.

One can only applaud the Times for its efforts to ensure the Rectification of Names and thus bring about social harmony in accord with Confucian doctrine.  The newspaper has already contributed to this effort by assuring us that President Obama's statements that we could all keep the healthcare insurance we like, we could all keep the doctors we like and we would all have our premiums reduced by $2500 were properly described as "incorrect promises".

Thanks to Hot Air for pointing out the latest Times article.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mothball Fleet

When THC was a kid he used to love going on long drives with his dad.  One of our favorite routes  was up the west side of the Hudson River from the Tappan Zee Bridge north to West Point.  At Jones Point we'd see a large number of ships lying at anchor which would always prompt dad to tell me about the Mothball Fleet and the Liberty Ships. Hudson River National Defense Fleet (aka the Mothball Fleet) was established by Congress in 1946 and lasted until 1971 when most of the remaining vessels were sold for scrap.  At its peak the fleet had 189 vessels, mostly WWII Liberty Ships and it was one of eight such fleets created by Congress at the end of the war in order to maintain a ready serve of Merchant Marine ships capable of supporting our military forces if needed.

During the Korean War about 130 ships were put into service, 35 put to sea during the 1956-7 Suez Crisis and more than 40 were mobilized during the Vietnam War.

The Liberty Ships came out of the emergency need to supply Britain and to carry the enormous amount of material necessary to support American military operations and millions of troops in Europe and the Pacific.  When the Lend-Lease program was put into place in early 1941 America lacked the Merchant Marine capabilities for both that program and what increasingly became clear would be American entry at some point into the ongoing World War.

To meet the anticipated demand required a new way of building ships and the techniques were pioneered at the Kaiser Shipyards in the Bay Area of California and then replicated in shipyards across the U.S.  The first Liberty Ship (also referred to as "ugly ducklings") was the Patrick Henry, launched on September 27, 1941 with President Roosevelt attending; it took 244 days to build.  By the end of the war it took an average of only 42 days to build a Liberty Ship and one was built in 5 days!  2,710 Liberty Ships were launched in less than five years, more than one a day.
How was it done?  Standardized part and assembly processes on multiple identical shipways with detailed planning to ensure availability of parts.  The steel sheeting was welded, not riveted; not considered as durable but the ships were considered expendable, though fewer than 200 were lost during the war.

To speed the construction there was minimal attention paid to crew comfort.  As described by Arthur Herman in Freedom's Forge:
"There was no electricity or running water for the crew; their rooms and bunks were smaller than standard size.  There was cement, not tile, in the toilet spaces, and no mechanical ventilation for the engine and boiler rooms and crew's quarters.  The galley was lit with oil lamps and there was no fire detection system."
Day Two (from Wikipedia)                   Day 24 (from Wikipedia)

The result was a 441 foot long ship that was a "seagoing boxcar" capable of hauling eight thousand tons of materials and made an enormous contribution towards the winning of the war.  In addition to supporting U.S. military needs in both theaters of war, the Liberty Ships supplied the United Kingdom and also traversed the extremely vulnerable North Atlantic route to Murmansk, the Soviet Union's port on the Arctic Ocean.  Those who manned the ships faced constant danger.  Of approximately 243,000 American merchant mariners about 9,000 died, a higher combat fatality rate than in the U.S armed forces.

Two Liberty Ships that have been preserved; SS John W Brown in Baltimore and SS Jeremiah O'Brian in San Francisco.
For more information on the Liberty Ships see this paper by Bill Lee.

(The Mothball Fleet also contained some ocean-liners converted to troop transports; from naval marine

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Aja's Gold Teeth

Today we're trying a little experiment.  THC has used DragOnTape to create a music mix consisting of two guitar solos from Denny Dias of Steely Dan from whom you've heard before (see the Steely Dan Guitar Solos series).  THC has edited the songs so that they only contain the guitar solos.  The first is Your Gold Teeth II and the second is Aja on which Mr Dias is ably assisted by Steve Gadd (drums) and Wayne Shorter (sax) during the last part of the excerpted segment.  See what you think by clicking the link below.

Aja's Gold Teeth

IMPORTANT NOTE:  The link does not play on mobile device.  You need to open it on a PC or tablet.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Grubermania! Strikes Uninsured

In a post last January THC asked Where Are All The Uninsured?, pointing out that the
widely used figure of 40-50 million Americans unable to get health insurance was a gross overestimate.  He wrote of the Affordable Care Act:
Has this entire fiasco been triggered by bad estimates abetted by the misuse of those estimates to create a crisis atmosphere to justify passing a law under which the Department of Health & Human Services estimates that up to 93 million Americans may lose their existing insurance, and, in many cases, end up spending substantially more out of pocket for their new coverage and possibly losing their existing doctors?  
THC recently came across further confirmation of his post in a 2009 paper by, of all people, Jonathan Gruber of Grubermania! fame.  In that paper, Universal Health: Progress & Issues, Gruber observes:
You cannot get to universal coverage without an individual mandate. It’s simply impossible. I know that because today one-third to one-half of the uninsured are already offered free or heavily subsidized insurance but don’t take it. Four-fifths of uninsured kids right now could walk into a Medicaid office and get free public health insurance but don’t do it. One-third of the uninsured are offered heavily subsidized health insurance by their employer, but they don’t take it because they think they’re invincible and they don’t need it. So there’s no way to get to universal coverage unless you have a mandate. 
The professor's estimate of 1/3 to 1/2 of the uninsured actually having access to free or heavily subsidized insurance prior to the passage of Obamacare exceeds THC's estimate of 1/4 of the uninsured being in that category.  There is no footnote or discussion for the source of Gruber's data so comparison with THC's estimate may be difficult.  Nonetheless, his assertion is further support for the proposition that supposed number of the uninsured and more importantly, the reason for the lack of insurance, was used in a misleading way to induce a sense of urgency with the public and Congress.

And by the way, in the same paper Gruber states that Obamacare is designed to provide coverage to the uninsured but has no (as in zero, nada, zilch) cost control measures in it so yes the President was making "incorrect promises" (in the nomenclature preferred by the New York Times) when he promised everyone that their premiums would decrease by $2500.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

I Stand Accused

If you're having a sluggish start to the New Year this frantic tune will get you rolling.  Elvis Costello & The Attractions from 1980.
If loving you is a big crime
I've been guilty a long time
The Elvis version is a cover of The Merseybeats cover of the 1965 original by Tony Colton & The Big Boss Band, written by Colton and Ray Smith.