Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The last Quentin Tarantino movie I liked was Jackie Brown (1997).  It was also the last I saw in a theater.  Since then I've watched at least part of each of his more recent films on cable and not been impressed.  Way too much graphic violence, cartoonish characters, and no sense of humanity.  He was a one-trick pony as far as I was concerned.

After reading some reviews, I decided to take a chance on his new one and saw it last night along with the THC Son-In-Law.  It's his best film since Jackie Brown, actually having a point and displaying a touch of humanity though, as always, everything exists within Tarantino's idiosyncratic vision of the world in which all that is real occurs in the movies.

Of course it also looks great as his films always do, and the period touches capture the times.

It's 1969 and in the hills of Los Angeles, fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) lives up in one of the canyons, hanging out with his friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Next door, up a road behind a gate are Rick's new neighbors Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

At a leisurely pace, the film follows Rick as he tries to resurrect his career (and the scenes in which he attempts to do so are among the most humanly perceptive Tarantino has done), while Cliff cruises around Hollywood, picking up a young hitchhiking girl and bringing her to the Spahn Ranch where he encounters many odd-behaving young girls and references to an absent and mysterious character named Charlie.

The three leads are perfect and the rest of the cast is crammed with well known actors doing small roles and cameos including Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry (in his final role), Kurt Russell, and Damien Lewis (as Steve McQueen!).

Given the year, location, and the characters you can tell where this is going.  Or maybe you think you can.  I can't discuss the bigger themes Tarantino is pursuing in Once Upon A Time without further disclosing the plot so will let it at that except to warn that while there is much violence at the end, it is righteous and cathartic.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Order No 227

On July 28, 1942 Order No 227 was issued by Josef Stalin, People's Commissar of Defense of the Soviet Union.  The German summer offensive, launched in late June, was advancing rapidly towards the Volga River, Stalingrad, and into the approaches of the Caucasus Mountains beyond which lay the critically important Soviet oilfields (for more background on this conflict read The Annotated Roads To Moscow).  Somewhere between 20 and 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians died during WW2.

Order No 227 chastises the Red Army for retreating and demands it stop all such actions unless ordered directly by Stalin.  The remedies set forth are brutal.

The notoriety of Order No 227 derives from the practices it institutes:

(1) Demanding immediate execution of "panic-mongers and cowards", including officers.

(2) Establishing penal battalions and companies to which commanders, officers, commissars, and soldiers "who have been guilty of a breach of discipline due to cowardice or bewilderment will be routed, and put them at difficult sectors of the army to give them an opportunity to redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland."

(3) Directing the formation of defensive squads "directly behind unstable divisions and require them in case of panic and scattered withdrawals of elements of the divisions to shoot in place panic-mongers and cowards . . ."

The practice of summary executions for desertion and cowardice was already widespread before the order.  The only records publicly available show that during the first 18 months of the war (through the end of 1942), the Soviets executed about 160,000 soldiers for desertion or cowardice.  In comparison, the United States executed one soldier for desertion and cowardice during WW2.

Penal units were used in the front lines of the most dangerous assaults and to clear mine fields, sometimes by marching through them.  An estimated 400,000 Soviets died while serving in these units.

The combined Soviet death toll from executions and penal units alone exceeded America's death toll by combat, accident, and illness for the entire war.

The defensive squads were used to encourage Soviet soldiers to keep advancing or stop retreating and there are documented reports of them firing on fellow soldiers.  It is unknown how many died by this method.

The full text of the order follows:

July 28 1942, Moscow. 

The enemy throws new forces to the front without regard to heavy losses and penetrates deep into the Soviet Union, seizing new regions, destroying our cities and villages, and violating, plundering and killing the Soviet population. Combat goes on in region Voronej, near Don, in the south, and at the gates of the Northern Caucasus. The German invaders penetrate toward Stalingrad, to Volga and want at any cost to trap Kuban and the Northern Caucasus, with their oil and grain. The enemy already has captured Vorochilovgrad, Starobelsk, Rossosh, Kupyansk, Valuyki, Novochercassk, Rostov on Don, half Voronej. Part of the troops of the Southern front, following the panic-mongers, have left Rostov and Novochercassk without severe resistance and without orders from Moscow, covering their banners with shame.

The population of our country, who love and respect the Red Army, start to be discouraged in her, and lose faith in the Red Army, and many curse the Red Army for leaving our people under the yoke of the German oppressors, and itself running east.

Some stupid people at the front calm themselves with talk that we can retreat further to the east, as we have a lot of territory, a lot of ground, a lot of population and that there will always be much bread for us.

They want to justify the infamous behavior at the front. But such talk is falsehood, helpful only to our enemies.

Each commander, Red Army soldier and political commissar should understand that our means are not limitless. The territory of the Soviet state is not a desert, but people - workers, peasants, intelligentsia, our fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, children. The territory of the USSR which the enemy has captured and aims to capture is bread and other products for the army, metal and fuel for industry, factories, plants supplying the army with arms and ammunition, railroads. After the loss of Ukraine, Belarus, Baltic republics, Donetzk, and other areas we have much less territory, much less people, bread, metal, plants and factories. We have lost more than 70 million people, more than 800 million pounds of bread annually and more than 10 million tons of metal annually. Now we do not have predominance over the Germans in human reserves, in reserves of bread. To retreat further - means to waste ourselves and to waste at the same time our Motherland.

Therefore it is necessary to eliminate talk that we have the capability endlessly to retreat, that we have a lot of territory, that our country is great and rich, that there is a large population, and that bread always will be abundant. Such talk is false and parasitic, it weakens us and benefits the enemy, if we do not stop retreating we will be without bread, without fuel, without metal, without raw material, without factories and plants, without railroads.

This leads to the conclusion, it is time to finish retreating.

Not one step back! Such should now be our main slogan. 

It is necessary to defend each position, each meter of our territory, up to the last drop of blood, to cling for each plot of Soviet land and to defend it as long as possible.

Our Motherland is experiencing hard days. We must stop, and then to throw back and smash the enemy regardless of cost. The Germans are not so strong, as it seems to the panic-mongers. They strain their last forces. To withstand their impact now, means to ensure our victory in some months.
Can we withstand the impact, and then throw back the enemy to the west? Yes we can, because our factories and plants in the rear are fine and our army receives ever more and more airplanes, tanks, artillery and mortars.
What do we lack?

There is no order and discipline in companies, battalions, regiments, in tank units and air squadrons. This is our main deficiency. We should establish in our army the most stringent order and solid discipline, if we want to salvage the situation, and to keep our Motherland. 

It is impossible to tolerate commanders and commissars permitting units to leave their positions. It is impossible to tolerate commanders and commissars who admit that some panic-mongers determined the situation on the field of combat and carried away in departure other soldiers and opened the front to the enemy. 

The panic-mongers and cowards should be exterminated in place. 

Henceforth the solid law of discipline for each commander, Red Army soldier, and commissar should be the requirement - not a single step back without order from higher command. Company, battalion, regiment and division - commanders and appropriate commissars, who retreat without orders from higher commanders, are betrayers of the Motherland.

These are the orders of our Motherland.

To execute this order - means to defend our lands, to save the Motherland, to exterminate and to conquer the hated enemy.

After the winter retreat under pressure of the Red Army, when in German troops discipline became loose, the Germans for recovery of discipline imposed severe measures which resulted in quite good outcomes. They formed 100 penal companies from soldiers who were guilty of breaches of discipline because of cowardice or bewilderment, put them at dangerous sections of the front and commanded them to redeem their sins by blood. They have also formed approximately ten penal battalions from commanders guilty of breaches of discipline through cowardice or bewilderment, deprived them of their decorations, transferred them to even more dangerous sections of the front and commanded them to redeem their sins. Finally, they have formed special squads and put them behind unstable divisions and ordered them to shoot panic-mongers in case of unauthorized retreats or attempted surrender. As we know, these measures were effective, and now German troops fight better than they fought in the winter. And here is the situation, that the German troops have good discipline, though they do not have the high purpose of protection of the Motherland, and have only one extortionate purpose - to subdue another's country, and our troops have the higher purpose of protecting the abused Motherland,and do not have such discipline and so suffer defeat. Is it necessary for us to learn from our enemies, as our grandparents studied their enemies in the past and achieved victory?

I think it is necessary.

The Supreme General Headquarters of the Red Army commands: 
1. Military councils of the fronts and first of all front commanders should:

a) Unconditionally eliminate retreat moods in the troops and with a firm hand bar propaganda that we can and should retreat further east, and that such retreat will cause no harm;

b) Unconditionally remove from their posts and send to the High Command for court martial those army commanders who have allowed unauthorized troop withdrawals from occupied positions, without the order of the Front command.

c) Form within each Front from one up to three (depending on the situation) penal battalions (800 persons) where commanders and high commanders and appropriate commissars of all service arms who have been guilty of a breach of discipline due to cowardice or bewilderment will be sent, and put them on more difficult sectors of the front to give them an opportunity to redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland. 

2. Military councils of armies and first of all army commanders should;

a) Unconditionally remove from their offices corps and army commanders and commissars who have accepted troop withdrawals from occupied positions without the order of the army command, and route them to the military councils of the fronts for court martial;

b) Form within the limits of each army 3 to 5 well-armed defensive squads (up to 200 persons in each), and put them directly behind unstable divisions and require them in case of panic and scattered withdrawals of elements of the divisions to shoot in place panic-mongers and cowards and thus help the honest soldiers of the division execute their duty to the Motherland; 

c) Form within the limits of each army up to ten (depending on the situation) penal companies (from 150 to 200 persons in each) where ordinary soldiers and low ranking commanders who have been guilty of a breach of discipline due to cowardice or bewilderment will be routed, and put them at difficult sectors of the army to give them an opportunity to redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland. 

3. Commanders and commissars of corps and divisions should;

a) Unconditionally remove from their posts commanders and commissars of regiments and battalions who have accepted unwarranted withdrawal of their troops without the order of the corps or division commander, take from them their orders and medals and route them to military councils of fronts for court martial;

b) Render all help and support to the defensive squads of the army in their business of strengthening order and discipline in the units.

This order is to be read in all companies, cavalry squadrons, batteries, squadrons, commands and headquarters.

People's commissar for defense of the USSR: J. Stalin.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Boris On Winston

I'd don't know whether Boris Johnson will make a good British Prime Minister but he is sure going to be entertaining.   This is Boris on the rhetoric of Winston Churchill.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Time To Die

Rutger Hauer passed yesterday at the age of 75.  Appeared in many films but the one I will always remember is Blade Runner (1982) based on the Philip K Dick novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and the author of my favorite mind-bending quote, "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away".

The poignant scene in the film showing the death of Hauer's android character is unforgettable.  The lines were not in the original screenplay; they were written by Rutger. 
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Mueller Debacle

My views on the Russia collusion story are laid out in past posts.

I've seen only bits and pieces of Robert Mueller's testimony today because it's excruciating to watch the Representatives of both parties who are terrible questioners and because Mueller looks sad and out of it.  The latter point, along with his performance at the recent press conference, provide more evidence of my hypothesis that he served merely as a figurehead for the investigation, a figurehead controlled by the ethically-challenged dedicated Clinton supporter Andrew Weissman.

[UPDATE: I've now seen Rep Jim Jordan's questioning of Mueller, which is well done and demonstrates the deliberate avoidance of uncomfortable facts by his investigation.  It's worth watching the entire 5 minutes.]

However, one important matter has been confirmed - the bad faith in which the Mueller investigation was conducted.  Although Mueller states that his investigation concerned Russian efforts to influence the election he has repeatedly stated, under oath, that the Steele Dossier was "out of my purview"!

One example, in which, by the way, Mueller seems confused about Fusion GPS, a prominent player in the Steele Dossier, and which represented Kremlin connected figures in seeking the lifting of US sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

Think about that.  The only undisputed evidence we have of a direct Russian government effort to influence the election, consisting of false allegations damaging to one of the candidates in the 2016 election, was out of Mueller's purview in an investigation of what he describes as Russian efforts to influence election.  I use the word undisputed because the dossier itself describes some of its sources as Russian intelligence.  Moreover, the dossier was paid for by the campaign of another presidential candidate and the information it contained selectively leaked to U.S. media, the FBI, and the DOJ which used it to obtain a FISA warrant allowing it to spy on the Trump campaign.

If you've read my previous posts on this subject, you'll see I was disgusted by candidate Trump's statements regarding Russia and Putin and thought, when the Russia collusion story started, it possible there might be something to it.  Since early 2017 I've been reading original source documents, not relying on what others tell me, and it has become very clear there was no collusion, no obstruction, by the Trump campaign, but rather what may be the biggest scandal in American political history possibly involving the Clinton campaign, FBI, DOJ, and CIA, along with senior Obama administration officials.  But it was outside Mueller's purview to investigate his old friends.

A more succinct summary:
Image result for jim carrey oh come on gif

Instead the pathetic Democrats are pursuing an obstruction of justice case based upon the President's lack of obstruction in a case where no underlying crime was committed.  This is insane.

Progressive Obstruction of Justice - President Trump in an unprecedented manner waives executive-privilege, providing documents and allowing White House officials to testify, including his own White House Counsel.  Understandably outraged by what we now know to be false charges, and by the treachery of FBI Director Comey, the President vents and blusters, but never takes action regarding the investigation.

Not Progressive Obstruction of Justice - In the midst of an investigation emails from Hillary Clinton's private server are destroyed by people working for Clinton.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Second Confiscation Act

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in both its preliminary form as issued on September 17, 1862 and in its final form on January 1, 1863 are justly renowned.  What is less known is the relevance of the Second Confiscation Act passed by Congress and signed by the President on July 17, 1862.

At the time of his election in 1860, Abraham Lincoln believed his constitutional powers regarding slavery were limited.  The Federal government had no authority to do anything regarding slavery in the states were in already existed.  The point of contention with the existing slave states was on the Federal government's ability to restrict slavery in the territories and future states, which constituted half the land area of the republic.

Secession and civil war changed all that.  First, as a political matter, the withdrawal of Southern state representatives and senators from Congress left Republicans with an overwhelming majority.  Second, the Constitutional powers granted to the President in his role as commander in chief are broader than those of the President in peacetime.

Many in the Republican Congress were pushing the President to use that authority to end slavery.  It was a practical matter that finally forced some decisions to be made.  As Northern armies advanced into the South, they increasingly encountered runaway slaves who made their ways into Union lines seeking refuge.  Were the Federal armies to return the slaves to their owners?  Were they free now?

Military necessity led many commanders to calling the slaves "contraband" in order to allow them to be kept and used a laborers in building fortifications.  In turn this requiring the sheltering and feeding of entire families.

Congress passed two Confiscation Acts, the first in September 1861, the second in July 1862.  During the debate over the second Act, the President attempted to prod Congress in a different direction proposal a gradual emancipation bill with compensation to slave holders, rather than outright confiscation of slaves.  His proposal went nowhere.

The Act as passed applied to slaves who had taken refuge within Union army lines:
“That all slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto, escaping from such persons and taking refuge within the lines of the army; and all slaves captured from such persons or deserted by them and coming under the control of the government of the United States; and all slaves of such person found on [or] being within any place occupied by rebel forces and afterwards occupied by the forces of the United States, shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.
Though Lincoln had threatened to veto the Act, he eventually signed it though he issued what we would today call a "signing statement" expressing his disagreement with certain aspects of the legislation, an excerpt of which follows: 

Considering the bill for “An act to suppress insurrection, to punish treason, and rebellion, to seize and confiscate the property of rebels, and for other purposes” and the Joint Resolution [explanatory of said act,] as being substantially one, I have approved and signed both.
Before I was informed of the passage of the Resolution, I had prepared the draft of a Message, stating objections to the bill becoming a law, a copy of which draft is herewith transmitted.
[Abraham Lincoln]
[July 17, 1862]
Fellow citizens of the House of Representatives
I herewith return to your honorable body, in which it originated, the bill for an act entitled “An act to suppress treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate the property of rebels, and for other purposes” together with my objections to it’s becoming a law.
There is much in the bill to which I perceive no objection. It is wholly prospective; and it touches neither person or property, of any loyal citizen; in which particulars, it just and proper. 
. . . 

That to which I chiefly object, pervades most parts of the act, but more distinctly appears in the first, second, seventh, and eighth sections. It is the sum of those provisions which results in the divesting of title forever. For the causes of treason, and the ingredients of treason, not amounting to the full crime, it declares forfeiture, extending beyond the lives of the guilty parties; whereas the Constitution of the United States declares that “no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture, except during the life of the person attainted.” True, there is to be no formal attainder in this case; still I think the greater punishment can not be constitutionally inflicted, in a different form, for the same offence. With great respect, I am constrained to say I think this feature of the act is unconstitutional. It would not be difficult to modify it.
I may remark that this provision of the constitution, put in language borrowed from Great Britain, applies only in this country, as I understand, to real, or landed estate.
Again, this act, by proceedings in rem forfeits property, for the ingredients of treason, without a conviction of the supposed criminal, or a personal hearing given him in any proceeding. That we may not touch property lying within our reach, because we can not give personal notice to an owner who is absent endeavoring to destroy the govern[ment,] is certainly not very satisfactory; still the owner may not be thus engaged, and I think a reasonable time should be provided for such parties to appear and have personal hearings. Similar provisions are not uncommon in connection with proceedings in rem.
For the reasons stated I return the bill to the House in which it originated.
The Act gave those in rebellion 60 days to surrender or pledge allegiance to the Union or any of their slaves within Union lines would be declared free.

Lincoln's preliminary emancipation notice of September 17 went further, applying to any slaveowner in the Confederacy who did not cease insurrection by January 1, 1863.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Lit Matches

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.
Prophetic words from Ray Bradbury in the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 in 1981.  The book burning in Fahrenheit 451 did not begin as a government initiative, rather it was at the insistence of various groups offended by the content.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

I Was Wrong

I've become so detached from the music scene over the past decade that on first hearing Chris Stapleton last week, I assumed he was some brand new young artist.  Come to find out he's 41, started writing songs in 2001, and emerged as a solo artist in 2015 when his first album reached #1 on Billboard and was recognized by the Country Music Association (CMA) as Album of the Year, a feat he repeated with his second record in 2017.  I guess you can officially consider this a followup on my Am I A Cliche? post.

Country has gone in a way too pop direction in recent years.  Stapleton is a corrective.  The guy has an incredible voice and can write and sing in all sorts of different styles.  A sampling;

I Was Wrong features a soulful vocal with jazz touches, Nobody To Blame is traditional country, while Midnight Train to Memphis is a rocker.  On the last one, the gal singing backup is his wife, Morgane, a songwriter in her own right.  They've got four kids.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Am I A Cliche?

This is getting scary.  I read something yesterday reminding me that in early 1969 I'd seen the first hippie musical, Hair, on Broadway.  That triggered a cascade of memories.  In 1969 I also:
Saw The Who debut Tommy at the Fillmore East.

Went to Woodstock.  We were among the few with tickets.  I still have the program. And I drove my girlfriend's father's VW Van to get there! 

Attended a SDS meeting during freshman orientation at the U of Wisconsin and listened to young people argue over whether it was better to be a Stalinist or a Trotskyite.

That November I was one of 500,000 participants in the Moratorium Against the Vietnam War March in Washington DC.

I also watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

And viewed Casablanca for the first time.
I report, you decide.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Good News

Sometimes the news can be discouraging as one insanity gets piled atop another.  I thought Nike's recall of the Betsy Ross sneakers at the behest of a former athlete who admires Fidel Castro, the dictator, racist, homophobe, and murderer, was in that category.  Of course, just the prior week Nike dumped its designer of a sneaker for the Chinese market because he tweeted in support of those brave souls in Hong Kong protesting against the proposed extradition law, a law supported by the government in Beijing, which Nike takes pains not to offend so maybe I shouldn't have been shocked.

Below is a corrective.  A story from National Review Online.  Read it:
Fode Bade celebrates his five children being naturalized as American citizens at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia on July 4th (Chris Tremoglie)
Fode Bade did not know he was supposed to feel oppressed in the United States. However, as a native of Guinea, he certainly knew what oppression was. Entrenched poverty and periodic political violence plagued the African nation, and Bade’s survival to the next day was not guaranteed. In 2005, he came to the United States as a political refugee and was granted asylum. Free from the oppression of his native land, Bade prospered in America. And on July 4, he brimmed with pride as his four daughters and son became legal citizens of the United States at a special naturalization ceremony at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

On July 1, at the behest of Colin Kaepernick, Nike recalled their special Betsy Ross Flag Air Max 1 USA sneakers after the former quarterback expressed concerns over what “he believed are its associations with an era of slavery.” A billion-dollar corporation and a millionaire ex-athlete declared the patriotic flag as a symbol of racial oppression. Yet, on July 4, an African family, from a country victimized by the transatlantic slave trade, eagerly became citizens of a country under that very flag. Bade proudly stated, “I’m so grateful to this country.”
Children eagerly wait to be sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens at a special ceremony at the Betsy Ross House on July 4th (Chris Tremoglie)
As part of “Welcome America,” Philadelphia’s annual weeklong July 4 celebration, 13 children became American citizens at a special ceremony at the Betsy Ross House. Thirteen children are selected to commemorate the original 13 colonies, and the venue is chosen in honor of the seamstress of the first United States flag featuring the stars and stripes. The ceremony is in its 15th year and features a swearing-in ceremony, patriotic decorations, colonial reenactors, and the symbolic ringing of a bell — one time by each of the children — to honor the 13 original colonies. “Coming here, being an American citizen is the greatest thing someone can have on this earth,” Bade told National Review.

Another African immigrant, Ahmed, from Morocco, also witnessed his son, also named Ahmed, become naturalized at the ceremony. When asked what he thought the flag symbolized, the elder Ahmed did not hold back: “A better life.” Fresh off his naturalization, Ahmed was beaming with pride and enthusiastically waving the American flag — the Betsy Ross American flag. “America is great,” he told National Review.
Ahmed (center) was one of thirteen children who were naturalized as American citizens at a special ceremony at the Betsy Ross House on July 4th (Chris Tremoglie)
The irony here should not go unnoticed. Leftist American elites peddle a narrative of oppression while those from some of the grimmest places on earth continue to see the United States as a beacon of hope. As a billion-dollar corporation and millionaire athlete sought to delegitimize American exceptionalism, an African father did everything in his power to make sure his children became legal citizens — and specifically did so at the house of the latest American hero that leftists have targeted as offensive. “Americans don’t realize how good this country is,” said Bade.

Chris Tunde, an African-American living in Philadelphia, had a strong opinion on the Nike-Kaepernick flag controversy. “I’m not a Trump supporter but this whole Betsy Ross, Kaepernick, Nike stuff is ridiculous,” Tunde told National Review. “Nike should have stood their ground and told Kap to kick rocks.” When asked what he believed the Betsy Ross flag represented, Tunde replied, “It was the first flag, it represents the birth of America.”

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Big Sleepy Chill

With many thanks to Raymond Chandler and a tip o' the hat to Dashiell Hammett.

This is the time of year when folks like to complain about the heat, how tough it is on them, discuss how to cool off, or discourse on their favorite frozen concoction or confection.

Oh dear! How frightful! Well, as far as I’m concerned, fuggedaboutit. And I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights, and they’re a lot of long cold nights in the story I’m laying out. Some days I feel like playing it smooth. Some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron. Today's an iron day.

Let’s talk about a really chilly summer, one that would have made sure you complainers didn’t get an AC bill as big as my hangover this morning. Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.

And I’m not even talking about 1816, the Year Without A Summer, after Mt Tambora blew its lid like mine blew when I saw that mug on the street last night. He thought he had the drop on me but even on Central Ave. he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah . . .

I’m talking about real chill; I’m talking about 536 AD.

So quit your yapping, put on your big boy pants, and listen. And remember, there are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. This truth isn’t gonna make you feel toasty, so you better make do with science.

It started on a night with the desert wind blowing. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Well, it may have not exactly been that type of night. Maybe it was a night when all around was soft and quiet, the white moonlight cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find. Or, it might not have even been night. Other than that it’s probably how it happened.

It was a volcano that started it. Maybe in Iceland where the land is as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.

But, before we get to that . . .

We’ve always known something went seriously wrong with the climate in 536. For much of the Northern Hemisphere a strange cloud or “veil of dust” appeared making the sun noticeably dimmer during the day. The Byzantine historian Procopius wrote “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year“. In China, snow fell during the summer causing crops to fail and people to starve. Korean documents record massive storms. Irish chronicles mention “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Michael the Syrian recorded “[T]he sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years […] Each day it shone for about four hours and still this light was only a feeble shadow […] the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes.” The following winter in Mesopotamia was so brutal a chronicler wrote “from the large and unwonted quantity of snow the birds perished.” Dust fell from the sky. The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love. The streets were dark with something more than night. It was as cool as a cafeteria dinner. Most contemporaneous documentation states these conditions continued for years.

More recently confirmatory evidence of those terrible times has been uncovered. Tree ring studies in the 1990s confirmed the years around 540 were unusually cold and it is now calculated that summer temperatures fell 2.5 to 4 degrees F, beginning the coldest decade in the past 23 centuries. Archaeological evidence from Scandinavia shows that up to 75% of settlements were abandoned during those years.

Some places had it even worse. The Byzantines chose that year to invade Italy, trying to resurrect the glory days of the Roman Empire. Justinian’s general Belisarius landed in Naples that fall and marched into Rome unopposed on December 9. The Ostrogoths, after several years of chaos following the death of long time rule Theodoric, had retreated and the Byzantines thought the war was over. It wasn’t and what followed was two decades of battles, sieges, looting, famine, and devastation across the peninsula, on top of the horrible weather conditions. It was the Gothic War that spelled the real end of the classical city of Rome and of the traditional way of life in Italy. It makes you think maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right.

Some medieval historians say 536 was the worst year ever to be alive. I say that’s why they’re medieval historians.

For an agricultural society in which most people lived on the edge of survival the events had a terrible impact, shortening growing seasons, causing starvation, and weakening those who survived. After several years of cold, a new terror came to the Middle East, the Eastern Roman Empire, and western Europe with its origin in central Asia or China. Today it is known as the Justinian Plague, after the Byzantine Emperor of the times, the first confirmed outbreak of the bubonic plague. So many died so quickly the bodies were often left where they lay. Killing perhaps a quarter of the population, some believe its arrival and the high death toll are linked to a population already living on the brink of disaster. On the other hand, the problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.

Living on the edge reminds me of another mug who complained to me yesterday about how tough things were for him. I told him, “You’re broke, eh? I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.” Some people.

More recently, ice core data from Greenland and other evidence has given clues as to the origin of the deluge of cold. While some thought it lay in a meteor strike, it now appears there was a massive eruption in 536, likely from a volcano in Iceland, and another huge eruption in 540 or 541 though its location is more uncertain.

So while you’re whipping up your favorite frozen concoction, or whatever it is you people do, take a moment to think about all those souls, living on the margins back then and how they chilled out.

As for me, after this, I need a drink, I need a lot of life insurance, I need a vacation, I need a home in the country. What I have is a coat, a hat and a gun. I’m putting them on and getting out of here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


Equanimity - The quality of being calm and even-tempered; composure.

It was March 7, 161 AD.  Nearing 75 years of age, the ailing Emperor Antoninus Pius, the longest lived emperor since the Principate's second ruler, Tiberius, who died in 37 at the age of 79, retired for the evening, knowing he had not long to live.  Earlier that day he'd summoned his Imperial Council and announced he was transferring power to his adoptive son.  As he lay in bed, his guard asked for the customary password to be used by the night-watch this evening.  Antoninus responded "AEQUANIMITAS" (equanimity in English).  He died in his sleep that night.  The password was an appropriate capstone to his life.

When the Empire in the West ceased to exist more than three centuries later, no ruler would have even reached the age of 70, except for Gordian I, who reigned for all of 21 days in 238 before committing suicide at 78 and Tacitus, who held the throne for nine months in 276.

Antoninus became emperor on July 11, 138.  He is one of five Roman rulers popularly known, following the terminology of Edward Gibbon (author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in the late 18th century), as the Good Emperors who governed from 96 to 180.  Many later historians dispute the terminology, though Cassius Dio writing in the third century would not, characterizing the period afterwards as when "our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust", but the reign of the five emperors undoubtedly represents Rome at its greatest geographical extent and prosperity.
Image result for coin of antoninus pius
The five were very different.  Nerva (96-98) was an elderly senator elevated after the assassination of Domitian.  As part of the deal surrounding his ascension he adopted Trajan as his son and successor.

After Nerva's brief reign, Trajan (born 56, reigned 98-117) became the first foreign born emperor (his Italian family had emigrated to Spain more than a century earlier).  A warrior by temperament, Trajan destroyed and annexed the Dacian Kingdom, ancient enemies of Rome and located north of the Danube in modern day Romania.  And then, dreaming of Alexander the Great, Trajan launched his greatest expedition in 114, annexing Armenia and attacking the Parthian Empire.  Moving down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers he stormed the Parthian winter capital of Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad) and then became the only Roman Emperor to stand on the shores of the Persian Gulf.  Prevented from fulfilling his aspirations by continuing Parthian raids into Mesopotamia from their homeland base on the Iranian plateau and the need to quell major Jewish revolts in Egypt and Cyrenaica (modern Libya), Trajan returned to Antioch in 116.  Falling ill, he died the next year, his recent conquests left in chaos.

According to Trajan's wife, the deceased emperor had named Hadrian as his successor and who was to vouchsafe her?  Hadrian (born 76, reigned 117-38) was of a much different temperament than his predecessor.  His was a reign of consolidation, not expansion.  The emperor was highly intelligent, a man of culture, arrogant, and petty. Abandoning Trajan's middle east conquests, Hadrian returned to Rome.  After stabilizing the political situation in the capital, he embarked on three lengthy tours of the empire, eight years in all, inspecting fortifications and legions on the frontiers.  His most famous action in that respect was ordering the construction of what we now call Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain.  Reportedly he personally designed the wall; Hadrian took pride in his self-described architectural skills, also directing the rebuilding and design of the Pantheon in Rome and his astonishing villa in Tivoli.

(Map of Hadrian's travels)
Image result for map of hadrian's travels
Hadrian also took time to be a sightseer, most notably in Egypt and Greece, particularly Athens, where he spent three winters.  It was Hadrian's love of Hellenic culture and his dislike of the Jewish (in the ancient world these were seen very much as opposites by both Hellenes and Jews) that sparked the greatest crisis of his regime.  In 132 he ordered the construction of a Greek Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site that had laid abandoned since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.  The proposed defilement of the site triggered a massive Jewish revolt, led by Bar Kochba, which took three years and a third of Rome's entire army to subdue.  In the aftermath, Hadrian banned Jews from Judea, placed a garrison on the site along with his temple, and renamed both the city (Aelia Capitolina) and the province (from Judea to Syria Palaestina).  It's why while I enjoy reading about Hadrian I am not an admirer.

Like Trajan and Nerva, Hadrian was childless.  As his health declined after 135 the matter of his planned succession became more important.  His initial appointed successor died in 137 and he next turned to an older (born in 86) and highly regarded Roman senator, who became known as the Emperor Antoninus Pius, after Hadrian's death the following year.  To ensure longer-term stability, as a condition of Hadrian's appointment, Pius, also childless, was required to adopt the sons of two prominent Roman families, the 17 year old Marcus Aurelius and 8 year old Lucius Verus.

Twenty three years later, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were to succeed Antoninus as co-emperors, with Marcus as the senior partner.  Lucius died in 169 but Marcus soldiered on until 180.  And soldiering is much of what they did.  Lucius spent much of his reign in the east, fighting the Parthians, while Marcus was fully occupied taking on the barbarians who flooded across the Danube, posing the greatest threat to Italy in almost three centuries.  Marcus spent his last years on the Danube, far from Rome, overseeing his legions and writing Meditations, musings based on the Stoic philosophy he followed.  Unlike the prior four emperors, Marcus had a son (Commodus) to whom he unfortunately trusted the empire upon his death (for more on his death and Stocism read At Vindobona).

The reign of Antonius Pius was unlike that of the other four.

Unlike Nerva's two years governing the Principate, the twenty three years of Antoninus was the longest reign between Tiberius (14-37) and Constantine the Great (306-337).

Unlike Trajan he sought no expansion of the empire and did not embark upon wars of conquest.

Unlike Trajan (Trajan's Forum & Market) and Hadrian (Pantheon) he initiated no monumental construction projects in Rome.

Unlike Trajan and Hadrian, Antoninus never faced any violent revolts by the populace.

Unlike the wandering Hadrian, Antoninus never left Italy during his entire reign, preferring to spend his time outside of Rome at his nearby villas.

Unlike Marcus Aurelius he was not forced into desperate wars to protect the empire, and not faced with a financial crisis which reduced Marcus to auctioning furniture from the Imperial Palace to pay for those wars.

Unlike Marcus he faced no open revolts within his army.

And unlike Marcus he did not have to deal with the Antonine Pandemic which swept across the Roman world beginning in 165, a pandemic thought to be smallpox and which killed a significant portion of the empire's population.

His reign was tranquil and the most peaceful of any during the entire history of the Empire (31 BC - 476 AD).  His only military adventure was early in his rule, an advance in Britain from Hadrian's Wall to a line between present day Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, where an earthen wall was constructed and garrisoned for the next twenty years.  Whether this was provoked by raids from Scottish tribes, or just an effort to garner prestige for the new regime remains unknown.

Within the empire he spent funds on roads and aqueducts but his greatest contribution was probably in the area of legal reforms.  He enacted measurements making the freeing of slaves easier, punished killing of slaves by masters, requiring forcible sale of slaves if they were consistently mistreated and limiting the use of torture when obtaining testimony by slaves.  He endorsed the principle that accused persons are not to be treated as guilty before trial and required that records of interrogations be kept to be available in the event of appeals of verdicts.  Doesn't sound like much by modern standards but not bad for the second century.

His whole life had been quiet so his ruling style was not a surprise.  Son of a Senatorial family from Nemausus (Nimes) in Gaul, and raised at Lanuvium in the Alban Hills outside Rome, he rose to prominence becoming counsel under Hadrian in 120, later one of four proconsuls for Italia, and finally taking the prestigious role of proconsul for Asia (today the western part of Turkey, adjacent to the Aegean, and one of the richest Roman provinces.

(Modern Lanuvium, 20 miles from Rome)

In 141, Antoninus' wife of thirty years, Faustina, died.  By all accounts he was devoted to her and after her death had the Temple of Antoninus & Faustina built in the Roman Forum.  The temple still stands today due to its conversion to a Christian church after the end of the empire - a similar conversion saved the Pantheon.  At some point after his wife's death he began living with Galena Lysistrata, one of Faustina's freedwomen (former slave), and their relationship lasted until his death.

(Temple of Antoninus & Faustina today)
Image result for temple of antoninus and faustina
Amidst the usual tumult of war, conspiracy, murder, and unrest that surrounds most Roman emperors, Antoninus Pius stands out because nothing stands out about his rule other than its lack of exciting events.

And now, it's time to say goodnight to Antoninus, with equanimity.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Who's The Fool?

Mr Trump is said to upset the norms of our political life, but how exactly?  By lying? By engaging in demagoguery?  By making absurd claims?  His real trick has been to be a one-man satire of our politics.  And so far he has yet to find an opponent or critic - whether Mr Biden, or Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney - who doesn't prove his point.

To show what a liar he is, his enemies entangle themselves in lies.  Democrats have turned themselves into a party of Adam Schiffs, who, whatever his previous virtues, now is wholly defined by his promotion of the collusion canard.  It's an amazing psychological feat to squander their advantage over Mr Trump in this way.

Ditto the media.  In their eagerness to traffic in falsehoods about Mr Trump, his media critics lend him strength.  We face the weird prospect now of a world-class scandal involving the FBI and the intelligence community being aired even while much of the press is committed to being part of the coverup.

- Holman Jenkins, Wall St Journal, May 4, 2019

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Recommended Reading

Books I've enjoyed recently reading.

On May 24, 1869, ten men in four boats pushed off from Green River Station in Wyoming.  Ninety eight days later, after battling their way down the Green and Colorado Rivers, six men and two boats emerged from the Grand Canyon.  In Down The Great Unknown (2001), Edward Dolnick tells the story of the voyage of one-armed John Wesley Powell and his expedition as they became the first men known to have traveled by water through the entire Grand Canyon.

The book works as a combination adventure tale, character study, interspersed with clear explanations of geology and the technical aspects of shooting rapids.  Dolnick conveys the audacity of Powell's plan; none of the crew members had significant experience on the water, their boats unsuitable for the task, and no foreknowledge of what they would encounter.  All they knew was the elevation difference between their start and end points was 6,000 feet, but they didn't know if the descent was gradual or whether around a corner in a canyon they would plunge over the equivalent of Niagara Falls.  This book is a page turner.

An expedition three centuries earlier, also in the desert southwest, is the subject of Richard Flint's No Settlement, No Conquest (2013), an account of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado's exploration of 1539 to 1542, which included 500 Spaniards and several thousand Indian allies from Mexico, was not looking for natural resources to exploit, or land for settlement like the English and Scots who came to America's east coast in the 17th and 18th century.

Rather they were looking for already prosperous Indian societies which they could exploit, making their fortunes if the King via his Viceroy in Mexico City were to grant them encomiendas which would allow them to treat Indians as virtual serfs.  The startling wealth found by Spaniards in central Mexico and a few years later in the Inca Empire became their inspiration.  The Coronado expedition wandered through modern Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, and even onto the Staked Plains of west Texas in a vain search for the rumored Seven Cities of Gold.  By far the best, and best written, account I know of.

There's a lot of badly written historical fiction out there which is why, when I discovered Harry Sidebottom's novels of ancient Rome, most set in the third century AD, I devoured them.  His latest, The Lost Ten, is the tale of a team of Roman soldiers and spies sent undercover into the Sassanid Empire to free a captive Persian prince from a castle near the Caspian Sea and bring him to Rome.  It's all in the service of conflicting internal Roman intrigues.  Sidebottom knows how to combine plot, character development, intertwined with accurate settings and historical background into a thrilling ride.

I avoid Gothic tales, particularly those with a hint of the supernatural so I was a bit reluctant to read The Shadow Of The Wind by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon even when it was recommended by a friend.   It took a little while but the book pulled me in and I've now read the second book in his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series.  The books, set in Barcelona, in periods from the First World War into the Franco regime, are logically implausible but irresistibly enthralling.

Zafon reminds me of one of my favorite authors who also happens to be Spanish - Arturo Perez-Reverte.  I've read all of his 20 or so novels.  Start with The Queen of the South and then move to The Nautical Chart, The Flanders Panel and The Painter of Battles.  He's also written six historical fiction novels, the Captain Alatriste series set in early 17th century Spain.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Weight Of Love

From The Black Keys.  Has a Pink Floyd vibe at the beginning but evolves into something different.  Catch the dual guitars at the end.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The 4th

Equality, rightly understood, as our Founding Fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism. —Barry Goldwater

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Timely Reminder

News you can use . . . 

If you are driving in a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lane on the highway and the only other occupant is dead you are not meeting the legal requirement that the vehicle contain at least two passengers.  It also means that if your passenger should tragically die while you are in the HOV lane, you must immediately change lanes.

Always looking for ways to help our readers!!