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March 31, 2012
For to cook a unicorn
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM * 122 comments

Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library,” announced the British Library in their Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog, in a news story dated 01 April 2012.

Uh-huh, sure.

It’s a nice piece of work, and the illustrations are charming. Lo here:

A long-lost medieval cookbook, containing recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds and even unicorns, has been discovered at the British Library. Professor Brian Trump of the British Medieval Cookbook Project described the find as near-miraculous. “We’ve been hunting for this book for years. The moment I first set my eyes on it was spine-tingling.”

Experts believe that the cookbook was compiled by Geoffrey Fule, who worked in the kitchens of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England (1328-1369).

Geoffrey Fule’s wife was no doubt named Aprille. I expect she hung out with lady-in-waiting Philippa de Roet, who coincidentally was also married to a guy named Geoffrey.

The nameless experts the story cites are to be congratulated on their knowledge of 14th C. employment records, as are Professor Brian Trump and the British Medieval Cookbook Project for their successful unicorn hunt.

Geoffrey had a reputation for blending unusual flavours — one scholar has called him “the Heston Blumenthal of his day” — and everything points to his hand being behind the compilation.
If we knew this much about a prominent cook of that period, right down to his seasoning preferences, there would already be a scholarly industry devoted to studying him, and he’d be the main character in a series of modern mystery novels.
After recipes for herring, tripe and codswallop (fish stew, a popular dish in the Middle Ages) —
Herring as in red herring, tripe as in tripe, and codswallop as in the modern phrase, “a load of codswallop.”
— comes that beginning “Taketh one unicorne”.
Grammatically, that would be the second-person dubious.
The recipe calls for the beast to be marinaded in cloves and garlic, and then roasted on a griddle.
This is careless. One doesn’t roast on a griddle. Also, the illustration mistakenly depicts the unicorn (which hasn’t been properly cleaned and gutted) being martyred by being grilled on a gridiron in the style of St. Lawrence of Rome, one of the patron saints of cooks.

(Lawrence is notably one of the saints whose colorful Life was probably generated by a typo. When not shown being cooked, he’s generally shown standing around with his gridiron: a reminder to home barbecue enthusiasts that if you don’t keep those things clean, stuff sticks to them. But I digress.)

The cookbook’s compiler, doubtless Geoffrey Fule himself, added pictures in its margins, —
It’s wonderful how they can tell that.
— depicting the unicorn being prepared and then served. Sarah J Biggs, a British Library expert on medieval decoration, commented that “the images are extraordinary, almost exactly as we’d expect them to be, if not better”.
That last line is splendidly impossible. There are no illustrated cookbooks from that period, and darn few pictures of cooking of any sort, so it’s hard to see how Ms. Biggs or anyone else could have had expectations of them. It’s also a remarkable achievement for the illustrations to simultaneously be extraordinary, exactly as expected, and better than that. “Pick one,” as I used to say in my copyediting days.
The recipe for cooking blackbirds is believed to be the origin of the traditional English nursery rhyme “Sing a song of sixpence / A pocket full of rye / Four-and-twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie.”
There are various theories about the origins of this nursery rhyme, none of them especially good. (See Wikipedia, The Straight Dope, and As the Wikipedia entry says (in a withering remark which I think they lifted from The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes),
No corroborative evidence has been found to support these theories, and given that the earliest version [printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, London, c. 1744] has only one verse and mentions “naughty boys” and not blackbirds, they can only be applicable if it is assumed that more recently printed versions accurately preserve an older tradition.
Inventing one more dubious theory about the origins of that nursery rhyme is like inventing one more spurious prophecy attributed to Thomas of Ercildoune. There’s no risk of contaminating a field of scholarship with an unkillable story if it won’t make the subject any more of a mess than it already is.
Professor Trump added that he was tempted to try some of the recipes, but suspected that sourcing ingredients would be challenging. “Unfortunately, they don’t stock unicorn in my local branch of Tesco.”
In popular writing about medieval cooking, that last bit is the equivalent of ending a thumb-sucking news story with “Only time will tell.”

The final illustration is particularly good.

(See also The Arbroath Bestiary: De vombato.)

March 28, 2012
How to pack the M-1928 Haversack
Posted by Teresa at 07:54 AM *

While researching something else (my usual excuse), I came across this remark about the standard WWII G.I. backpack, a.k.a. the M-1928 Haversack:

How the hell does this thing go together? The Haversack is a rather unique (bizarre) design, one that I personally suspect was conceived under the influence of serious narcotics. The link below is a reprint from the Army Field Manual: How to Pack the Haversack.
But the link was no longer there. Fortunately, the web is full of military gear collectors, and reenactment groups with lists of particular requirements. I went looking. Short version: I can’t vouch for its designer having been on drugs, but the WWII M-1928 Haversack is a genuinely weird piece of gear.

The regulation fully-packed haversack (minus entrenching tool) as it was designed to be worn.

The USMC pack diagram, with the full directions for correctly packing and fastening it broken out into the full glory of 32 separate steps. Alas, the details are hard to read.

The version of the diagram with the greatest number of readable labels.

An older but by far the most readable version of the Army Field Manual’s instructions. If I may quote a bit:

Place the assembled equipment on the ground, suspender side of the haversack down, pockets of cartridge belt up, haversack spread out, inside flap and pack carrier extended their full length to the rear. Place one container of hard bread on its side in the center of the haversack in front of and touching the line of attachment of the inside flap. Place two cans of meat component end to end, parallel to and in front of the can of hard bread. Place the remaining container of hard bread in front of the cans of the meat component. Place the toilet articles and socks in front of the hard bread. The inside flap of the haversack is folded over these articles , the end of the flap being turned in so that the flap, thus shortened, extends about 2 inches beyond the top of the upper row …
That’s not the really complicated part.

Photos of the pack components, giving some idea of their unintuitive nature. Another view of the pack components.

A video showing how the triangular bit worked.

A page about the M-1928 Haversack, with a photo of a fully-packed regulation specimen (including entrenching tool). The page says:

The M-1928 haversack straps had snap hooks for attaching to the pistol belt M-1936 or cartridge belt M-1923. Eyelets on the side of the pack are provided to attach the Springfield bayonet or Garand bayonet. A canvas tab with eyelets at the top of the pack is for attaching the cover for the M-1910 intrenching tool cover.

The Pouch, Meat Can, M-1910/1928 (canvas mess kit pouch) had four loops on the back that passed through buttonholes on the flap of the haversack, held in place with long straps underneath. It had three internal pockets for knife, fork, and spoon.

The Carrier, Pack, M-1928 was a triangular attachment to the haversack (called the “diaper”) designed for additional gear such as shelter half or blanket. …

Even though it was the most widely used pack, the Haversack (M-1910 or M-1928) was very impractical and unpopular. To assemble and put one on was a complex process and not easy to do in the field with many steps, straps and ways to go wrong. The haversack and pack carrier had to be assembled using a coupling strap threaded through button holes. Then the suspender hooks are attached to the pistol or cartridge belt. Then the shelter half, blanket, poles and pegs are rolled up in a specified way with clothing inside the folds. Rations and toilet articles are packed into the haversack which is folded over and strapped after which the shelter roll is buckled into the pack carrier with three binding straps then closed with more straps. Provisions were made for an overcoat and raincoat to be added to the pack when needed.

If all these steps, straps, folds, wraps, rolls, buckles, snaps, and fiddly bits strike you as sounding more like WWI-era military technology, you’re nearly right. The WWI model was very similar, but the system actually dates back to the 1910 pack, as carried by the Fort Huachuca cavalry. For entertainment on Sundays, they’d lay it all out in exact order for inspection.

Though it underwent various modifications, the 1910 pack’s underlying conceptual design would continue in use until 1956.

March 26, 2012
TSA Successfully Identifies a Real Threat
Posted by Patrick at 04:02 PM * 57 comments

To the TSA, that is.

Looks like the TSA really, really doesn’t want to let Bruce Schneier testify in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Well, and who can blame them, considering.

Defending the Wall Street Bull
Posted by Teresa at 01:23 PM * 43 comments

This came out a few days ago from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund:

How Homeland Security Is Hiding the Feds’ Role in Occupy Crackdown

A trove of documents released today by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in response to a FOIA request filed by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, filmmaker Michael Moore and the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee reveal that federal law enforcement agencies began their coordinated intelligence gathering and operations on the Occupy movement even before the first tent went up in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011.

On September 17, 2011, a Secret Service intelligence entry in its Prism Demonstrations Abstract file records the opening of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. The demonstration location that the Secret Service was protecting? The “Wall Street Bull.” The name of the Protectee? The “U.S. Government.”

American taxpayers might find it odd to learn that the Secret Service was on duty to protect the Wall Street Bull in the name of protecting the U.S. Government …

I certainly do find it odd.

First, the Wall Street Bull was never in jeopardy from anyone.

Second, the Wall Street Bull belongs neither to Wall Street nor to the Federal Government. Who does own it is a good question, but the two main contenders are sculptor Arturo Di Modica, and the City of New York.

Third, the U.S. Government was neither in peril, nor the focus of the protest. If we’ve gotten to the point where a protest aimed at Wall Street is perceived as putting the U.S. Government in jeopardy, then Houston, we have a problem.

Fourth, the Department of Homeland Security is supposed to prevent or respond to terrorist attacks, man-made disasters, and natural disasters. It has no authority to act as a general police force, and certainly doesn’t have the authority to interfere with legitimate citizen protests. This has enormous potential implications. The DHS has way too much power and way too little scrutiny when it’s just going after terrorists. Imagine the whole country operating under airport rules.

Fifth, the same goes for the Secret Service, which was also involved. If the DHS has zero jurisdiction in these matters, the Secret Service has less than zero. Their official job is to (a.) protect the president and vice president and their families, plus presidential candidates, foreign embassies, and visiting heads of state; and (b.) to safeguard the Treasury and national financial systems, which used to mostly mean counterfeiting, but these days includes financial institutional fraud, computer fraud, electronic transfers and money laundering, and other criminal activities of that sort. They should not had had anything to do with the Occupy Wall Street protests.

I find it disturbing that the Secret Service didn’t even bother to invent a bllsht link between their involvement and some hoked-up threat OWS might present to national financial institutions. It tells me that acting completely outside their constitutional powers is nothing new for them.

If the Secret Service is supposed to go after financial institutional fraud, they’re one of the primary institutions that failed in their duty to protect us from the financial chicanery that brought down the economy. Now we see them acting illegally as Wall Street’s defenders and enforcers. I cannot believe that these circumstances are unrelated.

Sixth, it appears from the documents that these federal agencies began acting against the Occupy Wall Street movement before the first protests even happened. This, if you don’t mind my saying so, is a complete fckng outrage, a violation of numerous constitutional rights, an extremely dangerous precedent, and — judging from the actual documents — not at all unusual.

I object to this, strenuously and without cease. It’s exactly the kind of Secret Police bllsht the Constitution explicitly prohibits — and with good reason. If you don’t know why, ask the thread.

Addendum, because SamChevre reminded me:

My seventh objection is to the paragraph which follows the one I initially quoted:

These documents, many of which are redacted, show that the highest officials in the Department of Homeland Security were preoccupied with the Occupy movement and have gone out of their way to project the appearance of an absence of federal involvement in the monitoring of and crackdown on Occupy.
Operational security is justified in legitimate investigations. This isn’t operational security. DHS is trying to cover up the fact that they’re acting way outside their already overbroad authority. That kind of secrecy is not legitimate in a government whose authority is derived from the consent of the governed.

Axis Hetalia romance
Posted by Teresa at 01:00 PM * 53 comments

I had no luck this weekend searching Netflix for “Hetzer,” but a listing popped up for the first season of Axis: Hetalia. I’d seen it mentioned on Scandinavia and the World, and gathered that it’s an animated Japanese series of greater-than-usual weirdness in which the characters are all personifications of nation states. What the hell. I clicked over to take a closer look.

Below are the actual episode notes from Netflix. I will never, ever watch this show. It couldn’t possibly measure up.

Hetalia: Axis Powers
Season One

1. When the nations gather to solve the world’s problems, U.S.A. presents his solution to global warming — and it’s a pretty stupid one. Then everyone argues for a while, just before a flashback to WWI.

2. Germany is prowling the woods of WWI in search of the enemy, when he happens upon a crate of tomatoes. Just as he opens the wooden box, Italy attacks! I’m only kidding. Italy mostly just lays around.

3. WWI is over, but Italy won’t quit pestering Germany. In fact, with WWII right around the corner, Italy pledges his undying devotion to his gruff friend, and a delightful Axis of Bromance is born.

4. Italy and Germany have a new BFF: Japan. After a “getting acquainted” soak in the hot springs, Japan shows the guys his value as an ally by — actually, he doesn’t really do much. But he seems very polite.

5. Germany, Japan, and Italy are on a deserted island, and they’re making the most of such a pleasant environment. Especially Italy, who uses the free time make white flags and sand sculptures of pasta.

6. Japan, Germany, and Italy roast marshmallows on the beach. The three guys may feel like the night belongs to them, but they are far from alone. Actually, marshmallows sound pretty good right now. BRB.

7. U.S.A. takes a break from stuffing hamburgers into his face just long enough (barely) to reveal his plans for attacking the Axis. Meanwhile, much to Germany’s delight, Italy’s got an obnoxious brother.

8. Since Italy’s kind of a moron, he keeps getting captured by the Allies. But since he’s kind of annoying, he keeps getting sent back to the Axis. And in a shocking turn of events, Japan answers a telephone!

9. The Allies get together to split up their responsibilities for the coming war, which really just means: U.S.A. decides he’ll be the hero and everyone else will act as his support. Meanwhile, isn’t France dreamy?

10. France is devastated upon learning he wasn’t invited to the second meeting of the Allies, and as he reflects on the — I’m sorry, can you excuse me for a second? It seems chibi Italy is wearing Hungary’s dress.

11. The moment of truth arrives in Chibitalia: will Italy accept the adorable Holy Roman Empire’s offer? And while the Allies prepare for WWII, U.K. totally hangs out with a unicorn.

12. First, a scene from after the war: France asks U.K. to marry him. It has something to do with the Suez Canal. Next, a scene set before the war shows the Axis prepping to take on U.K.

13. U.K. is aggravated after losing to Germany, so the lad uses the dark arts to get his revenge. In a scary room, he chants a summoning spell and unleashes — Russia, the weirdest of all world powers!

14. Germany goes to the supermarket to buy sausages. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be exciting, but during this trip he manages to encounter every mildly offensive stereotype ever associated with every nation ever.

15. Italy and Germany enjoy soaking in the rays of the sun, but Japan isn’t thrilled about the prospect of exposing himself. Of course, a quick glimpse at his library proves he’s not totally against nudity.

16. A walk down memory lane reveals the moment when China found tiny, young Japan sitting all alone in the woods.

17. U.S.A. is ready to clean out his cluttered storage room, but he may not have what it takes to let go of so many memories. Actually, he may need to worry more about letting go of some hamburgers.

18. The Allied assault on the Axis begins! And ends! And then it begins again! And ends again! What’s with all the false starts and sudden stops? It’s kind of hard to explain. Just watch the episode.

19. The Allied forces gather for a meeting. Here’s a list of the three most interesting things that happen: 1) China shows up late. 2) Canada has a bear in his lap. 3) OMG, AXIS SPY.

20. A tale of two weapons: First of all, Italy shouldn’t be messing around with hand grenades. Can we all agree on that? Next, U.S.A. takes a trip down memory lane when he finds an old musket in his storage room.

21. Sealand has a lot of heart, but as the teeny-tiniest nation in the world, he’s having a tough time getting the other countries to recognize that he even exists.

22. As Holy Roman Empire prepares to leave for war, little Italy gets emotional and gives the departing nation a meaningful gift. Well, really, I’m just assuming it’s meaningful. Because, otherwise, it’s just silly.

23. Switzerland questions why his sis, Liechtenstein, cut her hair. Everyone else questions if she’s actually a little boy. Later, Germany is confused when he overhears an awkward situation involving Italy and a bed.

24. Tension arises when Switzerland and Liechtenstein encounter Austria at the grocery store. Meanwhile, the Axis boys discover that their deserted island isn’t actually all that deserted.

25. A flashback into the past reveals the reasons why U.S.A. might sometimes appear to be lacking in good taste. Also, the long and winding tale of Liechtenstein and Switzerland comes to an end.

26. U.K. unveils the secret weapon he plans to use in order to claim revenge against U.S.A. — a chair! An EVIL chair! An EVIL chair that Russia keeps sitting in at all the wrong moments!

27. The Allies get their hands on a valuable source of information that could reveal the inner workings of the Axis gang: Germany’s diary! And it’s all about Italy. Seriously, like every page.

28. The Axis falls under Allied attack once again! But then something strange happens — a jolly visitor arrives bearing gifts, allowing enemies to put aside their differences if only for one night.

29. Russia knows no fear, as evidenced by his willingness to jump out of an airplane without a parachute. The Baltics, however, seem to be more than a little uneasy around Russia.

I predict that in the future, many high school graduates will score higher on quizzes about Axis: Hetalia than on quizzes about the causes of WWI and WWII.

*** SPOILERS *** The Hunger Games ***SPOILERS***
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:48 PM * 24 comments

Okay, a place to discuss the book(s) and movie without the need for ROT-13 or further warnings.


You have been warned.

March 25, 2012
tollo, tollere, sustuli, sublatum
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:42 AM * 109 comments

There is a Latin verb which can mean “to build up” or “to tear down”. Playing my birthday present with my kids, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, I’m irresistibly reminded of it.

Previous Ratchet & Clank games have been essentially buddy movies, with our heroes repeatedly saving the universe—only to have it manage to get back in jeopardy again between iterations. They’re classic platformers, livened up by wry commentary and amusing touches*. It’s probably my favorite gaming franchise.

All 4 One bills itself as being all that and cooperative to boot: a truly multiplayer addition to the series. Up to four people can play, and each of them controls a long-running character from the series. There’s Ratchet, the mechanical-genius lombax (a long-eared, furry-tailed bipedal species). There’s Clank, his wisecracking robot friend. Then there’s Quark, the Captain Hammer of the story: overblown and happy to take credit for anyone’s work, but essentially cowardly. Last of all, there’s Dr Nefarious, the substantially robotic nemesis, prone to reciting snatches of soap operas when his gears don’t mesh right. (Note that if you’re Jenny Nae Mates, the game will run the necessary characters with its own AI.)

My family finds it all but unplayable in collaborative mode.

The gameplay itself is fine: each character has a lot of freedom within the frame. Players have to work together to defeat some challenges (propelling each other to places they can’t jump or drawing fire from a robotic turret while someone else sneaks up to its unshielded back side). If more than one player shoots at a target, they share credit for the “kill”, and characters who are killed can be revived by other players.

All good.

But then, at the end of each level, the game ranks the players against one another. Who killed the most enemies? Who got the most treasure? Who died the most? Who was the most cooperative?. Winners get titles like “Most Heroic” and “Bolt Master”. But if someone manages to not come in first in any of the categories, they’re labeled “Noob”.

First quibble: “most cooperative” only measures behaviors like “shoots at the same target as everyone else” and “revives fallen comrades.” Things like “being the one who always does a particular task so that no one else has to” don’t get counted. obKloutAlgorithm, if you measure the wrong stuff, you reward the wrong person.

Second quibble: my reaction to seeing anyone I’m playing with being called a “Noob” simply because other people scored higher is easily expressed in Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. It’s not only an insult; it’s also an absolute term being applied to a comparative score. And it ignores the honor and value in being a jack of all trades (and master of none), or the second best swordsman in Caribastos.

But the problem is bigger than an inability to measure true cooperation or find the right terms. The real issue is that setting the characters against each other destroys the trust and collaboration that’s the selling point of the game.† Then, after the separation of sheep and goats, after the judging and the ranking, the awarding of titles and the name-calling, somehow the players have to work together again. They have to reinvent the team from its competing components, over and over again.

How many times do we see that in collaborative environments? Workplaces are prone to it, of course; the team does the work and the manager takes the credit. People succeed or fail on their own because judging them on their team’s performance “damages individual endeavor” and “encourages freeloading”. This means that people whose main gift is making teams jell and work together are undervalued.

But I’d also submit that it’s another flavor of the tension that we’re struggling with as citizens of capitalist nations. How much do we want the entire society to succeed, and what do we do when our own interests cut against that? You know the drumbeat: Raise taxes to provide a safety net or fund better public education? Pay for others’ health care? Including the stuff I don’t approve of? What do you mean she works hard; all she does is take care of the kids. But they’re wasteful. They bought a wide-screen TV. They buy brand-name food with their food stamps. Work-shy. Slut. Lazy. Irresponsible.


* Weapons include the Sheepinator, which turns your enemies into sheep; the Chickenator; and the RYNO — Rip You a New One — which plays the 1812 Overture as it fires.
† It also damages gameplay. For instance, characters need to collect money (bolts, in-game) and spend it on new weapons. If one character can’t afford a new weapon because someone else was obsessed with being the Bolt Master and hogged all the treasure, the entire team’s ability to proceed is hampered.

March 23, 2012
Where are the young fans?
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:04 PM * 50 comments

They’re right here. (Midnight showing of The Hunger Games.)

One of the interviewees is my beloved younger daughter, founding president of the Simmons Science Fiction and Fantasy Club.

March 20, 2012
John Carter of Mars
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:40 PM *

I read over at CNN Money:

Disney: ‘John Carter’ loses $200 million

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — It’s official. The Disney movie “John Carter” is a flop of legendary proportions. “John Carter,” based on a Martian adventure novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is expected to lose $200 million in Disney’s fiscal second quarter, which ends March 31.

Later in the story we read:

Box Office Mojo estimates the movie, which is heavy on special effects, cost $250 million to make.

We also read:

The swords-and-loin-cloths epic, a blend of sci-fi and fantasy, has raked in $184 million at box offices globally since its March 9 debut, according to Disney.

So, $250 million minus $184 million equals “more than $200 million”? Ooookay…. Sounds like Hollywood Accounting to me, but what do I know?

What I can tell you is that failing to earn more in three weeks than most films earn worldwide in their lives isn’t “a flop of legendary proportions.” For that matter, earning $184 million in less than two weeks isn’t half bad. That’s better than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone did in its first two weeks, and no one’s calling Harry Potter “a flop of legendary proportions.” More so, given that John Carter doesn’t star anyone with a matinee marquee name, and came out on a non-holiday weekend in early March.

As it happens, Doyle and I saw John Carter this last Sunday night, down in Claremont, New Hampshire. I’ve seen some flops of legendary proportions—I saw Boat Trip with Cuba Gooding, Jr—and this wasn’t one. It was a charming little SF/fantasy movie.

We saw it in 2-D, which was just fine with us. (I think that 3-D is gimmicky.) I overlook the manifest stupidities (few people would know or care that our hero could hardly have been “decorated six times” in his role as a Confederate calvalryman—the Confederacy didn’t decorate its soldiers at all, and I’m baffled to this day as to why a US Cavalry officer, some years after the war, would bother trying to impress him into the army). The film was pretty, the characters were fun, and everyone involved seemed to be having a good time.

Watching it, I said to myself, “That looks an awful lot like Frazetta.” Later, I was unsurprised to learn that the original conceptual art was, indeed, done by Frank Frazetta. I’m the sort of guy who stays to the end and reads the credits: The best credit was for Spray Tans in the UK (by St. Tropez Tans).

Anyway, I thought it was a pretty good show. Better than either of the first two Star Wars prequels (I didn’t bother with the third Star Wars prequel: I hear it was a flop of legendary proportions).

That’s Why They Got CSI in Georgia
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:30 PM * 13 comments

The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia

The call came in at a quarter past four
Sheriff said “We’ve got a corpse on the floor
We just got done informing the next of kin.
The perp had a smoking gun in his hand
And he’d made threats against the man
But protocol says we have to call you in.”

That’s why they’ve got CSI in Georgia
So no one’s gonna hang an innocent man,
Don’t trust a thing you can’t photograph or measure
The guy in the vest’s got a vial of blood in his hand.

Time of death as like as not
Was an hour before you heard the shot
And that’s not the only thing that the M.E. found
The bullet in the corpse don’t match the gun
The thing I’m tryin’ to tell you, son,
Since when does a thirty-eight shoot a twenty-two round?

Two sets of footprints on the track
Two went down and one came back
And the earlier set was the one that went away.
Rain stopped fallin’ at a quarter past ten
So the prints were made some time past then
We got us a time-frame lookin’ for foul play.

The Amos boy is small and slight
Find out where he was last night
If the tracks aren’t his then we got to find out whose.
I looked at the stride an’ it don’t seem right
Depth of impression means it’s someone light
Could be a woman wearin’ a pair of man’s shoes.

That’s why they’ve got CSI in Georgia
So no one’s gonna hang an innocent man,
Don’t trust a thing you can’t photograph or measure
The guy in the vest’s got a vial of blood in his hand.

The wife is nowhere to be found
Don’t just stand there, look around
And track down everything the evidence shows.
I don’t believe that wifey’s left town
Even if no one’s seen her around
‘Cause she didn’t take her cash or her keys or clothes.

That’s why they’ve got CSI in Georgia
So no one’s gonna hang an innocent man,
Don’t trust a thing you can’t photograph or measure
The guy in the vest’s got a vial of blood in his hand.

Dysfunctional Families: Circled Strangers
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:25 AM *

I think we all know what should start this post.

spouse ringed spouse with cold pointed words, dishes bled down walls
we hid where we could to keep warm
mostly behind statues of ourselves
doors were cheap umbrellas for that sort of storm
books were best, hardbound deep cover
hear us reciting the logic of myth:

nail your trials to the lightning tree
ink them in crimson on the folded boat
whisper to a crack by the salt-clean sea
feed them to the bird with the ruby throat
sneak grief in a crate of smuggled tea
box damage in alder and pile with earth
banish pain with a dagger or sharp bit of bone
willow binds trouble in a fairy crown
burn notes on the ground by the upright stone
petition the bent man at the far edge of town

worn talismans break with heavy load, crow’s feather frays
so walk until you find a fire
circled strangers with the bent hearts and the worn hulls, making light
warming their hands over the embers
of the crooked timber that comes from family trees
from time to time

Stefan S, making an entrance in style

Continued from here. Continued here.

March 19, 2012
Maple Sugar 2012
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:18 PM * 47 comments

The temperature here is in the mid-seventies today.

Normally, this would be the first week of maple-sugaring in the North Country. Instead, the sugaring is all done. It’s been a light year, too. Smaller harvest than usual.

March 16, 2012
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:32 AM * 100 comments

I’d thought about doing a piece on tornadoes later this spring, but the events just this afternoon in Michigan reminded me that it’s not too early.

What is a tornado? It’s a rotating column of air that touches both a) the cloud base, and b) the ground.

In the United States:

  • Most tornadoes occur between 1500 and 2100 (3:00pm to 9:00pm) local time, but a tornado can happen at any hour of the day or night.
  • Most tornadoes move from southwest to northeast, but tornadoes can move in any direction.
  • Most tornadoes have a forward speed between 20 and 30 mph, but some tornadoes can move over 70mph, while others are nearly stationary.
  • Most tornadoes happen in spring-to-summer, but tornadoes can happen on any day in any season.
  • Most tornadoes are only yards wide, and last for a few minutes, but tornadoes can be over a mile wide, and remain on the ground for an hour or more.
  • Most tornadoes have visible funnel clouds, but some do not.
  • Tornadoes have been reported in every state in the Union. Last year, Massachusetts had some extraordinarily damaging tornadoes.
  • Tornadoes can occur over deserts, swamps, fields, forests, cities — any kind of terrain.

Even my little town of Colebrook had a tornado last year. It was a tiny EF0, but it went up Bridge Street not a hundred yards from my house, and it uprooted trees.

The “EF” in EF0 stands for the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a scale for classifying tornadoes based on their wind speed, derived from damage assessment. The original Fujita Scale ran from F0, hurricane speed, up to F12, Mach 1. In practice, however, nothing was ever rated above an F5, because at F5 the determinant was complete destruction. The revised version, the Enhanced Fujita Scale, only goes to EF5.

When a tornado shows up, you may have only minutes to seconds to decide what to do. That’s why I advise thinking through some scenarios in advance and making preparations before a tornado arrives.

Make a plan. Practice the plan. Stay alert to the situation. That advice is very similar to what you’re going to do to prepare for any emergency.


  1. Severe Thunderstorm Watch: Conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms to occur.
  2. Severe Thunderstorm Warning: A severe thunderstorm is in progress in your area.
  3. Tornado Watch: Conditions are favorable for tornado formation.
  4. Tornado Warning: A tornado has been spotted on the ground or with weather radar in your area.

All the watches and warnings in the world won’t help if you don’t hear them. Get a nice weather radio with battery backup, tone alert, and SAME technology. (SAME is Specific Area Message Encoding. That allows you to select exactly which warnings, for exactly which areas, you’ll receive. Tone alert means it only turns on when the specific warning you want comes across.) I really like the Midland WR-300 (costs ninety bucks new from the manufacturer, but you can find ‘em for half that by looking around on-line). Other manufacturers make similar devices. (In my opinion, however, it’s Midland, then all the others.) If you don’t have one, go get one now.

While you’re waiting for your weather radio to be delivered, designate a place in your house where you’ll go in case of a tornado. Select a spot that’s underground, if possible (basement), away from windows, in the smallest room possible. Basement bathrooms and closets are good. Store your bicycle or motorcycle helmets there. Under a heavy table, with a sleeping bag to pull on top of you to protect from debris is good. Folks used to recommend sheltering in the southwest corner of a basement, but, really, no corner is safer than any other, and debris tends to collect in corners. Instead, get as close to the center of the building as you can. If you do shelter under a heavy table, grab ahold of one leg so that if it gets blown around you’ll stay under it. Protect your head and neck with your other hand.

If you have the time, and money, and you own the building, you might consider building a safe room.

When selecting your shelter spot, keep in mind the possibility of flooding. Tornadoes are often (but not always) accompanied by heavy rain.

If you’re on the upper floor of a high-rise you may not have time to get to the basement. Go to an interior hallway (away from windows). If you’re in a trailer, go to the nearest sturdy building and shelter in the basement away from windows.

Put together a 72-hour kit in case you have to shelter in place. (That’s enough food and water to hold out for three days. A Flu Pre-pack is almost identical.) At the same time, put together a Go Bag (jump kit; bug-out bag), in case you have to leave in a hurry.

Plan with your family where you’ll meet up afterward if you’re scattered when disaster strikes. Pick a spot in your house, a spot in your neighborhood if your house is gone, and a spot at some distant location in case your neighborhood is gone, for a rallying point. Have a designated out-of-state contact person who can receive and relay messages, and carry that person’s phone number with you.

Now the storm is upon you.

Tornadoes can blow up suddenly. Perhaps there wasn’t a broadcast warning. Things to look for:

  • Greenish sky (this is caused by hail high in the air). Many (but not all) tornadoes are accompanied by odd sky colors.
  • Hail. Many (but not all) tornadoes are accompanied large/heavy hail.
  • Lightning (which presents dangers of its own). Many (but not all) tornadoes are accompanied by frequent and close lightning.
  • Wall cloud, particularly if you see rotation.
  • A funnel. Many (but not all) tornadoes have visible funnels. The funnel may be obscured by rain; the wind may not yet have picked up enough debris to show the funnel; condensation may not be forming in the funnel.
  • A moving debris field may, or may not, be visible.
  • A loud roaring sound. This is often compared to a freight train. But be aware that the sound depends on the environment, that other things besides tornadoes can cause a roaring sound, and some tornadoes are silent.
  • Tornadoes often form along the leading or trailing edges of severe thunderstorms. They can also form in hurricanes.

Don’t bother to open your windows. Low pressure isn’t what causes structural damage. High winds and flying debris cause the damage. If you have heavy shutters, closing them can help keep high winds and flying debris outside. Otherwise, flying debris will open your windows for you. Try to stay clear of windows: Shards of glass can cut you.

Go to your safe area with your radio, your flashlight, and a map (so you can follow the weather broadcast announcements of exactly where the storm is). Wait it out.

If you’re away from home, and there’s a tornado, stay out of areas with wide-span roofs (e.g. shopping malls, gymnasiums, cafeterias). If you’re in a car, depending on how far away the tornado is, the local geography (and how familiar with the local roads you are), and the traffic situation, don’t try to outrun the tornado, or drive at right-angles to its path (they can move pretty darned fast, and their paths can be erratic, assuming you can even figure out what the path is…). Instead, stop and get into the nearest sturdy building. If no sturdy buildings are available, get away from your car, find a low point in the ground, lie in it, and cover your head and neck. (Same thing if you’re in a mobile home and there’s no sturdy building handy. Get well away, find a low spot, and make yourself one with the ground.)

The amount of energy in a tornado is titanic. There is no sure safety.

Flying debris is the main danger during a tornado. Afterward, the main danger is fire. If you heat or cook with gas, know where the master shut off is located. If shutting it off requires a special wrench, get one of those wrenches. Know how to shut off electricity in your house at the fuse box or breaker box. You’ll want sturdy shoes/boots. Stepping on broken glass and nails afterward causes half of the casualties in a tornado.

Stay safe. Assess the damage. Render what aid you can to others.

More info:

Index to Medical Posts

March 14, 2012
The Flounce Song
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:44 AM * 34 comments

To flounce… the professional flounce
To sigh… when the comments are cruel
To weep… when the posters turn nasty
Just like … all those mean girls in school!
To write … only one comment more
Before … I am so out of here
I hope … that you people are happy
When I’m … laid out cold on my bier!

You’re jealous folks, but I am a pro,
The people will love me wherever I go
My words are my pearls and they’re all of them true
I’m not wasting my time any more on such piggies as you!

And you know when I’m finished at last
With this glorious flounce
I’ll go off to my own Facebook page
And your lot I’ll denounce.
And the world will be better for this
That one pro told you all what was what
Then left all you sniveling babies!
I’ll only be back to rebut….

March 13, 2012
If Bacon Wasn’t Bad Enough
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:42 PM * 95 comments

Today, for lunch, the younger son (home from college on spring break) made something that he learned to make from the elder son:

Candied Bacon

Take a pound of thick-cut bacon. Cut it in half to make shorter rashers. Pepper excessively. Toss with 1/3 cup brown sugar.

Take a cookie sheet. Line it with parchment paper. Place bacon in a single layer on the paper. Sprinkle any left-over brown sugar on the rashers. Cover with another layer of parchment paper, then put another cookie sheet on top.

Bake at 325°F for 20 minutes. Take from the oven and allow to cool.

Feel your coronary arteries harden at the mere thought of eating this.

Eat it anyway. Tastes pretty darned good.

March 12, 2012
Have online comment sections become ‘a joke’?
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:47 PM *

I see the above headline at CNN.

They seem to have discovered that unmoderated comment threads are worthless. More than that, Some Dude (“Gawker Media founder Nick Denton”) gave a speech at South by Southwest Interactive where…

In the early days of the Internet, there was hope that the unprecedented tool for global communication would lead to thoughtful sharing and discussion on its most popular sites. A decade and a half later, the very idea is laughable, says Gawker Media founder Nick Denton.

In the early days of the Internet, there was hope that the unprecedented tool for global communication would lead to thoughtful sharing and discussion on its most popular sites.

“It didn’t happen,” said Denton, whose properties include the blogs Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, io9 and Lifehacker, among others. “It’s a promise that has so not happened that people don’t even have that ambition any more.

“The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership — that’s a joke.”

“I don’t like going into the comments … for every two comments that are interesting — even if they’re critical you want to engage with them — there will be eight that are off topic or just toxic,” he said.

Silly git.

The solution is Strong, Human, Moderation. Instead of this guy, who clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, they should have gotten Miss Teresa, the inventor of disemvoweling..

See (among many others):

Related interest:

Teresa, you need to write that book, before common wisdom follows folks like this Denton fellow, who doesn’t understand the problem, or know that the solution was invented long since.

March 11, 2012
For Reasons That Escape Me
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:03 AM * 160 comments

…the USA is still using Daylight Saving Time. And tonight’s the night.

So set your clocks forward, lest ye miss Church in the morning.

See also: Reality Based Time. There’s only a little link rot.

March 10, 2012
Points from a moderator’s Twitter stream
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:19 PM * 133 comments

Twitter’s great for spontaneous outbursts. But sometimes one goes off on episodic rants. Those are like the dots in a children’s book: connect them and you get an image, or a story. Here’s me, this morning, sketching out one way that communities wither.

  • Surfing sites that I used to love, but which have gone downhill: my personal form of ruin porn.
  • If you’re gonna have feminist front-pagers, the other mods have to have their backs or the women leave the comment threads.
  • If people consistently drag the conversation down, don’t blame others for rising to the bait. Move ‘em on. It’s a big internet.
  • Someone who never improves the conversation, but never breaks the rules, is still a troll — just a skilled one. Move ‘em on.
  • Worthy people can fall into bad (& self-damaging) habits in communities. They might do better w/ a fresh start somewhere else. Move ‘em on.
  • Just as bad money drives out good, so trolling and niggling drives out good argument.
  • Community management is the art of balancing the rights of your most difficult voices against the joy of your most fragile ones.
  • When community managers fail, the interesting voices leave, or become exhausted. The difficult ones just grind onward.

It’s not important what site inspired these observations. It could have been any one of a good dozen I’ve frequented over the years.

March 09, 2012
Open Thread 171
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:48 PM *

When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude. On the one hand, many had sought the golden box, the receptacle (as the Aethiopians know) of poems of fabulous value; and their doom is still the common talk of Arabia. On the other hand, it was lonely to sit around the camp-fire by night with no new songs.

The Book of Wonder; Lord Dunsany

Continued from Open Thread 170

March 08, 2012
O Shipmates Come Rally
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:54 PM * 16 comments

O shipmates come rally and join in my ditty
Of a terrible battle that happened of late
Let each good Union tar shed a tear of sad pity
As he lists to the once-gallant Cumberland’s fate.
On the eighth day of March told this terrible story
And many a good sailor to this world bade adieu,
But our flag it was wrapped in a mantle of glory
By the heroic deeds of the Cumberland crew.

The Cumberland Crew (ocarina)

Today is the 150th anniversary of one of the most important battles in Naval history. Not just US history, world naval history. I’m talking about the Battle of Hampton Roads, 08 March 1862: CSS Virginia (plus support vessels) vs. USS Cumberland, USS Congress, USS St. Lawrence, USS Roanoke, and USS Minnesota, plus support vessels.

Everyone knew that the Confederate States were building an ironclad. In response to the news, the Union had begun its own crash program to design and build an ironclad warship. The French and British navies already had armored vessels. But up to this moment no ironclad had ever engaged in combat. The design was wholly untested. Although she had been commissioned on 17 February 1862, Virginia had not been finished until the 7th of March, and, on the morning of 08 March still had civilian builders on board.

I first learned of the Battle of Hampton Roads from two songs, The Cumberland Crew and The Cumberland and the Merrimac on the Folkways record, Songs of the Civil War, borrowed from the White Plains Public Library.

These are the two songs whose verses will be interspersed in the narrative. The first is the sea chantey, The Cumberland’s Crew, available in multiple texts (with small variations), though it shows signs of an original composition. The other, The Cumberland and the Merrimac, has a single source: the recollection of a retired lumberjack, Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight, who would have learned it sometime between 1880 and 1930. It was collected by folklorist Ellen Stekert, who included it on her album, Songs of a New York Lumberjack in 1958.

‘Twas on last Monday morning
Just at the break of day
When the good ship called the Cumberland
Lay anchored in her way
And the man upon our lookout to those below did say
“I see something like a housetop
On our leeward she does lay.”

The battle of Hampton Roads did not take place on a Monday, nor at daybreak. March the 8th, 1862, was a Saturday. The first notice that CSS Virginia (Captain Franklin Buchanan, commanding) might be coming out came at about 1145, when she was seen from the sloop-of-war USS Cumberland (Lieutenant George U. Morris, commanding) at a range of about three miles. Virginia was lost in the mirage effect low on the water, though, and soon afterward lost entirely to sight. Due to Virginia’s slow speed, the Cumberland’s officers had some doubt as to whether the ironclad intended battle that day.

On that ill-fated day about ten in the morning,
The sky it was clear, and bright shone the sun;
The drums of the Cumberland sounded a warning,
Biding each gallant seaman to stand by his gun.
An iron-clad frigate down on us came bearing.
While high from her mainmast the rebel flag flew;
A pennant of treason she proudly was wearing,
Determined to conquer the Cumberland crew.

The sky was indeed clear, the winds a dead calm. Cumberland was anchored in the stream. Her sails were loose in order to dry them, and, as it was a Saturday, the sailors had washed their clothes and had them hanging in the rigging. Frigate USS Congress (Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, commanding) was nearby; the intention was to catch Virginia in a cross-fire when she came out.

Our captain seized his telescope
And he gazed far o’er the blue
And then he turned and spoke
To his brave and loyal crew.
“That thing that yonder lies floating
That looks like some turtle’s back,
It’s the infernal rebel steamer
And they call her Merrimack.”

They may or may not have called her “Merrimack” (or Merrimac). Newspaper accounts on both sides used that name; the town of Merrimac, Virginia, is where the coal she burned was mined.

The original USS Merrimack had been engaged in the Quasi-War with France. (See Mauling Live Oak) After she was decommissioned, a second USS Merrimack, a screw frigate, was built in 1855. In 1861, when abandoning Norfolk, Merrimack was set afire to keep her out of Rebel hands. She burned to the waterline and sank, but was later raised and formed the hull and machinery on which CSS Virginia was based.

On the same night Merrimack was burned, Cumberland was towed out of Norfolk and made her escape.

As it happened, two of USS Merrimack’s sister-ships were involved on the Federal side in the action at Hampton Roads: USS Roanoke and USS Minnesota.

Merrimack had been scheduled to have her engines rebuilt prior to her sinking; the time those engines spent on the bottom of the Elizabeth River didn’t help them any. When converted to CSS Virginia, with the additional weight of iron, the ship was slow, clumsy, and cranky. Her maximum speed was perhaps six knots. She needed a mile of sea room and forty-five minutes to turn in a complete circle. More important still, she was now deep-draft, drawing about twenty-two feet of water.

As Virginia steamed out of Gosport, on the Confederate side of Hampton Roads, and headed toward Newport News on the Union side, stern-screw steam frigate USS Minnesota, flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (Captain G. J. Van Brunt, commanding), got underway from Fort Monroe, but ran aground about a mile and a half from shore. She was taken under fire by two of the Confederate ships from the James River Squadron that had come out with Virginia: a side-wheel steamer CSS Thomas Jefferson (ex-SS Jamestown, Lt. Joseph Nicholson Barney, commanding) and sidewheel steamer CSS Patrick Henry (ex-SS Yorktown, Commander John Randolph Tucker, commodore of the James River Squadron, commanding).

Minnesota had heavier guns; the Confederate vessels could not approach her. But every broadside Minnesota fired drove her farther into the mud and harder aground. Patrick Henry was disabled by a shot from the shore batteries at Newport News, but, after repairs, was able to return to the fight.

We will return to USS Minnesota anon. For the moment, gaze on Cumberland and Virginia:

Then up spoke our captain with stern resolution,
Saying: My boys, of this monster now don’t be dismayed!
We swore to maintain our beloved Constitution,
And to die for our country we are not afraid!
We fight for the Union, our cause it is glorious,
To the stars and the stripes we will stand ever true.
We’ll sink at our quarters, or conquer victorious!
He was answered with cheers from the Cumberland’s crew.

The sentiment aboard Cumberland was optimistic: the men were well-drilled and highly proficient; during the long approach by Virginia they had time to furl the sails and take in the washing, and were standing by their guns. Where Virginia carried, among other cannon, six nine-inch Dahlgrens, Cumberland mounted twenty-two.

The first shot of the battle was fired by the Union tug USS Zouave. It had no effect. Virginia steamed past USS Congress, exchanging broadsides with her. The shot from Congress had no effect on the ironclad, but the Cumberland’s officers were unsurprised by this. Congress mounted thirty-two pounders, the weight of shot less than half that of any of Cumberland’s Dahlgrens.

It was then we cleared for action
And our guns were pointed through
But still she kept a-coming up
Across the water blue
And on still on she kept coming
‘Til no distance stood apart
When she sent the ball a-humming
Stilled the beat of many a heart.

For the account of the following action, I am indebted to Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) Thomas O. Selfridge Jr’s first-person account. He was the officer in charge of the forward starboard division aboard Cumberland, and later wrote a narrative of the day.

Virginia took up a raking position about three hundred yards on Cumberland’s starboard bow. Her first shot entered the starboard hammock netting, killing or wounding nine Marines and knocking over the Marines’ commanding officer.

While Virginia could fire her full broadside, Cumberland could only reply with her forward guns on the starboard side, trained all the way to the left, and her forward pivot gun.

They fought us three hours, with stern resolution,
‘til the Rebels found cannon could never decide.
The flag of secession had no power to quell them,
Though the blood from our scuppers did crimson the tide.

It wasn’t three hours. It was more like fifteen minutes.

It was then we pulled our broadside
And unto her ribs of steel
And yet no break in her iron made
Nor damage did she feel.
‘Twas then that rebel pirate
Unto our captain spoke
Saying “Haul down your flying colors now
Or I’ll sink your Yankee boat.”

The number one gun of Cumberland’s starboard battery (the one closest to Virginia) only fired once. The second shot from Virginia struck the gun while it was being run out, killing or wounding the entire gun crew, except the powder boy, and disabling the gun.

Cumberland attempted to turn on springs, that is, to pull on the anchor cables in order to bring her full broadside to bear. But due to the action of the tide and the lack of wind, the spring lay fore-and-aft so no leverage could be gained.

Now our gallant ship fired her guns’ dreadful thunder.
Her broad-side, like hail, on the Rebel did pour;
The sailors gazed on, filled with terror and wonder
As the shot struck her side and glanced harmless o’er.
But the pride of our navy could never be daunted,
Tho’ the dead and the wounded her deck they did strew;
And the flag of our Union how proudly it flaunted.
Sustained by the blood of the Cumberland’s crew.

The situation on Cumberland was bad and getting worse. The first and second gun captains of every gun in the engaged battery were either killed or wounded. Men from other batteries replaced them, only to be cut down. The fire they were able to lay on Virginia was ineffective. While the wounded were being carried below, the dead were being thrown over the unengaged side.

The Merrimack she left us then
For a hundred yards or more
Then with her whistles screaming out
On our wooden side she bore
She struck us at the midships and the ram came crashing through
And the water came a-pouring in
On our brave and loyal crew.

It was the first time a ram had been used in combat since the Battle of Lepanto nearly three hundred years before.

Virginia had been fitted with a ram, thirteen-hundred pounds of cast iron, since her designers had considered that, if gunfire was ineffective against an ironclad, and the Union was certain to build an ironclad, some other weapon would be needed to sink her opponent.

She struck us amidships. Our flank she did sever.
Her sharp iron prow pierced our noble ship through.
And they cried as they sank in that dark rolling river.
“We’ll die at our guns,” cried the Cumberland’s crew.

The ram didn’t strike amidships; rather, it struck the starboard bow directly beneath the catheads. The ram penetrated too deeply. The two ships were locked together as Cumberland began to sink rapidly by the head. Selfridge comments that had an officer forward on the spar deck thought to drop the starboard anchor onto Virginia’s forecastle, Virginia would have surely sunk alongside Cumberland. In the event, that did not happen, and Virginia backed away, leaving her ram behind and springing a leak forward.

Virginia at this time began to drift down Cumberland’s starboard side, about a hundred yards off. Selfridge speculates that she was having mechanical difficulties. This brought her, however, under Cumberland’s full broadside. They were able to get off three broadsides. Cumberland’s guns were still unable to pierce Virginia’s armor so Cumberland’s gunners were ordered to aim for the ironclad’s gunports, and the muzzles of two (out of four on the side) of Virginia’s nine-inch Dahlgrens were shot away.

The iron sides of Virginia were ringing with the sounds of cannonballs impacting them. She heeled over under the weight of shot striking her. The outsides of Virginia’s armor had been smeared with grease, to help deflect the cannonballs, and now the grease was burning. Sulfurous powder-smoke filled the casemate, mingled with the smoke and steam from the boilers. “Doesn’t this smell like hell?” Jack Cronin, a crewman on Virginia, said. “It certainly does, and I think we’ll all be there in a few minutes,” his friend John Hurt replied.

Virginia recovered from whatever had caused her to drift and again got underway. Captain Buchanan called on Lieutenant Morris to surrender.

Well our captain’s eyes did glisten
And his cheeks turned pale with rage
And then in tones of thunder to that rebel pirate said,
“My men are brave and loyal too, they’re true to every man,
And before I strike my colors down
You may sink me in the sand.”

Lieutenant Selfridge quotes the reply as “Never. We will sink with our colors flying.” According to some accounts, Captain Buchanan was to be wounded later in the day, but according to Lieutenant Heywood, who had charge of Captain Buchanan after he was captured at Mobile Bay later in the war, Buchanan said that it was at this time that he was struck in the thigh by a rifle ball fired by one of the Marines on Cumberland’s spar deck when he “incautiously exposed himself” in Virginia’s pilothouse.

Our captain turned unto his men
And unto them he did say
“I never will strike my colors down
While the Cumberland rides the wave
But I’ll go down with my gallant ship
To seek a watery grave
But you, my loyal comrades,
You may seek your lives to save.”

Virginia again took station on Cumberland’s starboard bow and resumed her raking fire. Forward, Lieutenant Selfridge gathered what remained of his division, attempting to use block-and-tackle to move a gun into position to fire forward. While they were doing so, a shell burst among them; the man to whom Selfridge was giving an order had his head blown off, and when the young lieutenant looked around, discovered that he no longer had enough men to crew a single gun.Then, inexplicably, Virginia rammed Cumberland a second time.

By now Cumberland was down by the head and listing to port. She sank rapidly in thirty-five feet of water. Her masts were still exposed, with her flag still flying. The entire action, from first shot to sinking, had taken about forty-five minutes. Of 299 sailors and 33 Marines, 80 were killed or drowned, and thirty wounded.

“Furious over the loss of the ship in which I had taken such intense pride, shivering with cold from soaking wet and scanty clothing, the reaction from the long endured, frightful, experiences of battle impelled me to tears, and I sobbed like a child.”

— Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., LT, USN
They swore they never would leave him
But would man their guns afresh
Poured broadside after broadside
‘Til the water reached their breast
And then they sank far down, far down,
Unto the watery deep
The stars and stripes still flying
From her mainmast’s highest peak.

While all this was going on, USS Congress got underway and headed for shallow water in an attempt to evade Virginia. Too shallow: like Minnesota (and St. Lawrence, and Roanoke), Congress ran aground. Virginia took a stern rake on Congress, and opened fire. As before with Cumberland, Virginia’s gunfire did terrible damage, while Congress could not return fire, nor would their fire have any effect had they been able to bring guns to bear. This time the shelling lasted an hour, with 120 killed (including Lieutenant Smith), before Congress struck her colors.

Virginia accepted the surrender, and allowed the crew to abandon ship. At this time, however, a shore battery opened up on Virginia, causing casualties both on the Confederate steamer and among the Union crew of Congress. Some say that it was at this time that Buchanan was wounded. In response, Buchanan ordered his gunners to resume fire, this time with hot shot. Congress was soon ablaze from end to end.

Virginia turned away and headed toward Minnesota, still hard aground off Newport News, to lend a decisive hand to the two smaller gunboats that had kept the Union frigate engaged. Virginia again took a raking position, while Minnesota could only reply with her pivot gun.

And here again, Virginia’s deep draft worked against her. She was unable to approach to improve her gunnery nor ram, although her shellfire killed or wounded several of Minnesota’s crew. Sunset was just before six p.m. By the time Virginia engaged Minnesota light was failing and the tide was going out. Virginia’s already low speed had been further reduced by losing her smokestack to gunfire, so that her boilers did not draw efficiently. The harbor pilot aboard Virginia was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to get back to Norfolk due to the falling water, so Buchanan broke off, anchoring for the night under Sewell’s Point, to resupply and repair Virginia’s battle damage. He intended to resume operations at first light and complete the destruction of the Union blockading fleet.

It was into the darkened harbor, lit by the blazing hulk of USS Congress, Cumberland’s masts and spars sticking above the water nearby, the roadstead filled with jetsam from the grounded Federal fleet as the surviving vessels attempted to lighten ship and refloat, that USS Monitor steamed that night.

Over a century later, I found myself at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Gosport. The drydock where USS Merrimack was converted to CSS Virginia is still there, and was, at the time (and for all I know still is) in use. My first thought was, “It’s tiny!”

Later still, I lived in Newport News, and commuted every day over the Hampton Roads Bridge/Tunnel, not far from where Cumberland is still lying on the bottom.

Then slowly she sank ‘neath Virginia’s dark waters;
Their voices on Earth they will ne’er be heard more.
They’ll be wept by Columbia’s brave sons and fair daughters,
May their blood be avenged on Virginia’s shore.
But the banner of freedom can never be conquered,
For brave hearts and fearless will ever be true.
The flag of our Union how bravely was flying,
It was nailed to the mast by the Cumberland’s crew.

The Cumberland’s Crew

The Cumberland and the Merrimac

March 02, 2012
Whisperado: Video! Release party! Free association!
Posted by Patrick at 04:26 PM * 47 comments

Now available on YouTube: the video for Whisperado’s “Teenage Popstar Girl.” Song written by Sobel / Nielsen Hayden / Mills. Video concept and direction by Dan Azarian. Whisperado does not normally perform in black suits and ties. Contents may settle during shipping. Contains nuts.

(From I’m Not the Road, now available on iTunes, eMusic, CDBaby, Amazon, and others.)

In celebration of the long-delayed completion and release of I’m Not the Road, Whisperado will play the Parkside Lounge — 317 E Houston, between Avenues B & C, NYC — on Friday, March 9, from 8 to 9:30 PM. No cover charge for this POTENTIALLY LEGENDARY release party. Actual CDs will be available for inspection and purchase; docents will be on hand to explain these archaic disks to the young. DO NOT MISS this crucial cultural event. ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Snakes. Miracles. Editing. Gerunds. Death.

I have an entirely well-deserved tax deduction. You are a lazy welfare bum.
Posted by Patrick at 01:00 PM *

According to Mettler’s survey, 60 percent of those who benefit from the home-mortgage interest deduction didn’t think they had ever used a government social program. Fifty-three percent of those with student loans didn’t think they had used one. Among Social Security beneficiaries, 44 percent thought themselves unsullied by the touch of government, and among Medicare beneficiaries, 39 percent said the same. Twenty-seven percent of those in public housing answered in the negative, as did 25 percent of those on food stamps.
Funny stuff, and it’s tempting to simply observe that roughly a third of the population are nincompoops (a defensible approximation). But the research that Ezra Klein describes, further on in the post above, suggests that “policy design” is “an important determinant of whether people recognize they’re using a government program or not.” When you have to go to a counter in a government office building in order to apply for something, you know it’s a government social program. When it’s something like the the tax exclusion for employer-provided health care, it’s easier to believe that this is just how the universe works.

Design matters. Design, as it happens, currently makes it extraordinarily easy for better-off Americans to not notice that most of them are as much beneficiaries of “government handouts” as anyone else.* It’s hard to think this is entirely accidental.

* (Leaving aside, of course, all that social and technological infrastructure like the Internet and the highway system, all of which was brought into being by the pure flame of American entrepreneurialism.)

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