Friday, December 11, 2015

C.S. Lewis on Her Majesty's Secret Service

Came across this today. Like Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, seems the most noteworthy pagan-turned-Christian allegorical fantasy author was a SPY! Sort of. Well, it's not that exciting. He didn't have a jet-pack or electrocute people in bathtubs. But I found it interesting. You might, too.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Count Belisarius

I finished I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and King Jesus, all by Robert Graves. I needed more Robert Graves. For the first time ever, I bought an e-book because I couldn't wait for a hard copy to arrive. The book is Count Belisarius, and it's one of my favorites so far. If you like historical novels, especially early medieval military history, this one's for you. Set in the waning days of the Eastern Roman Empire, it's fast-paced yet crammed full of scholarly detail - just like all of Graves' books. Here's a good description from the Historical Novel Society:

"Originally published in 1936, Count Belisarius has not basked in the same limelight as Robert Graves’s two earlier masterpieces set in the early Roman Empire. Instead, in Count Belisarius the focus shifts east from Rome to Constantinople. The cast is full and complex but essentially can be summarised as a foursome: the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, whose closest friend, Antonina, marries Justinian’s general, Belisarius. The story is narrated by a eunuch, Eugenius, a devoted slave in Antonina’s household. The scope of the book is massive – encompassing religious controversy and cultural developments as well as military history – yet, throughout, Graves succeeds in blending historical details with the development of his main characters. For anyone who has seen the beautiful mosaic of Justinian and Theodora in Ravenna, their characters here come as a surprise: for all its ideals and renewed hope, the Eastern Roman Empire was as corrupt as its Western predecessor. Belisarius alone rises above this as a man of principle and integrity and a renowned military leader. He leads Justinian’s army to victory in the campaigns against Persia, Carthage, Sicily and Northern Italy, often against astonishing odds and with little backing."

Monday, December 7, 2015

Car Wars Classic is a Free PDF

According to the Daily Illuminator, Steve Jackson Games has released the original version of the 1980 classic Car Wars. This game allowed us all to pretend we were in Death Race 2000 or The Road Warrior - even if about two people I know actually understood and played by the rules. This was one of the games that originally came in the undersized black plastic boxes with hooks for hanging on the "impulse buy" racks at hobby stores - another innovation of Steve Jackson that TSR would adopt with games like this one. Anyway, you can find the free-and-legal PDF of the original "Car Wars Classic" right here.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

AZ-1: Against the Aztecs

...well, that's what an old-school dungeon module about this might be called. Turns out archaeologists have discovered some sealed chambers in Aztec ruins. But they won't start excavating until next year some time. I wonder what's inside? Probably at least a few zombies, a Great Feathered Serpent, and all the gold you can eat. Read all about it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sword & Planet

Nothing captures the essence of the genre, for me, better than this Al Williamson piece. He was the primary Flash Gordon artist back in the day, and also did a lot of comics work. Check out a gallery of his stuff here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

More Evidence for Parallel Universes

A scientist thinks he's discovered evidence of a parallel universe - but admits there's a 30 percent chance he's wrong. A "bruise" in the cosmic background radiation of our universe might be the smoking gun. Read all about it right here. And when you're done reading that, read about this experiment that proves the universe is really, really weird. And here's more about spooky action at a distance.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Crusaders Versus Cthulhu

Well, this is just incredibly cool. Artist Robert Altbauer made these awesome old-school images of Crusaders fighting Lovecraftian monsters. Very cool stuff. Check 'em all out right here.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Dear Dr. Laura"

Saw this on the Internet today. Absolutely priceless. 

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath.. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan, Jim.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Post-Apocalypse, 1066 AD

I'm reading a fascinating book called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. I'll post again when I've finished it, but for now I just wanted to gush about how enjoyable it is. I blaze through most of what I read, but I'm taking my time with this one. Partly that's because it's written in a weird sort of quasi-English that takes a bit of getting used to. After the first few chapters it all makes sense. Who needs standard spelling or punctuation? If the writer was just being coy or hip with it, I don't think I'd like it. But his odd language, word choice, spelling and so on have a direct artistic impact on what he's trying to say. This book is also a great triumph for a writer who funded and published independently, avoiding (through necessity at first) mainstream publishing channels. All in all, it's very impressive.

The narrator is a fellow named Buccmaster. He believes he has been "coesen by the eald gods" (chosen by the old gods) to take his grandfather's sword and fight back against "geeyome the frenc fuccer" (William the Conqueror) for destroying the "anglish" way of life. But, without spoiling anything, it soon becomes apparent that Buccmaster may not be the most reliable narrator. He may not even be very likable, either, as it turns out. And even though I'm only halfway through the book, I can't believe things will end well for him. But I'm enjoying the hell out of the ride.

There's a great article about the book right here. I'm jealous of the author's "writing shed" pictured in the background.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jackasses of History Bathroom Reader

So, I wrote a book, it's out now, and you can get it right here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Multiverse is Calling

Woah. And that's all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thinking About How to Think About Aliens

Here's an artist's rendering of Kepler 452b, the first we've found of an Earth-like planet in the "Goldilocks Zone" that could support life. It might not, but it could. As far as we yet know, it has all the advantages Earth had for life to start. And it's "only" 1,400 light-years away.

Now what about KIC 8462852? That's the star I mentioned here, the one with weird light signatures. It's not like any evidence of a planet we've seen while looking for the "mini-eclipses" that betray their presence. Some say it might be evidence of some alien super-structures orbiting the star. Others say that's hooey and there's a natural explanation. Still others, like this scientist right here, think it's probably not aliens, but that snickering at the possibility is an unhelpful and unscientific thing for scientists to do. I agree.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Wonderland Arcade

My friend Ryan, who knows a thing or two about Kansas City history, posted this story on kcrag, and shared it on the board for our gaming group. This is the story of an awesome coin-operated pre-digital arcade in Kansas City back in the day. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Formula D meets Circus Maximus

Is this cool or what?

I've been playing a lot of Formula D lately. It's simple, straightforward, and makes a great game for those Family Game Nights when not everyone at the table wants to spend four and a half hours closing all the gates in Arkham.

I've also got a ton of little miniature chariots culled from one of the 6,000 versions of RISK. Being one of the 12 people in the world who was a big fan of this old X-Box game, you can see where my mind started going...

I found that image of the board for the game Circus Maximus, which was released in 1979. I'd never heard of it and I don't think it's available today. I can infer some of the rules from the tables surrounding this track, but what I'd really like to do is adapt Formula D rules for this, using my otherwise-useless chariot miniatures.

Even better for that, some joker has made this, which should be even more fun and give plenty of excuses to roll that Danger Die.

If I ever get around to making this conversion happen, I'll let you know with the sound of brazen trumpets.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Temple of Quechula Revealed!

Drain a reservoir in Chiapas, Mexico, and you get this:

Pretty cool, huh? This Temple of Santiago, also called Quechula, emerges every so often from a reservoir created by a dam in the late 1960s. It was abandoned in the late 1700s due to a plague, but was constructed by a heroic friar who exposed and fought against colonial slavery. Also pretty cool. I'd tell you all about it, but you can read it all right here. Of course, the gamer in me knows this place is just full of treasure and, probably, supernatural guardians. Thanks Connor McAnally for the link!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Weirdest Star in the Galaxy...?

It appears scientists have found a star (you can't see it with the naked eye) between the constellations of Cygnus (the swan) and Lyra (the harp) that has a whole lot of stuff orbiting it. It's recent. Could be an impact. Could be a sea of comets sucked in by a passing star. It could be massive orbiting constructs constructed by an alien civilization. Whatever it is, it's nothing like any other star anyone has ever studied. Apparently scientists are trying to get more time on the best telescopes to study it more closely. Oh please let it be aliens.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

TSR's Old Marvel Game is Free and Clear!

Yep, it's true, and it's all right here, plus a whole lot more.

From the old-school gamers group on facebook: "This is from a very reliable source. The Marvel Super Heroes rpg by TSR, the PDFs are legal to download for free. David Edward Martin wrote one of my favorite books for MSH the Ultimate Powers Book, and I told him so that is why he thanks me for the complement. David Edward Martin - 'Mitch,I thanks for the complement. Don't worry about downloading any of the Marvel game books. The game is as incredibly, permanently defunct as the "TSR" trademark. Hasbro-Kenner-MiltonBradley has lost any interest in it. Back before Wizards of the Coast was digested, they knew of the online copies and expressed tacit approval.' This site is the legal online archive for everything made for MSH in PDF form all the books are in the download section.

This was the first superhero game I ever played and it was the first game at all I played with what turned out to be my first long-term gaming group. I remember nothing about the rules, but in looking at the character profiles on the site, I see how easy it would be to fit them into some Fudge-like context (the original game wasn't).

Anyway, this is worth perusing just for the HUGE list of superhero stats - not only from Marvel but from pretty much everywhere else. Check it out.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Gilgamesh: The Director's Cut

So Oliver Stone can't finish Alexander and a new Blade Runner cut surfaces once a decade. Turns out even the oldest story in the world can get a minor revision. My friend Randall Munden posted a link to this story. Apparently they found 20 new lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Iraq. The epic is considered to be the oldest known work of literature - at all - and it basically deals with a superhero, which is cool. Here's another story from the Smithsonian.

Here's Gilgamesh kicking some ass.

I've not read the epic of Gilgamesh, but it might be about time. With his pal Enkidu, we see the beginning of the "buddy adventure," and it's my understanding there's a bunch of synergy with Old Testament stuff. At any rate, this is proof the right kind of fantasy novel never gets old.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Jackasses of History Bathroom Reader" Coming Soon!

It's got everything ever written on this site, plus a whole lot more. Here's a sneak peak of the cover. I hope it will be "live" by the end of October.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Free High-Res Historic Maps

The New York Public Library recently put a massive collection of historical maps online, for free, in high resolution. You can check it all out right here. Meanwhile, here's Virginia back in the day (low res).

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Translating Hesiod

The Iliad and The Odyssey are often called the "Greek Bible." But unlike the sacred texts of most religions, they don't exactly give good advice about behavior or morality or whatever. For that, we really need to look to the ancient Greek poet Hesoid, whose "Works and Days" and "Theogony" are closer to what we'd think of today as a "Bible."

Like the Bible, Hesoid has been translated many times. I've often wondered how different translations color the meaning of ancient texts. Not every word translates exactly. Translators have to make judgment calls, not only about what individual words mean, but also in conveying the tone or intention or attitude of the original. Not an easy task, I imagine, and it's one that is probably pretty subjective.

That being said, I think it's safe to say that most ethical translators don't much change the meaning of what the original is trying to say.

Here's the second bit of Works and Days, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White in 1914.

"So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves, but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honor due. But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of earth; and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbor, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbor vies with his neighbor as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men."

Here's the same passage, translated by Stanley Lombardo in 1993.

"It looks like there's not just one kind of Strife - that's Eris - after all, but two on the Earth. You'd praise one of them once you got to know her, but the other's plain blameworthy. They've just got completely opposite temperaments. One of them favors war and fighting. She's a mean cuss and nobody likes her, but everybody honors her, this ornery Eris. They have to: it's the gods' will. The other was born first, though. Ebony Night bore her, and Kronos' son who sits high in thin air set her in Earth's roots, and she's a lot better for humans. Even shiftless folks she gets stirred up to work. When a person's lazing about and sees his neighbor getting rich, because he hurries to plow and plant and put his homestead in order, he tends to compete with that neighbor in a race to get rich. Strife like this does people good." 

Those two don't have any different meaning, do they? I don't think so. The second one obviously reads better for a modern audience. And since Hesiod is said by Greek linguists to have used a "rustic" voice, maybe the second version is actually closer to the style Hesoid intended. The first, translated long ago, seems to attempt to sound formal and "classy," probably because of the "serious" subject matter of ancient Greece. Personally, I prefer the latter.

Many Greek plays, especially, were first translated into English at a time when modern sensibilities blushed at some of the crudity of Greek comedy. Next time we'll look at the play Lysistrata, and compare a Victorian-era translation with one done in the 1980s. I think you'll find the difference between the two much starker than what we see here in these translations of Hesiod.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Found: the Lost 1982 D&D Movie Script

Stumbled across this today, posted by the staff of Gygax Magazine. Apparently this movie almost happened much earlier, and Gygax had hopes it would be of the quality of Star Wars.'s hoping for the next one. Interestingly (I've not read it all yet) it appears the movie begins in the real world, then slips into the imaginary one, which is exactly how I always thought it should be. At any rate, this article explains it a lot better than I can.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

New Hominids in South Africa

Heard this story on NPR this morning. I'm always astounded by how many proto-humans there seem to have been. I'm pretty sure we must have killed 'em all and then bred the Neanderthals out of existence (although if you want to know where the Neanderthals really are today, ask author Colin Lee Campbell). At any rate, I would be shocked if our legends of ogres, giants, and little people weren't influenced by vague racial memories of such beings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why Edgar Rice Burroughs Still Matters

I saw this link today in the ERB group on Facebook and wanted to share it. It's dead-on. My lifelong interest in speculative fiction in all media was strongly influenced by ERB, and still is (although, to be fair, my first fantasy love was The Wizard of Oz, followed by Tolkien).

Carl Sagan talks about ERB and his Mars novels in the original Cosmos, which is where I first heard of him. On my first day of junior high, my parents gave me A Princess of Mars, despite this semi-lurid cover (I've seen worse).

I read all the Mars novels that year, and started on Tarzan, Carson Napier of Venus, the Pellucidar novels...ERB wrote a lot of formulaic throwaways (I've even published one) but when he was at his best he was gold. If you're not familiar with his work, or only familiar through the films, I'd suggest giving the article a read.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Watercolor Superheroes

Stan Lee has shared on his blog the work of Blule, a watercolor artist who does a picture a day. He selected some of her best pictures of superheroes to share. I loved 'em. Here are three of my favorites. Check out the article here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Eyes Without a Face: St. Lucy & Friends

I've been reading up on the more bizarre or grotesque stories of Catholic saints, and thought I'd share a few of the weirder or more disgusting stories here from time to time.

St. Lucy was supposed to marry a fine young fellow, but didn't want to. He handled it like any normal person would: reported her to the authorities for being a Christian. When they tried to force her into prostitution, God made her body so heavy it wouldn't move. Then they scooped her eyes out, but they grew back. Here she is, holding her eyes on a plate. As you might expect, she's the patron saint of blindness. 

How about St. Simon the Zealot? He was one of the twelve disciples. A violent man before adopting Christianity, he was martyred in Mesopotamia - hung upside down and sawed in half longitudinally. Ouch. I think I'd rather be crucified.

St. Margaret of Antioch was jailed for being a Christian after she refused a pagan suitor. She was thrown into jail, when the devil, in the form of a dragon, tried to eat her. Apparently the cross she wore made its stomach upset and she tore her way out. The authorities tried to drown her and burn her, but she wouldn't die. Finally they cut her head off, and that seemed to work. She's the patron saint of childbirth.

St. Bartholemew was also one of the apostles. He went to India, where they flayed him alive and crucified him upside down. Lo and behold, he's the patron saint of skinners and leatherworkers.

St. Christopher had the head of a dog - either because he came from that mysterious part of the world where cynocephaluses live, or because God gave him a dog's head to ward of unwanted attention from women. He is also said to have carried a baby across a river, only to realize it was the baby Jesus, and he was so heavy because he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's the patron saint of those who travel, especially those who cross water. Christopher Columubus was named after him. One wonders how this influenced his life choices.

St. Denis converted so many pagans to Christianity that, annoyed, the pagans of Paris cut off his head. Denis promptly picked up his head and walked a few miles, preaching all the way, before he finally expired. 

There are a LOT more, of course. These were the ones that leaped out at me.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Xenophon, Come out and Play-yay!"

Continuing my explorations of ancient Greek history, I finally tackled a book I've wanted to read since college - Xenophon's Anabasis, also known as The Persian Expedition or The March of the Ten Thousand. It's one of the best true-life military adventure tales ever told.

Xenophon was an Athenian, but he had oligarchical views and more closely identified with Sparta. Indeed, he was later exiled from Athens and the Spartans gave him a home. After his soldiering career he settled in to write books. The Anabasis is his most famous, but he also continued Thucydides' truncated History of the Peolopponesian War in a book called Hellenica, wrote several books about the teachings of Socrates (Xenophon was a student of his as a  young man). He also wrote treatises on economy, horseback riding, and other things of interest to his contemporaries.

But the Anabasis is the only one not likely to bore a modern reader to tears. Here's a (very) brief summary:

Xenophon and ten thousand other Greeks, under the command of a Spartan general called Clearchus, agree to fight as mercenaries for Cyrus, a sibling of the King of Persia, who wanted to take the throne from his big brother. The Greeks get there and start fighting for Cyrus, but he dies. The Greeks are now deep in enemy territory, surrounded by enemies on all sides, they're a thousand miles from home, and, worse, the men haven't been paid. Xenophon gives his eyewitness account of not only battles, but more important subjects like finding supplies and food for the army, figuring out how to pay the men, and so on. There are lots of twists and turns, political intrigue, and exciting action sequences. In the end, the Ten Thousand get paid and Xenophon, at least, gets home, but the entire enterprise was ultimately disappointing to those involved, and to many in Greece, they were seen as failures. Nevertheless, it's a tale in which not only Xenophon, but many of his fellow officers, show great bravery and resourcefulness. When you've got 10,000 mercenaries in tow, even something simple like crossing a river is difficult. When your army is mostly made up of heavily armed and armored infantry (that is, hoplites), how do you create a brigade of slingers and archers on the fly? When the Persian warlord who offers to help out and pay you for your trouble refuses, in the end, to come up with the promised payment, what do you do?

None of these problems have easy solutions, but over time Xenophon emerges as the leader. Even then, the quarrelsome Greeks don't make it easy for him. Worse, when they finally reach some Spartan-controlled cities in Asia Minor, the Spartans themselves fear their power and effectively disown them.

Sometimes war isn't about winning anything - it's just about trying to get back home in one piece with a few extra drachmas in your pocket. If this story sounds familiar, it's actually the basis for the 1979 Walter Hill movie The Warriors, where the action is transferred to New York and the Greeks and Persians become street gangs. Watch it and my smart-ass title for this blog entry will make sense.

At any rate, if, as a reader of modern adventure fiction, Xenophon is surely the most accessible ancient Greek writer. If you're into military history, there are few odysseys more exciting.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Thucydides' Clusterfuck of History

A while back, I posted about finally finishing Herodotus. It seemed natural to follow up with Thucydides and his histories of the Peloponnesian Wars. Here's what I learned: if I thought the ancient Greeks were capable of pettiness, spite, jealousy, greed, and short-sightedness after reading Herodotus, I think it all the more so after reading Thucydides.

This is a historian, however, who set a standard for accuracy and (for the most part) objective reporting that later writers would think of as the proper way to write "history." Thucydides is a great source for the Peloponnesian War (a 30-year conflict between Athens and Sparta and their many allies). Why? He was actually there. Several times he refers to himself in the third person, and doesn't even try to defend his actions (well, not much, anyway) when he describes losing a battle and being ostracized (10-year banishment) for it. He knew most of the major players personally. Despite what seems today like his dry style - and I'm told it's dry compared to the flowery Herodotus, even in Greek - I felt as if I was there in the action throughout the book.

The problem for me was the bewildering array of ancient place names. The byzantine (pun intended) relationships between this and that city-state were very difficult to keep track of, and I was obliged to look at the helpful footnotes to keep me on track.

I also lost a lot of respect for the ancient Greeks. Obviously, we owe much of our western culture to them, as transmitted to us through Rome and its institutions. Even today, our capitol buildings, museums and other important public structures harken, design-wise, to those ancient days. But the Peloponnesian Wars wasted the civilization. By the end of it, the bright light of Athenian-style democracy (that is, voting rights for land-owning adult males) was snuffed out, largely through the fickleness, jealousy, and myopic foreign policy of the people themselves. Sparta won that war because Athens lost it - that, and the treachery of Alcibiades, which you can read about here.

Essentially, the war goes like this: the Greeks fight off an attack by the Persian Empire (which is told in Herodotus). The city-state of Athens is more-or-less in the right place at the right time to claim (with some justice) the lion's share of the credit in this endeavor. Afterward, they throw their weight around and establish an empire, primarily based among the islands of Ionia between Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey). Sparta is alarmed by this. Sparta prefers government by the few (oligarchy) and abhors what they view as the mob-rule that runs Athens. They figure that if they don't put Athens down now, they might never get to. But this talk of "freedom" was just a pretext. Corinth, Argos, and other cities were jealous of Athens, fearful of them, and sought Sparta's help. For the next 10 years there's a lot of back-and-forth, meaningless deaths, wasted cities and countryside. Both sides are relieved when the Athenian general Nicias brokers a peace treaty. But Alcibiades the Athenian is irritated by this. He rocks the boat, ensures that the Spartan ambassadors look bad, and derails the peace treaty. Then he convinces Athens to launch an invasion of Sicily that turns out to be utterly catastrophic. The Athenians lose their cool and it all goes downhill from there. Eventually, with the help of the Persian fleet, Sparta puts down Athens, and that city never again attains the glory it once had. Sparta more-or-less unifies Greece, in fact if not in name, under its leadership. This makes it all too easy for Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander (the Great, that is) from conquering Greece a generation later.

The most important fact I took away from the book is just that - that the Peloponnesian Wars effectively destroyed the glory of ancient Greece. Hellenistic culture would still thrive, and Alexander would spread it far into Asia, setting the stage for later conquests by Rome. But political power in the Mediterranean never again went to Greece. It's the end of the "ancient Greece" chapter of human civilization, I guess.

Thucydides seems to realize this in a prophetic way. One of the major themes in the book is how "folks used to do stuff right, but now they don't." He points out when long-standing rules of war are broken, the effects of political corruption, and so on, insinuating that these are all relatively recent developments. He's also skeptical about the gods, if not an outright athiest (though I think he was) and isn't afraid to poo-poo the idea of divine oracles (a huge thing in ancient Greece). He even points out that the Spartans managed to successfully bribe the priestess at Delphi multiple times to deliver to the Athenians oracles of Spartan, not divine, inspiration. All of this, he seems to argue, point to that fact that the world he thinks he knows is going to pot.

My only gripe is that Thucydides seems to have died before he finished the book. His narrative cuts off toward the latter part of the war, as chaos reigns in the Aegean. Later, the exiled Athenian warrior Xenophon would continue the narrative in his Hellenica, which I have not read. Xenophon himself is a fascinating individual, and we'll get into him more later (because I've finished reading his "Anabasis" as well). 

At any rate, I don't know if this is everyone's idea of relaxing reading. But it certainly kept my attention, the way any good piece of writing should. If I lost some respect for the ancient Greeks along the way, well, so be it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dreams Do Come True

...I've been waiting for this since 1992.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tornado Music

A tornado-producing storm blew threw my town last night. A funnel cloud touched down several blocks from my house. I'd taken shelter in the basement, but my wife and stepson were on the way home from work, so when they got there I ran out to usher them in (what a hero!).

That's when I heard it...

At first, I thought it was a continuous roll of thunder, as if a new crash would start before the previous one had died away. It soon dawned on me that what I was hearing wasn't thunder but the howling tornado itself.

I wondered if words would fail me when I sat down to describe it, and they have. I stood out there listening for as long as I dared. The roar got louder and louder as it approached (by this time it was touching down near Lee's Summit hospital). At some point the sound spiked all of the sudden and I ran inside. I spent the rest of the night thinking about that sound and how it made me feel.

The best word is "awe." It was awesome, not in the colloquial "badass" sense but in the old-school "inspiring awe" sense. Some primal part of me, in that final sound-spike, felt a fight-or-flight (mostly flight) response that filled my entire body, brain - my entire self.

Hearing the tornado, standing out near it, I felt that I was not a self-contained entity, locked up inside my flesh and clearly separated from the rest of the world. In those few moments I felt no division between myself and nature. We were all...I don't know. Just "one big thing."

That moment marks the closest connection I have ever felt to nature. It's no wonder our ancestors attributed such power to the gods. As I ran inside I realized that no one on Earth can stop that tornado. No one can prevent it. There's nothing anyone can do about that tornado - it's coming, and it will eat up whatever lies in the way.

All of these thoughts seem rather obvious, of course. But there's a difference between understanding things like tornadoes (or "science facts" in general) on an intellectual level, and feeling them on a gut level. It's a sort of understanding that, in a way, seems to trump any other. The only other event I've ever witnessed that hit me with such force was watching the birth of my son.

And that's about the best I can do to describe my feelings about that tornado.

Incidentally, there was some damage from that storm but thankfully no one was killed. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wet, Wild Mars

Mars - the place Carl Sagan called our "Mythic Arena" in the sky, the nearest planet whose surface we can see, the site of adventurous fiction from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Leigh Brackett to Andy Weir. Liquid water obviously used to flow there. Enough to support life? Who knows. I did come across an interesting article about how much water used to be there and when - or at least a study that says it was more prevalent, more recently, than anyone realized. I didn't know that Mars has such an extreme axial tilt, and that we would too, if the Moon didn't keep us in check. I wonder how different life would be on Earth - or if life would exist at all - if we didn't have a Moon? Apparently those two little runts circling Mars ain't doin' their jobs.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Sides of Peter Banks

It's been a while since I've done a record review, so here goes. On Father's Day, Connor and I did our traditional trip to buy old records, because yes, I'm a vinyl nerd. I'm also a progressive rock nerd, so I was pleased to find a re-release on heavy vinyl of an album I'd never heard of - Two Sides of Peter Banks. In my prog rock explorations - which I didn't start making until a few years ago - I've mostly ignored Yes, which featured Banks on guitar for the first two albums. So I honestly didn't know who Peter Banks was, which doesn't say much for my prog rock credibility.

Anyway, I bought the record unheard after looking at the lineup of musicians, which include Peter Collins and Steve Hackett of Genesis, and John Wetton of King Crimson, my favorite Crimson vocalist whose voice and bass work dominates by favorite incarnation of King Crimson (Larks' Tongues in Aspic through Red). Also present are Ray Bennett and Mike Hough, of Banks' post-Yes band Flash, and Jan Akkerman of Focus, who provides a meaty second guitar.

Released in 1973, the album's entire first side features only one instrumental song - something that screams "prog" just by looking at the track list. The epic song is divided into six movements, all of which have titles denoting knights, dragons, kings, and other fantasy fare common to early-70s prog groups. As an album side, it's almost perfect. Beginning with a mellow and sweet-sounding guitar duet between Banks and Akkerman, about halfway through it lapses into some bombastic metal that sounds like King Crimson at its heaviest. It certainly kicks anything Yes ever recorded in the balls. Not one to smash us over the head with heavy riffage, Banks pulls it back to the mellow after a few measures. But this time, the mellow has a more sinister quality, like that we'd expect from King Crimson or, say, Pink Floyd at their best. Subtle, tinkling guitar work and almost Rick Wakeman-like keyboards from Hackett keep us floating along until we're surprised again by a movement called "Battles," which smacks us in the face with a palm-muted metal attack not dissimilar to the chunka-chunka-chunka sound of Paranoid by Black Sabbath, only better. Things get a little sloppy here, but Phil Collins steps in with a drum break that leads to a frantic jazz-influenced barrage of point-counterpoint work from Wetton, Akkerman and Banks. Following this, things slowly die down, and the suite rounds out side one with a whimper, not a bang.

Side two is less impressive, consisting of another gentle instrumental followed by the thirteen-minute track "Stop That," which, according to the liner notes, was a spontaneous jam in the studio that engineers captured by chance. It's not bad, but it sounds like what it is, and was probably more interesting for the guys to record than it is for me to listen to, and Wetton, whose bass playing I'm normally quite fond of, seems heavy-handed and bored. A final instrumental jam is added almost as an afterthought, with some incredible southern-fried riffage traded by Banks and Akkerman. But the countrified nature of the jam, to me, doesn't sit well with the rest of the record.

What I take away from this: one, Peter Banks is an incredible guitarist. I have every intention of seeking out his other solo work and look forward to exploring the band Flash, which I'd never heard of. I also enjoyed listening to Phil Collins solely as a drummer, which I don't think I've ever really done (I'm not familiar with Gabriel-era Genesis). He's no Bill Bruford, and frankly, the drums seem snare-heavy without enough mic on the cymbals. Nevertheless, Collins provides a solid, thumpy backbeat that leaps out to accent in all the right places and other times is wisely subdued. I was impressed with his playing. I'd also never heard of Akkerman or Focus. Hell, I even listened to the first two Yes albums after hearing this. So it's a good "gateway" album for someone like me who likes prog rock but doesn't know a lot about it.

The real treasure of this album is, however, the guitar interplay between Banks and Akkerman. No one who is a fan of the instrument should miss hearing at least that first, side-long epic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Black Vault

So, John Greenwald has been collecting government information about UFOs for decades. He's tirelessly filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act and received some 150,000 documents spanning about 1.3 million pages. Early this year he posted the entire collection online at The Black Vault. Whether or not you take any of this seriously, it's certainly an entertaining way to kill some time.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Most Holy Trinosophia

In writing this article for the Jackasses of History blog, I learned about the 18th century mystic Cagliostro, who could be one of the authors of a book called The Most Holy Trinosophia. I'm interested in such esoterica, even though I don't understand it, so I tried to learn more. Said the scholar Dr. Edward Getsinger of the book:

"In all my twenty years of experience as a reader of archaic writings I have never encountered such ingenious codes and methods of concealment as are found in this manuscript. In only a few instances are complete phrases written in the same alphabet; usually two or three forms of writing are employed, with letters written upside down, reversed, or with the text written backwards. Vowels are often omitted, and at times several letters are missing with merely dots to indicate their number. Every combination of hieroglyphics seemed hopeless at the beginning, yet, after hours of alphabetic dissection, one familiar word would appear. This gave a clue as to the language used, and established a place where word combination might begin, and then a sentence would gradually unfold.
        The various texts are written in Chaldean Hebrew, Ionic Greek, Arabic, Syriac, cuneiform, Greek hieroglyphics, and ideographs. The keynote throughout this material is that of the approach of the age when the Leg of the Grand Man and the Waterman of the Zodiac shall meet in conjunction at the equinox and end a grand 400,000-year cycle. This points to a culmination of eons, as mentioned in the Apocalypse: "Behold! I make a new heaven and a new earth," meaning a series of new cycles and a new humanity. 
       The personage who gathered the material in this manuscript was indeed one whose spiritual understanding might be envied. He found these various texts in different parts of Europe, no doubt, and that he had a true knowledge of their import is proved by the fact that he attempted to conceal some forty fragmentary ancient texts by scattering them within the lines of his own writing. Yet his own text does not appear to have any connection with these ancient writings. If a decipherer were to be guided by what this eminent scholar wrote he would never decipher the mystery concealed within the cryptic words. There is a marvelous spiritual story written by this savant, and a more wonderful one he interwove within the pattern of his own narrative. The result is a story within a story."

Interesting. Want to learn more? Here's the whole book translated into English

Friday, May 29, 2015

In Her Own Words: Queen Elizabeth I

I found an interesting site today while looking for, of all things, pictures of actor Erik King...! Somehow one of the search links I followed led me to Luminarium: An Anthology of English Literature - especially this page, which features the collected extant writings of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Here's just a snippet of a little poem she wrote that I think still has meaning today:

No crooked leg, no bleared eye, 
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As the inward, suspicious mind. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Family Game Night: Formula D

So we started Family Game Night on Sundays. I'll try to include something about that each Monday, if I remember and if we keep up with it. Last night we played Formula D and had a great time.

I saw the game on this episode of Tabletop. We played the basic version of the game - there's a lot to it, ultimately, but you can play it on several levels of difficulty. Keeping it simple, we chose generic racers (instead of the ones with personalities and special stats) and did one lap on the Monte Carlo track.

The game is essentially pretty simple - start off in first gear, which lets you move d4 spaces, then shift up and up, increasing your die type as you go. The dice are special, though - you can't roll less than a 6 on the d12, for example. When you get to a corner, you have to "stop" (that is, end your turn - your car is supposedly still "moving") at least once in that corner (other corners might require you to stop 2 or 3 times), or you're going too fast and take damage to your car. The advanced game has damage to different parts of your car - in the basic game, it's just generic damage.

The game mechanics really illustrate the necessity not to take corners too fast. Rules for movement also enforce the idea of forward momentum - you can't just zig-zag around willy-nilly. The game also incorporates both formalized racing and illegal street races (the board is reversible). 

We had a great time. The game is reasonably priced, as far as these types of games go, and there's enough depth that it will keep me interested past the basic game, adding more complicated elements as we go along. When we stopped playing, at least a few of us were ready to go again, and I've already ordered the inevitable first expansion board so I can race in Chicago. That's the sign of a good game.

Another sign of a good game is when it inspires your creativity - by the third turn, we were already kicking around an ancient Roman "Circus Maximus" variant...

It's hard to find a large-format Eurostyle boardgame that's quick and easy to play. Formula D fits the bill. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Archives of Western Esoterica

Here's a fascinating treasury of information about historical esoteric research. I love this stuff because the lines between magic and science aren't at all clearly defined. For anyone who interested in history, in the occult, or, as I am, trying to invent systems of magic for gaming in Elizabethan England - this site is invaluable, and I'm sure it will be a great inspiration to my Swords Against Satan game. Take a look at the Twilit Grotto! However, be warned, you might have to break out Ye Olde Latin Textbook or use Google translate for some of it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Christian Blacks in Tudor England

In Tudor England, the theater was a popular form of entertainment, and black people were involved in that, too, as in so much else. Records indicate that the majority of blacks were engaged in construction and music. We don't have records of black actors. What we do see is that, almost without exception, blacks and Asians are usually depicted in a negative light. Shakespeare's Othello is a standout exception, but there's a big difference between Othello and other black characters - he's a Christian. Without that, he's not considered the equal of the other people in the play. This early drama about love and race is only possible because, as a Christian, Othello is elevated to the level that the love between he and a white lady is at all believable to the audience (not that this would have been widely accepted, but as we've seen, James IV of Scotland most likely had a black mistress).

In fact, being converted to Christianity was a sign that the black person in question was of especial value to his or her employer - a cut above the pagan Africans, a sign that he or she had special favor. Sir Walter Ralleigh baptized his black cabin boy. This was also, probably, an attempt to sort of "outflank" Islam, which had cut off trade routes to the Orient and unwittingly sparked the age of European exploration and colonialism.

Converting blacks and Asians to Christianity gave Europeans a sense that their exploitation of military weaker, technologically inferior people was a good thing. That's a cynical view, but history bears it out. Like so much, though, it's not black-or-white. A good many Christians felt that by converting blacks and Asians they were lifting them up and saving their souls. You can say that's condescending or wrong-headed but I don't know if you can say it's evil.

Most of the evidence we have of blacks in Tudor England comes from church records - and these deal only with Christians. These show that there were thousands of Christian blacks living in England under the Tudors, more so in Elizabeth's reign - so much so that she saw the need for the racist proclamation and policy of forced expulsion that started off this series of blog posts.

In a cemetery in London, there is a grave for "Antony, a Poor Old Negro." He died at age 105 and was laid to rest as a Christian. Who was Antony? What did he do for a living? How did he live to be 105 in an age when most poor people were lucky to make it past 50? We'll never know.

And after five consecutive posts about it, I think that's about all I have to say about black people in Tudor England.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"John Blanke, the Blacke Trumpeter"

More about black folks in Tudor England...

One of the best types of evidence we have for black people at court is visual. Financial records are at least a little ambiguous - after all, "Peter Negro" doesn't have to be a black man based on the name alone, and if someone was born in New Guinea that's just evidence they're black, not proof.

But check out this fine fellow:

That's a picture from the Westminster Tournament in England, 1511, celebrating that a boy was born to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife (the poor baby didn't make it). There's no ambiguity about this guy, who is clearly black. He's even wearing a turban. Records show this is "John Blanke, the Blacke Trumpeter" (his last name is probably either a mis-rendering of the word "black" or an ironic name based on the French blanc, or white). He earned eight pence a day for his efforts.

Most black people at court were, in fact, musicians. They had an important role as trumpeters and drummers in the military from Henry VIII all the way up through Waterloo, where there were some 400 black soldiers present among the English forces.

Some might opine that even today, it's something of a stereotype that black folks are naturally good at music or dancing. This relatively inoffensive cultural prejudice was probably shared by the Tudor English, and it clearly had an effect on the kinds of jobs black people did.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who's That (Black) Girl?

Continuing our series on black folks in Tudor England, let's head a bit further north and a wee bit further back in time to the court of King James IV of Scotland. This poor bastard was easily the best of the Stewart kings of Scotland, and the last to die in battle when he invaded Northumberland and was killed by the forces of Henry VIII.

James IV matters to us here because of a particular incident that captured my imagination when I heard about it. It seems that in 1507, King James jousted for the honor of a lady, one of the black women of his court. We don't know her name, but we know that he spent more than 25 pounds of silver on a dress for her: gold-flowered damask decked out in taffeta. That's quite a dress, better than most ladies at court could afford. We know she had attendants and servants, too, because they all got nice dresses for the occasion. I guess it shows what was most important to court record-keepers, because we know how much her dress cost and what it was made of, but the lady's name is lost to history.

Who was this mysterious black lady? Why was she so important to King James that he'd bestow fine gifts upon her and joust in her honor? It was a big deal for a simple knight to joust for a lady's honor, so for the king himself to do it, we can infer this lady was extremely important to him.

Of course, I have my theories. Who's to say James didn't enjoy a bit of brown sugar from time to time?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More Black Elizabethans

Now for some more about black (that is, African) Elizabethans. According to church parish registers of births, deaths, and marriages from 1597, we find that out of about 1 million names, some 2,000 are most likely names of Africans. For some of these, we only have a clue, such as the last names Negro, Swart, or Black. Not exactly proof. But most of these specifically identify the subjects as African (and some Asians).

There also seems to have been some cultural exchanges going on. Sir Walter Raleigh, the great explorer and favorite of the Queen (who'd lose his head under the next ruler of England) left a cabin boy and sailor in Guiana (South America) and took back to England three black men in exchange. We know the name of one, a boy, Charles, who asked to be baptized (one wonders whether the cabin boy and sailor left in Guiana had pissed Raleigh off somehow). Two of them ended up with Raleigh in the Tower of London many years later, and so were probably loyal servants.

Most blacks in Tudor England were domestic servants. In fact, it appears that for a time in the mid to late 1500s, it was a status symbol to have an exotic servant.

Black people who were especially skilled were also valued. Henry VIII's favorite ship, the Mary Rose, was sunk by the French in Portsmouth bay. Later, Henry hired a diving specialist - who happened to be a "Blackamoor" - to search the wreck for its cargo. Much after the Tudor period in the 1660s, we see the lighthouse keeper at Harwich was black. That was an important, highly sought-after job.

Next time, we'll learn about a mysterious black lady in the court of King James IV of Scotland - a lady who seems to have been very special to him indeed. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Queen Elizabeth, Racist

My next few posts will be very short posts about people of African ancestry in Tudor England. For example, Henry VIII had a man on the payroll - 100 pounds a year, which wasn't chicken-scratch - named "Peter Negro," said to be a Blackamoor. I wonder what his job was? His pay was too high to be a musician or cook or the other sorts of jobs Africans in England did (I like to imagine he was a spy). Francis Drake had a close African friend who shared in his adventures - the two were fiercely loyal to one another.

This is not to say the folk of Tudor England were especially enlightened. While I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who was obviously at least mildly racist, I've never been able to stomach the idea that we should forgive racism in historical figures because, somehow, they didn't know any better. Thing is, they did. There have always been voices throughout history crying the gospel of the equality of all humanity, in Lovecraft's time (Rex Stout) in Elizabeth's (Drake, and surprisingly, a large number of Jesuits) and even in the American 1800s there were strong voices calling for equality.

Not so Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the reasonably astounding fact that there were more black people in the court of Queen Elizabeth I than there are in the court of Queen Elizabeth II, my favorite monarch had this to say about black people, much to my chagrin and disappointment.

A proclamation of the Lord Mayor of London, issued in July 1596:

"Her majesty, understanding that several Blackamoors have lately been brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already too many here; Her Majesty's pleasure, therefore, is for those kind of people to be expelled from the land."

Well, I never said my favorite monarch couldn't be a bitch when she felt like it.

Friday, April 24, 2015

30 More Lovecraft Adjectives

Following up my last post (see below), here are 30 more adjectives from the works of H.P. Lovecraft:

Noisome; amorphous; cryptical; necropolitan; putrescent; preternatural; ineluctable; repellent; perverse; fetid; abhorrent; monstrous; spectral; obscene; appalling; ghastly; unutterable; abnormal; unmentionable; noxious; Stygian; unhallowed; eldritch; impious; insidious; opprobrious; hoary; atavistical; subterraneous; apocalyptic.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

40 Lovecraft Adjectives

I've always enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft's use of adjectives. He was never at a loss for the perfect word to evoke some subtle gradation of horror. Here are some of my favorites, all contained within a single short story (The Lurking Fear):

abysmal, hideous, unnameable, Charonian, unspeakable, transcosmic, demonaic, charnel, cataclysmic, grotesque, hellish, unhallowed, insane, antediluvian, unclean, sepulchral, diabolic, baneful, cyclopean, accursed, loathsome, festering, noxious, unwholesome, malignant, weird, sinister, leprous, night-spawned, slavering, Cthonic, fulgurous, ensanguined, formless, ghoulish, verminous, nauseous, voiceless, hateful, queer.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Father of History

At some point in the mid-1990s, my mom gave me a copy of the histories of Herodotus, an account of the wars between Greece and Persia (part of which forms the basis for the popular movie and graphic novel 300). It's a dense book. I read parts of it. Every time I picked it up, some fascinating anecdote would emerge. Ultimately, I'd borrow a lot of these ideas for games I was running. Nevertheless, at some 1000 pages crammed with 8-point type, it took nearly 20 years for me to finally sit down and read it front to back. I was going to review it here, but I found a very well-written review by Grace Tjan on Goodreads, which I'll take the liberty of reproducing here, below. In the meantime, if you find yourself with a little down time, why not take a look at Herodotus for yourself? If you're into historical fiction, adventure fiction, military fiction, or even historical soap operas, you may like Herodotus - who, for the most part, relates historical fact.

Even though he doesn't follow our modern rules of history-writing (and neither do I, for that matter), he is careful to tell multiple versions of the same story and let the reader decide which one is true. He does seem to utterly believe in the intervention of gods in human affairs (something his successor, Thucydides, clearly does not), but otherwise is quite a sober relater of events, many of which are obtained from eyewitness accounts. They don't call him "The Father of History" for nothing.

Here's Grace Tjan's review:

What I learned from this book (in no particular order):

1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.

2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.

3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.

4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest. Gerard Butler with a six-pack King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans heroically perished in the battle of Thermopylae. They also have the particularly icky custom of marrying their own nieces.

5. The Delphic oracles are 100% accurate, except when someone manages to corrupt the Pythoness. The Gods are, however, a jealous sort and would strike any mortal who has the presumption of calling himself happiest on earth. Therefore, one should call no man happy until he is dead.

6. Egypt is a country of wonders, but its citizens’ customs and manners are exactly the reverse of the common practice of mankind elsewhere. For example, the women there urinate standing up, while the men sitting down. The country also abounds in strange fauna, among them the hippopotamus --- a quadruped, cloven-footed animal, with the mane and tail of a horse, huge tusks and a voice like a horse’s neigh.

7. The Scythians are a warlike nation that practices human sacrifice. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man that he kills in battle and cuts off all of his enemies’ heads, which he must show to the king to get his share of the war booty. They also like to saw off their enemies’ skulls, which they make into fancy gold-plated drinking cups.

8. The manners of the Androphagi, being cannibals, are more savage than those of any other race. Darius the Persian smote them.

9. The Atarantians, alone of all known nations, are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common, but the men have no particular names of their own. They also like to curse the sun because he burns and wastes both their country and themselves.

10. In the Indian desert live ants that are larger than a fox. They like to throw up sand-heaps as they burrow, which are full of gold. This is why India is so rich in gold. In Arabia, there are sheep that have long tails, so long that the shepherds have to make little trucks for their tails. Really.


Herodotus is a consummate storyteller who had a fine eye for the fantastical, although to his credit, he always qualified his more improbable assertions by stating that they are based on hearsay or other sources that he could not wholly verify. Much of the pleasure of reading his book is found in the lush descriptions of long lost nations and their exotic customs. His 'Histories' does not concern itself solely with history in the modern sense, but it is also a book of travelogue, ethnography, zoology, geography and botany. He is an excellent raconteur, almost always entertaining, except when he drones about speculative geography. We can easily imagine him, a man of seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, interviewing Marathon veterans for firsthand battle accounts, or interrogating Egyptian temple priests about their country’s history and religion. History for him is not a dry recitation of facts and dates, but an intensely human story acted by a vast cast of monarchs, queens, warriors, tyrants, gods and ordinary citizens. Regicides and rebellions are caused by personal passions, such as in the stories of Caudales and Gyges, and Xerxes and Masistes. Dreams compel Xerxes to invade Greece. Divine intervention decides the course of epic battles.

A skein of tragedy runs through the historical drama that he narrates. The gods are so capricious and jealous that “one should not call a man happy until he is dead.” Xerxes, on beholding his massive force on the Hellespont, laments that “not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Yet while man lives his short existence he is capable of epic deeds, and Herodotus chronicled them all.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Early Christian Gay Marriage

This is absolutely fascinating to me. I had never heard of this. I love it for one simple reason - it's likely to irritate both sides. Those who twist a single Biblical reference referring to rules for priests into an overall condemnation of same-sex marriage will be irritated that some factions of the early church tolerated and sanctified same-sex relations (and will probably tell themselves this is a big hoax). On the other hand, many otherwise reasonable liberal types would prefer to see the Christian faith as a monolithic boogeyman of hate, and this puts the lie to that, too, regardless of the actions of the Lunatic Fringe on the Right these days. Don't normally get political on this blog, but this has historical significance. I'd love it if loving couples were allowed to marry, regardless of their gender. I'd love it if the Right didn't paint the Left with such a broad brush, and I'd love it if the Left didn't assume everyone on the Right was an asshole. We all have reasons for believing what we believe, but I'd be surprised if any of us spend most of our time and efforts hating others. I'm as guilty as anyone of the occasional knee-jerk reaction against something that seems unjust, but I do try not to assume maliciousness (though malice it may be) when ignorance or fear could also be the cause. Not that it matters much in the end what anyone's intentions are. All that really matters are actions.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Art of Lou Fine

Delving recently into old comic books, one artist in particular caught my eye - Lou Fine. I don't need to tell you what a great artist he was. Just look at these covers. He drew and inked for several books, but I think his covers for Hit Comics are some of his best. It's tough to achieve this level of clarity and detail without losing a sense of action. Fine was a master at bringing meticulous draftsmanship to the field of comic art. Atlas Comics named him No. 10 on the list of 100 greatest comic artists, but I think he might deserve an even better rank. Said the listing: "By God, Lou Fine could draw. One of comics' first illustrative stars, he influenced and astounded such later greats as Alex Toth, Jim Steranko, and Gil Kane. His covers alone during the 1940s stand as some of the best-designed and most exciting work ever produced for any comic book publisher."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Headless Victorians

Who knew faked headless photographs were such a fad among the Victorians? Read more.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Jackasses of History Blog

I was surprised by good response from the "Jackasses of History" series, and realized it's better off with its own dedicated blog. I intend to update it at least once a week, hopefully on Tuesdays. I've enjoyed writing Jackasses of History and thank everyone who said they liked it. For all future Jackasses, consult Jackasses of History, the blog.

Jackasses of History: John Thurtell

John Thurtell (rhymes with "turtle") was known to his friends and family as "Jack." That's appropriate, as few Jackasses of History approach the level of jackassery Thurtell achieved in his short, tragic life. About the only thing he did right was die without (much) drama. He was a confidence man and a murderer. If you're going to be one of those, make sure you're good at it, or, like Thurtell, you'll end up at the end of a rope.

"Now where did I hide that gun?"
Thurtell was born in the late 18th century into a wealthy family in the English town of Norwich. His father was a prominent merchant and city councilman who also served as mayor. Thurtell shared his father's ambition, but lacked his skill. Rather than apply himself to his studies, he was mad for competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). After one too many tussles, his father decided a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good, so at age 15, with a freshly purchased commission, he joined Company 99 of the Royal Navy and set out on the HMS Adamant - which promptly sailed to The Firth of Forth in Scotland, and docked for a few years. Other than raising hell in local taverns and insulting the Scots, it appears Thurtell and his crew mates spent their time doing pretty much nothing. When the fleet got a new commander, Thurtell was disciplined and discharged by Rear Admiral William Otway for some misconduct. We don't know what he did, but they didn't kick you out of the Royal Navy on a whim. Record-keeping slip-ups ensured Thurtell found another berth on the HMS Bellona, despite not technically being in the Navy. The only action the HMS Bellona saw during Thurtell's service was a convoy trip to St. Helena and back.

Of course, when Thurtell proudly returned home in 1814, he told his friends and family about his gallant action as he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain. Naval records prove that his stories of action on the Bellona were baloney. It was docked at the Isle of Wight during the battle, and merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had died down. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war. It was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. Nevertheless, folks around Norwich were impressed with the tales of derring-do that surrounded the popular mayor's son.

Thurtell's father arranged for local merchants to extend credit to his son to set up business with his friend Giddens as manufacturers of bombazine, a fancy twilled silk dress fabric that was popular at the time. However, Thurtell soon turned back to his old obsession with prize-fighting. He made friends with a boxer from London who'd moved to Norwich to seek easier pickings. His tales encouraged Thurtell to make regular visits to London, where he frequented disreputable taverns and gambling houses devoted to betting on horse races, prize fights, and other sporting events. At this time, Thurtell impressed his contemporaries, one of whom described him as "a man of integrity."

Thurtell's jackassery was soon exposed, however. While Giddens plugged away managing the bombazine business, Thurtell was often absent from Norwich, and was chronically short of funds. The partners soon became delinquent in payments to their creditors, to the embarrassment of Thurtell's father. When a London mercantile firm purchased several thousand pounds (that is, £, a huge sum at the time) worth of silk, the gallant Thurtell offered to travel to London (alone) to collect the payment. Lo and behold, he returned without the money, saying he'd been ambushed and robbed by footpads. He helpfully displayed some bruises and a small cut on his head as evidence. His creditors, however, were quite vocal about not believing him. His father's influence ensured Thurtell was not charged with a crime, but his reputation in Norwich plummeted, as did that of the over-trusting and innocent Giddens. Their partnership went bankrupt in 1821.

It was a bad year for the Thurtell family - his brother Tom had attempted the simple life of a gentleman farmer, but found it not so simple. Owing £4000 in debt, he soon followed his big brother into bankruptcy (though he owed half of that to his father, so his credit was better than Thurtell's). He blamed his failure on excessive taxation and sub-standard seeds.

The two brothers fled to London, their bankruptcy cases still not discharged by the court in Norwich. The two launched various schemes and enterprises, usually under Tom's name but with Thurtell as the mastermind (if you can call it that) and active agent. Jack came up with a plan to get both he and Tom out of trouble by exploiting the Act of Relief for Insolvent Debtors, recently passed by Parliament. Thurtell believed there was a loophole. Tom was, of course, the Guinea pig. Thurtell lent his brother 17 pounds, and, as arranged, Tom defaulted on the loan. Thurtell then had Tom thrown into King's Bench prison for debt. They banked on this expediting Tom's original bankruptcy case and having it forgiven. This was a staggering mistake, as Thurtell missed some of the finer points of the Act. He let Tom languish in prison for 14 long months before finally withdrawing the complaint. Tom appears to have left London immediately after being released, but this didn't stop Thurtell from continuing to do business under his brother's name.

Thurtell took out a lease on a tavern called, appropriately, The Cock (in Tom's name). He immediately sold off the contents of the basement (which did not belong to him). He also purchased a warehouse in both he and Tom's name. Using proceeds from the sale of the stuff in the basement, Thurtell made a down payment to finance hundreds of pounds (£) of bombazine. He stored it in the warehouse and took out an insurance policy on it all for some £2000. He spent a few more pounds making alterations to the warehouse so that no one could see inside. Then, under cover of darkness, he transferred the silk to another location and sold it for cash, making a huge immediate profit (since he'd mostly paid with credit). Then, surprise! The warehouse mysteriously burned down - Thurtell's remodeling job ensured the night watch didn't see the fire until it was too late.

But the local constable was suspicious. There were no tell-tale remains of silk in the warehouse, and the remodeling obviously served no purpose other than to hide the interior. The county fire office refused to pay the insurance claim. Thurtell, in Tom's name, sued the office and won, but the director of the fire office still refused to pay the claim, and in fact used his contacts to procure an indictment against Thurtell and the hapless Tom for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company. This would eventually come back to bite Tom in the ass, although Thurtell, as we'll see, managed to avoid conviction by dying first.

Most of his money slipped through his fingers in the gambling dens. Thurtell fled The Cock and the mountain of unpaid bills he'd racked up running it and went into hiding under an assumed name at another tavern. During this time, his friend Joseph Hunt wrote that Thurtell "suffered from an observable disintegration of his personality." He spent much time drinking and brooding on his ill-fortune, and writing lists of grievances against all those he'd imagined had wronged him. Chief among them was William Weare, a notorious but non-violent underworld figure who seems to have started as a waiter, then moved to professional gambling. Thurtell had, in his depression, lost £300 to Weare, and it rankled to the point of obsession. He refused to pay, and spread rumors that Weare had only won by cheating. He said because of Weare, he'd become a laughing-stock (not, of course, through his own jackassery).

In October 1823, Thurtell decided on a way to avoid paying Weare the £300 he owed him. Feigning reconciliation and vowing to clear the debt, Thurtell invited Weare for a weekend in the country at the cottage of a friend, Bill Probert. However, Thurtell had enlisted Probert and another crony, Joseph Hunt, to murder Weare (how, we'll never know, but the two were also debt-ridden ne'er-do-wells - think of them as assistant jackasses). The plan was that Thurtell would hire a gig (a gentleman's carriage) and drive to the village of Radlett. Probert and Hunt were to follow along, catch up, and then the three would kill Weare. But the assistants got cold feet, and delayed for hours debating whether they should go through with it.

Eventually they decided to go along, but by the time they caught up with Thurtell, he'd already killed Weare - and made a real mess of it, too. Once dusk fell, Thurtell turned into a dark lane near Probert's cottage, produced a pistol from a matched set, and shot Weare in the face. This failed to kill him. The poor bastard managed to escape from the carriage, but did not get far stumbling into the darkness. Thurtell chased him and caught Weare when he tripped over a root. Thurtell drew a knife and slit Weare's throat from ear to ear, then, for some reason, bashed Weare in the head repeatedly with his pistol, until Weare's brains were dashed all over the ground. Thurtell hid the pistol and the knife in a nearby hedge. Then, when Probert and Hunt arrived, they helped him throw the body into a pond on Probert's property - after searching it and looting it, of course. The trio then went to Probert's cottage, where Thurtell presented Mrs. Probert with a gold chain he'd taken off Weare's corpse. They all stayed up late into the night singing over rounds of grog.

The next day, Thurtell went to retrieve the murder weapons - but he couldn't find them. Nervous, the men waited for dark, fished Weare's body out of the pond, and dumped it in another pond by the road to the village of Elstree. Meanwhile, a road maintenance crew found the pistol and knife, and saw the brains and blood, and notified authorities. It wasn't long before they showed up looking for Thurtell - whether they were skilled investigators or not is moot. Thurtell, jackass that he was, made it easy for them. All of Weare's friends knew he'd planned to spend the weekend with Thurtell. When he didn't show up at his regular haunts the following Monday, they reported it. The horse Thurtell had hired to pull the gig had rare and distinctive coloration - all gray, with a white face. Several witnesses on the road remembered seeing it, and Thurtell and Weare, riding along on the day of the murder. When the authorities questioned Thurtell, they found the other pistol from the matched set, which was, of course, identical to one of the murder weapons.

At this, Probert and Hunt immediately turned King's Evidence against Thurtell and told everything. All charges were dropped against Probert, but Hunt, who initially lied to investigators about helping to hide the body, was banished to Australia (where, settling in Botany Bay, he married, had two children, and became a pillar of the community). Thurtell proclaimed his innocence throughout his arrest, confinement, and trial. He attempted to delay the trial by calling witnesses who he knew to be absent from London. This tactic didn't work. He was convicted of Weare's murder and hanged in January 1824. Meanwhile, Hunt sold his story to the newspapers, and the lurid details of the crime ensured a major media circus at the execution. Oddly, Thurtell seems to have died well, without any blubbering or begging. On the scaffold, he admitted to the murder, said justice had been done, and then, in a classic jackass move, instead of asking for forgiveness, announced in a loud, steady voice: "I forgive the world!" His body was dissected and studied (common with criminals at the time) and today his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.

Later that year, his brother Tom was convicted in the warehouse insurance fraud scheme, even though his only crime was to let Thurtell write his name on the paperwork. He, too, was hanged.

Thurtell became something of a celebrity after his death as the subject of penny dreadfuls and cautionary tales about the dangers of young gentlemen coming to London and getting involved in the vice of underworld gambling. But it seems clear that Thurtell's jackassery began long before his gambling days, and we must conclude that he is, indeed, one of the true Jackasses of History.