Jun 26

History Wednesday: Skipping Technlology

When I’m not blogging or herding cats, one of my favored pastimes is borrowing CDs at the library down the street. The scheme is simple. First, I log on to my account, find CDs and put them on hold. When they make their way to my library branch, I check them out. Then I take them home, rip them, and bring them back in short order. Rinse and repeat. It works out well.

550px-Fix-a-Scratched-CD-Step-8

Thus far I haven’t had many problems with scratched CDs.
Image credit: wikiHow

It works until CDs become completely obsolete, anyway. While we wait for that, let’s take a look back at where CDs came from, shall we?

Continue reading

Jun 19

History Wednesday: More Red Flags

Hey, ever seen one of these in your neighborhood?

rebelflagflying

“Well, it’s not Scottish anyway.”
Image credit: Carl Wainwright

Being something of an armchair vexillologist I’ve always been fascinated with flags, both international and historical. Now, a lot of people seem to believe the above flag was the national flag of the Confederate States of America. Indeed, it remains popular in its former territory.

But as it turns out … it’s not. Never was. I find the contemporary political connotations of the subject distasteful, so I’m not going to get into that here. However, there’s still plenty of history to talk about.

Continue reading

Jun 12

History Wednesday: The Unpronounceable Country

In the minds of many Utah is almost synonymous with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While it’s true the Mormon Church did more to establish and build present-day Utah than any other single entity, it’s also important to keep in mind they were never the only game in town.

400px-Brigham_Young_by_Charles_William_Carter

Just by far the largest.

Yes, even the relatively homogenous history of Utah isn’t without its bumps.

Continue reading

Jun 05

History Wednesday: Frequency Manipulation

Today I took my daughter swimming at the condo association pool next to the Command Center. Being an exceptionally nice day in Boise, some of the neighborhood kids were already there. One of them had her iPhone or whatever plugged into a speaker, playing her list of jammin’ MP3s. This experience proved to be exactly as excruciating as it sounds.

EXIF_JPEG_T422

You’d better “Beliebe” it.

Replace Justin Bieber with, say, Wham! and the iPhone with that noted paragon of past 2T culture, Z-103, and you’d have a scene very reminiscent of the Putt n’ Plunge during the mid-80s. Of course, my mind working the way it does I thought to myself, “Hey, it could have been Z-43.”

No, I’m not making an obscure Ed Wood reference here.

Continue reading

May 29

History Wednesday: A Lesson in Water Safety

I was going to write about Paraguay again, but it occurred to me earlier today I should bring as much geographic balance to History Wednesday as possible. Since I began SB at least one History Wednesday has been set on every continent. Except one, and I have regular visitors from it.

800px-Kaiserpinguine_mit_Jungen

Well, two if you count penguins, but they don’t have broadband.

So it’s high time to take a look at Australia and an event which has a cautionary tale about water safety. Perfect now that summer is upon us. Or winter, as the case may be. Anyway, the Paraguay story is good, but it can wait.

Continue reading

May 22

History Wednesday: The Pussycats of Pelusium

Everybody loves kitty cats, right? Of course we do! Well, if you’re even remotely familiar with ancient history, you know ancient Egypt took it a whole lot further. You see, the cat – being the sacred animal of the goddess Bastet – was held in the highest regard. Killing a cat in ancient Egypt, even accidentally, was a capital crime.

Ironically, this may have been a primary cause of Egypt’s downfall during classical antiquity.

EXIF_JPEG_T422

“Wait, what? Oh, this should be good.”

Continue reading

May 15

History Wednesday: Calamity and Conceit

When I was in Riverton, Wyoming, this past weekend I had a chance encounter with a descendant of Martha “Calamity Jane” Canarie, an iconic figure of the Old West. His wife even does portrayals of her. Now there’s a History Wednesday topic if there ever was one!

It should be an easy blog entry too, right? Well, the historical Calamity Jane is so intertwined with legend, tall tales and flat out bullshit there’s not much to go on. People can’t even agree on how her real name was spelled.

459px-Muammar_Abu_Minyar_al-Gaddafi_in_Dimashq,_Syria

And we can’t even blame sloppy Arabic translations for that.
Image credit: Jim Gordon

According to Calamity Jane’s autobiography – which itself is called into question as most historians believe Jane was illiterate – she was born in 1852. Or was it 1850? Or 1847? Or earlier? In any event, in the mid 1860s Jane and her family moved in quick succession from Missouri to Montana to Salt Lake City. Along the way both of her parents died, leaving the (apparently) teenage Jane in charge of her younger brothers and sisters. After several more years of bouncing from place to place, by 1874 Jane settled more or less in the Fort Laramie, Wyoming, area.

422px-Calamity_jane

I’ll go out on a limb and say she wasn’t involved with the cold fusion hoax while in Salt Lake City.

Calamity Jane earned her nickname after ostensibly fighting in the Indian Wars alongside Generals George Custer and George Crook. This is disputed in contemporary sources. After moving to Deadwood, South Dakota, Jane then met and claimed to have married Wild Bill Hickok. While it’s accepted she and Hickok were acquainted, there’s no evidence to suggest the two were ever an item, much less married.

Note the pattern here.

220px-Wild_Bill_Hickok_sepia

“Tell me about it. Hey, two pair!”

Despite all that’s written about her, there’s not much we can say for sure about Calamity Jane. Sources agree that she was a woman who lived in the late 19th Century American West who dressed as a man, told stories and drank too much. That’s about it. The historical provenance of just about everything else is dubious at best.

Much like this fine period piece.

Yes, Jane was clearly a master storyteller. In her later years she appeared as herself in shows throughout the country, notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Despite often being destitute herself, Jane was also universally recognized for her generosity. While in Deadwood, at great risk to her own health Jane often cared for seriously ill adults and children.

Jane died in 1903 after years of whiskey and hard living finally caught up to her. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok per her request. Yet even in death Calamity Jane’s penchant for embellishment continued to make the rounds. In 1941 and again in 1996, people publicly claimed to be Calamity Jane’s long-lost daughter or granddaughter. However, to date no evidence has surfaced that Jane ever had children.

As for my acquaintance in Riverton, he claimed descent from one of Jane’s siblings. That’s much more plausible.

May 08

History Wednesday: The Instant Presidency

It might not seem like it if one listens to American mainstream culture, but Mexico has come a long way in the last 25 years or so. While the country continues to face some very serious issues, it has also become a fairly stable multiparty democracy. Indeed, in my humble opinion one which has outpaced most of the former Soviet Bloc nations over the same time period.

This is in spite of being the scene of the shortest tenure of any head of state in recorded history. More on that in a moment.

After declaring independence from Spain in 1810, Mexico endured two absolute monarchies (one of which came courtesy of the Hapsburgs), several disastrous wars and enough outright corruption to make Silvio Berlusconi look like a paragon of honesty.

Oleo_Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna

This guy lost over half of the country yet still managed to become president … 11 TIMES.

By the turn of the 20th Century Mexico was well into a period known as the Porfiriato, an era of repression dominated by the virtual dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, who had effectively been in power since 1876. Although the Porfiriato represented by far Mexico’s longest period of stability to date, it was anything but democratic.

Finally tired of decades of stagnation, the Mexicans overthrew Diaz in 1911 after a ham-handed attempt to hand the aging strongman yet another re-election “victory.” This event sparked what became known as the Mexican Revolution.

160px-1977_CPA_4774(Cutted)

“Wait, did somebody say, ‘stagnation?'”

Anyway, unfortunately for Mexico Diaz’s overthrow soon degenerated into an all-out civil war with multiple competing factions. This is the era which produced Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who effectively became warlords in the north and south respectively. By the time the dust settled in late 1920 Mexico went through 11 presidents in the space of less than 10 years.

Francisco Madero was the main figure during the early stages of the Mexican Revolution. A liberal reformer strongly influenced by Benito Juarez, Madero became president in late 1911. In the hopes of establishing national unity Madero included pro-Diaz and other conservative figures in his government, who then proceeded to bring reform efforts to a standstill.

In February 1913 forces led by Generals Victoriano Huerta and Felix Diaz (the former president’s nephew) staged a coup d’etat against the Madero government with support from Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador. On 19 February Madero was forced to resign and was executed a few days later.

The idea, of course, was to make Huerta the new president. There was just one problem. Huerta wanted everything to be “legal,” but he wasn’t in the presidential line of succession. Well, that’s where our friend Pedro Lascurain comes into the picture.

440px-Pedro_Lascurain

“Pedro, we have a little job for you ….”

Under the constitution of the day, as foreign minister Lascurain was fourth in the presidential line of succession. Since Huerta had already forced out the first three – Madero, the vice president and the attorney general – Lascurain was legally entitled to become president, which he did with Huerta’s blessing.

President Lascurain had two items on his agenda: (1) appoint Huerta as interior minister (and therefore next in the line of succession) and, (2) resign. He dutifully accomplished both. Huerta then called a late-night session of the Mexican Congress to validate the move, which they did with Huerta’s soldiers training their guns on them so they didn’t miss the point.

Sources disagree exactly how long Lascurain served as President of the United Mexican States, but it was certainly less than an hour. Perhaps quite wisely, Lascurain left politics immediately afterward.

Huerta then took it upon himself to establish a military dictatorship which made the Diaz regime look like an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Meanwhile in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson – aghast that Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson (no relation) took such a leading role in this mess – recalled the rogue diplomat and demanded Huerta schedule elections. The diplomatic situation quickly deteriorated from there, leading directly to the occupation of Veracruz the following year.

800px-Ocupación_estadounidense_de_Veracruz

“Yeah. Thanks a lot.”

Although the Huerta regime lasted less than 18 months before it succumbed to rebel forces, the general – often called El Chacal (“The Jackal”) – remains one of the most vilified figures in Mexican history. As for Lascurain, he quietly spent the rest of his life as an attorney and law school director.

May 01

History Wednesday: Taxed, Tanked and Ticked Off

It’s May Day. That means this week’s History Wednesday is effectively obligated to focus on the old Soviet Union, which always made May Day a big deal. You know, parades, speeches, public appearances of Politburo members, and plenty of red flags to go around. It was a good old time.

160px-1977_CPA_4774(Cutted)

Wasn’t it, Товарищ Эасто́я?

Ah, but plenty has been written about May Day already. As for Leonid Brezhnev, he’s about as exciting as a bowl of plastic fruit in a windowless, concrete room. That’s not what I’m going for here.

But what about Russians and vodka? Now there’s a target-rich environment. Let’s do it! Right, so here we go:

When Brezhnev died in 1982 the Soviet economy was basically dead in the water, committed to an arms race it increasingly couldn’t afford and a massive bureaucracy run by dour old men. Brezhnev’s successor as Communist Party general secretary (and therefore as the country’s de facto leader), was one of these old, dour men, Yuri Andropov. The highlight of Andropov’s rule was that he disappeared from public view for months until the Soviets announced his death in 1984.

Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even less interesting than that.

Konstantin_Chernenko

*insert static-filled elevator music here*

Chernenko kicked the bucket after only 13 months at the helm. He was followed by someone I bet you’ve heard of: Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev was willing to do something about the ever-growing clusterfuck that was the Soviet economy. He did so by attempting to address the shortcomings of his notoriously boozy culture and increase revenue at the same time. To wit, shortly after taking power he raised the price of vodka and other alcoholic drinks.

188px-Kaliningradskaya_Vodka

“Дерьмо!”
Image credit: ProhibitOnions

Now in statecraft there are several things you simply don’t do. You don’t barf on the Japanese prime minister. You don’t piss off the King of Spain. And you definitely don’t screw with a Russian’s vodka. The policy had a minimal effect on alcoholism statistics and at the same time cost the government billions of rubles in lost revenue.

It may be tempting to dismiss this as a rookie mistake on Gorbachev’s part, but he really should have known better. Lenin attempted to ban vodka altogether, but that proved to be a miserable failure. It took Uncle Joe Stalin, a guy not exactly known for his commitment to civil liberties, to reverse this policy. As for Gorbachev, he quietly lightened up on his policy a couple years later.

Stalin_Image

“Naturally, we will opt for vodka.”

In the grand scheme of things an abortive effort to regulate alcohol nearly 30 years ago may not seem like much, but it was. It’s been theorized that this policy started a chain reaction of unintended consequences which ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that context, it’s a big freakin’ deal.

It’s important to remember that toppling communism is not what Gorbachev had in mind. What’s more, despite continued international acclaim Gorbachev remains deeply unpopular in Russia. Despite that, attempts to raise vodka prices continue in Russia today.

If you’re so inclined, have a shot of Stoli this May Day. But keep in mind this silly little drink may very well have changed the world.

Apr 17

History Wednesday: Pranking Made Elementary

Last week’s History Wednesday was a bit on the dark side, so this week I wanted to lighten the mood. What happened in Boston earlier this week only makes the call for a less intense article all the more stronger.

Today History Wednesday travels back to 1917, but not to the bleak, war-torn landscape often associated with that year. Instead this story takes place in the countryside of Great Britain, specifically a town called Cottingley in West Yorkshire. It was here in this unassuming hamlet nearly a century ago that two girls pulled off a hoax that bamboozled an entire nation and made a very famous author look foolish indeed.

And so it was in this pastoral environment of rural north-central England that 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, often found themselves dirty and wet after playing in the stream near their home. They explained to their exasperated mothers that they frequented the area because fairies lived there.

One day, the girls decided to “prove” it. Arthur Wright, Elsie’s father, was an amateur photographer who had set up a darkroom on the property. Consequently Elsie – a gifted artist – was somewhat adept at photography as well. Using illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, the girls made several two-dimensional fairy drawings. Elsie then took a picture of Frances with the figures.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

Pictured: Photoshoppe -13.0.

A couple months later the girls repeated the prank, posing Elsie with a “gnome.” Arthur Wright, who was sick and tired of the girls screwing around with his equipment, forbade them access to the camera after that.

That should have been the end of it right there. However, Elsie’s mother, Polly, believed the photographs were the real deal. A couple years after the incident she took them to a local meeting of the Theosophical Society, a group that researched esoterica such as, you know, fairies.

learyalbum

Kind of like this, but without the LSD.

Needless to say, the photos were a big hit. Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society, became their prime apologist. After they were featured at the society’s national conference, they were “authenticated” by a guy who merely said the negatives weren’t tampered with (which was true). But hell, close enough, right?

Well, they were close enough for a certain Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an active Spiritualist who learned about the photographs through his editorial contacts. As the more astute among you know, Conan Doyle was a famous Scottish author best known for creating a character named Sherlock Holmes. He totally bought the “fairies are real” line, even after the photographic companies Kodak and Ilford expressed their, um, doubts.

Conan_doyle

The mustache, however, is obviously fake.

That’s when things started getting seriously stupid.

In order to corroborate the “evidence,” Conan Doyle sent Gardner to Cottingley to meet the Wright family and get some more fairy photographs. Gardner brought with him two new Kodak cameras and some marked photographic plates. He taught the girls how to use the cameras and then left, charging them with taking the pictures themselves. The girls in turn would only take photographs when no one else was around, as they were the only ones the “fairies” trusted. Sure enough, three new fairy photographs appeared and the plates were dutifully shipped back to Gardner in London.

CottingleyFairies4

“Hey, hey. Let’s tell them we found a way to turn brown sauce into diamonds. They’ll totally go for it!”

So did Gardner or Conan Doyle catch on? Oh, hell no! Upon hearing of the new photographs, Conan Doyle replied:

I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance.

Conan Doyle triumphantly published his findings in December 1920. While some fell for the hoax, many others were quick to call bullshit. In other words, the world wasn’t completely stupid in 1920 after all. As for Elsie and Francis, they finally owned up to the hoax.

In 1983.