Sep 30

The Abysmal Quality of Spam

Even after several months SB continues to get hits on the posts “Messing With Spammers” and “Messing With Spammers, Part Deux.” Seems the gr8tits2play racket is alive and well.

titmouse

What’s really scary is that Gr8tits2play.org got more ad clicks than SB this month.

I’d write more about dating scams, but I haven’t been trolling Craigslist recently.

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Aug 21

History Wednesday: Bursts of Color

Remember Beanie Babies? You know, those stuffed animals that were hot for a couple minutes back in the 1990s before their bubble of “all new materials” burst? They had names such as “Saddle the Horse,” “Leftovers the Turkey” and “Quebec Iris Versicolor the Bear.”

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Wait, what?
Image credit: BBToyStore.com

Remember them? Good! Because today’s History Wednesday isn’t about them.

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Jul 17

History Wednesday: The Pioneering Dictator

Latin America is well-known for its history of military strongmen, caudillos and other dictators. That may be the most obvious thing I’ve said all day. Yet it had to start somewhere.

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Specifically, here.

Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, also known as “El Supremo,” ruled Paraguay with an iron fist nearly a century before the rise of the so-called “banana republics.” His methods were brutal, and his motivations were often … shall we say, odd.

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Jun 28

Friday Crap Roundup XX

It’s Friday evening, and the Command Center A/C unit has been fighting a losing battle against the elements all day.

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Or 99 degrees outside as of this writing. Yup. It’s a hot one.

Right, so I’d better finish this FCR before it gets even more uncomfortable.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

Apr 10

History Wednesday: A South American Cautionary Tale

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nation with a more bizarre history than Paraguay. I could easily write about it for the next month’s worth of History Wednesday installments. That would get tedious though, and we don’t want that.

Some years ago noted satirist P. J. O’Rourke infamously commented Paraguay is “nowhere and famous for nothing.” O’Rourke eventually recanted his remark. Paraguay may be remote, but it’s definitely not boring.

Today’s journey takes us to 1860s. By this point Paraguay had been independent of Spain for a little over 50 years. Those years were dominated by the dictatorships of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia – a guy commonly known by the modest title of El Supremo – and Carlos Antonio Lopez, who was primarily interested in beefing up the country’s military. Both Francia and Lopez pursued extremely isolationist foreign policies, which would prove to be very detrimental in the coming years.

In 1862 Lopez died and power passed to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. Clearly groomed for leadership, without any noteworthy talent or training the younger Lopez became a general when he was 18 and was the country’s vice president by the time he was 30.

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He was also a big Bonaparte fan.

Within a few years of taking power Lopez became embroiled in a dispute with neighboring Brazil over Uruguay. Lopez was an ally of Uruguay’s government at the time, while Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II supported an ongoing revolution there. This came to a head in October 1864, when Brazil invaded Uruguay to support its revolutionary allies.

Two months later, Paraguay retaliated by declaring war on Brazil. A short time later Lopez asked Argentina to allow him to cross their territory to get to Brazil. The Argentinians refused, but Lopez went and did it anyway. Meanwhile, the Brazilians and Uruguayan rebels succeeded in bringing down the pro-Lopez government and set up a Brazilian puppet state there. The result was the Triple Alliance between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. How … original. The alliance vowed to not only defeat Paraguay, but to crush it so it couldn’t cause problems again.

In other words, a country which endured many years of a repressive, isolationist cult of personality and a massive military buildup found itself ruled by the relatively inexperienced son of the previous leader, who then proceeded to go out of his way to pick fights with much larger powers.

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Sound familiar?
Image credit: petersnoopy

At first things went well for the Paraguayans. They started out with the largest military in Latin America at the time. They also caught all three of their enemies by surprise. Lopez invaded the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul, as well as Argentina’s Corrientes Province. However by summer 1865 the tide began to turn against Lopez after the Brazilians decisively defeated the Paraguayan Navy.

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Seriously. To this day landlocked Paraguay has a navy.

Unfortunately for Paraguay, Lopez didn’t understand the concept of “quit while you’re ahead.” As the war dragged on through the rest of the 1860s, Paraguay’s military might was gradually sapped away by the Triple Alliance’s war of attrition. Both sides employed weapons and tactics similar to those used in the recently-concluded American Civil War, and experienced the same sort of horrific casualties. However unlike the alliance, isolated Paraguay was unable to replenish its resources and munitions.

On New Year’s Day 1869 the alliance captured the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. Even that didn’t convince Lopez to throw in the towel, who by then was conducing a guerrilla campaign in the mountains northeast of the city. By this point resources were so scarce among the Paraguayans that the few soldiers remaining were occasionally forced to fight unarmed – in the hopes of picking up a firearm from a fallen comrade – as well eat their horses.

Finally on 1 March 1870 Lopez was killed in battle, effectively ending the Paraguayan War. It’s estimated Paraguay lost anywhere between 50 to 90 percent of its population due to war and disease, including the vast majority of the country’s adult males. To put that in perspective, even the grimmest estimates place Cambodia’s national death toll at “only” around 40 percent during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to the human cost, Paraguay permanently lost a significant amount of its territory. The war also affected the victorious Triple Alliance in unintended ways. Notably, it’s widely believed it helped end slavery in Brazil, as the country was forced to free many to fight.

If Lopez had a redeeming quality, it was his tenacity. Because of this and despite the massive losses inflicted upon Paraguay during his rule, many Paraguayans today consider him a national hero.

Yeah, things have been brutal in the Corazon de America, but they’ve never been boring.

Feb 27

History Wednesday: When Divine Right Goes Wrong

This week History Wednesday takes a slightly a different tack. Unlike Qin Er Shi and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, today’s subject wasn’t a victim of his own greed or stupidity. Through no fault of his own, the problem with Charles II of Spain was that he shouldn’t have been on the world stage to begin with.

In the 17th Century the Hapsburg family ruled large portions of Continental Europe. Like other royal families, they were fond of marrying and having kids with each other to “preserve royal blood” or some shit like that. Now, according to my limited understanding of genetics this isn’t a good idea, as inbreeding is likely to cause, shall we say, problems down the road.

Unfortunately for the Hapsburgs, they didn’t have such sage advice at their disposal. Accordingly over time their dynasty gradually became less like the royal Übermenschen they wanted to be and more like the family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And so in 1661 Spain Charles, the Hapsburg’s analogue to Leatherface, was born.

Charles’ genotype was a mess even by royal standards of the day. His father, Philip IV, was married to his niece, which meant Charles’ mother was also his cousin. One relative was both his aunt and grandmother. Another was both his grandmother and great-grandmother. All eight of Charles’ great-grandparents were descendants of the same couple: Philip I of Castile and the aptly-named Joanna the Mad.

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Who was pretty hot. But still, Joanna the Mad ….

By the time Charles was born the Spanish Hapsburgs had an astonishing record of 16 GENERATIONS of inbreeding and a higher stillbirth rate than the peasants they ruled over. When it came to bad genes Charles hit a Yahtzee.

Just looking at the poor guy’s portraits indicates something was seriously wrong with him. From birth Charles was profoundly physically and mentally disabled, unable to chew his own food, unable to walk until age 8, and barely able to speak due to an enlarged tongue. It just got worse from there. By the time he was 35 he was effectively incapacitated.

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Even the artists didn’t give a shit at that point.

Charles became King of Spain basically by surviving infancy. He ascended to the throne in 1665 at the age of three. His mother/cousin, the only slightly more competent Mariana of Austria, served as his regent and de facto ruler for most of his reign. Almost immediately the brinkmanship and jockeying for position to succeed Charles began in every other royal house in Europe as he was not expected to live very long. Nevertheless Charles managed to live into his late 30s, to the surprise of pretty much everyone. Meanwhile Spain’s economy and standing on the world stage, which weren’t all that hot to begin with during Philip’s reign, steadily eroded.

Intensely religious and convinced his disabilities were caused by sorcery, the very few times he acted independently of his handlers usually dealt with issues regarding the church. Charles presided over some of the worst of the Spanish Inquisition, including the 1680 auto da fe during which 21 supposed heretics were burned at the stake.

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Which, in fact, everyone expected.

After Charles’ first wife (and fellow Hapsburg, natch) Marie Louise of Orleans died depressed and childless in 1689, Charles married yet another Hapsburg, Maria Anna of Neuburg, because hey, why not? Perhaps realizing the utter futility of this whole “produce an heir” business, Maria spent most of her time promoting a relative in Austria as Charles’ successor and grabbing whatever wealth she could from the practically bankrupt Spanish monarchy.

As the last surviving Spanish Hapsburg, Charles died what was probably among the most merciful deaths in history in 1700. According to the coroner’s report his body, “contained not a single drop of blood, his heart looked like the size of a grain of pepper, his lungs were corroded, his intestines were putrid and gangrenous, he had a single testicle which was as black as carbon and his head was full of water.”

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Still possible to accomplish, but not recommended.
Image credit: Trekphiler

Charles’ lasting contribution to world history is perhaps the war ignited by the subsequent free-for-all contest for his throne after his death, which eventually involved pretty much the entire Western world.