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Friday, October 14, 2011


I can't help wondering why so many politicians are calling for a new approach to politics Aren't the same politics we've been using for the last 2,500 years good enough?  Maybe the real problem lies not with the lying, two faced, double dealing, back-stabbing, opportunistic, insincere politicians but with the idiots who vote for them: i.e. us. Check my math, please: politicians lie, politicians get elected; could there be a connection? Let me give you a little example from ancient history, so nobody feels insulted.
James K. Polk was America's eleventh President, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was, until Richard Nixon, our most secretive President. He didn’t even tell his own cabinet members what he was thinking. He was a Jackson Democrat,  and no matter what your history books tell you he did not campaign on the phrase "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" – that came up later. During the campaign, what Polk was most famous for was for not branding his slaves. And trust me, this smear was so good they still haven’t figured out who did it.
The story was first published in the August 21, 1844 edition of the Ithaca New York Chronicle, (a Whig newspaper) and claimed to be a 3 paragraph extract from an unpublished book, “Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States…” It claimed to detail Baron Von Roorback's conversations with a group of slave traders on the Duck River in Tennessee. “Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, of the Honorable J.K. Polk…; the mark of a branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders, distinguishing them from the rest.” Even in 1844 the idea of branding human beings, even those treated as slaves, was appalling to many people...in places where the economy hadn't been built on slavery.
Which was why the story was picked up by the Albany Evening Journal, and other Whig newspapers, particularly in the 1844 “battleground states” of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Many voters in those swing states were outraged that a man standing for President would do something so despicable as to brand human beings. To Whig politicians that story was almost too good to be true. And almost as quick as Republican bloggers caught Dan Rather, the Democratic press found out there was no such book and no such Baron. The details about Polk had been inserted into a real travel book, of a run in with some slave traders on Virginia’s New River. Polk’s farm was in Tennessee, so the inventor of the lie had shifted the scene to where it would do the most good. Besides, it was not common practice to brand slaves since, like whipping scars, brandings tended to reduce their price, like a car door a different shade than the other three. It would be marking the slave as difficult to work with, and likely to escape in the future. Slaves were certainly whipped and branded because it wasn’t illegal. Most people in 1844 America still believed slaves were property and would have been equally offended if some government official tried to tell them how to treat their horses or how to slaughter their hogs.
Still, embarrassed at being caught repeating what was so obviously a fabrication, the Whigs pinned the whole thing on William Linn, a lawyer and a Democratic operative in Ithaca. But why would a Democrat smear his own candidate? Well, if I were a believer in conspiracy theories, I might say that this very kind of allegation against Polk was actually a fairly safe charge to make. Polk did own slaves, but his Whig opponent in the election, Henry Clay, owned even more slaves than Polk did. And it has been suggested by some historians that the “Roorback” story was a case of nineteenth century “wedge” politics. Abolitionism was still a minor issue in 1844, but abolitionists formed a solid voting block in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, those key battleground states. Convince enough abolitionists in at least two of those states that the Whigs were lying to them, and they just might choose the Democrat Polk over the Whig Clay as the lesser of two evils. And the letter to the Ithaca Chronicle had been signed, “An Abolitionist”, thus adding insult to the injury.
Well, maybe....And maybe that theory implies a level of sophisticated conspiracy that did not exist in the simpler culture and times of 1844 – and certainly would not have existed in Athens in 415 B.C., when Alcibiades was accused of vandalizing statues of the god Hermes.
You see Hermes was the mythical inventor of fire, and "...a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates....who protects and takes care of all travelers, miscreants, harlots, old cronies and thieves and injured athletes".  Each Greek home had an anatomically correct statue of Hermes standing on its front lawn, and it was common practice for visitors to pause at the stature and stroke his stone phallus for good luck before knocking on the front door. And when the owner left the house for the day or a business trip, they would also give the statue a tug for good luck.  And that was why it was so shocking that on the morning that Athens was launching a massive naval assault on Sicily, the city awoke to discover that every home statue of Hermes had its phallus knocked off during the night.  
It almost sounds to modern ears as if the neighborhood kids had been drinking sour wine on the street corner and started smashing phalluses as a prank. But to the devout in Athens (and there were many who believed in the gods) it was also sacrilege. And rumors began almost immediately that the person responsible was the golden boy politician who was heading the expedition, and known for his past sacrilegious opinions, Alcibiades (above). Of course Alcibiades had his own theory. He thought it had been the work of his chief political opponent and co-commander of the Sicilian expedition, Nicias.  Two thousand five hundred years later, it is impossible to know who the phallus breakers were. But whether they planned it all or just took advantage of the situation, the one thing we know for certain is, that the people arguing both sides of the scandal were all politicians.     
The point is, politicians have been gaming voters since voting was invented. And voters have been playing along, else the game would not have remained so popular for so long. And that is why when a politician tells me he is selling something new, especially when it is something I want to believe, my reaction ought to be, “Pull the other one.,”  When the American political system works  (which it has not been doing recently)  it is been based upon pragmatism, as it was in the 1844 election results: Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote to Clay’s 48.1 %, and part of that razor thin margin was victories in New York and Pennsylvania - by less than 6,000 votes each of those two states. Those two states gave Polk 62 Electoral Votes, out of his sixty-five vote margin of victory (170 to 105). It seems that if the Roorback story was a double blind trick, it worked.
Oh,... and remember the phrase “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” that was not used in the 1844 election? Well, it was actually invented by Ohio Senator William “Earthquake” Allen, well after the election. The number was  the Southern border (54 degrees & 40 minutes of latitude) claimed by Russia when they owned Alaska. A simple glance at a modern map will confirm that the modern border between America and Canada,  agreed upon by President Polk, was (and is) the 49th parallel. So much for the “…Or fight!” part of the slogan. Have you noticed how often politicians don’t actually mean what they seem to say? You might say they make a career out of it. And always have. And we expect them to.
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011


 I can not think of a more misbegotten, unlucky group of failures and frauds than the grief stricken dullards who collectively are responsible for one of the most vital and fundamental inventions of the modern world. And without their work, you would not be sitting where you are at this moment.
It all started with a Parisian named Barthelmy Thimonnier (above), who invented the sewing machine in 1830. I know, you think it was invented by Elias Howe, but that is because Elias Howe was a “patent troll” and a liar.And because, in 1840, a mob of French "Luddiet" tailors broke into Thimonnier’s factory, smashed his machines, burned his factory down and almost lynched Barthelmy. The poor guy died flat broke and forgotten in 1857. But first he invented the sewing machine. The vacuum he left behind was filled by the American Walter Hunt, who was a mechanical genius and a business boob from upstate New York. Walter invented the safety pin, U.S, patient #6281, and a repeating rifle, and a bicycle and a road sweeper. And then, in 1834, he improved on Thimonnier’s sewing machine.What Walter Hunt actually invented was a sewing needle with the hole - aka, the eye - at the pointy end. As the needle pushed through the cloth the eye carried the thread with it. When the needle stopped, the thread behind the eye forms a loop, and a second thread (from the bobbin) is pushed through the loop. The needle was then withdrawn, pulling the loop tight or “locking” it, around the bobbin thread. This “Lockstitch” was sheer genius, a brilliant insight, but Hunt never did anything with it because he didn’t want to be lynched by American tailors and he was safely making plenty of money from his safety pin. And that opened the door for Elias Howe.Elias Howe told at least two versions of how he "invented" the sewing machine. I don't believe either one. In the sympathetic version he spent hours watching his poor wife (since dead, and unavailable to testify) earn extra money doing piecemeal sewing work to support his family. In the Freudian version, Howe dreamed about Indians shooting arrows through a blanket.
In fact Howe had been a mechanic repairing looms in a textile mill, before he started living off his wife's sewing abilities, and that is where he learned all about shuttles and bobbins, and probably saw a version of Hunt's sewing machine. Like a loom, Howe’s sewing machine, patient #4750 granted in 1846, fed the cloth in vertically and the needle and bobbin worked horizontally. Howe’s sewing machine worked , sort of, but it was so clumsy that Howe couldn’t find anybody to buy it. He never made a dime from the actual invention. But he did file a patent on the lockstitch, which, you may remember, Hunt had actually invented.Then in 1850 Howe saw a demonstration of a machine which did work, built by a mechanic and an actor and one of the most foul-tempered bigamists in antebellum America, Mr. Isaac Singer. Singer’s sewing machine put the needle vertical and fed the cloth in horizontally, which made the whole thing functional. But Howe noticed that Singer had 'borrowed' his (meaning Hunt's)  lockstitch. When Howe demanded $25,000 in “royalties” (i.e. blackmail), one of Singer’s long suffering business partners observed that, “Howe is a perfect humbug. He knows quite well he never invented anything of value.” Singer was typically more direct, offering to “kick (Howe) down the steps of the machine shop ” should he ever show up there again demanding money. What forced the courts to make Howe a wealthy humbug was the patent he had been granted for Hunt's lockstitch. As a magazine at the time noted, Howe had “litigated himself into fortune and fame.” But then this story is not about the sewing machine.This story is about another patent Elias Howe trolled for, this one granted him in 1851. And just like his sewing machine, Howe’s patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” did not work. He just filed it away and waited to see if anybody else ever fixed it. But, since nobody else made his ugly and clumsy device work during his lifetime, Howe had nobody to sue and the device remained an obscure little footnote. And people continued to live with the original “Clothing Closure” device, the button.Originally Whitcomb Judson was not interested in replacing the button. This rather odd man liked to eat bananas and mushrooms because he thought the mushrooms gave him psychic powers. Judson’s “mushroom visions” told him was going to rich designing pneumatic street cars, (he was granted 14 patents for them), a mode of transport driven by a system described rather unhelpfully in his advertising as “…a screw, but without a thread; and this screw though always revolving in one direction, will send the (trolley) cars in either direction, and do this by a pure and simple rolling and not a sliding friction..” It sounded mysterious and magical, and was actually used briefly in England in 1864 to transport tourists 600 yards between Waterloo and Whitehall stations. But Judson’s railway went nowhere in America. So, in 1893, as a back up invention, he marketed his patent #’s 504038 & 504037 as a “claps lock” for ladies high button shoes, and “…wherever it is desired to detachable connect a pair adjacent flexible parts.”Mr. Judson explained that “...each link of each chain (4 links per inch) is provided both with a male and a female coupling part…”. But sadly this coupling had a tendency to pop open, leaving the lady in question barefoot on the public way. So, in 1896, Judson added “….a cam-action slider…” to his invention, now calling it his “C-curity Fastener”. The company he formed to exploit the C-curity (The Universal Fastener Company) did well, and the gill-ed fungi lover was making money, but he never got as rich as he had expected. It was a shame the mushrooms never warned Judson about the dangers of eating too many mushrooms because Judson died of liver disease in 1909. And that brings us to the dull Mr. Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback, a Swiss emigrant to Canada, working as an electrical engineer for Universal Fastener and married to the plant manager’s daughter, Elvira. In 1911 Elvira died, and to distract himself from his grief Gideon started fiddling with Judson's “C-curity Fastener”. He added more teeth (the male coupler), ten to an inch, and widened the slider, and then he realized he could do away with the couplers entirely. All he needed was the teeth. Gideon called his invention the “'Separable Fastener”,  and his patent, # 1219881, was granted in 1917. Gideon even designed a machine to mass produce his fastener.In 1923, when Mr. B.F. Goodrich saw the new fasteners used on a pair of rubber galoshes his company was trying to sell the U.S. Army, he was delighted, telling an employee to “Zip ‘er up.” And thus was born the onomatopoeia of the new invention, the name that sounds like the sound the Separable Fastener makes when it fastens and when it separates; the zipper. And the world has been a better place ever since.
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Sunday, October 09, 2011


I find it curious that there are no professional worm charmers at the Wallaston Primary School competition,  considering the mercenary foundation of the sport. In 1980 then headmaster, Mr. John Bailey, was searching for a way to raise funds for the school. Dances were too stodgy and fraught with the threat of the uncontrolled social interaction the English so dread. The school was already holding bake sales and silent auctions. What was needed, Headmaster Bailey decided, something new, perhaps the drama of a competition. But, being British, it would have to be a non-competitive competition, something like cricket, in which two teams may engage in a fierce match that often leads to a long drawn out draw.
In addition, the competition had to be non-weather dependant, given the generally damp and gray English version of weather. And it had to be something which would encourage participation while discouraging physical contact, in order to avoid lawsuits and insurance complications. Furthermore, the event must avoid encouraging any excess of enthusiasm. The British had already give the soccer hooligans,
What the Headmaster was looking for was a "clean" sport with a minimum of set up and cleanup time, and which would use the facilities the school already processed. Ideally there should be no rentals, no leases and no veterinarian fees or protests from animal rights groups. In fact he felt any non-human participats must be creatures whose demise, even if it were to be bisected in full view of the public, might bring a smile to the lips of the average English antivivisectionists. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, having eliminated all other creatures, the worms beneath the schools “pitch”, or cricket field, seemed the obvious choice.
An observer of the competition on “Charming Day” noted contestants who were  “…tap dancing with magnifying glasses, and (the) “…hum of a didgeridoo (has even been heard)”. Some contestants have tried meditation, playing cellos, tapping bongo drums. even mounting and riding plush horses. “ Some hammer the ground with plastic tubes, or, using, of course, plastic hammers. Others push a garden fork into the turf and strike it. Others may play deep notes on a double bass, or tempt the worms with the music of a mouth organ. One person, in an inflatable fat suit, circles around on stilts. I hope the worms can see him but I doubt it.”
They can’t. And even if they could, it is unlikely that Lumbricus terrestris would be amused. I can state with little fear of contradiction; worms have no sense of humor. When your existence consists of burrowing through mud and litter, and being chased by moles and robins,and now human begings dressed as pirates,  of what use is humor? Or for that matter, of what use is a rope?
Thus it is even unlikely that the worms would enjoy the not so ancient verse that sings,
“First you’re sick, and then your worse,
and then it’s time to call the hearse.
They put you in the cold, cold ground,
with all your relatives standing round.
And all goes well for about a week.
And then the coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out,
the worms play pinochle on your snout.
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
they eat the jelly between your toes.
Your eyes fall in and your hair falls out.
Your brains come dribbling through your snout.
The worms crawl in are lean and thin.
The worms crawl out are fat and stout.”
It is not a cheerful poem, but it is descriptive.
Compare that ditty with the tribute in verse provided by Mr. Andrew Rudd (above), the first (and so far the only) official poet laureate for the World Worm Charming Championship. “Come, come to me, blind-lurker, burrower, mulch-eater, twist-curler, soft survivor, ….flexible friend, cranny-squeezer, shade-lover, moist drinker, dew-sipper, …humble worm, mortal worm, beak-tugger, bird-resister, …tiny miner, soil-sapper, spaghetti loop, micro-gut,…muscle-ringed, knot-twister, cold-sleeper,…neglected, ignored, come, come to my, charm.” It could almost be set to an atonal Nursery Rhyme.
But why is it that no one has ever surpassed or even tied the magic number of 511 worms achieved by legendary Tom Shufflebotham almost 30 years ago? Could it be that the worms are trying to tell us something about global warming? (What, them too?) Could it be that the worms on the pitch of the Wallaston County Primary School have grown smarter over the last 30 years? Or, could it be that the Wallaston pitch has been “over charmed”? Worrying also is that the heaviest worm charmed in the history of the competition was back in 1987, a 6.6 gram monster, brought down by the suspiciously named Mr. N. Burrows.
The second year of competition saw just 302 worms charmed by the winner (Mr. M. Bennion) and in 1983 Mr. S. Goodwin could only corral a mere  217 a worms to claim victory. 1983 saw a brief return to abundance when Mrs. C. Paul was able to capture 248 wigglies to claim the top trophy, but the middle eighties were a time of slimmy scarcity. Over the three years, 1984 through 1986 inclusive, just 184 worms graced the winner’s buckets. In 1987 and '88 the school pitch bounced back with 214 and 265 worms, but the decade ended with a pathetic 79. And the last time any supreme contestant even topped 400 worms was Miss G. Neville in 1993, (487). And the average since the dawn of the 21st century is just 243 worms per year, well under half of Mr. Shufflebotham’s truly Babe Ruthian catch.
Still, the evident decline in worm numbers has not led to a decline in competition. In 2003 there was a tie with two plots each producing 167 Lumbricus terrestris. In accordance with the rules, the Gordian knot was severed with a five minute “Charm off”. Lea Clark and Robert Oltram (plot 134) were able to draw out a further 13 worms, but Richard and Rodney Windsor (plot 131) captured a triumphent 14 worms to their bucket, and were declared the official winners. Five years later and the village is still abuzz about that hair's-breath victory. But whiter the future charming? We shall ask that question, and a few others, in our final chapter of Live Bait
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