Archive for August, 2014

Just Your Type

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

On August 26, 1843, Charles Thurber received patent No. 3,228 for “Machine for Printing” – a typewriter that looked like the love child of a fairground calliope and a Gatling gun.

His patent documents describe it as “a new and useful Machine for Printing by Hand by Pressing Upon Keys Which Contain the Type” and it makes your carpal tunnels flutter just looking at it.


It is specially intended for the use of the blind, who, by touching the keys on which raised letters are made and which they can discriminate by the sense of touch, will be enabled to commit their thoughts to paper. It is intended for the nervous, likewise, who cannot execute with a pen…

Sure, it was slow going, but for people with disabilities or those with execrable penmanship, it must have seemed magical – or as magical as a contraption was liable to get.

Though his invention never made it to manufacture, he did come up with two inventions that appear in your office printer and typewriter (if you fill out those forms in triplicate for local government offices who can’t afford to upgrade): the returning paper carriage and the roller that lets you scoot the paper up and down.

His invention was slow and awkward, but what of it? That remains a popular typing style today.

Anglo-Saxon Summer: Riddle Time

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The “Exeter Book” is an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry dating from the 10th century. It is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry and includes over 90 riddle poems.

Riddle poems are just that: riddles in the form of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The riddle poems in the Exeter Book range from the religious and allegorical to the mundane, and even more mundane. In those years the bar for entertainment was low, and writers were not shy about throwing in sexual innuendo. The answers to these riddles don’t appear in the book – although most of them have been figured out by astute historians – so you can be pretty sure you’re not going to run across any spoilers.

Here are some examples:
(translations by Paull Franklin Baum, courtesy of Wikisource)

My beak is downward     and low I move
and dig in the ground.     The hoar foe of the forest
directs my movements;     and so my master
goes bent over,     the guide at my tail,
drives across the field,     pushes me and crowds me,
and sows in my swath.     I go sniffing along,
brought from the woodland,     stoutly fastened,
borne on a wagon.     I have many strange ways.
I leave green on one side     and black on the other.
Driven through my back     there hangs beneath
a well-sharpened point;     on my head another,
firm and forward-moving.     What I tear with my teeth
falls to the side,     if he serves me well,
my lord who behind me     heeds me and guides me.

Answer: I am a plow.

I saw the wight     going on its way.
It was splendidly,     wonderfully arrayed.
The wonder was on the wave;     water became bone.

Answer: I am ice.

* SAUCY WARNING * Here’s that (not very subtle) innuendo we were talking about:

I’m a wonderful thing,     a joy to women,
to neighbors useful.     I injure no one
who lives in a village     save only my slayer.
I stand up high     and steep over the bed;
underneath I’m shaggy.     Sometimes ventures
a young and handsome     peasant’s daughter,
a maiden proud,     to lay hold on me.
She seizes me, red,     plunders my head,
fixes on me fast,     feels straightway
what meeting me means     when she thus approaches,
a curly-haired woman.     Wet is that eye.

Answer: I am an onion.

Splendidly it hangs     by a man’s thigh,
under the master’s cloak.     In front is a hole.
It is stiff and hard;     it has a goodly place.
When the young man     his own garment
lifts over his knee,     he wishes to visit
with the head of what hangs     the familiar hole
he had often filled     with its equal length.

Answer: I am a key.

I have heard of something     wax in a corner,
swell and pop,     lift up the covers.
A proud-minded woman     seized with her hands
that boneless thing,     a prince’s daughter;
covered with her dress     the swelling thing.

Answer: I am dough.

In honor of Anglo-Saxon summer, we thought it would be nice to write some modern riddle poems using the alliterative scanning of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Here are two of them:

I can be called i    container of cells
You speak softly    and I, soulless, speak
Power up my person   and I powerfully perform
I am your genie guide    and my guidance is global
Your constant comrade    Your closest companion
Silence my sensors    and I still serve.

Answer: I am an iPhone.

Your hands hover over me    I harvest wisdom.
You yearn for answers    I yield to your questioning
But beware:    I bring you astray
Into a foul chasm    of kittens and cranks

Answer: I am Google.

This is what the Anglo-Saxons did for fun in the days before television. Celebrate this great Anglo-Saxon pastime and write your own riddle poems!

Happy Birthday to Lilia Skala!

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

If you search for Lilia Skala on the film database IMDb you will see:

Actress, Flashdance (1983)

And that’s true. But it comes nowhere near capturing the brave, brilliant, trailblazing life of the woman who was born born Lilia Sofer.

As with many actors, Ms. Skala’s family did not approve of her theatrical aspirations, so she decided to please her parents and stay in school and graduated from the University of Dresden. Then she became the first woman member of the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects.

As with many actors, Ms. Skala’s creative pursuits were not the sole source of her income, so she became the first professional woman architect in Austria.

When she finally took the plunge and left architecture to live her dream of acting, she became a prominent and well-regarded actor on stage and screen.

Her hard-won accomplishments were short-lived: when her husband was arrested (it was the 1930s, he was Jewish), Ms. Skala bribed the guards in a Viennese detention center to release him and he escaped to England; the rest of the family escaped the Nazis and reunited in England before emigrating to the United States.

Between her Diplom-Ingenieur (advanced degree) in Architecture and her Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Ms. Skala was a member of the usual unions (SAG, AFTRA, AEA, the Bricklayer Guild in Vienna).

She did a lot of unglamorous work (in a zipper factory in Queens, bussing tables in Hollywood, as an appliance demonstrator, as a licensed mutual fund salesperson) yet remained humble even after success: she declined a percentage of the gross from the hit movie Lilies of the Field because she did not want to be greedy.

Yes, Lilia Skala was “Actress, Flashdance (1983).” Her legacy lives on in her TV work, her film roles, and her family (in fact, one grandchild is the actor Libby Skala). Lilia Skala’s performances garnered critical praise and audience admiration on two continents (and in two languages). Her US career alone included roles on television, Broadway, and film, including Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier, Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman, and David Mamet’s directorial debut, House of Games.

She was nominated for an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and an Emmy, but never won.

Correction: she never won if you count only Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys.

Happy birthday, Lilia Skala!


Anglo-Saxon Summer: Fun and Games Anglo-Saxon Style

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

When they weren’t at war (yes, they weren’t always at war), the Anglo-Saxons were playing.

We know this because sports such as hunting and fighting were well-documented by Anglo-Saxon poets. Also, we’ve found a bunch of game boards in archeological finds and in Anglo-Saxon graves.

There were dice games, with dice made from bone or antler.

“Knucklebones,” an ancient form of Jacks, used sheep or pig knuckles as playing pieces.

The board games that the Anglo-Saxons played shed light on how different cultures mixed and mingled across Dark Age Europe. England is an island, but the Anglo-Saxons were worldlier than you’d think.

Take board games: the game known as “Hnefatafl” and the game now known as “Nine Men’s Morris” were based on ancient games from distant lands such as Rome or Egypt, or, in the case of chess, from as far away as India. The world was in flux, and we mustn’t forget that the Angles and Saxons were themselves invaders originating from Germany and Scandinavia — and they brought their games with them.

“Hnefatafl” was one of the most popular board games, and came to Britain from Scandinavia; it was probably a Germanic version of the ancient Roman game “latrunculi.”

Since it’s the future, you can now play this game online. So mix yourself an Anglo-Saxon the Beach, pull up a computer screen, and enjoy!


Thin Blauw Line: NYPD Begins as NARW

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

1658 was a big year for the denizens of New Amsterdam (soon to be known as “New York”). Down at the very southern tip of Manhattan, the Dutch built a shed and opened the first meat market. They paved the first street! They passed laws against wooden chimneys!

As everyone knows, where there are sheds full of meat and non-flammable chimneys and paved streets there is crime, so on August 12, 1658 the first police force was formed, and the Dutch called it the ratelwacht.

The ratelwacht were the rattle watch. As the siren had yet to be invented, patrolling New Amsterdam night watchmen used rattles. Just imagine how terrified a modern criminal would be to hear the shake of a rattle.

The sentries were forbidden to fight or swear or drink or sleep on the job, so that tells you something.

Of course, the Dutch rattles were not long on the scene. In 1664, the British took over, and with their constables on the job… well, you’d better believe you were not getting away with making a disturbance in church.

The Vikings’ Worst Season

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

August 5th is the anniversary of big losses for the Vikings. Let’s just say their season ended pretty badly.

How badly? It was worse than the Vikings’ 1962 season, when they had a record of 2-11-1. It was even worse than 1984 (3-13).

By the summer of 910, the Danish Vikings had rampaged through the northeast of England, looting wherever they went and gaining control of large swathes of territory.

Though King Alfred the Great had knocked down their numbers, the Vikings were still pretty cocky. Since they figured that King A. the G.’s son, King Edward of Wessex, was miles away in Kent assembling his fleet, the Danes did some trouncing in Mercia (now the English midlands).

However, when they started back for their ships, they found themselves in the midst of a surprise squeeze play. Not only was King Edward not in Kent, he was in Mercia with his army, and teamed up with his sister, the able military commander, Æthelflæd (who ruled Mercia with her husband, Ethelred).

The Vikings found themselves surrounded and they got massacred at the Battle of Tettenhall. Literally. The Viking kings and pretty much the whole team were massacred.

Remember: be nice to your sister.