Archive for May, 2015


Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Happy birthday, John Wayne!


As an actor, John Wayne was known for his masculine portrayals of cowboys, soldiers, cops, and the occasional Swedish cargo ship crewman or Ghengis Kahn.

But does he deserve his reputation as a macho cliché?

Born Marion Morrison in Winterset IA, he was nicknamed “Little Duke” (later shortened to “Duke”) after his constant companion, Big Duke (the family dog).

Duke played football in high school (and in college until an injury disqualified him for his football scholarship). However, he also performed in theatricals and was president of the Glendale Union High School Latin Society.

Impersonators parodied his manner of speech and the way he walked, but the Duke’s rubber-band-chewing locution and the singular gait owe more to his characters’ calm and confidence than to combativeness. John Wayne’s characters are ready for a fight, not spoiling for one.

Of course, in real life, he did dust it up a bit. But what else are you going to do when you’re trying to get some shut-eye and Frank Sinatra throws a loud party in the hotel room below?

* not the Thin White Duke – that’s David Bowie just after Ziggy Stardust
not Duke Ellington – that’s the great composer and bandleader
not Tommy Morrison – that’s John Wayne’s great-nephew, the boxer a/k/a The Duke

Let’s Agree to Syzygy!

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

On the 19th of May in the year 2161, we can all look forward to our next grand syzygy!

That’s right – all eight planets in our solar system (sorry, Pluto) will align within 69 degrees of each other.

The last time we had a syzygy was in 1982, when the planets, the Moon, and bonus then-planet Pluto were on the same side of the sun – they were in a heliocentric alignment, to be precise. Because we’ve observed an increase in seismic activity during syzygy of the sun, the moon, and the Earth, there was plenty of conjecture about “The Jupiter Effect” in 1982, and warnings that the combined gravitational force of the planets would bring about violent tides, sunspots, and earthquakes. However, none of these cataclysmic events came to pass, if we can believe the memories of those over the age of 30 and Earth’s leading astronomers, seismologists, and whoever is in charge of the tides (Aquaman?).

But what would have happened if there had been a grand syzygy in 1982 and the planets were not only on the same side of the sun, but in alignment?

We’re just going to have to wait until 2161 to find out.

Until then, May 19th will continue to be celebrated solely as the birthday of professional wrestler and beloved actor, André “the Giant” René Roussimoff.

Shared Birthdays: L. Frank Baum and Pierre Curie

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Frank Baum and Pierre Curie were both born on May 15th. Here are some interesting facts about them:

Curie was one of the founders of modern physics. Baum was the creator of the “Oz” book series.

They were born 3 years apart – Baum in 1856, Curie in 1859.

The “L” in L. Frank Baum stands for “Lyman.”

Both were home schooled.

Before reaching the height of his career, Curie worked as a laboratory instructor. Before becoming a successful author, Baum was unsuccessful as a fancy poultry breeder, fireworks salesman, shopkeeper, lubricant salesman and newspaper editor. After becoming a successful author, he became an unsuccessful film producer.

Curie and Baum both promoted equal rights for women. Pierre Curie developed much of his work with his wife, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, and the two shared a Nobel Prize together. L. Frank Baum’s wife was the daughter of women’s rights activist Matilda J. Gage. Baum was a staunch suffragist and filled his Oz books with material promoting feminism.

Pierre Curie died in a street accident at age 46.

Frank Baum was a theosophist. Curie thought that spiritual phenomena were related to physics and attended séances in order to scientifically understand what took place. (He didn’t think they were fake, but he didn’t necessarily think ghosts were ghosts.)

Baum was a sickly child. Curie was a child prodigy.

When he was young, Baum was an actor, and returned to the theater by adapting Oz for the stage (wildly successfully) and producing musicals (rather unsuccessfully). When he was young, Curie wrote a famous doctoral study on magnetism.

Baum’s Oz characters have continued to live on in books and movies through the present day. Curie has a law and a constant named after him and his grave is enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris.


Baum and Curie also shared similar poses in photographs.


Oh, the Iron Gall of That King John

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

On May 12, 1215, a group of English barons delivered an ultimatum to the extremely unpopular King John. The real King John – though perhaps not quite as eeeeeeevil as the character portrayed by Claude Rains in The Adventures of Robin Hood, (1938)* – was a schnook.** and his schnookishness led to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta was a revolutionary document granting rights to wealthy, land-owning, highly educated, and privileged gentry. Though that may not seem revolutionary to us, the rights it sought – due process, for example, and equality under the law – at the time were afforded only to monarchs. This expansion of rights was a revelation, even if the Magna Carta did only apply to a fraction of its low-born citizenry.***

But the really interesting part of the Magna Carta was its iron gall ink!

Iron gall ink is full of ingredients like oak galls, gum arabic, and iron sulfate (don’t try making this at home!), water or wine, and gum Arabic. The result is some good-looking ink – black or blue-black or blackish-purple or brownish-black.

Iron gall ink records the work of such great artists and thinkers such as Darwin, Rembrandt, Dickens, J.S. Bach, da Vinci, and Van Gogh. And it was used for important manuscripts and documents, such as drafts of the U.S. Constitution, the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as many sacred texts from Buddhist sutras to the Qur’an to the Bible.

Of course, iron gall ink eats through documents – and it will destroy your favorite fountain pen – but until these valuables are pocked with corrosion, the ink will be beautiful…


It’s pretty but it causes paper and parchment to disintegrate.


*the greatest Robin Hood movie of all time and we will admit of none more worthy

**tried to stage a coup while his brother, King Richard the Lionheart, was being held for ransom by Leopold V, Duke of Austria – long story

***not forgetting that these rights are far from universal 800 years later

Shared Birthdays: Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Thursday, May 7th, 2015
Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky: drinking buddies.

By all accounts Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky should have been allies. They stood on the same side of a musical divide between conservatives and a more avant-garde approach to music, championed by popular contemporaries such as Wagner and Liszt. And, for what it’s worth, they were born seven years apart to the day — May 7th. (Although due to the Russians not yet adopting the Gregorian calendar, in Russia, the date was April 25th.)

But Tchaikovsky hated Brahms. He hated his music, and he hated what he stood for. He saw Brahms as a wildly overrated poor imitator of Beethoven. Here’s an example of what he said about Brahms, via a letter:

“The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It irritates me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius…. Brahms is a chaos of utterly empty dried-up tripe.”

Come on, Pyotr, tell us what you really think about him. But Tchaikovsky had grounds for his animosity to Brahms — jealousy. Tchaikovsky, living in Russia, far away from the central European music scene, felt irritated that he had to live in the shadow of Great European Composers, and Brahms was one of the Greatest.

Tchaikovsky wrote: “Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms.”

When the two men met in 1888, odds were not great that they would get along. To add to Tchaikovsky’s hate for Brahms and his music, their personalities weren’t naturally good matches. Tchaikovsky was formal and aristocratic, while Brahms disliked pretense and had a strong taste for sarcasm.

But Brahms was not at all the conceited celebrity Tchaikovsky expected him to be, and when they met, he showed kindness to his Russian colleague.

As Tchaikovsky described the drink-filled meeting of the minds: “I’ve been on the booze with Brahms. He is tremendously nice — not at all proud as I’d expected, but remarkably straightforward and entirely without arrogance. He has a very cheerful disposition, and I must say that the hours I spent in his company have left me with nothing but the pleasantest memories.”

But he still didn’t like his music at all and wasn’t shy of telling Brahms so. And the feeling was mutual. The two met again a year later, when Brahms may or may not have fallen asleep during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Regardless of whether or not he fell asleep, it’s certain that Brahms was no fan of Tchaikovsky’s music. He harshly critiqued Tchaikovsky’s symphony to his face during a post-rehearsal meal. Tchaikovsky wasn’t put off by this. In fact, it gave him more respect for Brahms. Tchaikovsky responded by lambasting Brahms’ musical style and after more drinking, the two parted as friends.

So this May 7th, raise a glass (or perhaps a couple of bottles of wine) to Tchaikovsky and Brahms!

Shared Birthdays: Kierkegaard, Marx and Bly

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015


Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, German philosopher / economist / revolutionary Karl Marx, and American investigative journalist Nellie Bly were all born on May 5th.

Here are some facts about these three fascinating people.

They all came from large families. Karl Marx was the 3rd of 9 children. Søren Kierkegaard was the youngest of 7 children. And Nellie Bly was the 13th of 15 children!

All three were writers.

They had a rebellious streak. Marx, besides spending his life espousing revolutionary theory, was imprisoned for drunkenness when he was young and fought a duel when he was in college. Kierkegaard, upon learning that his father had impregnated his mother out of wedlock (and she was his father’s maid at the time), withdrew from his family, left his studies, and eventually left home for a life of carousing and drinking before eventually making peace with his father’s “sin.” Nellie Bly’s career began when she wrote an angry rebuttal to a misogynistic newspaper column. After becoming a professional writer, she pioneered “stunt” journalism, putting herself into harm’s way to uncover a story.

All three used pseudonyms. Kierkegaard wrote under many pseudonyms. Some of the more interesting ones: “Judge Williams,” “Hilarius Bookbinder,” “Young Man,” “A.”, “Johannes de Silentio,” and “Anto-Climacus” (in contrast to another of his pseudonyms, “Johannes Climacus”). In order to make it harder for authorities to track him, Karl Marx often used pseudonyms when renting lodgings. He also used pseudonyms for his family – his daughter Jennychen’s pseudonym was “Qui Qui, Emperor of China.” Nellie Bly was a pseudonym. Her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. She chose her name from a Stephen Foster song.

Søren and Karl had a friend in common. Søren Kierkegaard knew Karl Marx’s great collaborator Friedrich Engels.

Hegel mattered. Karl Marx was deeply influenced by G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy and was a member of the “Young Hegelians.” Søren Kierkegaard strongly disagreed with Hegel over the role of the individual in society and over his views of religion. We do not know Nellie Bly’s opinion of Hegel, but we bet she had one.

They wanted to improve the world. Nellie Bly and Karl Marx were committed to social reform. Kierkegaard was too, in his way. His work stressed the importance that we use our conscience.

Bly and Kierkegaard died early. Nellie Bly and Søren Kierkegaard both died relatively young. Although they lived healthy lives, Kierkegaard died at age 42 from a spinal disease, and Nellie Bly died at the age of 57 from pneumonia. Karl Marx suffered from debilitating illnesses his entire life but lived longer than the other two. He died at age 64 of pleurisy.

They each have a lasting legacy. Karl Marx influenced generations of economists and revolutionaires. He would probably be surprised to see how wide his legacy spread in the 20th century. Søren Kierkegaard was a major influence on existentialism, and can thereby be seen as founding a field of thought that developed long after his death. Nellie Bly was a trailblazer in the field of investigative journalism, while also being a rare woman in a field dominated by men. Bly’s success has inspired generations of women who have fought for equality in the workforce.

April is the Cruelest Month: The Four Stages of Cruelty

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Cruelty can inspire great art. Think about the psychological torture in the films of Ingmar Bergman. Or the tormented figures in paintings by Francis Bacon. Or King Lear, or Saw movies if you’re into that kind of thing. It can be cathartic, and even a bit titillating to see cruelty at a safe distance.

And sometimes seeing cruelty play out can have an instructive purpose, such as in The Four Stages of Cruelty, a series of engravings by the master satirist and artist William Hogarth.

Like much of Hogarth’s work, this series uses shocking and extreme imagery to deliver a moral lesson. In this case, the lesson is that a life of cruelty, no matter how enjoyable it might be at the start, always ends in misery.

The four engravings follow events from the life of a character called Tom Nero. Stage one shows a group of youths tormenting animals (see our earlier post about how cruel children can be). Tom Nero is the worst of the lot, violently torturing a dog.


The cruelty to animals is expanded in stage two, where numerous people work their abused animals to death, and an adult Tom Nero beats his exhausted horse. This engraving features lawyers too – always a sign of cruelty in satiric art.


Tom Nero reaches the height of cruelty in stage three, which is titled “Cruelty in Perfection.” In this engraving, Tom, now a highwayman, has just been apprehended for murdering his pregnant lover, after convincing her to rob her mistress. Tom’s grotesque appearance shows how cruelty has transformed him into an unrepentant monster.


Stage four is titled “The Reward of Cruelty.” Tom Nero has been hanged for murder, and his body is being dissected in a medical theater. Justice runs its full course as a physician pokes Tom’s eye out, just as Tom blinded his horse, and a dog feasts on Tom’s heart, as payback for the torture Tom inflicted on the dog in stage one.


This gruesome set of images is unpleasant and tragic. Unlike most of Hogarth’s other work, there is no humor to temper the brutality on display. Hogarth was dismayed by the routine cruelty he observed on the streets of London and had a message to deliver: stop this cycle of cruelty before it is too late! Stop your children from being cruel or they will all end up like Tom Nero!

(images courtesy of Wikipedia)