Skip to main content

Posts

The Eroica: Beethoven's Falling Out with an Autocrat

It’s exciting when a revolutionary comes along and promotes all the right ideas.  It feels like there’s a real change coming in the world when this person comes along, speaks what feel like simple and self-evident truths, rushing in like a fresh wind.  The French Revolution was a revolution of ideas, coming in on the heels of the American Revolution, which had brought into the world a nation founded on the principles of self-government and fair representation for all.  One such nation was founded, and now another one—The Republic of France—was on the rise. It was a big deal to the French, of course, among those who supported and opposed the Revolution.  But the Revolution was welcomed by many people in other countries, as well.  One admirer of the French Revolution was the German composer Ludwig von Beethoven, whose career was starting to take off at the time.  Beethoven himself had recently gotten over some major humps in his personal life, as well.  He was just starting to lose his h
Recent posts

Squonk

Old Pennsylvania legend, it is written, tells of a creature called the squonk (lacrimacorpens dissolvens) .  The squonk lives in the woods and is very hard to track down, though its cries are often heard, especially around twilight, when it’s said to wander about the hemlock trees.  It is elusive, and it wants to be.  The reason for this is that the squonk is one of the homeliest creatures in the world and it knows it.  Its skin is ill-fitting, covered with warts and moles.  It doesn’t like being so ugly, so its cries and tears are said to be caused by its weeping over its lot in life. Skilled hunters, it is said, can track the squonk by following the trails of tears it leaves.  Even so, the squonk is very hard to catch.  In fact, only one squonk is said ever to have been caught.  This feat was accomplished by a hunter called J. P. Wentling, who lived near Mont Alto, Pennsylvania.  He caught the creature by mimicking it and luring it into a sack.  His success is attributed to the fact

Why "Red" and "Blue" States?

  Often you’ll hear pundits or even journalists refer to “red states” and “blue states”.  This is used as shorthand for “conservative states” and “liberal states”, respectively, or “reliably Republican states in presidential elections” and “reliably Democratic states in presidential elections”.  You’ll sometimes hear someone say they could never live in a red state, or in a blue state.  This might give you the impression that these terms have been around forever.  Actually, this standard is only about twenty years old—or it will be twenty years old this November. Color-coded maps showing the outcomes of presidential elections are nothing new.  They’re more common in recent years, simply because color printing isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but you can find such maps pretty far back in the 19th century.  Red and blue are popular colors to use to mark which candidate won which states for the simple reason that those are the two dominant colors on the American flag.  Which color rep

Kilroy Was Here

As American troops made their way across Europe and the Pacific on their way to defeating the Axis, they were joined by someone else who seemed to follow them everywhere: Kilroy.  No one is exactly sure who Kilroy is, but there are pictures, and plenty of them—all of them cartoons.  Kilroy was a cartoon of either a bald or a balding man peering over a wall or a fence.  You can see his fingers on the wall, and his cartoonishly large nose stretches even farther than his fingers.  Invariably scrawled beneath this drawing came the legend “Kilroy was here.” Kilroy was a meme that predates the internet, and even the very existence of the word meme .  It was easy to spread around, since anyone could copy the simple phrase, and you didn’t need especially strong art skills to copy the cartoon.  For much of the mid-20th century, Kilroy seemed to be everywhere. Kilroy was in the Vietnam War (left), and earlier in Europe during World War II (right). Kilroy was all over the place

The Fez

Though it’s named for the city of Fez, Morocco, the fez is a man’s hat that dates back to ancient Phoenicia.  The Phoenicians were active traders and colonizers all over the Mediterranean, including in what is today Morocco, so it’s not surprising that the fez caught on there.  What is remarkable is that it’s still worn today. Like all fashions, the fez has come and gone in different parts of the world.  It disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean, where it originated, but was reintroduced centuries later.  The fez caught on in the Balkans sometime around the Renaissance, possibly inspired by a kind of military cap resembling the fez that was common in the Mediterranean at the time. In 1826 the fez got a real boost when Sultan Mahmud II banned the turban throughout the Ottoman Empire.  His thinking was that he wanted to modernize Turkey, and saw the turban as a symbol that separated east from west.  “Modernization” in 19th century Turkey often meant “becoming more like Europ

The World Since 4004 BC

Archbishop James Ussher, the man who calculated the Biblical age of the earth. We often hear religious Christians claim that the world is 6,000 years old (or 6,024 years old, plus six or seven weeks, to be exact).  I won’t weigh in on the veracity of that claim, but it does raise an interesting question: where do they get that number?  The Bible provides exactly zero dates, so how can anyone claim to figure it out? The first man who claims to have figured it out was James Ussher, the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in the middle of the 17th century.  A scholar and influential churchman, Ussher studied the Bible and concluded that the famous creation of the world, in the Book of Genesis, must have taken place on October 22, 4004 BC, at around 6:00 PM, local time, according to the Julian calendar. It seems arbitrary, doesn’t it?  But Ussher didn’t just throw a dart at a calendar.  It was based on a literal reading of the Old Testament, and incor

Pennies, Bad Pennies, and Common Cents

In English, we say a bad penny always turns up.  Today we use it to refer to a person we’d rather not see but who keeps coming around anyway.  We don’t think of it as referring to a literal bad penny, a counterfeit penny.  Really, how many of us have ever seen a counterfeit penny?  I’ve been collecting coins for most of my life and I haven’t run across one, or even heard of anyone counterfeiting them.  Why bother?  They wouldn’t be worth the effort you put into making them.  If you’re going to counterfeit, go for $20 bills, or even quarters, at least. There was a time when pennies were worth a bit more, and were worth the effort to counterfeit.  In 15th century England.  At this time, the English penny was a silver coin, not copper.  (There were coins called farthings which were smaller than pennies, and these were made of copper.)  The penny was a fairly valuable coin—more valuable than we think of pennies today, anyway.  It makes a kind of sense, then, that people would counter