The Great Eighty-Eight! Err, Nine


I’m tired of talking about controversial things. In this election season I have offended too many friends. So how about a great negative curse. This is a major curse, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere, so you’ve probably never heard of it. It is so old that I have to explain a paragraph’s worth of the calendar first.

For many centuries and places the year didn’t start on January 1. Sure, that would be logical, but we are human. One popular new year’s day was Lady Day, March 25. Christians might claim that something important happened nine months before Christ’s birth – Easter. Except Easter moves. Lady Day is stationary. Sometimes the Roman’s would start the year at the spring equinox when the ‘V’ formed by the stars of Aries – the Roman God Mars – was in the proper place. That’s why Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac and December is not the twelfth month. Too bad the equinox and the ‘points of Aries’ are different things. And were moving away from each other. Julian dates are often in the form 1588/9 for the first three month’s of the Gregorian Year. So for English speakers there were fifteen months that could be considered in a year. Imagine how crazy this would be were I to be accurate!

When The Great and Happiest Spanish Armada tried to invade England and end that Protestant nonsense, the English didn’t defeat the Armada. They made a good showing, and God helps them who help themselves, but the hard work of defeating the Great and Happiest Armed Fleet was done by the Protestant Wind. This Divine Wind – anyone who thinks ‘Kami Kaze’ will be severely reprimanded – seemed to continue and end a curse on the Great and Happiest Fleet. The English called the year the ‘Great Eighty-Eight.’

Was the Eighty-eight really great?

Well in 1488/9 the whole history of the world changed when the Portuguese found how to go around Africa and reach the mysterious East. Shortly the Spanish would fund a confidence man named Columbus and become quite rich. To an Englishman 1488 was the year Henry VII betrothed his son Arthur to Catherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. This was well before the Spanish became rich, and it was only natural that the two great Atlantic seafaring powers should ally. This marriage should have changed the world as the powers were not tainted by great greed, but skill and lifestyle. Once again the proposals of Man were disposed of by a greater Power and the whole mess got started.

In 1388 the entire court of the King of England were convicted by Parliament of treason. Can you say Parliamentary supremacy? In one way Protestantism got its start when Wycliffe published his Bible in English and people called the Lollards started reading and arguing scripture. What they read did not much match what they were told by the Church. The Lollards would eventually engender the Boleyn faction which would do so much to make England Protestant. Ahem, Anne Boleyn? Mamma of Elizabeth the First? Oh, and in a totally unrelated field, the puppet king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, married his daughter to Henry, heir to Castile. This would ally Spain and England, but Spain wouldn’t exist as a kingdom for a while yet. But she was a queen Catherine in Spain. Her great grand daughter would be the Catherine of Aragon whose marriage would start the whole armada thing.

OK. Lets try forward. 1688. In 1688 there was the most perfectly managed revolution in history. In less than fifty days the new Catholic king and fool, James II, is tricked into abdication and exile. There were almost no casualties. A new Protestant dual monarchy is established. In early 1689, 1688 in English reckoning, the Declaration of Rights is, well, declared as a condition of the new monarchy. This leads to the actual supremacy of Parliament. In America Quakers in 1688 demand an end to slavery.

1788. American Constitution. French Revolution. If I have to expand on this, I have failed. Suffice it to say that 1788 saw the publication of ‘What is the Third Estate’ and the caling of the Estates General.

1888. The Ghost Dance starts in America. Jack the Ripper. The curse is broken. If we cheat a year we find the Golden Jubilee of Victoria when the British Empire was the largest and most successful empire in the history of humanity. It was followed closely by the estranged cousin non-empire of the United States of America. The amount of human advancement by these two English speaking polities cannot be overstated.

1988. The Return of the Curse. The first computer virus of note. We found our first extra solar planet. And the Iron Curtain collapsed. The Soviet Union collapses. Tim Berners-Lee proposes the Worldwide Web. I don’t know which of these will prove the most momentous, but one, I am sure, will be remembered a millenium hence.

So was there a Great Eighty-Eight? When enterprises of such pith and moment start or fail, some are tempted to see the hand of fate or Providence, I do not gainsay them. At the very least it is a good way to learn history. I am looking forward to 2088.

Sir Francis Drake (Eighty-Eight)

In eighty-eight, ere I was born,
As I can well remember,
In August was a fleet prepared,
The month before September.

Spain, with Biscayne, Portugal,
Toledo and Granado,
All these did meet and make a fleet,
And called it the Armado.

Where they had got provision,
As mustard, peas and bacon,
Some say two ships were full of whips,
But I think they were mistaken.

There was a little man of Spain
That shot well in a gun, a,
Don Pedro hight, as good a knight
As the Knight of the Sun, a.

King Philip made him admiral
And charg’d him to stay, a
But to destroy both man and boy
And then to run away, a.

The King of Spain did fret amain,
And to do yet more harm, a
He sent along, to make him strong,
The famous Prince of Parma.

When they had sailed along the seas
And anchored upon Dover,
Our Englishmen did board them then
And cast the Spaniards over.

Our queen was then at Tilbury,
What could you more desire, a?
For whose sweet sake Sir Francis Drake
Did set them all on fire, a.

But let them look about themselves,
For if they come again, a,
They shall be served with that same sauce
As they were, I know when, a.

Roy Palmer's note and glosses
The ballad looks back at the armada, possibly from the time of James I. Some of the details have become
 blurred, though the picture of victory remains clear enough.

August  the main fighting was in fact over by the end of July.
Biscayne  Vizcava, one of the Basque provinces
full of whips  a widely-held belief. Cf. Deloney's'New Ballet of the straunge and most cruel Whippes
 which the Spanyards had prepared to whippe and torment English men and women'.
Don Pedro  the Spanish commander-in-chief was in fact Don Alonso Perez, Duke of Medina Sidonia.
 called Knight of the Sun  hero of a Spanish romance,
The Mirrour of Princely Deedes and Knighthood, which was widely known in England through translations.
amain  with all his might
Parma  the Duke of Parma's fleet was to have joined the armada from the Netherlands, but failed to do so.
 Tilbury  Queen Elizabeth delivered a rousing triumphal speech there in August 1588. She was mounted
 on a white horse, thus giving rise, it is said, to the nursery rhyme,'Ride a  cock horse'.

A Small Memory

     I was 21 when I knew Lynette. She was about the same age and had recently been runner-up for Miss mumble in my state. We worked in the same place. I had recently heard an interview on NPR where it was said that no woman liked her own thighs. I was working alone in the back room when she came in.

I said, ‘I heard a rumor. It was said that you hate your thighs.’

     Lynette looked around, saw we were alone, assumed an unfamiliar frown, and hissed as loud as he could in a whisper, ‘Who told you!’

     I think about that sometimes when I talk to my love.

Imbue Wonder


I have come to habitually bid farewell to folks with Irish blessings. I am not especially Irish, but I have come to believe that the world is riven in twain by those who sap life of intrigue and wonder, and those who strive to imbue the world around the with more mystery and joy.

There is little enough awe and magnificence in how we se the world. Bon mots and beau gestes are not empty of sense, but small redeeming graces. The occasional bogglements of each other are practical Koans that  inject magic into the weary mundanity we have created.

The greatest wonder of all is how we can fail to perceive the magic all around us. It takes many years of schooling to fail to stare in amazement at a dust devil or the way a Newton’s cradle acts to conserve momentum and energy in a totally invisible and dazzling manner.


May the Good ye do be celebrated,

                                                              And the Ill forgotten.

The Good Green Men





Let me be petty for a moment. I recently saw a public service commercial which set me off.

These are made by people purporting to be wise to tell the rest of us how to live. Generally they are made by people less happy and successful than the rest of us. The one I saw pirates the ancient Green Man character into a mute and be-bearded hippy. It told me to set my water heater to 120 Fahrenheit to save energy. My first thought was that more energy could be saved by insulating the pipes and water heater. That would save freezing pipes too. Much energy would be saved in not replacing split pipes in cold winters. Of course, we don’t really deserve hot baths and comfortable houses or enough hot water for everyone.. Mainly the sort of advertisements I see here try to make one feel virtuous for metaphorical cold showers and hair shirts.

When I was young water heaters were set to 160 or 170. By the time I was eighteen the enviro-sapiens told us to set them to 140 Fahrenheit. As a diligent student, I believed what I was told. Now that I am told 120 Fahrenheit.

I wish to think out loud. There was good reason to set water heaters to 160, it tended to sterilize. When — not if — debris entered the water heater it was killed by the heat. Also the hot water lines were kept sterilized. And the drains for some distance.

At 120 any algae or other debris is incubated. We encourage bacterial growth. Hot water pipes have interesting slimes growing in them. One should not drink water from a hot water line. If one goes to England one finds separate hot and cold taps. This is a cultural memory of the early water heaters when one risked contaminating the potable water supply from the hot water. At 120 we might consider the same.

Is this really saving energy? Or is it risking public health? Do the people running the PSA’s care or do they not think?

This is like the CAFE standards for cars. The idea is to save energy. But every advance in CAFE cost human deaths. When we make cars lighter we remove protections. This is not too terrible because of clever engineering. But this is not to the credit of those setting the unreasonable goals. A car company once made the Pinto. The short version had the gas tank too near the rear bumper. The car was prone to deadly gasoline fires when rear ended. But it made the CAFE standard!

Ford was sued. They knew about the problem beforehand and calculated that it was less expensive to settle law suits than to fix the problem. It was thought monstrous that there was a price set on human life and suffering. Is this not what the bureaucrats who establish the CAFE standards do? What number of barrels of oil are worth a human life?

I come not to criticize Cassius and Brutus. They are good green men.

A Balanced Perspective


The Loving Curse of History

Bless the bright Cromagnon for inventing the bow

      and damn him for inventing missile warfare.

Bless the stubby little Sumerians for miracles in gold and lapis lazuli

      and damn them for burying a dead queen’s hand-maidens living in her tomb.

Bless Shih Hwang-Ti for building the Great Wall between northern barbarism and southern culture,

      and damn him for burning every book in China.

Bless King Minos for the ease of Cnossian flush toilets

      and damn him for his yearly tribute of Greek sacrificial victims.

Bless Pharaoh for peace

      and damn him for slavery.

Bless the Greeks for restricting population so the well-fed few could kindle a watch-tower in the west,

      and damn the prostitution and sodomy and wars of colonization by which they did it.

Bless the Romans for their strength to smash down every wall that hemmed their building genius,

      and damn them for their weakness that never broke the bloody grip of Etruscan savagery on their minds.

Bless the Jews who discovered the fatherhood of God

      and damn them who limited it to the survivors of a surgical operation.

Bless the Christians who abolished the surgical preliminaries

      and damn them who substituted a thousand cerebral quibbles.

Bless Justinian for the Code of Law

      and damn him for his countless treacheries that were the prototype of the wretched Byzantine millenium.

Bless the churchmen for teaching and preaching,

      and damn, them for drawing a line beyond which they could only teach and preach in peril of the stake.

“Bless the navigators who, opened the new world to famine-ridden Europe,

      and damn them for syphillis.

Bless the red-skins who bred maize, the great preserver of life

      and damn them for breeding maize the great destroyer of topsoil.

Bless the Virginia planters for the solace of tobacco

      and damn them for the red gullies they left where forests had stood.

Bless the obstetricians with forceps who eased the agony of labor

      and damn them for bringing countless monsters into the world to reproduce their kind.

Bless the Point Four boys who slew the malaria mosquitoes of Ceylon

      and damn them for letting more Sinhalese be born then five Ceylons could feed.

“Who knows what he is doing,

      why he does it or what the consequences will be?

                                                                                       – Cyril M. Kornbluth



Cast your mind back with me. You start college. You hope to do sixteen credits. Four of them are for your major. Four for major prerequisites. Maybe calculus. A lab course. A seminar to familiarize you to your field. A PE course to keep you from turning into a lump. If you are smart, you take something broadening such as a history class or introduction to psychology. That’s it. And you have too many credits. You may have to drop something. Not your major. You may try a class you don’t expect and discover a passion. Maybe linguistics or math. If this happens either you regretfully neglect it or change majors. Either way it puts you behind. You are not well rounded. In fact you are specialized. If you discover the afternoon lectures, maybe the Physics colloquium, you have less spare time.

That’s your first year. Maybe your second as well. If you are not wealthy you are in a race to graduate before you run out of money. Often if your parents are wealthy too. They want to see progress. You become more focused on your major. There is a lot to know in any major and, say, ten courses are not enough to cover many tricks and wonders. The buffet of other interests must be neglected if you wish to graduate in a reasonable time. Pray to god you don’t fall in love. That will really put you behind.

You end up knowing one field a bit and one specialty a bit better. A handful of interests you know well enough not to sound foolish. If you chose wisely you can earn a living. You are a college graduate.  If you chose poorly, you are still a college graduate, but you cannot find a job in your field. You realize that while you are more educated, you are not smarter. Wisdom begins. You begin to appreciate the difference between education and training. Often training is more in demand than education. Nobody cares about philosophy. The cretinous Philistines.

You are proud and happy. Then disaster strikes: ‘Now you are educated tell me about – something.’ You cannot maintain that the subject is unimportant. But you never studied it. So you fake it. Can you pull I something from history? Derive from first principles? Did something get said one of those nights when everyone was sitting around talking? I remember Dad asking. ‘How big are we really in the universe?’ I wanted to cry. He didn’t mean 1.83 meters. He wanted to know some cosmic meaning of which I was ignorant. Which I did not believe existed.

The socially smart thing is to figure out what smart people are supposed to believe this week and parrot it. Atheism, the Gaea Hypothesis, Complexity Theory, whatever. You don’t want to let down important people by saying ‘I have no idea. I didn’t study that.’ You need to appear smart. Reasoning from first principles is dangerous. What if you come to a conclusion that is unfashionable? Nobody was ever ridiculed for saying what the smart set on television said.

And you are trapped. You can’t keep changing your mind without letting on your ignorance. Many people believe what they say. They find cognitive dissonance to be painful. Besides, can you really remember the reasons for all the things you learned? Could you do all those proofs in Calculus again if you tried?

Your income is based on being educated. Don’t undermine that.

It’s probably true.

Winding Down After The Election


You Ask Me, Why, Tho’ Ill at Ease

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

You ask me, why, tho’ ill at ease,

Within this region I subsist,

Whose spirits falter in the mist,

And languish for the purple seas.

It is the land that freemen till,

That sober-suited Freedom chose,

The land, where girt with friends or foes

A man may speak the thing he will;

A land of settled government,

A land of just and old renown,

Where Freedom slowly broadens down

From precedent to precedent:

Where faction seldom gathers head,

But by degrees to fullness wrought,

The strength of some diffusive thought

Hath time and space to work and spread.

Should banded unions persecute

Opinion, and induce a time

When single thought is civil crime,

And individual freedom mute;

Tho’ Power should make from land to land

The name of Britain trebly great—

Tho’ every channel of the State

Should fill and choke with golden sand—

Yet waft me from the harbour-mouth,

Wild wind! I seek a warmer sky,

And I will see before I die

The palms and temples of the South.

The long combat of political campaign is over. Please, let us build and garden our civilization.


I am reminded I was recently attacked for something much like this. Just before the election a woman with whom I often agree was in despair. She is an immigrant and a proud American chauvinist. ‘America, she said, is the only light of the world, and if it fails, the world will pass into darkness.’

I made the mistake of saying that America is just the most recent institution of an idea that had been around a very long time. It is a better institution than those which came before, but if it fails we can build another. We are not helpless before the tides of time. And worse, to her, we have learned in the past two centuries. We could avoid some mistakes in the constitution were we to start over.

Mistakes! In the Constitution! I am now persona non grata.

It seems that to a chauvinist, the Constitution sprung fully formed from the pen of Madison with the incubation of Adams and Jefferson. The Constitution was most definitely not the product of longstanding historical movements.

Along one line to the past lies Magna Carta. The Great Charter is rather clumsy, but it stated some important principles. That justice not be bought and sold. The English in 1689 had a Bill of Rights. It wasn’t a very good one, but it was a solid foundation on which we built out own. The great mistake of the British was that the constituent parts of their constitution were just simple acts of Parliament and could be easily undone. The British still have their Bill of Rights but it has been so changed and undermined that most British schools don’t bother to teach it.

Madison and the boys certainly learned from Montesquieu. The whole division of powers thing.

And the lady whom I offended certainly remembers Republican Rome. The Republic was strong enough that it took three centuries of emperors to take the freedom of the people. Again, it was not a good system, but is was the foundation on which better was built.

So if the lines referring to Britain offend some – telwiddim. History happened. I put out not my own eyes to placate. I do not deny history to avoid offense.