Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Recommended reading: May 7, 2017.

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

I’ve stumbled across two articles in the past couple of days that I commend to your attention. At least, if you’re as fascinated with this kind of thing as I am.

1) If you own a Patek Philippe Caliber 89 watch (I know many of my readers do: if you happen to be one of the unfortunate ones who does not, Sotheby’s is auctioning one soon), you’re going to have to get it serviced.

Why? The Caliber 89 has a unique feature (or, as high-end watch folks call it, “complication”): it will tell you what day Easter falls on each year.

It turns out that computing the date Easter falls on is simultaneously two things:

a) Relatively hard to do.

Easter is one of the “moveable feasts” of the Christian calendar; it falls on a different date every year. The reason is this: the basic rule for Easter is that it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring (that is, the first full moon after the Spring Equinox) and because both astronomical events are variable, the Easter date changes every year. (As with any calendrical irregularity, there have been various proposals over the centuries to just pick a single date, but so far nothing has stuck). For this reason, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

b) Relatively easy to do for a digital computer. I think you could probably fit a program to do this in 4K of BASIC, or even run it on a good programmable calculator.

But the Caliber 89 is a totally mechanical watch. How does it calculate the date of Easter? There’s the problem:

A method for calculating the Easter date is called a computus; is it possible to make a true mechanical computus, rather than relying on a program disk? The answer is, “sort of.” The first true mechanical computus appears to have been made not long after Gauss came up with his algorithm, and it currently resides in a place more horological enthusiasts should know about: the great astronomical clock in the cathedral at Strasbourg, in Alsace, France. There have actually been three successive astronomical clocks there since about 1354, but the most recent was completed in 1843. Designed by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, it has a true mechanical computus – probably the first ever constructed. It’s not the only mechanical computus, but I haven’t been able to find anything in English on other computus devices (although a reprint of a review of a book on the Strasbourg computus mentions at least two other “similar” mechanisms).

Even if you are not a high-end watch person, there’s still a lot in this article that I think is interesting: mostly the discussion of how Easter calculations work, and of the Strasbourg clock (which I’d really like to see one of these days).

(Hattip: The YCombinator Twitter.)

2) I’m a fan of Stephen Hunter’s work, and one who wishes he had time to write more non-fiction. I enjoy his novels, but I also think he’s an outstanding non-fiction essayist and writer. (Mr. Hunter, if you’re out there: I’d buy a hardback collection of your shorter works.)

The most recent American Rifleman has a Hunter article that pushes several of my buttons at once: “A Battle At Barrington: The Men & The Guns”.

You may have heard of the “Battle of Barrington”, though not under that name. It is also covered in Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies, a book both Hunter and I like a lot. This was the famous shootout between agents of what became the FBI and Lester Gillis, aka “Baby Face” Nelson. Gillis, his wife, and his partner John Chase were being pursued by (and shooting it out with) FBI agents when their vehicle was disabled: they were cornered by agents Samuel Cowley and Herman Hollis. In the ensuing shootout, Gillis killed Cowley and Hollis, and fled in their car: however, Gillis himself was mortally wounded by the agent’s gunfire and bled to death. (Chase and Mrs. Gillis were captured later: Chase spent 33 years in prison, and Mrs. Gillis served one year.)

The nice thing about Hunter’s article is that he addresses the firearms and tactics used by both sides. This sort of analysis is not a strong point of Burrough’s book: Hunter and his researcher actually went back to the old FBI files and turned up some new information.

The FBI’s records are full of fascinating facts about the event. For one thing: these guys weren’t just loaded for bear, they were loaded for bears, a lot of them. Found in the abandoned Model A: three bulletproof vests, five empty magazines for .38 Super automatics; two filled machine gun magazines (presumably Thompson 20 rounders); 200 rounds of loose .45 ammunition, three empty .351 magazines, three boxes of .30-’06 Sprg. soft-nose ammunition; one box of Springfield boattailed ammunition, five boxes, .45 Colt automatic ammunition, two boxes of Springfield bronze-pointed ammunition. One tan briefcase containing one loaded 100-round drum for the Thompson submachine gun; 10 boxes .22 Long Rifle; one Colt Ace .22 Long Rifle pistol and magazine. The last is a revelation: Chase had bought the M1911 variant with a lightweight .22 slide and barrel. Perhaps he and Les used it for low-cost practice on their various travels.

And, as you know, Bob, I love me some Thompsons. My one complaint about Hunter’s article, though, is that he consistently places the Miami Dade FBI shootout in 1987: it actually took place April 11, 1986.

This quote is for Karl (wink wink nudge nudge):

[Hollis] should have used his Super .38, firing prone, two handed, as that round’s velocity and straight-line trajectory could have gotten the job done, ending up center mass in Les. But he hadn’t been trained to two-handed prone shooting. In fact he hadn’t been trained to anything! The soon-to-be Bureau’s firearm training program didn’t begin until 1935!

True crime notes.

Monday, March 20th, 2017

I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of this story: it’s awful, and I hope the victims are able to achieve some level of peace.

But when you see a headline like

Vegas jury convicts War Machine of 29 counts

on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network’s website, it gets your attention.

“War Machine”, in this case, is Jonathan Paul Koppenhaver.

Koppenhaver went by his birth name during the two-week trial but had legally changed it to War Machine during his 19-fight MMA career.

The jury deadlocked on attempted murder charges, but found him guilty of the other crimes. It isn’t clear to me if those include the eight counts of “domestic battery” that his lawyer conceded to.

He could face up to life in prison.

And I hope he does every damn day of it.

[The female victim – DB] testified that Koppenhaver attacked her after [the male victim – DB] left. The jury saw photos of [the female victim] with a broken nose, missing teeth, fractured eye socket and leg injuries. She also suffered a lacerated liver.

In other words, he beat the shit out of them both. But he apparently reserved special attention for her.

[The female victim] said she fled her home and ran bleeding to neighbors when Koppenhaver went to the kitchen to fetch a knife.

He has been serving a 1½- to four-year sentence for violating his probation on a 2009 conviction for attempted battery involving a 21-year-old woman.

===

On what I hope is at least a slightly less depressing note, here’s something I stumbled across in my reading over the weekend, but haven’t had time to dig into in depth: Taylorology. This apparently started out as a zine in the old pre-Internet/”Factsheet Five” days, but eventually migrated online.

What’s it all about? Quoting the introduction:

TAYLOROLOGY is a newsletter focusing on the life and death of William Desmond Taylor, a top Paramount film director in early Hollywood who was shot to death on February 1, 1922. His unsolved murder was one of Hollywood’s major scandals. This newsletter will deal with: (a) The facts of Taylor’s life; (b) The facts and rumors of Taylor’s murder; (c) The impact of the Taylor murder on Hollywood and the nation; (d) Taylor’s associates and the Hollywood silent film industry in which Taylor worked. Primary emphasis will be given on reprinting, referencing and analyzing source material, and sifting it for accuracy.

The Taylor murder is one of those great unsolved Hollywood mysteries that everyone seems to have a theory about; some of those theories may even have an element of truth to them. Bruce Long, who runs Taylorology, has collected a great deal of archival material related to the Taylor case. And he’s a man after my own heart: he mentions in the biographical information on his site that he first became interested in the case when he was nine.

When I have some spare time (mumble years from now, the way things are going) I’d like to dig deeper into this site. One thing I can give Mr. Long credit for: he’s steered me away from purchasing one of the more famous books on the case. (Actually, I stumbled across Taylorology by reading another book on the case that references the website. Apologies for being elliptical, but I may do a brief review of the second book in the near future.)

Obit watch: March 16, 2017.

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Bob Bruce. Mr. Bruce joined the Colt .45s in 1962 (he’d previously been with the Detroit Tigers) and pitched for them, winning 15 games during the 1964 season.

Of greater historical significance: when the Astrodome opened and the Colt .45s became the Houston Astros, Mr. Bruce was the starting pitcher for their opening game in the Astrodome.

In five seasons in Houston, Bruce went 42-58 with a 3.78 ERA.

Royal Robbins, noted climber. He was most famous for his advocacy of “clean” (“leave no trace”) climbing.

“I think that we were drawn to our ethical stance because it was harder that way, frankly, and I think whatever’s harder has to be better,” Robbins told Outside magazine in 2010. “That’s why I have so much respect for free soloists these days.”

I’m not sure that I buy the “whatever’s harder has to be better” philosophy, but there is a certain resonance to the meta-idea:

He added of Robbins, “His philosophy was that it’s not getting to the summit but how you do it that counts.”

Obit watch: January 27, 2017.

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Mike Connors.

He served in the Air Force during World War II, then enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he played basketball (and earned the nickname “Touch” on the court).

Under the name Touch Connors, he also appeared in several forgettable films (“Swamp Women,” “Flesh and the Spur”), many of them for the director Roger Corman, and at least one enduring film: “The Ten Commandments” (1956).

By the end of its eight-season run, “Mannix” earned Mr. Connors a salary of $40,000 an episode. He used his fame to publicize a then-underreported chapter in Armenian history by narrating “The Forgotten Genocide,” a 1975 documentary about the targeted killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He would later narrate another Armenian-themed documentary, “Ararat Beckons,” by the same director, J. Michael Hagopian.

Serdar Argic, call your office, please.

One more crime series lay in Mr. Connors’s future — “Today’s FBI,” which lasted one season on ABC in 1981…

I remember liking that show. Doesn’t look like it has ever had a DVD release, and I can’t tell if it streaming anywhere. But the opening is on YouTube.

Remember when TV shows had openings? And theme music?

Historical note, required for use in schools.

Friday, January 27th, 2017

The Apollo 1 fire was 50 years ago today.

Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board.

Notes on film: Hidden Figures

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

The Oscar nominations are out. Once again this year, I have seen exactly one of the nominated films. And I didn’t get around to seeing it until this past Sunday, and mostly because my mother wanted to see it.

I’m going to put in a jump and talk about “Hidden Figures” a bit. Before the jump, a couple of notes:

A) As I’ve said before, my father worked for NASA during some of the same period covered by “Hidden Figures”. Specifically, he worked at what is now known as the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Some of what I’m going to say is filtered in part through my mother’s experience. (I wasn’t born for much of the time my dad worked for NASA, and am too young to remember the rest of his time there.)

B) There may be some things here that could be considered as spoilers, which is why I’m inserting the jump. The movie itself is based on historical fact that you can look up, so I’m not sure how much of what I’m about to say is really “spoilers”. (John Glenn orbited the Earth and returned safely. If that’s a spoiler for you, well, welcome to our planet, I hope you enjoy your stay here.)

(more…)

Obit watch: January 17, 2017.

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Eugene Cernan, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17 astronaut. NYT. NASA.

Hans Berliner, master chess player and prominent developer of early game playing computers (such as HiTech and BKG 9.8.)

Mr. Berliner was an expert at correspondence chess, in which moves can be sent by postcard or, more recently, over the internet. Players have days to think about each move, and games usually last months or even years. When Mr. Berliner won the Fifth World Correspondence Chess Championship, the final began on April Fools’ Day in 1965 and did not end until three years later.

Obit watch: January 12, 2017.

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Roy Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

I’m just going to put this out there: he was an interesting guy.

Though court decisions and new laws banned discrimination in education, employment and public accommodations, Mr. Innis was disillusioned by that progress, saying integration robbed black people of their heritage and dignity. He pronounced it “dead as a doornail,” proclaimed CORE “once and for all a black nationalist organization” and declared “all-out war” on desegregation.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Innis toured Africa, visiting Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Idi Amin in Uganda. He made Amin a life member of CORE and predicted that he would lead a “liberation army to free those parts of Africa still under the rule of white imperialists.” He later urged black Vietnam veterans to assist anti-Communist forces fighting in Angola.

He supported Nixon and Reagan’s presidential campaigns, and the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Innis acknowledged that his loss of two sons to gun violence in New York — Roy Jr., 13, in 1968, and Alexander, 26, in 1982 — influenced his decision to oppose gun control and defend citizens’ rights to carry arms in self-defense. He became a life member and a director of the National Rifle Association.

He also supported Bernard Goetz.

A favorite of conservative talk shows, Mr. Innis twice engaged in televised scuffles in 1988. On “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” he erupted at challenges to his leadership and shoved the Rev. Al Sharpton to the floor. On “Geraldo,” he choked John Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance, who had called him an “Uncle Tom,” and the host, Geraldo Rivera, suffered a broken nose in the ensuing brawl.

I heartily endorse this event or product. (#15 in a series)

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

My “Secret Ops of the CIA” calendar arrived today. (Previously.)

The WP, for once, wasn’t wrong: it really is a beautiful piece of work, and I think it is worth every penny the creator is asking for it.

(My favorite entry? April. Because 1) my birth month, 2) Stingers, 3) Charlie Wilson.)

Quick random notes.

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

Well, found my 2017 calendar. (Okay, it is a little expensive, and I already have a Gunsite 2017 calendar that I picked up in Tulsa. But I’m taking a flyer on the CIA one because the thumbnails of the art look incredible: I’m seeing this described as more of an art book that you hang on the wall. I’ll do a follow-up once I get it.)

(By way of.)

I’ve never liked the Philadelphia Eagles, but this story makes me feel a bit better about them: Quarterback Carson Wentz bought his offensive line a present.

Each of them is getting a personalized Beretta shotgun.

“I like to go clay shooting and stuff,” added Brandon Brooks. “All I’ve got is a home defense tactical shotgun, short-barrel, so I was looking for one of these.”

The great thing about this? Not only is a cool present, but it should make all the right people’s heads explode.

Obit watch: December 29, 2016.

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

The Grim Reaper finally caught up with Vesna Vulovic (or Vesna Vulović). She was 66 years old, and had managed to outrun him for nearly 45 of those years.

If that sounds callous, well, Ms. Vulovic had an amazing story. You might even remember it if you were an obsessive reader of the Guinness Book of World Records when you were young.

Ms. Vulovic was a flight attendant on JAT Flight 367 between Stockholm and Belgrade on January 26, 1972. She had actually swapped places with another girl and wasn’t originally scheduled to work this flight. As we see so often in movies and television, this never ends well…

An hour into the flight, the plane, a DC-9, blew up over the Czech village of Srbska Kamenice. As others were believed to have been sucked out of the jet into subfreezing temperatures, Ms. Vulovic remained inside part of the shattered fuselage, wedged in by a food cart, as it plunged.
Trees broke the fall of the fuselage section and snow on the hill cushioned its landing.

Ms. Vulovic is believed to have fallen 33,000 feet, which (according to Guinness, at least) is the longest documented fall survived without a parachute. She was badly injured, but Ms. Vulovic was the only survivor of Flight 367. It is generally believed that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb in the forward cargo hold.

But an investigation by two reporters in Prague in 2009 challenged that account. They concluded that the DC-9 was mistakenly shot down by the Czechoslovak Air Force at an altitude of only 800 meters, or about 2,625 feet.

I think the Wikipedia page (I know, I know) on Flight 367 has a fairly good explanation of why this theory is bolshie bushwa. Here’s a hint: the black boxes…

…which provided the exact data about the time, speed, direction, acceleration and altitude of the plane at the moment of the explosion. Both black boxes were opened and analysed by the service companies in Amsterdam in the presence of experts from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Dutch Aviation Office (Raad voor de Luchtvaart).

I could buy a couple of Communist countries being in on the conspiracy. But the Dutch?

Sometimes there’s just nothing you can say. Debbie Reynolds: NYT. LAT. A/V Club.

Obit watch: December 9, 2016.

Friday, December 9th, 2016

John Glenn roundup: NYT. Lawrence. WP. Sweet story about Mrs. Glenn: they were married for 73 years. LAT. NASA Glenn Research Center.

(My dad worked at the Glenn Research Center a long time ago; so long ago, it wasn’t called the Glenn Research Center back then.)

Edited to add: Borepatch on Glenn. NYT obit for Greg Lake.