Wednesday, January 31, 2007


It's 2 below zero this morning. Yesterday evening I was down in Waukon at a basketball game, and on the way back the thermometer in my Jeep was already reading 5°, 4°, 3°. Oh well. Another month, and we'll be past the subzero weather.

Speaking of subzero, could there be such a thing as a subzero IQ? 'Cause yesterday at that basketball game, I saw what looked like a two-year-old playing with a laser pointer. There he sat on his mother's lap, pointing the damn thing this way, that way, every which way, the red dot skipping here and there in the bleachers, while doting mom smiled like "Isn't that cute?" Then big brother, who must've been all of nine or ten, took the laser pointer and amused himself by bouncing the red dot around all over on little brother's face. Oh, isn't that a riot? Meanwhile, I was hoping and praying that the red dot wouldn't flash my way; or that, if it did, I'd be able to close my eyes in time.

A mother letting her two-year-old play with a freaking laser pointer?! I know that doesn't quite qualify for the Darwin Award, but it's edging up there. Honorable mention, maybe? I must admit, it's little things like this that make me despair some days for the future of Western civilization.

Didn't You Know?

"Innocent until proven guilty" is a principle of jurisprudence, not a principle of epistemology.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Buffalo Nickels in Your Change

It was about 1967 that I received two buffalo nickels in change at Clark's neighborhood grocery store. Two buffalo nickels. Around that same time, a friend of mine received an Indian head penny in change.

I remember how we routinely used to get old coins in change, back in those days when coins were worth something and we used to get our groceries at neighborhood grocery stores. Standing Liberty quarters. Ben Franklin half dollars. Walking Liberty half dollars. Mercury dimes. All these and more were not uncommon.

As a kid I had a penny collection. I didn't have every Lincoln penny issued, I was missing some of the rarer ones, but I had most of them, going all the way back to 1909, and including a 1909 VDB penny. And I built up my penny collection entirely by watching the pennies that turned up in my change.

I don't know just when older coins began disappearing from circulation. The abandonment of silver coinage and the rising price of silver certainly had something to do with it, though I remember silver coins didn't disappear from circulation overnight. I also thought coin collectors had something to do with it, as witness the gradual vanishing of wheat pennies from circulation.

I have a wooden box which has stood on top of my dresser ever since I picked that box up at a garage sale in the summer of 1982. For many years my pocket change tended to gravitate toward that box, where it sat forever until several years ago I finally went through and sorted it out. I found in this pocket change— dating back to 1982, mind you— several silver Roosevelt dimes, several dozen wheat pennies, and a number of steel pennies. I also found three buffalo nickels, no idea where that third one came from. All of which would indicate that, as recently as 25 years ago, there were still occasional silver coins in circulation, plus various other older coins including older pennies.

I won't say you'll never see a wheat penny in change nowadays, but I can't remember the last time I received one. It's been years. Today's coins just aren't the same, to say nothing of how they aren't worth a plumb nickel anymore. Assorted state quarters, most of them lackluster and obviously designed by committee. The occasional "fantasy nickel," with an odd three-quarter profile of Tom Jeff, or a Kon-Tiki raft on the back, or whatever. Imagine getting a buffalo nickel in change today. It just wouldn't happen.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Scanner Darkly

I only got to see this movie recently, didn't get to see it when it hit the theaters last summer. I've watched it three or four times now, and let me tell you, it rocks!

A Scanner Darkly, based on the science-fiction novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. It's the near future. 20% of the US population is addicted to the deadly "Substance D." People live under hidden surveillance in a state of total information awareness. The police wear identity-shifting "scramble suits," not to disguise themselves in trailing suspects, but rather to remain anonymous to other police officers.

Keanu Reeves plays "Officer Fred"/"Bob Arctor," an undercover narcotics agent whose dual identity is unraveling into an outright split personality. But the real performance to watch comes from Robert Downey Jr., who steals every scene he's in.

The movie was filmed as live action, then rotoscoped— transformed by computer into animation. One of those rare "book adaptation" movies which is actually true to the original book. Worth seeing. Like I say, it rocks!

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Imitation Is the Sincerest Form, Etc.

Well, here's an interesting one. In a blog post yesterday I wrote:
I've been ignoring the loud ads for the new Blogger on my admin pages now for months ("Your New Blogger Is Ready!!!").
Now this morning I was hunting around on Google Blogsearch to see what other people had to say about the enforced march to the New Blogger, and I run across a blog post dated today in which someone else says:
I've been ignoring the loud ads for the new Blogger on my admin pages now for months ("Your New Blogger Is Ready!!!").
Not by way of quoting me, you see; but simply opening her blog post with these as her own words.

Curiouser and curiouser! In my post yesterday, I wrote:
Well, when I tried to log into my blog admin page this morning, I found I was given no choice but to upgrade to the New Blogger.
This other blogger, in a comment to her own post today, wrote:
I just tried to log into my blog admin page and I found I was given no choice but to upgrade to the New Blogger.
I guess like they say, imitation is the sincerest form, et cetera.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Cold Redux

No point in trying to deny it any longer: that cold I came down with earlier in the week, which had been gradually and steadily improving, has staged a comeback. Dang! I wanted to head out to a taco supper and a basketball game this evening. But I think I'd better go lie down instead, and do that recuperation thing...

"Hey, Is That a Witney Five-Pointer?"

So yesterday I was down in Waukon, and I was wearing my new wool coat, and I stopped off at Pamida to pick up a few things. I had just paid at the cash register, and I was heading for the door, when I was accosted by a fellow, a perfect stranger, about my age, and about my size, and with an even scruffier beard than mine.

He said, "That shore is a nice big coat there. Hey, is that a Witney five-pointer?"

He went on, "I got me a coat made from a Witney blanket at home, somep'n like that. Well, shore enough, it's a five-pointer!"

We talked a while. Turns out he's a historical reenactor. He wanted to know if I was planning on attending the Rendezvous "down in Prairie." (Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, for those who aren't from this neck of the woods.)

Well, I'll be. Hadn't reckoned on my coat being quite that "recognizable."



I'm trying an experiment. I got some large bath towels, 34"x68", and I've hung them over two windows in my bedroom. They're large enough to cover the windows, just barely: this is an old house, built in 1880, with big old windows.

What I'm discovering is that it's amazing how much those towels help darken my bedroom at night. See, living way out in the country as I do, there's a yard light out back; and the light from that yard light, even reflecting off the side of the church next door and shining through the closed window blinds, is enough to light up my bedroom at night almost as much as if I lived in a city with city streetlights.

I thought I'd try an experiment with the towels, hung over the windows, hung over the closed blinds. And sure enough, my bedroom is now dark enough at night that I can only just barely see my hand in front of my face. Reminds me of when I lived out West, in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, many years back, and I was renting a basement apartment from someone, and once I turned out the lights at night it was pitch black, and I literally could not see a thing.

Of course, there's the question of stumbling over something when I get up in the middle of the night. But, like I say, it's an interesting experiment.

The New Blogger

Well, when I tried to log into my blog admin page this morning, I found I was given no choice but to upgrade to the New Blogger. I've been ignoring the loud ads for the new Blogger on my admin pages now for months ("Your New Blogger Is Ready!!!"). But as of this morning, there was no longer any way for me to log in without upgrading.

I sure hope they've got the bugs worked out of this New Blogger. So far the worst I've noticed is one minor item in my template that was broken by the upgrade, I went in and fixed it. The old fashioned way, by monkeying with the HTML, and not via some Fisher-Price drag-and-drop system, thank you.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Capote, Witney Point Blanket Coat, Wool Winter Coat

wool capote
The new wool coat, custom made from a Witney point blanket, is here! Mr. FedEx Man pulled up yesterday morning and delivered a box, and I've been on cloud nine ever since. The latest of my imaginative ventures has come to fruition. With a lot of help from my Mom and her sewing skills.

wool coat
This all got started a few months ago when I latched onto Harold Tichenor's wonderful book, The Blanket: An Illustrated History of the Hudson's Bay Point Blanket. Therein I learned that one of the chief uses of point blankets back in the old days was to make heavy wool coats, or capotes, such as were often worn by Indians, French voyageurs, mountain men, and whatnot.

Tichenor's book is full of old photos and paintings of people wearing capotes. Googling around online, I found more pictures. The mania began to seize me. The mania of having a capote of my own. Of all the pictures I ran across, the one that came closest to what I was envisioning was a picture (above) from the cover of the December 1930 issue of The Beaver, the official journal of the Hudson's Bay Company.

wool capote
So I hunted around online some more, and located Northwest Traders, which specializes in supplying blankets and capote patterns to historical reeanactors. I ordered a Witney point blanket and a couple of capote patterns from them. If you're thinking of making a capote, I can heartily recommend Northwest Traders— they really do go the extra mile in customer service.

Anyhow, I now had a 5 point Witney point blanket, white with black stripe. The number of points indicates the size of the blanket: if, as is most likely the case, you're not as big around as I am, you could do with a 4 point blanket. Maybe I could've, too, though when I got to work on it, I was glad I had a 5 point blanket, big as I am.

wool capote
The wool point blankets that historically have been used in making capotes are all manufactured at woolen mills over in England. That includes Hudson's Bay Company point blankets, one of which I've had on my bed for many years now. That includes Witney point blankets, manufactured at Witney, Oxfordshire. Originally the woolen mills in Witney supplied the Hudson's Bay Company. Later they became competitors.

As far as I can figure, the only difference in a Witney point blanket is the label it carries, plus the fact that it costs only about half as much as a Hudson's Bay Company blanket. Early's of Witney began in 1669, and continued in business for more than three centuries to become "the second oldest British company still trading," before it closed its doors in 2002.

horn buttons and llama braid
I also obtained from other suppliers some horn buttons and some llama braid. I used 1 1/8" horn buttons on the coat (actually more like 1 3/16"), anchored in back with smaller 9/16" horn buttons. The llama braid is an edging which was sometimes used on capotes, braided not woven. The Hudson's Bay Company used to keep some llamas in Nova Scotia. Today llama braid is more economically made of wool. From old texts and pictures it appears that red llama braid was often used on capotes. I decided on black llama braid instead.

coat label
I mixed and matched two capote patterns in an attempt to approximate that picture on the cover of the magazine. When I was over visiting my folks at Christmas time, we laid the blanket out on the kitchen floor, and after much measuring and remeasuring, I cut the pieces of the coat out of the blanket— a rather nerve wracking venture, as a wool blanket like this one is not cheap! My Mom's advice on the patterns and the cutting was invaluable. And after I headed back over to Iowa, she continued to work on the coat, sewing it together, sewing on the edging, and all.

The Witney point blanket came to me with two labels in the corner. The Northwest Traders label, above, I had removed and sewn inside the coat, below the collar, where coat labels usually go.

coat label
As for the politically incorrect Early's of Witney label, I left that where it was— in the finished coat, inside the front coat flap toward the bottom.

Old pictures indicate that there was a lot of individual variety in the style of capotes, as is to be expected in garments which, like mine, were often hand made from a point blanket. I made various minor alterations in the two patterns I mixed together. I had the hood shortened so it wouldn't be quite so long and pointed. Old capotes also often were fastened with a wool belt cut from blanket fabric, rather like a bathrobe: here I decided to go with buttons, as in the picture I was following. And I decided to skip the fringes and other decorations which one does sometimes see in old photos, though I think much more often on modern-day capotes than on ones from times of yore.

wool coat
So ends another brainstorm. I get cool ideas like this all the time, but most often they don't come to fruition. This time the capote, Witney point blanket coat, wool winter coat, has materialized on this terrestrial plane, due to a lot of planning and perseverance and in particular a lot of hard work by my Mom, without whom it just wouldn't have happened. I can testify, the coat is comfortable, and warm— extremely warm, we're talking wool fabric a quarter inch thick, it'll do me in subzero weather— and historical, and unique.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Another Tuesday Morning

Tuesday morning. Ugh.

I spent most of my day off yesterday in bed, drifting in and out, often sleeping. And likewise on through the night. Now this morning I'm feeling slightly better than I was yesterday, which isn't saying a whole lot. The echinacea has almost run out. I've got to preside over a Lions meeting tonight. Looks like my job for today is simply to get ready for that meeting tonight, and try to conserve my energy. Hope I'm feeling better by this evening than I'm feeling right now.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Slow Day

We got six or seven inches of snow yesterday. Today is my day off. And I've got a throat that feels like a rusty drainpipe, vaguely as though perhaps a cold is coming on.

I think this adds up to "Spend the day in bed."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Doo Doo, Doo Doo

Former science journalist now peddles sci-fi conspiracy theories...

The secrets of the Face on Mars! Put there by aliens, it holds, in the lines and angles of its geometry, the secret to infinite hyperdimensional energy. Why NASA denies its existence.

If I remember correctly from hearing this guy years back on Coast to Coast AM, he's also into the notion that NASA is working secret Masonic rituals, and scheduling its launches in sync with certain alignments of the stars, all in an attempt to placate wrathful aliens from the Pleiades.


Usenet: More

Well, I got my Usenet situation squared away. Have tentatively found a free newsserver which seems to be at least the equal of the newsserver I've been using. No, I'm not telling who or where. I have the impression they don't want to get overloaded. Meanwhile, once again I have counteracted the frustrating maneuvers of


Thursday, January 18, 2007

O Where, O Where Has My Usenet Gone?

Oh, crap. My annoying small local mom 'n pop Internet Service Provider— alias— has just announced that they're dropping Usenet. Yes, in a few weeks will be abandoning their affiliation with the overall fairly decent newsgroup service which has been available to us poor peon users.

As a substitute, recommends that we access Usenet via Google Groups. Yeah, right, Google Groups with their utterly sucky user interface. I think not.

Lest anyone think that the Internet is synonymous with the World Wide Web— au contraire, mon frère, there are yet other nooks and crannies of the Internet which Joe and Jane Websurfer may not even be aware of. Such as Gopherspace, which is still around, albeit moribund. Such as Usenet, which dates back to 1980, and which is not at all moribund; though it doesn't make it any easier on us newsgroup users when our one-horse ISPs stop providing us with newsserver access.

What will I do without my regular dose of alt.books.beatgeneration and in my Pan newsreader? Guess I'll just have to go check out


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fountain Pen and Mechanical Pencil

fountain pen and mechanical pencil
When it comes to writing with ink on page, there's nothing quite like a good old fashioned fountain pen. Or with lead on page, likewise a good old fashioned mechanical pencil. Says I, Selective Luddite™ that I am.

I used to use a fountain pen way back when, junior high and high school and on up into my early twenties. The fountain pens I got in those days were some dreadful things picked up for probably 59¢ in a dime store. Still, they were a cut above your typical Bic ballpoint.

Then I drifted away from fountain pens until about ten or twelve years ago, when I ran across this Rotring fountain pen in a Levenger catalogue. Black finish. Machined from a chunk of solid brass. Six-sided barrel, so it won't roll off your desk. Knurled grip. I got it with a medium nib— nib size, as you see, can be indicated with that twist-o-indicator at the top of the cap.

This pen is so sturdy that you could run over it with your car and it would have nary a scratch on it. (Though, as they say, "Don't try this at home.")

I also got a matching black-coated knurled solid brass mechanical pencil, which takes 0.7 millimeter leads. Push the button on top to advance the lead. Twist-o-indicator at the top, to indicate the hardness of the lead. (Okay, graphite, if you want to be pedantic.) It's another triumph of German engineering, and it looks like it, too.

Let's face it: ballpoints are cheap, ballpoints are convenient, but the aesthetic quality of something written with a ballpoint can't even begin to compare to the beauty of a page written with a fountain pen. Fountain-penned writing just plain looks better, it has character, and the ink flows onto the page like magic.

Ballpoint pens are serviceable: they represent the triumph of utility over quality. Fountain pens are serviceable and beautiful, and so is their writing— even if you've got electroencephalographic handwriting like mine.

Back in the old days, I'll admit, fountain pens could be messy to fill, and they could leak. Today's fountain pens are another story. I fill this fountain pen every three or four weeks, no problem; and I've never had any problem with it leaking. The only limitation is, it stays on my desk; but that's just because I don't want to deal with the inevitable scenario of "Hey, could you lend me your pen?", and then that's the last you ever see of it. (I can't begin to count the pens I've lost that way over the years.)

You can check out all sorts of fountain pens at Levenger or at Fahrney's Pens. Blows my mind to see how many hundreds or even thousands of dollars some of them fountain pens cost; I got mine cheap, and it'll last me a lifetime.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Dinosaurs are cool. This is something every kid knows instinctively: dinosaurs are cool.

My favorite dinosaur would be either ankylosaurus or triceratops. I mean, ankylosaurus with its body armor, and that big bone club on the end of its tail! Triceratops with those horns, taking on Tyrannosaurus Rex!

One odd recurrent image that has flitted through my imagination over the years: a creature something like an ankylosaurus, low, squat, armored, herbivorous; only it's not a dinosaur, it's a mammal, with tufts of hair growing out between those armor plates. A little like an armored buffalo. Doubt there ever was any such critter— closest I can come is the armadillo-oid glyptodont— but it sure would be cool if there had been.


I'm a great fan of colloquial, non-schoolmarm English. You know, "ain't," "warsh," "chimbley," stuff like that. It sort of makes up, in a small way, for English being not quite as loaded in weirdly divergent dialects as, say, Italian.

And I'm also a fan of irregular forms such as "ox, oxen," or "throw, threw, thrown." Not only are they cool, but there are philosophical depths which rise to expression in such irregularities; or am I the only person here who's read Ernst Cassirer?

But could someone please tell me what's up with "snuck" as a colloquial, irregular past tense of "sneak"? I mean, I think it's cool, I use it myself; but what's with it? Where did such a funky irregularity come from, anyhow?


Monday, January 15, 2007

Snowfall at Last

So, here I sit on my day off, looking out the window at thoroughly white scenery. Genuine snowfall. The ground is covered.

For the very first time this winter. Yeah, middle of January. And we've got a genuine snowfall at long last.

No real snowfall this winter until mid-January. This is crazy for northeast Iowa.

Oh, we did get 3 inches back in mid-October. Didn't last long, though there was a day there when you didn't want to be out on the road if you didn't have to. But, coming so early in the season, it didn't really count.

Ever since, it's been a slight, fleeting dusting here, and a few random snowflakes there. Nothing this winter that's amounted to a bona fide snowfall. Christmas came and went, no snow. Around the New Year we got a mild dusting of snow, hardly enough to count, and nothing you'd notice a day or two later.

Until this weekend. Saturday we got a little snow. Not much, but enough that the gravel roads out here were slick driving Sunday. Then yesterday afternoon the snow started falling. It's been falling on and off, nothing heavy, but this morning I can see it out my window, still falling right this moment. Genuine snow at last.

As usual the weathermen try to crank up the melodrama: they were forecasting "6 to 8 inches." Ha! On a weather site this morning, it looks like towns in this area actually got between 3 and 4 inches. Which bears out my usual snow-forecast rule of thumb: Whatever they predict, expect at most a little more than half of the minimum snowfall forecast.

And up here high atop Wheatland Ridge, I'd say we actually got more like 2 inches. No blizzard. But it is a genuine snowfall, ground covered white here in northeast Iowa, for the very first time this winter.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Update on the Wool Coat

wool capote
The wool coat is coming along— the one that was cut from a Witney point blanket, styled more or less like the capotes worn by Indians and French fur traders back in days of yore. Styled, in fact, very much like the picture above. Full report, including pictures, when the coat arrives.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Alphabetizing Þ

Once upon a time the English alphabet made use of a non-Roman character called thorn (capital Þ small þ) for "th." You can see remnants of it today in the archaic "ye" for "the." There are still languages today, such as Icelandic, which use the letter þorn.

Ran across a cool page out there which presents exhaustive (and exhausting) arguments for the proper way to alphabetize words which include þ. Lots of charts of ancient alphabets, tabulation of various ways thorn is alphabetized today and has been alphabetized down through the centuries, all leading to the conclusion (presented almost in the spirit of a mathematical proof) that the proper thing to do with Þorn is to treat it as a letter following Z.

"7.0 Afterword. On Þornsday, 1994-06-09, CEN/TC304 resolved that in a default multilingual European sort, ÞORN shall be sorted as a separate letter after Z. Subsequently, ISO/TC37/SC2/WG3 resolved that in its work on alphabetical ordering, ÞORN shall be sorted as a separate letter after Z. Most recently, JTC1/SC22/WG20 resolved that in its work of producing a default multilingual sort for ISO/IEC 10646, ÞORN shall be sorted as a separate letter after Z."

Fascinating site, to those such as myself who are interested in languages and writing systems. I notice the front page is written in English and Irish Gaelic. Article on "The Alphabets of Europe." "Analysis of Olmec Hieroglyphs." Info on Eachtraí Eilíse i dTír na nIontas, alias Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Irish; The New Testament in Cornish; The Hobbit in Irish, forthcoming; A Breton Grammar; and all other sorts of cool things.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Slow in the Wintry Head

You ever have those days when you just feel slow in the head? Not like you've actually got anything, but just not quite functioning? This is one of those days for me. I just sit in the old wicker rocker, covered with a wool blanket, with a hot water bottle against my head, and a cup of coffee clutched between my hands, as much for the warmth as for the caffeine.

Very seldom do I feel slow and just not quite with it, unless I'm actually ailing. But this is one of those times. I seem to hit days like this more this time of the year, January or early February. It doesn't feel at all unpleasant, just like something in me won't quite shift out of first gear. Seasonal whatever? Perhaps. If so, like I say, it's not unpleasant. Just out of the ordinary for me.

Nor will an inveterate insomniac like me complain over how, when I'm in this phase, I find myself easily sleeping long hours at night. I'd almost forgotten how it feels to get more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep at night, to awake refreshed in the morning. Refreshed but slow. As if waking were a continuation of sleep by other means.

It may well be a seasonal thing. If so, I'm not complaining. Only please don't ask me to run any sprints or do any somersaults when I'm in this mode.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mountain Men

Stumbled across some interesting information here and here about the mountain men, who roamed the Rockies doing fur-trapping in the early 19th century. The 1820s and 1830s were the halcyon days for the mountain men.

Bearded, clad in buckskin, often wearing a wool coat made from a point blanket, or even a buffalo robe... the mountain men were there, trapping and living off the land, a generation or more before the pioneers came in their covered wagons. The mountain men were living further beyond "sivilization" than I bet you could possibly get in today's world.

This is one point which has long bothered me: in today's world there are no more frontiers. Within my lifetime, the last blank spots on the map have been filled in. New Guinea, the Amazon, darkest Africa, the furthest isles of the sea: nowadays they all purner have their own zip code, so to speak. There are no more frontiers.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Welsh Flags, Old and New

welsh red dragon flag
I've always thought that the Welsh flag, with that red dragon on it, is quite cool. Being part Welsh myself, I have an interest in things having to do with Wales. In fact, my freshman and sophomore years of college, way back when, I used to have a self-drawn poster on the wall in my dorm room, with the Welsh flag on it, and some slogan in Welsh underneath.

Back in those days I latched onto some "teach yourself Welsh" books, and was making pretty good progress on them, until I realized I had no real-life idea how any of the material in the book actually sounded. I was also learning French in some college courses at this time, and I realized that book-explanations of pronunciation really aren't worth much without tapes to listen to and practice.

welsh flag of st. david
Now just the other day, I ran across something online about an unofficial new Welsh flag: the flag of St. David, gold cross on a black field. Looked around, but almost every site where I found a reference quoted back the same laconic form of words, leaving me little the wiser. I gathered that this new flag is especially flown in connection with St. David's Day (March 1), or football (i.e. soccer) games, or by people who are looking for some more postmodern way to express their Welsh nationalism.

Of course as with so many things that burst upon the scene all of a sudden, the origins and history of the flag of St. David are murky. Vague talk about it going way back when, sixth century and all that bilge. In reality it seems that, however far back this flag may or may not go, its sudden popularity dates back no further than 1998, when someone came up with the idea of the Welsh flag of St. David as a good counterpoint to the English flag of St. George in football (i.e. soccer) games; and no one was more surprised by the burgeoning popularity of the new flag than its original promoter.

Whatever. The flag of St. David certainly is a handsome flag, one of those items whose design hits just the right spot so that it's an "odds-up favorite" to become a sudden classic. It's a cool flag. So's the red dragon flag, for that matter. Hey, anything Welsh is cool. Cymru am Byth!

(flag images courtesy of Wikipedia)


Friday, January 05, 2007

"A Sheep's Coat at Sunrise, a Man's Coat at Sunset"

Talk about the marvels of modern technology! Or in this case, the marvels of 1811 technology. Yes, I'm talking about the amazing story, which I ran across recently, of the Newbury Coat... "a sheep's coat at sunrise, a man's coat at sunset."

There was a bet of a thousand guineas riding on the manufacture of the Newbury Coat. English cloth manufacturer John Coxeter bet Sir John Throckmorton that, starting with sheep at sunrise on a summer day, he could turn the wool on their backs into a "well-woven, properly made" coat by sunset.

Shortly before 5:00 AM on June 25, 1811, a shepherd led two sheep into the village of Newbury, Berkshire. The villagers watched as the sheep were shorn. Then the wool was "washed, stubbed, roved, spun, and woven." Woven on a loom which would look primitive to us today, though it was state of the art in 1811.

Once the woolen cloth was woven, it was "scoured, fulled, tented, raised, sheared, dyed, and dressed." Then the tailor and his assistants, who had already taken Sir John's measurements, went at it, "cutting out, stitching, pressing, and sewing on buttons, in fact, generally converting the cloth into a 'well woven, properly made coat.'"

The hunting coat was finished at 6:20 PM. Sir John, wearing the coat, sat down to dinner with a number of other gentlemen that evening. The coat he was wearing at sunset had been wool on the backs of sheep at sunrise that morning.

The marvels of the modern loom! The marvels of modern 1811 technology!

As a footnote, the manufacture of the Newbury Coat was reenacted on September 21, 1991. They managed to finish only an hour quicker than John Coxeter's record of almost two centuries previously.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Albert Camus, Died January 4, 1960

Albert Camus
"The high seas. The sun sinks and is swallowed by the fog long before it reaches the horizon. For a brief moment, the sea is pink on one side and blue on the other. Then the waters grow darker. The schooner slides, minute, over the surface of a perfect circle of thick, tarnished metal. And, at the most peaceful hour, as evening comes, hundreds of porpoises emerge from the water, frolic around us for a moment, then flee to the horizon where there are no men. With them gone, silence and the anguish of primitive waters are what remain.

"A little later still, we meet an iceberg on the Tropic. Invisible, to be sure, after its long voyage in these warm waters, but still effective: it passes to starboard, where the rigging is briefly covered with a frosty dew, while to port the day dies without moisture.

"Night does not fall at sea. It rises, rather, toward the still pale sky, from the depths of waters an already drowned sun gradually darkens with its thick ashes. For a brief moment, Venus shines alone above the black waves. In the twinkling of an eye, stars swarm in the liquid night.

"The moon has risen. First it lights the water's surface gently, then climbs higher and inscribes itself in the supple water. At last, at its zenith, it lights a whole corridor of sea, a rich river of milk which, with the motion of the ship, streams down inexhaustibly toward us across the dark ocean. Here is the faithful night, the cool night I called for in the rollicking lights, the alcohol, the tumult of desire.

"We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending. Sun and moon rise and fall in turn, on the same thread of light and night. Days at sea, as similar each to the other as happiness...

"This life rebellious to forgetfulness, rebellious to memory, that Stevenson speaks of."

   —from his essay, "The Sea Close By"

Albert Camus, November 7, 1913 — January 4, 1960


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Mad About Playing Cards, Part 2

Continued from Part 1 yesterday...

spanish playing cards
Fig. 6  Mexican playing cards, 40-card deck with Spanish suit signs of swords, clubs, cups, and coins. "Intransparente, Marco 'Gallo.'" This is one of many Mexican card decks I bought on vacation in Tijuana in the spring of 1986. I found some off-the-beaten-path shops, explained in my stumbling Spanish that I was looking for Mexican playing cards. They tried to foist off onto the gringo some Mexican-made playing cards with spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds; but no, I wanted the local product, funky, the real thing.

I think this deck may be my favorite of all the ones I brought back from Mexico: the design and the colors are very fine and subtle. The texture of the pasteboard is also nice, though I'm not sure how long it would hold up under use.

rook cards
Fig. 7  Here's a piece of real Americana: Rook cards, 57-card deck with four suits— yellow, red, green, black— numbered from 1 through 14, plus of course the eponymous Rook card. (Yes, I said "eponymous": go look it up.) I have several decks of Rook cards in my collection, some of them very recent. But this is my oldest deck: the rule book lists no copyright renewal date later than 1943.

six handed 500 playing cards
Fig. 8  This is one of the very first card decks I added to my playing card collection, back when I was 12 or 13. It's a 63-card deck for six-handed Five Hundred. Ten cards to each player, three cards to the blind. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you, the deck includes ♠12, ♦11, and ♥13. In fact all four suits contain an 11 and a 12, and the red suits also contain a 13. Count it up, with the joker that makes 63 cards.

six handed 500 playing cards joker
Fig. 9  By the way, that joker, with the three gnomes playing cards and smoking in the mist of the dawn, was a more important part of my whole early "aweful platonic mystery at the heart of all games" mythos than you might imagine. To my young mind, that joker depicted the awesome land where cardplayers play cards in the stillness of the early dawn (Hermetic: mna sralo), with the sun perpetually rising in the west behind them, and the drone of vacuum cleaner motors in the background. No, that's far enough: I could go into much more detail, but it would only get more incomprehensible the further I went. Like, completely insane incomprehensible.

playing cards of my own design
Fig. 10  Ah! Finally we come to some playing cards which I myself designed and drew some time in my college years.

Thirteen of the cards are from an unfinished deck, with suits of swords, staves, urns, and thunderquoits. In my own Hermetic language, that's mna zivi, mna cthini, mna chthiji, and mna prontthori. Or, for some reason, these cards are labeled in some rendition of Devanagari writing (you know, as in Sanskrit), with suit names of śaştri, bhastonai, kopē, and chakrē. The card in the upper left, the ace of staves (aş bhastonai kū, Hermetic mna vorthad cthinil) bears the heavy-duty inscriptions, sort of like our ace of spades. In addition to all the quasi-Hindic, I notice handwritten in red ink on the left side of this ace in Hermetic daratha, "paid," indicating that the mercantilist export tax on this card deck has been paid by the manufacturer.

Ditto on the ace of spades at lower right, "Alphacen Playing Card Manufactory, No. 138, Export Duty 1 Cr 50./gr. [1 Crescent and 50 Stellars per gross]." With more red scribbling in Hermetic underneath, indicating that the export duty has been paid, along with a 15-stellar surtax. All this is heavily intertangled with the intricate and immense future-history science-fiction universe that I wrote tons of stories and background on in my high school and college years.

You see what happens when you turn me loose with an entire New Year's Day in which to work up blog posts... I go spinning off into "radioactive core meltdown" utter playing card insanity! ;-)


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mad About Playing Cards, Part 1

I am an absolute fanatic when it comes to classical board games and card games. It's been a long time since I've done any playing card blogging, so I thought I'd put up some more pictures from my card collection. Today we're going for some of my more peculiar playing cards...

cadet miniature playing cards
Fig. 1  I picked up these old miniature cards something like 30 years ago, can't remember where. A deck of regular (poker) size Bicycle cards is shown for comparison. "Cadets Playing Cards, Revised box adopted 1907." The joker looks like a soldier of the Civil War era. Some of the cards have a slot punched into them near one corner: look at the ♣10. I'm not sure if this was original, or done to them later. The Cadet cards measure 2½" by 1¾". The back, as with some older card decks, is a simple single-color diagonal plaid.

Many years ago I wrote the United States Playing Card Company in Cincinnati, asking for information about these miniature Cadet cards. They weren't able to pin down a precise date, apart from confirming that they were manufactured in the early part of the 20th century.

arpak four color playing cards black background
Fig. 2  Here's an unusual deck, cards with a black background, and the suits in four colors: green clubs, yellow spades, red hearts, white diamonds. I have no idea when these cards were produced, though the style and the linen finish make me think they're older rather than newer. The ♠A reads "ArPaK — Mt. Pleasant — Liverpool."

This is the only deck of this design I've ever seen, unlike the white-background ForColar cards from the late 1940s (green clubs, black spades, red hearts, yellow diamonds) which turn up not infrequently in second-hand shops.

animal playing card backs
Fig. 3  Most of my collection consists of entire card decks, but I do have a number of single cards people have given me over the years. Here are some playing card backs, dogs, cats, and a horse, which a great-aunt of mine passed down to me.

playing card jokers
Fig. 4  Here's a small selection of jokers, some of them loose cards, some of them from complete decks in my collection. Upper left is from Aviator playing cards, upper right is from Bicycle cards (both US Playing Card Co.); lower right is a Tally-Ho joker, lower left is an older Whitman joker. Four out of the six jokers in between are from the ARRCO Playing Card Company in Chicago, and the Redislip joker comes from the old Brown & Bigelow Company up in the Twin Cities, or one of its successors.

I will never forget the time I stumbled across a garage sale in a small town down in Illinois. They had quite an assortment of card decks there— some of them older, too. And a sign posted, indicating that none of the decks had any jokers. I try to fathom the psychology of a person who would routinely throw away the jokers from his card decks but... Grrrrrrrrrr...

hungarian playing cards
Fig. 5  Here's an oddity, a 32-card deck with German suit signs— acorns, leaves, hearts, bells— but distinctively Hungarian in its captions and design. "Hungarian Playing Cards, Made in U.S.A., Western Playing Card Co., Racine, Wis, Poughkeepsie, N.Y." The card backs are a simple diagonal plaid.

These cards are not recent, but I'd guess they're not really that old— 1950s or early 1960s, at a guess? And they show signs of heavy use. At one time there must have been some kind of a demand for cards like these here in the US.

Card blogging will continue tomorrow...


Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

I went to bed early last night. Stay up till midnight? Well, as I get older I find that on New Year's Eve, sometime it's Yes, and sometimes it's zzzzzzzzz...

I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that the New Year was here.

I got up this morning and found that it had snowed during the night. The ground is white. Not much snow, and I doubt it'll last long, but it's much more winterlike on this New Year's Day than it was yesterday, when it rained all day long and the thermometer was in the mid-40s. Here in northeast Iowa, yet.

My first task this morning was to go around the house and deal with the calendars. Hallway upstairs, the brass perpetual calendar wheel on top of a bookcase was easily changed from December 2006 to January 2007. In the kitchen I put up a new 2007 calendar which I picked up at a restaurant down in Prairie du Chien— hey, it lists the phases of the moon and the best fishing days and all that, not that I'm a fisherman, but somehow to me that always makes it seem more like a good old-fashioned calendar. And here in my study I set up a new 2007 desk calendar from an insurance agency.

Remember, it's two thousand seven and not twenty oh seven. I think these past several years the "two thousand" forces have been prevailing, but I still hear the occasional person— usually a radio newscaster or media figure— who tries to foist the feckless "twenty-oh" usage upon us. Don't join them in debasing the coinage of our calendar.

And also remember, among the anagrams of "two thousand seven" are "handwoven outsets" and "advent townhouses."

I'm going to spend New Year's Day very quietly, just sitting around here at home and relaxing.