Dispatch from the War on Christmas

23 December 2013
0900 hours

Reconnaissance mission: Walmart.

Encountered Salvation Army bellringer deployed at entrance. Decided on preemptive strike.  “Doesn’t that damned bell drive you crazy, ringing it all day?”

Enemy combatant returned fire.  “Not really, God bless you, sir!”

The unexpected precision of the counterattack left me reeling, as I searched my pocket for a contribution.  I was able to limit the damage to $5.  Dazed and confused, trying to execute a strategic withdrawal, I mumbled something about Saturnalia, but the enemy pressed his advantage.

“Thank you, and have a very Merry Christmas!”

Wounded as I was, I was still able to return fire with “Happy Holidays to you, too,” but a subsequent attempt, “Creation science isn’t,” apparently misfired, as the enemy appeared unmoved.

Still, I was able to make my way to the relative safety of greed and cynical commercialism once I reached the interior of the Walmart.

Result: Marginally satisfactory.  Enemy remained at his post, but I was able to withdraw without substantial casualty.

Mission for 24 December 2013:  Enroll in atheistic socialist Obamacare on Christmas Eve itself.

Mikels Skele, Sp. General, Ret., Dec.

Hark, the Harold!

The season being what it is, all thoughts turn to balls of holly, and the Wee Three Kings of Orion Tar.  And who could forget Guy d’Stew, thy perfect knight?  Let there be peas on earth.  Remember, tri-star Xavier was bored on Christmas day.

I’m dreaming of a wide Christmas, Gloria’s dreams, from havin’ a dove.  So let the belle’s own bobtails ring.  We’ll sing a slaying song tonight, while riding in a one whore soapen sleigh.  In the meadow, you can build a snowman, and pretend that he is parson brown.  Or any other color, for that matter.  In the immortal words of the beloved Carol:

Frosty the snowman
Had a very shiny nose
And everywhere that Frosty went
The lamb was sure to go!

There must have been some cabbage in that old top hat you found.

Christmas, they say, should be year-round.  In that spirit, when Autumn leaves, leave your cart in San Francisco and wake up in the city that never sweeps.  Let April impair us, in the summertime, when the lemon is easy.  In the moss cow nights, though London Bridget’s falling down, you can rock the cash bar.

Gloria, in egg shells, sees mayo!  We are one nation, invisible, with libertine justice for all.  So, as you embark on your journey through the glorious and ever-changing world, remember this:

Skip Tumaluma, darling.

Marks Rd 2

Later on, Wilkins’ fire!

Photo credit: http://www.strongsville.org

Nero’s fiddle


Ah, Nero, second only to Caligula, or perhaps, thanks to Hollywood, Commodus, among the Roman Emperors we love to hate.  Why, he fiddled while Rome burned.

Well, not really, since fiddles as such were a long way from being invented yet.  There was a rumor, though, perhaps started by Cassius Dio, certainly fueled by Seutonius, that when Rome caught fire and burned to the ground in 64CE, Nero climbed the Palatine Hill and “…sang the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume,” the aforementioned piece apparently being a long, theatrical declamation he had written (just for the occasion?).

What?  Regular stage costume?  Well, you have to understand the man.  Nero fancied himself a first class poet and playwright, a brilliant actor and dramatist, and, need I add, a superbly gifted athlete.  It was rumored that when he ordered his slave to kill him after he was driven from Rome by angry mobs and a smattering of generals, lacking the balls to do it himself, his dying words were “The world is losing a great genius!” or something to that effect.  He instituted regular festivals featuring contests of poetry, drama and music, which he himself inevitably entered, and just as inevitably won, since none of the judges fancied their chances if they declared for someone else.  This timorousness of judges extended to his athletic prowess as well.  He once entered the Quadriga,  a four horse chariot race, and the most prestigious of the races in the favorite athletic event in all of Rome, with a special chariot fitted with twelve, count ’em, twelve horses.  The judges conferred, and ruled that it was legal, having noted, I suppose, that twelve was a multiple of four, after all.  To be fair, he was leading into the turn-about (who would pass him?), but tipped over, surviving a horrible crash unscathed.  And victorious.  Those astute judges noted sagely that, well, he would have won, had he not tipped over, and awarded him the trophy.  In defense of the judges, it should be noted that more than one general lost his job, rank, and occasionally life, just for falling asleep during one of Nero’s poetry recitals.

So, the burning question (sigh) is, did or did not the man diddle, if not fiddle, while Rome burned?  It seems as though, if he did, he still had time to handle the situation honorably enough.  Tacitus wrote that he took in refugees from the fire at his own residence, and fed and clothed them, opening the substantial palace grounds to anyone in need.  So, if there was a fiddle, it was figurative, and much deeper, and here we get to the subject of who or what started the fire in the first place.

Fires in Rome were commonplace.  Just beyond the familiar temples and palaces of stone and brick, the city was a ramshackle jumble of rickety wooden structures.  Truthfully, even in the more substantial stone buildings, fire was a danger; remember, before electricity, heat and light were provided by fire.  The ubiquitous lamps used all over the city and beyond consisted of an open bowl filled with oil.  A wick was added, and the whole thing, when lit, provided ample opportunity for spillage and subsequent disaster.  Stone and brick were, all the same, filled with furniture, carpets, draperies – in short, fuel.  In the poorer quarters outside the central district, fires were so common and so dangerous that indoor cooking was forbidden.  More than one emperor capped his hallmark forum with a firewall against the slums next door.

Still, this particular fire had started suddenly, in an unusual place, and spread like, well, wildfire.  In the end, only a bit more than one fourth of the city escaped unscathed, with much of the central district destroyed completely.  And there’s the rub.

Nero had this area cleared, and built a fabulous new palace compound, the Domus Aurea, on the site.  It had a lake big enough to stage recreations of famous naval battles, and a statue of himself, as Sol Invictus, stood 30 meters (about 100 feet to us colonials) at the head of the grounds.  It was called the Colossus, and gave its name to the Coliseum that replaced his palace (a whole other story).  The name Domus Aurea refers to the centerpiece of this garden of splendor, the residence, with its dome covered with gold.  The dome was engineered to rotate, and the night sky was painted on the interior for the bemusement of dinner guests, who were sprayed with perfume and showered with petals on entrance.  True, other emperors before and after built lavish homes for themselves, but this particular effort sorely rankled, because Nero used public money to build it, on the grounds that it was essentially a city renovation project.

Truth to tell, there was precious little difference between public and private money where public officials were concerned, but each had its own pocket, and the populace cherished the fiction that they were separate.  Far from using public funds for their personal projects, high officials, and especially the emperor, were expected to spend their own money on public projects, as a show of magnanimity.  The lavish Domus Aurea  was a step too far, and it fueled rumors that Nero himself had set the fire, to rid himself of senate rivals, and clear the land.

To be fair, Nero had his own theory, and that was that Christians had set the fire in a sort of apocalyptic fervor.  The result was a very public campaign of persecution, leading, among other things, to the particularly venomous description of Rome in the Book of Revelations, generally supposed to have been written 30 years or so after the great fire, but could have been earlier. Well, to a lot of the Roman public, that seemed pretty likely, or at least plausible.  Nobody who wasn’t a Christian liked them very much.  They refused to honor the other gods of Rome, they hung around with slaves and other low-life, and they met in secret, where it was rumored that they partook of cannibalistic rituals.  If the fire wasn’t set by Christians, most people were content to let them get persecuted all the same.

Even some modern scholars believe that the idea of Christians starting the fire is not entirely out of the question.They got a lot of propaganda mileage out of the persecution, and laid the groundwork for expansion. Even so, it is the consensus now, as it was then, that it was either accidental, or set by Nero’s agents. But whether or not Nero was at fault, he certainly benefited from it, at least in the short term. He silenced most of his senatorial critics, and he got his magnificent residence in the middle of downtown Rome.

If there was a fiddle involved, that was it.

An open letter to God, Esq.

Dear Sir (or Whatever),

As you know, I don’t usually write you open letters, but these days, things have piled up.

First off, why did you have to make my hard drive crash?  Don’t go all innocent; every day I hear people say how you’re in total control, and it’s all according to your plan, etc., etc.  Besides, don’t think I haven’t noticed that everything computer lately is in the cloud.  That’s where you live; hard to believe you’d allow a setup like that unbeknownst.  Sure, lots of people say it’s just the computer companies trying to get more and more control and money off their customers, but I can’t believe you’d let your space be used that way – doesn’t seem like you.  I am also aware I’ve been rude lately, maybe even blasphemous, but a hard drive crash seems a bit much.  How about just one of those migraines, wouldn’t that have been more appropriate?

And then there’s the matter of your people down here – you seriously need to get a grip on them.  They’re always yammering about peace and love, and the whole time they’ve got their hands around your throat and in your pocket.  I like the new guy, Frank, at the Vatican, but frankly, I’m worried for him.  I saw what happened to John Paul I.  Was that you, or some of your Vatican enforcers?  Either way, things seem out of control, and not just in your Mideast franchises.  Here in the US, your people have gotten really crazy.  Look, I know that those you would destroy, you first drive mad, but did you ever consider that the rest of us have to live through that, too?  Didn’t you learn anything from that whole Job experience?

And the weather.  Don’t get me started on the weather.  Yes, we’ve screwed it up ourselves, but, again, it’s your people who have worked the hardest to keep us from fixing things.  We’ve got preachers down here positively gloating about Tribulations and Rapture and what-not.  If you’re not coming back right away, I’d just as soon you fix the weather thing and leave us alone for awhile.  Don’t give me that business that you can’t do anything about it; people ask you all the time to reverse those laws you set up so long ago, just so they can win a big football game, for Christ’s sake.  You could just wave your hand, or whatever it is you’ve got, and Bob’s your uncle.

Well, I know Bob’s not really your uncle.  I won’t even ask you about that triangle thing you’ve got going with Jesus and the Holy Ghost.  Not my business really.


Good news, hackers!

Great news for hackers, folks.

My hard drive crashed a couple of days ago, and I tried desperately to restore my stuff to a new HD.  First up was the re-installation of Windows 8.1.  Not a problem?  Easy for you to say!  As it happens, I had downloaded it in the first place, and so had no installation disc.  I had, of course, been diligent and created recovery media, including an image of my system, that, according to all accounts, would allow me to restore everything, just as if nothing had happened.  My computer would be new inside, but no one the wiser.

I loaded the recovery flash drive and booted up.  Immediately a message came up: cannot restore, missing sector on drive.  Well, hello, it’s brand new.  Must be a mistake; tried again.  Same message, this time with the helpful suggestion that Windows would have to format the drive before I could restore on it.  Except, of course, I didn’t have Windows anymore, did I?!  No worries, though.  I had also diligently written down the activation key for Windows; I could download a new copy on my laptop, and install from that.

Or not.

That key was no longer active, probably because I had never uninstalled Windows from the drive that crashed.  Had I known it was going to, I would have deactivated Windows moments before, but, oddly, I got no warning (sarcasm alert).  What to do?  Call Microsoft.

Ever try to find a contact number for Microsoft on their website?  After running you around in circles for a sufficient time, they offer a “chat” instead.  Sounds delightfully cozy, a nice chat with your buddy from Microsoft.  Of course, it takes awhile; 20 minutes, to be precise, before your buddy becomes available.  I pressed the button that said I would prefer that they call me, and gave them my number.  After another 20 minutes, they did.

“Hello, this is —- at Microsoft Office support.  How may I help you?”

“But I want Windows support, not Office.”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll have a representative from Windows support call you.”  Another 15 minutes passed.

“Hello, this is —- at Microsoft Office support.  How may I help you?”

Arrgh!  Was this the “chat” I had been promised?

Eventually, I got through to a nice fellow in India, which is where Microsoft has determined to be the most secure spot in the world, apparently, because that’s where you go for any sort of meaningful help.  Even so, even after I had reluctantly given him control of my laptop remotely, it took the nice fellow 4 hours to download a new copy of Windows 8.1, complete with a new activation key, to my laptop and save it to a flash drive.  Yes!  Now I could install it on the new HD, and restore my beloved desktop, with all the software I love!

Or not.

Long story short, restoration from the image could not be accomplished, because it had been made from an earlier version of Windows.  Nor could I use any of the regular restore points to at least get my documents back, because THEY WERE ON THE OLD DRIVE, WEREN’T THEY?

I threw in the towel, utterly defeated.  Off to Best Buy, where they had a nice computer for sale for $400.  I now have to re-install all of my software, half of which have secret keys and codes to which a mere mortal such as myself, who doesn’t even live in India, has no access.

The good news is, I can now verify that computer software and the internet are totally and completely secure from legitimate users like me; only hackers can get access.

Note to anyone who even whispers the word “Mac:”  for $400, you might be able to get a keyboard.

A man of his word

I’m sitting here in what could very well have been Southern Canada, but for a man of his word.

In 1778, the British controlled all of the Northwest Territory, comprising present day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Their primary seat of government was at Detroit, and their method of enforcement was through alliances with local Indian tribes, who felt squeezed out of their ancestral hunting grounds by encroaching American settlers; they easily dominated the French who had previously settled the area to ply the fur trade, but failed to win their hearts and minds, and thereby hangs this tale.

With the encouragement of the British at Detroit, the Indians were regularly raiding settlements in Kentucky, then part of Virginia.  They didn’t need much encouragement, at that, since this had comprised some of the richest hunting and fishing grounds they had known, increasingly being divided and fenced off by Euro-American farmers from the East.  Naturally, this didn’t sit well with these same settlers.

Just a reminder: North America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War at the time, so any excuse for belligerence was more than acceptable.

I suspect the rebels in the East would have been prepared to write off the Northwest Territory; their armies had all they could manage as it was.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, a young officer named George Rogers Clark persuaded Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, to back a secret plan: Clark would recruit and train a militia of Kentuckians, known locally as Long Knives for their swords and bayonets, and they would advance on Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, just South of St. Louis, and from there take the lightly held French towns of Cahokia and Vincennes, the latter being the venue for this tale of intrigue.

All went according to plan.  In spite of having been able to recruit a measly 150 men, Clark took his objectives easily, primarily because of the element of surprise, and the fact that the French inhabitants didn’t much care for the Brits anyway.  He returned to Kaskaskia, satisfied.

But, word gets around, doesn’t it, and soon made its way to British General Henry Hamilton, the governor of the territory, at Fort Detroit, and he led a large contingent of soldiers South to Vincennes, and retook it.  Clark, back at Kaskaskia, had no inkling of this, and was in fact busy recruiting for a march on Detroit, where he would have easily been picked off by Hamilton’s troops from the flanks.

Enter Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo, a Sardinian and sometime Spanish soldier who had set up shop in St. Louis as a fur trader.  Vigo was at Vincennes, by some accounts sent as a spy by Clark, and by others on his own account as a fur trader.  Vincennes, Indiana is a sleepy backwater on the Wabash River today, but in the 18th century had been a vital link between the French interests in the Great Lakes and their colony at New Orleans, so his presence there was plausible.

In any case, Hamilton smelt a rat and had Vigo arrested before he could return to St. Louis. This didn’t sit well with the local French population, however, who threatened to withhold vital supplies unless Vigo was released.  Hamilton made the best of it by letting Vigo leave Vincennes, but not before extracting a solemn vow: Vigo was not to whisper a word to the Americans at Kaskaskia about the fact that Hamilton controlled Vincennes, on his way back to St. Louis.

And the thing is, he was true to his word.  He went down the Wabash to the Ohio, West to the Mississippi, then North to St. Louis without a word.  After which, he backtracked to Kaskaskia and spilled the whole story to Clark.

The rest, as they say, is history: Clark’s daring winter passage to Vincennes, so unexpected by Hamilton that he had sent most of his troops home until Spring, and the final victory, concluding with Hamilton’s surrender.  The Northwest Territory was ceded to the Americans by the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War,  in 1783.

Thanks to a man who kept his word.  Otherwise, things might be a little different down here in Southern Illinois, eh?


The man himself, himself.

The Republicare debate

The conservative fury over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is disingenuous, at best, and outright fraudulent at worst.  The American public seems to have a memory limited to only a few months; almost no one remembers that the ideas forming the foundation of the ACA began life as the Republican alternative to the Clinton attempts to reform the system in 1993.  The alternative, introduced by John Chafee, and even the alternative to the alternative, submitted the following year by Don Nickles (that’s Nickles, not Rickles, although the confusion is understandable) contained most of the provisions of the bill that today is called Obamacare.  Most notable were provisions that mandated individuals to buy insurance, and the formation of exchanges.  Clinton’s efforts were, in any case, hounded out of contention by conservatives on both sides of the congressional aisle, and economic bombardment from the health insurance industry.

But because reforming health care was one of the major pillars of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, and because he won handily, Democrats began working on it soon after he was sworn in in 2009.  Most favored a single payer plan: in a nutshell, nationalized health care, like every other industrialized nation in the world, and a few who are not industrialized, enjoys.  It was immediately clear, however, that conservatives in Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, would never go for it, due to their paranoia about socialism (which they don’t seem to understand, but we’ll set that aside).

Because most of the provisions of the earlier Republican alternative plans had been passed into law in Massachusetts in 2006, and because this law was not only very successful, but wildly popular among conservatives, who were beside themselves with praise for it, it was decided that this would form the basis of the new Democratic reform proposal, in order to ensure bipartisan support.

Unfirtunately, they forgot one small detail: soon after the election, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell stated on the Senate floor that the number one priority of his party was to limit Obama to one term.  So much for bipartisanship.  It was clear that Republicans would do whatever they deemed necessary to achieve that goal, even to the point of directly contradicting their own position on the provisions of the health care reform they themselves had put forward a few years earlier.  In 1993, not one single Republican made the slightest whimper concerning the constitutionality of the insurance mandate.  In 2009, it suddenly became a constitutional crisis.  What had changed?  Certainly not the constitution; it was the matter of who would benefit politically if the bill passed.

It is often pointed out that no Republican in Congress voted for the final version of ACA.  That is certainly true.  Hardly anyone points out that it passed anyway, because voters had elected more Democrats than Republicans.  Remember majority rule?  Republicans don’t, except when they’re the majority.  GW and his congressional cronies lost no time gutting every Clinton program they legally could, many by executive decree, when it seemed unlikely it could pass Congress.  Now that Democrats control the Senate, Republicans moan about being left out, by which they mean the majority won’t immediately cave in to their demands.

All of this could be dismissed, with a lot of eye rolling,  as business as usual, but for two things:

First, the conservative Supreme Court has decided that corporations can spend as much as they please on political advertising.  Virtually all of political advertising these days is negative.  The end result is that people are daily bombarded with negativity about not only programs that corporations fear will affect their profits, but also about the government in general.  The strategy seems to be obstructionism from the political side, mitigated by a stream of “a-pox-on-both-their-houses” advertising from the corporate side.  Keep pounding that stuff, and people start to believe it.  Amazingly, in spite of this, Obama was reelected with a larger majority that his first term, in an election that was characterized in no uncertain terms by conservatives as a referendum on Obamacare.  They not only lost the presidential race, but also lost seats in both houses of Congress.  Suddenly, mysteriously, it turned out not to have been a referendum after all.

Second, since many state legislatures are controlled by conservatives, widespread gerrymandering all but guaranteed safe seats for conservative Republicans, effectively insulating them from blowback for their obstructionism.  We see the result every day.  Conservatives say the most outlandish things, and suffer no consequences.

What to do?  First of all, gerrymandering must be made illegal.  I am fully aware that Democrats are just as guilty of this, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.  Unfortunately, nothing will help much without reversal of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates of corporate political money, much, if not most of it from multinationals with no particular loyalty to the United States.  You’d think that that, at least, would be unconstitutional.

At the very least, I hope I have set the record straight, although, to be honest, I know this little posting has about the effect of a blow dart in a hurricane.