Monthly Archives: August 2011

Word of the Week, 8/15-8/20/11 – endgame


The last possible phase of a game of chess, although quite often games end in the middlegame or even in the opening.  Many attempts have been made to classify just when the middlegame finishes and the endgame starts.  Considerable simplification is necessary, but the queens being exchanged is certainly not a sufficient (or necessary) criterion.  The key concept is that in an ending the king ceases to be primarily a liability to be guarded, but becomes a fighting unit, and the main battle revolves around the creation and advancing of pawns.  This does not mean that the king is not subject to any attack, or that complex tactics cannot occur, however, but just that the need to activate the king overrides the dangers.

~ The Mammoth Book of Chess, Graham Burgess (FIDE Master and Chess World Record Holder)

One of the beauties of chess lies in how well it functions as a metaphor for human reality, right down to the pieces who are human characters.  Despite its apparent order and rules is a “black and white jungle”–chaotic and deceptive, often at the mercy of the creative force that pushes the pieces–just as with life which, despite rule of law and laws of nature, is difficult to calculate.  It is the dichotomy of order and lawlessness that makes it both compelling and apt in describing life.

The endgame is the perfect case study of this concept.  On the one hand, the definition is clear: the last possible phase of a game of chess, but sometimes this occurs in the middlegame or even the opening–especially when inexperienced players try their hand.  The transition from the middlegame to the endgame defies classification.  Considerable simplification is necessary but no set criteria for that exists.  The key turns on the king’s activity: the transition from merely being a liability to being activated.  (Chess players use the word activation to mean a piece is in play from its starting position–sometimes only that it is free to move from its starting position.)  In other words, the other hand of the definition is the inherent ambiguity surrounding entry to what constitutes the last possible phase of a game of chess.  Working backwards from the end to the point of transition from the middlegame to the endgame preoccupies many of the most astute scholarly, historical minds.  I will develop this essay to consider the obvious example of one of history’s most dramatic examples of endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall in U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match.

Life has its many checkmates and it is often in global events, such as politics or war, when the comparisons are most frequently made.  In chess, the game ends when the opponent’s king is in checkmate.  This means that the king has been put in check–meaning that in the next move the other side would capture the enemy king–which often happens with some frequency in the game, but in mate the king cannot escape.  Defense and offense are often interchangeable by this phase of the game, differentiated perhaps only by one’s willingness or astuteness to exploit advantages gained or blunders made.  This is different from earlier phases in the game where advantages are being sought and balance is often kiltered to one side or the other.  For example, in David Shenk’s The Immortal Game, A history of chess, he explains the chess problem set forth in al-Adli’s 9th century book about chess, which introduced the world’s first known chess problems:

White to move; White to checkmate in three moves

Black has an extremely strong position, but it is white’s turn.  If it were black’s turn, the next move would be checkmate for the white king.  However, as the caption explains, white can checkmate the black king in three moves.  The only pieces left on the board are the kings, both rooks for each side, one pawn for each side and one knight for each side.  The kings can move one square in any direction and capture opposing pieces except for the opposing king.  The rooks can move as far as they choose horizontally and vertically, but no diagonal movements or piece-jumping.  The pawns can move forward only, except when there is an opposing piece ahead of them diagonally, in which case they may capture that piece.  The knight moves up two squares and over one (an l-shape on the board) and is the only piece that can jump other pieces.  The key for white in the above scenario is that it must keep the black king in check with each move or it will lose.  The solution follows:

White knight to h5+ (check to black king).

Black rook captures the white knight to defend the king (Rxh5)

Again, white forces check to the black king: White rook captures the black knight on g6 (Rxg6+)

The Black king defends itself and must capture the white rook that threatens it (Kxg6)

White gets checkmate: White rook moves behind the black pawn and diagonal to the black rook--nothing can take it, but the king cannot escape: checkmate!

White’s defense is keeping up the attack; if in a move  white fails to check the black king and compel black to defend, black can return to the offensive, winning in one move.  The reason white is so confident in victory is simple: with each checking move, black has only one option, so white is assured victory with these moves and assured defeat if it makes any other.

The above is an example of an endgame scenario, although we have to acknowledge that it began before we joined the action.  The ambiguity of its start, if not its end, is one of the characteristics that differentiate the endgame from the opening.  Chess openings are set moves, often anywhere from ten to fifteen moves long and sometimes longer.  They are compelling pieces of a chess player’s development, because, “every game has an opening, and therefore certain opening principles are important to every game,” as Bruce Pandolfini states in Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps.  The primary purpose is to set the board in one’s favor and create an advantage for oneself in the middlegame and endgame.  But, as Pandolfini goes on to say, “Too many players study the opening almost religiously, by rote, and misuse the versatile and adaptable tools it puts at their disposal.”  This highlights another key difference between openings and endgames: openings follow a prescribed, even if adaptable, path, whereas endgames function without prescription, based only on the tools, strategy and applied tactics of each player.

The middlegame is the phase in which the player either a) seeks to exploit the advantage created in the opening, or, b) seeks to regain the advantage after blundering in the opening.  In Weapons of Chess, An omnibus of chess strategy, Pandolfini explains the principles of progression and how one uses the tools at one’s disposal: “Weapons of Chess is mainly about strategy, with emphasis on the middlegame.  Strategy means abstract thinking and planning, as opposed to tactics, which are the individual operations used to implement strategy.  Tactics are specific; strategy is general.  Tactics tend to be immediate, strategy long-term.”  The middlegame’s conclusion, the transition to the endgame, is obviously as muddled as the endgame’s commencement.

All of these features point to the unique nature of chess as compared to other games, especially in the case of the endgame.  Firstly, there is no element of chance or luck, unless you wish to consider an opponent’s blunder luck (and I prefer not to because it is based on the consequence of the other’s foresight or lack thereof not the random rolls of dice or drawing of cards).  Secondly, unlike most games which require some minor amount of calculation or little at all, chess requires foresight.  Thirdly, it is not necessary to deliver a smothering, systematic extermination of the opponent to win as in the case of Risk or Monopoly; the opponent’s king must be checkmated, regardless of any other piece captured.  Finally, it is a game that pits one mind versus one other mind; one vs. one; there is no team in chess while the game is on.

It is often the case for inexperienced players and those with limited acumen or study, that the endgame begins well before one identifies that one is in the midst of it.  The ineffective chess mind is often oblivious to the nuances and moves in game being played, but without retraining it is easy to reinforce mediocrity and failure.  Jeremy Silman, author of The Amateur Mind, Turning chess misconceptions into chess mastery, describes this in his introduction to his chess problems:

“We don’t have to go over this game, I already know where I went wrong.”

I’ve heard this line from students for many years now, and in virtually every case, I find that their view of the game’s errors was based on an opening mistake or a major tactical blunder.  When I point out subtle errors (which are far more common and more important than mere blunders), they are often amazed to find that I’m criticizing moves and ideas that they were proud of in the actual game.

~ The Amateur Mind, Jeremy Silman

I find this most interesting when one considers the evaluation of history, personal or global.  By the point at which Nixon gives his “I-am-not-a-crook” speech, he is already in the endgame.  What triggered that transition from middlegame to endgame probably varies based on one’s perspective or involvement in Watergate.

Observe, again, the value and ease of the game as a metaphor.

The Cold War over 32 black and 32 white squares

During the Cold War, competition of every kind, particularly head-to-head competition, stood in place of pitched battles (for the most part).  The Cold War was the ultimate chess match: two powers waging bloodless (for the most part) war.  Of course, much of this was hinged on the perception of the spectators, and how the two powers created that perception.  Chess matches, along with international sporting competition, music or dance presentations and the space race, were important battlefields in this war for supremacy of two combating ways of life.

Much like their more athletic counterparts, youngsters with an aptitude for chess were identified at a young age and groomed in the weapons of chess as early as possible.  Their training included various methods of psychological warfare.  Josh Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer, written by his father, and himself the author of two books: Josh Waitzkin’s Attaching Chess and The Art of Learning, in the latter book describes his encounter with such trained chess players:

The competition for the top of the American scholastic chess ranking was stiffened by a tremendous influx of Soviet immigrants.  As the Soviet Union fell apart, many of the powerful Russian players looked for opportunity in the west…  Many of these new rivals were armed with a repertoire of psychological “tricks” that presented serious challenges.

One of the more interesting tactics was implemented by a Russian boy whom I had trouble with for a period of months before I caught on to his game.  He was a very strong player so our clashes were always tense, but for some reason I tended to make careless errors against him in the critical positions.  Then one day, an old Bulgarian Master named Rudy Blumenfeld approached my father in the Marshall Chess Club and asked him if we were aware of what this boy was doing to me.  We were not.  He explained that in the climatic moments of the struggle, when I had to buckle down and patiently work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process.

~ The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin

Many Soviet chess masters would become defectors to the U.S., unable or unwilling to proscribe their creativity and expression for the state.  Bobby Fischer would have his mental breakdown in part because of his own pawn’s role in the global chess match.  But, these are not the most compelling associations I have with chess and the Cold War.  That is reserved for the moment when the world looked around and realized, without a doubt, that the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match was in the endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall: Endgame

Here we must return to our earlier theme of the endgame’s ambiguous nature, particularly in identifying its beginning.  By the time the Berlin Wall falls, the endgame has already begun, but it is in this move that there can be little doubt the Cold War will end one way or the other.  Within a few days of East and West Germans meeting atop a concrete symbol of division that had carried every threat of a very hot war, not only was the endgame known, but that inevitability that often creeps in for those who can calculate that far ahead grew stronger and indicated that, not only was it the endgame, the winner was known, too.

Below are two news reports from November 1989.  The first, is a Special Report from Peter Jennings and colleague Barrie Dunsmore, reporting the East German announcement that its people will be able to leave at their choosing and visas would be granted.  The second is ABC News “Nightline”, the following day, with the journalists wondering aloud if this is really the beginning of the end of the Cold War; the conflict they have spent their entire professional lives covering.

Dunsmore’s comments regarding Gorbachev are worth considering.  Is it Gorbachev’s rise that marks the transition from middlegame to endgame?  An older player in the game, say Kruschev or Stalin, would certainly not have allowed East Germany’s defection from the program.  Or, is the key move the establishment Poland’s Solidarity movement; Pope John Paul II’s visit behind the Iron Curtain; the Hungarian uprise; the election of Ronald Reagan; the election of Margaret Thatcher; or, is it something more subtle, maybe even earlier?

Historians will debate this for many years still to come.  The ambiguity of the move is perhaps one of the finest analogies between chess and life.  It prompts me to wonder and to ask if the popular uprisings in Muslim countries signal the plays of an endgame in Muslim-West relations.  There are similarities, certainly, but the differences are significant and provide strong caution against over-stretching the parallels.  Clearly, there are moments on the board and in life when the endgame is more clearly identified after the end is known and the king is dead.

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Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, Week of 8/7-8/12/11

This week’s recommended online reading includes Russian mobsters and faraway islands, a radical poet and his Great Books journey to the priesthood, a retrospective on the Berlin Wall, a practical guide to traveling by bike, the international popularity of America’s civic organizations, mischievous and vaguely illegal wordplay of our British-American forefathers, Britain’s role in the American Civil War, and a curious monument near Buckingham Palace remembering Yuri Gagarin.

1. The Billion-Dollar Shack

Written by Jack Hitt in December of 2000 for the New York Times Magazine, this is a fascinating piece about the fall of small tropical island, Nauru, destroyed by greed and transformed into a pariah when it became a crucial site for offshore banking… by the Russian mob.  Read it by clicking here.

2. Cloth Bound

Published in the The Core: College Magazine of the University of Chicago, written by Benjamin Recchie, “Cloth Bound” is the story of an American intellectual journey that began with humanistic atheism, continued through radical Marxism and ended with the Dominican Order.  Incorporating some of the luminaries of American literature, philosophy and intellectual heritage, this is a fascinating piece Father Benedict Ashley and his development in 1930s Chicago at the University.  To read it click here.

3. The Berlin Wall: A Secret History

This retrospective, marked by the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, reflects on the construction and the city during 1961 and the Cold War; a great read and reflection.  Read it by clicking here.  You may also want to check out the English-language, interactive site at Der Spiegel‘s website by clicking here.

4. Traveling by Bike, Practically Speaking

The beach at Sandpoint, Idaho.

Bruce Weber, of the New York Times, is cycling across the country.  In doing, many people have asked about the practical side of his venture, which is the impetus for this post at on the publication’s “In Transit” blog.  In turns useful and humorous it is an instructive read in many ways!  Read it by clicking here.  You can also follow him on Twitter: @nytbruceweber.

5. The Lions of Lagos, the Rotarians of Rawalpindi

From The Washington Monthly, John Gravois writes about the decline of American civic organizations within the United States and the rise of these organizations internationally.  The numbers are surprising and Gravois is curious about what it tells us regarding American culture, today.  Particularly, interesting to me are the graphs which show a recent peak in U.S. membership right after 9/11, before the line graph heads back to sea level.  Read it by clicking here.

6. When America was a Lady

Now, this is a clever bit of fun wordplay!  Before there was Uncle Sam, there was Columbia.  In a post that traces the clever wordplay that foiled British law, and with references to Gulliver’s Travels, the Antiquarianation blogger reveals our softer persona and the origins of our association as Columbia.  Read it by clicking here.

7. C-Span’s “After Words” - A World on Fire

Watch this episode of “After Words” on Britain’s involvement in the Civil War.  Decorated American historian, Eric Foner, interviews the author of A World of Fire: British’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman.  Click here and look in the sidebar on the right-hand side to view the program.

8. Yuri Gagarin: Mankind’s First Giant Leap

From the Economist’s Prospero blog, there is a post about a new statue that went up on the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace, remembering Yuri Gagarin.  In honor of Gagarin’s feat, the first man leaping beyond the bonds of Earth’s gravitational pull, the British Council put up the statue.  It is a curious piece, reminiscent of Soviet-style, government sponsored artwork, although better than that.  Read Prosepero’s take on it by clicking here.

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The memorials at Mt. Vernon in Baltimore

The Washington Monument on Mt. Vernon in Baltimore; the first memorial built to George Washington

Way back before The Wire, even before the moniker “Mob Town” was bestowed for the city’s contentious election seasons, Baltimore, MD was the “Monumental City.”  The construction of the Washington Monument, the first to the general of the Continental Army, whose battles are listed around the monument’s base, was followed by other monuments, such as the Battle Monument, in honor to the defenders of the 1813 Battle for North Point.  But, this was the monument, at the intersection of North Charles Street and Mount Vernon Place, that started it all.

Mount Vernon Historic District

The Washington Memorial was an important site during political demonstrations, most notably during the election preceding the Civil War and then the period of secession following it.  By the time that war started, the Washington Monument’s square and terrace had set the trend for the prior 30 years of construction, in which squares were established on the tops of Baltimore’s hills, surrounded by the more affluent residences, through the city’s growth and expansion.

The Peabody Institute

Today, the Washington Monument and its parks remain a healthy part of the city landscape, surrounded by intellectual heritage, such as the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland Historical Society and the Walter’s Gallery.  People criss-cross the area in getting from home to work, or from work to lunch, or from home to dinner, and dog owners and joggers also make use of the pedestrian-friendly zone.

George Washington, standing atop a classical piller, faces south in the direction of the harbors, the place of industry and wealth for Baltimore, historically.  On each of the four corners surrounding Washington and the cobbled street square, are statues: Order, Force, War and Peace.  All four are comprised of a neo-classic figure, child and animal, designed by the French sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye.  William Walters, founder of the Walters Gallery, donated them to the city.

Order, southeast of Washington

Force, northeast of the Washington

War, northwest of the Washington

Peace, southwest of the Washington

Mounted on his horse, directly in front and south of Washington, is the Marquis de La Fayette.  The Marquis served as Major General under Washington and his contributions are probably essential to the success of the American Revolution.  His, is actually in memory of the French and American fallen from World War I.

Monument to the Marquis de La Fayette

To Washington’s right are three more statues.  The first of these is of the millionaire, George Peabody, who sits just in front of the Institute he endowed.  He had already made his first million in Baltimore’s industries and shipping, before he built upon that wealth during the Civil War, selling U.S. bonds in England.

George Peabody, wealthy Baltimorean and philanthropist

The next statue is part of a fountain system with American neo-classical design.  In fact, the statue is itself a naiad.  “The Naiad” was a gift of the Baltimore’s Women’s Civic League, Inc.

"The Naiad" (currently drier than usual)

The third statue, behind Peabody, is of Severn Teackle Wallis.  A lawyer, expert on Spain and Spanish literature and Maryland legislator during the Civil War, he is noteworthy for his defense of secession and his reprimand of the federal government for exercising a military option against the Confederate states.  He also served a fourteen month prison sentence with other members of the Legislature and Baltimore residents sympathetic to the southern cause.  At no point was he ever charged with a crime, however, in clear violation of the writ of habeas corpus.  He would serve out an influential career in law Baltimore and Maryland and as provost of the University of Maryland, following the war.

Severn Teackle Wallis

Sitting directly behind Washington, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Most famous for issuing the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford and calling Abraham Lincoln out for making arrests during the Civil War without the sacred right of habeas corpus.  He was a Baltimore resident and Wallis, mentioned above, would give the dedication speech of Taney’s statue.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

Behind Taney, is the dynamic figure of John Eager Howard.  Howard came from a well-established, Maryland planter family.  At the outset of the Revolutionary War, he joined as an officer, earning a silver medal for leading his troops at the Battle of Cowpens.  He would serve in the last session of the Continental Congress.  Howard would serve as a governor of Maryland, a state senator and U.S. senator, but would decline an appointment as the Secretary of War.  During the War of 1812, he commanded the defense of Baltimore.

Howard donated the land for the Washington Monument; he passed away before its completion.  His heirs sold off more allowing for some of the city’s most beautiful homes to be built and for Thomas E. Poppleton’s groundbreaking design for the square on top of the hill.

Maryland Patriot John Eager Howard

To Washington’s left (west of the monument) are two more statues donated by Walters: the Seated Lion, also by Antoine-Louis Barye, and Military Courage, by Paul Dubois.  In between these, is another fountain.

Seated Lion

Military Courage

When you visit:

  1. Bring your appetite, because there are plenty of places to eat in the area.
  2. Bring your historical curiosity, because, in addition, to the Walters Gallery, the Maryland Historical Society and the Peabody Institute, the city buildings and streets are rich with history and a self-guided walking tour can you lead through the neighborhood with sites like the Baltimore Cathedral (America’s first) and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.  Just follow the signs.
  3. Bring your walking shoes, because it is a great neighborhood to explore!


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Word of the Week, 8/8-8/12/11 – Dixie

Dix·ie (dikse), n.  1. the Southern States of the United States; Dixie Land.  2. a lively song about the South, written in 1859, sung during the Civil War,  and still popular. –adj. of or having to do with the South of the United States; Southern.  [American English; origin uncertain]

~ The World Book Dictionary

Most likely, the term is simply a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland that separated the slave states from the free states…

By the 1830s the term Mason and Dixon had come to figuratively denote the boundary between the slave and free states.  Somewhere in the transition from meaning the boundary to denoting the southern states, Mason was lost and all that remained was Dixie.

~ Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, David Wilton

David Wilton, author of the book Word Myths, explains that the earliest written record of the word Dixie is found in the song, Johnny Roach, written by Daniel D. Emmett in February 1859.  Astonishingly, to modern sensibilities, Emmett was a black-face performer from Ohio.  Emmett also authored the more popular song, Dixie’s Land, which he first performed in April 1859.  (See the YouTube video below.)

Wilton reports that Emmett claimed that the word was already in use when he requisitioned it for his songs.  It was a term he picked up as a traveling showmen, saying “Dixie’s Land” referred to the Southern States.

The term beget another song that became a rallying tune among Confederate troops and sympathizers.  If Wilton is correct in tracing the origin back to the Mason-Dixon Line dividing the North from the South, or the free states from the slave states, it made a logical nickname for the CSA.

 The association with this cause gave rise to several other words, most notably:

Dix·ie·crat  n.  1. one of those Democrats who opposed first the civil-rights program of the Truman Administration and later the civil-rights plank of the 1948 platform of the Democratic Party: The Dixiecrats took four states from him [President Truman] in ’48, but he was elected, nevertheless (Newsweek).  2. a later follower of the Dixiecrats.  [American English < Dixie + (demo)crat]

 ~ The World Book Dictionary

Wilton also addresses several false eponymous origins for Dixie:  1) It has been suggested that the word is a reference to Manhattan slave owner, Johan Dixie (also spelled Dixy), a benevolent slave owner whose slaves were sold down South either because he died or because the law in New York changed–the origin suggested by references to how good life had been in “Dixie’s Land”; no evidence exist to support this claim.  2) In 1951, Mitford Mathews uncovered evidence of a musical performer, named Dixey, who performed in Philadelphia–Mathews suggests a connection between Emmett and the artist, but as Wilton points out, this does not agree with Emmett’s explanation and no other evidence exists.

Other false origins include a link to the French dix (ten) which appeared on bilingual monetary notes printed by the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana and dispersed throughout the South.  Wilton has found no evidence that the bills were referred to as dixies, nor that the term was associated with the banknotes in the region before modern times.  Another false origin, dating back to the late 19th century, is in reference to a game of tag played in New York, but there is no evidence to support these claims; in fact, the evidence provided in the game’s song lyrics suggests that it was in use after the Civil War.

A Google image search of Dixie brings up artwork incorporating Confederate flags and slogans (or photographs and magazine covers of the country band, the Dixie Chicks).  The term remains a loaded one, frequently conjuring up the country’s oldest divisions, repeatedly renewed through Supreme Court decisions, political machinations, regional events and civil protest.

One of my strongest associations with the word, comes from an interview from a former Washington Redskin–the first, in fact, to break the color barrier on the team, which was the last organization in the NFL to do so.  The team’s owner greeted him gruffly and asked him to join the room in singing “Dixie“.

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Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, 8/1-8/5/2011

 1. Finding a fishy solution, Microbiologist devises a model for sustainable urban farming

JHU's David Love combines Aquaponics with Hydroponics for sustainable urban farming.

In a greenhouse on loan to the Baltimore Parks and Recreation Department, David Love of John Hopkins University is creating a new kind of sustainable urban farming practice, according to The JHU Gazette.  It combines aquaponics with hydroponics; basically, using fish waste water to feed the growing plants.  It could be a revolutionary step in sustainable urban farming.  Read the article by clicking here.

2. The Beer Archaeologist

Midas Touch beer

Indiana Jones meets that guy from Samuel Adams.  That’s what we’re getting from this read and its awesome!  It is a good long read, so feel free to print it out and read it with a cold one.  There are some great pictures, too, including the beer bottles of some new Doghfish Head brews–and a video with a tour inside their brewery–inspired by new findings.  Read it by clicking here!

3. The history and mystery of the high five

History of the HIgh Five

ESPN posted this from their magazine and it is at the crossroads sports geekdom and historical pop-culture-mythbuster geekdom.  It is a well-written, amusing piece by freelancer, Jon Mooallem.  Read it by clicking here.

4. Thomas Jefferson’s Iftar

Thomas Jefferson's Quran on display stand (Library of Congress)

Thomas Jefferson's Quran on display stand (Library of Congress)

This one is a little loaded, politically.  Jefferson received the first Muslim ambassador from Tunisia.  If you are at all an American history enthusiast–there are Tripoli pirates!–read this short piece, with its leading quote from Mr. Obama.  Read it by clicking here.

5.  Who Made Those NASA Logos?

This New York Times’s “6th Floor Blog” piece traces the origin of the NASA logos, dubbed “the Worm” and “the Meatball”.  Run in honor of the final landing of our beloved space shuttle, this piece is suitably quirky, while legitimately informative.

6. The Empathic Civilization

I would love to sit down and run a Q & A with the author of this really interesting and rather riveting piece, because a few of his points raise questions, but this is worth watching and thinking about.

7. A new leader in the D. B. Cooper mystery

Mystery man

Police sketches of D.B. Cooper, mystery suspect in a 1971 hijacking case

As a kid, reading a book about unsolved mysteries, this case fascinated me.  The part that still intrigues me, today, is that he asked for a relatively modest sum, even by contemporary standards, and was never caught.  So, assuming he survived, how wealthy was he as he lived out the latter years of his life?  After jumping out into low altitude from the plane he high-jacked the police found no trace until this new lead came up.  And, it may be a false one.  Still, I would love to know what became of D. B.  Read the L. A. Times article, with photo gallery, by clicking here.

8. Goya’s Wellington: The Duke Disappears

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington 1812-14 by Goya (National Gallery, London).

Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, stolen in the 1960s changed the laws in England

This is the story on the UK’s History Today website about the unsolvable theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which solved itself and revealed some interesting legal deficiencies in Merry Old England.  If you enjoy a good art-theft caper, you should enjoy this, but on top of that you find the ludicrous situation in England for which there was, at the time, no legal statute to prosecute the acts of thievery!  Read it by clicking, here.

9. The OEC: Facts about the language

A fascinating piece from the Oxford English Dictionary “Oxford Dictionaries” blog about the number of words in English!   This is a really interesting read about our language and its evolution.  Read it by clicking, here.

10. Air Force suspends ethics course that used Bible passages to train missile launch officers

The Washington Post reports that the Air Force is dropping a program taught by chaplains at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, after it was “outted” by  The course hearkened back to Biblical and early Christian doctors in its development of ethics for firing missiles at targets.  Reportedly dubbed the “Jesus loves nukes speech” by trainees, the “outting” was orchestrated by officers, most of whom were Protestant or Roman Catholic. Read the report by clicking, here.

11. How Google Dominates Us

James Gleick, writing for The New York Review of Books, explores in this review how Google influences our lives and decisions.  This is a four-book review about Google’s dominion.  It is not a short read, but it is an important one for our increasingly electronic society.  Read it by clicking, here.

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Sports in the Cold War Race

During the Cold War era it was all about, as Charlie Sheen likes to say, winning!  But, winning in this context was as much about public perception as it was about controlling territory and people.  The perception of the success of one way of life versus another was just as important as the various other races the USA and USSR were running.

The fact that so many of the political moves were described as competitions and races is telling in itself.  During the Cold War there were a series of relays with very specific goals: the arms race (nuclear bombs, bombers, submarines, etc.) and the space race.  Key goals that had to be won by being reached before the other country.

So much of the achievement in these goals was based not on reality, but on the perception created for the public.  More than any other war this was one based on propaganda and its achievement marked in public morale.  Sporting competition and its terminology provided concrete victories in lieu of battles and hot warfare.

Basketball. USSR vs. USA

What follows are some perspectives on this phenomenon.  The first is from the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, which covers the doping program in the GDR, including its devastating effects for the youth involved–especially the girls.  The latter three are from this year’s American Historical Association Annual Conference in Boston and take on the sporting scene during the Cold War.

Doping for Gold ~ The Cold War Sporting Front | Secrets of the Dead | PBS.

Click on the link, above, to go to PBS and watch Doping for Gold.  Nothing was above board in international sporting competitions during the Cold War.  Athletics was an important tool in demonstrating the superiority of a country’s way of life, thus differing slightly from its significance during the Nazi Olympics which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  In order to accomplish this, the Communist nations trained their athletes as much in psychological warfare as they did in their given field–chess players, for example, were groomed to create minor “legal” disturbances in competitions, such as tapping a chess piece while a competitor studied the board in pressure situations.

It was particularly in team sports that dominance was considered vital for Communist nations.  They flouted Olympic rules demanding the participation of amateurs only, by enlisting all of their athletes into the military and then listing them as military personnel, while training them full time in their sports.  They also used doping to gain an edge.  This was especially true of the East Germans who saw women’s sports as the wave of the future and leaped at the opportunity to dominate during the German Olympics in Munich.  The women famously spoke with absurdly deep voices and gave every appearance of masculinity.  The site that you can follow with the link above provides a summary of some of these means for subversive competition.

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian HockeyProfessionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This workshop was based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality in its regard and treatment of emerging Communist countries.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) by Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO although Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort by Japan to distance itself from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is co-author of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the making of modern Germany.  For the purposes of this brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the aspects I found most interesting from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government.  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.

In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience,Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972 and subsequent competitions.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.

The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.A.


These examples highlight the importance of sports in the Cold War and help to provide a terminology for a war that is being fought in symbolism and achievement (for the most part) as opposed to hot battles.  It is particularly the case for life hidden behind the Iron Curtain, but in the war of words and symbols, the USA was not far behind the USSR and the GDR.  For example, the Kennedy staff, having campaigned on the hawkish need to build missile reserves, was shocked to learn that the USA  had already out-paced the Soviets according to the intel, when it was briefed coming into office.

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Serendipity: A surprise tour of Baltimore’s Basilica

The Baltimore Basilica, America's First Cathedral

We arrived at 9 am, but the library did not open until 10 am.  Across the street from the Enoch Pratt Central Library stands the original Baltimore Basilica, the original Cathedral servicing the entire United States, in 1789.  And, sitting in front of it, chatting in the sun, were three volunteer tour guides.  We were set.

We locked our bikes up and crossed the street.  There we were met by Kathie, our tour guide for the next hour or so, who showed us around and explained to us the Basilica’s origins.

Restored in 2004-2006 to its original colors and state of repair

We were introduced first to John Carroll, from Maryland.  His cousin, Charles Carroll, would be the only Catholic to sign the Constitution.  He was educated by Jesuits in Europe, but returned to the New World as his own man during the period of the Order’s suppression, as ordered by the Pope.

Archbishop John Carroll, first Catholic bishop of America, from his seat in Baltimore

Founded in 1540, arriving in the colony of Maryland in 1634 and being officially reinstated in 1805; this commemorative metal was added later in the Basilica's history

Carroll would be given the reigns for the new Church in the young country.  Here in the U.S., a diocese would be set up for all thirteen states, with its seat in Baltimore.

Pope's decree confirming the creation of Baltimore as the first diocese of the country

Through his connections in Maryland, but more so in the young country’s government, Carroll contracted Benjamin Henry Latrobe, important architect and designer working on the nation’s new capital, to design the Church.  Latrobe provided two drawings, one neo-Gothic and one neo-classical.  Carroll, proud of America’s potential and especially of religious pluralism, chose the latter which was to become emblematic of America’s pursuit of a republic and democracy.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his neo-classical design

Latrobe offering his services to Carroll, for the design of the U.S.'s first cathedral

Among the records from the cathedral in its early days are the records of payment for family pews.  In their original state, the pews had doors on them–this was also evident in other colonial churches, such as Anglican/Episcopal church in Williamsburg, VA.

Records of Charles Carroll's annual payments for his family pew

The record of Charles Carroll's death

Kathie also pointed out a statue of Mother Theresa, which was donated because of the Basilica’s history in American Catholicism.  In fact, Mother Theresa visited the church during the renewal of vows for the sisters in her order.

Statue of Mother Theresa

A few years ago, it was discovered that the crypt in the basement, in its original state about four feet high, was actually supposed to be dug out in Latrobe’s.  The work commenced with pick axes and wheelbarrows because there was no way to get major machinery into the space.

The Crypt (with several buried bishops of Baltimore) was original earth up to where the arches end. Old, historic bricks were acquired to match the aged look of the of the original foundations.

More than almost any other church in America, this church is as much a capsule of American history as it is that of the Catholic Church.

Letter from George Washington to American Catholics; there are also letters from Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to Archbishop John Carroll

Babe Ruth with his mentor, Brother Mathias, CFX, from Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, run by the Xaverian Brothers, invited to Baltimore in 1866 by Bishop Martin J. Spalding

The Oblate Sisters of Providence were founded in 1829, in Baltimore, by women in the African-American community for that community's children. Mother Mary Lange, OSP, the foundress is a candidate for canonization. This is a 1912 classroom of orphans in St. Francis Academy in Baltimore.

For more information, the Basilica has its own website with additional information, both historical and practical.

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Word of the Week, 8/1-8/5/11 – caisson

cais·son (ka’son), n.  1. a box for ammunition.  2. a wagon to carry ammunition, especially artillery shells.  3. a watertight box or chamber in which men can work under water, as in laying foundations.  It has an open bottom, the water being kept out by the high air pressure maintained within it.  4. a watertight float used in raising sunken ships: Huge steel tubes, or caissons, drop to the ocean floor and the powerful air jacks raise the hull above the water surface (Wall Street Journal).  5. a vessel in the form of a boat used as a floodgate in dikes.  6. Architecture. a coffer. [<French caisson or casson < Italian cassone < cassa < Latin capsa]

~ The World Book Dictionary

1. A box for ammunition.  2. A wagon to carry ammunition, especially artillery shells.

The word caisson comes to English from the French, in which it meant a large wooden chest, in the 18th century.  It first applied to a chest holding ammunition and bombs, and was extended to apply to the wagon that carried the cases.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the word’s appearance in English as of 1704.

In the U.S. Army, the “Caisson Platoon” is the nickname for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active regiment in the Army.  Today, most people know them as The Old Guard.  They are the unit assigned to defend the capital region in a case of emergency, though they also serve overseas.  The Old Guard still pulls caissons, but today’s horse-drawn caissons do not pull ammunition cases, instead they bring flag-draped coffins to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.  (The Old Guard site has more information and additional information on their caisson horse adoption program.)

3. a watertight box or chamber in which men can work under water, as in laying foundations.  It has an open bottom, the water being kept out by the high air pressure maintained within it.

Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y. ~ Library of Congress

The architectural caisson is in use in English as early as 1753 to build piers and bridges, such as the Blackfriars bridge in the London river, the Thames (OED).  The chamber is watertight–as an ammunition box must also have been–and an air pocket is created in it while it is lowered to the river floor so that a foundation can be dug and laid.

The most famous use of architectural caissons in the United States is in the making of the Brooklyn Bridge, which crosses the East River in New York City.  The famous German-American engineer, John Augustus Roebling, the inventor of the wire-ropes used in his suspension bridges, designed the Brooklyn Bridge.  It would be his last project as he would die from tetanus contracted during the building from a freak accident that crushed his foot.  His son, Washington A. Roebling, would complete project, but it would steal his health.  It was in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, that “caisson disease“, also known as “the bends” was first seen.  Today, we know more about decompression sickness, which was caused by the caissons rising too rapidly.  Suffering from this illness, Roebling would see the project finished from his bed and his wife would take an active role in its completion acting as an intermediary with the foremen at the site.  (Primary references are the Library of Congress,; and PBS–this film being my first introduction to the Brooklyn Bridge and the concepts of caissons in construction–

4. a watertight float used in raising sunken ships: Huge steel tubes, or caissons, drop to the ocean floor and the powerful air jacks raise the hull above the water surface (Wall Street Journal).

The USS West Virginia - April 1943 after being refloated before complete rebuild

Raising ships with a caisson is an evolving technology.  According to the U.S. Navy’s website of the Nomenclature of Naval Vessels, a caisson is the following:

CAISSON  –  A watertight structure used for raising sunken vessels by means of compressed air.  Also the floating gate to close the entrance to a drydock.

During the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia was sunk by seven torpedoes and two bombs.  Through the efforts of the crew, it avoided the fate of the USS Oklahoma which capsized, and sunk to the ocean’s floor on its hull.  On May 17, 1942, the USS West Virginia was pumped with air, raised and taken to the Puget Sound in Washington and repaired so it could be returned to duty.  70 bodies were found by repairmen, including a calendar kept by men who were trapped below decks in the sinking; the last day scratched off was December 23.  (The ship’s history has been collected and digitized at

Another, more famous instance of the U.S. Navy raising a ship was the USS Maine.  Believed to be sunk by Spanish mines near Cuba, and thus igniting the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy raised it from the shallow waters of Havana Harbor and sunk in deeper waters.  The New York Times reported on July 6, 1911, that on the previous day the great caisson was in place around the USS Maine and the delays experienced previously were due to the debris and the need to pump mud out.  (It was also found that the explosion that sunk the Maine was caused by an internal incident–not a Spanish mine.)

 5. a vessel in the form of a boat used as a floodgate in dikes.

Overview of three out of the four WWII caissons in the dyke construction at Ouwerkerk , NE

We again see an example of these in WWII, when Churchill commissions the building of pontoon bridges that were used later in the war and eventually employed to plug in dykes in the Netherlands:

Winston Churchill in 1942 orders the design of an artificial stand-in harbor on a stormy deep sea coast, able to receive ships and discharge material of the allies on an Atlantic coast…

In total 212 of these Phoenix caissons are being constructed for the purpose of the Mulberry harbours in Normandy.  Of those 212 a number stayed behind in England because they were no longer required in France in 1944.  These have been used in a later stage after the war in order to close openings in the dykes amongst others in Walcheren near Rithem where two of them still can be distinguished as they raise out of the sand (beetles), as floats of a pontoon bridge…


A great word for some fun historical exploration!  Use it this week in a sentence!

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