Monthly Archives: August 2011

Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, 8/14-8/19/11

1.  Monsters of more than the midway

Is football one of the things that is wrong with this country?  In the Chicago Tribune, Allen R. Sanderson argues that football’s supremacy over baseball as America’s pastime is part of what is wrong with this country.  Football has a detrimental effect on this country, he argues, on everything from municipal governments to cultural mores.  Read it by clicking here.

2.  The Deadliest Dieseases [Info-graphic]

Very simply an info-graphic which breaks down the worse pandemics in human history.  Some of the deadly diseases we face do not have solid numbers but they are nonetheless represented.  To take quick look at the diseases humanity has faced, by the numbers click here.

3. Sending the police before there’s a crime

Have you ever seen the movie, Minority Report?  Well, the future is here!  A new computer program is sending the police to locations based on the high probability that a crime will take place… and there are arrests being made.  It is an interesting and controversial program; read about it by clicking here.

4. 6 of history’s greatest art heists and scams


If you are a fan of White Collar or The Thomas Crown Affair, then you, like Neil Caffery, probably love a good art heist.  Mental Floss has the 6 best in this book review; read about them by clicking here.

5. The Rise of Global English

This is a fascinating piece about the evolution of English in the wide world of business from a Oxford English Dictionary’s post.  It starts with the observation that non-native English speakers were more effective than their British and American counter-parts in business discussions.  Read more about the development of English in the world by clicking here.


6.  Bike Lanes ‘Round the World


From the travel blog by Sarah Estermen on Wend, comes a great post with a fabulous photo collection of bike lanes around the world.  This is eye-candy if you like 1) traveling and 2) biking.  Check it out by clicking here.


7. Lost Dr. Seuss stories to be published in September


Dr. Seuss fans, UNITE!  September will come in bringing Fall, school supplies and more Dr. Seuss stories!  Read about it by clicking here.


7.  The Body on Somerton Beach

This is another brain-tickler, in unsolved criminal history.  A man is found dead on a beach and no one can account for him or how he died.  The more details that were found out, the more perplexing the case became!  Read this excellent synopsis from the Smithsonian’s “Imperfect History” blog by click here.


8. The Berlin Wall Sickness that still plagues people today

Suburban houses, divided by the wall

A particular aversion to enclosed spaces that is not just your ordinary claustrophobia lingers for residents in Berlin.  This is a timely and sensitive piece from the BBC about the psychological effects of the Berlin Wall on the people who had to live with it.  Read it by clicking here.


9.  People say the darnedest things to get out of jury duty

So, if you were called for jury duty, would you go?  If you didn’t want anything to do with this civic duty, how far would you go to get out of it?  The Capital of Annapolis, MD, has shared some of the most astonishing (and entertaining) excuses people have used to skirt the court’s request.  Read it by clicking here.


10.  Sticking it to China

A Georgia factory is making chop-sticks for China.  Take that!  Read about it by clicking here.


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Filed under Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, Historian's Journal

Visiting the Civil War in Frederick, MD

Tombstone of Confederate soldier Private George W. Boatwright

“The stone behind it should say the same thing,” says the white-haired gentleman down the way from me; he must be retired, I guess, since it is a little after noon.

And, he’s right.  I’m kneeling in front of a nearly 150 year old tombstone, badly faded, but just legible is the name I was seeking when I walked down the line of Confederate graves in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD.  The front row is made up of the original stones and behind it are newer headstones, more easily read.  Along the line of graves, between every fourth grave and its neighbor, are crisp new Confederate flags.

Confederate graves at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

“Do you need a marker for that one?” he asks walking towards me, but I don’t understand him at first.  He’s wearing a white t-shirt from a Civil War event and belted khaki shorts with white tennis shoes.  I realize he is offering me a Confederate flag for the grave in which I am obviously so interested.

“Oh, Boatwright,” he says before I can answer him.  “I remember him.  We had a ceremony a few years ago, for him.  My wife invited one of his relatives up here.  We had a ceremony,” he waves in the direction of the Confederate memorial, nearby—a Confederate soldier standing guard with his eyes in the direction of his fallen comrades, flanked by a full-size Confederate flag, “and my wife read some letters we had from him.  And, we gave her a flag, not one of these; a big three-by-five one.”

The Confederate Memorial in Mt. Olivet

He goes on, explaining that he is putting the small flags between the graves back out, “I came out here last week and there were twelve missing in the middle.  I came out again and then they were all gone.  No one can tell me why they were taken down.  I asked here—they’re good to us, here—and he did some looking and found’em up in the main building.  We put’em out once a year, but especially this year being the Sesquentennial year.  So, I am putting’em back.  No one can tell me why they were taken down.”  He shakes his head.

I am not interested in a flag and try to be polite.  My interest in this grave was from a letter excerpt I saw at the Battle of Monocacy National Park Service (NPS) Visitor’s Center, “The caption said he was buried here and I just wanted to come … and, pay respects.”

“I know what you mean,” he says, nodding.

*   *   *

Earlier that morning I had been at the NPS’s Monocacy Battlefield and Visitor’s Center.  Recently renovated, the building is constructed like a barn, except with a shiny metal green roof reflecting the sun and different materials for better insulation and climate control than a barn.  The bottom floor has the visitor’s information desk, docent offices and the gift shop, while the second floor is the museum for the battle.  The exhibit first explains Maryland’s place in the war.  Wedged between the Mason-Dixon Line to the north and the Potomac River to the south, Maryland was a tense zone between fiercely Unionist Pennsylvania and the Confederate vanguard of Virginia.

Loyalties in Maryland were divided, here, as elsewhere, but the state’s location made it different from others.  Out of the four candidates that ran in the 1860 election Maryland voted as follows: John C. Breckenridge (added to the ballot by those Democrats who thought Stephen A. Douglas was too moderate) with 42,497 votes, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party with 41,177 votes, Stephen A. Douglas of the Democratic Party with 5,873 votes and Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party with less than 2,300 votes, statewide.  All this, coming from the state bordering the president-elect’s new home on three sides, led to the Union effectively invading the state after bloodshed in Baltimore shortly following the secessions.  While Union sentiment grew under these conditions, southern sympathies remained strong in the state.  It was in Frederick, not the Union-occupied state capital, in Annapolis, that the Maryland legislature would vote on secession, concluding that they lacked the constitutional authority to make such a decision.

Monocacy Museum looking out at the old Georgetown Pike that leads to Washington DC

Twice the Confederate Army came through Frederick, MD on invasions of the North; twice it would fail.  The first attempt in 1862 terminated with the Battle of Antietam, near Hagerstown, MD, while the second ended with the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania the following year.  By mid-1864, the Confederacy was forced back to Atlanta, GA in the western front and to Richmond, VA in the eastern front.  But, to achieve this Gen. Ulysses Grant stripped down the capital’s defensive units for the advantage in troops.  Lee sought to use this and sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early west and north around Grant into Maryland.  He hoped to shift the front back north, take Washington D.C., provide a victory for morale, and free Confederate prisoners of war held at Point Lookout Camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (later the author of Ben Hur) would meet Early just outside Frederick City at the Battle of Monocacy, at the junction of the river of the same name and the B & O railway, with an inferior force, both in experience and number.  Wallace would lose the battle, but in delaying Early by a day, he would give the Union forces enough time to reinforce Fort Stevens, protecting the District of Columbia.  Glenn H. Worthington, a six-year-old witness to the battle from the basement of his family’s farm, would grow up to become a judge and spearhead the campaign to get the battle its due recognition and to preserve it as a National Park.  In 1934, the measure was passed in Congress, preserving the site of the “battle that saved Washington.”

The Best Farm

Today the Battlefield is accessible by car and foot, paths leading around the houses and farmland that was caught in the crossfire of Union and Confederate guns.  I biked from the Visitor’s Center under a cloudless sky, except for some high wispy ones sauntering across the blue, to the parking sites—the bikes are not allowed on the footpaths—and, spent the rest of my day getting around on two wheels.  All three of the houses caught up in the battle’s movements, the Best, Thomas and Worthington farms, can be visited, as well as the old Gambrill Mill site.  After parking one can hike around the trails and see the different fronts of the battle and lines of defense and attack.  The Visitor’s Center explains the battle’s chronology with audio and a model of the terrain highlighted with small inset lights according to the troop activity.  I started there.  The NPS maintains an authentic look on the grounds by renting the land out to a local farmer.  Archaeology continues at the Best Farm, including the excavation of slave quarters which predate the Best’s residency on the site, beginning just before the Civil War, and when the dig is open visitors can access it to an extent, but it was closed the day of my visit.

Each of the houses and the mill became field hospitals for the battle’s wounded.  Nearby, Frederick City, would function as one large hospital during the war, taking over churches and homes.  The city also cared for the wounded from major battles, such as Antietam, as well as the numerous smaller skirmishes in the hills of western and central Maryland.  It is perhaps fitting, then, that the city is home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD

Located in historic downtown Frederick, MD, lined with its historic houses and row-homes, on 48 East Patrick Street, the museum’s moniker is “Divided by Conflict, United by Compassion.”  It hosts two floors, seven thousand square feet, of exhibit space devoted to Civil War-era medical education, enlistment medical exams, camp life, evacuation and first responder developments, field care, Civil War-era hospitals, embalming and the modern military medical advancements.  As much devoted to setting the record straight as they are to general education, the museum curators emphasize certain myths debunked.  Principal among these is the commonly repeated line about surgeries performed without anesthesia or drugs, of which there were in fact many options.  Ether and chloroform were the most prevalent among these.

There is also emphasis on the development of the medical arts as a result of the damage done to the bodies of soldiers during the long war.  These include, most notably, the advent of facial reconstruction surgery and the advancements of prosthetics.  While these achievements are impressive, and my inner dork thrills to trace something so modern seeming to the Civil War era, I found some of the images a bit difficult to really study because of the mutilation that some suffered in battle.  I very much enjoyed the ongoing displays of Union Private Peleg Bradford’s letters which included much about the privations of the war and his experiences after being wounded.  Transcripts of the various letters are included and collection of them can be purchased in the gift shop.

Private Peleg Bradford's letters to home

Frederick City was located along the C&O Canal out of Georgetown, the B&O Railway and National Road out of Baltimore, which made it a good location for transporting the sick and wounded.  These transportation lines also made it a crossroads that both forces exploited during the war.  In particular, Frederick owes its early growth and significance to the National Road.  Developing into a “pike town” and then a small city with healthy farms surrounding it, reinforced its connection to Baltimore and the port.  This year the road celebrates its Bicentennial Anniversary.

Following the development of the city along the National Road, it grew further as a “canal town” and “rail town” becoming a city by the day’s standards.  In 1862, on October 4, following the Battles of Antietam and South Mountain, Abraham Lincoln would stop and give a speech of gratitude to the soldiers and the people of Frederick from a railroad car platform, thanking, “the good citizens of Frederick, and to the good men, women, and children in this land of ours, for their devotion to this glorious cause, and I say this with no malice in my heart toward those who have done otherwise.”  A plaque on the street corner, part of the Civil War walking tour, commemorates the spot where the speech was delivered.

The B & O railway station from which President Abraham Lincoln gave his speech to the people of Frederick

There are a number of walking tours, both guided and self-guided that will take one through the city’s historic landmarks.  Materials for the self-guided tours, such as the African American Heritage Sites tour pamphlet, and information regarding guided tours are available at the Frederick Visitor’s Center located at 151 S. East St.  In conjunction with a small exhibit space extolling the virtues of Frederick City and County, is a brief video focusing on the highlights.  Located nearby is the Museum of Frederick County History, housed in a historic residence at 24 E. Church St.  It also holds the city and county archives.

All of this is located in Frederick’s thriving historic district.  Still fed by regional farming, the city has numerous eateries.  The Black Hog BBQ and Bar, named after one of the rarest and endangered heritage breeds of hogs, serves quality BBQ in several American styles.  Café Nola, decorated by local artists, lending it a funky feel, serving Illy coffee and espresso with wide variety of breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch samplings made from locally farmed organic produce, eggs and meat.  The Brewer’s Alley, which micro-brews its beers in-house and also sources its ingredients locally, and is housed in the original town hall, it continues a long tradition of Frederick beer brewing.  In addition to food, the downtown area has filled up with specialty shops, such as the Trail House, specializing in outdoors gear and a great hub of knowledge for exploring the wild environs around the city; and, Earthly Elements, devoted to rocks, semi-precious stones and fossils, as decoration or jewelry.  A healthy arts scene also supplies fine arts galleries, theater and music.  Just outside of town, the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A affiliate, the Frederick Keys, plays America’s pastime during baseball season.

Cafe Nola looking out on East Patrick Street

On the edge of town, just before the Francis Scott Key Mall at the I-70 junction, is Mt. Olivet Cemetery.  It is not the only cemetery in the city, and had laid its first internee to rest a mere seven years before the start of the Civil War, but is home to two hundred eighty-two Confederate prisoners.  Many of these are Confederate prisoners of war captured in the Battles of South Mountain (1862), Antietam (1862), Gettysburg (1863) and Monocacy (1864).

Private George W. Boatwright, of the 12th Georgia Light Artillery, wrote a letter on June 4, 1864 to his sweetheart, Martha “Mattie” Jane Burrows, asking for her hand in marriage.  Five days later, at the Battle of Monocacy, he would receive a mortal wound, dying on July 12th; Mattie’s answer is lost to us.  He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, drawing me to it as I biked back into town from the battlefield.

*   *   *

I ask the man setting the flags out where the Union soldiers were, and he explains that during the war, Confederates soldiers were not buried with Union soldiers.  In Maryland, there is another Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, but soldiers not buried there could have been shipped as far as Hollywood in Virginia.

Biking through the battlefield

I bike along the car’s path, visiting other noteworthy graves, such as Barbara Fritchie, memorialized in a Whittier poem for her loyalty to the Union, and the World War II monument.  Looping back to the entrance I am passing the cemetery’s Babyland, when I come upon the gentleman’s spotless red GMC Sierra parked on the side of the road, where he is marking a Confederate officer’s grave with a flag.  His license tag is a Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans vanity plate.  Exiting past the Francis Scott Key memorial, I think about two quotes I saw at the Battlefield’s Visitor Center that morning:

…It will be a glorious day for our country when all the children within its borders shall learn that the four years of fratricidal war between the North and South was waged by neither with criminal or unworthy intent, but by both to protect what they conceived to be threatened rights and imperiled liberty: that the issues which divided the sections were born when the Republic was born, and were forever buried in an ocean of fraternal blood.

~ Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA, Reminisces of the Civil War

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it,—those who fought for liberty and justice.

~ Frederick Douglass, Decoration Day, 1871

Considering the divisions within Maryland then, I have to wonder, still, which of these two gentlemen hits nearest the mark.  I have not resolved this in my own mind.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

America: A rather young democracy – Guest Post

A guest blog, republished with permission from Pete’s Open Notebook, Pete Thomas asks, when did the U.S. become a full-fledged democracy?  Using criteria from Democracy Index and Freedom in the World, he analyzes the historical milestones that mark America’s progress in attaining full-fledged democracy.

America: A Young Democracy

When did freedom ring? When did America live up to its ideals? Some would say it still hasn’t, given such things as anti-gay laws, anti-muslim laws, illegal immigration laws, and lack of prisoner rights (including, in some cases, the loss of the right to vote, indefinite detention, and, in a few notable cases, torture).
Yet for most citizens, there is a high level of freedom, and for our country a high level of democracy. But obviously this wasn’t always the case, and certainly not solved by our independence in 1776.
Question: When did American become a full-fledged Democracy?
Let’s take a look at some data, focusing on two modern reports, and from there we’ll work backwards. The first is the respectedDemocracy Index. In 2010, the United States placed 17 out of 167 nations, and among the 26 nations listed as “full democracies”. The second report, Freedom in the World, listed the United States as “free” in 2010, receiving top marks for political rights and civil liberties.
Now let’s go through their methods for figuring out our rankings, and figure out when we became a viable democracy.
Freedom of the World‘s view of a free democracy:
  1. A competitive, multiparty political system; Year: 1796
    This is something we’ve had for many years, at least for the two main parties (it’s currently extremely difficult to win any election on a third party ticket). The last time this was not true is debatable. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Radical Republicans placed rules on southern governments, ruining competition, and allowing the Republicans 12 years of rule. But the true beginning of a competitive, multiparty system began in 1796, when Thomas Jefferson split off with the Federalists to face (and lose to) John Adams as a Democratic-Republican in the second presidential election. The first two elections were won by George Washington, who did not officially belong to a political party.
  2. Universal adult suffrage for all citizens (with exceptions for restrictions that states may legitimately place on citizens as sanctions for criminal offenses); Year: 1965
    LBJ Signs the Voting Rights Act

    That’s a big exception (by some estimates a 5.3 million exception in the U.S.). In my opinion, universal adult suffrage did not become official until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can argue for 1971 as well,  when adults between the ages of 18 and 20 earned the vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment (previously you could be drafted at 18 but not vote until 21). Every year previous to 1965, voting intimidation and ineligibility kept universal suffrage from becoming a reality. Starting with the first election, you were not allowed to vote if you were non-white, female, or if you did not own land.  The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, led to suffrage for freemen and former slaves, but women still were not allowed the right to vote (not until 1920). By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, “Jim Crow” laws made it tough or nearly impossible for African-Americans in the south to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 righted most of this wrong (the poll tax, another barrier to voting, was declared illegal a year later).

  3. Regularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and the absence of massive voter fraud that yields results that are unrepresentative of the public will; Year: 1965
    Some gerrymandering aside, most congressional and presidential elections are regularly contested (and can switch parties). For massive voter fraud, some may point to the hyper charges between both parties in recent years. Politically, it’s probably too early in history to confirm the 2000 Presidential Election results as “unrepresentative of the public will” (an extremely close race nonetheless – being a candidate’s brother in charge of disputed ballots). The Presidential Election of 1876 would count, where Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden, even though Tilden had the popular and electoral votes, and was decided along party lines in congress.. Hayes gained the presidency without incident though, in return for ending Reconstruction, which, in turn, led to voter intimidation and fraud throughout the South for nearly a century. Again, 1965 looks to be the key, where African Americans were not long disenfranchised.
  4. Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning; Year: 1800
    Other than the failed Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to push press to a single side (for the Federalists and John Adams, against Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republican), public access of the (usually two) political parties have been given saturated coverage by the media. Today there are presidential debates (since 1960) and primary elections (through most of the US history party nominees were picked behind closed doors). The two parties views (and sometimes a third or forth) are represented through the media through news and campaign ads. So although the media rights and public access hasn’t always been 100% (still probably not), I’ll pick 1800 as when this clause was fulfilled. When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts failed their cause, and the media were once again free to question, probe, and criticize.
Democracy Index‘s methodology:
  1. “Whether national elections are free and fair”; 1965
    Samuel Tilden was robbed

    Compared with most other countries, the United States has an excellent record of free and fair elections. This again goes back to the Voting Rights act of 1965, the first year that men and women, no matter their race nor geographic location, could vote in an election, without fear of intimidation or retribution. There has been 11 presidential elections since 1965, and in all but one (cough cough 2000) the candidate who received the most votes won the election. There has been no clear example in the modern era of a candidate with poor voter approval stealing an election. With term limits set in place after Franklin Roosevelt’s term, there’s been an inability of the executive branch to skew multiple elections in their favor.

  2. The security of voters“; Year: 1965
    There has been no major successful voter intimidation efforts in recent times. Intimidation probably reached its peak during the Jim Crow years. Yet, in recent times, one can cast a ballot anonymously and successfully without fear of reprisal.
  3. The influence of foreign powers on government“;  Year: 1776
    This has always been close to zero. Since ousting Great Britain in the American Revolution, our nation is prideful of its independence. Current contenders for influence would include China (who we owe a massive debt to) and Israel (who, for better or worse, has a successful lobbying group), but neither has a solid command over our government. We’ve been close allies at times with Great Britain, who encouraged our entry into World War II (we still took 3 years), and who previously burned down our White House (a bad influence). Currently The United States is the large foreign influence on our allies, never the other way around.
  4. The capability of the civil servants to implement policies“. Year 1829
    Minus the obvious congressional gridlock, the Constitution and current government structure allows for successful innovation and change. These policies might be supported by special interest lobbies, but nonetheless, most rules are voted on by congress, implemented by senate-approved members of the executive branch, and overseen by a large judicial branch. There has hardly been a time in American history where our country failed to move forward with new laws and policies. But for the sake of picking a date, I chose 1829, the first year of Andrew Jackson’s administration. Jackson created a powerful executive branch which was able to control policy equal with the other two branches.
So my best estimate of when the United States became a free democracy was in 1965. Our stature only improved in 1971 when we let adults who can be drafted to war also be allowed to vote. We’ve been pretty good ever since. Previous to 1965 we were a “flawed democracy” in the terms set by the Democracy Index. It’s debatable if we were ever in a “hybrid regime” (maybe Lincoln suspending habeus corpus in the Civil War, the Radical Republican’s rule during Reconstruction, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12 years as president). As for being an “authoritarian regime”, the United States, even under British rule, citizens never had it that bad. Slaves and Native Americans, though, had an awful time, so maybe previous to 1861 we were authoritarian. Nevertheless, congrats to our country on over 40 years of relative freedom and democracy!

Special thanks to Pete Thomas of Pete’s Open Notebook for allowing the republication of this post in “Brush off the dust! History now!”


Filed under Guest posts, Historian's Journal

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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