30 September 2006

Fair time

I love fairs. They bring back memories of my childhood in a small (ca 4500 pop) town in southern Michigan - cows, goats, 4-H Club exhibits, canning and baking, &c, &c. And there's all that great food they sell, too - sausage, fried chicken, hamburgers, cotton candy.... We missed the local fair, in Ledyard, a few weeks ago. However, the Topsfield Fair, up in Topsfield, Mass - "America's Oldest Agricultural Fair" - started last night.

My older daughter's eleventh birthday is next week. Her best friend (whose father is an old shipmate of mine) moved up to northeastern Mass a few years ago, so last year we came up with the idea of visiting them as a birthday surprise. Drove on up Saturday morning, spent the afternoon at the fair, stayed at their place overnight, and came back Sunday. Worked out well, so this year we're going to repeat it. (The major difference will be that this time my daughter knows what's going on - last year all we said was that we were going "somewhere," with no mention of where or of who else would be there.)

Another difference, I hope, will be the weather. Last year it rained constantly, starting about the time we arrived at the fairgrounds, and we were doing a pretty good impression of semi-drowned rats as we ate our lunch inside the tent some thoughtful vendor had provided. So far, the forecasts say good weather for the weekend....

28 September 2006

Y2K, Mars-style

Remember Y2K? Computer programmers were using two-digit years (93 vice 1993, for instance), and civilisation was going to collapse because computers wouldn't be able to tell if a date was supposed to be read as being 1923 or 2023. Didn't happen, of course.

Skip to now, and Mars. NASA has these little robots named Spirit and Opportunity wandering around, exploring the planetary surface. Their programming records time in Martian days, called "sols" (short for "solar periods," I suppose), and since the robots weren't expected to last very long, the programmes were written with three-digit dates.
But for [Bruce] Banerdt [at JPL] and about 50 other scientists working on the project, what is just as amazing as what may come out of Victoria Crater is the fact that Opportunity, and its sister rover Spirit, are still going strong nearly 1,000 days into their field work on Mars.

The longevity of the little robots is beyond the wildest dreams of some working on the project.

"We would have been happy with 30, maybe 90 days," said Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. Arvidson is based at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

So the latest software updates sent to the rovers had to include a revised date format, with four-digit dates.

Read more about it in this CNN news article, which was the source of the above quote.

Swallows & Amazons III

This is the third in a three-part series about the Swallows & Amazons series, by Arthur Ransome. (The first two parts are here and here.) This time I’m going to talk about the last three-and-a-bit books in the series:

Missee Lee (ML) is another piece of metafiction. Captain Flint, the Swallows, and the Amazons are taking Wildcat on a world cruise (with Swallow and Amazon as ship's boats). Whilst en route from their 100th port (an unspecified location somewhere in the Far East) to Singapore, they meet with an accident involving Roger’s pet monkey, Captain Flint’s cigar, and the ship’s petrol tanks, which results in Wildcat’s sinking and everyone’s being at sea in Swallow and Amazon. The two boats get separated during the night; the Amazons (with Captain Flint) are picked up by a pirate junk, while the Swallows find themselves on an island just off the coast of China. The junk turns out to belong to the Taicoon Chang, who is a lesser pirate chief under the infamous Miss Lee – and the island belongs to Miss Lee herself. Hopes for rescue are dashed when Miss Lee, who has fond memories of time spent at Cambridge years ago, refuses to release her prisoners. Instead, she announces that they will stay on Dragon Island and study Latin with her....

The Picts and the Martyrs (PM) takes place in the early summer of 1933. The Amazons and the Ds are alone at Beckfoot. Well, not entirely alone; the Blacketts’ cook is there with them. But Molly Blackett has been ill, so her brother (Captain Flint) has taken her on a sea voyage; the Swallows won’t be arriving for another two weeks; and the Callums’ parents can’t come to the lake yet because the Professor is grading papers. The good news, though, is that a brand new boat, Scarab, is being built for the Ds, and will be ready in just a couple of days. And the bad news is that someone has told Great Aunt Maria that Nancy and Peggy are home alone. The GA, of course, considers it her duty to cancel all her plans and come to take care of the girls – which means best frocks, piano, poetry, &c, &c. The children agree that things would be even worse, especially for Molly, if the GA discovers that Nancy and Peggy have house guests while their mother is away. And so Nancy comes up with an idea: The Ds will move into a deserted hut near Beckfoot for two weeks (the GA will be leaving the day before Molly and Captain Flint return home) and remain hidden – as the Picts are said to have done – while the other two girls stay home as martyrs, keeping the GA happy. But the doctor, the postman and others have to be roped in as unwilling conspirators, and every day the chance of the Picts’ discovery becomes greater. And then the GA disappears....

There is debate as to whether Great Northern? (GN) is a part of the series proper, or is yet another bit of metafiction, due to a heightened level of danger and violence that is not found in most of the books. There’s also a problem with timing, as the birds which are nesting in this book would normally be nesting during the school term. But Swallows, Amazons, Ds and Captain Flint are touring the Hebrides in a borrowed boat, Sea Bear, and Dick is eagerly hoping to see birds he has never sighted before, especially divers. He gets his wish on what is supposed to be the next-to-last day of the trip, spotting a black-throated diver. But he also sees what looks like a pair of great northern divers, nesting – and great northern divers never nest in Great Britain. There’s another birder in the area, Mr Jemmerling, looking for birds in his motor yacht Pterodactyl, but when he hears about the great northerns his first reaction is to want to shoot them and take their eggs for his collection. And the Ds have spent too much time with the Coots to permit that....

Coots in the North would have brought the Death and Glories up to join the Swallows and the Amazons in the Lake District, but Ransome only wrote a few chapters before stopping work on it. His notes indicate that he was having problems finding a satisfactory solution to getting the boys home after they hitched a ride north with a boat that was being delivered to the lake. Part of the story is available in Coots in the North and Other Stories, edited by Hugh Brogan and published in 1998. (No, I have no idea what the "other stories" are.)

Why do I like these books so much? Well, they’re about kids doing really cool things, like camping and sailing. And they’re a link to a simpler time in the past – imagine the reaction if it were discovered that parents were allowing their children to swim, sail (without life preservers), and camp out on an island, cooking their own meals over an open fire, all without adult supervision. (It’s plainly pointed out in SA, and I think also in SD, that Roger is too young to use matches, though he does have his own pocketknife.)

The politically correct crowd may have problems with a couple of the books. The famous N-word is used in PD, though in reference to black pearls, not to people. And not only do Miss Lee’s pirates speak pidgin, but Miss Lee has the most amazing stereotypical accent, with references to “Loger” (Roger) and “Camblidge.”

If you like these books, you’ll – well, I’m not sure what to suggest here. Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock wrote a trio of books, beginning with The Far-Distant Oxus*, about children and ponies on the moors of southwestern England, but the books are long out of print and the last time I tried to ILL them only the first one was to be had. Some of Enid Blyton’s stories have the same sort of feel, especially the eight mysteries of the Adventure series. The only book about American children and a sailboat that comes readily to mind is The Lion’s Paw, by Robb White.

Want to learn more about the books, or about their author? (During World War I he was a reporter, covering the Eastern Front and the Russian Revolution; he eventually married Trotsky’s secretary.) The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS) can be found here.

(Incidentally, the S&A book covers I used to illustrate these posts were nicked from the Arthur Ransome page at Fantastic Fiction, an excellent source for readers looking to see what other books an author may have written, or the correct order for books in a series.)

* I love Ransome’s story of the writing of this book.

USS Macon photos

The folks who were looking for the wreckage of USS Macon (ZRS 5) have met with success - you can read about it (and look at a couple of photos) here. I think the thing that surprises me the most is how good a condition the Sparrowhawks are in.

Macon, built in Ohio by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, was commissioned on 11 Mar 1933. 785 feet long and 132 feet in diameter, the airship carried five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes and had a crew of 76. She was lost during a storm off the California coast on 12 Feb 1935. All but two of the crew were saved. (Her sister ship, USS Akron ZRS 4, had been destroyed in a storm off New Jersey on 4 Apr 1933.)

For more about Macon, see here.

For more about Akron, see here.

For more about the Sparrowhawk, see here.

Edit: Another good article acout the wreck's current state can be found here.

This day in history: 28 Sep

1066: William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, landed his army at Pevensey, in Sussex.

1106: King Henry I Beauclerc of England defeated his brother Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, at the Battle of Tinchebrai. Robert, as William the Conqueror's eldest son, had received Normandy, which was considered the most important of William's holdings; England, as a lesser fief, had gone to Robert's brother William, and after his death to Henry. Robert's defeat here ensure that Normandy remained part of the English kingdom until it was lost by King John early in the 13th century.

1542: Spanish (or perhaps Portuguese) explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed in what is now San Diego, California.

1987: The first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was broadcast.

It's Saint Wenceslaus Day in the Czech Republic. Wenceslaus - Vaclav in Czech, Wenzel in German - was a 10th-century Duke of Bohemia who was murdered by his pagan brother in either 929 or 935 CE. Yes, he's the guy the song (I used to sing it as "Good King Whatshisface") is about.

Herman Melville (1819-1891), Richard Sears (1863-1914), Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), Adolph Marx (1888-1964) and Elia Kazan (1909-2003) died on this date.

And happy birthday to Ed Sullivan (1901-1974), Al Capp (1909-1979), Edith Pargeter (1913-1995), Brigitte Bardot (1934-TBD) and Rod Roddy (1937-2993).

27 September 2006

Tokyo Rose

Says here that:
Iva Toguri D'Aquino, who was convicted and later pardoned of being World War II propagandist "Tokyo Rose," died [yesterday] of natural causes, said her nephew, William Toguri. She was 90.

Tokyo Rose was the name given by soldiers to a female radio broadcaster responsible for anti-American transmissions intended to demoralize soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater. D'Aquino was the only U.S. citizen identified among the potential suspects.

In 1949, she became the seventh person to be convicted of treason in American history and served six years in prison. But doubts about her possible role as Tokyo Rose later surfaced and she was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977.


I was taking notes, getting ready to write something on seasickness.

Then bothenook posted this.

My story pales into utter insignificance compared with his.

So I think I'll wait a year or two, until folks have had time to forget his story, before I write mine....

Swallows & Amazons II

This is the second part of a three-part review of the Swallows & Amazons series, by Arthur Ransome. (Part one is here.) Taking up where we left off last time:

Coot Club (CC) takes place during the spring holidays of 1932, just a few months after WH. The Swallows and Amazons are mentioned a few times, but that is all; this book is about the Ds, who are spending the holidays in the Norfolk Broads with Mrs Barrable. (This time their parents are off at a conference near Carlisle, on Hadrian’s Wall.) Mrs Barrable was Mrs Callum’s teacher; she’s an artist, and has rented a sailboat, Teasel, to live on whilst painting pictures of the local scenery. The Ds are looking forward to learning to sail before going back to the lake in the summer, but are disappointed when Mrs Barrable tells them that she can’t handle the boat by herself. But the Ds met Tom Dudgeon on the train to Horning, and he introduces them to Port and Starboard and the three younger boys (who have been playing at being pirates). The six of them are the main members of the Coot Club, the purpose of which is to observe and protect the local birds. Their favourite is a coot which is nesting on the river below Horning, but a motor cruiser which is being rented by a group of remarkably loud, obnoxious visitors moors right next to the nest. The mother coot is frantic, unable to get to the nest, and when Tom asks the visitors (called Hullabaloos because of the noise they make) to move their boat, they rudely refuse. The only thing Tom can think of is to cast the boat adrift, and he does so – but is spotted as he attempts to escape. The Hullabaloos give chase, but Tom manages to evade them. To get out of the Hullabaloos’ way, he offers to join Mrs Barrable and the Ds on Teasel, serving as captain (Mrs Barrable becomes the admiral, with a fleet consisting of Teasel and the Coot Club boats) and giving the Ds the lessons they had hoped for. And off they go, but the Hullabaloos won’t give up the search for Tom....

Pigeon Post (PP) is the first of four books set during the summer of ’32. The Walkers are back up at the lake, this time camping in the garden at Beckfoot, and so are the Ds. Captain Flint has been away in South America on an unsuccessful mining expedition, but he’s on the way home now. He hasn’t sent word to say when he’ll be home, but his last letter said to expect Timothy and give him the run of his study; after much deliberation, the children have decided that Timothy must be an armadillo and are making a hutch for him in the study. In the meantime there’s no sailing, as someone else is staying at Holly Howe and the Walkers won’t have access to Swallow for a couple of weeks. However, the Amazons have heard stories of a lost gold mine in the hills near Kanchenjunga, and their idea is to try to find the gold before Captain Flint’s arrival, to make up for his recent lack of success. The lot of them shift camp from Beckfoot to a farm nearer the alleged gold field (using the Amazons’ new homing pigeons to communicate with home), but there’s been a serious drought and all the adults are worried about the possibility of fires, so they aren’t permitted to camp up in the hills. Time is running out, and they have a rival – a mysterious stranger dubbed “Squashy Hat,” who also seems to be prospecting for gold....

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (WD) takes place a week or two after the end of PP. Commander Walker is on his way home from China, with orders to Shotley, so the rest of the family have traveled to Pin Mill*, near Harwich, to wait for him. Once there, they meet Jim Brading, who has just sailed his cutter Goblin up from Dover. His uncle will be joining him soon, and they plan to sail Goblin up to Scotland before Jim goes off to university at Oxford. In the meantime, Jim invites the four Walkers to spend a few days on the boat with him. (He’d invite Mother and Bridget, too, but there isn’t room for everybody.) Daddy is due in just a few days, so they won’t have much time, but there will be enough for them to explore the rivers a bit; Mother insists they not go out to sea, and they all promise. But they are becalmed on the morning after they set out, and Jim discovers that he has run out of petrol for the engine. He goes ashore for a quick trip to get some, expecting to return soon, but doesn’t come back. The four children are alone on the boat, a heavy fog comes in, and they find themselves drifting out to sea....

I couldn’t find my copy of Secret Water (SW), so I had to skip it when I read the rest of the series this summer and will have to work from memory and from on-line notes. The book starts very shortly after the end of WD; Commander Walker and his children are planning on sailing Goblin down to Hamford Water, near Walton-on-the-Naze, to spend some time camping, but Daddy is called away on official business. He maroons the kids on an island, along with the Amazons (whom he has invited down as a surprise for the Swallows), provides them with a rough map of the surrounding islands, and suggests they do some exploring and survey the area whilst waiting for his return. What appear to be mastodon tracks lead to meeting a local boy, Don, and another family called the Eels (Daisy and her brothers, Dum and Dee). The Eels also enjoy camping where the Swallows and Amazons are, and are inclined to be hostile at first, but soon they reach an agreement and start a friendly “war.”

The Big Six (BS) takes place more or less at the same time as the last two books, and involves the Ds. They’re back at Horning, staying with Mrs Barrable (who this time has taken a house) again. Port and Starboard are away at school – in Paris, of all places – but Tom and the three Death and Glories are all present. And the latter are in trouble, because someone has been casting boats adrift, choosing times and places to make it look as if they were responsible. After all, everyone knows that Tom cast a boat adrift last spring; who’s to say that the younger boys aren’t emulating their hero? That’s not all - when the boys spent the night aboard Death and Glory at Potter Heigham, not only were boats there cast off, but also a boatyard was burgled. And now the boys seem to have a lot of money, much more than their parents would have given them. Dick and Dorothea join in the attempt at identifying the enemy before the local constable decides to arrest Bill, Joe and Pete.

There have been a few films based on the books. Swallows and Amazons (1974) is a fairly faithful rendition of SA, starring Virginia McKenna as Mrs Walker and Ronald Fraser as Captain Flint. (The Beeb did a TV series based in SA, in 1963, but most people seem to think it was rather dreadful.) Swallows and Amazons Forever! was the title used for a pair of TV movies made in 1984; the title is misleading because the two films are based on CC and BS, and there are neither Swallows nor Amazons to be seen anywhere.

Still more to come....

*The link is to a pair of pictures showing Alma Cottage (still a working B&B) and the Butt & Oyster pub at Pin Mill. One picture is Ransome's drawing, done in the '30s as an illustration for the book; the other is a recent photograph. Picture from here.

Thanks, Eric

Had a big surprise last night when I looked at SiteMeter and saw that I'd had fifty visitors - a very busy day for this blog. Then I got an even bigger surprise when I looked at "Referrals" and saw that almost all of the visitors had come to me from The Sub Report, which I hadn't checked yet. Turned out that Eric had included a link to my latest post on watchstanding, along with yesterday's submarine news.

Thank you!

26 September 2006

Swallows & Amazons I

I’ve just finished reading the Swallows & Amazons series, by Arthur Ransome. Most of them, that is – my copy of one book seems to have gone into hiding, so I had to skip it. This has been one of my favourite series since I first discovered it (eighth grade, as I recall), and since this is my blog and I can write about anything I want, I’m going to write about this.

The series consists of twelve books, written in the 1930s and ’40s, about English children and sailboats. (A thirteenth book was started but never finished.) Most of the books are set in either the Lake District (on and around a nameless, fictional lake which combines elements of Windermere and Coniston Water) or the Norfolk Broads (using real geography).

The Swallows are the four Walker children: John, Susan, Titty* and Roger. Their father is an officer in the Royal Navy and is seldom seen in the books, but their mother and their younger sister Bridget appear often. The Amazons are the Blackett sisters, Nancy and Peggy, a pair of tomboys who are growing up on the shores of the lake. (Nancy’s name is actually Ruth, but the girls play at being Amazon pirates, and their Uncle Jim has told them that real pirates are ruthless, so....) The only time a definite age is given for any of them is in the first book, when Roger is seven, but going by Ransome’s notes for another book the starting ages of the others are nine (Titty), eleven (Susan and Peggy) and twelve (John and Nancy, the latter being slightly older).

Two other sets of children, the Ds and the Coots, are also important in the series. The Ds – Dick and Dorothea Callum – are the children of an archaeologist; Dot is a budding novelist, while Dick is interested in all aspects of science. They’re somewhere around Titty’s age, with Dorothea being the older of the two. The Coots, who all live in the village of Horning, in the Broads, are Tom Dudgeon, a doctor’s son; twins Bess and Nell Farland (commonly known as “Port” and “Starboard”); and the three Death and Glories, Bill, Joe and Pete. (Like the Swallows and the Amazons, the latter get their group name from the name of their boat.) No ages are given for the Coots, either, but Tom is a little older than the Ds, the twins are about their age, and the other three are a little younger.

Swallows and Amazons (SA) takes place during the summer holidays of 1930. The Walkers (with the exception of Daddy, whose ship is in Malta) are spending the summer holidays at Holly Howe farm, by the lake. The children have been using the farm’s sailing dinghy, Swallow, to explore, and have requested permission to camp on a nearby island. Mother has passed the buck to Daddy, and the book starts with the children waiting for a reply to the letters they have written. The reply comes in the form of a telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN. Hurray! Plans are completed, stores and equipment are assembled, and the four of them are off to the island. The Blacketts, who also have a sailboat (Amazon), have been using the island as a campground for some time, however; the two groups agree to fight a war, with the winners being the ones who first capture the other boat. The Amazons’ Uncle Jim has been holed up in his houseboat (complete with parrot and cannon) all summer, writing a book, refusing to join in the girls’ games, and being no fun whatsoever, and so plans are made to declare war against him, too. But now he seems to have gotten the idea that the Swallows have been mucking with his boat - and then the boat is burglarised and his book is stolen....

Swallowdale (SD) takes place the following summer. The Swallows have returned to the lake, and Uncle Jim (dubbed “Captain Flint” by Titty because of his parrot and cannon) is no longer tied up with writing, but the expected fun isn’t happening; the Blacketts’ Great Aunt Maria is visiting. The GA is a very strict, old-fashioned lady who expects Nancy and Peggy – excuse me, I mean Ruth and Margaret – to wear white frocks instead of shorts and shirts, learn poetry and recite it to her, practice the piano, and never be late for meals. Since Mrs Blackett and Uncle Jim were raised by the GA, they’re too much in awe of her to stand up to her. Until she leaves, the Swallows will be by themselves except when Nancy and Peggy can slip away. And then disaster strikes: Swallow runs into a submerged rock and sinks. Her crew manages to salvage her, but until repairs are completed they won’t be able to sail, or to camp on the island. Fortunately, there’s a valley up on the fells above the lake that makes a good campsite, so the Swallows settle in for a different kind of adventuring - including mountain climbing, with the mountain near Beckfoot (the Blackett home) standing in for Kanchenjunga.

Peter Duck (PD) is metafiction, a fictional story “written” by people who are themselves fictional characters. In this case, the writers are the Swallows and the Amazons, who spent the winter holidays between SA and SD on a wherry on the Broads, with Captain Flint. One of the ways they spent their time was in making up this tale of adventure, in which they sail in search of buried treasure. The story begins in Lowestoft harbour, where Captain Flint and the Amazons are readying their new schooner, Wildcat (named after their island back at the lake), for sea. The Swallows arrive soon, but so does bad news – the man who was going to help Captain Flint work the ship isn’t going to be able to come. This severely limits what they can do, because while the children have plenty of experience with their sailboats, a ship this large is something totally new to them. Fortunately, an old seaman named Peter Duck has been admiring Wildcat, and he offers to take the missing man’s place. But with Mr Duck comes trouble, for many years ago, when he was a young boy, he was shipwrecked in the Caribbean, and before he was rescued he saw two men burying something beneath a tree. He has no idea what it was they buried, of course, but the tale has grown in the telling and now many people believe it was treasure. And Black Jake, skipper of the Viper, thinks that Peter Duck is taking the crew of the Wildcat to retrieve that treasure....

Winter Holiday (WH) takes place a few months after SD, during the winter of ’31-’32. Professor and Mrs Callum are in Egypt “digging up remains,” so Dick and Dorothea are spending the holidays at the Dixons’ farm (Mrs Dixon was Mrs Callum’s nurse when she was a girl), just down the road from Holly Howe. Late-evening astronomy leads to signaling to “Mars,” which in turn brings the Ds together with the Swallows and the Amazons. The plans this time are for an expedition to the North Pole, a place near the north end of the lake known only to Nancy and Peggy. Sledges are in daily use, an igloo is being built, and Captain Flint’s houseboat, which is frozen in, is doing duty as Nansen’s Fram. (Captain Flint is abroad for the winter.) All that’s really needed is a good, solid freeze before the end of the holidays, and they’ll be set. And then Nancy comes down with mumps, forcing her – and the others – into quarantine....

To be continued.

* Try giving a girl a name like that in a modern book! The four Walkers were based on children Ransome knew; the real Titty was given her nickname as a small child because her favourite book was something called Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse.

RIP: Jeff Cooper

LTC John Dean "Jeff" Cooper, USMC, born 10 May 1920, died yesterday at Gunsite.

25 September 2006

This day in history: 25 Sep

1066: King Harold II Godwinson of England defeated King Harald III Hardråde's invading Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It was a decisive victory for the English; Harald was killed, along with most of his army (including Harold's brother, Earl Tostig Godwinson). Unfortunately for Harold, however, he himself was killed nineteen days later at the Battle of Hastings.

1846: US forces under Zachary Taylor captured the Mexican city of Monterrey.

1970: The first episode of The Partridge Family was broadcast on ABC.

Johann Strauss Sr (1804-1849), Emily Post (1873-1960), Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) and Don Adams (1923-2005) all died on this date.

And happy birthday to Nicolas Cugnot (1725-1804), Fletcher Christian (1764-1793), Shel Silverstein (1930-1999), Christopher Reeve (1952-2004), and Will Smith (1968-TBD).

Watchstanding IV

[Previous posts on watchstanding were here, here and here.]

Standing JOOD on Simon Lake could get boring, especially on the midwatch (what midwatch isn't boring?), but I found a few ways to keep myself amused.

The basic idea was that someone desirous of leaving the ship would come up, present his/her ID, salute, and say, "Request permission to leave ship." Similarly, someone who wanted to come aboard would salute (having already paused at the top of the brow to salute the ensign), present ID, and say, "Request permission to come aboard." I would inspect the ID, front and back, to verify that it was valid, return the salute, and say something to indicate that permission was granted. (When I first started standing the watch I would say "Hai!" - a habit picked up during two WestPacs on my first boat - but there was a master chief who was very insistent that all official conversation on watch had to be in English, so....)

Each watchstander had his own quirks. Ship's policy was that any male who left the ship in civvies had to be wearing a belt, and there were actually some people who enforced that; I didn't care that much about belts (though I always wore one myself), and the lectern I was standing behind blocked my view of people's waists anyway. My two sticking points were liberty cards and hats. Policy was that every E3-or-below was supposed to be carrying a liberty card, as proof that (s)he was permitted to go on liberty, when leaving the ship in civvies, and I always insisted on seeing it. We had a JarDet (Jarhead Detachment) on board, and the jarheads always objected to having to show liberty cards, but I knew they were issued such and always made them go back to their berthing space to get the cards; the only exceptions I allowed to the liberty-card rule were the sailors off the boats we had alongside.

As for hats, there were of course a lot of people who walked around in uniform with their covers pushed back; this being rather obvious when I looked at them to compare their faces with their ID photos, I always told them to square them away. Boat sailors were constant offenders, of course, with the result that one day I had a master chief standing up on the quarterdeck watching me. He was there about twenty minutes or so before departing, and I found out later that he was the COB off the boomer we were tending at the time. His people had complained about me, and he had come up to see what was going on, but after seeing that I was making everyone fix their covers, and not just picking on his people, he was satisfied and left.

But that was just basic watchstanding, as practised by me, not the fun stuff. One bit of on-watch amusement was purely unintended. It was an afternoon watch, and I had a good-sized queue waiting to hit the beach, when an officer approached from my left and requested permission to depart. I looked at him and saluted, and sonofagun, it was the old Weps from Ustafish. Taken totally by surprise, I said, "What the hell are you doing here?" Out of the corner of my eye I could see some very shocked expressions in the queue (An E6 isn't supposed to talk to an O5 like that!) as he explained that he was now the XO of the boat alongside.

After a year or so of doing this, as I said, it started getting boring. So on slow watches, I started saying "No" when people asked to come aboard/go ashore. When they looked surprised I explained that I was tired of saying "Yes." One kid believed me, and turned around and started back into the ship, but I called her back and said, "Oh, all right - go ahead."

And then one day I found a Magic Eight Ball at Woollies. You know Magic Eight Balls - a black ball with a flat spot so it will stay still on a table, full of liquid, with a polyhedron inside with different "answers" written on it - "Yes," "No," "Ask Later," &c. I bought it, of course, and took it with me the next time I had the midwatch. As expected, I got some good laughs out of people's faces when they requested permission to go ashore and I whipped out the ball, shook it up, plopped it on the lectern and read them the answer, pointing at the ball for authority. The OODs generally thought this was pretty amusing, too.

The ultimate bit of on-watch amusement, though, came from an A-ganger named Bernie, who worked somewhere in Repair - R-9, I think. The ship had a full-time Safety Officer, and at Captain's call (held weekly on CCTV, with all hands required to watch) the Safety Officer always had something to say. When I first got to the ship, the Safety Officer was of Middle-Eastern extraction, and had a heavy accent. His successor talked funny, too; he had a speech impediment, and talked just like Elmer Fudd. ("I'll get you, you wascally wabbit!") And so it came to pass that early one morning, at the appointed hour for reveille, Bernie picked up the 1MC and made the announcement: "Weveiwwe, weveiwwe! All hands heave out and twice up. The smoking wamp is wighted in all authowised spaces. Bweakfast for the cwew."

Ten seconds later, of course, as soon as the OOD got over his shock, Bernie was disqualified the watch. Unfortunately, it hadn't been my duty day, so I wasn't on board to hear it, but apparently his announcement was met with great joy all through the ship. Don't know if he had to apologise to the Safety Officer or not....

23 September 2006

Australopithecus afarensis

New reports are out about a 3.3-million-year-old partial skeleton found in 2000 in the Dikika region of Ethiopia. The skeleton belonged to a presumed female, about three years of age. A. afarensis, of course, is the species to which the specimen known as "Lucy" belonged. Details (and photos) here.

Hat tip to Afarensis.

Edit: Afarensis now has more here.

The Man from Waukegan (J P Zabolski)

Waukegan, Illinois, is a small industrial city (population around 65-70k in the ‘60s) on the shores of Lake Michigan, about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Amongst other industries, Johns-Manville and Johnson Outboard had factories there. There’s a harbour, used by small boats and by ships bringing in mountains of gypsum. It’s probably best known, though, as the home of comedian Jack Benny and author Ray Bradbury.

J P Zabolski graduated from Waukegan High School in ‘73, and left home to join the Army.

Ten years later, in ’83, he left Waukegan again (by this time he was out of the Army, had gone around the world twice, and had held various interesting jobs in various interesting countries), this time to join the Marines.

Ten years later, in ’93 (by which time he had left the Marines and emigrated to Australia), he returned to Waukegan for his father’s funeral and to sell the family home.

Ten years later, in ’03, he came back to Waukegan, for the first time in ten years, to spend two weeks walking around town, mulling over the changes in the old neighbourhood, the city, and himself.

Zabolski stops to talk with old neighbours, teachers and friends, hunts down childhood treats he hasn’t tasted in years (such as angel food cake), and visits old hangouts. Each stop reminds him of the past, and his stories of this trip are mixed with reminiscences of things past – movies, television, ROTC and other classes in high school, his parents, hobbies, church.
One year [Sunday school] started issuing out report cards that had to be signed by your parents, like the ones in Glen Flora. They had two grades, one for your studies and one for your conduct. I got an ‘F’ for Failure on both. I hid the report card under our wooden porch through the winter, with the nuns constantly asking where it was. Two weeks before the final day, I brought the shriveled thing to Mom to sign. Mom was not pleased. I had never ever received an F on any real school report card.
There have been a lot of changes in the city, but the more things change....

A few doors up Grand Avenue, the house where the female principal of McAllister School for twenty-seven years had lived until she died in 1981 aged 101 was now an antique store. The owner was originally from Savannah, Georgia, and we had a pleasant chat about a variety of subjects. I asked if he’d mind if I sat on the swing on his porch and he was delighted to let me. I love sitting on a porch and watching the world go by.

I had another pleasant romp in the ravines of Yeoman Park before having lunch at the Chuck Wagon. It was still there after all those years, but locals had said ‘the place is run by Mexicans now.’ The sign was the same except that it now said ‘Juan’s’ over the name. Everything else was still exactly the same. Though they had huevos rancheros on the menu, the other food was unchanged. There was a group of four white truck drivers at a table, a friendly black fellow having coffee at the bar, and some amusing waitresses. The hamburger and fries were the same except that there was a wedge of pickle rather than the pickle chips on the plate.

For everything gone or changed in Waukegan, some person from Georgia or Mexico would carry on its traditions.

I’m not saying you should run out and buy this book just because it was written by my best friend (though it was; we've known each other since 1967), or because I’m mentioned in it (though I am). But anyone of about our age, or a little older, or maybe even a little younger, has probably had similar thoughts, especially if (s)he hasn’t been home in a long time.

Heck, I didn’t even like Waukegan that much – I’d come from a much smaller town that didn’t have many more people in it than Waukegan Township High School alone had – but this book brings a feeling of nostalgia that makes me want to go back for a visit.
Cinema-going was always a major part of my life. You’d always go by the cinemas to look at the collection of stills and the exciting posters that would also feature in the Waukegan News-Sun. The price was 50 cents for a child under twelve or $1.50 for an adult, but a double bill of B movies was 35 cents and $1.25 respectively. That meant more money for a 25-cent box of popcorn, or 15-cent drink, candy bar, snow cone, or giant dill pickle. There were also larger drinks, larger candies, and hot dogs.
And I’ve never in my life found a place that serves hot dogs as good as those at the Genessee Theatre were.

"There's no place like home." And yes, sometimes you can go back home again....

21 September 2006

Yo, ho, ho

Found this little tidbit about a new bar in London:
"The Rum Bar does just what it says on the tin. It serves rum… by the gallon. And it serves every rum known to man. Rums from all around the world. Well, at least from all around the Caribbean. Yum yum."

Looks like I'll have to add that to my list of places to visit if I ever get to go to London. Right after the Imperial War Museum, say. Maybe before the museum, too.

Various brands of Puerto Rican rum are the most common here in the States, but I don't care much for them - my taste runs more to Jamaican rum, such as Myers's. Mount Gay, from Barbados, is really good, too. But the best rum I ever had in my life was Lemon Hart Demerara rum, from Guyana. Unfortunately, while I never had trouble finding it in Scotland, I haven't seen it in any stores in this country. But I keep hoping....

They're baaaack

The space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Centre this morning, ending a successful mission to add solar-power gear to the space station.

Read about it here, here, or here, amongst other places.

19 September 2006

This day in history: 19 Sep

1356: The English (under Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince) defeated the French (under King John II) at the Battle of Poitiers, capturing the king.

1692: Giles Corey was pressed to death after refusing to enter a plea during the Salem witch trials. (It is a misconception that people were burned at the stake after said trials; Corey was pressed, and the nineteen who were found guilty were hanged.)

1863: The second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, between Braxton Bragg's (Confederate) Army of Tennessee and William Rosecrans' (Union) Army of the Cumberland. The battle concluded the next day in a Confederate victory.

1881: President James Garfield died, eighty days after being shot by Charles Guiteau. (Guiteau was hanged on 30 Jun 1882.)

1893: The Governor of New Zealand, consented to the Electoral Act of 1893, giving all women the right to vote.

1934: Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr.

1991: The body of Ötzi, the Iceman, was discovered by German tourists.

And happy birthday to Mika Waltari (1908-1979), Sir William Golding (1911-1993), David McCallum (1933-TBD), Leslie Hornby (1949-TBD), and Trisha Yearwood (1964-TBD).

Shiver me timbers!

Ahoy, mateys! Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day! So whilst ye be at work, or whatever ye be doin' today, watch what ye be sayin', an' how ye be sayin' it, an' make sure ye have an extra noggin o' rum wi' yer supper!

An' if'n ye want to be learnin' more about how ye should be talkin', try here an' here.


16 September 2006

Watchstanding III

When I was on the target, I normally stood watch as JOOD on duty days. My main job was to stand behind the lectern at the head of the brow, inspect the ID card (and liberty card, if appropriate) of anyone wishing to leave or board the ship, grant (or deny) permission to do so, and make sure they remembered to salute the ensign on the way by. This watch was stood by PO1s and PO2s, but shortly after I reported on board a PO2 put a round into the overhead during watch relief, and all PO2s were immediately disqualified. (Most of them thought this was rather unfair, especially since not long after this event the guilty party was CAP’d to PO1 and was therefore permitted to stand the watch again.)

Watch relief was rather more formal on the skimmer than it had been when I stood POOD on my first boat. In those days, the offgoing POOD would draw his pistol, check it clear and lock it open, unbuckle the pistol belt and hand it over to his relief, wait while the relief counted the ammo, and then hand over the pistol. A quick review of the log (mainly of draught readings), a report on the whereabouts of the CO, XO, and COB, and that was pretty much it. Some people would simplify turnover even more at night, by simply unbuckling the belt and handing it over, with the .45 still in the holster.

On the tender, the procedure went something like this:

1. Oncoming watch reviews the log and gets a turnover from the offgoing watch.
2. Oncoming goes to the OOD (the chief or above who was the on-watch supervisor, stationed behind the counter ten feet or so from the JOOD’s lectern), salutes, and requests permission to relieve the JOOD.
3. OOD grants permission.
4. Oncoming goes back to the Offgoing.
5. Offgoing hands over the body armour (if it was being worn*), draws the .45, checks it clear and locks the slide back, and hands over the belt. Oncoming dons the belt and counts the ammo. Offgoing hands over the .45; Oncoming checks it clear, closes the slide and holsters it.
6. Oncoming salutes and says, “I am ready to relieve you.”
7. Offgoing returns the salute and says, “I am ready to be relieved.”
8. Oncoming says, “I relieve you.”
9. Offgoing says, “I stand relieved.”
10. Oncoming (now the JOOD) takes his position behind the lectern, while the Offgoing goes over to the OOD, salutes, and says, “Properly relieved by Petty Officer Lizardlips [or whatever his** name was]. Request permission to lay below.”
11. OOD returns the salute and grants permission, and Offgoing departs the quarterdeck.

Much too complicated a procedure for me.... So after standing the watch a few times, and getting to know the chiefs and JOs who normally stood OOD, I developed a somewhat streamlined procedure which I used from then on. The first five steps were the same as in the established procedure, but the remainder of it went like this:

6. Offgoing salutes and says, “I had it, you got it.”
6a. (Optional) Oncoming returns salute.
7. Offgoing goes to OOD, salutes, and says, “I had it, he got it, I’m gone.”
8. Offgoing departs the quarterdeck.

Much easier and less complicated, for all involved.

One night I stood watch with a young Supply Corps ensign who was standing OOD by herself for the first time. By this time I had been standing JOOD for a couple of years, so when I was relieved I just walked up to the counter, saluted, reported my relief, and left, without waiting for her to respond. Which was just as well, because when I glanced back at her I saw that she was just standing there staring at me with her mouth hanging open.

(One of the problems I always had with the Navy was that I function much better on a first-name basis. For that reason, even though I would never have dreamed of addressing this ensign, or of referring to her, by her first name, all I can remember is that it was Tracy. Haven’t the slightest clue what her last name might have been. But a week or two later my flatmate stood a midwatch as rover with her. I’d told him about her reaction to my casual attitude toward watch relief, so when he went to report his relief he saluted and said, “Properly relieved by XXXXX, and penguins have taken over the garbage barge.” And walked off, also leaving her with her mouth hanging open. But I digress....)

The target being a submarine tender, there were a lot of other submariners on board, but of course most of the crew were skimmers. One of those who stood OOD frequently was a TMC (named Terry something-or-other), who really should have been a bubblehead. At least once per watch, when the roving watches*** came up to him to make their hourly all-secure report, he would interrupt them to ask, “Any fire, flooding, faggotry, fornication or fraternization going on on board my ship? Can’t have any of those nasty F-words, you know.” This was usually good for a laugh, especially if one of the rovers had never stood watch with him before.

Watch this space. More on watchstanding to come….

* We always had to wear it under CAPT Crahan. One of the first things CAPT Riffer did after taking command was tell us we could just keep it under the lectern, ready for use if needed. We JOODs loved him for that.
** We had plenty of females in the crew, and some of them may well have stood JOOD, but I don’t remember their doing so.
*** Sounding and Security Watch, I think, was the official title; the job was similar to that of the BDW on subs. There were always two, one male and one female, because one of their duties was doing wake-ups at night, and that way one of them was able to enter any berthing space to accomplish this.

15 September 2006

"Out There Somewhere"

Like the narrator of the following poem, I ain’t much strong on poetry. Usually, in fact, I detest the stuff. But there are a few poems I like, and I’ll even go so far as to say that Rudyard Kipling is my favourite poet. This piece isn’t by him – it’s by a Canadian chap named Henry Herbert Knibbs (1874-1945) – but it is my absolute, number-one, all-time favourite poem.

And my thanks to the incomparable ERB for introducing me to it.

“Out There Somewhere”

As I was hiking past the woods, the cool and sleepy summer woods,
I saw a guy a-talking to the sunshine in the air;
Thinks I, he’s going to have a fit -- I’ll stick around and watch a bit;
But he paid no attention, hardly knowing I was there.

He must have been a college guy, for he was talking big and high --
The trees were standing all around as silent as a church --
A little closer I saw he was manufacturing poetry,
Just like a Mocker sitting on a pussy-willow perch.

I squatted down and rolled a smoke and listened to each word he spoke;
He never stumbled, reared or broke; he never missed a word,
And though he was a Bo like me, he’d been a gent once, I could see;
I ain’t much strong on poetry, but this is what I heard:

“We’ll dance a merry saraband from here to drowsy Samarcand.
Along the sea, across the land, the birds are flying South,
And you, my sweet Penelope, out there somewhere you wait for me,
With buds of roses in your hair and kisses on your mouth.

“The mountains are all hid in mist; the valley is like amethyst;
The poplar leaves they turn and twist; oh, silver, silver green!
Out there somewhere along the sea a ship is waiting patiently,
While up the beach the bubbles slip with white afloat between.

“The tide-hounds race far up the shore -- the hunt is on! The breakers roar,
(Her spars are tipped with gold and o’er her deck the spray is flung);
The buoys that rollick in the bay, they nod the way, they nod the way!
The hunt is up! I am the prey! The hunter’s bow is strung!”

“Out there somewhere, --” says I to me. “By Gosh! I guess that’s poetry!
Out there somewhere - Penelope - with kisses on her mouth!”
And then, thinks I, “O college guy, your talk it gets me in the eye,
The North is creeping in the air; the birds are flying South.”

And yet, the sun was shining down, a-blazing on the little town,
A mile or so ‘way down the track a-dancing in the sun.
But somehow, as I waited there, there came a shiver in the air;
“The birds are flying South,” he says. “The winter has begun.”

Says I, “Then let’s be on the float; you certainly have got my goat;
You make me hungry in my throat for seeing things that’s new.
Out there somewhere we’ll ride the range a-looking for the new and strange;
My feet are tired and need a change. Come on! It’s up to you!

“There ain’t no sweet Penelope somewhere that’s longing much for me,
But I can smell the blundering sea and hear the rigging hum;
And I can hear the whispering lips that fly before the outbound ships;
And I can hear the breakers on the sand a-booming ‘Come!’”

And then that slim, poetic guy, he turned and looked me in the eye:
“...It’s overland and overland and overseas to -- where?”
“Most anywhere that isn’t here,” I says. His face went kind of queer:
“The place we're in is always here. The other place is there."

He smiled, though, as my eye caught his. “Then what a lot of there there is
To go and see and go and see and go and see some more.”
He did a fancy step or two. Says he, “I think I’ll go with you --”
... Two moons, and we were baking in the straits at Singapore.

Around the world and back again; we saw it all. The mist and rain
In England and the dry old plain from Needles to Berdoo.
We kept a-rambling all the time. I rustled grub, he rustled rhyme --
Blind baggage, hoof it, ride or climb -- we always put it through.

Just for a con I’d like to know (yes, he crossed over long ago;
And he was right, believe me, Bo!) if somewhere in the South,
Down where the clouds lie on the sea, he found his sweet Penelope,
With buds of roses in her hair and kisses on her mouth.

(Originally published in Songs of the Outlands: Ballads of the Hoboes and Other Verse, by H H Knibbs; Houghton Mifflin Co, 1914)

14 September 2006

Welcome, Eris and Dysnomia!

You may have noticed all the fuss recently when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto, leaving us with only eight "planets" (Mercury, Venus, Terra, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) in our solar system instead of the nine we're used to. Pluto, as a "dwarf planet," has now been given a number, like other objects with well-determined orbits: 134340.

In addition, the dwarf planet 2003 UB313 (commonly - and unfortunately - known as "Xena") has been given a number, and both it and its satellite (commonly known as "Gabrielle") have been given official names. So say hello to 136199 Eris and to Dysnomia.

Read about it here. Or here, or here.


Tangled Bank #62 is now up at the Hairy Museum of Natural History.

I and the Bird #32 is now up at Sand Creek Almanac.

And the 7th Carnival of Children's Lit will be up on the 23rd at Wands and Worlds.


It's been pointed out by friends that 13 Sep is also the anniversary of other things:

The IBM 305 RAMAC, the first computer to include a disk drive, was released on 13 Sep 1956.

And 13 Sep 1999 was the date given for the nuclear accident which took the Moon out of orbit in the old TV show Space: 1999.

Banned books

24-30 September is Banned Books Week.

I'm going to try to read at least one banned book during that week, and I recommend that everyone else do, too. I may reread Tom Sawyer* or Lord of the Flies**, or I may read one I've never read before. There are all sorts of them, banned for all sorts of ridiculous reasons; Wikipedia has a list, which in turn links to other lists. Kurtis, at Outside of a Cat, also has some links to lists.

And if you're looking for a gift for the librarian in your life, Jen Robinson provided a link to these bracelets. There are two versions - one for adults and one for kids - and they feature little tiles with the covers of banned books, along with a tile that says "I read banned books."

* Banned for racism and for the "questionable character" of the main protagonist.
** Banned for scenes involving child murder.

13 September 2006

"Defence of Fort M'Henry"

In August, 1814, during the War of 1812, the British took Washington, burning many of the government buildings and forcing President Madison to flee. They then turned their attention north toward the port city of Baltimore, Maryland. The plan was to conduct a combined operation, attacking Baltimore from both land and sea. However, ships entering Baltimore's harbour would first have to pass Fort McHenry, on the west side of the harbour's entrance.

Accordingly, on the morning of 13 September*, the British ships, armed with mortars and the new Congreve rockets, began a 25-hour bombardment of the fort. The British weapons weren't very accurate, and the fort's guns didn't have the range to reach the ships, so little damage was done, though four Americans were killed and 24 were wounded.

The British army had already been stopped a couple miles outside the city and were waiting for assistance. When the fleet failed to pass Fort McHenry, they withdrew, leaving the city in American hands.

One of the witnesses to the naval bombardment was an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key. A friend, Dr William Beanes, had been taken prisoner by the British for allegedly harbouring British deserters, and Key had gone out to the British flagship to try to arrange for his release. The British refused at first, but finally agreed to release him; in the meantime, though, Key had heard details of the British plans, and was therefore detained until after the battle. He and Dr Beanes observed the nightlong bombardment (by some accounts, from on board HMS Minden), and were released on the 16th.

In addition to being a lawyer, Key was also a poet, and before his release he had already started writing a poem about the battle, called "Defence of Fort M'Henry." He finished the poem after being freed, and gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Nicholson. The judge saw that the words of the poem fit the tune of an old English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and when the poem was published a few days later this fact was noted on the printed broadsides.

The poem itself? Four stanzas, in anapestic tetrameter. It goes like this:

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming!
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep.
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
'Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto - "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Isaac Asimov made some good comments on the poem, which now, of course, is known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

* 192 years ago today, which is what prompted me to write about this.

12 September 2006

The king is dead - long live the king!

His Majesty Tāufa`āhau Tupou IV, King of Tonga since 1965, died Sunday at the age of 88. Amongst other things, Tupou IV was noted for being the heaviest monarch in the world, weighing in at over 200 kg (440 lbs) in the '70s, though he lost a third of his weight participating in a national fitness programme in the '90s. His Majesty was also a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, and a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, as well as a lay preacher in the Free Wesleyan Church.

His eldest son, Siaosi Tāufa`āhau Manumataongo Tuku`aho Tupou, was sworn in as king on Monday, taking the name George Tupou V. At 58, the new king is unmarried and has no children; his presumed heir is his younger brother, Prince `Aho`eitu `Unuaki`otonga Tuku`aho (commonly referred to by custom as Lavaka Ata `Ulukalala). The coronation will probably not be held until next year.

LawDog and the ratel trap

Ratel. Also called honey badger. Mellivora capensis, a member of the Mustelidae (weasels, mink, wolverines and such).

This has to be one of the funniest things I've ever read in my life. Maybe even funnier than the "Dogs in Elk" tale from a few years back.

I recommend not having anything in your mouth that you can spit all over your monitor and/or keyboard whilst reading this. But I strongly recommend that you do read it....

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

He has a lot of other good stories, too.

Many thanks to my wife for pointing me at this.

11 September 2006

11 Sep 2001

It started out a day like almost any other at sea. We were in the Arabian Sea, approaching the Gulf of Aden; we’d left Bahrain a few days before, and the plan was to go through the Suez Canal, spend a few days at Soudha Bay, Crete, and then continue on home. (Earlier in the deployment we’d visited Toulon, La Maddalena, Cartagena and Rota.) We may have run a drill or two that day, but maybe we didn’t – there was nothing special about the day to remember.

A little after 2300 local we came to PD to copy one last broadcast before the skipper went to bed. In Radio, I was in my usual spot at #2 teletype, ready to copy the downlink. Dustin, the radio sup, was in his usual post at the EHF stack, and Dan was between us, operating the patch panel as needed and watching the VLF broadcast print out. Shortly before downlink time the captain came in, carrying a message he’d edited; it was the usual sort of CO message, with lineouts, words written in, and arrows showing where words, phrases and whole sentences were to be moved, and he read the whole thing to me to make sure I understood exactly what he had in mind. He had just finished reading it when the downlink came – and Flash traffic started printing out.

Messages on the downlink are sorted by precedence – Flash first, then Immediate, then Priority, and Routine last – and within each precedence the messages print out in reverse order, newest first, so that one doesn’t have to wait for all the old traffic to print out before getting the new traffic. It was already mid-afternoon back home, several hours after the attacks, so the first message that printed out had the whole story: Commercial jets had hit both towers of the World Trade Centre, both towers had collapsed, a third plane had hit the Pentagon, a fourth plane was down somewhere in Pennsylvania. I tore the message off the teletype, reread it quickly, and handed it to the captain, saying, “I don’t see ‘drill’ or ‘exercise’ anywhere in this, sir.”

He took it and read it, while I turned my attention to the next – slightly older – Flash message. As each message finished printing out I tore it off the teletype and handed it to the captain. Dustin, Dan and the ESM watch (Marcus, I think) were all staring at us, wondering what was going on, because all I was saying was “Here’s another one, sir,” each time I handed the captain a message, and he wasn’t saying anything at all.

After reading the last Flash, the captain turned and left Radio, carrying all the printouts I’d given him. The others immediately started asking what was going on, but before I could answer the door opened up and the captain came back in. “Get Group Seven on voice and ask what they want us to do,” he said to Dustin, and was gone again almost before getting a response.

This time I was able to tell the others what had happened before the captain came back. He talked to Group Seven briefly, and by the time we finished at PD we were already turned around and heading back toward the northeast. In middle level, I found out later, the XO was going from stateroom to stateroom, flipping on lights and telling everyone to meet him in the wardroom. (The commo told me that his first thought was that we’d been involved in a collision.) The COB did the same in the goat locker, turning on the lights and yelling at everyone to wake up.

It was a week or so before we got the first photos – three pictures (one of them actually a group of three showing the second plane hitting the WTC) e-mailed to the navigator by a friend. Another week went by, basically doing nothing but wait, until we surfaced near an AOE so they could send over supplies via small boat. Along with the stores, repair parts and consumables we’d requested, some kind soul included a stack of magazines (multiple copies each of Time, Newsweek and People), plus a video of CNN’s live coverage of the 11th, so we were finally able to get a good look at what had happened.

10 September 2006

Elissa and Texas again

Another good photo of the barque Elissa leading PCU Texas (now USS Texas) into Galveston harbour a few days ago.

09 September 2006

Back to work - really

I said a while back that NASA was finally getting back to work on the space station. Unfortunately, it didn't happen - for various reasons, not least of them hurricane Ernesto, the shuttle launch was delayed several times. However, at 1115 (Eastern) this morning Atlantis finally started on its way.

Articles and photos here, here, here and here, amongst other places.

Photo from here.

This day in history: 9 Sep

1543: Nine-month-old Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scots.

1914: The Canadian Automobile Machine-Gun Brigade, the first mechanised unit in the British Army, was created.

1942: A Japanese floatplane, launched from the submarine I-25, dropped two incendiary bombs on Oregon. (Nobuo Fujita, the pilot, was later proclaimed an honourary citizen of Brookings, Oregon, the closest town to the bombing site.)

1943: Allied forces landed at Salerno, in southern Italy.

In mediaeval times, apparently, 9 September was a bad day to be a king. The following died on that date:
Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway (960s-1000), drowned in the Battle of Swold.
William I (called William the Bastard, or William the Conqueror) of England (1028-1087), after falling off his horse at the siege of Mantes.
James I of Cyprus (1334-1398).
The Chenghua Emperor of China (1447-1487).
James IV of Scotland (1472-1513), at the Battle of Flodden Field.

Pope Sergius I (??-701) and Francis II, Duke of Brittany (1433-1488), also died on this date.

On the other hand, happy birthday to Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642), Cornelis Tromp (1629-1691), William Bligh (1754-1817), and Harland Sanders (1890-1980).

And happy 13th anniversary to me....

A Viking poem for Steve Irwin

Posted here by Garth Nix.

Spring should not be a / Season of sorrow
Yet it is September / Spring in the south
And I am sad for / Steve Irwin is slain

Chance-hit to the heart / By a poisoned barb
Never more to say / Crikey! look at that croc
An elemental force / Stopped too suddenly

It seems strange to / Mourn one man
When thousands die / Unknown and unknowing
But he was larger than life / Bolder than brave

No more will he come / Home from the hunt

07 September 2006

Russian submarine fire

Bubblehead, at The Stupid Shall Be Punished, has a collection of links to articles about the fire on the Victor III-class* submarine Daniil Moskovskij (K-388). Two men are reported dead from smoke inhalation.

More links can be found here, at The Sub Report.

* Project 671RTM Shuka-class, to the Russians. (The name is listed as "Shchuka" in most English-language references. The only Russian source I've found spells it "Shuka," and uses the term "Shchuka" to refer to the Project 971 boats known to NATO as Akula II.) If you read Russian, see here for an article from the Entsiklopediya Korablej (Encyclopaedia of Ships).

Update 1857 7 Sep: Okay, I've found another Russian site, and this one does refer to the 671RTM as "Shchuka." So now the question is, which one of these guys can't spell...?

06 September 2006

S M Stirling strikes again

A couple years ago, S M Stirling (one of my favourite authors) came out with a book called Dies the Fire, in which the Earth suffers a mysterious "Change" which renders electrical power, and gunpowder and other explosives, steam power, and compressed air ineffective. The book was set in the northwestern US, primarily in Oregon but with early scenes in Idaho; the two main characters were Mike Havel, former Marine and charter pilot, and Juniper Mackenzie, folk singer and Wiccan priestess, and most of the book dealt with their - and other people's - efforts at surviving the crisis and maintaining civilisation. (Amazing - unbelievable, even - luck is a major factor in anyone's survival under these circumstances.) Warnings of future problems came from the city of Portland, Oregon, where former history professor Norman Arminger was using gang members, SCA people and others to form the Portland Protective Association, ostensibly to save the city but actually to create Arminger's private little kingdom.

The story was continued in The Protector's War, published last year. Eight years after the Change, its cause is still unknown, but its effects haven't gone away. King Charles III rules what is left of England (which has been reinforced with refugees from Iceland, the Faeroes and elsewhere), though not everyone is happy with the way things are going. Colonel Sir Nigel Loring, late of the Household Cavalry, is one of these, and he and a couple others find it expedient to leave the country with all possible speed (which, of course, means a sailing ship). They fetch up in Oregon, of course, where Havel's "Bearkillers" and Clan Mackenzie are facing numerous border incidents with the PPA. (Some of which, it must be admitted, they themselves are responsible for....) A fourth player in the politics of post-Change Oregon is the city-state of Corvallis, which is based around the university there; they're doing their best to stay neutral, despite all indications that this is a bad idea. And the monastery at Mount Angel, while the least powerful entity in the Willamette valley, is not entirely to be ignored; they're firmly on the side of Havel and Mackenzie.

The third book in the series, A Meeting at Corvallis, hit the shelves in bookstores this week. The border incidents have turned into full-scale war; Arminger's forces have invested Mount Angel, while other armies are striking at both the Mackenzies and the Bearkillers. The good guys are outnumbered, and the Faculty Senate at Corvallis are still refusing to dedigitate. And if you think it's a given that the good guys will win, just remember that this trilogy is written by the man who wrote the Draka series, in which the good guys most assuredly did not win....

As usual, Stirling excels at fight scenes, be they individual combat or full-scale battles. And he has a great eye for detail, whether it be architectural, scenic or other. Some readers may balk at the above-mentioned amazing luck of Havel, Mackenzie and their followers, while some may find Juniper's whole-hearted belief in Wicca offensive* and others may object to the science involved. But if you can get past all these, you'll find a truly outstanding story.

For those who want to test-drive Corvallis before buying it, the first ten chapters are available on-line here. If you haven't read the first two books yet, the first eleven chapters of DtF are available here, and the first ten chapters of TPW are here.

But that's not all. Stirling's next book, The Sky People, is coming out in early November. The book is set on Venus, but not the Venus we know; in this alternate world, unmanned landers launched in the 1960s showed that both Venus and Mars were teeming with life. Venus is the jungle world of '30s pulp fiction (think Brackett, Kline and ERB), while Mars is the dried-up desert world those authors wrote about. And both planets are occupied, not only by plants and animals, but by humans....

Again, sample chapters are available - six of them, plus a prologue, here. And the story will be continued next year, on Mars, in a book titled In the Halls of the Crimson Kings.

* I must confess that I personally find it rather annoying, though I would react the same way to any highly religious character.

This day in history: 6 Sep

1522: Victoria, the last survivor of Ferdinand Magellan's five ships, returned to Spain, the first ship to circumnavigate the world. Over two hundred men had started the voyage, but only eighteen completed the trip. Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines; Juan Sebastian Elcano, originally skipper of the Concepcion, commanded Victoria on the final leg.

05 September 2006

Definition of haiku

Some five syllables
Another seven go here
Finish with five more

With thanks to Gottabook.

PCU Texas arrives in Galveston

This picture from the Galveston County Daily News is so cool I just had to post it here, even though I don't really have any deep thoughts on the subject. It shows PCU Texas (SSN 775) entering Galveston harbour in company with the barque Elissa. Texas will be commissioned this Saturday (9 Sep 06).

Texas was also welcomed by a pair of North American SNJ Texans. The SNJ (known to the Army and Air Force as the T-6, and to the Brits as the Harvard) was a basic combat trainer used in the '40s and '50s.

For more on Texas, see here.

To read about skimmers named USS Texas, see here, here and here.

For more on Elissa, see here.

For more on the SNJ, see here.

And if you want to learn more about Galveston, see here or here.