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In recognition of Valentine’s Day

…I recommend you spend a few moments perusing the remarkable letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams.  They don’t make marriages like that anymore.

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Re-animating George Washington

So William Thornton, the guy who designed the U.S. Capitol, wanted to bring George Washington’s corpse back to life.  Good to know.

Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth:

I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner. First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the lungs by the trachæa, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb. If these means had been resorted to and had failed all that could be done would have been done, but I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing. I reasoned thus. He died by the loss of blood and the want of air. Restore these with the heat that had subsequently been deducted, and as the organization was in every respect perfect, there was no doubt in my mind that his restoration was possible. It was doubted by some whether if it were possible it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor and renown; free from the frailties of age, in the full enjoyment of every faculty, and prepared for eternity.

Reminds me of that joke about a zombie protest.  “What do we want?  BRAINS!  When do we want it?  BRAINS!

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Peddling crap and frivolity pays big dividends for History Channel

You know that old saying about how nobody ever went broke by underestimating the public’s intelligence?

Last year, the History channel had a growth spurt, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers while most of its competitors struggled to grow at all. This year, even more remarkably, the channel did it again.

That makes the network’s executives a subject of both envy and sympathy in the television business. They swiftly took History from top 20 status on cable to top five, a feat rarely if ever accomplished — and now they have to keep it there.…

Its biggest show for the last two years has been “Pawn Stars,” about a family that buys and sells watches, necklaces and artifacts. Just last week, History scheduled a spinoff, “Cajun Pawn Stars.” But the channel is also considering shows that may seem suited for TNT or even ESPN, like a “Hatfields and McCoys” mini-series and a jousting competition. The goal, it seems, is to steal market share from the other big boys.

History has been able to declare its “best year ever” for five years in a row because it took what could be seen as a radical turn away from its brand nearly five years ago.

For that, we can thank Nancy Dubuc, The History Channel‘s general manager.  As you might recall, she’s the same person who had the grapes to refer to shows like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars as “vérité documentaries on people doing history today.”  There’s a sense in which that’s true, but it’s the same sense in which Uwe Boll is a bold iconoclast on the cutting edge of modern cinema.

“We started to show that History was a great alternative to sports in attracting upscale men,” said [Dubuc's] boss and mentor, Abbe Raven, the chief executive of A + E Networks. As advertising buyers spent more on History, “we took those revenues and invested them in programming to build the future.”

All this time, “upscale men” have been the ones watching shows like Swamp People.  I can see them now, all those upwardly mobile professionals coming home after a long day in their corner offices, a copy of the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker in hand, sitting back to enjoy a good cigar and a snifter of brandy while watching this:

So what can we look forward to in the future?

Another producer, Craig Piligian, who makes “Top Shot” and “Big Shrimpin’ ” for History, has another show on the way called “Full Metal Jousting,” a production that harks back to the Renaissance, or at least Renaissance fairs. Mr. Piligian said his pitch was as follows: “Guys about 6-foot-2 wearing 180 pounds of armor on them, running at each other on 2,000-pound horses at 35 miles per hour and hitting each other with a pole that doesn’t break.”

“They like that it’s loud, it’s promotable, and it’s different,” he said.

Note to self: Come up with “loud, promotable, and different” idea for TV show, pitch it to The History Channel, bask in riches and glory.

Next year they’re rolling out (I’m not making this up) a mini-series about the Hatfields and the McCoys.  If they can handle this difficult aspect of Appalachian history with the same sophistication and sensitivity so characteristic of Swamp People and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, then we’re in for a real treat.

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Hold onto your butts!

Some guy managed to crash his car into a 1750’s house in Northampton, MA, leaving a gaping hole in the structure itself and destroying some of the artifacts inside.  Nice job, buddy.

And while it doesn’t have anything to do with this news story, or with history in general, I can’t resist directing your attention to a recent art exhibit.

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What the hey?

So somebody has just informed me that when they click on certain individual posts here at the blog, they’re seeing YouTube advertisements beneath the text.  I’m not seeing them, even when I sign out out of my WordPress account.  Is anybody out there seeing video ads under the text when they click on the titles of posts to read them individually?  Because it’s not supposed to be happening, and if it is, I need to figure out what the heck is going on.

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Comment glitches

Ladies and gents, we seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties.  Some comments are getting kicked into the spam bin, despite the fact that they’re obviously not spam.  Others are getting put in the approval queue even though they’re from folks who have already commented in the past.  Once you leave a comment on this blog, all additional comments from your e-mail address are supposed to be approved automatically and appear as soon as you submit them, but some comments from frequent fliers have ended up in the queue anyway.  Weird.

I don’t know what the problem is, but rest assured that if you’ve tried to comment on a post and it’s been kicked into a queue, it wasn’t intentional.  I’ll try to figure out what’s going on, but given my lack of technical competence, it’ll mostly involve staring at the computer in slack-jawed ignorance.  Until then, continue to comment away; I’ll keep checking in as often as I can to see if anything has been wrongly held in blog limbo.

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So you want to enrich your child’s education. . .

I just ran across this bit of advice for concerned parents:

I’m going to tell you a little secret. Shhhh, come close ….the school curriculum is available, grade by grade, on the district’s website. (Here they are for District 102 and District 96.) And now I’m going to tell you why you care. By reading it, you will not only have a full and detailed preview of what your child is expected to learn over the course of the school year, but, it will give you valuable knowledge on how to prepare your child for the school year as well.

No, it won’t say “your child will be learning about the Revolutionary War so take a trip to Gettysburg,” but it will say that in fifth grade your child will need to explain the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War. So now that you know that, you can help your child build priceless background knowledge.

Forget Gettysburg, they don’t concentrate on the battles in fifth grade. Heading east?  Do the Freedom Walk in Boston. Staying close to home?  Watch the Liberty Kids cartoon series or the HBO mini-series John Adams (great for the aftermath of the war).

A good idea, that.  People who drive all the way to Gettysburg to learn about the Revolutionary War are indeed in for a disappointment.

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Browsing won’t be the same

Borders bookstores are not long for this world.  I’m very sad to see it happen.

Shelf for shelf, the Borders store near West Town Mall in Knoxville, TN has the finest history selection of any general bookstore I’ve ever visited. I think every major historical time period, place, and subject is covered there, from Mesopotamia to the War on Terror. Along with releases from the big commercial publishers, I can always find an excellent assortment of titles from academic and independent presses.  The Civil War books alone take up an entire section of ceiling-to-floor shelves and spill over to part of another bookcase.

On a number of occasions I’ve spent two hours or more there; in fact, my family used to drop me off at Borders and then come back to pick me up after shopping all over half of the city.  Whenever I want to kill a lot of time in Knoxville in blissful contentment or do some seriously hedonistic splurging, there’s never been any question about where I’ll go to do it.  But I suppose now there will be.

As much I like the selection and prices I can get from online book retailers, there’s no substitute for being able to scan the shelves. I’m a physical book person.  I don’t own a Kindle or any other type of e-reader, and I never will.  When I browse for books I want the same things I want when I read them.  I want to pick them up and feel their heft, and I want to appreciate the grain and color of the paper.  Above all, I want to riffle through the pages and savor that smell.

There are plenty of other big bookstores, of course.  In fact, West Knoxville has three others of comparable size within a mile or two of the very one I’m discussing.  And these days it’s not very fashionable to lament the downfall of an enormous franchise anyway, so I guess this post would probably be more politically correct if I mourned the loss of some small, independent bookshop.  But that Borders was my store, and being a history buff and book lover won’t be the same once it’s closed.

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Yet another scandal involving alleged archival shenanigans

This one involves author and collector Barry Landau.  He and an accomplice named Jason Savedoff allegedly—allegedly, mind you—tried to steal millions of dollars’ worth of material from the Maryland Historical Society.  The Baltimore Sun has the details.

Here’s the really bad news:

Though [MHS President Burt] Kummerow said the society has been growing, it remains short on funds and staff. That puts it in a potentially vulnerable position as it allows access to its collection of 7 million documents contained within its library.

[Joseph M.] Coale, the former board member for the Maryland Historic Trust, said he doesn’t believe archives will be able to continue to allow access to original documents. “They don’t have the staff to do it, especially nowadays with societies more or less operating with skeleton crews,” he said.

But Kummerow says his staff is also not in a financial position to digitize its archives or provide photocopies of the volumes of material researchers may want to see.

Great.  Just great.

You know those signs in department store restrooms telling you that shoplifting messes with everybody, because it forces the store to jack up their prices?

Innocent until proven guilty…but if proven guilty, then under the jail with them.  Under the freaking jail.

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“A historian and keen observer of human nature”

Here’s one of the differences between Ken Burns and the folks running The History Channel.

Ken Burns turned acclaimed authors like Shelby Foote into TV celebrities.  The History Channel works backward, turning TV celebrities into acclaimed authors.

Lest you think the lead character from Pawn Stars is bereft of wisdom that merits preservation for the ages, heed the promotional copy of his new book’s dust jacket:

Rick isn’t only a businessman; he’s also a historian and keen observer of human nature. For instance, did you know that pimps wear lots of jewelry for a reason? It’s because if they’re arrested, jewelry doesn’t get confiscated like cash does, and ready money will be available for bail. Or that WWII bomber jackets and Zippo lighters can sell for a freakishly high price in Japan? Have you ever heard that the makers of Ormolu clocks, which Rick sells for as much as $15,000 apiece, frequently died before forty thanks to the mercury in the paint?

The late Shelby Foote may have been quite the wordsmith, my friends, but I’ll wager a shiny nickel that he didn’t know why pimps wear so much bling.

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