Archives for May 2016

Hillary isn’t the 1st.

On this date in 1872, Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman candidate for president of the United States. She had almost no formal education, and women at that time were not allowed to vote. But Woodhull had a history of breaking new ground. Her father, a petty criminal who sold snake oil, put her to work telling fortunes and communicating with the dead. She made good money, especially during the Civil War. In 1868, when she was 30 years old, she and her sister Tennessee Claflin met Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York City; he had recently become a widower, and they worked as his personal clairvoyants. He thought so highly of them that he set them up in business. They started the first Wall Street brokerage firm run by women. Two years later, the sisters started Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a radical journal that published the first English translation of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.

Woodhull was a strong and outspoken proponent of women’s suffrage. She was the first woman to address a congressional committee; she argued that women should have the vote because they were citizens, and “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” She organized the Equal Rights Party, which nominated her for president at their convention. Her platform was women’s suffrage, abolition of the death penalty, an eight-hour workday, and the nationalization of the railroads, among other planks. She named abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate – although he never publicly acknowledged this. She appeared on ballots in a few states, but her votes were never tallied. She spent Election Day in jail on obscenity charges, for publishing an article claiming that Henry Ward Beecher was an adulterer. She was found not guilty, but not before Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, called her a “vile jailbird” and an “impudent witch.”

Woodhull fell out of favor with the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and she moved to England, where she spent the rest of her life.

The Writer’s Almanac for May 10, 2016 ‏



I’ve used Word for years, and I didn’t know much of what’s on these free videos about formatting a book.

Today is Cinco de Mayo,

The Fifth of May, commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 when 8,000 well-armed French troops were routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers. It wasn’t a crucial battle in the course of the war, but became a symbol of Mexican pride and a celebration of Mexican culture in the United States. Cinco de Mayo isn’t widely celebrated in Mexico outside the state of Puebla, but it has been adopted by many Americans regardless of their heritage, much like St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest. It’s been celebrated in California since 1863, and grew in prominence in the rest of the country along with the Chicano movement of the 1940s. It wasn’t until beer advertisers decided to promote the holiday heavily in the 1980s that American celebration of Cinco de Mayo became widespread.

From the “Writer’s Almanac.”

Today is the birthday of Dr. Benjamin Spock

Born in New Haven, Connecticut (1903). He wrote The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946). It began, “You know more than you think you do,” and it became the parenting bible for all the post-war moms and dads raising the baby boomer generation. People like Spiro Agnew and Norman Vincent Peale blamed his permissive parenting philosophy for the ’60s counterculture movement. Spock replied: “Maybe my book helped a generation not to be intimidated by adulthood. When I was young, I was always made to assume that I was wrong. Now young people think they might be right and stand up to authority.”

From The Writer’s Almanac for May 2, 2016 ‏

Don’t vote until you read this book.

It’s the birthday of novelist Joseph Heller

Born in Brooklyn (1923) and best known for the novel Catch-22 (1961), about an American bombardier named John Yossarian. During World War II, Yossarian attempts to get out of the Army by faking a liver ailment, sabotaging his plane, and trying to get himself declared insane. It became an international best-seller, with the title entering the lexicon to refer to an absurd, no-win situation.

Heller’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father drove a delivery truck and died from a ruptured stomach ulcer when Heller was five. Heller had no memory of him until he entered therapy in his 50s. He said, “In my house, we didn’t often talk about sad things.” He remembered only a happy childhood of corned-beef sandwiches, goofing on Coney Island roller coasters with his friends, and going to the public library to pick up the Yiddish versions of books by Tolstoy for his mother, Lena. Heller loved to read, too, especially the Rover Boys series. When he was 10, a cousin gave him the children’s version of Homer’s The Iliad, and right after finishing, he decided he wanted to be a writer.

After high school, Heller worked as file clerk, a messenger, and a blacksmith’s apprentice. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19 and found himself in Italy as a bombardier during World War II, where he flew over 60 missions, which was more than twice the normal amount. He did his best, and kept a meticulous diary. Heller said war was “fun in the beginning […] you got the feeling that there was something glorious about it,” but he endured several harrowing episodes that he later used while writing Catch-22, and he became a lifelong anti-war activist.

After he was discharged, he went to college on the GI Bill, graduating from Columbia and Oxford. He worked as a copywriter at Time and wrote on the side, with short stories appearing in The Atlantic, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan.

One night, or one morning, no one is quite sure, the first lines of what would become Catch-22 came to him: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him.” He finished the first chapter in a week and sent it to his agent, but he didn’t write again for a year – he spent that time planning the book in his head. Eventually, Simon and Schuster gave him $750 for the book and promised $750 more when he was done, which turned out to be eight years later. The book was originally titled Catch-18, but Heller’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, discovered that Leon Uris also had a war book coming out the same month as Heller’s, called Mila 18. Gottlieb and Heller brainstormed which numbers sounded funnier: 11 or 14. They settled on 22.

When the book came out in 1961, it received mixed reviews in America, but was a best-seller overseas. Gradually, through word of mouth and the escalating situation in Vietnam, young people in the U.S. began to buy the book in droves. It eventually sold 10 million copies and is considered a classic of post-war literature. Heller spent the 1960s traveling the U.S. and speaking out against the Vietnam War at college campuses. “Yossarian Lives” bumper stickers appeared on cars and students against the draft wore Army field jackets with John Yossarian name tags.

Catch-22 was made into a film (1970) by Mike Nichols and starred Jon Voigt, Orson Welles, and Alan Arkin. Heller also worked as an uncredited scriptwriter for the James Bond film Casino Royale (1967).

Heller took 13 years to write his second novel, Something Happened (1974), which one critic summarized as, “Nothing happens.” His other books include Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988), and Closing Time (1994). None sold as well as Catch-22. When an acquaintance told him he’d never matched the greatness of Catch-22, he answered, “Who has?”

Joseph Heller died in 1999. About death, he said, “Everyone else seems to get through it all right, so it couldn’t be too difficult for me.”

The Writer’s Almanac for May 1, 2016 ‏

Order, Age, and Pareidolia


In his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts [swallows] intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely [drinking great quantities] sobers us again.

In Greek myth, drinking from the Pierian spring instilled knowledge. In modern terms, Pope is saying that superficial knowledge makes people imagine they know more than they do about a topic; this false sense of knowledge leads to extravagant conclusions that do not hold up with further information.

An example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing is the web of misinformation and conspiracy theory that has grown up around a Latin quotation on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Note: Images of both sides of the Great Seal can be seen on the back of a one-dollar bill. The image of the reverse is on the left.

The reverse of the Great Seal shows an uncompleted pyramid with an eye in a rayed triangle above it. The words ANNUIT COEPTIS appear above the eye, and the words NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM appear on a scroll beneath the pyramid. Both quotations are taken from Vergil’s Latin epic, the Aeneid.

The first quotation, annuit coeptis, translates as “[He] favors the undertaking.”

In the context of the poem, the line is part of a prayer by Aeneas to Jupiter, and the understood subject “He” refers to the chief Roman god. Aeneas was praying about “undertakings” that included the foundation of Rome. (According to Vergil, Romulus and Remus were descendants of Aeneas.) To the eighteenth-century Deists setting up a country they viewed as a “new Rome” destined to endure for centuries, the eye—and the implied pronoun—represented Divine Providence.

The second quotation, novus ordo seculorum translates as “new order of the ages,” not, as conspiracy theorists would have it, “New World Order” or “New Secular Order.”

The designers of the Great Seal did not attach the same meanings to the Latin words ordo and seclorum that modern conspiracy theorists do. In the quotation from Vergil, ordo implies a sequence of historical periods. And seculorum does not denote the same thing as the English adjective secular.

The most common use of secular today is as an adjective meaning “worldly, not sacred.” To Vergil, the adjective saecularis, (“relating to a long period of time”) derived from the noun saeculum, which could mean “a generation,” “a century,” or “a very long period of time.”

For example, to a modern English speaker, the phrase “secular entertainment” would mean “entertainment having nothing to do with religion.” For ancient Romans, “secular entertainment” meant shows or games that were put on at very long intervals. The ancient Ludi Saeculares (secular games), for example, took place every 100 or 110 years.

The classically trained men who approved the final design of the Great Seal in 1782 were acquainted with the ancient belief that human history progresses and declines by Ages. For example, Ovid describes four ages: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. The quotation from Vergil reflects the founders’ feeling that the creation of the new nation represented the beginning of a new age in the history of the world.

Some conspiracy theorists who misinterpret the quotation also claim to see occult symbols hidden in the designs on both sides of the Great Seal. There’s a word for seeing meaningful images in random patterns:

pareidolia /pair-eye-DOLE-ee-uh/ noun: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful, image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

One type of pareidolia is “face pareidolia”: the illusory perception of non-existent faces.

Another is “letter pareidolia”: the illusory perception of non-existent letters.

Claims to see satanic images in the Great Seal are examples of “symbol pareidolia.” This type of pareidolia is especially troublesome in the context of logo design because the same image can appear differently to different viewers—even to the same viewer at different times. Symbol pareidolia occurred with the 2014 World Cup logo: some viewers saw it as the depiction of a soccer fan doing a facepalm: “a gesture in which the palm of one’s hand is brought to one’s face, as an expression of disbelief, shame, or exasperation.”

Sometimes an artist intentionally plays to pareidolia by creating an image intended to be seen in two ways. A famous example is the drawing called “All Is Vanity” by Charles Allan Gilbert (1873-1929). At first glance, the viewer sees a lovely Victorian-era woman looking at herself in the large round mirror above her cosmetic-laden dressing table. With a second look, the viewer discerns not the woman, but the image of a death’s head—a human skull that represents death and the fleeting nature of life.

Alexander Pope would probably be amused to see the amount of nonsense about the US Great Seal that has resulted from a little learning and a lot of pareidolia.

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