Happy Birthday to the National Archives

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The National Archives houses our nation’s most important records  including “[a]ll archives or records” of the U.S. Government, legislative, executive, or judicial” documents as well as “motion-picture films and sound recordings illustrative of historical activities of the United States.”

If you had to guess how old such an important administration would be, what would you say? 200 years? More?

Nope.  On June 19th of this year, the institution turned just seventy-nine years old.

Proving that government has long moved at the speed of a handicapped slug, it took until the early twentieth century for legislators to think, “Hmmmm…. perhaps we need an official location for our treasured, important documents,” and establish the National Archives.

A historian named J. Franklin Jameson took up the cause of promoting such a facility in 1908. Eighteen years later, in 1926, he finally raised enough money to fund construction of the National Archives.  And then it took another eight years for legislation to come to Capitol Hill (by which time the building was already under construction). President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone in 1933, just a couple weeks before  Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office.

And then things stalled again.

FDR was perhaps understandably distracted by the enormous problems of the Great Depression. He waited another three months to enact legislation naming an archivist. The job finally went to a professor of history from North Carolina, R.D.W. Connor, at a salary of $10,000 per year.

What sort of historically important documents are housed at the National Archives?

Just to name a few. You can few the entire list and see image of the documents at the National Archives Home Page here.

(Source)


Isaac Newton and the Cat Flap Fail

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Isaac Newton… Scientist Extraordinaire.  Figured out the laws of physics and composed the law of universal gravitation.  Designed an Orbital Cannona thought experiment about a super weapon that, given enough gunpowder, could knock the Earth off its orbit. Newton, who composed the Three Laws of Motion.

Newton, the Father of Calculus… defeated by… you guessed it… A CAT.

Nothing throws off your deep thought process quite like this:

Surely, the man who vastly improved the telescope could solve this simple problem!

If you think this, you surely have never met a Determined Feline.

Like Nerds Immemorial, Newton was a single guy. No marriages, no girlfriends. But he did have cats; cats who care nothing about scientific inquiry, unless it is a careful gauging of how much food is left in the feeder before Panic and Rioting should ensue (answer: Let X  = Anything below 1/2 of the dispenser). Cats who want in. Cats who want out. Cats who want to stand in the middle of the threshold,  making up their minds.

Legend has it that one day, Newton had had enough of scratch-scratch-scratch-MEOW-Scratch-SCratch-SCRatch-SCRATCH and called a carpenter to his home. Newton asked for two holes to be cut in his front door, a large one for his mama cat and a little hole for  her kittens.  Newton, whose Westminster Abbey tombstone declares that “there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race,” nonetheless could not figure out that the second hole for the little ones was superfluous. The kittens, of course,  just followed their mother through the larger hole.

Is the story true? According to a contemporary of Newton’s, it is “indisputably true…that there are in the door to this day two plugged holes of proper dimensions for the respective egresses of cat and kitten.”


For Memorial Day: Ten Authors Who Have Served

Writers, perhaps unsurprisingly, are among the harshest critics of the word “patriotism” and especially of decisions to go to war. Many express sentiments similar to James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain) who said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Despite their often vocal criticism, many authors have served in our armed forces. Here are ten of those who risked their lives and reflected on the experiences of war. 

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1.  E.E. Cummings – Volunteer Ambulance Driver, France, World War I

“America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.”

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2.  Ernest Hemingway, Volunteer Ambulance Driver, Italy, World War I

“Once we have a war, there is only one thing to do. It must be won. For defeat brings worse things than can ever happen in war.

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3.  Isaac Asimov,  Philadelphia Navy Yard Naval Air Experimentation Station, United States Army, World War II

“No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

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Twenty-First Century Foxes? Historical Figures Get Make Overs

The good folks over at Laughing Squid decided to give  iconic historical figures updates to some pretty dated looks. C’mon, once every four hundred years or so…everyone deserves a spa day!

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William Shakespeare in skinny jeans?  Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Lord Chamberlain’s Barista? Noooooooooooooo!

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Is that Elizabeth the First, the Virgin Queen, or is that my Statistics professor? Well, half of that nickname is probably right….

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Marie-Antoinette, the Lindsay Lohan of the 18th century….

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Henry VIII, apparently after becoming a vegan (and of course he won’t shut up about it).

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 Admiral Horatio Nelson looking dapper with his new mechanical 21st century hand! Ladies????


Four Bizarre Theories About Shakespeare

facespeareHappy belated birthday, Shakes!  Just a day late. Actually, the exact date of his birth has long been disputed.  Generally, April 23, 1564, which is also St. George’s Day, is accepted as the date of the Bard’s birth, but because his baptismal records reflect April 26th as the date, no one is completely sure. So hey, maybe I’m not a day late but two days early!  (You can read more about the conflicting birth information here.)

As with any celebrity, from Lindsay Lohan to our beloved Bard (let the record show that this is the only time you will ever see these two names so closely linked), all kinds of bizarre theories abound.  Here are a few of my favorites. Feel free to perform your own facepalms.

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Number I: Shakespeare Was a Jewish Woman

In this theory, John Hudson argues that Shakespeare was, you guessed it, a Jewish woman. The woman Hudson has in mind is Amelia Bassano Lanier, who was the first woman to publish a book of poetry in England.  The theory rests largely on the circumstances of Bassano’s life, which Hudson contends match, much better than William Shakespeare’s did, the content of “Shakespeare’s” work. But Hudson has also identified technical similarities between the language used in Bassano’s known poetry and that used in “Shakespeare’s” verse. And he has located clues in the text – recently noted Jewish allegories and the statistically significant appearance of Amelia Bassano Lanier’s various names in the plays – that he says point to her as the only convincing candidate for the author of Shakespeare’s work. (Source)

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Vestal Virgins Ain’t Got No Weaves: Ancient Hairstyles Re-Created for the First Time

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If you’ve ever crooned along to Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” you might remember the line about the “sixteen vestal virgins.” Probably, you happily sang along without a clue as to what “vestal” really means.  In ancient Rome, “vestals” were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, who was the goddess of the hearth. Her priestesses attended an eternal flame that was never allowed to go out. These attendants took vows of chastity and devoted themselves to religious tasks that were off limits to priests and other men. Vestal virgins could be easily identified by their elaborate hairstyles composed of six intricate braids which were artistically wrapped around the head.

A few years ago,  professional stylist and amateur archaeologist Janet Stephens became interested in just how the hairstyles were physically possible. She practiced on dozens of mannequin heads, but despite her laborious attempts, none could hold the shape for very long.  She ensconced herself in college research libraries, looking at everything she could find about hairstyles of ancient Roman women. As she soon discovered, until very recently, most scholarship has been conducted by men who had little interest in the fashions of women other than the very elite, and even that was scarce. For seven years, Stephens came up empty handed in her research and frustrated as she continued her attempts at re-creation on mannequins.

Until one day, she happened upon a little fragment of a mention from an scholar who had been writing several hundred years prior. This scholar mentioned a long needle that was made for both embroidery and for sewing of hairstyles. With a little more detective work, Stephens was able to track down the type of embroidery needle. Excited, she tried it on her wigged heads and voila! It worked!

Not completely content with her discovery, Stephens wanted to try it on a “live” head. She placed an ad in the college paper asking for models.  One woman answered and through what was surely trying for both of them, the hairstyle was finally achieved:

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First, Stephens found, the Vestal’s hair would be separated into sections, each of which would be braided into six separate braids, including a pair of cornrow braids that ran flat across the head above the ears. The hair around the hairline would then be wrapped around a cord, which would then be tied at the nape of the neck. Leftover loose hair from around the face would then be weaved into a final, seventh braid.

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Next, the first six braids would be brought around the back of the head and tied in pairs in half square knots. The ends of the braids would then be wrapped up to the front of the head and secured to the cornrow braids above the ears. Then, the seventh braid would have been tucked up and coiled at the back of the head underneath the knotted braids.

The entire process takes about 35-40 minutes, but Stephen feels that two slaves were probably able to do so in about ten minutes. Interestingly, she also discovered that only women with waist-length hair had enough hair to achieve the style.

Check out Janet Stephen’s YouTube channel to watch her fascinating work on the “vestals” and many other ancient hairstyles.


Arthur Conan Doyle Can’t Be Bothered with Your Questions

Ever heard of the Proust Questionnaire? It’s a list of questions about one’s personality, named not because Marcel Proust, the French writer, wrote the questionnaire, but because he took it. (You can see a full list of the questions and Proust’s response at this Wikipedia page.)

The idea is that the person sitting down to answer the questions does so in the spirit of playfulness and generosity of personality. Think the ending of “Inside the Actors Studio,” or two schoolkids huddled over a magazine questionnaire. Not so with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the late author of the Sherlock Holmes series and, apparently, very taciturn old grump. In his day, the questionnaire was a bit of fun, a parlor game. Seemingly, though, not one Doyle was keen to be roped into.

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At every turn, Doyle seems to be scoffing at the pretense of it all. Asked what he likes most in a man, it’s “Manliness.” And his favorite qualities in a woman? “Womanliness.” (Funnily enough, those are the exact opposite responses Proust provided in his own questionnaire.) He is “Quite impartial” to your query on his favorite color, thank you very much. But best of all is the totally tongue in cheek response to the question, “If not yourself, who would you be?” Doyle scribbles something, we don’t know what, completely illegibly, only to top it off with the taunting side note, “(Hope this is clear).”

All in all it’s an amusingly annoying response, and an insight into Arthur Conan Doyle, the man. Probably the only kind of answer to be expected of the man who joined an Arctic whaling expedition at the age of twenty, the journal of which can be seen here. A Kipling-loving, manliness-embodying Hemingway figure before Hemingway ever existed.

What do you think of Doyle’s answers? Know of any other authors’ responses to the Proust Questionnaire? Tell us in a comment!


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