Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Trump is not Hitler, We are not Weimar

June 6, 2016

I am normally a strong advocate for freedom of speech and naturally I oppose the censorship of any type of speech no matter how offensive it may be. I would like to make one exception to this rule. I think that anyone who compares any American politician to Adolf Hitler, or any other totalitarian dictator should be punished, perhaps with a flogging. There are no figures in American politics that are even remotely like Hitler and such a comparison is not only ridiculous but an insult to those people who really have suffered, or are presently suffering under the rule of a dictator.

According to some, Donald Trump is the latest incarnation of Adolf Hitler.


This is simply ignorant. The political system and social conditions of Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920’s and 30’s were very different from the circumstances in twenty-first century America. While the creators of the Weimar Republic intended to form a liberal, democratic republic, there were certain aspects of the German constitution which made it easier for a potential dictator like Hitler to seize power than is the case in the United States. Also, Hitler did not gain power in Germany in quite the way that is popularly believed. Hitler did not become the Führer by being swept into power by a vast popular movement. Rather, Hitler was made Chancellor as a result of a backroom deal with politicians who thought they could use him.

The government of the German Weimar Republic was a multi-party parliamentary system. The German parliament was bicameral with the lower house, the Reichstag, having considerably more power than the upper house, the Reichsrat. The Reichsrat represented the various federal states of Germany and was largely advisory. The members of the Reichstag were elected by universal suffrage, using the principle of proportional representation. Voters voted for national party lists of candidates and each party received the number of seats in the Reichstag proportional to its share of the national vote. This system encouraged the formation of small, splinter parties since a party could appeal to a small segment of the population and still get seats in the Reichstag.  Because of the large number of parties, each seeming to want to turn Germany in a different direction, it proved to be difficult to form lasting coalitions with the result that the Reichstag became ineffective, particularly after the Great Depression began.

The leader of the Reichstag and head of the cabinet was the Chancellor. He was the head of government and the one responsible for getting legislation passed. The head of state was the President, who had considerable power of his own. He was the head of the armed forces and could dissolve the Reichstag, leading to new elections within sixty days. Under Article 48 of the constitution, the president had the power to rule by decree in an emergency. Article 48 was one of the tools Hitler used to seize absolute power in Germany though the last president of the Republic, the aging war hero Paul von Hindenburg also used Article 48 extensively as the Reichstag proved increasingly unable to act. In a sense then, Hitler did not create a dictatorship in Germany so much as step into a dictatorship already made.


The political and social circumstances of the late Weimar Republic and the twenty-first century United States couldn’t be more different. Elections in the United States use the single member, first past the post system. Each Congressional district elects one Representative, with whoever gets a plurality of the vote gaining the seat. Every state elects two Senators, but no state elects both its Senators in the same election and again whoever gets the most votes wins. The presidency is a little more complicated because of the electoral college, but the same principle applies. This system tends to empower a majority at the expense of the minority since the candidate with 50.1% of the vote wins and the 49.9% who voted for the other candidate may feel disenfranchised. This system also has the effect of encouraging large, broad-based political parties and coalitions since a political party needs to appeal to a majority at least in some regions in order to get any seats in Congress. This first past the post system makes it very difficult for any third party to gain power since, unlike a proportional system, they cannot get any power unless they outright win an election. This makes it very unlikely that a fringe party like the Nazis could get anywhere in American politics. A would-be Hitler would have to run as a Democrat or Republican, and he would have to persuade the majority of American voters to elect him, something the Nazis never managed to do in Germany.

Even if a Hitler managed to become president, it doesn’t seem likely that he would make himself into a dictator. The constitution contains no provisions for a president to assume emergency, dictatorial powers and I think that a president who made an overt attempt to declare himself Führer would meet with a lot more opposition than Hitler had. Remember that a great many Germans detested the Weimar constitution as something imposed upon them by the “November Criminals” who surrendered Germany at the end of World War I. A large number of Germans, perhaps a majority, felt that the Weimar government was somehow illegitimate, and Hitler wasn’t the only one calling for its overthrow. I do not think that a candidate who openly proposed scrapping the American constitution in favor of a socialist dictatorship would have much support. Certainly none of the current presidential candidates are calling for the government to be overthrown. Bernie Sanders may call himself a socialist, but he is quick to add that he is a democratic socialist who wants to expand the welfare state, not a revolutionary who is going to impose a Hugo Chavez style dictatorship. Donald Trump may have only the vaguest of notions about the constitutional separation of powers, but he isn’t saying he wants to be the Führer.

Hitler came to power in the midst of the Great Depression, the worst economic climate of the past century. We are not currently even in a recession. It may be true that America’s recovery from the last recession has been rather lackluster but the economy is nowhere near as bad as it was then. There are people who have been displaced by the processes of globalization and advancing technology, but their plight is not even close to the suffering of the Great Depression. The United States has not recently lost a war in which a generation had been decimated and we have not had a humiliating treaty with crippling reparations imposed upon his. America in 2016 is simply not an environment in which a Hitler is likely to thrive, nor is Donald Trump anything at all like Hitler in ideology, politics, or mannerisms. As I said before, this internet meme is simply ignorant.


Don’t Say Eskimo

May 9, 2016

If you want to understand why people hate what is commonly called political correctness, you don’t have to go much further than to read this article from NPR explaining why we should not use the word “Eskimo”.

Confused about the word Eskimo?

It’s a commonly used term referring to the native peoples of Alaska and other Arctic regions, including Siberia, Canada and Greenland. It comes from a Central Algonquian language called Ojibwe, which people still speak around the Great Lakes region on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. But the word has a controversial history. (Editor’s note: And that’s why it’s not used in the stories on Greenland that NPR has posted this week.)

Actually, no, I wasn’t at all confused. Eskimos are those people who live far to the north. I doubt many people are in the habit of asking NPR for advice on what words to use and it seems rather presumptuous for the author of this article to tell the rest of us what is appropriate or offensive. Most people resent being told to use certain politically correct expressions, even when it is well intended.  But to continue.

People in many parts of the Arctic consider Eskimo a derogatory term because it was widely used by racist, non-native colonizers. Many people also thought it meant eater of raw meat, which connoted barbarism and violence. Although the word’s exact etymology is unclear, mid-century anthropologists suggested that the word came from the Latin word excommunicati, meaning the excommunicated ones, because the native people of the Canadian Arctic were not Christian.

But now there’s a new theory. According to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, linguists believe the word Eskimo actually came from the French word esquimaux, meaning one who nets snowshoes. Netting snowshoes is the highly-precise way that Arctic peoples built winter footwear by tightly weaving, or netting, sinew from caribou or other animals across a wooden frame.

But the correction to the etymological record came too late to rehabilitate the word Eskimo. The word’s racist history means most people in Canada and Greenland still prefer other terms. The most widespread is Inuit, which means simply, “people.” The singular, which means “person,” is Inuk.

Of course, as with so many words sullied by the crimes of colonialism, not everyone agrees on what to do with Eskimo. Many Native Alaskans still refer to themselves as Eskimos, in part because the word Inuit isn’t part of the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.

But unless you’re native to the circumpolar region, the short answer is: You probably shouldn’t use the word Eskimo.

So, “Eskimo” was bad because it was believed to be derogatory, but now it may not be so bad, but we still shouldn’t say it because an Eskimo might be offended.

The fact is that few Native American tribes or nations are widely known by the names they call themselves. Most Indian groups are commonly known by the names others have given them. Some are of obvious European origin, the Black Foot, Nez Perce, Creek, Delaware, Crow, or Beaver. In most cases, these are translations of their original names into English, French, or Spanish. Many are known by names given by their enemies, thus; Sioux (little snakes), Mohawk (man eaters), or Iroquois (real snakes), or their friends like Comanche (they fight with us). Some of the tribal names derive from European attempts to pronounce unfamiliar words, Ute from Nuutsiu, Seneca from Osininka, or Illini from Illiniwek. Of course, there are the names we use for the people as a whole. Indians are only called Indians because Columbus didn’t know where he was, and while the Indians are certainly natives to this continent, they did not call themselves Americans.

It is not just the Native Americans who are not called by the names they call themselves. No one in China knew that they were Chinese until they met the Europeans. The Chinese call themselves the Sons of Han and their country is the Middle Kingdom (Zhong Guo). China seems to be derived from the first Imperial dynasty the Qin. The Indians had many names for themselves, since India is a very diverse country, but India is derived through Persian from the Indus River. The most common Indian word for India is Bharat. The Hindu religion was not called Hinduism until the Muslims started to conquer India. Before that time, the Hindus had no need of a word to distinguish their religion.

Our Western civilization largely began with the Greeks, but the words Greek and Greece come from Latin. The Greeks knew themselves as the Hellenes and their country as Hellas. We call the Deutsche Germans and Deutschland Germany, while the French refer to them as Allemands and Allemagne from the German tribe the Alamanians. This isn’t just an European colonialist custom. The Arabs and Persians refer to Europeans as al-Faranj and Farangi from the Franks.

It seems that almost no one in the world is called by outsiders by the same name they use for themselves. It doesn’t seem practical to go through every language and change every term that might be offensive to someone somewhere in the world  so I think I’ll just go on saying Eskimo.



The Czars

April 11, 2016

There is a tendency, when writing of the history of a nation, to focus on the actions of rulers of that nation. American history books tend to divide American history by presidents, while British books differentiate the eras of British history by kings and queens, and later prime ministers, Chinese by dynasties, and so on. This approach is understandable since while kings and emperors may not have as much control over the events of the nations they rule as they would like, their reigns do give convenient dividing points between periods and eras. Still, there is often a lot going on that has little to do with the actions of any rulers and a history focused on the ruling class risks overlooking many factors and events in the country’s history.

This approach may be more justified in the case of Russian history, than in the histories of most other nations. For much of its history, Russia has been ruled by a strong, centralised government with political power vested in one man or woman, the Czar. The personality of Russia’s Czar was the most powerful influence on the development of the Russian nation. Russia only became a unified nation when the earliest Czars were able to establish control over the unruly boards and the Orthodox Church, become strong enough to defeat the invading Mongols, Poles and Lithuanians and take the title of Czar. The history of Russia is the history of its Czars.


The Czars by James P. Duffy and Vincent L. Ricci tells the story of Russia’s czars, from their messy beginnings as the Vikings who raided, traded, and then settled the vast Russian lands to the murder of Nicholas II at the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. It is a fascinating story, well told by the two authors. They give a biography of every Czar, the early and obscure princes of Kiev and Muscovy no less than such titanic rulers as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, giving something of the personalities and lives of each Czar as well as the historical circumstances of their reigns. I found the early history of the unification of Russia to be particularly interesting as this was a period that I didn’t know much about. Most histories of Russia seem to cover this time in the first chapter before quickly moving on to Ivan the Great and his son Ivan the Terrible.

The only fault that I can find with The Czars is the absence of maps. A map of the Ukraine and the European part of Russia would have been very handy, especially if it included all the little principalities and cities that were absorbed by the growing Russian state in its earliest years. I found myself having to consult Google maps to get some idea of where the various regions of European Russia were in relation to each other and where the battles against the Mongols and the Poles took place. A genealogy of the two Russian dynasties, the Ruriks and the Romanovs would also have been useful, especially with the early Ruriks who had not yet established the tradition of handing down power from father to son, and with the more tumultuous times of trouble in which several short-lived and distantly related Czars followed one another in succession. Despite these shortcoming, I still found the Czars to be interesting and informative.

Return of the Baron

March 28, 2016

Baron Hill was the Congressional Representative for the ninth Congressional district of Indiana, the district I happen to live in, from 1999 to 2005 and 2007 to 2011. Now he wants to be one of Indiana’s Senators.


I have known Baron Hill a long time. I worked to get him elected to Congress and was honored to serve as his Chief of Staff — and I am thrilled the Indiana Democratic Party has endorsed him to be our next U.S. Senator.

Baron is the just the kind of man we need in Washington. He will start fixing problems again in Washington instead of playing political games that we see coming out of the Republican majorities right now.

Will you add your name to let Baron know he has your support in 2016?

Baron’s roots in this great state go deep. He grew up in Seymour as the youngest of seven kids, played basketball at Seymour High, and worked in his family’s small business. He’s seen firsthand the changes the past many years have brought to Indiana.

Baron knows we are at a turning point. Inequality is growing as working families are getting left behind. Special interests have a voice in Washington, but what about regular people?

He is going to be a voice for all Hoosiers — our voice. He’ll fight for an economy that works for everyone. He’ll work to grow our local businesses and make college affordable for our kids.

Baron knows Indiana is worth fighting for. But he needs us standing with him.

Will you add your name to show you’re on Baron’s team in 2016?

Baron Hill will do the job he is elected to do in the U.S. Senate, and he needs your help today.

Thank you for all you do.

John Zody
Indiana Democratic Party

I remember Baron Hill very well. It’s not likely that anyone outside of the state of Indiana would know anything about Mr. Hill, although he did receive a certain amount of national attention before his defeat in the 2010 election. Here are a few videos to remind the viewer who Baron Hill is and why he doesn’t belong in the Senate


The political terrorists he refers to are his own constituents who happened to object to his vote supporting Obamacare. Because they were actually challenging him over his vote, he considered them to be the same as al-Qaeda.

Here is another.


This isn’t a town meeting in which the representative of the people of the ninth Congressional district responds to the concerns of the people, but an audience in which the Baron deigns to speak to his subjects.

There are a lot more videos of Baron Hill being dismissive or rude to his constituents at town hall meetings, etc. He is apparently something of a sore loser as well, if the people in this video are correct.

This is why Baron Hill was defeated in 2010. His name, Baron, seems to fit him very well. He acts with all the arrogance and condescension to his “inferiors” as some medieval baron. He is part of the problem of an arrogant and unresponsive political elite that is causing Americans to turn to outsiders for leadership, even such obviously unqualified candidates as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Baron Hill is the last person I would want to see in the Senate.


March 27, 2016

We left the story of Jesus of Nazareth last Friday. He had been executed in the most painful and degrading way possible. His closest followers were disperse and in hiding. It must have seemed that Jesus and his movement had ended in utter failure. But then, something remarkable happened. This something is commemorated by the Easter holiday. Although Christmas is the more popular Christian holiday, Easter is actually the most important holiday in the liturgical year as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection is theologically more important than his Nativity. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gospel of Mark has the most concise account on what happened that first Easter.

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

9 When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,out of whom he had driven seven demons.10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these sign swill accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:1-20)

Mark 16:9-20 seems to be a later addition. At any rate, the earliest manuscripts do not have those verses. Whether the original ending has been lost or Mark intended to end his account so abruptly is unknown.

Matthew has more details.

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The Guards’ Report

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:1-20)

Luke and John have more to say of Jesus after His resurrection but I won’t quote them here.

The date of Easter has been a matter of some controversy in past centuries. The date of Easter is related to the date of Passover. The calculations on which the date of Easter is determined is based on a lunisolar cycle like the date of Passover but the cycle is not the Hebrew calendar. Generally Easter falls about a week after Passover but it occurs about a month later in three years of the nineteen year cycle. Various groups of Christians have had different methods of calculating Easter over the years and these differences have led to bitter disputes. There is still a different date for Easter among the Eastern churches since they use the Julian calendar for the liturgical year while Catholics and Protestants use the Gregorian calendar.

Among Catholics and some Protestants, Easter is generally celebrated by an Easter vigil beginning the previous evening. At dawn, a mass or service begins, etc.

And, of course, many people celebrate Easter by finding Easter eggs and eating candy delivered by the Easter Bunny.


Good Friday

March 25, 2016

Today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. It may seem strange to call it “Good” Friday since being crucified wouldn’t normally be considered as part of a good day but the word good is used in an obsolete sense meaning holy. Good Friday is generally celebrated with fasts and vigils. In the Roman Catholic church no mass is held on this day.

I will be using the Gospel of Mark to tell the story.

Mark 15

Jesus Before Pilate

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:1-15)

It would seem that this meeting of the Sanhedrin at night and before Passover was highly irregular and some have questioned the historicity of the Gospel accounts on that basis. I think that if the elders and priests of the Sanhedrin believe Jesus to be on the point of declaring himself the Messiah and leading a rebellion, they might not have been too concerned with fine points of legality in the face of a national emergency. Little is known of Pontius Pilate but in the historical accounts of Josephus and others, he does not seem to be the sort of man who had any scruples about putting a trouble maker to death even if he wasn’t certain of the man’s guilt. It is possible that he was impressed by Jesus’s force of personality. On the other hand, Josephus makes it clear that Pilate was a tactless man who did not like the Jews much. He was eventually recalled because his actions seemed likely to cause rebellions. Perhaps Pilate resented having the High Priest and others, who he might have considered semi-barbarians, insist on his crucifying a man. He might have refused just to be obstinate.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.(Mark 15:16-32)

Luke has one of the thieves taking Jesus’s side.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[d]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Crucifixion is probably the most painful method method of execution ever devised. The victim is slowly asphyxiated as he hangs on the cross. It was not uncommon for a man to linger for days writhing in pain the whole time. In addition to the pain, crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating, shameful punishment. Only the lowest of the low were crucified, which might have been a stumbling block to early Christian proselytizing.

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.


Those words were the first verse of Psalm 22. Matthew’s account parallels Mark’s but Luke and John report different last words.

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:46)

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.(John 19:28-30)

John adds another detail.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”[c]37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)

Strange as it may seem, the breaking of their legs was an act of mercy since they would die sooner. It was surprising that Jesus had died after only being about six hours on the cross.

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

To anyone on the scene, this must have seemed the end of the matter. Jesus of Nazareth was dead and his followers scattered. It would seem that, at best, he would only be a minor footnote in history.

The end?

The end?


St. Patrick’s Day

March 17, 2016

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.

Beware the Ides of March

March 15, 2016

That is what a soothsayer says to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Caesar had reason to be wary of that particular date since that was the day the conspirators planned to assassinate him. Caesar ignored the warning, either out of fatalism or foolhardiness, and his assassination began the course of events that led to the rise of his grand-nephew Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic.

But what are the ides anyway? The Roman calendar was somewhat complicated and was reformed several times in the history of the Republic, until Julius Caesar straighten things out with his Julian calendar. Originally, the Roman calendar seems to have been a lunar calendar with the months corresponding to the lunar cycle. Thus each month began with the New Moon. The Romans did not count days from the beginning of the month, as we do, but instead counted before and after certain key days perhaps corresponding with the phases of the moon. The first day of the month corresponding with the new moon was called the Kalends, from which our word calendar is derived. The ides of the month was the day in the middle of the month, corresponding to the full moon. The ides was either on the thirteenth or fifteenth day depending on whether the month was a long or short one. The nones was eight days before the ides and corresponds to the half moon or first quarter. I would think that they would also make the third quarter of the moon one of the special days but it doesn’t seem to have been.

The day before the kalends, nones, or ides was referred to as the pridie, or the day before in Latin. So, yesterday, March 14, was pridie ides March. Other dates were simply counted back from the nearest reference day. So March 12 would be the the fourth day, ( the reference days were counted) before the ides of March, or a.d. (ante diem) IV id March. March 2 was six days before the nones or a. d VI non. March 25 would be 8 days before the kalends of April, or a. d. VIII kal. This seems to be a rather cumbersome system, having to remember how many days between the kalends and ides, etc, but I suppose the Romans were used to it, and maybe it wasn’t much worse than having to remember which months have thirty or thirty-one days. I’m glad we don’t do that though.

In any case, today is the Ides of March, so if you happen to be Julius Caesar, watch out.

Pi Day

March 14, 2016
English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University o...

English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics Deutsch: Pi Pie (π-Kuchen), hergestellt an der Technischen Universität Delft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all of the nerds out there, including me, today is international Pi Day, the day when we celebrate our favorite mathematical constant. Pi Day is best celebrated by pi memorization contests, walking in circles, and, of course, eating pies, or is it pis? I think I will celebrate by writing a little about pi. This year is a special Pi Day. The first digits of pi are 3.1415926 with can be rounded to 3.1416 so this year 3/14/16 is the the Rounded Pi Day

Pi or π is, as everyone should know, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Pi is an irrational number. By this, they do not mean that pi makes no sense but rather that pi is a constant that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Numbers like 2 or .445 or 1/2 can be expressed as a ratio of two integers and so are rational. Numbers like pi or the square root of any number that is not a perfect square, the square root of 2 for instance, are irrational. An irrational number expressed in decimal form never ends or repeats but continues to infinity. Thus, there can never be a last digit of pi.

The symbol π was first by the mathematician William Jones in 1706 and was popularized by another mathematician, Leonhard Euler. They chose π, the Greek equivalent of the Latin letter p, because it is the first letter of the word periphery. Π, by the way is not pronounce “pie” in Greek but “pee”, just like our p. I don’t think that international “pee” day would be nearly so appealing.

Although the symbol for pi is relatively recent, the concept is very old. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about it. Pi is even mentioned in the Bible.

23 He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits[o] to measure around it. 24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit. The gourds were cast in two rows in one piece with the Sea. (1 Kings 7:23-24)

Properly speaking, the line around the “Sea” should have been 31.5 cubits but the ancient Hebrews were very knowledgeable about geometry and measuring techniques were crude.

There is no particular reason to calculate pi to so many digits. No
conceivable application of pi would possibly take more than 40 digits.
Still, the challenge of calculating pi to the farthest digit possible has been an irresistible one for mathematicians over the years.

Around 250 BC, Archimedes was the first mathematician to seriously try to calculate pi. He used a geometric method of drawing polygons inside and outside a circle and measuring their perimeters. By using polygons with more and more sides he was able to calculate pi with more precision and ended determining the value of pi as somewhere between 3.1408 and 3.1429. Archimedes’s method was used in the west for more than a eighteen hundred years. The Chinese and Indians used similar methods. The best result using the geometric method was the calculation of pi to 38 digits in 1630.

With the development of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660’s it was possible to calculate pi using infinite series, or the sum of the terms of an infinite sequence. The best calculations with these methods were done by the mathematician Zacharias Daze who calculated pi to 200 places in 1844 and William Shanks who spent fifteen years to calculate pi to 707 digits. Unfortunately he made a mistake with the 528 digit. Meanwhile, in 1761 Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that pi is irrational.

Computers made the calculation of pi much faster so pi could be calculated to more digits. ENIAC calculated pi to 2037 places in 1949. This record didn’t last long. A million digits were reached 1970. As of  2011, pi has been calculated to 10,000,000,000,050 places.

Pi is not just used in geometry. There are a number of applications of pi in the fields of statistics, mechanics, thermodynamics, cosmology, and many others. Here is a list of just some of the formulae that use pi. It seems you can find pi everywhere.

With that in mind then, happy pi day! For your enjoyment here are the first thousand digits of pi.



The Election of 1848

March 10, 2016

As the election of 1848 approached, it was starting to become impossible to ignore the increasingly divisive issue of slavery in the United States. Hardly anyone wanted to abolish slavery where it existed, but there was a growing feeling in the North that slavery ought to be contained and not permitted to expand into any new territories. This had been made more difficult by the aftermath of the recently concluded Mexican War. The territories which had been gained from Mexico which were south of the line established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 were open to slavery. The Whigs, at least the northern branch of the party, had been opposed to the Mexican War for this reason. Led by an obscure congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, the northern Whigs accused the Polk administration of waging an aggressive war against Mexico for empty military glory and to expand the slave territories. The relatively quick and easy American victory over Mexico made such anti-war sentiments politically incorrect however, and the Whigs found they had to backtrack before the upcoming election.


The Missouri Compromise


There was no question of the incumbent President James K. Polk running for reelection. He had promised to serve only one term and he was exhausted from performing his duties as president. Polk died only three months after leaving his office. The Democrats met at their national convention in Baltimore on May 22. There they selected Senator Lewis Cass for president. Cass had been the territorial governor of Michigan from 1813 to 1831 and then had served as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, minister to France and then from 1845 to 1848 a Senator from Michigan. His running mate was William Orlando Butler, a veteran of the War of 1812, who had served as a Congressman from Kentucky from 1839-1943.

There was a problem with Cass, however, at least as far as the New York delegation was concerned. Cass was an advocate of “squatter” or popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery, believing that the people of a territory should determine whether a state should be admitted as a free or slave state. Some of the New York delegation, the Hunkerers because they “hunkered” after offices, supported Cass’s nomination, while others, the Barnburners believed Cass to be too soft on slavery. In the end, the Barnburners left the convention and, along with other anti-slavery people and organized the Free Soil Party. The Free Soilers, with their slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” nominated former president Martin van Buren and John Quincy Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams.

The Whigs were anxious for the voters to forget that they had even been against the Mexican War, so when they met in Philadelphia in June, they nominated General Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready for president. Taylor had never held any political office, had no set political opinions on any issue, and had never even voted, but he had led an American army to victory in Mexico, so he seemed to be perfect for the job of president. The Whigs also nominated Millard Fillmore, a congressman from New York who had served from 1833 to 1843, who had then served as the New York State Comptroller, as Taylor’s running mate.

Many Whigs were anxious about nominating a candidate with absolutely no political experience. Daniel Webster feared that a man he regarded as “an illiterate frontier colonel” would be unelectable. Other Whigs, including Lincoln, made a virtue out of Taylor’s inexperience, pointing out that he would be sure to follow the will of the people.

There was the usual mudslinging throughout the campaign. The Democrats portrayed Taylor as an ignorant, illiterate military autocrat who thirsted for martial glory and establish himself as a dictator, after the example of Caesar or Napoleon. He was stingy and cruel to his slaves. The Whigs retaliated by claiming that Cass was dishonest, and involved in graft from his tenure as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. They also mocked Cass’s pretensions to military glory. There wasn’t much substantive debate on any issues.

The election of 1848 was the first presidential election in which the election was held on the same day in every state, November 7. From this year on, the national elections would be held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Zachary Taylor won the election without too much trouble, getting 1,360,099 votes (47.3%) to Cass’s 1,220544 (42.5%). Martin van Buren and his Free Soil Party received 291,263 (10.1%) popular votes. Obviously, anti-slavery sentiments were gaining ground, at least in the North. In the Electoral College, Taylor got 163 votes, mostly in the East with all of the largest states, except for Ohio, while Cass won 127 electoral votes. The Free Soilers didn’t win any states, but it is possible they split the Democratic vote, especially in New York, allowing the Whigs to win.

The Election of 1848

The Election of 1848

Although born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, and a slave owner himself, President Taylor turned out to be a staunch nationalist who sought to prevent the spread of slavery in the new territories.Taylor hinted that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso, which banned slavery in the territories gained from Mexico, if it ever passed Congress, and he wanted California to be admitted as a state without first being organized as a territory so that the slavery issue could be decided by the people of California rather than Congress. Taylor’s highest priority was keeping the Union together and he threatened to personally lead an army against anyone who attempted secession.

Unfortunately, Zachary Taylor died of either Cholera or food poisoning just seventeen months into his term. The new president, Millard Fillmore, lacked Taylor’s strength of character and although he was moderately anti-slavery, was more willing to give in to the demands of Southern slave owners than Taylor had been. Perhaps it was just as well. It is possible that the Civil War might have begun a decade earlier if Taylor had lived. On the other hand, Fillmore’s administration began a decade of inaction when the United States badly needed strong leadership to resolve the increasing sectional tensions.

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