Tag: Queen Elizabeth II

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History


“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.


Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 876: Big Ben – The Boisterous Bell In The Belfry


If your first instinct when you looked at the above photo was that you were looking at London’s famous Big Ben, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Bemused Brits would scoff and toss old scones at you. Chances are you’ve never seen Big Ben. Until 2012 that structure was known simply as “the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster”. That year it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of our present queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the tower, and it’s not even the clock mechanism within it. Big Ben is just the bell.

The structure that Big Ben calls home is probably the best-known building in the entirety of England – the one structure you can safely use as an establishing shot if the next scene of your movie takes place in London. But the bell in its innards is the real star of the show; “Big Ben” represents London and London alone. Well, and Pittsburgh, but that’s a different Big Ben.

My wife asked me a question the other day, knowing full well I’d be using Google and not my musty, decaying storeroom of a memory to produce an answer: how the hell did they get Big Ben to the top of that tower using 19th century technology? I did my due diligence and found the solution, and along the way I learned all sorts of strange things about this brilliantly cliché piece of architecture.


Augustus Pugin was not the first architect called when the Palace of Westminster burned almost to the ground in 1834; Charles Barry did the majority of the work. But Pugin was the Judd Apatow of Gothic Revival mastery, in that everything he touched seemed to please and delight his target audience. Charles Barry (who was probably known by his friends as ‘Chuck Barry’) handled the big picture, but the guts of the palace – the wallpaper, the furnishings, the snuggly little details – that was all Pugin. In 1852, Barry asked Pugin for one more touch: the clock tower. Read more…

Day 815: Warriors Of Virtue


While the bulk of our news sources have us scouring the globe for a missing plane, watching for the next drunken act of buffoonery by Toronto’s mayor or collectively pretending that Kim & Kanye’s pampered offspring has any relevance to anything, the mainstream western media has skipped a few stories. Perhaps not ‘skipped’, but ‘demoted’ beneath the whodunit-appeal of the Malaysian aircraft and the partisan theatrics in local and national politics. For example, did you know that 89% of the population of Veneto, the Italian province which includes the seductive city of Venice, voted to secede from Italy last week?

I will begrudgingly admit that my own ignorance is self-imposed. I plow through news-hungry waves, gobbling up current events stories like they were crab legs and bacon strips at the MGM Grand buffet. Then, once I find myself teetering upon the brink of abandoning all hope for humanity, I stop. I insulate myself with escapist entertainment and blissfully allow the world to shimmy and quiver on its own, on the other side of my heavy black curtains.

This is how I missed the extraordinary tale of Aitzaz Hasan. Here’s a kid who, at the age of fourteen years old exhibited a greater demonstration of pure cajones than everyone I knew at fourteen combined. It sickens me (with a slightly hypocritical acceptance of my own cross-cultural ignorance) that so many people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch an unrepentant douche like Justin Bieber in concert, yet they miss out completely when someone like Aitzaz makes the news.


Aitzaz Hasan was in the ninth grade, fifteen years old. He was a good student, perpetually busy and with no shortage of friends. His home was the Hangu District in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, where a number of Shiites live, and where the local government has come under fire for attempting to negotiate peacefully with Taliban militants. One such militant, a fetid splotch of sub-human filth who had aligned himself with the extremist Sunni group known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, crossed paths with Aitzaz on the morning of January 6, 2014.

(Perhaps this is what sours me on reading the news – most news sources will refrain from referring to people like this as ‘sub-human filth’, even when it applies.) Read more…

Day 768: Archimedes Spins The Wheel


There are days when I sit at my desk, look at what I do (my tedious day job, not this particular knuckle-scrunchingly thrilling task) and the weight of my uninspiring career seems to drag down my insides like a kidney stone the size of a tennis shoe. I considered myself to be wildly innovative the day I rubber-banded two pens together so I could reach a third pen that had fallen on the floor, meaning  I wouldn’t have to scoot over to pick it up. I even had a little paperclip on the end so it would lift up a bit and I wouldn’t have to touch the carpet where I regularly spill root beer and pastrami grease.

I felt like frigging MacGyver.

Thankfully, some people are afforded the opportunity to think bigger, and devise clever solutions for problems that get measured in tonnage. When the southern tip of South America proved to be too much of a detour, they figured out how to blast a shortcut through Panama. When too many hardworking souls lost their teeth from trying to open a beer bottle in the manliest way they could think of, they invented the twist-off so we wouldn’t have to. And when a pair of waterways were no longer functioning as conduits for commerce and shipping, they came up with the Falkirk Wheel.


Before our planet was blanketed in a lattice of asphalt and concrete, we relied on waterways to get our stuff (and ourselves) to its destination. Where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal meet in Scotland, a bit of ingenuity – even greater than that of my Pen Reachenator (patent pending) – was required. The Union Canal, which was completed in 1822, is located on land that sits about 110 feet above the surface of the Forth and Clyde. Engineers back then were already on top of their game; they devised a series of eleven locks to connect the two. Read more…

Day 543: Twenty-One Things I Learned About Billy’s Fire


To be perfectly honest, reading through the Wikipedian entry for Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was one of the more fun quarter-hours I’ve spent mired in that site’s seemingly infinite text. It was also educational.

The song itself is a hit-or-miss affair. Some people love it, others find it to be one of Billy Joel’s low points – which is something in a musical career that was not known for having a lot of low points. Ever the historical trivia lover, I’ve always kind of liked the song. It was released on my fifteenth birthday, and even though I probably didn’t know half the song’s historical references at the time, I thought it was a novel idea for a pop song.

Still, it doesn’t hold up as well as “Uptown Girl.”

But “Uptown Girl” doesn’t get its own article, at least it hasn’t yet. Here’s twenty-one things I didn’t know about the song:


–       First of all, Billy Joel isn’t a fan. He hates performing it live, since slipping up on just one word in the verse would send the performance off the rails. “It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written,” Joel was quoted as saying. I’d have to agree; the guy built his reputation on some of the catchiest melodies in all of pop music. This one doesn’t hold up.

–       Despite his lack of reverence for the number, Billy has earned a crap-ton of royalties from it. It was only his third #1 hit, which I find incredible (“It’s Still Rock ‘N Roll To Me” and “Tell Her About It” were the others). Read more…