Sunday, June 11, 2023

Hank Williams Makes Grand Ole Opry Debut on June 11, 1949

His 1949 breakout smash hit “Lovesick Blues” was so popular that the Grand Ole Opry finally gave in after denying him an invite for 2 years because of his well-established alcohol problem.

The crowd called him out for 6 encores — all of this one incredible and unique song, apparently — and demanded even more but he had to stop because other musicians were waiting to play. 

Hank Williams, “Lovesick Blues”

He had a pretty rough life, but this surely helped him write and sing about heartache so convincingly, as it was definitely not an act:

Hank Williams was only 25 years old when he was invited to appear for the first time on the Grand Ole Opry. As a young man growing up dirt poor in southern Alabama, he began supporting his family at the age of seven by shining shoes and selling peanuts, but by 14 at least, he was already performing as a professional musician. The life of a “professional musician” playing the blood-bucket honky-tonks of the Deep South bore little resemblance to the lifestyle that would later become available to him, but it was there, in country music’s backwater proving grounds, that Hank Williams developed his heavily blues-influenced style and began writing his own music. Williams left music behind during WWII, but then he went to Nashville in 1946 hoping to sell some of his songs. Quickly signed to a publishing contract by one of Nashville’s most prominent music publishers, Fred Rose, Williams soon had a recording contract with MGM and his first hit record with “Move It On Over” (1947).

His impact on 20th century music — and especially on other musicians — cannot be overestimated.

Just three years later in July 1952 he was fired for alcohol-related incidents, and by January 1 of 1953 he was dead, of heart failure (also due to alcohol).

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Joan of Arc Burned at the Stake on May 30, 1431


Medieval Europe Was Strange and Barbaric

First, a bit of context . . . 

The Hundred Years War began in 1337 and so in 1412 when Joan of Arc was born it was 75 years in. Seventy five years. That’s a really, really long time to fight a war — and it had a few decades to go yet. 

King Henry V of England became king in 1413 at age 26 and invaded France in 1415, winning a series of impressive battles even though vastly outnumbered (the most well-known is the Battle of Agincourt). 

As a result of this successful campaign and another one starting in 1417, England controlled most of northern France including Paris and so King Charles VI of France was forced to the negotiating table and eventually signed away rights of succession to the throne in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420.

Ironically both kings died within a month of each other in 1422, but because of the treaty and the fact that the English controlled Reims where French coronation took place, the French were unable to install their new king until they regained control of the region. 

And so an infant — Henry VI — became not just King of England but of France too.

At this point, obviously, things were not going well for the French, especially in the the areas controlled by the English. They needed a leader.

In 1425 when she was 13 Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc in English) — an illiterate peasant daughter of a tenant farmer and her pious mother who instilled in her a great love for the Catholic religion — began to hear “voices” in her head instructing her to fight to reclaim the throne for France. She claimed these voices were St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. Whether that is strictly true or not, doesn’t really matter in the long run, does it? She said there were voices, she took action based on it, and changed the course of history by helping to recapture the throne for France. 

In 1428 at 16 years of age she dressed like a man and traveled to a local magistrate to present her case, but he sent her home. She tried again in 1429 and this time he agreed to travel with her, 11 days through enemy territory, to see Charles about launching an offensive at Orleans.

He agreed, after much discusion with his advisors. From

Charles furnished her with a small army, and on April 27, 1429, she set out for Orleans, besieged by the English since October 1428. On April 29, as a French sortie distracted the English troops on the west side of Orleans, Joan entered unopposed by its eastern gate. She brought greatly needed supplies and reinforcements and inspired the French to a passionate resistance. She personally led the charge in several battles and on May 7 was struck by an arrow. After quickly dressing her wound, she returned to the fight, and the French won the day. On May 8, the English retreated from Orleans.

During the next five weeks, Joan and the French commanders led the French into a string of stunning victories over the English. On July 16, the royal army reached Reims, which opened its gates to Joan and the Dauphin. The next day, Charles VII was crowned king of France, with Joan standing nearby holding up her standard: an image of Christ in judgment. After the ceremony, she knelt before Charles, joyously calling him king for the first time.

They tried to recapture Paris but failed, and then she was captured and handed over to the English and then to religious authorities who held her for a year — inexplicably, Charles VII never tried to negotiate her release — and charged her with many crimes including heresy, witchcraft … and dressing like a man. 

After some back and forth, where she signed a confession but a few days later recanted and was charged again, she was sentenced to die and burned alive at the stake.

But wait, there’s more, as Wikipedia explains.

In 1456, an inquisitorial court reinvestigated Joan's trial and overturned the verdict, declaring that it was tainted by deceit and procedural errors. Joan has been revered as a martyr, and viewed as an obedient daughter of the Roman Catholic Church, an early feminist, and a symbol of freedom and independence. After the French Revolution, she became a national symbol of France. In 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and, two years later, was declared one of the patron saints of France. She is portrayed in numerous cultural works, including literature, music, paintings, sculptures, and theater.

Links plus a video for more details … 

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Intelligence is Overrated


Tyler Cowen says don’t hire the smartest candidate.

Independently I arrived at a similar conclusion over the years: people tend to overvalue intelligence and devalue other important qualities like leadership, teamwork, charisma, gratitude, dedication, resilience, and discipline.

I’ve seen the importance of those other qualities play out many times, over and over again, in my own life and in the world around me. You probably have too, if you look hard enough. 

To pick one example, resilience — the fortitude to never give up no matter how many challenges you encounter — is almost always a far better predictor of living a successful life than intelligence. The reason why is right there in the definition: “never give up”. 

Discipline — doing difficult things especially when you dislike doing them — is another important quality. Few people achieve anything important without it. Do not confuse it with motivation, a word often used in the wrong context when discipline is what is really in question.

Leadership is similar: making decisions with insufficient and imperfect information is a very important life skill for yourself and your career along with your family. You will see this all around you if you look hard enough: decisions delayed because you thought you needed more and better information might be useless because they are too late. With decisions, decisiveness is far more important than waiting for “perfect” information that is usually not even possible. The timimg is the important part, not getting everything exactly right on the first try. Evaluate and readjust as needed, and move on. Think like a CEO, not like a scientist. Learn to be comfortable making decisions with only 85% of the information you would like to have.

None of these things have anything to do with intelligence, and in fact intelligence can often get in the way by making people overconfident that they can just “think their way out of things”. That’s not how life works, as my own life showed me several times.

These lessons would have come in handy decades ago. But with lived experience comes wisdom, I guess. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Drinking Water is Just a Part of Hydration

You Can Actually Dehydrate Yourself by Drinking More Water

Everyone knows that drinking 8 glasses of water a day is recommended. It’s like a law or something… but is it a good idea? 

After all, a lot of laws are bad ideas. 

Are you “hydrated” by drinking 8 glasses (64 ounces, or two quarts, or 1/2 gallon)? What does it really mean to be hydrated? Do you know? 

The first point worth making here is that the first 40 years of my life, nobody told us to drink water as if you live in the desert or run a marathon every day. Drinking when you’re not thirsty just seems odd and counterintuitive — your grandma probably wouldn’t recommend it, and our grandparents were mostly smarter about nutrition than we are. 

If we all still ate like they did 100 years ago — meat, potatoes, soups and stews, vegetables — we absolutely would not be going through an epidemic of diabetes and overweight kids today. They did not overthink anything, while we overthink a lot of things.

In any case, somehow, we survived. Were we mildly dehydrated some of the time? Possibly. But we ate better, for the most part, and because hydration is about nutrition too, more than just drinking more water, it’s hard to say for sure. 

Being hydrated means having the right balance of electrolytes to keep enough water in your cells where your body needs it. Keeping your blood volume normal so you don’t feel faint from low blood pressure. Etc.

What are electrolytes, anyway? Electrolytes are essential minerals like potassium and sodium that facilitate passing water into and out of your cells.

Yes, sodium. It’s an essential mineral, so be careful with recommendations to avoid or restrict it. In fact, many experts identify the “problem” with sodium as too little potassium. 

Drinking 1/2 gallon of water a day might be a good idea depending on several other factors, but here’s the part they don’t tell you — you need those electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc) too. 

Too much water without electrolytes can actually dehydrate you by flushing electrolytes from your cells.

Dehydrated can also mean decreased blood volume which lowers blood pressure and can cause you to pass out. It also deprives your internal organs of the vital water and minerals they need to work right. Etc.

Low sodium in the blood is called hyponatremia and in severe cases it can actually be fatal.

And when discussing hydration it’s important to note that if you’re like most people, you drink too much soda pop, diet soda, coffee, tea, fruit juice, energy drinks, alcohol, or other liquids that act as diuretics and actually dehydrate your body unless you counter them with water and electrolytes. It’s not that you cannot have any of those things, but consuming each one requires consuming more water with electrolytes — are you doing that? 

Water is good for you, but like anything else, too much is actually bad for you. Your goal should be hydration — balanced and sufficient electrolytes — not just water. 

Thursday, February 09, 2023

European History Leading Up to WWI

It’s a giant mess, and that explains a lot

The usual explanations for the causes of World War I — alliances and imperialism — can be confusing because they stop well short of the full set of conditions that led up to the sudden outbreak of war in Summer 1914. 

It always sounded strange to me, probably because like most people in this day and age, and until I started digging into this on my own over the last couple of years, I had no real concept of the level of European chaos and conflict — especially the ruling class vs the ruled, and between ethnic groups — that fed a constant system of discontent for centuries, creating a powder keg ready to erupt at any time. 

One of the biggest players in the late 19th century was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also serves as a good example of the kind of ever-present ethnic and tribal conflict and ruling class power struggles that has always defined Europe.

Keep in mind, this was known as the “civilized” world.

Austro-Hungarian Empire 1848 - 1922 


Layered on top of that, this mess of international alliances and protection of global imperialist interests.

The First World War and International Relations 1900 - 1920

Thursday, February 02, 2023

So … How Did We Ever Turn to a Groundhog … to Predict Weather?


Well if you guessed “newspaper stunt adapted from a Christian holiday but with ancient pagan roots too”, award yourself 10 points.

It’s complicated.

The first Groundhog Day in America was a newspaper stunt in 1887:

The first Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney was the brainchild of local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters—known collectively as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club—on the idea.

Who knew that there were groups of “businessmen and groundhog hunters”? I sure didn’t.

In any case German settlers in the area brought it with them from the homeland, where the Germans had adapted it from an ancient Christian celebration called Candlemas.

What is Candlemas?

Wikipedia says it’s about bringing the baby Jesus, just a few weeks old, to the temple for purification:

It is based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40. In accordance with Leviticus 12, a woman was to be purified by presenting a lamb as a burnt offering, and either a young pigeon or dove as sin offering, 33 days after a boy's circumcision. It falls on 2 February, which is traditionally the 40th day (postpartum period) of and the conclusion of the Christmas–Epiphany season. While it is customary for Christians in some countries to remove their Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), those in other Christian countries historically remove them after Candlemas. On Candlemas, many Christians (especially Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists) also take their candles to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year; for Christians, these blessed candles serve as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World.

If you’re now wondering how in 1400 years a Christian holiday evolved from purifying the baby Jesus at the temple to “let’s use a rodent to predict the weather”, you’re not alone. 

But wait, there’s more!

February 2 is basically (almost but not quite) the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, and so of course there was a pagan ritual associated with it: Imbolc dates back to the 10th century BC among the Celtic people, celebrating both the the midpoint of Winter and a Celtic goddess Brigid who later became a saint in the Catholic church.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Looking Back with Gratitude

R.I.P. Gerard Vanderleun

One of my favorite people whom I’ve never met passed away a few days ago, and I’d like you to know a little bit about him.

His name was Gerard Vanderleun and he wrote a “blog” — but it was far more than that — that he called American Digest. He gave it a tagline: “Duty, Beauty, Liberty, Country, Honor, Family, Faith”. 

For 20+ years he created true art in written form that entertained you, delighted you, made you laugh and cry, consecutively and even at the same time. He told stories, reflected on life and its beauty, wonder, mystery, and absurdities. He noted his own metamorphosis as he traveled through life, especially spiritually and politically. 

But he loved the visual too — he took photos, he discovered and showcased photos by others, he linked to fascinating videos. On 9/11 he lived in Brooklyn and watched the towers fall, and then over the next several months he took 10,000 photos in New York City to document the aftermath

And he really liked people. He wrote often about his parents, his brothers, his marriages, his friends … and his estranged daughter that he never stopped loving. It came through in his writing, loud and clear.

What he didn’t do was write about news or politics or much of anything current, with very rare exceptions.  His site was therefore like an oasis in the desert, a welcome break from the relentless emotion-triggering that the internet turned into long ago.

Some people have a gift and they use it perfectly to make the world a better place, and he did that exceedingly well.

His ability to string words together in unanticipated and clever ways, to paint pictures in your head, to tell stories, to make you feel things, was as good as anyone alive or dead. I learned many things about communicating in written form just by reading his work. 

SO many times I would arrive at the end of another of his wonderful essays and just think “wow … now that was a piece of writing!”

The ways that he inspired and encouraged me over that 20 years … this is impossible to put into words. I discovered his blog by chance way back in 2002-3 when he somehow found my little unknown blog and left a comment there, probably as a result of his seeing a comment of mine somewhere else. 

Reading him improved my own writing, to summarize it in a few words.

However it happened, my life was enriched by his efforts, many many times over the next 20 years, and I am very thankful.

My suggestion to you:  carve out a few minutes from the usual daily routine and read a few of his essays. A list of just a few of my favorites is below but his website — still around for awhile but time waits for no one — spans 20 years, and out of all the millions of personal websites that have been built over that time this is one of those special few that deserves to live forever in a museum, if such a thing existed.

But as for me, I can do a little something to memorialize him on this site, as a personal note of deep gratitude and to recognize his legacy.

The Name in the Stone

First Loves and Other Sorrows

The Man Who Loved Not Wisely But At Least Twice