Mar. 5, 2014

Where Go the Boats

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating—
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
A way down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

"Where Go the Boats" by Robert Louis Stevenson from Selected Poems. © Penguin Classics, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1933 that the Nazi Party won 44 percent of the vote in German parliamentary elections, enabling it to join with the Nationalists to gain a slight majority in the Reichstag. Within three weeks, the Nazi-dominated Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler dictatorial powers and ended the Weimar Republic in Germany.

It was on this day in 1975 that the Homebrew Computer Club first met. It turned out to be an enormously influential hobby club: its existence made possible the personal computer.

At the time, computers were not for personal use or owned by individuals. For one thing, they were gigantic in size — a computer easily took up an entire room. And they were very expensive, costing about a million dollars each. Not even computer engineers or programmers who made a living working on computers had access to their own personal computers.

But many of these tech-minded people wanted to build personal computers for fun, to use at home. And they decided to start a hobbyist club to trade circuit-boards and information and share enthusiasm. The first of its kind, the Homebrew Computer Club first met 39 years ago today — in somebody's home garage in the Silicon Valley.

Among the early members: high school friends Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who designed the Apple I and II to bring down to the club to show it off, as well as Lee Felsentein and Adam Osborne, who would later create the first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne 1. Other legendary figures in the computer world, including Bob Marsh, George Morrow, Jerry Lawson, and John Draper, were Homebrew members.

It's the birthday of novelist Frank Norris (books by this author), born in Chicago (1870). His most popular novel, McTeague (1899), about a loutish dentist and his greedy young wife, was published when he was just 29 years old.

The year after McTeague was published, Norris married the woman he loved, a beautiful debutante named Jeanette Black. A year later, he published The Octopus (1901), which he intended to be the first in a trilogy called The Epic of Wheat. But he died suddenly in 1902, at the age of 32, when his appendix ruptured. His second book in his Epic of Wheat trilogy, called The Pit, was published after his death.

He said, "I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn't like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the Truth; I knew it for the Truth then, I know it for the Truth now."

It's the birthday of novelist Leslie Marmon Silko (books by this author), born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). She grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, went to law school, but she quit after reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, concluding that "The law has nothing to do with justice, and injustice can't be left unchallenged. So I decided to be a writer. Writing can't change the world overnight, but writing may have an enormous effect over time, over the long haul."

She is best known for her novel Ceremony (1977), the story of a Laguna man named Tayo who comes home to the reservation after surviving the Bataan Death March in World War II. The story of Tayo begins: "Tayo didn't sleep well that night. He tossed in the old iron bed, and the coiled springs kept squeaking even after he lay still again, calling up humid dreams of black night and loud voices rolling him over and over again like debris caught in a flood. Tonight the singing had come first, squeaking out of the iron bed, a man singing in Spanish, the melody of a familiar love song, two words again and again, 'Y volveré.'"

Her other books include Almanac of the Dead (1991), Gardens in the Dunes (1999), and most recently, The Turquoise Ledge (2010).

It's the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, which took place on a cold and snowy night in 1770. British soldiers had occupied Boston for 18 months to protect the tax collectors for the king of England. There had been several street fights between soldiers and townsmen since the beginning of the month, so tensions were already high on the evening of March 5th. The "massacre" itself was touched off by an argument between a young barber's apprentice and a British officer about payment for a haircut. The barber's apprentice claimed that the officer had not paid, and the soldier reportedly knocked the kid down in the street.

A crowd of young men gathered and soldiers came out into the street. The growing crowd taunted the soldiers, and threw ice and oysters at them. When the soldiers brandished their weapons, the crowd dared them to shoot, and they did. When the smoke cleared, five colonists were dead or dying — Crispus Attucks, Patrick Carr, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, and Christopher Monk — and three more were injured. It was hardly a massacre, but the revolutionary members of the colonies played it up as much as they could.

A town committee wrote a pamphlet called A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,and Paul Revere made an engraving of the incident, showing the British soldiers lining up like an organized army to suppress the colonist uprising. Printed under the engraving were verses that described the soldiers as "fierce barbarians grinning over their prey."

The soldiers were put on trial, and the man chosen to represent them was the American patriot John Adams. He didn't support the British, but he was told that no one else would take the case, and he believed that all men deserve a good defense under the law.

He struggled to come up with a way of defending the soldiers without defending the crown, and on the day of the trial he argued that neither the British soldiers nor the mob of people were to blame for the violence. Instead, he claimed it was the British policy of using soldiers to keep the peace in Boston that was to blame. He said: "Soldiers quartered in a populous town will always occasion two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace."

Adams managed to get most of the soldiers acquitted. Only two were convicted of manslaughter. Adams's reputation suffered a little in the aftermath. He lost many of his clients. But there were no riots in the days following the verdict, and eventually the case became a famous example of Adams's extraordinary fairness and good judgment.

It's the birthday of Gerardus Mercator, born in Rupelmonde, Flanders (now Belgium) in 1512. He developed the world mapping technique that we still use today and call the "Mercator projection." He developed a method to accurately project the globe onto a flat surface so that longitude and latitude lines would always be at right angles to each other.

When he first published his world map in 1569, it revolutionized navigation. For the first time, sailors could plot a route between any two destinations in the world using a straight line, and then follow that route without having to adjust their compasses.

To project the globe onto a flat surface, Mercator straightened the vertical lines of longitude into parallel lines, and he added space between the horizontal lines of latitude. This distorted the distance at the North and South poles, which is why Greenland and Antarctica appear so large on flat world maps. The Mercator projection soon became the authoritative world map. Mercator was also the first person to use the word "atlas" to refer to a book of maps.

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