Memorial Day 2023

Memorial marker for Lt. John R. Fox

When directing artillery fire, using the phrase “danger close” signifies that the desired target for the fire is close to friendly forces, possibly including the artillery observer — and that the observer is aware of that fact. The distance for a strike to be considered “danger close” varies with the type of weapon, but for artillery it’s at minimum 600 meters. The point of the phrase, of course, is to acknowledge that the request is dangerous but not suicidal.

Calling a strike directly on one’s own position is an evocative act. As a former artillery office put it on Quora: “People who called in artillery, or gunships, or aerial bombs on their own position have been noted to have received EITHER a posthumous Medal of Honor OR… considered to be foolish and excitable at their funerals.” And that makes sense; trying to live to fight another day is better than a heroic sacrifice that accomplishes little.

Of course, some times living to fight another day is not in the cards. Lieutenant John R. Fox found himself in such a position in Sommocolonia, Italy, on 26 December 1944. A group of U.S. soldiers were dug in defending the village against an overwhelming force of the Wehrmacht. Lt. Fox directed artillery fire against the attackers, but eventually his position was about to get overrun with no chance of Fox being allowed to be captured. Consequently, he called down fire on his own position.

As it happened, one of Fox’s best friends, Maj. Otis Zachary, was the gunner. Zachary refused Fox’s request until a colonel ordered that the fire proceed.

After the battle, the villagers were rounded up and made to leave the village. Their priest recalled seeing Fox’s body surrounded by the corpses of a hundred attackers.

Instant Medal of Honor? Not so much:

Medal of Honor Recipient John R. Fox

Like many African American soldiers, Lt. Fox’s sacrifice was not recognized at the time. The “Buffalo Soldiers” were, after all, just expected to melt away. Formal desegregation of the army wouldn’t happen for another four years.  It took 38 years for him to be awarded a Distinguished Service Medal; 53 to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The villagers of Sommocolonia had long acknowledged the sacrifice of the U.S. soldiers in defense of their town, but had it not been for the efforts of the survivors and families of the soldiers, as well as that of author Solace Wales, Lt. Fox may not have been remembered at all.

Remembrance is not a passive act. It takes time and effort to remember, especially of the things that for whatever reasons of prejudice were discounted or intentional forgotten.

On this Memorial Day, remember — actively.

Presidents’ Day 2023

As of the writing of this post, Jimmy Carter is at home receiving hospice care. However many hours, days, or weeks are left to him, he can rest assured of near-universal acclaim for having conducted the best post-presidency in the modern era.

A United States President nowadays commands awesome power, including quite literally the ability to instigate the end of civilization as we know it. That that power is wielded by a democratically elected official who can count on being held in contempt by a portion of the electorate is an irony of the modern age. Carter was of course not immune to that: Marlene recalls working as a librarian the 1980s and being asked for Rosalynn Carter memoir First Lady from Plains by a slightly different title: “First Lady Complains”.

Presidential power is not the domain of a Superman single-handedly changing the world; many hands are involved. What the President can do at best is to inspire, to lead, to exemplify, to cajole, to persuade, but almost never to directly do. Carter exemplified some of the best of that indirectness. Let us consider a few incidents.

Carter survived Admiral Hyman RIckover’s job interview – undoubtedly one of the toughest anywhere in the world – to serve in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine service. In 1952, an experimental nuclear reactor in Ontario, Canada, the Chalk River NRX, suffered a partial meltdown that resulted in a radioactive mess. The cleanup took 14 months, and since the NRX was being used to test fuel for U.S. nuclear submarines, Canada invited the U.S. Navy to provide men to assist with the cleanup (and to supplement the Canadian reactor staff, many of whom were reaching their legal radiation exposure limits). Rickover, seeing an excellent training opportunity, sent them over, including a team led by Carter.

Carter’s team was responsible for performing some of the disassembly of parts of the reactor and had to move quickly. According to his memoirs, they had about 90 seconds apiece to do their work before reaching the maximum permitted exposure. They came, they planned, they did their work, and went back home. While it left an impression on Carter – having to test your urine for six months before it stopped registering as radioactive tends to do that to a person – the tale subsequently grew in the telling (by others). Some accounts published in recent years might give one the impression that he saved Ottawa (which wasn’t in danger) by personally leading the entire cleanup effort (he was responsible for just one team consisting of between one and dozen men as part of a much larger operation run by the Canadians). But Carter himself had a more accurate perspective: he did his duty bravely, as many others did, and ensured that the men he led did theirs.

One of Carter’s signature accomplishments during his presidency was the signing of the Camp David Accords that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt. This time, Carter personally chivvied the negotiations along, including taking Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield to ponder the cost of war. While the Accords did not achieve all that Carter hoped for, as he had tried to get Syria and Jordan to participate, they led to a peace between Israel and Egypt that remains unbroken.

However, Carter’s best legacy may ultimately have nothing to do with nuclear power or high diplomacy. In fact, that legacy may be marked by an absence: specifically, that of Dracunculus medinensis, i.e., the guinea worm. In 1986, Carter’s foundation started an effort to eradicate the guinea worm. This project is the epitome of a group effort using boring means to achieve its aim. An eradication program inherently involves many international and national health agencies, and guinea worms do not lend themselves to extinction by the heroic efforts of genius medical research. Instead, the weapons are education, water filters, and patience. But nearly 40 years of patience can be enough: there were about 3.5 million cases of guinea worm disease in 1986. Last year, there were about 13.

Carter likely will not live to hear the World Health Organization’s proclamation of the end of the disease – but he can rest easy knowing that his efforts will outlive him and achieve a permanent solution to a major problem; the sort of legacy not every U.S. President is accorded.

New Year’s Day 2023 (observed): You are the New Day

Sometimes the obvious thing is obvious because it is good. One obvious thing: if you are at involved in high school chorus in the U.S., you will run into the King’s Singers and their cover of “You are the New Day” by John David:

I was no exception lo these many years ago. David’s secular hymn still sticks in my mind, even as time marches on. Alas, I just learned that the high school music teacher who introduced me to it passed on early in 2022.

I wish you all a happy new day and new year, and leave you with the original version by the Airwaves:

I will love you more than me and more than yesterday
if you can but prove to me you are the new day.

Send the sun in time for dawn, let the birds all hail the morning.
Love of life will urge me say, you are the new day.

When I lay me down at night, knowing we must pay,
thoughts occur that this night might stay yesterday.

Thoughts that we as humans small could slow worlds and end it all
lie around me where they fall, before the new day.

One more day when time is running out for ev’ryone,
like a breath I knew would come, I reach for a new day.

Hope is my philosophy, just needs days in which to be,
love of life means hope for me, born on a new day.

Boxing Day 2022 and the detection of tsunamis

‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’

On this Boxing Day, I will take the advice of Mr. Weller from the Pickwick Papers and not deliver even a single stave of poetry. Instead, I’ll focus on the natural topic of the day: early warning systems for tsunamis.

The earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean took place on December 26th and thus is also known as the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. It killed roughly 230,000 people, making it one of the worst natural disasters of all time.

The epicenter of the earthquake was off the northwestern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The resulting tsunami hit coastlines throughout the Indian Ocean, with. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand suffering the most loss of life.

While it took the tsunami between 15 minutes and several hours to reach various coastlines, unfortunately, most areas had little or no warning that it was coming. A few communities benefited from local knowledge of past tsunamis (or from schoolchildren who happened to remember their geology classes) and evacuated their beaches, but there was no system for detecting tsunamis and broadcasting warnings that covered the Indian Ocean. (And unlike the Pacific Ocean, tsunamis are not particularly common in the Indian Ocean).

Needless to say, after 2004 there were a lot of international efforts to set up a warning system.

Representation of a tsunami detection and warning system. Image credit: GITWES

UNESCO’s Indian Ocean Tsunami Information Center‘s website describes the warning infrastructure that has been put in place since 2004.  As of today, the three centers of the system (or Tsunami Service Providers (!)) are in Australia, India, and Indonesia. A combination of sensors, 24/7 operations centers, procedures, bureaucracy, and exercises have improved the chances that a tsunami will be detected and warnings relayed in enough time to allow people to flee to higher ground.

And yet: it is a hard problem to not only detect tsunamis but to keep up the effort year after year. The 2018 earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia killed about 4,400 people. While the the Indonesian meteorological agency (BMKG) did issue warnings, a number of problems led to fewer people actually getting the warning than planned. These problems included:

A lot more to do, clearly, and I hope that the people of Indonesia will be better served in the future. However, I want to emphasize that this is a difficult problem: laying all the blame on the BMKG would ignore a lot of structural factors.

Let conclude by circling back to Boxing Day. Traditionally it includes distributing alms to the poor; certainly, when the next tsunami disaster occurs, donating to relief funds would be a good thing to do. However, I can’t say I know where you could effectively donate to improve tsunami warning systems; it may not be the sort of problem that really lends itself to individual charitable giving.

Thanksgiving 2022

Galen here once again to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. As was the case in 2018 and 2020, more cats have entered our lives. This time, it’s Luna (who likes bathroom sinks and has OPINIONS if you’re not petting her when required) and Tuna (who is a very sweet and very large lug of a kitty). Alas, this year also marked the passing of Freddie. Cats leave holes in our hearts when they pass; new cats do not fill those holes, not quite, but lay the groundwork for future holes — and yet I cannot imagine a life without them.

The reading for today is a small one: “The cat’s song” by Marge Piercy:

Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing

milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.

Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

… the rest here

Veterans Day 2022

Cat on the HMAS Encounter sitting in a ship's gun barrel
The feline mascot of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Encounter during WW1

Since the beginning of armed conflict, soldiers have had to find small comforts where they could. Sometimes that comfort has come in the shape of cats and other furry pets.

Soldiers’ and sailors’ cats often had jobs — killing vermin, acting as mascots, and so forth — but as this piece by Nick Barnett put it,

Why does a soldier in the trenches make a pet of a cat? Sure, a playful cat can relieve boredom, and in a setting where hugs generally aren’t going to happen, it can provide a warm little body to cuddle.

Tucking a cat into the crook of your arm, feeding it, giving it life amid wreckage and danger, would have been a way of reminding themselves that there was reason for going home, and that they were still human.

That, to me, is the other great job – alongside the mousing – that cats have played in war zones. They’ve lifted men’s spirits and reminded them who they are.

On this Veteran’s Day 2022, we are 104 years past the end of the “war to end all wars” — that expression of a hope doomed to be left unfulfilled for the foreseeable future. Thus, cats still find themselves in war zones and in the care of soldiers, although nowadays the cats of war sometimes have Instagram accounts.

Of course, the cats are not the center of any war — just a sideshow, really. Give a thought to those who have found themselves in war, that uniquely inhumane yet all-too-human circumstance.

Also, Слава Україні!

Labor Day 2022

Luna supervising the production of this very blog post

I think that Labor Day can be a slightly ambiguous holiday for a computer technologist such as myself.

On the one hand, although I am not a member of a labor union and my profession infamously resists being organized, I enjoy many of the benefits of past union efforts, including the weekend and subsidized health insurance. I was not forced to work as a child, nor could I have been legally employed as one, and I have recourse if I were to lose my job.

On the other hand, one of the points of computers is that they can perform certain kinds of tasks more quickly than any human could. This often gives people the opportunity to do more interesting work and promotes economic growth. In my particular niche, library automation, the computer taking care of the recording of checkouts means that fewer people are needed to do things like send out overdue notices, in principle freeing up staff time to do more interesting things like run children’s story hour.

Now, new technology does not inevitably mean that the robots instantly take over all the jobs. While on the face of it ATMs are an obvious threat to a bank teller’s job, between 1970 and 2010 the number of bank tellers actually increased. Why? While fewer tellers were needed per branch, banks had various reasons to open a lot more branches (which nowadays are largely sales offices that somewhat grudgingly also accept small business deposits and convert coins into more useful cash). But with the rise of mobile banking and the decline in number of branch banks as the industry consolidates, the prospect for bank teller employment is looking grim.

However, sometimes the robots really do quickly take over. When’s the last time you’ve encountered an elevator operator?

Let’s get back to libraries. Computers have allowed the creation and maintenance of big global databases that gather together the efforts of lots of library catalogers. Let’s say your public library just received a box of the latest James Patterson novel and needs to get it into their catalog. It’s been decades since your library — and each and every one of its 9,000 peers in the U.S. — had to enter the record from scratch and figure out what subject headings to assign. Grabbing a record from one of those big databases and adapting it (or not) suffices. Thus, you don’t need a full time professional cataloger in each and every library because technology facilitates sharing the work. There’s still a lot to be done with library metadata, so library cataloging (viewed broadly) isn’t about to disappear.

However, that can be cold comfort to somebody whose job actually does disappear or gets radically changed because of a new computer system. Computerization, if nothing else, leads to change. Sometimes that change is good, but often it is indifferent or negative for somebody who just wants to work their way to a dignified retirement.

Thus, the ambiguity: computerization doesn’t necessarily lead to destroying entire occupations (though sometimes it does), but it is often the cause of change, or at least the avatar of it. And that means that the computer technologist is sometimes not the friend of labor, whatever other public benefits their work may provide.

Some reading:

  • Erik Loomis is a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. Sometimes frustrating, but always interesting, he regularly blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. I recommend his “Erik Visit an American Grave” series.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich passed away this week. Her book Nickel and Dimed remains essential.

July 4th, 2022

Flag of the 3rd US Colored Troops

The flag in today’s post is the banner of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the of the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War. It was designed by an African American artist, David Bustill Bowser, who also designed flags for at least 10 other African-American regiments. It reads, “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live To Be Slaves.”

We only know what seven of Bowser’s flags look like. There once were originals kept at the museum in West Point. However, they were thrown out in 1940. Or destroyed in a fire.

We really ought to keep better track of the symbols of the ongoing fight for our freedom.

July 4th, 1863, marks the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi to General Grant. African Americans had been joining the fight at Vicksburg well before the town surrendered, but recruitment continued afterwards. There was another 3rd African American regiment, the 3rd United States Colored Calvary Regiment. It was raised in October of 1863 in Vicksburg and saw quite a lot of service. By 1864 it was getting encomiums like this in the Vicksburg Herald:

We learn the black horse cavalry (U.S. 3rd colored) under their gallant leader Maj. Cook, captured the three pieces of artillery which where brought here as the trophies of the late fight near Woodville, Miss. It has been the custom of some “white folks” to underrate the courage of the negro soldiers, but we have heard officers and men of white commands who have been in action with the 3rd colored cavalry say that they are as good fighters as there are in the U.S. army, and under the lead of the chivalrous Cook they will charge to the cannon’s mouth.

The tone of that newspaper piece didn’t reflect general sentiment of many in Vicksburg. For example, the whites of that town stopped celebrating Independence Day. It wasn’t until 1945 that they got back in the habit, and not until 1947, when Eisenhower visited, that the practice really took off.

The African American’s of the Vicksburg area had no such compunctions, and in 1864 notably celebrated in the “House that Jeff Built”: i.e., the plantation where Jeff Davis kept 131 slaves in 1860.

While some people complain that Black people had no cause for celebrating the Fourth of July in the nation’s past, Black military history researcher Bennie McRae of Trotwood, Ohio says the Black people celebrating that first July 4 at Davis Bend were entitled to celebrate because of their involvement with the war effort.

“It was not a white thing, because when Vicksburg fell Black soldiers at Milliken’s Bend and in other battles over in Louisiana and Mississippi had made it possible,” he said.

The most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi Black troops to liberate themselves, their families, and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864, and Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864.

“That was a heck of a cause for celebrating the Fourth of July in 1864 and in the years since, because their people assisted in bringing down the Confederacy,” McRae said. “There’s an abundance of documentation on that coming from the soldiers and sailors and the contraband (ex-slaves) themselves.

May we continue to be able to preserve our union without having to design new regimental flags. But remember, not all battles for liberty for the U.S. and its people were fought solely under the Stars and Stripes, and the stories of those flags matter.

Juneteenth 2022: readings and a question

[Picture of general orders made by General Granger in Galveston, Texas on 19 June 1865]

Emancipation from slavery in the United States was a process, not an instantaneous transformation. Consider General Order No. 3 made in Galveston, Texas, on 19 June 1865:

Galveston Texas June 19th 1865.

General Orders

No. 3.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By order of Major General Granger

F.W. Emery

Major A.A. Genl.

This was of course made well after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the formal end of the Civil War. By that point in time, many slaves had been freed and many had freed themselves. All had to grapple with what freedom meant, both abstractly and in very concrete terms: how to keep body and soul together when the harvest waited for no one, the former slave owners largely resisted any fundamental changes to the relations between whites and African Americans, and wartime promises of land came mostly to naught.

In 1873, the New York Times published this piece on successful farming cooperatives organized by former slaves:

Some of the largest plantations in Colleton County, South Carolina, are now owned and successfully conducted by colored people, who have united their resources and combine in their labor. Their manner of operation is thus described by a South Carolina paper: “A number of them, in some cases as many as fifty, form themselves into a society, elect their officers, and adopt by-laws. They have regular meetings, at which the officers report, and a specified amount is paid into the treasury by each member. When sufficient is accumulated in the treasury a suitable plantation is selected and the purchase made; usually the payments are in one, two, or three years, a good portion being paid at the time of the purchase. The land is equally distributed by the officers elected for that purpose among the members of the society, or so much as they may wish to cultivate. Each is free to work as suits him, and each can dispose of his crop as he deems proper. The only thing required is honesty and a prompt payment of all dues, which are usually very light. Any one willfully failing to meet his dues, or convicted of dishonesty, has all amounts previously paid by him for the purchase of the place refunded, and is required to move off the plantation, all his rights and claims having been forfeited.

A sort of rivalry seems to spring up between them, which is productive of economy and thrift. These societies are located in the low country east of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad. We do not presume to say that only the colored people who have formed themselves into these societies show thrift and the accumulation of property, for a number who, six or seven years ago, were not worth a dollar now carry on successfully large rice and cotton plantations, and are becoming heavy tax-payers. But in the particular section in which these societies are formed, more property exists among their members than among those who are now fighting the battle of life and death on their own account, while from the formation of these societies they are enabled to purchase more valuable property and secure greater privileges than they could if each laid his money out in a separate purchase, in which case ten or twenty acres of poor land would be all he would be able to buy, as no planter would consent to cut off and sell small tracts of his best land and retain himself the poorer portion. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons of their success, as on nearly all the plantations in this section a large proportion of the land is almost valueless.

By securing the whole plantation they obtain sufficient good land for their purposes, while he who purchases for himself generally gets such land that it is impossible to make more than a poor subsistence from.

(I first found the news article on the educator resources section of the After Slavery exhibition. A summary of emancipation in Georgia that I ran across can be found here.)

It’s of course easy enough to guess that the co-ops had troubles after the post-Reconstruction imposition of white supremacy in South Carolina in 1876 and beyond, but the specifics are not readily showing up via web searches. The website of the Colleton County Historical and Preservation Society happily mentions that many Tuskegee Airmen trained at an airfield in the county but is entirely silent on post-Reconstruction history.

So my question remains: I wonder what happened to those co-op plantations.

Memorial Day 2022

Vietnam Memorial


My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.

A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

From “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa.


Grandfather died in 1919 and it would be a number of years before the graves of World War I veterans appeared. Meanwhile the white cemetery from our back door to Chapel Hill Road and beyond was filled with the Confederate dead. Every Memorial Day or Decoration Day, the cemetery was dotted with crossbarred Confederate flags. As a Union veteran, Grandfather was entitled to a Union flag for his grave, so every May I walked proudly through a field of Confederate flags hugging my gold-pointed replica of Old Glory. I crossed Chapel Hill Road to the Fitzgerald family burial ground and planted it at the head of Grandfather’s grave.”

From Proud Shoes, a memoir by Pauli Murray, civil rights activist and first African American woman to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.


The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulfull call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

“Ashbah” from Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, veteran of Bosnia and Iraq.