Tuesday, August 10, 2021

"April 1865: The Month That Saved America"

Most people know that Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, and that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox that same month. It was the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

What most people don't know (but I learned from Jay Winik's excellent book, April 1865: The Month That Saved America) is that the military and political leadership of both the Union and the Confederacy were involved in momentous decisions in April that helped bring the war to an end, and bring the country back together. These were decisions that, had they been made differently, could've resulted in catastrophe for our nation. Even if the Union had won the war, and the South readmitted, our identity as a unified country might have been in jeopardy had these decisions been made differently. 

As Winik points out, using contemporary examples, some countries and regions never fully recover from civil wars. To increase the probability of long-lasting peace, Lincoln and Grant chose to disregard the railings of those who would bring shame and severe punishment on the heads of their conquered enemy. Though Jefferson Davis was all for a last-ditch attempt at preserving the Confederacy by sending the army into the hills for prolonged guerrilla warfare, Lee chose the high road, knowing the impact of a sustained war would only make matters far worse than they already were. Winik covers both the strengths and faults of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman, Johnson, Davis, and Forrest, and shows that, despite these faults, they made the decisions at the end of the war that enabled the U.S. to come back together.

The only thing I wish Winik had not omitted was a discussion of Lincoln's presidential pardons for high-ranking Confederate officers and officials, and how that played out with Andrew Johnson once he assumed the presidency. I believe Lincoln's policies in this regard played an important role in achieving peace, and Johnson's policies almost aborted this.

For a different but equally engaging account of events in April and May 1865, I highly recommend James L. Swanson's Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

How to Get from Jazz to Math in Sixty Seconds

In my post of June 29, I talked about connections among people, types of music, inspiration for writers, etc. Sometimes it's fun to play a game of "connect the dots." Here's a series of connections I recently picked up on:

Beginning with jazz

My wife and I recognize that we were not born with the gene for appreciating jazz. I have a feeling that that would apply to "progressive" jazz as well (if not more so). 

But progressive rock is a different story. I appreciate it a great deal, and my wife appreciates some of it too. This genre of music is represented by many bands, including Dream Theater (official website here), perhaps my favorite band of all time.

... to a progressive rock guitarist

Dream Theater's lead guitarist, John Petrucci, is an award-winning virtuoso.

Petrucci has also had a side gig, a band called Liquid Tension Experiment.

... and on to math

Liquid Tension Experiment is a favorite band of two German mathematicians, Peter Scholze and Johan Commelin.

"Liquid Tensor Experiment" was the title of a post on mathematician Kevin Buzzard's blog in December 2020, in which Peter Scholze described some of his recent work.

This work included the use of mathematical objects called liquid real vector spaces in a proof that was verified by a breakthrough computer system named "Lean".

Try it yourself!

Start with this and see where you can go with it: "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes", a song by Jefferson Starship whose lyrics reference Einstein: "I like to move at the speed of light / Albert says I can't but I can".

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Four Ministers and a Confederate Colonel

In a recent post I explained how network science shows that any two arbitrary people in the world may be more closely linked, through a chain of social connections, than one might expect. In exploring the history of my great-great-grandfather Second Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy's service in Tennessee's Confederate cavalry, I discovered a chain of associations among army chaplains, ministers, and the commander of Lieutenant Lacy's regiment.

The Needs of Body and Soul

In a letter he wrote a month after joining Tennessee's Confederate cavalry, Lieutenant Lacy spoke of going to church and hearing "Dr. Pendergrass" preach. The chaplain of Lacy's regiment, the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry, was Charles Wylie Witt, a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. "Parson" Witt's nephew, Travis Witt Pendergrass, actually accompanied this regiment for several months, attending to the needs of both body (surgery) and soul (exhortation). Like his uncle, Pendergrass was a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. His three younger brothers were all in the same company as Lieutenant Lacy. (1)

Reconnected in the Middle of War

A few months after Lieutenant Lacy heard Pendergrass preach, the Eighth Cavalry was sent to Florence, Alabama.  There Pendergrass was surprised to run into a fellow Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Thomas Fletcher Bates.  Then, to his further surprise, he encountered Rev. R. A. Young, a prominent preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, currently serving as president of the Wesleyan University in Florence.  Pendergrass had met Young in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1853, shortly before Young was reassigned to a pastorate in St. Louis, Missouri. (2)

A Confederate Colonel

In 1846, Reverend Young had met the "plain, quiet" son of his friend, Anthony Dibrell. That son, George Gibbs Dibrell, was now a colonel commanding the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry. Of Colonel Dibrell's religious convictions, Young said "When his [Dibrell's] chaplain preached to his command, standing between two tallow candles, one of his most devout listeners was the commander in chief."  The chaplain he refers to is most likely Charles Witt. (3)

And the Lacy Family Is Indebted to Chaplain Charles Witt

Before Lieutenant Lacy's regiment returned to Tennessee from Alabama, Charles Witt resigned as chaplain, complaining that the varicose veins in his legs made riding a horse very uncomfortable. Pendergrass signed off on a medical discharge for his uncle. When Witt left Florence for Jackson County, Tennessee, he delivered to Lacy's family an accounting that Lieutenant Lacy had kept of all the operations of the Eighth Cavalry up to that point. The family owns that document today. (4)

(1) Lacy, Mark E. MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry. 2019.

(2)Pendergrass, T. W. to Nancy Pendergrass, 15 March 1863. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pendergrass/pics/travis/pics_travis.html 

(3) Young, R. A. Reminiscences. Nashville, Tennessee: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1900. https://readux.library.emory.edu/books/emory%3A7sv2p/pdf/

(4) Lacy, Mark E. Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents. 2020.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Murder and Mayhem: When In-Laws are Out-Laws

Jube Lee Whitson (left) and unknown person,
location unknown, before 1935. (Courtesy of Ed Mason).
From a young age, my great-aunt's brother-in-law was a criminal. In time, Jube Whitson would be convicted of murder and sent to prison, then eight years later escape from prison, and two years later, be killed rather than be taken prisoner again.

Early life

Jube Lee Whitson was born July 20, 1888. At age 16 he was working at the Harley Pottery in Nashville, Tennessee, where my great-grandfather, William Woolsey Lacy, also worked. Jube was only 17 when he married Sallie Rawley in Jackson County, Tennessee. Justice of the Peace John P. Mayberry, a neighbor and Confederate veteran, officiated. And by age 19, Jube was a young father on the run from the law. My great-grandmother (Martha Jane Lacy) wrote in a letter to her son, Edward Jackson Lacy, in January 1908:

"Jube Clinton Jim Flat is [illegible]. Well tha say the government has ofered hundred dolars reward for Jube. But I tell Alvin [Lacy] the sed about Jube is the best for he is mean. He come over here to see if he cood get Alvin to take him to the [Cookeville] depo. He sad he had him to the place where you are. He sed you coud go thare on the train to where you are [Eureka, California]. If Jube ever comes out thare dont hav now use for him. Tha say that have teliphone to ever station so he cant pass but he may slip thru."

A week or two later, Thomas H. Byers, a cousin to Jackson Lacy who lived in San Francisco, wrote Jackson, saying:

"I got a letter from F. D. Byers the other day. He was teling me all a bout Jube Whitson. It would be a good thing if tha could cetch him and stop his way of geting a long in this world."

In June 1908, Tom Byers' brother, W. A. Byers in San Francisco wrote Jackson Lacy, saying

"Jub Whitson cut a gut [expression derived from when a hunter or farmer does a poor job of dressing an animal] dident he? I told Anderson Byers when he was here that Jub was dangeres and I was a fraid of him."

Little is known about Jube's service in the "Great War" (World War I). He registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, while he was in Denver, Colorado. A year later he shipped out as a private in the 46th Engineers, Co. C, leaving from Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the Sierra. Four months later, the war ended. Whatever self-discipline Jube might have picked up in the military was not enough to keep him out of future trouble.

Earning a reputation for ruthlessness

Even when Jube was in the neighborhood, people were reluctant to turn him in. They were probably afraid of what he'd do to them once he got out of jail. One time Jim (James Isaac) Flatt was taking a wagonload of railroad crossties to Cookeville when Jube stopped him to catch a ride. Jim began to tease Jube, saying he could turn him in and collect the reward. In response, Jube cut Jim's throat and threw him off in a ditch, leaving him for dead. Jim's brothers got their guns and went after Jube but failed to find him.

Jim Flatt recovered, but from that day on, folks called him "Cutthroat Jim."

Convicted and sent to prison

By the early 1920s, Jube Whitson had divorced his first wife Sallie and moved to Oklahoma. Whitson's crimes have never been completely chronicled, but the one that sent him to prison was the murder of his second wife, Ada. (Adah Larkins Whitson.)

Jube and Ada had moved to Muskogee in the summer of 1925. Pauline Binkley, age 28, had worked as a housekeeper for the Whitsons while they lived in Tennessee, and she accompanied them when they moved.

The killing of Ada Whitson took place on September 20, 1925, a few miles east of Muskogee. Jube and Ada were sharing a picnic and hunting in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, when, as Jube claimed, he tripped and fell and his gun went off, killing his wife. Investigations began immediately. On the evening of September 30, Pauline Binkley confessed to officers at Tahlequah, the county seat for Cherokee County, that she knew Jube wanted to rid himself of his wife. Pauline said she helped Jube obtain the gun he used to kill his wife, knowing what Jube planned. Jube denied this, of course.

But Ada's family was not buying that explanation. They pressed the law for justice.

While Jube Whitson remained in the Cherokee County Jail, officials grew nervous. The jail was not considered a particularly secure one, and they feared Whitson would try to escape.

The Cherokee County court worked feverishly to clear its docket before the Christmas holidays, holding nightly sessions to make that happen. Jube's murder trial only took a few days. The prosecution claimed that Jube was accused of slaying his wife Ada to marry Pauline, and to collect the life insurance on Ada. Counsel for both sides in the case finished their closing arguments at 3 AM on a Tuesday morning. Jube was convicted of first degree murder, and Pauline was convicted of being an accessory to the crime. Each of them were given life sentences and sent to the maximum-security state prison in McAlester, Oklahoma. New Year's Day, 1926, would be Jube Whitson's first full day in prison.


For some reason, after the lovers had served several years of their sentences, someone pressed for more details on the murder. Pauline Binkley was brought before the Pardon and Parole Board at the state prison. She was told the Board was inclined to consider clemency for her if she cooperated in providing details about the murder. But all Pauline could say was, "I don't know anything about the shooting of Mrs. Whitson except the things I was told." Parole was denied.

Parole was highly unlikely to be a part of Jube Whitson's future. The only way he would see the outside of a prison would be by escaping. It took some time for Jube to find a way to break out of prison. With the help of his son, Fred, Jube planned his escape. 

Jube's escape took place on September 11, 1933. According to Ray Flatt, after serving eight years of his life sentence, Jube was outside the prison on a work detail one day when he got down on his knees, pretending to look at something. When the guard knelt to see what Jube was looking at, Jube hit him over the head and ran. Fred was waiting, and when he got the signal from his father, he drove by and picked him up. The two returned to Middle Tennessee.

In 1932 and 1933, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation began publishing personal details to help in finding and identifying fugitives. Jube Whitson was described as being about 5'10" in height, 151 1/2 pounds, medium build, gray-black hair, green eyes, and a medium complexion. He had three vaccination scars on his upper left arm, while on his right arm he sported tattoos of a nude woman, a sailor, an American eagle, a flag, and a wreath. His residence was listed as Muskogee, Oklahoma; his occupation, florist; and nationality, American.

Jube spent the next two years in hiding, but people would still see him in public. One person who saw him was my uncle, Wesley Flatt, a great-nephew to Cutthroat Jim. Wesley was only a young boy when he and his father, Ermon Flatt, were walking in the woods one day after Jube's return. As they came around the curve of an old wagon road, they met Jube walking the other way. As Jube approached them, he brought his shotgun down from his shoulder, perhaps as a precaution, but perhaps to intimidate whomever he encountered. But when he saw it was Ermon Flatt and his boy, he said, "Good morning, gentlemen," and put his gun up again. Some folks believed Jube might have been hiding out in one of the big caves nearby.

Jube Whitson is killed

In June 1935, Jube met his end. Acting on a tip from someone living in the countryside of Putnam County, Tennessee, the law caught up to Jube.

Early on a Friday morning, the transfer agent for the Oklahoma prison and two deputy sheriffs from Putnam County waited beside a corn field seven miles northwest of Cookeville. Jube had been living with Ras and Hazel Rippetoe. Hazel was a cousin to Jube. Jube always carried a semi-automatic pistol, for, as he had told relatives on more than occasion, he would never be taken back to Oklahoma alive and any officer attempting to arrest him would have to beat him to the draw. 

The lawmen had left Cookeville at 1:15 AM and silently made their way to the Rippetoe farm, where they concealed themselves in the tall grass. They were prepared to wait all day, if necessary, for their chance to apprehend Whitson. But the day had just begun when they were presented with an opportunity.

At 6 AM, Jube and three of the Rippetoe children--Doyle (age 16), Audrey (age 14), and Willard (age 11)--were chopping out corn. Working this early in the morning was easier than working in the heat of a summer day. When Jube came near enough, the officers leapt up, demanded his surrender, and told him to raise his hands. Jube wasn't about to be captured, though. He tried to draw his gun, a German Luger. The transfer agent fired two blasts from his shotgun. One of the deputies fired his shotgun into the air over Whitson's head, and took another shot at Whitson's hand, hoping that would prevent Whitson from drawing his pistol.

Whitson fell, mortally wounded in his left breast. The officers sent the Rippetoe children to tell their parents what had happened. The children also watched over Whitson's body until an ambulance from Cookeville could arrive to recover the body. Whitson was buried in the Morgan Pippin Cemetery on the Gainesboro Road in Putnam County.

Ironically, Jube's death certificate showed him as "widowed." (True, but he was responsible for becoming widowed.)

Some different details of a desperado's demise

As with many examples of oral history (and even with "eye" witnesses) details will differ. In 2001, Dennis Rippetoe's father, Willard (Bill) Rippetoe, said his father was an eye-witness when Jube Whitson was killed. Bill told Dennis that while Jube was in prison he became a "trustee" and was allowed to go to town for supplies. It was on one of these trips to town that Fred came along and helped him escape. (To me, the idea that a convicted murderer serving a life sentence would be allowed to go to town for supplies doesn't sound very plausible.)

According to Bill Rippetoe, Jube had raised his hands when the lawmen opened fire. (Perhaps Jube raised his hands, then went for his gun.) Eneloit Smith (great-niece of Cutthroat Jim Flatt, and niece of Bert Flatt and Earlene Lacy Flatt) had heard that Jube was shot in the back. Perhaps he had started to run. As an escaped murderer, Jube Whitson may very well have been wanted dead or alive.

A final word

As I grew up, I often heard my mother quote from the Numbers 32:23 from the Bible, "Be sure your sins will find you out." Jube Whitson's sins finally caught up to him, but he had left behind him a trail of malice and tragedy.

A special thank-you to Ed Mason for research materials.

More details surrounding Jube's murder of his wife can be found in Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson (see books.google.com search results here).


  1. Lacy family letters, 14 Feb 1905, 18 Jan 1908, 20 June 1908.
  2. State of Tennessee, Jackson County, Marriage License for Jube Whitson and Sallie Rawley, 23 Feb 1906.
  3. WWI Draft Registration Cards, Fold3.com.
  4. U.S. Army WWI Transport Service, Passenger Lists, Fold3.com.
  5. Records for Adah Larkin Whitson, Findagrave.com.
  6. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 1 Oct 1925, page 11.
  7. Times-Democrat newspaper, 4 Nov 1925.
  8. The Democrat-American (Sallisaw, Oklahoma), 25 Jun 1926, page 12.
  9. Fugitives: Wanted by Police. Vol. 1 and 2. Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Investigation, 1932-1933. Vol. 2, No. 11, pp. 19-20, 1 Nov 1933.
  10. Miami Daily News-Record (Miami, Oklahoma), 4 Apr 1935, page 3.
  11. State of Tennessee Certificate of Death #13703, Jube Lee Whitson, 14 Jun 1935.
  12. Cemetery marker, Jube Lee Whitson, Findagrave.com.
  13. The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), 15 Jun 1935, page 2.
  14. Putnam County (Tenn.) Herald, June 1935.
  15. Email from Eneloit Smith (Doyle Eneloit Williams Smith), February 2001.
  16. Conversation with Wesley Flatt, October 2001.
  17. Email from Dennis Rippetoe, November 2001.
  18. Email from Bettie Sue Goolsby, June 2003.
  19. FamilySearch information for Hazel Whitson Rippetoe, retrieved July 18, 2021.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

My Alesis Nitro Mesh expanded set.
My wife professes to be weird. Sometimes she claims I'm weird too. I try to tell her neither one of us is weird -- we're "unique." Each of us is a statistical outlier in various ways. The old cliche, "marching to the beat of a different drummer" comes to mind. 

But the cliche is about to become literal! After a wait of about fifty years, I've started down the path of learning to play drums as I once wanted to do. The path to get here was a circular one.

"Paper" drums and "plastic" guitars

In my teenage years, when I began to listen to rock and was exposed to it at school dances, I wanted to play drums. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford a set of drums, and I had no room in our little house to set some up. And, it would be too noisy. I made do for a while by laying out pieces of paper on my bed to represent the different drums and cymbals and practicing with a couple of "real" drumsticks. When my parents bought me a cheap snare drum (one step above a toy) one Christmas, I had visions of going on to slowly build a collection somehow.

But it didn't happen. Instead, I got interested in guitar. It started with a plastic body acoustic guitar my sister had, that only had one string. I made up a song on it, and called it "Twenty-two Man." It involved playing only two notes on one string, and throwing in some lyrics I made up. It was awful. (The guitar, the song, my skill level ...) 

Graduating to "real" guitars and loud amplifiers

The following Christmas, I started down a path that would last me for decades. I progressed from a cheap guitar and a "baby" guitar amp to a larger and better guitar, a semi-acoustic Silvertone with a Bigsby tailpiece. (I couldn't yet afford the guitar of my dreams, a Gibson SG.) I graduated to a small but larger amp to play through. My father made me play through headphones so the neighbors wouldn't complain, and so he could get some work done in his office. Next, I secured a loan from my grandmother to purchase a 300-watt (125 watt RMS) Peavey 240 Standard solid-state amp with a speaker cabinet holding two 15" speakers. It was appropriately loud -- I seldom turned the volume control higher than 2 1/2. Once, in college, I plugged in a high-frequency horn and I was told people a mile away were able to hear me.

Alas, the Big Whoppin' Amp was not easy to transport back and forth to my dorm room. When it came time to buy a train ticket to travel to upstate New York and marry my first wife, I sold the amp and downsized.

Eventually I found a used Gibson SG I could afford. I purchased and played 6- and 12-string Ovation acoustic/electric guitars. I picked up a Yamaha bass guitar and learned to play it. I experimented with various synthesizers (a Casio CZ-101, a Yamaha DX7, a Kawai, a Roland, a KORG KROSS2). I played, off and on, with friends; did a few one-off gigs with people I knew; and contributed to praise bands in different churches.

Moving on to drums

Many years later, I decided I could afford some drums and I had room to set them up. Volume would be a problem, though, so I opted for electronic drums. I recently purchased an Alesis Nitro Mesh expanded (10-piece) set.  Modern-day mesh drumheads are quiet enough that if I'm listening to the drums through headphones, the tapping on the drumheads is almost inaudible. (Although the tapping noise from the electronic cymbals is another story.)

My current gear includes the Alesis electronic drums and cymbals, a Behringer Xenyx Q1202 mixer to blend instrument input as well as music from an Amazon Echo, and an inexpensive Sony receiver with output to some old Bose bookshelf speakers.

It took many years to get here, but I have now returned to my percussive "first love".

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Defoliation in War, Herbicides in Peace

The Bombing of Vietnam

In 1968, our eighth grade Civics teacher, Mr. Henry, assigned debate topics to our class. Our group of four included two teams of two students each to debate whether the U.S. should pull out of Vietnam. My partner and I were to take the position that the U.S. should pull out. 

Everyone in the class had to research their topics in the school library. I quickly learned the relative liberal/conservative stances of the major news magazines. TIME Magazine seemed biased toward withdrawal. U.S. News and World Report leaned toward staying in the war. Newsweek seemed to take a more neutral stance. The only statistic I can now remember having dug up to support our position on withdrawing from the war was this: that one ton of bombs had been dropped by the U.S. for every man, woman, and child living in Vietnam. (Fifty-three years later, I'm unable to verify this statistic. But according to this article, the same statistic held for the bombing of Laos between 1964 and 1973.) 

A few years later I learned there was something more insidious taking place in the natural world of Southeast Asia. It was something that didn't leave craters in the jungle floor. It was something that didn't strike with the sudden flare of a stream of napalm laid down across a verdant jungle. 

Defoliation in Vietnam, and Sherman's "March to the Sea"

Even as the first Earth Day was being celebrated in April 1970, American forces were executing a scorched-earth policy in Vietnam, a policy with echoes of Sherman's destruction of the South during the Civil War.* Bombs and napalm were only one part of waging war in Southeast Asia. Defoliants were dropped from planes, withering every living crop, plant, or tree they touched. These herbicides were sprayed on rice paddies and other agricultural areas to deprive the Viet Cong of food, just as Union troops burned fields and crops as a means of depriving Confederate forces (both regulars and guerrillas) and their supporters of food and livestock. Defoliants were also sprayed over jungle areas with the hope that stripping the foliage would reduce the number of hiding places for the Viet Cong.** 

Agent Orange was the defoliant used in Vietnam. It contained two compounds (2,4-D and 2,4,5-T) that mimic plant hormones, and tetrachlorodioxin, and a contaminant caused by the synthesis of 2,4,5-T. Dioxin is known for being highly teratogenic (developmentally toxic, causing birth defects), much more so than the infamous morning-sickness drug, thalidomide. Sadly, a large number of citizens in Southeast Asia were born with birth defects subsequent to the defoliation campaigns during the Vietnam War. For this reason, Agent Orange is no longer used and 2,4,5-T has been banned as an herbicide since 1985.

Peaceful uses of herbicides

In the years since the Vietnam War, herbicides based on the compound glyphosate have become the world's most widely used herbicides. Glyphosate's major use is in agriculture, where it is sprayed on crops that are genetically modified to resist glyphosate, inhibiting the growth of weeds among the crops. As one would expect, because of the extensive use of glyphosate, a great deal of attention has been focused on safety concerns. Regulatory agencies around the world, as well as organizations within the United Nations, have examined data regarding glyphosate's effects on not only human health but the environment as well. Unfortunately, while glyphosate is considered safe in many instances, there is a great deal of controversy. This may be due to the huge number of different formulations of glyphosate-based herbicides. Some studies have suggested particular components in herbicide formulations -- other than the glyphosate itself -- may be significantly less safe than glyphosate.

If you want to kill a plant, one way is to inhibit, as glyphosate does, an enzyme that plants depend on for growth (and animals do not have). That is an example of an intervention in a botanical system. As the development of herbicide resistance is more frequently seen, intervening in two places in a botanical system could be a more powerful way to kill plants. The likelihood of plants circumventing two interventions through development of resistance is very small. This is the rationale behind new herbicides that use both glyphosate and 2,4-D in their formulations.

Not surprisingly, the companies that market glyphosate-based herbicides also market seeds for crops that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate.

Many government agencies have looked at, and continue to look at, questions of toxicity for glyphosate. We can only hope that as time goes on, we will have more answers than questions.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Celtic Rock, Appalachian Stories, and Knowledge Maps

Six Degrees of Separation

Most people know of the "six degrees of separation" concept because of the popularity of the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. On average, any two actors in the world can be connected through a chain of movies in which actors have co-starred. 

More broadly, network science tells us that any two people in the world can be connected through social connections by no more than six jumps. Here are a few examples of my own:

  1. I am one degree from the deceased actor Vincent Price -- I once shook his hand at a college event. Anyone he knows, or starred in a movie with, is only two degrees from me. (Admittedly the social connection was not a remarkable one. LOL)
  2. I have met two Nobel Prize winners, which places me one degree away from each of them, and two degrees from the King of Sweden, who hands the prizes to each winner. 
  3. I have a relative who was a campaign manager for Senator Bob Dole years ago, which places me two steps from Dole and three steps from everyone Dole knew in Congress and Washington, DC. 
  4. Thanks to my father, who got Project Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra's autograph in 1964, I am three degrees from just about everyone in NASA's early space program. 
  5. Sadly, I am one degree from at least three people who took their own lives, and only two degrees from a political assassination in Venezuela.

Six degrees of separation is a social phenomenon. Work at digging up who is connected to whom, and you can wind up with a huge network of connections. Then, you can follow the network from one point to the next and uncover connections you didn't know about.

But what about other networks? A clever programmer could "scrape" (as they call it) book recommendations from Amazon's website and come up with a map of related books that might show you recommendations that were two or three or four steps away from a book you're looking at, instead of only one step away.

Still, these examples are only focused on connections between the same kinds of things (people with people, books with books). There's no a priori reason why we can't derive a network connecting different kinds of things that are related. A more sophisticated example using Amazon recommendations would include authors as well as books. Each author could be connected to every book that author has written, books could be connected to co-authors, and authors within a certain genre could all be connected. This would be useful if you wanted to use authors for recommendations, and not just books.

Discovery and knowledge

To take this one step further, consider an example network I created that connects certain authors, books, musicians, genres, and influences on musicians. The example network, shown at the bottom of this post, is something I developed using the yEd and yEd Live network drawing software, both of which are free software products from the software company yWorks. (An interactive version of this network, which includes hyperlinks, can be accessed via this link.)

At the top of the diagram are three authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Alex Bledsoe, and Sharyn McCrumb. (For more on Sharyn McCrumb, see this recent post of mine.) Beneath each author is an icon showing something that author has written. The Lord of the Rings is fantasy, of course, as are Bledsoe's "Tufa" stories, set in a modern-day part of the mountains of Tennessee. Many of Sharyn McCrumb's novels are set in the Appalachians.

Below that part of the diagram is the musician Dave Brons. Brons, who composes and performs progressive rock with a "Celtic symphonic twist", found inspiration in The Lord of the Rings. Bledsoe's "Tufa" novels inspired a group of musicians known as Tuatha Dea, also shown on the diagram, who compose and perform what they call "Appalachian Rock." Both Brons and Tuatha Dea have been influenced by Celtic culture. (And, Tuatha Dea has also been influenced by "steampunk.")

Final Remarks

The diagram I created is a small example of a knowledge map. It captures a set of connections I thought were interesting, that I can share with others, and that may lead others to consider artists or authors or works they might not realize were connected. As a knowledge map, it can be extended to include as many connections as I would like.

Knowledge map created using the free tools, yEd and yEd Live. See text for link.
Copyright Mark E. Lacy, 2021

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Bugs Bunny: Teacher and Mentor

Exposure to a Mischievous Cartoon Rabbit at an Impressionable Age

My wife likes to remind me to turn off the lights in a room when I leave it. So when I turned off our kitchen lights this evening, I said "Click!"

I didn't think about it, when I said "Click!", but I was alluding to a trick with a light switch Bugs Bunny plays on the Big Bad Wolf in the cartoon titled, "The Windblown Hare." Because I watched Bugs Bunny religiously during my formative years, it's not unusual for me to repeat something I learned so long ago from a cartoon.

From 1940 to 1964, Warner Bros. produced 170 cartoons featuring this iconic cartoon character. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons as well as many others produced under the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies labels. Thursday nights, when I was little, we watched "The Bugs Bunny Show." My father enjoyed watching Bugs almost as much as watching the Pink Panther. When Bugs moved to Saturday mornings, it was the centerpiece and main course of all the morning cartoons.

Bugs is a culturally-recognized example of the "trickster" archetype. On one hand, he's a friendly character who doesn't go looking for trouble. But on the other hand, once someone brings trouble to him, they better watch out! He is quite adept at devising clever tricks to play on those who have wronged him.

Time to Get Serious, and Make a List

Several years ago, I decided to apply my inherited and inordinate fondness for making lists by constructing a list of all the Bugs Bunny cartoons, drawing on information from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald. One by one, I checked off the ones I had watched. When I needed a few more to watch to complete the list, I found them on YouTube.

Going back to watching many of the old cartoons was spurred in part by a trend that concerned me. Many of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, including Bugs Bunny, were being censored before being shown on Cartoon Network. A shotgun blast to a character's face would be deleted, for example. I surmised that some group of concerned parents were influencing network executives to edit the cartoons for anything that might -- as these parents believed -- have a negative influence on their children's behavior. As I looked into this, I found there were entire cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny that have been banned because they depicted not just violence but racial stereotypes. These cartoons are not shown on TV but can be found on some DVDs or on YouTube. The DVDs released as the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" are compilations that include, among many of most famous cartoons, some of the more controversial ones. Each DVD begins with a message explaining that while some cartoons on the disk depict unacceptable behaviors such as racial stereotypes, they are included for historical reasons. But then, cartoons such as "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," a World War II-era feature, can now only be found on YouTube. At the time this short originally came out, its treatment of the Japanese as our enemies was dehumanizing, an almost universal sociological factor in wartime. (This cartoon, as well as many others released in wartime, were intended as entertainment for adults, not children.)

What Bugs Bunny Has Taught Me

So what have I learned by watching cartoons like Bugs Bunny over the years? I've learned it's good to have sense of humor and not take oneself too seriously. I've learned that being clever is better than being out-and-out mean. I picked up various expressions (like Yosemite Sam's "Ya' durn idgit" and "Whoa, mule [camel, elephant], I said whoa!"), some of which have become so embodied in my day-to-day conversations that I often don't realize I'm quoting a cartoon character. (As when I say "click" when I turn off a light.) 

Other fans of Bugs have been educated in other ways. One person commented on Twitter that Bugs had taught him that "revenge on my enemies should be quick, clever, and brutal.")

What did I not learn? I did not learn that shooting someone in the face simply turns their face black with gunpowder. Nor did I learn to think in racist terms. And enjoying the antics of an anthropomorphized rabbit who some have labeled a "cross-dresser" has not harmed me.

Like many others, I miss the "golden years" of animated shorts.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Tackling a Mystery Almost One Hundred Sixty Years Old

The disappearance of Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy

As I have detailed in my book, MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry, my great-great-grandfather disappeared in the middle of the Civil War and was never seen again. He disappeared after resigning his officer's commission. The most likely explanation for his disappearance is that he was bushwhacked by the enemy on his way home in Jackson County, Tennessee. The evidence strongly suggests this took place sometime in the beginning of August 1863, within twenty-five miles of home.

The companion volume to MISSING IN ACTION, 1863, titled Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents, includes annotated transcriptions of all the family letters, to and from Lieutenant Lacy, during the Civil War.

Imagine my surprise and excitement when I learned that transcriptions were published in someone else's book, with A. J. Lacy's photo on the cover!

A collection of Confederate diaries and letters

In 2006, Professor Howard Lytle Givens (who I believe is now deceased) published a collection of various letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers titled Tennesseans in the Civil War: Confederate Narratives from Battlefield and Home. While waiting for a copy of this book that my cousin Coby Lacy had sent me, I fantasized about discovering letters we'd never seen before. Or perhaps letters from other soldiers in Lieutenant Lacy's regiment that might shed light on the mystery of his disappearance.

But with the book finally in hand, my fantasies of learning something new about Lieutenant Lacy were dashed.

  1. Lieutenant Lacy's photo on the cover of the book is not a new one. It's actually a photo I had included when I had a website for Lacy many years ago.
  2. Chapter Eight includes Lacy's letters, with no annotation or discussion. Professor Givens reprinted the transcriptions of these letters, donated by my father to the Tennessee State Library & Archives, that are found on microfilm at TSLA. None of the other chapters include anything relevant to Lacy, his commanders, or his regiment.
  3. A short introductory paragraph for Chapter Eight mistakenly claims that Lieutenant Lacy served in Baxter Smith's Eighth Cavalry, instead of Dibrell's Eighth Cavalry. This mistake (one I've seen before) could have been avoided had the author done a little research.
  4. There is little to no evidence of any research on the part of the author except for some information gathered on the internet.
The Shawneetown letter - did Lieutenant Lacy survive the war as a Union officer?
(extracted from Battlefront and Homefront, copyright 2020 by Mark E. Lacy)

Lieutenant Lacy's only child, William Woolsey Lacy, was one of the first who tried to solve the mystery of his father's disappearance.

In the years since the end of the Civil War, W. W. Lacy, grew up, married, and had children of his own. But he must have entertained doubts that his father was a casualty of the war, and so he began asking questions.

We don't know how the two men got in touch with one another, but in the spring of 1893, thirty years after his father's disappearance during the war, W. W. Lacy received a letter from D. H. Jones of Medley, Missouri. This was not the first correspondence between the men. Jones had learned somehow of W. W. Lacy's search for his father, and passed along some information.

"... I think I made a mistake in the address of Mr. A. J. Lacy it is at Shoney Town Ills. I know thare is a man up thare by the name of A. J. Lacy for I am well acqanted with him. He marred a girl that was raised in the same neighborhood of my self. Her name is Miss Eison but she is dead now and he is a widower iff he has not marred sece last spring. He is a man of a bout 50 years of age 5-8 in hi lite complexion blue eyes and and was an officer in the Union Army and is from Tenn but I dont know what part."

No one knows that W. W. Lacy might have done with this information. But using modern tools and data unavailable to W. W. Lacy, it is clear that there are no records of a Union officer named A. J. Lacy in this timeframe (1890s) living in Illinois. Jones seemed to have confused A. J. Lacy with Royal R. Lacey, a former Union officer in the same area in southeast Illinois who had married a woman with the maiden name of Eison.

Final remarks

The mystery is still that: a mystery. A cold case to beat all cold cases. But I hold on to a hope that someday the right information will turn up to shed light on this mystery, if not to actually solve it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Productivity Tools: Evernote vs OneNote - Both/And, not Either/Or

In virtually any kind of environment where people have a choice in what computer hardware or software they use, they will divide into camps. PC vs Mac. Microsoft Office vs OpenOffice. Google Chrome vs Bing. Personal productivity is indeed that: personal. Two of the most popular productivity tools on the market are Evernote and Microsoft OneNote. I have chosen, after years of using both tools, to claim dual citizenship in their respective camps: I use both tools.


When Microsoft first introduced OneNote, I was immediately sold on the notion of having a place on my computer where I could save notes, documents, photos, files, and more, organized in a convenient fashion and easily accessible. OneNote allowed me to mix note types, organize them in a way I could quickly get to them, and begin eliminating paper files. For several years I was a OneNote zealot. It cost me nothing, since I had a corporate license, and later it was part of Office 365 so I didn't have to pay for it separately.

But one thing I found, over time, was that I needed to access my notes across multiple platforms: web, laptop, tablet, phone, etc. While Microsoft has since made progress in making OneNote less platform-dependent, I was anxious to find a tool I could use anywhere, under any circumstances.


Evernote was the solution I needed. When it was first released I gave it a try and found it to be much more in line with my work habits than OneNote. But when I learned that, in order to take full advantage of the tool I would have to pay a yearly subscription fee, I decided to stick with OneNote. Eventually, using the free version of Evernote, I realized paying a yearly subscription fee for Evernote was well worth it, and I moved to using only Evernote.

Evernote vs OneNote

OneNote and Evernote each have their advantages and disadvantages. Some of these include:

  • Attachments. I like how Evernote handles attachments better than how OneNote does. 
  • Responsiveness. OneNote feels "snappier" and much more responsive (as long as I have syncing with OneDrive turned off, because that seems to slow things down).
  • Embedded links. In Evernote you can embed links to other notes. OneNote goes one better and allows the user to embed links to particular paragraphs in other notes.
  • Tagging. In my experience, tagging in Evernote is hands-down better than in OneNote. But then tags aren't that important for me in my writing. 
  • Hierarchy of notes. A deeper hierarchy of note organization with OneNote is a beneficial trade-off. (Neither product allows for an unlimited hierarchy of notes, for some reason.)

But what if I could get the best of both worlds somehow?

OneNote AND Evernote

Evernote, over the past year, has harmonized the user experience across multiple platforms. It has not, for many people, been a comfortable experience moving to the latest version. Whatever their software management strategy might be, Evernote is listening better to its user base and is turning out improved versions and updates at a much more rapid pace.

Because of the negative user experience during this transition, many Evernote users have switched to other platforms, like OneNote. I considered this possibility myself, since I had experience with both platforms. But the process of porting 13,000 notes (no, that's not a typo) from Evernote to OneNote would likely cause me multiple panic attacks.

So I compromised: I decided to use both platforms. I have moved all my writing work to OneNote because that kind of work felt better on OneNote. In particular, the ability to collapse part of an outline and then expand it back comes in very handy when one wants to manage a large and complicated story. I continue to use Evernote for everything else, including bills and receipts and family information of various kinds.


If you've not tried either one of these products, you should give it a try!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Guest Blogger Sharyn McCrumb on the Roots of Appalachian Culture

A novel of a historian following the trail of
a young woman who escaped the Shawnee in 1799.
In my post of April 20, Deep Geographic Memory, Bagpipes, and Electronic Music, I mentioned New York Times bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb. It is my pleasure to share with you, courtesy of Sharyn, a piece that she wrote on the topic of how the early American settlers brought with them, as they journeyed west into the Appalachians, music and stories from England, Scotland, and Ireland. That culture, once transplanted, acquired small differences, but it reflected--and still reflects--the "old country", even as the Appalachians reflect the landscape of the hills and valleys that these settlers would've called their original home.

I thank Sharyn for giving me permission to reprint this! Please see her bio at the bottom of this post. You can learn more about her and her work at www.SharynMcCrumb.com and www.facebook.com/SharynMcCrumbAuthor.

Wayfaring Strangers

By Sharyn McCrumb 

from the 2017 Mountains of Music Magazine
for The Crooked Road, Virginia's Musical Heritage Trail

Copyright 2017 Sharyn McCrumb

My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you anymore.

They must have felt that way once—more than a century before that song was written—when the settlers rolled down the Great Wagon Road that followed the valleys between the wall of mountains that stretched on forever. When the settlers reached the middle of Virginia—about where Roanoke is today—some of them headed west on the Wilderness Road, ending up on the 18th century frontier, in southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and western North Carolina.

They, or their recent forebears, had already made one perilous journey in a lifetime, across the Atlantic from Scotland or Ireland or England, to settle in the New World, but the eastern seaboard was already getting crowded by the late eighteenth century, mostly full of the people they left Britain to get away from. (Besides: you could see the neighbors.) So they ventured deeper into the mountains, looking for a place that felt like home. They never knew how close they were to being back home; nearly two more centuries would pass before geologists put together the ancient puzzle of earth’s Triassic period to discover that millions of years ago the Appalachians had been part of those same mountains in Britain from which many of the settlers themselves had come.

The new people brought what they could from home—not material things, because the ships were small, so you had to pack light—but they carried with them everything they could fit into their heads, because memories were all they had left of the places they’d come from, and they treasured them. They handed down these memories to their children and grandchildren, which is why in 1914 musicologist Cecil Sharpe found the traditional folksongs he was looking for, not in Britain where they had originated, but in the southern Appalachians, where they were cherished remnants of the past.

Things changed a bit in the new world. If you came over with an unusual name—Rhys (Welsh) or O’Laoghaire (Irish) or McDiarmuid (Scots)—sooner or later some census taker would standardize you to “Reese,” “O’Leary,” and “McDermott.” The songs and stories got naturalized, too. The Wexford Girl became The Knoxville Girl, and Lady Margaret of the Child Ballad was demoted to Little Margaret over here, but the plots of the songs stayed the same, and the tunes were still recognizable. When The Lily of the West was composed, back in Ireland, the “West” was the coast of Ireland: Galway or Connemara. Many years later when people sang the song in America, the “West” they pictured was Kentucky (“When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find…”)

You never know when the family resemblance is going to peek out at you. Years ago, I took a newly-arrived Scottish professor to an Appalachian storytelling festival. The speaker began a tale about an old farmer who was fishing in a mountain stream and caught a big old trout. As the story wound on to the part where the farmer found a gold ring in the belly of the fish, the Scottish professor began to nudge me with his elbow. Finally when the story ended, I asked him what he had wanted so urgently to tell me. “Right,” he said. “About that story the fellow told. First of all, it wasn’t an old farmer; it was St. Mungo of Glasgow; and it wasn’t a mountain stream; it was the Firth of Clyde. And it wasn’t a trout; it was a salmon. – But the rest of the story is correct.”

They brought their fiddle tunes from Scotland, their knowledge of whisky-making from Ireland, and their quilt patterns from a time before history began. (The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.)  But just as English timothy hay became Kentucky bluegrass in the New World, sooner or later almost everything that the settlers brought with them got a North American spin. We were a long way from where we started, but if you look closely, you can see where we hailed from.


Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb, an award-winning Southern writer, is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, including the New York Times best sellers The Ballad of Tom Dooley, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, and The Songcatcher. Ghost Riders won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature from the East Tennessee Historical Society and the national Audie Award for Best Recorded Book..        
       Sharyn McCrumb, named a Virginia Woman of History by the Library of Virginia and a Woman of the Arts by the national Daughters of the American Revolution, was given a merit award for literature by the West Virginia Library Association (2017) and the Mary Hobson Prize for Arts & Letters (2014). Her books have been named New York Times and Los Angeles Times Notable Books, and have been translated into eleven languages.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Quick: Your Life Is In Danger. What Do You Do?

"Your karate sucks, people!" barked our sensei. I looked around. Less than a dozen people in the class, almost all men, everyone wearing a gi, the traditional martial arts uniform. Everyone but me had a black belt in karate. I was a lowly purple belt, a level below brown belt and black belt. If Sensei thought the black belts were performing poorly, where did that leave me, I wondered.

This was my first class in Okinawan kobudo, the use of weapons as part of the Okinawan martial arts. Weapons kata are built on top of karate techniques, so if your karate "sucks", your kobudo is going to suck too.

I don't know how or why Sensei allowed me to participate in her training, but I was grateful. My karate rank was far above beginner but still far below expert. In the tradition of karate I was trained in, washin-ryu, learning weapons was almost exclusively for brown belts and black belts. The one exception I remember was kumite (fighting) katas using a tanbo (like a short stick). While my greatest interest had always been in sword katas, I felt privileged, and humbled, to take part in Sensei's kobudo classes.

Weapons in kobudo

Kobudo includes techniques involving the bo (staff), sai (a three-pronged truncheon), nunchaku, and tekko, among others. The kata I learned were focused primarily on the bo and sai. In my first class, I had no weapons and had to go through moves using "air weapons" (like playing "air guitar"). For my next class I used a wooden curtain rod that served me until I could purchase a "real" bo. Cheap chrome-plated sais were replaced by hand-forged sais from Okinawa, as soon as I could get my hands on them. Nunchakus were easy enough to obtain, but tekko had to be ordered from someone "who knew someone" who custom-made these, and I was warned that they could be considered illegal because of their resemblance to brass knuckles. (That was fine. It's not like I intended to keep them in the glove compartment of my car.)

When a small group of colleagues from work got together at lunchtime at the work gym to practice, we brought in rubber practice sais for fear that company security personnel might be nervous about us having "weapons" on company premises. It certainly felt silly to wave around rubber sais that flopped right and left and were always crooked.

A proportionate response to a threat

When I was a teenager, I picked up on what sounded like important martial arts advice. In a confrontation with someone, it is better to avoid rather than check, to check rather than hurt, to hurt rather than maim, and to maim rather than kill. Years later I googled where this advice came from. I was chagrined to learn it came from the TV show Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Nevertheless, this advice made sense to me. A proportionate response was the objective.

So I was shocked when, in one of my weapons classes, Sensei told us if we were in a fight where an opponent had a weapon of any kind, our objective should be to kill.


Her rationale? Your life is in danger. If you don't subdue your opponent in the most decisive, conclusive way, you may die. I was hesitant to accept this philosophy, but who was I to question it? 

Training sadly comes to an end

I enjoyed the kobudo kata. They were long and intricate with precise choreography. And, I got a taste for sword katas when I attended a seminar in iaido, "the art of drawing the sword." I had no iaito (basically a blunt-edge katana) to use, so I used a wooden practice sword known as a bokken. In contrast to lengthy katas using the bo or sais, an iaido form is very short. But there is a high degree of ritual attached to it, from beginning to end, from the time one kneels and bows to the scabbarded sword as it lies crosswise on the floor in front of you, showing respect for it, to the time the sword is drawn, used to strike an imagined opponent, cleaned of the imagined blood, and returned to the scabbard. 

Though I was strongly interested in learning kobudo, in time the classes moved to a location so distant it was no longer practical for me to attend. I hated to give up training, but I had learned great respect for some of the simplest weapons. I still have my bo and my sais. I could no more part with these weapons than I could part with my karate belts, even if I don't engage in martial arts anymore. They are symbols whose meaning I find difficult to explain.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

When Hymns Come In Handy

Me, age 3 1/2, leading music in my Sunday School class.
Note that no one is paying attention to me.
In January 2015 I was looking out over the ocean, thinking (and praying) about my father's decline in health, his admission to a nursing home, getting him and my mother on the right Medicare supplemental insurance, getting their finances in order, and working with an attorney's office on setting up the right legal paperwork so I could help meet their needs in the coming years. I was plagued by anxiety and confusion and fear that things would not work out right. Through a whipping rain (but behind the shield of a pair of sliding glass doors), I watched waves fighting each other and pounding the beach. I was reminded of the hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul":

    When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
    When sorrows like sea billows roll;
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well with my soul.

I did not feel like all was well with my soul. And peace did not "attendeth my way." Far from it. Instead, I felt buffeted by relentless forces standing in the way of caring for my parents. But in those times of distress, I prayed for peace, and wisdom to make the right choices as I upheld the Fifth Commandment.

Growing up with hymns

In my formative years I was -- thanks to my parents and several Baptist churches -- introduced to a great deal of church hymns. In Sunday School we learned the old standards, "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children." (See Matt. 19:13-15). As a three-year old I stood on a little chair in my Sunday School class to lead the music for us. (See photo above.) And whenever I see a sycamore tree I'm reminded of another song we learned as children in Sunday School (see Luke 19:1-10):

    Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!
    He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see ...

One of my earliest memories is of my mother doing a solo at church of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." She sang in the church choir. My father could have been part of the choir. He had a good voice, but we could never get him to join. Perhaps he was too self-conscious.

There was only one hymn I was told my father didn't like: "The Old Rugged Cross," because he considered it idolatrous. Philosophers refer to this as confusing the map [the representation] with the territory [what is being represented]. The lyrics of this hymn don't say we should worship the cross. The cross, as it says in the first verse, is "the emblem of suffering and shame." It is a representation of Christ's death and what it means to Christians.

As I sang in church, growing up, I realized I had a knack for picking up harmony while the congregation sang hymns. But it was not until I joined our church's youth choir that my harmonizing found the structure it needed as I started learning to read music and sing tenor alongside my choir friend Bob DuBois.

Nowadays, hymns are something I seldom hear, but they remain in my heart. They frequently come in handy, as when I contemplate a never-ending list of chores and responsibilities and hear in my mind the refrain of the hymn, "We'll Work Till Jesus Comes":

    We'll work till Jesus comes,
    We'll work till Jesus comes!
    We'll work till Jesus comes
    And we'll be gathered home.

I just hope He comes soon so I can get some rest!

What hymns and contemporary Christian music mean for me today

In the past fifty years Christian music has changed radically. In many churches where hymns are still sung, hymnals are a thing of the past. The lyrics are projected on a screen for all to see, but for those of us who read notes while singing harmony, we have no notes to guide us. I have to fall back on improvising, and not singing too loud in case I pick a discordant note by accident.

Twenty-five years ago my wife and I joined a church that had a "blended" traditional/contemporary service. We felt like we were getting the best of both worlds. (I made the "mistake" of singing tenor where the choir director could hear me, and soon I was drafted!) But blended services are increasingly difficult to find in our part of Ohio. And "praise bands" leading music in contemporary non-denominational churches, at least in our region, stick strictly to a repertoire of contemporary Christian music (CCM). This may be an important part of attracting younger families. Older church members are dying out, and that may also contribute to the shift from hymns to CCM.

I like and I appreciate CCM. I enjoy the "rock" feel to it. I've even attempted solos of a couple of pieces of CCM in church, with backing tracks, and I've enjoyed playing guitar and bass in a few praise bands. But CCM does not easily lend itself to congregational singing. There is a much greater variety to draw on, compared to the old hymns, but unless you listen to CCM on the radio/Spotify, you probably won't know how to sing the melody, let alone some kind of harmony.

A related problem, in my mind, is this. Too often, it feels like the praise band leading CCM is putting on a performance instead of gathering voices from all over the church in praise to God. Darkened auditoriums with spots on the praise band only bolster that impression. Congregational singing consequently falls by the wayside. Without a strong participation by the congregation, the church misses out on "the fellowship of kindred minds" who together proclaim the glory of God in song.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Ensuring the Survival of Life's Details

Second Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy,
Eighth Tennessee Cavalry (CSA), 1862

My family is fortunate and privileged to have a massive amount of photographs, correspondence, and recordings that detail the history of our family, going back to before the Civil War. This information includes:
  • deeds from the 1850s to the early 1900s
  • dozens of letters written during the Civil War (see my book, Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents)
  • over 800 letters written since 1879 (though in recent times the family basically quit writing letters because of email)
  • over 1000 photographs (and color slides) from 1862 to the advent of digital photography
  • extracts of my father's diaries from 1969 to 1981
  • all the articles and newspaper columns my father wrote
  • over 200 cassette recordings ("letters") between my family and my grandparents from 1972 to 1988
  • cassette recordings of interviews of family members (including both toddlers and elders)
  • informal memoirs by several family members
  • VHS tapes of special occasions
The problem is preserving this information. Documents can burn. Photographs fade. Tape recordings deteriorate. Entropy is the enemy.

Digitizing and sharing

I have digitized (scanned, ripped) and/or transcribed all of this information. In some cases I've had to physically disassemble photo albums and scrapbooks in order to scan the material. In the case of color slides and recordings on tape, the original media has been thrown away because it was deteriorating, and it becomes more difficult with each passing year to find equipment that the original media will play on. 

This information has been preserved, but the main task now is to remove duplicates and curate all that information (label it, date it, arrange it chronologically). Even though my parents always admonished us to label photos with dates and names of who was in the photos, well-annotated photos over the broad timescale we're talking about are the exception rather than the rule. In many cases the only way to determine chronology is to study the details (like a baby's outfit), tap the details in our family tree (like when a couple got married, or when a person died), or cross-reference a photo using information from a letter.

A concurrent challenge is that of finding the best way to share all this information. Most online systems I've found don't meet my criteria for ease of use, free or low cost, broad applicability, or facilitating the kind of annotation that is needed. Anyone I share this information with probably can open an Excel spreadsheet, a Word document, a JPG image file, or an audio file. I set up a method for labeling each file and listing those files, with dates or approximate dates, peoples' names, and other information, in an Excel workbook. All the files are organized in folders arranged by information type (letters, photos, other documents).

What good is it?

Yes, I'm crazy to take all this on, but I can't bear the thought of this information being lost, unavailable to future generations. There is enough material at-hand that a family historian could piece together a very detailed chronicle of the lives of my family's members from the time the family settled in the Upper Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee around 1850 to today.

Posterity is the word. Immortality is a pipe-dream, but no one will every have this information if it's not conserved.

For further reading

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Brain

I'm not sure what a "Deligetful Salad" is ...

Growing up, when we took road-trips to visit grandparents or when we needed to take visitors out for dinner, Dad would take us to cafeterias, like Davis Brothers and Piccadilly. Invariably one of us kids would wind up with more on our tray than we could finish eating. Mom would say, "Your eyes were bigger than your stomach!" She would claim that she put little on her tray because she knew she could finish off what we couldn't.

I remembered this because I eat information and I've been putting way too much of it on my tray. I frequently use Instapaper to grab interesting articles on the web for reading at a later time. My inventory at the moment is about 300 articles waiting for me to read. This inventory has grown like it has because I seldom go back to read what I save. I wanted to read these articles when I first saw them; I just didn't have the time or the gumption (or attention span?) to read each one as I came across it. So basically my eyes are bigger than my brain.

We already know (see this post) I have a similar problem with reading books. And with e-books for my Kindle it's like finding online articles to save using Instapaper. In each case, it's a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." If I don't look in my electronic pantries, I don't realize all the articles or books I've stored for future consumption.

Self-discipline is overrated.

Memes and Antimemes: Mental Contortions

Mind-bending stories

There are many popular movies and books known for bending the mind of the viewer or reader. Movies like Memento (2000), Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Looper (2012) are just a few examples. Many of the storylines for these movies are built on notions of memory and time. Some, like The Matrix (1999) and Inception, deal with layers of reality nested like Russian dolls. In The Matrix, you may discover you've been living in a simulation. In Inception, you may discover you've been living in someone else's dream. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you find yourself encountering mysteries of epic proportions.

Reading the sci-fi novel There is No Antimemetic Division by author "qntm" (yes, that is his/her nom de plume) is like turning your brain inside out. This mind-bending goes beyond mental yoga. It falls in the category of mental contortionism.


We all know what a meme is. We've all shared the frustration of being unable to rid our conscious thoughts of a meme. Sometimes it's a tune or jingle -- an "earworm." If an earworm sticks to my brain like a remora to a shark, I have a "treatment" that sometimes works: I sing the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner with each line reversed:

See you can say oh  
Light early dawn's the by
Hailed we proudly so what 
Gleaming last twilight's the at

An antimeme, as imagined by qntm, does the opposite to us. If a meme is something you can't get out of your head, then an antimeme is something you can't keep in your head. You hear an antimeme and there is instantly no way to recall or recover its content. You read an antimeme and not only have no recollection of what you've read, you don't even realize you were reading something.

The premise of There is No Antimemetic Division is antimemes can be sentient and monstrous and, in general, dangerous. They can sometimes be fought -- but then you can't remember what it was you were fighting. They have been around us for millions of years, effectively invisible because as soon as you see one you instantly forget what you've seen. They can drive a person mad.

Wisdom tooth extraction and drug-induced amnesia

Encountering an antimeme results in selective amnesia. When I had my wisdom teeth removed by a dental student at the Medical University of S. Carolina, I was given an IV of Demerol and Valium. I was told this was an amnesiac mixture (not unlike, in effect, what you receive for "twilight sleep" before certain medical procedures). I would be able to respond to questions or instructions ("are you feeling any pain? can you open your mouth a little bit more?") but have no ability to recall any discomfort. In one moment I could feel a tooth coming out, but in the next moment, I would immediately forget it. The drug mixture they gave me acted like an antimeme.

Well, whaddya know!

An antimeme messes with what you think you know. It's a fifty-dollar word -- epistemological -- problem. Epistemology is one of the pillars of philosophy. It concerns knowledge -- what it is, where does it come from, what does it mean to know something.

There is No Antimemetic Division is an epistemologic nightmare for its characters. We often say "you don't know what you don't know." But in this novel there are things you do know but you don't know that you know them. What you think is real is incompletely real. What you experience is an inadequate representation of reality. The mental health of several characters in this mind-bending novel suffer from epistemological panic attacks when they come to realize that, somehow, their knowledge is dangerously incomplete.

But sentient antimemes are more than just a threat to our mental health. They are also an existential threat to the world, threatening life as we know it (or think we know it). For this reason, the Antimemetics Division (which the title of the book says does not exist) is charged with trying to rid the world of antimemes, much like Ghostbusters (1984) did with ghosts, or Men in Black (1997) with aliens. But there is nothing comedic about the tricky business of trying to fight something you can't recall or understand.

The verdict ...

There is No Antimemetic Division is not an easy read. You not only have to allow your mind to bend -- you also have to hold your mind in a twisted position as you follow the course of the story. Picking up again where you left off after you set the book aside requires getting back into that twisted position. In the end, your brain will feel comfortably stretched, but grateful to return to "normal."