First Tonight Show host born 95-years ago today

Many of you perhaps have enjoyed falling asleep to the jokes of Jimmy Fallon or Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, or even Conan O’Brien and Jack Paar.

These hosts of the Tonight Show standout for fans of NBC (National Broadcasting Company). The Tonight Show began broadcasting the same year as NBC, namely in 1954. The Tonight Show’s first host was Steve Allen.

Steve Allen was born 95-years ago today, on December 26, 1921. Allen passed away in October 2000.

Matt – Monday, December 26, 2016

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Christmas on December 25th? Ask Pope Julius I and Roman Emperor Constantine

Thinking back to the period roughly two-thousand and sixteen years ago, my thoughts drift to the way that the world was different than it is today. For one, the notion of the current expression of the calendar was still pretty new in human reckoning terms. For one, the month of August was called August for less than 10 years. The month July in Rome hadn’t been known by this name for 50-years yet, having become known by that name in 44 BC.

Precise birth records weren’t what they are today. Besides, the New Testament telling of the birth of Jesus, at least to biblical accounts that I am familiar with, tend to omit current historical features of interest, which would include the precise date that the historical figure Jesus Christ was born. While there can be some historical sense for when Passover and the events surrounding the death of Jesus Christ actually occurred, when the birth of Jesus Christ really happened can be debated. Mostly, I take the birthday of Jesus Christ as an article of faith and tradition as passed down by my faith and the culture I live in; that is, my faith and culture acknowledges the claim of a December 25th Christmas without argument.

So, how did we come to celebrate Christmas on December 25th, anyway? For that, the two biggest contributions were made by two men. First, the first Roman Emperor of Christian persuasion, Constantine, was a leader in Rome in the year 336. While conjecture exists around when the Romans understood the Winter Solstice to occur in 336, there was a festival honoring that event that coincided with the December 25th date. Also, the date where Mary was told that she was carrying “a very special package,” namely Jesus, is still celebrated March 25th by the Roman Catholic Church. In short, the tradition seems to have started 1,680-years ago.

A few years after the first Roman celebration of Christmas on December 25th, then Pope Julius I officially declared the official celebration of Christmas to occur on December 25. At that point, any debate would seem to have been formalized.

Matt – Sunday, December 25, 2016

Apollo 8 – Saving 1968 for America 48-years ago today

The year 1968 brought a lot of turmoil to the United States of America. For one, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo. For another, the Tet Offensive began in South Vietnam, escalating an unpopular overseas war outside the borders of the United States and ultimately would bring about the end of support for the war back home.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. In Mexico City later that year, two black athletes staged a silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the United States during the Summer Olympics. The International Olympic Committee condemned American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos for making the statement in solidarity with oppressed brethren suffering cultural indignities, again back home.

48-years ago today, the Apollo 8 mission by NASA and the United States with astronauts James (Jim) Lovell, William (Bill) Anders, and Frank Borman became the first human beings to travel to the moon. In circling the moon 10-times on Christmas Eve 1968, Lunar Module Pilot Anders took the above image “Earthrise” during one of those passes.

After clearing the far side of the moon for the first time, a relieved Lovell announced to mission control in Houston, as well as the world, “Houston, please be informed there is a Santa Clause.”

The Apollo 8 mission launched December 21, 1968 from Kennedy Space Center on December 21st that year and splashed down just short of 6-days and 4-hours later. The astronauts were flooded with telegrams noting the daring and achievement of their risks and accomplishments.

With the backdrop of the events of 1968 set against the circumnavigation of the moon with a safe return to earth for these men, one telegram stood out from the rest. The telegram said, “You saved 1968.”

Matt – Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jolabokaflod – the Christmas Book Flood

In strolling the Internet recently, a cool Icelandic concept of jolabokaflod, which in English means Christmas Book Flood, came to my attention.

The concept seems to have been born out of the deprivation associated with the second World War of the 20th century, wherein Icelanders both had some access to books and an interest in reading.

In the weeks leading up to the December 24th Christmas Evening, a coordinated effort to offer books to the Icelandic population is taken up by the publishing houses there. People prepare their gift books, add chocolate and / or alcohol free Christmas Ale, and will exchange gifts Christmas Eve night.

The Icelandic tradition has it that people read the books they’ve been given immediately, eat chocolate, drink ale, and fritter away the evening in the spirit of reading.

I’ll admit that this is something I’ve read on the Internet. Here I am offering this to you as a charming concept that satisfies my desire for literacy and munching on sweets. Risk it if you will; share it if you like. Dismiss this, I beg you not.

Matt – Friday, December 23, 2016

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 4 – The Rest

We’ve been sharing books read in 2016, per the example of New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter) from December 20th. Included here are the remaining books from my 2016 reading list.

  • “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen on 10/2/16 – 3/5 stars.

You certainly get a book in Freedom: A Novel with large doses of politics, suburban love triangles that spread across years and generations, irritatingly immature decision-making, and some flat out flat characters in a book that looks to focus on getting into the internal motivations of its characters.

The book is cynically stark in its views of politics, love, suburbia, and obviously freedom. I found that some characters were remarkably incapable of exercising freedom in their lives, relationships, environments, or accounting of their erratic behaviors. The final statement of the book…what everything adds up to, is that we’re really incapable of warming to the ones we love until we engender near-complete coldness and pain first; we must then forsake freedom and give-in to what was in our hearts all along.

The whole thing is bleak, unhopeful, cynical, and a gray view of “modern” love. My 3-star rating is mostly message and authorial voice related; the writing style, composition, construction, and narrative style were solid.

  • “State of Fear” by Michael Crichton on 10/10/16 – 2.5/5 stars.

State of Fear is the typical Crichton thriller as vehicle for making an argument for a proposition that runs counter to mainstream social thought. The target here was global warming / climate change. The message is political in nature, as any self-respecting pseudo-science thriller is want to be. The book argues against mankind’s proposition for controlling climate as arrogant and self-serving; ultimately, the message of someone toward the end of his life that isn’t convinced while also not wanting to take it anymore. Crichton’s cultivation of “love interests” and “romantic tension” felt rather sophomoric and immature.

Overall, I give this book 2.5-stars.

  • “From the Corner of His Eye” by Dean Koontz on 10/29/16 – 3.5/5 stars.

With From the Corner of His Eye, I found that Dean Koontz did his typically solid job building a sense of growing tension in this dark fantasy thriller. The narrative drew upon four main and overlapping threads to tell a story of good versus evil. The story drew on a highly simplistic starting point of so-called “quantum mechanics” to resolve some of the darker elements of the plot. The mystery of the darker elements combined with viewing characters from their internal dialogue and actions continued as stronger elements of the Koontz style here, as did the previously mentioned tension and resolution.

On par with many of the better stories in the Stephen King or Dean Koontz canon. Overall 3.5 stars for me.

  • “The Tin Drum” by Gunther Grass on 11/18/16 – 2/5 stars.

To beat a tin drum is an idiom that I can see coming from this book, as in creating a disturbance in order to call attention to an issue.

A catch-22 is the last book I read of this nature, wherein a central metaphor came from a book to become an idiom. In American author Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the idiom referred to a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. That idiom came with a book written in 1953 and published in 1961.

To beat a tin drum is an idiom that I can see coming from Gunther Grass’ The Tin Drum. Published in West Germany in German circa 1959, The Tin Drum was published in English in 1961. At roughly the same time, we therefore received another idiom, to beat a tin drum, as in creating a disturbance in order to call attention to an issue.

The two books diverge from the underlying similarity quickly as Grass’ novel quickly moves past a criticism of war and government, as is where Heller focused, and into a criticism of middle class moral sense. Grass draws a very moral sense from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which is problematic in some ways for my taking the criticism seriously. Reading through to the end was difficult for me because, directly, I don’t care for the criticism, the central protagonist Oskar Matzerath, nor for the narcissistic quality of Oskar as unreliable narrator.

I give this book 2-stars for tone, content, and the criticism without any constructive replacement that I’d care to adopt.

  • “Watership Down” by Richard Adams in progress

It is too early in my reading to give my overall assessment, though I find the storytelling of this young adult book with adult subject matter anjoyable. I am about 60-percent of the way through the reading currently.

Matt – Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 3 – Agatha Christie

Continuing with the example of the New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter), this third installment of books read in 2016 focuses on works by Agatha Christie.

  • “Elephants Can Remember” by Agatha Christie on 9/2/16 – 3/5 stars.

The storytelling of Elephants Can Remember was very good and readily comprehensible. The formula was true of the Hercule Poirot convention, and I enjoyed that. The twins outcome was clear to me earlier than I had hoped, which led me to a lower rating of the book than I would have otherwise given.

3.0-stars out of 5.

  • “The Murder on the Links” by Agatha Christie on 9/13/16 – 3/5 stars.

A fun mystery, though I feel the book tries to hard to establish cache over the cleverness of Hercule Poirot in that basic detective work wasn’t performed by the police. That aside, Poirot and the plot were ahead of my suspicions of who did what.

  • “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie on 9/14/16 – 4/5 stars.

Perhaps the best Agatha Christie book I’ve read yet! This is the quintessential Hercule Poirot book that I’ve read; no, I did not correctly detect the solution ahead of time. There’s a reason for the statement “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades;” in sniffing out something close, I was not correct.

I recommend reading this book!

  • “Death in the Clouds” by Agatha Christie on 9/14/16 – 3/5 stars.

Another interesting and quick read that I finished same day. The overt nastiness referenced by other reviewers seems to have been cleansed from this edition.

The mystery entertained, and I missed the solution once again. Clues were present; traps were laid; it wasn’t until the big reveal that the motive (and the murderer) became apparent to me.

  • “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie on 9/18/16 – 4/5 stars.

Death on the Nile gets 4-stars for filling in more of the background before the murders than other Agatha Christie novels. I was 75% correct in getting the plot correct before the big reveal. As with Christie novels, the telling of the story relied on the two-handed dialogue approach. As suggested previously in this review, the real-time reveal of some clues felt like more of a sporting chance in determining the plot; the more adventure than mystery quality of this story led to the 4-stars rating.

  • “Nemesis” by Agatha Christie on 9/21/16 – 3/5 stars.

With Nemesis, I earned the fun of mystery-solving centered around Miss Jane Marple. The mystery was involved with plenty to consider. The weird premise centered around withholding much of the vital information until late, and precisely who was there to help or harm. I enjoyed the way the form of unfolding the story was switched up.

I figured out the perpetrator of the crimes correctly, though missed the motive. I missed uncovering the players that were the adversaries/helpers as well.

Overall, I give ‘Nemesis” a 3-star rating.

  • “The Man in the Brown Suit” by Agatha Christie on 10/12/16 – 3/5 stars.

With The Man in the Brown Suit, the mystery-solving is centered around the adventures of young “gypsy girl” Anne Beddingfield. The cast of characters take a cruise to South Africa with Miss Beddingfield playing amateur detective after failing to interest Scotland Yard in a pair of deaths early in the story (before setting sail). A jewel heist and intrigue offer the story telling more as a thriller feel than a mystery feel, which is a manner of storytelling unlike most other Agatha Christie novels that I’ve read.

The resolution around who the criminal mastermind was eluded me. The chess moves that brought about resolution to the crime was clever; that so many characters were clever in concealing the nature of their behaviors also proved beyond me this time.

To have been so off in my reasoning feels a bit confusing, honestly. That I currently feel no desire to go back and reread this book for missed clues perhaps has to do with my overall lack of affection for this book, which is reflected in my rating. I give The Man in the Brown Suit 3-stars.

  • “4:50 from Paddington” by Agatha Christie on 10/17/16 – 3/5 stars.

With 4:50 from Paddington, I found another Agatha Christie novel of pleasant, mannerly characters in the largely British way that I imagine is a real thing. Miss Jane Marple interacts with a pair of elderly ladies throughout, doing quite little in the way of detection throughout the story until the last dramatic revelation. In fairness, the story does tie out as a mixture of train mystery and, as with many Christie novels, a largely family affair.

The resolution around who the criminal mastermind, as with most Christie novels, was eluded me. I am less displeased with the lack of my solving this mystery as I was in missing The Man in the Brown Suit, though I alas must grant this book as another rating of 3-stars.

 

Matt – Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 2 – Nonfiction

Continuing with the example of the New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter), this reading list for 2016 includes works of non-fiction read this past year.

  • “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris on 9/12/16 – 4/5 stars.

With The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt completed a satisfying 3-volume look at the life of the 26th president of the United States.

A man of his time, the colorful, multifaceted, military progressive leader was a proponent of projecting military power with a well-read personality. Looking at Roosevelt 100-years later, I see an embodiment of the contradiction of a country wherein he was macho trending to misogyny, a man-of-the-world trending toward racist / antagonist of “hyphenated-Americans,” a naturalist / conservationist that liked to hunt / kill for food, sport, death, and trophy. He also was well-read yet anti-dielectic, progressive yet conservative, insightful about male human nature yet bullying.

As argued in the book, Theodore Roosevelt quite possibly was the most interesting American of his time. The narrative of this three-book biography told an interesting, human story of Roosevelt the man, the leader, the servant, the husband, the father, and the rest. The volumes worked. I recommend them should you be inclined to read them.

  • “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff on 11/08/16 – 4/5 stars.

Quality biography of a time, place, and sensibility of a world, woman, and the circles of a queen that are largely unknowable due to time and tellings lost to the principle that “history is told by the victors.”

The life that can be gleaned is remarkable and presented in today’s terms quite fairly, in my opinion. That a Pulitzer Prize winning woman, Stacy Schiff, tells this story helps the quality of the narrative, in my opinion. Certainly there is context I would have struggled to bring out. Schiff also is talking to an American audience that can appreciate how certain analogies were placed in a context informed by Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra.

Some reviews on Goodreads mention finding the writing style somewhat verbose. Taking that further, the decision to not separate paragraphs more was mentioned. I disagree.

4-stars out of five.

 

Matt – Wednesday, December 21, 2016