Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .

From the New York Times Crossword puzzle, August 15, 2015

15 Across  Symbol of the Franciscan order

Now, I did know that St. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan order, but a symbol?   Well, a few minutes of research revealed the answer:  the Tau cross.  It seems self-explanatory that a priest would use a cross as his symbol, but the Tau cross has a great deal more meaning – particularly for the Franciscans.

Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and was used by the prophet Ezekiel in 9:4:  “Go through the city of Jerusalem and put a TAU on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  So the Tau symbol predates St. Francis by several centuries.

It was at the Fourth Laterntau-cross Council where Pope Innocent spoke of the Tau cross using the quote from Ezekiel and also stated that it was the shape of the cross on which Christ was crucified.  From that point on, Francis used it as his coat of arms and signed using the Tau and wrote it on the doors and places where he stayed.Also of interest is the fact that the cross is traditionally made of wood.  Why wood?  Well, it is flexible and responsive as the Christian should be to the word of God.

St. Bonaventure said, “This TAU symbol had all the veneration and all the devotion of the saint: he spoke of it often in order to recommend it, and he traced it on himself before beginning each of his actions.”

One of the better known stories of St. Francis was his blessing of  Brother Leo, in which Francis wrote on parchment, “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord show Hfrancissigndet250268is face to you and be merciful to you! May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace! God bless you Brother Leo!” Francis sketched a head (of Brother Leo) and then drew the TAU over this portrait.




My head is full of sunshine!

From the New York Times crossword puzzle, August 8, 2015
59 Down  Chess champion of the early 1960's

When he was named world chess champion, Mikhail Tal, used the quote in the title to describe his elation at his new status.  The journalist who was interviewing him was delighted at the phrase, thinking it was original.  However the quote was from Yves Montand.  The realization did nothing to dim Tal’s enthusiasm.  In answer to the clue for today’s post, he was the world chess champion from 1960 to 1961.

Born in Riga, Latvia in 1936, he learned to read at the age of three and actually started university at the age of fifteen.  Reportedly, he learned chess by watching his father.  He was fascinated by Mikhail Botvinnik and actually went to a tournament with the hope of playing a match with the master.  While he did not have the chance to play him at that time, from that point on, he began to study chess in earnest.  After being tutored by Alexander Koblents, his progress soared, and he won the Latvian championship in 1952, placing ahead of Koblents.

By 1954, at the age of eighteen, he was named a Soviet master of chess.  In 1956, he qualified for his first USSR Championship and won it the following year, being the youngest ever, at the age of 20.  While he had not won enough games to be named Grandmaster, but because of his win of the USSR championship, the rules were waived – the USSR led the world in chess dominance at that time.


Mikhail Tal in 1982

Known for his aggressive style of play and characterized by many for his creative moves – even called the Magician from Riga, he went up against his idol, Botvinnik, and defeated him in 1960 at the age of 23, making him the youngest chess champion ever at that time (Garry Kasparov would later break that record).  In a rematch, Botvinnik regained his title, having analyzed Tal’s moves in the interim.

After being defeated by Botvinnik, he won a match against Bobby Fischer in the Bled Tournament in 1961.  He never did qualify to play for the world title again.  In part, his poor health played a role in his sporadic playing.  Having suffered from various ailments since childhood, his chain smoking (up to five packs of cigarettes in one match!), heavy drinking and bohemian lifestyle did nothing to help matters.  He died in 1982 at the young age of 55.

While his bombastic style of chess playing was dismissed by many in the beginning, it is notable that he beat almost every known grandmaster with this same style.  His final game with Botvinnik which gave Tal the championship was one in which he sacrificed his knight.  This move so unnerved Botvinnik that he was unable to figure out his strategy and lost the game.  Not surprisingly, many other Latvians have emulated his playing style, giving rise to a Latvian School of Chess image for some.


The Sky (of sorts) is falling!

From The New York Times Crossword, August 5, 2015

6 Down  The orbital workshop was its largest component

These days I get more reminders that I am getting older.  A recent clue from the crossword brought back memories from high school.  The orbital workshop?  That was a puzzler.  After a few solvings of other clues, the answer was clear:  Skylab.  For anyone forty years old and older – the name Skylab will likely conjure up the mass hysteria that surrounded the beleaguered space station.

Back in 1979, it was announced that Skylab was exiting its orbit and was plummeting towards the earth.  Speculation abounded as people wondered which country or area of the planet would be obliterated.  In those days, you knew you had it made when Saturday Night Live parodied you in one of their weekly skits.  True to form, John Belushi acting as a news broadcaster, predicted the crashing of Skylab – he was subsequently pictured sitting in his basement wearing a crash helmet.

When it finally fell to earth, its landing was rather unspectacular with bits falling over the Pacific Ocean and some parts actually landing on Australia.  No one was injured, no country was demolished.  It was rather, boring.  Never mind that, T-shirts were printed and rushed to the stores with slogans such as, “I survived Skylab!”  Australia mined the event for all that it was worth.  The hysteria surrounding its demise ground to a whimper.

Just what was Skylab after all?  As the name suggests, it was a space station – operated by NASA which orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979.  It had a solar observatory and an orbital workshop.  Experiments were conducted, some of which proved the coronal holes in our sun.  Other accomplishments were thousands of photos of Earth taken from space as well as the extension of time spent in space by the crew.

NASA photo

NASA photo

The concept of a manned space station was first conceived by Werner von Braun as well as writer Arthur C. Clarke, among others.  The idea was first proposed by von Braun in 1959, but it took almost two decades for the project to be launched, so to speak.  Developments with NASA, the United States Air Force and manufacturing by McDonnell Douglas and computers from IBM all contributed to the space station.

It was planned that Skylab would remain in orbit until the 1980’s but in early 1978, greater than anticipated solar activity produced increased drag on its orbit, so scientists then predicted a much earlier return of the station.  The crash of the Soviet Union’s Cosmos 954 which dropped radioactive waste on Canada was largely responsible for the growing hysteria surrounding Skylab’s re-entry.

Landing near Western Australia, some viewers reported large fireworks display as it descended.  A part of it was actually on stage at the Miss Universe pageant held that year in Perth, Australia.

How the peacock got its look!

From the New York Times crossword, August 6, 2015

68 Across  One of many for Argus

Work the crosswords or watch Jeopardy, and almost every week there is a reference to mythology – sometimes Norse, sometimes Egyptian, but most commonly Greek or Roman.  If you’re like I am, you studied mythology at some point while in school but have long since forgotten many of the references.  Such is the case for the clue above – now in the puzzle, the answer was revealed by solving the surrounding clues:  eye.

Back to our mythology lesson:  Argus was a monster, sometimes called Panoptes because of his many eyes – by many reports at least one hundred of them.  As he always had at least a few eyes open even when asleep, he was considered the master watchman.  Hera, the wife of Zeus, appointed him to guard Io, who though in the guise of a heifer, was actually a nymph Zeus planned to seduce to create a new order of gods.

So, Argus was the beast of a hundred eyes, servant of Hera and guardian of Io – got it?  Zeus, even though, he was the king of the gods, could not get close to Io, so he hired Hermes to slay Argus.  Hermes was a god that was both divine and mortal and able to travel to both worlds.  In traditional mythology, he is known as the trickster, the herdsman, and the transporter of souls between the two worlds.  His counterpart in Roman mythology is Mercury.

PeacockHermes, once hired by Zeus, decided to disguise himself as a shepherd.  By using charms, Hermes managed to lull Argus to sleep and then killed him by hitting him with a stone – a rather anticlimatic end to the beast, it seems.  At any rate, Hera, according to Ovid, memorialized her faithful servant by putting his eyes into the peacock’s tail.


It’s a miracle!

From August 5, 2015 New York Times crossword

24 Down  Miracle Mets player Tommie

As we approach the fall, baseball is now in full swing (pun intended).  Most of us who do the crossword are accustomed to seeing baseball references on a fairly regular basis.  Earlier this month, there was a clue about a Miracle Mets player.  No one would ever accuse me of any kind of baseball historian, but even I have heard of the Miracle Mets, but I did not know the name of this one in particular:  Tommie Agee.

The Miracle Mets story of one of those that Hollywood loves – a down and out team – practically the butt of jokes among sportswriters, which somehow manages to turn the tide and evenAgeeStealsHR more miraculously, win the World Series.  What made this turnaround so amazing is that it was due in large part to two catches by Agee.

During the fourth inning, with runners on first and third and with two outs, Oriole catcher Elrod Hendricks hit a long drive to center field.  Agee sprinted and caught the ball backhanded, even crashing into the wooden fence, all the while holding onto the ball.

Then in the seventh inning, again with two outs, but with the bases loaded, Paul Blair of the Orioles hit a drive to center field.  This time, Agee managed to catch the ball single-handed while diving and sprawled full length.

The Mets went on to win the World Series that year after placing ninth in the previous season.  Gil Hodges, manager of the Mets credits Agee with one of the greatest catches in the team’s history.Granderson-catch

All of this is somewhat surprising as Agee did not start out as a superstar when playing with the Mets.  In his first time at bat, he was hit on the head by a pitch from Bob Gibson, and was 0 and 34 at one point in the season.  In spite of this, he went on to be one of their best hitters in the National League playoffs, hitting .271.  He went on to play three more seasons with the Mets before being traded to the Astros and later the St. Louis Cardinals.  He died of a heart attack in 2001 at the young age of 58.



Happy Belated Birthday, Herman Melville!

From The New York Times Crossword, July 30, 2015


50  Whaling ship that inspired “Moby Dick”

A day late and a dollar short – I should have known better.  Even the New York Times Crossword tried to give me a clue with the above entry early in the week.  What did I miss?  Yesterday, August 1, was the birthday of Herman Melville, who these days is most famous for his novel, Moby Dick.  But wait, the clue isn’t asking for Herman Melville; it’s asking for the ship that inspired him to write Moby Dick.  Answer:  The Essex.

Now I realize that most stories about whaling ships are not exactly fairy tales, but the story of the Essex and its captain, George Pollard, is truly the stuff of nightmares.  It would be bad enough if his ship had been sunk by a whale, which it was.  It was this incident and only this one, that Melville used as the basis for his book.

After publication of the book, Melville actually went to Nantucket to promote the book and meet local residents.  He did at last meet with Pollard, but having heard bits and pieces about the events following the sinking of the Essex, he wisely kept further questions to himself.  Pollard had told his story to a few locals as well as a missionary – almost like a confession.

Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez

Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez

The story began on August 14, 1819, when the Essex left for what was planned to be a two-year whaling expedition.  Soon after leaving port, a squall damaged its topgallant sail, threatening the ship with sinking even at that point.  Eventually, the ship made it to Cape Horn, but the crew found the waters lacking in fish, so they made the fateful decision to sail on to the South Pacific in the hopes of better whaling prospects.

Stopping in the Galapagos to restock, one of the crew members set a fire as a joke, causing the rest of the crew to run through the flames to safety.  Days later, they could still see the smoke from the fire.  It is believed that the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird were rendered extinct as a result of this stupidity.

Fast forward to November 1820, when after having successfully harpooned several whales, Pollard and his crew were whaling once again while the remainder of his crew remained on board the Essex to make minor repairs.  Owen Chase, the first mate, was one who stayed on board.  It was he who spotted a whale – by his estimates 85 feet in length – coming straight for the Essex.  In short time, the Essex was ruined, and Pollard and his men returned to the sinking ship.

There were only a few boats remaining, and while the Marquesas Islands were nearby, Chase and his crew convinced Pollard that the islands were populated by cannibals, and they made the disastrous decision to sail south in the hopes that they would meet another whaling ship and be rescued.

Weeks passed, and soon the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive.  It was not an unheard of practice in those lost at sea, but when they drew lots to see who would die next, the lot fell to Owen Coffin, Pollard’s first cousin.  Pollard begged him and even offered to take his place, but Coffin would have none of it.  This particular incident, not surprisingly, haunted Pollard the rest of his life.

After another ship of his sank later on, Pollard was labeled as a “Jonah” and was never offered another ship.  He retired to Nantucket and became the village night watchman.  His story has been chronicled in many books and articles over the years, and Melville himself never could forget the man or his story.  For more of this story, check out: Smithsonian mag

Play Ball – Knuckleball, that is!

From the New York Times Crossword, July 29, 2015

42 Across  Knuckleballer Wilhelm

Hmmm – my family and friends know that my baseball knowledge could never be described as vast, but the name of a famous knuckleballer?  Forget about it!  Fortunately the letters in adjacent clues revealed the answer:  Hoyt.  Since I wanted to know more about what a knuckleballer is, I sought the answer in the most common of sites these days:  Wikipedia.  The first line in the description read (List of Knuckleballer pitchers):  “Knuckleball pitchers are those professional baseball players who have relied on the knuckleball as their primary pitch or who made it to professional baseball based on their ability to throw a knuckleball. ”  Gee, thanks, Wikipedia, that really cleared that up for me!

Further reading revealed that the trajectory of the pitch is so erratic that a true knuckleballer pitcher requires a dedicated catcher, often with a special mitt, to field the pitches.  Another curious fact is the slower velocity allows those who use this technique exclusively more stamina and ability to pitch longer and potentially for longer careers on the mound.  To add credence to this idea, Hoyt Wilhelm pitched until he was fifty years old – with others pitching well into their forties.2872095521_9a70bf1407_z

To delve into the physics of it, an excellent description is provided on Science of Baseball which stated: “The ideal knuckleball rotates about a quarter of a revolution on its way to the plate. Without the stabilizing gyroscopic effect of spinning, the ball becomes aerodynamically unstable, and the raised seams create an uneven flow of air over the surface of the ball, pushing it one way or another.”  The advice of one pitching coach said that there were several ways to hit a knuckleball pitch, only none of them worked.

Given the increased longevity of the pitchers who use it, why don’t more use this pitch? Well, part of the unpredictability lies with the pitch and the pitcher himself.  The slowed velocity if not couple with the variance of stability can certainly land a ball in the bleachers.  The incidence of passed balls increases dramatically with the use of this pitch leaving a rather dim endorsement of it.  The use of the knuckleball has fluctuated over time and it still has its adherents, although R. A. Dickey is the only knuckleballer to ever win the Cy Young award and Joe Niekro is the only one to have won 300 games.

Of course, since a picture is worth a thousand words (or in this case, a video), click on this link to see a rare video of Hoyt Wilhelm demonstrating his knuckleball:  YouTube video of Hoyt Wilhelm.