Friday Dec. 9, 2016

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Strong Coffee

Strong coffee
smells like a current
of warm southerly air
in the climate of dawn.
Strong coffee
gets stronger
when poured back
through the grounds.
Opaque,
thick, hot, bitter
for waking up,
the caffeine
pumps through your center,
stains your mouth with morning,
with going to work,
surprises you
with your own
breath.

“Strong Coffee” by Anne Higgins from At the Year’s Elbow. © Mellen Poetry Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1979, a panel of scientists declared the smallpox virus to be eradicated. It’s the first and only disease to be driven to extinction through human efforts.

The disease itself has probably been around since at least 10,000 B.C.E. Evidence of smallpox scars has been found on Egyptian mummies, and the decline of the Roman Empire coincides with a particularly bad outbreak that claimed 7 million people. It spread from northern Africa throughout Europe and Asia, and came to the New World with Spanish explorers.

Today is the birthday of English poet, pamphleteer, and historian John Milton (1608) (books by this author). When he was blind, impoverished, and living in seclusion in the countryside, Milton wrote Paradise Lost, considered the finest epic poem in English.

Milton was born in Bread Street in London to a solidly middle-class family. His father was a scrivener and composer of church music who doted on his son, providing him with a private tutor. Milton was smart, precocious, and dedicated. He wrote his first psalms at 15. His brother recalled, “When he was young, he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o’clock at night.”

After attending Christ’s College in Cambridge, where he was notorious for his temper and good looks, he underwent six years of intensive independent study, reading literature, mathematics, and languages, eventually teaching himself French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, and Greek. He did a “continental tour” of Europe (1638) and even met the astronomer Galileo, who was then under house arrest. He was also honing his political savvy and upon returning home, began writing tracts and pamphlets on radical topics like freedom of the press and the abolition of the Church of England.

Milton was 34 when he married 17-year-old Mary Powell. He proved to be too strict, though, and she went back home after a month. They were separated for several years and this is when he published his famous Divorce Tracts, which advocated for divorce. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, after the Civil War, Milton was promptly arrested and imprisoned as a traitor. When he was released, he was stripped of his property.

He retreated with his second wife to the countryside, where, completely blind, he began dictating a long poem about the Fall of Man from the Bible. Typically, epic poems were about heroic kings and queens, but Milton decided to write about Adam, Eve, Satan, lustful sex, and shame.

In Paradise Lost, Satan is arrogant and powerful and delivers the now famous line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Milton sold the copyright for 10 pounds. The first edition sold out within 18 months. The first edition of Paradise Lost comprised 10 books of over 10,000 lines of verse. Book IX is the longest, with 1,189 lines; Book VII is the shortest, with only 640 lines.

Milton was 60 years old when it was published in 1667. During the poem’s composition he suffered, gout, depression, and the death of his second wife and infant daughter. Paradise Lost has influenced countless artists and writers, from Salvador Dali to William Blake to Mary Shelley, who was inspired to write Frankenstein after reading Paradise Lost.

It was on this day in 1854 that Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was published in the London Examiner. The poem described a disastrous charge by the British military six weeks earlier, on October 25th, in the Crimean War.

It reads:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
      Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die:
Into the valley of Death
      Rode the six hundred.

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote: “Humor is a great thing to live by and, other things being equal, it is a profitable thing to die by.” That’s folklorist and writer Joel Chandler Harris (books by this author), born in Eatonton, Georgia (1845). His father left home before he was born, and he wanted to help support his mother, so when he was 14 he got a job working at a local newspaper that was run out of Turnwold, the plantation belonging to Joseph Addison Turner, who also served as the paper’s editor. Young Joel liked the work, partly because Turner let him borrow books from his large library and because he got to sit and listen to the slaves tell stories, and he especially loved their stories about animals.

Harris continued his career as a journalist. He tried living in New Orleans for a while, but he didn’t like city life. He tried writing a novel, but he didn’t get anywhere. And then he got asked to take over a newspaper column written in African-American dialect, and it became extremely popular under his care. So he took the idea and started writing stories based on those he had heard as a young boy, and created a narrator named Uncle Remus based loosely on some of the men he had befriended on Turner’s plantation. He published Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1880), and it was extremely popular. Harris was even invited to go on a lecture tour with Mark Twain, but he was an incredibly shy man. He hated speaking in public, and when the University of Pennsylvania wanted to give him an honorary degree, he was too nervous to come accept it in person. But he kept writing, and he wrote many more books about Uncle Remus, including Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), and Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1906).

Today is the birthday of computer pioneer Grace Hopper, born in New York City (1906). She studied math and physics in college, and eventually got a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale. Then World War II broke out, and Hopper wanted to serve her country. She joined the Naval Reserve in 1943, where she was assigned to work on Mark I, a machine that might help calculate the trajectory of bombs and rockets. She learned how to program that early computing machine, and wrote the first instruction manual for its use. She also worked on Mark I’s successors. One day in 1947, a moth got inside the works of Mark II and caused all kinds of problems with the calculations. Eventually, the moth was found and extracted, and one of the operators taped it inside the logbook and wrote below it: “First actual case of bug being found.” Hopper loved to tell that story, so she is often credited with coining the term “bug” to refer to an unexplained computer problem. The word had actually been in use among inventors for many years, to refer to annoying little setbacks and problems. The story made the rounds, though, and the term became popular.

In 1952, Hopper noticed that most computer errors were the result of humans making mistakes in writing programs. So she attempted to solve that problem by writing a new computer language that used ordinary words instead of just numbers. It was one of the first computer languages, and the first designed to help ordinary people write computer programs, and she went on to help develop it into the computer language known as COBOL, or “Common Business-Oriented Language.”

Hopper retired from the U.S. Navy in 1966 with the rank of commander. They asked her to return the following year, to help them standardize their computer languages. By the time she retired for good in 1986, she was the Navy’s oldest acting officer. She was 79 when she retired with the rank of rear admiral.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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