Apr 192018

Today is the birthday (1900) of Richard Arthur Warren Hughes OBE, a British poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright. He is best known for his novel A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), but, in the middle of talking about his life and work in general, I want to focus on the fact that he wrote what is generally considered to be the first strictly written for radio drama, A Comedy of Danger (1924), and muse on what subsequently grew out of this small beginning.

Hughes was born in Weybridge in Surrey. His father was Arthur Hughes, a civil servant, and his mother was Louisa Grace Warren, who had been brought up in the West Indies in Jamaica. He was educated first at Charterhouse School and then at Oriel College, Oxford. A Charterhouse schoolmaster had sent Hughes’s first published work to  The Spectator in 1917. The article, written as a school essay, was an unfavourable criticism of The Loom of Youth, by Alec Waugh, a recently published novel which caused an outcry because of its account of homosexual passions between British schoolboys in a public school. At Oxford he met Robert Graves, also an Old Carthusian, and they co-edited a poetry publication, Oxford Poetry, in 1921. Hughes’s short play The Sisters’ Tragedy was staged in the West End of London at the Royal Court Theatre in 1922.

In 1923 Hughes was commissioned by Nigel Playfair of the BBC to write a play strictly for radio, and he produced A Comedy of Danger, broadcast on 15th January 1924. This is usually considered to be the first radio drama in the strict sense of a play produced solely for broadcast on the radio, but a little context is necessary.  Danger was certainly not the first play, or dramatic production, broadcast via radio, but it has a legitimate claim to being the first play written exclusively for radio.

The BBC broadcast Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on 2LO on 25th July 1923, which predates Danger, of course, but is not, in any sense, a radio drama. Listings in The New York Times and other sources for May 1923 indicate that at least 20 dramatic offerings were scheduled (including one-acts, excerpts from longer dramas, complete three- and four-act plays, operettas and a Molière adaptation), either as in-studio productions or by remote broadcast from local theaters and opera houses. Remember, these were the very early days of public broadcasting, and it took a bit of experimenting to find out what the medium was good at. Commissioning a solely-for-radio drama was a new departure from adapting stage plays for radio, or featuring dramatic components in variety shows.

Bear in mind that this was the era of silent movies, so film drama and radio drama were really two halves of a whole. Movies gave audiences all of the visuals with no sound, and radio was all sound and no visuals. Radio drama could incorporate sound effects and music to heighten the sense of realism, and to fill in for the lack of images, but there was great reliance on well-written dialog. A Comedy of Danger is, rather cleverly, set in a Welsh coal mine in the dark. Thus, what the audience experiences is the same as what the players are experiencing (sound without sight). Not an idea that could hold up for too long, but good for the first effort.

The plot of Danger is simple. Three people – a young couple, Mary and Jack, and old Mr Bax – are trapped in the dark in a mine after an accident. At first, Mary is highly excitable, and Jack provides the calm voice of reason. Then they set about discussing life and death. Both Jack and Mary, while realizing that they have their whole lives ahead of them, contemplate death as a great adventure. Bax, on the other hand, though he has had a great many experiences, does not relish the prospect of death. After an explosion, water suddenly comes into the mine, and the three become restless. From a distance you can hear the rescue squads singing, but nobody knows if they will reach the group in time. In the end, the rescuers make it and save Mary and Jack, while the old Mr. Bax does not survive.

The original broadcast was not taped, but it was recreated 30 years later. Here it is preceded by commentary from Hughes:

One of the earliest and most influential French radio plays was the prize-winning “Marémoto” (“Seaquake”), by Gabriel Germinet and Pierre Cusy, which presents a realistic account of a sinking ship before revealing that the characters are actually actors rehearsing for a broadcast. Translated and broadcast in Germany and England by 1925, the play was originally scheduled by Radio-Paris to air on October 23rd 1924, but was instead banned from French radio until 1937 because the government feared that the dramatic SOS messages would be mistaken for genuine distress signals. This reminds us of War of the Worlds with Orson Welles, which I covered here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/war-worlds/

Some radio plays are now legendary, even though many are eminently forgettable. Perhaps most famous is Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. Although it has been adapted for stage, it works best as a radio drama because it primarily consists in the inner thoughts of the characters stitched together by a narrator. For my money, the best radio drama of all time is Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I used to own on cassette and play (repeatedly) on long car trips. Attempts at filming the drama fail miserably for me. The combination of superb writing and great voice characterization (plus sound effects), make attempts at turning the drama into a movie a non-starter for me. I don’t want to see some movie producer’s idea of what Marvin, the paranoid android, or Zaphod Beeblebrox look like. Their voices are enough for me.

Radio drama has had an illustrious history which I have noted in posts on Tony Hancock, The Goon Show, and many others. It is one of my great delights whenever I get the chance to hear rebroadcasts, or when I am driving in the UK. Sadly in the US, radio drama is all but dead, replaced by myriad music stations and call-in shows. Not the main reason I no longer live there, but a contributing factor.

Hughes was employed as a journalist and traveled widely before he married Frances Bazley in 1932. They settled for a period in Norfolk and then in 1934 at Castle House, Laugharne in south Wales. Dylan Thomas stayed with Hughes and wrote his book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog whilst living at Castle House. Hughes was instrumental in Thomas relocating permanently to the area.

Hughes wrote only four novels, the most famous of which is The Innocent Voyage (1929), or A High Wind in Jamaica, as he renamed it soon after its initial publication. Set in the 19th century, it explores the events which follow the accidental capture of a group of English children by pirates. The children are revealed as considerably less moral than the pirates (it was in this novel that Hughes first described the cocktail Hangman’s Blood). In 1938, he wrote an allegorical novel, In Hazard, based on the true story of the S.S. Phemius that was caught in the 1932 Cuba hurricane for 4 days during its maximum intensity. He also wrote volumes of children’s stories, including The Spider’s Palace.

During World War II, Hughes had a desk job in the Admiralty. He met the architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, and Jane’s and Max’s children stayed with the Hughes family for much of that time. After the war, Hughes spent ten years writing scripts for Ealing Studios, and published no more novels until 1961. Of the trilogy The Human Predicament, only the first two volumes, The Fox in the Attic (1961) and The Wooden Shepherdess (1973), were complete when he died. Twelve chapters, less than 50 pages, of the final volume are now published. In these he describes the course of European history from the 1920s through World War II, including real characters and events—such as Hitler’s escape after the abortive Munich putsch—as well as fictional.

Later in life Hughes relocated to Ynys in Gwynedd. He was churchwarden of Llanfihangel-y-traethau, the village church, where he was buried when he died at home in 1976.

For a recipe you can listen in to the BBC on your radio (if you have one and live in the UK) or on the internet at www.bbc.co.uk Normally I do not post drink recipes but Hangman’s Blood from A High Wind in Jamaica is maybe worth a tip of the hat.

According to Hughes:

Hangman’s blood… is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter… Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.

In the 1960s Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) described its preparation as follows:

Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne… It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.

I don’t drink alcohol, so you will have to tell me how it works out if you decide to take the plunge.

Mar 212018

Today is World Puppetry Day. The idea came from the puppet theater artist Javad Zolfaghari from Iran. In 2000 at the XVIII Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, (UNIMA) in Magdeburg, he put up the proposal for discussion. Two years later, at a meeting of the International Council of UNIMA in June 2002 in Atlanta, the date of the celebration was fixed. The first celebration was in 2003. The original focus for the day was marionette puppets, but it can easily be expanded to include the whole cascade of possibilities. These are a few that I have encountered and enjoyed.

A hand puppet (or glove puppet) is a puppet controlled by one hand, which occupies the interior of the puppet. The Punch and Judy puppets are familiar examples of hand puppets, and I have enjoyed them over the years. In fact a good friend of mine operated a Punch and Judy show as a sideline, and Tony Hancock’s Punch and Judy Man is stellar film concerning English class values. As a boy, I have to say that Harry Corbett and Sooty won out for me, though. I even had my own Sooty puppet. Akin to the hand puppet is the sock puppet, a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock. One of the best-known practitioners was Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop. Not my thing – sorry, Shari.

Marionettes, or “string puppets,” are suspended and controlled by a number of strings, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either horizontal or vertical. Basic strings for operation are usually attached to the head, back, hands (to control the arms) and just above the knee (to control the legs). This form of puppetry is complex and sophisticated to operate, requiring greater manipulative control than a finger, glove or rod puppet.

A shadow puppet is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Shadow puppets can form solid silhouettes or be decorated with various amounts of cut-out details. Color can be introduced into the cut-out shapes to provide a different dimension and different effects can be achieved by moving the puppet (or light source) out of focus. Javanese shadow puppets known as Wayang Kulit are what I know best. Shadow puppetry in Asia may have originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), but it became widespread, especially in SE Asia.

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy is a puppet although they are called dummies because they do not speak on their own. I have loved these acts since childhood, and never tire of them.

Múa rối nước is a Vietnamese water puppet form, originally used in flooded rice paddies. Múa rối nước literally means “puppets that dance on water.” The tradition supposedly dates back to the 10th century. The puppets are built out of wood and the shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers to control them. The appearance is of the puppets moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this puppet form.

The water also provides the setting for traditional stories depicting day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children’s games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience. Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small traditional orchestra.

There are many more types of puppets, of course, and you probably have your own favorites. I was thinking of cooking lamb chops as the recipe of the day, but I expect Shari Lewis fans would not be amused. Instead, here is the Swedish chef from the Muppets making popcorn.

Mar 042018

Today is National Grammar Day in the United States. It was begun in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us [Sic] (2008) and founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG). Right from the start I will express my ambivalence about this day. Certainly, I value good grammar. Grammar mistakes are not just wrong in a technical or aesthetic sense, they can obscure or change meaning. Some common mistakes always set my teeth on edge, such as, incorrect placement of the apostrophe of possession, using “of” instead of “have” in verbal inflections (“I should of thought before I acted”), and phrases that use inappropriate prepositions, most notably, “centered around” and “based “off” (both need “on” to make sense). I do, however, exercise some restraint in commenting on other people’s mistakes, particularly on social media, but also in emails. I would rather have some communication, even if full of grammar mistakes, than none.

When I was a university professor I began in that career by correcting every grammar and spelling error in every paper I received. It was a monumental task, and I doubt that my efforts did much to change my students’ habits. Judging by the posts of some of them on Facebook these days, they have improved very little. Over the years I mellowed. Their grammar did not improve, but I preferred to spend my time railing against their inability to put together a decent argument, rather than worrying about subject-verb agreement or misplaced commas. It was a case of picking my battles. Make no mistake. If your application for a job comes across my desk and it has grammar errors in it, it goes straight in the waste paper basket. That is a case of lack of professional competence. I can afford to cut my friends and students some slack, mainly because not a great deal hangs on whether they can construct a sentence properly or not. My last (proper) girlfriend made errors in grammar left, right, and center in her emails. I could have pointed them out to her and I would have wound up sleeping on the couch. She’s been gone a long time now, and it was not grammar that did the relationship in.

Not only is pedantry misplaced in ordinary writing among friends, it is also an impediment to clear writing. When the dust has settled, we need our writing to accessible, and if strict grammar rules get in the way they need to be broken. This website is worth taking a look at on this day: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/national-grammar-day . Among other things you will find this little quiz. Which of these statements is correct?

  1. A run-on sentence is a really long sentence.
  2. You shouldn’t start a sentence with the word “however.”
  3. “Irregardless” is not a word.
  4. There is only one way to write the possessive form of a word that ends in “s.”
  5. Passive voice is always wrong.
  6. “I.e.” and “e.g.” mean the same thing.
  7. You use “a” before words that start with consonants and “an” before words that start with vowels.
  8. It’s incorrect to answer the question “How are you?” with the statement “I’m good.”
  9. You shouldn’t split infinitives.
  10. You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.

The answers are on the site. Some may surprise you.

As a writer I have to cope with the fact that different presses have different rules. For British presses I have to use British English spelling and grammar, for U.S. presses I have to follow their rules. Furthermore, within each country the rules can vary. It is not worth fighting about. My practices vary according to the needs of presses, and in common discourse I am a mongrel. Getting all high and mighty about one system over another is, in a word, stupid.

Cookbooks have to follow strict guidelines with their recipes these days, and the sole purpose of these rules is clarity. I am not much of a stickler here either because recipes are no more than suggestions most of the time. When it comes to baking there is not much room to maneuver, but for most dishes you can play around a great deal with quantities and ingredients. I always add more herbs and spices than recipes call for, primarily because I never cook with salt, but also because I like bold flavors. I understand that presses want kitchen-tested recipes in the cookbooks they publish, and there are grammar issues at stake. Take these two different ingredient listings:

2 cups chopped grapes

2 cups grapes, chopped

Word order and a comma make a big difference. In the first listing you chop the grapes first, then measure them. In the second listing you measure the grapes whole, then chop them. There will be more grapes in the first listing than in the second.





Feb 282018

The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced on this date in 1935, by Wallace Hume Carothers at DuPont’s research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. In response to Carothers’ work, Paul Schlack at IG Farben developed nylon 6, a different molecule based on caprolactam, on January 29, 1938. Nylon was first used commercially in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed more famously in women’s stockings or “nylons” which were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and first sold commercially in 1940. During World War II, almost all nylon production was diverted to the military for use in parachutes and parachute cord.

DuPont, founded by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, first produced gunpowder and later cellulose-based paints. Following WWI, DuPont produced synthetic ammonia and other chemicals. DuPont began experimenting with the development of cellulose based fibres, eventually producing the synthetic fibre rayon. DuPont’s experience with rayon was an important precursor to its development and marketing of nylon. DuPont’s invention of nylon spanned a nine-year period, ranging from the start of the project in 1930 to its exhibition at the World Fair in New York in 1939. The project grew from a new structure at DuPont, suggested by Charles Stine in 1927, in which the chemical department would be composed of several small research teams that would focus on pioneering research in chemistry that would lead to practical applications. Carothers was hired from Harvard University to direct the polymer research group. Initially he was allowed to focus on pure research, building on and testing the theories of German chemist Hermann Staudinger. He was successful in his pure research because it greatly improved the general knowledge of polymers.

In the spring of 1930, Carothers and his team had already synthesized two new polymers. One was neoprene, a synthetic rubber greatly used during the war. The other was a white elastic, strong paste that would later become nylon. After these discoveries Carothers’ team was made to shift its research from a pure research approach investigating general polymerization to a more practically-focused goal of finding one chemical combination that would lend itself to industrial applications. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1935 that a polymer called “polymer 6-6” was finally produced. The first example of nylon (nylon 6,6) was produced by Carothers on February 28, 1935, at DuPont’s research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station. It had all the desired properties of elasticity and strength. However, it also required a complex manufacturing process that would become the basis of industrial production in the future. DuPont obtained a patent for the polymer in September 1938, and quickly achieved a monopoly on the fiber.

The production of nylon required interdepartmental collaboration between three departments at DuPont: the Department of Chemical Research, the Ammonia Department, and the Department of Rayon. Some of the key ingredients of nylon had to be produced using high pressure chemistry, the main area of expertise of the Ammonia Department. Nylon was considered a godsend to the Ammonia Department which had been in financial difficulties. The reactants of nylon soon constituted half of the Ammonia department’s sales and helped them come out of the period of the Great Depression by creating jobs and revenue at DuPont.

DuPont’s nylon project demonstrated the importance of chemical engineering in industry, helped create jobs, and  advanced chemical engineering techniques. DuPont developed a chemical plant that provided 1800 jobs and used the latest technologies of the time, which are still used as a model for chemical plants today. The success of the nylon project thus had to do with its ability to achieve the rapid mobilization of a large number of DuPont’s chemists and engineers. The first nylon plant was located at Seaford in Delaware, beginning commercial production on December 15, 1939.

DuPont went through an extensive process to generate names for its new product. In 1940, John W. Eckelberry of DuPont stated that the letters “nyl” were arbitrary and the “on” was copied from the suffixes of other fibers such as cotton and Rayon. A later publication by DuPont explained that the name was originally intended to be “No-Run” (“run” as in stockings), but was modified to avoid making such an unjustified claim. Since the products were not really run-proof, the vowels were swapped to produce “nuron”, which was changed to “nilon” “to make it sound less like a nerve tonic”. For clarity in pronunciation, the “i” was changed to “y.”

An important part of nylon’s popularity stems from DuPont’s marketing strategy. The fiber was promoted to increase demand before the product was available to the general market. Nylon’s commercial announcement occurred on October 27, 1938, at the final session of the Herald Tribune‘s yearly “Forum on Current Problems”, on the site of the approaching New York City world’s fair. The “first man-made organic textile fiber” which was derived from “coal, water and air” and promised to be “as strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web” was received enthusiastically by the audience, many of them middle-class women, and made the headlines of most newspapers. Nylon was introduced as part of “The world of tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was featured at DuPont’s “Wonder World of Chemistry” at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939. Actual nylon stockings were not shipped to selected stores in the national market until May 15, 1940. However, limited numbers were released for sale in Delaware before that. The first public sale of nylon stockings occurred on October 24, 1939, in Wilmington, Delaware. 4,000 pairs of stockings were available, all of which were sold within three hours.

Another added bonus to the campaign was that the release of Nylon meant reducing silk imports from Japan, an argument that won over many wary customers. Nylon was even mentioned by President Roosevelt’s cabinet, which addressed its “vast and interesting economic possibilities” five days after the material was formally announced. However, the early excitement over nylon also caused problems. It fueled unreasonable expectations that nylon would be better than silk, a miracle fabric as strong as steel that would last forever and never run. Realizing the danger of claims such as “New Hosiery Held Strong as Steel” and “No More Runs”, Du Pont scaled back the terms of the original announcement, especially those stating that nylon would possess the strength of steel.

Also, DuPont executives marketing nylon as a revolutionary synthetic material did not at first realize that some consumers experienced a sense of unease and distrust, even fear, towards non-organic fabrics. A particularly damaging news story, drawing on DuPont’s 1938 patent for the new polymer, suggested that one method of producing nylon might be to use cadaverine, a chemical extracted from corpses. Although scientists asserted that cadaverine was also extracted by heating coal, the public often refused to listen, as in the case of a woman who confronted one of the lead scientists at DuPont and refused to accept that the rumor was not true.

DuPont changed its campaign strategy, emphasizing that nylon was made from “coal, air and water”, and started focusing on the personal and aesthetic aspects of nylon, rather than its intrinsic qualities. Nylon was thus domesticated, and attention shifted to the material and consumer aspect of the fiber with slogans like “If it’s nylon, it’s prettier, and oh! How fast it dries!” After nylon’s nationwide release in 1940, production was increased. 1300 tons of the fabric were produced during 1940. During their first year on the market, 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold. While nylon was marketed as the durable and indestructible material of the people, it was sold at almost twice the price of silk stockings ($4.27 per pound of nylon versus $2.79 per pound of silk). Sales of nylon stockings were strong in part due to changes in women’s fashion. By 1939 hemlines had inched back up to the knee, where they were in 1929. The shorter skirts were accompanied by a demand for stockings that offered coverage without the use of garters to hold them up. However, as of February 11, 1942, nylon production was redirected from being a consumer material to one used by the military  DuPont’s production of nylon stockings and other lingerie stopped, and most manufactured nylon was used to make parachutes and tents for World War II.

Once the war ended, the return of nylon was awaited with great anticipation. Although DuPont projected yearly production of 360 million pairs of stockings, there were delays in converting back to consumer rather than wartime production. In 1946, the demand for nylon stockings could not be satisfied, which led to the Nylon Riots. In one case, an estimated 40,000 people lined up in Pittsburgh to buy 13,000 pairs of nylons. In the meantime, women cut up nylon tents and parachutes left from the war in order to make blouses and wedding dresses. Between the end of the war and 1952, production of stockings and lingerie used 80% of the world’s nylon.

Nylon is commonly used in kitchen utensils and it has a number of advantages over other materials. Of major importance is that nylon utensils do not scratch non-stick and other sensitive cooking surfaces. Conversely, cheaply made nylon utensils may melt if exposed to high temperatures. They should be able to withstand 450˚F/230˚C, and should be so rated. If utensils are not marked with a heat rating, chances are they cannot withstand high heat. Also, nylon utensils crack over time, creating places where harmful bacteria can hide, and cannot easily be cleaned out. Nylon is also non-biodegradable, so your worn out utensils will sit in landfills a very long time.

Feb 242018

For religious reasons, when the Romans began to add days to some years to bring their calendar into line with the solar year, some time in the late 8th or early 7th century BCE according to legend, they created an extra month called Mercedonius to insert in their special leap years. They chose not to add Mercedonius after February, which was the final month of their year, but within it. February 24—known in the Roman calendar as “the sixth day before the Kalends of March” (a.d. VI Kal. Mart.) —was replaced by the first day of this month because it followed Terminalia, the festival of the Roman god of boundaries: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/boundary-day/ . After the end of Mercedonius, the rest of the days of February were observed and the new year began with the first day of March.

The Roman religious festivals of February were so complicated that Julius Caesar opted for a compromise to maintain the actual dates in February while still adding a leap day to the year one year in four in his 46 BCE calendar reform. The extra day of Julius Caesar’s leap year system was located in the same place as the old 1st of Mercedonius (after February 23rd) but he opted to ignore it as a date. Instead, the sixth day before the Kalends of March was simply said to last for 48 hours and all the other days continued to bear their original names. (The Roman practice of inclusive counting initially caused the priests in charge of the calendar to add the extra hours every three years instead of every four and Augustus was obliged to omit them for a span of decades until the system was back to where it should have been.) When the extra hours finally began to be reckoned as two separate days instead of a doubled sixth (“bissextile”) one, the leap day was still taken to be the one following directly on from the February 23 Terminalia.

Although February 29th has been popularly understood as the leap day of leap years since the beginning of sequential reckoning of the days of months in the late Middle Ages, in Britain and most other countries, no formal replacement of February 24 as the leap day of the Julian and Gregorian calendars has occurred. The exceptions include Sweden and Finland, who enacted legislation to move the day to February 29. This custom still has some effect around the world, for example with respect to name days in Hungary. Confused yet? Technically, in the Gregorian calendar, in leap years February 24th is the extra day, not the 29th. You are excused if you believe that this point is rather abstractly philosophical. Think of it this way. You have a line of 28 blue counters and you insert a red one in the line in the 24th position. You now have 29 counters, but the inserted one is the 24th and not the 29th.

Numa Pompilius

Mercedonius or Mercedinus was also known as Interkalaris or Intercalaris. The leap year into which it was inserted was either 377 or 378 days long. It theoretically occurred every two (occasionally three) years, but was sometimes avoided or employed by the Roman pontiffs for political reasons regardless of the state of the solar year. This month, instituted according to Roman tradition by Numa Pompilius, was supposed to be inserted every two or three years to align the conventional 355-day Roman year with the solar year. The decision on whether to insert the intercalary month was made by the pontifex maximus (chief high priest), supposedly based on observations to ensure the best possible correspondence with the seasons. Unfortunately the pontifex maximus, who would normally be an active politician, often manipulated the decision to allow friends to stay in office longer or force enemies out early. Such unpredictable intercalation meant that dates following the month of Februarius could not be known in advance, and, in addition to this, Roman citizens living outside Rome would often not know the current date.

The exact mechanism for when to insert Mercedonius, and how long it was, is not clearly specified in ancient sources. I do like to focus on calendars other than our Gregorian calendar once in a while, because ours is generally so regular and predictable (and is corrected every so often by leap seconds to keep it synchronized with the solar year to a degree that ordinary people have no need for). Not to mention the fact that the Gregorian calendar has completely swamped all other calendars in the world, although they still show up – mostly for religious purposes. Easter, and allied celebrations from Lent to Pentecost, does give us one shot at being a little bit fast and loose with dates, but most of our celebrations are a little too routine for my tastes. An orderly calendar is comforting, but I am not unfailingly committed to order.

To help create some uncertainty here is an ancient Roman recipe for fried veal from Apicius:

Vitella fricta: piper, ligusticum, apii semen, cuminum, origanum, cepam siccam, uvam passam, mel, acetum, vinum, liquamen, oleum, defritum.

Fried veal: pepper, lovage, celery seed, cumin, oregano, dried onion, raisins, honey, vinegar, wine, liquamen, oil, defrutum.

Ancient Romans ate with their fingers without knives at the table, so after frying your veal you should cut it in strips, and serve it with the sauce. The ingredients for the sauce are straightforward except for liquamen and defrutum. I use Asian fish sauce for liquamen, which was a salty, fermented fish sauce. Defrutum was made by mixing red wine and fresh fruit (often figs), and boiling until the liquid was reduced by a half, straining and bottling. It is a syrupy sauce.

If you mix all of the sauce ingredients together in proportions of you choosing and then marinate the veal in the sauce before frying, you will have a complex dish. It should have a balance of sour, sweet, and salty along with the complex herb and spice mix.


Feb 092018

On this date in 1895, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, William G. Morgan, a YMCA physical education director, demonstrated a new game that he called Mintonette, a name derived from the game of badminton (that is, “little badMINTON), as a pastime to be played (preferably) indoors and by any number of players. The game took some of its characteristics from tennis and handball. Another indoor sport, basketball, was catching on in the area, having been invented just ten miles away in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, only four years before. Mintonette was designed to be an indoor sport, less rough than basketball, for older or less athletic members of the YMCA, while still requiring a bit of athletic effort.

The first rules, written down by William G Morgan, called for a net 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m) high, a 25 ft × 50 ft (7.6 m × 15.2 m) court, and any number of players. The net was borrowed from tennis, and would be way too low these days. Currently the net is very slightly lower than 8 ft.

A match was composed of nine innings with three serves for each team in each inning, and no limit to the number of ball contacts for each team before sending the ball to the opponents’ court. In case of a serving error, a second try was allowed. Hitting the ball into the net was considered a foul (with loss of the point or a side-out)—except in the case of the first-try serve.

After creating some ground rules, William Morgan had to experiment with his game. First, he had to decide which ball to use. A basketball was too heavy while the basketball bladder was too light. After testing all of the balls he had available, he came to the conclusion that his best option was to ask A.G. Spalding & Bros. to make him a ball. A young A.G. Spalding & Bros. equipment designer and master marine cloth tailor, Dale Callaghan, developed and produced the first prototype volleyball. Morgan approved of the ball for his sport, which was covered in leather, with the circumference of 25–27 inches. The ball was also the perfect weight for Morgan’s sport. The ball weighed 9–12 ounces. There is some debate as to whether the official ball was made by Spalding at the outset, or whether it was introduced in 1900.

Morgan revealed his sport to the other Directors of Physical Education  at the YMCA located in Springfield, in 1896. He presented his new, creative idea to Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick (director of the professional physical education training school) and the rest of the YMCA Directors of Physical Education. Dr. Gulick was so pleased that he asked Morgan to present his sport at the school’s new stadium. In preparation for his debut, Morgan created 2 teams of 5 men, who would help in demonstrating “Mintonette” in front of the conference delegates in the East Gymnasium at Springfield College.

On February 9, 1895, William Morgan presented his new sport. When Morgan was explaining the game before the demonstration, he mentioned a few key guidelines in the game of “Mintonette,” such as, that the game was created so that it could be played in open air and in gyms, and that the objective of the game was to keep the ball in action as it goes from one side of the high net, to the other. One of the conference delegates, Professor Alfred T. Halsted, loved the game of Mintonette, but he felt the name was wrong. Professor Halsted suggested that the name of the game should be “volley ball” (two words), since the main point of the game was to “volley” the ball to a player or over the net. Morgan agreed with Halsted’s idea and since then the original game of “Mintonette” has been referred to as Volleyball.

Morgan continued to tweak the rules of the game until July 1896, when his sport was added to the first official handbook of the North American YMCA Athletic League. The rules evolved over time: in the Philippines by 1916, the skill and power of the set and spike had been introduced, and four years later a “three hits” rule and a rule against hitting from the back row were established. In 1917, the game was changed from 21 to 15 points. In 1919, about 16,000 volleyballs were distributed by the American Expeditionary Forces to their troops and allies, which sparked the growth of volleyball in new countries.

The first country outside the United States to adopt volleyball was Canada in 1900. An international federation, the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), was founded in 1947, and the first World Championships were held in 1949 for men and 1952 for women.

I find it somewhat surprising that nudists adopted volleyball early in the game’s evolution, with regular organized play in clubs as early as the late 1920s. By the 1960s, a volleyball court had become standard in almost all nudist/naturist clubs.

All volleyball teams that compete regularly have nutrition guidelines. This comes from Penn State’s nutrition plan for volleyball players (http://www.stack.com/a/volleyball-nutrition-plan ):


Aim to eat five to six meals [approximately every three to four hours] throughout the day, beginning with a solid breakfast. Eat a meal two hours before working out; have a light snack an hour before; then immediately after activity, have another. Consume complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, and complement those with modest amounts of lean proteins such as skinless poultry, fish and lean cuts of beef or pork. Lighten up on fats. Choose plant-based sources [e.g., nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and avocado] and low fat versions of mayonnaise and salad dressing. Opt for broiled, baked, grilled or roasted foods, too.

Penn State’s eight-week plan is split into two three-week “build-up” periods [Weeks 1-3 and 5-7]. Energy demands are highest during these times. To support gains in muscle, power, strength and explosive speed, make sure you consume sufficient calories and fluids with the following eating guide:

Breakfast: Ready-to-eat cereal or oatmeal; banana; skim milk; orange juice; 1 hard-boiled or scrambled egg white or a string cheese. Alternative: Omelet [1 whole egg and 2 egg whites] with peppers, onion, spinach, tomato, mozzarella; whole-wheat toast with jam or honey; orange wedges; skim milk or yogurt.

Snack: Fat-free chocolate pudding; 1 oz. peanuts

Lunch: Sandwich made with whole grain bread, lean roast beef, slice of reduced-fat cheese, lettuce, tomato and mustard; fresh seasonal fruit; yogurt with 2 tbsp. granola; lemonade

Pre-workout snack: Low-fat granola bar; sports drink

Post-workout recovery snack: Low-fat kefir and homemade cereal mix [Cheerios, almonds, raisins, dried cherries]

Dinner: Grilled marinated pork tenderloin; brown rice pilaf; grilled zucchini; mixed greens with garbanzo beans, cucumber, tomato, onion, carrots and reduced-fat dressing; apple sauce; skim milk

Evening snack: Frozen yogurt with fresh strawberries

Jan 082018

Today is International Typing Day or World Typing Day or, simply, Typing Day, an annual event that originated in Malaysia, co-organized by the STC (Speed Typing Contest) Team from JCI (Junior Chamber International), and Team TAC (Typo Auto Corrector) to promote speed, accuracy and efficiency in written communication among the public. Typing Day was first celebrated in 2011 and aims to encourage people to express themselves via written communication, but also commemorates the Malaysian Speed Typing Contest 2011, which broke two records in the Malaysian Book of Records (MBR), that is, the Fastest Typist and the Largest Participation for a Typing Event. The individual winner of the 2011 tournament was Shaun Low Foo Shern, with a speed of 146 words per minute (wpm). In the Malaysian event, typists have to meet a minimum standard to qualify for the live event. During the live competition, they may compete several times, one minute at a time, choosing their best performance for submission for final judgment. Typists must not only be fast, but must also maintain a set level of accuracy.

Typing at 146 wpm is actually pretty slow by world record standards, although certainly fast enough by professional standards. Guinness World Records gives the fastest ever typing speed on an alphanumeric keyboard as 216 words in one minute achieved by Stella Pajunas in 1946 on an IBM electric. As of 2005, writer Barbara Blackburn was the fastest alphanumerical English language typist in the world, according to Guinness World Records. Using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, she maintained 150 wpm for 50 minutes, and 170 wpm for shorter periods. Her top speed was 212 wpm.

All of these speeds are completely beyond me, of course. Apart from anything else, these are copy typing speeds, and I don’t copy type. In fact, I doubt that in this day and age anyone does. Back before personal computers and word processing applications were the norm, there was a perpetual need for copy typists. When I was in secondary school in the 1960s, a substantial percentage of girls (boys were never involved), took courses in shorthand and typing as an avenue to secure jobs when they left school at 16. The trick to being an employable copy typist was being able to touch type (that is, type accurately, without looking at the keyboard), at a decent rate. Trainees took exams to check speed and accuracy, with somewhere between 50 to 80 wpm being acceptable. If you could touch type 60 wpm accurately, you were pretty much guaranteed a job. That was the case until the late 1980s.

When I wrote my MA thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation in the 1970s, I wrote them first by hand on a ruled notepad. Then I typed them up for submission to my advisers. When they had been approved, I handed them over to a copy typist to turn them into professional-quality typescripts that would be stored in the university’s library. In those days I could “hunt and peck” type with 2 fingers, and turn out reasonable typescripts for general work. But I could not type accurately, and my pages were spattered all over with white-out where I had made errors. I could not produce work of a professional quality. Computers changed all that.  Now I compose on my laptop, and generally submit my work to publishers in digital form. Speed is not really an issue because I can now type as fast as I compose. I can touch type and I use 8 fingers (using my right thumb for the space bar).  This ability comes about by having composed my writing on a computer keyboard since 1983. I write no less than 6 hours per day, 6 days per week. You can’t help but get facile under those circumstances.

The objective of the Malaysian Typing Day is a little bit strange, I feel.  It is meant to encourage people to write more as their method of communication, and, is supposed to encourage accuracy in composition. Typing Day was originally conceived by Team TAC (Typo Auto Corrector), made up of Jay Chong Yen Jye, Nicholas Koay Zhen Lin and Edwin Khong Wai Howe, the winner of the MSC Malaysia-IHL Business Plan Competition (MIBPC) in 2010. The stated goal was to encourage ordinary people, especially the younger generation, to type more, and to be more accurate in spelling in their communications. Team TAC designed and developed SecondKey, a computer application that automatically corrects spelling errors and typos in English in virtually any online and offline type-written interface (i.e. social network sites, word processing programs, etc.).

I’m all for people writing more, and for being accurate in their spelling. Badly spelled posts on social media sites always make me cringe. Auto-correct applications are not the answer, however. I have auto-correct options on my phone and on my word processor, and I have them turned off. I don’t want an application deciding what is correct, or what I meant. Many of my friends do use auto-correct, though, and quite often they post ridiculous things because auto-correct has made unwarranted changes. Afterwards, they complain that the ridiculous statement was auto-correct’s fault. NO IT WAS NOT. It was their fault. Even if you use auto-correct, you should read what you have written before sending it off to make sure that what is written is what you intended.

Most of my writing applications have a spell-check option, which I find useful occasionally. For example, the word processor I am composing on now will underscore a word with a squiggly red line if it thinks it is spelled wrong. About 90% of the time, spell-check is in error. My vocabulary is bigger than its database of words. On the other side of the coin, spell-check will not mark words as incorrectly spelled if it has a word in its database that matches, even if you are using the wrong word. So, for example, my spell-check has no problem with, “It’s leg was broken” or “Their leaving tomorrow.” There’s a big difference between, “He’s coming too” and “He’s coming to” but spell check doesn’t care.

In simple terms, I am not a fan of auto-correct or spell-check software. I am a fan of proof-reading, good grammar habits, and good spelling. So, on Typing Day I certainly recommend that you write to someone. Write to me, right here. I do not recommend using software to aid your writing. You become a better writer by writing more often – end of story.

For your recipe today, I am going to give you an ingredient list for a soup I make quite often.  All you have to do is combine the ingredients and simmer for an hour. My ingredient list was written using my auto-correct, however. Figuring out what the ingredients are may be a challenge. There is not a single entry that my spell-checker thinks is incorrect.

© Tío Juan’s Auto-Correct Soup  

1 cup lent ills
1 on yon, pearled and chirped
1 pint char ken broth
2 tsp come on
8 card or mom pods
1 tsp term or Rick
1 tsp Oregon oh
jobbed parse Lee
sold and paper

Enjoy !!

Dec 252017

Last Christmas Day I debunked a great deal of rubbish spouted about the celebration of Christmas. This year I’d like to treat the day as I sometimes treat special birthdays, by reviewing births, deaths, and special events that happened on Christmas Day, in an omnibus post. I will not include events and births I have posted in previous years. Let’s get started.


Most Brits were taught in school that William the Bastard had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 (top photo from the Bayeux tapestry). They may not have been taught that the Conquest (capital “C”) was not over, by a long shot (or bow, or whatever). They were probably also not taught that William was not the great uniter of the history books, but, rather, the great divider. England had been a nation under the likes of Alfred the Great, but when William came along, England was divided between rich Norman nobility and poor Anglo-Saxon peasants. William made England a province of France, and it would not return to English nationhood until king John, the first king of England to speak English as his first language since Harold Godwinson (loser at Hastings), and the first king since Harold to see England as his prime kingdom (largely because he lost all his Angevin holdings in France). He was born on Christmas Eve.

Lots of other coronations (popular day!!):

800 – The Coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, in Rome.

1025 – Coronation of Mieszko II Lambert as king of Poland.

1076 – Coronation of Bolesław II the Generous as king of Poland.

1100 – Baldwin of Boulogne is crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

1130 – Count Roger II of Sicily is crowned the first king of Sicily.

Births (or Baptisms)

You’ll note that Noël is an obvious name for people born on Christmas Day.

1583 Orlando Gibbons, English virginalist, organist and composer.  Here’s his Magnificat for the season.

1628 – Noël Coypel, French painter and educator (d. 1707). Here’s his nativity:

1771 – Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William and poet in her own right (d. 1855)

1810 – L. L. Langstroth, (d. 1895) who discovered the “bee space,” the exact amount of room bees need to move in their hives, and invented the Langstroth hive, which is still in use. It has detachable honeycombs for ease of removing honey.

1870 – Helena Rubinstein, Polish-American businesswoman and philanthropist (d. 1965). Reputedly the first female millionaire in the world through her cosmetics empire.

1878 – Louis Chevrolet, Swiss-American race car driver and businessman, co-founded Chevrolet (d. 1941). Known as “the Daredevil Frenchman.”

1878 – Noël, Countess of Rothes, philanthropist, social leader and famed heroine of the Titanic disaster (d. 1956). She steered her lifeboat away from the sinking Titanic, helped row for 5 hours until they reached a rescue ship, and then took care of steerage passengers on board the rescue ship until they safely landed.

1899 – Humphrey Bogart (d. 1957)

1936 – Princess Alexandra, The Honourable Lady Ogilvy, who is the queen’s first cousin, and the “celebrity” who opened my infant school in Eastbourne when I was in my first term. Her visit was a BIG DEAL, but even bigger was that she actually spoke to me in class when I was painting. The dialogue is in memory, but I’ll leave it there.


Dying on Christmas Day feels a bit to me like dying on your birthday, which is to say, I’d be all right with it, although I might prefer the day after. Actually, dying on your birthday has a certain symmetry to it, whereas dying on Christmas Day seems a bit disappointing, and leaves friends and family with sad memories of Christmas. The following people mostly need no introduction. I’ve tried to give them a Christmas theme.

1946 – W. C. Fields, American actor, comedian, juggler, and screenwriter

1977 – Charlie Chaplin, English actor and director (b. 1889)

1983 – Joan Miró, Spanish painter and sculptor (b. 1893)

2006 – James Brown, American singer-songwriter (b. 1933)

2008 – Eartha Kitt, American singer and actress (b. 1927)

I’ll give you a gallery of my Christmas dinner this year, as I try to do every year in place of a recipe. This year was rather old fashioned English

Appetizer was Norwegian smoked salmon and sausage rolls:


Cock-a-leekie soup:

Roast beef with roast potatoes, steamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding, and spicy cream gravy:

First dessert was mince pie with whipped cream:

Second dessert will be Christmas pudding, but it is not dark yet, and I serve it flaming.


Dec 212017

Today is the December solstice, which, astronomically speaking, is not a day but a moment, and can fall anywhere from December 20th to December 22nd. This year it happens to occur very late on the 21st here in Cambodia, and rather earlier in Europe and the Americas, so we’re good to go. Without going into excruciating detail (nor being entirely accurate), the solstice occurs when the sun appears to stand still, from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), in its apparent movement north to the tropic of cancer once per year, and south to the tropic of capricorn 6 months later. Changing directions is the matter of a mere moment, but historically cultures have celebrated the entire day when the change occurs, because the moment is not really detectable as such. It can be calculated, but you can’t see it happening. If it’s cloudy that day, you can’t actually see it at all, and even if you can see the sun, its apparent change of direction can take a day or two to be obvious. Assigning a day is convenient for everyone.

The solstice is called the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere because they are diametrically opposite.  This is the shortest day in the year in the north, and the longest day in the year in the south.  Consequently, I don’t generally like to be ethnocentric about solstices, but this year I will make an exception and focus on the wintry side of things because we are in Christmastide, and Christmas makes more sense as a winter festival than as a summer one, even though I’ve celebrated them in both summer and winter.  Winter suits me better for Christmas. Likewise spring suits Easter much better than autumn.

Marking the solstice probably goes back to Neolithic times; certainly it was an important time in northern latitudes where crops were sown, and animals tended. Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland attest to this fact, as do Inca, Aztec, and Mayan sites. It is naïve in the extreme to think that “primitive” peoples were afraid every winter that the sun was dying and would never return unless certain magical rituals were performed. People are not that stupid. Did they also think the sun died every night? Of course not. Experience tells you it will rise again the next day. Likewise, “primitive” people knew about the cycle of the seasons. They built Stonehenge, and like monuments, not so much to worship the sun (although that may have been a component), but to predict its course year to year so that they could plan their annual activities accordingly.

The primary axes of both of ancient monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, that is, its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The bulk of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice as, “Yalda night”, which is known to be the “longest and darkest night of the year”. On this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the oldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reading poems (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are especially served during this festival.

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a midwinter (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) and also called the season or one of the winter months by the same name. Scandinavians still use a cognate of “Jul” for this time of year. In English, the word “Yule” is often used in combination with the season “yuletide” a usage first recorded in the 9th century. The Norse god associated with Jul was Jólner, which is one of Odin’s many names. The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about 900, where “drinking Jul” is referred to. Julblot is the most important feast. At the “julblotet”, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.

Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under emperor Aurelian. He too was worshipped and feasted around the Midwinter solstice. What we have to be careful of is believing that Christmas evolved out of traditions such as Sol Invictus celebrations and the like.  It did not, even though in some cultures some Midwinter customs, such as decorating with holly and mistletoe, were transferred over. Christmas is a Christian tradition – end of story. The activities associated with Christmas in different cultures may have been picked up from Midwinter celebrations in general. That’s only natural. Is eating a big festive meal somehow a pagan tradition, or is it just something we all do on significant holidays?

I think making a chocolate Yule log is a merry thing to do today if you live in the northern hemisphere. I used to make one every year as part of my Christmas baking. I’ll confess that I usually cheated, but it was fun anyway. I would buy a chocolate Swiss roll and cut it and shape it so that it resembled a log with a branch coming off one side. Then I would slather it with a chocolate icing, mark the icing with a fork to resemble bark, let it dry a little, dust it with icing sugar for snow, and add a sprig of holly from the garden for decoration. It never lasted long in my house.

Nov 122017

On this date in 2014 the lander module Philae detached from the Rosetta space probe built by the European Space Agency and landed on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (a.k.a. 67P) at 15:33 UTC.

Rosetta was set to be launched on 12 January 2003 to rendezvous with the comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011. This plan was abandoned after the failure of an Ariane 5 carrier rocket during Hot Bird 7’s launch on 11 December 2002, grounding it until the cause of the failure could be determined. In May 2003, a new plan was formed to target the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, with a revised launch date of 26 February 2004 and comet rendezvous in 2014. The larger mass and the resulting increased impact velocity made modification of the landing gear necessary.

After two scrubbed launch attempts, Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 at 07:17 UTC from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana. Aside from the changes made to launch time and target, the mission profile remained almost identical. Both co-discoverers of the comet, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, were present at the spaceport during the launch.

To achieve the required velocity to rendezvous with 67P, Rosetta used gravity assist maneuvers to accelerate throughout the inner Solar System. The comet’s orbit was known before Rosetta’s launch, from ground-based measurements, to an accuracy of approximately 100 km (62 mi). Information gathered by the onboard cameras beginning at a distance of 24 million kilometers (15,000,000 mi) were processed at ESA’s Operation Centre to refine the position of the comet in its orbit to a few kilometres.

On 25 February 2007, the craft was scheduled for a low-altitude flyby of Mars, to correct the trajectory. This was not without risk, as the estimated altitude of the flyby was a mere 250 kilometers (160 mi). During that encounter, the solar panels could not be used since the craft was in the planet’s shadow, where it would not receive any solar light for 15 minutes, causing a dangerous shortage of power. The craft was therefore put into standby mode, with no possibility to communicate, flying on batteries that were originally not designed for this task. This Mars maneuver was therefore nicknamed “The Billion Euro Gamble”. The flyby was successful, with Rosetta even returning detailed images of the surface and atmosphere of the planet, and the mission continued as planned.

The second Earth flyby was on 13 November 2007 at a distance of 5,700 km (3,500 mi).] In observations made on 7 and 8 November, Rosetta was briefly mistaken for a near-Earth asteroid about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter by an astronomer of the Catalina Sky Survey and was given the provisional designation 2007 VN84. Calculations showed that it would pass very close to Earth, which led to speculation that it could impact Earth.[73] However, astronomer Denis Denisenko recognized that the trajectory matched that of Rosetta, which the Minor Planet Center confirmed in an editorial release on 9 November.

The spacecraft performed a close flyby of asteroid 2867 Šteins on 5 September 2008. Its onboard cameras were used to fine-tune the trajectory, achieving a minimum separation of less than 800 km (500 mi). Onboard instruments measured the asteroid from 4 August to 10 September. Maximum relative speed between the two objects during the flyby was 8.6 km/s (19,000 mph; 31,000 km/h). Rosetta’s third and final flyby of Earth happened on 12 November 2009.

On 10 July 2010, Rosetta flew by 21 Lutetia, a large main-belt asteroid, at a minimum distance of 3,168±7.5 km (1,969±4.7 mi) at a velocity of 15 kilometers per second (9.3 mi/s). The flyby provided images of up to 60 meters (200 ft) per pixel resolution and covered about 50% of the surface, mostly in the northern hemisphere. The 462 images were obtained in 21 narrow- and broad-band filters extending from 0.24 to 1 μm. Lutetia was also observed by the visible–near-infrared imaging spectrometer VIRTIS, and measurements of the magnetic field and plasma environment were taken as well.

In May 2014, Rosetta began a series of eight burns. These reduced the relative velocity between the spacecraft and 67P from 775 m/s (2,540 ft/s) to 7.9 m/s (26 ft/s). In 2006, Rosetta suffered a leak in its reaction control system (RCS). The system, which consists of 24 bipropellant 10-newton thrusters, was responsible for fine tuning the trajectory of Rosetta throughout its journey. The RCS operated at a lower pressure than designed due to the leak. While this may have caused the propellants to mix incompletely and burn ‘dirtier’ and less efficiently, ESA engineers were confident that the spacecraft would have sufficient fuel reserves to allow for the successful completion of the mission.

Rosetta’s reaction wheels also showed higher than expected friction levels, though testing during the deep space hibernation period revealed the system could be operated safety at much slower speeds reducing the bearing friction noise. Before hibernation, two of the spacecraft’s four reaction wheels began exhibiting increased levels of “bearing friction noise” and one was turned off after the encounter with Lutetia to avoid possible failure. Engineers turned on all 4 wheels after the spacecraft awoke from Deep Space Hibernation in January 2014, ran them at lower speeds and elevated the control settings on the bearing heaters using an On-board Control Procedure to help reduce the level of bearing friction noise seen on 2 of the Reactions Wheels prior to Deep Space HIbernation. These changes allowed all 4 Reaction Wheels to be used throughout the period Rosetta was in orbit around 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Additionally, new software was uploaded which would allow Rosetta to function with only two active reaction wheels if necessary.

In August 2014, Rosetta made a rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and commenced a series of maneuvers that took it on two successive triangular paths, averaging 100 and 50 kilometers (62 and 31 mi) from the nucleus, whose segments are hyperbolic escape trajectories alternating with thruster burns. After closing to within about 30 km (19 mi) from the comet on 10 September, the spacecraft entered actual orbit about it.

The surface layout of 67P was unknown before Rosetta’s arrival. The orbiter mapped the comet in anticipation of detaching its lander. By 25 August 2014, five potential landing sites had been determined. On 15 September 2014, ESA announced Site J, named Agilkia in honour of Agilkia Island by an ESA public contest and located on the “head” of the comet, as the lander’s destination.

Philae detached from Rosetta on 12 November 2014 at 08:35 UTC, and approached 67P at a relative speed of about 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph). It initially landed on 67P at 15:33 UTC, but bounced twice, coming to rest at 17:33 UTC. Confirmation of contact with 67P reached Earth at 16:03 UTC. On contact with the surface, two harpoons were to be fired into the comet to prevent the lander from bouncing off, as the comet’s escape velocity is only around 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph). Analysis of telemetry indicated that the surface at the initial touchdown site is relatively soft, covered with a layer of granular material about 0.82 feet (0.25 meters) deep, and that the harpoons had not fired upon landing.

After landing on the comet, Philae had been scheduled to commence its science mission, which included:

Characterization of the nucleus

Determination of the chemical compounds present, including amino acid enantiomers

Study of comet activities and developments over time

After bouncing, Philae settled in the shadow of a cliff, canted at an angle of around 30 degrees. This made it unable to adequately collect solar power, and it lost contact with Rosetta when its batteries ran out after two days, well before much of the planned science objectives could be attempted. Contact was briefly and intermittently reestablished several months later at various times between 13 June and 9 July, before contact was lost once again. There was no communication afterwards, and the transmitter to communicate with Philae was switched off in July 2016 to reduce power consumption of the probe. The precise location of the lander was discovered in September 2016 when Rosetta came closer to the comet and took high-resolution pictures of its surface. Knowing its exact location provides information needed to put Philae’s two days of science into proper context.

Researchers expect the study of data gathered will continue for decades to come. One of the first discoveries was that the magnetic field of 67P oscillated at 40–50 millihertz. A German composer and sound designer created an artistic rendition from the measured data to make it audible. Although it is a natural phenomenon, it has been described as a “song” and has been compared to Continuum for harpsichord by György Ligeti. However, results from Philae’s landing show that the comet’s nucleus has no magnetic field, and that the field originally detected by Rosetta is likely caused by the solar wind.

The isotopic signature of water vapor from comet 67P, as determined by the Rosetta spacecraft, is substantially different from that found on Earth. That is, the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the water from the comet was determined to be three times that found for terrestrial water. This makes it very unlikely that water found on Earth came from comets such as comet 67P, according to the scientists. On 22 January 2015, NASA reported that, between June and August 2014, the rate at which water vapor was released by the comet increased up to tenfold.

On 2 June 2015, NASA reported that the ALICE spectrograph on Rosetta determined that electrons within 1 km (0.6 mi) above the comet nucleus — produced from photoionization of water molecules by solar radiation, and not photons from the Sun as thought earlier — are responsible for the degradation of water and carbon dioxide molecules released from the comet nucleus into its coma.

I don’t have any great ideas for food recipes to celebrate a module landing on a comet, but I do have two ideas for recipes in a wider sense. Once is a “recipe” for making a comet, or a simulacrum of a comet made out of common items, most of which are available in the kitchen. If you go on YouTube and search for “comet recipe” you will find any number of videos of people replicating the structure of comets using household items.  Here’s one:

That recipe does not produce something edible, however. On the other hand, there are quite a few recipes for cocktails called “comet.” They are all quite different from one another, and none, in my opinion, evokes comets in any way. I don’t drink alcohol any more, but when I did I had some memorable experiences with blackcurrant vodka, so this one struck a chord:

Comet Cocktail


30ml Smirnoff Double Black vodka
10ml blackcurrant cordial
60ml pineapple juice
lemon wedge


Shake the vodka, blackcurrant cordial, and pineapple juice in a cocktails shaker.  Pour over cracked ice in a glass and garnish with a lemon wedge.