Happy Flag Day

June 14, 2018

Everyone knows the concert band version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa. Heard less often — probably because it’s so diabolically difficult to play — is the piano transcription by Vladimir Horowitz, which requires one person with ten fingers to cover all of the parts normally played by dozens of musicians on brass, woodwinds, and percussion.

(While picking through various performances of the Horowitz arrangement on YouTube, I found that he was not the only musician audacious enough to turn “Stars and Stripes Forever” into a piano piece. I found, among other things, a version for three pianists playing one piano, one for four pianists playing two pianos, and another for eight pianists playing four pianos — all of them delightful.)


D-Day classic: The most amazing lie in history

June 6, 2018

The Allies’ top-secret weapon.

How a chicken farmer, a pair of princesses, and 27 imaginary spies helped the Allies win World War II

Only one man in history was both awarded the Iron Cross for his service to Nazi Germany AND also made a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by King George VI. That man was Juan Pujol Garcia, a draft-dodging chicken farmer and failed businessman from Barcelona who decided during World War II to become a double agent in order to help the Allies defeat Hitler. Here is his amazing story, as recounted by Lucas Reilly in Mental Floss:

In the weeks leading up to D-day, Allied commanders had their best game faces on. “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives,” barked General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be!” Indeed, more than 6,000 ships were ready to cruise across the English Channel to plant the first wave of two million troops on the white beaches of Normandy. Nearly 20,000 vehicles would crawl ashore as 13,000 planes dropped thousands of tons of explosives and thousands of paratroopers.

The sheer size of the invasion—it would be the largest in history—was staggering. But so were the stakes. With the first day’s casualty rate expected to reach 90 percent and the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance, the truth was that Eisenhower was riddled with doubt. He’d transformed into an anxious chimney, puffing four packs of cigarettes a day. Other Allied leaders felt equally unsure. “I see the tides running red with their blood,” Winston Churchill lamented. General George S. Patton privately complained of feeling “awfully restless.” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke was more blunt: “It won’t work,” he said. The day before the invasion, Eisenhower quietly penciled a note accepting blame in case he had to order retreat. When he watched the last of the 101st Airborne Division take off, the steely general started to cry.

They were worried for good reason. With so many troops and so much artillery swelling in England, it was impossible to keep the attack a secret. Hitler knew it was coming, and he’d been preparing a defense for months. Only one detail eluded him, and he was confident in a Nazi victory if he could figure it out—he needed to know where, exactly, the attack would happen. To make D-day a success, the Allies needed to keep him in the dark: They’d have to trick the Germans into thinking the real invasion was just a bluff, while making it seem like a major attack was imminent elsewhere. The task seemed impossible, but luckily, the British had a secret weapon: a short, young balding Spaniard. He was the king of con men, an amateur spy gone pro, the world’s sneakiest liar. He was also, of all things, a chicken farmer.

[story continues here]


In memoriam

May 28, 2018


Thank you to all who served

November 11, 2017


Caturday funnies — Veterans Day edition

November 11, 2017


Happy birthday to our national anthem

September 14, 2017

It was on this day in 1814 that a young American lawyer and poet named Francis Scott Key wrote what was to become his most famous poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry,” while on board a British Navy ship in Chesapeake Bay. Key had been negotiating with the British for the release of a prisoner they had taken in their raid on Washington, but because he had heard about the Navy’s plans for attacking Baltimore, he was not released until after the battle. That was how he came to witness the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of H.M.S. Tonnant on the night of September 13. When the sun rose the following morning, and Key saw the Stars and Stripes flying over Fort McHenry, the sight inspired him to write a poem. Soon afterward, Key’s words were set to the melody of a popular song by English composer John Stafford Smith, and it quickly became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” became the national anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931. Often criticized for being difficult to sing and/or for glorifying warfare, it remains stubbornly popular with the American people; and two centuries after its composition, its ability to send a shiver up the spine and bring a tear to the eye remain intact.


Happy Independence Day

July 4, 2017


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