HARD TIMES ARE GOOD IF YOU LIVE THROUGH THEM – Marilyn Armstrong

Easy times, good times are not always the best times, at least not for creating a better world. When the world is running smoothly and turning sweetly on its axis, we are not building solutions to important cultural issues. Problems force solutions. Difficulties change society.

In the earliest years of what would later be called “The Renaissance,” the death of 25-million people resolved into a serious push to make the world a better place. Which is why I was sitting here thinking about the 1400s.

Not everybody thinks about the 1400s, but I do. Not only was it the time of the black death, it was a time when bands of terrorists roamed through Europe killing anyone they met. Inflation made money worthless. There was little of what we call “central government.” No congress, no government to address. Also, no roads, bridges, or books. And a whole lot of dying going on.

You know how Dickens said at the beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or something to that effect? This was the worst of times.

Beginning in the early part of the 1300s with the importation of the Bubonic Plague-carrying rats, Europe became a horror show. Unless you lived in Warsaw which for some reason was spared.

The bubonic plague hit the continent in the 1340s, arriving on ships from (probably) Constantinople. The Black Death swept Europe like a hot blade cutting through butter.

Beginning in 1346 and through 1353, the number of deaths is unparalleled in human history. Ultimately, the Black Death killed more than 25 million people in Europe. Remember too that the world was much smaller. 25-million people were the largest part of the human race.

More than half the population of Europe died in the plague and in some towns, it was 100%. In other words, everybody died. The forest grew back over lands that had been sown. Murderous gangs that had formerly been remnants of disbanded armies roamed throughout the continent. When most of the peasants died, everyone starved. No one remained to grow new crops.

A burst of invention occurred. The peasantry, always been the least valuable members of European society, suddenly achieved importance. So few people remained who were able to grow crops, it was not unusual for peasants to go from castle to castle to see where they could get the best deal for their labor.

The middle class grew too, while more than half the nobility disappeared. Between death by plague and war, and the abject poverty the Crusades produced throughout Europe, many families slid from the bottom of nobility to the center of poverty. By the 1600s, many former nobles were tilling their own lands.

The Wars of the Roses consumed England. The printing press arrived. Europeans took to movable type with enthusiasm. The press was created sometime between 1400 and 1455. Movable type swept the scribes away.

I’m sure someone was telling everyone that this whole “printing thing” would never last. It was probably someone running a school for scribes.

The 1400s saw the invention of:

      • The golf ball (1400) Hey, for some folks this is a big deal
      • The piano/spinet (1400)
      • The trigger/matchlock (1411) The handgun arrived in 1364. Before the trigger, it was ignited with an ember or another form of portable fire.
      • Oil painting (1420) The paint was invented long before this in China, but oil painting techniques (Rembrandt, et al) were 15th-century.
      • Hoisting gear (1421)
      • Spectacles/eyeglasses (1450) Possibly earlier.
      • Printing Press (1450-55) Johannes Gutenberg
      • Engravings (dry) (1465)
      • Muzzle-loaded rifle (1475)
      • Parachute (1485) Leonardo Da Vinci
      • The copyright (1486)
      • Bell chimes (1487)
      • The map globe (1492) This is also when Leonardo was pondering flight because he had a parachute, so you ought to be able to fly, right?
      • Whiskey (1494)

Sometime during this period, the moldboard plow was invented, turning agriculture on its ear. Deep plowing allowed real farming in areas that had previously been non-tillable.

Historians are still arguing exactly when the moldboard plow was invented, but it was sometime between 1350 and 1475. There was no official “inventor,” so it’s hard to set the date. It was more of a development by farmers until finally, someone got it right.

This might not sound like a lot to you, but the invention of the printing press was a bigger deal than the mobile phone or the computer or, for that matter, electricity and diesel power. It overturned the world. Made knowledge available to the many rather than the élite few.

Back when eyeglasses were really expensive, though they aren’t exactly cheap now!

Everybody drank whiskey.

The point is that times were really bad in the 1300s, only nominally better in the 1400s, yet by the 1500s, the world began to flower.
These terrible old days gave the world a kick in the butt and triggered the arrival of central governments. It elevated both the peasants and the middle classes. It advanced banking, industry, and art. Towns expanded and grew into cities. The building industry changed and expanded. Bridges were redesigned to enable better roads and better roads made it easier for people to take goods to market.

Everything changed, including religion because this also was the birth of Protestantism, though it was not called that until later.

Hard times create a new world. Our two world wars were what pushed Europe into modern socialism and the caring world that they now (or used to) embrace. I think a lot of people have forgotten that before the first world war, it wasn’t the post-war caring, sharing Europe. It was a bunch of rich nobles doing whatever they felt like to anything and anyone.

The world doesn’t advance when times are easy. When all is well, we get lazy. Comfort doesn’t force change.


I want to believe the current awfulness of our world will force us into great creative change and will ultimately improve this world. I don’t know if it is true because I don’t think I’ll live to see the future.

All I can do is hope for the best.

THE UNREALITY OF FINDING YOUR WAY HOME – BY TOM CURLEY

AND because this is absolutely relevant to the previous story … here’s one by Tom Curley.

I’m not a fan, I’m a zealot. I’ve read all his books. Listened to all the BBC radio series. And watched both movies of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.”  The first one done in the ’80s with the original BBC radio cast was actually a TV series. It was done on a budget of maybe 25 bucks, but it was great.

The Disney movie was okay. Mostly, because Douglas Adams was the producer. Unfortunately, he died before it was finished. Even if you didn’t like the movie, it was worth watching just for the opening musical number “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”.

While Hitchhiker is my favorite Adams work, I also loved the Dirk Gently series.

One of the things in the book always stuck with me. Whenever Dirk was lost he would simply follow someone who looked like they knew where they were going. He found that he never got to where he was going but he always ended up where he needed to be.

I used that concept once. I was driving home from work one night and I was on the local road that leads to my house. I came upon a police barricade. The road was closed.

There were no detour signs. I only knew that one road. So, I did what Dirk did. I saw a car in front of me turn off the road. He/she seemed to know where he/she was going. So I followed him/her. For the next 20 minutes to a half-hour, we wound our way through twisty back roads in the bowels of Southern Connecticut. I had no idea where I was.

Suddenly, the car in front of me turns on to the main road again. Past the barricade. I couldn’t believe it! It actually worked! But here’s where it got weird. The car in front of me turned off the main road and on to the road I live on. OK, I thought. Makes sense. There are a lot of houses on my street. This person was obviously going home too. But then the car turned into my driveway! That’s when I realized it was my daughter. I should have recognized the car, but I didn’t put two and two together.

The really funny part was that my daughter had just spent the last 20 minutes or so completely freaking out because this mysterious black car had been following her, turn for turn and then followed her to her house! True story.

I know Douglas Adams was smiling.

SO WHAT IS LYING, REALLY? – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #12

This week’s provocative question deals with exaggerations, embellishments, and lies.


“How do you feel about people who always seem to exaggerate when relating a story? Do you equate embellishment with lying? As a blogger, when, if ever, is stretching the truth, other than when writing fiction, permissible?”

I think this is a question that has no bearing on writers because you are trying to draw a sharp line between “hard data” and “fiction.”

There is no such line. A myth is a story stretched out and exaggerated. Unless you are writing instruction — like a manual or the results of a scientific study — there’s no line nor ought there be one. Many “fictional books” are essentially true, but to make the story more readable, timelines are compressed and multiple characters are combined into one character.

Fact or fiction? Or maybe fictionalized fact or fact-based fiction?

That’s not lying.

That’s writing. That’s telling a story. That’s creativity. That’s what we are all about. It’s what we do. That’s why there’s no clear line between a “docu-drama” and “realistic fiction.” Why story-telling is an art and not a science.

I’ve written manuals and scientific studies. I did it for money. Those documents are fact-based and of necessity must be, but everything else is a story.

Blogging is what I do for fun. You are welcome to call it whatever you want, as long as I get to write in whatever form I choose. Once you start to define creativity, you effectively make it NOT fun anymore.

By the way … If you have a friend who exaggerates stories in which you were involved? You are welcome to interrupt him or her and add your piece of the adventure. Nobody ever said you have to sit passively by and just listen.

We have a president who lies. He says things are true that are not true and these things are supposedly based on facts. THAT is lying.  But then again, I’m not the one standing in front of the American people promising to make it great again because I don’t know when it stopped being great.

WHY SERENDIPITY? – Marilyn Armstrong

For seven years, Serendipity was the “official” name of this blog. One day WordPress decided the money I paid wasn’t enough to protect the title of my blog and we disappeared. Vanished.

To emerge back into the light, I had to come up with a “more unique name” so readers could find us. In between, some kid — one of WordPress’s “happiness engineers” explained that the problem was really that I am irrelevant. People — the general public — no longer (overnight) likes anything I write.

He really pissed me off and I’m still holding a grudge. I actually asked him what award-winning work he was currently writing. He explained he hoped someday to write something pretty good but hadn’t gotten there yet. I asked him if he’d ever written anything at all and he said, “not yet, but he was planning to.”

I wanted to reach through the computer, grab him by the throat, and throttle him. Luckily, I can’t do that … but someday.

A year later, we are very much back as “Serendipity – Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth” which is really the name of the post plus the “subtitle” in one title and you can find all 8,729 posts by using at least half of this annoyingly long title — or the name of whoever posted it the piece.

A few years ago, a few more people started writing for the blog and now, we are five. Garry and Tom write when they feel like it, Ellin and Rich write at least one piece a week and I do whatever remains and these days, a lot of them are pictures of birds.

Rich Paschall – in France

Rich Paschall has been writing, always on Sunday, but sometimes other days. Now that he is retiring, I expect to hear more from him. He has also been an incredible help to me when I’ve been out sick for long periods of time, especially when I was in for, then recovering from, a massive amount of heart surgery.

I don’t know if this site would have survived without his assistance and I will always be deeply grateful for his caring and concern, even though we’ve never personally met. I keep hoping one of these days, we will meet!

Tom Curley in performance

Friends Ellin and Tom Curley — well, we’ve been friends a long time. Tom, and Garry and I all worked at the same college radio station and Ellin is the wife Tom always needed but didn’t know until they met. I love happy marriages!

Ellin Curley

Tom writes when his personal lightning hits while Ellin is a loyal, regular writer and is beginning to get the hang of photography as another way of writing the story.

All of us have a lot to say.

Garry talks about his life as a TV news reporter and all the people he met along the way. Tom talks about his life and views as a TV director, producer, and engineer.

Not to mention his post TV life doing Audio theater in which Ellin is his partner.Garry Armstrong

Everyone has a LOT to say about the political world, mostly not very good stuff, but that’s the way it is these days.

“Serendipity is defined as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” – Dictionary Definition.

Basically, life is all serendipity. I started this site 6-1/2 (seven years in February!) years ago and have garnered closing on 800,000 views from almost every country on the planet.

And still, I see a frightful lack of intelligent life on Earth.

Stupidity is exploding at an unsustainable rate. I thought we had reached epic levels of stupid, but there’s just no stopping it.

Marilyn Armstrong

Watching Jim Jeffries last night “interviewing” the Q people who also appear to be “flat world” believers … and believe Hillary Clinton kills babies for their blood. All of which beliefs are based on zero evidence. None of these bizarre “humans” think “proof” or “evidence” is important. Stupidity reigneth.

When you witness that sort of thing, not only do you get a splitting headache, but you realize seeking intelligent life on Earth may be a futile effort. To seek, yet never find.

There is no intelligent life on Earth. We are like Arthur’s knights seeking a Grail that never got to Britain and possibly never existed. Yet we seek it.

Serendipity? Well, there are two reasons for it as this blog’s title.

First, there is a lovely chocolate shop in Manhattan named “Serendipity.” They serve iced chocolate that is to die for. When I was a teener, it was the place to be, the coolest place in the big city. It continues to exist and I’m betting it’s still the place to be, especially if you live in New York, are young, and looking for life.

A flyaway woodpecker!

The other reason is more obvious. Life is serendipity. You go looking for one thing, you find something else. While you are “settling for that other thing,” you discover you like it more than whatever you were looking for. A lot of my writing is entirely serendipitous. I start writing and something falls out of my hands into the keyboard and sometimes, it’s pretty good.

We are born.

We have no idea who we are or what we will be.

We may never know who we are or what we will be.

We make choices, which may or may not work out, but regardless they are temporary. Because everything changes. We live many different lives and few of them are planned.

Life isn’t something you plan.
It just is.

SOAP MAKING 101 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My future daughter-in-law, Katie, has started a fun new hobby. Soap making. She’s always been artistic and soap making is another creative outlet for her. Soap making is creative aromatically as well as visually, so it provides multiple levels of artistry.

Katie in her kitchen getting ready to make soap

Katie makes beautiful soaps, whimsical soaps and some simple soaps that smell heavenly. She can play with design and smells to make an infinite variety of shapes, patterns and odors.

Katie is very industrious and motivated and she is trying to turn her hobby into a small business. She got herself on Etsy, the major craft site online. She has also done some craft shows and designed and printed business cards.

Her business is called The Phoenix Rising Shop because the symbolism of the phoenix rising from the ashes has tremendous meaning for her.

Another one of Katie’s charming designs

She also came up with a clever marketing idea – the soap making party. She offers to come to your house and make batches of soap in your kitchen with you and you and up to twelve friends. It becomes a social gathering with a theme.

Katie did a test party at her home and it was great! Everyone had lots of fun and learned a lot.

To make soap, there is a very specific recipe that involves the mixing of different oils together at the right temperature. Everything has to be precisely measured out, mixed through and temperature tested. A lye mixture is added to the oils.

This is a recipe where the order in which you add ingredients is as important as what you add. At one point, the mixture thickens as you mix it. Very cool to watch.

Testing the temperature with an infrared thermometer

Adding scent and color is the fun part. There are a huge variety of scents,  from watermelon, cherry, lime, vanilla, ocean breeze, and pine. You can also mix a variety of scents to create your own, such as watermelon cherry, or white tea and ginger.

The quantity of scent you put in is also important. Too much and it is cloying. Too little and you can’t smell anything.

Party guests testing scents

There’s a whole artist’s palette of colors. How you add the colors can determine the design or pattern on the soap. You can also use a knife to swirl colors together to form different designs.

We did a simple pattern layering ribbons of different colors into the soap mold. We also chose the basic rectangular mold that makes bars of soap as opposed to fancier molds in any shape you could imagine – flowers, seashells, geometric shapes, whatever.

The soap has to set 24 hours in the mold before it can be cut into bars. Then it has to cure for four weeks before it can be used. So Katie has set up shelves in the basement to hold the finished soaps and the ones waiting for their due date.

Check out The Phoenix Rising Shop on Etsy to see the wide range of soaps Katie has created. Soaps are a wonderful Xmas gift! And she ships anywhere!

Discarded and oddly shaped chunks of soaps

NOT INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK, OR TWITTER – Marilyn Armstrong

I used to look at the posts that came to me. There was stuff to read. Thoughtful pieces full of ideas, humor. Whimsical material. Ideas to ponder. Often heartfelt pieces about personal tragedies, working through issues, finding answers to important questions.

I didn’t read everything. I never could get all of it in a day, but at least everything I read had meaning. Even if it was about a travel day or examining ancient rocks. Mountain climbing, dog-walking, memories — there was a heart in it and a bit of soul.

All I see these days — with some obvious exceptions are lists of supposedly personal (but not really) questions, riddles, games, and really bad short poems.

When I say “I don’t like poetry,” that’s not really true. I love poetry. I love good poetry. I love poems filled with emotion and humanity — or humor. Not just rhyming for the sake of making the final lines match. I used to read poetry. Amazingly, I even bought books of poetry and memorized it.

About the writing. Maybe it’s me, but with the aforementioned exceptions — people who have been writing for a while and know the difference between flipping off a “meme” or a comment and a post worth investing time into — where have they gone?

They’ve left, is what has happened. They got tired and went away. Between the crazy software and price rises … and now, one MORE price rise … and the resulting loss of quality … why bother?

Some people began writing but gave up in favor of puns, puzzles, and games. None of which are particularly inspiring for readers. They may be fascinating to those who write them, but for me? How many times do I need to find out all about the same person I read about yesterday? How many times does the same person need to answer supposedly “intimate questions, the answers to which are not intimate, but essentially identical to the previous?

Questions and answers are fun sometimes — but that’s not a post. It’s not for thinking. It’s not even worth getting to the bottom of the page before abandoning the piece. I have stopped adding a “Like” to the bottom of these pages because I don’t like them. I should stop saying I do.

So many of the people who used to write strong pieces have left and I don’t blame them. What’s the point in writing meaningful material if all that’s left for you to read are nonsensical puzzles and a dazzling array of Q & A?

This isn’t blogging. It’s gaming and after a couple of weeks, it’s also boring. The lack of thought and ideas is mind-numbing.

I put a lot of time into my writing and photography. I’m not the world’s best writer or photographer, but I work at it. I write, rewrite, edit. Republish when new facts are available. Even when a post isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, it’s never “tossed” off. I do the best I can and hope that I manage to connect, even a little bit. However it comes out, it comes from the heart. I’ve put time into making sure that it says something.

And a merry whatever you celebrate to one and all.

As WordPress gradually destroys itself, I’m sure I’ll go down with it. I’m losing the will to push on. The more I read of the “new stuff,” the less I feel compelled to keep writing. It’s not that I don’t get read. It’s that there is so little worth reading for me.

I keep hoping that someone will realize puzzles and Q and A is not interesting. It has no center, no concept.

This is not a rant. More like a moan. I feel so sad about this and I’ve been thinking about it for a while.

Yesterday, I went looking for something worth reblogging because if someone else has written it, there’s no need for me to try and do the same thing. Let the original author speak for him or herself. I discovered I’d already read, commented on, and plucked out the best of it. And it was surprisingly little.

Blogging isn’t only about “self-expression.” It’s also supposed to have some value of its own. You know, legs to stand on. If the stuff you are churning out has no value, why are you bothering?

INSPIRED: WHY I WRITE WHILE YOU PREFER GOLF – Marilyn Armstrong

Wednesday RDP – INSPIRE

A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.

This is an evergreen post for me. I’ve modified a bit with each iteration, but it says something that’s fundamentally true about the creative process and certainly about my creative process. Writing is me. It’s the sport I play, the goal I seek. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of things I already know, so here it is, again.


We do what we do because we love it, need to do it, or both. For me, writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I strangle on words never used. My friend needs to compete, to be active. To play golf or she will suffocate.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who have told me they want to be writers, but don’t know how. They want me to tell them how. That they asked the question makes me fairly sure they are not writers.

If you are a writer, you write. You will write and will keep writing because it is not what you do, it is what you are. It is as much a part of you as your nose or stomach.

75-FadedBooksFloatingWordsNK-004

I started writing as soon as I learned to read, which was about 45 minutes after someone handed me a reading primer. It was as if a switch had been thrown in my brain. Words felt like home.

Writing was (is) exactly the same as speaking, but takes longer. I have never minded spending the extra time. I love crafting sentences until they are just right. I love that I can go back and fix written words, that unlike words you say, you can take them back.

Raison d’être? I write because I’m a writer. Writing is how I express myself, how I interact with the world. It’s my window, my doorway, my handshake, my dreams.

If you are going to be a writer, you probably already know it. Practice will make you a better writer, can help you understand the techniques you need to build a plot and create books that publishers will buy. Writing itself is a gift.

If you have it, you know it — and most of us know it quite young.

computer gargoyle

Writers have words. They collect in your mind, waiting to be written. We have heads full of words, sentences, pronouns, adjectives, and dependent clauses.

My advice to everyone who aspires to be a writer is to write. Don’t talk about it. Do it. Whatever medium works for you. Blogging, novels, short stories, poetry. Whatever. I’d also advise you to not talk about your work until you’ve done a significant amount of writing. I can’t count the number of great ideas left on barroom floors, talked away until there was nothing left but a vague memory and a lot of empty wine glasses. Save your words to a better purpose.

Write a lot even if it’s mostly not very good. Sooner or later, you’ll find your thing. Or not.

But at least you will know you did your best, even if your best wasn’t quite up to snuff. If you don’t write, it might be a personal loss for you, but possibly, it’s the world’s loss.

You will never know how good you can be if you don’t at least give it a try.

WORD PROMPT: SERENDIPITY ARE US – Marilyn Armstrong

Word Prompt: Serendipity


For six and a half years, Serendipity was the name of this blog. One day WordPress decided the money I pay per wasn’t enough to protect the title of my blog and for months, we disappeared.

Eventually, I had to come up with a “more unique name” so readers could find us.  Three (four? five?) months later, now we are “Serendipity – Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth” and the only way you will find all of my 8,000 posts is by using at least half of the full annoyingly long title — or the name of whoever posted it.

A few years ago, a few more people started writing for the blog and now, we are five. Right now, Garry isn’t writing much because he’s between surgery and techno-hearing-headgear and just hasn’t felt like it, but usually, he does write. Intermittently, by mood.

Rich Paschall – in France

Rich Paschall has been writing, always on Sunday, but sometimes other days. Now that he is retiring, I expect to hear more from him. He has also been an incredible help to me when I’ve been out sick for long periods of time, especially when I was in for, then recovering from, a massive amount of heart surgery.

I don’t know if this site would have survived without his assistance and I will always be deeply grateful for his caring and concern, even though we’ve never personally met. I keep hoping one of these days, we will meet!

Tom Curley in performance

Friends Ellin and Tom Curley — well, we’ve been friends a long time. Tom, and Garry and I all worked at the same college radio station and Ellin is the wife Tom always needed but didn’t know until they met. I love happy marriages!

Ellin Curley

Tom writes when his personal lightning hits while Ellin is a loyal, regular writer and is beginning to get the hang of photography as another way of writing the story.

All of us have a lot to say.

Garry talks about his life as a TV news reporter and all the people he met along the way. Tom talks about his life and views as a TV director, producer, and engineer. Not to mention his post TV life doing Audio theater — of which Ellin is also a major component.

Garry Armstrong

Everyone has a LOT to say about the political world, mostly not very good stuff, but that’s the way it is these days.

“Serendipity is defined as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” – Dictionary Definition.

Basically, life is all serendipity. I started this site 6-1/2 years ago and have garnered more than 700,000 (closing rapidly on 800,000) views from almost every country on the planet. And still, I see a frightful lack of intelligent life on Earth.

Stupidity is exploding at an unsustainable rate. I thought we had reached epic levels of stupid, but there’s just no stopping it.

Marilyn Armstrong

Watching Jim Jeffries last night “interviewing” the Q people who also appear to be “flat world” believers … and believe Hillary Clinton kills babies for their blood. All of which beliefs are based on zero evidence. None of these bizarre “humans” think “proof” or “evidence” is important. Stupidity reigneth.

When you witness that sort of thing, not only do you get a splitting headache, but you realize seeking intelligent life on Earth may be a futile effort. To seek, yet never find.

There is no intelligent life on Earth. We are like Arthur’s knights seeking a Grail that never got to Britain and possibly never existed. Yet we seek it.

Serendipity? Well, there are two reasons for it as this blog’s title.

First, there is a lovely chocolate shop in Manhattan named “Serendipity.” They serve an iced chocolate that is to die for. When I was a teener, it was the place to be, the coolest place in the big city. It continues to exist and I’m betting it’s still the place to be, especially if you live in New York, are young, and looking for life.

The other reason is more obvious. Life is serendipity. You go looking for one thing, you find something else. While you are “settling for that other thing,” you discover you like it more than whatever you were looking for.

We are born. Have no idea who we are or what we will be. We never really know who we are or what we will be. We make choices, but they don’t work out or they work for a while and then everything changes. We live utterly different lives than our “plans.”

Because life isn’t something to be planned.
It’s life. It just is.

HARD TIMES ARE GOOD FOR YOUR SOUL, IF YOU LIVE THROUGH THEM – Marilyn Armstrong

Easy times, good times are not always the best times, at least not for creating a better world. When the world is running smoothly and turning sweetly on its axis, we are not building solutions to important cultural issues. Problems force solutions. Difficulties change society.

In the earliest years of what would later be called “The Renaissance,” the death of 25-million people resolved into a serious push to make the world a better place. Which is why I was sitting here thinking about the 1400s.

Not everybody thinks about the 1400s, but I do. Not only was it the time of the black death, it was a time when bands of terrorists roamed through Europe killing anyone they met. Inflation made money worthless. There was little of what we call “central government.” No congress, no government to address. Also, no roads, bridges, or books. And a whole lot of dying going on.

You know how Dickens said at the beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or something to that effect? This was the worst of times.

Beginning in the early part of the 1300s with the importation of the Bubonic Plague-carrying rats, Europe became a horror show. Unless you lived in Warsaw which for some reason was spared.

The bubonic plague hit the continent in the 1340s, arriving on ships from (probably) Constantinople. The Black Death swept Europe like a hot blade cutting through butter.

Beginning in 1346 and through 1353, the number of deaths is unparalleled in human history. Ultimately, the Black Death killed more than 25 million people in Europe. Remember too that the world was much smaller. 25-million people were the largest part of the human race.

More than half the population of Europe died in the plague and in some towns, it was 100%. In other words, everybody died. The forest grew back over lands that had been sown. Murderous gangs that had formerly been remnants of disbanded armies roamed throughout the continent. When most of the peasants died, everyone starved. No one remained to grow new crops.

A burst of invention occurred. The peasantry, always been the least valuable members of European society, suddenly achieved importance. So few people remained who were able to grow crops, it was not unusual for peasants to go from castle to castle to see where they could get the best deal for their labor.

The middle class grew too, while more than half the nobility disappeared. Between death by plague and war, and the abject poverty the Crusades produced throughout Europe, many families slid from the bottom of nobility to the center of poverty. By the 1600s, many former nobles were tilling their own lands.

The Wars of the Roses consumed England. The printing press arrived. Europeans took to movable type with enthusiasm. The press was created sometime between 1400 and 1455. Movable type swept the scribes away.

I’m sure someone was telling everyone that this whole “printing thing” would never last. It was probably someone running a school for scribes.

The 1400s saw the invention of:

The golf ball (1400)
The piano/spinet (1400)
The trigger/matchlock (1411) The handgun arrived in 1364. Before the trigger, it was ignited with an ember or another form of portable fire.
Oil painting (1420) The paint was invented long before this in China, but oil painting techniques (Rembrandt, et al) were 15th-century.
Hoisting gear (1421)
Spectacles/eyeglasses (1450) Possibly earlier.
Printing Press (1450-55) Johannes Gutenberg
Engravings (dry) (1465)
Muzzle-loaded rifle (1475)
Parachute (1485) Leonardo Da Vinci
The copyright (1486)
Bell chimes (1487)
The map globe (1492) This is also when Leonardo was pondering flight because he had a parachute, so you ought to be able to fly, right?
Whiskey (1494)

Sometime during this period, the moldboard plow was invented, turning agriculture on its ear. Deep plowing allowed real farming in areas that had previously been non-tillable. Historians are still arguing exactly when the moldboard plow was invented, but it was sometime between 1350 and 1475. Because there was no official “inventor,” it’s hard to set the date. It was more of a development by farmers until finally, someone got it right.

This might not sound like a lot to you, but the invention of the printing press was a bigger deal than the mobile phone or the computer or, for that matter, electricity and diesel power. It overturned the world. Made knowledge available to the many rather than the élite few.

Back when eyeglasses were really expensive

Everybody drank the whiskey.

The point is that times were really bad in the 1300s and only nominally better in the 1400s, yet by the 1500s, the world began to flower.

These terrible old days gave the world a kick in the butt and triggered the arrival of central governments. It elevated both peasants and the middle classes. It advanced banking, industry, and art. Towns grew. The building industry changed and expanded. Bridges were redesigned to enable better roads and better roads made it easier for people to take goods to market.

Everything changed, including religion because this also was the birth of Protestantism, though it was not called that until later.

Hard times create a new world. Our two world wars were what pushed Europe into modern socialism and the caring world that they now (or used to) embrace. I think a lot of people have forgotten that before the first world war, it wasn’t the post-war caring, sharing Europe. It was a bunch of rich nobles doing whatever they felt like to anything and anyone.

The world doesn’t advance when times are easy. When all is well, we get lazy. Comfort doesn’t force change.

I’d want to believe that the current awfulness is going to push us into a creative change which will ultimately improve our world. I don’t know that it will be true because I don’t think I’ll live to see the outcome of this world into the next, but I’d like to think that’s how it will go.

HARD TIMES AND NEW DAYS – Marilyn Armstrong

Easy times are not when we create solutions to problems. I was sitting here today thinking about the 1400s.

Not everybody sits around thinking about the 1400s, but I do and fairly often. It’s part of the pleasure and burden of a deep passion for history. Right now, I’m reading a series of books about the Tudors. The early Tudors. Owen, Edmond, and Jasper. And, of course, Henry who became the seventh of the many Henrys of England.

The 1300s were a horror show for the old world.

The bubonic plague hit the continent in the 1340s, arriving on ships from (probably) Constantinople. The Black Death swept Europe.

Beginning in 1346 and continuing through 1353, the number of deaths — from war, disease, or anything — is unparalleled in human history. Ultimately, the Black Death killed more than 25 million people in Europe. And the world was much smaller, so 25-million people were the largest part of the human race.

More than half the population of Europe died in the plague and in some towns, it was as much as 100%. In other words, everybody died. The forest grew back over lands that had been sown. Murderous gangs that had formerly been remnants of disbanded armies roamed through Europe. When most of the peasants died, everyone starved because there was no one to grow new crops.

A burst of invention occurred. The peasantry, always been the least valuable members of European society, suddenly achieved importance. So few people remained who were able to grow crops, it was not unusual for peasants to go from castle to castle to see where they could get the best deal for their labor. The middle class grew too, while more than half the nobility disappeared. Between death by plague and death by war, many families slid from the bottom of nobility to the center of poverty. By the 1600s, many former nobles were tilling their own lands.

The Wars of the Roses consumed England. The printing press arrived. Europeans took to movable type with enthusiasm. The press was created sometime between 1400 and 1455. Movable type swept the scribes away.

I’m sure someone was telling everyone that this whole “printing thing” would never last. It was probably someone running a school for scribes.

The 1400s saw the invention of:

The golf ball (1400)
The piano/spinet (1400)
The trigger/matchlock (1411) The handgun arrived in 1364. Before the trigger, it was ignited with an ember or another form of portable fire.
Oil painting (1420) The paint was invented long before this in China, but oil painting techniques (Rembrandt, et al) were 15th-century.
Hoisting gear (1421)
Spectacles/eyeglasses (1450) Possibly earlier.
Printing Press (1450-55) Johannes Gutenberg
Engravings (dry) (1465)
Muzzle-loaded rifle (1475)
Parachute (1485) Leonardo Da Vinci
The copyright (1486)
Bell chimes (1487)
The map globe (1492) This is also when Leonardo was pondering flight because he had a parachute, so you ought to be able to fly, right?
Whiskey (1494)
Sometime during this same period, the moldboard plow was invented, turning agriculture on its ear. Historians are still arguing this issue.

This might not sound like a lot to you, but the invention of the printing press was a bigger deal than the mobile phone or the computer or, for that matter, electricity and diesel power. It overturned the world. Made knowledge available to the many rather than the élite few.

Back when eyeglasses were really expensive

And everybody drank the whiskey.

The point is that times were really bad in the 1300s and only nominally better in the 1400s.

These terrible old days gave the world a kick in the butt and triggered the arrival of central government among nations. It elevated the peasant and middle classes. It advanced banking and industry and art. Towns grew as guilds developed. The building industry changed and expanded. Bridges were redesigned to enable better roads. Better roads made it easier for people to take their goods to market.

Everything changed, including religion because this also was the birth of Protestantism, though it was not called that until later.

Hard times create a new world. Our two world wars were what pushed Europe into socialism and the caring world that they now (or used to) embrace. I think a lot of people forget that before the first world war, it wasn’t a caring Europe. It was a bunch of rich nobles doing whatever they felt like to anything and anyone.

The world doesn’t advance when times are easy. When all is well, we get lazy. Comfort doesn’t force change.

I’d like to think that the current awfulness is going to push us into a creative change which will ultimately improve our world. I don’t know that it will be true because I don’t think I’ll live to see the outcome of this world into the next, but I’d like to think that’s how it will go.

HOW TO STAY MARRIED WHILE WRITING A SCRIPT WITH YOUR SPOUSE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I write scripts for Voicescapes Audio Theater with my husband, Tom. Writing scripts is hard; writing comedy scripts is harder … and writing scripts with your spouse is — let’s say “challenging,” at least if you hope to stay married.

Tom and me now

We have developed some Writing Rules of the Road to help couples stay sane and civil throughout the stressful process of script writing. Here are a few.

1. When one person says they don’t want to write because they’re not in the mood or because they have a headache, don’t insist on doing it anyway. Someone will get passive aggressive and the other will get pissy. Wait for a time when you both can enjoy it.

2. Never storm out of the room cursing and swearing that you’ll never write another word as long as you live! Use your words – both on the page and off.

3. Chose your words carefully, both on the page and off. Try to avoid phrases like “You’re an idiot!”, “How could anyone in their right mind think that line is funny?” or “No one from this planet would ever call that realistic dialogue.” In fact, avoid negative statements altogether. Start your comments with disclaimers like, “Don’t you think that maybe…” or “I personally feel that such and such might possibly work better here.” Then do not respond to the ensuing insults in kind.

4. Do not throw things; even soft things like fluffy dog toys. They can still knock over lamps or break the vase you paid way too much for at that stupid Tag Sale.

5. Have a “safe word”. When things get too intense and you absolutely       cannot agree about something and you are about to come to blows, use the safe word and drop the disputed issue immediately. Never bring it up again. What happens in script writing, stays in script writing.

6. Do not mix your personal relationship and your writing relationship. Compromises and concessions made in scripts cannot be thrown up as ammunition in a personal fight. And never bring personal issues to a script fight. The fact that your husband always sides with his mother when she gets snarky with you, will in no way improve your comedy script about speed dating.

I hope that we have been able to improve someone else’s writing relationship with these rules. We’ve actually never used any of them!

LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND FINDING YOUR WAY HOME – BY TOM CURLEY

Marilyn wrote a blog about National Towel Day. That was May 25th, the day fans celebrate the works of the late great Douglas Adams.

I’m not a fan, I’m a zealot. I’ve read all his books. Listened to all the BBC radio series. And watched both movies of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.”  The first one done in the 80’s with the original BBC radio cast, was actually a TV series. It was done on a budget of … maybe 25 bucks, but it was great.

The Disney movie was okay. Mostly, because Douglas Adams was the producer. Unfortunately, he died before it was finished. Even if you didn’t like the movie, it was worth watching just for the opening musical number “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”.

While Hitchhiker is my favorite Adams work, I also loved the Dirk Gently series.

One of the things in the book always stuck with me. Whenever Dirk was lost he would simply follow someone who looked like they knew where they were going. He found that he never got to where he was going but he always ended up where he needed to be.

I used that concept once. I was driving home from work one night and I was on the local road that leads to my house. I came upon a police barricade. The road was closed.

There were no detour signs. I only knew that one road. So, I did what Dirk did. I saw a car in front of me turn off the road. He/she seemed to know where he/she was going. So I followed him/her. For the next 20 minutes to a half hour we wound our way through twisty back roads in the bowels of Southern Connecticut. I had no idea where I was.

Suddenly, the car in front of me turns on to the main road again. Past the barricade. I couldn’t believe it! It actually worked! But here’s where it got weird. The car in front of me turned off the main road and on to the road I live on. OK, I thought. Makes sense. There are a lot of houses on my street. This person was obviously going home too. But then the car turned into my driveway! That’s when I realized it was my daughter. I should have recognized the car, but I didn’t put two and two together.

The really funny part was that my daughter had just spent the last 20 minutes or so completely freaking out because this mysterious black car had been following her, turn for turn and then followed her to her house! True story.

I know Douglas Adams was smiling.

A CACOPHONY OF PIXELS

Some pictures are noisy. They make a pretty cacophony.


In the Autumn of the year, I take a lot of pictures. Everywhere. All the time. Many of them are lovely. Others are more like a riot of colors without any theme, unless color by itself can be a theme. They are pretty. Would make a wonderful fabric print … or even wallpaper … but they don’t make much of a photograph.

It turns out, a good photograph needs a “thing” to center you eyes on. That’s the thing that puts the remainder of the picture into perspective.

These pictures don’t have perspective. They are pretty and colorful.

Of the thousands of pictures I take, probably 10% get “fixed up” for displaying online. By this I mean cropped and reduced in size, if necessary, straightened, and all around cleaned up. I do a lot of work on some pictures. On others, almost nothing short of signing my name or Garry’s. And before you ask, Garry is never going to use Photoshop. He’s gotten pretty good on managing Facebook and he can write and edit in the dashboard of WordPress. He is a pretty good critic of what I’m doing on the picture. Good eye, good sense of balance, color and perspective. It’s the diddling with the application where he gets lost.

Photoshop is seven nerdy steps above his technical pay grade. It seems to be above the pay grade of a many people, Honestly, of all the things you can do with it, I probably know maybe 4%? The rest I do using filters. I’ve always deeply envied real graphic artists are able to make magic with their software.

Not me, but I learn a little more everyday

Photo: Marilyn Armstrong

I spent almost all day yesterday looking for the one camera I don’t have anymore. I had one and I loved it, but it got old and I banged it up and it never quite shot the way it used to after I whacked the barrel of the lens on a stone fence. When I went to buy another one just like it, they weren’t making them anymore. They exist, but they are much a lot longer, but not nearly as sharp and they do not work as well in low light.

Intermittently, I look for a replacement. I want something small enough to keep in my bag and light enough so I don’t need a hand-truck to move it. I bought a little Sony CoolPix with a nice Tessar lens last month, but it’s slow. Painfully slow. And — noisy. Not the kind of pictures I’m likely to display. I don’t see it becoming my “take everywhere” camera. It’s the right size, but it’s not good enough.

So now, I’m brooding on the Canon Powershot SX-620. The 420, its bigger brother, does everything … and it is so much like my big Panasonic Lumix FZ-300 — about the same size, too — I don’t see the point. I want something I can slip into a shirt pocket, not something that needs another big bag.

Included in this are a selection of noisy pictures because after all, cacophony is the name of the game. And if anyone has used the Canon Powershot SX-620, let me know what you think of it.

It’s on my mind.

MIGHTY PRETTY

THAT’S A MIGHTY PRETTY PIECE OF ART YOU HAVE HANGING THERE, FELLA


Let’s talk about art and why a “paint by number” kit you bought at a hobby shop is not art, even though it’s “mighty pretty.”

Many things are pretty. Wallpaper, printed by the ream is pretty. Remember all those paintings you could buy in the “art department” of department stores? You could get a blue one, a green one, or a red one. Each “hand-painted” picture was perfectly designed to match your furniture and could often be bought as part of your living room set.

Each picture was “hand painted” because someone’s hand was employed to paint it. Even then, no one said “an artist painted it” because the hand that painted it wasn’t an artist.

Now, with Artificial Intelligence, it won’t even be hand-painted. I’m sure it will be technically far superior to anything a human artist could achieve. Human art is imperfect — intentionally imperfect as often as not. There won’t be a stroke out-of-place and everyone will absolutely agree that it is “mighty pretty,” uh huh, yup, absolutely mighty pretty hanging on your wall there.

Things made by machine can be beautiful, but they aren’t art. Art is wrung from the soul of an artist. Even so, there is good art, better art, great art — and awful art. None of which has anything to do with the mechanical ability of the artist. Art — music, painting, sculpture and so much else — connects feelings, meaning, depth, breadth, vision. The big and the little, the achievements and the broken little pieces. It shows the value of life, the meaning of death, the reason we live, the sadness of loss. It isn’t only something mighty pretty to hang on a wall or pump through your speakers.

If A.I. can totally master the technique of Rembrandt and the “style” of Dali, it still won’t be art because it is without passion. No soul, no heart, no meaning, no depth. The style will not keep changing as the artist’s sensibilities change. It will never evolve into something unique, new, and refreshing because machines don’t evolve or grow.

For those of you who think “art” is a technique of brush strokes on canvas and that any “style” can be reproduced — even improved on — by a more “accurate” mechanical application … or you think if something  sounds like Chopin, it IS Chopin, you don’t understand anything. Not only do you not get it, you will never get it.

Since “fake art” is pretty much always “old or classic art,” consider buying originals from a living artist — the person who actually painted or wrote it. It will be the real deal.

The good news? An A.I. world will be perfect for you. You will be happy in your A.I. world with reproductions that look MIGHTY NICE on your walls. I bet all your furniture will match, too.

GOOD TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND

“Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” — Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”

“The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” — Admiral William Leahy , U.S. Atomic Bomb Project

“There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” – The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

“But what is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981

This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urging for investment in radio in the 1920s

“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” — A  Yale University  management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corporation)

“I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind”

“A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make.” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” — Decca Recording Co. Rejecting the Beatles, 1962

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895

Photo: Garry Armstrong

“If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.” — Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” notes

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” — Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics,  Yale   University, 1929

“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of  Strategy,   Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

“The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over  Niagara Falls  to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required.” — Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University

“I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” — Head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen  Victoria, 1873

“Who would want a f***ing computer to sit on their desk?” — President of Warner-Swayze, 1977

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

VOLUNTEERING – MAKING IT WORK – BY ELLIN CURLEY

When I lived in New York City in the 1980’s, I did volunteer work for AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They are not a PAC, despite those letters in their name. They are a lobby group, dedicated to promoting a strong American-Israeli relationship and supporting pro-Israel policies in the U.S. Congress. As part of that larger mission, they strive to keep Americans and their government informed about issues relating to Israel and the Jewish community all over the world.

The point of this story has nothing to do with AIPAC’s overall purpose. It has to do with my little area of influence – volunteers in the New York City office. My job was to organize the volunteers and find something for them to do. No one before me had figured out what to do with these interested and enthusiastic people.

I came up with a brilliant idea. I decided to provide educational programs in the form of discussion groups. So I started planning social evenings, usually at my home but sometimes at the home of another volunteer. I always had a few other volunteers working with me on the logistics for these evenings.

AIPAC and I provided the food and drink for the event and the speaker. I managed to find interesting speakers with expertise in a wide range of issues. It turned out to be a very popular format. The interactive discussions were very lively, enjoyable and informative.

Some of these subjects involved specific issues faced by Israel and the Arabs in the Middle East. Some involved the plight of Jews being persecuted in other parts of the world. I remember there was a crisis in Ethiopia that resulted in a mass emigration of poor Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This caused serious assimilation problems in Israel, which we talked about. Another major topic was antisemitism in the U.S. One evening focused on Louis Farrakhan, a charismatic black religious leader and activist who praised Hitler. We had a video of a speech he gave saying that Hitler’s main failing was that he didn’t do a thorough enough job on the Jews.

I kept these events going for about two years. We got good turn outs and rave reviews. This was the only ongoing AIPAC program in the entire New York area.

I was proud that I created a successful format that got people involved and educated. But sadly, I couldn’t find anyone to run the program when I left. I’m afraid it just died out. But I took what could have been a pro forma, nothing job and turned it into something. And I had fun doing it.