The Last Personal Army

When the Roman Empire collapsed in AD 476, Europe was shattered into thousands of tiny kingdoms. Over time, these tiny kingdoms grew, either by merging through marriage or by conquest. And thus, by the 10th century, the feudal system was in place all over the continent.

Under this system, a lord (or king) had absolute control over a span of territory that ranged in size from a few square miles to several hundred square miles. Underneath the lord were the clergy and knights, who protected the lord both spiritually and physically. Underneath them came the merchants. Underneath the merchants were skilled laborers, like blacksmiths and coopers. And underneath the skilled laborers were the unskilled laborers, or serfs, who farmed the lord’s land.

It might initially seem that the feudal system was a one-way hierarchy. After all, the serfs could not move (or even travel, in most cases) without their lord’s permission. They grew crops on the lord’s land, and were required to give him a large portion of their harvest to pay rent. But the feudal system had a paternal side, too. The lord was expected to treat the serfs fairly, and to use his knights to protect them from invading armies or bandits.

In time, these small societies grew in size, as one small kingdom was conquered and absorbed into another, or as marriage created associations between such kingdoms. Eventually, these small kingdoms would grow into the modern countries of England and France (and eventually Germany and Italy, although those two countries wouldn’t be fully formed until the 19th century).

Here’s the interesting thing, though: from around AD 900 until the American Civil War, most armies were based on that feudal system. Instead of a “national army” made up of “English” soldiers, most armies were made up of thousands of individual regiments formed by dukes, earls, and other forms of nobility. As soon as a king knew that an invasion was coming, he’d put out a call to his aristocracy, who would organize their own knights and take them wherever the king wanted them. Although the soldiers were certainly loyal to their king, they generally only took orders from their local lord.

Although this system would break down over time (especially by the time of Napoleon, the founder of the first “modern army”), traces of it nevertheless persisted until the US Civil War, when Irish immigrants were allowed to create their own regiments for the Union army. So instead of “Lord Fluffernutter’s Essex Cavalry” you had “O’Connor’s 96th Irish Infantry”. So… slightly different, yet the same.

Here’s what’s really interesting, though. There is still one such “feudal army” in Europe: the Atholl Highlanders.

Continue reading “The Last Personal Army”

Looker is real!

In the 1981 film Looker, Albert Finney plays a Hollywood plastic surgeon. He becomes troubled when four beautiful young models come in to his office and demand tiny, almost imperceptible changes to their looks. When the models start turning up dead, Finney investigates further, and finds out that they were all linked to a market research firm called Digital Matrix. As it turns out, Digital Matrix has developed a technology that scans the girls and makes perfect digital copies of them that can be used in commercials and movies. The models are initially all for it, thinking that they can get a paycheck for doing nothing once they’re scanned. Digital Matrix, however, has figured out that the models need not exist at all once they’re scanned. So Digital Matrix just kills them and keeps them money for itself.

Looker was a neat sci-fi film in its day. It didn’t have aliens, starships or guys in glorified gorilla costumes. The plot seemed almost feasible at the time. Of course, computers in 1981 weren’t nearly powerful enough to pull off lifelike 3-D modeling. But computers today are. Behold:

This is a computer generated version of actress Emily O’Brien created by facial animation studio Image Metrics. And here’s a video of the CG O’Brien talking about her creation:

It’s not completely lifelike yet… but man, is it ever close!

Selling Out For Fast Food

Tremayne Durham is a 33 year-old man from Brooklyn. Back in 2006, Durham ordered an $18,000 ice cream truck from a company in Oregon. Shortly thereafter, however, Durham changed his mind and demanded his money back. The company refused, and so Durham drove all the way across the country to confront them. When he arrived, he started looking for the owner, but, not finding him, Durham ended up shooting and killing Adam Calbreath, a former employee of the company who just happened to have stopped by that day.

It’s an unremarkable (if tragic) story so far, right? But here’s where it gets weird: Durham quickly grew tired of jail food, and so he agreed to plead guilty to murder in exchange for a bucket of KFC chicken, a bucket of Popeye’s chicken, a serving of mashed potatoes, a serving of coleslaw, a slice of carrot cake, a pizza, two calzones, a tray of lasagna and a bucket of ice cream.

The total cost to the taxpayers of Multnomah County, Oregon: $41.70.

The judge and DA agreed to Durham’s odd demand because the fast food feast was far cheaper than a jury trial and any appeals Durham might have filed.

And just for the record, his feast was served on two separate occasions. When the DA initially agreed to the deal, Durham was given the chicken, potatoes, slaw and cake. After he was sentenced, he got the other half of the food, the lasagna, calzones and ice cream.

Read all about it here.

The Boot Stamping Continues…

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

You might remember this post from a couple of weeks ago, where I railed against the Department of Homeland Security’s new policy that allows them to seize laptops, iPods, and other electronic devices from anyone entering the United States. You don’t have to be a “filthy foreigner”, a suspect in a crime, or even on the incredibly accurate “no-fly” list. You just have to piss off the wrong DHS agent on the wrong day.

Now there’s word that the federal government is tracking the border crossings of US citizens. Oh, they promise that they won’t do any mining of the data… and you believe that, right? Customs and Border Protection even says that they’ll keep the information in their database… for 15 years! And this is data which the DHS readily admits that it will share with other federal agencies, as well as state and local governments.

The saddest thing about all this (to me) is that this is the same federal government that has for years refused to defend the borders of the United States, a task which is one of the basic jobs of any national government. Almost every single right-wing commentator on TV and radio has demanded only that the government simply enforce existing immigration laws. Despite this, the government has turned a blind eye to the millions of Mexicans coming into this country, while it (now) steadily takes away the fundamental freedoms of Americans. So it seems that any terrorist could simply enter Mexico and cross the border scot-free at almost any point… but an American returning from any foreign country now gets their name in a database for 15 years. Yeah, because that make sense!

Again, let me ask: when is the Second American Revolution coming?

Veronica Mars: The Movie?

Fans of the late, great Veronica Mars… prepare to pee in your pants!

Word on the Intarwebs is that series creator Rob Thomas and Kristin Bell got together last week for some “serious discussions” about bringing our favorite teenage supersleuth to the silver screen. Word on the street – and this is very preliminary – says that the movie might be based on the “Veronica Joins the FBI” trailer\teaser that Thomas put together for the folks at The CW for a 4th season of the show… which, of course, never happened. The teaser is available on the Season 3 DVD set. You can also watch part 1 of the “FBI Trailer” on YouTube here; watch part 2 here.

Could it really happen? Let’s hope so! If crap shows like The Dukes of Hazzard can get made into movies, why not a show that Buffy creator Joss Whedon called “The. Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I’ve never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn’t making, and maybe even more than those… These guys know what they’re doing on a level that intimidates me”. Kevin Smith (of Clerks fame) said that “Veronica Mars is, hands-down, the best show on television right now, and proof that TV can be far better than cinema. Some of the best TV ever produced”. Stephen King called it “Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe, and the result is pure nitro. Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears little resemblance to life as I know it, but I can’t take my eyes off the damn thing.” And comic book legend Ed Brubaker called it “The best mystery show ever made in America.”


ADV Parishes Win Again!

From the Anglican District of Virginia’s site:

The 11 Virginia Anglican congregations sued by The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Diocese of Virginia responded to the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruling issued today concerning the Contracts Clause and the assertion by [The Episcopal Church] and the Diocese that the 11 Anglican congregations waived their right to invoke the Virginia Division Statute.

Judge Randy Bellows ruled that TEC and the Diocese failed to timely assert their claim that the 11 Anglican congregations contracted around or waived their right to invoke the Division Statute. In addition, the judged ruled that the Division Statute does not violate the contracts clause provisions of the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions as applied to these properties. The rulings can be found at Today’s rulings mean that there are only a small number of issues remaining to be decided at the October trial, and the 11 Anglican congregations are hopeful that they can be resolved quickly.

And from Stand Firm:

Contracts Clause Opinion – The judge rules that the Division Statute 57-9 does not violate the contracts clause provisions of the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.

Waver Opinion – Judge rules that TEC/DioVA failed to assert in a timely manner their claim that the CANA Congregations contracted around or waived their right to invoke the Virginia Div. statute.

This opinion denies TEC/DioVA their earlier answers to questions regarding 57-9 (they wanted to change their strategy now that they’ve lost on all the rulings so far; that change of strategy was denied). The judge also orders the counsel into court this Friday to discuss the scope of the October trial.

So… TEC\DioVA are what… 0-12 on this case so far? How much money is TEC going to waste on this instead of concentrating on the “issues” like world poverty that KJS and her jackbotts whined so much about at Lambeth?

Mad Men: “Three Sundays”

This week’s episode of Mad Men takes place over three Sundays: Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, 1962.

We begin with a hungover Peggy attending Mass with her family at their Brooklyn church. After a few moments, Peggy decides that she needs some fresh air, and so she excuses herself. As she approaches the door of the church, she runs into a visiting priest, Father Gill. The two have a brief (but meaningful) conversation, and Father Gill says that he’ll be eating lunch at Peggy’s sister’s place that afternoon. At lunch, Father Gill, who has lived in Rome, impresses the ladies with tales of the Vatican. Father Gill and Peggy have some sort of “spark” between them, and when Peggy says that she needs to go, Father Gill excuses himself in order to give Peggy a ride to the subway station. In the car outside the station, Father Gill picks Peggy’s brain for “marketing ideas” for his sermon the following week.

While all this is going on, Don has convinced Betty to skip out on a barbecue by getting frisky with her. Unfortunately, the kids interrupt them, and so the two end up spending a lazy Sunday on the sofa, enjoying drinks made by Sally, the family’s 8 year-old bartender. (I like Sally’s version of the Bloody Mary: 90% vodka, 10% tomato juice, and nothing else). Don and Betty later dance to a Bing Crosby song that Betty loves.

After a brief respite, the sin returns in full force on Monday. Pete and Ken have hired Vicky, a high-end call girl, to entertain a client. Roger stops by the table, and Vicky is (awkwardly) introduced as the client’s wife. Meanwhile, Bobbie Barrett goes to see Don at his office, with plans for a Candid Camera style show starring her husband, tentatively called Grin and Barrett. Last week, I said that I thought that Bobbie and Don didn’t do anything in the car; that illusion was shattered this week when Bobbie locked the door to Don’s office and threw her coat on the floor… presumably to keep her knees from getting dirty.

On the following Sunday, Don gets an emergency phone call from Duck: it seems that the American Airlines meeting has been moved up to the upcoming Friday, and Don’s needed in the office now.. Betty had stepped out of the kitchen moments before the phone rang, and while Don was on the phone, Bobby burned himself on the pancake griddle. Earlier in the week, Bobby also broke the record player, and there’s serious tension between Don and Betty over “who wears the pants” when it comes to disciplining the children. Betty, in a rage, takes Bobby to the emergency room, leaving Don to take Sally to the office.

Continue reading “Mad Men: “Three Sundays””

“Isn’t That Illegal?”

I was sifting through my RSS feeds the other day when I came across this story at, which talks about how Alaska Airlines will no longer accept cash as a form of payment for in-flight services, such as drinks, headphones, etc.

As it happens with every single article about forms of payment, someone in the comments section of the article asked “Isn’t it illegal not to accept cash?”

The short answer: no.

A merchant can set any rules they want as far as accepting payment goes. He can accept cash only. He can accept credit cards only. He can accept cash and credit cards. He can accept cash and Mastercard only, or cash and Visa only. He could even accept “live chickens only” as his sole form of payment, if he were so inclined.

What he cannot do is refuse cash as a form of payment for a debt, then take you to court over non-payment of the debt. If, for example, a local convenience store offered to set up a “tab” for you, then refused to take a cash payment for that tab at the end of the month, he cannot take you to court over non-payment. That’s what “legal tender” means: payment that, by law, cannot be refused in settlement of a debt. And a “sale” is not a “debt”, so yes: the merchant can absolutely refuse your cash. Or he can refuse large bills. Or he can refuse pennies.

And while we’re on the topic of credit cards and money, here are a few issues you might encounter with credit cards that may or may not be “illegal”:

Merchants requiring minimums for credit card use: According to the agreement signed between a merchant and Visa or Mastercard, the merchant cannot have a “minimum charge” policy. You might have seen signs posted in bars and take-out restaurants saying “$10 minimum charge for credit cards”. This is a blatant violation of the merchant agreement; click here to learn how to report merchants who violate this rule to Visa, Mastercard and American Express.

Merchants charging more for credit cards: According to the merchant agreement, stores cannot charge more for using a Visa, Mastercard or American Express. You might have seen signs in stores that say “3% surcharge for using credit card”. This too is a blatant violation of the merchant agreement. What merchants can do is give a “cash discount” for purchases, but this discount may apply to cash payments only; checks, gift cards, etc. do not count as “cash” in this example.

Continue reading ““Isn’t That Illegal?””

Good News for DM Fans!

A couple of years ago, I asked for a pair of STEEL brand boots for Christmas. This came as something of a shock to my family, as I’d worn Doc Martens shoes and boots nearly exclusively for almost 22 years.

The truth be told, the last two pairs of Docs I bought started falling apart in less than a year. In one case, the soles actually started splitting where they’d bend as I walked. In the second case, the reinforcements around the eyelets started falling off.

Contrast this to the second pair of Docs I ever owned: a pair of plain black 3-hole Oxfords. I bought those shoes at Abbadabbas in Little Five Points shortly after graduating high school and wore them almost every single day for nine years. I only ended up throwing them away because all of the leather inside of the shoe had worn off, and the sole was so thin that the “air sole” bits were starting to stick out. Sure, I paid around $130 for them back in 1989, but I probably wore them over 3,000 times. I wore them to work at my Dad’s warehouse every day. I wore them the entire time I was in college. I even wore them to several jobs after graduation. It was the best damn $130 I ever spent!

So anyway, I chalked up Doc Martens decline in quality to the fact that the company ceased manufacturing its shoes in England in 2001 and outsourced their manufacture to China and Thailand. Imagine my joy when I found out the other day that Doc Martens started making shoes in the UK again in late 2007!

The “British Doc Martens” shoes are sold under the “Vintage Originals” product line and are made from “scratch” at the Cobbs Lane Factory in Wollaston. This isn’t a case where all the parts are made in China and assembled in England… the entire shoe is made in the UK to Doc Martens’ original specifications.

I think I just might add a new pair of 3-hole Oxfords to my Christmas List!

Check it out at Doc Martens’ official site here.


Can you believe that the Material Girl turns 50 freakin’ years old today? Me neither. Gawd, I’m getting old. Just the other day, I realized that if I still had my first pair of Doc Martens, we could go out for a drink together, since they’d be almost 22 years old. Sigh.

Anyway… HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MADONNA! I’m still crazy about you after all these years!

PS – I hope your ankle gets better soon!