29 April 2006 - Saturday

Seven days to degree

And now I'm totally done with my undergraduate work. Just now, I completed my last business assignment (a team presentation to a local nonprofit organization). I've earned my degrees.

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28 April 2006 - Friday

Eight days to degree

I just got out of the last class lecture of my undergraduate years.

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27 April 2006 - Thursday

My quest for the Holy Grail

After passing through the main gates of the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, I fell in with three worthy companions: Jared the Wheeler; his betrothed, Rachel of the Men of Gull; and Alyssa of Bates. We three journeyed hither and yon, gazing in wonderment at the strange folk and customs that were all about us. "Hold!" quoth friend Wheeler. "I have a thought passing all wisdom. We should fain seek out the Holy Grail, of which we have been told mickle, yea, all these months. Faith, it must be present among all these courtly folk." And the words seeming most wise to me, I answered, "Yea and verily. It behooveth us to seek out this wonder for ourselves in the midst of this gay company." And the womenfolk didst roll their eyes for lack of understanding, and we didst not care.

After passing the noble Privy of Welcome Relief, at which some of our party did seek to temper their discomfort, we came upon a cottage in which a printer was selling divers printed matter and demonstrating his marvelous press. I thought me to buy of him a print of Albrecht Dürer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but lo, it was dear, so I resolved me to find the Holy Grail instead. Or else a hat.

After many minutes, we came upon a potter's shop. "Forsooth!" said we. "No doubt here we shall find the holy vessel we seek!" But verily, the drinking-cups of the potter were unconvincing, and the trenchers were small and lumpy. "Bless me," said Wheeler, "this is no place for the Host we seek." So we continued our quest.

After many fair adventures, which would take far too much parchment to relate even were the whole world a dead calf, I had bought me a hat and supped upon the flesh of a giant turkey's leg. We had seen much of many poor women who could not afford to cover their nakedness, we had seen brave knights join in pitched combat, and we had seen many paintings of unicorns in pastel pigments -- yea, more than we could count. Yet in truth, we had not laid eyes upon the Holy Grail, though we had searched many hours. Our eyes were downcast and our faces forlorn.

Suddenly, we espied a cottage at which lived a pewter smith, who was selling many suggestive goblets. "Ho!" said Wheeler. "Could this be the resting-place of the most holy Relic we seek?" Said I with breath bated, "Why not? But my word, this varlet is charging an arm and a leg." Yet the villein did urge us to view his wares, saying, "This one, my lords, is a particularly fine vessel." And we looked, and lo! we knew at once it was the Holy Grail. We beheld a communion cup, all of pewter, with an ergonomick stem to prevent discomfiture during draughts. And Wheeler, all a-reverent, picked up the Vessel and gazed upon its base, to which was affixèd a sticker.


"We found the Grail," Jared the Wheeler explained later to our countrymen, "but they wanted too much for it."

For thus turning his back on holy things, the Lord smote him, and his pickup died.


For a slightly different take on the same proceedings, please see the relevant entry at Wheeler's blog.

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I borrowed this from Brandon -- another Texan -- who outdid me with a score of 84 percent "Southerliness." For some strange reason, I'm jealous.

Kinda Southern
You are 65% true Southern!
You're okay at this Southern thing, but you've got a long way to go. You've never had a fried turkey for thanksgiving and you have no idea what a Moon Pie is or what the "RC" in RC Cola would stand for, if you'd ever heard of it to begin with. But you're pretty straight on the Southern attitude, if not specifics on the culture.

I would suggest spending a summer down here, but you might melt if you're outside absorbing local color. Um, maybe winter break you could come thaw out Southern-style. You could see a Living Nativity or Singing Christmas Tree. And eat grits with Christmas dinner.

Link: The Southern-ness Test written by gwennykate on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test
Oh, give me a break. I do too know what a Moon Pie is and what "RC" stands for. I've spent every summer of my life but one in the South. And I've been in a living nativity scene. (Not as a character from the story, but as a member of an affiliated children's choir.) If there's anything I lack, it's identification with the attitude, not knowledge of the culture.

They always get these things all wrong.

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26 April 2006 - Wednesday

Reading list (IR edition)

At Foreign Affairs, "Saddam's Delusions: The View from the Inside" explains why Saddam's regime behaved as it did before and during the invasion. The article -- based on a report commissioned by the US Joint Forces Command -- makes our prewar enemy look remarkably weak, and even compliant where WMD were concerned. On the other hand, it also says the Saddam Fedayeen was planning a series of terror attacks on Western targets. For my part, I think the report tends to make the Bush administration look better overall but makes the actual invasion rationale look worse. Others may differ.

Caleb McDaniel is making a case for the abolition of nuclear weapons. To me, his argument seems to rely on the conviction that total war itself is never justified. However, he also makes a more pragmatic case for the abolition of nuclear weapons in light of current geopolitics.

Hugo Schwyzer explains how he got over his romantic ideas about Revolution: by visiting Colombia.

Meanwhile, Chris Bray says his experience with the US Army illustrates the foolishness of trusting the state to provide human services.

Speaking of that, Rebecca Ulam Weiner notes that some private security firms are negotiating for a role in peacekeeping missions. The UN is nervous about the idea of "privatizing peace"; meanwhile, civilians are still dying in Darfur.

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25 April 2006 - Tuesday

Still don't get it

Now that I've finished reading The Da Vinci Code, I am no closer than ever to understanding the hubbub surrounding the book.

First, I do not entirely understand the novel's popularity; the writing is not uniformly bad, but it is never really good. I suppose I can appreciate the book as a cheap thrill. I won't deny being entertained as the book progressed, but there are better novels to read. I have several within arm's reach right now. They are crying out for my attention.

Second, I do not understand how anyone could mistake the book's speculations for legitimate scholarship. For goodness' sake, the novel's leading "historian" actually identifies (p. 234) the Dead Sea Scrolls as heterodox Christian gospels. That's about like having a scholar casually remark that the Declaration of Independence was drafted by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Third, because of such shoddiness, I still cannot get myself worked up about the book in quite the way many other Christians can. Sure, I recognize that some members of the public seem to be embracing Brown's ideas ... and I suppose that means the church should be prepared to respond somehow. But I can't help thinking that the only response that will do any long-term good is to teach people what real scholarship looks like. I'm afraid any immediate apologetic campaign we can come up with is just going to be that much more publicity for the franchise -- publicity that could encourage the public to take the book's allegations seriously, as the academic world simply does not.

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22 April 2006 - Saturday

National Bocialism

I found this Monty Python sketch last night and decided I had to share it. There's at least one racial slur in it for satiric purposes, so be careful. To watch it in this window, click on the play button in the bottom left corner.

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20 April 2006 - Thursday

Closing in

I have a Firefox extension to count down the remaining days to graduation:

16 days to degree

Here's how the counter looked when I first installed it.

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19 April 2006 - Wednesday

The Da Vinci Code

This semester, I'm in a course that covers the development of Arthurian romance in general and of the Grail legend in particular -- from the twelfth-century stories of Chrétien de Troyes to contemporary iterations like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The course has been pure joy for me, although I don't think it's quite what some members of the class expected.

Now we have arrived at The Da Vinci Code, which, I am told, is the reason this course was offered in the first place. (The film adaptation comes out two weeks after the semester ends.) So I am actually reading The Da Vinci Code -- assuming "read" isn't too strong a word for the process involved.

The last two contemporary novels I read were by Umberto Eco, and I am in the middle of another by Salman Rushdie. The shock of going directly from those to a Dan Brown composition sent me reeling. The only way I've been able to appreciate The Da Vinci Code so far is to accept it as high camp.

This actually makes some sense, given the subject matter. Brown's ideas about the relationship between the masculine and the feminine (emphasized, for example, in his explanation of the Mona Lisa) reminds me of a remark by Susan Sontag:

As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo.
There. That's my fair-minded attempt to defend Brown against my own charge of bad writing. Now for the awful reality:
"So, my pupil, tell me what I must know."

Silas knew the information he had gleaned from his victims would come as a shock. "Teacher, all four confirmed the existence of the clef de voûte ... the legendary keystone."

He heard a quick intake of breath over the phone and could feel the Teacher's excitement. "The keystone. Exactly as we suspected."

That's on pages 12-13. From this exchange, I can only imagine that the Teacher wears a black hooded cloak and never clips his fingernails. I already know what Silas looks like: he's an albino who walks with a limp because he wears a spiked chain around one thigh. Really.

Here's another example (page 19) of the fine dialogue in this book:

"What is the captain's name?" Langdon asked, changing topics.

"Bezu Fache," the driver said, approaching the pyramid's main entrance. "We call him le Taureau."

Langdon glanced over at him, wondering if every Frenchman had a mysterious animal epithet. "You call your captain the Bull?"

The man arched his eyebrows. "Your French is better than you admit, Monsieur Langdon."

My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my Zodiac iconography is pretty good. Taurus was always the bull. Astrology was a symbolic constant all over the world.

First off: no, it's not. There are multiple astrologies. Second, the French word "taureau" sounds a lot more like the familiar Spanish word "toro" (as in "Toro, toro! Olé!") than the Latin word "taurus." Brown has a tendency to overanalyze these things. Third, how does a world-famous religious iconographer (Langdon) get away with not knowing French?

The first two dozen pages of the book were simply painful. Finally, I realized that I had been reading the novel the wrong way. I was demanding that it be good, which was an inappropriate expectation. Now I am reading The Da Vinci Code the same way I watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians -- and I find the book highly entertaining.

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16 April 2006 - Sunday

The tremendous levities of the angels

G. K. Chesterton, 1908:

The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

... To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.

The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

-- Orthodoxy, ch. IX (paragraph breaks added)

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15 April 2006 - Saturday

Freedom for me

David Hume, 1752:

The chief difference between the domestic œconomy of the ancients and that of the moderns consists in the practice of slavery, which prevailed among the former, and which has been abolished for some centuries throughout the greater part of Europe. Some passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty, (for these sentiments, as they are, both of them, in the main, extremely just, are found to be almost inseparable) cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution; and whilst they brand all submission to the government of a single person with the harsh denomination of slavery, they would gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery and subjection. But to one who considers coolly on the subject it will appear, that human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of Europe, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times. As much as submission to a petty prince, whose dominions extend not beyond a single city, is more grievous than obedience to a great monarch; so much is domestic slavery more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever.
-- "Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations"

Hume wrote this essay to refute the idea, common at the time, that ancient civilizations had been more populous than modern ones. Some thinkers of Hume's day, working from that premise and from the idea that a larger population indicates greater aggregate happiness and virtue, concluded that ancient societies were superior to modern ones. Hume was of a different opinion.

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History Carnival XXIX

The twenty-ninth History Carnival has been posted at (a)musings of a grad student. Here are some of my favorite entries, in no particular order:

Sergey Romanov is providing a glimpse of what the Soviets knew about Auschwitz during World War II, posting transcripts of Soviet reports. >>

Hiram Hover argues that this year's Guggenheim fellowships in history tell us something about the state of the field. >>

Hieronimo presents a British royal declaration of 1633 regarding lawful sports. >>

Patrick Hunt provides an elephant's-eye view of Hannibal's trip through the Alps, with photographs. >>

Natalie Bennett takes note of evidence that the Romans brought female infanticide with them to Britain. >>

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14 April 2006 - Friday

Edward Said and 'Vanity Fair'

At the end of the film Vanity Fair -- an entertaining though not especially authentic adaptation of Thackeray's novel -- I'm pretty sure I spotted the following notice in the middle of the credits:

Salaams to Edward W. Said for continuing to inspire.

I found that especially strange given the film's treatment of India. While I'm no expert on the subject, I wouldn't say the film exactly avoided the Orientalist approach. Indians in the film are either exotic entertainers or inscrutable domestics, and they literally dance for the British every time they get the chance. Joseph Sedley's triumphant return to India on the back of an elephant is vaguely reminiscent of Palm Sunday, with crowds of whirling locals cheering him on. The natives seem a very friendly lot, of course, but they're still the natives.

Perhaps I am missing something.

Update: In comments at Cliopatria, Manan Ahmed answers:

Edward Said was a colleague of Mahmood Mamdani, Mira Nair [the director]'s husband, at Columbia. And I also think they were neighbors.

I took the dedication to be for a friend remembered.

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Keeping watch

While the Son of Man wept, his followers slept.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and [Jesus] said to his disciples, 'Sit here while I pray.' He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, 'I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.' And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, 'Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.'

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.'

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, 'Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.'

Mark 14:32-41 (NRSV)

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Holy Week

Brandon has provided a helpful guide to Holy Week -- an overview of the significance of the days in the Christian calendar that lead up to Easter Sunday.

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12 April 2006 - Wednesday

Of Useless Studying

From The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel (1494; 1944):

Who never learns the proper things,
Upon his cap the dunce bell rings,
He's led by idiot's leading strings.
Attributed to Albrecht Dürer
Students should likewise not be skipped,
With fool's caps they are well equipped,
When these are pulled about the ear
The tassel flaps and laps the rear,
For when of books they should be thinking
They go carousing, roistering, drinking.
A youth puts learning on the shelf,
He'd rather study for himself
What's useless, vain -- an empty bubble;
And teachers too endure this trouble,
Sensible learning they'll not heed,
Their talk is empty, vain indeed.
Could this be night or is it day?
Did mankind fashion monkeys, pray?
Was't Plato, Socrates who ran?
Such is our modern teaching plan.
Are they not bred to folly true
Who night and day with great ado
Thus plague themselves and other men?
No other teaching do they ken.
Of such men, writes Origines,
That froglike creatures quite like these
And gadflies who, unbidden, flew in,
Brought over Eqypt rack and ruin.
In Leipzig students act this way,
In Erfurt, Mainz, Vienna, ay,
Heidelberg, Basel, any place,
Returning home in sheer disgrace.
The money's spent in idleness,
They're glad to tend a printing press
And, learning how to handle wine,
They're lowly waiters many a time.
Thus money spent to train and school
Has often gone to rear a fool.
For further information about The Ship of Fools, see this recent post at BibliOdyssey.

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11 April 2006 - Tuesday

Going to Syracuse

The lure of Syracuse is strong for any thinking man or woman, and that is as it should be.
-- Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind

My visit to Syracuse University required careful planning. After a few false starts -- originally, I hoped to use spring break for the trip, but our schools had picked the same week for vacation -- I found a relatively clear week in my schedule. I raced to complete that week's assignments early, drafting a research paper in record time the night before I was scheduled to leave. That Monday night, I boarded an Amtrak train in Longview, joining my mother and younger brother, who had come up from Austin on the same train to accompany me. Their willingness to come along would turn out to be a great help.

Normally, I love trains. I love being able to see the countryside pass by, and I actually like the long overland trip much more than a shorter airplane ride. This journey north, however, tested my patience.

The trip from Longview to Chicago was mostly uneventful, but not entirely. Late Monday night, I awoke to the protestations of a drunken lecher two rows up, who was being put off the train for making a nuisance of himself. He charged the conductors with racism, to the amused exasperation of the black women sitting nearby. Then he promised darkly that he wouldn't leave the train unless he were carried off by paramedics (he was having a heart attack, he decided). Fortunately, the man meekly followed two Arkadelphia police officers off the train at the next stop. The rest of the trip was pleasant.

The second leg of the journey, however, was considerably less smooth. The train we boarded at Chicago was smaller and less comfortable, with narrow seats and out-of-order bathrooms. Furthermore, we were sitting directly behind an incredibly irksome passenger -- a large, loud, irrepressibly obscene man with a cell phone and a DVD player. He was traveling from Chicago to New York City, so we had to deal with him all the way to Syracuse. To make the experience more interesting, the passenger seated directly beside me also had a mobile phone; he chattered on it nonstop during the night.

Even after we arrived in Syracuse, the trip kept getting complicated. Shortly after detraining, I ended up in an emergency room to investigate some pain that had been getting worse and worse during the journey. The problem didn't turn out to be very serious (as far as the hospital could tell), and I felt much better the next morning, when I was scheduled for interviews at the university.

I think Syracuse is going to be a good city for me -- a nice size and atmosphere for my needs. When I was there, of course, the weather was beautiful; I was warned strongly not to get used to that. (I believe the annual average is 115 inches of snow, with nearly 200 inches in one recent year.) Whatever the climate is like, the people I met there were uniformly warm and accommodating, easily matching what I expect here in the genial South.

I probably shouldn't go into much detail about my meetings at this point, since I don't know the individuals involved very well yet. I will say, however, that I met with several faculty members and students in history, and that they all made me feel very welcome. The professors even shepherded me from office to office themselves, introducing me to each other. They answered my questions freely and, I may say, satisfactorily. When I went back to my hotel that day, I was pretty sure I had already come to a decision.

Unfortunately, the medication prescribed as a precaution by the ER doctor made me violently ill that afternoon; I stayed in the hotel moaning and vomiting rather than exploring the city. On Friday morning, I felt much better but still not well enough to walk about much, so we stayed in the hotel until it was time to catch our train back home.

In other words, after all that work, I got to spend just a few hours at the university, or indeed, seeing the city at all. But those hours were enough.

I have mailed the school my paperwork, declaring my intent to register and accepting my university fellowship. Starting this fall, then, I will spend the next few years at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, studying in the department of history.

Now I have to figure out where I'm going to live when I get there. Oh, well. Minor details.

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6 April 2006 - Thursday

Biblical hype

It looks like journalists can be an awfully superstitious lot. They sometimes seem to read history the way eBay users look at grilled cheese -- hoping for something magical to happen, something to overturn dull likelihoods and constricting plausibilities.

Take, for example, the Gospel of Judas. The text itself seems to be a document we've known about for a while from other sources, and it's certainly not the first heterodox writing from early followers of Christ. So what's with this BBC article?

Judas Iscariot's reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history could be thrown into doubt with the release of an ancient text on Thursday.
Could be thrown into doubt? Is this as sophisticated as the BBC's historiography gets? Maybe the headline should be "Scholar shocker: Text of heretical text heretical!" Or maybe "Gnostic gospel contains Gnostic teachings."

Now, here's a Reuters report:

The New Testament says that Jesus walked on water, but a Florida university professor believes there could be a less miraculous explanation -- he walked on a floating piece of ice. ... Nof, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University, said on Tuesday that his study found an unusual combination of water and atmospheric conditions in what is now northern Israel could have led to ice formation on the Sea of Galilee.
In other news, modern genetic research has shown that all first-century Galileans were probably morons.

Seriously, all three NT accounts of the event stress that (a) the sea was very rough and (b) Jesus walked all the way up to the boat and got in. If we take these key elements as inaccurate, then I suppose ice is possible; so is a raft. Let's do a botanical study to see whether wood and reeds floated in the first century.

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4 April 2006 - Tuesday


I just pulled an all-nighter to write a report.

It's a report for a business class. A report on Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

The silly thing ran to 20 pages. And now I'm sitting here, quivering slightly, listening to the birds as they begin calling outside. I'm trying not to think about the assignment I have to turn in later today, the biblical studies assignment that might almost be fun if it weren't for not sleeping the night before.

Did I mention that I did this while suffering from nausea? And that I hate the course? I hate it because it's a business course; I hate it because I've already been accepted to two graduate programs in a totally unrelated field; I hate it because it's the only course that's really requiring me to do any work for the rest of the semester.

Now I have an hour and twenty minutes before I have to turn in my 20-page report on Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. What can a person do in an hour and twenty minutes?

I think I'll go watch the sunrise.

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2 April 2006 - Sunday

History Carnival XXVIII

The twenty-eighth History Carnival appeared yesterday at Patahistory. This one is a particularly delightful haul. For example:

Chris Brooke seems to be answering a question with a question ... or maybe just trying to force people not to beg the question. In any case, The Virtual Stoa is raising questions about the Enlightenment. >>

Following Peggy Noonan, Marc argues that American schools should teach our younger children about the inspiring "grand sweep" of the nation's past -- saving the bitter ironies for teenagers, who will be both better able to cope with them and better able to enjoy them. >>

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs examines competing theories about the birthplace of Myles Standish. >>

Miriam Burstein has developed eleven easy-to-follow rules for writers of neo-Victorian novels. >>

Trivium Pursuit provides "classical-education" homeschoolers with a list of books about biblical chronology. Bishop Ussher's chef-d'oeuvre ("one of the most important history books ever to be written") leads the pack. [As a homeschooler myself (one who never accepted Ussher's chronology, just so we're clear) I submit this link as evidence that even when homeschool curricula look strange, they are often meticulous. We homeschoolers are a quirky lot sometimes, but most of us can read figure-eights around the other kids.] >>

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