The fall of Rome

Historians discuss and debate when the Roman Empire fell and why it fell. They rarely ask each other whether it fell. Surely it does not exist today, so at some time it must have fallen. The key is to find a date when it fell and then to offer reasons why it fell.

Diocletian divided the Empire into administrative halves in 286, governing the western half from Mediolanum (now Milan, Italy). Constantine built a new city in the eastern Empire, calling it New Rome, although it quickly became known as Constantinople. The city of Rome, then ceased to be the center of the Roman Empire well before the city was sacked by barbarians. Some historians push the decline and fall of Rome back into the 200s; others point to the collapse of the borders around the year 376 or the clear division of imperial authority in 395. Many place the end of Rome at the sack of the city by Alaric in 410 or that of Odacer in 476. Yet the continuity of Roman government in the eastern Mediterranean continued under the Byzantine emperors until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For that matter, a Frankish king named Charles considered the title of Roman Emperor to be worth receiving in the year 800. For that matter, a country called the Holy Roman Empire still existed on European maps a thousand years after Charles (or Charlemagne) was crowned in Rome; Napoleon might be considered the final conqueror to bring about the fall of Rome when he disbanded the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

For those who prefer to say that Rome fell some time before the year 500, many reasons can be offered as the cause of that fall. Those reasons include climate change, immigration problems, increasing taxation, rampart immorality, loss of the “will to power” due to Christianity, and even lead poisoning from Roman plumbing. Like most historical events, the fall of Rome (if it happened at all) probably had multiple causes. From a historical perspective, though, immigration problems may have contributed more than any other factor to large-scale changes in the Roman Empire.

At the same time that Rome prospered in the west, the Han dynasties were powerful in China. Among their rivals for power in eastern Asia were central Asian residents known to the Chinese as the Xiongnu. As China grew in size and strength, the Xiongnu were displaced; rather than battling China, they sought homes elsewhere. Some traveled south into India, bringing an end to the powerful Gupta Empire. Others pushed into northwestern Asia, displacing Germanic tribes who pressed on the borders of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the descendants of the Xiongnu also arrived in Italy, where (as in India) they were called Huns. But the leader of the Huns in Italy, Attila, turned away from Rome—according to some sources, after successful negotiations of Pope Leo. Roman power was not enough, though to prevent the arrival of Vandals, Goths, and other nations that sought to migrate into Roman lands.

The Vandals and Goths and others were fleeing the Huns and other enemies. They were looking for better places to live—more favorable climates, and more opportunity to raise food for themselves and their families. They valued Roman law, Roman civilization, and Roman culture. (All of them eventually became Christians.) They did not want to conquer or destroy Rome as much as they wanted to join Rome. Yet their presence on soil once claimed by Rome constituted, for Romans at the time and for most historians today, an invasion that brought about the fall of Rome.

The Romans struggled to prevent this immigration problem. They posted troops on the borders of the Empire. They built walls. One of their better ideas was to offer Roman citizenship to the immigrants provided they remain on the border and guard against new waves of immigration. All these efforts bought time to preserve the Empire. In the end, though, the immigrants overwhelmed Roman efforts to bar their entry. They made their home in western Europe and north Africa. In the absence of Roman authority, they established their own governments and preserved their various cultures.

Yet they did not destroy all that was Roman. In many ways, they adopted or imitated Roman law and bureaucracy. As already noted, they became Christians as the Romans had become Christians. They viewed themselves, not as the destroyers of Rome, but as the heirs of Rome. Even their language blended with the Latin language, creating Spanish and Portuguese and French and Italian from the mixture.

Maybe the change was inevitable. On the other hand, maybe the Romans could have done more to welcome the immigrants and to assimilate them into the Empire rather than fighting them and resisting them. In either case, the most valuable elements of Roman civilization—its ideas, its art, its technology—survived to improve the lives of many people for countless generations, continuing until and beyond the present time. J.

The ages of human history

As a custom, historians divide eras of people according to the material from which they made their tools. The earliest tools were made of stone, and so we have the Stone Age. Then follow the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. More recently, a finer alloy of iron allowed greater expansion of industry, so we can refer to a Steel Age. Then, around the middle of the twentieth century, we entered the Plastic Age.

Here is a trick question: when does one age end and another begin? The question cannot be answered until we specify the area in question and even which group within that area. The Bible describes a time, when Saul was king of Israel, that the Israelites were in the Bronze Age while the Philistines were in the Iron Age. This gave the Philistines advantages over the Israelites—military advantages and agricultural advantages—because the Philistines were using better tools.

Each of these ages is further divided into various segments, often very detailed in their descriptions. Pottery, basket weaving, and other early industries help to define these segments; they also indicate when two or more groups of people exchanged items they had made. The larger ages are sufficient for a general discussion of history, although the Stone Age is generally divided. When I was younger, we learned about the Paleolithic Age, or Old Stone Age; and the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, and the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. I never learned all the distinctions among the three stone ages, aside from the fact that the Paleolithic came first and the Neolithic is most recent. Now books only separate the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages. The distinction is easy: Paleolithic people have no set home; they travel to hunt and harvest their food. Neolithic people have settlements; they raise flocks and herds of animals, and they plant seeds and tend the plants that grow and harvest the crops when they are ripe.

Extremely useful tools are made from stones. Flint and obsidian are especially helpful because sharp blades can be chipped from these stones. Sharp stones became knives that cut food, axes that cut wood, and weapons that helped when hunting animals or when battling other groups of people for resources. Many North Americans have gathered what are commonly called “arrowheads.” Most of these shaped stones are too large for arrows; they were used instead on short spears that were thrown at a target, such as deer or bison. Professional historians and archaeologists classify these tools as “projectile points.”

Back to the trick question: speaking on a world-wide basis, the Paleolithic Age has never ended. Some people today still choose to live in a Paleolithic pattern. Not only are their tools made of stone; they travel to hunt and to harvest their food. They have no permanent settlements. They are aware of newer possibilities in civilization—bronze and iron and steel and plastic. They choose to perpetuate the ways of their ancestors. Australia, Siberia, and many other parts of the world are home to Paleolithic groups that preserve their ancient customs and choose not to adapt to newer ways.

No written records describe the discovery of bronze. Bronze is an alloy, a mixture of copper and tin. (Some parts of the world had a Copper Age before they entered the Bronze Age.) Copper and tin ores exist naturally in some rocks; historians assume that people who gathered rocks to line their fire pits found a new substance in the morning when the fires had gone out. This new substance, bronze, could be shaped more easily than stone. Bronze blades on weapons and other tools lasted longer than stone blades. The advantage of bronze tools made them the choice of most civilized groups that encountered them, either by their own discovery or through trade with other groups.  

Iron is even more durable than bronze. Iron does not melt in a normal fire, which is why many campers use cast iron pots and skillets. Pure iron is a powder, but a mixture of iron and carbon produces an alloy which is extremely useful. Once people learned how to blow air into a fire to make it hotter, they were ready for the Iron Age. The earliest appearance of that industry seems to have occurred among the Hittites, living in what now is the country called Turkey. The technology spread to neighboring civilizations. It appears to have arisen spontaneously in China and in central Africa as well. Iron technology caused a great gap between “haves” and “have-nots” in the ancient world. Some civilizations, including the Philistines, attempted to preserve a monopoly on iron technology, but they were only able to hold that monopoly for a few years, never for long.

About a thousand years ago, chemists in China found a new way of combining iron and carbon which made a finer version of iron, which we call steel rather than cast iron. Once again, this new technology offered advantages over the older iron tools. Gradually, this chemical knowledge moved along the trade routes called the Silk Roads, until it reached the British Isles in western Europe. The British had advantages which had not existed in China or in other civilizations on the Silk Roads: they had iron deposits, coal deposits, and running water for generating power all located near one another. Chinese inventors made the first water wheels—wheels turned by a flowing stream of water, generating power to operate machinery such as grain mills. Europeans improved this Chinese invention by positioning the water wheels vertically instead of horizontally in the streams of water. This allowed gravity to add to the energy of the moving water, generating even more power. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain a few centuries ago because of the use of these Chinese discoveries—the recipe for finer steel, and the power that comes from a wheel turned by water.

Now most of the tools we use are made, at least in part, from plastic. Plastic is made from petroleum, so people will need to continue mining and refining petroleum even if it ceases to be a source of energy to operate vehicles and to generate electricity. Plastic is extremely useful for tools, but plastic can cause more damage to the environment than stones or metal, since it does not exist as such in nature. People have shown in the past that we can be inventive, finding new materials to improve older technologies. Perhaps even now researchers in a laboratory somewhere are experimenting with a new substance that will replace plastic and move humanity into yet another age. J.

Update

If one watches the Star Wars movies in the order in which they were made, one sees the ‘droid R2-D2 gain additional abilities and features in each movie, as scriptwriters thought of more ways to use him in their stories. But if one watches the same movies in the order they are numbered, one sees that R2-D2 loses many abilities from his arsenal between episodes three and four. Many of the things he could do in the prequels were missing from his capabilities when we meet him again in Star Wars: A New Hope. The usual explanation for this change is, of course, a Microsoft update.

My desktop computer had a Microsoft update this week. I was editing my book when a pop-up informed me that an update needed to be installed, asking if I wanted to do the update now or schedule it for later. I scheduled it for 12:15 the next morning, and when I finished my editing for the day I made sure to save the file and close it, hoping that the update would not interfere with the book.

The only obvious change to the desktop computer since the update is that the ribbon across the bottom of the screen is pale blue, whereas before it was a darker color. But, as is always the case with Microsoft updates, I have faced other glitches along the way. Thursday, after the update, I composed nearly half of a three-page paper I would need this weekend. When I returned to the computer on Friday, that composition was missing; the computer had no recollection of any unsaved work. This morning, I had to recreate and then finish Thursday’s work. Fortunately, my outline and research were vivid enough that I was able to create the entire paper on deadline and suffer no consequences. But I then had to restart the computer to help it find the printer; before the restart, the computer sent the file somewhere, but the printer sat idle. During the restart, the printer found and printed the file.

My experiences bring to mind, not only R2-D2 of Star Wars, but also a story told by Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway had several unfinished works in his possession when he died in 1961. One of them, the novel Garden of Eden, was edited and published roughly 25 years later. It was then made into a movie. While looking at other things on the computer this month, I came across a description of the movie and decided to buy it. While I waited for it to arrive, I reread the novel. (Spoiler alert) The main character in the novel is recently married, and his bride is eccentric to the point of mental illness. She delights in the knowledge that he is writing memoirs about their honeymoon, but she resents any other writing on his part that does not include her. During that honeymoon, the character also writes a short story based on a hunting expedition he and his father shared years earlier in Africa. The key event of the novel is that the author’s wife burns the story he has written. At first he despairs, saying that once he writes a story, it has left his mind and cannot be recreated. (And he knows that this story was one of his better works.) But, at the end of the novel, he finds that he can write the story a second time, and the new writing is as good as the original, if not better.

This morning was not the first time I have needed to recreate something I had written. Years ago, when I was working with a much older computer (one of the two computers Noah had with him on the ark), I finished a three-page paper, reached out my hand to turn on the printer, and instead flipped off the power switch for the entire computer set-up. I switched it back on immediately, but the paper was gone, erased, completely forgotten by the computer because of that brief loss of power. I had to type it again from the beginning. Again, I was able to write essentially the same paper in less time; where it was different from the original, it was probably better.

Now it is time for me to return to my current book and see what, if anything, the Microsoft update has done to that file. J.

The dream of landing a man on the moon

When Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon fifty-one years ago, it appeared that the world was beginning a new Space Age. Several more teams of American astronauts returned to the moon—one team, Apollo 13, suffered from technical difficulties and had to return without landing on the moon—but since that time, the space program has not advanced as expected. Space stations were formed, and shuttle missions were launched. Computerized machines were sent all over the solar system to record information and report back to Earth. But the science fiction stories that seemed ready to change from fiction to fact did not come true. Colonies were not living on the moon by 2001. No one has gone to Mars or to any other planet. Space stations remained tiny capsules orbiting the Earth—no vast city in space has been developed to launch travelers to the moon or Mars or any other destination out there in space.

Why has space exploration faltered since the grand successes of the Apollo missions to the moon? Noble talk of exploration being worth any cost and any risk has not led to glorious deeds. Explosive growth in computer technology has been devoted almost entirely to earth-bound endeavors, especially in the areas of communication and entertainment. Competitive juices of the Cold War no longer fuel programs to open new frontiers and to go where no one has gone before. Our dreams may be as big as ever, but our investment in those dreams has dwindled.

In the 1960s, Dick Tracy communicated to headquarters with his watch and Maxwell Smart kept in radio contact through his shoe. Now most of us carry or wear devices that facilitate communication, take pictures and videos, allow access to libraries of digitized information, and permit us to play games any time and any place. Our cars cannot fly, but we can start them from inside the house and have the heat or air conditioning running while we finish getting ready to leave. We know where we are and how to get where we want to go with exact precision—precision that everyone from government agencies to advertisers can use to keep track of us all the time and to know what topics we are researching and what questions we want answered. We can buy and sell at the click of a button, and our financial information is available to us (and to many other people) any time and any place.

Our hunger for space travel was fed, not by the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, but by the Star Wars franchise and its many companion stories. Faster-than-light travel is no more possible now than when Gene Roddenberry imagined warp engines for the Enterprise. Time travel is still limited to one day at a time into the future. Meanwhile, nature has not yet been conquered on this planet: it can still hit us with a storm or an earthquake or a plague, seemingly at will.

This is the future, or at least it was the future when Neil Armstrong recited, “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” What now remains in our future remains to be seen. We will face more challenges; we will encounter more adventures. New technology will surprise our children as new technology surprised our parents. The tools we use today will amuse museum visitors fifty years from now. No one can guess when the human spirit will rise again to look at the stars, to explore new frontiers, or to solve the problems that stymie us today. So long as there is a future, though, we still have a chance to dream. J.

Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

Anger and murder

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

All religions regard human life as sacred. All religions regard murder as a sin against the Source of life. Granted: exceptions can be found to this command. Killing in self-defense is not called murder. Soldiers killing enemy soldiers in wartime, and executioners killing convicted criminals who have been sentenced to death, is not murder. (Religious people, including Christians, sometimes debate these examples, and differing opinions are possible.) Some people distinguish between the value of a human life and the value of an animal life; others make no distinction. Some consider it sinful to kill an animal for any reason, while most people accept killing animals for food and for clothing—and many feel that hunting or fishing for sport is not sinful.

Jesus does not address these matters in this sermon. He speaks of the commandment not to murder, and he carries it a different direction. Any harm we cause to another person—even the emotional harm of an insult—is a sin, violating the commandment not to murder, according to Jesus. He even seems to equate anger with murder—but we must be careful to understand Jesus correctly. Jesus himself expressed anger against people who were doing wrong. At times he used the energy of his anger to overturn the wrong. Anger in itself is not sinful. Anger is a temptation to sin. Anger offers opportunities to sin. Anger becomes sinful when it results in other sins. Anger is sinful also when we become angry for selfish reasons—because something has hurt us or has been inconvenient to us. On the other hand, when anger comes from seeing sin, from seeing that God’s will is not being done, from seeing others suffer due to sin, that anger is not necessarily sinful.

Jesus offers two examples of sinful anger. First he uses the general term “insults”; then he quotes a specific insult. Jesus says that people who are angry enough to insult one another deserve punishment; God will regard them as murderers, both at the time of the insult and at the Last Judgment.

This teaching is a frightening teaching. Only a few people of the world are guilty of murder under its narrow definition. All people have been guilty of selfish anger and even guilty of insulting the people who made us angry. We can hardly live a week among sinful people without sinning this way several times. We might even accuse Jesus of going too far. The best of us is not good enough to keep our tempers at all times. The best of us is in danger of the fires of hell.

Jesus wants us to understand that point. He is quite serious about this teaching, about this interpretation of the commandment not to murder. Even the smallest harm we cause to another person is a sin against God. Despite our good intentions and our best efforts, we cannot escape our guilt. For this reason, we need a better righteousness, the perfection of Jesus, credited to our account. Only through his blessing, his gift, can we escape the judgment we deserve. J.

Untitled post about new printer

As part of the Mayan apocalypse in October 2012, our family desktop computer failed, followed a few days later by the printer. Of course we had no choice but to replace them both, even with expensive car repairs already on our credit cards. I am still using the same computer today, although at seven years old it’s a bit slow on the Internet and does not always behave properly. But over the past several months the printer has been failing, and I finally replaced it with a new printer last night.

The failure was in the mechanism that draws paper into the printer. The printer repeatedly reported a paper jam, even though the paper was inserted properly. We got through the summer and into autumn using a procedure of rattling the stack of paper, then unplugging and replugging the power cable and computer cable on the back of the printer. Sometimes that process would work the first time; sometimes it required a repetition or two. Sometimes the printer worked without any phony paper jam report. But the problem was increasing, and finally I had had enough.

The new printer cost only $49 at Walmart. But money is only part of the problem, especially when it comes to lingering effects of the Mayan apocalypse. I bought the same brand of printer that I was replacing, hoping that I would be able to use the same cords. The computer cord turned out to be usable, but the power cord attachment is completely different. So I had to spend more than five minutes identifying the printer power cord among all those going into the power strip, unplugging and removing that cord, and then snaking the new power cord behind the computer to the power strip.

Next, I had to get the printer working, following very sketchy instructions. Those instructions detailed the working of the lights and buttons on the panel, but neglected to tell me the location of the power button. I had to find that button myself. It was clear where the paper goes in and where the paper comes out, but it took some experimenting to find exactly what panel has to be extended, and how far, for the paper to feed properly. Then I had to reinsert the ink cartridges, because I had only set them into place, and they required a firm push to be installed correctly. Once that was accomplished, the printer was kind enough to print a page giving me some information about its wireless functions.

But I wanted to be able to print from the desktop computer, and that required an app called a driver. Manufacturers used to put that app on a compact disk that came with the printer, but now they prefer that the user downloads the app. I made the mistake of trying to find that app through the computer’s capabilities Things were going fine until the computer asked me to choose the new printer from a list of printers. My new printer was not on the list. But an option was offered to update the list of printers through a Windows app, and I selected that option.

How many printers do you suppose have hit the market over the last several years? The correct answer must be in the hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand. All I can report is that it took my seven-year-old computer twenty minutes to update its list of printers… and my new printer still wasn’t on its list.

I backed out of that procedure and asked Google for help. Google sent me to the proper page on the web site of the printer’s manufacturer to download the driver. It still took another fifteen minutes before I had a working printer, but I was able to print five pages before I had even completed the installation process.

As part of the installation process, the computer was urging me to activate an app in the printer that would automatically order new print cartridges to be sent to me in the mail when the ink supply is getting low. Assuming that I would have to pay by credit card for the privilege, I backed out of that process. The option remains, and I’m sure to get reminders that I still haven’t finished setting up the app. That’s fine with me. Keep reminding me to do something I don’t want to do, and I can keep on ignoring you.

Insert snappy conclusion and publish. J.

Apollo 11

How are you celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11?

I have my CD player/alarm set to wake me up tomorrow at 6:30 with Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I wasn’t sure until this afternoon that I owned that recording—I bought a Frank Sinatra CD years ago for “My Kind of Town” and I haven’t played any other tracks from it. But tomorrow will start with the right song for the day.

When I get dressed for work (Yes, I have to work tomorrow.), I will put on a crisp white shirt, black slacks, and a black tie. Instead of my usual one ballpoint pen I will put several pens in my pocket. If I cannot dress like an astronaut to celebrate, at least I can dress like an engineer from Mission Control, and that’s good enough for me.

I will fly the American flag outside my house tomorrow. We fly the flag on sad days like Memorial Day and September 11, so it feels good to fly the flag on the anniversary of a great and joyful American accomplishment.

When I am at work, if slow times come when no one needs my attention—and Saturdays frequently have such slow times—I will be reading First on the Moon, which is a book that Little, Brown rushed to publish a few months after the Apollo 11 mission. The writers probably spent time with the astronauts, flight crew, and the families of the astronauts before and after the mission, interviewing them. They may have even been with the families during the mission—they give detailed descriptions of what the wives were wearing and how they reacted to events during the mission. I’m pretty sure my parents got this book from the Book of the Month Club back in 1970.

CNN has made a documentary movie about Apollo 11 that they are showing again tomorrow night. They showed it a few days ago, and my family and I watched it and were recording it. But thunderstorms came through the neighborhood, and we lost the satellite signal near the end of the broadcast. So we will definitely try to record the movie again, and we might even watch it tomorrow night.

Are you planning on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11? J.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The autumnal equinox has passed. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is still dark outside. Darkness falls again soon after supper, so my evening reading and writing is done with the help of electric lights. The darkness contributes to the melancholy feeling I have about some other changes that happened in my life this month.

For the last ten years, I have been an adjunct instructor for a two-year college. I have taught at a branch campus of a state university; the branch is located on military property. Some of my students have been active military personnel; some retired from the military; some spouses or children of military personnel; and some simply nearby residents taking a college class. I have had students old enough to remember the day President Kennedy was shot; I have had students too young to remember the day that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I’ve heard many anecdotes about military life including events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I began by teaching a course in World Religions since my degrees were in the field of religion. Most of my classes have been a survey of world history. Two nights a week for sixteen weeks I have guided students from the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, right up to current events. Some of my students have said that they never liked history until they took my class. Others have contributed to the class by sharing personal experiences in other cultures, things they’ve been taught in other classes, and things they’ve picked up from the Internet. I hope that among my dozens of students over the last ten years, a good number have gained not merely a few new facts but a way of learning about history that helps them lead more informed and interesting lives.

My summer class and fall classes this year were canceled due to low enrollment. The administration of the state university has been promoting online learning, and it appears that we have reached the point where more students would rather learn online than in the classroom. I’m not opposed to the latest technology, but when it comes to teaching history, I prefer the classroom experience. I like to see the facial expressions and body language of the people I am teaching. I like the conversations before and after class that cover many things not related to the subject matter of the class. I like seeing students interact with one another.

This week I told the school to keep my name off the spring listing of classes. I don’t know yet whether I have taught my last college class, but the burden of preparing a class, then having it canceled at the last moment, is one I want to avoid for a while.

Meanwhile, I am driving a different car. For the last fifteen years I have been driving a 1999 Ford Escort. It had about 50,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it; it now has more than 210,000 miles. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for years, and this fall a faulty sensor started causing a warning light to flicker on and off. In a recent post I described my Escort as “a common Ford to carry me home.” I suspect that the reference to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” went past many of my readers.

My parents bought a Ford Granada when I was in high school. I learned how to drive on that car. When I graduated college, they gave me the car as a gift. A few years later I had the chance to buy a Mercury Sable in good condition from an elderly couple who no longer needed two cars. I sold the Granada to a man who lived on the same street as me, attended the same church, and needed a car. The Sable served well for many years, but I ended up buying the Escort fifteen years ago and selling the Sable to a high school girl who was getting her first car. The very same day I bought my current car, my daughter went to her job and heard a fellow employee say that he needed to acquire a car quickly. She told him about my Escort, he came by the house the next morning, test drove it, handed over five hundred dollars, and drove away.

The first car I test drove from the used car lot was a Ford Focus. It seemed OK when I drove it. However, before deciding on the car I asked to check the trunk. Last month two of my daughters were stranded by the side of the rode in a remote place for two hours because they had a flat tire. Although my daughter had owned the car for two years, she did not realize that there was no spare tire and no jack in the trunk. A call to 911 did not get help to them; eventually they found the number for the county sheriff and got the help they needed. Anyhow, when I opened the trunk of the Focus, I found no spare tire and sitting rainwater in the tire well. That ended my interest in the Focus.

The salesman suggested that I test drive a 2004 Honda Accord. It also handled well, it had a spare tire and no water in the trunk, and he dropped the price $1000 to match what he had been asking for the Focus. I went home that Saturday afternoon, did some research on the Accord, called him Monday to say I would buy the car, and drove it home on Tuesday. I’ve had more than a week to get used to it, and I am comfortable with the car. My Escort had a radio with a cassette tape deck, but my Accord has two radios—one with a CD player, which probably came with the car when it was new, and another with lots of lights and buttons that I don’t understand at all. It is set to a local station I enjoy, so I have not done much experimenting with it.

Though it seems strange after all these years to be in a different car—one that is not a Ford—I’m sure that I made the right decision. After all the book of Acts says several times that the first Christians were in one Accord, and what was good enough for them should be good enough for me. J.

Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.