A Short History of New Year’s Day

The celebration of the new year on January 1st is relatively new. The earliest recording of a new year celebration happened in Mesopotamia, c. 2000 B.C. and was celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. A variety of other dates tied to the seasons were also used by various ancient cultures. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians began their new year with the fall equinox, and the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice.

The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the new year. The calendar had just ten months, beginning with March. That the new year once began with the month of March is still reflected in some of the names of the months. September through December, our ninth through twelfth months, were originally positioned as the seventh through tenth months (septem is Latin for “seven,” octo is “eight,” novem is “nine,” and decem is “ten.”

The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1st was in Rome in 153 B.C. In fact, the month of January did not even exist until around 700 B.C., when the second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius, added the months of January and February. The new year was moved from March to January because that was the month that the two newly elected Roman consuls, the highest officials in the Roman republic, began their one-year terms of office. But this new year date was not always strictly and widely observed, and the new year was still sometimes celebrated on March 1.

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar that was a huge improvement on the ancient Roman calendar, which was a lunar system that had become wildly inaccurate over the years. The Julian calendar decreed that the new year would occur with January 1, and within the Roman world, January 1 became the consistently observed start of the new year.

In medieval Europe, however, the celebrations accompanying the new year were considered pagan, and so in 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on Dec. 25, March 1, March 25, and Easter Sunday.

In 1582, the Gregorian calendar reform restored January 1 as new year’s day. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and their American colonies, still celebrated the new year in March.

H.L. Mencken Quotes

hl menckenOne of my favorite curmudgeons is H.L. Mencken, author, journalist, and essayist. Nearly every sentence he ever wrote seems to be quotable, but these are a few of my favorites.

Perhaps the most revolting character that the United States ever produced was the Christian businessman.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.

For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing.

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.

Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.

Nature abhors a moron.

Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.

Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.

In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.

Sunday: A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.

The only really respectable Protestants are the Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots.

What is the function that a clergyman performs in the world? Answer: he gets his living by assuring idiots that he can save them from an imaginary hell. It is a business almost indistinguishable from that of a seller of snake-oil for rheumatism.

God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters.

The Walton Family Thanks You for Helping Them Keep Their Employees on the Public Dole

I have recently received a couple of comments about one of my earlier blog postings which can be found here:

Both comments are from the same person and sycophantically support the right of the Walton family to make an obscene amount of money from their Walmart stores while paying their employees less than a living wage.

You can read the comments and my reply to the first one if you visit the blog posting above, so I won’t reprint them here.

Rather than reply to his lengthy comment in reply to my earlier observations, I chose to write this as a new blog posting.

First of all, this commentator seems hell-bent to blame the state of the nation on Bill Clinton for supporting NAFTA and the WTO. While it is true that both trade bills were signed by Clinton, it also true that they were both being negotiated as fast-track legislation by the G.H.W. Bush administration long before Clinton was elected, so I guess those waters are a little more muddied than the gentleman would have us believe.

He also curiously admits that while Walmart jobs may not pay well, they do pay steady for 1.5 million workers. So we are in agreement that Walmart does not pay well. As to them paying steady, maybe not so much. They have steadily been replacing full-time employees with part-time workers in order to keep wages low and to not have to offer benefits. The number of hours worked each week by the average Walmart have dropped in the last two or three years, and I don’t call that “steady pay.”

He then goes off on a hate-filled rant about President Obama that not only doesn’t have a modicum of truth to the allegations he makes, but shows the deep, seething hatred he has for someone who may believe different than he does. When, I would ask the gentleman, has President Obama ever once supported anything like a Muslim/Marxist agenda? Name the time, place, and circumstances, and I mean specifics, not foaming at the mouth rhetoric.

Now that I’ve addressed those points from his latest comment, I would like to lay out some specifics about my allegation that Walmart, and the Walton family, are really taking their employees and the rest of us for a ride, and one for which we have to pay the bill.

Walmart grosses over $446 billion per year, making it the third highest revenue grossing corporation in the world. Walmart last year made over $16.4 billion in pure profit. The Walton family controls over 48 percent of the corporation through stock ownership, and together, are worth in excess of $102 billion. That is more than the combined wealth of the poorest 125 million Americans. Yet, Walmart continues to abuse its employees and refuses to pay them a livable wage.

These abusive Walmart policies have increased employee reliance on government assistance and the need for a government funded social safety net. In fact, Walmart has become the number one driver behind the growing use of food stamps in the United States with as many as 80 percent of workers in Walmart stores using food stamps.

Walmart’s poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government aid every year, or about $420,000 per store. In state after state, Walmart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. This direct public subsidy is being given to offset the failures of an international corporate giant who shouldn’t be shifting part of its labor costs onto the American taxpayers.

Walmart workers’ reliance on public assistance due to substandard wages and benefits has become a form of indirect public subsidy to the company. In effect, Walmart is shifting part of its labor costs onto the public.

Even compared to other retailers, Walmart imposes an especially large burden on taxpayers. Walmart workers earn 31 percent less than the average for workers at large retail companies and require 39 percent more in public assistance.

Employees who’ve been with Walmart for at least a year make an average of $9.70 per hour, compared to $15.31 per hour for workers at other large retail stores. In addition, 23 percent fewer Walmart workers are covered by the company’s health insurance plan than employees at large retail stores as a whole.

Ronald Reagan warned during his 1976 run for President about a Cadillac-driving woman who’s conning the social safety net, using multiple names to apply for benefits. He added: “She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” In total, Reagan said, “Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

Republicans ever since have used the existence of this “Welfare Queen” to attack public spending and prove that the “welfare state” is out of control. After nearly decades of searching, we have been unable to discover who this mystery woman is, or if she even existed.

I think I can now say that we’ve found her. But she’s not an actual person. She is a corporation that we all know as Walmart. The only difference is, Walmart actually exists and Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” doesn’t.

Thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions

This time of year, all you have to do is ask a friend what their New Year’s resolution is, and you’ll get a pretty high number of them answering something along the lines of, “to get healthier,” “eat better,” “lose weight,” “do something about the wrinkles,” etc.

Nearly everyone wishes that they looked younger, were more attractive, and, of course, that they were thinner. That’s why nearly all of us resolve to exercise more and eat healthier in the New Year. Usually knowing full well that we will never stick with the resolutions we postulate, but hope springs eternal in the hearts of the desperate, the dejected, and the aging masses of which we are all a part.

It sometimes seems to me that one-half of the conversations I have with the people around me concern physical complaints, aches, and ailments. We just can’t seem to whittle down the love handles or the paunch, the hairline is in retreat, the knees pop and creak and scream in pain over decades of misuse, and the crow’s-feet announce to the world that our salad days are behind us. Now what? We just wilt away like an old salad past its prime?

It isn’t a new phenomenon that just started since most of the people I know, and I, entered our sixth decades of life. Even when I was younger, I heard or participated in no shortage of similar talks. From the moment when we become fully aware of our bodies, so many of us become engaged in a ceaseless war with them. We obsess over their imperfections. We try to force them into different contours and hues, sizes and permutations of perfection, all the while lining the pockets of beauty purveyors with our hard-earned cash, as if attaining some carnal ideal could confer contentment. We spend money and burn energy trying to delay the inevitable, to redefine ourselves, to take on a new lease on life, or whatever it is that we are after in this mad and expensive race of ultimate futility.

There are countless ways that our bodies turn on us. That’s partly why the obsession of trying to attain perfection is ultimately such a failure. It’s why the futility of endless yearnings for transformations beyond the reasonable accomplishments of what diet and exercise can achieve leaves us less than satisfied.

We’re so much more than these doleful, imperfect vessels that we sprint or swagger or lurch or limp around in. Some of them sturdy, some of them not. Some of them may be objects of ardor, while others attract only pity. Some of them falling apart on the inside, others, more evidently, on the outside. We should make peace with them and remain conscious of the natural limitations, especially at this particular point of the calendar, when we compose a litany of promises about the better selves ahead, foolishly defining those selves in terms of what’s outwardly measurable instead of what glimmers within.

Somerton Man

In the early morning of December 1, 1948, a dead body was found  on the beach at Somerton, Adelaide, Australia. It was the body of a man, likely between forty and forty-five years of age, 5ft. 11in. tall, with pale, ginger color hair beginning to turn gray around the temples.

Unknown-manHis physique suggested that he was in peak physical condition with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. He also had exceptionally well-developed calf muscles. He was clean shaven and his hands were largely unmarked or calloused suggesting a man who rarely, if ever, performed manual labour. His feet were a size 8, then an average-size for a man his size, but a little unusual: the little and big toes met together in a wedge shape usually seen in dancers or people who often wear pointed shoes. His teeth were natural, but over the years he had lost nine from the top and nine from the bottom. Also, he had never grown lateral incisors. His clothes were stylishly contemporary and of good quality.

He was a little overdressed for an Australian beach at that time of year though. Most locals would have been extremenly hot in the pullover and overcoat the Somerton Man was wearing.

Who was the Somerton Man? The unexplained death of this unidentified man has baffled investigators for over sixty years. Who was he?

Police were baffled. No cause of death could be determined, although there were some unusual features in the autopsy:

“The heart was of normal size, and normal in every way … small vessels not commonly observed in the brain were easily discernible with congestion. There was congestion of the pharynx, and the gullet was covered with whitening of superficial layers of the mucosa with a patch of ulceration in the middle of it. The stomach was deeply congested … There was congestion in the 2nd half of the duodenum. There was blood mixed with the food in the stomach. Both kidneys were congested, and the liver contained a great excess of blood in its vessels. … The spleen was strikingly large … about 3 times normal size … there was destruction of the centre of the liver lobules revealed under the microscope. … acute gastritis haemorrhage, extensive congestion of the liver and spleen, and the congestion to the brain.”

The pathologist was convinced that he hadn’t died from natural causes, even though cause could be pinned down: “I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural.” He determined that from the fact that the extreme damage that had been found in the man’s internal organs were all indicative of poisoning of some sort, though no toxic agent could be identified.

The authorities tried to identify this unknown man. They began to search across Australia for clues to the man’s identity. A number of tip-offs came from members of the public, but they all came to dead ends.

The Somerton Man would probably have slipped into obscurity and become just another local mystery if the circumstances surrounding his death hadn’t turned out to be even stranger than originally thought.

Suitcase-and-contentsIn January 1949 an unlabeled suitcase was found at Adelaide Railway Station. Among various items of clothing  there was an electrician’s screwdriver, a modified table knife, scissors and a stenciling brush. Also found in the suitcase was a card of the same orange waxed thread that had been used to repair a pocket of the Somerton Man’s trousers.

Actual-tamam-shudEventually the Somerton Man’s clothes were more closely examined as a sense of deeper mystery began to take hold. In a previously unnoticed secret pocket in his trousers there was a small piece of paper. It bore the words “Tamam Shud”. This phrase means “ended” or “finished” in Persian and is more correctly written as “Taman Shud” or “Taman Shod”. But this particular spelling of the phrase is found on the last line of Edward Fitzgerald’s popular translation of The Rubaiyat by Sufi poet Omar Khayyam.

CodeInvestigators scrambled to find a copy of The Rubaiyat missing the two words and were amazed when a man contacted them to say that on November 30, 1948, a copy of The Rubaiyat had been left in the back seat of his parked car. Bizarrely, the identity of the man and his profession were suppressed at the time and the authorities even suppressed the reason for their suppression. This copy did have the two words missing, and the paper, print, and ink matched those of the fragment. Even more mysteriously, on the back pages of this copy of the book were faint pencil marks containing a series of sets of letters:





There was also an unlisted telephone number that was traced to someone who came to be known as “Jestyn”.

“Jestyn” was a former nurse, living near Somerton. When asked if The Rubaiyat had any significance to her she explained that during the War, while working as a nurse in Sydney she had owned a copy of the book. But she had given it to a Lieutenant Alfred Boxall in 1945. She had written a verse in the front and signed it with her pet name: “Jestyn”.

Police were convinced Boxall was Somerton Man, even though “Jestyn” couldn’t identify the body from the plaster cast bust or photographs taken before his burial. But Boxall turned up alive and well. He still had his copy of the The Rubaiyat, a different printing than the mystery copy, and the last page was intact.

“Jestyn” was about to be married and asked for her name and reputation to be protected. To this day the identity of “Jestyn” has been  kept from the public domain. All that has become known about her is that in 1947 she gave birth to a son who died in 2009. She had died in 2007.

Over the years a number of amateurs and professionals have attempted to solve the mystery of the Somerton Man and crack the mysterious code.

In March 2009 Professor Derek Abbott, of the University of Adelaide, Australia assembled a team who are attempting to solve the mystery of the Somerton Man by analyzing the code and looking at genetic clues to his identity.

Professor Abbott has said:
“When I first read about the case there was something spooky about it. Then I got fascinated by the ‘secret code’ that has never been cracked. The more I investigated the case, more and more information kept surfacing. It’s almost as if its got a life of its own and it is demanding a resolution … There is something compelling about giving the man his name back and finding a family connection.”

While he’s not sure the case will ever be completely resolved he does believe there’s a lot to be learned about Somerton Man’s identity:

“We may never be able to solve who killed him or what the code says, however, what I think is solvable is the most important part of this case: finding the man’s name and his family tree. I am confident we’ll be able to eventually identify him. It’s doable.”

The team is particularly interested in finding genetic clues to Somerton Man’s identity. They hope one day to have permission to disinter the body and take DNA samples that can be compared to available DNA databases. Until that time they’re relying on physiological genetic clues that can be found in evidence from the time.

Somerton Man has two distinctive facial features: his dental abnormality of the missing incisors, and a large upper hollow (cymba) to his ear compared to his lower hollow (cavum). Professor Abbott claims to have seen a picture of “Jestyn’s” son which apparently shows the same features. The likelihood of two unrelated people having these two features is said to be 1 in 10,000,000 and 1 in 20,000,000.

The suppression of evidence at the time, such as witnesses names, raises the possibility that Somerton Man was somehow involved in espionage. At the time Boxall was rumored to be a spy. There are secret codes and books being mysteriously left in cars belonging to anonymous men. Although apparently keen to solve the crime authorities twice suppressed the identities of potentially important witnesses. Somerton is relatively close to Woomera a missile-launching site also used by intelligence services. And in 1947 US Signal Intelligence Service discovered that Australia had been the source of  intelligence leaks to the Soviet Union.

Other deaths have also been linked to Somerton Man and the investigation into his death.

In 1945 Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall was found dead in Sydney with a copy of The Rubaiyat next to him. The death was ruled a suicide.

In June 1949 two year-old Clive Mangnosen was found dead in sack at Largs Bay (approximately twenty kilometers from Somerton). His father, Keith Waldemar Mangnosen, was found unconscious next to him apparently suffering from exposure and had to be committed to a mental hospital. The pair had been missing for four days. The coroner couldn’t find a cause of death for Clive. Shortly after Clive’s death, Mrs Roma Mangnosen, his mother, claimed she had nearly been run down and “the car stopped and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told her to ‘keep away from the police or else'”. Mrs Mangnosen believed that her family became targeted to be silenced because her husband had attempted to identify Somerton Man.

Although it doesn’t tell us who Somerton Man was or why he died, it seems highly probably that Somerton Man was involved in espionage.