War of the Golden Stool, the first email spammer, doord, Mariner 1, Boston Corbett, a beach made of glass, and Endal the super dog

After a week of rough times, dear constant reader, I have finally gotten my final date of wearing the uniform, which will be May 20th. Expect lean posting to continue as I finish my days as and active-duty Marine.

Today, we will examine why we should all hate Gary Thuerk, the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, a NASA disaster caused by a missing hyphen, a lexicographic typo that appeared in Webster's, a war between the British and the Ashantis over a stool, and the crazy life of the man who killed a presidential assassin.

The Mariner program of the early 1960s would have been the first probes to visit another planet, and a number of other notable firsts. Unfortunately for NASA, their first attempt to launch one of these multimillion dollar probes was exploded about five minutes after launch. Its guidance program went haywire, and the Atlas-Agena booster was in danger of crashing into populated areas or shipping lanes when the signal was sent to destroy it with the payload still onboard. Because the guidance system lost contact with ground-based commands, it defaulted to on-board software, which had a software error of a very serious nature. While the extent of the incident isn't completely agreed upon (or probably even completely understood), the most popular explanation was that a mathematical formula was being transcribed by hand, and wound up missing an overbar. This superscript overline denoted a smoothing function, without which, the software interpreted minor variations of velocity to be serious discrepancies, which prompted over-correction and an out of control spacecraft. It's often attributed as the "most expensive hyphen in history".
About two hundred and fifty seconds before disaster.

Boston Corbett is a man with a rather fascinating biography. Born in London in 1832 under the name Thomas, his family emigrated to New York, and he made hats in the city of Troy (not far from my hometown). After the death of his wife, he moved to Boston, and took its name as his own after converting to Methodism, also growing his hair long to imitate Jesus. In 1958, he castrated himself to avoid the temptation of prostitutes, and calmly ate a meal and prayed before seeking medical attention. When the civil war broke out, he enlisted in the New York Militia, and then enlisted in the regular army as a cavalryman. In 1864, he was captured and held in the notorious Andersonville prison for five months before being exchanged. On April 24, 1865, the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment was send to hunt down and apprehend the at-large presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Trapping Booth and his accomplice in a Virginian barn, Sergeant Corbett shot him with a revolver in the neck, which severed his spine and killed him hours later. Briefly arrested for violating orders not to kill Booth, he was later released and shared in the reward money. Post-war, he bounced from Boston to Connecticut to New Jersey to Ohio and finally to Kansas, getting a job as a doorkeeper in the state legislature. After threatening a man for mocking the morning prayer, he was sent to an asylum in 1887, but he escaped the following year and is believed to have lived in the back woods of Minnesota, probably dying in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.
Before he helped inspire the phrase "mad as a hatter" from huffing mercury fumes.

In the Glory Days of the Internet, back when it was still known as ARPAnet and controlled by the military, email was (supposedly) used only for official purposes. On May 3, 1978, Gary Thuerk changed that by sending the first email spam. As a marketer for Digital Equipment Corporation, he wanted to advertise an open house in LA and San Mateo, so he had Carl Gartley send an unsolicited message to 600 of the roughly seven thousand possible recipients. It was also one of the first mass emails, the tradition up till then being to send individual messages. He was promptly chewed out for the breach of protocol, and some sources say that Gartley was fired, but unfortunately, it actually worked, and the dreaded plague was upon us. The text of the email and some of the reactions are available here.

Labrador Retrievers are a pretty generic breed of dog; they are probably a good representation of the diversity in the species, but still have some unique talents. They tend to make good service dogs, and they have one superb member as part of their ranks: Endal. His service for a disabled Royal Navy veteran, Chief Petty Officer Allen Parton, earned him recognition as one of the most famous dogs ever to be British, and probably the most decorated dog in the world (including "Dog of the Millennium", the Blue Peter Badge, and the PDSA’s Gold Medal, as well as some firsts for an assistance dog). Born in 1995, he began his life's work for Parton in the late 1990s, and was put down after suffering a stroke at age 13 in 2009. Due to Parton's head injuries in the Gulf War, he was wheelchair bound, suffered memory problems, speech difficulties, and problems with perception (which could easily lead to lethal accidents). The sheer resume of what Endal could do is amazing: fetch items from the supermarket (later able to offer a debit card to the clerk), assist in using an ATM, load and empty a washing machine, use buttons and switches (such as elevators and crosswalks), keep Parton from entering traffic or other dangerous situations, assist in bathing, fetch items requested by sign language (i.e. a razor when the face is touched, or a hat when the head is touched), and even render aid in the event of a medical emergency by putting Parton in the recovery position and summoning help (alerting passersby or pushing the emergency button on the telephone). To me, most impressive was the fact that he helped Parton to speak again: "Eventually one day, in this very silent world we lived in, I grunted. That was like an electric shock going through him, he was so excited. They said I’d never speak again, but Endal just dragged the speech out of me." On top of the considerable media attention, Endal is featured in a eponymous book and a BBC special that is being reshot as a feature film.
Makes me wish my dogs could do more than chase squirrels and simple tricks. :(

When talking about warfare erupting over trifling causes, one must mention the War of the Golden Stool. In Europe's many colonial meddling in Africa before the First World War was Britain's relationship with the Ashanti Empire, part of the Gold Coast and what is modern day Ghana. There hadn't been any significant resistance to what was essentially unofficial British rule until a March 1900 visit from Lord Frederick Hodgson resulted in a gaffe of epic proportions. The Golden Stool left behind by exiled King Prempeh I was more than just a fancy chair, it was the Asante royal throne which descended from heaven to the first king. But more than that was the spiritual significance: it held the spirits of the nation, dead, living, and yet to be born. When Hodgson remarked his offense at not being offered to sit on it, and demanded that it be surrendered to him, he was unwittingly claiming the very embodiment of the Ashanti state and people. The people, believing the disrespect to be deliberate, immediately attacked the British force sent to search for it and laid siege to a hasty stockade defended by a handful of Europeans and their Nigerian mercenaries. Several relief columns were fought off, costing them roughly a thousand casualties, to twice that of the natives. Though the British regained control by September and formally annexed the nation, the stool was kept hidden from European hands, the king was returned, and the Ashanti largely governed themselves anyway.
Worth fighting for?

Dord is proof that even language experts screw up. In 1931, the chemistry editor for Merriam-Webster (then called G. and C. Merriam Company) wrote a suggestion to add an entry for the abbreviation of "density": "D or d, cont./density." Unfortunately, the spacing between the "D_or_d" was misread and construed as a single word: "dord". The proofreaders made up their own pronunciation for this new word, and it appeared in the 1934 edition of the New International Dictionary. It wasn't until 1939 that an editor noticed the entry lacked an etymology, and investigations found the blunder. The next year, dictionaries were printed that saw another entry on the page expanded to a second line to cover the gap created by removing the non-word. I have to wonder why "dord" wasn't just adopted by the scientific community?
The offending entry.

MacKerricher State Park, near Fort Bragg (the city in northern California, not the huge Army base in North Carolina) has an unusual beachfront: Glass Beach. Like the name suggests, it's made mostly of sea glass, that is, discarded glass that was worn smooth by the actions of the surf. Residents of the city discarded their trash over a cliff onto the beach, and periodic trash fires and the pounding waves reduced it down to only glass (and a bit of metal) remnants. Dumping was no longer permitted in 1967, and a couple of cleanup efforts removed most everything but the glass shards. The shards are now colorful "trinkets", worn smooth by years of erosion. In 2002, the state purchased the land, and added it to the park. Though technically not permitted, tourists often visit to bring home a souvenir.
It's actually rather pretty, if a bit dangerous to walk on.

That's it for today. Hopefully, I'll finish editing the video edit sometime soon and upload. Happy reading!

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