Cicadas, postcards, and geography – plus more from the Devil’s Dictionary: newsletter, June 25, 2021

June 27, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,313) on Friday, June 25, 2021.

The fact the college scholarship athletes are woefully compensated based on the revenue they generate is obvious and indisputable. I spent the vast majority of my teaching career at big-time state universities whose athletic programs overshadowed almost everything else on campus.

Everybody, including faculty like me, participated in the fun that athletic events generated. The money flowed freely, but none of it flowed into the hands of the athletes themselves – at least, not legally. The inequity of the system that gave so many so much but gave so little to those who did most of the work to bring it about was and continues to be mind-boggling.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision handed down this week, gave a nodding acknowledgement to this inequity. Why the justices seemed unable to state it plainly and to ban the practice is a question that I have yet to resolve.

Whatever you are trying to resolve, I hope wonderful and resolute weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,316 subscribers and had a 26.6 percent open rate; 3 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Benjamin Banneker, 18th century American naturalist

Before the noise of the recent cicada uprising dies away completely, we should take note of one person who, notable as he was, has been thoroughly ignored by American history.

His name is Benjamin Banneker, and in 1749, he was the first American to note the 17-year cycle of the noisy insect.

Had that been Banneker’s only claim to fame, his absence from the history books might indeed be understandable. But Banneker’s life and work — and his practical contributions to American science and agriculture — easily place him in the top echelons of 18th century American naturalists.

One characteristic of Banneker’s life has assured his obscurity. He was African-American.

He was born a freedman in 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. His mother was also a freedman, and his father was a former slave. Much remains unknown about Banneker’s ancestry, his early life, and his work. Consequently, many myths and legends have attached themselves to his biography, and it is sometimes difficult to separate the facts from the fictions about him.

Still, from what we can confidently know, Banneker’s life was a remarkable one. The family-owned a 100-acre farm in rural Baltimore County, and it is unlikely that Banneker had much formal education as he grew up.

Banneker had a curiosity about how things worked, and one of the stories about him is that he carved a wooden clock, modeled on a pocket watch, that would strike on the hour. During his adult life, Banneker was what was then called a “naturalist.” (The word “scientist” had not yet been invented.)

The young Banneker was well-placed to satisfy many of his curiosities. He inherited the farm from his father when he died, and the main crop he raised was apparently tobacco. As a good farmer, Banneker was keenly aware of the natural world on which he depended for his living. He kept journals in which he recorded the appearance of cicadas in 1749, 1766, and 1783, and he predicted another appearance in 1800. His journals also reflect close observation honeybee hives and activities.

His neighbors were members of the Ellicott family. All were Quakers who had a strong belief in racial equality. They were well acquainted with Banneker, and they loaned him many of their scientific books, which he studied intensely. When Andrew Ellicott was asked by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791 to survey the land on which the new capital city would be located, Banneker was asked to be part of the survey team because of his extensive knowledge of astronomy, which was a vital part of surveying technology at the time.

Much has been made of Banneker’s being part of that team, but he stayed with team for a relatively short period of time, and it is not clear exactly what role he played.

Banneker’s chief claim to fame are the almanacs that he produced that contain a great deal of his observations of the stars and the tides. The almanacs were published through his Quaker contacts in Philadelphia, and they were widely distributed throughout the mid-Atlantic states. The almanacs were published for six years between 1792 and 1797.

In 1791, just before the first edition of his almanac appeared, Banneker sent a handwritten copy of the almanac to Thomas Jefferson, whose interest in the scientific realm was well-known. The package included a letter to Jefferson urging him to take any opportunity he had to end the slave trade in the United States.

Banneker identified himself as an African-American and urged Jefferson to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.” Jefferson acknowledged the letter and said that he was sending the almanac on to the French Academy of Sciences. He added that ” . . . no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our Black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and; that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America.”

Banneker printed both his letter and Jefferson’s response in the next edition of his almanac.

Banneker never married, but he continue to live and work on his farm until his death in 1806. On the day of his funeral, an unexplained fire at his house destroyed many of the manuscripts and papers that he had kept throughout his life.

More than 150 years of the postcard

Before there was Twitter, there was . . . the postcard.

Most of us have postcards lying about here and there, and my guess is that all of us at one time or another have sent a postcard. But we have done so with little or no knowledge about how postcards came into being.

That happened about 150 years ago when the  postal service empire of Austria-Hungary accepted a proposal from economist Emanuel Herrmann to produce a card — something on stiffer-than-normal paper — and treat it like a letter. That was in 1869. Herrmann was not the first person to propose such a device. The idea of the postcard had been in existence since the 1840s.

The postal service of Austria-Hungary printed about 3 million copies of the first card, and the public took to them with enthusiasm. The postal services of Great Britain and the United States followed soon thereafter, and postcards almost immediately became a standard form of mail. 

The Postal Museum of Great Britain currently has an exhibition commemorating a century and a half of communication by postcard. If you are interested in knowing more about the history have this fence fighting form, here’s the link:

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Conquering geography: technology’s most profound victory during Covid

Three decades ago Marc Andreessen co-created the Mosaic internet browser, one of the first of its kind, and later he cofounded Netscape. His website, Future, takes on some of the big issues of internet technology.

Andreessen has written a brief and perceptive review of how technology helped us survive – even thrive – during the Covid crisis.

Despite the fact that we were isolated from one another, many businesses and organizations continue to function. They had to give up some traditional procedures and ways of doing things, and they had to get creative about accomplishing those tasks. In many instances, they took on new services, and often new customers in the process.

Andreessen believes the crisis demonstrated technology’s most far-reaching victory: it conquered geography.

Finally, possibly the most profound technology-driven change of all — geography, and its bearing on how we live and work. For thousands of years, until the time of COVID, the dominant fact of every productive economy has been that people need to live where we work. The best jobs have always been in the bigger cities, where quality of life is inevitably impaired by the practical constraints of colocation and density. This has also meant that governance of bigger cities can be truly terrible, since people have no choice but to live there if they want the good jobs.

What we have learned — what we were forced to learn — during the COVID lockdowns has permanently shattered these assumptions. It turns out many of the best jobs really can be performed from anywhere, through screens and the internet. It turns out people really can live in a smaller city or a small town or in rural nowhere and still be just as productive as if they lived in a tiny one-room walk-up in a big city. It turns out companies really are capable of organizing and sustaining remote work even — perhaps especially — in the most sophisticated and complex fields.

This is, I believe, a permanent civilizational shift. Source: Technology Saves the World – Future

Andreessen’s essay is well worth the five minutes it takes to read it.

The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)

A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:

GRACES, n. Three beautiful goddesses, Aglaia, Thalia and Euphrosyne, who attended upon Venus, serving without salary. They were at no expense for board and clothing, for they ate nothing to speak of and dressed according to the weather, wearing whatever breeze happened to be blowing.

EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

NOVEL, n. A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount to such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes—some of which have a large sale.

ABSTAINER, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.

Said a man to a crapulent youth:

“I thought You a total abstainer, my son.”

“So I am, so I am,” said the scapegrace caught—

“But not, sir, a bigoted one.”

DANCE, v.i. To leap about to the sound of tittering music, preferably with arms about your neighbor’s wife or daughter. There are many kinds of dances, but all those requiring the participation of the two sexes have two characteristics in common: they are conspicuously innocent, and warmly loved by the vicious.


Tiffany N.: I happen to have another great textbook–Writing for the Mass Media–on my desk right now! I’m teaching Podcasting this summer, and we included an introduction to journalism component. It has held up well!

Barbara H.: I highly doubt “pictures” are applying “sticky stuff” to baseballs!
I received several emails about my errant proofreading skills, and they are much appreciated.
Jack S.: I don’t understand why you are perplexed by the lack of integrity in baseball.  What would you call the long-standing practice of catchers “framing” the  baseball to fool the umpire into thinking The pitcher has thrown a strike?  Or an outfielder pretending he has cleanly caught the ball when he knows damn well it was trapped?  The same is true of receivers in football, or the whole team on a fumble recovery.  My take is that cheating is more honored than honesty.
I’ve stopped watching both, not entirely because of such cheating.   The only sports I can stand to watch these days are tennis and UFC; both discourage cheating.`

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Three sisters

Best quote of the week:

The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and novelist (1811-1896)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The best-selling textbook of all time, the motivations of an art forger, and the remarkable Mary Somerville:newsletter, June 18, 2021

Verse and Vision: Poems and painting from a couple of years ago

(I shared this list last month in a newsletter but later found out that none of the links in the original version of the newsletter work. I have tried to correct that with the list below.)

A couple of years ago a colleague at the Blount County Public Library asked me to record a poem because April is National Poetry Month. One thing led to another, and by September, I had made about 20 video recordings of poems recited as voiceovers for watercolor paintings that had some relationship to the poem or the poet.

Before April 2021 gets away from us, I thought it might be a good idea to reprise that list in honor of this year’s National Poetry Month, and I hereby invite you to revisit any of those videos with the links below:

Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abby by William Wordsworth

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

1492 and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howe

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Most of these videos were recorded out of doors on a small porch at the side of my house. I did that because the natural light is better than anything I can set up inside. Now that the weather is turning warmer, I may revive this Verse and Vision series. Any suggestions about poems or paintings would be greatly appreciated.

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