Thursday, October 28, 2010

Debacle Trojan Style

Last Saturday, the Wildcats channeled former head coach Dennis Green in an excruciating loss to Big Ten front-runners Michigan State. Thoughts about State were proven correct. Hooks were let off. Asses may possibly have been crowned.

Although Northwestern fans might react to the game by gnashing their teeth and thrashing their footmen (the old gnash and thrash is a Northwestern tradition), I suggest they stay their hands, their canes, and their sharpened monocles. The Wildcats looked very good against a legitimate Big Ten title contender and have traditionally finished strong in the Pat Fitzgerald era. In particular, the emergence of freshmen Venric Mark, Rashard Lawrence, and Adonis Smith are encouraging, not least because an outstanding game from Smith has crusty sports editors on high pun alert.

A consortium of sports editors stand at the ready to
deploy Adonis-related headlines comparing the
Wildcat running back to the mythical figure
conceived by some sort of combination of incest and


The turning point of the game came on a Michigan State fake punt in which the Spartan offense took a delay of game penalty to disguise their duplicitous intentions, then had the punter heave a strike to a wide-open receiver. Dantonio masterminded a similar trick play against Notre Dame earlier this season. It is no fun to be the victim of a trick play, but losing a football game is a minor consequence compared to some more underhanded trickery. You could, for example, find yourself stranded in a jungle on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras with only your wits and piles of the nineteenth century equivalent of arcade tokens.

That is what happened to the victims of Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish adventurer who managed to sell off large parcels of prime coastal real estate to hopeful would-be colonists whose adventure soured when they realized that the country they had hoped to colonize did not technically exist.

Gregor MacGregor (left), shared with Lord Gordon-Gordon a penchant for
redundantly-named Scottish swindlery, although he came by his name
honestly. Gordon-Gordon was one of many aliases for a nineteenth
century confidence man who also went by Lord Glencairn and the
Honourable Herbert Hamilton

MacGregor was a military adventurer at a time when one could simply traipse over to the Western Hemisphere and start annexing territory with nary an admonishment. MacGregor successfully raised enough money and men to fulfill the reasonable dream of invading Florida in 1817 to remove it from the yoke of Spanish oppression. Instead, he spent the money, his men deserted and he mustered only enough of a force to take Amelia Island (off the coast of Florida near present-day Jacksonville) and set up a republic under the charge of Louis-Michel Aury, who had been building his leadership credentials by running a nest of pirates out of Galveston. The island fell to the United States several months later as part of the U.S. campaign to seize East Florida.

Florida divided into East and West in 1810 during the reign of Napoleon's
brother Joseph over Spain. By the time of the U.S. took over Florida in 1819,
Bourbon Monarch Ferdinand VII (right) had taken over. Ferdinand,
imprisoned for six years during the Napoleonic rule of Spain, fell again to a
coup in 1820, before coming back to power after which, in the words of the
author of his wikipedia page, "he revenged himself with a ferocity which
disgusted his far from liberal allies." The same page notes that he later
became "torpid, bloated and unpleasant to look at" which is sort of a default
Bourbon monarch setting

But MacGregor's greatest coup came after his return to Britain in 1820. There, he ingratiated himself into the horse-racing, muttonchop-growing, rabble-scattering, society types and began telling people that he had become Cacique (prince) of the Principality of Poyais off the coast of Honduras by the blessing of King Frederic Augustus II of the Mosquito Shore. He published a book describing the region as developed and friendly to British settlement and began selling land to colonists eager to live in this earthly paradise.

In 1822 and 1823, two ships full of would-be settlers left for Poyais, but instead of a glistening settlement friendly to the British, they found a jungle friendly mainly to tropical disease and the occasional hermit and nowhere to redeem their worthless Poyais dollars. The wretched survivors escaped on a ship that had come to give gifts to Frderic Augustus (or, as contemporary documents referred to him, the Mosquito King) to Belize. This document is chock-full of details of the Poyasian scheme, with transcripts from a lawsuit against the British Honduran authorities accusing them of seizing property from the Poyais settlers. It not only serves as virtual handbook of eighteenth century synonyms for wretchedness, but also serves as a handbook of miscellaneous Poyasian documents.

A copy of the oath to be taken by Poyasians to swear
loyalty to MacGregor. Other correspondence in the

reveals that MacGregor took, among
his various bogus royal titles, the wonderful alias
Baron Tinto

Undaunted, MacGregor attempted to run the same Poyasian scheme in France, this time calling in the big guns by turning to someone actually named Gustavus Butler Hippisley. The alert French authorities, curious as to why French citizens were attempting to obtain documents to travel to a country that as far as they could tell did not exist, halted the expedition and arrested MacGregor associates including Hippisley and eventually MacGregor himself. Still undeterred, MacGregor continued to fashion Poyasian constitutional documents and sell Poyais-related land and stock until the lat 1830s. The most fascinating part of the story is his investment in the fictional land of Poyais; it seemed not to occur to him that after being caught in a grandiose scheme of making up a country, he could just as easily pull another fake country out of thin air without having to deal with the baggage of the Poyasian legacy of not being a place on the surface of this planet, Earth.


Perhaps the greatest British confidence man was William Chaloner, a forger, counterfeiter, and purveyor of dildos in late seventeenth century London. Chaloner excelled in three main schemes: counterfeiting coins, fabricating Jacobite plots in order to muster government rewards, and turning on associates. Chaloner was not shy about becoming an informant about criminal schemes which he was involved in just before the authorities came in; he named names, he blackmailed accusers, and he funded whimsical bucolic holidays for witnesses that could finger him.

This would normally be the part of the story where I describe how Chaloner went too far and crossed the Royal Mint, but I don't think it was possible for Chaloner to go too far. It's not as if he was some sort of scheming heist mastermind planning one job at a time. Instead, Chaloner existed as the eye of a whirlwind of spectacularly multifaceted and continuous criminal activity on a remarkable scale, and his undoing came from circumstances leading him into the crosshairs of a Sir Isaac Newton.

A BYCTOM estimation of a typical week of Chaloner activity

Newton ran afoul of Chaloner when he became warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 with the job of investigating counterfeiting. He broke up a machine coining operation and arrested one of Chaloner's associates. Chaloner attempted to infiltrate the Mint himself by cooking up false conspiracies of corruption among Mint officials, going so far to name one of his own aliases as a co-conspirator in a flamboyant display of criminal confidence. While gallivanting around Parliament, denouncing schemes that he would certainly take part in if he got a job at the Mint, Newton recognized him as a counterfeiting suspect. By 1699, Newton swore to take Chaloner down and recruited an underworld network of spies and Chaloner associates. Chaloner deployed an unstoppable three-step defense: feigning madness, peppering all particpants in the trial with a barrage of insults, and finally claiming that his operations fell outside of the court's London jurisdiction. He was hanged.


Northwestern will be looking for redemption and continuing a quixotic quest for bowl eligibility on Saturday against Indiana. The Hoosiers will test Northwestern's defense with their prolific offense, and hopefully Pat Fitzgerald will test the Hoosiers with a variety of trick plays and confidence schemes that will baffle the Indiana defense and defraud supporters. When the dust settles, Wildcat fans will be hoping that no one will be who anyone thought they were, there will be no hooks for anyone to be let off of, and asses will remain blissfully crownless.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Michigan State Preview

The Wildcats are looking for redemption after a loss to a gutty, injury-ravaged Purdue squad, the Spartans are looking to remain undefeated and looking toward a Big Ten championship run, Coach Fitz is looking for a sixth win, bowl birth, and an upset, Coach Dantonio is looking for a return to the sidelines after recovering from a heart attack, orphan Timmy is looking for a father figure he never knew, wealthy industrialist R. Pickering Fossbottle is looking for the child he never knew he wanted, young Maude Fossbottle is looking for love in all of the wrong places, and everyone is looking for priceless artifacts from the Orient before it's stolen by a Peter Lorre type.

A lot is at stake.

Fitz makes the long hitchhike from Ryan Field after the gutting
loss to Purdue

The Wildcats have not won convincingly against an FBS team with the exception of Rice. On the other hand, the Spartans have beaten Notre Dame, Wisconsin, a resurgent Michigan team, and frisky Illinois. Of course, it would be foolhardy to assume a Michigan State win; Northwestern tends to surprise teams and it's hard to count out an offense led by Dan Persa. This has the makings of a potential trap game for Michigan State as they look forward to a big game in Iowa City.

The Wildcats prefer getting a drop on unsuspecting
opponents, as demonstrated by these Hessian reenactors
expertly recreating a drop-gotten-on scenario

Northwestern will have to repel an overwhelming force, much like the Syracusians attempting to hold off the Romans in the Siege of Syracuse. The Romans came by sea with the sambuca, which was not a polite gift of occasionally flaming liqueur, but the less polite siege machine used to quickly enable soldiers to climb from ships onto fortress walls and begin stabbing everyone in sight. Syracuse was famously defended by mathematician Archimedes with mirror-driven heat rays of dubious historical authenticity and the Archimedes Claw, the result of an experiment gone wrong resulting in him growing a giant claw instead of a left arm that he used to shake menacingly at the advancing Roman soldiers and snap at anyone that attempted to interfere with his circles.

Attempts to replicate the effect of the Archimedes heat ray have had mixed results on
models of Roman ships, but have elsewhere proven to be devastating


Bears fans will get to see Rex Grossman make an emotional return to Soldier Field with the Redskins this weekend. According to this Tribune article, Grossman expects to be booed should he manage to get into the game, get shown on the JumboTron, or attempt to fling his clipboard downfield after getting confused and thinking that he saw Bernard Berrian running straight ahead wide open. But why would Bears fans boo Rex, the only quarterback to take the Bears to the Superbowl without the aid of flashy message-bearing headbands? I can understand the enmity of Bears fans against Grossman if he had walked around the city scattering citizens with a cane in the haughty Hohenzollern manner of Frederick William I, or bulldozed "Rex Rules OK" into the Meigs Field runways, or pillaged the Field Museum of priceless Egyptian artifacts so he could walk around dressed like Batman villain King Tut with impunity, but he did none of those things as far as I am aware. Instead he merely fit into the Bears tradition of underwhelming quarterbacks, albeit with a particular flair for ineptitude.

In order to properly give Rex his due, here's eight sincere minutes of Rex Grossman highlights set to "Eye of the Tiger."

Bears fans should celebrate both the highs of the Grossman era and the myriad comical
ways that opponents relieved him of the ball


The after months of uncertainty, politicking, intrigue, and the interference of the House of Bourbon, the Cubs have picked a successor to Lou Piniella. The new manager, chosen to trade fame and fortune for a Job-like existence at the helm of a team destined for eternal failure while enduring the jibes of angry fans and a vicious media is Mike Quade. Quade, who spent most of his career in the minor leagues, is best described by the phrase "grizzled baseball lifer" and that is not merely a cliche; expect Quade to erect his own thatch dugout, make his own tobacco juice, and trump all comers in locker room scar-sharing exhibitions.

The Cubs will be less fun to follow without Lou Piniella. Stats-minded baseball fans have raised questions about the importance of managers, many of whom can be argued to do more harm than good by putting hitters unable to get on base in the leadoff position because they are fast, call for unnecessary bunts, make curious pitching decisions, bench promising young players in favor of underperforming veterans, and engage in futile micromanagement for the sake of micromanagement. Of course, that does not take into consideration important motivational ploys such as walking around naked and creating provocative posters of any former showgirl owners. Piniella, of course, excelled at getting angry at umpires, developing the optimal body shape for bellying up to them and taking advantage of having a profession allowing him to scream at people three inches from their face and throw things with impunity. Lou's managerial rapping skills, however, are more dubious.

Lou makes an impassioned demand about either the strike zone
or free silver coinage


If there's one thing that careful study of European history has demonstrated, it is that aristocrats default to two behaviors: leading armies of musket-wielding infantry against each other and killing animals for their amusement. It was not enough to hunt animals; instead they decided to fling them about their courtyards in the brutal sport of fox tossing. Foxes or other small animals would scurry around a fox tossing arena while hopeful tossers stood about with cloth bands draped on the ground. When the animal found itself on top of a band, the participants would stretch it, catapulting animals into the air and competing for the highest toss. Noted fox tossing enthusiast Augustus the Strong (also apparently nicknamed as "Iron Hand" and "The Saxon Hercules" by an early modern Bruce Buffer equivalent) would toss with a only a single finger.

A gleeful tossing from 1719. Augustus II of Saxony (right) managed his impressive
feats of strength before the invention of the single-strap unitard

The fox tossing wikipedia page is full of helpful notes about this cultured practice, such as "The Swedish envoy Esaias Pufendorf, witnessing a fox-tossing contest held in Vienna in March 1672, noted in his diary his surprise at seeing the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold Icourt dwarfs and boys in clubbing to death the injured animals...". Boars were apparently more hazardous "to the great delectation of the cavaliers, but to the terror of the noble ladies, among whose hoop-skirts the wild boars committed great havoc, to the endless mirth of the assembled illustrious company."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Big Ten Home Opener

Northwestern hung in there in a tense win against Minnesota, battling not only the Gophers, but a litany of turnovers, special teams miscues and thoughtless penalties, similar how the French and British faced not only the fearsome forces of the Tsar but also the true winner of the Crimean War: cholera.

This website identifies the soldier
pictured as Colour Sergeant "Willie"
McGregor of the Scots Fusilier Guards
modeling a uniform meant to evoke
the sentient mound of hair look that
fell out of favor in British military
uniforms but later became de rigueur
for Joe Cocker's back-up band

The game must have been an infuriatingly frustrating loss for Gopher fans already disillusioned with the Brewster era and I'm tempted to feel sorry for them except that this is the Big Ten so not only do I feel no pity for down on their luck programs unable to defeat the Wildcats, but I fully expect the NU Athletic Department to sack the offices of their counterparts in a demonstration of merciless bureaucracy and carry off their valuable spices from the Orient away on ships cleverly named "The Marriageable Daughters" because that would sure confuse the barbaric raiding parties involved in this analogy that is finishing up right here at the end of this sentence.


The 'Cats open up under the lights at Ryan Field against a battered Purdue squad attempting to prove false the common medical assumption that knee injuries are not contagious. The Boilermakers were attempting to turn this season around and produce a winning season for second-year head coach Danny Hope. Even if this season does not pan out, Hope has plenty of opportunity to build a winner at Purdue for obvious reasons.

Fig. 1

On paper, Northwestern should have the advantage over this injury-ravaged squad, but we can throw out the record books because it's Big Ten Football under the lights and the last annual meeting of these two squads in an Inexplicably Protected Rivals Showdown. Next year, Northwestern and Purdue will of course be separated into two divisions, but I contend that it will only marinate this bitter rivalry between two conference rivals whose mutual antipathy dates back to the time some Big Ten official decided that we should play each other all of the time and not even dignify the game with some sort of embarrassing knick-knack trophy featuring a hat, a medieval weapon, or the contents of Joe Paterno's desk circa 1967.


The Bears game last Sunday night was spectacular for fans of sacks, concussions, and ineptitude, spear-headed by the matadoric offensive line gracefully stepping out of the way of onrushing defensive linemen that clumsily crashed again and again into Jay Cutler.

Cutler showed a need to spend more time working
on fleeing for his life drills such as the one shown
above from training camp in Bourbonnais

The Bears announced today that Todd Collins is starting, joining the endless list of random quarterbacks who have started for the Bears including Moses Moreno, Craig Krenzel, Henry Burris, Jonathan Quinn, Kordell Stewart, Adlai E. Stevenson, Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna, Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan, Abe Froman, and Bonesaw McGraw. If anything, the Bears have been an entertaining team this season either by winning through nonsensical referee pedantics, an absurd flurry of opponent penalties, or losing in a way reminiscent of falling victim to the diabolical and unethical nosetackle dive play in Tecmo Super Bowl. The only reliable thing we've learned about the Bears this season is that overwrought post-game radio shows have convinced me that the phrase "nine sacks in da first half" is a surprisingly reliable Chicago accent shibboleth.


There's a dearth in popular mallet-percussion bands barnstorming around the country these days performing jaunty tunes for our amusement, so fortunately we have a relic of happier times with Reg Kehoe and His Marimba Queens. I'm greatly disappointed to live in a time where the odds of someone existing named "Reg Kehoe" are remote enough, let alone someone with that name in charge of an all-female Marimba band. Take a look at this 1940 film clip featuring his song stylings, although the show is stolen by the flamboyant bassist flailing uncontrollably slightly out of sync with the music which makes it seems like he's whaling on an upright bass while an unrelated bass solo plays in the background in some sort of Roosevelt-era Millie Vanilli situation.

Fig. 2: Chart of Bassist Enthusiasm

One of the all-time great situations where a marimba takes over a song occurs in the Herb Alpert tune Tijuana Taxi that, interestingly enough, relies equally on helpless flailing to sell the song in what appears to an attempt to approach the platonic ideal of silly 1960s dancing. Serapes are also involved. This video is at least a step up from his attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of capitalism by annoying hard-working instrument factory workers with a shockingly square version of the Nate Adderly classic Work Song (it does not hold a candle to the Oscar Brown, Jr. version where he's added lyrics such as "left the grocery store man bleeding/when he caught me robbing his store).

The dancers in the Tijuana Taxi video demonstrate one of three
possible dancing facial expressions: the frozen smile (designed to
cover up resentment at being forced to perform the jerk), intense
glowering, and, of course, relentless hunger for brains

Finally, enjoy a wonderful version of one my favorite tunes, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise performed by Benny Goodman while ignoring the vibraphone player's eerie resemblance to a gregarious, mallet-wielding Lenin.


Northwestern's spotless record has earned it the #25 position in the Coach's Poll. A strong victory against Purdue will not only possibly move into a consensus ranking, but also make Northwestern technically bowl eligible before moving into a tough second half of the season. Hopefully, the Wildcats will defend Ryan Field from the Boilermakers and prevent any pillaging from the Purdue Athletic Department. Otherwise Northwestern will be forced to break out its toughest defense yet: typhus.