Friday Free-for-All #60: Oldest thing, four seasons, adult version, poverty

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s the oldest thing you own?

It would be a few Roman coins from around the reign of the Emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.) which I picked up on eBay years ago. I’ve always been a big fan of Roman history, especially the period from Julius Caesar up until the division of the Empire into East and West after the infection of both by Christianity.

I was a big fan of Julian in particular, and you can probably guess why from his nickname, “The Apostate.” He came not long after Constantine (reigned 306-337 CE), who was the emperor who decided to make Christianity the official Roman religion.

Oh, it wasn’t a decision made lightly, and several other religions were in the running. But Constantine’s mother Helena had converted previously and was somewhat of a fanatic. Her thing was collecting pieces of the “True Cross,” and legend has it that in her lifetime, she had gathered enough pieces to reconstruct a True Cross over twelve feet tall.

Officially, though, Constantine had a vision before a battle in which he saw a flaming cross in the sky and the words “In hoc signo vinces,” Latin for “In this sign, you shall conquer.” (Well, “thou shalt,” since it’s informal you.)

He conquered, although for his part all he did for that sign, via the Council of Nicaea, was to decide which version of Christianity was the “right” one, since there were still all kinds of doctrinal disagreements on whether the Holy Trinity was actually a single entity, or three different entities and, if so, whether any one of them created either of the others or was “more eternal” than the others.

In other words, a whole lot of debate over a whole lot of unprovable bunk. But one version won out and Constantine adopted it, although not to the detriment of other religions quite yet. Rather, the Edict of Milan recognized Christianity as a legal and valid religion when, previously, it had been really just considered an underground cult that had broken off from Judaism.

Julian tried to undo it by rejecting Christianity as a valid religion, but then died after being stabbed by a lance in battle. It was alleged, but never proven, that it wasn’t actually a battle injury, but rather assassination by one of his own soldiers, who was a Christian — at least as asserted by Libanius, a friend of the emperor.

It could have also been a Saracen warrior, which was more likely given the shape of the injury, although Christians themselves at the time did attribute the murder to one of their own, Saint Mercurius — which would have been a good trick, since he died over a hundred years before Julian was born.

But, anyway, I found coins from the reign of Julian on eBay and bought four of them very cheaply, for around five bucks. You may wonder why such ancient relics were so readily available and so cheaply, and the answer is simple.

They’re actually as common as dirt, thanks to Rome’s bellicose ways. When mercenary groups and armies were called to Rome from the various provinces, the single soldiers getting ready to head off would put all of their money in the form of coins (no paper or crypto back then) into earthenware jugs or clay pots, and then bury them near some landmark at home that they would remember later, to be dug up when they returned.

If they never returned — and this was often — those hidden stashes remained that way for centuries. When they were eventually dug up, the coins weren’t always in the greatest of condition and didn’t really have that much value historically or economically, but did become an obtainable piece of the past, at least to those of us who aren’t archaeologists or major museums.

And that’s how a few nearly seventeen-hundred-year-old coins wound up in my possession.

Is it better to live where there are four seasons or where one season takes up most of the year?

Saying “one season is better” can be tempting if it’s the right one — a year-long temperate late spring where temperatures stay between 72° and 85° at the hottest part of the day with occasional days of moderate rain could be attractive. But it could also be boring.

People like to joke that Southern California doesn’t have seasons — or, rather, that our seasons are wet, hot, earthquake, and fire — but we really do have seasons. They’re just not as extreme as other places.

For example, the difference between winter and summer here is nothing compared to the same two seasons in Minnesota or Texas, and we’ll never really see an extreme weather change from calm and clear to violent storm in a single afternoon like you’d find in Pennsylvania.

But we do have perceptible changes, and that really helps us keep track of the year. It’s just another sort of clock, imposed on top of the long-term annual one, holding together the shorter-term ones, like phases of the moon, days of the week, and hours of the day.

If we only had one season, and it was always noon on Monday, January 1, life would get really boring — and confusing — very fast. I mean, for one thing, would we all only pay rent once, or have to pay it every day?

What would the adult version of an ice-cream truck sell and what song would it play?

This one depends upon whether it’s an ice-cream truck for adult me or for boring “normal” adults. If the former, it would sell all kinds of interesting and obscure books, objets d’art, ephemera, and other interesting stuff, and the song would be this one:

The song, by the way, is from a 1969 film starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr called The Magic Christian and, while audiences at the time didn’t get it, I suspect it’s much more relevant now. Sellars plays a billionaire (in late ‘60s money) who adopts a homeless man, played by Starr, to be his son, then proceeds to teach him the lesson: “Everyone has their price, if you’re willing to pay it.” It’s an absolute indictment of capitalism, more relevant now than ever.

It’s also never clear whether Sellers’ character is truly demonstrating to greedy people how bad they are, or whether he’s just the biggest troll around because he can afford to be.

The whole film is online, linked under the title above. But… let me turn my mind to what muggles would want, and come up with that ice cream truck.

Yeah, definitely selling margaritas in all flavors, maybe daiquiris, too, and of course the theme song is that abomination named Margaritaville.

Is poverty in society inevitable?

Not at all and, oddly enough, this calls back to The Magic Christian, and why you should watch it right now.

Poverty in society is only inevitable when there is income inequality, which is a flaw common in, but not limited to, capitalism. You’ll find the same inequalities in the current Chinese system, which seems to be some sort of oligarchic statism, and the Russian system, which is a complete kleptocracy.

Hm… funny how all three of these super-powers that play the game of having different and competing political philosophies all have the same damn problem: those at the top, whether running the government, corporations, or both, have the vast majority of the assets, while the rest do not, and have to rely on being incredibly underpaid and undervalued by the ones at the top of the pyramid.

There are really two pyramids if you think about it though. The pyramid of of labor is the normal one — big at the bottom and stretching to a point at the top, each level representing exactly how much true effort and energy is expended in order to support the system. So the ones at the bottom do all of the work, while the ones at the top do practically none.

Meanwhile, there is the pyramid of assets, and that one is standing on its tip, getting bigger as it goes up. Each level represents exactly how much in wealth and assets people on that level have. It starts with nothing at the bottom and gives everything to those at the top.

The only reason the latter pyramid is stable is that it’s integrated with the former, which is holding it up. But if you remove the pyramid of labor, then the pyramid of assets is going to fall over pretty fast — and we’re already getting hints of that with all the workers who are suddenly walking out of low-paying restaurant jobs, leaving behind signs to explain, “Nope. We’re not doing this shit for that shit they pay us anymore.”

The system is cracking — but we still have a ways to go.

Poverty is only inevitable when there are no limits on personal wealth, which makes income inequality inevitable. I could go on and on about possible solutions, but this piece is already long enough.

Suffice it to say, though, that there does need to be an upper limit on individual wealth and corporate profit, with the rest going back to everyone else (i.e. the workers who made that wealth possible) or back into the corporation (i.e. its employees). Those wealthy individuals and corporations can chose how to give it back providing that they start giving it out at the bottom instead of the top — or they can chose not to, and the government will take care of that part for them.

It could end poverty pretty damn fast without impoverishing a single billionaire or bankrupting any corporations. Imagine that.


If you’ve ever wondered why there are twelve days of Christmas, today is why. If you count starting December 25, then January 6 is the 12th day after, and this is the Feast of Epiphany.


Traditionally, it’s considered to be the day that the Magi arrived at the manger in Jerusalem to give their gifts to Grogu… er, Baby Jesus. The word epiphany itself means “sudden manifestation or revelation of the essential meaning or nature of something.”

Ironically, in America today, we are going to have another epiphany as Congress sets out to do its assigned job to certify the Electoral Votes that Joe Biden legitimately won, but which certain sore losers are going to try to oppose.

They’re going to fail, but it’s a toss-up as to whether many people on their side have the sudden epiphany that goes, “Oh, my god, I’ve been backing losers.”

It may also be a moment when otherwise apolitical people pay attention and realize, “Wow. Who are these idiots trying to override the will of the People and subvert everything America stands for?”

It comes the day after the Georgia run-off elections, although since they don’t start counting mail-in ballots until the morning of the same day, we may not know the results until at least the 6th, if not later, and we’re going to see the same “Red Tide, Blue Wave” phenomenon as in November, when the in-person votes break Republican, but the (legit) mail-in and absentee ballots go decidedly Democratic.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, January 6th is actually Christmas Eve, mostly because they never switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, so they’re a bit behind. Or, in other words, they chose to never catch up to the rest of the world, which jives with certain other parties who are still trying to ignore reality.

On the Julian calendar, today is regarded as December 24, 2019.

But here’s the good news. Once all the bullshit has been swept aside — and it will be — and the electoral votes are certified, that’s it. Two weeks from now, Joseph Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Kamala Harris will also be sworn in as the Vice President.

The end of the current regime may be dragged out by more legal trickery, and there may even be violence in the streets, but it will at most be a short and painful coda to the disingenuous symphony we’ve been listening to for the last four years. Then, it will be over, and we’ll be hearing a new and hopeful tune.

That will be the real day of epiphany. Revel in it.

Image: Sebastiano Iervolino courtesy of Pixaby, (CC0 1.0) Creative Commons Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Wednesday Wonders: A busy day in space

Happy New Year! And happy first day of spring!

Wait, what… you say those things aren’t today, March 25th? That the latter was six days ago and the former was almost four months ago?

Well… you’d be right in 2020, but jump back in history to when the Julian calendar was still around, and things were dated differently. This led to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, but since it was sponsored by the Pope, not everyone switched over right away. Long story short, Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy adopted it immediately in 1582. Protestant countries held out, so that places like England (and the colonies) didn’t switch until 1752.

That was also when England moved New Year’s day back to January 1, which is itself ironic, since it was the Catholic Church that moved the day from then to March 25 at the Council of Tours in 567, considering the prior date pagan, which was probably accurate, since the Romans had moved New Year’s from March to January 1st when they deified Julius Caesar after his assassination.

The practical reason for switching calendars was that the Julian calendar lost 11 hours a year, which added up fast, meaning that entire extra months had to be added between years to set things right again. The Gregorian calendar is much more accurate, although about 2,800 years from now it will have lost a day.

By the way, the religious reasoning for picking March 25th is that it was the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning the day that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to let her know that she was going to get knocked up by god — although it doesn’t get mentioned canonically until a century after the ol’ calendar switch-a-roo.

Anyway, the math isn’t hard to do. March 25th is exactly nine months before Christmas. And in strictly astronomical terms, the former is the first day of spring and the latter is the first day of winter. Just psychologically, the Vernal Equinox, which is now closer to the 19th or 20th, is the better New Year’s Day option because it’s when days start to get longer than nights, vegetation starts to grow anew, and nature awakes from its slumber.

Note: Your mileage in 2020 may vary.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that today marks the birth of a German astronomer and mathematician, Christopher Clavius, who was instrumental in doing the calculations necessary to figure out how much in error the Julian calendar had become, and then to come up with a calendar to fix it and a method to transition.

This is where the Catholic Church came into it, because Easter, being a moveable feast based on the Julian lunar calendar, had been slipping later and later into the year, threatening to move from the spring to summer. Clavius’s job was to bring it back toward the vernal equinox.

He succeeded to the degree of accuracy noted above — only a day off in 3,236 years. Not bad. This was also when New Year’s Day went back to January 1st, per the old Roman style, and while this is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I can’t help but think that Clavius had a hand in implementing the change.

I mean, come on. You’re handed a chance by the most powerful person in the western world at the time to move a major holiday off of your birthday so that your day is finally special on its own? Who wouldn’t do that given the power?

Good ol’ Chris did make other discoveries and get some nice presents, like a crater on the moon named after him, as well as the moon base in the movie 2001.

Still, even if the equinox did move away from March 25, the date still keeps bringing special things for astronomers. It was on this day in 1655 that the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan,

Huygens also has another time connection, though. Where Clavius gave us a calendar accurate to over 3,000 years, Huygens gave us a clock that was the most accurate for the next 300 years. His innovation? Put a pendulum on that thing and let it swing. He literally put the “tick tock” in clock.

Why was this possible? Because the swing of a pendulum followed the rules of physics and was absolutely periodic. Even as friction and drag slowed it down, it would cover a shorter distance but at a slower pace, so that the time between tick and tock would remain the same.

The pendulum itself would advance a gear via a ratchet that would turn the hands of the clock, and adding kinetic energy back into that pendulum was achieved through a spring, which is where that whole “winding the clock” thing came in. Tighten the spring and, as it unwinds, it drives that gear every time the pendulum briefly releases it, but thanks to physics, that pendulum will always take the exact same time to swing from A to B, whether it’s going really fast or really slow.

Back to Huygens’s discovery, though… Titan is quite a marvel itself. It is the second largest natural satellite in our solar system, taking a back seat (ironic if you know your mythology) only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is half again as big as our own Moon and 80% more massive. It’s even bigger than the planet Mercury, but only 40% as massive, mainly because Mercury is made of rock while Titan may have a rocky core but is mostly composed of layers of different forms of water-ice combined with ammonia, and a possible sub-surface ocean,

Titan also has a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the only other atmosphere in the solar system besides Earth’s to have so much nitrogen in it. In case you’re wondering, Earth’s atmosphere is almost 80% nitrogen — OMG, you’re breathing it right now! But this also makes the aliens’ Achilles heel in the movie Mars Attacks! kind of ridiculous, since the whole deal was that they could only survive in a nitrogen atmosphere. We have that, Mars doesn’t. Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, but not even much of that. But don’t get me started.

Despite all that, it’s still a fun film.

And Titan, next to Jupiter’s moon Europa, is one of the more likely places we might find life in our solar system.

One final bit of March 25th news in space for this day: In 1979, OV-102, aka Space Shuttle Columbia, was delivered to NASA. It was the first shuttle completed, and its delivery date, after a flight that had begun on March 24th, came four years to the day after fabrication of the fuselage began. Sadly, it was also the last shuttle to not survive its mission, so there was a strange sort of symmetry in that.

While I warned you about the Ides of March, the 25th should be full of nothing but anticipation, even in a plague year. It’s a date for exploration and discovery, whether out into the cosmos, or within the confines of whatever space you’re in right now. Make good with what you have, create all you can, and take advantage of our wonderful technology to share and connect.

After all, that’s what worked for Clavius and Huygens. They worked with the tech they had, then networked once they had an idea, and look how well that worked out.

Hint: It worked out very well, for them and for us.

Image Source: Titan, by NASA.