Plate VII of the “Penny Black”: An Appreciation

It can be a little hard for us stamp collectors to love the Penny Black despite the fact that it is the world’s first postage stamp.  For one thing, it’s so common that it lacks the allure of even relative scarcity.  For another, although some of my fellow philatelists may disagree, it’s frankly nothing much to look at.  Black, as the name suggests, and with an engraved portrait of Queen Victoria in profile, it looks like, well, a postage stamp for the simple reason that every stamp that came after it was based on the archetype of the Penny Black.

Still, I maintain that there is plenty of fun to be had in collecting the Penny Black if you’re willing to dig a little deeper than merely “checking the box” of owning one in decent condition.  In my case, I chose one of the 11 plates that were used for printing the Penny Black pretty much at random.  I picked Plate #7 (or “Plate VII” if we’re being formal) because seven is my lucky number and have been slowly gathering Penny Blacks from different positions on the plate with the goal of eventually putting together a complete set of 240 (the Penny Black plates printed twelve stamps across and 20 vertically.)

In some ways, this isn’t as hard as it sounds because each of the stamps has two “check letters” on the bottom, one that indicates its horizontal positioning on the plate and the other which indicates its vertical position.

But in one important other way, this isn’t so easy because while you can tell right away where any particular stamp was positioned, you can only tell which plate it came from by observing certain idiosyncratic characteristics in the placement and apparent strike pressure of the check letters which were done by hand.  And while a consensus has been slowly building in the philatelic brotherhood (and sisterhood!) about the distinctive traits of each plate’s check numbers, opinion is by no means unanimous, especially regarding the more controversial plates like #IV, #IX, and #X.  I’m fortunate that Plate #7 is regarded as a “beginners plate” because frankly I’d have to be a lot more interested in stamp collecting and have a lot more time on my hands to tackle one of those.

My Bucket List – Revised

A man’s bucket list is not written in stone.  It is a living, breathing document that changes and evolves over time as hopes and dreams are fulfilled or dashed and replaced by new desires.  Science is always coming up with new and amazing things to do, such as wake boarding, and the tourism industry is always inventing new places to go and things to see.  ’twas ever thus, ’twill ever thus be.

With this in mind, I recently revised my bucket list to reflect some changes in my life and in my way of thinking.

New Bucket List

1.) Ride on one of those Florida airboats with the big propeller in back

The Top Seven Things I’m Somewhat Interested In

Regular Splettsketeers know that I have an unusually large and varied number of passions ranging from operetta to Basque cuisine to non-QWERTY typewriters.  But in addition to the many things I’m extremely interested in, I also have a list of things that I’m slightly but nor particularly interested in.  I’m certainly not passionate about them.  They could turn into serious interests of mine, though I doubt it, or my interest in them could fade entirely, which is much more likely.

Here are the top seven at the moment:

1.) Scrimshaw

2.) the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

3.) Paul Auster

4.) India

5.) E-Cigarettes

6.) Artificial Intelligence

7.) Bats

Sunflower Morn

by Richard Splett

Lift your head to greet the dawn

Cast your gaze o’er moor and lawn

Greet the glow of morning’s light

Speed the birds upon their flight!

Gone be terrors of the night

Gone the whimpers and gone the fright.

Forget those tears of loss and pain

Await the gift of summer’s rain.

God’s blessings may surprise us yet

For He will see our needs are met

Our need for love; our need for breath

Our need to suffer and be released in death.

 

Richard Splett Responds to Readers’ Comments

Tom from Kenosha, WI writes:

“Hi Richard – I love your blog! I think it’s the best thing about the internet right now. I’m curious – what sort of a youth would you like to mentor? What advice would you offer?”

Hi, Tom!  Thanks!  It’s very gratifying to know that people enjoy my little “piece” of the Internet.  I believe mentoring is very important and that if someone had mentored me, I might have really made something of myself.

Like most people, I am attracted to indications of youth and health so no old, bald, fat or otherwise unattractive people need apply!  I don’t want to spend any more time than I have to around people who look like that.   But don’t worry.  If you are old and/or unattractive you can still participate in mentoring by becoming a mentor to someone younger and more attractive.  Just don’t pick me because, like I said, I’m only interested in mentoring experiences that involve young and attractive people.

As far as advice, hmmm.  I’ll have to think about that. I’d definitely advise them to sign up for a ride-sharing service.  They are very convenient and not expensive unless surge pricing is in effect.

Debby also (weirdly) from Kenosha, WI writes:

“My friend Lee looks a lot like you and I’m planning to dress up like him for Halloween.  Where do you buy your clothes?”

Even though I don’t know Lee, that sounds like a great choice.  I’m on a limited budget and don’t have a lot of money to spend on my wardrobe so I have to shop with an eye toward clothes that are long-lasting and have a certain “timeless” style.  The secret is to shop only in London and to shop carefully so that you only need to go once or twice a year.  You’ll make up what you spend on airfare in the infinitely more valuable currency of compliments.

For many years, I had my suits made at Huntsman on Savile Row but decided to “downsize” a few years ago and now patronize Gieves and Hawkes right down the street, who also make a genuinely bespoke garment but at a lower price.  Shirtwise, for sheer value, you can’t beat Anderson and Sheppard who cut and sew their shirts completely by hand (French cuffs only, s’il vous plait!).

A lot of people think custom made neckties are a luxury but once you’ve worn one, you’ll notice the difference right away.  I get mine from Turnbull and Asser (ask for Raj) but there are half a dozen tie makers in Jermyn Street who can help you.  For socks, the Burlington Arcade is your first stop, especially N. Peal who use a cashmere silk blend for a perfect combination of comfort and durability.  The cobbler New and Lingwood also make fine socks, though I’m not a fan of their shoes.  I’m strictly a John Lobb man (boring, I know.)  For hats, Lock and Co. have a “lock” on my custom.

When it comes to underpants, I shopped around for years before settling on Sunspel’s boxers which are, quite literally, a “cut above.”  Hankies are the only place I “go continental” and off-the-rack with Charvet.  But don’t be fooled, the selection in the Place Vendome flagship is many hundreds of times larger than at American department stores and well worth the cost of a quick jump over to Paris.

I hope this helps, Debby, and please send me a picture of you dressed up as Lee (and me.)  And Happy Halloween!

 

One Man’s Opinion: Cell Phone Cameras Have Spoiled Cryptozoology!

Sadly, the omnipresence of cell phone cameras has really undermined the credibility of the field of cryptozoology. Sorry, Rob Lowe. You and your sons are probably not going to find Bigfoot. Still, there is likely to be some great father/son bonding. I still hold out hope for a Loch Ness monster. With that in mind, I kind of wish Ewan McGregor had grown-up sons (he has four daughters). Not to suggest that Ewan McGregor (the original Obi Wan, if you’re going by chronological timeline) couldn’t hunt cryptids with his daughters; I just suspect that women have less interest in spending a lot of time out on cold lakes chasing mythical monsters. Perhaps that’s sexist. If I offended anyone, even an extant female plesiosaur, I sincerely apologize. In any event, there was a period of four hours during which I could have been convinced that the Chupacabra was real. But then it just turned out to be a couple of tussling raccoons.

Sound Effect of the Week: Tire Screech

This week is very unusual in that we have two Sound Effects of the Week, which pretty much never happens.  Our second sound effect this week is the sound of car tires screeching as if the car is stopping very short at a red light or to avoid another car or obstacle.  The sound can sometimes conclude with the noise of an actual car crash (impact, glass breaking, etc.)

This sound effect means pretty much the same thing as the other one from earlier in the week.  For instance:

“On the next episode of ‘Major Dad,’ Mac’s in hot water when Polly’s article accidentally reveals the secret of [CAR CRASH] the General’s surprise party!”

Harry Potter

When I got to the end of the last Harry Potter book, I was fully expecting the obvious reveal: that the whole adventure was Tonks’ dream. That it wasn’t REALLY caught me off guard. Hats off to J.K. Rowling for resisting the obvious!

Sound Effect of the Week: Needle Scratch

Our Sound Effect of the Week this week is the sound of a needle skipping across a vinyl record.

This sound is often used to signal an abrupt and unexpected change in subject or that something comically outrageous is about to happen or has just happened.  It means, more or less,  “Hold on a second!” or “Say what?!” The noise is popular with radio deejays, especially on so-called “Morning Zoos” and on sitcom previews.

Here’s an example of where you might encounter this sound effect:

“On the next ‘Martin,’ Cole and Martin dress up in drag to try and catch Shanise cheating and wind up [NEEDLE SCRATCH] in a women’s prison!”

Unsolicited Advice: Ted Williams on Head Transplant

Apparently the Chinese are going to perform a head transplant. If I may offer some unsolicited advice, Ted Williams’ cryo-frozen head is pretty much sitting around gathering, well, ice crystals, most likely? If China wants to win an Olympic gold medal in baseball, all they need to do is find a guy with superb fast-twitch muscles and slap Ted Williams’ head on his body. Although, the tricky part is, it’s still Ted Williams, and he might insist that he’s an American citizen and then play for America. And that would really sting, China being beaten by the Frankenstein Ted Williams/fast-twitch Chinese chimera that it assembled. Pretty ungrateful behavior, Mr. Williams-Chimera if you ask me. Although, far be it from me to tell the defrosted head of Ted Williams what to do with his newfound body. I wonder how he’d be at fielding. Or he could just DH.

My Bucket List:

Visit Florida

Win an Olympic bronze medal

Break out of prison

Meet one of my idols

Travel to space OR travel in time (or both)

Learn blackjack

Get a (new) pen-pal

Extricate self from current unsatisfactory pen-pal relationship without hurting feelings

Become invisible (temporary)

Meet a president (DONE!)

Have a dream where I’m able to fly

Catch a hand grenade and throw it back at the enemy before it blows up

Scuba dive

Mentor a youth(s)

Dwell in a cave

 

An Open Letter to Chuck Norris

Chuck, you seem like a healthy sort of guy. Do you make breakfast smoothies? If so, have been pondering how long baby spinach leaves stay good after freezing. Also, do you have any tips on freezing bananas?

Still waiting for that Walker, Texas Ranger movie! Disappointed that the age-ist studios replaced Hasselhoff with Dwayne Johnson in the Baywatch film. Don’t let that happen to you! Fight, fight, fight!

Also, where do you stand on pitted dates?

Correction!

On Friday, Splettnet posted the short story “The Day the Disco Ball Danced: A Modern Fable” by Richard Splett. Because the climactic events take place at midnight on New Year’s Eve, it should have been entitled “The Night the Disco Ball Danced: A Modern Fable” instead. Splettnet regrets the error.

The Day the Disco Ball Danced: A Modern Fable

By Richard Splett

The Disco Ball did not have an unhappy life.

Each night from about 8 PM until sometimes long after 2 AM, he spun and spun, around and around.  He threw his tiny lighted stars against the walls and floors of the disco and sometime on the dancers themselves.

When his lights first began to spin, the crowd would roar with delight.  He knew that he brought joy to others.  And this, in turn, made him happy.

Sometimes he spun fast and sometimes he spun slow.  At first, back when he was just an 8 inch diameter ball, he used to get dizzy.  But as he spent more time spinning  and grew from 8 inches to 12 inches to a top-of-the-line 20 inch ball, the problem went away.  Mostly. As he liked to say, “You never want to lose the dizziness completely, sweetheart!”

In part, his lack of dizziness was a consequence of the geometry of spheres, as reflected (no pun intended) in the basic literature on the subject starting with the writings of Autolychus of Pitane who wrote “On the Rotating Sphere,” the earliest known work of mathematics.  Spherical trigonometry teaches us that, to put it in terms the Disco Ball might understand, any line drawn at a right angle from a line between two diametrically opposed antipodal points will define a great circle of the sphere.  The longer the line the larger the circle and, therefore, the sphere.

To properly understand to perceived (and actual!) variation in his spin rate from his 8 inch “birth weight” to his current 20 inch size, we need to first calculate the difference in surface area using the formula A=4πr2.  Once we know the Δ, we can calculate the difference in angular velocity and then the difference in angular momentum, defined for our purposes as a (pseudo)vector that is a crossproduct of the sphere’s position vector, r, and its momentum vector, p=mv.  Since angular momentum is conserved, just from the vector sum of the angular momenta alone, we can see that, as a grown-up ball, the Disco Ball could spread even more stars across the disco floor and therefore bring more joy to more people while spinning at a more leisurely rate than his younger self.  Such is the wondrous gift of experience, the only gold we can earn which can never be spent!

The Disco Ball knew no other home than the disco.  Though he had been born in a factory in far-away China, his memory of those days had faded to an imperceptably faint palimpsest.  He had once appeared in a commercial for a local bail bondsman but, even for this, he did not have to leave.  The video crew had come to the disco and the director had shouted at him to spin while a cameraman shot him from various angles.  Afterward, he had overheard the director say that he had “looked great.”  Disco Ball felt proud and dared to hope that he might get to be in other commercials for mattress stores or a funeral home, perhaps, or maybe those lawyers who helped drivers get out of DUI arrests.  But a second offer never came.  Still, Disco Ball was not disappointed.  A career in show business might be for others but for him it was not to be.  And, frankly, the more he learned about the drug and alcohol abuse and marital problems that were rampant in show business, the more he became convinced that things had worked out for the best.

While the dancers gyrated on the dance floor below, blissfully unaware, above them in the rafters, a small, hardy, and deeply dedicated group labored to keep the party going.  There was gruff, noisy Speaker who loved to hear himself talk, sing, and hum.  There was exuberant, irrepressible Confetti Cannon, waiting with barely concealed excitement, for the chance to shoot his thousands of paper children out over the dance floor and watch them float and spin and shimmer in the air for a brief, glorious moment.  There was conceited Neon Cocaine Nose who only deigned to come down from his exalted VIP room on high on weekend nights and sometimes not even then.  There was helpful Catwalk; cool, calming Air Vent.  There was mysterious silent Sprinkler Head who some considered ridiculously stand-offish and others worried might be on the Spectrum.

Then there was Disco Ball’s best friend, warm, loving, supportive Spotlight.  Spotlight always seemed to find what was best in people and point it out to others. People basked in her glow.  While Disco Ball brought the disco-goers excitement, Spotlight brought them attention, which they loved and needed just as much.

Spotlight was more than just a friend to Disco Ball.  She was his partner; the wind beneath his wings.  She completed him.  He used to tell her, “Without you, I’m just a ball of mirrored cardboard.  Without you, I am nothing.”

And so it was Spotlight, of course, who began to notice that Disco Ball was somehow not quite himself.  Sure, he continued to spin every night and, sure, he cast his little stars across the dance floor by the millions.  But somehow his spinning was not so sure and confident and his stars no longer glowed with quite the same special inner fire.  There was no denying it.

Disco Ball had lost his sparkle.

At first, the others took no notice.  But after a while, as Disco Ball’s spin rate slowed and his stars diminished in both number and brightness, even diffident and self-centered Neon Cocaine Nose could see that something was wrong.  Only Sprinkler Head showed no awareness, a mystery to the last.

They debated among themselves how to broach the subject.  They did not wish to offend their friend.  But they also wanted to make sure that he knew they cared.  And that they wanted to help.

One afternoon, before the doors to the disco opened and the crowds flowed in, Spotlight said to Disco Ball who was spinning listlessly from side to side, “DB, (for that was what she called him) your friends are worried.  You are not yourself.  We love you. You have given us all so much joy.  We want to help you.  Friends must stand by friends.  They cannot do otherwise.  We know that you would be the first to show your care and concern for any of us if something were wrong and we were in despair. And, most importantly, we want to know that however you are, whatever you do, we will all always love you forever. ”

It had taken a lot for Spotlight to say all this because she was normally shy and retiring and did not wish to attract any attention to herself.

At first Disco Ball did not say anything.  He stopped spinning.  He began to speak.  He hesitated.  Then he said, “That’s the problem, Spots (for this is what he called her.) I don’t know what the problem is!  I am unhappy, it is true.  And I have tried not to show it.  I have tried to focus on my job and give pleasure to others but lately I have begun to fear that I can no longer do that.  And that has made my vague, special sadness worse.”

There was a hubbub of disagreement.

“Nonsense! “ blared Speaker.

“Ridiculous!” Confetti Cannon ejaculated.

“Balderdash!” sniffed Cocaine Nose.

“Impossible!” offered Catwalk.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” puffed Air Vent.

“Tell me, DB,” said Spotlight, “Is there a time when you feel more unhappy than others?  Is there something in particular that makes you sad?”

“Well,” Disco Ball began,  “Sometimes when I look—“  He stopped.  “No.  I can’t.”

“You can’t what?” Spotlight asked.

“I can’t say it.”

“Whatever it is, DB, it cannot be so bad that you cannot tell your friends who love you about it.”

“It is shameful.”

“I cannot believe that.  I know you and you are kind and decent.  You always try to do the right thing.  You are respectful of others.  You would not lie or cheat.  You would not steal.  I do not believe that you could do anything shameful.”

“It is not what I have done.  It is how I feel.  It is what I want to do.”

“Nor do I believe that you could want to do anything shameful,” Spotlight replied.  “But whatever it is, you may tell us what it is or you may keep it private.  I believe that it is better to share one’s problems with one’s friends.  They grow worse if left unaired.  But the decision is yours.  We respect your privacy.”

Disco Ball thought for a minute. Then he said in a very small voice:

“I want to dance.”

There was a pause.  Air Vent gasped.

“You want to…dance?” Spotlight asked tentatively.

“Yes,” Disco Ball answered.  “I watch the dancers every night and they look like they are having so much fun.  The more fun they have, the sadder I become.  I want to dance, too.”  And then he added, “And I know I cannot.”

The friends were stunned.  They had never heard anything like this.  None of them had ever imagined leaving their lofty abode and joining the revelry below.  They knew this was not their place.  Their job was to make everything perfect for the dancers and make sure that everyone had a wonderful time at the disco.  But they could never join the party.  Such was their lot in life.

Over the next few days, the mood in the rafters turned very gloomy indeed.  The friends rarely spoke and, when they did, they were very irritable.  They snapped at one another.  They made mistakes.  And in the center of it all, Disco Ball spun slower and slower.  Spotlight began to fear the worst.  If Disco Ball did not recover his high spirits, he might be taken down and put away.  He might never shine again.

She spoke to Air Vent who was the most reliable of her friends.

“We must do something.  This cannot go on.”

“I have been thinking the same thing,” he said.  “It is very simple.  Disco Ball must dance.  Or he will die.”

“But how?” she asked despairingly.

“We must work together.  When friends work together there is nothing they cannot do.”

And so they resolved that Disco Ball must dance, someway, somehow.  Air Vent designed and manufactured a cushion of the sort that was used by police departments when someone threatened to throw themselves off of a high building.  For this purpose, he relied on the advice of several highly experienced Hollywood stunt coordinators who were moved by the story of a disco ball who wished to dance.  Air Vent came to believe that despite its reputation as a community of selfish narcissists, Hollywood people were actually kind and generous.

Speaker and Confetti Cannon were tasked with obtaining a cutting device that would allow them to sever the heavy cable that attached Disco Ball to Motor, the mechanism that spun him around and around but from whom we were unable to obtain the life rights for purposes of telling this story which is why he has not been mentioned until now.

Speaker and Confetti Cannon failed to find a tool that would do the task.  They were bickering about who was to blame when Neon Cocaine Nose unexpectedly interjected, “I can do it.  Leave it to me.”

Spotlight, with her nurturing manner, teased out the tale.  It turned out that before Neon Cocaine Nose was the Toast of the Town he had been simple “Nose,” a welder from Bayonne, New Jersey.  As a welder, acetylene cutting torches were one of the many tools he had mastered and so, while Confetti Cannon created a diversion, he stole one from a nearby construction site.

As all of these preparation were going on, Disco Ball’s state of mind continued to deteriorate.  His friends were in a race against time.  As he wobbled from side to side, Spotlight began to worry that he had become mentally unstable, as well.

Finally, they could wait no longer.

As luck would have it, it was New Year’s Eve, which, in this particular year, fell on a Saturday.  The disco’s owner, Parvez, had made the unprecedented gesture of coming upstairs and strolling out onto Catwalk to tell the entire team what a great job they were doing and how much he valued their effort.

As Midnight approached, Disco Ball became more and more listless.  Instead of building excitement, he was draining it from the crowd.  No one could tell exactly what was wrong but everyone could tell that something was wrong.

The countdown began.  Spotlight nodded to Air Vent who flipped the switch to inflate the large air bag.  Catwalk moved Cocaine Nose into position and he began to cut the cord which attached Disco Ball to the latticework of pipes that suspended the lights and other devices over the heads of the dancers.

Disco Ball, sunk in a funk of despond, remained oblivious to what was happening even after Motor, in a panic, began to spin him frantically.  Speaker, seeing this, called out a warning.  “Come on!  Come on!” he urged, leaving out the next part of the song about how it was Friday night and Sia needed to put her makeup on.

Disco Ball began to slow further.  He was coming to a stop.  Spotlight moved anxiously back and forth attempting to compensate for his lack of movement.

“…7…6…5…” the people chanted.  By the time they got to midnight, Disco Ball would be completely stationary.  At the biggest moment of the year, possibly the biggest moment of his life, his stars would sit frozen in place illuminating the shocked faces of the dancers who had come to expect something very different from Disco Ball.

“…4…3…2…”

The sparks were flying from Neon Cocaine Nose’s cutting torch.  Would he make it in time?  They all held their breath, even Air Vent, which caused the overpowering scent of poppers to waft across the dance floor, increasing the sense of nervous excitement.

At the very last moment, the last strand of the steel cable came apart and Disco Ball, by now nearly comatose, plummeted toward the ground.  As she watched him fall, Spotlight thought about the many things could still go wrong.  The Hollywood air cushion could prove inadequate.  Or Disco Ball could miss it completely and be dashed to pieces on the parquet.  He could strike a dancer on the head or even become lodged on a dancer’s head.  While some might find this image funny – a dancer staggering around with a disco ball enveloping his head – to Spotlight it was no joke.

“…1…Happy New Year!”

With a loud “Puh!” sound, Disco Ball hit the cushion, right in the center.  An EDM remix of Guy Lombardo’s recording of “Auld Lang Syne” began to play as Disco Ball rolled off and out onto the dance floor.  At first, no one moved except for a few dancers who stood aside to clear a path for the slowly rolling disco ball.

The friends were at a loss.  They had successfully delivered Disco Ball to the floor but how could they help him dance?  Spotlight was seized with inspiration.  “Listen to me!” she cried.  “Speaker, I need a drop to end all drops.  Confetti Cannon, Coke Nose, you guys do your thing!”

Spotlight trained her beam on the slowly rolling ball and a myriad tiny stars popped into being.  She jiggled back and forth in time to the music making them dance.  As the song approached the drop, Speaker turned the volume up all the way shaking the entire building to the throbbing beat.  Confetti cannon fired again and again while Neon Cocaine Nose descended and began blinking his lights in a pattern that made it appear that a neon line of cocaine was actually being inhaled into his sinuses.

The effect was immediate.  No one had ever seen anything like it.  A dancer, afterwards no one could say exactly who, tentatively rolled Disco Ball in a new direction by pushing him with his (or her?) foot.  Then someone else rolled him back.  In a flash, Disco Ball was moving and whirling so fast that it became hard for Spotlight to follow him.  Soon someone picked him up and began passing him through the throng.  Someone tossed him gently to someone else.  Someone rolled him across the floor at high speed.  A girl held him in her outstretched arms and spun around and around.  Then she planted a big wet kiss on his silvery surface.

Sheer joy radiated from Disco Ball.  His stars had never shone brighter or moved in a livelier fashion.

Their plan had worked!

Disco Ball was dancing!

But there was one more surprise in store for the evening.  All of a sudden, without any warning, gallons of water began to pour from the ceiling onto the gyrating dancers below.

Sprinkler Head had joined the party!

The End

Post Removed!

A number of readers wrote to object to a metaphor I used in yesterday’s post, “Cutting on the Diagonal: the Secret to Sandwich-Making Success!” I have taken down the post and apologize unequivocally to anyone who was offended. It is never my intention to disparage any ethnic group, especially the Eskimos (Inuit.)