Monday, March 30, 2015

Four Years and Change

My goodness.  Where does that time go?  It appears that I have been pecking away at the keyboard now for four years of blogging.

I understand that "blogging is dead".  I know this because I recently read it on the internet.  On somebody's blog.

The argument in favor of this being true is that other modes of communication, generically lumped together as "social media", have supplanted the old school method of blogging.  Blogging after all is simply a matter of writing things down and appending a few pictures when useful.

It has gotten me to wondering just what people are doing with their time, if not creating and perusing blogs.  For a while the answer was Facebook!, but that has apparently also had its moment.  Now that has become a place for old people to post pictures of their cute pets and grandchildren.  I have tried to comprehend Twitter, but if short, banal tweets have become the default method of communication I proclaim our civilization to be officially Doomed.  I am aware of other "stuff" out there, Instagram, Pinterest and so forth, but none of them seem like places where one could sit down and think for a minute on anything specific.

So I intend to keep plugging away.

It has been an interesting year at Detritus of Empire.  Visits roughly double in the spring and summer month, correlating I imagine with travels and archeology postings.  Or maybe that is just the time of year when the various eastern European spambots emerge from winter hibernation.

Barring obstacles not yet visible, this year's jaunt to visit the actual detritus of Empire should be great.

A certain amount of upkeep is needed on any venture so I am trimming and adding a bit.  On the "blogroll" I am dropping a couple of links.  I am very much a fan of Roadside America and of Gravely Speaking, but each is a niche site, of the sort that a periodic visit will suffice.

We are heading into a year of intense politics, and since it can't be avoided altogether I like to have sites that can counterbalance each other.  In addition to the Conservative viewpoints of Borepatch and the enigmatic Gormogons I am linking to Contrary Brin.  David Brin is a sci fi writer and Progressive thinker, and we have had many cordial if energetic discussions down in his comments area.

If blogging is in a reputed decline, web based comics are doing great.  Girl Genius is rollicking good fun but has been running long enough to have some inertia.  I am freshening up by adding Stand Still, Stay Silent, a newer creation that is following a fascinating narrative involving a post apocalyptic Scandinavia. It does not have a functional RSS feed so you can't see the latest updates, but the author posts great looking stuff five days a week.  Worth the visit.

A few links make it on in probationary form.  The Vindolanda excavations have been running a sporadic blog that, when updated, is very good indeed.  If they don't keep it current I will, as we say in archaeology, back fill it.

I have come very close on several occasions to adding a link to Red Letter Media.  This is a collection of brilliant crazy people who are both independent film makers and film critics.  Film philosophers might actually be closer to the mark.  Their work is often the stuff of true genius, but alas has a little too much profanity to be recommended to a general audience.

Ah, what the heck.  I'll probably get embarrassed by their juvenile antics and delete them after a while, but they are very entertaining.

A few other touch ups and Detritus of Empire is ready for another year.

Friday, March 27, 2015

After School Special 2015

Back in the 1970s one of the Big Three Television Networks - ok it was ABC but close enough - started a program called "After School Specials".  It was aimed at school children who were just getting in the door and gluing their eyeballs to the glowing screen. It tried to help them deal with life's difficult issues.  Divorce, depression, self esteem, etc.  The Specials were earnest, heartfelt and damn near unwatchable even to that less than critical audience.

They lend themselves so readily to parody that a recent domestic problem brought back the late 70s vibe in a disturbing, vivid flash....


"What's wrong Billy?"

"Uncle Dave, Mom has been acting kinda different lately.  In the mornings she is really crabby for no reason.  And later in the day she's falling asleep all the time.  What's wrong with her?"

"Billy....I'm afraid that your Mommy has lost somebody very dear to her."

"Gee, do you mean Mr. Nichols who lives down the hall?  I don't like him very much, he's over here all the time, and he smells like black licorice, and he's always telling jokes that Mommy says aren't very funny."

"No Billy, we're still stuck with that worthless loaf.  I'm afraid your Mommy has lost someone much more important to her.  Someone almost as important to her as you are."

"I don't understand Uncle Dave."

"Billy, I'm sorry.  Last week Mr. Coffee died."

"........oh.......but Mommy loved Mr. Coffee."

"I know she did Billy.  And sometimes when grown ups have to get along without something very important to them, like really strong coffee, they get unhappy.  Just like kids do."

"But Uncle Dave, can't she find another coffee maker?"

"Billy, your Mommy should be proud of how smart and how strong you are.  Of course she will find another coffee maker.  And if it is not quite the same as Mr. Coffee, it it is not quite as good a helper for her in the morning, well, sometimes even Mommies have to be strong.  I know it will all turn out OK if you are understanding and don't make loud noises too early in the day."

"Uncle Dave?"

"Yes, Billy?"

"The other day when Mommy was really sleepy, I showed her my Report Card, the one one that had a couple of C minus grades on it.  She didn't even seem to notice.  I liked that.  Is that wrong of me?"

"No Billy.  But be careful, that trick won't work once she gets a new coffee maker."

"Uncle Dave, what am I going to do next quarter when the Report Cards come out?"

"Billy, let me tell you about Mommy's other friend.....Chardonnay"

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Short cuts to learning Italian - An Orderly Garden

Planning a trip to Rome involves a close look at the map.  When people of different, albeit overlapping, interests journey together this becomes important.

So, while I spend my time taking in a variety of ancient sites I try to locate nearby things that my wife might enjoy.  Gardens for interest.  There is a huge rose garden overlooking the site of the "Circo Massimo", and on the way to Castle San Angelo we go right past the "Orto Botanico".

This sent me down another side trip into the world of etymology, this time looking at how Latin, Italian and English intertwine.

Orto is "garden" in Italian.  It immediately made me think of this:

Ortho Weed B Gon.  It is some kind of hideous poison that promises to make your green growing stuff look great.  They actually make a wide variety of garden products under the "B Gon" banner. My personal faves are Ortho Mole B Gon and - honest to God - Ortho Snake B Gon.  Eve could have used a can of that stuff.

So, does the company name Ortho relate to the Italian word Orto?

Alas, probably not.  Ortho comes from Greek, not Latin.  It means "straight, true, correct". Hence orthodontia meaning straight teeth.

Orto on the other hand comes from the Latin "hortus" for garden.  That root also gives rise to horticulture.

So an appealing theory on interconnection of words appears to be simply a matter of coincidental sounds.  Even though a garden free of weeds, moles and snakes would be a more orderly place.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Domus Alumina ?

In conversation the other day it came up that a neighbor's house was in the "Queen Anne" style of construction.  The opinion was offered that like as not Queen Anne would turn over in her grave knowing that the place had been covered in aluminum siding.  "Not so", I insisted.  "Aluminum was once a substance so rare and valuable that an abode covered in it would be an extremely impressive place.

In fact it would go beyond Regal and out into the rarefied category of an over the top, ridiculous and ostentatious display of wealth.

I would put such an edifice almost up there with the Domus Aurea, the Golden House built by the mad Emperor Nero as an expression of his megalomania.  Nobody is even sure how big the damned thing was, it is now largely buried under later buildings.  Some say 100 acres, others say 300.  The private lake for the estate was so big that it was later drained as the site for the Colosseum, which actually got its name when a colossal statue of Nero was moved there from the Domus Aurea, being towed by a team of 24 elephants.

But I digress.  The Domus Aurea was so named because it was covered with gold leaf.  Pricey stuff to use as as a large scale decorative accent but no doubt very impressive in the sun light.  Without knowing how thick the leaf was or how big the Domus was, or how much other stuff (ivory, mosaics, semi-precious stones) was used you can't put a price on it.  But as to a house covered in aluminum....

First off, Queen Anne could not even imagine such a thing.  She died about a century before aluminum was purified into a usable form.*  Of course it was known as a salt, alum, still handy for making pickles and such.

So lets pretend that my neighbor instead had a Victorian style home and figure out the worth of a "Domus Alumina" in the late 19th century.

There is a story that claims Napolean III of France gave a dinner party in the 1860s.  The most important guests got aluminium cutlery.  The B-Listers had to get along with gold.

The most precise measure of aluminum's worth in the Victorian era comes from a lofty, if less aristocratic source.  When the Washington Monument was completed in Washington DC in 1884 they made a special capstone for the great obelisk.  It weighed 100 ounces (2.8 kg) and was the largest piece of cast aluminium then in existence.  At the time one ounce of aluminium cost the equivalent of one day's wages for a worker on the project.  If one extrapolates the cost of the same worker's salary today it means that aluminium was then worth, in current value, about $300 an ounce.

Pigeon spikes?
My neighbor's house is a good sized place.  Using some quick math from home building sites I would say it would require 3,000 square feet of siding.  It takes about 1/3 pound of siding per square foot and at 16 ounces per pound and at our 1884 price.....

It worked out to $5,280,000 worth of aluminum!

Of course in the early 1900's newer refining processes made the price plummet, but still a time traveler would be impressed by the Domus Alumia.  Why, they even have a container out on the curb filled with empty aluminum cans.  And they are throwing them away!

Behold the Neronean Splendor of the Domus Alumina !
* To be fair there are some fascinating tales of Roman or even Chinese discovery of aluminum.  Per Dr Beachcoming these can end badly for the far sighted inventor!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Building a Beer Cave

 When you study beer caves you soon learn to detect various "types", various methods of construction.

The ideal set up of course would be a cliff with a natural cavern that you can simply expand and move into.  Next best would be an area of what is called "St. Peter sandstone", a type of stone that can be easily worked but which becomes quite solid once exposed to air for a while.

But what to do if you are starting a brewery where there is no handy cliff face?  My special fascination is with the smaller breweries, the "also rans" that sprang up in little towns across the Midwest.  Deep in a text regarding the history of one of them I found a discussion of how to build a beer cave, or cellar if you prefer, in uncongenial settings.

 Making Brew Cellars
 ...The earth in the selected location was usually excavated down several feet to where the dome of the cellar would start.
...Then the earth would be dug/scraped away in the form of a dome,over which carefully shaped limestone blocks would be fitted together, using the earthen dome as a form.
...At the top of the dome carefully fitted keystone blocks were put in place to form a self supporting structure.  
...Earth was then packed tightly on top of the limestone dome to the desired depth. 
...The earthen ‘form’ inside the limestone dome was then removed.
...End walls and doors were built.
...Limestone mortar was sometimes utilized but in general the limestone blocks of the cellars dome were shaped so accurately that they were self supporting and mortar not needed or used.
...Not only brew cellars were made in this fashion but merchant and home cold storage cellars were constructed by some settlers, as were bridges and culverts

This perfectly describes a number of "caves" I have seen in my wanderings.  Here are some examples:

Sometimes bricks, sometimes limestone blocks.  Sometimes it was the entire structure, other times just the entryway.  These "beer cellars" were not always the ideal solution for a small brewer, but did serve as the best available option in many places.  I suspect that most of them did not provide ideal temperature control even when stocked with ice from local lakes.

Since these were clearly less durable than solid rock caves they are harder to find and are easily destroyed by later building.  I think that in cases where a brewery existed and no traces at all of a cave are to be found, that this sort of thing is what was once present.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Arcadia Wisconsin

Arcadia Wisconsin is one of those out of the way little spots that manages to somehow attract a fair bit of industry.  It is home to Ashley Furniture, a rather large outfit.  And it also has a big "Gold n' Plump" chicken processing plant.  This sits on the site of a brewery that operated from the 1872 to 1949.  In 1910 it was a modest enterprise, a single building under three stories tall.  And only three employees.

The site has been extensively altered with a large area of limestone hillside sculpted out to make room for the factory site.  Take a look at the Google Earth view of the place:

                                                  Gold n' Plump

And in the parking lot right next to where trucks make deliveries I found what I think is the remnant of a cave from the Arcadia Brewery;

It has absolutely nothing to do with brewery caves but the Gold'n Plump company deserves kudos for some really fun ads a few years back.  Military Chickens!

Addendum 1 December, 2016.  While perusing early Winona newspapers on another matter I found a brief account from 14 February, 1959 that describes the removal of the hill behind the current Arcadia fryer plant.  It mentions that the former brewery had caves there so I think my ID of the sad little remnant above is, well, rock solid. T.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Frozen in Time.

Today an in depth photo survey of a marvelous 19th century brewery.  Alas, I shall have to invoke the infrequently required "ambiguity rule" regards its location.  My rationale for this is at the bottom of the post.

The basics are a familiar tale.  A brewery was established on this site in 1860.  It burned in the late 1860s and was re-established in 1871.  It lasted almost up until Prohibition but apparently in a declining state for its later years.  When it went out of business the brewery must have just been abandoned.  To my eye it shows scant evidence of later use and indeed it is in a rather rural location where few commercial alternative uses suggest themselves.

It makes a very interesting time capsule....

A photo I have seen circa 1900 shows the brewery as three connected buildings. Here you can see the surviving walls from all of them.  The central building was a three story, mostly brick structure that extended back onto the bluff to the left of us.

Of course by now your keen eyes quiclkly spotted the cave entrance which we shall return to presently.

Here the central brick and stone main building adjoins a rather shoddy looking structure to its north. I think this was the coopers shop, where they make barrels for the brewery.

Notice how much of the cave entrance is silted in.  The metal fence probably had been placed over the entrance at one point to slightly deter visitors.  This cave extends back from the southernmost of the three brewery buildings.

It appears to line up with a doorway in the front of the building.  Oddly the photo puts a smaller door and a window here.  I think the doorway was later enlarged.  On into the cave...

This is a fairly big structure.  I wonder if the reported capacity of the brewery in its prime, 1500 barrels a year, might be an underestimate.  There are some interesting features to this cave.  It did not seem, well, rock solid, so exploring all the way to the back seemed imprudent.  But the dark rectangle on the light patch at the far end is probably a doorway into another silted in chamber.  And off to each side about half way back there was this sort of thing:

Certainly side passages.  Probably for beer and more than half silted in.  In theory they could also be smaller chambers for ice.  This is a clear archway so it is not simply a cave in.  But the most interesting feature of the cave was up above....

Here a passage allows beer kegs to be lowered down from above.  Some sort of elevator system must have been used, perhaps that slab of 140 year old wood was part of it.  There is even a rusty metal fitting on the board.  A section of roof has fallen in on the other side.  The upper end of the shaft connects to the back part of the central brewery building...

Oh yes, there were a few signs here and there.

The brewery also had some outbuildings.  What do you make of this one?

I think this was the malt house.  You can't brew with plain old barley.  It has to first be "malted" heated slowly over many hours to activate enzymes and make the sugars available for fermentation. The area on the left looks to have niches for furnaces.  The area on the right, behind the rusty grate, was probably grain storage.  It certainly is newer than the cave and brewery structures..

Notice again just how much dirt and debris fills in underground spaces over time.  Being on a hillside accelerates this process.  Down the hill a bit farther, next to a pleasant little creek, we find one last building.

Beer does not deliver itself!  So most breweries had wagons and teams of horses.  This looks like a barn to me.  I understand that this brewery did try bottling for a while but this appears to be a larger structure than would be needed for that.

So there you have it.  The preserved remains of a brewery from circa 1870 (likely parts of it used the framework of the earlier, 1860 brewery).  The only thing missing would be the brew master's house which I expect was somewhere on the hill up above.

So why a "no locations" post?  Well I do not want people to get into trouble.  Not legal trouble, sure, but even more emphatically, not into physical danger.  This site was easily accessible but there were unambiguous No Trespassing signs all about.  If you were asked to explain your business there it would be difficult to claim ignorance.  And something about the tunnels bothered me.  This is clearly a rather large cave system with much of it filled in over time.  If somebody got the bright idea to excavate it I think cave ins would be a distinct possibility.  So just take this as a brief time travelling experience, back to a brewery locked up around the time of  Prohibition and slumbering on for almost a century in a quiet patch of woods.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Short cuts to Learning Italian - A little help from The Godfather

You should exercise a bit of caution on sources when setting out to learn something new.  It would not do for instance to use gangster movies as your sole source for Italian language and culture. But it is also fair to say that information you collect from multiple places tends to reinforce itself, so a few snippets of Italian that I recall from the book and movie The Godfather seem fair game.  Sure, Mario Puzo made a lot of stuff up, but I assume that being raised in a family of immigrants the man could speak Italian.

A few words and their possible utility.

Capo.  In the book it was a title given to a lieutenant in the crime family.  It means head and comes from the Latin caput.  In Rome we will be staying a few hundred yards from the Pons Fabricus, known locally as the Ponte quatto capi.  The bridge of the four heads is so called for the ancient depictions of Janus who ups his game a bit, not looking just forward and back but to either side as well.

At one point in the movie the term sfortunato is used.  It means "an unlucky guy".  I actually have learned the word sfortuna, which means "bad luck".  My better half was once accosted by a pesky street hustler in Paris with a "found" gold ring.   They always want to give it to you and expect a donation for their generosity.  I plan on widening my eyes, pointing a slightly shaking finger at the cheap trinket and saying "Sfortuna. Male, molto male!"

If in doubt about what to order in a Ristorante one can always just say "cosa consiglia?".  This means "what is your advice?".  It combines the cosa from Cosa Nostra with the fictional title of Advisor, or Consigliere held by Tom Hagen in the Corleone Family.

The're absolutely sure on that?
And finally the peculiar phrase "pezzonovante" turns up twice in The Godfather.  It is used  to indicate a "big shot" of some sort.  Literally it translates to "a 90 piece" and indicates a gun of very large calibre.  Calling a weapon a "piece" sure sounds like cheesy Hollywood gangster talk but in fact is a very old construction.  Long ago a shotgun would have been called a fowling piece, and we still to some extent use the phrase "artillery piece".  For me it is less helpful to know how to say the word for ninety - I am not planning on buying anything that pricey when over there - but the other half of the phrase could come in handy.  "Una pezzo pizza, per favore."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dr. Who is minding the Store

Convenience stores and gas stations have always been the target of robbers looking for an easy score. I think they are on to something new these days, a security measure that will deter any but the most desperate desperadoes...

I am quite sure that my U.K. friends and my fellow sci fi nerds spotted this immediately.  The rest of you?  Oh, very well.

It is obvious that convenience store trash cans are thinly disguised Daleks!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Squinting at the Ancient World. And the Modern one!

For a description of the physical world that Rome stood astride at the height of Empire the primary source is Strabo, whose great work Geographica was a 17 book magnum opus that attempted to describe the world as it was known to the Greeks and Romans.

It was a massive undertaking, one that drew upon his own extensive travels and upon all available written sources.  I am always pleased to learn that I have walked "in the footsteps" of the famous, and certainly Strabo and I have looked out across the same harbor at Alexandria where he devoted a considerable bit of time researching at the Great Library.

Like all ancient writers he tossed in a lot of nonsense and rumor.  It was intended to be not just a geography text but something along the lines of a political source book for others to consult. It was to be a reference work for generals, diplomats, provincial governors, perhaps for merchants engaged in long distance trade.

It contains many delicious scraps of history that spilled over from a sadly lost history also written by Strabo.  All in all a delightful read.  He knew about fossils and volcanoes.  He gossiped about the theft of Alexander the Great's body.  He knew where you could mine gold and silver, he talked about places where tuna fish grew as fat as pigs by eating acorns washed out to sea.  Oh, he got a lot of things wrong - he believed for instance that Britain was worthless and that there was nothing beyond Ireland - but taken as a whole it was an impressive view of the world.

Strabo saw a lot.  He attained the impossible dream of later scholars, free run of the Great Library. He saw Rome at its pinnacle.  He probably knew Caesar Augustus himself.  And yet.....he probably saw it all imperfectly.  Because Strabo was cross eyed.

Yes, the name Strabo is actually a nick name.  It means "squint eyed" which can be anything from a droopy eye lid to crossed eyes to anything else that would have been noticeable.  The term lives on in the modern era of course.  Strabismus, the common sort of "lazy eye" that occurs in children and can cause them if untreated to be cross eyed later in life.

I was surprised to find that Strabo is a name that turns up elsewhere in ancient sources.  Reading up on the late Roman empire I ran across a Theodoric Strabo. This was a presumably cross eyed Gothic chieftain who was a rival to his kinsman the more famous Theodoric who became de facto Emperor of the West in the sixth century AD.  Theodoric Strabo met his end by falling off a horse, possibly onto a spear.  Sharper eyesight might have helped there.

We have something of an aversion to people whose eyes look different.  We say they are shifty, or looking "askance".  So it is odd, very odd indeed that as our American politics start to fire up for another Presidential election the front runners - as of March 2015 mind you - could both be described as "Strabo".  Behold:

Clinton Strabo.  After a fall a couple of years ago she developed double vision and had to wear these heavy glasses to correct it.  And to be bipartisan I also present:

Walker Strabo.  The governor of my adopted state of Wisconsin.  His sleepy look has lulled a series of political foes into serious and entirely unwarranted over confidence.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fishing the Roman Empire.

Other than Alaska, where it is one of the main motivations for the trip, I have not done much fishing while traveling.  A lot of the places I visit are long settled areas where years of cultivation, industry and over harvest have had their unfortunate if predictable results.

But here and there I find odd little areas of overlap.  Places where Roman ruins and impressive fish can co-exist.  Here are a few from my travels....


For almost the only time in my life I had violated my travel code, which specifies no cruise ships and no bus tours.  I had a chance to go with my son.  It was an organized tour and in any event Egypt is something of a special case.  The country is effectively spread up and down the Nile valley making any travel other than by boat a bit impractical.  And the group was of mixed age.  Some could have done more afoot, others not so much.

But I am stubborn.  Having decided to pass up a side trip to Abu Simbal (son had by then had his fill of temples anyway) I tried to organize a one day fishing charter on Lake Nasser.  The target:  Nile Perch.  These are practically speaking the biggest fresh water fish you can catch on hook and line. How big?

This qualifies as "fishing the Roman Empire" because Aswan was more or less the southern boundary of Roman Egypt.  I had a series of email communications with a delightful guy named Peter Bailey from an outfit called African Angler.  And we got close, very close to making it work.  At that point in time you had to go through a rather silly permit system and I got the impression that a few extra dollars would have made the paperwork problems vanish.  But if the money could have been managed the time table was pretty tight, so we passed up the chance.  I still get interesting email updates from African Angler, they have soldiered on through trying times in the Egyptian tourist economy.  I wish them all the best.  Maybe someday......

Above is the Tyne river in Northumbria.  I go each spring and excavate at a Roman fort site along Hadrian's Wall.  This is where the Wall crossed the river. The Tyne is also the best salmon fishing stream in England.  Not Alaska, mind you, but scenic and if you have the time and the permit probably a fun place to fish.  It has been fished for a long time.  Excavations at Roman sites in the area show a variety of fish species represented by their bones.  Eels, sturgeon, and of course, salmon.

This spring I will actually get to Italy.  No excuse for not being there sooner.  I was not even thinking about Italy and fish but then I saw this picture:

Wow.  A 280 pound catfish caught in the delta of the Po river!

For more on Romans and fish (also birds, game, grapes and so forth) drop in and visit Moose and Hobbes

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Il Tasso Forte e Potente !

Getting ready for an extended trip to Italy (lots of walking) then to Northern England (walking plus wheelbarrows) has prompted me to actually expend some effort in getting into shape. Most days I am off the the gym.  Walking, running, cardio workout stuff.

My UK archeology pals often use my nickname "Badger", one that came to me by virtue of my digging prowess, my Wisconsin origins and my salt and pepper hair color.  (More salt these days, alas).  In Italian Badger is "Tasso".

They had better be ready for the new, mightier 2015 "Il Potente" version of The Badger.

In fact, I may take it to the next level entirely.  Our local "Y" offers classes too.  Forget that weight training nonsense, I know what I could use:

Master Jedi Class!  I'm gonna move those big rocks with the Power of the Force!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Tourism in the Bandit Infested Hills

I both admire and envy my more adventuresome friends.  They travel, seemingly without fear, to Laos and Tunisia and Antarctica.  They trek across the Sinai on camels.  They join the Peace Corps and live in Central American hamlets.

I am speaking generally of people ten to twenty years younger than I, those who came of age in an era of cheap airline tickets and social tolerance of delayed adulthood.  The folks I am envying here did most of their globetrotting either before or in place of raising children.

I now have the available time and resources to travel where I will, but there are more risks than there used to be.  It once was that you were safe so long as you did not venture out on an ill advised jaunt into bandit infested hill country.  Now the bandits have come down from the hills and live among us.

I have walked through too many places where terrorists attacks have occurred.  The Olympic complex in Munich, the London Underground, the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  I regularly pass through the Amsterdam airport where the infamous "underwear bomber" was helped onto a US bound plane on some sort of humanitarian ticket.  I have driven past the Pentagon and have walked under the dome of the US capitol that escaped its intended targeting on 9/11.

No center of culture and urbanity is safe.  Paris the City of Lights.  New York, the self styled "Greatest City on Earth", Moscow with its atrocious subway bombings and Tokyo its sarin gas attack. For all the negative publicity that rural America gets, it is still a very, very safe place to live.

In a matter of weeks we will be heading for Italy.  It seems like a safe enough place to go, certainly Italy has done little to offend anyone of consequence in recent times.

But just a few hundred miles away, on the shores of Libya we now see the barbarians of Islamic State lining up Coptic Christians for mass slaughter.  And at the end of their latest atrocity one of the jihadists points a bloody knife north across the sea and proclaims that they will march on Rome.

You don't hear about that part of the message much in American news media.  Oh, in part it is wise to give these monsters as little attention as possible.  But a bigger part of it is the sheer embarrassment of our Current Administration.  Having started an optional war against Mohamar Khadaffi they "led from behind", dropping equal numbers of bombs and press releases.  Now we have another festering, chaotic pool of terrorism, and one with convenient access to Italy via a well intended policy in which refugee boats are actually helped ashore by the Italian Navy.

I usually avoid politics in my writings.  But part of the reticence to discuss the catastrophic implosion of Libya is that to do so would be an embarrassment to our Current President - who was gifted a Nobel Peace Prize for his anticipated diplomatic brilliance - and to our hopeful "President in Waiting", who was Secretary of State when the Libyan incursion was somehow, implausibly, deemed to be a safe and prudent action.

But these are the conditions that exist.  This is the world we live in.  The bandits are probably now in the Seven Hills of Rome.

You do what you can.  I get in and out of airports as quickly as possible.  I like to think I have good situational awareness.  Several times in Egypt I got a vague sense of danger.  Usually a close look around would show up a few of the Mubareck era Secret Police on the periphery of things.

I think we will steer clear of obvious danger zones, St. Peter's square for instance.

I always try when traveling to avoid an easy identification of my nationality, although when dealing with a threat like Islamic State their hatreds are so eclectic that passing myself off as being from Luxembourg may not suffice.

I don't think it is morbid to have one's "affairs in order" before going on a journey.  It is one less worry in life and when I travel I prefer to live for the moment.  Another glass of "vino della casa", another bit of ancient building peeking out from under modern trappings, another day of having no obligations other than enjoying ourselves.

I am sure I will climb up on the Aurelian Walls that surround the ancient parts of Rome.  They were built at a time when the Empire was crumbling at the edges and savages were expected to reach to the very heart of Western Civilization.  The Walls held then, and in fact for another century and a half the external enemies were kept out.

Like all enduring things of a past age they are thought provoking.  And could give you justifiable reasons for either optimism or pessimism.

At one point in their history they were an inconsequential barrier when an army, flush with victory and carrying the banner of a radical new religion just marched on through.  Constantine the Great with his newly professed Christianity prevailed against greater numbers and carried the day.

But at a later date and against even more lopsided odds the Byzantine general Belisarius strode these battlements.  He had prevailed against armies of Goths that should have matched him ten times over. But he had sturdy walls and strong resolve and the barbarians raged against them and broke.