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Friday, March 21, 2008

Solving the Mystery of Who's Who in Old Photos

Have you ever opened an old photo album or box of old pictures from your grandparent's generation and wondered who the people in the pictures were? Unfortunately, our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. were as careless as we are about labeling the pictures we take. After all, I know who the people are in the photo. So, why bother?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, pictures outlast us, but our memories don't, so we end up leaving behind a trove of photos full of, by now, nameless faces.

However, there are ways to identify people in photos even if the photo is 50 - 100 years old and one way is by showing the picture to people in the family who are older than us and are closer to the people in the photos. One technique for doing this is to sit down with a grandparent or great aunt or great uncle and show them the pictures, asking questions as you go along. With luck you will find that they will often either recognize people in the photographs or recognize or remember something about the situation (wedding, anniversary, birthday, holiday, etc.) when the picture was taken which will give you evidence to use when talking to others or searching other sources like old letters, diaries, etc. With even more luck, the picture will spark memories and you may get some good stories as well as identifying people in the pictures. My sister, in an article entitled Time the Identity Thief that she wrote, suggests taping (with permission) these interviews so that you can record the information and stories even if they talk faster than you can write. While the tapes may be looked upon simply as a tool for gathering the information, if stories are involved, the tapes themselves could become as valuable a family treasure as the pictures.

As children, by brother and I got my Uncle Willard started on his World War I stories and taped them on my father's old reel to reel tape recorder so that we could remember them. The tape got put away and twenty some years later my Father transferred the stories to a cassette and sent it to me. My uncle had since died, so I put it away and saved it. A few years ago, with the tape getting older, I transcribed it to save the stories and then, last year I got a program for my PC to handle recording and used the program to digitize the stories on the tape. I then burned some CDs and shared them with my cousins and with my mother's cousin (my Uncle Willard's son) all of whom appreciated the memories of Uncle Willard and his stories.

Recording and saving sound on a computer is easy and inexpensive. While there are numerous options, with prices to match, I have found the following inexpensive hardware and software sufficient to do what I want. Of course there are other, usually more expensive, options as well and many of these offer higher quality and more options for manipulating the content with the computer.

For software I use a product called Audacity which is an open source product that is offered for free under a GNU General Public License (GPL). It has been created by a group of volunteer programmers who maintain and update it with new releases. It can be downloaded from on the web. While they don't charge for the product, the Audacity team does accept donations of cash as well as time from developers and programmers who would like to help with the project. They also sell T-shirts and other clothing with the Audacity name and logo along with some recording equipment at their I personally have found this to be an easy to use tool that meets my, admittedly limited, digital sound recording and editing needs.

For hardware I purchased a simple microphone from a computer store which I just plugged in to PC. The cost of the microphone was less than $20. Lacking a cassette tape player, I purchased a cheap $15 cassette player from Wal-Mart and plugged speakers rather than headphones (the player was designed to be worn on a belt and played through headphones) into the outlet on the unit. Placing the microphone near, but not too close, to the speakers connected to the cassette player I started the Audacity program on the computer, pushed the play button on the player and quietly left the room while the recording was made.

Add a scanner to scan the old pictures and a CD or DVD recorder to your PC (most come with one or both of these now days) and, with a little creativity you can create and distribute your own memory book with pictures and sound.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Letters From Iwo Jima - A Movie Review

This is Clint Eastwood's companion to his film Flags of Our Fathers which was the story of the battle for Iwo Jima and the men who raised the American flag over Mount Suribachi.

Like Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the battle through the eyes of the soldiers who fought there. Although this is an American production, almost all of the dialog is in Japanese with English subtitles. The only time when English is spoken in the film is in the few scenes in which Americans are present. Watching both films, one finds themselves gasping at the horror that each side had to endure. Unlike Joyeux Noel, which told the story of the unofficial World War I Christmas truce in which Scot, French and German soldiers crossed the lines and celebrated Christmas with each other, there is very little feeling of goodwill toward the other side in either film. This is war most brutal.

Yet the foot soldiers on each side really had more in common with each other than they had differences. Their nations are at war and the politicians on each side, sitting safely behind the lines, urge them to fight harder. Yet most of these foot soldiers are just ordinary men who have been yanked away from their jobs and families to fight. Their main objective, while doing their duty to their respective countries, is to stay alive and get back to their families and their lives.

One of the amazing things about this film is that it is an American film attempting to tell the story from the Japanese point of view. Of course, in reading some reviews there are criticisms from some Japanese quarters complaining about little American basis that creep in here and there. Given Japan's near refusal to even acknowledge, let alone apologize for the suffering inflicted on countries like China and Korea during the war by Japan, it seems strange to criticize an American film for not presenting the Japanese view with 100% accuracy. After all, how many nations, a mere 60 years after a bitter war have a scene in a movie, as this one does, showing their troops shooting prisoners who have already surrendered?

Like Flags of Our Fathers, before it, this is a film about ordinary soldiers struggling to do what is expected of them and to survive in conditions that are difficult outside of battle and pure horror during the battles. Politics and ideology are largely absent in both films and this makes it easier for the viewer to emphasize with the soldiers in both films.

NOTE: This review was first published by me on and Blogevolve two sites with low readership and where no longer (in the case of FusePress) publish or rarely publish (Blogevolve).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Easter Bunny

Like St. Nicholas' name morphing into Santa Claus, so too has the Easter Hare evolved into the Easter Rabbit and Easter Bunny. In a previous article entitled The Origins of the Easter Rabbit I discussed how the word Easter itself and the tradition behind a hare or rabbit delivering eggs at Easter came from customs associated the old Saxon Vernal (Spring) Equinox festivals which survived and merged into our present day Easter customs when the Saxons converted to Christianity. Like many of our Christian holiday customs, the Easter Rabbit has its roots in pre-Christian customs which survived the abandoning of the old religion and embracing of the new Christian religion. At Easter this is especially true of customs involving the celebration of rebirth and renewal, which were associated in pagan times with new life of spring, as Easter is the Christian celebration of Christ's resurrection and new life for mankind.

Originally the rabbit associated with Easter was a hare which is a close cousin to the rabbit and is found in both Europe (where it is more common) and the United States (the jack rabbit of the Southwest is a hare and not a rabbit). The main difference between a rabbit and a hare is that hares tend to be larger, nest in shallow indentations above ground rather than in underground burrows and, finally, hares give birth to young which have fur and whose eyes are open at birth as opposed to rabbits who give birth to young who are initially hairless and whose eyes do not open until a few days after birth.

In The Origins of the Easter Rabbit article I discuss how the tradition of the Easter Rabbit evolved and made its way from Germany to the rest of Europe and then to North America and beyond.

While it is easy to explain how the Easter Hare became the Easter Rabbit given that the two are practically identical as far as looks are concerned and the fact that rabbits are more common in the U.S. But, the question of how did hares and rabbits come to be known as bunnies is a more difficult question. In fact, in my research, the best I could do is find a consensus, of sorts, of guesses.

The consensus of guesses that I found was that our word bunny comes from the Scots Gaelic word bun which was used to describe a swelling, a stump or a root. The term bun appears to have made its way into English where, in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, it was used to describe swellings, human rear ends, and the small tail of rabbits. The word was also applied to small, individual loaves of bread which came to be known as buns (more commonly dinner rolls in the U.S.). As near as most can determine, the term bun was applied in English first to the tail of the rabbit, then its entire rear end. Ironically, the word was also originally applied to the tail of a squirrel. Somewhere along the line the diminutive bunny appeared, first as a term of endearment to describe a child or woman and then later it began to be used to describe young rabbits and squirrel's. In time the term was dropped from squirrels but stuck with rabbits, especially young rabbits. It also tended to fall out of use as a term of endearment for women and children.

Regardless of its origin, the term bunny is now used almost interchangeably with rabbit. However, while synonymous with rabbit, the term bunny still conjures up a softer, cuter image in most people's minds and this can be seen more vividly when comparing images of the Easter Rabbit from a century ago with more recent images of today's lovable Easter Bunny.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In honor of St. Patrick's Day her are some traditional Irish Blessings and bits of Irish Wisdom:

May the love and protection St. Patrick can give
Be yours in abundance as long as you live

Tis better to buy a small bouquet and give to your friend this very day,
then a bushel of roses white and red to lay on his coffin after he's dead

May there always be work for your hands to do
May your purse always hold a coin or two
May the sun always shine warm on your windowpane, may a rainbow be certain to follow each rain. May the hand of friend always be near you, and may God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you!

These things I warmly wish for you:
Someone to love,
Some work for your hands to do,
a bit o' sun
a bit o' cheer
and a guardian angel always near

And here is a good Irish Joke:

The 98-year-old Mother Superior from Ireland was dying. The nuns gathered around her bed trying to make her last journey comfortable. They gave her some warm milk to drink, but she refused.

One of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen. Remembering a bottle of Irish whiskey received as a gift the previous Christmas, she opened and poured a generous amount into the warm milk.

Back at Mother Superior's bed, she held the glass to her lips. The mother drank a little, then a little more, and before they knew it, she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop.

"Mother," the nuns asked with earnest, "please give us some wisdom before you die."

She raised herself up in bed and with a pious look on her face said,

"Don't sell that cow !!"

Here are some links to some of my other articles on St. Patrick's Day and Other Things Irish:

St. Patrick's Day Article

Eamon de Valera - Ireland's First President

Dual Irish and American Citizenship

Edward O'Hare - the Name Behind Chicago's Famous Airport

Hugo O'Connor the Founder of Tucson

Wrong Way Corrigan - New York to Los Angeles via Dublin

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Jacques de Meulles and His Playing Card Money

As the Intendant of the French colony of New France (Canada) in 1684, de Meulles solved the problem of lack of currency in circulation resulting from the failure of the French government to send money to pay the troops stationed there by placing a number and his signature on the backs of playing cards and using them as the official currency.

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