Tag Archives: history

Kvick Tänkare

Stoic Studio just recently released a viking themed game called The Banner Saga.  I’m not sure if this is a new trend or I’m just getting more selective in my gaming choices but Banner Saga places a high emphasis on story and mood, interspersed with more traditional game play. I really enjoyed how they captured the feel of the fatalism of Norse mythology.  Games like this give hints for where they can (and probably will) go in the future.  I suspect that story driven games may even become the cultural touchstones for the next generation.  Whereas, TV played that role when I was growing up (with half a dozen channels to watch, odds were good you and your friends and neighbors were watching the same thing), radio before that all the way back to the traveling storytellers.

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Back when I was stationed in (West!) Germany in the late 1980s there was a reoccurring call for coins from the banks on post.  The problem was soldiers and their families did what everyone did…put their pocket change in a piggy bank of some sort until there was enough to make it worthwhile to cash in.  That meant coins were being taken out of circulation faster than they were being reintroduced into the system.  That, in turn, meant that the government had to ship coins from the U.S. to Europe to keep the military banks, PXs, etc. running.  A bag of pennies ($50) weighs around 30 pounds.  You don’t need to be a shipping genius to know that it’s not cost efficient to do that in bulk over and over again.

By the time I got to Afghanistan the U.S. government was not going to devote scarce cargo space to ship pennies in bulk, let alone other cash:

Shortly before the Iraq War, the military found that for every $1 million to currency sent to pay soldiers overseas, it as costing them $60,000 in security, logistics, and support fees.

So, the military handed out small cardboard tokens (known as POGS by children of the ’90s) and ‘$100 in quarters (5 pounds, 1 ounce), was reduced to 14 ounces in equivalent pog currency.

All of that was introduction to this piece about the history of military currency and, more specifically, pogs.

First Corinthians in a terrible PowerPoint presentation…I feel like I’ve sat through this many times and in many places.

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Who Are the ‘Satanists’ Designing an Idol for the Oklahoma Capitol?

An awesome article about the ‘backpack nuke’ and some of the soldiers that were tasked with using it to stop a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

Kvick Tänkare

From Defence and Freedom, I found this little bit of trivia.  The Esbit stove was invented in 1936 and used by the Bundeswehr.  I love these for camping (which I haven’t done enough of) or your ‘go-bag’.

An interesting story from WWII about outnumbered American and German troops banding together to fight elements of an SS Division.  The author raises a good point.  What hasn’t this been made into a movie?

Courtesy of Julia Angwin, a couple of recommended privacy tools for your computer.  Two of which I include here because they’re so simple to install…

• I installed “HTTPS Everywhere,” created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. This tool forces your Web browser to use encrypted Internet connections to any website that will allow it. This prevents hackers – and the National Security Agency – from eavesdropping on your Internet connections.

• I also installed Disconnect, a program created by former Google engineer Brian Kennish, which blocks advertisers and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from tracking which websites you visit.

Kind of feel out of the loop with all these classified revelations from WikiLeaks, Manning and Snowden?  Well, no worries!  Use the NSA Product generator to develop your own completely nonsensical yet authentic sounding intel products!  I suspect these also say something about how impenetrable and embedded Bureuacratese that these sound plausible.  We really need to bring back the English language.

The British National Archives are putting millions of pages of military diaries from World War One on line for the public to use.   They are also asking for help form the public in tagging and classifying the documents.  You can do your part (after a 10 minute tutorial) here.

How nations address their problems….


A study which looked at the language used in Kickstarter campaigns reveals some interesting predictors of success and failure.


Wow…that hat’s cool. It’s pa-kool!

A long overdue history of the pakolA type of hat associated with the Tajik population.  I have one from my travels there.  In fact, it looks remarkably like this:

They’re kind of strange hats in that they seem to have little utility for Afghanistan.  They don’t keep the sun out of your eyes and don’t really even keep the sun off your ears or neck.  I suppose utility is in the eye of the beholder though and I’m looking at it from a different perspective.

…the pakol is really one of the loftiest human achievements in the art of covering the head. It is warm, practical, pocketable; it doesn’t make you sweat and (supposedly) lends you a tough guerrilla look. You can even tuck flowers, pheasant feathers or porcupine quills found on the road in its fold, together with pre-rolled cigarettes and talkhan (dried mulberry powder) stored there for the journey to come. (Not least, the pakol can passably substitute for a frisbee at close-medium range – but only if properly rolled). Above all, with its earthy colors and practicality, it is particularly well-suited to the needs of guerrillas fighting in hilly terrain.

One finds it difficult to argue against its ability to stand the test of time.

Looking at Hellenistic coins, statues or frescoes found  from Italy to India, hats similar to pakols were a relatively common sight on the heads of Macedonians. Pictures of the ancient headgear called kausia bear in fact a striking resemblance to the modern pakol, most likely rendering the pakol a legacy of that crazy ride to the East that Alexander the Great undertook out of ambition or boredom in the 4th century BC.


Of course, the most famous pakol wearer (at least in the West) was Ahmed Shah Masood or the ‘Lion of the Panjshir.


This day in the Winter War

Lemetin tiehaaran seutu. Ammuskärryt pysähtyneetHorses that formed part of a convoy killed – 22 January 1940

I’m unsure if these are Russian or Finnish casualties but suspect the former.  As I’ve been looking at the database of Finnish war photos, I haven’t seen too many pictures of wounded/killed Finns on the battlefield.  There have been pictures of troops recovering in (very) clean hospitals and the occasional funeral but I suspect photographers at this stage were discouraged from taking pictures that mixed the horrors of war with Finns on the battlefield.

That being said, for the Finns, the Winter War was a total war (even if it wasn’t for the Soviets) and everyone (and everything) had to  be pressed into service.  This included horses.

During the mobilization, 60 384 horses were confiscated to the army, to strengthen army’s original number of 4 000. (There were about 300 000, over 3-year old horses, in Finland. From these, 152 000 were rated as fit for service) .

This was a big deal for many Finns who worked on small family farms.  Not only were the men mobilized but loss of a major source of muscle power (the horse) meant that what remained of the families (women and children) had to make up for the losses in labor in addition to their other tasks.  I imagine the life of a farmer and farmer’s wife is hard enough for for one person to do both jobs (and often hold a family together) for an extended period of time must be a whole new level of grit, or, as the Finns would say, sisu.

One source identified a huge number (35,000) of sick or wounded horses on the Finnish side.  If that number is correct that would be a casualty rate in excess of 50% for a war that lasted just about four months.

Events of the war that day:

Ladoga Karelia: Soviet troops continue their offensive at Kollaa, on the River Aittojoki and in Ilomantsi.

Mikkeli: General Headquarters turns down the proposal by the Lapland Group to continue their advance to Märkäjärvi. The available forces are to be concentrated to consolidate the ground already taken.

Sortavala in Ladoga Karelia and Ivalo in Lapland are the focus of enemy bombing.

Three Soviet spies dressed in Finnish-style military uniforms have been captured off Ylläppäänniemi on Lake Ladoga.

Finland welcomes foreign volunteers willing to serve in the Finnish armed forces.

Abroad: in Leningrad, staff officers are executed for failing to provide proper protection for field kitchens.

The Norwegian rucksack collection for Finland reaches its goal of 50,000 filled rucksacks, which are duly surrendered to the collection committee.


Kvick Tänkare

It’s been awhile so I thought I’d revisit the point behind Kvick Tänkare posts.  From the Swedish it translates roughly as ‘Quick Thinking’.  My intent is to provide a hodge podge (perhaps a smorgasbord?) of ideas from a range of sources and fields in one place.  I’ve always believed that exposure to disparate pieces of information helps make new connections and creates the opportunities to view old subjects in new ways.

Or, you could just look at is as a blogging miscellaneous drawer…

1) After 9/11 the CIA built a program to recruit people to be spies with ‘non-official cover’ (agents who couldn’t pose as embassy staff and instead appeared to be students, business people, etc.).  Well, ten years and $3 billion later and what’s the verdict?

“It was a colossal flop,” a former senior CIA official said in sentiments echoed by a dozen former colleagues, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified program.

According to the story, some of the reason behind the failure was the lack of skills but it was also good old fashioned bureaucratic inertia.
“There was just a great unwillingness to put NOCs in really, really dangerous places,” said another former case officer. “If you’re a high-grade agency manager, are you going to sign off on a memo that puts Joe Schmuckatelli in Pyongyang? Whether you are a careerist or not, that is a hard decision for anybody to make.”
So, here’s to you Joe Schmuckatelli.
Of course, if you want to get your paranoia on, you could say this was all just a clever planted story so foreign intelligence services and terrorist groups (and foreign businesses perhaps?) would lower their guard.  I’m not sure the CIA has demonstrated that sort of skill in the past but it’s possible.
2) An interesting article by Dilbert creator Scott Adams about when we should simplify in order to get a task done and when we should focus on perfecting a process.  Too often it seems we simplify as a way to get the undesirable stuff done quickly and focus on the stuff that we find interesting but it’s not clear that results in the best outcomes.  Probably would have been useful to think about Healthcare.gov in these terms over the past couple of years.

3. About a year ago, Tell Tale Games put together a small game based on the TV Series/Comic Book The Walking Dead.  It was brilliant…in fact, probably better than both the TV series and the comic book.  Calling it a game, which technically correct, is a bit misleading since it was primarily a story in which the reader (or player if you must) could make some decisions.  In essence a ‘choose your own adventure’ story.  The trick was putting together a story which conveyed real depth and more character development than I’ve seen in the original products.  I was totally invested in the game.

So, it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear that the same company is making games based on the Game of Thrones book/TV series and the Borderlands game.  If they can keep up the high standards of plotting and writing this could be great.  Beyond simple gameplay I wonder if there isn’t a broader audience for something like this where the audience can directly influence the flow of the story.

4.  In New York state, a lawsuit was recently filed to grant chimpanzees the status of ‘personhood’.  The lawsuit is being brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, led by Steven Wise (who I wrote about several years ago).  Before you get all wound up about chimps getting social security or voting, they aren’t talking about that.  In light of ever more compelling research about animal cognition and consciousness, Wise recommends essentially a sliding scale of rights to a wide range of creatures.  In our current legal system, animals are considered property (insert awkward comparison to slavery here)  yet that no longer seems tenable both in terms of our culture and the existing science.  Given that chimps are the closest to us physically and in evolutionary status they’re starting with them.
5. Prostitution in Nashville during the Civil War.  10% of Union troops had some sort of VD.  That’s pretty significant and the reason why the Union tried to banish and then regulate all the prostitutes from the town.

The (anarchist) Men Who Made America?

I recently got a chance to watch the History Channel mini-series ‘The Men Who Made America’ about the rise of robber barons in the late 19th and early 20th century. The series isn’t perfect and suffers from many of the flaws all too common in basic cable documentaries but even so it is remarkable and worth you time for several reasons.

While the series ends in a clumsy way, making Henry Ford look like the major progressive force behind the 8 hour work day, fair wages, and improvements in working conditions throughout the country and putting forth the argument that the robber baron era was essential to making the U.S. the best est, most civilized, and greatest nation on the face of the earth’, the rest of the series is much less certain on that point. In fact, there are elements of the series that are downright subversive.

The series mentions the Anarchist movement in two places in the series and, in both cases, in a favorable light. That’s surprising because both mentions revolve around activity that today would most definitely be classified as terrorism. The first was the attempted assassination of Andrew Carnagie lieutenant Henry Frick. Frick was depicted as a cruel, exploitive ogre who got his hands dirty with the business of extracting labor from employees so Carnagie wouldn’t have to. In the end, Frick’s callousness contributed to the Jonestown flood and violently putting down strikes. The filmmakers were clearly setting Frick up to be the ‘bad’ robber baron who deserved to be struck down by an assassin’s bullet (Frick didn’t die, however) so that the ‘good’ robber baron (Carnagie) could ride in and save the day by firing Frick and beginning his campaign of philanthropy.

Later in the series, Carnagie and the others engage in equally rapacious behavior yet it is portrayed differently than Frick’s episode. The latter had a vignette with workers huddled around the body of a dead co-worker, struck down by the unsafe working conditions. The former was merley done in a brief voice over with various pictures of life in late 19th century America and designed to not stick in the mind the same way as the latter.

The second act of anarchism was the assassination of President William McKinley. McKinley was a wholly owned creature of the robber barons, not even given a part in the series and clearly not worthy of respect or consideration. His assassin was described sympathetically as a man at his wits end after being thrown out of his factory job. The assassination signaled a serious blow against the robber barons by ushering in Teddy Roosevelt presidency and the era of trust busting.

President William McKinley, half-length portra...

President William McKinley, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing front (cropped) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both cases, reform (really the only significant reform in the series before Henry Ford’s appearance) came about through the application of politically motivated violence, against the agents of capitalism. For the History Channel, I find that message curious and can only wonder at the underlying message there. Is this basic cable’s attempt to plug into the anti-capitalist sentiment of the 2008 crash and Occupy movement? If so, one must applaud the subtle way in which they did it. Superficially, the series is an homage to capitalism and entrepreneurs (and while the interviews with modern ‘mogels’ add nothing to the story, they do provide an interesting view of self-absorbtion and hubris) but I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else going on underneath the surface. The section of Ford seems hastily added on and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the narrative (and no mention of that whole Protocols of the Elders of Zion thing which, admittedly,  would have been awkward). I can almost imagine some producer saying there needs to be a clear captialist hero and Ford was the one who fit in the time frame (or, perhaps, History Channel was hoping for a huge ad buy from Ford).

The whole series could use a good editing and be brought down from it’s existing six hours (well, 8 with commercials) to a tighter, more effective three or four hour piece.  Reviews have been rather ‘meh’ overall but my quick review of them all seem to take the show at its most superficial.  There’s gold (well, ok, maybe electrum) in them thar hills!

Kvick Tänkare

I can’t remember the movie(s) but I do remember hearing anecdotes about weird experiments with victims of the guillotine.  Specifically, trying to see how long one could keep a head alive once it was separated from the body.  Well The Chirurgeons Apprentice tracks the rumor down and finds the truth behind it.  It’s kind of creepy.

A long time ago, I lived in an apartment and I just wasn’t able to own a dog.  I did, however, really want some sort of animal in my household and so I took in a ferret.  Eventually I had a small group of three of them and they really are great pets.  More social than cats and almost as trainable as dogs, I would continue to be a ferret owner if their life spans were not so short (about 6-8 years).

English: This is Vinnie the Ferret in the midd...

English: This is Vinnie the Ferret in the middle of a war dance jump. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In any case, recent research has indicated that ferrets are just about equal to dogs in terms of picking up social cues from humans.  It is assumed that this is the result of selective breeding, probably for other, specific traits, with the resulting side effect of greater social-cognitive skills.


Speaking of dogs, some Samurai dude in the 19th century decided to outfit his dog with a special set of armor.

And talking about warfare…Swords are pretty badass weapons as demonstrated by their use for thousands of years.  What would make them even more imposing?  Adding shark teeth, of course…

Finally, what would happen in a war broke out between the old school video games and the fancy-schmancy new ones?  Well, somebody thought of that…

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Ave, Caesar

roman mosaics

roman mosaics (Photo credit: Accretion Disc)

Here is a website that presents translations of some of the graffiti from Pompeii.  It’s a wonderful hodge podge of the crude, tawdry and obscene that will tarnish the image that our ancestors spent all their time in togas contemplating the nature of the universe.

And to demonstrate that nothing is ever really new, we can see a 1st century equivalent of Yelp.  How much did Roman restauranteurs wish they had recommendations like this!

Apelles the chamberlain with Dexter, a slave of Caesar, ate here most agreeably and had a screw at the same time.

Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t buy publicity like that.

And an earlier version of Facebook…I can picture a young lady excusing herself from the vomitorium and quickly scrawling this on the wall:

The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian.


Step aside, son. Let me tell you about some real democracy…

Paul Woodruff writes a post over at the Oxford University Press about how the ancient Greeks (specifically the Athenians of Pericles) would look at our current political mess and specifically Obamacare. You may not be particularly surprised at where he comes down on the issue (after all, he’s a humanities professor) but it is an interesting discussion about what the Athenians might recommend to fix things.

English: Recent shot of the parthenon, athens,...

First, of course, is too much money influencing the system. According to Woodruff:

Pericles’ democracy was designed to reduce the power of wealth to a minimum and it did so. We know that, because for almost twoo hundred years of democracy in Greece, the rich often tried to bring it down and replace it with oligarchy.

The second is a bigger surprise: Elections. Now today we almost exclusively define democracy by elections. Remember when Iraq had elections and eveyone was showing their purple fingers? Then the never ending backslapping, self congratulations and general smugness with ourselves? How comfortable are we with the idea that Iraq is a democracy? Iran has elections too, but there aren’t too many out there who would describe that place as a democracy. And, of course, let’s look in the mirror. Can we really say our democracy is going swimingly? It’s kind of a hot mess of inertia like two jackals fighting over a found carcass 1. All well and good unless that swaying of the tall grass isn’t the wind but is a lion getting in position and ready to pounce on the lot. Ok, Mr. Big Shot, if not elections, then what?

Elections, thought Pericles, give too much power to the rich and famous and too much scope to political parties. So powerful representative bodies in Athens, such as the Council (like our Senate), the courts, and the lawmakers, were composed of representatives selected by a lottery to represent equally the divisions of the city, somewhat like an American jury. These representatives didn’t have to run for election, so they didn’t need to listen to special interests, buidl up a war chest, or do stupid things to embarrass a political party. All they had to do was carry out their duties as best they could and avoid any charges of corruption.

Now, at first we might balk at the idea of selecting our representatives through the same process as we select juries but it really might not be that bad. Considering approval for congress is hovering around 10% 2 could we really do worse than randomly selecting citizens to serve? I’ve often remarked here about my desire to see universal national service implemented but that would only affect the under 25 crowd for the most part. Something like this could apply to all citizens of legal age to enter into legally binding contracts (over 18) with only a very few exceptions for health reasons. Other than that, the salary and perks our national legislators get now would be a significant improvement for the majority of citizens and for those who might see a drop in income…tough titty…it’s your civic duty and the odds of getting selected more than once in your lifetime would be incredibly rare. Some provisions could easily be put in place to prevent small business owners from losing their jobs and protecting employment.

Think of how national priorities would change. For one, I bet education would boost up to the top (or near) of what needs to get fixed. My guess is that all of a sudden national efforts would focus on the problems of the bulk of the people. Rather than figuring out how much to subsidize multinational corporations who have no trouble racking up record profits we might spend a bit of effort on all those people languishing under the poverty line.

  1. Uh, and just to be clear and morbid, we’re the carcass in this analogy
  2. Which is really saying something since you can usually count on around 20% of the people to believe any kooky thing.

Warfare in the 18th Century: Poltava and the Swedes


I just finished The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire by Peter Englund.  Definitely a worth your time but here are the bits I found particularly interesting.

The Swedish king Charles the XII, instituted some military reforms including a system of conscription called indelningverk (which, I think, translates into something like ‘group work’). Provinces were broken up into subdivisions that would supply a cavalry or infantry man, house and support him in peacetime and replace him if lost in wartime. When I went to Skanses (the open air museum in Stockholm that focuses on Swedish life throughout history) they had an example of a little house that a farmer or craftsman might have on their property for a soldier to live in (called a soldattorp or soldier’s cottage). In these provincial regiments (which were different from more traditional regiments that apparently existed in parallel with them) promotions were handled differently from many other armies in that the officers had to start their service in the enlisted ranks and were promoted by merit.

The king had a bodyguard called the Drabants which, at least from the description of their service in the battle of Poltava, served as sort of a Secret Service (frequently surrounding the king in order to take the musket or cannon fire intended for him) as well as a body of shock troops. While I’m sure there was a lot of prestige associated with a posting as a Drabant it did have its downside. Of the 147 that began the Great Northern War in 1700, only 14 were still left alive in 1716.

Pay in old armies always interests me in that it provides some indication of what value society put on soldiering (at least where soldiers had some sort of choice in serving and allocating their labor) and what specific skills or activities militaries wanted to encourage (or discourage by withholding pay). Since plunder remained a legitimate form of compensation for some 18th century armies, Englund describes how the spoils accrued at Saladen were divided among the troops:

  • wounded captain: 80 riksdalar
  • unwounded captain: 40 riksdalar
  • wounded lieutenant: 40 riksdalar
  • unwounded lieutenant: 20 riksdalar
  • unwounded NCO: 2 riksdalar
  • wounded private: 2 riksdalar
  • unwounded private: 1 riksdalar

It’s nice to see the wounded given their due but, of course, it’s not clear if that means any wound or a would sufficient to preclude them from further service. The salary descrepencies today are nowhere near what there were listed as here which might reflect the increasing responsibility and autonomy that lower ranks have increasingly been given over the past three centuries.

Ah…but what of the grenadiers? In the period that I reenact, the grenadiers were really well on their way to losing any real difference from other infantry forces. Still, they maintained some (increasingly superficial) differences in uniform (the sword, the matchcase, etc.) and tougher recruitment standards which made them the ‘go to’ troops when you needed that extra bit of confidence that at attack would succeed or a long would hold under pressure. One of the most visible aspects of grenadiers of all nationalities was their tall caps. In part, the height of the caps were designed to create an imposing appearance to strike fear into the enemy. It worked (or didn’t) along the same lines as ancient warriors who had crests of horsehair or other material on their helmets. Englund however, notes another, more practical, use for the the shaped hats:

Their peculier tall caps replaced the normal wide-brimmed three corner hat, which would have impreded them when they slung their muskets before lobbing their hand-grenades.

Swedish grenadier hat from the early 18th century

Even then, grenadiers were regarded as a form of elite soldier, being used as bodyguards, marksmen and to storm fortifications.

The 18th century was kind of a weird time.  The last of the middle age armor had disappeared but firearms still left a bit to be desired both in terms of accuracy and rate of fire.  So, edged weapons hadn’t yet faded into irrelevance yet.  Ladies and gentlemen, the bayonet.

The bayonet was probably most commonly employed when pursuing the fleeing, and killing off wounded opponents. If bayonet to bayonet fighting did occur it was usually of little consequence, only lasting a few confused moments. Nevertheless, if it did come to hand-to-hand combat the equipment of the Swedish soldier gave him a certain advantage. The sword that every Swede carried was probably the best naked weapon that has ever existed, as well suited for thrust as cut. The Swedish bayonet had a more stable fitting than was otherwise normal. It was a considerably better weapon for thrusting than that of many other armies, whose bayonets tended to fall off, or remain embedded when muscle, skin and bone closed around the blade.

I have no idea if that last bit is true or not but as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts it’s not clear to me that the average 18th century soldier had much training with sword or bayonet.  Without training, weapon quality doesn’t matter quite that much.

The whole battle was a mess from the Swedish perspective (great from the Russian).  The Swedes suffered from debilitating overconfidence, convinced that since the Russians were incompetent in the early years of the war that they would forever remain that way.  So overconfident that the Swedes convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to attack an entrenched foe almost twice as numerous as themselves who also had a more than 3 to 1 superiority in artillery.

Let’s just say it didn’t go well for them.

Still, you can’t say the Swedes weren’t brave.  Here’s a description of the opening of the battle as the Swedes advanced towards the Russian lines:

They had approximately 800 meters to cover before they closed with the compact Russian ranks. The first 600 meters would be taken at the normal pace of 100 strides (75 meters) to the minute: a duration of about 8 minutes. The last stretch would be covered at a significantly higher speed, the standards procedure when attacking a rapidly firing enemy.

Cannon began firing at about 500 meters which meant that the advancing Swedes would have to walk (at a pretty slow pace) into firing artillery for 3 minutes before charging into the enemy and knowing that it would only get worse from there on out.

I suspect my response to being given a order to do something like that would have been along the lines of ‘Go fuck yourself.’

But Russian cannon, flintlocks, bayonets and swords isn’t all the Swedes had to worry about.  They also needed to keep an eye over their shoulder at the knuckleheads behind them:

Some calculations estimate that up to 25 percent of all infantry losses arose when the rear lines accidentally shot their comrades standing further forward.

English: Battle of Poltava 1709

And that is how you have your day ruined.