Recent Reads

I wanted to do a quick set of mini reviews of some books that I’ve read lately. Due to my preparations for a reading party I hosted on Constitution Day, there’s an easily-detectable theme here. Enjoy!

Miracle At Philadelphia

Catherine Drinker Bowen

Miracle at Philadelphia
Miracle at Philadelphia

A few months ago, I read Bowen’s biography of Sir Edward Coke (the greatest lawyer of all time), The Lion and the Throne. While it wasn’t an easy read, and seemed to focus much more on the events around Coke than on Coke himself, I thought I’d give her take on the events surrounding the Constitutional Convention a shot. I’m glad that I did.

She does a good job of setting the stage quickly and getting right into the details of all the politics involved in the convention coming together. Some of the more prominent personalities – Hamilton, Franklin, Washington, and even lesser-known James Wilson – are the central characters. Madison gets his thoughts in as well, but since he kept copious notes on the convention proceedings, he ends up playing the role of narrator in Bowen’s telling.

Some of my favorite parts involved the struggles of the different personalities trying to get their way. Patrick Henry, as the leader of the Anti-Federalists, ends up looking like the “bad guy” in retrospect. I think we tend to forget that not everyone in the room agreed that the Constitution was a good idea – or even that creating a Constitution was a good idea. Some of the ideas that were floated, from having a 3-person committee act as the executive (because we were so freaked-out by the idea of monarchy), to the “revolutionary” idea that elected offices wouldn’t come with a religious or property-ownership requirement, seem really strange to us today but were all concepts that were experimental at the time. It’s good to remember how far we’ve come.

There is an odd section in the middle where she talks about the people and history of the different sections of the country at that time, including the western frontier. It was good info, but it really felt like it killed the flow of the book to me.

This is a solid history of the personalities and politics of the Convention. I really highly recommend it.

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The Odd Clauses

Jay Wexler

The Odd Clauses
The Odd Clauses

This book came up in an article I read on one of the libertarian blogs I read frequently. You have to love the idea of investigating some of the stranger parts of the Constitution, and if the author is the kind of guy who would put Christy’s classic painting of the Convention (with the addition of a few random woodland creatures Photoshopped in) on his book’s cover, you know you’re in for a fun ride.

Wexler doesn’t disappoint. This is a great combination of serious Constitutional scholarship, fascinating historical trivia, and joking-around. It’s quite brilliant.

He does a good job of remaining neutral throughout the book, too. You can just barely detect his own liberal slant on issues in the writing. He does end up going a little nuts in the final chapter though – I suppose he can’t help but rip into the concept of Substantive Due Process (although he does admit that this mechanism also gave us Roe v. Wade).

One of my favorite passages is in the chapter about judicial powers. Wexler imagines the justices operating like a trial court, arguing about whether to let in a certain piece of evidence. Of course, the court splits 4 – 4, with everyone turning to Clarence Thomas for whether to uphold or overrule the objection. He just sits silently. Maybe that’s only funny to SCOTUS nerds.

Overall, if you can tolerate the occasional liberal outburst, this is a really fun book. And you’ll learn a ton in-between laughs.

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A Sanctuary For The Wounded

Christ Lutheran Church – Gettysburg, PA

A Sanctuary For the Wounded
A Sanctuary For the Wounded

This one is not regularly published. The church self-published this collection of essays – I found it in a book shop in Gettysburg.

Christ Lutheran Church is an old historical church in Gettysburg just west of the center of town. It quickly became a field hospital the morning of July 1, 1863 when the fighting started on the ridges west of town. The church does a weekly program (on Saturday nights, I think) where they tell the story of the church as a hospital and they sing period music, and read period poetry. This book is basically the take-home version of that show.

As a collection of essays, its a little disjointed and scattered. While it begins with an overview of the history of Christ Lutheran itself, it doesn’t focus exclusively on the church, but tells the story of the wounded and those who cared for them in the downtown area. There’s also a collection of 19th century poetry at the end for character.

This was a really brief read. I’m no speed demon, but I finished in about 2 hours. While the information is good and somewhat interesting, this is hardly a deep treatment of the subject of the mess left behind after Gettysburg.

Daniel E. Sickles

Saturday marks the (probable) 193rd birthday of one of the most interesting characters in the story of the Battle of Gettysburg: Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles.

General Sickles
The man himself.

At Gettysburg, General Sickles commanded the Union 3rd Corps – a force of nearly 10,000 men – assigned to defend the left flank of the Army of the Potomac (AoP) on July 2, 1863. Sickles played a major & decisive role in the battle that day, but it is his story leading up to that point which provides the most drama.

Although most people don’t know of him today, in 1863, “Sickles” was a household name. Unlike most Generals in the AoP, he did not attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He had no experience as a soldier. His experience was in politics, as a Democrat from New York. By age 22, he was a member of the New York State Assembly, and became involved in the Tammany Hall political machine. During his time in the state legislature, he was charged or indicted multiple times for misappropriating funds for projects he worked on. He was also accused of theft, brawling, and tampering with elections. There was even a time that he was censured by his colleagues for bringing a known prostitute into the chamber of the legislature as his guest (possibly as part of a vote-buying scheme of some kind).

At the age of 33, he married Teresa Bagioli, the 16-year old daughter of one of his friends (he had met his future wife when she was 2 years old). As you might guess, her family did not approve of the marriage, so the two were married in a small civil ceremony. She gave birth to a daughter named Laura not long after (although Laura’s actual birthdate is less than clear). Married life did not do much to affect Sickles’ womanizing ways however, and he continued to “cavort with low women” for most of his life.

Teresa Bagioli Sickles
Sickles’ wife, Teresa

In 1856, his Tammany connections got him elected to Congress, and Sickles moved his family to a very nice house in Washington, DC on Lafayette Park (just across the square from the White House). There are some questions as to how he was able to afford such a place, as the rent was more than he was making as a Congressman.

While Sickles was busy with his political career (and all those women), Teresa – as the wife of a Congressman – was expected to either attend or host a party nearly every night of the week. That’s just how things were in 19th century Washington. Since Congressman Sickles was so busy, it was considered to be perfectly acceptable – even encouraged – for Teresa to be escorted to these parties by another man. On a few occasions, she was escorted by a man named Philip Barton Key. Not only was Key an extremely handsome widower and a U.S. Attorney for DC, he was also the son of Francis Scott Key – a name familiar to Baltimoreans as the author of the Star Spangled Banner. Almost certainly aware of her husband’s own affairs, Teresa was enamored by Key and the two started a (not so) secret romance.

Key rented a house that he exclusively used as a hookup spot not far from Sickles’ place, and would walk to Lafayette Park waving a handkerchief in the air as the signal for Teresa to come and meet him for a rendezvous. Sickles was either too busy, or too stupid to notice that this was going on.

One day, Sickles received an anonymous letter (we still don’t know who sent it) laying out the details of what his wife was up to:

Dear sir with deep regret I enclose to your address the few lines but an indispensable duty compels me so to do seeing that you are greatly imposed upon. There is a fellow I may say for he is not a gentleman by any means by the [name] of Philip Barton Key & I believe the district attorney who rents a house of a negro man by the name of Jno. A Gray situated on 15th Street btw’n K & L streets for no purpose than to meet your wife Mrs. Sickles. He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you he has as much the use of your wife as you have. With these few hints I leave the rest for you to imagine.

Most Respfly

Your friend R. P. G.

Sickles didn’t believe it at first. It took a few more of his friends mentioning his wife’s odd behavior before he angrily confronted her. She confessed, and at Sickles’ request, wrote out a letter describing exactly what she had been up to. It was scandalous. Sickles sent Teresa back to New York, and became extremely upset. Key didn’t know that any of this was happening, and he continued with his occasional signaling from the park as before.

On February 27, 1859, Sickles happened to be looking out the window as Key waved his handkerchief. He absolutely lost it. Grabbing two pistols, he stormed out front to take his revenge. As he got closer to Key, Key started to panic and pleaded for his life as Sickles shot him at least twice and then calmly walked to the house of the Attorney General to turn himself in. Key died a few minutes later.

Sickles shoots Key
Murder!

The trial was a media circus. It was the 19th-century equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial – a celebrity sex scandal, turned murder. Unlike the Simpson trial though, Sickles had public opinion on his side. People in those days felt that if your wife was cheating on you, you should be able to take care of that situation yourself. His defense team was extremely innovative, devising an argument that had never been used before in American history: temporary insanity. The story was that Sickles went insane when he saw Key, killed him, and then clearly stopped being insane when he calmly turned himself in.

The jury bought it. Sickles was acquitted of murder charges.

Where Sickles went wrong was shortly after the trial. He came out and publicly forgave his wife for the affair. Public opinion instantly flipped on him. People thought, “if you could forgive her now, why couldn’t you forgive her before killing Key?” Sickles now had a PR problem.

So how does a shady politician who has quite literally admitted (in Federal court, no less!) that he was insane, end up in command of 10,000 troops at the pivotal battle of the Civil War? The answer (as you might imagine) lies in politics.

But that’s a story for another post….

Happy Birthday, Dan!

Also – If you’re interested in learning more about Dan Sickles, may I suggest James Hessler’s outstanding book, Sickles at Gettysburg? While it focuses specifically on his involvement with Gettysburg (both during and after the war) it gives a good overview of his life in the process.

Speaking of new beginnings….

Baby Skillman
Baby Skillman

This is the best picture we have yet of our son. My wife and I are expecting him any day now. He has a name, but we’re keeping it a secret for now.

Maybe that’s part of the reason that I’m sprucing things up around this little corner of the Internet. Perhaps this is the male computer nerd version of a nesting instinct. Whatever it is causing it, I want to have a nice place to talk about him.

It’s going to be a crazy ride.

Starting

Well, here we go again.

This is the 5th “reboot” of my personal website in the last 12 years. I just can’t seem to find a format that I like.

That first site was put up in December of 2000 – the original SkilmNET – a combination of my high school nickname, “skilm”, and “NET” that was so popular back in those days (cNET, PSI-NET, etc.).

I was utterly fascinated with computers and the Internet. I had been introduced to the Internet at school in 1997-98, and when I finally convinced my parents to get a home Internet connection, I was mesmerized. I HAD to know how this magical thing worked. I spent hours exploring the possibilities – websites, email, instant messaging, video, the whole lot. I was so enthralled that I decided to study Computer Information Systems when I started at UMBC in the fall of 1999.

What I didn’t expect was that I would be SO FAR behind my peers in the program. I had been a musical theatre nerd in high school – a performer.  I wasn’t good at math. I had never even physically opened up a computer before.  Now, I was in programming classes desperately trying to learn C with hardcore nerds who had been doing all of this since they were pre-teens.

It was a disaster.

The silver lining is that as part of that C programming class, I was required to log into a UNIX server at UMBC: gl.umbc.edu (which is sadly shutdown now – I’ll never forget that box). You see, normal human beings don’t have computers with C compilers on them – let alone UNIX computers – so the university provided everyone with a shell account on gl.umbc.edu that you could access remotely via telnet. You would log in, do your work on their computer, and turn in your finished program.

YOU would do this, but so would EVERYONE ELSE. The system got SLOW. Especially when a big project was due. I was already aggravated enough that I had to learn this cryptic C language – I didn’t want to suffer with a slow computer while I did it. I knew that the university was using Linux and gcc to teach us. I knew that those software packages were freely-available. I knew that I could get hold of an old computer to use for this project. I thought, “How hard can it be?”

At the time, our family had just one computer in the house. I was thinking about adding another. This meant that I needed to learn a little bit about networking so that I could split the Internet connection. About 4 hours of head-scratching later, I learned that a hub was not enough – I would need a thing called a “router”.

In the meantime, I was able to get RedHat Linux (back before it was called Fedora) and the gcc compiler installed on an old, no-name Pentium 133MHz PC. It certainly wasn’t setting any speed records, but I was the ONLY user. Compared to my gl.umbc.edu experience, it was a rocketship.

I was so happy with it, I decided to let a few of my friends in the class in on the action. I figured out how set up user accounts and allow telnet access to my buddies. When Dave logged in from the other side of town, and I saw his username show up in my who command – it was amazing. My best friend since elementary school was using MY computer. From MILES away.

Over the next several years, I installed every service that I could possibly find on that box. I set up a webserver – complete with individual sites for each of my users. We had FTP. Shell accounts (over telnet or SSH). I learned enough to get an e-mail server going – it REALLY started working right once I learned about this crazy DNS thing. I got sick of being limited by the little Linksys home router that I bought, so I learned how to set up DHCP, routing and ipchains (later iptables) on another Linux computer. While I hated my database class in college, I LOVED the thrill of getting MySQL and PHP running on my own little piece of the Internet. I kept changelogs. I sent out e-mails to a Majordomo list of my half-dozen users warning about planned downtime for upgrades. I became the go-to guy for technical needs.

I advanced in my part-time job at the Baltimore County Public Library.  I wasn’t shelving books anymore – I was doing tech support for the dial-up ISP service the library ran and learning everything I could about our Solaris UNIX backend systems. I became addicted to getting more and more bizarre computers for my network. I branched out from x86 with my first SPARC box – a SPARCstation 20 (we ran SPARC Solaris at the library). After I left the library to work for AppleCare, I bought a PPC G4 iMac. That led to an old NeXT Workstation. Then another SPARC box (this time a Sun Ultra 60).

Somewhere along the line, I upgraded my original Linux box to a Pentium II 400MHz. I kept finding new things to learn and set up: webmail, MRTG, applications to track my system logs, more robust remote management tools, more users. I even set up WordPress (which this site is running on) once or twice.

Eventually, once I took the job as the solitary computer guy at a small company, my hobby became too much like my job. I couldn’t keep up with it at home anymore. The friends who were my users drifted away, as often happens in life. I met the girl who would become my wife (as interesting as technology was, she was even more interesting). At the same time, the world changed. I didn’t NEED to host my own stuff to get what I wanted out of technology. The rise of services like LiveJournal, Flickr, Facebook, .Mac (later MobileMe, even later iCloud), YouTube, Dropbox, and Gmail meant that I didn’t have to use my own systems so that I could get cheap “unlimited” storage on the Internet. I got a phone that lets me use all these services, wherever I am, with ubiquitous wireless networking. The only reason to do it myself was for pride, and I just didn’t care enough about it anymore.

I kept the domain name and email addresses (which I was still using) alive by getting a hosting service. And it has just sat there – nearly idle – for years.

Until now.

Now, I’m starting. Again.