Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor

Hercules was probably one of the most famous early practioners of biological weapons, and one of its most prominent victims...

Slayer of the Lemean Hydra, Hercule's dipped his deadly arrows in the Hydra's blood, creating a fatal weapon - one that echoed down through Greek history claiming myrid lives. Eventually the Fates drew him full-circle and Hercules is destroyed by the gift of a cloak from his wife. The garment, secretly poisoned with the blood of Nessus, a centaur that Hercules has shot with his envenomed arrows, "burns like fire" until Hercules, in agony, begs his own son to burn him in a bonfire.

The legendary story of the 12 Labors of Hercules serves as both metaphor and warning in Adrienne Mayor's fascinating and highly readable examination of the usage and prevelance of biological and chemical warfare in the Ancient World. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs is a timely and relevant eye-opener, touching on the practical usages of such tried and true weapons such as poisoned food, tainted water, bug bombs (scorpions and bees were apparently popular tools to loft onto besiging armies), snake bombs, burning oil, pestilence-ridden corpses, maddened cattle, pitch-covered pigs (ignited of course) and, of course, the precusor of modern napalm, greek fire. Of special note is the "mad honey" that Xenophon and the Ten Thousand encounter on their trek to the sea. Mixed from the rhododendron plant, the honey of Pontus is a famous and lethal toxin causing hallucinations and often death.

Mayor carefully outlines the often ambigious nature of chemical and biological weapons, particularly the fact that the ancients recognized the double-edged sword that they wielded had terrifying implications for their own populations if used unchecked. Mixing the mythological roots of bio-war with historical examples, Mayor has written a highly readable, utterly absorbing piece of work that, at the end, leaves you grimly fascinated and nervously appalled.

For some terrific information on the ancient world and such stalwarts as Hercules, check out the Perseus Project from Tufts University.

Worried about that fever? Check out the National Library of Medicine's Biological Warfare page...brrrrr. Hey, where'd that rash come from?

Damn, those guys are busy - here's their page on Chemical Warfare...damn, now there's spots with the rash...

Lastly, here's a copy of Sophocle's "Philoctetes", the tale of the man who inherited the dubious prize of Hercule's poisonous arrows...

Thanks for reading. Please post comments below. Links would be appreciated.

Monday, March 1, 2004

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

- James McManus

"Never play cards with a man called Doc." - Nelson Algren

I've never played a serious game of poker in my life.

The few times I've sat down and played a few hands, it has been in almost total ignorance of the odds, poker strategy and anything but the most basic dos and don'ts...but...the first thing I wanted to do having finished Positively Fifth Street was jet down to Vegas and set myself down at a table.

James McManus's book Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion's World Series of Poker is, for lack of a better word, infectious.

McManus was assigned by Harper's Magazine to cover the simultaneous twin stories of the Ted Binion murder trial and the annual Binion's World Series of Poker held at the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, the arguably most famous poker tournament in the world. McManus, a journalist, author and poet, also happened to be an itinerate amateur poker player who elected to use his $4,000 advance from Harpers to fund his own entry into the tournament (Read the book to find out how he did. Unlike the NY Times book review (SPOILER WARNING) , I refuse to spoil it for you by divulging the results...What were they thinking?).

The book offers a rather piecemeal look at Ted Binion's murder, using the crime more as an illustrative and cautionary tale of the author's own personality - the risk-taking, obsessive, "cliff-diver" face that McManus tries to generally keep in check ("Bad Jim" as McManus aptly terms himself). If you are looking for the details of a sordid crime drama, Positively Fifth Street covers the basics (Binion's tawdry drug use, the aspiring, leggy stripper girlfriend, the low-life pal who hooks up with her and plots Binion's ultimate demise, the fundamentals of "burking" and so on...), but is far more focused on the legacy of Binion in the poker tournament then on Binion himself. The murder trial does loom ominiously in the background but it seems to serve more as a grim reminder of the dangerous price of an unchecked lifestyle than as a raison-e'etre for the book, akin to the images of Death that can be seen perpetually lurking in the corners in a Renaissance painting. The murder is a reminder of mortality, chance and fate, and the luck of the cards.

Once the pasteboards start to hit the table, the book truly takes off, mixing each stage of the tournament action with a look at the intricacies of poker, the rise of "book-learned" system poker players, the rules of Texas Hold 'Em, the history of playing cards, and vivid portraits of the top professional poker players such as the cantakerous TJ Cloutier, top female player Kathy Liebert and others. McManus has woven a startling page turner that bluntly fascinates from beginning to end.

Interested in learning how to play Texas Hold 'Em? Check out Ultimatebet.com for the rules.

Author, blogger and actor Wil Wheaton drew my attention to Positively Fifth Street a while back through a mention of the book on his site and, as a poker player himself, recently posted a vivid and terrific piece on his own adventures in an illegal poker tournament at the Odessa in Hollywood. It's well worth a read.

Here's where you can find Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, everything you need to know about the World Series of Poker, and Court TV's take on the Ted Binion murder trial.

If you are really, really taken with Positively Fifth Street, then this site might be for you....

Comments are always welcome, book suggestions, feedback and links to the site.

Thanks for reading!