Who’s Counting?

Posted April 27th, 2010 at 3:47 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

I received, completed, and returned my 2010 Census form the other day. This was Carol’s and my part of the decennial, or every-10-year, count of adults and children — citizens and non-citizens — living legally or illegally in the United States.

“Count” is the operative word, for the Census is not all that it used to be.

Over the years, I’ve written about various analyses of the American population that the Census Bureau developed from its mail surveys and door-to-door visits to people’s abodes as far back as 1790. I say “abodes” rather than “homes,” since some people live in trailers, prisons, school dormitories, and even on the street.

So I was surprised to open the 2010 Census mailer and find 10 simple questions, including How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2010? and What is your telephone number?

There was a bit more, asking about the gender and race of each person in my household. But no detailed questions of the sort that I could have sworn were part of previous censuses — about everything from our level of education to the number of bathtubs in the house.

In an expensive ($338 million) advertising and public-relations campaign, the Census Bureau has reminded Americans that an accurate count of who’s living where can influence the amount of federal funding sent to communities. And if enough people have moved to or left a state, it can trigger the gain or loss of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Important, yes, but what about those bathtubs?

Turns out that, these days, detailed “lifestyle” stuff is gathered in a whole different way, not via the Census. It’s obtained in a comprehensive survey that the Census Bureau conducts each and every month, not just once every decade.

That’s because in our fast-changing world, information collected only once every 10 years quickly grows stale and inaccurate. This isn’t the 1790s, during George Washington’s first presidency, when most people lived on farms or in small towns and stayed there for a lifetime.

More than two centuries later, no decennial census can keep up with population and lifestyle trends. We cannot rely on 2000 Census results, for instance, to describe who’s residing in New Orleans, or what their living arrangements might be. In 2005, levee failures during Hurricane Katrina unleashed deadly flooding that erased whole neighborhoods and drove more than half of the city’s population from town. As a result, the old Louisiana city is nothing like it was 10 years ago.

So the Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey” takes monthly demographic snapshots of the nation. It’s sent to a statistical sample — 250,000 — of “housing unit addresses.” In the bureau’s words, this survey is “designed to provide communities a fresh look at how they are changing.” It’s a lot like the “long form” Census questionnaire that I remember, with many more than 10 quick questions. It asks U.S. residents to tell the government about their farm acreage, their utility choices and costs, the nature of any businesses on their property, not only their current marital status but also their marital history, and my favorite: their plumbing facilities.

This is where I’d have gladly told them all about our two bathtubs.

Truth be told, too, the Census Bureau was pressured into shortening the decennial Census questionnaire and finding another way to obtain detailed population information. Too many irate citizens growled about what they considered time-consuming and intrusive questions from the feds every 10 years.

But the monthly surveys are no more popular with some Americans. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate in 2008, for example, grumbled that the nation’s founders “never authorized the federal government to continuously survey the American people. More importantly, they never envisioned a nation where the people would roll over and submit to every government demand.”

Really strident critics of what they consider federal snooping call the American Community Survey the “American Community Interrogation.”

I, as a curious and chatty fellow, on the other hand, love to answer poll questions and take surveys if I feel they’ll do the country — or my family — some good.

Where shall I begin? One of the bathtubs is an old, clawfoot model. It’s upstairs, and when we moved in, we put old-fashioned shower fixtures and a frilly Victorian curtains above it. Now downstairs . . . .

A Little Bird Told Me

Urgent tweet:

Attention, people of the world in 2060: Running late this morn. Only coffee and juice for bkfst.

Why would anyone care about my personal minutiae now, let alone 50 years from now?

No one would, probably. But the mega-prestigious Library of Congress — the world’s greatest storehouse of accumulated knowledge and the place that’s called “America’s Memory” — has announced it is establishing a public archive that will capture and display EVERY TWEET ever sent since Twitter was established four years ago. So I want to be sure a record of my time on earth is included.

There are 50 million tweets a day, or about 73 BILLION little word bursts sent to date, about to be archived and opened to the world to read.

Might this make the cut?: Brought big lunch. Chicken sandwich. Mayo. Piece of lettuce. Whole tomato that I’ll cut at office.

The great library must think that Twitter is here for the ages. Or just the opposite, that the messages should be grabbed and stored now so that some 22nd Century anthropologist can ponder this curious passing fad.

Forgot to mention that morning juice was fresh-squeezed. Makes all the diff.

The announcement from the LOC — Twitter-ready shorthand for “Library of Congress” — concedes that most tweets are, in the words of Tech News Daily’s Dan Hope, “inane.” The great library plans to, in Hope’s words, “highlight the culturally and historically important tweets.”

Now there’s a job for somebody: pawing through 50 million electronic tweets a day and deciding which ones are “historically important.”

Do you think that if I’d had a full breakfast — say bacon and eggs and some toast and jam to go with the coffee and fresh-squeezed juice — my tweet would have historical significance?

Doesn’t matter. I’d never have been able to keep all that fascinating information under 140 characters.

Money, Honey

America’s moneymakers have been busy beavers. Not banks or big corporations, mind you, but the folks who print and mint our money.

In the most successful numismatic program in history, the U.S. Mint just spent 10 years creating and issuing 56 new state and territorial quarter-dollars. As before, these 25-cent pieces feature our first president, the aforementioned George Washington, on the obverse.

That’s the front in minty lingo, but I always get it mixed up and think “obverse” is the back of a coin.

Appearing on the reverse side, in place of the old eagle with wings unfurled, is the name of a state, the District of Columbia, or a U.S. territory such as the distant Northern Mariana Islands, along with a scene that suggests that place.

The Maine quarter, for instance, depicts a lighthouse. A saguaro cactus is featured on Arizona’s, the Wright Brothers’ pioneer “flyer” on Ohio’s, a bison on North Dakota’s. The Marianas coin shows coconut trees, Polynesians guiding sailboats, some sort of stone pillar, and soaring seagulls. It’s the last in the series, and I would guess that a coin devoted to this obscure set of Pacific islands will be snapped up by collectors.

But the mint is not stopping to admire its work. It is introducing yet another set of 25-cent coins. Called “America the Beautiful” quarters, they will depict national parks and wildlife areas.

The initial offering, issued earlier this month, salutes the very first “federal reservation,” set aside in 1832, and I’ll bet not one in a thousand of you could guess where that place is. (I guessed wrong, too.)

Naturally, I’m going to pause to tell you!

It’s not Yellowstone in Wyoming, the nation’s first national park. Or the first national forest, Shoshone, next door.

The first national preserve, Hot Springs in Arkansas, was designated by President Andrew Jackson in 1832, 50 years before Yellowstone was established. Like other sites that the government would later move to claim and safeguard, Hot Springs was chosen for its unspoiled beauty — lush-green bluffs, trout streams, lovely waterfalls, and, especially, piping-hot natural springs, deep in the Ozark Mountains.

But years later, Hot Springs became better known for its manmade attractions, one of which is featured on the new coin.

The turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries was the “golden age of bathing,” when people of means flocked to bathhouse palaces for pampering, especially at beach resorts. Others ventured to bathhouses in remote mountain towns in the belief that their mineral-rich waters, bubbling from springs deep beneath the earth, offered curative powers. “Treatments” at bathhouse spas were said to palliate everything from nervousness to gout to syphilis.

In 1915 in remote Hot Springs, a fellow named Samuel Fordyce built perhaps the most luxurious bathhouse since the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

In addition to whirlpools and hot tubs, the Fordyce Bathhouse offered massage and napping rooms — even a music room. In the Spanish Renaissance-style men’s bath court, patrons gazed at an 8,000-piece stained-glass ceiling depicting mermaids and Neptune’s daughter. There and in the women’s hall, customers shed their clothes and stepped into tubs, where attendants administered vigorous scrubs. Next came a long sweat in what was called a “vapor box,” followed by a needle-like cold shower.

Advances in medicine killed off most bathhouses. So did less-strenuous alternatives such as golfing resorts and theme parks.

The Fordyce Bathhouse closed in 1962. But the National Park Service took it over, gave it a multi-million-dollar facelift, and opened it to public tours. No longer can one take a gingerly dip in Fordyce’s tubs and pools, but down the way a few other, private spas still pull in Hot Springs’ famous steaming waters.

One of “Bathhouse Row’s” thermal spring fountains appears on the Hot Springs National Park quarter that kicks off the “America the Beautiful” series.

Not to be outdone, the people who make U.S. paper money at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing have been scurrying about as well. They are making what the Washington Post calls “high-tech Benjamins.”

The reference is to new $100 bills. Like the old ones, they feature the image of colonial statesman Benjamin Franklin. This batch is high-tech because of the elaborate anti-counterfeit features — far beyond previous efforts — that are incorporated into the currency’s threads.

These C-notes — the nickname comes from the Roman numeral C, for 100 — include a three-dimensional “security ribbon” running right alongside Ben’s left ear. Within it, images of little bells alternate with the number 100, depending on which way you tilt the bill. And embedded inside a sketch of a Revolutionary-era inkwell is a sketch of the Liberty Bell. That’s the bell with a famous crack, acquired the very first time it was rung, that summoned citizens to Philadelphia for the reading of the nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. On the new $100 bill, the bell’s likeness changes hue from copper to green, again depending on the angle at which you behold it.

As I said, these 3-D holograms are designed to outwit ever-more-sophisticated counterfeiters. The $100 bill is the largest U.S. denomination still in use — government engravers stopped printing $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills 41 years ago, though your Aunt Mabel may have one stashed in a drawer. C notes are heavily circulated overseas, too, so they’re a favorite of those who craft and crank out fake money.

I’ll bet you a Northern Mariana quarter that criminals will be among the first in line when the new “Benjamins” go into circulation next February.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Hologram. A three-dimensional image made from microscopic laser light waves that, when viewed, seem to make the image turn, twist or hover. Thus, holograms are extremely difficult for counterfeiters to copy.

Inane. Idiotic and empty of substance.

Numismatic. Pertaining to the serious collection of coins, paper money, tokens and the like.

Palliate. To the lessen the effect of something. A “palliative” relieves pain without really curing the condition.

One response to “Who’s Counting?”

  1. colleen says:

    >Enjoyed your collection of interesting facts. Especially enjoyed knowing how the census is shaping up since I'm out of the country.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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