Bin Laden Makes the Lightning Round

Posted May 3rd, 2011 at 8:54 am (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Fans of the TV game show “Password” know that a “lightning round” is a blitz of questions and attempted answers within a short amount of time, usually with a loud countdown clock intensifying the pressure.

I decided to whip through, without the obnoxious clock, some items that got me thinking.

****

The Forget Factor

In talking with friends and watching interviews with average Americans after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I was struck by their outpouring of relief, their praise for the dogged determination of the government and military, as well as their concern about potential retaliation.

The sinking of the great ocean liner "Titanic" was headline news for months in 1912.  But gradually, people's thoiughts moved on to other things.  (Library of Congress)

And by something I’ll call the Forget Factor.  Nearly everyone — aside from family members, friends, and colleagues of those killed or injured on Sept. 11, 2001 — confessed to having put bin Laden out of their thoughts as the attacks within our shores receded year after year into history.

As unlucky timing and obstacles of terrain and coordination stymied attempts to flush bin Laden from his “cave” — which turned out to be a rather comfy urban compound — their attention, and the media’s and mine as well, drifted away from “the hunt for Osama bin Laden.”

So it was particularly sweet, and somewhat of a gratifying surprise, to see that the nation had not for a moment taken its eyes off the prize.  Bin Laden’s demise was a signal, too, that there will be no Forget Factor in the search for remaining collaborators.

****

The Quick Brown Fox

If you’re not familiar with that phrase, it’s taken from junior-high-school typing class.   Expanded a bit to read “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” — it’s a phrase that students are required to type, preferably without error, because it contains all the letters of the English alphabet.

And let me tell you, training that left pinkie to reach the “q,” way up to the left, takes some practice.

Last posting, I asked, but did not answer, this question:

“How DID they come up with the alignment of the letters and numbers and punctuation marks on the typewriter — now computer — keyboard?”

Just LOOK at that jumble of letters.  It makes no sense, with letters such as F, G, and H right next to each other in order, but others such as C mixed haphazardly among the little-used Z, X, and V.  I won’t even visit the horrors of learning the whereabouts, let alone trying to reach, the numbers and punctuation marks up on the top row. Read the rest of this entry »

Math, Smath

Posted April 29th, 2011 at 7:57 am (UTC-4)
21 comments

Recently the Washington Post published an article that carried interesting mathematical news.

I know, you didn’t think there could BE such a thing, so boring is mathematics.

But there’s news, all right: Many states are now requiring high-school students, no matter how mystifying they find numbers and formulas, to take not only basic math but also an advanced course, Algebra II.

The Post article began by stating the crux of the matter as seen by mathematical dodos like me:

Quadratic equations are mysteries, all right.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Quadratic equations are mysteries, all right. (Wikipedia Commons)

With its intricate mysteries of quadratics, logarithms and imaginary numbers, Algebra II often provokes a lament from high-schoolers.

What exactly does this have to do with real life?

Precisely.

From the moment I walked out of my final exam in Algebra ONE in high school, I can’t remember using a mathematical formula.  Not to shop.  Not to cross a busy street.  Not to write.  Not to get out of a jam.  Not for anything that I can think of.

Now, as a reasonably organized Virgo, I appreciate math’s emphasis on logic and accuracy.  But does anyone need an ADVANCED course to drum this into his head?

Pythagoras, shown here on a 3rd-Century coin, was not just a mathematician.  He was also a philosopher and mystic.  Must have been BOTH left-brained and right-brained.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Pythagoras, shown here on a 3rd-Century coin, was not just a mathematician. He was also a philosopher and mystic. Must have been BOTH left-brained and right-brained. (Wikipedia Commons)

In college, I had a fraternity brother, a pre-engineering student, who carried his slide rule just for decoration. He could do equations in his head.  I thought he was the second coming of Pythagoras. Not that I remember a lot about Pythagoras, other than he had some famous theorem related to triangles.

He — my friend, not Pythagoras — in turn, thought I was Ernest Hemingway, just because I could align verbs with nouns in a string of words.

My buddy had shot way past Algebra II into “trig” and beyond – and I shiver to think what THOSE courses must have been like.

Come on, now.  Tell me how these scribblings apply to MOST people's lives.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Come on, now. Tell me how these scribblings apply to MOST people's lives. (Wikipedia Commons)

Good for him.  By now, I’m sure, he’s building better mousetraps or computers or mountainside viaducts, or developing the gear that sends our astronauts into space.

I, on the other hand, write a humble blog and other essays about America.  No doubt he’d say my job is harder.

Which brings me back to the question.  If I’ve done OK for half a century without Algebra II, why should mathematically clueless high-school students be REQUIRED to take it?

So I asked my editor, Rob “Archimedes” Sivak, who supervises VOA’s science, health, and agriculture reporters — and me.  He snorted at the very idea that one would dismiss the value of taking advanced math:

“As hard and vexing and confounding as math often is (to those of us with the basic brain wiring kit), it is beautiful, fundamental, profound,” he wrote me.

“Beautiful”!  “Profound”!  Mathematics??  Bear with him:

Einstein, remembered here in a statue at the National Research Council, was a genius.  But if you have a poster of him on your wall, you're a nerd!  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Einstein, remembered here in a statue at the National Research Council, was a genius. But if you have a poster of him on your wall, you're a nerd! (Carol M. Highsmith)

And while we can’t all visualize the space-time continuum of general relativity in our HEADS the way Einstein is said to have done, we can certainly prod ourselves to keep at the hard work of trigonometry and geometry and calculus, because it’s a noble venture to try to understand the way the world is structured.  Besides, the effort also exercises the brain and, like the crossword-puzzle-a-day prescription as a bulwark against Alzheimer’s disease, solving even simple math problems keeps those neurons firing!

I suspect that Alzheimer’s Disease reference was a shot aimed directly at me.  Now, where was I? Read the rest of this entry »

The South, Homogenized

Posted April 27th, 2011 at 2:32 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Mississippi writer William Faulkner once remarked that in the American South, the past is never dead.  It’s not even past.  Defeated and largely impoverished by the nation’s Civil War a century-and-a-half ago, the South developed a distinctive culture that is studied and celebrated around the world.

Local bands play everywhere in New Orleans -- now.  Fifty years from now?  Who knows.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Local bands play everywhere in New Orleans -- now. Fifty years from now? Who knows. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But that culture, which I soaked in with great pleasure for five years when I lived in the fabulous old seaport of New Orleans in the 1980s, has in many ways surrendered to the forces of global marketing, mass media, and in-migration from other regions and other nations.

Imagine that you have been blindfolded and dropped just outside a mid-sized southern city — say, Decatur, Georgia, or Gadsden, Alabama.  Around you is a dizzying parade of fast-food outlets, national department stores, and banks that have branches in 30 states.  It’s a scene that’s virtually identical to those in other cities across America.  You could just as easily be in Pocatello, Idaho, except for the drier landscape.

Or say you turn on the television set in charming Charleston — South Carolina’s largest city — hoping to hear southern accents or Low Country music.  Good luck.  Unless you’ve tuned to the government-owned public station, the station is owned by a big national chain broadcaster, and the newscasters probably just moved in from Oklahoma or somewhere on their way up the broadcasting “food chain” of media markets.

Remnants of the Old South, such as Parlange Plantation in New Roads, Louisiana, are getting harder and harder to find.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Remnants of the Old South, such as Parlange Plantation in New Roads, Louisiana, are getting harder and harder to find. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Magnolia-draped cities such as Savannah, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina — once a-flutter with ladies in swirling dresses and men sipping brandy on the veranda, “Gone With the Wind” style — are exemplars of the energetic “New South.” Their gleaming skyscrapers would fit just as comfortably in the skylines of Dallas, Texas, or Denver, Colorado.

So I would argue again, with at least a twinge of regret, that the languid, idiosyncratic South of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, the South of twangy bluegrass and country stores, of backwoods storytelling and southern hospitality, of culinary eccentricities like goober peas and ground corn called “grits,” has been homogenized — even annihilated — by American mass culture.

And a lot of people right in the heart of the South agree with me.

Ted Smith, for instance, studies such things. An Arkansas native, he left a job as director of the southern cultural program in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to return to graduate school at the University of Mississippi.  He told me:

Mall sign from New London, Connecticut, maybe?  Bangkok?  Nope.  Snellville, Georgia.  (quinn.anya, Flickr Creative Commons)

Mall sign from New London, Connecticut, maybe? Bangkok? Nope. Snellville, Georgia. (quinn.anya, Flickr Creative Commons)

I think that there was obviously a rural way of life that is embedded in southern culture that has been lost, as people continue to be identified with cities that have more of the effect of a McDonald’s and mass-food chains and also cable television. I think you could look to direct-TV’s [satellite TV’s] importation into the rural South as something that would have a very powerful impact, especially on the children.

To amplify what he’s saying, imagine a crude backwoods farmstead, quite possibly one that has a shack for front-porch sittin’, a pump for water, and an outhouse for toilet facilities.  It takes a lot of money and effort to bring not just running water, medical care, and the like, but also anything resembling sophistication into the boonies.  Back in the hills and hollows, folks have, and quite often prefer, an amazingly isolated life.

Or they HAD such an existence.  All you need are electricity and a few bucks a month to get a satellite dish into the remotest valley. It can expose the simplest of country folk to realms of knowledge and culture unimaginable a few decades ago.  But that exposure — and the demand for the products and forms of entertainment available clear across the country — also diminish that valley’s unique if humble, once tightly guarded, place in the world.

A yummy plate of hushpuppies.  The term for these cornmeal treats is said to trace to a time when the family dog begged for something and was told, "Hush, puppy!"  (jeffreyw, Flickr Creative Commons)

Charles Reagan Wilson, a professor of southern studies at the University of Mississippi, ran the internationally renowned Center for the Study of Southern Culture on campus for much of the past decade.  The center created a massive encyclopedia of southern traditions, folkways, and customs that will tell you everything — well, a lot — about everything from moon pies to boll weevils.  (I’ll tell you, too, down in “Wild Words.”)

“We in the South sometimes tend to be way too interested in our own habits and ways,” Dr. Wilson told me one time.  “I think that partly grew out of that sense of isolation and sometimes a sense of defensiveness.  And so there certainly has been a tendency toward brooding upon ourselves.”

Dr. Wilson quoted the caustic Baltimore, Maryland, newspaperman H. L. Mencken, who wrote in the 1920s that “there is no culture in the South except the lower reaches of the gospel hymn.”  Indeed, the South could not afford most of the affectations of high society such as symphony orchestras and ballet companies.  But its working-class families developed some of the nation’s greatest folk art and oral history, jazz, early rock-‘n’-roll, and the blues. Read the rest of this entry »

For (Paisano) Pete’s Sake

Posted April 25th, 2011 at 2:55 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Famous structures have come to symbolize many U.S. cities and towns.  Just about every American knows San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as well as the Gateway Arch to the West in St. Louis and the Washington Monument obelisk in the nation’s capital.

And wherever you are, I’ll bet you, too, have heard and seen photos of New York City’s Empire State Building.  Or maybe watched the big ape King Kong climb it and grab his tiny soul mate, Fay Wray, in the 1933 fantasy monster film. (More likely, my spoilsport editor Rob Sivak reminds me, you saw the 2005 remake, with Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and a more realistic creature as King Kong.)

That's a football field, all right.  Probably America's only blue one.  (vividcorvid, Flickr Creative Commons)

That's a football field, all right. Probably America's only blue one. (vividcorvid, Flickr Creative Commons)

As U.S. fans who watch a lot of sports on television know well, the most recognizable feature in Boise, the capital of the western mountain state of Idaho, is a football field of all things.  That’s because the turf at Boise State University is bright blue.  It’s really quite a shock when you’re used to seeing sports fields, real or artificial, as lush green.

Chicago has the Sears Tower skyscraper and a beloved statue by Spanish cubist artist Pablo Picasso.

Fort Worth, Texas, loves its giant mural showing a cattle drive on the old Chisholm Trail.

Here's Fort Worth's homage to the cattle drives that started there.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Here's Fort Worth's homage to the cattle drives that started there. (Carol M. Highsmith)

 

Everybody who goes to Salt Lake City, Utah, checks out its gilded Mormon Temple.

We think of the southern state of Alabama as the land of cotton or magnolias.  But the informal symbol of its biggest city, Birmingham, is a 50-ton, cast-iron statue — the largest in the world, by the way.  It depicts Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge.  Birmingham was once the industrial giant of the South, full of ironworks and steel mills.  “The Pittsburgh of the South,” it was called, and Vulcan fit in nicely there.

Here's that rascal roadrunner.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Here's that rascal roadrunner. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Other informal city and town symbols — especially in smaller communities — are just as iconic if nowhere near as grand.  If you ever visit Fort Stockton, Texas, for instance, you won’t soon forget “the world’s largest roadrunner.”  A roadrunner is a bird — a ground-based cuckoo that prefers to skitter across the desert rather than fly.  This one, made of concrete, is seven meters long.  He even has a name: “Paisano Pete.”  Naturally, Fort Stockton’s shops sell lots of little Paisano Petes as souvenirs gifts.

Lots of places have erected the “world’s largest” something-or-other.  Usually this superlative creation is connected to a local industry or custom.  Ashburn, Georgia, for instance, built “the World’s Largest Peanut” — or something that looks like one — since the nearby fields grow tons of the tasty legumes.  Ashburn is just down the road, after all, from perhaps the most famous peanut farm in America, owned by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter near Plains, another little Georgia town. Read the rest of this entry »

Air-Traffic Controllerzzz

Posted April 22nd, 2011 at 1:37 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

You may well have heard by now that five U.S. air-traffic controllers — a rather shocking number — have been found literally asleep at the switch on the overnight shifts of several U.S. airports just since late March.  So many — including a supervisor — that federal transportation secretary Ray LaHood has ordered that a minimum of two controllers be on duty at those airports where a decent number of flights land after dark.

Catching a flick's not cool on MANY  jobs.

Catching a flick's not cool on MANY jobs.

LaHood has used words like “ridiculous” and “outrageous” to discuss the on-the-job naps and other embarrassing lapses by controllers.  They included an incident at Cleveland’s air transportation center in which a controller who was watching a movie — let me say that again: he was watching a MOVIE on a DVD player — while planes were landing, couldn’t be reached by the incoming pilots.  He compounded his apparent stupidity by leaving his microphone open for three minutes while the soundtrack from the movie blared into the pilots’ headphones.

Another controller, allegedly, was so cavalier about his duties that he set up pillows in the control tower on which to snooze.  But others apparently just nodded off, almost certainly not deliberately, since they surely knew the hot water they’d be in if this were discovered.

Hotter still if a tragedy resulted.

You can't GUIDE us home if you're sleeping! (george doyle, Getty Images)

You can't GUIDE us home if you're sleeping! (george doyle, Getty Images)

I found this series of incidents particularly interesting because the radio broadcasts of a couple of sports teams that I follow in Washington, D.C., are sponsored, in part, by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.  The commercials repeat the union’s slogan: “NACTA — We guide you home.” They include reassuring messages about passenger safety under their watch.  A recent one described an incident in which an alert controller averted a possible collision of giant airliners approaching Boston.

Not surprisingly, NACTA President Paul Rinaldi applauded the decision to add controllers in towers at “slow” times when dozing off might be most tempting.

And he supported efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce the chances that fatigue would overcome controllers on the job, especially in the dead of night, when humans are conditioned to crave sleep.  As I understand it, these involve, or will involve, some adjustments of work shifts and prohibitions against certain kinds of shift-swapping.  The idea of switching with a colleague to take a couple of shifts in a 24-hour period in order to lengthen your own weekend with an extra day off — a fairly common practice in many fields — wouldn’t seem to be the wisest of moves if the extra-long day puts a controller or truck driver or security sentry to sleep on the job. Read the rest of this entry »

No Middle, America

Posted April 20th, 2011 at 3:57 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

You probably missed the New York Times photograph that showed a revealing picture of New Yorkers riding into work on commuter trains.  The photographer stood behind a long series of rows, three seats to a row.  In the photo, every window and aisle seat — and not ONE middle seat — is occupied.  The train is otherwise crowded; the aisles are jammed with standees — all of them ignoring the available middle seat.

Some people are even sitting on the floor.

This guy looks thrilled to have a middle seat.  (dipdewdog, Flickr Creative Commons)

This guy looks thrilled to have a middle seat. (dipdewdog, Flickr Creative Commons)

The accompanying story explores why Americans despise center seats, just brushing the unavoidable fact that many of us are, shall we say, rather husky.  If I’m not mistaken, U.S. airline passengers will sometimes even pay extra for an aisle or window seat, just to avoid being the salami in a travel sandwich in which the “buns” all too often press right into the middle person’s space.

There was a time when one U.S. carrier, Southwest, got brisk business by offering dirt-cheap prices — with a catch:

Clean-cut, happy, pampered passengers are the rule in Coach's tight quarters, right? Not.

Clean-cut, happy, pampered passengers are the rule in Coach's tight quarters, right? Not.

Seats were not reserved, so when the passengers were released to board the airplane, the scene resembled a bison stampede.  Frantic passengers elbowed aside little-old ladies just to get a window seat, pushed toddlers to the tarmac to claim one on the aisle, and made big-money deals with other travelers on the spot if those seats were taken by the time they muscled their way aboard.

Studies show that women, in particular, feel uneasy sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers.  And while being jammed into a window seat even farther from the middle aisle would seem to be just as claustrophobic, at least there’s a view.

For the poor sap in the middle, there’s a distinct possibility of being squished between the extremely obese or unbathed.  Or other repulsive characters — the insufferably chatty, the overly perfumed, the newspaper reader with the wingspan of an albatross, and the doting mother with a squirmy, squealing, indigestive child.

Just crossing your legs in a middle seat is out of the question.  You might never be able to uncross them. (schatz, Flickr Creative Commons)

Just crossing your legs in a middle seat is out of the question. You might never be able to uncross them. (schatz, Flickr Creative Commons)

Keep in mind that the seats and legroom in most economy-class cabins are configured for Lilliputians — at the time of a U.S. obesity epidemic.  So even with tidy, well-mannered neighbors on each side of you, every “potty break” or “I need to stretch my legs” maneuver requires contortions that would make Houdini proud.

One Times reader amplified passengers’ dread of middle seats in a letter to the editor.  He wrote, “The chance of being physically squeezed, unwillingly drawn into neighboring cell-phone conversations, entering the ‘smell zone’ of foods eaten onboard, or being subjected to music via the earplugs of excessively loud iPods is just too great to risk.”

(Got your own middle-seat tale of horror? Share it in a comment!)

Three-abreast seating is less common on trains and subways, but some commuter lines feeding busy metropolises run such cars.

On the subway, a few people stand because it's more comfortable than squeezing into a middle seat.

On the subway, a few people stand because it's more comfortable than squeezing into a middle seat.

The same middle-seat abominations apply, but on the ground unlike in the air, there’s always the option of standing rather than shoehorning into a center seat.

And Americans’ aversion to close contact is even spreading to rail cars and buses with TWO-abreast seating.  To keep an entire transit seat to themselves, some surly commuters lay down a backpack, purse, or lunch pail next to them; slouch the width of the seat; or glare menacingly at standees, daring them to sit down.

Ted to snoozing seat hog: Naptime's over.

Ted to snoozing seat hog: Naptime's over.

I take particular pleasure in confronting this scourge on Washington’s Metro subway.  I’ll walk right up to seat hogs, tap the ones who are snoozing or pretending to, and point at the book or purse that the scoundrels plopped onto the seats next to them.  If that’s not clear enough, I’ll give the thumb-over-the-shoulder gesture of a hitchhiker or baseball umpire, meaning, “Move it, bud (or babe).”

If that doesn’t do the job, I’ll spell it out and say, “I’m going to sit there.”  (Not I WANT to sit there.  I’m GOING to sit there.)

Rarely, I’ve had to take more aggressive action, explaining to these self-absorbed morons that the seat has two distinct portions, not just a single, spacious one for the hog’s rest and relaxation.

And I add that the fare entitles a passenger to only one of those portions.  A VOA colleague, Bob Doughty, who rides Maryland’s MARC commuter train all the way into Washington from West Virginia each day, notes that the daily conductors’ announcements include just such an admonition.  If the conductor spots violators when he collects fares, he tells them he’s punching their farecards twice.  “You should see ‘em grab up that backpack and throw it into the overhead shelf,” Bob says.

Very rarely, I have to resort to even sterner measures with a churlish seat hog who simply refuses to clear the adjacent seat.  I’ll stand close, lecturing for as many stops as it takes for him or her to unclutter the seat, move, or depart the train.

This, of course, makes ME just as obnoxious to fellow passengers.  But one must stand on principle — quite literally in this case.

My friends think I’m a reckless idiot, that the seat hog could pull a machete out of a guitar case and hack me to bits, or seize me by the throat and drag me about like a rag doll.

Point taken when the seat hog looks like Freddy Krueger or a gangsta with biceps the size of oak-tree trunks.  It’s kind of like Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” axiom.  Mine is “confront all but thugs and psychopaths.”

If YOU are one of these seat hogs, (A) shame, shame, and (B) here’s a friendly suggestion that will give you your precious elbow room and spare us your selfish games:

Pick a train with three-abreast seating and grab a window or aisle seat.  The seat next to you will almost surely stay empty the entire trip!

I swear, this woman has sat next to me many times on public transportation. (thinkstock LLC)

I swear, this woman has sat next to me many times on public transportation. (thinkstock LLC)

Hello? Who’s There? No One

Posted April 18th, 2011 at 1:40 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Let’s talk telephones, with a big nod to Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, who recently wrote about phones in the Times.  At the risk that you’ll go there and not return, I’m going to link to that story — though the Times’s pay wall could possibly keep you from reading it.  If you go there first, please come back!

Paul’s story, headlined “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You,” made several points about telephones, many of them dire if you’re in that business.

For some, a phone call means bad news.  (pawel gaul, Getty Images)

For some, a phone call means bad news. (pawel gaul, Getty Images)

Telephone use has declined so much in her house and among her acquaintances, she writes, that when the phone rings, she assumes some tragedy has occurred.

Paul contends that people avoid talking on the phone because they feel they’re so terribly busy that they don’t want to get into a drawn-out conversation.  As Tricia Schellenbach, who directs the marketing and communications office at Case Western Reserve University, put it in an e-mail — natch, not a call — to me, “There’s less chit-chat [in texts and e-mails], which, when I consider my own busy life, is pretty attractive. I’d stop to worry about what’s being lost there — the art of conversation, obviously — but I just don’t have time.”

Calling folks on the phone whenever you feel like it is rude, Pamela Paul writes.  Who knows what the person on the other end of the line is up to?  You’re asking him or her to drop everything, run up a flight of stairs, or do who-knows-what to answer the ring.

Want privacy when you're on the phone in your cubicle? Forget about it.  (jupiterimages, Getty Images)

Want privacy when you're on the phone in your cubicle? Forget about it. (jupiterimages, Getty Images)

In many “cubicle farm” office settings — our newsroom folks call ours “podland” — where people are aligned like eggs in a carton, phone calls can be all too public and intrusive.

So a lot of people prefer to tap out a message rather than make a phone call — especially a call back to someone — because of the high likelihood that the person won’t be there to take it.  Anything to avoid the infuriating dance called “telephone tag.”

“I can tell you exactly the last time someone picked up the phone when I called,” author Mary Roach told Paul.  “It was two months ago, and I said, ‘Whoa, you answered the phone!’”

Many times the phone doesn’t get answered because of the “Caller ID” feature.  It makes it easy to “blow off” calls from unknown numbers, creditors, and elderly parents who you know very well are calling to complain that you never call them any more.

No wonder, as Paul points out, a study by Nielsen Media found that U.S. spending on text messaging will exceed spending on phones — even cellular ones — within three years.

I’m old enough to have grown up in the days of really cumbersome telephonic communication — though not quite all the way back to the time when you had to crank your phone to reach a central operator, who would connect your call by plugging you into another person’s slot on her switchboard.

Harriot Daley supervised more than 50 switchboard operators at the U.S. Capitol in 1937.  (Library of Congress)

Harriot Daley supervised more than 50 switchboard operators at the U.S. Capitol in 1937. (Library of Congress)

We did, however, have to dial “0” and ask a local operator to put us through to a long-distance operator, who would place our distant calls after we verbally told her the city, state, and number we wanted to reach.  I seem to recall that if the number was busy or did not answer, that special operator would keep trying and call us back when she got through.  At any rate, these transacrtions were frightfully expensive, and we made precious few of them.

Our black phone was made of something called “Bakelite,” which felt like the same stuff they made bowling balls out of.

My chubby finger got sore when I did a lot of turning of the rotary dial.  (r sull, Wikipedia Commons)

My chubby finger got sore when I did a lot of turning of the rotary dial. (r sull, Wikipedia Commons)

It weighed as much, and it was operated with a rotary dial.  You’d stick your finger into a hole above each number you were dialing and turn the dial clockwise until your finger hit a sort of curved post.  Then you’d let go and listen as the dial slowly rewound, clicking as it went, over and over again until the full number had been entered and a connection had been made.

This took forever if the number had a lot of 8s or 9s.

I specified all that because there have been some hilarious hidden-camera peeks at today’s young people trying, and failing, to make a phone call on a rotary phone.  They treat it gingerly and ineptly, as if it were an ancient instrument of torture. Read the rest of this entry »

Exporting American Culture

Posted April 14th, 2011 at 11:28 am (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

As uprisings and near-revolts were popping up in various places throughout the Middle East over the past few months, there were many references to the “stirrings of democracy” in the statements of those leading the insurgencies.  We Americans, who talk a lot about enabling or “exporting” democracy, have shaped our interpretation of that term over the 235 years of freedom that followed colonial rule.

But our definition of democracy is almost sure to be different, maybe even radically different, from that of others around the world.

Re-enactors mark the 80th anniversary of women's gaining the vote in America.  Such ideas are just spreading to some parts of the world.  (lynnefeatherstone, Flickr Creative Commons)

Re-enactors mark the 80th anniversary of women's gaining the vote in America. Such ideas are just spreading to some parts of the world. (lynnefeatherstone, Flickr Creative Commons)

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is now our secretary of State, once said, for instance, “There cannot be true democracy unless women’s voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives.”

That viewpoint may or may not be shared by everyone who is “striving for democracy” elsewhere.

Considering this, I remembered covering a provocative symposium about American exports years ago, in which some of the panelists said that our very culture is the nation’s most profound — perhaps even revolutionary — export.

Cotton was once king in America and is still a viable export product.  How Yul Brynner got into this image, I don't know.  (andertoons, Flickr Creative Commons)

Cotton was once king in America and is still a viable export product. How Yul Brynner got into this image, I don't know. (andertoons, Flickr Creative Commons)

Not corn, tobacco, or steel — though sales of the first two are robust right now.  You can argue quite convincingly that their impact on the world doesn’t come close to that of our music, celebrity entertainment, information technology — even fast food.

The forum that I mentioned was staged by the Center for Arts and Culture, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington that has since been absorbed by a larger cultural organization.

The panel’s moderator, Alberta Arthurs, began by noting that what we sometimes call “cultural diplomacy” had broadened to include aspects of popular American life that are not necessarily welcomed in all countries of the world.

“Cosmpolitanism,” she described it.  No thank you, say the leaders of many decidedly uncosmopolitan societies.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, has taken a special interest in the influences of popular media. He told the audience that “cultural globalism” is nothing new.

Commercialism is one of our big exports, all right.  But, as here in Kowloon, China, other folks had the idea just fine.  (Dan.., Flickr Creative Commons)

Commercialism is one of our big exports, all right. But, as here in Kowloon, China, other folks had the idea just fine. (Dan.., Flickr Creative Commons)

“But the intensity of the process, and the scale in which it operates, and therefore the global consequences, are of a scale that was not imaginable a century ago,” he said.  “American commercial culture in particular is a revolutionary force, and I don’t use that word lightly.  Revolutions are, for insiders, thrilling.  For outsiders, frequently frightening.  They leave tumultuous and treacherous consequences.”

Gitlin said this whirlwind includes the Internet, which, time has amply proved, can launch commercial images, information, and ideas that the recipient nations consider offensive or even heretical, into many countries at once.

DeToqueville looks more like a French dandy than an intrepid traveler and chronicler of democracy.  (Wikipedia Commons)

DeToqueville looks more like a French dandy than an intrepid traveler and chronicler of democracy. (Wikipedia Commons)

Alexis de Toqueville, the French political thinker who trooped around the young United States inspecting prisons in the early 19th Century — and got two thick books about American democracy from it — pointed out that American culture is dynamic, sometimes insistent or even rude, unpredictable and entertaining, attuned to what markets want, and, as Todd Gitlin interpreted him, “besotted by a fascination with celebrity.”

These traits, according to Gitlin and many others who have seen American influences abroad, have only intensified.

“Besotted with celebrity?”  Imagine that! Read the rest of this entry »

The Young and the Restless

Posted April 12th, 2011 at 11:00 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

I recently wrote about “discouraged workers” — often older ones — who have lost jobs and sought new ones, but have given up hope of finding decent any.  And I came across a corollary, and chilling, article in the New York Times.  In it, Matthew C. Klein, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, looks at the role that irate, agitated, out-of-work young people have played in toppling or destabilizing regimes in the Middle East.

He notes that they are a ticking time bomb elsewhere as well.  In southern Europe, about one-fourth of college graduates under age 25 are unemployed and disgruntled.  Although the rate is far lower in the United States, he writes, “it would be higher still if it accounted for all of those young graduates who have given up looking for full-time work, and are working part time for lack of any alternative.”

More alarmingly, Klein believes, “The millions of young people who cannot get jobs or who take work that does not require a college education are in danger of losing their faith in the future.”

Lots of young people snake through lines in  unemployment offices across America.  Many others have given up looking for work. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Lots of young people snake through lines in unemployment offices across America. Many others have given up looking for work. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In places like Michigan, Nevada, California, and Kentucky, where overall unemployment is high, you can bet that there are lots of not just discouraged workers — but desperate ones as well — at both ends of the age scale.

You’d be desperate, too, probably, if you had lost a job in which you had performed well, honorably, and perhaps for many years, only to find door after door shut in your face when you sought a comparable one.

You know what they say about desperate times — that they call for desperate measures.  This can apply to desperate people as well.

***

In a related note, did you happen to catch Mary Burns Furr’s comment about my discouraged-worker blog that she posted on the Ted Landphair’s America Facebook page?  It was thought-provoking:

Job retraining works for some, but a job is no sure thing at the end.  (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Job retraining works for some, but a job is no sure thing at the end. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

My hope is that re-training, re-tooling will help, but that requires either government dollars or the willingness of corporations to train/re-train employees. America has always been the land of hope, the place that discouraged people flocked to. Where can discouraged Americans look for opportunity, a chance to start again if their old job is gone forever? Perhaps if the situation is desperate enough for American workers, they will accept lower wages, lower expectations in exchange to do work that 1) they have been willing to let immigrants do (lawn care, agricultural work), or 2) has been shipped overseas to lower-paid workforces.

This may be an extreme example of our wealth divide.  For now.  (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

This may be an extreme example of our wealth divide. For now. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

My hope is that most will be able to receive the educational support they need to find well-paying employment. Otherwise, I fear the middle-class will shrink and we will become a two-tier society of the poor and very rich. Patronage (you must know someone to get a job) may become more of a factor, as well.

My thoughts, Mary:

• A lot of people are arguing that we’re already close to being a two-tier, rich-poor society.  If this wealth gap takes firm hold, would we be “America” as we know it any more without a vibrant middle class?  History has shown innumerable times that a wealth gap is a recipe for revolution or worse: invasion.  When our nation steadily began making fewer things besides information, it was touted as staying ahead of history’s curve.  But what if one day we wake up to discover that we have abandoned or outsourced what made us strong and unique in the world?

Americans once sang "Hail, Columbia" as the symbol of American values and optimism."  Now she's thought to be old-fashioned by many.  (Library of Congress)

• I worry, too, about America as the world’s pre-eminent “land of hope and opportunity” since, for some, cynicism, political extremism, and economic hardships have taken the shine off the American dream for a lot of people.  Witness the divisive, even caustic rhetoric on both sides about a “shutdown” of the government for many employees and contractors.

Your retraining model might work, Mary, if, as you say, state and local governments — already strapped for cash — could afford to offer it, and if workers could afford to enroll.  Also, “old dogs” who still need and want to work would wonder whether they can learn new tricks and whether anything short of the “patronage” you mentioned would convince employers to hire them.  Of course they have no such patrons, or they would have approached them by now.

People still haul out the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” bromide. Have you ever put cowboy boots and tried to pull yourself up by them?

The Heartland

Posted April 7th, 2011 at 4:41 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

A longtime colleague and friend, VOA science reporter Art Chimes, had the nerve to retire and move to St. Louis.  Even though he had lots of good reasons to pick the city where a stunning Gateway Arch beckons travelers to the threshold of the American West, his decision was a bit of a shock.  After all, he had grown up, gone to college and law school, and spent his entire work life until now in the hustle-bustle, dog-eat-dog, elbow-to-elbow, transient East.

If you walk westward beneath the Gateway Arch, don't think you're in the West yet.  Colorado is two Midwest states away. (Carol M. Highsmith)

If you walk westward beneath the Gateway Arch, don't think you're in the West yet. Colorado is two Midwest states away. (Carol M. Highsmith)

As a midwesterner myself, having spent my first 21 years of life in Ohio, which someone described as “that flat place between Hoboken and Malibu,” I was curious whether Art had experienced culture shock in ”Middle America.”  How’s he’s adjusting, I wondered, to the place we call “the Heartland” — as much for the “heart” part as for its geographic middleness?.

Politicians trill about the Midwest’s salt-of-the-earth “small-town values”: honesty, honor, hard work, patriotism, and “God-fearing” rectitude.  It’s the place, croons George Strait in his “Heartland” country-music hit, “where they still know wrong from right.”

While there are plenty of small towns elsewhere as well, the Midwest has cornered the image on white picket fences, family picnics, and rosy-cheeked newspaper delivery boys ever since Sinclair Lewis wrote the runaway bestseller Main Street in 1920.

Main Street, Jennings, Wisconsin.  This is not a photo from yesteryear.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Main Street, Jennings, Wisconsin. This is not a photo from yesteryear. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Never mind that it was a bleak, biting satire that mocked various hypocrisies of life in fictional Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.

The title of the long-running 1950s television show Father Knows Best — set in a made-for-TV locale of Springfield, a leafy town in an unnamed Midwest state — says a lot about Midwest ideals.  (“Springfield was a good choice.  There’s one in every one of the 11 Midwest states, from Ohio to North and South Dakota.)

The show featured the Andersons: sage and patient insurance executive Jim, efficient housewife Margaret, and their 2.5 scrubbed children for whom a crisis consisted of deciding which graduation dress to wear.

OK, impish Kathy, the youngest child, was more than .5 of a person, but the perfect family package epitomized all that some saw as right, and others wrong, with the conformist Midwest.  Those who mocked the idealized Anderson family later read great meaning into the revelation that off-screen, Robert Young, the actor who played the genial dad-figure, was a depressive alcoholic.

This IS a vintage photo of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1942.  (Library of Congress)

This IS a vintage photo of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1942. (Library of Congress)

Implicit in many of the depictions of Midwest life in other than a few liberalish big cities such as Detroit and Cleveland and Minneapolis is a homogeneity of race (largely white), religion (mainstream Protestant with a few Catholics sprinkled about), outlook (positive), and politics (moderate, strongly leaning conservative).

Driving west out of densely populated Pennsylvania into Ohio, you pick up Heartland markers immediately: tidy courthouses and tinkly state fairs, Kiwanis and Rotary Club and “Welcome to Springfield” signs, the bombast of conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh on the radio — uninterrupted all the way to the Wyoming line (and beyond, I should note).  The moment the signal of one station carrying Limbaugh’s “Excellence in Broadcasting” syndicated program fades, another takes its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair

About

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

Calendar

January 2022
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31